Posts Tagged ‘economic climate’

Societal costs and pure economics

July 2, 2009

I wrote earlier in the year about the challenges companies face raising Series B financings, and in particular how vulnerable companies are who have demonstrated potential but not yet converted that into a reliable, profitable revenue stream.

The issue is keeping an eye on your cash while continuing to develop the business, anticipating the next infusion of capital.

But what if you look at the business today and soberly assess that it’s just not going to get to where you expect or believe it needs to be: either to raise more money from an outside investor or to deliver meaningful value?

When do you make the decision to stop fundraising and use the remaining cash to wind the company down?  It’s somehow easier to get to that decision point as an investor.  You’re almost structurally set up to make that dispassionate call, not involved in the daily business, but fluent in the operations and the potential.

But that’s structure and theory.  In practice you are very close to the business and to the management team.  You’re spending tons of time with them.  You invested in their vision.  So unless the company has missed its milestones by a country mile there’s enormous room for debate, and ambiguity.

However a looming cash-out date sharpens everyone’s focus; there’s only a few short months until you’re out of money.  Time pares down the alternatives until there’s just one.

What about companies who have enough money to keep going for a year or more, but whose business is just not performing?  And what if you don’t expect it to?  What if the shape and trajectory of the business is just not mapping cleanly onto a business that will deliver the potential you expect, or more importantly, that the market will value?

That’s a much more difficult call.

Are you better off acknowledging the futility, the wasted resources (money, time, career opportunity cost), and be deliberate about making a difficult decision sooner rather than later?  The big issue is that in this market, unless the business is profitable, the likelihood of selling it is close to zero, and if you are lucky to sell, the price will be predatory at best.  A few million dollars, maybe.

So, let’s say you have $5 million in cash now, and you’re burning $1 million a quarter.  Do you spend $3 million and three quarters to see if you can get the company to perform to expectations knowing you might be able to sell it for $5 million a year from now if you’re wrong?  Or do you just shut down the company at a cost of $1 million, and redistribute the remaining $4 million to investors?

That math is harsh, but what’s harsher is the economic climate that supports it.  This isn’t a “present value of tomorrow’s cash” kind of problem, it’s more nuanced.

Are you better off giving the company the runway and time to try?  And the employees another year of security and jobs?  It’s that second part that in the past I think would have been easier to look beyond, but today, for me, it really becomes a significant variable in the calculus.

We’re in the business of making risky bets, and generally view time as an asset to develop options and deliver unexpected upturns; taking it off the “balance sheet” seems at odds with the whole ethos of our business.

But is that also a way of dodging the responsibility of making a tough decision?  Avoiding the inevitable is different from preserving options.

How much more do you weigh these societal costs against a purely “economic” decision?  In a growing economy, it’s so much easier to focus purely on the economics.  In a growing economy people will get new jobs, some more quickly than others, but they’ll move on.

But in today’s economy it’s just not that clear.

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.