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Why it’s smart for consumer startups to grow first and make money later

I’ve had two recent conversations in which people have mentioned the “grow first, monetize later” philosophy as one of the signs of the coming bubble apocalypse, and this post is to argue why it’s very smart and rational to focus on getting millions of users first. (This post is part of my 2011 blogging roadmap)

Regarding monetization, I’ll note that…

  • in general, consumer products mostly suck at monetizing
  • any business model built on 1% subscriptions of 0.1% ads need millions of users
  • costs are ridiculously low for new startups, and N millions of users is not expensive
  • ignore this for products like marketplaces where monetization is part of the value prop

An ad-based example
Here’s some quick math- let’s say that you are a typical seed-stage team of 4 trying to get your startup off the ground, and your burn is approximately $40k/month. If you monetize at $0.25 CPM, which is a pretty typical ad rate for every thousand ad impressions, then that means you need a whopping 160M ad impressions per month to break even[1]. Even if you get 2X or 10X that ad rate, you’re still in the millions of users to get there. Scary right?

A subscription-based example
Similarly, if your site has a freemium business model, you’ll find that something like 1% of users subscribe for a pretty nicely tuned freemium configuration. So if you have 1% of registered users paying you $5/month, that means your average user is worth $0.05. Given this, you’d need 800k registered users, and if only 10% of your users register, you’ll need millions of users to get there.

Ultimately, the key is new user growth
Given the difficulty of monetization for consumer products, ultimately the best way to get to breakeven isn’t to try to optimize the 1% subscription rate to 2%, but rather to pick a huge market, create a killer product, and try to acquire millions of users. Because this is the biggest risk, you want to focus on growth first and foremost.

Here’s a different analogy that Steve Blank uses to get at this- let’s say that you wanted to create a cancer-curing drug. You don’t need to crunch the business model for that- if you had it, it’s valuable. You don’t need to price test or do customer development. All the risk is in the science, so you just focus on the science.

Similarly, I’d argue that in consumer internet, the real risk is that you can’t get millions of users actively engaged in your product, and that risk is ultimately driven by growth and long-term user retention. Thus focus on that first, then figure out the monetization once you’re at scale.

Stuff is so cheap these days
Note also that running a site with millions of users is cheap. The cost of hiring developers/designers will vastly overshadow the cost of maintaining the infrastructure- all you need are a few dedicated servers or just use Amazon Web Services- unlike the 90s, you don’t need a huge datacenter to get started. Because these costs are pretty low, you can just focus on making sure your designers and developers are productive and you’re getting to product/market fit.

Ignore this advice for products where revenue is part of the value prop
Of course for products where you are helping people make money as the central value, you need to do this sooner rather than later, so that you can make the entire network happen. So if you’re building a marketplace, collect money early, even if you don’t take very much profit. Same with Groupon-esque startups.

[1] CPM to revenue calculation
$0.25 CPM = $0.25 for every 1000 impressions
$0.25 / 1000 = $0.00025 per ad
$40k burn / $0.00025 per ad = 160M ad impressions per month

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