The Profit Motive

I had an interesting conversation with a friend who operates a traditional business (not tech, not venture backed, not “growth”) last week. He buys a lot of software from tech companies and he observed that not one of them operates profitably. And that makes him a bit uncomfortable as he has always operated his businesses profitably. He mentioned to me that when he has taken capital from investors he has paid them back in full in less than a year each time, from the profits that the business is generating.

It got me thinking that there is something about tech, particularly venture capital-backed tech, that allows us to operate for what seems like forever without a need to generate self sustaining profits.

This can be a fantastic way to generate value when the opportunity is large enough (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, etc). But it is not a fantastic way to generate value when the opportunity is constrained, either by a smallish market size (TAM) or by a ton of competitors (little to no barriers to entry) or a number of other factors.

Value is generated when the capital required to get a business to sustainability (usually positive cash flow, but I will include exits here) is meaningfully less than what the business is worth when sustainability is reached.

As the capital requirements go up, because of sustained losses year after year after year, the business needs to become worth ever more money at sustainability.

The mistake I think we make in the startup/tech/VC sector is that we look at things like Google/Amazon/Facebook/Twitter, or more recently Uber/Airbnb/Slack, and we think that every business can execute the same playbook. The sad truth is that not every business can execute that playbook and, as a result, many startups consume way too much capital on the way to sustainability and value is lost, not created.

The never ending question that founders and management teams and boards face is whether to invest for growth (aka lose a ton of money) or work towards profitability (but constrain the growth of the business). It seems like every board I am on and every company in our portfolio is always asking this question.

Where I come out on this issue, and always have, is that the growth has to be responsible (positive unit economics on growth spend) and that the path to profitability needs to be well in sight. I would add to those two constraints that a management team ought to be able to get a business profitable in a pinch without killing the business, if necessary. Clearly these “rules” should not apply to very early stage companies. They become relevant and possible once a business has a growing customer base and revenue stream.

I think very few companies in our portfolio and any VC firm’s portfolio will pass these tests right now. Some do but not many. We have a few companies in our portfolio that are operating profitably. We have a few more that are in operating with profitability well in sight and could get there in a pinch without hurting the business too much. But the vast majority are burning money like its water and there is plenty more where it came from.

Perhaps it is true that there will always be money to fund burn. Or perhaps it isn’t. But even if there is endless capital, many founders and teams will wake up one day and realize that all of that burn they accumulated is now a hurdle they have to overcome. And many won’t overcome it.

The profit motive is what makes capitalism work. Businesses are ultimately valued as a discounted set of future cash flows. Positive cash flows. If you can’t generate profits in the future, your business will not be worth anything. So profits are key. And yet we don’t seem to value them in the tech/VC/startup world very much. Maybe we should.