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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

When (and whether) to scale?

My friend Tom Eisenmann (@teisenmann) has blogged for his entrepreneurship students on the important question of when (and why) entrepreneurs should ramp up to achieve scale economies. This is an issue that I usually address early when I teach entrepreneurship and also technology strategy.

Of course Tom is a leading scholar of network effects and technological innovation: he knows the material cold. Thus it’s not surprising that his advice is solid — the pros and cons of trying to be a first mover, the benefits of scale, and the obstacles that startups typically face in getting there.

In some ways it’s a more complete explanation than mine would beHe makes the point in a more quantitative way than I have, suggesting that his students are in a program that expects financial analysis throughout the program, not just in a few select classes.

There is only one thing I would add if I were using it in my own course. The posting assumes that the entrepreneur will (or must) scale, and I think it’s a choice that every entrepreneur should consider.

Perhaps it’s Tom’s audience. I can see a scenario where people who plunk down $170K for a Harvard MBA aren’t going to mess around with a mere “lifestyle business” — they’ll take someone else’s money and (ala Babe Ruth) swing for the bleachers rather go for the sure single.

However, in my class I talk to students about what causes scale economies, and how some businesses have them while some don’t — or, more realistically, can achieve minimum efficient scale with fairly modest staff and/or revenues.

Yes, I wanted to create the next HP or Apple, but I didn’t blow my brains out when that didn’t happen — nor did I pull the plug on my business and my customers. (I did cut back to part-time status and get a Ph.D., but that’s another story.)

So what I teach my students is that scale is a choice and a matter of fit to both aspirations and pragmatic realism. If you want to make a rapidly growing business that has a huge exit, 9 times out of 10 you need to attract sizable venture investments and generate the explosive growth those investors demand.

However, if you don’t want to take their money — or don’t have an idea that will generate the growth they expect — you can still start a business. The trick is to find a concept that doesn’t require such scale to create a sustainable competitive advantage.

As with any other aspect of strategy, success is a matter of aligning the goals with the reality, and then executing like hell.

1 comment:

Tom Eisenmann said...

Joel: I agree fully, and this is an important reminder that the decision to grow, in most cases, hinges on an entrepreneur's personal preferences more than on economics. My posts will eventually be compiled into a note for a core MBA course called "The Entrepreneurial Manager," which focuses on the founder's choices. I'll be sure to include your point in the note. Thanks for the feedback!