Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Venture Capital Conundrum

Venture Capital Actuarial Tables
The VC Conundrum

It is not that all VCs are bad, it’s just that not many VCs are good.

Entrepreneurs need money to launch a business, and here in Silicon Valley there are endless lines of founders queuing in front of an endless line of venture capitalists (VCs) with money to invest. Yet the question entrepreneurs far too rarely ask is if VC money is a good thing. Nor do they ask if one or another VC has the correct long-term interest in the founders, their vision or their company.

VCs, a necessary anomaly

So what is the purpose of VCs?  They exist to insert money into companies during their earliest years. It takes cash to start a company, but VC cash is only one possible source. The three primary means for raising starting cash include:
  • Founders use their own personal assets and resources (friends, family, etc.)
  • They borrow without exchanging equity and power, through a bank loan secured against personal assets.
  • They come, hat in hand, to VCs pitch parties.
This is where VC money becomes a Faustian temptation. Most founders lack the personal resources required to launch a company, to hire staff, and to feed the development, marketing, sales and support processes. Like most people, founders’ assets are otherwise occupied – tied up in our homes, retirement accounts, kids’ college funds, investments, and personal property.

This creates a very uncomfortable situation for anyone with common risk aversion. Risking a lifetime of work and savings is unappetizing. So founders are all too willing to trade equity and the collateral authority for financial help. Given that banks are typically loath to finance startups with thin track records, they rarely do (I secured bank financing to launch Micrel, a semiconductor company, a rarity that few can imagine). Even if banks are willing to lend, founders are often unwilling to secure these loans with their hard-earned assets. Under those rare circumstances where the bank and the founder are willing, the bank often offers less than is actually necessary to sustain the startup.

Let’s face it, startups are extremely risky.  Statistics show that fewer than 10 percent of them live longer than three years … though the odds of failure might well diminish if founders had their assets on the line.

VC Actuarial Conundrum

Would you make an investment if you knew that there was a 90 percent chance that it would fail?
VCs do. VCs are, by definition, gamblers. They know the odds and continue rolling the dice day in and day out on the long shot that one in ten investments will pay well enough to balance out the other nine. And they pray for the lottery-level odds that number ten is the next Google. When a VC says he is betting on your company, he means it quite literally.

VCs do stack the odds in their favor to some degree, but the process reduces the odds, a great outcome for founders. VCs know that to make an investment more likely profitable involves selling the portfolio company to a much larger entity. And Silicon Valley is not at a loss for mammoth companies who consume smaller companies for intellectual property and talent.

To make these companies “valuable” enough to balance books, VCs push founders to “grow” their companies at blinding speed, assuring the startup CEO that more cash is available for ongoing operations (for another hunk of equity, of course). Grow, gather cash, grow, gather cash – this is the life of a startup CEO. The growth is artificial, often producing unsustainable companies, but with some demonstrated technology and a patch of market traction. Properly fluffed, and with associated valuations of unrealistic natures, VC portfolio companies are corralled, auctioned off to the highest bidder, and slaughtered.

VCs, Egos and Actuaries

Many (perhaps most) venture capitalists believe they provide some special sauce that grants them the ability to beat the early-investor odds. They believe their investment success ratio will be exactly opposite of the real world – that they will win nine out of every ten bets.

Their strategy is flawed.  Actuary tables for humans are statistically calculable and accurate, thus everyone buys into insurance industry stats.  VC actuary tables are at best inaccurate, and at worst a poor man’s bet. A life insurance company using VC actuary statistics would have to charge premiums that exceed what rational people would pay.

Which is what founders do. By switching from being leaders to being money hunters, by trading control for cash, by not paying attention to their company, customers and culture as their principal priority, they pay huge premiums betting they won’t die. Yet by giving away control to VCs, and following their lead concerning the perpetual money hunt, they all but guarantee their demise.

Since business failure rates are high, many founders are acutely risk-averse. Without excellent native leadership and management skills, the odds are against them.  But being an entrepreneur is such a tremendous lure that feisty founders expect to beat the odds. Often it is only their manic vision and relentless drive that pushes past the pits of failure.

However, this does not change their risk-averse mentality. As I formulate my mentoring process, which is tied to my investments, I talk to many founders. An acid test question I ask of each man and woman is if they are willing to put up some of their own money for the venture. Thus far all have declined.  Just last week a couple of gentlemen approached me, wanting to start a high-tech company. Their initial assessment was that they needed half a million dollars. After reviewing their business plan and counseling them accordingly, they moved their go-to-market plan out by two years and decided they needed nearly four million dollars. They also assumed than none of the risked capital would be theirs.

Fortunately for them, I have extensive executive experience in the markets in which they want me to invest – something no VC can contribute. Having launched a successful company, having had thirty-six nearly consecutive profitable years, having survived five major industry downturns, I can help guide a portfolio company’s rational growth.

This is where, I believe, not all VC funds are good.  VCs lack the executive expertise to fully understand the risk and capability within a startup. I know that the two gentlemen I interviewed were involved in three other startups over the past fifteen years – and all but one failed miserably. Their most recent startup raised over $300M in venture capital funding and now, eight years later, the company is still seeking venture capital while generating less than $5M in revenue per year. 

With $300 million in financing, one would assume their VCs would provide a rich assortment of advisors with expert insight into their company’s industry, markets, niche segments and operations. But they didn’t. These two gentleman claim that their VCs told them to spend the money as quickly as possible so that they could get a head start or jump on the competition.

A sprint that led to a corporate heart attack.

Three years ago Micrel had the opportunity to purchase Dicera, a MEMs semiconductor company. Dicera was launched in 2003. By the end of 2013 they had raised over $72M in venture capital funds but were turning less than $6M a year in revenue.  Micrel purchased Dicera for a little over $7M. We bought a VC-backed company for a dime on the dollar.

Founders Skew the Actuarial Tables

This is the foul legacy of VC-funded startups – they miss their business plan objectives by an order of magnitude. Without experienced perspective, founders misestimate all. Things take longer, they cost more than budgeted, and markets are tougher to crack than anticipated. With all this working against them, VCs pushing for unsustainable growth merely exacerbate underlying problems. This creates greater portfolio fragility, and oddly causes VCs to place wilder bets on the hopes that they can saddle a unicorn.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. High-flying Silicon Valley software startups are getting most of the VC cash, and not enough payoff. Meanwhile, the same companies – and those in less favored industries – are finding that without mentorship, their ships sail slowly and sink quickly.

Yet we may see a few VCs doing business differently. They will have qualified councilors with industry experience who expertly guide startups. They don’t shoot for rapid yet unsustainable growth, but instead count on forming enduring companies. They insist that founders take risks, with their own assets as part of a grander, longer-term marriage. In short, the new VC may be seen as the anti-VC.

Not all VCs are bad, but not all VCs are good. Choose wisely.

Raymond D. “Ray” Zinn is an inventor, entrepreneur, and the longest serving CEO of a publicly traded company in Silicon Valley. He is best known for creating and selling the first Wafer Stepper (an industry standard piece of semiconductor manufacturing equipment), and for co-founding semiconductor company, Micrel (acquired by Microchip in 2015), which provides essential components for smartphones, consumer electronics and enterprise networks. He served as Chief Executive Officer, Chairman of its Board of Directors and President since Micrel’s inception in 1978 until his retirement in August 2015. Zinn’s philosophy on people, servant leadership, humanistic management and the ethics of corporate culture are credited with Micrel’s nearly unbroken profitability. Zinn also holds over 20 patents for semiconductor design.

His new book, Tough Things First (McGraw Hill), is now available for ordering.

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