Startup to IPO: Why Few Companies Make the Leap and What We Can Learn from Them (Part 3: Growth)

Today’s business environment is extremely competitive, especially on the web. Simply building a good product, a strong brand or great distribution won’t guarantee your company success. You also have to do some or all of these things better than your competitors.

After looking at the leadership and obstacles of these four elite “Startup to IPO” companies (Vistaprint, Rackspace, OpenTable,, we are going to learn about their growth strategies which helped them to outgrow their competitors.

Viral Programs & Product Expansion


Vistaprint realized early on that if they want to success in a crowded market like online printing, they needed to do something different from their competitors. In 1999, they decided to use viral marketing to attract new customers. The company came up with the idea of free business cards. Customers can order 250 full-color business cards for free for unlimited time. The only cost for the customers is the $5 shipping and handling fee.

Of course, this strategy gave them runaway success. Seriously, how many companies do not want free business cards? Vistaprint knew that if they could have enough volume, giving cards away should not be that expensive. Up until now, the company has already printed over 4 billion cards for this offer. This single viral program has drove their amazing growth from 1999 to 2003.

To get a sense of just how quickly Vistaprint scale up in the early days, you have to see their actual revenue numbers provided by the founder:

In FY2001, which was June 2001, we had $6.1 million in revenues and 25 employees. In FY2002 we did $16.9 million and we had 50 employees. In FY2003 we did $35.4 million, in FY2004 we did $58.8 million, and FY2005 was $90.9 million. The following year we did $152 million and in 2007 we did $256 million. The growth has maintained as we did $401 million in FY2008. Our current guidance to Wall Street for FY2009 is $504 million to $510 million.

And then in 2004, the company started going well beyond the business cards area and into all things related to small business marketing, which includes apparel, pens, magnets, brochures, presentation folders, logo design, graphic design, web sites design and even email marketing. This broad product expansion has fueled their extraordinary growth from 2006 to 2009, from $152 to $510 million in revenue. To ensure the high quality of their new products, the company is spending over $50 million on technology development this year, which is about 10% of their revenues.

Not to Become a M&A Company

Oftentimes, large companies will consider using M&A (mergers and acquisitions) to increase market share, broaden product offerings, enter new markets, or even expand into new distribution channels. For a company like Vistaprint with $400 million revenue, even in a deep recession, they are obviously in a strong position to fuel its growth by deal making. Yet Robert Kean looks at M&A from a different point of view:

Very skeptically. We do look at it, and we have looked at many opportunities…We are not opposed to acquisitions, but we have to be very selective… If there is a win-win opportunity we will take it. We never say never. VistaPrint for a very long time will be an organic growth story…

Rather than looking for innovation outside, Robert prefers internal new products development. For example, when the company decided to go into the software-as-a-service business providing email marketing solutions, they has chosen to develop the product, Vistaprint Email Marketing, themselves despite the fact that they can easily acquire iContact or ConstantContact.

Think about your company now. Are you looking for long-term organic growth or short-term profitable opportunities? Do you have the confident to do a marketing campaign on a very large scale, like Vistaprint’s “free business cards” offer? If your company is not growing anymore, is it the right time to expand your core business to a much wider variety of businesses? Today Vistaprint has over 1,600 employees worldwide, growing from 25 people in 2001. I bet you can learn something from their success.

Customized Solutions

Like Vistaprint, Rackspace also found that following industry norms may not be the best way to do business. Many hosting companies saw themselves as commodity and technology companies. Yet Rackspace believes every customer is unique and has different business objectives. In order to met those goals, Rackspace is writing custom Service Level Agreements (SLAs) for their customers to guarantee their quality of their services. Their co-founder, Patrick Condon, explained:

We’re beginning to work with customers to identify the specific business outcome or business process a customer is trying to fulfill with their Web infrastructure. We then work with them to write an SLA around this business process versus just the infrastructure portion of hosting. I think this is a dramatic shift from how hosting companies have guaranteed quality of service in the past. Customers need customized solutions developed specifically for their businesses. I think the way the industry is moving is more towards a service based model where the technology and specific hardware components become less relevant.

Discipline to Achieve True Profit

In previous post, we mentioned about Rackspace has developed a principle of achieving “true profit“. It turns out that the same strategy has helped the company achieve significant growth.

For example, in 2003, Rackspace launched a low-cost hosting service for very small Web sites. Within months, this new unit was growing faster than the parent, generating $600,000 a month in new revenue and $150,000 in cash flow. Sounds very promising, right? How many entrepreneurs will question about such a fast growing service? Even so, its CEO was not pleased with the new unit:

“Thinking in terms of true profit quickly illuminates a problem within a business. We could see that we were wasting money.”

He found that the marketing costs to bring in new clients were very high and customers could easily switch to cheaper service provided by competitors. In other words, the new service was delivering a minimal return on its capital. Still, for normal companies, it is hard to correct such a huge mistake because, at one point, this new unit was generating $7 million, or nearly 10% of the company’s total revenue of $77 million, in its first year in business. However, due to their strict financial discipline, Rackspace sold the moneymaking unit for $7 million eventually.

Rackspace’s revenue has increased its revenue from $139 million to $532 million since 2005. As you can tell, focusing on true profit has helped Rackspace to avoid businesses that are wasting their resources and pay attention to areas that are generating real growth. In your company, do you have any units that are giving you minimal return on its capital? If yes, can you relocate those resources to some other promising opportunities? For a startup, inefficient allocation of resources could kill your business. Do a due diligence on your business and find out the truth now.

Making Your Customers Success

Sometimes the best growth strategies are so simple and obvious that most people overlook them. In 2005,’s revenues has grown 77% and paying subscribers has increased from 267,000 to 308,000. When asked about the reasons for the company’s continued success, Marc Benioff, the founder, simply replied:

The No. 1 reason we’re successful is our customers are successful. Before, you were expected to fail with enterprise software. is the first company and product that companies loved and users wanted to use.

Who does not know that business has to provide products that customers want? However, in the web industry, companies always fall into the trap of ignoring their customers because of their focus on fancy technology. Apparently, did not make this mistake given that their customer turnover rate has been less than 1% per month. This amazing loyalty from the customers did not surprise Marc at all. He explained:

“We aren’t changing our playbook here: we work to make our customers successful. Success is the biggest predictor of loyalty.”

Think Big

Again, achieving growth sometimes does not need complex strategies. Wondering how a $5.3 billion company like Salesforce motivates itself to do better? It is as simple as thinking big. Marc never worries about competition as he believes the sky is the limit for his company. He once said:

“If there wasn’t any competition, I’d be very worried, because it would mean we were not doing very well. When you have a company like Salesforce, that’s now one of the top 40 software companies in the world, and we’re shooting to become one of the top 24, which means more than $1 billion in revenue…”

For Marc, status quo is not acceptable. He always looks for growth opportunities. In 2009, Salesforce has achieved his goal of generating more than $1 billion in revenue. How about your company? What is your next goal? Have you took the time to make your customers success? Or you just want to make a profit from them?

Next time, we will talk about the ways these four companies differentiate themselves in this crowded market.

Photo source: Guille. @Flickr

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