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Billion-dollar companies aren’t built overnight—just ask the CEO of Thumbtack

At a pre-seed summit this week, Thumbtack’s chief remained mum about an IPO timeline for his 10-year-old company. Instead, he discussed how the Silicon Valley fairy tale can mislead founders.

Marco Zappacosta, co-founder and CEO of Thumbtack

The story goes something like this: A person, probably dressed in a hoodie, founds a company. He or she raises a seed round. Then a Series A, B, and so on. A few years later, the person takes their company public.

But that’s not always how it goes. Just ask Marco Zappacosta, who co-founded online services marketplace Thumbtack nearly a decade ago. In a recent Q&A, he told an audience he believes successful companies can have all sorts of different timelines—and that the Silicon Valley fairy tale isn’t all that accurate. In fact, he said, company founders don’t need VC cash or an office in the Bay Area to be considered an entrepreneur.

‘We are lying to the next generation of entrepreneurs’

“Think about Dropbox,” Zappacosta said at Afore Capital’s pre-seed summit, held in San Francisco earlier this week. "[The IPO] was 11 years from their founding and they are about as premier and successful as any startup is willing to be.”

“The time frame to get stuff done is much longer than these narratives we create around these businesses. We are lying to the future generation of entrepreneurs about how long it takes to get stuff done,” he added.

Valued at $1.3 billion, Thumbtack provides an online marketplace that helps users find and hire workers to complete various tasks, such as home improvement projects, dog grooming or plumbing. At about 10 years old, the company has passed the median time to IPO, which stood at 8.3 years in 2016, per PitchBook data. But Thumbtack hasn’t raised any venture capital funding since the round that garnered its unicorn valuation in September 2015—a sign it may be gearing up to go public, though Zappacosta remained mum on any IPO talk.

“We do a disservice in Silicon Valley by making entrepreneurship about being VC-backed and that has nothing to do with it,” Zappacosta said. “These folks going out building catering companies or plumbing companies, they are entrepreneurs and they are hustling.”

From a tiny ‘family, friends and fools’ round to the unicorn club

For his part, Zappacosta did go out and raise VC funding—but he says it wasn’t easy. Having well-known entrepreneurs as parents (they founded computer accessories company Logitech) probably didn’t hurt, though. Thumbtack raised a small “friends, family and fools” round in 2009, then a $1.2 million funding in 2010. But things really picked up in 2012, when the company pulled in $4.5 million from venture capitalists including elite investor Tim Draper. The next year, Sequoia led its $12.5 million financing, which put it on a path to the unicorn club. The famed VC firm has participated in every round since.

Unsurprisingly, Zappacosta’s family of techies inspired him to be a techie, too. In fact, he decided he wanted to be a founder before he had any ideas for companies. His first idea was a pension reform business. It quickly failed. His second idea was to create a financial accounts aggregator. Turns out, Mint was already doing that.

Finally, something dawned on him: It was just too difficult to find and schedule a plumber. So he created a platform to match skilled workers, like plumbers or cleaners or photographers, to people who need on-demand access to those services.

“We said to ourselves, what’s the biggest problem that can and will be solved with technology?” Zappacosta said. “Microsoft and Amazon started that way. They went hunting for solutions and problems to solve. I think passion is independent from how to get to that idea. It’s more about, is this person maniacally focused on solving this problem?”

  • kate-clark-1.jpg
    Written by Kate Clark
    Kate Clark was a staff writer at PitchBook.

    A Seattle native, Kate attended the University of Washington where she studied journalism and international studies. She previously wrote about the Indian startup ecosystem in Bengaluru and freelanced in the Seattle area. Follow her on Twitter @KateClarkTweets.
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