Like many of you, I've been following a fascinating and important debate between Ben Horowitz and Fred Wilson over the past couple of days. To recap, it all started with this post: The Case for the Fat Startup.
Fred then responded with Being Fat is Not Healthy which has received a lot of comments worth reading, including some comments from Ben.
Then earlier today, Ben responded with the best post of all The Revenge of the Fat Guy.
After reading through the posts, I've come to the conclusion that Ben and Fred actually agree on the fundamental points. In fact, the most important point was already made by Steve Blank last year in Lean Startups Aren't Cheap Startups.
Steve, a key figure in the lean startup movement, felt the need make the case that you cannot confuse lean with cheap. He concludes with the point that if you confuse the concepts "when you do find a repeatable and scalable sales model, you will starve your company for resources needed to scale."
The reason I love Ben's latest post is that he helps debunk some myths about Product-Market Fit, which, according Marc Andreessen, is "the only thing that matters" Along the way, he also makes a compelling case (though perhaps unintentionally) for staying lean.
Ben's post should be a warning for entrepreneurs and VCs who put too much faith behind the magical product market fit concept. Here are some things to watch out for:
- Product market fit is NOT a discrete, big bang event. If you are fortunate to find product market fit, you will most likely get there through lots of hard work "through partial fits, a few false alarms, and a big dollop of perseverance...there’s no formulaic answer."
- It's NOT obvious when you have product-market fit. "It’s usually not black and white."
- Once you achieve product-market fit, you can lose it.
- Once you have product-market fit, you still have to "sweat the competition."
All of these points should serve as a warning for people with too much money to spend (or invest) and eager to step on the gas once product market fit is found. Given all of the uncertainties, it would be prudent to maintain some humility even if you believe that you've found product-market fit (you can also reach the opposite conclusion - even when in doubt, step on the gas - it's just not the path I'd recommend).
Ben's last point is important to consider because, on the surface, it makes a case for the fat startup. Since "the best markets are usually the ones in which competition is fierce" you should invest aggressively to make sure you win the market."
I would ask, how much should you raise/invest? How about a billion dollars as Webvan did?
In any huge new market, there is no question competition will heat up. But even a billion dollars is nothing when you are talking about competing against the big guys.
Rather than focusing on how much money to raise, how about focusing on producing profits and creating a sustainable business model?
When I look at competitors, the ones that scare me are the ones that have found ways to make money and scale at the same time. The "fat startups" that are burning through millions or tens of millions of dollars a month don't scare me.
Ben says that you can't win the market by saving your way there. I totally agree. But conversely, you can't win by spending your way there either. Even if you raise hundreds of millions. For every Loudcloud/Opsware, there are dozens of craters. As David Packard liked to say, "more companies die from indigestion than starvation."
There is no question that Ben is a great entrepreneur who knows first hand how difficult it is to build companies. He knows that it often takes more money and longer than you'd like. So it would make sense to raise more money than you think you need. If someone offers to invest boatloads of money in your company at a great price, you should consider taking it. I agree. But even Ben has said that it should not be your plan A.
If you are one of the very fortunate entrepreneurs who is able to get boatloads of funding at a great price, you should be careful to resist pressures to spend that capital from excited investors. You need to also do your best to resist your own temptations to pursue every great idea that you and your great team comes up with to win the market. A company growing on profits just tends to be much more disciplined than one growing based on boatloads funding.
Just as Ben agues that Twitter is the exception, not the rule, I'd say that Loudcloud/Opsware is the exception, not the rule.
Even Loudcloud/Opsware is not a very compelling case for the fat startup. They raised $346mm in 15 months and went public in March 2001. By September 2002, market cap had fallen to $28mm, which was less than cash on hand and about 8% of capital raised to date. That sounds like value destruction to me. If you were an investor or employee, you'd be pretty bummed right about then.
Then an amazing thing happened. From 2002 to 2007, the company raised no more capital and created tremendous value - great job Ben! They exit for $1.6B in September 2007! I would guess that there was a lot of great technology created in the prior 2 years that helped. But I would also guess that the thought of running out of cash was pretty scary when you are at a $28mm million market cap. If I were in their shoes, I would have been more determined than ever to get to profitability so that I would never have to raise more funding.
To recap, during the first era (Loudcloud), hundreds of millions are raised and return almost nothing. During the second era (Opsware), if you bought stock, which was publicly available, so any of you could have participated - you did NOT have to be a famous entrepreneur or a hotshot VC to get a chance to invest - you would have made a spectacular return.
Ben Horowitz just reinforced my belief that "fat startup" is not only a bad idea but a dangerous one. Just as the lean startup concept can be harmful if people misunderstand the key points, the fat startup concept can also be harmful. In fact, it can be a LOT more harmful to the VC industry. Entrepreneurs will also suffer from excessive dilution, recaps and wasted lives pursuing bubbles and false dreams.
I'll end with a concept Warren Buffet has repeated over and over again - don't count on the kindness of strangers to save you. Make sure you have enough cash on hand. To me, that is not an argument for the fat startup, it's an argument for the lean startup.