I had the opportunity to speak on a panel today at the Corporate Venture Capital Summit. There was an interesting crew of speakers representing corporate-related venture activities for companies such as Hitachi, Intel, Nokia, Panasonic, Siemens, and Kodak. While one moderator cited numbers showing that the amount of corporate venture investing in terms of dollars is down 50% from 2000, in my mind, that does not seem that different from the change in the general VC market. While there are less corporate investors today, there are also less VCs. From the 3 panels today, it was very clear that the nature of corporate investing, if I can lump all the different players in one bucket, has changed. Like today's VC, they are doing less deals. However, the deals that they are doing need to be more strategic and less opportunistic. This means that someone in a product group needs to somehow get behind the company and act as an internal sponsor. This does not mean that a company looking for funding will get a strategic partnership before a financing.
One of the questions I was asked today was how an early stage company can make a strategic investment successful. Here is what I had to say:
1. Show me the revenue-I would rather have an OEM or reseller deal than a strategic investment. Strategic investments do not mean anything if you are not going to generate revenue for your company and for your partner. In addition, when you sign a reseller or OEM contract it means that the hard work has yet to begin-an early stage company has to throw resources behind a partner to make things happen.
2. Go in with your eyes wide open-what is strategic for you may be tactical for your partner. In addition beware of deal terms that may limit your ability to be flexible. These include rights of first refusal, exclusivity, and other non-standard VC terms.
3. A strategic investment is not an exit strategy-in many cases, it could actually limit your exit opportunities as other competitors to the strategic investor may not want to partner with you.
4. Do your due diligence-how successful has your strategic investor been in setting up relationships for other companies, how much juice does the strategic investor have to make things happen?
5. Manage expectations-constant communication between both sides is key to maintain a healthy relationship.
I could go on and on here but I just wanted to highlight a few of my top of mind thoughts. Suffice it to say that looking at the 30+ companies we have funded, partnering with strategics has been a mixed bag. There have been some that have worked out well and others that have not. However, if done right, I do believe that both sides could substantially benefit from a relationship as long as there are real dollars being generated.