“Real artists ship” – Steve Jobs

tl:dr

  • Launch your product when it is slightly better than MVP, take care about how it is presented (e.g. landing page) as this is easy to do and adds value
  • Start talking to investors for ‘advice’ after you launch MVP to open a dialogue
  • Raise money when your product is MDP and not later as ‘extra development’ will not result in an increased valuation
  • The real reason to launch faster is the value of your time. If you won’t get a higher valuation for more work, why wait? You have a lot more to lose. Early cash will help you go a lot faster and minimize failure risk

This doesn’t make sense

no sense

I woke up with an epiphany, rushed out of bed and drew down a graph on paper. What this illustrated (below) was this simple point: “Valuation doesn’t always reflect how much work you have done, unless you pass into a new phase.”

Most people talk about launching, lean-startup methodology style from the view point of Customer Development Methodology to get validation. But, no one talks about the real reason for launching, which I believe is maximizing the value of your time and ability to go faster.

The traditional view of launching is good but not the whole story

Have a Google around launching, you will find the literature dating back to around 2007 talks about launching to get validation from customers faster and that you need to launch with something called a ‘Minimum Viable Product’. Something that provides the base level of utility that customers will get just enough value to pay you as they ‘get’ your new value as opposed to competitive offerings (including none at all).

This is all completely right, though I think a nuance is that I prefer Minimum Desirable Product, being something that looks a bit more polished, a little less buggy and more clearly defined in it’s value proposition. The upside being if users (or customers) like it they may refer you to their friends, leading to growth, or have high-enough engagement levels for you to get more valuable feedback to test your hypothesis’.

I am not going to go into detail here about MVP and MDP, I largely agree entirely with the espoused value. Rather, there is something missing here which should make it a lot clearer as to why you need to get your product out and fundraising (Assuming you do?). That is the maximum valuation you are going to achieve irrespective of how much more work you do.

Perfectionism is one of the root causes for not launching, but you can get to perfection if you launch faster

The most insidious thing in some great founders is perfectionism, amongst many other factors. They understand CDM and all the related theories but they still refuse to launch.

perfect startup

I have never met Paul Graham, but I presume he knows more than I do on this:

“Companies of all sizes have a hard time getting software done. It’s intrinsic to the medium; software is always 85% done. It takes an effort of will to push through this and get something released to users… Several distinct problems manifest themselves as delays in launching: working too slowly; not truly understanding the problem; fear of having to deal with users; fear of being judged; working on too many different things; excessive perfectionism. Fortunately you can combat all of them by the simple expedient of forcing yourself to launch something fairly quickly.” – Paul Graham

In the early days when it is one man and his dev in a garage you simply don’t have resources, ergo, your ability to reach perfection is entirely unrealistic. Do you know what helps you a lot to get to near to ‘perfection’, resources!

If I said to you now if you launch and I will give you your Angel round to hire 5 more people, would you do it? In most cases yes (I did hear a funny story about Eric Reis offering a founder to launch and he would be an advisor to them and he still didn’t). What you don’t know is that it is truly a distinct possibility!

Understand the value (opportunity cost) of your time

What is key to understand is the value of your time and that you can only ever do and achieve so much. If you are a talented founder you should be able to do more with more people in the team, right? So if you and your cofounder spend two years developing a product, do you think that is a good use of your time? How much could you have earned as a FTE at a company and how many devs could you have paid out of your salary instead?

There really does come a point when taking money and diluting means you can go faster and maximize the value of your time. Spending 2 years to build a product is ridiculous. A real learning I have heard is “we should have raised earlier”.

raise earlier

When you understand how valuations really work, this will start to make even more sense.

How valuations work in the real world for early stage companies

You have no P&L and Balance Sheet, you may not even have KPIs because you have no customers. If you have numbers they don’t mean much and every KPI comes with an explanation.

The reality is this, valuations for early stage startups are based on heuristics and what you negotiate not some magic formulas.

I know this will stress out non-salesy people, but it is simply true. There is so much uncertainty in your business and also, so little data available in Asia, that even if there were amazing benchmarks it still wouldn’t matter. You are going to negotiate with your investors for valuation.

Now this is going to come as a bigger shock, but the valuation expectations of the investors are based on heuristics supported with no data. These ‘rules of thumb’ change a bit depending on market and the environment (definitely if you get a term sheet) but they sort of exist. You get lumped into very simple boxes and that’s your valuation, particularly with no customers.

judge founder

You have a great idea and team with some mock ups, maybe $1m post. You haven’t gone live yet, but have a great product, well you get $1, maybe $2m post. You get a couple of customers, but nothing meaningful, well that number doesn’t really change. Sorry.

It’s only when you ‘change your stars’ and put yourself in a new box that your approximate valuation range changes. Only, this costs money. As a founder said to me last week “but I need money to get more customers!” Great team, great product, not traction, tough.

To put this in perspective, I have seen companies invest a $1m of their own money to create a superb product and not many customers, and then have unrealistic expectations on valuation simple because the valuation doesn’t match the stage investors think they should be at. There is a mismatch of “the box” they want and the one they are in.

Stages of development

Lets continue to focus on pre-revenue companies looking to do first raise. I have set out a simplified graph illustrating:

The stages of development your product is in:

  • The % of ‘perfect product” completion
  • Anticipated Net Promoter Score (NPS) you could expect from early stage users/customers. Google for now, I will blog on this later.
Launch Faster
Launch Faster

Bad MVP

I truly believe launching too slowly has killed a hundred times more startups than launching too fast, as founders lose faith and give up. However it is also possible to launch too fast with something with no value, or perceived value.

If you go guns blazing reaching out to PR and all your contacts you can ruin your reputation. You launch something, anything, you get the early adopters try it out, and drop out rates are immediate and they don’t come back with a moments thought. You will have to do something special and reach a later stage in the adoption curve before they will give you another try. In short, your NPS sucks and it shows.

Forget about raising money here. Not only do appearances matter, but also the underlying reasons you failed will be apparent to investors.

MVP

If you follow theory to the T and launch with something your targeted user base will get some value from, you are on the right track for sure. If you get your hands dirty and elicit real feedback from customers and keep iterating, your chances of surviving go up a lot. Furthermore, team morale and motivation will be high and they celebrate the small wins.

Take care to do some easy wins that will add disproportionate value. A nice landing page, and decent UI/X is simply required now. With all the tools and frameworks available there is also no excuse.

On the down side, it’s not all perfect. It is fairly unlikely, given you NPS is low, that you won’t get referrals to spur your growth and save on marketing money you don’t have.

However you will be able to get a few customers and that is super useful.

If you can show that customers have high engagement rates (time spent, DAU etc) you can use this to approach investors. This to me is the best time to ‘open dialogue’ with investors you want. Go ask for ‘advice’ and see what their temperature is. Keep focusing on improving the product and getting more customers, but definitely engage investors. Your valuation, if the team is good and you understand the problem and market, will be decent.

MDP

This is your ultimate sweet spot. By this I mean you are in the ‘referral zone’ in terms of NPS, customers may actually like your product, use it and tell some friends about it. The key thing though is, unless you are lucky to magically gain real traction (not likely) this is the best possible time to raise money.

Assuming investors are already tracking you, you come back with a fairly nice product, some customers as well as learnings as to why they use your product and may be willing to pay for it.

Any development beyond here is really a waste of time as it won’t lead to what matters beyond here, traction (which costs cash). An extra module here, automation there is simply not quantifiable, as if you can’t measure it you can’t value it.

Over done or over developed

How is this different to the MDP stage? Well your early stage customers like you a little more, you can address more customers as features meet their needs, but more likely than not… you spent another 6 months to do this and got few more measurable achievements (aka traction).

This 6 months has taken its toll on your morale, no one is getting paid yet and you are worried about losing staff, there are more arguments. But more so, your valuation simply doesn’t reflect the time spent. In fact, if you approached investors at MVP stage and return 8 months later with no numbers to show they may lose faith in you and tell you to go away and ‘get more traction.” I know how much founders love that response!

tired founder

All the time spent is a waste of valuation and you curse the investors that don’t have the vision to invest in you and just don’t get it!

When to launch and raise

So in summary, launch when you are slightly past MVP and launch small. Make the users you get so happy they become customers and ideally make referrals. Do this in an unscalable way, focus on them being super happy. Reach out to a few select investors and get their feedback, they may even fund you.

funded founder

When you are MDP, your value proposition is, at this point, sort of clear and users get enough value to keep using you, get on and fundraise, get the deal done. Any more product development will not lead to meaningful valuation increases.

Conclusion

You need to understand that startup is both an art and a science. You need to work both smart and hard. You can do too much work as well as too little if you want to raise money, and make the best possible use of your time. It just is really silly to find yourself in a position where you say “we should have raised money earlier.”

 

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