January 21st, 2010
Thanks to FastIgnite, a startup advisory firm, for sponsoring Venture Hacks this month. This post is by Simeon Simeonov, the firm’s founder and CEO (and formerly a partner at Polaris Ventures). If you like it, check out Sim’s blog and tweets @simeons. – Nivi
“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”
By penalizing entrepreneurs who are humble and honest about how their companies will grow, many investors cause entrepreneurs to over-promise (and later under-deliver) when they’re raising money.
The histories of some of the best-known technology companies demonstrate the power of luck, timing, the mistakes of incumbents, and solid execution.
Execution is the main tool under a startup’s control but it’s often under-valued by investors.
So it’s not surprising that most entrepreneurs come to pitch meetings armed with very precise statements about a very uncertain future and a list of proven strategies guaranteed to make their company successful. While sitting through these pitches, I sometimes wonder which is worse: the entrepreneurs who know they’re spinning tall tales or the ones who “got high on their own supply.”
VCs and entrepreneurs collaborate to lie about the future
Instead of bringing entrepreneurs back down to earth, some investors push them further into orbit. Some VCs ask a seed-stage, pre-product startup for a detailed five-year financial plan. When I was a partner at Polaris Ventures, I saw many of these spreadsheets built “for fundraising purposes.” We didn’t ask for these spreadsheets — entrepreneurs had usually built them after meeting other, less early-stage, investors.
I find the process of planning — and understanding how a founder thinks about a business — educational and valuable. But pushing the exercise to the point of assumptions layered upon assumptions is not just wasteful, but dangerous, because it sets the wrong expectations.
After a few pitches, entrepreneurs realize that the distant future is safer territory than the immediate. It’s easier to boast about 30 must-have features your product will have in three years, than to show the three must-have features in the current prototype. It’s easier to talk about how you’ll recruit world-class CXOs when you’re big and successful, than to show a detailed plan for bringing in an amazing inbound marketing specialist, when everyone on the team is getting paid below-market rates to conserve cash. The examples go on and on.
I’ve co-founded four companies. The two that most quickly and easily raised money did it with nothing but slide decks. Both were funded by Polaris, which has a lot of experience with very early stage investing. We didn’t waste time over-planning the future in those two companies.
And for good reason. Both startups ended up quite different than the fundraising presentations promised — for solid, market-based reasons that were invisible during diligence. Plinky acquired a new product line and became Thing Labs. 8th Ring failed quickly and cheaply, only seven months after funding. The CEO and I decided the execution risk was too high. And, in retrospect, we were right: our only competitor had an unexciting exit a few years later.
Over-promising causes startups to throw away money
Over-promising is not a problem when it comes with over-delivery. But the overwhelming majority of startups fail to meet the promises they’ve made during fundraising. After years of observing this pattern, I’ve come to believe that over-promising can actually cause under-delivery. Entrepreneurs over-promise to raise money easily and set themselves up for pain down the road.
How? The reasons have to do with information signals, expectation setting, and the psychological contracts between entrepreneurs and investors. It’s very hard to pitch one story today and then change it the day the money hits the bank, especially if you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid.
An overly rosy pitch leads to expectations and fateful commitments that downplay the variability of the future. Decisions are made based on assumptions rather than tested hypotheses. The burn goes up earlier. The sales team is hired much too soon. In venture funds, over-promising also spreads from the investing partner to the rest of the partnership. It can also spread from the company to its customers and partners, further extending the reality distortion field.
If you’re Apple and you’ve got Steve, that’s awesome. For everyone else, it can get rough. I saw this play out with one of my companies that was expanding internationally (the reason why the company had raised money). The world was going to be our oyster and, before the reality that our go-to-market strategy wasn’t as effective as everyone had hoped set in, we had burned through a good chunk of capital.
Find investors you don’t have to lie to
How should you choose between being honest (and hearing “no” a lot) vs. amping up the pitch and risking the anti-patterns above? I give two answers to the CEOs I work with at my startup advisory firm FastIgnite.
First, I strongly advise startups to go to venture firms where the decision process is more collaborative and less “salesy.” One of the main reasons a VC will push an entrepreneur to over-promise is his need to sell a deal internally.
Second, pitch investors with a track record of valuing a team’s ability to execute, over any specific strategy or execution plan. While most firms pay lip service to this cliché, few do many investments this way. Here are some examples from my experience in the past few months:
- On the smaller side, Betaworks and First Round Capital get this. Their portfolios and their philosophy show it. I look forward to working with them some day.
- Among VCs, General Catalyst has repeatedly backed companies like Brightcove, m-Qube, and Visible Measures very early — with the understanding that many important questions will have answers only after months of execution. I’m actively partnering with them at FastIgnite.
- Surprisingly, at the very high end, a private equity firm like Warburg Pincus can be a great place for the right early-stage entrepreneur. Last year, a Warburg entrepreneur-in-residence incubated Better Advertising, a company where I’m a co-founder and acting CTO. Better Advertising’s market and business model required a backer with staying power that exceeds most other investors’.
The firms above practice a form of agile investing by (1) not forcing entrepreneurs to over-plan for an uncertain future and (2) following the principle of minimizing wasted effort. Ultimately, it’s the investors’ responsibility to reward honesty with trust and cash. And I think that’s a win-win. I’m looking forward to discussing this with you in the comments.
If you like this post, check out Sim’s blog and his tweets @simeons. And contact me if you’re interested in supporting Venture Hacks. Thanks. – Nivi