"Companies that grow for the sake of growth or that expand into areas outside their core business strategy often stumble. On the other hand, companies that build scale for the benefit of their customers and shareholders more often succeed over time."
---Jamie Dimon (Chairman, JPMorgan Chase)
If you Google "biggest problems facing entrepreneurs today," you'll find 100's of different answers on the subject. There are dozens of laundry lists to choose from and most offer some very good suggestions on the pitfalls you should avoid. That said, you'll find little commentary regarding the impact or importance of each problem in these articles. Therefore, I thought we would add our opinions on the matter into the discussion. We'll start with what we believe the top challenge every entrepreneur will face at one point in their journey is, if they hope to gain traction. As you'll soon learn, it's a challenge that entrepreneurs have faced in free market economies for eons.
If We Knew Then What We Know Now
There's a good chance that you're a foundling entrepreneur or that you work for a startup if you're reading this. If that's the case, I'm sure you have big dreams for your products or services. At least, that was the case with me when I founded my first business back in 2008. It was a real-time valuation service catering to antiques / collectibles merchants and avid hobbyists. My vision was that CollectCentric would quickly become an invaluable resource within the industry. I dreamed we'd one day be the 800 lb. gorilla within the category.
We built a working prototype and began searching for suitable investors so we could bring our concept to market. To make a long story short, CollectCentric was beaten out by another Atlanta-based startup: WorthPoint. Their business plan was more agile than ours and they also had deeper pockets. It turned out that they were also better negotiators too. They locked the principal data supplier (eBay) into a long-term, exclusive agreement. Needless to say, we were no longer able to compete in the category once the deal was announced.
The truth of the matter was that we were blind to factors that our team hadn't ever worked through before. In retrospect, we should have taken time during our development cycle to brief analysts and industry press. They could've been used as eyes and ears to let us know how the competitive landscape was shaping up. If we had done this, we might have altered our strategy and avoided the mistake of launching an also-ran product.
The Universal Challenge: How To Scale?
CollectCentic's tale mirrors similar stories dating back through the centuries (e.g. Nicola Tesla). Like Tesla and countless others, our principal challenge was scalability. A scalable company is one that can maintain or improve profit margins while sales volume increases. In other words, a startup cannot afford to lose revenue traction in order to produce more goods or services unless it has a well thought out strategy to secure a second round of funding (or your first round if you're bootstrapping).
Our revenue forecast was a different matter entirely. We didn't have deep supplier relationships, so we anticipated a rather lengthy ramp up time. This was a barrier for some potential investors and it put us in a difficult negotiating position with others. You have to understand that angel investors take a huge risk when they invest in a startup. Consequently, they generally seek a return of 10x or more on every investment they make. They also generally want to recoup their investment in a relatively short time period. To receive serious consideration from angel Investors your ROI should be 30-40% minimum. Additionally, the payback and dividend period should be no more than five to seven years out. As we found out, it's difficult to come to quick agreement on terms if your revenue streams don't meet these requirements.
What We Learned Along The Way
In hindsight, we made the mistake of underestimating the competition in an emerging market. WorthPoint had the more sustainable business strategy. They went after the suppliers aggressively while we concentrated on both branding and the development of our end user interface. We never saw Worthpoint's agreement with Terapeak (eBay's data aggregator) coming. Naturally, it was a hard pill for all of us to swallow when we learned of the agreement.
beaten into oblivion by experienced entrepreneurs and wiser businessmen just like we were. As an old adage goes, your only two choices as an entrepreneur are "get better or get beaten." In other words, you need to solve your company's scalability equation early or you'll probably be outflanked by your competition.
Author: Erik Gagnon - Managing Partner, Chi Rho Consulting