Posts from entrepreneurship

Relaunching At Age Fourteen

Our portfolio company Meetup was launched in June of 2002. We invested five years later, in 2007, when the company was already profitable and was approaching double digit revenues. Nine years later they are 3x the size when we invested in revenues, meetups, and more. But the founder and leaders of Meetup feel like they are just beginning to scratch the surface of their mission which is to get people out of the house and into the real world doing things they enjoy with other like minded people.

This video, which they created as part of their re-launch this week, shows the range of things people use Meetup to do with others:

Many people associate Meetup with night time events where people with name tags on them walk around and introduce themselves to others. Those sorts of things happen on Meetup for sure. But the more common uses are runners using Meetup to schedule group runs, moms using Meetup to hang out with other moms, and, apparently, jugglers using Meetup to juggle together.

So Meetup is relaunching the Company this week, fourteen and a quarter years after its initial launch. This means a new logo (the name badge is gone), new mobile apps that use deep learning to understand what you want to do and encourage you to do more of it, a new team (with women leaders in both product and engineering) with lots of new engineers and data scientists, and a sharper focus on marketing.

If you want to see what the new Meetup is all about, download the new app (iOS and Android) and check it out. Maybe you will find yourself juggling in the park this weekend. I sure hope so.

Team and Strategy

I’ve been in board meeting blitz since the summer ended. Many of the companies I work with are well past the startup phase and are well into or even past the growth/scaling phase. And the thought that keeps occurring to me as I go from board meeting to board meeting is the key to success when you are past the startup/product market fit stage comes down to two things, team and strategy.

You have to get the strategy right and you have to have a team that can execute it without your day to day involvement. The CEOs that I work with that are struggling are usually running into issues with their team and/or their strategy. And the CEOs that I work with that are doing great generally have gotten the strategy set and have built a strong executive team underneath them.

This sounds so simple. But it is not.

Most of the companies I work with didn’t really start out with a strategy. They started out with an idea that turned into a great product that found a fit with a market. And they jumped on that and used it to build a company. Most of them wake up at some point and realize that a single product in a single market is not a strategy and they need to come up with a plan to get a lot bigger and build a sustainable and defensible business. I like to think that this is one place where a good investor group can help. If we are doing our job, we push our portfolio companies to work on their long term strategy and refine it to the point where it makes sense and is executable. But an investor group cannot give a company a strategy. It has to come from the founder/CEO and a small group of senior leaders. The smaller the group that is working on strategy, the better. Strategy is not something that can be done by committee.

The second thing, building an executive team that can execute the plan without day to day involvement of the CEO, is even harder. Most of the companies I work with go through a lot of hiring mistakes on the way to building this team. Some hire too junior. Some hire too senior. Some hire bad cultural fits. Some hire people that are nothing but cultural fit. And an investor or investor group can help with this but I believe that founders/CEOs need to learn how to do this themselves and make these mistakes. The best thing an investor group can do is to help a founder/CEO to understand when they have the wrong person in the job. Or help them understand that more quickly.

These are both areas where experience is huge. The CEOs I work with who have done the job multiple times get these two things right much more quickly. But even they can take a year or two to get these right. First time CEOs often take three or four years to get these things right. But sticking with founders who are first time CEOs through this process is usually worth it because they have a connection to the initial vision and mission that a hired CEO has a hard time replicating. There is not a good rule of thumb on this issue (who should run the company). Facts and circumstances on the ground will generally determine how that should go.

My final point on this is that once you have the strategy and team locked down, you should step back and let the machine do its thing. I like to say that CEOs should do only three things; recruit and retain the team, build and evolve the long term strategy and communicate it effectively and broadly in the organization and externally, and make sure the company doesn’t run out of money. When those are the only things you are doing, you are doing the job right. Very few CEOs get to focus on only these three things all of the time. Things break and you have to fix them. But when the machine is working and you can step back and watch it hum, it is a thing of beauty.

Gold, Silver, and Bronze

Winning a medal at the Olympics is a big deal for athletes all around the world. Obviously a gold medal is better but silver and bronze are pretty awesome too.

In startup land, it works out pretty similarly. In each and every big “winner takes most” market there is one big winner (the gold medal winner) and a few other big companies (silver and bronze) and then not much more.

If you look at web search, Google won the gold medal and has a $550bn market cap to show for it.

In social, Facebook won the gold medal and has a $360bn market cap to show for it.

In ridesharing, Uber won the gold medal and has a purportedly $60bn market cap to show for it.

You can do well with silver and bronze. Twitter is worth $13bn. Lyft is supposedly worth $5.5bn. But coming in second or third in a big market is generally an order of magnitude (or two) less valuable in the long run.

And you had better get on the stand and get a medal if you are working in a big “winner take most” market because fourth or fifth or sixth is rarely worth much, if anything.

These are high stakes markets where winning is everything and losing is nothing. And things play out pretty quickly. Within five years, we generally know who won, who placed, who showed, and who whiffed.

It is possible that with the emergence of decentralized networks these dynamics will change and we will be on to a very different market dynamic. But for now this is how it goes. Go big or go home.

Reboot Podcast With Jerry and Brad

Jerry Colonna, Brad Feld, and I go way back in the venture capital business. We met in the mid 90s and worked very closely together during the late 90s. I still work closely with Jerry and Brad but not quite as intensively as we did back then.

We got together a couple weeks ago (virtually) and chatted for an hour about the personal struggles we all dealt with and overcame as we grew up in the business.

It’s a pretty revealing discussion. I just listened to it and cringed a few times. Jerry has this uncanny ability to get people to say things they don’t often say. He did that well on this one.

There is a lead in of about five minutes. The conversation starts after that.

Dear Fred

I get so many emails from people who are thinking of starting a company and they share their idea with me and ask me if they should do it. They want my feedback on their idea. These are, for the most part, people I have never met and have no context for. I came across five of them this morning in my inbox. It reminded me of this tweetstorm from last year.

tweetstorm

I understand the need for validation. And part of me wants to tell them “go for it.” I would like to see more people get up the nerve to chase their dreams. But I don’t want to be complicit in that. So most of the time, I just delete the email and move on. Sad, but true.

The State Of The NYC Tech Ecosystem

Matt Turck has penned a “State Of The City” post about where the NYC tech ecosystem is right now. I get asked this question all the time and I haven’t been doing a great job of answering it. I will use some of Matt’s work the next time that happens.

Here’s some of my favorite points from Matt’s post. If you live and work in the NYC tech ecosystem, or care about it, you should go read the whole thing.

NYC as a leading AI Center:

The New York data and AI community, in particular, keeps getting stronger.  Facebook’s AI department is anchored in New York by Yann LeCun, one of the fathers of deep learning.  IBM Watson’s global headquarter is in NYC. When Slack decided to ramp up its effort in data, it hired NYC-based Noah Weiss, former VP of Product at Foursquare, to head its Search Learning and Intelligence Group.   NYU has a strong Center for Data Science (also started by LeCun).  Ron Brachman, the new director of the Technion-Cornell Insititute, is an internationally recognized authority on artificial intelligence.  Columbia has a Data Science Institute. NYC has many data startups, prominent data scientists and great communities (such as our very own Data Driven NYC!).

 

NYC as a home to “deep tech”:

Finally, one trend I’m personally particularly excited about: the emergence of deep tech startups in New York.   By “deep tech”, I mean startups focusing on solving hard technical problems, either in infrastructure or applications – the type of companies where virtually every early employee is an engineer (or a data scientist).

For a long time, MongoDB was pretty much the lone deep tech startup in NYC.  There are many more now.  A few of those are in my portfolio at FirstMark:  ActionIQ, Cockroach Labs, HyperScience and x.ai.   But there’s a lot of others, big and small, including for example: 1010Data (Advance), BetterCloud, Clarifai, Datadog, Dataminr, Dextro, Digital Ocean, Enigma, Geometric Intelligence, Jethro, Placemeter, Security ScoreCard, SiSense, Syncsort or YHat – and a few others.

 

The Diversification and Broadening of NYC’s Tech Ecosystem:

One way of thinking about New York’s tech history is one of gradual layers, perhaps something like this:

  • 1995-2001: NYC 1.0, lots of ad tech (Doubleclick) and media (TheStreet)
  • 2001-2004: Nuclear winter
  • 2004-2011: NYC 2.0, a new layer emerges around commerce (Etsy, Gilt) and social (Delicious, Tumblr, Foursquare), on top of adtech (Admeld) and media
  • 2012-present: NYC 3.0 – in addition to the above, just about every type of technology covering just about every industry

Certainly, the areas that put NYC on the map in the first place continue to be strong.  New York is the epicenter of the redefinition of media (Buzzfeed, Vice, Business Insider, Mic, Mashable, Bustle, etc.), and also home to many great companies in adtech (AppNexus, Tapad, Mediamath, Moat, YieldMo, etc.), marketing (Outbrain, Taboola, etc) and commerce (BarkBox, Birchbox, Harry’s, Warby Parker, etc.).

But New York has seen explosive entrepreneurial activity across a much broader cross-section of verticals and horizontals, including for example:

  • Fintech: Betterment, IEX, Fundera, Bond, Orchard, Bread
  • Health: Oscar, Flatiron Health, ZocDoc, Hometeam, Recombine, CellMatix, BioDigital, ZipDrug
  • Education: General Assembly, Schoology, Knewton, Skillshare, Flatiron School, Codecademy
  • Real estate: WeWork, HighTower, Compass, Common, Reonomy
  • Enterprise SaaS: InVision, NewsCred, Sprinklr, Namely, JustWorks, Greenhouse, Mark43
  • Commerce infrastructure: Bluecore, Custora, Welcome Commerce
  • Marketplaces: Kickstarter, Vroom, 1stdibs
  • On Demand: Handy, Via, Managed by Q, Hello Alfred
  • Food: Blue Apron, Plated
  • IoT/Hardware: littleBits, Canary, Peloton, Shapeways, SOLS, Estimote, Dash, GoTenna, Raden, Ringly, Augury, Drone Racing League
  • AR/VR/3D: Sketchfab, Floored

 

 

I like the NYC 3.0 moniker. It’s a very different place to start and invest in tech companies than it was even five years ago. Bigger, deeper, broader, and scaling nicely. Just like the companies themselves.

Mission Driven Founders

I’ve written many times about how I/we prefer to invest in mission driven founders vs mercenary founders. The former starts a company because they see a problem they feel compelled to fix. The latter starts a company because they see an opportunity to make money. There is nothing wrong with the latter. It is likely the reason that the vast majority of companies are started. But we prefer to invest in the former because there is an extra something going for a founder who starts with a mission. It leads to more tenacity, more passion, more feel for the product and market, and ultimately a higher probability of success.

For role models for the mission driven founder we need to look no farther than the founding fathers and the opening line of the Declaration of Independence, published 240 years ago today:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary

The key word being necessary. These people had had enough and NEEDED to forge a new path.

So when thinking about starting a company, ask yourself if it is necessary. That will tell you a lot.

The Summer Doldrums

We are entering the summer months when things move slower in the investor community. This is true of venture capital, but it is also true of other investment sectors as well. Summer vacations slow things down and investors also use the time to step back a bit and evaluate how the first half of the year has gone and plan for the second half.

I know many companies don’t like to raise capital in the summer months. While I understand that approach and it is conventional wisdom, I think the contrarian approach of raising in the summer can also work.

Raising money in the summer months will go slower and can be frustrating as you lose weeks at a time to vacations. Partner meetings are harder to get scheduled. And trying to get multiple potential investors on the same time frame is nearly impossible.

But the benefit of raising in the summer is that you are not competing with as many other companies to get the investor’s attention. You can more easily rise above the noise in the summer. Investors don’t take the summer off, they just slow things down a bit. So if you need to raise capital in the summer or just want to, you can make it work. You just need to allow more time for the process and be patient and flexible.

One advantage of raising in the summer is that you can take care of fueling the tank when things are slow with customers and be ready to step on the gas in the fall when things pick up again. The last four months of the year are often a sprint to the finish line and using up some of that energy raising is often suboptimal.

So if you find yourself in the market for capital this summer, don’t fret. But be prepared for a slog that doesn’t move as fast as you’d like it to. It’s the doldrums after all.

Second and Third Tier Markets And Beyond

I am in Nashville for a couple days with The Gotham Gal who is giving a keynote at a startup conference today. I mostly came along for a chance to spend a couple days in Nashville. But I will also be at the conference later today to see her do her thing.

Last night we attended a cocktail party with investors from the southeast and then had dinner with an entrepreneur in Atlanta that The Gotham Gal backed a few years ago. At both we talked about entrepreneurship in the southeast and the funding environment for companies in this part of the world.

The way I think about the startup sector in the US is that the first tier is Silicon Valley. More than half of all startup activity and startup funding activity happens in the Bay Area which now includes SF and the east bay. You could simply focus on Silicon Valley and ignore every other part of the US and the world and do just fine as an investor. Many do.

The second tier is NYC and LA and Boston. Between these three cities, another third of startups and investment capital reside. All three of these startup cities are vital and growing rapidly. You could simply focus on NYC, LA, and Boston and ignore the bay area and other parts of the US and the world and do just fine as an investor. I am not aware of any firm that has that strategy as it doesn’t really make sense. But it could easily be done.

The third tier includes Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta, DC, and a few other smaller places like Boulder and Austin. I am doing this entire post from my head and not referring to any survey. There are a bunch of these surveys and I’ve read them all so I am sure this is directionally correct but I am also sure that I am missing a place or two.

This third tier is a decent place to be an entrepreneur and an investor. But there are challenges. Entrepreneurs in the third tier can access the talent and capital they need to be successful in these third tier markets but it is a bit harder to do both. Investors can be focused on these markets if they keep their fund sizes small enough or they can take a hybrid approach by being focused on these markets and also investing in the first and second tier markets. The latter is how we have always approached being a NYC centric investor.

But there is a dynamic that goes on in these third tier markets where the local investors look to investors in the first and second tier markets to come down and “validate” their investments. And the investors in the first and second tier markets won’t come down and do that without a strong local lead. This game of “chicken” happens ways too often in these markets and is incredibly frustrating to entrepreneurs in these markets. These third tier markets need a few strong Series A focused VC firms who have large enough fund sizes to be aggressive lead investors and also have the conviction and stomach to play that game. That is what USV, and Flatiron before it, did in NYC. That is what Foundry did in Boulder. That is the game Upfront is playing in LA. Every third tier market needs a few VC firms like that. And being that investor is a terrific way to make a lot of money.

Beyond the third tier lies a lot of even smaller markets. I am in one today in Nashville. It has a huge health care sector that produces a lot of entrepreneurial and executive talent. It has a decent amount of local seed capital. But it is not a major VC destination. The southeast VCs will come here regularly looking for opportunities. But it suffers even more from the issues I talked about in the third tier. The same is true of places like Pittsburgh, Des Moines, and Kansas City. I mention those three cities because USV has investments in companies in all three places.

The truth is you can build a startup in almost any city in the US today. But it is harder. Harder to build the team. Harder to get customers. Harder to get attention. And harder to raise capital. Which is a huge opportunity for VCs who are willing to get on planes or cars and get to these places.

There is a supremacism that exists in the first and second tiers of the startup world. I find it annoying and always have. So waking up in a place like Nashville feels really good to me. It is a reminder that entrepreneurs exist everywhere and that is a wonderful thing.