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Leading venture capital firm warns companies to 'prepare for the worst' amid epidemic

The company said it was encouraging bold action, saying, "That’s how you survive something when it turns out to be not a great situation.”
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A pedestrian carries an umbrella while walking in front of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in N.Y., on Feb. 26, 2020.Michael Nagle / Bloomberg via Getty Images

A major venture capital firm says companies should "brace for turbulence” as the novel coronavirus rocks the global economy, sounding the warning in a note released Thursday.

Sequoia Capital, which has funded some of the country’s most recognizable businesses — including Instagram, Apple, and Google — sent the memo to the heads of companies in its portfolio, suggesting founders and CEOs should "question every assumption" about their businesses.

“In some ways, business mirrors biology,” the note read, which was also posted on Medium. “As Darwin surmised, those who survive ‘are not the strongest or the most intelligent, but the most adaptable to change.’”

The note, titled “Coronavirus: The Black Swan of 2020” called on companies to consider cutting marketing, personnel and capital spending costs. It also suggested companies revise its sales forecasts and conserve cash in anticipation of softened demand and potential supply challenges.

But Alfred Lin, a partner with Sequoia Capital since 2010, told NBC News that despite the urgent tone of the note, its intention is to remind companies to hope for the best but prepare for the worst in the event that the U.S. outbreak is not contained.

“I don’t think the note was meant to be alarmist,” he said. “We wanted our companies to ask questions. Ask themselves, ‘Look at the facts, are you prepared?’”

Sequoia Capital said in its note some of its companies reported their growth rates “dropped sharply” between December and February and several are at risk of missing their first-quarter targets. Lin said the portfolio companies seeing softened growth are mainly based in India and China, and the firm’s observation that they may not meet their targets is “just something to be aware of.”

The firm, which was founded in 1972, warned its companies in the note that private fundraising could soften as it did in 2001 during the dot com bust and 2009 in the wake of the recession. It advised “constraints focus the mind and provide fertile ground for creativity” and discouraged “false optimism” which “can easily lead you astray and prevent you from making contingency plans or taking bold action.”

The note ricocheted across Silicon Valley in part because of its similarities to the firm’s 2008 presentation called “RIP Good Times,” which was the firm’s attempt to prepare companies for the financial crisis. Suhail Doshi, a co-founder of Sequoia Capital-backed Mixpanel that launched in 2009, described the message in a tweet as “RIP good times meets the coronavirus” and added: “Founders about to learn the survival skills of ‘09.”

Sequoia’s note is intended as a strong caution for companies that, for instance, are still burning cash or have large balance sheets that would need a cash runway to weather a few bad quarters, or who have a single supplier in China, said Lin.

“Cash and revenue levels and maybe your [growth] rates fall faster than your ability to lower expenses,” he said. “Be prepared and have those contingencies and act quickly and decisively and take bold action when necessary. That’s how you survive something when it turns out to be not a great situation.”