From Guy Kawasaki at the American Express Open Forum blog
Here’s how most entrepreneurs approach venture capital funding raising. I call it Plan A. It’s a plan and an outcome that no one talks about but happens all the time. I’ve been on both sides, so I should know.
Step 1: the entrepreneur cogitates: “Let’s raise $1-2 million so we can focus on programming and marketing and not worry about raising money. We’ll hit all our milestones and then go out for another $5 million in two years and get acquired or go public soon after that.” Believe it or not, many companies raise the $1-2 million and sometimes more because venture capitalists compete for the deal.
Step 2: the entreprenur fantasizes: “Our most conservative forecast is one million users in the first six months. We need to scale to prepare for this, and the reason why VCs gave us money is that they want us to scale and win the land grab.”
Step 3: the product is late, and the dogs don’t eat the food. After six months, there are 10,000 users, not one million. The company has scaled up its expenses but for no reason. Money is tight, but the VCs are still clueless and accustomed to initial projections being off by orders of magnitude.
Step 4: Unbelievably, the company is still able to raise a second round of $5 million. Life is good. The entrepreneur “knows” that things are going to pick up so she scales up some more to prepare for the “hockey-stick” growth curve that coming soon.
Step 5: Another six months go by, and there’s still no viral explosion. (To continue the hockey analogy, the handle, not the blade, is touching the ice.) The venture capitalists that the entrepreneur thought were true believers and BFFs (best friends for life) go to Demo and see three products that do the same thing that appear to be further along.
Step 6: Out of the blue, the lead-dog venture capitalist calls up the day after a partners meeting and says, “We just don’t see how you’re going to make it. We want to give your company a ’soft landing’ by merging it with our online dogfood company. And we’ll call some executives we know at Yahoo!, Google, and Fox Interactive to see if they’re interested. We want our money back before you burn through it because my partners think this has gone on too long.”
Step 7: The entrepreneur hangs up the phone in a state of shock. A week ago in a board meeting, no one said anything about shutting down the company. She thought that her investors were getting a little antsy but were fundamentally still behind her. She calls the investors “stupid, arrogant bastards who don’t get it” in her staff meeting–conveniently forgetting that she’s missed three years of forecasts by 90% and has burned through $3 million.
Step 8: The company rapidly implodes. No one wants to merge it with another dog in the venture capitalist’s portfolio, and no one at Google, Yahoo!, or Fox Interactive is interested. This is a fundamental fact of companies: they are bought not sold. That is, an entrepreneur or investor can seldom call up logical buyers and get a deal done. All an entrepreneur can do is create a good company and pick up the phone when a buyer is calling.
The company is sold for pennies on the dollar for what little assets (intellectual or physical) that it has. Some money is returned to the investors. The management team toys with two ideas: first, buying the company from the investors, but it quickly realizes that it created a dog that’s not worth buying. Second, suing the investors for not fulfilling their fiduciary responsibility to the company, but when the lawyers laugh at this idea, the team gives it up too.
As readers of this Open Forum blog, I want you to be open to another way. I call this Plan B. In this plan, you take very little if any venture capital until you need capital to expand, not create, your product. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: You dig, scratch, and claw yourself to $100,000 of funds from your friends and family. Maybe you work as a YCombinator company. You take no salary. You live with your parents, and you keep your day job at Microsoft. You hope your spouse doesn’t get laid off. You have no office, but work virtually and meet your co-founders at Starbucks if you have to. Everything you use is Open Source or shareware.
Step 2: Rather than trying to boil the ocean (”the mobile sector”), you boil a tea kettle. Rather than paying to attend high-end conferences, you hang out in the lobbies of the hotels where the events are and meet the same people for free. Rather than hiring a PR firm, you suck up to bloggers and hope they cover your product. Rather than buying booth space, you get on Twitter and use it to gain a reputation for your product.
Step 3: You’re late with your product too (because everyone is late), but you’re not burning $250,000/month, and you don’t have to tell increasingly greater lies at monthly board meetings. Finally, you release your prototype. TechCrunch covers your release because you wrote Mike Arrington a compelling one-paragraph message that you sent on a Friday afternoon because you know he reads email on weekends.
Step 4: This is where the miracle occurs–lo and behold, people like your product. (Truly, miracles have to occur whether you’re bootstrapping or venture-capital funded. It’s just that if you’re bootstrapping, there’s more time for the miracle to happen, and a smaller miracle suffices.) Month to month, you’re showing 10-15% growth, and monetization, praise God, has started.
Step 5: Now you have options. First, you can contact venture capitalists with a company that’s already shipping to raise capital to expand your business. This is a very different discussion than raising capital to build a product. Second, you can continue to bootstrap and grow by using your cash flow. Three, you can pick up the phone and agree to meet with Google, Yahoo!, Fox Interactive, or any other company that has noticed you.
Many readers of this blog are not tech entrepreneurs, but the merits of Plan B are the same for almost any type of business. You can try Plan A as long as you realize that the hard work begins after you raise venture capital, and you will need a bigger, faster miracle to make everyone happy. Or, you can just believe me: “Plan B, don’t leave home without it.”