Victus Spiritus


VCs, Sprinting Horses till they Sweat

20 Sep 2010

Highly motivated individuals see only the world they wish to shape, and the barriers to their success

I came across a curious tale of psychological profiling while reading a New York Times piece early this morning. Just Manic Enough describes the hypomanic state of venture backed founders. In particular only a single dedicated founder was referred to, Seth Priebatsch, yet readers are lead to believe that startups with any hope of success, are lead by the next Howard Hughes (good and bad).

I've read dozens of stories about tireless founders who push a big idea forward with their relentless drive to succeed. In many ways that's an admirable trait. Self discipline is required for making a significant impact on the world with limited time and resources. Founders are heralded for working 80-90 hours a week. If they're on a mission, absolutely love what they do, and have a vested interest with others who rely on their success, one viable option is to spend every waking moment in pursuit of that life altering and social shifting venture. But why stop at 14 hour days?

To achieve a monumental goal, why not burn the candle at both ends using chemical enhancement and statistically documented physical regimens? Why not eek out 18 hour days from not only oneself, but form one's entire team? It's a mad dash right, so why not cut a few years off of the back end of life to WIN BIG now? The serious zealots won't stop at anything to see their vision made real.

Vectors to a Solvent Future

While this single mindedness may reward a business in the short term, I can't imagine a world in which it's sustainable. There's evidence that when core founders and early employees sprint for 3-10 years, they may nurture a nascent sector or disrupt a major market. In a financial market devoid of IPOs there is little choice of exit other than M&A acquisitions, with an outside chance of achieving high enough profits to buy out investors. I believe neither a healthy acquisition, nor a sustainable business will result from a burnt out team and leadership.

I suspect many fanatic founders and key producers will seek to exit as soon as legally possible for their next sprint or a temporary reprieve. For them the double trigger is preferred. These adept leaders and success junkies make terrible employees due to a lack of autonomy. How long do you imagine passionate workaholics will last buried in corporate systems, surrounded by managers that work eight hour days to optimize for reliability over creativity and drive?

We reap what we sow

How can a consumer driven society measure the lasting benefits of investing in hypomanics? Our current answer: "there are profits to be made now, so it's not my problem". What can be measured can be optimized. What is required to change behavior, is to review the system of reward. Longer term financial studies should be done on the historical lasting value of acquisitions. Investment patterns will change only when the motivation for explosive growth is tempered with sustainable social value. A price mechanism that determines acquisition pay outs over a longer window of observation would go a long way to changing the industry. But how many Angels and VCs will tolerate waiting even longer for successful exits?