September 19, 2011

Chasing the Rainbow: Startups and Incentives

Depending on one's role, the allure of working for a startup is the product you are building, the people you're impacting, or selfishly, what you can bring home at the end. While many talk of improving the world or impacting many users, or innovation, many others are driven by the potential that through IPO or acquisition or any other method, there is an opportunity to make money fast. It's the same reason "Get Rich Quick" ads on the backs of magazines were always popular. People love making money, and most don't always want to wait around for it. So you can buy lottery tickets, you can write an app, or you can be in business development.

The dot com boom that followed Netscape's IPO in 1995 seared Silicon Valley with the belief that anybody could turn an idea into riches. While obviously many companies before Netscape, like Apple, Oracle, Sun and Cisco, to name a few, had gone from idea to leader in a few years, the prolonged boom cycle that followed instilled what I see as a permanent chemical change into the collective psyche of the region. While many startups failed, enough did well so they were themselves participating in the next wave of new companies, playing roles as VCs or angel investors, if lucky, or setting off for a second, third, or even fourth time to hit it big, having caught the startup fever.

Since starting my own career in Silicon Valley in 1998 under the umbrella of everyone chasing after these riches, while in parallel starting companies, everywhere I have worked has had a future horizon that could potentially have a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, even if it seemed hopelessly naive at times.

Even Internet Valley, which had only three of us slaving away, talked about going public, revenue or not, and I joked that I hoped we would have a stock ticker of INTV, so that when Intel buyers accidentally hit INTV instead of INTC, we could get an artificial bump. At 3Cube, we raised $1M at a $10M valuation, then went back for another round that would see the valuation creep higher toward $50M or $100M. In 2000, that wasn't totally impossible, but we didn't exactly get there fast enough as the bubble was crashing, and the company was eventually sold to Oracle. At BlueArc, on the second day I joined, in January of 2001, I had a colleague say I was lucky to get in "before the IPO". We eventually filed six years later, and withdrew in 2008. Only this month did the company finally get acquired by HDS, giving the company's current employees and past shareholders some closure. No doubt my involvement with other companies as an advisor has had the potential for acquisition as well, although only BuzzGain has been acquired so far.

Even in hard times, the potential for financial magic remained on people's minds. I remember in one all hands meeting during the recession, after our CEO informed all of us that we had once again missed our internal sales targets, and that future news wasn't good, that one lonely engineer in the back raised his hand and asked about stock options and the potential to go public. I remember sitting, baffled, as to whether the engineer had heard the same news I did. Apparently he didn't, or he didn't connect one as impacting the other. While I had been happy to keep a consistent job during times of challenge, for others, the missed promise of riches versus reality made them frustrated with management, colleagues, or anyone who would listen. For them, creating something cool and bringing value to end users wasn't enough.

Being a key player in a startup where things seem to be just out of reach, but around the corner, can also be an incredible challenge. Too many times, I would have to tell my wife or friends or extended family to wait a few weeks until something would change. For an entire season, it could seem like things were "two weeks away", but the impetus to make change lay in someone else's hands.

Living a startup lifestyle for more than a decade has made me expect and accept many things that seem odd to those who haven't made it part of their fabric. The avoidance of vacation and sleep. The odd hours and inconsistent meals, the regular peaks and valleys of launches, releases, and announcements, and having to say no to things a lot more than one would otherwise want, seems odd to people who I know who are in the public sector, in education, or unchanging businesses. As we know, unfortunately, teachers can't have a liquidity event, even if they are just as deserving as some of the people you know who chose their career paths well.

Entrepreneurial behavior should be rewarded, and risk, coupled with innovation, sets one up on a track for seeing value in one's work. I have to wonder how many startups you run into that would behave differently if there were no potential to catch the rainbow. How much differently would they approach their product, growing their user base, and hustling from deal to deal, quarter to quarter?