Posts from VC & Technology

ICOs and VCs

The Brave browser team concluded an ICO for their Basic Attention Token yesterday in about thirty seconds. This led to this tweet:

Of course folks will see ICOs as the end of the hated VC era of startup funding. And there is some truth to that.

But I see it a bit differently:

  1. Brave was VC funded prior to doing their ICO. We talked to Brendan when he was doing his seed round. He’s a great entrepreneur and technologist and he has assembled a terrific team. Although we are not investors in the company, we are sympathetic to the cause they are addressing. VC has had role in the Brave story. It helped them launch a product and get to the point where they could do a highly anticipated ICO.
  2. USV has a number of portfolio companies that will do ICOs. I have mentioned Kin and Filecoin in a previous blog post.  There will be others. Like Brave, it often makes sense for a company to raise VC to build the team and tech and get to a place where it can do an ICO.
  3. Not every company can do an ICO. Contrary to the hype machine working on ICOs right now, they are not simply a funding mechanism. They are about an entirely different business model. The token that you sell in your ICO is the atomic unit of your business model. You are selling some of it to raise capital but the main purpose of the token is to monetize your product or service.
  4. The investors who bought your token, like public market investors, may be gone tomorrow, next month, or next year, having moved on to the next big thing, leaving you with little to show for it other than the money you raised. VCs, at leas the best ones, are there for your company in good times and bad. There is a difference, trust me.

So, while ICOs represent a new and exciting way to build (and finance) a tech company, and are a legitimate disruptive threat to the venture capital business, they are not something I am nervous about and they are not something USV is nervous about. We are excited about them when they are the right thing for our portfolio companies and we are encouraging those companies to use this new approach. We are also investing in tokens, through token funds, and directly on or own.

Now I need to go put on my sweater vest.

Video Of The Week: My Talk With David Kirkpatrick at Techonomy

Last wednesday morning, I went to Techonomy NYC and talked with my friend David Kirkpatrick for about 30mins.

That conversation is below.

There is one gross misrepresentation in the talk. David and I were talking about my efforts to ignore Trump and I said that the Gotham Gal spends “two to three hours a day on that stuff” which is not anywhere close to accurate. She reads the NY Times religiously in paper form every day and does pay a lot more attention to Trump than I do, but it’s not anywhere near two to three hours. I apologize to her for suggesting such nonsense.

Seeing Through The Fog

I was talking to my friend Simon yesterday and he observed that the essential skill of entrepreneurs and early stage VCs is to “be able to see through the fog of an emerging market and pick out the winning idea.”

And of course, I agree with that. It is something that we have done pretty well at USV over the years.

But how do you do that? Is seeing through the fog a skill that can be learned?

I think seeing through the fog can be learned but it takes time and practice.

Some people are innately good at it and they seem to be able to do it naturally.

But I was not that person. It took me years to be able to do it well and I think there are a few things that helped me a lot.

  1. Focusing on a sector and dedicating yourself to it helps a lot. I have been investing almost exclusively in Internet-based businesses since 1993 and that has helped me understand the dynamics, economics, and unique characteristics of doing business on the Internet. That framework helps me see through the fog.
  2. Doing the upfront work to have a thesis before investing in a sector is important. My partner Brad taught me this trick back when we started USV in 2003. He insisted that we have a thesis before we raised our first fund and started investing. That thesis has evolved a lot over the years but we have always had one. When we wanted to start to invest in verticals, like financial services, healthcare, and education, almost ten years ago now, we took deep dives on those sectors and developed a thesis about how they would emerge, where the value was going to be, and  where we wanted to focus before making a single investment in these verticals. That has served us incredibly well as we have built/are building fantastic portfolios in all three verticals.
  3. Avoiding the noise is particularly important. This is hard to do unless you have a thesis. But even if you have a thesis, there is often a ton of noise around other things that you have to ignore. Otherwise, it will pull you in all sorts of directions, waste a ton of your time, and possibly lead to bad investments. I like to think of having blinders on when we are starting to invest in a new area. It is critically important to not let the hype and bluster and bullshit misdirect you.
  4. Using the technology of the emerging sector really helps. That is often not easy. I remember when I first started playing around with Bitcoin in 2011, it wasn’t simple to get a wallet, mine some Bitcoin, use an exchange. But I did it because I wanted to use the technology and understand how it worked. Getting your hands dirty by using the technology as early as you can will you help to see through the fog. I strongly recommend it.
  5. Reading everything that is written on an emerging sector is critical. I am not talking about books, they usually come too late. I am talking about academic/research/white papers and blog posts written (often poorly) by the leading technologists in the sector. There are sometimes early observers/pundits in these nascent sectors and some of them can be quite good. Find them and follow them.
  6. Meeting with as many people working in the emerging sector as you can will help a lot. I don’t just mean entrepreneurs but you should meet as many of them as you can. I mean everyone and anyone who is working in the sector, investing in the sector, writing about the sector, and engaging in the sector. It’s a lot of work (and travel if you don’t live in a place people come to a lot), but it is invaluable.

When something new comes along, like the Internet in 1993, Web 2/Social in 2003, Mobile in 2007, or Blockchain in 2011, initially it is opaque, like mist, as Simon said to me. But amazing business opportunities will emerge from that mist and those entrepreneurs and early stage investors who jump onto the right ones will be rewarded greatly. It takes a prepared mind to do that and you have to do the work before the opportunities start emerging from the mist. That is how you get the clarity to see the best ideas through the fog.

Being Public

Two former USV portfolio companies had tough earnings calls last night.

And you look at that and you might say “why would any company want to go public?”

But here is the thing. Being public is about being transparent, accountable, and owning up to the issues and dealing with them.

I think it makes companies better.

If you are losing your biggest customer, you have to tell the world and deal with the consequences.

If you are making a leadership change, you have to tell the world and deal with the consequences.

Both of those companies are great companies, in which the Gotham Gal and I are a very large shareholder, and in which we believe in totally and completely.

Nothing is always up and to the right, even though you might want it to be.

The great companies are the ones that have the guts to bare it all and keep building.

Which is why I think being public is a good thing for the companies we work with that are large enough and have unique and differentiated businesses and business models.

I think more tech companies should be going public and I have been saying that for quite a while now and last night doesn’t change my views one iota.

Investor VCs and Operator VCs

The Venture Capital business is full of great firms that were founded by entrepreneurs/operators who became investors mid/late career. From Gene Kleiner and Tom Perkins in the early 70s to Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz at the end of the 00s, this is the iconic model of the venture capital firm and the formula that built Silicon Valley into what it is today.

When young people ask me what the best way to get into the venture capital business is, I tell them “go work in startups in your 20s and 30s, and then turn to venture capital in your 40s and 50s.” That is certainly the best way to do it. You build domain expertise, operating experience, and relationships/networks that help you win deals and help entrepreneurs by doing it this way.

The only problem with that advice is that is not how I did it. And it is not how Mike Moritz did it. And it is not how Jim Breyer did it. And it is not how Bill Gurley did it. And it is not how Peter Fenton did it. And it is not how most of my partners at USV did it. It is not how many/most of the top venture capitalists in the business did it. And I have been mulling over this fact since coming to that realization a while ago. I ruminated a bit on it in the Q&A after the lecture I gave at MIT a few weeks ago.

I think there are a bunch of reasons why many of the best VCs, at least of my generation, were not entrepreneurs and operators before becoming VCs.

First on my list is “avoiding the temptation to operate.” Jerry Colonna tells a story about one of the first Boards he joined at Flatiron. Jerry had been an operator before leaving to form Flatiron Partners with me. He joined the Board of an early stage company and on it were a couple experienced VCs. Every time the Company struggled with an issue, Jerry jumped in and tried to help. Eventually, one of the experienced VCs pulled Jerry aside and said “You aren’t an operator anymore Jerry. You have to let them run the Company.” I have never had that issue. I am not an operator and have never worked in a startup or a company, other than a short stint in an engineering firm the first two years out of college. I wouldn’t know how to manage a team, run a business, lead a company. But I know how to manage the people who do know how to do that. There is a huge difference and I think that VCs who aren’t handicapped by operating experience bring great respect for operators. And that helps a lot.

The second reason on my list is “a strategic mindset.” I think of strategy as the opposite of execution. Strategy is about setting the stage for execution. Many of the best strategic minds I know aren’t operators. They are consultants, analysts, investors, pundits. I don’t know exactly why brilliant strategists often make terrible operators but I see it all the time. And all of the best venture capitalists I know are brilliant strategists. They understand where value is going to be in an emerging market, they understand how to get to the best strategically positioned companies first, and they understand how to guide those companies toward a strategy that wins the market.

The third reason on my list is “being a portfolio player.” Operators work on one thing all the time. VCs work on many things at the same time. In one day, I can be trying to win a deal with one company, working an M&A situation for another company, doing a strategy offsite for a third company, helping a fourth company develop its compensation plan, and sitting in a board meeting for a fifth company. That’s a typical day in the VC business. You have to love having your hands in multiple things all the time and the diversification that comes from that. You aren’t all in on anything but you are all in on all of it.

I am not saying that entrepreneurs/operators don’t make good VCs. Obviously, they do. The entrepreneur oriented mindset that firms like Kleiner Perkins brought to the VC business is why Silicon Valley emerged as the best place in the world to do startups. And being too financially oriented is why Boston failed to keep pace with Silicon Valley in the 70s and 80s.

What I am saying is that there is something about the other pathway into VC, via investing, consulting, writing, that works equally well, or better in some cases. And all you have to look at are the top investors in the business to know that.

My Talk At MIT

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was going to give the first annual Georges Doriot Lecture at MIT.

I traveled up to MIT on April 13th and gave this talk. I really enjoyed doing it and I want to thank MIT for doing it.

Starting Is Easy, Finishing Is Hard

Starting a company has gotten much easier over the past decade.

The capital requirements to get started have come way down in both software and hardware businesses.

The supply of seed and venture capital has increased dramatically as well.

And there are all sorts of programs aimed at helping entrepreneurs get started.

All of this has caused a rapid expansion of entrepreneurship, startups, and innovation.

This is all great.

The one thing that has not gotten appreciably easier in the last decade is finishing.

Finishing can be anything that ends a startup project.

It can be an M&A exit, becoming a sustainable business, becoming a public company, or it could also be failing and shutting down.

None of those have gotten easier in the last decade.

There was a period where the “acquihire” was a thing and many companies that could not figure out how to become a business got bought for their talent.

But it feels like that wave has come and gone.

And so entrepreneurs and the investors who support them are back to grinding it out, trying to get to the finish line.

And, for many, that finish line feels like it is moving farther and farther away every step you take.

Startups are not for the faint of heart, both on the founder and investor side.

It takes great tenacity to see things through. And I think that may be truer today than ever.

From The Archives: General Georges Doriot

I am flying up to Boston today to give the inaugural Georges Doriot lecture at MIT. It’s a great honor to kick off this annual lecture and remember General Doriot, who was the founder of modern venture capital. Here is a blog post I did back in 2008 about General Doriot and a book about him by Spencer Ante. At the time of this post, I had not read Creative Capital, but I did read it and I strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the early days of the modern venture capital business.


Who is the father of modern venture capital? Surely someone from Silicon Valley in the late 60s and early 70s, right? Wrong.

The father of modern venture capital is General Georges Doriot who helped to form and run American Research and Development, the first modern venture capital firm in Boston right after World War II. Doriot also taught at Harvard Business School and was a mentor and teacher to the first generation of Boston VCs who operated in the 60s and 70s.

With all the focus on the bay area and its history as the center of innovation in information technology, Doriot’s contributions are often overlooked. But now we have a new book and a blog, courtesy of Spencer Ante of Business Week.

Ante’s Creative Capital is about Doriot and the start of the venture capital business here in america post world war II. I haven’t read it yet, but I just ordered it on Amazon. Here’s a short excerpt from the Harvard Business School blog. I suspect the readers of this blog are the perfect audience for this book so you should all go check it out.