Tune in, Turn on, Drop out: The Startup Genome project

(Editor’s note: Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank is the author of Four Steps to the Epiphany. This story originally appeared on his blog.)

In April 2010 I received an email that said, “I’m an incoming Stanford student in the fall and working on a project that a number of people suggested I get in touch with you about.”Ok, I get a lot of these. Is this some grad student or post doc who wanted to do some independent study?

The email continued,  ”The problem I’m working on is that many founders are either making uninformed decisions or inefficiently learning the new skills they need. The solution I’m exploring is a just in time learning methodology that accelerates founders’ learning curve by aggregating relevant content, peers and mentors.”

Hmm, now I’m getting intrigued. This sounded like one heck of an interesting guy and it’s a subject I care about. I wondered where he got his MBA from?

The email closed by saying, “The project is a hybrid between academic and entrepreneurial circles and I’d really love to begin a dialogue with people in the academic world also interested in solving this problem. Your name has come up a lot in that regard. Let me know if this interests you and if you have any time to speak.”

It was signed Max Marmer.

I set up a meeting and at Cafe Borrone some kid who looked 18-years old came up to me and introduced himself as Max. “How old are you? I asked. “18,” he replied.

Holy #&!*.

When I asked Max why he was interested in solving entrepreneurial education problems he replied, “I was always interested in big picture trends for where the world is headed. I spent time with organizations like the Institute for the Future and Singularity University. My conjecture became that the world’s biggest problem isn’t poverty or disease or any oft-stated major problem, but that we don’t have enough people engaged in trying to solve these problems. A big piece of the solution lies in the scalable impact of entrepreneurship and an increase of successful entrepreneurs. But potential impact consistently fails to be realized because of self-destruction.”

I don’t think I touched my sandwich. I tried to remember what I was doing at 18 and whatever it was I wasn’t this. Max continued, “That’s why I’m really interested in ways of optimizing the entrepreneurship ecosystem to allow more entrepreneurs to go from idea to reality. To do this requires: a methodology, tools and systematically reducing friction.”

I was feeling pretty old. Max set the record for smarts divided by age.

Max entered Stanford in the fall of 2010 as a freshman, took as many of the engineering entrepreneurship classes as he could and independent study with me. (He was part of the Sandbox network – a group of incredibly smart under 30 year olds.)

Max dropped out of Stanford after his first quarter.

But he left to work on what he told me he came to do – crack the innovation code of Silicon Valley and share it with the rest of the world. He set up Blackbox.vc, a seed accelerator for technology startups (and one of the tour stops for entrepreneurs from around the world.) They went to work gathering deep knowledge of what makes successful Internet startups.

Max and his partners interviewed and analyzed over 650 early-stage Internet startups. This week, they released the first Startup Genome Report— a 67 page in-depth analysis on what makes early-stage Internet startups successful. Here are some of their key findings:

1. Founders that learn are more successful: Startups that have helpful mentors, track metrics effectively, and learn from startup thought leaders raise 7x more money and have 3.5x better user growth.

2. Startups that pivot once or twice times raise 2.5x more money, have 3.6x better user growth, and are 52 percent less likely to scale prematurely than startups that pivot more than 2 times or not at all.

3. Many investors invest 2-3x more capital than necessary in startups that haven’t reached problem solution fit yet. They also over-invest in solo founders and founding teams without technical cofounders despite indicators that show that these teams have a much lower probability of success.

4. Investors who provide hands-on help have little or no effect on the company’s operational performance. But the right mentors significantly influence a company’s performance and ability to raise money. (However, this does not mean that investors don’t have a significant effect on valuations and M&A)

5. Solo founders take 3.6x longer to reach scale stage compared to a founding team of 2 and they are 2.3x less likely to pivot.

6. Business-heavy founding teams are 6.2x more likely to successfully scale with sales driven startups than with product centric startups.

7. Technical-heavy founding teams are 3.3x more likely to successfully scale with product-centric startups with no network effects than with product-centric startups that have network effects.

8. Balanced teams with one technical founder and one business founder raise 30 percent more money, have 2.9x more user growth and are 19% less likely to scale prematurely than technical or business-heavy founding teams.

9. Most successful founders are driven by impact rather than experience or money.

10. Founders overestimate the value of IP before product market fit by 255 percent.

11. Startups need 2-3 times longer to validate their market than most founders expect. This underestimation creates the pressure to scale prematurely.

12. Startups that haven’t raised money over-estimate their market size by 100x and often misinterpret their market as new.

13. Premature scaling is the most common reason for startups to perform worse. They tend to lose the battle early on by getting ahead of themselves.

14. B2C vs. B2B is not a meaningful segmentation of Internet startups anymore because the Internet has changed the rules of business. We found 4 different major groups of startups that all have very different behavior regarding customer acquisition, time, product, market and team.


I’m not sure I believe every one of the report conclusions – it just covers very early stage web startups, and the methodology is still shaky – but this is a landmark study. I think these guys have gone a long way to turn hypotheses about early-stage Internet startups into facts. And they’re just getting started.

I can’t wait to see what Max does by the time he’s 21.

VentureBeat is studying the state of marketing technology. Chime in, and we’ll share the data.


  1. [...] angel-funded startups, life is even tougher. Data from the Startup Genome project shows that startups that have helpful mentors, listen to customers, and learn from startup thought [...]