INTERVIEWS

Startup Evolution Curve: A Practical Guidebook Based on Real-life Startup Struggles

Startup Evolution Curve

Donatas Jonikas, a marketing professional, found a gap which prevents young startup founders from scaling up their business, makes them stuck or simply puts them on the path to fail.

Donatas has a doctoral degree in economics and over 12 years of experience in strategic marketing (planning & implementation). He has developed marketing strategies for over 50 companies in different countries such as Baltic States, Ukraine, Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland, China, Mauritania, and many more.

Using his knowledge in the area of marketing, strategy, and entrepreneurship, he wrote the Startup Evolution Curve for startups full of ideas and practical advice that is based on real-life experience by startups themselves. His knowledge came out from surveying more than 1000 startups.

For anyone who is starting up on their own, this is the ideal book to have with step-by-step guidelines and market verification from actual startups. Furthermore, the book is now available to everyone at a special price on Amazon, with a slow increase of the price in the following days. So better grab you copy today!

Jonikas spoke to Slovak STARTUP about the background of the book, his experience with the survey, the best book resources he used, and he also shares the Amazon marketing strategy he uses to promote his book.

Donatas Jonikas, Author of Startup Evolution Curve
Donatas Jonikas, Author of Startup Evolution Curve

Donatas, you recently launched your book called Startup Evolution Curve. Whats it about?

I wrote this book for entrepreneurs who are starting innovative businesses, early stage founders, and investors looking for promising innovative startups. This is not a theoretical textbook but a a simple, actionable manual that will help improve the development of a startup. The concept of Startup Evolution Curve has five stages with seven lessons and tasks to work on. You get a comprehensive book with 35 lessons on startup marketing.

Several months ago, you approached us with a request to publish guestblogs on our site. We get a lot of similar requests, but thanks to your extended (almost 1,500 projects) startup survey, it stood out and we decided to go for it. In your book, you surveyed almost 1,500 projects or startups. Can you tell us the background behind conducting the survey?

At the end of my lecture at the Investor Day conference organized by VCEE Startups, I introduced the book mock-up and a link where attendees could download for free a set of practical templates used in startup marketing. The audience got interested and started asking about the book‘s content and where it could be purchased.

But my elation was challenged when a startup founder asked me, “Why should we believe in what you are telling us? How do we know that these steps are mandatory to build a profitable and scalable business?

I don’t recall how I replied, but I began answering it in my mind with something like, “Because I have more than 10 years in marketing and I know it from my experience.” “Because I’ve developed and helped to successfully implement marketing strategies for more than 50 companies in different countries.” “Because I have a Ph.D. and I read countless numbers of scientific articles and books on these topics.”

So what? I tried to stop justifying myself! Actually, I realized that it was a great question, even if I didn’t like it. One shouldn’t take it personally if somebody doubts or critiques your ideas. It‘s your ideas that are questioned, not you. For me, it became obvious that I must have a solid answer to this question.

Fortunately, David Goldsmith, a global entrepreneur and a best-selling author was in the room. He confirmed that I made some really good points about startup marketing, but it would be good for me to have more validation or proof.

Then I had an Aha! moment. What if I gathered knowledge and best practices from startups all over the world? What if I could somehow test these methodologies on 1,000 startups before putting them in the book? That’s how the idea of such a large scale research was born.

How long did it take?

The survey ran for five months and the in-depth interviews took an additional couple of months. The survey received 1,563 responses from startup founders across the world and 1,447 were qualified. I added a special question to avoid blind responses: “If you read this carefully, please mark the answer with we have it.” Thus,only validated responses were included. According to the definition of startups, not every new business is a startup. Therefore, my analysis was focused on startups that fell under the category of scalable or buyable startups (1,081 qualified responses or 74.7%).

Startup Evolution Curve Survey
Startup Evolution Curve Survey

What was your process when addressing the startups? What have been the key takeaways from the process itself?

Well, there has to be a ‚win – win‘ if you want to achieve something. I had a challenging goal – to survey at least 1,000 startup founders. So, I asked myself why they should contribute to this research? This helped me attract the interest of startups in several ways:

  1. I simply invited them to join the challenge. If you have a goal many people will be likely to support you if the goal is appealing enough.

  2. I designed the suvey like a self-assesment test to help startups rethink what they have already done, where they are heading, and maybe to find something that they didn’t even think about before.

  3. Being mentioned in the book, was probably the most appealing benefit for most startups. I said that if startups have interesting stories to share, (painful mistakes, great achievements, valuable lessons or tools) I’d be glad to include their short story in the book as a case or example.

  4. When I asked startups to participate in an in-depth interview, I proposed to combine this interview with consultation. Startup founders answered my questions and I answered theirs!

The second step was to find ways to deliver my message to startup founders cost effectively. So I started actively networking – looking for startup founders and other people engaged in startup activity on various platforms. I guess a video invitation at the beginning of the survey also did a great job.

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What would you do differently?

The mistake I wouldn’t allow myself to make again was that I started the survey without a review by a native English-speaking business person. I did a pilot survey, about 30 responses from my network, but most of the responses were provided by non-native English-speaking business people and it didn’t occur to me to change it.

Donatas Jonikas, Author of Startup Evolution Curve
Donatas Jonikas

What are the top three findings based on the survey?

Firstly, I was surprised that most startups delay thinking about their marketing. The product or feature development mindset is dominant, but none among those startups achieved significant success. The successful ones put marketing first and focus on customer rather than on a product or technical development.

Then, too many startups still rely on such a „primitive“ research as the potential customer surveys. I was shocked when I saw that 42.6% of startups are trying to address really serious problems and create tremendous value, but don’t test it in the market or they do it in the wrong way.

Thirdly, I had a chance to talk with a co-founder of a startup that raised over $30 million and failed! I can’t share the name of the startup or co-founders. The key moment here is that it doesn’t matter how much investment you attracted or who supports your idea, you should never be relaxed and must stay rational, keep going lean and don’t skip your homework.

Your book is called Startup Evolution Curve. Can you elaborate on that? What is behind the title?

Most startups are aware of the learning curve concept. It was the initial point where I started thinking how to name the methodology and the book. Startups, unlike traditional businesses, can measure their success not only by revenue but also by the knowledge they gain on the way to confirming the problem-solution-market fit and building a profitable and scalable business.

Startup Evolution Curve covers five stages of startup development with different objectives in each stage. The book is designed for business pioneers; for those who are taking their business journey to where no one else has gone before. Therefore, the Startup Evolution Curve goes up with each stage, even if there is some turbulence in building a solid base of knowledge or verified business model with an actual revenue stream. Percentages in the conceptual startup evolution curve indicate the progress and how many tasks are completed in a particular development stage.

The startup world is constantly changing, how do you think the advice from the book can help startups right now?

Yes, the startup world is constantly changing and there is nothing eternal in this world. But here we are talking not about technologies that most startups are involved in, but in marketing – how to find out customer needs and earn profit by satisfying those needs.

What are the best three books you used as a source that can be also inspiring for the readers?

I have referred to over 80 sources in my book. I also have a list of the top 10 books I recommend to read. To mention only 3 of them is quite difficult but I would choose:

Startup Evolution Curve - Five Stages
Startup Evolution Curve – Five Stages

Can you share your marketing strategy for promoting the book? AJ Jacobs, an author writing about lifestyle experiments, had a strategy of guestbloging. Did you take a similar approach? What was your pre-launch strategy?

Yes, AJ Jacobs’ case is a great example. My approach is different. I’m not chasing hot trends, don’t use shocking statements and, sadly, don’t have as much time as I’d love for guest blogging. My strategy is based on win – win proposals and communicating added value to readers. Let’s break it down to three points.

  1. Verification of content quality was the first step I made. Everyone knows that there is not much hope in promoting a dead horse. Therefore at first I showed the manuscript of the book to opinion leaders in startup development: investors, successful startup founders, incubators, mentors, academic society, media, including Slovak STARTUP). Receiving around 30 highly positive reviews and testimonials was a good sign to go ahead with the book launch.

  2. The book ranking on Amazon makes a huge difference. The higher the ranking position, the easier the book is found and bought. Sales of the book is one of the main factors determining the position on Amazon’s ranking list. That’s why I’ve launched a pre-order even while the book is not yet completed. Pre-orders are counted as similar to sales and that’s one of the reasons why Startup Evolution Curve already got into Amazon’s TOP 10 in a couple of categories. It’s a bit strange, but very pleasant feeling to see your name among such thought leaders as Eric Ries, Steve Blank and others.

  3. Saying „Thank you“ to everybody who helped me with the research, I shared the e-book version at the lowest possible price during the pre-launch. According to the book volume and Amazon KDP Select terms that I’ve signed, the minimal price for my ebook should have been not lower than €3,99 including VAT. Later, I found a freelancer who did a great job with book images. She managed to reduce image file size while keeping a decent quality. It allowed to reduce book delivery costs and a few days ago I’ve agreed on Amazon conditions to run the special deal at 1.99 USD. It covers download costs, but not much remains as royalty). Thus, everybody can get this book just for the price of a cup of coffee. I will earn nothing at such price, but it is still a win – win proposal: readers get this book almost for free and I get a sales point on Amazon that helps to rank my book higher.

Sometimes you don’t need to reinvent the wheel by yourself. Wise people learn from other people‘s mistakes. I wrote this book to share the experience of existing startups so that new ones could avoid those common mistakes and focus their efforts and energy on more important things. It’s up to you to decide, if you want to figure out everything on your own or to take advantage from the experiences of over 1,000 startups and use their profound shortcuts.


Thanks to Kavita Krishnamurthy for help with editing the interview.

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