Why Tech Startups Can Gain Competitive Advantage from Operations

Hunter Walk’s blog post serves as the inspiration for this one. He points out that operations is key for startups operating in the on-demand economy. I want to pick up where he left off, and attempt to connect the dots. This post will answer the question “Why is operations important for tech startups?”

All else equal, and I know that is rarely true, operations marks the difference between an unsustainable competitive advantage and a sustainable competitive advantage.1 In order to understand the role of operations in determining the success or failure of a startup we must start with some definitions.

Definition #1: What is a startup? When I think of a startup I prefer to paraphrase the definition provided by Steve Blank and Bob Dorf in their book The Startup Owner’s Manual; A startup is a temporary organization built to search for the solution to a problem, and in the process to find a repeatable, scalable and profitable business model. The defining characteristic of a startup is that of experimentation – to have a chance at survival every startup has to be good at performing the experiments that are necessary for the discovery of a successful business model.

Definition #2: What is a company? A company is what a startup becomes once its search for a repeatable, scalable and profitable business model is complete. The inflection point between startup and company is characterized by the creation of the kind of infrastructure that we typically associate with large companies. For example, it becomes essential to have an HR organization where one was previously unnecessary. It become necessary to have a marketing and sales organization where that would have been hard to justify during the startup phase. Finally, it might also become necessary to build a sophisticated finance and accounting organization where previously there was not much to monitor or report, and someone with an unsophisticated understanding of accounting was adequate for the startup’s requirements, or the role might have been filled by someone working on a part-time basis. Basically, a startup becomes a company when its continued existence depends nearly equally on having the right organizational structures in place to ensure that the business is well managed as it does on having the right product or service to sell.

Definition #3: What is strategy? According to Fred Nickols, strategy is the accumulation of perspectives, positions, plans, patterns, tactics, choices, policies, concrete actions, decisions, thoughts, ideas, insights, experiences, goals, memories, perceptions and expectations that enable a company bridge the gap between the factors of production that the company controls and the output that it wishes to create and deliver to its customers.2 More succinctly, strategy is the qualitative essence of how a company does what it says it will do for its current and prospective customers. At a high level, strategy gives broad, abstract and general answers to the question; In what direction should we travel?

Definition#4: What is marketing? Marketing is the process by which the producer of a product or service creates demand for its output. It involves various modes of communication aimed at helping consumers interpret the value that the producer hopes to deliver to each consumer that buys the product or service. Marketing includes sales, advertising, public relations, and any other practice or activity whose ultimate goal is to build awareness in order to directly or indirectly facilitate sales. Marketing is what makes operations necessary. Without marketing, there would be no demand to satisfy.

Definition #5: What is operations? Operations is the set of activities in a startup or a company that takes inputs and turns them into the final product or service through which the value proposition is delivered to the market. Operations is focused on the process of transformation – transforming tangible and intangible inputs into something that the market is willing to pay for, at a cost level that enables the producer to earn a profit consistent with the accompanying strategy. Operations seeks to answer the question; How do we implement strategy?

In a fine dining restaurant operations is the process of transforming the knowledge and experience of every member of the restaurant’s staff into a consistently enjoyable and memorable dining experience. This process has to deliver results in tangible and intangible ways. Dishes have to be executed to a high degree of excellence, and the atmosphere, decor and service have to evoke emotions of pleasure, satisfaction and joy that meet or exceed diners’ expectations and cause them to dine at the restaurant as frequently as the restaurant’s operators wish. Each time a diner has a meal at the restaurant it must be memorable, in a good way.

In a general aviation company operations is the process that begins with finding out the traveler’s needs, matching those needs with a specific aircraft, and then safely transporting the traveler from the point of departure to the desired destination within a period of time acceptable to the traveler. Each time a traveler is transported from one place to another, that passenger must arrive safely. Also, the passenger should have enjoyed the trip enough to choose that charter company as frequently as its operators wish.

In a software startup operations is the process that begins with designing and creating the software, delivering it to users, and then ensuring that it is available whenever users or customers wish to use it. The experience of using the software has to be such that it is the first choice that users think of when they consider using software to facilitate that specific set of activities.

Once a strategic choice has been made, the process of transforming inputs into outputs is accomplished through capabilities within the organization. The diagram below shows the connection.

What is the connection between strategy, capabilities, and operations?

What is the connection between strategy, capabilities, and operations?

Strategy is concerned with answering the question; Where should we go? Operations is concerned with answering the question; How will we get there? The question around capabilities is; What do we have to be good at to get there? While all this is happening, processes that determine how a startup does its work are being developed. Processes matter because eventually a set of processes will lead to the development of a certain set of capabilities. As a result, it is essential to think about which capabilities are most critical to the startup’s survival before adopting one process over another. Eventually, as the startup matures it builds up a legacy of past choices that may limit or enhance the strategic options it can pursue in the future. Faced with a period of dramatic change in consumer or customer preferences, market structure, technological innovation, or regulations, flexibility is what separates winners from losers. The key attributes of a successful operations organization are:

    1. It must work hand in hand with strategy, marketing, finance, human resources, and every other area within the company.
    2. It must implement procedures and processes that lead to the right blend of capabilities within the company – for exploiting current opportunities, or resolving future threats.
    3. It must make infrastructure choices that protect the startup’s strategic flexibility to deal with current and unforeseen developments in the market.

Here are a few examples of how strategic and operational flexibility made the difference between startups that otherwise were neck-and-neck at some point in time – Friendster, Myspace, and Facebook.

What do you do when your users adopt your product for uses you did not intend or foresee? Facebook and Friendster were founded roughly around the same time. Friendster was founded in 2002, Facebook in 2004. Friendster reportedly grew to 3 million users within 3 months after it became generally available to the public in the United States. It soon became obvious that users were using Friendster for purposes its creators did not intend. For example they started creating various types of profile pages that were not tied to a real person – these became known as Fakesters. Friendster’s founders decided to prevent users from creating such profiles. Facebook experienced a similar behavior from its users. However, it took a different approach. It observed such behavior, learned from it and eventually enabled the behavior it observed. For example, users’ habit of creating profile pages for parties on college campuses eventually led to the development of the events feature on Facebook. In effect;

Facebook continuously watched how users used, and of course misused, their products by gathering usage data. These data guided their product development roadmap and helped ensure they were building features or making changes to their services that would encourage users to recommend the service to others (fan-out) and continue using it themselves (retention).3

While we can not say precisely what motivations drove the opposite reactions Friendster and Facebook had to observed user behavior, we can guess that a need for operational simplicity motivated Friendster’s response. Locking down and restricting the number of ways in which its users could engage with its product made operations easier to manage. On the other hand, Facebook’s approach seems to reflect a philosophy that is more outward looking and user-centric. In other words, operations would adapt to ensure that Facebook’s product evolved to reflect the desires and wants expressed by its users in their day to day interaction with the product. In the process, Facebook developed capabilities that strengthened its strategy and so on and so forth.4

What do you do when your technology infrastructure appears to be unable to keep up with growth, and the accompanying demands? 1I am assuming here that initially the startup relies on outside service providers for technology that is not core to its business model. Sometimes things change in a really big way as a startup makes the transition from searching for a business model to scaling. Maybe its marketing and its product are so successful that existing infrastructure proves to be inadequate to meet the demands that the startup’s customers and users place on it. The startups that thrive and go on to become transformative companies adapt operations to deal with this reality. To do so they call on new capabilities that they have developed over the course of time. Google5 and Facebook6 provide examples. They both realized that the off-the-shelf server hardware that they were relying on to run their operations were not necessarily designed to handle the massive amounts of data that their unique business models require them to each deliver to their users and customers daily. As a result they have modified their operations so that they now develop, design and build their own server infrastructure.7 There are many benefits to be derived from this. For example; First, this practice saves them money by optimizing energy usage. Second, it ensures that their business runs smoothly and efficiently so that users and customers have an experience that is commensurate with the value propositions that Facebook and Google have made and the experience users and customers have come to expect. Third, this makes it more difficult for new competitors to compete directly with Facebook or Google in the core areas of their business. As a testament to the soundness of this approach, many other companies that rely on technology as a cornerstone of their business operations are moving towards the practice of building their own custom server and networking hardware and software.8

Contrast the fate of Facebook with that of Myspace and Friendster. Remember that Friendster, Myspace and Facebook were founded in 2002, 2003, and 2004 respectively. At one point Myspace was the most visited social networking site in the world. It briefly overtook Google as the most visited website in the world. So What happened to Friendster and Myspace? I am certain there is more than one reason for their failure. However, reports in the press suggest that their inability to adapt the technology that was core to running their business played an important role in their loss of market leadership to Facebook, and their subsequent failure – they continued to rely on server hardware and software from original equipment manufacturers who build off-the shelf servers. Friendster reportedly slowed down as traffic to its website grew.9 Similar observations are made about Myspace.10 While we do not know the full details, we can deduce that operations at Friendster and Myspace did not mature to the the same extent that operations at Facebook had matured.

As these examples suggest, operations is critical to the survival of any entity that intends to grow to any substantial size by satisfying demand from a large number of customers or users. To succeed technology startups cannot make the mistake of treating operations like an unwanted orphan stepchild. Rather, operations must have a seat at the table, and it must participate in a healthy exchange of ideas, information and opinions with strategy, marketing, finance and accounting, and HR about how each of those functions can work, individually and in concert, to accomplish the goal that the startup wishes to set for itself. Tech startups can ill afford to have operations start from the bottom.

 

 


  1. Any errors in appropriately citing my sources is entirely mine. Let me know what you object to, and how I might fix the problem. Any data in this post is only as reliable as the sources from which I obtained them. 

  2. Fred Nickols, Strategy: Definitions & Meanings, 5/24/2012. Accessed online on Aug. 10th, 2014 

  3. Fisher, Michael; Abbott, Martin; Lyytinen, Kalle (2013-11-01). The Power of Customer Misbehavior: Drive Growth and Innovation by Learning from Your Customers (p. 103). Palgrave Macmillan. Kindle Edition. 

  4. Twitter and Zynga are two more examples of cases in which product features, and operations have been adapted and modified on the basis of observed user behavior. Pinterest just updated its web and mobile apps with a messaging feature. From the outside it appears this update is a response to the observed behavior of its users. 

  5. Jeff Dean(2008 Google I/O Session Videos and Slides); Underneath The Covers at Google: Current Systems and Future Directions. Accessed online, Aug. 15th 2014. 

  6. Jonathan Helliger; Building Efficient Data Centers with The Open Compute Project, Apr. 7th, 2011. Accessed online, Aug. 15th, 2014. 

  7. Jon Brodkin; Who Needs HP and Dell. Facebook Now Designs All Its Own Servers, Feb. 14, 2013. Accessed online, Aug. 16, 2014. 

  8. Netflix, Amazon and RackSpace are each reported to have adapted their operations to rely on custom designed server hardware. I assume there are others we do not yet know about. At one point SingTel, the huge Asian telecommunications company was thinking of building its own CDN instead of relying on providers like Akamai. 

  9. Gary Rivlin; Wallflower at The Web Party, Oct. 15th, 2006. Accessed online, Aug. 16th, 2014. 

  10. Abel Avram; Debate: What’s The Reason for MySpace’s Decline?, Mar. 30, 2011. Accessed online, Aug. 16th, 2014. 

References   [ + ]

1. I am assuming here that initially the startup relies on outside service providers for technology that is not core to its business model.

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