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Copycat Startups: Doomed From Day One Or A Better Idea Than We Think?

When it comes to startups you know the drill: 

Differentiate or die!

How come?

According to the popular maxim, it boils down to just one word: 

(In)visibility.

And in case you wonder why – the allegation is – that in today’s over-crowded ‘business world’ being a copycat startup

… almost equates to a death penalty because cutting through the noise (and getting peoples’ attention) in the over-communicated society we currently live becomes:

I.M.P.O.S.S.I.B.L.E

But at this point you probably call bullsh*t. 

After all, if that was the case how companies like Lyft, Blue Apron, Hometogo and 1000s of others that seem to have followed the ‘copycat startup’ path (some are even proud to call it a business model) managed to defy that “law” and live and thrive?

Good question…

So, without further delay let’s dive straight in and answer today’s question: 

Can a copycat startup survive, or even thrive, in today’s hypercompetitive world; or is an inherently lost case? 

Copycat Startups: Yes They Can!

Yes my friends – according to many ‘startup insiders’ adopting a copycat business model is a better idea than most people think…

The reasoning?

Here you go: 

1. You Start With a Proven Model

This does not require much explanation.

When you copy a battle-tested business model you start with many more knows than unknows.

Such as:

– Demonstrable market demand 

– Product/market-fit

– What works and what doesn’t 

Which enables you rather than spending your energy trying to prove that there is a market to focus instead on beating the incumbent companies by:

a) Building something better or,

b) Moving faster and be more responsive to changing customer needs or,

c) Outmarketing them 

2. You Have Strong Reference Points

Yes, unline businesses that start with completely new products, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

In fact, what you have to simply do is study what has worked with them in the past – i.e marketing, distribution channels, product placements – and just emulate them.

Nice!

3. There is Enough Space for Everyone 

You saw that coming, right?

I know – classic…

So indeed the reason why companies like the ones listed above manage to thrive – despite the fact that have originally started as copycats – is due to the fact…

… that most markets can accommodate multiple players at the same time.

Take ride-hailing apps here in London.

First was Uber. 

Then Gett.

Later on Kabbee. 

Then Taxify/Bold.

Later Kaptain.

Now Ola.

And the list goes on…

So, naturally, the question becomes: 

If companies of the likes of Google, Microsoft & Facebook were comfortable releasing me-too products, what’s stopping us from doing the same?

Copycat Startups: Putting Things Into Balance

So, what’s stopping us?

Well, before answering that question, I want to draw a distinction between copycat startups and copycat products.

And I say this because obviously, they are NOT the same thing. 

How come?

Simples:

A product as the name suggests is (just) the product.

But the business model includes elements such as:

– Pricing

– Distribution Strategy

– Marketing

– Positioning 

– Revenue Model 

Etc.

So, what I try to say here is that a company may well have a copycat product but that does not automatically mean that it has a copycat proposition.

In fact, over the years, I’ve seen startups with seemingly me-too products time and time again getting an edge by outmaneuvering the competition with the creation of a superior/stand-out business model.

And with that said it’s time to get back to our earlier question: 

If companies of the likes of Google, Microsoft & Facebook were comfortable releasing me-too products, what’s stopping us from doing the same?

The answer?

Frankly nothing.

However, the reason why I am not a big fan of this model is because unless you have a BIG budget behind you and willing to go down the ‘challenger brand’ pathway it will give you a serious handicap.

And I say this for several reasons:

a) (In Fact) There is NOT Enough Space for Everyone

Yes my friends, if there was enough space for everyone startups’ failure rate wouldn’t be where it is today.

b) Strong Reference Points But Not A Why

Quite simply you may well see what has worked in the past but likely you’ll have 0 insights about what lead them to do X, Z, and Y.

c) Start With a Fully-Fledged Model and Not an MVP

That’s pretty obvious – you try to replicate a model that took years to be developed instead of starting small, testing the waters and do it the lean way.

d) A Better Mousetrap Won’t Be Enough

And yes lastly unless you break through the noise and instantly give customers a compelling answer to this simple question: “why you” you’ll never get them to actually test and experience your ‘better mousetrap’. 

But to answer today’s question: 

Are copycat startups doomed from day one or a better idea than most people think I’d probably say this:

Neither doomed nor better idea – just another biz model entrepreneurs can start with that comes with more cons than pros.

The alternative?

Putting your eggs in verticalised propositions!

And with that said today’s post comes to an end.

Ok guys, that’s all from me for today.

If you enjoyed today’s post, check out my kinde book, The Vertical Startup: A practical guide on how today’s bootstrapped entrepreneurs turn a late market entry into an advantage by going vertical, that is currently available at Amazon.

I hope to see you soon. And btw happy new year!

Best,

Andreas

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” 

― Clare Boothe Luce

 

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A Great Product Sells Itself. What? Think Again!

So, you’ve started a (new) business and you’re ready to create a product that sells itself?

Hold that thought my friend.

Why?

Simples – we need to first see whether self-selling products really exist…

Let’s get started!

Introducing The Self-Selling Product

While the notion that great products sell themselves has long been ingrained to (many) founders’ psyche one man certainly helped popularise it over the last few years.

Who is that person I hear you ask? 

Meet Kevin Systrom…

Kevin is no other than the co-founder and CEO of Instagram.

Yep, that guy.

So, what Mr. Instagram has to say about today’s topic?

There are gimmicks, paying for downloads and stuff. But we’ve never spent a dime on marketing. Great products sell themselves.

You did read that correctly – never spent a dime…because apparently that’s how it works with great products!

In fact, according to other ‘believers’ there is even a formula.

Pumped?

You better be (if you subscribe to this line of thinking)…

So, what’s the recipe?

3 words.

Viral. Growth. Loops.

Which is the ‘method’ of building virality into a product.

But how that works?

Well, more often than not it involves baking into a product a strong incentive (which will prompt customers to sell the product for you).

Take for example Skype and WhatsApp – both companies did exactly that by creating a platform that becomes more valuable for the end-user when more people they know join in.

Or an alternative option is to have a strong referral scheme…

A company that famously used referrals was PayPal, which achieved a 7 to 10% daily growth on referrals alone.

How?

According to David Sacks, PayPal’s COO at that time, they “literally pay people to invite their friends.

So, “the experts” verdict is clear:

if you create your product – intelligently – by using either of these 2 options, the product will transform into your own best salesperson and do the job through viral word-of-mouth for you!

Of course, some people might say that both options still count as marketing, but even if that’s the case it happens effortlessly.

With that said, don’t you think it’s about time to plug some reality into the mix?

The Self-Selling Product Myth Busted

There I said it!

But why is the self-selling product a myth?

Patrick Woods couldn’t have put it better to in one of his posts:

Self-Selling Products don’t exist. If they did, you wouldn’t see 2000 TV spots a day for Coke, BMW, Visa and Allstate. The assertion that your product can succeed entirely on its own merits without the help of marketing on at least some level is at best lazy, at worst delusional, and in all cases self-defeating.

As for the experts’ viral formula, while its truth that those companies managed to build those viral mechanics into their product mix…

… the fact of the matter is that model can hardly be replicated by the overwhelming majority of startups.

And I say this because:

a) building viral mechanics into a product, the-Dropbox way, is overly complicated and incompatible with most type of products/industries, and

b) referrals alone is an extremely risky strategy when you’re starting out, since it is a marketing channel over which you have very little control.

But don’t take my word for it!

Since there are a lot of top companies out there with great products to offer, let’s see if there stuff self-selling!

Twitter: 771.4 million U.S. dollars spent on sales and marketing (2018)

Microsoft: 17.47 billion U.S. dollars spent on sales and marketing (2018)

Alphabet: 16.33 billion U.S dollars spent on sales and marketing (2018)

That’s right, even household names with stellar reputation spend a sh*t load of money on marketing their products…

Even Apple’s Mac and iPhones can’t sell themselves!

So, can a business be successful without advertising/marketing?

It doesn’t seem so…

Great Products Don’t Have An “Autopilot.” Get Used to It!

I know, ‘startup romantics’ would hate me for saying this, but there is no way around it:

Even great products don’t have an autopilot!

So, on this point, I am with Paul Graham:

A lot of would-be founders believe that…you build something, make it available, and if you’ve made a better mousetrap, people beat a path to your door as promised. Or they don’t, in which case the market must not exist”. Actually startups take off because the founders make them take off.

Of course, it’s always nice to think we’ll be one of those rare outliers, but I am afraid that some rules are meant NOT to be broken.

That of course not to say that having a great product is not necessary. After all, no amount of marketing can compensate for a bad product.

As Bill Bernbach famously said a couple of decades ago: “A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it’s bad.”

The moral of the story?

Self-selling products don’t really exist!

Today’s Key takeaways

– No matter how good your product is, if no one knows about it, it simply won’t sell

– Letting a product sell itself is, more often than not, a “strategy go out of business”

– Startups take off because the founders make them take off

***

Ok, “guys” that’s all from me for today!

If you enjoyed today’s post, check out my kinde book, The Vertical Startup: A practical guide on how today’s bootstrapped entrepreneurs turn a late market entry into an advantage by going vertical, that is currently available at Amazon.

I hope to see you soon.

Best,

Andreas

“Pennies don’t fall from heaven, they have to be earned here on earth.”

– Margaret Thatcher

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The Hockey Stick Growth Club: Real Thing or Just Fake News

So, you’ve just launched your startup.

And even though you know that things are meant to be tough you’re determined to…

… yep, join the hockey stick growth club!

You know what I am talking about.

THAT hockey stick moment (aka inflection point) where a startup suddenly sees a dramatic surge in its sales/growth.

Common, don’t be shy – I know you want it!

But how that happens I hear you ask?

Startups Either Take Off or Don’t

Well, as Paul Graham puts it:

A lot of would-be founders believe that startups either take off or don’t. You build something, make it available, and if you’ve made a better mousetrap, people beat a path to your door as promised. Or they don’t, in which case the market must not exist.”

So yes my friends, to answer my/your earlier question (about how it happens)…

… in many aspiring startuppers’ opinion, the hockey stick effect is simply a by-product of creating something great “take-off-able” and then letting ‘viral marketing do its thing”.

You know – the Dollar Shave Club style!

The moral of the story?

If you’ve been in the market for quite some time and haven’t yet experience THAT ‘take-off moment’, is it maybe time to…

… throw the towel (or pivot if you will) and move on into something else that looks more promising.

Or maybe NOT?

The ‘Hockey Stick Growth Fairy-Tale

You did read that correctly.

Fairy-tale!

Even though hype-driven sites such as TechCrunch love to glamorise startups and hypocritically promote the ‘fast and furious startup’ notion…

… in reality that’s FAKE NEWS.

Yep, I said the F-word!

As Chris Dixon rightly puts it:

We tend to hear about startups when they are successful but not when they are struggling. This creates a systematically distorted perception that companies succeed overnight. Almost always, when you learn the backstory, you find that behind every “overnight success” is a story of entrepreneurs toiling away for years, with very few people except themselves… supporting them.

The end result?

The train people to believe in magic.

You know – instant wins, unexpected take-offs, and hockey stick growth.

And yes these unrealistic expectations typically result in people prematurely giving up.

The cold hard truth?

That’s not how things work…

The Four Stages of Hockey Stick Growth

Yes my friends.

According to Bobby Martin, author of The Hockey Stick Principles, the hockey stick moment doesn’t happen instantaneously but in 4 stages:

Phase #1: Tinkering Stage (aka the idea phase)

Phase #2: The Blade Years (aka the ‘low years’ phase)

Phase #3: The Growth-Inflection Point (aka the ‘take off’ phase)

Phase #4: Surging Growth (aka the nuclear phase)

And with ‘hockey stick terminology’ stuff out of the way let’s jump into Ben Silbermann story that exemplifies this journey.

Who is Ben Silbermann?

No other than Pinterest’s CEO.

And what he has to say about the business growth hockey stick phenomenon?

A couple of years ago, he was bold enough to say that they had “catastrophically small numbers” in their first year after launch, and that if he had listened to popular startup advice, he probably would have quit.

Yep…

Which is line with what many other founders admission that beating the odds and experiencing the hockey stick effect (and the ‘meteoric growth’ that comes along with it) didn’t happen painlessly.

So, what I am trying to say?

While hockey stick growth is a real thing (but it happens to just a tiny fraction of startups out there) with a few exceptions it does NOT happen because of ‘take-off-able products’ but…

… rather as a result of some founders’ relentless effort (for years) to figure things out and turn their grant vision into reality.

So, with all that said what’s the antidote to magical thinking?

Apart from stop believing in fairy-tales and getting real…

… is this:

Pain math!

What’s that?

Well, according to Aaron Schildkrout, the person that coined this term, pain math is the antidote to magical thinking!

Yep, magical thinking – just like the unexpected overnight hockey stick growth surge in sales we have spoken earlier.

So, what’s Aaron recipe?

In a nutshell, he suggests that as soon as we are fairly confident that our product works as intended…

… we have to set some tangible growth goals and then work our way backwards, the spreadsheet way!

Is what many call quant-based marketing.

If, for example, the goal is hitting $50k in the first year, we need to actually break down the numbers needed (for every stage in the funnel) for hitting that goal.

Ad spend?

Click-through-rate?

Web visitors #s?

Email opt-ins?

Prospects converted?

You get the drill…

Of course, understandably when you’re just in the beginning, you get most of these numbers totally wrong but that’s ok.

The point here, is not to learn to screw with spreadsheets, as most venture-backed startups have mastered, but rather to help you:

a) hold yourself accountable to your goals,

b) kill hope-marketing

b) identify which pieces of your funnel work and which doesn’t, and (eventually)

c) get real with your estimations

So, what do you think?

Time to ditch magical thinking and start moving the needle?

Glad to hear that!

And now it’s time to wrap things up with today’s key takeaways.

Today’s Key Takeaways

– Startups do NOT either take off or don’t

– Instant wins, unexpected take-offs, and hockey stick growth happen once in a blue moon

– Unlike Cinderella, just hoping is NOT a plan

***

Ok, “guys” that’s all from me for today!

If you enjoyed today’s post, check out my kinde book, The Vertical Startup: A practical guide on how today’s bootstrapped entrepreneurs turn a late market entry into an advantage by going vertical, that is currently available at Amazon.

I hope to see you soon.

Best,

Andreas

“You will not be a big hit right away. You will not get rich quick. You are not so special that everyone else will instantly pay attention. No one cares about you. At least not yet. Get used to it.”

– David Heinemeier Hansson, ‎Jason Fried

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Not Solving a Tier 1 Problem is Recipe for Startup Disaster: Or Maybe Not?

Tier 1 Or Nothing…

Just the other day while scrolling down my newsfeed I stumbled upon this eye-catching biz quote:

If your startup failed, it’s because it didn’t solve a tier 1 problem for a large enough audience.”

Which was a post intro from a guy named Mitchell Harper, a big shot ‘exited entrepreneur’.

His point in a nutshell?

Unless you solve one of the top 3 problems your target customer is experiencing you’re scre*ed!

Yep, irrespective how good your product is if you don’t abide by that ‘market reality’ you will fight an uphill battle.

And that made me thinking…

Is that claim any true?

Or maybe another classic business BS as usual?

Since it’s not an easy one we have to do a bit of digging…

Painkillers, Vitamins, Oxygen Or Vaccines: Which One Is Your Product?

First things first.

Why does Harper think that way?

In his own words…

…“[it’s because], they’ll be so focused on solving their first 3 problems that you’ll never get a look in… They simply won’t have time (or budget) for you if you’re not solving a problem that’s top of mind for them — a tier 1 problem”.

And that brings us to the old-age business dilemma:

Vitamins vs painkillers!

In fact, over the last couple of years – as you can see below – some additional elements got blended into the mix…

Let’s explore them one at a time!

1. “Painkiller products”:

Two words…

“MUST HAVES”

Yep, these type of products fall under the essentials category.

Another common characteristic of them is that they provide an almost immediate relief.

Some classic examples?

Gasoline, electricity, internet, telephone, just to name a few.

2. “Vitamin products”:

The main alternative to painkiller-products?

You guessed it…

Vitamins (aka “as nice to haves”).

Said differently, this kind of products are not bought out of sheer necessity.

Such examples could be things like jewellery, watches, handbags, productivity tools, dating apps, etc.

3. “Oxygen products”:

Not hard to guess what’s that about, right?

That’s correct – are products that, as ‘the experts’ put it, “you can NOT live without”…

Usual suspects/examples?

Insulin (for diabetics), revenues (for companies), heating (for Siberians), or on the flip side air-conditioning (for ‘Middle Eastern people’ during summer).

4. “Vaccine products”:

And last but not the least come the so-called vaccines.

Which as you might imagine are goods with strong preventive nature…

 such as insurance products, health check-ups, staff engagement programmes or making a will!

Everything clear?

Good!

But at this point some of you will probably wonder:

How all these ‘elements’ relate to tier one problems?

It’s simple – there is a widespread assumption that by definition a tier one problem equates to painkiller or an oxygen product because that’s naturally what most people care about that.

The cold hard truth?

That’s b*llocks…

Tier 1 Problems: What’s Truth and What’s Fiction

Why I hear you ask?

1. Vitamins can become painkillers

What’s the reasoning?

Quite simply because for most product categories there are trigger events that make the need for acquiring them much more acute.

Take for example calcium supplements.

Under no way, shape, or form could be described as painkiller products, right?

WRONG!

Why?

Because one such trigger event (pregnancy*) turns them into painkillers.

* Because during pregnancy, the baby needs plenty of calcium to develop its bones and as a result, pregnant women are often being advised (on top of adding certain foods in their diet) to take separate calcium supplements.

2. A product can fall into multiple categories at the same time

This shouldn’t come as a surprise.

After all, naturally, different people have different visions, ways of thinking and set of priorities, which makes their buying habits and preferences vastly different to each other.

Let’s take handbags for examples.

As you might remember just a couple paragraphs earlier, we described them as “nice to haves.”

And here comes the question…

In what universe this product category is both a painkiller and a vitamin at the same time?

Well, if you think about it even though the majority of people can hardly describe them as a ‘must haves’ I can assure you that for a sizeable section of fashion-conscious females is a completely different story…

So yes, the same product can mean different things to different people.  

3. Urgent problems don’t equal money

What does that suppose to mean?

Simples – just because a problem is painful, urgent and on top of peoples’ minds doesn’t make it a winner.

In fact, what’s equally important is the competitive landscape, people’s budget (and past behaviour) and even the existing ‘out of the box alternatives’.

Why do I say that?

A couple of reasons…

a) If the competition effectively address that problem and people are happy with what’s out there unless you have a unique angle you’re not in any better position than none tier-1 driven businesses

b) For a big chunk of people even painful and urgent problems don’t justify the decision to open up their wallet and actually pay for them (mainly because of budget limitations, and fixated consumption behaviours).

c) Most products don’t just compete with goodsthat fall in the same product category but also with existing alternatives (example: taxis compete also with bus, trains, bicycling, walking, or even car riding)

My take on all this?

Even though I definitely see the merit of going after tier 1 problems, I don’t agree with the notion that they are ‘all or nothing’.

And with that said let’s put this post to bed with today’s key takeaways…

Today’s Key Takeaways

– Products that are both painkillers and vitamins at the same time are more the rule than the exception

– Tier one problems alone “don’t bring happiness”

– Just because a problem is painful, urgent and on top of people’s head doesn’t make it a winner

Ok guys, that’s all from me for today.

If you enjoyed today’s post, check out my kindle book, The Vertical Startup: A Practical Guide on How Today’s Bootstrapped Entrepreneurs Turn their Late Market Entry Into An Advantage By Going Vertical, that is currently available at Amazon.

I hope to see you soon.

Best,

Andreas

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end”

– Leonard Nimoy

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What is a Startup Company? Here’s a Final Answer

So, you’ve got a killer… business idea.

What’s next?

Well, I am not a mind reader, but chances are you’ll probably be thinking:

“It’s time to do the startup thing.”

I know – classic!

After all, ‘launching a startup’ has never been sexier’…

But before you dive in, let’s consider for a moment what you’re about to build.

Why do I say that?

Simples! While people are throwing around the term startup like crazy, it seems to me that…

… there is a big confusion over:

a) What is a startup company

b) How long is a company considered a startup

c)  When a startup is no longer a startup

Whaaaaat?

I know; you’ll probably wonder: Who gives a f*ck about terms? Does it even matter?

Well, if you consider that thousands of new entrepreneurs are screw*d every day because they buy into startup fantasies (more on that later), I think it kind of matters.…

Without any further delay let’s dive straight into this topic, explore things, and give a final answer to this simple question:

What is a Startup Company?

Ok let’s get straight in…

What is a Startup Company? The Three Main School of Thoughts

Startup Definition #1: New companies that are committed to doing things differently

What does that suppose to mean?

According to Andrew Blackman, an advocate of this line of thinking:

Doing things differently doesn’t necessarily mean inventing a whole new industry, but it does mean taking a markedly different approach to the companies that are already established.

Different in what respects?

Well, even though that could be anything related to a company’s business model, I would imagine Blackman is probably talking about either…

… the product’s DNA, the company’s marketing strategy, or the biz’s revenue model (or even their company’s culture).

Startup Definition #2: New companies no more than 3 years old

Ok, this one couldn’t be more straightforward.

If a startup has been around for more than 3 years, it’s time to hang up the startup uniform and graduate to the big boys’ league!

I know, 3 years might seem fairly arbitrary but in the advocates’ opinion, that’s a necessary evil because…

… otherwise, you risk having any entrepreneur under the sun calling their business a startup (because, for a variety of reasons, that term sells), and render the term useless.

Startup Definition #3: A startup is a company designed to grow fast

Yep, time for the ‘grow fast’ narrative…

But who says that?

No other than Paul Graham, Y Combinator’ founder!

In Graham words:

“A startup is a company designed to grow fast. Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup… Most companies started every year are service businessesrestaurants, barbershops, plumbers, and so on. These are not startups. A barbershop isnt designed to grow fast. Whereas a search engine, for example, is.”

So, what are the necessary ingredients for having a proper startup?

In Graham’s formula, you HAVE to:

a) Target a big market with a mass appeal product

b) Do things with a finger on the pulse of the future

c) Come up with a disruptive product that has a real edge

d) Have a highly scalable business model

e) Raise a sizeable amount of external capital

And just in case you wonder, in the experts’ opinion, you stop being a startup when you unequivocally succeed in finding a repeatable and scalable business model that serves perfectly the intended target market.

To sum things up, if you have a company with the aspiration (and the ability) to have a turbo-charged growth that meets the above criteria, congratulations, you probably have a startup!

Or maybe not?

Myth Busted: That’s NOT a Startup!

Yes my friends, a startup:

– Is NOT about growth

– Is NOT about innovation

– Is NOT about the company’s culture

– Is NOT about the company’s size (and age)

– Is NOT about coming up with the next big thing

– Is NOT a mini-version of a larger (tech) company

– And, yes is NOT a type of business

But rather, it IS a stage of business…

You did read that correctly: STAGE!

Yes, it’s a stage in the process* of turning a business idea into an established (and profitable) real business.

* The (business) process: Pre-start, Startup, Early-stage business, Growing business, and Established business

Want a proper startup definition?

Dave McClure couldn’t describe it better:

A ‘startup’ is a company that is confused about –What its product is. Who its customers are. How to make money. As soon as it figures out all 3 things, it ceases being a startup and becomes a real business. Except most times, that doesn’t happen.”

And that’s my friends is what’s a startup!

I know, such a definition will understandably be anathema for some entrepreneurs and “startup experts,” who are committed to selling the notion that new entrepreneurs have just two options:

– Either build a fast and furious type of scalable startup, or

– Sell themselves short by setting up just a small and boring little business

But in reality, that’s what I call, classic business BS as usual, from snake oil (startup) salesman make a living from selling fantasies and motivational “yes, you can” type of BS (aka consulting).

And with that being said, let’s put this post to bed by wrapping things with today’s key takeaways…

Today’s Key Takeaways

– Startup does NOT equal growth

– Doing things differently doesn’t make you a startup

– A startup is a stage and NOT a type of business

***

Ok guys, that’s all from me for today.

If you enjoyed today’s post, check out my kindle book, The Vertical Startup: A Practical Guide on How Today’s Bootstrapped Entrepreneurs Turn their Late Market Entry Into An Advantage By Going Vertical, that is currently available at Amazon.

I hope to see you soon.

Best,

Andreas

“In the Middle Ages, children were considered to be smaller versions of adults. We now know that the human life cycle is more complex; children aren’t just small adults, and adolescents are not simply large children. Instead, each is a unique stage of development with distinctive behavior, modes of thinking, physiology and more. The same is true for startups and companies.”

– Ningherself

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