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Secret #6: Kinetic Startups Have More Potential

As seen on LinkedIn

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Looking back, my three high school science teachers at Morgan Park Academy were up to some next-level stuff.

Ms. Ann Brown taught us biology and had a clear hand in a good 20 percent of my classmates going on to become doctors and dentists. Mr. Mark Linnerud was a veritable Mr. Wizard, his chemistry experiments leaving our imaginations, and occasionally our desks, on fire. And then there was our physics teacher Dr. Larry Brown.

“Doc” was a force of nature on a self-described mission to “stamp out ignorance.” A charismatic Kansan, complete with suspenders and a plaid pocket full of mechanical pencils, Doc was that rare soul who could make concepts like, oh, gravitational constants, exciting. Before Neil deGrasse Tyson, there was Larry G. Brown.

So memorable were Doc’s lessons, in fact, that I find myself anchoring this entry in our 12-part series on, you guessed it, the coefficients of static and kinetic friction. 11th grade physics, period 5: Comin’ Atcha!

Do U Remember μ?

So it turns out, there are two different kinds of friction (μ). Static friction is the force needed to be overcome to bring an item from rest into motion. Then you’ve got kinetic friction, representing the amount of force needed to keep a moving object moving.

I’ll never forget Doc’s vivid illustration of the concept: He springs up and grabs ahold of my buddy Hans-Peter Schmidt’s desk, with Hans *still in it*. He proceeds to push, and grunt, and make beleaguered comments about Hans’ strapping 6’2″ German frame. Finally, the desk gives way and starts to slide, and Doc proceeds to easily continue sliding it (with Hans gleefully in tow) halfway across the room. “Not so hard to push you around now that you’re already moving, huh?”

The nerds and wizards among you know that this is because the coefficient of kinetic friction is typically less than the coefficient of static friction. Everyone else who’s ever tried to scoot furniture on carpet knows that it’s much easier to keep something going once it’s…going.

Businesses Have Friction, Too

It is far easier to “move” a business that is already moving than it is to get the business moving from rest. Said another way: The first customer is almost always the hardest to acquire.

The moment that a startup manages to acquire its first paying customer is downright magical —  champagne-popping stuff. I can’t help but think of the scene from my favorite movie, Ghostbusters, when secretary Janine Melnitz memorably transitions from disgruntled to hopeful to euphoric at the realization that, finally, “They Got One!” The period prior to customers and revenue can be harrowing. You’re high on hope and potential, but both, kind of like caffeine, only get you so far. Eventually, you need to eat.

Find A Customer Willing To Pull

My advice to anyone in this prerevenue stage is straightforward: It’s a wise idea to put your full energies into securing a singular, reference-worthy “Customer 1” whose strategic interests are aligned with your own mission.

Because you’ve (hopefully) chosen to lead with need, this critical first customer can help you overcome your hellacious static friction by helping to “pull” you forward so you don’t have to “push” quite so darn hard. Once you’re up and moving with Customer 1, you’ll be able to jointly tout your shared success as bait to attract Customers 2-n. The incremental effort required to close customers 37 and 38 (or 3,700 and 3,800, depending on your model) will be child’s play compared to closing Customer 1.

As Geoffrey Moore will tell you in his book Crossing the Chasm, the final 60 percent of your customers will eventually end up converting as much out of peer pressure (ahem, kinetic friction) as value proposition. Don’t worry about them. Concentrate all fire on Customer 1.

Success = Better Problems To Solve

Sure, once you’ve got that all-important first customer in tow, you’ll have new problems. You’ll worry about things like capacity, scalability and agility. In fact, you’ll have all sorts of -ilities to worry about. But that’s a good thing. Someone told me that “success is about having better problems to solve.” I couldn’t agree more. Heck, Bill Gates had the mother of all successful exits, and he’s still working on solving ever-meatier problems.

So for now, get busy moving with Customer 1. Once you’re rolling, you’ll be privileged to feel like “Successful Janine,” burdened as always, but by too much work, not too little.

Bottom line: We prefer to invest in companies that are already moving. We like to see at least one reference-worthy customer helping “pull” you into market while you “push.” We typically won’t invest in prerevenue companies because the friction in getting you from customer 0 to 1 is dramatically more than the friction in getting you from customer n to (n+1).

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