Design of Business

Business, Culture & Entrepreneurship

Tag: growth

Building a business is still on human scale

This morning I read Om Malik’s piece on DropBox and how they’ve become the company to achieve a billion dollar run rate in the shortest time –  9 yep, nine years!

The Internet might have hastened the pace of our world. The network has turbocharged growth and expansion. However, it looks that growing into business still indexes at human scale.

In the early naughts, when we’d meet venture capitalists, who’d ask “How will you become a billion-dollar business?” (my answer usually was we wouldn’t) and subsequently, when I heard young entrepreneurs pitch business plans, I’d often point out to them that average software product company takes 7-8 years to get to $50M in revenue. Yep 50M in run rate.

So if DropBox was able to get to 1 Billion in the same time, does that mean the clock has gotten faster? The two operative words here are unicorn and average – an even more important word might be run rate!

One way I’ve always thought about it, is despite all the advances in medicine, having a baby still takes – give or take – 9 months. A business in many ways, especially one that lasts, takes time nearer a decade to get to a significant size, on average!

3 Steps to Achieve Profitable Growth

I never ceased to be amazed at how fast time seems to run right by us. Here we are in the second week of December and soon another year will be gone. Over the last four weeks as I’ve talked to a variety of entrepreneurs – it seems like they just got started and now already they’ve been in business for 4-5 years. Where did the time go, I find myself wondering. I’m not always sure that they wonder about it!

More importantly as some of them struggle for consistent growth and profitability, I find our conversations veering towards figuring out what’s working for them. In these conversations, I find myself repeatedly asking three or four questions

  • What is a typical deal size for you?
  • How long a selling cycle do you have – between first contact and first payment or purchase order
  • How many of these are repeat customers?
  • With which of these customers are you actually making money?

The funny thing is despite age or relative success of the business or experience of the entrepreneur this data is not that handy usually in most startups that I meet. It’s when they encounter a bump or worse yet a wall, they seek help and often the answers lie within such data. Of course sometimes it does not, but we’d know that only after we look at the data. Three things that are worth doing are

Analysis framework Build yourself a simple revenue and profit analysis framework – this could be simply a spreadsheet, like a sales tracker, but instead of forecast it shows what transpired. Ideally you would cover revenue, sales cycle, gross margin by account or customer (outside-in) and by-product or service offering (inside-out) and if you have a large enough team, even by salesperson. Depending on the nature of your business this could over a weekly, monthly, or quarterly period. Even if you review only on a half-yearly or annual basis, having the breakdown at least at a monthly level, helps.

Periodic reviews Any data and analysis is not of much use, unless you periodically review it. I’d include as many senior folks (if not your entire team) in such a review. The goal of the review is to really understand, which customers and products actually make profits for you – how long it took you to acquire them and why they’ve stayed with you or given you repeat orders. Alternately it will tell you if you are NOT getting repeat orders or those repeat orders are NOT coming fast enough or at better margins. Including the larger team, allows you to do find bottlenecks and assumptions within your own team – why proposals or demos take longer than they need to (selling cycle), costs are higher (team tries to get one customer to pay for entire dev cost etc.) Also it reminds the team that business is about making profits, not just shipping products (or proposals) alone.

Action plan Three critical actions can come out of such reviews

  • identifying what worked and doing more of this. Could include up selling to existing customers, culling non-profitable ones, tracking and shortening lead-to-customer conversion cycle times
  • designing experiments to validate things that are unclear – did that email campaign work, did pricing make a difference, what worked for one account or sales person can it be used for others – this helps find what worked (and what didn’t)
  • modifying your analysis framework do you continue to measure what you are presently measuring? What do you remove? What do you add, so that the analysis framework -> periodic review – > action plan cycle serves your purpose of profitable growth.

As December winds down and a new calendar and fiscal year loom, this might be a good time to look at this.

2 Ways Growth Can Kill Your Startup

A popular Frank Sinatra song speaks of love and marriage going together like horse and carriage. The words startups and growth seem to be used much the same way. Recently I moderated a panel on “Why some startups grow and others don’t” at the TATA First Dot powered by NEN student startup showcase.

One of the questions that came up during the discussion was

Is growth always good? Are there instances when growth can be bad?”

The panelists all agreed that NOT all growth is good growth. Specifically,

Non-focused growth Naga Prakasam, angel investor and mentor, brought up the point, that growth unless directed and focused can easily derail a startup. So growth in revenue, even when profitable, could turn out to be bad in some situations.

One of two things most commonly happen

Revenue consideration – as a cash-strapped entity many startups chase any and all revenue – so you have product companies taking on services or service firms taking on non-core functions – pretty soon the organization is pulled in many directions with people stretched either too thin or into areas that are not their strengths

Customer retention – you have a major or important customer for whom you provide specific products or services. They want you to support them doing something that another vendor is doing – for instance in my first startup we did only Bluetooth software. However our customer, one of the largest accessory makers in the world, wanted us to help them with IT support too. Luckily we turned them down even though the risk of losing our core business to their IT vendor loomed. (Of course their IT vendor claimed that they could do Bluetooth software as well – but that’s a whole another story 🙂 Such growth, unless planned as part of a larger strategy, will eventually end up hurting the customer and your business, as you take on things for which you either don’t have competence or distracts you from your core business.

Non-profitable growth In the semiconductor business, we’d always joke about “making it up in volume!As airlines, magazines and mobile phone companies learned the hard way, growing non-profitably, especially when you lose money on each sale is not a good thing. In  fact, the more growth you have the more money you’ll lose (or burn through) and rarely is the outcome pretty. Sure, there are times you have to get your foot in the door, enter a new market, test a new product when you will lose money – but hopefully that’s well planned and the downside is contained. Either it allows more profitable products to be sold or customers to be acquired and cross over from loss to profit making, when some volumes are attained (or fixed costs or amortized).

Growth, when focused and profitable is good. But when neither can easily hurt your startup and possibly kill it too!

© 2021 Design of Business

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑