Posts from entrepreneurship

Do You Want Better Board Meetings? Then Work The Phone

I was talking to the CEO of one of our portfolio companies last week. He was preparing for a board meeting that is coming up. He told me that he had scheduled calls with all of his board members and investors that attend his meetings and had completed most of them. He had gotten feedback on what they were thinking about his company, what they are excited about, what they are concerned about, things they want to discuss, etc. He said it had made a big difference in his preparation for the meeting.

I think it will also make a big difference in the meeting and make it a lot better. Soliciting your board member’s input on your agenda is important. But it is also really helpful to have these “one on ones” in advance of the meeting so you can update each board member on the things that they are concerned about. The board members will arrive at the meeting more prepared, they will be more comfortable, and they will also be able to help more. And the CEO will be highly attuned and attentive to the issues that matter most to the group.

This kind of preparation is time consuming. Who wants to work the phones in the SMS era? Nobody to be honest. But it pays huge dividends and I recommend it strongly.

You can keep the calls on the short side, 15-30mins each, and that means it is two to three hours of work for most board sizes and investor groups. I would recommend doing these calls one to two weeks before the meeting so you have time to collect all of the feedback and incorporate it into the agenda and the board materials. But don’t do it too far in advance because you also want your board members and other attendees to be “fresh” in terms of their understanding of what’s going on in the business.

If you have never done this, give it a try on your next meeting. I bet you will be pleased with how well it works. If you do this already, then keep doing it. Because it works.

The Product Hunt Podcast

I listen to tons of podcasts on SoundCloud. I follow them and they just come into my feed every day and I can listen on my phone in the SoundCloud app. It’s a great experience.

One of the podcasts I like is the Product Hunt Podcast. This weekend I listened to this podcast with Patrick Collison, CEO and co-founder of Stripe.

I enjoyed it and because I’ve been on a call since 5am this morning and don’t have time to write today, I am using this opportunity to post something useful on AVC today.

Get The Strategy Right And The Execution Is Easy

In the mid/late 90s, we had a venture capital firm called Flatiron Partners. Our primary investor was Chase Capital Partners (CCP) and for the first year of our existence we worked out of CCP’s offices in midtown manhattan. I learned a lot from the partners at CCP, they were experienced and disciplined private equity investors. One of the best of the group was Arnie Chavkin and he taught me something that I come back to often. Arnie told me “get the strategy right and the execution is easy.”

Up to that point, about ten years into my venture capital investing experience, I did not have enough appreciation for strategy. I came from the “work hard and surround yourself with smart people and you will succeed” school. That’s how I went about my job and that’s what I looked for in teams to back. But Arnie’s words got my attention. The idea that execution could be easy was tantalizing to me. And it made sense. If everyone knows what the company is trying to do, and what it is explicitly not trying to do, then they can be focused and efficient in their work. It also caused me to look at the companies that I worked with that were working really hard but not succeeding and I could see that many of them were not pursuing an intelligent strategy.

One of my favorite stories about getting the strategy right is TACODA, a company that Brad Burnham and I were angel investors in during the post bubble period in the early 2000s. TACODA made enterprise software for media companies that allowed them to understand their audience and serve more targeted ads to them. TACODA was one of the earliest, if not the first, behavioral targeting companies. TACODA was working extremely hard, with a very gifted and experienced team, and yet four years in, they were struggling to build a business. My partner Brad became obsessed with the strategy and go to market and told Dave Morgan, the founder and CEO, that he was “working too hard and getting nowhere” and encouraged him to rethink his strategy. Ultimately Dave decided to flip the go to market model to an ad network and within a year the business exploded and it sold a few years later to AOL for something like $275mm.

TACODA had the right idea, the right team, the right tech, but not the right strategy. When they fixed that, a ton of good things happened.

So if you are working really hard and have a strong team and aren’t getting where you want to go, take a hard look at your strategy. As Arnie told me, once you get that right the execution will be easy.

Tenacity

One of the things I admire most in companies and their leaders is tenacity. I don’t mean sticking with a failed idea for too long. That is a mistake I see a lot of entrepreneurs make in the Seed and Series A stages. That does nobody any good.

I mean years 5-10, or years 10-15, of building a company. I am talking about the period long past when you find product market fit, long past when you raise your first eight digit round, long past your first revenue check, maybe even long past your first profitable month.

Every successful company I have been involved in has gone through periods where things didn’t work, where something important took too long (a re-architecture project, an important business deal, a fundraising process) and the doubts start to creep in. Employees start to lose faith, the media turns cruel (sometimes deservedly so), and you’ve got to hold it all together. “You” is the founder, CEO, and/or the leading investors and board members.

Most of this holding it together falls on the founder and/or CEO. The investors and directors can help a lot during this period, and, conversely, they can hurt a lot too. An aligned founder, CEO, and board can make these rough periods go a lot easier. A misaligned founder, CEO, and board can be devastating.

So now I’m going to tell some stories to make my point more real.

Yesterday our portfolio company SoundCloud announced that they had finally concluded a licensing deal with the music industry’s largest rights holder, Universal Music Group. In the TechCrunch story about that news Ingrid Lunden noted:

SoundCloud .. inked its first partners deal in August 2014 when it launched On SoundCloud. It announced its first big label deal only in November 2014, with Warner Music. An agreement with Merlin — which represents some 20,000 independent labels — came in June 2015

What Ingrid didn’t say is that the conversations with the music industry that led to these deals started at least a year earlier at the start of 2013. So SoundCloud has been working with the music industry for over three years to get a license in place to allow them to do things that have never been done before.

Alex Ljung, the CEO of SoundCloud, said this in that TechCrunch piece:

if you look at SoundCloud generally it’s the first time someone has tried to do something of this scale. We have over 100 million tracks on the platform and play over 10 million artists in a given month. We are really trying to create a platform that embraces all kinds of creativity, something that never existed before. There is no off-the-shelf solution for licensing for this. We had to work with the whole music industry to create something that never existed before, and that takes a little bit of time.

A little time? Maybe a very long time would be more accurate.

For the past three years the narrative around SoundCloud has been that it was stuck in the mud, that remixes and other derivative content were getting taken down, that labels were forcing artists to take their content off the service. All of which was true, but the real narrative was that SoundCloud was going through a difficult and complicated process of developing a new business model for audio content in partnership with an existing industry that has done things a certain way for a long time. Through all of that period, however, SoundCloud’s user base and listening time grew larger and larger and during that period it became one of the top music apps in the world

music category

Through all of that period, which isn’t entirely over, the leadership of SoundCloud, Alex, his co-founder Eric, and the entire senior team stuck together, kept the business moving forward, built a strong management team, and kept the Board aligned and informed. I believe they have emerged much stronger for the experience.

Another story is Return Path, a company that I have worked with since 2000. Return Path’s founder and CEO Matt Blumberg has started, built, sold off, and built again a number of email services for the enterprise that has become a very large business. Matt has gotten the business profitable three or four times only to choose to incubate and build several new businesses and go back into the red. He has survived at least three of our near death experiences where the company was on fumes and it wasn’t clear how we were going to make it another month. Each time he pulled something off, often with the help of his Board and investors.

It was at Return Path where I learned the value of an engaged and aligned Board. Matt put together a real Board early on, with strong outside directors with operating experience, and he has always leveraged his Board to help him through the tough times. Matt has also built a strong culture inside Return Path which is often cited as one of the best places to work in corporate America.

The lesson from Return Path for me is you can survive the tough times and the near death experiences if you have a team that believes in each other and a Board that is equally engaged and aligned. I doubt Return Path would be around today without both of those things.

Another example is Foursquare. Maybe no USV portfolio company (with the exception of Twitter) has taken it on the chin more for being the “hot company that fell out of favor.” And yet sitting here today, Foursquare has built a very real business that is growing nicely and has a very bright future. They survived a move that almost killed the company (the app splitting decision almost two years ago that is still getting critiqued daily and will certainly be critiqued in this comment thread). Their financing processes have played out in the press with a transparency that few companies could tolerate.

And through all of this the founder Dennis Crowley and his team have taken the hits and kept moving forward. They have built technology for detecting locations that is state of the art. They have a location API that I believe is the most used location API in the business. They have kept improving and evolving the best localized mobile search experience and the most fun local social experience. And they have built a real business that is sustainable and has attractive economics.

You can say what you will about Foursquare, and don’t bother because it most certainly has already been said and not very nicely, but it has survived and is thriving. Very few understand that, but those close to the company do. Which is the hallmark of a tenacious and durable founder and leader and his or her company.

I’m almost done but before I wrap this longish post, I’d like to say something about the now public USV portfolio companies. I can’t and won’t talk specifically about their businesses because they are public and I don’t want to go there. I also own large positions in each and every one of them. Their stock prices are all, without exception, in the dumps. And yet I believe in each and every one of them and their leadership and their prospects. They are all led by tenacious leaders and teams who I believe will keep their heads down and execute and get through the negativity and second guessing that is coming at each and every one of them. I admire these companies more today than ever.

Building and operating a business is not easy. I believe it gets harder, not easier, as the years pile up. That is where tenacity and believing in yourself and your team and your business is required. The leaders who exhibit that have a special place in my heart and my head.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, Turn and face the strange  David Bowie

Just this week I’ve been on the receiving end of a half dozen of those emails. They start with the news that a valued colleague has made the decision to move on. It goes on to thank everyone for a wonderful experience and ends with best wishes.

It’s that time of year. Year end bonuses have been paid. Quotas have been earned. Options have vested. And so people are moving on. Or arriving.

I grew up an army brat. Every spring my dad would come home from work and tell us where we were moving to that summer. I didn’t know that people lived any other way. Each fall I’d find myself in a new school, facing the strange.

So I’m a fan of changes. I crave them. And so when I get one of those emails, I’m happy for the person and hopeful that they will find new challenges and new colleagues and friends in their next endeavor.

But what about the company that is being left behind? Well every departure is an opportunity to rethink the role and the organization. You can’t find an exact replica of the person who has left. But you can find a person who will bring different things. You can split the role in two. Or you can even choose to eliminate it.

My advice to the leaders of our portfolio companies is to embrace change and the possibilities it brings. And, even more importantly, I advise leaders to be open and transparent about the change and how it opens up opportunities for the organization.

The thing I caution against is the tendency to get upset at departures and departing employees. I’ve seen leaders take the mob boss approach of “your are dead to me now” with departing employees. The better approach, which I think is a hallmark of great companies, is the idea that departing employees who leave on great terms are roving ambassadors for your organization. After all, you never know when you are going to come across someone again in business. And it might be a situation where you need something from them.

It sucks to lose a valued colleague or employee or boss. It creates anxiety in the organization about what is going to happen next. But if you are working in or leading a startup you signed up for a boatload of change. Accept it. Embrace it. Make it work for you. Because you can’t make it go away.

The Co-Founder Bootcamp

Co-founder stress and strain is one of the most under appreciated of all the startup challenges. If you don’t have a co-founder, well then you have other challenges, namely having to do it all on your own. But if you do have a co-founder or two or three, I would imagine that figuring out how to get along, stay aligned, communicate honestly and openly, and not drive each other crazy is a big challenge. I’ve seen it so many times. And co-founders don’t like to talk about it because they are afraid that their issues will freak out everyone else; their employees, their investors, etc. That’s why its among the least discussed and under appreciated of all of the startup challenges.

My friend and former partner Jerry Colonna and his colleagues are out to change that. In their CEO coaching work, they come across this co-founder stress issue very frequently. And so they have designed a four day Co-Founder Bootcamp to attack the issue head on. The next one is the first weekend in March.

A concern that I’ve heard from founders is “how are we going to afford $9k per person to do this?”  That’s a great question. My answer is the company should pay for it if it can. And if your investors aren’t in favor of you making this investment in the partnership that drives the business, then they don’t have their priorities straight. Getting the co-founders working right will go a long way to getting the company going right.

If you and your co-founder(s) are struggling, consider four days in the mountains in Colorado in early March with a team of people who can help you work out the kinks in the relationship. It can be a game changer for your company.

What Is Going To Happen In 2016

It’s easier to predict the medium to long term future. We will be able to tell our cars to take us home after a late night of new year’s partying within a decade. I sat next to a life sciences investor at a dinner a couple months ago who told me cancer will be a curable disease within the next decade. As amazing as these things sound, they are coming and soon.

But what will happen this year that we are now in? That’s a bit trickier. But I will take some shots this morning.

  1. Oculus will finally ship the Rift in 2016. Games and other VR apps for the Rift will be released. We just learned that the Touch controller won’t ship with the Rift and is delayed until later in 2016. I believe the initial commercial versions of Oculus technology will underwhelm. The technology has been so hyped and it is hard to live up to that. Games will be the strongest early use case, but not everyone is going to want to put on a headset to play a game. I think VR will only reach its true potential when they figure out how to deploy it in a more natural way.
  2. We will see a new form of wearables take off in 2016. The wrist is not the only place we might want to wear a computer on our bodies. If I had to guess, I would bet on something we wear in or on our ears.
  3. One of the big four will falter in 2016. My guess is Apple. They did not have a great year in 2015 and I’m thinking that it will get worse in 2016.
  4. The FAA regulations on the commercial drone industry will turn out to be a boon for the drone sector, legitimizing drone flights for all sorts of use cases and establishing clear rules for what is acceptable and what is not.
  5. The trend towards publishing inside of social networks (Facebook being the most popular one) will go badly for a number of high profile publishers who won’t be able to monetize as effectively inside social networks and there will be at least one high profile victim of this strategy who will go under as a result.
  6. Time Warner will spin off its HBO business to create a direct competitor to Netflix and the independent HBO will trade at a higher market cap than the entire Time Warner business did pre spinoff.
  7. Bitcoin finally finds a killer app with the emergence of Open Bazaar protocol powered zero take rate marketplaces. (note that OB1, an open bazaar powered service, is a USV portfolio company).
  8. Slack will become so pervasive inside of enterprises that spam will become a problem and third party Slack spam filters will emerge. At the same time, the Slack platform will take off and building Slack bots will become the next big thing in enterprise software.
  9. Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee and he will attack the tech sector for its support of immigrant labor. As a result the tech sector will line up behind Hillary Clinton who will be elected the first woman President.
  10. Markdown mania will hit the venture capital sector as VC firms follow Fidelity’s lead and start aggressively taking down the valuations in their portfolios. Crunchbase will start capturing this valuation data and will become a de-facto “yahoo finance” for the startup sector. Employees will realize their options are underwater and will start leaving tech startups in droves.

Some of these predictions border on the ridiculous and that is somewhat intentional. I think there is an element of truth (or at least possibility) in all of them. And I will come back to this list a year from now and review the results.

Best wishes to everyone for a happy and healthy 2016.

What Happened In 2015

Last year in my What Just Happened post, I said:

the social media phase of the Internet ended

I think we can go further than that now and say that sometime in the past year or two the consumer internet/social/mobile gold rush ended.

Look  at the top 25 apps in the US:

top 25 apps

The top 6 mobile apps and 8 of the top 9 are owned by Facebook and Google. 10 of the top 12 mobile apps are owned by Apple, Facebook, and Google.

There isn’t a single “startup” on that list and the youngest company on that list is Snapchat which is now over four years old.

We are now well into a consolidation phase where the strong are getting stronger and it is harder than ever to build a large consumer user base. It is reminiscent of the late 80s/early 90s after Windows emerged as the dominant desktop environment and Microsoft started to use that dominant market position to move up the stack and take share in all of the important application categories. Apple and Google are doing that now in mobile, along with Facebook which figured out how to be as critical on your phone as your operating system.

I am certain that something will come along, like the Internet did in the mid 90s, to bust up this oligopoly (which is way better than a monopoly). But it is not yet clear what that thing is.

2015 saw some of the candidates for the next big thing underwhelm. VR is having a hard time getting out of the gates. Wearables and IoT have yet to go mainstream. Bitcoin and the Blockchain have yet to give us a killer app. AI/machine learning has great potential but also gives incumbents with large data sets (Facebook and Google) scale advantages over newcomers.

The most exciting things that have happened in tech in 2015 are happening in verticals like transportation, hospitality, education, healthcare, and maybe more than anything else, finance, where the lessons and playbooks of the consumer gold rush are being used with great effectiveness to disrupt incumbents and shake up industries.

The same is true of the enterprise which also had a great year in 2015. Slack, and Dropbox before it, shows how powerful a consumerish approach to the enterprise can be. But there aren’t many broad horizontal plays in the enterprise and verticals seems to be where most of the action was in 2015.

I’m hopeful that 2015 will also go down as the year we buried the Unicorn. The whole notion that getting a billion dollar price tag on your company was something necessary to matter, to be able to recruit, to be able to get press, etc, etc, is worshiping a false god. And we all know what happens to those who do that.

As I look back over 2014 and 2015, I feel like these two years were an inflection point, where the underlying fundamentals of opportunity in tech slowed down but the capital rushing to get invested in tech did not. That resulted in the Unicorn phase, which if it indeed is over, will be followed by an unwinding phase where the capital flows will need to line up more tightly to the opportunity curve.

I’m now moving into “What Will Happen” which is for tomorrow, so I will end this post now by saying goodbye to 2015 and hopefully to much of the nonsense that came with it.

I did not touch on the many important things that happened outside of tech in 2015, like the rise of terrorism in the western world, and the reaction of the body politic to it, particularly here in the US with the 2016 Presidential campaign getting into full swing. That certainly touches the world of tech and will touch it even more in the future. Again, something to talk about tomorrow.

I wish everyone a happy and healthy new year and we will talk about the future, not the past, tomorrow.

What Didn’t Happen

Last year, I ended 2014 with What Just Happened and started 2015 with What Is Going To Happen.

I’ll do the same tomorrow and friday, but today I’d like to talk about What Didn’t Happen, specifically which of my predictions in What Is Going To Happen did not come to be.

  1. I said that the big companies that were started in the second half of the last decade (Uber, Airbnb, Dropbox, etc) would start going public in 2015. That did not happen. Not one of them has even filed confidentially (to my knowledge). This is personally disappointing to me. I realize that every company should decide how and when and if they want to go public. But I believe the entire startup sector would benefit a lot from seeing where these big companies will trade as public companies. The VC backed companies that were started in the latter half of that last decade that did go public in 2015, like Square, Box, and Etsy (where I am on the board) trade at 2.5x to 5x revenues, a far cry from what companies get financed at in the late stage private markets. As long as the biggest venture backed companies stay private, this dichotomy in valuations may well persist and that’s unfortunate in my view.
  2. I said that we would see the big Chinese consumer electronics company Xiaomi come to the US. That also did not happen, although Xiaomi has expanded its business outside of China and I think they will enter the US at some point. I have a Xiaomi TV in my home office and it is a really good product.
  3. I predicted that asian messengers like WeChat and Line would make strong gains in the US messenger market. That most certainly did not happen. The only third party messengers (not texting apps) that seem to have taken off in the US are Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and our portfolio company Kik. top social apps year end 2015Here’s a shot of the app store a couple days after the kids got new phones for Christmas.
  4. I said that the Republicans and Democrats would find common ground on challenging issues that impact the tech/startup sector like immigration and net neutrality. That most certainly did not happen and the two parties are as far apart as ever and now we are in an election year where nothing will get done.

So I got four out of eleven dead wrong.

Here’s what I got right:

  1. VR has hit headwinds. Oculus still has not shipped the Rift (which I predicted) and I think we will see less consumer adoption than many think when it does ship. I’m not long term bearish on VR but I think the early implementations will disappoint.
  2. The Apple Watch was a flop. This is the one I took the most heat on. So I feel a bit vindicated on this point. Interestingly another device you wear on your wrist, the Fitbit, was the real story in wearables in 2015. In full disclosure own a lot of Fitbit stock via my friends at Foundry.
  3. Enterprise and Security were hot in 2015. They will continue to be hot in 2016 and as far as this eye can see.
  4. There was a flight to safety in 2015 and big tech (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) are the new blue chips. Amazon was up ~125% in 2015. Google (which I own a lot of) was up ~50% in 2015. Facebook was up ~30% in 2015.  Only Apple among the big four was down in 2015 and barely so. Oil on the other hand, was down something like 30% in 2015 and gold was down something like 15-20% in 2015.

Here’s what is less clear:

  1. Bitcoin had a big comeback in 2015. If you look at the price of Bitcoin as one measure, it was up almost 40% in 2015. However, we still have not see the “real decentralized applications” of Bitcoin and its blockchain emerge, as I predicted a year ago, so I’m not entirely sure what to make of this one. And to make matters worse, we now seem to be in a phase where investors believe you can have blockchain without Bitcoin, which to my mind is nonsense.
  2. Healthcare is, slowly, emerging as the next big sector to be disrupted by tech. The “trifecta” I predict will usher in an entirely new healthcare system (smartphone becomes the EMR, p2p medicine, and a market economy in healthcare) has not yet arrived in full force. But it will. It’s only a matter and question of when.

So, I feel like I hit .500 for the year. Not bad, but not particularly impressive either. But when you are investing, batting .500 is great because you can double down on your winners and stop out your losers. That’s why it is important to have a point of view, ideally one that is not shared by others, and to put money where your mouth is.

Measuring Price Elasticity And More

Price elasticity is a concept every business person should understand but I have found that many don’t.

Wikipedia defines price elasticity as:

a measure used in economics to show the responsiveness, or elasticity, of the quantity demanded of a good or service to a change in its price

Here is a chart that, I think, makes the concept easier to understand:

In it’s simplest terms, the lower the price of something the more demand there usually is for it. But every product and service has its own elasticity curve and it is important to understand what the price elasticity is of your product or service.

The good news is that it has never been easier to determine the price elasticity curve of a product or service.

Here is how you do it.

  1. offer the product or service on the web and make the purchase as easy as possible (Stripe and/or Paypal).
  2. establish the range of pricing you want to measure, start at a number higher than you can imagine anyone paying and end at a number that is equal to the cost to produce your product or service (the cost of good sold)
  3. set the price at the high end of the range
  4. buy some search traffic to your offering (Google Adwords)
  5. measure the traffic to your offer and the conversion rate (Google Analytics)
  6. lower the price
  7. repeat 4 & 5
  8. lower the price again
  9. repeat 4 & 5
  10. continue this process until you reach the low end of the range

Then plot conversion rate against price and you will have the price elasticity of your product or service. It is best to keep everything other than price constant as you move through this exercise. For example, don’t change the adwords campaign as you move through this process.

As you do this, you can also measure what it costs to acquire a customer (CAC) via search. That may not turn out to be the best way to acquire a customer but it’s a very helpful number to know.

You will want to consider this formula as you think about where to land on pricing:

Price > CAC + COGS

That means the price you charge must be greater than the cost you must pay to acquire a customer plus the cost you must pay to make or deliver the service.

If your product or service is sold on a subscription basis, then you must also know the amount and timing of churn to expect and the lifetime value of a customer (LTV). In a subscription offering, the above formula becomes

LTV > CAC + COGS

All of these concepts and math falls under the terminology of “unit economics” and you will often hear investors (including VCs) talk about “understanding the unit economics” of a business. If you don’t know what that means when an investor brings it up, you are unlikely to close that sale.

But I am not writing this to help entrepreneurs raise money. I am writing this post to help entrepreneurs understand how to build a profitable business.

You must know the price elasticity of your product or service. You must know how much it costs to produce. You must know how much it costs to acquire a customer. And if your model is subscription, you must know your churn and lifetime value. From all of that comes the data and knowledge that allows you to optimize price, margins, and profitability. Which, after all, is the goal of a business, all the other bullshit you read on the internet notwithstanding.