I'm always looking for evidence of early startup characteristics that might be predictors of long-term success. Every investor has his own list, usually based on his own very small sample, or simply his gut feeling. Of course, we would all like to have a magic list based on more definitive tracking of many real startups over time.
In that context, I recently came across an old study of 27 startups featured in Inc's annual "Anatomies of a Start-up," done for The Journal of Business Venturing and published by George Gendron in Inc Magazine. As it turned out, 17 of the 27 companies were still in business seven years later, which is at least double that of other studies.
To determine what factors made a difference, the researchers compared the 27 companies using numerous variables. Of all those variables tested, only seven proved to be reliable predictors of survival. Here is my own net of those seven habits:
- Founder is ready, willing, and able to learn. We have all known entrepreneurs whose egos are so large that they can't be bothered listening to any advice from friends or experts, and they insist on doing things their way. Effective entrepreneurs are always open to learning, no matter what their prior experience.
- Seek out established suppliers and channels. The challenge of a creating a new product or service is tough enough, without insisting on a new supply chain, and a new distribution channel. The most effective startups focus on their core competency, and work hard to pick the best of the rest for partners.
- Pays close attention to new potential competitors. Effective startups are never comfortable just because the features they plan for rollout in six months are ahead of what competitors have now. Things move fast in the startup world, and real competitors never stand still. Reassess new entrants and competitors every month.
- Spend more time on initial positioning. Like the old saying, you only get one chance for a great first impression. Overcoming a bad image, or even changing a non-image, takes lots to time, money, and effort. Your initial business identity can make or break your startup.
- Do your homework on minimal capital requirements. Usually that means have a Plan B and Plan C, just in case your initial source doesn't materialize, or takes much longer to finalize that you expected. Running out of capital in midstream is a brick wall that can derail even the best plans.
- Offer customized products or services. It's very difficult for a startup to jump quickly to the volume required to sustain them as the low-cost producer. Big gorillas with deep pockets find it hard to scale products that are designed or produced to order.
- Choose a large market in a growth industry. By definition, a growth industry has a history and an outlook of at least double-digit annual growth. A large market means at least $500 million in potential sales if the company is asset-light, and $1 billion if it requires plenty of property, plants and equipment.
This study jibes with other academic research in showing that no single factor is a reliable predictor of success, but taken together they do add up to a considerable advantage. In my view, a necessary but not sufficient first predictor of success is the habit of building a plan.
It's the plan building process that provides the value, and gives you real insight into your market, your customers, and the competition. After that, it's all about learning and execution. If you see a startup with the execution habits listed above, that may be the horse you want to bet on, and ride to the finish line.