Here’s a fun weekend experiment for you, something I call the $20 Weekend Challenge: Take a $20 bill out of your wallet on Friday. You task for the weekend is to turn that $20 into $40 by Monday, doubling your money. You are welcome to use any legal means at your disposal, but heading into a casino or buying lottery tickets doesn’t count. You have to turn that $20 into $40 without gambling. It sounds hard, but it is worth it, I promise.
So, what does this have to do with building a business?
Cash and Business
A common refrain in business is that “cash is king”. Most people say that to mean your company does not exist if you don’t have enough cash to pay your bills, but it is also true that your business is designed to take in some cash and output more cash. You are trying to build something impossible in the world of physics: something that produces more than it consumes.
This is much harder than it sounds, as you likely know if you tried the $20 Weekend Challenge. If you are accustomed to working for a salary, you are used to exchanging your time for money which is very different from building a business. Having a job requires little thought on your part since your salary is (usually) guaranteed and your time has flexible value. Building a business, however, requires a lot of thought.
Let’s do a simple thought experiment to prove that point. Your typical employee at a high tech start up company costs between $100,000 and $150,000 depending on your location so let us assume $125,000. No, that’s not all salary, it includes benefits, payroll taxes, accounting costs, etc. (as a business, the salary can be only half the cost of an employee).
Depending on your business model, let’s see how many customers you would need to pay for that employee.
Business Model: Advertising
In advertising you are paid per every 1,000 ad impressions you show (CPM). CPMs vary wildly so let’s assume you make a $2 CPM (which is not bad). Assuming that 20% of your users are active on any given day and those active users generate 2 ad impressions, you would need 286,200 active users every day to support the cost of one employee.
Business Model: Subscription
In a subscription model, you make money through the monthly fee you can charge active customers. Let’s assume, your product costs $50/month to maintain a subscription. That means you need 210 paying customers every month to support the cost of one employee.
Business Model: Selling Products
When you are selling products, you get a one-time fee for the cost of the product. Let’s assume you sell your product for $100 and it costs you $90 to make it, leaving $10 in net profit per sale. You would need to sell 240 units every week to support the cost of one employee.
And remember, all of that only covers one employee.
The $20 Weekend Challenge
When thinking in these terms, I hope the value of the $20 Weekend Challenge becomes clear. In order to pay for a single employee, you have to have a lot of customers. To pay for your entire team, you need a large number of customers. To pay for your team, your offices, your lawyers and eventually make a profit? You need to have all the customers.
You need to take your money and almost double it to simply pay your bills.
Building a profitable business is hard because the cost structure that goes along with companies is high. Some companies claim they are profitable when they achieve Ramen Profitability, but that is really a false milestone. If you can’t afford to pay yourself a living wage, you are not really profitable.
If this makes starting a business intimidating, good. It should be intimidating. It should seem almost impossible. However, I bet when you first started thinking about the $20 Weekend Challenge it seemed pretty hard too. The only way to see if you can do it is to give it a try.