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3 posts from October 2011

October 21, 2011

Why Groupon (and other high-flying start-ups) Should Take a Page From Ayn Rand


Fountainhead is one of my all time top ten favorite books. The lead character, Howard Roark is an independent-minded architect who bucks conventional wisdom and delivers buildings with vision and verve in the face of criticism and doubt – in short, a true entrepreneur.

One of my favorite scenes is when his antagonist, Ellsworthy Toohey, an obsequious newspaper columnist, captures a private one-on-one moment with Roark and asks him: "Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us." Roark replies, “But I don’t think of you." The sentiment is simply delivered; no antagonism or emotion – Roark truly doesn’t even consider Toohey or other critics like him when embarking on his work.

As he embarks on his long-anticipated IPO road show, Groupon’s founder and CEO Andrew Mason will need to channel a bit of Howard Roark. Critics love to throw stones at the company, as they do for other high-flying start-ups. I admit, even I have my doubts about the daily deal model and how sustainable Groupon’s approach will be in the face of merchant and customer attrition over time. This week’s news that smaller daily deal rival, BuyWithMe, is retrenching and laying off half its staff is not a good omen.

Yet I really respect what Mason and the Groupon leadership have built and, in truth, I wish them well. I want more young companies to succeed, break through the IPO glass ceiling, and continue to prove out the venture capital-backed company-creation process can work. I want Groupon to settle in at a strong valuation that generates wealth and further fuels the Chicago entrepreneurial ecosystem while returning capital to liquidity-starved investors. And as a Boston-based venture capitalist and start-up cheerleader, I like that Groupon is proving that not all the good companies have to come out of Silicon Valley.

So why is it that so many people are so eager to tear the company down? I guess schadenfreude, that odd feeling of happiness humans feel when they see other people suffering, is not simply a German phenomenon. For whatever reason (too many type A competitive folks in one small Petri dish?), the start-up community is a very snarky one. VCs are famous for bragging about their portfolio companies and snidely putting down their rivals. I remember when I was an entrepreneur and my company, Upromise, was raising money, one VC heard I was talking to a famous partner at a rival firm and sniggered, “Really? Is he still in the business?”

Yet the best entrepreneurs (and VCs, I suppose) know to ignore the critics and naysayers. In fact, like Howard Roark, they don’t even think of them. They keep their head down and focus on building a great service that their customers love and creating a great culture that engenders loyalty and passion amongst their employees.

Good luck, Andrew.

October 11, 2011

Peace Through Entrepreneurship?

Palestinian delegation photo

I had an out of body experience last week.  A few days before Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar and a spiritual day of remembrance, I found myself in front of ten Palestinian high tech CEOs talking about entrepreneurship.  At the end of the session, they invited me to meet with Palestinian President Abbas to advise him on how to build a thriving IT sector (which now employs 3,500 across 300 companies).  How did this juxtaposition come about?

It all began a few months ago, when Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick visited Israel on a trade mission.  He met with numerous Israeli entrepreneurs to foster greater business partnerships and opportunities with Massachusetts businesses.  While there, he met with a few Palestinian entrepreneurs as well and invited them to come to Boston to establish closer relationships with local businesses.  Last week, they took him up on this offer - coming to both Boston and Silicon Valley to meet with business leaders from the IT industry.  The Boston visit was coordinated by the Progressive Business Leaders Network, a business organization I co-founded, and Governor Patrick came to meet with the group to welcome them to Boston.

Honestly, when I was invited to speak to the Palestinian delegation, I paused.  You see, my father is a Holocaust survivor and finished high school in Tel Aviv.  My kids attend a Jewish day school, study Hebrew, and are being raised, like I was, as ardent Zionists.  I donate money to AIPAC as well as our local Jewish federation (CJP).  Although I strongly support a two-state solution, I worry that anti-Semitism remains rampant in the Middle East and that the demonization of Israel and Jews is at an alarming high.  And so the question I asked myself before accepting the invitation was:  would a strong Palestinian IT sector be a good thing for peace in the Middle East?  What if the next Skype or LogMeIn was started by a Ramallah-based entrepreneur instead of a Swede or Hungarian, respectively - would that be a good thing?

My conclusion:  100% yes.  And after meeting with the Palestinian CEO delegation, I would say 200% yes.

Thomas Friedman said recently that the surest cure to poverty was entrepreneurship.  I would say the same regarding peace.  If the Israelis and Palestinians are busy cooperating commercially, creating jobs and wealth for both sides, it will meaningfully reduce the tension that unemployment and a lack of opportunity for young and old represent.

I was blown away by the group of Palestinian entrepreneurs – they had more in common with entrepreneurs in Boston, Silicon Valley and NYC than probably many of their own people.  They could have stepped right out of Techstars central casting – smart, scrappy, ambitious, hungry.  I enjoyed hearing their stories of their entrepreneurial journeys to create their companies.  (I joked with some chagrin with the one female in the delegation – pictured above – that their male : female entrepreneurial ratio matched our own).

Traveling with the delegation was a USAID executive who is assigned to the region to foster more business development with entrepreneurial companies.  I was able to enlist a Palestinian Harvard Business School student (we hosted the event at Harvard’s new Innovation Lab, which is spectacular), to join us.  He was raised in Bethlehem and worked at a Palestinian venture capital firm last summer, called Padico, scouting opportunities for investment.

Who knows what will happen with the peace talks, but if these ten entrepreneurs are any indication, there’s hope yet for peace in the Middle East through posterity and entrepreneurship.  At least that’s what I was praying for in synagogue on Saturday!  With the recent bombshell announcement that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has secured the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, perhaps we are a step closer.


October 03, 2011

Entrepreneur-Friendly Policies (Finally) Showing Promise - But Leadership Required

The policy conversation regarding jobs and economic development is starting to show some promising signs, particularly in helping young companies flourish.  The fact that the entrepreneurial ecosystem is critical to job creation should be obvious, but there remains a misperception that small businesses create jobs.  In truth, it’s not small business that represents the country’s job engine.  It’s new businesses.  The Kauffman Foundation’s research on this matter is clear:  from 1997 to 2005, job growth in the US was driven entirely by start-ups.  What this means is that any economic development effort must be framed in the context of the following central question:  how can the government help more young companies be formed, grow faster and achieve long-term success?

Fortunately, there is a constructive policy conversation in this area on both sides of the political spectrum.  Unfortunately, it's going to take leadership and bi-partisan cooperation to push them through, and it's not clear where that leadership is going to come from.  Here are some recent policy developments worth tracking, as well as my own two cents on the policies I think should be getting more attention to support company formation, growth and ultimate success:

Policies:  Company Formation

One of the most valuable resource for American start-ups are immigrants who come to the US to pursue entrepreneurial careers.  Such household names as Google, Intel and eBay were started by at least one immigrant founder.  Yet, we make it very difficult for immigrant entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams and build their companies in America.  To address this, Senators Kerry and Lugar proposed a Start Up Visa in March 2011, providing “Entrepreneur’s visas” for immigrant entrepreneurs.  This bill needs to be passed immediately (it is in the midst of hearings and keeps getting caught up in partisan bickering over broader immigration reform) and should be expanded to provide green cards for those with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.  For more on this important bill, read here and here.  The administration has proposed additional changes to process immigrants in a more streamlined fashion, including a recent set of policies that the US Citizens and Immigration Services department has advocated which can be found here.

The other major lever to improve company formation is facilitating the flow of ideas out of our university system.  Flybridge Capital recently created an organization called URES (University Research and Entrepreneurship Symposium) in partnership with the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer (NCET2), to bring together researchers, investors and entrepreneurs to act as catalysts for company-building.  Greater attention and support for these efforts will help accelerate the process for research to be commercialized.  The recently passed Patent Reform Act is a good step forward in this area as well, simplifying red tape and reducing the backlog (despite last-minute, dysfunctional nods to special interests). 

But to really jumpstart company formation, the government should consider meaningfully increasing NIH funding – perhaps 2-3x its current level.  Most medical research labs around the company are dependent on NIH funding and it is one of the highest leverage investment we can make – supporting 325,000 researchers at over 3,000 universities around the country.  Yet, NIH funding is at a ridiculously low $31 billion per year, roughly the same in constant dollars as it was ten years ago.  We spend $21 billion on tax breaks to the oil and gas industry and tens of billions of dollars on farm subsidies.  This anemic NIH funding level remains despite the well-known fact that the impact on health care costs and job creation is enormous.  In diabetes alone, the total government support for research is a mere $1 billion in contrast to the $200 billion per year that diabetes costs the economy.  In addition to the clinical impact, each dollar of NIH funding generates more than twice as much in state economic output, not including the jobs generated by the companies who are spun out of NIH funding.  I'm shocked that there isn't more discussion about channeling more dollars towards this inmportant institution.

Policies:  Grow Faster

Once new companies are created, they need access to both financial and human capital to grow faster.  Just to prove that good ideas can come from unusual sources, Republican majority whip Kevin McCarthy proposed in September the Access to Capital for Job Creations Act, a piece of legislation that would widen the universe of potential investors for small businesses around the Securities Act of 1933.  Packaged with other proposals around expanding the number of shareholders private companies can have, this act would be an accelerant for small companies seeking access to capital from a broad range of sources. 

Access to human capital is another critical component to allowing young companies to grow faster.  The dearth of trained computer science and engineering is crippling the growth of many Innovation Economy companies.  Worker training efforts in combination with educational efforts, such as the emphasis on STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is a start, but are woefully underfunded and under-supported.  For example, Congress nearly cut the $181m Department of Education’s Math and Science Partnership Program and the NSF’s programs in this area also do not get enough attention.  In thinking through our investment choices, we should keep asking ourselves, if they had a massive shortage of software engineers, What Would China Do?  The President’s Jobs Bill contains some good ideas in this area, such as a “Bridge to Work” program, which could have a big impact when the details are fully worked through.

Free trade is another critical component to support small business expansion.  Coming out of the recent economic crisis, there has been protectionist pressure that threatens to choke off the opportunity for small businesses to expand via global exports.  The free flow of capital across borders is one of the most critical ways to expand opportunities for US companies.  In September, the Council on Foreign Relations issued a new report that concludes that America is at risk of being left a bystander in the global trade arena as our share of exports and direct investment has plummeted.  Huge emerging economies in India and Brazil need to be opened up more aggressively with the help of the Congress and White House.  A more aggressive free trade policy, coupled with stricter punishment for unfair trade practices, must be embarked on.

Policies:  Achieve Long-Term Success

For young companies to truly have a shot at achieving long-term success, they need to be able to access the public markets through an IPO.  Unfortunately, the IPO market was the victim of excessive regulation in the wake of the Enron scandal, leading to the passage of the very restrictive Sarbanes Oxley, among other things.  Policy makers have finally been listening to the start-up and entrepreneurial community to adjust the policies to prevent the choking off of growth.  In September, Congressman Ben Quayle introduced the Startup Expansion and Investment Act, which seeks to make it easier for new companies with a market capitalization of less than $1 billion to go public by opting out of some of the more onerous regulations imposed by Sarbanes-Oxley.  This is a good start.  The National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) has put forward a comprehensive list of policies that need to be followed to make an event larger impact here.  Hearings on this have started.  Action needs to be taken.


Despite the partisan rhetoric and bickering, the last few months have seen substantial progress amongst policy makers in the areas of helping the startup economy thrive.  The link between startups and jobs is becoming more broadly understand, as are the policies required to help business form, grow and ultimately succeed.  It will require extraordinary leadership to step forward and advocate these policies in a comprehensive way that transcends the classic “left” vs. “right” debates.  I sure hope that leadership is on its way.