In perhaps one of the venture community’s worst kept secrets in quite some time, seminal venture capital firm, Sequoia Capital, recently convened its portfolio companies for a State of The Union-type conversation about the current market environment for venture-backed companies. The PowerPoint deck that was presented at that meeting, which has since been passed around like an hors d’oeuvres tray by the venture community at large in the days since, (and available here for the two of you who have yet to see it) was, to put it mildly, apocalyptic. Indeed, the final slide in the deck is a photo of a white jacketed bartender doing the long pour on what can only be imagined is a very strong vodka martini — stirred, I suspect, and very, very shaken if current market gyrations are any indication.
Sequoia Capital is a great venture firm, for a reason. The presentation, as a work product, is impressive. Chock full of relevant, startling, and overwhelming data on the current environment, how we got here, and what the future likely holds for venture-backed companies, it drives to one unequivocal conclusion if you are a portfolio company CEO – buckle up: this is going to be a rough ride. Predictably, for a firm of Sequoia’s stature, almost identical sentiments were issued by other members of the community in short order. Within days, if not hours, Benchmark Capital, Norwest Venture Partners, renowned angel investor Ron Conway, and a host of other firms and their principals began issuing pronouncements (or previously confidential letters) of their own saying many of the same things articulated in the Sequoia presentation. [Whether these opinions were issued directly from the firms themselves or subsequently leaked by some other method is unknown and I am not suggesting I have any better info on this than anyone else.]
Now, these are all eminent names in the business, by any standard. The smart money might say to just echo these sentiments and find a shelter for the coming storm. That said, let me offer a different perspective on this if I may. But first, it might help to stop, take a breath, make a stiff drink if that’s your thing, and calm down. We’re going to be here a while.
First, Sequoia, NVP and the rest make excellent points. Many of these points are valid even in flush times – being disciplined over costs, focusing on your core market, etc. Second, it’s pointless arguing with the supporting data because it is available elsewhere and can be quickly corroborated. What is open to debate, however, is how to interpret that data and what decisions should be made going forward as a start-up CEO and as a venture investor.
For the CEOs of venture-backed companies, this will be a challenging environment, but not an impossible one. As I have posited in recent posts (here and here) while there are obvious drawbacks to launching and growing a new enterprise in a rough economic cycle, there are also clear advantages that the rest of the economy generally cannot enjoy in quite the same way — i.e. less competition for talent, more flexible terms on leases and equipment, more time to develop your product without worrying constantly about new competitors entering your space, and so on and so forth. As I learned during the tech slump earlier this decade, fortunes are made and lost during times of transition. While many companies (and more than a few venture firms) will undoubtedly shutter their doors in the next 12-24 months as we work through this market cycle, other companies and investors will see their growth and their financial fortunes explode. In short, you want to be in the latter category and, yes, it is still possible.
Warren Buffett has been attributed many quotes that are bandied about frequently but perhaps the most cited over the past two weeks has been his pronouncement years ago that the secret to his success was that he “tended to be fearful while others were greedy, and tended to be greedy while others were fearful.” This somewhat contrarian view has certainly served Buffett well and may even save some of us, if we approach it pragmatically and without undue emotion.
First, this is the time to take stock of where you are. The concept of sound, conservative business management practices have been around decades. They are not, and shouldn’t be, new concepts for venture-backed company CEOs. If they are, then a lot of people (from the investors to the managers) have not been doing their jobs. A company CEO should always be concerned with capital efficiency, containing costs, hiring slowly and firing quickly, and so forth. This market downtown or correction or whatever-you-want-to-call-it-this-week is going to drive this point home like nothing else because everyone will be focused on it now. This does not mean that it is a new phenomenon — just that now you do not have the luxury of playing with the idea: you need to push it down into the very being of your organization. There is no place to hide now.
Second, don’t be seduced by the idea that you can just cut down expenses to the core, retract your head back into your shell like a frightened turtle until the storm passes, and simply re-emerge once things calm down. The only real issue I take with Sequoia’s deck has to do with slide 46 which features a linear spectrum with Preserve Capital on the left side and, opposite on the right side, Gain Share. The slide infers that the two concepts are in opposition to one another and, hence, are incompatible and cannot be pursued simultaneously. I reject that notion. Indeed, I can scarcely think of any technology sub-sector where one can ‘wait it out’ by focusing on controlling costs and simply expect to re-establish itself in the market later on as if it were a chess game that all players decided to suspend for a bit for the purposes of a pee break and would simply resume at the same point where they left off. Tech markets move too quickly, even in a downdraft. Simply put, if you are an early stage company with a commercial product and you are not gaining share, you are losing share. Your competitors will be the ones gaining share– in good markets or bad. Like the theory of capital flows, market share is neither lost nor gained; it is merely transferred. As such, the only viable strategy is focusing on costs but continuing to gain share; perhaps not at the same rate or with the same intensity, but one most always be focused on gaining share.
Finally, returning to the subject of pithy quotes applicable to this market crisis, being a weekend auto racer, I am reminded of a quote from the 1966 James Garner film, Grand Prix, in which the antagonist, a fiercely competitive driver played by Yves Montand, is asked for the secret to his success on the track. He replies, “when I come up upon an accident – a really horrific accident – I put my foot down HARD….because I know everyone else is lifting theirs.”
Opportunities abound, regardless of the market. As I write this, on Monday, October 13, 12:30 PM Pacific time, the Dow is up a record 956 points. This follows the worst week in Wall Street history. Go figure. Some of these gains may very well be given back tomorrow, but volatility will clearly be with us for a while. Those companies that will emerge from this cycle in pole position for the rebound will be those that not only survived through prudent cost controls but prospered by using this market cycle while their competitors were scared and distracted to build their businesses and lock up customers that will ensure their longevity once markets return to a healthier equilibrium.