Posts from stocks

When The AI Comes To Your Annual Shareholders Meeting

I was looking at the top twenty shareholders of some public companies last week and saw quite a few “quant funds” on those lists.

With the news that Blackrock is going to move much of its asset management business to models and machines, I think we will see more of this in the coming years.

It’s annual meeting season for public companies and all of this made me think about when the AI shows up to your annual shareholder meeting.

Or when the AI gets your proxy and needs to vote for Directors, executive compensation, and the choice of auditors.

Governance is an important part of being a shareholder.

When the shareholders are all machines, how does governance work?

A Direct Listing

I saw this question pop up in my Twitter feed this morning:

I don’t know anything about Spotify’s plans so I am not going to comment on that.

But the idea of doing a direct listing instead of an IPO is a super interesting to me.

Here is what I said to a friend of mine over email on this subject last week:

we don’t need IPOs to raise money anymore

the private markets work great for that now

but we do need a way to allow small investors to own the stock and we need a way to give employees, former employees, early investors, etc liquidity

So the idea of taking the fundraising function out of the going public equation is super interesting to me.

The questions that come to mind to me are; who will make a market in the stock?, who will write research on the stock?, how will companies build an understanding of their company prior to the listing?, will there be a lockup for existing investors?

The “IPO road show”, which is the roughly two week process before the IPO, is both a sales process to raise the money and a great opportunity to build excitement for the stock and understanding of the business. I guess a direct listing could include a road show as well. I think it probably should.

And the underwriters, who make a big commission on the IPO, commit to trade the stock and write research on the company in return for “being on the cover.” There needs to be some other way to get the investment banks involved in the stock to ensure that there is a market for the stock and research is done on the stock.

Finally, you wouldn’t want the entire cap table to come into the market on the first day of the direct listing. So that means there would need to be a lockup of some sort for the existing investors. But if there is no primary raise, then you would need some shares to trade, so maybe you let some of the existing cap table off of lockup on the direct listing and the rest over time.

I suppose this has been done before. If that is true, then there is a history of prior listings to look at to understand how this is done and how it worked. But as I said earlier in this post, I am super interested in this idea and I would like to see some big companies that don’t need capital but want a public stock try this.

Stocktoberfest East

My friend Howard Lindzon, who I met on this blog something like twelve years ago, runs an annual conference for fintech entrepreneurs and investors called Stocktoberfest.

Yesterday he hit me up on sms and told me they are doing Stocktoberfest East in NYC next week on March 29th and 30th. He asked me if I would do a chat with him. I told him that I’m not that interested in stocks but super interested in digital assets, cryptocurrencies, blockchain, etc. So we are going to do a 30min chat and I’m calling it Cryptoberfest.

My vision for this talk is a completely unprepared and unscripted talk between two old friends about all the amazing things happening in crypto land these days. It should be fun. If you want to attend, you can get a ticket here.

Numeraire

Late last year, USV invested in Numerai, a hedge fund that uses data scientists all around the world to “crowdsource” stock price predictions. I blogged a bit about Numerai then.

If that business model wasn’t cutting edge enough for you, the Numerai team has now gone a step further and issued a crypto-token called Numeraire to incent these data scientists to work together to build the best models instead of just competing with each other.

When I read the Numerai blog post about Numeraire yesterday, I tweeted this out:

This is all pretty out there stuff in a world, hedge funds, that has more or less done things a certain way for the last thirty years. I’m not saying hedge funds haven’t innovated, they certainly have, but I don’t think anyone has attempted to change the behavioral economics that underpin hedge funds in quite the same way that Numerai has. It is, if nothing else, a fascinating experiment that will tell us a lot about crypto-tokens, machine learning, and behavioral science.

I must admit that some of this is over my head. I’ve read the Numerai blog post as well as the Forbes and Wired posts several times now and I am not sure if I could explain all of this perfectly at a dinner party. But I am super excited that USV has invested in this audacious experiment and I look forward to seeing how it all pans out.

Tucows

Reblogging from USV.com today:

Union Square Ventures has made a substantial investment in Tucows, a 23 year old company company that has been publicly traded for over 15 years. Since we have never before invested in a public company, that requires a bit of an explanation.

All of us at USV feel fortunate to have participated in the wave of innovation unleashed by the open Internet. That innovation is now threatened by consolidation at the application layer and the access layer. Watching football over the weekend and seeing every carrier advertise video and music services on national television that don’t count against your data cap punctuated, for me, the end of the era of permissionless innovation that gave rise to Twitter, Tumblr, Etsy, and Kickstarter. As Fred pointed out  when large companies can pay to play, start-ups ability to reach consumers has been seriously compromised.

We are investing in Tucows because we believe they have built a great business, but also because they have been a stalwart defender of the open Internet. We are excited to be working with them now because they are challenging the incumbent access providers and the conventional wisdom, by building modern fiber networks in local communities across the U.S.. They are doing this at a time when telephone and cable companies are exploiting their natural monopolies in these communities, underinvesting in their outdated networks, raising prices and using the excess profits to buy back their stock, and buy their way into global entertainment businesses, pleasing shareholders but doing nothing for the communities they serve.

Tucows is doing the exact opposite. They are using hard won profits from the competitive wholesale domain name business to invest in modern fiber networks in cities like Charlottesville VA, Holly Springs, NC, and Centennial, CO. They believe, as we do, that, a modern communications infrastructure is the most important investment any community can make to expedite the transition from a 20th century economy based on undifferentiated manufacturing to a 21st century economy based on highly specialized manufacturing and services.

While they are at it, Tucows is exploding the myth propagated by the cable and telephone companies that the only way to finance a fiber network is to return to the gatekeeper model of the cable industry where the network build is subsidized by fees extracted from content providers in exchange for access to consumers. Tucows is committed building open networks that offer unfiltered, unthrottled, and unfettered access to consumers.  Open networks preserve the defining feature of the open Internet, permissionless innovation. It is that feature that ensures applications layer services have the freedom to innovate. More importantly, without open access to the Internet, no community can protect the economic, political, or personal freedom of their citizens. And without those freedoms, communities will have little chance to successfully manage the transition to a modern 21st century economy. Individuals in these communities will need unfettered access to knowledge to retool their skills for the new opportunities. Gig workers will need to access multiple platforms to optimize the return on their labor. Specialized manufacturers will need to fit seamlessly into global supply chains. All of this will need to happen quickly if we are to minimize the economic dislocation these communities are already grappling with. None of this will happen, if access to the Internet is mediated by vertically integrated global conglomerates.

The cable and telephone companies would like us to believe the open Internet is threatened by over reaching government regulation. In fact, it is threatened by crony capitalism. Instead of investing in local communities, the incumbents deploy thousands of lobbyists to argue that communities should not be able to invest in their own future. We are thrilled to be working with Tucows, because instead of lobbying Washington, to prevent competition, they are actively investing in fiber networks, the critical 21st century community infrastructure, and while they are at it, proving that investing in community fiber networks is a great business.

What Is Going To Happen In 2017

Happy New Year Everyone. Yesterday we focused on the past, today we are going to focus on the future, specifically this year we are now in. Here’s what I expect to happen this year:

  • Trump will hit the ground running, cutting corporate and personal taxes, and eliminating the preferential treatment of carried interest capital gains. The stock market has already factored in these tax cuts so it won’t be as big of a boon for investors as might be expected, but the seven and half year bull market run will be extended as a result of this tax cut stimulus before being halted by rising rates and/or some boneheaded move by President Trump which seems inevitable. We just don’t know the timing of it. The loss of capital gains treatment on carried interest won’t hurt professional investors too much because the lower personal tax rates will take the sting out of it. In addition, corporations will use the lower tax rates as an excuse to bring back massive amounts of capital that have been locked up overseas, producing a cash surplus that will result in an M&A boom. This will lead to an even more fuel to the fire that is causing “old line” corporations to acquire startups.
  • The IPO market, led by Snapchat, will be white hot. Look for entrepreneurs and the VCs that back them to have IPO fever in 2017. I expect we will see more tech IPOs in 2017 than we have since 2000.
  • The ad:tech market will go the way of search, social, and mobile as investors and entrepreneurs concede that Google and Facebook have won and everyone else has lost. It will be nearly impossible to raise money for an online advertising business in 2017. However, there will be new players, like Snapchat, and existing ones, like Twitter, that succeed by offering advertisers a fundamentally different offering than Facebook and Google do.
  • The SAAS sector will continue to consolidate, driven by a trifecta of legacy enterprise software companies (like Oracle), successful SAAS companies (like Workday), and private equity firms all going in search of additional lines of business and recurring subscription revenue streams.
  • AI will be the new mobile. Investors will ask management what their “AI strategy” is before investing and will be wary of companies that don’t have one.
  • Tech investors will start to adopt genomics as an additional “information technology” investment category, blurring the distinction between life science and tech investors that has existed in the VC sector for the past thirty years. This will lead to a funding frenzy and many investments will go badly. But there will be big winners to be had in this sector and it will be an important category for VCs for the foreseeable future.
  • Google, Facebook, and to a lesser extent Apple and Amazon will be seen as monopolists by government and individuals in the US (as they have been for years outside the US). Things like the fake news crisis will make clear to everyone how reliant we have become on these tech powerhouses and there will be a backlash. It will be Microsoft redux and the government will seek remedies which will be futile. But as in the Microsoft situation, technology, particularly decentralized applications built on open data platforms (ie blockchain technology), will come to the rescue and reduce our reliance on these monopolies. This scenario will take years to play out, but the seeds have been sown and we will start to see this scenario play out in 2017.
  • Cyberwarfare will be front and center in our lives in the same way that nuclear warfare was during the cold war. Crypto will be the equivalent of bomb shelters and we will all be learning about private keys, how to use them, and how to manage them. A company will make crypto mainstream via an easy to use interface and it will become the next big thing.

These are my big predictions for 2017. If my prior track record is any indication, I will be wrong about more of this than I am right. The beauty of the VC business is you don’t have to be right that often, as long as you are right about something big. Which leads to going out on a limb and taking risks. And I think that strategy will pay dividends in 2017. Here’s to a new year and new challenges to overcome.

What Did And Did Not Happen In 2016

As has become my practice, I will end the year (today) looking back and start the year (tomorrow) looking forward.

As a starting point for looking back on 2016, we can start with my What Is Going To Happen In 2016 post from Jan 1st 2016.

Easy to build content (apps) on a cheap widespread hardware platform (smartphones) beat out sophisticated and high resolution content on purpose built expensive hardware (content on VR headsets). We re-learned an old lesson: PC v. mainframe and Mac; Internet v. ISO; VHS v. Betamax; and Android v. iPhone.

And Fitbit proved that the main thing people want to do with a computer on their wrist is help them stay fit. And yet Fitbit ended the year with its stock near its all time low. Pebble sold itself in a distressed transaction to Fitbit. And Apple’s Watch has not gone mainstream two versions into its roadmap.

  • I thought one of the big four (Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon) would falter in 2016. All produced positive stock performance in 2016. None appear to have faltered in a huge way in 2016. But Apple certainly seems wobbly. They can’t make laptops that anyone wants to use anymore. It’s no longer a certainty that everyone is going to get a new iPhone when the new one ships. The iPad is a declining product. The watch is a mainstream flop. And Microsoft is making better computers than Apple (and maybe operating systems too) these days. You can’t make that kind of critique of Google, Amazon, or Facebook, who all had great years in my book.
  • I predicted the FAA regulations would be a boon to the commercial drone industry. They have been.
  • I predicted publishing inside of Facebook was going to go badly for some high profile publishers in 2016. That does not appear to have been the case. But the ugly downside of Facebook as a publishing platform revealed itself in the form of a fake news crisis that may (or may not) have impacted the Presidential election.
  • Instead of spinning out HBO into a direct Netflix competitor, Time Warner sold itself to AT&T. This allows AT&T to join Comcast and Verizon in the “carriers becoming content companies” club. It seems that the executives who run these large carriers believe it is better to use their massive profits in the carrier business to move up the stack into content instead of continuing to invest in their communications infrastructure. It makes me want to invest in communications infrastructure honestly.
  • Bitcoin found no killer app in 2016, but did find itself the darling of the trader/speculator crowd, ending the year on a killer run and almost breaking the $1000 USD/BTC level. Maybe Bitcoin’s killer app is its value and/or store of value. That would make it the digital equivalent of gold and the likely reserve currency of the digital asset space. And I think that is what has happened with Bitcoin. And there is nothing wrong with that.
  • Slack had a good year in 2016, solidifying its position as the leading communications tool for enterprises (other than email of course). It did have some growing pains as there was a fair bit of executive turmoil. But I think Slack is here to stay and I think they can withstand the growing competition coming from Microsoft’s Teams product and others.
  • I was right that Donald Trump would get the Republican nomination and that the tech sector (with the exception of Peter Thiel and a few other liked minded people) would line up against him. It did not matter. He won the Presidency without the support of the tech sector, but by using its tools (Twitter and Facebook primarily) brilliantly.
  • I predicted “markdown mania” would hit the tech sector hard and employees would start getting cold feet on startups as they saw the value of their options going down. None of this really happened in a big way in 2016. There was some of that and employees are certainly more attuned to how they can get hurt in a down round or recap, but the tech sector has also used a lot of techniques, including repricing options, reloading option plans, and moving to RSUs, to mitigate this. The truth is that startups, venture capital, and tech growth companies had a pretty good year in 2016 all things considered.

So that’s the rundown on my 2016 predictions. I would give myself about a 50% hit rate. Which is not great but not horrible and about the same as I did last year.

Some other things that happened in 2016 that are important and worth talking about are:

  • The era of cyberwars are upon us. Maybe we have been fighting them silently for years. But we are not fighting them silently any more. We are fighting them out in the open. I suspect there is a lot that the public still doesn’t know about what is actually going on in this area. We know what Russia has done in the Presidential election and since then. But what has the US been doing to Russia? I would assume the same and maybe more. If your enemy has the keys to your castle, you had better have the keys to their castle. And as good as the Russians are at hacking into systems, the US has some great hackers too. I am very sure about that.  And so do the Chinese, the Israelis, the Indians, the British, the Germans, the French, the Japanese, etc, etc.  This feels a bit like the Nuclear era redux. Mutually assured destruction is a deterrent as long as both sides have the same tools.
  • The tech sector is no longer the belle of the ball. It has, on one hand become extremely powerful with monopolies, duopolies, or nearly so in search, social media, ecommerce, online advertising, and mobile operating systems. And it has, on the other hand, proven that it is susceptible to the very kinds of bad behavior that every other large industry is capable of. And we now have an incoming President who doesn’t share the love of the tech sector that our outgoing President showed. It brings to mind that scene in 48 Hours where Eddie Murphy throws the shot glass through the mirror and explains to the rednecks that there is a new sheriff in town. But this time, the tech sector are the rednecks.
  • Google and Facebook now control ~75% of the online advertising market and almost all of its growth in 2016:

  • Artificial Intelligence has inserted itself into our every day lives. Whether its a home speaker system that we can talk to, or a social network that already knows what we are about to go out and purchase, or a car that can park itself and change lanes on the highway automatically, we are seeing AI take over tasks that we used to have to do ourselves. We are in the age of AI. It is not something that is coming. It is here. It may have arrived in 2014, or 2015, but if you ask me, I would put 2016 as the year it had its debut in mainstream life. It is exciting and it is scary. It begs all sorts of questions about where we are all going in the next thirty to fifty years. If you are in your twenties, AI will define your lifetime.

So that’s my rundown on 2016. I wish everyone a happy and healthy new year and we will talk about the future, not the past, tomorrow.

If you are in need of a New Year’s Resolution, I suggest moving to super secure passwords and some sort of tool to manage them for you, using two factor authentication whenever and wherever possible, encrypt as much of your online activities as you reasonably can, and not saying or doing anything online that you would not do in public, because that is where you are doing it.

Happy New Year!

Selling

I think selling is the hardest part of investing. Buying is, of course, critical to generating strong investment performance. Figuring out what to buy and when to buy it is what most people think of when they think of investing. But your returns will have as much to do with selling as buying. And buying is a fairly rational decision. Selling tends to be emotional. And that is why selling is the hardest part of investing.

In venture capital, thankfully, VCs don’t drive a lot of the sell decisions. I wrote about that back in 2009. Most sell decisions that really matter in a venture portfolio will be made by the founders and management of the portfolio company, including the timing of the public offering if that is where a company is headed.

But even so, I have struggled with the sell decisions, both personally and professionally, over the course of my career. I have held on way too long and watched a publicly traded stock literally go all the way to zero without selling it (ouch). And I have made the even worse decision of selling too soon and watching a stock go up three, four, five times from where I sold it.

So where I have landed on selling is to make it formulaic.

If we (USV) have to make a sell decision, we like to have a policy and stick to  it. We like to distribute our public positions as soon as we can, for example. That’s a policy and we stick to it. If you look at the SEC forms we have filed as a firm over the years, you can see that is what we do. It is a formula. It doesn’t mean that it is the right decision in each instance, but it does mean that, if we stick to it, we will do the same thing every time and the law of averages will work things out. We also let the people we work with know that is our policy so they are not surprised by it. What is worse is to make each decision emotionally and get them all or most of them wrong.

Personally, I like to dollar cost average out of a stock (sell a position over time instead of all at once) and I also like to hold onto some of the position for the very long term (schmuck insurance). I have a formula for the disposition of public stocks I get via distribution from USV and the other VC funds we are invested in. We execute the formula time and time again. It takes the emotion out of the decision and it works better for us.

The thing I have learned about selling is that it is almost impossible to optimize the sell point. You need a crystal ball and you need to know something that others don’t know. That is either impossible or criminal. So I don’t try to optimize it. I try to make it formulaic and systematic. It works better for me and I think it may work better for you too.

In Defense Of Bubbles

There is nothing the tech media and the broader press likes to ask me about more than bubbles.

“Is Snapchat a bubble?”

“Is Uber a bubble?”

“Is Facebook a bubble?”

“Is seed investing a bubble?”

“Is growth investing a bubble?”

And on and on and on.

It’s like bubbles are a disease that we need to eradicate.

Don’t get me wrong. Bubbles are something investors need to be careful with. You can make money on the way up but lose it all on the way down. I’ve done that. It hurts.

So at USV, we are careful to invest early in cycles and get defensive later in the cycle and take profits when they are available. If anything, I think we have been too conservative in this regard.

However, as I pointed out in a conversation with my colleagues yesterday, bubbles are a necessary part of any technology cycle, large or small.

Carlota Perez talks about this in her seminal book on technology cycles, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages.

But maybe the best thing written on this topic is my friend Tom Evslin‘s blog post from January 2005, when the investment world was just waking up to the fact that the Internet bubble wasn’t the end of things, but just the beginning. I particularly love how he ends that post:

Historically, the results of bubbles have usually been more empowerment for more people.  Historically, bubbles have provided an explosion of funds which blasted away the entrenchments of an old oligarchy not only to the benefit of entrepreneurs but also to the benefit of consumers in general.  Think of the constantly falling price of transportation and communication.

If we should find a way to stop bubbles, if we were to put the genie of irrational exuberance back in the bottle, the winners will be whoever are the incumbents at the time and the losers will be all those who could benefit from another great breakthrough in infrastructure like railroads, canals and the Internet.

Bring on the next bubble.  And invest in it at your own risk. I will.