There’s a particular set of Chris Dixon posts about startup strategy that I frequently refer back to.
The first, “Thin edge of the wedge”, explains how you can use modest functionality (like single player use cases) as a wedge into building more sophisticated products.
The second, “The bowling pin strategy”, considers how from a marketing perspective, you might consider going after a modest market and then using subsequent momentum to pursue more attractive markets.
Both of these strategies are thematically similar: starting small (in product or in market) can provide momentum to pursue more ambitious goals.
I have been thinking lately about another strategy that should be considered a relative of these ideas. Like the others, this strategy starts innocently enough in a product-market space that the big players don’t really care about. But whereas the Thin Edge of the Wedge or the Bowling Pin Strategy hops from modest positions to progressively stronger ones, Fishing Upstream aims at a core customer segment’s precursor, allowing time (or other factors) to transform it into maturation.
There’s no hopping here: just seizing a customer that the market currently under-values and profiting when that customer transforms into the market’s most valued target.
Arbitraging youth: time performs the transformation
In some cases, fishing upstream is simply a matter of capturing a target earlier in its lifecycle and allowing time to do most of the legwork. For consumer companies, this means targeting younger consumers; for enterprise companies, this means targeting earlier stage companies.
Take the example of Snapchat and its fight against Facebook. The rise of Snapchat is commonly attributed to product innovations around ephemerality, but I’d argue that equally crucial was Snapchat’s resonance among young users. Targeting younger users did not necessarily offer a more accessible path to market (as fishing upstream and its cousin strategies frequently offer). But the strategic power of Snapchat’s younger user base yielded downstream effects that were severe for Facebook: namely, after 2012, incoming college freshmen had already been activated as Snapchat users. Snapchat basically intercepted a whole generation of users from Facebook.
In the enterprise software world, companies like Stripe have propelled to unicorn status by targeting early stage startups. Targeting early stage companies makes sense as a beachhead since legacy leaders are not focused on this part of the market (their incentives demand that they focus on the largest customers). But the advantage of starting with startups as your customer base is that some of them will grow into being huge customers. Since those startups have a longstanding relationship with the Stripes of the world, brand loyalty and switching costs will likely ensure customer retention.
Catalyzing the transformation yourself
There’s another category of upstream strategies that deserves mentioning. Here, the transformation of underserved, early stage targets is not due to time, but to active measures.
The formula looks like this: you garner a user or customer base that your competitors don’t sufficiently value and then you take active measures to transform them into what the market values most. One common thread among many of these companies is that they unlock human potential.
Take the example of Y Combinator. They didn’t just bet on startups at earlier stages than traditional venture firms. They actually built a system that increased the likelihood of success for these companies.
Or Pioneer, Daniel Gross’s effort to find the most talented (and implicitly, undiscovered) people in the world and help them make progress on their projects. The spirit of the company is clearly humanistic: the world will undoubtedly benefit from high potential people having support to execute on their projects. It’s unclear how exactly they will monetize, but obviously aggregating the world’s most ambitious people (many of whom seem to skew young) is strategically rich with possibilities.
Lastly, repl.it, which started off as a tool for programming online, but has inadvertently become a vibrant community of teenage programmers who build projects and learn how to code together. On its current trajectory, you can imagine this community of teenage hackers becoming an aggregation of some of the world’s top programming talent. Today, repl.it sells to the education market. Tomorrow, they may very well have the supply side of a software engineering labor marketplace
Much strategic discourse about startups focuses on sequential tactics: building new features or going after new markets. Fishing upstream is a useful framework for thinking about some startups, whose value is best understood not in terms of roadmaps or sequences of moves, but as exposure to audiences or customers who are poised to evolve in powerful ways.
When taking aim at a market leader, consider what the precursor looks like for their favorite customer segment. If you have the patience (or a strategy to expedite that customer base’s maturation), that may very well be the place to strike.