Reading "Once You’re Lucky. Twice You’re Good."

I’ve been reading “Once You’re Lucky. Twice You’re Good.” by Sarah Lacy for the last few days and I’m really enjoying it.  It gives a useful overview of the whole Web 2.0 scene, but mostly I just find it an entertaining read.  It’s amazing how many influential Web 2.0 companies were connected to PayPal alums.   Slide, YouTube and Yelp were all directly connected, and Facebook has early investors that were alums.

The book highlights the value of the Silicon Valley ecosystem for starting new companies.  Without the help of startup vets, Lacy indicates that many talented founders would likely have been ousted from their CEO position by VCs.  Who knows if companies like Facebook would be at their current nosebleed valuations if a seasoned exec were running things?  The passion and vision of a founder often count for more than the experience of a replacement CEO.  Other times this isn’t the case.  Obviously when VCs push for a replacement, they firmly believe it is the best approach for the long-term success of the company.  But sometimes they’re wrong.

Reading about these successful companies has been both inspirational and educational.  It led me to begin an analysis of the fastest growing startups over the last few years and try to reverse engineer the source of their growth.  I’ve been verifying strong growth rates by looking at each company’s Google search trendline and their Alexa chart.  Caution: Sometimes Alexa doesn’t capture the real growth of a company because their pages are https or they are distributing a local application.  In this case, Google trends is a better indicator of user growth.

Most of the highly successful companies have relied on a key viral driver – either viral invites or a self replicating viral presence (think widgets).   I’m hoping to identify new growth drivers around which I can enhance my marketing skills.  I tend to find the shelf-life of many successful online marketing programs is limited, so it’s important to continuously refresh my knowledge.  I’ll post my findings soon.

@Calacanis RE: "The business model comes AFTER you get to scale."

I stumbled across this old post on that Jason Calacanis wrote back in January.

In discussing Twitter, he made some strong statements about when a startup should focus on business models. He recommends spending some time in Silicon Valley where the prevailing wisdom is that you should reach scale before obsessing over a business model.

I can see his point… Everyone can name a company like YouTube that was acquired for billions before they ever figured out a viable business model.

I agree with Jason that a small profitable business is not what VC-backed startups are all about.  It’s generally about bringing life-changing technology to the masses (say 20m+ users) as quickly as possible.  This is how multibillion dollar businesses are created.  And the Silicon Valley venture capital ecosystem exists to create multibillion dollar ventures.

Now comes the “but”…  Unless it’s viral (like Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, Skype…) bringing life-changing technology to the masses costs money.  A lot of money – think $50m-$100m in marketing to acquire 20m+ users.  Jason points out that an endless supply of capital makes this possible.  And again he’s right.  But a startup with $50m to $100m in venture financing will require a $1 billion+ exit to be considered successful.  These exits are extremely rare.  For a company that raises that much money, a more common scenario is an outright failure or an exit where employees and founders earn little if anything.

Wouldn’t it be better to have a business model that allows you to spend the same $10m several times over a few years? This limits dilution and still lets you grow into the 10s of millions of users.  It also offers a much broader range of attractive exit options. A self funding marketing program makes this possible, but it requires a solid business model and of course a product/service that people actually value.

I’ve been able to use self funding marketing programs to attract 40 million+ users across my last few startups. Many others have also used this approach to build valuable companies. GoToMyPC created the easy remote PC access category with this model.  Dell is another company that used direct response marketing to build a massive business.  Both of these businesses did it out of necessity – their cost per unit required a monetization plan early.

But even startups with zero marginal unit cost can benefit from this approach. Critical mass should be the goal of a VC backed startup and an ROI driven aggressive marketing plan is one of the most reliable ways to get there. This even applies if you are “a player with unlimited access to capital.”

UPDATE: Funny timing…  The same day I posted this, Jason made a related post called “Traffic buying strategies–a complete education on every detail.”  In it he acknowledges that he may be missing a “huge opportunity”.  He goes on to ask “What I’m wonder is, are there ways to buy decent/real traffic for .01 to .03 per visit. That would be $10 to $30 per thousand, so that we could possibly break even on buying the traffic.”  Here’s a link to the full post:

More Freemium and Startup Marketing Thoughts

Same excuses for a lack of meaningful blog posts recently…  But the good news is I’m nearing the end of my immersive interim VP marketing role, and will soon transition to a part time advising role.  This should free me up to spend more time with the blog.

Until then, here are three very raw startup marketing thoughts that have been running through my head lately…

  1. Freemium will be a dominant business model in software and online services. It is easiest to execute when disrupting large existing categories with strong demand.  It is more challenging to execute when growing a new category through aggressive marketing spending. Getting all the pieces right will dramatically improve your ability to market and grow a freemium business.  Premium only is rarely a viable option – you will eventually lose to the company that introduces a freemium model in your category.
  2. Early stage marketers that aren’t looking at the full business picture likely won’t be successful.  Most of the obvious marketing levers are irrelevant without the right business model, product/market fit, tracking systems, etc. Early stage marketers need to spend time perfecting the whole economic picture.  Marketing might not even be the right title to give this role, but the marketing function is a critical component.
  3. The traditional Silicon Valley rift between engineering and marketing is shrinking.  The increasing importance of analytics in marketing means effective marketers can more easily connect with mostly left brained engineers. Additionally, some of the most leveraged online marketing activities require close coordination with engineering (such as viral marketing and conversion optimization). The trend of great marketers coming from engineering backgrounds will likely accelerate (and no – I don’t have an engineering background).  Still, all tech marketers will need to have a good balance of right brain and left brain talents.

I plan to expand these thoughts in future posts.