The tech industry is known for its fast pace and constantly evolving landscape. In this environment, startups are often in a race against time to gain traction, secure funding and establish themselves in the market.
However, when a market downturn hits, these challenges become even more daunting. The funding dries up, customers become more hesitant to adopt new products, and competition intensifies.
Startups that don’t address these challenges can quickly find themselves in trouble.
A report by CB Insights found that 66% of startups that raised seed or Series A funding during the last major global financial crisis, between 2008 and 2010, failed within four years.
Similarly, data from the dot-com bubble in the late 1990s and early 2000s showed that startup failure rates increased after the bubble burst.
According to a study by the University of Maryland, during this time, the failure rate of dot-com startups was already quite high at around 50% to 60% between 1996 and 2001.
However, during the peak of the bubble between 2000 and 2001, the failure rate skyrocketed to around 90%. Kozmo.com was one of that 90%.
Kozmo.com promised to deliver a wide range of products, including movies, snacks, and other items, to customers’ doors within an hour of ordering. It quickly gained a following.
However, Kozmo.com’s business model was heavily dependent on the dot-com boom of the late 1990s.
The company raised over $250 million in funding from investors, but it struggled to turn a profit. As the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s, the company’s investors became more cautious and less willing to provide funding, and Kozmo.com’s revenue streams began to dry up.
Despite attempts to pivot its business model and expand into new markets, Kozmo.com ultimately filed for bankruptcy in April 2001. The company’s failure is often cited as an example of the risks associated with relying on a single, unstable revenue stream and the danger of over-reliance on investor funding.
With further market downturns on the horizon, it’s more important than ever to be well-prepared and consider all the key factors for success when launching a startup. In this article, I’m going to share the key things you need to consider to give yourself the best chance of success when launching a startup in a market downturn.
1. Financial Sustainability
Financial sustainability is one of the most important concerns for any startup, especially during a market downturn. Without a solid financial foundation, weathering economic uncertainty and coming out on top can be difficult.
Moreover, when building a startup, everything takes 10 times longer to build than you expect (and normally costs 10 times more to boot). Remember that when looking at your runway.
A crucial part of financial sustainability is creating a realistic budget and cash flow forecast that considers potential changes in revenue and expenses.
Take Airbnb as an example here.
In 2008, when the company was just two years old, the global financial crisis hit.
Airbnb was not yet profitable and relied heavily on outside funding – much like Kozmo.com was just a few years prior.
With investors hesitant to invest in anything during the downturn, the company faced a significant challenge.
To address the issue, Airbnb co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia took a creative approach. They decided to offer breakfast and a local experience to guests who stayed in their apartment, which they dubbed “Airbed and Breakfast.” This new offering allowed the company to generate a more sustainable revenue stream, despite tough economic times.
Additionally, Chesky and Gebbia took cost-cutting measures to preserve cash. They lived off of credit card debt, cut back on expenses, and even sold collectable cereal boxes (aptly named “Obama O’s” and “Cap’n McCain’s”) to raise funds.
Financial sustainability is critical for any startup, especially during a market downturn. By creating a realistic budget and cash flow forecast, and taking creative approaches to generating revenue and preserving cash, you’ll be in a much better position to weather economic uncertainty.
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2. Customer Acquisition
The second key concern for startups, which becomes even more critical when launching during a market downturn, is customer acquisition.
Consumers may be more cautious about spending money on new, unproven products or services, making it more difficult to attract and retain customers.
To address this issue, you must find ways to build relationships with your target audience and demonstrate the value your product will bring them.
Something Dropbox pulled off nicely.
The company launched in 2007 during the early days of the global financial crisis. At the time, cloud storage was a relatively new concept, and Dropbox faced significant competition from established players like Google and Microsoft.
To differentiate itself and attract customers, Dropbox took a customer-focused approach.
They prioritized usability and simplicity in their product design, making it easy for users to store and share files.
They also focused on building a strong brand and loyal customer base through word-of-mouth marketing and referrals.
Moreover, they offered a free version of their product, which allowed users to store up to 2GB of data for free. This attracted millions of users. Once customers saw the value of the free version, many upgraded to the paid version, which offered more storage and advanced features.
So, focus on what your customers need and show them the value of what you offer. And most importantly, put them first.
3. Competitive Landscape
The competitive landscape can shift rapidly during a market downturn. Established players may have more resources to weather the storm, while smaller startups may struggle to keep up.
To succeed in this environment, you need to be aware of the competition and find ways to differentiate your startup and stand out from the crowd.
One well-known tech startup that had to navigate a shifting competitive landscape during a market downturn is Uber. Launching in 2009 the founding team found it difficult to attract investors and customers.
However, Uber was able to differentiate itself by offering a new type of transportation service that was faster and more convenient than traditional taxis.
As Uber grew, it faced increasing competition from established players like Lyft and local taxi companies.
To stay ahead, Uber invested heavily in technology and innovation. They launched new products like UberX, which allowed everyday drivers to offer rides to customers, and UberEATS, a food delivery service.
However, Uber’s success also led to increased regulatory scrutiny and negative publicity, which created additional challenges for the company.
To adapt, Uber implemented new safety measures, improved driver pay and benefits, and revamped its leadership team.
By differentiating yourself from your competitors and investing in innovation, you stand a much better chance of staying ahead of the curve. Focus on building something 10 times better than any other solution on the market – and remember that knowing your competition is paramount to doing that successfully.
4. Operational Efficiency
When launching in a market downturn, with limited resources and tighter budgets, you must find ways to optimize your operations and reduce costs to remain competitive.
Take Slack for instance.
The company launched in 2013. The economy still recovering from the impact of the financial crisis – making it difficult for startups to secure funding.
More than that, the enterprise communication market was already crowded.
Slack had to differentiate themselves by focusing on creating a more user-friendly platform that could streamline team communication to attract both users and investors.
But they also had to find a way to maintain operational efficiency.
So they invested in automation and streamlined workflows. They implemented features like chatbots and integrations with other tools like Trello, Asana, and Google Drive to help reduce manual work and increase productivity.
Additionally, Slack minimized the use of email and relied heavily on its own platform to communicate internally and with external partners.
By optimizing your operations, automating processes, and minimizing costs, you can increase your chances of success.
Slack’s success in streamlining workflows, leveraging its user community, and implementing a freemium model demonstrates the importance of operational efficiency in growing and scaling a startup.
5. Agility and Adaptability
The ability to pivot quickly and adapt to changing market conditions can be the difference between success and failure during a market downturn. You must be able to identify new opportunities and adjust your strategies accordingly.
One example of a tech startup that did exactly that is Zoom.
The company was founded in 2011, but it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 that Zoom saw explosive growth. With remote work becoming the norm, Zoom quickly became a go-to platform for video conferencing and remote collaboration.
To capitalize on this opportunity, Zoom had to be agile and adapt quickly.
The company scaled rapidly to accommodate the sudden surge in demand, adding new features and functionality to its platform to improve the user experience.
For example, Zoom introduced virtual backgrounds, breakout rooms, and the ability to record meetings, all of which were designed to make remote work more efficient and enjoyable.
In addition to responding to customer needs, Zoom also adapted its marketing and sales strategies.
With the pandemic limiting in-person events and meetings, Zoom shifted its focus to online marketing and virtual events.
Agility and adaptability are critical if you are going to successfully launch during a market downturn. By being flexible, responsive, and looking for new opportunities at every turn, you can pivot quickly and stay ahead of the curve.
6. Patience & Perseverance
As we’ve touched on, it may take longer to gain traction in a challenging economic climate.
Users may be more critical of investing time and money into a new, untested, product. You’ll need to be patient and persevere to educate and nurture them, and ultimately persuade them to try your new offering.
Just keep in mind that markets go through cycles, and eventually, things will improve.
I recently say down with serial entrepreneur and 25-year Silicon Valley veteran, Garrett Gafke, who provided an excellent example of how being patient and persevering can pay off in the long run.
Back in 2011, towards the end of the last global financial crisis, Gafke and his team were pioneering the digital identity market, a concept that was unknown and confusing to most people at the time.
Despite facing scepticism and confusion, Gafke remained patient and persevered, taking the time to educate the market on digital identity. His efforts paid off and after spending four years in stealth mode, he successfully launched his company, IdentityMind.
Just remember, it’s important to focus on the long-term vision and stay committed to the mission, even if your progress is slowed due to market downturns.
Launching a tech startup in a market downturn requires careful planning and consideration.
By focusing on financial sustainability, customer acquisition, competitive landscape, operational efficiency, and agility and adaptability, you can position your startup for success even in the toughest of times.
And, above all, be patient and persevere.
As Steve Jobs famously put it:
About half of what separates successful entrepreneurs from non-successful ones is pure perseverance.
Thanks for reading.
Rui is a partner and CMO at Altar.io. He’s been dedicated to B2B marketing for his entire professional career. After spending eight years honing his craft at Portugal’s first B2B marketing agency, he joined Altar, where he leads both the marketing and sales department under the same umbrella.
His current focus is on business strategy, getting to know Altar’s customers and occasional early-stage strategy discussions with the entrepreneurs we work with.