Great Missed Expectations

Several times in my career, I’ve excitedly joined up with a partner — usually technically adroit, often visionary, always inexperienced. Each time, it seemed a natural fit. We were complementary — I brought a wide variety of tech-marketing and business skills, and most important, experience. And we got along really well. So why didn’t it work out?

The simple answer is . . . missed expectations.

Rushing to the altar (startup/wedding analogies are cliché, but true), partners rarely take the time to share their vision, sort out their roles, and agree to a process. (What, you haven’t discussed your childrens religion? How about whether you even want to have children?)

Here are a few missed expectations I’ve experienced:

I had raised more than $30M over the course of several companies. Co-founder’s expectations: I would make a few calls, and funding would come flooding in.

It never works that way — even entrepreneurs that generate home-run returns to VCs will walk a hard path to funding their next idea. Money-raising takes dozens (if not hundreds) of pitches, six to twelve months at best, and more likely, years. Especially these days. But we never talked about it. I wrongly assumed that the founder understood the game. In fact, I thought we were cruising along just fine.

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The co-founder had several successful products under his belt. My expectations: He would deliver the product on time and under budget.

Well, that would be great. Truth is, it hardly ever works that way. (Why am I always surprised by this?) In fairness, fashioning great technology that has never been done before is hard. Often, it depends on invention. Ever try to plan an invention? But even taking into consideration all the Laws of Software Development, things go wrong. They take longer. They need to be redone. Meanwhile, I’m making commitments to customers, or investors, or the media. And, I’m embarrassed.

But it became such a touchy subject, we couldn’t talk about it. (You know, just ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist — like that Giant Squid in the Kitchen.) The lesson again: communicate. Doesn’t matter if your company is just two people, meet weekly — formally, same time each week — and revisit the schedules and goals. Above all, be honest.

I’ve served in Bus Dev, Marketing, and Corporate Development roles. Co-founder’s expectations: I would do all the things the co-founder didn’t want to do.

This actually wouldn’t be bad — I’m not the coder, or the chip designer, and it’s always better, IMO, when founders are sufficiently complementary that they stay out of each others’ sandboxes. But it can easily erode when there’s insufficient trust. In the course of going my about the “˜mundane’ business and corporate-development activities, co-founders invariably leapt into my sandbox. And when founders start to second-guess each other is when things can deteriorate.

Which is why I emphasize putting together a Business Plan. It’s not so much about crafting a document, as articulating exactly what we’re going to do. Technical founders are especially good at hand-waving how to make money, because “˜great products always do.’ But working on The Plan forces the conversation, and the drill-down.

Typical issues surround the business/revenue model, IP protection, partnering strategy, and the pyrophoric distribution of equity (Investors are going to get how much? Why are we giving this new hire 10%?). I’m not suggesting that my view was the only view — chances are, the founder knew his/her space well, and had some pre-conceived notions about go-to-market strategy, and what partnerships/alliances to forge. I only point out that it’s imperative to devote time — early on — to these potentially explosive topics, to avoid a breakdown in your relationship.

Much as I’ve sworn to avoid these and other missteps, it still gets down to a question of “˜fit.’ The right roles at the right times, a healthy, collaborative working partnership, shared passion and dedication to the project and the vision. Isn’t that what we all want out of entrepreneurial life?

Which is why I continue the quest — for the partner, gig, and team that needs me as much as I need them.

Do you really want to work in Venture Capital?

I have heard this from many people I have met “I really want to be a VC”. First, why are you asking me when I am not one and don’t have a desire to be one? Let me direct you to some people in the industry and a few who left it to get a good perspective on the business. So I went ahead and asked the question “do you think people should really become VC’s”. Surprisingly, many said no. Why? I will tell you.

The origins of this post were motivated by Seth Levine’s post today How to get a job in Venture Capital revisited his earlier post, How to become a VC and it seems to hit on the same advice that I got from my VC friends in the business.

The gist of it seems to revolve around either going to a top B-school, being a banker or consultant, working in a startup or starting one of your own.

So instead of telling you how to become a VC, let me take a different angle and tell you why you don’t want to be one.

Everyone acts like they want to be your friend but all they really want is your money

When you are an entrepreneur you go to networking events in the hope of meeting investors, you leverage VC networked lawyers and accounting firms to get you introductions. What are you there for? To get money. As a VC you are just on the other side of the table and now when you go to dinner parties you are faced with the “Doctor’s dilemma”. That is when they find out you are a doctor and then they tell you something hurts them and expect a free diagnosis and prescription write up. As a VC you might suffer through people with “hey, I have this business looking funding” or “I have a really great idea, would you fund it?” crap. Just tell them you sell insurance and they will stay away from you.

You get stuck in board meeting hell

As a VC you will sit on boards to meet with the company on a regular basis to see if they are meeting their milestones and vote on critical issues (i.e. stock options, new key hires). The only problem is that this most of your interaction with a company and as a former entrepreneur you will have a tendency to want to be more involved. You can’t. You must keep the deal flow coming through for the firm to make the investments that will create good exits for great payoff to the fund’s limited partners. Yeah, I think that kinda sucks too.

You only really work day-to-day with a startup when it is having trouble

As I mentioned above, you are really only working with them in a board capacity when things are going well. When things start to go bad you have to spend more time and usually have to be the bad guy. You might have to kick out the founder, recommend budget cutting strategies, etc. Yep, that sucks too.

You have to read the most insane business plans

The average VC firm sees about 2000, that’s right 2000 business plans a year. Do the math. If you are an associate you have read around 50-100 per week depending on the size of your firm as an associate. You have to filter the crap from the interesting and then further find the fundable in the interesting ones. Many people blindly send plans that don’t fit the investment size or focus of the firm so they are immediately tossed. Still, you have to find the ones that are good and then have a phone conversation with them. If the chat goes well, they will come and pitch you so can report to the partners about the ones that they should really sit in on. If they end up sucking it reflects badly on you.

Do you like Excel?

When you join a firm as an associate you are analyzing deals from every perspective tearing apart an entrepreneur’s business model to see if it is actually not full of shit. You are also looking at it from various bad-to-great scenarios to understand the risk exposure the firm would be taking in the deal. I hate excel and the thought of living in it just makes me shudder.

You have to work insane hours to close a deal

You work insane hours as an entrepreneur but there is a long term payoff that can be huge. To get a deal done especially if it is syndicated or there is competition from other firms means you have to work insane hours to get it closed. If you don’t you risk losing the opportunity and looking like a lazy idiot to the partners. What is the upside? Maybe a bonus when the fund exits? Maybe. At least as an entrepreneur you can have a little more control over getting a big pay day.

Limited Partners are worse than investors

Investors in a startup expect risk and are betting on you to succeed. They hedge their bets and usually 7 out of 10 deals funded crash and burn. The remaining 2 get a good exit and the remaining one you hope will be the next google. Limited Partners have a long term outlook (7-10 years) for a fund to complete. But boy do they expect results. You might return a solid 20-30% return which is fantastic for any other investments but they might just bitch. Especially if the previous fund had better returns. Yeah…I would love to have that to deal with.

Are there any VC’s in the house?

Many people read the blog and hopefully there are some who are VC’s and could comment. It would be especially great if there are a few out there that have been in the business and left it.

Business Plan Series: Part 10 – Appendicies

We have reached the end of our Business Plan series with this final entry on “Appendicies”. Our next series will dive into the marketing plan for your business so be on the lookout for that next week.

So what exactly is in the appendix section of the business plan?

In short, it is the kitchen sink of things that are relevant to your business plan that add value for the reader. Here is a short list:

  • Photographs of products, equipment, facilities, etc.
  • Patent/Copyright/Trademark Documents
  • Legal Agreements
  • Marketing Materials
  • Research and/or studies
  • Operation Schedules
  • Organization Charts
  • Job Descriptions
  • Resumes of Key Personnel
  • Additional Financial Documentation

Photographs of products, equipment, facilities, etc

Here you want to include scanned photos of your physical products (if you have them), equipment you have that is important to the function of the business and the facilities you have your company. Facilities include production plants, corporate headquarters and any branch offices.

Patent/Copyright/Trademark Documents

In your business plan you discuss the value of your IP and this is where you include supporting documentation including patent applications and any copyright/trademark filings that support your statements in the business plan.

Legal Agreements

There are many legal documents you have for the business, but the most important would be your operating agreements, shareholder agreements, stock option plans and critical contracts that you mention in the business plan.

Marketing Materials

This is essentially your collateral materials that you use to sell your products/services. It should also include screenshots of your web site.

Research and/or studies

Here you can include any white papers you have written to cover research you have conducted, grant studies you have completed and any additional marketing research you have completed to support the case for your business.

Operation Schedules

Whatever you are creating there must be a schedule behind it to complete the product and/or roadmap it out. If you are building hard goods there are facilities operation schedules to meet production forecasts. If you are building software products you will have development schedules to bring the product from prototype to beta to production. That will be critical to match the forecasts in your business plan that you have projected for launch and subsequent customers coming online with the system.

Organization Charts

You might have put a small chart in the management section of the plan but this is where you can expand on the entire corporate structure including identification of key hires throughout your business plan’s timeline.

Job Descriptions

Linking to your organization chart, you will need to write job descriptions for all of the staff, current and future, in your company. This will help you identify any overlap that might be there but it will also show the reader that you have thoroughly thought out who needs to be working for the company and what they will be doing for your business.

Resumes of Key Personnel

Since you put smaller bios of your management team in the management section, this is the place to put the full resumes of the team to back up their bios and allow readers to get the full background of the team to feel confident in their inclusion in the business.

Additional Financial Documentation

Beyond the standard documents in the financial section (cash flow, balance sheet, income statement) you might want to include tax returns for the business for the last three years (if you have them). This should also include key elements in your financial model like the revenue sheet to show how you will met the projections you set out. You should also include expenses and salary costs so that readers know you are market competitive but not going crazy (as in too high or too low) to support the numbers you have projected.

Starting our next series – The Marketing Plan

Our next series will dive into a good supporting document for your business plan but it is much more internal. This is a critical document that will guide your sales and marketing function to create the right materials and identify the best campaigns for maximum customer acquisition. We will also discuss setting up your sales processes and sales organization to be the most effective.
If any of you out there have written a marketing plan I would love your thoughts, opinions and war stories to help our readers looking for advice and guidance in this area. Please e-mail me at steven_fisher at yahoo dot com.

TECHcocktail DC – The DC Tech Scene is definitely back

I have seen my share of networking events. Back during the dotcom era it was full of open bars and crazy companies with the latest software to change your life in some way. Then it was all about buying stuff on the web or a portal for something or another.

After the bubble burst most people were just trying to hold on and all that you had a choice between in the DC area were NVTC (Northern VA Tech Council) and Potomac Officer Club events. NVTC was very government focused and who mostly showed up were service providers (I have the 100’s of insurance and lawyer business cards to prove it). POC events were big events with well known people but not alot of good networking.

One good networking event I liked was the Tech Prayer breakfast but that was only once a year. What most of us were left with was going to conferences, usually not here, to get our networking on and find fellow entrepreneurs and real innovative thinkers.

Lately, there has been a change in the winds here in the DC area. With events like PodCampDC and Social Media Club’s events we are starting to see our cutting edge tech scene finally re-emerge. Last Thursday night it was totally confirmed with the TECH Cocktail DC event. It was held at MCCXXIII (1223) in DC. A swanky place that is over-priced for my usual weekend partying but this event had cheap drinks (thank you drink tickets) and about 300 people.

Below is a picture of the scene at the height of the evening.

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While there have been many events that have drawn 400 people, this was different. Almost everyone was doing something startup related that was really cutting edge. There were social media people there (Technosailor and me included), innovative startups and actual investors looking to network.

There were also a great group of sponsors with great products to demo. Here is a great list from Jimmy over at EastCoastBlogging:

AwayFind – a product aimed at helping combat the email problem by letting your contacts get in touch with you via an online form.

iGala – a digital photo frame with a touchscreen interface that connects directly to Flickr and Gmail to stream photos to the frame like a slideshow.

Loladex – offers local recommendations from your trusted network of Facebook friends.

Odeo – launched a new beta verision which offers both search and personalized content (audio and video) recommendations.

Voxant – a free licensed content offering for publishers which offers a pageview based revenue share to anyone that embeds the content on a their site.

WhyGoSolo – a new social networking site aimed at helping you to create spontaneous new connections so, as its name implies, you won’t go solo any longer.

A huge amount of thanks go out to Frank Gruber and Eric Olson who do the TECH Cocktails around the country and they need to do it more than once a year here.

The vibe around this region is changing and since we will never will be Silicon Valley and never want to be, it is fantastic to see that there is a refreshed ecosystem of entrepreneurship here in the region.

Photo courtesy of jgarber

Editor’s Note: Some comments don’t seem to apply to this post as viewers of a show I was on were instructed to leave comments on this blog to get an invite to BrightKite. These comments will be approved but do not necessarily go with this post. Sorry!

The Jolly Green Bubble

Earth Day was yesterday. I my college years all that meant to me was that the band Green Day was coming to town to play. Now it means “save the planet, if it can make us money”.

“Greed, I mean Green is Good”

CNN, the New York Times, Business Week, Advertising Age, “Good Morning America,” the Sundance Channel, Reuters, the Discovery Channel, Marketplace radio, and a slew of local papers. Newpapers? You kill trees to create a huge insert about Earth Day. Is that not the stupidest thing you have ever heard. And a surprising number seem to have some variation of the same two questions:

“Is all of this focus on the greening of business merely a fad? When will the bubble burst?”

Green tech and marketing means green dollar signs for companies like GE, Disney and BP. NBC has created this load of crap called “green week” for their TV shows which is a thinly veiled attempt to sell their “green” products sold by their parent company GE. Disney announced a new “green movie” division which will capitalize on people’s concern with the environment so they can get more ticket revenues and DVD’s sold. BP is all about alternative energy these days and while they have been the most progressive when it comes to solar and natural gas they are really doing it to hedge their position as oil prices rise and people are ready for an alternative that must come within the next five years. I mean have you filled your tank lately? Bought a loaf of bread? It is crazy and things definitely must change.

There are motivating factors that support the argument that “Green is Good”. Here is the bullet list from a post by Joel Makower:

  1. The problems aren’t getting any better.
  2. The political will is finally emerging.
  3. Consumers are waking up.
  4. The supply chain is gaining power.
  5. The environment has become a fiduciary issue.
  6. The bar keeps moving.
  7. Companies are moving beyond “sustainability.”
  8. More companies are telling their stories.
  9. Clean technology is changing the game.
  10. There’s money to be made.

The bubble is growing

I am the farthest from a bleeding heart liberal, tree-hugging, save the polar bears person you will find. Although Polar Bears are just so darn cute I am not turning my air conditioner down during a heat wave in the DC area this summer to save them. I am also not a cold-blooded oil junkie who thinks that this global warming thing is a myth. I just think that the real intentions of being concerned for our environment has caused the investment community to pop its head out of its butt and see greedy potential to fund investments in everything “green”.

Since most of us survived the tech bubble we have learned our lessons and despite the Web 2.0 wave causing a mini investment bubble, we still have kept most of our sanity because the IPO market really hasn’t returned and the M&A wave is slowing down too. Most who couldn’t get jobs when the tech bubble burst left the industry and you guessed it, become real estate agents and mortgage brokers. As some people bounce from bubble to bubble, we will probably start seeing “Environmental
Consultants” and “Green Advisors” to, and pardon this one, “advise and recommend to companies how they can become more green and offset their impact on the environment”.

With the rising price of oil we are near a tipping point where many technologies are on par with the cost of traditional fuel so it will start to make economic sense in some cases. Where it doesn’t make sense is to stop growing wheat so you can grow corn for Ethanol (which takes 2/3 of a gallon of gas to produce a gallon of ethanol) causing wheat and rice shortages around the world. Right now in developed nations people spend 10% of their income on food and in developing nations it is around 80%. We have enough food to feed the planet but we just can’t afford to get it there. If we start diverting resources in the name of “green living” to make ourselves feel better the ramifications might be worse than we could imagine.

Oh crap, the Government is getting involved

The state of the government getting involved is a mess. I think Thomas Friedman sums it up well. “Some lawmakers are pushing corn ethanol from Iowa, either because they hail from that area and are looking to give more welfare to farmers by wasting money on an alternative fuel that will never reach the scale of what is needed, or because they plan to run in the Iowa caucuses. Others are pushing huge subsidies to turn coal into gasoline, because they come from coal states. Those who don’t come from Michigan want higher mileage standards imposed on Detroit, while those who come from Michigan prefer to continue their assisted suicide of the U.S. auto industry by blocking tougher mileage requirements.”

So you ready to call me “chicken little” yet?

You really call this “Green Investing”?

In the venture community we are seeing new funds popping up dedicated to “Green Investing” which in a diversified portfolio is good for funding innovations that will only help our world. What is really scary is many funds without the proper background to invest in this sector are jumping all over anything with buzzwords like “alternative energy”, “biofuels” and “eco-friendly”. VC’s like John Doerr cry when they talk about the environment and are dumping millions into companies that do things like nano-solar and grid optimization technologies. Hedge funds like Winslow Green Growth Fund are seeing their portfolios transform with the rush of new companies and new investments.

I hear a popping sound….

There are two popping scenarios:

1. Green will index within the mainstream and become ubiquitous.
It sticks. People keep pushing corporations to deeper levels of sustainability. Greenwashers fall on their face because it’s an unfulfilled promise, and then they mean it and real change happens. Green becomes ubiquitous. Smaller, plucky green companies struggle to regain any competitive advantage. When everything is green, green means nothing. (The study of green language is already there.)

2. It’s a fad and will vanish back to the margins of our society.
Green Fever goes away because it is a trend, a fad. News stories drop off, the chasing arrows shrink smaller on the back of packaging again, people stop bragging that their letterhead is 100% FCS Certified and Acid Free. Some small vestiges will still remain, and progress will have been made. New products were launched and the consumers will be more aware. But the trend died… popped.

Final thoughts…

I do believe we are economically in trouble as a country and I do believe that we are beginning to see the beginnings of a “green bubble”. However, as with bubbles like the tech bubble we saw massive innovation that benefits us to this day. So while there will be many bull**it artists and charlitans convincing investors they can solve the planets problems there will be innovation that will benefit us and the entire planet. I would just caution people on two things – don’t invest in every “Green IPO” when the fundamentals don’t work and don’t transfer your career into this field unless you are already in it or willing to passionately stay in it the rest of your life. We don’t need armies of unemployed “green consultants” trying to come back to tech in five years when the bubble bursts, because it eventually will.

Please leave your comments below, I want to hear from the evil oil people, the treehuggers and especially the Polar Bear lovers.