Posts from management

Building A Diverse Culture And Team

Brittany posted today about the first USV portfolio diversity summit. Last year we had forty-two portfolio summits all driven by topics that bubble up from our portfolio. Diversity has been rising as a topic that people want to talk about and we reacted to that by hosting a summit on it. We had 28 attendees from 13 different portfolio companies in attendance.

In Brittany’s post, she cites two important reasons to strive for diversity on your team:

  • Do you want your company to increase your company’s competitive advantage? Extensive research has proven that more diverse perspectives leads to more innovative ideas and better financial returns.
  • Do you want your company to one day serve millions of people? It helps if you know how different people in the population think. If companies want to last, they need to think about this early.

She goes on to outline how the portfolio companies are approaching diversity:

  • Getting Started: having the discussion, language, and online tools
  • Company Culture: embracing diversity, inclusive mission vision values, and performance
  • Recruiting: tactics, expectations, interviews, job postings, resources, and external organizations
  • Constant Evolution: Feedback, measuring success, training, and materials

If you are seeking to build a diverse culture and team in your company, I would encourage you to read Brittany’s post which she will follow with dedicated posts on all four topics in the outline.

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.

 

DIY vs Delegate

I am a bad delegator and very much a do it yourselfer (DIY). It’s one of the many reasons I am certain I’d make a terrible CEO.

CEOs must delegate. At scale, they should only do three things; set the vision and strategy and continuously communicate it, recruit and retain the very best people, and keep the company funded. Everything else has to be delegated at scale.

But when you start a company, you (and your cofounders) have to do everything yourself. There is nobody to delegate things to. And hiring a bunch of people to do things like schedule your meetings, answer the phones, keep the books, review contracts, interview candidates, etc is a bad idea because it uses up money which is always in short supply at the early stage of a startup. You can, and should, see if there are service providers who are inexpensive who can help. Bookkeeping is one area where that is certainly true. Reviewing contracts and recruiting is harder to hand off to an inexpensive third party. I wish it were not.

I like it when I see a founder team that is resourceful, has range, and can do a lot of this stuff themselves. I like to see them running lean and mean and spending money on the things that really matter (product!!!!!).

But at some point they need to start delegating this stuff. And first time founders often make the mistake of waiting too long to take things off their plates. For one, they like the control and insights they get from doing things themselves. For another, they are often lean to a fault (penny wise and pound foolish).

Knowing when it is the right time to start handing things off and hiring is an art not a science. It has something to do with the availability of resources. And it has something to do with the scale of the organization. When the CEO is still scheduling her own meetings when there are over fifty employees, something is wrong. Investors can help a lot. We have pattern recognition. We can see two very similar companies (size, stage, etc) and compare how much delegation is happening in one vs the other. We can make suggestions.

One suggestion I frequently make is to find a “utility infielder” for your first business hire. This is someone who can do a lot of things well but nothing spectacularly well. This is often someone who has done this role before in a startup and likes working in companies that are between five and fifty employees. There are people who make a career out of this job. It is lucrative if you value equity over cash compensation. You can build a nice portfolio of early stage equity grants doing the “first business hire” gig for two or three years at a time and then doing it again and again.

Doing a startup is an evolution from DIY to Delegate. And timing the evolution is important. If you haven’t done it before, ask people who have for advice on this. Allocating your time (your most precious resource) is critical to the success of your business.

The Perfect Board

Last month Sam Altman wrote a post about board members and why you should want them. I read it and then tweeted it out:

In Sam’s post, he says:

Personally, I think the ideal board structure for most early-stage companies is a 5-member board with 2 founders, 2 investors, and one outsider.  I think a 4-member board with 2 founders, 1 investor and 1 outsider is also good (in practice, the even number is almost never a problem).

I’ve been serving on boards for 25 years. I’ve been in every conceivable configuration. To my mind, the perfect board is either five or seven and it looks like this:

Founder CEO, Two Independents, Two Investors

Founder CEO, Three Independents, Three Investors

If the Founder is no longer the CEO, then I like this configuration:

CEO, Founder, Two Independents, Three Investors

If you have less than three investors (yay!), then replace investors with independents in each formula and you’ve got a winning configuration.

An entrepreneur the Gotham Gal is invested in asked me this question via email a few weeks ago, and I told him this:

This is a long way of saying that you aren’t done once you put one independent on the board. You are going to need a bunch.
Finally – don’t try to satisfy your VCs. They will want “names” “trophies” and the like. Satisfy yourself. Find people, ideally peer CEOs, you like respect and want to spend time with who you know can and will add value.
A great company deserves a great board. And a great board has bunch of people on it, ideally a bunch of people who are experienced at running a business, growing a business, and dealing with all the stuff that comes with that. Do yourself a favor and build a great board for your company.

Development Is Cheap. Production Is Not.

This is a line from a blog post written by my brother in law Jerry Solomon. He is talking about film production, specifically short form videos. But the point is true of all projects, from designing a building, a home, a film, an art project, a hardware project, a software project, or whatever.

The design process is relatively inexpensive. The build process is not.

In the kinds of companies we invest in the “development” work comes from the product organization. The “production” work comes from the engineering team.

I have seen engineering teams spin their wheels and burn through countless hours of writing code that ends up getting tossed out just because the design process was not right or not specific enough or not thought through enough.

While we might think these issues and challenges are unique to the world of tech, software, internet, and mobile, the truth is these issues pervade everywhere you are making something.

This is not so applicable to a startup trying to find product market fit. But it becomes very relevant once your company starts to scale. A commitment to thinking things through, getting it right at the start, and being efficient in the “production” process is something all great companies figure out how to do. It’s really important.

Reblog: Employee Equity: How Much

This may be the most popular AVC post of all time based on the amount of traffic it gets month after month after month. I think I may rewrite it at some point because while I still believe the basic ideas here are correct, some of the math has changed due to market pressures and it deserves a rewrite. With that caveat, here it is.

——————————————–

The most common comment in the long and complicated MBA Mondays series on Employee Equity is the question of how much equity should you grant when you make a hire. I am going to try to address that question in this post.

First, a caveat. For your first key hires, three, five, maybe as much as ten, you will probably not be able to use any kind of formula. Getting someone to join your dream before it is much of anything is an art not a science. And the amount of equity you need to grant to accomplish these hires is also an art and most certainly not a science. However, a rule of thumb for those first few hires is that you will be granting them in terms of points of equity (ie 1%, 2%, 5%, 10%). To be clear, these are hires we are talking about, not co-founders. Co-founders are an entirely different discussion and I am not talking about them in this post.

Once you have assembled a core team that is operating the business, you need to move from art to science in terms of granting employee equity. And most importantly you need to move away from points of equity to the dollar value of equity. Giving out equity in terms of points is very expensive and you need to move away from it as soon as it is reasonable to do so.

We have developed a formula that we like to use for this purpose. I got this formula from a big compensation consulting firm. We hired them to advise a company I was on the board of that was going public a long time ago. I’ve modified it in a few places to simplify it. But it is based on a common practive in compensation consulting. And it is based on the dollar value of equity.

The first thing you do is you figure out how valuable your company is (we call this “best value”). This is NOT your 409a valuation (we call that “fair value”). This “best value” can be the valuation on the last round of financing. Or it can be a recent offer to buy your company that you turned down. Or it can be the discounted value of future cash flows. Or it can be a public market comp analysis. Whatever approach you use, it should be the value of your company that you would sell or finance your business at right now. Let’s say the number is $25mm. This is an important data point for this effort. The other important data point is the number of fully diluted shares. Let’s say that is 10mm shares outstanding.

The second thing you do is break up your org chart into brackets. There is no bracket  for the CEO and COO. Grants for CEOs and COOs should and will be made by the Board. The first bracket is the senior management team; the CFO, Chief Revenue Officer/VP Sales, Chief Marketing Officer/VP Marketing, Chief Product Officer/VP Product, CTO, VP Eng, Chief People Officer/VP HR, General Counsel, and anyone else on the senior team. The second bracket is Director level managers and key people (engineering and design superstars for sure). The third bracket are employees who are in the key functions like engineering, product, marketing, etc. And the fourth bracket are employees who are not in key functions. This could include reception, clerical employees, etc.

When you have the brackets set up, you put a multiplier next to them. There are no hard and fast rules on multipliers. You can also have many more brackets than four. I am sticking with four brackets to make this post simple. Here are our default brackets:

Senior Team: 0.5x

Director Level: 0.25x

Key Functions: 0.1x

All Others: 0.05x

Then you multiply the employee’s base salary by the multiplier to get to a dollar value of equity. Let’s say your VP Product is making $175k per year. Then the dollar value of equity you offer them is 0.5 x $175k, which is equal to $87.5k. Let’s say a director level product person is making $125k. Then the dollar value of equity you offer them is 0.25 x $125k which is equal to $31.25k.

Then you divide the dollar value of equity by the “best value” of your business and multiply the result by the number of fully diluted shares outstanding to get the grant amount. We said that the business was worth $25mm and there are 10mm shares outstanding. So the VP Product gets an equity grant of ((87.5k/25mm)  * 10mm) which is 35k shares. And the the director level product person gets an equity grant of ((31.25k/25mm) *10mm) which is 12.5k shares.

Another, possibly simpler, way to do this is to use the current share price. You get that by dividing the best value of your company ($25mm) by the fully diluted shares outstanding (10mm). In this case, it would be $2.50 per share. Then you simply divide the dollar value of equity by the current share price. You’ll get the same numbers and it is easier to explain and understand.

The key thing is to communicate the equity grant in dollar values, not in percentage of the company. Startups should be able to dramatically increase the value of their equity over the four years a stock grant vests. We expect our companies to be able to increase in value three to five times over a four year period. So a grant with a value of $125k could be worth $400k to $600k over the time period it vests. And of course, there is always the possiblilty of a breakout that increases 10x over that time. Talking about grants in dollar values emphasizes that equity aligns interests around increasing the value of the company and makes it tangible to the employees.

When you are doing retention grants, I like to use the same formula but divide the dollar value of the retention grant by two to reflect that they are being made every two years. That means the the unvested equity at the time of the retention grant should be roughly equal to the dollar value of unvested equity at the time of the initial grant.

We have a very sophisticated spreadsheet that Andrew Parker built that lays all of this out for current employees and future hires. We share it with our portfolio companies but I do not want to post it here because it is very complicated and requires someone to hand hold the users. And this blog doesn’t come with end user support.

I hope this methodology makes sense to all of you and helps answer the question of “how much?”. Issuing equity to employees does not have to be an art form, particularly once the company has grown into a real business and is scaling up. Using a methodology, whether it is this one or some other one, is a good practice to promote fairness and rigor in a very important part of the compensation scheme.

Options and Offer Letters

A CEO of one of our portfolio companies sent me a question about process in making offers and equity grants. I sent him a reply. And I thought, “this reply is a blog post”. So here is the reply with the specifics redacted. I hope folks will find this useful.

————————-
It is a Board’s responsibility to approve all option grants. Most boards do this at the start of the Board Meeting. It is usually just a formality, but it is good governance to do that.

The management team obviously can’t wait for the Board Meetings to make offers. So most companies make offers that are contingent on board approval, but that approval is assumed that it is going to be there. Otherwise the management will be in a tough spot having made a promise they can’t keep.

What I generally suggest is that management have a standard options grant. It could be as simple as “everyone gets at least 1000 shares when they join, important role players get 5000 shares, directors get 10,000 shares, software engineers get 10,000 shares, senior software engineers get 20,000 shares, VPs get 50,000 shares. C level gets 100,000 shares”

I just made that up. You should make one that makes sense to you.

Then you get the Board to sign off on the standard grants. Then you can make offers with standard grants in them knowing that they will be approved.

If you want to go wildly off the standard grant for a special situation (relo, super star, etc), just shoot the board an email and get buy-in before making the offer. You will still want to get formal approval at the next Board Meeting.

I also suggest building an options budget. To do this you take your standard grant schedule, and then map it to your hiring and retention plan (I suggest granting options to current employees every two years as part of a retention plan) and then you will have an options budget for the next few years. That is a great thing to have.

For many of you, this is all obvious stuff. But you would be surprised how confusing all of this is to many entrepreneurs. So I figured I would put it out there.