Posts from entrepreneurship

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.

Working Across Many Time Zones

I was in Europe for most of June and working on a lot of things with people in the bay area. The nine hours of time zone difference was challenging. I was doing a lot of calls in the evenings with people who were just waking up.

There were many times when I woke up in Europe to a brief window where I could talk to people in the bay area who were still working and had not wrapped things up for the day before.

Our portfolio at USV spans ten hours (Estonia to San Francisco/Los Angeles).

Being based in NYC helps a bit as we have longer overlaps between Europe and the Bay Area than those two locations have with each other.

But I continue to find working across many time zones challenging.

Yesterday I had a conference call between people in five time zones. Getting everyone to agree to the correct time was almost laughable.

I’ve learned to use the time zone feature in Google Calendar to make sure I’ve got the time right. That helps me a lot.

As the world becomes more globalized, we find that we can do business more easily across time zones. And so we do more business across time zones.

That in turn leads to longer days.

When I am in LA, I often wake at 5am to an inbox that is full and active.

When I am in Europe, I am often on conference calls on the way to dinner.

I suspect there is someone working at a USV portfolio company at every hour of every day.

And new technologies is pushing this trend even farther.

Traditional capital markets open and close. The NYSE will open for trading today at 9:30amET after being closed all day yesterday for the July 4th holiday.

But crypto traders can trade on GDAX 24/7 and do.

So the tech and startup business is quickly becoming a 24/7 affair.

It wasn’t that way at all when I got into the business in my mid 20s.

But thirty years later the pace and rhythm is very different.

Keeping up with that pace and rhythm can be exhausting if you let it be.