Frugal Is As Frugal Does

frugal.JPGRichard White, author of The Entrepreneur’s Manual, surveyed a number of venture capitalists, asking them to identify the characteristics of successful, serial entrepreneurs.

One of the attributes identified by all of the venture capitalists questioned was, “Frugal use of capital”. In fact, several of the venture capitalists pointed out that successful entrepreneurs often have to be encouraged and pushed to spend more aggressively. Successful, serial entrepreneurs on The Fringe instill an urgent sense of frugality into their adVenture’s corporate culture.

“Bah humbug” you say? Read on.

Mayday Mayday

The most prevalent cause of private aviation accidents is running out of fuel. In these instances, the amateur pilot miscalculates the amount of gas required to reach his destination. A number of issues can impact gas usage, including the speed of headwinds, unexpected FAA requests to modify the route, average altitude flown, cargo weight, number of passengers, etc. A mistaken assumption in any one of these areas can result in a crash landing, and the pilot’s grieving family on the 11:00 news.

Cash is the fuel in your corporate gas tank. You will not reach your destination without it. Your adVenture’s journey is akin to a trip across the desert with no gas stations in route. When you embark on your journey, it is prudent to plan on crossing the desert on a single tank of gas. You cannot afford to speed, gun the engine, take detours, or spend your precious cash on a killer stereo to entertain you during your trek. If there happens to be a gas station along the way where you can fill up for a reasonable price, great. However, do not count on it.

Living Below Your Means

Frugality was missing-in-action at many bubble-era Dot Bomb companies. In many cases, these companies were led by untested and unproven entrepreneurs who did not understand the importance of frugality.

In fact, in 2000, I helped raise $30 million at an $80 million pre-money valuation – for a startup with absolutely zero revenue. After we closed this funding round, I vividly recall a conversation with a Senior Engineer who was aghast that I was not willing to commit millions of dollars to a billboard campaign in Times Square. His argument was, “What’s the risk? If it doesn’t work, we can just raise some more money.” This is not an apocryphal story. These words were actually uttered by an otherwise intelligent human being. This absurd statement caused me to realize that I had done a poor job of instilling a sense of frugality into our organization.

Along with Selling (see Be Like Sam) and Networking (see Making Stone Soup and Personal Pitch), negotiating is one of the vital skills that must be embodied at your startup. These skills are applicable to everyone in your organization. The practice of these skills should be encouraged until they become an integral aspect of your corporate culture. ALL of your employees must sell, network and spend the company’s money as if it were their own.

Most rational adults are fairly judicious with their own money (obviously to varying degrees), but these same adults often spend their company’s money as if it is an infinite resource. One way to combat this inclination is to instill a sense of pride in not paying full price. For instance, whenever someone at your venture saves your company money, send a company-wide email acknowledging the money saved. Although some of these emails will highlight relatively small savings, these communications will serve as a reminder that every member of the team should keep their eyes and ears open to money saving opportunities. It will also create a forum to acknowledge and reward employees who put into practice this important aspect of your corporate culture.

By publicly acknowledging employees’ efforts to spend the company’s money wisely at the aforementioned startup, we went from the spendthrift mindset uttered by the Senior Engineer to a culture in which employees stopped me in the hall to tell me how they had saved the company $50. See Bang a Gong for other tips related to celebrating your team’s small victories.

If you are embarrassed to ask for a discount, you are not an entrepreneur on The Fringe. You should be embarrassed to pay full price. Encourage all of your employees to ask, “Is that your best price?” when they rent a car, check into a hotel, buy paper for the copier, etc. This simple question will result in real savings and will help to ensure that your employees spend the company’s money as if it were their own.

Every dollar your team spends in a non-productive fashion has a direct impact on each employee, irrespective of the stage of your adVenture. In the early stages it equates to an additional dollar that must be raised in a future funding round, thereby increasing the relative dilutive impact of such a round. In a company’s latter stages, a wasted dollar directly impacts the company’s valuation, which is often derived as a multiple of the company’s net income.

Enter Liquidator Larry

The manner in which you and your employees spend your precious cash should have no correlation to how much money you have in the bank.

Case in point. Despite the fact that we had over $30 million in cash in the bank, I dubbed one of our salespeople “Liquidator Larry”, due to his talent for purchasing used office equipment and furniture from failing, wastrel companies. Our adVenture was located in an incubator, and as each Dot Bomb went up in flames, we purchased their office equipment (and sometimes even their office supplies) in conjunction with taking over their office space. In fact, in some cases, we were able to acquire a sizable amount of office equipment and furniture for free, in exchange for relieving the failed companies of their lease obligation. Go ahead and blush Mr. Karl Marx - Darwinian economics is a beautiful thing, especially when you are on the victorious side of corporate evolution.

Another Reason to Be Like Bill

For many years after Microsoft became highly successful, its executives (yes, including Mr. Gates) flew coach. Clearly they could have afforded more luxurious accommodations. However, Gates and company realized that there were far more productive uses of Microsoft’s cash than to expend it to ensure the temporal comfort of a handful of traveling Executives.

Be like Bill. Spend your money on assets that will deliver a Return on Investment (“ROI”). Do not purchase mahogany office furniture and Aeron chairs. In a few select instances, such showy spending might be warranted, especially in the public aspects of your business (e.g., the lobby, customer training rooms, etc.). However, when outfitting your offices, keep your ego in check – only purchase expensive accoutrements if they will directly lead to incremental sales.

As noted in Entrepreneurial Enterviewing, do not hire employees who value such non-monetizable creature comforts. Focus on making your employees comfortable by focusing the company’s expenditures on acquiring productive assets which will maximize the value of their equity and ensure that they will be consistently receive a paycheck every two weeks. A mahogany desk or a blowout Holiday Party will not motivate employees who are on the brink of losing their jobs. In fact, non-ROI spending will ultimately fuel resentment and disillusionment and cause employees to ask the very reasonable question, “What is valued more at this startup? Executive perks, lavish parties, fancy furniture, or the employees?”

Hey, I saw you roll your eyes. Go ahead, ignore this advice. Live large, go for it. By acquiring non-productive, high-end accouterments you will eventually jumpstart the efforts of an entrepreneur on The Fringe who will picked up your expensive acquisitions for pennies on the dollar. So please, go big and then go home so a frugal entrepreneur can succeed in your spendthrift wake.

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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