Posts from VC & Technology

How We Got To Now

For the past two years, NYC’s loss has been the Bay Area’s gain. No I’m not talking about hot startups, VC, or anything like that. I’m talking about Steven Johnson‘s two year departure for the beauty of Marin County over the grimy streets of NYC. But this summer Steven and his family came back to NYC, reminding me that the world is just and fair if you wait long enough.

I liked Steven the minute I met him. He has a wonderful smile and a gracious being, he is whip smart, and he writes beautifully and simply. He tells stories that educate. I have read pretty much everything he’s written and whenever something new comes out, it is an instant buy.

Yesterday was “pub day” for his most recent book, How We Got To Now. It’s the story of six technological revolutions that set up the world for what it is now. Those would be glass, cold, clean, sound, light, and time. The book has a companion TV series on PBS of the same name. The first of the six episodes airs on Oct 15th at 9pm

And to make things even better, I got to spend part of “pub day” with Steven yesterday. We did an event at WNYC’s Greene Space (a great venue in west soho) yesterday morning.

I believe the event was recorded and will be online at some point. If and when that happens, it will be a video of the week post.

We talked about a bunch of things, but the most interesting thing is how all of these innovations are related to each other. Steven told a story about the printing press and how when books started making their rounds, people realized that they needed reading glasses, which spurred a spike in demand for lens makers, which in turn led to microscopes and telescopes, which led to all sorts of biological and astronomical discoveries. That’s the kind of connections Steven makes in his stories. I love them.

I have the book and I am going to watch the series. If you love history, technology, and great story telling, I strongly encourage you to do both of these things as well.

Satisficing

We had one of our many (non-stop) email conversations among the USV crew last week about a situation in our portfolio where nobody could agree on something. I lamented that “VCs are such optimizers.” It takes one to know one you see.

Nick Grossman replied that he prefers satisficing to optimizing. I had never heard that term. So Nick sent me to Wikipedia which says:

Satisficing is a decision-making strategy or cognitive heuristic that entails searching through the available alternatives until an acceptability threshold is met.[1] This is contrasted with optimal decision making, an approach that specifically attempts to find the best alternative available. The term satisficing, a portmanteau of satisfy and suffice,[2] was introduced by Herbert A. Simon in 1956,[3] although the concept “was first posited in Administrative Behavior, published in 1947.

I love the concept of satificing instead of optimizing. It is something I have been trying to adopt (changing behavior is hard) for close to twenty years now with a good measure of success. But I never had a word for it. I do now. Thanks Nick!

Burn Baby Burn

Andy sent me a WSJ piece with Bill Gurley yesterday. I don’t like to link to paid content so here’s a good Business Insider summary of the article that is open for anyone to read.

Regular readers know that I’m a huge fan of Bill’s. He’s as smart as they come and I generally agree with him on things. As I was reading the WSJ piece, I found myself nodding my head and saying “yes”, “yes”, “yes”.

The thing I like so much about Bill’s point of view is that he does not focus on valuations as a measure of risk. He focuses on burn rates instead. That’s very smart and from my experience, very accurate.

Valuations can be fixed. You can do a down round, or three or four flat ones, until you get the price right.

But burn rates are exactly that. Burning cash. Losing money. Emphasis on the losing.

And they are indeed sky high all over the US startup sector right now. And our portfolio is not immune to it. We have multiple portfolio companies burning multiple millions of dollars a month. Thankfully its not our entire portfolio. But it is more than I’d like and more than I’m personally comfortable with.

I’ve been grumpy for months, possibly for longer than that, about this. I’ve pushed back on long term leases that I thought were outrageous, I’ve pushed back on spending plans that I thought were too aggressive and too risky, I’ve made myself a pain in the ass to more than a few CEOs.

I’m really happy that I’m not alone in thinking this way. At some point you have to build a real business, generate real profits, sustain the company without the largess of investor’s capital, and start producing value the old fashioned way. We have a number of companies in our portfolio that do that. And I love them for it. I wish we had more.

Next Wednesday Is The Internet Slowdown

We’ve talked a lot here at AVC about Net Neutrality. I hate that term because it’s got so much baggage now that it is essentially meaningless to me. What I want to see is a framework that everyone agrees to (application developers, bandwidth providers, last mile access providers, and the regulators) that says you can’t prioritize one bit over another in the last mile access network and you can’t charge application developers to deliver their bits to the end user.

This issue is coming to a head at the FCC as the comment period is ending and some sort of decision will be made this fall. So next Wednesday, September 10th, is the Internet’s opportunity to stand up and be heard.

If you are with me on this issue, please consider joining the Internet Slowdown campaign next Wednesday. There are all sorts of ways you can do this. You can change your avatars on your social media profiles, you can send push notifications if you operate a mobile app, you can put a slow loading graphic on your blog or website (there are WordPress widgets if you are on WordPress like I am).

And if you still aren’t convinced, please read Chad Dickerson’s piece in Wired this week on why this issue is important to businesses and everyone who uses the Internet to reach their customers and/or audience.

Video Of The Week: A Lunchtime Talk In Larkin Square, Buffalo

A few weeks ago, I spent most of the week in the upper midwest. I started out on Tuesday in Buffalo, NY, the location of my first venture capital investment, Upgrade Corporation of America. I did office hours at the Z80 accelerator and then did a lunchtime Q&A in the beautifully renovated Larkin Square with Eric Reich.

This is a video of that talk. If you want to skip all the intros, go ten minutes in. The talk is about 40mins long.

Q&A With Fred Wilson and Eric Reich – Aug 2014 from Z80 Labs Technology Incubator on Vimeo.

Reblog: Let Your Winners Run

One of the things I am going to do on this extended vacation is go back into the archives and reblog posts that I think are still fresh and relevant. I’ll start with this one from Feb 2012.

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I met with a group of very experienced and sophisticated investors yesterday who make up the investment committee of a large charitable foundation that is an investor in USV. I gave them a two minute brief on our macro investment thesis (large networks of engaged users that can disrupt big markets) and then took them on a tour of some of these large networks (Lending Club, Kickstarter, Etsy, Twitter, and Codecademy).  Then I took questions.

This group doesn’t spend a ton of time on AVC, Techmeme, Hacker News, or the tech industry in general. And yet the questions they asked me were as good as I ever get. I guess four decades of investing teaches you a lot.

One of the best questions I got was “when do you decide to sell?”. Such a great question and such a hard one to answer. I’ve got scars from this one.

I explained that first and foremost, we generally don’t make that call. The entrepreneur and her management team generally makes that call and the board is asked to ratify it.

But when and if we get to weigh in on the timing of the exit, my view is that you look to exit your weakest investments as soon as you can and you let your winners run as long as you can.

USV 2004 is instructive. Between 2004 and 2008, we made investments in 21 companies. So the youngest portfolio company in that portfolio is four years old now. Most are five to six years old. And a few, like Meetup and Return Path, are ten years old or more. We’ve exited six of the 21 investments, you can see them here, under past investments at the bottom.

We still have fifteen investments active in that portfolio including Zynga and Twitter and we own large blocks of stock in both of those companies. We own stakes in thirteen other portfolio companies most of which we believe are super strong companies that are building large and sustainable businesses. We will likely exit a few weaker investments in that portfolio over this year and next. But there are at least ten companies in the USV 2004 portfolio that we would be happy to own for the rest of this decade.

This does create a bit of an issue in that we raise ten year venture capital funds. So we are supposed to wind things up in the 2004 fund in another two years. But I am fairly sure that my partners and I and our limited partners will be happy to let this fund play itself out over a longer period of time.

I’ve made the mistake of exiting investments too quickly. Back in the middle of 2007, my previous firm Flatiron exited our investment in Mercado Libre at the IPO selling our entire position for about a 10x gain. In the almost five years that MELI has been public, it has gone up 5x. So had we held our position for another five years, we’d have made 50x instead of 10x. That stings. Lesson learned.

When you have portfolio companies that are category creators, category leaders, who are well managed, and growing 50% per year or more and delivering 20-30% pre-tax margins (or more), and who have no existential threats to their market leadership, you might want to hang on to them for a bit. They may be just getting going on the valuation creation thing.

Reblogging An Old Post: The Word Bubble

I wrote this in 2011. I think it’s as true today as it was then. It’s interesting that Marc Andreessen, in the video I posted over the weekend, also links the word Bubble in his mind to the Internet bubble that we all lived through. I guess for a certain cohort of investors, that is a very definitive moment in our lives that we will always be scarred by.

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In all the posts over the past year or so outlining my thoughts on the financing and valuation environment in the internet sector, I’ve avoided using the word Bubble. It is intentional. For me Bubble will always be inexorably linked to what went down in 1999 and 2000 in the internet sector. And I agree with Mike Arrington that what is going on now is different. I do not think we are in a Bubble per se. That is why I don’t use the word.

But I am equally sure that we are in the glass is half full part of the cycle. Investors are focusing on the upside and ignoring the downside. That part of the investment cycle lasts for a while and then things change and investors focus on the downside and ignore the upside. Markets are defined by greed and fear. We are in the greed mode right now.

I don’t view this as whining. There is nothing to whine about. Investors are making money hand over fist. Why would I whine about that? But I do think it is important to point out the inevitability of the market cycles. There will come a time when the environment we are in will be in the rear view mirror. And entrepreneurs should be crystal clear about that. This is a time to raise money and sock it away for a rainy day. Because it will rain.

And investors should recognize that the current valuation environment will not exist at some point in the future. The companies we invest in will need to grow into these valuations or we will face writedowns and writeoffs. We should not let the greed emotions cloud our judgement. Yes, that hot deal sure looks damn good right now. But deals are actually companies and most venture investments are held for five to seven years. I’ve likened them to marriages over the years. Don’t let the lust for the deal lead to a bad marriage that you have to be in for the next decade.

I’ve made all of these mistakes. I know what happens. I am prepared for it. That doesn’t mean we aren’t investing in this cycle. We are as active as we’ve ever been. But we are investing at this stage of the cycle with our eyes wide open. And I’m writing about it in the hopes that others do the same.

Tearing Down The Teardown

CB Insights published a “teardown” of USV’s investment strategy last week. It’s a pretty solid piece of work considering they did not have access to any of our internal data.

The got some stuff wrong, however.

1) We did not participate in Zynga’s “megaround” in Feb 2011.

2) We only have six main investment vehicles;

USV 2004 – $125mm

USV 2008 – $160mm

USV Opportunity Fund – $125mm

USV 2012 – $200mm

USV 2014 – $175mm

USV Opportunity 2014 – $175mm

3) We have invested in a lot more than four YC companies. I think the number is closer to ten. I think YC is by far the investor we follow the most, particularly in recent years.

But, as I said, they did a pretty good job considering they don’t have access to our internal data. And I do not believe our limited partners are sharing our reports with them.

What this shows is that the venture capital business is becoming more transparent because so much of our investment activity, and the activity of our peers, is being tracked as it happens. When we raise a fund, that is reported (we must disclose that fact due to securities regulations). When we make an investment, that is generally announced by the portfolio company. And there are reporting requirements for that too. It is possible to do a stealth financing, but it’s not easy. When we make a follow-on investment, that is often announced and/or disclosed. And most exits are disclosed.

What is harder to figure out is what our ownership levels are in our portfolio companies. If you knew the amount we invested and the valuation of the round, you could figure that out. But that would be very hard to do accurately and consistently. I don’t think anyone is going to be able to do a teardown of a VC fund and its returns any time soon.

But even so, it’s impressive what CB Insights and others are doing to track and measure and report on VCs and their investment activities. Entrepreneurs should be able to get some third party assessment of the quality and performance of the VCs they might work with. That’s totally possible now and I think that’s a good thing.

The Dentist Office Software Story

I’ve been telling this fictional story about Dentist Office Software for years to describe why we are so focused on our “networks” investment strategy. Yesterday I told it at a HackNY event we did at the USV office and my partner Albert provided a finishing touch that really drives it home. Since I’ve never told the Dentist Office Software story here at AVC, I will do that and then I will add Albert’s alternate (and better) ending.

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An entrepreneur, tired of the long waits he is experiencing in his dentist’s office, decides that dentist offices are badly managed. So he designs and builds a comprehensive dentist office management system and brings it to market. The software is expensive, at $25,000 per year per dentist office, but it’s a hit anyway as dentists realize significant cost savings after deploying the system. The company, Dentasoft, grows quickly into a $100mm annual revenue business, goes public, and trades up to a billion dollar valuation.

Two young entrepreneurs graduate from college, and go to YC. They pitch PG on a low cost version of Dentasoft, which will be built on a modern software stock and include mobile apps for the dentist to remotely manage his office from the golf course. PG likes the idea and they are accepted into YC. Their company, Dent.io, gets their product in market quickly and prices it at $5,000 per year per office. Dentists like this new entrant and start switching over in droves. Dentasoft misses its quarter, citing competitive pressures, churn, and declining revenues. Dentasoft stock crashes. Meanwhile, Dent.io does a growth round from Sequoia and hires a CEO out of Workday.

Around this time, an open source community crops up to build an open source version of dental office software. This open source project is called DentOps. The project takes on real life as its leader, a former dentist turned socialist blogger and software developer named NitrousOxide, has a real agenda to disrupt the entire dental industry. A hosted version of DentOps called DentHub is launched and becomes very popular with forward thinking dentist offices that don’t want to be hostage to companies like Dentasoft and Dent.io anymore.

Dentasoft is forced to file for bankruptcy protection while they restructure their $100mm debt round they took a year after going public. Dent.io’s board fires its CEO and begs the founders to come back and take control of the struggling company. NitrousOxide is featured on the cover of Wired as the man who disrupted the dental industry.

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That’s the story. I hope to fine folks at YC, Sequoia, and Workday don’t mind me using their names in this fictional story. I picked the very best companies in the industry and my use of their brands is a compliment. I hope they take it that way.

This story is designed to illustrate the fact that software alone is a commodity. There is nothing stopping anyone from copying the feature set, making it better, cheaper, and faster. And they will do that. This is the reality that Brad and I stared at in 2003 as we were developing our initial investment thesis for USV. We saw the cloud coming but did not want to invest in commodity software delivered in the cloud. So we asked ourselves, “what will provide defensibility” and the answer we came to was networks of users, transactions, or data inside the software. We felt that if an entrepreneur could include something other than features and functions in their software, something that was not a commodity, then their software would be more defensible. That led us to social media, to Delicious, Tumblr, and Twitter. And marketplaces like Etsy, Lending Club, and Kickstarter. And enterprise oriented networks like Workmarket, C2FO, and SiftScience. We have not perfectly executed our investment strategy by any means. We’ve missed a lot of amazing networks. And we’ve invested in things that weren’t even close to networks. But all of that said, our thesis has delivered for us and we stick to it as much as we can.

So here’s Albert’s alternate ending (with my editorial license on the colorful aspects of this story):

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A young dentist, named Hoff Reidman, just starting up his own private practice, decides that he wants to network with other dentists. Because Hoff went to CMU before going to dental school, he’s pretty technical and he hacks together a site in Ruby called Dentistry.com. He emails all of his friends from dental school and they sign up. Every dentist wants to be on Dentistry.com and the site takes off. Hoff realizes he has to quit his dental practice to focus on Dentistry.com. Albert Wenger, who happens to be a patient of Hoff’s, convinces him to let USV do a small seed round of $1mm to help build a company around Dentistry.com. Hoff comes up with a product roadmap that allows patients to have profiles on Dentistry.com where they can keep their dental records, book appointments, and keep track of their dental health. It also includes mobile apps for patients to remind them to floss and brush at least twice a day. While Dentistry.com is free to use for anyone (dentist or patient), it monetizes with native advertising, transactions between dentists and their patients, and transactions between patients and providers of consumer dental health products, and transactions between dentists and providers of dental equipment and products. Dentistry.com ultimately grows into a $1bn revenue company and goes public trades at a market cap of $7.5bn. Wall Street analysts love the company citing its market power and defensible network effects.

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I hope you enjoyed this fictional story. I find it explains our network thesis simply and easily. I will keep telling it to groups I talk to, but now with Albert’s ending. I like it very much. Thanks Albert.