You Can Do Too Much Due Diligence
It's Monday, time for another lesson I've learned in the venture capital business. Today I will tell a story that I love telling. It has some of my favorite people in it.
Back in 2004, early in my blogging career, I heard about a service that had just launched called Feedburner. It provided a number of useful services for a blog's RSS feed. So I went and signed up and AVC became one of the first users of the service. I immediately liked the service and the idea. So I contacted the founder/CEO Dick Costolo, who has gone onto bigger and better things. I told Dick that I was interested in making an investment in Feedburner. My friend Brad Feld was also talking to Dick about the same thing so we decided to do the investment together.
As part of our investment process, we do a bunch of fact gathering/checking work that is called Due Diligence in the vernacular of the VC business. So my partner Brad Burnham and I put together a list of leading blogs and online publishers who had popular RSS feeds at the time. I think there were a dozen or so publications on that list. It included Weblogs (Engadget), Gawker (Gawker), NY Times, and a bunch more. We know most everyone who ran those operations so we called them.
What we heard was surprising. Not one of them was willing to hand over their RSS feed to a third party for analytics and monetization. We were very surprised to hear that and thought a bit about it. But, we decided, we could not invest in something that the big publishers would not support. So regrettably, I called Dick and told him we had to pass and why. Brad Feld went ahead with the investment and Feedburner closed their round without USV.
About six months later I ran into Dick at an industry conference. We decided to grab lunch together and during lunch he said to me "you know those dozen publishers you called?" I said "yes, what about them?" He said "every single one of them is on Feedburner now."
I was pissed. How could that be? So I said to Dick, "Would you consider letting us into that last round we walked away from." He said "No, but I will let you invest at a 50% increase in price". We did that and became an investor in Feedburner. And that worked out well when Feedburner was sold to Google a few years later.
So what did I learn from this lesson? First, trust your gut. I was using Feedburner and knew it was a very useful service. I felt that others would see that too. They did, but it took some time. Second, I learned that a service can get traction with the little guys and in time, the big guys will come along. I have seen that happen quite a bit since then. And finally, I learned that you can do too much due diligence. It's important to talk to the market and hear what it is saying. But you have to balance that with other things; the quality of the team, the product, the user experience, etc. You cannot rely alone on due diligence, particularly early on in the development of a company and a market.