Too Many Would-Be Entrepreneurs Are Thinking About Their Ideas, Companies, and Investors All Wrong
Posted by Bob Warfield on April 19, 2013
As so often happens, the serendipitous intersection of one too many notes from the same chord in a short time have prompted me to post. In this case, I am seeing a lot of evidence that would-be entrepreneurs just don’t think about their ideas, their companies, or investors as they should.
Case in point: I recently had dinner with a friend to do some catching up. He explained that another mutual acquaintance had an absolutely brilliant idea for a startup. My friend really wanted to be a part of it, and he confided that they were thinking of going the Y-Combinator route. I’m sure it’s annoying to my pals (especially the ones who are themselves Angel or professional VC investors), but any conversation that focuses more on the investors than the idea and business models immediately launches me down a set path that the recipient often finds a little bewildering if not downright antagonistic. Despite all that, I asked my friend why he wanted to go with Y-Combinator? Why get any invested capital at all?
He spent quite a while, too long really so it only lit my fire brighter, talking about the $30,000 they would receive in exchange for 15% of the company. I asked him to explain what the $30,000 would allow him to do that he couldn’t otherwise accomplish on his own. After all, $30,000 is really not very much money. This goes to the heart of one way Entrepreneurs don’t think right about their plans. If $30,000 seems like a lot of money to you, if it seems like an enabler of some kind, it’s my belief you’re using it to solve the wrong problems, and that in fact, they aren’t real problems to start. You’re thinking of using it to quit your Day Job, to hire others, or to pay for advertising. You don’t need to do any of that, as it turns out.
Let me explain–I’m a firm believer in Bootstrapping ala 37Signals. Their formula is pretty simple–you can build a company on 10 hours a week while you keep your day job. David HH wrote a great post on this not too long ago entitled “All or Something “. The gist is that you don’t need to adopt an all-consuming commitment to get something interesting done. The intro to his article is worth reading carefully:
One of the most pervasive myths of startup life is that it has to be all consuming. That unless you can give your business all your thoughts and hours, you don’t deserve success. You are unworthy of the startup call.
This myth neatly identifies those fit for mission: Young, without obligations, and few if any extra-curricular interests. The perfect cannon fodder for 10:1 VC long shots.
They’re also easier to rile up with tales of milk and honey at the end of the rainbow, or the modern equivalents, “compressing your working life into a few years” and “billon dollar waves”.
But running your life in perpetual crunch mode until the buy-out or bullshit-IPO fairy stops by your door is not surprisingly unappealing to lots of people.
In fact, what you do might even be better and more successful if you take your time by only working 10 hours a week on the idea. I’ve seen this for myself with my CNCCookbook bootstrap. The problem is you think you know exactly the right thing to build and if you could only get it done, riches would be yours overnight. The reality is that nobody knows exactly the right thing to build in a vacuum. You benefit by interacting with the market, and it takes time for the market’s message to come back to you and be properly infused in what you’re building. You can’t infuse it at a 100 hour a week pace because it simply doesn’t come to you fast enough. It requires a feedback loop and a little more gradual change. This applies not just to the product itself, but to achieving a content-audience fit and then growing that audience to an interesting stage. If you think otherwise, then you’re not being realistic. You’re looking for that long-shot of completely unbridled demand that will seize your company and carry it in the vortex to the Land of Oz. You’re looking for that 10:1 VC long shot. Unfortunately, you don’t have a portfolio so that the 10 that didn’t work before the 1 that did doesn’t sink you.
Here’s the other issue–if you can’t overcome the kinds of problems $30,000 will solve without the $30K, you may not have the right idea or you may not have the right team for the idea. Creating a successful multi-million dollar company is a big accomplishment. If all it took was $30K, a little advice, and some networking, there’d be a lot more people with their own multi-million dollar companies. There’s a set of skills your team must have. There’s a set of qualities your idea and market must have. Without them, $30,000 won’t begin to fix the shortfall. $30K is just a convenience, not a solution. It’s not even aspirin, it’s a vitamin pill.
So $30,000 is actually not really very useful to someone that is focused on the 10 hour a week plan. Certainly it isn’t worth giving up say 15% of your company and potentially a lot more than that in terms of control and heartache that will still be there long after the $30,000 has been spent. To his credit, my friend did get off the $30K after a little while and suggest that having all that networking and mentoring would be worthwhile. That’s actually something I see as being much more valuable, but in truth, it actually isn’t all that hard to come by in Silicon Valley. After all, the networking is one reason why we put up with so much cost to live here, isn’t it? If you think you need an incubator to be mentored, to ask questions, and to learn how to do it, ask yourself how that’s any different than signing up for a bunch of the Anthony Robbins-style self-help seminars? You know the kind–some flashy personality is telling you they have all the answers and they’re willing to share them so that you too can be a multi-bazzillionaire loved by everyone. All for a price. Guess what, this works for some people, but for most, they could’ve had the same answers without much effort. I told my friend I’d be happy to help him understand how to launch and build a business having founded 4 software companies and been involved in 7 software startups. I also told him the cautionary tale of those making their livings off such advice.
Hacker News is a good place to find such people, and I’m not picking on HN for it, that’s just where the paying customers are for these peddlers. I call them the Entrepreneur’s Self-Help Gurus. Don’t get me wrong–there are some dynamite folks out there who can and will help you, but I’m referring to a different sort of group. These are folks who did something that if examined closely, was not an especially big deal. Yet now they’re making more than they ever did on the not-especially-big-deal telling other people how they did it. “I’ve got the secrets, and I’ll share them for just a small fee.” Perhaps they created a software company in an odd little niche, never cleared more than $100K with it, but now they’re making $200K and more telling others how to do it. To me, there is something wrong with that picture. Just for kicks, I signed up for a bunch of the more popular pay-for-content mailing lists. You can get them on sale all the time from AppSumo, for example. After going through about four of them promising everything from SEO expertise to how to get 10,000 Facebook followers, I finally quit. I hadn’t managed to learn a single useful thing from them. In fairness, if I had been at the very beginning of my journey, they might have helped a little, but everything they had to say that was useful was available for free on some blog somewhere on the Internet that I had already read. FWIW, I keep a clipping blog of such information I call Firehose Press.
I finally realized, that what these people were selling, was not the information, but the confidence to use the information. That’s not something I really needed, and I hate to be a wet blanket, but if that’s what you need, are you sure you’re ready to be an entrepreneur?
One more thing on the subject of networking–you can go have coffee with so many extremely talented and successful people in Silicon Valley at the drop of a hat that it’s ridiculous. People here are incredibly generous with their time. Heck, if Y-Combinator fascinates you, go look up the Alumni and go ask them what they learned there and what they got out of it. You just need to find a friend of a friend to introduce you and most decent people will share a cuppa joe with you. Why not? I often do.
Okay, so maybe the networking mentoring isn’t the thing. What about all those juicy introductions to VC’s? I have several problems with this one too, being the VC Curmudgeon and all. It isn’t that I haven’t dealt with the VC’s. In fact, they’ve been involved with every company I’ve been with until this latest one. Let’s start with the intro process. It’s not hard. You need a CEO who they would want to talk to and an intro from someone they know. If you have such a CEO, they can get that VC intro from someone they know. VC’s actually want to meet people, they just want to meet people who won’t waste their time. Same with Angels only it’s even easier to meet one of them and you might not need that CEO quite yet (but you will, so may as well find them so they can help you from going too far astray). You don’t need Y-Combinator to meet these people. What you need to meet a VC is pretty simple:
- A product finished enough to be sold.
- Real paying customers who will say extraordinary things about your product.
- Traction. The amount varies with the space, but there needs to be evidence that pouring gasoline on the fire will make it bigger in a hurry.
Too many entrepreneurs think investors want to give them cash to make some or all of those three things happen. I won’t say it can’t work that way, but it works less and less that way every day in the Valley. Y-Combinator, for example, used to invest more than $30K. Most of the VC startups I’ve done raised a couple million dollars on a slide show and a team. Those days are long gone. You’re going to have to bootstrap to a greater or lesser degree (and mostly greater) anyway, so you may as well get started learning how to do it, even on 10 hours a week. In fact it’ll be better if you limit yourself to 10 hours a week–it will teach you to focus. The realization that I had to bootstrap to raise VC is what set me on the bootstrapping path, by the way.
Too many entrepreneurs think they need something to be able to be entrepreneurs. They need money, advice, connections, confidence, permission, or at the very least, a guru they pay to tell them how it’s done. But here is the amazing thing: you don’t need any of those things. You can do everything that needs to be done in 10 hours a week to build a very successful multi-million dollar a year company. Do that first, ahead of worrying about investors, and you will be 10x better off. Because, here’s the thing, if that company explodes with a growth rate beyond your wildest dreams and you need a lot of capital right now just to keep the site up and running, that’s not a crazy home run extraordinary case for the VC’s. That’s what they expect to see. That’s what they’re looking for to get their checkbooks out. That’s table stakes and we’ll see where it goes from there, whether you can monetize it, whether you’re the right ones to run it, and whether it is a passing fad. If you have a deal at that stage, congratulations. You’ll have to beat the VC’s off with a stick, and you’ll be able to dictate your terms.
But what if you don’t have one of those?
Don’t despair. Remember: an Enterprise Software Company that puts together a steady-but-not-sexy business and manages to get to $100M in revenue and an IPO is often seen as a failure in VC portolios. They want the $1 Billion deals. But you? Heck, you’d be thrilled to be the 100% owner of a $15 million dollar a year software business with 20 employees that was throwing off cash like crazy and whose customers loved you. That is unless you are that rare Zuck/Gates/Ellison/Brin type that really does care more for power than money or lifestyle, of course.
One last reference to recent influences that spurred this post. I saw Jake Lodwick’s post in Pando Daily, “An Acquisition is Always a Failure.” I understand exactly where this guy is coming from having had 2 of the companies I founded acquired. Surpass was acquired by Borland and that was the Quattro Pro product and Integrity QA was acquired by Pure Atria. Surpass was a great acquisition. I joined Borland, we sold over $100M of Quattro Pro the first year, I moved up through the ranks to eventually run R&D for Borland in its heyday, and it was a fabulous company to be a part of. I learned a lot. Pure Atria was a great company too, but it didn’t last. Six months after I got there it was gobbled up by Rational. They already had a product with a brand that competed with Integrity QA’s product and it was based in Boston, not Silicon Valley. Despite Integrity’s product being one of the most innovative things I have ever worked on (Genetic Algorithm-Based Software Testing), it basically never went anywhere because politically, it was stuck in a closet where there was no light. It exists today as an IBM product called TestFactory, but it’s growth was stunted and it never recovered.
It’s fascinating to read the comments in Lodwick’s article and contrast them with where Jake is coming from. He says:
Whereas we’d once been free to work on whatever seemed interesting, we now found ourselves in vaguely defined middle-management roles, sitting through pointless meetings where older doofuses who didn’t understand the Web challenged our intuitions and trivialized our ambitions.
That was basically my experience working for Oracle, where I learned a lot, but couldn’t accomplish much. Similar with Rational. Big Companies do work much differently than smaller ones, or as Jake says:
They’re another class of entity entirely, more concerned with sustaining their own rhythms and control structures than experimenting with strange ideas from acquired ex-founders. It wasn’t long before I was ejected like a virus.
Then he describes the frustration of being loose with money, but without company all founders who get acquired feel:
With a fat bank account, I was pretty set to do whatever I wanted for a long time. The sale afforded me the ability to make art, invest in other companies, and unwind. But it didn’t take long to realize that my new life was a hell of a lot less exciting than running an independent company had been.
So true. Then we have the commenters, and as I read through them, it’s hard to see them as being focused on much but the money, whether this is an indictment of what they need to do (investors need an exit/cash out), or whether there aren’t a few examples where an acquisition made a thing far greater than it otherwise would have been (Android). Most of them missed Jake’s message and wisdom entirely.
Here’s the thing. At one point Jake talks about getting $50,000 checks each month. Do the math carefully before you decide you need a VC-scale company to make enough money. I went through one of those VC-backed Enterprise Software IPO’s, and while I made good money, it was #3 on my hit parade of exits. Owning a business 100% that plops $50K checks on my desk each month would’ve been a much better deal, and this is to say nothing of all the deals that crash and burn because the VC was driving for a 10:1 Long Shot. You have to live through a lot of Ramen noodles on the long shots, then maybe you’ll see that big payoff. Or maybe you’ll have been diluted out of your mind and it won’t be such a big deal. I’d have been much better off owning that $50K/month business that I could keep on running that doing the IPO I did.
In the end of the Day, as an Entrepreneur, you need to get crystal clear about a few things:
- How much money do you need to get from your venture? If $1M a year is a happy number, the chance is a bootstrap is much less risky than a VC deal. Remember, income equates to investment portfolio about 20X. That $1M a year income stream requires a $20M liquidity event after taxes before you can live like that without working.
- How much control do you have to have? Hey forget whether you’re an ego maniac. I’m talking of control more akin to artistic control. The control to deliver on what you do well. On why everyone always says they love you, but that Boards, CEO’s, and Professional Managers are only too quick to override if it suits their agenda. If that artistic control to do what you do best is important, adding people who own significant parts of your company can only dilute that control and maybe even result in your being “ejected like a virus.” OTOH, if you want Bill Gates or Steve Jobs-style control over an industry, you’re gonna need VC’s. If you want to change the world with Electric Cars and Private Spacecraft like Elon Musk, you’re gonna need VC’s. Just be really honest with yourself about what you need versus what might be nice to have.
- Most importantly, how will your venture change your life? What does it have to accomplish to make you happy?
Too many entrepreneurs get signed up for the promise of (to quote David HH’s article), “compressing your working life into a few years.” Sounds great, but it better be just a few years to put up with the amount of BS that kind of pressure cooker entails. And the truth is, it is never just a few years. It’ll be 10 long years to reach the conclusion, assuming it is a happy one.
Why not start out with a venture that makes you happy every single day you pursue it? If it has VC potential, you’ll know soon enough and you can decide then what path to take. If it doesn’t have VC potential, you may still wind up realizing everything you’d hoped for and more. Even better, it may be at much lower risk.