When Investing Too Early Isn’t “Wrong”

28 Jun

I recently had a twitter exchange with early stage venture investor Mark Suster over the issue of being “too early” as a venture capitalist and what that means in the current climate. While I genuinely like and admire Mark and am not one to publicize my disagreements (or would that be disa-tweetments?) with other investors over what are primarily philosophical matters, I thought the content in the exchange was valuable and supported some re-examination.

Mark made what I would consider a somewhat sweeping statement–namely, that investing too early was the same as being wrong. I responded that this entirely depended on the perspective being considered. Let me explain.

There scarcely exists a technology sector that became vibrant and consequential that did not experience a great deal of stops, starts and stalls early in its evolution. Most of the early “failures” in a space — i.e., companies that had a piece of the solution figured out but perhaps not the entire solution — were venture-backed companies. Many of the same venture investors in those early failures learned from the experience and went on to back later entrants that became juggernauts in that given sector. Were those investors wrong? Would those investors have developed the insights, market knowledge and ecosystems critical to their becoming investors in the eventual market leaders without those early experiences? Would the sector have developed as it did without the flame-outs?

My answer to those rhetorical questions is emphatically “no.” As has been evident  across technology markets for decades, technology advancement occurs in waves of innovation that beget other waves of innovation, and so on. The early failures provide formative experiences for the investors that were involved and for future entrepreneurs behind new entrants in that sector that can plainly see what worked and what didn’t for the previous class of market entrants.

Take, for example, the notion of Pattern Recognition among venture investors. Much has been written about the concept, including an earlier piece in this forum. Tangential to pattern recognition is the idea that a venture investor’s early forays into a sector provide a great education — wanted or unwanted — about what will ultimately be successful in the space and what simply doesn’t work. It also provides the investor a great deal of market knowledge and an ecosystem of supporting companies and entrepreneurs that will serve that investor well for years to come in his or her chosen area of investment, and even in other areas. This is called active cross-pollination and it is critical for long-term success as a venture investor.

To pull on that thread a bit further, venture investing is not a discrete, narrow vertical exercise. Good investors are constantly influenced by outside factors, parallel markets, advancements in technologies that appear unrelated until an epiphany occurs and interesting combinations can result. From the embers of a previous failed investment can come a dormant technology or a seasoned manager that can be re-potted into a new venture and can enable that venture to become enormously successful. The point I make in raising this is that the future success would not have likely occurred without the early mis-step. I have several examples of this in my own career.

There is an oft-told piece of black humor among attorneys about a veteran attorney counseling a young protegé. The senior attorney remarks, “When I was a young attorney like you I lost a lot of cases that I should have won. Now, with my years of experience, I win a lot of cases that I should probably lose.” No one is suggesting that venture investors new to a sector should message to entrepreneurs that they are “learning” on their deals. That said, to maintain that experiences on early investments do not positively inform decisions made on later ones is simply folly.

So, can one be “wrong” by investing too early in a sector, as Mark suggests? Most definitely. This occurs when an investor develops an investment thesis, makes an investment in a company against that thesis, leaves the sector after that company fails to never invest again in the space and never leverage the lessons learned from that experience into other investments. Hopefully, this does not occur very often among professional venture investors. The mere statement that anyone invested “too early” in a sector implies that the given sector did ultimately develop into something substantial. With any luck, the earlier investors that helped shape the sector with early bets were able to prosper by participating in the eventual winners. Historical venture returns seem to bear that out.

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