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Tech Industry

When tech concerns pale in comparison

As a seed-stage venture capitalist who's been accustomed to dealing with challenges, Robert von Goeben takes stock of the true meaning of the word in all its complexity.

On Sept. 10, I had just finished the first draft of a "Perspectives" article for CNET. I had a point to make about start-ups and their challenges, and at the time it seemed really important. I was pretty fired up about it, and pecked out a 1,000 word piece about how tough it is for start-ups to get follow-on funding.

The angle was: VCs wanted customers, but customers wanted to see VC funding...but VCs wanted to see customers, etc. It is a real challenge; my companies and I have been working on it for months. Now I was ready to outline this challenge in my piece, and bring a little "news from the trenches" about early stage companies. The piece was due on Sept. 20.

On Sept. 11, I learned what real challenges were.

Like most of the nation, I spent the next week in a tough gray area between complete horror and focusing on getting my job done. The tragedies in New York had taught me, and everyone in our business, the true meaning of the word "challenge."

For as tough as the environment is in which we currently do business, it pales in comparison to the struggles that victims and their families in New York and Washington have suffered. While one of my companies lost a customer order, someone in Washington lost a spouse. While my companies looked for another round of funding, a child in New York looked for a lost parent. While our industry faced an uncertain market for technology products, our nation plunged into a volatile international situation and possible military confrontation.

I put my week into perspective as well: I would spend hours with a portfolio company honing an important VC pitch in hopes of getting funding, while a rescue worker in New York would put in 12-hour days digging through rubble in hopes of finding a survivor. I would work my network this week trying to line up a meeting with an important partner for one of my companies, while our government worked to line up international support for a fight against terrorism.

In the end, immediate business concerns simply paled in comparison.

The horrific week ended, and like most people, I refocused on business. In the process, I also reexamined my CNET contribution. On the surface it seemed all right. The points were logically laid out, the words were spelled right and the grammar was (for the most part) technically correct. In fact, the market uncertainty of the past week had only added validity to my commentary of the challenges facing technology start-ups.

But somehow, with every television station channeling pictures of horror from the East Coast, these challenges seemed less daunting.

In the coming weeks, while the front pages of the newspapers are filled with news of possible military action, the business pages will examine the economic uncertainty ahead. And the technology industry, already shaken to its core by a sweeping slowdown, will face even tougher times ahead. Gallons of ink will be spent on downgraded projections, missed revenue numbers and, inevitably, company closures.

Don't get me wrong; the economic and business challenges facing the technology industry are real and relevant. As a seed-stage VC on the first rung of the funding ladder, no one will see the realities of these challenges more then my fund and my portfolio companies. With that, no one will work harder to squeeze every ounce of potential out of the current situation than I will.

But there's a larger world out there than the world of technology, and this is a time for us to put our challenges in perspective. In the past, there has been a perception in the technology industry that we are changing the world, and in some small ways we have. But our industry has always had a very inflated sense of its own self-worth, and this may be a good time for us to take a step back and reevaluate the "challenges" we face every day.

I never did submit my article on start-up funding to CNET. It's not that I didn't feel strongly about the points I made, but the same points will be just as relevant, if not more so, next month. But for now, if market uncertainty is the worst our industry is faced with, we're very lucky people.