Here’s a theory; most startups don’t actually know what business they are in. They do likely know the business they want to be in, but unless your company is guided towards that specific goal (and you have no small bit of luck) it is your customers who actually determine what your company is an does.
In the spirit of Ninja/Pirate/Elf/Dwarf this there is two different dimensions that go into this.
The first dimension is whether you are a ‘business’ oriented company, or a ‘consumer’ oriented company. And this is not always so obvious an answer. My company for instance is pretty easy to peg as a ‘business’ one — we help businesses do automation and continuous delivery better. Which is Google? If you answered ‘consumer’, I would argue you are wrong. The consumer usage of their properties enables their real business which is advertising — which is something businesses buy. These days ‘hybrid’ companies are developing but they are going to tend to skew more to one side or the other.
The other dimension is around whether you are a ‘service’ oriented or ‘technology’ oriented. Or put another way, which part of the business is the dog, and which is the tail. A service oriented company, which I would argue Freshbooks is one, will do things differently than a technology one. For instance, all new people at Freshbooks do a stint in the call center to learn the customer’s needs, etc. I have no idea if it will scale, but it does currently and is awesome. Yes, they have a lot of tech behind the scenes, but that enables their service. Etsy, I would label as a technology focused company. I’m sure they have support people there, but hitting a person is a last gasp event and I’m guessing (I could check, but why research something for the internets?!?!) new hires don’t do a rotation through the support team and you can find their developers at various conferences explaining how awesome their tech is. (Which it is btw!)
Sitting along any point on either axis is not in itself a bad thing — unless it counters what management and investors want. (Trust me). But where you sit on them will determine a lot of subtle things in your organization;
- Do you have ‘client happiness’ people, or ‘customer support’
- Do you have all-hands cheerleading meetings at the beginning of the day, or do you have remote workers with erratic shifts
- Do you jump when a customer wants something, roadmap be damned or do you rely on your own analytics and ‘lean experiments
- Are you going to use the bleeding edge ‘cool’ thing (these days, Node and friends I guess) with the risks that come with a rapidly evolving platform or something ‘safe’ like ASP.NET MVC or Ruby on Rails.
Coming back to the original idea, I think it would be an interesting experiment for a company to reflect on this, not just by those in management but those actually in the trenches. A mismatch means there is a problem, somewhere. A further inquiry of say, the top and bottom 10% of your clients by revenue might also be interesting. Again, if there is a mismatch, there is a problem.
(Now if only I had thought of this when building my pitch deck a couple months back — it would have made a good slide I think.)