Startups are friggin’ hard. Some win despite incredible ineptitude. Some lose despite extreme effort and planetary alignment.
A few startups are really big winners, and some are incredibly huge losers. I learn from each of my startups, and try to identify useful fundamentals of the big winners and losers.
Making the really big loser list – last week, investors pulled the plug on the Silicon Valley startup “Juicero” that sold a ridiculous $700 smart kitchen appliance to a lot of not so smart people. The huge counter-occupying device squeezed juice from a bag of fruits and vegetables into a glass. REALLY? The company received $100 million in venture capital – an insane amount that was more than the average exit value of early Silicon Valley startups.
Welcome to the ranks of the biggest losers. Juicero joins Pets.com (lost $147 million in 1999), and Webvan.com grocery delivery service whose stock tanked from $30 / share to 6¢ / share after raising $375 million. Disney wrote off $790 million when it shuttered GO.com. Despite the best laid business plans, all of these companies were what I call PCAMs: “Product-Chasing-a-Market” companies.
In hindsight, (and frankly, as many smart onlookers anticipated) Juicero’s demise was in the cards from day-one. I saw nothing that would justify the initial investment – never mind the Series B and C rounds. Not the market (too small, discretionary), the product (huge, cumbersome and expensive), the technology (mere humans could squeeze the juice from the bags with their bare hands).
Yet the investment insanity, the Silicon Valley “smart money”, continued flowing for 2-1/2 years. With a mere $3 million in sales, investors finally began to feel like they were being squeezed. Tons of cash can’t make remodel the foundational core of bad startup.
“Silicon lemmings” as Paul Wallbank calls them; he says “Despite their self proclaimed belief in thinking different, many of today’s internet entrepreneurs tend to travel in flocks and follow the whichever business model is currently being hyped by Silicon Valley’s insiders.”
How friggin hard would it have been for a seriously interested investor to take home a Juicero, throw it on the floor, break it, step on the bag of juice to see what happens, and get their hands dirty before dumping $10 million behind a few “trusted” lead investors?
Anyway – Juicero’s obit will be rewritten 100 times over, one day becoming an infamous Harvard MBA case study, but here’s my perspective:
- The entrepreneur was a forward looking salesman, detached from hands-on reality, caught up by his own narcissism, and that was:
- Misinterpreting narcissism as “genius” by a first, a second, then by a room full of investors, the smart money lacked the 20-20 hindsight they should have learned by looking back at Juicero two years from now. Think about that for a moment!
Yes, that sounds a bit CONVOLUTED. How can you see forward once you have 20-20 hindsight from a future that hasn’t yet happened? Virtually!
That’s what Mel Epstein, taught me decades ago. While each of my startups is another midterm test, my grades are improving with time. Yep – I received an “F” on my own PCAMs, but even those helped me to progressively sharpen my forward vision.
My forward looking roadmap for Unicorn, Inc, $ billion exit circa 2022 is built on a clear 20-20 hindsight.