Summary of the Simplified Startup Business Framework: CP Squared
Customer, Pain, Competition, Product. Create something that optimizes across these 4 dimensions, and you have a great shot at building a meaningful company. Fail to deliver something that satisfies your customer pain 10x better than the competition (or for 1/10th the price), and you are on your on a well-trodden path to failure. Use this super-simple form to model your business, and ensure that you understand your fundamentals before you do anything else.
I have been focused on startups since 1999, when I had an idea that was going to change the world. Unfortunately, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, and there was no framework for helping newcomers like me understand how to build a startup.
In 2003, Steven Blank published “Four Steps to the Epiphany.” In 2008, Eric Ries built on Blank’s framework and published the “Lean Startup.” In that same year, Alexander Osterwalder released the “Business Model Canvas,” a framework for visualizing your startup business model.
I relied on these tools extensively in 2012 when I was the Managing Director of the Microsoft Accelerator powered by Techstars. And we had some pretty amazing success: 1 startup from the 1st class was acquired within a month of demo day, and another startup has raised over $45 million. Despite these successes, a number of the startups struggled, and some of them failed. After the Microsoft Accelerator, I shifted back to building my own startup called Payboard, where I hoped to make websites intelligent. Unfortunately, I also failed. Overall, I have been involved with approximately 50 different startups, and a vast majority of them have failed. And for the startups that did not fail – it was as much luck as skill, and some of the startups that had the most skill on their team ended up failing. I have spent the last few months thinking about why failure happens, why success happens, and what can be done to improve a startup’s chances of surviving and thriving.
What is the Problem with Blank, Ries, and Osterwalder?
The problem with building a startup using existing frameworks is that there are too many #1 priorities. You need to build a great team. You need to be in a growing market. You need to raise money, and raise it from the right investors. You need to take care of the noise (like incorporation, and employment agreements, and software license agreements, and payroll, and SEO, and invoicing). You need to do 1,000 essential things all at once, and it is easy to get lost in those weeds and gloss over the fact you do not have a solid foundation (yet).
Let’s take a simple (and painful) example where I took an absolutely wrong path, which eventually lead to my and my startup’s failure. About 1 year into my startup, Mat Ellis (who has been able to build an awesome company called Cloudability – and it was not luck!) told me to stop what I was doing, and go figure out who my customer was. I heard him. I still remember the conversation very clearly. But I had so many other priorities going through my head that I did not listen.
Actually, it was worse than that – I listened and I understood I was wrong, and I drove on despite knowing that he was right and I was pretty much just digging a deeper grave for my startup. Why? I calculated that if I took Mat’s advice and I really focused on who my customer was, I would disqualify most of the companies that were presently interested in working with us (including pilots like Microsoft and Moz), and that would completely destroy our fundraising efforts. So I forged on, as many a startup has, to put one foot in front of the other and keep making “progress.” We landed pilots with Microsoft and Moz and a dozen other high-profile companies, but because I did not have my customer clearly identified, and the pain that I hoped to resolve for the customer nailed, I was basically doing underpaid consulting work. 1 year after the conversation with Mr. Ellis, my startup was dead. 2 years, untold hours, and a kick-ass startup idea wasted. Bummer.
I am not alone in failure. In fact, I think failure in tech startups is far higher than the 90% estimate. But even assuming it is just 90%, that is still too high. With as many problems that need solving, we need more startups to survive and thrive, and make money solving the most challenging problems on the planet. Even if your focus is not cash, you need to make enough money to fuel growth so you can help more of your customers. And if your startup needs non-familial investors, do not fool yourself: your focus is cash.
The Solution to Startup Failure
To this end, I would like to propose a simplified startup framework called the CP Squared Framework: Customer, Pain, Competition, Product. 90% of your time and energy should be focused on the Customer+Pain loop. If you can articulate with specificity who your customer is, and what pain they have (and back this up with 30+ customer interviews where they are telling you they have this pain), then I believe that your odds of reaching escape velocity are 10x greater than the average startup.
Once you have a locked in Customer+Pain, then you can start evaluating your Competition+Product. Typically, we start with our product. This is natural because we want to build something. But, in order to build something of significant commercial value, you have to learn what your competition has already built. If you are a startup, and you build something just as good as the market leader, you will fail. Even if you make it 10% better or 10% cheaper, you will fail. If you are building something new, you have to achieve either 10x performance (e.g., your product is 10 times better, aka transformational) or 1/10 the price as the market leader. Nobody is looking for a nice to have feature from a startup, or a little bit of cost-savings – there is simply too much risk in working with a startup to justify these nominal returns.
One word of warning: the size of your existing market is limited by the value of the competitors’ revenue selling their product to the specified customer to address the specified pain. So if your competitors are making, in aggregate, $10 million a year selling competitive products to your target customer to address your specified pain, the most you can hope to make with your market-dominating product is $10 million (assuming you take 100% of the market – probably not likely). Sure, once you are making $10 million a year, then you can have a huge team doing a number of different things and you can educate customers that they SHOULD be doing something that they are not currently doing. But to start you need to focus on the competitors that are currently in the marketplace, and how you can grab market share from them. If there is not enough competition (that you can dominate) that is currently making money that should be yours, you are going to a near impossible journey.
Don’t measure a market by what potential customers SHOULD be buying. Measure a market by what customers ARE CURRENTLY PAYING FOR.
— Matt Dyor (@mattdyor) October 1, 2016
You can think of this as a simplified business model canvas, but I actually think of this as a complex business model canvas: since you have fewer irrelevant blocks, you actually have to get super-clear on the blocks that matter. A simple and effective plan is far more difficult to build than a complex plan. Agreed?
If you would like to discuss how this framework could apply to your startup or business, please grab some time on my calendar at https://calendly.com/mdyor/30min/.
Thanks, and have a great day.
Ps-If you think that you are not a startup, either because you are in a big company, or you have been around for a long time, you might be wrong. My definition of a startup is an organization that is looking to transform an income statement – something on the order of 10x increases in revenue.
A startup=any company (or team w/in a company) that wants to increase revenue by 10x. If startup, then discovery (not optimization) is goal.
— Matt Dyor (@mattdyor) September 30, 2016