Is Your Startup Fat or Lean?

When two clear big winners in the high-end startup world disagree on something as basic as lean vs. fat startups, I’m fascinated. First, because both of them have a lot to say to the rest of us. Second, because it illustrates, once again, how much of startups and entrepreneurship defies rules of thumb and generalizations.

measure the appleIn The Case for the Fat Startup, Ben Horowitz tells how he burned hundreds of millions of investor dollars while building up Loudcloud/Opsware  for a stunning $1.6 billion exit in 2007 when it was acquired by Hewlett-Packard. Clearly, this was a huge win. It’s a hall of fame story. And he makes raising a ton a money one of the keys to success (I’m quoting):

As you listen to the virtues of the lean start-up–lightweight sales, light engineering, and so on–keep the following in mind:

  • If you are a high-tech start-up, your value is in your intellectual property. Don’t stare at your spreadsheets so long that you get confused about that.
  • You cannot save your way to winning the market.
  • The best companies can raise money even in this market. If you are one of those, you should consider raising enough to wipe out your competition.

Thin is in, but sometimes you gotta eat.

Fred Wilson, founder of Union Ventures, a big winner as professional investor, and an eloquent blogger, answered that post with Being Fat is Not Healthy. He says:

The very best investments that I have been involved in established product market fit before raising a lot of money. That’s how Geocities did it. That’s how Twitter did it. That’s how Zynga did it. That’s how every single one of my top twenty web investments in my career did it.

I have to admit, I like the lean option better, but then most of the companies I’ve built or helped to build were bootstrapped. And times have changed, too, so what Horowitz is calling “fat” isn’t really an option very often. But the dialog doesn’t stop there. Horowitz came back and responded with The Revenge of the Fat Guy. He makes two points back:

  • Product market fit isn’t a one-time, discrete point in time that announces itself with trumpet fanfares.
  • My experiences [with Loudcloud/Opsware] are highly relevant to other entrepreneurs. In fact, they are more relevant than Fred’s pattern matching.

Ouch? Pattern matching? Really. Read the Fred Wilson post, see if that’s fair. Also ask yourself whether he’s really guilty of underestimating the time it takes to get the product-market fit. I can’t resist adding this quote from the Fred Wilson post favoring lean. It rings true to me:

In short, since I started investing in the web in ’93/’94, I have invested in about 100 software-based web companies. And the success rate of fat companies versus lean companies is stark. I have never, not once, been successful with an investment in a company that raised a boatload of money before it found traction and product market fit with its primary product.

The rest of us, meanwhile? I think we have to admit, the debate is pretty much moot for the rest of us. There might be a few dozen people around who can still raise hundreds of millions of dollars based mainly on their name and track records. Ben Horowitz and his partner Marc Andreessen are two of them. But I’m not; and, no offense, but the odds are you aren’t either.


  • Berislav Lopac says:

    I am curious — bootstrapping is a great thing, if you can relatively quickly bring revenues. But what if you are building a new infrastructural technology — something like Google or Facebook — but can’t get a university or a research institute to fund it? Funding is of utmost importance here.

    • Tim Berry says:

      Berislav, I think we need to recognize that this is a problem that involves several variables: what the entrepreneurs’ business plan calls for, what the investor response is, what’s actually realistic. I did a post here called 3 Steps to The Startup Sweet Spot that talks about that relationship between the intrinsic ideal startup capitalization given the plan, and how that works when the ideal isn’t possible.

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