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.