Posts from life lessons

Dedication

For those who are on to the theme of my posts this week, Dedication will seem like an obvious choice to finish with.

I am dedicated to my family, my work, our portfolio, this blog, the Knicks, Mets, Jets, and a host of other things that require daily dedication. This week I was dedicated to the notion that all posts would start with D and end with tion. And I followed through and finished it off.

d ...

That’s what dedication is.

Dedication is also a testimony of affection or respect. At the start of many yoga classes, you are asked to dedicate your practice to something or someone. I mostly pick my kids, whichever I think needs the dedication that day, and sometimes the Gotham Gal too. I’m dedicating this blog post to my entire family on the eve of Passover.

Happy Pesach Everyone.

Distraction

I was just doing some work on a personal finance thing. I completed one part of the job and went to my email to finish it and saw another email at the top of my inbox about something else, I clicked on that email, started dealing with that, and almost forgot to finish off the personal finance thing. This happens all the time to me. I am so easily distracted.

I got rid of my desk phone in my USV office several years ago because I cannot sit in front of my computer when I am on a call in my office. I have to do my calls on my cell phone and walk around my office, look out the window, or something else or else I will get distracted.

I struggle with distraction big time. It’s not just the attention deficit kind of distraction I just talked about. Distraction crops up in other parts of my life. The Gotham Gal is constantly on me about being distracted in conversations with her. And she’s right to be on my case about that. If she was not, I would be even worse.

I’ve been working on this for much of my adult life. I’ve made progress but the distraction urge still is very much front and center in my psyche and my unconscious. I suspect this is something I will work on all my life.

Some things that have helped me are the aforementioned coaching by the Gotham Gal, yoga, meditation (which I have not yet made a staple in my life but I’m working on that), and a general self awareness of the problem and the need to take as many distractions away from me as possible when focus is required.

I know that I will get a lot of suggestions in the comments for software tools, workflow routines, and other self improvement techniques that have helped others deal with this problem. I will thank everyone in advance for those, but I will also say that I’ve tried all of that before. And tools and techniques haven’t really worked for me. I have found getting into the root causes and developing self awareness and more serenity in my life has worked a lot better.

But I’m still pretty bad. If you find yourself on the phone with me and I sound distracted, I probably am. And please feel free to call me out on it. I would appreciate that.

Reblog: VC Cliché of the Week

Back in the early days of this blog I had a series called VC Cliche Of The Week. I’m not sure how long I ran it but I did eventually run out of material and phased it out. In continuation of yesterday’s good vibes and with yet another shoutout to Bliss, here’s a reblog of one from March 2006:

—————————————————

The father of this weekly series, the guy who taught me at least half of the cliches I know, is a guy named Bliss McCrum. He and his partner Milt Pappas taught me the venture capital business from 1986 to 1996 when I worked with them at their firm, Euclid Partners.

One of my favorite cliches from Bliss is a rising tide lifts all boats.

Whenever things seemed too good at a portfolio company, in the stock market, the economy, or somewhere else, Bliss would quip, “well you know that a rising tide lifts all boats“.

It was his way of saying “don’t mistake a good market for a good business”.  The insinuation was always that the tide would come back in and so would the boats.  And you had to be prepared to make things work in tough times as well as good times.

And we are in good times in the venture business, the internet business, and for the most part, the US economy.  Consumer confidence hasn’t been this strong since before the Iraq war.  The Fed has raised rates 15 times and may not be done, signalling that the economy remains stronger than they’d like it. Venture money is flowing freely in Silicon Valley and China and in many parts of the developed or developing world.  Advertising dollars continue to move from offline media to online media and that is one rising tide that is certainly lifting all boats.

But we know these good times will come to an end at some point.  Are we in 1998 as Caterina suggests and have another year or two before the good times end?  Who knows?  I don’t expect this run of good times to play out like the last one anyway.

The best we can do is prepare our companies to withstand a business environment that is less friendly.  Companies need a business model, they need a seasoned and well constructed team, and they need patient and experienced financial partners.  With these ingredients, hard work, and some luck, you can survive a downturn.

Some of the best companies I’ve ever worked with were funded at the height of the last bubble and they are doing great now.  So it doesn’t really matter when you start a company, but it does matter that you can make it through tough times.  Because right now we have a rising tide that is lifting all boats and that won’t last forever.

Finding Your Passion

I graduated from college with a technical degree from one of the finest engineering schools in the world, I had helped to pay for college by writing code in a research lab, I had a strong academic record, and I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life.

Fortunately the Gotham Gal did and I followed her to NYC where she got busy with her career in fashion and retail. Meanwhile I took a job in an engineering firm where I used my coding skills to help design a new class of Navy ships. It was a good paying job, the kind that is in short supply for college grads these days, but it wasn’t anything I was passionate about.

We were visiting our families who lived in DC at the time and at the dinner table one night the Gotham Gal’s mom Judy who is no longer with us said to me “Get an MBA from one of the top schools. With an engineering degree from MIT and and MBA from a top school, you can write your ticket”. I liked the sound of that phrase “write your ticket” so I took her advice.

But the business school applications all asked the same thing, “what do you want to do in your career?” And I really had no good answer to that question. I knew that we were going to live in NYC because that’s where Gotham Gal’s career was flourishing. And I knew that I liked technology. But there wasn’t a tech sector in NYC at that time. All the good and high paying jobs were on Wall Street. And then it hit me. What was at the intersection of Wall Street and technology? Financing tech companies of course.

So I did some research and found out about this, at the time, sleepy little business called venture capital. This was the early 80s and the venture capital business was a much smaller and closer knit business than it is today. But I loved the sound of the word “venture”. It reminded me of adventure. I was smitten.

And so I wrote my business school applications about venture capital. I told all the schools (all three of them) that I wanted to be a VC. One of them, Wharton, accepted me and I went there, commuting back and forth to NYC for two years.

The Gotham Gal, who always pushes me and thank god she does, started asking me a few weeks into the fall semester of  business school what I was going to do the following summer. I said “get a job in venture capital”. That was my plan. Nothing more to it than that.

I wrote letters (yes letters) to all the Wharton alums in the VC business and got one reply (via letter) from Bliss McCrum. He said “please come in for lunch”. So I did that. And I got the summer job. That led to a full time job when I got out of school.

That lunch with Bliss happened 30 years ago. It was the key to finding my passion. And it led to a fantastic career that has taught me so much and connected me to so many amazing people.

Last week I got a voice mail message from Bliss. I called him back. He’s living on a ranch in Montana now. He invited me to come up and go fishing with him. We traded a bunch of stories about the venture business in the 80s. I told him that I still use all of his sayings and cliches. He loved hearing that. He and his partner Milton taught me a lot and gave me a place to find my passion. I owe them a lot for doing that. We pay that forward by doing the same thing at USV with young people who want to find their passion. And that feels good.

So where is this story going? Well it seems to me that finding your passion is critical to having a full and fulfilling life. And you have to put yourself in a place to do that. For me, it started with a woman who knew what she wanted to do long before I did and who pushed me to “figure it out” and it ended with a couple guys, Milton and Bliss, who passed their passion on to me.

I am sure there are many other ways to get there. But it won’t happen without help. So surround yourself with people who care about you and listen to them. And good things will come from that.

MBA Mondays Reblog: Sunk Costs

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.

 

Satisficing

We had one of our many (non-stop) email conversations among the USV crew last week about a situation in our portfolio where nobody could agree on something. I lamented that “VCs are such optimizers.” It takes one to know one you see.

Nick Grossman replied that he prefers satisficing to optimizing. I had never heard that term. So Nick sent me to Wikipedia which says:

Satisficing is a decision-making strategy or cognitive heuristic that entails searching through the available alternatives until an acceptability threshold is met.[1] This is contrasted with optimal decision making, an approach that specifically attempts to find the best alternative available. The term satisficing, a portmanteau of satisfy and suffice,[2] was introduced by Herbert A. Simon in 1956,[3] although the concept “was first posited in Administrative Behavior, published in 1947.

I love the concept of satificing instead of optimizing. It is something I have been trying to adopt (changing behavior is hard) for close to twenty years now with a good measure of success. But I never had a word for it. I do now. Thanks Nick!

It’s A Wrap

The six week break I took from work is ending. The trip through Europe is over. We landed back in the US on friday night and drove up to our kids’ college yesterday for homecoming/parents weekend. It was great to see our kids (two of them) and we’ll see our oldest this afternoon. I’ve missed them terribly and I’ve missed NYC, our dog Ollie, and our bed, shower, kitchen, local coffee shop, etc, etc, etc.

Many people have asked me what the highlight of the trip was. I always give the same answer – spending every waking (and sleeping) hour with Joanne for an entire month. It’s been a long time since we did that. I think the last time was the summer after we graduated from college thirty one years ago. We are the same people who made that trip around the country, just a bit older, wiser, wealthier, and with three wonderful young adults to show for it. It’s good to know that, even if you already knew it.

The trip through Europe was fantastic. We started in Rome and finished in Paris and stopped in a bunch of places along the way. This Foursquare map/list shows the itinerary:

fall trip map

The list has 131 places on it. We visited many more than that, but I only listed the places in Foursquare that I want to remember and let others know about. I wrote a tip on every single one of them.

As you can see our major stops were Lake Como, Cote D’Azur, Provence, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Bordeaux, and Paris. Of those, I would say Provence and San Sebastian were probably my favorites. I also loved the Piedmont wine region in Italy (Alba) and the city of Bordeaux and the wine region surrounding it. The best food was in Provence and in the tapas bars in Barcelona and San Sebastian.

The most beautiful place we found ourselves in was on a boat in the middle of Lake Como and staring out into the mediterranean sea from the tip of Cap Ferrat. We mangled three languages along the way and found that english is spoken almost everywhere, particularly if you are nice about it. If you want to learn more about the trip and the places we stayed along the way, the past thirty days of blog posts on GothamGal.com will deliver all of that to you.

I turned off my out of office responder yesterday. It gave me great trepidation to do that. If you ever want to give me a gift, the thing I would most appreciate is a filter from incoming email. I was able to manage all of my email in less than 15-20 minutes a day on this entire trip. I just archived everything that came in that wasn’t from someone that I knew I needed to respond to. The out of office responder sets up that expectation and so I feel absolutely fine doing that. Now that the responder if off, I am back to drinking from a firehose and I am terrified of how that is going to feel.

I’ve never taken an extended vacation or sabbatical from my work before. So all of this is new territory for me. I believe you should take the time away from work to get some distance from it, read, learn, relax. I did all of that and feel like I got what I was looking for from the time off. But it won’t be until I’m back at work that the new perspectives will totally reveal themselves to me. I’m looking forward to that too. Then I will know for sure what this time off taught me and I am eager to find that out.

And, as always, when I figure something out, I will share it with all of you here at AVC.

September 11th

Today is a very meaningful day for all  New Yorkers. For me, the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001 came at an important time in my life. The Internet bubble had burst and my professional life was all about dealing with the ramifications of that. I had just turned 40, we had three kids, 10, 8, and 5. We had lived in NYC for almost 20 years and we were building a life in the greatest city in the world. That day changed everything and changed nothing at the same time. We stayed downtown, we raised our kids in the post 9/11 NYC, and we still live in NYC in much the same way we lived there before that day. But we were all impacted by the sights, sounds, and smells of that day and the days and weeks that followed and certainly still are.

I don’t think much about September 11th anymore but I do try to remember it every year on its anniversary.

We are in Barcelona today. September 11th means something very different here. It is the “national day of Catalonia” and a holiday.

To make things even more interesting the Catalan Separatist Movement is mounting a huge protest today in Barcelona and they are expecting 1.5 million people to fill the two main streets in town and create a V sign in an effort to pressure Spain to allow a vote for Catalonia to secede.

The streets are literally filled with people wearing the yellow and red colors. We walked around for a couple hours and observed the goings on.

There are separatist movements cropping up all over Europe right now. I imagine the weak economy and rampant unemployment is a factor but underneath it all these are tensions that have existed for centuries and it’s not really a new thing at all.

The hatred that fed the horrible acts of 9/11 isn’t a new thing either. The techniques are modern and so are some of the resentments that feed it but the underlying hatred goes back a long way.

So for me, today is a reminder that conflict and resentment and the hatred that can result is a permanent human condition. We can work to minimize it and we should do that tirelessly. But we are unlikely to eliminate it.

Band Aid Friction Block

Every once in a while I learn about a product that is truly a game changer for me. The most recent example of this is Band Aid Friction Block.

The Gotham Gal turned me onto this product last week when I was getting blisters on my feet from some new shoes she bought me.

You rub it onto the parts of your feet where you are likely to get blisters and then you put your shoes on and are good to go for the day.

For all I know this product has been on the market for years and I’m the last one to learn about it. But in case that’s not true and some of you are, like me, unaware of it, I feel compelled to tell the world about it.

There are very few times that a $6 product is life changing. This is one of them, at least for me it is.

Reblog: How To Calculate A Return On Investment

It turns out this is one of my most viewed posts of all time. I guess that’s a good thing. So I’m reblogging it today.
————————-
The Gotham Gal and I make a fair number of non-tech angel investments. Things like media, food products, restaurants, music, local real estate, local businesses. In these investments we are usually backing an entrepreneur we’ve gotten to know who delivers products to the market that we use and love. The Gotham Gal runs this part of our investment portfolio with some involvement by me.

As I look over the business plans and projections that these entrepreneurs share with us, one thing I constantly see is a lack of sophistication in calculating the investor’s return.

Here’s the typical presentation I see:

Return calc

The entrepreneur needs $400k to start the business, believes he/she can return to the investors $100k per year, and therefore will generate a 25% return on investment. That is correct if the business lasts forever and produces $100k for the investors year after year after year.

But many businesses, probably most businesses, have a finite life. A restaurant may have a few good years but then lose its clientele and go out of business. A media product might do well for a decade but then lose its way and fold.

And most businesses are unlikely to produce exactly $100k every year to the investors. Some businesses will grow the profits year after year. Others might see the profits decline as the business matures and heads out of business.

So the proper way to calculate a return is using the “cash flow method”. Here’s how you do it.

1) Get a spreadsheet, excel will do, although increasingly I recommend google docs spreadsheet because it’s simpler to share with others.

2) Lay out along a single row a number of years. I would suggest ten years to start.

3) In the first year show the total investment required as a negative number (because the investors are sending their money to you).

4) In the first through tenth years, show the returns to the investors (after your share). This should be a positive number.

5) Then add those two rows together to get a “net cash flow” number.

6) Sum up the totals of all ten years to get total money in, total money back, and net profit.

7) Then calculate two numbers. The “multiple” is the total money back divided by the total money in. And then using the “IRR” function, calculate an annual return number.

Here’s what it should look like:

Cash flow sheet

Here’s a link to google docs where  I’ve posted this example. It is public so everyone can play around with it and see how the formulas work.

It’s worth looking for a minute at the theoretical example. The investors put in $400k, get $100k back for four years in a row (which gets them their money back), but then the business declines and eventually goes out of business in its seventh year. The annual rate of return on the $400k turns out to be 14% and the total multiple is 1.3x.

That’s not a bad outcome for a personal investment in a local business you want to support. It sure beats the returns you’ll get on a money market fund. But it is not a 25% return and should not be marketed as such.

I hope this helps. You don’t need to get a finance MBA to be able to do this kind of thing. It’s actually not that hard once you do it a few times.