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Startups are cheaper to build, but more expensive to grow – here’s why

Startups should be getting cheaper to build. After all, the industry’s created several waves of innovation that’s supporting this across multiple layers in the stack:

  • Open source software instead of paid developer tools
  • AWS instead of your own datacenter
  • Per-click ads instead of Superbowl commercials
  • Off-the-shelf SaaS tools versus building your own
  • App stores for efficient global distribution

Not only do a number of these trends make building new products cheap, in many cases it’s about driving the costs down to zero. If we zoom just into AWS / cloud computing, you see how a massive amount of competition is leading to significantly lower costs – even some vendors giving away their services pro bono:

As cloud providers rush to build new data centres, and battle for market share, businesses are finding that the cost of putting their computing and data storage into the online cloud is getting ever cheaper. In the past three years prices are down by around a quarter, according to Citigroup, a bank; and further significant falls look all but inevitable. Some providers, such as Microsoft, have started providing their services free to startups, in the hope of turning them into paying customers as they grow. (Economist)

However, this is opposite of what’s happening. Instead, startups are raising more capital and burning more capital to get to their Series As. It might be cheap to build the v1 of your app, but getting traction is a whole other story. Compared to a decade ago, it’s getting more expensive to get traction, while at the same time, growth is getting harder from intensive competition, consolidation, and saturation.

Why costs are rising
There are two underlying reasons for the increasing costs: Salary/comp for your team, and growth has shifted more towards paid acquisition. While the former is obvious (especially to those paying rent in San Francisco), the second is more nuanced, since it’s driven by a number of industry trends.

As we’ve said, growth is getting harder, and as a result, companies building new products are evolving their strategies away from counting on traditional channels like virality, SEO, and organic, and more towards paid acquisition to scale. Even though traction is difficult to achieve in today’s climate, venture capital is plentiful for those who hit a solid growth curve. This means that companies have an advantage when they execute well also have a natural product/channel match for paid acquisition channel. (Think high LTVs, lack of ad competition, being good at fundraising.)

What’s happening as a result
As a result of this pivot towards paid acquisition to scale, we see four trends that go along with rising costs:

  1. Startups are raising more money to get to traction
  2. Companies are trying paid marketing earlier
  3. There’s an increase in emphasis on paid referral programs rather than virality
  4. Companies are going for deeper monetization in order to open up paid channels

Let’s look at each of these trends.

1. Startups are raising more money to get to traction
More focus on paid acquisition means startups need to raise more money to raise money only once they can prove out their traction. We’re seeing more companies raising more money to get more traction before they raise, and when they do take the new round, it’s often to fund bigger and more expensive paid acquisition efforts.

The median seed round tripled from $272K to $750K between 2010 and 2016 according to analysis from Tom Tunguz over at Redpoint, and that growth extends to later rounds too. Companies across the board are raising bigger rounds, often from non-traditional investors, to drive growth for the next fundraise or for an exit (source: Quartz):

In the initial stages, this extra money enables buying early growth through testing and sub-scale campaigns to compliment organic growth. As a company scales, these bigger rounds buy you time and acquisition resources to build a defensible but expensive flywheel.

2. Companies are trying paid marketing earlier
The good news about more companies trying paid acquisition is that it’s easier than ever to experiment with paid marketing early. Self-serve ad systems are now the norm, which we can see from recent self-serve ad launches from newer platforms like Snap and Quora. Companies can test and master paid spend much earlier and run meaningful experiments with budget as low as $50. This allows an earlier and better understanding of unit economics and how to optimize the other steps in the funnel.

“Today, advertisers of all sizes expect platforms to offer them a number features as basic built-ins: self-serve, hyper-targeting, analytics, dynamic pricing. The way ad platforms are now structured with these features allows you to run small tests with sub-scale campaigns. It takes minimal time to make the creative, and it’s super easy to do testing for startups and new products.”

Sriram Krishnan, ex-Revenue Products at Snap, Mobile Ad Platform at Facebook.

The internet advertising industry continues to grow across all channels. The number of advertisers on Facebook alone recently hit 5 million, up from 4 million just 7 months ago.

There are a couple of implications to this. First, more competition (in total spend and in number of spenders) increases the global focus on paid acquisition. As a result, everyone’s spending more.

3. More emphasis on paid referral programs rather than virality
Viral channels aren’t working as well as they used to because of the natural lifecycle that affects all acquisition channels. Today, 10 years after the introduction of biggest social networks, most viral channels have peaked:

Perhaps we’ll see the return of these social channels, as messaging platforms mature, but in the meantime, many companies are utilizing referral campaigns to juice their acquisition. Paid referral programs also help build user engagement and get companies to faster network effects because on top of bringing in more users, they bring in more users who are already connected to each other.

Dropbox’s give/get disk space was one famous early example of referral, but these days, the largest companies from Uber to Airbnb all utilize referral programs.

4. Monetize more deeply to open up channels
To support the increase in paid spend, companies need to either raise more money, or make more money. As a result, we’re seeing companies optimize for better LTVs to justify higher CAC and increased competition across the board.

Companies like Wealthfront, Breather, Credit Karma and Gusto have all hit high LTVs early in their lifecycles, and that profitability has bought them a competitive edge in acquisition as those stronger LTVs afford them higher CAC. Anecdotally, it’s been said that many Fintech companies have CACs over $1000+ to acquire a single customer.

All acquisition channels are an efficient market at some point, and this means that companies that monetize better than their competitors (either with higher LTVs or because they enjoy shorter payback periods) will be able to afford a higher CAC and subsequently out-invest those competitors. In short, better monetization is a competitive advantage for growth.

Conclusion
As you build your company, don’t underestimate the rising cost of distribution. Yes, everything’s getting cheaper from the growth of cloud computing, off-the-shelf SaaS, open-source code, and more granular and accessible performance marketing. But, growth is also getting tougher from channel saturation, better competitors, and consolidated winner-take-all platforms.

To keep growing in this type of landscape, you’ll need to think carefully about paid acquisition, deeper monetization, and how to compete in this new environment:

  • New products are often sub-scale on unit economics, so they have negative LTV:CAC. Show and carve out a clear path to monetization so you can afford growth.
  • No one can afford to put off paid acquisition anymore, and it’s easy to test ads on small budgets, so start as early as possible.
  • Think of referral programs are another form of paid spend. You have the same CAC, but instead of giving the money to Facebook or Google, you give value to your users and their friends.
  • Finally, consider ways to deepen differentiation by solving hard(er) problems and building your moat with tech.

Good luck out there!

PS. Get new updates/analysis on tech and startups

I write a high-quality, weekly newsletter covering what's happening in Silicon Valley, focused on startups, marketing, and mobile.

This year’s top essays on growth metrics, consumer psychology, Uber, push notifs, NPS, and more

Readers,
As you can tell, I’ve been a bit more active writing in the last few months. I wanted to do a quick roundup of my essays over the last year, in case you’ve missed any of them. I’ve published a number of guest essays and original writing on topics like growth metrics, consumer psych, the startup ecosystem in the Bay Area, push notifications, and much more.

If you want future updates, you can always subscribe to get the newsletter.

For your convenience, I’ve written a couple blurbs underneath each essay so you can get a sense for each article.

Finally, I wanted to note – can you believe I’ve been writing for almost 11 years now? Who knew I’d be able to keep it up for so long?! Appreciate all the folks who’ve been with me for years. Thank you for reading!

Regards,
Andrew Chen
San Francisco, California

 

Original essays

10 years in the Bay Area – what I’ve learned
I’ve lived here for the last decade, and have learned a ton of about this region’s entrepreneurial drive, the unique culture, and wonderful folks. I wanted to share a couple lessons learned here.

The Bad Product Fallacy: Don’t confuse “I don’t like it” with “That’s a bad product and it’ll fail”
Your personal use cases and opinion are a shitty predictor of a product’s future success.

Growth is getting hard from intensive competition, consolidation, and saturation
It’s the end of a cycle, and we’re seeing headwinds on paid channels, banner blindless, competitive dynamics, and more. And it’s much harder to compete with boredom than with Facebook/Google/etc.

What 671 million push notifications say about how people spend their day
Here’s a study, based on Leanplum’s data, on how people spend their days – on sports, leisure, phone calls, and otherwise – in addition to what tech platforms they’re using.

Startups and big cos should approach growth differently (Video)
Here’s a video interview breaking down how startups evolve and change their strategies as they gain initial traction, hit product market fit, and eventually start to scale.

What’s next in growth? (Presentation at Australia’s StartCon)
Last year I presented this talk on how marketing has evolved over the last century, and how many of the ideas we think of as “growth” today are actually based on concepts from decades ago. I use this to talk about future platforms and where this might all go.

Uber’s virtuous cycle. Geographic density, hyperlocal marketplaces, and why drivers are key
In my last two years at Uber, I’ve learned a ton about the flywheel that makes Uber’s core business hum and grow incredibly fast. In this essay I draw from Bill Gurley’s essays on network effects, the labor market for part-time workers (aka drivers, “the supply side”), and how surge works within the company. A lot has evolved/changed since I’ve written this, but it’s a good overview from my first year of learnings.

Guest essays

How To (Actually) Calculate CAC
Brian Balfour, ex-vp growth at Hubspot, talks about how to calculate cost of acquisition and all the practical difficulties involved.

A Practitioner’s Guide to Net Promoter Score
Sachin Rekhi, ex-director product at Linkedin, breaks down how to measure and utilize Net Promoter Score and its relation to viral growth.

Growth Interview Questions from Atlassian, SurveyMonkey, Gusto and Hubspot
Lots of amazing interview questions from the growth leads at some of the best SaaS companies on the market.

Psych’d: A new user psychology framework for increasing funnel conversion
Darius Contractor at Dropbox describes a framework on pushing users through conversion funnels by getting them psych’d (via value prop, clear CTAs, etc). Nice framework that speaks to reducing friction and increasing value.

Top essays from 2015
This roundup, but from two years ago :) Includes writing about Uber, online dating, push notifications, Apple Watch, and more.

PS. Get new updates/analysis on tech and startups

I write a high-quality, weekly newsletter covering what's happening in Silicon Valley, focused on startups, marketing, and mobile.

Growth is getting hard from intensive competition, consolidation, and saturation

The end of the cycle
One of the best essays written last year was Elad Gil’s End of Cycle? – referencing our most recent 2007-2017 run on mobile and web software, and the implications for investing, startups, and entrepreneurs. Although he doesn’t directly talk about it, the end of a tech cycle has major implications for launching new products, growing existing product categories, because of a simple thing:

It gets much, much harder to grow new products or pivot existing ones into new markets

The reason for the above is that there are multiple trends – happening right now – that impede growth for new products. These trends are being driven by the biggest players – Google/Facebook, et al – but also by the significant leveling up around of practitioners in design/PM/data/growth.

We’ll look at a couple trends in this essay, including the following:

  1. Mobile platform consolidation
  2. Competition on paid channels
  3. Banner blindness  = shitty clickthroughs
  4. Superior tooling
  5. Smarter, faster competitors
  6. Competing with boredom is easier than competing with Google/Facebook

These trends are powerful and critical to understanding why all of a sudden, entrepreneurs/investors are starting to get into many new fields (genomics, VTOL cars, cryptocurrency, autonomy, IoT, etc) in order to find new opportunities. After all, if you can’t grow in the existing markets, you very quickly need to get into new ones, as Elad describes:

One sign that technology markets often exhibit at the tail end of a cycle is a fast diversification of the types of startups getting funded. For example, following the core internet boom of the late 90s (Google, Yahoo!, eBay, PayPal), in early 2000 and 2001 there was a sudden diversification and investment into P2P and mobile (before mobile was ready) and then in 2002-2003 people started looking at CleanTech, Nanotech etc – industries that obviously all eventually failed from an entrepreneurial and investment return perspective.

Nanotech, cleantech, etc was the last cycle, and now we’re talking about the next one.

#1 Mobile platform consolidation
The new Google/Apple app duopoly is more concentrated, more closed, and far less rich (from a growth standpoint) as compared to web – which means that mobile is far more stagnant and harder to break into. App Store functionality like top ranking charts, “Essential” bundles of apps, editorialized “Featured App” sections, all help drive a winner-takes-all mobile ecosystem.

No wonder app store rankings have ossified over the years. Facebook and Google now control most of the Top 10 apps in the mobile ecosystem:

Source: Nielsen, Dec 2016

If you’re introducing a new app – whether unbundling a more complex app or launching a new startup – how do you break into this? There’s not a ton of organic opportunities. And the paid acquisition channels are getting saturated too.

#2 Competition on paid channels
Paying for acquisition is one of the key channels still available, if you can find the right untapped audience segments with high ROIs. This only works when prices aren’t bidded up and you don’t face too much competition for the same ad inventory. Unfortunately that’s not what’s happening.

For example, let’s look at some of the dynamics of Facebook increasing their revenue per DAU over the last few years:

This is driven by a number of factors, of course – relevance, targeting, ad unit engagement, etc. – but it’s also because competition is getting fiercer on Facebook ads, not less, which is evidenced by the rapid increase in the advertiser count as well as the increase in revenue per user. In 2017, Facebook counts over 5 million advertisers on its platform, up from 4 million in Q3 of last year and 2 million in 2015. During its Q1 2017 earnings call, Facebook told investors that it expected ad revenue was approaching a saturation point, despite major growth in Q1 2017 earnings as compared to 2016. It’s currently at 2 billion users, with 17% YoY user growth, and its ability to add more inventory depends increasing its user base, or increasing users’ time spent on Facebook.

#3 Banner blindness = shitty clickthroughs
Additionally, everyone’s getting smarter about growth, including consumers. Today, most invite systems no longer have the same novelty value or efficacy as they did 10 years ago (Dropbox’ give/get was novel when it launched), and consumers’ “banner blindness” extends far beyond actual display advertising to encompass referral systems and virality programs.

In Mary Meeker’s latest internet trends report, she reports that up to 1/3 of some countries are using ad blocking, and we’re quickly on our way to 600M internet MAU who can’t be reached by ads:

This is just the 2017 version of The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs, which I wrote about a few years ago, where I showed some stats indicating that email marketing open rates are on the decline:

… and that traditional banner CTRs seem to be asymptotically approaching zero:

These trends are troubling, and mean that these channels are getting less engagement per user, and we haven’t found amazing new channels to replace them.

#4 Superior tooling – which levels the playing field
At the same time as advertising is getting more crowded, there’s also increasingly widespread availability and adoption of tools like Mixpanel, Leanplum, Optimizely and others that close the gap on being data-driven at companies.

Ten years ago, we used to look at total registered users. Cohort analysis was a sophisticated approach, and we also didn’t have a sense for MAU, DAU or other more granular metrics. One of the killer features of Mixpanel is that it made understanding cohort-based retention turnkey. It used to take a real investment of engineers, data scientists, and know how to be able to create simple graphs like this:

Now, it’s pretty much turnkey. You can get this chart from Mixpanel (and may others!) practically for free, as soon as you implement your analytics tracking.

In B2B, we’re seeing the same phenomenon. Outbound used to be painstaking and manual. Today, there are many sales tools that make outbound more accessible (Mixmax, Outreach, insidesales.com etc), which automates part of the process but also generates more noise and competition. Tasks that used to be more manual and higher friction are automated and easier, which leads to more people jumping in.

The result is that it makes everyone better. You and all your competitors understand your/their acquisition and retention bottlenecks. Everyone has an equal, data-driven shot at improving LTV, and as a corollary can spend more on ads.

#5 Smarter and faster competitors
It used to be that startups could count on their competitors to be big, dumb, and slow. Not anymore. We’ve all gotten smarter and faster, and that includes your competitors. It used to be that you could wait a few years before competitors would respond. Now the Facebooks, Hubspots and Salesforces of the world can and will copy you right away.

Most famously, we’ve seen Facebook fast follow Snap within their Messenger, Instagram, Whatsapp and core product:

But it’s not just consumer where this is happening:

  • Dropbox <> Google Drive
  • Slack <> Microsoft Teams
  • YesWare <> Hubspot Sales

… and many more examples too.

#6 Competing with boredom is easier than competing with Facebook + Google
When the App Store first launched, competition was easy: Boredom. Mobile app developers were taking time away from easy, ‘idle’ activities like waiting in line, commuting etc. But today, acquiring a new app user means stealing a user’s time from their favorite existing app.

As we’re near the end of the cycle, companies have moved from non-zero sum to a zero-sum competition.

Instead of competing with boredom, we’re now competing with Silicon Valley’s top tech companies, who already have all your users (back to number 2 above). This also applies to the consumerized workplace, where new entrants will be competing to steal users’ time from Slack, Dropbox and other favorite apps. This is much, much harder because the incumbents have pretty great products! And proven distribution models to respond if needed.

How the industry is evolving, in response
The above trends are troubling for new products, and especially for startups. All 6 of these trends are scary, and they’ve emerged because we’re at the end of a cycle. There’s a variety of natural monopolistic trends (like app stores, ad platforms, etc), where everything with related to growth and traction is getting harder.

If companies want to stay in the mobile/software product categories, they need to evolve their strategies. I’ll save a deeper discussion for a future essay, but here are some observations on what’s happening:

  1. More money diverted to paid acquisition
  2. Deeper monetization to open up channels – especially paid
  3. Creation of paid referral programs to complement ad buying
  4. Personalization features that rely on lots of data to amp up targeting
  5. Products trying to deepen differentiation by solving hard(er) problems/tech

There seems to be a deepening in both monetization, differentiation, and personalization to help open up growth. This happens by solving more fundamental customer problems – especially those that help generate real $ value for people – but also helps open up paid channels, whether that’s advertising, referrals, or promos.

More discussion on this in a future writeup!

PS. Get new updates/analysis on tech and startups

I write a high-quality, weekly newsletter covering what's happening in Silicon Valley, focused on startups, marketing, and mobile.

Travis – thank you for leading us at Uber

Psych’d: A new user psychology framework for increasing funnel conversion (Guest Post)

Startups and big cos should approach growth differently (Video)

The Bad Product Fallacy: Don’t confuse “I don’t like it” with “That’s a bad product and it’ll fail”

What’s next in growth?

10 years in the Bay Area – what I’ve learned

How To (Actually) Calculate CAC

Growth Interview Questions from Atlassian, SurveyMonkey, Gusto and Hubspot (Guest Post)

What 671 million push notifications say about how people spend their day

The state of growth hacking (Guest post)

Growth is a system, not a bag of tricks – Manifesto Conference Q&A video/transcript

A Practitioner’s Guide to Net Promoter Score

Quick announcement: The Backstory, a private discussion forum for tech, marketing, growth

Uber’s virtuous cycle. Geographic density, hyperlocal marketplaces, and why drivers are key

My top 2015 essays on Uber, online dating, push notifications, Apple Watch, and more

Personal update- I’m joining Uber! Here’s why

This is the Product Death Cycle. Why it happens, and how to break out of it

Quick update: Quoted in WSJ on dating apps, recent podcast interview, plus recent essays

New data shows losing 80% of mobile users is normal, and why the best apps do better

Photos of the women who programmed the ENIAC, wrote the code for Apollo 11, and designed the Mac

The Next Feature Fallacy: The fallacy that the next new feature will suddenly make people use your product

Why investors don’t fund dating

Why we should aim to build a forever company, not just a unicorn

Ten classic books that define tech

How I first met Eric Ries and also why I’ve ordered his new Kickstarter-exclusive book The Leader’s Guide

This is what free, ad-supported Uber rides might look like. Mockups, economics, and analysis.

Meet me and Eric Ries at a private event on March 21st – here’s how to attend

Personal update: I’ve moved to Oakland! Here’s why.

The most common mistake when forecasting growth for new products (and how to fix it)

The race for Apple Watch’s killer app

My top essays in 2014 about mobile, growth, and tech

Why messaging apps are so addictive (Guest Post)

IAC’s HowAboutWe co-founder: How to Avoid Delusional Thinking in Start-up Growth Strategy (Guest Post)

Mobile retention benchmarks for 2014 vs 2013 show a 50% drop in D1 retention (Guest post)

New data on push notifications show up to 40% CTRs, the best perform 4X better than the worst (Guest post)

Why Android desperately needs a billion dollar success story: The best new apps are all going iPhone-first

Early Traction: How to go from zero to 150,000 email subscribers (Guest Post)