The importance of the growth, health, and timing of a market to a start-up's postive outcome is both vital and well-known. Cliched and yet, as with many proverbs, true.
When a company is behind plan, an investor must ask is it the market or is it the company? A frequent challenge for an investor is to isolate causality in a given investment. Isolating market (exogenous) or company (endogenous) causality is vital with respect to the appropriate remedial action. If it is the market, there is little chance that more money or new management will change the outcome. If it is the company, additional resources (both capital and human) may indeed impact the outcome and be reasonable.
I have seen some of the smartest people work the longest hours, code round the clock, make the most sales calls, and reap no reward. When the market does not care about your solution, or, worse yet, does not exist, no amount of management talent, hard work, or capital can remedy the situation.
If the market is the challenge, additional investment is a dangerous example of escalation of commitment that will result in capital loss. Often the signals as to the health of the market are ambiguous - are the data points in question indicative of the market's development and health or more random and indeterminant?
I have observed several key indicators that help identify market failure and that suggest further investment is a challenge:
- 3 VP sales...
- when the plan is missed, the favorite scape goat is the VP Sales.
- A single misfire may be legitimate, but every time that I have seen multiple VP Sales fired in a short amount of time the core problem is not sales management but the fact the market does not care nor exist.
- VP Sales turnover is a classic red herring.
- no competitors
- company's operating in non-existent markets are often unable to point to direct competitiors.
- While competitors may exist on the margin, the names vary from account to account and no clear enemy, or set of enemies, emerges. Lack of competition is a sure sign the market does not care.
- no RFPs
- no customers are soliciting the company and there is a dearth of inbound requests for proposals.
- no repeatability in customer deployments
- while good teams can generally get 2-3 customers, an early warning sign of a bad market is that there is no consistency in customer need, no common abstraction of use case, and no way to build a repeatable marketing, sales, and product positioning against a common set of needs.
- no partners
- companies in dead markets cannot explain where they sit in the market ecosystem and are characterized by no legitimate partner activity
- no energy
- the company culture begins to calcify and visitors can feel the lack of energy and nothing appears to change month to month - ie it's like groundhog day...
- no one knows what the company does
- companies that suffer from the above challenges are often the ones that cannot simply and clearly explain what they do. after 45-60 seconds of buzzwords, the listener is left bereft of any sense of clarity and their eyes begin to glaze over.
- when i first started in vc, i remember thinking..."wow, these guys are so smart, i have no idea what they just said." after a few years, i began to realize that if i have had no idea, then i could be damn sure the customers wouldn't either.
- the company begins to thrash, with constant changes to the positioning, core problem being solved, and the productand there is no longer a core mission or center of gravity
- tempers fray as the lack of common mission leads to each executive articulating their own and failing to agree on a direction
- companies that are in healthy markets close enough business to:
- develop a clear value proposition
- build repeatable marketing, sales, and delivery models around common uses cases
- know their top 2-3 competitors cold and see them in every account
- are solicited for business
- have real, active partners engaged in common customer accounts
- have highly energetic cultures where the changes month to month are signficant
- can explain what they do so that almost anyone can understand
- share a common mission that everyone in the company can articulate
If the market is healthy, then there may in deed be logic in additional funding and new management. Understanding which of the two situations exists can help avoid unnecessary pain and capital loss.
All start-ups iterate their product and value proposition as they hone in on the eventual mission...the challenge is when to know if the challenges are part of the natural evolution or a symptom of operating in a market vacuum.