On Tuesday morning I went to see legendary VC Sir Mike Moritz give a talk to launch his new book Leading – thank you Felix for inviting me. Sir Mike has spent time with lots of very successful business leaders over the years and has recently been asking himself what separates those who’s companies stay at the top of their field for multiple decades and those who’s success is more fleeting.
One thing stood out for him above all other factors.
Leaders of companies with enduring success have a relentless thirst for continual improvement. They are restless and never satisfied.
He said modern day tech company leaders Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg have this quality in spades. Older leaders he name checked included Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Rupert Murdoch. I’m currently reading a biography of Elon Musk, and he has this attitude too.
Sir Mike also said that Sir Alex Ferguson has a drive to make things better all the time, and that’s what kept him on top at Manchester United for 28 years (Leading tells its story through the story of Sir Alex’s success).
My initial reaction to the idea that continuous improvement begets enduring success was ‘makes sense, companies need to reinvent themselves if they want to stay on top for multiple decades and continuous improvement will do that for you’, but that underplays the importance of the point. An insatiable desire for everything to be the best it can be is key to getting to the top, not just to staying there.
Moreover, as the world changes faster and faster any other attitude is doomed to failure. A solution that’s perfect for today won’t stay perfect for very long, so unless you want to be usurped by someone who finds the solution that’s perfect for tomorrow, you’d better be continuously improving.
In the early days of a startup nothing is perfect, and oftentimes most everything is far from it. Customers might love the core product functionality, but there’s constant firefighting behind the scenes to keep everything working, make more sales, hire more people, raise more money etc. etc. Once again, relentless continuous improvement is the best route to success. Even when things are working really well the best founders aren’t happy – they’re asking themselves questions like ‘how can I grow faster?’, ‘how can I be more profitable?’ and ‘how can I make my customers love us more?’.
This may not need saying, but whilst a relentless desire for continuous improvement is a winning attitude, it is not sufficient on it’s own. It needs to be accompanied by strong leadership skills more generally. Some founders kill their companies by pushing them too hard. That almost happened to Elon Musk’s first two businesses.
It seems that lots of people in my network are reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman at the moment, at least I guess that’s why I keep hearing snippets of his wisdom. The latest is from BrainPickings:
The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence [but] of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct.
Confidence is divorced from evidence.
That is a big deal for founders and investors in startups who have to convince themselves to found or invest in companies when there’s little evidence as to whether it’s a good idea or not. We look for trends and patterns amongst the few data points we have at our disposal and form strong views about where the future is going, and then put big money or time behind it. If Kahneman is right, and I suspect he is, then the strength of our conviction is more down to our ability to spin (or swallow) a story than the underlying facts.
The funny thing is that many of the most successful founders and investors simply have great judgement. They look at small amounts of data and make the right calls. They know how to test and evaluate their gut instincts and not fall foul of what I might call the ‘narrative fallacy’.
There are two tricks I use to test my theories and try to keep the quality of my decision making high. Sometimes I do these on my own, other times I involve my partners and colleagues.
- I try to have a clear explanation for all of my beliefs. When I’m sitting alone thinking about an investment I often ask myself ‘why do I believe XX?’. When we are discussing deals as a team I always try to explain why I’m thinking something rather than simply assert its truth.
- I systematically looks for reasons why I might be wrong. When we are coming close to deciding we want to do a deal we sometimes brainstorm ways the company might fail. That’s a powerful technique for companies that are unusual in any way (companies that aren’t unusual only fail in the usual ways, and we don’t need a special process to catch those).
Underpinning all this is a readiness to admit mistakes and change my mind. I like to have strong convictions, weakly held.
When I was studying social science in the 1990s one of the major trends was more and more people living alone. Academics were extrapolating trends and predicting 30%+ of us would be living alone in the future. They were picturing millions of unhappy people living in tiny apartments with insufficient social contact going quietly mad.
Fortunately that hasn’t happened.
As you can see from the third graph along in picture above (data from Pew Research) the number of 18-34 year olds living alone has been constant for a few years at 14-16%.
Note: This data is for US 18-34 years olds only, but I would be surprised if the trends aren’t the same for all ages and also in the UK.
Instead of living alone many more people are staying with their parents (first graph above). I’m sure that creates challenges of its own, but social isolation is at least less of an issue.
I think this data gives insight into social and retail trends. If you are living alone or with parents you are are:
- More likely to spend time on social media
- More likely to use dating sites
- More likely to value experiences
- More likely to spend money on fashion and other goods which define and display a sense of self
These have all been big growth areas over the last decade.
Going forward it will be interesting to think about how new opportunities and markets play into the trend of more people living with their parents.
“Venture capital is only appropriate for the small percentage of businesses that want to go loss making to grow very fast.” is a sentence I say a lot. As Jeff Bussgang notes in his recent post Growth vs. Profitability and Venture Returns and Fred Wilson has noted before him successful venture funds have a small handful of big winners, and the only way for a company to become a big winner in the 7-10 year lifetime of most funds is to grow really fast – which isn’t for everyone.
Jeff puts some numbers around ‘really fast growth’ in his post, showing that if a company does $1m revenues and then grows at 100% per year for six years straight then it might sell for circa $400m and generate a 10x for investors.
His analysis is spot on, and most investors would be happy if they ended up with a $400m exit with the level of investment he assumes, but in practice they are targeting much bigger exits. Usually $1bn+. In our experience that means they are looking for revenue growth in the early years of 3-4x pa. Moreover, the best companies grow much faster than that. As we know, growth off a small base is easier than growth of a larger base, but when companies have revenues around the $1m level then 5-6x growth is where it gets really exciting for most investors. When revenues reach $10m that drops to 3x growth.
The thing we focus on more at Forward Partners is how fast companies have to grow in their first year in order to get on the venture path in the first place.
Running the maths it becomes clear very quickly that the short answer is ‘very fast’, although it’s sensitive to the size of the opening month, as you can see in the table below.
For the majority of the commerce and marketplace startups that we work with getting as high as $15k revenues in the first month is tough, so most are looking at average monthly growth rates of 40-50%+ to get to a £1m run rate in twelve months. The way they get there is usually a couple of months of 100%+ growth and then slowing to 20-30% monthly growth.
We pick these numbers (£1m+ run rate and 20-30% month on month growth) because they are benchmarks used by investors. That said, it’s critical to remember that many other variables go into investor decisions and it’s very possible to raise with much lower figures, or to fail to raise with higher revenues and growth if there are other mitigating factors. It will just be harder. There’s more detail in this Path Forward post about Series A benchmarks.
Historically Google has been a pro open web company. Open ecosystems were deep in their DNA and critical to their business model of making money from search. Facebook, on the other hand, has been accused of trying to partition the web and keep everything within its own domain, and Microsoft has long been aggressive in leveraging it’s Windows Platform to try and own adjacent markets.
With their bot strategies they seem to be going the other way. This is from Venturebeat:
when you’re using the Google Assistant, the interaction is nearly always with Google — when you tell it to buy movie tickets, for example, you’re not talking to a Fandango bot. In fact, there are no other bots to speak of here …. With Facebook Messenger and Microsoft’s Skype, people will be able to interact with a whole lot of bots. There are already Messenger bots for 1-800-Flowers and online retail Spring, and there are Skype bots for Westin Hotels & Resorts and Domino’s Pizza.
Related to this I’ve noticed that Google is serving more and more solutions within its search results page. I was able to book a flight to Nice straight from a Chrome search on my Nexus5X last week. Previously Google courted an open ecosystem of companies and ranked the best ones highest. Now they rank themselves.
I guess it’s good to see that everyone is flexible…