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Tag: startups

Why do I love startups?

I’ve dedicated plenty of time for studying and coaching startups. But why do I care? Not only care, but be passionate about them, enough to say I love startups.

I got to think about that, and here are the results of that quick reflection.

1. Startups are about technology

Novelty, innovation, progress… call it what you want, but there is something endlessly exciting about startups. It’s to see them take something which exists and turn it into something completely new. This sounds melodramatic but at its core it’s close to creation, close to being a god. Not meaning to blaspheme, but honor the impact startups have on people’s lives. Of course there is a lot of hype and failure associated with this progress because the process of creation is not linear, but nevertheless the renewal of daily lives is to a great extent driven by startup innovations. We can see them all around us, never stopping to be amazed of what we humans can accomplish.

2. Startups have rebel spirit

They are the anti-thesis of corporations. As much as I love startups, as much I hate (bureaucratic) corporations. Startups are about freedom, creativity and independence — and about power to execute. Some other small organizations share these traits, which is why working with small tends to be easier than working with the big. Even big companies create innovative stuff from time to time, but I’ve seen plenty of cases where new ideas are strangled to death by internal politics. Many large organizations don’t want to change — truly — but they just pay lip service to change and new management fads. They also don’t need to change, because in the short-term the world actually remains quite stable. The change in any given industry does not come over-night which gives corporations plenty of time to adapt (i.e., they can hire and fire many CEOs until they have gradually shifted their focus to something that works).

The rebel spirit of startups can be seen in their desire to take on the world, solve big challenges (not only create vanity apps), and relentless execution and elimination of waste. Indeed, there’s a small optimization maniac inside me who loves startups because they aim for optimal use of resources – that’s the economic ideal. And they have to operate under strict scarcity which fosters innovation – much more exciting of a challenge to solve a major problem when facing resource constraints. You wouldn’t believe they are able to do it, but history shows otherwise.

3. The people and culture are amazing

Anyone who have been bitten by the startup bug know what I’m talking about. It’s energetic, young people that want to change the world for the better. Who wouldn’t get excited about that? On a side-note, it’s actually not to do with age; I’ve seen many mature people get excited about startups as well — so it’s more about mentality than age, gender or any demographic factor. The love for startups is universal – you can see that e.g. in the rapid diffusion of student-run entrepreneurship societies around the world. Startup people care about their surroundings, want to make a change, and are super helpful to one another. Again, this is the anti-thesis of “normal business” where dominant paradigms are rivalry and secrecy.

Startups openly share their ideas, invite new people to join them and are geared more towards collaboration than strategic thinking and self-interest. Even sometimes, coming from a business background, I think they are too nice (!) and neglect profit-seeking to their own demise (this shows e.g. in the monetization dilemma which I examined in my dissertation). However, it’s part of the startup magic at least in the early-stage: purely commercial motives would undoubtedly destroy some of the appeal. Ultimately, it’s the people of diverse backgrounds — IT, engineering, art, business, marketing, corporations — that make the startup scene such an interesting place to be.

4. Startups are never done

This relates to the first point of innovation. Joseph Schumpeter, a famous economist, had the idea of creative destruction which startups almost perfectly embody. When interacting with startups, you can see the world is never ready. The turnover of new companies coming and going, making small, medium and large impacts to their surroundings, is baffling. It’s analogous to research community, where scholars stand on the shoulders of those who came before them, and strive to make contributions, even small ones to the body of knowledge in their disciplines. Startups aim to make a contribution to the society, and are never finished at that.

In conclusion, startups are a fascinating topic to study and interact with. Startups are endlessly inspiring and embody the spirit of progress in daily lives of people. Startup people are a special group of people that willingly share their ideas and experiences to elevate one another.

Startup dilemmas: Feature priority problem

Introduction

It is a common issue for startups applying customer development to discover many customer problems and either relating to that or to their vision include many, many features in their product development roadmap. However, as we know, it is not about the number of features but their quality, i.e. usefulness in solving the customer pain points.

Why is this important?

Having too many features introduces several problems: feature creep for end-users, loss of time and money, etc. One can perceive it as a form of premature scaling, but it is also has negative marketing consequences for positioning and differentiation: what is the startup all about? Too many features can easily cloud the answer. In brief, too many features pose a problem for both the end-user and the startup’s internal operations.

How to address the issue?

Well, it can be framed as ‘feature priority problem’, i.e. what features should the startup focus on. Say you are a “dance app startup”. Based on a prior assumptions and perhaps some customer development activities, you have defined a set of features reflecting what customers want. This set includes:

  • buy dance event tickets
  • get notifications on dance events
  • see dance events in map
  • get driving directions to events
  • learn to dance better (dancing instructions, videos)
  • search dance partner

You could focus on developing all these features, but according to the above logic, it makes more sense to choose the most relevant ones and solve them. If one problem is large enough, solving only that one would be enough to provide real value.

So, how do you determine which features are more important than others – i.e. how do you prioritize? It’s a very simple process:

  1. Tie them to problems (e.g., “I always miss the interesting dance events in my city” –> Get notifications on dance events).
  2. Prioritize problems through customer development (rank-order questions, customer understanding, relative solution gap).
  3. Thus, you have the features prioritized as well.

The customer development activities should therefore focus on setting the problems (and thus features) in order of preference from customer perspective. The more problems there are, the more useful it is to rank them. You can directly ask customers to rank the presented problems. You can also form a general understanding of the magnitude of different problems by interviewing customers.

Finally, ‘relative solution gap’ refers to the ratio between the magnitude of the problem and competing solutions effectiveness in solving it. The ideal would be a combination of MAGNITUDE: high, EFFECTIVENESS OF COMPETING SOLUTIONS: low. The least feasible problem to solve, according to this logic would be where the perceived magnitude (rank) of the problem is low and, moreover, extant solutions are effective in solving it.

Conclusion

To avoid feature creep, startups should prioritize their customer’s problems and associated solutions. Based on this, they are able to create a “market-oriented” product development roadmap.

People vs. business models: Warren Buffet’s dilemma

In Quora, somebody asked why Warren Buffet prefers not to invest in startups [1]. One of the answers that resonated with me was this one:

“In an interview several years back, Warren Buffet said that he does not like to invest in companies whose success is based on the smartness of its people.

His reasoning was that all companies hire from the same pool of talent, so smart people by themselves do not provide long-term competitive advantage or “moat” (because a competitor can hire the same or similar talent). He thought of a company’s processes (not just operating processes, but also processes for new product creation, developing new business models etc) as the place where its value resides.”

So, I got to think of this question:

Which is more important for business success, people or business model?

At critical extremes, the answer splits like this:

People are critical, so talented people can make any business model work.

versus

Business model is critical, so even non-talented people can make a good business model work.

The question is quintessential for startup entrepreneurship — should we be
chasing the best people or the best combination of business model parameters?

In other words, can we find business models combinations that even an idiot could use to succeed? Or, is it like most lean startup advocates argue, that any business model parameters are just guesses and the success rests only on the team’s ability to execute them?

There are examples of smart people turning around business that would have otherwise failed. There are equally examples of poorly managed companies that still thrive because they have a killer business model at place.

However, facing the market dynamics often involves shaping the business model parameters that therefore cannot be seen static but dynamic in nature. But who are the ones shaping them? It’s the people — ultimately everything in companies can be abstracted to human actions. But, without the right “recipe” of business model components at place, the actions of even the smartest people can become futile. As such, we may not be able to examine the team and business model separately – business model and people are not isolated but interacting factors.

The truth, therefore, lies somewhere in between and in the mix of both. Oftentimes in dichotomous questions like this end up in a structurally similar conclusion that was made here. Almost every time, an extreme argument can be shot down. The fallacy of believing in extremes can therefore save you time, but lead astray.

As for Warren Buffet, the explanation given in the Quora post sounds plausible — for an investor, it may be an efficient strategy to focus on business model parameters and macro-competitive factors (and finding opportunities against logical basis) instead of betting on startups with risky ideas and people.

[1] Here’s the Quora discussion: https://www.quora.com/Why-doesnt-Warren-Buffett-invest-in-startups

Why human services are needed for world peace

The bot can be boss, as long as we have jobs.

Why are human services the future of our economy? (And, therefore, an absolute requirement for world peace [1].)

For three reasons:

  1. They do not pollute or waste material resources (or tend to do so with significantly less degree than material consumption)
  2. Exponential growth of population absolutely requires more human labor (supply and demand of labor)
  3. There’s no limit to service creation, but by type and nature they are infinite (because people’s needs are infinite and ever-changing)

Consequently, critical, absolutely critical measures are needed in the Western economies to enable true service economy.

Here are some ideas:

  • Taxation of human labor (VAT of services) must be drastically cut.
  • Side-costs of employing people (instead of machines) must be drastically cut.
  • Any technological solutions (e.g., platforms) increasing the match between supply and demand of human labor must be endorsed, and respectively all barriers such as cartels, removed.

Human services are the key to sustainable and socially balanced consumption – I look at Finland back in the 1950s; we were a real service economy. Today, every job possible has been replaced either by automation or by self-service (which companies call “customer participation”). We’re a digital self-service economy, not a service economy anymore.

I long for the days when we had bellboys, cleaning ladies, office clerks, research assistants and other support staff — they are important jobs which nowadays are no more. Self-service and efficiency are in fact the enemies of employment. We must consider if we want a society optimized for efficiency or one optimized for well-being (I’m starting to sound like, Bernie Sanders; which might not be a bad thing as such, but the argument has a deeper rationale in it).

Maximum efficiency is not maximum employment, far from it.

Regarding Silicon Valley and startups, there should be a counter-movement against efficiency. So far, software has been eating the world, and the world — at least in terms of job market — is becoming increasingly less. Granted, many new job types have been created to compensate for the loss, but much more is needed to fill the gap software is leaving. I think there needs to be a call for new type of startups, ones that empower human work. If you think about it, there already exists some good examples – Uber, Taskrabbit, Fiverr, Upwork are some of them. But all too often the core value proposition of a startup is based on its ability to reduce “waste” – that is, human labor.

I do not think there is any limit to creation of human services. People are never completely satisfied, and their new needs spawn new services, which in turn require new services, and so on and on. In fact, the only limit to consumption of services is one’s time and cognitive abilities! This is good and well, even hopeful if we think of the big picture. But I do think an environment needs to be created where incentives for providing human services match those of machine services, or at least approach that much more than what it currently does.

This is an issue that definitely needs to be addressed with real structural reforms in the society; as of yet, I haven’t seen ANY of that — not even discussion — in Finland. It’s as if the world was moving but the politicians were asleep, stuck in some old glory days. But in the end we all want the same thing – we want those old days BACK, when everyone had a job. It’s just that we cannot do it without adjusting the policies — radically — to the radical change of productivity which has taken place in the past decades.

It’s like another candidate — not Sanders — says: We gotta start winning again.

End notes

[1] The premise here is that the well-being of a middle class is required for a balanced and peaceful society. In contrast, the crumbling middle class will cause social unrest and wide dissatisfaction which will channel out in political radicalism, scapegoat seeking, and even wars between nations. Jobs are not just jobs, they are vehicle for peace.

The author has taught services marketing at the Turku School of Economics.

Problem/Solution Space: A Startup Perspective

I was inspired to write this post by the following pictures that I’d included in my lecture material a few years. Writing it in a bit of a hurry since the class starts soon! (but it’ll good enough to make the point)

(You can find the original source for the pictures by googling.)

Okay, a couple of things.

First, it’s highly important for a startup to define both the problem space and the solution space relating to their product. This includes the particular pain points that the customer whose problems we’re solving is experiencing – at minimum, solving one pain point, if substantial enough, suffices to make a successful business. The solution space includes the competition — here, it is super important to consider not only the direct competition (a common mistake) but also the indirect competition.

I call it the “pen and paper” test — can the problem you’re solving, most often with a high degree of technological sophistication, solved with a simpler, non-technological way?

And more importantly, how are the customers solving it now? It takes a lot for them to change their habits, much more than what founders typically think. The customer will not download an app to solve the problem — no matter if it’s free or not — unless the app provides a solution several magnitudes better than what he currently has. So, bear this in mind.

Second, once the gravity of the problem we’ve set to solve has been “validated” by more trustworthy means than guessing (such as customer development), the problem dimensions need to be tied formally into the product features the team is building (the second picture depicts this).

This way, we avoid waste in the startup development process (remember, waste is your biggest enemy because you’re always on borrowed time).

Third, after this the usage of these features needs to be backed up real usage data — in other words, the product needs to be exposed to real users whose behavior is analyzed based on engagement metrics (e.g., time they spend with the product, what features they use, how frequently, etc.). For this, there needs to be a good analytical system built into the product. Follow the Facebook guideline here: you don’t know what data you might later need, so store everything. This enables maximum flexibility for subsequent analyses.

And finally, of course when we get feedback on the usage of the product, we tie it back to the problem we’ve set out to solve and conclude whether or not we’re actually solving it. If the data suggest low engagement, we need to start over and make radical changes to the core of the product. If the data gives us a nice depiction, we’ll still continue with further adjustments to improve the user experience (which, of course, is by definition never good enough).

That’s it. Thank you for reading (and I’m off to class!)

Dr. Joni Salminen holds a PhD in marketing from the Turku School of Economics. His research interests relate to startups, platforms, and digital marketing.

Contact email: [email protected]

Modern Market Research Methods: A Startup Perspective

EDIT: Updated by adding competitive analysis, very important to benchmark competitors.

EDIT2: Updated by adding experimentation (14th April, 2016)

Introduction

Somebody on Quora was asking about ‘tools’ for validating viability and demand for a startup’s products.

I replied it’s not a question of tools, but plain old market research (which seems to be all too often ignored by startup founders).

Modern market research methods

In brief, I’d include the following options to a startup market research plan:

  1. market statistics from various consultancy and research institution reports (macro-level)
  2. general market (country, city) statistics generated just for your case (macro-level à la PESTLE)
  3. competitive analysis, i.e. benchmarking existing solutions — will help you find differentiation points and see if your “unique idea” already exists in the market
  4. (n)etnography, i.e. going in-depth to user communities to understand their motivations (micro-level, can be done offline and online)
  5. surveys, i.e. devising a questionnaire for relevant parties (e.g., customers, suppliers) to understand their motivations (just like the previous, but with larger N, i.e. micro-level study)
  6. customer development, which is most often used in B2B interviews as a presales activity to better understand the clients’ needs. Here’s an introduction to customer development (Slideshare).
  7. crowdfunding, i.e. testing the actual demand for the product by launching it as a concept in a crowdfunding platform – this is often referred to as presales, because you don’t have to have the product created yet.
  8. experimentation, i.e. running different variations against one another and determining their performance difference by statistical testing; the tests can relate to e.g. ad versions (value propositions, messages) or landing pages (product variations, landing page structure and elements). Here’s a tool for calculating statistical significance of ad tests.

So, there. Some of the methods are “old school”, but some — such as crowdfunding are newer ways to collect useful market feedback. Experimentation, although it may appear novel, is actually super old school. For example, one of the great pioneers of advertising, Claude Hopkins, talked about ad testing and conversion optimization already in the 1920. (You can actually download his excellent book, “Scientific advertising“, for free.)

How to combine different methods?

The optimal plan would include both macro- and micro-level studies to get both the “helicopter view” and the micro-level understanding needed for product adoption. Which methods to to include in your market research plan depends on the type of business. For example, crowdfunding can be seen as a market validation method most suitable for B2C companies and customer development for B2B companies.

The punchline

The most important point is that you, as a startup founder, don’t get lured into the ‘tool fallacy’ — there’s no tool to compensate for the lack of genuine customer understanding.

Dr. Joni Salminen holds a PhD in marketing from the Turku School of Economics. His research interests relate to startups, platforms, and digital marketing.

Contact email: [email protected]

The Psychological Cost of Answering an Email

You’re not getting as many replies to your messages as you’d like. Why is that?

Well, there may be many reasons, but I’m discussing one of them here. It’s the psychological cost of processing an email and acting upon it. My hypothesis is simple:

The higher the psychological cost of answering an email, the lower the response rate.

This means that don’t make people think (the same principle applies in UX design!).

So, if you propose a meeting time, don’t give many choices — only give one, if that’s not okay let them process it further (by that time the processing has already begun, it’s like a bait).

If you give many choices, the person has to think between them; also, he knows he still has to wait for your reply which is far higher psychological cost than just replying “ok”.

Remember, even if it wouldn’t seem like much, people get so much email that any marginal increase of complexity is likely to sway them for answering immediately and therefore postponing or even ignoring the message.

Any addition of cognitive effort will reduce the reply rates of your emails. As you’ll be sending many of them throughout your career, non-replies and delays add up and hinder your ability to achieve your goals in a timely manner. Therefore, learning how to write great emails is a hugely important skill. And one way to go about it reducing the psychological cost of the recipient.

Joni Salminen holds a PhD in marketing from the Turku School of Economics. His research interests relate to startups, platforms, and digital marketing.

The Vishnu Effect of Startups (creators/destroyers of jobs)

Background

In the Hindi scripture there is a famous passage in which the god Vishnu describes himself as death; to Westerners this is mostly known through Oppenheimer’s citation:

“Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

But, there is another god in Hinduism, Brahma, that is the creator of the universe.

How does this relate to startups?

Just like these two gods, startups are of dualistic nature. In particular, they are both job creators and job destroyers. One one hand they create new jobs and job types. On the other hand, they destroy existing jobs.

So what?

This dualistic nature is often ignored when evaluating the impact of startups on the society, although it’s definitely in the core of the Schumpeterian theory of innovation. What really matters for the society is the balance — how fast are new companies creating jobs vs. how fast they are destroying it.

I haven’t seen a single quantification of this effect, so it would definitely merit research. Theoretically, it can be called something like SIR, or startup impact ratio which would be jobs produced / jobs destroyed.

SIR = jobs produced / jobs destroyed

As long as the ratio is more than 1, the startups’ impact on the job market (and therefore indirectly on the society) is positive. In turn, if it’s below 1, “robots are taking our jobs”. Or, rather, if it’s above one, Brahma is winning while below one means Vishnu is dominating.

Dr. Joni Salminen holds a PhD in marketing from the Turku School of Economics. His research interests relate to startups, platforms, and digital marketing.

Contact email: [email protected]

I hate to see investors coming into a growing startup… here’s why

I hate to see, from a customer’s perspective, investors coming into a growing Web startup.

Because it only means rising prices.

The logic is this: 1) the investors need a positive return, and 2) the startup is growing because it has created something valuable, in most cases significantly more valuable than what it is charging from the customer.

Therefore, the investor logic is to raise the price and narrow down the extant value gap, i.e. charge according to the value provided (or, closer to it). However, most customers will still stay, because they keep getting more value than what they pay, even with increased prices, and therefore the startup can maximize its revenue. In addition, there would be a switching cost associated with finding a new provider, such as learning the new tool, configuring it, exporting/importing data, etc. So basically, this strategy is a form of value transfer from the customer to the startup — or, more correctly, to the investor.

Next, we’ll explore what this means for investors and founders.

1. Implications for investors

The major implication for an investor of course is that it makes sense to identify startups which are growing fast but have not optimized the value capture part of their business model.

However, a major difference lies in between having some revenue and not having revenue at all; in the latter case, the growth might be just an indicator of popularity, not business potential. (See my dissertation on startup dilemmas for a thorough elaboration of this topic.)

2. Implications for founders

The major implication to a startup is that if you seek funding, price your product well below the value provided, thereby sacrificing unit-level profitability for growth. But if you want to stay away from investors, experiment with rising prices – that way, it’s only you keeping the surplus. Obviously, this is “ceteris paribus”, so it excludes the potential revenue uplift from scaling with investor money. As we know, the only reason to bring in an investor is to grow the size of the business and thereby also increasing the founder’s personal profit, regardless of stock dilution.

Dr. Joni Salminen holds a PhD in marketing from the Turku School of Economics. His research interests relate to startups, platforms, and digital marketing.

Contact email: [email protected]

Startup syndromes: “The Iznogoud Syndrome”

1. Definition

The Iznogoud Syndrome can be defined as follows:

A startup strives to disrupt existing market structures instead of adapting to them.

In most industries, existing relationships are strong, cemented and will not change due to one startup. Therefore, a better strategy is to find ways of providing utility in the existing ecosystem.

2. Origins

The name of this startup syndrome is based on the French comic character who wants to “become Caliph instead of the Caliph“, and continuously fails in that (over-ambitious) attempt. Much similarly, many startups are over-ambitious in their attempt to succeed. In my experience, they have an idealistic worldview while lacking a realistic perspective on the business landscape. While this works for some outliers – for example Steve Jobs – better results can be achieved with a realistic worldview on average. The world is driven by probabilities and hence it’s better to target averages than outliers.

3. Examples

I see them all the time. Most startups I advise in startup courses and events aim at disintermediation: they want to remove vendors from the market and replace them. For example, a startup wanted to remove recruiting agencies by making their own recruiting platform. Since recruiting agencies already have the customer relationships, it’s an unrealistic scenario. What upset me was that the team didn’t even consider providing value to the recruiting agencies, but intuitively saw them as junk to be replaced.

Another example: there is a local dominant service providing information on dance events, which holds something like 90% of market (everyone uses it). Yet, it has major usability issues. Instead of partnering with the current market leader to fix their problems, the startup wants to create its competing platform from scratch and then “steal” all users. That’s an unrealistic scenario. All around, there is too much emphasis put on disintermediation and seeing current market operators either as waste or competitors as oppose to potential partners in user acquisition, distribution or whatever.

Startups should realize they are not alone in the market, but the market has been there for a hundred years. They cannot just show up and say “hey, I’m going to change how you’ve done business for 100 years.” Or they can, but they will most likely fail. This is all well for the industry in which it doesn’t matter if 9 out of 10 fail, as the one winning brings the profits, but for an individual startup it makes more sense to get the odds of success (even average one) greater. So you see, what is good for the startup industry in general is not the same as what is good for your startup in particular.

4. Similarity to other startup syndromes

The Iznogoud syndrome is similar to “Market education syndrome”, according to which an innovation created by the startup falls short in consumer adoption regardless of its technical quality – many VC’s avoid products requiring considerable market education costs. Whereas the Market education syndrome can be seen a particular issue in B2C markets, the Iznogoud syndrome is more acute in B2B markets.

5. Recommendations

Simply put, startups should learn more about their customers or clients. They need to understand their business logic (B2B) or daily routines (B2C) and how value can be provided there. In B2B markets, there are generally two ways to provide value for clients:

  • help them sell more
  • help them cut costs

If you do so, potential clients are more likely to listen. As stated previously, this is a more realistic scenario in doing business than thinking ways of replacing them.

I’m into digital marketing, startups, platforms. Download my dissertation on startup dilemmas: http://goo.gl/QRc11f