Posts from VC & Technology

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!

Venture Deals 3.0

Like a great software product that keeps getting better and better as it ages, the classic book by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson, Venture Deals, is now on its third version.

Here is the forward I wrote for the first version of the book and that continues to provide the opening context for it:

I remember the first week of my career as a VC. I was 25 years old, it was 1986, and I had just landed a summer job in a venture capital  firm. I was working for three experienced venture capitalists in a small  firm called Euclid Partners, where I ended up spending the first 10 years of my VC career. One of those three partners, Bliss McCrum, peeked his head into my office (I had an office in Rockefeller Center at age 25) and said to me, “Can you model out a financing for XYZ Company at a $9 million pre-money, raising $3 million, with an unissued option pool of 10%?” and then went back to the big office in the rear he shared with the other founding partner, Milton Pappas.
 
I sat at my desk and started thinking about the request. I understood the “raising $3 million” bit. I thought I could figure out the “unissued option pool of 10%” bit. But what the hell was “pre-money”? I had never heard that term. This was almost a decade before Netscape and Internet search so searching online for it wasn’t an option. After spending ten minutes getting up the courage, I walked back to that big office, peeked my head in, and said to Bliss, “Can you explain pre-money to me?”
 
Thus began my 31-year education in venture capital that is still going on as I write this.
 
The venture capital business was a cottage industry back in 1985, with club deals and a language all of its own. A cynic would say it was designed that way to be opaque to everyone other than the VCs so that they would have all the leverage in negotiations with entrepreneurs. I don’t entirely buy that narrative. I think the VC business grew up in a few small of offices in Boston, New York, and San Francisco, and the dozens—maybe as many as a hundred—of main participants, along with their lawyers, came up with structures that made sense to them. They then developed a shorthand so that they could communicate among themselves.
 
But whatever the origin story was, the language of venture deals is foreign to many and remains opaque and confusing to this day. This works to the advantage of industry insiders and to the disadvantage of those who are new to startups and venture capital.
 
In the early 2000s, after I wound down my first venture capital  firm, Flatiron Partners, and before we started USV, I started blogging. One of my goals with my AVC blog (at www.avc.com) was to bring transparency to this opaque world that I had been inhabiting for almost 20 years. I was joined in this blogging thing by Brad Feld, a friend and frequent coinvestor. Club investing has not gone away and that’s a good thing. By reading AVC and Feld Thoughts regularly, an entrepreneur could get up to speed on startups and venture capital. Brad and I received a tremendous amount of positive feed- back on our efforts to bring transparency to the venture capital business so we kept doing it, and now if you search for something like “participating preferred” you will find posts written by both me and Brad on that first search results page.
 
Brad and his partner Jason Mendelson (a recovering startup lawyer turned VC) took things a step further and wrote a book called Venture Deals back in 2011. It has turned into a classic and is now on its Third Edition. If Venture Deals had been around in 1985, I would not have had to admit to Bliss that I had no idea what pre-money meant.
 
If there is a guidebook to navigating the mysterious and confusing language of venture capital and venture capital financing structures, it is Venture Deals. Anyone interested in startups, entrepreneurship, and angel and venture capital financings should do themselves a favor and read it.
 
Fred Wilson
USV Partner
July 2016

The Dangers Of Being Too Early

I have been reading Whiplash, a book I recommended here last week. It starts with the story of the Lumiere brothers, who are credited with the invention of “the moving picture.”

As told in Whiplash, the Lumiere brothers started showing films to audiences in 1895 using their patented cinematograph. But by 1900, they were out of the film business and had moved on to color photography. The industry they helped to start went on to be one of the biggest new industries of the 20th century.

I often think of the formative years of the Internet, in the early/mid 90s. There are a lot of people from that era that remind me of the Lumiere brothers.

I was in a Board meeting on Friday in my office and one of the executives of the company that was having the Board meeting left to get coffee or use the rest room. When he came back, he said “why do you have one of the Josh Harris Gilligan paintings in your office? I explained that the reason Gilligan hangs in my USV office is to remind me that being first to something doesn’t mean you will profit from it. Josh Harris was the first person to show me audio streaming over the Internet. Josh was the first person to show me video streaming over the Internet. He did both of those things at his Pseudo Programs company that he started in 1993. Around the same time, 1993 ish, Josh predicted to me that auctions would be one of the first big businesses to take shape on the Internet. That was roughly two years before eBay was founded. Josh didn’t profit much from any of his visionary efforts or insights. But there is a Josh Harris painting in my office because I respect being early more than I respect making profits. I think the latter is easier than the former.

Which takes me to some things we have been thinking a lot about at USV recently. Things like Blockchain and Genomics. We think we are very early in these two important technological revolutions. We are investing actively (but not heavily) in one of them (blockchain) and trying to find the right entry point to the other one.

I think that the investing we are doing in these sectors right now is more likely to be like Psuedo Programs than YouTube or SoundCloud.

But I also think that you have to be early to learn the technology and the markets and build the networks and relationships that will allow you to see, understand, and invest in YouTube when it shows up. What you don’t want to do is lose patience or interest and move on, like the Lumiere brothers did.  Early stage VC is a marathon, not a sprint. That is true in everything, from the hold periods, to the work you do with a portfolio company, to the patience you must show towards a sector you think will be important. It is hard to sustain the enthusiasm sometimes, but if you have conviction about something, you have to stay the course.

Fun Friday: What Is Exciting These Days In Tech and Startup Land?

I figured I’d follow up a post taking a shot at the AVC community with one that should engage the AVC community, including me.

And what better to talk about than what excites us these days?

It is no secret to the regular readers that it is hard for me to get excited about the current state of tech and startup land. David said as much in his comment yesterday.

With the exception of blockchain stuff, which seems very early and not yet investable except for fools and the foolhardy (me), I am struggling to find things to get excited about in tech and startup land.

So, let’s all jump into the comments and talk about what excites us about tech and startups right now. Not yesterday, not last year, not five years ago, right now. And if its your startup you are excited about, that’s cool, but please don’t turn the comments into a pitch fest. That’s my life already 🙂

Founder Dilution

I saw a blog post this weekend that looked at the IPO filings of 79 tech companies and calculated the ownerships of the founders and the VCs at IPO.

The result of that analysis is that the average founder ownership at IPO was 17% and the average VC ownership at IPO was 56%.

I’ve written a bunch on this topic and here are two posts that address this exact issue:

Founder Dilution – How Much Is “Normal”?

Employee Equity: Dilution

In both posts, I lay out how the equity gets shared with employees and investors as the company grows and scales.

Here’s the most important quote from those two posts:

In my experience, it will generally take three to four rounds of equity capital to finance the business and 20-25% of the company to recruit and retain a management team. That will typically leave the founder/founder team with 10-20% of the business when it’s all said and done. The equity split at 20% for the founders will typically be; 20-25% for the management team, 20% for the founders, and 55-60% for the investors (angel all the way to late stage VC).

I wrote that seven and half years ago, but on this topic, not much has changed over the thirty years I’ve been doing VC.

Raising round after round of venture capital is expensive. There are some entrepreneurs who figure out how to get profitable and not raise round after round (or avoid VC altogether), there are some entrepreneurs who are able to raise a very high valuations and avoid a lot of dilution, and there are many entrepreneurs who choose to sell the business before they take a lot of dilution. But for the entrepreneurs who raise four to six rounds of VC before going public, the math is the math. If you end up owning more than 20% at IPO, you are beating the averages.

NYC’s FinTech Innovation Lab

Applications are open for New York’s seventh annual FinTech Innovation Lab, a 12-week program that I have blogged about a bunch here on AVC. This proram is for early and growth stage companies that have developed cutting edge technology products targeted at financial services customers. The program has a particular interest in: Augmented/ Virtual Reality; Data Analytics using Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning; Digital Customer Engagement Tools; Enterprise Dev Ops; RegTech; Security, and other Disruptive Financial Services Models.  For a complete list of focus areas, click here.

The FinTech Innovation Lab is run by the Partnership Fund for New York City and Accenture. Accepted companies will get the chance to refine and beta test their financial technology products in New York City in partnership with the world’s leading financial services firms and receive mentorship from the Lab’s Entrepreneurs Network.

Through a competitive process, the chief technology officers of the participating firms will determine which proposals are accepted for further development and deployment. The participating firms are:  AIG, Alliance Bernstein, Ally Financial, Amalgamated Bank, American Express, AQR, Bank of America, Barclays Capital, BBVA, BlackRock,  Capital One, CIT Group, Citi, Credit Suisse, DE Shaw, Deutsche Bank, Fidelity, Goldman Sachs, Guardian Life Insurance, JPMorgan Chase & Co., KeyBank, MasterCard, Morgan Stanley, New York Life Insurance, Pitney Bowes, Rabobank, Scotiabank, Synchrony, UBS and Wells Fargo.  Several venture firms also support the Lab, including Bain Capital Ventures, Canaan Partners, Contour Venture Partners, Nyca Partners, Rho Ventures, RRE Ventures, and Warburg Pincus.

For more information sign up for their information session on Monday, November 7, 2016 from 5:30 – 6:30 PMRegister

Application deadline is December 1, 2016APPLY

What Are App Coins?

Last week Coin Center published a primer on app coins. It is very good.

I particularly like this part:

Open platforms have proved difficult to create because it has been historically difficult to monetize them even if they become successful—by nature they are public goods. Now, however, the developers of a cloud storage service can incorporate a scarce access-token, an appcoin, into the design, distribute that token to users, retain some amount of the token for themselves, and if the platform proves popular, the token (alongside the holdings of the developers) will grow in value and remunerate the developers for providing a public good. This new model challenges the concept of equity as traditionally understood, and carries entirely different risks and rewards.

The idea that we now have a monetization model for creating and maintaining a public good (ie Twitter) is something that makes me incredibly happy and poses all sorts of interesting questions about the future of venture capital.

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.

Care and Feeding

Young companies are a bit like children. They require care and feeding.

The feeding part comes naturally to investors. Because that is what we do. We invest capital into young companies in hope of generating large returns on those investments.

The caring part comes harder to investors. At least it did to this investor.

But as I enter my fourth decade in venture investing, it is the caring that keeps me going.

Caring is exactly what it sounds like. Giving a shit. Actually caring about the company, the team, and the business.

The thing about caring, when done right, is that it means everything to the founders, the managers, and the team.

They feel it, more than you think possible.

And that allows you to encourage them to adjust their thinking, their plans, their team.

I have found that feeding doesn’t change behavior very much. It works well in the short run (do this and we will invest more money). But it doesn’t work very well in the long run.

Caring, on the other hand, has immense power to bring positive change.

I see this every day. And it encourages me to care even more.