The Last Startup Company

“Evernote is our life’s work. It’s my third company. The whole point is we don’t want to sell another company. We wanted the next thing to be sufficiently epic, so that we never want to do anything else. I hope to be involved in Evernote forever.”

Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote

There seems to be a growing trend of founders to want to create lasting, iconic companies. On a regular basis I hear founders describe their current startup as a “100-year company” or “my last startup”, implying the company will last for a very long time. Gone are the days when being a “serial entrepreneur” was the aspiration of founders, now they want to found the definitive companies of the next century.

Why the change?

I have no simple answer, nor enough data to create a complete picture of how large this trend might be. However, I do have some observations that I think shed light on why the thinking around entrepreneurship is changing:

  • The cost of starting a company has plummeted. There was a time when simply starting a company and bringing a product to market was a major achievement. These days, technology, automation and outsourcing means that high school students can launch revenue generating products between classes. With little value attached to simply founding a company, founders aspire to a higher standard.
  • Failure really sucks. Despite anything you might read, failure really sucks. Any entrepreneur that has failed at least once will actively avoid repeating that experience. If you’ve failed more than once, the idea of starting a company and running it forever sounds pretty great. It means you’ll never fail again (at least in that way) and can wrap yourself in the warm blanket of success.

Why does all this matter?

Whatever the reason, I admire the vision of creating a 100 year company while at the same time worry about how it changes the thinking of founders. In the same way that aiming for a short term acquisition will hurt your company (see Why You Don’t Want to be Acquired), aiming for a perpetual business may cause you to make decisions that are not ideal for the business.

For example, early in the life of your company you need to focus as much as possible (see The Only Thing That Matters). This means that you might need to pass on some big market opportunities or not build products that have large future potential. If you are focused on the present this decision is easy, but if you focus on the future you might be unwilling to give up so much future value. Once that decision becomes hard, you will start to make mistakes.

Likewise, you are much more likely to over-capitalize your company in the early days if you are aiming for the kind of company that lasts forever. Ensuring you have the right amount of funding for the stage of your company is important (see Fundraising Fever) and you can limit future options by over or under capitalizing. If you are focused on a 100 year plan, over-capitalizing might seem like a good idea and lead you to make mistakes.

These are just some examples and not all founders are blinded by their 100-year aspirations. However, no matter how self aware you might be you are shaped by your goals. Adding any goal, especially the goal of existing forever, will shape your thinking even if you don’t realize it.

100 years is a long time

If you aspire to creating a 100-year startup, I sincerely hope you succeed. I would love to know that in this age of short-term earnings focus it is possible to build a long-lasting company.

I will leave you with a list of the oldest companies in the world, according to Wikipedia. Unsurprisingly, the companies that last the longest are the ones who work in businesses that are fundamental parts of human life (hospitality, construction, food). I wonder if technology and especially software will ever be in that category.

Unfortunately you and I will never find out. 100 years is a long time, after all.

11 thoughts on “The Last Startup Company

  1. redscotchsoft

    I’ve been called a serial entrepreneur on more than one occasion, I used to think it was a compliment, and in some ways it still is. (only because I’ve been successful thus far)

    We set out at the beginning, in Redscotch, to create a company based on a vision and a technology, rather than a single product. Our end goal isn’t to “build and sell out”, we want to change the way people do things, but are completely aware that focusing on that early on will kill our chances at ever achieving the real vision.

  2. kivestu

    I see that Sean’s Bar is #10 on the oldest companies ever list on Wikipedia. Is this post just really a very long winded promotion for your Irish pub founded in the year 900? 🙂

    1. Sean Post author

      I have actually had a few pints at Sean’s Bar! They still put saw dust on the floor to catch spills like they did hundreds of years ago. It looks surprisingly modern for such an old business, but I’m sure the building has been rebuilt a few times.

    1. Sean Post author

      I think the implication is that the company goes public. However, there are private companies that are so profitable they buy out the investors to produce a return. Either way, it requires you to be fantastically successful.

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