The 1000-yard stare

1 Dec

There’s a riveting scene in the opening credits of Oliver Stone’s Platoon that came to mind today. Fresh-faced recruit Chris Taylor, played by Charlie Sheen, hustles off a C-130 transport plane along with other newly minted ground troops stepping foot for their first time on battleground soil. They are clearly disoriented. A finger juts into the frame pointing the new troops into the direction they need to move. Moments later a platoon of battle-weary troops approaches single-file toward Sheen and the awaiting C-130. Sheen’s troops are clearly their replacements and the grizzled veterans are heading home. They are ragged, dirty, and gaunt. The last soldier’s glazed eyes lock onto Sheen’s. No words are exchanged but the message is clear and unequivocal: You have no idea what you are in for.

What, you may ask, has this got to do with the venture world? Unfortunately, more than I would like. The funding environment for this year now at a close has been tremendously challenging. A CEO and friend of mine likened raising capital in the current market to waking up every morning, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, tucking his feet into his sleepers, and getting hit in the face with a shovel. Every day. With great prejudice. I thought it was an apt, if somewhat jarring, description of a day in the life of a start-up CEO trying to raise capital in the current environment. There is certainly the spector of the “1000-yard stare” in the faces of many start-up management teams that have had to brave the funding waters this past year and lived to tell about it. “It’s murder out there,” was perhaps never more apt.

For this, and for a thousand other reasons, I am one of many in the community looking forward to raising a glass at 11:59pm December 31, toasting an end to a remarkably difficult year, and hoping that 2010 ushers in an era of recovery, renewal and prosperity for our firms and for our respective portfolio companies. I have been struck recently by the candor of many folks who would ordinarily simply recite chapter and verse that “everything is fine” when clearly very little has been fine over the past year. Admitting that one has faced challenges is not a sign of weakness; indeed, it is a sign of maturity. I have enormous respect and admiration for start-up teams that persevere and that esteem has only increased these past twelve months as I have witnessed some remarkable acts of courage, altruism, leadership, and of great teamwork. In this season of Thanksgiving, I think this year’s may be particularly poignant. Even in tremendously tough moments, I am humbled and blessed to be able to work in an industry that, despite its many faults and shortcomings, can still bring out some of the best in people.

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