Start with a great “idea”, write a fantastic business plan, raise capital from angels or VCs, flawlessly execute the plan, and get rich? John Mullins explores a different way…
More than two generations ago, the venture capital community – VCs, business angels, incubators, and others – convinced the entrepreneurial world that writing business plans and raising venture capital constituted the twin centrepieces of entrepreneurial endeavour. They did so for good reasons: the sometimes astonishing returns they’ve delivered and the incredibly large and valuable companies that their ecosystem has created.
But the vast majority of fast growing companies never take any venture capital. Are they on to something that most of today’s entrepreneurial ecosystem – VCs, business angels, incubators and accelerators, and all the rest – have missed?
Claus Moseholm, co-founder of GoViral, a Danish company created in 2003 to harness the then-emerging power of the internet to create and deliver advertisers’ video content in viral fashion, saw no need for external investment. Funding his company’s steady growth with the proceeds of one successful viral video campaign after another, Moseholm and his partners built GoViral into Europe’s leading platform to host and distribute such content. In 2011, GoViral was sold for $97 million, having never taken a single krone or dollar of institutional capital. The business had been funded and grown largely by its customers’ cash.
So, should venture capital be seen as the first port of call for getting your nascent entrepreneurial venture off the ground? Perhaps not. As venture capital investor Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures puts it: “The fact is that the amount of money startups raise in their seed and Series A rounds is inversely correlated with success. Yes, I mean that. Less money raised leads to more success. That is the data I stare at all the time.”
Why raising early VC is a bad idea
Too many of today’s entrepreneurs have come to the belief that the best way to start and grow a thriving business is to come up with a great “idea”, write a fantastic business plan, raise capital from angels or VCs, flawlessly execute the plan, and get rich! Voila! But it hardly ever happens this way, and the vast majority of successful businesses don’t ever raise venture capital. Instead, at least at the outset, and sometimes for the entire journey, they get the cash they need, just as Moseholm did, from revenue – not costly equity – from their customers.
They don’t do so because it’s easier, though. It’s not. They do it in large part because of the unwelcome drawbacks entailed in raising capital too early. Most crucial of them is perhaps that, most of the time, the Plan A that you have so lovingly conceived is unlikely to work, as most any experienced early stage investor, whether a VC or a business angel, will tell you. As Peter Drucker, arguably the leading management thinker of the twentieth century, observed: “If a new venture does succeed, more often than not it is;
- In a market other than the one it was originally intended to serve
- With products and services not quite those with which it had set out
- Bought in large part by customers it did not even think of when it started
- And used for a host of purposes besides the ones for which the products were first designed.”
Do you look forward to explaining to your seed investors why your Plan A didn’t work, as you ask them for more money for your newer, brighter, and inevitably still-optimistic Plan B? I don’t think so!
The drawbacks of raising early venture capital – that is, raising capital before customer demand has been proven with real customer traction – are both pervasive and compelling, having profound implications at every stage along the investment life cycle. Those implications begin to play out during the process of attempting to raise seed capital, continue through the process of building the business, and remain in place for two key outcomes that are at the forefront of every entrepreneur’s mind: the success that is achieved – or not – and the portion of that success that the entrepreneurial team will have held on to.
Let’s consider the drawbacks in more detail.
The distraction factor
Trying to get a fledgling venture off the ground is a full time job, and then some. But so is raising capital, which demands a lot of time and energy on its own. It will distract the entrepreneur from doing the more important work of getting the venture onto a productive path. As Connect Ventures founder Bill Earner argues: “Finding the right customers and getting them to fund your business (constitute) a great step-by-step guide to raising venture capital – build the business first and the investments will follow!”
Pitching vs. proving merit
Raising capital before customer demand is in hand means pitching the theoretical merit of the idea to potential investors, rather than offering the tangible proof that would be available if customer demand were built before raising capital. Why spend your time trying to convince investors to invest, when you could spend the same time convincing prospective customers to buy – or perhaps learning why they won’t, before you burn somebody else’s money! Besides, as customer-funded entrepreneur and investor Erick Mueller recalls: “It’s a lot more fun dealing with customer needs than pandering to investors!”
Term sheets and shareholders’ agreements
Investors don’t like risk any better than you do. If you’re raising money before traction is in hand, so-called “market risk” is higher than if demand has already been proven. To protect their downside, investors will require what are often seen by entrepreneurs as onerous terms. And when the concise prose of the term sheet is fleshed out into the fine print of the shareholders’ agreement, the terms get even worse.
Advice and support
These days, just about every VC investor says: “If you just want money, don’t take it from us. But if you want real value-added in addition to money, we’re the ones you want.” But do most VCs really add value? According to an analysis of historical venture fund returns by Harvard Business School’s Josh Lerner, more than half of all VC funds – ever! – delivered no better than low single-digit returns on investment. In fact, a whopping 80 per cent haven’t delivered 20 per cent returns (or better), a figure that they might be expected to deliver. Incredibly, perhaps, nearly one in five funds delivered below-zero returns, squandering some – or in some cases, all – of their investors’ money.
Given so many fund managers’ not-so-good performance at managing their funds, which derives directly from the performance of the portfolio of companies in which they’ve invested, you would be forgiven if you wondered just how helpful most VCs’ support or “value-add” is likely to be! Unfortunately, given the terms under which they’ll invest in your company, you will very likely be obliged to follow their sage “advice.”
The stake you keep
Who kept the greater share of the value he created, Steve Jobs in Apple or Michael Dell at Dell? It was Dell, hands down. When you raise angel or venture capital early, as Jobs did to fund Apple, you start giving away a portion of the company – often a substantial portion – in exchange for the capital you are given. And that portion grows over time, as additional rounds of capital are raised, diluting you further. Dell, on the other hand, used his customers’ pre-payments for their PCs to fund his startup and its early growth. If you can find a way not to raise capital until your venture’s potential is proven and its risk level thereby reduced, you’ll get to keep a far greater stake than if you raise capital from the get-go. Claus Moseholm and his partners, who managed to go the distance at GoViral without ever raising outside investment, retained their stakes in the business (bar one co-founder, who sold his stake to a growth capital investor) until they eventually sold.
Even worse, perhaps, than the difficult terms, the questionable advice you may get, and the dilution you will incur if you raise capital too early, are the difficult odds faced by companies that do win VC backing. In the typical successful fund, on average only one or two in 10 of the portfolio companies – the Googles, Facebooks, and Twitters of the world – will actually have delivered attractive, and occasionally stunning, returns. Facebook alone accounted for more than 35 per cent of the total VC exit value in the United States in 2012. A few more portfolio companies may have paid back the capital that was invested in them, but most of the rest are wipeouts. In the VC game the very few winners pay for the losers, so most VCs are playing a high-stakes all-or-nothing game. Are these the kind of odds with which you’d like to put your new venture into play?
The customer-funded alternative
“But it is there an alternative to angels and VCs?” one might ask. Indeed, there is. In fact, there are five approaches to building a customer-funded – rather than investor-funded – business that tenatious and innovative twenty-first century entrepreneurs have ingeniously adapted from their predecessors – like Michael Dell, Bill Gates, and Banana Republic’s Mel and Patricia Ziegler.
What Gates and Dell, and many others like them, have figured out is that starting, financing, and growing a company with their customers’ cash, instead of investors’, is a more appealing way to go. “Easy for Gates and Dell,” you might ask, “but could I do it in my business?” In many cases, you can! Here’s how:
- Pay-in-advance models: Bangalore’s Vinay Gupta built Via into the “Intel Inside” of the Indian travel industry. How? By asking India’s mom-and-pop travel agents for a rolling $5,000 deposit in advance in return for real-time ticketing capability and better commissions than the airlines were giving them. Do the maths: signing up 170 travel agents in the first two months gave Gupta nearly $1 million in cash – his customers’ cash – with which to start and grow his business. Via’s revenue passed the $500 million mark in 2013. Growth on steroids! Getting customers to pay in advance is exactly what Michael Dell had done with his early PCs more than three decades ago. And the Zieglers of Banana Republic fame did so, too.
- Matchmaker models: By bringing together buyers and sellers, but not owning what is bought and sold, matchmakers build great companies with virtually no startup capital. For Airbnb, the initial investment in 2007 was for a couple of air mattresses on the founders’ San Francisco apartment floor. By focusing on conventions that were too big for the city’s hotel inventory, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia built their business one step at a time until they got noticed at the United States Democratic national Convention in 2008. VC funding followed, and the rest is history: 800,000 properties for rent in nearly 200 countries.
- Subscription models: Krishnan Ganesh started TutorVista with three Indian teachers and a VoIP internet connection reaching American teens who needed help with their homework. He quickly learned that $100 per month for “all you can learn” – paid monthly in advance – was just what the teens’ parents wanted. When renewal rates after the trial subscription quickly materialized at north of 50 per cent, growing the business was simply a matter of adding more fuel. VC funds provided it, and Ganesh sold the business to Pearson in six short years for more than $200 million.
- Scarcity models: Jean-Jacques Granjon and his partners invented the flash-sales phenomenon by doing something simple for Parisian designer apparel makers who needed to move excess inventory. By collecting immediate credit card payment from his members who responded to the limited 3-day online sales and limited quantity available at discounted prices, and paying his vendors long after the goods had been ordered and shipped, Granjon didn’t need any capital to sell their unwanted styles online and to start and grow what became one of France’s hottest fashion brands, Vente-privee
- Service-to-product models: Claus Moseholm and Jimmy Maymann of GoViral, a Danish company created in 2003 to harness the then-emerging power of the internet to deliver advertisers’ video content in viral fashion, funded their company’s startup and growth with the proceeds of one successful viral video campaign after another. In 2011, after having turned their service business (creating and hosting viral video campaigns) into a product platform that stood on its own, GoViral was sold for $97 million, having never taken any investment capital. Just what Bill Gates had done decades earlier, with his transition from writing operating systems for early PC makers into selling application software in shrink-wrapped boxes.
In fact, for most successful companies – today and always – whether fast-growing or otherwise, the early funding comes from an agreeable and hospitable source, their customers.
Does VC have its place?
The five customer-funded models are not for every company, of course. If you want to build a dam and a hydroelectric power plant on some fast-moving water, you’ll probably need capital up front, and lots of it. The same goes for other capital-intensive industries, including most kinds of manufacturing. But I find the five models apply much more widely than might appear at a first glance – in both services and product businesses, in B2B and B2C settings.
The best news is this. If you raise money at a somewhat later stage of your entrepreneurial journey, you’ll find that many of the drawbacks in the table have largely disappeared. Why? Because with customer traction in hand, you’ll be in the driver’s seat, and the queue of investors outside your door will have to compete for your deal! And you’ll have for more fun pouring your time and entrepreneurial talent into solving customers’ problems than pandering to VCs.
If you are an angel investor (and want to make good money in addition to enjoying your work) I suggest you ask those seeking your capital to put one or more of these models to work. “Come back when you’ve got customers (even before producing the first product),” you should say, “and I’ll then help you grow.”
If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur lacking the startup capital you need, an early-stage entrepreneur trying to get your cash-starved venture into take-off mode, a corporate leader seeking to grow an established company, or an angel investor, mentor, or business accelerator or incubator professional who supports high-potential entrepreneurial ventures, a customer-funded approach offers the most sure-footed path to starting, financing, or growing your business or those you support. In the words of Shanghai’s entrepreneur and angel investor Bernard Auyang: “The customer is not just king, he can be your VC too!”
John Mullins is Associate Professor of Management Practice in Marketing and Entrepreneurship at London Business School. His latest book is The Customer-Funded Business: Start, Finance, or Grow Your Company with Your Customers’ Cash (Wiley, 2014), from which this article has been adapted.
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