Posts from August 2019

Risk Tolerance

Startup companies go through a number of phases as they mature from an idea, to a small team, to a growing team, to a small company, to a big company.

And along this journey, the leadership team you need changes. You need little to no leadership structure when you have a small team, you need some sort of leadership structure when your team is growing, you absolutely need a leadership team when you become a “company”, and the leadership team becomes incredibly important when you become a big company.

In the last week, I’ve had several conversations with CEOs in our portfolio who are leveling up their leadership teams and are recruiting executives from larger organizations.

I’ve counseled them to make sure that they hire executives who have a lot of risk tolerance.

High growth companies that emerge from a startup situation tend to be volatile. They have a lot of turnover in their organization, they have moments when the cash balances get low, they sometimes face existential risks.

If you have executives that you need to spend a lot of time comforting and solidifying, that’s not good. Ideally your leadership team is your steadying force and if you are steadying them, then your setup is suboptimal.

It is always tempting to bring in people who have operated at a scale well beyond where you are. And I am not saying you should not do that. You should. But just make sure they can handle the heat in the kitchen because it’s gonna get hot sometimes.

#entrepreneurship#management

Video Of The Week: Overcoming Sprawl

I have been fortunate to work for the last 25 years in the Flatiron District of NYC, which is a mixed-use neighborhood (office, retail, residential) that has excellent mass transit options (three major subway lines converge at Union Square), great biking and walking streets, and a feeling of vitality that is infectious.

So this video I watched this morning rings very true to me. I think cities around the world (both new cities being built in Asia and existing cities looking to transform themselves like Los Angeles) can and will adopt policies that limit sprawl and get us back to living with other people in mixed-use environments that make us happier, more productive, and more sustainable.

#climate crisis#Current Affairs#NYC

Funding Friday: Break Kickstarter

Last month our portfolio company Kickstarter invited project creators to “break conventions, but not our rules” and create campaigns that were different from the traditional Kickstarter campaign.

There are 99 “break Kickstarter” campaigns live on the platform now and I featured one of them last week. But there are many more super interesting and creative campaigns.

I backed a bunch of them this week and thought I’d showcase them to all of you today. You can find them and back them here.

#crowdfunding

Streaks

Seth Godin says it so well in this blog post celebrating his 11th anniversary of writing every day on his personal blog.

Streaks are their own reward.
Streaks create internal pressure that keeps streaks going.
Streaks require commitment at first, but then the commitment turns into a practice, and the practice into a habit.
Habits are much easier to maintain than commitments.

We see this in several of our portfolio companies. Duolingo leverages streaks to encourage people to stick with language learning. Foursquare’s Swarm uses streaks to reward people for continuing to play that game (one I’ve played religiously for over a decade).

And of course my 16 year streak here at AVC is working powerfully too.

As Seth says:

once a commitment is made to a streak, the question shifts from, “should I blog tomorrow,” to, “what will tomorrow’s blog say?”

Bingo

#life lessons

Ignoring vs Not Replying

I had an exchange recently that has stuck with me and so I thought I would write a bit about this topic.

When someone tweets at me, emails me, texts me, tags me, etc, and I don’t reply, they assume I either did not see it or am ignoring it. That might be true but generally, it is not the case.

What is more likely is that I saw it, I got the message, I understand it, and I may even be acting on it. But for any number of good reasons, I have chosen not to reply to it.

There is a very big difference between ignoring something and acting on it, but that difference is not visible to the person sending the message. And so they assume that it is being ignored.

Sometimes I will like the message (if it is on social media) to acknowledge that I saw it. But if I don’t actually like the message (eg “you are the dumbest person in the world Fred”), I might not do that. Or I might. It sort of depends on my mood.

But the truth is I read a lot more and act on a lot more than I acknowledge publicly. And that is the case for many people I know who for various reasons (volume, legal, PR, etc) can’t or don’t reply to many messages.

So my point is don’t assume your messages are being ignored. They may be having the desired impact. But you may not know it.

#life lessons

Reserves

One of the unique things about early stage investing is the ability (and in my view, the need) to continue to invest in the companies for multiple rounds of investment.

Late stage, public market, private equity, real estate, and most other popular forms of investing typically involve a single or a time limited series of investments.

But at USV, we typically will make four to six investments in a “name” over five to seven years.

And we do this style of investing with a fixed pool of capital.

So we have gotten very analytical about modeling out our reserves for our follow on investments.

What we do is maintain a spreadsheet of every investment in a given fund and the likely amount and timing of future follow on investments as well as the probability of us having the opportunity to make those investments.

We then run a Monte Carlo simulation 1000 times and draw a distribution curve of outcomes and then manage our funds against that.

We have a “cushion” for error which is our ability to recycle roughly 20% of our funds and that has come in handy on every fund we have managed at USV.

I think the proper allocation of follow on capital into the portfolio and making sure you can follow your winners and defend your position in certain situations is absolutely critical to producing top tier returns.

It is not as important as portfolio selection (which comes from our thesis) or our work on the boards of our portfolio. Those two things are the most critical factors in our performance.

But I think capital allocation/fund management is third on the list and is a missed opportunity for many early stage investors.

#VC & Technology

Striking The Right Balance

I was talking recently to a friend who advises a lot of boards. I asked him his view on boards overall.

He said that he saw two styles, both of which he found problematic.

The first style is the “rubber stamp board” that does whatever the CEO asks of them.

The second style is the “meddling board” that acts like it is running the business.

He told me he sees very few boards that manage to strike the right balance.

I sit on a lot of boards and have been doing so for thirty years now. I have been on rubber stamp boards and I have been on meddling boards. And I agree that both are problematic.

What I have learned over the years from those not great experiences is that boards must respect the line between governance and management and never cross it. But they also must govern. They must push back on things that don’t make sense and they must exercise the authority that has been vested in them by the shareholders.

This need to strike the right balance exists in many other contexts in our lives. It is the essence of good parenting. It is the essence of good management.

To a large extent boards reflect the CEOs that report to them. Strong willed successful CEOs can often construct rubber stamp boards because that is what they want. And weak ineffective CEOs find themselves with meddling boards who are trying to manage the poorly managed company from above.

Neither of these situations is good. The weak and ineffective CEO should be replaced by the board instead of trying to manage from above.

And the strong willed CEO must have checks and balances placed on them, no matter how well they are doing.

A great board chair can be transformative for a board. They can stop the meddling and force the necessary management changes. And they can stand up to a strong willed CEO and build the trust and respect that can lead to a well functioning board.

This is why I do not believe that CEOs should chair their boards. They should find someone who has a lot of board experience, knows how to strike the right balance, and vest in them the authority to lead the board to the right place.

I have been on boards that do strike the right balance and are chaired properly. It is a pleasure to work on these boards and a well functioning board is a thing of beauty. Every CEO should want one.

#entrepreneurship#management

Funding Friday: Bellwether

I saw this project this morning and backed it immediately.

Bellwether is Sam Greenspan‘s next project (after doing 99% Invisible for five years).

Bellwether is about the future and what might happen. It is half journalism and half sci-fi storytelling. And it is delivered via 30min podcast episodes.

Finally, Sam has stated that he cares more about building a community around this project than the money he’s raising and so he will not consider this project a successful Kickstarter campaign unless he reaches 1000 backers or more. He’s at 652 as of this morning.

#crowdfunding