One of the more insidious clichés of the venture capital business is the so-called “golden rule,” to wit that “he who has the gold, rules.” Alas, it’s a rule that too many less experienced entrepreneurs think is, well, golden. It’s not.
The problem with the golden rule is that it is premised on the notion that start-up success is mostly a function of access to capital. Now, when you are sitting in the proverbial garage and running out of money to keep even the lights burning, it is, I suppose, understandable to think that capital is the one indispensable mediator of success. But that is the thinking of ordinary folk. Entrepreneurs are made of sterner stuff – or at least the ones who earn the sobriquet are. Because while capital may be a necessary part of entrepreneurial success, it is not sufficient. Far from it. Ultimately, capital is like fuel in a NASCAR race: something you have to have, and you have to manage carefully – but ultimately it’s the driver (the entrepreneur) and the team/car (assembled and empowered with the entrepreneur’s vision) that wins the race (that makes the business a success). It’s as much about vision – more really – than it is about gold.
Entrepreneurs – even in places where gold is scarce, like here in Wisconsin – must remember that as necessary as investors may be to accomplishing their business objectives, they, the entrepreneurs, are equally as necessary to the investors if they, the investors, expect to accomplish their investment objectives. Because there is another rule of startup success besides the golden rule; let’s call it the “vision” rule. He who has the compelling vision, rules – because without a compelling vision no amount of gold will deliver the goods for either the entrepreneur or her investors.
Now, the vision rule can be just as insidious as the golden rule if taken out of context. Then again, if a prospective investor wants to play that kind of game, well, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Smart entrepreneurs, though, and smart investors, don’t live in cliché land. When a prospective investor implies that without capital an entrepreneur’s vision is worth almost nothing, a smart entrepreneur doesn’t get defensive but rather parry’s with the equally valid (and equally limited) notion that without the entrepreneur’s vision the investor’s capital isn’t going to produce the kind of returns that the investor is looking for, either. Or, to put it another way, either party – the one with the vision as well as the one with the gold – can stop the game before or during the match by taking his ball and going home.
The entrepreneur who understands the vision rule should not abuse it – any more than the investor who understands the golden rule should abuse it. But when an investor does abuse the golden rule – i.e. when an investor argues that the entrepreneur’s vision is worth next to nothing without the investors gold – the entrepreneur should remind the investor (gently if possible, but more forcefully if necessary) that without the entrepreneur’s vision their would be nothing to invest in. In practical terms, when the investor tries to shift the ground of the valuation discussion to what the vision would be worth without the investor’s gold, the entrepreneur should counter that no, the debate is really about what the valuation is when the vision and the gold come together. If the investor won’t go there, well, that is a pretty good sign that the investor thinks too highly of himself, or too little of the entrepreneur – or, perhaps more likely, both.