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Building a successful company is really hard. It is hard no matter where you are in the world, but the difficulty is magnified in Europe, where people are divided by geography, regulation, language and cultural prejudice. If governments can provide European startups a competitive advantage, that could come a long way in helping to offset some of the disadvantages. In this post, I'm sharing some rough ideas for what governments could do to encourage a thriving startups ecosystem. It's my contribution to the Belgian startup manifesto (#bestartupmanifesto).
- Governments shouldn't obsess too much about making it easier to incorporate a company; while it is certainly nice when governments cut red tape, great entrepreneurs aren't going to be held back by some extra paperwork. Getting a company off the ground is by no means the most difficult part of the journey.
- Governments shouldn't decide what companies deserve funding or don't deserve funding. They will never be the best investors. Governments should play towards their strength, which is creating leverage for all instead for just a few.
- Governments can do quite a bit to extend a startup's runway (to compensate for the lack of funding available in Belgium). Relatively simple tax benefits result in less need for venture capital:
- No corporate income taxes on your company for the first 3 years or until 1 million EUR in annual revenue.
- No employee income tax or social security contributions for the first 3 years or until you hit 10 employees. Make hiring talent as cheap as possible; two employees for the price of one. (The cost of hiring an employee would effectively be the net income for the employee. The employee would still get a regular salary and social benefits.)
- Loosen regulations on hiring and firing employees. Three months notice periods shackle the growth of startups. Governments can provide more flexibility for startups to hire and fire fast; two week notice periods for both incoming and outgoing employees. Employees who join a startup are comfortable with this level of job insecurity.
- Create "innovation hubs" that make neighborhoods more attractive to early-stage technology companies. Concentrate as many technology startups as possible in fun neighborhoods. Provide rent subsidies, free wifi and make sure there are great coffee shops.
- Build a culture of entrepreneurship. The biggest thing holding back a thriving startup community is not regulation, language, or geography, but a cultural prejudice against both failure and success. Governments can play a critical role in shaping the country's culture and creating an entrepreneurial environment where both failures and successes are celebrated, and where people are encouraged to better oneself economically through hard work and risk taking. In the end, entrepreneurship is a state of mind.
Marc Andreessen famously said that software is eating the world. While I certainly agree with Marc that software companies are redefining our economies, I believe that much of that technological shift is being driven by data. So is the value of a business in the data or is it in the software? I believe data is eating the world because the value is increasingly more in the data and not the software. Let's investigate why.
Netflix provides a great example of a data-driven customer-centric company. By introducing streaming video, their software "ate" the traditional DVD business. But Netflix soon realized their future wasn't in the medium of delivery -- it was in the wealth of data generated simply by people using the service. The day-to-day data generated by Netflix viewers provides a crucial ingredient to competing in the marketplace and defining the company's mission: improving the quality of the service.
To that end, Netflix uses passive data -- the information gathered quietly in the background without disrupting users' natural behaviors -- to provide TV and movie recommendations, as well as to optimize the quality of services, such as streaming speed, playback quality, subtitles, or closed captioning. Of course, Netflix subscribers can contribute active feedback to the company, such as movie reviews or feedback on the accuracy of a translation, but the true value of Netflix's user data is in the quiet, zero-effort observation that allows the company to optimize experiences with no friction or disruption to regular user behavior. In fact, the company even hosted several competitions to invent better algorithms for user ratings, with a winning prize of $1M USD.
Within very saturated marketplaces, data is also becoming a key differentiator for some companies. For example, when Google first started, its value was almost entirely centered around the quality of its Pagerank algorithm, or its "software". But Google did not rest on the laurels of having good software, and prioritized data-driven insights as the future of the company. Consider Google Waze, the world's largest community-based traffic and navigation app. Google Waze relies heavily on both active consumer input and passive location-based data, combined with a sophisticated routing algorithm. The routing algorithm alone would not be enough to differentiate Waze from the other navigation systems of the world. Consumers are demanding more accurate maps and real-time traffic information, which could not happen without the use of data.
The future of software
There is another element in the rising importance of data: not only is the sheer amount of consumer data growing, but software is simultaneously becoming much easier to build. Developers can leverage new software programming tools, open source, and internet-based services to build more complex software in less time. As a result, the underlying intrinsic value of software companies is diminishing.
Netflix and Google are still disruptive companies, but no longer primarily because of their software -- it's their ability to use the data their customers produce to extend their engagement with customers. Their actual software is increasingly being commoditized; recommendation engines and navigation software both exist in open source and are no longer trade secrets.
Tomorrow's applications will consume multiple sources of data to create a fine-grained context; they will leverage calendar data, location data, historic clickstream data, social contacts, information from wearables, and much more. All that rich data will be used as the input for predictive analytics and personalization services. Eventually, data-driven experiences will be the norm.
And this basic idea doesn't even begin to cover the advances in machine learning, artificial intelligence, deep learning and beyond -- collectively called "machine intelligence". Looking forward even more, computers will learn to do things themselves from data rather than being programmed by hand. They can learn faster themselves than we'd be able to program them. In a world where software builds itself, computers will only be limited by the data they can or cannot access, not by their algorithms. In such a future, is the value in the software or in the data?
As value shifts from software to the ability to leverage data, companies will have to rethink their businesses, just as Netflix and Google did. In the next decade, data-driven, personalized experiences will continue to accelerate, and development efforts will shift towards using contextual data collected through passive user behaviors.
Companies of the future have a lot on their plates. More than ever, they'll need to adapt to all types and formats of data (closed, open, structured and unstructured); leverage that data to make their product or service better for users; navigate the gray area around privacy concerns; and even reconsider the value of their intellectual property derived from software. They'll have to do all this while providing more contextualized, personalized, and automated experiences. "Data-driven" will spell a win-win situation for both users and businesses alike.
Business model innovation is usually more powerful than technical innovation; it is more disruptive and harder to copy than technical innovation. And yet, so many companies are focused on technical innovation to compete.
Consider Airbnb. What makes them so successful is not a technical advantage, but a business model advantage that provides them near-zero marginal cost. For a traditional hotel chain to increase its capacity, it needs to build more physical space at significant cost. Instead of shouldering that setup cost, Airbnb can add another room to its inventory at almost no cost by enabling people to share their existing houses. That is a business model innovation. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult for the traditional hotel chain to switch its business model to match Airbnb's.
The same is true in Open Source software. While it is true that Open Source often produces technically superior software, its real power may be its business model innovation: co-creation. Open Source software like Drupal or Linux is a co-created product; thousands of contributors build and enhance Drupal and everyone benefits from that. A large Open Source community produces vastly more software than a proprietary competitor, and shares in the production and go-to-market costs. It disrupts proprietary software companies where the roles of production and consumption are discrete and the production and go-to-market costs are high. While established companies can copy key technical innovations, it is extremely difficult to switch a proprietary business model to an Open Source business model. It affects how they build their software, how they monetize the software, how they sell and market their software, their cost structure, and more. Proprietary software companies will lose against thriving Open Source communities. I don't see how companies like HP, Oracle and SAP could change their business model while living quarter to quarter in the public markets; changing their business model would take many years and could disrupt their revenues.
Take Amazon Web Services (AWS), one of the most disruptive developments in the IT world the past decade. While AWS' offerings are rich and often ahead of the competition, the biggest reason for the company's success is its business model. Amazon not only offers consumption-based pricing ('pay as you consume' vs 'pay as you configure'), it's also comfortable operating a low-margin business. Almost 10 years after AWS launched, at a time that vast amounts of computing are moving into the cloud, HP, Oracle and SAP still don't have competitive cloud businesses. While each of these companies could easily close technical gaps, they have been unable to disrupt their existing business models.
If you're in a startup, innovating on a business model is easier than if you're in a large company. In fact, an innovative business model is the best weapon you have against large incumbents. Technical innovation may give you a 6 to 18 month competitive advantage, but the advantage from business model innovation can be many years. Too many startups focus on building or acquiring innovative or proprietary technology in order to win in the market. While there is usually some technical innovation around the edges, it is business model innovation that makes a successful, long-standing organization -- it tends to be a lot harder to copy than technical innovation.
If Steve Jobs was adopted by a Belgian family rather than an American family, it's extremely possible he may have ended up working in a bank instead of co-founding Apple. Why? Because starting a company and growing it is hard no matter where you are, but the difficulty is magnified in Europe, where people are divided by geography, regulation, language and cultural prejudice.
While entrepreneurship and startups have spread tremendously in Europe, a lot of aspiring young entrepreneurs leave Europe for the United States. Very little will stop a true entrepreneur from trying to reach his or her goals, including uprooting their entire life and moving it across the ocean to optimize their chances of success. From my interactions with them, the United States' gravitational pull is only getting stronger.
So, what can Europe do about it? Here are my three recommendations.
Focus on creating large companies
Europe produces plenty of small businesses: restaurants, small technology firms, clothing stores, hair salons, and so on. What it doesn't produce enough of are innovative companies that grow quickly and end up big. It's a problem.
Look at the 500 largest companies in the world (Fortune Global 500). According to Bruegel, a European think tank devoted to international economics, Europe created three new, large companies between 1975 and today. The U.S. created 26.
That number is even more incredible when you take into account the fact that Europe has about twice the population of the U.S. The reality is if Europe were to be competitive, it has to produce 25 times more large companies than it does today.
Access to capital continues to be a challenge in Europe. Getting seed capital (1M EUR or less) has become easier, but raising significant money (25M EUR and more) to turn your company in a global business continues to be difficult. Large companies also provide an important 'exit strategy' for startups. Without a vibrant exit market, it's harder to attract both entrepreneurs and investors.
Large companies also play an important role in creating successful innovation centers. They are catalysts for creating angel investors, for providing distribution, and serve as a breeding ground for talent and practiced management.
If you look at Silicon Valley, Hewlett Packard, among others, served that purpose in the early days, and more recently, a number of successful entrepreneurs have emerged from Google.
I recommend that European government stimulus focuses on companies that could become titans, not on small companies that won't move the needle. Too often, there are investments made in companies that have limited or no growth potential.
Level the playing field
Anyone who has built a global organization likely understands that European work regulations can shackle the growth of startups. Taxes are high, it's hard to acquire a European company, severance packages can be outrageous and it's extremely difficult to fire someone.
It only gets worse when you attempt to operate in multiple European countries, as anyone with the ambition to build a large company has to. Each country is different enough that it requires setting up a local legal entity, and having local accountants and local attorneys. Setting up and running these legal entities costs valuable time and money, a huge distraction that gets in the way of actually running and growing your business.
Europe needs to roll out unified labor laws that are competitive globally and unified across Europe. My biggest worry is the branches of government that try to promote entrepreneurship are not powerful enough to address Europe's labour rules.
Change our culture
A small business can be started anywhere in the world, but it takes a different level of ambition to aspire to become the next Apple. The biggest thing entrepreneurs need is the belief that it can be done, that it's worth taking the risk and putting in the hard work. Having the right culture unlocks the passion and dedication necessary to succeed.
Silicon Valley is a state of mind. To recreate Silicon Valley in Europe, Europe must first adopt Silicon Valley's culture. I believe Europe's culture would benefit from adopting part of the American Dream: the egalitarian belief that everyone is able to succeed through hard work, and that it is acceptable and encouraged to better oneself economically through hard work.
It doesn't mean Europe needs to give up its strong communal beliefs and its desire to look out for the greater good. I'm a firm believer that many modern businesses can "do well and do good". Businesses that generate value for their shareholders and that also have a positive impact on the world go beyond generating profits.
Our world does not lack business opportunities; there are plenty of people with needs that aren't met. Enabling entrepreneurship enables innovation, and innovation helps change the world. The entrepreneurs that succeed in building large businesses, especially those that are aligned with fixing the world's problems, will transform the lives of others for the better and introduce more opportunity on a global level.
Entrepreneurs, not the government, will change the world. It's time for Europe to help their companies grow.
(I originally wrote this blog post as a guest article for Forbes. I'm cross-posting it to my blog.)
To "assemble" means to build. Assembling also means that we come together. Sometimes, both aspects are true. When that happens and we work together to build, we are better off for it.
The open source community is a perfect example of this. When Linux creator Linus Torvalds spoke about how it felt to get contributions from a worldwide network of people, he remarked "I had hoisted myself up on the shoulders of giants". I'm lucky enough to feel the same way.
The Internet has created a culture of sharing, letting people connect and collaborate on areas of common interest. When I started developing Drupal in 2000 from my university dormitory in Antwerp, I never imagined I'd build a network of people who were interested in building a content management system with me. Yet word of my project spread, and before I knew it, I was getting contributions to my project from around the world. Soon I also was standing on the shoulders of giants.
We didn't know it at the time, but this founding group of Drupalists was creating the basis for the assembled web. The assembled web is the next stage in the evolution of the web. While the coded web will always continue to exist, it will be a minority.
Think of the assembled web almost as an app store model for creating a digital experience. For example, if you want your website to allow social comments to flow in from Facebook or Twitter, you can simply add a module that someone has already coded. If you want to add analytics, maps, or almost anything you can imagine — there's probably a module for that.
While the modules are built on a foundation of code, they require no coding to install and build with ... to assemble. Instead, the vision of a great digital experience can be accomplished by someone with no coding experience, who can now simply "snap" the pieces of a new web experience together.
So, why is the assembled web rising to prominence so quickly, and what does that mean for developers?
- First, there are more websites now than ever before, and there's no sign of that growth slowing down. Ten years ago, a company had one website. Now, that same company might manage dozens or even hundreds of sites.
- Second, the complexity of websites has skyrocketed. Applications, integrations with third-party systems, social media integration, and the mobile web have all driven this complexity. New technologies emerge and replace the old. For example, Flash has almost been driven to extinction, replaced by HTML5, CSS3 and other more modern standards.
These two trends, set against the way many sites are built today, make it difficult to keep up with the changing standards, much less innovate and move the digital experience forward.
There is only one way to keep up: do more with less. I first imagined the assembled web in 2005, when the widespread use of content management systems began to replace the webmaster role as we knew it. Webmasters were no longer hired to write HTML by hand, or upload code to an FTP. In a way, the CMS eliminated the middleman.
Beyond our own evolution as developers, outside forces have also fundamentally altered the web. Ten years ago, the global phenomenon of Facebook didn't exist. Twitter didn't exist. The iPhone had yet to be released and create the mobile ecosystem that we know today. Think about the amount of change that's happened in such a short period. Now what will the world, and the web, look like another 10 years from today? No one knows.
The best thing to do is to adopt a platform that can change at the pace of the web. Developers will be tasked with building new functionality, and expanding the world of possibilities that modules can deliver. The innovation that developers will bring is crucial, and will power the assembled web by lowering barriers and democratizing the experience of site building.
The assembled web doesn't just have implications for the way developers create websites. It will have a widespread impact on any person or organization that needs to keep up with rapidly changing external forces. That's pretty much everyone. Think about how the assembly line changed manufacturing the first time. And how 3D printing is changing it again now. We can build faster and smarter than ever before. Similarly, the assembled web gives more people the tools to build the web as we know it.
Anyone without coding experience will be able to use an open source CMS to assemble a site by simply snapping modules together. A marketer could build a site for a new product launch without relying on the engineering team. An entrepreneur could launch a company site without hiring a webmaster. This phenomenon frees up time for developers to create new ways to connect citizens to their governments, nonprofits to donors, businesses to customers, friends and family to each other. Launching a disruptive business idea or reacting to today's rapid market changes could be accomplished without technical assistance. Going from vision to realization, for the first time, would be a single step. This advantage would finally bring the speed of digital site building in line with the speed of the web.
This evolution isn't a scary thing for developers; it's an opportunity. The web has forced a constant reinvention of everything. Careers. The way we compete for business. Being more efficient in the way we assemble a website will allow us to focus on the things that matter more, like innovation and creativity. By standing on the shoulders of giants, we can make things look and operate more beautifully than we'd ever have expected.