How to survive 'the new future'

Bill Reichert says there are lots of ways in which entrepreneurs can get started without venture capital, even in these gruesome times. Photo / Andy Lukey
Bill Reichert says there are lots of ways in which entrepreneurs can get started without venture capital, even in these gruesome times. Photo / Andy Lukey

In every clever start-up, there is always someone who sees the glass as half full. And if that person is lucky, says American venture capitalist Bill Reichert, there will be another person who is convinced it's half empty.

It might sound like a recipe for a fractious partnership, but in fact another ingredient is also vital, he believes - an engineering type who will inevitably point out that the glass was too big to begin with.

The point of this parable, says Reichert, is that entrepreneurs by their very nature tend to be optimists. But in the current economic environment, a bit of pessimism and a little realism can be helpful, too.

As the managing director of Silicon Valley VC fund Garage Technology Ventures, Reichert is all too familiar with all three mindsets. For the past two decades he has helped found and run several software and science-based businesses, and has witnessed most of California's financial fads first-hand.

One of his early ventures was a company that developed digital pens intended to eventually replace keyboards. Sadly, he sighs, the idea was at least 20 years ahead of its time.

In 1988, with the dotcom boom taking off, a friend invited him to join a venture capital firm then known as Garage.com.

When the supply of early-stage venture capital dried up in 2002, Garage decided to focus on seed investment instead, plugging a gap between angel investors and traditional VC funds.

Since then, there has been the clean tech bubble and the social networking craze. The latest bandwagon is cloud computing, but Reichert is determined to keep his feet on the ground. Garage's investments include companies such as D.light Design, which makes cheap, solar-powered lights intended for use in the developing countries of Asia and Africa.

Invited to New Zealand last week to talk to Kiwi entrepreneurs at pow-wows in Wellington and Waitangi, Reichert admitted the mood in Silicon Valley these days was sombre.

"It's like the story of hitting your head against a wall - it feels much better when you stop. But at least we're not hitting our head against a wall any more. It was extraordinarily anxiety-producing for several months in there. People were suggesting there was indeed a chance that the world would come to an end."

That said, a bit of perspective helps. Reichert notes his grandfather faced much tougher times when trying to set up his own business in Chicago in the 1920s.

Having survived the Spanish Flu, he then had to survive the Depression. To keep the business afloat, all staff took massive pay cuts. And when the business finally recovered, his grandfather helped many of his neighbours pay their mortgages. He knew that if he didn't, the entire neighbourhood would collapse.

These days there is plenty of empty real estate in Silicon Valley, and plenty of people taking massive pay cuts.

It's much harder to exit investments, or find anyone with money to invest in the first place, and business owners are having to adjust to valuations being much lower than they once were.

But entrepreneurship is still the engine of progress, so it's simply a matter of getting on with it, says Reichert, and figuring out "new ways to play the game".

"The very good news is there are lots of ways in which entrepreneurs can get started without venture capital, even in these gruesome times."

Options include developing close relationships with universities, and spinning new companies out of old ones. And there is, of course, the traditional approach: "You don't quit your day job but you work nights and weekends with your buddies in the garage to hack something together, and, lo and behold, you might actually be able to get a customer."

Earlier in his career Reichert worked at McKinsey, Brown Brothers Harriman, and the World Bank. He has degrees from Harvard and Stanford, and among other things is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

He has been around long enough to know that it is unlikely that the financial world has fundamentally changed, as some would have us believe. That said, he is not above providing 10 of his own top tips for entrepreneurs and investors on how to cope with "the new future".

1. Create value
It's no longer just about wealth, apparently. It's also about "finding products and services that customers really want and continuously improving them and getting them to increase their purchases". Who knew? Well, not the guys at AIG's financial products division, obviously. Nor the people who are trying to create the next Facebook or Twitter, says Reichert. "There are too many entrepreneurs trying to chase a fad that's going on in the tech community rather than taking a core, novel technology and creating something that's sustainable and has lasting value."

2. You need a brilliant team
Sorry, but it's not just about you. Contrary to popular belief, Microsoft is the result of a great team and so is Apple. It's important, therefore, that entrepreneurs seek out people with complementary skills and attitudes. Every start-up, for example, needs at least one pessimist. "Generally it's the CFO, but it's someone who sits there and says: 'We're going to run out of money if this doesn't play out the way we thought it would."' There also needs to be someone who will rebel against groupthink, and reveal what the customers and the market really think.

3. Create a mantra
Mission statements are so 90s. "The point is, it can be great fun spending an afternoon in the conference room and assigning some colleagues adjectives and some colleagues nouns, and putting together a mission statement, but the reality is what you really want to do is find the phrase that you're really focused on." FedEx's mantra - "If you absolutely, positively have to get it there the next day" - is as good an example as any.

4. Get going
"Plan the work, then work to plan" sounded good, but jumping in and just giving it a go can also be fruitful, says Reichert. "The reality is that in today's world the best way to figure out where you're going and how you're going to get there is to get out in the marketplace and talk to your customers and understand your competitors, and walk the streets and burn some shoe leather."

5. Bootstrap
Wake up and smell the instant coffee. "The chances right now of going out and starting up a company and raising venture capital are very low, in New Zealand or in Silicon Valley or anywhere else on the planet," says Reichert - and he should know. The good news? VC funds didn't even exist a few decades ago, so you're going to have to do it the old-fashioned way - by going out and selling a service, or a product, and slowly building up a business. Who knows, if you can prove you don't actually need the money, a VC fund might eventually decide you're interesting after all.

6. Know-how is global
Kiwis don't have a monopoly on ingenuity. Americans might not be as obsessed as we are with number 8 wire, but they are equally proud of what they can do with duct tape and a can of WD-40 - and the sooner we realise that, the better. New Zealanders do, however, have one advantage - we're used to the idea that we might have to export to make a decent living. In fact, it's imperative these days, says Reichert. "You don't have to start selling overseas from day one but you've got to have an international strategy from day one."

7. Be a fast adapter
Facebook's triumph over MySpace proves that the first mover does not always have the advantage. In fact, the great companies of the future are probably going to be built on technologies that have already been invented. Steve Jobs didn't invent the MP3 player, and Bill Gates did not invent the PC operating system. "What they all were able to do is grab innovations they saw around them, integrate them in innovative ways, and figure out how to turn those into businesses."

8. Everyone has to sell
Yes, you could build it - but they might not come. If Reichert had a dollar for every entrepreneur who has told him that their product is just what the world has been waiting for, he could have launched a whole new fund by now. "Everybody has got to know how to go out to the customers, find out what the customers really want, and figure out a way to satisfy those customers ... If you're inward bound on your technology and the cleverness of it, and hiding behind computer screens, you're not going to make it."

9. Change takes time
We all know about Moore's Law, but who can name the most rapidly adopted technology of the 20th century? According to the Wall Street Journal, which commissioned the research, it was radio, followed by television. The internet took ages. The lesson for entrepreneurs is that the world is probably not going to change as fast as you hope. Think about all the futuristic things we dreamed about decades ago - very few have actually happened. The good news, though, is that means there is plenty left to do.

10. People trump technology
Great technology will probably fail without great people driving it. Get it into your head now, says Reichert: "If you don't take into consideration that your success depends on how you hire people into your company and how you understand the marketplace and even your competitors, then [you probably won't make it]."

- NZ Herald

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