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A startup is a company designed to grow fast. Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup. Nor is it necessary for a startup to work on technology, or take venture funding, or have some sort of "exit." The only essential thing is growth. Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth.
If you want to start one it's important to understand that. Startups are so hard that you can't be pointed off to the side and hope to succeed. You have to know that growth is what you're after. The good news is, if you get growth, everything else tends to fall into place. Which means you can use growth like a compass to make almost every decision you face.
Let's start with a distinction that should be obvious but is often overlooked: not every newly founded company is a startup. Millions of companies are started every year in the US. Only a tiny fraction are startups. Most are service businesses—restaurants, barbershops, plumbers, and so on. These are not startups, except in a few unusual cases. A barbershop isn't designed to grow fast. Whereas a search engine, for example, is.
When I say startups are designed to grow fast, I mean it in two senses. Partly I mean designed in the sense of intended, because most startups fail. But I also mean startups are different by nature, in the same way a redwood seedling has a different destiny from a bean sprout.
That difference is why there's a distinct word, "startup," for companies designed to grow fast. If all companies were essentially similar, but some through luck or the efforts of their founders ended up growing very fast, we wouldn't need a separate word. We could just talk about super-successful companies and less successful ones. But in fact startups do have a different sort of DNA from other businesses. Google is not just a barbershop whose founders were unusually lucky and hard-working. Google was different from the beginning.
To grow rapidly, you need to make something you can sell to a big market. That's the difference between Google and a barbershop. A barbershop doesn't scale.
For a company to grow really big, it must (a) make something lots of people want, and (b) reach and serve all those people. Barbershops are doing fine in the (a) department. Almost everyone needs their hair cut. The problem for a barbershop, as for any retail establishment, is (b). A barbershop serves customers in person, and few will travel far for a haircut. And even if they did the barbershop couldn't accomodate them. [ 1 ]
Writing software is a great way to solve (b), but you can still end up constrained in (a). If you write software to teach Tibetan to Hungarian speakers, you'll be able to reach most of the people who want it, but there won't be many of them. If you make software to teach English to Chinese speakers, however, you're in startup territory.
Most businesses are tightly constrained in (a) or (b). The distinctive feature of successful startups is that they're not.
It might seem that it would always be better to start a startup than an ordinary business. If you're going to start a company, why not start the type with the most potential? The catch is that this is a (fairly) efficient market. If you write software to teach Tibetan to Hungarians, you won't have much competition. If you write software to teach English to Chinese speakers, you'll face ferocious competition, precisely because that's such a larger prize. [ 2 ]
The constraints that limit ordinary companies also protect them. That's the tradeoff. If you start a barbershop, you only have to compete with other local barbers. If you start a search engine you have to compete with the whole world.
The most important thing that the constraints on a normal business protect it from is not competition, however, but the difficulty of coming up with new ideas. If you open a bar in a particular neighborhood, as well as limiting your potential and protecting you from competitors, that geographic constraint also helps define your company. Bar + neighborhood is a sufficient idea for a small business. Similarly for companies constrained in (a). Your niche both protects and defines you.
Whereas if you want to start a startup, you're probably going to have to think of something fairly novel. A startup has to make something it can deliver to a large market, and ideas of that type are so valuable that all the obvious ones are already taken.
That space of ideas has been so thoroughly picked over that a startup generally has to work on something everyone else has overlooked. I was going to write that one has to make a conscious effort to find ideas everyone else has overlooked. But that's not how most startups get started. Usually successful startups happen because the founders are sufficiently different from other people that ideas few others can see seem obvious to them. Perhaps later they step back and notice they've found an idea in everyone else's blind spot, and from that point make a deliberate effort to stay there. [ 3 ] But at the moment when successful startups get started, much of the innovation is unconscious.
What's different about successful founders is that they can see different problems. It's a particularly good combination both to be good at technology and to face problems that can be solved by it, because technology changes so rapidly that formerly bad ideas often become good without anyone noticing. Steve Wozniak's problem was that he wanted his own computer. That was an unusual problem to have in 1975. But technological change was about to make it a much more common one. Because he not only wanted a computer but knew how to build them, Wozniak was able to make himself one. And the problem he solved for himself became one that Apple solved for millions of people in the coming years. But by the time it was obvious to ordinary people that this was a big market, Apple was already established.
Google has similar origins. Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted to search the web. But unlike most people they had the technical expertise both to notice that existing search engines were not as good as they could be, and to know how to improve them. Over the next few years their problem became everyone's problem, as the web grew to a size where you didn't have to be a picky search expert to notice the old algorithms weren't good enough. But as happened with Apple, by the time everyone else realized how important search was, Google was entrenched.
That's one connection between startup ideas and technology. Rapid change in one area uncovers big, soluble problems in other areas. Sometimes the changes are advances, and what they change is solubility. That was the kind of change that yielded Apple; advances in chip technology finally let Steve Wozniak design a computer he could afford. But in Google's case the most important change was the growth of the web. What changed there was not solubility but bigness.
The other connection between startups and technology is that startups create new ways of doing things, and new ways of doing things are, in the broader sense of the word, new technology. When a startup both begins with an idea exposed by technological change and makes a product consisting of technology in the narrower sense (what used to be called "high technology"), it's easy to conflate the two. But the two connections are distinct and in principle one could start a startup that was neither driven by technological change, nor whose product consisted of technology
except in the broader sense. [ 4 ]
How fast does a company have to grow to be considered a startup? There's no precise answer to that. "Startup" is a pole, not a threshold. Starting one is at first no more than a declaration of one's ambitions. You're committing not just to starting a company, but to starting a fast growing one, and you're thus committing to search for one of the rare ideas of that type. But at first you have no more than commitment. Starting a startup is like being an actor in that respect. "Actor" too is a pole rather than a threshold. At the beginning of his career, an actor is a waiter who goes to auditions. Getting work makes him a successful actor, but he doesn't only become an actor when he's successful.
So the real question is not what growth rate makes a company a startup, but what growth rate successful startups tend to have. For founders that's more than a theoretical question, because it's equivalent to asking if they're on the right path.The growth of a successful startup usually has three phases:
- There's an initial period of slow or no growth while the startup tries to figure out what it's doing.
The slope is the company's growth rate. If there's one number every founder should always know, it's the company's growth rate. That's the measure of a startup. If you don't know that number, you don't even know if you're doing well or badly.
When I first meet founders and ask what their growth rate is, sometimes they tell me "we get about a hundred new customers a month." That's not a rate. What matters is not the absolute number of new customers, but the ratio of new customers to existing ones. If you're really getting a constant number of new customers every month, you're in trouble, because that means your growth rate is decreasing.
During Y Combinator we measure growth rate per week, partly because there is so little time before Demo Day, and partly because startups early on need frequent feedback from their users to tweak what they're doing. [ 6 ]
A good growth rate during YC is 5-7% a week. If you can hit 10% a week you're doing exceptionally well. If you can only manage 1%, it's a sign you haven't yet figured out what you're doing.
The best thing to measure the growth rate of is revenue. The next best, for startups that aren't charging initially, is active users. That's a reasonable proxy for revenue growth because whenever the startup does start trying to make money, their revenues will probably be a constant multiple of active users. [ 7 ]
We usually advise startups to pick a growth rate they think they can hit, and then just try to hit it every week. The key word here is "just." If they decide to grow at 7% a week and they hit that number, they're successful for that week. There's nothing more they need to do. But if they don't hit it, they've failed in the only thing that mattered, and should be correspondingly alarmed.
Programmers will recognize what we're doing here. We're turning starting a startup into an optimization problem. And anyone who has tried optimizing code knows how wonderfully effective that sort of narrow focus can be. Optimizing code means taking an existing program and changing it to use less of something, usually time or memory. You don't have to think about what the program should do, just make it faster. For most programmers this is very satisfying work. The narrow focus makes it a sort of puzzle, and you're generally surprised how fast you can solve it.
Focusing on hitting a growth rate reduces the otherwise bewilderingly multifarious problem of starting a startup to a single problem. You can use that target growth rate to make all your decisions for you; anything that gets you the growth you need is ipso facto right. Should you spend two days at a conference? Should you hire another programmer? Should you focus more on marketing? Should you spend time courting some big customer? Should you add x feature? Whatever gets you your target growth rate. [ 8 ]
Judging yourself by weekly growth doesn't mean you can look no more than a week ahead. Once you experience the pain of missing your target one week (it was the only thing that mattered, and you failed at it), you become interested in anything that could spare you such pain in the future. So you'll be willing for example to hire another programmer, who won't contribute to this week's growth but perhaps in a month will have implemented some new feature that will get you more users. But only if (a) the distraction of hiring someone won't make you miss your numbers in the short term, and (b) you're sufficiently worried about whether you can keep hitting your numbers without hiring someone new.
It's not that you don't think about the future, just that you think about it no more than necessary.
In theory this sort of hill-climbing could get a startup into trouble. They could end up on a local maximum. But in practice that never happens. Having to hit a growth number every week forces founders to act, and acting versus not acting is the high bit of succeeding. Nine times out of ten, sitting around strategizing is just a form of procrastination. Whereas founders' intuitions about which hill to climb are usually better than they realize. Plus the maxima in the space of startup ideas are not spiky and isolated. Most fairly good ideas are adjacent to even better ones.
The fascinating thing about optimizing for growth is that it can actually discover startup ideas. You can use the need for growth as a form of evolutionary pressure. If you start out with some initial plan and modify it as necessary to keep hitting, say, 10% weekly growth, you may end up with a quite different company than you meant to start. But anything that grows consistently at 10% a week is almost certainly a better idea than you started with.
There's a parallel here to small businesses. Just as the constraint of being located in a particular neighborhood helps define a bar, the constraint of growing at a certain rate can help define a startup.
You'll generally do best to follow that constraint wherever it leads rather than being influenced by some initial vision, just as a scientist is better off following the truth wherever it leads rather than being influenced by what he wishes were the case. When Richard Feynman said that the imagination of nature was greater than the imagination of man, he meant that if you just keep following the truth you'll discover cooler things than you could ever have made up. For startups, growth is a constraint much like truth. Every successful startup is at least partly a product of the imagination of growth. [ 9 ]
It's hard to find something that grows consistently at several percent a week, but if you do you may have found something surprisingly valuable. If we project forward we see why.