Posts from VC & Technology

Feature Friday: Topic Pages

Yesterday we relaunched usv.com. A team inside USV has been working on it on and off over the past few months. Though it’s not perfect yet, I encouraged them to launch it and fix the inevitable bugs in public. And that is exactly what they did yesterday. Nick Grossman, who led the effort, wrote a post outlining some of the goals of the relaunch.

To summarize, we want to make usv.com less “real time” and more thoughtful. We would like less noise and more substance. We want it to be referential as opposed to news driven. And the biggest step we’ve taken in that direction are the topic pages. Here’s the blockchain topic page. Here’s the policy topic page. We’ve started with four topic pages (blockchain, policy, marketplaces, mobile) but we intend to build out a bunch more.

I think this line in Nick’s post sums up our goals for usv.com and I’m pleased to see we are moving it in that direction in the new year:

The goal of [usv.com] is to expose more of our thinking, and to do it together with others

What Is Going To Happen

Yesterday I wrote a post summing up what happened in 2014. In it I promised a post on what is going to happen. What I did not specify was how far forward I am going to look. It’s a lot easier to predict the future without a timeline on it. I think we all know, for example, we are going to have driverless cars. When that is going to be mainstream, however, is a pretty big question that I can’t answer.

But, because yesterday was about 2014, I am going to make this post about 2015. And so here is what is going to happen in 2015 according to me.

1/ The big companies that were started in the second half of the last decade, Uber, Airbnb, Dropbox, etc, will start going public. Investors will be glad to scoop up some of their shares. That will lead, in turn, to a wave of acquisitions by these newly minted goldmines.

2/ Xiaomi will spend some of the $1.1bn they just raised coming to the US. This will bring a strong player in the non-google android sector into the US market and legitimize a “third mobile OS” in the western world. The good news for developers is developing for non-google android is not much different than developing for google android.

3/ More asian penetration into the US market will come from the messenger sector as both Line and WeChat make strong moves to gain a share of the lucrative US messenger market.

4/ After a big year in 2014 with the Facebook acquisition of Oculus Rift, virtual reality will hit some headwinds. Oculus will struggle to ship their consumer version and competitive products will underwhelm. The virtual reality will eventually catch up to the virtual hype, but not in 2015.

5/ Another market where the reality will not live up to the hype is wearables. The Apple Watch will not be the homerun product that iPod, iPhone, and iPad have been. Not everyone will want to wear a computer on their wrist. Eventually, this market will be realized as the personal mesh/personal cloud, but the focus on wearables will be a bit of a headfake and take up a lot of time, energy, and money in 2015 with not a lot of results.

6/ Capital markets will be a mixed bag in 2015. Big tech names will continue to access capital easily (see 1/), but the combination of rising rates and depressed prices for oil will bring great stress to global capital markets and there will be a noticeable flight to safety around the world. Safety used to mean gold, US treasuries, and blue chip stocks. Now it means Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook.

7/ The Republicans and Democrats will start jockeying for position in silicon valley for the next presidential election and tech issues will loom large. Republicans will put forward their own answers on immigration and net neutrality (Title X) and the White House will meet them halfway. Both sides will claim victory, but the real winners will be the people.

8/ The horrible year that bitcoin had in 2014 will be a wakeup call for all stakeholders. Developers will turn their energy from creating the next bitcoin (all the alt stuff) to creating the stack on top of the bitcoin blockchain. Real decentralized applications will start to emerge as the platform matures and entrepreneurial energy is channeled in the right direction.

9/ the enterprise/saas sector will shine in 2015 with dozens of emerging important new companies taking advantage of the cloud and mobile to redefine what work and workflow looks like in the enterprise.

10/ cybersecurity budgets will explode in 2015 as every company, institution, and government attempts to avoid being Sony’d. VCs will pour money into this sector in the same way they poured money into the rental economy. and, yet, the hacks will continue because on the open internet there is no such thing as an impenetrable system.

11/ the health care sector will start to feel the pressure of real patient centered healthcare brought on by the trifecta of the smartphone becoming the EMR, patients treating patients (p2p medicine), and real market economies entering health care (people paying for their own healthcare). this is a megatrend that will take decades to fully play out but we will see the start of it in 2015.

Of course, many other things will happen this year. A lot of them will be things we could never see or predict. And this list is biased by what interests me and what we’ve invested in. It is, as someone said in the comments yesterday, “biased”. But then so is every single word ever written on this blog. As it should be.

Happy New Year everyone. Here’s to a great 2015.

What Just Happened?

I’m not much for the rear view mirror. I like to look forward, not back. I guess that’s why I’m in the line of work I’m in.

But I’m going to force myself to look back at 2014 and explain what just happened. Doing that will help me look forward (tomorrow?) and explain what is going to happen.

This is not an attempt to be comprehensive, or accurate, or anything else. This is what I think happened in 2014:

1/ the social media phase of the Internet ended. this may have happened a few years ago actually but i felt it strongly this year. entrepreneurs and developers still build social applications. we still use them. but there isn’t much innovation here anymore. the big platforms are mature. their place is secure.

2/ messaging is the new social media. this may be part of what is going on in 1/. families use whatsapp groups instead of facebook. kids use snapchat instead of instagram. facebook’s acquisition of whatsapp in february of this year was the transaction that defined this trend.

3/ the “sharing economy” was outed as the “rental economy.” nobody is sharing anything. people are making money, plain and simple. technology has made renting things (even in real time) as simple as it made buying things a decade ago. Uber and Airbnb are the big winners in this category but there are and will be others.

4/ the capital markets have moved to the internet. we call it crowdfunding but what is really going on is raising money is a great application of a global platform that connects billions of people in real time. i don’t know the total amount of capital that was raised on the internet across all sectors (equity, debt, creative projects, charity, helping a person in need, real estate, energy, etc, etc) in 2014 but i am sure it is in the tens of billions.

5/ mobile OS has become a stable duopoly around the world. but android is splintering into google android and non google android and that may lead to new large players. 2014 was a big coming out party for xiaomi. if and when they come to the US, things will get interesting. they are the new (and better) samsung.

6/ mobile and messaging has started to impact the enterprise. slack is the poster boy for this trend in 2014.

7/ youtube became a monster. it always has been. but in 2014 youtube emerged as the place for entertainment consumption for anyone under 16. and these youngsters are going to grow up quickly. watching The Interview on YouTube was a fitting end to an amazing year for the king (and queen and joker too) of Internet video.

8/ we finally got rid of files. dropbox, google drive, soundcloud, spotify, netflix, hbogo, youtube, wattpad, kindle, and a host of other cloud based services finally killed off three letter filenames like mp3, mov, doc and xls. spending a week in the caribbean with young adults and bad internet was the tell on this one for me. they don’t even have mp3s on their iphones anymore!

9/ the net neutrality debate emerged as a national political issue with Obama’s endorsement of Title II regulation of the last mile of the internet. it is unclear how this issue will resolve itself but the public has spoken loudly and clearly and politicians understand that the internet needs to remain open for innovation and we can’t let the monopoly carriers and cable companies mess that up.

10/ cyberwarfare, cybercrime, cyberhacking, and cybersecurity was by far the dominant theme of 2014. if anyone had their head in the sand on this one before this year, they don’t anymore. this is our new normal. the US takedown of North Korea’s internet last week, and the state department official’s comment that “i guess accidents can happen” is a moment to remember as we head out of 2014 and into our future.

so that’s what happened in 2014 according to me. i am sure i left out many important things. you can add them in the comments. hopefully i’ll write a whats going to happen in 2015 tomorrow. i tried hard to keep this post backward looking and had to edit out a lot of forward looking statements as i wrote it.

happy new year everyone.

With All Due Respect

We spent the Christmas week on the beach with family and friends. Our friends John and Diana were with us and we talked about a lot of the things that are in the news at the intersection of tech and society. John asked me to take that conversation onto his TV show, With All Due Respect, and I did that yesterday. Here is the segment.

Some Thoughts On Founder Liquidity

I saw a post last week that suggested that VCs competing to win deals is leading to excess amounts of founder liquidity. We haven’t seen that sort of thing to be honest. It may happen but it is certainly not rampant.

I also saw this tweet from Sam Altman yesterday:

If you click on that tweet, you will see a long and somewhat interesting discussion of the issue on Twitter. I don’t completely agree with Sam’s tweet, as I will outline below, but as my son and his friends like to say, “he’s not wrong.”

I’ve written a bunch about this issue over the years but the search function on this blog is pretty weak and it is not easy to go find all of those posts. So I will try to summarize my thoughts in tweetstorm format:

1/ when I got into the VC business in the mid 80s, there was little to no founder liquidity. VCs largely believed that founders should get liquid when they got liquid.

2/ that started to change in the late 90s when the VC market went bonkers and to some extent it was a good thing. to some extent it was not.

3/ i have evolved my point of view on this issue a lot over the years and i now believe that providing some founder liquidity, at the appropriate time, will incent the founders to have a longer term focus and that will result in exits at much larger valuations because, contrary to popular belief, founders drive the timing of exit way more than VCs do

4/ figuring out the “appropriate time” is tricky and there is no hard and fast rule. the twitter discussion on Sam Altman’s tweet focuses on how many years the company has been in business and i think that is a very flawed metric

5/ instead i would focus on whether the company has achieved sustainable and lasting enterprise value, meaning that there is no question it will exit at a significant number that is well in excess of the capital invested at some point in the future

6/ passing that test means that the common stock is “good money” and that the choice of the founder to sell it is not mitigation of risk issue as much as it is an asset allocation issue

7/ i am not a fan of founder liquidity sales that result in more than 10% of the founder’s position being liquidated at any one time

8/ an important exception to that rule is when a founder is leaving the company, particularly at the wishes of the board. in that situation i believe, if the test I outlined in #5 is passed, it is prudent for all involved to provide some liquidity to the departing founder and the 10% rule is not really valid in this situation

9/ i generally prefer that founder liquidity be provided by funds that are set up to do that sort of thing and not by the VCs who have been providing primary capital to the business. i believe that our capital should be used to continue to support the business and reserved for that until the company has become sustainably profitable

10/ once a company has become sustainably profitable, which in and of itself is a bit tricky to measure (GAAP Net Income positive?, EBITDA positive?, Adjusted EBITDA positive? cash flow positive?), I am more comfortable with the VCs buying in founder liquidity sales

11/ EOTS

I have seen too much founder liquidity too early in a company’s life mess things up. You do have to be very careful about this sort of thing.

And founder liquidity inevitably leads to questions about employee liquidity and angel liquidity. Like all things in life that involve money (and many that don’t), actions have consequences that are much broader than you might imagine. So once you start providing liquidity to founders, you need to at least start thinking about a liquidity plan for others as well.

What we have done in a number of our most successful portfolio companies is to wait until the company is sustainably profitable (this is such an important moment in a company’s evolution) and then think about tender offers to founders, employees, and early investors/angels. Interestingly, in these sales the employees and founders tend not to be particularly aggressive in their selling. The early investors and angels tend to be more aggressive than the insiders. Which makes a lot of sense if you think about it.

I will end this post with a quote The Gotham Gal shared with me yesterday from J. Robert Beyster, the founder of SAIC:

I have found that employees are more patient investors than the public. They are willing to wait longer for returns because they want a good place to work. They allow the company to invest in long-term growth and not just short-term gains.

So whatever you do, don’t let your company become owned too much by investors and not enough by founders and employees. It’s the folks who work at the company that make it tick and if they are not deeply invested in the business, you have a recipe for failure.

PS: There is a difference between a company “having created lasting sustainable value” and “being sustainably profitable”. The latter almost always means the former is true. But the former does not require the latter to be true. I could get into why this is so in more detail but this post is long enough already.

College and Entrepreneurship

After I tweeted out a link to yesterday’s post, I had this twitter exchange:

I took some time today to look through our portfolio and estimate the percentage.

I believe 21 founders out of a total of 72 that we have backed in the history of USV did not graduate from college. That’s about 30%.

However, I believe 17 founders have advanced degrees, including a few PhDs. So roughly a quarter of the founders we’ve backed have invested heavily in their higher education.

There are no specific credentials required to get funded by USV or most other VC firms. You need to be credible as an entrepreneur. That means being able to see, recruit, make, and sell. If you can do that, and if you can prove you can do that to investors, you’ve got a great shot at getting funded.

What’s Next

I am always thinking about what is next and I feel like I’m spending even more time this year thinking about this. All of us at USV seem to be pondering this question a lot right now.

I came across this nice post by Ben Thompson in which he ponders the question out loud, which is my favorite way to ponder.

Here is the money quote:

While the introduction of the iPhone seems like it was just yesterday (at least it does to me!), we are quickly approaching seven years – about the midway point of this epoch, if the PC and Internet are any indication.4 I sense, though, that we may be moving a bit more quickly: the work/productivity and communications applications have really come into focus this year, and while the battle to see what companies ride those applications to dominance will be interesting, it’s highly likely that the foundation is being layed for the core technology of the next epoch:

Ben’s framework is roughly similar to ours but his conclusions are a bit different as follows:

1) I would substitute personal mesh for wearables

2) I would substitute the blockchain stack for bitcoin

3) I would bet on messenger as the next mobile OS over anything else. We have already seen that happen in China.

But in any case, posts like Ben’s and what comes of them (this) are super helpful. Thanks Ben.

Video Of The Week: The Bubble Question

Since the LeWeb video I posted on wednesday was so long (>40mins), we are going with short and sweet today.

In late October, I did an event with City National Bank. For those that don’t know, City National is one of the banks that are active in the tech startup sector, banking and lending to startups. We did a “fireside chat” format which is really my favorite way to do a public appearance. And, of course, I got “the bubble question.”

Here is how I answered it in less than three minutes:

A Day In Berlin

Man is Berlin cooking. I mean the tech startup community, not the temperature. The Gotham Gal and I flew to Berlin yesterday and it was -2 celsius when we landed and it did not get a lot warmer. But I managed to do three events and met at least fifty entrepreneurs, maybe a lot more, in less than 24 hours.

The highlight of the day was an event we did yesterday evening in partnership with the Tech Open Air folks. My partner Brad was in Berlin for two days of meetings with one of our Berlin based portfolio companies and we did a joint appearance at a cool event space.

Brad and I don’t do a lot of joint appearances but we’ve always had a way of finishing each other’s thoughts. Spending eighteen months together raising a venture fund in 2003 and 2004 will teach you how to do that and you don’t forget.

I’m hopping on a plane in a couple mins and don’t have much more time for this blog post. But I would like to thank everyone who made our day in Berlin so great and to say to all the Berlin based entrepreneurs that I met that you are all very impressive. Makes me want to come back more often. Which we will do for sure.