Most consumer web/mobile companies focus on user growth and usage early in the company’s lifecycle before shifting to monetization. This is a logical thing to do… when we started LinkedIn, my mentor Reid Hoffman instilled a mantra of Growth –> Usage –> Revenue which still holds for many consumer companies. This is especially true for those with a media / ad based business model (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc), where scale is a necessary condition for even the first dollar of revenue, in addition to maximizing long term enterprise value.
But B2B startups need to take a different tack. We invest in internet enabled companies at NextView and our portfolio is roughly equally split between consumer and B2B businesses. Business facing companies typically provide software or an online service for which their customers pay a fee.
Arguably revenue is the best signal of product-market fit for B2B startups. In the early days of a B2B startup’s product, all of the following will come into play:
- If a business customer is willing to pay something for your early product, even nominal or beta pricing, that’s a pretty healthy indicator the product has value in terms of features and functionality.
- Potential customers’ willingness to pay will help you segment your target market (by customer size, vertical, geography, etc) more effectively than simply “researching” your market in abstract.
- Some potential customers won’t take your product seriously unless you’re charging for it.
- You will be benchmarked on revenue and paying customers when you seek Series A funding… conceivably even at seed stage.
The early goal isn’t to maximize near term revenue… it’ll take time to fully understand your market and establish P-M fit, let alone optimizing the sales & marketing engine. And this is not to say that there’s no place for having an unpaid product. There’s a myriad of pricing and payment structures for B2B companies – subscription, transaction-based, term/perpetual licenses, OEM/embedded services, etc. If you’re collaborating very closely with alpha customers, you may give away the product during initial development phases. And even as they mature B2B companies may offer portions of their software for free either as a basic tier of service, or a free trial period, or lead-gen products that help fill the top of the funnel.
So if you’re in the early innings of building a B2B startup, embrace early revenue rather than putting monetization off until the distant future. FWIW this largely holds true of commerce and transaction based consumer startups too (think of the beginnings for Uber, Airbnb, et al).