I’m sure you’ve seen it too many times before. The free-spending startup software or hardware company burns through its funds like a cocaine addict on vacation in Columbia. It’s ultimately a sad tale, with great potential often wasted, many jobs lost and multiple lives hurt. But it is hard to feel sorry for the management teams that put these companies in precarious positions. It’s their poor judgment, lack of expense controls, and a general lack of self-control that’s the cause. they should know better and end up getting what they deserve.
4 WAYS THAT STARTUP COMPANIES SPEND THEMSELVES OUT OF BUSINESS WITHOUT EXPENSE CONTROLS
Spending it almost as fast as it comes in because the market is overheated.
- This became endemic back during the Internet bubble years. Even formerly conservative VCs were imploring their portfolio companies to “spend money faster” and “get the eyeballs now, we’ll figure out how to monetize them later”. “Expense Controls” became a dirty phrase. Crazy, as we all look back at it now. But to a lesser extent, I see the same things happen every time the stock and Fundraising markets get a bit overheated. Up until very recently in our post-pandemic recovery, I have seen quite a few VC-backed companies being encouraged to do similar things (albeit to a much less extreme degree). Earning a profit became anathema for VC-funded companies. Just recently with the slowing of the economy, it appears that many of these companies have finally gotten “profit-religion”.
Large company senior management
- Another common situation where money tends to get spent way too fast is when a startup management team is staffed primarily with “big hitters” coming from large company backgrounds. I remember in particular a mesh networking company here in San Diego which burned through over $60M in VC money while creating almost no revenue along the way. They appeared to have literally no expense controls. This startup hired an almost endless list of VPs from name brand, blue-chip large companies. And of course, paid them well over the going rates at early-stage companies. The CEO came from a big telecommunications company (with no startup experience). He was paid a SALARY of $750,000/year. Yes, you read that right–I’m not even counting his bonus and option grants. This was in a company that was barely past the pre-revenue stage and nowhere near profitability. It still amazes me to this day.
The itchy trigger finger
- Another scenario I have seen quite a lot is pioneering companies that are developing a novel technology or product, attempting to create a truly new market. What often happens in this situation is what I’d call an “itchy trigger finger”. That’s when it’s still too early to create the critical mass needed in a market. What they SHOULD do is continue to be patient with conservative expense controls. They should marshal their resources, and continue to develop their products while educating the market. But these innovators get impatient, sometimes egged on by their investors. They blow through their investment capital with a premature, huge ramp-up in Sales and Marketing. They do this well before their product or the market is ready for this expansionary phase. Their large expenditures in Marketing serve only to prime the market to the great advantage of their fast-follower competitors.
The hungry man can finally eat
- The final situation that I often see leading to overspending is the company that has been bootstrapping successfully (but also painfully) for a very long time. Then FINALLY the company is able to attract a round of Institutional Capital. Every startup – particularly bootstrapped startups – has a long list of “like-to-haves” they would spend money on. If they only had it! It’s understandable when you’ve been hungry for so long to want to “eat”. Meaning, spend a bit. So it’s OK to knock off the most important expenditures at the top of the list when that initial funding finally comes through. But like a starving man let loose after hours at McDonald’s, some of these formerly prudent managers gorge on the new-found capital. Formerly conservative expense controls go out the door. Management ends up spending it like it’s ongoing cash flow–not the precious investment capital that it actually is. Not being miserly with investment capital is one of the cardinal sins indicative of bad startup management. In this particular situation, it is the otherwise sound managers who undergo a bout of “temporary insanity”. It’s a particularly sad story, in my opinion.
What About Underspending?
So that’s one side of the coin: overspending. We’ve all seen it. When you’re not inside the eye of the hurricane that is a startup company, it’s not that hard to recognize. There is no doubt that this free-spending behavior has killed many promising startups.
But what about the flip side of the coin–when managements are TOO miserly and spend too little? This usually isn’t a problem in the VC-funded startup world but can be elsewhere.
Now please keep in mind, I’m not advocating spending funds that you simply don’t have. Borrowing is rarely a good idea for an early-stage software or hardware company. If you don’t have the money–please, don’t try to find a way to spend it anyway! Conservation of capital is one of the basic pillars of good startup management practice. Startup runway is almost ALWAYS the most important thing to conserve and maximize in the early days.
Yet, there are some places where an early-stage company simply HAS to invest, or the outcome will be almost certain crib death. Below are a few important examples:
STAFFING WITH GOOD PEOPLE
Good companies are built with good people. Great companies are built with great people. PERIOD. Even a company with great brand equity and outstanding IP is doomed for a hard fall without the continued benefit of committed, smart staff. In a startup, it’s even more critical. That’s because you don’t have any of the built-in advantages that a big company has. These big company advantages might allow the enterprise to coast for a bit before heading south. Without good people, startup companies will not thrive for long.
Even a profitable business will soon hit a wall as a result of a lack of talent depth in the employee pool. The initial founders can only take a company so far without a strong supporting cast. Growth will eventually stall without a strong bench to fill important areas. I had a client, who was a young CEO. He did a great job building a strongly profitable, multi-million dollar business in a large and competitive market. But his growth stalled because he viewed much of his staff like desk chairs or any other overhead line item. Items to be minimized via expense controls. Don’t make this mistake. Your staff is your lifeblood, not a ball & chain to be jettisoned at every opportunity.
CREATING A GOOD PRODUCT
Almost important as good people to a software or tech startup is a killer product. This should be obvious to anyone who’s worked in a SaaS or hardware startup. There are many, many things that are important to a successful startup tech business. But by their very nature, tech companies are almost always driven by a great product. There are exceptions, no doubt, but this is a pretty good rule. It makes little sense to enforce expense controls in product development, assuming that you’re spending the money wisely! At least until you have created a product that can lead to winning in the marketplace. With a startup, that almost certainly means a product that’s not “me too”. It needs to be faster, cheaper, or somehow more capable than the competition.
A PERSONAL EXAMPLE
A while back I was VP- Sales & Marketing for a small public company that was still in the development phase of its primary product. A PUBLIC company that is pre-product could be the subject of another interesting article, btw. The company was still losing money due to high development costs and a small revenue stream. A public company of this nature is a typical situation in biotech, but it’s not common in IT. The company I was at was publicly traded. As a result, the CEO was reluctant to raise money. This was due to the resulting stockholder dilution. He was also always threatening to cut costs to make the quarterly numbers look better. This was INSANITY. There’s really nothing much more I can say.
Cutting product development in any significant way before you have a competitive product to sell is suicide. Worrying about quarterly results until you have made the company a going concern from a product perspective is stupid. You do what you have to survive, of course. But this was a company with access to the public capital markets. A strong product is a required muscle. It allows you to break through the barrier of embedded competitors who have strong market positions and brands. Don’t kid yourself and try to save money for ANY other reason, until you’ve hurdled the bar of a competitive product.
BUILDING A CRITICAL MASS OF UNIT SALES
Finally, you’ve built a killer product and now have a savvy staff pushing it out into the market. It’s time. Use whatever you’ve got left in your tank, and use it now! Stomp on the gas peddle and spend whatever you can muster on outbound sales and marketing programs. This is where the proverbial “crossing the chasm” really takes place. There are a certain number of customers you need to sell before you get over the peak of that initially steep sales curve. If you can do that, and it’s VERY hard, things start to get easier.
CRITICAL MASS: FROM “PULLING TEETH” TO A “KNIFE THROUGH BUTTER”
Once that happens, people will start to know your company name and your product will have market credibility. Enough happy clients are now out there so word-of-mouth marketing kicks in. Instead of fighting for every new customer, they start coming to you in increasing numbers. And without nearly as much effort. Your product is now showing up in the market share figures. The press and analyst community start to call you, instead of you leaving endless unanswered messages in their voicemail boxes. Yes, at some point, believe it or not, it really does get easier! But this happens only if you are able to close the number of initial sales necessary to reach critical mass in your specific market. Until you reach this point, don’t worry about cost-of-sales data or any other performance metric. SPEND WHATEVER MONEY IT TAKES–AS LONG AS YOU HAVE IT.
I’m sure there are more very important items that you can list, where spending too much or too little can cause big problems for startups. Let me know what your experiences are. Please post a comment with your own examples or questions.
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Gene Krause says
This is an excellent take on the free-spending habits of startups. One of the biggest points you’ve made is that a lot of startups are funded by heavy hitters who are used to a big game environment. Immense salaries at the initial stage can quickly burn through funds. Hiring the right talent is the most important consideration. There are a lot of bright executives who have no clue of how to run a startup.
Phil Morettini says
Thanks for your comment about hiring, Gene. So true.