Brad Feld at Feld Thoughts posted a slide by Adam Smith relating the Southpark underpants gnomes to pitching venture capitalists. The slides were meant to demonstrate how not to sell an idea to a venture capitalist. I understand the point, but I think if venture capitalists find themselves listening to gnome-like business plans they themselves are partly to blame.
Brad’s posted the clip from the Southpark episode, so I’ll just give a quick recap of the gnomes’ three phase plan:
The hardest part of any startup is figuring out Phase 2. Phase 1 is easy; it’s doing what you do best. For a software company, that means making software. For an author, it’s writing a book. For an artist, it’s creating art. Phase 3 is the goal: Making money, achieving fame, winning awards, etc. Phase 2 is the trick: finding a way to get from doing what you do best to the ultimate goal.
Often, someone starting out has only the talent and the dream. Figuring out how to make the dream a reality is a combination of hard work and dumb luck.
The idea behind venture capital is not simply to give new startups access to seed money. There are plenty of ways to raise funds. You could take out a business loan, put a second mortgage on the house, or hit up friends and family for cash. Part of the reason why startups turn to a venture capitalists is to get the benefit of their experience with other startups. In other words, it’s to get help with Phase 2.
Many of the current Web 2.0 darlings succeeded without any sort of business plan at all. YouTube was losing money hand over fist and had several copyright infringement lawsuits pending when Google rescued them. Google themselves nearly went broke before they hit upon the advertising formula that powers the attention economy. Facebook hasn’t figured out their model yet. Twitter has no means of visible support beyond VC backing. With these examples in mind, it’s hard to blame startup founders for glossing over Phase 2.
Yes, build it and they will come is the call of hopeful idealists everywhere. But boundless optimism is a necessary requirement for an entrepreneur. It goes with the territory. Venture capitalists, of all people, should appreciate that.