Written by Áslaug Magnúsdóttir, co-founder and CEO of Moda Operandi for The Business of Fashion.
When founding a company, one of the most important decisions you will make is how and when your company grows. Growing a young company is not an involuntary, linear process, like how a baby grows. Growth tends to happen in sizeable, step-up increments, like a set of stairs, based upon deliberate decisions you and your team make. The key is to balance careful planning with speed of execution.
The implications of this tricky balance are multiple and very real. Do you “get it right first,” subordinate growth to perfecting your product or service, or do you “get big fast” and shun polishing the decks while it’s full speed ahead?
As you will hear me say often, there is no right solution to this kind of puzzle. But as co-founder of Moda Operandi (M’O), I mulled this balance carefully and decided I needed to “get big fast.” I saw an opportunity for M’O to be first to market with our unique “pre-order luxury goods” concept and I knew that meant aligning myself with key people and companies to help me do it quickly and cleverly. In short, I felt the need for speed was a critical competitive advantage that outweighed hoarding equity and control. This decision had significant implications for how I thought about taking on a partner, where to raise financing, and how much. And since, 16 months later, M’O remains the only store in the business with our dedicated pre-order model, this decision has turned out to be one of the most important I’ve made for the company to date.
TO PARTNER, OR NOT TO PARTNER
One of the first decisions to make when you come up with a business idea is whether to do it alone or with a partner. You have probably heard that entering into a partnership around a company is like entering into a marriage, and it is true. Partnerships, like marriages, are exciting because the whole is greater than the individual parts and together amazing offspring can be born. But also, like marriages, partnerships require work and compromises and they have real costs. Decision-making and control is shared; equity and wealth potential is diluted. So just like getting hitched on a whim in Vegas is not necessarily a great long term idea, you shouldn’t pick a partner unless you think you need to. And if you do need to, make sure that person is kick ass.
I knew Lauren Santo Domingo, my co-founder, would be the perfect partner. Why?
- Lauren got it immediately (Warning: if you have to explain the concept twice, it’s probably not a good fit.)
- She added to it immediately (i.e. “We should do this as well, we should call them as well,” etc. Her complementary experience was apparent from the get-go.)
- She threw herself into it immediately (“When do we start?” No dilly-dallying, this was a partner who wanted in yesterday, already.)
After our first chat about it, I knew there was nobody else I wanted as a co-founder of the company. But we can’t all be this lucky. And taking on a bad co-founder can kill your business before it is born. So here are a few things you need to think about when making the decision about partnering-up or going solo:
- Is there a sizeable hole in what you bring to the table (skills, relationships, experience, etc)? If yes, would that void be better filled via a partner, or a contractor, consultant or temporary hire? In short, do you need a partner?
- Do you generally prefer to work in teams or alone? Put bluntly: can you have a partner? (What does your significant other think? Always a good reality check.)
- Is the scope / complexity of your business idea robust / complicated enough that you need a partner during those crucial initial months? In other words, does the company need a partner?
- Is the size of your business big enough to support an additional partner? Can all mouths be fed? Can your company support a partner?
Divorce is a mess, not least because it will really slow you down. So only pick a partner if you need to. And if you need to, pick someone who will help you get there faster and smarter. The last thing you need is the old ball and chain.
Investors are your friends. They give you money, you build cool things, consumers spend money, everyone is happy. However, there are different kinds of investors and each has pros and cons. Specific to speed to market, here are a few things to consider:
- Angel investors are typically more flexible and hands-off, but often lack industry expertise. They are your rich uncle who ponies up cash and wishes you the best, but doesn’t really want or know how to help you do your thing. This is not always the case — some angels are brilliant and available — but this is what you should anticipate.
- Venture capital investors (VCs) typically have deeper pockets, can provide good advice and resources, but require a lot of control and hand-holding. They’re professional money makers, so understandably, they want to know what the hell you’re doing. This can be a good thing but it also takes up valuable time. Again, there are exceptions, but this is a general rule.
The key point: if you believe you need to get your company to market now, make sure you match your expectations with those of your potential investors. You may not have the luxury of options. But you don’t want to take on an investor who wants you to get it right first, when you’re focused on getting big fast.
HOW MUCH MONEY IS ‘ENOUGH MONEY’?
Another common question I am often asked is, how much money should I raise and how quickly should I raise it? Fundraising is painful and time consuming. Some founders prefer to raise just enough to get something to market now. On the other hand, some founders prefer to go the extra mile and aim for a bigger raise so they won’t have to suffer through the process all over again in just a short while. There are pros and cons to each approach.
At M’O, we went the extra mile. While we were fortunate enough to have some seed money to get our proof of concept going, we parallel-tracked the fund raising process in full swing until we secured our first round of venture capital. Grabbing market share was critical. We had to build the car while driving it down the highway.
This may not always be the right decision. A young company might be better served in its early days focusing its attention on perfecting the product rather than on fundraising. And depending on the economic environment and the appetite of the investment community, raising more early on might mean giving up more equity to investors than if you wait. But you probably will need more money than you think. And it is always good to stash away cash today for a rainy day tomorrow, like a sudden downturn in the market or the unexpected arrival of a formidable competitor.
During our latest fund raising, I had a meeting with a Chinese businessman, one of the most successful retail tycoons in the world. He said, “You guys are hot. Everyone is talking about M’O. Raise as much money as you can now.”
The point? If capturing market share is of the essence, raise as much money as you can now. Having too much money is a good problem, even if it means dilution, giving up control and sharing the throne. But get to market. Raising all the money in the world means nothing if you aren’t open for business.