Posts from stocks


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.

Generally Accepted Accounting Standards (GAAP)

I understand and appreciate the need for rigorous accounting standards and I appreciate that our financial system and our capital markets in the US enforce the use of generally accepted accounting standards (GAAP) for the reporting of company financial information. Without standards rigorously applied, investors would not be able to understand what is going on in the companies. That would be awful.

But when I read Gretchen Morgenson’s recent article in the New York Times accusing companies of “spinning losses into profits” my eyes rolled.

The truth is the the accountants who run the accounting standards have forced companies into reporting their financials in a certain way that neither the companies nor the sophisticated investors who own many of these companies’ shares believe accurately represents the financial condition of the reporting companies.  Gretchen quotes this stat in her piece:

According to a recent study in The Analyst’s Accounting Observer, 90 percent of companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index reported non-GAAP results last year, up from 72 percent in 2009.

That sure feels like the market speaking. When 90% of your customers order the scrambled eggs differently than you normally serve them that tells you something.

My pet issue is stock based compensation. When a company issues options to an employee, accounting standards require that the option be valued (usually by a formula called Black Scholes) and expensed over the vesting period. That sounds reasonable. But the truth is that that option may end up being worth nothing. Or it may end up being worth 10x the value that it was expensed at. By taking out the stock based comp expenses and reporting an “adjusted EBITDA” number that does not include it, companies are giving investors an idea of what the earnings power of the company is without this theoretical expense. And that stock based compensation expense is a non-cash expense meaning that even though it theoretically costs the company something, it is not paid in cash but in dilution of the total number of shares outstanding.

This is not a cut and dried issue. Different investors will approach it differently depending on whether they care about cash flow, long term dilution, or something else. But the accountants who control the accounting standards board require a certain way of presenting these numbers and that is that.

So investors and the reporting companies offer other ways of looking at these accounting issues. That is not bad. That is not spinning. That is transparency and it is good.

The IPO Standoff

The NY Times suggests that the reason there have been no tech IPOs in the past quarter is that the tech sector is having a “standoff” with the public markets.

The logic goes like this:

  • many of the tech IPOs that happened in 2015 are now underwater so public market investors are tired of losing money on IPOs
  • the prevailing valuations that exist in the private markets are higher than comparable companies in the public markets
  • it is relatively straightforward to raise capital in the private markets using convertible debt or other structures that are driven off the eventual IPO price

So why rush to the public markets now when you would be forced to take a lower valuation than you could get in the private markets and maybe a lower valuation than you got in your last round?

Eventually someone is going to blink. If the public markets wait long enough many of these IPO price driven structures will force the companies that issued them to go public and “price their stock.” You can only kick the can down the road for long enough.

I do think this “standoff” could go on for a while longer, maybe for most or all of this year. Unless a courageous company or two decides to go public regardless of price, gets the capital and liquid stock that comes with the IPO, and shows that you can in fact do well as a public company.

I am hoping for that latter scenario to play out. I think its better for everyone than the standoff we are having now.

The Twitter Contradiction

So everyone around here knows I’m bullish on Twitter and we own a lot of stock. So take all of this in that context please.

I just don’t understand the narrative around Twitter. “It is in trouble. It isn’t growing. It’s time has come and gone. The kids all use Snapchat and Instagram.”

That last part is true, to a degree. But it isn’t as simple as that.

The presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States has largely conducted his campaign on Twitter and in massive public appearances that feel like rock concerts. He has avoided the traditional media channels and taken his message direct to the people on Twitter. Not on Facebook. Not on Instagram. Not on Snapchat. Not on Pinterest. Not on his website or mobile app. On Twitter.

My brother in law and I watched the best basketball game of the year so far on Saturday night. Steph Curry was unreal. And he won it with a few seconds left in overtime with a bomb from something like 40 feet that everyone knew was going in. And what happened next?


And this:

And this:

Steph’s opponents expressed their appreciation for what he is doing on Twitter in the moment. Not on Facebook. Not on Instagram. Not on Snapchat. Not anywhere else. And you don’t have to be on Twitter to see that. You can see that here and many other places.

Here’s the thing about Twitter. You don’t need to be logged into Twitter to see these tweets. You can see them on Twitter logged out. Or you can see them embedded in other places on web and mobile or on TV and elsewhere. You only need to be logged into Twitter to tweet.

So anyone who is focusing on the logged in monthly active user number is missing something bigger. Twitter is where people who have something to say go to say it. And right now we are witnessing Twitter being used for what is arguably the biggest thing out there. A run for President of the United States.

That is the contradiction of Twitter.

Fun Friday: Twitter

I don’t think there is a company we’ve discussed here more than Twitter. And since it is Fun Friday, we are going to talk about it some more.

I tweeted this out yesterday after reading the zillionth blog post claiming to know what is wrong with Twitter and how to fix it. Instead of puking, I tweeted. Ah, the irony of it all.

So let’s get to the discussion. Is the negativity too high right now? Does Twitter know what is wrong and how to fix it?

Full disclosure: We own a lot of Twitter. It is our largest personal holding and a material portion of our net worth.

Fun Friday: Stock Market Prognosticating

The Nasdaq closed 2015 at 5,007. It has fallen 6.4% this week and is now at 4,689.

Here’s the long term history of the Nasdaq:


5,000 is a number with some meaning with this index. It touched that number briefly in the Internet bubble, then built its way all the way back over the past fifteen years.

My question is this:

Let me know what you think in this twitter poll and, as always, in the comments.

What Is Going To Happen In 2016

It’s easier to predict the medium to long term future. We will be able to tell our cars to take us home after a late night of new year’s partying within a decade. I sat next to a life sciences investor at a dinner a couple months ago who told me cancer will be a curable disease within the next decade. As amazing as these things sound, they are coming and soon.

But what will happen this year that we are now in? That’s a bit trickier. But I will take some shots this morning.

  1. Oculus will finally ship the Rift in 2016. Games and other VR apps for the Rift will be released. We just learned that the Touch controller won’t ship with the Rift and is delayed until later in 2016. I believe the initial commercial versions of Oculus technology will underwhelm. The technology has been so hyped and it is hard to live up to that. Games will be the strongest early use case, but not everyone is going to want to put on a headset to play a game. I think VR will only reach its true potential when they figure out how to deploy it in a more natural way.
  2. We will see a new form of wearables take off in 2016. The wrist is not the only place we might want to wear a computer on our bodies. If I had to guess, I would bet on something we wear in or on our ears.
  3. One of the big four will falter in 2016. My guess is Apple. They did not have a great year in 2015 and I’m thinking that it will get worse in 2016.
  4. The FAA regulations on the commercial drone industry will turn out to be a boon for the drone sector, legitimizing drone flights for all sorts of use cases and establishing clear rules for what is acceptable and what is not.
  5. The trend towards publishing inside of social networks (Facebook being the most popular one) will go badly for a number of high profile publishers who won’t be able to monetize as effectively inside social networks and there will be at least one high profile victim of this strategy who will go under as a result.
  6. Time Warner will spin off its HBO business to create a direct competitor to Netflix and the independent HBO will trade at a higher market cap than the entire Time Warner business did pre spinoff.
  7. Bitcoin finally finds a killer app with the emergence of Open Bazaar protocol powered zero take rate marketplaces. (note that OB1, an open bazaar powered service, is a USV portfolio company).
  8. Slack will become so pervasive inside of enterprises that spam will become a problem and third party Slack spam filters will emerge. At the same time, the Slack platform will take off and building Slack bots will become the next big thing in enterprise software.
  9. Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee and he will attack the tech sector for its support of immigrant labor. As a result the tech sector will line up behind Hillary Clinton who will be elected the first woman President.
  10. Markdown mania will hit the venture capital sector as VC firms follow Fidelity’s lead and start aggressively taking down the valuations in their portfolios. Crunchbase will start capturing this valuation data and will become a de-facto “yahoo finance” for the startup sector. Employees will realize their options are underwater and will start leaving tech startups in droves.

Some of these predictions border on the ridiculous and that is somewhat intentional. I think there is an element of truth (or at least possibility) in all of them. And I will come back to this list a year from now and review the results.

Best wishes to everyone for a happy and healthy 2016.

What Didn’t Happen

Last year, I ended 2014 with What Just Happened and started 2015 with What Is Going To Happen.

I’ll do the same tomorrow and friday, but today I’d like to talk about What Didn’t Happen, specifically which of my predictions in What Is Going To Happen did not come to be.

  1. I said that the big companies that were started in the second half of the last decade (Uber, Airbnb, Dropbox, etc) would start going public in 2015. That did not happen. Not one of them has even filed confidentially (to my knowledge). This is personally disappointing to me. I realize that every company should decide how and when and if they want to go public. But I believe the entire startup sector would benefit a lot from seeing where these big companies will trade as public companies. The VC backed companies that were started in the latter half of that last decade that did go public in 2015, like Square, Box, and Etsy (where I am on the board) trade at 2.5x to 5x revenues, a far cry from what companies get financed at in the late stage private markets. As long as the biggest venture backed companies stay private, this dichotomy in valuations may well persist and that’s unfortunate in my view.
  2. I said that we would see the big Chinese consumer electronics company Xiaomi come to the US. That also did not happen, although Xiaomi has expanded its business outside of China and I think they will enter the US at some point. I have a Xiaomi TV in my home office and it is a really good product.
  3. I predicted that asian messengers like WeChat and Line would make strong gains in the US messenger market. That most certainly did not happen. The only third party messengers (not texting apps) that seem to have taken off in the US are Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and our portfolio company Kik. top social apps year end 2015Here’s a shot of the app store a couple days after the kids got new phones for Christmas.
  4. I said that the Republicans and Democrats would find common ground on challenging issues that impact the tech/startup sector like immigration and net neutrality. That most certainly did not happen and the two parties are as far apart as ever and now we are in an election year where nothing will get done.

So I got four out of eleven dead wrong.

Here’s what I got right:

  1. VR has hit headwinds. Oculus still has not shipped the Rift (which I predicted) and I think we will see less consumer adoption than many think when it does ship. I’m not long term bearish on VR but I think the early implementations will disappoint.
  2. The Apple Watch was a flop. This is the one I took the most heat on. So I feel a bit vindicated on this point. Interestingly another device you wear on your wrist, the Fitbit, was the real story in wearables in 2015. In full disclosure own a lot of Fitbit stock via my friends at Foundry.
  3. Enterprise and Security were hot in 2015. They will continue to be hot in 2016 and as far as this eye can see.
  4. There was a flight to safety in 2015 and big tech (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) are the new blue chips. Amazon was up ~125% in 2015. Google (which I own a lot of) was up ~50% in 2015. Facebook was up ~30% in 2015.  Only Apple among the big four was down in 2015 and barely so. Oil on the other hand, was down something like 30% in 2015 and gold was down something like 15-20% in 2015.

Here’s what is less clear:

  1. Bitcoin had a big comeback in 2015. If you look at the price of Bitcoin as one measure, it was up almost 40% in 2015. However, we still have not see the “real decentralized applications” of Bitcoin and its blockchain emerge, as I predicted a year ago, so I’m not entirely sure what to make of this one. And to make matters worse, we now seem to be in a phase where investors believe you can have blockchain without Bitcoin, which to my mind is nonsense.
  2. Healthcare is, slowly, emerging as the next big sector to be disrupted by tech. The “trifecta” I predict will usher in an entirely new healthcare system (smartphone becomes the EMR, p2p medicine, and a market economy in healthcare) has not yet arrived in full force. But it will. It’s only a matter and question of when.

So, I feel like I hit .500 for the year. Not bad, but not particularly impressive either. But when you are investing, batting .500 is great because you can double down on your winners and stop out your losers. That’s why it is important to have a point of view, ideally one that is not shared by others, and to put money where your mouth is.

A Chart To Ponder

I was looking at some charts this morning. This one of the NASDAQ got my attention.

nasdaq chart

You can see the wind we’ve had at our back since the financial crisis of 2008/2009. Seven years of good financial markets.

My career as a fund manager started in 1996. We had five years of good times followed by three years of bust. Then we had five years of good times followed by two tough ones. Now we’ve had seven years of good times.

I will leave it at that. Sorry to be a bummer this morning.