Maximizing Options in a Downturn

  • On November 1124, 2008

  • by Aydin Senkut

It’s hard to stay focused on the task on hand these days amidst the turbulence, the uncertainty and looming decisions that might be hardly palatable. There is no lack of advice or dire warnings from VCs and experts alike. Most pragmatic advice I heard so far was summed up at a recent Venturebeat panel by John Doerr from Kleiner Perkins. Biggest take-aways from his perspective was: act now, focus, cut costs, [re-]negotiate everything, preserve cash, switch compensation to equity (if possible) and other battle-proven ideas.

I was at Google during the last downturn. Our prudent financing strategy in ’99 ahead of the tech bust, and the conservative approach to managing expenses (which was relatively rare those days) certainly helped us. The company kept its razor sharp focus on being relevant to the users and on the core mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. We were very slow in growing our headcount and kept to one of the strictest standards in expanding the team even when the workload seemed barely manageable. We were able to say no more often than not, and realized success is better achieved through doing one thing well rather than spreading resources by chasing too many deliverables.

However, that does not mean limiting options when it comes to key decisions that may determine the future of the company. When it comes to tough choices, my personal philosophy is to maximize options where possible. Worst negotiation position is not having alternatives which could potentially force an undesirable outcome. That means, pursuing multiple leads when raising money, looking for a potential exit in parallel (if that’s feasible), aggressively pursuing patents as I feel those are one of the few tangible assets a startup can literally bank on.

Every smart founder is already focusing on those for the most part. But the other thing that’s missing from the equation as far as I’m concerned is urgency and realism. Google and Apple lost about half their value in mere months, 40% of world’s market value is gone according to Doerr. None of the old assumptions hold any more; it’s irrelevant what valuations were set under what terms only months ago, no matter what anybody says, things are changing drastically by the day – unfortunately not for the better for the time being.

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