Posts from entrepreneurship

Why Capital Markets Matter

On a day when it is likely that the US stock markets will open down and Asian markets are in free fall, it is worth taking a second and talking about why capital markets matter and why they don’t.

If your business consumes capital and needs more of it, then changes in capital markets can affect you.

If your business produces cash flow and you can finance your business, then changes in capital markets are not likely to affect you.

This is one of many reasons that I like to see our portfolio companies get to break even and ideally producing cash flow.

I don’t remember when I said this, but I am glad I did.

Board Leadership

I’ve been sitting on private company boards since the early 90s. I have also sat on a few public company boards and a bunch of non-profit and civic boards. You could say that I am a professional board member.

Like all organizations, boards need leadership. It can come from a CEO, but often it comes from a Chairman or a board member who steps up and provides leadership without being named or titled as such.

The board is tasked with governance. The Board doesn’t run things, but it governs who runs things and how things are run. I’ve heard it said many times that a board does only one thing – hire and fire the CEO. While that is somewhat true, it simplifies the role of the board and trivializes it.

A board’s job is to make sure things are going in the right direction and when they are not to step in and make changes in an attempt to get things back on track. While that can and does include leadership changes, it also involves acting as a sounding board for management’s plans and a being a body that management is accountable to.

A good board can provide immense value to a CEO and his/her company.

If you are not getting what you want out of your board, or worse if your board is causing trouble for you and your company, consider addressing the board leadership question. There is nothing worse than a collection of strong minded people who don’t agree with each other all telling you what to do and pulling you in multiple and opposing directions. If that feels like what is going on with your board, you need to find someone on the board to step up and lead the group. It can be the CEO, but if you are the CEO and you aren’t getting what you want out of the board, it is very possible that you need someone else to provide board leadership. The easiest and best way to accomplish this is to find the strongest and most natural leader on the board, take them aside, tell them what you need from your board and what you aren’t getting, and ask them to step into the Chairman role and assist you in organizing, managing, and leading the board. You can do all of this without playing the Chairman card, but it makes it easier to name the role and put someone into it.

The leader of the Board should help you set the agenda of the board meetings. They should help you decide what is important to talk about at the meetings and what is not. They should help you get through the meeting on time and cover everything that needs to be covered. They should make sure the most important topics get the most air time. And they should make sure that everyone who wants to say things get to say them without taking over the meeting and wasting everyone’s time.

The leader of the Board should chair the executive session at the end of the meeting that happens without you. They should solicit feedback from the entire board and then they should share that with you so that you can process it and get value out of it.

The leader of the Board should also help you manage the most challenging and difficult Board members. They should advise you on how and when to communicate with them and what to emphasize and what to ask of them.

Most importantly, the leader of the Board should become your partner in managing your investors, your Board, and your company. They should be someone who can put their interests aside and act with the best interests of the company and management at heart.

If and when you find this person, they will be incredibly important and valuable to you. I’ve seen many people play this role masterfully over the years and I play it from time to time myself. It’s a very time consuming but rewarding job.

The Other Benefit Of Fundraising

The reason people go out and fundraise is they need capital for their business. I would not recommend doing it for any other reason. It’s hard and time consuming work and can be extremely frustrating.

But there is another benefit of fundraising. You get feedback on your business from people who see a lot of businesses like yours every day.

The feedback you get from any one investor can be horrible and you need to learn to ignore off base feedback from idiot investors. And you will find that on the fundraising trail.

However the aggregate feedback you get from a diverse collection of investors, ideally dozens or more, can be super helpful.

So what I suggest to entrepreneurs is to use some sort of note taking system, paper or electronic, and write down the hard questions you got and the points of feedback you received after each meeting. The sooner you do it after the meetings the better.

Then start to sort them into a list of “issues” that you are hearing about your business. And the ones you hear the most are the one to focus on.

These are not just sales hurdles to overcome in your financing (although they are that too), these are the things that make your business less attractive to investors and they are things you need to address in your business.

These issues could be about your team, your product, your competition, your market, your go to market strategy, your business model, etc, etc.

The point I am making is that fundraising is a bit like the customer development process. You are showing your business to the market and it is critical to listen to what the market is telling you as no business is perfect and investors will take the time to tell you what is wrong with yours, often right in the meeting.

So treat your fundraising process as two things. First and foremost, it is about getting the capital you need to operate and grow your business. But it is also a fact finding mission about the things you need to address to make your business better. Don’t forget to do the second thing because it is a fantastic opportunity to improve your business for the long haul.

Go East Young Man (or Woman)

Here’s a fun post by Henry Ward, founder and CEO of our portfolio company eShares, about raising money last year.

From Henry’s post:

We were 0 for 21 with Silicon Valley VCs. I never got close. Most of the big firms wouldn’t even meet. A few had an associate do a Skype call even though we were 20 minutes away.

After 21 meetings in SV, I took a Hail Mary trip to the east coast and met with 3 funds. All 3 invested.

Thank god Henry came east. We are hugely excited about the company he’s building.

Henry also makes some great observations about the fundraising process. I like this one a lot:

1. Fundraising is a filtering exercise, not a popularity contest.

I could tell within 5 minutes of meeting an investor whether they would invest. Investors who invested were excited about eShares before we met. They either saw the vision and liked it. Or they didn’t.

Most didn’t but met me anyway. They spent the entire meeting hoping I would convince them eShares was a good idea. I never did.

Excited investors (and the ones who invested) were different. They didn’t let me pitch. Instead, they asked questions to assess risk. They tried to find reasons not to invest. That is the pitch-paradox. The investors who won’tinvest will ask you why they should . The investors who will invest ask you why they shouldn’t. Your job is to make sure you don’t have reasons that they shouldn’t.

Fundraising is simple: find investors that get excited about your company. It is a filtering exercise. Too many founders believe they have the wrong pitch instead of realizing they have the wrong audience. On that note…

You’ve now read half the post here at AVC. To read the rest, go here.

Growth vs Retention

Entrepreneurs always ask what the one number they should focus on for raising money. I always say “90 day retention numbers for your acquisition cohorts”. There’s a common view in silicon valley and around the tech sector that growth is the one thing you should focus on. But it’s hard to grow if you are churning your users. And if you are paying for user acquisition, as many startups do in search of growth, then retention/churn becomes even more important.

This issue was highlighted in a Forbes post on Homejoy, which apparently had a retention problem. A former employee said:

Retention was clearly bad, and that’s what killed us

This is a huge conundrum for entrepreneurs who want and need to grow in order to build confidence with investors (both existing and future) and to attract and retain talent.

This all comes back to stepping on the gas before finding product market fit. You might think you have product market fit and so you scale up your hiring, your marketing, your sales, and your capital raising and spending.

But if you can’t retain a healthy percentage of your users past ninety days, you don’t have product market fit yet and all the investment you make in your business is just money down the drain.

So focus first on your 90 day retention numbers and make sure to nail them and prove you have product market fit. Then scale.

Anxious Investors

Anxiety is something all investors feel at one point or another. Investing is a mix of greed and fear. When things aren’t going great, anxiety sets in.

In public equity when you get nervous about a stock, you can usually sell the position and move on.

In private equity, you are stuck with the investment. So anxiety sets in.

Entrepreneurs might mis-diagnose anxiety as something else. If your investors are all of a sudden meddling in the business, you might be seeing anxiety. If your investors are asking for endless amounts of data, you might be seeing anxiety. If your board meetings have become tense and difficult, you might be seeing anxiety.

You can’t just suggest they take a pill and chill out. Though I’ve seen entrepreneurs do that before.

Here are a few suggestions for managing anxious investors

1) Increase the frequency and duration of the communication. There is nothing that amplifies anxiety like a lack of communication. So do the opposite. Overcommunicate.

2) Have a frank and candid conversation with your investors about the source of their anxiety.  Getting them to articulate what they are worried about will help a lot. Then you can address the issues directly.

3) Get more face time with the rest of an investor’s firm. Often the anxiety comes from the investor’s relationship with and place inside of their firm. This is particularly true of junior partners or associates. Offer to come talk at the weekly team meeting. Or suggest that an investor bring one of their colleagues to a meeting. This one can backfire because if things are truly messed up you might amplify and multiply the anxiety inside the firm. But if you believe the anxiety is misplaced, this approach can be helpful.

4) Get some independent directors on your board. If your board is full of investors and you don’t have any independents, you are setting yourself for an anxious board. Get investors on your board who are less susceptible to get anxious when things go wrong and the dynamic of your entire board will improve.

5) Fix the problems in your business. Nothing helps to reduce the anxiety level in an investor than strong performance.

I am an anxious investor myself. I was worse when I was younger and everything was riding on my performance. I’ve eased up over the years. But I still wake up in the middle of the night anxious about a particular company/investment. It’s how I’m wired up. And I think its part of what makes me a good investor. It is also what makes me potentially a problem. I try to be self aware of the anxiety and manage it so it doesn’t impact our portfolio companies. But I know it can and it does.

Entrepreneurs need to learn how to manage anxious investors. It’s an important skill that will come in handy many times.

Video Of The Week: Economic Development In NYC

There were a number of interesting and relevant discussions at the Cities For Tomorrow conference last week. This one, between Michael Barbaro of the New York Times, Dan Doctoroff of Sidewalk Labs, and Alicia Glen, Deputy Mayor of NYC, about economic development in NYC was particularly relevant to entrepreneurs looking to build companies in NYC.

Bootstrap Your Network With A High Value Niche Use Case

Last night my son drove me out to the east end of long island where we have a packed day of meetings on some family business today.

As we hit the long island expressway, I got on my phone and started DJing and we got into a zone.

As the traffic thinned out, we started making great time.

At one point I looked over and Josh had his phone in his lap. I was about to go off on him about on not texting and driving (something I constantly harp on with our kids), but before the words left my mouth I realized he had Waze open in his lap.

Let’s just say Josh is not a fan of the speed limits on the LIE. And I know that on his last trip he got pulled over for going 70 mph.

I realized he was looking to avoid getting another speeding ticket. So instead of lacing into him about texting and driving, I asked where the radar detector was.

He said “its coming up in about a quarter mile.”

For the rest of the way out, we watched the traffic speed up and slow down as we passed various speed traps.

It seemed like everyone on the LIE last night was on Waze. Which would not surprise me.

Today Waze is mostly used for getting traffic and driving directions. That’s a use case most everyone who drives needs and wants.

But the original use case for Waze is the one Josh had landed on last night in his effort to avoid another speeding ticket on the LIE.

Which takes me to the point of this post.

If you want to bootstrap a peer to peer network, you can’t start with the mainstream use case. You need to start with the highest value use case, even if it is a much smaller niche.

Not everyone likes to drive 80mph in a 65mph zone. But the ones who do will take extra measures to avoid getting pulled over. They report the speed traps to everyone else in real time. Which is what the first users of Waze did.

That led to more people using Waze to avoid speed traps.

And eventually that led to enough critical mass that the mainstream use case of a peer to peer traffic monitoring/avoidance application was possible.

The same is true of Snapchat. People made fun of Snapchat in its early days for being a “sexting” app. That was the “high value niche use case” that bootstrapped the network. And once critical mass was reached, the broader use case of a network for ephemeral photo/video sharing could emerge.

So if you want to build a peer to peer network, you have to find the use case that is high enough value that some people will do things (like put content into your application) that most people won’t. If you nail that, and win the hearts and minds and activity of that small high value user base, then you will have to opportunity to go mainstream. If you aim for the mainstream users first, you are setting yourself up for failure.

Leaders and Executives

I saw the news that Phil Libin has stepped up to Chairman and the Board of Evernote has hired Chris O’Neill to be CEO. I don’t know much about Evernote, I don’t use their product, but I admire the company and I like the idea of a founder leading a company without being its Chief Executive Officer. There are many examples of this working. The most well known is Larry Ellison’s role at Oracle. Larry doesn’t run the business on a day to day basis but his influence is felt deeply in that company. Another great example of this relationship is Reid Hoffman and Jeff Weiner at LinkedIn.

Leadership is different than management. I have said that many times before on this blog and I will say it again. I believe it to be true. Leading is charisma, strength, communication, vision, listening, calm, connecting, trust, faith, and belief. Management is recruiting, retaining, delegating, deciding, communicating, and above all executing. Many CEOs do both for their companies. But getting leadership from the founder and management from a great executive is a model that can work really well.

The key to making this work is having the founder totally bought into the split roles and totally bought into the person who is going to be the executive and provide day to day management to the Company. In the leadership role the founder must step back and allow the executive to manage the business. They need to step in when leadership is required. That is usually when hard decisions are required and the founder’s instinct can be incredibly valuable.

A really good Board can help the founder and the executive figure out when management is required and when the founder’s leadership is required. But the Board cannot babysit this relationship. It has to work and be functional between the two people. If it is not, then someone has to go and that is usually the executive. That is because a founder’s leadership is hard to replace. A strong manager and executive is not easy to find but that talent exists in many places in the market and is not inexorably tied to the company because of the founding relationship.

If a founder can find their manager/executive inside of their company, that is ideal. Because going with a known relationship vs a brand new relationship produces a higher likelihood of success. But you don’t have to do this. Jeff Weiner was hired from outside of LinkedIn. And, I believe Chris O’Neill was hired from outside of Evernote. Both approaches can and do work. But if you have a strong manager/executive inside of your company, I would strongly suggest trying that. It is lower risk.

I have also seen a fair bit of talent churn out after the founder steps up to Chairman, particularly in the senior team. That’s a reason that many founders are nervous about doing this. My advice is to go ahead and do it. The first year of any new CEO’s tenure is going to be super hard and will require rebuilding the senior team, no matter what. But that can be healthy for a business too.

I admire Phil Libin’s conviction that he is not the right CEO for the next stage of Evernote. And I would encourage him to stay deeply involved in the company, providing the kind of leadership that only a founder can provide. And by supporting his chosen CEO who will need it in spades. I wish them both success in this transition.