Posts from March 2010

One Year Of Foursquare

Our portfolio company Foursquare turned one year old yesterday. They posted about their birthday on the company blog. It is stuff like this that makes startups so fun to be around:

It was exactly a year ago when Naveen and I flipped the switch on foursquare.  It was the day before we headed down to SXSW – back when we were still feeling 50/50 on whether people would think the “let’s turn real life into a game!” idea was really interesting or whether they’d laugh us out of Austin.

We took separate flights.  I remember walking down the tarmac into the plane still on my laptop fixing the database.  Naveen landed in Austin and texted me something along the lines of “its still alive!”.  We made it though the weekend with a bunch of hiccups but nothing disastrous (special thx to friends in NYC who were keeping an eye on the melting database).

One year later, Dennis and Naveen head back to SXSW with a company of 16 people supporting them and 500,000 users checking in almost 300,000 times daily. It's been really fun to watch them turn an idea into a service into a breakout mobile phenomenon, all in one year. Well done guys. Happy birthday.

The Cashless Exercise

Wallet  Sorry for the inside baseball title, this post is not about net exercising options or warrants.

It is about an exercise I've been going through since the beginning of the year. I've always walked around with hardly any money on me. It drives the Gotham Gal nuts, but it's who I am. I don't like carrying cash and never have.

But the past few months, I've been walking around with no cash, not a dime. I carry a host of stored value cards and credit cards on me. The picture at the top of this post is my wallet. The black cord is my daughter Emily's hairband. In that stack is a metrocard, my drivers license, a parking pass for my garage, several american express cards for various personal and business entities, a visa card, and several debit cards. That's it.

I've gone without a wallet for years and this stack of cards has been my system for the past decade. But I've always supplemented it with some cash in my pocket as well. Not anymore.

What this exercise has taught me is that cash is almost unnecessary these days. Almost is the operative word. You have to work a little bit to operate without cash. I avoid the $2 or $3 purchase. I've never been much for the $2 or $3 purchase, but it does happen. Earlier this week I stopped at Joe, The Art Of Coffee for an espresso on the way to work. I forgot that Joe is cash only. Fortunately Joe gave me the espresso and took an IOU from me. I felt bad about that and now I have to figure out how to pay him back without breaking my no cash diet.

The thing that was holding me back from going no cash was the time it took to check out with credit or debit. But in the past year or two, most merchants have moved to a no signature required on transactions less than $20. If no signature is required, a credit or debit transaction is faster than a cash transaction.

And then there's cabs. It took me until this year to give up my 25 year habit of paying cabbies in cash. I thought the credit transaction would take too long or be unreliable. My kids told me I was being foolish and to give it a try. And I was sold in the first day. Paying cabbies with a credit card is simply a superior experience. It's fast, there's no waiting for change, and tipping is easier and I find myself being more generous. All in all it is much better.

So I believe we are on the verge of a cashless society, at least in NYC. I may be on the bleeding edge of it, but if I can go cashless, so can others.

The other thing this cashless exercise has taught me is walking around with plastic cards wrapped in a hairband is silly. We need to take the next step which I am sure is the phone. I've always got my mobile phone on me unless I am home. It would be so nice if I could simply enter all those stored value cards, credit and debit cards into my phone and stop with the stack of plastic entirely.

I hope to continue this cashless exercise going, at least when I am in NYC and not traveling. I honestly think I can do that. And as for the stack of cards in my pocket, well I'd like to get rid of them too.

Transitioning From One Job To Another

Mark Suster just keeps putting out great stuff on his blog. Last night he posted about the tricky issue of transitioning from one job to another. Mark writes the post from the perspective of the entrepreneur/executive hiring someone who is currently working for another company. I love this part:

I operate on the principal that you’re most vulnerable in any deal immediately after you’ve won.  I believe the same is true in recruiting.  So your goal is to get the employee working in your company as quickly as possible and with the least amount of collateral damage.

That is exactly the right tack to be taking if you are the person on the hiring end of the situation. I highly recommend reading Mark's post because he provides some great advice to the hiring company.

But there are three parties to these situations; the employee, the current employer, and the future employer. I'd like to talk about all three and how each should behave.

First, I think it is important to recognize that most of the time you'll want to hire someone who is currently working for another company. There are times when you can hire someone who is unemployed or is doing consulting work (which is often the same thing as being unemployed). But most of the time, you'll find yourself in the situation of hiring someone who is currently employed by someone else.

Let's start with the employee. If you plan to leave the company you are currently working for and are actively searching for a new position, I think it is best to do your search out in the open with the knowledge of your employer. That allows your current employer to plan for your departure and allows you to do your job search out in the open. Many employees worry that if they disclose their intention to leave, they'll be fired. That does happen and is a reasonable concern. But more often, the employer appreciates the notice and rewards the employee giving notice with an extended transition period. That's the ideal scenario.

But not every person who leaves a company was looking to leave. It's very common in the tech startup world to approach employees who are happy in their current jobs with an opportunity that is simply better. And then they decide to leave and there is a tricky transition situation.

Mark advises the hiring company to push for the employee to leave quickly. But I have found myself on the opposite side of this situation, in a small startup with a key employee leaving who is being pressured to leave quickly. And of course, in that situation the company who is losing the key person wants them to stay for the longest transition possible.

The problem with the long transition for the key employee is that it often takes two to three months to find a replacement for a key employee. And it is generally not reasonable to ask an employee to stick around for a two to three month transition.

One option is the "battlefield promotion" of someone else on the team to assume the job of the person who is leaving. If you can do that promotion permanently, then it is a good option. If you plan to do the promotion temporarily, it can be problematic. Once promoted, many people bristle at going back to their old role and working for someone new. 

Losing a key employee in a small company is really one of the most difficult situations you'll have to deal with as an entrepreneur/startup executive. One thing I do not recommend is trying to retain the person who is leaving. If they've shown the willingness or desire to leave, you have to let them go. There is no such thing as indentured servitude in startup land and when someone shows that they are mentally out, they should not stick around except to insure a smooth transition.

So to summarize, if you are the employee, it is best to give as much notice as you can comfortably give to your current employer without putting yourself in a vulnerable position. If you are the hiring company, you want to get the new employee onboard as quickly as possible, but don't put the person you are hiring in an awkward and damaging position. And if you are the company losing the employee, get a reasonable transition time, find some way to manage without the person, and don't try to keep them once they've shown a desire to leave.

For all three parties, if you are struggling with this issue, reach out and get advice. You aren't the first person to go through this situation. It happens all the time and others who have lived through it can help you deal. 

Accounting

I'm making up the curriculum for MBA Mondays on the fly. The end game is to lay out how to look a businesses, value it, and invest in it. We started with the time value of money and interest rates, we then talked about the corporate entity. Now I want to talk about how to keep track of the money in a company. That is called accounting. This will be a multi-post effort and will include posts on cash flow, profit and loss, balance sheets, GAAP accounting, audits, and financial statement analysis. But before we can get to those issues, we need to start with the basics of accounting.

Accounting is keeping track of the money in a company. It's critical to keep good books and records for a business, no matter how small it is. I'm not going to lay out exactly how to do that, but I am going to discuss a few important principals.

The first important principal is every financial transaction of a company needs to be recorded. This process has been made much easier with the advent of accounting software. For most startups, Quickbooks will do in the beginning. As the company grows, the choice of accounting software will become more complicated, but by then you will have hired a financial team that can make those choices.

The recording of financial transactions is not an art. It is a science and a well understood science. It revolves around the twin concepts of a "chart of accounts" and "double entry accounting." Let's start with the chart of accounts.

The accounting books of a company start with a chart of accounts. There are two kinds of accounts; income/expense accounts and asset/liability accounts. The chart of accounts includes all of them. Income and expense accounts represent money coming into and out of a business. Asset and liability accounts represent money that is contained in the business or owed by the business.

Advertising revenue that you receive from Google Adsense would be an income account. The salary expense of a developer you hire would be an expense account. Your cash in your bank account would be an asset account. The money you owe on your company credit card would be called "accounts payable" and would be a liability.

When you initially set up your chart of accounts, the balance in each and every account is zero. As you start entering financial transactions in your accounting software, the balances of the accounts goes up or possibly down. 

The concept of double entry accounting is important to understand. Each financial transaction has two sides to it and you need both of them to record the transaction. Let's go back to that Adsense revenue example. You receive a check in the mail from Google. You deposit the check at the bank. The accounting double entry is you record an increase in the cash asset account on the balance sheet and a corresponding equal increase in the advertising revenue account. When you pay the credit card bill, you would record a decrease in the cash asset account on the balance sheet and a decrease in the "accounts payable" account on the balance sheet.

These accounting entries can get very complicated with many accounts involved in a single recorded transaction, but no matter how complicated the entries get the two sides of the financial transaction always have to add up to the same amount. The entry must balance out. That is the science of accounting.

Since the objective of MBA Mondays is not to turn you all into accountants, I'll stop there, but I hope everyone understands what a chart of accounts and an accounting entry is now.

Once you have a chart of accounts and have recorded financial transactions in it, you can produce reports. These reports are simply the balances in various accounts or alternatively the changes in the balances over a period of time.

The next three posts are going to be about the three most common reports; 

  • the profit and loss statement which is a report of the changes in the income and expense accounts over a certain period of time (month and year being the most common)
  • the balance sheet which is a report of the balances all all asset and liability accounts at a certain point in time
  • the cash flow statement which is report of the changes in all of the accounts (income/expense and asset/liability) in order to determine how much cash the business is producing or consuming over a certain period of time (month and year being the most common)

If you have a company, you must have financial records for it. And they must be accurate and up to date. I do not recommend doing this yourself. I recommend hiring a part-time bookkeeper to maintain your financial records at the start. A good one will save you all sorts of headaches. As your company grows, eventually you will need a full time accounting person, then several, and at some point your finance organization could be quite large.

There is always a temptation to skimp on this part of the business. It's not a core part of most businesses and is often not valued by tech entrepreneurs. But please don't skimp on this. Do it right and well. And hire good people to do the accounting work for your company. It will pay huge dividends in the long run.

Candid Camera

A couple weeks ago I went down to Miami for Future of Web Apps (FOWA). It was a great event and I highly recommend it to web developers and entrepreneurs. I did a keynote talk and the next day I did a three and a half hour workshop. I knew the keynote was being recorded and I had that in my head as I was talking on the stage. I did not know the workshop was being recorded but it was.

After the workshop was over, Ryan Carson, the founder of Carsonified which puts on FOWA and a number of other interesting events, asked me if he could post the 3.5 hour workshop video. My immediate reaction was "hell no" but instead I said, "let me look at it first." 

On Friday I posted two videos that came from the talk I gave at InSITE last wednesday. The entire 1.5 hours of conversation was recorded and is available here. Again, I did not know that the entire talk including Q&A was going to be posted on the web and friday morning, I spent 1.5 hours of time I did not have watching each and every minute of that video to make sure it was cool to have it on the web.

If I seem paranoid about this stuff, I am. I watched what happened to my friend Mark Pincus when he said something highly candid and off the cuff last year in an impromptu talk to entrepreneurs that was unfortunately being filmed. Some entrepreneur asked Mark about keeping control of your startup and Mark said that the only sure way to do that is get revenues early. He went on to say that they were so focused on revenues in the early days of Zynga that they did some things he didn't like. He then mentioned the Zwinky toolbar and said he installed it on his machine and couldn't get it off. And then went on to say that he told his developer to take that lead gen offer down.

Of course, that's not what everyone saw when TechCrunch posted a clip from that unfortunate video. They just saw the comment about the Zwinky toolbar without the context. 

So when I see a video of me on the web, I watch the entire thing and look at every minute in that light. I am paranoid about someone taking a 30 second clip and leaving out the rest. If I see anything that is risky in that way, I ask them to take down the video or better yet I ask them not to put it up.

That's why I wasted 1.5 hours of my time on Friday morning at 5am watching a video of myself. And that's why I may have to waste 3.5 hours of my time watching my FOWA workshop at some point. I was highly candid in that FOWA workshop and asked people not to Twitter some things I said. That's how I can provide the most value to the people in attendance (as Mark was trying to do). So that FOWA workshop video is risky in my mind.

Of course, I can simply ask people not to videotape me or ask them not to post it on the web. But that's not a great option either. There were thirty or forty people in the room at the InSITE talk the other night. Almost 1000 people have watched the first video on YouTube and over fifty have watched every single one of them. That's the power of the web, to reach way more people that can attend in person.

So that's the world we have to live in now. One that assumes when you talk in public, it will be recorded and posted on the web. One that assumes that someone will look at that video and seek an opportunity to pull a clip out of context and post it. And so if you do a lot of public speaking, you simply need to speak with that in mind. It makes me feel like a politician to tell you the truth. It's a horrible feeling but honestly I don't know if there is any other way.

Monopolies, Retransmission Fees, and Screwing Customers

There's been a battle going on between the "broadcast" TV networks and the cable networks over something called "retransmission fees." Cable networks have traditionally paid for "cable network programming" but not "over the air programming." But that is changing and the broadcast TV networks are demanding these retransmission fees from the cable companies.

At the end of last year, there was a fight between Fox and Time Warner Cable that made some headlines. It was settled on new year's day.

The latest spat is between ABC/Disney and Cablevision and it has turned personal, pitting Disney's chief Bob Iger against Cablevision's chief James Dolan. 

Of course, the losers in all of these spats are the consumers who get jerked around and risk missing things they love like the college bowl games or the Oscars. Most of these spats get settled at the last minute, but the whole exercise gives everyone a black eye.

The reason we have to put up with nonsense like this is that cable providers are still operating near monopolies. There are other options like satellite TV or services like Verizon FIOS. But most consumers get their video services from the incumbent cable provider.

And when a content provider, like ABC or Fox, wants to get more money for its programming and the cable company balks, it is the cable company's customers who are stuck.

There's a better way and we'll have it someday, but not soon enough for me. We'll go "over the top" for our video programming, getting it via a broadband connection to the Internet. Content owners like Fox and ABC will negotiate distribution deals with dozens, maybe hundreds of providers. And we'll be able to subscribe to one or more of those providers over the internet through platforms like Apple TV, our portfolio company Boxee, and many others.

When ABC wants more money from it's distribution partners in this scenario, some will pay up and others will not. And if you want to watch the Oscars, you'll simply be able to drop your subscription to one provider, light up another, and/or possibly get it directly from ABC if you want to.

Most industries work that way today. Walmart might stop carrying Puma Sneakers but you can certainly find them in hundreds of other physical and online stores if you want a sweet pair of Clydes. A three tier distribution model from the manufacturer to the distributor to the retailer works very well to insure that there is always product available in the market to customers who want it. And I believe we are going to see that model develop in the TV (and Film) business soon.

InSITE Talk

InSITE is a group of business and law school students from Columbia and NYU who provide free consulting services to startup companies. I’m a big fan of InSITE for a bunch of reasons but particularly because it is one of the few programs that I am aware of that operates across school networks here in NYC. We need more of that.

Once a year, I spend an hour and a half talking to the InSITE group and then we go out for beers afterward. It’s a fun night and I really look forward to it. We did that on Wednesday night of this week. 

The talk was recorded and I’ll embed two videos that capture my talk which lasted about 15 minutes. We did about an hour of Q&A and all of that was captured as well and is available on InSITE’s YouTube channel.

Here’s the first part of my talk where I talk about the venture capital business.

Here’s the second part of my talk where I talk about sectors that I’m excited about and a bit about NYC’s role in the tech/startup world.

Panels

Mark Suster, who writes the best VC blog out there right now, has a post about sitting on panels. He gives the following advice:

  • Educate
  • Entertain
  • Discuss and Debate (have a dialog)
  • Build Awareness of your firm/company/brand
  • Make connections with your other panelists and follow-up with them
  • Avoid panels that are too big
  • Don't over promote
  • Don't give a long winded intro
  • Don't hog the microphone
  • Don't try to moderate the panel

Excellent advice Mark. I agree with all of it. Read Mark's post for the details.

All that said, I really hate panels. I hate watching them and I hate being on them even more. I think it's a lazy way to participate in a conference. You show up, answer a few questions, sit up on the stage with a bunch of other people, and then go home.

I much prefer the 15-20 minute talk with Q&A afterward. I think I'd prefer even more a 10 minute talk with longer Q&A afterward.

Panels rarely turn into interesting discussions. If you want an interesting discussion, have someone good do an on-stage interview. I've done on stage interviews with people like John Battelle, John Heilemann, and Alan Murray and they are fantastic discussions. I'd like to do more of them.

I'm on record that I don't like big time conferences. Now I'm on record that I don't like panels.

But I do like small conferences focused on a particular group or sector. And I do like to see a short presentation or a well done interview and I also like to deliver them as well. I'd love to see more of all of those things.

Standardized Venture Funding Docs

There was a lot of noise in VC/startup land earlier this week about the Series Seed documents that can be used to close a seed round. Marc Andreessen told PE Hub:

It’s like open source software. If it’s developed by IBM, there’s no
reason for another company not to use it. The documents aren’t owned or
controlled by Fenwick. Fenwick isn’t getting paid for them. I don’t
think there’s a reason for another attorney not to use them, except if
they’re concerned over reduced billings. Lawyers have a financial
incentive to make things more complicated because they are paid more.

I'd like to differ with Marc on this one. First, as Brad Feld points out, there are now four sets of "open source" seed documents:

I will add a fifth of sorts; Gunderson has set up a "Simple Series A" set of forms that our firm has used a few times. I am not aware that they have been published on the Internet yet though.

There are no shortage of "standard forms" out there. TechStars uses one set. Y Combinator uses another. Founders Institute uses a third. Andreessen Horowitz uses a fourth. And USV and other firms uses a fifth.

The problem, as Brad Feld points out, is that nobody has done the work to get all the various players in the room and standardize on one form. Ted Wang showed me the Series Seed documents last year and while I am hugely supportive of his intent here, I can't and won't get behind the Series Seed forms because they leave out some critical stuff that we simply won't do a deal without.

I guess it's like open source software in that there are many flavors of it out there. One project might choose MongoDB for their project. Another might choose Cassandra. A third might choose Hadoop. All will get the job done and all are open source. But each one has its strengths and weaknesses and there is no standard. That's ok with me as long as everyone understands it.

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