How to build a venture

How to build a venture
SparkOptimus TeamHidde van Manen
Written by
Hidde van Manen
&
The SparkOptimus Blog Team
June 27, 2022

Have you ever felt that your business is ready to build a venture but lacks the systematic skills & mindset to successfully reach your goal? Then you might want to keep reading.

<div class="insights_cta-component">This is the third article in our series on corporate venturing</div>

Building a venture is something you do based on gut feeling and instinct, right? Wrong! It’s much better to describe venture building as a very systematic process. And with the right leadership, it’s not that hard to successfully replicate. In this article, we want to take you through the journey of venture building. We’ll describe for each phase its objective and milestones & KPIs to determine progress.

The core idea is to “de-risk” your future investments one step at a time. As your level of certainty grows, so does your willingness to invest and make bigger commitments, all while not changing the fundamental ‘test & learn’ approach. An often-used approach to de-risk future investments is by developing a stage-gated funding approach where certain proof points or measures of success must be met in each stage before new (often larger) funds are released for the next stage.

THE FOUR PHASES OF LAUNCHING A VENTURE

Launching a venture can typically be divided into four phases, namely:

  1. Ideate & Strategize
  2. Test & Validate (PoC)
  3. Build & Launch (MVP)
  4. Accelerate & Scale
How to build a venture: Trust the process

Let’s have a look at each of the phases in a bit more detail.

IDEATE & STRATEGIZE

Corporates are not venture capitalist firms. This means you’re not purely investing based on financial considerations, but also on strategic ones. With the ‘innovation odds’ stacked against you, it is paramount to invest not just in ideas with a strong standalone potential, but more importantly in ideas that tie in with your corporate strategy. The key to corporate investing through ‘ventures’ is that the idea should focus on truly innovating the business (i.e. building something new) as opposed to focusing on optimizing or transforming the business as it stands. In summary, the perfect idea is a great innovative idea that fits your strategy.

For more information, check out this article in our series on corporate venturing: When to build a corporate venture (and when not to)

This phase is about exploring a wide set of potential opportunity spaces to ensure you diverge before you converge. But it’s also – and arguably at least as important – about setting the strategic intent and formulating hypotheses about where your company specifically has a ‘right to win’. A case example of a clear right-to-win is Leaseplan, a large vehicle leasing company, setting up CarNext to sell its post-lease inventory and resulting in CarNext ultimately becoming the biggest pan-EU platform for used cars.

Once you have developed a clear strategic rationale and have determined the investment focus, the next step is to start testing & validating your ideas to establish a proof-of-concept.

TEST & VALIDATE (POC)

So you have one or multiple high-potential ideas that fit your strategy. Before taking on a huge investment, you want to make sure you thoroughly understand the customer problem you’re trying to solve and that your solution direction is in line with what people want.

Nowadays, it doesn’t have to be expensive to make a proof of concept. You don’t need a fully-fledged and 100% operational business to collect valuable data and feedback. Often, the solution people want isn’t what you had in mind anyway, so you ideally want to find the cheapest & fastest method.

An example of an inexpensive method to determine proof-of-concept is to create a ‘mock-up’ or ‘smoke test’ to validate customer demand. Commonly in a smoke test, a simple 1-page website is created describing the product (or service) and website visitors are given the opportunity to sign up to the product before it is actually launched on the market. For one of our clients, we developed a low-cost smoke test (see example website page below) to be validated with customers. This enabled the core team to quickly pinpoint the customer preference for a portal that focuses on simplicity, no-nonsense, boldness & clarity.

Popular thinking is that your only focus during this phase should be on validating “desirability”. This is true if you’re a 100% bootstrapped entrepreneur. But as a corporate innovator, you would do well to also look at “viability”. If this idea flies, how much money can we make out of it? If your core business is in the billions, then you’re probably not that interested if your new startup has a total potential of five million per year. How big can it be – and is that enough for it to be interesting for your company? And if the direct benefits are insufficient, what is the indirect value potential?

Having a confirmed problem-solution fit by repeatedly bouncing ideas off customers clears the path to start building and launching your Minimum Viable Proposition (MVP).

BUILD & LAUNCH (MVP)

This is it. You have empirically validated that your idea is sound (customers have a problem and your solution fixes it in a way that people seem willing to pay for it) and could make sense economically (if everything goes right). Time to go to market and learn whether you’re right or wrong. “Many ideas solve a problem, but not necessarily a problem worth paying for.”

Don’t forget, the goal of a minimum viable product (MVP) is not the product or service itself. Your real goal lies beyond that: building a sustainable business model. Your MVP serves as a vehicle to learn what customers really want, and how you can build a business model on top of that.

The most effective and efficient way to do that is by learning quickly and adapting. You’re not yet ready to go for big money, so don’t overinvest in a big launch. Each customer is probably still costing you, so you’ll end up mostly giving money to Facebook.

A key insight in such cases is that capabilities & way of working are often undervalued, while technology is overvalued (i.e. don’t just build a website/app). A startup’s real asset is its people and its way of working, which means that besides building your MVP and cracking the commercial funnel, it’s time to start building the team for real. This is the moment you’re going to start shifting from doing a PROJECT to building a BUSINESS.

Key questions to answer in this phase:

  • Have we developed the right product, features, and functionalities to attract users & keep them around?
  • Were our assumptions on consumer needs & potential solutions, correct?
  • Can we attract, acquire, and retain consumers at the right cost level?
  • What improves conversion and customer lifetime value? (€ per order, # orders, % retention, etc.)
  • What (insights / data / activities / partners) do we need to continuously improve?
  • What does the path towards long-term sustainable model look like? (proposition, organization, tech)

This phase is critical to get right, because as Peter Thiel famously said: “a startup messed up at its foundation can’t be fixed”. If you manage to successfully complete the build & launch of your minimum viable proposition by proving a product-market fit and business model, the next step is to focus on developing a winning model and achieving growth potential by accelerating and scaling your business.

ACCELERATE & SCALE

The process for finding product-market fit (PMF) is an art rather than a science. PMF emerges from experiments conducted by the entrepreneurs. Through a series of build-measure-learn iterations, PMF is discovered and developed during a process rather than a single Eureka moment. A-ha moments of inspiration do happen, but PMF is not created that way.” – Reid Hoffman (a.o. founder LinkedIn)

The main objective in this phase is to learn fast, validate consumer needs & barriers, and thus get closer towards product-market fit. The first goal for this phase is to improve your proposition and the business model in such as way that you realize LTV > CAC. This means that for each additional customer you acquire, you earn more money over their lifetime than it costs you to acquire them.

With positive unit economics sorted, you can really start scaling. We can write a whole book on that topic alone. And we’ll delve a little deeper in our upcoming article on Scaling. Typical challenges / goals include international expansion (both localizing your proposition, as well as adapting the organizational model), product variations/extensions, expanding your customer target group(s), and managing the challenges that come with a rapidly growing scale-up rather than a start-up.

A NOTE ON GOVERNANCE

We often tell our clients that the hardest part of building a corporate venture is not building the venture, but rather managing the corporate.

Whilst not entirely true (building a successful venture is no easy feat!), there’s some legitimacy to this joke.

Thanks for bearing with us up to this point! If you’d like to learn more on venture building, you can explore our article series below.

NEXT UP IN THIS ARTICLE SERIES

We have learned a lot through helping our clients over the years, and we’ll be sharing our key insights with you in a number of publications – see below the list of topics we will cover:

  • How to scale: Taking the right steps from start-up to a successfully scaled organization  
  • Common pitfalls: What can go wrong and how to make sure to avoid it
  • Governance – set-up: How to govern ventures correctly with the right targets, reporting lines, financing, etc.
  • Team: Solving key questions on venture teams and the importance of a great venture lead
  • Governance – freedom balance: Finding the right balance between giving a venture freedom versus ensuring a strategic match
  • Manage (KPIs): Looking at the right KPIs based on the de-risking funnel, performance analytics, and reporting to corporate
  • Venture tooling: How to make the key choices and available options for MVP landscape tools, growth hacking tools, and collaboration tools
  • Customer validation best reads: Sharing our top picks in the literature on customer validation

Stay tuned!

We hope you’re as excited as we are and please let us know if you have specific topics or questions you would like us to share with you.

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