The Fat Startup Experiment

Is the Lean Startup dead?

If there’s any ideology that’s gone from radical idea to article of faith in less than a decade, it’s “Lean Startup”.

When the idea was first proffered by Steve Blank in the early 2000s, it took the world by storm. A simple idea. That generated so much momentum for a startup.

And by 2007, everyone could point to Facebook – or even better, Twitter – as proof that Lean Startup works. Facebook at least scaled with a consistent vision. Harvard → other universities → the world. Twitter was the original clown car that pivoted its way into a gold mine .

I’m a strong believer in starting up lean.

It’s how, in a past life, I iterated my consumer loyalty app to 200K users… with zero marketing dollars. Or how we launched a new lending segment at Indifi, and made it our top segment in 6 months.

I’ve also written about it scores of times.

So yes, Lean Startup works. And it is an article of faith. The word “lean” is almost redundant today. Of course a Startup has to be Lean. Of course you first build an MVP and test it with customers. Raise serious money only when you find product/market fit.

And then there’s Quibi.

Quibi raised USD 1.75 billion two years before launching its first product.

It then went on to raise another USD 750 million a year after that. Still a relaxed one year before launch.

If you haven’t heard of Quibi, you’d be forgiven to think it was a rocket company to rival SpaceX. But no, Quibi is a mobile content platform (short for Quick Bites), which launched a month ago.

The antithesis of Lean Startup. Will it work? Is this how we’ve got to do it now?

Get Big Fast Baby[1]

The first insight about Lean Startup is that it bootstraps leverage from scratch.

As Ben Horowitz says in The Case for the Fat startup:

There are only two priorities for a start-up: Winning the market and not running out of cash

Every start-up is in a furious race against time. The start-up must find the product-market fit that leads to a great business and substantially take the market before running out of cash.

That’s where leverage helps. Maximize the ROI on the cash, people, or other resources you bring to the business. Win the market as fast as you can, before you run out of cash.

Now, there are many types of leverage a startup can have.

  • Proprietary IP / best-in-class technology
  • Regulatory capture: Microsoft scaled only because of their hilariously one-sided deal with IBM[2].
  • The product itself: Instagram has in-built virality. In its early days, Instagram’s core use-case was to touch up photos, and post them on Facebook or Twitter. So, by simply using the product, you were marketing it to your friends.
  • Network effects: Uber

The revolutionary suggestion of the Lean movement was that the process itself could generate leverage.

Create hypothesis → Test → Observe results → Refine hypothesis → Repeat.

That’s how Lean Startup works. Start with a hypothesis: product X solves problem Y for consumer Z. Test it in the most basic way possible, and iterate and refine.

Such a simple process, but generates such strong momentum.

It’s like you try to lift yourself by your shoelaces. You wouldn’t expect it to work, but magic, it does!

Now here’s the thing – the leverage could simply be intuition.

The founder of Quibi is Jeff Katzenberg.

His catalogue of accomplishments is stunning. He oversaw The Lion King (the original), Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin, etc. at Walt Disney Studios. Then he co-founded DreamWorks, and produced Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar, and several other massive hits.

Jeff knows more about film-making than 99.9% of the world’s population. Combined.

And the CEO of Quibi is Meg Whitman, ex-CEO of HP and eBay. A tech veteran.

Katzenberg and Whitman have boatloads of intuition, sharpened by decades building large media and tech companies.

Katzenberg recognizes this. In an early interview, back in 2019,

“I said to Meg that, until day one, every decision that we make around content will be driven by instinct,” Katzenberg said. “Minutes after we launch, everything will be driven by data.”

And it’s true. They’ve doubled down, extracting every ounce of instinct from their extensive experience.

Everything was so meticulously planned. From the same interview:

  • A launch date a year in the future (and they were bang on time)
  • Crystal clear financial model for funding content production
  • Firm view on pricing tiers for the app

No testing hypotheses with an MVP. Just dive right in. With a few billion dollars in the bank.

What do you do when there’s no leverage?

The second insight about Lean Startup is that it was an answer to a specific question, posed at a specific point in time.

As Steve Blank says, the idea of the Lean startup was built on top of the rubble of the 2000 Dot-Com crash.

Most entrepreneurs today don’t remember the Dot-Com bubble of 1995 or the Dot-Com crash that followed in 2000. As a reminder, the Dot Com bubble was a five-year period from August 1995 (the Netscape IPO) when there was a massive wave of experiments on the then-new internet, in commerce, entertainment, nascent social media, and search.

After the crash, venture capital was scarce to non-existent. (Most of the funds that started in the late part of the boom would be underwater). Angel investment, which was small to start with, disappeared, and most corporate VCs shut down. VCs were no longer insisting that startups spend faster, and “swing for the fences”. In fact, they were screaming at them to dramatically reduce their burn rates. It was a nuclear winter for startup capital.

The Lean movement started during a nuclear winter for venture capital.

When capital is scarce, you have no choice but to go Lean.

When capital is not scarce, it’s worth considering whether other forms of leverage can help you win the market faster.

Well, today, capital is not so scarce. And it’s chasing fewer good deals.

If you can raise the capital, it makes sense to go big, and go fast. Correct mistakes along the way. Figure out product/market fit as you go.

Thin was in, but fat is where it’s at.

It’s tempting to say that Lean will have a resurgence post COVID-19, as the world tips into recession.

But many funders have raised large funds at the top of the market. 10 of the largest 15 VC funds ever raised, have been since 2016.

And tech startups will be especially hot, seeing the resilience of tech in this downturn (NASDAQ is inching back towards its peak!).

So capital is available, searching for “fat” tech startups that can absorb a lot of their capital. The number of seed deals will continue to fall, as they have since 2015.

Let’s talk about Quibi.

OK, we’ve discussed why fat startups like Quibi will be the norm going forward. Now it’s time for the punchline.

I don’t think Quibi will work. Despite all the leverage (or “fat”) it has.

It won’t go bust. But the value of the company will trend towards the value of the content it has bought / licensed. The platform itself will have limited value at best.

Let’s get the obvious first-level problems out of the way.

Quibi launched at the wrong time

At one level, this is correct. It’s also a massive understatement. The launch date of April 6, decided a year ago in true fat-startup style, ended up smack in the middle of a worldwide quarantine.

People aren’t traveling to work. They don’t need Quick Bites on their mobiles. Which is a bummer, because Quibi’s first product works only on mobile.

But this is a problem Quibi can surmount. Remember, Katzenberg and Whitman have plenty of capital. They can wait till people start traveling again.

Quibi isn’t as viral as TikTok

You’re right, it’s not. And yes, the product needs to be viral to succeed.

But it will improve. Again, with so much cash in the bank, Quibi can afford to iterate and improve the product.

In fact, Tiktok is not the point.

Quibi isn’t about user-generated content. It’s about quality, Hollywood content.

It’s like Netflix, but for mobile.

The Netflix of mobile is ____

Unfortunately for Quibi, the Netflix of mobile is… Netflix.

Or Disney+ or Amazon Prime or Hulu or HBO Max.

For one, Netflix does have some short-form content that you can watch on mobile.

And if Quibi unearths a crazy-large latent need for “quick bites”, Netflix will copy it. Without mercy. Just like Instagram cloned Snapchat and starved it of oxygen.

Remember the TiVo Problem:

The battle between every startup and incumbent comes down to whether the startup gets distribution before the incumbent gets innovation.

But the more important reason Quibi will fail is…

This tweet:

What is Quibi’s Seinfeld?

Content follows a Power Law distribution. You can have a million shows, but viewership will concentrate around a few.

I couldn’t find a chart on TV shows, but here’s a chart about movie viewership from Michael Tauberg.

Movie box office collections follow a power law.

Netflix paid 6 years (!) of its content budget for Seinfeld, because Seinfeld is a “whale”. Like The Office and Friends, this is what people will subscribe to Netflix for. Not for Altered Carbon or Too Hot to Handle or whatever else.

That’s the math of the streaming video industry.

Consumers will pay for 2-3 subscriptions, and you do what you can to be one of them. You need proven hits like Seinfeld, not hit-or-miss new shows.

It’s like the SEO Red Queen Effect – if you aren’t in the first three results on Google, you don’t exist.

Quibi has some solid content. But unless it unearths a Seinfeld or Sopranos or Big Bang Theory in its first try (possible, it’s Katzenberg after all), it’s down for the count.

Well, that’s how the Quibi crumbles.


Related: Teledesic was the original fat startup. Raised two billion dollars for a satellite network… and then didn’t even launch.

As Tren Griffin writes in this short memoir, some investors received many times their original investment. Even though the company never provided service!


[1] Referencing Jeff Bezos, via Eugene Wei

[2] More in The agreement that catapulted Microsoft over IBM

Thanks to Srinivas KC, Jinesh Bagadia, Aditi Gupta, Bharat Ram, and Anupam Agarwal for reading previous drafts of this.

2 Responses

  1. Jinesh May 7, 2020 / 10:35 pm

    Jitha! Always love what you write. Everyone at Yocket reads you on Sunday 🙂

    • jitha May 8, 2020 / 2:20 pm

      Thank you so much, Jinesh.

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