Here in New England, it’s getting chilly. The leaves are changing, the Patagonia vests have come out. Everyone’s mind has shifted towards the impending winter. And on the other side of the country, people are preparing for a different kind of winter — the unicorn winter.
While everyone is having a great time picking on unicorns, we need to stop pointing fingers and start focusing our energy on helping these companies not only survive, but thrive in the face of down rounds and a weak exit landscape. Afterall, the livelihoods of real people are at stake. At last count, PitchBook estimates that 91 unicorns employ around 57,000 people in the U.S.
As the great Rocky Balboa said, “It ain’t about how hard you’re hit, it’s about how you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. Get up!” So here’s what I would do if I were the CEO or an employee of a unicorn right now.
To the CEO
Effectively free capital over the last few years may have encouraged you to stockpile cash and increase your burn. To reduce burn, I would first focus on sales where the predominant contributor to spend is headcount. I would quickly look to cut any sales reps who are fully ramped but haven’t made quota in the past two quarters. I would then peel back the onion one more layer and cut reps who have made quota, but who haven’t done so consistently.
The recent, all-out talent war is another major contributor to burn. It’s very difficult for companies to regain momentum after conducting major headcount reductions, so rather than cutting into bone to extend your runway, look to make comp adjustments that more accurately reflect historical norms. To give you a sense of how whacky things are, PayScale data indicates that compensation for business development reps (BDR) in San Francisco rose 18 percent in the last year alone. This dramatic jump has made the BDR pay model no longer viable in the Bay Area. To address this particular situation, I would seriously consider changing the comp structure such that total BDR compensation is geared more toward variability instead of focused on a fixed number. Or, you can look to build a BDR team outside of San Francisco as many of our portfolio companies have done. We’ve seen success in markets like Boston, Atlanta, Austin and Denver.
When it comes to engineering, I’m sure your board has been pushing you to drive competitive advantage and hire as many engineers as you can. But, in this new world you need to prioritize core engineering and then, if you have resources left over, dedicate a small team to R&D. Again, to those of you in San Francisco, I would also think long and hard about on-shoring your engineering team to a location where staff engineers don’t cost more than investment bankers.
For marketing, I would encourage you to evaluate every dollar that isn’t being used to drive a high conversion of leads into the middle part of the funnel. Things to chop include high-priced branding initiatives like roadside signage on Highway 101, big parties at trade shows, and your portfolio of 15 different SaaS apps “necessary” to run your business.
And, one last thought. Wouldn’t it be nice to harken back to the tight years of 2008-2010 and see folks crammed into a small office space working on doors propped up on cinder blocks rather than the birthright $2,000 standing desk? It’s not too late to get out of that 10-year lease you just signed — you know, the one that’s taking $5 million in restricted cash to hold? Giving up $1 million in cash to free up $4 million is worth it on any dimension.
To the Employees
Over the past few years, the market couldn’t have been any better for you. Unfortunately, the new normal going forward won’t look like this year; instead, it will more closely mirror the hiring landscapes of 2010 and 2011. Here’s a really basic framework to help you evaluate your near-term next move.
The truth of the matter is that, for many unicorn employees, this is going to be a rough winter. Statistically speaking, there’s a real risk of losing your job. As you contemplate your next move, it’s reasonable to expect transparency from your management team, especially given the current unstable environment. Transparency was in vogue when everything was up and to the right. And just because things are getting more complicated now doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hold your management team to those same standards. In fact, now more than ever you need to implore management to be completely transparent.
There will be a Darwinian process — that’s simply the nature of venture capital. But the fact remains that there have been amazing products and companies built over the past few years that provide real value to real customers. It would be a shame to see these companies and all of their associated benefits disappear. Many of us lived through the mid-2000 time period when people were calling venture a dead asset class. It would be a real travesty to see that prediction realized and, along with it, all this great innovation frozen because we can’t collectively rally now.