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This post originally appeared last week in the Wall Street Journal as part of their Accelerators Program in answer to the question “When and how should you wind down a failing business.”
Some entrepreneurs and investors subscribe to the creed “failure is not an option.” I’m not one of them.
I strongly believe that there are times you should call it quits on a business. Not everything works. And — even after trying incredibly hard, and for a long period of time — failure is sometimes the best option. An entrepreneur shouldn’t view their entrepreneur arc as being linked to a single company, and having a lifetime perspective around entrepreneurship helps put the notion of failure into perspective. Rather than prognosticate, let me give you an example.
My friend Mark’s first company was successfully acquired. After being an executive for several years at the acquirer, Mark decided to start a new company. I was the seed investor, excited to work with my friend again on his new company.
Over three years, this new company raised a total of $10 million from me and several other investors over several rounds. The first few years were exciting as Mark launched a product, scaled the company up to about 40 people, and tried to build a business. But after two years we realized that we weren’t really making any progress — there was a lot of activity but it wasn’t translating into revenue growth.
In year three we tried a completely different approach to the same market with a new product. Mark scaled the business back to a dozen people in an effort to restart the business. Over the course of the year we tried different things, but continued to have very little success.
By the end of the year there was $1 million left. Mark cut the company back again — this time to a half dozen people. He started thinking about how to restart for a third time on the remaining $1 million.
Mark had never failed at anything in his life up to this point. He was proud of this, and the idea that he couldn’t at least make his investors’ money back was devastating to him. But he was stuck and started exploring creating an entirely different business, in a completely different market, with the $1 million he had left.
Mark was newly married and was working 20 hours a day. We were talking at the end of the day during the middle of the week and he was so tense, I thought his brain might explode. I told him that as his largest investor and board member, I wanted him to turn off his cell phone, take his wife out to dinner, have a bottle of wine, and talk about whether it made any sense to spend the next year of his life trying to restart the business with the remaining $1 million.
After resisting turning his phone off, I insisted. I told him that I gave him permission to decide that it wasn’t worth the next year of his life at this point and that as his largest investor it was perfectly ok to shut the business down and declare it a failure. I then said I was hanging up the phone and would talk to him in the morning. Click.
He called me back early the next morning. He was calm. He started by saying thanks for giving him permission to consider shutting down the company. This had never occurred to him as an option. During dinner, he realized he needed a break as he was exhausted. He wasn’t coming up with anything to do to reinvent the business and was just desperate to figure out a way to pay his investors back.
By morning, he realized it was time to shut things down, return whatever money was left, and take six months off to recover from the previous three years while he thought about what to do next.
We gracefully wound the company down and returned five cents on the dollar to the investors. Mark took six months off. He then spent six months exploring a new business, which ended up being extraordinarily successful. And he’s now very happily married.
Failure is sometimes the best option if you view the process of entrepreneurship as a lifelong journey.
I was in a board meeting yesterday at BigDoor where we were benchmarking our current numbers against a couple of recent studies on SaaS-based companies including the 2011 Pacific Crest Private SaaS Company Survey. Several of the things we looked at were averages; the Pacific Crest data was presented as medians. I subsequently had a short conversation in the evening where someone asked me about what I thought the mean was across our investments on a particular metric; I responded that the mean was meaningless – we should be using the median (which I then gave the person asking the question.)
I see people use average all the time when they should be using median. I also find people constantly confusing average, mean, and median. Most of the time when people say “mean”, they mean (oops – I couldn’t help myself) “arithmetic mean” which is the same as “average.”
The Accelerator Data presented on Seed-DB is a great example that entrepreneurs should be able to quickly relate to (unlike the image I included in this post, which I find completely impenetrable.) Seed-DB presents both Average and Median. If you sort by Average $ raised per company, you get one picture. If you sort by Median $ raised per company, you get a very different picture. Now, there’s a lot of missing or estimated data for many of the accelerators, so that impacts the validity / accuracy of the data set, but it’s a great example of how average vs. median changes what you see.
As an entrepreneur, I encourage you to think hard about whether the right thing to compare a particular metric to is median vs. average. While average can be useful, I generally find median to be a much more enlightening number.
This first appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Accelerator series last week under the title Don’t Believe the Hype.
Every year, at this time, I get a flurry of requests for my “predictions for 2013” or “exciting, hot, new trends for 2013 that I’m looking at.”
I respond with “I don’t care about trends and my only prediction is that one day I will die.”
This is usually not a particularly satisfying response to whomever sent me the request. One of two things happen: They either ignore my response and drop me from their prediction request list for whatever article they are writing. Alternatively, they press a little further, usually with something like “c’mon, you’re a venture capitalist — you must have an opinion about what is going to be hot next year.”
Actually, I don’t. I have never been a short term investor, and I don’t think entrepreneurs should be short term thinkers. Creating a company is really hard and it almost always takes a long time. Sure, there are occasional short term success stories — companies founded two years ago that get bought for $1 billion, but these are rarities. Black swans. Things you don’t see in nature and can’t count on.
So don’t. If you are an entrepreneur and following a trend, you are too late. You want to be creating the trend that other people are following. And then you need to work your butt off to stay ahead of them. Every single day. For a very long time. Through many product cycles and multiple trends.
As a VC, I feel exactly the same way. At Foundry Group, we have a set of well-defined themes. We believe there will be investment opportunities in these themes for the next ten to 20 years. We are constantly tuning the themes, learning from our investments, and exploring new themes. But these themes aren’t trends and we don’t predict anything around them, other than they are constructs in which we think great companies can be created and built.
So I don’t really care about the predictions for 2013. I don’t care about hot new trends. I don’t care that some people think the world is going to end on 12/21/12. I take a much longer view. And I encourage you to as well.
While I was on vacation Founder Labs announced their New York program this summer. I’m a big fan of Shaherose Charania and Baat Enosh and agreed to help support the program along with Fred and Joanne Wilson and a number of other folks that support entrepreneurship in New York.
Founder Labs fits in the “pre-accelerator” category – it’s aimed at people that want to experiment with entrepreneurship. It doesn’t require a full time commitment, but it is a very intense program for five weeks. This year’s program is focused primarily on entrepreneurs interested in mobile applications. While Shaherose and Baat are still tinkering with the formula, they are off to a great start and I’m glad to see them trying it out in New York in addition to San Francisco so they can get some perspective on the dynamics in different geographies.
Applications are now open for the New York program until 4/20. While there is a modest cost for the program, scholarships are available so don’t let that slow you down.
Over the past few months I’ve had a number of people ask me if I know of any TechStars like accelerator programs for people creating non-software / Internet products and services. Some of the obvious vertical markets have been around cleantech and bio / life sciences but some of the more subtle ones have been around government services and non-profits.
I’m interested in examples of accelerator programs in the areas such as cleantech, bio / life sciences, medical devices, university R&D, inner city development, natural foods, women, and non-profit entrepreneurship. I’m also interested in people in these areas that already providing leadership in their entrepreneurial communities, especially in Boulder, Boston, Seattle, and New York (the cities where TechStars operates.)
If you fit in this mix or know someone or an organization that does, can you leave a comment on this post?