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American and Chinese entrepreneurs: they are very different, but the best are equally good at making their investors rich

March 17th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

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Held each year in Los Angeles, the technology conference organized by the investment bank Montgomery & Co. is one of the best of its kind, anywhere. It brings together about 1,000 people from the top American venture capital and private equity firms along with senior management at some of the most accomplished privately-owned technology companies in the US. It provides a very focused snapshot of some of the strongest new tech business models and where venture capital and private equity firms are looking to invest this year.  

I was at the conference from start to finish, in meetings and panels. It was a great gathering in every respect, with a level of optimism that runs counter to much of the economic gloom that dominates the headlines. One reason: good technology can thrive in bad times. Corporate budgets are getting squeezed and each purchase is more tightly scrutinized. This means that many new tech solutions, offering good or better performance at lower price, have a great opportunity to gain market share against more lumbering competitors. 

I saw some interesting companies with interesting business models, in particular several that were focused on SaaS (“Software-as-a-Service”) solutions that can dramatically lower for businesses large and small the cost (both hardware and software) of implementing enterprise software. SaaS makes so much sense because companies can switch to a powerful software solution, but without the need to buy and install any of the software or hardware to run it. It’s all done using an internet browser as the main interface. The software is hosted and managed on a central server by the company that developed it. Users pay a monthly or annual fee to use the software. 

SaaS is an area where I have a special interest. I’m lucky enough to be CEO of Awareness Technologies (www.awarenesstechnologies.com), which develops and sells SaaS-based corporate security software. Awareness also has as its founders two of the best entrepreneurs I’ve ever met, Ron and Mike. They are superstars.

Great entrepreneurs are rare, even in a conference of hot technology companies. Of the 100 tech companies at the Montgomery conference, very few – by my very unscientific study — seemed to have a great entrepreneur at the controls. Most are venture-backed, and so tend to have very experienced professional managers at the top. Often, the founding entrepreneurs have been pushed out, or given different roles, after the venture capital money arrives. One obvious reason for this: the venture capital and private equity partners are usually from similar backgrounds as the professional managerial class, with gold-plated resumes and MBA degrees from the best universities in the US.  Institutional investors often look for a safe pair of hands, and not a visionary, to run a company once their money is committed. This is sometimes the right choice.

That’s the usual pattern in the US. I was struck, not surprisingly, by the differences in China. Great entrepreneurs are no less rare, but it’s almost impossible for me to imagine a situation where the founder of a Chinese company is pushed aside by the venture capital or private equity firm after its put its money in. That would, in most cases, be sheer madness. First, there is no large “professional managerial class” in China at this point, with experienced managers who have run successful businesses previously, and then either sold them or led them to IPO.

Second, and perhaps even more important, good Chinese companies, in my experience and to an extent rarely seen in the US, are one-man shows. There is usually as boss and owner one superbly talented, charismatic, driven and shrewd individual, who saw a market opportunity and seized it. Against unimaginable odds – including the severe ack of capital, continually changing regulations, predatory officials, the primitive market economy of ten years ago in China, and the fiercest competitors – these successful Chinese business owners managed to build large and thriving companies. Single-handedly. There is usually no “management team” to speak of — just one man of outsized abilities and an equally outsized will to succeed.

Another difference with the US: the best entrepreneurs in China, and so the best investment opportunities for venture capital and private equity firms,  aren’t likely in the technology business. They most often are in what are considered, in the US, old-line, low-growth businesses like manufacturing, retailing, branded consumer goods. In the US, companies in these sectors find it nearly impossible to raise money from venture capital and private equity companies. In China, it’s where most of the VC and PE investment goes.

It’s what makes China such an interesting place to be for venture capital and private equity, and why I feel so lucky to have a business there in that field. China has both the most sophisticated global investors and the most well-run, entrepreneurial smokestack industries.

Of the 100 companies at the Montgomery conference, I can’t think of a single one that runs a factory and manufactures a tangible product. The guys who run these companies are almost certainly all college graduates, often with advanced degrees, looking for money to complete or market a website, a software application, an internet advertising platform. In China, conversely, a conference filled with some of the better, more promising private companies would have 100 men, most with only a high-school education, looking for money to expand their factories, fulfill more customer orders and so double their revenues and profits in the next year or  two.

As someone who has spent a big part of his life managing technology and venture capital businesses, I see great opportunities to make money investing in both China and the US. The big difference is that in the US, the biggest risks for venture capital and early stage private equity investors tend to be technological, that the company you’ve invested in may not succeed because its product or service doesn’t work as planned, or isn’t as good as a competitor’s. In China, technology risk is usually minimal. The big risk for venture and private equity firms is that the rules may change, and the company you’ve invested will not be able to freely operate in the domestic market in China.

How do I manage risk personally? I try to eliminate it, by working with the best entrepreneurs. I’m confident Awareness Technologies will widen its technological lead, become the dominant SaaS-based security software company and make its investors a ton of money. Equally, I’m confident the Chinese companies we work with at China First Capital will become dominant in their industries in China and make their investors a ton of money. Along the way, the men running these Chinese businesses will continue to do what they’ve always done: find ingenious ways to stay one step ahead of competitors and any changes in the country as a whole.

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