Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers has come up in most of my meetings with entrepreneurs and VCs over the last few days. The big question we ponder is “how does Gladwell’s 10,000 hour theory relate to startups – specifically executing the go to market process?” If you are not familiar with his 10,000 hour theory, Gladwell asserts that mastery of any field requires about 10,000 hours of focused practice (see my previous blog post for more details). The key to becoming the “foremost expert” in a field is to be the first to reach 10,000 hours of practice. This opens doors to even more experience, further enhancing the expert’s reputation.
In my meetings over the last few days we’ve concluded that no one has reached 10,000 hours of experience in startup “go to market” execution. The reason is that each startup only requires about 1,000 hours (approximately six months) of focused go to market execution before they are beyond the go to market stage. The marketing executive that effectively navigates this stage generally has stock options that vest over four years. They are fully rewarded for their successful execution at the end of this four year period, so very few leave early voluntarily. Occasionally they may get an early exit, but sometimes they’ll stay beyond the four years as well. If we average 4 years per startup, it would take 40 years to reach “go to market” mastery. Marketers don’t focus on early stage startups for 40 years – they either become startup founders/CEOs or go up stream to marketing roles at bigger, safer companies. Of course most startups fail, so you could potentially take 10 startups to market in a much shorter period of time, but after a string of failures the opportunities would dry up.
Why is mastery of the go to market process important? After my two startup marketing leadership roles from launch to NASDAQ IPO filing, I reached the conclusion that the key marketing contribution that led to our success was the first six to twelve months of execution. This is when we figured out our target users and the most compelling value proposition. It’s also when we implemented the measurement systems that allowed us to tweak the business model, products, user acquisition flow, etc. After we completed this process the marketing job transitioned to driving and managing customer growth, which is similar to the marketing role at any established company.
Most startups muddle through the go to market process and as a result fall well short of their potential. In fact I believe that along with funding challenges, poor go to market execution is the key cause of failure for startups. Considering that VCs invested over $25 billion In 2006 and only one in ten of their companies is considered a major success (10X+ return on capital invested), the value of fixing this problem is enormous.
After working on the go to market execution with six startups, I believe I’ve reached about 5,000 hours of go to market execution practice. I also feel like I’m a long way from mastery. There are substantial improvements with each new go to market role – and I often go back and apply those improvements to previous startups I’ve helped take to market.
Occasionally I get very lucrative offers to consult with a later stage startup or even public companies. While I’m confident I can add value to these companies, they will take my focus off the go to market execution and dilute the external perception that I’m focused on early stage startup marketing. Now that I’ve read Outliers, I also realize that they will risk my lead in getting to 10,000 hours of go to market execution first.
10,000 hours seems a bit arbitrary, particularly when there are so many different types of tech startups. Becoming an industry leader may rely more on perception than actual hours spent perfecting the craft. A powerful PR firm may be able to accelerate a launch 100 fold.I can understand the typical startup cycle being close to 1,000 hours, but it still seems like a relative benchmark that is somewhat useless.
John thanks for the comment. I would probably have had a similar reaction before reading Outliers, but Gladwell presents some pretty compelling evidence that mastery often happens around 10,000 hours of practice. I’m not sure if/how this specifically applies to startup marketing, but I do know that I’m still learning a ton with each new startup I take to market and each startup is making faster customer development progress than the last; Eventually this steep learning curve will flatten. There are similarities in the optimal go to market process at each of the startups – particularly in the sequence in which marketing projects should be executed. It’s important to begin by generating an early flow of users and uncovering how they are gratified when using the product/service, who is gratified and how to position the product to attract more of these types of people. The process for uncovering this information is similar at each company. Also the metrics systems and process for reducing barriers and improving conversion rates are similar. These and many other projects should all be completed before trying to scale the business. Here’s a snapshot of the current sequence I’m using http://www.slideshare.net/seanellis/marketing-plan-for-web-20-startups-presentation . For the foreseeable future, the process will keep changing as I discover better ways to make faster customer development progress.