June 25, 2012

We Still Don't "Get" China

 

I confess to being proud of my family and so when someone in the clan writes a book, I read it with great pleasure.  My brother-in-law, William Landay, recently released his third book, the crime thriller Defending Jacob, to great critical reviews and it has become a NY Times Bestseller.  And my uncle Ezra Vogel recently released a towering biography of Deng Xiaoping, which beat out Kissinger's book on China for the prestigious Gelber Prize, which is awarded to the best book on foreign affairs each year.

So when my cousin, Tom Doctoroff, released his second book on China, What Chinese Want, I was excited to read it.  Somewhat to the chagrin of the rest of the family, Tom left America for China 20 years ago to be an executive for advertising agency JWT (one of the WPP holding companies).  He quickly rose to become CEO of Asia for JWT and from that perch has witnessed the cultural transformation and consumerisation of the country.

What is amazing about Tom's book is that it is a cultural and sociological analysis of Chinese society disguised as a book about advertising and marketing.  Tom's observations range from wonky brand analysis (e.g., in his assessment of how Starbucks has become a sensational success in tea-obsessed China) to sweeping cultural and political insights.  For example, in reviewing China's halting efforts to instill more creativity in their schools in the hopes of creating a more innovative society he states:  

"Put simply, the Chinese are great at application but lousy at innovation...The Chinese are defensive and protective, are culturally and institutionally averse to ideas that buck convention."

I also enjoyed his observations about China's relationship with the United States.  "The Chinese do not want to beat the US," he writes as if trying to assure policymakers and the broader American society at large, "They want to stand beside it, proudly."  This attitude is rooted in the Chinese adherence to Confucian principles of harmony and the principle of being "ambitious, yet cautious to the core".  His explanation of China's fascination with president Obama was also telling, observing that Obama's "underdog status became a font of admiration," and that by reshaping the US political power structure as an outsider he "achieved what a sometimes-insecure China aspires for itself".

Tom's observations on Chinese culture, board room behavior, international affairs and consumerism are that rare insider's view provided by an able reporter who is steeped in American culture and values.  If you want to learn about the motivations and mores behind the next great global force, read this book.

June 11, 2012

Start-Up Compensation

One of the most frequent questions I get from entrepreneurs is "what is market?" with regard to compensation, particularly for executives such as the Chief Technology Officer or VP of Sales.  It is such a frequent question that it was the topic of one of my first blog posts 7 years ago.

Talent is the most important ingredient at a young company, and so there is great energy put into trying to be thoughtful to pay a fair market rate for good talent, particularly in light of a very competitive market.

Fortunately, like most things in the land of startups, the world has gotten much more transparent in the last few years and there's a plethora of good data available to help answer this question.

One of the best is my Harvard Business School colleague Noam Wasserman's annual compensation study that he performs in partnership with J. Robert Scott and E&Y. Noam describes the study a bit in his blog post, but if you want a far more detailed view of "what is market" than my amateur summary - sliced and diced by industry, size of company, amount of capita and more - then this study is for you. It's a give-get model - if you give your data, you get the aggregated data back in all it's gory detail.

I highly recommend it. 

June 01, 2012

Are Banks Simply Too Big To Innovate?

Mary Meeker's periodic review of the Internet industry is always a must-read presentation.  This year was no exception - chock full of data, insights and thought-provoking charts.

There is a theme that Mary espoused that I have become a big fan of ever since I read Marc Andresseen's article in the Wall Street Journal "Why software is eating the world."  She framed it as the "re-imagination of nearly everything."  The simple notion is that the confluence of broadband, mobile and globalization in combination with Moore's Law have allowed the technology industry to innovate almost everything in existence.  Facebook's IPO brought their "hack" culture to the forefront of the world's conscience.  Well it turns out, technologists are hacking everything - from advertising to media, from retail to health care, from education to banking.

Ah, banking.  This has not been a good few weeks for the banking industry.  The surprise $2 billion trading loss  at JP Morgan Chase has caused erstwhile superhero Jamie Dimon to appear fallable.  Many are pointing out that the crisis at JP Morgan is an example of a banking sector that is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few and results in a systemic risk because the top 5 banks are simply "too big to fail."

I would argue, there is an even larger risk for the financial services industry, that in turn provides a larger opportunity.  I think banks are now simply too big to innovate.

Let's look at Meeker's slide 86 below:

Slide-851
She lists the industries that are ripe for "re-invention" sorted by their 2012 market capitalization.  Financials are on top at a leviathan-like $7 trillion.  There are 200,000 employees at JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America each and 350,000 at Citigroup.  Structurally speaking, these organizations are simpy too large to develop breakthrough, out-of-the-box, re-invent banking solutions.  That opportunity is left to entrepreneurs.

As a result, there are a slew of start-ups "hacking" banking.  We have invested in a number of them that are hacking away at pieces of the financial system.  ZestCash is hacking consumer lending.  SimpleTuition is hacking student loans and banking.  Cartera Commerce is hacking credit card marketing.  AccountNow is hacking checking accounts and debit cards.  Plastiq will soon be hacking large ticket purchasing.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of others that other investors have backed as well.

So when I look at the innovative progress being made in payments, mobile banking and other major areas, it makes me smile.  Because while the major titans in the industry are caught up in looking backwards, the entrepreneurs are re-inventing the future of finance.  That's an exciting prospect.

May 24, 2012

Dear Graduates: Push The Boundaries

This time of year is full of Commencement ceremonies across the country.  In honor of this year's crop of graduates, the class of 2012, I've been thinking about whether there is one pithy lesson that I might convey to them as they enter the adult world.  My inspiration in this thinking is a book I read recently called "This I Believe," a collection of essays from famous, and not so famous, people who summarize their life lessons in a brief vignette.  It was inspired by a radio program by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s and was revived by PBS and recently compiled into a well-done book.

So, in that vein, here's my simple lesson to this year's crop of graduates:  push the boundaries.  Why?  Because they are there to be challenged.  Because conventional wisdom is just that, conventional.  And you don't want to settle for living a conventional life within a conventional world.

This lesson was hammered into me by my father, a Holocaust survivor who never saw a line he didn't try to skip, an inefficiency he couldn't stamp out, or a injustice he didn't try to undo.  One of his favorite phrases is"don't assume anything."  In other words, don't take for granted core assumptions - whether in tackling a math problem or life.  Instead, test them and try to stretch them to their limits, and beyond.  Further, he would rail against the injustice of those would seek to benefit from old rules in an unfair manner.  I still bump into residents of my home town who remember his repeated crusades against the local cable monopoly as a town meeting member in the 1970s and 1980s.  

My Dad was inspired to become an entrepreneur because of this life philosophy - as many entrepreneurs do.  Great entrepreneurs see boundaries as challenges.  They take great pleasure in tweaking the status quo and rethinking decades of assumptions.  And they incorporate this philosophy into their personal and professional narrative as they pursue new products and services that disrupt existing markets.

My 12 year old son lives this mantra to the hilt (I wonder if entrepreneurship has genetic roots?).  He questions every rule, every boundary with a probing, "Why?"  I love him for it, despite the fact that it makes parenting a challenge.  And I know someday, like this year's crops of graduates who push the boundaries, it will put him in a position to change the world.

So, dear graduates of your various institutions, remember this lesson.  A lesson that scores of entrepreneurs and world-changers have learned before you.  Ethically, morally, appropriately...push the boundaries.  We'll all be better for it.

"Any fool can make a rule, and every fool will mind it."

- Henry David Thoreau

 

May 11, 2012

Hey Graduates: Forget Plastics - It's All About Machine Learning

"Tell me, what would you do if you had 1,000 times more data?"


I still remember reading this profound question on December 24, 2007 in BusinessWeek's cover article on Google and cloud computing like it was yesterday.  It was an interview question, posed by then senior Google engineer Christophe Bisciglia (later founder of red-hot cloud software company, Cloudera and more recently WibiData) to job applicants.

For the first time, I began to think through the practical implications of what the advent of the information explosion (now commonly referred to as “Big Data”) really meant to both individuals and corporations.  How would this onslaught of information effect decision-making across a range of industries, what were the practical implications to businesses and executives, and what were the resulting investment opportunities?

That spark nearly five years ago led to an investment thesis here at Flybridge, where we have looked to invest behind Big Data applications and uses across a number of vertical industries.  At the start of my career as an enterprise software product manager, I was trained to think about the impact of disruptive, horizontal technologies and innovation on vertical industries.  Hence, when Christina Cacioppo of Union Square Ventures wrote her excellent wrap-up of last year’s Techstars class ("What Comes Next"), my first thought was to wonder why more entrepreneurs aren’t going vertical – that is, why they aren’t more focused on solving business problems for large vertical industries?

Fortunately, we have been able to find some extraordinarily talented entrepreneurs who have thought deeply about this issue of Big Data’s impact on vertical industries.  For example, in the world of consumer lending, Douglas Merrill and Shawn Budde at ZestCash are using the vast array of signals across online and off-line data sources to determine whether an individual consumer should receive a loan. The young company was recently in the news for the release of their latest underwriting algorithm.  Since when does a company get big time TechCrunch coverage for releasing a new algorithm?

Another entrepreneurial team pursuing applications of Big Data is Mike Baker and Bill Simmons of DataXu.  The company uses a big data approach to determine what the particular advertisement should be for the particular user at that particular moment across all digital channels - display, mobile, video and social.  The company processes 20,000 third party data segments and evaluates billions of impressions each month. 

Most recently, we announced a new investment in a big data company out of Israel called tracx.  The company has been inhaling all of the social media data exhaust out of Twitter, Facebook and other sources to determine insight for brands about consumer sentiment and provide a platform for targeted engagement and campaign management. 

Finally, we have made an unannounced seed in the healthcare market that applies big data techniques to help payors reduce health care costs and more accurately account for revenue.

One of the common threads and underlying skills requried across these Big Data investments is Machine Learning.  This is a cool artificial intelligence-based technique for developing computer systems that learn and evolve based on experience. Each of these companies has based their intellectual property on sophisticated machine learning techniques developed by dozens of PhDs.  It's as if the machines have been in training all their lives to adapt and make use of the Big Data now being thrown at them - a combination of Moore's Law and the cloud mixed in with Machine Learning finally makes it all possible.  It probably has been a growth of 1000x the data available to each of us since Bisciglia's question - and another 1000x is coming for us all in the next few years.

So while McKinsey raises the alarm (in a very nice report) that the implications for Big Data is going to be a massive shortage of trained data scientists (they estimate the US alone will need 1.5 million more by 2018), I would argue that if you young graduates want to build a future in the Big Data Era, I have one word for you (OK, two):  "Machine Learning"

 

April 30, 2012

Activist Seeds - The Latest, Subtle Trend in Seed Investing

When I entered the VC business 10 years ago, I tried to keep thinking about venture capital as a business, where the key focus area was on meeting the needs of our target customers -- entrepreneurs and limited partner investors.

In the case of entrepreneurs, those needs have changed radically in these last 10 years.  The surge in seed investing over the last few years has been well-reported and analyzed.  With advances in cloud computing, open source infrastructure, development tools and general "Lean Start-Up" techniques, entrepreneurs need less capital than ever before.  And when entrepreneurs' needs change (i.e., requiring less capital), smart investors adjust to meet those new needs.  Hence, the rise of angels, super-angels, incubators, accelerators, micro-VCs and VC-led seed programs.

But as the "Great Seed Experiment" (as my partner, Michael Greeley, calls it) matures, a new trend is emerging.  Entrepreneurs are beginning to learn the difference between what I'll call Passive Seeds and Activist Seeds.  And entrepreneurs are learning that the difference between the two, although somewhat subtle, matters greatly.

Passive Seeds are when a VC invests a small amount of money (for a $200-500M mid-sized fund, typically $250k or less, for a large $1B fund, perhaps $500k or less), to achieve a very small amount of ownership (typically less than 5%) to simply create an option to participate as a more meaningful investor in the future.  Passive seed programs get most of the press attention because of their sheer volume.  

When you ask venture capitalists about their seed programs, many will brag about how many seed investments they have made (20-40 per year is not uncommon) and how wonderful it is that so few of them "graduate" to become series A investments (perhaps 10-20%) because it shows how discriminating they are.  Other characteristics of passive seeds are that one or two of the partners can make the decision to invest, rather than requiring the entire partnership to approve, and the due diligence is very light.  Additionally, in a passive seed round, VCs don't mind if 3-5 firms participate, as opposed to more tyically 1-2, and each VC partner can juggle a dozen passive seeds at any given time.  Sometimes there are more VC investors than employees in a passive seed!

But entrepreneurs are starting to wise up.  The conventional wisdom has emerged that Passive Seeds from VC investors are bad for start-ups and entrepreneurs.  VCs who make passive seeds are not typically engaged enough in the business to add meaningful value.  Further, they send a bad signal to the funding market when they don't invest in the Series A, thus creating inappropriate leverage on the entrepreneur at the time of the Series A decision.  

Seed investor/venture capitalist/entrepreneur Chris Dixon has written extensively about this issue, and I couldn't agree with him more when he declares, based on his discussions with experienced founders, "there is no room for debate" on the issue.

Activist Seeds VC investors are a different story (which Chris acknowledges, although uses different language).  From the VCs perspective, an activist seed is when the firm commits the full time, resources, and energy into the investment that they would do with a Series A.  From the entrepreneur's perspective, they truly want to raise less capital because of all the positive Lean Start-Up trends noted below, but want the active involvement of a value-added VC firm.  

An activist seed from a VC is typically more like $250K-$1 million and the ownership is closer to 8-10%.  The full partnership approves an activist seed and the due diligence, although abbreviated, is thoughtful and serious.  The firm gets to know the business and the entrepreneur better and thus makes a deeper commitment in making the investment.  

The conversion rate of an activist seed into a larger Series A is more like 50-75% and each VC partner dedicates as much time to an activist seed as he/she does in a larger Series A.  In short, an activist seed is nearly identical to a Series A, just smaller, slightly more streamlined, and informal - all appropriate for the stage of the business and the requirements ahead.

So next time you are discussing a seed round with a VC firm, figure out if their firm's philosophy is activist or passive.  At Flybridge, we firmly believe in activist seeds (two nice examples recently in the news are Crashlytics and ZestCash).  Different firms have different approaches.  Make sure you find out which is which, and make sure it's a fit for your needs.  Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to distinguish between the two:

  • Was the entire partnership engaged in the investment decision process?  Did I meet with and pitch to the entire firm?  This results in a greater sense of commitment and shared ownership. 
  • Did the VC open up her network and make a few value-added introductions to prospective talent, customers and business development partners?  Again, this is an indication that the VC is willing to add value along the way and be more active than passive.
  • Was the due diligence process rigorous? Do they seem to really understand my business and the subtelties around what it takes to win?  Did they ask tough questions, check my personal references to get to know me better, put me in front of prospective customers?

Absent these elements, you are at risk of taking money from a VC that views you as "an option" rather than "an investment" - not a place a hard-charging entrepreneur who needs as many friends on his/her side as possible wants to be!

April 12, 2012

The Bar Has Gotten Higher

chin up bar

When I first entered the venture capital business 10 years ago after being an entrepereneur, my partners warned me that "my bar" for new investments would get higher over time.  In other words, the criteria to make a new investment - clearing "the bar" - would get more strict with time as I developed more experience and saw more things.  I found this to be very true, and the notion that investors get wiser and more selective over time has become common wisdom in the industry.

But there's something very new going on in the last few years - something very striking.  Simply put, the collective bar of the investment community to fund young companies has recently gotten higher - much higher.  

The entrepreneurs I speak to are feeling it every day.  When they pitch their new idea to investors, they are told to build a prototype first.  When they build the prototype, they go get customers.  When they get customers, they are told to show engagement metrics.  When they show engagement metrics, they are told to run some monetization experiments.  When they run monetization experiments, they are challenged to prove scalability.  Maybe I have Passover on the brain this week, but it's like investors are putting entrepreneurs through a nightmarish version of Dayeinu, where no matter what they achieve, it's never enough (speaking of Passover, if you haven't seen this Jon Stewart clip of Passover vs. Easter, it's a must.  I'll wait.).

Why is the new investment bar so high today?  Isn't there plenty of euphoria and "animal spirits" to go around with the IPO market returning, marquee acquisitions (e.g., Instagram at $1 billion) and the impending, earth-shattering Facebook IPO?

I believe this new phenomenon of an extraordinarily high bar is an outgrowth of three related forces:  (1) the Lean Start Up movement, which has trained entrepreneurs on capital-efficient start-up techniques; (2) the plummeting cost of experimentation and the cloud, which allows entrepreneurs to rent infrastructure that allows them to develop prototypes and pilots much cheaply than ever before; and (3) the proliferation of social media, which allows entrepreneurs to read innumerable books and blogs to educate them on building start-ups and effective fundraising.

These three forces have led to a major increase in the collective "Start-Up IQ" of both entrepereneurs and VCs, while at the same time putting in their hands inexpensive tools to progress with their ideas.  Thus, if you are an entrepreneur, your competitors - not necessarily market-based competitors but simply other entrepreneurs who are pursuing capital - are that much more sophisticated and advanced than ever before.

A great example of this is Crashlytics, a compay we led a $1 million seed round along with Baseline last year and then a $5 million Series A, which was announced this week.  At the seed round, the two entrepreneurs (who are in their mid-20s and, like many young entrepereneurs today, wise beyond their years) had already both been successful serial entrepreneurs, had completed a customer discovery and development process with 20 application vendors and had built an alpha product.  In other words, before they had raised a nickel, they had made as much progress as a $10 million funded Series A start-up circa 1999 or even 2004.  They had achieved initial customer validation and identified a precise experiment they were going to run with the first $1 million - whether they could get broad adoption for their crash reporting tool.  Indeed, they crushed their milestones.  By the time they had spent half the $1 million and were ready for a Series A round, they had over 500 organizations using the product across tens of millions of devices.

Crashlytics is a special company run by special entrepreneurs, but their story isn't unique - it is playing out across the world as more start-ups are more sophisticated in their approaches and achieving more with less.  That's generally a good thing for everyone.  But it does mean the bar has gotten higher, much higher comparatively speaking, to raise money.

And in the spirit of sharing more information to help entrepreneurs raise their game, below is a presentation I gave as part of a Skillshare class I delivered at Harvard's i-Lab with a few tips on raising capital:

How To Raise Your First Round of Capital

 

April 06, 2012

Now That The JOBS Act Has Passed, Immigration Reform Is Next

Yesterday was a pretty special day.  Not only did I get to attend the White House ceremony at the Rose Garden for the passing of the JOBS Act, but I got to see one of our CEOs featured as an entrperneurial hero.

I have written in the past about the JOBS Act and its importance, so I won't repeat that here.  The president was on point in his remarks (see the video I took below), pointing out that his job is "Fighting every day to make sure America is the best place on earth to do business."

 

But the coolest thing for me was seeing our portfolio company CEO, John Belizaire of FirstBest, standing next to the president on he podium as exhibit A of the kind of entrepreneur we should be celebrating in this country.  John's parents were Haitian immigrants who arrived in America with nothing.  John worked hard as a kid, fell in love with technology and software, and after a stint at Intel decided to start his own software company at a young age with a few friends, called The Theory Center.  After a few years, he successfully sold it to BEA for over $160 million.  He stayed on as an executive at BEA for a few years and then started another company with his same team called FirstBest, which we invested in.  The company recently raised a $10 million growth round and is revolutionizing the front office of insurance companies.  I loved seeing John up there on stage and hearing his story of participating in a roundtable and meeting the president beforehand (see picture below):

John's story, like many others, is playing out all over this country and this world.  It makes me glad to be doing what my partners and I do - trying to help more John Belizaires achieve their dreams.

At one point, Naval Ravikant of AngelList and I were observing that we need to marshall the same energy and resources behind the JOBS Act for the next big agenda item for the entrepreneurial community:  immigration reform.  Stay tuned.     

March 25, 2012

Founder's Dilemmas - And There Are Many

In the very first year of a company, there are a few very tough, make-or-break decisions that founders need to make.  My colleague and friend, Professor Noam Wasserman, teaches a class called "Founder's Dilemmas" at Harvard Business School that delves into these decisions and has become a "must-take" session for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Noam has turned the materials and research from his class into a new book:  The Founder's Dilemmas, where he analyzes the fundamental trade-offs such as when to found a company, who to found it with (if anyone), how to determine roles and responsibilities, equity splits, choosing investors and many more sensitive issues.

This is a serious book for a serious endeavor: creating a company from scratch that can be a world-beater and life-changer.  Analytical, insightful and even a bit wonky at times, Wasserman's story arc is less about war stories - although the books is chock full of them, featuring the founders of Twitter, Pandora and others - and more about the decision tree every founder must climb.  Rather than having these decisions happen by chance, Wasserman's book is a towering guide to making these decisions thoughtfully and purposefully.

Every founder should read it - and take the time to digest its rich data and lessons.

March 19, 2012

Keep the Good News Flowing - Pass the JOBS Act, Now

These last few weeks have been about as encouraging as any that I can remember when it comes to economic news.  The US economy seems to be, finally, recovering nicely from the Great Recession (The Economist tongue-in-cheek headline this weekend:  "Can It Be...The Recovery?").  The Europeans have finally (it seems) renegotiated the Greek debt crisis to bondholders satisfaction.  Although they have alot of work left to tax and cut their way out of the secular debt morass, there appears to be enough progress to buoy the stock market, with the S&P 500 reaching its highest level in four years.  And, finally, finally, finally, we saw overwhelming bipartisan support from the House of Representatives in support of a bill that will help small businesses raise capital, called the JOBS Act, which passed 390-23 last week and is now being debated in the Senate.  When is the last time the House passed a major economic bill with that large a majority?

I have written about the need for structural reform to small business fundraising in the past.  With the JOBS Act, we finally have two, much-needed major reform elements:  (1) an "onramp" to make it less onerous for young companies with revenue less than $1 billion to go public; and (2) an ability for companies to raise up to $2 million in capital by soliciting small investments from many individuals.  Both of these are very important mechansims to encourage more capital to flow into young, innovative companies.

The Senate appears to be stuck, though, and needs to hear from the business and start-up community.  NVCA Past Chair and head of the IPO Task Force, Kate Mitchell, has done incredible work to help craft a bill that takes a balanced view to the IPO crisis.  HBS Professor Bill Sahlman has written eloquently in support of the bill, in the face of criticism from the NY Times' and even Bloomberg View (who appears to support the bill with a few tweaks).

Here's the call to action:  sign this petition on AngelList and show your support for the bill.  Email your senators and underscore your support.  This is an important battle - one worth fighting.  If you want to reach out to Senator Kerry or others, the NVCA has set up a page here.

March 14, 2012

Signal to Noise - How to Cut Through the Clutter

There's a principal in signal processing regarding measuring the quality of information coming through a channel called the signal to noise ratio.  It is a measure of how much valuable information (signal) is included in a stream of data relative to the amount of useless information (noise).  The formula looks like this - the power of the signal as compared to the power of the noise:

 \mathrm{SNR} = \frac{P_\mathrm{signal}}{P_\mathrm{noise}},

My father was a PhD in information theory and has a theorem named after him (the Bussgang Theorem), so I've always found this area of study interesting.  I would observe that the start-up universe is a particularly noisy world to operate in professionally - in other words, there's a very low signal to noise ratio.

The SXSW conference is emblematic of this issue.  I wasn't able to attend, but when I ask my colleagues who are there, the first thing they talk about is the overwhelming amount of noise, or sheer volume of new start-ups, that are being worked on by entrepreneurs.  Online media blog DigiDay mused that SXSW has gotten so noisy that no one can stand out any more.  We are living in the "NewCo Era", where the combination of the plummeting in the cost to experiment and the explosion of entrepreneurship and disrupting technologies is causing a proliferation of new companies to be formed.  Rather than wring our collective hands about the dire implications of this trend in the start-up world, I'd simply observe that from the perspective of the entrepreneur, it is getting harder and harder to rise above the noise.

So how do the best entrepreneurs cut through the clutter and distinguish themselves and their companies?  How can they grab the attention of customers, partners and investors in an era of overwhelming, defocusing flow?  Here are the top five behaviors I have observed in entrepreneurs who seem to be unaffected by the amount of static around them and are able to stand out amidst the noise:

  1. Put on your blinders.  I've noticed that many great entrepreneurs have the ability to ignore the inputs around them, even (gasp) to ignore their inbox.  Some of their friends may brag about achieving "zero inbox" nirvana (i.e., having read and processed every email that comes in), but the great entrepreneurs I work with actually actively strive to avoid having 
    a "zero inbox".  Instead, they consciously block out reacting to inputs and focus their proactive energy on their priorities.  Speaking of priorities...
  2. Focus relentlessly on the customer value proposition.  The entrepreneurs I love working with wake up every morning thinking about their customer.  There are so many distractions when you are building a start-up, but if you solely focus on your customer and addressing their pain point every day, you will be in a strong position.  One of my portfolio company CEOs sometimes looks bored during our board meetings when we cover topics like finances, operating metrics and recruiting.  But when we get to the portion of the meeting where we talk about his customer, he totally lights up and is full of war stories and compelling ideas.  You obviously can't solely focus on the customer value proposition, because you also can't run out of cash, ignore competition and neglect to build a world-class team.  But that leads to the next characteristic...
  3. Focus on very few things.  Great entrepreneurs are brilliant at keeping things very simple and focusing only on a few of the highest-priority, highest-impact items.  I learned this lesson from a mentor early in my professional career.  There is something to the "power of three" (keep your mind focused on only three goals at any given time) or even the "power of one".  I try to maintain the discipline of writing down my three summary goals for the year on one-page and keep it in my folder at all times, pulling it out every few weeks and reminding myself of them.  The priorities may change, but the discipline of focusing on very few things should never change.
  4. Avoid bright, shiny objects.  A corollary to focusing on very few things is that you should actively avoid "bright shiny object syndrome".  This is the well-known start-up disease of entrepreneurs getting distracted by the latest interesting new idea or opportunity.  One of entrepreneur friend of mine is susceptible to this - his last three meetings were the most important ones in shaping his thinking and setting his priorities and he finds it hard to ignore the inevitable distractions that comes out of a positive partner conversation.
  5. Be a contrarian.  Contrarian thinkers stand out from the crowd, plain and simple.  The start-up world tends to encourage a form of groupthink.  There emerges a conventional wisdom in the blogosphere that is propogated and validated thruogh the various social channels.  But great entrepreneurs relish the opportunity to challenge the status quo and conventional wisdom and go against the grain. The best ones develop that contrarian point of view so fully that, over time, it wins out and itself becomes the new conventional wisdom.

The Economist had an article this week called "Slaves to the Smartphone" that bemoaned the "horrors of hyperconnectivity".  Similarly, being a slave to your inbox isn't going to help you build a great company.  So don't be afraid to ignore it.

 

February 28, 2012

Fred Wilson Visits With the HBS Start-Up Tribe

pic.twitter.com/T7r2s8No

For the second year, Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures was kind enough to come to HBS to meet with the class Professor Tom Eisenmann and I co-teach called Launching Technology Ventures.  Similar to last year, it was a terrific session.

I started the class off by encouraging the students to live tweet the entire 90 minute session.  The Twitter stream (which you can see here, using the hash tag #hbsltv) nicely captured our dialog.  The class is made up of 100 "start-up ninjas", half of whom will start their own companies in the next year or two and half of whom will join start-ups.  The class covers the fundamentals of lean start-up theory, seeking product-market fit, and scaling challenges post product-market fit.  We do not have a final exam.  Instead, students need to write two blog posts, comment on two of their classmate's posts and participate in a business model excercise modeled after Steve Blank's "business model canvass" exercise at Stanford.  You can see the course blog here.

A few of the takeaways that struck me:

  • Fred observed that failure is typically a valuable and powerful experience - forcing introspection, humility and an extra drive to prove something to others.  He observed that the entrepreneurs he has been most successful with typically had a major and personally defining failure in their career.
  • He repeated a comment that we drew out from last year's conversation, which I particularly like:  "Start-ups should be hunch-driven early on and data-driven as they scale".  What was interesting was discussing the profile of the entrepreneur that has good hunches - often they come from outside the domain, yet are obsessed with the opportunity to disrupt the new field with a fresh perspective.
  • We discussed the role of gate-keepers in start-ups.  Fred is skeptical of businesses that involve gate-keepers.  In fact, he encouraged the students to look for industries that have gate-keepers, and compete directly with them (e.g., education).
  • When evaluating whether you want to join a company, think like an investor.  Conduct extensive due diligence on the team, the product and the market opportunity.  Ask yourself whether you would invest your money in the company before deciding to invest your career.
  • Entrepreneur and start-ups have many varied models for success.  Don't try to follow someone else's model.  Stick with your personal passion and your authentic leadership model.  If you don't have your own start-up idea, go join a 50 person company and leave when there are 500 employees.  And if you have an idea and no one can talk you out of it, go be an entrepreneur. (Interstingly, Fred confessed that if he could have done it over again, he wishes he had joined a start-up for the first 10 years of his career.)
  • We had an interesting dialog about the various start-up ecosystems - Silicon Valley, Boston, NYC - and how long it takes to build that ecosystem.  Our mutual friend Brad Feld has written extensively about this topic and is writing a book on it that should be coming out shortly.

At the end of the class, Fred had an encouraging perspective for MBAs around the world, not just in today's classroom.  He observed that the start-up community is all the richer due to the contributions of MBAs.  Just be sure not to be arrogant about your knowledge or degree - instead, put your head down and do great work!

February 26, 2012

Personal Reinvention - Lessons From the Kingdoms of Amalur

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

I became a venture capitalist over nine years ago, leaving my entrepreneurial career at the ripe age of 32.  At the time, I had been an entrepreneur for ten years across three companies, and felt helping start Flybridge Capital represented an exciting opportunity to team with a few friends to create a new kind of venture capital firm.  Equally compelling for me was the challenge of personal reinvention - pushing myself out of my comfort zone to learn a completely new operating model and face a new set of challenges.

I was reflecting on this as I read the fanfare over the last few weeks about former Red Sox All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling releasing his inaugural game, the Kingdoms of Amalur.  Talk about personal transformation!  Schilling retired from over 20 years in professional baseball to become a start-up entrepreneur, forming his gaming company, 38 Studios, in 2006.  I documented his transformation in a Harvard Business School case study called Curt's Next Pitch, along with my friend and colleague Professor Noam Wasserman.  

The launch of the Kingdoms of Amalur an amazing accomplishment.  Schilling has had to figure out a completely new blueprint for operating in the world of technology start-ups.  He joked with me when we were working on the case that much of his language had to be relearned - for example, "burn rate" used to be a good thing, representing how fast your heater sped towards the plate at the batter.

You don't have to be a World Series MVP to appreciate the difficulty in personal transformations.  It's something I see entrepreneurs struggling with all the time - sometimes they are trying to transfer their skills from one industry into another, other times they are trying to adjust to the new phases of their business - from inception to adolesence to more mature, scaling issues.  

Here are a few general lessons I've observed that are patterns of successful efforts towards personal reinvention:

  • Don't be afraid to ask for help - and even risk looking dumb.  People who have achieved great success in one field become very proud of those achievements.  It is hard to take a step back and recognize that you need help to learn a new blueprint in the new field.  And sometimes finding people who you feel safe with - and able to ask the most basic, dumb questions - can be of great help.  Schilling sought out gaming executives from the very beginning who could mentor him and teach him the ropes and was never afraid to "start with the basics".  I remember struggling through all new concepts and modes of operation during my first year or two as a venture capitalist and leaning on my partners as well as mentors from other firms - and, importantly, swallowing my pride when doing so.  Too many folks get stuck dwelling on their past accomplishments rather than pushing forward into new fields.  As Ulysses says:  "Pride hath no other glass to show itself, but pride." In computer science terms, you would call that a "doom loop"!
  • Understand your personal strengths and weaknesses - and how they fit in the new model.  Many entrepreneurs do not conduct enough deep self-reflection.  They may have the intellectual firepower to analyze the criteria for success in the new field, but lack the emotional IQ to appreciate how their own skills map.  What are your top three core strengths that make you special and unique?  What are the three things that your spouse or parents would say are your biggest faillings that you need to work on?  And how do these relate to the new field?  Delver deeply into who you are and how you operate, and then you will be better positioned to undergo the personal reinvention required ot tackle the new field.  Jerry Colonna has a nice guest post on the topic of "learning to lead yourself" on Fred Wilson's blog.
  • Mantain the core success attributes - have the right, flexible mindset.  No matter what field you are tackling, there are an obvious set of core attributes that help individuals achieve success.  In the context of changing fields, the most important arguably is the importance of avoiding rigid thinking.  Don't keep applying the same blueprint and remaining stuck on a particular approach to company-buidling.  Instead, concentrate your energy on the growth and change required to make the adjustments to the new domain.  Stanford researcher Carol Dweck's book, Mindset, is a nice summary of the approach that successful people take when facing new challenges.  She observes that those that are able to achieve consistent success across fields have the following attributes:
    • A passion for learning
    • A passion for stretching themselves
    • Avoid dwelling on how great they are, but instead focus on getting better
    • Surround yourself with people that will challenge and push you

These are the lessons for personal reinvention and facing new challenges.  Over the course of six tough years in launching and building his company, Curt Schilling appears to have figured this out.  Will you?

February 15, 2012

What Makes The Boston Start-Up Scene Special?

There continues to be great interest around the world regarding how to build innovation clusters.  Inspired by a similar presentation that Fred Wilson did on the NYC start-up scene many years ago, I pulled this presentation together.  I just updated it for a group of Harvard Business School students and was struck by how much has changed and progressed in a positive way.  I would venture to guess every major US technical hub would say the same.  Like Boston, the NYC, SF, Silicon Valley, Boulder and Austin start-up scenes are all on stronger footing and more vibrant and diverse than ever as compared to a few years ago. This should give all of us great optimism for the future.

Enjoy:

 

February 10, 2012

Taking People With You - Book Review

"Leadership is the art of getting someone to do something you want done, because he wants to do it."

    - Dwight D. Eisenhower

I'm a business book junkie, so when my friends at Penguin (publishers of my book, Mastering the VC Game) told me I should meet with the author of Taking People With You, I jumped at the opportunity.  Author David Novak is Chairman and CEO of Yum! Brands (Taco Bell, KFC) and runs an organization of 1.4 million people, so I figured he'd know a little something about leadership.  Having Warren Buffet quoted on the front cover is a relatively positive signal as well.  The fact that Yum! is a member of the human capital leadership network of my portfolio company, i4cp, sealed the deal.

Two big surprises came out for me in reading the book and talking to David.  The first big surprise:  David is a very humble guy.  He talks alot about his personal failings, highs and lows, and even inserts his personal "timeline" chart.  He tells a great story of how horrible a speaker he was in the early days of his career, and how he was always trying to be something he wasn't.  Novak emphasizes this notion of authenticity throughout the book, pointing out (as many others have before him) that only by being brutally honest with yourself and being an authentic leader can you get others around you to follow.  He shares a terrific quote from GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt:

"I'm always searching for a certain kind of humility in our most senior leaders, people who don't think they know it all...You're fighting arrogance and bureaucracy every day, and if you have people that act that way, then it's never good." 

The second big surprise for me was that, despite being a "big company guy", David was very savvy about entrepreneurship and the translation of his leadership lessons to entrepreneurs.  He has some very practical advice about culture-building and making sure that entrepreneurs keep everyone around them involved ("no involvement, no commitment").  And he uses evocative phrases to emphasize how to be a change agent ("Shock the System" is one of my favorites.

The book reminded me of a lesson I learned early in my career as a young vice president at Open Market.  One of the older executive team members took me aside one day and encouraged me to stop pushing my version of "the answers" onto my team  Instead, he advised, hang back more and focus on communicating the vision and high-level business objectives, and then coach the team to develop the answers.  True alignment is the key to ownership and accountability, Novak writes, and if the team around you doesn't embrace the problem with the same passion that you do, they will never really be committed.

And, believe me, entrepreneurship requires 100% commitment.

Many people complain that great entrepreneurs do not necessarily make great leaders.  I would encourage entrepreneurs to take a page from folks like David Novak to exercise their leadership muscles.  

Even big company folks have something to teach the rest of us.

January 28, 2012

Steve Blank vs. Steve Jobs

 

The Four Steps to the Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Products that Win

I am co-teaching a class at Harvard Business School on entrepreneurship called "Launching Technology Ventures" along with my friend and colleague, Professor Tom Eisenmann.  The class kicked off this week with two cases:  Dropbox and Aardvark.

As I reflect on the class discussions, one of the interesting tension points that arose is the challenge an entrepreneur faces in selecting their primary product design approach.  Should they follow the Steve Blank, Customer Development Process school of product development or the Steve Jobs "vision" school?  In other words, should they pursue a user-centric design paradigm -- setting priorities based on rigorous tests and listening excercises that determine what users want -- or should they pursue a more top-down approach akin to Steve Jobs, who famously said: "It is hard to design by focus groups because most of the time people don't know what they want until you show it to them. "

Steve Blank's book, Four Steps to the Epiphany, has become an instant classic in Start-Up Land for good reason.  Along with the complimentary book by Eric Ries, The Lean StartUp, it provides an incredibly useful guide for starting companies, testing hypotheses and creating products that users love.  Dropbox and Aardvark were terrific first case studies for the HBS students -- both adhered to user-centric design principles quite religiously, but sprinkled a little founder vision in for good measure.

In the case of Dropbox, founder Drew Houston was brilliant in developing an MVP (minimum viable product) that was no more than a simple prototype and then used a rudimentary online video to test user reactions to the prototype.  Houston kept focusing on a test and learn approach to product development, event creating a "Votebox" feature that allowed users to vote for the product changes they wanted most.  But Houston did not strictly follow the Blank/Ries paradigm religously.  For example, after launch, he ignored the most requested feature that users asked for:  enabling the service to synchronize files outside outside the Dropbox folder.  In ignoring his customers' top request, Houston was exerting a Steve Jobs-like, top-down vision in order to stick with the focus on simplicity.

In the case of Aardvark, a social search start-up that was later acquired by Google, co-founder Max Ventilla, was obsessed with following user-centric design principles.  At one point in the case, Ventilla notes:  "We were wary of relying too much on vision and intuition in developing a product."  Yet at the same time, the company refused to provide an archiving capability in the early days of the product, focusing the service on a conversation paradigm rather than Quora's reference paradigm.  Again, the insertion of a Jobs-like product vision.

So in both cases, founders adhered to the Steve Blank school of product design, yet allowed their vision and instincts to overrule user feedback.  What's going on?  When should you choose between the two?  

First, I would observe that the dichotomy may not be as stark as it seems.  Blank is careful to point out in his book that when a company first begins, "there is very limited customer input to a product specification."  Therefore, "start development based on your initial vision."  Yet, in both the Dropbox and Aardvark cases, the founders ignored their customers well into the development cycle.  

I would submit that there are two guiding principles that founders should use when considering overriding their users.  First, when the feedback is in violation of a coherent set of product principles.  In the case of Dropbox, this was an unwavering focus on simplicity.  In the case of Aardvardk, a focus on social search being a conversation.  Second, founders should only have the confidence to develop these principles and  override their users when they possess very strong domain knowledge.  When product-centric founders deeply understand their customer's viewpoint and have tremendous customer empathy, they have the right to make hunch-based product decisions rather than data-driven.

That said, founders should never let themselves off the hook to applying the test and learn principles of Steve Blank to monitor their decisions and continuously validate them.  And the bar should be very high for such overrides.  As the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed:  “Talent hits a target no else can hit.  Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

Founders who override their users are betting on genius.  Steve Jobs and Drew Houston have proven that genius pays off.

January 14, 2012

A Democrat's Defense of Romney

I am a card-carrying Democrat and supporter of President Obama.  I will vote for him again in November.

But the attacks against Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital - by both his Republican brethren and Democrats - and the demonization of the private equity industry are really starting to annoy me.  I won't vote for him for president based on his policies and the policies of the party he represents, but I believe Mitt Romney's business track record at Bain Capital, and the private equity industry as a whole, is deserving of a full-throated defense.

First, Bain Capital is a great firm.  I have co-invested with them and some of my closest friends are managing directors there and you will not find a smarter, higher integrity, harder working group of professionals.  They have also been incredibly generous with their success and become philanthropic leaders, both in the Boston community and beyond.  If you are going to pick on a private equity firm for bad behavior and hubris (of which there is plenty), they are the last ones to select.

Second, the work of private equity is a healthy part of our capitalist system.  Damning private equity as a maket force is absurd in a free market economy.  Should bad, poorly managed companies be allowed to destroy value?  Should fast-growing, innovative businesses receive capital and support to accelerate their growth?  And should hard-working pensioners and retirees be allowed to invest their svaings in an asset class that outperforms nearly every other one available?  Private equity has an important role and should be lauded, not lambasted.  The WSJ does a nice job of making this case here.  

I'm not saying Romney, Bain Capital or private equity are perfect.  I'm sure there were bad bets made or cases or situations where Bain Capital was overly aggressive in pulling out fees and, as a result, bankrupted the businesses they invested in, such as GS Industries.  And Romney, as much good as Bain Capital does for investors, entrepreneurs and businesses, is a bit fast and loose with his soundbite claim of creating 100,000 net jobs at Bain Capital.  Dan Primack of Fortune does a nice job of running through the fact and fiction behind the various claims here.

But the fact that Bain Capital has amassed over $60 billion in investor capital, and the fact that there are over 2,300 private equity firms managing $2.4 trillion, suggests that this is a massive force in our global economy that attracts the best talent, capital and companies for a good reason. 

I am tired of seeing politicians from both sides of the aisle talk out of both sides of their mouth.  Capitalism is a force for good and we are counting on the capitalism system to enable us to grow our way out of this economic malaise by creating wealth and jobs, expanding free trade and innovation.  So let's stop this name-calling nonsense (is Warren Buffet a corporate raider?) and instead focus on the important policy issues surrounding the economy, health care, foreign policy and social policies.

That's why I'll vote for Obama for President again in 2012.  Not because Mitt Romney is anything but a spectacular entrepreneur and business executive. 

January 04, 2012

Scaling is Hard

At the onset of 2012, many start-up executives around the world are sticking their copy of Lean Start-Up on the shelf, leaning back, and bemoaning the fact that they have a new set of challenges ahead of them.  Although there is a plethora of advice now being given about how to find product-market fit for your fledging start-up, there's a dirty little secret out there:  once you've achieved product-market fit, the hard work really begins.  Scaling is hard.

After three or four years of jamming on your start-up, you've finally crossed a few million in revenue, gotten north of 10-20 employees, and it's all starting to click.  Now the pressure really begins.  Your employees start doing what I call "phantom equity math" (if this company were worth a billion dollars, I'd become a multimillionare!), your VCs shift you in their mental models from "too early to tell" to "high return potential" and your spouse starts asking about when all that hard work is going to really pay off.

Yet, the hard scaling challenges and decisions that will enable true value creation, not just interim progress, are all ahead of you.  Here are a few of the top ones that I see start-ups wrestle with once they start seeing their initial revenue projections finally come to fruition:

  1. Product Strategy:  Stay Focused vs. Broaden the Footprint.  The initial product is working well and now the question is how broad a product strategy should you pursue?  If you think the total available market (TAM) for the existing product is large enough to satisfy yours and your investor's ambitions, stay focused.  But, typically, the allure of pursuing the bigger win draws founders into ambitious efforts to broaden their product footprint through organic development efforts or even M&A.  My partner, Chip Hazard, likes to refer to the broadening efforts as the "lilly pad strategy":  focus on jumping on to a lillypad next to you rather than across the entire pond.  By pursuing natural adjacencies, a company can increase its TAM - ideally by leveraging existing customers (meet their needs more broadly), channels (given them more things to sell) or products (extend the current prodcut footprint with natural adjacent add-ons).  I'm often surprised that companies don't think through the basics of competitive strategy when evaluating these adjacent opportunities.  At the risk of getting some eye rolls for evoking Michael Porter, I encourage start-up CEOs to think carefully about the new lilly pad's competitive intensity, entrance threats, threats of substitute products as well as the power of suppliers and customers when evaluating the adjacent opportunities. 
  2. Financial Strategy:  Exit vs. Raise Additional Capital.  Once things are working well, there is a magnetic power that demands pouring more fuel onto the fire.  If the customer acquisition costs (CAC) are proving out to be $1 and the customer's lifetime value (LTV) are $2, why not raise millions of dollars to acquire more customers?  Obviously, it's not that easy a decision.  Raising capital can be a hugely distracting, draining process and the dilution implications, as well as the choice of investors, has deep repercussions on your future options.  On the other hand, pursuing an early exit can be appealing, particularly if the entrepreneur has never had a win before, but there are many difficult considerations here as well, which I touch on in a blog post (Walking Away From Liquidity) as does Roger Ehrenberg (To Sell or Not To Sell).  
  3. Human Capital Strategy:  Hire Grownups vs. Stay Young.  There is a certain charm and many benefits to the founding team sticking together and scaling with the start-up.  The culture remains true to the founding core, the young talented employees get growth opportunities, and there's an appeal to minimizing the disruption that outsiders bring.  Yet, frequently, the talented founding team that gets you to the point of scaling is not the right team to lead the scaling process.  I refer to the three stages of a start-up's life as "the jungle", "the dirt road" and "the highway".  The team that is skilled at hacking its way through the jungle is often not as well-suited to accelerate rapidly once a dirt road has been discovered.  Yet when more senior, experienced executives arrive, preserving the founding culture and maintaining alignment is critical.  The best companies build teams for scale early on (e.g., hiring great VPs who can be both effective players and coaches as their department grows) and work hard to select for cultural fit (Google's top recruiter, Mike Junge, had a great interview on hiring best practices in PE Hub, "Why It Pays To Be Nice").
  4. Founder's Dilemma:  Bring in a Professional CEO?  Ultimately, one of the biggest decisions a scaling young company makes is - who should be the CEO?  The founder may be one of the uniquely talented individuals who can scale from the jungle all the way through the highway, but more often than not a senior, professional CEO is hired to help take the company to the next level.  This decision is truly make or break.  It rests on the founder's desires as well as the board's confidence in their ability to transition from a product-centric, pre product-market fit world to a sales and marketing execution-centric, post product-market-fit world.  Investors would always prefer to see the founder make that transition, but if the skillset isn't there, having an orderly transition with open communication is key.  HBS Professor Noam Wasserman has written a series of cases on this topic that show some of the do's and don'ts of navigating this transition.  It's never an easy one to embark on.

Each of these decisions can be gut-wrenching, bet the company moves.  There's a nasty image I hear used in the board room about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  If things are going well, you want to let them evolve naturally and achieve some measure of victory, albeit a small one.  This may mean sticking with a founding leadership team, a niche product strategy and selling early.  

Why should each of these decisions sound limiting?  Because great entrepreneurs are competitive, ambitious types who attract ambitious management teams, advisors and investors.  There's a natural allure to moving aggressively to scale once the initial product-market fit assumptions become validated.  Just scale wisely.  Going from $1-10 million in revenue is no easier than achieving that initial $1 million.  And getting to $100 million and beyond, well now you're really in the rarified air that gets the people around you excited - and sets expectations soaring higher.

December 05, 2011

Go Vertical

Start ups are great barometers for the future.  Those of us who spend our time immersed in the world of young companies are priviledged to get a glimpse of what's coming around the corner by meeting with entrepreneurs who are trying to bring the future forward.

In that context, I enjoyed USV's Christina Cacioppo's blog post, What Comes Next, where she summarized a few trends that are coming out of some of the start up incubators.  I have also seen the componentization of software and the shift to independent work agents, the latter of which has interesting policy implications for a jobs-obsessed policymakers.

Yet, in my own work with various incubators, I am often struck by the lack of vertical focus.  Perhaps it is because incubators are full of young entreprenurs who have less domain knowledge and therefore are not as well-positioned to transform existing industries.  But if you believe software is eating the world, vertical industry by vertical industry, business process by business process, then we should start seeing more entrepreneurs pursuing vertically-centric strategies.  When I heard about this weekend's $3.4 billion acquisition by SAP of HR software company SuccessFactors (which barely got any coverage from the tech press), I was further struck by the opportunity.

Many mature, massive industries are ripe for innovation.  Here are a few obvious ones where we at Flybridge have been spending time:

  • Education.  The education industry is a massive one, growing quickly and full of outdated models.  Online learning, peer-to-peer learning and the redirection of student expenditures are all areas that we find interesting.  Companies like Open English, SimpleTuition and Skillshare are all gaining significant traction in this vertical and taking novel approaches that get around traditional gate-keepers.
  • Health care.  If the multi-trillion dollar health care industry isn't the perfect area for innovation, I don't know what is.  Whether it's in areas like cost containment, process automation or point of care diagnostics, there appear to be plenty of openings for entrepreneurs.  We see companies like Patient Keeper, T2 Biosystems and Athena Health leading the way in this vertical - avoiding FDA risk by simply delivering software or diagnostic devices that makes the entire system more efficient.
  • Financial Services.  With the financial markets upheavel, there are massive dislocations going on in the financial services industry.  Subprime lending has disappeared.  Payments are going digital and mobile.  And banks are under increasing pressure to stay focused on their core businesses.  As a result, companies that either focus on providing services where banks used to tred (ZestCash, GreenDot) or are working with banks to help enhance their revenue opportunities or efficiencies (Cartera Commerce, Convoke Systems) are finding significant growth. 

I could name others - advertising, manufacturing, insurance and human services - where we are seeing old hands coming to the "transformation table" as well as the young bucks, who are also asking "why not?"

The impact of horizontal technological advancements - such as cloud computing, big data, broadband penetration, smart phone penetration - takes time to be felt broadly in business.  Hopefully some of these start ups will make a dent in core business processes and therefore the all important metrics around productivity, which we need desperately as a country.  And hopefully we'll see more start-ups realizing that going vertical can be very rewarding.

November 16, 2011

Europe’s Autumn (or, Why You Can’t Outrun Big Debt Forever)

"I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the President or the Pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everyone."

--James Carville

The news out of Europe just goes from bad to worse.  With debt levels so high and confidence in government so low, the bond market has come a knocking and is intimidating the heck out of European governments.  Interest rates on sovereign debt soar (see chart below) when the trust in the sanctity of that debt, and the country’s ability to tighten their belt while growing out of it, plummet.  First, the bond market knocks on Iceland’s door (see Michael Lewis' Vanity Fair article and his book Boomerang), then Ireland's, then Greece's and now Italy's.  And when the bond market comes to collect on the debt, leaders are overthrown – Papandreou in Greece, Berlusconi in Italy.  Who’s next?  Spain?  France?  If the bipartisan “Super Committee” of 12 senators and congressman can’t get their act together and come to a compromise that raises taxes while cutting spending in time for next week's deadline, the US of A?

What does all of this mean for entrepreneurs, other than a queasy feeling in your stomach when you read glance at the Wall Street Journal?  I have three pieces of advice:

  1. Plan for Anything.  My father used to always tell me, “don't assume anything”.  The range of possible macroeconomic scenarios has exploded in the last few months.  We are entering a time of such uncertainty that one needs to be prepared for a far broader range of scenarios than ever before.  Will the economy muddle through?  Will we avoid a double dip?  Are we entering a massive, 5-year EndGame of de-leveraging and no growth?  Will high tech entrepreneurs be unaffected when they play in such massive secular growth areas, such as cloud, e-commerce, online advertising, mobile and others?  No one knows, so develop a range of plans for 2012 with objective external triggers that would steer you towards one plan or the other – see The Art of the Long View for a guide on how to do this – and have them on the shelf ready to execute when the time is right.
  2. You Can’t Fund a Big Debt Forever.  Startups don’t typically take on financial debt (and certainly not at the level of a sovereign government), but there are many other kinds of debt in a startup in particular and in life in general that one can find oneself in the midst of.  For example:
    • One of my portfolio companies often talks about their “Technical Debt” – the notion that they paying the price for historically putting off building a robust platform in order to meet short-term customer needs.
    • I love the movie, Pay it Forward.  It beautifully depicts  the benefit of being nice to someone for no personal gain and then encouraging them to “pay it forward” to another party.  If that kindness becomes too one-way between two parties, “Relationship Debt” can form.  I often find myself reflecting on how luck I have been in my life to have had such great mentors and hope that I provide enough reciprocal relationship value to them so as to not be too deeply in debt to them.
    • My wife and I talk to our kids a lot about “Behavior Debt” – the notion that you have to deposit some kindness and good behavior “in the bank” if you want to get something in return from someone down the road (you can imagine how annoying a parent I must be…).
    • If you miss a number over and over again or a deadline, you build up “Commitment Debt”.  One of my portfolio companies gives the same caveat when reporting on the status of a promising partnership developing with a Fortune 50 company:  “Remember, though, this is a company that has never hit a single deadline they’ve given us.”  At the start of the 2012 planning process, one of my fellow board members commented ruefully in the private session:  “The plan sounds good.  Remember, though, this is a company that has never hit a single plan number they’ve given us.“ (note to self:  when someone starts a sentence with “Remember, though...”, it’s not likely to be a positive comment).
  3. Paying Off Debts Is Painful and Demands Sacrifice.  It’s never easy to step back and pay off your debts, but it is often the right course.  Unfortunately, when you’re an entrepreneur, you don’t always find yourself in a position of strength when it comes to paying off debts.  Going into “technical debt” is often required to survive and drive cash flow.  Commitment debt can be out of your hands if you’re never able to secure the necessary resources required to deliver on your commitments.  You get the picture. 

I suggest you make these debt trade-off decisions consciously, not unconsciously, and keep an eye on those debts as they  accumulate.  The last thing you want is to find that debt roughly knocking on your door some night when you least expect it, or are in a position to handle it.  Isn’t that right, Washington DC?

 

 

 

 

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