Archive for the ‘Venture capital’ Category

Guest post coming Monday

March 13, 2009

I wanted to let you know that OpenAmbition will be showcasing its first guest post, from Jenny Hall, former CEO of Trendi.com, which was a social networking destination focused on young women’s fashion that was shut down in October of 2008.  Jenny will be sharing what she learned as a first-time CEO through the success and eventual failure of Trendi.

I met Jenny the first time a little over a year ago, when she was trying to raise a Series A financing for Trendi, and for  reasons I explained to her, my partners and I were not able to fund her company.  Jenny touches on a few of the reasons in her post on Monday, but in many respects, what she describes are what many entrepreneurs wrestle with in an emerging but crowded market, where so much is learned in real-time. 

Like with many of the entrepreneurs I am fortunate enough to encounter, she and I have kept in touch, and when she stopped by my office a few weeks ago to tell me about her next startup idea, the subject of Trendi of course came up.  Jenny talked me through some of what she had learned, and how valuable the failure of Trendi had been for her personally (but not painless for her, for her employees, or for her investors). 

When we moved on to discussing her next startup idea, it was inspiring to see how much was informed by what she had learned through Trendi’s failure, how she had embraced what many would have tried to forget or move on from.  And so it seemed like she had a story to tell that the followers of this blog could relate to, find interesting, and hopefully find some meaning in too.

I hope you all enjoy it, look for her on Monday.

More Series B musings

March 8, 2009

In talking to a few folks since my post Thursday on the nuances of Series B financings another analogy for Series A, B, and C financings came to mind.

You can look at investing in startups like selecting who among a classroom of kids will get into Harvard; if you don’t take this (completely dangerous) analogy too seriously, there are some interesting relevant analogies.  So just for a moment, enter a playful state of mind and let’s look at the landscape.

Series A investments are like evaluating a kindergarten class and trying to select the child you think would make it into Harvard.  You could look at a whole lot of characteristics about their classroom participation and capabilities and then try and figure out who would be likely to get be accepted twelve years down the road.  But it’s very much about taking a bunch of early, early data and trying to make a long range prediction. 

[If any of you have had kids in kindergarten, the sad thing is in real life there seem to be parents doing this math for their own children.]

But to play this out, with whoever you picked you’d have enough time and resources so that if circumstances develop along the way that take the kid you’ve “funded” off-track, you’d be able to help address these. 

Series C investments are like evaluating a high school junior or senior class and trying to select the child destined for Harvard.  Now you’ve got substantive and relevant historical data about performance, capabilities, and aspirations.  You have a much richer data set, and a much shorter time horizon – one to two years. 

With Series A, anything seems to be possible when you make the investment, and you have plenty of time to deal with surprises along the way.  With Series C, you can see and evaluate a lot of the substantive date, and have a reasonably clear sense of the prospects and risks.

Series B are like evaluating a middle school seventh grader’s class, and trying to pick who’s going to be Harvard-bound.  There is a trajectory that’s been established, but you don’t have the SAT scores, the high school GPA, or the extra-curricular activities that are going to factor so heavily in the outcome.  And, it’s hard to know who will blossom in high school and who won’t.  That the sullen introspective kid in the corner may deceive you as he or she may develop the confidence and leadership to become the head of the class in two to three years.  That popular kid  vying for attention may end up having more social skills than discipline, and could flame out academically in 10th grade.

This is an entertaining thought exercise precisely because it is so ridiculous. 

By the way, I have nothing against middle schoolers (I have two myself, and think the world of them, and their friends), but it’s an awkward stage.  Taking this back to our investment stage analogy, Series B is hard because you are between the “anything is possible” world and the “we have some relevant historical data and a shorter horizon”.

I’m not saying Series B investments are bad, it’s just that they’re their own unique animal that are particularly vulnerable in the current economic climate.  Fortunately, middle schoolers, regardless of the economic climate, will be just fine.

The nuance of Series B financings

March 5, 2009

Given the economic climate, and the implications for startups, Series B financings are going to be tough to get done;  here are some substantive and “beauty” reasons. 

Substantive reasons. 

Series B financings happen at a vulnerable stage of a startup.  The company has generally proven its core value proposition, has demonstrated it knows where to find customers, acquire them, and has begun to monetize them.  The operative term here is “begun” – they haven’t generated enough revenue to cover their burn, and likely will need another 12-24 months to do so.

What the company or the investors don’t know yet is how scalable and predictable the revenue is.  How broadly into the target market the problem really exists (and whether or not they just got lucky with those first customers in the A round), and if/where the source of explosive leverage in the business is.

But the confidence of that revenue forecast, that can matter a lot.  Startups can run out of cash more quickly than they expect because the revenue forecast shows net cash needs going down over time…which is true only if the revenue comes in as planned.  So it’s easy to get a nasty surprise here if you miss your revenue forecast; all of a sudden you’re not managing to a break-even date, but a cash-out date that’s coming at you like a locomotive.

Series B financings may have less engineering or product risk, but they can have loads of revenue and market execution risk that can be hard to get your arms around.

Beauty reasons

There are also some beauty reasons why Series B financings are nuanced.  It’s precisely because they’re not Series A financings and they’re not Series C financings.  Let me explain.

Series A financings are attractive for VCs because they’re a product of your relationships and your deal flow – a result of personal, proprietary value.  The best deals involve shiny and bold unblemished ideas, are looked at by a small number of firms, and can be highly competitive. 

Series C financings are attractive for VCs because a lot of times they involve companies who have figured out how to scale revenue and have some clarity on the leverage in their model.  The engineering/product risk is generally behind them as is the revenue unpredictability; they need capital to expand and get to break-even.  These deals can also be highly competitive, and are shiny and old, old in a good way – they’re much closer to being sold (exiting).

What about Series B?  Well, a lot of times they’re just not as pretty.  They’ve been out in the market enough to success and have some warts and have already been seen by a lot of VC firms.  There’s still all that revenue and sales/marketing execution risk.  Series B deals are tweeners – neither a shiny Series A deal with a promising unblemished future, nor a “we’re just a few years away from an exit” Series C deal.  Picking a good one is tough.

What if you’re raising a B round?

You’ve got to embrace the reality of where you’re at.  You should expect to have a fair amount of “longitudinal” metrics supporting your revenue forecast.  Metrics you’ve been tracking for quite some time that communicate fact-based clarity in generating reliable revenue.

A closely related area is to have data that examines where in your business model the leverage comes from, and how that affects the economics of your business.  This too is best done longitudinally with data collected over time (like showing a strong network effect).

Finally, you need an operating plan that spends behind revenue; increasing expenses only after revenue has increased, reliably.  This means having some clarity around the context of expense increases, tying them to product or customer initiatives; “tear-off” plans that overlay onto your base revenue/expense plan.

B rounds are nuanced, and thoughtful planning and analysis can help you navigate the nuance.

Series-shifting, terms, and fallout

March 4, 2009

The good news in the startup landscape is that companies are getting funded, and the pace and quality of startup activity remains strong, especially here in Seattle.  This seems to be the case in the valley too

But the deals that are getting financed are generally “obvious” ones; series A deals where the founders have solid track records or later stage deals that have proven they can acquire customers and most importantly, monetize them.  The deals everyone would like to do. 

What about all the others? 

Well, they’re ruled by the bleak exit landscape for venture-backed companies.  Any investor looking at a good company now is doing a returns analysis using much lower exit valuations than they’d used six months ago.  The economics have to adjust downward to make the numbers (and the risk) workable.  Make no mistake, the obvious deals feel this “compression” effect too, perhaps the fundraising process moves more quickly for them.

The first “compression” effect I call “Series-shifting” – when a company that’s out raising its B round gets valued as if it were on its A.  Or a C round company gets valued as if it were raising a B round. 

Colley Godward reports median Series C valuations dropped almost 40% in 4Q08 compared with the prior 1Q08-3Q08 timeframe.  40% isn’t a bad approximation of the step-up in value you might expect from the Series B post-money valuation to the pre-money Series C valuation, based on the company’s progress in developing the business.  In today’s fundraising environment this means the market is assigning little to no economic value to that progress.  Ouch.

As an aside, this introduces some nuance into your fundraising.  The post on your last round is likely high relative to today’s market.  At an appropriate time, you need to signal that you know this and will be flexible on valuation without prematurely putting a “fire sale” sign up.  If you wait too long to signal, you’ll scare off investors who think you’re out of touch with today’s market.  There’s no rulebook for how to handle this, just experience and good judgment; the goal for both parties is to be fair and realistic, not to take advantage of either party.

There’s a second “compression” effect: terms are getting much more aggressive, reflecting today’s more conservative assumptions on returns and capital recovery.  While not painless to the entrepreneurs and early investors, liquidation preferences can be a way to let the valuation retain some “loft” while enabling the new investor to limit the downside if the outcome isn’t what everyone hoped for.  If everything goes as planned, everyone’s happy, if not, it’s the new investor who gets protected. Ouch again.

Don’t take it personally, it’s just math, not a case of predatory investors.  It’s the messy reconciliation of the business model of the startup and the business model of the investor.  If you choose your investors (or your investment) well, this is a juncture that can be navigated honestly and transparently, but perhaps not painlessly.

So now what?  How many businesses are going to be able to pass through filters that have such conservative assumptions or where new investors need such aggressive forms of protection?  The answer is, not a lot. 

As Andrew Chen also highlights, there are just too many Web2.0 businesses out there, and as with the Web1.0 bubble, a lot of these in hindsight are features of someone else’s platform, or have thin value propositions to begin with.  We’ve seen this before, and lots of companies just won’t get funded, or won’t raise their follow-on rounds.  In the medium term, a good thing for the industry, in the short term a lot of carnage will result.

Paul Holland of Foundation Capital says it well in a BusinessWeek interview “The most healthy thing for this industry would be a clearing out of people who don’t have the stomach for it.”  That applies to both sides of the table, companies and investors.

Healthy, yes.  Pretty?  No.

Finding the chicken killers – part two

March 2, 2009

I got a lot of positive feedback and comments on Finding the Chicken Killers, where I explained what the concept of a chicken-killer was but stopped short of providing an example of one.  Let me tell you about someone who was on my marketing team at Vivo.

[This is a longer post than usual; I hope you find it worth it!]

Ann-Marie was responsible for our online marketing, our website marketing, and our demos at Vivo.  She grew up in a large Italian-American family outside Boston; while she was polite and well spoken, she had a nice independent streak.

The situation was this.  We were now 18 months into the turn-around of the company, marketing our internet video product VivoActive.  We’d become the market leader, but internet video was still small compared to internet audio, and RealNetworks was the big gorilla out there.  Oh, and Microsoft was trying to muscle into the market; they’d recently licensed Real’s product and were giving it away for free (but not really marketing it).  How’s that for being neighborly?

We’d aligned ourselves with Microsoft and could create internet video in their format.  VivoActive together with Microsoft’s server made a complete solution, and we had their marketing and sales teams promoting it to their customers. The plan of course was to get Microsoft to buy us.

The bad news was we were running out of cash (we had about six months left), and we needed to sell the company – remember, we were on a Series D financing.  There was no appetite for a Series E.

So, the CEO, my BusDev director, and I got on a plane and went to Redmond to try and move/force the conversation along, but all we got was a tepid commitment to consider an investment.

We came back from that meeting frustrated and depressed.  The three of us were in our conference room, trying to figure out what to do.  It was almost as if a literal light bulb went off when one of us said “Companies buy their enemies to take them off the market… who are we an enemy of?”

RealNetworks.

Holy cow.  RealNetworks.  Were so aligned with Microsoft; we could be a big threat to RealNetworks.  We had at best an arms-length relationship with them (meaning relations were generally frosty).  How could we get them to feel threatened, really threatened, very quickly?

So, I suggested “What if we let all the RealNetworks customers know they could replace the server they bought from Real with the free one from Microsoft?  All they’d need to do is pay us $500 for VivoActive.”  Hmmm… replace your $50,000 RealServer with a $500 alternative.  That sounded workable.

But how to pull this off?  We needed to quickly find out who was using RealServers and then somehow contact enough of them to make this a credible threat.  I got my team together, and Ann-Marie was the first one to come up with an idea.  “We can use Wired’s HotBot search engine to find web pages with the .ram file the RealServer embeds on pages with the media file, and then find out who the company is that owns those pages.  We can look up who the exec team is at the company and send an email offer to them.”  Great idea, but a lot of work.  She agreed to take the lead on pulling this all together.

Working backward from our cash-out date, we’d need to get this done within the next few weeks.  Otherwise, we’d run out of money in the middle of the negotiations.

Ann-Marie showed up at the next war-room meeting and said she’d gone through the process a few times; it was working, but it was going real slowly.  I suggested she have our receptionist, Amy, help her out.  Away she went.

The next day Ann-Marie came back, deflated.  She and Amy had only been able to build a database of about 50 customers.  This was going to take too long.  More brainstorming.  Ann-Marie offered to see if some of the developers could be pulled off their projects to lend a hand.

The next day everyone was looking haggard and tired.  Ann-Marie showed up, looking worse than any of us. “I was up most of last night.  I realized we’re never going to get this done on time, even with the developers.”

What?

Then she said “But I realized we could do this differently.  I wrote an automated script that queried HotBot and wrote the results into a log file, and then I wrote a script to filter out the domain name of the page where the content was hosted.  I wrote another script to take that domain and query the “whois” database, and found out who the system administrator of the site was, and then put the email address and wrote it into another log file.”  The system administrator was a long way from the guy who paid for the RealServer, but it was close enough.

“It’s working really well; I’m up to about 700 names so far, and should be up to about 2,000 by tomorrow.”

Around the table, jaws were bouncing off the floor.  Ann-Marie hadn’t just killed the chicken, she’d plucked it, dressed it, and had it in the oven, roasting.

We got cracking. It was like a commando movie.  We quickly established a launch date for the emails.  Everyone had their task and took off.  I finished off the copy and reviewed the design of the email.  My busdev director made 1000% certain we had the license agreement in place.

Two days later, we were ready to go.  We briefed the CEO and the rest of the exec team on the plan.  Ann-Marie wrote a script (her new core competency) to send the emails out at midnight.

The next morning we came in, eager to see the results.  By mid-morning we had lots and lots of irate emails from system administrators and, as a result of the system administrators forwarding them, a good portion of similar emails from business execs at companies who were loyal to Real.  Irate was good.  Especially when many of the forwarded emails also copied the account manager at Real or even Rob Glaser, Real’s hyper competive CEO.

Lots of tension; everyone ate their lunches at their desks.  A little after 1pm, our CEO came walking down the hallway, a huge, huge grin on his face.

“Rob Glaser just called.  They want to talk about buying us.  I’m heading out to Seattle, tonight.”

I kid you not, it unfolded that cleanly.  A little over twelve hours after sending those emails.

By the time the acquisition was complete, our CEO was neck deep in chickens, killed.  But Ann-Marie was the one who so matter-of-factly and so fearlessly got that first chicken out of the way, and made it all possible.

How to make headcount reductions without killing your company

December 1, 2008

A friend of mine forwarded me an interesting article from Wharton about how companies are thinking through headcount reductions, pointing out how CEOs and boards in smaller companies frequently have more flexibility in how they reduce headcount.

Headcount reductions in startups are tricky; it’s an exercise in figuring out “what level of success can I still create with fewer of us” – you’re lowering the growth rate from some high double digit number to a lower double digit number – by other measures, this is still great growth.

Yet, in a small company, the people create the whole alchemy of the culture that is such a big factor in success, you don’t want to fatally harm that. At the same time, running out of cash will be fatal too. So, to conserve cash you’ve got to reduce heads. Here are five ways to do this without killing the company and its culture.

· Establish a planning horizon. If you know you can’t get to cash flow positive soon, then the planning timeframe is “when you do you think you can and should raise money” which is a guess about when the vc industry will get back to normal and a guess about what the operating milestones you’ll need to hit to get someone to invest. You want to end up with end up with as much cash as possible (in case you’re wrong about the planning horizon), or enough to fund the company to a sale (if the business isn’t on a path to recover the original growth projections/potential).

· Assess the horizon’s environment. This is both the environment you think you’ll be operating within, and your ability to operate reliably within the environment. Be sober about what expectations you have around revenue, customer acquisition, and product development. But make sure you keep the right core set of people who can sell to and support customers, and keep product development moving forward. You can’t afford to be very wrong here. If you miss your revenue targets, all of a sudden your cash-out date can come rushing at you like a locomotive.

· View this as an opportunity, sort-of. Headcount reductions are an opportunity to apply a scalpel to underperforming businesses/functions/people, and can be a productive means for clearing out roles or functions that were already identified as being questionable. So while these cuts are hard to make, they end up not being surprising. A lot of times companies convert full time employees to contractors, which is easier for a startup to do than for a big public company.

· Size the magnitude of the expense reduction. In a startup, this number is arrived at through equal parts art and science. You need to be thinking about your math around preserving the essence of your culture, keeping enough forward momentum for key initiatives (sales, products), and retaining who holds the most DNA relative to those initiatives. Iterate (a lot) with your CFO or Controller and you’ll get a feel for whether the number is 15%, 20%, 25% or more.

· Don’t do this in a bubble, think empathetically. To me, the most thought provoking sentence in the article was this one: “(Headcount reductions are) driven by the executives’ view of the way things work, and the executives, frankly, think that everyone thinks like them.” The discussion and thinking done by the board and the CEO needs to be done cognizant of the tradeoffs and values of the employees. What will work for them, and for the company.

This is as much about embracing the fact that much is unknown, and there is tremendous value in iterating, combining thoughtful intuition with data-driven analysis, and giving yourself the freedom to think outside your personal point of view.  Headcount reductions are in a sense, meaningful failures, perhaps of the macroeconomic conditions, perhaps of your own making, but from these unpleasant circumstances, value can be created, and opportunities siezed.

Five ways you can tell if the VC you’re talking to is being straight with you

November 28, 2008

One dose of humility I try and keep at the front of my mind is that before I went into venture capital, I was in startup companies, and I had to raise money myself. This means I also had to develop and hone the pitch deck, and meet with venture capitalists.

It’s a good place to put your mind when you’re hearing a pitch from someone. To remember what it felt like to try so hard, and be so eager to hear the good or the bad, to get some feedback, some guidance, some hope.

But something I think we’ve all learned as VCs is how hard it can be to say “no” to someone, and to do it in a way that respects the entrepreneur’s role in the transaction. We look at 400+ deals a year, and fund fewer than four. Saying “no” happens a lot, and happen for a range of reasons, generally not because the company is bad or the idea is bad, but because to fit through our filter, a whole lot needs to line up really well.

So, if you walk into your meeting with a VC cognizant of the fact it’s 100 times more likely you will be turned down than not, well, you better get something back for your time, don’t you think?

So here are the five ways you can tell of the VC you’re dealing with is NOT being as fair with you as you’re being with them:

  1. They took more than they gave in the first meeting. VCs see tons of deals and have relevant experience. Meeting with you should be an opportunity for them to help you. If they view the meeting as a way to feed them, time to move on.
  2. They’ve met with you more than two times without setting expectations. Remember, your time is valuable, and you can’t waste it with folks who can’t articulate a process and put you on a timeline. The process can be “Let me track you for the next year”, which tells you no funding in the meantime. But if you’re trying to raise money now, then you need to know within two meetings if you’re on a path to that, and where that path leads.
  3. They want you to extract all the risk. It’s totally chicken for a Series A VC to tell you they’ll be ready to invest once you’ve proven the business works at scale. Go to a bank instead (assuming you can find one that is lending).  It’s fair of them to ask you to show you’ve validated the value proposition and core assumptions, but that’s different.
  4. They want someone else to lead. What does this mean? “I will give you money if someone else says they will invest first?” This is kind of helpful, but in the end moves you not a whole lot further down the road.  You need someone to lead the round, and firms that wait for another to lead are making essentially a non-commitment, and are leaving a great deal of work for someone else to do.
  5. They didn’t tell you why they said no. This is really important. VCs pass for specific reasons that they discuss in their Monday meetings. Reasons might be “the team has never done this before” or “I think this is a feature of someone else’s platform”. Don’t you think this is important information to know if you’re the CEO? Yeppers, it sure is. You’ll know when you’re dealing with a quality VC when they tell you why they passed, because they know this is information that will help you.

So, a quality VC understands your time is valuable, that they’re in the business of making risky investments, and most importantly, that “no” is an opportunity to impart advice/feedback to help the entrepreneur raise money from someone else where the fit is better.  Whether you raise money from a particular VC or not, it’s the process of the interaction that’s valuable and important.  Success or failure has meaning here, and the high quality VC firms not only acknowledge this, they focus on it.

Why “I don’t know” is a great answer

November 27, 2008

Here’s a news flash: You can learn a lot about someone by asking a question and seeing how they answer it.

 

That’s so obvious, and we’ve all heard it a million times. I spend a lot of time listening to pitches from startup company CEOs, as well as spend a lot of time with the CEOs of my companies, and in both cases, end up asking a lot of questions.

 

The questions, that’s where the really hard part of making productive use of time is. Anyone who has the ambition and the drive to start a company is generally smart, and has spent so much time on their business that they’re awash in information about it. Anyone who is CEO of a startup is the same way, except they’re not pitching a vision to you, they’re living and managing it. In either case, it’s their job/role to have anticipated the key questions, and have the answers to them.

 

So, it’s hard to ask questions that dig below the surface, that reveal something that hasn’t already been thought of. If you’re lucky enough to have thought of one, it can accelerate everyone’s understanding of the business and the people running it. Conversely if you’re the CEO, when those questions are asked, it will put you in a potentially awkward position. Do you have an answer, and should you have had an answer.

 

This is true about life in general, so while what follows is specific to my job, I find it’s the same calculus with friends, spouses, children, parents….

 

I love it when we get to that juncture and the CEO says “I don’t know the answer”. It’s even better if they then say “there are a number of ways to try and answer it, let’s start….”. Now you’re about to take a trip to a very rich landscape indeed. A landscape where you’ll find out something potentially valuable about the company, about the CEO, and about your ability to work together to solve problems.

 

But there’s another direction that frequently gets taken. When the CEO produces an answer. I choose that verb deliberately. The answer is produced right there, like a big patch applied over a void. The void is hidden, not explored. This is where ego and insecurity hijack intellectual curiosity and drive it right past a tremendous source of opportunity.

It’s where the person being questioned feels the need to have an answer for every question, that somehow exposing that they don’t know is bad or weak.

 

Once you become familiar with the “answer for every question” mentality, it becomes a warning sign of significance. I hate it. It spoils all the fun. Worse, it destroys credibility at an alarming pace, but in a very quiet and nuanced way – because you can’t possibly have all the answers in a company that’s still more vision than substance.

 

And it turns out, the people who most often fall into this trap are the folks who have left the large technology companies to start up a company. It reveals the culture they had to navigate through to succeed in the “big company” world. The problems generally were so well understood you could have and were expected to have all the answers. And if you didn’t, you could “patch and pivot”, loop back, and get the answer – accountability was so diffuse, and decision cycles so long.

 

But what gets missed here is that the answer isn’t important, at all. It’s seeing that juncture where you don’t know the answer – that’s the super valuable piece of information. That may tell you about a core set of assumptions that are off, or an area of opportunity that’s been missed or overstated.

 

I love the landscape that is revealed in not knowing the answer. I love working with people comfortable with traversing it. I love it when a CEO sits me down to talk through a tough problem, and will state the truth: “I know I’m missing something here, help me figure it out”. When I hear that, I know the fun is about to begin.

Ego and why it’s over-rated

November 27, 2008

Becoming a VC has had the same effect for me as getting an MBA – it’s provided me with a label that has opened some doors.  But a label is different from substance, it’s thin, and sticks to the clothing you’re wearing. Under the clothing is you.

I’d never been a VC before and it felt very much like a very fast race, but where I was learning the event and the course as I went. So much to learn about the business of evaluating embryonic, wildly ambitious businesses as well as learning the mechanics of investing other people’s money.

Then again, this is a lot like every job I’ve ever had. In every startup I’ve been in, we were creating an entire new category in the market. No one had a playbook, no one had studied this before. Yet, we had a business to run, and customers to keep happy. We wrote the rules, we led our teams, in real time.

About 15 years ago, right after business school, I worked for a high powered management consulting firm in Boston. I managed a small group of undergrads, and we worked with large firms on tough strategy problems. It was intellectually rigorous and obsessively methodical. It was very much about the essence of management: establish a plan, direct a team, measure results. You operated with a playbook you carefully constructed as you went along.

My team? All recently minted undergrads, and so, so much smarter than I was. At various points I managed Steve Levitt (yes, Freakonomics), Glenn Berger, Russ Wilcox, and Greg Sands. But all I was focused on was how their smarts compared to mine, and as a result I quickly lost my ability to direct them.  I lost my ability to let my experience and perspective provide a framework and direction. My ego, fed with insecurity, became this huge obstacle to success.

In about 18 months, it was clear I was failing. I was repeatedly counseled “forget about how smart they are, they need the direction that your experience can provide them”. But I couldn’t. I’d like to say I failed “spectacularly”, but there’s never anything spectacular about consulting firms. I failed quietly, by being told I would have three months to find a new job.

With hindsight I realize I lacked the confidence to accept what I knew and didn’t know, I thought I had to know everything, and if I didn’t, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to create the illusion I did. All that energy got wasted and prevented me recognizing and embracing their talent, and I couldn’t focus on the pleasure of enabling and directing their effort and success.

So in the first few months in my role as a VC, I had almost an out-of-body experience. I could see where I could go back down that path of ego-as-obstacle – so much I didn’t know, so many people who knew so much more. But this time it was different. I had the accumulated scar tissue to “let go”, to seek and embrace that line where I knew what I knew and where I didn’t.

This time there was an added twist.  This is an industry where a very few people have made enormous amounts of money by helping to create groundbreaking new companies. But the other 98% of us? We haven’t. That “aura” is thrust upon you, projected on you by the people who seek your advice and your funding. It’s easy to let that define you, to let that inform the ego you present to the outside world.

So, I love knowing that if I’m lucky, I will meet and work with people smarter and more capable than I am.  I also love knowing that I haven’t yet made billions in this business.  I still believe I’m really good at it, and enjoy it.  But it’s a heck of a lot lighter meeting with entrepreneurs and co-investors, comfortable in the skin I am wearing.  We’re all a lot more effective, and at ease.

So, I love having no ego in this business. For me, ego is different from being smart, experienced, and helpful. You can be all those, but you can be those in a way that meets people in their comfort zone on their terms, not yours.

Meaningful Failure

November 27, 2008

In my world as a venture capitalist and a veteran of four fairly successful startup companies, I see and have experienced failure, a lot. My colleagues and I talk about it a great deal, in familiar ways and in ways that assign value to failure that occurred in a meaningful way. With the big ideas and within the teams that build companies around these ideas, modest success is simply not valued as highly as failure that occurs while attempting something bold, new, and ambitious.

Outside of my world, failure is spoken of in ways that make me think the people doing the talking view failure more superficially than we do. It’s a pause on the way to success, something you move on from. It’s as if failure is treated as a currency that gets spent on the way, but it’s a currency that’s been in circulation too long; it’s grimy, and you don’t really want to touch it if you can help it.

In the ”sky’s the limit” world of startup companies it’s all about being in a place where you’re brave enough to go do something new and bold and the only thing you are scared of is not succeeding. My colleagues and I frankly spent less time worrying about the failure side of our businesses than we do understanding what the obstacles to success are. We know failure is going to happen. In those early days of our companies, in fact, one of the few things we know is that the plan will end up being wrong, or at least that the numbers in all those cells will be. But understanding why they are wrong – examining, seeking the knowledge of where we failed – is how we find the path to success.

It’s not that we’re in love with our failures, but we do have meaningful relationships with them.

Meaningful failure. It’s not just where things didn’t work out. It’s failure that happened even when you were really, really motivated for and focused on success. It’s that confluence of ambition and reach, hard work and commitment, preparation and talent; where all of that comes together, and it’s still not enough.

It’s why most of us have an iPod while we also still use Windows computers; Apple sure failed to get the Mac mainstream, but learned from that when they entered the music and phone businesses.

But this is a really big failure. What about the failures we all experience in our jobs and personal lives that happen on a very human scale. You can have ambitions, you can place yourself in uncomfortable and vulnerable positions in order to achieve something of importance to you, and still you can fail. In fact, if you accept, even embrace failure, then about all you can control is how you respond to it when it happens, and what you take with you to as a result of it.

I like the analogy of failure being the lubricant in the engine. Without it, the engine stops. Without the meaning from the failures we create and encounter, the engine of success will stop. Or rather, when success happens it will be a lot smaller. Failure can tell you why what you hoped would happen didn’t but also why something like it, or better, can and will. If you’re not experiencing failure, then, perhaps you’re not hoping with enough ambition. Embracing it, anticipating it, being resiliently open minded, well, that’s just being a good steward of a high performing engine.

That’s why when I describe what it’s like to be in a high octane startup I refer to it being in a place where you remain calmly focused on the very few reasons why you will succeed and not on the seemingly thousands of reasons why you might fail. You’re striving for performance towards the big goal, not results of any specific setback along the way. It places you on the balls of your feet, not your heals. You know failure’s bound to happen, so lean into it.

It’s as simple as shifting your perspective to a “fear of not succeeding,” which is fundamentally, and in a very nuanced way so much different from a “fear of failing.” By focusing on what it takes to succeed, you can embrace the fact that there will and should be many junctures involving failure along the way. It’s the focus on success that enables you to get the big things done in life.

But embracing failure and extracting the data isn’t enough. You need a resilient, open mind to care for and make use of what you learn from your failures. Resiliency is important; it provokes a stretchiness and adaptability of your frame of reference and enables you to let go of that firmly held set of assumptions developed yesterday in order to embrace a better, more informed set today.

I like to think of my life as living in a continuous startup. At some point along the way, I realized that it’s at the moment of failure where the real meaning is, where you can figure out both what you are deep down inside and then how to be a different, more capable you the next time. That in order to be living a life of meaning and value, failure has to be not just acknowledged but embraced as the missing ingredient to success.

When you’re busy being focused on how you’ll succeed and failure occurs, it seems so much simpler to look at what just happened as fodder and information to take another run at finding out how to succeed the next time. It may be that the “next time” is the next iteration of the business you run at your company today or a totally different business at a totally different company. The constant, however, is standing at a juncture of success, open-minded learning, and meaningful failure and being ready to take the next step.