Posts Tagged ‘ambition’

Ambition, not patience, the operative word at Nau

I only knew my hometown sustainable clothier Nau by what I read and saw in the media. Sadly, they closed their doors so fast I didn’t have a chance to buy any of their clothes. I suspect they would have been right up my alley.

Even though I didn’t really know Nau, something about them seems very familiar: venture capital. Or more precisely, reliance on venture capital. I spent more than 20 years in high tech. Venture capital is the lifeblood of most tech startups.

Venture capital, however, is not patient capital. Most VCs are seeking to make their money back plus a handsome profit within three to five years, usually by selling to a larger company or going public. Nau had reportedly raised $34 million since its founding in 2005. Its inability to close another round of financing led the company to shut down last week.

Nau was in many ways the perfect candidate for venture capital. They had name-brand management, an incredible commitment to innovation and ambition as outsized as any venture capitalist. The media took notice. Fast Company reported in June 2007, “The business plan projects $11 million in revenue this year (2007), growing to $260 million and 150 stores by 2010.” Nau CEO Chris Van Dyke told the magazine:

“We’re challenging the nature of capitalism. We started with a clean whiteboard. We believed every single operational element in our business was an opportunity to turn traditional business notions inside out, integrating environmental, social, and economic factors. Nau represents a new form of activism: business activism.”

In the end, none of that was enough as Nau could not survive in the suddenly tight-fisted capital market. Its plan to grow to $260 million in revenue by 2010 clearly required a constant stream of capital.

Having seen this story line play out over and over in high tech (especially in the dotcom era), I’m hardly surprised by Nau’s fate. I only wish the universe would have rewarded Nau for its commitment to doing the right thing for Earth and its inhabitants.

Some day soon, I hope to be reading case studies of what the Nau founders could have been done differently. Maybe these study authors will answer the question uppermost in my mind: Should Nau have hitched its wagon to the race horse team of VCs or reined in its ambition to change the world overnight and settled into a trotting pace that could be sustained indefinitely?

Even more than financial capital, patience is in short supply in business. I understand the world needs big, audacious ideas like Nau’s to meet the urgent social and environmental needs of our time. But it seems to me there’s a lot to be said for thinking big — and starting small.