Survival To Thrival: When Product-Market Fit Isn’t Enough To Grow An Enterprise Startup

I’ve had my heart broken by a lot of business books.

I go in thinking I’ll find the concise, actionable playbook promised on the cover. Instead, I end up bogged down by personal narrative, the uncomfortable realization that the author is a charlatan, and trite platitudes.

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To be clear, this is part of what made the first book in the Survival to Thrival: Building The Enterprise Startup series so refreshing. It’s not like the other business books I’ve read. It does what it says in the intro: explain the “hows” and “whys” of the company journey for enterprise-focused startups from formation to market domination.

There’s no fluff or flimflam. Rather, it’s a no-nonsense guidebook written by two experts: three-time entrepreneur and MobileIron founder Bob Tinker and Storm Ventures founding partner and managing director Tae Hea Nahm (pronounced “Tay-Hee Naam”). Over a period of fifteen years, the pair grew two startups—Airespace, which sold to Cisco for $450 million, and MobileIron, which went public in June 2014—from zero to tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue.

And unlike lots of business books, this one will almost certainly teach you something you didn’t already know, regardless of your prior experience as an enterprise founder, executive, consultant, or investor.

Voice And Format

It’s not often you find a book that could take anywhere between twenty minutes and four hours to read. Tinker and Nahm include bullet point summaries at the end of each chapter, succinct real-world case studies from the founders of Box, Zuora, Citrix, and others throughout the book, and plenty of tables and flowcharts readers can adapt to their own companies. It’s equally good to skim as it is to read cover to cover.

Its tone is friendly and reads like well-formed notes from a series of coffee meetings with mentors. And, like those notes, readers may find themselves going back to this book as their companies grow and present new challenges.

The book is mercifully short and packed with tactical advice and object lessons for founders. And despite its brevity, and its accessibility to first-time entrepreneurs, it delivers nuanced points that even founders with multiple at-bats can learn from.

But one of the sticking points I found was its title. Full disclosure: “Thrival” is not a real word, and I’m not a big fan of it. My own misgivings aside, here’s how Tinker (the entrepreneur) and Nahm (the investor) defined it in an interview I had with them:

  • From the entrepreneur’s perspective. Tinker told me that, in the beginning stages of starting a company, the company’s job is simply to survive. But, at some point, “There’s a shift from ‘don’t die mode’ to ‘how-do-we-win mode.’”
  • From the investor’s perspective. Nahm framed a definition from his perspective: “When a company hits ‘thrival,’ what you see is predictable, repeatable, and scalable growth. And what that translates to is this: investors can run a spreadsheet growth model and have a high confidence they’re correct.”

The central concept to the book is that, for enterprise startups, the difference between survival and “thrival” is finding a go-to-market strategy that fits the company’s product or service.

Go-To-Market Fit: Three Big Points

Again, this book’s main intellectual contribution is the notion of “go-to-market fit.” Here’s the rundown:

  • Product-market fit is necessary but not sufficient for enterprise startup growth. The mandate to “build something people want” is firmly in the entrepreneurial canon, and the idea of  “product-market fit” is well documented. But because of long sales cycles in the enterprise, growth isn’t achieved just by building something and waiting for people to come.
  • Just like with product-market fit, finding go-to-market fit is a process, not magic. Every go-to-market strategy should be unique to the company and its product. Once an enterprise startup has product-market fit (one or more paying customers, real usage, and inbound interest from customer referrals), finding the best way to scale is an iterative process. The result of finding fitness: having customers pull you in during the sales process and a one-page playbook for repeatable sales success.
  • It’s not a one-and-done deal. Companies grow in headcount and scope. The approach of a 20-person growth team is going to be different than a team of 200. And if a company launches a new product, or integrates a new product by way of acquisition, they’ll have to find a new go-to-market strategy that fits. The good news, Tinker and Nahm suggest, is that finding this fit gets easier with practice.

The Good, The Not-So-Good, And The Ugly

There are lots of business books about the earliest stages of startup formation and development. Tinker and Nahm focus primarily on the transition startups go through, from upstart to late-stage, and the accompanying issues that come with that growth.

However, in some ways, the book’s brevity is its biggest weakness. The amount of information, case studies, and tools Tinker and Nahm managed to pack into 126 pages is really impressive. Nonetheless, I feel that even another 15 pages would have given them breathing room to fully round out some of the finer details.

And seriously, there has to be a better word than “thrival.” But maybe, like that Tommy Wiseau movie “The Room,” their word choice may be so bad that it’s good. When I expressed my views about the word, Tinker quipped: “Hey, at least it’s memorable.” Indeed, it is.

Tinker and Nahm tell me the second book in the Survival to Thrival series is almost done. Rather than focusing on company formation, growth, and achieving market dominance, the second book will focus on people and how their roles change as the company changes, how to keep work rewarding, and how to recognize and mitigate the stress working in a startup can often bring.

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