Posts from stocks

The Blurring Of The Public And Private Markets

Five or six years ago, as the USV team was discussing the evolution of late stage financings and secondaries on the venture landscape, our partner Albert described something to us that was, in hindsight, very prescient. He said “there is no reason why there is such a bright line between public and private markets, we should have one market where the more a company discloses, the more liquid their security becomes” (or something like that). His point was that the only thing that really matters is how much information a company is willing to disclose.

We are increasingly seeing what Albert described to us come to pass. The ability to raise large sums of capital from public market investors has been available to privately held companies for a number of years now. There is no real difference between the public markets and the late stage growth markets in terms of availability of capital. That was not true a decade ago.

With the recent SEC adoption of Title III of the Jobs Act, non-accredited investors can start investing in private companies. There are limitations and reporting requirements which will certainly limit the adoption of Title III fundraising, but even so, we have crossed a threshold here that should lead to more individuals investing in privately held businesses over time.

Privately held companies are increasingly using electronic stock ledgers (like the one our portfolio company eShares offers) which allow them to easily manage a large and rapidly changing cap table, much like the function that brokers and transfer agents provide in the public markets.

So, as you can see, we are slowly witnessing the blurring of the lines between the public and private markets.

But maybe the biggest “tell” is the recent brouhaha over Fidelity’s public markdowns on its holdings of well known startups. One of the many reasons companies don’t want to go public is they don’t want to have to deal with a valuation that moves around all the time without their ability to manage it. Well guess what? If you raise from certain investors in the late stage growth market, you are doing that, even if you didn’t realize it.

I don’t think we will see less of these public markdowns. I think we will see more of them. And we VCs are now facing the choice of whether to markdown our portfolios in reaction to Fidelity’s markdowns or explain to our investors and auditors why we did not do that. Since our quarterly holding values don’t really matter to us (cash on cash returns are what matters), it’s easier to markdown than discuss why we didn’t do that.

It’s interesting and noteworthy that when the private capital markets got the benefit of large pools of capital coming in, that came with increasing transparency. Of course it did. We just didn’t realize that was going to happen. Staying private won’t shield you from the pains of going public. Because the lines are blurring between the private and public markets and we are in for more blurring and it will come faster in the coming years. Be careful for what you wish for, you may just get it.

Software Is The New Oil

I was with some friends this weekend and one of them was talking about an investment committee meeting he attended and there was a discussion at that meeting about some of the threats out there in the macro investment landscape. One of them was “vanishing liquidity” and the significant change in net cash flows from the global oil sector. Oil producing regions have gone from being a massive cash generator to a relatively small one in the past few years. Now this could well be a temporary thing as the oil market adjusts to some new realities. This post is not really about oil, even though that word is in the title of this post.

As I pondered that, I thought about oil’s role as the thing that captured the economic surplus of the industrial revolution. You can’t run factories, railroads, trucks, etc without carbon-based products and in particular oil. So oil has been a cash/capital magnet for the wealth that the industrial revolution produced. Those that owned oil producing assets (or better yet, oil producing regions) sat back and collected the economic surplus of the industrial revolution and that has been a path to vast wealth and economic power.

What is that same thing in the information revolution? And where is cash piling up around the world? On tech company balance sheets, of course. Apple has $200bn of cash on its balance sheet and produced $53bn of cash in the six months ending March 2015. Microsoft has $110bn of cash on its balance sheet and produced $30bn of cash in the year ended June 2015. Google/Alphabet has $70bn of cash on its balance sheet and produced $14bn of cash in the six months ended June 2015. Facebook could have $20bn of cash in the next year and could be producing $20bn of cash a year soon. Amazon, the company that “will never make money” surprised Wall Street last week with strong profits and it seems to me that they are going to start producing cash like these other big tech companies now.

It makes sense to me that software is the oil of the information revolution. Companies that control the software infrastructure of the information revolution will sit back and collect the economic surplus of the information revolution and that will be a path to vast wealth and economic power. It has already happened but I think we are just beginning to see the operating leverage of these software based business models. The capex spending necessary to be a software infrastructure provider at scale has shielded the cash producing power of these companies (and many others) and may continue to do that for a time, but I suspect at some point the profits are going to overtake the capex at a rate that the cash will be flowing out of software companies the way that oil flows out of wells.

Full Disclosure: The Gotham Gal and I own a lot of Alphabet stock and also shares in several hundred other software based businesses. We are long software.

Twitter’s Moment

Ben Thompson has penned the bull case for Twitter the product, Twitter the company, and Twitter the stock in a blog post carrying the same title as this post.

Those who have been reading this blog over the past few weeks will know that I share Ben’s views and have articulated similar ideas on this page. It should also be stated that I am long Twitter the stock and subject to whatever emotions, conflicts, and other bad behaviors that generates.

Ben ends with something I have not articulated on this blog before but have felt since the day I sent my first tweet, and that is the notion that there is something special about Twitter:

There’s just something different about Apple, a company that seems so full of contradictions yet one that has continued to lead the industry both financially and in key innovations. I’d argue the same about Twitter: it doesn’t make sense, hasn’t really ever made sense, and perhaps that’s the reason it, and the irreplaceable ideas it contains, are so important.

I realize that I am horribly biased on this topic and that others may not see what I see. But I have always felt that Twitter is a special company, full of conflicts and contradictions, that, maybe because of them, had the potential to deliver something unique, different, and compelling. And I continue to believe that.

The New Reassurance

My friend Steve observed something to me this week that speaks to the changing dynamic in the world of business, finance, and markets.

He pointed out to me that a decade or two ago, when the financial markets tumbled, the Secretary of Treasury would arrange a press conference, stand behind a podium with some official looking seal on it, and make reassuring comments about the economy in hopes of reassuring investors and the markets.

Now, the Treasury Secretary has been replaced by Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, the reassuring comments are delivered via an emailed letter to Jim Cramer, and the whole thing is reported on Twitter.

Apple has the largest market cap of any publicly traded company and may be the most widely held stock (I don’t actually know), so reassurances from Apple’s CEO matter. Twitter is the world’s real time news channel, and Jim Cramer has a high a profile as any market commentator out there. So it makes perfect sense if you think about it.

Maybe They Do Understand Your Business

Farhad Manjoo has a piece in the NY Times discussing something we’ve been talking about ad nauseam here at AVC in the past year or two, namely that venture backed tech companies are waiting much longer to go public and in the process creating a “private IPO” market which in turn is increasingly putting huge valuations on a large number of venture backed companies, including a bunch of USV portfolio companies.

There is an unfortunate quote in Farhad’s post which suggests that the public markets are clueless:

If you can get $200 million from private sources, then yeah, I don’t want my company under the scrutiny of the unwashed masses who don’t understand my business

First, the public markets are not “unwashed masses.” They are full of very sophisticated investors who, I suspect, do understand these businesses very well.

It is true that Wall Street will not be tolerant of missed expectations. It is true that Wall Street may focus too much on short term numbers. It is true that you may not be able to control what numbers Wall Street decides to obsess over when it comes to valuing your company.

But I think tech sector is making a huge mistake in thinking that they know their companies and how to value them better than Wall Street. That kind of thinking is arrogance and pride comes before the fall.

Two Charts

What is the capital markets environment for startup tech companies?

I think these two charts tell most of the story:

median pre-money

Seed and Series A is more or less healthy. Series B is getting overheated. Series C and beyond has gone crazy.

public market trends

Public markets are rational. Tech stock performance has been strong but is driven by strong revenue growth and good business fundamentals generally speaking.

The disconnect is entirely between the late stage private markets and the public markets. That’s where things are unstable.

The Coming Change In Monetary Policy

Janet Yellen, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, has been signaling to the financial markets that the Fed is going to raise rates towards the end of the year. If this happens, it will be the first time in nine years that the Fed has raised rates in the US. And it will be the end of an extraordinary period of near zero interest rates that resulted from the financial crisis of 2008. The near zero interest rate policy allowed banks and brokerage firms to replenish their balance sheets, work off their book of toxic assets, and regain their health. It also allowed the US economy to rebound from the effects of the financial crisis, it allowed homeowners to hold onto homes through difficult financial times, and it allowed businesses to borrow and raise capital at very attractive rates.

A side effect of this period of cheap money is that the tech sector, venture capital, and startups have enjoyed a valuation environment that has been extraordinarily friendly. I wrote about this in March of last year and said:

It is the combination of these two factors, which are really just one factor (cheap money/low rates), that is the root cause of the valuation environment we are in. And the answer to when/if it will end comes down to when/if the global economy starts growing more rapidly and sucking up the excess liquidity and policy makers start tightening up the easy money regime.

Yellen has also been signaling that the Fed does not plan to make rapid and large increases in rates. So the valuation environment in the tech and startup sector may not change quickly. But it will change. And so will the valuation environment in the stock market. This is because valuation multiples are inversely correlated to interest rates. When rates rise, valuation multiples fall.

So, I am going to watch the Fed’s moves and the market reaction with interest. This may have an impact on the venture capital market and startup valuations so it’s not something to ignore.

Video Of The Week: Dick Costolo at Re/code

I like how Dick answers the question about whether he’s going to be CEO of Twitter by the end of the year. It is about time that Twitter articulates how large their audience really is and why their usage numbers can’t be compared directly to Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram.

Full disclosure, I own a lot of Twitter and am a big fan of the company and of Dick. I do not plan to be more critical of Twitter in the coming months.

The 40% Rule

I was catching up on Brad Feld’s blog this morning and saw that he had posted about the “40% rule” for SAAS companies.

I was at the same board meeting as Brad and came away similarly impressed by the simplicity of the rule and the logic behind it.

Here’s the 40% rule and it is aimed at SAAS companies:

Your annual revenue growth rate + your operating margin should equal 40%

So, if you are growing 100% year over year, you can lose money at a rate of 60% of your revenues

If you are growing 40% year over year, you should be breaking even

If you are growing 20% year over year, you should have 20% operating margins

If you are not growing, you should have 40% operating margins

If your business is declining 10% year over year, you should have 50% operating margins

I have never seen growth and profitability so nicely tied together in a simple rule like this. I’ve always felt intuitively that it’s OK to lose money if you are growing fast, and you must make money and increasing amounts of it as your growth slows. Now there’s a formula for that instinct. And I like that very much.

Thanks Brad for posting it.

Broken Cap Tables

A “cap table” is a schedule of all the shares outstanding for a specific company. Here’s an MBA Mondays post I wrote back in 2011 on the subject of cap tables. If you want to know how much of a company you own, a cap table is the best way to figure that out.

Cap tables are almost always prepared and kept in spreadsheets, usually excel, but also increasingly google sheets. And, it turns out, they are often wrong.

Henry Ward is the founder and CEO of a company that is aiming to fix that called eShares. Last month USV led a Series A round in eShares and my partner John Buttrick wrote a bit about that investment today on the USV blog.

The reason I tell you this is that yesterday Henry wrote a great post about broken cap tables that everyone in the startup world should read. Here are the four big takeaway’s from Henry’s post:

  1. Most cap tables are wrong
  2. Most investors don’t track their shares
  3. Note holders are often forgotten
  4. Employees suffer most

How does Henry know this? Well part of eShares’ business is converting cap tables from spreadsheets into their cloud based application and reconciling everything to make sure it is correct. They onboard about 100 companies a month right now and they see a ton of cap tables.

Tracking everyone’s ownership in companies is a perfect application for a cloud-based network of owners and issuers. If every company used a platform like eShares, and if all these platforms talked to each other, if there was a common identity standard, then as you move from one company to another over your career, collecting equity along the way, you could access and manage all of your ownership interests in a single dashboard.

This is a service that is incredibly useful to startups and angel investors and VCs. But as Henry outlines at the end of his post, it will ultimately help employees the most. And, as we have discussed here before, employee equity is certainly more broken than cap tables are. Fixing that is a worthy mission for a startup and that is what Henry and his team intend to do.