The Team Turnover Paradox

I recently had the pleasure of attending a presentation by a very successful Wisconsin-based high impact entrepreneur. His talk included some thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of building a high impact start-up in “between the coasts” locales with limited access to venture capital. One big advantage, he suggested, was lower employee turnover, which led to lower recruiting, training, and administrative expenses.

He is certainly right about the cost savings of lower team turnover, and thus likely right about the overall positive impact of low turnover on his business. In terms of the regional economy, though, I think his conclusion points more to a problem – low levels of high impact entrepreneurship and investing – than any sort of regional advantage.

I’ve always been intrigued by paradoxes, business and otherwise. So, for example, most venture investors favor jurisdictions, like California, that don’t enforce non-compete agreements. At the same time, when they do a deal in a jurisdiction, like Massachusetts, that does enforce non-competes, they are more than happy to employ them.

Team turnover is another business paradox. On the one hand, pretty much everyone agrees that high employee turnover is a bad thing for any particular business. On the other hand, places with the most dynamic high impact entrepreneurial and investing sectors – Silicon Valley being the obvious example – generally “suffer” from very high turnover rates. What’s not so good for any given tree, it seems, can be pretty good for the forest.

Or, at least, forests where new growth is constantly crowding out the old growth. Places where the “creative destruction” that Joseph Schumpeter said was the distinguishing virtue of capitalism, was most active, as a plethora of “next big things” is always nipping at the heels of yesterday’s headliners.

When you look at turnover in places with substantial high impact start-up sectors, what you see is a lot of folks looking for new opportunities to change the world, as opposed to folks looking for some marginally greener grass in the next break room over. Sure, folks at Apple may move over to Facebook or Google for a better salary, but the real allure for hot-shot employees with outsized ambitions to create wealth and change the world is the opportunity to latch on with what just might be the next Apple, or Facebook or Google. It’s about taking big risks for big payoffs, not chasing the marginal dollar.

And so, as I see it, while the high employee turnover in places like Silicon Valley surely poses tactical challenges for individual businesses, be they start-ups or tech titans, it is a clear strategic advantage for the region taken as a whole. The data, in terms of rates of economic growth, wealth creation and innovation, pretty clearly suggest that the costs of higher team turnover, while no doubt real, are more than compensated for by the benefits. That having a workforce always on the lookout for the next big opportunity – and willing to jump at it despite the risks – is the stuff of outsized innovation and economic performance.

And thus the paradox of high employee turnover. It may be bad for you and me, but it can be very good indeed for us.

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Sorry, But Who You Know Still Matters

We live in an age where “democratization” is all the rage in the world of startup investing. An age where rent-seeking gatekeepers such as venture capitalists are going to be put out of business by Crowdfunding, ICOs, and more generally the mass dissemination of information across the world via the internet. Pretty soon, so the narrative reads, everyone will have access to the best deals, and a new entrepreneurial golden age will emerge. The only thing that will matter is what you know, and John and Jane Doe will be driving the Tesla’s previously consigned to the folks on Sand Hill Road.

Baloney.

The problem with the notions that “everyone will have access to the best deals” and “everyone will be empowered to make the best deals” is that neither assertion is true.

On the first score, the people with the best deals will continue to seek out the investors with the best track records and value-add. I mean, if you are really good and have a really good idea, who would you rather have financing your start-up, Sequoia or some guy named Barney and his pals at the country club in Podunk?

As for the second point, evaluating, making, and managing the best deals is about more than having access to them: it is about having the skills, experience, and networks to recognize them and turn opportunity into achievement. Good venture investors are in fact good at something that is very hard to be good at, not something any old Jane Doe could master if only she had access to the same raw material (most if it garbage in any event). Seriously, pick a name out of the phone book and the chances you’ll find a really good high impact venture investing talent is probably about the same as your finding someone who can hit a major league curveball.

I am not arguing that Crowdfunding and ICOs and the internet generally have not changed and will not continue to change the venture capital business. What I am arguing is that those changes will be evolutionary more than revolutionary; that the fundamentals, including the curation of deal flow, will still be very much in play. And that curation will continue to be one of those “guilt by association” situations driven by relationships, not algorithms.

Look at it this way. Most venture investors see far more entrepreneurs and deals than they can possibly give serious attention to, much less invest in. Further, the best venture investors not only see the most deals generally, but the most good deals as well. There is an awful lot of noise in the system. And for pretty much every venture pro out there, the most logical and effective first noise reduction filter is… who that I respect thought this deal was worth my time to look at?

Deals where the answer to that question is “no one,” aka “over the transom” deals, seldom get more than the most cursory review, and as any honest VC with a solid track record will tell you almost never get done.

Will adding more over the transom deal flow – for example via web solicitation or on public Crowdfunding sites – change that? Of course not. An experienced VC will be no more likely to seriously investigate a deal that comes in over a digital transom than a deal that comes in over a traditional transom.

 

None of this means that Crowdfunding and ICOs and the internet generally are not changing the venture business. But the changes are around the margins – more efficient ways to distribute, access and process information. And these changes are lowering transaction costs, which is great for everyone. But as much as there is more noise in the system, the value of getting a curated introduction to a good investor is if anything more, not less, valuable than it was in the past.

And so, discounting the hype and the bad actors in the Crowdfunding and ICO worlds, the large majority of the good deals are mostly being done by professional investors in closed – even if online – syndicates. And by teams that meet their lead investors via an introduction (likely as not a digital one), not the online equivalent of a billboard.

The point, then, is this: if you are serious about getting your start-up funded by investors that know what they are doing, start talking to folks – other entrepreneurs, service providers, other investors – that are known and respected by those folks. Because no matter how much you know, who you know still matters.

Back to the Future in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley came by its name honestly enough: way back in the 60s, 70s and 80s, it was the place where venture capitalists and entrepreneurs turned silicon into computer chips in high volumes and at low prices that astonished the world. I have a chart on my office wall that shows how hundreds of silicon-based chip companies emerged in the Valley in that period, the vast majority of which could be traced to Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory (founded 1956), and Fairchild not long thereafter – the later spawned so many later chip companies that it fairly earned the moniker “Fairchild University.”

The Big Kahuna of the silicon companies in Silicon Valley was and is, of course, Intel.  The company’s x86 chip architecture, launched in 1978, powered the PC revolution and remains to this day by far the dominant architecture in personal computers, laptops, workstations, and even the cloud computing business. It’s even a big player in the supercomputer segment. Name a big chip company and chances are good a big part of its business is x86-based chips. Much the same as the IBM System/360 architecture has dominated the mainframe business since the 1960s. Yes, there is still a market, albeit not so big as it used to be, for mainframes.

The x86 architecture has been so dominant for so long that for maybe the last two decades or so, the venture capital business – a business that owes its current form largely to its role financing all those chip companies way back when – has pretty much stopped funding chip startups. Until recently, that is.

I was doing a bit of research on the current AI revolution (there have been others: folks of a certain age will remember the “expert systems” AI hype in the late 80s) when I found something pretty interesting – well, to me, at least. Over the last couple of years, VCs have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in more than 20 new chip companies. All of which seem to have one thing in common: they are developing chips optimized for AI applications. Chips with non-x86 architectures.

I said I found this interesting. That’s because it suggests to me that while lots of folks are talking about how various tech-enabled and tech-driven revolutions are on the cusp of changing the world for people who use technology, and how to frame that as an investment opportunity, far fewer folks are talking about how those revolutions might change the world for today’s biggest producers of technology, and how to frame that as an investment opportunity. So, for example, while there are plenty of people talking about how AI might disrupt the smartphone business and the personal transportation space, not so many are talking about how AI might disrupt the businesses that provide the components that power those businesses. Who, that is, will be the next “Intel Inside.”

I’m betting it won’t be Intel – for the same reason IBM didn’t follow its System/360 mainframe architecture with something like an x86 architecture of its own. When you are king of a big mountain, and Intel’s is still sitting at the top of a pretty big one, you tend to think more about defense than offense. Protecting your realm, not cannibalizing it. Just ask Kodak – the folks who invented digital photography.

So here is an investment hypothesis: Assuming (and this is a big assumption) that today’s AI revolution will be even nearly as big as the hype suggests, I’ll bet when the dust settles there is a new sheriff in the silicon part of Silicon Valley. Though if you look at where those chip-hungry VC investors have been spending their money, it just might be an out-of-towner.

Is Your VC a Chicken or a Pig? Part II: The Role of the Lead Investor – From Term Sheet to Closing (and Beyond)

In Part I we talked about the critical importance of focusing your fund raising efforts on identifying a lead investor – a “pig” – and reaching agreement on a term sheet with them before you spend significant time lining up “chickens” to “follow” along in the deal. Today, we’ll look at what role your lead investor plays post-term sheet agreement when it comes to getting your deal closed.

The first role of the lead investor post-term sheet is working with the company to build out the investment syndicate: that is, to find and close on chickens/followers. The lead becomes, in effect, a part of your pitch team – albeit, without abandoning its primary role as an arms-length investor/skeptic.

The “selling” role of the lead includes identifying, prioritizing, and even pitching potential followers. That typically includes folks the lead brings to the table from its own network as well as appropriate candidates the company suggests. While the company will still be front and center in pitching chickens, the lead is usually the primary due diligence source for potential followers, both “deal” and “legal” due diligence, and actively shares their own thinking on why the deal is compelling with various chickens.

This dual role, working with the company to build the syndicate while also being the principal due diligence resource for the syndicate, makes managing the company/lead relationship complicated as well as critical. The lead, at this point, wants the deal to happen and is committed to making it happen. But only to a point. The lead’s enthusiasm is tempered by its continuing obligation to act in the best interests of its own investors. In addition, its credibility is on the line with other investors, which is something that can cut both ways in terms of how it reacts to any bumps in the road on the journey to closing.

The lead also manages the “deal” part of the deal: that is, the concerns of followers about the terms of the deal. On that score, the lead should focus on convincing followers that the term sheet is “good to go” as is. Indeed, the company should resist any material changes to the term sheet based on follower concerns, just as it would if the lead was the only investor. The whole point of agreeing on a term sheet was to finalize the material terms of the deal. As a practical matter, one or more immaterial changes to accommodate a valuable follower may be acceptable. Any material changes, though, should be viewed as putting in play changes the company might want in exchange, or even grounds for the company backing out of the deal altogether.

The lead also manages the legal process associated with negotiation of closing documents and related legal requirements. Typically, there is one counsel for the investment syndicate, and that counsel works through the lead investor and is paid by the company out of closing proceeds from the financing. (If a follower wants to have an independent legal review, they should pay for it, and that counsel should work through the lead and its counsel in terms of communicating any concerns to the company.) If a lead can’t persuade followers to work through the lead and its counsel, that’s a good sign that the lead is not up to the job.

Once the deal is closed, the lead is usually the “point” investor for the rest of the investment syndicate. If the investors have a director on the Board, it will usually be someone from the lead investor. (Someone that should have been identified at the term sheet stage). When the company has news to share with the investors – good, bad, or indifferent – the lead is usually the first to get it, and often has input on what to share with the rest of the syndicate, when, and how. As with the period of time from the term sheet to the closing, this dual role of investor/advisor can be complex and must be managed carefully.

Lead investors make deals happen, and typically play central roles even after the closing. Smart entrepreneurs know that raising money is first and foremost about getting a credible lead’s name on a solid term sheet. Be a smart entrepreneur: don’t waste time and energy collecting followers until you’ve got a lead for them to follow.

Is Your VC a Chicken or a Pig? Part I: What a “Lead” Investor is, Why You Need One, and How to Find One

One of my favorite clichés involves chickens and pigs. More specifically, it observes that as interested as chickens may be in breakfast, it’s the pigs that are really committed.

That’s a good way for startup entrepreneurs to think about courting venture capital investors. Collecting a flock of very interested venture investors – chickens – is fine and dandy, but you won’t make much progress towards getting a deal done until you’ve got a pig at the table. So don’t waste a lot of time chasing chickens around until you have a pig corralled. You know you have got a pig in hand when you have a solid term sheet with a “lead” investor inked.

Truth be told, most VCs think of themselves, or at least present themselves, as lead investors. I suppose most probably do lead a deal now and again. That said, though, in any given deal, there is generally only one lead investor. (Co-leads are fairly common, but even in those cases one of the co-leads in fact plays the role of the lead.) That is, one investor who not only wants “in” the deal but wants to “own” the deal.

The first big role of the lead in a deal is to let the relevant chickens know that someone has pig-like interest in the deal. That someone likes the deal enough to put up a big bunch of capital (usually the biggest chunk) and to do most of the heavy-lifting of getting the deal done (which, as we’ll see, is no small thing). That resource commitment, coupled with the signal to the market that a credible (well, hopefully) investor is that serious about the deal, is typically the inflection point when the chickens start getting serious about actually committing some eggs to getting the deal done.

If getting a lead investor lined up is the sine quo non of getting a venture financing done, how do you go about it? Simple. Qualify potential investors as leads before you spend too much time with them. Limit your initial investor solicitations to folks you think are possible leads and folks you think might be sources of referrals to possible leads. When you get a meeting with an investor, if there is any potential interest at the end of the meeting be certain to ask if yours is a deal the investor would consider leading (and if not, can they refer you to any investors who might be).

Step two is to avoid wasting time with investors who are not qualified leads until you have a signature (or handshake) on a term sheet with a lead investor; a term sheet that outlines all of the material terms of the investment. Depending on who the lead is (their reputation in the market), and how big a piece of the deal that the lead is taking (how many other investors with how much more money will it take to fill out the syndicate), agreement on a solid term sheet is the point where most interesting investment opportunities become likely deals.

Next time, we’ll talk about what roles lead investors play after the term sheet is signed.

 

Should You Take Your Startup To Silicon Valley?

I’ve advised many flyover country entrepreneurs that if their sole goal in life is to raise the most money for their startup, at the best price and in the shortest period of time, they should move to Silicon Valley. That is where good entrepreneurs raise the most money in the shortest order and at the best price on a pretty consistent basis.

Lately, I’ve been thinking more about that advice, and while I generally stand by it, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is an important exception: a class of startup entrepreneur that, in fact, is usually better off launching in flyover country than Silicon Valley. The idea of an exception to the “move to Silicon Valley to get the best deal” advice came to me as I started thinking more closely about a corollary to that advice, to wit that if, having moved to Silicon Valley you can’t raise capital, at least you will have found out faster that your startup is not VC-worthy.

It’s that last word, “worthy,” that hit me as needing more thought. Over the last couple of days, it gelled that some entrepreneurs might fail to raise capital in Silicon Valley – not because their startup is not worthy of investment, but because they are not ready to play on that particular stage. In which case, going to Silicon Valley may result in failing to get a startup financed not because it was a bad idea, but because venture capital’s Broadway was not where it should have started out.

Here’s the deal. For entrepreneurs that know how the venture capital business works (in reality, not just in theory); have a track record that suggests real knowledge of what makes the best startups tick; and have meaningful entrepreneur, investor, and service provider networks that include a few solid Silicon Valley contacts, taking their startup to Silicon Valley makes sense. (Again, with the qualification that getting the best deal as fast as possible is the only factor in the decision.) For other flyover country entrepreneurs, maybe not so much.

My thinking in this area was kick started a couple of weeks back when I met with a 20 years-old-ish Northeast Wisconsin entrepreneur who had what seemed like a pretty good idea for an app. With less than $50k, he had taken it as far as 10,000+ users and some very good press. He had pretty much everything you look for in an entrepreneur: vision, passion, integrity, flexibility, an ability to make things happen with minimal resources, and a desire to learn. But, when we talked about the possibility that he should pick up and move to Silicon Valley, it occurred to me that if he did he would most likely be eaten alive.

What this entrepreneur lacks that would be a huge problem for him in Silicon Valley won’t be hard for him to learn here in Wisconsin if (as I am sure he will) he puts his mind to it. He doesn’t know either the substance of the venture capital business or the lingo (which is surprisingly important, particularly when a VC knows you are from the sticks). While he has great entrepreneurial instincts, he has not lived, even vicariously, in the high impact entrepreneurship world. Right now, the number of folks in his network who do have that knowledge and experience, and those connections, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

These may seem like small things, but they are important things and things that pretty much every entrepreneur who gets funded in Silicon Valley has. They are things that folks like gener8tor have made a business out of providing to their portfolio entrepreneurs (and in fact lots of other entrepreneurs). And things that a small but real cadre of Badger folks with that kind of experience and those kinds of networks are eager to share with folks who are otherwise as compelling as the young man I met with several weeks back.

So, if you are an otherwise Silicon Valley-worthy high impact entrepreneur in flyover country, but don’t have a solid understanding of the ways and lingo of the venture capital business, a well-grounded understanding of what separates the startup winners from the losers, and a decent network of folks that have those things that you can leverage all the way to Silicon Valley – don’t go to Silicon Valley. At least not yet. Learn what you need to learn here, connect with the right folks, and when you are ready to play on the Silicon Valley stage, well, decide what your priorities are then.

 

 

Building Your Startup Team: Complementarity and Chemistry

Most professional venture investors believe the best predictor of startup success is the quality of the team. Good teams can and do fail, but as team quality drops below “awesome,” the chances for success drop very fast. Thus the cliché that most investors will gravitate to an “A” team with a “B” opportunity over a “B” team with an “A” opportunity.

There are a lot of reasons team quality is so critical to startup success. The incredibly stressful startup environment is the biggest. Startup teams need to accomplish difficult goals with minimal resources in terms of time, capital, and people. Additional stress accrues as outside forces – competitors, markets, technologies, etc. – evolve and force teams to make significant adjustments, often including basic “pivots” (business model, for example) on the fly.

If the extraordinary stresses of the startup environment explain the importance of getting the team right, they also offer a clue to what makes a superior startup team. At the foundational level, what separates the superior startup team from the merely good startup team is complementarity and chemistry.

Complementarity is pretty straightforward in concept, if not always in execution. Within the confines of available resources (financial) and the constraints of team chemistry (more later), you need to make sure the team includes top-tier players at the mission critical startup tasks (i.e. the tasks that need accomplishing in the current round of funding), as well as the flexibility to successfully “wing it” with respect to important ancillary functions.

The trick to building a complimentary team lies in recognition of, and dealing with, the well-established HR principle that when people get to choose who they work with – or who works for them – they tend to choose people like themselves. Now, if you are a founder, and thus most likely very confident of your own near-perfection, that might not seem like a problem. If you’ve got perfection, why not clone it if you can?

Consider if Apple had been founded not by Jobs and Woz, but by Jobs and … Jobs. If you know the Apple story, you know what a catastrophe a Jobs/Jobs founding Apple team would likely have been.

The bottom line is that however perfectly suited you may be for leading your startup to fame and fortune, building a team of clones is seldom the best way to go about it. Instead, look for people with different skill sets. And as much or even more so, different personalities and perspectives on business, technology, and life. The most successful startups – even those like Apple in the years after Jobs returned from exile that were dominated by a leading personality – build leadership teams with diverse skills, experiences, perspectives, and personalities. Just ask Tim Cook.

And that leads to the second, and harder to execute, aspect of assembling a superior startup team: chemistry.

It’s not enough to assemble a team that “covers the waterfront” in terms of skills, experience and personality. You need to make sure those folks can also form very strong bonds with each other (thus the “chemistry” analogy). Because in the constantly changing world of the startup, relationships between key players on the team are going to be under almost constant stress as company circumstances evolve and people have to adjust to changing opportunities and challenges. As anyone who studies morale in the military will tell you, folks in foxholes are motivated more by their loyalty to the folks around them than to “the cause” as such.

On that last point, one of my favorite quotes from an entrepreneur came when he was asked what he would tell his team at the beginning of his next startup journey. He replied: “Folks, we are going on a very long and difficult journey. On this journey, we will carry our wounded – and shoot the deserters.”

The quality of the team has long been the most important factor for most venture capital investors, for good reasons. As you think about assembling your team, particularly in the early days, don’t make the mistake of hiring folks because they look like you, or because they are a perfect skills fit. Look more for folks who compliment your skills and personality – and that look like the kind of people you want on your side when the going gets very tough. Because it almost certainly will, likely many times.