The VCs managed to sell Uber to each other and then even to other VCs. The valuation is in the Billions. It qualifies as a bona fide Unicorn. But Uber has never turned a profit, nor ever shown revenues of any consequence. It raised money like mad, ran Silicon Valley investment community PR campaigns and used the money it raised to launch research projects in sexy areas that VCs just drool over. Self-driving cars, delivery of packages (like people, except not!), delivery of ice-cream, UberMaps (they did that twice), all either failures that shut down or underperformers. Self-driving cars is still a work in progress but lawsuits from original co-investor Google may have hampered that development. Uber suffered from a horrible management culture, forcing its CEO and other key executives to either resign or leave in protest. Sexist, misogynist, and improper labor practices have plagued the company. All of this came to a head this Summer, along with a deluge of bad press. And yet, the valuation remains around $50B, down from a high of $68B before the scandals. But Uber, VC investment, and its failures worldwide are delineated on its Wikipedia page.
Uber is a unique case in point. Worth noting: even unicorns suffer management and revenue deficiencies.
Most VC-backed startups fail. But that’s not to say that VCs make bad picks (or that they don’t, either). It’s because most startups in general fail. Lack of funding, lack of proper tech, marketing, sales, biz dev, financial planning, legal advice, or other essential planning and early development has rung the death knell of many a startup. Not all entrepreneurs (the beloved darlings of the tech press) have what it takes to get past the honeymoon phase of “garage startup.” That gets old fast. It takes grit and determination.
And then there’s the Great Idea. When it’s time for a Great Idea, it usually isn’t just one bright mind having that light bulb go off over their head. The idea hits lots of people in many places around the same time. They may have a different execution or manner of presentation, but the basic concept is generally similar.
It’s like chocolate chip cookies or pizza toppings. Somebody thought up the chocolate chip cookie. And so did someone else. Now look at the dozens of choices of chocolate chip cookie brands. Same goes for Pepperoni, sausage, peppers, mushrooms, onions, olives, even anchovies, or pineapple as toppings on pizza. Someone at some time thought up each one of those. Now they are standard, to be found at pizzerias everywhere. Well, maybe not the anchovies or pineapples.
The point is that good ideas are worthy of pursuit. The little difference, the tweak, the change that makes it better or adds some aspect that significantly improves on the existing model, makes for opportunity. There will be competition, no doubt. But a truism of business is that competition improves business, and usually improves the product, as well.
“There are the wise, well rounded ideas and structural concepts that help create a good startup. Every firm needs a mix of skilled networkers and people who understand the inner workings of their own organization.” That quote was the gist of a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. Thus it makes sense for startups to be teams, not just one or two people. Yes, Apple began as Steve and Woz, but they quickly added people to sales, marketing, purchasing, shipping, and other necessary departments of a growing company. And programmers. As the company grew, legions of programmers came aboard to develop the operating system software. That continues to this day.
What are the digital tactics of a startup? While this may vary for the types or category of company, there are basics that apply to all. First, pick a company name. Sometimes cute and funny works (as in the site, Bored Panda), if appropriate. Sometimes a made-up word works, like Skype or Firefox. Before settling on a name, be certain the dot com is available. Want to name your company Digital Dill Pickle? Go to WhoIs.com or GoDaddy or Register.com and see if DigitalDillPickle.com is available. If it is, grab it. And grab the dot net, dot org and perhaps also DigitalDillPickles.com (that’s pickles, plural), while you’re at it. Better safe than sorry. Digital protective tactics are always a good idea.
Next, pick a hosting company. If that’s a foreign concept to you, get a consultant to help you with your web presence. I was recently called in to perform Digital Triage for an extremely successful professional (who became a short term client) with no idea what a host was, what a domain was, what a webmaster did, who controlled what, and why there were multiple passwords, multiple accounts. When they found out that their Content Management System required yet another password and user name, plus knowledge of how to use the system, it almost caused apoplexy.
Avoid apoplexy! If web presence issues (hosting, developing a site, etc.) is not your strong suit, get a professional on the case. Short on funds because you’re a startup? Think twice before tossing together a second rate or cheap site. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and your website is probably part of that first impression. This is not an area where it is safe to cut corners.
Nearly every business or service needs a web presence. These days that means a mobile-first approach. Tablets and smartphones are in greater use than laptops or desktops. In another column we can review the “under the hood” basics and essentials of site development, such as SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and Analytics, User Experience, User Interface. The key initial areas of concern are content and Information Architecture. That means what goes where, what points to what else, and how the site is structured. These are critical planning matters, best determined before work is begun on the site itself. We recommend a Digital Creative Brief be put together to describe the intent, the content, and the desired takeaway the visitors will have. We provide a guideline to our clients on how to complete such a guide.
The bottom line: startups are tough, and success is hard fought and not always achievable. It takes a self-starter (a team of self-starters!) to success against the odds. The rewards are gratifying and lay a superb path for future endeavors. And a special note: failure is not final. It is merely a step on the path to success.
Dean Landsman is a NYC-based Digital Strategist who writes a monthly column for PR for People “The Connector.”