Pioneers get arrows in their backs

Pioneers get arrows in their backs – I have experienced it firsthand from an active investor's viewpoint and written about it in the past.  Being early in a market is great but being too early can be deadly.  Just like the settlers in the westward migration, entrepreneurs who are too early will get arrows in their back.  It doesn't matter if you have a rock star CEO (Bill Coleman who founded BEA) and $100mm of funding from some great investors.  If you are too early and have to spend lots of money educating a market and get engaged in long protracted sales cycles and pilots, you are not going to be able to spend your way to success.

That is what it seems like is happening to Cassat Software. Forbes has an article about Cassat nearing the end.  On the surface it seems like the company was built for the right place at the right time helping enterprises save tons of money and run their internal data center like a cloud.  However the first funding went in 6 years ago and has totaled around $100mm since then.  Here is a quote from their founder and CEO:

For many years, Coleman acted as something of a prophet for cheap computing via the cloud, but he also thought it would mean a sharp drop in pricing with which the big companies would not be able to compete.

"The big guys copied my story," says Coleman. Cassatt, he adds, was upended by a slowing economy and by customers skittish about closing big orders or changing existing ways.

"What frustrates me is my own naivete," Coleman told Forbes. "I thought I could give companies something radical that had a proven return on investment, and they would be willing to change all their companies' computer policies and procedures to get that. Right now, it's hard to get people to get beyond proof-of-concept tests or a data center energy analysis."

He will be right eventually but will not have a lot to show for it.  A couple points to make – raising too much money too early can be harmful as it puts huge expectations on a company before it has proven itself and selling million dollar plus licenses into enterprises has gone the way of the dinosaur as only the biggest companies can afford to do this and it is extremely expensive to do.  Remember some of my old posts about frictionless sales and leveraging the web for sales/marketing and inside sales?  Having just participated as an angel in the recent Eucalyptus funding led by Benchmark, we are hoping to avoid this fate leveraging free download model which has generated over 14 thousand users, many of whom are corporate customers.  In addition, we have signed partnerships and are bundled in the Sun cloud computing initiative and the new Ubuntu enterprise Linux release.  Got to love leveraging partners and downloads to drive sales leads and sales.

Growing your business in a recession

I read a great article by James Surowiecki in the New Yorker the other day titled "Hanging Tough."  In the piece, James gives a historical perspective on companies that thrived and grew during previous recessions by increasing spending on on advertising and R&D.  While I am not advocating that companies go out and blow their cash on ads and spending on far-out development projects, I do want my readers to understand that it is possible to gain market share during difficult times.

One way to read these studies is simply that recessions make the strong stronger and the weak weaker, since the strong can afford to keep investing while the weak have to devote all their energies to staying afloat. But although deep pockets help in a downturn, recessions nonetheless create more opportunity for challengers, not less. When everyone is advertising, for instance, itโ€™s hard to separate yourself from the pack; when ads are scarcer, the returns on investment seem to rise. That may be why during the 1990-91 recession, according to a Bain & Company study, twice as many companies leaped from the bottom of their industries to the top as did so in the years before and after.

A personal example that sticks with me is of former portfolio company GoToMyPC which is now Citrix Online.  We had our huge exponential growth years from 2000-2004 during a difficult time in the technology markets.  And yes, we did increase our spending on ads and at one point in time became one of the largest advertisers on the web.  However, what we did was negotiate for pay for performance contracts where we would only pay if we signed up new customers.  While not a novel idea today, it was quite novel back in the day.  Subsequently we were able to turn a fixed cost that could have been a huge cash drain on the business into a variable cost.  In addition, our ads had tremendous impact because every other competitor was not advertising and our brand became quite recognizable.  Were it not for our creative and aggressive approach to acquiring customers, I would argue that while we would have been ultimately successful it certainly would have taken a lot longer.  So reread the article and think about ways that you can creatively grow your business by turning a fixed cost into a variable cost based on revenue growth and you may find a way to efficiently grow while managing your precious cash.  Remember in times like these, everyone is willing to negotiate and what may have been a hard deal to come by 2 months ago may be possible today.

Cover the basics before you raise capital

No matter how many times I told my friend that he needed to get a deck together for a potential capital raise and model out some thoughts on market sizing and financials, I ran into resistance.  It was not because he didn't think it was important or that it mattered.  It was because he was understaffed and going 60 miles per hour trying to get a product released.  I can understand that pain but at the same time, if you want to raise capital from anyone, you need to have the basics covered.

Fast forward 6 weeks from that last conversation, and we ended up having a meeting with a "friendly" VC to receive some market feedback on where his company stood and what needed to get done to raise capital.  And sure enough, it didn't take long for my friend to be questioned on the revenue model, potential market size and opportunity, and how long the cash would last.  Of course, he did have some strong answers but they were not what the VC was looking for – it was not quantitative enough.  We all know that coming up with market sizing and revenue forecasts for a startup is as accurate as the weatherman predicting the weather.  That being said, VCs want to understand the logic behind the numbers as much as the numbers themselves. 

Overall the meeting went as I suspected it would – a VC who was very interested in the product but also highlighting the fact that the revenue model was not clear.  The kiss of death for me on the revenue side was when the entrepreneur said that he would monetize the company like Facebook and Twitter.  Hmmm?  We all know that Facebook and Twitter are unbelievable web phenomenons and suck up incredible user attention.  And yes I am sure that Twitter will find a way to monetize the stream of data flowing through the system and I am sure that Facebook has tremendous value.  That being said accumulating users and worrying about revenue years from now is yesterday's news.  Unless you have tremendous scale when you show up at a VC's door, then don't bank on ad revenue as your only revenue source.  We have seen the market numbers-overall online ad revenue declining but search revenue increasing.  In addition we all know that social apps on the consumer side have incredibly low CPMs and that you need massive numbers to turn into a business.  So if you want to get funded, you better have a clear answer on how you will make money and either be implementing that model today or in the short-term.  What VCs are looking for is a revenue model today that makes sense – this can include premium subscription revenue, analytic revenue, and even lead generation revenue, but don't ptich massive scale and advertising as your go-to revenue souce 24 months from funding.  You will be shown the door quite quickly.