Experience in the venture business teaches many lessons. One that is often painfully learned is very easy to see from a distance but hard to see when down in the trenches. There are easy ways to make money and there are hard ways.
At one level this is intuitively obvious, but at another level, it’s clear that a lot of folks (founders and investors alike) don’t necessarily see the world through this lens, and as a result, a lot of businesses get started that are just not really geared to creating excellent investment returns.. At this point, we must make it clear that making money (i.e. generating profits), is not the same as successful deal exits. Many companies come in the door to our firm with clear paths to go from $10mm in revenues to $50mm in revenues and they are much less interesting as investment than some companies that have no revenues and fuzzy plans for profit generation but can solve large problems and will be highly sought after. This may seem confusing, but lets dig a little deeper. It really comes down to markets and competitive positioning..
What’s the easy way to make money? The easy way is the traditional way: solve a problem that lots of people have (or a very big problem that a few people have) and offer them a really good reason to pay you lots of money for what you made or do (we might call this a “value proposition”). Hopefully you’re doing it in a way that isn’t being done by a dozen other companies, and in a way that isn’t easily replicable by others. The easiest business in the world is one where you have something everyone needs and you’re the only one that has it. So if you could manage to situate yourself over the world’s biggest undiscovered oil well, you’d be set – you have something people need and (milkshakes not withstanding) you are very hard to displace. To use an example closer to home, a startup came to us looking for money. They had four people and an idea. The idea was a technically elegant way to create additional money for e-tailers with little downside. They had nothing built and two pilots lined up. They wanted a high valuation and they got many competing term sheets. They also had $0 revenues and it was unclear when they would really start to make money. Why was this deal “the easy way?” Because it was a hard ROI, created money in a sector that needed profits, was reasonably hard to copy, and whatever e-tailers used it had a competitive advantage. Therefore it would either get big very fast or get bought very quickly no matter what the financials looked like.
A friend recently asked, when told about this way of looking at companies, whether Google was an easy model or a hard one. And the truth is – Google was a hard model that turned into an incredibly easy one. If a startup came in the door and said, “we’re going to become the primary destination for search on the web, then sell ads against that search activity”, my guess is they’d have a hard time convincing us (or anyone else) how they would accomplish the first part of that, since changing consumer behavior around search is extremely challenging and expensive. However, if Google came in the door in 2001 and said, “We are already the primary destination for search on the web – now we’re going to sell ads against that search activity”, it would be moderately obvious how easy it would be for them to make money at it. Because the hard part of the model – building a huge stream of consumer activity – had already been accomplished.
So with that backdrop in mind, we’ve been looking at new deals that come in the door explicitly with this question in mind – does the company have an easy model or a hard model? This has particular resonance around B2C companies. While a lot of people in 2009 view the web as synonymous with “software”, B2C web companies that give their service away and monetize with ads (or other behind-the-scenes streams like lead generation) are media businesses, not software businesses. Those that charge for web services are software businesses. So – salesforce.com is a software business while Yahoo Finance is a media business. And startup media businesses are challenging, especially today. The really tough part is how many of them there are. As previously mentioned, there was an explosion of B2C web companies a couple of years ago, along with an explosion of ad networks launching to try to monetize them. This crowding, along with the current collapse in display ad rates, makes a web-based media startup (especially one starting from a dead stop) a very hard way to make money.
Let’s look at another example to compare the startup that sold to e-tailers above. A different startup came in selling a useful but inexpensive enterprise solution. It had $5mm in revenues, a clear pipeline for more sales up to $10mm, a very solid and earnest CEO and management team, solid reference accounts and well known VC backers. This is the “hard way.” Because this is a specific industry with large players that dominate the competitive landscape, the exit possibilities are few. The existing players are large and trade at about 1X revenues. Even if the startup struggles and really succeeds for the next five years, it will not be large enough to remain a standalone company and there will only be two to three potential acquirers who will not have the stock multiples to pay much more than the money being put into the company. And this is if everything goes right.
Without turning this into a portfolio survey for RRE, one thing we’ll note is that many of the companies in our portfolio that are continuing to do well even throughout this difficult economic period are those that have easy models – they make something someone (either businesses or consumers) need (or at least really want) and sell it in a relatively lightweight way. They are also answering unique problems and are changing the competitive paradigm of the industries in which they compete. And this learning will likely inform how we look at new opportunities that come in the door.