Posts from VC & Technology

Startup Porn

I like Bryce‘s post so much I am cross posting here in its entirety.

The Problem With Startup Porn

I found a box of old Playboy magazines buried in the woods behind my house. I couldn’t have been older than 10 or 11 years old at the time. I spent that afternoon flipping through the pages, discovering a whole new world of excitement, curiosity and wonder.

Hours later, as I warmed my hands by the fire of these same magazines my mom set ablaze, I was left only with the images of naked ladies dancing in my heads.

In my haste, I did not read the articles.

At the end of last year, Playboy announced that they would no longer be printing photos of the naked ladies they’d built so much of their brand around.

Their rationale for such a radical shift- images of naked women, no matter how tastefully done, had simply become too passé.

“You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”

Now every teenage boy has an Internet-connected phone instead. Pornographic magazines, even those as storied as Playboy, have lost their shock value, their commercial value and their cultural relevance.

What began as simple, racy images of women spiraled into a web of extreme images and acts mere clicks away. At each step the visuals required to elicit a reaction, or even register a response, became so much more graphic than the last that the originals hardly elicit a speeding of the pulse.

As porn goes, so goes Startupland.

It begins with entrepreneurs in the press as heros of creation and innovation. Then comes the stories around how much money these heros are raising. Feel

Feel your blood racing yet?

Then on to quantifying the net worth of these founders and the valuations of their companies. Finally, they’re christened as Unicorns even Decacorns!

Wait for it.

Then Unicorpses.

At each stage the reader becomes more desensitized to the imagery and storyline. They need more. A billion isn’t cool. A unicorn is passé.

So the tables turn and they turn quickly.

5 months ago we saw the advent of the Unicorn Leaderboard.

Yesterday we welcomed the Downround Tracker.

As exciting and evocative as the headlines are while the market heats up, they’re going to need to be even more salacious going down.

That’s the nature of porn, startup or otherwise.

What’s Next In Computing

Chris Dixon posted an excellent roadmap for thinking about what is next in computing.

I particularly like this visual from Chris’ post:

steadily smaller

My big takeaway from Chris’ post is that these cheap embedded processors are going to be built into everything in the coming years (cars, watches, earpieces, thermostats, etc) and advances in AI will make all the data they produce increasingly useful and disruptive. Chris goes on to tie this megatrend to things like self driving cars, drones, wearables, and VR.

While I think all of those things are coming and investable, I wonder if there is something more fundamental in the combination of ubiquitous computing and artificial intelligence that would be the next big computing platform. We are due for one soon. This visual is also from Chris’ post.

every 10-15 years

What is the dos/windows, netscape, and iOS of this coming era? If we can figure that out, then we are onto something.

Maybe it looks like this, or this, or this?

Orphaned Investments

There are two intertwined things that entrepreneurs and their companies get from VCs – money and attention. You need both. And they feed on each other. Attention begets more money if necessary. And more money is usually necessary. Everyone always underestimates how much money a startup will require to get to breakeven and how long it will take. That includes the VCs. And we should know better. But entrepreneurs are even more guilty of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel when it is actually a train coming.

Which brings me to the subject of orphaned investments. Of all the bad things that VCs do on a regular basis, and that list is long, orphaning their investments is at the top of my list of bad behavior. I have never done it. I’ve wanted to. Trust me. I dream of doing it. But I won’t.

And the reason I won’t do it is that I have lived with the costs. I have sat on boards where two or three of the seats are vacant at every meeting. I have put together rounds where two or three of the syndicate members won’t participate. I have sat with an entrepreneur and explained that life is not fair and it is what you do after you realize it that really matters.

Orphaning an investment is when a VC firm decides that it doesn’t really care about an investment any more and stops paying attention. The primary cause is when a partner leaves a firm and nobody picks up coverage of his or her investments. The VC firm says that “so and so” is covering the investment now. Yeah, if you call reading an occasional email “covering.” But it can also happen when a VC loses interest in an investment they made and causes their firm to lose interest as well. It’s easy to not care about an investment if your partner who made it doesn’t care anymore.

And this brings me back to the link between attention and money. If you aren’t getting attention from a VC, you aren’t going to get money from that VC either. When a VC writes off an investment, either emotionally or literally on their schedule of investments, they are closing their wallet to it too. This rule works in bull markets and bear markets. But it is more painful for entrepreneurs in bear markets.

So how do you avoid being orphaned? Like most things, it comes down to picking your partners carefully. Ask around. Find out how they have acted in tough situations. Find out how solid the VC’s position is in their firm. You need to reference both the partner and the firm. The person is important but if they leave you will find out a lot about the firm.

This is the kind of post that after I write it, I get a ton of inbound email saying “you are talking about this company”, “you are talking about this VC”, “you are talking about this VC firm.” So I will say right now that this post is not about anybody, any firm, or any investment. I have been thinking about writing this post for months. I have nobody in mind right now. Other than entrepreneurs and their companies out there that are orphaned, or are going to be orphaned.

You can survive being orphaned. But it will require rebuilding your investor syndicate, it will require the other VCs involved to increase their support and attention, and it will require you to forget about life being fair and get on with it. Getting orphaned is not a time for feeling sorry for yourself. It is a time for doing something about it.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going

It sure feels like the long awaited headwinds have arrived and the tailwinds are behind us for now. A friend sent me this chart today.

You could create a similar chart out of many tech sectors right now but SaaS is as good of an indicator of what’s happening out there as any.

I welcome this new environment. You might think “of course you do, you can buy things less expensively” but I would remind you that USV has a portfolio of investments that are unrealized at this point and subject to a chart like that.

I think any benefits we might get from a better buying environment are negated by the impact on our current positions.

The real reason I welcome the tougher environment is that it will make all of us better. We will have to make better decisions.  The market won’t bail us out. We will have to earn our returns instead of being handed them.

And I’m not just talking about investors. I’m talking about everyone working in tech startups. The going is getting tougher. Time for the tough to get going.

The Crunchies

I went to the Crunchies last night for the first time. The Gotham Gal was nominated for “Angel Investor Of The Year” and she said, “If by some chance I win and I’m not there to accept, then I would be a jerk.” I agreed with that logic and so we went.

Chelsea Peretti, who hosted, is great. She is very funny. She made fun of tech, SF, and a bunch of other things, but in a good way. I think she is a great choice for host.

Diversity was the theme of the night. The best move was when Slack sent out a number of their female (and african american) engineers to accept one of several awards they won last night. That sent a message to everyone else. If they can do it, so can you. Well played Slack.

But the honest to god truth is most of the winners don’t care about the Crunchies. Not one winner of the big categories showed up to accept their award. So the Gotham Gal would have been in very good company had she not showed up.

And the other honest to god truth is award shows suck. Because there is no single best of anything. No best movie. No best TV show. No best musician. No best comedian. No best VC. No best startup. No best CEO.

And the idea that there is an anathema to me. Which is why I’ve never been to a Crunchies even when I was nominated.

I know I sound like a grump. Award shows are entertainment. People like them. And last night was entertaining thanks to Chelsea and Jordan Crook, who is also quite funny and talented.

But the final thing I will say on this is the reason why award shows exist is because all of the work that everyone does who aren’t nominated and don’t win. So entrepreneurs all over the world are the reason Techcrunch even gets to put on this show. Bill Gurley said as much last night in his gracious and wonderful acceptance speech. And he is right.

The Dan Primack Interview

Dan Primack and I did a fireside chat at the Upfront Summit this past week. It generated a few news stories that went a bit viral. It is easy to take a few comments out of the context of an overall discussion and turn them into more than they were. I think that is what happened with this interview. But it’s online now and so people can come to their own conclusions about that. Here it is in its entirety. It is about 25mins.

Biggest Technology Change In The Next Five Years

The Upfront Summit is happening here in LA over the next two days. The folks at Upfront asked a number of well known VCs (me included) a bunch of questions. One of them was “What will be the biggest technology change over the next five years?”. Here are the answers in a short two minute video.

Fund Level Vs Deal By Deal Carry

In a venture fund, the general partners will make something like twenty or twenty five investments. There are outliers for sure. A few venture funds will make less investments than that. And there are seed funds that will make significantly more investments than that. But that’s not the point of this post.

The thing I want to talk about is how losses (and gains) are treated in a venture fund. A traditional venture fund will take its losses on a given portfolio of twenty to twenty five investments and earn them back with their gains before calculating their carried interest. The carried interest is the primary way a venture capital firm makes money. At USV we take a 20% carry. There are firms in the VC business that take a larger carry (25% and 30% being the other common numbers). But we are happy with 20% and do not feel the need to charge more.

Let’s do some math to make this clear. Let’s say a VC firm makes twenty investments of $2.5mm each. That’s $50mm of invested capital. We will ignore management fees for this exercise to make it simple. Let’s say seven are complete losers and seven get their money back and six are winners returning 5x on each. So the seven losers produce $17.5mm of losses. And the six winners produce $60mm of gains ($75mm in proceeds less $15mm of cost). So the fund’s total gains are $42.5mm ($60mm of gains minus $17.5mm of losses) and a 20% carry on that will produce $8.5mm of profits for the VCs on that fund. The limited partners will get back $84mm on their $50mm investment, a gain of $34mm which produces a 1.68x multiple on their investment. This is not a great venture fund. But it is way more typical than people think.

Here is the spreadsheet I used to do all of this math.

There are investors who get what is called a “deal by deal carry.” In that model they do not have to account for their losses in the calculation of carry. So they take 20% on their successful deals and don’t have to net out their losses. In the example above, those investors would make $12mm in carry on the same portfolio and the limited partners would get back ~$80mm or 1.6x.

But leaving aside the math between the limited and general partners, the other thing about deal by deal carry is how it changes the incentives. If investors don’t have to worry about the 2/3 of the portfolio that produces disappointing outcomes, they will pay all of their attention on the winners and work to make those investments as successful as possible. That might be good. The VC economics already trend toward incenting that behavior because all of the gains come from a small portion of the portfolio. Deal by deal carry just amplifies that.

Deal by deal carry has not been common in the VC business. It is more common in private equity where the distribution of outcomes looks very differently. But with the rise of syndicates being raised on venture capital marketplaces, we are seeing an increasing number of angel and early stage investors who have deal by deal carry.

As I said, there are pros and cons to both compensation models. I don’t want to say that one is better than the other. But they do produce different kinds of behavior and entrepreneurs should understand how their investors are being compensated. It will explain their approach and behavior.

Global Venture Capital Distribution

Richard Florida published some stats on the distribution of global venture capital investment last week. His work focused on 2012 numbers so the data is a bit dated, but I am sure it is still directionally correct.

This map summarizes his findings:

global VC investment

The bay area numbers are stunning. SF proper and the broader bay area make up 25% of the global venture capital investment activity (~$10bn out of $42bn).

SF, Boston, NYC, and LA are the top four (or five if you count SF and the bay area as two different locations).

London and Beijing crack the top ten. Ten of the top twenty cities are outside of the US. Berlin, a city that USV invests a lot in, was not in the top twenty in 2012 but I bet it is now.

The most interesting thing about Richard’s data are his conclusions about “dense urban cities.” He writes:

The upshot is this: While some smaller places, mainly in the U.S., do well on a per capita basis, venture capital increasingly flows to large global cities, with all their density and dynamism. The leading centers remain the Bay Area and the Boston-New York-Washington Corridor, while a number of global cities outside of the U.S. have become significant centers for venture capital-backed high-tech startups: London, Paris, and Moscow in Europe; Toronto in Canada; Beijing and Shanghai in China; and Mumbai and Bangalore in India. Across the world, the top 10 metros account for more than half of global venture investment, the top 20 metros account for almost two-thirds, and the top 50 account for more than 90 percent. Ultimately, global venture investment ishighly uneven and spiky, concentrated in a small number of leading cities and metros around the world.

Although venture capital investment has certainly “gone global” by spreading to places like China and India, the dominant centers remain large U.S. cities that combine density, great universities, and the open-mindedness and tolerance required to attract talent from across the world. While cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Beijing, and Shanghai have certainly shown their ability to attract venture investment and create start-up ecosystems, their levels of venture capital remain well below that of the Bay Area, New York, and Boston. As of yet, these former cities are hamstrung by their inability to attract the world’s top talent. Outside of the U.S., the places that seem to have the brightest future as start-up hubs are dense, diverse, global cities like London, Toronto, and Paris, which can effectively compete for talent on an international scale.

This uneven or spiky nature of investment and its flow to great cities marks a broader transition away from sprawling suburban campuses, or “nerdistans.” In recent years, innovation and entrepreneurship have returned to the great global cities and dense, diverse urban areas that have long served as fonts of creativity and invention. What once seemed like a shift toward suburban innovation and startup clusters in the late 20th century has proven to be a brief aberration from the long-held connection between density and innovation.

I would add one more thing to Richard’s analysis. Transportation convenience matters a lot. You can fly direct multiple times a day to and from all of the cities on Richard’s top ten list. Investors value their time and focus it on markets that they can get in and out of easily. I think that has a big impact on where money flows.

But regardless of the reason, I agree with Richard’s conclusion. VC has gone urban. And I think that trend will continue as far as I can see.