July 6th, 2010
If you’re a passionate entrepreneur, you can often see the vast potential for your product. In your head, the possibilities of the future branch out, with infinite forks and potential. When pitching to investors, you’ve learned to define your market as broadly as possible while remaining credible. So, it’s not surprising that you’re disappointed when investors don’t disclose a conflict, and you steer clear of investors who might already have an investment in the same space — dating, social gaming, compliance, security, etc.
If you’re an experienced investor, you’ve seen it all. How every startup thinks they can take over the world, but usually has to struggle to accomplish even its one core product or task. How three copycat business plans will arrive in the same week, and how each one thinks they’re unique and protectable. How domain knowledge and therefore your ability to help a startup accrue by having multiple investments in the same space.
Both points of view are pretty extreme, and the truths about conflicts of interest are highly contextual. Here’s how to think about it.
1. The idea
Firstly, the idea — it’s no big deal. If it’s any good, someone has had it before and someone will have it again. If you’re still convinced it’s that good, go file a patent first, and then go talk about it. Keep in mind that investors outside of big tech (cleantech, biotech…) automatically have a bias against “patented” ideas, and most brilliance seems obvious in hindsight. Ask an investor to sign an NDA, and you’ve just filtered out all but the most desperate investors.
2. The space
Secondly, the space — it’s tricky, but you have to define it as realistically narrow. There was a time when having an investment in “web” might have been considered a conflict for another “web” company. There was a time when the term “portal” was a competitive category. Unless it’s head-on competition, Foursquare v. Gowalla, Disqus v. IntenseDebate, Google v. Bing, it’s really, honestly, not competitive. If there’s room for multiple equal-sized players in the space, it’s not as competitive as you might think. Also, theories about where you might zig or zag don’t count — just compare on what you’re doing at this moment.
3. Angels vs. VCs
Thirdly, the type of investor matters — active angels have a lot more deals than active VCs and are more likely to have an investment in an adjacent space. This is not a big problem — angels invest in syndicates and usually only provide help in a contextual, on-demand way. Because VCs are likely to be on your board, have more money into the company, and have more control and information rights, it makes more sense to pay attention to conflicts VCs might have (Disclosure: I consider myself to be an angel investor).
4. Conflict checks
Fourthly, just ask the VC to disclose potential conflicts up front, but don’t be too broad-minded about what constitutes a conflict.
Lastly, beware the “entrepreneur check.” This is where the VC tells you that they like your company, want to do due-diligence, and then just have to check with the entrepreneur in one of their investments about whether this investment would be competitive or not. Since entrepreneurs tend to have an overly-broad view of what’s competitive, this check usually fails. Even in the rare case that it doesn’t, it’s used as an excuse by the investor to pass. Therefore, always insist that they run the “entrepreneur check” early in the process, before you’ve invested too much into this investor.
Your own biggest competition
Our flawed patent system aside, ideas do not have the merit that we were all raised believing. You do have to pick the right space, but after that, execution is everything. Here’s a quick confirmation test — go back to your classmates and pick out the smartest ones, and then the hardest working ones. Now look at who is successful. A certain base level of intellect and idea-formation capability is required, but beyond that are strongly diminishing or even negative returns.
Consequently, the best entrepreneurs display a lot of chutzpah. They aren’t fazed by the competition, nor do they see shadows in every corner. They are their own biggest competition.