Don’t bother saying you are sorry: How VCs hurt me and the industry

Dr Leda Glyptis 11:FS Foundry CEO
5min read

Disclaimer: Yes the piece is entirely structured around the lyrics of a Pulp song.
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You take up my time. Like some cheap magazine. When I could have been learning something. Oh well, you know what I mean

This is not a piece against Venture Capitals, contrary to what the title may suggest. Some of my best friends are VCs and all that. They serve a purpose. They do a thing well. And depending on your vantage point, they do that thing exceptionally, uncannily well. If the vantage point is the VC itself, the wealth-creation part, the valuation part, the exit part.

VCs are awesome at making money and money is something we all like.

VC activity is also great at energising a sector. At drawing attention and igniting activity, if nothing else, in an endless beauty pageant for VC favours. What VCs are not there for, is creating long-term, industrialised business sustainability.

Their model is build and exit. The next part is the next guy’s gig. Which works. There is value and a place for it. What there is no value or place for, is for that to be the operating model of an entire industry. And that is not the VCs fault.

It is ours.

I’ve done this before, and I will do this again, come on and kill me baby, while you smile like a friend

The VCs are doing their thing and doing it well. What are we doing?

Over the last 10 years, as bankers we emulated the VCs ways, invited the startups to beauty pageants with the promise of investment (a type of investment that banks barely understand and which, again, is not the VC’s fault but remains symptomatic of the problem). As startups, we came to the table for whatever conversation was on offer. Capital? Sure. We want to grow the business, you want to invest, let’s do this thing. Giving you a slice of our dream for the chance of building it sounds fair.

10 years on, there have been a lot of little investments.

A lot of zombie startups, neither dead nor quite alive, have resulted from those. Alive enough to make it through the year. Too restricted to grow or scale. The money only stretching as far as the next corporate accelerator or raising round.

A few unicorns have also ensued. Fast-paced, growth-focused firms strewing their path with increasingly dissatisfied customers and burnt out employees, racing to an exit and leaving the scaling sustainability of their business to the next guy, once the valuation has rocketed and the exit is secured.

The rest is frustrated hopes, ideas that never got past the first heady year and people who had to go back to a corporate job and forever wonder what went wrong.

Like a car crash, I can see but I just can’t avoid

Folks get defensive when I say things like that but the reality remains that I love this industry and I worry about what we are doing to it. Digital natives are transforming the way we think about banking, forcing bankers to do better and be better and giving consumers confidence that better is not just possible. It is to be expected.

If startups focus more on their valuation than their profitability, keep an eye on top line growth rather than sustainable scaling, cognitive dissonance will ensue.

What that looks like when it is at home, is service going downhill as the user base grows, the company becoming little more than a logo after a successful exit. Burst balloons and frustrated hopes. Some folks will get very rich. Wealth creation, check. And I have absolutely nothing against that.

What I have an issue with, is the mentality we are falling prey to that exit-readiness is the metric we should assess success by.

  • What if you want to build a business? Actually build it, not just start it?
  • What if you want money (who doesn’t) but not an exit? What if your dream is the thing you are building now, not the thing you will do next?

Then the valuation is one of many metrics.

  • Customer dissatisfaction and employee churn become extremely important indicators of health. Not just growing pains.
  • Customer retention, profitability and a focus on ‘good profits’ become vital. I am not saying one is right and the other is wrong.

I am saying one is a sustainable model for industry-wide adoption, the other is not.

And I am saying I know which type of firm I would rather work for.

You are the cut that makes me hide my face

Read the ‘fintech’ news in any paper and it is all about valuations, exits and funding rounds. I don’t mean that is also in the news. That is the news. And yet that is the least interesting thing happening in the industry.

The problems these startups are solving, the way they are solving them, the way they deploy technology, challenge go to market strategies and create new structures for growth - for themselves and their people - that’s the news. And yet capital raising is all we talk about.

We are all guilty of this.

Carrying the seriousness of the old world into the new. Surely money talks and those numbers are an indication our industry is coming of age.

But are they?

Billions ‘spent’ or invested tell me nothing about where we are in terms of evolution and, I will say it again, sustainability. And I want this change to be sustainable. I want this dramatic recalibration of business practices, putting consumers at the centre of everything and challenging us to imagine a world that is aligned to purpose to be sustainable.

I want this transformation to take root and last. It will democratise access and humanise finance. And let’s face it, we all need finance in our lives. We don’t want it, but we need it. From building dams to buying ice cream, the money system is there in everything we do. And I just want it to keep getting better and to get better we need to keep on keeping on.

Not everyone can exit. But more to the point, we can’t afford to have all the best guys trying to exit. Because succeed or fail, they will do the wrong things along the way in the name of valuation.

Oh and I’ll come running… Just to do it again

So as a friend. To the startup and the VC, the banker and the pundit. As a friend of this industry and above all as a friend to the consumer, the businessman and the scientist who leverage financial services to live, build and create; we can do better than this.

I am not talking to you VCs (we are cool, you keep doing your thing). I am talking to you commentators; cut it out. Focus on the creativity, focus on the business, focus on sustainability. Change the stories and help us change our metrics of what good looks like, as an industry.

And I am talking to you, startups. Exit away and be rich. I actually celebrate for and with you. But don’t build a business to that end. Build a business that happens to lead you to a successful exit. Don’t turn a business idea into a valuation-beast, an exit-vehicle. Exits should be a successful culmination, not the thing you work towards. We have an industry to transform.

Let making money be the happy side effect of this transformation.

Don’t make it the only game in town. Because that’s the opposite of change. We have seen this movie before, and it didn’t end well for our communities.