The August 2013 Flash Memory Summit in Santa Clara had a record attendance estimated at just under 5,000 people. There was a wide diversity of sessions ranging from an introduction to 3D NAND technology, to Flash DIMM components, to SSD enterprise systems, to product differentiation (my Differentiate or Die panel discussion with editors, analysts and VCs). Frankly, there was nothing new on the marketing side from the vendors selling enterprise SSDs. If you took the logos off the slides, one deck could tell the story for them all. They all have fast products, they all have similar use cases (OLTP, VDI, etc) and they all have customer success stories to tell. It appears that most have some market traction as well. Several announced new VC funding allowing them to scale up their businesses.
The fact that we now have 75+ vendors targeting enterprise buyers with products that are remarkably similar made the VC forum session the stand-out session for this marketer. It was a small crowd, probably because most of the vendors have funding and because business capitalization is not a topic that concerns most engineers and marketers. Nevertheless, it was a very valuable session that had many insights that should interest any C-level executive. Some of the same points were raised by Guarav Tehari of SAP Ventures in the earlier Differentiate or Die session. Here are the key take-away points with some added insights for CMOs.
Flash market insights
- The is so much competition that it will only take a year or so for the vendors to achieve product parity. Then it’s a race to the bottom with price. VCs are not seeing pitches that would compel them to fund new entrants.
- VCs are interested in seeing products that do something interesting as a result of having Flash, but they are not seeing much so far.
- Large enterprise has already accepted Flash. There are opportunities to sell to the mid-size enterprise.
General VC insights for entrepreneurs seeking funding
- VCs judge proposals based on the team’s track record, the product and the problem it solves, and the business model.
- A-Rounds fund product development and beta testing. Currently these rounds are hard to get and the product should be beyond proof-of-concept if it is to be attractive to VCs.
- B-Rounds fund sales development, but the product should already be with some (beta) customers who will vouch for its value.
- C-Rounds fund scaling a business that has proven its value and ability to win customers.
- Entrepreneurs should seek enough funding to get to the next stage (funding round) and anticipate that it always takes longer, and can be more difficult, than initially thought. That means a big A-Round is important.
- Expect to give up 30% of the company for a sizable A-Round.
- Each large investor expects 20 to 25% of the stock so it’s important to plan capitalization through to the end. Of course, it often gets contentious.
- VCs don’t put much value on the analyst charts that show rapid growth and large future markets. They want to see the predictions, but don’t build your funding case solely on them.
- VCs want to see go-to-market realism and they know how hard/expensive it is to sell to a large number of small and medium businesses (SMB).
- When presenting, start with the management team. What products have they worked on? What are the successes and failures (with lessons learned)?
- When presenting, define your customers, the problem, how you solve the problem, and how your named competitors do not solve it.
- When presenting, define the 3 key variables that drive your business. This is more insightful to a VC than the revenue model.
- When presenting, specify what you will accomplish before the cash runs out for each round.
- Intellectual Property (IP) is not seen as critical until the scale-up stage. That does not mean it’s not ultimately vital.
- If ultimate profitability depends on high volume economies of scale, VCs are not very interested. They recommend seeking strategic investments from the large manufacturers (OEMs).
- Ask for references from your prospective VCs (when serious negotiations start). Make sure there is a good fit amongst the people involved.
Marketingsage insights for marketers at VC funded startups in new markets
- You are dealing with a new technology that is still evolving: new products with little or no track record; a yet-to-be-solidified market that doesn’t quite know what it wants; a new firm with VC owners whose goal is to exit profitably within 5 years; a new team that may include executives that have no hands-on marketing experience; market hype that inflates everyone’s expectations beyond reality; and a flood of big spending, noise-making, competitors. That’s as tough as it gets for a professional CMO.
- Pessimists don’t get funding. Pessimists don’t get hired. You are on the hook for achieving some lofty goals and you may be expected to have a “magic bullet” strategy that delivers a high volume leads/sales, quickly, at a low cost.
- Your ability to generate critical sales leads largely depends on your discretionary budget (money you can direct at lead-generating programs such as advertising and events). However, by the time you pay for employees, analyst contracts, software, pet projects, and multiple agencies, you may not have enough funds or time to get the required volume of leads. Typical A-Round and B-Round funds usually mean you have to achieve a lot with constrained resources. Of course, leveraging an integrated multifunction agency, like Marketingsage, can help solve this problem.
- Market hype (see Gartner Hype Cycle) around new technologies results in a low conversion rate for sales leads because lots of people want to learn (triggering an inquiry/lead), but few have actual projects underway. However, the sales team articulates this phenomenon as “marketing only produces poor quality sales leads.” Of course, this can be managed with lead filtering, pre-qualification and nurturing, but it’s not unusual for sales-marketing politics to get in the way of the necessary cooperation and mutual understanding.
- Purchase decisions can take a lot longer than anticipated, especially if the technology is new, product installations are complex, and/or the prices are relatively high. It’s not unusual to see sales cycles lasting 6 months or more. That means December sales depend on leads generated in June (or earlier).
- Most firms go through 2, 3, or sometimes even 4, VPs of marketing between start-up and exit. Marketing executives are often last in and first out. The initial VP is highly unlikely to be there for the exit/harvest.
- Most VPs stay about 2 to 3 years, but employee stock options often vest over 4 years.
About the Author
David X. Lamont is an accomplished marketer of IT products and a partner at Marketingsage, a PR and lead generation firm that specializes in marketing data storage, data management, and enterprise software products. He can be reached by email at blog [at] marketingsage.net. Fellow marketers and IT professionals are invited to join his network on LinkedIn and to subscribe to this blog (see sidebar).