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Which types of startups are most often profitable?


I co-run an agency that teaches a hundred startups per year how to do growth marketing. This gives me a unique vantage point: I know which types of startups most often reach profitability.

That’s an important metric, because startups that don’t reach this milestone typically fail to raise additional funding — then die.

Here’s what we’ll learn:

  1. Companies are increasingly living and dying by ads. Because it’s the startup’s approach to customer acquisition — not its business model or market — that most determines its early-stage profitability.
  2. E-commerce companies lend themselves best to ads, and SMB SaaS the worst. Meanwhile, most startup founders in 2019 are starting SaaS companies. They’d benefit from the data we share in this post.
  3. In fact, our agency has found that every other type of business reaches profitability quicker than SMB SaaS, including mobile apps, Chrome extensions and enterprise SaaS.

Our sampling of startups isn’t as biased as startup valuation leaderboards, because we also see those that failed. That’s the key.

You can use our experience to de-risk your startup. That’s what this post explores: How to change your product roadmap to pursue a path more likely to reach profitability.

The startups that frequently reach profitability

Here’s the data my agency is referencing for this post:

  • We train 12+ venture-backed and bootstrapped startups every month. Half are Y Combinator graduates. This is how we study early-stage product-market fit trends.
  • We run ads full-time for between 20 and 30 mature companies per year. On average, each spends $2.5 million annually on paid acquisition. And, on average, each has 30 employees. Our clients include Tovala.com, PerfectKeto.com, SPYSCAPE.com, ImperfectProduce.com, Clearbit.com and Woodpath.com.
  • Our students and clients are roughly evenly distributed across D2C e-commerce, B2B, mobile apps and marketplaces.

When we try to control for founder skill and funds raised, the types of startups that first reach profitability do so in this order:

  1. E-commerce
  2. Chrome extensions
  3. Mobile apps
  4. Enterprise SaaS
  5. Small-to-medium business SaaS

On average, an e-commerce company is more likely to first reach profitability than an SMB SaaS company.

Before I explain why, let me explain how we’re differentiating startups: I use the word “type” instead of “business model” or “markets” because I’ve learned that business model and market are often not the best predictors of success. Instead, it’s your approach to customer acquisition. That’s what typically determines the likelihood of profitability.





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