Wasted time is money lost.

There is a relationship between time and money that is more complex than most managers think.  Fixed overhead for salaries, rent, equipment leases and more make up the majority of the “burn rate” (monthly expenses) for most companies.  Since this number is budgeted and pre-authorized, managers tend to focus upon other things such as sales, marketing and product development issues.

There is an art to efficient management of a process, whether that is the process of bringing a product to market from R&D to production or developing a new product’s launch program.  What most managers miss is that every month cut from the time it takes to perform such tasks cuts the cost by the value of a month’s worth of fixed overhead or burn.  Although young companies rarely measure profitability this repeatedly, more mature companies usually can bring from five to ten percent of revenues to the bottom line in the form of net profit.  Ignoring cost of product for a moment to make a point,  saving a month’s fixed overhead by making processes more efficient, could easily double profits for the year.

That relationship between fixed overhead and production time is as critical as any other factor in success of a young company.  Many of the start-ups my various angel funds have financed died a slow death, not because of poor concept but because of poor execution, wasting fixed overhead and draining the financial resources from the company coffers.

[Email readers, continue here…] In the technology sector where I most often play, extended unplanned software development cycles account for the majority of these corporate failures.  We often accept that development schedules for young companies are almost always too optimistic.  But we investors often allow too little slack in our estimates as well.  The great majority of young companies developing complex products such as semiconductor-based products, new software-based systems and technologies based upon new processes greatly underestimate the time needed to bring the product to marketable condition.  So the CEO comes back “to the well”, asking for more money from the investors to complete the project.  It is not a strong bargaining position for the CEO to ask for money to complete a product promised for completion with the previous round of funding.  And professional investors often penalize the company with lower-priced down rounds or expensive loans as a result.

I have one story that remains as vivid in my mind as when it happened several years ago.  Helping the founder create a company and build a much-needed product in an industry I knew very well, I served as chairman for the newly formed company, and along with my several rounds of early investment, led rounds of other angel investors in what I knew as a successful opportunity to fill a need in an industry I understood.

The company grew to be well known in this limited niche and was operating at slightly above breakeven, when the Board and CEO decided to seek venture investment from what we hoped would be a first tier VC firm in Silicon Valley.  And we were able to secure that investment along with a partner from that firm joining our board.  It did not take long for the partner to become impatient with the relatively small size of the opportunity.  Dreaming of a company many times the size, he led the board to approve a complete reversal of course, even stating that the company should ignore the existing market niche completely and redesign the product for the broad Fortune 500 corporate market.  Every one of us on the board expressed our concern that the time to make these product changes and position for the new, broader market, would eat away all of the company’s capital.  Promising the full weight of his VC firm’s resources, the board voted to make the change against the best judgment of those of us who knew the original market niche so well and thought that there was growth to spare in that niche alone.

So the company turned the ship, slowly it seemed, as R&D worked to develop an appropriate product using the base of the original design.  Time slipped; fixed overhead continued.  And exactly as you’d expect, there came the time when the company ran out of money as it ignored its original market.  Surprise.  Since the company slipped in its R&D schedule, the partners of the VC firm voted to not add new money to the company for the project.  Not long after, the company was sold in a “fire sale” amounting to slightly less than the debt on the books. All investors, including the VC firm, lost everything.  Do you remember a previous insight, that “the last money in has the first say”?  That is what happened within the dynamic of the board, and the result is that the board was completely at the mercy of the “last money” VC to save the company in the end.  Yes, there were other issues such as a protracted patent rights fight that drained cash, but the largest problem, inefficient use of R&D time burning fixed overhead, led to the demise of the company.  Lots of good jobs were lost and many investors including myself were left with the question. “Why did the company abandon a profitable market, even if it could not generate $100 million a year in revenues?”

We will revisit the relationship between time and money again in future insights.

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Posted in Finding your ideal niche, Growth!, Protecting the business | 1 Comment

Greatly exceed early customer expectations.

First customers are critical. Greatly exceed expectations at all costs.

There is so much history behind this insight, and so many stories that illustrate this point.  Your first customers for any product or service form your reference base, the important group of allies that your marketing and sales people rely upon when attempting to create buzz and make a mass market for a new product.  If you’ve been involved in the launch stage of any product in the past, you should recognize the overwhelming feeling of panic when initial customers make first contact with complaints about quality, functionality, speed of service or other critical part of the new release.

The best advice I can give is to allocate all of your resources to supporting the roll-out of a new product, at least for a short period.  Respond immediately to every question and complaint.  Capture every compliment and ask if you can use it for marketing purposes.  If the product or service is especially complex or expensive, send someone from sales or marketing or even R&D to the customer location at the moment of first use.

Of course most of us have limited resources for such overwhelming support of a new offering. So, make the first release a limited one, sized so you can support it with existing resources, even if that means releasing it to only three carefully chosen customers at first.

[Email readers, continue here…]    And I am serious about the “…at all costs” admonition in this insight.  If you must provide a free backup unit, personal on-site service for a month, your personal cell phone number for the customer CEO, or any number of unexpected offers of superior service and accountability to those first customers, do just that.  Make your customer a partner in the process.   Send flowers to the staff in the department using the product for the first time if appropriate.  Call the customer CEO and thank him for helping launch a product so very important to your success.

The result of doing this right will be to blunt criticism, reinforce compliments and provide a solid user base to build upon.  And the alternative is a lost opportunity to shine, perhaps a first wave of negative public reviews that post and report across the Internet, and a loss of reputation and goodwill that will take years to overcome.

I don’t know about you, but I would much prefer to spend dollars reinforcing a great first customer’s experience than fighting fires in the marketplace after seeing negative reviews.  Make sure your entire staff buys into this mantra. “These first customers are critical.  You are personally empowered to do everything possible to exceed their expectations.”

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Love letter to a … battery backup.

Well, if you’ve had a computer long enough, it has certainly happened to you.  Power surges, power outages, surges upon reinstatement of power, low or high voltage from your utility (brownouts or surges.)  I’ve had all of these over the years and lost equipment from motherboards to microcells.  And I’ve lost data due to sudden power loss.  I have worried over every wind storm or thunderstorm.

So, several years ago I installed a whole-house surge protector in the master electric panel to help the individual surge protectors between plugs and all equipment.  I had long-since added a battery backup for my dual-screen monitors and computer.

But none of this helped in a recent power outage, when reinstated power blew the microcell, requiring a repurchase and days of no cell service inside my home (which is too far from public cells to get a single bar.)

I searched for and found a solution that is one of the rare purchases of equipment that makes you actually smile when you open the package and install the equipment.  Apple and Samsung do that with elegantly packaged, beautiful hardware, presented in a clean package with easy instructions and a “wow” user experience upon first use.

Would you believe that this time, I got the same “wow” from a … battery backup?  My “old” battery backup could keep my system running for four or five minutes, enough to quickly sign off and protect data.  It did not do anything to protect against the surges that damaged my motherboard.  This new unit, “a sine wave battery backup” from CyberPower, came wrapped as if it were an iPad, with plastic peel-off protection across the entire case, minimal and clean instructions, and then the surprise.

An included USB cable connected my computer with the battery backup. After downloading the software, suddenly my computer began telling me information I never had before – the percent charge of the battery, the number of watts my system was drawing, the minutes of battery runtime available during a blackout, the variation in voltage coming from my utility.  Wow!  I could even set the acceptable voltage variation before the power protection in the unit took over and smoothed the sine wave to protect my equipment.

Sine wave?  That’s the rest of the love story.  I discovered that this is more than a battery backup.  By smoothing the utility’s signal into a very sensitive AC current wave (sine wave), my sensitive equipment and energy star certified electronics are actively protected for the first time. And I have 35-40 minutes of power in the same size case as my old backup.

This unit even smells like a new car for now.  But enough gushing about the features.

If you haven’t, you will someday suffer power problems that will damage your equipment and perhaps destroy some or much of your local data.  Do you want to wait until that day to reform, and later write your own love letter to a battery backup?  Didn’t think so…

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Find your “teacher customer.”

Your customers know what they want more than you do.  Find one to teach you.

This week’s insight came from personal experience and from a good friend who advanced the notion of the “teacher-customer” years ago.  I internalized this phrase, recalling the many times I had partnered with customers to design new feature-functionality into my hotel computer system back when such systems were brand new to the industry.  It was an ideal partnership between my growing company, as it approached one hundred employees on the way to almost two hundred fifty, and selected special customers anxious and willing to spend time telling us of their pain points.

Together we would work out solutions in the form of new functions, new controls, new reports, and new safeguards.  The customer would be the first to receive the new functionality in a new release.

At the annual user conference, I would often make sure the entire user community present knew of these extraordinary collaborations by naming the teacher-customers in the presence of their contemporaries.   Sometimes the audience would cheer one of their own, knowing that everyone benefited from the extra time and effort spent teaching their vendor the needs of the industry not yet addressed by competitors or by our firm to date.

[Email readers, continue here…] This is not to bend this insight into a claim that a company should wait to develop new, groundbreaking products and services until a customer asks for them.  If that were the ideal mode, many game-changing concepts would never have made it to market, including Fred Smith’s FedEx, first explained to a college professor in a paper returned with a C+ grade and the professorial comment that the idea was “good but impractical”.

Even if you are an expert in an industry segment, partnering with one of those rare, willing teacher-customers during the design stage for your proposed product or service is empowering and fruitful for both parties.

All companies whether service or product-oriented must fight to gain and maintain quality of product, or fall to the bottom of the competitive heap.

We have explored feature-functionality. Next week we will focus upon product quality and its effects upon the organization.

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Everything changes from concept to release.

You can take this headline as a rule, not an exception.  You’ll recognize the truism, “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy” first stated by German Field Marshall von Moltke way back in the 19th century.

Our variant of the “battle plan” truism is important to internalize.  A product at the concept stage contains feature-functionality that customers may not want or be willing to pay for, or which just might not work well enough for release to the public.

Plan for change; sometimes at the last minute.  Allow for the cost and extra time for tweaks to the product or service.  Make the first release a limited, controlled one, so that changes and corrections can be made much more easily than if a general release all at once.

You may recall that Microsoft planned a new file system for Vista, but pulled the file system from the product before release, and has not released the WinFS file system yet as of this writing, years later.  It is interesting to note that not many of us even remember this “feature” let alone miss it.

And how do we protect ourselves against surprises that relate to feature-functionality as opposed to product quality upon release?  Early contact exposing friendly close customers to the product are critical to the development staff, marketing and even to the customer that feels closer to your enterprise because of the special treatment.  This is not to state that the customer tests a new product before we do internally, although many of us are surely guilty of that error.

[Email readers, continue here…] Back when I was developing early systems for the hotel industry, with the full cooperation of the owner and managers of a hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I would fly in from Los Angeles on Friday evenings, install new releases that night and make fixes on the fly in a real 24-hour environment.  Sunday afternoon, just about departure time for my scheduled flight, the hotel manager would drive me to the airport barely in time to make the returning flight.

My excitement in having developed so many new and “somewhat tested” features over a sleepless weekend was exceeded only by the enthusiasm of the entire hotel staff for the new and wonderful capabilities left behind after the magic weekend of non-stop programming.  These trips were so common and their aftermath so predictable (a late-night emergency repair call waiting for me at home upon return Sunday evening) that the hotel owner created a mantra that stuck with me and caused quite a laugh at my expense for years.  He would be sure to remind his staff, shaking my hand goodbye as I left in a hurry to catch that Sunday evening flight: “Wheels up, system down.”

I am not advocating such brazen behavior today.  “Cowboy coding” is no longer common or permissible in the computer software industry, especially for enterprise systems.  But those were the days.

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Don’t rest until you test!

So, you have a great new product or service that you and your associates love.  Early adopters should climb all over each other for a look.

But what have you done to test the concept against the realities of the marketplace?   Have you developed a prototype, alternate pricing schemes, even a PowerPoint mock-up to show to potential buyers?  I would be very, very nervous without testing the product in the market as early as possible, ready to make changes and enhancements before committing to production and release.

Even with a perfect product, is the market ready for this?  Will you have to be both the evangelist for the product and for its marketplace as well?  Few early stage companies have the resources to do both.

There are formal focus group organizations to help you, or you can attempt to test the market yourself by calling together a variety of potential users and asking a third party to facilitate a meeting where the product is exposed to the group and a conversation freely formed allowing the participants to agree with the premise or reject the product as useless to them, all without personalities getting in the way.

No matter how you plan to test, make that plan an integral part of the development cycle, as early as possible so changes will not be costly.  Do NOT rest until you test.

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Posted in Growth!, Positioning | 1 Comment

Boy! If I had only learned this before spending a million!

Know your market and competition, or don’t spend a dime on anything else.

I love absolutes – statements with no wiggle room for gray-area responses.  Well, here is one of those, and it deals with market research first and foremost.

Let me tell you a short story at my own expense.  In 1994, (I know a long time ago), I invested over a million dollars into a company whose entrepreneurs had a vision that I bought into for many reasons, not the least of which was that I had industry experience and understood the need.

The first of several advanced products was a unique cell phone for hotel rooms, connected through a special “switch” in the hotel’s telephone room that was able to detect when a call was coming to the guest room phone and simultaneously ring the cell phone assigned to that room, no matter where it was at the moment.  A tent card beside the fully-charged phone greeted the guest entering the room for the first time, inviting the guest to pocket the cell phone for the duration of his stay.  The phone could be used for receiving incoming calls when in the restaurant, on the golf course or anywhere.  The guest could even make room-to-room or concierge calls as if dialing from the room itself.  These systems were not cheap as you might guess.

[Email readers, continue here…] Four and five star hotels loved the concept, which included redirecting outgoing calls from the cell phone by the guest to be sent through the hotel’s land line switch, making the hotel a miniature phone company with its attendant profits.

Here’s where some intelligent market research might have saved the company and my investment.  Fast forward just a few years to 1996.  Hotels were installing the system; guests were satisfied and the company was growing. There was even talk of some phone companies using the patented system for serving communities of guests, not just from a single hotel.  Back to 1996. That year, some of you will recall, the first digital cell phones were released to the market, smaller, cheaper and priced with roaming plans that made it no premium cost to carry these digital phones to cities far from home.  Overnight, guest use of the room cell phones dried up and hotels were left with expensive switches, phones and chargers unused.  Soon the company was drifting toward bankruptcy as the leases for the systems expired, one by one.

The lesson: I guarantee that there were tens of thousands of people in the country who knew long beforehand of the imminent arrival of the digital cell phone and could predict its effect upon usage, especially roaming use.  And yet the company was blindsided as it continued to invest in switch and specialized analog phone hardware, soon to be instantly obsolete.  Merely adapting the switches to new digital phones would not work, since guests no longer needed the service itself, being instantly self-sufficient.  People no longer called guests in their rooms but directly to their cell phones, even when the guests were on the road.

In this case, the competition was not from a company but a new technology.  In most cases, it is the competitor with a better product, lower price, faster service, better reputation that is the threat.

When I listen to a pitch from an enthusiastic entrepreneur or read the summary of a business plan, one of the first questions I ask is about the strength of the competition.  Surprisingly, many entrepreneurs immediately respond. “There is no competition.”  Now, there is a statement even Alexander Graham Bell could not make about the telephone (which he pitched to his investors as a device to aid the deaf).  Bell’s competition was the written message, doing nothing, the telegraph and old-fashioned word of mouth.  To state “there is no competition” is always the most-red of all flags to an investor.  For most brilliant new ideas and business plans, the competition is merely to do nothing. That response is quite different than one where competitors have paved the way and existing customers prove through use that the product or service is valued.

So, I lost over a million for lack of market research.  Bell was lucky, but the pace of technology was so much slower then.  Just to make a well-earned point now that you have heard my story: know your market and competition or don’t spend a dime on anything else.  Oh, how I wish I had taken my own advice.

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Posted in Finding your ideal niche, Ignition! Starting up, Positioning | 2 Comments

Where is the best source of early stage investment?

If you have been following our recent insights, you’ll be up to speed knowing that professional investors negotiate tough terms, from provisions of control over asset acquisition, eventual sale of the company, future investments, forced co-sale when others attempt to sell their shares and more.  And yet, in an earlier post, we spoke of the problems that come when taking unstructured investments from friends and family.  So how does the statement above fit into this sandwich of alternatives?

Trusted, close resources include sophisticated relatives, friends and business associates who know how to structure a deal as a win-win for you and for them, while allowing you to retain control over your vision and execution.  Their investment should be structured with the help of a good attorney who understands the mutual goal of maximum leverage of funds with minimum interference in your business decisions.

Remember the admonition that investment from such close sources carries an additional burden for you – to protect your investors and their investment as if they were your alter egos, offering money as if from your own pocket.  Such money should never be taken without clear understanding of the terms, whether a loan with a reasonable interest rate and strict repayment terms, or an investment valuing the company at an amount considered reasonable by a third-party professional, even if as a sanity check as opposed to an appraisal.  This money is personal, an investment in you as much or more than in your company.  The degree of care you take increases with the reduced distance between you and your investor.

[Email readers, continue here…]  My very first investment as a professional angel was in a small startup where the entrepreneur’s vision fueled my imagination in the audio market niche where I had run a business in an earlier life.  I was so enthusiastic that I coached the entrepreneur to approach his mother, who invested $50,000 under the same terms as my investment.   A small venture firm and a few more angels rounded out the total investment.  As the company grew and became profitable, it became more visible to others in the market niche.  Two of us who invested served on the board of the company, advising the first-time entrepreneur with our business and industry experience.  Several years later, with the approval of the board and entrepreneur, I was able to engage a very well-known potential acquirer of the business who offered an attractive price for the still-young but successful enterprise.

After weeks of negotiation, the entrepreneur suddenly disengaged, claiming that he was no longer interested in a sale of his company.  The rest of us were shocked and disappointed that after weeks of work and a fair price, we were left with nothing but to follow his lead and disengage.  Shortly thereafter, in a board meeting, I brought up the issue of starting to pay board members for service in cash or in stock options, typical for outside board members but rarely for investors.  The entrepreneur was angry, abusive, in his negative reaction to even bringing the issue to the board for a discussion.  Five years had passed from my original investment in what I now clearly perceived as investment into a lifestyle business, one where the entrepreneur had no interest in selling or sharing.  I resigned from the board on the spot and negotiated a sale of my stock to the entrepreneur at five times the earlier investment, a fair return for both, since the company was by then worth much more.  It is now years later, and his mother along with other early investors are still in the passive game, not likely to see liquidity from this mistaken investment in an entrepreneur unwilling to take money in exchange for the eventual promise of liquidity.

Why tell this story at all?  Mother is surely satisfied as a passive investor who probably would have given her son the money without structure.  The other investors are probably in the unhappy never land of not being able to see liquidity after a decade and unable to write off the investment as a loss for tax purposes.   This story would probably have ended in a lawsuit if a larger professional investor had been involved, since the entrepreneur did not follow the rules and seems to have no desire to do so.

Trust works both ways.  Take money from close resources, but treat it as if the responsibility is even greater to protect the investors and their money than from a professional.   These investors trust that you will do the right thing for them if at all able.

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Posted in General, Raising money | 7 Comments

Will tech kill your job?

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. “My job as a (newspaper publisher telephone installer, stockbroker, travel agent, retail store manager) is safe as this economy continues to grow.”  Yup. Thought so.

We are in a decade of creative destruction that will affect most everybody.  And the prime motivators of this massive destruction are the same class of entrepreneurs and innovators that have done it before.  This time they are aided by tail winds brought on by the rapid spread of access to the Internet.  In 1995, thirty-five million people used the Internet. That is six-tenths of one percent of the world’s population.  And only one percent of these who had access also had mobile phones.

By 2024, ninety percent of the global population will have regular Internet access.  Add that to the rise of robotics, artificial intelligence, biotech, genetics, and several forms of virtual reality, and we will soon see wonders we could only imagine a decade ago.  Meanwhile, in the U.S., an estimated five million jobs will be lost to tech innovations in the next five years, with two million new jobs created in these fields alone.

Robots will perform half of all manufacturing jobs by 2025, up from ten percent today.  Since 1999, the U.S. manufacturing workforce is down twenty-eight percent, and the U.S. has lost 54,000 manufacturing businesses.  In 1980, it took twenty-five jobs to produce a million dollars in manufacturing output. Today, that can be done with fewer than seven jobs.

[Email readers, continue here…]  Yes, Amazon is partially to blame.  Last year, Amazon employed 145,800 workers. But Amazon displaced an estimated 300,000 retail jobs.  Just check your local store fronts.

Our current graduating class of college seniors reflect much of the past needs of our economic society, just as they did in the early 1970’s, when many bet that aerospace jobs would continue to be the hot job ticket.  The mismatch between what employers want today and graduating seniors majored in is striking.  For example, 81% of businesses hiring today want graduates with business or accounting degrees. But only 19% of seniors have majored in this.  Worse, 3.1% of seniors majored in computer science, while 65% of businesses looking to hire need these skills.

What general kinds of jobs will be lost to automation?  Almost eighty percent of jobs performing predictable physical work will be gone.  People in welding, soldering, working on assembly lines, food preparation or packaging of objects will be most at risk.  Then come the unpredictable physical workers.  Twenty-five percent of these will be gone, including jobs in construction, forestry and raising outdoor animals.

White- collar jobs most at risk to the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning are those in middle management, commodity salespeople, journalists, report writers, and even doctors.

And the last jobs to be lost to automation and AI are, not surprisingly, K-12 teachers, professional athletes, politicians, judges, mental health professionals and coaches, advisors and motivators.

Tech entrepreneurs are out there in every corner of the world today finding ways to eradicate disease, provide clean water, change the way we deliver education, fight obesity and climate change, and reduce accidental deaths.  These heroes of the next generation are remaking our lives at hyper-speed.

So, will tech take your job, or your offspring’s job or your grandkid’s job?  Old jobs will be gone for sure.  But that same villain, tech, will prove to be a creator of jobs we can’t even imagine today, and will improve the quality of our lives immeasurably at the same time.

These are times to celebrate innovation and trust that, like many eras in the past, the world will be a better place in which to live and work because of their world-changing innovations.

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Posted in Hedging against downturns, Protecting the business | 2 Comments

What do you give up when taking outside investors?

Taking in angel or venture money requires a setting of an entrepreneur’s expectations that may come as a shock at least at first.

From the moment such an investor looks seriously at your company, the investor or VC partner is thinking of the end game, the ultimate sale of the company or even of an eventual initial public offering.  There is no middle ground.

Taking money from these sources involves resetting priorities over time.  There is no such thing as a lifestyle business with outside investors. To protect against such an event, almost every professional investor includes a clause in the investment documents which allow the investor to “put” the stock back to the company after five years, requiring the company to pay back the investment plus dividends accrued during the term of the investment.  This sword hanging over the company is not often used, but is a constant reminder that an outside investor is serious about getting out, hopefully in less than five years, at a profit, usually from the sale of the company.  Many companies find themselves at the five-year point completely unprepared for a sale and without the cash resources to carry out such a repurchase of investor stock, making the clause moot.

[Email readers, continue here…]  There are also clauses in many such investor documents that allow the investor to override the founder and force a sale of the company if a proposed sale is attractive to an investor for liquidity, even if the founder feels that there is much more potential if the business is not sold at the present time.

Finally, it is an unfortunate fact that when a company needs money and has not met its original planned targets, the newest investor prices the round at a level below the last or last several rounds of financing, angering and frustrating previous investors who took what they perceive as the greatest risks by investing before the business proved itself.

The last money has the first say – in valuation and in sometimes forcing draconian terms that require prior investors to contribute a proportional new investment to retain a semblance of their original rights and avoid dilution or worse yet, involuntary conversion to a lower class of stock.  As the years progress with typical VC firms seeing lower returns than expected by their limited partner investors, such terms are more common in secondary rounds of financing, causing a real riff between angel investors and their former close allies, the VCs, with whom they had once coexisted as suppliers of deals at expectedly higher valuations at each stage of investment.

So be aware that professional investors are in your company for the eventual large profits at the liquidity event.  They are your friends only as long as you meet or exceed planned growth and value.  They tolerate you and your management when the numbers are a bit murky but with an explanation that is believable and correctable.  They act in their own best interests when things go south. That’s just the facts.

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Posted in Depending upon others, Raising money | 1 Comment