Posts from VC & Technology

Is It A Computer Or A Car?

In the spring of 2014, I walked across the street from our apartment building to our parking garage to get our car and drive somewhere. I can’t recall where I was headed that morning. But as I walked into the garage, I saw two EV charging kiosks had been installed in our parking garage. I turned around and ran back to our apartment building, went back upstairs to our apartment, and told The Gotham Gal that we were getting a Tesla. I had long wanted an EV but the “how do we charge it in the city” problem had been the blocker. Now that was solved.

Maybe a month later, the Tesla arrived and I drove it into the parking garage to show the garage attendant how to drive and charge the car. He sat behind the wheel while I described the features of the car and when I was done he said to me “Mr. Wilson, they have combined an iPhone with a car!

I love that story because never a truer word has been spoken.

I was thinking about that when I was recently describing how my new Rivian Truck handles off-road driving. It isn’t four-wheel drive, it isn’t all-wheel drive, it is any-wheel drive. There are four electric motors, one on each wheel, and depending on how the truck is performing, different amounts of power are delivered to each and every wheel. The software determines which wheels need what power and supplies it to that wheel in real-time.

Is the Tesla a car or a computer? Neither and a bit of both. Is the Rivian a truck or a computer? Neither and a bit of both.

When you rethink a system, like a car or a truck, as a computer first and foremost, amazing things become possible. Like over-the-air software upgrades which continue to add new features to our Tesla eight years after I drove it into the parking garage for the first time.

We have seen this story play out across many devices in our lives; phones, TVs, watches, thermostats, smoke alarms, light switches, etc, etc. It is an enormous shift in how things are designed and made and it is playing out right in front of us.

#VC & Technology

Face To Face

As we all prepare for the fall back to school/back to work season, I thought I’d touch on a topic that has been top of mind for me for the last six months.

The covid pandemic taught many of us that we can be productive and our companies can succeed in a fully remote work environment. But just because you can does not mean you should.

In the venture capital business, this has meant making investments in teams we don’t meet face to face. For founders, this has meant raising rounds from their offices instead of getting on planes.

As the pandemic has eased and offices have gradually reopened over the last year, we are meeting more founders face to face. But we have not gone back to a world where we meet every team we back in person. I don’t think we will ever go fully back to that world.

But even if the way we work has changed permanently, it does not mean that it has changed for the better. I believe that all change has positive and negative impacts. We can meet more founders than we used to. And founders can meet more investors. That is good. But matches are now being made over video and that is not always great.

We know that humans are better to each other in person. We know that in-person interaction is more meaningful, we are more present, and we connect in more fundamental ways.

So I believe that we must work in the coming years to get out of our offices (or homes) and see each other in person more often.

That means we should run fundraising processes that include meeting in person. We can do the initial screens (on both sides) over zoom, but the final selection process should include face-to-face meetings whenever possible. And board meetings should be done in person at least a few times a year. And those in-person meetings should include some social time in addition to business.

For companies, this means hiring should include a face-to-face meeting. Teams should meet in person regularly. Going to the office should be a regular occurrence for those that live near one.

It is time to get back to the office, at least some of the time. It will make for better business. And I also think it will make us happier at work.

#entrepreneurship#management#VC & Technology

Deep Dives

We like to do a lot of deep dives at USV. We pick areas that we think will present interesting investment opportunities over the next five to ten years and then spend time researching them. We like to talk to lots of experts, academics, investors, entrepreneurs, and industry. We generally spend a few months on these deep dives and then present them to the rest of the team so that everyone at USV will be somewhat fluent in the topic area and can flag interesting things that fit what is interesting to us.

Deep dives are not so much about areas we’ve been investing in, although we sometimes do that to refresh a thesis. Deep dives are generally about new areas that are just starting to percolate and appear interesting to us.

This summer all of the USV partners picked one or two (in one case three) areas to do deep dives on. As the market has cooled down, we’ve found the time to take on some primary research.

I’ve been looking into nuclear reactors and batteries with the lens of how small is possible. Could we make a nuclear reactor or battery that fits in our home? Could we make a nuclear reactor or battery that we carry with us like a phone?

I know these ideas seem preposterous but that’s exactly the kind of questions we like to ask ourselves. Often we find out that the idea is as nutty as it seems but we bump into something else along the way that is even more interesting.

So if you know something about my research topic or know someone who does send me an email. I’m all ears.

#VC & Technology

Bridge Loans

When fundraising gets tougher for startups, the existing investors (insiders) will often provide a bridge loan to the company to extend the runway for getting another round done. There is more of this sort of thing happening in today’s fundraising market and I thought I’d share some of the things I have learned about setting up bridge loans.

First, bridge loans are a bridge to something else. Most commonly they are a bridge to a round of financing with new investors (outsiders). They can also be a bridge to the sale of the company. Occasionally, but not often, they can be a bridge to getting cash flow positive. If none of those things is going to happen in a relatively short period of time, then it is a bridge to nowhere and you really want to avoid that. A bridge to another bridge is never a good thing and should be avoided at all costs.

An alternative to a bridge is an “insider round” where the existing investors provide sufficient capital to fund the business for eighteen to twenty-four months. That is a real round of financing and it is not a bridge. While that can sometimes be the right answer for a startup, I strongly prefer bringing new investors/new capital into a company in every financing round. New investors strengthen the investor syndicate which makes the company more resilient. New investors bring new ideas, new experiences, and new sources of funding to the business. New investors in every round are a very good thing and I like to try for that whenever possible.

So let’s say your company really wants to bring new investors into the business with another round, but it is taking longer. But you and your investors are confident that the new round will happen. Then a bridge is a good idea.

Here is how I like to structure a bridge:

  • All material existing investors should participate, ideally “pro-rata”, meaning the investors participate based on their respective ownership interests. When you have an existing investor that owns a large percentage of the business and they won’t or can’t participate, you have a problem. You can get a bridge done in these circumstances but it will be painful because nobody likes to “carry” a large existing investor who can’t support the business.
  • The ideal structure is a convertible note, with nominal interest, and a discount upon conversion into the next round of financing.
  • I like the discounts to be based on the amount of time the bridge note is outstanding. This creates an incentive to get the round done quickly, which is what everyone wants in this situation. It is also easier to explain the discount to the new investors in the next round when the discount is small if the bridge has not been outstanding for long. And it is understandable if the discount is larger when the bridge has been outstanding for a longer time period.
  • I like to start with a 5% discount and cap the discount at 25%. The ideal discount is between 10% and 20% and so the time frame for the various discounts should be set with that in mind.
  • A very important consideration in structuring a bridge loan is what happens if the company is sold when the note is outstanding. If the bridge documents do not specify anything in this situation, the noteholders will only get their money back, plus interest, in a sale. That is not really appropriate given that they are providing the capital to get the company to a sale, and so I like a premium to be paid in the event of a sale. I like somewhere between 2x and 3x depending on the circumstances.

When it is time for a bridge, the lead investor, which is typically the investor with the largest capital invested and largest ownership, should “step up”, suggest terms, and work with the investor syndicate to come together and provide a bridge loan. That kind of leadership is very important when fundraising gets harder. The startups that have strong leads will do a lot better in tough times and this is a really good example of why that is.

#entrepreneurship#VC & Technology

Remote, Hybrid, or In-Person?

We have been watching our portfolio of ~130 technology companies wrestle with this decision for the last two and a half years. Brought on by the covid pandemic and the work from home moment that it created, there has been a sea change in the way that technology companies organize themselves to get work done.

Ben Horowitz observed this in a piece last week where he described A16Z’s decision to embrace a hybrid model that he called “HQ in the Cloud.”

It turns out that running a technology company remotely works pretty darned well. It’s not perfect, but mitigating the cultural issues associated with remote work turns out to be easier than mitigating the employee satisfaction issues associated with forcing everyone into the office 5 days/week. 

https://a16z.com/2022/07/21/a16z-is-moving-to-the-cloud/

Most people are happier having a lot of flexibility around where they work. We have seen that people who are raising families have benefitted from the flexibility of working closer to where their families are and the ability to be somewhere quickly. But that is only one example of why flexibility around where you work is so powerful. Many job functions require, or at least benefit from, the ability to concentrate without interruption or distraction. A quiet home office is vastly better than a busy open workspace for that kind of work.

And then there is the commute. I am writing this on a commuter train heading into NYC. For a time in my life, I took a train like this into the city every morning at 6am and got back on it to go home at 6pm. It was almost an hour each way, so I spent almost two hours a day, five days a week, commuting. This can be a productive time, particularly if you are commuting on mass transit like I am right now, but many people don’t have convenient mass transit options in their lives and must drive to and from work, often in traffic. Eliminating the need to commute to the office might be the single best reason that people are happier having a lot of flexibility around where they work.

The numbers are telling. As of this spring, only 38% of NYC office workers were in their office on a given day based on this survey by the Partnership For NYC (a leading business group in NYC). The numbers are similar in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Some cities around the US have much higher numbers but I have not seen any city higher than 70% on this score.

The Partnership concluded that remote work is here to stay:

Remote work is here to stay, with 78% of employers indicating a hybrid office model will be their predominant post-pandemic policy, up from just 6% pre-pandemic.

https://pfnyc.org/research/return-to-office-survey-results-may-2022/

But I want to return to Ben’s quote and talk about the cultural issues. I don’t believe we (the tech sector broadly) have done a good job of “mitigating the cultural issues with remote work.” I think a lot of the challenging morale and retention situations in our portfolio and across the tech sector suggest the opposite is true.

Here is the quandry we face:

People are happier with flexibility around where they work.

Companies, teams, and organizations are happier when people are working together.

Aren’t companies just collections of people? Yes. But groups of happier people are less happy together when they don’t get the face time that makes group dynamics easier.

We all know that people are nicer to each other in person. Email and slack and zoom don’t bring out the best in people. Having a meal together does.

So what should we do about this quandry?

I don’t think the answer is restricting flexibility around where people work. That feels like table stakes now for knowledge workers. I think the answer is figuring out how to get people back together more frequently in ways they want to convene in person.

There are many ways to do this and we have seen some good ones.

At USV, we have two days a week where we meet together and as a group with founders (Mondays and Thursdays) and those days tend to be much more popular to be in the office. We don’t require people to come to the office on those days, but we do see that most people opt into coming in those days. We also make sure to order a great lunch on Mondays and Thursdays. We could and probably should add an after-work happy hour and/or sports teams/leagues to make those days even more attractive to the team. The basic idea is to make coming to the office an attractive option a few days a week.

One USV portfolio CEO suggested a great idea in a CEO zoom we organized on this topic a year or so ago. He said that he wanted his teams to come together for a week at the start of a project and again for a week at the end of a project. He wanted them to be together to kick it off and again to ship it. I think that’s a great idea and have been encouraging the teams that I work with to do that.

Our portfolio companies used to do exec team offsites a few times a year. A few of them are now doing them monthly. That makes sense to me. I can’t imagine an effective exec team that isn’t in person together at least once a month. And yet so many of the exec teams I have exposure to are not spending nearly enough time together right now and have not for the last few years. This same thought can be extrapolated to any team in any company.

Those are just some examples of things that can be done and should be done to get people working together again in an age of remote work that is not going to end. I am sure there are many other great techniques and if you lead a company and/or an HR team, you should be collecting and using as many of them as you can right now.

At USV, we feel pretty strongly that getting people back to working together in person is important to the success of our portfolio companies and the broader tech sector. So we recently opened our new office in NYC that is designed to host individuals and teams from our portfolio and the broader tech ecosystem that need somewhere nice to work together. Think WeWork meets SohoHouse meets VC firm. We are still working out the kinks this summer and plan to open it up more broadly in the fall. Stay tuned for more on that here and elsewhere.

All change has good and bad downstream effects. The broad-based adoption of remote work in the tech sector (and beyond) is allowing people to balance work and home life in ways that are extremely beneficial to them. But team morale and the broader cultural needs of companies have suffered and we need to recognize that and address it. We can’t accept that as the new norm. It is unacceptable the way it is right now. A hybrid model that provides continued flexibility while creating a lot more face time is the long-term answer and we must keep innovating until we find the right balance.

#employment#enterprise#management#VC & Technology

Valuing a Venture Capital Portfolio

Every quarter our firm goes through a process to value our entire portfolio. Those values, on a schedule of investments we publish to our investors every quarter, flow through to our financial statements and capital accounts and establish how much an interest in our partnerships are worth at that time.

We have always taken this process very seriously and approach it with a lot of rigor. Every partner is highly engaged with this process. Although we have a fantastic financial team at USV, we do not simply outsource valuing the portfolio to them because we understand that those who are closest to the portfolio companies will have the best view of what they are worth.

We have a few rules and I would like to share them:

– Be conservative. The auditors try to get us to mark our portfolio up to reflect “market prices” but we prefer to keep our portfolio marked below market prices, particularly in times of market froth. This leads to a fair bit of haggling with our auditors that is mostly a waste of everyone’s time but we feel that it is important to maintain our conservative posture.

– Get Ahead of Market Pullbacks. We like to move quickly to take our marks down when we see the market environment changing. Public stocks often lead private valuations by several quarters so we like to look to public market comparables and mark down quickly.

– Never Mark Higher Than Potential Sale Value. Every time we have a significant M&A exit in our portfolio, I like to check that the proceeds to USV exceed our current mark. I believe we have always met that test. I hope we always do.

– Take Total or Partial Write-Downs In Advance of Problems. When a company is having real issues, we like to take total or partial write downs. We sometimes reverse them if the company recovers. If you might lose money on an investment, it is always best to signal that ahead of time.

– Have Multiple Sets Of Eyes On The Marks. We debate and discuss the marks with each other. This is all about getting multiple sets of eyes on the marks. While the partner closest to the company will always have the best sense of value, debating and discussing often leads to a better answer. We do this in everything we do at USV. It’s a huge part of our culture.

Valuing a private investment or a portfolio of private investments is an inexact exercise. Because there is no liquid market for most of our positions, we don’t really know what someone would pay for them right now. So we do the best we can, take a very conservative posture, and revisit them quarterly. That has worked well for us over the years.

Q1 of this year was a down quarter for USV and we expect we will see additional markdowns in Q2. But our markdowns have not been as steep as the decline in the Nasdaq over the last six months. That is because we maintained a conservative bias throughout the last few years and resisted the efforts of some to get us to behave differently. And that feels good and right to me.

#VC & Technology

Staying Positive

The last six months have been a challenging time for tech and tech startups. Macro events have weighed on the sector, valuations have come crashing down, revenue growth has slowed (or stopped), and layoffs are happening across the sector.

Many of the folks I work with are frustrated. The things that were working in their business stopped working and they can’t get it moving again. They are struggling to project the business and plan for the year and next year. They feel terrible about letting so many great people go and blame themselves for it.

It helps to work with many companies in times like this. We see this happening almost everywhere. And so we have some perspective. Yes, it is our collective fault for getting out over our skis during the good times and not seeing tougher times ahead. Yes, we could have and should have been more conservative with our growth plans and hiring. Yes, it is our fault for putting our companies in the position where they have to let go of so many people.

But it is also the case that the number one thing in times like this is staying in the game so you can play another round. You don’t want to go bust right now. So it is time to take your lumps, learn some valuable lessons from them, and move on.

It is also time to stay positive. When you are the leader of a company (or anything else), you have to lead with optimism, enthusiasm, and positive energy. There are people out there declaring tech is dead, web3 is over, and cheering on the fall from grace. It is best to ignore all of that, focus on what you are building, and find some wins for the team, and for yourself.

The great thing about working in tech is that there are always new problems to solve, new markets to create, new products to ship. The macro events don’t change that. So focus yourself and your team on building and shipping those things, get some wins, and move forward with optimism and positive energy. It will be infectious.

#VC & Technology#Web/Tech#Web3

The Partnership

I have worked in three venture capital firms in the thirty-six years I have been doing venture capital investing. They have all been small partnerships, between three and seven investing partners, where there is little to no hierarchy among the partners.

There are many models out there for building and managing investment firms. They vary from a single partner to an organization structure that looks like a Fortune 500 company. There is no best way to structure an investment firm.

But for early-stage investing, I believe that the small flat partnership is the best structure if the goal is to produce high return on capital funds. Here are some reasons why this model is superior for early-stage investing:

  • At the early stage, investors must bet on teams and ideas that have not been proven. The biggest winners almost always come from the investments that are the most controversial and “out there”. A small tight partnership where there is a lot of trust between the partners is a place where you can make a lot of these kinds of investments.
  • Being a lead investor in a company you start working with when it is very young (sub 10 employees) and remain actively involved with until exit can take a decade or more of work. Staying aligned as a partnership on the company and supportive of it is hard to do but incredibly important if you want the best outcome. That is hard, if not impossible if the investing team is large, hierarchical, bureaucratic, and largely disengaged with the company.
  • No single investor has the entire package. Not even the best investors out there. Trust me. I know this. Surrounding top investing talent with other top investors is a magical thing. Some have great deal instincts. Some have great networking skills. Some are great working with founders. Some have great financial minds. Some are great technical minds. Some see new markets before others. If you can put together a team that has all of this, they fill in each other’s gaps and everyone gets better. This describes the team we have at USV right now and it is a joy to work in a team like this.
  • It is very hard to make an investment that will produce over a billion of proceeds. You need to get and keep double digit ownership and the company needs to be worth over $10bn at exit. I’ve made less than five of these in my career, over almost forty years. So if you want to produce a high return on capital fund, you have to raise a lot less than a billion. I think a quarter billion is probably where it starts getting really hard to produce a high return on capital fund. This means you need a small partnership and a small firm.

The key to all of this is partnership. Real partnership. A real partnership is where everyone is equal, not just in terms of economics (which is critical to sustaining this model), but also in terms of influence and stature. This is actually quite rare in the venture capital business. I see it in some other firms. But I don’t see it very frequently. The firms that have this are special places. They are special places to work at. And special partners to take capital from.

#VC & Technology

How This Ends

Back in February of last year, I wrote a blog post with the same title and said this about the asset price bubble we were living in and investing in over the last few years:

The big question is how does this end?

I believe it ends when the Covid 19 pandemic is over and the global economy recovers. Those two things won’t necessarily happen at the same time. There is a wide range of recovery scenarios and nobody really knows how long it will take the global economy to recover from the pandemic.

But at some point, economies will recover, central banks will tighten the money supply, and interest rates will rise. We may see price inflation of consumer goods and labor too, although that is less clear.

When economies recover and interest rates rise, the air will come out of the asset price bubbles that have built up and the go go markets will hit the brakes.

Well now the markets have hit the brakes and the new question is how that ends.

I have been using the early 80s as a bit of a mental model. The late 70s saw oil prices rise and stagflation emerge and while that is not exactly what has happened with COVID and the war in Ukraine, there are some similarities.

In the early 80s, the G7 economies tightened the money supply, raising interest rates dramatically, in an effort to bring inflation under control. You can see the effect in this image:

The early 80s had a double dip recession (one in 1980 and another one for 18 months in 1981 and 1982). The economy was weak for three years at the start of the decade. But the latter half of the decade was one of the best economies in modern times.

So I suspect we are either in a recession right now or headed to one, brought on by tightening money supply/higher rates that are being used to control inflation. That recession could easily last until the end of 2023. But we don’t really know how long it will take for this cycle to play out.

Markets have already corrected and I think that public tech stocks have already seen most of the damage they are going to see. I don’t know if we have hit bottom but I think we are closer to the bottom than the top now. But that does not mean they will turn around and go right back up.

This is a price chart of the NASDAQ during the early 80s recession and you can see that prices did not start to move up until the second half of 1983, when the recession was starting to end.

So how does this market meltdown that we are now in end?

First, we need to see the economy slow down and inflation slow down. We need to see stocks bottom out and hang out there for a while. And we need to be patient. None of this is going to happen fast.

I would be planning to ride this thing out for at least eighteen months or more.

#Current Affairs#economics#entrepreneurship#stocks#VC & Technology

Getting Together In Person

Last week we held USV’s annual Portfolio Summit here in NYC. Every year we invite the leaders of our portfolio companies to come to NYC and spend a couple of days with us and each other. However, we were not able to do that in 2020 and 2021 so this was our first Portfolio Summit since 2019.

In the three years that have passed since our last summit, we roughly doubled the size of our portfolio, adding 65 new investments. That is 65 founders and leaders that had not been to a USV Summit, and in some cases, we had not met them in person.

This is a photo of folks arriving on the first day and settling in:

There is nothing particularly interesting about that photo. Most of us have been to these sorts of business affairs countless times. Except that we have not been able to do it for the last two years.

I have always felt like our two-day Portfolio Summit is my favorite work event of the year. And I had not realized how much I had missed it. It is so great to see everyone together in person, sharing experiences and ideas with each other and building relationships.

We learned some new tricks over the last two years. Those of us who work in VC and startups can work remotely and get most everything we need done. But we have to remember the power of being together and do more of it. It really makes a difference.

#VC & Technology