The Great Public Market Reckoning

Dan Primack wrote in his friday newsletter:

Public market investors have become less willing to leave their comfort zones, and it’s manifesting most obviously in the IPO market.
Novel disruption has fallen out of favor, with many preferring more time-tested models like enterprise SaaS and biotech.
Peloton yesterday raised over $1.1 billion in its IPO, pricing at the top of its $26-$29 range, but its shares then got crushed (although still valued well above the last private mark). Its CEO talked to Axios yesterday about the falling stock price.
Endeavor, the live events and artist representation firm led by Ari Emanuel, last night canceled an IPO that originally was to raise over $600 million, before it was later downsized.
WeWork… well, you know the story there.
Yes, all three companies have dual-class shares. Yes, all three were highly valued by venture capital or private equity investors. Yes, all three were unprofitable for the first half of 2019.
Those characteristics are also true of Datadog and Ping Identity, both of which had successful IPOs this month and continue to trade above offering.
The trio’s real similarity was that each had a very complicated story.
Peloton is a high-end hardware and SaaS business that produces original media content, sells apparel, and runs its own delivery logistics.
Endeavor began life representing movie stars and Donald Trump, but later expanded into a massive live events business that includes the UFC and Professional Bull Riders. Plus, it’s got a streaming platform.
WeWork… again, it’s different.
All of this comes against the backdrop of Uber, which also had a very complicated story and an IPO that emboldened short-sellers.
Up next: A lot of biotech startup IPOs, but no high-growth, complicated tech unicorns.
“We’re about to get a bit of a break from those sorts of deals, which I think is good for everyone,” a top Wall Street banker told me this morning.
Private markets follow public markets, so don’t be surprised to see some valuation and/or deal size pullback for these “hard to comp” companies.
Particularly if SoftBank fails to raise Vision Fund 2.
Goodbye to egregious governance terms. Dual-class will survive, but WeWork laid a third rail for others to avoid.
U.S. IPOs have still outperformed the S&P 500 in 2019, although the gap has shrunk significantly this month.
Or, put another way: The sky isn’t falling, but it’s gotten a lot darker. And, for some, downright stormy.

While all of this is true, I think it is a lot simpler than that.

The public markets are a lot different than the private markets.

Financial transactions in the private markets are controlled by the issuers, happen when the issuers want them to happen, and are generally auctions, particularly in the late stage markets.

Public market investors can buy and sell stocks every day based on what is attractive to them and what is not. If they feel like they missed out on something, they can get into it immediately.

For this reason, valuations in the private markets, particularly the late-stage private markets, can sometimes be irrational. Public market valuations, certainly after a stock has traded for a material amount of time and lockups have come off, are much more rational.

For the last five or six years, I have been writing here that I very much want to see the wave of highly valued and highly heralded companies that were started in the last decade come public. I have wanted to see how these companies trade because it will help us in the private markets better understand how to finance and value businesses.

And now we are seeing that.

And what we are seeing, for the most part, is that margins matter. Both gross margins and operating margins.

If you look at the class of companies that have come public in the last twelve months, many of the stocks that have performed the best are software companies with software margins. One notable exception to that is Beyond Meat.

  • Zoom – 81% gross margin
  • Cloudflare (a USV portfolio company) – 77% gross margin
  • Datadog – 75% gross margin

If you look at the same list, many of the stocks that have struggled are companies that have low gross margins.

  • Uber – 46% gross margin
  • Lyft – 39% gross margin
  • Peloton – 42% gross margin

Some other notable numbers:

  • WeWork gross margins – 20%
  • Spotify (down almost 30% in the last two months) gross margins – 26%

I believe that we have seen a narrative in the late stage private markets that as software is eating the world (real estate, music, exercise, transportation), every company should be valued as a software company at 10x revenues or more.

And that narrative is now falling apart.

If the product is software and thus can produce software gross margins (75% or greater), then it should be valued as a software company.

If the product is something else and cannot produce software gross margins then it needs to be valued like other similar businesses with similar margins, but maybe at some premium to recognize the leverage it can get through software.

But we have not been doing it that way in the late-stage private markets for the last five years.

I think we may start now that the public markets are showing us how.

Audio Of The Week: Nick Grossman on Venture Unplugged

My partner Nick did this podcast recently. In it he talks about how we think about and make investments at USV, our thesis on crypto, and a number of our crypto investments.

If you want to bypass all of the intros and sponsor messages, fast forward to 3mins.

Founder Control

I have not written a lot about this issue.

As I said in this post, I am generally a “one share one vote proponent”, but I have supported founder control provisions in a few companies where I was or am on the board. These provisions make me uncomfortable but there are solid arguments for them, particularly when you are taking a company public and want to be able to keep it independent.

But the truth about founder control, as I stated in this post from back in 2012, is:

If you want to maintain control of your company, focus on running it well or find a team to run it well, and make sure you have plenty of cash to operate your business and that you never find yourself in a position where you are running out of cash and have nowhere to go but your exisiting investors. Do those two things well and you will be in control for as long as you want to be in control.

We saw that play out with WeWork this week. The founder had a 10:1 supervoting provision and controlled a majority of the board seats.

Until he didn’t.

I don’t know anything about how that all went down.

But I can only imagine that WeWork was running out of cash and needed funds from its existing investors and the founder had to cede all of that to keep the company afloat. Or some version of that story.

So all the agreements and such are only as solid as the performance of the business. They can all get torn up in a nanosecond if things don’t go well.

Staying Focused

With all the crazy stuff going on all around us all day long it can be tough to stay focused.

But I would argue that is exactly why we must stay focused.

Some people do this by getting off social media apps like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Some people do this by using features like Screen Time to manage phone addiction.

Some people do this by adding meditation and other mindfulness practices to their daily routines.

All of these are good things and helpful.

For me, it is important to keep the things that really matter to me (family, friends, USV and our portfolio, my causes) front and center in my mind and tune everything else out.

I know what happened yesterday. But I don’t let it take up too much space in my brain.

It is not that I don’t care about all of it. I really do.

But I can’t do that much about it and I can do a lot about the things that I am focused on.

So I focus on them and let the craziness pass me by.

Hard Decisions

Every startup journey involves making some really hard decisions.

Yesterday our portfolio company Kik announced they are shutting down the Kik messenger and parting ways with all but nineteen of their team.

The Kik team has spent almost a decade working on the Kik messenger. Although Kik’s popularity has waned in the face of iMessage, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, etc, etc, it still has 10mm monthly users and almost 5mm daily users. But it has never been a profitable business in a market full of free competitors.

The decision to shut Kik and scale back to a small core developer team is all about continuing to support the Kin cryptocurrency which has over 2mm monthly people earning Kin and over 600k spending Kin across a large network of mobile apps that run the Kin SDK.

But even so, shutting down something you have worked on for almost a decade and parting ways with 90% of your team is hard.

Another thing about hard decisions is the sooner you make them the sooner you realize the benefits of making them. Postponing them is the worst thing you can do.

Kik is not the only company in our portfolio and is certainly not the only company out there in startup land facing very hard decisions right now. I see a lot of this thing in my business and it doesn’t get easier.

What we must do is support the teams making these decisions and getting to the other side of them.

I will end this with a quote that the founder of one of our portfolio companies sent me this week. I think it sums it up nicely.

My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat; situation excellent. I am attacking.


Field Marshall Foch in the Battle of the Marne

You Can’t Please Everyone

I get a lot of feedback on this blog.

I appreciate all of it.

Even the harsh stuff (you are an idiot, etc).

One of the things I have learned from writing here is that the same words will generate very different reactions from people.

Last week I wrote about the value of bluffing.

It triggered a ton of inbound email.

I received two emails within seconds of each other.

One said “that is the best advice you have ever shared”

The other said “people will go to jail because of you”

I just shook my head and smiled.

That’s how it goes when you put your thoughts and ideas out there.

But there is also a lesson for leaders in here.

You will not be able to please everyone in your company and you can’t try to do that.

You must be true to yourself, you must be authentic. You can’t pander.

It is useful to get the feedback, to listen to it, to try to understand it.

But you can’t let it jerk you around.

You have to have the courage of your convictions and you need to be consistent with them.

Breaking Up Big Tech

With the news that two-thirds of Americans favor breaking up big tech combined with the news that Liz Warren (the biggest advocate of the idea) has broken out of the pack in Iowa, I thought I would return to this topic.

I wrote about this back when Liz first put the idea forward.

I am in favor of reigning in the monopoly/duopoly/oligopoly power of the large American tech companies. I am also in favor of reigning in the power of large tech companies that are not resident in the US.

Doing one without the other is bad policy and could give large tech companies outside of the US (particularly in Asia) a competitve advantage.

A better approach, as I advocated for in my earlier post on this topic, are policies, like the European’s GDPR, that would impact all companies doing business in the US equally.

I do not love GDPR. It is overly bureaucratic and for the most part has resulted in all of us robotically opting into being cookied everywhere.

But users do have a right to online privacy. We also have a right to self sovereign identity and ownership of our data.

Apple is offering Sign In With Apple in iOS13 to help us reduce our reliance on signing in with Facebook and Google. That’s great but it just replaces one boogyman with another.

What we need is an open sign-in protocol in which users control their sign-in keys and also all of the data we create and have created over the years once we are signed in.

Government can force industry into a regime like that with regulations that dictate that tech companies of all sizes adopt such approaches.

That is what we should be doing to reduce the market power of big tech instead of breaking them up. That is because their market power comes from this single sign-on oligopoly and the data that comes with it.

Government should not dictate the design of such a protocol or any of the technology that is required to produce such a regime. The market can and will do that once the requirements are put in place. We have much of what we need already in the form of cryptography and user centric wallet infrastructure.

We just need a forcing function to get big tech to adopt these technologies, which they won’t do on their own because they will reduce their market powers. Which is exactly why we need to do this.

The Self Driving Bus

If you are in or around the Brooklyn Navy Yard and want to get to the East River Ferry, you can have a self driving car take you there.

I did that yesterday:

It’s sort of like a van. There are six passenger seats in the vehicle rand I saw four of them lined up waiting for passengers next to the main gate off Flushing and Cumberland.

There is a driver in the front seat but the van drives itself. That takes some of the excitement factor down a notch. But it increases the comfort factor. I assume the driver can take control of the vehicle and drive it manually if necessary.

It makes a ton of sense that autonomous vehicles would start out in places like the Navy Yard where there is not a lot of vehicle traffic and the map is fairly simple.

If you want a taste of the future go over to the Navy Yard and get a ride. It’s free.

And while you are there check out the amazing new Dock 72 building next to the East River Ferry stop. They are leasing it up now and there are some great office spaces still available there. They have smaller offices for startups. Link here.