Moving aside

The other day I met a startup founder, who had been struggling getting his business of the ground as a business for the past couple of years. Despite claiming the ambition of millions of users worldwide, he had only reached a couple of thousand within the first couple of years.

While there is always reason to celebrate great knowledgable people for taking the plunge to pursue their passion and their dreams and turn both into a startup, there are also times when you need to step back and take a more sombre look;

This particular startup was in reality nowhere. In order to have any prospects of success, they needed to step back, look at their core assets and find ways to build a revenue stream around those. Not out of curiosity. But out of necessity.

And yet the founder resisted. While claiming to be open to change, he was still very much set around the same set of assumptions that had brought him and his colleagues so little over the past couple of years. When I asked him what in their performance so far he thought mandated to continue approaching things the same way, he didn’t really give an answer, and I totally understand why: There was no real good answer.

The founder was faced with a ton of challenges, but what also become apparent to me is that he was at the center of a lot of them. And that maybe the best prospects of success for him and his startup was for him to find someone with a pair of fresh eyes and the right capabilities in terms of building the business, and then step back to another more product related role for himself.

He sort of agreed. Until he didn’t the next second. And we could have continued that way for ages.

While I completely understand that it can feel totally wrong to think in terms of finding someone better to replace you in a key role – and especially in a startup you founded – I think there are times, where it’s truly the best solution for all parties concerned. If you believe that the most important thing is to build a thriving business, personal considerations should matter less.

For myself I have always believed that building winning teams is about looking at the challenges facing you and then go about trying to recruit someone much better than yourself to help you overcome those challenges and move on to the next level with the business.

For that reason I have always tried to recruit the best and brightest and get someone who could not only challenge me and my thinking but also contribute to some vastly improved results within their areas of expertise. I think it’s wise for founders to think in those terms too.

The last thing anybody needs in any company whether it being a corporate and a startup is someone at the top with the ambition of always being the smartest person in the room, no matter what. Yes, that person might be brilliant and truly the smartest person, but in most instances – and my experience – there are quite a few even smarter people out there, we should instead be looking to recruit, onboard, get to work and start generating successes with.

Having this unbiased view of your own role can help you build the team that builds the great business together with you. If your too stuck on your own ego to realize that, you risk ending up becoming a founder who will look back and reflect on what potentially could have been but never materialized because you failed to make the right decision and move over to provide room for other great people.

(Photo by Greg Shield on Unsplash)

Unleashing impact

A couple of weeks ago I ventured a bit into unknown territory, when I attended the Green Impact Summit in Copenhagen. I wanted to get a firsthand view of what’s going on within the world of impact startups and get a sense of how it’s progressing from being a lot of great and interesting ideas into real companies that actually have a fighting chance both to create impact but also become great businesses.

I don’t know what I expected before getting there. But a couple of things surprised me.

First of all the sparse attendance at the event. There probably was a couple of hundred people in total, and many of them were from the startups themselves or from the supporting ecosystem. For all the hype surrounding the space it still seems like we have some distance to go, before it really draws the big crowds.

Second, I noticed that the creativity and skill in the solutions being showcased are not necessarily matched with business experience yet. It still seems like there is an abundance of idealism – which is fine – and not so much emphasis on actually making it a sustainable – viable – business.

Tommy Ahlers, the super angel (yes, I will call him that) said it well, when he noted that the impact investment community reminds him a lot of where the tech investment community was 20 years ago; a lot of great ideas, visionaries and willingness to share. But not at all the same kind of focus on the business side of things.

I fully realize that there may be some out there who would now suggest that thats all part of the plan. That the great and all important cause of fighting climate change in all its incarnations takes priority ahead of talking about business. But I think that is totally misguided; there is no distinction between impact startups coming up with brilliant solutions to our sustainability challenges and the ability to make a profit. Rather, I think they go very well hand in hand.

There is an obvious opportunity in this space IMHO for experienced business savvy people with an interest in pursuing something more meaningful than a corporate career to look at startups in this space and look for ways to collaborate and even engage directly in one of them, helping them succeed all the way.

In fact, I don’t think you can overestimate the potential of this sector to become a real Danish or Nordic growth industry, if we just show the ambition on wanting to make it about more than the idea and invention itself but actually put a laserlike focus on what it means and takes to succeed. In a big way.

It’s ‘just’ a matter of the missing people engaging directly with everything they have in the good cause.

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The beachhead pitfall

Every time I see a startup pitch for funding, the founders include an assessment of the size of the market, they are going after. The more detailed ones also give an assessment of the size of that market, they believe they can make their own and why.

It is all well and good. Sometimes I might even think that the slide is in the boilerplate department, where it’s there because it’s expected, but it’s not the most sexy or informative slide.

But what I have learned is that it is actually more important than that. That if you get this wrong or don’t think enough of it, you can potentially end up in a place, where you and your startup find yourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Why that is has something to do with the first share of land, you grab in your market – the beachhead.

Normally, when we talk about beachheads, we refer to them as a representation of the segment you go for first in order to prove your value proposition and achieve the illustrious Product-Market Fit. It’s your assessment of where the best match between your customers pain and the relief, you can bring to the customer, is the best at this particular stage of your startups life.

You go after a beachhead, because you want to get traction ASAP to show your investors – and potentially also the first significant revenue to show for it. And it makes total sense.

But – and this is a big but – if you’re not mindful about the bigger market opportunity, your specific plans to get there and the narrative about what you’re doing right now, you run the real risk of getting stuck in the midst of what otherwise might look like a success.

What could potentially happen, if you’re not careful, is that your beachhead becomes your market. That what was once thought of as the first small slice of a big cake becomes the entire cake.

If that happens you may develop a super strong position in a niche market, but you will never be able to scale your business to the bigger market opportunity, you will need in order to find investors, who are willing to put up the ressources required to be there. In other words you risk turning into an ok business on the longer term rather than an amazing business. Which – without saying anything bad about ok businesses in general – just seems like a wasted opportunity.

And this is where we come back to the role of the beachhead.

It is super easy to get excited about your beachhead, when you start seeing traction in it. You naturally want more, and you want to build on the early success. And you can do that, but you need to control the narrative.

You need to keep telling yourself, your investors and everybody else who might listen that what you’re currently doing is NOT the end goal but just a beachhead. That while you’re killing it in your beach head, you understand the fundamental dynamics and value of your product in a larger context for different segments of customers, and you’re well on your way towards branching out.

Thus, your narrative and your operations becomes about the beachhead based on what a beachhead should be; a stepping tone towards making real landgrab in land. If you can balance the two stories about what’s happening now and where you’re taking it, you’ll have a much more compelling story to tell. Not least to the investors, you will need to enable you to get the ressources you need to make real landgrab and fulfill the potential, you set out to fulfill.

If you don’t get this right, the risk is that you end up becoming a de facto niche player doing a stellar job in too small a market that no investor really sees the upside in. And if that happens being able to move the needle and move inland will become infinitely harder. Just don’t go there, when there is an alternative that is so much better by just being more conscious about how you stay the course.

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Have you got a sales quota?

The thing that truly separates a corporate job from a job at the startup is the chance to have an outsized impact on solving a problem for customers. More often than not the distance between problem, potential solution and the ability to get that solution in front of customers to test out is way short for a startup than for a corporate.

But there is also another thing that separates the two. And it’s one which is directly linked to the above discussion about impact. It is the opportunity to see outsized returns on the investment of time and ressources you put into succeeding.

Having an incentive programme at a startup is pretty normal. It’s a part of the overall compensation and incentive plan in the company, which helps to ensure that the right talent can be attracted and that people stay motivated outside what their immediate role requires of them. But being part of an incentive programme is perhaps not enough. Perhaps we need to take it one step further.

How about we talk about assigning measurable sales targets or quotas outside of the sales team? What would happen if we started putting the same kind of targets on fx product peoples backs as we do with sales? Would that make a difference for the product, it’s ability to delight customers and – following on from that – generate sales? Perhaps it would.

It has always seemed quite odd to me that a lot of startups despite having a shared stated vision and mission seldom follow it up by assigning specific market facing targets but instead confine these to sales. I know that all departments have their own set of internal KPIs they’re working hard to achieve, but since you could easily argue that startup success is impossible without market facing goals, it makes little sense that they are not evenly distributed across the organisation.

Of course sales should always be accountable for turning leads into deals and revenue that can be booked. But sinde the core foundation of sales is the availability of an attractive product that delivers value above and beyond what customers pay for it, it makes perfect sense to assign the same kind of quotas to both product and R&D. After all, we all have a shared interest in becoming a success in the market place.

Naturally, the first couple of arguments against this line of thought is that people outside sales are not exactly motivated by doing sales (hence the reason they chose a different line of work) and they don’t always feel empowered to influence how and under which terms the product is being sold to customers. I have full sympathy for these arguments, but I think there are ways to work around it.

First of all, it should be ensured that whatever sales quota is being assigned outside sales is directly related to the overall vision and mission of the startup. It should not only be about assigning a dollar amount or a number of installs. It should be set up in a way that it encompasses the storytelling about what it is, you’re trying to achieve – big picture style. That way a quota essentially becomes a recurring reminder of what you’re doing, who you’re doing it for, and how you’re progressing towards achieving your ambition.

Second, it should also be ensured that there are boundaries for how sales sell the product. Especially if it’s done through reps. No opportunity for promising customers anything other than what’s already in the product. No opportunity to put extra workload on the teams back at the office for coming up with new features or a new take on a feature just to satisfy an painful customer. Sales has to show some respect here for the team members who have agreed to take on some objectives which don’t come natural to them.

After all it is a team effort, where everybody help each other out, and where there is total transparency about how things are going, and how successful we all are. Wasn’t that what was agreed in the first place, when the startup was founded and the first team members started to join? That you’re in this together in other to succeed with a higher purpose?

Of course it was. Or should be, at least. And viewed from that lens it isn’t awkward to put sales quotas on people outside the sales team. Quite the contrary; it makes total sense in order to ensure the alignment against vision and mission of everybody on the team.

(Photo by Norbert Braun on Unsplash)

What excites you?

What intrigues you the most? Going after the same things everybody else is going after? Or going counter and look in places that most other people have abandoned?

I am all for the latter. While I recognize that there are indeed major trends out there and obvious opportunities, I personally find those that run counter more intellectually appealing. When I meet those I always ask myself: Is what they are trying to do just dumb? Or is it really super brilliant? It’s usually one or the other.

For me too much groupthink doesn’t do it for me. The argument for doing something because everybody else is doing is has always been weak and void to me. While there may be something there, the sheer fight over something with a lot of other piranhas eventually leading to a slide down to the lowest common denominator simply just isn’t that appealing. Add to that that the math seldom checks out for me; in a saturated market easy to penetrate, not everybody who claim whey will win will have the ability to win. Simply too many piranhas in the sea. Most will end up with a fairly decent haircut.

Going counter is another matter. Going where everybody else – or most – have already given up, while the problem at hand persists, intrigues me. I does something good to me to know that succeeding where others have decided not to even play takes something extraordinary, and that success rests on the ability to figure out what exactly that extraordinary component is.

Yes, I know the risk is bigger. It’s really do or die. The difference between making a bet on red on the roulette versus placing all your chips on 0. However, I love this approach for three reasons:

First, it’s deeply satisfying to get really challenged in figuring out something that’s super hard and not for everybody to dig into. It provides a sense of real accomplishment, when – if – you succeed in doing it.

Second, you can add the satisfaction of hopefully having been able to solve a real problem to people that others have given up on trying to solve. You get the sense that you’re affecting real change, creating impact and that people are substantially better off, because you decided to put in the work and effort that was beyond reasonable for many others.

And finally, the returns on your success are likely outsized – at least if the problem you have chosen to tackle is valuable enough to enough people. Because you were the one going counter, most of the pie will be yours. At least in the beginning.

Again, I fully realize a great opportunity when I see it, and I am not hellbent on making things as complex as they can be. Sometimes easy truly is the better way forward. But in terms of really what makes me tick, it’s the tougher challenge – the one where you really feel alive and in the zone.

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Join the club

If you’re looking for a great business model, look no further than to the subscription model. The idea of having a customer pay for your product or service on a recurring basis over and over again for all eternity is mouthwatering. Of course customers seldom stick around for that long, but I am sure you get my point; the subscription business model is where you want to land in terms of both profitability, predictability and viability.

But the subscription business model also has its huge risks. And the primary one at that is the obvious risk that some day your customer will wake up and for whatever reason decide that she doesn’t want your product anymore – and then she cancels her subscription and leave. Gone is the ongoing revenue, the nice profit margins, the predictability of your business growth and the viability of your business model. You’re left with wondering what went wrong, a challenge to replace the customer with a new one – and cost you won’t get covered in the short term.

Nevertheless the subscription model works. It has mechanics that works like clockwork; smaller customers love the ability to stay on one month at a time and have the flexibility to say yes and no, when they need to access your product. Bigger customers love the ability to sign longer term deals, so they don’t have to spend time on handling the expense every thirty days. There are winning scenarios for all.

The question thus becomes if there is another way of looking at the subscription model from another angle than one of pure financial mechanics and convenience? Potentially one that lets you work with the model in the context of your startup and enable you to build an offering around your subscription model that will add rocket fuel to the value of the offering, while significantly reducing the risk of customer churn?

It can be little surprise that I think there is. And basically it has to do with framing the model in a slightly different context; moving it from a pure business model to a strategy about creating a sense of belonging with customers.

If you want you could call it a club. I have always been fascinated with clubs and their ability to get people from different walks of life together in supporting the same cause or team. I am especially fascinated when that sense of belonging to and supporting something endures during times of hardship. Times where you might have every reason to walk away, but you decide to stay because you are addament or perhaps just hopeful that better times and success are just around the corner.

Those dynamics have power and real merit, and I think it could make sense to try and work on transforming those into a startup context; i.e. how can you create your own ‘club’ and a sense of belonging with customers, where they will stay with you almost no matter what because what you’re delivering to them is above and beyond the product or service as it is right now.

In order to become a club, you need to define a mission and a sense of purpose that customers will want to buy into. While I realize that most startups – and other companies for that matter – have vision and mission statements ad nauseam, this is different.

This is no afterthought. This is absolutely core. This is what you and your customers need to believe can become true at some point in time that is not too distant out in the future. Where do you plan to take your customer? What’s the promise, you deliver to them? How does ‘the promised land’ look and feel once you get there? Is the attraction, benefits and value of it enough so that customers will buy into it, because they can already sense it now?

Next up you need to figure out what the perks of belonging to this club are, as you embark on your journey together. Just as with any other form of endeavor, you cannot succeed without gas on the engine, so what is your gas? How are you going to keep the engine running and provide your customers something that is more than enough to keep them engaged and believing in the ultimate destination? And, importantly, what is the cost of keeping them happy along the way? Is it at all tenable, and if not what can you do to ensure it becomes so?

It is about creating fans of what you do. Kevin Kelly described the 1000 true fans theory years ago that basically says that if you can find 1000 true fans, who will buy whatever it is, you produce, you’re set. At least as an indenpendent provider. But there is no reason why that shouldn’t be scalable to a startup scenario; consistently building a following that is passionate enough about the quest you’re on that they will be buying into everything you do the path towards the end goal.

When you manage to do that you not only delight fans and retain them for the onward journey. You also have the potential to look into decreasing price sensitivity, aka you can start working with your pricing. Fans are not necessarily that picky – they will support you a long, long way before they start being concerned – and most of them will (at least if you operate in the B2B space) be deploying other peoples money. For them the price concern will be even less important – provided of course that you stay the course and stay loyal to what keeps you together.

That in turn will enable you to get to predictable growth. You will start being able to pretty accurately model the potential of adding new things to the mix and as a part of that also figure out when the timing is right to adjust the price in return for added benefits from the ‘club’ membership. I am not suggesting it becomes easier as such, as these things are still very complex to get right. But I am suggesting that it should be much more fun, since you have got the mechanics of the model working on your behalf.

So with all the above things being said, what do you need to create a ‘club’ feeling around your product or services and give customers the sense of belonging and wanting to belong to your cause? The answer, of course, is the right mix of talent and the financial means to get there.

To address the finances first, I am pretty bullish that if you can come up with a model where you can show investors the predictability, reliability and viability of your model from a financial perspective, they will be keen to support it. Investors are always looking for growth opportunities, and if those come in tandem with manageable risk at an acceptable level, it starts getting interesting for them. So that will most likely not be the biggest challenge.

The bigger challenge is likely going to be to find and attract the talent that will make the model work for you. Because it takes some special skills both within storytelling but especially within customer success and support. Furthermore it also takes a mindset that gives above and beyond the short term optimization one. If you are looking to making this model work and base your startups growth and future success on it, you need to be clear with both the team and your investors that you’re in it for the long term.

That’s what it takes to create a real movement that is above normal considerations for retention and will deliver the predictable growth and bottom line year after year; a club people will feel passionate about.

(Photo by David Jackson on Unsplash)

Affecting change hurts

Working at startup takes it toll. Ambitions are running high, ressources are always stretched, a lot of processes are not in place, and getting the right talent to join the mission is super hard. There is absolutely every reason for why days and weeks can feel like an almost eternal struggle. But that’s just the nature of how it is to be building something from nothing.

When you feel the struggle, it’s super important to remember that there is the good kind of struggle and the not so good kind of struggle.

The latter is the internal one, where you struggle because you don’t have 100 % alignment in the team about where you are going with the business, or you have some friction between various functions in the team, because your processes for how to do things are not completely done yet. Yes, it can be super painful, but it is something you work your way through, as you gain experience, figure out what works and what doesn’t and get into a modus operandi of only doing the things you have found out works best and provides the most progress for you.

The former – the external struggle – is the really interesting one. Because while you would think that struggling is inherently a bad thing, you could also argue that in some cases it might actually be an indication that you’re starting to make a dent.

The reason I make this counterintuitive claim is that struggle is an indicator of friction. And friction is an indicator of change taking place. Thus the more you feel the pain, the more you get feedback from the market about your product or service being a different take on the status quo and upsetting people a bit, the more you’re scratching where you need to scratch in order to have an opportunity to affect change and create impact.

Just for clarity, I am not talking about struggling making the product work or getting to product-market fit in the first place as a good thing. Those are still the kinds of struggle, you want to get away from by fixing the underlying causes as soon as possible. But struggle in terms of people noticing what you’re doing, asking critical questions and maybe even giving pushback and fighting you a bit? Absolutely.

Understanding this dynamic is super importent. Because when you do you also understand that there is some friction and pain you need to deal with in a positive way, since it’s something you want in your life as an indicator that you’re moving the needle and creating an impact where it matters.

So with that comes the obvious question: How to you deal with this pain of the struggle in a way that doesn’t end up killing you?

People have been in this position before, and there are plenty of things to learn from them. Some of them have even been in the position, where the pain and risk was much more lethal and where it was truly a matter of life or death in the most concrete terms. Learning from them and how they coped might give some insights into how you can think about this.

One of the most prominent thinkers and examples of how to deal with pain and struggle and not succumb to it comes from the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher and Jew Viktor Frankl. Frankl spent 3 years in Nazi concentration camps, and while there he had an epiphany that afterwards formed the basis for his groundbreaking work:

People may do whatever they want to you. But even in the most gloomy of times, when all seems lost, you still at your core fundamentally control how you let circumstances impact you. You always have the freedom to decide for yourself that you won’t let even the biggest struggles break you.

That’s a super powerful realization coming from someone who would have had all possible reasons for giving up. And it’s a great opportunity to get inspired on how to be resilient and never give up. Stay strong, stay in the fight and prevail in the end.

So, in dealing with pain for the achievement of a later greater good, there is a lot of things you can do yourself by working with how you think, act and react to externalities. But you’re not alone, and you need that kind of enduring mentality to be present in the wider team as well.

This is where the role of the right recruitment comes in. The advice is pretty basic: Focus on recruiting people who share the vision, you have for your startup. People who have the same visualization of what it’s like when you’re there, and you have reached your ambitious goal. People who can feel how that would be like, and desperately want to get to that place. People who are willing and able to fight and see through the struggle(s) to get there, and understand there will be many roadblocks, challenges and issues before achieving success.

Of course it is also crucial that the people you recruit for the team have the right skillsets, but given a choice I would argue that sharing the same set of beliefs and ambition is the most crucial. Because if you get on the track, you’re hoping to get on, you will be challenged again and again by circumstances, and you need team members around you who will stand, fight and win the fight with you. Period.

You can help them along the way by ensuring that you carve up your success metrics into smaller bites, you can achieve within a limited time frame and celebrate, when its time to do so. Those little starts and stops in terms of putting in the hard work, celebrate success and start over again will do you a world of good in ensuring that you keep energy and stamina high, even as the challenges come at you left, right and center.

Just make it a habit to do the work that’s needed to affect meaningful change. Because the results are worth fighting for. Even when the process hurts, and you just want to quit. No success comes without making a real hard effort.

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Amplification beats disruption

Disrupting markets have for years been a formula for success for startups. Be nimbler, nicer looking and cheaper than the incumbents in your market, grow at a blistering pace whatever the costs associated with it and you will be on to doing great things taking your idea from it’s inception into potentially a unicorn scale-up.

While these startups have been blasting the competition to the roadside, there are a couple of things, we haven’t really discussed. One is the obvious fact that the expansion has only been possible due to a presence of excessive funding, sometimes with very little prospects for developing a viable business model going forward (Uber comes to mind as the poster example of this). The other is the more important one; that in the quest for disruption, more value has been destroyed than has been accrued by the startup.

Of course there is no rule anywhere in the capitalist world that suggests that challengers should be mindful of not destroying more than they create, and you could also very well argue that for customers that are left with a better service at a cheaper price, it’s a pure win. But in terms of the prospects of economic growth on the longer term, I would still suggest that the business of disrupting things just for the sake of disrupting it runs counter to what should be our common interests.

The challenge with disruption is that in the absence of real innovation, disruption doesn’t create anything. To put it in other terms the size of the pie stays the same, as there is no real growth anywhere. Now, you could argue that customers being able to get more for less increases the overall economic activity and make the individual better off, because he gets access to more, but we need to ask ourselves whether we really do think that improving our economic prospects by going cheap is really sustainable?

Just ask the American middle class. Think about how much of their economic growth is really down to the availability of ever more cheap products and services – aka crap IMHO – than, say, an ongoing positive development in their disposable income? It’s a lot more of the former than the latter, and it’s actually quite a systemic problem that we have done preciously little to try and fix but will need to fix sooner rather than later. If not for anything else then for ensuring social stability in society.

It might be a small detour to take, but in essence my point is this: The things we celebrate as being innovations and creating value are really the opposite. A lot of it is piggy backing on extracting value that already exists other places while creating nothing meaningful new, and the end result is that while it undoubtedly leaves a few better off, it leaves more worse off. That’s not a winning recipe long term. It is a race to a bottom, you don’t want to reach.

So the question then really becomes how we might work to change this dynamic? How do we get from celebrating the gold calf into innovating in a way that is not only positive in itself but net positive for economic growth and with that society itself?

We need to get back on the track where innovation is about creating breakthroughs that unlock new kinds of value instead of sucking existing markets dry. We need to come up with technologies that create new markets that can in essence function as amplifiers of new markets.

For startups this means that instead of looking to disrupt someone already there and try to get their slice of the cake, the focus should be on how to ensure that the cake itself gets bigger, and whatever is added to said cake the startup in question will be well positioned to grab its significant share off.

Doing that will surely require a vision above and beyond 99,99 % of all vision statements ever presented by startups or corporates. But think about the opportunity? Think about being the innovators edition of Christopher Columbus setting sail to find something that no-one has found before only to end up with far more than what you were able to imagine, you would ever find?

We need that kind of imagination to replace the fighting for scraps in areas we already know really well. We need this to get a situation, where innovation is a net positive of a more significant nature than used as a cover up for ideas that could in essence very well be net negatives for all.

I’ll be curious to see who sets the standard first, and what kind of vision could emerge from this.

(Photo by Daniel Chekalov on Unsplash)