Having been an active mentor for about the past decades I’ve seen hundreds of pitches. One typical approach is to choose a company like highly successful company like Uber and position your company as “The Uber of X” where X can be any service from dog manicures to rubbish removal.
There’s one big problem with these type of startups: they are blindingly obvious and as soon as they launch, if not well before, dozens of imitators will appear like worms on your driveway after a rainstorm.
One of my favorite quotes is from Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix:
Most entrepreneurial ideas will sound crazy, stupid and uneconomic, and then they’ll turn out to be right.
And, of course, Netflix fit that mold: Who in their right mind would build a business mailing DVDs around the country? Especially when your prime distribution partner is the U.S. Postal Service, hardly a paragon of a high performance, error-free service. But Hastings was playing the long game. And he named his company accordingly. It wasn’t DiscFlix or DVDFlix, it was Netflix. Once streaming became economical – which was far from true when he founded the company – Netflix migrated it’s entire business to … the Net.
The story of Salesforce is a great case study in two of the most important characteristics of successful entrepreneurs: vision and persistence. Ron Miller‘s article on Techcrunch entitled Benioff: Every VC in Silicon Valley turned us down.
“I had to go hat in hand, like I was a high tech beggar, down to Silicon Valley to raise some money…And as I go from venture capitalist to venture capitalist to venture capitalist — and a lot of them are my friends, people I’ve gone to lunch with — and each and every one of them said no,” Benioff said. “Salesforce was never able to raise a single dollar from a venture capitalist,” he added.
So much for connections and who you know in the venture capital community! No one in the late 1990s was thinking about cloud computing and the notion of software on the Internet was a gleam in only Benioff’s eye. And Benioff was a denizen of the Valley, having been a Senior VP at Oracle for over 13 years. His job before that? Intern at Apple Computer for four months! So here was a seasoned executive with years of experience at a high growth tech company in the Valley, who majored in Entrepreneurship, and he couldn’t raise a dime from VCs.
But Benioff ended up raising over $60 million from private individual investors before taking the company public in 2004. Salesforce is a $10 billion company today.
His original vision of cloud computing and running software on the Internet have held true for the 19+ years in the life of Salesforce.
So when you come up with your next great idea give it the litmus test. If all you hear is “cool”, “neat” or the most common comment of all “interesting” you might was to revisit your idea. It’s not raising a strong enough emotional response in your audience. What you need to hear is “Sorry, but that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard”, “It will never work (again very positive and you know it will) to “That’s really crazy!” What do all these responses and their many variants have in common? They are eliciting a very strong response, a strong signal that you are on to something.
That doesn’t mean that every crazy idea will grow into a $10 billion company. But it does mean that you are seeing something that the rest of the world isn’t. So give your idea the crazy test and keep score. If the majority of people you run your idea by say “interesting” you are likely dead in the water.
I have to admit I’ve been as blind to founder visions as most. I still remember when I heard about eBay. I found the idea that people would send strangers money before they received what they paid for to be preposterous. In fact look for the following words which are synonyms for preposterous when you pitch:
absurd, ridiculous, foolish, stupid, ludicrous, farcical, laughable, comical, risible, nonsensical, senseless, insane; outrageous, monstrous; informal crazy.
Benioff reveals the acid test: can you get a small cadre to see your vision and be willing to follow it:
When you start something like Salesforce, you want to surround yourself with people who do believe in you, who do believe you’re going to be successful because you’re going to have a whole bunch of people who are going to tell you that you’re not.
In fact I find the first test of the viability of what seems like a crazy idea is can you find a partner who complements your skills and believes in the vision as strongly as you do?