VCs: What's Your Failure Rate?

fred-wilson.pngThis morning, Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures discloses to the world his failure rate as a venture capitalist of 17 years (20 percent over 32 investments, which is enviable in VC circles). He’s also had 11 deals (40 percent) with 5X+ returns, so it more than balances out.

Wilson is more at ease talking to the world (through his blog) than most VCs. But all venture capitalists should have to disclose their personal failure rates. After all, measuring performance should go both ways between VCs and entrepreneurs, not to mention venture investors. Sometimes, you can learn a lot more from failure than from success. Wilson shares what he’s learned from his failures. Either a business turns out to be a dumb idea, he says, or, more likely:

It was a decent idea but directionally incorrect, it was hugely overfunded, the burn rate was taken to levels way beyond reason, and it became impossible to adapt the business in a financially viable manner.

. . . Of the 26 companies that I consider realized or effectively realized in my personal track record, 17 of them made complete transformations or partial transformations of their businesses between the time we invested and the time we sold. That means there a 2/3 chance you’ll have to significantly reinvent your business between the time you take a venture capital investment and when you exit your business.

So it’s pretty clear to me that most venture backed investments don’t fail because the business plan was flawed. In my experience at least 2/3 of all business plans we back are flawed.

Most venture backed investments fail because the venture capital is used to scale the business before the correct business plan is discovered. That scale/burn rate becomes the cancer that kills the business.

We’ve all heard variations of that be-nimble-or-die philosophy, but it bears repeating.

What have you learned from your business failures? Comments, as always, are open.