Are the VC's to blame?
December 15, 2000 4:57 PM   Subscribe

Are the VC's to blame? Or did dot coms play a part in their own demise? Every good drama has a villain (or Villain Capitalist, as the evidence suggests), and when good people are getting caught in the crossfire it's highly tempting to typecast the role.
posted by webchick (28 comments total)
Gimme a break. While the VCs have some guilt as enablers, the bulk of the blame should go to crappy companies who had no idea that a business needs revenue and profits to survive as a going concern.

The "Idiot Entrepeneur" is as much to blame as anyone.
posted by owillis at 5:45 PM on December 15, 2000

Idiot entrepreneurs aren't good at getting or spending $20 million dollars.

VCs are good at getting those crazy amounts for anything (back in the heyday), and then stupid business decisions spend it (sometimes not made by the entrepreneur in charge). I keep thinking if there wasn't such a get-rich-quick goldrush that VCs jumped into, we wouldn't be seeing such a crash (because none of the stupid ideas would have ever gotten off the ground).

posted by mathowie at 7:03 PM on December 15, 2000

>and then stupid business decisions spend it
>(sometimes not made by the entrepreneur
>in charge)

And these "stupid decisions" are often made by management teams who are brought in long after a company was initially funded by the VCs (sometimes a condition of financing, sometimes not). Even the most well-defined and intentioned of companies can get watered down into a confused three-ring circus of internal political bullshit and external marketing rhetoric if the right team is not assembled. Once this happens, the vision is lost, the company is off course, and so much energy and resources are focused on fixing the problem that people have long forgotten what the prize was in the first place.

I'm not casting blame at any one just seems there is a whole lot of it to go around.
posted by webchick at 7:33 PM on December 15, 2000

forget the idiots, forget the flatulant biz plans.

Think of the yard sales!! Dot Commies collectables!!

IPO Tshirts!! christmas shopping is gonna be a gas this year.

You will also be able to staff your company for a song.

Of course, you will have to train them to use a computer, sit in one place for two hours at a time, and send them to cell phones anon, for six months.
posted by headlemur at 8:02 PM on December 15, 2000

Far be it from me ... but I feel obligated to point out the inherent bias in "good people etc." statements. What about the designers who spent six weeks making a crappy flash intro? What about the database architects who built specs that had nothing to do with the real world? What about the system administrators who wait until the site is in crushing overload before learning how to properly cluster? What about all of us who've had a free ride in this economy jumping from job to job to get the 20% pay increase instead of the 10% raise?

It's fun but it can't last forever.
posted by dhartung at 8:04 PM on December 15, 2000

>What about all of us who've had
>a free ride in this economy jumping
>from job to job to get the 20% pay
>increase instead of the 10% raise?

>It's fun but it can't last forever.

This is very true...perhaps our own na·ive·té helped escalate the problem? Although citing specific technological blunders could be an exercise in futility when dealing with what is essentially nascent technology. However, the opportunities were so incredibly alluring that many of us bought into the mania. In search of the opportunity of a lifetime, many people got greedy and uprooted lives to take part in the dot com gold rush. I agree with you 100% on that one.

(But I still believe the world is filled with all kinds of good people, from all walks of life. :-).
posted by webchick at 8:30 PM on December 15, 2000

and when good people are getting caught in the crossfire...

Simply put, there are no "good people" getting caught in the crossfire. Everyone is equally good, or equally evil, in this. The VCs and the CEOs and the employees are all in it for the money, mostly the fast money. That's not the way life generally works, and all involved knew that getting in. They chose to enter the firing range, and shouldn't be surprised when they get buckshot in the ass.
posted by aaron at 9:19 PM on December 15, 2000

Simply put, there are no "good people" getting caught in the crossfire.

WTF? Aaron, don't you know anyone that worked for a startup they liked that got laid off? Not everyone I know that works for a startup is in it for a pure money play. Most developers I know work for startups they like and build things they want people to use, it's not just a hope at getting their pockets lined.

I have a handful of very close friends that got the rug pulled out from under them, and I can tell you they didn't expect it nor enjoy being canned. They were laid off from jobs they loved, from companies they believed in.

No 'good people' my ass...
posted by mathowie at 10:34 PM on December 15, 2000

The failure of dotcoms is in the fact that everyone saw the web as this great new place to go and make a lot of money quickly and easily. Put the words "money", "quick" and "easy" into a sentence, make it beleivable and you'll have everyone and their grandmother jumping down your neck. Money went into dotcoms and money is still going into dotcoms. Lots of it. People are expecting to get their huge returns out of their fabulous dotcom businesses, but the reality is that their dream e-storefronts can't produce such large amounts of capital in such a short amount of time to compensate for the amount of effort and spending that went into getting things off the ground in the first place.The people who survive will be the ones who understand how things work, the ones who don't dive in head first and then jump ship when they realize there's no free lunch.
posted by tomorama at 10:48 PM on December 15, 2000

Not enough people seemed to me to be in it for the long play - that's a meta-analysis.

But there are and were people (good people, defining good as those who want to contribute something legitimate, lasting) in short money companies who were, and continue to be good people.

On the other hand, there are marketing and money people in it for the long build - people who got it (without knowing a whit of the tech behind it) and still get it and want to see it through. People who really DO want to change the world, in a small way.

There are totally legitimate, professional designers who went for the quick buck.

There are semi-pro people who can just barely hack it, but keep on in solid companies cause they can produce what's needed with little muss or fuss.

There are VCs who wanted to put their buddies in positions neither they nor their buddies understood.

There are VCs who have a great deal of experience in running companies who want to bring an iota of business discipline to great but wild companies who can't keep focused on a thing for more than a week.

A long essay saying not much - cause there's not that much to say. The people decrying the death of the web are just as full of it as those hypesters that got everyone jazzed a couple years ago. Both extremes are invalid - the trick is, for the people who really think they have something they have to contribute, to find the place in which a contribution can be made.

It's pretty simple, really.
posted by mikel at 12:47 AM on December 16, 2000

Having been shitcanned (oh, sorry..."workforce reduced") from a rather high profile dotcom only two days ago, I can tell you that it sucks about as much as you imagine it would.

Philosophize all you want about flawed business models, etc. When I walked through that office the day before yesterday, I saw scores of talented young people, saddened and scared by this unfortunate turn of events.

Just think.....You spend months working on a project, changing horses in midstream repeatedly at the whim of a doughy middle management nimrod who doesn't know jack about the industry that he's managing, keeping yourself sane only because you see real merit in the big picture. Come to work one day, and you get a handshake and a "Don't let the door hit you in the ass".

Point being, you kids can smugly tell yourselves that this or that was flawed from the start, but it is a real kick in the teeth to just up and lose your gig for no measurable reason. Have a little compassion, willya?
posted by Optamystic at 1:24 AM on December 16, 2000

There are VCs who have a great deal of experience in running companies who want to bring an iota of business discipline to great but wild companies who can't keep focused on a thing for more than a week.

As an operations manager NOT in the industry what has been most interesting to me is the changes in the rudimentary structure of the office environment. I have had many a chuckle seeing what are defined as accomidations to facilitate a creative environment. Some seemed like great ideas, but some of the offices I have visited seemed like montesory schools.
posted by jyoung at 7:30 AM on December 16, 2000

The reason I point the finger at VCs is because their money elevated them to positions of power, and, more often that not, that power was abused.

This is particularly true with companies that did show promise, where the entrepreneurial CEO had a legitimate vision and a solid business plan, but whose VC backers insisted that the business plan be altered to claim a) a larger share of the market b) in a shorter period of time c) through staffing like mad and d) making big media deals to attract eyeballs.

And then, when the CEO dutifully does this, and it all comes crashing around the .com, the VC washes their hands of the situation and moves on. Leaving the CEO holding the bag, and a lot of pink slips.

What bugs me is the attitude VCs exhibit that this is all a game. Like they're playing Monopoly. And if they lose, well, eh, we'll just play another round. It's an insensitive approach to that which has a real human cost.

posted by peterme at 7:37 AM on December 16, 2000

>What bugs me is the attitude VCs
>exhibit that this is all a game. Like
>they're playing Monopoly.

Yeah...but not all VCs are this way. Just as not all entrepreneurs are idiots (nor are they CEOs, for that matter), not all executive management teams are assholes, and not all web developers/designers are arrogant :-))

There are vicious people clawing and scratching their way to the top all along the food chain (just as there are good people being caught in the crossfire). It seems a shame when there is so much opportunity and resources (often supplied by VCs) that simply gets wasted. If everybody would work together maybe more of these legitimate visions would be realized. Instead people choose to focus on stock options, job titles, perks (and yes: a) market share, b) deadlines, c) staffing up, and d) attracting eyeballs)...instead of "changing the world".

Windows of opportunity don't open everyday. And perhaps if this one is closing a bit, more of the truly visionary entrepreneurs will hook up with the well-meaning people with the money.

"There are a very few lunatic entrepreneurs who will understand that culture and design are not about fatter wallets but about creating a future ... treat them well and use their money to change the world.” - Tibor Kalman

posted by webchick at 9:49 AM on December 16, 2000

Good people, Matt, who took a flyer on a risky business.
posted by dhartung at 10:13 AM on December 16, 2000

a relevant link: The day I killed my dot-com
posted by webchick at 11:21 AM on December 16, 2000

Here's a story from Toronto published several months ago: Death of a dot-com. I think it was linked to here before, but it seems apropos in this thread.

It's funny up here in Montreal in that we're pretty sheltered from a lot of this. One of the problems in Canada in general is that the VC climate is very much more conservative. Most dot-coms I know around here are entirely financed out of the US - but at much lower levels that many of the companies I read about.

Because we're so far away, I've always had the feeling that we're sort of unreal to the VCs. It's as if they say, "it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck... but what's a duck doing all the way up there in Montreal?"

I hope that contributes to the success of companies like the one I work for - in that the attitude throughout has always had to be quite different than some companies had in San Francisco or New York. We've been forced to look at the long term, at building something on solid revenues, not finance.
posted by mikel at 12:18 PM on December 16, 2000

What most people don't realize is how very bad an idea it was for most startup companies to take and live on venture capital dollars before their business model is truly proven.

Venture capital funds are entirely oriented towards achieving liquidity -- either through an IPO for the portfolio company or through the (rich) acquisition of a portfolio company by a public company.

No CEO of a dot-com can complain that his VC "forced" him to scale up too fast or market too much, or that his VC walked away from him after his scale-up efforts failed to produce an IPO or an acquisition or a clear "path" to either of them. That CEO knew, or should have known, that that was the VC's game all along.

The job of the VC's is to know the kinds of deals that can score those returns: to follow the markets and the investment bankers, just like they have for 30 years.

The real villains are the investment bankers who underwrote, and the securities analysts, business journalists and institutional investors who promoted IPOs for hundreds of content and commerce dot-coms, and software and consulting companies whose major business was to enable dot-coms without really thinking through their futures rigorously.

posted by MattD at 1:13 PM on December 16, 2000

All of the billions invested by VCs over the past few years could have been much better spent if they had diversified their investments into smaller lumps over a wider variety of companies and ideas. Instead of lavishing tens of millions on a new start up, which then just spends it on insanely expensive office space, insanely expensive superbowl commercials and insanely huge administrative, management, and marketing departments, give a few thousand to a few hundred thousand to small operations that may or may not have anywhere to go. Most wouldn't "make it" but the really high quality ideas would be able to grow slowly and do things the right way.

posted by daveadams at 1:51 PM on December 16, 2000

That sounds good Dave, but sometimes people like to bet a lot of money in order to make a lot of money.

One could argue that a diverse set of lower investments allows for less monitoring by the investors (they're too busy to keep tabs on 20+ companies), less chance of a big payout (low equity because of a small initial investment), and less chance of making a profit (if 18 go under and 2 are successful, most of their money is lost on bad ventures).
posted by mathowie at 2:05 PM on December 16, 2000

what bugs me is seeing businesses with an okay idea staffed with people with "big" credentials (harvard degrees and the like) but who don't understand *squat* about the web (or, in some cases, about basic business principles, as far as I can tell).

when *I* know more than some highly-paid, "highly-credentialled" vice president about what they're doing wrong with their business - but I'm just a contracter working for an agency that's doing a site for them - there's something wrong.

some of these people don't deserve to succeed and it's equally disheartening to me to see them do so. the worst thing is that when the business *does* fold, the people we're talking about here are screwed, and those who screwed it up will go on with another "credential" blaming everything but their incompetence for the failure of their business and land another cush job.

it *really* steams me.

posted by rebeccablood at 2:09 PM on December 16, 2000

It's not as if these people who got laid off are ruined for the rest of their lives -- no matter how much it looks this way at the moment. There are still a lot of opportunities out there in vast areas of the economy and society which have zilch to do with dotcoms including the non-profit and educational areas. If there were ever sectors of our society that were in need of a heavy infusion of talent, it's these, and the people coming in will find a greater sense of satisfaction than they ever would doing B2C.

Maybe one good effect of this dotcom shake-out is that it might just change people's attitudes as to what's worth pursuing for a career. The non-profit world pays diddly-squat, the resources are scarce, and attitudes on occasion may not be the most progressive but, again, it has its own rewards.
posted by leo at 4:45 PM on December 16, 2000

I would love to see the start-ups of the New Economy compared to the start-ups of, say, our parents' and grandparents' generation. I would not be surprised if the success rate was as bad then as it is now. (Then again, it's much easier to start a business now, and the spirit of entrepreneurism seems much stronger.)

But did our parents expect to be rich within just a few years, or were their goal merely sustenance? Was an IPO their exit strategy, or was profit? (I believe Andy Grove has said it's "immoral" to take a company public before it is profitable. I have always agreed, yet millions of people -- even "good people" -- have been attracted by the phrase "pre-IPO," as good a euphemism for "lottery ticket" as "previously owned" is for "used.")

Did Hewlett and Packard take Employee No. 5 out to buy Ikea furniture (or the 1939 equivalent)? I'm thinking they waited a few hundred employees before bothering to decorate.

Did our grandparents get free beer on Fridays?

Did our parents lease Jettas (or the 196x equivalent) while on their first professional jobs, or did they rely on public transportation and a hand-me-down beater? (I was a professor's brat, yet my family got by on a used VW Bug for 15 years before they bought their first new car.)

The current shakeout may be so hard to understand simply because out generation has not understood how good we have had it. Our parents and grandparents would have treated such things as "Free Lunch Fridays, fat health benefits and the liberal expense accounts" as extravagancies, not as entitlements.
posted by luke at 4:45 PM on December 16, 2000

Hm. Do you think "I was the CEO of three failed dot-coms" looks so impressive on a resume that an executive will really be able to go on to "land another cush job"? I know you think VCs are dumb, but I'm not convinced they're that dumb. I work for a relatively new company and our investors really put us under a fine-toothed comb, stopping just short of cavity searches of the executives, before they gave us any funding.
posted by kindall at 4:49 PM on December 16, 2000

>Do you think "I was the CEO of three failed dot-coms" looks so impressive on a resume that an executive will really be able to go on to "land another cush job"?<


this is the equivalent to hollywood, where if you *haven't* been fired from a few studios, it looks like you don't have any job experience.

the people I'm thinking of specifically were at the vice-president and sr staff levels, but there is always someone else to blame: the downturn in the economy, someone else in the organization.

one woman who comes to mind used to ream on people in meetings for things *she* had done; she was a master blamer.

trust me.

(as for the rank and file, I actually think they'll do fine, too. there are lots of opportunities.)

posted by rebeccablood at 5:09 PM on December 16, 2000

A few weeks ago the startup I was in closed shop when the VC pulled the plug.

It was a little disconcerting to find the CEO change the business plan constantly. His failure to stick with the initial vision and his insistance on trying to start big without getting a solid business plan with a solid product doomed us all.

There is really no point in trying to villainize people when it is more a matter of ignorance or incompetence. I still believe that the initial idea for the company was sound otherwise I would not have moved from Chicago to Seattle to join the company.
posted by john at 7:14 PM on December 16, 2000

It's easy to be wise in retrospect. Maybe people who blame others for ignorance and incompetence should try running a company themselves?

Personally, I'm grateful to VCs for paying my wage. If the company I work for goes under, I'm pretty sure I can get work elsewhere - unemployment is the lowest it's been for years and software engineers are in demand.

posted by andrew cooke at 7:56 AM on December 17, 2000

I just saw a TV show on the History channel, about the California gold rush...the one in 1849 that is. After the gold rush most people walked away with little more than they started with; perhaps less. But when asked if they regretted the experience the standard response was "no, I got to see the elephant."

The story went that a farmer, living his usual routine life, heard that a circus was coming into town. He was excited because he'd always wanted to see an elephant, so he hitched up his horse and wagon and went. On the outskirts he was fortunate to see the circus parade, led as was the custom, by the elephant. It was a marvelous sight for the farmer, but his horses were spooked, and his wagon ended up dumped in the ditch along with quite a few of his provisions. But at least he got to see the elephant.

I'm glad I got to see the elephant.
posted by bigdumbHoosier at 8:02 AM on December 28, 2000

« Older I'm not Brad F'n Pitt.   |   See this movie. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments