Risk Aversion And The Perils Of Selling Too Early (Israeli Startups, Part II)

Right now I’m at an un-conference called KinnerNet. It’s hosted by famed Israel entrepreneur Yossi Vardi and set near the Sea of Galilee. Funny thing: There are a few hundred entrepreneurs here, mostly Israeli. And only one has said something negative to me about my post earlier this week about the poor venture returns for Israeli startups that incited such passionate feelings everywhere else in the world.

No one is arguing that the returns have been good for Israeli companies in the last eight years. But there are some legitimate questions about how Dow Jones (whose numbers I used) slices its data and how the numbers could be quite so low. Since 2001, according to Dow Jones, $10 billion in venture investments have yielded only $860 million in IPO and M&A exits. The study of venture economics is at best imperfect, so it’s quite likely there are several big Israeli exits the numbers are missing. It’s like measuring Web traffic. Most Internet companies will tell you their traffic logs report higher numbers than measurement agencies like Hitwise or comScore.

But the Dow Jones numbers aren’t likely to be off by, say, a factor of 50 or 100. And since the same sources—usually venture firms—give firms like Dow Jones the investment data and the liquidity data, the relationship between the money going in and the money going out is pretty reliable, even if the absolute numbers are not. Put another way, if Dow Jones is missing some exits, they’re likely also missing some investments going into the country. In any case, the returns are down dramatically from the 1990s—period. Be mad at me all you want; those are still the numbers.

The more interesting question—and I think what’s creating such passion around the topic—is why the numbers are down? We’re actually going to do a session on this tomorrow at KinnerNet. It’s also the one question I’ve been asking Israelis pretty much non-stop for the week I’ve been in the country. Two interesting cultural answers have emerged that I wouldn’t have imagined. Both have to do with a phenomenon that’s hurt venture returns in the United States too: Entrepreneurs selling companies too early.

Both Roi Carthy (who occasionally writes for TechCrunch from Israel) and Matthew Hertz, who’s starting a deep-web people search company called Pipl.com, said many Israelis live in the “temporary.” Put another way, when Matt heard I was filling in for Michael Arrington “temporarily” in February, he laughed and said, “We Israelis know temporary is the most permanent state there is. Short-term is a way of thinking here.” (True enough, it’s March, and I’m still here writing on TechCrunch.)

That “temporary” mindset drives the same unabashed courage that makes quitting a job and starting a company so natural for Isreali entrepreneurs. But both Carthy, Hertz and a dozen or so other entrepreneurs I spoke with said there’s a flip side to that: When you live for the short term, and you get a $30 million acquisition offer; you’re more likely to take it. In other words, several entrepreneurs here have described themselves as having a huge appetite for taking risk on the front end; but being risk-adverse when it comes to turning down a huge chunk of money for a $1 billion IPO dream.

In my last book, David Sacks, an American entrepreneur who was the COO of PayPal and has started Geni and Yammer since, put the same feeling another way: Most people in the world would take the certainty of $1 million over a chance they could make $30 million. I’m not knocking that. I’ll sell SarahLacy right now for $1 million. (Takers?) But I tend to think of people who make that decision as being risk-adverse. What was surprising to me, is that people who have a huge tolerance for risk on the front end– literally creating something out of nothing—become risk-adverse when they’ve proven that it’s actually worth something.

I was discussing this idea last night with Nimrod Lev, who sold kSolo to MySpace and has worked in the Israeli Internet scene since its earliest days. He had a different cultural take on the same phenomenon. He said the fun part for Israelis, or at least for him, is solving a hard, technical problem. In other words, “the art of the hack.” Once it’s solved, managing the company, growing revenues, taking on HR problems—all of that is the boring part. He loves starting companies and has been successful at it, but he has zero desire to build one into the next Google. There are a lot of guys like that in the Valley, too, but they’ve also got a huge pool of experienced managers to hand the company off to.

I’ll give Israel another reason that returns have fallen so hard on a percentage-basis. And it has nothing to do with Israeli culture. In fact, it’s something the United States screwed up: Sarbanes Oxley. SarbOx put a chill on small-but-growing companies’ ability to go public on the Nasdaq. The costs of being SarbOx-compliant are so high, that unless you have more than $40 million or so in annual revenues and strong growth, it’s just not cost effective. And other regulations surrounding the Chinese Walls between research and trading mean that small companies get little research coverage and are too thinly traded to really be considered liquid stocks.

This has hurt the Valley, when it comes to returns, for sure. But the Valley also is replete with large companies that buy each other for enough money that investors can eke out enough to keep going. Geographic proximity does help in working these kinds of things out. (You think YouTube didn’t benefit from sharing an investor with Google? VCs actually count this as one of their so-called “value adds.”) A good number of European companies have gotten around the SarbOx problem by going public on the London exchange over the last few years, to the extent where several articles were written about the London Stock Exchange becoming a bigger financial force than the Nasdaq.

So if it was a problem for all startups, why do I bring it up in relation to Israel? Because pre-Sarbanes Oxley, Israel had more Nasdaq-traded companies than any other country. Outside the Valley, they were, by definition, the most vulnerable to the change. Perhaps in the intervening years, it’s not the entrepreneurs that have lost their mojo; there’s just no good financial system for their investors to profit off of said mojo. That’s certainly a hack I’d like to see a smart Israeli pull off because its not just hurting the Israeli startup ecosystem—it’s dragging down returns for investors everywhere.

(Photo by Hans Splinter).