This the 21st installment of Startup Decision Making will conclude my writing until after the Holidays. I must take a moment to acknowledge the many kind greetings upon my return to Atlanta and the many well wishes as I departed Austin. Both cities are wondrous, and I will be in Austin regularly for SXSW and other special occasions, one example being the wedding of my daughter there this April.
This is the time of year when decisions made over the past twelve months are evaluated, whether formally or not. One naturally looks back to think about how things might have happened differently and why some actions worked and some did not. A friend of mine is experiencing now the pressure of her first year-end closing as a senior officer of a public company. I’ve been in that situation, and the magic of the Holidays is tempered by the magical tricks necessary to make the numbers promised to the Street. John Imlay of MSA occasionally took me on road shows with analysts to talk about his new acquisition Peachtree Software. I will always remember his pre-speech pep talk: “Dyer, your entire net worth rides on not screwing this up.” I got the message. I recall that MSA’s stock increased 5X or thereabouts after our deal, which by no means implies that Peachtree deserved sole credit for all that.
The companies with which I’ve worked most closely with over the past year are all standing. Each of them had some challenges. All of them got into some “pushing the rope” conundrums where there were many things pending but none getting resolved at the speed we hoped. Hurricane Irma had a major negative revenue impact on one whose fall book of business was mostly in Florida. Two of them made some major product directional changes based on the founder’s judgment and the feedback he was getting from partners and customers. The youngest of the litter has been busy tuning a very attractive general idea into a very specific and more IP-based product offering. But, credit is due to all these CEO’s for perseverance. None of them are tourists in entrepreneurship; they have maturity in the craft and will never let up. One in particular wins my lifetime achievement award for going “above and beyond the call” more than any other individual with whom I have worked, but I’ll say no more for fear of breaking a confidence. All of them are performing at a very high level, and I take inspiration from them.
None of us can un-ring the bell for whatever happened in 2017, but we can decide now to improve in 2018. I heard this morning at All Saint’s Episcopal in Atlanta this excerpt from a pulpit prayer:
“Disturb us, Lord, when our dreams come true because we dream too lowly.”
Think about that. We all need some disturbance to keep us operating at our potential. I know many entrepreneurs who have cashed in big but aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. They may not be sweating a weekly payroll and worrying about paying for college tuition, but they have some inner disturbance that keeps them active in business and/or charitable endeavors and maintains their satisfaction with how they use their precious and irreplaceable time. They are always big dreamers. If you can turn off that disturbance and spend your days playing golf, fishing, cycling, traveling, chasing the grandkids, or any other pursuit that attracts you, that’s certainly your prerogative. It’s not my place to form judgments based on that. Just realize that if you are going to play the tech startup game in any way other than as a tourist, dare I say you need “to be disturbed.” (Yes, that has multiple meanings!)
We just closed out in 2017 our 10-year early-stage venture fund started in 2000. Do the math. Even though we had some very good exits, the fund could not have been launched at a worse time. As events unfolded in the tech world shortly thereafter, the rules all changed. Despite the hard work of our fund managers, our entrepreneurs, and our long list of nationally prominent co-investors wrapped around a couple dozen very plausible ideas, it was an unforgiving era. Venture funds are often measured against the median returns for their vintage, and, while we may have performed better than most, one can only beat the market averages by so much absent a lucky unicorn in the mix. I believe the famous Ron Conway made about 300 investments in his Silicon Valley angel fund in the late 90’s, and his one big win was — Google. He’s thus entitled to be known as the Godfather of Silicon Valley, having come rather a long way since I bought Altos computers from him around 1980. If you decide to be an angel investor, your overall return will likely conform to the public market averages and your peer group unless you find that unicorn that makes you the smartest investor in the room.
My wish for all the companies that I’ve been working with and all the new ones I’ll be assisting at TechSquare Labs is that their dreaming will only expand as the calendar turns. For each CEO that’s a decision to make, an attitude to adopt, and a spirit to infuse throughout a company. If you choose to dream too small, you might just realize that dream and leave your best work undone. Just because something didn’t occur as planned last year doesn’t mean that it can’t have a desired outcome in 2018. Timing and circumstances change. People with whom you’re dealing come and go, especially if you’re chasing corporate America. There might even be a nugget in the new tax code that trickles down to your business. Where will you be when the DJIA crosses 30,000, or 40,000? There are a number of new early stage venture funds that I’m personally aware of in Atlanta; what if their timing is right and there’s real upside ahead? Might your company be the bell-ringer that makes one of them a big winner? Or, will you be guilty of depriving the VC community of well deserved gains, like the good folks at MailChimp and Kendra Scott seem to have done with their bootstrapped unicorns?
I wish you all the best for the New Year. May you be disturbed. May you keep dreaming.