How Greg Lemond Might Respond to Dick Costolo and Marc Andreesen

November 8th, 2007

In Founders at Work, Joshua Schachter advises new entrepreneurs to keep the product simple- do one thing and do it well, in essence. This strategy worked well for del.icio.us, which is a simple (in a good way) web tool. He built it largely on his own in his spare time while working for Morgan Stanley and that setup worked very well for him.

Mike Ramsay from Tivo, on the other hand, developed an extremely complex product (I found great humor in the section of the book where he describes the enormous back-end efforts to manage programming information for every TV service in the US, and then explains why he feels compelled to throttle anyone who describes Tivo as “like a digital VCR”) that required enormous engineering, marketing and other resources. Tivo raised significant money from VCs and went public to raise even more. Again, this has worked well for Tivo.

This pattern also reminds me of the Dick Costolo/Marc Andreesen online debate about raising outside capital that I continue to see discussed from time to time. Dick built Feedburner with a relatively small amount of outside cash, developed an excellent product with it and sold the company to Google for a solid return. Consequently, his advice to entrepreneurs is to raise enough capital to allow for a good return for founders and investors even if the business is not a home run.

Marc, on the other hand, has built two large businesses and sold each of them for over $1B- two grand slams. Both companies were heavily VC funded and Marc believes that the cash gave both businesses the wherewithal to survive difficult times, revise their business plans and ultimately become very successful. Based on his experience, then, the advice is to raise as much money as possible whenever it is available on acceptable terms.

All of these companies and people were successful, which means all of them are correct. Del.icio.us and Feedburner needed only modest capital to acheive their objectives. Tivo, Netscape and Opsware needed far more.

This brings me back to a piece of advice I picked up years ago in an entirely different context. Professional cyclist Greg Lemond wrote a book on cycling training in which he talked about one of the great fallacies of training- emulating someone else’s habits just because the person was famous or successful. As he put it “what works for ___ is good because it works for ____. That fact that it worked for ___ doesn’t mean it is right for anyone else.”

In other words, the paths to success of others are valuable for the ideas they can provide, but they are not the “right” path for everyone. Past experiences are data points to analyze, not prescriptions to swallow whole.

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