Table Stakes

Here’s a startup theory that Evan Williams told me recently that has really stuck in my head (not sure how strongly he believes it).

In Web 1.0, table stakes were having strong engineering. Building stuff was hard and getting your project built was not guaranteed.

In Web 2.0, table stakes expanded to include design. Flickr, Twitter, Gmail, Facebook upped the bar on design (*cough*MySpace*cough*).

So now, everyone is talking about the rise of design co-founders becoming the norm. Another word for norm is “not cutting edge.”

So, what’s cutting edge?

In this era, table stakes have expanded to include marketing.

I love the anecdote about Tinder (whether you believe the story or not). The founding VP of Marketing used her sorority connections to build up a user base college by college. First she’d go to her sorority and ask the ladies to join as a favor to a fellow sorority sister. Then she’d go to the matching fraternity and ask them to join because: sorority sisters.

That’s a great “go to market” anecdote.


I recall being in an investor meeting with one of their portfolio companies. The founders were telling the investor all sorts of good news about how they’d figured out the product and how happy their customers were.

But, they ended with the oddest conclusion:

While we’ve been sorting out the product, sales haven’t grown at all. So we think this company will never work and we’re shutting the company down.

These founders brought engineering and design to the table, but not marketing. It makes you wonder why they needed to build the product at all in order to realize that they had no marketing strategy or desire to even learn about marketing.


And what is marketing anyway? Engineering answers “how can it exist?” Design answers “how can it be awesome?” Marketing answers “how can it grow?”

Marketing could come from a product designer who’s great with virality (early Zynga). Or it could come from a great community manager who knows how to seed the community (Tinder). Or it could come from a paid marketer who understands how to make LTV > CAC. Or partnerships. Or sales.

But really, it seems like you should have a theory about all three when you start a company.


(I’m terrible at this though, because I’m so driven by “This should exist in the world. Period.” I had to pivot a company recently in order to create this third leg and now I’m scrambling like crazy to be an expert here.)

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