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A $4 billion unicorn founder’s 4-point plan for startup success

“If you build it, they will come,” says the entrepreneur behind productivity tool ClickUp. “If you provide a product that meets a true market need, customers will sign up.”

A $4 billion unicorn founder’s 4-point plan for startup success
[Source images: 696875/Pixabay; PixLoger/Pixabay]

It started with a vision.

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Google’s smart algorithm and simple homepage brought lightning-fast search to the masses. Uber delivered what taxis could not—convenient, hassle-free rides that are only a few clicks away. Apple surpassed simple desktop computing to include a suite of mobile and wearable devices designed with the user experience in mind.

The world’s most successful companies (and founders) saw a market void. That need informed their company vision as well as their products, company culture, and overall brand. While some companies have all the right pieces, not everyone is able to transcend initial stages of growth. 

As a life-long entrepreneur, I can tell you that there is a method to the madness of building a company—even amidst a global pandemic. My current company, project management platform ClickUp, has raised $535 million in funding in less than 18 months. We’ve also tripled our revenue and our user base has grown to more than 800,000 teams worldwide. 

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Through all my successes (and some failures), here’s what I learned while building a business in hyper-scale growth:

Bootstrap or raise as little capital as you can until you have a product  

Raising money is a pivotal milestone, and the timing is equally as important as the funds. Bootstrapping without VC money provides you with complete control and freedom to focus on making the right decisions and building the best product. But it also comes with pressure—the good kind. Without the cushion of outside investment, you’re forced to get good and shift into overdrive to make that happen. Bootstrapping forces you to learn and master new skills—everything from design to development. Time that would otherwise be spent fundraising and spending marketing dollars is spent fine-tuning your product and providing value to customers.

ClickUp was initially an internal tool we developed while working to build a Craigslist competitor. The team was tired of tracking work across multiple apps so we built the first version of ClickUp to save ourselves time and be more productive. Our passion for solving the workplace productivity problem became our core mission. Our team quickly pivoted to building the world’s only all-in-one productivity platform.

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To get us there, I used revenue from one of my previous companies, Fast Followerz, as seed money. I funded ClickUp with $2.5 million in convertible notes, which bootstrapped us to an approximately $25 million run rate. This was the beginning of our hyper-growth—all centered around our product that solved a very real problem for modern teams. 

After you have product-market fit, then grow aggressively by raising capital to fund team growth and acquisitions

You achieve product-market fit when your target customers are buying, using, and telling others about your product. With product-market fit, your product “grows on its own” to create a sustainable business. At the same time, you need to watch for, recognize, and react to changes in the market. These changes may include everything from supply chain bottlenecks to new (and different) customer expectations. The companies that fail during this period of growth are the ones that were not agile enough.

I believe that if you build it, they will come. If you provide a product that meets a true market need, customers will sign up. At this stage of product growth, investor funding will also come. In the span of 18 months, we raised our Series A, B, and C rounds and grew our valuation from zero to $4 billion. \

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An influx in additional capital can help a company to scale by hiring new employees (more on that in a bit), expanding into new markets, and making acquisitions that map directly back to your vision. In short, capital can enable you to grow faster—but you should only do this when you have sustainable unit economics and a product that is ready to sell itself. 

For ClickUp, we also used this time to invest heavily in building our brand. Building on top of our product-led growth, we invested heavily in organic marketing across our content channels and combined that with paid marketing attribution and out-of-home advertising like the many ClickUp billboards and bus ads you may have seen. Raising our brand awareness allowed us to leverage the virality of our product and scale our customer base in a massive way. 

Startups can move faster than larger competitors—so ship as fast as you can

You’ve heard the mantra, “move fast and break things.” You don’t need to write perfect code, just iterate quickly and listen to customer feedback. To this day, we ship updates weekly, we read every customer email, and we answer every support ticket. Truly getting close to your customers is the only way to achieve a true product-market fit.

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This quick product iteration also boosts overall efficiency—and efficiency matters as much as growth (your return on the dollar, how fast that return comes in, etc). Have a bias toward action and learn to tolerate the risk of failure. You don’t need a perfect product, you just need to innovate and ship often, gather feedback, and iterate.

Hire the right people who share your vision 

In the early stages of company growth, you won’t have the same access to proven, experienced talent. Hire for culture, passion, grit, and work ethic. Even though you’re taking a bet on an “unproven” candidate, these are the leaders that will learn and grow with the company. ClickUp’s mission is to save people time by making the world more productive—and we hire people who are obsessed with making every moment count. We’re now 800 employees strong and counting with new team members joining across the globe each week. 

Entrepreneurship is about taking risks, adjusting to change, and maneuvering quickly when necessary. The steps above provide general guidance for turning your business vision into a high-growth company reality. Be fast, be nimble, and remember your guiding vision—the very reason you started your company—as you accelerate your company’s growth. 

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Zeb Evans is the founder and CEO of productivity platform ClickUp.


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