Over the weekend, Mark Suster and Fred Wilson each put up awesome posts discussing the idea of profitability in startups. Mark’s is a master class about how to look at the financial characteristics of a startup and Fred’s discusses what he’s been working on with some of his more mature companies.
They are both worth reading right now. I’ll be here when you get back.
Between the spring of 2000 and the end of 2001, I had the worst, most stressful, and most painful business period of my life. While I’m sure the financial crisis of 2008 was worse for many people, for me it paled in comparison to the misery of this 21-month stretch.
A very simple thing happened that year in my world. The market shifted from rewarding (and funding) growth to rewarding (and funding) profitability. It happened over a few quarters, but with the perspective of time and age, it feels like it happened overnight. I remember the trigger point being a 3/20/2000 article in Barron’s titled Burning Up: Warning: Internet companies are running out of cash — fast. I was on the board of several companies on their list of 100 public companies that would be out of money by the end of 2000 and remember that my reaction to the article was anger, frustration with being maligned, and incredulity that Barron’s would write such an irresponsible article.
My reaction was stupid and immature. Instead, I should have paid attention to the message, thought about it, and taken appropriate action. Instead, I, like many of my colleagues (investors, board members, founders, and CEOs), operated in a state of blissful denial until everything blew up.
I learned that the markets reward growth until they don’t. Then they reward profitability. The trick is to be in a position to make the switch when you need to. Lots of CEOs and boards fantasize about this, but don’t actually have a plan in place to do this as they expect the future – where the switch from growth to profitability – will never come. Or, they hope the exit will happen before this moment.
I was too inexperienced in 2000 to understand this. Given the exuberance, many of my mentors, who had been through other financial cycles, chose to ignore this. The phrase “it’s different this time” echoed broadly throughout the land. I succumbed to the siren song of growth at any cost and paid the price – both literally and figuratively.
Now, I have zero prediction for when the markets will shift from rewarding growth to profitability. Instead, I operate under the assumption that this can happen at any time, and the best companies can grow quickly and either be profitable or be able to become profitable by making manageable modifications to the cost structure within whatever cash constraints they currently have.
Some version of this was on my mind when I wrote the post titled The Rule of 40% For a Healthy SaaS Company in 2015 and the post titled Is 2017 The Year Of Flat Headcount? earlier this year. While I think about this regularly, Mark and Fred’s posts prompted me to pile on to their point and write about it.
There’s a special bonus in Mark’s post, which is in the section titled Revenue is Not Revenue is Not Revenue. He does a nice job of discussing the importance of understanding gross margin and has a line that made me smile.
If you’re shaking your head and thinking, “duh” I promise you that even some of the most sophisticated people I know get off track on this issue of “gross revenue” versus “net revenue.”
I’d add that this includes getting confused about GMV and MRR when talking about revenue and amazingly occasionally confusing revenue with income. It keeps going, when one asks the question “does profitability mean being EBITDA positive, cash flow positive, or net income positive? Or something else?”
If you are a CEO of a company and any of this makes you nervous in any way, I encourage you to grab a few of your investors who have been investing in startups for at least 20 years, take them out to lunch, and talk through these issues with them to understand them better and figure out whether or not to care about this in the context of your company.
Over and over again people talk about transparency. Many people assert they are transparent, or are being transparent. Few actually are.
I was thinking about this last night while watching the last few episodes of Revenge: Season 2 with Amy. Suddenly the word “transparent” started being thrown around by the Grasons, referring to their new found desire to be transparent. In this case, it was simply disingenuous – they are transparent only when it suits their purposes and usually as a setup of some other nefarious act they were about to perform (or had performed).
Whenever a word makes it into a TV show like Revenge, you know that it’s lost all meaning. And, as I’ve observed in the world of tech and startups I play in, transparency is used all the time to justify something, but rarely actually supported by behavior.
In the “everything that is old is new again” category, the master of transparency, and likely the originator of “open book management“, is Jack Stack. I remember meeting Jack and hearing him talk at the very first Birthing of Giants event created by Verne Harnish in 1991. I read Jack’s book – The Great Game of Business: Unlocking the Power and Profitability of Open-Book Management – about his experience at Springfield ReManufacturing Corp – and was blown away by his thinking. My first company – Feld Technologies – was definitely not run with an open book and Jack’s ideas were very provocative to me.
Over the years, several CEOs I’ve worked with have been incredibly open book, or – if you want to use today’s lingo – transparent. My two favorites are Matt Blumberg of Return Path and Rand Fiskin of Moz. Matt shares his entire board book after the board meeting with everyone at the company (now over 400 people). He’s been doing this since the beginning, and only redacts specific compensation information and occasional legal stuff. Rand shares – well everything – including one of the best, most detailed, and completely transparent posts about a private company financing in the history of private company financings.
When an entrepreneur says he’s transparent, I now ask “do you publish your board book to your entire company?” I view this as a benchmark for transparency. If the answer is “no”, then I ask the entrepreneur what he means by “I’m transparent.” If you can’t be open with your company about the information you report to your board, how can you actually be transparent?
Put this in the pet peeve rant category. I’m tired of “Revenue” being referred to as “Income.”
Yes – I know Quickbooks defaults to “Income.” I know it’s technically correct when referring to “Income accounts” in a company’s “Chart of Accounts.” But it’s confusing, and it baffles me.
I spent a few minutes tonight trying to figure out the origin source of this but got bored. I did find a fun explanation in the source of all truth (Wikipedia).
Income is the consumption and savings opportunity gained by an entity within a specified time frame, which is generally expressed in monetary terms.
For households and individuals, income is the sum of all the wages, salaries, profits, interests payments, rents and other forms of earnings received.
For firms, income generally refers to net-profit: what remains of revenue after expenses have been subtracted.
I’ve decided this is a confusion being promulgated by Quickbooks. Since many first time entrepreneurs use Quickbooks before they learn basic accounting, they end up referring to “income” (instead of revenue) and “net income” as “income minus expenses.” Factually true, but confusing, especially when “net income” is often referred to by many as simply “income,” since those same people will refer to “income” as “revenue.”
Confusing? You bet. Whenever I ask “do you mean your bottom line or your revenue” I’m often surprised by which answer I get, including “I’m not sure what you mean.”
Help stop the madness. Call the thing at the top of the P&L “Revenue,” not “Income.”