Posts from January 2019

Capitalism and Inequality

I was talking to a friend about AOC’s proposal to increase marginal federal rates to 70% to fund investments in fighting climate change. My friend said he was disappointed that she didn’t propose a top federal rate of 83.25% so that the marginal rate in NYC would be 100%. He was joking but his remark is important because it speaks to the nuance of the marginal rate, something AOC and her followers don’t really understand as much as they claim.

It reminds me of a heated conversation I had with my kids and their friends during our family ski trip over the year end break. Our kids, like most millennials I know, are struggling with the notion of capitalism at any cost and the massive income and wealth inequality that we are witnessing.

This headline I came across on Twitter today kind of sums it up well:

I am in the business of helping founders start companies which results in some of them becoming billionaires. Contrary to what some think, my wife and I aren’t in that club ourselves. But I know a fair number of billionaires and I have had a front row seat to the process of them going from not having a penny in their pockets to billions on their balance sheet.

And we are participants in the “economic system that creates billionaires.” I do not think it is immoral and I do not think billionaires are immoral. I do think the inequality that we allow in our country is immoral.

To me, these are two different things. And that is the gist of the discussion I was having with my kids and their friends over the year end holiday. They asked me why I don’t believe in massively raising taxes on the rich to pay for all of these new social programs that the candidates on the left are proposing.

I am a fan of many of these social programs, like medical care for all, like more affordable education for all, like new approaches to what we once called “welfare” and now is taking shape as Universal Basic Income. I have been called a communist, a socialist, a liberal, and more on this blog and all of those labels could be accurate in someone’s mind. I believe that society must find ways to support the basic needs of everyone, which include wellness, knowledge, and income. That we do not is immoral. That we allow billionaires is not.

I am a capitalist and a business person. I understand that increasing taxes on the wealthiest leads many of them to move their income and assets to lower tax jurisdictions and can be counter productive, particularly when you go beyond a certain threshold. I also understand that government is bloated and there are many places where we could cut spending to fund these new innovative programs that could help counter the immoral wealth imbalance we have in our country.

I believe that technological revolutions, like the industrial revolution and the information revolution, create opportunities for entrepreneurs to reimagine how the economy should operate. Those entrepreneurs, like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, Bezos, Page, Zuckerberg, build very powerful monopolies and amass billions.

As these revolutions reimagine how the economy should operate, many people lose jobs, can’t find jobs, find themselves in lower paying jobs, and there is real dislocation that results. And you get this “immoral wealth imbalance.”

The one part of the economy that seems immune to re-imagination is the government. If we were to force it to go through the same technological revolution that the private sector is going through, we would see massive efficiencies, and massive job losses, that would free up a huge amount of capital that could be used to pay for things like medical care for all, affordable education for all, and some amount of income for all.

That is what I am for. That is what I explained to my kids and their friends that I am for.

Times of change are times of change. And we can’t change some things but not everything.

I will end with a story from a book I read a few years ago. The book is called The Prize that was written by Dale Russakoff and is about the effort by Chris Christie, Cory Booker, and Mark Zuckerberg to fix the broken Newark NJ public school system.

The story takes place at an anti-charter school rally. Dale meets a woman who is protesting against the charter schools that are replacing the district schools. As she is talking to this woman, she explains that she is late to the rally because she had to spend all morning in line trying to get her child into the new charter school in her neighborhood. Dale is perplexed. Why would she be protesting charter schools if she is that committed to getting her child into one? The woman explains that most of her family works in the district schools and will lose their jobs if the city moves to charter schools.

And that’s where we are. We are not willing to move away from the things of the past to get the things of the future. So our elected officials decide to try to give us both and we struggle with how to pay for it all.

I am not for the emerging progressive Robin Hood narrative. I am certainly not for the entrenched conservative Let Them Eat Cake narrative. I am for a new narrative that understands that everything must change if we are to find ways to support everyone in our society.

What Kind Of Coach Do You Want?

My colleagues and I are asked all the time for recommendations for coaches, mostly for the founders and CEOs we work with, but often for others on the senior team. I am a huge fan of coaches. I think they can be game changing for leaders and their teams.

I always ask a bunch of questions to find out what kind of coach someone wants before making suggestions.

A key question is whether you want answers or questions from your coach.

My partner Andy wrote a bit about this, in a very different context, the other day.

I’ve spent a large portion of my career investing in early-stage companies. Part of that job is to advise and counsel, to assist a company in reaching its potential. I try to ask for feedback on how I am doing in that job. A constant thing I hear is to provide more direct answers to problems posed to me. Typically, I am told, I answer their questions with further questions.  

Yet, I think it’s important to tolerate ambiguity. Maybe there isn’t a direct answer. Maybe I don’t know the answer. Maybe I want to assist others in coming up with their own answers.

I have to confess that I am more of a “why don’t you try this?” sort of advisor.

Andy is more of a “why do you want to do that?” sort of advisor.

Both can be very valuable but it really depends on what you want/need in an advisor. Getting answers when you want questions can be frustrating. Getting questions when you want answers can be equally frustrating.

So think about what it is you want from a coach before going out and finding one. Getting the fit right is important.

MLK Day Quote

Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of words. He used them to inspire, to rally, and to ultimately bring change. The change he brought is the reason we remember him on this day every year.

Many of his words are broadly applicable, well beyond the worlds he occupied.

This quote strikes a nerve for me as we work with many founders and leaders:

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Leading is knowing where you want to go and working to get others to want to go there too. That could be your team, your board and investors, your customers, or the entire world.

Molding is the word I like most in that quote. It describes the work of leading correctly. You can’t will people to follow you. You can’t expect people to follow you. You need to work to get them there.

Screen Time Tracking/Management

In my “What Happened in 2018” post I wrote this:

And the usage of screen time management apps, like Screentime on iOS, is surging. We know we are addicted to tech, we don’t want to be, and we are working on getting sober.

I wrote that based mostly on anecdotal data but we have been looking for better data and have not found it.

So Dani and I worked on a survey that she ran last week and we got these results from a survey of 1,000 adults in the US using Google Surveys:

  • 24% use an app to track their screen time.
  • 34% of iOS users use an app to track screen time vs 19% of Android users.
  • iOS users are twice as likely to use the default screen tracker app than Android users.
  • People across age groups are equally likely to use an app to track their screen time.

Here is a graphical representation of that data that Dani put together:

What we don’t know is what these numbers looked like a year ago, but I am fairly confident that we are seeing a surge in the usage of these tools to manage screen time.

We will run this survey again mid-year and again at the end of the year to see if this trend continues.

This is a good trend in my view but it does mean that there is a governor on the amount of usage time that consumers have on their mobile apps and that will make it a bit harder for new mobile apps to gain traction and market share.

It will be interesting to see if usage of mobile apps, including the most popular ones like Instagram, show any signs of slowing down.

Video Of The Week: Our Partner Rebecca Kaden

Rebecca Kaden, who joined USV in late 2017, was on Bloomberg last May. Somehow, I had never seen this. So I am running it today. If you don’t know Rebecca, you should meet her. She’s leading our efforts in a bunch of areas that she talks about in this interview.

Executive Sessions and Continuous Feedback

I’ve written about these two related but different topics before but I’ve been doing a lot of board meetings as we kick off 2019 and I am reminded of how important both are.

At the end of every board meeting, the board should meet alone with the CEO in an executive session, followed by a session without the CEO, followed by a session where at least one director, but possibly all of the directors, meet again with the CEO.

This requires a fair bit of time to do right. These three back to back sessions will easily take thirty minutes to do right and could take as much as an hour.

When a board meeting goes three or four hours, it is tempting to wrap when everyone has “hard stops” and punt on these executive sessions.

But that would be a big mistake.

CEOs need to know where the board stands on the meeting, the big issues, the team, the strategy, and most importantly the performance of the CEO. And CEOs need to know that in real time and all the time.

The big problems that I have run into with companies over the years often have to do with misalignment between a management team and the board, and most acutely misalignment between a CEO and the board.

A process by which the CEO gets real time, regular, in person feedback from the board will alleviate many of these issues. These can be hard conversations and they can be difficult for the CEO to understand and process. None of this is easy stuff. But when people know where they stand and can react to it, things go better. It is when people don’t know where they stand and are grasping for straws when things go most badly off the rails.

The executive session/feedback process is also used by audit committees to manage the relationships between the board, CFO, and external auditors. I have found that they are incredibly important in that setting too.

If you aren’t doing executive sessions with your board, start doing them. And if you do them, but you skimp on them frequently due to time issues, shorten your board meetings and protect your executive session time. These sessions need to come last and that makes protecting them challenging but I believe a board meeting without an executive session is a bad board meeting.

“If The Train Is Delayed, Find Another Way Home”

I worked for a man named Bliss McCrum (and his partner Milton Pappas) in my mid 20s. They taught me the venture capital business. They were in their 50s, around my age, at that time.

Bliss one time gave me this business travel advice. He said, if the train is delayed or stops at a station and can’t move, get off the train and find another way home. His experience told him that once delays start happening, they tend to get worse, and you are better served by ditching plan A and finding a plan B.

I have used that advice many times over the years, and while it is not perfect, it has been on point more often than off point.

Today I had a 6:30am flight to SFO from LAX. When I picked up my phone as I was leaving the house for the airport, I saw a text from Alaska Airlines that my flight had been cancelled and they were booking me on the next flight.

Bliss popped into my head and I thought, “I’m going to get to LAX and get on the 7am flight that I usually take.” I had wanted to get to SF super early today so I booked the first flight out of LAX to SFO instead of my usual 7am flight.

Once I got to LAX, I was able to get onto the 7am flight, and then headed to the gate where my new flight was leaving from. That required getting on a bus and heading to a new terminal. This is what the guts of LAX look like at 6am.

Once I got to my gate, I learned that my 7am flight was delayed into SFO by 90 minutes, thus pushing my arrival back two hours from when I wanted to be there.

Again Bliss entered my head and I thought “what about San Jose?”. So I went to the board and saw that there was a 7:30am flight getting into San Jose at 8:50. I went to the service desk and asked if there were any delays getting into San Jose this morning and was told there were not.

So I swapped my SFO ticket for a SJC ticket and got basically the same seat on a similar plane.

I’m in the air to SJC right now and hope to land in about 30 mins\utes and then get in a car and be taken the hour+ that it will take to get to into San Francisco. But at least I can call into the start of my meeting instead of missing the first couple hours completely.

I have to thank Bliss for the inspiration to scramble today instead of just taking what the airlines were giving me and being chill about it. I think it worked out well and I’m going to be able to participate in the entirety of my meeting today. Thanks Bliss.

The Daily Dose

At the bottom of the first post on this blog is a widget that contains links to recent blog posts by other USV team members. Many USV folks blog regularly and this widget surfaces those posts to all of you and everyone who visits the various blogs of the USV team members.

Other than me, there are a few other USV team members who blog regularly; Albert, Nick, and Bethany are the most prolific writers at USV. Andy and Brad are the best writers but we don’t get a lot of production out of them.

Since the start of the year, Bethany, who runs USV’s portfolio network, has produced a dozen blog posts, on topics like Hamilton In Puerto Rico, Nostalgia Creep In A High Growth Company, How To Measure A VC Firm’s Platform Efforts, and a lot more.

I am just one window into USV and the VC/startup world in general. I encourage those who are interested in this stuff to seek out other voices as well. Right now, Bethany is one fire. You should check her blog out.

More Data On VC’s Big Year In 2018

Last week I wrote about and linked to the PWC/CB Insights round up of venture investing in 2018.

Well less than a week later Crunchbase is out with its own data on 2018.

The Crunchbase numbers are much bigger, they report about $330bn of global deal volume.

But otherwise the trends are roughly the same. Flattening deal volumes and amounts raised in the early stage market with massive expansion in the late stage market.

Make no bones about it, there is a lot of money in the venture capital ecosystem right now.