Posts from VC & Technology

The Early Stage Slump

I tweeted out this article from Techcrunch in the middle of last week:

And the response from the Twittersphere was a desire to hear my views on it.

The data is pretty clear. The seed and early stage investing market has cooled substantially in the past few years.

On a dollar basis, the cooling off has been mild.

On a deals basis, the cooling off has been dramatic and looks to be getting worse.

So what is going on?

When I talk to my friends who do a lot of angel investing, I hear that they are being more selective, licking some wounds, and waiting for liquidity on their better investments.

When I talk to my friends who started seed funds in the past decade, I hear them thinking about moving up market into larger funds and Series A rounds.

You can see that in the data. Less deals and bigger deals.

Here is the thing. Seed is really hard. You lose way more than you win. You wait the longest for liquidity. You lose influence as larger investors come into the cap table and start throwing their weight around.

It is where most people start out. Making angel investments, raising small seed funds. They learn the business and many see better economics higher up in the food chain and head there as soon as they can.

If you hit one or two right, you can make a fortune in seed. But those bets take a long time to get liquid. And if you don’t hit one or two right, you end up with a mediocre portfolio.

The Facebook IPO in May 2012 was a real boon to the angel and seed markets. A lot of instant millionaires re-invested their gains back into startups (just as BTC and ETH instant millionaires are re-investing their gains into ICOs right now). Many startup people reinvented themselves as angel investors, AngelListers, seed VCs, and early stage VCs. As I quoted Techcrunch in my tweet “2012-2016 was a bubble in early-stage funding.” I think the bubble actually started letting out air in mid 2015.

You could see all of this in the pricing of seed rounds. For most of my career, seed rounds were sub $1mm and they bought 15-25% of the company ($4-6mm post money). At the peak of the seed bubble, uncapped notes of $3-5mm were the norm for seed rounds. That wasn’t going to work. It was unsustainable.

So where does that leave us now?

For entrepreneurs just starting out, it will be tougher to raise your first rounds. That is how it always has been so it is a return to normal. It is not great news, but it is the reality. If you price your seed round appropriately and have a good team and plan, you can raise money. But it will be harder.

For investors, it means seed rounds are going to be the place to be. When others leave the market, it is time to get in. The uncapped note will turn into a priced $1mm round at $4mm pre/$5mm post. This is as it should be. The risks of seed investing are so significant that the valuations need to be reasonable. When you lose on 60-80% of your investments, you really need the ability to make 10-20x on your winners. And getting the entry pricing right is part of how that happens.

You can tell where there is too much money and too little money by looking at valuations. When valuations are extended, that means there is too much money. That was seed in 2014, growth in 2015/2016, and ICOs in 2017. The trick is to get into these sectors before the money shows up and get out when it does. And then get back in after it leaves. And not get burned along the way.

Meetup

I remember at our first USV Sessions event in the summer of 2006 Scott Heiferman stated that he wanted to spend 20 years building a company that would “last.” This was in an era of quick flips where many entrepreneurs wanted to build and sell as quickly as possible. I was impressed by that long term perspective and told my partner Brad that we should see if we could invest in Scott’s company Meetup.

We did invest in Meetup shortly after that, Brad joined the board, and we have been investors in Meetup for the past ten years.

Today, Meetup announced that it is becoming a part of the WeWork network.

Meetup launched in June 2002, fifteen years ago. Over those 15 years Meetup has become synonymous with the idea of community being an in person thing.

Community on the Internet is easy but prone to a lot of bad behavior. Community in person is harder but works better. Humans tend to be more interesting and more decent in person.

And with the ever increasing encroachment of digital devices into our daily/hourly/constant existence, taking the time to sit down face to face with other people is more important than ever.

Meetup, like its NYC community peers Etsy and Kickstarter, has been profitable since its earliest days. As Scott said in the Wired piece “Our number one priority was independence and to live within our means.” That has meant always balancing growth and profitability, like most businesses do.

But on the Internet, particularly now in the age of winner take most, it is hard to balance profitability and growth and very few companies do.

So Meetup decided to do something this year that it had not done in a decade, since USV invested in 2007. Scott went out and talked to investors about investing in more growth. That led to “offers from what Heiferman calls the usual suspects.”

The most interesting of the offers came from WeWork which is building another in-person network, maybe the largest in-person network of scale on the Internet. It seems like such a perfect match. And so Meetup is joining forces with WeWork who will aggressively invest in Meetup to help it scale to reach even more people who want to engage in live in person conversations.

And Scott is going to continue to lead Meetup inside of WeWork meaning he will likely achieve his goal of working on Meetup for 20 years or more.

It is always bittersweet to see a company as important as Meetup leave the USV network. But we agree with Scott that this is the right thing for Meetup and WeWork and we are enthusiastic about the potential of this combination.

200x Growth

Back in 2011, my partner Brad suggested that USV invest in a search engine called DuckDuckGo.

I laughed at the idea, “why would we ever want to compete with Google?”

“Because they do something Google will never do”, Brad explained.

That thing was private search, no storage of search history, no storing of personal information.

DuckDuckGo was doing about 100,000 searches a day when we had that conversation.

Last week, they had a day in which over 20mm direct searches were done.

That’s 200x growth over the six plus years we have been invested in DuckDuckGo.

Brad was right, of course, and I saw that pretty quickly as did everyone else at USV and we made that investment.

And I’m very glad we did.

I suspect I’ve told this story a few times now at AVC.

I love it so much.

FemaleFounder.Org

My partner Rebecca posted this to her Twitter yesterday:

FemaleFounder.org is a group of women VC investors who are doing regular “office hours” to advise and mentor female founders.

As they say “A community of women helping women”

I know most of the women who are doing this and they are all great people, investors, and advisors.

If you are a woman getting started on your startup journey, check out FemaleFounder.org.

It’s a great initiative.

Location, Location, Location

Here are some “truisms” about startup investors and location that I’ve experienced and passed on over the years:

  • Startup investors prefer to invest locally
  • The younger the startup business, the more that is true
  • Your lead investor/board member is more likely to be a local investor than your passive/follower investors
  • The location preference is more pronounced with investors who are located in vibrant startup markets
  • The location preference fades as companies mature

Last week Techcrunch published some numbers on the issue of location and startup investing using Crunchbase data on 36,700 startup investment rounds they have tracked from Q1 2012 through October 2017.

So let’s see what the numbers say about these truisms.

Startup Investors Prefer To Invest Locally

This is true, over half of all investors in startups are in the same state. But it appears that the location preference is declining over time, maybe brought on by the significant improvements in videoconferencing and other communications technologies.

The Younger The Startup, The More There Is A Location Preference

This is true. 66% of angel investments come from in state investors whereas only 58% of VC investments come from in state investors.

Lead Investors Tend To Have A Stronger Location Preference Than Passive Investors

This does not appear to be true.

Location Preference Is More Pronounced In Vibrant Startup Markets

This is very true.

The Location Preference Fades As Companies Mature

This is very true.

At USV, about 25% of our investment activity is in NYC, 50% is rest of US, and 25% is outside of US. We are not completely location agnostic as we don’t invest very far away (South Asia, Asia, Middle East, Africa, etc) and we likely over-index on NYC vs the rest of the VC industry.

But the truth about being a startup investor, unless you are located in the bay area, is you have to go where the best opportunities are. That is particularly true if you are a thesis driven investor, as we are at USV.

So as much as I’d like to walk to my board meetings, that just isn’t reality. That said, I plan to walk to a board meeting on Tuesday.

Carta

Our portfolio company eShares changed their name to Carta this week.

Why?

For a bunch of reasons, but mainly because the opportunity has gotten a lot bigger than “shares”.

As founder/CEO Henry Ward points out in this post, the opportunity is to build the ownership graph:

If you drill far enough into the ownership graph, through the pensions and real-estate trusts and all the shared ownership vehicles, you eventually get to a person. You reach their retirement plan or savings account or option grant or even a simple title representing their ownership interest. That is how our society works. The leaf nodes of the ownership graph must be individual people.

This ownership graph is large and hard to quantify. We don’t know how many corporations, properties, investment vehicles, and partnerships exist in the world. But we do know if you mapped the entire graph your leaf nodes would eventually represent every person in the world. There are 7 billion people in the world. That is a lot of leaf nodes. Who knew the cap table market could be so big?

If you and/or your company uses eShares (now Carta) to track your ownership table, you likely understand this. Using Carta is transformative for all parties. And that is why it is growing as fast right now as any software company I have ever been involved with. And the TAM, it turns out, is massive.

A lot of our best investments at USV have gone this way. We invest early, when we like the product and the founder, and then over time the opportunity reveals itself to everyone (including the founder) to be a lot bigger than anyone thought. “Sharing what you had for lunch?”, “an API for text messages?”, “a search engine for jobs?”, “a Bitcoin wallet in the cloud?” and now we can add “cap table software?” to that list.

Quantitative Investing in Shampoo

My partner Andy wrote a blog post on USV.com with this title today. I like the title so much that I want to feature the post on AVC today too.

I have been a skeptic about data-driven venture capital investing for a long time. However, I do think CPG is a sector where this could work very well.


Can a machine help you invest in shampoo? Coffee? Another consumer product?

Last week, the USV portfolio company CircleUp announced the closing and launch of CircleUp Growth Partners  – a $125 million fund that will use a quantitative machine learning approach to invest in early-stage consumer and retail brands.

We believe this is an important evolution towards using data technology to make investment decisions – a theme we at USV have invested in many times ranging from Lending Club to Funding Circle to Numerai. CircleUp Growth Partners is slightly different. The Fund’s thesis is that one can use machine learning to determine early-stage equity decisions in consumer companies. This machine learning platform, Helio, identifies and evaluates companies across billions of data points. The Fund is live right now – Helio recently analyzed 3,400 vitamin and supplement companies and flagged HUM Nutrition as being in the top 3% for brand score. This ultimately led the Fund to make one of its first investments in that company.

The provocative proposition is that a system like this can run these types of analyses at scale and pinpoint brands earlier and with more efficiency than traditional investors. Consumer investors historically have had to spend around 75% of their time sourcing deals manually. Helio is able to automate this entire sourcing process and provide data-driven insights to help companies grow.

Helio has also been applied to two other business lines – credit and marketplace.  CircleUp originally operated solely on a marketplace model but has recently launched a credit arm that provides working capital to consumer companies. These three business units all provide data back to the model, which in turn makes each better in its own domain. This is a data network effect – Helio is continually improving.

The focused industry of consumer goods should lend itself well to this approach; consumer packaged goods all share the same business model, and data proliferates across the industry.

Could data-driven investment models like that of Circle Up be extensible to sectors beyond consumer goods? It will be interesting to see how these approaches might affect capital formation more broadly, as data applications move to designing new financial products and services we have not yet even considered.

Reset

I read Ellen Pao’s book Reset on my trip.

I know a lot of the people in the book and I am not into taking sides or making judgments about what happened in the case.

But I would recommend that every male VC read this book.

A lot of what we do, how we do it, and why we do it is unconscious.

Reading this book and others like it will help us to avoid doing those things.

And that will be a very good thing for the VC world, for entrepreneurs, and for the tech sector more broadly.

Our Model

This past week our portfolio company MongoDB went public. I think that occasion presents an opportunity to talk about USV’s model.

We are a small firm. We raise modest sized funds (by modern VC standards). Our first fund was $125mm, our second fund was $150mm, and we have now settled on $175mm as a good number and our past three funds have been that size.

Our typical entry point is Seed or Series A although we have an Opportunity Fund that allows us to enter later when that is appropriate. We do that once or twice a year on average.

We make between twenty and twenty five investments per fund and we expect, hope, and work hard to make sure that two or three of those investments turn into high impact companies that can each return the fund.

Although our entry point is typically Seed or Series A, we continue to invest round after round to both protect and add to our ownership. We have no requirements on ownership, but we typically end up owning between 15% and 20% of our high impact portfolio companies.

If you do the math around our goal of returning the fund with our high impact companies, you will notice that we need these companies to exit at a billion dollars or more. Exit is the important word. Getting valued at a billion or more does nothing for our model. We need these high impact companies to exit at a billion dollars or more.

Because we invest early, it generally takes seven or eight years for an investment to exit. We closed our first fund, USV 2004, in November 2004, and our first high impact exit came almost exactly seven years later when Zynga went public in late 2011.

Mongo DB represents the eighth high impact exit that USV has had. They are:

Zynga – IPO – 2011

Indeed – Sale to Recruit – 2012

Twitter – IPO – 2013

Tumblr – Sale to Yahoo -2013

Lending Club – IPO – 2014

Etsy – IPO – 2015

Twilio – IPO – 2016

MongoDB – IPO – 2017

Although MongoDB won’t be an exit until the lockup comes off and we are truly liquid, every other one of these impact investments has returned the fund it was in (or much more in the case of Twitter, Lending Club, and Twilio).

We were the lead investor in the Seed or Series A round in seven of these eight high impact companies and three of them came from seed investments. It’s easier to identify high impact companies in the late rounds, but not so easy to do that in the early rounds. That’s where our thesis based investing comes into play.

It is also important that all of our partners participate in this model. It takes seven or eight years before we can expect a new partner to contribute and Albert, who joined us in 2008, has produced the last two high impact exits with Twilio and MongoDB. John, who joined us in 2010, has already contributed one in Lending Club. I have no doubt that Andy, who joined us in 2012, and Rebecca, who joined us this week, will produce their share of high impact exits. Andy already has several in the pipeline.

So this is our model. Keep the fund sizes small. Make investments early so we can buy meaningful ownership for not a lot of money. Keep investing round after round to maintain and/or grow our ownership. And have enough high impact portfolio companies that we can get two or three of them per fund.

We have a good pipeline of high impact companies in our various portfolios so that we expect this model will keep working for the foreseeable future.

This model has more or less been the model of all three venture funds I have worked in over my thirty year period. It is time tested and it works when applied with focus and discipline and a strong investment thesis.

But with a new model, tokens, in its infancy, it begs the question of how it will impact our approach. We already have four portfolio companies that either have done or have announced intentions to do token offerings; Protocol Labs/Filecoin, Kik/Kin, Blockstack/Stack, and YouNow/Props. So we are going to figure this out in a few years. I expect the hold periods will come down as token offerings come early in a company’s life, not later. So we should know more about how this new model works in three to five years.

There are a bunch of questions that come to mind. Here are a few of them:

  1. Can a token based investment return a fund with more or less frequency than an equity based model?
  2. How long are the hold periods going to be in a token based model?
  3. Will the 10-15% high impact percentage that we see in our equity based portfolios be similar in a token based model?
  4. What are the appropriate ownership levels for a token based investment vs an equity investment?

We are going to continue to execute our equity based model in parallel with our token investments, at least for as long as that seems like the right approach. We have a good thing going with the equity based model but we understand that we have to adapt and react to changes in the market and we are doing that, fairly aggressively, with tokens.

It is an interesting time to be in the venture capital business. The decade that came after the internet bubble burst turned out to be a fantastic time to make early stage venture capital investments and we have been fortunate to participate in those good times. But the market has changed a lot with large incumbents taking up more and more white space in the internet sector as we have known it. At the same time, an exciting new sector and model, crypto/tokens, has emerged which gives us a lot of optimism about the opportunities ahead of us.

We will see how our model needs to evolve over time to make sure we can continue to deliver the results we want to deliver to the entrepreneurs and companies we back and the to the investors whose capital we manage.

Rebecca Kaden

USV added a new partner today. Her name is Rebecca Kaden and she introduced herself to our world on the USV blog just now. Rebecca joins a team of fifteen people; our network team, our analysts, and our fantastic administrative team. We are all excited to have her join us.

It took us a year to find the right person to add to our partnership. We have only added three people to our partnership in the fourteen-year history of USV. Albert joined USV in 2008, after doing a two-year stint as a Venture Partner at USV, and after spending almost a decade doing early-stage investing in a number of firms. John joined USV in 2010 to help us with the newly formed Opportunity Fund after spending about a decade in private equity and public market and angel investing. And Andy joined USV in 2012 with thirteen years of VC experience at Dawntreader and as a founding partner of Betaworks.

Albert and Andy took over running USV a year and a half ago and led this search. They did a great job. With Rebecca, we now have the start of the next generation after Andy and Albert.

A venture capital firm, at least our venture capital firm, is at its core, a group of like-minded investors who come together around a shared investment thesis to work collaboratively to help entrepreneurs build companies. When you get the people right, as we have over the last fourteen years, it is magic. When you get the people wrong. it sucks for everyone, including the entrepreneurs. So we took this search very seriously and I am confident that we found the right person in Rebecca. She is experienced, loved by the entrepreneurs she works with, curious, funny, and has the personality and temperament to fit into our partnership. I am excited to work with her every day.

Rebecca grew up in a venture capital firm as did I. She spent almost six years at Maveron, a firm we deeply respect. Maveron, like USV, has stayed small, continued to focus on seed and Series A investments, and has stuck to its thesis around consumer investing. Everyone knows what a Maveron deal is and what it isn’t. That is my favorite kind of venture capital firm. Venture capital is an apprenticeship business and Rebecca is very fortunate to have learned the business from her partners at Maveron.

I would be remiss if I did not address the diversity issue. A number of us have been public about the fact that we wanted to add some diversity into our partnership and that is what we have done. And we are not done. We will continue to look for diversity across our organization and that means diversity of all kinds. We are not doing this for optics or public pressure. We believe that different perspectives, life experiences, and orientations in a partnership will lead to better decisions. But that said, this will take time. We don’t add partners very often and when we do, we are very careful about who we add. We probably won’t look very different a year from now but we will probably look very different a decade from now.

Each partner who has joined USV has done two things very well. First they have figured how to operate inside of our shared investment thesis. And second they have figured out how to stretch it. Albert taught us that developer platforms like MongoDB, Twilio, and Stripe could be networks and that stretching of our thesis has worked out exceptionally well. John taught us that financial services like Lending Club and C2FO and eShares were networks and that stretching of our thesis has worked out equally well. Andy has helped us understand how networks like Figure1, Nurx, and Science Exchange are impacting health care and that is turning out to be extremely promising. Rebecca will stretch our thesis some more and we are excited to work with her and support her as she does that.

If you didn’t click over to the USV blog and read Rebecca’s introduction of herself already, I would encourage to you do that now. She ends it with her email address and a call out to entrepreneurs to come work with her at USV. As it should be.