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Posts Tagged ‘napkin math’

I find simple equations sometimes help frame an opportunity.
In the case of software and media companies I have a very basic formula to gauge an opportunity that goes something like this…
M = Maximum possible number of users (consumers or members) a business could capture if they had 100% of the market
C = Average Cost to acquire a user
D = Research and Development cost to develop initial software or media property
L = Lifetime value of the user (can use advertising CPMs, licensing fees, subscrition rates and lengths)
S = seed money or capital to attempt the business
R = Likely Top Market Share Attained (typically not more than 15%)
=>
M * L = Maximum Revenue Lifetime of the Business
D + (C * M) = Maximum Cost to Deliver Maximum Revenue
=>
MaxRev – MaxCost = MaxProfitLoss
You can repeat this exercise with R instead of M to get the realistic model.
I like to make some guess as to how fast a business can get to that max so that I know the rev per year and what not.  Yes, this is a trivial calculation but I think it’s a really useful rule of thumb formula for sizing up an opportunity in software and media.
The key to this equation is estimated M accurately (usually means being very honest with your market).  It’s not too tough with todays tools and open data to get a good look at demographics, buying histories, competitors and so forth.
Note that I make no attempt to account for market valuations and all that.  That way of thinking is usually a chasing after the wind.
Why does this equation help?
Well, the main point is that it gives me a great sense of scope.  Many of the media properties and software products out there cost a ton of money and have mediocre maximum markets or very low lifetime value.  Many businesses are eager to create a killer app but don’t have a grasp of what the scope of a killer app really has to be and/or they grossly underestimate how hard it is to make something.
What I find with this equation is that there’s a sweet spot in media and software.  If you optimize this equation you find that you can’t make software or media that’s too esoteric or complicated to make nor can you make complete fluff.   If you want to make something that appeals to everyone on the planet (not possible) it’s going to cost a lot and the cost to acquire users will be very high… so with this simple equation you learn you’ll be at it for a long time.  On the other hand if you want to make a high end product for a niche, you’ll find that the overall opportunity might not be that big.
Again, this is hardly rocket science, sound economic theory or anything… simple napkin math.
What it doesn’t capture, but hints at is the gross mis-estimation a good deal of entreprenuers make – software and media is more art than science and can very quickly turn into something intractable.
A few other considerations I’ve accumulated over the years in and out of businesses:
  • If your media or software is uber mass market, the big guys are just going to make it and give it away.
  • If your project takes too long (a year or more), you’re going to have many more competitors working way faster than you before you ship.
  • A killer app or killer media property is often not the thing you set out to make, it’s usually the mistake, the tangent, the oddball idea.
  • More capital doesn’t improve the chances.  Capital only helps to scale once something is built, for MOST projects.
Perhaps you’ll find this useful as you move into 2010 and kick start your projects!

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