Why the best startup founders have an Original Thesis, and how to get it.

All founders have an idea. Better founders have a vision. The best founders have a thesis. This post will teach you about the concept of ‘Original Thesis’. It will show how the three most valuable companies from Accelerace benefitted from having one. Finally, it will be apparent why the post features a chimpanzee.

There are no holes in the market.

In 1759, Adam Smith coined a term that became a pillar of economic understanding. Smith understood the following: In a free market economy, people will find ways to serve the needs of others. He called it the invisible hand.

An economy has network effects, meaning that the strength of an economy is related to the number of participants. Today, infinitely more people are participating than in the days of Adam Smith. Thus, the invisible hand is equally more forceful.

Now, the invisible hand is sweeping with unprecedented force. If people taste bubble tea in Kuala Lumpur, a few weeks later, bubble tea pops up in Copenhagen. If people get medicine delivered by bike in Berlin, next month, the same is offered in Buenos Aires.

Today, the needs of people are satisfied before you can write a business plan. I suspect this makes you slightly uncomfortable. It means; there are “no holes in the market”. 

Startup founders who think they have spotted a large unmet need are simply deluding themselves. And if there is an unmet need, it is extremely short-lived because hordes of hopeful entrepreneurs are already on it. Thus, the “opportunity” is not compelling. Not to a VC anyway. 

After having accelerated 700 startups, we see the most successful companies did not have a large market. In fact, many did not have a market at all. Instead, these founders had something else. Something much more potent. An Original Thesis. 

The difference between Vision and Thesis.

Arguably, the three most successful companies from Accelerace are Trustpilot, Templafy and Labster. None of these founders thought they had spotted a “hole in the market”. 

Instead, Peter Holten Mühlmann, founder of Trustpilot, had an Original Thesis. In 2007, he surmised that in the (near) future, the internet would enable anyone could set up a webshop. Consequently, consumers would be flooded with the availability of new online shops. Peter further speculated that because web shops would be easy to set up, lots of fraudulent shops would appear. Peter believed that consumers would find it hard to navigate between good and bad shops. Consequently, they would need Trustpilot. A tool that would warn people about bad shops. 

When Peter pitched Trustpilot, he did not claim a big market. The facts were clear. Less than 2% of commerce was done online. In fact, the market was non-existing. Today, Trustpilot is valued at 1,3 billion dollars and traded on the London stock exchange.

If you had tried to identify the “hole in the market” for Trustpilot, you would come up short. No amount of market research, customer interview, focus groups, or Garter Reports would have identified the market for Trustpilot. Why? Because at the time, there was no problem. 

Peter Holten Mühlmann understood this. His claim was that this problem would arise in the (near) future. But more importantly, he could articulate why. And as we will learn later, this defines an Original Thesis.

When Christian and Henrik co-founded Templafy during our acceleration program in 2013, they too were seeing into the future. Below is a slide from their first pitch deck.

No alt text provided for this image

(slide from the Templafy 2013 seed round pitch deck above)

The slide paints a picture of a future when corporate employees are working in cloud-based programs and on mobile devices. This was not yet a reality, but the founders surmised that this future was nigh. They knew that some of the most innovative corporates were already planning to migrate to cloud versions of office programs. They also speculated that Microsoft and Google would not offer advanced template control when that happened. How did they know this? Because the founders were leading consultants within the field of template management. 

In other words, Christian and Henrik had an Original Thesis. Their thesis was that in the (near) future corporates would migrate to cloud-based programs and mobile devices. Furthermore, the leading providers would not offer advanced template management, and that would create a need for a separate tool. In addition, they surmised that Microsoft and Google would endorse Templafy because Templafy would be an important enabler for corporates to migrate to the cloud.

Christian and Henrik turned out to be correct. But again, if you had attempted to validate the market for Templafy in 2013, you would have failed. There was no market. Nor did the founders claim so. Instead, they argued the validity of their thesis. And because it was based on Original Insight, it was an Original Thesis.

The third example is Labster. In 2012, the Founder Mads Tvillinggaard Bonde surmised that in the (near) future, STEM degrees would increase in popularity due to scientific and technology-driven innovation. This would course the problem that the current university campuses would have little laboratory space for the growing number of STEM students. 

Simultaneously, advances in computing power, game engines, GPUs would make virtual labs good enough to replace physical labs. It would take many years before his thesis would be proven correct. But it ultimately did. And in early 2021, almost ten years after his Original Thesis was conceived, Andreessen Horowitz invested in Labster.

The truth is none of these founders claimed to have spotted a “hole in the market”, or a “business opportunity”. Instead, they had an Original Thesis. And so must you. But at this point you might wonder: how do you qualify a thesis? 

Describing the future in detail

Anyone can make guesses about the future. A lot of people say that China will replace the US as the global leader. But few people can tell you why they think so. And even fewer people can state original arguments.

An Original Thesis has two requirements. It is must Original. And it must be a Thesis. 

For something to qualify as a Thesis, it must include a time perspective. Most people can agree that one day, we will live in Virtual Reality. But that is not a Thesis. That is a vision. 

A Thesis about Virtual Reality must include when it will happen. Furthermore, it must identify the drivers behind the development. A Thesis would sound more like 5G will enable high enough bandwidth to stream 8K content to VR headsets. 8K resolutions will remove the grainy effect in VR, and streaming will make the headsets light enough to be comfortable for long periods of time. Tactile suits will develop due to advances in smart materials and will make the VR experience fully immersive. At the same time, the largest gaming studios will focus on VR releases due to premium price points on VR versions. This cocktail will take VR from a fun experience, into an alternate reality. 8K resolutions will be coming within three years, 5G and smart suits within two years. 

Put differently, something is a Thesis when you can describe your vision in detail and understand the drivers that will make your vision come true.

However, if you took my (mock) thesis from above and put it into a pitch deck, it would lack Originality. It is a thesis, but it would not be Original. Why does originality matter? Because ideally, you are the only person with this thesis. Because if you are non-consensus, then you will be free of competition. 

If Charles Darwin had been one out of thousand people who had the thesis about natural evolution, the Origin of Species would be a lot less special.

More importantly, originality gives you conviction. The brutality of startup journeys tests your conviction to the fullest. During hard times, conviction makes you persevere. And conviction makes you speak with enough passion to rally your troops. 

It took more than ten years before the Original Thesis of Charles Darwin was accepted by the scientific community. Ten years of mockery. But never doubt. 

Ten years is also the time it takes most startups to reach maturity. Perhaps not with mockery. But certainly, with doubt. That unless you have an Original Thesis. I know that our most successful founders would agree.

If you want to learn more from the best startups we have worked with, apply to Accelerace and Overkill Ventures. We invest in startups.

The fear all startup founders must overcome. Beachhead Phobia.

There is a fear that has no name. But most startup founders experience it.

Perhaps, it is the fear that kills most startups. And no, it is not the fear of failure. It is a fear much more visceral. I call it Beachhead Phobia.

The Beachhead 

In our acceleration program, we teach all founders the concept of the Beachhead. It is the most important tool for finding product-market fit. 

We teach our startups to focus all their resources on a single homogeneous segment that has a desperate need for their product. The desperation usually arises from the fact the segment is new and fast-growing. Consequently, the Beachhead has not yet found a solution that adequately solves their problem. This makes the Beachhead willing to test an early product from an unknown startup.

The beachhead is borrowed from military strategy. Here, invading forces must focus all their resources on a single spot on the beach to conquer enemy territory. 

All successful startups find a Beachhead. But before they do, startups typically begin with a very broad customer definition. Then they learn that customers are different and want different things. This eventually leads startups to focus on a Beachhead. Once, startups dominate the Beachhead, they slowly broaden their focus again. 

The puzzling thing is that even though all successful startups go through this process, all founders fight it. And after having accelerated startups for a decade, I see what is going on.

The fog of startup

When launching a startup, founders feel the intoxicating promise of infinite opportunity. The sense arises from the “fog-of-startup”. We want to be the next big startup success. But we are not completely sure how to get there. The space between the current situation and the future aspiration is the fog-of-startup. 

In the fog-of-startup, we expect advantageous things will happen. Perhaps, a famous VC will flood us with cash. Or a big company will start distributing our product. Or a celebrity will endorse us. But our biggest hope is that we will immediately get flooded by customers from around the globe. 

To keep this dream alive, we communicate in the biggest and broadest terms possible. We call our product the one-stop shop. Or the platform. Or the go-to software. We claim to be born global and be blitz scaling.

Accordingly, we launch and prepare champagne bottles. But instead of servers crashing due to insane customer demand. Things get murky. Some people sign up. But not nearly the numbers we hoped. The “fog of startup” has been lifted and it hid no miracles.

At this point, many founders make a fatal mistake. We surmise that we did not communicate to enough people. Not enough people understood the brilliance of our product. So, we respond by painting an even broader picture. We might state that our product is relevant for all industries or all consumers. Surely, this will make us seem bigger and relevant to more people. 

But it does not have the intended effect. The response turns even murkier.

At this point, we get worried. Maybe we did something wrong. So, we seek advice (and funding). At some point, we encounter people who know about startups. That could be investors, other founders, and advisors. These people will tell us to “focus”. But at first, this advice seems strange. 

Because we already focus all of our time on our startup. So, the advice seems patronizing and unnecessary. Sometimes, those providing the advice manage to convey that the focus is related to customers. But since launch, we have done little else than answering requests for features and bug reports from customers.

At some point, lucky founders encounter the concept of the Beachhead. The logic is clear. We must focus on a single homogenous segment to whom we can offer a perfect product. Once, we have conquered this Beachhead, we can focus on the next adjacent segment. 

In other words, we must abandon the one-stop shop for all companies. Instead, we must offer a unique product for a specific person, in a specific type of company, with a specific problem, to be used in a specific use case.

We get it. But then we feel it. The fear that has no name. So, I dubbed it Beachhead Phobia . 

Beachhead Phobia

Successful founders realize they must focus on a Beachhead. Still, most founders hesitate. The reason is the unpleasant sensation when contemplating the change. That sensation is Beachhead Phobia.

The sensation stems from the fact that the advice seemingly conflicts with several common beliefs.

The first belief is that VCs only invest in billion-dollar markets. Consequently, many founders articulate their market in the widest possible terms. Unfortunately, these founders confuse different time perspectives. When VCs talk about billion-dollar markets, they mean markets 10 years from now. But when we advise founders to focus on a Beachhead, we mean for the next six months.

The second belief is that “thinking small” means lowering our ambition and impact. Many founders are avid readers of books with titles like: The magic of thinking big. In addition, our personalities compel us to make a “dent in the universe”. 

Going from declaring that you serve all companies everywhere! to serving a small group of specific people in specific companies, simply feels unambitious. But again, we confuse time perspectives. Anyone who succeeds in anything big, first succeeds in something small. The Beachhead is just the first step.

The third belief is not a belief. It is a feeling. And for this reason, it is the strongest cause for Beachhead Phobia. It is the psychological truth that it feels much worse to be rejected by someone specific than to be ignored by a crowd. 

During our program, we ask founders to name and list the Beachhead. If a startup claims their Beachhead is HR managers in SMEs. Then we ask the founders to make a list with names of the exact HR managers they plan to sell to. And then create a “perfect” value proposition for these people.

Creating a specific value proposition to a specific person infinitely increases the chance of a positive response. Any woman using dating apps can attest to this. And so can you (even if you are not a women using dating apps).

The problem is that contacting a specific person with a tailored message feels wildly uncomfortable. Why? Because suddenly our actions are measurable, and rejection becomes impossible to ignore. 

In a nightclub, it feels much worse to approach a specific person and be rejected, than to be ignored on the dancefloor. 

On the dancefloor, we can convince ourselves that someone attractive will soon appear. But approaching a specific person with a personalized compliment and be rejected, ruins the night. 

But the best founders overcome Beachhead Phobia. They target the Beachhead, get rejected, learn from it, adjust their value proposition, and do it again. They feel visceral pain with every invalidation of their assumptions, but they never succumb to the fear. And neither will you.

You want to learn more about Beachhead, visit Accelerace and Overkill Ventures. We accelerate and invest in startups.