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投资理财

投资出手过早不是错

Jonathan Tower 2011年07月01日

在风险投资行业,失败往往是成功之母。

    最近我和马克•苏斯特在Twitter上有过一次交流,讨论了早期风投出手“过早”的问题以及这一问题在当前环境下意味着什么。虽然我真心敬佩马克,而且一般我也不愿公开表达与其他投资者在理念上的分歧,但我认为此次交流的内容很有价值,值得重新探究。

    马克的断言在我看来有些笼统,即过早投资等同于犯错。我的回应是这完全取决于看问题的角度。我的理由如下。

    很少有哪个科技行业能不经历早期的停停走走就会变得生机勃勃和影响深远。大多数“失败者”(即那些已提出某种解决方案但可能不是全套解决方案的公司)都有风投支持。这些曾投资早期失败者的投资者大多会汲取失败教训,此后继续支持该行业新的进入者,这些进入者日后可能就成了特定行业的佼佼者。这些投资者有错吗?如果没有早期的失败教训,这些投资者能具备接下来投资未来市场领导者所不可或缺的洞见、市场知识和生态系统吗?如果没有早期失败者,行业能得到发展吗?

    对这些问题,我的回答都是不容置疑的“否”。数十年科技市场的发展清楚地显示,进步源于一波又一波的创新浪潮。早期的失败者为投资者和未来的创业者都提供了成长经验,由此后者能更清楚地看到对于前一批市场进入者,哪些有用,哪些没用。

    以风险投资人的模式识别概念为例。与模式识别间接相关的一种想法是风险投资人及早进入一个行业就有机会了解——不管是主动,还是被动——哪些最终会在该领域内取得成功,哪些则不能。同时,及早介入还能为投资者提供支持企业和创业者的生态系统,在此后的很多年里这对于他/她选定的投资领域,甚至其他领域,都会大有裨益。我们称之为主动交叉授粉,它对于一个风险投资人的长期成功至关重要。

    再进一步说,风险资本并非割裂的、窄向纵深投资。好的投资者常常受到外部因素、平行市场和看似无关的技术进步的影响。从过去的失败投资中能获得暂时休眠的技术或经验丰富的经理人,这些资源能重新投入新的创业投资项目,使得新的创业投资获得极大成功。如果没有之前的失败,可能就无法取得后来的成功。我自己的职业生涯中就有几个这样的例子。

    法律界有一则老生常谈的黑色幽默:一位资深律师在对一位年轻见习律师给出建议时说,“当年我在你这个年纪时,输掉了很多本应胜诉的案子。如今凭借多年经验,我赢了很多本可能败诉的案子。”

    并不是说如果风险投资人对一个行业陌生,就得告诉创业者他们正在通过交易“学习”。但断言“早期投资经验对此后的投资决定没有积极帮助”无疑是愚蠢的。

    因此,就像马克所说的,过早投资一个行业可能是个“错误”?如果一个投资者在确定投资主题并基于此对一家公司进行投资,在该公司倒闭后随即退出这个行业,却从不从投资失败中汲取教训并运用到其他投资,这种投资就是错误。

    说什么人投资一个行业出手“过早”本身就说明该行业最终还是发展壮大了。早期投资者参与了行业格局的建构,如果幸运地把宝压在了最终的赢家身上,投资者就赚了。历史风投回报率似乎证明了这一点。

    Jonathan Tower是国际私募股权和风险投资公司Citron Capital的董事总经理,重点关注消费者互联网、软件、数字媒体和网络服务投资。

    I recently had an Twitter exchange with Mark Suster over the issue of being "too early" as a venture capitalist, and what that means in the current climate. While I genuinely like and admire Mark and am not usually one to publicize my disagreements with other investors over philosophical matters, I thought the content in the exchange was valuable and supported some re-examination.

    Mark made what I would consider a somewhat sweeping statement: Namely, that investing too early was the same as being wrong. I responded that this entirely depended on the perspective being considered. Let me explain.

    There scarcely exists a technology sector that became vibrant and consequential without first experiencing a great deal of stops, starts and stalls early in its evolution. Most of the "failures" (i.e., companies that had a piece of the solution figured out but perhaps not the entire solution) were venture-backed. Many of the same investors in those early failures learned from the experience and went on to back later entrants that became juggernauts in that given sector. Were those investors wrong? Would those investors have developed the insights, market knowledge and ecosystems critical to their becoming investors in the eventual market leaders without those early experiences? Would the sector have developed as it did without the flame-outs?

    My answer to those rhetorical questions an emphatic "No." As has been evident across technology markets for decades, advancement occurs in waves of innovation that beget other waves of innovation. The early failures provide formative experiences for both investors and future entrepreneurs, who can better see what worked and what didn't for the previous class of market entrants.

    Take, for example, the notion of pattern recognition among venture capitalists. Tangential to pattern recognition is the idea that a VC's early forays into a sector provide a great education — wanted or unwanted — about what will ultimately be successful in the space and what simply doesn't work. It also provides the investor with an ecosystem of supporting companies and entrepreneurs that will serve that investor well for years to come in his or her chosen area of investment, and even in other areas. This is called active cross-pollination and it is critical for long-term success as a venture investor.

    To pull on that thread a bit further, venture capital is not a discrete, narrow vertical exercise. Good investors are constantly influenced by outside factors, parallel markets and advancements in technologies that appear unrelated until an epiphany occurs and interesting combinations can result. From the embers of a previous failed investment can come a dormant technology or a seasoned manager that can be re-potted into a new venture and can enable that venture to become enormously successful. The future success may not have happened without the early mis-step. I have several examples of this in my own career.

    There is an oft-told piece of black humor in legal circles about a veteran attorney counseling a young protegé. The senior lawyer remarks, "When I was a young attorney like you I lost a lot of cases that I should have won. Now, with my years of experience, I win a lot of cases that I should probably lose."

    No one is suggesting that venture investors new to a sector should message to entrepreneurs that they are "learning" on their deals. That said, to maintain that experiences on early investments do not positively inform decisions made on later ones is simply folly.

    So, can one be "wrong" by investing too early in a sector, as Mark suggests? Most definitely. This occurs when an investor develops an investment thesis, makes an investment in a company against that thesis, leaves the sector after that company fails and never leverages the lessons learned from that experience into other investments.

    The mere statement that anyone invested "too early" in a sector implies that the given sector did ultimately develop into something substantial. With any luck, the earlier investors that helped shape the sector with early bets were able to prosper by participating in the eventual winners. Historical venture returns seem to bear that out.

    Jonathan Tower is a Managing Director at Citron Capital, a global private equity and venture capital firm, where he focuses primarily on Consumer Internet, Software, Digital Media, and Web Services investments.

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