At a fascinating session at last week’s BostInno conference at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel, senior executives from a mix of local companies were candid in citing the most important factors in growing their startups to a valuation of at least $1 billion.
Before the conference, Mike Troiano, a marketing executive at data-appliance maker Actifio who led the session, had asked each panelist to rank in importance six factors (of his selection) by how they had helped their companies exceed that coveted $1 billion valuation mark. The panelists came from public companies (content-delivery network provider Akamai Technologies, personal robot maker iRobot, and online travel company TripAdvisor) and private companies (online home-goods retailer Wayfair and Actifio).
Here are the factors that they ranked in order from the most important to the least:
1. A great team. The consensus of the panel seemed to be that having a great team is the most important ingredient for success. As Jit Saxena, a board member of Actifio, explained, “Companies almost always change their strategy from where they started. But if they have a stellar team, they will experiment with different strategies until they find one that works.”
So what makes for a great team? As TripAdvisor’s Barbara Messing noted, “A top engineer is six times more productive than a B player. We interview over 100 people to hire 10 engineers. We want people who are off the charts in brain power who will also fit well within our culture, which requires high energy and stamina to make frequent improvements to our service.”
2. A big market. The panelists also agreed on the importance of trying to sell their products in large markets. Their reason? Most companies struggle to gain 10 percent of any market due to the high level of competition.
In a small market, 10 percent will not yield enough revenue to enable a company’s investors to earn back the capital that they bet on the new product. Therefore if managers want to reach a valuation of least a billion for their companies, they must bet on markets worth tens of billions. For instance, Troiano said that Actifio is targeting a $35 billion market.
3. Execution. People in the business world tend to throw around the term execution without defining it clearly. But based on the panelists’ comments, execution means the following: getting products into a market, listening to customer feedback, building and introducing an improved version fast and then going back to listening to customers.
Execution was admired more than strategy by these Boston-area panelists. That’s because strategy implies that a company does extensive research about customers, competitors and costs and comes up with a clearly defined positioning in the market that will not change. But execution involves trying solutions, gaining feedback from the market and then making improvements — rather than spending months of study before taking action.
4. Product quality. Like strategy, product quality can be seen as an end in itself. And achieving high quality for a product can be very helpful if the engineer’s vision is the same as the customer’s.
But the panelists expressed a common view that product quality should not be seen as static but rather as a constantly evolving effort to keep the company ahead of the competition by tapping new technology to create ever higher levels of value for customers.
5. Strategy. While Troiano, a graduate of Harvard Business School, was taught to believe that coming up with a strategy was the most important job of a CEO, he and the other panelists seemed to believe that strategy is not a very important factor in achieving a $1 billion valuation.
The panelists put more stock in the importance of companies’ being smarter and faster than competitors in developing hypotheses about which solutions will work for customers, building prototypes fast, obtaining feedback, and improving.
6. Luck. While luck has certainly played an important role in success and failure of companies, the panelists seemed to discount its importance in helping their firms achieve a $1 billion valuation.
Peter Cohan is president of Peter S. Cohan & Associates, a management consulting and venture capital firm. He is an instructor of business strategy and entrepreneurship at Babson College and the author of "Hungry Start-up Strategy."
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