Sunday, October 31, 2010

How to Avoid VC Nightmares

Apropos for Halloween night, I like to dedicate this post to some of the investor horror stories that circulate around the entrepreneurial community in Silicon Valley in hushed whispers. Without naming names, I have been privy to the gory details of a few such stories (Oh, the Horror!), which typically fall into 3 categories:

(A) Our VC forced us to sell too early and we left all of the upside on the table
(B) Our VC stopped us from selling when we should have, and now I have nothing to show for it
(C) Our VC drove me out of my company/business at the worst possible time, leading to its eventual demise

Needless to say, this is not an exhaustive list and textbooks, in multiple volumes, can be dedicated to collecting all the various gripes entrepreneurs have against their investors. Typically, in my experience, the complaints are leveled against professional venture capitalists (VCs) rather than the angel investor individuals or groups, although the emergence of institutional Super Angels may change things in the future. And so, I will continue the rest of this post by focusing on VCs and how you may avoid becoming another cautionary tale in your dealings with them.

Is the "Horror" real?

In my last post, I described how bad investors can kill your company. That horror is definitely real. Anecdotally, the depth and magnitude of grievances against VCs can only compete with one other group of professionals: LAWYERS! With the exception that there aren't as many VC jokes out in circulation because many of us still hope to raise some money from the VCs and don't want those jokes to be digitally traced back to us. (Although, as a former lawyer and VC, I do find the negativity with both professions to be somewhat... hyped).

And then sometimes the entrepreneurs are so deeply hurt (physically, psychologically and/or financially) that they throw caution to the wind and decide to drop a nuclear bomb on their bridge to the VC riches by going after them in the court of law (see, e.g., Epinions founders suing Benchmark and August Capital) or in the court of public opinion (see, e.g., ArsDigita co-founders' revelations). There is even a growing Quora thread on this topic.

In summary, this is spooky stuff indeed!

Antidote: Investor due diligence

Although it is hard to have any real guarantees, should you find yourself in need of VC money, doing your homework on your investors can lessen your risk and improve your chances of picking the right investors.

First thing to remember is that not all VC's are created equal. There are worlds of difference between VC firms and even between partners in the same firm. So, start your preliminary diligence well before you even send out your Executive Summary. And make sure to really dig in before you go too far down the path of negotiating a term sheet, as it becomes exponentially harder (if not impossible due to cognitive dissonance) to switch investors once you have a signed term sheet in place.

Things to investigate during diligence

Although it seems like a daunting task that would necessitate hiring an elite PI agency with former CIA/IRS credentials, most of the important stuff you would be looking for is already out there for you to see.

Reference Checks. Talk to former founders/executives that the VC firm (and more importantly, the partner on your deal) has invested in. Make sure to talk to companies where things did not go super smoothly (names of which you will most likely have to dig out on your own). Try to get a feel for how it is to work with this firm/partner during good times and hard times. Their behavior during hard times is especially important as I had mentioned before.

Portoflio Size and Composition. You need know how many other portfolio companies does the VC firm/partner care about, and whether they actually have the bandwidth to do the things you expect them to do. Also, you need to get a feel whether you fall within the sweet spot of the kind of companies this firm does well with, or you are one of the outliers. Then check against your gut to see how you feel about that. Also, note that typically larger firms with larger porfolio sizes tend to push their investments towards higher exit multiples rather than allow for earlier liquidity.

Porfolio Integrity. This is something that is often ignored. Does this firm have a history of investing in competitive companies in the same field? Some VCs actually do that. You need to know the truth, because as a portfolio company, you cannot stop your VCs from investing in your competitor if they chose to do so.

Number/Amount of Investments. Find out, over the lifetime of the current fund, how many investments the firm/partner is expected to make, and how far they are currently from meeting that quota and deploying the cash invested in them. This matters, because it will determine the amount of attention and care your startup is likely to get over the next few years. Also, if the firm is towards the end of the lifetime on their fund they will be more likely to look for faster liquidity events and will be very distracted during their upcoming fundraising cycle.

Available Funds. You need to have a realistic picture as to how much more cash this investor is likely to deploy into your company, which is a function of how much on average they spend on each portfolio company and whether they have enough cash left in the fund to satisfy that obligation given existing and projected investments.

History of Lawsuits/Disputes. You need to know whether the firm/partner on your deal is or has been involved in lawsuits. Again, those lawsuits can tell you a lot about skeletons in the closet, as well as the distractions that will likely take the attention of the firm away from you.

Risk Profile. Another thing to get a sense for is whether this firm/partner has the wherewithal to take some serious risks and take a market position (the way such firms like Kleiner Perkins or Sequoia Capital do), or whether they like to play it safe and will abandon you/your vision after hitting a rough patch.

Most of the above information is readily obtainable. It does take some investment of time, but can you afford not to spend the time on them?

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Caution: Bad investors kill good companies

Around Silicon Valley, we all believe that having a good idea is not enough, and it is rather the execution that counts. And myths abound about how savvy investors like Sequoia or Kleiner Perkins can make a difference between a blockbuster success and a lackluster startup. I accept all of that. However, what has been left out of the conversation is an examination of the impact that bad investors have on promising startups. Sadly, few entrepreneurs pay much attention to this issue at the time of fundraising. It is time for some healthy debate on this topic, and here is my first stab at it:

What is a "bad investor"?

Some entrepreneurs assume that the worst that an investor could possibly do is not to add value. That is not true! As I will explain below, a bad investor (like a bad friend) can totally distract, demoralize, and completely ruin the future of your company. More specifically, a bad investor is one without whom your startup would have actually had a better chance of succeeding.

How to spot a "bad investor"?

Typically, bad investors are those that are disengaged from the startup and the Board when the times are good, but become quite concerned and agitated as soon as the company hits a rough spot (e.g., a key employee departure, a drop in key metrics, appearance of a lawsuit, etc).

What is so "bad" about a bad investor?

The main problem with the behavior described above is that it sabotages your success by putting stress on you when you can least afford it. Here is why:

Every startup goes through ups and downs; it is just a part of the creative process of innovation, as we all know. And "creative" is the operative word here. In a startup, you try things, some work, most fail, and you try to learn and repeat the process with better results next time using as much creativity as you can manage. These creative iterations are to a large part dependent on outside-of-the-box thinking. This is especially true when you need to do some major pivoting work around your business model / customer acquisition strategy / etc. That means you will need to take some major risks. However, whenever you focus on risks, fear enters the picture and your brain literally shuts down its creative parts and goes into defensive/survival mode, which means you become physiologically incapable of finding the creative solutions to your problems. Most of us have first-hand experience of this phenomenon, which is also supported by a growing body of psychology experiments (see, e.g., feeling good increases possibility of insights).

So, here you are, on the verge of losing everything (your reputation, the trust of friends and family who believed in you and perhaps even invested their savings into your company, your employee's livelihood, and the list goes on and on) while trying to keep calm and not panic. And as a savvy entrepreneur, you may be able to push back the internal fears and stress to come up with some creative solutions and insights. But it becomes an order of magnitude harder to do so when you have, at the same time, one or more investors breathing down your neck, distracting, harassing, and perhaps even threatening you and other investors, second-guessing every move and chewing up your remaining brain cycles. It becomes pretty much impossible to be creative under those circumstances, which unfortunately spells disaster for your company, as you will be unable to find a solution to your predicament, no matter how trivial the solution may seem post mortem.

Lots of great companies were second ideas that rose from the ashes of their predecessors. And more likely than not, the investors in those companies were understanding and supportive during the tough times, expressing something like "Hey, I know you guys have been working really hard and it is okay if the startup doesn't make it. We knew the risks when we invested and were honored to have been a part of this journey with you."  And that is the kind of investor you want to have!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Entrepreneurial angst in “Losing My Religion”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” via Inspiration Room

As an entrepreneur, most of the time you are either confronted with a Sophie’s Choice or if you are lucky, just a Faustian bargain… Except that, whereas our “lucky” Dr. Faustus had the good fortune of dealing with just one demon (Mephistopheles), as an entrepreneur you are haunted by many evil forces, which may be cloaked in the guise of equity investments, outdated regulations, frivolous lawsuits, bad hiring decisions, competitors, etc… 

So, it is no surprise that yesterday, as I was listening to the lyrics of Losing My Religion (the classic obsession song by REM, which only one other song can top in capturing the essence of Obsession: Every Breath You Take by The Police, of course), it instantly resonated with the entrepreneurial side of my brain. 

Here is a sneak peek into that side of my brain. The opening lyrics set the mood perfectly:

Life is bigger
It's bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no I've said too much
I set it up

Background: As an entrepreneur, you pour your heart and soul into an idea. And I am not talking about any old, fly-by-night idea. I am talking about that idea which you decide to make the Idea and build the Startup around it. Before you know it, that Startup becomes part of your identity. The boundaries between your life and the Startup get completely blurred. Even at night, your dreams mirror your daily reality, and just like the poor souls in Inception, you start losing your grip on what is real and what is a dream!

The Struggle for Perspective: At some point between the 18th and 24th month of the Startup (not sooner, because you don’t have the luxury to be philosophical about anything during the first 18 months), you realize that it is not healthy to lose your self in an idea, in something that has no guarantee of success or permanence. You realize you are drowning in some invisible quagmire, and the success that you have been striving for may be the very thing you should be running away from. You start fearing that you may never find yourself, your old values and your relationships again if you continue down this path. So you try to put a distance between you (your old self) and the Startup (which has become your new self). And you anchor this existential struggle by referring to “life” as something “bigger” that can provide a perspective from where the distinction between “you” and the Startup can become more clear. ‘Life’s got to be bigger than this Startup,’ you keep reassuring yourself, and ‘I am not the Startup either’ (and hopefully, through some strange transitive logic, you hope you are bigger than the Startup as well...).

Founder Guilt Syndrome: But here is the rub. As you try to put some distance between yourself and the Startup, you cannot help but feel extremely guilty because it was you that “set it up” and created all this mess anyway. And you fear that by putting down your Startup, you may have doomed your beloved idea to eternal failure: If the Founder (or Creator, as you will) stops believing, who will believe and make this a success against all the inherent odds? So, you wonder, are you being smart or just simply sabotaging yourself? Or as the song laments, have you “said too much”? 

Self Doubt: As an entrepreneur, you try to stay strong and confident. But there are also those moments that you project into the future and imagine what success would feel and look like, yet all you see is fear and self doubt. The following lyrics do a fantastic job of capturing those thought fragments (by the way, the phrase “losing my religion” is apparently a southern way of saying I am ‘at my wit’s end’ or ‘going crazy’)

That's me in the corner
That's me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don't know if I can do it

Oh, the Torture: Entrepreneurs are tortured souls (lawyers have nothing on us; I know, because I have been both!). Again, the song captures that sentiment quite masterfully as well:

Every whisper
Of every waking hour I'm
Choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt lost and blinded fool
The slip that brought me
To my knees failed
What if all these fantasies
Come flailing around

At this point, it feels like I am saying too much as well. Please enjoy the music video to the song from 1991 (time flies) and do share your thoughts on how it relates to your entrepreneurial journey!

Friday, October 01, 2010

Coupons are dead; long live the coupons!

My main takeaway from spending the better half of last week at SF TechCrunch Disrupt conference (an event some may call “Silicon Valley’s Academy Awards”) is as follows: 2010 will go down in history as the year a swarm of startups finally managed to kill traditional coupons. 

The “traditional” coupon industry is doomed to die a slow death-by-a-thousand-cuts, inflicted by a gaggle of mobile check-in startups taking advantage of the newly-found access to users’ locations. As each location-based startup came onstage at Disrupt, I could almost hear the Julius Caesars of today’s coupon empire yell out in anguished unison, “Et tu, Brute?”

Of course, the fundamental economics behind coupons (i.e., the concept of using price discrimination to distinguish customers by their reserve price and thereby generating the maximum sales/revenues/profits), has not changed. As a matter of fact, location-based startups are following the same economic principles by hoping to provide an efficient delivery mechanism for providing the ideal discriminatory pricing scheme; a task that is no less ambitious than Pierre Omidyar’s vision for eBay to materialize a “perfect market” (the theoretical economic concept where there is perfect access to information and zero transaction costs). 

Providing location-based coupons is not an entirely new idea. People have been handing out coupons and promotional material on the sidewalks at most metropolitan areas for ages. 

And the concept of virtual coupons is not entirely new either. I recall reviewing business plans at the start of the decade of a number of startups who wanted to send people coupons via SMS based on their location. And, just as I felt ten years ago when reviewing those business plans, I remain highly skeptical whether the new check-in Apps that tap into your social graph and GPS location data can actually overcome the negative emotions associated with someone disturbing your stream of activity by putting a “deal” in front of you (sort of like the feeling you get when as you walk down the street someone suddenly hands you a flyer). 

There is a fine line between annoyance and value. I get annoyed when I am distracted, but I love it when someone anticipates what I need and puts it in front of me (something Google tends to do very well with their search advertising). Whoever manages to get closer to the latter of the two will likely be quite successful. I, however, have not found such a service yet, and find all of the current location-based check-in Apps to be either useless or extremely invasive. In fact, the only "price discrimination" these Apps currently provide is to generously give discounts to folks who need them the least, as the iPhone/Android/smart phone demographic is among the least price sensitive demographic you can find!