Every time there’s an economic downturn, the spotlight shines on the super-rich and their out-of-touch lifestyles. The iconic moment of the 1991/1992 recession was then President George Bush looking bewildered at the supermarket checkout line during the 1992 “It’s the Economy, Stupid” presidential campaign. In 2001/2002 it was Tyco’s CEO Dennis Koszlowski spending $1 million of shareholder money on his wife’s 40th birthday party (mine is coming up this summer, by the way, and I don’t think it will cost my partners very much at all, really).
But this latest financial crisis has seen an unparalleled amount of grotesque behavior. First, we learn that auto industry executives flew into Washington D.C. to ask for taxpayer bailout money on corporate jets. Then, it’s discovered that Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain spends $1.2 of his shareholder’s money redecorating his office (Michelle Obama’s redecoration efforts, using the same designer, is apparently only $100,000 for the entire White House!). And most recently, we learn that AIG executives plan a junket with their bailout money and then seek to pay out bonuses to the tune of $165 million – and if Congress doesn’t intervene, we taxpayers are going to end up getting stuck with the bill.
Why is it that so many CEOs of major corporations simply don’t get that they are just agents of their shareholders, not Masters of the Universe that deserve to be put on a pedestal? Harvard Business School professor Michael Jensen has written about this time and time again in his seminal work on Agency Theory and human nature – the shareholder is the boss. The CEO is merely a well-paid agent. Can anyone imagine this behavior if the money they were throwing around was actually their money, as opposed to some collective of nameless, faceless shareholders? And yet time and time again, corporate boards with their cozy inter-relationships don’t seem to get it.
I have a simple solution. Have every compensation committee run by the CEO of a start-up.
Perhaps the most successful venture capitalist in history, Sequoia’s Mike Mortiz (backer of Google, Yahoo, Paypal, to name a few reasonable wins), said in a recent interview that one of the ways he decides whether to invest in an entrepreneur is how much they plan on paying themselves. Moritz views high salaries with immense suspicion. If the founder takes a modest salary (in start-up land, that’s typically $100,000-$200,000 per year – well below even President Obama’s $500,000 cap), he knows they believe in the future value of their business. We at Flybridge Capital Partners are currently looking at a new deal with Draper Fisher Jurvetson and one of the general partners there reported that her best CEOs are proactively, voluntarily dropping their annual salaries to $75,000-$100,000 in this environment. Last month, one of my CEOs informed me that he has decided to forgo his 2008 bonus, which he earned by beating his business plan. (How many Fortune 500 companies beat their plans this year?)
Why this seemingly irrational behavior from entrepreneurs? Remember, entrepreneurs aren’t saints or selfless do-gooders. They typically work 80-100 hours per week for two reasons. First, they are PASSIONATE about their venture for the sake of the business and its impact on the world more than the money. (“Ask me about my business and you can’t shut me up,” confessed my friend Scott Savitz, CEO/founder of Shoebuy.com, the other day.) Reid Hoffman, CEO/founder of LinkedIn and an early executive at PayPal, told me last week that his whole motivation in life has been to create products or services that impact millions and millions of people. Second, when it comes to the formula for making money, they care only about the value of their equity – current cash is to pay the bills (in some cases, not even that). They want every possible dollar to go towards building shareholder value. They want to prove to their investors and employees that the risk they took in investing in them and joining their cause will pay off.
Why don’t the CEOs of large corporations feel the same way? Why is it that they don’t view their role in life to prove to the shareholder that buys their stock in the public market that they took a worthy risk and they’ll be darned sure it pays off? Instead, they think it’s culturally acceptable to take outsized pay packages and perks that no educated, rational shareholder would ever approve if given the chance.
The behavior is in such stark contrast to what’s going on in the small business, job-creating end of the economy, it’s absurd. The public is understandably outraged. I am too. That’s why I’d fire all the compensation committee heads and turn the reins over the start-up CEOs. After forgoing a $50,000 annual bonus, can you imagine my portfolio CEO’s reaction if he were the chairman of the compensation committee on the board of Merrill Lynch and learned that John Thain spent $1,400 on a wastebasket? But do me a favor – if this actually gets implemented – please don’t choose any of Flybridge Capital’s portfolio CEOs. They’re too busy working 80-100 hours a week trying to build equity value for our investors that we VCs are accountable to: our own shareholders/limited partners!
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