There’s an expression in venture capital. It’s called the “Oh, shit” board meeting. “That’s when you learn all sorts of things that you wish you’d known after writing a company that first check,” says general partner David Hornik of August Capital.
It’s easy to imagine that they’ve been happening regularly across the startup industry. The pace of funding in recent years has been feverish, giving investors less time than ever to assess the startups they’re funding. That once-celebrated companies like the blood testing outfit Theranos, and the wireless charging company uBeam, are seemingly fighting for their lives raises plenty of questions, too.
A recent Vanity Fair piece blamed Silicon Valley media for the rise of certain companies. Meanwhile, a story published earlier this week in Fast Company suggested a culture of spin is at the root of the problem. As one founder told the outlet, “Being honest in Silicon Valley is like being the one member of an Olympic team that isn’t on steroids.”
Of course, none of us would likely have heard of Theranos or uBeam if not for investors, who’ve given the companies $686 million and $25 million, respectively. Were these backers overly optimistic? Did they get duped? Were they even paying attention? It’s easy to wag our fingers as we wait to see how these narratives unfold, but here’s the truth: due diligence only goes so far. While some may think it a scientific process that insulates venture firms from bad investments, due diligence is a surprisingly imperfect process with plenty of limitations.
“If you’re looking for a black or white answer in doing diligence, it’ll be a fail,” says Matt Murphy, a former Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner who joined Menlo Ventures a year ago as a managing director. “You’re usually dealing with shades of gray.”