How to Be a Billion Dollar Company

It takes a lot to build a company worth $1B, but according to Amos, doing anything less is irrelevant. A billion dollar market means that even with a reasonable market share, you can still have a sizeable company that can make an actual difference in the world.

Of course, a billion-dollar company needs a multi-billion dollar market, and those aren’t lying around like gold nuggets on the ground waiting to be claimed. Those markets are discovered, disrupted and replaced by new paradigms that usually sweep the unsuspecting incumbent market players by surprise.

What does it take to build a billion-dollar company compared to a multi-million dollar one? Both take a good team, hard work, economic decision-making and a corporate culture that attracts and retains good people. The differences are 1. imagination, and 2. to not listen to customers.

Yes, I said NOT listen to customers. Sounds crazy, no? Stay with me for a bit here.

Every viable company has to listen to its customers. Companies that lose touch with the customers and prospective customers fail.  The ones that succeed follow this mantra: Listen. Build. Sell. LBS is a sound strategy and many companies run profitably using it, often highlighting how importantly and attentively they listen to the voice of their customers and how much their customers appreciate getting the features they ask for. They are good companies, and provide goods and services to their satisfied customers, and inspire careers and create financial support for many employees.

But it’s not the way to build a billion dollar company. The mantra for these companies is the one Creo adopted: Imagine. Create. Believe. ICB is far more powerful a motivator that LBS, one that risks verging on arrogance and creating a cult-like corporate culture. Whenever you tie into the human belief system, you are playing with powerful forces.

Let’s unpack the mantra a bit.

Imagine: World-changing companies imagine what is possible, imagining a possibility that requires a technological breakthrough, and sometimes meets a historically un-meetable need. It’s not the imagination of the science fiction writer, it’s a grounded business logic with the added spice of imagining the creation of a thing that has not existed before. It takes a leap of faith.

A world-changing company knows that the vision of a market where this imagined device exists has to be achievable by sustainable economics.

For Creo, the economics of computer-to-plate digital laser imaging didn’t come from the customer. It came from observing the business of the customer, identifying where they spent (and wasted) money, and providing them a solution that saved them many times the cost of the equipment. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, it’s not our customers’ job to define what they want, they are busy trying to make money with their existing systems. Not listening to customers doesn’t mean ignoring them, it means going beyond listening to asking questions, observing what they really do (vs. what they say they do, or what managers think their staff does), to find the economic value that your product or service can save.

It’s up to us to have the technical imagination to know what is possible, and to understand our customers’ business so well that we can develop and deliver products with a return-on-investment that our customers never imagined were achievable.

Create. Because our imagination is audacious, and our customers may not recognize or understand the technology that we imagine, we have to demonstrate viability. In hardware or in software, that means prototyping, testing and verification. Forward thinking customers may fund these early prototypes, and secure their early production systems once they shown to be viable, as RR Donnelley did for Creo. Crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter have popularized this reward for pre-production funding on a large scale.

Believe. Who is that needs belief? Certainly the development team does, the sales and marketing team does, and the investors and employees all do. Why then put belief at the end of this mantra instead of the beginning?

It’s because the one-day-billion-dollar company already believes they will be that company long before they get there. It’s part of their DNA. The company’s belief system and culture is stoked to change the world with their offering long before the first beta versions hit the streets. They know they have a great product, and that the challenge is now to convince the world.

That’s why Believe is at the end. To become a billion-dollar company takes the evangelical passion of hundreds of believers to imagine the solution, have the faith, conviction, talent, and skill to bring it to fruition in the real world, then the energy to make believers of enough of the world to make a difference.

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