Tuesday, October 2, 2007

How close is Too Close?

A common axiom is “Invest in what you know.” I want to amend it. “Invest in what you know enough about… but not too much about.”

I’m struck by something I see in my own investing behavior. In the market areas I have spent years getting to know intimately, I have a natural tendency to be pessimistic when presented with a new approach. It is only natural to think that if I didn’t see that idea when I was in the thick of it, why should it be so successful now. I’ve spent years understanding all the pitfalls around a market area --- to use medical devices as an example, I know all the regulatory and reimbursement and hospital politics reasons why a new device play could fail. I understand all those failure paths in gruesome detail. I’ve experienced them all.

You spend most of your operating years working through or around problems. The victories you zoom right through, like General Patton’s armies. You spend more time bogged down in the trenches than racing across the plains. So, what makes you grizzled --- “experienced” --- is the scars. You built that ego on the problems you have encountered and blown through. Your ego can now potentially blur your ability to see that the time is right for a major disruption in that market, or a revolutionary product approach.

In effect I’ve lived my life in the world of the past. But --- and it’s a big but, I haven’t lived in the future, yet. I’m still trying to get there. I truly don’t know the pitfalls of the future that well. Yes, I can extrapolate from past experience. But I want to suggest that VCs with extensive operating backgrounds may tend to be too pessimistic about new ventures that seek to enter their old stomping grounds. It’s only natural to remember the painful parts of the past. And you tend to take the things in your past that went well as just the planned outcome. It is harder to remember the successes of the future --- you can quote me on that one. But I think grizzled VCs can easily project their past travails onto the future.

So I think it’s possible to be TOO close to a market. You get comfortable that you understand the market with all its ins and outs, and then you miss the big hairy disruptive idea out of left field, or the new online way of getting to the patient.

The best VC positioning to evaluate a deal may be basically knowledgeable and able to ask penetrating questions, but also somewhat disengaged from that market and not too “invested” in the way it’s always been done. The best VCs are renaissance men, not domain specialists, in my humble opinion. You need to be able to peek over the horizon without being overly preoccupied about how you stumbled to get to this vantage point.

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