Signaling

Another quarter has passed and it seems that we have little “news” to report from the venture ecosystem. New records were set for venture funding since Q1, when the previous record was set. We are seeing the impact of the continued return to offices and normal life in the US. Hopefully, this new variant will not create setbacks, as we are witnessing in Israel.

As we consider these trends, one thing becomes clear: the pace for venture funding has sped up significantly for “hot” deals while it may have even slowed for every other company looking to raise capital. This dichotomy is enhanced between those companies that truly standout and those that still have much to prove.

To be sure, in both camps there are winners to be found and losers to be avoided. But identifying them becomes more complicated since previously valuable signals are now blurred. For example, time to closing a lead investor and agreeing on terms is not necessarily a good indicator anymore as to the strength of the team or opportunity.

It may be taking longer than expected because demonstrable performance metrics have expanded and a renewed expectancy of potential returns in other sectors (real estate? NFTs?) might make venture funding slow down considerably in the next 12 months. On the other end, a top-tier-fund term sheet presented within a week of a first meeting shouldn’t carry the full weight of the brand name investor who clearly could not have completed the necessary diligence to invest with conviction.

Problems with signaling have always existed. The most common being “why aren’t previous investors joining the current round?”. This is a valid question in some instances and less so in others.

For example: In the past, if a company was accepted to an accelerator program and didn’t get funding from the accelerator, or its affiliates, after “graduating” then this was a problematic signal. The solution? The accelerator programs give everyone equal funding. This was like a participation award.

However, the accelerator leadership knew which were the truly exciting companies and wanted to invest more in those. They are in this to make money too. So maybe they added an additional funding tranche which were given only to companies which hit certain milestones. This could be a requirement to raise a follow-on round within X months of graduating the program, for example.

This would then allow the accelerator team to “push” the company in front of friendly investors who are connected to the program. These investors would lead a round and the accelerator would join in. Not entirely kosher, but actually seems fair to me. Clearly the companies not being recommended are getting dinged and not enjoying the full prestige of the accelerator brand. And I am sure it is not always entirely based on performance or potential. But I am not a huge fan of participation awards. So unless the original funding was designated for use during the program to cover expenses and allow the company to take advantage of the opportunities the program creates, then this model seems to be required due to market forces. There are some programs that state this clearly and structure the support accordingly.

[As an aside, I fully recognize that what I am describing contributes to the lack of diversity in tech. It could also be used as a way to “level” the playing field unfairly if the dial were turned to the other end of the spectrum. Extremes are not good place to play.]

Accelerators are either investors themselves or backed by investors. Alignment needs to be created to accept the best companies, work with them all, but then continue to invest only in your best bets. A good selection process will help minimize the drop-outs, but I’d be surprised if anyone could have a perfect record.

This is what good investors learn quickly, and what I am learning the hard way. Every investor invests in people. They believe in them and their ability to execute on their grand vision to make the world a better place. So when things go sideways we try to help them get back on track. But when do you know that it is time to let go and focus your energy on your winners?

The famous scene in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), where Alec Baldwin’s character Blake is giving the Always Be Closing speech*, was given new meaning for me during a great Sales class in business school. Another layer was added to the A-B-C of sales. The key is to invest in your A players as they will generate the greatest return on investment. Support your B players to see if they can become an A level player. But cut your C players as quickly as possible since they aren’t carrying their weight and can sink the entire ship if resources are wasted trying to help them get to B level. They are just too far away from the A level players you need in your organization to be successful. First place gets the Cadillac, second place gets the steak knives. Third place prize? You’re fired.

This is true for investments as it is for team members. Though sometimes the team member is just not a good fit for the specific company or the specific role. “Firing” a portfolio company is something that I am not prepared to do, unless they have crossed a line. We won’t bail when times get tough, but we might be less involved if our efforts are not well received or misplaced. After all, Like all investors – we invested in the people, right?

As I shared this story with a couple of founders this week, I made it clear that both of these situations – firing a team member or watching a company fail – are really hard to navigate. Assuming you are a decent person with a smudge of empathy.

* I read on IMDb that this speech was not part of the original play on Broadway but written by David mamet specifically for Alec Baldwin who performed it magnificently such that in later stage productions it is often incorporated.