Are you building an R&D lab or a business

Take Twitter in a parallel universe. The team builds a great useful and viral product. They start growing like crazy and hit their first million members. The growth machine keeps pumping and everyone is watching the hot Alexa and Compete graphs cranking away.

They start getting their first acquisition offers. But the smart folks know the second differential of their graphs is still wildly positive (it’s curving up). They decide to hold off on a sale because they figure that even though they have to raise another round to buy infrastructure, their equity will still be worth more net net.

They keep growing and that second differential gets a little smaller as the curve starts flattening out into a line. Then right before the line turns into the other half of an S they hire Allen and Company, line up all the acquirors and sell for $3Bn to Google.

What just happened is a kick ass group of product guys teamed up with a kick ass group of financiers to create an R&D lab. The lab came up with a hit product and was acquired. Make no mistake, this is a very very good thing! In this parallel universe the amazing product that is Twitter is combined with a company with the business infrastructure and knowledge to turn it into a money printing machine. That creates jobs, brings foreign currency back into the US through exported services and of course the wealth creation event for the founders has a trickle-down effect if you’re a fan of supply side economics.

Now lets step back into our Universe (capital U because I don’t really believe in this parallel universe stuff). Another group of kick-ass product guys called Larry and Sergei teamed up with a group of kick-ass financiers called Sequoia in 1999. A guy called Eric Schmidt who is a battle hardened CEO from a profit making company that got their ass handed to them by Microsoft joins the party.

In 2000 Google launched AdWords and the rest is business model history. A history that you will never hear because once the company started printing money they went dark. There are tales of Bill Gross having invented AdWords, legal action, a possible out of court settlement – but no one will ever know the full details of these early days and we have almost zero visibility into the later story of how Google turned that product into a money printing business.

The stories of successful transitions from product to business are never told. Even if they were they would bore most of us  because they are not fun garage-to-zillionare stories. They are stories where the star actors are cash-flow plans, old guys with experience and teams of suit-wearing sales people.

The thing that attracts most geeks (also called Product Guys) to startups is the garage to zillionare story through an exit. And that’s OK provided you get your head screwed on straight and understand that you are an R&D lab who’s goal is to get acquired. So go and make yourself a credible threat. Make yourself strategically interesting. Go and build the kinds of relationships that demonstrate your worth to potential acquirors, get them addicted to your data and result in an exit.

[Quick aside: I spent the day skiing a while back with a great guy who heads up a certain lab at Stanford. They came up with an amazing product that you now use every day. They teamed up with an A list VC with the specific intent of selling to Google. That’s exactly what they did and it has improved our lives and Google’s business model. So again, the R&D lab approach is very very OK.]

The other smaller group of founders are business geeks. I’m friends with a handful of company founders and CEO’s in Seattle who absolutely personify this group. Everyone of them was a VP in a larger company. They all have MBA’s from top schools. And every one of them is focused on generating cash in their business. The road they’ve chosen is a longer, harder road with a lower chance of success but a much higher reward (think Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison) if they succeed.

Both paths are morally and strategically OK. You just need to know which you’re on and make sure your investors and the rest of the team are using the same playbook.

temet nosce (“thine own self thou must know”)