Friday, April 27, 2012

Ideas are Cheap

I know the guys that invented the Internet--no really, and he wasn’t even the Vice President--but seriously, in 1980 a good friend made the observation that the intranet at our university should be the basis of a global communication system. After a few more beers, he had painted a vision of IP telephony, e-commerce, and many of the other innovations we now take for granted. He had a brilliant vision, but limited ability to execute on it; in fact, no real desire to do the work necessary to execute on it. Not to criticize Dave; after all, I was renowned in my University days for always saying "Just shut up and do it"--imagine if I'd bothered to TM that. ;-)

I also spent a lot of time in my first company writing my own patents because I couldn't afford to pay an attorney--I highly value IP, but it's a love-hate relationship because IP fools you into thinking you have invented something. To me, invention, or rather innovation, is all about executing on the vision and delivering the change. Now, clearly, there are instances where someone invents something clever, tries to commercialize it, and another company does it better and a IP lawsuit results. Ultimately, products must be born of innovation, but unfortunately IP is more often used by Trolls to stifle innovation and competition. Sure, there are times when a company refuses a fair license agreement and get what they deserve as a result, but as an investor it's rare to find an inventor, especially in a university that has a realistic perspective on the value of an idea. If you have ever negotiated with a university to license IP, you will likely share this feeling about IP.

I had an interesting experience recently with a university outside the valley; the meeting started with reading the riot act about what the university wouldn't put up with, and then went into a diatribe around knowing all about how VCs operate. Now I admit my brethren in other countries to operate quite differently to those in the valley, and there is probably justification for considerable negativity. Anyway, it was an interesting opening negotiating position. It stemmed from a bunch of things--but recognizing that I had already spent a lot of time with the inventors and worked with them in arranging investor meetings, customer meetings, diligence, getting market data, and creating the plan, the assumption was that I was already half-pregnant so I had a lot to lose.

The problem with this adversarial approach, aside from the fact that life is just too short (see earlier blog), is that early-stage investing is a partnership--if it's being done right, the VC is part of the founding team and gets their hands dirty in the trenches alongside the founders. When someone starts trying to use the work you did to help them against you, it's indicative of a zero-sum gain mindset--clearly, it's one form of business leverage, but it's a transactional view that burns the relationship for short-term gain. You don't ever want to work with people like that--even if you are just doing a transaction. Many, many people live and thrive in zero-sum gain ecosystems, but they rarely create anything, so why bother?

Having walked away from the deal I had helped create, I then experienced the irony of having a series of players from the original investors, independent BoD members, and some of the founders come back over the next year and pitch me my idea It still sounded pretty good, but they were so busy competing with each other to steal the idea that none of them actually delivered it. Lawsuits were threatened, sabers rattled, and ultimately everyone walked and the original company died. Which is the other problem with a zero-sum gain mindset--there isn’t anything left to go around. :-)

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