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August 9, 2011

Sound thinking for unsound times

A note to early-stage companies everywhere:

The public markets are in panic. Global exchanges are getting crushed, with high-quality issues getting sold along with weaker securities. Cross-market correlations are trending towards 1. Gold is hitting new highs. This is not a pretty picture. And perhaps even worse, there are no easy solutions. “QE3” or other Government-sponsored measures to flood the market with liquidity are unlikely to provide much help, as this isn’t a crisis driven by illiquidity or even corporate or personal balance sheets: it’s about a fundamental lack of confidence in Governments’ (particularly Western Governments’) ability to enact sensible, long-term, needed reforms. At least in the near term, the macroeconomic backdrop is dismal at best.

However, while economic uncertainty will likely make consumers more careful with their spending, personal balance sheets are in a better place than they’ve been in quite some time. And even with unemployment at lousy and unacceptable levels, there is tremendous spending power across the consumer landscape. Products and services that provide consumers with differentiated experiences, make life easier and offer excellent value will still be successful. Further, large corporations are sitting on more cash than ever, having employed more conservative financial policies since the credit scare of 2008. This doesn’t mean they’re flashing around their checkbooks, but that they are smart and savvy buyers with money to spend on products, services - and companies.

What does this mean for the early-stage financing environment? Uncertainty as a rule isn’t good for raising money, but it doesn’t mean the financing window is shut, either. My friend Albert raised this very issue in a post last week, noting that if a company is in fund-raising mode, it should get its deal done ASAP and not get cute by optimizing for valuation. Available runway is key to weather market uncertainty, and this is far more important than trying to squeeze the last dollar out of valuation. And is always the case, getting the right investment partner is far more important than valuation, anyway. So for those in financing mode, my advice would closely reflect that of Albert: get it done, and try to sock away 18-24 months of runway. Also make sure that you have some “flex” in your projections, with an ability to expand and contract spending based upon market demand, macroeconomic environment and financing conditions. Remaining flexible and nimble should always be the goal but especially in periods of uncertainty.

But most of all, continue to execute your plan. Remember, there are three activities that make up a business: Operating; Investing; and Financing. In early-stage venture, an inordinate amount of time is spent on the Financing piece of the equation, and for good reason: with inadequate financing there is no company, which is why the start-up CEOs #1 job is not to run out of money. But once this issue is addressed as best it can be, Operating and Investing decisions need to carry the day. How the business is being built to scale. Which markets and customers are being prioritized. Which roles are being filled, and when. These are the decisions that ultimately build real value: the Financing decisions are merely the enabler.

So let’s be clear: make sure you’ve got enough financial resources to hit key operational milestones with some flexibility in your plans to deal with lousy financing conditions. But then continue to do what you do best: build your business. Control what you can control but let go of generalized anxiety. Block out the noise. Maintain your laser focus. And execute, execute, execute. Because even in uncertain times those whose business performance demonstrates predictability get handsomely rewarded. Just work to make sure that yours is one of those businesses.

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