Much has been written recently about VC and start-up angst in the wake to today’s – and likely tomorrow’s – poor market conditions. Some analysts, myself included, see this malaise possibly lasting well into the next decade. Albert Wenger wrote a worthwhile summary of where the overall early-stage investment mind-set is right now. In short, it’s not pretty.
I have taken a somewhat less draconian view of things, but that is not to say that I haven’t changed my behaviours to reflect macroeconomic reality, the current opportunity set and the factor exposures of my portfolio. Over the past two years my investments have had a heavy digital media focus, with many directly or indirectly related to the advertising industry. Most have a significant data component, where the business generates valuable data from which even more valuable metadata can be extracted and monetized. I have been pretty happy with the performance of my portfolio to date.
That said, these next several years do not look promising for advertising in general, notwithstanding the fact that many successful early-stage companies in the space will emerge from the rubble as profitable, formidable enterprises. I feel a need to better diversify my portfolio exposures, and I have been fortunate to see several attractive deals in different spaces that I believe will fare much better in an economic down-cycle.
My investment criteria, as general matter, can be described as the following:
- 2-3 person teams, with a CEO who is the product visionary
- A strong technology lead
- A CEO who has infectious passion and intensity, yet is humble and coachable
- A business model that I can understand in 30 seconds without visual aids
- The company has a prototype/alpha version that is currently being challenged by users and generating feedback
- An ability to generate revenues in 6-9 months
- A business that needs no more than $1-$2 million in financing to become a $25-$50 million (exit value) company, simply by executing the core business plan
- A business that has an inherent call option, that could boost its base-line exit value by at least 10x
While not every one of my investments share all of these characteristics, most do. I have done some deals, however, in order to learn about a particular sector, where I figured an exit would be at a much lower dollar value but where the knowledge would be worth it, e.g., Wallstrip, MyTrade. Given the uncertainty of ad spending, the tremendous dollars going into digital media, the increasingly competitive landscape and the jittery global financial markets, I have added a few criteria to my check-list:
- Initially sells to the enterprise for branding, credibility, awareness and early revenues
- Can get to revenues within 6 months, tops
- Is sold on the basis of ROI, e.g., helps generate revenues or reduce headcount/costs
- Integrates easily with existing platforms and/or programs
- Either leverages existing open source programs or can itself become partially or fully open source
- Has multiple revenue streams, e.g., software, maintenance, services, etc.
In short, while I am still looking at and working on deals in digital media, I am far more focused on enterprise-scale, ROI-driven technology solutions. These are the kinds of companies/products that will thrive in any environment, even when budgets are tight. And in a poor economy, companies really need to find better, cheaper, and more efficient ways of operating. Interestingly, this has led me to look at several deals at the intersection of web services, network performance and cloud computing. More and more enterprises will shift portions of their processing, services and storage to the cloud, as the imperatives of cost reduction, scalability and flexibility take hold. This is a megatrend that will play out over the next several years, and present many attractive investment opportunities, even when most other areas look pretty lousy.
So this old dog is learning some new tricks, and I’m sure I’m not the only one focused on adapting given the global chaos that promises to be around for some time.
Roger Ehrenberg is a
who now runs
, his personal investment vehicle. IA Capital’s investments include Silicon Alley Media, SAI’s parent company. He blogs at
, where this post was originally published.