My Thoughts On “Startup Depression”

I received a bunch of requests yesterday to address Jason Calacanis’ "startup depression" email that was sent out over the weekend. Alley Insider had the full text of it online but they took it down yesterday, apparently at Jason’s request. Fortunately Jason also chose to put it up on his blog so we can all read his thoughts. Thanks Jason.

I think Jason’s email is a great "wakeup call" for everyone in the startup business. Life is going to get tougher for everyone in the US and possibly in all parts of the world that are tightly linked to the US economy. I think startups fall into that description no matter where they are based.

I particularly like Jason’s "10 specific things you can do" section. In that section he urges entrepreneurs to get focused, get better, get leaner, and ultimately to get profitable. That’s spot on.

But I do think Jason’s missing one important point in his email. It’s not the venture backed startups that are going to struggle the most. Jason wrote:

It’s my believe that the economic downturn will be much worse than it is today, and that 50-80% of the venture-backed startups currently operating will shut down or go on life-support (i.e. 3-4 folks workingon them) within the next 18 months.

Make a list of every Web 2.0 startup to raise an A or B round and cross 80% of them off the list, because they will not make it to their next round of funding or profitability.

All startups are going to have to batten down the hatches, get leaner, and work to get profitable, but the venture backed startups are going to get more time to get through this process than those that are not venture backed. Here’s why.

Venture capital firms are largely flush with capital from sources that are mostly rock solid. If you look back at the last market downturn, most venture capital firms did not lose their funding sources (we did at Flatiron but that’s a different story). If you are an entrepreneur that is backed by a well established venture capital firm, or ideally a syndicate of well established venture capital firms, then you have investors who have the capacity to support your business for at least 3-5 years (for most companies).

Venture capital firms will get more conservative and they will urge their portfolio companies to do everything Jason suggests (and more), but they will also be there with additional capital infusions when and if the companies are making good progress toward a growing profitable business.

If you go back and look at the 2000-2003 period (the nuclear winter in startup speak), you’ll see that venture firms continued to support most of their companies that were supportable. The companies that were clearly not working, or were burning too much money to be supportable in a down market, got shut down. But my observation of that time tells me that at least half and possibly as much as two/thirds of all venture backed companies that were funded pre-market bust got additional funding rounds done post bust.

So if you run or work in a startup company that is backed by well established venture capital firms, take a brief sigh of relief and then immediately get working on the "leaner, focused, profitable" mantra and drive toward those goals relentlessly.

If, on the other hand, you are just starting a company, or have angels backing you, or are backed by first time venture firms that are not funded by traditional sources, then I think you’ve got a bigger problem on your hands. It’s not an impossible problem to solve, but you have to start thinking about how you are going to get where you want to go without venture funding.

I say that because in down market cycles, it’s the seed and startup stage investing that dries up first. It happens every time. Seed/startup investing is most profitable early in a venture cycle and late stage investing is most profitable late in a venture cycle. It makes sense if you think of venture capital as a cyclical business and it is very cyclical. Early in a cycle you want to back young companies at bargain prices and enjoy the demand for those companies as the cycle takes hold. Late in a cycle you want to back established companies that need a "last round" to get to breakeven and you can get that at a bargain price compared to what others paid before you. I’ve been in the venture capital business since 1986 (that was a down cycle) and I’ve seen this happen at least three times, probably four times now.

There’s another important reason why seed and startup investing dries up in down cycles. Venture firms don’t need to spend as much time on their existing portfolio companies when things are going well. A rising market hides a lot of problems. But when things go south, they tend to become inwardly focused. I believe we are headed into a period where venture firms will spend more time on their existing portfolio and less time adding new names to it.

This has gone on longer than I generally like in a post. So I’ll end by saying that I don’t think we are in a "depression" in startup land. We are in a down cycle driven by a bad global economy. I think the web and information technology is one of the few bright spots in an overall gloomy economic outlook. So if you are working on a web technology company, be happy that you aren’t working for a bank, a brokerage firm, an automobile company, or in many other industries. The tools and services that are made in the web technology business are only going to increase in demand over the next five years. But we are going to have to service that growing demand with leaner and more focused businesses and it’s time to start thinking more about profitability and how you are going to get there.

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