by Vic Singh
Founders and VCs often use math, especially physics concepts to describe startup motion. Having studied mechanical engineering, I often find myself referring back to the classic physics formulas I used when making these analogs. I thought it would be fun and hopefully useful to break down startup motion into basic physics concepts and formulas. Here we go:
- Mass (m): For a startup, I think of mass as capital — human, product and cash. A startup’s mass is the strength of the team, the product they are building and the cash on hand to generate motion. It’s generally the strength of the assets the startup has at its disposal and it’s a key input to startup physics. The strength of your mass will dictate how far you can go.
- Distance (s): This is a measure of how far a startup has gone and how far it must go to achieve success. Distance is your startup’s capability to play the long game and envisage the north star. It’s a key input into other core factors which happen to be vectors with directionality such as velocity and work.
- Time (t): Startups operate within time boundaries but if you execute well, a startup can elongate the time axis. Time can be the killer or maker of a startup. Startups need to buy time by generating cash flow and/or raising capital.
- Velocity (v) = distance (s) / time (t) : Velocity in a startup is not just about speed, it’s also a vector which means it has directionality built in. Startups should move quickly as time is finite and competition drives pace. Startups need to acquire talent, ship product and win customers really fast in the right direction towards product-market fit. Achieving high growth rates, fast product development and key milestones on the journey to product-market fit are signals of strong velocity.
- Momentum (p) = mass (m) * velocity (v): In physics, momentum is simply mass in motion. Momentum in a startup is a function of its mass moving quickly towards the goal of product-market fit and ultimately scaling. Momentum is a good proxy for product-market fit. Once a startup has momentum, it can be hard to stop, which could mean rapid growth and taking the market. Momentum begets momemtum.
- Force (f) = mass (m) * acceleration (a): In physics, force is an agent capable of changing a body’s state of rest or motion. In a startup, force can be considered as the actions and decisions that propel the startup forward. It can also represent external factors or pressures — like market conditions or competition — that can alter the course or speed of the startup. A startup with strong mass and well directed acceleration will generate force which can be leveraged to drive work and energy.
- Work (w) = force (f) * distance (s): In physics, work is only done when there’s movement. Similarly, in a startup, real work is about making progress, moving the company forward. This means acquiring customers, shipping product, generating revenue or raising capital. Work requires the full use of a startup force to move through the distance and long haul of building a company,
- Energy: In a startup, energy could represent the resources available to it, including capital, time and the team’s effort but it takes energy to do work. If the energy is wasted, the startup may fail. There are two forms of energy important to a startup:
- Kinetic Energy (KE) = ½ * mass (m) * velocity² (v²): The kinetic energy of an object is the form of energy it possesses due to its motion. If a startup has the right mass and velocity, maximizing the kinetic energy can compound its ability to take market share leading to power law outcomes. Think of it as momentum powered by momentum. Unstoppable.
- Potential Energy (PE) = mass (m) * gravity (g) * height (h): In physics, the potential energy is held by an object because of its position relative to other objects. In startups, this is the most underutilized source of energy. Potential energy is the built-up work a startup is capable of but hasn’t fully executed on yet. This could be a function of team strength, product differentiation and work potential. Startups need to understand how to utilize their full potential energy and convert it to kinetic energy while executing so as not to waste valuable momentum.
I hope these concepts were fun and useful. Go build something with strong mass, velocity and force, and use that to do great work, accelerate, build momentum and exploit the energy generated across space and time.
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