“Crazy thought experiment: Imagine a new type of company that decided to only do what it was really good at and essentially outsourced everything else.”
Because revenues of private companies tend to be secret, most venture-backed companies have historically bragged about how many employees they have. A CEO will say: “we went from 100 to 200 employees last year” as if fast employee growth is always a good thing.
But this is changing: there is a new status game brewing between companies concerning who has the fewest number of employees, centered around who is engineering greater amounts output with less staff. Indeed, the freedom to iterate quickly is status. More resources along with lower headcount means that they can dominate new markets. This is because they are tripling down on their strengths.
In the future, those who achieve the greatest results with the least number of employees will be admired above all others; the key statistic to look at is the go-forward net revenues per employee because it best encompasses the company’s leverage. What matters is each employee’s productivity and how the business itself can scale?
This statistic doesn’t just ring true for the technology space, rather any business should be aiming to maximize that metric. By doing so, every employee feels and acts like Warren Buffet; they’re investing their capital (time and skill) into the company. Every good CEO should be spending time trying to increase their employees’ productivity, which is the strongest form of leverage the company retains.
Since publishing yesterday, I got a ton of inbound from other CEOs and founders talking about what they do and also asking about how we do things at SafeGraph. We still have a ways to go at SafeGraph to be great at Exit Transparency (it is very aspirational) but we have made a lot of strides to be better at it.
Exit Transparency is about starting employment with the end in mind. When the employee eventually leaves the company (as all employees eventually do), what do they want to achieve and how to they want to grow.
To be one of the best in the world at something, you have to work hard.
While this seems obvious, there are many people who don’t believe it’s true. Many people believe you can become great just working 9 to 5. It’s not clear where this controversy comes from.
It could be a result of the fact that we can’t all agree on how many hours of work really constitute “hard.” Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master at something. But it is not just the hours … it is the obsession that matters.
You cannot be great at something unless you are obsessed with it. You need to be thinking about it all the time. That obsession may consume you and it might not be healthy for you … but that is the difference between the great and the merely good.
Hard work is a prerequisite to changing the world.
People who changed the world were workaholics. Look at Martin Luther King Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi, or Alexander Hamilton. They all put in many hours more than a standard 40-hour week.
The difference though is that their work is an extension of who and what they are.
They worked hard because it did not feel like work. At least not always.
Actually getting 40 hours of work done in a week is rare.
There are very few people who can do world-changing work in a 40-hour week. I’ve never seen one.
Warren Buffet once famously stated that compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. Power laws rule much around us, but more so in the technology and business worlds. One fantastic deal, such as Facebook buying Instagram, can shift the bedrock of business everywhere. Despite the common belief that 80% of company acquisitions are failures, the remaining 20% can shape a new path for in that company – the expected value is still enormous and is definitely a worthwhile path if executed properly.
Many people mistake averages for value. Venture capital is exactly the opposite of this: missing the seed round of AirBNB if you had the chance to invest means you would be financially worse off than had you invested in 50 Theranoses. The difference is that in the first case you would make 1000x your investment or at worst 0, so the opportunity cost is immense.
Power Laws also exist in company acquisitions.
The Power Law of Company Acquisitions is why companies continue to make acquisitions. In the few cases it does work, like Google’s purchase of YouTube, the gains can continue to reap dividends decades later. Fundamentally, most of the best acquisitions are contrarian in nature; otherwise, they would have been bought by another company already. And sometimes, like the YouTube acquisition, there are only a few companies that could have acquired it successfully – the key is to stay within your circle of competence.
I plan on writing a lot more about why the Thiel interview question (what is an important truth that most people think is crazy) and why it is so brilliant. In the meantime, here is a tweetstorm with my quick thoughts:
Much of marketing is social proof. You use products because you see other people that you admire using products. This is especially true in B2B marketing.
Social proof, when it works well, is a feedback loop. Actions create evidence which create relevance and then create consequences.
This is true in products you buy personally and products you buy for your business. It is true for homes, schools, medical procedures, and even political candidates. Social proof is the number one thing that convinces you to choose any product that is out there.
If you are a marketer, you need to acknowledge the power of social proof and use it to your advantage.
Social proof is a very good short-cut for people who are doing due diligence of a product. They want to understand who else is using a product and what they think of it.
In marketing, social proof is king, queen, and emperor.
Rapid raise in stock prices result in some people in the company being overpaid. This can be very bad for the overpaid employee and also very bad for the company.
Many tech companies are going public right now and many tech companies have seen significant share price increases in recent years. We can expect that most of these are facing real internal motivational challenges that could be extremely hard to overcome. The weirdness of RSUs in public companies
Let’s say that a company gives you an offer of $100k salary and $500k in RSUs vested over 5 years. That essentially means that the company values you at $200k per year (as stock and salary are fairly fungible in public companies).
Let’s say the stock goes up by 20% after six months. The RSU grant (over 5 years) is $600k and your yearly comp goes from $200k to $220k (a 10% increase). No big deal for the company as you are probably worth more than 10% more than what they originally offered you because you now have been at the company for 6 months, understand the processes there, have grown your skills, etc.
But now let’s look what happens when they stock goes up by 300% after 3 years (which happens in the tech world). Now the original grant of $500k is now $2 million (over 5 years). So the stock alone is $400k per year. Add in the salary (with assuming some raises is now $150k/year) and you pulling in $550k per year.
This is when things get a bit hairy. Because likely the company only values you at $350k so you are making $200k more than you are worth. In fact, if you quit the company and went to work for its top competitor, you might have a hard time getting more $300k.
When you are evaluating a business (to invest in or join), one simple heuristic is to understand how easy is it for the business to get new customers.
In B2B businesses, the metric that companies track is CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost). But this metric in itself isn’t that interesting and companies typically track LTV/CAC ratio where LTV is the LifeTime Value of customers. The problem with this ratio is that many companies are constantly focusing on the numerator rather than on the denominator.
The cost of acquiring the next marginal customer should be less than the cost of acquiring the last customer. And you should see this cost decline over time.
The CAC itself should decline each month. If it does, it means you likely have a great business. If it doesn’t, the business is a good business at best.
Of course, CACs should be declining for a specific cohort of customer. If your business was only focused on small businesses and now you are selling to enterprises, your CAC will increase dramatically. In this case, the key thing is to track the CACs for SMBs and enterprise customers separately (with is why so many firms use the LTV/CAC ration to simplify this step).
The best way CACs will decrease over time is if you haver some sort of network effect. LiveRamp (my last company) is a middleware company … which means it is essentially a marketplace of buyers and integration partners. It is a classic network effect business that makes it easier and easier to acquire new customers over time. Once we hit about $10 million, the CACs started dropping fast.
One other way to think about this when selling to enterprise is to track the quota for a full ramped sales rep. Is the quota for an average sales rep going up over time? If so, you have a great business. If not, the business still has some work to get to great.
All platforms follow this logic. Companies like Plaid, Segment, Marqeta, LiveRamp, and Carta are classic platforms where acquiring new customers gets cheaper over time (disclaimer: I’m either an investor or friends with the CEOs of all these companies). These types of companies can take the savings (from not having to invest as much in sales and marketing) and put them into the product. So the product can get better and better over time (which is the double-edge flywheel that all great companies have).
Other companies that have declining CACs are ones with great brands. Essentially every time a company buys their service (and raves about it), other companies are more likely to use it. Twilio and Stripe have declining CACs because they have become the default go-to companies in their space. There is a LOT of power in being the default.
Summation: Once a business gets over $10M ARR and it has declining CACs, it has the makings of a great business.
When venture capitalists tell you “your TAM is not big enough” what they are really saying is “I don’t think your team is smart enough to move to an adjacent market once you dominate your initial niche.”
They are not really saying your TAM is too small. Great VCs invest in companies with small TAMs all the time. They might believe that the founders’ think too small or that the founders just are not very good.
Many great companies started in markets where the TAM (Total Addressable Market) is small. In some cases, the companies under-estimated the TAM (the TAM got way bigger over time). In other cases, the team was smart enough to move to other adjacent markets.
Of course, it is really hard for a venture capitalist to tell a founder “we do not think you are talented.”
Even when a VC truly believes that, they can never actually say it. But founders want to know why a VC is passing and the VC wants to preserve some optionality to invest in the founder in the future (in case the VC’s assessment about the founder was wrong) or in the founder’s friends. So VCs come up with another reason not to invest. A good one is that the TAM is small — that usually satisfies the entrepreneur (who thinks the VC is just not smart enough to see the bigger picture) and satisfies the VC (who wants to preserve the relationship).
Investing in companies that are initially focused on a smaller niche is actually easier to do than investing in companies that are going after a giant market.
If the company is going after a giant market, then there is usually massive competition in the market and you really have to spend a great deal of time understanding the market (and each competitor) before investing.
For instance, if we were thinking of investing in Ford Motor Company (which competes in the giant market of automobile sales), we need to understand a ton of things:
What are the future of of cars? Will demand increase in the short term? What about the long-term?
How does the rise of places like China and India change the demand curve for autos? Even if it greatly increases the demand for cars, will Ford be able to capitalize on it? What about auto tariffs?
Ford makes much of its income on selling trucks (like the F150 — one of the most amazing vehicles). How does the demand curve for trucks change in the future?
What will happen to emissions policies? Is Ford investing in enough green vehicles to take advantage of potential policies?
While Ford is a big company, its market share in the auto industry is really low (because there is SO MUCH competition). So now we need to know about ALL the other car companies (and even potential car companies like Apple) to understand the future competitive dynnamics.
And many, many more things (like the financial profile of Ford, its labor contracts, its capitalization structure, and more).
It is much simpler to invest in smaller businesses that are tackling a smaller niche. We can get our head around the niche faster. We can assess the competition faster.
The essential questions we need to answer when investing in a niche business are just four:
Will this company be able to dominate the niche? Sometimes the company is already dominating the niche. Sometimes there is a network effect reason to dominate the niche.
Is this niche more important than other people realize? Maybe most people think the niche caps out at $50M/year in revenues but you believe it is five times bigger. Sometimes the niche gives the business a jumping off point to other niches because of its centrality. In general, niches that are more central (have more adjacent niches) are more valuable than niches that are less connected.
Is the team capable enough to move to adjacent niches once it dominates its first niche? Some teams find themselves in a good position but cannot take advantage of their position. This is actually why most VCs pass on companies. Of course, they cannot tell the founders that they passed because they do not think the founders are smart enough. So they make up another reason (the “market is not big enough”) which is just code for “we do not think you have an excellent team.”
Is the price of the investment reasonable? This one is hard to understand but if the first three are yes and only a few investors think they are all yeses, then the price is probably reasonable.
LiveRamp’s niche dynamics: dominating onboarding
One interesting example is LiveRamp (NYSE:RAMP). (note: I was the founder and CEO of LiveRamp for its first 9 years … so I am incredibly biased). LiveRamp launched its initial product at the end of 2010 going after the “onbooarding” niche. At the time, the market was less than $3 million worldwide! (Now that is a really small niche).
LiveRamp’s first year revenues from on boarding was $1 million and we ended the year with about 25% market share. But there were a few things that made the niche interesting:
We believed the niche was a total of $50M year. (Turned out we underestimate the niche by 4-6 times). So there was room to grow.
We thought there were network effects in the business — it made sense (for a bunch of reasons we will not go into now) for one company to be the winner — essentially it was a winner-take-most market. Ultimately we were proven correct as LiveRamp quickly got to over 70% market share.
We understand the capabilities of all the competitors and figured that they would not invest appropriately to dominate the onboarding market. Each competitor was already in many other markets and it did not make sense for them to continue their investment.
We believed that onboarding, while a small niche, had significant centrality to other markets in the marketing ecosystem. We assumed we could use our position to move into those other niches. This ultimately turned out to be true in some cases and more difficult than we hoped in our cases.
We had a lot of confidence in our team. Even today, almost nine years later, LiveRamp is known for having an extraodinarily talented team. Of course, most start-ups think they have a great team (and many overvalue their talent). But in 2010 our team was extremely young and inexperienced — so one could forgive an outside investor for undervaluing it.
Carta’s niche dynamics: dominating cap table management for start-ups
Carta, formerly known as eShares, is a great company. (another disclaimer: I am an investor in Carta and also a customer across many businesses).
Carta helps companies manage their capitalization table. If you have invested in a bunch of start-ups, you almost surely have gotten some of your stock certificates via Carta. In fact, of the 130+ start-ups I have invested in, Carta is the ONLY forward-facing cap table management system that I have ever interacted with (except for mergers and acquisitions where I have seen many different systems).
Carta, even from its early days, dominated the cap-table management for start-ups. And yes, it was a small niche (one that many VCs underestimated). But even today, most start-ups run their cap table on Excel — so there is still a lot of growth in the niche.
If you were an investor when Carta was starting, the first thing to understand was do you think Carta could dominate its niche. Surprisingly, many investors that passed on investing actually thought Carta WOULD dominate its niche. Given Carta’s huge current success, the investors either made one of two errors:
They underestimated the power of owning the niche of cap table management in start-ups.
They underestimated the talent of Carta’s team and its CEO (Henry Ward).
My belief is that any VC that passed for Error #1 should stop being a professional investor. That is not a good mistake to make.
However, my guess is that the vast majority of VCs made Error #2. That error is much easier to make as it is extremely difficult to evaluate people (especially after just spending a few hours with someone). Henry Ward has turned out to be an excellent CEO. But everyone has vastly underestimated people before. And everyone has vastly overestimated people before.
What you should do when a venture capitalist tells you that your TAM isn’t big enough
Obviously you should spend time evaluating the TAM. But you should also take solace that many, many great businesses (from AirBNB to Zoom) were passed by talented VCs who underestimated the team.
Summation: When VCs tell you “your TAM is not big enough” what they are really saying is “I don’t think your team is smart enough to move to an adjacent market once you dominate your initial niche.”