Startup to IPO: Why Few Companies Make the Leap and What We Can Learn from Them (Part 1)

During the interview of Chance Barnett, the founder of GIG.FM, at, Andrew and Chance mentioned that many startups just think about how to make their companies more viral, how to build a cooler product, and how to get on TechCrunch. Yet Chance, as a successful direct marketer, has a different mentality. He always thinks of how to get a dependable source of traffic and convert it into real profit.

Andrew believes that there are two communities of people in the business world. On one side, we have the “Cool Kids” who are always on TechCrunch, always have the latest iPhone, and always build the latest apps for Twitter. And then, we have the “Internet Marketers” on the other side. They are the ones making real money online but never get covered in mainstream media. They only focus on optimizing landing pages, testing different keywords, and utilizing direct marketing on Google.

No More Larger-Than-Life Entrepreneurs

Knowing this fact makes me wonder if all those cool startups are doing business the right way. Today many young entrepreneurs aim to build companies with the goal to sell them. While looking for a quick exist strategy is nothing wrong, I seldom see young entrepreneurs who define success on a very big scale, like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz…etc. I am talking about those who believe they can transform society and build great, lasting companies.

So why does that happen? Why so few startups go public nowadays? Is that because everyone is afraid of the costly regulations of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act? Do they just want to be inventors but not company builders? Or the problems they are solving are too small? Or they simply don’t want to grow large?

In order to answer those questions, I think it’s a good idea to learn from the past successful entrepreneurs who’ve successfully took their companies public. I want to find out why they were able to transform their companies from startups to IPO, from good to great. Like Jim Collins said:

…the best way to understand how great entrepreneurs become great company builders was to take the greatest companies of the 20th century and then rewind the tape of history to when they were start-ups.

Considering that both Built to Last and Good to Great focused on giant public companies, I want to talk about smaller companies which are founded in the past 15 years. Since I don’t have a 21-person research team like Jim Collins, I can only hand-pick the following 4 companies and see how they have distinguished themselves as a very special and elite breed of institutions. The reason I choose, Rackspace, Opentable and Vistaprint is because they were not heavily covered in mainstream blogosphere despite their accomplishment. To get a better picture, all of these companies combine showing up on TechCrunch 1425 times in 2009, compared to 4730 times for Facebook and 4930 times for Twitter.

**Company** **Founder** **Founded in** **IPO in** **Industry**
[]( Marc Benioff 1999 2004 Software-as-a-Service
[Vistaprint]( Robert Keane 1995 2005 e-Printing
[Rackspace]( Richard Yoo, Dirk Elmendorf & Patrick Condon 1998 2008 Managed Hosting
[OpenTable]( Chuck Templeton 1998 2009 Restaurant Reservation System

Although they are in different industries, I have founded that these founders share a lot of similarities which contribute to their successes.

I am going to divide this series into 5 parts which will focus on (1) Leadership & Vision, (2) Obstacles & Leverage, (3) Growth & Financing, (4) Differentiation, and (5) Marketing.

Let’s talk about leadership and vision today.

Building a Multi-Decade Business Institution

Vistaprint was founded in Paris after its founder, Robert Keane, graduated from business school in 1995. To many people, Vistaprint is just a typical online printing company. However, Robert has a much bigger vision. When asked about his company’s five years plan, he replied:

If you don’t mind, I would like to modify that to 15 years or 20 years. Great companies like FedEx, Swatch, eBay or Dell are built over decades. We are still only in the middle of our second decade. We have the aspiration to build a world-class and truly transformational business institution.

He believes that his company is more than a printing shop. He wants to make everything a small business needs in marketing, including low volume business cards printing, promotional T-shirts printing or even website building software. As long as a small business wants those services, his company will build them with great quality at superior prices. He wants to transform the small business marketing industry like what Southwest did to the airlines industry over the last 30 years.

Using advanced technologies to group similar orders in large groups, Vistaprint is able to provide short-run, low-cost, and low-volume production to small companies, a market opportunity of over $25 billion. Not until 14 years later, this huge potential of opportunity has finally been recognized by giant retailers, such as Staples and OfficeMax, but Vistaprint still remains as one of the leaders in this area.

I suspect not many people believe there could be more innovation from an industry like business card printing, yet somehow, Robert and his team have made it happen.

What is the larger purpose of what your company is doing? Do you compromise that your industry is too small and saturated so you can’t make a difference? Consider when Vistaprint just got started. Thousands of printing stores were already existed. Robert was just selling their services through direct marketing catalogues, one customer at a time. And today his company is worth $1.84 billion with $400 million in revenue.

World-Class Service

Similarly, even though Rackspace is already a leader in a crowed and competitive industry, their founders believe they are more than a hosting company. Pat Condon once said:

Our vision is to build Rackspace into one of the world’s greatest service companies striving to offer world-class service alongside organizations like Nordstrom, the Ritz Carlton and Federal Express. These companies are known for their unique customer service experience and we want Rackspace’s Fanatical Support to be similarly recognized. While we think we’re the industry leader in service, we are constantly striving to be better. I think this is one of the defining characteristics of a truly world-class service organization.

Because of their ambitious goal, one of their founding principles is to focus on serving customers with what they call “Fanatical Support“. They always believe that managed hosting is a service business and not strictly a technology business. This philosophy is deeply embedded in their culture from the very beginning. Rackspace wants to become the back office IT department for their customers, enabling them to focus on their core business but not hosting.

At that time, most of their competitors only focused on the technology end of hosting, but much less on service and support. By contrast, Rackspace believes they are in the business of providing their customers a pleasurable experience, and constantly pushing themselves to do that.

How about your company? Have you turn good customer service into your competitive advantage? Do you just follow what your competitors are doing today? Since 1998, Rackspace has grown more than 50 percent a year and there are currently 1800 Rackers (their employees) around the world serving their customers with their award-winning support everyday. Their dedication to great service enables them to grow their business from a small startup to a $1.65 billion public company today. Yes they did that in 11 years only. If they can do it, so can you.

Never Lose Faith

During dot-com boom, most people doubt that a company like OpenTable will succeed. It is a capital intensive business and difficult to scale. Chuck Templeton, the founder, wanted to create an online real-time restaurant reservation service for consumers and later added a comprehensive reservation management system to replace existing paper reservation systems in every restaurants.

Yet, in order to do that, OpenTable has to conquer territory market-by-market, restaurant-by-restaurant. Also, local market is one of the hardest and most expensive things to do well on the Internet. Doesn’t sound like a good Internet business model. Regardless of what the naysayers said, Chuck never gave in:

When we founded, one of our goals was to make great restaurants…easily accessible to people who enjoy dining out…It has created a fair amount of jobs both directly and indirectly. It has provided both restaurants and consumers with a much more efficient and effective way to enjoy a meal at most of the world’s finest restaurants…All in all, it’s pretty cool.

Due to his determination, Opentable has grown to have a customer base of over 10,000 restaurants in 50 states and multiple countries, with $635 million market capital. And it is still keep growing one restaurant at a time.

The Business of Changing the World is known for its concept of the “end of software” model and successfully transforming software from a product to a service industry. Similar to Vistaprint, OpenTable and Rackspace, this company believe nothing is more important to them than making sure every customer is successful in their service.

However, Marc Benioff, the founder of, did something unique that every serious company builders should pay attention to. To be truly successful, Marc believes companies need to have a corporate mission that is bigger than making a profit, a concept that he learned from the Art of War. In other words, people can’t be united or focused unless they share a common philosophy—a philosophy that gives their effort a greater meaning.

He wants to make sure everyone in his company understand the importance of this idea so he created the famous “1-1-1″ model, a philanthropic program.

We try to follow that at, where we give 1% of our equity, 1% of our profits, and 1% of our employees’ time to the community. By integrating philanthropy into our business model our employees feel that they do much more than just work at our company. By sharing a common and important mission, we are united and focused, and have found a secret weapon that ensures we always win.

Meanwhile, some people argues that how they can provide the best services to their customers when their employees are volunteering outside. Marc simply replied:

You have to be able to go to San Francisco Homeless Connect and you have to be able to run your computers. Both of those things have to happen. A successful company can do that, and we do that, of course.

In fact, this model has become a critical part of their business, making them a more competitive company. ranked No. 7 out of all the companies in the world in a magazine called Business Ethics that charts the work of companies that do corporate social responsibility. As a result, many corporations like their company and are actually more likely to buy services from them, although this is not their original intention. How many entrepreneurs would think that philanthropy could become an asset to the company and their ability to work with customers and recruit employees? Sometimes doing the right things will give you tremendous results that you didn’t expect.

Besides your core business, does your company have a core value that is shared by every employees? Do you know helping others can become your secret weapon in the business world? According to Marc, one of their biggest accomplishments is that Google has copied their 1-1-1 model exactly, creating a $1 billion non-profit foundation, compared to their own $30 million foundation.

For future entrepreneurs, how would you define success? Having a good lifestyle or inspiring millions to help other people or transforming an industry to make others more successful or becoming an entrepreneur people aspire to be? That’s your choice.

In part 2, I will talk about the obstacles these four companies have faced in the past and how they were able to overcome them.

Photo sources: (Robert Keane) @PIworld, (Chuck Templeton) @facebook, (Pat Condon) @rackspace, (Marc Benioff) @flickr

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