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October 20, 2005

Lessons a VC learned from a good exit

Bill Burnham of Celsius Capital has a great post on the lessons he learned from investing in Datapower, a company that was recently acquired by IBM.

The entrepreneur "sometimes" knows his market better
Just after Datapower had launched its first product, a performance oriented appliance, Eugene lobbied for the company to accelerate the launch a second security oriented product that had been planned for a quarter or two in the future. At the time, I remember cautioning Eugene on the potential distractions and costs of having two immature products in the market at the same time. Eugene lobbied hard to take the risk and thankfully he won the day. I say thankfully because not only did the company land a $300K order that quarter for the security product, but it was able to establish significant mindshare in the security space well ahead of its competitors. To this day the security space continues to have the most robust market demand and competitors that failed to quickly launch a security product suffered in the market. The lesson for me in this was that VCs have to be careful not to micro-manage product development in a rapidly emerging market because demand can move very quickly and in unexpected ways.

# Shotgun Weddings Don’t Work.
...The lesson for me as an investor is that you should never insist on making a company hire a specific person a condition of investing as that dramatically raises the potential for conflict. You are much better off investing in advance and helping the company recruit someone great that everyone is 100% confident in.

# VCs can indeed be very unethical.
Prior to raising his first significant round of venture financing, Eugene had raised a seed round from a few individuals and a couple of investment funds, one of whom was a reasonably well known VC fund...Everything was ok until Eugene decided to raise his Series A financing. At that point the VC fund submitted what was clearly a low-ball term sheet and pushed very hard to close it. When Eugene objected to the terms and announced that he would try to generate some alternative offers to see if this was in fact “market” he found that he couldn’t get any traction with other Boston based VCs most of whom would either not meet with Eugene at all or who told him that they would not do the deal without also including the original VC (at the terms they had proposed). Now I don’t know if the original VC had an active campaign to try and discourage other investors from doing the deal, but they obviously knew that new investors would not want to do the deal without them (if the original investors don’t invest that is typically a big warning flag that something is wrong) and used that leverage to try and get a better deal... However after Eugene rejected their term sheet and instead ultimately accepted mine, the VC in question went ahead and not only invested in a competitor, but installed the same executive that they had installed at Datapower at their new investment. Within months, this competitor began spouting very similar marketing messages and appeared to be executing against a carbon copy of Datapower’s product and market roadmap.

Arun Natarajan is the Founder of Venture Intelligence India, which tracks venture capital activity in India and Indian-founded companies worldwide. View sample issues of TSJ Media's Venture Intelligence India newsletters and reports.