Be an Ethical Entrepreneur, Marketer, and Business Builder

The best way to grow your business without venture capital or outside investments

In our current internet economy, you can flesh out the viability of almost any idea for very little money.

These are the first steps. Get customers. Get revenue. Get profit.

Bill Gates sold DOS before he owned it in the Pirates of Silicon Valley.

Bill Gates sold DOS before he owned it in the Pirates of Silicon Valley.

Your best option is to sell something you don’t have. Yet.

Bill Gates did this in the movie Pirates of Silicon Valley when he sold DOS to IBM before he bought it. Watch the movie. It was brilliant.

When I started my Performance Engine Tuning business, I got my first client and check before I invested a penny in the $2500 oscilloscope I needed to troubleshoot engine sensors.

When I started business coaching, I got my first 2 clients before I had any coaching systems in place. I quickly made them from the systems I had developed at my previous business though, and 3 years later those clients are still with me.

When I launched my internet marketing business, I received my first check to build a website before I knew how to build a website (unless you count that one I built on GeoCities in 1996).

Are you seeing a pattern here?

In all of those instances, I delivered what I promised and more, even though I had nothing to provide for my clients when they first paid me.

The only way to know if you have a good idea is to find someone to pay for it.

Get cash without giving up ownership or taking on debt.

Raise capital without losing any ownership or starting your new business by taking on debt.

If you absolutely need capital to make your idea work, probably the best option for “selling” your idea and finding customers is CrowdSource Funding with websites like KickStarter.com.

CrowdSourcing is brilliant because people give you money before you have a product.

  1. You get money
  2. You prove your idea has a customer base
  3. You retain 100% ownership and control.
  4. You even get some free marketing in the process.

KickStarter lends itself more to product-based businesses where you can provide an easily replicated product to your KickStarter investors.

In some instances you do need cash. Let’s say you have a complicated software product that is hard to “sell” without showing people it’s available.

Then do what ZenPayroll.com did and write some blogs, get some articles written about you, market on Google Adwords and Facebook ads to send people to a landing page where they can opt-in to your email list to be kept up-to-date on your products.

ZenPayroll started doing this before they had a product to sell. I signed up for their email list months ago and look forward to when they have a product that works in the 4 states I employ team members.

Building an email list isn’t nearly as good as getting money out of people, however having an email list with thousands of names on it before launching your product is a huge advantage.

Even authors know that you build your crowd first, through blogging and social media, before you write your book. That way when your book comes out you know it will sell and publishers will be lining up to work with you.

With the cheap 3d printers, you can build, test and sell prototype parts one at a time without expensive manufacturing contracts.

The bottom line is, there are dozens of inexpensive ways to get customers or very interested prospects before you have a product.

The Scaling Trap

Like all of my businesses that I mentioned above, do everything manually first, then once you know their are people willing to pay you, start systematizing, automating, and streamlining so that you can eventually scale.

NEVER scale your business before you have paying customers.

Here are a few other great options for your first business.

  • Start in an incubator. There are hundreds if not thousands of colleges around the country with incubators. These often provide cheap rent and access to professors and other entrepreneurs who can provide you with good advice. It’s also a good way to network with other startups to find new clients.
  • Buy an existing business. Five years after buying an existing business, 80% of them are still around. The reason for this is pretty simple – no one buys unprofitable small businesses. So if you’re buying a business, all you should have to do is “fix” a few things in the business to increase its profitability. If possible, buy a franchise. It’s also easier to get funding to buy an existing business with SBA 7a loans.
  • Grow the business profitably. This is the route I’ve always taken and the one promoted in Rework by Jason Fried. Only grow as fast as you can maintain profitability. This forces you to bootstrap and quickly weed out inefficiencies. The fewer inefficiencies, the more profitable you become, and the easier it is to grow in an ever improving cycle of growth.

How to raise money for your startup

Debt is not inherently bad and, when well-planned, can be very useful.
One of my first businesses was a house I bought in college to rent out rooms to save on my own rent.

For that business, I had to take on debt to buy the home.
It was a great investment and the same can be true for a lot of business debt however not all sources of capital and debt are equal.

Preferred methods of obtaining capital in order of highest to lowest preference:

  1. CrowdSourcing – You get money, retain 100% ownership, have not debt and receive free marketing.
  2. Banks – They generally charge very reasonable interest rates, you still retain 100% ownership, and they don’t tell you how to run your business.
  3. Family and Friends – Be very careful with this as you don’t want to sacrifice valued relationships and you don’t want to invite your friends and family to “dictate” what you should do with your business. Ideally you won’t need this until your 3rd-4th business once you have a proven track record of success and you’ve made most of the dumb mistakes we all inevitably make.
  4. Employee Owned – Employee-owned businesses can provide a great source of cash as well as a highly-committed team.
  5. Venture Capitalists – Once you’ve proven to have a profitable business, have worked out most inefficiencies, and are ready to scale, this can actually be a reasonable option.
  6. Go Public in an IPO – You only do this when you need 10’s or hundreds of millions of dollars. The costs to meet SEC regulations alone will run well over 6 figures annually so this has to be your last resort.

Most people get hyper-focused on one or 2 common ways to grow a business. That tunnel vision comes from a lack of understanding all of your options.

Widen your gaze to put together the best growth and funding plan for your business.

To your business-funding success, Bryan

P.S. My last blog addressed some major downsides of Venture Capital however, I disdain people who point out problems without listing any solutions. Hopefully this article provided you ideas on some better alternatives.

photo by: Tanzen80

Avoid Venture Capital and Outside Investors for your Startup

One of the most exciting days for a startup company is the day they receive money from an investor. The day someone believes in your idea so much they show up with their checkbook. The TV show Shark Tank unabashedly captures the exuberance that comes with that financial backing.

This guy is not your friend.

This guy is not your friend.

However, the opposite should be true…

Instead of popping open champagne in celebration, a lonely evening with a bottle of scotch would be more appropriate. Getting VC money, particularly if your business is pre-profit, is practically a kiss of death.

You have a better chance of winning at craps in Vegas than your company does of succeeding and becoming profitable after your VC check.

Let me clarify that VC money and outside investors, are the same thing. Whether money comes from a major VC company or your father-in-law, outside investment too early is the real problem.

The facts are simple, 75% of venture backed businesses fail according to research by Shikhar Ghosh, a Harvard Business School lecturer.

By comparison, overall only 55% of business startups fail after 5 years. In other words, venture backed businesses are 36% more likely to fail than startups overall in the first 5 years.

So if you’re spending most of your time as a startup seeking out VC funding, you are, statistically speaking, setting yourself up for failure.

Why are so many startups obsessed with outside investments?

The answer is pretty simple. The VC’s want you to be.

Anyone familiar with silicon valley knows of Peter Thiel and how he made his billions on Paypal (a company he co-founded) and Facebook which he bought into in 2004 for $500k in exchange for more than 10% of ownership.

What most people don’t realize is that he’s also invested in over 40 other companies of which you’ve probably never heard of any of them.

This is how venture capitalists work. Even if only 1 out of 4 businesses last, they can still be way ahead of the game. More importantly, they can still win big with an IPO even if the business fails shortly thereafter.

In other words, they don’t much care if your business succeeds.

Why do VC-backed businesses fail at such a high rate?

The Business Genome Project studied over 3200 startups to find out why they fail and their results should be common sense…

The #1 reason 74% of startups fail is premature scaling.

In other words, pre-profit, pre-revenue, or sometimes pre-customer start-ups start hiring and investing in infrastructure.

This is, quite frankly, insane!

Until you can get a sale and a customer, you have no business whatsoever trying to “grow” your business through hiring.

The reason these VC-backed businesses fail is the same reason government is so inefficient. The startup is now playing with someone else’s money.

The founder now no longer feels the pain of losing everything or the need to scrape by on table-scraps when he has $1,000,000 in the bank today after having $0 yesterday.

In the 2 years since my internet lead-generation business started, I’ve had numerous offers from investors that I’ve never accepted for one main reason:

The only thing more money would do for us now is make us less efficient more quickly.

This is true of every business in the early stages.
Even the 25% of VC-backed businesses that succeed are made less efficient with large checks.

As a start-up, you lose either way.

If you get VC money, most likely you’re going to fail. If you don’t fail, then you just gave up a very sizable chunk of your business and control.

The whole concept that to be successful at business you must take risks is ridiculous. The greatest entrepreneurs rarely take major risks and any risks they take are painstakingly calculated. The Heath brothers discuss this in their free Kindle book, The Myth of the Garage.

High risk examples of VC-backed businesses

If you’re still looking forward to that first VC check, let me give you a few examples of businesses that went that route.

  • SnapChat – Valued at $4 billion dollars with $0 in revenue and no plans for generating any revenue.
  • 4Square – Valued at $600 million dollars with $2 million in revenue.
  • Living Social – After being one of the hottest tech startups in the country, it posted a $566 million 3rd quarter loss in October 2012 and I wouldn’t bet on it being around in 10 years.
  • Groupon – Which IPOed at over $26 to drop all the way to $2.60 only to now start rebounding back to $10.65 while still losing $.15/share.
  • Yodle – Though this business is currently profitable and will probably stay that way, they took a major gamble when they took a profitable start-up with $700k in revenue and leveraged it until it wasn’t profitable again until they had over $100 million in revenue. That’s an extremely large risk to take. I do commend them, however, for proving the business model first.
  • Zynga – IPOed in December 2011 around $9.50 before being hyped up to $14.69/share and since tanking to $2.09 and hovering between $2.60 and $4 for the last 52 weeks. Not surprisingly, it’s still not profitable.

Even when you take a group of industry veterans who should know better and put them together to make a “super team”, the injection of too much money too quickly inevitably causes inefficiency and often failure as we saw in the case of BlueGlass SEO.

This list could go on all day. The number of great business ideas and innovations that have been harmed by too much money too early is far larger than those helped.

The concept of riding your idea to change the world a la Mark Zuckerberg is so strong, here’s a list of companies who turned down $100 million dollar buyout offers including Viddy, 4Square, Qwiki and Path.

Keep in mind, many of the VC’s who invested early in the businesses above made a killing when those companies went public or simply sought additional rounds of funding. They made their money on the hype of the IPOs not on the profits of the businesses.

The point is, it’s good business for the VC’s but rarely good business for the businesses themselves.

Private Companies with Higher Profit than their Peers

Here are a few examples of how growing profitably has created great companies.

  • Chick Fil-A – $400 million in revenue with no outside capital investments (privately owned)
  • Leo Burnett – $600 million in revenue with no outside capital investments (privately owned)
  • State Farm – no outside capital investments and now has over 18,000 agents.
  • Northwestern Mutual – privately owned and the largest provider of individual direct life insurance in the US

All of these businesses were case studies from the book The Loyalty Effect.

What’s most impressive is that the author didn’t seek out privately owned companies with no outside investments when searching for the most profitable businesses within an industry.

Instead, once he found the most profitable businesses in an industry he realized those were a few things they had in common.

He then examined these businesses and their industries and learned that avoiding outside investments was a major factor in their successes.

Lessons from VC’s

As of the end of 2012:
Apple’s Market Cap was $392BN on Revenue of $156.5 BN for a multiple of 2.5x revenue
Amazon’s Market Cap was $115BN on Revenue of $61BN for a multiple of 1.88x revenue
Netflix’s Market Cap was $12BN on Revenue of $3.6BN for a multiple of 3.33x revenue
Facebook’s Market Cap was $64BN on Revenue of $5.1BN for a multiple of 12.5x revenue
Recently 4Square’s Market Valuation was $600 million on Revenue of $2M for a multiple of 300x revenue

In other words, to match the revenue multiplier of Facebook, 4Square will have to grow its revenue by 2,400% to $48 million.

Maybe 4Square has something up its sleeve to grow revenues 24 fold in the next few years… After all, these VC guys have made billions so they know what they are doing.

Not exactly.

It’s a gamble. A big one. One that’s reliant on public opinion more than actual business fundamentals. That’s what VCs bank on. That’s why Thiel quickly sold the majority of his shares when Facebook went public while making $1 billion dollars.

In other words, early-stage VC’s couldn’t care less if most companies they’ve invested in fail. All they need is for the company to go public to cash out. Even then they only need a small percentage of their investments to go public to make money.

Take the story Tony Hsieh told in his book Delivering Happiness.

After making $30 million on his first web venture, he became a VC and lost almost all of his money by investing in around 30 different ideas. He finally decided to take Zappos over himself and pour in everything he had left in terms of time, money, and passion.

Considering he grew Zappos to over $1 billion in revenue before selling to Amazon, you could say that one paid off. But he was extremely close to losing everything.

He didn’t have to drive himself to the brink of bankruptcy (something he seemed to learn as well) to build a profitable business.

Most ideas don’t need millions of dollars prior to turning a profit to prove a concept. That’s one thing that made Zappos unique. The founder who came to Hsieh with the idea actually proved that it worked by creating his own crude website, selling shoes, and then going down to local shoe retailers to buy the shoes and ship them off.

That method wasn’t profitable but it did PROVE that people would indeed buy shoes online. Once you know that, it’s a lot easier to determine how buying shoes at wholesale, eliminating expensive store fronts, and utilizing an efficient nationwide delivery system can make internet sales of shoes highly profitable.

Considering Hsieh seems to have forced out the original founder (a topic he doesn’t explain in his book) that’s also more proof that VC’s are rarely your friend.

Unfortunately, the rare stories of companies like Instagram and 4Square, along with Shark Tank and the Inc 500, do not put the focus on how to grow a business profitably. They put the focus on securing funding, top-line growth, and cashing out.

That’s how the VC and early-stage outside investors like it.

Unfortunately, that’s very rarely what’s best for your startup.

To your startup success, Bryan

P.S. People who point out problems without providing solutions rarely fully understand the issue. Hopefully my next blog on funding your startup will provide you ideas on some better alternatives to venture capital.

Business Valuation – Public, Private, and Internet Businesses

As I’m reading Adam Penenberg’s book Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today’s Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves, 2 main themes have caught my attention. Firstly, the power and consistency of creating a viral loop for your business. Secondly, though the item I’m blogging about first, is how differently businesses can be valued.

I’ve written regularly about valuing small businesses based on the mantra “it’s all about profits”, and yet have learned of dozen’s of businesses worth hundreds of millions to billions of dollars with little to no profits to back that up. Penenberg references HotorNot, Hotmail, Paypal, Ebay, Bebo (even though they didn’t use their venture capital money), Myspace, Facebook, BirthdayAlarm, Netscape, Ning, Twitter and others that almost universally had substantial losses each month when venture capitalists started investing millions or 10’s of millions of dollars into these businesses. A good friend of mine, and MBA student, had argued with me many times that business is all about getting customers. I always countered that you can have a million customers but if you lose $1/month on each one, that’s not a good business. It seems, however, that both of us weren’t looking at the entire scope of business.

So when we value businesses, there are basically 3 primary groupings to consider:

  1. Small, closely-held businesses (which is what I most often write about)
  2. Internet Businesses
  3. Public Companies

In small, closely-held businesses, I am right. It’s all about profits and your business should be valued on that. If you’re buying one of theses businesses and it has a loss, you may just want to offer to take it off of the seller’s hands for them so they don’t continue to incur the losses. These are your every day “main-street” (pardon the cliche’) businesses that you find for sale on Bizbuysell.com and other websites. Theses businesses are generally your first step toward wealth creation.

Internet Businesses open up an entirely other ball of wax. These businesses rarely have any income and certainly no profits early on in their life-cycle, however manage to attract anywhere from hundreds of thousands to hundreds of millions of dollars in investment capital before turning a profit. Does that mean it’s not about profits for these businesses and that’s not their top goal? Of course not. That’s just crazy talk. The difference is simply this. These investors appreciate that their is profit potential when you’ve captured the daily attention of hundreds of thousands or millions of internet users. One particular story that caught my attention was the start of Hotmail. Initially Hotmail had no users, no website (didn’t even have the hotmail.com domain name) but they had an idea and managed to raise $300,000 for a 15% stake in a company with no customers or income or profits, in return for being the first company to come to market with webmail. About 2 years later, that initial $300,000 investment from the venture capital firm was turned into $60 million dollars as Hotmail was sold to Microsoft for $400 million dollars. Without going into the details, the power of a viral business model made this all possible. So our question is, how did the venture capital firm decide that a 15% stake in JavaSoft (which eventually became Hotmail) was worth $300,000? Negotiating. The only thing JavaSoft had was an idea. Through negotiating they decided the idea was worth $2 million and so 15% was worth $300,000. For the dozen’s of businesses I’ve mentioned above that have followed a similar trajectory, obviously there are hundreds that failed. Beyond that, Microsoft, has certainly profited far more than their original $400 million investment in Hotmail in the last 10 years so don’t ever lose site of the importance of profits. 😉

Public Companies can potentially bring another set of rules. Firstly, you can’t buy a public company for less than it’s stock is worth. In other words, if a stock is trading for $10 and there are 100,000 outstanding shares, the business is worth $1 million dollars ($10 x 100,000) and you can’t pay less for it. In theory, the company’s stock price should be based on it’s profits (generally called earnings) however many public companies have price to earnings values ranging from 5:1 to 50:1 or higher. This simply means that the business is “worth” anywhere from 5 to 50 times more than its profits. If a business is currently losing money, it’s price to earnings ratio effectively doesn’t exist. So, for instance, if the business above had $100,000 in profits, it’s PE or Price to Earnings ratio would be $1,000,000 to $100,000 or 10:1. Make sense? So the natural question is, what determines a business’ stock price? And the answer to a great degree is the same as with an Internet Business. It’s based a lot on speculation. More specifically, if a bunch of people think a business is a great business, and so buy a lot of stock, the price of that stock will go up regardless of whether the business has profits or not. In theory, over the long-term the stock price will match the actual value of the company which is how guys like Warren Buffet have made billions investing in companies that are undervalued.

So what does this mean to us? If you have no profits but can convince a bunch of people you have a great business anyway, you can make a lot of money. 😀

The reality is actually, if you can convince buyers, venture capitalists, or investors that your unprofitable business has the potential to return remarkable profits in the future, you may just be able to throw EBIDTA out the window and value your business on whatever feels right at the  moment. In other words, no matter where or what your business is, your business is worth whatever you can convince someone to pay for it.

To your success, Bryan

P.S. If you’re looking for a real-life argument between a small business “profit is king” entrepreneur and a “customers are king” large business builder, check out Perry Marshall’s blog.