Nine Lives

A few decades ago, a career was a lifetime. Working for the same company, rising through the ranks, earning a pension, and retiring was the norm.

And then the Internet happened.

  • Digital technology and a connected world changed everything about how we live and work. We’re inside this change, so it’s hard to see the proverbial forest for the trees. But historians will look back on this time as one of the greatest upheaval in human society.
  • Technology made everything fractional. We could share a resource, because digital copies are free. But we could also share our car, or our house, or our labor. Gigs are the new normal.
  • Technology created myriad niche markets. You couldn’t find a big enough market to launch many worthwhile products when you had to find customers through physical means, but you can find thousands of like-minded buyers digitally.
  • Technology let us test things. Crowdfunding, Patreon, Kickstarter, and other platforms allows us to check demand and optimize go-to-market before investing in design and production.
  • Technology sped up competition. Stalking your competitors took months; today, you can search for what they’re up to in seconds—and they can do the same to you.

This means the notion of a single career, leading to retirement, is increasingly rare.

Two lethal chasms

If you’re working on a new idea, or getting a startup off the ground, you need to know how to avoid pitfalls and test market strategies quickly. You need to know what kind of team to build, and how to measure your nascent growth.

An early-stage startup founder first finds a problem. She devises a solution. She invents, delivering some kind of prototype or proof-of-concept. But even then, her organization isn’t a startup. What remains is a business model—a sustainable, repeatable way to make money from solving a problem. This is the chasm between idea and acceleration. And it’s a solvable, teachable problem. Helping inventors discover and articulate their business models is the biggest thing we can do to increase the number of viable startups ready to enter accelerator programs or take on seed funding.

By contrast, if you’re emerging from an accelerator with a well-honed pitch and a sense of product-market fit, you need to bring on investment to scale quickly while you’re still competitive. A founder who has found the right product for the market needs to get to scale. He has found and demonstrated a new business model; now he needs to show it can grow to interesting numbers in order to achieve a return on the investment he’s taken in. This is the better-known chasm between startup and mainstream product, first discussed in Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm.

Every end teaches and nourishes

Most startups die on one of these chasms. That’s the nature of the beast. But failure done right leads to learning, and those deaths aren’t in vain. With digital technology, deep analytics, iteration, and Lean Startup approaches, startups don’t die in vain, because founders and investors get smarter.

Entrepreneurs can live to fight another day, and sample several careers. They can do this for the rest of their lives, tapping into a global network of customers, sales channels, and talent that’s also available on demand.

There’s another kind of end, of course: An exit. Some startups do hit escape velocity, clearing both the business model chasm and the scale chasm. When a startup succeeds, its founders bring money, networks, and wisdom to their startup ecosystems. Failed startups teach; successful startups nourish.

Our focus this year

Startupfest brings together thousands of people from around the globe, and for nearly a decade our audience has been as diverse and varied as the startup ideas it’s working on. But startup founders—braving the business model chasm and the scale chasm—are our core audience.

Each year, we focus on a particular aspect of the startup world. In year nine, we’re going to dive into the cycle of death and rebirth of startups—what it takes to begin, how to learn, when to kill something, how to achieve escape velocity, and how those who’ve chosen this path handle the inevitable rollercoaster of emotions.

That means increased emphasis on real, personal interactions. We’ve always created an environment where actual networking can happen, and participants from around the world cite Startupfest as the best way to actually connect with the right people. But we can do more; we’re leveraging technology, game models, and new ways to connect people.

It also means expanded training content. We’re bringing some of the world’s smartest, most sought-after instructors and authors to create a curriculum that arms startups with the tools they need to cross chasms and achieve scaleable, repeatable business models.

With Startupfest nine, we want to embrace the nine lives of a startup founder, and explore the ways technology is forever changing how business, culture, and society function as a whole.