I’ve been thinking about two themes that have generated a lot of discussion lately. The first is a growing sense that we are in a period of weak innovation; that Silicon Valley (and the rest of the US tech ecosystem) is broken, and that most of what’s being invented today is incremental, with no real innovation taking place. The second is strong focus on capital efficiency within the technology startup world.
At this point, given both the trends in web development and the macro economy, it’s practically a race between the entrepreneur pitching and the investor being pitched as to who will bring up how capital efficient the business is. The large majority of companies we see these days make a point of how capital efficient their models are, and the majority of investors (VCs and angels alike) are quick to dismiss companies that are viewed as capital inefficient.
Let’s step back for a moment and talk about what capital efficient means, and then we can get to the heart of the question. Capital efficient, in its simplest form, means you can accomplish a lot with a small amount of capital. And of course if you stop there, it sounds like an unadulterated good thing. More for less, right? And as a first-order question, I think the answer is yes. Doing more with less is a good thing.
But the second theme contextualizes the first for purposes of our question. We are in a period where much of the technology innovation taking place is in “soft technology”, be it software, web services, technology-enabled services or data businesses. And while it’s certainly an enabling environment that so many of the tools required to create these businesses have become commodity and free, there is an increasing concern that people are simply using free, easy tools to create slightly better versions of things that already exist.
Because how many of the really innovative technology companies throughout history were actually capital efficient? Whether we’re thinking about Edison Electric or Google, Amgen or Intel, Nvidia or Nucor, we often find that companies that really transformed industries with new technology or approaches took a large amount of capital and significant time to achieve it. And while these are clearly cherry-picked data points, I think that even on the web most of the really significant, innovative companies have taken in quite a bit of resources along the way.
I was recently on a panel with a friend of mine who’s an angel investor. And what shocked me was when he said that his group was looking primarily to invest in businesses that could, from a dead start, achieve profitability on significantly less than a million dollars of capital. And while, on its face, this sounds amazing – who wouldn’t want to invest in businesses like that? – another part of me really had to wonder, can you build anything interesting or important if that’s the hurdle you establish at the outset? Would any of the companies who have significantly raised the innovation bar have fit that screen, back then or now?
So I don’t think there’s a clear answer – we at RRE Ventures are clearly going to continue to seek businesses that can accomplish their goals with as little capital as possible, because it’s essentially obvious to do so. But I also agree with the criticism that “Web 2.0″ has been at least in part an exercise in excessive capital efficiency, and that people were building incremental products and services with no real innovation in the hope of a quick flip or tuck-in acquisition. In the back of my head, I’m still going to be thinking about opportunities to create something really transformative, even if the road is a little longer and tougher.