There’s a scene in Risky Business where an adolescent Tom Cruise and his buddy Barry are working on their “Future Enterpriser” project?a notepad holder with a light to let people know when a message is waiting. It was a dim-bulb idea, and one that wouldn’t have garnered a penny in 1983, when the movie premiered. But had they called it a dotcom and presented the bogus blinking memo pad during the ’90s boom, it probably could have earned them a few million up front.
The days when bad ideas could get funded as easily as good ones are gone, however. But the good ideas can’t find any venture money either…or can they?
Listening to some venture capitalists these days, you’d have the impression that the world came to an abrupt end in 2000 and that we’re all damned to purgatory or worse for the foreseeable future. The front page of VentureEconomics.com (at least as of this writing) was a gloomy list of bad news for VCs. Those startups that were liquid as mercury a few years ago went dry when the IPO and merger and acquisition markets evaporated.
Failure rates are also unusually high. Startups first funded in 1999 failed at a 22 percent rate, compared with an average of 15 percent for those funded the previous seven years, according to a September 2002 Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal story that noted data from VentureOne.
I still see some hope in those numbers?if only a glimmer. The year 1999 saw more than 4,500 companies receive investments (according to the most recent PricewaterhouseCoopers/Venture Economics/National Venture Capital Association MoneyTree survey). That was 1,000 more than 1998 and around 3,500 more than any of the years between 1992 and 1994. That means a lot of companies born during the boom-boom years are still alive. And that’s good news for innovation, even in this down economy. Call me a Pollyanna. But I’m tired of all the funeral talk.
Of course, I’m also a realist. Things are going to get worse before they get better. A lot of companies have stripped themselves to the bone and are living off whatever pennies they managed to dig out of cushions in those $1,000 office chairs after the party was over. But treading water doesn’t build value?and eventually the guy who lent you your life jacket is going to want it back. As John Slitz, a former partner at Osprey Ventures and now CEO of Las Vegas-based software company Systems Research & Development, told me, “This investment money was never intended to be a trust fund.” That means more failures are on the way. The IBMs, Oracles and Suns of the world are currently buying up the best of an injured lot. Some startups are merging in a desperate attempt to stay alive (though that’s often “like tying two rocks together and hoping that they float,” says Nick Sturiale, partner at Palo Alto, Calif.-based Sevin Rosen Funds), and when the current action stops, it’s going to leave a lot of companies with exactly zero options?pun intended.
And even at that, I still see some cheery graffiti. The previously mentioned MoneyTree survey tracks VC investments across the country. Look at the numbers, and you’ll find that VC levels in 2002 look like they’ll land right around where they were in 1998 ($21.6 billion)?more than five times what they were in 1992. Granted, it may look like the apocalypse compared with the $107.3 billion in venture invested in 2000?but let’s consider that a case of temporary insanity.
The dilettantes are gone, but small companies still come through my door and ring my phone every day. They’re working out of warehouses in Fremont or Hoboken instead of penthouses in San Francisco these days?but they’re still working. And almost all the dumb money is spent?so I’m hoping that it’s a good time to bet on the smart money.