One of the things I’ve always struggled with as an investor in high growth tech companies is the tension between getting profitable vs growing more quickly. It has become a central tenet of tech growth investing (in both the public and private markets) that growth is more valuable than profitability and you can always focus on profits once you have “captured the market.” This leads to behaviors like investing heavily in sales and marketing to increase the growth rates of a business beyond what it can grow at “organically.”
A few months ago, I blogged about a formula I came across at a board meeting a while back that says your year over year growth rate plus your pre-tax operating margins need to be at least forty percent. Meaning you can grow at 100% per year and have operating margins of -60%. Or you can have flat growth and have 40% operating margins. Or you can grow at 20% per year and have 20% operating margins. There is no magic to the forty percent target, but I do like establishing some relationship between acceptable levels of profitability (or losses) and growth. Too many times I have seen companies invest in growth for growth sake without having any constraints or sanity checks on that investment and the losses that result from that investment.
We have worked with/invested in a few super high quality companies over the past decade that did not make this tradeoff. They got profitable early on in the life of their company and then were able to use their profits to reinvest in the business and continue to grow at very high year over year growth rates without having to burn money and raise capital. Indeed.com is probably the best example of this group but we have had a number of them and they are all special companies that I have enormous respect for.
These experiences lead me to question the orthodoxy in the world of technology that says if you are not investing heavily in growth (and losing money), then you are not maximizing the potential value of your business over the long haul. It doesn’t have to be that way. Now maybe you need to have a very special company that has real structural competitive advantages in the marketplace to avoid this tradeoff. Or maybe you just need to be a really sharp and experienced business person to be able to do this (that’s how I would describe Paul and Rony, the founders of Indeed.com, for example).
I also think the profit motive, generating more revenues each year than the expenses you are spending to do that, is a really valuable constraint on a management team. It forces them to think creatively and logically about the investments they want to make. It roots out bad investments in people, product, sales, marketing, and elsewhere in the business and helps to maintain a lean and mean highly functioning organization. If you don’t need to make money because there is plenty of capital available to fund your losses and you are “investing in growth”, then you can also avoid making the hard decisions that focus an organization and insure a high quality team where everyone is pulling their weight.
I don’t want to come off as a positive cash flow freak. It is our business to invest in companies to allow them to run operating losses in order to get a product in market, grow the business and team, and create value for the founders, management, and shareholders. Most of our portfolio companies lose money and we are used to reading income statements with lots of red on them and staring at runway calculations showing when the money runs out.
But I’m a bit sick and tired of the objective of every operating plan I see is to get the business to a point where it can raise money at a much higher price. That’s nice and it’s how the VC/startup game is played. But at some point I’d prefer to see an operating plan that has the objective of getting to sustainable profitability. And I do mean sustainable.
Because, as I said earlier, some of the very best companies we have worked with at USV got profitable early on in their life and maintained profitability while revenues grew100% year over year for a number of years. It can be done. Maybe the reason that many entrepreneurs don’t think it can be done is nobody is telling them it can. So I’m doing that.