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Startup to IPO: Why Few Companies Make the Leap and What We Can Learn from Them (Part 3: Growth)

by Vincent Chan on Jul 28, 2009

startup-ipo-growth

Today’s business environment is extremely competitive, especially on the web. Simply building a good product, a strong brand or great distribution won’t guarantee your company success. You also have to do some or all of these things better than your competitors.

After looking at the leadership and obstacles of these four elite “Startup to IPO” companies (Vistaprint, Rackspace, OpenTable, Salesforce.com), we are going to learn about their growth strategies which helped them to outgrow their competitors.

Viral Programs & Product Expansion

free-biz-card

Vistaprint realized early on that if they want to success in a crowded market like online printing, they needed to do something different from their competitors. In 1999, they decided to use viral marketing to attract new customers. The company came up with the idea of free business cards. Customers can order 250 full-color business cards for free for unlimited time. The only cost for the customers is the $5 shipping and handling fee.

Of course, this strategy gave them runaway success. Seriously, how many companies do not want free business cards? Vistaprint knew that if they could have enough volume, giving cards away should not be that expensive. Up until now, the company has already printed over 4 billion cards for this offer. This single viral program has drove their amazing growth from 1999 to 2003.

To get a sense of just how quickly Vistaprint scale up in the early days, you have to see their actual revenue numbers provided by the founder:

In FY2001, which was June 2001, we had $6.1 million in revenues and 25 employees. In FY2002 we did $16.9 million and we had 50 employees. In FY2003 we did $35.4 million, in FY2004 we did $58.8 million, and FY2005 was $90.9 million. The following year we did $152 million and in 2007 we did $256 million. The growth has maintained as we did $401 million in FY2008. Our current guidance to Wall Street for FY2009 is $504 million to $510 million.

And then in 2004, the company started going well beyond the business cards area and into all things related to small business marketing, which includes apparel, pens, magnets, brochures, presentation folders, logo design, graphic design, web sites design and even email marketing. This broad product expansion has fueled their extraordinary growth from 2006 to 2009, from $152 to $510 million in revenue. To ensure the high quality of their new products, the company is spending over $50 million on technology development this year, which is about 10% of their revenues.

Not to Become a M&A Company

Oftentimes, large companies will consider using M&A (mergers and acquisitions) to increase market share, broaden product offerings, enter new markets, or even expand into new distribution channels. For a company like Vistaprint with $400 million revenue, even in a deep recession, they are obviously in a strong position to fuel its growth by deal making. Yet Robert Kean looks at M&A from a different point of view:

Very skeptically. We do look at it, and we have looked at many opportunities…We are not opposed to acquisitions, but we have to be very selective… If there is a win-win opportunity we will take it. We never say never. VistaPrint for a very long time will be an organic growth story…

Rather than looking for innovation outside, Robert prefers internal new products development. For example, when the company decided to go into the software-as-a-service business providing email marketing solutions, they has chosen to develop the product, Vistaprint Email Marketing, themselves despite the fact that they can easily acquire iContact or ConstantContact.

Think about your company now. Are you looking for long-term organic growth or short-term profitable opportunities? Do you have the confident to do a marketing campaign on a very large scale, like Vistaprint’s “free business cards” offer? If your company is not growing anymore, is it the right time to expand your core business to a much wider variety of businesses? Today Vistaprint has over 1,600 employees worldwide, growing from 25 people in 2001. I bet you can learn something from their success.

Customized Solutions

Like Vistaprint, Rackspace also found that following industry norms may not be the best way to do business. Many hosting companies saw themselves as commodity and technology companies. Yet Rackspace believes every customer is unique and has different business objectives. In order to met those goals, Rackspace is writing custom Service Level Agreements (SLAs) for their customers to guarantee their quality of their services. Their co-founder, Patrick Condon, explained:

We’re beginning to work with customers to identify the specific business outcome or business process a customer is trying to fulfill with their Web infrastructure. We then work with them to write an SLA around this business process versus just the infrastructure portion of hosting. I think this is a dramatic shift from how hosting companies have guaranteed quality of service in the past. Customers need customized solutions developed specifically for their businesses. I think the way the industry is moving is more towards a service based model where the technology and specific hardware components become less relevant.

Discipline to Achieve True Profit

In previous post, we mentioned about Rackspace has developed a principle of achieving “true profit“. It turns out that the same strategy has helped the company achieve significant growth.

For example, in 2003, Rackspace launched a low-cost hosting service for very small Web sites. Within months, this new unit was growing faster than the parent, generating $600,000 a month in new revenue and $150,000 in cash flow. Sounds very promising, right? How many entrepreneurs will question about such a fast growing service? Even so, its CEO was not pleased with the new unit:

“Thinking in terms of true profit quickly illuminates a problem within a business. We could see that we were wasting money.”

He found that the marketing costs to bring in new clients were very high and customers could easily switch to cheaper service provided by competitors. In other words, the new service was delivering a minimal return on its capital. Still, for normal companies, it is hard to correct such a huge mistake because, at one point, this new unit was generating $7 million, or nearly 10% of the company’s total revenue of $77 million, in its first year in business. However, due to their strict financial discipline, Rackspace sold the moneymaking unit for $7 million eventually.

Rackspace’s revenue has increased its revenue from $139 million to $532 million since 2005. As you can tell, focusing on true profit has helped Rackspace to avoid businesses that are wasting their resources and pay attention to areas that are generating real growth. In your company, do you have any units that are giving you minimal return on its capital? If yes, can you relocate those resources to some other promising opportunities? For a startup, inefficient allocation of resources could kill your business. Do a due diligence on your business and find out the truth now.

Making Your Customers Success

Sometimes the best growth strategies are so simple and obvious that most people overlook them. In 2005, Salesforce.com’s revenues has grown 77% and paying subscribers has increased from 267,000 to 308,000. When asked about the reasons for the company’s continued success, Marc Benioff, the founder, simply replied:

The No. 1 reason we’re successful is our customers are successful. Before Salesforce.com, you were expected to fail with enterprise software. Salesforce.com is the first company and product that companies loved and users wanted to use.

Who does not know that business has to provide products that customers want? However, in the web industry, companies always fall into the trap of ignoring their customers because of their focus on fancy technology. Apparently, Salesforce.com did not make this mistake given that their customer turnover rate has been less than 1% per month. This amazing loyalty from the customers did not surprise Marc at all. He explained:

“We aren’t changing our playbook here: we work to make our customers successful. Success is the biggest predictor of loyalty.”

Think Big

Again, achieving growth sometimes does not need complex strategies. Wondering how a $5.3 billion company like Salesforce motivates itself to do better? It is as simple as thinking big. Marc never worries about competition as he believes the sky is the limit for his company. He once said:

“If there wasn’t any competition, I’d be very worried, because it would mean we were not doing very well. When you have a company like Salesforce, that’s now one of the top 40 software companies in the world, and we’re shooting to become one of the top 24, which means more than $1 billion in revenue…”

For Marc, status quo is not acceptable. He always looks for growth opportunities. In 2009, Salesforce has achieved his goal of generating more than $1 billion in revenue. How about your company? What is your next goal? Have you took the time to make your customers success? Or you just want to make a profit from them?

Next time, we will talk about the ways these four companies differentiate themselves in this crowded market.

Photo source: Guille. @Flickr

Part 1: Leadership & Vision
Part 2: Obstacles
Part 3: Growth
Part 4: Differentiation & Marketing


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10+ Sites to Help you Manage beyond Web 2.0

by Vincent Chan on Jul 23, 2009

manage-web2

Just read an excellent article on McKinsey Quarterly called, “Managing beyond Web 2.0” by Donna Hoffman from the University of California, Riverside.

According to Donna, today’s customers have become both producers and consumers of their own content and services. People are more interested in reading other consumers’ experiences than the advertising messages promoted by your marketers.

While many giant corporations choose to ignore this phenomenon, smaller companies should learn how to take advantage of it. It is true that these Web 2.0 “conversations” are full of noise and difficult to track. Yet if you can become good at managing and monitoring these new consumers’ online behavior, it will be your new competitive advantage.

In order to do that, Professor Hoffman suggested companies to use the LEAD (listen, experiment, apply, develop) model, a management strategy developed by the Sloan Center for Internet Retailing for Web 2.0 and beyond.

Let’s look at what online applications can better prepare your companies to utilize this effective model.

Listen (Monitor)

Consider the tweet below as an example:

manage-web2-01

If a Sprint customer service representative saw this message and helped this customer to solve his problem, this could be a strong boost to their PR. Consequently, monitoring and analyzing customers’ conversation can be a early-warning system for your company.

If you choose to ignore customers’ opinions these days, it is not unusual to see negative comments about your company all over Twitter, YouTube, Blog posts, and even mainstream media.

This reminds me the latest saga between TechCrunch and Twitter. I wonder how much the TechCrunch’s brand was hurt by this unfortunate event.

To avoid this happen to your company, below are some useful tools for monitoring social media:

1) Viralheat (link)

viralheat
Position: Affordable social media measurement product
Platforms: Nearly 30 video sites, the web and Twitter
Features: Real-time stream of topic mentions between blogs and websites. Delivering analytics that help you optimize your company’s outreach and engagement on social media platforms. Daily email alerts…etc.
Clients: Include Coca-Cola, Tivo, U.S. State Department, Weber Shandwick, Nokia, Hilton Hotels, HP, and Microsoft.
Cost: Starting at $9.99 per month

2) Peashoot (link)

peashoot
Position: Quick & easy way to manage social media campaigns. Clean and simple user interface.
Platforms: Twitter only
Features: Audience Builder automatically follows people on Twitter who are relevant to you or your company. Measure ROI – tracking how much of your website’s sales are generated from you posting links on Twitter. Set & track campaign’s goals. URL Shortening. Real-time Click Map. Google Analytics Integration…etc.
Clients: Include Tokyo Art Beat and 24seven.
Cost: Starting at $17 per month

3) Scout Labs (link)

scoutlab
Position: Designed for Agencies. Finding signals in the noise of social media to help teams build better products and stronger customer relationships.
Platforms: Blogs, forums, social networks, image-sharing sites, video-sharing sites and Twitter
Features: Persistent searches for your monitored keywords. A collaborative space for you and your extended team (unlimted users). Monitor important Tweets, blogs, photos and videos all in one place. Sentiment analysis – assessing the tone of a post. Get support from a live human via email or phone…etc.
Clients: Include Netflix, razorfish, Zippo, loopt, StubHub, eBay, AKQA…etc
Cost: Starting at $99 per month

4) Other Alternatives

For larger corporations, you can consider Omniture and Buddy Media as well. If you only want to find out what people are saying on Facebook only, try Facebook Lexicon. Looking for a simple & free monitoring service in the beginning? Google Alerts would be your best choice.

Experiment

After getting all this information, you have to run some tests to find out the meaning behind it. Since there are not any best practices in the market yet, the only way to do this is through good old-fashioned “trial and error“. However, Professor Hoffman also reminded us that:

Unless you have Web 2.0 experts on your team, stick with small experiments, since big ones can fail badly.

The goal of experiment is to engage with your newly empowered customers. If you see a blog about your company, make friend with the blogger. When someone talks about your brand on Twitter, follow that user letting him/her know that your company is on Twitter, too. If you think your targeted audience is on Facebook, go make a Facebook Page to start the conversation with your fans.

To achieve greater customer awareness and brand engagement, you should create your company’s own social channels to foster communication between you and the users. Below are a few site helping you to do so:

1) WordPress (link)

wordpress
Why: Creating a company’s blog has become the most basic and essential way to communicate with your customers nowadays and WordPress is the best blogging tool.
Benefits: Highest quality. Huge community around this product. Large amount of widgets and add-ons. Integrated stats system. The world’s best comment and trackback spam technology.
Clients: CNN’s Political Ticker; Dow Jones’ All Things D; Time Inc’s The Page; People Magazine’s Style Watch; and many more.
Cost: Free

2) Ning (link)

ning
Why: Fast and easy way to create your own social network, a 100% company-controlled community.
Benefits: Allow you to create features such as photos, videos, chat, discussions, and groups; Customized visual design and themes…etc.
Clients: CNN’s Political Ticker; Dow Jones’ All Things D; Time Inc’s The Page; People Magazine’s Style Watch; and many more.
Cost: Free (not include Premium Support)

3) UserVoice (link)

uservoice
Why: Capturing feedback and ideas across your whole customer base with ease. Help you turn customer feedback into action.
Benefits: Seamless integration with your brand experience, with the popular “feedback” button on the side and single sign-on system. Analytic tools. Private forum…etc.
Clients: MySpace, Sitepoint, Sun Microsystems, zynga, cafepress…etc.
Cost: Starting at $19 per month with Free basic account.

4) Widgetbox (link)

widgetbox
Why: Turn your content into widgets. Help you reach new users across the web.
Benefits: Support for rich media. Feed-based content makes it easy for your users to stay up to date. Simple to build. Work on multiple platforms…etc.
Clients: Perez Hilton, PopSugar, CNN, Dunkin Donuts…etc.
Cost: Starting at $3.99 per month with Free basic account.

5) Other Alternatives

If your company is selling physical products, make sure you have listed your products on social-shopping sites, such as Polyvore, Kaboodle, Stylehive, StyleFeeder and ThisNext. These are good places to find out users’ comments about your products as well. Looking for more users’ feedback? Try blippr.

Apply

After you have learned the users’ online behavior, you need to optimize your web site and content so that they can be shared on every social media sites. Also, you need to have analytical tools to track the results of your experiments.

You may want to try some of the following tools:

1) ShareThis (link)

sharethis
Why: Simply click the ShareThis button for instant sharing on every social media sites.
Benefits: Work on multiple platforms. Strong reporting and analytics. Find out what people are sharing and how. Learn more about your traffic and where your content is going…etc.
Cost: Free

2) Google Website Optimizer (link)

website-optimizer
Why: Test and optimize site content and design. Quickly and easily increase revenue and ROI.
Benefits: A/B split & multivariable testing. Intuitive graphical reporting interface. Required minimal IT support, giving you greater control, flexibility, and speed. Increase your site effectiveness and visitor satisfaction…etc.
Cost: Free

3) Mixpanel (link)

mixpanel
Why: Improve company by tracking how users engage with your website in real-time
Benefits: Real-time analytics, Funnel analytics, Visitor retention, Custom event tracking, API to get data out…etc.
Cost: Volume pricing with Free low volume account.

4) Other Alternatives

If your content is good and relevant to the users, you should submit your content to social news sites, such as Digg, Stumble Upon, Reddit, and Mixx. If you want a simple shorten URL tracking tool, try Su.pr and Bit.ly.

Develop

Today’s web strategy is much more than a simple company’s web site. There are so many tools helping you to integrate social media into your marketing campaign. Google paid ads may be good for ROI; however, they can’t create greater brand engagement.

Advertising was a one-way communication. In Web 2.0 era, advertising should be interactive marketing programs generating conversation with customers.

If you don’t have social media experts in your team, it is hard to create this kind of marketing campaign yourself. Below companies may be able to help you:

1) Buddy Media – App-vertisements (link)

buddymedia
Why: Develop cross-platform, engaging and viral social application to promote your brand.
Benefits: Drive unprecedented loyalty and exposure of your brand…etc.
Clients: FedEx, InStyle, HBO, Busch, intel, SeaWorld…etc.

2) Medialets (link)

medialets
Why: Specialized in mobile ads. Take advantage of the iPhone’s accelerometer to add motion to advertising.
Benefits: Bring together voice, interactivity, video, and text in your ads. Typical iPhone users are social influencers apt to share experiences with peers. They are highly engaged trendsetters as well.
Clients: Levi’s Dockers…etc.

3) Other Successful Examples

Hang in there Jack – brilliant social media marketing campaign using Twitter, TV, Facebook, Blog, YouTube, Widgets…etc. In addition, viral videos, such as Evian Roller Babies, could be very effective, too 🙂

Conclusion

Like Professor Hoffman said:

Bottom line: by focusing on the fundamental aspects of the consumers’ online behavior— not just current best practices—companies will be better prepared when Web 2.0+ morphs into Web 3.0 and beyond.

If you want to learn more about latest management strategies on the web, I strongly encourage you to follow Professor Hoffman and @MckQuarterly on Twitter.

Photo source: caffeina @Flickr


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Startup to IPO: Why Few Companies Make the Leap and What We Can Learn from Them (Part 2: Obstacles)

by Vincent Chan on Jul 15, 2009

startup-to-ipo-02

This is the second installment of the “Startup to IPO” series. Last time we talked about how Vistaprint, Rackspace, OpenTable and Salesforce.com have distinguished themselves as a very special and elite breed of institutions. Now we will look at the obstacles these companies have faced and how they overcame each of them.

As you can tell, leadership and vision alone won’t guarantee success. These four elite entrepreneurs have also gone through the ups and downs of a startup life. As Charles Dunstone, the founder of Carphone Warehouse, would say:

“It’s not supposed to be easy. If it was, then everyone would do it.”

Based on what I have learned from these four companies, I find out that, as an entrepreneur, you don’t have to do everything right all the time. You just have to keep asking questions and try different solutions. Never lose your heart. And above all else, don’t ever give in.

Transforming from the Mail Order Catalogue Model

microsoft-vistaprint

When Vistaprint was founded in 1995, France was gripped by the largest strike movement in the past 40 years. Because of the strike and lack of financing, Vistaprint almost went out of business, forcing Robert Keane to restart his company again in the spring of 1996. Definitely not a smooth start for a startup.

In the beginning, Vistaprint was selling their products via direct marketing catalogue. Robert convinced Microsoft France to distribute their catalogues in every box of Microsoft Publisher. In this way, Vistaprint was able to reach their targeted small business customers with extremely low cost, 10 times cheaper than acquiring customers in a direct marketing model, allowing them to grow from zero revenues in 1995 to 2.5 million euros by 1999.

Yet the company saw a problem with their business model later on. Since Microsoft only wanted them to advertise to their new customers but not their existing user base, their revenue started falling and they could not grow as fast as they want. That was a love-hate relationship. On the one hand, Microsoft was a great partner leveraging their marketing effort, and on the other hand, Microsoft limited their growth.

The company knew that they need a new business plan if they want to grow larger. That was when the Internet came. Thus Robert decided to move away from the declining catalogue business to become an online marketer of small business printing.

To benefit from the near-zero cost distribution channel of the Internet, they decided to develop a web publishing program which makes you feel like the software you run on your desktop. Sounds familiar with all of the Web App Hype these days? And that was in 1999. 🙂

Robert later explained:

The idea was to give [the web publishing program] away free across the Internet and then utilize the Internet to conduct our direct marketing. We came up with a production technology where we aggregated orders together. Those three changes, in retrospect, were important in changing the trajectory of VistaPrint.

Not Getting VC Money

In fact, there is one more major strategic move contributing to their survival. Robert believes the fact that Vistaprint could not raise funding during the dot com crash actually saved the company. At that time, a lot of Internet bubble companies raised huge amount of money helping them to live until 2002-2003. When Vistaprint moved to the US in 2000, they could not raise money so they had to cut costs to keep profitability or they would go out of business. In other words, other companies did not have to face reality with their big venture capital money allowing them ignore operating costs and cash flow. Like Robert said:

“As much as I would like to say we were brilliant, I really think success is hard work combined with talent from a lot of different people, and some luck. We were lucky to not get venture capital because it forced us to work harder to get to profitability.”

Imagine you were in Robert’s position, will you have the gut to change your business model and leave your best partner, Microsoft, when facing crises? Or you will just stay put and give in? We can easily see that “change” is deeply embedded in Vistaprint’s corporate culture. They did not satisfy to be a merely profitable firm. They always want to survive and thrive in the long term. Without proactively looking for the next opportunity, Vistaprint probably would remain a small company working with Microsoft. How about your company? Do you want your company to survive in the short term or grow in the long term? Given the current economic crisis, may be it is a good time for your company to change.

Huge Consolidation and Commitment to True Profit

rackspace-morganstanley

Similar to Vistaprint, Rackspace also went through the tough time during the dot com bubble. After some wild spending with big VC funding, Rackspace had barely enough cash to sustain the business for 3 months in the fall of 2000. Due to this experience, they have learned that, in order to survive, they have to stay lean and build the company organically.

While their richer rivals continued their wild spending on costly data centers, Rackspace had to grow cautiously, buying servers just enough to meet their customer demand, growing one customer at a time.

As most people know, the hosting industry is extremely competitive, causing a lot of consolidations, bankruptcies and failures. Besides providing their excellent “Fanatical Support“, Rackspace has developed a principle of achieving “true profit” which enables them to reach the top. They defines true profit as a company’s operating profit (after taxes) minus its total annual cost of capital. The management has decided that if a project generated lower than 15% profit margin, they would just shut it down.

Rejecting a $20 Million Deal

For example, Rackspace once sold a fast-growing, moneymaking subsidiary because it doesn’t meet the rule. They also passed a $20 million deal with Morgan Stanley which would put their little-known firm on the map. Their CEO explained:

“We could have made a profit on this deal, but not enough to risk our capital. Were we willing to let Morgan Stanley use our multimillion-dollar asset and make a profit of only $600,000? No. We are 100 percent committed to making a true profit.”

The company believes this strict financial discipline has helped them to avoid the dangers of rapid growth and stay in the reality.

If you was the CEO of Rackspace, would you pass the chance to work for a respected giant company? Is your company really creating real wealth or just growing for its own sake? Are you focusing on the right projects that give you true profit? If not, your company probably is wasting money. And the costs for fixing these missteps could be very high.

Slow Start

To many people, it is hard to believe OpenTable has survived the dot-com crash which put a lot of web companies out of business.

In 1999, not many restaurant owners could see the benefits of online reservation management, especially when they already had more business than they could handle. Consequently, the company took off very slowly. They have to hire an aggressive sales force to persuade each owners that online reservation process can actually increase the number of customers, improve customer service and lower their costs. Since they have to do that one restaurant at a time, it took a long, long time before this business model and concept were proven.

It took 3 years for OpenTable to serve its one-millionth user. Yet as their popularity increased, restaurants actually suffered if they were not listed on the site. They have to join OpenTable voluntarily, paying one dollar for each referred diner. Now the company seats an average of approximately 2.8 million diners every month.

OpenTable is a business that almost didn’t happen, constantly being told “no”, but getting things done anyway. Do you have the determination to prove the doubters wrong? Does your company have the patience to start slow and smart?

Last week, Marc Andreessen, the founder of Netscape and Ning, also talked about the fact that not many startups going to IPO these days. He urged venture capitalists stop whining about Sarbox and other factors that are hurting their ability to take companies public. So what is his solution?

“Build Companies More Valuable and You Won’t Have this Problem.”

It sounds so easy but is extremely hard to do 🙂

In the next post, let’s talk about the growth strategies of these companies.

Photo source: mikebaird @Flickr

Part 1: Leadership & Vision
Part 2: Obstacles
Part 3: Growth
Part 4: Differentiation & Marketing


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The Startup Story of LegalZoom.com – Scaling Legal Services

by Vincent Chan on Jul 10, 2009

legalzoomDoctors, lawyers and consultants are widely considered as non-scalable professionals. Yet the founders of LegalZoom.com have successfully combined legal services and the Internet into one business model. Below is an inspiring story about their startup story which I believe all entrepreneurs would love to hear about.

In February 2008, the founders of LegalZoom.com, Brian Liu and Brian Lee, were invited to speak at the UCLA Entrepreneurship Week. I was so excited about this because I’ve heard about their success multiple times in the past. Did you see their TV commercials on CNBC? What’s better than listening to the founders talking about their own founding story?

Currently, LegalZoom is the nation’s leading online legal document preparation service. They started the company with five UCLA interns in 2000 and quickly grow the business into a company with revenue more than $6.5 million and around 350 employees.

Very Early Stage

Brian Liu and Brian Lee knew each other when they attended the UCLA School of Law. Although both of them have worked as attorneys at some of the most prestigious law firms after graduation, they believed that there should be something better than a 90 hours job.

So they quitted their high-paying jobs and tried to raise fund from Venture Capital for their online legal document service startup. Unfortunately, the whole stock market crashed on the day they went to the Venture Capital office. The VC simply asked them to come again in the future.

Usually people will just give up in this situation, right? But these two founders decided to continue their venture because they believed in their idea so much. Eventually, they got the business off the ground using their own money and funding from family and friends. (Site note: their first office is actually in one of the founders’ condo and they didn’t pay any salaries to themselves for one and a half year. Talk about bootstrapping your startup.)

Credibility

For an online legal related company, they understood that TRUST is the most important part for their business. If the customers didn’t trust your site, no one is willing to give his/her personal information to you.

Therefore, Liu and Lee tried to find a high-profile attorney to be their partner so people will recognize and trust their company right from the start. Not surpisingly, they aimed for the best possible target they could find: Robert Shapiro, who is most notable for being part of the defense team which successfully defended O.J. Simpson from his murder charges. Everyone in the US knew about Robert at that time. However, how can they connect with such a famous person?

They thought calling 411 is the best way to do that. So they called 411, got the home phone number of Robert Shapiro and called him at night. For some reasons, Robert really picked up the phone himself. Amazing! After Brian told Robert that they was planning to pitch him a business idea, the famous attorney planned to hang up immediately. But they asked him to give them 2 more minutes. Robert agreed. And Two minutes later, he likes their business ideas so much and finally becomes their business partner and co-founder of LegalZoom.

Keep the Customers Happy

So what’s the reasons for LegalZoom’s success? I believe it’s because both founders always focus on what make the customers happy. Lawyers in general have earned a bad reputation for their ambiguous charges. Customers often have to pay for a ridiculous amount of money for simple legal document preparation services. Liu and Lee saw this huge opportunity of providing low-fare online services which are fast and affordable. They thought that some legal services can actually be processed automatically online with much lower costs.

Since they understood that lawyers are bad at customer services, they knew LegalZoom had to change that perception and to take customer services very seriously. That’s why more than half of their 350 employees are dedicated customer service representatives. They believe entrepreneurs should always think in the customers’ standpoint because that’s the key to customer satisfaction.

Start Small

Many entrepreneurs consider VC funding as the only way to get funding, yet Brian reminds us that we shouldn’t be scared to start small and make the business pay as it goes. It doesn’t take that much money to start a web business nowadays. Because they didn’t get any VC money, they could slowly build their business for long term and didn’t have to worry about when the VC will cash out.

Although LegalZoom is in a very competitive industry now, they aren’t afraid of startups with a lot of funding from VC as they tend to overspend, especially on marketing, and can’t stay small in the early period. This kind of startups usually won’t stay long. The competitors that they are afraid of are the ones that are similar to LegalZoom: start slow and smart.

Build the Right Team

LegalZoom only hired when they need. They never overhire. When doing business with wrong people, nothing can get done. Therefore, they like to pick business partners who are different from themselves. They look for people who have different personalities but still can work together.

Originally, they didn’t want middle managers but when LegalZoom became bigger and bigger, they realized that they need to hire professional managers to help them manage a large group of employees. When the office has more than 20-25 people, they just can’t do everything on their own. At the same time, they don’t want to micromanage their employees. They want to find ways to empower people so that they can do things independently.

Competitive Advantage

Liu and Lee believe competitor advantages are more important than barrier to entry in their business. Their competitors are lawyers and most of them are not good business people. They don’t know how to provide good services. As a result, their superior customer services set them apart from competition.

Also, they have built a strong local relationship as they are so close to customers. A lot of their customers are entrepreneurs who need legal services. They are entrepreneur themselves so they fully understand what their customers want. They are honestly trying to help their customers. Meanwhile, they believe LegalZoom is able to do better in every services they come out so they are not scare of big players in the industry.

The goal of LegalZoom is to become a brand name of law. And it seems they are not that far away from that goal. 🙂

(Note: This is a re-print of my post in 5/5/2008 in my personal blog. )


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Entrepreneurs should help Entrepreneurs – Scaling the Power of Philanthropy

by Vincent Chan on Jul 6, 2009

kiva-power-of-scale

Our team was so obsessed with the philanthropic model created by Marc Benioff at Salesforce.com. So we have decided that this blog should have a bigger mission than helping others to grow their businesses. As entrepreneurs, we want to help someone similar to us, who are willing to take risk and believe they can change the world. That is why we think Kiva is our perfect match.

Kiva is the world’s first person-to-person micro-lending website, empowering individuals to lend directly to unique entrepreneurs around the globe. According to Kiva, the people you see on the site are real individuals in need of funding – not marketing material. For example, Mrs. Tagoeva lives in the Varzob district. She is divorced and has 9 children. So she is requesting a loan in order to purchase livestock to support her children and she still needs $350 more to get the loan she requested. If you want to help, Kiva allows you to lend as little as $25 to help entrepreneurs like Mrs. Tagoeva and as they repay the loan, you get your money back.

If you want to learn more, 37signals has written an excellent post about this wonderful service.

We have just created a Lending Team at Kiva for people who understand the sufferings that every entrepreneurs have to go through and believe entrepreneurs need to have a mission that is bigger than making a profit.

If you join our lending team, we can work together to alleviate poverty. Web technologies have empowered people moving ideas at unprecedented scale. So we believe the power of philanthropy is scalable, too. Please join us to help some of the world’s best and toughest entrepreneurs. Yes, we can change the world now, $25 at a time.

Photo source: jup3nep @Flickr


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Startup to IPO: Why Few Companies Make the Leap and What We Can Learn from Them (Part 1)

by Vincent Chan on Jul 5, 2009

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During the interview of Chance Barnett, the founder of GIG.FM, at Mixergy.com, Andrew and Chance mentioned that many startups just think about how to make their companies more viral, how to build a cooler product, and how to get on TechCrunch. Yet Chance, as a successful direct marketer, has a different mentality. He always thinks of how to get a dependable source of traffic and convert it into real profit.

Andrew believes that there are two communities of people in the business world. On one side, we have the “Cool Kids” who are always on TechCrunch, always have the latest iPhone, and always build the latest apps for Twitter. And then, we have the “Internet Marketers” on the other side. They are the ones making real money online but never get covered in mainstream media. They only focus on optimizing landing pages, testing different keywords, and utilizing direct marketing on Google.

No More Larger-Than-Life Entrepreneurs

Knowing this fact makes me wonder if all those cool startups are doing business the right way. Today many young entrepreneurs aim to build companies with the goal to sell them. While looking for a quick exist strategy is nothing wrong, I seldom see young entrepreneurs who define success on a very big scale, like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz…etc. I am talking about those who believe they can transform society and build great, lasting companies.

So why does that happen? Why so few startups go public nowadays? Is that because everyone is afraid of the costly regulations of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act? Do they just want to be inventors but not company builders? Or the problems they are solving are too small? Or they simply don’t want to grow large?

In order to answer those questions, I think it’s a good idea to learn from the past successful entrepreneurs who’ve successfully took their companies public. I want to find out why they were able to transform their companies from startups to IPO, from good to great. Like Jim Collins said:

…the best way to understand how great entrepreneurs become great company builders was to take the greatest companies of the 20th century and then rewind the tape of history to when they were start-ups.

Considering that both Built to Last and Good to Great focused on giant public companies, I want to talk about smaller companies which are founded in the past 15 years. Since I don’t have a 21-person research team like Jim Collins, I can only hand-pick the following 4 companies and see how they have distinguished themselves as a very special and elite breed of institutions. The reason I choose Salesforce.com, Rackspace, Opentable and Vistaprint is because they were not heavily covered in mainstream blogosphere despite their accomplishment. To get a better picture, all of these companies combine showing up on TechCrunch 1425 times in 2009, compared to 4730 times for Facebook and 4930 times for Twitter.

Company Founder Founded in IPO in Industry
Salesforce.com Marc Benioff 1999 2004 Software-as-a-Service
Vistaprint Robert Keane 1995 2005 e-Printing
Rackspace Richard Yoo, Dirk Elmendorf & Patrick Condon 1998 2008 Managed Hosting
OpenTable Chuck Templeton 1998 2009 Restaurant Reservation System

Although they are in different industries, I have founded that these founders share a lot of similarities which contribute to their successes.

I am going to divide this series into 5 parts which will focus on (1) Leadership & Vision, (2) Obstacles & Leverage, (3) Growth & Financing, (4) Differentiation, and (5) Marketing.

Let’s talk about leadership and vision today.

Building a Multi-Decade Business Institution

Vistaprint was founded in Paris after its founder, Robert Keane, graduated from business school in 1995. To many people, Vistaprint is just a typical online printing company. However, Robert has a much bigger vision. When asked about his company’s five years plan, he replied:

If you don’t mind, I would like to modify that to 15 years or 20 years. Great companies like FedEx, Swatch, eBay or Dell are built over decades. We are still only in the middle of our second decade. We have the aspiration to build a world-class and truly transformational business institution.

He believes that his company is more than a printing shop. He wants to make everything a small business needs in marketing, including low volume business cards printing, promotional T-shirts printing or even website building software. As long as a small business wants those services, his company will build them with great quality at superior prices. He wants to transform the small business marketing industry like what Southwest did to the airlines industry over the last 30 years.

Using advanced technologies to group similar orders in large groups, Vistaprint is able to provide short-run, low-cost, and low-volume production to small companies, a market opportunity of over $25 billion. Not until 14 years later, this huge potential of opportunity has finally been recognized by giant retailers, such as Staples and OfficeMax, but Vistaprint still remains as one of the leaders in this area.

I suspect not many people believe there could be more innovation from an industry like business card printing, yet somehow, Robert and his team have made it happen.

What is the larger purpose of what your company is doing? Do you compromise that your industry is too small and saturated so you can’t make a difference? Consider when Vistaprint just got started. Thousands of printing stores were already existed. Robert was just selling their services through direct marketing catalogues, one customer at a time. And today his company is worth $1.84 billion with $400 million in revenue.

World-Class Service

Similarly, even though Rackspace is already a leader in a crowed and competitive industry, their founders believe they are more than a hosting company. Pat Condon once said:

Our vision is to build Rackspace into one of the world’s greatest service companies striving to offer world-class service alongside organizations like Nordstrom, the Ritz Carlton and Federal Express. These companies are known for their unique customer service experience and we want Rackspace’s Fanatical Support to be similarly recognized. While we think we’re the industry leader in service, we are constantly striving to be better. I think this is one of the defining characteristics of a truly world-class service organization.

Because of their ambitious goal, one of their founding principles is to focus on serving customers with what they call “Fanatical Support“. They always believe that managed hosting is a service business and not strictly a technology business. This philosophy is deeply embedded in their culture from the very beginning. Rackspace wants to become the back office IT department for their customers, enabling them to focus on their core business but not hosting.

At that time, most of their competitors only focused on the technology end of hosting, but much less on service and support. By contrast, Rackspace believes they are in the business of providing their customers a pleasurable experience, and constantly pushing themselves to do that.

How about your company? Have you turn good customer service into your competitive advantage? Do you just follow what your competitors are doing today? Since 1998, Rackspace has grown more than 50 percent a year and there are currently 1800 Rackers (their employees) around the world serving their customers with their award-winning support everyday. Their dedication to great service enables them to grow their business from a small startup to a $1.65 billion public company today. Yes they did that in 11 years only. If they can do it, so can you.

Never Lose Faith

During dot-com boom, most people doubt that a company like OpenTable will succeed. It is a capital intensive business and difficult to scale. Chuck Templeton, the founder, wanted to create an online real-time restaurant reservation service for consumers and later added a comprehensive reservation management system to replace existing paper reservation systems in every restaurants.

Yet, in order to do that, OpenTable has to conquer territory market-by-market, restaurant-by-restaurant. Also, local market is one of the hardest and most expensive things to do well on the Internet. Doesn’t sound like a good Internet business model. Regardless of what the naysayers said, Chuck never gave in:

When we founded OpenTable.com, one of our goals was to make great restaurants…easily accessible to people who enjoy dining out…It has created a fair amount of jobs both directly and indirectly. It has provided both restaurants and consumers with a much more efficient and effective way to enjoy a meal at most of the world’s finest restaurants…All in all, it’s pretty cool.

Due to his determination, Opentable has grown to have a customer base of over 10,000 restaurants in 50 states and multiple countries, with $635 million market capital. And it is still keep growing one restaurant at a time.

The Business of Changing the World

Salesforce.com is known for its concept of the “end of software” model and successfully transforming software from a product to a service industry. Similar to Vistaprint, OpenTable and Rackspace, this company believe nothing is more important to them than making sure every customer is successful in their service.

However, Marc Benioff, the founder of salesforce.com, did something unique that every serious company builders should pay attention to. To be truly successful, Marc believes companies need to have a corporate mission that is bigger than making a profit, a concept that he learned from the Art of War. In other words, people can’t be united or focused unless they share a common philosophy—a philosophy that gives their effort a greater meaning.

He wants to make sure everyone in his company understand the importance of this idea so he created the famous “1-1-1” model, a philanthropic program.

We try to follow that at salesforce.com, where we give 1% of our equity, 1% of our profits, and 1% of our employees’ time to the community. By integrating philanthropy into our business model our employees feel that they do much more than just work at our company. By sharing a common and important mission, we are united and focused, and have found a secret weapon that ensures we always win.

Meanwhile, some people argues that how they can provide the best services to their customers when their employees are volunteering outside. Marc simply replied:

You have to be able to go to San Francisco Homeless Connect and you have to be able to run your computers. Both of those things have to happen. A successful company can do that, and we do that, of course.

In fact, this model has become a critical part of their business, making them a more competitive company. Salesforce.com ranked No. 7 out of all the companies in the world in a magazine called Business Ethics that charts the work of companies that do corporate social responsibility. As a result, many corporations like their company and are actually more likely to buy services from them, although this is not their original intention. How many entrepreneurs would think that philanthropy could become an asset to the company and their ability to work with customers and recruit employees? Sometimes doing the right things will give you tremendous results that you didn’t expect.

Besides your core business, does your company have a core value that is shared by every employees? Do you know helping others can become your secret weapon in the business world? According to Marc, one of their biggest accomplishments is that Google has copied their 1-1-1 model exactly, creating a $1 billion non-profit foundation, compared to their own $30 million foundation.

For future entrepreneurs, how would you define success? Having a good lifestyle or inspiring millions to help other people or transforming an industry to make others more successful or becoming an entrepreneur people aspire to be? That’s your choice.

In part 2, I will talk about the obstacles these four companies have faced in the past and how they were able to overcome them.

Photo sources: (Robert Keane) @PIworld, (Chuck Templeton) @facebook, (Pat Condon) @rackspace, (Marc Benioff) @flickr

Part 1: Leadership & Vision
Part 2: Obstacles
Part 3: Growth
Part 4: Differentiation & Marketing


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