VC:VC The first twenty miles; the first twenty million dollars

Po Bronson wrote a great book about the high tech startup world: The first $20 million is always the hardest. The $20 million in question is the beginning of an entrepreneur's fortune. It certainly seems that way to me, being a long way off from my first $20 million! It is also true that for most startups the first $20 million are much harder to earn than subsequent revenue.

However, the first 20 miles is (pretty obviously) much easier, talking about bike rides, than the subsequent 20 miles, or any 20 miles after that. Apart from the warm up at the very start, the fresher I am, the easier the cycling feels. This was the case today with another, slightly faster than last time, 40 mile ride with Guy Sapirstein out to Concord and back.

The contrast is a result of the direct linkage of effort to action when riding a bike, and the very complicated linkages and dependencies when thinking about a startup. A startup has to put in huge amounts of effort into specifying and building its product or service capability, tuning it to the market needs, finding customers, convincing them to buy (from a startup, no less), agreeing on business terms for the transaction, and then doing it all again for yet more customers.

Compared to the humble bicycle chain this process of a startup earning $20 million in revenues is a Rube Goldberg-esque endeavor (or Heath Robinson-esque, for my English readers). The process is rarely pretty, although it is generally very edifying. Once at $30 million in annual revenues, however, a startup often falters as the organization struggles to scale operations and management capabilities (repeated again at $100 million). However, those stutter steps are a matter of business execution by the management team, and are (mostly) easier than the leap of faith and effort that we undertake for that first $20 million.

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