I have a new post on my newly designed blog: Growth vs. Profitability and Venture Returns. A reporter from BostInno tweeted that the blog post should have been titled:
I have a new post on my newly designed blog: Growth vs. Profitability and Venture Returns. A reporter from BostInno tweeted that the blog post should have been titled:
I've moved out of the dark ages and (finally) shifted from Typepad to WordPress.
I will keep this blog site up, but all new posts can be found at Seeing Both Sides. Enjoy!
Around this time of year, many students are focused on finding a job in Startup Land and building their careers. If you have your own idea and no one can talk you out of it, that's awesome. But for most undergraduates and graduate students, they have no idea how to get plugged in to the startup community. I gave some advice in my post, Seeking a Job in Startup Land, on the process for selecting a startup that is a good fit, but I didn't name specific companies who I think are emerging winners and thus good places to begin your career.
For many years, I have been keeping an updated list of interesting, scaling start ups that are well-regarded and hiring (private or recently public) to share with the students in my HBS class to point them in the direction of high quality, fast growing companies worth exploring. Andy Rachleff at Stanford / Wealthfront does the same in the fall (here's their Oct 2015 list), although it is lighter on East Coast companies. Last year, I open sourced the list and with graduation season coming, I thought I would share an updated version, again organized by geography. Note that this is my own imperfect point of view with imperfect data (also informed with a sprinkling of Mattermark data and CB Insights; here is the latter's full list of the, as of this writing, 154 unicorns, which is another interesting filter).
Full disclosure: Flybridge portfolio companies are hyperlinked. Feedback welcome! I'm sure I made many mistakes and omissions.
Israel (often with HQ or business operations in the US - either BOS, NY or SF):
London: Bla bla car, CityMapper, Duedil, FarFetch, Funding Circle, GoCardless, King, Purple Bricks, Shazam, TransferWise, Vouched For
LA: AirPush, Auction.com, Cornerstone on Demand, Dollar Shave Club, Honest Company, JustFab, Network of One, OpenX, Ring, Riot Games, Rubicon Project, SnapChat, SpaceX, Telesign, Tinder/Match.com, TrueCar, Zefr, ZestFinance, ZipRecruiter
SEA: Apptio, Avalara, Julep, Juno, Koru, Peach, Porch, Pro, Refin
CO: LogRhythm, Rally, Sympoz, Webroot, Welltok
UT: AtTask, Domo, Health Catalyst, Hirevue, Inside Sales, Instructure, Plurasight, Qualtrics
CHI: AvantCredit, BucketFeet, Fooda, Groupon, Iris Mobile, Narrative Sciences, Raise, SpotHero, SproutSocial
DC: 2U, Cvent, Opower, Optoro, Sonatype, Vox Media, WeddingWire
ATL: Kabbage, MailChimp, Yik Yak
Growing revenue and profits is a core objective of most companies, and it is the responsibility of every function to contribute to the pursuit of this goal. Yet, in recent years technology startups have embraced a new role, Growth Manager — alternatively Growth Hacker, Growth PM, or Head of Growth — that focuses on it exclusively. By viewing product development and marketing as integrated functions, not silos, leading tech companies like Facebook and Pinterest are rethinking their approach to driving growth and achieving breakthrough results.
Yet, the Growth Manager role remains poorly understood, especially outside Silicon Valley. As part of an entrepreneurial research effort for Harvard Business School, we interviewed more than a dozen Growth Managers at fast-growing startups and explored what they are doing to design a growth function within an organization.
The Growth Manager function typically lives at the intersection of marketing and product development, and is focused on customer and user acquisition, activation, retention, and upsell. The Growth Manager usually reports either to the CEO, the vice president of Product Management, or the vice president of Marketing. They work cross-functionally with engineering, design, analytics, product management, operations, and marketing to design and execute growth initiatives.
As for responsibilities, the Growth Manager’s job has three core components: first, to define the company’s growth plan, second, to coordinate and execute growth programs, and third, to optimize the revenue funnel.
But before any of these things can take place, the Growth Manager needs to make sure the right data infrastructure is in place.
Data is the fuel of the growth function and growth teams invest a significant share of their resources to create the infrastructure that enables analysis of user behavior, scientific experimentation, and targeted promotions. While many growth teams have special requirements that compel them to build their own custom data infrastructure, many choose to work with commercially available SaaS products. These include everything from analytics tools like Adobe Analytics and Google Analytics, to A/B testing tools like Oracle’s Maxymiser and Optimizely.
Growth Managers are typically responsible for selecting and integrating these products into the company’s analytics framework and working either on their own or in partnership with the analytics team to provide dashboards and testing tools as services across the organization.
Once data is available, the Growth Manager must help the company define its growth objective, typically by answering two core questions. First, at which layers of the funnel should growth initiatives be focused? For instance, should resources go to user acquisition or to combatting churn? Second, the Growth Manager needs to help the company to quantify and understand progress against goals. This task is accomplished through the selection of key performance indicators, and the development of reports on these metrics for consumption across the organization.
Growth Managers also provide customer insight, by blending data with a deep understanding of user needs, habits, and perceptions developed through targeted interviews, usability studies, and customer feedback. Growth Managers utilize the data they have to answer some of the troubling “whys” that a company may have. For instance: Why are users dropping out of the sign up experience? Why don’t users come back to the application after the initial download? Why aren’t users responding to special offers? These insights are then fed back into the product team to help prioritize product priorities, which impacts the product roadmap, as discussed below.
Furthermore, the Growth Manager is responsible for prioritizing growth initiatives and product changes. Ideas for initiatives to create growth originate in virtually all functions in the organization. The Growth Manager is the catcher and champion for product requests from outside the growth team. Further, the Growth Manager must implement a framework for prioritizing growth-specific product improvements, and organizing the testing rhythm.
Sean Ellis, founder of Growthhackers.com and former vice president of marketing at LogMeIn, proposes a simple framework for prioritizing project ideas via ranking on three core dimensions:
Taken together, these three elements can help to negotiate priority across the pool of ideas.
With a clearly defined growth objective, and a prioritized roadmap of ideas to test, a Growth Manager turns their attention to designing and implementing tests. If the test is to be conducted within the product, the Growth Manager leads a product development process to implement the change. The process often begins with a Product Requirements Document (PRD) or a summary slide presentation that articulates the product changes needed. Next, the Growth Manager works with a cross functional team including engineering, analytics, design, marketing, and product marketing to execute the test.
So what makes a good Growth Manager?
If data is the fuel of growth, then analytics is its engine. The Growth Manager must master statistical reasoning, understand how to design effective experiments, and develop a quantitative intuition for interpreting user experience data. Effective Growth Managers are conversant with data analysis and the best tools for retrieving, manipulating, and visualizing data including tools like MySQL, Excel, R, and Tableau.
Growth Managers also need to be fluent in the full spectrum of acquisition channels at their disposal. James Currier, founder of Ooga Labs, identifies three general types of acquisition channels:
Each channel has its own advantages, trade-offs, and idiosyncrasies. An intimate and specific knowledge of the channels that are most effective in reaching a product’s target audience is critical.
The Growth Manager also needs creativity, strategic thinking, and of course leadership. The latter is particularly important since the Growth Manager must align all market-facing functions to a shared growth objective without direct authority, and must build a growth team whose culture is suited to the challenging and experimental nature of the work.
Experience at numerous growing tech firms confirms that Growth Managers are getting results across all parts of the user journey and at all levels of the funnel.
By comparing behavior of retained users versus those users who churned, the early Facebook growth team determined that a key driver of new user retention was finding and connecting with at least 10 friends within the first two weeks after signup. With this insight in hand, Facebook developed features to allow users to quickly see and connect with friends who were already using the service.
The growth team at Pinterest was able to increase new user activation by more than 20% with an improved flow for new users. By changing the on-boarding experience — from a text-intensive explanation of the service, followed by a generic feed of the most popular content, to a visual explanation and personalized content feed based on a survey of user interests — the team was able to better explain the value proposition and train the user, which ultimately led to better conversion.
Expect the Growth Manager to become a standard function in the coming years. As with many organizational innovations, what begins in startups migrates to larger organizations that wish to operate in an entrepreneurial fashion.
As a former entrepreneur, I have always viewed venture capital as a service business. That’s a funny line for many because, historically, VCs are viewed (and at times reviled) as judges or overlords. When we started Flybridge over thirteen years ago, we developed a firm mission statement that we would treat early stage founders as our valued customers and have lived by this mission throughout our history.
With our fourth fund, launched last year, we are thrilled to continue pursuing our mission of serving brilliant founders during the critical, formative stages of creating their world-changing startups. As part of our work leading into the new fund, we went on a listening tour - talking to founders about what they want and need from their venture capital partners. We heard a consistent set of themes: treat them with respect, bring real expertise to the table, and have an investment approach that is consistent with the new world of the capital-efficient startup.
Over the last few years, the needs of founders have changed dramatically. The advent of the cloud, open source development tools and lean startup practices have led to a different evolutionary pattern for startups. They need very little capital to get started and run value-creating experiments, yet require a lot of capital to scale. That’s great news for early stage investors such as ourselves, because it means our entrepreneurs can get more runway with our early stage dollars. It also means they love our approach as an activist seed investor - supportive throughout the company's entire lifecycle and fully engaged despite the small dollars - not a “spray and pray” passive investor.
What has not changed is that the best founders want experienced guidance, support and value-add, but not interference from their investor partners. And with all the blogs, books, courses and case studies out there about entrepreneurship, the bar for delivering value-add has gotten even higher. In our experience, great entrepreneurs don’t want to be hatched, incubated, promoted or optioned. They want a VC to be a company-building partner to coach them throughout all the stages of growth and an investment partner who has a deep understanding of the market opportunity they are targeting. That’s the firm we have tried to build at Flybridge, and we’re proud of what we’ve created and the amazing entrepreneurs we’ve had the opportunity to work with to build large, valuable companies.
So what opportunities are we focused on with our new fund? A number of years ago, we identified a few core investment themes which we still love, including:
A few emerging themes that we are excited about going forward include:
The new fund is smaller and more focused. We expect to partner with 20-25 companies, as compared to the 45 in our third fund. Our average commitment per company is now in the $4-8m range, when allocating enough in reserves to support companies during their growth years. Our geographical focus continues to be centered around our offices in New York City and Boston. Our team is small and senior - David and Victoria in NY and Chip with me in Boston, our new venture partner David Galper in Tel Aviv, alongside a group of over a dozen advisors who provide subject matter expertise and value add for our companies. Matt is leaving us to join Wellington Management Company and enter the world of late stage investing. We wish him well in his new endeavors.
We had an exciting 2015 - we made eight new investments out of the new fund and have a ninth that is closing this month (see our fun Year in Review): Jibo, NS1, Omni Storage, Raden, Redox, SmackHigh and two stealth companies. Based on the inspiring people we are privileged to invest in, 2016 is already shaping up to be another exciting year!
Human progress is often the result of multi-disciplinarian efforts. I am optimistic that the trends Paul Graham points to - and is in the midst of helping accelerate - are going to ultimately have a very positive impact on society at all levels. But it will take some inspired entrepreneurs to get us there.
A few years ago, I did an analysis on the Boston-based companies that were worth more than $500 million in value, which I called Boston Unicorns. One of the (somewhat depressing) conclusions I made at the time was "there have been no multi-billion dollar valued tech companies founded in Boston in the last 13 years."
With the news that Hubspot has hit $2 billion in market capitalization, I figured it was time to update the analysis. Happily, I found a more encouraging picture, both in terms of the performance of some of the Boston-based public companies and the pipeline of candidates that might elevate into this level of extraordinary value creation.
I felt compelled to move away from the oft-used unicorn label and I really just wanted to focus on multi-billion dollar companies because these represent the future anchor companies that Boston so desperately needs, as identified by this recent MIT study on Growing Innovative Companies to Scale that I participated in. Because it is the holiday season, and because I was able to find nine of them, I'll coin a new label: Reindeer (pop quiz for my readers: can you name all nine of Santa's reindeer? I'm Jewish, so I confess that I had to look that one up). By my definition, Reindeer are tech companies founded since 2000 that have created more than $2 billion in market value. They're mythical creatures, just like unicorns, but very special when found.
Public Reindeer: Nine
To get a sense of the future anchor companies in the Boston region, let's first look at the public companies. Two years ago, I pointed out that there were only three companies that had achieved > $1 billion in value in the tech sector founded since 2000 (i.e., excluding life science companies). Happily, there are now five companies founded since 2000 that have achieved > $2 billion in value and another four founded since 1990. Those companies can be seen in the chart below (complete with Christmas colors that would make Starbucks proud), reading left to right in terms of total market capitalization: Demandware, Fleetmatics, Hubspot, Vistaprint, Wayfair, athenahealth, Nuance, Akamai and the new king of the Boston tech scene (with EMC's demise), TripAdvisor.
Contrary to popular myth, big business to consumer (B2C) companies can be created in Boston as four of the nine Reindeers are B2C. It is also encouraging to note that 2015 was a pretty good performance year for these companies. Seven of the nine companies saw price gains (as of 12/15) ranging from 6% (athenahealth) to 134% (Wayfair). Only two of the nine companies saw their value decrease: Demandware (11% decline) and Akamai (18% decline). Pretty good performance as a whole compared to other tech stocks that have gotten pretty beat up (e.g., Yelp is down 49% YTD, Box is down 41%, Hortonworks is down 24%).
Reindeer Pipleline: Ninety-Nine
The next piece of analysis is to look at the high-flying private companies and examine the pipeline of companies that could become reindeer in the coming few years.
In order to do this, I used data from my friends at Mattermark (my firm, Flybridge, is an investor) to look at all the companies that have raised over $25 million in total capital in the last 10 years and whose last round was greater than $10 million (thereby filtering out down rounds/sideways situations). I was pleased to find a robust 99 companies that met those criteria in Boston. Of those 99 future reindeer candidates, 53 are from the tech sector, including 11 companies that have raised over $100 million in private capital:
Of those 11 companies, only one is a B2C company: DraftKings. The others are all B2B, including a few perennial IPO watch list companies who are believed to be unicorns (i.e., private valuations > $1 billion) like Acquia, Actifio, Affirmed, Veracode and Simplivity. Amazingly, three tech companies who have raised > $100 million were founded since 2011: the stealthy Altiostar Networks, DraftKings and OnShape.
The conclusion of this analysis: the Boston ecosystem is looking pretty robust, with nine solid anchor tech companies who seem to be performing well and over 50 private companies that have a shot at becoming future anchor companies in the years ahead. So keep your eyes on the skies this Christmas Eve and you may see a few Boston reindeer overhead (meanwhile, I'll be at the movies and eating Chinese Food).
Thanks to Nicholas Shanman for his help with this analysis.
I was speaking at an event last night and met a young woman at a large public tech company that was thinking of moving into startup land. She wanted to know whether her skills would be valued in a smaller, growth company. I asked her what role she was currently playing and my eyes widened when she replied, "sales operations". "Holy crap!" I exclaimed, "You'll be the most valuable hire a growth stage company could ever make." When the people around us looked puzzled, I realized that not everyone appreciates that sales operations is the secret weapon to scaling start ups.
One of the largest friction points to rapid scaling is the sales force. Very few companies have a business model that enables frictionless revenue growth because of their successful implementation of a freemium model - e.g., Bettercloud, Cloudflare, Dropbox, MongoDB - and even those that do eventually hire a sales team to move up the ladder on deal size and improve upsell, cross-sell and renewal rates. When you begin to scale a sales force, you desperately need to create a sales operations function. Here's why:
The best sales operations leaders allow the sales team to spend more time selling and less time worrying about reporting, cross-functional coordination and operational management. Sometimes known as the Chief Revenue Officer's chief of staff, the mole for the CEO to figure out what's really going on in sales, the executive who prepares all the board reports on sales - whatever you want to call it, that role is the absolute secret weapon that every company needs to rapidly scale sales.
As an aside, here are a few job descriptions recently posted for directors of sales operations at rapidly scaling startups that I liked on LinkedIn to help bring the position to life:
There has been a lot of good stuff written over the years on the topic of calculating customer lifetime value (LTV). Thus, it amazes me how many times I discover faulty thinking when I talk to entrepreneurs regarding their LTV math. One portfolio company executive confessed to me last week that he knows he is doing it wrong but he just didn't have the time to research the best way to do the LTV calculation.
Since I see a few common patterns of mistakes, I thought I'd add to the LTV literature and point out the top three reasons many investors roll their eyes when they see entrepreneurs present inflated, poorly constructed LTVs:
1) Your churn rate is understated
One important component to an LTV calculation is the churn rate or cancellation rate. Many blogs suggest you simply divide 1 by your monthly churn rate to get to a number of months of duration that you can expect to collect revenues from your customer. Thus, if your average monthly churn rate is "c", the number of months of revenue you will receive over the lifetime of a customer is 1/c.
The problem is that many early-stage companies have no idea what their average, long-term churn rate really is because they are simply too young. When they have 6 month or 12 month or even 18 month cohorts, they extrapolate from those cohorts and come up with an absurd time period for their customers to stick around generating revenue. For example, if you have a 2% monthly churn rate in your first year, then some folks will extrapolate their monthly revenues out 50 months. A monthly churn rate of 1%? Then multiply that monthly revenue by 100.
As Jason Cohen points out, it's just not realistic that in a wildly competitive, dynamic technology market, a company can expect to hold on to its customer on average for 8-10 years. And, in my experience, you are so hyper-focused on satisfying and servicing your early customers that extrapolating your early churn rate just isn't going to be accurate.
To fix this potential issue, I recommend you pick a fixed cap number of months - conservatively 36, or three years - and recalibrate your LTV math accordingly. Your new expected months of revenue (N) would now = [1-(1-c)^36]/c. For example, if your churn rate is 1%/month, instead of assuming 100 months of revenue, you calculate 30 months. Anything beyond 36 months just doesn't seem credible - and shouldn't even matter that much when you think about the next issue - a start-up's cost of capital.
2) Your cost of capital is too low
Ask an entrepreneur about their cost of capital and you'll likely get a blank stare. Cost of capital is the rate of return that an investor who provides capital expects from investing that capital. Today, the United States government has a cost of capital of nearly zero - for example, it can borrow money for 10 years and pay only 2% interest. 2% per year is the expected return that an investor in US treasuries requires because the risk of holding an IOU from the US government is so low.
For a start-up to raise capital, it must sell equity to venture capitalists or other investors that expect an annual return more like 30-40% in exchange for the high risk that the company will never be able to pay back the investor and the investment will be written down to zero. Thus, the cost of capital for a start-up (and the dilution a founder faces in exchange for that capital) is very high. Therefore, back end loaded cash flows are not nearly as valuable for a start-up as front end loaded cash flows.
That's a bit of context as to why start-ups need to highly discount future cash flows when calculating their LTV. I suggest 3%/month which results in a roughly 30% annual cost of capital. Thus, if you are receiving $100 in recurring revenue, you should value next month's $100 in revenue as $97 and month 2 as $94. In practice, combining this point with the one above, take your number of months of revenue (say, 30) and use the 3%/month discount rate to calculate the value of the months of revenue = [1-(1-3%)^30]/3% = 20 months of revenue - 1/5th what you would have calculated if you had simply used 1%/month churn rate with no time limit and no discount rate!
3) You forgot about Gross Margin - and you're probably overstating them.
I recently received a board deck from one of my portfolio companies which treated revenue as the numerator in their LTV calculation. Entrepreneurs sometimes forget that a dollar of revenue isn't worth a dollar in incremental contribution. Instead, there is real cost to produce this revenue: a cost of service, processing, data, storage, media, overhead whatever.
Many early stage companies don't yet have experienced CFOs who can help them with precise gross margin calculations, so they assume a gross margin that is too high. SaaS companies think "mature SaaS company margins are 80%" so I'll just use that. But you are not mature. Your executive team spends more time selling and servicing than you account for. Your engineers spend more time servicing customers over time and addressing issues and bugs and feature requests than you account for. Thus, your COGS (cost of goods) are understated and your gross margin is overstated. Salesforce.com has a gross margin of 75% with their scale of $6 billion in annual revenue. Can yours really be the same or even 5-10 percentage points better? And are you sure your gross margin calculation is factoring in all variable costs not related to customer acquisition or are some costs sneaking "below the line" into, say, SG&A?
To fix this one, the rule of thumb I suggest you use is to discount an additional 10% points beyond whatever your finance head says your gross margin is. Thus, if you think your gross margin is 70%, assume for LTV calculation purposes 60%. So, in the example above, instead of summing up $100 revenue over 20 months (factoring in a shorter time horizon and a higher cost of capital), you would sum up $60 over 20 months. Add all three factors together, and instead of multiplying $100 in monthly revenue by 100x for an LTV of $10,000, you would be multiplying $60 in monthly contribution margin by 20x for an LTV of $1,200.
All of these factors - time realism, appropriate cost of capital and accurate gross margins - discount your LTV as compared to simpler methods. Sorry, but that is the reality of LTV math. If you have a business with strong network effects, there can be a reason to believe that your metrics will meaningfully improve over time. But another reality of LTV math is that absent strong network effects or other large benefits of scale, many times your metrics get worse with scale. I cover this phenomenon in another blog post and so will simply say: make sure you don't overstate early metrics with rosy extrapolations.
A mentor of mine is fond of saying that every business plan contains the same word in relation to its forecasts: "conservative". It is better to be truly conservative - or, dare I say, accurate - rather than letting a savvy, cynical investor do it for you.
This past week was the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement where you fast and pray in synagogue all day and atone for all your sins over the past year. Our rabbi delivered a powerful sermon that took a page from David Brooks' "The Road to Character", emphasizing the importance of "eulogy virtues" (e.g., character) as compared to "resume virtues" (e.g., competence). Rabbis have the opportunity to go to a lot of funerals where they deliver - and listen to - many, many eulogies and so his message was particularly poignant. One of those eulogy virtues that he emphasized was that of humility, defined by Dictionary.com as: "having a modest opinion of one's own importance or rank".
There is great power in humility, something I have observed in many entrepreneurial leaders. In fact, I find that the entrepreneurs I enjoy working with the most are those that are authentically humble. The day before Yom Kippur, I had two board meetings with two of my most humble CEOs. Both are running startups that are growing, profitable and on a track to make their investors and employees a lot of money. Neither thumped their chest in the board meetings. Just the opposite. Here is how many of their sentences started: "It took me too long to figure this out, but..." or "I'm struggling with the issue of how to...". Rather than cover up mistakes or weaknesses, the humble leader draws attention to them and rallies the group to problem solve together.
Sometimes executives who lack a deep self confidence try to over-compensate with bravado and promotion. As I get older, I find I have less tolerance for this style of operation. That's not to say that there aren't plenty of amazingly successful leaders who are pretentious and overbearing. But for my money, I'll take the humble leader any day. Yes, they need to be exceedingly competent and skilled, but when they can blend competence with character and humility, it is a potent combination.
Jim Collins describes this potent combination in his famous book, Good to Great. Collins frames the five levels of leadership (see pyramid above), which culminate in "Level 5 Leaders" who are humble but have a huge amount of will to succeed.
Thinking about this style of leadership reminds me of a famous speech by General Norman Schwartzkopf, delivered to the graduating class at West Point. I was introduced to this speech by HBS leadership professor Scott Snook (himself a West Point grad). Start at minute 3:08, where Schwartkopf declares: "To be a 21st century leader, you must have two things: competence and character."
Schwartkopf could deliver the Yom Kippur speech at my synagogue any day.
Every fall, I deliver a presentation at Harvard's iLab, open to the community, on what makes the Boston startup scene so special. It has become a nice opportunity to step back and appreciate all the rich resources entrepreneurs have at their fingertips in the Boston community. Here is this year's version (which I'm delivering this afternoon), complete with a lot of updated content and data on our local tech hub:
This post was co-authored with Omri Stern and originally appeared in Harvard Business Review.
Israel has been branded the “startup nation.” For good reason: A tiny country of only 8 million people — 0.1% of the world’s population — has more companies listed on the NASDAQ than any country in the world save the United States and China. Frequently cited as one of the world’s most vibrant innovation hubs, Israel boasts more startups per capita than any other country in the world.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Israeli startups are struggling to scale. Only a handful of so-called unicorns — companies that have achieved a valuation of over $1 billion in the last 10 years — come from Israel, and only one Israeli firm, Teva, ranks in the world’s 500 largest companies by market capitalization. As a result, tech-sector employment has declined as a percent of the workforce, from 11% in 2006–2008 to 9% in 2013. That’s disappointing for a country with so much potential. But is all of that changing? Are Israeli companies on the verge of developing a repeatable playbook to scale their companies and become market leaders, not just acquisition fodder for the Silicon Valley giants?
We think so.
Decades ago, the thesis of Yossi Vardi, a prolific technology entrepreneur who has invested in 75 Israeli startups, was that Israeli entrepreneurs should seek quick exit opportunities through global corporations interested in buying a window into Israeli talent and technology. Today, this thesis is less relevant. For the first time in history there are Israeli companies scaling up successfully as global market leaders, and the ecosystem is evolving to support them. Indeed, the pattern of scaling seems to be changing meaningfully in recent years. In 2014, for example, 18 IPOs raised a record-breaking $9.8 billion, compared to just $1.2 billion in 2013.
So how do Israeli ventures scale up? What are the challenges and lessons of scaling up? To answer these questions, we built a database of 112 Israeli companies founded between 1996 and 2013 that have met or exceeded $20 million in revenue. We selected this benchmark because it reflects the phase in which companies have proven product viability, achieved initial product/market fit, and are now expanding sales and growing more complex operations. We also interviewed over two dozen Israeli entrepreneurs and the investors from these companies — the leading thinkers in the region — to determine the playbook that these startups are executing in order to scale.
Here's what the data say about Israeli startups:
This evolving model is being supported and encouraged by the local Israeli VCs. According to Izhar Shay, a general partner at Canaan Partners, “The investment community has matured to recognize they need to plan for scale. They are seeking to build companies so that they are attractive to late-stage funds.” And the late-stage global funds are swarming in, from Accel to KKR to Li Kai-Shing’s Horizon Ventures.
This post outlines some of these patterns, seeks to characterize them, and draws out patterns in the data.
Despite hosting a rich startup ecosystem, Israel is simply too small a country for entrepreneurs seeking to build big companies. As a result, Israeli entrepreneurs need to begin immediately thinking outside of Israel since their primary market is often the U.S. The common approach is to incubate the business locally in Israel with a small development team, prove early product/market fit, and then build a sales and marketing organization abroad, usually in the U.S. In the old model of Israeli startups, many Israeli executive teams would hire a vice president of sales in the U.S. to assist with the local go-to-market approach. More recently, Israeli founders are themselves moving to the U.S. to build the satellite office and to personally oversee the recruitment and management of American executives who can lead the sales and marketing efforts.
However, waiting to move to the U.S. until the late-stage go-to-market phase may be too late. All of the risks inherent in launching a startup are exacerbated by the geographic distance between Israel and the U.S. Hiring talent and gathering customer feedback are even harder when teams are so physically far apart, and this separation can make it harder to build culture, forge partnerships, and raise capital.
So how early should the founders pack their bags and ship out to the U.S.? Our analysis and interviews suggest the prevailing wisdom has shifted toward a simple answer: as early as possible. Although the technical team often remains in Israel, many of the executives interviewed recommend departing for the U.S. as early as a year or two after founding. A move allows the business to get close to the customer, learn their pain points, and adapt accordingly. Understanding the market and establishing product/market fit is a critical seed-stage milestone.
When Udi Mokady and Alon Cohen launched CyberArk — the darling of the cybersecurity industry, with a market capitalization of nearly $2 billion — the founders abandoned the local strategy early on. “We began selling to local Israeli companies but had a strong feeling we were developing a product and go-to-market strategy that was missing the larger opportunity,” said Mokady. As soon as CyberArk raised Series A funding, they set up a U.S. headquarters, in Massachusetts, to immerse the team in the American market. “At the time, moving close to the market was not a given, and venture capitalists did not have a clear playbook. Nowadays the argument is very clear.”
Similarly, when Yaron Samid launched BillGuard, his team debated whether to build an enterprise or a consumer company. One-and-a-half years after founding the company, Yaron moved to New York and discovered that consumers, rather than banks, were the primary customer of BillGuard’s service, which helps customers identify fraudulent credit card charges. With the development team based in Israel, Samid shuttles between New York and Tel Aviv, where he shares weekly insights garnered from conversations with partners, consumers, and investors in the market. Viewing this as the typical challenge of running a global company, Samid believes there is no substitute for the learning that comes from being close to the market.
The second reason to move early is to hire the absolute best sales and marketing talent. Again and again, the most challenging issue we heard about from entrepreneurs and investors is finding and retaining exceptional talent, a problem exacerbated by geographical and cultural distance. According to Modi Rosen, general partner of Magma Ventures, “The challenge of scaling is primarily in hiring for the sales and marketing front. Having the founder [locally] present for this process can be the difference between success and failure.” Companies should strengthen the Israeli management team with local talent who understand how to define the market, how to sell into it, and how to gather feedback. Furthermore, companies need particular executives to serve as the primary liaison between the sales and marketing team in the U.S. and the development team in Israel. There are many Israeli professionals who have worked in the U.S. and have gained management experience at large organizations such as Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. There are also American executives who have experience working with startups with R&D in India, China, and Israel. Both cohorts can bridge cultural and geographical gaps.
In CyberArk’s case, Mokady admits the team faced major challenges in hiring talented and seasoned American executives. “We had a rough start,” he says. “As an unknown Israeli company breaking in to the U.S. market, we were not able to attract A-rated sales and marketing professionals. It took some time to gain momentum and learn how to attract local talent.”
One of the key lessons CyberArk learned is to partner with VCs in order to source top talent. Mokady believes that partnering with a Boston-based VC would have helped CyberArk address its talent problems more effectively because the VC would have vouched for the company. With that said, the founding team had big dreams of becoming a global company from the beginning. Although their investors were not local, CyberArk still benefitted by partnering with foreign VCs that helped them make the leap from Israel to the U.S.
This takeaway surprised us. After all, Israeli entrepreneurs are known to be tenacious and eager to tackle complex technological and entrepreneurial challenges. However, in our interviews with Israeli venture capitalists, we learned that around the board room, Israeli entrepreneurs tend to become overly preoccupied with the product and core technology. This fixation generates a short-term view on the potential of the venture to expand beyond the immediate product line. Of course, almost all entrepreneurs are preoccupied with near-term priorities, but our interviews uncovered a pattern of Israeli companies putting too much focus on the product at the expense of building a broad vision for growth, even after achieving product/market fit.
Scaling up begins with thinking about how you build a bigger story and a bigger vision once the company is expanding. Alan Feld, cofounder and managing partner of Vintage Partners, cautions Israeli entrepreneurs not to define their product category too narrowly. “The big idea is to think as a potential industry leader rather than a one-product company. Think of where you want to be in five years and begin building a product pipeline to get there.” For Netanel Oded, of Israel’s National Economic Council, the critique is more poignant: “In Israel, nobody is saying ‘I’m going to completely disrupt transportation.’ Israeli entrepreneurs are first and foremost focused on applying technology to create a business, not necessarily on disrupting big markets through the use of technology.” This subtle difference risks limiting the scope of the opportunities Israeli entrepreneurs are chasing.
Once startups begin to scale up, founders need to ask long-term strategic questions such as: How do I support growth in human capital? How do I strengthen my market position through acquisitions and innovation? How do I prove the unit economics to justify raising a growth round that will let me expand more rapidly? These are also questions that will concern late-stage investors who provide the companies the opportunities to scale and, eventually, go public.
Israeli entrepreneurs are becoming more focused on getting foreign (mostly American) VC partners in the early stages to help them pursue these opportunities from the onset. American VCs have a significantly wider network and have a capability to access management talent, data, partners, and customers to help a company scale. American VCs think about scale from the start, because their large fund sizes necessitate bigger returns. They spend more time on strategy, go-to-market, business development, and financing.
The data reveal how dramatically foreign investors impact the growth of Israeli companies, as measured by annual sales and number of employees. Israeli companies funded solely by foreign investors generated more growth than those funded by both Israeli and foreign VCs and significantly more growth than companies funded by Israeli investors alone. (One caveat: This may not point to causation, as some investors are better than others at picking rapidly-growing companies.)
But American VC partners might not always be the right choice, especially in the earliest stages. Many entrepreneurs and investors argue that Israeli VCs are more frugal and that this discipline is an important early attribute for startups. According to Ori Israely, investor and former general partner of Giza Venture Capital, “There is more fit between [an] Israeli entrepreneur and [an] Israeli investor in the seed stages. Israeli funds often know how to work better with the early stage companies because they provide efficient capital, not necessarily more capital.” Israeli VCs seek to invest relatively smaller amounts—not to squeeze out the entrepreneurs, but to help them be more efficient in the early stages.
The extra runway from an American VC can come with strings attached. Once entrepreneurs bring in an American VC that typically invests at higher valuations, there is greater pressure to hit bigger milestones, move to the U.S., and pursue larger outcomes. So the decision on when to bring on an American VC is an important and strategic one.
A decade ago, the traditional model for building up Israeli companies was to hire an American CEO. Our interviews and analysis suggest that this model failed. Today, companies reaching scale are run by Israeli founders and/or Israeli CEOs. Studying the liquidity events of Israeli firms valued over $150 million, Vintage Partners found that 81% were run by Israeli founders, while half of the remaining 19% were run by professional CEOs who were Israeli. In short, Israeli entrepreneurs are leading their companies to scale.
This conclusion is an interesting one. On one hand, Israelis need to continue to lead their companies to scale effectively. On the other hand, they need to attract foreign VCs to help them do so — typically by moving to the U.S. and recruiting a U.S.-based executive team.
So how can Israeli entrepreneurs effectively lead their organization to scale? Our interviews suggest Israeli founders have worked hard to mitigate the risks associated with a move to the U.S., developing techniques to effectively manage distributed teams and cut through cultural barriers:
Israeli entrepreneurs are influenced by the success stories of their past. From 1995–2010, the Israeli startup ecosystem was not focused on creating big companies. Things have changed dramatically in the past two decades. What was once the story of ICQ’s $287 million exit to AOL is now the story of MobileEye’s NYSE IPO and $12 billion market capitalization. Years from now, Waze’s $1 billion sale to Google may look like merely a solid outcome, rather than the canonical case study of Israeli entrepreneurship that it is today.
It is time for more Israeli entrepreneurs to swing for the fences. Building big companies means Israeli entrepreneurs should pack their bags and move to a large market early, partner with American VCs, continue to lead the company through the mid-to-late stages, and focus on building a culture.
In our data set, we found over 100 companies that have the potential to become unicorns and decacorns. We look forward to watching that list grow and evolve.
Many thanks to all those interviewed as well as Walter Frick for his help in editing.
I have been wanting to read Give and Take since the New York Times article a few years ago described the author, Wharton Professor Adam Grant, and his research on "givers", "takers" and "matchers". I finally got a chance to do so this last week while on vacation and was not disappointed. I'd rank the book up there with Drive and Thinking Fast and Slow as one of my favorite popular business books written by academics.
Grant's basic thesis is that being a giver - being motivated solely by your desire to give back, independent of a payback, without keeping score or expecting anything in return - can correlate with professional success. While this conclusion may seem surprising in the self-centered, materialistic, dog-eat-dog world that many think is emblematic of the business world (cue Elizabeth Warren), I thought Grant's conclusions reflected what I have seen as a somewhat recent cultural change in the world of entrepreneurship - a cultural change I am hoping will continue.
I have written in the past that there is a religion of entrepreneurship, with its shared beliefs and cultural mores. One of those shared beliefs that has emerged in recent years in Startup Land is to be a giver, not a taker. Recently, even venture capitalists are competing now on who is more entrepreneur friendly, who contributes more to the ecosystem (e.g., disseminating free knowledge and insights, launching diversity initiatives) and who can be most meaningfully "pay it forward".
Some VCs and entrepreneurs are clearly taking these actions out of pure self interest - in Grant's language, they are "matchers": they give with the expectation that they will get something in return. But many VCs and entrepreneurs that I work with day in day out have adjusted their behavior to becoming pure givers. Giving their time, their resources and their networks without expecting anything in return. And many of these "givers" are very successful professionals - building or investing in the best companies. Yesterday's news that one of these explars, Sundar Pichai, is becoming CEO of Google, one of the world's most powerful and valuable companies, is touch point in this trend.
Sure, "givers" in Startup Land have to make sure they're not being taken advantage of - they could spend 12 hours a day helping people and not getting their work done - but I like what I am seeing as "nice guys/gals" are emerging in our ecosystem that are not just nice, but also wildly successful. I suspect that this is one of the factors inspiring others to model this positive behavior.
There was an overwhelming torrent of news last week. The two Supreme Court decisions and the response to the tragic church shooting in South Carolina are among the most indelible events of our time and all three will be memorialized in history books and discussed for decades to come.
Last week, a CEO friend (Jen Medbery of Kickboard) asked me a series of great questions that I've been thinking about these last few days:
How do I address current events within my own company? Do I bring it up at all? How do I invite dialog with my employees? How are other companies talking about this, especially ones that struggle to build a diverse team, and certainly don't have [the appropriate training and] practice discussing very sensitive topics like prejudice and institutional racism?
In the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore, South Carolina, ground-breaking SCOTUS decisions and much more, I imagine she is not the only business leader struggling with these questions and so I thought I would share a few thoughts to address them.
Context: Facing History and Ourselves
Before addressing these questions, I have to provide a little context. In addition to my venture capital and teaching activities, I co-chair the board of trustees at Facing History and Ourselves, an educational non-profit that trains educators how to teach pivotal moments in history (e.g., the Holocaust, Civil Rights, Apartheid) and connect these histories to the lives of their students in order to improve civic discourse and create a more humane society. The organization provides teachers with valuable pedagogical resources, such as how to teach To Kill a Mockingbird and talk about the Little Rock Nine. They also have a blog that provides pointers on topics like how to talk about race with your kids. I took a Civil Rights history trip with my family last year using an itinerary that was modeled after a series of board trips that the organization has led. So, my advice to business leaders will draw on Facing History's nearly 40 years of work with teachers and adolescents.
Careful, Your Politics Are Showing
More than ever, business leaders are engaging in current events. They are natural leaders and role models and thus their opinions are sought after. I have been an advocate of this for years, particularly having innovation community leaders engage in civic work, and so have been thrilled to see business leaders take public stances and lead public discourse. Many CEOs do this by being active on Twitter and Facebook, playing the role of mini-celebrities or media personalities. Business leaders are cautiously engaging in this new role as they don't want to seem overly political and spark controversies, but when some current events - such as this week's - loom so large in the minds of their employees, business partners and customers, they naturally feel compelled to address them.
Business leaders see many of their colleagues who run the country's most admired companies take corporate action or make statements in response to current events. After the South Carolina shooting, Amazon, eBay and WalMart loudly announced they would stop selling the Confederate Flag. Shortly afterwards, Apple announced that they would ban all apps that contain the Confederate Flag. Tim Cook tweeted the following:
My thoughts are with the victim's families in SC.Let us honor their lives by eradicating racism & removing the symbols & words that feed it.— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) June 21, 2015
When the Indiana state legislature passed the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act last March, there was an uproar in the business community. Some tech CEOs, such as SalesForce.com's Marc Benioff and Angie's List's Bill Oesterle spoke out publicly and declared that they would be reducing their investment in the state. Others communicated more privately to their employees. One of the CEOs I admire greatly, Kronos' Aron Ain, sent out an email to his entire 4200 person staff stating plainly,
We fully support freedom of religious beliefs. At the same time, Kronos will always treat every employee and every customer in a welcoming, respectful and understanding manner, regardless of where they come from, how they worship, or who they love.
Suggested Strategies to Approach the Issue
Tim Cook and Aron Ain run large companies with billions in sales, thousands of employees and high profiles. How should other business leaders, less heralded, approach these events, particularly (as Jen cited) issues of racism in a diverse workforce environment? I suggest using the following framework as a starting point, inspired by decades of research that Facing History has done to help teachers address these issues in the classroom (known as the "Scope and Sequence" framework). In effect, it puts the business leader in the role of teacher and educator - a natural role that they are finding themselves playing.
What I have found in my decades of work with Facing History is that people crave dialog on these topics. CEOs are making a mistake if they don't create a work environment that encourages it. And if they remain silent, they are sending a message that these topics are not important. Further, they are missing the opportunity to create community and loyalty, never mind speak out and provide leadership on matters that are important to them. In the end, the "leader" portion of "business leader" must receive equal weight and attention. Times like these require it.
There is a bias against solo founders in Startup Land. The conventional wisdom is that being an entrepreneur is so difficult that you shouldn't embark on it alone. Many of the top accelerators, like Techstars and Y Combinator, won't accept founding teams that have solo founders. Jessica Livingston, the lesser-known co-founder of Y Combinator, put it well in a Wall Street Journal article a few years ago:
“We believe being a single founder is one factor that makes it more difficult to succeed… [because] there is just so much to do at a startup. Also, the moral weight of starting a company can be very hard to bear alone.”
I was at an entrepreneur event the other night talking with a friend (Mark Lurie of Lofty) who is a solo founder. He coined a phrase that I love, and so will repeat here (with his permission), which is that having a co-founder to help get stuff done (the first part of Jessica's statement) is less important than her second point: having, in effect, an emotional co-founder.
The emotional co-founder may or may not be in the company - in fact it can be better if they're not - but they are the sounding board, therapist and support system that the founder needs to get through all the painful ups and downs.
The emotional co-founder can be a spouse, a classmate, a best friend, even an investor if there is a high degree of trust (usually established with one of the earliest investor - i.e., one of the leads behind the seed round or the Series A). One of my portfolio company founders lives with his co-founder and the two serve as very strong emotional co-founders for each other. Admittedly, that's a little extreme.
But if you find yourself a solo founder, don't despair. Just make sure you find an emotional co-founder to help you get through the roller coaster ride.
Our immigration reform system is broken. That isn't new news.
There is now a fix for high-skilled, immigration entrepreneurs that can be implemented TODAY with no legislation required. That is new news. And it has the potential to break through the political logjam.
Only 85,000 H1-B visas are normally issued each year to immigration entrepreneurs and high-skilled technology workers. This year, there were 233,000 applicants. Countless others don't bother applying and simply leave the country after collecting their MBAs and PhDs because the odds are so stacked against them.
With the Global EIR program, pioneered by Massachusetts and Colorado, a model has been developed for companies to partner with universities to allow entrepreneurs to become exempt from the stifling H1-B visa cap. Yesterday, the Massachusetts state legislature reaffirmed their support for the program, which was originally proposed by former Governor Deval Patrick and now has been endorsed by Governor Charlie Baker.
Today, my friend Brad Feld and I are announcing the Global EIR Coalition, a scrappy startup non-profit that will work across the country to help other states implement the program as well. We are going to "open source" our learnings from Massachusetts and Colorado in the coming months. Our hope is that by publishing the program's playbook, we can encourage other states to implement the program as well. Massachusetts and Colorado have been pioneers in such areas as health care reform, gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana. It is natural that these two states would lead the way in this important area as well. You can read Brad's post here.
If you're interested in joining the cause, let us know. We know of many states that are working on this. The formula is simple: pull together leaders from the business sector, a university and (ideally but not necessarily required) the local government. Add a good immigration lawyer into the mix and contact us. We'll help show you the way.
Around this time of year, many students are focused on finding a job in Startup Land and building their careers. If you have your own idea and no one can talk you out of it, that's awesome. But for most undergraduates and graduate students, they have no idea how to get plugged in to the startup community. I gave some advice in my post, Seeking a Job in Startup Land, but I didn't give specific pointers to companies who I think are emerging winners and thus good places to begin your startup career.
For many years, I have been keeping an updated list of interesting, scaling start ups (private or recently public) to share with the students in my HBS class to point them in the direction of good, fast growing companies worth exploring. I recently learned that Andy Rachleff at Stanford does the same, although it is lighter on East Coast companies. Now that graduation season is coming, I thought I would "open source" and share my current list, organized by geography. Note that this is my own imperfect point of view with imperfect data (full disclosure: Flybridge portfolio companies are hyperlinked). Feedback welcome!
There are a number of founder leadership models that can work well as a startup evolves. I have lived a few as an entrepreneur and worked with many as a board member. Getting the founder model right is critical because the founder is the soul of a company. If you can navigate a leadership model that keeps the founder involved and engaged in the business as it scales, it meaningfully improves your odds that startup magic will happen.
Putting aside the complexities of multiple founders (as I talked about in my post, The Other Founder), the founder leadership model tends to fall into a few buckets:
I have implemented each of these models in my portfolio. The right model varies based on the circumstances, obviously, and most importantly based on the makeup of the founder and what they are good at and what they love to do. Good founders realize early on that there is a Start Up Law of Comparative Advantage and that they need to quickly figure out what they are uniquely awesome at and hire the right complimentary team around them.
I find the old school model of shoving the founder aside happens only in rare situations. More typically, early investors focus on employing one of these three models to keep the founder(s) close to the business and put the right team in place around them to allow the company to successfully evolve and grow.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the most important metrics for a startup - such as unit economics, cost of acquisition, lifetime value, churn rates - typically get better with time. I hear this asserted frequently by entrepreneurs who confidently project their businesses with increasingly improving metrics as they scale into the future.
The topic of scaling startups is one that I enjoy thinking, living and writing about (most recently, Scaling the Chasm). In the class I teach at Harvard Business School, the first module of the course is dedicated to examining startups when they are pre-product market and struggling to find product-market fit while the second module is dedicated to what the challenges of scale post product-market fit.
One of the themes I explore in the class is the tough reality that many metrics can actually get worse over time for a startup. Take growth rate as a simple one. The law of large numbers suggests it is easier to double in size when you are doing $1 million in revenue as compared to when you are doing $10 million, never mind $100 million. Thus, more mature companies naturally have slower growth rates than younger ones. Here are a few other key metrics that are hard to scale:
Customer acquisition. Most of the marketing techniques that look good in the early days cannot be scaled 10x, never mind 100x. For example, PR doesn’t scale. It seems like such an amazingly efficient source of customers, yet ask any marketing communications or PR professional to acquire 10x the number of customers that they did last year and they’ll look at you as if you have 10 heads. Search engine marketing (SEM) and app store optimization (ASO) exploit arbitrage opportunities in keywords and placement, but those arbitrage opportunities are effective only for a moment in time and for a certain level of spend. When you spend more, you risk losing that edge. Similarly, if you try to scale email too much, you quickly risk fatiguing your list and spending money acquiring less valuable customers when compared to your core segment.
Customer acquisition is like drilling for oil. A particularly successful tactic allows you to find a gusher, which you can take advantage of for a while, but eventually the well dries out and you have to find another well. One of my CEOs pointed out to me at a board meeting last week:
“Our average customer acquisition cost (CAC) is irrelevant for the future. It is the marginal CAC that matters the most – that is, what does it cost to acquire the next incremental set of customers?”
Word of mouth, referrals, virality – these are all amazingly powerful customer acquisition techniques that hold the promise of scale, but they require you to have a great product, not just a great marketing plan, and a product that is elegantly design for virality.
Churn rates are another metric that can get harder with scale. When you expand your market, the next market segment may not be as perfect a “bullseye” market fit as the early segments and early customers. Even as the product matures, the customers that are recently acquired that represent newer segments can be less dedicated. A new battle for product-market fit must be waged – something that never ends - particularly as you expand into new customer segments and verticals.
Monetization can get harder with scale as well. Monetizing the initial user base – who is your most dedicated and often organically acquired – is easier than the more marginal users who you are spending incrementally more money to acquire from indirect channels that may not produce as loyal customers as the initial channels. Even a company as amazing and well run as TripAdvisor (who I once claimed had a better business model than anyone outside the mob) has seen average revenue per user (ARPU) decline over the years, from $14.10 in 2009 to $11.80 in 2012. During that period of time, their monthly uniques grew over 2.5x, from 25m to 65m. More recently, with the shift to mobile and the growth in emerging markets, this ARPU decline has become even more dramatic as mobile visitors and international visitors monetize at a lower rate than their earlier segments of online, US visitors.
The trick to keeping your metrics steady during growth, if not improving over time, is to find a series of techniques and keep improving on them as you go. That’s why so many great entrepreneurs obsess over the details of landing page wording, button placement and color on a page, creative copy, etc. They know that being able to scale 10x from where they are has no silver bullet, but rather a series of tactics that need to be executed against. And they recognize that often times, as you are scaling 10x and 100x, your metrics may erode on the margin.
If your core metrics only erode 10-20% while you are scaling fast, like TripAdvisor’s ARPU, you are in pretty good shape. If they erode 50-75%, you are in deep trouble. Just remember, don’t project to investors that every metric is going to get better over time. Otherwise, you will be dismissed as naïve, out of touch, overly optimistic, insane or all of the above. Never a good combination.
One of my favorite business books of all time is Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore. It is a classic. My boss and mentor from Open Market, Gary Eichhorn, made the entire management team read it in the 1990s to hammer home its important lessons as we stumbled through the chasm on our way to scaling from zero to nearly $100 million in revenue in a few years.
I have been thinking about the challenges of crossing the chasm - that is, taking a cutting-edge product and selling it successfully to the mainstream, not just early adopters who are more tolerant of less complete solutions - and the challenges of scaling in general as many of my portfolio companies are dealing with these issues. A few years ago, I wrote a few case studies on how some big players achieved scale - like Akamai, TripAdvisor and athenahealth - to help crystalize my thinking on the topic, but I thought it might be appropriate to write a more general blog post on the challenges that companies face at different points in the scaling process.
Scaling up is becoming a hot topic lately, from non-profit Endeavor and the World Economic Forum focusing attention on the importance of scaling up companies in the Global Scale Up Declaration to The Economist pointing out that Israel's miraculous start up economy is seeking to transition from "Start Up" to "Scale Up". I coined 2014 as the Year of Results, where the lofty promises would finally translate into real, tangible outcomes (and it was for us). 2015 may be the year of the Scale Up.
Dealing with scale up challenges is particularly important to me because of our firm's investment strategy. We pride ourselves on being lifecycle investors, which means we invest very early on (typically at the seed or Series A stage) and then stick with a company through exit. Some VCs prefer investing at the earliest stages and then cycle off the board of directors. Others prefer to come in at the later stages, post product-market fit, and not have to deal with the risk and roller coaster of the early stages. Gluttons for punishment, we prefer to start early, take the risk and stick around through the end. As a result, I get to work with companies both during the search for product market fit and after they hit product market fit, and race headlong into the chasm.
For quick context, I sit on the board of eleven Flybridge portfolio companies and am an observer on two. Each of us typically makes one or two new investments per year (I made one new investment in 2014). With that rhythm, if things are going according to plan, I should have a spread of companies across a wide range of scaling stages, as measured by annual revenue.
If I plot my portfolio companies across a few broad revenue buckets, looking at 2014 figures, below is a chart. They spread fairly evenly, although slightly more in the earlier stages as few companies achieve the kind of success that $> 50m in revenue entails.
At each stage, there are different problems. Here are the patterns of issues I typically see at each stage - maybe you will recognize a few of them in your own companies:
One of the things I've learned from my two decades in startup land is that it doesn't get any easier as you scale - the problems just evolve, but there are still problems. And opportunities. But I guess that is what makes the startup game so fun.
One of my favorite childhood books was SE Hinton's The Outsiders. For whatever reason, I always related to this tough group of teenagers who felt like societal outcasts just because they were born on the wrong side of town.
I was reminded of the book the other day when attending the Unconference. The Unconference is a Boston-based technology conference put on by the MassTLC that has no agenda. Instead, the agenda is created dynamically the day of the conference by the attendees. Sessions are created on the fly, led by whoever wants to lead a session.
At many conferences, there is a sense of "insiders" and "outsiders". Insiders have attended the conference in past years, speak on panels, walk around with great confidence and poise because they "know everyone" and are sought after during the course of the conference. They are the popular kids at the conference. Outsiders come to the conference knowing no one else, are often lingering awkwardly on the periphery during networking time and struggle to gracefully secure air time with the very people they came to the conference to meet.
The Uncoference tries to break this paradigm with a more dynamic sesssion format alongside structured one on one sessions between well-known insiders with eager outsiders. I try to sign up for these one on ones every year, which are essentially an extension of the offce hours concept that many VCs (including Flybridge) have been championing as a way to provide more accessibility and transparency between insiders and outsiders. A few years ago, I was matched with a very tall, eager entrepreneur who shared with me his passion for private coaches for sports. His name was Jordan Fliegel and, although his 6 foot 7 inches frame stood out amongst the crowd of nerds and middle aged investors, he was an anonymous outsider that day.
Since then, Jordan's company, CoachUp, has secured venture capital funding from a local big name firm (General Catalyst) and grown into a local success story. In a few short years, Jordan has become the definition of an insider - he's now one of the best known figures at any conference and has even started an angel fund, Bridge Boys, with one of his childhood friends.
A few years ago, I met a student during office hours at HBS, who was embarking on a new company. He was new to Boston, having grown up in Iowa, attended Brown and then worked in Chicago. I was with him at a lunch at a conference and, sensing his discomfort as an outsider, started to introduce him around - endorsing him with the insiders around me, like reporter Scott Kirsner and serial entrepreneur Walt Doyle. Before long, Brent Grinna (CEO/founder of EverTrue), blossomed into one of the local innovation community's strongest leaders and insiders, sought after as a mentor by others for his success with the company (backed by big time, insider firm Bain Capital) and within the community. Brent reminded me of this story with this recent tweet.
Francis Ford Coppola turned SE Hinton's book into a move, released in 1983. The movie starred a slew of young Hollywood outsiders - a remarkable number of whom became the ultimate Hollywood insiders, including Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez and Ralph Macchio. That's the magic of a dyanmic, entrepreneurial environment - today's outsiders can become tomorrow's insiders. That's why immigrants, students and other outsiders are such valuable members of the entrepreneurial ecosystem - and why we should be doing everything we can to encourage and support them.
Becoming an entrepreneur is illogical. If you were to calculate the expected value (i.e., the probability-weighted average of all possible outcomes) of being an entrepreneur as compared to living the safe life of a traditional executive, it wouldn't even be close. On a purely rational, probablistic basis, the math for entrepreneurship doesn't add up.
Despite this, entrepreneurship is on the rise. For those of us who live in that world, we know that entrepreneurship is about passion more than rational thinking. It inspires those who are crazy enough to believe that they can change beat the odds and succeed in changing the world, or at least their little corner of it.
That's why I love Linda Rottenberg's new book, Crazy is a Compliment. First, I should admit a bias. I deeply admire Linda and her non-profit organization dedicated to global entrepreneurship, Endeavor. We first met in college when we volunteered together in an inner-city high school in Roxbury. Although I don't get to see her as often as I would like, I've had such respect for Endeavor that I decided to donate the proceeds from my book to it. Thus, I was positively inclined when I cracked open the binder.
But I still loved it. It gives entrepreneurs a roadmap, plenty of fun war stories and (in typical Linda fashion) a very human angle. For example, perhaps the most powerful part of the book is when she shares how her husband's bone cancer diagnosis forced her to be more vulnerable at work and let go of her perfectionist zeal. She even dedicates a section of the book - "Go Home" - to addressing the importance of trying to "Go Big AND Go Home", i.e., pursue an ambitious career with passion AND at the same time live a balanced life (charmingly, she writes this section directly to her daughters - as if the reader is a bystander in the dialog).
Here were a few of my other favorite sections/lessons:
The book is chock-full of funny, engaging stories and case studies as well - some familiar, but most unfamiliar and not your typical entrepreneur yarns (e.g., I never knew the story behind Maidenform Brands).
If you're looking for a good read this fall, I highly recommend it.
Last week's successful IPO of e-commerce giant Wayfair (market cap $3B) and this week's impending IPO of Hubspot (if it prices in the range, market cap $600m) has many in the Boston tech community celebrating. They are not alone. 2013 was the best year for IPOs since the tech bubble of the 90s and 2014 looks to wrap up even stronger this quarter.
I was an executive at a hot IPO company during the last big tech boom (NASDAQ: OMKT) and, like many who lived through that cycle, I gleaned a few important lessons. After the IPO party is over (and we had a great IPO party) and the euphoria wears off, you actually have to run a company and live up to the big expectations that you have just publicly set. Your venture capital investors and many early employees head for the door and you are left holding the bag. Here are a few things I learned after my 16 quarters as an executive post-IPO:
1) The Mission Continues. On average, it takes 8-10 years for a start-up to go public. After a lot of ups and downs, twists and turns, it feels like a massive victory (aka "Mission Accomplished", as George Bush famously declared regarding Iraq in 2003). By that time, your team will be exhausted. Naturally, a huge let-down ensues, particularly after the first hiccup - and there will always be a hiccup: a missed quarter, a departing executive or major customer, something. Recruiters and venture capitalists salivate over picking off executives at recently public companies with the siren song of "don't you want to do that again?". If the stock price flags, all the better. Executive teams need to focus their staff post-IPO on a new mission. Be clear that the end goal was never an IPO - that is merely a financing event, a means to an end. The end goal is industry transformation, customer satisfaction, etc. Find that new mission - and make sure you get your team behind it. Give them more stock options, more incentives and more inspiration to go at it hard for another 8-10 years.
2) Don't Let The Turkeys Get You Down. When Ronald Reagan left office, he provided a final note with words of wisdom for incoming president Geroge HW Bush: "Don't let the turkeys get you down." And, believe me, when you're a newly public company executive, there are a lot of turkeys out there. Not only is there a risk that your company mood ebbs and flows with the daily stock price (your stock is down 10% thanks to Vladimir Putin - deal with it), but you are suddenly publicly castigated for every move. Investing an extra $1m in R&D in order to accelerate your game-changing new product? Pre-IPO, your board would have applauded. Post-IPO, you will get hammered. And if any insiders dare to divest of their shares, even in programmed trading batches, it will kill you. I remember delivering a (compelling, I thought) company presentation at a Goldman Sachs conference and, afterwards, the first question was, "Mr Bussgang. If your company is so great and the future so bright, why is your CEO selling stock?" Many Wall Street analysts are total turkeys. They build their reputation by tearing yours down. Be tenacious and true to your strategy and prepare your team to ignore the noise. Gail Goodman is one of the most tenacious, skilled public company CEOs I know. Many analysts hammered Constant Contact shortly after the IPO, complaining about churn rates and missing the social marketing window. The stock waxed and waned and Gail just kept executing. A few years later, the stock has nearly tripled these last two years and the market cap is near $1 billion. Watch her public presentations over the years and you'll see Gail kept telling the same story - making small improvements every quarter and showing the turkeys the value of the business. Care.com CEO Sheila Marcelo is in the midst of a similar situation. Her stock is down 3x from its post-IPO high with a market cap of a paltry $250 million. I'm rooting for her to prove the turkeys wrong, just like Gail did, but it requires a tremendous amount of patience and tenacity.
3) Wall Street Is Annoying...But Sometimes Right. OK, I know this sounds like a contradiction to point 2, but it's the unfortunate truth. Wall Street analysts and hedge fund managers can be annoying, short-term minded turkeys, but they're smart and often right. Carl Ichan's recent battle with eBay/PayPal is a great example. The trick is to ignore the noise, but don't walk around with an arrogant attitude that you are always right and the critics are always wrong because they just "don't get it." Make sure you listen carefully to the smart Wall Street analysts and incorporate their feedback where appropriate. Make sure you have board members who make you a little uncomfortable because they hold you accountable. The cozy days of the VC-led board where everyone is trying to blow smoke and get you to help them with their next fund is over. Wall Street doesn't care about a long-term relationship. They demand results. And sometimes their cool, analytical distance can be very valuable. It can be painful and distracting, but sometimes very enlightening and helpful.
Ben Horowitz's book, the Hard Thing About Hard Things, is one of my favorite business books of the year. The best parts, in my opinion, describe Ben's struggles as a public company CEO trying to refocus and motivate his team, make hard pivots and hard decisions, while dealing with internal and external challenges. His case study is precious, because in my experience it plays out again and again and Ben's candor and authenticity allow us to peer into the raw emotions and feelings of riding through those ups and downs. Executives of these newly public companies should take heed. Linger on the champagne for a moment, but then quickly clean up and get everyone focused on what's next.
After the IPO bell has rung is when the hard work really begins.
Every September, I give a presentation at Harvard's i-Lab to provide a guide to the Boston start-up scene. Students from around the world descend on Boston every fall to attend the amazing universities, but often fail to venture outside the ivory tower and explore the local start-up scene. This guide is an attempt to inspire students to do just that. This year, I added a number of updates and resources. Enjoy!
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word “programmatic” was first used in the late 19th century. Despite its long tenure in our lexicon, the word was an obscure one until recently. If you aren’t familiar with it yet, if it hasn’t permeated your corner of the business universe, just wait. Programmatic thinking might soon join the pantheon of 21st century buzz words, alongside big data and cloud.
The current industry being transformed by programmatic thinking is the advertising industry. A few years ago, software entrepreneurs began to realize that as advertising started to go digital, there was an opportunity to apply algorithms to media buying decisions. Instead of having a 27 year old neophyte designing your media plan over a three martini lunch, have the world’s most powerful machines do it for you “auto-magically”, leveraging all your best data – and streams of other’s best data – to inform the decisions. And the best part? The machines learn how to make better and better decisions with every purchase.
The speed with which programmatic advertising has taken over the industry has been breath-taking. From nowhere a few years ago, $12 billion of advertising was purchased programmatically in 2013 and the forecast for 2017 is $33 billion (Magna Global report). 86% of advertising executives and 76% of brand marketers are using programmatic techniques to buy ads and 90% of them indicate they intend to increase their usage by half in the next 6 months (AOL survey). Companies like AppNexus, DataXu (a Flybridge portfolio company), MediaMath, RocketFuel and Turn are among the leaders in the field.
The next industry to be transformed by programmatic thinking is financial services. Decisions to underwrite loans have historically been based on a few simple data points such as the lender’s zip code, credit score and job history. With the application of big data techniques and sophisticated machine learning algorithms, underwriting decisions are becoming programmatic. For example, Flybridge portfolio company ZestFinance evaluates thousands of data points in credit applications (even trivial ones, such as whether the applicant uses capitalization properly) to make loan underwriting decisions programmatically. Like other programmatic-based businesses, ZestFinance sees a powerful network effect: the more data they inhale and the more decisions they make, the smarter their decisioning algorithms become.
What other industries might see programmatic thinking ripple through? Once I put the programmatic lenses on, I can see dozens of industries being affected. Just think about all the decisions consumers and businesses make, and whether programmatic thinking could automate and enhance those decisions. For example:
Some might object that all this automation and machine learning designed to replace human judgment is going to be bad for society - making humans less relevant and eliminating jobs. But in fact, many researchers believe the advent of machine learning will generate new kinds of jobs - where a hybrid of automation and common sense is applied. MIT's David Autor presented a paper a few weeks ago that argued:
Many of the middle-skill jobs that persist in the future will combine routine technical tasks with the set of non-routine tasks in which workers hold comparative advantage — interpersonal interaction, flexibility, adaptability and problem-solving.”
So don't be afraid to put those programmtic glasses on. I think they're pretty rose-colored.
In 1998, Yom Kippur fell on September 30th. For most of the Jewish community, the date of the most important holiday of the year was no different than in other years. For me and my Jewish CEO boss, though, as officers of a public software company, September 30 was a tough day to be out of the office, sitting in synagogue atoning for a year full of sins. It was the last day of the third quarter of the year and we had more deals we needed to close to finish the quarter strong and report numbers to Wall Street that justified our high-flying profile as a recently public Internet commerce software company. By sundown September 29th, when we left the office for the onset of the holiday's traditions and presumably focused on higher order matters, we had not yet made the quarter. Going offline without knowing our fate resulted in one of the most miserable 24 hours in synagogue I can remember (and I am somone who usually enjoys being in synagogue!).
When my CEO and I got back online after sundown September 30th, it became evident that the final handful of deals that we needed to close to make the quarter had slipped out. A few weeks later, we "pre-announced" that we were going to miss the quarter - one of the worst speeches I ever remember being a part of. Our stock naturally plummeted.
We were victims of a lot of problems, many of our own doing, and I can hardly blame Yom Kippur and the holiday's inopportune timing on our missing the quarter. But many years later, I began to appreciate that one of our core flaws was our business model.
We priced our enterprise software in the form of a perpetual license. As a result, the full revenue for each deal was recognized in that quarter as soon as the software was shipped. This allowed our revenue to skyrocket from $1.8 million to $22.5 million in one year, the year we went public at a billion dollar valuation (ok, it was 1996; everyone went public in 1996 with a billion dollar valuation), and then $61 million the following year. But the downside to our business model was that we did not have hardly any recurring revenue.
I later came to realize that recurring revenue is magic.
Since my harrowing experience, I have become a zealot about recurring revenue. When I discuss business models with entrepreneurs and investors, there is a varying appreciation for why recurring revenue is so special. Recurring revenue business models are not a little bit better than non-recurring models. They are 10x better. At Flybridge, we have added "business model", with a particularly weighting towards recurring models with high gross margins, as one of the important evaluation criteria when we make investment decisions alongside market and team, which are the two canonical criteria for all venture capital firms.
Before explaining why they are so magical, let me define a few types of recurring revenue models. Many jump to the assumption that SaaS (software as a service) is the only recurring revenue model, but there are actually a few you can choose from when designing your business model:
Here's why recurring revenue is so magical:
To be clear, recurring revenue models are not perfect. It is harder to ramp to 10x year over year growth. You do get plenty of lumpiness in bookings of new business, which translates into higher or slower growth rates over time, depending on performance.
But despite these downsides, it is clear to me why there is such magic in recurring revenue models. It looks like Yom Kippur once again falls on the last day of the quarter in 2017. With the majority of my portfolio companies having recurring revenue business models, I am not going to sweat it.
My friend, Ed Zimmerman, wrote a terrific post for his WSJ blog - "Help Me Help You" - on soliciting him (and others like him) for investor introductions.
I wanted to add to Ed's post and observe that not all introductions are created equal. The source of the introduction matters a lot. As a result, when the introduction comes in to the investor, judgment is applied based on the source. Most investors apply a simple ranking algorithm against introductions which determines how they react to them in terms of prioritizing their time and the seriousness with which they approach the opportunity. Here’s how it works in my experience:
Entrepreneurs in their personal portfolio. VC investors may have 8-12 actives investments at any time. Each of those portfolio companies may have 6-8 executives that are senior enough to have board visibility. These 50-100 executive represent the next rung in the ranking ladder. Active angels might have twice this number. Investors will take these introductions seriously, although may be more judicious depending on what they think of the executive making the introduction, how their company is performing and what their assessment is of the opportunity (all factors in the ranking algorithm).
Entrepreneurs they respect. Generally, accomplished entrepreneurs are like soothsayers - if they're a part of a successful company, then it is assumed that they have great insight into how to build other successful companies. Thus, if an entrepreneur I respect sends me something, I always take a close look.
Service providers they respect (lawyers, bankers, accountants, headhunters). Some service providers have very close relationships with investors and when an introduction is made, a rapid response and close look is taken. Other service providers claim to have close investor relationships, but in truth merely are "friendly" with some VCs who may not think much of their investment judgment and sourcing suggestions. Be careful with this category. It can be gold (e.g., one of our best deals came from an introduction from a banker whom we respect greatly) and others are disregarded (e.g., the random investment banker / broker semi-cold emails).
Cold emails / LinkedIn messages. Seriously? This is the worst way to approach an investor. In today's transparent, super-connected era, if you can't find a way to get to an investor through one of the methods above, you have failed a basic test. This will result in a low ranking, for sure.
Other investors who are not investing. After turning down an opportunity, I sometimes hear back from an entrepreneur a request to make an introduction to another investor. Here's why that's a bad idea. Imagine the conversation...VC1 to VC2: "Can I intro you to this great entrepreneur raising money?"
VC2 to VC1: "Sure! Are you investing?"
VC1 to VC2: "No."
VC2 to VC1: "Oh. Well have you worked with the entrepreneur before in another setting?"
VC1 to VC2: "No."
VC2 to VC1: "Well if it's not good enough for you to invest and you've never worked with the entrepreneur, why should I bother spending time with them?"
I'm sure there are plenty of other permutations of the ranking algorithm, but you get the picture. Think carefully not only about how you approach the introduction (as Ed recommends) but who you approach to affect it.
It is graduation season at colleges and universities around the world. This time of year brings stirring commencement speeches from famous (and sometimes controversial) leaders and thoughtful reflections from students on the considerable time and money they spent in academia.
Two of our students at Harvard Business School wrote a beautiful blog post, with some great visual data, about what they did NOT learn at Harvard that I thought was worth sharing. The post was written by Ben Faw (a West Point and Ranger School Graduate who worked at Tesla and LinkedIn) and Momchil Filev (a Stanford graduate who worked at Google and was a student in my class at HBS).
While there are many things that we learned during our two years at Harvard Business School, here are a few that we did NOT learn.
The only way to make an impact is to go to Wall Street.
As you can see from the interactive chart below, more HBS MBA graduates are heading out to the West Coast, taking positions in product management, marketing, sales, and general management. In a dramatic shift versus a decade ago, technology jobs are just as sought as roles in finance. MBA’s are proving that they can make a difference as leaders in many different industries and fields. Classes, such as Launching Technology Ventures and Product Management 101, are encouraging this trend - preparing students for these jobs.
Money matters more than people.
Prior to attending business school, we were warned that HBS was filled with people willing to do anything to make inordinate amounts of money and that it is not the place to meet or build true friendships. Having kept an open mind, we will graduate from Harvard Business School in a few days with many authentic relationships that have already been incredibly rewarding and made us a better version of ourselves. These amazing bonds are priceless and define our experience here, helping us learn that people matter far more than money.
Experiences are expendable.
The MBA critic will say that most of what you learn in the class can be obtained more cheaply and more effectively by buying the books, studying on your own, and watching classes online. In reality, no case study, framework, or amazing guest speaker can match the experience of learning from your peers, both inside and outside of the classroom. You can learn material many ways, but the most meaningful learning opportunities require in-person experiences and shared time together. The full-time in-class HBS MBA experience provides both.
More is better.
HBS teaches us that we can’t have everything. From day one, we are inundated with endless mixers, social gatherings, and recruiting events. We are also exposed to hundreds of classmates who each have an incredible story to tell and would be incredible additions to our network. However, we can’t pretend to really get to know them all, just like we can’t prepare well for every single interview. We have to make tough decisions. We have to invest - fully and deeply - in the few people and things that make us the happiest. Only then can we make a truly meaningful impact as future business leaders.
Seeking out and receiving feedback is a waste.
No one is perfect, regardless of how impressive their resume. Everyone can improve if they put effort in and use their friends and peers in the process. After a semester of cases and guest lectures one theme became clear: success post business school depends less on your IQ and more on your ability to work with others. Can you motivate a team and accomplish a common task that is impossible to achieve alone? We would say no if you cannot accept and give the honest feedback that allows a team to function at an optimal level. As uncomfortable as it is to give and receive feedback, the MBA class contains people who have a vested interest in your success and want to see you “Be all that you can be”. Seeking out these people and letting them play a direct role in your development creates the potential for amazing growth.
Learning stops when class ends.
While the classroom was incredibly valuable to my development and education (both here and as an undergrad), we found our experience outside the classroom to be equally, if not more, valuable. Ranging from debates over equity investments, deep conversations on business models, or discussions around how to create a sustainable competitive advantage, outside the classroom learning never stopped. Our interactions with professors, peers, and mentors beyond the teaching halls contributed the most to our personal and professional growth.
Focus on your strategy, on your goals, and on what you are uniquely good at and love. The rest is noise. If you are terrible at modeling financials or hate using Excel, learn the basic competency, and then follow your passions. There will be something that makes your eyes sparkle and your face light up. Find out what that is - you have two years to do just that - and then run after it without looking back.
A special thanks to Harvard Business School for making entrepreneurship and technology a key focus for the school in the last few years. Classes such as Launching Technology Ventures and the incredible resources of the Rock Center for Entrepreneurship and the Harvard Innovation Lab have made the MBA experience incredibly fulfilling, and we are incredibly grateful for having the opportunity to take advantage of them during our time here.
To Ajmal Sheikh, Heidi Kim, Julia Yoo and Walter Haas: You have each been wonderful co-authors and co-editors in this writing process and more importantly dear friends, thanks for making an idea become reality. To the Professors, staff, and faculty of Harvard Business School, thanks for making this an experience unlike any other – one chapter ends, the pages turn, and another begins!
The trade association for the venture capital industry, the NVCA, gathered yesterday in San Francisco to talk about the state of the industry and some of the key policy issues we are facing. The short list is an obvious one for anyone who has been reading the news lately: Net Neutrality, Immigration Reform and Patent Reform are all hot topics in our industry. More inward-looking topics like the rise of corporate VC and new emerging managers also were batted about.
But one panel stood out for me yesterday, and not just because I was on it: "Women in VC". Maria Cirino of 406 Ventures led a discussion regarding the stubborn reality of the massive, pernicious gender gap that exists in our industry. Because the numbers are so stunningly bad - Dan Primack did some analysis a few months ago that showed that only 4% of all senior VC partners are women and NVCA statistics show that 11% of all VC professionals are women - I wanted to spend some time sharing the observations and discussions that came out of the panel in the hopes that it will spur further discussion in the community.
The panel was an awesome group led by Maria and included Kate Mitchell of Scale Ventures, Diana Frazier of FLAG, author Vivek Wadhwa and Veracode CEO Bob Brennan. I don't know exactly why I was on the panel, to be honest, but it probably had something to do with a blog post I wrote four years ago titled "The VC Gender Gap: Are VCs Sexist"? It may also be that at Flybridge, after founding the firm with all men, we have hired a majority of women (5 out of 9 investment professional team members). That said, the four general partners are still men - more on that shortly.
Wadhwa kicked things off with a recitation of some research in the area. Specifically:
With the data on the table, the real discussion began. Everyone agreed there is a pervasive bias in the industry. Not everyone agreed what to do about it. A few observations were interesting to me:
As with any hard problem, there is no silver bullet. But asking hard questions is what VCs are supposed to be good at, and this is an area where some really hard questions need to be asked. More to come, I hope.
When we make an investment decision at Flybridge, it is typically because of the intersection of two forces: (1) a top-down thesis about a compelling market opportunity; and (2) a bottoms-up discovery of a compelling team that is pursuing something that rhymes with our top-down thesis. We are not unique here, but we try to apply a fair amount of rigor to the process so that when we interact with entrepreneurs in our target market sectors, we can demonstrate to them that we understand their businesses and have insight into the opportunities they're pursuing.
Last week, we closed a new investment in an online education company, our second new investment in this space in a month. Since these investments were the result of a few years of analyzing the market and working with a few other portfolio companies in online education, we decided we would “open source” our thinking in the spirit of “hacking education.” Or perhaps more appropriately, “fracking education” in order to shake it up to release the energy needed to transform this ossified system.
Many others have observed that the $1 trillion education market is undergoing massive disruption. Paying $500,000 for a four year college experience that does not prepare students for the job market is no longer a winning proposition. Most K-12 schools are stuck in a silo mentality, implementing a rote learning model on a schedule that was designed for an agrarian society. And flaws in vocational training and workforce development have led to a massive jobs mismatch – there are millions of unemployed yet also millions of unfilled, open jobs. Many exciting initiatives are being created by entrepreneurs to address these issues – Khan Academy and EdX stand out in particular – but we are still very early in the process of the education revolution.
All the energy and enthusiasm for ed tech is translating into dollars. CB Insights recently reported that early stage edtech investing has grown substantially from a few years ago. As an investor, you never like to see a sector get overfunded. But this one is so large, and has so much room for further disruption, that we feel as if there still remain many exciting new opportunities.
Jeff’s first foray in the education space was as an entrepreneur cofounding Upromise, a company dedicated to helping millions of families save money for college. At Upromise, Jeff saw firsthand how the spiraling cost of college was harming the middle class. Our investment in SimpleTuition (aka ValoreBooks) in 2006 was a derivation of this insight – to help millions of students engage in ways to save money by accessing less expensive textbooks and loans. The company now works with over half of all college students in America and growing rapidly. In 2010, we invested in Open English, a direct to consumer online English language learning service targeting the growing middle class of Latin and South America. The company has built an enduring brand in the region and serves tens of thousands of students, providing access to a rigorous academic program and live instruction all from the comfort of home.
In the last few years, hundreds of entrepreneurs and startups have emerged to create companies to take advantage of all cracks and fissures in the market. As part of our analysis of the space, we systematically mapped the sector (tracking 100’s of startups) and created a hierarchy to help categorize the various facets of the industry and hone in on what areas we find most exciting.
In the Prezi below, you’ll find an outline of our Ed Technology Market Map, broken into digestible chunks. Here is what the high-level framework looks like:
We found we could categorize various companies in the broader edtech theme based on two dimensions: who the customers are (consumers/students, teachers or schools/enterprises) and what age segment they sell into (K12, higher ed, adult + lifestyle and professional). In each cell you will see examples of the types of companies that fit the segment - these are broken out in much more detail with extensive competitive mapping in the Prezi.
You will notice that four of the cells above are shaded light blue. This wasn’t by accident: these are the areas that we, at Flybridge, believe represent interesting investment opportunities. That’s not to say great companies won’t be built in the grey-shaded cells, it’s just that, in our analysis, these sectors tend to be more difficult or more played out than those in the blue.
This thesis and map is not intended to be the be-all-end-all of edtech investing. Part of our goal in publishing this is to solicit feedback and help further refine our view of the landscape - something that we, as investors, must constantly do. We welcome feedback, thoughts and criticism of all sorts. Most important, let’s figure out a way to hack – and frack – this broken system.
Apologies to readers of my blog who care only about my writings on technology and entrepreneurship, but I was compelled to write a more personal post in honor of the 50th anniversary of LBJ's signing of the historic Civil Rights Act (a law some argue was "the single most important US law in the 20th century").
In celebration of the anniversary, we took the opportunity this week to take a family trip to Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee to expose our kids to this poignant history. The things we saw, the people we met, the conversations we had as a family inspired me tremendously. I am sharing a few highlights in the event that anyone else is interested in exploring this part of the country and this influential chapter in American history. By the way, if you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend All the Way, the powerful play starring Bryan Cranston about LBJ's first year in office and his amazing efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act.
After flying into New Orleans (and, yes, having some fun there), we started our trip at Beauvoir in Biloxi, Mississippi - the retirement home of Jefferson Davis after the end of the Civil War. It was a fitting place to start: the Union won the war and the slaves were declared free, but the impact from centuries of discrimination and segregation remained. Below is one of the t-shirts they sell at the gift shop there, which spurred a vigorous discussion with my kids about why the Confederate flag is indeed so offensive and why there is such powerful controversy surrounding it.
We then drove to Montgomery, Alabama where MLK did so much of his good work. Montgomery is a pretty barren city, but the sites are amazing and many are quite new. The Rosa Parks Museum, located precisely at the bus stop where she got on and sat in the middle "white section", is an absolute gem. The kids were mesmerized by the exhibits that provided a visual reinactment of her quiet courage in standing up to years of injustice. It was particularly powerful to stand in front of the state house where Governor George Wallace was sworn in (102 years after Jefferson Davis was sworn in as President of the Confederate States at the very same spot) and declared in 1963 "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever". Right across the street is the Dexter Avenue Baptist church where MLK pastored for seven years. Around the corner is the Southern Povery Law Center, which had a beautiful exhibit about fighting for social justice, culminating in one of my favorite Eli Wiesel quotes, which my son captured below. In reward for its good work, the SPLC staff shared with us that they have received 30 bomb threats in the last 20 years.
From Montgomery, we drove to Selma to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where MLK and other leaders crossed to kick off a 5-day, 54 mile march from Selma to Montgomery. The march occurred in March 1965 - nearly a year after the passing of the Civil Rights Act but at a time when voting discrimination remained rampant. The march resulted in LBJ submitting (and eventually passing through Congress) the Voting Right Act only a few days later. Here is a moving excerpt from his speech to a joint Congress:
Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
After Selma, we drove to Birmingham, Alabama and had the privilege of attending the Sunday Easter service at the famous 16th Street Baptist Church. Over 200 parishoners were there to celebrate the holiday and we enjoyed meeting many of them and participating in the service. One 81 year old man shared with us his personal connection the four young girls who were killed in the 1963 bombing at the Church. This bombing contributed to the national outrage that led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act.
We then drove to Oxford, Mississippi to visit Ole Miss. Ole Miss was finally integrated in 1962, thanks to the courage of James Meredith and with the support of 500 US Marshalls that JFK had to send to force the issue with the intransigent Mississippi governor. There is a statue of Meredith on the campus and a beautiful tribute to him. Shockingly, his statue was found just a few months ago with a noose around it and wrapped in a Conferederate battle flag.
Finally, we drove to Memphis and visited the Lorraine Hotel where MLK was tragically assassinated. The hotel has been converted into a comprehensive, newly renovated National Civil Rights Museum, with exhibits that track the history of slavery through emancipation through the 1960s all the way up to today's civil rights issues. I was particularly pleased to see the focus on some of the modern civil rights causes, such as immigration reform. I was also touched by a video about a non-profit called Black Girls Code, which I'm looking forward to learning more about.
The trip was overwhelming and moving. It prompted conversations with our kids about the modern issues of income inequality. For example, my 17 year old daughter asked me at one point: "Why do certain jobs pay more than others?" which led to a rich discussion about income, justice and the free market. It raised conversations about bigotry in our community in our time, not just historical acts of bigotry, and it expanded their horizons in a way I had not anticipated.
If anyone wants to get advice about taking a trip like this, let me know. One of our favorite non-profits, Facing History and Ourselves, was a great resource for us as they led a similar trip for their board in 2001. We loved being exposed to Southern Hospitality (everyone we met was very kind and welcoming), learning about our history, celebrating how far we have come in 50 short years and recognizing that we have more work to do in the years ahead.
As a venture capitalist, I spend my time thinking about talent. Who are the best people in the world to invest in? How do I help them attract the best people in the world to team with them to build their companies into massive successes from scratch?
That is why I have been so frustrated with our country's backward immigration system. For me, as the son of an immigrant entrepreneur, it is a combination of a social justice issue and an economic pragmatism that has led me to be so passionate and engaged in reforming our broken system.
In the last few months, as I watched Washington DC fumble around with a comprehensive immigration reform bill (passed in the Senate, floudering in the House), I began to wonder if something might be done on a local, state level to address this issue. Massachusetts has a pro-business Governor and Legislature, an Innovation-heavy economy, and a history of successful public-private partnerships. Surely we could figure something out while we wait for the Washington politicians to go through their machinations?
Thanks to the help of a few talented immigration lawyers - Jeff Goldman and Susan Cohen - and a dedicated group of public servants - led by Greg Bialecki and Pamela Goldberg - an idea emerged to address this issue head on in an innovative way that is consistent with the federal rules and regulations, but allows the state to attract and retain international entrepreneurs.
The idea is a simple one: create a private-public partnership to allow international entrepreneurs to come to Boston and be exempt from the restrictive H-1B visa cap. How is it possible to do this? The US Citizenship and Immigration Services Department (USCIS) has a provision that allows universities to have an exemption to the H-1B visa cap. Governor Deval Patrick announced today that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will work in partnership with UMass to sponsor international entrepreneurs to be exempt from that cap, funding the program with state money to kick start what we anticipate will be a wave of private sector support.
This innovative program has tremendous potential. For Massachusetts, it means we are sending a message to entrepreneurs around the globe that we want them to come here to start and scale companies. For other states, it is a model that can be replicated if local leaders from the private and public sector can come together and cooperate to work out the details to launch and operate this program, as we have done over the last few months.
This year will be a pilot year (with a nod to the Lean Start Up!) and I'm sure we will learn a lot along the way, but I am super excited about the potential that this program presents for the state and the country as a whole.
For the last few years, many leaders in the Massachusetts innovation community have been arguing that non-compete agreements should be eliminated. Article after article has been written in support of putting this policy forward to increase the dynamism of our ecosystem and send a message to the broader innovation community that Massachusetts is a great place to start and develop your career.
Many studies have shown that non-compete agreements reduce R&D investment and stifle innovation. MIT Professor Matt Marx conducted a seminal study in Michigan that showed that the enforcement of non-competes caused a sharp drop in mobility for inventors, thereby slowing innovation and economic dynamism. Professor Mark Garmaise of UCLA published a study which had similar findings and, further, assessed the state by state use of non-competes, concluding that Massachusetts had one of the strictest in the nation (see chart below from Highland's Paul Maeder, putting states on a 0-9 enforceability index scale).
Today, Governor Deval Patrick is officially proposing to change all that by putting forward legislation that will eliminate non-competes outright. If passed, this has the potential to eliminate a huge barrier to the free flow of talent to the best opportunities, thereby creating a more dynamic entrepreneurial environment in the state.
I give tremendous credit to Spark Capital's Bijan Sabet, who first raised this issue seven years ago. Many legislators and leaders got behind the effort, but no one has been able to galivinize enough support to convince the governor to lead here. Greg Bialecki and Jennifer Lawrence have made that happen and the tech community will be forever grateful if the legislature will embrace this effort, even if in the face of big company opposition.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo has been a champion for the innovation economy for years, kicked off by his (somewhat cheeky) open letter to Mark Zuckerburg to urge him to open a Facebook office in Massachusetts. Let's hope he's willing to support legislation that makes it easier for the next Mark Zuckerburg to leave his or her job to start the next Facebook...without the fear of old-school shackles and reprisals.
When the Cold War ended, President Bush (senior) used to talk about the peace dividend, the downstream economic benefit of reductions in defense spending. Echoing these words, one of my CEOs declared to me the other day that last week's activity in the cloud may have been one of the most important weeks in technology history, but we won't realize it for many years to come.
At Flybridge, we have long believed that the advent of cloud computing is the most important force in technology in decades. The entire Lean Start-Up movement and the recent proliferation of start-ups has been enabled by cheap computing power and storage. When I was an entrepreneur starting my company, Upromise, we had to buy big Sun servers for millions of dollars to launch our fledging website. Today, that same compute power is available to start-ups for a mere handful of dollars per hours.
Historically, Amazon's cloud offering (Amazon Web Services, or AWS) had little competition and, as a result, some have observed that as amazing as the cloud has been for start-ups, cloud pricing has not dropped as aggressively as Moore's Law would have suggested it might.
But Google finally appears to be catching up in the ever-important cloud services area. Last week, at its Cloud Platform Live conference, Google slashed pricing on their cloud platforms over 50%.
Then, a day later, at its AWS Summit, Amazon countered with its own radical price cuts from 36-65%. Despite those price cuts, Google is still cheaper than AWS in many categories. See the chart below, which GigaOm published, to show the comparison of the two offerings.
So why did my portfolio company CEO think this last week of price cuts was so historical? Because cloud infrastructure is like fuel for startups. As startup fuel prices go down, the downstream effect is powerful: starting and scaling companies has gotten yet even cheaper. With Google and Amazon battling it out, and IBM and Microsoft and others not far behind, this trend is only going to continue.
We have made a number of direct investments on companies circling around cloud infrastructure, startups like MongoDB, Stackdriver, Firebase and Apiary, to name a few. But what last week's price wars demonstrate is that the entire technology ecosystem will reap indirect benefits as well. The cloud is becoming a commodity, prices are going to zero, and technology companies around the world are celebrating.
When this 10s decade is over, we will look back and be amazed that a mere ten years prior, a few, absolutely massive financial institutions controlled the global banking industry. Software is eating the world, as Marc Andreessen famously observed, and an industry like financial services -- whose service offering is essentially all information-based -- is particularly susceptible to the disruptive force of technology. That disruptive force is particularly acute in the credit markets.
Consumer credit has long been a pretty sleepy industry. For years, the same 5-10 or so banks have been the main issuers of credit cards and the same 4 associations have been the main brands and platforms. But when the credit crisis hit, everything changed. Due to market forces and government regulations, banks abandoned the lower end of the consumer market. 20% of US households are now considered underbanked, representing a massive market opportunity. A further window of opportunity is the fact that credit cards are still charging 20% APR, yet interest rates are effectively zero.
Stepping into the vaccuum are new providers of consumer credit and broader banking services that are 100% virtual. ZestFinance (a Flybridge portfolio company) and Wonga are among those providing consumer credit in the form of installment loans, with ZestFinance leveraging the magic of big data to do more sophisticated underwriting. Lending Club and Prosper are showing the promise of peer-to-peer lending, issuing $2.4 billion in credit last year, a 3x increase over 2012. Institutions are taking notice - one investor that I spoke to in a peer to peer lender shared with me that hedge funds are now flocking to the platform in search of higher rates. ING - soon to be renamed Voya Financial - demonstrated that a bank could be constructed that serviced consumers over the Internet without traditional branches.
At the same time, the proliferation of smart phones is allowing consumers to access money and conduct financial transactions with extraordinary convenience. Why would those services and capabilities be only provided by traditional banks? China's Alipay reports that they processed $150 billion in mobile transactions in 2013 - nearly 6x the $27 billion PayPal reported (not including the Venmo acquisition, which is bound to accelerate growth in 2014). This intersection of mobile, convenience and new lending brands is going to substantially erode existing banking franchises in the years to come.
The business lending market is no different. In fact, innovation in business credit may be outpacing consumer credit. Startups such as OnDeck Capital, Kabbage and Capital Access Network have each raised tens of millions of capital and are building large brands and franchises in servicing small businesses. With their bloated bureaucracies and overhead, banks are not architected to service this market effectively - particularly as more and more small businesses are reachable over the Internet. OnDeck recently reported a $77 million growth round and that it has acheived nearly $1 billion in loan volume. Kabbage is rumored to be on the verge of reporting a similar monster round. And Credit Karma, a credit management service for consumers, just announced an $85 million growth round.
A few weeks ago, Brand Finance released their annual survey of the 20 most valuable banking brands in the US. Atop the list were the usual suspects: Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citi and Chase. The market capitalization of these four banks is currently around $800 billion. Will these same brand franchises be unassailable by 2020, or will a new cohort of brands emerge from this soup of startups and innovators? I know what venture capitalists and entrepreneurs are betting on.
Every year for the last four years, Fred Wilson has been kind enough to come up from NYC and join my Harvard Business School class. It is always entertaining, enlightening and fun. As always, I asked the 80 students in the class to live tweet during the class in order to capture the interesting nuggets and take-aways (and exercise their social media muscles). Below is a Storify of the tweet stream.
If you want to see how this year differed from previous years, go to:
"Opportunity is who we are.
And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise."
- President Obama, 2014 State of the Union
In a past blog post last summer, I fretted that the latest wave of innovation - as amazing as it is - was not showing up in US worker productivity. At the time of my writing, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics had provided some pretty depressing data, with very modest productivity gains in 2011, 2012 and Q1 2013.
Fortunately, in the last year, the productivity numbers have shown a major uptick. It appears that our society and our businesses are getting more adept at absorbing all the new technology of the Internet Revolution. Unfortunately, the beneficiaries of the greater productivity - presumably driven by the boom in cloud computing, precision manufacturing, wireless broadband and other major infrastructure improvements - are America's elite.
A recent analysis by one of my favorite economic pundits, John Mauldin (who tends to be pretty conservative in his political views), provides some good data that drives this conclusion home. The chart below shows that full-time, full-year wages for male workers (presumably the female statistics would be clouded by a narrowing of the gender wage gap over this period) have grown strongly for the more educated workers over the last few decades and dropped dramatically for the less educated workers.
Further, if you take a close look at the jobs that are likely to be further impacted by our massive, secular shift towards automation, they are the very jobs that middle and lower educated workers hold. The chart below characterizes how disruptive technology will be to certain job categories.
Politicians are spending a lot of time talking about the inequality problem in America. If you consider how much automation and software disruption that is ahead of us, it is clear that the problem is about to get much, much worse.
What role will the technology industry play in dealing with the societal implications? I hope a large and positive one. The industry can not allow itself to be represented by the Tom Perkins of the world. Leaders in the technology industry need to step up and own the inequality problem.
That's not to say technology leaders should be slowing down our march towards disruption. As economist Joseph Schumpter pointed out, creative destruction is a powerful, positive force. But tech leaders need to work hard to improve the underpinnings of our education system (see Khan Academy), broken immigration system (see FWD.us) and other aspects of our society such that creative destruction does not equate to opportunity destruction. I love it when I read about tech leaders getting more engaged in policy and civic activities. Let's see more of it.