tl;dr: Fuck, I don’t know. I’m not in the prediction business. But plan for it. And behave accordingly.
A lot of people have been talking about how 2013 will be harder for startups and fast growing companies. Tiresome things like the endless discussion about the Series A crunch, more conservative behavior from VCs due to the performance of Facebook, Groupon, and Zynga in the public market, and overall concerns about the economy dominate. Counterarguments prevail as different people try to predict and justify what’s going to happen.
All I know is that I have no idea what is going to happen. The macro is exogenous to me – I can’t impact or control it. So rather than try to predict what is going to happen, I’m going to assume a tougher 2013 for startups until I have evidence that it’s not.
I sent Fred Wilson’s post Advice for 2013: Deliver On Your Promises out to our CEO email list. I felt like Fred’s punch line was powerful.
“So if I can give entrepreneurs a single piece of advice for 2013 it would be to deliver on your promises. Not just to your investors but also to your team and ultimately to yourself. This is no time to be in denial. That is a lethal attribute in times like these.“
That generated a response on the email thread about actionable advice. So, I responded with two examples:
1. Recognize that your expense plan will be linked to your promises. Tighten the time frame – do what a lot of successful companies have done in the past. Rather than having an annual 2013 plan, have a 1H13 and 2H13 plan. Lag your headcount growth behind what you need by a quarter, running “hot” on all fronts as you try to get the growth you expect. Hire only when this growth materializes. Then, replan 2H13 and 1H14 at the end of 1H13.
2. Make sure you know exactly how much money your EXISTING investors have reserved for you and are willing to fund you in 2013 independent of any new outside investors. Don’t ever be in a position where you need a new outside investor to continue operating your business.
I’ve got a bunch of others, but I’m curious what you think. Operate under the hypothesis that 2013 will be harder for startups than 2012. What are you going to do different in 2013?
Last night I got an email with a Q3 sales update from a company I’m an investor in for a while. They consistently meet or beat their plan and are an extremely well managed business. Their plan for Q3 was aggressive in my book (and they’ve managed their costs to a lower outcome) had an expectation for what they would come in at based on data from as recently as last week. I knew what they thought the upside case was and didn’t believe it so my brain had locked in on a number slightly below or around plan.
I’ve found that the Q3 number is often the hardest to make when you budget on an annual basis – Q1 is easy since you have a lot of visibility, Q2 is harder, but doesn’t have as much growth built in as Q3, then you have a heavier growth quarter with the summer doldrums (Q3) followed by the insanity that is Q4 in the annual cycle. So I usually view Q3 as “hard to beat; challenging to make.”
This company destroyed their number. They beat plan and came in at the upside case. They ran the table on new business. It was awesome to see. And it blew my mind, in a pleasant way, as this is a humble company that doesn’t overstate where it’s going.
As we enter Q4, I systematically look at the performance of every company I’m involved in for two reasons. First, I want to make sure I understand the real trajectory as they exit the year as Q4 is often an outlier, usually to the upside, as a result of end of year purchasing. I also rarely pay much attention anymore to Q4 plans as they are almost always obsolete and instead focus on the cost / burn dynamic in Q4.
It’s harder to calibrate in cases like this when a company far exceeds their Q3 plan. It’s equally hard in the other direction when a company misses their Q3 plan. And it’s really challenging when there is a big step up for Q4’s plan when you start going into the 2013 planning cycle.
I’m curious how y’all approach this, both entrepreneurs when they are thinking about their own planning as well as investors / board members when they are reacting to the early data from Q3 and thinking about Q4 and 2013.