Cash Burn Rates at Startups

Recently and have sounded a vivid alarm. I said at the time that I agree with much of what Bill says and I want to expand on the topic further. New founders in the last 10 years have ONLY been in an environment where money is always easy to raise at higher valuations. THAT WILL NOT LAST. When the market turns, and it will turn, we will find out who has been swimming without trunks on. Many high burn rate companies will VAPORIZE.

High cash burn rates are dangerous in several ways beyond the obvious increased risk of running out of cash. It’s Important to understand why:

  1. High burn rate kills your ability to adapt as you learn and as the market changes. The company becomes unwieldy and too big to easily change course.
  2. Hiring people is easy; layoffs are devastating. Hiring for startups is effectively a one way street. You can’t change once you’re stuck.
  3. Your managers get trained and incented ONLY to hire, as the answer to every question. The company bloats and becomes badly run at same time.
  4. Lots of people, a big shiny office, and high expense base equals a fake we’ve made it! feeling. This removes the pressure to deliver real results.
  5. More people multiplies communication overhead exponentially which slows everything down. The company bogs down and becomes a bad place to work.
  6. Raising new money becomes harder and harder. You have a bigger bulldog to feed, need more and more cash at higher and higher valuations. Therefore you take on an escalating risk of a catastrophic down round. High-cash-burn startups almost never survive down rounds. They VAPORIZE. Further, to get into this position, you probably had to raise too much cash at too high a valuation before; this escalates the down round risk even further.
  7. Even if you CAN raise an up round, you are increasingly likely to incur terrible structural terms like ratchets to chin the bar. That nice hedge fund investor willing to hit your valuation bar? Imagine him owning 80% of company after a down round. How nice will he be then?
  8. When the market turns, M&A mostly stops. Nobody will want to buy your cash-incinerating startup. There will be no Plan B. VAPORIZE.

Finally, there are exceptions but if you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly not one. They are few and far between. Worry.

Reference Material:

Source Tweets: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18

Intellectual Generosity In Silicon Valley

One of the special things about our industry is how intellectually generous many of the leading participants are (no, I don’t mean me.) When I arrived in Silicon Valley in Jan 1994, I sought out all of the written material I could on startups and venture capital. I found exactly two books. An excellent but dry financial analysis of startup returns, and an excellent but dated book by Gordon Bell. So then I looked for magazines, and found exactly one: Red Herring. Which for several years was the best magazine about startups.

Red Herring Magazine Cover

Red Herring Magazine Cover

But, in 1994, Red Herring was ~8 (?) memographed pages, cost $12 (?), published every 2 months (?), and available at only a few newsstands. That was it. I knew there was more material at Stanford and Harvard business schools but I couldn’t get to it. There was nothing else. Today, 20 years later, the difference is *profound*. Many of the leading theorists and practitioners share *huge* amounts of info for free. That’s a big difference in Silicon Valley, but what I hear every day from people all over the world is what a big difference it’s making everywhere else.

A 14-year-old kid in Indonesia w/smartphone has access to 10,000x more info on tech and startups today than I did in Palo Alto 20 years ago and the cycle is closing: there is startlingly profound new thinking happening all over the world and coming right back to Silicon Valley. In our industry, it’s hard to underestimate the consequences of a positive feedback loop and this is a positive feedback loop.

Assumption *must* be: Tech entrepreneurship all over the world is going to expand a thousand fold in the next 20 years. How could it not?

Source Tweets: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12