This is a guest post by Patrick Stinus, a co-founder of Seventh Element , a management consulting firm that provides “Fortune 100 tools to small businesses” to help them grow and increase profitability.
I was recently on the phone catching up with Joel and it dawned on me that while we’re both entrepreneurs, we operate in completely different worlds. If you were to ask, 99.9% of people they would see very little differences in our stories. We both worked in the GE “fast track” program which promised us lives of success and the “the American Dream”. We both left it behind to start our own businesses, take a shot at changing the world and do work that makes us truly happy. The difference is that I’m not trying to launch a startup, I’m starting an agency.
Start”ups”, especially ones that focus on technology, are what most people envision when they think about when you quit your job to “follow your dreams.” They’re typified by years of living on Ramen noodles, working 70 hour weeks, bootstrapping and sometimes pimping yourself to private money. They are designed to cheaply and quickly create a completely new (or incredibly better) product or service. It takes time without revenue to develop new products.
Agencies are businesses whose core value proposition is the skill set of its employees. I co-founded Seventh Element to bring the business management tools we perfected at GE to small businesses. We skipped the long, costly, and iterative product development phase and went straight to clocking billable hours to our clients. We can leverage our corporate pedigree to potential clients and make money within the first month of existence.
If you graph the profits of successful startups, they follow an exponential curve, where they bumble along for a long time making very little money and then get traction and “pop.” Since these businesses have such high-profit margins, which aren’t tied to hours available to bill, they have the potential to create hugely scaleable businesses which can be sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. The agency model theoretically starts with respectable profits on day one and grows in a modest, linear, path as it bill more hours and hires more talent that can be billed. An agency is far less risky, but is much less scaleable.
I am not trying to oversimplify the challenges our agency has faced, or imply that leaving a steady job for an agency is more (or less) respectable than a startup. The fact is that agencies have a good chance of making reasonable money, and startups have a low chance of making stupid money. If you do the rough math, the upside is similar. Owning a business is a personal decision, and the money is just one piece of the puzzle. Their isn’t a right or wrong way to do things, but keep this comparison in mind if you are deciding on starting your own business.