It’s not a startup … It’s a startup business

[This post was originally published on GeekWire, February 13, 2013, under the title "It’s not a startup … It’s a startup business."]

As a species, we can be pretty lazy with language.  That’s cool… we all know what we mean.  But I reckon there can be benefits from occasional reminders about what we all think we know.  The word “startup” is such an occasion.

We say it and we hear it all the time.  But “startup” is really just shorthand for “startup business.”  We all know that, right?  So what’s the point of laboring over two whole additional syllables when we’re already all on the same page?

I’m not claiming causality here, but I find it curious how infrequently I hear entrepreneurs talking about the business side of their startup businesses.  Mostly, we love to talk about the idea and our passion for it.  We love to talk about our motivation… the solution… the design… the technology… the brilliance.  The business?  Not so much.

Mostly, the ideas I hear are good.  Some are really good.  But a startup business needs to be more (much more) than just a really good idea.  It needs to be a good business too.  And as it turns out, there’s usually a huge chasm between good ideas and good businesses.

Here’s the rub: there are lots and lots of really good ideas, cool ideas, outstanding ideas, stuff we all wish existed and if it did exist we think we’d use it… that are NOT also good businesses.  It’s only a small subset of good ideas that are also good businesses.

Job one for an entrepreneur is to figure out if there’s actually a good business to be had from a good idea. Or is it just a good idea?  It’s OK if a good idea turns out not to be a good business — just so long as you figure that out before you spend three years of your life, expend all your savings, exhaust your relationships and take down your whole team with you while you’re at it.

There’s no certainty to be had here but it’s remarkable how often startups are pursued without ever diving deep on the business side.  It’s a rare thing when an entrepreneur reaches out to me because they want to talk about the sustainability of their business model or the scalability of their revenue strategy.  They want to talk about their idea.  Which is just fine because I love talking about ideas.  But even more than the ideas themselves, I love talking about the business of the idea.

So once I think I have a reasonable understanding of their product, their market, their team (which usually takes less than 15 minutes)… I am ready to talk business.  How are or you going to make money?  How much will customers pay?  Why would they pay that?  How long will it take and how much will it cost you to acquire those customers?  How many have you talked to?  What’s the long term value of a customer once acquired?  What’s your distribution strategy?  Is it a two sided market?  How are you going to solve for that?  And a hundred other questions. Needless to say, these can be hard questions to hear if you haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about them and can make for a disappointing conversation for a lot of entrepreneurs.

In any case, here’s what I’ve found: It’s really hard to tell if a startup business is likely to succeed but it’s surprisingly easy to show that it’s likely to fail (or at least show that there’s rational justification for believing you don’t know how it could possibly succeed).  This is really good news because if you can make your startup business fail on paper first then you’re way ahead of the game.

Then you have some choices to make besides fervently proclaiming your passion for the idea and constantly quoting the late Steve Jobs on perseverance and citing Instagram’s acquisition.

You could choose to call it what it looks like, i.e., just a good idea but not a good business.  There’s no shame in that. Lots of useful, clever ideas turn out not to be a good business.

Remember, most good ideas are not also a good business.  If it’s an idea you really care about about but you can’t wrangle a business model out of it then you may have just discovered a labor of love that you can have a blast working on in your spare time without the pressure of feeling like you should quit your paying job.  And who knows, if you keep working at it, something might change and you might stumble upon a business pivot that turns it from a labor of love to a startup business.

Bob Crimmins

You could also choose to dig in and keep working on the business model until it’s really hard to make it fail on paper. This is what I think a lot of really good entrepreneurs do.  This is called “perseverance” and it’s a lot of work so buckle your seat belt.  This is also where your passion is a really valuable asset because it will keep you moving forward while you figure it out.

Just don’t loose site of what you’re trying to figure out, i.e., a sustainable business that can support your awesome idea.  And by the way, don’t build into your model that your going to raise investment capital before you’ve got a reasonable story about the business side of your startup business.

You could choose to take what you learned and pivot your idea in the direction of a different market, a different customer, a different product.  This is another common behavior of good entrepreneurs.

You could also choose to follow your passion, ignore the paper and double down on your good idea in spite of a lack any evidence that it’s likely to be a good business.  At least if you choose to double down in the absence of a credible business model you’ll at least be making an intentional choice to do so.  I don’t recommend that but as an informed and conscious choice I can get behind it.

As I’ve written before, I believe passion is necessary but not sufficient for startup success.  But recognize that your passion is irrational.  Although it inspires you, your passion doesn’t know anything about revenue models, acquisition costs, competitive barriers or conversion rates.  Your passion has never crunched a spreadsheet or solved for a two-sided market. In short, it doesn’t know anything about the “business” part of your “startup business.”

To be clear, when I say “fail on paper” I’m being very lazy with language.  It takes a lot more than just paper to figure out whether your idea might also have a decent shot at being a business.  Some indicators that you’re doing something right are:

  • You’ll be talking to a lot of relevant people about your ideas.  And unless your preparing to file a patent, you won’t be asking anyone to sign an NDA.
  • You’ll be doing a lot of market and competitive research.
  • You’ll be crunching numbers in spreadsheets to figure out what the economics are likely to look like.
  • You’ll feel like you are the biggest critic of your idea and will always be on the look out for qualified folks to confirm or challenge your assumptions… but mostly to challenge them.

My recommendation:

1) Occasionally work in the phrase “startup business” when you talk about your idea. It may feel dorky but it will help keep you honest about what you’re really trying to do, i.e., build a sustainable business.

2) Strap a spreadsheet to your passion and embrace the hard questions that will help you figure out if your good idea is also possibly a good business.  I strongly believe that falling in love with a specific idea is, well, a bad idea.  Much better to fall in love with solving problems and cultivate a passion for exploring ideas with the aim of figuring out if they might also be a great business.

3) Try in earnest to prove that your idea is not a good business.  If you fail at that then you have a much better chance of staying out of the 90-plus percent of startups that fail —  even though the founders had tons of passion for their idea.  You may also have a shot at discovering a labor of love that you can have some fun with while you wait for the muses to return with a better idea or fix the one you already have.

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About Bob Crimmins

Founder at MoonTango, Chronic Technology Entrepreneur, Philosophy Grad, Poker Instigator View all posts by Bob Crimmins

2 responses to “It’s not a startup … It’s a startup business

  • Woody

    I totally agree with you. There is also another side to that. I was talking to a Bunch of MBA students who had just graduated and were talking about their plans. One of them said I’m going to start a “Startup” and everyone reacted with amazement and awe, “Yeah that’s a great idea. I should do that.” was the general response from his classmates. Now I have a BA but not a MBA. I have started several business, or rather I have worked for myself on several occasions, so I asked the logical question, “That’s a great idea! What kind of Business are you going to Startup?” Ever ask a stupid question in a large group? Well that is how everyone looked at me. “What do you mean?” I was asked. I had to explain that a Startup Business was just that a “Start up Business” You have to have a product of service you were providing. I felt like I was in a Twilight Zone episode. Maybe it was me but the to me the idea of a “Startup” means you have an idea that your want to start a business around.

    • Bob Crimmins

      Hey Woody, thanks for the comment and I hope you’ll pardon the delayed response. Your experience reminds me of the perhaps somewhat apocryphal accounts of VCs assigning valuations to tech startup companies based on the number of engineers and MBA on the team. Each engineer might be valued at, e.g., $1M whereas each MBA would devalue the company by -$500K. Got six engineers on the team? Great, that adds $6M to your valuation. Got two MBAs as well? Ok, that drops your valuation to $5M. ;) I believe this valuation principle was first proposed by Guy Kawasaki, but don’t quote me on that.

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