Becoming a start-up founder sounds fashionable from the outside but once you go in, you go in for a marathon. Most founders know this in their gut even if they face it as a matter of fact much later. The start-up culture today is studded with scouts who read ‘start-up’ and ‘scale’ and ‘exits’ in the same breath. However, as a start-up survivor it is nothing more than a personal choice to play along those lines.
To help us reflect on the ‘rush and run’ start-up culture we can begin with some findings from Francesco Ferrati and Moreno Muffato’s paper titled “Startup Exits by Acquisition: A cross industry analysis of Speed and Funding". They analyzed 17,000 U.S-based tech-startups founded after 2000 and acquired before 2021. The way I look at it, it prepares you for laying a good foundation to survive the typical start-up journey because you can start with the idea that time is on your side.
For context, going by the Collins Language Lovers Blog, we could learn that the word ‘survival’ wasn’t meant to be “as something that happens in the face of a catastrophe” - a display of heroism or living against all odds sort of a lifestyle. It was meant to convey life in continuity, to ‘live beyond’ that which is in the past. As a founder, this meaning makes more sense to me than the fashionable meaning which we have come to accept as a ‘paradigm’ of the start-up life. Getting carried away with fast as fashion in a world defined by exits, short lifespan of innovations, greed and gluttony compensating for fear and uncertainty, is an understandable as a cultural context, but a personal choice nevertheless.
First, some key takeaways from the paper:
1. The mean lifetime of start-ups across 64 sectors before their acquisition was about 95 months (roughly, 8 years).
2. The mean funding consumed between foundation and acquisition by start-ups across 64 sectors was close to a million dollars.
Shouldn’t a start-up founder begin with the brandscape (the landscape of the brand) before going in for the long haul?
Building the long-term irreplaceable assets created over the journey, begins with the brandscape. But usually brand strategy as a process is an afterthought or an accumulation of a skip and skimp process. Product takes priority at the early stages as it feels like the largest tangible piece to be put together. Very few founders I have met want to hold a discussion on their brand values as a way of building their product. Those exceptional founders came with the awareness that a thorough consideration on values, defined sharply and uniquely for their brand goes on to decide their product, their relationships with the investors, their customers, their co-pilots – even when they are not looking.
Commonly startups come looking for a brand building view or a brand healing exercise when they are experiencing high staff turnover, or feeling robbed off their passion, or feeling tongue tied communicating the proposition effectively – both internally and externally. This could easily be avoided by investing time and money into brandscaping to begin with and turning it into a practice to weigh-in on values across the daily decisions. Brand is what you scale and you are bound to feel short if you skip or skimp.
The rule of successful global businesses who go to acquire startups is to begin with the brand - not as a part of the puzzle but as the game itself. What can they scale after paying a fortune towards its future with people on a payroll not quite tuned into the pursuit of a passion?
The investor or the incubator sitting on your side of the table may be less focused on your brand and more interested in the numbers, the multiples their capital could pay off at the time of your exit. And rightfully so. They are not in for the long-haul or for the love of it. Their part in the play is short and their expertise lies in knowing the numbers better than the soul which fires the startups. It is the founder’s job to balance the business of numbers with the soul of the brand. But, harmonizing the two – the business and the brand, is easier said than done. The challenge comes from the fact that both the business (of numbers) as well the brand (or soul) has a life of its own. The two are like two living breathing human beings, both whole in their own right and reaching out to each other to be ‘greater together’.
Often brand and business is referred to as pieces of a puzzle which when put in the right order fit mechanically with each other. That’s the ‘business modeling’ view - which is the correct view theoretically, but with two-dimensional limitations. In practice, business and brand are three-dimensional, alive and responsive to their ecosystem, in their own unique ways, just like humans - not pieces. The three-dimensional view is the only way to tune the rhythm, the vibes from the business and the brand into a ‘whole’ musical masterpiece which could reasonably reach stupefying valuations.
How often do you hear a big business buying just the product off the start-up pipeline and leaving the brand to the founder? How often has a brand name been taken off the product after the buyout? Why is that? Even if exit is the final step in a start-up cycle, what goes on to live is the brand.
An Edu-tech founder in one of his reflective moments asserted, “starting up is not a choice but a compulsion”. I couldn’t agree more. One, that ‘compulsion’ is often someone sighting of an opportunity to ‘do it better’ than what is going on' – the soul which says I will not stoop to fit in. Two, ‘entrepreneurship’ is a cog in the wheel of a well-oiled machine, the systems which enables us to have a fighting chance against the system’s own business-as-usual patterns.
The start-up ecosystem is made to give the system and us (in the system) a chance to land in a better place, timely and in the most profitable way for all survivors concerned. Then for a founder, isn’t it a matter of choice to plough on with a three-dimensional picture in place, as business-as-usual, even if exit is the way of life?
This is a version of the article published in "Start-up Stories" of www.supplychaintribe.com