Looking Forward to 2025

If we fund an early stage startup company today and it’s hugely successful, it’ll be coming into its own in 2025. Ponder that for a moment.

That’s how our business – and entrepreneurship – really works. With all of the excitement around entrepreneurship in the past few years, there has been a lot of shorter term thinking. I’m seeing and hearing a lot more of it these days. This is dangerous, especially for founders.

I was in Boston at the end of May and had three separate experiences in one day. The first was with a company started in 2011 that is now a real business. The second was Techstars Boston Demo Day, showcasing 14 brand new companies. We started Techstars in 2006 and ran the first Boston program in 2009. The last was dinner with Alex Rigopulos, the co-founder of Harmonix, which he co-founded with Eran Egozy in 1995, sold in 2007, bought back in 2010, and is still running today.

We have three typical units of measure in business today: a month, a quarter, and a year. Many companies measure things on a daily basis, but decision making at this level is particularly difficult, especially as you add people to the mix. Most of the monthly measurements are either backward looking (e.g. financial reporting) although some are cadence generating (product release cycles, which can be continuous, but with significance once or twice a month for many companies.)

You get a little planning in the mix on a quarterly cycle. If you are on a leadership team, the question “how did the quarter go?” is likely a common refrain you hear four times a year. If your company has a good planning rhythm, you are reflecting on the quarter while simultaneously planning and adjusting for the next one. We are in the second week of Q316 – if you’ve rolled out your Q3 plan or your 2H plan to your team then you know what I mean.

The annual cycle is very predictable and omnipresent. I don’t think it merits much comment here.

While these are all important, none of them matter nearly as much as a long-term aperture. If you limit your thinking to one year, you are screwed in the long term. Humans are particularly bad at non-linear thinking which is at the core of any innovation process. If you want to understand this better, go soak in Ray Kurweil’s classic essay about The Law of Accelerating Returns where he discusses the intuitive linear view versus the historical exponential view.

Now that you’ve spent a few paragraphs thinking about days, months, quarters, and years, consider a decade. Can you even imagine your company over the next decade? While it’s easy to feel like we are compressing time with extreme success cases like Facebook and Twitter, consider Nike from 1964 to 1974 or Starbucks from 1971 to 1981 (Howard Schultz didn’t even join until 1982.) For perspective, explore any successful company’s first decade.

While there is a ton of variability in the trajectories of various successful companies, my favorite personal example is Harmonix, which spent a decade trying to go out of business every year before its “overnight success” of the launch of Guitar Hero. From the epic Inc. Magazine reflective history of the company in 2008.

It all easily might never have happened. “We were on the brink of death, I don’t know, 10 times over those 10 years,” Rigopulos says. Harmonix missed the cash gusher of the Internet bubble almost entirely while it pursued ideas that bombed miserably, one after another. In 1999, the year an online pet store fronted by a sock puppet raised $50 million, Harmonix was laying off staff. Its founders sometimes give the impression of still being a bit shaken. Last year, when fawning organizers of a video game conference asked Rigopulos to give a speech about “living the dream,” he wistfully marked up a PowerPoint chart of Harmonix’s annual profits and losses. He labeled the company’s breakout year, 2006, as “The Dream.” The years 1995 through 2005, shown almost entirely in red ink, were “The Part Before That.

I turned 50 in December and have been thinking more about the passage of time recently. I’ll be 60 in 2025. That’s a good marker for many of the early stage companies I’m involved in. “You’ll be the real deal when I’m 60” is a powerful way for me to frame the time commitment it takes to create something substantial out of nothing.

The next time we talk, tell me what your company will look like in 2025.

Also published on Medium.

  • In 2010 I decided to work at building something that could be scaled in a way that my masonry business never could. I thought software was an obvious choice. I didn’t even know the word “startup”. I think it was even before “doing a startup” was the new cool thing — I wasn’t aware of it anyhow.

    Three “startups” later, they all have failed.

    I’ve learned a thing or two about being a product manager in the process even though I can’t code myself yet.

    Anyhow, I’m also 50′ and it’s interesting to think that for me when I do give it another go, building on my previous experience and hopefully not repeating the same mistakes, it might literally mean “getting there or dying trying”.

    And I’m up for that.

  • Ed Rod

    Thanks in no small measure to the Law of Accelerating Returns, is it reasonable to forecast 10 years forward with a high degree of certainty? What market sectors will be left in 2025 where this is possible?

    • I’d suggest that any ten year forecast will have an extremely low (asymptotic with zero) degree of certainty.

  • TamiMForman

    When I do these exercises I layer in the ages my kids will be. In 5 years they will be 13 and 11 — headed to high school and middle school. In 10 years they will be 18 and 16 — in college and on the way to. In 15 years they will be early 20s and wrapping up college and headed into the world (hopefully!). I’ll be 50, 55 and 60. It helps me think about not just what I want to be doing in my career, but what will be happening in my family and what do I anticipate their needs will be?

    Thanks for the 50,000 foot pull up. I kind of needed that today. 😉

  • I’ve been running businesses for ten years, and I definitely never could have predicted where I’d be at today. I think of the future more in terms of growing my own skills, in 10 years I want to be a better leader and strategic thinker and add some new experiences that I haven’t had before. And I want to look back feeling good about all the decisions I made, however they turn out.

    • Yup. And – it’s important to realize that I’m not suggesting that you predict where you are going to end up in ten years. Rather, I’m encouraging a long term view.

  • I’d say it took my company precisely a decade to figure out what it was. How’d you know that?

  • BSchildt

    If we use Kurzweil’s exponential change view, won’t the next 10 years see changes like the last 20, 30, or 50 years? While most investors scoff at financial projections 3 years out for a start-up, you’re asking for a 10 year view. I don’t know if Nike and Starbucks’ first decades are relevant today, fo rthose of creating

    • I’m not asking for a ten year financial projection. I’m asking for you to have a long term view. I think you are conflating the two, as a long term view is very different than a financial model.

      • BSchildt

        Sorry, I was not clear. While not combining the two, I was trying to point out the uncertainty of a 10-year view compared with a 3-year financial projection. Both are important to think about and plan for, while neither will likely be very accurate.

        • Totally agree. The beauty of a long term view is that it continuously changes with the passage of time!

  • conorop

    Being an early stage startup, I hesitate when asked about what revenue will look like in 3 years – it’s a complete guess and assumes I’ve figured the inner workings out already. However, asking me what my company will look like in 3, 5, 10 years excites my entrepreneurial spirit and helps me describe the problem we are aiming to solve. That mindset is why early stage companies want to work with Foundry Group and like-minded VCs.

  • “Humans are particularly bad at non-linear thinking” – hit the nail on the head there @bfeld:disqus, Although I often challenge myself and others to imagine the world looking forward and think further ahead than is “predictable”, I find the process exhilarating and scary in the same way as when you zoom out from the Earth and our galaxy and realize that the little changes we make are infinitesimally small. I find solace in reading some science fiction and letting others tell me how things will be long after I’m gone….

  • Short term thinking is not desirable either when looking at big trends that are just emerging, like blockchain.
    Those who rush the evolution of a particular technology contribute to its demise. We saw that with the Internet crash, and it will be repeated with blockchain.

    Sometimes it’s inevitable, as we learn and adjust. Speed kills, like on the road.

  • Jo T.

    So true.

    And, it makes life for LPs even more challenging. They need to find very stable firms or firms that have nailed succession.

  • This may be your best post ever.

  • Great article. Timely, in fact. As I sit here I often find myself planning for 2025 with my next business. I’m taking a much longer snapshot, and working out pieces which form scaffolding, that will lead to the ultimate goal for the company. It’s time to make a mark.

    I’m honestly tired of thinking so short term. Helping startups who hope for the 6 to 12 month overnight dream or building a weekend for-fun product and having it fall into an abyss.

    I crave a real mission. A deeply invested long term mission.

  • Outside of the larger institutions on the LP side, I’ve found most people (and LPs) have a shorter time horizon. I don’t mean this in a negative way, ti’s just human nature to look for proof points when results are too far out. But, this can impact what many GPs do and consequentially what type of advice they may give.

  • This is definitely your best post yet! I’m now contemplating my 10yr vision at the moment thanks.

  • Glenn Neal

    Yes – great post – you don’t hear this very many places. When I started my company I figured I’d have to go without pay for two, maybe three, years – it ended up being eleven (1st year revenue $3000, 2nd year $31k, 3rdyear $58k, 4th year, $106k, then $124K, $311K, (partner leaves due to time it’s taking, some panic on customers part), $172K, $202K, $625K, $746, $970… up to $4M today. Biggest issue is I had to educate customers (and it turns out those inside my company) on disruptive technology – people love disruptive technology in retrospect, hate it when approaching it. I knew it would take a while, but if told how long it would take, I’m not sure if I would have done it. Still there were one or two people along the path who told me it would take five years minimum, ten probably. I appreciated greatly in retrospect that they told me this. It’s good to hear the truth whether it’s fun or not. Illusions are what get you into trouble.

  • Excellent.

  • Well done Brad. We romanticize the startup ‘experience’ but seem to forget about the time and effort required to transition from startup mode to a “real” business.

  • tim_shisler

    This piece really resonated with me. My wife has nine years on me and lately I’ve been paying attention to the long-term implications of decisions made during our 30’s. Her friends provide me with a kaleidoscope of perspectives, and the three biggest seem to fall into: Financial, health and family. (Putting career into financial) One of the most interesting takeaways is the difference between those who had a plan, and those who didn’t, and how being reactionary has been a crutch more than a benefit.

    Four months into my new business, I’ve been thinking a lot about this and how each of those sectors play into my longer-term vision. What I know for sure is whatever I think is going to happen probably won’t, or at least won’t on the timeline I see now, but the compass isn’t spinning wildly, there’s some method to the madness.

    Thanks for the post Brad.

  • Jeffrey Magner

    Thanks Brad! This is awesome. A culture of keeping one eye on the Long-term seems to be so rare these days! Most employees and teams are completely unrelated to it since managers are focused (stressed) on next quarter – even a discussion about the next year is an extravagance. Certainly this topic applies more to the leadership teams, but if they are managing teams that are only related to the “what” (tasks at hand) and not the “why” – there will be rough going. In this age we are required to be increasingly agile. But when building teams, cultures, process, and even products – short-term thinking and myopic decision making will only lead unicorns with four leaf clovers to sustainable success in 2025.

  • When I meet with aspiring founders, one of my first questions is “why do you want to spend ten years of your life on this problem?”. Because that’s what success usually takes. Great post.