#1 Need for Startups

In May 2005 Fraser Bullock, one of Utah’s brightest lights in the financial world (formerly with Bain Capital, now runs Sorenson Capital, helped with the 2002 Olympics turn-around), spoke at the Edison Conference in Salt Lake City.

Fortunately, I had my blackberry and I took extensive notes. Here are my notes from the middle part of his talk:

Management has to be adaptable. 1990 someone brought him into run home shopping network, pre-internet. Challenge was to get consumers to buy. They had a patent. Decided they had assets, what could they build that might be of worth. Built transaction processing engine for remote banking. Sold it to Visa International in 1994.

In fast moving tech environment, if I didn’t step back every 3-6 months to fundamentally re-assess our assets and the environment, I might be missing a paradigm shift. You need the discipline to step back.

We invested in a hardware company, but we saw the asset in the software they had developed. We invested in it, but are converting it to a software company.

Ultimately we have to produce revenue. That always comes down to distribution. Our 1990 company did deal with Visa, they distributed to thousands. For new companies, it’s distriution, distribution, distribution. Must be big, fast, easy. We always asked “Where is the money.”

Long term, to succeed, we needed to have a strategic competitive advantage. What makes you different? What will make people buy this? This is essential to any company we look at.

When you are looking at changing behavior (even if your product is twice as good), inertia is your worst enemy. Sometimes you have to be 10 times as good.

Looking at the handheld X-Ray system he said he’d like to use this on teenagers to find out what is going on in his life.

Utah more and more is coming of age. To our chagrin, most of the big tech companies we’ve built here have left. But we are getting more critical mass. And there is more capital now. The overhand is astonishing. If you have good management team and a distribution strategy, the money is out there.

We need companies here, and high paying jobs.

The key takeaway from Fraser Bullock’s talk that I have been thinking about lately is his strong emphasis on distribution as the key to revenue.

Without sales and marketing distribution channels, you cannot get to revenue.

I also have notes from a Greg Warnock UVEF speech last year where he said a recent survey of 400 Utah entrepreneurs showed that the average time to revenue for a startup company is 14 months.

I think that is WAY too long. I think that if entrepreneurs would focus on distribution, they could cut the time to revenue dramatically, and find much greater chances of success.

I have a friend who made the Inc. 500 list in the 1990s, with a couple million dollars per year in annual revenue. He told me once that his revenue was tiny until he found a new distribution channel: home school conventions. Once his company found success with home school conventions, they started going to all of them and the company’s revenues jumped dramatically. If he hadn’t found this channel, no doubt the company would have folded.

So it’s all about the channel.

At Infobases, the first company I founded and ran from 1990-1997, our two primary distribution channels were LDS bookstores that sold our CD ROM products, and then over time, our house mailing list, which eventually grew to nearly 150,000 customers.

There are different channels for different products and services. Each industry is unique. Entrepreneurs need to discover all the various channels and layers of influence that affect how decisions are made.

There are retail channels, network marketing channels, direct marketing, distributors and value-added resellers (VARs).

Since 1996 I have been focused primarily on the internet as a sales and marketing channel. My favorite “internet channel” is affiliate marketing, where thousands of motivated entrepreneurs and webmasters aggressively promote your products to all their site visitors or email list subscribers.

My next favorite channel is search engine marketing, a powerful channel where every keyword you purchase or get high natural rankings for becomes a sales person working for you 24-hours a day.

I don’t know if I’m abusing Fraser Bullock’s definition of a channel by describing the internet as a channel. But I do know that many if not most of the pureplay internet companies from the mid-90s have expanded over the years to become multi-channel retailers.

Except for potential channel conflict, which can damage a company, there is little reason for a company to stay purely within one channel. Companies want to expand, and finding new channels is a great way to grow your business.

But for startup companies, finding the first channel that gets you customers and revenue is the most important thing.

One unusual source that I rely on again and again to discover potential channels for companies that I am involved in is the Directories in Print, published by Gale. I own a 2003 edition. But local university libraries often have the latest edition on the shelves.

Directories in Print is like the yellow pages, which I also sometimes use for brainstorming potential channels and strategic partners. It covers hundreds of categories and topics. And within each topic, it lists industry organizations, associations, published guides, and all kinds of directories of members and companies. It’s a great starting place to get a feel for an industry.

Next, I like to research all the periodicals and publications that cover a particular topic. The Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media lists more than 11,000 periodicals, newspapers, radio, TV and cable stations. The 1994 edition listed more than 50 periodicals in the genealogy industry.

The Standard Periodical Directory lists more than 70,000 titles in 230 subject areas. Oxbridge publishes several titles including the Oxbridge Directory of Newsletters.

I don’t have copies of any of these, but I hope to get copies of many of these reference books for the Provo Labs Academy Library. For now, we’ll just prepare a directory of the most useful ones along with their call numbers in the BYU Library.

I’ve blogged before about the great need for entrepreneurs to write things down. Intellectual capital, even the name and email address of a single person whom you once met, might be the key to your finding the channel that will turn your company into a success.

The Apprentice episode a couple years ago that showed two teams competing to attract brides to a single day wedding gown sale in downtown New York City ended with one team failing miserably and the other team selling dozens of gowns to the crowd of brides-to-be that flocked to the sale. The difference? One team knew about theknot.com‘s bridal registry database; the other team did not.

The team with a channel wins over the team with no channel.

So what is the #1 need for startup companies? Find a channel that helps you find customers and generate sales. Of course as Fraser Bullock also pointed out, you have to have a great product to break into a channel, sometimes 10 times better than the competition that is already entrenched.

But some channels, like the internet, are great for new companies with new products. I encourage entrepreneurs to use sales channels like eBay to see if they can sell their product to the millions of people who shop there before investing thousands of dollars in building their own web site. I also advocate setting up stores on Yahoo and Amazon and not merely relying on your own single storefront. Take your products to where the customers are. Use all the available channels to reach the maximum number of people.

The ebook publishing company that Provo Labs recently invested in has some great online channels, including Handango and Mobipocket, with more coming soon, including a major web retailer.

The Deseret News has become a great partner for the LDS Media products. And mp3books.com is working with FranklinCovey to make its audio books more widely available to its customers.

FundingUniverse.com is using Sprout Marketing to help identify influencers in the angel investing world and also to find potential strategic partners. Strategic partners that bring you into contact with their constituents can also be considered channel partners in a broad sense — don’t just think retail channels.

So if you are a startup, think long and hard about the channels that you are going to use to get your company to profitability. Spend more time on that than you ever have before, and your chances for success will increase.