Revisiting What I Know About Efficient Scale, Cost Advantages, & Early Stage Technology Startups

This is the fourth post in my series of blog posts on economic moats. I have already written about Network Effects, Switching Costs, and Intangibles. In this post I will discuss how Cost Advantages and Efficient Scale might develop as an early stage startup travels through the discovery phase of its life-cycle. 1Any errors in appropriately citing my sources are 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 it.

My goal for writing this post is to provide one example of how I might think about this topic when I am studying an early stage startup that is raising a round of financing from institutional venture capitalists.

To ensure we are on the same page, I’ll start with some definitions. In the rest of this discussion I am primarily focused on early stage technology startups. If you by-chance have read the preceding posts in this series, you would have seen some of these definitions already.

Definition #1: What is a startup? 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 that is designed for incredibly fast growth. The defining characteristic of a startup is that of experimentation – in order to have a chance of survival every startup has to be good at performing the experiments that are necessary for the discovery of a successful business model.1

A company is what a startup becomes once it has successfully navigated the discovery phase of its lifecycle. As an early stage investor one of my responsibilities is to assist the startups in which I am an investor to successfully make the journey from being a startup to becoming a company.

Definition #2: What is an economic moat? An economic moat is a structural barrier that protects a company from competition. 

That definition of a moat is the one provided by Heather Brilliant, Elizabeth Collins, and their co-authors in Why Moats Matter: The Morningstar Approach To Stock Investing.

I take things a step further in thinking about startups and companies with business models that rely on technology and innovation. I think of a good moat as performing at least two functions; first, it provides a structural barrier that protects a company from competition. Second, it is an inbuilt feature of a company’s business model that enhances and strengthens its competitive position over time.

As a result I have arrived at the following definition of an economic moat pertaining specifically to early stage technology startups;

An economic moat is a structural feature of a startup’s business model that protects it from competition in the present but enhances its competitive position in the future.

Definition #3: What is a cost advantage? According to the authors of Why Moats Matter, a cost advantage arises when a company can sustainably lower its costs of doing business relative to its competitors. Such a reduction in costs can be due to process advantages, superior location, economies of scale, or access to a unique asset. In other words;

A cost advantage is a structural feature of a startup’s business model that enables it to maintain sustainably lower overall costs of doing business than its competitors while earning equal or higher margins over time.

Definition #4: What is efficient scale? According to the authors of Why Moats Matter, “efficient scale describes a dynamic in which a market of limited size is effectively served by one company or a small handful of companies. The incumbents generate economic profits, but a potential competitor is discouraged from entering because doing so would cause returns in the market to fall well below the cost of capital.” In other words, from my perspective as an early stage investor;

A startup can scale efficiently if doing so does not drive its customer or user acquisition costs to unsustainable levels over time, and if the startup’s decision to enter that market does not drive returns in the market to levels that are below the cost of capital for incumbent companies in that market over the short term.

Sources of Cost Advantage

For early stage technology startups, these are the most important sources from which a cost advantage may be derived.2

People & Culture: This cost advantage arises when a startup develops a unique organizational culture, management processes, and organizational structures that enable and empower members of the team to consistently generate results for the startup’s business that are significantly better than the results of its direct competitors and that beat the adjusted-performance of more well-established incumbents in that market. This source of cost advantage is intimately connected to the intangibles of Management and Culture, and Research and Development.

Systems & Processes: This cost advantage arises when a startup develops unique organizational processes that enable it to consistently generate comparatively superior results. The key categories of such systems and processes are Marketing and Sales Processes, Operational Processes, Distribution Processes, and Support Processes.

Marketing and Sales Processes focus on the activities that the startup takes in order to create demand for its product or service, and subsequently to satisfy that demand by delivering the product to its users or customers.

Operational Processes focus on the activities in a startup that take inputs and turn them into the final product or service through which the startup’s value proposition is delivered to the market. These are the processes that enable the startup to turn tangible and intangible inputs and turn them into something the market is willing to pay for. I have previously discussed this in: Why Tech Startups Can Gain Competitive Advantage from Operations.

Distribution Processes focus on the channels through which the startup’s product or service will be delivered to its users or customers. A key consideration that has to be made here is the choice between direct distribution and indirect distribution channels, and how the startup’s choice in this respect will affect its ability to maintain an overall cost advantage over its competitors.

Support processes focus on all the activities that make everything else that the startup does possible; for example HR and Talent Management, and Financial Planning and Analysis fall under this category.

This source of cost advantage is intimately tied to People & Culture, since the two combine to create an environment in which unique tangible and intangible assets are developed consistently over time such that the startup’s competitive advantage over its peers increases, and evidence that this is happening is seen in the startup’s historical key performance indicators.

Facilities: This cost advantage is derived from the physical infrastructure that a startup needs in order to operate. For early stage tech startup the hard decisions related to this source of cost advantage begin to be necessary when the startup has scaled to a point at which off-the-shelf hardware products are no longer good enough for what the startup seeks to accomplish. This is often the point at startups must consider the advantages or disadvantages they may derive from building custom hardware instead of relying on what’s available from outside vendors or partners. It can also be tied to a geographic location which gives the startup unfair access to an input that is critical for what it does.

Capital: This cost advantage is determined by the startup management team’s ability to allocate capital in such a way that the startup successfully navigates the path it must travel between being a startup and becoming a company. Cost advantages due to capital are determined by external sources of capital – potential outside investors and sources of trade credit, and internal sources of capital – existing capital raised from investors, financial management of money the startup expects from its users or customers and money it owes to the vendors and business partners with whom it has a working relationship.

Key Considerations for Efficient Scale

Here I am assuming that the investor has determined that the startup’s customer or user acquisitions costs will most likely decline over time, or in the worst case scenario they will stay relatively flat.

How I think about efficient scale for an early stage startup is closely linked to the concept of product-market fit. An early stage startup is approaching the product-market fit milestone when demand for its product at a price that is profitable for the startup’s business model, begins to outstrip the demand that could have been explained by its marketing, sales, advertising, and PR efforts.

When I am chatting with startup founders and I am trying to explain this concept I use the analogy of a cyclist on a steep hill to represent the founder’s startup. It’s probably a poor analogy, but I think it gets the point across in a way that is easy for them to internalize.

Before Product-Market Fit (BPMF) everything takes a lot of effort. Every sale is tough, everything that can go wrong will go wrong, and most of the sales deals will fall apart for reasons that are hard to explain. The cyclist is pedaling very hard to get uphill, and even maintaining balance on the bike is quite a challenge. Every breath brings with it the possibility that the cyclist could fall off the bike. With luck, the cyclist makes it to the top of the hill. Then, there is that moment when the cyclist senses that it is possible to keep going without as much exertion as it required to get to the top of the hill. Now the downhill journey begins. Gravity kicks in. The bike is gaining momentum even as the cyclist is frantically trying not to careen off the path. The cyclist’s exertions are now focused on skillfully applying the brakes at sharp turns and corners on the way downhill, and speeding up when then the path is straight and clear of obstacles. If this is a race and there are other cyclists ahead, then our cyclist must also focus on overtaking then one after another, and must also avoid getting caught in crashes caused by other cyclists in the race. After Product-Market Fit (APMF) demand for the startup’s product threatens to outstrip the startup’s ability to meet that demand. This is when a startup must scale, and scale fast and efficiently. There are two reasons to scale at this point. The first and most important reason is that there is demand for the startup’s product and the startup should meet the demand from its users or customers. The second reason is that APMF is also the point at which copy-cat competition starts to materialize from new entrants, and possibly from incumbents too.

Efficient scale means different things at different points in the startup’s lifecycle: The way a team of 2 co-founders scales the startup’s business is much different than the way that same startup will scale its business when the team has grown to 20 people. In other words the way to pursue scale BPMF differs markedly from the way to pursue scale APMF.

Premature scaling seems great initially, until it leads to startup failure and death: The Startup Genome Report Extra on Premature Scaling reports that startups that scale prematurely tend to start scaling earlier than startups that do not scale prematurely, they often also raise 3x as much capital and have valuations 2x as high as startups that do not scale prematurely. This trend continues till they fail. Also, 74% of startups scale prematurely. I will not go into the details of that report in this post, because I covered that in Notes on Strategy; Where Does Disruption Come From?

The cadence of hiring is important: BPMF hiring should be slow, deliberate and methodical since it is not yet clear what new team members will be working on and if what they will be working on is relevant for the startup’s overall success and longevity. APMF the challenge is to hire the right people for the startup as quickly as is necessary to keep up with demand, and cope with competition. For this reason building sound and cost-advantageous systems & processes, and modifying them as the startup grows is important. Startups that scale prematurely, and then fail tend to hire more people sooner in their lifecycle than startups that do not scale prematurely.

Technology-enabled scaling wins: Whether a startup focused on consumers or enterprises, it is important for the founders to think about ways in which technology can be used to enable and support the scaling process. This should go beyond the obvious area of gaining new users or customers. Rather, as the startup scales thought should be given to how it ensures that:

  • Teams do not become too large to get critical work done quickly, and that they have the tools to promote communication and collaboration once the startups physical layout is taken into account.
  • Customer or user acquisition is not slowed unnecessarily by a failure to account for what customers are willing to do in order to get the product.
  • Sales and revenue generation is not hobbled by a failure to use tools that will make salespeople as effective as they can be, given other existing constraints.
  • Operations can seamlessly transition from one order of magnitude of scale to another without a deterioration in customer or user satisfaction.

Culture makes a difference: All things being equal, startups with a strong culture will scale more successfully than startups that do not. Why? Culture ensures that as the startup grows by hiring new people, the entire organization continues to solve the problem the startup set out to solve in a consistent manner.

Eventually, most founders must also become managers and coaches: It gets to a point where the founders job evolves into one of mainly facilitating and enabling the work of other people, setting strategy, nurturing a vision, and managing a team of executives. This is how founders gain managerial leverage. Not every founder is cut out for this. Some want to remain as close to building the product as possible because that is where their passion and drive comes from. I prefer founders who are self-aware enough to know if they want to remain close to building the product, or if they want to make the transition from building things to managing people, and setting strategy. Usually, this is not an issue at the Seed or Series A stage, where I am most involved. Still, I like to get a sense of what might happen. I’d rather not invest if this could become an intractable problem before the startup has reached escape velocity.

This wraps up my main posts about economic moats.

As a sector, technology is notorious for being one in which economic moats are hard to maintain. However, every tech startup that was able to build a wide moat around its business earned fantastical returns for its earliest investors. Many have also had a lasting impact on how people live life, and how the businesses that use their products get work done. You would recognize so-called “wide-moat” or “narrow-moat” tech companies if I mentioned names. You might also recognize the “no-moat” tech startups that initially seemed destined for great heights, but then were dragged back down to earth by a combination of market forces.

In either case, I will be thinking about economic moats almost daily.

Further Reading

  1. Scaling Up Excellence
  2. Traction: Get A Grip on Your Business
  3. Scaling Up: How A Few Companies Make It . . . and Why The Rest Don’t

  1. I am paraphrasing Steve Blank and Bob Dorf, and the definition they provide in their book The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-by-Step Guide for Building a Great Company. I have modified their definition with an element from a discussion in which Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator discusses the startups that Y Combinator supports. 

  2. I do not include Materials and Supplies under this discussion because I do not think that is a sustainable source of cost advantage for an early stage technology startup. 

References   [ + ]

1. Any errors in appropriately citing my sources are 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 it.

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