My friend Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, is writing a new book called The Leader’s Guide. He’s crowdfunding the research, writing, and production of this new book on Kickstarter and the campaign was launched today. I’ve already backed this project and you can too. Here’s the video that explains what it is about.
Posts from entrepreneurship
As I was reading Josh Kopelman‘s excellent post on the seed boom and Series A bust, I got thinking of some words of wisdom Mike Arrington once shared with me. He said “numbers always ruin a good story.”
What Mike meant by this is you can raise a seed (or Series A) on a story. But at some point, you will have numbers; users, user growth, revenues, and revenue growth. You will also have a burn rate. And those numbers will become the thing you are judged on and your nice story will be “ruined” by the numbers.
Now this is not always true. You might be one of the few entrepreneurs on a real rocket ship and your numbers will be your friend. If that is true, raise while the numbers are great. Because they might not always be.
But, particularly at the Series A stage which Josh’s post is all about, the numbers aren’t always so great. And your story will conflict with the numbers. And so you’ll have to change the story to reflect the numbers. Because you can’t change the numbers to reflect the story you really want to tell.
It’s a painful experience. But as Josh explains, it’s like skinning your knee as a child. Painful but necessary.
Most people that are in the VC and startup sector know that USV likes to invest in networks. And most of the networks we invest in are consumer facing networks of people. Peer to peer services, if you will. The list is long and full of brand name consumer networks. So it would be understandable if people assumed that we do not invest in the enterprise sector. That, however, would be a wrong assumption.
We’ve been looking for enterprise networks to invest in since we got started and we are finding more and more in recent years. There is a particular type of enterprise network that we particularly like and I want to talk about that today.
Businesses, particularly large ones, build up large groups of suppliers. These suppliers can be other businesses or in some cases individuals. And these suppliers also supply other businesses. The totally of this ecosystem of businesses and their suppliers is a large network and there are many businesses that are built up around making these networks work more efficiently. And these businesses benefit from network effects.
I am going to talk about three of our portfolio companies that do this as a way to demonstrate how this model works.
C2FO is a network of businesses and their suppliers that solves a working capital problem for the suppliers and provides a better return on capital to large enterprises. Here is how it works: C2FO has a sales force that calls on large enterprises and shows them how they can use their capital to earn a better return while solving a working capital problem for their suppliers. They bring these large enterprises onto their platform and, using C2FO, they recruit their supplier base onto the platform. They also bring all the accounts payable for the large enterprise onto the platform. Once the network and the payables are on the platform, the suppliers can bid for accelerated payment of their receivables. When these bids are accepted by the large enterprise, the suppliers get their cash more quickly and the large enterprise earns a return on the form of a discount on their accounts payable. C2FO takes a small transaction fee for facilitating this market.
Work Market is a network of businesses and their freelance workforce. Work Market’s salesforce calls on these large enterprises and explains how they can manage their freelance workforce directly and more efficiently. These enterprises come onto the Work Market platform and then, using Work Market, invite all of their freelance workers onto the platform. They then issue all of their freelance work orders on the Work Market system, manage the work, and pay for the work, all on Work Market. Work Market takes a transaction fee for facilitating this and many of Work Market’s customers convert to a monthly SAAS subscription once they have all of their freelance work on the platform.
Crowdrise is a network of non-profits, the events they participate in, and the people who fundraise for them. Crowdrise’s salesforce calls on these events and the large non-profits who participate in them. When a large event, like the Boston Marathon, comes onto Crowdrise, they invite all the non-profits that participate in their event onto the platform. These non-profits then invite all the individuals who raise money for them onto the platform. These events and non-profits run campaigns on Crowdrise, often tied to the big events, and Crowdrise takes a small fee for facilitating this market.
I hope you all see the similarities between these three very different companies. There are several but the one I’d like to focus on is the “they invite all the ….. onto the platform”. This recruiting function is a very powerful way to build a network from the top down. And once these networks are built, they are hard to unwind.
We don’t see many consumer networks built top down, but we do see a lot of enterprise networks built top down. And we are seeing more and more of them. It is also possible to build enterprise networks bottoms up (Dropbox is a good example of that). That’s the interesting thing about enterprise networks. You can build them top down or bottoms up. And we invest in both kinds of enterprise networks.
The top down enterprise network is a growing part of the USV portfolio. We like this approach to building an enterprise software business and it does not suffer from the “dentist office software” problem. Which is a very good thing.
When you watch the San Antonio Spurs (or the Atlanta Hawks this season), you get a sense of a system at work on the court. There is chaos, the players are moving and cutting all over the place, and then a pass is made to the open man and an uncontested layup results. It’s like magic.
My partner Andy wrote a post about chaos and startups a few days ago that briefly touches on basketball. He talks about the Zen Master Phil Jackson:
Phil Jackson believed this too. He wrote “the road to freedom is a beautiful system.” The winningest coach in NBA history believed that his success was developing a framework for his players to guide the dozens and dozens of decisions that they have to make each game, each play. He actually believed then, that his job as a coach during games was just to watch. If he had helped the team develop the right framework, then his role would at its optimum – at decision-making time – simply to sit back and let them process.
Andy’s point is that those advising and investing in startups should do the same – help the startup team develop a framework for making decisions and then sit back and watch them do it.
One thing I know for sure is that those who advise and invest in startups cannot and should not meddle in the day to day decision making. It’s harmful and hurtful to the startup and those that lead it. So operating at a higher level, helping to set the framework for decision making and then sitting down and watching the game be played, is certainly the way to go. Of course that doesn’t mean abdicating the responsibility to have the right team on the court at the right time. Coaches do that and advisors and investors should too.
The Gotham Gal and I made a decision recently where we had a bunch of sunk costs. It reminded me of this post and I am going to reblog it today.
Sunk Costs are time and money (and other resources) you have already spent on a project, investment, or some other effort. They have been sunk into the effort and most likely you cannot get them back.
The important thing about sunk costs is when it comes time to make a decision about the project or investment, you should NOT factor in the sunk costs in that decision. You should treat them as gone already and make the decision based on what is in front of you in terms of costs and opportunities.
Let’s make this a bit more tangible. Let’s say you have been funding a new product effort at your company. To date, you’ve spent six months of effort, the full-time costs of three software developers, one product manager, and much of your time and your senior team’s time. Let’s say all-in, you’ve spent $300,000 on this new product. Those costs are sunk. You’ve spent them and there is no easy way to get that cash back in your bank account.
Now let’s say this product effort is troubled. You aren’t happy with the product in its current incarnation. You don’t think it will work as currently constructed and envisioned. You think you can fix it, but that will take another six months with the same team and same effort of the senior team. In making the decision about going forward or killing this effort, you should not consider the $300,000 you have already sunk into the project. You should only consider the additional $300,000 you are thinking about spending going forward. The reason is that first $300,000 has been spent whether or not you kill the project. It is immaterial to the going forward decision.
This is a hard thing to do. It is human nature to want to recover the sunk costs. We face this all the time in our business. When we have invested $500,000 or $5mm into a company, it is really easy to get into the mindset that we need to stick with the investment so we can get our money back. If we stop funding, then we write off the investment almost all of the time. If we keep putting money in, there is a chance the investment will work out and we’ll get our money back or even a return on it.
Even though I was taught about sunk costs in business school twenty-five years ago, I have had to learn this lesson the hard way. Most of the time that we make a follow-on investment defensively, to protect the capital we have already invested, that follow-on investment is marginal or outright bad. I have seen this again and again. And so we try really hard to look at every investment based on the return on the new money and not include the capital we have already invested in the decision.
This ties back to the discussion about seed investing and treating seed investments as “options.” Every investor, if they are rational, will look at the follow-on round on its own merits and not based on the capital they already have invested. But the venture capital business is a relatively small world and reputation matters as well. Those investors who make one follow-on for every ten seeds they make will get a reputation and may not see many high quality seed opportunities going forward. Our firm has followed every single seed investment we have made with another round. In most cases, those investments have been good ones. But we have made a few marginal or outright bad follow-ons. We do that for reputation value as much as anything else. We measure that value and understand that is what we are doing and we keep those reputation driven follow-ons small on purpose.
When it is time to commit additional capital to an ongoing project or investment, you need to isolate the incremental investment and assess the return on that capital investment. You should not include the costs you have already sunk into the project in your math. When you do that, you make bad investment decisions.
I kicked off the second topic of the week discussion on usv.com today with a post about community ownership of Internet applications and services.
If you want to read the post and/or join the discussion, go here and do that.
Here’s a teaser to get you interested in doing that:
With more and more web and mobile applications deriving their value mostly or completely from their user base (Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Etsy, Reddit, Kickstarter, Uber, etc, etc), there is a growing sense that the community could or should have some real ownership in these businesses.
I go on to explain a bit about why this has not happened except in very rare cases and what needs to get figured out to make it happen more frequently.
There’s a lot going on, including approaches unleashed by blockchain technology, to make this easier to do and we think this is a trend worth watching and discussing. That’s why we made it the topic of the week.
The Gotham Gal and her friend Nancy Hechinger have put on the Women’s Entrepreneur Festival for five years now. It’s become an annual celebration of women and entrepreneurship. It was held in NYC this past wednesday and thursday. Here’s the opening keynote the Gotham Gal delivered (it is the first 12-13mins of this video. the talk afterward is also very good):
Our portfolio company Canvas made the decision to shutter operations early last year. But there is a bit more to entirely dissolve a company. Chris Poole, the founder of Canvas, describes the remaining work he had to do to entirely wind things down in this post.
Chris is a special person. Working with him has been such a pleasure. You get some great things from failure. One of them is my relationship with Chris.
A few weeks ago Jerry Colonna and I got on Skype and had a 40min chat about startups and what goes on in them. As most of you know, Jerry and I started a venture capital business together in the mid 90s and have been close friends since then. So this is a public conversation between friends, which is usually a recipe for a good discussion.
The first five minutes is some stuff about Jerry’s new business, Reboot.io. It’s worth listening to, but if you want to skip it, click on the soundwave at 5mins in and you will get to the start of our conversation.