Musing on Regional Risk Tolerance

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Essays

It’s amazing to me to meet with entrepreneurs from outside the Silicon Valley. I’ve found that in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and even Boston, the valuations are lower, the entrepreneurs are more likely to be thinking about revenue, and the fundraising is proving (on average) more onerous. But really, it pales in comparison when meeting with an entrepreneur from outside the United States. A friend of mine joked that a Demo Day in Europe looks like a series of entrepreneurs each trying to outdo the next not on growth, or revenue growth, but on “time until we are break-even”, so as to assuage the frightened, risk-averse angel investors that their money is in good hands.

From my (very) limited experience, this seems to happen all around the world. In South Africa, which I know best, my friends and family in entrepreneurship have lamented that “venture capital” there means buying half of a profitable company, while in the Silicon Valley it looks more like buying 10% of a ‘growing’ company, often pre-revenue. This seems like a combination of structural and cultural differences.

In the United States, in particular in Boston and Silicon Valley, the industry is built on more than three decades of cycles, with booms, busts, exits, and plenty of vintages of venture capital data to attract big patient capital. In the newer markets like Seattle and New York, highly liquid anchor companies (Microsoft, Amazon), world-class engineering schools (UW, NYU, Columbia), and government investment accelerate the ecosystem, encouraging early stage investment, and thus entrepreneurs, with a different risk tolerance.

But there are highly liquid companies listed on the London Stock Exchange, or on the Tokyo Stock Exchange… Korea and regions of India have more world-class engineers per capita than most of the major cities in the United States… Are the investors in Kenya, where M-PESA, ushahidi, and i-hub are creating a very vibrant ecosystem, or in Brazil, where the government, huge populations of connected users are doing the same, and in Germany, where companies like Soundcloud are breaking through, ready to back super risky startups? Are they doing so already? Is there a culture of risk that is unique to the United States? These are questions I’m struggling with this morning.

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