Posts from entrepreneurship

Some Thoughts On Burn Rates

The startup and venture capital businesses are based on a general idea that you can and should invest heavily into your business in order to increase value creation, amplify it, and accelerate it.

These investments mostly take the form of operating losses, driven by headcount, where the monthly expenses are larger, often much larger, than revenues.

These losses are known in the industry vernacular as “burn rates” – how much cash you burn on a monthly basis.

But how much burn is reasonable?

I have been thinking a lot about this in recent years.

Instinctively I feel that many of our portfolio companies, and the startup sector as a whole, operate on burn rates that are too high and are unsustainable.

But it is hard to talk to a founder, a management team, or a Board about burn rates objectively.

There are no hard and fast rules on burn rate so you end up getting into an emotional discussion “it feels right vs it feels wrong.”

That’s no way to have a conversation as important as this one.

So I’ve been looking for some rule of thumbs.

One that I like and have blogged about is the Rule of 40.

The rule of 40 makes an explicit relationship between revenue growth rates and annual operating losses. Below 40 is bad. Above 40 is good.

But the issue with the Rule of 40 is that it is oriented toward businesses (like SAAS) where there is a well-understood relationship between value and revenues and ones that are reasonably developed.

So I’ve been deconstructing the Rule of 40 in hopes of trying to get to a more fundamental truth about burn rates.

And what I have come up with is this:

Your company’s annual value creation (valuation at the end of the year minus valuation at the start of the year) should be a multiple of the cash your company has consumed during the year.

That seems simple and obvious and that is a good thing.

But in order to make this work you need to lock down two things;

  • how are you going to objectively measure valuation absent a financing event?
  • what is the multiple?

The latter one is easier I think. The multiple should be large. 1x is clearly not enough. I don’t think 2x is either. 3x is borderline. I like 5x. I would want a 5x return on my annual burn.

I think annual value creation should produce a 3-5x return on annual burn. That feels like a good solid range to me.

The first question is trickier. If you have revenues, then using a revenue multiple to establish value is a good way to do this. You can look at comparable company financings and acquisitions and also public company valuations to figure out what revenue multiple to use. But you should be careful to understand that revenue multiples are a function of revenue growth rates. The faster your revenue is growing the higher they are.

So let’s do an exercise here to flesh all of this out.

Let’s say you are a $10mm annual revenue company in 2017 growing to $18mm in 2018.

And let’s say that you look around at public comps and companies similar to your are trading at 6x revenues.

So you can estimate that your business is worth $60mm this year and $110mm next year.

So there will be $50mm of value creation in 2018.

If you want a 5x return on your burn, you should not burn more than $10mm in 2018.

If you are willing to accept as little as 3x, you should not burn more than $16mm in 2018.

That’s how this rule works.

I like it because it is objective and will lead to rational discussions about burn rates vs emotional ones.

It does break down in pre-revenue companies where it is harder to objectively measure value creation. You can use financing valuations as a proxy in pre-revenue companies but then you quickly get back into emotional territory as the end of year valuation will be an aspirational number and unreasonable aspirations/expectations are what lead to unsustainable burn rates in the first place.

Resource Constraints

Most of the companies I work with tell me that they are resource constrained and do not have enough capital and engineers to do everything they want to do.

I tell them that is a blessing not a curse.

They look at me like I am crazy and rationalize it as me being an investor and not an operator.

I will plead guilty to both (being crazy and being an investor) but I am extremely confident that being resource constrained is a blessing in the hands of a great operator.

I have seen companies do amazing things with no money and tiny teams.

I have seen companies do absolutely nothing with all the money in the world and hundreds of engineers.

This experience, built up over thirty plus years in tech and startups, has convinced me that resources are never the limiting factor to doing great things.

The limiting factors are;

  1. having great management that can make the right decisions and drive exection
  2. knowing what to do and what not to do
  3. playing your game and not someone else’s

Resources, measured in available capital and headcount, often make #2 and #3 more challenging.

Organizations start to feel that they can do more than they can and should.

They start looking around enviously and counting the size of the fundraises and engineering teams of their competitors.

They stop knowing who they are. And that is death.

I believe that excess capital makes companies weak and unfocused.

I believe limited capital makes companies strong and focused.

And I don’t believe capital has ever helped a company win a market. Many have tried that approach and it always ends badly.

So I encourage all of you entrepreneurs out there to embrace being resource constrained and learn to love operating with less.

It will serve you well.

Founder Friendly

Long time VC watcher, writer, and analyst Dan Primack suggested on Friday that the days of VCs trying to out “founder friendly” each other are now over.

It is an interesting observation and was worthy of a reply. The VC industry is highly competitive for the best opportunities and we certainly do try to ingratiate ourselves and our firms to the entrepreneurs who will decide who gets to invest in their companies and who does not. Being “founder friendly” is an important way to do that.

But there is another important participant in the VC/entrepreneur relationship and that is the Company the entrepreneur creates and all of its stakeholders; the employees, the customers, the suppliers, and even the community around the Company.

Having worked with entrepreneurs for over thirty years now, I have developed tremendous admiration for what they do and for the Companies they create. Entrepreneurs are a very special breed of people.

But there are times when interests diverge and what is best for the Company and it’s stakeholders may not be what an entrepreneur perceives to be in their own best interest. This creates a conflict situation and VCs are often caught in the middle of it.

I’ve been there many times and my mantra in those moments is “what is best for the Company?”. It has to be that way and, many times, when it is all over and done, the founder realized it was in fact best for them too.

Of course, reasonable people will disagree about what is best for a Company. That is what Boards are for. They are the bodies made up of reasonable people who can and should debate these issues and find resolution and make the hard decisions.

I reject the notion that being led by its founder is always what is best for a Company. It is often so, but certainly not always so.

Orthodoxy in thinking and believing is quite troublesome. There is no one way to do things and no single truth. You have to figure things out all the time based on facts and circumstances, based on a combination of experience and knowledge. If you do that well, you will get a lot right but never everything right.

I have heard from quite a few founders that they read the book Hatching Twitter and came away thinking that they would not want to work with me. That sucks for me but I don’t regret anything I did or said in the events that were described in that book.

You must try to make the right decisions for what is best for the Company and if that means being labeled unfriendly to founders, so be it.

Greed Isn’t Good

The famous Gordon Gekko line that “greed is good” is bandied about quite often to explain why capitalism, and the pursuit of riches, is a positive thing for the economy, society, and the world at large.

Greed is not good. There is a fine line between the profit motive and greed.

I am a firm believer in the profit motive. It drives many of us to work hard, make new things that can move the world forward, and better our lives and the lives of our children, and others, through philanthropy.

But when the profit motive is taken to excess and you enter into the territory of greed, things go bad quickly.

We have seen this in the tech sector in many places, we have seen it in wall street, in real estate, and elsewhere. And we certainly are seeing it crop up in the crypto sector as well, particularly recently.

I like the concept of checks and balances. It is important to make sure to stay on the right side of the line between what is reasonable and what is excessive. Surrounding yourself with the right people, who have been around this issue a lot, can help a lot.

There are a lot of temptations out there when a lot of money is sloshing around. It is good to resist them.

A Range Not A Price

Entrepreneurs often struggle with how to signal their valuation expectations to investors.

Investors rightly want to know what the entrepreneur’s price expectations are before investing significant time on the opportunity.

But entrepreneurs don’t want to negotiate against themselves and certainly don’t want to undervalue themselves.

So what I always recommend to the entrepreneurs we work with and, frankly, anyone who asks is to “give a range, not a price.”

Let’s say you are raising a Series A round and have an aspirational valuation in mind of $30mm pre-money, raising $6mm.

But you know that is an aggressive valuation and you may have to accept something materially less in order to get a deal done.

Then I would tell investors “we want to raise $4mm to $6mm and don’t want to dilute more than 20% including any increases to the pool.”

An investor could read that as you would accept $4mm at $16mm pre-money but you have signaled that $30mm post-money is where you are aiming.

And, because you said “don’t want to dilute more than 20%”, you have left some room for your aspirational valuation of $30mm pre-money in which $6mm would dilute the company roughly 17%.

Try this the next time you are asked for a valuation from an investor. It works well.

Unrelenting Stress

I saw this Elon Musk tweet yesterday:

What he describes in that tweet is the life of an entrepreneur. And also, to some extent, the life of a VC who cares.

The unrelenting stress is the hardest of the three in my opinion.

Stress is part of life, we all have it.

But starting and running companies brings stress that seemingly never stops.

Managing that so that it doesn’t eat you up and mess up your relationships is super hard.

Some things that I have seen work well for people are regular (daily?) workouts, eating and drinking healthy, having a coach, and most of all, having a spouse who keeps it all in check.

There is no better work, from where I sit, but it comes at a cost, particularly if you let it.

Startup Churn

We encourage all of our portfolio companies to measure their churn rates by cohort. It is very revealing.

I saw this tweet by Liad this morning that shows startup churn by cohort.

I don’t know the source, but the data is sobering.

Some of the churn is companies getting sold. Some of the churn is companies getting profitable. But most of the churn is companies failing.

We have looked at our portfolio this way and our portfolio has performed much better than this. Some of that is selection. Some of that is support. And some of that is tenacity of the founders.

But, as Liad says in his tweet, startups are no cake walk.

Zemanta – From SeedCamp to Outbrain

In the summer of 2008, I attended the SeedCamp in London and the winner of that class was a company called Zemanta, out of Ljubljana Slovenia. I was taken with everything about Zemanta; a small team (three founders), out of a place that I had never been to and had barely heard of, winning the SeedCamp with a really smart blogging tool that I just had to have on my blog.

USV invested in a seed round that summer that was led by the SeedCamp folks and Eden Ventures. Zemanta was USV’s first European investment. Today, we have ten out of sixty-seven active portfolio companies (~15%) based in Europe.

The seed investment in Zemanta led to a nine year journey with Bostjan and Andraz, who founded Zemanta along with Ales.

The blogging tool is amazing. It recommends links and images in real time as you type into your blogging tool. I still have it running in my WordPress web application. It looks like this right now.

Zemanta sold the blogging tool to a company called Sovrn a while ago and refocused on the native advertising market. They understood how to place related content into a content feed as well as anyone and they decided to focus the company on that. Bostjan and Andraz recruited Todd to lead the new business opportunity. Over the course of the last three years, Zemanta DSP has become the leading buying tool for native advertising.

And the largest company in the native advertising market, Outbrain, became their largest customer. So a few months ago, Outbrain asked the Zemanta founders to join their team and help build some important new technology for Outbrain. After haggling for a few minutes, the deal was sealed and Outbrain now has an office and a team in Ljubljana.

Like every investment, Zemanta taught me a few important things. I learned how to work with founders from a different part of the world, I learned that Ljubljana is a lovely little city with wonderful cafes and restaurants along a gorgeous river, I learned that you can keep a company alive for almost a decade on less than five million dollars if you have a crack team of product managers, data scientists, and software engineers in a place that most people don’t know about, and I learned that tenacity wins, always.

I am pleased that Zemanta has found a home inside a larger company with a bigger opportunity, I am pleased that Ljubljana has a startup success it can point to, and I am pleased that USV is now a shareholder in Outbrain, an investment I mistakenly passed on a decade ago. But mostly I am pleased that Bostjan and Andraz, with a lot of help from Todd, were able to go all the way, from startup to exit, never losing that which makes them special. That’s a big win in my book.