Venture Capital is Broken, Let’s Fix It!
Those who know me would probably not describe me as an overly wordy person, but when I read Jevon’s post and had so much to say that it wouldn’t all fit in the comments section, so I decided to write it up here.
“The title is “Why Startups Will Save Canadian Venture Capital”, and it doesn’t let anyone off the hook. It isn’t a criticism, but instead it is an analysis and a call to action for both Angels, VCs and Entrepreneurs. Things are pretty busted up right now and it is time to start talking about what we need to do to make a difference.” — Jevon MacDonald on July 16th, 2008
I, for one, am ready to stand behind you Jevon, and accept your call to action. It’s up to us, the Canadian tech community, to fix this. Nobody else is going to do it for us.
I just got back from a tech event in LA called Twiistup. It’s very similar to our Vancouver based event, Launch Party. I met all sorts of VCs, Angels, and Entrepreneurs from the LA tech community there. Surprisingly, they reminded me more of Vancouver than I had expected. They are a small, tightly connected and highly supportive group who shared the same exact problems as we do. What I learned is that just because they’re in California, doesn’t make them part of Silicon Valley. I spoke with one person at great length about the exact issues that we are experiencing as a small, non-valley, aspiring tech center. It was as though I was a shrink and just articulated his frustrations with LA as if I was reading his mind. I explained to him our model for Bootup Labs and how I feel it’s a big step toward solving these problems. His response was simple, but so simple that it helped to clear my mind “It’s time to stop talking about it and just DO IT!”
That’s the attitude shift that needs to occur within our community as well, but the good news is that I feel it happening already.
So, Let’s get started… First, we’ll break down the problem:
Problem (where we are)
From where I stand, in the trenches, I can see the problem very clearly. The problem is that there aren’t enough new entrepreneurs starting companies because they need money, and there isn’t money because there isn’t enough entrepreneurs who can get far enough along to interest investors. To be clear, the problem is not at the later stages, it’s at the very earliest stage, as explained so well by Jevon’s presentation. I’m eager to hear any comments from anyone who disagrees with this assertion.
Desired results (where we want to be)
To have created the equivalent of a perpetual motion machine of new tech deal flow. At first, it spits out many small fundable companies which can exit in the $20M-$80M range. These are wins for Founders and wins for VCs. Hey a win-win! Those founders then re-enter the ecosystem, personally flush with cash and ready to, both, be an inspiration to new entrepreneurs, and also take a bolder risk on that $100M-$1B idea. Some will leave after being acquired by a US company, which is great! We haven’t taxed or created any regulatory barriers that would prevent companies from leaving our Province. Because of this and the high quality deal flow, our eco-system attracts entrepreneurs and investors from all over the world to build their company in our supportive environment. We gain more than we lose. Our community competes on a global stage with ease.
Strategy (Solution to the problem)
So, now that we understand where we are, and where we want to be, we can focus. We need to start by breaking the catch 22. We accomplish this by feeding the bottom of the food chain — cultivating it. VCs and Angels should invest in their deal flow, and government and universities have a lot to gain by helping as well. Startups have always supported the VC industry, and the VCs reciprocate, albeit secondarily. Startups are first and will always be first; It’s our role, and how we earn the title “Entrepreneur.” So, doesn’t that make the VC dependent to Startups? Let’s face it, if entrepreneurs stopped starting companies, VCs would eventually die off, but if VCs stopped funding entrepreneurs, it wouldn’t stop companies from being started, it just may slow it down. Point and case: PlentyOfFish, Club Penguin, Elastic Path are just a few examples of Vancouver based Internet companies who haven’t taken a dime of VC money and are only three of the west coast’s biggest and most recent success stories. It’s simply where VCs exist in the food chain, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Investors are starting to realize that supporting, enhancing, and cultivating deals at the earliest of stages is in their own best interest. Doing so will enable them to play to their strengths, which is to invest only after the companies have achieved a certain level of maturity and need a larger amount of money to grow. In fact, it just may be what saves the Venture Capital industry. And these days it’s a CHEAP hedge.
Next, we need to celebrate failures and re-up our investment in founders with the passion and will to try, try, try again.
Finally, we need to start the perpetual motion machine. We do this by investing in the community around us, encouraging smart people who have great ideas to give it a shot. Also, we reach out to our networks in Silicon Valley, Europe, and other parts of the world and offer support to come to Canada to build their companies.
Tactical plan (Executing on the solution)
Break the catch 22
- Create a facility that allows ideas to be tested and formed into fundable companies. – DONE
- Raise money from angels, institutions and governments who benefit from such a facility. (Share in the risk.) – IN PROCESS
Start the perpetual motion machine
- Assist first time founders with business model formulation, and basic business operation skills. – IN PROCESS
- Test idea in the marketplace. Get customers. Prove it.
- Introduce the company to the investor community for larger growth financing.
- Distribute excess proceeds to shareholders.
(Hopefully it’s obvious by now that I’m explaining a lot about what Bootup Labs’ does. But, we’d absolutely welcome some competition. The more people help to build the local ecosystems, the better it is for everyone. And we’re really competing against other areas of the world anyway.)
This plan does require a bit of a paradigm shift in the way we think:
It requires some changes to the common definition of what it takes to be an entrepreneur. The entrepreneur should be able to build something first and then ask for money later. That’s what separates the founders who will do whatever it takes, from the less committed, thereby reducing the risk for the investor. Right? Maybe not. Maybe a person’s ability to take a personal financial risk is not a prerequisite to building a valuable company. Maybe the person who tests the idea doesn’t have to be the risk taker. If the product is accepted by customers/users, isn’t that all that matters? One VC I worked with used a term “founderitis” which I interpreted as a founder who thinks they know it all, isn’t willing to take advice, and makes poor decisions based on of fear of losing control. Maybe we can avoid founderitis by removing the old process of natural selection and replacing it with a new one.
SIDE NOTE: It should be noted, that the last thing I want to do is create any more animosity between founder and funder than there already is. VCs play a vital role in boosting our economy and helping our tech community compete on the global stage! But, It’s a relationship that requires mutual respect and balanced terms. Both entrepreneurs and investors need to master these skills, and if you’re one of these people, and the first thing you wanted to do when you read this was forward it to your investors or founders, respectively, then you’re the problem! Look to yourself and make sure you are helping the other side succeed. Make sure there is enough incentive left on both sides to stay engaged. Don’t “control” something out of fear that the other side is going to screw up. After all, you will get what you focus on.
The old VC model is simply broken for companies in the digitally distributed technology sector of tech. The problem though is that there are still huge exits in that space, and will be for the foreseeable future. Internet, casual gaming, mobile and new enterprise 2.0 deals no longer require the capital that they used to. VCs simply couldn’t manage the size of their portfolio if they only invested $100k into each company. It also means it’s easier to get companies off the ground and tested, and much harder for VCs to pick the one who will win. But, one thing that will never change is that VCs will always compete over really great deals, or said differently, Startups who are fundable will always be able to pick and choose who they take money from. That’s why the added services that a VC can offer, (connections, credibility, advice, etc) will make or break if they get good deals. This is how we we will attract the Tier 1 VCs out of the valley to syndicate with the local investors which juices the ecosystem at the upper end of the food chain and just makes everyone happy.
Anyway… I don’t see failure. It’s not even a possibility. I am diligent about pushing doubts out of my mind anytime I’m tempted to consider them. I have no time or patience for anyone who is skeptical. Vancouver WILL be a globally recognized tech center. It’s a fact! “It’s time to stop talking about it and just DO IT!” together.
If that’s not enough. We’re actually late to this game. Other regions have already figured this out and have working models running. TechStars based in Boulder, Colorado (~12% the size of Vancouver), for example, started up last year and helped 10 companies get started. 8 out of 10 have already closed subsequent VC rounds. How about not being late for once Canada? It’s time to show some leadership.
|Location:||Washinton, District of Columbia, United States|
|Founded:||December 1, 2007|
LaunchBoxDigital is a Washington, D.C. based startup incubator that launched in early 2008. It has a similar model to Y Combinator – they invest at the earliest stages of an idea, and take a… Learn More
|Location:||Mountain View, California, United States|
|Founded:||April 1, 2005|
Y Combinator is a venture fund which focuses on seed investments to startup companies. It offers financing as well as business advice and other opportunities to 2-4 person companies looking to take a great idea to a product. Y Combinator looks for… Learn More
|Location:||Boulder, Colorado, United States|
|Founded:||August 1, 2007|
With the motto “the geeks shall inherit the earth”, TechStars is truly motivated to getting good ideas off the ground. TechStars is a seed fund similar to Y Combinator. It offers $5,000 per founder to companies that make its list for up to 3… Learn More