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Growth Hacking Marketing Tech Venture Capital

How to build a cash machine: what matters in VC

It’s quite easy to build a business that generates $1 billion in yearly revenue. In fact, I can do it right now on the spot. Just look for a commodity like gold, buy $1 billion worth of that commodity and sell it immediately on the market below the spot price. For commodities with a lot of liquidity you can probably move it within the day. I don’t need to explain to you why that would be a very bad idea. It would be fundamentally unprofitable and there would be no perspective on how this could possibly change in the future. Yet in venture capital, we often see deals where massive funding rounds get allocated to startups that are operating at a negative gross margin. In VC there is a trade-off that needs to be made between growth on one hand and financial sustainability on the other hand. Policies of central banks worldwide that flooded the markets with cheap money have tipped this balance to the extreme of ‘growth at all costs’ while completely disregarding financial sustainability. This is not always the wrong approach. For example when customer stickiness is high and a couple of startups with a similar value proposition are battling for market share, it makes sense to disregard sustainability for a while and just aggressively acquire customers. However, it can only make sense when keeping in mind that at some point you need to drastically increase prices again. When you have a shot at establishing a monopoly, or when switching costs for the consumer are really high, you can go down this road.

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However, the current Covid-19 crisis is highly likely to cause a decrease in available capital to be deployed and will rebalance the trade-off back to financial sustainability. That’s okay, the trends in VC move like a pendulum between these two extremes. As a founder you just need to be aware that you will be assessed based on dollar-efficiency. Basically, the ultimate metric to guide VC’s here is your LTV/CAC ratio. It’s simply the total profits a customer generates on average for your startup in his entire lifecycle, divided by the total costs associated with acquiring him. I will list the obvious strategies to optimize this ratio below:

1) Increase acquisition efficiency
This one is obvious. If you bring down the average acquisition cost per user, your LTV/CAC metric will improve. You can do this in 5 ways: 1) find the right audience for your product or service, 2) target them via the right channels, 3) optimize your marketing strategy, 4) launch referral campaigns and 5) remove all frictions to signup.

It has never been easier to do this. Point 1 to 3 can be optimized by applying growth hacking strategies in your digital marketing. Especially if you’re a consumer startup, test all possible channels and target difference audiences. It’s easy to set up different marketing campaigns across all channels. You can segment based on demographics and check where you get most signups from. Once you know your best audience, just try out different campaigns and keep track of your metrics to determine where your ad spent per customer won is the lowest. Point 4 and 5 can be tackled by testing your landing page. Add a referral program and keep track of the points where you experience a drop-off in customers. The key is to have a data-driven approach and pivot fast. The faster you can implement changes, the faster you can get feedback and adapt. The faster you can iterate, the bigger your advantage over your customer.

2) Decrease churn
Your churn is the % of customers you lose, often measured on a monthly basis (the basis should be the basis you bill your clients on). Obviously, it’s cheaper to keep an existing customer than it is to convince a new one. Your churn is an important metric that is often used by VC’s to determine whether you have product-market fit (we’ll write about this later). When it comes to minimizing churn, all strategies are fair game. If you’re a monopolist it’s very easy since customers have nowhere to go. If not, your pricing is an important aspect. However, try not to go too far in undercutting your competitors since this will decrease your LTV as well. You can increase switching costs, whether by doing this contractually or by making it very inconvenient. The champion of high switching costs is Hubspot. Want to use a different CRM? Say goodbye to all your data. There is a reason you can start using it at a 95% discount. They practically make it free so you start putting in data and at one point you find yourself locked in for the lifetime of your company. The easiest -and arguably the most customer-centric- way to decrease churn is to obsessively track customer satisfaction. Amazon is an example of a company that does this and I heard they are doing pretty well.

3) Up-sell or cross-sell

Increasing the amount of profit a customer generates can also be achieved by up-selling or cross-selling. Up-selling is when a customer upgrades to a better -more expensive- plan. Cross-selling is when you sell a complementary product or service. It’s closely related to customer satisfaction, but also to understanding what your customers need or want and their willingness-to-pay.

4) Increase usage
This one is closely related to up-selling and works when you charge on a pay-per-use basis. Again, it’s related to your customer satisfaction. I listed this separately because it’s an important one because it directly impacts a different metric that is often used to assess a startup and that is based on your CAC: the CAC payback period. This one is relevant if your startup operates in a highly competitive environment. When a VC allocates capital for you to deploy in order to acquire customers. If it takes a customer on average 1 month to generate profits equal to your CAC and it takes your competitor 2 months, you can deploy that capital twice as fast to acquire your next customer and you will grow twice as fast. This is something to keep in mind. Notice how in the example I started this article with, you will never get there. Even if your CAC is €0 (which is a fair assumption in a transparent commodity market where the only differentiator is price), you only make losses so your LTV will be negative.

What to benchmark it with?
In general a LTV/CAC ratio of 3 or higher is considered good by VC’s. However, it will be benchmarked with your industry and the most relevant competitors. The same holds for the CAC payback period. VC’s are often pitched similar ideas by different founding teams simultaneously. These metrics are often crucial in deciding which startup they will ultimately back.

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Silicon Valley Tech Venture Capital

VCs in seed rounds: signaling theory

One of the economic theories that I learned during my studies at the University of Leuven and that has always sticked with me is the signaling theory. It’s the bedrock of behavioral economics and it’s the theory that explains a big chunk of all human behavior. In fact, you don’t need a degree in Economics to be confronted with this theory on a daily basis. I still remember, when we were on holidays at the Dalmatian coast with the family, our mother would insist we would dine in the most crowded restaurant. Bonus points if it was crowded with locals. Of course, from a pure rational economic point of view this didn’t make sense at all. All other variables remaining constant, you can expect longer waiting times, slower service and more restrictions on the menu; Yet, this strategy proved to be very successful very fast (and obviously the other variables were no constants). It’s a fair assumption that people -and especially locals- would prefer the best restaurant and thus the most crowded restaurant would be the best one.

Signaling theory wasn’t only useful for our family to find the best Croatian goulash, but is also used by VCs to find the best investment opportunities in the startup landscape. The signal they follow is the investors that covered the seed round and their behavior when the new funding round is announced. Signaling theory is useful in cases where participants in a market have asymmetric information. The theory assumes that when there is asymmetric information, the behavior of the market participants will reflect what they know. When you’re playing poker and your opponent suddenly goes all-in, you know it reflects very favorable odds from his side. You might not be able to see his cards, everything he does will reflect his position.

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When you raise your seed round with angel investors, you are largely protected from signaling risk. After all, these investors are not expected to (or able to) lead or even join in on the A-round. It’s a smart move since you keep all options open, however it can also be beneficial to have an investor from the beginning that can lead the A-round as well (signaling can work in your favor too). When a VC looks at a startup, they know that -even with thorough due diligence- they will never have perfect information. The investor that invested in the seed round has worked extensively with the founding team, knows about all the roadblocks and how they handled disappointments early on. He knows the story behind the numbers and knows the vision behind the strategic decisions that have been made. Consequently, when the founders start raising the A-round, every VC will look at the seed investor.

When the seed investor is a VC that is also active in post-seed/A-rounds, whether or not they lead the follow-on round is very important. After all they have the most complete information and can best assess the opportunity. Additionally, how fast you complete raising the round matters as well. The word spreads fast once you start talking with investors. When a house is for sale and it’s not sold after a year, people will get suspicious and assume there are a lot of hidden problems. The same happens with startups. Once you publicly start raising, you better close the round fast. Convincing the seed investor to lead the follow-on round enables you to almost close the round before the fact that you’re raising becomes public knowledge.

The numbers seem to confirm the signaling theory. Research by CBInsights suggests that startups that raise a seed round have a 35% chance of raising an A-round as well. When the seed investor is considered ‘smart money’ (VC) and this investor follows in the A-round, the chance increases to 51%. If this VC doesn’t lead the follow-on round the chance of an A-round drops to 27%.

The reason I decided to write this article is that I meet a lot of founders that don’t really realize the consequences of their decision which investor to work with in the seed stage. With Micro-VC funds popping up left, right and center (more than 200 VC funds have raised > $4bn to be deployed in early stage startups), this has become more relevant than ever. I suspect that with seed-focussed VCs booming and A-round VCs remaining the same, startups not being able to secure a follow-on round from their seed investor will become more common.

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Growth Hacking Marketing Tech Venture Capital

NoCode: a gamechanger

This week, I sat down with a founder of a startup that was raising funding and wanted to give my fund allocation. To give you some background, I work for a fund that participates in rounds between €50k and €250k at valuations between €0,5M and €2,5M (pre-seed and seed rounds). I agreed to have a meeting with him because I liked the problem he was working on and the industry size (enterprise software).

Big was my disappointment when he elaborated on the amount of funding he was looking for and -what’s more- the use of funds he had planned. He was looking for a €450k round just to complete his product. Apart from some interviews he had conducted with potential clients, no market research had been done. When challenged on his approach, he told me he felt insecure about going to market with a product that is not perfectly polished and free from glitches. This is completely the wrong mindset to start a business. With the tools out there, it’s so easy to test the market while keeping your burn rate at a minimum.

I actually know great companies that started out as a Whatsapp or Facebook group and worked from there. Was it perfect? Not by a long stretch. Were their customers happy? Happy with the solution but frustrated with the implementation. When the problem you’re solving is a pain point big enough, the pull factor from the market is often so big that an imperfect product doesn’t stop customers. Many startups even prove the market before having a complete product, by building a waiting list and charging customers to sign up. The opposite also holds true. When you’re building something nobody is waiting for, a super polished product won’t save you.

It has never been easier to build
NoCode solutions, where building a landing page or website is as easy as drag-and-dropping whatever it is you need, have completely leveled the playing field and have enabled everyone to start on online business. This has caused a shift in the investor community from looking for people that can build (app and web developers) to looking for people that know how to execute.



Common wisdom states that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to excel at something. This is factually incorrect. Do 10,000 hours of the same thing and you won’t improve a lot. It actually takes 10,000 iterations. With this in mind, it’s impossible to build a startup by relying on third parties for building your product. The time it takes to get customer feedback, communicate it clearly to a web development agency (that has no background information on your industry), wait for a price and time estimate, agree to the proposal and then wait for them to find the capacity to build it is simply too long. Even if you have the financial resources to outsource this development, you should still consider NoCode solutions.

Additionally, a NoCode solution signals to investors that you know how entrepreneurship works and handle your resources strategically. When a founder walks in and tells me he got 1000 customers to signup for his service and charged them already (proving willingness-to-pay), it blows my mind and makes me curious to see what that founder can achieve when he has substantial resources to build his product and launch a marketing offensive.

I could compile a complete list of services that can get you started, but the guys from Nocode.tech pretty much nailed it here.

I have seen founding teams pull off some pretty incredible stuff with the following tools:

Webflow for building complete apps
Stacker to build apps based on Google spreadsheets
Bubble for web applications
Voiceflow to build voice apps
Wix, Tilda, Squarespace to create websites

There are plenty of options to integrate payments and social media, find your first users, translate your website to test new markets, etc.

A bit of research can go a long way in creating your MVP in a matter of moments at almost no cost. Combine it with growth hacking tactics and you can go to investors with a lot of valuable data already.

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Growth Hacking

5 steps to find your “North Star Metric”

As previously explained, finding your North Star Metric can help you and your startup find the right focus and goal to stay on track. It’s also the key to long term growth. But how do you find your North Star Metric? Here are five steps to help you out.

1. Your NSM is the succes of the customer

Pleasing the customer is key for this metric. Your product or software is helping your client with a certain problem, and you want to measure how good of a job you’re doing. Airbnb want their clients easily book a night. Spotify ables its users to listen to the biggest collection of online music. Your NSM will be somewhere in this core mission.

2. Your NSM expresses the value for the customers

With a good North Star Metric, you still have to keep an eye on the other metrics as well. Don’t forget retention and referrals, but don’t just focus on your marketing KPI’s as well. The answer is somewhere in the middle. “placed orders” for example, is way too marketing-specific, and says nothing about client satisfaction. Your client might not like the order, so focussing on this one metric might lead you down the wrong path. A good NSM would be “delivered packages without complaints”. This metric is perfectly balanced between customer satisfaction that is still measurable.

3. The NSM is measurable

Talking about measurable: “satisfaction” is not something you can measure. Make sure your NSM is something you can see: number of times an order is placed, amount of minutes someone used your service.

4. The NSM is timebound and within your control.

Don’t choose an all-time metric. “Total subscriptions” will give you a false idea of growth, and the realisation that the ship is sinking will come too late. Choose a number that updates frequently, not even yearly. It’s also about you and the customer, so pick a number that’s not a subject to external factors. “amount of booked holidays/month” for a travel organization would be a bad idea, as you can’t control the weather, delays, locals, …

5. The NSM is a direct reflection of your growth.

This might be the most important rule, which makes the NSM a metric to worship. Make it undeniable, make it absolute. If the number is going down, so is your startup. Make sure you have no excuses. It should be impossible to say “yes, but…”. 

If you choose “amount of time my software is downloaded” as your NSM, you might be happy with the results. But what if people keep downloading it, because the download just keeps failing? You have no way to track this whatsoever, so it makes for a pretty shitty North Star Metric.

Hopefully these steps help you to find your North Start Metric. Once you have it figured out, you can prove your growth to employees and investors. Time to grow!

Categories
Silicon Valley Tech

Doing things that don’t scale

There’s a huge misconception among founders of early-stage startups that everything you do must be scalable. This idea holds many founders and their startups back. In fact, many founders attribute their massive success (at scale) to the actions they took in the first stages of the startup.

The brothers behind Stripe would talk to anyone that would listen to them, and not only invite them to try the beta but also do the setup on the spot. Their strategy of aggressively going after te first customers in beta phase is still a tactic that is being taught at Y Combinator (according to this essay from Paul Graham).

In fact, doing things that don’t scale is considered to be such a fundamentally important step founders must take that Reid Hoffman opens with it in his -now legendary- podcast Masters of Scale. In this podcast, he starts with the story of Brian Chesky. When Brian cofounded Airbnb, they would do literally everything themselves. They would meet with the house owner, write the advertisement and even take the pictures of the place.

He describes how doing everything themselves enabled them to gain a deep understanding of their users. Additionally, they would get familiar with all the barriers, frictions and touchpoint users faced on both sides of the platform. A good argument that wasn’t directly touched upon in the podcast but that makes the case even more compelling for bootstrapping founders, is that by controlling the entire value chain you maximize the share of the total value added and you avoid unnecessary costs.

That the Airbnb founders didn’t have a budget to hire professional photographers to finetune the ads on their platform, is easy to derive from the fact that they had to resort to selling cornflakes during the presidential election in 2008 in order to survive (see picture below). Fun fact: when they applied at Y Combinator, this survivor instinct is what got them in on the program.

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Doing the things that don’t scale in order to gain in-depth knowledge on your customers, the process flows, the market, etc. and at the same time to avoid unnecessary costs and being frugal with your limited funds is the way to go to make substantial progress in the first phase of your startup. However, something that most great startups that truly made it big have in common is that they have a great way to create incentives for other parties to deal with the parts that don’t scale.

Shopify, Ebay, Bird, Lime, Airbnb, Uber, etc. all have in common that they empower individuals to become an entrepreneur themselves (and earn a lot in the process). Freefloat kickstart scooter companies such as Bird pay locals to collect, charge and distribute the scooters every day. Ride hailing apps such as Uber and Lime enable people to make an extra income by transporting users. Airbnb enables home owners to rent out their homes or even for long-term renters to sublet it using their platforms for more money than they pay in monthly rent (for better or for worse).

Even more international successes such as McDonalds and Marriott might seem very traditional at first, but when doing some research you’ll quickly find out that it’s often local entrepreneurs who are the driving force behind the impressive growth. Often these multinationals are established branding powerhouses that have created a uniform customer experience across the globe. They empower ambitious individuals to become entrepreneurs while taking care of a big part of the hassle that comes with it.

If there is one trend that I believe in and that will always work regardless of what happens, it’s the trend of empowerment. Create the right incentives for the right people and there are no limits to what you can achieve.