Around nine years ago I read Nicholas Taleb’s seminal texts The Black Swan (2007) and Fooled by Randomness (2001) and I loved them both. For venture investors everywhere The Black Swan suddenly provided a framework and lingua franca for understanding our business – betting on extreme outcomes that have a low probability of occurring, and perhaps more subtly for those working in this world, an understanding role of chance is critical to distinguishing talent from luck (although we all need luck).
But for me the books were about more than these two key takeaways, they were also an amusingly written philosophy of life and a celebration of avoiding the herd mentality and thinking differently.
One small part of that which has stayed with me is Taleb’s oft repeated advice “Don’t run for trains”. I like this advice because running for trains is stressful and it seems to me that we often take on that stress without really thinking it through. There’s a problem, however, which is that sometimes when we miss trains it makes us late, and it’s rude to be late.
When I was riding my bike to work this morning, Taleb’s advice “Don’t run for trains” popped into my mind. That’s happened a fair few times over the years and as I’ve done before I rehearsed the argument made in the previous paragraph. Then, rather than return to thinking about my day as usually would, I pondered the advice a little longer. I wanted to resolve the dichotomy between the good and the bad sides of “not running for trains” and maybe get a better idea of what Taleb was getting at.
For me the answer is that Taleb’s point is to avoid over-valuing short term gains. If you run and get the train it feels good for a short while, but you will have forgotten it before long, so why put yourself through it. Better surely to apply yourself to something that will deliver value over the longer term. This chimes with Taleb’s long term investment strategy. In his books he repeatedly shows his disdain for investors who chase short term gains (he calls them “yield hogs”) whilst not understanding their long term risks. Moreover, running for trains is often a frenzied activity of the type that with hindsight turns out to be ill-advised.
In the startup world, examples of “running for trains” mostly involve chasing short term growth at the expense of long term value:
- Selling a poor quality product or service which undermines the brand
- Putting so much advertising on a web page that it destroys the customer experience
- Tricking people onto a website with a misleading promise
I love the idea of Magic Leap and wish them every success in the world. Who wouldn’t want to see whales leaping out of floors like the one in the picture above?
I also don’t have any inside information about how they’re doing. But I have noted that some in the press are questioning their prospects, alleging that their videos are in effect fakes (including the one from which the still above was taken).
One of the articles I read, finished with a list of tell-tale signs that indicate a company is long on vision, but short on execution (or in this case real tech):
- Refusing to give a launch date.
- Refusing to talk about the tech, claiming confidentiality or trade secrets.
- Using news of investments or hires as evidence of technological progress.
- Promoting itself on a big stage rather than in a small room.
- Offering a well-crafted message and vision but becoming immediately vague when pushed on actual details.
- Offering “exclusive access” – with restrictions.
- Confusing working hard with making progress.
I offer this list up because some of you will be writing investment decks over the holidays to start fundraising in the New Year and if that’s you, these are mistakes you want to avoid making. At the early stages at which Forward Partners invest, the most common mistakes on this list are being strong on the vision but weak on the details (particularly the short term plan) and assuming time spent on a project equates with progress.
In essence, make sure that when preparing to pitch for funding you have an inspiring big vision, but also ensure the picture you paint is underpinned with a strong plan for execution.
This is a chart from Atomico’s 2016 State of the Nation report. As a UK investor and citizen it’s pleasing to see that we’re the top destination for tech industry migrants by quite some distance.
What’s interesting is that this is a self-reinforcing metric. As noted elsewhere in the report, when people move country to start their company, access to talent is their primary consideration. More talent, therefore, will attract more founders, who will in turn attract more founders.
The UK has always been a very open country, and immigration from the US and India (two countries with whom we have strong historical ties) are a big driver of this statistic – although we are also the top destination for intra European tech migrants too.
We built this success story in the pre-Brexit era. Our challenge now is to maintain it post-Brexit.
Most VCs will say that to evaluate deals they look at the market size, the product and the quality of the team. Different investors place different weights on the three elements but as a rule earlier stage investors place more emphasis on the team and later stage investors place more emphasis on the market. That’s because early stage companies find it easier to change their market than their team whilst later stage companies find it easier to change their team than their market.
Some very early stage investors go as far as to say that for them team is everything. If the founder is great that’s all they need to know to write a cheque. At Forward Partners we don’t go that far. We always say that the minimum requirement to back a company is a great founder AND a great idea, then for us a great idea encompasses an inspiring product vision in a large market.
Breaking that down a little further, what we’ve learned over the three and a half years we’ve been operating is that our pre-seed investments work best when the ‘great idea’ includes a clear plan for value progression in the first six months. In the sectors in which we invest that nearly always means building momentum with customers. Completing product development and hiring team members definitely helps, but it’s dangerous to assume that will be valued by new investors.
With seed stage investments and later it’s usually obvious how value will be created – by maintaining current growth in revenues or engagement. Hence spending time thinking hard about short term value creation is mostly a discipline for the pre-seed stage.
This week our thinking was put to the test by a highly competent serial entrepreneur with a great team who has a strong idea in a large market but who has yet to build out a clear plan for driving value in the short term. We compared his case with a couple of others in which we’ve invested where the short term plan was much clearer but the longer term thinking was hazier and decided we prefer the latter.
Given time great entrepreneurs will find their way to big opportunities. The question then becomes “how do we give them the greatest chance of having enough time?”. The best answer to that is to generate the short term momentum which will allow them to raise more money and buy more time to navigate to the big upside. If the short term momentum doesn’t arrive then either the next round will be difficult or the company will fail – both outcomes we seek to avoid.
With most things in life, if you plan for it you are more likely to get it, and generating the momentum required to create value in the short term is no exception.
Last night at FPLive I was chatting with an entrepreneur called Nick who has just closed his startup. He talked impressively about what he’d learnt and has an interesting idea for his next company which I am keen to investigate.
There’s an important point lurking in there. He has just failed with his first company but that isn’t putting us off looking at his second. In fact, the lessons he’s learned help his case.
It doesn’t happen as much as it used to but people still talk about the ‘fear of failure’ as being a much more acute problem here in the UK than it is in America, and how that dissuades people from starting companies and holds our startup ecosystem back. That talk gets my back up a bit, partly because fear of failure is rational (it hurts), but mostly because it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy – would be entrepreneurs hear that fear of failure holds our startup ecosystem back which makes them think that failure is more likely and deters them from starting their company.
Returning to my conversation with Nick. He has been working with a large corporate innovation lab and we were talking about what large companies can do to hold onto the entrepreneurs in their ranks and harness their creative power. Getting the incentives right is a big topic, covering 1) how much money they should be allowed to make, 2) how much control they should have and3) what should happen if they fail.
As an investor who’s worked with lots of entrepreneurs I know that if the aim is to retain the best talent the answer to the first two parts of this have to be 1) they can make an awful lot of money and 2) they need to be given control of their startup.
Prior to last night my view on the third point was that companies should make it easier for their employees to be internal entrepreneurs by guaranteeing their jobs in the event of failure. Now I’m not so sure. Nick pointed out that fear of failing is often highly motivating. When your back is up against the wall you are more likely to be out of bed at 6am fixing things, morel likely to burn the midnight oil, and generally more likely to keep battling when the odds start to look impossible. What he has seen is that when people can walk back to their old jobs they are less afraid of failing, that they work fewer hours, and that they give up on the startup idea more easily.
So my emerging view is that fear of failure is not really the problem here. Rather I think we should be working on the other side of the equation – courage. More specifically – how do we help people muster the courage to start companies, even when they understand that painful failure is a possibility.