« February 2011 | Main | April 2011 »

4 posts from March 2011

March 22, 2011

A Call to Arms on the IPO Malaise and Inaction

I almost never agree with a single thing written on the Wall Street Journal editorial pages.  Yet, I found myself muttering "amen" to myself a few times as I read this morning's editorial on "Whatever Happened to IPOs?".  It is just stunning to me how little interest there seems to be on the part of a supposedly pro-business Congress and (more recently) Executive Branch on this one simple thing that would unleash innovation and jobs - watering down Sarbanes Oxley.

The IPO market has improved somewhat in 2011 and so perhaps that has taken some pressure off, but the fact is that the regulations and costs associated with an IPO are so overwhelmingly daunting for our young venture-backed companies that they simply avoid them altogether.  I used to hear from investment bankers that a company north of $100 million in revenue and consistently profitable can find a welcome public audience.   But recent conversations that I have had with bankers has carried a different, even more depressing message.

I am now being told by investment bankers that if a company's revenue is less than $200 million and the projected market capitalization less than $1 billion, they are at risk of being relegated into the "public company ghetto" - a sad corner of the public markets where you have no analyst coverage, no float and so no liquidity.  Your stock simply drifts down and down without any institutional support.  And so even $50-100 million companies in our portfolio and others - growing profitably and creating real value - look at the IPO as an unattainable goal.  I profiled a number of companies in New York and Massachusetts that fit this criteria in response to Bill Gurley's excellent piece (IPO Anxiety) from a Sillicon Valley perspective a few months ago.  But when I talk to CEOs and board members at these companies, they roll their eyes at the IPO prospect - it feels simply too unattainable.

Some complain that the source of the problem is the lack of mid-tier investment banks.  Others complain that the lack of analyst coverage is the issue.  In both cases, it's a cause and effect problem.  The cause is Sarbanes Oxley and the lack of volume.  The effect is that bankers and analysts follow the money.  If the rules were more relaxed, there would be more bankers and analysts, for sure.  This is the Information Age - analysis and bankers will follow opportunities.  They may not be as well known, but banks like Jeffries & Co, Needham & Co, GCA Savvian and now BMO are aggressively courting companies to help them go public and would be all over a more robust market for companies in the $300-600 million market capitalization range. 

In 2009, the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) made this topic their policy focus.  They released a series of spot-on recommendations to help bring back the IPO market.  But then everyone got distracted with the financial crisis and (yet) more regulation related to SEC registration and battles over the tax treatment of carried interest.  I don't know if there have been any hearings or serious consideration on policy options to provide more liquidity for the IPO market since the NVCA's recommendations.  But clearly there's been no action.

It's time to beat the drum on this.  Surely we can find a group of members of Congress who are willing to match their rhetoric on fostering innovation will doing the hard work of loosening up Sarbanes Oxley.  The StartUp Visa movement has made terrific progress thanks to online, grassroots support.  Let's use that as a model for the IPO market.  John McCain's on Twitter (@SenJohnMcCain).  Send him a tweet and see if he's listening.

March 16, 2011

Mastering The VC Game - Paperback Edition

My book, Mastering the VC Game, is going to be coming out in paperback.  My publisher, Penguin's business imprint Portfoilo, has asked me to make some edits and updates for the new edition, which I have been dutifully working on.

For fun, I experimented with getting some community input on this task.  I posed a question on the popular Q&A site Quora:  "What should I tweak in my book, Mastering the VC Game, for the upcoming paperback edition?" and got some great responses.  It is yet another example of how rich the discouse now is in the blogosphere  on the start-up ecosystem.  I am working on each of them, as well as other feedback I've gotten from reviewers.  By the way, if you want to read some of the book for free, I have made the first 40 pages available here.

One thing I was struck by was that the start-ups I chose to profile in 2009 have absolutely exploded in popularity and value.  Baidu was worth $12 billion at the time of the writing.  It is now $41 billion.  Constant Contact, LinkedIn, Twitter and Zynga were other companies I profiled.  Each of them has grown in value from 2-10x since the time of the writing a short eighteen months ago.  I don't know if it makes the lessons from these founders captured in the book that much more valuable.  I think we sometimes need to spend more time studying the lessons learned from start-up failures and perhaps this is something I will devote more energy to in the months ahead.

So, stay tuned for news about when the new release will be coming out.  In the meantime, I'm sharing this funny cartoon that Andy Cook of Rentabilities was kind enough to have drawn up and sent to me.  It brings to life the concept of "putting money to work" that I tweak VCs for in the book.  The only thing I don't like about the cartoon is that the VC is wearing a tie - very unrealistic nowadays...

March 06, 2011

Ten Predictions for 2030

I spent this weekend with my two sons in Ft Myers, Florida as part of our annual pilgrimmage to the Red Sox spring training camp.  While not chasing after foul balls (thanks, Youk!) and autographs, we spent some time talking about what the future might look like.  We ended up making a provocative list of what we called “10, 2030” – ten predictions for the year 2030.

For context, my sons are 8 and 11.  Looking back 19 years ago (1992), I realize that I had my first cell phone, dial up access to bulletin boards, a love affair with email, and was doing consulting for AT&T on Apple’s first mobile computing device, the Newton.  In short, nearly 20 years ago, the fingerprints of the future were evident in the present.  Similarly, my sons are seeing fingerprints of the future in what they see, read and hear about today.  Trying to focus on the right things to extrapolate off, and having some fun with it, provided us with great entertainment.

 So here are their top ten predictions for the year 2030:

  1. Two out of three of my children, as a reflection of the entire US car market, will own an electric car (they are convinced oil will be a thing of the past, although according to the International Energy Association and The Economist, oil demand in the US will shrink only modestly in the next 20 years)
  2. School classrooms will be converted into all digital environments where Individual student desks will be converted into desk/tablet computers with a touch screen per child linked to SmartBoards and the Internet with a host of applications available.
  3. Advanced techniques in genomics will results in a cure for both cancer and ALS (others I’m sure, but those are the diseases my sons were most focused on due to our family history)
  4. Super-fast, high speed trains will finally be installed on the Northeast Corridor, allowing Boston to NY travel to take 2 hours and NY-DC a mere 1.5 hours.  My sons seem to think magnetic technology is the state of the art.  I'm not sure where they got this factoid, but it sounded good to me.
  5. Commercial travel to the moon will be possible and relatively common for super-rich thrill-seekers.  Sort of like private jet travel today.
  6. Voice-controlled, self-driving cars will be prevalent.  Perhaps not even brought to you by Google.
  7. No one will carry wallets any more – all functionality of a wallet (payment, coupons, identity) will be embedded in your mobile device
  8. No wires anywhere – wireless power/electricity, wireless Internet, high bandwidth data will result in the taking down of telephone polls in large parts of the country.  A corollary to this one is that my sons don't think hardly any homes will have landline, wire telephones any more.
  9. Hover boards will be sold commercially – still high-end devices, but useful for urban transportation as an alternative to bicycles.  This one struck me as a stretch, but they're quite convinced of it, and they haven't even seen this hilarious AliG clip.
  10. A woman will be elected president of the United States.  I pointed out to them that there would only be four elections (not counting 2012 - sorry Sarah Palin) between now and 2030 for an American female head of state to be elected but they were bullish on this one as well.

Here were a few that we discussed but were ultimately rejected as plausible, but not likely by 2030:

  1. Humans landing on Mars
  2. Hover cars (i.e., cars that floated above roads at high speeds)
  3. Cars that converted into airplanes
  4. Home robots that do household chores – dishes, laundry, changing diapers
  5. Life discovered on another planet
  6. Electronic ink on flexible, paper-thin screens that mimic a book – but, like a Kindle, download wirelessly and electronic

At one point, I mentioned to my sons that I might blog about their predictions because I thought they represented an interesting window into the future.  My oldest got concerned and objected, "But Dad, what if we want to invent some of this stuff and people steal our ideas?".  And that's when the lecture on execution began...

March 02, 2011

Figuring Out FourSquare

I had the pleasure of teaching a new case at HBS yesterday on foursquare that I co-authored with Professors Tom Eisenmann and Mikolaj Piskorski as part of Tom's new course "Launching Technology Ventures".  Foursquare executives Dennis Crowley, Naveen Selvadurai and Evan Cohen were kind enough to allow us to interview them in preparation for the case, which framed some of their current key strategic issues and looked back on the choices they made in the early days to draw pedagogical lessons of lean start-up best practices, building a platform business, network effects and running monetization experiments.

The foursquare team was consumed this week with SXSW preparations, but we were fortunate to have as class guests Charlie O'Donnell, who wrote the original blog post on foursquare that got many in the community excited about the company, and Andrew Parker, who was an associate at Union Square Ventures at the time of their Series A investment. 

As I did with the class a few weeks ago when Fred Wilson visited, I asked the students to pull out their phones and tweet throughout the class.  You can see the rich "dialog behind the dialog" here, using the Twitter hash tag #hbsltv.  Here were some of the takeaways I had from the class discussion framed around three major questions I posed to the students:

1) Why did foursquare succeed as compared to the same founder (Dennis) in a similar venture (Dodgeball) in a different era and as compared to other teams pursuing LBS services in the same era?  

The students concluded that the context around a venture matters tremendously - that smart phones, the explosion of apps and social networking all were important enablers that allowed foursquare to succeed at this particular moment in time.  At the same time, the foursquare team was incredibly skilled at applying lean start-up best practices, specifically:

  • Product-obsessed founders:  both Dennis and Naveen were consumed with the product.  Always interacting with users in bars and over Twitter, thinking less about strategy, analytics and monetization and focusing more on a great user experience. 
  • Hunch-driven:  they had deep domain knowledge and didn't need outside studies or market research to guide their prioritization.  One of the key takeaways that both Charlie and Andrew emphasized to the students was to be power users in whatever area of focus they choose to develop those instincts.
  • Minimum viable product:  they didn't wait years and years to perfect the product but instead got it out there to solicit user feedback.
  • Modest burn:  the company only raised $1.35 million in its series A financing and kept the burn rate at less than $100k per month to make he money last.  Dennis wrote a great post at the time of the financing that showed just how product obsessed he was, even after taking the seed money.  There's no bravado or BS - just a list of the great features they're going to roll out as a result of having the extra capital.

2) What was the magic of the foursquare system that drove rapid adoption that so many other consumer Internet companies fail to achieve?

  • Game mechanic - students really honed in on the playfulness of the service, both the entertainment value and the addictive nature of competing for badges and mayorships.
  • NYC launch - the fact that the service started in such a perfect venue gave it great advantage - a highly concentrated, very social community.
  • VC validation - having Fred Wilson invest and promote the company helped provide it credibility with an insider crowd that may have provided some strong tailwinds.
  • Win-win for all constituents - unlike many services, the students understood a key insight about foursquare:  the local merchants make the service.  The fact that merchants are so incented to promote, discuss and reward consumers creates a positive feedback  loop that transcends the power of a consumer-only service.
  • Online - offline combination.  Another aspect of the magic of foursquare is that it is not an online only service.  In fact, the ability to drive consumers to actually walk into local venues is a special dimension of the service.  As one student pointed out:  "Facebook tells me what my friends are doing.  foursquare tells me where they are and where I can meet them."  This is a unique and powerful aspect of the service.

3) Once a company achieves product-market fit and starts to scale, how do their priorities, and burdens, shift?

  • Raising money, scaling the team.  A rich discussion ensued about what it means to raise big money.  When foursquare took $20 million in venture capital at a reported valuation of $100 million, suddently they had transformed the company from a lean, product-obsessed start-up to a company that would need to generate tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in cash flow to justify a billion dollar valuation.  A product-obsessed management team suddenly had to transition to become an operational scale management team.
  • Monetization.  Consumer Internet companies have to decide when they begin to monetize - as part of the lean start-up experimentation or only after they achieve enough scale to attract partners and advertisers.  But it's not a binary decision.  Foursquare has run monetization experiments from the beginning, but to justify the big valuation they will have more pressure to show real financing results, perhaps at the expense of the user experience.  It takes a strong founder to resist that temptation (think Jesse Eisenberg playing Mark Zuckerburg in "The Social Network", sneering:  "No advertising.  Advertising isn't cool.")
  • Vision/Becoming a platform.  What does the company want to be when it "grows up"?  To be a generation-defining company and enter the ranks of Facebook and, arguably, Twitter, foursquare needs to evolve from a great application into a platform.  But becoming a platform company requires a whole different approach and set of priorities.  Do you build out your own features or expand your APIs and invest in supporting third party developers to build applications to your platform. One of the students had coincidentally tried to work with the foursquare API to develop an application and complained that it was very rudimentary and limiting relative to the Facebook and Twitter API.  

The verdict?  I ended the class by polling the students - who would buy foursquare stock at a $200-250 million valuation (my very rough estimate of the current trading on the secondary market) and who would sell?  One third of the students were buyers at that price at the end of the class.  Two thirds were sellers.  One student pointed out in a tweet that the voters were unfairly negatively biased because only 10% of their classmates had even tried the application and, besides another tweeted, 3/4 of HBS students apparently wanted to sell Amazon short in 1998!  Another student tweeted that if there was even a 3% chance that the company could be a $10 billion company, it was worth buying at $200 million.  Now there's a future venture capitalist in the making!

Thanks again to the foursquare team for letting us write the case and adding to the HBS community's intellectual capital.