Look no further than the current US presidential campaigns and you will see how the power of personal or business ‘associations’ can be leveraged, fairly or unfairly, to boost or damage a person’s career prospects or a company’s fortunes. A Barack Obama, for example, might be able to rattle off a litany of well-respected names to boost his candidacy, but he will also have his William Ayers’ and Reverend Wrights to contend with. A John McCain might be able to offer a similarly impressive list of supporters, but he will have to shoulder the burden of his Charles Keatings and Phil Gramms as well. I will leave it to the political pundits to determine the wisdom of pursuing an opponent’s associations as a political strategy, but the weight of associations and the decisions around who you surround yourself with in business and in life does have impact; more so now than ever.
In the start-up and venture capital world, there is the well-worn maxim that “A-list people hire other A-list people, while B-level people hire C-level people.” The idea is that truly exceptional people are not threatened by others of high analytical horsepower and competency and want to be surrounded by people of such caliber, while mediocre managers are more prone to be nervous about maintaining their station and, as such, don’t want to be challenged or threatened for their jobs. Hence, they ostensibly hire beneath them to preserve their position and authority.
To be sure, the issue of high caliber and competency within an organization’s ranks should be paramount regardless of market environment. In the current market swoon and anxiety that that brings, however, it bears even closer examination and discussion.
As I alluded to in an earlier post, the laws of good business practices were certainly not repealed in the somewhat frothy market we are just now leaving; it just seemed that way some of the time. To be sure, there were a lot of excesses that now bear serious re-examination. As we are painfully coming to realize across our economy, easy credit and cheap, readily available capital can pervert incentives and can blur what should be clear lines between good, fiscal discipline and fast-and-loose management practices. In a frothy environment, however, strategic mistakes can be easily covered up and bad employees have places to hide. Not so in the market we now inhabit.
With few exceptions, venture-backed companies are becoming leaner. Those companies who were not fortunate enough to have raised their venture rounds before the financial crisis took center stage will now have to contend with lower valuations, less competition for their deals, and with venture investors more distracted with challenges in their current portfolio and less apt to dive into new deals as they were just a few short months ago. Yes, deals are getting done, but they are taking longer to do and are coming in at much lower valuations.
Whenever there is a downturn of any magnitude affecting the start-up environment, all venture investors begin re-thinking how they are evaluating new and existing opportunities. What items that were once “let’s see what develops” are now mission-critical? What questions that we could wait on for an answer do we now need real clarity on before proceeding with a new or follow-on investment? In short, what is acceptable risk and what, in the current marketplace, is no longer acceptable?
Arguably, the top item on anyone’s list of “fundability measurements” and criteria is going to be the team. Furthermore, I would venture a guess that team dynamics, competency, experience, integrity and demeanor has only increased in importance as a factor in determining for venture investors what deals get done and which companies fall by the wayside. In a heated market, more investors are willing to ‘wing it’ with a less seasoned CEO or VP Engineering hoping that once the company gains traction with its product or service and hits certain milestones, the exercise of bringing on a more seasoned pro will be a formality; not so today. In a tough environment, experienced CEOs who have actually navigated a company through a downturn are worth their weight in gold. Moreover, every investor wants one for his or her companies. This, ironically enough, also occurs at a time when experienced CEOs are more reluctant than ever to leave the relative calm and security of their current roles as Sr. VPs, CEOs, or heir-apparents elsewhere to take on the challenge of a venture-backed company in the midst of a market swoon.
Many venture investors will undoubtedly agree with the Darwinian sentiment that market downturns tend to force a somewhat healthy attrition upon the start-up landscape. Weaker companies find themselves unable to raise follow-on capital and quietly (or not so quietly) shut their doors, leaving more breathing room for their more able competitors to achieve their destiny and become eventual market leaders. Dilettante angel investors stop investing and retreat to the shopping mall or tanning salon businesses from whence their fortunes came, thereby pulling capital from the market and bringing deal competition and valuations back to a more healthy equilibrium. And, finally, inexperienced entrepreneurs who wanted to take a swag at a mediocre start-up idea decide to table their dreams in favor of holding onto their day jobs, hence leaving the highways and byways of I-280 and Rte 128 to more serious, purposeful entrepreneurial teams. And, thank goodness for that….especially now.
Therefore, some points to keep in mind:
Teams will need to be intact longer:If there is one thing I am detecting among colleagues at other funds it is the sense that a start-up team is going to need to be intact longer than in the recent past. The notion of swapping out key players later in the game has fallen out of vogue to an extent as the reality of how difficult it will be to find top-notch management available, interested, and affordable down the road is sinking in. This puts added pressure on start-up CEOs to button down their senior management teams now. Make sure you have as complete a team as possible before seeking funding.
Tie up the right people, and pay up if you have to:Take a hard look at your team and do the right things now. If the CEO is being too stingy with comp and options packages, correct that now by making sure the top guys (and gals) are properly incented to stick around and build the company through this tough cycle. Don’t expect to be able to get the rock star VPs later on. Pay up if you have to, but do it now.
Have a State-Of-The-Union type conversation about what to expect: Make sure everyone on the senior team has got religion about what is expected, what is required, and what is coming. People sleep-walking around the office waiting for options to vest might have been OK when venture rounds were easy to raise and no one was sweating their jobs (really), but it is not permissible anymore. That guy that everyone likes, tells good jokes at the office beer bashes, but no one really knows what it is he does? You know, that guy? Fire him.
Don’t Pre-Hire:On the other hand, don’t overhire or pre-hire. In other words, be conscious that everyone’s talents are leverageable now, not at some point down the road when the organization is much further along. It might never get there. Some CEOs make the mistake of hiring a perceived hot talent before that person can actually do their magic on the mistaken belief that it’s more important to have them on the team now before they can really do anything to help the company — like a talented CFO when a Controller would suffice, or a VP Sales that only knows how to manage large sales teams and can’t be scrappy. Everyone has to have a clear function and everyone’s talents need to be leverageable now.
Practice good Investor management relations:It’s too often said that CEOs need to manage their boards more effectively and that their venture investors are really long-term partners. This is no longer stuff on the VC firm’s website you can ignore: it’s the new new reality. So, expect that if everything goes in your favor, you will be a venture-backed company for the next 4-7 years and you will be meeting with (and occasionally arguing with) your investors at least every month for the next 4-7 years. This is not a process you can wing; it needs to be managed properly. Build good relationships now with all your investors, board members, and significant stakeholders. This is a big topic not suitable to getting into in great detail in this post, so do some homework. There are tons of good resources on best practices for managing BoDs and other matters, particularly the white papers by Pascal Levensohn , his venture firm, LVP, and/or some of the stuff I have written on the subject over the years, available widely online. Make them your new mantra. You’ll be glad you did, because tense board meetings when bad news has not been communicated properly will make your worst and most awkward family Thanksgiving dinner look like a day in the park. Ask me how I know.