It's the Economy, Stupid

Wow, so two weeks ago I wanted to write about technology and business. And I still do (and will). However, there comes a time when an adjustment needs to be made, and for me that time is now.

The economy is in the tank with no end in site. Asian markets dropped 9% overnight and the European markets took a battering until the coordinated move of central banks moved to adjust interest rates around 4am this morning.

New York City at Night

Banks are closing left and right and the government is bailing not only the banks out, but also commercial entities. In the last few days, no fewer than three people I know have lost their jobs.

People are scared, and rightly so. This is the darkest hour in recent history, rivaled only by 9/11.

Last night on FriendFeed, my friend and colleague Robert Scoble was fretting about the downward spiral. Scoble, to his credit, was trying to work the fear out of his system. Some people felt he should step up and be a leader and inspire confidence, while others felt his pain and lamented with him.

For my purposes, I’m scared as hell, but I’ve chosen to be confident. This is not a false confidence. This is a confidence based in reality and historical context.

Look, folks. Things are going to get worse before they get better. I like Jason Calacanis’ point in in one of his most recent newsletters entitles (The) Startup Depression:

Depending on your DNA, getting your ass kicked is either complete
torture or deviantly rewarding. Truth be told, I like getting my ass
kicked because it makes me angry, motivated and focused. If I look
back on the couple of moments of success I’ve been lucky enough to
have in my life, they all seem to come after a good ass-kicking.

The darkest hour is”“in fact”“right before the dawn.

I’ll also never claim to be an economist, but I read and listen to smart economists and money-people. I look at evidence they provide and I run it through my bullshit filter and what comes out the other side gets stashed in my collective. I reconcile conflicting data and try to understand those conflicts.

Here’s what I (think) I know.

Human nature is all about patterns. When a pattern changes abruptly, it takes us out of comfort zones and can sometimes induce panic. It happens when you lose a job. It happens when you meet your girlfriends parents for the first time. It happens when you transfer into a new school. And it happened when the market started selling off at 500 points a pop.

In the case of the market, 500 points looks big – and it is – and the ramifications for someone like me or you who are not traders and don’t understand the nuances of the market are psychologically intimidating.

Fear breeds a lack of confidence. A lack of confidence breeds fear.

Because humans are a people of patterns, after a few weeks of major drops on the market, a pattern and a cognitive comfort level sets in. Investors begin to see opportunities instead of challenges. Bargain buyers go thrift shopping and a rebound begins.

In my investment armchair, I see the end in sight. We are not there. We are going to see lots more before it turns up. But, my instinct tells me we are nearing a bottom. That doesn’t mean things turn around overnight.

In fact, I expect a lot more people to lose their jobs. The web sector has been largely immune, but will probably get walloped hard too. I spoke yesterday of staying in a self-employment situation if you can and staying in a stable 9-5 if that’s where you are now.

Which brings me full circle. We need leaders. We need people who are going to step up and instill confidence. Fred Wilson did this yesterday and I want to see more from a fiscally minded individual like him (he’s a VC). Scoble is still trying to process it all, and that’s expected, but I hope he will come to grips and start inspiring people at some point.

All of the proverbial A-listers need to step up their games right now and be leaders. In the days to come, I’m likely to write a series of posts on leadership. In the months to come, I’ll also take a much bigger look at the economy in the web space and outside. In World War II, homemaking women went to work in the factories to support the men in battle. It’s our responsibility to take the positions we have and do good in the economy and for our space.

So, though I’ll continue to write about the web, business, technology etc – I’m also going to be talking economics. I don’t know everything, but what I learn I hope to pass back. We will get through this because we have to.

DC Needs a Fred. Any Takers?

FredWilson cropped.pngProfiled in Sunday’s New York Times, Union Square Ventures‘ Fred Wilson is a legend of contemporary venture capital — a title previously reserved for West Coast luminaries like Moritz and Doerr, and maybe a couple others. At Web 2.0 Expo in New York last week, Wilson was greeted with cheers usually reserved for celebrities. . . or rock musicians.

We don’t need a celebrity here in DC. But it would be great to have a venture capitalist with a fraction of Wilson’s passion, commitment, and drive. It’s not so much that he’s an investing legend. . . what’s amazing is his sheer devotion to his companies, his followers, and everything Web 2.0.

By his own admission, Wilson’s had his share of bad calls. But most of that goes back to The Bubble, when he was at Flatiron Partners. I was at a startup (liveprint.com) pitching Flatiron in 1998. I met Wilson briefly back then, as well as the firm’s the most vocal partner, Jerry Colonna; the partner who ended up leading our investment was Bob Greene.

Flatiron’s highest-profile investment was probably deliver-to-your-door service Kozmo.com. I remember getting a Kozmo.com hat. Kozmo raised $100M, before its legendary implosion. I left liveprint.com after the first Flatiron (~$3M) round, before an additional ~$40M bought all those Aeron chairs, and the chairs were acquired (along with the rest of the company) by Kinko’s in a transaction so complicated that no one knew what they had until a check arrived in the mail.

According the NYT profile, Flatiron wrote off a third of its investments.

But Wilson returned, humbler and smarter. To me, he’s the quintessential early-stage VC. Why? Because he’s so focused on his space, and passionate about his companies. True, he’s been accused of shilling for them . . . but from an entrepreneur’s standpoint, the benefits of having such a high-leverage, high-profile investor on your team is literally worth millions (not to mention what you’ll save on not needing a PR firm.)

Just watch Wilson work. He uses nearly every one of his portfolio company’s products — twitter (6,571 follow him @fredwilson), disqus, tumblr. Add these to his blog (A VC), and he’s one of the most prolific posters on the planet.

DC needs a Fred.

Or maybe a Josh. Josh Kopelman, though less vocal than Wilson, has put his money where his mouth is, on behalf of the venture fund he founded just outside Philadelphia, First Round Capital. In fact, First Round has made no fewer than 57 early-stage investments, nearly triple USV’s portfolio.

Or maybe a Bijan. Or a Brad.

And this isn’t just about attitude. There are clear metrics here. Several mid-Atlantic firms talk about their ‘seed’ programs. But the litmus test is: name the ones routinely doing investments in the $250k – $1M range. For most firms, the funds are just too large for the math to work — invest a $250M fund $500k at a time, and you end up with 500 startups in your portfolio. That’s a helluva lot of board meetings.

Which is why First Round usually doesn’t take a board seat. (Most VC firms have a six-seats-per partner limit.) This is about volume (or more accurately, statistics). Quicken the cycle of investment, trim the due diligence, invest more with the gut . . . and let the odds work in your favor over a larger statistical sample. Though time will tell, based on initial exits, it seems these guys are doing pretty well.

So while it’s good to see them on the East Coast (Silicon Valley has sufficient players that none is noteworthy) — and Baltimore, DC, and Northern Virginia are certainly within their flying radius — it’s just not the same as having our own local VC hero. I mean, how sad is it that a local meetup was organized for DC Fans of Fred? (Full disclosure: I was there, and met some great, like-minded entrepreneurs.)

And perhaps more than anything else, these guys get Web 2.0. Unlike most VC firms, USV is not only not afraid to invest in pre-revenue companies, they will invest before a revenue model is even figured out (twitter, tumblr, disqus). So who out there will claim this mantle? Anyone? Anyone?