When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” he was referring to his late nineteenth century Victorian world where innovation was institutionally cherished as the doorway to progress, and the proverbial cream could invariably be counted upon to rise to the top of the industrial revolution. In the much more jaded 21st century, commercial innovation is taking a back seat to the far more ethereal elements of hype and buzz. Entrepreneurs who aren’t lucky enough to win over the “alleged heart” of Kevin O’Leary and his venture capitalist buddies on ABC’s Shark Tank, or are able to break through the phalanx of receptionists insulating the handful of Silicon Valley angels who are still funding, may discover that the road to innovation is paved with nothing more than bottomless potholes that waylay innovation and reward replication.
1 in 20 Chance of a 5th Birthday
Approximately one out of every twenty new businesses manages to celebrate its fifth birthday, so the venture capitalists can’t be overly denounced for their reticence when staring down the maw of a recessionary global economy. Venture capitalists are in the business of turning their investments into profit, thus their caution is understandable. Unfortunately the venture capitalist industry as a whole has a long string of facepalm failures in their past, which can lead to questions about their overall business savvy, and even their sanity.
Some of the most infamous venture capital blowouts include online grocery delivery company Webvan, which raised $800 million only to end up $830 million in the red; PointCast, which turned down a $400 million buy offer to later begrudgingly accept $7 million; and DeNovis, which found its $125 million venture capital investment to be insufficient to bring a single software title to market. The sorrowful list of venture capital funding-cremations also includes Amp’d Mobile at $360 million, Caspian Networks at $300 million and Procket at $272 million.
$280 Million for a Company with No Income Stream
One of the most hilarious knee-slapper venture capital dollar-burning sessions was instigated by Kozmo, a company that raised $280 million on a business plan that called for completely free delivery of anything, even a candy bar. How Kozmo’s executives managed to get notoriously meticulous venture capitalists to be blissfully unaware that their business plan was based on essentially no income stream is tantamount to British TV mentalist Derren Brown hypnotizing people in the middle of a crosswalk to suddenly be unable to move their legs.
“Replicate, Don’t Innovate” Is Killing Entrepreneurial Originality
Yet another reason why startup capital has become unobtainium has to do with the nature of the successful companies that find that appropriating an existing product or technology and giving it a specific spin is considerably preferable to originating completely new paradigms. The change from innovation to replication has been so gradual that many consumers and even business executives cannot be blamed for not noticing. Is there really any fundamental archetypical difference between the graphic user interface implemented on the operating system on the 1973 Xerox PARC Alto (later cloned by the Apple Mac) and today’s Windows 7… other than pretty colors? Not to mention that we are still entering words into our ultramodern computers with precisely the same keyboard layout first used in the 1878 Remington No. 2 typewriter. This crisis of “innovation stagnation” leads many to believe that the route to success is little more than corporate plagiarism.
Obtaining startup venture capital may be a tortuous route through an entrepreneurial Hades, but the transfer of a successful company can also be a morass, especially for the unsuspecting buyer. The Learning Company was an educational software company that was bought by Mattel for a jaw-dropping $3.8 billion. This transaction went on to be noted as one of the worst acquisitions in the history of corporate business, as Mattel soon sold the unit for a bare $27.3 million or less than one cent on the dollar. Who was that Learning Company executive who managed to hoodwink Mattel so thoroughly? That “heartless” Shark himself: Kevin O’Leary!