Normally, I’d say that start-ups fail because they shoot themselves in the foot rather than being destroyed by a competitor. But, if you’re not fearful now, you’re either oblivious, delusional, trying to be contrarian or dumb. All of which do not bode well for your survival prospects. (If you see something that others don’t see, more power to you.)
As an entrepreneur who has lived through the Asian Financial crisis, the dot com collapse, SARS and the Great Financial Recession and a more localized natural catastrophe, the 921 earthquake in 1999 (and luckily survived), I’d say what has me most afraid of the current pandemic is the lack of visibility and the across the board impact of the global slowdown.
If you’re an entrepreneur, you need to address your runway now and find ways to lengthen that runway. Cutting people is never going to be easy but you have to make the difficult decision sooner rather than later.
For most businesses, labor is the single largest cost which is why I’d suggest looking at your human resource costs. Secondary to this, ask yourself if there are other things that you can cut — rent, software subscriptions, etc.
Fundraising is going to be difficult in this environment to say the least. But if you’re going to go down this road, be prudent about it.
One of the mistakes I see entrepreneurs make is that they take every investor meeting, which I suppose is better than the opposite, which is not hustling enough — taking too few meetings. However, in the context of Taiwan, I’d say taking random meetings can be even worse, just because it becomes a terrible time suck.
Let me explain. In Taiwan, there are very few angel investors or VCs by a “global” definition so you need to ask yourself whether it makes sense to raise beyond this circle. There’s plenty of money in Taiwan but the mindset is very traditional or “localized.” The Taiwanese mindset is that whoever chips in the most money is “big brother.” (The association with yakuza/gangs is deliberate.)
A classic example I heard this week: a friend who runs an online service company was looking to raise some money to shore up his cash reserves. He had previously raised at a 2m USD valuation and was doing USD 1m per year at very healthy margins. He was introduced by a friend of a friend to your old school “boss” who had made his money in construction.
A week later, the old school boss came back with get this….1m USD for a 70% stake in the company. The 1m USD would be new money, no cash out would be allowed, leaving my friend and his existing shareholders with just 30% stake in the company. (As an investor, I would personally be too embarrassed to even offer this deal). But, if there is one thing that Taiwanese have no shame in is driving a hard bargain. Luckily, my friend could still afford to walk away.
Folks, this is Taiwan/Asia. Fundraising is tough in good times. It will be terrible in these times.
Borrowing a phrase from the fight against COVID19…you want to get in front of the curve.
Written by Mark Hsu, Founder of 11th Fleet. Taiwanese-American serial entrepreneur/investor who has been based in Asia since 1996.