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Talking It Up: Launch Capital and Betaworks Voicecamp 2017

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"Alexa, turn on kitchen."

"Alexa, timer set 16 minutes."

It may seem like I'm talking to air, but I'm not; these are words I utter literally every day to my Amazon Echo in my kitchen. I've had my Echo since it first came out and I hopped onto its waitlist for purchase. When it first arrived, it was fun although I really didn't use its music function all that much. However, things really started to shine when new functionality appeared and when I hooked up my Insteon connected light switches to it.

Now it's my constant companion in the kitchen and helps me optimize my cooking time. As I race through food prep, I tell it to turn on the kitchen lights. As I dump vegetables into my steamer, I tell it to set a timer for when they will be done. I also set other timers fluidly as I prep other parts of my meal and in the course of moving throughout the kitchen, Alexa is helping me keep track of when food has finished cooking. The handsfree nature of voice allows me to not waste time taking a few steps to the light switch or fiddle with a digital timer on setting the time and setting it running.

It's this real life experience of what a voice interface can bring that gets me really pumped about voice.

We've all seen other voice applications come and go or just not really gain traction. However, with the advent of true voice devices that listen for your command like the Amazon Echo or Google Home (versus Apple's Siri which requires a button push to activate), the possibilities begin to multiply. I remember my first exposure to voice on Star Trek with its talking computer. But that was in the 1970s and it took until now to bring some of that vision to reality. Better systems and computers to recognize and process voice make real time voice interpretation possible now. However, now comes the really interesting part - how do you deal with the user interface challenges and then build a business on top of that?

As a UX guy, I find that there is inherent elegance in having less physical controls. Like me moving around in the kitchen, Amazon Alexa is a great helper without the need for my hands to *do* anything. And therein lies the challenge of voice interfaces - how can you interpret what I want it to do without me speaking endless complex sentences or memorizing specialized vocabulary? I've been impressed so far with Amazon Echo's capabilities so far, but also wishing for more. In contrast, text-based interfaces via typing have been out there for a while now; however, the interpretation of written language there is less interesting to me than the interpretation of spoken language simply because you need hands to write words. A handsfree interface is much harder to implement properly - the service that does will have a clear advantage over others.

Once you solve the UX challenge, then comes the challenge of building a real business on top of it. Amazon and Google can sell hardware and charge for being on their platforms, but everyone else needs to charge somebody who wants their service bad enough that they will pay for it. Hence, while voice interfaces are inherently context sensitive (ie. you can't be dictating every email in an open office setting), I believe building a real business is even more context sensitive. Startups will need to find those compelling use cases where voice beats other types of interfaces AND a real business exists, and some of those are known and some are still waiting to be imagined. It's why we are excited to be part of Volara.ai, one of the few voice startups we have seen with some great early traction in the hotel space.

And we are looking for more, which is why we are delighted to be part of Betaworks Voicecamp, joining as co-investors into each startup of the batch. Betaworks has a great reputation for ferreting out the unique and untapped in startups; we very much look forward to seeing what develops with Voicecamp 2017. If you're a startup working on voice based conversational interfaces, be sure to apply - the deadline for applications is coming up fast on February 28, 2017!

Qualities of an Awesome Investor

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Some of our team and I were having a chat about what does it take to be an awesome investor.

When I first started investing back in 2006, I was arrogant enough to think that, being a veteran from Yahoo and having worked on so many web products, that I was good enough to invest in internet startups. I thought I could pick well because of my knowledge in UX/design/product, and I could give a startup an advantage because I could help them in UX/design/product. On this background, I set out to try to raise a venture fund in 2006. But LPs kept telling me that while they liked our pitch (fund + accelerator - sound familiar?) and liked that my partner and I were operators by background, they didn't invest in us because they didn't think we had enough experience in managing investments.

"Managing investments"....what did that mean exactly? I thought I knew everything I needed to know already! So after a few months of getting the same answer, I stopped raising and went out to angel invest on my own and get this so-called "managing investments" experience.

Years later, after burning through a ton of my own cash, I realized what they meant by "managing investments." It was definitely knowledge that I DID NOT HAVE even after working at Yahoo for so many years and the experiences I had. But spending a few years burning through a lot of cash and making a lot of mistakes, I now have a better sense for what makes for an awesome investor versus my limited naive view of the world back then.

Bringing it back to my chats at Launch Capital, I then brainstormed a list of qualities which I think make for an awesome investor and what would make an LP want to invest in. Here they are below:


  1. Track record, increasing IRR, value of startups in portfolio to date. Exits!
  2. Personal and professional network
  3. Previous experience, work, hobbies; new experience - what are they immersing themselves into now that is hopefully translatable into something investible?
  4. Ability to negotiate deal
  5. Personal brand as it pertains to investing - what are they doing to improve? blogging? speaking engagements? mentoring? etc. etc. it can even be putting personal money into fund(s) to get more deal flow. or getting aligned with a research lab at a university.
  6. Understanding the ramifications of deal terms
  7. Presentation and defense skills of a deal
  8. Proper preparation for a deal
  9. Due diligence completeness, up to a point (meaning can they decide when it's not worth it to keep going on DD, or reached point of diminishing returns)
  10. Exit engineering - hardest skill ever. ability and connections to negotiate and execute an exit
  11. Deal flow and sourcing - proprietary? unique?
  12. Breadth/depth of information re: building businesses in typical sectors
  13. Ability to say no, and being able to say no whenever without any emotion.
  14. Make hard decisions, like cutting off $ to a startup, or firing someone like the CEO.
  15. Ability to serve effectively on a BOD. could start with board observer or shadowing a director who is on BOD.
  16. Ability to smooze a founder and get them to love him/her
  17. Good intuition in the area of deals, and people. spotting bullshit. knowing when something "smells" right
  18. Ability to clearly communicate what they are looking for in a deal (knowing that this is individual and everybody will have their own thing - uniqueness here would probably be valuable to an LP more than startup).
  19. Typical and special skills to help startups with, in breadth and depth.
  20. Ability to do research fast.
  21. Responsive to startups and enterpreneurs, and team members. excellent communicator.
  22. Participate in building brand of the organization in addition to their personal brands
  23. Ability to spot new trends and not just get excited about existing or old trends. ability to imagine a new trend and defend it, potentially even build evidence for it.
  24. Hungry to learn, curious about everything. ability to take random topics and become expert at it (enough to be dangerous). loves to read. ability to absorb lots of information from around the world and different sectors and assimilate.
  25. More optimism than pessimism about deals. optimistic in general about the world. not overeager naive optimism but measured, deliberate optimism.
  26. Ability to adjust decision process by startup stage versus applying decision critieria to everything
  27. Being able to work within constraints (ie. $4M pre valuation limit) and find ways to be successful.
  28. Company evaluation, from product to oppty to financials.
  29. Discipline to keep to strategy. Intelligence to know when something isn't working and needs to change.
  30. Get shit done no matter what!

Having said the above, there is one quality I have found that trumps all of the above - that is....

TRUST.

All you have to do is have the trust of a wealthy benefactor(s) and you are off to the races as an investor. Why do I say this? Look around town. There are a ton of new funds popping up. I have no idea where these people are coming from. Even their experiences were less than mine when I started back in 2006 but yet they have a few million dollars to invest. How could someone like that achieve raising their own fund? It's because they had the trust of one or more LPs to give them that start. And I have seen some great investors not be able to close their funds, even when their qualities were pretty good on the characteristics above. How can that be? I again theorize its that somehow they have not gained the trust of potential LPs to invest.

What kind of trust are we talking about? Trust that you won't run away or waste their money. Trust that you will not do stupid things. Trust that you will make them money. Trust that they can find you whenever they want. And so on.

So while you develop those qualities above, which can only enhance your standing with potential LPs, it is ultimately the building of trust that will get their commitments to let you invest on their behalf.

Earlier this year, I wrote Angel Investing at Today's Market Rates is a Losing Proposition where I presented a model for angel investing and showed that essentially index investing into the early stage set of startups at a market rate of about $6M pre-money put you at a loss after 5-6 years of about 22.6%. It was a sobering result which showed that valuation matters at early stage if you want some chance at making money. In contrast, the break even starting valuation was $4.08M.

Then, CBInsights recently put up a new funnel in their new post The Venture Capital Funnel: Your Chances Of Raising Follow-Ons, Exiting, And Becoming A Unicorn.

For some reason, CBInsights took down their old post and put the new post at the old URL. As a comparison, here is the old funnel based on 2009 data:

Here is the recent funnel:

What are the differences? Note that the recent funnel is built on both 2009 and 2010 data, but more importantly, it is now combined with both seed and seed VC data (we asked the CBInsights staff) which increases the number of startups by 6.4x!

In my previous post, I noted that one caveat about the CBInsights 2009 funnel data:

The CBinsights database is made mostly up of companies who have done equity rounds. Given that the world of seed seems dominated by convertible note financings which don't show up in the CBinsights database, what does this dataset mean? Equity financings typically include a seed fund or something similar like an angel group. So you can be sure that most of the companies all have an entity behind them to help them with their progress. They have an advantage with this help over those who do party rounds of only angels. Still, despite the help of these funds, the funnel ends up negative for those who invest in these companies at seed.

It took about 25 startups that had a seed VC involved, to yield one potential unicorn out the other end. However, when you add in data that does not include a fund, you now need 115 startups to yield one potential unicorn out the other end!

For those of you angels who think you got something special, this data shows that you are approximately 4.6x less likely to create a startup that makes it to potential unicorn status UNLESS you can get a seed VC involved at some point.

OK maybe you don't care about creating unicorns. How about just making money? We updated the previous model to include these current funnel numbers. You can download it here.

As you might guess, you are farther from breakeven than before. The model says you will be 35.7% short at the end of 5-6 years of investing. Using the Goal Seek function in Excel, we solved for breakeven in the starting average valuation of your investments. Now it's even lower at $2.72M pre-money.

Once again we say that this is just a model: one reflection of reality. It also comes with a bunch of assumptions and caveats that still apply (see the second half of my previous post). This model may or may not apply to you, but smartly you should use the insights in your strategies for your own startup investing - and early stage investing just got a little bit more scary.

Many thanks to our principal Tom for updating the model.

Early Stage Marketplace Investing

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One of our Launch Capital staff, Ed Coady, pinged me the other day regarding marketplaces and asked me how does one find the next big marketplace startup at the seed stage. We both remarked that there are a ton of posts on marketplaces and what makes them successful - BUT they are all written as if the marketplace actually has traction. In stark contrast, there are practically no posts written on how to evaluate and pick the next big marketplace at early stage when there is no traction.

For example, some funds will invest in a marketplace when they get to $500K-1M monthly gross market volume (GMV) . But, as a startup, how do you get to $500K-$1M monthly GMV without a series A? And how do investors pick the next one that will get there BEFORE series A?

Those who know Launch Capital know that we invest in early stage where startups are often missing traction, revenue, product, or any combination of the three. In fact, although we call ourselves seed stage investors, we have really moved to what people now call pre-seed, where it is more typical that all three elements are missing and we are only betting on the idea and the strength of the founders. If those are the only knowns, then how does one pick a marketplace play that will be successful?

Ever since I joined Launch Capital, I've been looking at marketplaces in a variety of industries. Here is what I look for in a marketplace for investment which will give it the best chance for success, either reaching breakeven or metrics good enough for the next round:

The marketplace must have no competitors.

I am OK with old traditional, offline competition. However, I don't want to see another startup or three or ten working in the same space. Competition for customers is fierce and with too many things competing for our attention, sometimes everyone becomes your competitor. Thus, it is much better to be the only one in the market trumpeting a service and solution to your problem. Customer acquisition becomes so much easier when there is only one solution available. When there are many, customers need time to decide and this slows down the adoption process. Lack of speed is death to the early stage startup! They need revenue as soon as possible or else their bank account will empty before they reach breakeven or metrics good enough for the next round. Thus, I have found that lack of competition is potentially the most important criteria for early stage startups to have in order to be successful. With today's crowded startup world, most projects we meet have many competitors - all the obvious stuff is being worked on ten times over. When we find startups that lack competition, this often leads to untapped, unsexy markets where I need to spend a lot of time researching the industry and learning about it. In effect, I need to work to fall in love with something that is unsexy!

The market itself must be believably big, in the tens of billions of dollars at least.

This provides not only the biggest opportunity, but also it provides something attractive to other investors who are also looking for big market sizes. When you step into untapped, unsexy markets, it's amazing how big they are and how many are still out there that are untouched by today's entrepreneurs.

Generally for today's early stage marketplaces, I like to see margins be 25% or greater.

Margins that are small require tremendous traffic to get to any meaningful monetization. It's just too hard for startups to reach scale without significant amounts of capital now so I like to see some survivability built into their model by enabling a larger take for each transaction. Note that high margins are tough in marketplaces; more than likely there will need to be some specialness to the marketplace that will enable it to justify higher margins to its users.

However, if the transaction size is large (like in the thousands of dollars or more), then I'm ok with a lower margin. Certainly I like to see larger margins whenever possible, but I am more forgiving on lower margins realized on large dollar transactions. This is more often seen in B2B marketplaces.

The marketplace must have figured out a believable lock-in strategy.

Often entrepreneurs will enable the first transaction, but there is the possibility that subsequent transactions will not happen on their platform. I think this is extremely risky and could leave a lot of future dollars off the table. It is much better if the marketplace has figured out a believable way to incentivize both buyers and sellers to keep using the platform so that they can continue to monetize hard-won users.

I like to see that the founders have depth in the industry their marketplace operates.

Too many founders think there is a problem in an industry but have no real world experience to validate it. Or they lack business contacts in that industry which could give them an advantage in gaining business usage of their platform.

If they have traction when I meet them, even better.

Using the above decision process, I've invested in 8 early stage marketplaces over the years. 4 are doing amazingly well; 2 are too early to tell if they will be successful, and 2 are questionable. With 4 out of the 8 doing extremely well, it seems that something is going right!

Spotting the next successful marketplace is not an easy task. It's always easy to write about how marketplaces get big AFTER they get there, but it's not easy to find them before they are anywhere. There is still opportunity to build big successful marketplaces but they will most likely be in places where few tread but yet are still big markets.

A few weeks back, I wrote a post entitled The Tweetstorm that Spawned the 10,000X Startup where Dave McClure of 500startups lamented about the state of early stage, that valuations were way too high, and that early stage investors will lose money.

But, really, how risky is seed investing in today's world? Are we paying too much for early stage startups?

Over the years that I’ve invested in early stage companies, I’ve heard numerous claims that valuations should be this or that, and if they are not, we will lose money. But I have never been presented with a model or math to show that this or that was true or what would happen if you were to invest at certain valuations.

So with one of our research team members, Tom, we set out to build a model using today’s data sources and see what would come out of it.

First, we took the famous CBinsights Venture Capital Funnel, which is a great way to show the path of startups through their lifespan to future funding rounds, M&A exits, or a death or self-sustaining state.

Then we melded that with data from PitchbookVC’s latest 1H 2015 Venture Capital Valuations & Trends Report. There is some really great information on current valuations, rounds, and exit values there, and we used the median values to model where most of the activity would be. Thus, the following analysis looks at what returns would look like if your portfolio performed at that median level.

Dilution via option pools is also in the model, although we estimated the numbers based on our own experience.

The model itself is available for download here.

You can set the investment amount, portfolio size, and pre-money for the seed round.

On a relative basis, the investment amount doesn't matter as the resulting return percentages and multiples will be the same for any amount you enter. For the purposes of this post, we entered our usual $150K investment per startup.

Entering the portfolio size does matter as it shows the quantity of startups you'd have to invest in, at a minimum, to yield startups out the other end of the funnel. For example, to exit the funnel with at least one remaining startup who has gone through 6 full rounds of financing, you'd need a minimum portfolio size of 25.

The pre-money inserted in the model is $6M, which is the typical market rate seed round valuation you'd find out here on the West Coast.

If you invest into rounds at the typical market rate valuation of $6M, you are essentially short by 22.6% after your cohort goes through 5 years of life and 6 rounds of financing.

If your portfolio is large enough, the model calculates that you still need to make a multiple of 5.65x on your last remaining startup in order to make back that 22.6% shortfall and break even: a tough goal under any circumstances. (Note that the bigger your portfolio is, the more startups you will have out the end of the funnel. However, to breakeven, you will need to make back 5.65x per startup that is remaining. For example, if you have a portfolio of 100, then you’ll be left with 4 startups remaining, and you need to make back 5.65x on each your startups, or 5.65 x 4 = 22.6x on only one of those startups.) For most angel investors, having enough cash to create a large enough portfolio to have a chance at breakeven or even do better is very difficult.

If we take this model as-is, investing at today's market rates as an angel investor sure looks like a losing proposition. Of course, any investor worth anything would be arrogant enough to think they had what it takes to beat the market and this model. Let’s dive further into the model.

The CBinsights database is made mostly up of companies who have done equity rounds. Given that the world of seed seems dominated by convertible note financings which don’t show up in the CBinsights database, what does this dataset mean? Equity financings typically include a seed fund or something similar like an angel group. So you can be sure that most of the companies all have an entity behind them to help them with their progress. They have an advantage with this help over those who do party rounds of only angels. Still, despite the help of these funds, the funnel ends up negative for those who invest in these companies at seed.

Note that the majority of financings out there aren’t even taken into account here, which are note financings. I'm not sure one could make the argument that note financings are better than equity financings when viewed across the entire set of startup financings. So you'd have to be at the very least able to invest only in rounds that are also supported by a strong seed or angel fund to be on par with the results of this model. But as the model shows, it is not enough unless you are able to move the odds of successful outcomes in your favor.

What is this model a representation of really? It's an index fund of startups who got equity financings; if there was a mutual fund that allowed you to do that in 2009, this is what would have happened, assuming the fund could invest in every startup that got an equity financing. You would have lost money for sure. So "spray and pray" is a terrible strategy if you are just investing at market rate valuations. If you could "spray and pray" at much better valuations, the model results in positive returns - think accelerators where they deploy very little money for large chunks of their companies at very low valuations.

Despite the bleak overall outlook of the model, we dove into some of the more prominent seed funds to see how they performed against this model. For example, First Round Capital was a fairly large seed fund back in 2009. According to the same methodology used to build the CBInsights funnel, they managed to have 33% of their 2009 cohort exit via M&A versus the 20% level assumed in the model; they also showed consistently higher follow on rates. Obviously they are doing something right, and better than average.

What are better seed funds doing that make them so great? Pandodaily wrote a post entitled Why Jeff Clavier Insists There's No Series A Crunch which has a good list on what Jeff Clavier does to help his portfolio companies and take them to success. So there is ample support for being able to invest in rounds which include one of the strong seed funds out there.

Bear in mind what I mentioned before - the CBinsights funnel ALREADY assumes you are investing alongside a seed or angel fund. The likelihood of that happening is pretty difficult, unless you are doing a lot of work to become friendly with the seed funds. And then, not all seed funds are alike; some are definitely beating the funnel in returns but there are many that are lagging.

Suppose you had a portfolio large enough to result in some startups surviving past a 6th round of financing. Our model says that with a portfolio of 25, you'd have one left, and you'd have to make at least a 5.65x to come out positive on your portfolio. With a larger portfolio, there would be more companies surviving after the 6th round to return money and then some; in today's world, it is likely these would be the unicorns of legend.

Ordinarily, we would all celebrate the unicorn-esque status of one or more of our portfolio, on their way to great heights and potential IPO. However, consider this recent post by Tomasz Tunguz of Redpoint Ventures, The Runaway Train of Late Stage Fundraising. These late stage financings seem to be a current fad and are proliferating while the number of IPOs languishes. However, one thing that is not talked about much are the terms in which these financings are done. A recent post by Ben Nasarin entitled Big Valuations Come with Dangerous Small Print highlights the problems that come with late stage financings. You can guarantee there are many preferences (see liquidation and participating preferences) in the distribution of exit capital. You may end up in a situation where the company seems to exit well, but the preferences result in little or no capital being returned to early investors; that includes an IPO situation (see Ben's post regarding the Box IPO). While unicorns are definitely good for bragging rights in a portfolio, they may not return as much capital as you like, or need, to breakeven or make money.

The presence of preferences which could stifle your returns requires you to really think through what your strategy might be for dealing with these situations. It may mean you would take the first opportunity to sell your shares at a secondary offering, for example, and take the early exit versus waiting for something bigger later that may never come (In stark contrast, late stage investors nearly always make their money back even in a losing situation).

This model doesn't take into account follow-on investments, which is true for most angel investors and non-fund entities who don't have the resources to follow on. So we only account for one investment at seed and no more investments afterwards. Mark Suster has done a great job showing how Founders are diluted in subsequent rounds, but this topic hasn’t really been tackled when talking about angel/seed investors and plays heavily into understanding returns. Preliminary looks at follow-ons increases the deployed capital substantially and take you further from breakeven. Following on precognitively in only the winners does help - ESP anyone?

One might ask - couldn't we calculate actual exit results from information in their database? Unfortunately not - of the 2009 dataset, there are exit values for only 9 out of the 49 total exits that year. M&A numbers are still pretty secret overall. The best we can do is insert median exit values as a proxy.

The Dead/Self-Sustaining number/% is a bit deceptive. Some of the companies in this number that are surviving could be big companies who simply didn’t need to raise another round, and digging into the companies that did not raise a large number of rounds is needed. Also, indication of death in the CBinsights data unfortunately isn't all that complete at this time- yet another place for improvement in the data. However as time passes for the 2009 cohort, we should see the final results of those surviving companies.

In examining breakeven, I asked the question, at what starting valuation could I break even according to the model? Using Excel, I calculated the break even valuation to be $4.08M pre-money. Unfortunately, with current West Coast market rate valuations for seed stage startups hanging around $5-6M, you’d have to do something very special to be investing at $4.08M pre-money. Investing at lower than $4.08M valuations means you’d be positive with the model - great job finding startups that early and negotiating awesome deals!

We then compared this model to investing in the public stock market. Using a Cambridge Associates report from last year, we used their calculated return multiple from 2009 for the Russell 2000 (they have a proprietary method for calculating a return multiple to compare your investment in venture capital and private equity against other traditional investments). In order to match the return of investing into the Russell 2000, your last startup must yield a 19.4x! So you would need a 5.65x return to merely break even, but an additional 13.75x to beat investing in the public markets, which is by far a safer investment than startup investing. Why was I angel investing again…?

Using the median values doesn't appreciate what you might individually do or what actually happened for each round and any preferences that may come with a round. We just made the assumption, right or wrong, that most things would happen at the medians of all the values.

The model is just a model. A reflection of reality, yes, but still not reality. It still communicates some interesting things about today's investing world and how you might alter your strategy in investing to beat the model.

The Tweetstorm that Spawned the 10,000X Startup

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This interesting tweetstorm by Dave McClure caught my eye. It was regarding entrepreneurs not wanting to accept a 2x return clause on notes and the high valuation caps on those notes that are running around the Silicon Valley right now. Then at the end Sam Altman of Ycombinator jumps into the fray, who replied:

When our research team and I saw the 10,000x, we thought we’d have some fun with it.

Wow - 10,000x. That’s an over-returner for sure - probably the unicorn to end all unicorns. But how would you get one and would anyone have experienced one already?

Let’s do some back of envelope calculations. Assume you’re a seed investor like Dave. You could take companies in the unicorn club and divide their current post-money valuations by 10,000. This would theoretically determine what their seed valuations needed to be in order to return 10,000x for the company’s early angel investors.

But then, you’d have to take into account the dilution that occurs by the time a startup is a unicorn. Our principal, Tom, built this ownership model to show the typical ownership dilution each round experiences on its way to series E.

You could stand to lose 50% of your ownership, assuming nothing else bad happened funding wise along the way, on the way to unicorn status.

Let’s take Uber. It’s valued at $40B right now. If you take $40B and divide by 10,000, you get $4M. But then divide by 2 to account for the ownership drop and you’re left with $2M POST money. Essentially this is the valuation of a seed round you would have needed to invest into in order to achieve a 10,000x at the $40B valuation.

Back to Dave’s twitter rant about high valuations pervading in the Valley. Does any reader of this post think they can get in on a high flying, unicorn-esque startup in today’s world at $2M post money valuation?

Still, has anyone ever even achieved a 10,000x? Uber is worth $40B, but its exit story hasn’t been written yet. We poked around and came up with Peter Thiel’s reported $500K investment into Facebook at a $5M valuation. It makes sense on paper that at $5M seed valuation you’ll get a >$104B exit - that’s 20000x! Unfortunately, he must have suffered some dilution and/or sold off stakes early because he arrived at the IPO with an awesome return of 5000x! Dang - only halfway there.

OK 10,000x is a worthy goal. But what’s the odds of you getting that kind of return?

Cowboy Ventures’s Aileen Lee wrote in her infamous unicorn post, Welcome To The Unicorn Club: Learning From Billion-Dollar Startups that she found that since 2003 to the date of the post in 2013, there was a .07% probability of a startup reaching unicorn status. Remember, that’s .07 PERCENT, which means 7 out of 10000 startups have reached unicorn status. Pretty long odds assuming that you even had a shot at investing into one of those pre-unicorns.

Looking back at my investing past, I was scheduled to meet with Uber (what was then Ubercab) but was one of the last investors they talked to. The round was oversubscribed, and I was shut out. I was there at YC when Airbnb started out but sharing rooms in my home wasn’t something I personally believed in, so ultimately I didn’t pursue. I was also there at YC during Dropbox’s demo day. I was in the running for investing, but yet again was shut out as other larger and more prominent investors pushed me out. For every other unicorn, I never even had the chance to even review the deal, let alone invest.

But from what I could remember about Uber, Airbnb, and Dropbox’s funding valuations - sorry about my very fuzzy memory, but those were the days when $4M pre was still possible - I don’t think I could have achieved a 10,000x return coming in at the seed round - maybe >10x, maybe even in the 100x range but definitely not 10,000x.

By now, you may see how absurdly rare a 10,000x is, potentially even unachievable. So what are Sam Altman and Dave McClure really talking about?

It’s the golden age for entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs have all the power. You can go raise seed at valuations higher than anytime ever in history. New investors on the scene are naive; they haven’t had the history of investing in less bubbly times. They are forced to take whatever deal is in front of them. They think these valuations are normal. And with small checks, they have no ability to affect the terms of the round. But the first naive seed investor that pulls the trigger inadvertently validates the terms.

But the risk is also higher; competition abounds and there literally is an app for anything. So investors pay more for higher risk. It’s also why those who know me, know I like to say that the seed market is bubbly and that it’s the worst time to be a seed investor with no dry powder to follow on. Angels and funds who only invest in seed rounds take all the risk yet get lower/no returns if a company goes unicorn-ballistic through severe dilution. This risks their ability to break even or make money at seed investing.

Entrepreneurs win no matter what the outcome. As many have replied on Twitter to Dave and Sam’s tweets, even a small win is notable or even life changing for the entrepreneur. It is not a bad thing to get acquihired into Google or Facebook, right?

Dave is probably the only guy out there willing to publicly say something about the current attitude of entrepreneurs. The rest of the investor crowd needs to toe much more lightly and quietly; it’s too easy to be shut out of deal flow. Who wants to be shut out from Ycombinator demo day? The entrepreneur forums are quick to denounce investors who are too this or too much that. You don’t play by entrepreneurs’ rules nicely, your reputation is shot, and you’re blackballed from deals.

High valuations at seed are all over the Valley. Market rates for the average SF Bay startup are probably around $5-6M cap on note (forget equity rounds), with jumps to $8-$12M for those coming out of Ycombinator. These are for startups with little or no traction. Market rates for startups with traction at seed can head towards $8-$10M.

If you’re moonshotting for 10,000x at a $10M valuation, you’ll never make it. That’s a >$100B exit valuation for the company, which is at the black swan category for companies like Facebook and Alibaba: outliers by a *wide* margin.

Speaking of black swans, in Sam’s post Black Swan Seed Rounds, he states:

Great companies often look like bad ideas at the beginning—at a minimum, if it looks great, the seed round is likely to be overpriced, and there are likely to be a lot of other people starting similar companies. But even when I attempt to adjust for price, the hot-round investments still have underperformed.

I asked a few other investors about their experiences, and most are roughly similar. Most of the really big hits never had TechCrunch writing about their super competitive seed round everyone was trying to get in.

Interesting that a 10,000x comment comes from someone who also wrote the above…?

Many thanks to Tom Egan, Edward Coady, and John Lanahan for reading/commenting/contributing to this post.

The Customer Adoption Problem for Health Startups

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We can all agree that for today's internet startups, customer acquisition is one of the biggest issues they face. The world is so crowded with apps, things to do, things to grab your attention and waste time - it's one of the hardest problems to solve to break through the noise and get someone to notice you AND download you or try you out. Consumer startups face this problem the most, but B2B startups also face this problem. There are enough B2B startups now hitting up the IT managers of companies big and small that they are slowing down in their decision to implement a new product or service. And as I've always said, if it takes too long to gain customers and get to sustainable traction or great metrics, you will die because your bank account won't last that long.

However, there is a similar and IMHO worse problem for today's health related startups. But it's not quite a customer acquisition problem - you can spend money to get people to download your app or get to your website - it's more related to conversion and I call it a customer adoption problem.

First, I want to clarify that when I say health startup for the purposes of this post, I am leaving out the "health" startups which don't really have definable, definite, repeatable health impact - I would put fitness trackers, GPS watches, workout apps and hardware, etc. into this category. They provide data, but you need to figure out how to use it OR, there really is no definable, definite, repeatable health benefit - by this I mean, you can't tell someone exactly how many steps you need to take to lose 10 pounds or to prevent a heart attack. It's just not possible.

I would also leave out the traditional biomedical device startup, whose path is generally not direct to consumer (some are, and more are needing to go to market first before some kind of exit happens), they create a great device, take it through FDA trials to prove efficacy, and then sell to a large biomedical device company. The biomedical device startups who are going direct to consumer, however, can be placed in my category of health startup.

So leaving out those kinds of "health" startups, what are we left with? Some pretty cool startups that are applying technology to solve some really sticky health problems. However, there is a HUGE hurdle towards success - the culture of the consumers highly tilted against adoption of these kinds of products and services.

These hurdles are:

1. People have been trained for decades that they should never pay for their healthcare. Insurance should pay for all of it. If it's not reimbursed by insurance, they won't pay for it out of pocket and avoid treatments of any sort that makes them pay.

2. We are in a "curative" culture of healthcare and not a "preventative" one. We would rather wait for something to happen (and lead crappy, self-indulgent, unhealthy lives to get there) and then do something about it.

3. Along with 2., we don't see the value of something we haven't experienced yet, or have no experience with. Why should I worry about my thyroid? What the heck is that? My heart beats so why worry ahead of time about it?

4. We hate hearing something might be wrong with us. So any product or service that would tell us that is avoided as well.

5. Inaccurate, outdated information on health hampers the ability of new information, packaged into products and services to gain traction. The illusion of knowledge exists in health; knowledge seems to be eternal but it is not. Every year new information comes out and old information is discarded, but people stubbornly hold onto information they learned years ago and they erroneously think it's permanent. Still this means that they are resistant to adopt new information or methods due to thinking they already know enough.

As you read through the above, I'm guessing that you can relate to each one of those points. To me, these are nearly unsurmountable issues that are deep rooted in the culture of our society. These are issues that are top of mind for me right now in looking at today's health startups (by my previous definition). Finding a believable, reliable solution to the customer adoption problem that circumvents these issues is critical to their success, and whether I will invest in them.

All About US Investors for International Startups

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A few weeks back I gave this presentation to a group of Kazakh entrepreneurs at the Silicon Valley Innovation Center. They wanted to know about US investors, what they look for in investments, how to find them and how to create a situation where they might invest in a startup coming from another country.

While the presentation is geared towards this group of international startups, US startups who are just starting out might find this information useful as well.

Upstream and Downstream

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In mentoring startups, I have noticed two things have come up recently:

1. Entrepreneurs keep remarking to me that investors are looking for multi-tens or hundreds of billions in market size. I believe this is one of the results of the explosion of startups we have seen over these last few years, as investors at all stages keep raising the bar for the startups they invest in.

2. Startups at early stage are, more often than not, always focused on solving some singular problem and jumping on the early customer adoption as a sign that there is a business there.

But startups who are solving some singular customer problem still can’t seem to satisfy current investors’ desire for truly huge market size. One possible solution to re-defining a startup project with larger market size, is to use the concept of Upstream and Downstream to expand on what you’re working on to something with a bigger vision, and thus larger market size.

What is Upstream and Downstream?

If you solve a particular problem, then looking upstream means to look at what you can solve that is closer to the customer and what they need to do before they can use your service. Looking downstream means providing solutions for what the customer needs after they use your service. Expanding your capabilities up and downstream means you expand your potential business and market size by that much more.

For example, suppose you are an adtech startup. You help companies serve ads across multiple ad networks.

Looking upstream from the problem you are currently solving, you see what the customer needs before they get to your service. So if you are currently helping people serve ads, then things that need to happen before the ad serving are:

1. Media planning for the ad serving.
2. Campaign creation and management.
3. Ad creation and design, visuals and copy.
4. Landing page creation.
5. Ad network selection.

Looking downstream, what does your customer need after ads are served?

1. Analytics - ad performance results, which targets worked the best/worst.
2. Insight into what ads to run next and where.
3. Landing page results, testing, and management.
4. Post campaign management of ad networks.
5. Ad modifications due to results, suggestions for the modifications.

Now, you are providing a more fuller solution to your customers instead of just one small piece. If you didn’t provide these services, your customers would be forced to use other resources or services from other companies. Some of those might be connectable to yours, some they would have to stitch together by hand or home grown technology. Customers always want to have one place to do their work; multiple solutions complicate things dramatically. Being the one place where customers can do everything is a big advantage for them.

Ultimately, expanding your business both up and downstream is a recipe for world domination. Instead of serving only one portion of a customer's needs, you instead service all the needs up and down the chain.

Today’s world encourages cooperation amongst companies: expose your data via APIs and share it; use outsourced services to do things you don’t want to do. This may be true for some things, but more and more I am finding that startups need to do more by themselves instead of depending on others. By securing more value internally to themselves, they can then expand their vision to be much bigger, capture more potential revenue, and target a larger market which investors love.

End note: Of course, there are examples of startups doing one thing that have gotten big: SurveyMonkey, Evernote. Remember, these companies started years ago in a world where there wasn't so much competition. Today is different; there are thousands of startups out there and investors are much pickier. Without a bigger vision, you may not even be able to get off the ground. Work Up and Downstream and make your world domination plan a reality!

The Billions of Dollars Opportunity

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Time was, if you had at least a hundreds of millions of dollar market, or up to a billion dollar market in your pitch, that was enough to get you funding. But today, I've heard multiple times that even a billion isn't enough, let alone hundreds of millions. Venture funds are now looking for multiple billions, into the tens and hundreds of billions of dollars market.

Some might argue that VCs were always doing this - what's different now? Why is this important today?

Early stage venture funds are using this as filter. There are too many startups out there, so why not say no to everyone except those with a believable billions of dollars of market story? The implications of this are, the startups with smaller opportunities will find it hard, if not impossible, to get funding.

Startups don't realize the danger, and seed investors are starting to wise up. There are too many chasing after too small opportunities to be able to pass this filter. If you can't raise money, it may be that what you're working on is too small, even for a hundreds of millions of dollars opportunity.

Suppose you get to some impressive scale, like $1M+ in revenue run rate. As you go for the big round, the current crop of series A funds won't even touch you despite having strong revenue growth. If your market is small, so is your potential and your ability to "unicorn" is not all that great.

So if you're raising seed, I would figure out what it is you're doing if not a billions of dollars market and change it to be one. Investors are always searching for unicorns and it's best that you shoot for being one from the very start or else you may not get very far in your fund raise....

The Pre-Emptive Bridge

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Yes folks, we are a bridge happy funding community. I expect that 90+% of my seed investments will require a bridge, and adjust my expectations and funds to prepare for the inevitable ask. It simply takes too long in general to get to either breakeven or good enough metrics/traction to land the next big round - I estimate now it takes somewhere between 24-26 months to get to either on average. That doesn’t mean there aren’t outliers who do it in less time; it just means that most of them won’t be outliers and will take that long. The problem is that nobody ever raises for 24-36 months - we do see seed rounds edging higher to $1.5-2M rounds over the $500K-$1M we say not too many years ago. Still it’s tough to even push $2M into 24-36 months. If nobody raises for that long, they will most likely come back to us and ask for more money.

Lately though, I have seen startups and investors work better together and do a bridge before they really need it. I call this the Pre-Emptive Bridge.

Usually what happens is the startup looks at when they expect to raise the next round, most likely a series A, and now do it well more than 6 months in advance of that time. They now know there is seasonality in investing, and take this into account, trying to now adjust cash and burn to run out in July instead of December. They try to plan such that they can go out early in a year, say January through March, and start their series A process then versus in the fall.

Then they look at what they will have accomplished by the time they want to start raising their A. Will they have good enough preparation, traction and metrics for the A?

If they do not have good enough preparation/traction/metrics or their cash will run out before they do or cash will run out in a poor time of the year, then here comes the Pre-Emptive Bridge.

They come back to us with the outlook and the plan, and we look to raise some more money to get us to any of:

1. Breakeven
2. Running out of cash in July instead of a poor part of the year.
3. Good enough traction and metrics for a decent chance at an A, and achieving those traction/metrics at a time to go for the A starting in the early part of the year.

In years past, I’ve felt that investors were always caught off guard by the bridge. Now it seems like even angels are expecting it, and it looks like many are prepared to put more money into those with a good plan and likelihood for success. I’m not only glad for this, but also for entrepreneurs to have the foresignt to look ahead that far and take steps to increase the probability of success well in advance versus waiting until the last moment.

[UPDATED] The State of Early Stage in March 2014

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A few weeks back I had the pleasure of presenting to the Silicon Valley Innovation Center, an organization which works with many Eastern Europeans on introducing them to and making connections in Silicon Valley. They wanted me to talk to them about the state of startup investing, and I chose to present on the state of early stage investing, the area where I do most of my work.

The events in Ukraine prevented many from coming, but two people did make it to my presentation. The presentation was not an upbeat one; I showed slides from many data sources stating that I believed there were some serious issues for seed investors to operate and profit from. After the presentation, I was surprised that they said I was only the presenter who didn't have an extremely optimistic outlook on events in Silicon Valley.

Here is the presentation - it is updated to information to late March and is missing some new data that has appeared:

Just to be clear - I have no issue with entrepreneurism. I admire people who start businesses to either make money to support themselves and their families to those who go for the gold. It's not easy to do, and it's the Golden Age of Entrepreneurism right now. Nowhere in history has it been easier to raise some money to go pursue the dream of starting a company. Nowhere in history has there been so many resources dedicated to helping companies start. Nowhere in history has there been so much fame and attention assigned to entrepreneurism. You're a superstar if you start your own company today.

Each day, more and more investors emerge. With the passing of the JOBS Act, soon the normal average US citizen will be able to invest in startups. And we are seeing the appearance of so many new funds. Where are they coming from? Some are angels in disguise, some are family funds, some have international origins, some we don't really know. Still Silicon Valley is awash with money looking for somewhere to go. We can partially thank the Fed for some of this - holding interest rates at zero, making bonds a non-investment - they've pushed everyone out on the risk curve, and investing in startups is one of those places investors have been pushed to.

Each day, more startups emerge. Most startups I meet already have 4-6 competitors - or more. By the end of 2013, we had done our own counting and thought there would be 2500+ startups out there. Unique-ness is a hard competitive advantage to achieve. Raising a ton of money when you have little traction is much easier by far.

Who to pick to invest in? I've heard many methods out there ranging from "just pull the trigger if you like them", to doing a ton of research into the market as if you were putting millions in, to "if so and so is in, I'm in too." Still, the brutal reality is that risk is way up because it's so easy to start a startup and thus competitors sprout the moment they are seen on Techcrunch.

Even as risk is up, valuations are also up. At one time, if something was more risky, you'd pay a better price for it. Today it's not like that with startups. Risk is up but so is their price. The going rate for seed stage startups is generally $5-6M cap on a note, or pre-money, with jumps up to $8-12M. When I started investing back in 2006, the norm was $2.5-3.5M pre-money - there were no notes back then.

Manu Kumar just published an excellent post called The New Venture Landscape. In the section entitled, "Re-jiggering of deal stages and sizes", he states:

Seed is not the first round of financing any more. In fact after noticing this trend last year, I have transitioned to calling most of my initial investments “pre-seed” rounds, where the company raises close to $500K, before raising a full seed round. The Seed round is larger — closer to and sometimes upwards of $2M. The Series A is now the fourth round of funding for a company — the first is usually friends and family, or an incubator (~$50K), then pre-seed (~$500K), then seed (~$2M), then Series A (~$6M-$15M).

So I can't even call myself a seed investor any more - we are sometimes part of the $2M "seed" round but more likely we are part of the "pre-seed" round. Even at pre-seed stage, we pay a higher price generally, but yet the company doesn't raise enough to survive on that alone and usually needs to raise more later (aka the bridge round) to keep going, assuming it gets somewhere at all. Thus, risk is up yet again but there is no reflection of that in the price we pay.

That is why I believe that while this is the Golden Age of Entrepreneurism, it is also grown to be the riskiest place by far for former-seed-now-pre-seed investors. Other stages are not immune to what is happening, experiencing things like Series A Crunch and even the potentially looming Series B Crunch. However, IMHO the issues manifested themselves first at early stage which is where things begin and the other stages don't feel the issues until much later as it takes years for startups to grow to those stages.

What are the issues?

1. Valuations are up, but yet risk is also up. We are either paying more for a startup at the new seed stage, or in order to get a slight consideration for price we enter the more dangerous pre-seed round.

2. Competition is way, way up. It's too easy to start a startup, so for us pre-seed investors, how do we know that it's my startup amongst a group of 4-6 similar startups who will win?

Still, we see those who seek to disrupt the current winners. After Whatsapp's $19B exit, how many messaging apps have appeared?

3. According to Berkery-Noyes, in 2013 the median of exits is hanging around $12-15M. Contrast that to 2008 when the median was around $20M. Remember also that valuations back then were lower than they are today - startups that exited in 2008 probably started in 2006-7.

When you invest in a startup and the median of exits is less than or equal to 2x that of where most startups will exit, you might be happy with a 2x return in today's world where our economy sucks and we can't make money elsewhere. The problem is that your ability to make money is not sustainable in the long run as a startup investor. Your losers will far outpace your winners and investing in startups hoping for a 2x return the median exit will ultimately lead to you going negative pretty quickly.

To give you a look into the failure rate of startups, CBinsights reports that for a given cohort of startups vintage 2009, 75% die, 21% get acquired, 4% are potential over-returners (or the elusive unicorn). That means that you have to invest in 25 startups statistically to get 1 over-returner.

Contrast that to when I started angel investing back in 2006, the venture fund folks I chatted with all told me that if you invest in 10 startups, about 5 will die outright, 4 will either return your money or 2-4x, and then there will be one that will return everything you've lost and then some. But that was also at series A stage; there were very few seed funds back then and the seed stage was mostly supported by angels and angel groups.

Let's play with some scenarios. Assume you put equal amounts of money into every startup you invest. Assume that you invested in 25 startups.

First, let's apply the current $5M pre money/cap on note metric for funding and assume a $6M post money, and use the low range of median of exits of $12M. Using the CBinsights data from 2009, 75% of your 25 startups or about 18-19 of them will just die outright. Then, 21% or about 5 will most likely return 2x, meaning that you only cover 10 startups worth of investments that failed; you have another 8-9 which still need to be covered in order for you to break-even. That means that one startup which over-returns must do so at 10x to just break-even.

Note that I've also made the important assumptions on the 21%. These are:

1. The 21% didn't raise any more money and you were not diluted.
2. I also assumed that you could actually take into account ownership at the valuation of the round. Most rounds these days are notes with caps and you can't always assume the ownership is there. In my experience, if you don't own stock, all sorts of things can happen to your detriment even at a 2x acquisition on current valuation of the company.

I think you can assume that the above case is the BEST case scenario and all other scenarios return less than here for the average person. It also assumes you can get into right deals and not bad deals. Your own investing record can vary widely from the above.

Now for another important metric. By CBinsights count, there were 472 seed funded startups in 2009. In 2013, that count jumps to 856. Again, we are back to more competition with each other and for customers, thereby increasing risk for the average startup that is out there.

How do I cope? Largely, there are three coping strategies:

1. I keep strict valuation discipline.

2. I generally invest only in startups with no competitors.

3. I am always out there searching for the unique, special stuff and looking in places where others are not. I am patient to wait for when items 1 and 2 above align.

(Pre) seed investing has gotten to be an interesting place. I still believe opportunity is out there, but it is largely shifted towards later stages where traction, survivability, and sustainability can be proven, and for investors who can continue to invest throughout the stages of a startup, versus only being able to invest once and either follow on not at all or very sparingly.

NOTE: The strategies I employ at Launch Capital are not necessarily the strategies employed by the other directors.

UPDATED/EDITS: I wrote this post quickly and under uncomfortable conditions! Reading it over I found the need for edits. Here they are:

1. The calculation with the CBinsights data is incorrect. If you return 2x on the 5 acquired startups (21% of 25), you cover 10 startups you invested in. However it forgot to cover those 5 acquired startups so there are 5 additional startups worth of return to cover the 19 dead startups. That means you still have to cover 14 startups, not the 10 I said previously. So the 1 over-returner needs to return 15x just to break even, not 10x. That is even more difficult by far!

2. I said that this was the "best" case. I think this is the wrong word. I think "average" case is a better descriptor. Then my statement about other cases being worse is not quite correct. You can of course return better than 2x in the acquisitions, and return over 15x in the one over-returner.

Biohacking as the Next Opportunity

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In early 2013, I had the pleasure of attending the Bulletproof Conference put on by Dave Asprey of Bulletproof Exec fame. It was my first real introduction to the concept of biohacking.

According to Wikipedia, biohacking is the "practice of engaging biology with the hacker ethic." That means that you use many different means to actively alter and enhance your biology. These could be technological, or they could be biochemical, or they could simply be revealing more on your current biological state so that you can effectively take action. To most people, I think it evokes images of cyborgs and wearing steampunk like hardware on their heads. At one point the hardware may have necessarily looked like that: big, clunky, expensive, wires running everywhere, lights flashing. But today, technology has reached a new level of miniaturization and availability.

I couldn't resist exploring the potential of these devices. I began training with a specialized electrostim machine called an ARPWave POV with the guys at EVOUltrafit. While the intent was physical results, the training is actually neurological. So while I get results externally, I find that there some amazing benefits internally. I bought a Somapulse which uses pulsed electromagnetic fields (PEMF) to induce healing and to re-energize cells, and was developed by some guys at NASA. I bought it out of frustration that my elbow, which got strained, was not healing fast enough on its own for months. In 3 weeks with the Somapulse, it was all better.

I've also tried the various popular fitness trackers and found them lacking. I'm also testing some sleep trackers but nothing comes close to the now defunct Zeo, which I unfortunately was too late to buy one. I also got a transcranial direct stimulation (tads) device called the Foc.us, which I haven't played with - too many toys! I am also looking into Rife technologies - cure cancer anyone?

I also tried WellnessFX and now am a big fan of more constant monitoring of your blood markers AND the ability to do it without requiring a doctor to prescribe a blood test - direct to consumer still has not seen its full potential but I have seen the value of it. While blood draws may make people cringe, companies like Theranos are changing that to drawing only a few drops of blood (and by the way, 10x cheaper)! I am also actively working with a functional medicine doctor at JustInHealth to get my blood markers back into healthier levels. With my thyroid and adrenals number back in place, every day I have more energy, resistant to disease and more resilient to the stresses that occur in my life.

Much of these technologies are on the fringe still; early adopters and hobbyists messing around with interesting devices, some getting good results, some questioning. It also requires a level of commitment, education, and initiative that most people don't have. Most people are totally passive on their health and physical condition and just wait until they get themselves into an unhealthy corner before doing something. By that time, it may be too late.

Experiencing the potential of these technologies firsthand and seeing the explosion of such devices across the internet and across crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, I believe that we are on the edge of a new opportunity for startups to create something really new and impactful.

The challenges I see now are:

1. Most of this technology is still complex and requires a lot of effort on the part of the user. Until it is simplified further, wide adoption could be very difficult.

2. The customer base needs to educate themselves on taking control of their health and wellbeing. This will take some time.

3. It is possible that a simpler product could make a customer acquisition strategy work in the short term. One issue I have seen is that companies who have done this do not have the expertise or knowledge to advance their products beyond where they are now.

4. The hardware itself needs work. At the moment, wearing the devices can be cumbersome and uncomfortable. Power requirements limit usage times. Even something as simple as wearing a heart rate monitor belt around your chest all day is annoying. I also think that wireless technologies still need advancing. Bluetooth LE is a step forward, but I find that there are still issues.

The startup who can take a biohacker technology AND figure out the broad adoption problem will really have something. I've experienced firsthand the results of biohacking and there is way too much value to not bring to the general population. But for them, it's a user interface problem applied to super high technology; hide all the wires and blinking lights and make it one button easy.

I'm excited to see science fiction become reality in my lifetime. As a startup investor, I plan to be fully immersed in biohacking technologies in my search for the next winner.

"I've Never Heard Of That Before"

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In recent weeks, many people have asked me what I look for in startups today. My leading answer has become:

"I've never heard of that before!"

As I glance at the flow of accelerator demo day lists and what gets funded on popular news outlets which cover startups, my brain files away stuff that I see. Startups that do this, do that. I may not remember their names but only what they work on or do.

But every once in a rare while, I'll meet a startup working on something that I've never heard of before. I'll look into what my brain has filed away and can't even find someone working in a space that is close to it. This is what gets me excited - people working on projects with no competitors.

Back in the old days of venture capital, I heard that lack of competition was something they all looked for. It seemed very important back then as a way to maximize the odds of success. Certainly the world was less filled with startups of all sizes and shapes, which is very unlike today.

However, in today's world, I see people with multiple competitors get funded all the time. There seems to be the hope that maybe you invested in the winner and not the other guys. When I look, I just don't know if the startup I'm talking to is going to win, versus the other guys. It just seems too risky to me.

The world is way too filled with things for people to do, or choose from. This affects both consumer and B2B startups. Traction slows down and takes too long for startups to get to break-even or good enough metrics for the next round. When a product or service has other people working on the same or similar things, customers need to process "blur" and need to decide on whether they want to spend time to determine whether something truly is better or not. In my experience, most people just bail - and they wait until enough other people use something before they will even try it.

The only way to combat this is to present something to a customer that they have never heard of before. It must be so unique that the time to process is minimized. That gives them a leg up in acquiring customers. If there is no one else shouting/touting the same or similar product, then they can gain some initial traction without interference from others. They can pull out ahead before someone else gets the idea to build a competitor.

Some of you might think that is nearly impossible to find someone working on a product or service with no competitors. I think that is mostly true; the easy pickings are already being worked on many times over. And yes it's really hard and takes a lot of patience to wait for an encounter or it's a lot of work to go looking for them.

It's the big markets that have not been touched by and disrupted by new technologies that I'm excited about. A lot of that is in unsexy markets, things that definitely that newly graduated college kids will not have been exposed to. Some of them require a ton of time to dig into and understand. Some of them are so unsexy that it requires real effort to fall in love with!

Unicorn hunting is fun and all, but I prefer to look for my unicorns in places where hunters are not. My first attraction to a startup is most likely the realization I have never heard of their product/service before in an industry that hasn't been worked on yet. Then I rally the forces and dive deep from there.

Demo Day Burnout

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As summer moves on, we are soon back into demo day season for the fall. But yet as I attend these demo days, I find myself getting kind of bored. What do I mean by bored?

They seem so formulaic. The tone of each presenter is the same. Exciting, loud, forceful, confident. The flow of each pitch is the same. There are minor differences: some start with heartfelt stories, all end with graphs rising up and to the right with markets in the billions, and a "If you love [insert appropriate noun/pronoun here], then come find us". In their attempt to be the best of the best, I am finding that they are all starting to sound the same.

I can imagine what a movie or TV show writer or producer might feel like. These days all you have to do is go to TV Tropes and you can basically find the underlying story line for practically every movie or show out there. This is also why I get bored watching most movies too; it's the same story but just with different actors and in a different place. Truly special is the time when you stumble upon a movie that someone has done something really different....or perhaps it's just a trope that I haven't seen before...?

Somebody should do demodaytropes.com. Then it would just be easier to put together not only each individual pitch, but also the whole show. We could just collect what everyone has done and then you could just look up the demo day trope that fits best with your presenting style and situation.

Of course that would probably just make the whole demo day thing even more unmotivating to attend.

The formula does makes my job as mentor a ton easier. For instance, a few 500startups mentors and I spent many recent days with the startups of the current class to fine tune their upcoming demo day pitches. I sat with some in my mentor hours and went through their decks. There were a few where I actually would rejigger their pitches and then present it back to them in the same tone/style/voice as the many I've heard in demo days of the past. Boy, did I sound awesome - well, at least in my own head! I imagined myself acting out the many demo day pitches I've heard and just inserted their information and startup name. Almost too easy, right?

Then, when each demo day has 20, 30, no, 50+ startups to present - it's just getting harder to pay attention simply because of the monotony of the presentations.

Can it get better? I heard that Techstars had loud rave music in between each presenter and one of the startups brought a cadre of supermodels on stage. What else? Any way to make them more interesting beyond the uniformity of their super rehearsed, super confident pitches?

Betaday 2013 Pictures

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Some photos from the event - Enjoy!


The Foundry


View from the balcony


The crowd eagerly awaits the start!


Cool glass ceiling


John Borthwick opening remarks


Baratunde Thurston, our MC


Ricky Engelberg, Experience Director, Digital Sport of Nike


Andrew McLaughlin interviews Emily Bell of Columbia


Marc Ecko on Unlabeling yourself


The Gillmor Gang


Gilad Lotan presenting recent research


Paul Murphy talks about the HIR program


Aleksandar Kolundzija on Blend.io


Kuan Huang presenting Poncho


Matt Hackett with Teleca.st


Jace Cooke presenting Giphy


Patrick Moberg with Dots


Hackers in Residence 2013


Google Glass sighting No. 1 w/ Robert Scoble


...and discretely using it all day...


Nick Steele with Google Glass sighting No. 2

Betaday concepts captured on paper

Last but not least, the ever present GoPro camera
which was everywhere capturing time lapse pics

See my previous post Betaday 2013 by Betaworks for a brief synopsis of the day!

Betaday 2013 by Betaworks

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This last week I was in NYC and attended the 2013 Betaday, put on yearly by Betaworks.

It was a smaller, more intimate event this year, which was more similar to the first few Betadays - only 100 attendees which made for better networking overall and not being overwhelmed by all the people there.

IMHO it also heralded a second coming for Betaworks, on the heels of an amazing Hacker In Residence (HIR) program, managed by Paul Murphy, formerly of Aviary and Microsoft.

Back in January of this year, Paul had told me of his plans for the HIR program. Attract super multi-talented hackers; give them the full support and resources of Betaworks; let them build whatever they want to build. Out of it came a pretty wide (and awesome!) assortment of products:

Poncho - Personalized weather reports
Telecast - Handpicked video, delivered daily
Dots - A game about connecting
Blend.io - An open Collaboration Network for music creators
Giphy - search animated GIFs on the web

And not to mention recent product launches outside the HIR program which were equally awesome:

Rushmore.fm - stay up to date with your favourite artists, show off your current jams, and connect directly with the artists and labels you love.
Tapestry - Exclusive short stories presented in a beautiful and unique reading experience on mobile.
Done Not Done - The to-do list for things you want to do, not the things you have to do.

AND...can't forget the acquisition of Digg last year and the recent acquisition of Instapaper, both significant additions to the collection of products in the Betaworks portfolio.

Being an investor in Betaworks, I've been a part of the family since 2007 when I first met John so many years ago. I've watched Betaworks's evolution over the years, and it seemed that in recent months, they had substantially increased the output and influence of its operations. For this, I am supremely elated, and Betaday was the perfect time to celebrate our recent developments.

Betaday was held at The Foundry in Queens. A very cool spot for an event, it was also quite an adventure getting there and wasn't sure I would get back home OK.

As always, it was a gathering of both Betaworks family members and notable people in the industry. The witty Baratunde Thurston was our host, and the speaker set was great this year. We saw presentations and talks from:

Ricky Engelberg, Experience Director of Digital Sports at Nike.
Emily Bell, Professor of Professional Practice & Director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia.
Marc Ecko, American fashion designer, entrepreneur, investor, artist, and philanthropist.
The Gillmor Gang, featuring Steve Gillmor, Robert Scoble and his Google Glasses, Doug Rushkoff, media theorist and author, Paul Davison of Highlight.
Gilad Lotan, the in-house data expert at Betaworks.
Paul Murphy presenting the fruits of the HIR program.

My personal favorites were the talks by Ricky Engelberg and Marc Ecko.

Ricky gave a great overview of Nike's thinking and strategy with all their digital products, with the latest being the Fuelband. They see the Fuelband is the beginning of a whole line of digital products that motivate you to greater health and fitness. I've always been fascinated and impressed by Nike's strategic thinking, which is very much aligned with their marketing and advertising. It was great to see them using 3D printing to design their next generation shoes, and someday soon, they will be 3D printing them as well. As a guy who believes that hardware is a huge trend, Ricky's view of the world is one I share where digital devices can enhance our lives greatly.

Marc Ecko's talk mirrored his upcoming book, Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out. It was an open look into his life and his pursuit of design, influence, and fame, and then seeing it come nearly crashing down into bankruptcy. It made him realize what was most important in life and it wasn't bowing to the thinking of others, but rather really finding who you are and not compromising that. I look forward to reading his book when it comes out this fall.

Many kudos to Lauren Piazza, Betaworks operations manager, and her team for putting on a stupendous event. I thoroughly enjoyed Betaday 2013 and look forward to many more. As always, it is an honor to be part of the Betaworks family.

Demo Day Tips Volume 2.1: Essential Timing

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Two more thoughts on Demo Days:

1. Given the plethora of accelerators out there, the scheduling of the Demo Day is challenging because you don't want to hold a Demo Day to close to another one. This is because you don't want to overload investors in their time and attention to give the best chance for the startups to raise money - there is enough competition amongst the numbers in the class; you don't want to add to the competition across accelerators!

However, they still do tend to clump together because the classes are generally held corresponding to the seasons or months in the calendar year.

The thing to note is that post-Demo Day, you really need to work as fast as possible to close funding because if you don't, you could end up running up against another Demo Day which could take investors' attention away from you.

For example, looking at the winter 2013 classes from earlier this year:

500startups Demo Day Winter 2013: February 6, 2013
Ycombinator Demo Day Winter 2013: March 26, 2013

A startup coming out of 500startups has effectively from February 6 to March 25, only about 2 months, before attention shifts to Ycombinator.

So work your magic on investors as fast, efficiently, and effectively as possible before the next Demo Day comes around!

2. This thought is related to Demo Days, but it more broadly has to do with optimizing Demo Day through which class you apply for.

In my previous post, Investment Pacing and The Timing of Fund Raising for Startups, I talked about the fact that the first half of the year is better for fund raising than the second. If this is true, then there are batches of accelerator classes that place you in the marketplace at the most optimal time for fund raising.

This means that the winter classes whose Demo Days end up in the early part of the calendar year have a longer period of time uninterrupted by investor seasonality than those who occur in the second half of the year. It means that the probability of you raising money is also greater if you have no interruptions due to other factors. So it may be worthwhile to work to get into winter classes than for a class in another part of the year.

Timing is everything - competition between accelerator classes and startups for limited investor time, attention, and money is fierce so optimize it wisely through timing.

A while back I was part of the short lived mentor program at YCombinator and wrote this post in response, Tips on Demo Day and Afterwards for YCombinator Startups. It was in reaction to easy to fix mistakes that all their crop make come the days before, during and after Demo Day.

Over the years after I wrote that post, I have mentored many startups, most recently at 500startups and ImagineK12. It seems that each startup, even at the beginning of the accelerator class, worries about their performance at Demo Day!

The previous post was more about the days closely surrounding Demo Day. However, I think there are more things to consider now that begins through the entire time in an accelerator program. To perform well at Demo Day, you should start thinking about Demo Day from Day One the moment you get there....

Day One to 1-2 Weeks Before Demo Day

In past accelerator classes, I always knew that there was friendly competition between the startups to give the best presentation possible on stage, over that of the others. However, startups sometimes don't realize this at the outset.

It is important to know that intelligence gathering on your fellow startups in the class should begin as soon as possible. What should you look for?

1. Who has the most traction and revenue. These will be ones that investors will keep their eye on the most.

2. Who has the coolest product, regardless of traction. These will be stars of the show from an "ooh-aah" standpoint. They will be memorable simply for their coolness.

3. Who has raised a round already. Somehow they wooed investors and may not need Demo Day to do so, or they may be announcing a bigger round then. But it is impressive when someone can get up on stage and say "we've already raised our round".

These will be your biggest competition on stage come Demo Day. You should watch out for these startups and figure out the best way to top them on stage. Rank them all from 1 to X and see where you stand in that list. The ones ahead of you are the ones you need to top - you only have from the beginning of the program to the end so work fast and smart!

Having said the above, and while I think they are your competition for Demo Day results, I also do believe that you will all more likely succeed if you all support each other and work together. So save your high priced service for those outside the accelerator; give your fellow startups a break so that you can all get the best chance to execute well by Demo Day. Support each other through the highs and lows; give advice freely and don't undermine anyone.

What are the categories to excel at? The basic categories are:

1. Traction, exponentially rising metrics
2. Revenue
3. Product awesomeness
4. Technology - unique? awesome? defensible?
4. Design excellence
5. Customer acquisition strategy, marketing excellence
6. Market size is huge
7. Founders are awesome
8. Previously committed investors, especially well known ones - social proof in action
9. Vision

In general, you should maximize your showing in as many categories as possible, and then better than anyone else in the class. (A good read: Brian Witlin's 10 Topics To Know Cold for Your Perfect VC Investor Pitch).

At one accelerator, a few startups told me that some had given them some basic numbers in traction and revenue they should hit in order to give them the best chance at getting investment. To me, if this is what someone told you, then you should treat this as the average and fight/execute to exceed these metrics! Everyone else may be attempting to hit this average, but you should try to go beyond it to look better!

Up to 1-2 Weeks Before Demo Day

OK so you've spent the last few weeks or months working your butt off to try to be the best of the class. If you're executing strongly, then you're off to the races.

But if you've tried your best and you're still lagging, what do you do? DON'T DESPAIR. Work on things that are under your control, like product awesomeness, design and technology excellence, market size is huge, and vision.

While the more traditional way of getting funded is excelling at those previously mentioned categories, I've seen startups get funding on much less progress so hope is not all lost. The idea is to NEVER GIVE UP (essential quality of any great entrepreneur).

Peacocking

If you've read The Game by Neil Strauss, you'll know that "peacocking" is what you do if you walk into a bar and try to pick up women. You need to look bigger/better/different/more flamboyant/more whatever than everyone else in there. In doing so, pickup artists have learned that they can pick up anyone!

I believe Demo Day has become about peacocking not for women, but for investors. Demo Day itself has become the pickup bar for startups. It's full of investors and you want to get their attention. Otherwise, someone else is going to get the attention and you'll be left at the bar alone with your drink. That sucks! Don't be that guy and see someone else walk off with the hottest investors in the place!

How might you peacock?

It may be as simple as all of you wearing brightly colored T-shirts, or some gimmick like a sweepstakes, or give away some cool gift (like T-shirts; one startup made Dr. Dre clone headphones to give away to investors who talked to them!).

It may be something amazing in your pitch. This something could be one of the typical previously mentioned categories, or something else entirely different. One startup I know put up a demo so amazing on stage that he generated a murmur of "ooohs" and "aaahs" through the audience, which resulted in a whole bunch of people coming up to him later asking him how he did that!

The Beauty Pageant

Another way to look at Demo Day, since it's on stage, is that it's a beauty pageant. All of you are clamoring to be Miss Universe so you better have a great showing across all categories. You're all competing, trying to look the best against the other contestants. Actual awesome performance in the previously mentioned categories helps a great deal and may be enough; peacocking adds icing on the cake (especially if there is, unfortunately, little cake, if you get my meaning).

The big prize is your two goals - the first is to get investors to come up and talk to you. The close second is to get them to invest in you. But you can't get the second without the first happening!

Keep that in mind as you're prepping for your stage debut. Whether it's through actual excellence in execution, or peacocking, or some awesome demo, or other thing, your overwhelming goal is to get investors to walk to you. You don't want to be standing around waiting for people to come up to you; find a way to make them all want to talk to you - be Miss Universe with the biggest/brightest feathers!

1-2 Weeks Before Demo Day

Prep as in my post Tips on Demo Day and Afterwards for YCombinator Startups. Make business cards and T-shirts, etc. Get the list of investor attendees and research potential investors who are your number one targets.

Practice your pitch OVER and OVER again until you are reciting it in your sleep and can do it without slides or help. Deliver it live multiple times to friends, mentors, and others until it is fine tuned to nth degree.

At 500startups, there are big blocks of hours dedicated each day and evening to let startups pitch practice. We mentors and others sit in on this pitch prep and give feedback. You should go to each one, get feedback, edit the pitch and then go back to the next session to pitch again and again and again until it is perfect.

Note that it can be a frustrating experience getting pitch feedback from different individuals because each person may tell you completely different things to change. Just gather it all, make changes that work for you, and make it flow the way you want to deliver it - remember that you're the one pitching and you'll have a particular style or personality, so you should make it your own. Try our suggestions; see if some fit and if they don't, toss them. It just needs to be cohesive and flow coherently and there are a thousand ways that can happen. We're here to help you with our feedback (and maybe confuse you), but YOU own this pitch, not us.

Also, remember that sometimes there is more than one Demo Day depending on the accelerator. If you have more than one pitch to give, think of it as a performance where you have to perform the exact same show every night. That means you'll need to have perfected the emphasis, the jokes, the words, the dramatic pauses and deliver it exactly the same way each time.

Demo Day

The day of the beauty pageant is here. Enjoy the day, relax, and deliver the pitch in the best way possible. Then get out in the crowd and network (peacock) like crazy! Read my previous post for tips on the day of Demo Day.

After Demo Day

It ain't over! Now comes the follow ups and communications to get investors on board. Get organized and track your progress. Set up meetings with investors. Read my previous post for tips on post-Demo Day.

Being in an accelerator class is one of the best things you can do to help you make progress and get funding. Make the most of your time, optimize it from day one to Demo Day.

Corporate Due Diligence Fast and Easy

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In two past posts, I talked about doing due diligence on startups. The first one was The Lack of Due Diligence is Appalling and Foolish where I lamented that most investors I met out there did virtually no due diligence whatsoever. Then I talked about how simple and easy doing The Due Diligence Customer Call was, and some suggestions on what to ask. There are two more topics I would like to tackle in the due diligence area. Last year, John Lanahan in our research team tackled research due diligence in Efficient Research: The Lean VC Way. The last part of due diligence that I will post about today is corporate due diligence.

In my Lack of Due Diligence is Appalling and Foolish post, I give a short list of documents I ask from the startup before investing. I have expanded that list slightly, adding debt obligations, business contracts, and then I modify it based on the situation and startup in question, but it has essentially been the same over the years. Most of the time I collect all this into a Dropbox folder and send it to my lawyer for review. It has always amazed me that it takes him only 1-2 hours to go through this- I guess when you look at a lot of this stuff, you get used to reading it and picking out specific stuff to look for. Every now and then, I get the opportunity to do corporate due diligence myself and yes I can definitely say it can take you only an hour to do this!

Generally, the corporate due diligence step I leave for the last step, after doing customer calls, reference calls, and research on the market. I don't want to ask for corporate documents unless everything has checked out up to this point, since those documents are confidential to the company and I want to respect that.

Note that I am ONLY talking about early stage startups: companies that have been only in existence for less than a year and have not had many business operations. Corporate due diligence can grow exponentially when the company has been in operation for years and then there are tons of documents and contracts, which can take teams of lawyers weeks to review. So feel lucky that at early stage, you don't have much company history to go through! But sadly, there could be a lot still to worry about....

So yes it can take only an hour! Just a few months back I did just this with a startup and zinged a bunch of questions back to them for inconsistencies and missing items. How does one do this? Some tips:

1. Do this often. Get used to reading legalese and understanding it quickly.

2. Learn to recognize standard legalese in corporate documents and when they diverge.

3. Learn to read and scan text quickly.

4. Take notes in a separate notepad or document while reviewing, so you can come back to important points or questions.

OK those are the preliminaries; now what to look for? Some common things I've learned to look for are:

1. Which items in the list are missing and why?

2. How many shares are authorized in the Articles? It is better to see 5M or 10M authorized. I would raise a flag if only 10K or similar shares were authorized. Lower numbers authorized also can indicate that someone incorporated by themselves at some online easy incorporation website - not the best option.

3. Scan through the board meeting minutes, assuming they exist. Identify any inconsistencies in personnel, consultants hired, stock granted to individuals and why, business dealings, operating directions, and information in the minutes and the other documents.

4. In the stock purchase plans, are people vesting or do they own stock?

5. If there have been previous financings, what do the terms of those financings look like? Do any have any effect on your money coming in at this time?

6. If there are any contracts, are there any problems with those contracts relating to future business?

7. If there is any debt, are there any liabiltiies to be aware of? Any liens on the assets of the company? Who gets paid back first and when?

8. Who is the lawyer? Be wary of lawyers who are not familiar with early stage startup work. Their lack of experience can cause all sorts of unwanted trouble - doesn't mean they aren't good lawyers, just means that lack of experience on what is acceptable and what is not can be a barrier to getting things done.

9. How much is owned by founders, employees, and, if any, previous investors? Is this acceptable to you?

10. Go to the site of the state in which they are incorporated and search for them in the incorporation database. Make sure they really exist there!

11. Write down all people and companies you encounter in the documents. Did they get money or stock? Or were there contracts that were entered into? Are they accounted for in other documents? Check the cap table - is anyone missing? Check on why anyone would receive money from the company.

There are many more that come up, but those are ones that I've encountered in previous deals. I also asked my lawyer for a broader set of Top 10 things to look out for, from his perspective, listed here:

1. No Organizational Resolutions (after Articles, to set up the company, appoint officers, etc.), or they are incomplete.

2. No qualification filed in state of domicile (e.g., DE company located in CA, no filing made in CA).

3. Docs are provided, but they are unsigned.

4. Company is set up by an Incorporator, but there is no Action by Incorporator adopting the Bylaws and appointing the initial Board.

5. Stock Options granted, but a Stock Option Plan was not adopted by the Company.

6. More stock issued than is authorized by the Company's Articles/Certificate of incorporation.

7. No Board Consent or Minutes approving the current financing.

8. Notice of Stock Transaction (in CA, a 25102(f) Notice) not filed with the State for the sale of stock.

9. No Cap Table.

10. Founders acquired stock but did not sign a Stock Purchase Agreement.

My list and my lawyer's list provide a great starting point. These lists are not, by any means, exhaustive. My best recommendation is always to collect the information and then send it to your lawyer for review and spend the money for it to be done by a professional. In lieu of that, it is always educational and interesting to go through these documents by yourself and try to spot potential problems. I always scan the documents, even when I send them to my lawyer, for practice, and also to double check his work because sometimes I may find something that he may miss, or I may care about something due to the nature of the company and situation but he won't know it's important since he isn't as close to the deal as I am.

The next step is to then decide whether you're OK with what you found or not. At early stage, it is common to find lots of corners have been cut to get to where they are now. Many early stage rounds are completed with big discrepancies in the corporate documents unfixed. If an institutional investor comes in, they will most likely demand clean up. I have often asked to clean up, even at low levels of investment. Rarely do I find that an entrepreneur won't clean it up; most of the time he/she knows it has to be done anyways, so why not now?

Other red flags:

1. I have asked for corporate due diligence documents and the entrepreneur has refused to provide them.

2. The entrepreneur doesn't want to clean up the documents, or constantly backpedals when you ask.

I have walked away from deals, after doing all sorts of other due diligence and then got to corporate due diligence and either one of those red flags pops up or I find something that I cannot live with. Do not skip this step!

Doing corporate due diligence is a necessary step no matter what the level of investment. It is best done by spending a little bit of money getting a professional eye to look them over. And it can be done on the cheap by doing it yourself.

Thanks to Mark Edwards of Edwards Law Group for contributing to this post.

Metrics for Series A

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Over this last year, I have been watching a whole group of startups attempt to land their series A. One aspect that has been shown to be incredibly important for sophisticated and series A investors is showing superior metrics and your knowledge surrounding them.

Why Metrics?

With internet startups, practically everything has been shown to be measurable.

Showing that you are tracking the right metrics means that you have experienced personnel in tracking the progress of your business.

Showing exponentially rising metrics means that you have found a way to grow and capture share that is grabbing customers in ever rising, large numbers, and that is hopefully growing faster than your competitors. Investors love startups that are growing exponentially in a short amount of time; for startups, time is your enemy and showing that you can get big quickly is critical.

Exhibiting metrics that are not only growing exponentially, but large in magnitude helps a great deal. But at series A level, the magnitude of the metrics may or may not be enough to land your next round.

Metrics on Demand

We have seen that investors demand that whomever is pitching should know every metric by heart and memorized. This shows that the team members are living and breathing metrics day in and day out.

If you cannot spew metrics on demand, you substantially reduce your ability to grab that series A. Investors are seeing too many pitches where the people pitching can recall detailed metrics from memory; it shows an obsession with tracking and deep knowledge of your business. If you don't show an equivalent grasp of the metrics, then investors may get skittish and think you don't know enough of about your business, thereby increasing the chance that something unknown might sink it.

You must also show proficiency with metrics, showing not only that you are tracking the right ones but that you are using them effectively to grow your business, and methodologies to improve and test them and also make them better over time.

Which Metrics?

As I sit down with startups, many need to track the same metrics. But different types of startups will have different metrics, and some will have different metrics they will focus on given the situation.

The topic of which metrics to track is too broad to cover in this post. Suffice to say there has been written on the topic of metrics, many of which can be found on the KISSmetrics blog. This book is about to be released: Lean Analytics by Alistair Croll and Ben Yoskovitz. You can buy the pre-release PDF at the O'Reilly site if you're impatient to wait until March.

Some great articles and posts to read:

Single Startup Metric - this is also discussed in Lean Analytics. It is about focusing on one metric at early stage to drive the success of your business and not getting overwhelmed with too many metrics.

9 Metrics to Help You Make Wise Decisions about Your Start-Up - A great list of common metrics used to drive startups' businesses.

Cohort Analysis - Measuring Engagement Over Time - Cohort analysis is very important. Showing increasing engagement across cohorts and over time is critical. Setting up the same graph with other metrics like LTV, which arguably is a measure of engagement, can be very valuable and worthwhile for an investor to see.

Ecommerce is a slog -- what's your angle ? - Fred Destin has an easy discussion on ecommerce metrics.

E-Commerce: What are the most important metrics for e-commerce companies? - A broader discussion on ecommerce metrics via Quora.

SaaS Metrics 2.0 - A Guide to Measuring and Improving what Matters - Written by David Skok of Matrix Partners. Great overview on metrics applied to SaaS businesses.

Many more great posts exist out there. Search on " metrics" on Google and also in Quora.

By the way, toss Vanity Metrics. Save those for the press; don't waste investors' time with them. Definitely don't use them for tracking the growth of your startup internally; they can lead you down the wrong path to death!

Are My Metrics Good Enough?

When you meet with seed investors, they may overlook the fact that you have metrics that are miniscule or non-existent. Seed investors often don't have traction for proof and need to invest on the dream more than concrete proof.

When you get to series A, the bar gets raised significantly. Very few startups get series A on the dream today; we can always find the example startup or exception - but that's the point - it's the EXCEPTION not the rule. Much better to have shown that you have a good handle on metrics and the metrics themselves are great.

The elements of great metrics are easy. You need ideally all four of:

1. Show that you operationally have a great handle on metrics, tracking the right ones, showing that you are applying strategies driven by those metrics, and have on staff the right people doing the right things with the appropriate technology in place.

2. Exhibit metrics large in magnitude, ex. not 100s users, but millions of users (or maybe 10s of millions of users now).

3. Exhibit exponential growth in key metrics. Linear is not good enough for most metrics - an example where linear might be still great is linearly growing LTV over time. Mostly, show a real hockey stick up and to the right!

4. Show that your metrics are greater than industry benchmarks and/or competitors.

If you don't have all 4, series A can be a real slog, potentially unachievable in today's Series A Crunch laden market where there are too many early stage startups coming up for their next round. Why? It's because too many startups have a handle on all 4 items above AND have higher magnitude and exponentially growing metrics than you. You've got your work cut out for you!

So the overall goal would be to achieve all 4. The first goal is item 1. Build the dream team for metrics and put in place technology to surface all sorts of metrics that you need. Use awesome tools like KISSmetrics and/or build your own. If you don't have 1., then other 3 are going to be super tough and you'll be reliant on luck to get there. Don't rely on luck! Throw the odds in your favor of achieving the other 3 by being deliberate with respect to metrics, not haphazard.

Once you build the dream team and have the right technology in place, then you need to find the right metrics. Read those posts above. Get the right help - talk to others in your industry who have experience in metrics like yours and get their help in developing the right metrics for you to work with. Replace vanity metrics with better ones!

Let's jump to item 4. This one is easy. Search Google, look at annual reports of public companies operating in your or similar spaces. Look on Quora for someone who may reveal metrics that you can't find elsewhere. Search Slideshare for an elusive presentation that may reveal industry numbers. Check industry reports for more. Now you have a target - if you can show that your metrics are better than existing companies out there, that's impressive!

Back to the hardest of the 4: items 2 and 3. How do you achieve these, and both in magnitude and exponentially growing numbers? Ack!

No magic I can impart on you from this post for sure. I will say that if you've got item 1, you're well on your way to do the right things to get there. This is where the rubber meets the road and now YOU have to make your project shine.

What If I Don't Have All 4 Items?

If you've got all 4 items, then why the heck are you reading this post? Go out and raise your series A!

However, if you've gotten this far, you may be one of the hordes of startups which do not exhibit all 4 qualities. What do you do now?

If you still have runway, go out and improve your metrics!

If you need to raise, then here are some suggestions to increase your chances, knowing that there could be hordes of startups with unfortunately much better metrics than you:

1. You probably can't hire since you are running low on cash and need to raise, unless you can get somebody to sign up on equity. But you should go to investors with someone who at least is tracking and implementing a metrics driven approach in your startup. That person could also be you! Bring that person to the pitch so that they can show uber-expertise in metrics at your company.

2. The most common problem I've encountered are items 2 and 3. You either have low magnitude numbers or slow, linear growth, or both. If you have either 2 or 3, you still have a chance to raise on the vision and team. The better one to exhibit is exponential growth, even with low magnitude numbers. If you don't have growth but big numbers, investors might think that your growth has stalled, or you're doing something wrong, or both.

Metrics are an important part of the startup process. Investors today demand not only great metrics, but people on the team who understand the critical metrics in the business and can use them to grow the company. Implementing technology and process for metrics in your startup will greatly increase your chances of landing that next round. Don't wait - do it now!


"I Have No Competition!"

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This must be the favorite sentence uttered by entrepreneurs. But who can really lay claim to this statement being true? Could someone truly have no competitors?

Usually what happens is, after the pitch I go back to our research team and after their digging, we find a mass of competitors. How could that be?

In thinking about competitors, I find there is generally a difference of opinion between me and the entrepreneur that is driven by the different types of competition, and whether the type of competitors that exist matter to us investing or not. Then add to that how market forces shape competition and this all gets pretty complex.

The Different Types of Competition

What are the different types of competitors? Looking out on the Net, I found these categories of competition:

Direct/Existing Competitors - usually the easiest to find, these are companies with products who are the same are very similar to yours, and attempt to serve the same need.

[source: Different Types of Competitors by Peter Halim]

Entrenched direct/existing competitors are those who have been around for a while and have grabbed a lot of market share before you showed up.

Indirect or Mindshare/Category Competitors - these are companies who provide alternatives to the need your product solves or the resources that your using your product would occupy, but it may not be obvious that they are taking away share from you.

"Just because your offering is unique, doesn’t mean it is unique in the mind of your prospects. To a prospective customer a marketing strategist, web designer, direct mail specialist, graphic designer, video producers, and print shops may all provide “marketing”."

[sources: 4 Types of Competitors, Different Types of Competitors by Peter Halim]

Potential Competitors - these are companies who have the capability and the will to enter into the marketplace with a product and become a direct or indirect competitor to you.

[source: Different Types of Competitors by Peter Halim]

Replacement Competitors -

"A replacement competitor is something someone could do instead of choose your product, but they’re using the same resources they could have committed to your product."

[source: Market Competition 101: The 3 types of competitors to keep an eye on by Daniel Burstein]

Budget Competitors -

"Even if your products and services are truly unique, you still have to compete for the same budget dollars that other service providers are vying for."

[source: 4 Types of Competitors]

This also applies to the regular consumers. How hard is it to get customers to part with their money, if there are other choices possible? How many subscription services can a consumer have on their credit card before they say enough is enough? Advertising agencies have set budgets per year; if it all gets spoken for, you may not get access to valuable ad dollars simply because it's been all committed.

Doing Nothing - In the face of certain situations, it may result in a potential customer doing nothing as a way of deciding. This may result from having too many choices, or too difficult choices, or somehow being prevented from making a decision comfortable to the customer. It is worthwhile to ask, how can you eliminate this type of competition?

[source: 4 Types of Competitors]

What Matters to Us in Investing

You're probably thinking - Wow, Dave, that's a big list! Isn't that being a bit unfair to a fledging startup? Wouldn't the world be our competitor if we lay this kind of analysis on my startup?

You're partially right - as investors we like to look at your project from all angles and weigh the odds. What's the probability that a competitor, or competitors, will emerge and make life difficult or impossible for a startup we're looking at?

So taking those categories of competition above, we try to see who is there and who is not.

Direct/existing competitors are the worst. You have to come up against them and fight head to head for market share. Some of them are entrenched and thus you could have a tough time grabbing share from them. On the other hand, if they are traditional, slow moving big corporations, you may have an advantage in being a quick moving startup entering with a significantly better product. Competing against other startups - that's sometimes much harder.

The other categories are much harder to judge. We have to make a personal call as to whether or not we think the risk is too high or low enough to give the startup a fighting chance.

Market Forces Confound the Competition Analysis

The only problem is...there are too many internet startups now. There has been an explosion of entrepreneurism which complicates the competition problem.

Previously, we talked about Mindshare/Category Competitors. This was when your competitors could come from a broader category and those could become your competitors inadvertantly. However, with the enormous number of startups out there, the Category becomes so broad to emcompass all internet, meaning the fight for customers becomes the battle for attention where everyone is your competitor.

The Last Category: Everyone is Your Competitor

While this is probably true to some degree at any time, it jumps to the forefront in times like today. That's what is happening now; there are too many startups for both consumers and B2B customers to process quickly. If they cannot choose you fast enough, then your growth is stalled, causing you to burn through your cash before you can get to breakeven. Time is the enemy of startups - you cannot wait for people to process too many choices; you need them to use you quickly and they simply won't. This is why we see startups needing 24-30 months to get to someplace of stability, or to get to their next funding event.

This makes the investment decision much harder to process. What's an investor to do?

We could wait for times to change. The world moves so fast now - it is possible that within a year or two, the battle for attention may abate. Or it could get worse.

What it does mean is that for now, as we evaluate startups, the best we can do is to acknowledge the battle for attention is very real but we are being very picky now.

At this point, we try only to pick startups that have really no direct competitors, or have only old, traditional entrenched competitors. The world of internet startups has reached to almost every corner of every major industry; however, we are still finding some unturned stones, businesses and markets that have not been touched by internet startups yet. This is where we are finding the last remaining internet startup opportunities that literally have no direct competitors, or at best, competitors that are old, traditional companies which we are betting cannot move as fast, nor have the expertise or innnovative spirit of a startup.

In the old days, investors picked startups who had no competitors. The internet wasn't around back then and competition was different in other industries. With the internet, competition pops up with great ease and speed. We now look for those rare, few startups that have still no direct competitors and advise them to stay stealth, just like in the old days, to avoid other internet entrepreneurs from creating competitors literally out of thin air.


We Investors are Haunted by Our Past

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A few weeks back I met with an entrepreneur who had recently closed a round with a large VC. We got to talking about what it was like to work with that VC, and he mentioned that it was a little strange because the VC was pushing for these really bizarre terms. After he described them to me, I too agreed they were bizarre, but then I said I'm pretty sure I knew why he was pushing for them, which was I bet he had gotten burned on them in the past. The entrepreneur's eyes lit up and said that was right! Eventually, the VC admitted this to him, talked it through, and they came to agreement on terms.

I can sympathize with that VC. Since 2006 when I started investing in startups, I've gotten caught by a lot of unexpected traps and rookie mistakes. These have definitely driven my current thinking on how I like to pick startups and their teams, finance them, and what terms are important to me. I would definitely admit that this was the most expensive education in any subject I've ever learned. Where else can you piss away 10s, if not 100s of thousands of dollars on situations that you may have avoided through better experience or forethought? Or maybe lady luck just decided to slap you down this time out of nowhere?

It was one of the reasons why I wrote this post a few years back: More Reasons Not to Invest in Notes. In the notes that I've done, I've seen many unexpected things happen. And this is why my boilerplate note has grown to include many things beyond the vanilla convertible note that someone might use.

But then, there are investors I've met out there who have never had anything bad or weird happen to them. This fact still amazes me that there are those out there like this. Still, it is my belief that the more you invest, the more likely something bad will eventually happen. You can't avoid everything bad that can happen to you; you can only do so much to protect yourself.

In our attempts to protect ourselves, the entrepreneurs we meet often suffer from our past. We argue for certain agreements and terms, some of which seem downright strange and we can be pretty adamant about those terms. We may even get emotional about them and refuse to back down on them as negotiable items.

Sorry about that. The more we invest, the more we are scarred. The best thing you can do is to be like a good therapist; sit and listen to us rant and rave. Nod with sympathy in your eyes. Let us know you understand. Pat us on the back. And when we calm down, we may actually give...or not. Like traditional therapy, some things can be cured and others...well...probably never...

Now that You've Got MVP, It's Time to Think About MVC

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Lately, I've been doing meetings with young startups in recent accelerator batches and meeting them for the first time. It's been great to hear that they've bought into the iterative method of customer development and most of them have found their Minimum Viable Product or MVP, or they are well on their way to finding MVP.

This is awesome but in today's world, you can't raise money on achieving an MVP. Investors demand more than that.

As Steve Blank likes to say:

A Startup Is a Temporary Organization Designed to Search
for A Repeatable and Scalable Business Model

[source: Nail the Customer Development Manifesto to the Wall - Steve Blank]

The unfortunate reality is - an MVP is not the above! Yet most of the newly minted entrepreneurs I've met think their job is nearly done when they've found MVP - they think they can go build a pitch off their early MVP and raise money!

A startup does require MVP but it is much more than just MVP. The problem is that MVP means early adoption of product and its features, maybe even some who will pay. But it doesn't tell you how many people will do it in the long term and whether this can support the company (the people and operations within) that is behind it.

So startups are much more than MVP and requires thinking beyond just the product. This is where I'd like to coin a new acronym, which is Minimum Viable Company or MVC.

What is a MVC?

First, I would say MVCs only apply to early stage startups - you can't really talk about achieving MVC status for a company that's been around for a longer period of time. To be minimally viable as a company, I would say:

1. It has achieved breakeven or profitability, or has a believable and achievable plan to get there.

OR

2. It has achieved enough metrics to reach its next funding event. This includes the first funding event.

Or ideally both.

The Fundable MVC

An MVC must have achieved some sort of MVP, but having MVP doesn't mean you have achieved MVC automatically. Nor does it mean you've achieved the next level of MVC which is a FMVC or Fundable MVC.

Remember that many MVCs can generate cash, but how much exactly? If you reach small or medium business status, that is great; it takes no little effort to make $500K, $1M, or several tens of millions of dollars per year. It is a notable achievement to employ a building full of workers, insuring them pay and livelihood, and providing or shipping product and services to customers. This is a win by many measures.

However, many companies like these, while there is every reason in the world for them to exist, unfortunately are not attractive to investors. This is because while they are doing great work, the likelihood of investors getting their money back and then some is very low or zero. This is the difference between an MVC and a FMVC.

We have not, as an startup/investor community, figured out how to invest in those companies whose trajectory is heading towards small or medium business status. Right now, all startups are being funded as if they are going to exit like any high growth startup. Anybody on a lesser trajectory simply won't attract the funding it needs unless more effort is done with other funding sources or structures.

Therefore, it is the FMVC that every startup needs to achieve. What are the characteristics of a FMVC? Everything that a seasoned, high growth investor looks for: big market, big vision, lots of revenue potential, world domination plan, etc. This is what will increase the likelihood of funding, not presenting your MVP at a demo day, or even a plan for a MVC, but your plan for a FMVC.

How do you turn your MVP into a FMVC?

First, you must realize that not all MVPs yield a FMVC. MVPs could yield a MVC but not FMVC. Many MVPs have potential to attract some customers, but not enough to create a company and an opportunity large and tasty enough for investors to want to put money in. This is also dependent on the market in general, meaning that 5+ years ago when there weren't so many startups sprouting up all over the place, you could have achieved an FMVC with your project; however, in today's crowded startup world, you cannot.

While every project is different, I point you to some suggestions on examining what you are doing now in hopes of turning it into a FMVC:

1. Iterating on MVCs is a good thing to do; keep trying out business models and plans until a FMVC shows up. It may mean giving up on your current MVP and looking for another one. Do not be afraid of going back to the drawing board if you find your MVP does not yield a satisfactory FMVC!

However, your time limit is your bank account. Never forget that. So working rapidly and lean is key.

2. Do you have a World Domination Plan? Is it believable? If you can envision a world where your MVP dominates whatever market and customers it is pursuing, is that big enough?

3. Are you too focused on the solution and not on the problem? Becoming too myopic about their product and forgetting about how this turns into a big company is something that I find happens with many entrepreneurs. They get caught up in the success of finding a MVP, but don't realize that they not only need a MVP but need to achieve MVC and hopefully FMVC.

4. Following on 3., it would probably be a good idea to pick up some MBA skills and start running models and scenarios to see where a given MVP can become a MVC, or potentially a FMVC.

5. A good measuring stick I use with startups is to ask what the $100M/year revenue scenario looks like. Generating $100M in business per year is no small feat - you get there and you're well on your way to becoming a big business. So can we imagine a world where your startup is making that much and believe it?

6. The weird thing about some startups is, that some break into such new territory that it is very hard to model or you can't model anything. New industries, new markets, or products and services that customers cannot imagine having or using are like that. So the FMVC you could create is purely via pitch, arrogance, confidence, etc. - whatever it takes to woo an investor to write a big enough check on what you plan whether you have product or not. In order to accomplish this kind of FMVC, your credentials must be unique: you must be well-known to the investor, you must be trusted. Ideally, you would have had an exit or more for that investor. You must show "extreme" entrepreneurial traits: be able to employ persuasive language, compelling/grand planning, superb salesmanship skills and technical skills, among others. These are the people who can get funding on a powerpoint when others flounder even with revenue.

This can be enough to win you funding and survivability.

In short:

1. An MVP is great but not enough in today's market to win funding.

2. An MVC generally means you have MVP, but an MVP does not guarantee MVC.

3. An MVC can yield a small to medium business, or a big world dominating one. There is nothing wrong with building any of those types of businesses and the world is big enough for all kinds.

4. However, we do not know how to properly invest in small to medium businesses. Our money may not be returnable from such businesses using the current equity structure of our investing. Thus, we want to invest in FMVCs.

5. As someone who is trying to build a real high-growth startup, therefore, MVPs or MVCs are not enough. You must search for a FMVC.


Venture Therapy

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As an advisor to startups, I've spent a lot of time developing my skills at teaching, guiding, and influencing people. But things aren't always so rosy for startups - people who have done startups before know that there can be incredible highs but also incredible lows. The tough moments can be extremely challenging to the psyche. But who can guide them through these times?

Lately, I feel like I've been playing the role of helping entrepreneurs through tough times, not only with what they do, but what they feel also.

It's hard being an entrepreneur. Sometimes, you have nobody to talk to. This is why we encourage entrepreneurs to have a co-founder, and to find good advisors. But I've found that while many give great advice and are awesome at the "doing" part, and are great problem solvers, they are awful at the "feeling" part.

Therapists have lots of skills - among them are:

1. The ability to listen.

2. The ability to be non-judgemental. What is, is. Don't place value judgement on what is there in front of you.

3. Be able to practice "tough love." Don't be wimpy and only shower someone with good feelings; listen and then guide them to a better place. Don't be afraid of confrontation - too many people, especially in California, avoid conflict. It's stupid.

4. To be able to reflect what you heard from them and then guide.

If there is anything I've learned in my life, it's that humans are AWFUL at the above. A good friend said it to me best:

Our society is awesome at creating doctors, lawyers, physicists, scientists. We put them through 12 years of grade school, then another 4 years of college, and then another few years of advanced training. They become AWESOME at what they do. YET we do not train someone to deal with another person positively and for a long time which arguably is just as or more important than your profession.

Those of you who know me know that I am mentor at 500startups, Lemnos Labs, and StartX. I was also mentor to Ycombinator startups when they had a short trial mentor program. And since 2006, I've been advisor to 20+ startups, and Venture Advisor at Betaworks. I've learned a lot about being a mentor and advisor over the years (see Advising with Influence and Resonance, Advisors for Early Stage Startups Presentation at Yale Entrepreneurship Institute, How Does One Advise So Many Companies at One Time?, The Three Faces of My Schizophrenia, What If I Advise But Don't Invest?) but think one aspect that has come to the forefront lately is mentor-as-therapist.

So I listen. I hear what they are saying. I don't be judgemental. I hear the problem or problems.

I can't get my co-founder to agree!

Why haven't I got 1 millions users yet? I think my product sucks!

I gotta bridge at a terrible valuation! Depression sets in!

My bank account is at zero! What do I do?

I can't raise $100M at a billion dollar valuation! The world is so unfair!

Instagram got a billion, why not me?

I'm outta my comfort zone! Panic!

I may suggest solutions, but sometimes I suggest nothing - (in case you didn't know, suggesting NOTHING is actually an effective way of helping!). Sometimes it can take several conversations. My intuition is fully on - can I actually push a solution now or should I wait? Maybe I can toe one in to see if it will work? I sense their receptiveness or lack thereof. I use a bit of humor. I rag on them to see the absurdity of it all (after all, what's REALLY important in life - this stupid startup or something else?). If the time is right, I practice tough love. Some get defensive - that's too bad - some take it in. It can be very taxing on me - isn't it frustrating when the other party just won't change or see the light fast enough? I just relax and be very patient because in my experience, the right answer always eventually comes. But ultimately, my hope is that I get them to a more positive place than they are today.

Yep, I've got a new job title - just call me "Venture Therapist"....

"Can I get you to Series A?"

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In my last trip to NYC, I had breakfast with my buddy Steve Schlafman of Lerer Ventures. I was talking about how many of our startups were going up for series A, and how it was filling my brain and time on how to get these guys there. He replied that they had always thought that way, at which time I thought about how slow I was on that uptake, that our job as seed investors was to help groom our startups for series A!

But as we talked, I also began to think heavily about the importance of series A and it's now becoming an investment criteria of mine, which is "can I get this startup to series A?".

The importance of the next round of funding is pretty clear; you need cash to grow and if you can't get it from some future funding source, it could kill you. However, in order to get your next round of funding, you better exhibit some key characteristics.

So I now look at startups with an eye towards these key characteristics, and I think heavily on whether or not they can with or without my help get to a point of exhibiting as many of those key characteristics as possible. If I decide they cannot, I think I would be less inclined for investment. But if I can see the creation of an environment where the some future investor would look favorably on this company sometime before their runway is over and invest in a series A, then I would be more inclined to invest.

Of course when I meet them at early stage, they rarely exhibit any of those key characteristics. How will I know if they ever will? Some would argue that it's nearly impossible to predict the future and that smart people will get there no matter what. Unfortunately, I am not sure that is enough any more. Smart people can succeed or fail either way. I am out there looking at startups with an eye to tilt the odds in favor of success and not just betting broadly on the crowd of smart people.

What would make me think that they can get there?

Without diving into the well trodden areas of what makes a great startup to invest in (ie. big markets, no competitors, unique IP, etc.), I think there are some additional things to consider:

1. Is there a larger investor in the round AND who is willing to support their startups after the first round?

All angel rounds used to be OK but I do not believe that is the case any more. This has to do with runway and the inevitable bridge round that comes after. We've pretty much bridged everyone of our startups of the most recent vintage. This is because we have been telling startups to raise and survive for at least 18-24 months. But I am not sure this is enough any more since a ton of my startups all need more runway. Thankfully many have had a large investor who was willing to lead a bridge and/or put in a large amount in to give them more runway.

However, it is unfortunate that not all larger funds are willing to do this. I am hopeful that perhaps they will change given the changes in the startup ecosystem. So I am actively searching for seed stage funds to work more closely with who have a true willingness to bridge after the first round.

2. We used to tell startups that they need to ensure their runway was 18-24 months, but now I do not think that is enough - it may actually be 24-30 months now. The evidence is in the bridges that we've had to do. Sure they all got to some level of traction by 12-18 months; but it didn't guarantee a series A. Either they needed to spend more time developing their startup, or developing their series A characteristics, or spending more time raising their round then they thought - or all of the above.

By my observations, there is a series A crunch. There are too many startups all clamoring for series A; it is impossible for everyone to get their next round done - there are many more seed stage startups being formed but the number of series A funding sources has not increased by the same amount.

However, the other issue is, how many series A characteristics are you exhibiting after you come near the end of your initial runway and are they worthy enough for a fund to invest in you?

The battle for attention is fierce; consumers and B2B customers are being deluged by tons of products and services. Traction is much harder to come by. Thus you need time to develop traction which early stage startups typically do not have. Yet another reason for the bridge, when they realize that their traction numbers aren't good enough for the series A and they need more time to develop traction (and everything else).

The other thing is that there are few startups who can raise a typical $1M round and last 24-30 months without additional funding. This is why I think that most categories for internet startups are moving far to the right on the famous "crossing the chasm" graph and it is getting too dangerous to play as an early stager in those rounds.

3. The round must be big enough. Too often I meet entrepreneurs who only want to raise $200K-400K. Sadly I have to turn them away. There are many reasons why they only seek to raise a relatively small amount. However, if you have a great idea with all the other prerequisites (ie. big market, no competition, great IP, Stanford/MIT grads, etc.) you should go out and raise at least a $1M if you have those attributes! What's stopping you?

In fact, if you don't you'll inevitably end up with not enough traction at the end of your $200K-400K and you could have a tough time raising on mediocre metrics - which means you could die even though you had a great idea to start. The fact remains that it is usually easier to raise money on the promise than afterwards on mediocre metrics.

The basic problem is, in the past, you may have been able to get to your next round with some level of confidence in the past with only that much. In today's world with the way the ecosystem is, your chance of getting near nowhere is uncomfortably high.

4. Looking at the startup plan itself, I think deeply about it and the ecosystem surrounding it. What will it take to get this startup to exhibit a decent amount of series A characteristics? This will be both subjective and objective; we analyze the plan and do our research as well as put our best guess and intuition against it. Can this startup make it to series A in a reasonable timeframe? Can they do it only with the money they raised? Or should we expect a bridge? Or, given what we know about the VCs who play at series A stage, will this startup get to a place where someone will step up to fund them? Eerily, revenue can play a big role yet again - this is very reminiscent of what happened to investors back in 2008 during the economic downturn; investors starting putting money into revenue generating startups for their survivabiity. I believe this factor will play a major role yet again in today's world because this lengthens their time to develop series A characteristics.

So if all these factors align positively, then I think the startup has a good chance of getting to the next step which is series A. Still, the world is changing very quickly now and I'm changing my thoughts and strategy in near real-time. In the near term, the ability to create a condition where series A is achievable in the timeframe that a startup has, has now come to forefront of my investment criteria.

It's Our Job to Help Prepare You for Series A

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Since the beginning of this year, I've been helping a number of my startups prepare for series A (you can read some tips I've collected in my last post Some Suggestions on How to Prepare for a Successful Series A). This seems to have become a full time job in itself.

When I first started investing as an angel back in 2006, I wanted to be helpful. I offered up my previous experience as a UX/product guy to startups and they were thankful for that. Since 2006, I've learned a ton about startup building in and around the product and have broadened my areas to help.

In yesterday's world, having a kick ass product equalled getting customers which then equalled getting your series A. In today's world, it's a LOT more complex.

Think about it. Everyone is out there trumpeting the entrepreneurship horn. Never before has it been so easy to start an internet startup; all the costs and barriers have dropped. But this also means that competition for the next round of funding has grown more fierce. While the number of startups has grown exponentially, the venture funds who fund at the series A level has not grown to match. Some have called this the series A crunch - see Elad Gil's excellent post Why Fewer Companies Are Successfully Raising Series A Rounds. Others have denied there is one. Still, as I watch my startups start their funding meetings with VCs, it's obvious that you better be better than the best of the best of the best or else you won't have a chance.

Startups must exhibit the correct strengths and have minimal weaknesses. But what are those strengths? And how do you minimize weaknesses? Startups without guidance aren't going to have a great chance at getting their next round. Thus your chances increase when you have help, hopefully in your advisors and investors.

I've been involved with over 30 startups now through my angel investing and through Launch Capital. While I started with helping with just product and UX, I find myself now more importantly broadening that help to prepping the startup for their next round. Perhaps this was obvious to those more experienced than me as an investor; however, just this year, I've become painfully aware that while I can help on product and UX, it's much more important that I am helpful with a broader overview of the startup, with the specific aim of successfully landing a series A.

So I sit with founders and drive them to exhibit all the characteristics an investor may want to see. All of those are detailed in my previous post, Some Suggestions on How to Prepare for a Successful Series A. I push them to spend all their waking hours (before their bank account runs too low) to figure out their key metrics, work on whatever their weaknesses are, make money and/or get tons of users, and to put their business in the best light - especially against the competition. I bring them news from the marketplace on what investors might look for, and which ones are the best ones for their market and which ones are not. I watch the calendar and make sure they hit the fund raise trail at the right times of the year. I dress them up for the funding prom and hope that they are the prettiest one there.

To me, preparing startups for series A has become the most important function an early stage investor can perform for their startups now, more than any other function. Early stage startups should strive to not only find key advisors and investors with expertise in the right fields, but also those who can help and are willing to spend time with their startups to successfully land their next round.

This year, I've got a number of startups all gunning for series A. A lot of us have been working on getting these startups to a point where they can present the best possible chance for getting their next round. Then, on the 500startups discussion board, the same topic came up and I posted an answer there. Rather than having it trapped there forever, I thought I'd repost it here (and edit it slightly) for all to take a look at some of things we're thinking about as we're prepping our startups for series A:

So what makes you most attractive to landing a series A? Sometimes it can be infuriating to see a competitor get funded and you not. Sometimes you can't even tell why.

Here are things to work on for your series A, that can help you land one:

1. Relational - if the VC knows you, has a history with you, or even better has had an exit with you, then they will back you. Go out and smooze some VCs now!

2. Interpersonal - Very few VCs will invest in you if they can't stand being around you. So work on your interpersonal skills.

3. Show entrepreneurial attributes - This is a given. Don't let them think you aren't going for the gold even in the slightest.

4. Big market -If your market is not big, you're in trouble. Better go find one.

5. Vision - It could mean that your vision is big and strong enough. If you have a small vision for your future, or an undefined one, that is much less attractive than if you had one.

6. Traction, showing large/exponential growth - This one is hard to attain at early stage. but then if you have tremendous traction, then why do you need funding? So make them pay up! For some startups, your revenue path is very unclear so you absolutely need to show tremendous traction before you get funded. If you are making lots of money, that's obvious although then you have to show how much *more* money you can make - making $1M is awesome but if you can only make $5M max, that's not so awesome to a series A VC.

7. Understanding of key metrics, even if not large in magnitude - This one is most important if you don't have 5. For example, for ecommerce, you need to show that you can acquire a ton of customers cheaply, and sell them something that makes you a lot more money than what it cost to acquire them. Show that you can then keep selling them more stuff and you have a lifetime value that is super high. Then a VC can then just think if they spend $X million on customer acquisition, then I will make $X+Y million. If you can show great metrics but not necessarily tremendous traction, then you need to show metrics which will talk about your potential, once you get tremendous traction.

8. Why are you better than your competitors - If you have a lot of competitors, the probability of you getting funded drops. If you have less, the probability grows. In either case you need to show why you are better than the other guys in your space.

9. Exit potential - 10X or better - For series A, they will look to return 10X or better. They will NOT be playing to exit at 3-5X. If you can't show that in your numbers and potential, you'll never get your series A. Work on your plan and story to get that. Study M&A data to understand if it's even possible.

10. Timing and market conditions - Here is one example: after instagram got bought for $1B, that ruined the market for all the other startups out there trying to get their series A; all the VCs started hunting for the next instagram! Talk about herd mentality. However, after 2008's crash, VCs started looking for revenue generating startups and less those that only have traction. So the market changes regularly.

11. Defensible, sustainable competitive advantage - This attribute has been around since the dawn of venture time. If you have one, a REAL one, then you will be fundable.

Knowing the above, then comes to another part of this puzzle for those raising money now, which is how much money do you need to make a good showing in a large number of the above?

We tell people to raise for 18-24 months now. It could be even longer given the type of startup you have. 12 months or less is definitely not enough in today's climate. So it could be $500K, it might be $2M - whatever is appropriate for what you are building. Also remember there are two levers to adjust: how much you raise and how much you burn. So it's not as simple as doubling your raise to get to 24 months - it could mean you should burn half as much.

NOTE: 18-24 months is HIGHLY dependent on industry and market conditions at the time. It was 12 months back in 2006 timeframe; it could be worse in the near future. Or it could retreat back to 12 months. Like it or not, it's 18-24 months right now.

Should you ask VCs what they look for in series A?

Asking VCs does work but it may also not work. Unless your business is in a category where there are known metrics, like ecommerce, or in an area where the VC has experience in a previous investment, it may be hard to get a good answer. You may get a generic answer like "show more traction". Well that's nice, but how much exactly? And is that enough? So find a VC who has experience and investments in a similar industry AND is friendly enough to take advice meetings in their busy schedule and you could get some good answers. But they could also be generic answers.

I think a better path is to find someone in a similar business who can tell you what metrics they track and see if they adapt to your business.

Proving and Showing the 10X Return Case

Another thing you can do is to do some math to show that you can generate a 10X or better return for an investor via comparison with historical data.

First, if you can, look up similar companies in your space. for some this is impossible. for others you may need to look at what a potential acquirer has paid for in the past. and still for others, it could be that you can find some public companies in similar spaces for comparison. google around the web for M&A data. some of that you'll have to find in a M&A database like MandAsoft.com or CBInsights.com. Look also at press releases, Techcrunch, SAI, etc.

Second, if they have revenue, this is most straightforward. Look at typical multiples on revenue or EBITDA. There will be high/mid/low values for typical M&A-ed companies, or easier when a company is public.

If you don't have revenue, this can be very hard. You may just need to find M&A data on companies that were acquired by a potential of acquirer of you. Gather metrics on those companies, like number of users, etc. to use as comparison.

Next, now you relate the performance of your company at a given exit value. But what is that exit value? Now go back to some scenarios on funding. For series A guys, what would a potential valuation be, for a given amount raised? Let's say you want to end up at $20M post money. If a series A guy wants at least 10X, then you would have to exit at $200M assuming no more rounds of financing after them (highly unlikely that other rounds may not be required, but let's start here).

If you have great revenue potential, then take the multiple on revenue and the multiple on EBIDTA and figure out what revenue you'd have to make in order to achieve that $200M, and/or also what your EBIDTA would have to be. Now you have these two numbers - if you can build a believable plan to get to these numbers in a reasonably short amount of time, say 5 years or less is optimal, 10 years is the absolute maximum which is the typical life of a fund, then you have a good chance of getting a series A.

If you're off building to huge user traction, looking for the Instagram win, then you'll have to show the traction buildup of similar companies sans revenue.

Remember that Pinterest took 1.5 years of hanging around until they started to hockey stick. Twitter took almost 3 years - those guys could have hung around for 10 years if they wanted to. But once they took off, then the game was on.

There are many out there who are looking for high traction services, either to find the next Instagram or on the assumption that if you have that many users then you'll be valuable to someone eventually, or you'll figure out how to monetize them even if with ads.

So all traction based/sans revenue startups have to do is to get to their own hockey stick and survive long enough to do so, but you may have to wait until that hockey stick happens before you get your series A....

Now having said all that, put all those calculations and data into a slide in your deck and get ready to talk through it with a VC. Don't count on a VC to do that math for you; they may not have enough experience in that industry or sector to do it on the fly.

If you can't achieve those results no matter how you jigger your spreadsheets and models, then i think you have a pretty low chance of getting a series A. if that's true, THEN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. change yourself. pivot what you're doing and/or pivot your plan. otherwise you're going to have to figure out how to survive on just your angel round, assuming that the angels you get also have lower expectations.

Am I Sunk If I Don't Exhibit Typical Series A Attributes?

While not being able to show typical series A attributes, it doesn't lower them to zero. There can be so many random factors that can land you a series A.

I would say that most VCs are pretty conservative relatively speaking and want proof points alongside the vision and things that are not yet shown or proved yet. but that doesn't mean you couldn't find someone to bet on you even with large sums of money.

The lesson here is: keep trying! Don't give up! If you have absolute proof that you should change your pitch, then do it. But there also may be somebody out there who will fund you with your current plan. You'll never know until you pitch as many people as possible. So DON'T GIVE UP.

When an Investment Thesis Moves Beyond You

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I've been thinking a lot about investment theses and their development and use over these last few months. As I observe some of the theses that I'm investing against now, I find that investment theses move through a cycle similar to Geoffrey Moore's Crossing the Chasm technology adoption life cycle model:

Source: Powerpoint-Templates on Slideshare

The earlier we develop a thesis, the further left on the graph we are. Thus, we truly are "Early Adopters" of this thesis because practically no one else has spotted yet, or very few. As we invest, we approach the chasm. This is where we find out if our thesis is right or not; if we are wrong, the thesis hits the chasm and falls to a brutal market death (taking our investment dollars along with it). Internet startups in this phase tackle the broad market since it is wide open with almost no competitors.

However if some of our investments start to do well, they gain market notice. Now other investors start jumping on the bandwagon. They too start to fund those startups which fit the thesis. Other (less imaginative) entrepreneurs start to see that startups got funded in a certain category before them, and they join in building startups too seeing that the investor community is beginning to favor these startups and raising money for them is easier. For internet startups, this begins the explosion of startups who start niche-ifying the early companies who tackled the broad market and try to do better by attacking a smaller segment more effectively than someone who is trying to satisfy the broad market. Series A investment rounds start populating the early startups who are still operating. This phase is the "Early Majority."

Now the early startups have survived and gained a lot of traction and are making money and/or generating excitement by their growing size. Later stage VCs start funding series B and beyond, infusing large amounts of growth capital to companies whose traction has largely been proven. Still, entrepreneurs begin companies that tackle the space; for internet startups, this means not only further niche-ifying but also additional feature development for those things we wish the giants would do but do not have time to build.

At the end of the cycle come the laggards. This can mean simply that there are those who believe that they can still find some startup that can survive the existence of heavy competition that can grow to great heights. It can also mean that the next phase is IPO, as the largest of the companies drive towards the public markets and the stock market takes hold, which usually means there is significant traction and revenue generated. But paradoxically, once companies become big, history has shown that they stop innovating and then it can be a great opportunity for new investment theses to develop in areas where opportunity was disappearing not too long ago.

When I applied this to the theses I had been using up until now, I realized that two of my theses were racing along the graph now. And that was when I also realized that one of my theses was quickly moving beyond us.

What do I mean by that? As an early stage investor, we need certain parameters to fall into place for us to execute a meaningful strategy in selecting investments. One of these is the fact that startups we select must have market conditions maximized for their success. In the case of one of my theses, and when I applied this chasm graph to it, I realized that the market had definitely jumped the chasm a year or so ago and we were racing up through Early Majority and into Late Majority. When this happens, it means that there is still a market opportunity but just that this opportunity is not as viable for us at early stage as it was before. Mostly, this is because companies who emerge in this thesis category require a ton of capital to survive the market dynamics of fast, easy competition and a consumer attention problem of enormous proportions. You essentially need a lot of capital simply to go out and buy users to accelerate the customer acquisition process or else your chances of surviving by utilizing free methods of acquisition are too slow. At early stage, we simply cannot do things to move the odds in our favor any more; these investments become the province of those with a lot more capital than us.

Can you guess which of my theses I refer to?

Developing investment theses has been a fascinating exercise for me. However, now that I had developed some, it is even more fascinating to watch how I apply them to my investment strategy, see them evolve through years (sometimes months now), and then go through the mental and emotional exercise of dropping them when they are not valid for us any more.

Richard White CEO of Uservoice posted a great read entitled Revenue could be fatal: 3 reasons your startup should consider waiting. Check out the comments and see a snapshot of the emotions that are stewing around the net right now (see more on Hacker News). All of this is on the heels of Instagram being purchased for $1 billion by Facebook. How is that fair? How can that be? A startup making no money being purchased for $1 billion! That sucks right?

I feel for you. Some of you are truly toiling away at a startup that makes real money. Some of you are trying to build "Instagram, the Sequel". Some of you get a lot of VC love and are showered with money while others can't get a dime. It's not fair, right?

Let's not forget investors. So many are quietly or noisily looking for the next Instagram now. Many are bemoaning the fact that they missed that investment and now they shift to go looking for the next one. Darn it, my previous investment strategy made perfect sense - how crazy is it to see that lucky set of investors make off like a bandit on a bullshit company that doesn't make any money!?! Life blows!

Well, here is some perspective. First, read this post, Mark Fletcher at Startup2Startup and the Evolution of Startup Business Strategy. It was at that Startup2Startup that I had that first AHA! moment about how the broader market can affect an entrepreneur's strategy on creating a company.

Then I met James Robinson at RRE Ventures who has been investing WAY LONGER than I have and through many market cycles. This prompted this post, Time Diversification: Strategy for Investors and it showed how important it was for investors to watch the market and adjust investing strategy accordingly.

So put the two together and you have a marketplace for startups and investors that can vary widely over the years.

It makes sense that you should just build a company with real revenue. In fact, in the hyper-risky world of startups, this is the conservative approach. Find a great idea, build it, make money, we all get rich. That works fine every time.

But the markets can be really nutty. There can appear times in the markets where it makes sense to build a company for other reasons, potentially not for revenue. As Mark Fletcher had noted, there were times in the past when it made sense to build for acquisition. Pre-2008 most of us were investing in startups whose goal was to get a million users before their money ran out and raise the series A; this seemed to be the norm amongst startups at that time. Thus, a bunch of my startups that raised money right before 2008 and whose money ran out in late 2008/early 2009 were sunk. The economic crisis of 2008 hit and it was nearly impossible to raise money unless you had revenue. A bunch of my startups died during those years which totally sucked. Now the markets have changed again.

As Instagram has shown, tremendous value has been created in a company that makes virtually no money but then became a threat to another company and thus got bought for an exorbitant amount of money. There have to be buyers with the appropriate resources and reasons, competitive conditions which drive those purchases to be made, and sometimes a lot of luck to be an employee or investor in the acquired company. Market conditions were right for this happen; they may have had this fact in mind, or maybe they just fell into it when Instagram took off.

Try this in 2008-09 and you probably would have failed to get funding. Could Instagram have survived through those few tough years? Maybe they could have; maybe they would have died.

So now I've been hearing word that investors are out looking for Instagram-ish investments. Doesn't make those companies raising money with real revenue feel any better when they don't fit the "momentum play" mold. I would, however, say that feeling hatred and jealousy is natural but it's time to let go and learn from this.

You need to watch the markets like a hawk. Like Mark Fletcher, he adjusted his startup building and fund raising strategy according to what the markets were like at that time. You go out and try to raise for one type of startup when the markets are looking for another type, right or wrong, and that means your chances of raising a round could actually be much less! (We pesky investors just love to follow the herd and be ultra-risky.) So much luck is bound in this business that the timing could just shift on you and you're dead in the water - or you just hit the jackpot by raising at a momentum level valuation.

For us investors, we need to also watch the macro conditions and decide how we're going to invest. Some investors will look at their strategies and available funds and go for what is hot now. Others will stick to their guns and be more conservative. Higher risk = higher potential return…or higher loss. Losing all your money in bad investments is bad enough when it's your own money; it's career ending when you lose your LPs' money. Or you could be one of the investors in Instagram and now you're a hero. Which one will you go for?

But for each of us, getting cranky, jealous and hateful isn't productive. For me, this is whole ecosystem is fascinating and why I enjoy being an investor. It is a huge challenge to me to play in this topsy-turvy, ever-shifting world. Will I be right? Will I make the right decisions? Or will I lose everything? How can I be smarter and better than everyone else? Will I be lucky? Have I created enough luck? By the way, these decisions I make today may not have results, good or bad, for months, maybe even years. Timing is nearly impossible. Never hating, always learning and improving.

The pace of change is incredibly fast now. Launch Capital's research into the megatrends revealed that the speed of these changes is only going get faster. It can be bewildering to think that investing in revenue generating startups was in vogue only 2-3 years ago and now people are chasing startups that have momentum in users, revenue or no. It could be mere months when the next big shift happens.

I, for one, am enjoying the ride on this rollercoaster and patting those on the back who manage to make money no matter what the market conditions are at that time.


Semil Shah (@semil) tweeted a response to my tweet about my post, Working on New Investment Theses:

@bznotes @dshen what if one's thesis is to simply find the most exceptional technical founding teams?

I thought I'd run this through some of the process described in that post and in my older post Predicting the Future: Research and Thesis Development. I will use YCombinator as an example, since they are the most visible supporters of this thesis (see disclaimer at end of post).

First, some from "Predicting the Future..":

1. Look at your own personal interests and areas of expertise.

Currently, the most vocal of proponents of this strategy is Ycombinator, who recently announced that they were going to accept founder teams that have no idea. Ycombinator has always looked for hacker credibility in its applicants, accepting only the cream of the crop from top schools all over the world. The Ycombinator group is also composed of hackers as well. Given their experience from a multitude of Ycombinator classes, they have seen that often times all it takes is hyper intelligence plus entrepreneurial traits that can yield a tremendous winner in a startup.

So it would be natural for them to take this leap.

2. What else is unique about you?

a. Do you have a flow of proprietary deals from some source(s)?

Of course YC does. Their brand attracts the best of the best of the best to apply each class.

b. Can you influence outcomes based on your experience, contacts, expertise, etc.?

YC now has amazing support from the community from other businesses, investors and their startup network. They also get amazing press coverage for whatever they do. They are universally respected for everything they say. If you are a startup that has gone through YC, it gives you a badge of honor that you can't get anywhere else. Investors travel great distances to view Demo Day and then pick the best of the best to invest in, no matter what the valuation. These factors give their startups an advantage in the marketplace over those who are not YC alums.

c. Where are you based?

YC was in Boston, then became bi-coastal, then decided to relocate permanently to the Bay area. Being in "entrepreneurism central" helps them in all their operations, and allows them to optimize them without worrying about missing startup resources in other locales.

d. Now, we move into lots of data...

YC has been doing this for 7 years now. There experience in doing this for so many years, through so many classes of startups has led them here.

Moving on to my latest post, here are some analyses from Working on New Investment Theses:

1. Is there a place where it makes sense for us to play? Do we have or have not expertise in that area?

Yes because YC is made of hackers and hackers is what they know best.

2. What about valuations?

This is one of the strongest advantages of YC - they give a low amount of money for a disproportionately large part of the startup. In the early days, this was appropriate for the risk - each YC startup used to start their project from nothing when their class began. Over the years, this has changed dramatically. Many startups coming to YC have been in operation for over a year and often with significant revenue. Still YC invests relatively low amounts of money and gets a big chunk of the company even at this stage; startups come to YC for the advantages of being associated with YC and are happy to pay that price for the value they receive.

The valuation that YC receives is one of its biggest strengths in getting outsized returns for capital deployed and thus makes sense at the riskiest stage of a startup.

3. What do others think?

YC has always had its bit of controversy. Other investors both applaud and ridicule this style of investing. In many ways, YC walks the world very much as an individual and does not march to any other tune. They hold to their convictions and also adapt quickly and nimbly when things need to change. So investing in founding teams with no idea has its detractors but if anyone can make it work, YC can with all their experience.

And as I mentioned in my post, we have discovered in our own portfolio that not following the herd has resulted in the startups doing the best.

4. What does the world need to look like in order for this area to start taking off?

To me, this goes along with my statement:

By socializing the opportunity to both investors and entrepreneurs, is it possible to literally bring the future to life by our own actions?

The credibility that YC has in the industry means that if they take a stand on something, many will simply follow or believe it to be true because YC said so and they trust their analyses. Therefore, even as that post from YC said they were simply trying this and didn't know if it would work, many now have taken this to be truth.

NOTE: Even before YC made this move, there are funds that have shouted the "founders first" mantra. However, I would contend that even though they say this, upon further examination of their startups, they still are picking even if one of their criteria is a rockstar founder team.

Calling out one point which is examining Specific Industry Trends from "Predicting the Future...":

Many things have happened since YC started back in 2005:

i. Development tools became more readily available and it became easier and easier to build high technology startups over time. Amazon's EC2 and AWS then made it so much easier to setup a server and backend and you didn't have to worry about that at early stage to test your concept.

ii. Educational materials got better. Credit Eric Ries and Steve Blank for creating startup manuals and methodologies like the Lean Startup and The Startup Owner's Manual.

iii. The economy went into the crapper. With interest rates near zero and volatility in the stock market going crazy, the only place that seemed to be making money was in startup investing. This meant that the marketplace filled up with eager investors, both large and small, searching for returns in the most riskiest asset class of all.

iv. With so many jobless, and hatred for big corporations at an all time high, and the few outsized returns generated by internet startups of today's internet boom, young people flock to startups and are encouraged to be entrepreneurs. Incubators flourish to help, universities all offer entrepreneurism programs and classes.

v. Celebrity status of both investors and entrepreneurs also drives subtly the urge to become either. Who doesn't want to be famous?

vi. The internet marketplace for startups becomes exponentially filled up with early stage startups. It's so easy to build one now, and there are tons of resources to help people start something. New investors coming to the market help fuel their creation and existence for at least a short amount of time, unless they become successful. Competition becomes ridiculous for most ideas and for each idea, you find many competitors.

vii. Consumers (and the beleaguered IT guy at a big company) are deluged by pokes, flirts, offers, friend requests, requests to join and play - our limited slices of attention are getting deluged by more and more of these interruptions and we can't keep up. Viral loops stop working. Growth gets harder and harder to get.

Given that the world looks like this for internet only startups, I find that there are still the class of investors who believe in this world which i call "true believers." These are the people who still think they can find the next Instagram or Facebook even in today's crowded world.

My contention is this - if you still believe that the internet is place to invest in, and you are a "true believer" and want to find the next Groupon or Zynga, then you have NO CHOICE BUT TO DO WHAT YC DOES - gather all the smart, talented people you can find and then invest in as many as you can, spending as little as possible to get as much % ownership of the company as you can. You have no idea if an idea will work because of market conditions; but there will be some that will even if you don't know which ones. But betting widely means you'll increase the odds that you'll find the next Groupon/Zynga and you need to reduce the chance that you missed one. Rumors say that YC has proven that even with their failure rate, they have gone positive in their return relative to capital that they have deployed.

All investment theses are highly situational - nothing works forever, and something that didn't work before can work again if market conditions change. Or can work for one person but totally impossible for another. And by the way, luck can confound the best of strategies.

As you think through some investment thesis you're thinking about investing against, can you muster up as many advantages as YC has, in investing in awesome technical teams without ideas? If you can't, you might want to think twice about investing against SOMEONE ELSE'S thesis...(yes you do get points for original thinking and for having the guts and conviction to bet against the crowd! Extra points for literally forcing the (your) future into being through your own efforts...)

As I talked about in my latest thesis post, it's all about swaying the odds in your favor. Unfortunately, they are still odds and no matter what you may still roll snake eyes and lose your shirt. Oh, and that other investor who started investing on a thesis you painstakingly built just become an investing genius because he found the startup that gave him 100X return and you passed on it...

DISCLAIMER: This post was written without any discussion with any YC member but only from outside observations as a friend to YC who has studied their growth and ascendance in the entrepreneurial and incubator community. I may be totally wrong in their thinking. If someone from YC reads this and tells me so, I will be happy to edit this post. But readers, please do take this analysis with this in mind.


Working on New Investment Theses

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Some of us at Launch Capital have been thinking hard about what areas to invest in next. For me these areas have been:

1. Ecommerce
2. Unsexy offline businesses that get the Internet thrown on top
3. Hardware+Software+Internet

But we are always on the look out for the next new areas. Following this post with my conversation with Mark Suster, Predicting the Future: Research and Thesis Development, we looked around the world and found some possible new areas.

With each of these possible areas, we then thought about:

Where is the real oppty? Is it in a single product? is it in the application of the product or service? Is it in the creation of the product? Is it in raw materials that create the product? is it in a business that faciliates product creation? Is it a financing biz that gives them away for free? Or can you make money on some other related way?

Is there a place where it makes sense for us to play? Do we have or have not expertise in that area? Do we care (see my latest blog post about learning new things: The Jack of Neverending Trades)?

What about valuations? Is that area a place where others have not pushed valuations past where we can participate?

What do others think? My managing director and I talked about this yesterday and he recounted that he found that the best investments are where the herd completely ditched them. I concur - many things we will look at will have the world totally against us. I think this is where the biggest opportunity is, which is to find stuff before others do, make the bet, and hope that we're right. Also we're going to be wrong - probably a lot. But this is early stage, the next closest thing to slot machine gambling….and we're trying to find that magic magnetic ring that pulls all the 7s to come up...

Are there like-minded investors? Should we reach out to them and see where there thoughts are? Try socializing the idea quietly at first. Do people think we're crazy or think that's the best idea in the world?

What does the world need to look like in order for this area to start taking off? To become mainstream? Is this achievable? Under what conditions is it achievable? How long would we estimate it will take? Are there any big market forces to watch - ie. any big corporations starting to make noise about it? Any futurists, bloggers, or journalists talking about it? Will the US governmentt pass legislation to juice this area (they have definitely juiced others)?

Are there any like minded entrepeneurs? Can we socialize with them? Figure out what they are working on? Use their creativity to seed ours?

Afterwards, we gather all this information and stew on it. Let our subconscious minds mull over it. Think about it in the shower (where i do my best thinking haha!). Let our creative minds pull together all the elements.

After doing all this, do these new areas still make sense from an investment thesis standpoint? If so, then it's onwards to quietly watch the world and see if investment opportunities come up. Perhaps we can even seed the market by quietly planting ideas. By socializing the opportunity to both investors and entrepreneurs, is it possible to literally bring the future to life by our own actions?

As an early stage investor, I find that this thesis work is really interesting. Given that we need to invest as early as possible into opportunities and trends, we take the most risk from all avenues. This is why I consider thesis development immensely important for us. By thinking about the future and developing visions for it, it is my belief that thesis development can help tip the odds in our favor that we'll find wildly successful ventures to invest in. Following the herd can also yield good results, but if I take all the possible variables (ie. our fund mathematics, industry trends, valuation trends, competitive trends, etc.) into account, I can only see that developing theses will make us better and smarter investors than the others who do not.

UPDATED:

Two other great recent posts to read on thinking about investment theses and the future:

What I’m Obsessed About At Work by Brad Feld

WIRED: How to Spot the Future

The Jack of Neverending Trades

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One of my favorite things about being a startup investor is learning about all sorts of new things. The first is about the investing business itself - I can safely say that I've only touched the tip of that iceberg for sure. The second thing I learned was much more broad.

Actually the second "thing" is really "things" plural.

As most people know, I invest typically in all things internet. I am fortunate that I worked at Yahoo! where we worked on a pretty broad swath of things, and I've had exposure to a multitude of products and services. As head of user experience and design, I oversaw a lot of it and learned a ton about a lot of things, becoming a jack of all trades of sorts. Even then, there were many things we didn't do. When I started investing, I found my broad exposure very valuable both to me as an investor, and also helpful to entrepreneurs as I could tell them all the good and dumb things we did at Yahoo! in those industries. But then, the internet filled up with the usual stuff.

Now I'm looking at stuff I know little about, or nothing about!

Some things I'll never get into - personal resonance is still very relevant and important. For others - there could be something there... it would also mean a lot of effort and time in learning about the business, industry, its customers, everything about it I can. Enough to be an expert maybe, certainly enough to be dangerous!

I get extreme joy when I learn about some area I know nothing about. I look stuff up in books and on the internet, I talk to experts, customers, advisors, and others in the industry. I may even visit places where the product is sold, or where the pain point is felt. My team's research department pulls up every shred of info on a subject and I devour it all.

Then, this is most exciting to me - making a monetary bet in that area in a company and knowing I made the right call if it exits. Unfortunately, the chance of a successful exit is pretty low at early stage but I am still left the knowledgeable I've gained which is satisfying and, I'm sure, will prove useful in the future.

There are many in my field who say to never invest in anything you know nothing about. I would say that is true, except that it leaves out the part about going out and learning about that thing that you knew nothing about. It is disheartening to see that many investors stop learning or become lazy and lean on others' expertise.

To me, becoming a jack of neverending trades is one of the best things about being a startup investor.

Letting Your Dreams Get the Best of You

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If you're an investor, have you ever gone through this:

You meet an entrepreneur and go over their startup idea. As he's talking, your mind starts racing ahead and imagining all the wonderful places this startup will grow to be. The entrepreneur continues his demo of the site, faithfully calling out how great his features are, and how the visual design is awesome. But you're only half listening; your brain is thinking about all the possibilities and how big this is going to get. You voice some of them; the entrepreneur nods and you see his nodding as "Yes I agree with this sage of an investor before me!" He continues onwards with his pitch, noting all the awesome features one by one but you're still thinking about the $100M opportunity. At the end, he asks for your measly $100K to join him on his journey, him working on his nice product, and you living out your version of his startup along with your awesome vision of where it will go. You sign on the dotted line, transfer the money, and you're on your way.

As he works on his coding and congratulates himself on his 100th user signup, you start chatting about how he's going to achieve your ideas and your vision. He nods sometimes, but slowly but surely he starts talking as if he doesn't have any idea what you're talking about. He's got a product to build, dang it! He's got 100 users who are emailing him and making him think he's the most awesome guy in the world! He needs to take care of them! You continue to talk about your vision, and he continues to move nowhere near where you're talking about.

After about a year of this, you realize that the entrepreneur isn't really listening to you. Instead, he's been giving you grinfucks; you thought that you were convincing him that there was a better way but in actuality, he's been thinking that his way was the only way, thank you very much.

In the end, your startup dies a miserable death. The entrepreneur got some awesome lean startup experience, and you (and your buddies too) have wasted $100K. He's off to raise money on his next big feature for the web, and you're still not recovered from a year of frustration that someone didn't listen to your investor awesomeness.

In my early years as an angel investor, I fell into this trap several times. And this trap has many elements to it.

It is sometimes indeed possible that you really do have some investor awesomeness - call it life and work experiences as well as experience in spotting opportunities as an investor in many startups. And sometimes you are probably right in thinking that an entrepreneur should take his startup in some direction or another. The trap you have to watch out for is investing into his startup when you imagine and do not have actual verification that he believes in the vision or direction in the same way you do.

This is not about whether he may be right in the end, or you may be wrong. Or even if the outcome is awesome despite either or both of you being right or wrong. What I'm talking about is thinking you're investing into a project of a certain nature when it's actually not - you're only wishing and imagining it to be something but it wasn't real.

In many ways, it's like meeting your perfect significant other, but that perfection is in your mind and you think he/she has the perfect traits for you, but in reality they are someone else and can never be that fantasy significant other for you.

A lot of this is about the fact that it is nearly impossible to transfer your idea to someone else. There can be many reasons for this. You and the other person simply have different viewpoints and experiences. When you say something, they may totally interpret that in a way that you didn't mean for them to interpret it. Or they may not even know what you're talking about. If you make a suggestion for a direction, it may be that, given your experiences and skills, you are the only one who can execute that direction and they may not be able to do it at all.

Today I was talking about this very thing with one of my entrepreneurs. Two weeks ago I pushed them on generating a big vision out of what they were working on. We went like this for several days. But they could only come up with something that I considered too likely to produce a small outcome for me to invest in. I sent them an email to that effect and then I went off on vacation.

However, we caught up today after I got back and spoke live about my email. I basically explained to him that I needed to hear that they were on board with some big vision. I had already come up with some possible big vision directions in my mind, but having some experience now I did not imagine them to also have the same visions; I wanted and NEEDED to hear them say it to have confidence that they understood and internalized whatever big vision there was, and were really on board to execute against that, versus what they presented to me two weeks ago. Given my desire for investing in big ideas with world dominating plans, I needed to hear them telling me the plan and not me telling them what the plan was.

To re-emphasize, this is not about who's right or who's wrong. It is entirely possible that in my investor awesomeness (in my own mind) that I am totally wrong on whatever vision I am imagining for a startup - and I've definitely been wrong many times. It's all about making sure that you have comfort in whatever you and the entrepreneur can see eye to eye on, or lack thereof, and then making the investment decision based on that reality and not just what's in your imagination.

More on Pro Rata Investing as an Angel

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My buddy Maneesh Arora asks:

Have you successfully been able to get pro-rata rights as an angel (assuming putting in small-ish amounts of money of $25k or $50k, something along those lines), on Convertible Note deals?

This was in response to my old post Taking Your Pro Rata as Angel Investing Strategy.

First, given that I'm at Launch Capital now and our investment sizes are $100K-$150K, we typically fall into the camp of auto-qualifying for pro rata rights in equity deals (many equity deals have a restriction that only "Major Investors" get pro rata rights, with a "Major Investor" being defined as someone who invests a minimum amount of money).

I looked back on the last few deals I have done, both equity and convertible notes. With respect to pro rata, I have found:

1. Most angels don't invest pro rata or they don't understand the effect of pro rata investing, so they don't speak up when the round doesn't give them pro rata rights for whatever reason.

2. Bigger funds tend to put limits on who gets pro rata and who does not on subsequent rounds. It would seem natural that they would want to keep as much ownership as possible, and future ownership rights too.

3. Smarter entrepreneurs will use pro rata rights to entice every investor to put in more money. But that does not help the angel who simply does not have enough resources to produce the minimum amount.

4. There are investor entities who are more friendly than others to angels in the round. They tend to give pro rata rights to everyone regardless of the investment amount, on the belief that we are all friendly, invest together often, are thankful of everyone's help, and want everyone to get the chance to participate in the upside.

5. Being useful, friendly, and present to the CEO increases your chance that you'll get pro rata rights. Or you may get the chance to put more money in subsequent rounds even if you don't have pro rata rights.

6. A more direct note to Maneesh's question: Convertible notes do not guarantee pro rata rights of any sort in the next round. Even if you put those terms in, rarely do those terms express themselves in the next round since they tend to be subject to the new investor's negotiations. I have rarely seen convertible note terms beyond interest rate accrual get honored. Even during acquisition, any kind of terms that award investors a multiple of the investment may not even get honored.

This is why Convertible Notes are not investor friendly at all, despite the fact that they are the dominant investment structure out there today.

So more money always talks, and smaller amounts don't give you much negotiating power, nor your pro rata rights, and this is why you must strive to move up the value chain as an investor, angel or otherwise. That can be hard if your resources aren't enough where you can come up with that much money.

HOWEVER, I still believe that if more angels spoke up, then potentially we would, as a group, have more ability to obtain pro rata rights for all involved and not just "Major Investors". This is worth going out to angels and getting them more educated on why pro rata investing is important and why they should ask for those rights and walk away when they don't get them.

Still, investing in your pro rata for as long as your resources can enable you to will allow you to maximize your portion of future success in a startup.

The Physical Store Analogy for Internet Competition

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Today I just sent this email to a buddy of mine working on a startup:

If [competitor.com] was a physical store on a street and you wanted to build a store right next to them, what would you build? Would you build exactly the same store or would you do something different?

I always talk about so many me-too products and startups out there today, and the ease of building competitors to just about anything. But entrepreneurs don't seem to want to stop thinking they can exist and thrive with essentially a clone of something else out there.

My statement/question above is a problem about the internet. In the real world, if you were to build a store on a busy street, would you build exactly the same store? Probably not. You would see that if you wanted all those pedestrians to walk into your store, you'd want to build something with some kind of uniqueness to attract them, and rarely would you want to build the same business that already existed on the street. But on the internet, you can't see what's on your street so easily. The browser detaches ourselves from the brutal reality that your competition can be literally a virtual store or two down from you but yet you can't perceive it as a problem because it's virtual and not something physically experienced.

And this problem is exponential on the internet as the virtual street you're building on is limitless in available storefront. Imagine a street with a limited number of pedestrians but tens, if not hundreds of storefronts are squeezing all onto that street, creating ever smaller slices of storefronts for internet pedestrians to walk by, all screaming at them to come in and buy my stuff please!

So ask yourself again - do you want to be yet another storefront on an infinite street or do you want to build something that is truly unique to attract internet pedestrians away from all the same stuff?

The Case for Hardware + Software + Internet Startups

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"Makers are enthusiasts who hack and modify the world around them in interesting and whimsical ways. Tools and services that used to be inaccessible to all but large manufacturers are now available to everyone. Foreign factories that were impenetrable before are now an email away. Design software costing thousands of dollars per seat is freely available (or very cheap). Hackers are mixing all of these elements together and re-imagining entire industries from the ground up."

- Vinod Khosla, The Unhyped New Areas in Internet and Mobile, Techcrunch, February 19, 2012.

Vinod Khosla is right. The time is ripe for startups working on products combining hardware, software, and the internet.

Those who know me know that I have been tooting the HW+SW+Internet horn since early 2010. I hinted at it in my post Internet Startup Bubble and The Supposed Super Seed Crash back in July of 2010. But now, more than ever, the evidence is here that hardware is ready to make a comeback in startups. In fact, it already is.

But it's been hard talking about this for the last 2 years. I've met nothing but resistance from the investor community. Practically every VC I've talked to has told me that hardware is awful and that software and internet is much better as an investment. And for a long time, it's been true.

If you think about it, the last VC who was OK with investing in hardware startups entered into the VC business in 1994. After that, the internet came into being and from that point forward, every VC who didn't jump on the internet bandwagon missed one of the biggest opportunities to make a ton of money. (Of course, those that didn't jump off the bandwagon at the right time lost their shirts and more). Still, memories about the downsides of bubbles are short; those same VCs were heroes for the money they made and they continued to invest in the internet, and training hordes of emerging VCs along the way. This has continued for 17 years now. Think about it; 17 years of VCs whose thinking has been molded by the success of internet startups and investing in them. And also the advantages of not having to build physical product to get there.

I think the world has changed to the point where the previous advantages of internet/software startups has been declining, and the advantages of hardware startups are ascending.

For a long time, internet/software startups had a distinct advantage over hardware startups. You didn't have to use up money in paying for inventory of product. Digital products cost so much less and upon copying the bits digitally, the cost of the product declined over time as you sold more. Plus, the internet created distribution mechanisms that were hard to compete with; customers could be reached with extremely low cost and sold to with great ease. But that has changed:

1. Competition in internet/software startups is way too fierce. You start something and competitors pop-up all over the place. With all the easy ways to create software, it is extremely easy to build something that somebody else has built and do it fast.

2. Given the rise of competition and the fact that consumers, along with B2B customers, are deluged by these startups screaming for your attention and your money, the money that you would need to pay for hardware inventory is now money required by internet/software startups to buy traffic. This was not true not too many years ago; now the competitive world has changed - the battle for consumer mindshare AND the IT manager's mindshare in B2B customers has risen exponentially.

3. Some argue that distribution channels for hardware are limited. However, social, word of mouth, and viral mechanisms for internet/software startups do not work any more and you have to market traditionally to build awareness and brand. This more than equalizes the distribution channels for hardware. At least hardware is unique and not just another website product or service which gives hardware a leg up in customers' eyes simply because of uniqueness. Do we need another photosharing app?

4. Because it takes longer to gain mindshare in today's world, you must raise for longer runway - 18 months-24 months at least, which means more money is required in any case.

On the hardware side, advantages are emerging or here already:

1. Hardware technology is commoditized and cheap - what was previously rocket science is now readily available in chipsets to everyone. There is not much out there now that requires serious hardware design resources and custom chip fabrication resources. Advanced technologies of the past are now commonplace.

2. Contract manufacturing can make anything on contract - you don't need your own factories now. When I worked at Apple back in 1990-93, we had our own manufacturing both here in California and in Asia. I designed plastic parts and oversaw the construction of metal tooling to shoot the plastic. We had to build prototypes, test them and their manufacturability, and arrange our own staff to build everything. Now you can hand off all the manufacturing to contract manufacturers, whether here in the US or in Asia.

Because you do not have to setup factories and manufacturing yourself, you don't have to raise money to do so like in the past. You can raise the same amount of money as your typical internet/software startup and get product in boxes and on shelves.

3. In huge contrast to internet/software startups, there is *virtually no competition*. It is exceedingly rare that when I meet a hardware startup, that I can find another let alone two competitors! This gives hardware startups an unprecedented period of time where they can advance in the face of no competition and grow and learn.

Universities are graduating enormous numbers of software engineers and everyone is racing to internet/software. Hardware engineers, by comparison, don't exist in nearly as much quantity. In fact, opportunities for hardware engineers are so limited by a wide margin as these skills have moved offshore to Asia. Thus, nowhere near as many hardware startups appear versus the hordes of internet/software startups.

The barrier to entry is experience and knowledge of hardware. Most people fear it because they have never done it; it is natural to avoid that which is unknown.

4. We are now at the edge of what software can do by itself with respect to the physical world. Having humans type in information or self reporting data is just not practical and filled with potential errors. To do better, you need hardware to do the actual touching and sensing of the physical world and connecting that via software to the internet. An example is Quantified Self - self reporting of physical condition has reached its limits; we need 24/7 monitoring of physical condition to get to next level of knowledge, usage, and innovation.

5. Hardware has become small enough, low power enough to do amazing things for long periods of time. Huge possibilities open up due to low power, small size, and accessibility of the technology. Instead of wearing a huge box that is heavy and uncomfortable and needs to be recharged every few hours, we can wear small, unobtrusive sensors all day long, broadcasting vital information to the internet all day and night.

6. By selling hardware, you make money off every sale. By selling software services on top, you further monetize users far beyond the money made from the sale of the hardware. Due to the intense competition, internet/software startups often need to give away services for free which means survival until customers get to a point where they will pay for something you offer, whereas selling hardware means you make money each time you sell it. But then you offer a recurring, monetizable service on top of that to get more revenue.

This is why hardware+software+internet is the key, not just hardware alone.

7. Accelerator programs are now emerging to bring like-minded and experienced people together to enable better hardware product development. Thes are people like PCH International's accelerator program help new startups get off the ground and provide competitive advantage because the accelerator startups get access to PCH International's manufacturing capabilities. Other great accelerator programs are HAXLR8R, a combination China and Silicon Valley hardware accelerator, whose purpose is to spend some time in China to learn how to access and manage Asian manufacturing resources.

Other great hardware accelerators are Lemnos Labs, based in San Francisco, and the newly formed Bolt, to be based in Massachusetts.

The declining advantages of internet/software startups and the increasing advantages of hardware+software+internet startups make hardware the next big emerging opportunity.

The evidence is clear. Over the last two years, here is a list of fantastic startups, using hardware+software+internet:

Evoz - advanced baby monitors, analyzing baby cries with recorded data, and giving advice to new parents. [Disclosure: I'm an investor].

Fitbit - activity monitor and scale for better health and fitness.

Lark - silent alarm clock and personal sleep coach.

Zeo - your sleep manager.

Withings - WIFI enabled scale, blood pressure, baby monitoring.

Lumoback - back health and posture tracking.

Green Goose - making everyday things more playful with tiny wireless sensors that automatically measure what you do.

Leapset - a hardware POS play transforming the cash register for local merchants. [Disclosure: I'm an investor].

Metawatch - a platform for wrist based technology development.

Nest - the learning thermostat.

Elacarte - tablet based menu system for enhancing and optimizing ordering for restaurants. [Disclosure: I'm an investor].

And the list goes on. Still, I meet resistance on this issue.

17 years of entrenched thinking, and exploding economies to power profits and return on capital via internet/software startups make the opinion hard to change. And certainly what I argue doesn't apply to all hardware startups; for example, to build a new car business like Tesla would still require a ton of capital. However, for small, high technology, connected devices this is exceedingly true.

But that doesn't mean the VC community has to believe what I believe. If there is anything I've learned about investing, it's that the best returns are derived from not following the herd. This is definitely anti-herd, and I'll either be totally right or I'll be amazingly wrong - but if I'm right, I hope to be one of the first to ride the wave of this emerging class of startups to success.


Nobody Wants to Invest in an Ugly Startup

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Every now and then I'll meet up with a great entrepreneur with a great idea. But then we take a look at what they've built and...gag.

Whatever they've put up is pain to my eyes. It's chaotic, unorganized, a white space hell. The colors are garish, chosen for hexadecimal greatness. The fonts chosen are the best that a browser can offer - comic sans and arial are wonderful aren't they? All the information is lumped together because stuffing as much as you can into that rectangle called a browser means I don't ever have to click to get to more information - it's all there on one page!

The problem is...it's a visual design nightmare. And it makes me want to run away.

Definitely others will and have. But I sometimes don't. I've bet on the ugly, hoping that the ugly will fix itself later. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. But until then, the reality remains. Their site is still ugly. And the problem is, until that is fixed, it will chase others away.

Nobody wants to invest in an ugly startup. It's a problem on many levels:

1. Ugly startups will chase away customers. Customers are also sensitive to great visual design even if they may not be able to articulate it. Ugly startups look un-professional; there is doubt that this company is for real - if it was, they would find a designer and make it look great, right? They don't want to look at an ugly startup while using it either - it hurts the eyes. If this is true, then it could stifle your early growth and inhibit trial.

2. Ugly startups aren't brag worthy. If I invest in you, I want to talk you up. But if someone goes to the site and then comes back to me saying, "Gee that's the ugliest thing I've ever seen" - it affects me. Who wants to hear that? I want to hear, "Wow it's beautiful and cool - great job!"

3. Ugly startups show a critical team deficiency in design, at a minimum in the visual department and maximally in all areas of design. Designers are the hardest to hire for of any discipline out there; if they don't have one on staff now, will they ever be able to attract one? Or be able to get ahead of competitors who do have design on staff?

4. If you are ugly and can't get other investors on board, whether they actually come out and tell you it's because you're ugly or not, you're dead in the water. Other investors will stay away knowing that ugliness lowers the probability that anyone wants to give you money and introduces a higher risk that you'll die.

Time and time again, investing in startups has been likened to dating. Here is more proof of that - who wants to date someone you don't find attractive?

Quantified Me

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It all started back in 2002 when I signed up for my first triathlon and joined Team in Training to help prepare me for it. It also set me on my big science experiment which was "how fast can Dave Shen really go?"

You see, I had a lot of negativity surrounding my first (and also subsequent) triathlon attempt. People told me that my knees would give out, that I better be careful or else I would get hurt. They told me that I was 37 and that trying to race a triathlon "at my age" was a risky proposition for my overall health.

But I didn't believe them. And now, here I sit 10 years later and still going strong and injury free at 46 years of age. And getting faster each year.

When I got started on my big on-going science experiment, I decided that I was going to stop training with these programs provided by books and magazines. I was determined to train like what I thought a professional athlete trained like - lots of technological and physical support and a great coach too. Someday I should write what it was like to come from zero swim/bike/run experience to completing 6 Ironmans, numerous swim and run races, and ultimately becoming a Total Immersion swim coach last year. For now, I want to talk about one aspect of my training which has led to wiring myself up in many different ways, gaining insight into the future of training and health through technology.

My coach was Mike "M2" McCormack, a popular triathlon coach in the SF Bay area. It was he whom I credit with introducing me to truly data driven scientific, high technology bike training using a Computrainer. We also explored the training via heart rate zones, but we ultimately switched to training via perceived exertion which yielded better results. Logkeeping in Excel kept me on track and now I had a way to go back into my training and look at what went well and what went wrong. I also bought a Garmin 305 GPS watch to track at a detail level my heart rate and performance on runs.

Along the way, I read an article about Andy Potts training for triathlon and Ironman using a data driven, scientific approach. It was a fascinating look into an elite's training regimen. His coach would take data from his previous workouts and derive workouts for the next day adjusted for his performance on the previous day, and what his condition looked like in the current day! Wow! This meant that if we could gather enough information about our bodies during workouts and our subsequent recovery, we could, in theory, generate an appropriate workout for the day after, whether hard intervals or total rest.

Fast forward to 2011. I was peaking for the LA Marathon and came across Tim Ferriss's popular book 4 Hour Body. Yet another eye opener on two levels - one was the realization that there is a lot of crap out there on training, health, and fitness, and two, that you have to be data driven in your health and training or else you will never know if you are doing better than the day before.

Going on his suggested diet, I dropped in weight and body fat % to my usual race weight at the LA Marathon, but then I dropped even lower post marathon and plateaued underneath my racing weight! I would never have known that if I had not been tracking my weight and body composition daily. The constant feedback and monitoring were necessary to know that what I was doing had any effect at all, and whether I had to adjust or not. It was gratifying to see that I did not return to my higher pre-race weight.

In following the 4 Hour Body regimen, I got really interested in tracking everything about me. Here is my current complete list of gadgets for tracking me and what I track with them:

Withings Scale - Weight, Fat % sent to website!
Omron Body Composition Monitor - More weight, body fat %, muscle %

Tracking weight, body fat, muscle % for fat loss, and also muscle gain due to weight lifting.

Garmin 305 GPS Watch w/ Heart Rate Strap - the best training tool for running

I store all my runs here, in addition to storing them on Runkeeper. It is good to refer back to my workouts and see what my times are for certain distances.

Finis Swimsense Watch - swim metrics tracking - strokes, lengths

I can track a lot of swim metrics with this watch, but not nearly as many as the ones we need for Total Immersion. Still it's the best swim watch out there. I now swim with two Swimsense watches to track the action of both arms and am working with the developers on creating a data driven training program for swimming.

Lark Sleep Monitor - tracks your sleep patterns

I don't have problems sleeping, but I am interested in the amount of sleep I get versus athletic performance. It's vibration alarm is best in class just as a simple alarm clock.

Fingertip Pulse Oximeter - measure heart rate in the morning

Measuring heart rate every morning can give you insight on whether you're fully recovered from a previous day's workout or not. A Pulse Oximeter is much easier to use than holding a heart rate strap onto your chest and reading a watch display.

Microlife Peak Flow Meter - Measures lung function

Following my discovery that had mild exercise induced asthma, I got interested in seeing what my typical air flow numbers are for my lungs. A fancy peak flow meter in my doctor's office costs several thousand dollars; this little gadget only cost $39.99 on Amazon!

After discovering all these devices, I realized that the cost of these sophisticated instruments had dropped considerably. With the advent of the internet, we are able to take measurements and send them instantly to the Web for storage and further analysis. Most significantly, technology has commoditized a lot of the hardware components required to build these devices. At one time, it took rocket scientists with a lot of infrastructure to create these tools; this is not true any more. And the technology is getting smaller, cheaper, and requires less power than their predecessors. We can now wear these sensors and devices all day and have our measurements beamed to the internet for storage and analysis! Certainly, the Quantified Self movement is gaining momentum where self tracking is promoted and explored.

Still, we are early in the evolution of human data (see my post The Evolutionary Path of Data). Along the data continuum, we have just begun to enable data collection on a regular basis although we are just touching on being able to do it 24/7. For sure we can display/visualize/graph what data we do collect, but it needs to be more complete, consistent and frequent to enable discovery of more knowledge.

Coupled with my experiments in fitness, training, and health, I also realized that the insight we could gain from tracking our body's metrics constantly was an enormous opportunity. For example, in the area of fitness and training, I see huge potential in guiding people to better health and fitness by exposing the results of what we are doing to ourselves at any time, like what we are eating, how we feel, and how we exercise. Already in Total Immersion, we are experimenting with individualized data driven training. It is my belief that beyond fitness and training, the ability to give us better feedback and guidance on treating our bodies better is untapped and presents the next horizon in health and wellness.

It is gratifying to see startups emerging in this area. Still, we are in very early days on the Quantified Self movement. At the moment, I am resigned to tracking and compiling metrics by hand and then working out insight from the data. I welcome the day when we are uploading our body metrics every second of the day and having intelligent systems tell us where we can do better, stop doing stupid things to our bodies, and live better, healthier lives.

Frequency of Product Usage in Startup Strategy

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I just read Mark Hendrickson's post-mortem for Plancast on Techcrunch and the section on sharing frequency hit a chord.

When I meet startups, I mentally run their product or service through this test, which is the test of frequency of product usage by their customers. Simply put, if the frequency is high, then their product idea stands a greater chance of surviving in the marketplace. If the frequency is low, then the probability of dying is much much higher.

What do I mean by frequency of product usage?

When a user uses a product tens or hundreds of times a day, this is the dream - to work on a product that is so necessary by a large customer base that they need to use it that much! An example of this would be email - too bad it was created and set free to the world because someone could have made a lot of money on that, or at least in the early days.

Once a day is not bad either. Once every few days still OK. I read the New York Times email digest and website once a day generally, so I can remember to go there. What about the other news sites? Hard for me to remember which ones I do read when I visit them so infrequently.

Once a week - hmmm - getting to that limit. Once every 2 or more weeks and I think you're in trouble.

That's because people forget very easily what services and products they use, especially in this crowded world of me-too products. When your memory is sketchy, it's easy for someone else to hop in there and supplant you.

Take travel services for example. How often do people really go on vacation? Normals tend to go maybe once a year, if that. If I find your site, use it to plan a vacation, and don't worry about going on vacation until next year, do you think I would remember to come back to you? If you're a startup, the odds are against you that you'll even be alive by then.

This goes for both consumers or enterprise customers - if a business customer doesn't find a daily or constant use for your product, then how can it find some justification for buying your service?

That doesn't mean that what you're working on shouldn't exist, or couldn't become a big business. The big problem is that you're a startup with limited resources and survivability and some lower frequency services should really be done by more established companies. You, on the other hand, need traction and revenue as fast as possible before you run out of money. This is why frequency of usage is critical at early stage; if you have a product that people only occasionally want or want at special situations, you'll never be able to build enough customers before you die.

So you have three choices. Either you must work on something that has a high frequency of usage, enough to attract users who find you useful enough to use often enough to keep coming back; OR you must find a way to buckle down and exist long enough for enough customers to sign up and generate enough traction and revenue for you to survive as a company. There is one other possibility and that is to add some high frequency elements to your low frequency of usage service to keep interest in and around your main service, despite the fact they may actually use the main service only intermittently.

Any of these could work and convince me to invest but working only on a low frequency of usage service in today's super crowded marketplace definitely will not.

Stop Showing Product Screen Shots at Board Meetings

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This week I went to a board meeting. It was one of the best board meetings I've been to in a while because it was organized, efficient, and it went fast - about 1.5 hours. We talked about the important high level strategic things we needed to talk about, set actions, scheduled our next board meeting and adjourned.

I thought back over the last year about the many other board meetings I've attended. I thought about why some of them took much longer than 1.5 hours and seemed to drag on and on. One thing I could think of that did stand out was the presentation of product screen shots and the subsequent discussion about the product.

Now I'm not against all discussion of products in the board meeting. You should present the product development pipeline over the next few months or quarters. You can give an overview of the important major products, features, and services you'll be launching (or killing). You can talk about holes in your offering and what competitors are doing that you are not and to have board level approval of a given direction.

But almost always, what derails a board meeting for some lengthy period of time has been the presentation of a product, some deeper dive into features, and the dreaded product screen shots throughout.

When this happens, then the comments come out. And ideas. Lots of them. Innovative ones, some good, some terrible. Everyone wants to chime in and make the product better. They start commenting on the design - the colors, the interface, the copy - everything.

Why not? It's up there on the wall projected for all to see.

Is this bad?

At a high level, no. We should have these discussions about the product. They should involve all the important people they should.

But I would argue that this should not happen at a board meeting.

Board meetings are time to touch on all the major strategic, high level initiatives of the company. It provides oversight and governance, and drives the strategic direction of the company. You get a lot of experienced people in the room who have run companies before and they tell you where you are doing well, where you are doing better, and where you are heading towards danger.

And you take care of board level business like approving acquisitions, key hires, option grants, etc.

I just don't think a board meeting is where you'd want to also have a big product discussion.

Then everyone jumps into the fray, and these discussions go every which way. The discussion is good, but the clock is ticking. All the while I'm glancing at my watch wondering when we're going to get back to the main agenda since we're off on a tangent now and have no idea when we're getting back on track.

Eventually we do, but now a 1.5 hour board meeting has turned into a 3 hour affair. I look back and always note that if we didn't have that product deep dive and discussion, this meeting would have been less than 2 hours.

There is a time and place for product reviews and discussions. Let's schedule a separate meeting to do a focused presentation on it. We can ask for specific feedback, ask people to try it out, present research and findings on why we're doing things a certain way or not.

Board meetings just aren't the time to do this. Every time, inevitably the board meeting drifts and valuable time is used up when it shouldn't be. So please, let's just let board meetings be board meetings, and if you want to have a great product review, let's set up a separate meeting for that where we can be prepared and have a great focused discussion on it, and not waste valuble board meeting time with it.

Fund Raising is a Necessary Evil, A Rite of Passage

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As I've said before, ABR. Always be fund raising. It's just a part of your ongoing activities as a founder. Sure, you might not like it. It might not seem 'core' to your business success. It is. Building a business is not about only building a product and seeing if customers like it. You can't just do those things in business that you enjoy. Make fund raising a habit. Don't only engage every 18 months.

- How to Develop Your Fund Raising Strategy by Mark Suster

Every year, I meet entrepreneurs who say they hate fund raising. They don't want to do it, they want to get it over with, they wish they could go back and build their business, doing the coding/designing/etc.

I hate it when they say that.

Fund raising is a necessary evil. YOU MUST DO IT. Without it, your company can't survive. You need the money to get to the next level.

But I hear that nobody wants to do it.

Yes it sucks. Begging for money sucks. From the first time you begged your mom for money to buy that comic book to now when your begging investors for money, it still sucks.

I'm sorry but I'm tired of hearing it. As Mark Suster says in that quote from his latest blog post, it is something every founder needs to do and do well. If you aren't good at it, then there is no better time to start learning how to do it then when you're raising money for your startup.

It never stops. It seems like it does, but as Mark points out, it really never stops. As a founder, you are always out there selling yourself and your company. You need to start building these relationships early, as soon as possible after raising your first round. Big money is best gotten through familiarity over time, not social proof, not a quick glance at a deck, not an emotional reaction to the coolness of your screen shots. So you better get good at selling yourself so that you can get needed money later when you need it.

Raising money is a rite of passage to being a real entrepreneur. Yes it's uncomfortable. Yes it seems like it wastes your time. But it IS a big part of building any business.

So get over it. Get comfortable with it. Use this time to figure out how to sell your startup and get people to invest in you and your venture. Go out and raise your round whether it takes 1 week or 12 months and stop complaining about how much it sucks. The future is filled with things you'll have to do for your startup that suck - you need to get used to doing things that you don't like and get good at all of them if you're going to excel as an entrepreneur.


Today, Brad Feld tweeted this great post about science fiction and its role in prediction and driving the future.




In a roundabout way, it took me back to grad school at Stanford in 1989 when I was working on my Masters in Product Design, before the department officially became the d.school.

It was when I first heard someone (my graphic arts professor Matt Kahn) say that designers need to travel more in order to broaden their horizons and in increasing their worldliness and knowledge, they could create better designs and become better designers.

Back then, I wasn't very worldly. I didn't care much for traveling or seeing other places. I was from Poughkeepsie, NY and led a pretty sheltered, enclosed life. I hadn't traveled much as a kid and didn't really understand why I might want to travel other than to hang out on a beach. Besides, it cost money which I didn't have at the time.

Time went on, and I got the opportunity to travel more, and slowly but surely seeing other cultures and meeting the people in their broadened my perspective greatly as it related to design. Somehow the expansion of consciousness made me more effective as a designer.

After that, I sought to learn about as much about the world as possible in all aspects. I read everything. I devoured books and magazines on not only design but technology as well. Later, I expanded this to all sorts of topics, ranging from news to economics to everything. I knew enough about a lot of things to be dangerous but it was extremely effective for making me a better designer (and also helped me to be a better conversationalist!).

Which brings me back to science fiction.

Before my consciousness expanding realization, I have always read a lot. But that was limited to almost exclusively science fiction. But now my science fiction reading had another benefit.

As Cory Doctorow wrote in his post, A Vocabulary for Speaking about the Future, science fiction authors are great at painting pictures of the future. Perhaps they are terrible at predicting what the future really might bring; still, they are great at showing us what the future could potentially hold and thus can be extremely useful in expanding our consciousness for creativity in design...or in venture capital.

VCs need to have some intuition about how the world will be in the future as they are betting on things now that will hopefully be big later. In order to do that, you have to be creative and imaginative; you can't analyze what the future brings - look at how Wall Street experts did back in 2010 predicting what would happen in 2011. You can only imagine what the world will be like and then make your bet.

To beef up your intuition, you need to expand your consciousness through travel and experiencing other peoples and cultures and expand your knowledge base to cut across as many disciplines as you can handle. In doing so, you will release all the negativity that only comes with analysis of the future which is unknown and can't really be analyzed. And what better way to increase your creativity of vision of the future than to have people lay it out for you in the form of novels and short stories?

Too Many Startups: We Need the Solution to These 2 Problems

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To begin, I have nothing against someone trying to start a company. And I love the fact that people are doing whatever it takes to make a living, or go for the gold, or both. But I won't stop saying there are too many startups out there - so what's the problem with too many startups? In fact, I don't have an overall problem with that - again, I love the fact that many people are looking towards entrepreneurism to support themselves rather than finding a job (or the lack of finding a job in today's jobs environment). I may talk about investors having too many to choose from, or the growth of competition stifling the ability for anyone to get big, but in general, I don't have any issues with there being as many startups as there wants or needs to be.

My issue with the proliferation of startups boils down to 2 problems in dire need of solutions. Here they are:

Entrepreneurs are to the rest of the workforce, as Navy Seals are to the rest of the sailors in the Navy

In meeting with many entrepreneurs, I find that many lack a lot of the crucial characteristics of really making it as an entrepeneur. Everybody wants the good outcomes, but they are unwilling or lack the ability to gut through the bad parts. They lack the essential personality traits, like adaptability, able to deal with chaos, a never quit attitude, the ability to keep going no matter what even if it means their lifestyle is threatened. Or they have some notion of what it takes to build a company from scratch - maybe they took a seminar or read some books - but they did not actually take the time to work in a startup or build a business from scratch with someone more experienced to see what it is like and learn (by the way, one of those things they may learn is that they are not cut out to be entrepreneurs!). They all want to be entrepreneurs, but for some reason do not have the right characteristics or training.

This where I liken entrepreneurs to Navy Seals. We've probably all read about the crazy training that Navy Seals go through. According to Wikipedia's Navy Seal page, the drop out rate is over 90%. And that's after being selected from the normal soldier ranks for having the *potential* for becoming a Navy Seal. Not everyone can become a Navy Seal and their training is designed to weed out those who lack the essential traits that every Navy Seal must exhibit or else they put their mission and their lives in danger.

Entrepreneurs experience of their job is exponentially more intense than that of someone who has a normal day to day job. Like Navy Seals, not everyone is cut out to be an entrepeneur. But yet we set 1000s of people each year off thinking that they can become entrepreneurs.

We desperately need some better training systems and systems to help people determine whether they have the right personality make-up to be great entrepreneurs. What we have today is not enough. Book learning at college is not enough, and neither is a day long seminar.

Perhaps there are those of us who would say that setting them off into the real world building companies is the right way to go. Yes that may be true, but I would love to find a way to do it that does not require investors to put up their hard earned capital just so people can learn how to do it better, or learn that they weren't cut out to be entrepreneurs in the first place.

We desperately need a way to fund startups that become small to medium sized businesses

Suppose you find a way to become a Navy Seal like entrepeneur or something close, and you work on an idea that seemed awesome at the start, but resulted in something less so. Instead of generating 10os of millions of dollars a year, it only generates a few 100K/year, or maybe millions.

At that level of progress and revenue, the company is doing great. It is generating money, paying real people to work for them so that they can support their families, and outputting useful products and services to others who need them.

For the record, I LOVE THIS. Our economy is in shambles and we need more businesses that simply employ more people. If you walk down the streets of Palo Alto, you see so many small shops that are now closed; so many For Lease signs even in a place like Palo Alto. Our country needs to fix this. The banks aren't helping and new business creation requires other avenues for funding.

These companies don't need to IPO, they don't need to be acquired. They have great reasons to exist in their current state forever and generate enough money to support all their workers and the products and services they provide.

The problem is that we are funding startups like they all are going to IPO or get acquired for tons of money. We are not accounting for the case where the business levels out at a much lower place where IPO is not possible, and the likelihood of M&A is also very low. If a startup reaches a much lower place, we investors' money is essentially trapped within the company; the company has no real way of repaying the investors unless they are making a lot of cash.

We often meet startups which are really cool and interesting, but when we look at the team, product, vision, and the macro factors, we sometimes can tell pretty early that this company is heading towards small business status. Sometimes the startup is cool enough for us to really want to put money in but cannot simply because we do not know how to get our money back, or make money when the deal is structured like a traditional startup financing and we are trying to make money from equity ownership. So if something smells like it won't get big, often we won't invest simply because of that.

Having said that, and despite the fact that we investors think we know everything (HA!), we really sometimes don't know if a startup will end up as a small business or grow to IPO or M&A greatness. But I would argue that the immense proliferation of startups makes it highly unlikely probability wise that someone you meet will get huge; on the other hand, the probability that they will make it to some smaller state of revenue generation is much much higher.

Thus, it is my belief that our ecosystem desperately needs some way of financing startups that takes into account success at IPO/M&A greatness or success as a sustainable, smaller, revenue generating business. If we have this, then we should be more comfortable investing in more startups since we have greater comfort that we can get our money back or even make some money on our investment, versus seeing it essentially static within a company where we can never extract it.


Building the "Apple of [fill in the blank]"

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Yesterday afternoon, I reconnected with an entrepreneur on his project. He reminded me of something we discussed a while back and it re-rang a chord. That something was the fact that when we discussed vision for his company, that he really was driving towards building "The Apple for XYZ".

Today, we see the transcendance of Apple and the amazing things that Steve Jobs has done for the worlds of computing and mobile. He took two very slow innovating, mediocre to bad UX, nearly commoditized industries and transformed them into new engines of growth for creativity, innovation, and monetization. His rabid focus on what's crappy for users before and creating the ultimate solution has served him and Apple well. Thus, I think for those of us in this generation, we like to ask, "what would Steve Jobs do?"

What would Steve Jobs do?

Jobs is not with us any more, but his methods are well discussed and documented. To oversimplify dramatically, he simply takes something that exists today, looks at what is frustrating and crappy about it, and makes it into the ultimate whatever from a user experience standpoint AND makes it delightful and desirable on top of that.

This is now my new favorite thing to ask startups that pitch me.

Are you creating the Apple of [fill in the blank]?

I think this is worthwhile to apply to anything that a startup works on. Startups are the perfect place to envision, create, and execute the ultimate product or solution to anything. Big organizations have so many barriers to doing that; being small and nimble gives you a lot of advantages.

In today's startup ecosystem, I am beginning to think that now you have no choice but to create the Apple of [fill in the blank]. Why? It's because there is SO much competition that being great isn't good enough. You have to do better than even that to get noticed by consumers who are getting way too many things that are great and to rise above the noise of all the crap that is preventing us from discovering the right thing. If you want to win, the bar has risen so frickin' high that you have no choice but to pull off the hardest feat possible, which is to build something that eliminates all frustration and crap in the user experience and is the ultimate solution for that product or service and, oh by the way, it needs to be something so desirable that people want it for what it is, what it can do, how it makes them feel, and elevates their personal status by having it.

So you, the entrepreneur, should be asking yourself:

Why am I not creating the Apple of [fill in the blank]?

Becoming an Entrepreneur in Residence

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I had the pleasure of meeting up with Oren Jacob, formerly of Pixar, now CEO of his own startup, and fellow 500startups mentor. The valley is filled with interesting individuals who have done some amazing things, and I always try to seek them out to hear a little about what they've done, assuming they have the time or openness to meet up with a total cold call!

We spoke about a lot of things but one thing we talked about encouraged me to get going on this post, which was about becoming an Entrepreneur In Residence, or EIR at a venture fund. Oren related to me how that, before starting his startup, that he went through an interesting process to become an EIR. My conversation with him allowed me to fill in some needed information about what I had already observed with EIRs. Also, I thought that this would be a perfect follow on to a recent post by Rob Go of Nextview Ventures titled So You Want to be a VC... and my resultant post The Path to Becoming a VC. After all, becoming an EIR is yet another way to get hired by a venture fund right?

What is an EIR?

First, what does that E stand for? I have seen E to stand for Entrepreneur, which seems the most popular. However, I have seen E stand for Executive (ie. "Executive in Residence") and also the E has turned to D, standing for Designer (ie. "Designer in Residence" - see Jason Putorti who is most likely the person who became the first ever DIR at Bessemer). This does suggest some different functions that these folks do. So let's discuss them first as xIRs, where x can equal any of the 3 meanings.

What does an xIR do?

There are many things that a venture fund might expect an xIR to do:

1. Discover/experiment/develop some next big idea for a startup - You are given an office space, phone, internet, maybe even a computer and then you spend time thinking up new business ideas. You then are given some time to work on them, and hopefully one of those develops into something that the venture fund will invest in.

2. You park until you find your next gig - Venture funds like to have smart people around. You might not have any real expectations although there may be some underlying ones, like they hope that you might join one of their existing portfolio companies and leverage your talent. So you becoming an xIR may actually be a recruiting tool. Or not - you might find a job elsewhere, but hopefully there was some goodwill generated for the venture fund by letting you park there for a while.

3. Due diligence help - Your areas of expertise may be of great help to the venture fund in helping to look at deals. You may be able to help them with due diligence and evaluating whether something is a great opportunity or not. .

4. Help their existing portfolio companies - You may be asked to go around to all their portfolio companies and help them if possible in your areas of expertise. I've known at least one Executive in Residence whose role was chiefly to help portfolio companies.

5. Sourcing more deal flow - It is well known that entrepreneurs hang out with other entrepreneurs. It may be hoped that you will bring some deal flow to the venture fund.

6. Any combination of the above.

What are the terms?

1. Compensation ranges from zero dollars to up to $250K/year.

2. Carry in the fund's returns doesn't seem to be something that is offered.

3. This arrangement can last from about 6 months to 1-2 years to until they let you go or as long as you need.

What else do you get?

1. You get to see the inner workings of a venture fund. Often you will get invited to sit in on deal meetings and board meetings.

2. Hang out in a posh Sand Hill Road office, or hopefully still posh but in a different location.

3. Get an office, phone, maybe computer in addition to pay. You will probably get business cards which improves your notoriety.

4. You get to attend firm events and parties, perhaps even speaking engagements.

How does the process start?

Venture funds are a highly relationship driven business (see Christine Tsai's comment and my reply on my Path to Becoming a VC post). The probability of you getting an EIR job without knowing the VC beforehand is pretty low. So getting to know some folks in venture funds makes the process a lot easier than if you didn't know any. They will want to have the most confidence that you can be valuable to the fund. Knowing you beforehand helps with that.

Part of knowing you is about what you have done, how well you have done it, and your expertise. I have never heard of someone coming out of college to become an EIR. Perhaps it has happened but I think very rarely. You don't have enough experience or a track record behind you yet. I could see it happening from a Ph.D program where someone may have been working on something while at school and then is ready to commercialize it. More likely, you will be known to the venture fund through a portfolio company or through your notoriety in another company.

If you get noticed by a venture fund, you'll probably get invited to come in for an interview. Most likely these positions aren't advertised so venture funds tend to be able to choose the candidates; it would be a rare circumstance if you were able to interview for EIR positions at multiple venture funds.

How do you make a decision?

There are the usual considerations like compensation and health insurance, the poshness of the office, the reputation of the fund as you leverage it, and fringe benefits like free food in their fridge. However, the most important considerations are:

1. You like the people you will be working with, and they like you. Relationship is everything. If they offer you a job, obviously they like you, but do you like them?

2. The expectations and goals of the venture fund in your role as EIR match yours. If you are thinking that you just want to park somewhere until your next gig shows up and the venture fund is expecting you to build something so they can fund it, that's bad! You could leave the fund with them thinking you're not able to execute or are just a slacker. Make sure the reasons for you becoming an EIR there match theirs as closely as possible.

By the way, it does not appear that becoming an EIR is a good way to becoming an investor. Yes you'll be working for a venture fund and see a lot of the inner workings of one; however, the expectation is not to train you to become an investor but rather to work on startups and startup ideas. That does not mean that you could not jump on the path to becoming a VC later on (see my post, 3 effective ways to jumping on the path, especially path 3).

The Path to Becoming a Venture Capitalist

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Rob Go of NextView Ventures just wrote a great post: So You Want to be a VC? where he describes what it's like to be a VC, to the many people who tell him they want to get into VC.

I thought I'd repost and expand on part of my comment there as I thought it was complementary to his post. So how does one get on the path to becoming a VC?

Getting a job at a venture fund is one way to start your path to becoming a VC. But trying to work your way up through the ranks of a venture fund is tough and there aren't that many jobs to go around.

Becoming an associate or principal is a great way to get introduced to the inner workings of a venture fund. However, your path to becoming a partner or someone of decision making power is very difficult - after all, most funds require their current partners to work on them for many years, including maintaining their control (ie. "we investors bet on this person's skill for making great investments") and incentives (ie. carry on the investments). It's not likely that a partner is willing to give up any of that on their current funds, or even on future funds that they raise. More than likely you will have to work your way to becoming part of a team that raises a new fund in order for you to start gaining some independence and the incentives that come with it.

Some of the more effective ways are:

1) First angel invest and then raise money. In true startup fashion, you put up your own resources to make the bet that you're on to something (your own skill as investor). Others notice you and then invest in you to invest their money. Putting up your own money, investing it, and making money proves more than anything you can do this work. Of course, losing it all is also in the cards so make sure this is not a substantial part of whatever wealth you have.

2) Get wealthy people to know and trust you. Investing is very much a trust based business. Who do you trust with your money? If you have connections and relationships with wealthy individuals and build their trust with respect to investing their money responsibly and with integrity, you could begin your venture career that way.

3) Start as an operator. The four big places I see this work are: CEO of a company, Corp Dev person, entrepreneur with big exit, and engineer at a "celebrity" firm like Google or FB. These positions can give you credibility to raise your own fund or get hired by an existing firm. More likely, the $ outcome results in you being able to start the path with step 1 above.

But given the lack of available positions, and the lessened ability to woo wealthy potential limited partners in today's competitive and economic environment, you still have to exhibit something *really* special. There are too many people out there who are competing for that attention and their cash, and you really have to do better than "I want to become a VC". More than ever, you have to answer "I am the best up and coming VC because...."

Also you're going to have to let go of any arrogance about how great you are right now. I learned this back in 2006 when I tried to raise my own venture fund. I was just out of Yahoo and thought I had enough skills to pick companies and make money through investing in them. I had 9 years of work experience at Yahoo, 1.5 at frogdesign, and 3.5 at Apple before that, and a Stanford degree to boot. How could anyone NOT give me money to invest?

However, the investor community all said that my partner and I had great skills as operators, but they had no confidence in us to manage investments. After 4 months of raising, I got frustrated with hearing the same message over and over again. I stopped fund raising, set aside some personal funds and started angel investing to build up some investing track record. After 5 years of doing that, I realized I didn't know diddly about venture investing back then and only now I'm starting to build some confidence that I know a little about what I'm doing. Through time and on multiple fronts, I've built some credibility as an investor in world full of investors who have a lot more celebrity and notoriety than I do (this alone is probably worth a post in itself). Thankfully, earlier this year, Launch Capital has taken a chance on me and I can begin learning more as an investor of someone elses money besides my own.

So even though I had that wonderful resume and education, about 14 years of work and a BS and MS from top schools, it has taken me 5 more years to *begin* to learn about a business I really knew nothing about, even though I thought I knew.

In the comment I left on Rob's post, I mentioned talking people out of becoming a VC. I talk to them about my journey and all the really hard parts of the business underneath all the glamour and press. After I tell them all that, I look them in the eye and see what their reaction is, my intuition perking up to detect any sign of understanding or lack thereof. It's usually at this point where I can see if they will *really* give it go and stick with it, or just quit in frustration because they couldn't raise a fund fast enough.

Looking back on my path, it was a LOT harder and took a lot more time to build up to becoming a VC than I thought. There will always be people who happen to fall into it via luck or circumstance; awesome for them but they are definitely in the minority. Most of us have to spend a lot of time working at it AND proving that we actually can do this, and it will take a lot longer than you think.

Last week I met Gus Tai of Trinity Ventures for the first time. We had an interesting conversation about the people aspect in investments and it was enlightening to share our experiences on the topic of people. If there was one thing that both of us have learned over the years, that was the fact that people are who they are, and that we shouldn't try to make them be or do something different.

As I get to know entrepreneurs and get a sense for what they know, who they are, and where their strengths are, I get a sense for what they are capable of. At the seed stage where Launch Capital plays, we don't have the luxury of being able to spend a long time getting to know founders than perhaps someone who invests at later stages. So I've had to hone my intuition and my interrogative skills to ferret out what I can at the time of investment. Later, I can watch them and see how they react and act and build up my knowledge about them. Unfortunately, if something problematic comes up at that point, it is somewhat late since my investment has already been committed. So the goal is to be able to get as much information about them before I invest, although a lot of that info needs to be gleaned from only one or two encounters prior to an investment decision.

I meet someone and then build some intuitive and informational view of a person. It's pretty straightforward to ask them questions about their past and what they've done. But not only are their answers important but how they say them.

For example, I might ask an entrepreneur what their experience is with design. They may say they have a lot of experience designing, talk about what they've designed, and how they've managed a lot of design resources. This is all great. But as I listen to the language he uses and probe further, I realize there is an insensitivity to users' needs and the words that he uses implies an attitude towards designers that is condescending and disrespectful. This is what I mean by paying attention to how it's said as well as what's being said.

The intuitive view is less certain, encompassing subtle, non-verbal cues which are coupled with what they say and how they say it. Books have been written about body language and detecting lies and surfacing their true feelings and intentions; these are all relevant. I try to take it all in and this builds the intuitive view of a person.

All this informational and intuitive probing are geared towards not only type of person they are (hopefully they have integrity, honesty, and the whole host of other positive entrepreneurial characteristics), but also how far they can take the startup idea they are working on.

For example, every time I meet an entrepreneur, I always bring up the vision discussion. One case that may happen is that I know a lot about the space he is working in and already have some formed opinions about where they should take their business. They ask me what those opinions are and of course I start ranting or spouting ideas. Then I gauge their reaction to my words.

Sometimes they have blank stares on their faces; I can tell they have little idea what I am talking about, or they have some sense but don't have the depth of that knowledge. Sometimes they say they agree with me, but something in their body language or the way they say it tells me it is just talk and I cannot see any depth in understanding.

And the best reaction is when they actually know something about what I say and we have a bromance discussion about how geeky we are in that we both share knowledge and are big fans of this area.

However, if that bromance geek discussion doesn't happen, then I begin to worry. I start to form the limitations of where this team can take a concept. Either they must learn this themselves (first the interest, then the ability to learn it) or they must have the awareness that they must hire the talent to fulfill the bigger vision and not the vision to the limits of their current abilities.

Not many people have the ability to change into new areas of growth, whether it's physical, emotional or intellectual. It is the rare individual that can. Most likely, what we see by the time they are adults, and by the time they are working on this startup, is what we're gonna get.

Believe me, I have tried to get people to do things outside their current areas of interest or strength. But most of the time, it is futile, especially as an outside entity to a startup. If I am not there day to day 24/7, it is really hard to get an initiative going that is not familiar to the personnel there already. This is why I try to be as creative as possible in providing a multitude of ideas and see which stick and which do not, and also try to be as creative as possible within the constraints of the team's abilities and skills. But I have given up trying to make them someone other than who they are today unless they are willing or able to make the change in themselves.

The trick therefore, is to get a sense of these people through information gathering and through intuition, form a picture of their capabilities into the future, and then make the call. Building your sensitivity to determining who people are is an important part of investing; at early stage, however, we need to be able to make that determination as fast as possible since we don't have the luxury of getting to know them over time before we invest.

The Evolutionary Path of Data

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This week I was at 500startups meeting the new accelerator class. The subject of data came up once again and I thought I'd finally get to this post which I've been meaning to write for a while now.

I have found that data always follows this path:

1. Measure the data - Some mechanism appears which allows us measure the data. The insertion of a tracking pixel on a web page, the creation of new type of sensor - these are just examples of activating the ability to measure data.

2. Collect the data - Once we can measure the data, we can collect it. So it gets dumped into a database or similar. For example, the tracking pixel's loads from a server are saved in log files, or we connect a data collection device to the new sensor which takes readings at regular time intervals and saves them.

3. Display the data - After collecting the data, we can display it, usually in its most primitive form, which is often rows and columns of numbers.

4. Visualize the data - When we display data in raw form, it's not optimal. Visualizing the data via graphing or through further number crunching can bring better interpretation of large data sets than scrolling through endless rows/columns of numbers.

5. Derive insight and action from the data - After we analyze the data, we can determine what happened and then what to do next.

Usually, people get through steps 1 through 4 very quickly. We see what I call the "Mint-ifying" of the data collected. But I contend that this is not good enough. It's nice to see the data in some easily digestible form but always the next question is, "what do I do next?"

Almost no one ever gets to 5. It's always up to the viewer to take a look and then figure out what to do next. But this is hard. Some people can figure it out and some people cannot. Some people could figure it out if they took the time to go deeper but they don't have the time.

That's why I think the ability to generate insights and what to do next is the holy grail. It can seem exceedingly difficult to create a system that not only displays data but also tells you what to do next.

Some observations here:

1. If you don't have deep knowledge and experience in the area in which you're building a data system for, you'll never get there. Either that or you'll never realize the full potential of the data.

2. If you are not a current user of the data in a real world application, you'll never know what another person might want to do with the same set of data.

3. You might want to hire someone to help. The number of people who know how to use real, measurable data and figure out what to do next with it is very, very small. So trying to find someone in your area of operation may be very difficult. Or you will require a lot of time and experimentation to get there, maybe more time than you have.

I've met many startups over the years trying to exploit the data they are collecting. But as far as I can tell, virtually none of them have produced systems that can tell you what to do next from the data they display. These days I always ask the data startups how and when are they going to generate insight and action and I look for some glimmer of hope there. This is because I truly believe that if you can produce insight and action, you will have real gold in your business.

Predicting the Future: Research and Thesis Development

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Before I joined Launch Capital, I was getting into my fifth year of angel investing and thinking about how to invest more strategically. I had heard about many larger venture funds doing a lot of research into thesis development and building/raising funds on theses. But I really didn't have a set process by which to approach thesis development.

In Mark Suster's post Stock Market Drops. Then It Rallies. What Happens Next for Funding?, he mentions that when he first got to GRP, he did some analysis to find some interesting markets to go into. Having met Mark before, I pinged him and we got together and had an interesting hour long chat about thesis development.

This led me to embark on some thesis work at Launch Capital. We are fortunate to have some research resources internally and I petitioned for some time to use them on looking forward. And after talking to Mark, I had a better picture on how to do this myself, and to guide some researchers to help.

Here are some thoughts on developing a thesis:

1. Look at your own personal interests and areas of expertise. Understanding and insight is maximized when you can meld the research with what you know already. When you look at some future research data, you will look at it with the lens of your own experiences and can spot opportunities that only you will spot.

Without experience in other areas, you will inevitably miss what someone else might see, who is more experienced in those areas. For example, if you're not a biotech guy, you may not see the effect of health trends from a medical perspective, but you're an internet guy may see opportunities in mobile and tech.

Expanding your experiences can help greatly. When I entered what is now the d.school at Stanford way back in 1989, my art professor would always talk about traveling and increasing ones exposure to art, culture, and experiences in other places. I never understood that until many years later when I was able to travel a lot. It brings a critical widening of your own eyes when you realize the world is much bigger and different than you originally thought.

2. What else is unique about you? These can be things like:

a. Do you have a flow of proprietary deals from some source(s)? The presence of proprietary deal flow in some area or industry means you can more effectively imploy a thesis strategy in that area. Lack of proprietary deal flow can mean you may never ever get the best investments and may be a reason to not execute against that thesis, no matter how attractive it is.

b. Can you influence outcomes based on your experience, contacts, expertise, etc.? For me, I'm a product/UX person so I try to find investments where I can really give them an early leg up on their product strategy. Others might have extensive high level contacts in an industry which can help them generate exits more effectively.

c. Where are you based? It is widely reported that VCs like to only invest in startups that are within an hour's driving distance from them. So if you are close to your businesses, you can more effectively manage and help them. So examine those strengths that are particular to where you live. If you live in Silicon Valley, you have a breadth of industries to choose from. If you live in Boston, there is a concentration of biotech and clean tech. In Los Angeles, the entertainment industry is entrenched there. But trying to encourage a type of business to start in an area that does not have an ecosystem to support that industry is very tough and provides a disadvantage to those who try, relative to those who are doing similar things in a place where there is a lot of support. (Unfortunately for most of the hot industries, I still think Silicon Valley is the place to be.)

3. Following on 2c, if you decide to build an investment operation in wherever you live, then what are the geographic advantages of your area, that will support whatever theses you decide to go after? (...and hopefully you won't realize that you'll have to move to do that!)

Existing industries, centers of innovation like research hubs or universities, availability of talent, or even natural resources (would you fund an ocean energy project that was created in the middle of the US?).

4. Now, we move into lots of data...The idea is to examine this data and to identify not only just trends but those that are secular, or those that seem to be persistent and not just lasting for a short amount of time. As startup building folks, we need secular trends because investing in fads can be extremely dangerous as the trend that occurs may die out unexpectedly. (NOTE: that's not to say that you couldn't create a business that deals effectively in fad-like trends; for example, the fashion industry thrives on this.)

Typical data sources to examine are:

a. Demographic Trends - Yes we all know are population is aging and that we are all living longer than before. But what other shifts are there? Movement to cities? More or less divorces? Sentiment? Poverty?

b. Economic Trends - We went through a big reset in 2008 and now that reset is hitting the world. Unemployment doesn't seem to be going down. Is there a bubble in the tech startup markets? Who is getting affected by government stimulus? A very obvious one that has spawned the creation of a plethora of startups is the fact that the government is giving all medical providers $10K to switch to digital records - what a great way to cause a fast shift in your userbase without having to do it yourself?

c. Political Trends and the Legal and Regulatory Environment - Lots of debates going on about the US Patent Office and the need for reform. Will there be import tariffs on certain goods? Are we extending capital gains taxes for another year?

d. Specific Industry Trends - My area is generally internet, tech, and mobile. For example, nice to see iPads and tablet computing be so popular, dominating in all usage metrics and climbing. However, the ease at which businesses get created means competition pops up quick and can stifle growth of any one business, in a given group of similar businesses.

5. What Character Traits Does the Thesis Developer Need to Exhibit?

One thing that Mark and I talked about was, what kind of skills do you need to have to do thesis development? What kind of character traits? Some of the ones we talked about were:

a. Futurist, Big Thinker, Philosopher. I put all these into a similar bucket. You meet some people who seem to be able to look far into the future and paint broad visions of what that would look like. They are creative, sometimes wacky, and generally very intelligent. They are able to synthesize large amounts of information and generate convincing arguments on their future visions. Generally, they have to be fantastic communicators and can wow an audience with their persuasiveness.

b. Imagination - Somewhere along the line as we grow older, we lose the ability to be imaginative. However, you have to be imaginative in order to paint a vision for the future in a certain area.

c. Active intuition - Someone who is in tune with their intuition will have an easier time letting their brain put together disparate sources of data to generate something interesting and unique.

d. Wide Variety of Interests - If you know a little, or a lot, about a lot of things, I think this is much better than knowing only a few things. Being inquisitive and interested in a lot of the world will enable your intuition to function better. The trick is to not let too much information destroy your ability to imagine.

e. Increasing your Information Sources - One of my favorites is to read a lot of science fiction. What better way to imagine the future than to have someone else create a whole fictional world around them? Other sources are reading a breadth of magazines and books, across a wide range of subjects.

After gathering and examining the data, I believe it can be used in two ways: to build theses to invest against, or to measure your deals against what you know about the future.

1. Investing Against Theses - Say you're able to synthesize a thesis after looking at all your data. Then you go looking for startups that fit within those theses. For example, I currently am looking at startups in these 3 areas:

a. E-commerce
b. Unsexy traditional businesses newly powered by the Internet
c. Hardware + software + Internet

Each one of these has some thesis thinking behind it and why I think these are opportunities that will become big in the coming years. So I tend to actively look for startups in these 3 areas.

2. Measuring Deals Against What You Know - This is perhaps simpler than trying to create specific investment theses. You gather the data and then every time you meet a startup, you match up their idea, objectives, plan, etc. against the data that you know. Will it survive in the coming years in the environment that the best trend experts depict?

For example, a business that thinks it can make big money by selling DVDs may look great now, but the data shows that DVD sales are quickly being displaced by digital downloads. So this would be something that looks like it would not survive in the future, or be subject to a shrinking market which is very bad. (Ex. Think Netflix's recent changes in strategy, moving from DVD rentals to streaming.)

Right now, the Launch Capital research team and I are pulling a multitude of data from all sorts of sources. Over the next few weeks, we will be going through it slowly and hopefully developing some insights that will allow us to better spot opportunities. As we progress, I hope to post about what we found, the processes we used, what we derived from the data, and how we're going to use it.

Can Recruiters Work With Startups?

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Last week I had lunch with a prominent recruiter who was interested in working with startups. We had a great conversation about ideas and the issues, and at the end I told him I would poll my startups to see if there was any way to structure a relationship that would be palatable for the startup and make sense business-wise for the recruiter.

In polling my startups, I was hoping to find a solution to help combat the problem that people are always having problems hiring and that finding great people was near impossible. Certainly hiring a good recruiter to expand one's networks would be a good thing, if it could be made workable.

The email I sent out was:

hey all,

today i had lunch with a recruiter who helps VCs find personnel for their startups. we talked about recruiting for early stage and how hard it was, but also that it was nearly impossible for them to justify engaging traditional recruiters due to cost mostly, but many also don't deliver very well either. this guy has worked with some top VC firms in the valley so i somewhat believe him that his network of personnel to reach is pretty good, probably better than most recruiting firms.

but this recruiter wanted to help out early stagers and wanted to find a way to do it that made sense. to that end, i told him i would throw out a quick survey to my cos and contacts to see if something might work out.

one issue is paying them for their services. he was willing to back off that for early stagers, because he had normal contracts with bigger companies who could pay the bills but he had time to help out startups and also wanted to do that personally.

if anyone has worked with recruiters before, that can be anywhere from 10% to 33% the hired person's salary which is too much for early stagers.

we talked about accepting equity potentially but the risk of taking early stage startup stock or options is pretty high and most will fail, leaving him with nothing for his efforts if that is the only payment for his services.

so my question to you would be, what would you be willing to pay for their services? maybe something like 5% salary + 5000 options perhaps? or flat fee $5000 + 5000 options? would love to hear your honest thoughts, noting that you won't get their services for free but you must pay something either in equity and/or cash...

thanks in advance!

I have an email list of all my contacts at the startups. There are 62 people on the list, representing 25+ startups and companies.

Of those 62 people, 9 people responded. Here were the results:

1 would not pay cash at all
3 would never pay options for recruiting.
1 suggest deferring payment either until financial position better or next funding round.
2 would pay up to $5K, preferably less.
1 would pay 5% of salary but not more.
1 would pay options if there were future services/longer relationship
1 would pay options with no expectation of future services/longer relationship
1 would be happy to pay the normal recruiting rate 10-33% of salary

All are concerned that recruiters would deliver good candidates at all. Their experience with many recruiting firms was that they were not able to deliver great candidates. Also, there could be conflict of interest in that if recruiter is compensated on % of salary, a recruiter may negotiate for higher salaries. Or they just find you any candidate whether they are good or not, just to get paid.

2 suggested - was there a way to reward recruiters more for a good hire (ie. lasts longer than a year, and performing well) and rewarded little for a poor hire (ie. let go within a year).

One person suggested, could recruiter fees be paid by VC firms as part of their services or use of funds?

In looking at the responses, the consistent message was that startups were very cash strapped and did not want to, or could not, pay any cash at all. Or they did not want to pay until later. Everyone had a different opinion on whether or not they were willing to pay options and what paying options meant.

Looking at it from the recruiter side, there are definitely issues with working with startups:

1. For startups, many times it's low salary and high equity for the new hire. If a recruiter is getting 10-33% of hiring salary, then how does recruiter make money if the new hire salary is much lower than what they would get at a traditional company?

2. Startup equity is notoriously risky. If a recruiter only takes equity for payment, much of that payment will be forfeit since most early stage startups fail.

3. Recruiting is a cash based business like other consulting services. You need upfront cash to survive but startups are reluctant to give you any cash at all.

Given what I found out here, I am not sure that the current recruiter model can work. Some other comments and options I have found interesting that are out there:

1. Incubators and VCs already have recruiters on staff. Some of them are contractors paid through venture funds but some of them are actually on staff so they are not compensated like external, independent contractors.

2. StartupDigest is an email digest focused on startups, but there is a recruiting model hidden inside. It's an application driven, VIP only members list of both startups and key individuals who get matched to each other.

3. Codeeval allows those seeking to hire engineers to post coding challenges and a place to upload solutions. You set potential coding hires to your section of the site and they solve problems that you create. They write code and upload the code to the server where it runs the code and publishes the output and the code for the hiring manager to evaluate.

4. Ovia HR is video based recruiting, but in an asynchronous manner. You upload videos of the hiring manager/recruiter asking interview questions and interviewees come and answer via video. Actual interview situations are mimicked because there is a time limit to answering a question so you don't get time to prepare answers; you have to answer on the fly, just like in a real interview.

Still, in today's world, hiring is a big problem for startups and likely to remain that way for a long time. The explosion of startups means that there are too many choices for prospective new hires to join. Using new technology to help find candidates is nice, but there is no substitute for the power of getting out there and networking yourself. Ultimately, people join your startup not only for the cool idea and opportunity, but for the opportunity to work with smart people whom they respect and can learn from.

Combating the MIT Problem for Startups

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I was just reading Don Dodge's post, How to get accepted at Stanford or Harvard, or how to get a job at Google or Facebook, which reminded me of the people who asked me about how to deal with the MIT Problem for Startups. The problem that Don describes is exactly that which we are facing in the startup world. There are way too many perfect SAT score, straight-A valedictorians vying for not nearly enough Ivy school entry slots; how does one get into the top school of their choice? Don's suggestions are eerily the same advice I would give today's group of super-genius MIT/Stanford/whatever graduate entrepreneurs trying to get funding.

Work on Something Truly Unique

Don says to Do something special. I agree.

There are way too many people chasing the same thing, or similar thing (even if you think you're different and better, or more importantly can your customers figure out if you're really better or different).

To woo an investor, you should find something to work on that is totally something NOBODY else has thought of. That not only makes you stand out because of your idea, but also it means that you've got a head start on any competitors that may follow or copy you.

Defensible, Unassilable Competitive Advantage

Along with uniqueness, you can think harder and work on something that has some truly defensible element to it. This is back to old school roots on building companies which is to have some sort of technological or business advantage that is very hard to replicate, requires rocket scientists (time to put your MIT/Stanford degree to work now!), and potentially can be patentable (even as much as we hate the current patent system). If nobody can copy you, or if it's amazingly hard to copy you, or you make them pay you if they copy you, then you've probably got something there.

Some of you have complained that this is really hard, or even said that it would be an easier path to some sort of measure of success (ie. early exit, get a job at Google via acquihire, etc.).

First, entrepeneurism has never been easy. It could quite possibly be the hardest thing you've done. The genesis of entrepreneurism is the idea you come up with to work on. Given the proliferation of entrepreneurs today, you've got too many great minds chasing after ideas. All the easy ones are already being worked on. So you need to think harder and more creatively on a market need and/or problem to be solved that someone else hasn't worked on yet.

Second, while there are many angels and early stage funds who would back you if your idea was smaller reaching, my goals with investing are unfortunately incompatible with startups whose trajectories are not world dominating. As a director of Launch Capital, I must think on how to maximize return for my investor all the time and the risk of failure at early stage means that a super-high failure rate forces me to invest only in ideas with large potential outcomes. And yes, finding world dominating ideas is very, very hard.

Don then offers up advice on what to do next, if you didn't get into your school of choice:

There are many paths to success
Never stop learning
When a door closes a window opens

All this says to me that you should not quit, and that you should keep at it until you find something that makes sense to work on. This could mean that you should branch out beyond your current areas of experience to find that elusive idea that nobody else has worked on. It could mean that you should join up with someone who has found that elusive idea. Or perhaps you should work on something that is completely different than the area you've trained in. Entrepreneurism is not all internet or tech!

Certainly being patient can also bring rewards. Sometimes stepping away from all this idea generation can spark your creativity more than concentrating your brain on it until your head hurts from hours and hours of trying to figure out an idea to work on.

Or perhaps in a few years, entrepreneurism won't be in vogue any more, and you may find that you're one of the last few entrepreneurial folks standing. All those MIT/Stanford/etc. geniuses competing for money might just go do something else and it might become a great time to work on whatever idea you have.

Staying Stealth

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When I started angel investing, staying stealth seemed to be partially in vogue. There were still a lot of entrepreneurs who wanted to stay stealth and they would ask me to sign an NDA before talking about their startup. Unfortunately, I can't sign NDAs in my business; if I did, I would quickly not be able to talk to anyone! But the world seemed to move to a more open working relationship and those who really wanted to stay completely stealth seemed to dwindle in face of the hordes of startups who didn't care.

Staying stealth was also a barrier to many startups working in the consumer space. At one time, if you could get on Techcrunch, you'd find yourself instantly with 100K users within a week and things would take off from there. You wanted to get out there as fast and as broadly as possible so that users would know about you and come and try you out. More importantly, there were not as many startups back then; thus, competition was always a danger but the rate at which competitors popped up seemed manageable.

Lately, though, I have found myself advising at least two recent startups to now stay stealth as long as possible. While their stealthness wasn't during the fund raising or development process, I thought it was now a bad idea to announce themselves to the organizations that cover or announce startups and is normally read by other current and near current entrepreneurs. This is because now the world has changed: it is much easier with today's tools to create a startup, and since so many people want to become entrepreneurs today, the likelihood of somebody just copying you is much higher than ever before. Internationally, there are already teams working solely with the aim of copying US based startups and launching them in their local countries.

Today, in my search for startups, I try always to work with startups with no or very few competitors; it's one of the most basic concepts for investment selection and in today's climate, it is back to being one of the most important. But given the ease at which competitors pop up, it now benefits a startup to keep from announcing themselves to other potential entrepreneurs for as long as possible so that you can get a headstart on your operations, customer acquisition, product development, and dominance. This is much easier if you don't have the typical 5-10 guys who seem to suddenly pop up every time a startup with a new idea gets funded (Or think Groupon, who has HUNDREDS of competitors).

My new word is: stay stealth for as long as possible to the places where other entrepreneurs tread often; go public only because you have to in order to gain customers and in those places which reach the general populace, which unfortunately does contain entrepreneurs but you can't really do anything about that.

The Economy as an Accelerant

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Definition:

Accelerants play a major role in chemistry. Most chemical reactions can be hastened with an accelerant. Accelerants are catalysts which alter a chemical bond, speed up a chemical process, or bring organisms back to homeostasis. An accelerant can be any substance that can bond, mix, or disturb another substance and cause an increase in the speed of a natural, or artificial chemical process. [source: Wikipedia: Accelerant]

It is probably obvious that the economy can act as an accelerant to a startup's success. It is more obvious when the economy is rocketing skyward. Rewind back to the dot-com boom years of 1995-2000; the stock market was rising on the backs of tons of internet IPOs. Confidence was high, people had money and to spare. No matter what people did, it seemed that they could make money and spent it accordingly, confident that more money was coming in. Thus, startups of all shapes and sizes can ride an economic boom to success because there is free spending power to jump in the path of, from both individuals and corporations.

When the economy is bad, most people think that this puts the brakes on businesses and startups. However, I don't think that is completely true. I think that a crappy economy can also act as an accelerant to startups and their success, even as those companies built to last in booming economies falter.

Let's take a look at a snapshot of our current crappy economy, as posted by 24/7 Wall St. in http://ds.ly/lXDPgt:

1. Inflation is rising, despite the Fed's efforts to keep it in check.

2. Investments have begun to yield less.

3. The auto industry seems to be coming back, but prospects aren't good. Auto sales are a sign of consumer confidence and if sales don't rise, then the auto industry will tank again.

4. Oil prices are at their highest, putting a huge dent in consumers' wallets just to get around and to work.

5. The federal budget sucks and the Republicans and Democrats are sparring with our livelihood on trying to get a measure passed to deal with the debt ceiling, and how to reduce spending overall.

6. The Chinese economy seems to be slowing down, which will cause American companies to earn less.

7. Unemployment is still super high. And unemployment benefits and checks are ending.

8. The debt ceiling will probably be reset but austerity measures to reduce debt aren't going to have a positive effect across the economy.

9. There is lack of access to credit across the board, hurting small businesses especially.

10. Housing and mortgage issues still abound. Huge numbers of consumers can't pay their mortgages, and distressed mortgages are still on banks' balance sheets and can't be rid of easily.

We're in a world where a lot of the population have lost their jobs (and their unemployment checks are ending), can't find new jobs, or are earning less in their current jobs. But, the price of everything is rising, like gas. People need to make at least minimal ends meet but can't find jobs anywhere. Or their current company is downsizing and moving operations elsewhere, or eliminating them. If consumers don't or can't spend, there is the trickle down effect to all corporations down the chain, and eventually all these positive earnings that companies are reporting are going to stop.

You'd think that early stage startups would have little chance of succeeding in a world where consumers have no money to spend, or corporations are unwilling to spend even if they have large hoards of cash (although perhaps this is changing finally?).

However, I don't think that's the case. There is evidence that startups that are built on the backs of the crappy economy are thriving. Here are some:

Flash sale sites (Gilt Groupe, Ideeli, Rue La La, Hautelook) given consumers their luxury brand goods, but at much lower prices than normal. Despite having less or no earnings, people can still get their goods at least until their money *really* runs out.

Deal sites (Groupon, Living Social) are enormous juggernauts, again, where people can get deals on anything from restaurants to interesting things to do, to great places to travel to.

Sites that allow you to make money off your own stuff or skills (Etsy, AirBnB, GetAround) are flourishing because people under pressure to make money to survive may find it much more worthwhile to just start renting out their extra rooms or cars, or start a business themselves.

Small business and crowd funding sites (Kickstarter, Profounder, IndieGoGo) are also doing well because people who want to start businesses can't find funding anywhere else in today's bad economy where banks won't lend.

Given the crappy state of the economy today, what other ideas can flourish besides those above?

HOWEVER, if you try to start a startup in today's crappy economic environment which requires a great economy as an accelerant, you might as well be trying to start a fire in a pouring rainstorm. Ignoring the economy when designing your startup could be fatal; in my post, Mark Fletcher at Startup2Startup and the Evolution of Startup Business Strategy I talk about Mark's advice on startup building in different economic conditions and how he changed the way he approached his startup due to the conditions at the time. I now add that the state of the economy has a dramatic effect on what you're building too - if you choose something that does not take advantage of the economic conditions at the time, then you could be doomed to fail no matter what you do.

[Still, this also means that if you launch the same idea in a different economic climate, it could work beautifully - is it time for the new pets.com to emerge yet?]

I bugged a friend of mine at Google and instantly got up and running on the new kid on the block, Google+. Of course, now I'm much cooler than you since I got in and you're not haha - alas, I'm sure that coolness is short-lived.

I launched into Google+ with little expectations. As soon as I got in, I was presented with a rather overwhelming page - circles? streams? friends? a bunch of tweet-like shares sitting there in my stream already - pictures also. Talk about information overload.

So I poked around. Trying to invite some other friends was really tough. Why bury that in the circles function? And why do I need to add their name? Can't I just send them an invite? After all, I want all my friends on the system.

But oh wait, these circles allow me to categorize my connections. The drag-drop UI is pretty slick, but geez I just ended up dragging them all into my Friends circle. It's too hard to categorize these people. And I'm pretty particular with who I add to my Facebook friends in any case - but even that has reached unmanageable numbers (or so I think: I just went to Facebook to look up how many friends I have and I can't seem to figure it out! I've got SO many that Facebook can't even count them up for me LOL).

Man, it seems that Google threw the kitchen sink in here. No MVP for them! Or actually, the M stands for Maximal instead of Minimum. So maybe MVP still applies! It will take me a few days to navigate around and figure this out. Somebody tagged me in a picture so many of the usual Facebookian functions are found here.

The stream is fun - seeing pictures auto displayed there is pretty cool, although it wrecks the stream UI a bit so scanning is tougher than just lines of text on twitter. Still, Twitter is the default real time stream of choice due to momentum.

Which brings me back to this point. Big, established internet companies have a huge advantage when launching new products in the area of distribution. In the old days at Yahoo!, we used to call this the "firehose" of users which we can direct to any property we launched. We merely had to create and launch a new site, and then if we could get permission to get it listed on the Yahoo! homepage, it would instantly get traffic. In fact, it didn't matter if the site sucked or not; merely putting it on the Yahoo! homepage guaranteed a steady stream of users who clicked on the link and visited the site. In fact, many business units in the past dangerously created revenue projections on traffic patterns generated by the presence of that link on the Yahoo! homepage, which suddenly were destroyed when somebody decided that the link to that site shouldn't be on there any more, or moved to a less advantageous position on the page like below the fold.

Today, getting users is tough - tougher than you can imagine. Which is really why only someone like Google could even think about launching something that competes not only with Facebook but also with Twitter at the same time, especially given the dominance that these two sites have among the userbase. A company which does not have an existing userbase with which to firehose a new service will stand little chance of gaining any sort of traction, like startups for example.

But is it enough? Firehoses are super important, but you have to firehose the right thing or else once the firehose stops, then traffic dies off too, like in my Yahoo! example. Or in some cases, even firehosing isn't enough to generate traction.

After a few minutes of playing around, it seems that the real time aspect dominates the initial views. Then, I can group my connections into circles and I can share posts to certain or all circles. And on top of that, there are some nice UI/UX enhancements and arguably there are some differences in UX between the two even as a lot of the UX is similar. I'm not sure Google+ has a better UX than Facebook or Twitter though; at the moment, they seem very similar and there are things I like more about Facebook and Twitter as I like some of the new elements in Google+. So I can say for now that I think that there really isn't some dominant aspect of Google+ that would attract me to switch and use Google+ more than my old services of Facebook and Twitter.

Therefore, if Google+ competes head to head with Twitter and Facebook, is the firehose enough to win, along with some incremental enhancements in the UX?

First, as I've often talked about, incremental improvement is simply not enough to cause switching (see condition 3 in What I Really Mean By "Souring on Internet-Only Startups"). The state of Google+ doesn't seem to be all that much better.

Granted, there may be better integration with Google services - many of us have often noted that email is simply a representation of a social network already but nobody has really exploited this fact to great effect. Certainly, a ton of people have Google mail services so there is an enormous base to draw from. Perhaps the inertia of early adopters may draw enough people in to start using Google+ to make it survive. Still, I think it is going to be hard given that Facebook and Twitter dominate social networking. To make it more likely, I think Google+ needs some exponential improvement over Facebook and Twitter but I don't see that yet; perhaps there will be something in the future.

Another potential competitive advantage that could be exploited is branding. Facebook used to be a cool brand but I'm not so sure right now - I think it's more utility now. Twitter is more recently cool and still there is more cool brand value than Facebook; it's also moving to utility now that people are exploring its news and communication delivery capabilities. But would you consider being part of a Google social network a must-have, enhancing your own coolness by being on it?

The firehose of a highly trafficked web service like Google is an incredible asset and brought to bear on a truly transformative, useful, and/or cool web service, it can accelerate discovery and adoption and vault it into the mainstream. But point that firehose at something less than that and the service will die once you take that firehose away. The jury is still out on whether Google+ can be more than just on parity with its competitors, Facebook and Twitter. If it doesn't, what waste of a perfectly good firehose...

A Case for Strong Entrepreneurs AND Great Ideas

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I was on a panel at Fundingpost's, Silicon Valley VC and Angel Conference this last Thursday and once again the topic of how important the startup's idea was, relative to other factors, in an investor's decision process to invest.

Overwhelmingly, the panelists' response that super smart and entrepreneurial people were much more important at early stage. This was because of the fact that almost always their initial idea was going to be wrong, or needed to be adjusted, and that someone needed to be smart and adaptable enough to pivot their activities into a viable entrepreneurial direction. So like war, the initial plan seldom survives contact with the enemy, or the marketplace.

However, I think I was one of two folks who said that we bet on superior people that were ALSO working on a great idea.

There are numerous documented cases of investors who bet almost solely on rockstar entrepreneurs and will invest in a team that has genius credentials, even if the idea is underdeveloped. Why they would execute such a strategy:

1. Their past experience has shown that smart entrepreneurs has been more predictive of a successful outcome, but relatively independent of the idea they are working on or where they started.

2. They have enough capital to spread their bets among many smart teams and be less sensitive to exactly how good their initial idea is.

3. Given enough capital, a strong team/entrepreneur has enough runway to take a less developed idea and iterate until it is a strong idea. So those who qualify for item 2 above will readily support strong teams/entrepreneurs because the initial capital outlay is large for the startup, but still miniscule relative to their entire fund.

3. In today's world, there is a huge movement to create and nurture entrepreneurs. Joining up with this effort aligns with their own thinking that more entrepreneurism is good for the world, as well as generates positive public relations with the outside world on these efforts. Thus, to support rockstar entrepreneurs at early stage is a positive thing for them and the world.

Many big names are executing this kind of strategy right now. If they are doing well, then shouldn't I also worry less about the idea and just bet on super strong teams, even if their idea is relatively weak?

Why I look for strong entrepreneurs AND great ideas:

1. I have met strong teams but with underdeveloped ideas and walked away from investing. This is a personal choice, where I like to support them in their direction and especially if I have experience or an affinity for the direction they took. If the direction they take is very fuzzy, then I feel less of a connection with their project.

2. Personal experience plays out here, but I have seen many super smart people fail at their ideas. So for me, it's not enough to just bet on rockstars and be more lax about the idea. I want to maximize my odds of success by finding strong entrepreneurs who are at least starting with some breakthrough idea. If they do not start with a breakthrough idea, then it is just as possible that they will pivot their way to one as it is to pivot to nowhere.

3. Now that I am at Launch Capital, I have more capital to deploy but still it is not at the level of other funds who have much deeper pockets. So there is a practical strategic consideration I need to make in the face of what Launch Capital can bring to the table. It is not possible for us to make the number of bets into smart people as others are making, and therefore I must be more discerning in my decision process.

4. Today, we are seeing an explosion of entrepreneurism. People are graduating from top universities and taking their genius-ness out to Silicon Valley to create a startup. However, this has generated what I call the MIT Problem for Startups where *every* team I meet is super-strong and smart. Even those in the valley who execute the invest in strong teams strategy can't invest in everyone. So what differentiates you from the next team? Not everyone from MIT has what it really takes to become an entrepreneur, even if you have genius intelligence. One of those differentiating factors is your idea, especially if it is a superior one.

In times past when entrepreneurism wasn't so popular, a superior team would definitely have an edge over an average team since there weren't that many of them. But I think in today's world, there are too many people with superior credentials to pick from and it's not possible for all of them to succeed. So there needs to be some other aspect which differentiates them from others - hence the presence of a superior idea.

5. Given that we are seeing not only an explosion of innovation, but an explosion of me-too ideas, many strong teams are working on the same or similar ideas. Even strong teams are not enough to dominate a marketplace if every team (who are also strong) is going for the same customer with a similar product. The chance is very great that you will all divide up the market and end up with smaller pieces of the whole no matter how much of a genius you are.

I don't want to invest in a strong team working on a me-too product, or an incremental product, or building a product in a super-crowded marketplace of other similar or "blurry" products. I want a strong team working in an area that is game changing, exponentially different/better, or simply has not yet been worked on yet.

6. At early stage, you don't have much time to operate. Your clock is ticking as your bank account runs down and you better have some sort of traction for your product/service before it does. Thus, if you start with a weak idea, you may need a lot of time to iterate to find a viable idea to turn into a business. But you're early stage - you don't have time! If you happen to start with a superior idea, then you're at least pointing in a direction that has a lot of positive factors for success; undeveloped ideas are much less certain and I've seen a lot of people end up with nothing as their bank accounts ran out, no matter how smart they were.

It's all about increasing my chances for creating a good outcome for my investment and time. Strong entrepreneurs are a prerequisite for success, but in the crowded startup world of today, it's not enough to lessen the impact of weaker idea they are working on. If there are so many ideas being worked on, then I can wait for the right smart/superior team to come along who is also working on a superior idea. Then my probability for getting a great outcome for my investment is much higher than without a superior idea.

Footnote: In thinking further, it is obvious that even those who invest in super strong entrepreneurs are still looking at their ideas. Even though they are writing about the fact that it's all about super smart entrepreneurs, they are still banking on the idea in their decision process because otherwise more people would get funded. Very rarely do entrepreneurs get funding to work on really weak, undeveloped ideas; usually these people are repeat entrepreneurs with a stellar track record and with a prior relationship with the funding source.

Do Not Let History's Mistakes Repeat Themselves

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Charlie O'Donnell of First Round's NYC team recently wrote a very important post entitled, Ignore startup history at your peril. It was so good and relevant to today that I'm adding it to my list in my post, If We Meet, I Will Ask You....

To summarize his post, he basically loves to ask startup founders why haven't the previous entrepreneurs in his space succeeded and how did they fail. Given today's proliferation of clones of every idea out there, or even near clones, it is hard not to be able to find competitors in the near past who have tried your idea and failed. Also, given founders posting a lot about their mistakes, and Techcrunch, et. al. documenting the closure of all these startups, it would seem relatively straightforward to dig up reasons why a lot of similar startups failed. Or, our entrepreneur networks are pretty darn small now; it would not be hard to go and simply ask around and thus find out about any startup out there.

Why would you want to do this? Well, it's to not repeat the mistakes of the past. And if you don't go figure out why someone else failed at what you're working on now, the likelihood of you flailing through mistakes made by someone else is pretty high. I totally agree with Charlie wanting entrepreneurs to not only be experts in their respective spaces, but also students of the history of past startups who have tried and failed, and, by the way, also succeeded.

Many thanks to Charlie for bringing this up and I'm adding it to my list to ask entrepreneurs during pitches.

Yesterday I had a conversation with my managing director about my investing pace. It had seemed to both of us separately that I had a lot going on, and that I was potentially going to invest in what seemed to be a large amount of startups in a short amount of time. After all, this is my 11th week at Launch Capital - barely 3 months in!

While my pace was blistering by some measures, after some reflection it wasn't so bad after all. Some thoughts on this pace:

1. We looked at the other directors at LC and noted that for some reason, deals seem to come in waves and bursts. Sometimes the bursts can be planned for, like after a Ycombinator or Techstars Demo Day. Other waves come with no warning whatsoever. Or some deals drag on and then run into other more faster moving, hot deals in the future.

And there are long periods of calm where there seems to be no attractive deals for a while. It's in these times I take a breather, but also wonder if I'm doing something wrong that deals have dried up.

2. We talked about adjusting the pace. This could be raising our bar, although I was already only looking for startups with very high potential (see The $100,000,000 Question) and not those whose trajectory was more obviously a smaller exit. We could shift our bar, like being really focused only on startups I had personal interest in. However, we noted that we didn't want to potentially overlook an opportunity simply because it wasn't in some area of determined focus.

3. I also noted that although we had set a goal of investing in 7-10 seed startups this year, the calendar year was problematic to review pace. This is because the second half of the year has 3 dead months in it for fund raising: August - when the investment community all go on vacation for the summer; November/December - when we all dive into the three holiday whammy starting with Thanksgiving, and then it's Hanukkah and Christmas.

Thus, in any given calendar year, there are only really 9 months where rounds have the best chance to be closed. Even though in reality not all investors go on vacation, the problem is that many venture funds operate via partnerships. Often the entire partnership needs to agree on an investment before it takes place; all it can take is enough of the partnership to be on vacation and that can mean that a round can't close with that fund. So investment pace can be raised during those 9 active months as those startups who happen to be fund raising then have a much higher probability of closing their rounds.

4. As mentioned previously, some funding rounds can drag on for months before they close. Nobody ever plans on that, but sometimes it takes time to round up investors to believe in a startup enough to commit. Given my experience, it can be deceptive that I am working on many startups at once because their actual funding rounds may not close until months later, as the entrepreneur tries to find a lead somewhere.

While I talk about my own investment pacing and the environmental factors that affect it, I think this has important implications for startups and the timing of their fund raising.

In the last few years of angel investing, I've observed that startups who start fund raising in the summer are at higher risk to not closing their rounds before the end of the year, due to the 3 down months in the latter part of each year. Starting fund raising in September is even worse because you really have to finalize everything in 2 months; if you start drifting into November, then people begin go on vacation and it's harder to find your investors (and their money). Inevitably, many of these startups drift into January and finally are able to close their rounds.

This is not so true for startups who close rounds with all angels. Individual investors are not beholden to a partnership and can make decisions in more flexible timeframes.

The 3 down months in the latter part of the year also affect those who are looking for their next rounds. Remember that fund raising in the second half of the year really only means you have 3 months to work in - It can be particularly problematic if your burn rate and plan show you running out of money in November or December!

Remember that if you need to raise money, you need to do so before your money runs out. Sometimes people say that the rule of thumb is to start looking for your next round 4-6 months before your current funds run out. However, nobody can predict how long your fund raise will take. Depending on investor interest and your progress, you may raise in a few weeks; or you may need a few more months in if interest is low or your progress isn't substantial. In tough economic times you may find that it takes an extraordinarily long time to raise a next round; you may even need to go asking for a bridge to carry you through what inevitably is the new year when fund raising probability goes up again.

My advice to startups is - no matter what, try to plan for your funds to run to the middle of the calendar year, which has you raising your next round in January. If you need to raise money in the second half of the year, you're putting your venture at much higher risk than otherwise.

The MIT Problem for Startups

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When I say MIT Problem for Startups, it's probably not what you're thinking!

The problem I'm referring to goes like this.

You're in high school. You bust your butt and become valedictorian. You're at the top in grades, and you've proven it through 12 years of school, beating out all your fellow students. You're at the top of the top and feel great. You'll probably get an award or two from the school. Maybe you're Captain of the Math Team or head of Honor Society and gotten awards and/or recognition for that. You're at the top of your mountain at your school and so you apply to MIT and you get in.

The day you arrive at MIT, you find yourself surrounded by valedictorians. They were all at the top of their class at their respective schools, all scoring 1600 on their SATs, and are all super-duper smart.

The day before you arrive at MIT, you were top of the top in your own world. The day after you arrive at MIT, you're now...average...amongst your new peers. Everybody is equally smart and excellent, so you're all now mediocre. And thanks to grading curves, those As you got in high school just turned into average Cs. Was your previous valedictorian greatness enough to get you more than average Cs in a sea of valedictorians?

Boy that sucks, doesn't it?

This is the problem I'm experiencing with a lot of startups. Everybody says they're great, except that when I look across all the startups I meet, you're all kinda average now because you're all equally great.

That sucks for both you and me.

It sucks for you because there are SO MANY startups and your current greatness is not enough - you have to be even better! This is at all aspects of your startup too. You need to now out-execute more, your product needs to be exponentially better to your customers, you need to out-fund raise everyone else. Everything you do must be even that much more superior to your startup peers. This is even more true against your competitors. Think of all the startups who are doing something that directly or closely competes with what you're doing, or competes for a little slice of consumer attention - you can't just be a little better, you need to be a LOT better.

This also sucks for me. My job is to pick which one of you startups is going to win next. But if you're all great at some level, then even out of the set of greats, you look mediocre. That's bad! Because for startups at early stage, the failure rate is very high. So no matter how great you really are and/or you think you are, if you are just merely great you blur into mediocrity against all the other startups competing for my investment. This is also a problem from a competitive standpoint since you'll all have to execute against strong, motivated, super-smart peers. If you don't become exceptionally great against your startup peers, what chance do you have to convince me that you'll be the one that will win and not a competing startup?

This is the MIT Problem for Startups and it's getting worse day by day.

Questions to Ask When Joining a Venture Fund

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Before I joined Launch Capital, I spent some time with my future manager on how we would work together. Joining a fund in many ways is like joining a typical company, but in many ways it is definitely not. I asked him a battery of questions which are unique to working for a fund versus any other company. Since many people are looking at venture capital as a career, I thought I'd post some of the questions I posed to Launch Capital before joining. Here they are:

Fund Strategy and Philosophy

1. What is the fund term? When does the fund go raising more money? How will I be involved in that process?

2. How is the return to me calculated? Is it a carry on the profits? How are returns distributed to the LPs, and eventually to me?

3. What kind of deal terms do you present when leading? How is it different at early stage and your later stage investments?

4. What is your message to entrepreneurs? The deal terms will reflect part of that.

5. How much money would I be responsible for deploying as a goal and in how much time?

6. Are you ok with deploying money into exploratory startups or would you rather not? Or do you only want to look for big opportunities (or as big as they seem at the time)?

7. What kinds of startups do like investing in and why? What kinds do you want to stay away from and why? Are there any investment theses I should be aware of? Can I invest with my own investment theses?

8. What is your typical due diligence process? Can you send me a list of docs you ask for? Do you have a documented process i can take a look at? Am i personally responsible for due diligence for all my sourced deals? Do you send all of this to your lawyer for review?

9. What research resources are there? Do I have to do all research myself?

10. Would I be signing docs on behalf of the fund or would someone else?

11. How much autonomy do I have? How fast can i really pull the trigger? Is there any approval process necessary at all, however small? Is there a partnership and partnership approval process to work with?

12. Once we determine "yes we will invest", what is the typical process from that point forward and how fast can it be? Who has control of wire transfers of money? Is there a control system there (ie. someone still must approve all wires)? I also assume that early stage is going to be faster than later stage?

13. Are there any co-investment rights and if so, how would that work?

14. What are the expectations on failure rate? Early stage failure rate can be higher than the typical VC failure rate. If we're going to go full bore starting with early stage and with larger checks, I don't want to have some sort of $$ shock if expectations are not set right.

15. On the other end of the spectrum, are expectations set correctly regarding return of capital timeframe? If we are playing more long term and with bigger checks, the timeframe could be 10 years or more. Or do you have a timeframe as to when you'd like funds to return?

16. Do you have a detailed strategy statement and mode of operation for the fund?

17. What is the current theses that the fund invests in? What are the philosophies that are used to determine investments? Are there any areas that you focus on or stay away from?

18. Is your intention for me to go for board seats at early stage whenever the opportunity comes up or should I be less aggressive? For later stage, will this be different/same?

19. Do you have any restrictions on me taking on advisorships? If I take one on, in whose name do I put in under? Can I put it in my personal name? Is it ok to take on advisorships of companies we do not invest in?

20. Does the fund want my pro-rata investments?

21. Is there any notion of vesting of the carry at all, based on my time of service with the fund?

22. Are there any kind of common VC-like fund terms i would be operating under, like clawback provisions and the like?

23. What are the terms if I leave the fund?

24. What kind of accounting type reporting do you do to your investor? Early stage reporting can be challenging to get specific and accurate info. What is the resource we can use to do that or would I be responsible for that myself?

25. How often do you present to your LPs? Quarterly? Other? How involved will I be in this presentation?

Management and Operations

1. Can i get an intro to your other team members? I'd love to chat with them about their experience working for the fund, if they are willing. it would also seem good that they get to know me also and make sure they are ok with me joining the team...?

2. I am pretty much self managed these days. but who would i officially be reporting to? If so, will there be any kind of performance metrics I would have?

3. Are we indemnified when we work for you?

4. I see you have a blog up. Can i cross post some entries from my blog to yours?

5. Can I get an office somewhere? What is the price range?

6. How often do you get the team together to strategize and update? Do you have any regular update calls/mtgs now and if so, how often?

7. What is expensable and what is not? Is there an expenses budget I work within?

8. How does the group work together? What is the interaction style? How does collaboration work?

Benefits

I included questions on Benefits as benefits in a small company are often much different than joining a large firm with a lot of resources to pay for employee benefits. I think a detailed look into what kind of health insurance and other benefits is important here.

1. What are the benefits?

2. What are the details of the health insurance?

3. Is there a 401K?

I've Joined Launch Capital

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To some of you, the news has been trickling out but now it's time to do a real announcement: Yes, I've left the ranks of angel investing and joined Launch Capital, a seed stage fund based out on the East Coast.

I met Launch Capital about 3 years ago when we both were invested in two Bay area startups. I got to know the managing director, Elon Boms, very well through the years. We found we had mutual agreement on investing philosophy and approach, and about a month ago, he offered me a job as West Coast Director of Operations, doing seed stage investing on the West coast where I am mostly based, but also covering internet-tech and mobile in NYC where I am often.

I am excited to see my career go in this direction. As an angel investor, I discovered that I loved working with startups and helping them and their products grow. Now, at Launch Capital, I could do more of the same but with more resources and under a prominent brand. While I enjoyed being an angel investor, I think that it is much more preferable investing in startups with the ability to bring more money, resources, and help to bear than just what I can bring individually.

If there is anything I've learned from angel investing, it's that angel investing is hard - easy to have fun, but hard to make money. As individuals, we can only bring so much to help except for those individuals with exceptional resources and backgrounds; the majority of us may have enough capital to invest but have limited capability to help beyond that capital. But now I can work with startups with the ability to bring more capital to bear than just my own quickly dwindling resources.

To be totally open and frank, I hit that tough place being an angel investor: I've been actively investing for about 5 years now but the economic crash and lack of exits has made deployable cash harder to come by. I had contemplated potentially stopping angel investing for the time being until the opportunity at Launch Capital came along, for which I am eternally grateful so that I could continue to work with startups.

Likewise, I found angel investing to be sometimes a lonely place. I have worked with others in the past, but each of us, either angel or fund, had very individual reasons for investing (see my post Why I Hate Social Proof). However, now, I am glad to be working with an experienced team of investors with a singular mission, all to invest smartly for Launch Capital. Over the last 4 weeks I have come to value their feedback and help on my deals, which has sharpened up my decision process greatly.

To all you entrepreneurs: I look forward to working with you in my new capacity at Launch Capital.

What's the Real Problem with Your Startup?

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After I wrote my post Talk About the Problem, Not Just the Solution, I've had a series of pitches all characterized by the same thing: a singular focus on how wonderful the product is.

Unfortunately, I've got news for you all you MIT/Stanford/super-genius engineers and hot shot designers:

Product development is a commodity.

In today's day and age, you can build just about anything. There are very few things out there being worked on that really require rocket scientists. But most of them don't. Most products and services have plenty of models to copy from. Or if you don't have something to copy, we have all these well defined processes to find solutions such as customer development by Steve Blank, as documented in his classes and in his book The Four Steps to the Epiphany, or Eric Ries's Lean Startup principles.

So if that's true, building product is not the problem. In fact, anything that is under your direct control is not a problem for your startup. And that's why I'm not interested in seeing your product just yet; I want to hear about how you're going to solve all those problems that you have no control over.

Every startup has approximately 1-3 things that will make or break their business at early stage and very, very rarely is one of them the ability to build the product (by the way, if it is and if it's something that doesn't require rocket scientists, you've got bigger problems than you can imagine, if you can't even get your product built).

For example, I've recently met some local startups. They all showed nice product design but the real problem lay in how the heck where they going to scale customer acquisition, if there customer was every local merchant down the block, in every city, in every state in the US?

Now that's worth talking about! Because if you can give me a convincing scenario where you may have a novel solution to this problem where so many have failed, your startup actually has a chance. But if you don't have a great answer to that problem, your beautiful product is not going to magically leap into the hands of local merchants, and certainly not fast enough to get you enough revenue to survive as a company.

Usually it's pretty straightforward to figure out what those 1-3 key problems are. If we can get past those, then we should take a look at what you're building. Assuming you're doing all the right things, I'm guessing that whatever you build is probably going to be good enough to start, or to get there after you launch.

But until we get past those 1-3 key problems, I'm probably going to keep interrupting you, derailing your pitch, until we do. Or if we can't get past those key problems, I think you need to go back and figure those out or else it is unlikely that I will invest.

What I Really Mean By "Souring on Internet-Only Startups"

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People who know me have heard me say in the last several months that I’ve “soured on internet deals.” Unfortunately, this has been misinterpreted as “Dave has stopped doing internet deals completely.” But this is untrue.

Internet is in my blood. I’ve been working on internet businesses since 1995 - that’s nearly 16 years of thinking, designing, launching, breathing, living internet. I can’t escape it and don’t want to.

I *will* do internet-only startup deals. But the problem is that the current environment makes it difficult for me to justify investing in internet-only startups. This is because:


  1. Competition for internet-only startups is created too easily. Too often I meet an entrepreneur who already has competitors; how do I know that he will be the one who wins?
  2. Competition stifles growth potential which can be deadly to an early stage startup who is watching their bank account grow less by the day while revenue and customer growth is slowed by the other similar startups attempting to sign up the same customers.
  3. Competition creates confusion in the customer base as much of the company's differentiation is very incremental or small. To a customer who is inundated with so many similar services, how do they tell who to buy services from? This limits the growth of startups which again can be deadly at early stage.
  4. Extending on 3, not enough startups are working hard enough to differentiate exponentially versus incrementally. In today's crowded marketplace, it is not enough to be just a little better; you have to be exponentially better.
  5. New angel investors entering the market are inexperienced but also they have no choice but to invest in what is out there today. This fuels the existence and survival of competition in the marketplace when these startups should have been pushed harder to develop exponential differentiation instead of simply incremental.
  6. Valuations are inching upward, while the quality of the startups is dropping relative to the conditions of the marketplace. When valuations rise above what I think the risk potential of a startup's idea, it's time I know that I should not play in the internet-only space. Now we are seeing notes without caps, which is the beginning of the end for why angels should be putting up early risk capital and getting little in return later when the note converts into a large up round with a venture capitalist.
  7. Hiring is a nightmare across the board. Lack of resources limits a startup's ability to scale. I have seen many startups who want to do more but simply cannot hire fast enough to do more.
  8. SEO and viral don’t work any more. I’ve seen too high a dependence on trying to drive traffic in these ways, but too many people are SEO-ing in the same way, and consumers have way too much stuff to be viral about.

However, that does not mean I won't invest in internet-only startups. It just means that they have to pass harder conditions. These are conditions like:

  1. Little or no competition.
  2. Understand what it takes to compete in today's world and have some sort of advantage. Arguably, in 2011 now, people are competing now with competitive advantages in design/user experience and customer acquisition. This may also mean that you must raise a ton of money to: a) outlast your competitors, who will die because they couldn’t; b) out-market everyone else by spending money to buy customers since free methods aren’t as effective (ie. SEO) or too difficult (ie. viral). The world moves fast; potentially in a few short months, these factors could change.
  3. The idea must be *totally* unique. That means if I search around Google or iTunes app store, I won't even find near competitors of yours. If it is improvement over a previous product, the improvement must be exponential, not incremental.
  4. Disruption of an old world industry is always attractive.
  5. Some kind of technical advantage is also always attractive.
  6. I must have an affinity, interest, and/or expertise in the area. If I'm going to spend time on your startup for a long time, it might as well be something that I think is cool.
  7. They must have a world dominating vision and show unwavering determination to take over the world. We must both agree that their vision is a world domination vision. I want the entrepreneur to aim for a lofty goal that is game changing, and not just some tiny goal.
  8. Another lofty goal: I want to them to figure out how to make $100MM revenue per year...or more.
  9. Ideally, I see valuation at exit for the company in excess of $100MM. Otherwise, it will be hard to make money for my overall portfolio and not just on this one deal, given that many others in my portfolio will fail.
  10. The entrepreneur must exhibit great entrepreneurial qualities, be tenacious, adaptable and not quit, because yes it is freakin’ hard to win in today’s internet-only startup world and I don't want them to give up but instead it energizes them and ramps their creativity further.

I may, therefore, say no to investing in internet-only startups a lot more, maybe even 99.99% of the time now as I adjust my bar so high for an internet-only startup to pass. But I am simply reacting and strategizing to the realities and demands of today’s marketplace, AND the fact that I invest to make money, versus other non-money making reasons.

Who knows where the world will be in another year or two? Perhaps my bar will shift again. But if you have an internet-only startup which satisfies my new super-hard critieria, I would love to meet you.


News Innovation: Still Haven't Quite Gotten There Yet

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Over the last few months, I have been actively giving feedback to my buddies at the news.me team (see NYTimes: Betaworks and The Times Plan a Social News Service and Techcrunch: Exclusive: An Early Look At News.me, The New York Times’ Answer To The Daily.

News is one of those things I worked on since the beginning of the internet when Yahoo released its first linked page of news back in 1995. I watched it grow, basically taking offline news and putting it online, into a huge powerhouse of traffic. Likewise, traditional outlets put all their news online launching both opportunity and destruction as users flocked to reading news online and heralding the slow death of physical newspaper business models.

But in the last few years, I've been thinking a lot about news, how I read it, consume it, and want to do things with news that I still can't do. If you look out there on the web, news is still basically just pages of content. Only just in the last year have people started looking beyond just RSS readers and using the social/real time web to help with recommendations. But I still want more; Twitter is a big source of news for me, but it still doesn't do everything.

I wrote this and sent this to the news.me team, but I want the world to come up with something exponentially better, not just incrementally better. Here are my current issues with news and what I would love to see:

1. News front pages haven't innovated in ages. They mostly look like their offline analogues. Seems like it's time for an improvement.

2. Trust is a problem. Too many sources and no way to verify, or verification takes way too much time. You can always find someone who supports your viewpoint on the internet so it can be very difficult to tell who is lying and who is not. At one time we trusted journalists because they had ethical standards to uphold. That's been destroyed. Everyone has biases and it's starting to show more and more.

3. Every news source reports on the same news, with few exceptions (ie. local or vertical). If everyone is just re-reporting what comes off the wires, then what is the differentiator for news outlets? Brand? Voice? Opinion? Bias?

4. How to balance what I am interested in and what I want to read serendipitiously?

5. I want to pick sources I want to follow all the time but want to be introduced to new sources on occasion. There are too many sources to deal with.

6. I often drop into a topic later in time. I want to be able to easily navigate back in time to a topic's start. I also want to see how the topic developed so i want to read all stories up to the present. I also want to navigate across sources for any given topic to see other opinions.

7. When I am interested in a topic, I want to somehow designate it to be tracked. I want to be able to undesignate it also, when I do not want to follow it any more.

8. News rolls with time. but there are often stories I don't have time to read now. This is the problem with using Twitter as a newsfeed. It does great from a social recommendation standpoint, but the news rolls past so fast that I have to favorite or else it is gone forever.

This also applies to news front pages. The saving grace is the NYTimes email which snapshots the news for me and it is saved in my email.

9. Breaking news often comes from many places, and maybe from Twitter before anywhere else. How do we insert that into our news reading? Do I have to stare at my Twitter stream all day long just to catch the rare, elusive news event before anyone else does?

10. I want something to remember everything I read because I often want to find something that i read in the past. I want to be able to search everything I read and only that.

11. Ideally I want to pull up old stories I've read, or tagged, or saved. Hopefully I can easily tag/save into categories and pull them up by those groupings.

12. News must be both curated and algorithmically recommended. Either can't do it all.

I really hope someone innovates news more than just putting a "news" layer on top of Twitter, or a prettier face on top of RSS feeds. Everyone seems to be working on a singular part of news but not the whole experience. I would love to see a startup take on the whole project of news rather than just little pieces of it. Might even be worth investing in...

Body Hacking Tim Ferriss Style

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I've never met Tim Ferriss in person, but I think it's pretty outstanding that he chose to hack his body, as described in his thick tome, The 4-Hour Body. In an unprecedented, data driven way, Tim experiments on himself with all sorts of supplements, exercise programs, and diets to see what works and what doesn't. But he just doesn't subject his body to the stress and ingredients; he also measures, using sophisticated but readily available devices, their effects on his body before and after trying them.

Being a triathlete and one that wanted to improve AND being a gadget lover, I felt that this was right up my alley. While my experiments with his methods on myself aren't finished and I hope to publish some results on my training blog, I felt that some of the measurement methods are worth publishing here and highly relevant in my investing.

Prior to Tim's book, I was already using technology in my training. I regularly run with a Garmin Forerunner 305 GPS watch and upload the results to my Mac. My old coach, Michael McCormack, had set me on using the Computrainer, a computerized bike trainer which allowed me to workout using repeatable and measurable power settings. On my bike, I use a Powertap power meter that is installed in the hub of my rear wheel. This allows me to record and examine my power profiles during training rides and competition. It also gives me a picture into exactly how much power I expended during a ride and, over time, whether I have improved or not.

Simply recording all this in an Excel spreadsheet meant that I could go back and examine my training, and figure out if I have truly improved season over season.

Recently, I have begun to use other tools to supplement my training. For example, I started swim training in Total Immersion which advocates frequent use of underwater video footage to give feedback on swimming technique. I use a GoPro video camera with suction cup to record my workouts for re-examination later. I also bought a Pulse Oximeter to check my resting heart rate every morning, which is important to track and see when you *aren't* recovered from previous days of workouts and to know when it's time to back off and rest. I do also record my heart rate during my bikes and runs, although I'm not a big fan of using heart rate as a training metric.

I also now run with the Runkeeper app on my iPhone 4, which finally has enough battery power to last through an entire marathon while broadcasting/recording my run. Runkeeper does things similar to my Garmin, but I feel that it's displays are better than the Garmin software, although Garmin's website implementation isn't bad.

After diving into Tim's book, I got a Omron Full Body Sensor Body Fat and Body Composition Monitor to start tracking my progress using Tim's methods. To see not only my weight but my visceral fat decrease before my eyes has been enlightening! I had considered getting a Withings scale, but for now I needed the full body composition monitoring versus just weight measurement.

With the exception of the Computrainer and the Powertap, all of these are well within the budget of normal consumers. (NOTE: Even now, other manufacturers have come out with computerized bike trainers and power meters that cost significantly less than the Computrainer ($1650) and Powertap ($2000)). The pace of innovation and the movement of price to within the reach of normal consumers (versus prosumers/early adopters) has been accelerating year over year. Also, the availability of devices which can monitor our human condition day to day, minute by minute, and allow us to track our progress minutely is growing exponentially. Devices that were only found in doctors' offices or hospitals, or big medical research centers are now available to the average person for a fraction of the cost.

When the average person can know the effects of eating a McDonalds hamburger or a healthy chicken salad in the short term, we can really do some wonders in our ability to know how are body is reacting to stimuli and what we should do about it.

What did we do before? We went to the doctor once a year, if that, and he would (maybe) run a battery of tests on you and tell you how you were doing. In between that time, all we had for feedback was a mirror, maybe a scale, and how we felt day to day. We would go back to our old habits of eating poorly, exercising without metrics or goals, and wonder why we kept gaining weight day over day, month over month. Or perhaps we drive ourselves into the high risk group for heart disease or worse. This sucks and is changing rapidly.

Exposing data about ourselves in real time (not doctor visit time) is the first step, giving insight on them is the next, and then lastly providing actionable advice on what to do next is the third step.

We are now in the next revolution of human analytics and I, for one, and diving full bore into it not only from a usage standpoint, but also from an investing standpoint.

The $100,000,000 Question

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I've got a new favorite question to ask entrepreneurs during their pitches. The question is:

"How do you get to $100,000,000 in revenue per year?"

After they go through their entire pitch, I zing them with this question. I hear their plans, their projections, and what they want from me; then I take all that they just said and ask them if they were to take everything they were doing, how can they get to $100MM/year?

More than anything else, this is an interesting thought exercise.

Let's say nothing substantially changes from their plans, which is highly unlikely given what we know about startups, but just for now let's hold it all somewhat constant. We take that and generate some revenue assumptions per customer. Then we take $100MM and divide it by that number to figure out how many customers we need in a year.

This is where the interesting part begins.

Sometimes we'll look at the number of customers per year and melt at the impossibility (ie. "We need every person on the internet to be on our service to get to $100MM/year"). Then we have to adjust something. It may even point to potential inevitable pivots.

Or we may adjust that number to some realistic number of customers per year (ie. "Well, we can't the number of users that visit Facebook every year, so let's say that it's some percentage of that, and then we'll take a percentage of that which we can monetize.") Then we adjust upward the amount of money we need to generate per customer. We take a look at that number and see if that is achievable.

We continue to adjust a bunch of variables and see if somewhere there is some believable outcome from our fiddling.

With one entrepreneur I recently met, he had never done this thought exercise before. And the result actually surprised us; we came up with a number that didn't look insurmountable at all! Wow!

Most of the time, though, we come up with some maximum potential revenue number that is less than $100MM. Sometimes it's not bad, like above $10MM but less than $100MM. Sometimes, we just are struggling, trying to get to even $5-$10MM.

I think more entrepreneurs should go through this thought exercise with their projects. I believe that this is essential to creating a fundable startup and eventually a world dominating business. While there are many investors who are OK with someone working on experimental or feature level projects, or those that aim for smaller outcomes, I just don't have the right resources to support a whole bunch of them, knowing that a ton of them will fail for me as an investor (by failure here, I mean that it will not give me a substantial return on my money; certainly success of the startup can mean a ton of other outcomes, like even a talent acquisition). So I must work with those startups which can get to some large size, like targeting $100MM/year in revenue.

So adding another item to my post, If We Meet, I Will Ask You..., I will begin asking each entrepreneur to go through the thought exercise with me on how they can take their projects and build a $100MM/year business.

If you go through the thought exercise, you maycome up with some seemingly impossible looking outcomes which can be discouraging. But sometimes, you may even surprise yourself in that it may even be in the realm of the achievable.

The blogo/twittersphere is abuzz about the recent offer of $150K to every YC startup. You can read about the details here at 90% of Y Combinator Startups Have Already Accepted The $150k Start Fund Offer. You can also read a range of thoughts collected by Jason Calacanis on his blog, Angels+VCs are pissed off about Yuri/Ron Conway/YC deal-big time.

Initially I was miffed about it - it kind of pissed me off. At the last YC, I already felt like I was competing severely to get into investment rounds, having not mentored them and coming in late to their rounds even at the first Demo Day. Now it would be even harder. But then, after thinking about it, I am still sore about it, but that doesn't mean it wasn't brilliant.

And brilliant it is. For Ycombinator and its startups, and SV Angel/DST, it is totally the right move. Here's why:

1. I've always felt that every YC class, there were the stars that would get funded no matter what, and there were the ones that would fail no matter what. But, in between the stars and the certain fails there was a huge grey area of the startups who have a harder time to get funded because if only they have a bit more time, runway, money, and advice, they could actually get somewhere fundable with their projects. But, without further support after the YC time period, many would inevitably just wither and die. Now the have a longer runway given the $150K and have more time to prove out their ideas and/or pivot if necessary to something more fundable. Because of this, more YC's startups have a better chance of survival and, thus, giving YC a better chance at making more money.

2. More power has shifted to the entrepreneurs with this move at least in YC for sure. The world recently had moved from a combination of preferred equity rounds and convertible note rounds with caps to this note without a cap. Convertible notes without caps are very company friendly instruments into which investments are taken.

3. For SV Angel/DST, now they have a bets on most of the YC's startups and now will be less likely to have been shut out of a round. If you've been following YC (I've been watching the quality of YC startups since March 2008), you'll have noticed that the quality of startups has grown dramatically with each new class. It is not an inconceivable notion that there will be a big game changing startup that comes out of YC as time goes on. So creating a relationship where SV and DST can place bets on a lot of them, if not all, before the rest of the world gets to them is a good thing for them.

What about side effects? I'll throw some out there:

1. I think that the opinion that angels will find it less appealing to invest in YC startups in this class is correct. Here's why:

a. Before this $150K, YC startups only got $5K + $5K/founder. This mattered most to the startups who began life in/around the YC class. (NOTE: Each class, more startups who have been around for a while and willing to give up substantial common stock for a chance to go through YC are being accepted. For these startups, the $150K matters less.)

Given the ramen nature typical of YC entrepreneurs, that $150K means that many will not choose to raise any more money at all since they can go a long way on that much cash, conceivably ten times as long as their YC investment of ~$15K! So if these guys survived for about 2.5 months for only $15K, would they be able to have 10x2.5 months = 25 more months of runway?

Some of the startups may choose this route and if they are good, then we will miss the opportunity to invest in them now. Some time down the road, they will presumably have more progress and investing in them at that point will undoubtedly mean a higher valuation which is appropriate given their further progress. But higher valuations for an angel means less of chance to make a lot of money.

b. I believe that some of the startups will choose to raise additional capital on the terms of the convertible note w/o cap. This is also less attractive for an early angel investor because it means that we will not have established a potentially lower valuation for the early stage at which we would put money in. Instead, that valuation will come later, also presumably with more progress. Thus, we would put money in and not get any reward for early risk.

Why wouldn't a startup raise more money with another new convertible note with cap? I think some will, but some will not because they do not want to anger their previous investors, DST and SV with a structure that has more advantageous terms. I have not seen their note, so potentially it may have some terms in it to adopt the terms of succeeding rounds if they are more advantageous.

Some startups will just believe that they are justified in raising further money on these terms and not change. With the infusion of new investors around, I believe they will be able to close their rounds even with some of the more professional or experienced angel investors declining the opportunity.

Still, even if a lot of professional/experienced investors declining, I think there are enough professional/experienced investors will still take the deal, operating on the assumption that there will still be a high probability of a great outcome on a startup which is doing well.

2. This is still OK for venture capitalists. For the later stagers, they wouldn't have invested in a YC startup at early stage anyways and will just wait for them to come to them after they have matured more, like they always have. The early stage funds might not like getting into a hot YC startup early with a higher valuation, but they probably still have the ability to make money if a startup takes off, especially if they have reserved funds for follow-on investments. The majority of angels, in contrast, rarely make follow-on investments.

3. Paul Graham is highly respected, if not worshipped by all the would-be and current entrepreneurs. What happens in YC inevitably affects the larger community. YC startups have already had their pre-money valuations drift higher and have already moved towards note with caps and we've seen non-YC startups do the same. Now I'm sure there will be many that will now try to raise with notes without caps. While the not-so-great startups will try and still be declined, the hotter ones will be enboldened and will hold firm to notes without caps. Because they are hot, they will get funded no matter what. I have not seen any pattern to the contrary on this issue; money is not a problem for startups especially if they are hot and/or popular.

So yeah, I'm still sore that potentially this could mean that it may not make sense that I should invest in some of the better startups in the Valley, which will come out at this next YC class. But like all things in business, you do what you do to gain an advantage over others in your space and Ycombinator, along with SV Angel and DST are doing just that. For that reason, I'm sore, but also I cannot help but applaud their brilliant move.

On the other hand, I'm now, more than ever, thinking on how I can build my own brand, reputation, and value to entrepreneurs so that I can still get into the rounds at the time, terms, and valuation that will make sense for me to participate.

The Due Diligence Customer Call

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Friday afternoon, I had the pleasure of jumping on a conference call with one of my current potential investment's customers. It was a rare occasion where an early stage startup actually had a customer testing their product and I was able to get some feedback on the startup from a customer's perspective.

The call was thankfully overwhemingly positive; the customer had implemented the startup's system, and it installed and ran without a hitch. We found out that the startup's personnel were extremely easy to deal with and were extremely responsive to issues. We also found out some nice, unexpected results of the installed system; it gave them some enhanced marketing functionality, and they found that they increased sales by quite a bit after using the system! Of course, the customer was extremely happy about that as well.

All this served to reinforce the positivity on investing in the startup. It was very refreshing to hear all the great things a customer had to say about this company!

A little while back I wrote a post called The Lack of Due Diligence is Appalling and Foolish. In my experiences as an angel investor, I was shocked to find out that often I was the only investor asking for due diligence materials from a startup raising money. Recently on Quora, I suggested some other due diligence things people should do. Calling a startup's customers is one of those that should be done. Some thoughts on this:

1. If you're fortunate enough to encounter an early stage startup that has customers and are accessible, definitely try to give them a call. Many early stage startups are in the very beginning stages and don't have customers yet so sometimes it's hard to be able to talk to them at all.

2. Customers who are the average consumer are harder to talk to directly than customers who are businesses.

3. For consumers, you may not be able to talk to them directly at all, but must rely on customer feedback, or public reviews on other blogs, magazines, etc. Occasionally, there will be some prominent beta customers who you may be able to get hold of directly.

4. Businesses are potentially much easier to contact. There is usually a point of contact over at the customer and, if they are willing, you can talk to them.

5. Ask the entrepreneur to make the contact and introduction to their customers. I would also recommend that the entrepreneur should set the context with the customer(s) but ultimately should not be on the call/meeting. This is so we can get a unbiased view from the customer without some possible social interference by the presence of the entrepreneur.

If the entrepreneur is unwilling to facilitate access to their customers or hedges against it for any reason, be wary. A startup should NEVER EVER disrespect an investor's request for any kind of due diligence. If they do, this is a red flag. You should reconsider investing in them.

6. A quick phone call should suffice, or even better if the customer is local and you can go meet with them.

7. If there are more than one people on a call or at a meeting, you should consider discussing beforehand the questions that will be asked. In this way, the call/meeting can go quickly and in an orderly fashion. Customers, whether they are consumers or businesses, are as busy as you or me. We should respect their time and not waste it by being unorganized. Then organize the questions into a written list and have it handy to refer to during the call. You can print it out and scribble notes as you walk through the questions.

8. Here is a possible template of a due diligence call and topic areas to ask for a typical product; adjust/edit/add as necessary given the particular startup and its products:

Introduce yourselves, and say why you're calling (ie. we're potential investors in company X, and we'd like to know more about your experiences with company X and its products)

How did you first encounter the product? What were the first impressions?

Describe the signup process.

Describe the installation process.

Describe the product experience itself from your perspective. Any positive and/or negative experiences?

How did the product perform? Did it do what you thought it would do? Was it below/meets/exceeds expectations? How so?

Describe any problems in the product that you see.

How much does the product cost? Was it too much? Too little? Just right?

Did the product enhance your life/operations/sales/task/etc.? In what ways?

How were your communications with the company, if any? With the company personnel? With their customer service? Through email? Through marketing materials? Any positive and/or negative experiences?

Would you recommend this product to a friend/colleague/co-worker/another company? What would you say to them?

Thank them profusely for their time, end call.


Yes we're all way too busy. But making time for these calls, and ultimately going through due diligence on a startup can really make a difference in your decision process. As I've seen on calls like these, I not only gain more assurance that I'm making the right investment decision, but I'm also learning a lot about a startup's business from a perspective that is often very difficult to get hold of.

Exit Engineering

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Occasionally in one of my conversations, we will talk about what we think makes a great investor, angel or VC. Most of the time, we talk about being lucky, having the ability to spot great companies and opportunities, and sourcing amazing dealflow and getting into deals that others can't get into. But almost never talk about exit engineering.

Being able to create exits from your portfolio companies means that you are able, more often than not, to produce returns from everyone of your investments, even those that are seemingly lost causes. That means you will seemingly be able to produce returns in any kind of market, and consistently deliver over time. Those that aren't so good at this leave making returns to the whims of events mostly out of all our control - that doesn't sound like stacking the odds in your favor!

I think that exit engineering is both a science and a skill, some learnable and some not so easy to just "learn". Here are some thoughts about what makes a great exit engineer, some which I think are readily achievable and some that are not:

Achievable Skills/Traits:

Natural Salesman - From always talking about your portfolio companies to actively pursuing an exit with a corporation or individual, you are always out there talking up your startups and either subtlely or overtly promoting them. You never lose the opportunity to sell how great they are to someone and always have in your pocket a bunch of startups to sell.

Great Negotiation Skills - Selling is one aspect, but you also need to be able to squeeze out the best possible deal and not just any deal.

Strong Relationship with the Founders and Board of Directors - If the other people who control decisions in the company trust you and your judgement and you can convince them it's time to exit, then this helps things tremendously over trying to convince them it's time to exit.

Knowledge about the Economy - With the recent economic crash, I've been thinking a lot about economic cycles (see my post Tough Economic Times Ahead and the Next Stage in Startup Strategy) and their affect on investing and startups. Great exit engineers need to be acutely aware of the macro effects of the economy and know when it's OK to press your bet or to harvest returns before the rug gets pulled out from under you, either lengthening the time to harvest returns and/or suppressing the actual return itself.

Knowledge about the industry, sometimes proprietary - You must have your ear to the ground on what people are doing inside corporations and around industry. Your network must include people who can give you this information, and hopefully that which nobody else has. How else would you be able to sell a startup to a company who is trying to make headway with a stealth strategy? If you don't know someone is looking to do something in a given area, then you'll miss the opportunity to sell them a startup which could be something they are looking for to help them execute that strategy.

Great Network of People Who Matter With Respect to Exits - You might have a strong network, but you need to know the people who are the actual decision makers in organizations. Sometimes it's clear, and sometimes it's not. Talking to the rank and file is fine to get certain things done, but if you're going to sell a company to another one, you need to figure out if the it's the head of corporate development or the CEO that you need to be talking to. Perhaps even a board member may be the best person, or they also may be the worst person.


Not so Easy to Achieve Skills/Traits:

Creative - Creativity can play a big role in creating exits. Sometimes, you have to be able to package a startup in unique way to sell it to someone. It also may not be obvious who might want to buy your startup but with some creativity, it may be possible to sell a company to someone who you'd never think would want that particular one.

Great at Cultivating Exits - Some exits are more timely and obvious, like when another corporation makes is relatively public they are pursuing some strategy. Some are years in the making, as you network and plant the seeds of needing a particular startup to achieve some business goal. Great exit engineers will meet with folks regularly and subtlely steer people to want one of their startups and it could take a long time.

Intuitive - Intuition is so important, both in knowing what to do in a given market, sensing what the tipping points are in a negotiation, or knowing to whom to sell a company.

Amazing Sense of Timing - Acting on intuition and market knowledge, the exit engineer somehows just knows when it's time to harvest returns on any investment. Anyone else is either too early or too late.

Trust Among the Network - Having a killer rolodex is the first step; what's harder is actually having worked with many of them and they know you enough to trust you in something that you present to them, and will consider it seriously and first, over and above others.

Personal Relationship with Network - Having worked with people in your network and gaining their business trust is great; hanging out with them and their families, playing poker and golf with them, etc. makes that relationship even stronger and more likely that an exit will happen. Friends dealing with friends happens more often than you think.

Produced in the Past for People in the Network - Even better than trust and personal relationship, you've actually made money and/or other positive results (ie. fame, advancement, etc.) for the people in your network. Your network knows they won once with you; that means they are likely to win again working with you.


A bunch of us were noting that the best VCs were great at spotting fundable entrepreneurs and the ideas that they brought with them, and also giving them valuable business advice and helping them along build great businesses. However, we also thought that the VCs who rose to the top of the heap were the ones that were also great at exit engineering and time after time they seemed to be in deals that were able to exit for tremendous returns.

These are the Sequoias and Kleiner-Perkins of the venture industry who have been around the longest and have been able to produce returns for their investors fund after fund, and through any economic conditions. With the rise of so many prominent, active angels in the Valley, I think that we'll see there will be angels who will have amazing returns and, as I theorize, be excellent exit engineers in addition to all the other help that they would give.

This also provides support for the argument that entrepreneurs should always try to find helpful investors who are also excellent exit engineers, assuming that your goal isn't just to build a sustainable company but also to produce exits for those who own parts of the company. That should make exit engineers more attractive to bring on as investors than others, meaning you can get into better deals.

So it seems that this is a worthy skill to acquire, although some of it is learnable/achievable and some of it may be skills that are more about the individual and what they are capable of, than something that can be learned.

I, for one, will strive to improve my exit engineering skills over the next few years...

Pickers versus Sprayers

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Over the last few months, we've seen the emergence of super-angels and micro-VCs as early stage investing comes into its own. Out of conversations with many in the industry, I've boiled the strategy down to two categories: pickers versus sprayers. Before we get into who is a picker and who is a sprayer, let's talk about them in their extreme stereotypes.

Pickers

A Picker is:

1. Someone who goes through a more involved process of picking particular startups to invest in.

2. They will do due diligence, ranging from calling references, to looking at research in an industry, to collecting lots of legal paperwork from the company.

3. Someone who likes to manage more closely the startups they invest in.

4. Generally are more disciplined and follow a game plan of investing.

5. Invest in startups where they can leverage their preferences, personal interests, and areas of expertise to help the startups gain an advantage.

6. Invest in both people AND the idea.

7. Are more conservative than not, in an already highly risky investment class.

8. There is an upper limit to the number of startups they will invest in, either per year (or other time period), per partner, or even over the life of a fund.

9. Shoot for the big outcome/exit with every investment.

Sprayers

A Sprayer is:

1. Someone who goes through a less involved process to choose startups to invest in.

2. Often, they will invest in startups with no due diligence at all. They may not even meet the entrepreneurs in person.

3. Will invest in an enormous amount of startups, ie. >50 in a year (hence the term "spraying" their money around, or from the more deragatory phrase "spray and pray").

4. They rely on social proof and others to do due diligence and to help the entrepreneurs, since they have no time themselves to devote to individual startups.

5. Their main exit return strategy relies on exits of mid-size (ie. >$20MM) all the way up to big outcome/exits. They are betting on a more index fund approach to investing in startups.

6. Someone who bets almost exclusively on the team, and on the assumption that smart, adaptable, entrepreneurial people will always find a great outcome (versus those who are not superstars). They bet less so on the idea and will skip a great idea if the team is lacking. (Woe to entrepreneurs who do not graduate from MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, etc.) Also, this means that they do invest in more exploratory projects by entrepreneurs (ie. projects without a clear plan, features-type projects, etc.

7. Speed is of the essence, as the competitive nature of today's early stage market is intense and you have to have a fast decision process to get into deals.

8. They will try to get into every great, hot deal out there. In order to execute on their return strategy, they will have to get into as many hot deals as possible.

9. They have a higher risk tolerance and tend towards being OK with taking on high amounts of risk in the investments they make.

Who is a Picker and Who is a Sprayer?

The descriptions above are, as I said, extreme and stereotypical. The truth is, everybody is somewhere in the middle. Investors may lean more towards one way or another, but they rarely are at the extremes, except perhaps on the Picker end where many disciplined investors employ set strategies.

Sprayers, for example, do pick a little. If they didn't, then they would invest in every startup with only smart people in it, which is definitely false.

Even pickers may start placing some smaller bets, which act as good lead gen for later stage deals, or education into a given space.

For me, I would say that I am a Picker with Spraying tendencies.

My personal capital pool alone limits me to pick the investments I make. I do not have the capital to place bets in a ton of startups. So I am forced to pick. But I also like to get more involved with the startups since I get a lot of personal enjoyment from working with them. So time constraints mean that I need to pick. And personally, I like to resonate with both the team and idea versus just the team and an idea with an unknown (to me) future.

But since starting to invest in 2006, I have invested in 21+ startups. That puts me in the low end of the Sprayer group. I will sometimes also bet on less certainty on the idea if I merely like it or it resonates with me somewhat.

Which strategy is better? Here's my prediction:

Like startups, I think that success in investing is highly dependent on the person and their ability to execute whatever strategy they choose to employ. We can sit and argue about which strategy sucks and who's gonna lose but I think in the end it will boil down to how the person operates and their skill and perserverence in pulling exits out of their investments.

Then, you couple that with external factors, like industry trends, competitive factors, and the economy, and that can either suppress a strategy or enhance it. Keeping an eye on the external factors and executing an investment strategy appropriate to the external factors, and that which resonates with a personal strategy will win big more often than not.

Lower Valuations = Better Outcome...Generally [UPDATED]

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UPDATED:

I got some comments via email which pointed to some confusing points in my post and thought about it some more and I think it boils down to this:

Keeping everyone happy with their return is hard but a worthwhile goal, and keeping startup valuations lower will result in better outcomes for all versus just some.

And, if you agree that keeping lower startup valuations is better generally, then you'd want to:

1. Raise less rounds of money, because raising funding is arguably the primary factor in how valuations rise. So work really hard to get to profitability on what you have raised.

2. However, raising less money is near impossible in general, and for certain businesses or industries, or due to competition, you may be forced to raise money to grow.

3. As you raise more rounds of money, it is tempting to keep valuations higher because that results in less dilution of founders, employees, and previous investors. Then two things come into play:

a. A higher valuation then tips the return in favor of the founders, employees, and previous investors and new investors are at higher risk of making lower return or nothing. (Remember my statement about better outcome for everyone, not just some..!)

b. At some point, you need to justify your valuation through actual progress and not just perception. If you cannot justify your valuation by the time a new valuation event happens (ie. new fund raising round, acquistion), then it will end up adjusting your valuation lower which is painful in many ways.

To some, maybe keeping everyone happy is impossible, or too hard, or not worth it. I'm sure some entrepreneurs have gotten shafted by investors in the past and they refuse to keep investors' returns in mind as well as their own. There are also founders who have kept so much of their company in stock and given little to employees, and employees have virtually no chance of taking part in any exit event.

One could argue that me sitting in my position as an investor biases my opinions too.

Yes, entrepreneurs have a ton to worry about and deal with. However, I know for a fact that the entrepreneurs that take on the challenge of keeping not only themselves, but their investors and employees in mind when thinking about exits and total return gain much more respect for their efforts and will gain a much more loyal following of people who will work with them and invest in them if they ever choose to build another company.

/UPDATED

In one of my emails to an entrepreneur, I sent this statement:

I am a fan of the point of view to keep your valuations as low as possible in general. This will keep your and our outcome more substantial in the long run.

To which he replied asking for more clarification on that statement.

I went to Google searching for posts on this topic, because I thought I had read about it in the past. But for some reason, I could not find any post that addressed this topic, but only posts mentioning it in passing and in context of some other topics. I do admit I didn't go paging deep into Google search results looking for posts, but in the results I did look at I couldn't find anything addressing this directly. (Some of the posts I found are referenced in my post).

First, I should say that one of the key statements above is "in general". So many variables exist in the generation of an exit and what the various players would get out of the division of the exit pie that any claim to certainty would probably be a lie. Still, I believe that keeping valuations low for startups generally will keep outcomes for everyone higher, or at least the probability of a higher outcome for all will be greater.

Who can win?

There are 3 groups of people involved in a company: founders, investors, and the other employees.

Founders

Let's be clear first. In general, founders of the company will make out big in almost every case, even if the company sells at a valuation that is lower than the existing valuation of the company.

Check out Fred Wilson's post on Slide's exit, although he was talking about the importance of liquidation preferences. Max Levchin raised his last round at a $550M valuation but sold his company to Google for $228M. Even though some of the investors only got their money back and others made some money, Max was able to take home $14M (for his common stock portion of return, not including the $25M he got from his additional series A investment).

This is because he, like most founders of a startup, own such a huge amount of stock in the company that it is impossible to not make something substantial, even when the company sold for less than what it was last valued at.

However, keeping a low startup valuation will keep dilution of founders' shares low and maximize your return.

Investors

The next set of people involved are investors. Investors can make out big, but only if the conditions are right, and one of that helps is a lower valuation. Most of the discussion on blog posts surround the return of investors when valuations are kept lower more than higher.

The more investors are diluted, or the more the percentage of ownership of investors is lowered, the less an investor's return. So subsequent rounds of financing will dilute early investors, and although higher valuations of a subsequent round will protect somewhat the dilution of previous investors.

Keeping valuations lower means raising less money and fighting for growth/profitability with what you have raised, and investors' dilution is also less.

Professional investors tend to want to maximize returns and have, in the past, been known to block smaller exits if they think an investment has the potential for a higher return. So if an investor is a professional investor and if they are in a position to affect an exit's outcome, say either with controlling company interest of a board position, then they may be unhappy with a lesser return and can cause trouble to the team.

If the total valuation is lower, then the multiple return on capital would be greater and investors are happier with their return.

Knowing this, there are a new crop of investors who are less sensitive to multiples of return. Digital Sky Technologies, the Russian investment company, has famously put money into Groupon, Facebook, and Zynga. When you're dealing with the amount of money they are dealing with, even some percentage points return will yield immense amounts of money. Andressen-Horowitz is another, having put $50M into Skype, and being less sensitive to stage of investment, but just putting money to work in great companies.

The terms definitely affect the return of investors. Look again at the title of Fred Wilson's post: liquidation preferences helped those later investors get money back even in a lower than current valuation sale. In absence of those terms, those later investors would have lost it all.

However, if Slide had not raised money at a $550M valuation, then potentially those who invested in it may have made money when it was sold for $228M assuming that Max would have accepted an investment at a lower valuation. Or perhaps those investors shouldn't have invested in Slide at all if the deal was going to be done at $550M.

A lower valuation for the company would have yielded more positive options for the investors in outcome, versus putting more risk for return in the company for an exit that can be difficult at a much higher valuation.

However, there are cases where even if the company is sold at an amount higher than the existing valuation, they may not make any money at all, or even lose money. We are seeing pressure being put on exits up to $10-20M where the acquirers want the employees and founders to keep most of the money and not return much to the investors. So starting with a lower valuation can protect against this happening somewhat.

Employees

Employees who do not have huge founder stakes in the company are last on the totem pole for return. Here, lower valuations matter the most to the employees and the stock options they own because they the lower the strike price, the better their return. If the valuation gets driven higher, employees who are hired later get progressively higher strike prices which make it harder to make money off the options. This is why employees often make barely anything relative to an exit of a company, but make most of their return simply from salary.

Consider this post from Don Dodge regarding Facebook shares; many people think that if they can get into Facebook now they can make a million bucks when they go IPO. The problem is that the valuation of Facebook is so high now that the difference between what someone gets options for now and what share price the company could IPO at is going to be so minimal that it is not possible to make a lot off the selling of those shares.

Also, consider the 409A Valuation requirement by the IRS mentioned in Don's post. As the company grows in valuation whether by further financings or growth progress, the 409A Valuation requirement will force a re-price of options and drive their strike price higher; it is no longer possible to keep option prices low for the benefit of employees coming in at any time. Higher valuations therefore suppress gain by employees. If your wish is to extend some gain to the rank and file, you should aspire to keep your valuation low as low as possible.

Valuation vs. Company Progress

If a company's valuation gets too high relative to its progress, this could cause problems. That doesn't mean you can't raise money to a high valuation; you can easily do so if you can pitch well and have a great team and idea. However, at some point, your company's progress needs to justify the valuation. (See this post Startup Valuation and Calculating Startup Worth.) The danger of high startup valuations is that at some point, you may need to raise more money and if you can't justify your startup's value to investors both from a perception and from a reality standpoint, you may be forced to raise money at a lower valuation than before. This is usually a painful process and will cause dilution of one or more of the involved groups, reducing their return. So keeping your valuation lower and marching your valuation upward in lock step with your progress is worthwhile.

For other related posts on this topic, please see:

Quora: What are the disadvantages of an absurdly high valuation for a startup?

Plugged.in: Startup Valuation and Calculating Startup Worth

Techcrunch: So High Valuations Are Back. But Does that Mean You Want One? [Video]

Techcrunch: A Conversation with Greylock’s Reid Hoffman and David Sze [Full Video]

A VC: Here's Why You Need A Liquidation Preference

Don Dodge on The Next Big Thing: Will Facebook have an IPO bounce? Has 409A changed the game?

Quora: Startup Advice & Strategy: How much money should I raise?

Talk About the Problem, Not Just the Solution

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When I meet with entrepreneurs, the conversation often goes like this:

We start by talking about the startup idea or problem they are trying to solve.  We spend about a minute on that and then we dive into a product demo.  He starts showing me the product, all the cool widgets, flash effects and interactivity and then I raise my hand and call a (hopefully polite) halt.  I pull him back to the problem definition and often have to drag him back to talking about it because he often wants to go back to showing me how cool the website or product he built is.

Here is the problem with this.  I have not bought into the problem statement yet, but the entrepreneur assumes I have.  And it very much seems like he wants to sell me on the beauty of the execution alone, which I may agree looks really elegant and well done.  However, creating a startup is not just about building the product, it's about why we're doing it in the first place. If I don't agree with that yet, then it doesn't matter how we execute or what we're building.

To me, building the product is the most straightforward (out of a potentially chaotic customer discovery process) part of a startup; building the right problem statement is much more important and difficult.  After all, how do you know that you're building the product to solve the right problem?

By right problem, I mean all those things that are so important to contributing to the success of the startup: big enough market, do users have a big enough want or need, can you monetize, are there competitiors or none, etc. etc.  If, in that first few minutes of problem definition, I don't believe your problem statement is worth building for, then it's pointless to keep showing me how great your product is executed.

After I call a halt to the product demo and I explain why, often the entrepreneur looks at me incredulously and tells me you're the first investor to want to stop looking at the product.  This is frightening to me; are there a crew of investors out there who care more about how cool the product is than why they are building the product in the first place?

My favorite pitches tend to follow a form which I learned in high school about writing compositions.  

With the introductory paragraph, you start broad and then work down to your problem statement which generally is the last sentence in the introduction.  Then the next 3 or 4 paragraphs offer proof of your problem statement.  The last paragraph is the concluding paragraph, which summarizes the key points in defense of your problem statement and usually tries to end with a broader concept.

In a pitch, this starts with a lot of time talking about the problem statement, why we're doing this and why it's a great idea to be working on this venture. Once we establish this, we can talk about what they've accomplished from a product standpoint.  After we go through that, we go back to the company and widen the discussion to what they're going to do in the future, and talking about where this company can go from here (and hopefully see the opportunity to grow huge).

These entrepreneurs' pitches look more like this:

We start broad for about a minute and then we narrow quickly into a deep dive into the product itself.  At the end of the discussion, assuming I haven't stopped them first, they just ask me how much money I want to contribute and that's that.

No discussion about the future, no talk about company vision, no assurance that there is a real big opportunity here; just a cool product and someone who wants money to develop it further.

Here's are the issues:

1. Talking about vision and potential future of the company is important.  It gives you a defining vehicle in which to drive the company forward.  It provides direction internally, and external understanding about what your company is all about.  If you don't have this, you could be really stuck at some point if your current product isn't getting traction and you won't have some sort of map to follow; you'll be forced to define one on the fly and you might not be able to.

2. If you never talk about the vision, I will never know if you will ever get one.  I have found some people don't ever get the vision. They can't ever get their heads out of what they're doing at that moment. They somehow are missing the strategic gene, and only have the tactical - so they are great sergeants but not generals. But it's the generals that will build the Googles, not sergeants who can't advance beyond their rank. That doesn't mean that sergeants aren't important; it's just a problem if they are trying to build a startup which requires someone to think like a general to know if they are working on the right problem.

3. If we never talk about the vision, then I won't know if you're aiming for the right opportunity. If all I see is an incremental improvement on what's out there, or something small like a feature (how ever nifty it is), it's just not going to get me excited because I need to bet on the next big thing not just another little thing.

4. Here's another way to look at it. The world contains a whole bunch of problems that you could work on, and a whole bunch of solutions:

So you lightly define a problem, and then you start building and coding because that's what you're good at and you want to get cranking. So you crank.

Now, starting with this solution, you're aiming for some problem:

But your problem definition isn't complete. It's nebulous. The problem with this is, if you had a great problem definition, you might actually be spending time on the wrong solution. If you started with a great problem definition, you might actually end up with a better solution than the one you worked on now:

This is because the set of possible solutions can be enormous and unless you define the problem well, you might be wasting time building something which may not be the optimal solution from the right problem! So why not show me that you understand and have defined the problem fully, and then show me that you're working towards an optimal solution to this problem, versus me feeling unsure that you're working for the optimal solution to some problem which I'm not sure yet whether you should be working on!

So are we headed for a small business, or the next Google? Talking about your product in detail is nice and important, but I want to hear about why you're building it in the first place as much as how much you want to demo what you've built.

Taking Your Pro Rata as Angel Investing Strategy

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In thinking about my angel investing strategy going forward, I started thinking about how venture funds always talk about taking their pro rata allocations in their winning companies, or even raising their share of the companies. They do this to keep "leaning on the winners" meaning that the will increase their investment "bet" on these companies which are doing well (and stop investing in those that aren't doing so well). This then increases the return they get, while also minimizing the risk somewhat.

I thought that this may be a good angel investing strategy as well. In the world of the so-called lean startup and capital efficiency, everyone talks about finding a startup that only requires one round of financing, then gets to breakeven and profitability without requiring more rounds of financing. They get big and then an exit happens making everyone happy with the return because there is no dilution.

However, in practice, this is very hard to find. The twists and turns a startup can take invariably means that more money needs to be spent before they get to breakeven/profitability. Also, in today's competitive world, getting huge quickly can give you a leg up on the competition and doing so may mean that you need some more funding to build your team quicker and to scale the business faster; without that funding, your organic earnings can't give you that velocity of growth. The probability of needing another round or more than one extra round is definitely higher than the probability of getting lucky and dropping into a business that needs only one financing round.

As more financing rounds happen, then previous shareholders get diluted as someone new wants a piece of the company. We can either let ourselves be diluted, or, if we invest further, we can maintain at least our percentage ownership. Then when an exit happens, we maximize the return we get instead of watching our percentage ownership dwindle and get screwed for us helping the startup so early.

Here I started thinking that this may be a good way to invest even as an angel investor.

If you invest only in the first round as an angel investing strategy, then you must try for the lowest pre-valuation and hope for capital efficiency so that an exit can happen without further rounds of funding. But waiting for the perfect funding opportunity may mean you will pass on or miss some of the best opportunities even if the pre-valuation is not the best. Or the probability of a startup being truly capital efficient enough to get to be huge, or just to a decent exit, without further rounds of funding is very low.

Also, you must put in a large amount of money in the beginning, thus commiting capital at the most riskiest moment of a startup's life: the beginning.

Then I started thinking that perhaps assuming I would not invest only in the first round, but also in subsequent rounds, then I could gain some advantages.

If I assume that dilution will happen, or assume that further rounds of financing will be required which is probably a more likely case, then I could commit lesser funds in the beginning, take my pro rata on each subsequent round, and still maintain my percentage ownership into the future. At some point in the future, I would have been diluted to this percentage ownership in any case. I would be, in effect, dollar cost averaging into the investment. Over a period of time, I could place relatively small bets into the winners of my portfolio, with each amount being within the range of my single investment amount.

I could also invest capital only when risk was reduced, meaning that if a company were successful and growing and could raise another round to grow further, then I would commit more capital rather than committing it all at the first round, when the chance for losing it all was greatest.

Now the problems with this are...

Getting my pro rata investment ability can be really tough in later rounds. A lot of venture terms exclude small investors in later rounds from being able to take their pro rata. If I don't have specific pro rata rights, I would have to fight for my ability to invest further by having a great relationship with the founders and/or CEO. I may not be able to take my pro rata and maintain my percentage ownership.

At some point, the amount I would have to invest in a given round will inevitably grow to be beyond my ability to invest. My hope would then be maintain percentage ownership as long as possible before I couldn't invest any more because that amount exceeded my ability to invest out there at any one time. So I might still get diluted if further investment rounds happen.

A lot of early investment rounds are in notes with caps, and those notes have no terms defined yet. It is quite possible that if I invest in an opportunity like that, that I will have no pro rata rights at all when the round finally converts into an equity round. Thus, I take a lot of risk when I invest in those companies with respect to employing this strategy.

When I talk to VCs, they always tell me that "leaning on the winners" meaning investing in futher rounds, taking their pro rata or even increasing their percentage ownership in the companies of their portfolio which are doing great, results in the greatest returns. So shouldn't I do the same, even as an angel investor?

I would love to hear from more experienced angel investors and see if they have ever tried to employ this strategy in investing.

OK I admit it. I hang out mostly in two of the biggest tech startup communities ever, which are Silicon Valley and NYC. So when I blog about what I see, it is most often through the lens of someone who experiences the tech startup/investing ecosystems of those two places and not much of other places (NOTE: I do hang out in Los Angeles a lot too, but haven't invested much there).

So yeah, I'm a Silicon Valley/NYC tech investing snob and when I write my snobbiness is evident and the facts are biased towards what I see in those two places with respect to tech and internet. Unfortunately, as I'm often reminded by folks, other sectors, and places in the US and the world have much different ecosystems. What are those differences?

1. Availability of capital is not as easy elsewhere. I wrote in my post What Startups Need Most Of Today that startups don't need more of funding. Well, unfortunately that seems to only apply to Silicon Valley and NYC where for tech/internet startups this is true. For other types of startups, it can be a dry world indeed.

But there is hope. Thanks to Mark Suster who pointed me to A Moveable Feast of Mugs, Maniacs and Masters of the Game - David B. Lerner:

* Not all angels live in Silicon Valley!
* Not all angels are interested in consumer internet companies!
* There are vibrant angel communities in NYC, Boston and in other cities around the US!
* Angels account for 90% of all start-up funding in the US!
* Angels put up $20 Billion a year into approximately 50,000 startups!*
* Friends & Family put up an estimated $60 Billion a year into startups!*
* There are an estimated 225,00 angels in the United States*
* There are currently ~300 active angel groups in the United States*

Source: Angel Capital Association

According to this, perhaps funding IS NOT so scarce. However what makes funding scarce could be:

a. Networking to funding is tougher in other areas. In the SV and NYC, there are so many people investing and working on startups that it's so much easier to bump into someone who can help you network into a pool of entrepreneurs or investors. I can believe this is much harder elsewhere if the networks are much more spread out or less organized, or startups are just not nearly as common as they are in SV/NYC.

b. The filters that investors put on startups before investing is a more conservative, traditional filter than for in SV and NYC. By conservative and traditional, I mean they want to see revenue and business plans and progress before funding; in SV/NYC, it is more likely that you can find investors to bet on you simply because you're smart and energetic, and/or your idea is innovative but still has an unproven business model. Again this applies mostly to tech/internet startups; for other sectors, I find that the crowd tends towards the more conservative filters.

c. The experience base tends towards other sectors in other parts of the country. Thus, unfamiliar sectors may find funding very very scarce simply because the investor pool generally likes to invest in things they understand or have prior experience in. Here in SV/NYC, you can find many people who made a lot of money through the internet booms and have extensive experience building internet projects. But these guys rarely invest outside of the internet; so the opposite is true here in SV where if you're working on something non-tech/internet, you could be very frustrated at seeing all these internet "dipshit" startups getting funded while you, with a really cool non-internet idea, can't find anyone to bet on you.

2. Following on the networking comment, it is also much easier to get help as an internet/tech entrepreneur in SV/NYC. You can more readily find help here in SV/NYC as the available pool of entrepreneurs and helpful investors is higher. But if an internet/tech entrepreneur goes elsewhere, it could be very hard to find help. Also note that there are places where tech/internet help is building, like the cities where Techstars is popping up. For other sectors, this may be also true in SV since the variety of startups that are worked on here is very great. But for other parts of the country where the concentration of a given sector's startups may be scarce, it could be very hard to find help.

Help can also come in the form of business contacts. If you're in starting a company in a place where there are few or no others also working in that industry sector, then you will have to fly to find these contacts and that makes finding help harder.

3. Hiring can be *really* tough elsewhere. It seems the cream of the crop of software engineers ends up in SV with the dream of working at Google, and then some head to NYC area if they like that atmosphere. Generally, around major universities or major metros is where hiring is best. However, parts of the country which don't have major corporations of a given industry sector or are less desirable places to live (by whatever metric people use to choose) can make it abnormally hard to hire. At least universities seem to be graduating a ton of software engineers; compare that to the number of biomedical, mechanical, civil, nuclear, etc engineers that graduate. Then remove those that are unsuitable for startups, either mental makeup, attitude, life stage, etc., and your pool gets that much smaller. It's tough enough hiring for tech/internet startups; I can't imagine what it would be like for other types of startups.

Is there hope for other parts of the country? I think the answer is sometimes:

1. Places like Chicago (Excelerate) and all the Techstars cities are forming their own entrepreneurial centers and incubators for internet/tech startups. But they are the new generation. If you Google a city plus the word "incubator" you can also find many tech incubators already in existence. But those tend towards non-internet tech and more traditional ways of thinking and building businesses, which are different and potentially not as effective for internet businesses. Meetup.com is allowing entrepreneurs and startup people to form little to big networking groups.

However, I am not sure that forming more incubators for internet startups is the right way to go. I have seen startups coming out of incubators that were very similar to other existing startups. I also think that the ease of competitors popping up means that finding something truly unique to work on is getting harder and harder. So somebody has to realize that as they are picking companies. So far, Ycombinator who has been around the longest seems to be picking and directing startups to work on really innovative stuff (and unfortunately there are always those that end up after their brief YC stint with not so exciting and innovative startups or those that are very feature based).

At the very least this suggests to me that new incubators need to do a better job of realizing what environment they are operating in and helping/fostering/directing their entrepreneurs to build really innovative stuff versus stuff that already has competitors.

2. One of the biggest issues I see with doing internet startups elsewhere besides SV or NYC is that while you may think you are working on a great idea, it is highly likely that someone else is already working on it. This is a big problem where entrepreneurs don't look around the competition hard enough to know who else is working on your problem.

As an investor, I am extremely sensitive to competition in the internet only space. If you are working on something similar to something in SV or NYC, I may naturally pick the one in SV or NYC simply because of the environmental factors that will give them edge over someone who is not in those locales. Outside of internet, I think the world is nowhere near as competitive because it is much harder to create a me-too startup in other industries.

3. I sometimes meet investors in other places who lament that they can't find good startups to invest in. It seems that they see all this money being made in internet startups (mostly all in SV or NYC!) and they want to get into the game. A couple of responses:

a. Sometimes they don't have experience in internet businesses. This is a big problem as it increases risk that their lack of experience could mean they will bet on problematic startup plans. In this case, I think it will be better to find a fund to invest in who specializes in internet/tech.

b. Investing in startups not near you brings it's own problems. How do you keep tabs on them? How do you know what they are doing? Are they squandering your money? You can't take a ride over and talk to them. Stick to investing in startups you can get to easily, or at least in places you frequent in.

But yeah it sucks if there are no startups near you, or at least not in the hot trendy sector at the time....

c. I still maintain that the risk profile for internet only startups is extremely high even if it seems that people are making a lot of money on them. The ship has, unfortunately, sailed for many opportunities. Newly created internet startups tend to be incremental improvements on existing services, or those that attack a niche market whereas the giants attack the overall market. The success probability for an investor in these startups is going to be really tough. Returns will be lower because many of these businesses are doing cool stuff, but are attacking markets smaller than giants who are attacking the overall market; therefore, the exits on these will be most likely sub-$100MM.

So should you jump in? I think internet is going to be an opportunity trend, just like microprocessors and personal computers (and the list can go on). People bet on these trends and they lasted for a long time but now they have topped out and it's hard to find those game changing huge bets in those areas. With the internet and its ability to launch things with very little capital, I believe the internet has raced up to topping out and will continue to make it harder to find really game changing, super exits that we all want. Soon it may be hard to even get worthwhile exits in the mid-$10MMs (and by the way, the economy still sucks which further suppresses exits, as well as the lackluster IPO market).

I would say, wait it out. There will be another trend coming soon and you should hop on that. Or find some venture fund to help you get into internet startups but I still think it is an area fraught with peril for venture returns.

So OK, I'm a Silicon Valley/NYC tech investing, blogging snob. And the reality is, where there is easy money, help, community and resources like in SV, NYC, and maybe some other up and coming areas, then startups and investors will flourish. Like for the movie industry - if you're going to make a movie you wouldn't go to Indiana right? You'd go to Los Angeles where there was money/help/community/resources for movie making (or maybe NYC). If you wanted to be a music star, you'd probably want to go to LA, or NYC, or if you were a country music star you'd end up in Nashville.

The world isn't fair. We congregate in a place, make it a mecca for something (startups, movies, music, etc.) and it becomes THE place to go to become successful in it. But we want other places to be like that, like maybe where we are living right at this moment. We don't want to move; we like living where we're living now. But the fact is, sometimes the rest of the crowd congregates elsewhere and makes it mecca for something like startups and investing whether you like it or not. Participating from afar really isn't as effective as just going there and living it.

The Lack of Due Diligence is Appalling and Foolish

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There has been a disturbing trend I've noticed in early stage investing. That is when there are no professional investors (ie. venture fund) in the round, then I often find that I am the only guy asking for due diligence materials.

To me, this is appalling. How can you know that you're investing in a real company? How do you know what has transpired in the past won't catch up with you later to nip you in your ass? How do you know if you're just transferring your cash into someone's personal bank account?

Fallacies:

1. "If all these prominent individuals are investing, then obviously these guys are legit."

Apparently, in some of the early stage rounds I've encountered even with prominent individuals, I'm still the only guys who asked for due diligence materials. So I guess that statement is only a fallacy when I'm NOT in a round since you can be sure I did ask and review them.

2. "If they came through a prominent organization [ie. Ycombinator, Techstars, TC Disrupt winner, etc.], then they must be legit."

Well, mostly true for some aspects but not others. For example, they may have been incorporated but not had any board meetings, or had their initial founder stock purchase plans created. How do you know there isn't something beyond the basics that is wrong with them?

Still prominent organizations must do some level of due diligence themselves to protect themselves from liability issues later on. But I will tell you that it is by no means complete or as buttoned up as it should be.

3. "If they say they are a DE corp, then everything must be OK."

A lot of guys go to those online instant incorporation services and just pay a few hundred bucks to create a company in DE. After reviewing some of them, they are always barebones docs and may not be complete (ie. Articles of Incorporation are filed and generic By-Laws created, but no further docs created like Board Meeting Minutes or Stock Purchase Plans). There is also no advice given on how many shares to create - for example, it is a better practice to create 10MM or so common stock shares to prepare for the future. This WILL create work and costs to fix later on.

To me, it is imperative that you do your own due diligence. I gather materials on every deal and review them with my lawyer. You never know when you might find something that is wrong with the deal.

Here's an example. I met an entrepreneur who got referred to me by a venture capitalist. I thought that since the venture capitalist was investing, the due diligence would just be customary and there would be no issues. Boy, was I wrong.

First, the entrepreneur didn't want to give me typical due diligence materials. This was strange. Every startup before this gladly handed over the docs. But he didn't. I went through several email exchanges with the entrepreneur to convince him that this was standard procedure that it happens all the time. He kept saying that these were confidential and was happy to hand them over AFTER I put my money in. Finally he relented and was going to send me materials. But all this time, my confidence in this deal was dropping like a rock.

Then the kicker was when we were looking at signing me up as advisor. I saw the consideration and it was 1000 shares. Hmmm, I thought, it's a bit low isn't it? But then I realized that he had only created 1,000,000 shares of common stock in the whole company. Whoa. This was the second red flag - I could see when the next round would come in and then another venture fund would demand cleanup of the corporation and then there would be a tremendous dilution of my advisor options. In reviewing this, we also realized that there were only 1MM shares authorized but they had allocated out 1,111,000 shares, 111K shares over the authorized amount which is not good that they have not gone through the process of authorizing them.

I ended up not investing on the state of the materials I managed to get, and the reluctance of the entrepreneur to give them to me.

And this also when a prominent venture firm had gone into the round too. They had apparently looked at the materials and decided it was worth pursuing despite the issues. But we have to make our own decisions on the information and I decided to decline because these issues had fallen past the threshold that I was willing to stomach in a deal.

If I had not done my own due diligence, I would never have found these things out.

It is fortunate for us working on early stage that due diligence is fairly simple: the startup has not been around long enough to have more complex due diligence. I could not imagine the legions of lawyers poring through an acquisition of a major company by another. Thankfully we don't have to do that here.

Whenever I do a deal, I ask for this list:

1. Articles of Incorporation

2. By-laws

3. Lawyer, law firm contact

4. Stock purchase agreements

5. Current employee list, their occupation/function, and bios if possible.

6. Current investor list, cap table

7. Current advisor list

8. Latest product plan

9. Business plan if any.

10. Your latest pitch deck

11. Financials to date, plus projections

12. Site/product performance to date if any, and projections, ie. # of users, sales, etc.

13. Board and shareholder meeting minutes and written consents, if any? Organizational resolutions?

14. Stock option plans and agreements

15. Office address/location

16. What is your website/product/etc.?

If they don't have it, I ask them to just note that. Basically, this list clearly depicts exactly what I'm buying with my investment dollars.

Remember that buying stock in a company is more than just the guy who showed up with his Powerpoint and demo-ed his product to you. It is an entire operation that encompasses product and people and must follow the laws of the country it's operating in. Unless you ask for due diligence materials, you will never get a clear picture of what you're buying with your money.

And given my experiences, depending on others to check on the legitimacy of what you're buying is foolish. So make sure you do your own due diligence and if you have to, pay a lawyer to help you out.

What Startups Need Most Of Today

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What startups don't need more of:

1. Funding - if you have a great idea and team, you should be able to find money.

2. Smart people - Universities like MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley and the like, are churning out 1000s of smart people each year. You may be smart, but you're a dime a dozen.

3. Great ideas - Generally, if you have a great idea, you can get funding. You can even get funding for a mediocre idea if someone likes you. Given the explosion of startups, there doesn't seem to be a lack for ideas.

4. Effort and Sweat - There is no lack of motivation to build either a company or a product. Given defined problems, there are known paths to building great usable, useful, and desirable products as long as you put in the time.

What startups need most of today are:

1. Experience - most entrepreneurs are young and haven't worked much in industry. They need business savviness and experience either on their team or mentors who are willing to put in the time to handhold inexperienced entrepreneurs. Of course, entrepreneurs need to be open, willing to hear feedback, and to learn from it.

2. Contacts - Following on 1., if you haven't been in industry long, then you haven't had time to network properly. Getting the proper introductions can make or break a new business.

3. Monetization - Every startup needs money, but how to get it? Some of this related to experienced persons being involved and creating a business model; some of it relates to working with a platform to accelerate monetization.

4. Distribution/Customers - Whether you're a consumer or B2B startup, you need customers. For consumer startups, how do you build a customer base when users are bombarded by invites to "great and new" services and everyone's attention is drawn in a 100 different ways? For B2B startups, how do you find the right people to talk to in a business and get them to accelerate their process to buy your serivce?

5. Hiring - There are too many startups and not enough people to work in them. This is because every entrepreneurial person wants to be their own founder and are not OK with a small percentage of another company. The fact that not every smart person that is out there is fit for a startup means the available pool of hires drops dramatically.

The persons, platform, and/or organization which solves these problems for entrepreneurs is going to make a killing...!

YCombinator and Their Convertible Note

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These last two weeks were a whirlwind with YCombinator happening and then the subsequent meetings with their entrepreneurs afterwards. It was a great event and very tiring and brain draining with 36 companies to listen to. Hollywood was there with a guest appearance by actor turned angel investor Ashton Kutcher and wife Demi Moore.

One interesting thing that did happen was that everyone was raising money in convertible notes. Paul Graham tweeted out this fact:

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I hate convertible notes. See all my misadventures with notes in this blog category.

However, once I took a look at their "standard" note, I had to say that, as far as convertible notes go, this was probably the most palatable convertible note I've seen to date.

I used to encounter totally barebones notes, but with an option to convert at the next equity financing. Those disappeared as investors started becoming smarter about financing, but, as funding rounds got lower and the cost of starting an internet startup dropped, the cost of doing a preferred equity round became expensive relative to the amount they were raising. This is also changing too as the creation of standard early stage equity round documents has helped this process, but still it was more expensive than doing convertible notes.

Then came the convertible note with a price cap on it at conversion. This eased some issues but didn't totally erase others; even those notes were still very company friendly in many respects, and I encountered some of these issues with the notes I invested in.

Taking a look at the "standard" YCombinator note that is used with this class, I must say that it is more complex than the standard simple convertible note, but I think it does give a lot of advantages to the investor which other notes do not.

First, it has a price cap on the conversion - infinitely better than barebones notes with no price cap.

Some of my concerns deal with the 5 conditions in which a startup might find itself in, relative to this note. These are, with why this note is better in these conditions:

1. The startup is doing great and is raising their next round at a value above the cap of the note.

Comment: This is the best condition and the cap delivers price advantage. One potential issue is in what terms does the next round enter into. With a good lead, this generally is not an issue.

2. The startup is doing OK but will raise their next round at or below the price cap.

Comment: This is not the best condition for the company given its progress, but we as investors at least get the best price which will be below the cap now.

3. The startup is doing great and is profitable, and the note comes due when the startup doesn’t need financing.

Comment: Here other notes present a situation where they can pay us back and we don’t end up with any ownership of the company. This kind of sucks because we intended on ending up with stock in the company but didn’t get any and only got interest. However, this note has a term where when the note comes due and if a financing has not occurred we have the option to get paid back or convert, and convert into a preferred equity round with terms defined through an attached term sheet. This is the important part: we can convert into a preferred equity round that has pre-defined, balanced terms, and not into common stock or get into a negotiation about preferred equity terms in a situation where we would not have leverage to negotiate.

4. The startup gets acquired before the note comes due.

Comment: In case of change in control, we have the option to automatically convert and take advantage of us owning stock and getting a piece of the proceeds of any acquisition or exit. However, we have the option to also just get paid back, which can be advantageous to situations where the exit would result in us getting less money back if we were to convert to common stock. As investors we can choose the best condition for the situation we find ourselves in.

5. The startup raises their next round, but no one leads and the terms aren’t being set or driven by anyone.

Comment: This is one which I have encountered and is problematic because a qualified equity financing has occurred, but no one steps up to lead the round and drive the terms. If the company is left to its own devices, it will most likely deliver company friendly terms. Currently the note doesn’t quite take care of this condition. In the case of a non-qualified equity financing, then we use the terms as set in the attached term sheet.

I hope that this form of convertible note with cap gets out there regardless of whether we think notes are a trend over doing preferred equity. I think the jury is still out on which form of financing will we do more of. As an investor, I still hate notes and would much prefer preferred equity financing. But I do understand the economic issues where doing notes is cheaper than doing equity...at this time. Other movements in the industry may make this obsolete.

Kudos to Paul Graham and the Ycombinator crew for putting forth a convertible note that is much more friendly and palatable to investors than previous or more common instances of the convertible note.

No matter what entrepreneurs really need to do the math to see how much dilution will happen in all these cases. I have seen entrepreneurs who have delayed the question of ownership by using a convertible note, and then got some unexpected news when they raised the next round and they were diluted a lot more than they thought.

Summary:

Key terms and items in this note are:

1. Cap on the conversion price.
2. Interest rate.
3. Automatic conversion happens when qualified equity financing occurs and we convert into that preferred round’s terms.
4. Investors can convert at their option (on majority vote of investors) in a variety of situations. These are at 1) non qualified equity financing happens, so we can convert to preferred stock via the attached term sheet; 2) maturity of note, so we can convert to preferred stock or get paid back; 3) at change in control then we can convert to common stock before the change in control or get paid back.
5. A preferred equity round term sheet is already predefined and attached to the convertible note, to be used in conditions where we may convert into the company's equity.

I just love the Stocktwits Macro Weekly. Gregor Macdonald of Abnormal Returns writes it and this week sums up some pretty important points.

This last week the Federal Reserve finally gave in and admitted that the economy wasn't where it was supposed to be: high unemployment, US budget out of control, stimulus that wasn't stimulated without the US Government pumping more money into our economy, creating pretty much an unsustainable loop. That took interest rates on US Treasuries to record lows and the stock market didn't like that either. Too bad you optimist stocktraders - it still amazes me that anyone can think that recovery can happen with so many people out of work. Who is going to spend money if they aren't making any money? Duh!

We're in for a long haul here. Double dip, single dip, whatever. The economy sucks and now the general population is pulling back its spending after realizing that things weren't getting better even as the Fed was blowing sweet smoke our way. If people keep spending less, then how can businesses make money? So they are pulling back also and not investing as much. And the cycle continues.

But what this means for startups is...it's harder than ever to make money. Back in my post, Mark Fletcher at Startup2Startup and the Evolution of Startup Business Strategy, I noted how Mark smartly adjusted his funding and operating plan based on the environment at the time. He noted three stages that he had raised money and built startups in; now I believe we're entering into yet another stage. This is because we're in an economic downturn AND I believe there is a serious bubble forming in internet only startups.

What's a startup to do?

Raising money doesn't seem to be a problem. If you have a star team and a decent idea, you can woo one of the many super angels or micro VCs. They are all operating on the strategy of investing in what I call "exploration" which is to give you enough money to leave your job and then work for a year or less and see if you can get anywhere. Regular angels can also be part of this effort, although I'm sitting on the sidelines (see my bubble post).

However, if you want this to NOT be a 6-12 month sabbatical into the world of entrepreneurship, at the end of which probability says you're gonna be left without a job because you couldn't get your idea developed into a business, you're going to have to do things a little bit differently.

Item 1: The general population is pulling back in spending.

This means either whatever product or service you're making has to be EXPONENTIALLY better than the competition or else you'll never get enough users on board to pay for your service. INCREMENTALLY better might have worked when there was no bubble in internet only startups or in an economically better climate. But now you'll have next to zero chance.

Corollary: Go for revenue from the get-go.

Going for revenue has been talked about extensively, but I still meet entrepreneurs with no notion of monetization. Now that the available pool of consumer cash is shrinking, the fight for their cash is going to be even more fierce.

Item 1a: Businesses sense the consumer pullback and they are pulling back too.

The pullback trickles through businesses to your B2B startup. Internal budgets are tightening up as companies conserve cash as they don't know where the economy is going to go. So building something EXPONENTIALLY better for them is critical too, rather than incremental improvements on what's out there.

Item 2: Competition is ridiculous.

Corollary: Instead, tackle a business that NOBODY ELSE is tackling.

This is a serious problem of the bubble. Competition pops up everywhere. To me, the unsexy is in, as these are the last bastion of untapped areas where the internet can go and disrupt. But still people want to make photo sharing and social networking just a little bit better. Too many people tackle the sexy problems and not enough of the unsexy problems.

The other areas besides unsexy are completely untapped business opportunities. Yes, it's tough to find these. But still, I meet entrepreneurs who have found them. If they can find them, why can't you? No more social networking photo sharing apps please! Nobody said entrepreneurship was easy; it's damn hard to find business opportunities that are completely untapped.

Item 3: Users are bombarded by too many services AND now they have less money to spend. Likewise, for businesses, their budgets are being cut.

Corollary: One year is not enough, two is barely enough, maybe need more time. Startup austerity is IN now more than ever.

Still people are raising for one year. I can't see how anyone in this climate can get to any kind of breakeven in one year. Of course there are always outliers, but most of the ideas I meet won't get there in a year. I have been telling people to plan for two years (remembering there are two levers here, what you raise and what you burn) but with the economy the way it is, I am wondering if even two years is enough. It seems that our super smart folks in the US Government aren't doing the right thing to truly stimulate the economy, and I say that knowing the trying to drive the economy is not an easy thing (and especially cleaning up the mess created by all our nice lobbyists, politicians, and Wall Street greed). It's going to take years for us to get back on track, now that the inertia of consumer confidence is moving downward.

No matter what, austerity in spending whatever you raise is going to be even more important. You need to survive as long as possible, giving yourself the maximum amount of time to try things and to pivot several times if necessary, and along the way praying that the economy is going to come back.

But it's obvious to me that many entrepreneurs are unwilling to go into starvation mode for that long. All I have to say is, good luck to you and let's talk at the end of a year after your raise.

Item 4: More entrepreneurs keep piling into the internet space.

Corollary: Radical idea: Try creating a startup in another space besides the ultra crowded space of internet only startups.

You have strong entrepreneurial desires? Then why try to build a business in an industry where everybody who wants to be an entrepreneur is piling in en masse? I am getting connected to startups in other industries and there are some really interesting things going on out there in the world beyond the internet. In my bubble post, I posted about an emerging space that is hardware plus software plus internet - what other spaces could use your entrepreneurial energy to go and disrupt? Are there any industries that are adjacent to what you learned in school, or where your interests are, or where your previous experiences lie? How about another location where there is growth like another country?

Someone once said to me that in times of economic distress, there were tons of opportunities and investing in these times could yield some amazing results as long as you reserved some capital to do so. These are definitely some interesting times as an angel investor. Like Mark Fletcher, I am doing the smart thing by watching the economy closely and adjusting my investing strategy based on the conditions of the environment at the time. More entrepreneurs could do better by applying this tactic as well.

DISCLOSURE: I am not a direct investor in Stocktwits but rather an indirect one through my investment in betaworks. I love what they do, so go and sign up for Stocktwits newsletters and read everything they send you.

"There's something f%$@#! up about every early stage startup..."

- Andy Weissman, @aweissman, betaworks

About 2 years ago, Andy Weissman over at betaworks made that statement. I thought it was funny at the time, but 2 years later, I have found that statement to be one of the most profound I've heard.

Since then, I've met a constant stream of early stage startups. Every one has something wrong with it; the idea, the founders, the competition, the funding plan, whatever. Sometimes there are multiple things wrong with them. I don't think anybody has come with an idea and team and plan that was perfect. In fact, I think it's impossible.

At early stage there are too many variables. That is why the risk of failure at early stage is so great. You don't have enough of...everything...or anything...to properly pursue a business idea. And then there are the things that are totally out of your control, such as economic or competitive forces. These things will swing every which way and there is nothing you can do about it...and tanking your startups along the way as you look on with frustration and helplessness.

If you fixate on what is wrong with early stage startups, you'll never invest. It's way too easy to find something wrong with one.

Some of those I take as a given. For example, in the internet space there are tons of young founders who have never been at another job in their lives. But the idea is great, and we love their energy and creativity so we bet on them knowing at some point they may need to step down as leader of their businesses...or we'll get into a painful argument with them about why they need to step down and they don't want to. Sometimes we bet on these people simply because they are smart and theoretically smart people will adapt/pivot their way to success better than not-so-smart people, even though they lack real world business experience.

Some of those I know we will have to fix later. Whether we are willing to put in the effort to fix them later is another question; many investors hope that there is someone who gets involved who has the time and desire to watch over things. The need for a new, more seasoned CEO is one of those; perhaps the strategy needs to change, or somebody isn't pulling their weight in their functional area, or can't grow into a more expanded role.

Still, the number of f%$@#! up things any early stage startup has can be a scary thing. It took me a while to understand this and then just live with the fact that there are going to be things really wrong with every startup I meet and then fund. For me, it's become a game of which f%$@#! up things are you willing to put up with, how many are OK with you, and why.

Accepting the fact there are going to be f%$@#! up things about early stage startups is critical; if you can't live with that fact, you probably shouldn't be investing in early stage. It may drive you nuts.

Time Diversification: Strategy for Investors

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Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting Jim Robinson IV of RRE Ventures (twitter: @jdrive). In our conversation, he mentioned something I thought was super important, which was that successful investors also diversify across time, in addition to diversifying their investments.

I thought that this statement was extremely important and something that is commonly not done at all, and dangerous to ignore.

What is Time Diversification?

Time diversification is:

Adjusting your strategy based on what is going on in the economy at the time.
Learning from what worked and what didn't in previous economic cycles, and applying those principles to where we are today.

Investing the right way for where you are today in an economic cycle and doing it across multiple economic cycles. The second part of this statement is hard for those investors who have not been doing this long enough to experience multiple cycles.

Why Time Diversification?

The main danger of not time diversifying is if you go out the gate strongly and put a sizeable percentage of your funds in a short amount of time, you may end up getting caught by the negative aspects of a given part of an economic cycle.

Anyone knows that predicting what will happen in the economy is near impossible. Famous economists' track records on predictions are pretty dismal. So the only thing you can do is to spread out your investments across time and try to ride whatever upside is going on today while mitigating risks of the downsides that appear along the way.

But if you put out all your money in a short amount of time, you could end up investing at a time when there is a downturn right around the corner which could crater your current investments and leave you with little cash to recover. Think about all those investors who raised funds in 1999 or 2000 and put money into companies who had stratospheric valuations, only to see them disappear as the dotcom bust wiped out all that value in late 2000.

Or you may miss an upturn by investing in yesterday's downturn driven investment strategy.

So ideally, your strategy will be affected by time diversification. For example, prior to the 2008 economic downturn, we were investing in startups who were building for users primarily and on the assumption that if you get users, you'll eventually find a way to monetize. This strategy began to kill startups as we entered the downturn because:

1. Startups needed a longer time to generate revenue, and needed to survive a longer time to do so.

2. Startups' burn rate was too high and they ran through money before they could get revenue or raise the next round. Many entrepreneurs were unwilling to give up their lifestyle and lower burn and thus died accordingly.

3. Prior to the downturn, startups could go raise their next round on little revenue but decent traction and great, quality product. As we entered into the downturn, investors became instantly conservative and if you didn't have traction AND revenue after the seed round, your chances of getting funding dropped to zero.

Thus many of us changed our strategy and started looking for startups who could survive and gain early revenue to survive long enough to create a sustainable business model. This ended the popularity of consumer internet startups focused on interesting user activity and caused a rise investing in B2B startups, and those consumer internet startups who could build an early business model based on making money off users.

As economic conditions change, we should examine where the economy is at that time and what the conditions tell us about how we invest, and what we should invest in. Timing it is near impossible, so we hope that adjusting our strategy over time, taking our lumps if we don't act fast enough, riding the upturns when they come can help us keep our returns in the positive.

Why Do People Ignore or Don't Time Diversify?

Some reasons why people ignore time diversification, or don't do it:

1. Naviete - Simple lack of knowledge that this is important can mean that someone didn't think about time diversification. Or they may have learned about it in school but wasn't aware of its importance, and thus forgot about it. Or didn't know how to integrate it into their strategy.

2. Lack of real world experience - Humans learn best through experiencing things first hand. Many people simply haven't been through enough economic cycles to know what to do depending on where they are in one. That's why talking to guys like Jim Robinson IV is so valuable because they've been in it since before the dotcom boom.

3. Irrational exuberance - Especially in periods of upturns, it can seem that you can do no wrong. Think about between 1995-2000; investors in the early part of that period made tons of money and, as Jim puts it, we all looked like geniuses no matter what we did. Or it could be a period of investment flurry, like what I believe is happening now where lots of internet startups are being funded left and right; you feel like you have to get in or else miss out. So during periods like these you may experience irrational exuberance and thus invest fast to try to get at as many deals as possible because you don't want to miss out. The problem is that you ignore the fact that your funds are also dwindling fast.

4. Conversatism kills - Venture investing in particular is a risk taker's game; you really have to be out there investing constantly in upturns and downturns (which is partly the reason for this post). If you're a conservative risk taker (yes I think such a person exists!) and you wait until you're "sure" that you're in an upturn, OR you get in a downturn and pullback after the downturn begins, you're always going to be investing at the peaks and pulling out in the valleys.

5. Economic cycles can be very long - In fact, long enough that an entire generation may no nothing but incredible growth and prosperity. This was experienced in the period between 1982 and 2000 where the S&P 500 rose from about 100 to an intraday high of 1552.87 in 2000. Those growing up in a period knowing only growth have not experienced downturns and thus we can get fooled that value of our investments will always rise.

What to Do?

Some thoughts on what to do:

1. Pace your investments. Don't get caught up in having to invest in every deal that comes along. It may seem that every deal is super hot and can't lose, but experience tells me that everything looks hot but the probability of success is very low.

2. Be disciplined in the amount of money you invest in each company. Do not get over-exuberant and start making bigger bets in the beginning. Look at the total amount of money you have and make it stretch across many years. Pick an investment size that allows you to do this. I made this mistake in the first years of my investing. Originally I thought that I should do $50K investments. That drifted upwards quickly as I got caught up in the excitement of being involved in deals to $100K. But now, I am down to $25K chunks in an attempt to still be involved but not run out of funds. Just think back to the number of investments I could have made if I had stuck with $50K, or even $25K, if I had not done $100K chunks. For each $100K startup, I could have invested more broadly into two $50K or four $25K investments. Another danger of going out with too high investment sizes is that you may pick a lot of losers, or get caught in an economic downturn. Then recouping your investment gets harder.

3. Be a student of economic history and do not ignore it. The first big downturn I lived through was when the first Bush invaded Iraq. It was a tough time but it didn't hit me too hard as I had a job. The second period was the dotcom boom-bust. That was much more severe; having been at Yahoo, I saw our stock climb to amazing heights in 2000, only to watch them drop to amazing lows by the end of the year. There was a time when we all thought naively that the run up in internet stocks would never end. We even snickered at those who left Yahoo in 1999 or 2000 and cashed out at "such a low stock price" of 150. Now who had the last laugh? There is nothing better than first hand experience of such events and looking at the dumbass thinking we had back then. Lacking that, all I can say is that you should read a lot, talk to a lot of people, and take lessons from those who have lived through these times. I would also caution you to really watch out for books which were written for a given period. I remember reading about real estate investing and how buying houses was a great, no-loss wealth building strategy. Well, now look at where we are with that. Examples abound everywhere; be careful what you read and add it to your knowledge base.

4. Invest when times seem bleak - It is scary to be putting money out in times of economic downturns. However, these are times when bargains can be found. You also don't want to miss the next run-up in the markets by waiting too long.

5. Resist the temptation to be over-exuberant - It is tempting to try to chase all the hot deals going on at any time. However, in the last 4 years of investing, I have never seen a time where there WEREN'T hot deals around. I doubt that will change anytime in the future, so be disciplined and keep to your strategy.

6. Track valuations from the marketplace. - Keep track of them and watch out when the valuations start climbing. It is a signal that something is going on. It is not necessarily a bubble forming, but it could be. Most likely the competition for the deals has become fiercer as more money has become available in the marketplace for investment into startups. I would develop a limit to the valuation you are willing to stomach, no matter what the deal is and stick to it. Be flexible to violate the rule if you find something that you really like because you may want to get involved for reasons other than the valuation being too high.

What am I doing? Tracking the economy closely. Seeing what the government is doing, or not doing, or doing a crap job of. Keeping my ear out on what's happening with valuations. Talking to venture investors and angels who are out there investing actively. I meet regularly with my financial planner and listen to what he is seeing out in the marketplace. I also talk to the entrepreneurs and see who is geting funded and why, as well as those that didn't get funded. And then who got bought, or just went IPO, and how/why. It's an immense amount of information but all of it is interrelated and affects what I am doing now, how I do it, and what I will do in the future.


OK I admit it. I'm reposting and expanding upon a comment I left on Paul Kedrosky's blog post The Coming Super-Seed Crash. But whenever I write a lot, it just seems like such a shame to leave it hidden in somebody else's post, somewhere else on the web...

Paul talked about how there was going to be a crash of super seed funds. I'm not sure I agree with that. There simply aren't enough of them to characterize some sort of bubble. I think the issue is more about what they're investing in, which at the moment is mostly internet startups.

To recap my comment, which was in response to Chris Sacca's comment, and also to continue this post and to add to my thinking:


...But somehow, perhaps this discussion shouldn't be about the super seed funds. To me, they are employing the correct strategy in the climate of (mostly) internet startups that they are investing in, which is there are too damn many of them and how does one pick the right one(s)?

To me, the issue is not the super seed funds but rather the looming bubble that I believe is forming in the internet only startup space. To give some data, which Sacca asked for!, some thoughts:

1. Too many me-too startups, and they are getting funded too! it's been super hard to find those gems of unique ideas. It's so easy to just launch something and everyone thinks they can just build something and it will grow huge.

2. Sacca's comment about undisciplined angels is very true. At the last YC, I knew practically no one at the first session of YC whereas in years past I knew over half the room. There are many angels newly jumping into the fray and with not enough experience.

3. When the new angels start investing, they can only invest in whatever is available at that moment; they've already missed the Groupons, Gilts, Foursquares, etc of the world, so they must pick from what is available. In their excitement, they fund them but without realizing that there are so many me-toos out there, with the exception of those rare unique gems.

4. People who shouldn't be entrepreneurs are becoming entrepreneurs. One of the first things I do when I meet entrepreneurs is try to talk them out of it. Many can't take it and it's good we found out now before we fund them and realize they didn't have the right attitude and/or staying power. But too many are jumping in and can only see the good parts (ie. I'm building the next Google and I'm gonna be rich!) but don't realize how much effort it takes to get there.

5. So much froth is being stirred up about becoming entrepreneurs. Every university is starting incubators, everybody wants to be an entrepreneur. Your friends make you feel like an idiot if you're not starting a new biz. This is bad. Social pressure for you to become something you're not, or under the wrong circumstances (ie. your life stage may be beyond this, or you have an idea that won't grow big enough) is really bad and is making some do things they shouldn't.

6. Major confusion exists on small businesses versus the game changing, world dominating startups. Steve Blank wrote a great post about this recently. Starting businesses is great and should be done, but we're treating all the startups we encounter as if they were going for the gold when in fact a lot of them will never get there. The crappy economy drives us creative Americans to start a biz to support ourselves and then we get confused when we go out and try to figure out how to grow it. Banks won't lend to them, and probably never will lend to a small biz internet startup. So they try to raise money as a game changing, world dominating company and actually get funded, but their idea and their personality will never get there.

7. All these startups who blur together in their ideas, and only differentiate in consumers' minds by just a little bit, means that they only gain a tiny slice of the entire internet userbase. Pretty soon, we will cut the userbase up into ever smaller chunks until we're left each with something that is barely or not monetizable.

8. Oh by the way, we as users are getting tired of opening up yet another invite email. We've already got flickr to share photos; we don't need another photo sharing service! Entrepreneurs don't appreciate the high switching costs and our familiarity and comfort with our old services which are working pretty damn well thank you very much. And also, our time is getting occupied more and more fully; we don't have time to use another service unless it can bring exponential value over and above the ones we're using now, and not just incremental.

9. On another note, because of these tough competitive conditions, startups aren't thinking long term enough. One year is not enough time to gain traction and/or pivot a few times to figure out where they should be going. But yet pretty much every startup I encounter only thinks about raising enough money, with respect to their burn, to last only a year. It's not enough time in today's climate. At the end of the year, you'll have launched, gained some early usage, only to figure out you need to pivot and you aren't making enough money to break even. Then you go out to raise more and you can't because the probability is high that getting a follow on round to companies with mediocre or crappy metrics is near impossible. So many startups will hit the end of their bank accounts and then just...die....

[NEW] 10. The lack of resources in hiring is a big problem. Before, we could find engineers who were willing to put up with the uncertainties of entrepreneurial life and because there were fewer startups, we could get all of them concentrated into those fewer startups and be able to execute. Now engineers are starting their own thing and finding that they can't get further unless they hire...and they can't. This means a lot more of these startups will die because they can't execute as fast as others, and burn through cash to find this out.

I think all these point to a big internet startup bubble forming, in which angels whose limited resources will get them caught in a bad place where the majority will find it hard to even make their money back. The super seed funds will do well and be profitable because they can bet widely. A sizeable portion of their portfolios will either die or reach small biz status, but they will find their Google(s) to win back all they've bet and then some.


Remember also that my viewpoint is that of an angel investor whose spent the last 4 years investing in consumer internet, and then the economic crash hit, at which time I started switching to internet B2B startups, and now I'm very much souring on internet only startups (I'll explain "only" in a moment). I don't have the resources of a super angel and certainly not that of a super seed fund. I must deploy my limited resources much more carefully since I'm aiming for cash return in addition to investing for entertainment value. So to be more careful, I must choose wisely.

But choosing wisely among the plethora of internet startups who want users to check-in, share, chat, social network, connect, real time blah blah blah - it's all becoming a blur to me. I can't tell what's really going to become big or not. And I'm not sure all those customers surfing the internet can either.

So with respect to internet only startups, I'm starting to sit on the sidelines. Occasionally some gems will pop up and I will try my best to get in those rounds; these are startups who:

...have almost no competitors
...are making money from the very beginning
...are making something so powerful/unique/cool relative to what's out there
...are disrupting some old business that everyone else has missed

Sound familiar? Old style VC looked for these businesses and bet big on them because of these attributes and more. But most of the internet startups I see today are just rehashes of the same old. That's OK - given the intense variability of the startup world, I've seen stuff that I never thought would work go big, and stuff that had the best laid plans and apparent opportunity go down the tubes. Still, it's not something I want to dabble in any more like I did so I'm sitting on the sidelines unless something comes along which really satisfies metrics like those above.

I do have a new emerging thesis though. Remember I said "internet ONLY startups"? I believe there is something unique and emerging in the hardware plus software plus internet space. Once I get my thoughts more ordered on that topic I will post on that for sure.

Why I Hate Social Proof

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Just recently, the concept of social proof as a reason for investing has come up again. It first came up when I was giving the Angellist guys some feedback on their referral system. In their emails, there is a prominent section dedicated to social proof and details the other usually-prominent investors and advisors who are investing and have endorsed the startup. But I complained back that in my experience, social proof can be a dangerous reason to invest in a startup, as much as it can lend support to an idea.

Here are some reasons why social proof can be a great thing:

1. Presumably, if a smart investor has committed funds to a venture, then he has researched it and think it is something he can make money with, or else why would he toss away his funds on something that won't?

2. Previously mentioned smart investor might be someone who has more experience than you, so you rely on someone else's expertise to help you decide. Or it may be an area where you may have no experience in, but you want someone who does have experience to endorse it.

3. If a lot of smart people invest in something, then the additive effect of a lot of smart people agreeing can lend support to a particular venture.

Now here are some reasons why I hate social proof:

1. Investors like to invest with others that they like. So they tend to travel in packs and herds (ie. think "herd mentality"). Thus you may have a lot of smart investors, who hang with other smart investors normally, who just invite their friends into a venture. The only thing is, sometimes these smart investor friends just trust their other investor friends to bring them worthwhile ventures and they may not have thought through exactly how good or not good a venture is. Given this, it may mean that item 3 in the positive aspects of social proof is an illusion because the group of smart investors endorsing it may actually all be following one or two of them.

2. There are a lot of guys out there who are angel investing that are more rich than you or me. To them, $50K or even hundreds of thousands of dollars are mere blips in their wealth; it's like if I pull out a $20 bill and give it to you and not really care if I get it back. When your mindset is driven by the fact that you can give out large amounts of money and not have it affect your lifestyle in the slightest, it can really alter your decision process on how you pick startups, and how rigorous you may be. It can very well mean that you're just happy getting involved in some really cool thing and want to have bragging rights, more so than being really focused on monetary return. It can also mean that there is huge entertainment value realized from being involved, and that they just want to be a part of something cool. How do reasons like that match with your strategy of investing?

3. Following on 2, this can apply to venture funds even more so. They have tons of cash to deploy and are perfectly willing to take on risky ventures since it's their core business. A fund does not have to have positive outcomes in many of its startups in order to have a sizeable turn for the fund itself. So they can and will take chances on ventures that could be hugely risky across a wide set of measures and be OK if it dies. But where will we be if the investment fails...?

4. If you follow someone’s investment, you really have to be wary of WHY THEY ARE INVESTING. I have encountered the case where I saw a prominent venture fund individual put his money into a startup. The entrepreneur touted that fact and it did seem to lend some credence to the venture. However, when I talked to the prominent venture fund individual about the investment, I found that he invested mostly because he knew the guy personally and wanted to support him so he invested mainly because of that...and also because that item 2 above enabled him to invest a seemingly large part of the small round and he was OK with that. Do you want to co-invest alongside someone who is in reality just supporting someone he is close to and not really thinking as deeply as he should about the business and the opportunity?

5. By the way, it can often seem like because there are smart investors in a round, that when the startup needs help they will jump in to lend a hand. However, I have also found that this is not necessarily true. Many smart investors are very busy people. They may have many companies in their portfolio. Their time is very tight and they may not have time to help in depth with all their startups. They may be forced to focus on only those that are the winners and everyone else doesn’t get much attention. Or worse, if a venture starts going downhill, I’ve also seen them just be left to die; after all, if this one dies, these guys still have many others who can benefit a lot more from their help versus trying to spend your time rescuing those who will die and for little return on their time investment. It is ruthless, but true; sacrificing the losers will mean that focus on the winners will mean they will make back their money and then some. However, if you haven’t invested in every startup that a smart investor has invested in, you may end up investing in a lot of losers and that sucks!

So while it may seem social proof can be beneficial, and in many cases it can be, it is also very bad to invest blindly using only social proof. My advice would be to do your own homework into those startups you want to invest in, and don’t just follow the herd. The herd you’re a part of may turn out to be a herd of wild, strong mustangs led by a dominant horse who can lead you to safety and success....or your herd could suddenly transform itself into a herd of lemmings about to follow the leader right off a cliff.

Today, I hopped on the Metro North to New Haven and met the summer startups in Yale's summer incubator program which is put on by the Yale Entrepreneurship Institute (YEI).

YEI's mission is to help students create successful new businesses from the ideas that students originate themselves and those that are part of Yale's University research. Applicants are vigorously screened and those who enter the program work on their ventures for an intensive ten weeks. During those ten weeks, industry mentors talk about and teach them entrepreneurship. This is actually not a class but a full time job, so those entering the program receive a stipend for the ten weeks they are in the program. You can see this year's teams, as well as previous years' teams, on their website.

They asked me to talk about advisors (and mentors) since I do that as part of my work with David Shen Ventures, LLC. Here is my presentation:

It was great visiting Yale and being part of the program (the last time I was there was back in 1982!). I was very happy to get home, however, because apparently a tornado touched down in Bridgeport RIGHT ON THE TRAIN TRACKS AND ON TOP OF THE TRAIN BEFORE MINE and caused us to delay. YIKES...

(originally titled, "Forcing Incubator Companies to Get Paying Customers"...changed the title because it bugged me that it was unclear --DS)

I had the pleasure of helping out at the Stanford d.school's Launchpad class this last quarter. It was a graduate level class which was the first incubator class offered by the design school (a.k.a. d.school) whereas the "b school" (business school) and the "e school" (engineering school) both already had entrepreneurship classes involving creating new businesses.

The class was taught by Perry Klebahn, a classmate of mine from when I was in the product design master's program way back when, and Michael Dearing of Harrison Metal, an early stage venture fund. They interviewed about 60 applicants and accepted 12 into the class. The goal of this class was to teach entrepreneurship from the design school's perspective, and their major objective was to sign up paying customers by the end of the class in 10 weeks. Those that did were reported to get an instant A in the class!

Those entering the class mostly started from nothing. So imagine the pressure to develop an idea into a business model and a product that was good enough for customers to want to pay for in as little as 10 weeks!

Certainly Ycombinator drives its companies pretty hard over the 10 weeks or so during the time they are in the program. Every other incubator program does similarly to its crop of startups.

But they have a slightly different goal than what the Stanford Launchpad class had. There was no requirement that their startups develop a product AND get paying customers; the only objective was only to launch, and hopefully convincingly enough to raise a round of cash to keep going. There was no emphasis on racing to a proven business model in the allotted time.

I find this very compelling in this day of economic crises, and as an angel investor trying to find great companies to fund.

Too many startups come into being with no concept of a business model; they aim to get users and drive towards that and hope that a business model falls into their lap along the way. The problem with this approach is that, at early stage, you don't have enough runway to try a few things and see what can work. You are extremely time constrained given your bank account and you have to race to making revenue as soon as possible.

Granted, this could have worked pre-economic crisis. Many startups were raising their second rounds on the promise of a business model and a strong user base. Sadly, those days are gone; without revenue, it would be extremely hard to get another round today. Investors just think that either you and/or your idea have failed.

As an early stage angel investor, I invest in the riskiest time in a startup's life. After having seen a lot of my companies trying to employ the "race for users" model and then failing to raise more money, or not raising enough initially, I really like the fact that someone is forcing startups to find customers who will pay for their product or service. This at least proves that there is some validity to whatever business model they are pursuing and increases their survivability with incoming revenue.

How would this be implemented with an incubator program? I think there is one big hiccup which I have not completely solved, or more accurately, is solved only in the context of university setting. This is the reward for being successful in the task of finding paying customers.

For a class of students, their reward is only at the end of class when they successfully find paying customers: they get their A.

For an incubator program which typically invests a small sum of money for a small piece of the company, a big portion of the reward has already been given. How would we incent them to go for a lofty goal of finding paying customers if they already have their reward in hand?

Some ideas:

1. You give them the initial money and let them run. Then you commit to investing a second chunk only in your startups who find paying customers after the time period.

2. You could set loose the entrepreneur teams without funding for 10 weeks and then only fund those at the end who find paying customers. In many ways this parallels what happened in the Launchpad class with students.

3. You could give them their initial money and then only allow those who find paying customers to present to investors at the end. Those who failed are cut loose and left to fend for themselves.

Are there other ideas?

I would love to see some of the incubator programs incorporate this into their graduation criteria. I think it would strengthen the quality of the exiting startups immensely.

Design as a Central Resource in Incubators and Funds

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In my last post, Giving UX and Design Advice, I started talking about a buddy of mine asking me about design support in incubators and described what goes on in the mind of one person (me!) who gives design and UX advice. I believe this gives clues as to how to find a person to fill the role of a design/UX advisor, or if someone wanted to become one, what they might expect.

Let's get on with the real topic, which is, if you're running an incubator, should you provide design as a central resource? And if you do, how might that work?

Also, when I say incubators, I think that we can include any investment operation, such as a venture fund, who wants to provide centralized design help to its portfolio companies.

The Problem Statement

There is recognition that for early stage startups, getting the product right has unprecedented importance over other aspects of the business. If this is true, then getting the user experience of the product right is paramount. Assuming we know the difference between design and UX, design has definitely the user facing component of the user experience of a product. Thus it's natural that helping startups find great design support is very important.

The problem with finding design support is that...there just aren't enough great designers around! The world simply doesn't have enough designers who are talented AND are great at crafting a great front-end user experience. Note that you can't just have someone who is talented because some guys are just not good UX people. So if we're lucky to find a great designer who is also a great UX person, then we'd want to utilize this person on a wide variety of projects.

However, in what form should the design/UX help take? Advice only, or actual work? Here are some examples of this in the real world now.

The Designer in Residence

About 5-6 months ago, the world saw its first Designer in Residence (DIR) at Bessemer Venture Partners. The term was first coined by Bessemer's David Cowan and shortly after the Mint acquisition, their designer Jason Putorti became the first DIR. I have talked with Jason about his experiences as a DIR and will wrap in some thoughts from conversations with him and Bessemer folks. For a more in-depth look at his experiences in his time as DIR, please look for his upcoming post at his blog.

The main purpose of the DIR was to help out the Bessemer portfolio from a design point of view. Any portfolio company that was receptive to help would get time with Jason, although it was mostly from an advice point of view. The startups that were receptive to outside advice really appreciated his visits and comments. Many startups did not feel the need to receive outside help and some of those probably didn't need any design advice, and some, by some viewpoint, probably could have used some even if they didn't think they needed it.

That's not to say that Jason didn't deep dive; this did occur but it didn't happen very often since his time was limited with each company.

Betaworks

As part of our operations at betaworks, we incubate some businesses. Thus, providing design help to our internal projects was deemed critical to getting those internal products out the door quickly and allow us to iterate on them, without having to waste time to find design help for every project. We hired a designer to be on staff to help us work quickly on our ideas.

In the case of betaworks, my proposed problem statement is not their main purpose for having the designer on staff; this designer actually does the work, and so therefore his time is limited because he needs to focus on projects to get design work done. Currently he works on 2-3 projects maximum, and at any one time is focused on one.

He hasn't done much at giving design/UX advice though, simply because his time would get overwhelmed helping too many people at once, and then only at the advice level.

He also has noted to me that he has extremely enjoyed the interactions and the projects, and the wide variety of problems to solve from simple sites to complex services. Such is the nature of working for an operation whose day to day interactions are always with the latest and greatest!

Parallels with Central Design Teams in Bigger Companies

The issues experienced, when attempting to provide actual work, mirror those of companies with central design teams attempting to service many teams at once. Because the teams do not have dedicated design support, they have to come to the central resource to get things done.

The typical issues encountered in these situations are:

1. Competition for design time, and the resulting tensions. Sometimes there is the threat of going outside the company for design help, which works for some companies and is absolutely prohibited by others.

2. Accounting dollar-wise for design time can be challenging, and things such as chargebacks to matrix headcount attribution have been tried to account for resourcing, and to see how much design time and cost a project has used.

3. Headcount is always an issue, and fighting to add to headcount in a central organization when it's not tied directly to any revenue generating project (instead, it's tied to all projects both revenue generating and losing) is a difficult fight to win.

4. Designers in these central teams are often stressed to finish way too much work and quality can suffer if the demands on their time exceed their ability to finish quality work.

5. Causing 4, scheduling projects is always a problem when so many people are vying for your design time. Prioritization is always an issue, and frustrations can occur when someone doesn't get support when they need it.

Provide Only Advice, or Resources to do the Actual Work?

Here you go, the pros and cons of both!

Advice Only:

PROS:

1. Can handle a lot of projects at once.

2. Can talk about issues larger than just design alone, that are related to user experience.

3. Breadth of exposure to many projects gives a breadth of experiences to bring to bear on any one given project.

4. Effectiveness is potentially at its greatest at the certain stages of the project, like at the beginning during product definition before decisions have been made, and evaluating what has been done already, especially if there is evidence that there are problems with what has been launched and receptiveness to help from the team is greatest (since it's obvious there is something that needs to be fixed, rather than not having concrete evidence before a product is launched.

CONS:

1. Only helps those who are receptive.

2. Even receptive people may ignore your advice, or simply forget about it later.

3. Advice can only be implemented if the team can internalize what is being said. If they do not have enough depth of understanding, they may not be able to implement fully, or only partially which may not be enough.

4. Lack of depth on a project can result in incomplete advice.

5. Advice can be wrong, or simply wrong for a given team. The right solution for a given problem may come in a multitude of forms; the advice a single person gives really only offers one solution but it may not be the solution that a team requires to get to success. Remember that success can come in many forms. For example, even if a product has a terrible UX, if the startup is sold and investors make money, then by many measures, the startup has reached a success despite ignoring UX advice.

6. Giving design/UX advice requires an individual who enjoys giving advice as a career and not doing the actual work. It may be hard to find skilled individuals who want to give advice and not do the actual work.

7. Giving design advice is only part of the solution; we still have to find someone to do the actual work. Designers are still hard to come by. Without anyone to implement the advice, the advice may be pointless.

Doing Actual Work:

PROS:

1. Inserting a great designer is the best way to ensure that the right design work gets implemented. Having someone on the team who is there, fighting for the right thing to do 24/7, is the best way to ensure that a great UX gets launched. It also enables depth on a project, so that the probability of the right design being implemented is greater.

2. Evidence has shown that most designers love doing the actual work, and that it is much more satisfying than just giving advice. So it's most likely easier to find designers to staff a central group that does work.

CONS:

1. Coverage of projects is extremely limited, often only one project at a time.

2. Since coverage of projects is limited, you need a lot of personnel to cover a lot of projects. Paying salaries for all these folks and supporting them can be a challenge for an operation that does not have recurring revenue (ie. a fund or incubator is not a business with revenue). Or do we charge our startups, which has its own issues given that they are most likely early stage and very sensitive to expenses?

However, if the entity that provides design support has deep pockets, then either design support can be provided for free, or at a steeply discounted cost to the marketplace.

3. Running a central group which does work is like running a design consultancy. It will have the same issues as any consultancy in managing the work and client. Having worked at frogdesign, I can tell you that running a consultancy is not an easy thing; keeping deliveries on schedule, maintaining happy customers and quality of work all takes experience.

4. How do we know that the designers on staff can maintain quality? What if the best design support can be found outside the central group? What if the design talents that the startup needs are not found within the group?

5. Finding designers to hire is still tough. How much time is required to even build the team itself?

6. Central group design support is still very discontinuous; the group comes in, does work, and then stops for a while. In the space between projects, a lot of learning is accomplished which may not get back to the designers. At some point the startups will require their own dedicated design help which is continuous and 24/7.

One might notice that in either case, the list of cons exceeds the pros. I would say that the brevity of the pros doesn't minimize their importance. Each of those pros has tremendous value for each path. It is the cons that we must watch out for and be OK with, when setting up design support for an incubator or fund.

Footnotes:

a. As I was finishing up this post, I got word that the venture group at Google provides design support on contract, and on a limited basis to its portfolio companies. I hope to meet with the designer to get his take on how this works and how it's going for him.

b. One of my reviewers pointed out that this post ended kind of open ended and left him feeling the need for some firm conclusion. Yes I bailed on giving a specific conclusion because I believe that the direction an entity takes is highly specific to the situation and its own needs. I do not think there is one size fits all in providing either type of design support. I wanted to point out what the pros and cons of each direction were, and let the reader create his own solution based on his own requirements.

Many thanks to James Cham @jamescham, Jason Putorti @novaurora, and Neil Wehrle @neilw for reviewing this post!

Giving UX and Design Advice

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A buddy of mine was helping some friends setup an incubator and he asked me whether or not they should have some UX/design support that is resident in the incubator.

It's an interesting proposition. According to Dave McClure:

Addictive User Experience (aka Design) & Scalable Distribution Methods (aka Marketing) are the most critical for success in consumer internet startups, not pure Engineering talent.
(from Startups & VCs: Learn How to Design, Market, & Eat Your Own Consumer Internet Dogfood)

I tend to agree. Most startups are started by business people or engineers. It is very rare to find startups started by designers; relative to the other disciplines, it's like finding a needle in a haystack. So most entrepreneur teams really have no formal training in the area of user experience and any that do well are either lucky or naturally talented. But yet at early stage, the quality of the product experience matters so much more than at any other time and is so critical to the early traction a startup can get. Also, designers are among the hardest of disciplines to hire for; there simply aren't enough to go around, especially compared to the number of engineers universities crank out each year. Thus it's natural that an incubator, which provides a lot of critical resources to its incubated businesses, would want to provide design as one of those resources.

I should also say that we've been really bastardizing the use of the term "designer". There are many sub-disciplines within the category of design: visual design, graphic design, interaction design, user researchers, usability testing professionals. Saying that someone should get a talented designer is not a cure-all for UX success. You must have some basic level of understanding and skill in a few of these areas in order to create a great user experience.

For the last 4 years, I've been advising startups partially in the area of UX and design. I think there are parallels in what I do and what an incubator might provide. Both an incubator and I have a portfolio of companies to provide design support for; but yet how to provide a level of support for so many customers at one time? Is it actual design detail work or is it just guidance? Certainly I have thought a lot about providing UX and design help to all the startups in my portfolio, and in what form that help looks like. However, the nature of providing help in this form comes with interesting dynamics.

All About Influencing

Everything is influenced based, which means that in no way can I force someone to come to my viewpoint. I have to convince them that my way is better through belief in my past experiences and/or through some sort of research, or through the persuasiveness of my reasoning. These individuals do not report to me; nor in reality do they even have to listen to me. I do not hold their destinies in my hands so I cannot have that level of control over whether they listen to me or act on my advice.

In the beginning, this was a source of mild frustration because I would tell my startups that something was wrong or could be better in that way, but yet they would seem to not do what I just told them to do. I realized that early on that my advice was just that; it was advice that someone would just add to their knowledge base and they would act on it or not.

Not Letting Grinfucks Get to You

I also have to let go of the fact that they may not listen to me at all, or totally disagree with me and discount whatever I advise. Sometimes they would even agree with what I said and then go back to doing whatever it was they were doing later (I believe this is what Mark Suster calls the "grinfuck".). However, I can't let this get to me or else immense frustration will set in.

However, as much as we see someone else is failing (by our own standards), I have to admit that there is always the probability that I am not right. If there is anything I've learned about product design is that there is huge variability of success amongst users. I think if we thought hard enough, even the most crappiest designed products have had huge success in the world (ie. Windows). Or we underestimate users' tolerance for imperfect design; sometimes users put up with so much because the product satisfies some basic need very well. Then, when you consider what makes a startup successful, it throws even more variability into whether or not a perfect design is really required. For example, one metric for success is when a big company buys your startup for a lot of money; you may have a really imperfect product but yet we're successful because we sold our startup for a lot of money and made a decent return.

To me, this is all a probability game. Too often we get caught up in black and white: "if you don't implement my design ideas, you're gonna fail." To me, it's about maximizing all chances of success, with UX and design being one of those all important details a startup works on. When you execute well across a number of fronts, that raises the probability of success. The more details you execute poorly or imperfectly, the less your probability of success. So I ask you, the intreprid entrepreneur, wouldn't you want to listen to some UX design advice to maximize your probability of success overall?

Gotta Keep an Endless Flow of Ideas Comin'

When teams don't like my initial ideas, I find I have to keep throwing ideas at them until something sticks. In some situations, I seem to have an endless supplies of things to try. In others, I hit a wall and run out of ideas very quickly. It's definitely frustrating to me when I run out of ideas, as I consider myself a pretty creative guy. But there is ultimately an end to ideas when they come from a single person, and from someone who doesn't live and breathe the startup day in and day out.

Advising Generally Means You're Not Doing the Work

However, advising is generally not actually doing the work. You're evaluating, giving your opinion, suggesting changes, giving ideas and direction on what can work better. Rarely am I actually launching Photoshop or doing actual HTML.

I like advising. I like teaching and guiding others and it's a source of great satisfaction to me to help others succeed. I also like to see if my theories actually work or not, so now it's a challenge to see if my ideas are right or not. Second, advising allows me to cover a far wider set of customers than by doing the actual work. In order to do great work, you really have to focus on a project; multitasking can get you only so far and I'm sure anyone who is in the contracting business will tell you the pitfalls of working on more than one project at a time. Quality of the work, thought leadership, and time management all become huge challenges when you're working on just one more extra thing.

The downside to advising is that I'm not doing the actual work. Advice can only communicate your ideas so far; words just cannot replace the actual design work being just done by you. To some, doing the work is far more satisfying than giving advice. Hey I know - I've been there. I've lost count of how many sites I've launched at Yahoo, or the immense enjoyment I feel when I'm part of team designing, building, and launching a product at Apple or through our contracts at frogdesign. You also don't learn as much unless you're doing the actual work; living and breathing the design allows you to be immersed in the users and their problems with your product. Hearing it secondhand just isn't the same.

I think for many designers, it's tough to just give advice. It is hard to let go of the immense personal satisfaction and learning of doing the actual work. I think this is partially why there aren't that many designers out there giving advice in some form or another. It's actually pretty cool to be doing the work and taking a product all the way through to launch.

One other important point about doing the work: it also maximizes the chance that your ideas will get implemented. Any ideas you may plant in someone are just thoughts; taking those thoughts to action requires firm belief by the listener in what you said, being able to internalize it, and then act on it. But if you are on the team doing the implementing, then you have the best chance of implementing the ideas into the product because you already believe in it and have internalized it, and recognize and can walk a path to realization of the idea.

Not Doing the Work Means Wider Coverage of Projects

One advantage to stepping back from the actual work is that you can cover a wider variety of projects simultaneously. I do not know of any designer who can handle more than two projects at the same time; most only work on one at a time before moving on. Spreading your brain across multiple projects really puts quality at risk. It is very difficult to do your best work when you're not focused on one thing.

However, if I'm giving just advice, I can do that across many more projects. Still, it is consistent with multitasking issues that if I don't get depth on a given project, that it's hard to give really detailed advice. So often I may spend more time on a single project and get to know it better and then I can give more depth in my advice. I do think my past Yahoo experience as been a great advantage here. At Yahoo we worked on a wide variety of projects and I am usually able to bring some depth to my advice without needing much time to get to know a project.

The Difference Between Design Advice and UX Advice

Just so I'm clear - I think there is a difference between "design" advice and "UX" advice. Definitely the two are related. Building a great user experience pretty much means you're employing great visual and interaction design, coupled with user research to reinforce and inform. However, I think there are differences as well. Mostly, I think that design is a subset of creating the entire user experience, which encompasses branding and its effects on a user's constant use of a product, tackling a certain market segment, and customer service, among other things.

When I give specific design advice, I tend to think of looking at the specific elements on an interface and commenting on the interaction or its aesthetics. I talk about placement of controls, and what is confusing and what is not. I talk about the flow across screens and whether or not that makes sense, or could be easier or not. Often this comes in the form of a design walkthrough with discussion after.

However, when I give UX advice, my comments go wider and I talk about the entire product experience. A conversation may start with "can I get help on my GUI?" but sometimes I see the problem is not with the GUI but it's with a broader issue of why the heck we're doing this in the first place. I start talking about who the customer is, and why they're targeting the customer. I also talk about getting a better product definition and problem statement.

Personally, I think it's not a good use of time if the problem statement is incorrect in the first place to dive into detail UI issues. Once you have refined the problem statement (aka iterate until you find the right product fit for a customer base and get a scalable business model - thanks, Steve Blank!), then we can start talking about whether the UI you have created is appropriate for that or not. Then we can take an orderly approach to crafting a superior UI for a problem that users desire a solution to and hopefully make money off of.

Finding the Right People

OK I just expounded on my experiences in giving design and UX advice. Why? It's important to understand the motivations and experiences of a person who loves giving design and UX advice so that if your goal is to find similar support, you're going to have to find a person with similar motivations and experiences.

I have not met many people who are happy giving design advice only. Most designers I have met want to do the work and derive great enjoyment from the work. At one time, I too loved doing the work; however, the complexities of life forced me to create a situation where I could still contribute and grow in my experiences but not mean that I am on critical path for any particular project. (Someday, I would be happy to talk about exactly what complexities I mean here, but just not in my blog but live over a beer ;-) ) Giving advice rather doing the work meant that I could still be part of the process as well as be a part of a greater number of projects, but not do the actual work because my life isn't structured to deliver actual work well.

So if you want design and UX advice, you're going to have to find someone who is OK with not doing the work and hopefully loves doing this.

I started this post by talking about helping a friend out regarding design support in incubators and then focused on the individual giving advice, in order to understand what kind of person might be good in such a role and what experience they might need. Watch for my next post on my thoughts on design as a central resource in incubators.

OK I'm annoyed.

All around the startup circles I hear about how startups need designers and how having a talented designer is going to solve their product UX problems.

This is a problem.

That's because getting a talented "designer" isn't necessarily going to fix your UX problems. There are many problems with this idea:

First, a product user experience is much broader than design alone. There are many elements that create a great experience for users with your product. The front line is held by the GUI where a designer usually plies his skills. But there is also product stability and quality, pricing, customer support, branding and marketing - you get the idea. Sometimes your product experience's problem is not design by something else.

Second, there are many talented designers who are really bad at crafting a great user experience. In my experiences at hiring designers at Yahoo, I have found that some designers, while extremely talented in the areas they are skilled in, were really bad at creating a great user experience! This is because they do not have the open sensitivity to what others need in the product, cannot escape designing for themselves, or simply lacked training in creating a great UX. We have successfully trained some people to follow traditional UX design processes and thus made them into great UX people. However, not everyone is good at UX; they just lack some innate sensitivity to what makes a product useful, usable, and desirable all at the same time.

Having said the previous, there are many great user experience people who have no traditional design training whatsoever. Having one of these lead a product team may be all you need to take a mediocre or bad UX and create a great one. Typically we call these folks great product people and they can come from many different disciplines.

Third, people still use the word "designer" to mean a wide variety of skill sets and occupations. These are:

Visual Designer - someone who is great at aesthetics and "styling", and creating art. They are masters at creating a visual style for your product.

Interaction Designer - someone who is great at creating great interactions with the product, making it easily usable. They are great at making interfaces understandable and quickly learnable.

User Researcher/Usability Engineer - someone who excels at researching users and their needs, watching and recording their reactions to products both the good and the bad. They gather data to inform the design and improve the product.

Each one of these skill areas is a full discipline in its own right. People go to school for 4 years, do graduate research in them, and then work solely in this area as a full career.

Thus saying you want a designer doesn't help me find the right person for you. We have to figure out what kind of designer you really need based on the problems you are trying to solve, or the holes in the skills you have.

By the way, every startup has headcount issues. So they want that guy who can do it all. Realistically, there are people who have skills in all those areas. But they are the most sought after folks on the market, and there are so few of them to go around. To wait for that perfect person to show up will mean that you are going to wait a long, long time.

Typically, in the past, we have put together a team of 2-3 of the various functional areas to work together on creating the UX. Finding people who are really good at any one of the skill areas is the easiest; finding someone with 2 or more of those skill areas grows quickly exponentially impossible in any reasonable timeframe.

As mentioned before, potentially it is more important to find people who are great product people: those who are talented at creating great user experiences need not be designers per se, although it is necessary to have design skills in order to do the actual work in creating it. Without those skills, a product person would have to work with others to do the detail work. Therefore, a great product person leading a team of people who may not be so good at UX (ie. designers, engineers, etc) can generate an awesome result.

However, there are a lot of people in the design field who are trained in designing great user experiences. Thus, great UX people tend to be those with a design background. But still, not all of them have to be designers.

All startups would agree that at early stage, getting the product experience right as soon as possible is probably more critical at this stage than any stage in the life cycle of a company. But let's get a little more educated and specific on what it means to create a great user experience, what design's role is in that process, and which design roles we need to create it.


Referrals Get My Attention

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Lately I've been going through my info@ email address which I put on my site. It's a throwback to when it was proper to put a contact email address on your website to be a good netizen. However, whenever I check it, it's always filled with cold calls: random emails with business plans (often from Nigeria!) and then there are some that are totally not within my stated interests on my website. Occasionally, I do get the important email from someone who is trying to get hold of me, like an old colleague or some organization that wants to get hold of me. But most of it is unfortunately tends to be cold call emails asking for my investment.

This morning I saw @davidhornik tweeted:

Spending the morning talking with students about the power of networking. Cold calls are for suckers.

That last line says it all: "Cold calls are for suckers."

It is so true. Those emails I get in my info@ inbox are just that: cold calls which I will never engage with. I know that sounds cold and uncaring but it's true. Why is that? It's because I use referrals as an effective filter to be able to tell whether or not somebody has some sort of legitimacy or not. Otherwise, I would get deluged with a ton of meetings that would inevitably be a waste of time for both me and the entrepreneur.

Thus, 99% of my deal flow comes from trusted sources: friends, fellow investors, other entrepreneurs, etc. These are sources with whom I've worked and know that they value the judgement call they place on sending a referral over to me. That's because giving great referrals is a relationship building tactic, and giving bad ones is definitely not.

Then @bfeld published an article on the Business Insider called If A VC Turns You Down, Don't Ask Them To Refer You To Someone Else which also talks about how not to ask for a referral. His last paragraph hits home:

Venture capitalists take referrals seriously. If someone I trust e-mails me a referral, the first thing I do is ask the VC for more information about the person being referred and whether the VC is interested in investing in the person. If the VC doesn't know the person, I immediately question the validity of the introduction. If this happens regularly, I heavily discount the value of any introduction from the VC. This is a self-correcting phenomenon. Good VCs are careful with introductions because they want to make sure both parties view the introduction as valuable. Hopefully entrepreneurs understand this dynamic.

Smart relationships know and live Brad's comment. They know that there is value in giving great referrals and know when not to give a referral.

To get my attention AND if you don't know me, find someone who does know me; entrepreneur circles in the Bay area are pretty small and I think it would not be hard to network to someone who is connected to me. If you pitch them well, you'll get a referral to me and, thus, my attention. But don't send me random emails to my info@ inbox.

Can't Escape Sex Appeal

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I've come to realize that startup investing is very much like my experience with online dating sites. Despite dating sites attempting to match people via their personalities, attributes, and interests, it still really boiled down to one thing: how they looked in their profile pictures. I know that sounds incredibly lame, but after trying dating sites and also talking to others who have used dating sites more than me, the main reason why someone responds is if you like how they look in their profile picture and whether or not you're attracted to the way they look.

I have found that a major reason why I invest in a startup is if I feel some kind of personal attraction to it. Some of those personal reasons are:

1. I'm personally interested in the area that the startup is working in.
2. I have some emotional connection to their project, perhaps due to some similar project I had worked on in the past.
3. It tickles some intellectual part of my psyche, and my desire to learn more about their space.
4. There is some inherent coolness to their project, and that coolness may rub off on me from a brand perspective of being associated with it.

...and so on.

However, none of these reasons have any kind of relation to whether the startup makes any kind of business sense. A startup could very well have a strong business case, even up to the point of having lots of traction and revenue, but yet be unsexy to me. I think there are many untapped business areas that aren't all that sexy and therefore ripe picking grounds for new entrants to disrupt old businesses in those areas and do very well. In fact, I've met some, BUT...have found that I just could not pull the trigger.

I've come to realize that it just boils down to personal attraction. On a dating site, I found that if a profile picture wasn't attractive to me no matter what the site said how much her attributes were compatible with mine. The same goes with startups; if for some reason the project isn't all that sexy to me, I just can't seem to bring myself to do it.

As an angel with limited resources, I need to deploy them smartly and maximize their value to me, which also includes a sexiness component. That's not to say that there aren't angels out there who would take a chance on something unsexy to them; I think that for them, it's more about being part of a great business and building it then the inherent product area they are working in. Me, being a product and UX guy, I love being associated with products I love, which introduces an inherent sexy bias when deciding on whether to invest or not.

I think that if I were running a fund, my decision process would be broaden to less sexy projects. Still, we have limited time and resources and need to make sure value can be added to the startups even in a larger portfolio and need to pick wisely for the reasons we have. I think that when you're investing someone else's money, you'll have to think twice about passing on something that can produce a gain for your investors.

However, all this sucks for entrepreneurs who are working in business areas that aren't part of what's hot right now. Real time? Ride the excitement of Twitter and Ashton Kutcher! Social? Maybe that's so yesteday. Social gaming, now that's sexy! Virtual goods yeah! Processing waste? Yech, even if it is profitable. I think you get the idea.

How does an entrepreneur combat unsexy? I think it's like improving your chances on a dating site:

1. Some people just aren't attracted to you, so you'll just have to get over it. There will be some investors who just don't think your project is interesting enough to them and you won't be able to convince them otherwise.

2. Improving your profile picture helps a lot. So how do you improve the way your startup looks? You may introduce some interesting component to your plan that makes your project more sexy. You might actually increase the sexiness of your visual/interaction design. That in itself may be enough to sway an investor to like you versus not.

But beware of pursuing sexy for sexy's sake. Even though we may look for dates of attractive people and they may be eye candy to us, in the end, it's what's underneath that drives whether we will go out with them again. So even as you dress up your project, it may take you down a path that is detrimental to your future. It may even waste your time as you should be working on your core product.

3. You could rewrite your profile description to be more fun and engaging, which in theory is a reflection of how cool and fun you are. This is like creating a better pitch deck, or sexy prototype, or some kind of cool new UX for your product.

4. You could learn how to chat better and be more interesting and fun, which is probably a skill that is more for men than women and sort of like learning how to pick up girls. This is worthwhile both before the actual face to face and during the date. If you write an engaging first message to a prospective date, that can solicit a response better than a boring, lame one. Certainly chatting up someone better during a date will have a great effect on whether you get another date. This is like when you may simply just pitch better and that can be sexy in itself when the sales job is so good you can't resist falling under the spell of a great pitch guy.

5. Go and find someone who likes you the way you are, which means that being on a free for all dating site like Match.com is not right, but maybe eHarmony is more for you. Tackling a non-sexy business in the world of sexy can be tough, even if the potential benefits are clear to you. As in dating, you should probably go and find someone who loves you the way you are now, versus trying to put on a different dress or suit, or changing your make up or hairdo.

Thus getting introduced to the right investor, who actually does know something about your industry, can get you the resources that you need.

Still having said all that, it may not be enough to convince me to invest in you. I just may not find you sexy enough even if you are wearing a thong bikini...

These last few weeks I've been part of the Ycombinator Mentors program where we get a few of the YC startups to hang with and help them, as Paul Graham puts it, "convince us to invest in them." It's been a great experience going through product and business issues, and helping them shape something meaningful and hopefully world dominating with their initial ideas.

I just completed this email to send out to my mentees (is that a word?) as I realized that, after attending several YC Demo Days, that I have seen a remarkable number of the teams not take advantage of the opportunity to really engage with the audience of investors, reporters, and corporations. As both a reminder and a call to action (mostly to make introverted engineers break out of their shell!), I listed some items that might help. I think it also helps to know how we feel on our end, as we sit through 20+ fast paced presentations and then enter a whirlwind of conversations after.

Here's the email:

I thought I would send some thoughts on handling Demo Day and its aftermath (if anything to be a good YC mentor..!) as I've seen some YC teams really handle it poorly. This is not about the presentation as I'm sure that PG and others are hammering you guys on getting that good. Rather, this about what happens during Demo Day after the presentations and how to manage the crowd, and even afterwards.


BEFOREHAND:

1. If you don't have business cards, get some made now! Go to FedEx/Kinko's and give them an illustrator file. They can make business cards overnight.

2. PG undoubtedly has an attendee list; can you get that from him? Review it beforehand and try to prioritize those people to meet. Keep it in your pocket and check off people that you meet and make quick notes on interest, experience, follow ups, next steps, etc.

If you can, prepare beforehand a little about what you may talk to certain people about. This can be as simple as knowing a few of the recent investments an investor has made, or how you can help Google build one of their products better. Or perhaps you'd like to get in touch with someone's portfolio company. This can be as simple as a conversation starter to break the ice, or as big as trying to do a deal with Google to integrate your technology.

3. Think about your own status. Are you raising money now? Soon? Or not? Have you raised money already? Looking for business partnerships? Want to sell out or get acquired right now?

Make sure you decide as much of this beforehand as it will undoubtedly affect your conversations. You will inevitably be asked, "are you raising money now?" and you should have some sense for yes or no, and if yes, for how much. You want to be confident in your progress and in your answers, not wishy washy. The worst thing you could say is, "well, I don't know...maybe...we're not really sure yet...hem haw..." But also, don't lie or make things up. This is more about anticipating what questions will be asked of you post-presentations and just taking a bit of time to prepare your response.

4. Try to get a good night's sleep the night before. Try to arrive at the top of your game, not sleep deprived and/or over-caffeinated.


AT DEMO DAY, AFTER THE PRESENTATIONS:

1. The crowd as you can imagine is filled with reporters, corporate representatives (typically from venture arms), angel investors, and venture capitalists. It is really like speed dating; you should get out there and meet as many people as possible, getting their contact info and gauging their interest in you.

It will be, and expect it to be, overwhelming. It is definitely overwhelming to us. We'll have been overloaded by the quick machine gun set of presentations and trying to absorb it all, and then we're thrown into fast smoozing with those startups that somehow have grabbed our attention. We'll be scribbling fast notes on our Demo Day sheets and then we're going to try to go back and figure out who we want to meet first before we have to leave.

2. Don't be a wallflower! I've seen some teams hang on the sidelines and not mingle. This is bad! This is a chance for you to meet and try to woo some investors to be interested in you! If you don't meet them now, you may never get a chance to interact face to face with them again. If you have more than one founder, split up and meet more people! There are 20+ teams this time; everyone is going to be competing for attention of the audience. Get in there and meet!

3. As you get business cards, make notes on the back of their cards as well. Stick them in a safe place and don't lose them! I've met many people who simply lost my business card and somehow found me later. Bad!

4. Regarding reporters: you probably have never gone through media training but it's not hard. You should just prepare some great sound bites for reporters to hang onto and include in their writeups. These are simple sentences that sound great, and of course promote your product/company/service.

5. Be lively, upbeat, friendly, excited about what you're working on, and excited about future prospects. I think that engineering types tend to be very introverted. Unfortunately, this doesn't serve you well here! So go out and be an extrovert. Force yourself to go out and meet everyone and to be Mr. Fun and Cool with the best product in the world to talk about. People react to and engage with people they like; boring, uninteresting people get left behind. It sucks but it's true.

So psyche yourself up for some power smoozing and have a positive attitude about it. This won't be the last time you'll be power smoozing for your business!

6. Gauge whether a conversation is going nowhere or somewhere. Lack of interest, conversation seems to slow down or feel strained, etc. all are signs that you should disengage gracefully and move on to the next person. Shake their hand, make eye contact and say nice meeting you and move on!

Definitely stay with someone a bit longer at least if they are interested in you and what you're doing. But don't extend the conversation too long as you only have about 2-3 hours after the presentations end to talk to all the people you want to talk to. People start trickling away after an hour of smoozing; remember many people have other meetings and places to go. It's very rare that people stay all the way to the end! Again, disengage with set action items to follow up, and with contact info exchanged.


AFTERMATH:

1. Write a follow up email to everyone you met! Say hi, it was nice meeting up and you'd love to get together to talk further. Remind them with what you and he discussed.

Keep in the mindset of the folks you meet - remember that we're going to be totally talked out and our brains won't be able to remember all the conversations and people we've met. We'll have gone through so many people in so little time; it's overwhelming and you will want to rise above the noise by following up.

2. Keep an email list of everyone you met for updates. This is to keep reminding everyone of the progress you're making. Don't spam this list; just put out an update once a month or every two months. This is also to keep in everyone's mindshare. Even if someone doesn't invest in you today, they may invest in you tomorrow when you're bigger. Or they may contact you for a deal, or to acquire you. They won't do any of that if they forget about you.

3. Pursue those follow up meetings! Get feedback on why someone isn't investing and improve yourself, your product, and your pitch. It's amazing how I've had to contact people afterwards and chase them down. But that also signals poorly; aggressive fund raisers who don't give up are those who succeed in raising the money they need. Passive entrepreneurs only increase the risk that they will fail, because they aren't aggressive.

A lot of this is basic smoozing, or "How to Work a Room" 101. I just wanted to bring it up because while some of this is basic, it's been obvious to me from attending past Demo Days that many YCers either haven't learned it, or maybe forgot about it in the heat of prepping for Demo Day.


Looking forward to Demo Day next week!

Playing the Volume Investing Game

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Over the last few months, I've spoken to a number of investors who work in the early stage startup space. It seems that many of them have come to the same conclusion I had in my earlier blog post, Angel Odds vs. Venture Odds, which was that they really had to go broad in investing to try to find those few Google super-investments to generate the bulk of the fund's returns.

The numbers they propose are staggering: 50-100 investments over the life of a fund! If 100, that's 20 investments per year if spread out over 5 years (typical life of fund). Some of them may even try to front load the investments, exceeding the 20 and perhaps going up to as much as 30-50. That's about 1 investment accepted, negotiated, gone through due diligence, lining up a wire, and docs signed and delivered every 2-3 weeks. If you've ever invested, you know how difficult that process can be.

Some thoughts on this, from the perspective of working on the measly 16 investments I've done over the last 3.5+ years:

1. Investor management of this number of startups will be challenging. What will it mean to have 20+ startups emailing you for help, meetings, introductions, advice, etc? Time management will be very difficult.

Entrepreneurs will have to be prepared to find ways of capturing dwindling time slices of the investors, and working hard to deserve more time. By deserving more time, I mean it is natural that the more successful startups will get more time as they have the best chance to return the most money to the fund.

2. Investor teams will need to increase, but paying for them may be difficult as early stage funds are typically smaller in size, and thus management fees collected will also be proportionally smaller.

3. It will be interesting to see how the money being moved around can be optimized. Typically capital calls are made to limited partners when an investment happens. If there are a lot of capital calls, making and collecting a huge volume of capital calls can be a lot of work on the fund personnel and limited partners. Capital calls may work differently for these early stage funds.

4. In this world of proliferating me-too products, it may be impossible to not invest in startups which overlap in plan. Many investors and entrepreneurs worry about their plans being discovered by competitors or near competitors. This is why we don't like investing in startups who are competitive to one another. But if they are investing in 50-100 startups, I wonder how they avoid competitive conflicts? Or should they even care?

5. Can 50-100 quality startups be found in one area even if it is in the Bay area, the startup capital of the world? It may be that going far afield will need to happen in order to find quality startups. This will strain time commitments for investors to travel and keep tabs on investments far away. It will also mean entrepreneurs may only get as much help as they can remotely.

6. Entrepreneurs should be prepared for what I call "survival of the fittest" and "ruthless culling". Given the limited attention time of the investor in the face of overwhelming numbers, entrepreneurs need to work extra hard to prove they deserve more investor time. The best will get more help, and get follow on investment. Those that do not get follow on investment may find this is a detriment to them getting more money.

Entrepreneurs will have to get over the fact that while they think they are the coolest kid on the block, in the face of being in group of cool kids, their own coolness will be the norm and therefore commonplace and they will have to find ways to be even cooler than their peers. Being commonplace in a group of equally cool kids could mean neglect as the even cooler kids get more attention and help.

Despite all this, I firmly believe this is the way to play the early stage startup game from an investor point of view. It is the only way to raise the probability that they will find the Google super-investments that will create the oversized return of the fund.

I went to Dave McClure's Startup2Startup last night and we listened to Mark Fletcher recount his current startup commandments. Mark has had a great history in startups, having built ONElist back in the day which merged with eGroups and got acquired by my old alma mater Yahoo. Then he built Bloglines which sold to IAC in 2005. Now he is working on another startup called SnapGroups, which got announced and was supposed to launch last night, but unfortunately also came out with a nasty bug and kind of stifled the launch..!

One of his slides had to do with startup business models, which was more in the area of talking about startup business building strategy than just strictly revenue models. For his 3 startups, including his current one, he listed his startup strategies (me paraphrasing here and imperfect memory at work):

ONElist: Raise lots of money (~$46MM), grow big fast, hire a lot of guys, dominate the market before anyone else, go IPO

Bloglines: Raise a bit of money ($200K), hire small team, build great product, flip it.

SnapGroups: Spend as little as possible ($6K) using lean startup methods, outsource everything, work on something he's passionate about, no exit strategy to shoot for.

It was a trip back in history for me, as I came into the startup world via Yahoo, and lived through the times as Mark had. What was amazing to me was the difference in strategy given what was in vogue at the time.

During the dotcom boom years, it was just build as fast as possible and get huge before everyone else, and then go for IPO. This of course didn't work anymore after the dotcom bust, and the introduction of Sarbanes Oxley which basically killed the IPO market even as it attempted to fix the bad accounting problems and protect the shareholder. Also, the excesses of the dotcom era were completely gone, and also gone with it the ability to IPO on little or no revenue.

Then along came the post dotcom bust years and it seemed that the M&A market for startups heated up. So now it was cool to get a bit of investment, and then build something that a Yahoo or Google wanted, and then get bought. At this point, we saw that it was getting cheaper and cheaper to launch web products, and over time, a lot of people jumped on the flipping bandwagon.

Soon, flipping became tough also because it was easy to copy somebody else and now the market was flooded with me-too products. Everybody called on the corporate development teams of the Googles and Yahoos of the world and it became impossible to get their attention. They didn't want to hear about you if you were too small; they only had so much time and only could focus on those opportunities that yielded the largest results for them. Yeah you thought you were cool, but against that kind of competition you weren't cool enough.

Somewhere in there, along came Ycombinator who proved that you could build something with so little capital and get it launched that it started being copied everywhere. Also, the world shifted to providing so many outsourced services and resources that you could build something by using other peoples' servers, open source code, and even excellent coders from other parts of the globe. Other companies would do the heavy lifting on commoditized services while you could focus on the core differentiator of your service.

Enter the economic downturn of 2008 and now M&A was difficult because major companies were pulling back to conserve cash and survive. They were also questioning their M&A strategies prior to this because they were buying startups for huge sums of money but wondering where all that hockey stick growth had gone to, after destroying the incentives of the brainchilds of the startup by making them rich and then watching them leave. Flipping became not so easy.

College kids couldn't find jobs any more; nobody was hiring. Plus, they keep hearing from their peers that working at large corporations sucks. Enter also the rise of a ton of resources like Ycombinator to jumpstart tech startups in a number of locations. Starting up became the in-thing and now we see tons of people trying to do this in a super cheap, fail fast, be adaptable way.

Despite the obvious indicators, I have found that entrepreneurs still are sticking to last era's strategies. Mark was smart; he watched the market and then built quickly to exploit the advantages of the era he built in. But today, I still meet entrepreneurs who are building to pre-dotcom bust year concept of building users fast and then thinking they can raise money later!

Even investors are stuck in last era's strategies. The consequence of raising ever larger funds meant that they were hoping for the huge deals that were present in dotcom boom years, but now that strategy doesn't work so well with the IPO market so slow and the presence of large enough startups worthy to put that much capital in so scarce. They add in the fact that initial capital requirements are so low, that often they find great startups who don't need or want their enormous amounts of cash.

I also changed my investment criteria. Many startups I funded before the 2008 economic downturn still had dotcom boom year or flipping strategies, and had burn rates to match. But then as we crossed into 2008, I started seeing that either strategy now created enormous downside risk of failure, and so had to now go for startups who were smaller, followed the lean strategy, and looked seriously at producing revenue sooner than later.

Mark's message was incredibly insightful, which is that this world is a constantly shifting place, and that you have to be nimble enough to switch strategies when the world changes on you. You also have to be observant enough to know when to make those changes, and not get locked into past views which may not be valid in today's world.

Advising with Influence and Resonance

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Being an advisor is tough. It's all about influence. None of the entrepreneurs I work with have to do anything I say and it's all about convincing them that something I say is worth listening to and executing on.

I had breakfast with my life/executive coach yesterday to catch up and she mentioned she was working on how to be a more effective influencer. In doing some research on the topic, she found that it is actually more about personal charisma than just straight intelligence and knowledge. For example, she related to me that smiling a lot and charm have a great effect on whether you are successful at influencing somebody or not. So it's a lot like what effective salespeople are good at, which is using their personality to charm you while you inadvertantly hand over your wallet!

Towards the end of my tenure at Yahoo, I managed to land into two roles that were all about influence. The first one involved getting all the product teams to revamp their site designs to implement larger more monetizable display ads. The second role involved implementing worldwide a more disciplined and quality oriented product development process. Both required me to become a salesman and evangelist, two things I was definitely not. But I learned about how to get things done via influence and how much I still had to learn.

If you've ever worked in a role where you had to get things done with influence, you will agree with me that it can be very frustrating. Nobody ever reports directly to you and so you can't force people to do anything. They may even agree with you at a meeting but then when everyone walks away from the meeting they go back to doing their usual thing and not what you asked them to do. In fact, I had even vowed that if I were ever to take another permanent role, that I would only do it if I had direct control of the team and my destiny.

But here I am, thriving as an advisor to 20+ startups over the last 3.5 years and enjoying my work solely built on influence.

A lot of entrepreneurs look to me to give them the answer. In fact, in times past I have delivered an answer but I have found problems with this approach:

1. The answer is often "my" answer but not the entrepreneur's answer. This is because, given my experiences and expertise, that I would tackle the problem in a certain way and because it was me executing, I could probably make something out of it. However, if an entrepreneur doesn't have similar experiences, then they have a greater chance of failure.

2. The early stage world is incredibly random and I have often found answers that I would not have done but yet have been successful. So what exactly may seem an answer today may quite often not be where you end up.

3. There are often many answers to the same problem. Again, back to point 1, what may be the answer for me may not be the answer for you.

This is why I hesitate to throw an answer out there unless someone is smart enough (like yesterday!) to ask the right question, which is "if this were you, what would you do?" This is important to frame the answer correctly so that the questioner realizes that my answer to the question is more about me than him. If I were the entrepreneur, this is how I would do it - but you're not me!

My approach has morphed to a more "throw ideas out until one sticks" method, basically putting so much out there until something resonates with the entrepreneur and team.

This resonance is very important. Everyone comes to the table with strengths and weaknesses and all the experiences they have. Thus, whatever idea they run with has to be something they are resonant with and can run with because they will be the ones living with it day and night to make something worthwhile out of it. I am only there intermittently but can't direct them every minute; it's their project so they have to own it through and through.

The unfortunate side effect of this is sometimes I can sound vague or perhaps even dodging their question of "what should I do next?" I have found over the last 3.5 years of advising that my biggest help to startups is to guide them like a teacher, teach them general concepts and help them translate them to whatever they are doing now, and to help expand their thinking as a lot of entrepreneurs tend to get very myopic in what they are doing and have a hard time keeping track of innovation outside their own project. So instead of providing them with "the answer", I provide them with ways to look beyond themselves and perhaps find an answer for themselves within that process.

[UPDATED] If We Meet, I Will Ask You...

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After blogging about a variety of topics, I find that they form the core nucleus of the things I care about before investing in a startup. Yes, I also care about the usual stuff like smart entrepreneurs, great idea, etc. But I think there are things that I've been focusing on assuming we get past the basic stuff.

So if I meet with you, you can expect discussions on:

1. What's your world domination plan (and more on why it's important to have one)? How can you avoid just becoming another small business which is not a reason for not existing, but does bring danger to us investors?

2. I'm most likely going to try to talk you out of being an entrepreneur.

3. Most startups I meet are working on me-too products, even if they don't think so. How can you not be about just developing a me-too product?

4. Are you planning on lasting two years? If you aren't and you need time and money to pivot, you won't be able to raise money in this climate because second chances are impossible to come by.

5. How are you going to make money? Please, no more projects that are just going to gain lots of users...

6. If I were to envision the The Ultimate Product (and Part 1.5), would what you're building be that product, or on the path to that product?

7. How are you going to gain customers - distribution is by far the number one problem facing internet startups today (see me-too post and my combining startup investing and distribution post).

8. [UPDATED: 2/4/11] How will you get to $100,000,000 in revenue per year?

9. [UPDATED: 6/14/11] Study past startups and competitors and learn from their mistakes and successes. Tell me how and why you're not going to let history's mistakes repeat themselves.

My hope is that not only you will have great answers to all these questions, but you will also internalize and truly believe in those answers yourself, and that your answers aren't just lip service. Hope to see you soon at a cafe near you!

The Ultimate Product Part 1.5

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OK I should build IKEA furniture more often. Spending the last 2 hours building a new dresser from IKEA meant that my mind kept drifting back to The Ultimate Product and why it makes me feel uncomfortable when the Ultimate Product doesn't match what the entrepreneur is actually building.

I think it means the probability is high that they will need to pivot at some point because they are off target from the Ultimate Product. While pivots are a fact of life for entrepreneurs, the problem for me is at early stage where I invest.

Most entrepreneurs only plan to last for a year on their current fund raise to my chagrin. If only they had planned to last 2 years, it would mean that they have time and money to pivot. But they will die before they can because they will run out of money and begging for more isn't going to work in today's funding climate.

So if they are, in my mind, off target from their initial mission and the resulting Ultimate Product, the chance of pivot is very high and they will be out of funds by the time they realize that what they are building isn't going to be widely accepted by consumers and can't pivot. Thus, if they don't plan on lasting two years, it makes me not too confident that they will last long enough to get somewhere stable and growing. As an investor, this doesn't make me want to invest...!

Do I believe this is a certainty, that if they aren't quite on target to what I think is the Ultimate Product that they will surely pivot? Of course not. I recognize that I could be wrong, and that a better product than the imagined Ultimate Product could arise which also satisfied the consumer/market need. I think this is all a probability game and I'm just trying to increase the odds of success. This is definitely something the entrepreneur needs to weigh as well, especially if they are off target from the known Ultimate Product.

The Ultimate Product

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The other day, I met with an entrepreneur and we talked about his project.

He first stated his mission, and then dived into his product and service and how it worked. As he talked about the various features his site had, how users would interact with the product, and what would happen when they did, my brain was actually split. Half my brain was following what he was saying, and the other half thought about his initial mission statement. As his talk went on, my brain halves began to diverge.

The second half of my brain was constructing the ultimate product to his initial mission statement. The ultimate product is the product that completely satisfies the users' problem as defined by the mission statement.

When my brain halves diverged, I was unfortunately very uncomfortable at this point. This is because what the entrepreneur was describing was not the ultimate product, but in fact something different. At this point, I stopped the entrepreneur in his description about the product and we talked about the ultimate product.

I detailed it out and walked through in the ideal case, what that was, and how it would work. But it was unfortunately different than what he was describing. It was one of the reasons why I felt uncomfortable in supporting him in his project, because his product seemed to be enough off the path to the ultimate product that there were more than necessary barriers to getting there, when it seemed to me that there were more direct paths to the ultimate product.

I think it's a worthwhile exercise to construct the ultimate product for a given need, and then see if you can get there via your startup's evolution. If you can imagine the ultimate product in your mind, I think it can give you guidance on how to build it. But if you don't know what that is, how can you know if you're on the right path to get there?

SMASH Conference Prep Dinner

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Last night I went to yet another great dinner hosted by Dave McClure at the hip Clift Hotel in SF. It was a precursor to a conference series on social marketing called SMASH Summit. If you follow Dave, you'll know that he is big on the fact that marketing and design in startups are key elements for success, and that most startups don't do either well.

SMASH is an acronym standing for Social Media And internet Strategies and Hack-tics. A bit forced, but the concept is pretty cool.

Speakers included Matt Cohler of Benchmark, Rashmi Sinha CEO of Slideshare, Stew Langille from Mint.com, and Jeremiah Owyang of Altimeter Group. It was a great round up of information presented, showing the various ways folks are using social media marketing.

Last night's dinner was actually a preparatory step to a one-day conference series Dave is going to put on both in SF and in NYC. After dinner, the tables had a discussion on what they have done in social media marketing and the goal was to generate some possible topics for discussion at the SMASH summits. As official notetaker, I wrote down some ideas and listed them below, so that you will get a possible taste for what you may see at the SMASH summits:

Marketers that work for sites that are democratic - how do you tell what succeeds or fails with the crowd?

How to gain trust for novice social networkers for social marketing?

How do you manage novices facing more technically savvy social media users? Ex. forum users ragging on novice posters for not knowing a tech solution.

How to use our customer base who are more technically savvy to support call center people?

How do you use cross channel communication?

How do you connect developers with passionate customers?

What's better than focus groups? What do you use instead?

How do you overcome corporate/executive fear of talking to your customers?

How do you track/prove ROI of social media? Ex. We only have anecdotal evidence of more sales via positive social media response.

What metrics of social marketing are important?

Panel idea: Bigger companies' overall experiences with implementing social marketing/media (success/fail stories, case studies, techniques, etc.)

Panel idea: Experiences with integration of old school organizations with new social media (more specific than previous: talk about organizational difficulties and how to solve, how to win over the old regime, how to deal with people protecting their turf, etc)

Where does social media belong in the organization?

I'm looking forward to checking out the first SMASH summit for great discussion on these topics and more!

More on the Rise of Small Business on the Net

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I saw this great post by Steve Blank: Make No Little Plans - Defining the Scalable Startup the other day and tweeted out a quote that I thought was very important to me:

A lot of entrepreneurs think that their startup is the next big thing when in reality they’re just building a small business.

His post talks about the fact that many entrepreneurs that create web businesses want to be big, but in fact only create something that is small. There is nothing wrong with this; the world needs lots of small businesses, and even those on the internet. The post also offers some hints and tips as to how to create something that grows large.

When I tweeted, the tweet also showed up on my newsfeed where some of my Facebook friends commented. I thought that the comments there were a nice addition to my previous post, The Rise of Small Business on the Net, and thought I'd post them here:


Me: "A lot of entrepreneurs think their startup is next big thing when in reality they’re just building a small business." http://ds.ly/8PXB19

Friend 1: Depends what you call small. A lot of room between a hardware store and Google. :)

Me: a small biz is one that makes a decent amount of revenue for its employees and is a nice sustainable business, but not much more than that. there is not hyper growth but just nice, recurring revenue. there can be a big spread of revenue that could qualify for this, like from a few 100Ks to even low millions.

The issue is that it is unfortunately a dangerous place for angel investors to be, because the biz is too small to be acquired at a large multiple of its value, or even to be noticed by the big guys. We can't easily get our return on investment from companies like these.

However, that is not to say that these biz shouldn't exist. I think it's a healthy evolution from the storefronts we see on our streets to the virtual storefronts of the internet. not all biz need to go IPO or make a billion bucks from an acquisition for them to have a reason to exist.

Friend 2: Do angels build in other means of acheiving ROI? For instance share of revenue+ebitda over time after a certain agreed to time horizon?

Me: not traditionally, but i have been thinking about applying something like this to startup investing. it's almost like investing in a restaurant or some other kind of cash business.

however, another problem exists where the entrepreneur is batting for the moon and of course they always think their idea will be the next google, even when we can see ... See Morethat it will only grow so big. thus, they are unwilling to accept terms that are not the usual startup investing type terms for investing.

i do think about this every day though, and hope that a solution does present itself. or we just suck it up and try to only pick the ones we think have the best chance for being google-like, or near-google-like, and we just write off the others that we can't get our money out of, even if they are nice small businesses.

Friend 3: For some reason I think there must be a sweet spot for investors that focus on smaller tech businesses or even projects. I'm thinking about investments in tech analogous to those made by restaurateurs, real estate developers, etc. Where capital requirements are low and return is performance based not exit based.

Me: I call this the Rise of Small Business on the Net http://ds.ly/7X5JM5 and think that there is something here, but just not quite clear yet. in the old days, banks would be the lenders to such businesses, but banks are way too conservative to invest in internet businesses, and with the economy the way it is, they are even less so.


While Steve's post (and many others) focus on encouraging the entrepreneur to think bigger (even I ask about the world domination plan and more on why), I have not heard much about the plight of investors who end up involved in a startup which becomes more like a small business than the scalable, world dominating startup we all would love to find. Steve does mention those who are OK with flipping startups, but some are simply too small to even flip.

I'd love to hear more about this from others who are thinking about this.

Dave McClure posed to Jeffrey Veen and me an interesting question over Twitter which was:

WHY aren't there more consumer internet VCs w/ graphic design skills?

This is something I've been thinking about for quite a while now. When I started angel investing and advising startups, I discovered that pretty much I was the only design guy out there angel investing, or at least that I could find. By that, I mean someone who worked in design in the industry, then switched careers and became an investor full time. For me, I felt that it was a specialty that would make unique in that I could help startups in the area of design and user experience.

However, I had always thought about why there weren't other design folks out there doing angel investing. Here are the reasons I came up with below. Note that I lump together the design disciplines of visual design, interaction design, and user/usability researchers.

1. There just aren't that many designers out there, relative to other disciplines. Anybody who has tried to hire designers knows that it is super hard, harder than hiring engineers which is already hard. Think about how many students graduate with design degrees; the number is incredibly low compared to the number of computer science graduates coming from engineering schools. This makes the probability of finding designers who become investors very, very low.

2. Now, take the very low number of designers out there, and meld that with the probability of experiencing a windfall of cash. This windfall of cash can be from any source, like a large inheritance, or winning lotto, or being an early person at a startup who had a mega-exit. Any of these cases (and others) is of extremely low probability. So again, low number of designers melded with low probability of windfall of cash to enable angel investing results in a super low possibility of this happening at all.

3. Of the people we meet in general with a lot of cash, who really wants to angel invest? I have queried some of my affluent friends and they're just not into it. Some of them don't want to, some don't feel the least bit qualified to do it, some know nothing about it and aren't interested in it. If this is true, then if we take the low number of designers who also have enough spare cash to angel invest, those who feel like investing in startups results in another very low number.

4. Knowing a bit how the venture fund industry works, I've been told that it's super hard to join up with a fund. It's not like applying for a regular job. Commitment at a fund can be a number of years, ranging from 5 to 10. Thus, adding someone to a fund's staff takes a lot of deliberation as it is not good for someone to leave a fund's team in the middle of a fund's life. A fund's pool of money is often raised on the fact that there is trust in a team to invest their money properly. If that team is disrupted, it could cause investors in the fund to pull out. Pulling from a limited pool of possible candidates, and the very low probability that any of them have any sort of design background results in just about nobody joining up with funds who are also designers.

5. If you look at who are typical venture fund partners, they are most likely ex-business people or ex-entrepreneurs. These seem to be the favorite candidates for becoming investors as they have experience in managing investments or acquisitions, or have worked in a startup and have some knowledge in startups and how to spot other good entrepreneurs. Designers are more likely to NOT have experienced these conditions and generally are not specifically looked for when a venture fund is recruiting for partners.

6. As one path to gaining successful experience as an entrepreneur, resulting in a potential windfall of cash to enable them to angel invest, designers might become a founder of a startup and grow it to an exit. However, most designers in pre-2002 days, were hired in later stages of a startup's life, thus limiting their potential return as their stock allocation and strike price are not as attractive as if they came into a startup much earlier. Therefore, even during the dotcom boom years, designers may have been able to reap in a lot of cash, but probably not enough cash to freely angel invest in post-2002 years.

If we expand the list to include design agencies, then there are design companies who invest. For example, Method Design did have an investment operation, and fuseproject is currently making small investments into some of the startups they encounter.

Still, individuals remain almost non-existent.

While all that may be true up to today, I also think that this may change in future years. For example, starting an internet company is a lot easier today than it was in years past. There is a lot more literature about entrepreneurism and general acceptance that entrepreneurism is an OK career choice. Also, it is possible to build something and not be a coder, which most designers are not. There are many inexpensive avenues to getting something built, and use of open source code and other hosted services make creating web businesses much easier.

Also, it is my belief that with the number of me-too products being so high, and the ease that one can create copycat products, design is finally becoming a true competitive advantage as core services are pretty much the same, but it is the user experience and design of the product that allows a me-too product to win over its competitors.

So going forward, we may see a bunch of designers who are part of startups from a very early stage, and thus can have enough equity to get them a substantial cash windfall upon exit, which can then result in enough spare cash to start angel investing. Over a period of time, if they get good at angel investing, then they may get noticed enough to raise their own funds, or join up with a venture fund.

Angel Odds Versus Venture Fund Odds

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When I first tried to raise a small fund back in 2006, I heard about venture fund odds on investments which was that for every 10 investments a fund made, about half would fail, 2-3 would return a little bit, and then there would be the 1 that would return everything that was lost on the failed startups and then some.

It seemed to make sense and also drove the original reason why I thought I should invest more often than not. If I put more bets out there, then theoretically I should have more chances to make my money back...right?

To date, I've made 16 investments and two exits. I invested more broadly than most angels, except for the super angels. But looking at the internet industry, the sad state of the economy, and the way early stage angel investing has progressed for me over the last 3 years, I have come to the conclusion that the one in ten odds for this biz doesn't apply to us; for us angels, it's more like one in 20, or 30, or even worse.

Why do I think this:

1. The economy sucks. Probability of exits is much much lower.

2. The economy sucks. Making money is harder. Paying consumers are harder to come by. Businesses are already slow in committing to pay for a service.

3. The internet is too crowded. Me-too products are all over the place, creating blur in consumers' minds, and making it harder to attract customers.

4. The internet is too crowded. Truly unique products and services are super hard to find now, so gaining a competitive advantage is tougher.

5. Too many small business opportunities on the internet. The probability of starting a great small business is a lot more likely. But finding a suitor with a small business is tough because it may not generate enough revenue to be attractive enough to be acquired.

6. Angel investors typically invest in the earliest, most risky time for startups. Venture funds (except for the early stage funds) usually invest after the very earliest money in. Once startups get to a size that is attractive to a venture fund, a lot of risk is taken out already; we don't have that luxury. We typically go in when there is just an idea, and maybe a prototype built, and occasionally a business up and running. We don't know if the startup will fail in a few months or not; there is no history that we can look at. With that kind of risk profile for our typical investment, it would make sense that their would be more failures in our portfolio than for a venture fund portfolio.

7. Those that survive have a high probability of needing additional rounds of funding for growth. If we can follow on invest, that helps a lot. But most of us can't do that. We may have enough capital to put one round of investment, but most likely can't invest more money in a subsequent round. Thus, dilution will limit our investment unless we get lucky and find a startup that does not require further rounds. The more investment rounds after the initial round, the more we get diluted.

So all this means that it's super hard to find that Google super-investment that makes back all that we lost and then some.

Solutions?

Ron Conway combats this by going super wide and doing more investments than we could ever hope to do. This increases the probability of finding a Google in his portfolio.

We could try to find more startups that are capital efficient, and that make money from beginning. Those that do not require a lot of cash to scale means they may not need another round. If they make money, then this also reduces the probability of needing more rounds of investment. Of course, companies like this are incredibly hard to find. Nor can we accurately predict what amount of money they will need later.

If we could follow on, this would help a lot. How about playing Lotto and winning a bucket of cash to play with?

Now, if more venture funds played in the early stage space, combining broad, early stage investment with follow on investments into the winners, this would seem to be a perfect combination. However, in thinking how many venture funds operate, it seems like there are problems with making this approach a success.

Any other possible solutions?

Lasting Two Years

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An interesting observation I've seen amongst early stage internet startups is that more and more of them are requiring closer to two years to get to breakeven. This is because of many factors, one big one being the fact that there are too many me-too products and that distribution is the number one problem facing entrepreneurs today. But also, many startups end up in someplace different than where they started. They may find that their initial theses is wrong and need to twist/turn/adapt into some other product to be successful. This also takes time.

I talked with an early stage VC and she mentioned that she had seen the same thing, which was a large percentage of them coming back for bridge rounds after working for about a year. We talked about the fact that they always seem to raise money for about a year or runway, but yet most of them just need a few months more to get to breakeven.

Even in my own startups, there are a number of them that "just need a bit more time." If only they had a bit more runway, if only they had a bit more cash, if only they could raise more....we are seeing that startups with mediocre metrics aren't finding it easy to raise cash so they are dead in the water, and soon to die in totality.

I talked with another investor about whether or not we should get more of our startups to raise more cash at the beginning. He actually was less of the opinion that we should demand startups find a way to last 2 years from the get-go. It was an interesting conversation and I think the difference in perspectives comes from the fact that I'm an angel investor with limited resources, and that this investor had far more resources to bring to bear on successful versus mediocre or dying startups. Also, given that this was my own money I'm investing, it was far more important to me than investing someone else's money. Strategically, it makes sense for them not to care as much. We already know startups will die; it's a ruthless culling process that startups experience. A professional investor can just move on and invest in the next big one, or invest in the winners in his portfolio. But given that my personal money is at stake, I care more about startups lasting long enough to make something with their businesses.

I've been tooting the "last 2 years" horn ever since the economy tanked. But universally I have been ignored. Remember that there are two levers to apply here: one is how much money to raise, the second is the burn. However, I never see anybody produce a 2 year plan ever. A host of reasons why not:

1. Entrepreneurs are unwilling to reduce their burn. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from families that need support to those unwilling to reduce their lifestyles, to inability to hire people at low salaries.

2. Entrepreneurs are unwilling to go out and raise more. Yes, begging for money sucks and takes too much time and is not fun. Entrepreneurs just want to get back to work building.

3. Entrepreneurs are unwilling to take the dilution. They already have sold part of the company and don't want to sell more.

4. An investor assures an entrepreneur that they will give them more money if they need it. Entrepreneur decides to trust investor.

Great reasons all, but the reality is that a huge majority of startups are all taking 2 years to get to a good place. The marketplace for products and for investment is not like it was 2-3 years ago before the economy tanked. In previous years, you could go raise money on no revenue but a ton of users. Now it's near impossible. Second chances are hard to come by. Raising money on mediocre metrics is near impossible.

One last appeal: Entrepreneurs, do what you can to last 2 years. Expect it. Raise enough money and/or adjust burn assuming no revenue. It's become unfortunately the norm.

Betaday09 11-17-09

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This last Thursday betaworks had our annual Betaday, where we gather our entrepreneurs, investors, and other luminaries and prominent folks from the industry to meet and greet and have lively discussion on issues facing us today.

It was held at the Hiro Ballroom at the Maritime Hotel. Swank mood lighting and hipster chill bar decor was found everywhere:

..as was the latest footwear fashions:

Before the festivities:

John Borthwick giving the opening remarks to full house:

Gary Vaynerchuk on how social distribution is changing media:

Is the Web page dead?

The death and rebirth of search:

Stowe Boyd moderating niche membership and birth of mass amplification:

A lively discussion on crowdsourcing:

Another fun packed, informative day with betaworks!

Leading the Investment Round

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Just recently, someone asked me what it meant to "lead an investment round". This was my reply:

1. The lead is generally the one with most to lose, or the most money in. It's not always like this, but usually. Sometimes it ends up being the person who cares the most about the terms.

2. The lead negotiates the terms for the round.

3. The lead may or may not share the negotiation with the other investors. It depends on the situation. For example, a venture fund may not include angels' opinions in negotiating. OTOH I've invested with one fund where they did include all us angels in the negotiation.

4. The lead is committed to the round and will most likely put in money first. Other investors will typically follow the lead's move to sign the docs and transfer money into the startup's account. So it's a tremendous vote of confidence for investors who may be conservative or shaky.

5. The lead generally pays the lawyer fees associated with the negotiation unless it's specifically called out in the terms that the startup will pay all the lawyer fees (ie. negotiation + financing). The lawyer fees typically aren't shared amongst others like angels. There are exceptions like two big VCs may share some costs if they are working on the negotiation together from the investor side.

6. There is liability associated with being the official lead. For example, there have been rare cases where other investors have sued the lead investor where they may feel the terms weren't negotiated well and there is some bad financial result because of it. So you should be aware of this and be concerned about it if you lead.

7. The lead generally sits on the board of directors since being on the Board of Directors since it allows them to watch their money most closely, and having the most to lose they usually want to do this. Not all financings have investor representation on the board, especially at early stage. Once you get professional investors involved it will most certainly be the case.

8. Only experienced people should lead. Someone who has done this many times is much better than someone who hasn't. Experience gives you an edge in what to negotiate for and what to give on, and what really doesn't matter. Otherwise you may not know what you're doing. Even someone with a lawyer backing them up may not be enough; a lawyer will always argue for you first and so you have to know when that is appropriate and when it is not, meaning how investor friendly or company friendly do you want the terms to be and how to get there.

Talking People Out of Being Entrepreneurs

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In the last few months, there have been a number of people whom I've tried to talk out of being entrepreneurs. I tell them it's really a test to see if, after hearing about how hard it is, whether or not they actually still want to do it.

There are many who are newcomers to entrepreneurism. I think this is great. But I think most of the newcomers underestimate what it takes to start a company and make it successful.

So I let it all out. I tell them how it requires some serious soul searching about what kind of person they are. You have to be natural risk taker. You must be willing to throw all caution to the wind, because you never know what's going to happen. You must be willing to throw away all levels of comfort in hopes of some huge gain later on. Are you OK with leaving your current job and its consistent pay, health insurance, and sense of direction in your life for a lot lower pay and the chaos that accompanies typical startups?

I talk about the time commitment. I talk about my early Yahoo days when there were just a bunch of us, and we worked our tail off for years. I talk about the long hours we spent building Yahoo back in the day, the stress, the do-everything-yourself mentality and the chaos of not knowing what's coming next. I tell them about the fact that relationships have broken up due to training for Ironman, which even at its peak, doesn't equate to time commitment spent at a startup and for a longer period of time. I go through the inevitable ups and downs that come with relationships and families of entrepreneurs; it's not an easy place to be when your work and family demands collide.

I make them take a hard look at themselves, and I also gauge their reaction to what I say. I can see it in their eyes and in their replies if they are unwilling to give it up. My intuition is running high in sensitivity as I sense whether or not they have what it takes to go the extra distance to be a successful entrepreneur.

Don't get me wrong; I am not judging what's good or bad, but only what's appropriate. I am not making a judgement call on whether you're a good or bad person if you have or do not have what it takes to be an entrepreneur. For some people, it's just not the right path to take. Yes it's disappointing, but I think we need to be realistic that entrepreneurism isn't for everyone. Or perhaps your life stage is now not the right time for a startup - for example, having a family and/or dependents, and/or a lifestyle which requires steady income may not make it appropriate for you to jump into a startup.

This is really important. We investors are betting on you to take our money and build something big with it. We are looking for those who are willing to do anything it takes to make something successful so that we all win, and that means sometimes driving yourself into the dirt and dealing with the stress of knowing that your bank account is about to run out and that if you don't do something fast/creative/better, you'll not be able to feed yourself or have a roof over your head anymore. This kind of passion/adaptability/drive for building a great company is what we're looking for.

If you're going to quit as soon as the risk is too high for your own personal livelihood, then it's best that we just don't start. It's not positive for either of us. Find an occupation that allows you to live the life you want, at the stage you're at now and be happy about that. Don't try to start a company on the assumption that you're going to just have the same kind of life you did when you worked at a bigger company.

One of the big problems I've seen over the last 3 years of angel investing and with entrepreneurs is that they will raise money and then compensation goes to near market levels for the people in the startup. They think that they can be in a startup and have their old lifestyle not be threatened. The reality is that startups are not a place where lifestyle can be guaranteed. This ranges from the "working lean and mean" philosophy (how can you pay yourselves market rates and still be lean?) to execution speed (you can't work at speeds seen in large organizations; you'll get crushed by other startups) to just the simple fact that the risk of failure is tremendous (you don't get the comfort of stability in a startup that you would get at a larger more established company; that's the price you pay for constant salary versus the chaos of a startup).

So if you pass my test, which is, after my whole tirade about the risks of startups and the downsides of what it's like to be an entrepreneur, you are still fired up about being one, then more power to you. Let's take this conversation further. But I am getting better at spotting hesitation, fear, and reluctance after hearing my speech. So let's not kid ourselves in being somebody we're not.

It's sexy being an entrepreneur. The rewards are great. The upsides are what everyone sees, and nobody sees the downsides. Dealing with the downsides is where the rubber meets the road and where you'll be tested sorely on whether or not you are a great entrepreneur. But if you're not entrepreneur material, you're not and that's that, whether it's your personality, life stage, or otherwise. You're not a bad person; it's just not for you and we should all just realize this, and not fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.

What the Heck Do All Those Terms Mean?

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I was just talking to a new entrepreneur about a term sheet and I realized that trying to understand all those dang terms on a term sheet was super tough because of all the legalese there, and also it's hard to know the implications of terms if you haven't experienced them first hand. It took me 2+ years of investing to get to some basic understanding of the terms and I'm still not even close to being an expert at it.

Searching on Google, I found some excellent posts from Brad Feld that explains some of the basic terms in a more easily understood way. Here are links to them:

Information and Registration Rights
Anti-Dilution
Redemption Rights
Liquidation Preference
Drag Along Rights
Protective Provisions

The Rise of Small Business on the Net

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A few years back I worked on a tiny startup that was attempting to jump on the affiliate marketing/blogging bandwagon. It was all the rage that people were making $100Ks per year just writing articles and doing a good job on driving traffic and purchases to marketers. It was a site about how geeks were cool because they were buying cool products, and so we would write about these really cool products and then drive affiliate traffic to places where you could buy them.

Our venture didn't get that far, but so many others' did. And the list is growing.

As everyone working on projects on the Net knows, the cost of building a business has dropped dramatically over the years. It started with blogging software which would could install on our own servers or use the hosted versions. Now, you can go out and find shareware for just about anything; stuff that would have cost a big company millions of dollars and a team of 100 to build in the past could now be found and deployed for a tiny fraction of that cost.

It's also easier to deploy web applications now. Previously you had to be a computer scientist to do so; now just about anyone can figure out how to deploy it, or using hosted versions just fill out a signup form and point your domain at it and you're off and running.

So now, just about anyone can throw up a website which has some advanced functionality. And people are doing it too. In the startup world, we see the internet has gotten super crowded over the last few years. Very few truly unique business/product ideas have emerged, and many are just clones of each other. Or once someone puts up a good idea, the clones emerge quickly because it's so easy and fast to put up a website. Thus, it's now less about the idea but rather how many customers you can grab and whether you can monetize that traffic to balance out your burn.

Thankfully, the internet crowd is enormous. Grabbing a small slice of that traffic and monetizing it effectively can mean a sustainable business that pays its employees a decent salary. In the past, we called these businesses microbusinesses or lifestyle businesses where a single person could make a decent living managing a website. However, in today's world, I call this phenomenon the rise of small business on the net.

Many startups we encounter have plans that we know can reach this stage. With great execution and effort, we can easily see many businesses growing to great small businesses. They will have revenue from several $100Ks a year to small millions. They have a small teams and all of them are well compensated for their work. All the employees will have great lives supported by this business.

The effort is comparable to opening up a storefront on your favorite street. In the old days, you'd go find a great physical location with lots of foot traffic. You go get a small business loan from your local bank and open up shop. Then you go and acquire customers and build your business from there. In today's world, you can do it on the internet without a physical location and tap into customers from around the globe.

From an investor's standpoint, we're finding that this creates a number of problems. Our model is dependent on finding those startups which will go big, much bigger than small business size, and find a way to return our investment with large gain through some mechanism like M&A or IPO. However, the ease at which startups can reach small business stage makes our job harder; we're seeing many businesses reach a certain level of growth and then breaking through that level is tough due to how easy it is for competitors to enter your market, and how hard it is to acquire the attention of users.

Some of us are thinking about change in the way we support some startups. I find parallels in the area of restaurant investing, where the investment is all about cash return and not ownership. What kind of restaurant would go IPO? Highly unlikely. But could we make 10-20% on our investment? Infinitely possible.

I wonder about how the structure of deals we do for internet startups might mimic restaurant investing. Instead of caring so much about ownership, perhaps we should find a way to get a healthy return on capital invested through cash flow, if the startup monetizes efficiently and does it well.

The problem with traditional investing in startups here is that these small businesses may never attract an acquirer and certainly the chance of an IPO is even more remote. Driving these small businesses to activities to return an investors' capital in that manner may take a healthy sustainable operation and turn it into something unsustainable and problematic as it reinvents itself to attract an M&A event or IPO. That seems dumb; the business is thriving and its employees well paid and happy - why destroy this?

I think the world of investing should think more about the rise of small business on the net. Many more businesses each day are showing up that are great sustainable operations supporting employees and their customers. They are never going to be superstar Googlesque success stories and we should not attempt to turn them into one. In today's crappy economy, the world needs more small businesses to show up to employ the masses and make them money. We as investors should find a way to invest in and help these companies to grow, and just be comfortable in the fact that they will never be Google but still can help us make a healthy return on our money.

Second Chances

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I was just reading 10 Huge Successes Built On Second Ideas and it motivated me to write this post, as I've been thinking a lot about the fact that entrepreneurs often end up in a place very different from where they started. It's gonna be a bit random, but here's what I've been thinking about:

1. How we pick startups to fund.

Time and time again I hear seasoned investors talk about betting on smart people because smart people will adapt and twist and turn to make their journey worthwhile. It is less about what they're building, although that is what brought them to the investor in the first place. Rather, the bet is that the person is good enough to figure something big out of whatever it is they pitched you.

I guess it's just me, but I place more emphasis on the idea than others, as there are many smart people working on stuff that doesn't have a chance, and is almost certain to require...a second chance.

The problem I see is that money only goes so far, and second chances don't come by easily. Most people don't raise enough money to allow them to twist and turn later; they only have enough to get them to barely a market trial of their initial idea. That's why I push entrepreneurs to raise at least 2 years of capital now, while their attraction is hot. Trying to raise more money later on mediocre to poor metrics is next to impossible in today's market. Otherwise, the entrepreneur will have to (usually painfully) adjust burn to last them further into the future or...just die.

2. Helping startups change/enhance what they're doing now.

I was talking to a venture capitalist the other day who said that you had to bet on entrepreneurs who knew what to do whatever the situation, and that if you had to help them then this was a sign of trouble. I find this to be somewhat not true, as I've built my business on sitting with entrepreneurs and helping them shape their products. I've found out that even smart entrepreneurs appreciate you throwing them ideas and opportunities that they can use, especially when they are in a bind. Finding smart people is fine, but everyone needs help once in a while and it's the smart ones that know they need help and accept it.

It's happened a few times now, where startups are now figuring out what to do next. One has changed completely, and others are in the process of reinventing/rethinking what they started working on because it hasn't worked out as well as they thought it would. I find the more I insert myself in this process, whether I ply coach-like skills to help give them some process in reinvention, or I'm throwing a constant stream of ideas at them until something sticks, the faster they will get on a new and potentially better path before their money runs out.

3. Raising money is a tough process for second chances.

This is tough for a variety of reasons.

a. Dealing with existing investors can be difficult. Already you have some invested in your company. But yet, now you're out there raising more money to continue - if your metrics are mediocre, then this could mean a sideways or down round to keep working on your current idea, and you must take into account the fact that your investors already own a piece of your company, and now more money is coming in and ownership and control issues arise. They best condition would have been if they invested into a note without a cap, which I would never do, because then you have total control over what happens to them.

b. Raising money on mediocre metrics is next to impossible. If you've gotten to a point a year in and your growth is not so great with little or no revenue, it's next to impossible to get another set of investors to bet on your idea in today's economic climate. They often assume that your idea and/or team isn't right.

c. If you're working on a totally new idea that may be great, but you and new investors still have to account for the fact that there are existing investors already, and what kinds of ownership and control issues exist and how they will change. Potentially it could also mean some questions will arise as to why your previous idea tanked and if whatever those reasons were make you look bad, then it will be hard to raise more money.

4. Mentally it's hard.

Yeah it's tough as hell. You're all gung-ho on your initial idea, you've got your investors and everyone around you excited about where you started and now you gotta change. That sucks! And you often beat your head on the table trying to figure out how and where to go next.

As many smart people I've met, they have often shown that they are often not equipped to continue on these projects in the face of adversity. This is both situational and internal.

Situational means that they may have real life needs for capital, like a family to support. I say situational because dependent on their life stage, the situational needs may be completely different like, for example, during when the time they were just coming out of college.

Internal refers to elements of one's psyche to enable them to deal with the harsh realities of entrepreneurism and what it often takes to build a business. So being smart is one great metric, but it's not enough by itself. You need to be creative, adaptable, able to withstand change and adversity and find solutions in chaos. Many people can't do this. Over the last few years, I've noticed that many people think they can just start a company and it'll be an easy ride to Google style riches. Time and time again it's proven wrong to me, having been through it at Yahoo and watching countless startups now.

All I can say is second chances (or twisting/turning/adapting from their initial idea) are tough. I am one for doing a little upfront planning for having enough time to twist/turn/adapt as far as second or maybe even a third chance, since it happens very often. Raise enough money early in the process and create a plan to go for 2 years, assuming no revenue or progress. Be prepared for it mentally, celebrate when your initial plan pans out, and buckle down the hatches when you have to shift.

More About the World Domination Plan

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In the last few meetings with entrepreneurs, I've noticed I've been consistently asking about whether they have a world domination plan. But I think my request is being misinterpreted; of course, I have not helped since I haven't clarified what I'm looking for either.

I am reminded of when I ran User Experience at Yahoo and when we interviewed people, we would give them a test. This usually was an hour to create a new design for Yahoo Profiles. We would give them some paper, pencils or pens, and then leave them alone for an hour. After an hour, we'd come back and see what they came up with.

It's pretty amazing the variance of output that we'd see. Some people would have maybe one piece of paper done. Others would have a whole tornado of paper and sketches on them and on the white boards on the walls. The way people "fail" this test if they came up with just one answer and were adamant about that being the only perfect answer. That's not the point; the point is that it's pretty impossible to come up with a fantastic solution in one hour. We gave them the test to illustrate their design process. If they had a great process and could walk us through their thinking, then we knew they could get a fantastic solution if given enough time. Those with a poor process would typically come up with just one answer and settle on that, thinking it was final.

This is the same for when I ask for the world domination plan. It would be nice to get "the answer" but I think it's pretty unrealistic given the twists and turns that startups go through. Some give me "the answer", which is fine if it's in the context of something they're thinking about. Sometimes, though, there is a certainty in their belief that is scary to me; it almost shows an inflexibility in their thinking that they are shooting for this solution and you sense that they're going to bulldog their way to this answer even if it is the wrong answer.

It's also pretty amazing to see how many entrepreneurs don't even think about it. I ask them and there is a blank look on their faces. This is a problem. While that doesn't mean a decent business couldn't be built out of their idea, it could mean that it only grows to a certain point and then...that's it. Great for the employees of the company who get paid every day, great for the founders who work at the company and own lots of it and also get paid, but not so great for us investors whose money is locked in the equity of the company.

As an investor, I would much prefer that you have the frame of mind that you WILL take over the world in whatever area you're operating in and you're always thinking about how that would happen. I don't want to see a blank face like it was a new concept. I just want to hear that you are thinking about it either all the time or at least it's floating in the back of your brain most of the time.

Because it's then that us investors know that we have the best chance of getting our money back and hopefully making some on top of it. Smaller companies can be great companies, but many reach some midpoint where they may not be acquired because their potential seems limited and acquirers are also looking for big opportunities. Thus, our exit potential is also limited. When you're on a trajectory through luck and planning to world domination, then your options are much greater because everyone chases you and wants your world dominating characteristics added to their own. You could even go IPO - but not if you're not big enough.

World dominating companies are the ones we want to be involved in and it starts with the right mindset. Remember it's not "the answer" that I'm looking for, but rather that right frame of mind and that you're noodling on it day and night as you're building your company.

Combining Startup Investing and Distribution

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A while back I wrote about "me-too" products and that one of the biggest issues facing early stage internet startups is the lack of distribution to get their product out there. After going to Ycombinator yesterday, I, again, felt that similar feeling when I wrote my post many weeks ago.

I thought that some of these were really great, but most of them were much-improved twists on what was already out there. In this crowded world where people already have multiple ways of doing things, I thought it was a damn shame that many of these startups would fail not because they weren't better, but just because they could not get enough customer exposure before their bank accounts ran out.

Just the other day, I had lunch with a buddy of mine at a small publishing company and the topic of distribution came up again. We talked about how valuable the traffic they had on their site was to all these little startups who had none at all. From this conversation, an idea emerged.

Here's the idea, and it's one that is best executed by people who have traffic, like a Yahoo or a Google, or even a NYTimes.

Any of these companies and their like all have done venture investing. But it's been very much like a investor-startup relationship, which is we give you money and you go out to make something big out of it. To me, I think this should change. I think there should be a way to give both money and distribution. To an emerging startup, a firehose of traffic could be worth its weight in gold, in addition to the money.

Suppose at the bottom of every page, which is not worth very much to advertisers since they want to be at the top of the page, there was a row of links which was labeled, "New things to try:", or "Cool startups:", or even something more explicit like "Check out our new ventures:". Then for each startup you invest in, part of the deal is to gain a place in that row of links. You could have permanent placement, or rotating placement if there are more startups than link slots.

Then just let them run. I think you'd be surprised at the amount of traffic the bottom of the page can generate. Certainly, even 1000s of clicks per day driving to a new startup would be extremely valuable. At Yahoo, we did some exploration on placing links down there. At Yahoo traffic levels, they were driving a tremendous number of clicks to Yahoo products and services each day! But yet that space at the bottom of the page wasn't really being monetized otherwise, or of any use to users after the main content of the page had ended.

So why not give it to the startups you invest in?

Today, startups are in a fight for attention. The only way for most startups to get noticed, induce trial, and thus get true validation from the marketplace that they are better, is to point a firehose at them. SEO is too slow, SEM is expensive - what else is left - perhaps partnerships with companies who can give them exposure. But I think that while it is possible, it is a lot of effort to do a BD deal for distribution. As an investor, I would think that it would be easier to just give it them ourselves, right? If you can firehose your investments to show the world they exist, induce trial, really prove out their models, wouldn't that take a huge amount of risk out of your investments and increase the chance of a startup being successful? Of course it would also show whether or not you chose wisely or not....

So c'mon big media companies - work with your venture arms. Invest AND offer a firehose. These guys need it, and, aspirationally, we do want some of these products which ARE better than what we have out there now.

The Problem with Early Stage Me-Too Product Startups

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I believe the universe of internet businesses has become extremely crowded in the last few years. In the early days, you could come out easily with something new because there weren't that many competitors out there. Now, it's hard to find somebody who isn't working on something similar to what you're thinking about. So competition is fierce and many times you'll find entrenched competitors with a lot of product inertia and a great head start.

The other huge problem is on the consumer side. Consumers are deluged by new products and services all the time. They have overload and just keep to the products they know best, and need to have a really good reason to change and move from another service to a new entrant. We saw this first in the past with email addresses; Yahoo Mail users were hesitant to move because the cost of changing your email address was super high and thus user retention was very high. Now add what makes up our digital lives on services like flickr (all our pictures that we've uploaded for half a decade now), or facebook (our friends are all here, plus their interconnections), or linkedin (our business connections are all here, plus all their historical connections). The cost of moving has become so high because we've invested so much time and effort into those services and we don't want to redo that, let alone adding the cost of learning a new service.

As an early stage investor, I've found that this makes picking companies exponentially harder and it's a shame. I meet a lot of smart entrepreneurs with some really great ideas, but then I do some research online and find that there are others who are working on something similar or in a close enough space to be competitive. Then I start to get worried about their prospects.

You can find tons of books on the subject of competition and winning despite having entrenched competitors. In general, I have found that entrepreneurs are doing what they should be doing to attack a crowded market. These are things like (my thanks to Andrew Chen for helping me with this list):

1. Innovate on the product experience (ie. Posterous vs. Wordpress).

2. Business model changes, where you are going free (or freemium) for a product that's usually subscription (or fixed charge).

3. Changing the market where you're going long tail instead of hitting the larger market (ie. casual games versus hardcore games).

4. Change in distribution model, where you are delivering something as a service rather than a download, or bundled into an existing thing (ie. Facebook app) instead of a standalone thing.

5. Change in branding. An example is where you cater to an upscale prestige market or niche market instead of a mass brand, or vice versa like taking a niche product and making it available to the masses.

6. Create a business that is better, out of a larger part of another business (ie. Lefora created a message board hosting product for those who don't want all the bells and whistles of a full social networking product).

7. Innovate on design, which appeals to those who want a similar product but one that looks/feels better.

8. Offering more features on a product, or customization on product.

And the big, traditional way of taking a new entrant into a crowded market:

9. Mass advertising to gain broad awareness and induce trial and adoption of new product in face of existing competitors.

So I am not saying it's not possible to win against a crowded marketplace. My issue is with early stage startups: in order to win in a crowded marketplace, early stage startups often don't have enough resources to last long enough to compete effectively and win. While a lot of the above can be implemented, growth time is limited by whether or not you have enough capital and revenue to survive until you run out.

To me, if you're developing a me-too product, it's ultimately going to boil down to a marketing game more than in any other situation. You can develop the best product or service, but if nobody knows about it because they're busy using something else, then you're still dead.

So distribution for a me-too product is critical. In the past and present, large corporations could do this because they had lots of money to launch large advertising campaigns. They knew distribution channels and could insert their new product there. They had contacts in their market and it was straightforward to get word out that they had a new product even if it was similar to existing products.

As a new startup, you may not have those channels and contacts established, and certainly you don't have money to spend on advertising plastered on the Superbowl, magazines, online, and elsewhere.

However, once you finish your product using one or more of the strategies above, you need to jump to strategy number 9 as soon as possible and get it out to consumers. You don't have time to wait until people notice you; you need to get noticed.

Some possible ways of doing this:

1. Buy advertising. As an early stage startup, this is the least viable unless you somehow have enough money to do this. Lead gen advertising can be better than CPM based advertising as you'll be able to pay only on a referral, but still this costs money. Let's move onto cheaper alternatives.

2. Marketing that involves barter space. You trade something of value for advertising space on their side. Something of value can be advertising space on your site, or donation to their cause for charities.

3. Word of Mouth Marketing. Contact bloggers, magazines, users and get them to try and talk about your product. Getting in the NYTimes is a big traffic driver, as well as many other national circulation magazines. Online publications like C|Net and The Huffington Post can also be great. Twitter is also a great up and coming means for getting your word out.

4. Get distribution partners. Existing companies can add your product on their sites and can help you promote it. This is usually in deeper partnership such that it goes beyond just buying ad space. You look for exclusivity in contracts and features that your product has that enhance an existing company's product and prestige.

5. Viral marketing. This is a very hard avenue to execute, which is to start with a few users and then it blossoms outward to many. Determining how your product can be viral can be an elusive game and if you don't hit on it early, you could waste a lot of time tweaking and hoping that something you create will be virally popular and spread.

In working with a few startups, I am disheartened by the fact that the importance of distribution is still not well understood. The leading thought is that "if I build something great, then everyone will come find me." Unfortunately, that is rarely the case in this crowded marketplace, and most early stage companies don't have enough time to let people just wander around until they find out about the product.

They did not do enough work to go out and contact bloggers. They didn't go out and try to woo corporate partners to see if they would help them get their message out. They just waited for users to come and they didn't come in great enough quantity to support their business by the time their money ran out.

So don't let your product fail simply because you can't induce trial. Remember, you have developed a me-too product, one that users already have a solution for and switching costs and barriers may be too high for them to take action to look for a better solution. You need to get them to know that your solution exists, and attract them to try it out - and since you're an early stage startup, you need to do this ASAP to give yourself enough time to let consumer adoption grab hold and ultimately take off, all before your money runs out.

World Domination Plan

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I love it when I hear entrepreneurs are working on a world domination plan.

I see a lot of entrepreneurs arrive with pitches that are limited in scope. They talk about how the world needs this function, how great it is, and how current products don't have these features. Usually, they really are great ideas. When we get to revenue, sometimes there is a plan and sometimes there isn't. But many of these revenue plans only seem to get to a few million a year at most. This may be a great small business, but for an investor, we need to ply our limited resources into those opportunities that will grow into huge businesses, and not just a million a year.

The need for a world domination plan is important to me. I want to invest in businesses that will grow into huge businesses, which will maximize my return on investment. I don't want to invest in businesses that will grow into small businesses, even if they are great small businesses. I only have time and resources to work on so many projects and need to maximize my efforts.

The plan needs to be believable to both me and the entrepreneur. It's not enough that I just believe it's possible; the entrepreneur must also believe the plan since he is executing it. If only I believe in the possibility, that's not good enough. To me, it's a form of personal deception; I see the idea, I see its potential, and it doesn't matter who works on it - it must build into a big business as I believe, right? It's not that simple even if I wish it was. I'm not the one executing the idea and doing all the ground work. The entrepreneur must believe in the idea and be able to do all that. If he does not believe in the idea and/or cannot execute it, it's going to fail.

Some people have enough resources to invest in experimental projects, meaning that there is no clear path to success at the beginning. I unfortunately don't have enough resources to deploy like that. Thus, I need to at least have some comfort that both the entrepreneur and I believe there is a world domination plan (and yes I know there is a great probability that this will change).

What is your world domination plan?

On Hacker News, someone posted that they could not find a good tutorial on becoming an angel investor. As I wrote in my previous post, "What I've Learned in Angel Investing, March 2009", there is practically no one to teach you or we're all too busy to hold your hand. So I thought I'd write a bit about starting out.

I thought about writing a whole tutorial, but I kind of backed off on that. I've only got about 2+ years of angel investing under my belt; hardly "expert" status on this topic! There are plenty of people who have been doing angel investing for decades and would be much more qualified to teach angel investing than me. However, I thought about what I could do to help budding angel investors start out and figured that I'd start by talking about whether or not you have the basic qualities for becoming a successful angel investor.

Don't Get Caught Up in the Glamour

Angel investing is glamorous. It's like sitting at the Monaco blackjack table that has a minimum of $10000 per bet. People look at you as if you're some rich celebrity. It's the same with angel investing. People think that you're going to make it rich as you go find the next Google and make a gazillion dollars. In fact, they think you are making a gazillion bucks even as they talk to you.

I would be the first to say that I get some attention for angel investing. But that's because they always hear about the great successes of venture capitalists and startups getting acquired or going public. They never hear about all the other startups that fail miserably, and taking investors' money with them down the tube.

So if you are thinking about becoming an angel investor because you think it's glamourous and you'll gain fame from it, I think that's fine but I can probably think of other less money-wasteful ways of gaining fame (for instance, join Twitter and challenge Ashton Kutcher to see who gets to 2MM followers first). Personally I would not become an angel investor because of this reason so don't get caught up in the glamour.

What is Your Reason for Angel Investing?

I think you need to think hard about why you'd want to angel invest. I would also suggest that you should have alternative reasons for angel investing beyond making money. That's because angel investing is probably one of the riskiest ways of making money and betting it all on this as an overall portfolio strategy.

So have other ways of gaining return from angel investing since there is a good chance you're going to lose all your money doing it. Feel good that you're getting something back from it even if the money doesn't.

My alternative returns from angel investing are:

1. I love hanging with smart entrepreneurs.
2. I love learning something new.
3. I love teaching and get joy from watching others learn.
4. I love being part of something growing.
5. I love the challenge of the process of startup and product building. I love the brainteaser aspect of trying to solve this problem.

You Need Money to Angel Invest

Angel investments range typically in the $25K-$100K range but can go lower or even much higher, upwards of $1MM. You can just do a few angel investments, or even one. But this substantially increases your risk of losing your money. To maximize your chance of making your money back and hopefully a bit more, you should consider that you need be able to make at least 10 investments to spread your risk.

Ideally you'd have a minimum of $25K x 10 = $250K to deploy. And the amount goes upwards from there depending on your target investment size.

Then, if you think about popular overall personal portfolio investment strategy, then you shouldn't have more than 2-3% in any one investment (ie. single stock) to mitigate risk. So is $250K (or whatever amount you are thinking about investing in total) only 2-3% of your overall personal holdings or less?

Remember, betting it all on angel investing is a dumb dumb dumb move.

Are You A Risk Taker?

In order to angel invest, you need to be comfortable with deploying huge sums of cash. You need to be able to do this decisively and without regret or anxiety.

If you are a conservative person, angel investing is not for you.

If you have anxiety about throwing large sums of money out there, this is not for you.

If you can't let go of your money emotionally, this is definitely not for you. You'll drive everyone crazy because you'll be so worried about losing your money and it WILL NOT BE A GOOD THING. Please PLEASE...just do us all a favor and don't angel invest.

Just Because You Like To Gamble, Doesn't Mean You Should Angel Invest

Angel investing is a lot like going to Vegas and gambling except for one important point. In Vegas gambling, the money is gone instantly; you have no recourse but to let go of the money at the moment it's gone. In angel investing, your money isn't instantly gone; if anything it can seem to drag out the loss process for an incredibly long and painful time.

Can you deal with that?

Do You Deal Well with Chaos and Uncertainty?

You might be a risk taker, but if you lose your head during times of great chaos or uncertainty, this is not good. Every startup goes through periods of high stress and low periods. As an investor, you'll probably be dragged along with those sentiments. I've lost my head once and blew up with entrepreneurs once, and learned my lesson that it just isn't productive. You gotta keep a cool head so that you can think clearly and strategize correctly.

Are You Disciplined?

Can you develop a plan and stick to it? Or are you tempted to toss your plan to the wind when something comes along so juicy you can't pass it up, even if it violates your plan?

I have found that sticking to your plan is crucial. It keeps you honest and focused. It also keeps you out of trouble. There is nothing wrong with altering your plan; that's not what I'm saying here. But once you figure out what is right for you, don't mess with it or else you'll get yourself in trouble.

Can You Exercise Tough Love?

As a parent, I often think about tough love with respect to my kid. The same applies to startups and entrepreneurs. When things are going south, somebody has to step up and say that you are heading south and something needs to be done. This can mean things like saying to the CEO that he needs to go, or closing down a startup because it's going nowhere. Anyone can say positive things during good times, but can you tell someone that something is really going bad and that they need to change/stop/leave?

Some of the hardest conversations I've had occurred beginning last year, when I began having talks about cutting burn due to money running out, and the lack of possibility of further funding. With the economy the way it is, I fully expect to see more tough conversations coming up.

An effective angel investor needs to be able to exercise tough love.

Are You Good at Saying NO?

Some people have this issue where they just can't bring themselves to say "NO". It's painful, it risks dealing with negativity coming from the other party, it's uncomfortable as you worry about hurting another person. It also feels bad being negative.

In angel investing, you MUST absolutely have the ability to say NO decisively and stick to it. Clarity is critical and wishy washiness sucks for everyone involved. If a deal is wrong for you, you just need to be able to say NO no matter how much an entrepreneur is begging, making you feel guilty or inadequate. Remember it's their job to sell you on investing in their company. Can you not fall for that and just say NO when you're supposed to?

Do You Have Great Intuition?

I run with intuition a lot. I listen to my gut and if something doesn't feel right, I just don't invest. I don't care what it is. If my gut just doesn't feel the least bit good about a deal, I just say NO. Intuition detects those things that are immediately obvious or things that are hidden. What is it about this deal that sets off the butterflies in my gut?

Intuition is that primal survival instinct that our ancestors and apes gave to us, but civilization just destroyed. We all know people with zip intuition; you know, the ones with seemingly no common sense whatsoever or always getting in trouble? Are you one of those people?

If you have a highly developed intuition, it will pay you in spades with angel investing.

Do You Have Something to Offer Startups?

I'm fond of talking about angel investing as a probability game. You always want to do a whole bunch of things that maximizes the chance that a given startup will succeed and return your investment with profit.

One of those is your money. That's easy.

The other is how you yourself can help. How can you help a startup you're investing in? Can you lend your experience to the entrepreneur? Your business contacts? Your ideas and creativity? Did you specialize in a particular area that you can teach? What else?

If you don't have anything to offer, then you should consider not angel investing, or at least not in the industry in which you have no experience to offer. Remember that you want to increase the chance of your investment's success always; why invest in something that has a lower chance of success? Why do people learn how to count cards to play blackjack, or at least learn blackjack strategy?

Are You Willing to Learn?

You should not be arrogant in thinking you know everything. I thought that by coming from Yahoo!, I could pick successful startups. And I was wrong. There will be a lot to learn, lot that you will not expect, skills that you will realize you do not have. To go into angel investing thinking that you know everything is only going to cloud your decision process. This is bad.

Following on the previous comment, you should be open to learning. If you are not receptive to finding out that others know more than you and learning from them, this is a big problem. You're going to think that with all your previous experience that you're going to be successful, and I guarantee you that you will miss the important finer points that will throw the odds in your favor and not against you.

Regarding Picking Companies

You have to be good at spotting opportunities. I have already said I have fooled myself in the beginning in thinking I was good at this, but then discovered there was much to learn beyond just the idea. Let's just say you have to be willing to learn and deploy intuition and objective measures for picking entrepreneurs and their ideas in order to be good enough at picking companies that you're not throwing money away.

Someday I may write more about what I've learned in picking companies. It's a tough subject with many moving parts. Suffice to say that if you somehow are good at this before you start, then it's a great quality to have. But if you don't have this quality or are unsure, then let's hope you learn because if you can't ever pick great startups, then you're toast no matter what. Go to Vegas and hang out with hot chicks at the $1000 Blackjack tables instead. At least you can hang with the hot chicks while throwing your money away.

Do You Have These Important Other External Factors?

Over these last 2+ years, I have found these external factors to increase the probability of success as an angel investor:

1. Your business contacts include those at companies which can result in strategically important partnerships or acquisitions.

Right now, one of the biggest problems that early stage internet startups face is access to customers, whether they are consumers or other businesses. If you know someone who can create a distribution deal for your startup, that would accelerate the growth of the startup, potentially past competitors who don't have those contacts.

Also, providing more opportunities for acquisitions is also strategically important. This can be as simple as just providing an exit for investors, but in times of economic crisis, it can become a survival lifeline for a business who is running out of money and options. Casting the net as wide as possible can only increase chances for a startup to be acquired.

2. You know and are trusted by other investors, either angels or venture funds, and can invest alongside others who will be helpful and advantageous to a startup.

Again, it's a probability increasing thing. The more helpful people involved, the better the chance of a great outcome. Thus, having experienced investor friends who will allow you to get into the deal is a very positive thing. If you're investing alongside not so helpful or experienced people, it just reduces the chance of success especially if you're in a tough situation, like running out of money and are looking for further investment or facing hostile competition or in need of strategic partnerships.

3. You have access to great dealflow.

This is always critical. If you don't have access to great deals, then why invest in only crappy deals? If you live in the middle of Montana and all the internet deal flow exists in Silicon Valley, how are you going to get included in those deals and/or pitched? There are probably a myriad of ways to access great deals: location, relationships, going to conferences and startup/entrepreneur gatherings - probably worthy of an entire post in itself. But this is a critical part of being a successful angel investor.

Last Important Attribute: LUCK

Are you lucky? Do good things fall in your lap out of the blue? Does opportunity knock for you more often than for other people?

As in all forms of gambling, being lucky gives you an edge over everybody and everything else.

If you are UNLUCKY, angel investing is DEFINITELY not for you.

Over the last 2+ years in angel investing, I learned a lot about myself while doing this. I also learned a lot from interacting with others and learning from them. Exhibiting these intrinsic qualities will enable you figure out if this occupation is right for you, and whether or not you'll be successful in it.

Endnote: Did I miss any essential qualities?

What I've Learned in Angel Investing, March 2009

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Paul Graham of YCombinator ran a great afternoon conference called Angelconf where he brought together a great afternoon of Silicon Valley angels to talk about how to become an angel. He then wrote a great blog post about it. I managed to watch a lot of it, although I was in NYC at the time and it was tough to watch the whole afternoon.

I was also impressed with Naval Ravikant's segment, which is posted on VentureHacks. Reading Naval and Nivi's post sparked some thoughts about angel investing in my mind, so I thought I'd talk about what I've learned, and my views on angel investing. One thing you'll notice is that many of the things I consider important are what others think are important, but there are definitely differences too. So angel investing can have individual differences between angels.

The Problem With Angel Investing Is...

There is no one to teach you. No one to hold your hand. At least until Paul Graham ran his Angelconf. Yes there are many blog posts out there, but there is no really good guide that leads through the topics in an orderly and easily learn-able manner. You get a lot of information piecemeal and you can't always tell what it's relevant to, or whether it's relevant to whatever deal you're working on now.

I paid my lawyer 1.5 hours of time to have him walk me through, explain, and let me ask him questions about term sheets. Even that was not enough. The ins and outs and subtleties of investing I had to learn on my own, and only by doing 10+ deals in the last 2 years.

Should You Be an Angel?

First thing is you need cash - $250k is minimum, which would put $25k into 10 companies. This gives you good diversification, and you get some good learning which would otherwise be missed by investing more sparingly. Investing regularly also gives you good market information. I now have a good picture into valuations for companies with and without revenue, as a reference for whether or not a deal is good or too expensive.

You can start out lower than $250k, but generally it is rare that entrepreneurs will let you put less than $10K into a company. You usually must have some sort of alternative attraction, like being a prominent business individual.

Starting out with more is always fine....but....the starting amount needs to not be your life savings! You're likely to lose it all in angel investing! If it's not your life savings, then mentally you'll also be better prepared, since if you can lose it all it matters trivially to your life.

Also do not invest with people who are investing what you think is a significant part of their life savings. There is a high probability that they will not be happy to lose it all and could cause no end of trouble to the entrepreneur.

What's your risk profile? If you're conservative, you shouldn't be doing this. Angel investing can be akin to playing the lottery or going to Vegas. Really.

Expect the ratio of 9 failures to one success. Naval thinks it's much worse, like 1 out of 20 or even 30. So you have to go wide to minimize your loss potential.

So it's hard to make angel investing profitable if it's just a hobby, ie. investing in a startup every once in a while, like one a year or less. Probability is far against it.

Do you have something useful to offer to your companies? If not, then your money is just dumb money and it is less likely you'll get included in great deals. Entrepreneurs look for people to be involved that can help them.

Discipline

Stick to your operating philosophy. Don't waver. For example, I don't do notes and have not since, or only under very strict conditions.

Intuition

If something doesn't feel right, don't invest. You may have a funny feeling about the entrepreneurs, the business potential, the deal terms, or something else. Trust your instincts.

Picking Companies is Hard

I thought that with all my Internet experience at Yahoo!, I could pick great startups. Boy, was I wrong.

Don't delude yourself in thinking you can pick a great deal every time. There are so many factors that exist in generating success. You can find total idiots who have made it big, and totally smart people failing miserably. Market conditions could also affect success rates simply because capital is not available or the market is not ready for a product like yours. Just because you think this deal is a great idea doesn't mean it's going to actually be one.

Also be wary of laying your own way of getting to success onto the idea but the entrepreneur has not bought into that. Don't fall into the trap of thinking this is great idea because you personally think it should be executed in some way but the entrepreneur is attacking it in a slightly different way. If he has not bought into it, it won't be done your way; it'll be done his way. But also remember that if you think of a great way to execute, it is possible that you are the only one who can execute it that way, meaning you have the business contacts, the experience, the thought leadership etc. The entrepreneur may not.

So if you love the idea and space, but hate the execution plan and think you have a better one AND can't convince the entrepreneur that you have a better plan, I would walk away.

Dealflow

I am lucky to be able to filter my dealflow by referrals.

Try to be friendly and useful to more experienced angels and VCs out there. They'll direct some great dealflow your way because they know you'll help load the odds of success in their favor.

I would caution you on investing in companies in industries you know nothing about.

I personally don't like to have an inbox full of proposals from strangers. I can't tell what is good and what is not. So build referral networks if you can.

Don't Be a Flake

Say you're going to do a deal or not. Don't be waffling in the middle. Nobody wants to invest with a flake who can't decide or is really just unwilling to part with his money but can't say so.

Branding Yourself

I started David Shen Ventures, LLC and it has become a slowly growing brand. People know me for being useful and many entrepreneurs appreciate, and can attest to, my usefulness.

People do think I'm bigger than I really am though. It's the risk of sticking the word "Ventures" on the end of your name. I'm just one guy, with an advising and investing operation and that's it.

Don't Refer Anything That You Would Not Invest in Yourself

This is brand building, which is to refer only great deals that you're personally going to invest in. No better validation can be given than if you vote with your own money. Don't get known for passing only junk that nobody else wants.

On the other hand, if for some reason you do want to help, be clear that you're not investing but think it's interesting. But don't do this often. Investors' inboxes are clogged enough with random deals that are coming from everywhere. Don't clog investors' inboxes further. So I would not do this very often at all.

Be Wary of How Many Deals You Can Handle at One Time

I went out very fast. It was fun, I learned a lot, but I also quickly throttled the process because advising too many companies at once was getting tough and I didn't want to short change anyone. I also started running short of available capital so be careful of putting too much money out there all at once.

In addition, I would be very disciplined in deploying the same amount of capital every time. Don't get caught up with the excitement of deals in the beginning and put more money in than what you planned. You'll run out of money faster, and also I guarantee that the probability of finding your google isn't any higher in the beginning than it is later on.

Pitches

I can't sign NDAs unless I get involved. I see too many pitches across many different internet industries and my business can't survive if I limit that.

The quality of referred pitches is much higher than randomly appearing pitches.

Be wary of being dazzled during a pitch, but be impressed at people who can be so dazzling. Always come back to earth after the meeting and take an objective look at the pitch when you're out of the mindcontrol ray that some great pitch people can point at you.

Let your intuition be your first guide, and then verify the rest: integrity/intelligence/energy of entrepreneurs, market idea, etc. If something feels wrong, don't invest.

Investing in More than One Company in Similar Business Areas

I generally try not to do this. I don't want to accidentally say something that one company is doing to another possible competitor. I also don't want to be accused of conflict of interest if I'm introducing one company to another for business development or M&A.

There are those who are willing to do this but I don't think it's a good idea for me.

Learning to Say No and Walk Away

You need to go into angel investing by having the courage and discipline to just get up and walk away. Every pitch will sound like a game changing next google opportunity for you. That's their job, to sell you the idea and get you to invest. Do not get mesmerized by that. Be objective in your decision and not emotional, and just say no. Don't be a flake and waver on telling someone yes or no.

By the way, it's easy to stress AFTER you say no. You feel regret that maybe you walked away from a great deal. In my experience, this is natural especially after a great attractive, sales pitch. Who can walk away from a hot woman who walks up to you, puts their hand on your rear end, and wants you to come home with her? Let me tell you; I have never regretted walking away from a deal. Remember your intuition - if it says no, it's saying so for a reason. Better to live to fight (invest) another day, then to get into a deal that may make you miserable later. Also, the probability of any early stage deal being successful is extremely low no matter how sexy the pitch is.

The Best Way to Say Yes

Don't just say yes. There are many first time entrepreneurs out there who think that when you say yes at the first meeting, they mean they have you. But that is not really true. It's only the first yes in a string of yes-es, which follow due diligence, checking references, checking the idea independently, or any other decision process items you may have. So make sure first time entrepreneurs understand that.

Do Not Skip Due Diligence

I ask my investments to give me a whole list of due diligence items. It's a good discipline to have and gives you a deep dive into the company. Luckily, early stage companies don't have much to dive into, but you can still see problems, like weird debt, or bad corporate structure. You may not want to invest if the entrepreneur is unwilling to clean problems internally.

Also be wary if the entrepreneur is unwilling to give this info to you freely and openly. This only sets the stage for how the relationship will be later on for other things.

I have walked away from deals in failing the due diligence process.

Trust

There has to be a large amount of trust no matter what all the business docs say. You have to see integrity in your entrepreneur and be able to trust that this person won't screw you later on, because business contracts still can't protect you 100%. Fundamentally, you need to trust the entrepreneur and he has to be trustworthy.

Be Wary of Business Guys With No Technical Partners

It's not that I don't think business only teams can make it big, it's just that in this day and age it's more expensive to run an internet business as just a business guy with an outsourced team, which results in increased burn and increased need of capital. And you have to ask why this person can't court another technical founder to help - is there something wrong here that you're missing?

Be Wary of Entrepreneurs Who are Building for Businesses They Have No Experience In

Most of the time the idea is great. But then I ask if they have any real world experience in the area they are building in and that's where I get them most of the time. I don't like it when people are theorizing about how a certain market is or isn't. They will most likely find problems that they have no experience tackling. It's better to find a company who has a veteran of the industry they are tackling so that they have at least have some first hand knowledge of what goes on in that industry.

I know that many would argue that entrepreneurs often need to adapt and dance back and forth a bit before they find their sweet spot. My only issue with this is that learning takes time and they may not have enough time to learn before their money runs out. This is especially relevant at the early stage where we angels often play.

Reputation is Everything

Totally agree here. Build your brand by being a good angel, useful and helpful to the entrepreneurs.

Learn the Terms, and Don't Just Trust the Entrepreneur to Treat You Right

I spent a lot of time and money, and doing a lot of deals before I could get a broader understanding of all the terms and legal speak of term sheets. It's tough to keep track of all that. It's also tough to understand the effects of all the terms in each situation. Experience helps you learn, and, unfortunately, making mistakes.

As I mentioned before, I asked my lawyer to help me understand the terms. But also get a good lawyer to review every term sheet for you and point out what is good and bad and explain why. I have found many angels to barely seem to care about the terms at all. They just "trust" the entrepreneur. I think this is bad. I think you should not fall into this kind of behavior and get a good lawyer to work with you on your angel investing.

If you can affect the terms to your favor, I would advise you to try no matter who is leading. I have also even been able to affect the terms AFTER the financing was over, so it never hurts to ask if you are the last one into a deal and you find something not to your liking.

Selecting a Good Lawyer

It's unfortunate but I have not met many lawyers who are experienced in the early stage. There are many who have done larger financings at later stages but not many who have done a lot at early stage. I can tell you definitely that there are differences. For example, there are terms that are just not appropriate at early stage but fine for later stage. You don't want to burden at seed financing negotiating over these kinds of terms, or waste money doing so.

Interview your lawyer for their experience in early stage financings. Get referrals from other angels.

Board Seats

In the companies I've observed, I think that taking a board seat should only be done if the person taking it can add value beyond that of just watching over the investors' money. I've seen some pretty ineffective board members and I've seen some that were amazing. The amazing part comes in when the company needs to be sold or needs business deals or needs additional funding. Board members with lots of industry experience and connections can make or break whether a company is going to die today or live on.

If you're just there to watch over the money, then i've heard horror stories of board members whose only mission was to protect the investors and not care what happens to the company.

How Much of the Company Should I Get After an Angel Investment?

Assuming you're not doing a note, I originally set my goal for getting about 1% of a company with a $50K investment. Before the current economic climate, I was seeing deals raising about $1MM on a $4MM pre-money valuation. This seemed like a reasonable benchmark at the time. But now times have changed a lot. The valuations have dropped quite a bit and now you can get more of the company for the same $50K. Still, I see many startups trying to raise money at pre-2008 valuations and I just pass on them because I know there are better deals around the corner. This where having a good finger on the pulse of seed financing can help greatly.

I Don't Do Notes

Sorry all, too many misadventures with notes, even those with caps. Read about my misadventures here. It's too risky and troublesome for me.

Assume You Lost the Money As Soon As You Invest It

Definitely you'll sleep better if you think this way. If you can't let go of your money, angel investing is truly not for you.

Matchmaking and Connections

Your job after you invest should be to go out and meet people who can help your startup. You should keep a rolodex of these connections and cultivate them, because you never know when any of your startups might need their help.

Don't be a passive investor and not help. You want to increase the odds of your startups' success, and not be dumb money.

Invest with Other Helpful Folks

When you have a group of well connected, motivated individuals you increase the chance that a company will succeed, as the other investors will apply their connections and expertise to the startup.

Never Invest By Yourself

Again, you can increase the odds of your startup's success by having a pool of helpful investors. If you invest by yourself, you only have yourself to help and the startup may need more than you can give. Incent others by including them in the deal. Forcing the entrepreneur to find other investors can also lend some more validation to the business idea.

Don't Invest in People You Don't Want to Hang Out With

Like Naval says, why would you want to give money to people you don't like or don't care about? Once you invest, you'll be involved for a long time. Remember that. You can't just walk away from an angel investment. There is no cash out and washing of your hands of a deal afterwards.

Make Sure the Company Raises Enough Money Before Sending Your Money In

I'm guilty of doing this for sure. You need to make sure a company can get enough money to survive before you put your money in. You don't want to just extend out when a startup will die by giving them a little extra money. You want to give them enough money to survive to a good place. So commit, but make sure the entrepreneur has other money committed and coming in before you give your money in.

Don't get entranced by the excitement of the business idea and want to see it started NOW, so you put your money in now thinking that it's going to be all right. It may not be all right. You may have just wasted your money on letting the company run a little longer and then it dies.

Angel Investing Return is Not About the Money

My return is not all economic. I find it extremely satisfying to work with young, smart entrepreneurs and sharing with them my experiences at Yahoo, and helping them with their businesses and products.

This also helps me to consider invested money as "already spent" and not stress about whether that money is coming back or not.

I also consider it a challenge to see if what I think will work for a company really works. Thus, I apply my expertise and advice to my companies and am gratified when they do work (and bummed, and learn a lot when they don't).

This is partly why I started advising when I invest. I get part of my return from working with the entrepreneurs. But I also want to make sure they really want my help and are not just telling me, then get my money, and don't bother to talk to me. By executing an advisor agreement, this really creates the commitment from the company that they do want my help and want to engage me in that way. I've also walked away from deals because they did not want my help like that. It's OK; remember...discipline to stick to your plan!

It's an Individual Thing

In listening to Angelconf, you'll find that most angels are consistent with many operating strategies. But then you'll see some who'll say one thing and another say something completely different on the same topic. A lot of that goes to what experiences they've had in the past, whether they were VCs before, or got burned on something in the past.

The important thing is that you need to figure out how you want to work and then stick with it (unless shown that you should change of course). Don't go and tell someone else that they should do something your way. Their way may work perfectly well with them and it can be dangerous to adopt a new way of operating if you're not able or ready to make it work that way.

How do I compare to other angels out there? Or to your own operations if you're an angel?

Still Lots of Interest in Incubation Out There

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In the last few months, I've encountered at least 3 people who are thinking about incubating. On the one hand, it's amazing that the topic still comes up, but on the other hand, it's not so amazing.

Clearly the news about the spectacular failures of incubators during the last Internet bust hasn't deterred anyone from trying to build incubation operations. We can even find examples of incubation-type operations that are arguably working like Ycombinator and similar operations in other locales, like Techstars and LaunchBox Digital.

People keep wondering themselves why they can't just build stuff, and keep building stuff until something works. Or setup something like Ycombinator/Techstars/LaunchBox. It seems so cheap and easy to build a web site/service and get it out there. Why not just build lots of things quickly and try them until something works?

I believe the answer is YES you can. But before you do, I would point you to my two blog posts about incubation, which were gleaned from conversations from many incubator operations both personal and groups in the present and in the past. At betaworks, I took on the project of finding out as much as about incubation as I could, to inform betaworks about the best way to go about coming up an idea (or ideas), how to get them built, and set them up for later success. I then went out and talked to people incubating and distilled what I learned into these two posts:

Incubation 101
Incubation 201: Should You Incubate?

Words of wisdom/caution to those who want to do this:

1. Generally, professional investors run away from people trying to raise money into incubators, because of lot of them were around when the dot-com incubators all collapsed and they remember that. So calling whatever you're doing an incubator has been found to be a detriment to fund raising.

2. Find your benefactor, woo someone who believes in you and what you're going to do and has cash to fund your operation.

3. Be aware of destroying incentives that will hinder people from working their butt off on their projects. These are things like paying people full salaries and benefits, and not tying the ownership of the project deeply enough to the people working on them, among other things. Keep people hungry and motivated, that they think their entire future and life depend on the project they are working on.

4. Transferrance of an idea is SUPER HARD. Don't think it's easy to just be able to explain an idea to someone else and they will understand it as intuitively and viscerally as the idea originator.

5. Keep costs as low as possible. This will keep everyone's runway as long as possible. It will also add to the hunger.

6. Figure out what you're good at, and leverage that in developing the incubation operation. Paul Graham loves smart hackers and is really good at filtering for that. So Ycombinator teams are always composed of super smart hackers because his strategy is based more on having super smart hackers around than just the idea, because often times where you start is not where you end up, and smart people will find a way to success no matter what. What do you believe will generate success and how will your strengths help that strategy?

7. Following on 6., I would advise you not to compete with Ycombinator or any of the other incubator type operations out there. Don't call yourself Ycombinator 2.0 either in name or messaging. Only Paul Graham can pull off Ycombinator in the way he is doing now. Be yourself and build your own brand.

8. Out of respect for the kind folks who shared with me their knowledge and wisdom which cost them a ton of time and money in legal fees to figure out, I am not publishing anything about what I learned about company structure or legal matters. You should go find a law firm who has worked in this area before and they can help you figure things out. As a hint, some of that has to do with the SEC Investment Company Act of 1940.

I wish you well in your incubative endeavors. May you build something truly great!

The Importance of Revenue at Early Stage, Now More Than Ever

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Revenue is important. DUH.

It seems as though we forgot about that through the internet years. People were willing to put money into startups to build up a user base and put revenue generation second before that. They didn't have to deal with revenue because they knew that they could raise their next round based on tremendous usage and on the assumption that if you had a gazillion users, then you must be able to monetize them somehow.

That did work for many startups through the dotcom boom years, and even after the internet bust it still worked for many years, right up until the economy took a nose dive.

The world changed, and now that second round is just about non-existent.

So I, along with just about every other experienced investor out there, have started to demand revenue as soon as possible (better) or want to see it at the outset (best). We have turned away just about every early stage company that has no revenue or no firm revenue plan.

While we'd love to be optimistic and place a bet on a startup that only has user building potential, but no clear revenue plan, it's just too risky right now. Or, if the entrepreneur has not created a firm revenue plan, or does not plan to turn on revenue generation as soon as possible. Any of those are too risky for me right now.

Why? In the economic climate of today, 99% of the funding sources won't even touch a startup that doesn't have revenue showing, when they hit their next round. I've seen it happen multiple times for companies trying to raise money today. Thus, if you don't have your own source of cash (a.k.a. revenue), then you'll end up dying when you burn through your initial cash that you've raised. You just can't count on that next tranche of cash to appear when you need it most.

So in investing in you, I want you to survive. I want you to build a great business. I DO NOT WANT YOU TO DIE a few months or a year from now when you run out of cash, just simply because you put off revenue generation until the very end and it's too late to generate enough cash to support yourself. To me, that's a waste of not only my money, but of everyone else's money as well. Think about that if you're going to take your friends' and family's money. In today's funding environment, you might as well be tossing it out the door if you don't start revenue generation from day one.

Before the internet, startups were always created to make money. Entrepreneurs always thought about building businesses to make money from day one. And many of them would drive themselves into the hungriest state, risking their homes on additional mortgages and their relationships with divorce. Their unwavering belief in their business idea coupled by their need for cash to sustain their lives kept them going until some of the biggest businesses of today were built.

Somehow we lost that when funding sources were willing to bet on ideas that didn't have obvious monetization early on. It took the economy to dive into recession to bring this "create a business to make money" philosophy back into the forefront.

Perhaps it never should have gone away.

I'm only looking at startups with revenue or will turn on revenue from day one now, but I also wonder about what I will do when the economy recovers. Would I go back to placing bets on some ideas that may not have obvious revenue plans, or are generating revenue immediately? I think that we'll have to take a look at the funding environment and the startup ecosystem to see if we'll ever go back to supporting businesses like that.

Recession? What Recession?

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In the last few weeks, I am amazed at how many people are completely unaware, oblivious, or uncaring of what is happening in the markets.

When you drive past malls, the parking lots are full. People are still out shopping! Maybe they aren't buying? At least they still aspire to buy even if they are not. However it seems that some people still are.

One of my startups, Ideeli, who sells luxury goods at 40-90% off, is showing great growth. I guess women still want their luxury goods even in a recession.

The other day I was catching up with a buddy of mine and I told him some of my companies are shutting down. He was amazed that this was happening.

Some startups I meet with still are in the mode of building for users and making revenue part of their future plans AFTER they raise their next round. I tell them that the investor community has completely stopped funding startups without revenue WHEN THEY SHOW UP at their doorstep. They look at me like I'm an idiot for asking about and pushing them to generate revenue now.

WTF??!?!

Ignorance? Obliviousness? Inertia of irrational exuberance still keeping spirits high? Or perhaps some things just haven't affected some?

It almost reminds me of when I was a kid growing up during the downturn of the 1970s. My parents dealt with the problems, but they never affected me directly. I never stressed about it, and nobody asked me to stress about it. Food showed up on the table, I went to school, still had clothes and toys. The world was all right.

I think some are like that. They have money. They have support. They still walk down the street to their Starbucks and buy coffee. Everything does seem normal in our little microcosms.

But if you take a look at the world beyond our immediate surroundings, it's a mess. The larger, global mess trickles down to creating a mess all the way down to affecting us. It's in all the news, and in our stock prices, our gas prices. For us in the investing biz, it's in how we think about building startups.

Sometimes I think people just don't read newspapers, or watch the news. Or maybe their larger view doesn't have enough experience yet to process all the macro effects and distill them down to micro effects, and finally down to those that directly affect each and every one of us individually.

I think that I was fortunate enough to be an adult through the 1989 downturn, the boom-bust of the internet through 2001, and now this one. It's a sobering thing to be hammered so many times and to viscerally have experienced their effects on us. I have learned to process broad data and bring them down to the individual level, and I have much more to learn.

I meet with my financial advisor regularly now and pump him for broad economic data, because he sees much more info than I do. We talk about how it affects my investments, but also about the broad economy both domestic and global because I want that data to process, so that I can strategize effectively in all areas of my life, including my startup investing.

When I think about how I get all my information, it's almost a full time job keeping track of all this information. So maybe I can forgive those who are ignorant/oblivious/irrationally exuberant because it's a lot of data to process, cutting across a lot of experience areas, and it's hard to understand if you don't have context or experience to pull it all together.

I can only hope that people do a more deeper dive in broader economic factors because it does affect us all, and we'll make better decisions about our lives, money, and work because of it.

And I can stop getting in arguments with people about why building for users isn't a good strategy now....(more on this in a future blog post).

A reporter asked me some thought provoking questions about the state of the world and whether Silicon Valley will play a large role in recovery and building new companies and employing tons of now-out-of-work people. I gave a rambling reply which also caused me to think deeper about how things are and my dissatisfaction with many things in the past, which I hope will be fixed. Since it was an interesting thought exercise for me, I thought I'd share it with you (with a bit more embellishment):

3% is the new 20%

Greed has played a large role in how broken the system is. I now say 3% growth is the new 20%, which means that expectations have been totally out of whack in the past. When I was at Yahoo, it was ridiculous to have investors continually push for 20% growth quarter over quarter, year over year. It's unsustainable. and when Yahoo fails at this, or any company for that matter, the investors knock the stock down. When the stock goes down, the investors get in an uproar and scream bloody murder, try to get rid of the current management team, cause a huge ruckus which is hugely distracting and doesn't enable a company to respond in the way that is best, which sometimes takes time - More time than investors are willing to give. The short term mindset of investors which drives the short term mindset of companies doesn't let any company plan effectively for the long term, but only for next quarter's earnings call.

Stock market driven by emotion

The whole stock market is driven by emotion which is really bad in general. Whatever happened to what I learned about stock investing way back, when the stock price was a reflection of the actual value of the assets a company had, not what emotion drives what we think it should be?

Is incremental innovation enough?

Lots of innovation is definitely in the form of incremental innovation but that is true in more established technologies. We see this in bulk on the internet, but on the other hand, we still see a lot of truly weird new stuff that nobody is working on before. I think a lot of people think they can merely do something better and that is enough to get to a good place, or become number one. the main problem is that users have services overload; ex. how many social networks do we really need?

This is a big problem for us internet startup investors. We see a lot of me-too products and while something may be truly better, there are so many factors out there that inhibit the establishment and growth of a me-too product, even though it's better. Users have lots of inertia in products they know; they learn, get used to them, then are unwilling to switch. Users also can't determine what is truly better or not - when two things work in the same industry or product area, users aren't going to spend time to dig into every new product's details to figure out which is better; they don't have time. In the past, large marketing campaigns to drive awareness could get a new entrant a place in the marketplace, but "firehoses of users" aren't easy to find or establish to get enough trial such that natural growth of users starts to happen.

Where's the next big industry creation going to happen?

If i were a betting man, I would say cleantech is the next big area for large scale innovation that creates big companies and factories, that employ a wide variety of skills and skill levels - it's an area that will require lots of capital to start and get going.

Internet tech only employs a certain type and set of skills - as a veteran of the internet and investor in the area, I still think there will be lots of innovation there, but it will come more slowly and the big returns will become more rare, but lots of smaller companies will pop up. It's still an interesting area and think it will be for some time. Capital requirements are virtually nil for internet startups now.

Statistics says that Silicon Valley can still drive a large portion of company creation and thus, help in the recovery

I'm biased. I live in the Silicon Valley and in living there, versus visiting elsewhere, I think that innovation and new business creation still happens a great deal in the valley. Why:

1. Even in the economic downturn where we'll see many of the venture funds die, the greatest concentration will still be in the bay area. No other region in the US can claim the sheer number of funds and greatest concentration of angel investors too.

2. The economic downturn will kill off many dumb ideas and leave the strongest to survive. This puts back a constraint on startups which had gone missing in the boom years: gotta make a great business that can make money. duh!

3. Still people flock to silicon valley to start businesses. This inertia isn't going to go away instantly. It would require many years of failure to reset this in peoples' minds that Silicon Valley isn't the right place to be.

4. Being in the Valley means you are surrounded by tons of other like-minded startup people. It would be hard to find some other place like this, except for perhaps NYC or maybe Boston (even those two would still be dwarfed by the sheer number of people in Silicon Valley). Everywhere else has a much much less dense concentration of people who can help you and who have done it before.

5. I personally still look at deals and those that kind of are sub-standard, I tell them (as does everyone else) to go back to the drawing board and come up with an idea that can make money. This kind of feedback is just one more iterative step in getting people to the right place.

6. So eventually some great ideas will make it through the filter, but you have to wait for time and effort to pay off. Statistics says that the greater number you have to play with, the higher the chance you'll get something new and big. With the sheer volume of stuff that goes on in Silicon Valley, that says to me statistically that you'll get a next big idea faster than in any other place in the country.

The next big breakthrough employing 1000s of people won't happen overnight

I doubt that any idea could move that fast and with the economy so down, it will be even harder to see a company grow to such size in those conditions, even those with some momentum. So in that sense, it may be that the government's massive infrastructure projects may be the ones that will employ a lot of people in the short term while the other companies fight off their investors by laying off people just so they can get their revenue numbers looking better.

What if we didn't layoff anyone and just waited it out?

What if companies didn't sucumb to the pressure - what if they kept paying people but were OK with zero profit? We all know we'll pull out of this downturn at some point - but we have to make a whole bunch of people suffer by laying them off just so a company can look good to investors. Again, the short term focus will weaken companies and place a lot of good, experienced workers out of work. OK OK I'm not totally correct because maybe some companies will make less than their expenses so they will no longer be break even, so maybe they should cut dumb projects and fat off their staff. On the other hand, we've seen time and time again where companies would layoff people in downturns, and then just re-hire them later during good times. We don't need them - we DO need them - this see-sawing back and forth costs people in time, money, and effort.

What if we just didn't fire them, made less or zero money, and just waited it out since we would have hired them back anyways?

Another thing I learned along the way: being loyal to a company is a thing of the past. A company exists for the survival of itself; if that means that people should be let go, it will do so in order to survive. It doesn't care about the people, even though it should. As long as the people help a company survive, it will retain those people. Anybody who doesn't contribute to its survival get cut. I don't see people having any say or power in this decision. Thus, we have to prepare and take care of ourselves in case it happens.

People are resilient, and will drive new business creation

In a downturn, people tend to be resilient. I read somewhere that during these times, people start their own businesses because they've been laid off, sulk for a while, then pick themselves up and go and start new sustainable businesses because now they are free from the corporate mess to do so, whereas they may not have felt that freedom before....?

Entrepreneurism is under attack

I agree generally with this statement. I think the capital mkts are closed, but only for a while. The evidence is that the recovery steps are taking hold but it will still be a few months before things are more back to normal. There will be a shake out in the venture industry. IPOs will still be tough until SAOX gets fixed, which I heard people are working on.

Education could use some serious improvement in the US. But still many kids come out of college wanting to do a startup instead of taking a corporate job. so while we essentially closed the doors to international talent, I think that there is plenty of talent ready and willing to go with just a little experienced handholding.

Basic research is declining I hear. People aren't encouraged to take science; they want to make the quick buck so they become stock traders. So less ideas come out that way, but still there are many untapped. I met a guy who had a line to the DARPA funded projects in universities. He raised a small fund to help these projects become real businesses. Real scary star wars stuff he was telling me about. Pretty cool.

The search for exits is a problem for the whole venture industry. Tt does foster this attitude of building a business for the exit and not for sustainability. This needs some re-thinking. I admit I even suffer from exit-itis as an angel investor. But we also need to figure out how investors can profit from supporting a company and being able to cash out their investment.

Silicon Valley downturn not as severe as other parts of the country..sort of

Still lots of wealthy people running around, although a lot of Valley companies laying off 1000s of people. And I think parts of the Valley are experiencing downturns but not all, as evidenced by housing prices, etc. Still, it's probably not as bad as other parts of the country. But as for contributing to the entire country's recovery, I think you'd have to make people move to the Bay area to look for jobs, or have those companies expand out to other states to get cheaper labor. One problem is finding skilled workers in the areas that high technology requires in other states. Sometimes, you just can't find those people there, or get people to move there because the quality of life is not what they want (who doesn't want to live in California haha?).

I read an article in Venture Hacks about American Apparel. This is the innovation that is required in the US; to stop throwing jobs out of the country and figure out how to do things here, so that we can employ Americans and pay them what we need to pay, but also do it in a cost effective manner to be competitive.

California is well poised to recover

I think California has a great chance to recover by itself: entertainment industry in southern California, tech and other stuff in northern California. As in other years, I think there will yet again be a migration to California to look for fortune, as companies get created and are looking for skilled people, and that will draw skilled people from states where jobs are lost.

Do you agree or disagree?

Startup Vocabulary: RENVY, RENVIOUS

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RENVY
[ren-vee]
noun, verb

-noun
A feeling of discontent or covetousness with regard to another startup's revenue, especially when you have none:
Green with renvy takes on new meaning when we're talking about money.

-verb
To regard with renvy:
I renvy company Y reaching breakeven; if only we had went for revenue from the very beginning, we wouldn't have to go beg for more money.

RENVIOUS
[ren-vee-uhs]
adjective

-adjective
Full of, feeling, or expressing renvy:
We at company X are renvious of company Y's $100 million dollars of revenue last year and are planning to take them out in beer pong on Friday night.

This startup vocabulary lesson was brought to you by the folks at Loudwater Labs.

Help Bailout Early Stage Internet Startups!

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The government has bailed out banks and mortgage companies, and it's most likely going to do something for the auto industry. How about my early stage internet startups who are also in desperate need of cash to survive through this economic downturn? Or...how about my all time favorite startup Pets.com?

Pitching Me

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Some teams from Seedcamp from London were in town this last week and I managed to get a private pitch session. Here is a video of uberVU pitching me, shot from a mobile phone:


uberVU - betaworks pitch from Vladimir Oane on Vimeo.

I don't look too good without makeup, do I?

The Death Spiral

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This slide from the infamous Sequoia deck is one of my favorites:

Running lean is something all startups should practice at all times, even if they are profitable. Keeping costs under control is an art and a science and is even more critical when you're just starting out and don't have any revenues.

So add in our economic woes and in the short term, the death spiral becomes a high probability and high burn startups can't pull out of it, because funding has almost all but dried up. Venture funds are pulling back and getting super conservative; they have good reason too - the crappy economy does not allow startups with slow to prove business models to survive. At the early stage, it's even worse; us angels and early stage funds can't give a startup enough money to last out past when the bailout plan and economic recovery will begin. Early stage startups need enough runway to get to positive metrics so that they can raise the next round. If they can get to profitability, even better. However, if you try to raise money now and your metrics are average or not all that great, you won't get your raise.

Hence you enter into the death spiral and you're dead.

UNLESS...you reduce burn now. Do whatever it takes: layoffs, cutting salaries, removing non-essential services and perks. It's all about survival now and for as long as you can, to give you as much time as possible to get your metrics to a positive place. Activate revenue generation immediately; don't wait. Start getting cash in now and you'll be able to last even a bit longer.

And if you're starting a company right now, begin with good habits of running lean. Don't get into thinking you can run the company as if it were a bigger, more mature company. You can't. The bad economy exacerbates these problems.

It's times like these when you really find who truly believes in the company and the idea. If you need cash in your life (ie. have a family), you should seriously reconsider being in a startup. Startups need to run lean to survive; it means that there is a huge amount of sacrifice that its employees take on to really run lean. Those who are truly believe in the company and idea will stay no matter what it takes; they will not leave when you cut salary or perks. And they will work their butts off for minimal pay and equity alone. If you can't live in an environment like that, I would really urge you to look at what is truly important in your life before joining a startup.

Betaday 10-14-08

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Today we had our second Betaday at betaworks in NYC. It was at the Soho House, a posh movie screening house right next door to our offices in the Meatpacking District:


It was a great event and provided the opportunity for media companies and ad agencies to network with the startup community of NYC. One exec remarked that without Betaday, it would be next to impossible for execs to find and connect with these startups. It's so true; without events such as these, where would they meet young companies like these and look to do potential partnerships with them?

Looking forward to the next Betaday!

Crappy Economy Means Change in Strategy

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The economy is affecting everyone. But it's also interesting to see how it is affecting my angel investing strategy.

Like all other investors, I sent out my own doom and gloom email to my companies. Here is mine:

------email--------------------
Well, I should have been more closely following the blogs, but for some
reason missed this. Of course, you may have seen this already.

I am sure by now I am not the first investor to be telling you this. More
data from a presentation from Sequoia to its portfolio companies. Better
hunker down the long haul. This problem is now worldwide which means it
isn't just a local US problem. Thanks to some of our once esteemed
financial firms, we've now taken down the system worldwide.

Early stage is the most risky. It's where cash is very scarce, and you
don't have revenues yet. The problem is the economy is going to be
harshest on all you guys because in a good economy, you may not have
problems.

Make the hard decisions now before you're laying off people and in
survival mode. Extend your cash as long as you can and work as hard as
possible to get your metrics into a great place. VCs have cash to give,
but they will not give it to you if your metrics aren't anywhere but
great.

Also, the more you can find revenue that is not advertising based, this is
a good thing. Over and over again, the forecasts for positive advertising
spending have turned out to be wrong.

Read on and see the embedded pres:

http://gigaom.com/2008/10/08/sequoia-rings-the-alarm-bell-silicon-valley-in-trouble/

http://gigaom.com/2008/10/09/what-startups-can-learn-from-sequoias-doomsday-warning/

Thanks for listening...Dave
------email--------------------

The Sequoia deck was very enlightening and pretty much says it all. The world has changed; many early stage entrepreneurs are too young to have experienced as adults any economic cycles. I lived through the dot-com boom and bust cycle, and also the other one back in 1990 when the first Bush invaded Iraq. It's a sobering thing to have done so.

During the 1990 downturn, I was working on a Master's in Product Design at Stanford. I had completed a summer internship at Apple and managed to land a job continuing my work there, which allowed me to stay on as a full time employee and take a year off from school. The fall/winter of that same year, the US was into Iraq, beating back forces bent on invading Kuwait. Shortly thereafter, the economy goes downward. EVERY ONE of my fellow students in my Master's program did not get a job for OVER 9 MONTHS after graduation the following June. I was incredibly ecstatic and thought myself super-lucky that I had a job, and one that didn't lay me off thankfully.

During the dot-com bust, I was at Yahoo and we came through it with a stock that was down to 9 bucks and laying off 1000s of people. If you've ever laid off people, let me tell you it SUCKS. First there are all the planning meetings beforehand, behind closed doors to see who would be let go and who would stay. Then the big day comes; everyone is supposed to wait in their cube until the whole process is over. You just sit there and wait, in anxiety, wondering if you are going to be axed or not. When you go and get them, there is a mix of emotions: tears, fears, anger - you have to know how to deal with it all. This isn't about the people anymore; the corporation exists to survive for itself, not for its people. The harsh reality is that we're all expendable in corporate terms. No more IBMs with their plush retirement and pension plans, no more thanks for all the loyalty you've given the company for 30+ years. If you're not part of the solution, you're gone.

Personally I was also extremely lucky again. There were two things that pushed me through the dot-com bust in decent position. First, I was so freakin' busy at Yahoo that I did not deploy my personal funds into any stocks. Thus, when the markets crashed in 2001, I was heavily in cash. Geez. A bit of laziness saves me from a superb drop in stock market value. Second, I told my broker that whatever funds I did deploy, I did not want to be in PC manufacturers, ie. Dell, HP, etc. I told them that these were now commodity products and that these guys were going to get killed at some point in the near future. Little did I know that during the dot-com crash, these guys took down the value of many a fund, and because I told my broker not to buy these stocks, I managed to keep my stock portfolio breaking even, whereas other portfolios were heavily invested in these companies which just tanked at that crash.

Freakin' lucky bastard I am.

Now we're in another downturn. It's too early to tell what personal moves I'm going to make although I think about it every day and there is ongoing strategizing with my broker.

But it's effect on one part of my portfolio strategy has been growing clearer. Angel investing at the early stage is inherently risky. But now, the economy is going to make certain strategies even more riskier, and this is compounded by the fact that further fund sources are going to be even more conservative and picky on which companies they invest in. This means that whereas great metrics alone may have gotten you your next round, now it's not enough.

Early stage startups typically raise about a million. It lasts them for about a year. However, raising money in 2009 is going to be SUPER TOUGH.

Now my strategy has shifted to investing only in companies which are either generating revenue, or have businesses that naturally generate revenue from usage. That means no more exploratory forays into social networks or consumer companies that depend chiefly on advertising. As I said in my doom and gloom email, every positive forecast about advertising spending has turned out to be DEAD WRONG (kind of calls into question forecasting and research in general).

This economic downturn is a worldwide phenomenon now. All our economies are intertwined, and I'm sure many countries counting on the ol' faithful US to prop up their own economies were slapped rudely in the face. Guess what. Build up your own economy and make it great. Depending on someone else to do it for you is not working!

But it also means that we're going to take a long time to pull out of this. Early stage is super risky because we can't give them enough to survive long enough to prove out certain types of business plans. Only the ones who are generating cash from the get-go are going to be the strongest. Everyone else has a greater chance than ever now that they will run out of money before they can prove out their biz models. We don't know how long it will take to recover, and we don't know if the bailout plan will affect things quickly or slowly.

So I'm really only investing in clear revenue producing startups now. It seems to be the only thing that reduces risk. By the way, since the economy is way down, it just happens to be a great time to invest since prices will be really low; you just have to have cash to deploy.

Follow On Innovation: Designer's Dream or Nightmare?

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This year's Ycombinator did not disappoint me in seeing smart, young people crank out new business ideas. But I was struck by the number of repeated ideas in this class's mix.

In past classes, Ycombinator participants came up with truly innovative ideas and prototypes to illustrate those ideas. They were really new and concepts that I had not seen before.

In this class, I saw many that were remakes of old ideas, either from previous Ycombinator classes or even just improvements on products/services that were already out in the marketplace. All of them were better though; their user experience was markedly better and most people agreed that the Ycombinator teams produced better versions of existing products.

It brings up the question of what I would call "follow on innovation," which is to take an existing idea and make it better and then customers should adopt the new product because it's better, faster, easier to use,....right?

One of my favorite business books is The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. The book describes the classic case study of the hard drive industry. Established hard drive manufacturers would create one version of it, and either be unincentivized to innovate on the technology or miss seeing the opportunity of a smaller hard drive. Smaller more nimble incumbents would develop a faster, smaller hard drive while the established manufacturers missed the opportunity to develop the newer versions for fear of cannibalizing their existing business. This happened over and over again as hard drives got faster and decreased in size.

At each stage, the existing company would somehow miss the opportunity to jump into that new space. They would research and research and find that no customers would ever want smaller, faster hard drives. Their financials would always say that the new product versions would cannibalize their existing businesses and create harm to their companies. They were smart people doing the right thing and that right thing told them they should not innovate and that there was no proof in the innovation being good for their bottom lines. Their own analyses created an opportunity for new incumbents to enter the market and steal large amounts of share from entrenched, already-established companies.

Here we see follow on innovation clearly overtaking existing, established businesses. If it can happen in the hard drive industry, couldn't it happen with one of these Ycombinator companies in the Internet?

In Digital Dreams: The Work of the Sony Design Center by Paul Kunkel, Sony's Design Center looks at their products through a life cycle from "sunrise" to "sunset". "Sunrise" is when the product is first introduced. The product is a completely new entrant to the marketplace. Competing products introduced into the marketplace from competitors compete on features and technology, and features are added until differentiation is no longer achievable through either features or technology. This is when the product starts crossing from "noon" to "sunset" and competing on design becomes ascendant.

Sony stops adding features as a main focus and starts creating new designs around the features and technology. Products are created in different forms and colors, appealing to every consumers' taste in the way it looks and feels versus on features alone. According to the book, it is heaven for designers because now they are the important resource to which product teams must turn for further competition.

For Sony products like the Walkman, "sunrise" to "sunset" takes years, if not decades. Physical product development cycles usually take about 6 months to a year to complete back then; now they are faster given advances in manufacturing technology and the lack of need to innovate on basic technologies. Still, they take a long time to plan and build and for consumers to buy and experience and, ultimately, replace to try a new product. On the Internet, products and services move from "sunrise" to "sunset" in a matter of months. The pace of innovation is incredibly fast and a high percentage of the basic technologies enabling a product or service can be implemented very quickly. Products rapidly reach that point at which design and the user experience quickly becomes a differentiator between competing services who essentially accomplish the same thing.

In the beginning of an Internet product, engineers' importance supercedes that of other disciplines. Basic technology must be developed, implemented, and tested. As other entrants emerge, they too develop similar technologies and then there are many competitors in a market where formerly there was only one.

As an internet product reaches "sunset", the user experience becomes more important. Basic technologies have been developed and now you need to deliver the benefits of those technologies as easy as possible. Retention of users comes from clear, simple designs and hard-to-measure metrics like branding and emotional satisfaction from using one service over another. It's the designers' dream time because their discipline comes to the forefront for product development.

Or is it their nightmare?

It's never as easy as saying that a great user experience is all you need, when other basic technologies have been developed, and all other things like marketing, funding, etc. are held equal. User experiences can be copied; they are near impossible to protect via patents. Branding can be mimicked. The more aggressive the design, the higher the risk that you attract some and alienate others. It also means that the more aggressive the design the more often you need to update the design because design can get dated and worn out.

And for early stage companies trying to enter into a market with entrenched competitors, you're trying to build a better product through user experience alone. You probably do have a better user experience when compared to your competitors, but trying to unseat a gorilla in a marketplace because there is so much inertia in current users is incredibly tough without a lot of resources.

As a person with a design background, I am a big proponent of design and its importance to product teams. But in looking at some of this last Ycombinator's products, I find myself wondering if a better user experience on top of a product that is already existing in the marketplace is good enough for it to compete and survive to grow to be a worthwhile sized business.

I intend on studying this further as I watch the current batch of Ycombinator companies and others attempt to gain market share through mainly innovation in design.

Not Caring About Terms

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This has happened to me several times now. I've found an amazing lack of caring when it comes to negotiating terms amongst supposedly experienced investors. This is both among angels and venture firms. It doesn't happen every time, but it happens enough. I have also found that people who put the most money in have the most to lose, but yet don't step up to lead a negotiation on terms.

Why would this happen even with seemingly experienced individuals who have put up a large sum of cash for investment? Here are some reasons I've seen:

1. There is inherent trust in the entrepreneur. This occurs most in rounds with family and friends. Experienced individuals who jump into these rounds may not negotiate over terms and just sign whatever paperwork comes their way, on the assumption that the entrepreneur won't ever do anything to screw them.

2. Some investors have lots of money, but don't have enough knowledge on financing terms and their future implications. In my own experience, the only way I have learned (and that learning is burned into me) is to have done lots of deals and continually do them. Most angels don't invest that often and it's easy to forget how terms can affect their investment.

3. Some investors simply don't care. They just put money up for investment and they are totally passive, and are happy to be part of the deal and gain some sort of return later. They don't care about the details at all.

With 3, I believe that even at large sums of money, and this can be upwards of 500k-1MM dollars, this still is a drop in the bucket for their entire holdings and thus can afford to not care about the details.

Also, I think that for many investors, they are just doing it as a hobby and they are not serious about it. Thus, their level of care drops considerably on the details.

4. I have also seen investors simply avoid confrontation. They don't want to get into an argument over terms, so they don't start.

5. Some investors don't want to spend lawyer fees to deal with the terms. They don't want to spend anything extra and just want it done.

6. There is also something more serious, which is that if you lead, you could take on extra liability in case something in the terms causes the entire deal to go sour at some point. I've heard of cases where you could get sued for that. So investors get cold feet and avoid leading.

On some deals, I have pushed back on the terms because they weren't to my liking. I do that even when I go in at my very low investment level, and I am never large enough to be a traditional lead investor. Entrepreneurs often counter that their most experienced investor is OK with the terms and thus the terms must be acceptable. In fact, because the other investors have not spoken up, the terms get accepted by default.

I have to say that this is frustrating. I have met only one other investor who invests at my level and ALWAYS speaks up about the terms. Everyone else just follows whatever is happening and assumes someone else is dealing with the details.

The problem with the terms is that, unless a lead investor produces a term sheet, you're almost always given a term sheet that is company friendly. It will always favor the company and provides zero protection for investors from negative events.

My message to entrepreneurs is this:

You're probably doing the right thing from a negotiation standpoint in starting out with a document that favors you totally. But I would truly warn you against making the assumption that since an experienced investor(s) have reviewed it, that it is truly an acceptable document. As discussed before, there are myriad of reasons why an investor, or group of investors, are OK with what you produced. But bear in mind, that if you as an entrepreneur truly want to take care of your investors, then you should query your lawyer on why an investor might object to the terms set forth in the document that he gives you, so that you understand why we would have issues and the ramifications for us in the extreme cases.

By the way, a lawyer will ALWAYS produce documents that favor you initially. It's their job. If they are being a proper lawyer they will always seek to protect you and the company first UNLESS you specifically ask for a document that is more balanced. Also, NOTHING IS STANDARD. No matter what anyone tells you, it's true. In every deal I've worked on, the terms are always slightly different.

My message to investors:

First, following on the very last comment previous, NOTHING IS STANDARD. Don't believe it if someone hands you a term sheet and they say it's standard, in hopes that you will believe them and just accept it blindly. I've worked on many deals now and they are all different in small and large ways, with many of the entrepreneurs and their lawyers leading the discussion with "it's standard".

Second, hire a good lawyer and spend the money to have someone review the terms and explain to you the potential up and downsides of the terms. Too many horror stories abound where there was insufficient protection for investors and we've gotten squeezed out company ownership, cheating us of larger returns. As an early stage investor, we put up cash at the earliest stage and take the highest risk and it is my belief that we should be compensated for taking that risk early on. Without us, the entrepreneur would never have gotten anywhere.

Third, CARE ABOUT THE TERMS. Make sure someone good is negotiating on your behalf. Never assume that someone else is going to do it. If you're unwilling to do the negotiation, then at least make sure that there is someone who will do the negotiation. READ THE TERMS. Understand their implications to you and your money.

Fourth, we'd all like to work off of trust and a handshake, but I've already seen how friends can turn on friends in a business situation. It happens way too much for my taste. Thus, if we have a trusting business relationship, then there should be no problem putting that down in the terms. Be alert for when an entrepreneur gets upset at you implying that their trust is not good enough because you want it written down - to me, it's a sign of trouble. It's a psychological tactic to get at your good, trusting nature so that you won't require him to write it down. Don't fall for that. Walk away from the deal.

Last, do not be afraid to speak up regarding the terms either to the entrepreneur or to the lead investor. It's your money so take care of it! Besides, you never know if the entrepreneur might actually change something based on what you say; it's happened twice to me now where I'm on great terms with the entrepreneur and just asked nicely if we could make a change, and they did it.

If I Put It Up, They Will Come....Right?

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You know what - if we all sat down and thought for a while, we can all think of at least one company that made it big all by itself, nice and viral like, without any help from anyone but users, and that first user was able to drag all his friends in, and then exponentially drag all their friends in as well, and so on, and so on. Pretty soon it became an internet dynamo, a dominant force on the Web and its founders made a gajillion bucks off it for practically doing nothing.

No advertising. No SEM. No SEO. No nothing. Just magic. Maybe a bit of accidental viral-ness, but nothing else.

The funny thing is, I've met so many entrepreneurs whose site growth strategy depends on this magic.

I listen to them tell me their idea, and sometimes their idea is pretty cool. Sometimes they've got the site up and their idea's coolness is actually reflected in what they built. I tell them I really like it and then ask them if they are going to start a company. Then the story gets murkier.

Each one tells me yes they really want to start a company. Each one has big dreams. Then I start asking them about how they're going to get the word out about their product. Then it's unclear. They say they want to put it up and see how it does.

Well....Okay.

I tell them do they intend on doing marketing, even some marketing on the cheap like reaching out to bloggers, or SEM, or something. As soon as the mention of spending more money comes into play, the answers get murkier and murkier.

I persist. I ask them why don't they go out and raise money and become a startup. Then they would have money to spend on marketing. They give a range of answers from not wanting to leave the comfort of their current job to fear of committing to something that might not work to "still thinking about it." Mostly, they got the site up and are just waiting to see what happens.

At this point, I have my answer at least (which is "no I'm not investing").

You know, it's hard to leave the comfort of where you are now. You're making money to support a great lifestyle, or a family. You are comfortable, and don't want to face the potential chaos of the unknown, let alone a startup and its challenges. You might even fail - god forbid what others might think of you, or worse, what you might think of yourself. You might fail, and end up with no money, no job and you bet it all on this one thing and now you might have....zip...nada....nothing.

So you say you'll just put it up and see what happens.

My thoughts to you are:

1. Growth by "magic" into an internet dynamo happens SOOOOOO infrequently that the chances of what you built doing that are so vanishingly small.

BUT - what you built might actually be useful and cool enough to grow into a decent sized business (or even a dynamo) IF you were to put some sweat and money into distribution and marketing so that users know you exist.

In absence of full commitment, you might as well be playing Lotto.

2. Since you won't fully commit, you're unfortunately not risk tolerant enough to become a great entrepreneur. No offense, and I don't say it as negative criticism. Not everyone is built to deal with the uncertainties of being an entrepreneur, and the chaos that inevitably ensues from running a startup and living on the edge of having no money. So just stay home, make your money, live your life.

And don't be delusional about the chances of your site which you just "put up" and are "watching what happens."

More Reasons Not to Invest in Notes

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Way back when, I was happy to have encountered Josh Kopelman's excellent post, Bridge Loans vs. Preferred Equity, to which I did sort of a re-post but also added my spin on the subject in Convertible Notes versus Preferred Equity Parts 1, 1.5, 2, and 3.

Now that I've been out here for about two years angel investing, I've uncovered more reasons not to do notes any more. So much to learn but yet no one to learn from except to fumble about and get myself into trouble. Now I've firmed up my rule to never invest in notes. I *might* do a note with a price cap on it, but it is still not without potential future issues. Here are some more reasons why notes are awful:

1. It is possible that the company you invested in achieves significant revenue, enough to do one or both things:

a. The valuation will inevitably jump. So when you put in your money, you expected the valuation to be one value, but when your note converts, the valuation has gone higher and now you've taken all the early risk with your note investment, but have lost share in the company upon conversion.

b. The company has enough revenue that it may not need further investment. Or it can delay seeking investment. If the company does not need further investment, then you're in risk of just getting paid back and not obtain any share of the company. This can also happen if the delay in seeking further investment takes the next fund raise period out beyond when the note is due. Again, you could just get paid back instead of converting into equity.

It is possible to convert still, even if there is no conversion. But it depends on the entrepreneur and they are under no legal obligation to do so.

2. The valuation may jump anyways independent of revenue. Again, if/when you convert, the value of your participation will shift from where you originally put in the money, and it doesn't reflect the risk of your early investment.

3. The terms of the next equity financing are unknown to you at the point you invest. While it is easy to ignore this in the excitement of doing an investment into a note, any problems that may arise will come up later during the conversion process.

You would think that at conversion time some large and/or experienced investor would take care of negotiating the proper terms. In most cases, this is true. However, it is also possible that not-so-favorable terms may appear and seem to be proposed by seemingly experienced investors. The big issue is that you don't know what you're converting to with a note at the time you give up your money; then, if you don't like the terms, you're kind of stuck into accepting them because you can't get your money back. Unless you're leading the investment, you won't be able to affect them much. However, if you do get stuck in one of these situations, I would advise you to speak up about the terms; you never know when you'll be heard and someone might actually change the terms to your liking.

Notes don't align investors and entrepreneurs, and now I've discovered other reasons not to do notes...

How Does One Advise So Many Companies at One Time?

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Often I get asked by entrepreneurs to become advisor to their company and they take a look at my companies page and they wonder how I can handle so many companies at one time. Where does Dave find the time? Do the companies actually get enough support from me given that I am advising so many?

It's actually not so hard. Here's how:

1. I've found that advisor time commitment varies greatly from company to company. Some entrepreneurs use me as traditional advisors are used, which is to meet up once every month or quarter and give me an update and go through their plans and get my feedback. If all my companies were like this, I could definitely advise a ton more.

Others call or email me whenever they need something. I have many hours in the day and definitely can field calls or answer emails. Sometimes they ask for a site review or recommendations. This takes longer, but blocking out a few hours to do that isn't a problem.

Some have wanted meetings weekly for a while. The weekly meetings never last though; entrepreneurs are pretty busy and they get going on something and they don't have time to meet up any more. Or they learn enough or have firmed up plans enough to keep them going for a while and then they don't need my constant interaction.

2. Perhaps the greatest time commitment is just thinking about each company daily. I often have at least one (or more) of my companies swirling in my brain and I try to record any ideas down asap. If I am in front of my Mac, I'll open an email and just record the ideas in that; also, I have a small moleskin notebook that I carry around with me constantly to jot down ideas. Once I get all my ideas down, I check it over, do some rewrites, insert additional ideas that come to me on the fly, and then send it to the entrepreneur.

I like to get into the mode of a single company and its product and try to immerse myself in the product as a user, and the experience of needing/wanting that product. That enables me to really get into what I would want, and also what others could want in that product and where improvements can be made.

I multitask on this throughout each day, but sometimes I take some focused time and do this too.

Still, once a company receives these ideas and acts on them, they usually don't need further time from me for a while.

3. Another task I do for my startups is connecting them with potential partners and sources of capital (although definitely I do not bill myself as a fund raiser). This requires me to network a lot with both old and newly met folks. Thus hour long coffees and lunches are the norm and these take time out of my week.

Also, I write a lot of emails introducing my companies to these partners as well. Thinking about which partner to send the company to and also sending the email does take up time, but not all that much.

4. My favorite thing to say about advisor time commitment is that almost all companies need the most time at the beginning of our advisor relationship. There is a big spike in time and thinking from my side and also in interactions and then somewhere between 2 and 6 months later, that time drops to near zero, with little peaks of time to do emails and check-ins.

The rationale behind this is that the company is supposed to learn everything I tell them. They finalize their plans with my input and feedback. They take this knowledge and are off and running building their product. They don't need my interaction so much after this time because they have what they need from me.

This is one of my main goals: To transfer knowledge from my brain to theirs so that they don't need me any more. If I do this successfully, they should be able to function for a long period of time without my input. Over time, my goal over the term of my advisorship is to help them find resources that would manage what I help them with day to day. This is finding and hiring a great full time design resource and great product management resource. It can also mean finding/hiring a great sales program person as well, to help them monetize their advertising programs.

I've been advising for about 2 years now, so many of the companies on my companies page are off and running without further need of my help.

4a. One thing that I have consistently observed is that if my time requirements spikes again after the initial peak, the company is in trouble...so I keep watch for this and hopefully help prevent this from happening.

5. OK OK I admit it. Even working like the above, I still can get pretty busy in the short term. In fact there was a time when I thought I was overextending myself due to the pace of advisorship signups. So now I am very aware of the pace of companies I advise and have slowed down dramatically based on my current support load.

6. Next, I tell people I shouldn't be put on critical path for anything. It's not what advisors do anyways.

A lot of people ask me to be advisor, but really want me to do the design of their site for them. If they want this, they should either outsource their design or find a designer to hire full time, and not try to turn an advisor into a fake full time person. I think this is especially true in product design; in order to do a great job, you have to be immersed 24/7 with the product and team. It's hard to jump in and out or do it on the side.

If I'm not on critical path, that reduces time commitments from 24/7 to something much, much less and less frequent.

As advisor, I always tell people that I shouldn't be expected to be put on critical path for anything because we're both going to end up being disappointed and frustrated. Very bad!

7. Last, I love being involved in many things. It helps keep my interest level up and allows me to see the entire world of internet startups across the board, which is an advantage. I purposely try to get involved across a myriad of projects, across a range of areas.

It takes me out of being myopic into one thing, and allows me to help my startups by being broad in my thinking and not get too trapped into the details of one project. While this is important from an execution point of view, it doesn't help when you're helping to plan the strategies of these startups by not looking outward and seeing where the trends of the industry are going. Often I bring the broader view to my startups because they don't have time to look at it themselves. They're often too busy to do that. On the other hand, I want them to spend all their time executing and not get distracted.

I've really come to love advising startups. The connection with smart, energetic people working on cool new things is really great, and I enjoy helping broaden their vision and give them the help and knowledge they need to be successful.

Our Economy Sucks, Raise More Money Now

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Our subprime mess is very much underway and the economy is suffering from that and a host of other issues. When consumers feel the pinch, that means they buy less, and companies don't make as much money, and then they spend less on advertising and also on acquisitions. This is important to both startups and us investors: consumers spend less, so they are less willing to buy products and services from a company. Companies spend less and then they slowdown their advertising spend. Stats show that advertisers will maintain their online ad budgets when compared to offline budgets (woe to offline operations who are heavily dependent on advertising for revenue), but I can't help but wonder how much online advertising could have grown MORE if our economy wasn't so bad. Last as companies pull back and preserve cash, they will be less likely to acquire all these nice startups that we're working on now. Granted, the wiser and the more resourced companies will actually go on a buying spree, but they'll be after the startups at super cheap prices since they'll be lower performing towards the end of the year as revenues become tougher. Beware the corporate development folks who seem to slow down a bit; they're just waiting for you to go through your cash reserves and get to a more desperate place by end of year and snap you up at a discount!

When I meet startups, I am now telling them to raise more than they were thinking. I try to get them to run the numbers and to figure out how to survive until at least the second half of 2009, or further if possible. I want them to survive through the economic downturn and not be dependent on additional money until then. I tell them to expect that any revenue projections will be missed towards the end of this year, and advise them that if they try to raise money on poor metrics AND they have run out of money, they will have an extremely hard time doing it.

A lot of entrepreneurs are still coming to me with raising $100k-$300k in their plans. Then I try to convince them of the economic issues and that unless you can survive for 1.5 years on $300k, you'd better change the plan. Not all of them listen though. It will be interesting to see if I am right. To me, you should be at least $500k, even better upwards of $1-1.5MM, whereas in a decent economy, you could get by with $300k-$1MM.

Some of them only want to survive 6-9 months to get a prototype up and raise money on that. In a better economy, I would say that this is not a bad scenario. However, in today's world, I tell them that if they are getting traction on an idea in investors' eyes, that they should leverage that inertia and get more money now. If they build a prototype and are not gaining traction in a down economy, it's only going to show that you could not gain traction and investors be much less likely to participate as they look for positive metrics. It's much better to raise money on a beta and/or the idea and get as much money as you can now, and to plan on survival on minimal or no revenues for 1.5 years.

Another issue with the 6-9 month plan: August and the holidays. Running out of money by August really sucks for fund raising. This is because the venture community goes on summer vacation and it's nearly impossible to find someone to get a meeting. You have to wait until they all get back in September. Then you have about a two month window everyone gets distracted once again because it's Thanksgiving and then Christmas. From about mid-November to first/second week of January, the venture community goes on vacation, peoples' minds are on the holidays and families and not on funding you.

If you're an entrepreneur reading this now: raise more cash than you think, expect that any revenue projections you have will be missed, and try to plan to survive on minimal or no revenues until at least the latter half of 2009, and raise all that money now while you have investor inertia.

Intuition, Gut Feel, and Seduction

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A little while back I sat with another experienced angel investor and the topic of gut feel came up, as it relates to angel investing.

It was funny for both of us that for all the analysis we can do on a new startup's prospects, that if our gut said no, we'd not invest. How interesting to use such a undefined force and feeling to make such a prominent decision!

After I left Yahoo, I resolved to develop and listen to my intuition more. I really searched down deep inside myself and really tried to become sensitive to the most minute feelings that emerged about anything. I trained myself to be acutely aware of the good and the bad, and those nagging feelings of doubt or uncertainty. Then, once I could identify those feelings, then I told myself that I would act on them and never ignore them. This is because in the past, I feel that I have ignored my intuition and this has resulted in me getting into some really bad situations.

When I meet an entrepreneur for the first time, my intuition is on high alert. I search my feelings as I hear them talk to me about their business. I not only attune myself to pitch he is presenting, but also to who he is. Is there elation on the idea or some nagging uncertainty? Do I feel this person is trustworthy or not? These and more.

However, what can stymie intuition in the world of angel investing is seduction. This is when the pitch and/or the person delivers such an incredible perceived opportunity that it's like seeing the hottest, sexiest woman walk into a bar and you just can't resist. You're hooked emotionally and you're already reaching for your checkbook. Somehow, the seducer has blown past all your defenses and even your intuition seems suckered.

This happened to me in a pitch not too long ago. The pitch was perfect. It was seductive. It claimed solving so many problems and the benefits and monetization were straightforward. The team was experienced and veterans of the Internet, so no problem on solving any kind of technical challenge. But I countered by saying to myself that hottest, sexiest woman is still a person despite what we perceive is her perfection, and thus means she can't be perfect since she is only human. Thus, for this pitch, however sexy it was, I refused to fall under its spell and viewed it with objective eyes. I brought my intuition back online and ultimately felt too uneasy about it to participate.

Walk away from that hot, sexy woman - hardest thing you can do sometimes.

Avoiding seduction is crucial. We have to train ourselves to not fall under the witch's spell and view the entrepreneur and the opportunity with objective eyes.

This brings back the clarity of our gut and intuition, which we must cultivate to make sure we are not doing something that we're not comfortable with.

In Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, he doesn't like using the word intuition but instead he calls it a form of unbelievably quick thinking. For me, it's both. It's both the gut, the emotional aspect of immediate, primal reaction to something, and the incredibly rapid thought that allows us to make an instantaneous decision. One is cultivated within ourselves and our feelings, the other via years of experience in dealing in a certain area of expertise.

What does it mean exactly when we pass on an opportunity via gut feel?

Just because we pass on an idea does not mean that we think an idea will fail. It might actually succeed. However, I do believe that it truly means that we are not the right people to be involved and that our gut is telling us that, given who we are, how we work, etc, that this project is not right for us.

For the entrepreneur that gets passed due to gut feel, don't feel bad. In the end, it will be better if we didn't work together. Go and be successful, but just with someone else.

Incubation 201: Should You Incubate?

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My last post Incubation 101 went over basic concepts which I think are essential to the success of any incubation operation. Basically, I think that risk of failure increases exponentially if you don't follow these concepts in their entirety.

In this post, I want to bring out some subtle points mentioned in the previous post which refer to whether or not you SHOULD incubate at all. I assume that if you are thinking about incubating, that somehow you've reached a point in your career/life where you CAN incubate. But does it mean you should?

What are YOU personally willing to do?

Self-examination and knowledge is very important. You need to figure out exactly HOW you can contribute to incubation and the nurturing of ideas into businesses. Then you need to figure out what really motivates you and how you gain satisfaction, relative to the kind of participation you're willing to give.

Are you willing to jump back into the startup life of working 24/7?

If you're not in a position to go back to startup life, then you shouldn't incubate your own ideas. Remember, the idea originator has the resonance with the idea, and is best poised to take an idea to a successful conclusion. If you're not willing to do that, that's a clear sign you shouldn't incubate. Transferrence of an idea to someone else is nearly impossible and substantially decreases chances for success. Incubating at arm's length is still possible.

Do you have incredible, kick-ass product ideas and want to see them flourish?

This is better than having dumb ideas, or ideas that others are working on, or no ideas at all. You shouldn't incubate your ideas if you don't have great ideas to begin with. Again, maybe you should incubate at arm's length.

Being the "Guy at the Top"

The most dangerous thing you can do with incubation is try to be the "guy at the top" who directs things but doesn't get involved in the day to day of any incubated operation. You generate great ideas, and then hire a team to execute that idea, and then think you can sit back and watch the idea flourish, grow big, and you reap the benefits while being able to kick back and just manage it all.

Incubating Your Own Ideas

So you have great ideas and are willing to go back into the startup world. Incubation is a great way to figure out what to do next, if you have the resources to work on many things simultaneously. You will need to be personally involved in the day to day of each incubated idea, and you'll most likely max out at around 3-4 ideas, perhaps less.

Follow the principles in Incubation 101 and you'll do great.

Managing Incubation at Arm's Length

So you don't have great ideas, OR you aren't willing to put yourself back into startup mode regardless of whatever ideas you have.

My advice to you, is to let go of any notions that you be the "guy at the top" and find another way to help others with their ideas. Reorient your values and take great pleasure in watching others' flourish with their own ideas, but contribute in ways that allow you to be involved.

This can be through advisorships and/or investments. Provide value to your entrepreneurs as you invest money in their ideas and they will come to you for help. Create a positive relationship and you can gain some satisfaction in knowing that you contributed to the success of their idea.

Raise a venture fund and support people more through cash, if you aren't so helpful in other ways. Keep the incubated ideas and companies at arm's length as much as possible to maximize incentives and reduce your exposure to ideas that aren't going anywhere. Again, follow the principles in Incubation 101 and you'll minimize risk and maximize your chance of finding something great.

My Personal Experience

Back in early 2006, I attempted to raise a venture fund with an incubation component. I was having a hard time raising it, and ultimately this caused me to get involved with startups in a different way. Looking back, I was glad that I didn't fully realize the incubation operation as I think it would have gotten to a bad place.

In my self-examination, which happened much later, I discovered:

1. I was not willing to put my personal time into any one idea. This would have lead to a bunch of ideas run by me, the "guy at the top". This would have been a risk increasing move.

2. I really didn't have great ideas. I had some, but none that were earth shattering. I didn't have a way to generate great ideas but would have tried to execute some mediocre ideas, again increasing risk.

3. I realized I was much better at taking someone else's ideas and making them even better.

Thus, I am today at something-like incubating at arm's length. I feel that I have yielded a much better risk profile through my work with startups across a number of great ideas and entrepreneurs, and leveraging my personality preference for making an existing idea better versus coming up with a great idea myself. I also have higher personal satisfaction working in this fashion.

Read Incubation 101, do the self-discovery, and do incubation the right way for YOU.

Incubation 101

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Over the last few months, I spent some time interviewing a whole bunch of people about incubating businesses. It was very enlightening not for the information I uncovered, but the fact that it just brought to the forefront of consciousness things I already knew.

Incubation has had a bad reputation over the years, especially the large ones like IdeaLab and Internet Capital Group that raised enormous sums of money but didn't return nearly what they were supposed to. When I tried to raise my own venture fund 2 years ago and wanted to include an incubation component, I was advised unilaterally to not call it an incubator or else I would get nowhere fast! Investors had been burned way too much on the incubator model in the past to trust new ones.

Yet incubation is sexy. Generate new, cool ideas. Create new businesses. Find the next Google. Unbridled innovation, unlimited success! Wow!

If only it were that easy or certain. Incubation is really hard, but in my research I've uncovered some guiding principles which make incubation viable and possible as a strategy.

Here are the highlights:

Incubation works nicely for internet projects
Developing products and services for the internet has gotten so cheap and easy that invested capital can be very small relative to other industries.

Incubation is HARD
It's not easy to come up with a great new business. Attempting it is not for those wishing for a quick win. You have to be patient, focused, and be able to let go of projects that aren't getting anywhere or waste too much of your time and resources.

Go cheap
The less money you spend, the less money you need to properly incubate. Testing ideas as cheap as possible reduces overall investment. Don't invest a ton in infrastructure liking buying a pretty building and cool office furniture. Outsourcing can help with being cheap especially in the international marketplace for talent.

Build fast
Get your concepts out there fast and test. Being slow means competitors can get into a space before you can test properly. Also, the more ideas you can generate and test, the more chances you have of hitting on something worthwhile.

Fail and remove fast
If something is failing, close it down fast! Have the discipline to kill projects that aren't working. Throwing money at failing projects doesn't solve the problem either. The ability to let go of bad projects is extremely important. Otherwise, projects that are sitting around languishing just waste money and effort to keep afloat.

Go wide...Carefully
Risk is reduced if you cast your net wide of ideas to try. Throwing all your eggs into one or a small number of baskets increases risk substantially of failure. But go wide carefully, meaning don't stretch your resources too thinly.

The founder of an idea needs to go with that business
It is nearly impossible to properly transfer an idea to someone else. Trying to do so raises risk tremendously. To reduce risk, the person who comes up with an idea should stay with that idea, should that idea blossom into a business. This is because the originator of an idea typically has some intrinsic resonance with that idea as a business, and is the right person to build, innovate, and nurture it.

If you are not willing to take an idea through to its proper conclusion, my advice to you is to re-examine your life and what you want to do. If you're not willing to jump back into a startup, then I would tell you to just let others develop their own ideas and let go of your own. Take pleasure in nuturing others and their ideas into great businesses. Raise a venture fund and help others do well.

The team members also should go with that business
Shared resources developing an idea is a nice concept, but to reduce risk, as soon as an idea starts taking off, the development and product team should immediately be deployed on that project. Switching people on a project is hugely problematic and wastes time in education, learnings, and experience.

Any resources working in an incubator should be told beforehand that if they work on an idea, they can't just sit around and keep coming up with new ideas; they need to see the blossoming idea through to its conclusion. If anyone can't buy into that model, then they should find a job somewhere else.

Keep resources at arm's length
The more resources you can keep not on recurring payroll, the better. It's easier to remove people who aren't working out, or shut down projects. Hire the teams on projects that are flourishing to the corporations in which those projects reside.

Build a rolodex of resources you can deploy at a moment's notice. Find great people who are willing to give you great rates and can do great work.

Be disciplined in a process for evaluation
Set clear checkpoints for your incubated projects. If they do not reach basic minimum levels, then they should be shut down ruthlessly. Budgets, time, goals all can be used to create checkpoints.

Incentives are key
Nothing motivates people better than survival instinct and a life or death deadline. The survival instinct is activated when they know they're going to run out of money (like their salary, their means for eating and paying rent, etc.) if they aren't successful. The life or death deadline is activated when they know they're not going to get any more resources or help beyond a certain point. So they MUST be successful or else they're gonna starve.

On the other side of the coin, it is highly motivational to know that their success is also tied to success of their project in a large and singular manner.

Paying them a regular salary from the overall incubator pool is not motivating enough; it makes them too comfortable knowing that they could fail on any idea but still are able to go on surviving. It also severely reduces their urgency, knowing that they're still going to get a paycheck whether or not it launches today or 3 months from now.

Giving them large ownership in a separate corporation formed from their project is. Tying their salary to the separate corporation is even better.

Forming a separate corporate entity per project increases clarity in ownership and process
Keeping projects internally makes it difficult to track and assign costs properly to each project. When you have a separate corporation each with its own budget and resources, tracking becomes easier.

It also makes it clear who owns what part of what corporation, and how much of it. Keeping projects internally removes that fact as you're part of and being paid by the whole.

This clarity extends to funding as well. When an entity is running out of money, you have to take an official step to put more funds into that corporation's bank account, along with all the ramifications in doing so in ownership, and why you have to do so. It really makes you think twice about funding a business that may be faltering or flawed.

As mentioned before, when peoples' salaries are tied to the corporation, then incentives are highly aligned with the success of that corporation, and not blurred with the whole incubator.

Some ideas require a sustainability component to be fully tested
A recurring theme among internet products is that ideas can be launched quickly and once it's out there, people will come and use it, love it, and it will grow. Banking on an idea to grow organically by itself is a recipe for disaster. The problem is that not many ideas have the ability to do so. We often fool ourselves that by launching a new idea live, that people will just come and use it and it will be the next Google. It might happen, but probably won't. Then we get frustrated wondering why it isn't growing, and often end up thinking that the idea sucked and we should close it down.

However, it is deceptive to think that an idea which does not grow organically is a failure. The reality is that the idea might actually be good, but just requires people, time, money, and smarts to apply to it and then it might grow. Thinking through the sustainability of a launched idea and how that can be supported for at least some period of time is really important.

Incubation works great if you're personally trying to figure out what to do next
If you have some personal capital and want to find a new idea to work on, incubation could be for you. I've talked to a number of people who have employed incubation at a personal level successfully. Instead of working on just one idea, they launch 3-4 and work on all simultaneously. Each idea gets funding and their own team. At the end of the process, the most successful idea survives. The other projects are closed down or sold, and you become CEO of the surviving, thriving business.

It could work much better than working on singular idea and trying to determine if that idea is the right one or not. Or working ideas serially. Being serial takes up a lot more time than doing things in parallel.

Yes it takes a lot of time and effort, and requires a multi-tasking brain. But if you're a startup person, you're probably used to working like that anyways.

Find great startup people
Seems basic right? It's actually harder than you think.

Find creative, hard working, caffeinated people who are smart and motivated AND can take a project to a conclusion. Too many people float at the creative, idea stage and don't have what it takes to stay with an idea over time and develop it. Discovering people who are like this is very hard, so beware.

As mentioned previously, keeping them at arm's length makes it easier to get rid of inappropriate people. Be ruthless in culling people who aren't working out.

Young people are great. They can work for long hours, live cheaply, have almost no other attachments in their lives. They will try stuff because they don't know better, unlike us old, jaded, experienced people. They're not so great because they don't have enough business experience to know how to take a business further.

Build an idea with revenue generation on the mind from day one
If an idea is generating money, its ability to sustain itself grows dramatically. Creating products which bank on the free model and gain lots of users, but have no concept or plan for short term revenue, is great for people who have a powerful investor as backer and who is willing to fund growth beyond that point. For an incubator, I would say that this is not a good path to go down and substantially increases risk of failure.

Revenue generation sustains the incubation process
Following on the last principle, if you can find a way to generate revenue immediately, then the incubation process can be self-funded and sustaining, and opens up the ability to try new ideas without deploying more outside capital.

Good luck with your incubation efforts, and I'd love to hear how you're doing if you are going to incubate new businesses.

Exploratory Products vs. Utility Products

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Over this last year, the topic of exploratory products versus utility products has come up so many times. And I've always felt uncomfortable with products that engage users because it helps them "discover" or "explore" something.

"Discovery" and "exploration" are always so alluring terms. Throughout human history, we've always envied the explorer. Christopher Columbus set out to discover the New World. Lewis and Clark went looking for a way to the Pacific Ocean. Neil Armstrong sets his foot on Lunar soil and declares, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Even watching Star Trek with the Enterprise on their 5 year mission to explore new worlds, we can't help but wish we were on the Enterprise alongside Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. It sounds so wonderful, so romantic, and speaks to our ingrained cultural tendencies that achieving, discovering, and exploring makes us feel that blazing new territory like pioneers puts us out of the comfort zone and sets our senses afire, and takes us out of our normal, boring lives.

First, I think that there is a segment of the population with a natural "gene" for exploration. I personally know people whose first inclination every morning right when they get up is to go to click randomly on news articles or websites, like StumbleUpon or Digg, or Del.icio.us. They always do this before doing anything else.

Second, I think there are differences in the manifestation of the "exploration gene" based on age. Young people seem to engage in more exploratory behavior. But once young people grow older, they get more responsibilities, their time gets occupied by a whole bunch of things, their lives get so full that there is little or no time for exploration unless you have a natural "gene" for exploration.

To me, exploration is either an activity relegated to a small population relative to the whole, or one that does not sustain itself as a person ages. Given this belief, I think there is a tremendous amount of risk associated with products that depend on "exploration" and "discovery" as the main reasons why users would want to and/or continue using a product.

What's the difference between an exploratory product and a utility product?

Utility products are those which depend less on exploration and discovery as primary tenets. Instead, utility products work their way into our lives because they are essential and we gain continual value from our usage and interaction with the product.

Here's an example. News sites like NYTimes.com are utility sites. We consume news every day and find value from that by being informed. But they also introduce exploration to keep things interesting with their Most Emailed Stories module. But it's not the focus of the site; it's secondary.

Another example: StumbleUpon. I consider StumbleUpon a classic exploration site. You go there because you don't know what you'll find. You have to like discovering new websites and are ok with spending your valuable time doing so. But yet traffic over the last year has been dropping.

Here are the Alexa graphs for NYTimes and StumbleUpon:

Do you want your product's graph to look like NYTimes.com or StumbleUpon?

My basic tenet is:

If you want a chance at success, you must make your product essential from a utilitarian point of view. You can use exploration to make your product more interesting, but if you make exploration your main purpose, you'll reach a topping out point of users and potentially decline over time.

Is it a perfect rule? No, of course not. I am sure if we thought hard enough, we could think of some sites who are successful at employing exploration as their main purpose. However, I'm talking about risk reduction of failure and increasing the probability of success dramatically in my opinion. Wouldn't you want to reduce the risk of failure by a great amount?

Holding Someone's Hands

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It's a shame.

Every week I encounter entrepreneurs. Given that I look at early stage internet deals, a high percentage of them are first timers. And practically all of them have nobody to help them or walk them through the details of creating a new company and funding it.

It's a real shame.

I would be the first to say that I'm no expert on this. But I try to help as many people as possible. Yes, it takes a lot of time but I'm willing to give that time out, even if it's for goodwill and I only get a positive relationship out of it. I just hate seeing people either stumble around on their own or worse, get bad or imperfect advice.

Investors give you advice, but sometimes they aren't entrepreneurs and can't really know what it's like to build product and a company. Or you wonder if the advice they're giving you has their interests wrapped up in there, especially where funding is concerned.

Other entrepreneurs give you advice, but many of them are bitter with past experiences of investors and tend towards telling you how to do things in investor unfriendly ways. Or they have ways of doing things that they like and these may or may not apply to your situation.

Lawyers are supposed to give you advice, but they are only giving you advice that protects you, which is very company friendly. Also, many of them don't understand the different phases of a company's life cycle; they may have only done big corporate financings and have not done early stage. As your experience grows, the things that are important are different based on the size and stage of the company. It's frequently up to the entrepreneur to educate the lawyer on how they want to do things, with the lawyer supporting. But you can't educate your lawyer until you educate yourself. Oh, by the way, you have to pay lawyers to talk to them....

I'm probably one of the few people around who are schizophrenic and can wear both an entrepreneur and an investor hat; my model of advising and investing has helped me understand both sides of the equation. I also try to lay it all out and talk as broadly as I can about the implications of as many things on the table, both company and investor friendly and unfriendly. On topics in which I do not have experience, I say so and try to point them in the right direction.

Yes, my experience base is relatively low, but I am still willing to spend that time with entrepreneurs, because it sure seems like no one else is willing to. In general, I find mentorship to be severely lacking in the hustle/bustle of Silicon Valley...

Filtering and Referrals

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One thing I've noticed about the startup funding eco-system is that everybody is out to get your money. Unfortunately, that means that you get both people with the good ideas and people with the not-so-good ideas. And it always seems that the people with the not-so-good ideas outpace the people with good ideas by a factor of 100 or more.

A while back I stopped going to the Tech Meetups and entrepreneur gatherings because whenever I handed out my business card and people notice the word "Ventures" in my company name, the emails don't stop. I get pitched by everyone. I even got pitched the other day on Facebook. At some point, I may need to remove my business name from Facebook!

It's too much. The deluge of emails coming in is too much to deal with. I hear it's the same at venture funds; they too are getting too many pitches and are trying to make sense of it all while not losing the opportunity to find that next big thing amongst all the not-so-good things.

Over this last year, I've pretty much switched to the referral model. It means that I never go to tech gatherings but only field introductions from people I know. It's slowed the pace of pitches considerably while filtering them in a much better way. After all, somebody you know isn't going to send crap your way; you have a personal stake in that referral being worthwhile and not a waste of time and don't want to jeopardize the relationship. If an entrepreneur is able to convince someone else that they're good/cool/savvy enough to be intro-ed to me, then I'd love to talk to them.

The same goes with venture funds. As I've gone out there and networked with them, I'm finding that we angels can play a great role in filtering for them as well. We can be a great first line of defense for them, sending only those that we feel good about to them and doing some of the leg work in finding hidden deals through our networks, which are often hidden and hard for outsiders to break into. I've also gotten referrals from venture funds on deals that were too small for them to handle, and also those that I've helped them check out. It works really well in both directions.

As the venture fund world evolves, I can see the relationship between venture funds and angels is going to grow tighter and more useful for both parties over time.

Investor Fatigue?

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The last half of 2007 saw for me an acceleration of deal flow. I've spent numerous hours with a host of startups. I've passed on a few, gotten further with others. Most I've not gotten involved with, and the remaining few I've stuck with them through the process and told them verbally that I was committed, as long as other things fall into place.

Some of these deals have taken a long time to close on investment, or finalize my involvement. I find that as the weeks become months, that I am feeling a bit of fatigue on these deals.

I have heard this happening to other entrepreneurs where if they take too long, their investors just lose interest and don't want to do the deal any more, or just move on to other projects which are taking up their time. Now that I am toe-ing the edge of this fatigue on deals, I can relate to how these investors feel.

As an investor, I told myself I would not be flaky. When I say I am committed, I want to be just that and not be wishy-washy. I do not want to frustrate entrepreneurs and make them do extra work in chasing down investors who can't figure out if they want to do the deal or not but just stay in that grey zone; I want them to finish the fund raising part of their company building and move back into building the product and business. I have heard too many stories about investors who can't seem to just make a decision to say yes or no and don't want to be like that.

But now I feel some fatigue setting in, and start to ponder not just the fatigue aspects but also the reasons why it's taking so long.

We investors tend to like to pool our due diligence process by watching the reactions and analyses of other investors. So if an entrepreneur can't get the commitment of prominent investors in a short amount of time, then perhaps that is saying something about the project itself. Perhaps something is amiss; perhaps the entrepreneur's pitching skills need work, or the pitch itself needs re-work, or the business plan itself. Add to that other projects demanding my attention - I cannot help but feel that fatigue may actually pull myself out of commitment on certain projects due to my own wavering interest, but also the real reasons why it's taking so long to close on an investment round.

Now that I am experiencing this time lengthening process firsthand, coupled with my own fatigue on projects, I offer this advice to entrepreneurs, which is to close on investment as soon as possible, doing whatever it takes to prepare, make a great pitch, and herd the investments to a close date.

It's a bit like dating; if I go out with a girl many times and it doesn't seem to go anywhere, shouldn't I stop wasting time and move on to someone with whom a great relationship would develop?

Analyzing Myself Into Ultra-Conservatism and Inaction

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So far, I've spent a little over a year angel investing. I've noted before that it's been a fun and rewarding educational process in learning how to angel invest. I've talked to people and got some great pointers, read some books on the subject, read some insightful blog posts, and leveraged my own Yahoo! knowledge in trying to figure out whether I should invest in a business or not.

I've also noticed that I've begun, and now attempting to prevent, a slow slide into "analysis ultra-conservatism." What exactly is this?

Just recently, I've started looking at a lot of deals and but invested in none. I felt like the frequency of my investments has dropped dramatically. Yes, there were many reasons why I did not invest and some of them were out of my control. But I also wondered if something else was at work.

As an angel investor in early stage internet companies, I know that high risk is part of the game. They all have not been in business long enough to show traction, and you need a healthy dose of faith in order to put money in them. Yet, I felt that I was thinking more deeply into a business now than I did before. For sure, I have more knowledge now; I have looked at a lot of companies, heard other peoples' objections and analysis, developed my own analysis process in what I like and don't like. It has definitely moved from an emphasis on liking the product and the team to many other business aspects. This is all good and makes me more seasoned. The bad thing is that the more knowledge I get, the more things I find wrong about a business and shy away from investing.

So, as your knowledge and experience grows, you get better at analyzing companies but as you get better at analysis, the list of problems grows and you start finding reasons to not invest, hence, the term "analysis ultra-conservatism."

A friend of mine once said something very insightful about early stage investing, which is:

There is always something f**cked up about EVERY early stage startup.

I find myself repeating this to myself over and over as I do not want to fall into the trap of "analysis ultra-conservatism." I cannot remain an early stage investor if I do. I know that it is a good thing to get more experience in analyzing companies and opportunities, but I have to remember my friend's insightful quote and stop myself from over-analyzing and becoming risk averse simply because an opportunity has faults in it. ALL EARLY STAGE OPPORTUNITIES HAVE FAULTS! I must remember to keep in mind that there will be faults and to decide on the positive factors that remain.

These last few weeks have been really hectic. For a while, it seemed like I wasn't looking at any new deals whatsoever. I resigned myself to working on the companies I had signed up with but also could see that my work with them was starting to taper off in an expected fashion.

But then it changed. All of a sudden, a flurry of new opportunities came down and I found myself meeting with companies every week. It actually got fairly hectic, meeting up with entrepreneurs and actually going through some due diligence processes with a few companies. But one by one they dropped off my radar. As they dropped off my radar for a variety of reasons, some interesting observations came to light about the way startups and investors strategize with each other.

The Entrepreneurs' Perspective

The most sought after entrepreneurs/startups get deluged by requests from angels to invest in them. Typically, they are also pursued by venture capitalists who also like what they see and want to participate. The availability of money to these entrepreneurs creates an situation where they can pick and choose the money they receive. I've seen them go in these directions:

1. They go directly for the big VC investment and skip angels altogether. Let's face facts: raising money sucks. It's time consuming, you get a lot of negativity from people who don't believe in you, and you'd much rather be building something than begging for money. So why not skip all the nonsense and just take the big money and go back to building your business and hiring people you need.

2. They take the VC investment but only bring on some angels who are either high value or friends. Similar to 1., they get the big money but only bring on those people they like or those angels that can help them later.

3. They delay VC funding to push up their valuation, and only pick a handful from the crowd of angels wanting in. The most bold of entrepreneurs who are on to a good thing will press their advantage by not taking big money now, which could mean they have to give up more of their company at this point, and wait to build their business a bit more which raises valuation for later and, thus, gives them a larger advantage for not giving up so much of their company later in exchange for a large VC raise. They instead raise a smaller amount (ie. $500k - $1MM) which gives them the ability to run for enough time to build their business to a more valuable state.

4. They want angels who are active investors and can bring value to their company. More and more I speak to entrepreneurs who only want angels who can help them in their business versus just bringing money alone. It makes sense; angels who can help are more motivated to help because they have skin in the game. It does make for a tough environment for those angels with only money to give.

5. They are limiting the number of angels and/or investors. Managing a lot of investors can be troublesome to entrepreneurs. Simply cutting all the paperwork (ie. stock purchase agreements, stock certificates, etc.) can cost more money. Collecting the money can be tough for those angels who are dragging their heels in transferring the cash into your account. Dealing with nervous investors can be a draw on resources as you need to respond to their requests for information and calming their anxieties about whether or not you're going to make money for them.

This all goes out the window for those entrepreneurs who don't have something hot enough to attract lots of investors.

The Investors' Perspective: Herd Mentality, Joining the Herd

As an investor, I want to get in on the great deals. Finding deals that are good but are hidden can be really tough. It's more often that there is a common opinion about a startup and that everyone wants to get a piece of the action.

I try to do my own due diligence. I also try to form my own opinion about a startup. But I do find it difficult to ignore what others' think about a company. Over these last few weeks, I've looked at bunch of deals where there was a large number of investors trying to get in. But I've somehow lost out on a number of them. Why was that? Some observations:

1. Herd mentality is inescapable. For some reason, when many people think you have a hot deal, then you tend to think so too. They must know something you don't, or you bank on someone else's expertise, or you just don't have time to do all the due diligence yourself. Thus, I tend to look more seriously at deals with lots of interest, even when I tell myself I'm going to be disciplined enough to do all the due diligence on my own.

2. The investor herd piled in, wanting to invest into a startup. It's a common scene around the valley. The hottest deals get shopped around the most popular and prominent angels who are all high value and high profile. They have lots of money and value to bear on a deal. But they also have their friends who come in on the deal. So a combination of being able to keep in an entrepreneur's mindset and haivng the herd not forget about you, thus keeping you in the entrepreneur's mindset, helps to get you into a deal...or not. I have not been really part of any investor herd before so it was literally impossible for me to stay in an entrepreneur's list of investors as they get deluged by a huge number of people and can barely manage the flow of communication. I know I've been dropped off investor lists because of not being part of a herd.

3. Joining a herd became a worthy goal. As I thought about reasons why I missed out on deals over these last few weeks, I started thinking about how I could join a herd. I don't like to bill myself as a guy who can do lots of investor intros now, but knew I could get there in a few years as I worked with more and more people. But now I think about the networking aspect more, and using entrepreneurs to introduce me to some prominent angels and VCs around the valley. Slowly but surely, I am starting to not be forgotten amongst the investor herds, which is a good thing. So far, I think a combination of personality and value has helped me stay in the mindshare of herds. I meet people and show them that I'm a cool guy and not a wonk, and that my experience can actually help a company that we may all be investing in, and things seem to be happening.

4. I am trying to standout in a herd. If you demonstrate that you can bring high value to the company, staying in the list of investors for a given entrepreneur becomes easy. I can sometimes stay in a deal where other investors with lesser or no value to a company beyond just cash get dropped. I have found a great variance in entrepreneurs in whether or not they find value in what I could bring to their companies. If entrepreneurs don't find value in what I bring, then the probability becomes much greater that I will get dropped from their investor lists.

5. I need to constantly follow-up on deals I want in on. In the past, I've relied on entrepreneurs to contact me when they're ready to talk investing. However, a number of them have dropped me simply because I didn't do my part to stay in their mindshare. Shouting loud via email or phone works well and helps a lot.

Lots to keep track of in the ecosystem of investors and entrepreneurs in order to not be forgotten amongst the herds of investors roaming Silicon Valley.

The Three Faces of My Schizophrenia

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In working as advisor and angel investor to startups, I find that I can be schizophrenic at times. Three faces I wear, when dealing with entrepeneurs:

INVESTOR

Characterized by:
1. Paranoia about losing my money.
2. Saying "sell the company"; starts when my return crosses about 5x my investment, and becomes a yell when my investment hits 10x.
3. Motivated by what my terms say for Notes.
4. Recommending courses of action which generate a lot of cash for the company, which increases value of the company and thus my investment.

ADVISOR

Characterized by:
1. Recommending courses of action which build the company.
2. Seeking the best ways to create product and do business.
3. Balanced view towards generating revenue in the company versus building product, which can be at odds if, for example, we're talking about advertising and internet users.
4. Might recommend against selling the company given what I have seen when bigger companies absorb smaller companies.
5. Seeks the best employees and resources to do the job. Pushes those resources to build the company bigger and faster to exclusion of other things like sleep.

DAVE SHEN HUMAN BEING

Characterized by:
1. Tends towards recommending humanistic approach to treating employees.
2. Wants to grow employees, sees them as learning over time, nuturing them to be better.
3. Coaches people to balance life, work, and family. Asks what makes people happy and what keeps them motivated, encourages people to find this in the company.

If you've been in the startup game for a while, you'll know that these three faces I wear are often at odds with each other and conflict in goals. For example, how can I counsel people to balance work and life and go home at 5pm to make time for family when as advisor, I want these guys to work 24/7 because the startup needs it, and as investor, I want them to work so freakin' hard so my money isn't wasted?

When I start working with someone, one of the first things I tell people is that I can be schizophrenic. They always laugh and sometimes I can see that they don't get what I mean; the more experienced ones snicker and thank me for being upfront!

It can disconcerting to have a guy like me advising you to do one thing and then tell you to do something else in opposition to what I just said a while ago. It's because I do wear many different hats, and the forces within me struggle every day to push/pull me in several directions. It's a challenge to find a balanced answer, and I like the challenge of finding a solution that satisfies all of my three "identities". I just hope I do not drive any of my entrepreneurs nuts by my triple schizophrenic state...

Ycombinator Demo Day: Summer Class in Mountain View

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I went to my first Ycombinator Demo Day this last Thursday. I wasn't sure what to expect, except for the fact that a whole bunch of startups created by near-college grads would be presenting their projects. I definitely wasn't expecting any well-thought out business plans but was hoping to see some really cool stuff.

After the event, much has been written about the companies themselves, and you can read about them at VentureBeat: The Ycombinator List and at TechCrunch: Ycombinator Demo Day: The Summer Class. There has been enough coverage about the companies, so rather than do that I wanted to write about something else regarding the Demo Day.

Usually when you sit through pitches, they can be relatively dry. You see lots of graphs and how big the market opportunity is and it's usually a more serious and professional presentation.

For Demo Day, I was pleasantly surprised that each presentation had a healthy dose of humor cleverly injected. I found myself chuckling at funny demos, laughing at jokes made at competitors' expense, and smiling to see them laughing at themselves. During one of the breaks between presentations, I stopped to say hi to Paul Graham (co-founder of Ycombinator) and asked him about whether or not he encouraged humor to be part of the presentations. He said they were actually more humorous during the dry-runs and that he actually pulled them back from being too over the top. I shudder to think what they were like before he pulled them back...!

Sitting through 19 demos for 3+ hours could have been a truly grueling affair. I am glad that the young graduates of this summer's Ycombinator class threw some humor into their demos and turning a potentially boring, lifeless afternoon into a more lively event.

"The Business Opportunity" and the Epiphany

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I was just recommended this excellent book called The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steven Blank. It describes a particular problem I've encountered with some of the startups I've met with.

Some of the entrepreneurs I've met with lead with the business opportunity. They say that the market is this big. They have charts and research to back that up. They show millions upon millions, if not billions of dollars spent in this market alone.

Then they present this product that fits into this market. They go on to say that we can attack this market opportunity by building a product to gather all these eyeballs, users, consumers, whatever and then sell this market to advertisers and marketers.

It always worries me when they lead with business opportunity.

Most likely what I discover after is:

1. The entrepreneur is not a model customer of this market. They have come upon this opportunity through research.

2. The entrepreneur has researched business opportunity but has not researched what customers want. While it may be true that marketers spend millions and billions of dollars trying to reach these consumers, the entrepreneur has not asked consumers whether they want the product he is building.

3. I often get a defensive response when I tell them this is an issue.

Which brings me back to The Four Steps to the Epiphany. Author, Steve Blank describes the Customer Development Model, which is an iterative method of figuring out what customers actually want, versus driving a business with financial projections and product development and assumptions that the product will be accepted by consumers. He argues that every successful startup runs by this model, and that running it by traditional product development models brings a huge amount of risk into whether the business will be successful or not.

Reading about the Customer Development Model brought me back to those meetings with entrepreneurs who are trying to build companies using traditional methods. Those meetings left me feeling uncomfortable and ultimately, following my instinct on these matters, I would often let the opportunity go. I am glad to be reading this book, because now it frames my uncomfortable feelings into a way of articulating them better.

As an angel investor, I want to reduce risk whenever possible. I find that when entrepreneurs resonate with the market and are building a product that they are target markets for, then it minimizes risk. This also means that you get extra passion for the product because the entrepreneur wants the product for himself, and you may reduce the need for external research to figure out what customers want, which reduces cost and time which could be used in building the product.

That's not to say that someone couldn't be successful if they don't fully or completely resonate with the product and are the target market. Success is a probability game and when entrepreneurs are themselves the target market and they resonate with the customers, then you stack the odds in your favor by a great deal.

What If I Advise But Don't Invest?

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When I started David Shen Ventures, LLC, I originally thought I could advise only or advise and invest. The latter would be a form of watching my investment by helping the startup in a formal fashion. I also thought that in certain cases, I might only advise but not invest.

So far, I have not invested in all of the companies I am involved with. In most of these cases, I just missed the opportunity to invest because I could not get in on the series A, or that opportunity had already passed. But there is the case where I could invest but choose not to.

Originally, I had just started up with entrepreneurs and signed up as advisor whenever the opportunity arose. I had not given much thought to points at which they would get to raise funds, but only to make my involvement formal by completing the paperwork. But now I am wondering about whether I should continue this method of operating or change it.

Why would I not invest but still advise?

One big one now is that I am coming to the end of my allocation of funds for this purpose in my budget. I had originally set aside some money out of my own pocket for angel investing as a means of diversifying my overall portfolio while making a new career out of it. I was planning to stop when I reached the end of that block of money and take stock of my operations and investments to see how I was doing. I near that limit now.

Another reason is that I have, at the time of this posting, 8 companies I am working with. Being an advisor allows me to increase the number of companies I am involved with, but potentially lower my exposure to investment in too many companies that I could effectively watch over as advisor AND be investor in. My model is to not be a passive investor at this point, but be active only (I may change this strategy later). But I do have A.D.D. and love to be involved in more companies than less, so I know I can sign up as advisor in more companies than I could be investor in.

But sometimes, I work with the entrepreneur a bit and just come to a point where I think I can help the company but my funds are better deployed elsewhere. It's a hard choice to make as you think you can help anyone, but sometimes you can and sometimes you can't help them in a way to make the company take off on a super positive trajectory.

That doesn't mean that the company has no chance (in my view) but just means that I can't help them as much as I'd like to be helping them, whereas for other companies I am adding a tremendous amount of value and seem to be making a huge difference in their trajectories.

So in deploying my own funds, I have to make that hard choice in deploying money in the companies with the maximum trajectories and me helping them. And not everyone is on the same slope of trajectory. It's a really hard to choice to make.

Recently, there was an unanticipated effect. Because I have decided not to invest, other investors have begun to ask why I have not invested. This is naive in my view, as they just assume I would invest in everything I'm involved in, which is not true.

Seeing as how I may not be able to fully explain my operational model to everyone, this unanticipated effect has me re-thinking about whether I should advise a pre-money company but not invest. I do not want to inadvertently reduce a company's chances for investment by putting doubt in other investors' minds about a company's prospects.

No particular solution comes to mind as of yet, but it is something I am working on more fully now. I may slightly change my operating model with entrepreneurs to not officially sign up as advisor until much later and until a lot of the business and product plan as been set. At this point, I can really evaluate whether I will feel comfortable investing and advising or just not continue my involvement. If I sign up as advisor too soon, then I may get myself in a situation where I am advising but when the first funding round comes, I decide not to invest.

Stemming the Introductions Frenzy

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Definitely connections is one of the most important parts of my involvement with startups. I introduce them to people I know in other companies for potential partnerships, I help them hire people (although I have to admit my record here is abysmal), and I try to meet more new people in case they may present opportunities for investment, partnership, or acquisitions later.

So I try to meet as many people as possible. But I've learned a lot about this introduction and meeting thing. Some thoughts about it:

1. In general, I try to meet as many people as possible, and as many as will meet with me.

2. I have discovered that it is impossible to meet everyone that you want to meet. It sucks but it's true. More on why in a sec.

3. Time is a so precious. Filling up your day with meet and greets is tough and it doesn't give you time to get your other work done. So I have to limit these kinds of meetings as much as possible.

4. Filtering becomes super important. As you can imagine, those with immediate purpose and importance come first.

5. Making introductions is also an important skill. Here is my process and thoughts:

a. I identify a possible introduction that should be made. In general, I try not to do more social type meets but want them to have at least a purpose. Think of it as a courtesy on peoples' time demands and not wasting them, and also it gives them something to talk about which will reduce awkwardness.

b. I hold my contacts close and don't frivolously make introductions. I am keenly aware of not creating an image where Dave Shen sends frivolous introductions around. That would reduce the possibility of someone responding to an introduction. My goal is to have a 100% response and connection rate, so I think deeply about whether to make the introduction or not.

c. Timing on the introduction has come up often. When to make it is important as you don't want to intro too early and want to do it when both parties are ready.

For example, if a startup is working very hard and if I judge their resources to be strained too far, I won't make another business development intro until they get more resources or some brain space frees up. The worst thing is you send them the intro and then nothing happens until much later. Or if the startup has nothing to show yet, then I don't want the intro-ed party to feel like it was a wasted meeting because it was too early to talk about their product since there was no demo.

d. While I do not bill myself as a fund raiser, the few investor contacts I do have are important to me. Asking for money raises the stakes of an introduction. Thus I will not make an introduction to an investor until I feel the company is at a place to put a really good foot forward. I do not want to make it unless they will look good at the meeting. If they look bad, then I will look bad for sending an unprepared company to that investor contact. I also won't make an introduction unless I have put my own money in. I feel it is the ultimate vote of confidence for a company when you have your own skin in the game. I do not want to come off as sending what may be perceived as random companies to them. There are plenty of people who are professional fund raisers who do this and do not have any skin in the game. I want to operate with bit more confidence than these guys.

e. I try not to deluge someone with introductions. For example, at a recent meeting with a media company executive, we discussed many of my startups who may be potential partners of theirs. He got excited about all of them. But I did not want to throw all the introductions at him at once for fear that he may not get to them, or they may get lost in email, etc. So as a courtesy to both introducees (is that a word?), I think about the tide of introductions racing at them and try not to overdo it, and space them out.

f. I always try to follow up on introductions. I want to see how they went, and pass feedback back to either or both parties. I also want to double check my introduction methods and make sure I am hitting as close to 100% response and connection rate as possible. I also want to address potential problems on the rare occasion that they occur.

6. Getting deluged myself with introductions is bad. If I meet someone who can intro me to several people, I tell them to slow it down a bit. I do not want to drop one or two because they get lost in email or from my brain. Sometimes, I am scheduling out many months and my calendar is super-important to me. As a personal goal, I try to get to 99% of my emails and always try to get back to those whom I say I will meet up with. I like saying I'll do something, and then actually do it. I don't like it when someone says they'll meet up with me but don't mean it. I intend to be as clear as possible, which unfortunately is really hard. Better to head it off with the introducer and be clear with them before they send the introduction email.

7. I have found there are many who are not what I would call socializers, which enjoy meeting for the sake of meeting with no particular goal for the meeting other than to connect. There are those who don't seem to meet anyone who does not have a particular purpose for them. Whether this is good or bad I cannot be the judge, as everybody has their own way of working and time demands.

8. I always confirm a meeting the day before. You never know when someone else may drop you off their calendar. It's always good to remind them that you're meeting with them, again as a courtesy and also it's a good time to remind them of why you're meeting.

9. By the way, I always space travel time between meetings. I try not to pack them so closely together time-wise. This also goes for how many of these types of meetings I can do in one day. Generally, I try to space them out across days as well. Going through a whole day of meetings with people you haven't met before is tough for a guy like me (call me an introvert with extroverted tendencies!).

10. Some people network solely for work purposes. There is almost no notion of personal relationship they build. You can tell by what they ask you about, what the conversation is about, and reasons for contacting you later. You never go out for a coffee with these people, or grab a brew. It's kind of cold, sometimes empty. It creates this feeling that you are only useful to them for one thing, which is business. I prefer to look for opportunities to create a relationship that goes beyond that of business only. I think this creates a richer relationship than just for work alone. If they know and feel you are a good person and you connect with each other at that level, I think you'll find that the relationship tends to work better and have more opportunities than less. Who wants to work with someone who isn't cool to hang out with?

Bottom line: introductions, connecting, and meeting are important parts of my work. I do my best to try and not waste the relationships I have built with these people, and create value with each relationship I have.

GRRRR ROWRRR ROWRRR

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This is an impression of a "tough dog", as performed by entrepreneur whose determination is shown through gritted teeth and never failing optimism in the face of rejection, sleepless nights, and stress at starting a new company.

It's easy to give up. Retaining confidence, determination, and forward moving energy is super tough in the face of constant adversity. Rejection, business deals moving too slow, running out of cash, wondering when revenue is coming in, investors and partners beating on you, your staff is not working out and you need to fire them - the list goes on and on of things faced by new entrepreneurs.

But you can't give up. If you do, then you may never realize your dream of watching your company and idea flourish and grow. You need to learn that the world is going to constantly try to beat you down and you have to live with that, roll with the punches, and keep moving forward. There will be times where it will seem you've hit rock bottom, but only to fall even lower. You, the budding entrepreneur, need to expect this, prepare yourself, and keep saying to yourself that it will get better, and to drive towards making it better.

Because if you can't adapt, then maybe you shouldn't be an entrepreneur. You'll die of despair and never get anywhere. Know yourself before you embark in entrepreneurism.

Or...learn how to say:

GRRRR ROWRRR ROWRRR

It really works.

The Importance of Indemnification

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The other day, I met a guy who told me about a situation he was in where he was a consultant for a company who got in a legal dispute with another firm. Then he got tangled up in the lawsuit and got sued by the other firm and was forced to defend himself with his own funds because there was no clear indemnification in any contracting agreement.

At the moment, this guy is shelling out between $25K to $50K per month out of his own pocket to pay for legal fees. There is a soon to come happy ending though. It turns out that this guy was employed through another temp firm while working for the company. While indemnification was not explicit, it just so happens that employees are automatically indemnified via the California Labor Code (see section 2802) and is the same for pretty much every other state's Labor Code.

However, had this guy worked directly for the company without an official statement of indemnification as a consultant, he would have been really screwed. There would be no clear path for indemnification and thus reimbursement for legal fees.

Very scary. How would you like to pay out of pocket legal fees of $25K to $50K per month, and for months on end?

As soon as I heard this story, I called my lawyer and thanked him for being so adamant about indemnification.

In my journey to implement indemnification, here are my thoughts and discoveries:

1. Ignorance of the state's Corporation Code, especially with respect to indemnification, is common among the lawyers I've worked with. So they err on the side of company favorable tactics, which is to never give anything away, including indemnifying advisors.

2. Not knowing or understanding indemnification is also shared by investors and other entrepreneurs.

3. It's very much a worst-case scenario discussion. It's difficult to discuss sometimes.

4. Experienced entrepreneurs have no issue with it. They just assume they'll protect anybody that does work for them. It's natural for them to thank people who help them in that way.

5. By the way, all the Corporation Codes stipulate that in the case of an external person causing harm willfully to a company, the Code states that indemnification is invalid, even if a contracting/consulting/advisory agreement calls for indemnification. By the way, there is the case of unknowingly causing harm which is a huge grey area and would probably have to be explored on a case by case basis.

If you're interested, you can read about indemnification in the California Corporation Code or in the Delaware Corporation Code.

6. No matter what, I do not want to put my personal assets at risk for another company. It doesn't make sense at all.

7. I will definitely walk away from any deal that will not indemnify me as an advisor. It is a deal breaker.

The Mad Rush to Close

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Raising money is never fun. When the time draws near to a date at which you want to officially stop fund raising and collect the money, things tend to get pretty hectic.

So what happens exactly? And who is involved? What are things you should watch out for?

Let's say you created a term sheet X weeks or months ago. You've met with a whole bunch of investors and some of them say they will invest (usually we say "we've soft circled them"). The term sheet has been negotiated and potentially changed, and you circulate that back to each investor and finally everyone says they're on board and they're ok with the final term sheet.

And then, time draws near and you realize it's time to get serious and actually get the money. What happens?

1. In the financings I've done, the law firm project manages this process. They help circulate the documents, gather signatures, send reminders, etc.

2. The law firm has an escrow account where investors wire their money. As one entrepreneur I met put it, "The reason why you wire to an escrow account is to prevent us from absconding with your money (if wired into our own bank account directly) to the Cayman Islands before all the official paperwork was finished ."

3. The law firm takes the term sheet and expands that into official paperwork that spells out the terms in detail. The investors sign these documents and they make everything official. This paperwork is passed back to investors for review and signature.

4. Due diligence materials from the company are sent to each investor upon request (and I HIGHLY recommend that) to make sure everything is in order. Every company document is sent, every record, every contract - just about everything. Thankfully for early stage startups, there isn't that much paperwork to review. But imagine if you were to do due diligence on buying a company like Yahoo! or IBM. The due diligence alone would be staggering as you reviewed every contract, every patent, every legal dealing, every lawsuit - everything that could introduce risk into the investment. You don't want to miss something that could turn what appears to be a great investment into zilch.

5. The CEO devotes his/her entire life to the closing during the last 2-3 weeks before close of the financing. He calls every investor and double checks to make sure they are still on board. He fields any last minute questions. He assures investors that the close will happen and makes sure everyone knows to sign papers, wire money on time, etc.

6. Investors need to prepare the cash for wiring. This could take some time to prepare if the investor needs to sell stocks, or get out of other investments. They may need to give their money manager lead time to make sure cash is available. Even the wiring process takes time. I fax in requests the day before with wiring instructions just to make sure that they get in on time. If the money is being wired internationally, you have to be wary of the fact that it could take additional time, or the wiring may not even be accessible to that account from theirs. More warning is always better than less.

7. Signatures also take time to collect. The law firm project manages the collection of the signatures and makes sure that everybody has signed the right papers on the right lines.

8. After the money is collected and the paperwork signed, then the law firm gets copies of signed paperwork back to the investors and, if it is an equity deal, prepares stock certificates and sends those back to investors as well. Other paperwork that goes back to investors can include receipts for the money wired; one law firm prepared a huge notebook for me which had all the involved paperwork in it. Very nice!

9. Be prepared for high stress situations as the time draws near, the lack of sleep, distractions up the wazoo. You must remain focused and determined through the whole process.

So there are never problems, right? HA. What COULD happen:

1. At the last moment, one or more investors back out and you're left with less cash than you expected, perhaps substantially less.

2. Other investors backing out could cause even more investors to back out. It might be interpreted as a vote of no-confidence for the investors.

3. Some strange investors could keep saying they'll send you money, but it never shows up.

4. Unfortunately, I have also seen the law firm flake out which is REALLY BAD. All the more reason for the CEO to keep tabs on EVERYTHING and make sure it's all moving along.

All sorts of things can happen which can spoil your day. As CEO of a startup and going through this process, you should make sure your full attention is on this and be ready to adapt to changing, chaotic conditions - but rejoice when you get every investor that you say you got and see that money arrive in your bank account.

NDAs and Me, Ideas and Execution

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It's so funny when I hear people being so protective of ideas. (People who want me to sign an nda to tell me the simplest idea.)

To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.

- Derek Sivers, president and programmer, CD Baby and HostBaby

I just found this quote in 37Signals's book, "Getting Real", which is an awesome book on super fast Web development.

It says it all.

So far I've had a few entrepreneurs ask me to sign an NDA before talking about their startups. Each time, I politely decline. My main reason for declining is just what Derek Sivers says in his quote. Ideas are just that - they are just ideas. No substance, no solidity yet, but just words. Execution is harder than you think. Just because you tell me your idea doesn't mean I am going to go out and build it. In fact, I have no desire to build it. I recognize that it's your idea and that you are the best person to execute it, not me. And I don't have the time or desire to execute it, nor is it my business model to build stuff.

So in essence I am saying that there should be no fear about sharing ideas and that goes both ways. I don't mind throwing ideas their way as much as I like hearing them. I toss out ideas all the time and I don't look for monetary return because I know that 99% of the time, they won't be able to or have time or desire to execute on them.

But occasionally, they may find value in my ideas and actually do something with them and make their product stronger. That's a good thing. But most of the time, they'll need the originator of the idea to fully explain the idea enough to the entrepreneur so that they can internalize it and be able to execute against it. In that, I build value for my services and it helps sell my value to a startup.

Here are my thoughts about NDAs:

1. If I sign an NDA, then I'll be bound to not reveal any ideas from my interactions with them for the length of time designated in the NDA. While I have no problem signing one if I do work with them in official capacity, it is possible that I might end up not working with them. If I don't work with them, I could be hampered from working with any other company in the same space because I might inadvertantly reveal some bit of knowledge that could be taken as confidential by the company I signed an NDA with.

2. If for some reason I were to sign lots of NDAs, I would have to manage the NDAs which is a nightmare. I'd have to remember when each NDA started and when they would end. They could all have variable expiration terms. The chance of slipping up would be incredibly high which could put me at legal risk.

3. Negotiation of NDAs would increase my legal fees. There are mutual NDAs and one-way NDAs. There are those that go in perpetuity and those that end in 1, 2, 5 or any number of years. There is no standard NDA; the conditions are written based on the situation. I'd have to go through negotiation on every one.

4. If there is something you don't trust me enough to tell me, then don't tell me.

5. Trust is an essential part of my business. You gotta know when to keep your mouth shut and no piece of paper is going to help with that.

6. I have and will walk away from companies who require NDAs to hear about what they are doing. It doesn't matter how cool the company seems to be. It just isn't worth the hassle. There will ALWAYS be other companies and opportunities.

Rejection Sucks

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Rejection sucks. You spend umpteen hours on your deck, you go through trial runs and field criticism and incorporate feedback, you redo it again and again, you spend hours driving around to meetings, you brush your hair for the first time in weeks and pretty yourself up for the pitch. When you get there and start, you look around the room and the body language is clear:

What is this guy talking about?
This'll never work.
Where am I going to lunch?
This is a dumb idea.
I can't believe my partner dragged me into this meeting.
When is this presentation over?
I need to pee.
Way too many competitors. Why even touch this market?
Yawn.

And the list goes on. All from subtle and not-so-subtle bodily cues. Or overt vocalizations.

You throw your heart into the pitch and you wonder how these guys could be so blind! Why don't they get it?

At the end, they usher you out with a polite, "We'll get back to you."

Your heart drops. You walk out dejected. Nobody likes you. Everybody hates you. Self doubt creeps in. Life sucks. You grab a beer and drown your sorrows vegetating in front of Tivo.

You wish everyone could just see why your idea is so great. But it's just not so. I wrote about resonance way back and think it also applies to investors. They need to be able to feel the idea, to get their brains and hearts around it. And unfortunately, not everybody can resonate with every idea. It's just the way the world is.

So steel yourself for rejection. It will come and you'll see it a lot. Build your resistance to letting rejection take you down emotionally and energetically. Practice blowing it off so it doesn't wipe you out. Because it only takes ONE investor to resonate with you and your idea, and they will give you the cash to make it to the big time, and then you can say, "I told you so" to all the nonbelievers.

Swimming with the Sharks: Part I

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Last week I had a meeting with a friend turned entrepreneur. We talked about the company he was forming and it sounded really interesting, interesting enough for me to put in some early money into it. We then moved to talking about possible angels who would fill out a first funding round.

These were angels who were also individuals very prominent in the area of business he was going into. They were definitely going to be helpful in building the business and be able to make the chance for success much higher.

Since he was my friend, he also told me what these people were like. They are very money focused. And they will do anything to maximize their gain, potentially at the expense of others.

I thought about this for a moment. At first, I thought what could happen if I were to invest early, probably into a convertible note, and then convert to the preferred series? Aren't I protected by preferred rights?

Then it dawned on me what could happen. Let's say the preferred round closes. Then a few months later, the board is faced with the other angel investors proposing to change their own rights. They propose changing them so that they can, upon majority vote of the shareholders, buy out any shareholder. My friend who will undoubtedly be on the board of directors may oppose this, knowing why this is being proposed, which is to squeeze me out. He tries to defend me but then the angels apply leverage in that they could make life much more sweeter to him and his business if he agrees to the change in rights. My share in the company leaves me no leverage at all. I have not put enough money into the company so that I can defend myself in this proposal through vote alone; I don't have enough share in the company.

In this scenario, the vote passes with my friend/entrepreneur bowing to the needs of the company and the next vote is buying me out, perhaps with a bit of profit, perhaps not.

There is a possible solution. That is to propose that I go in with my seed money and demand a board seat. This should protect me for at least one round of funding, but after that I will probably need to relinquish my board seat in favor of whomever is coming in with subsequent rounds of funding. I do not know if my friend would agree to this or not, or if I would even want a board seat. I am thinking on this some more...

Early stage angels are definitely in a tough position when we come in early, and often with small amounts of money relative to the cash coming in for later rounds. We take the most risk, but yet we are left with no leverage later on, as the needs of the company outweigh shareholder need.

Legal Help is Showing a Depressing Pattern

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So far, my scorecard for legal help for startups and investors has been pretty dismal.

Let's see. The stories go on:

An LLC agreement costs $6000 to create but upon dissolution of the LLC the agreement has ambiguous terms on who owns what and causes tons of issues upon dissolution. Note that an LLC agreement can be created and filed in about $1000.

A term sheet is created by a new associate who is new to Silicon Valley and barely has any experience in startups and financing. He tries to snow an investor during a call to defend his terms and the investor, who happens to be seasoned and coached by his really good lawyer, refutes every point made by associate, who concedes at the end of the call that investor was actually experienced and compliments him.

The night before the first investor meeting, a lawyer totally flakes on entrepreneur and doesn't have a term sheet done! It arrives around midnight the night before and there is no time for review at all.

Entrepreneur asks for term sheet, and lawyer delivers one. Investor reviews and finds provisions that have no meaning whatsoever to the current deal. It is obvious that lawyer cut and pasted from a previous deal term sheet and didn't bother to review and check for relevance to current deal, costing everyone in time and legal fees.

Entrepreneur asks for advice from lawyer on what to do from a financing standpoint, and gets almost no worthwhile advice whatsoever. Friendly investor guides entrepreneur through all the possibilities and helps develop a financing strategy.

Investor asks lawyer for help on looking at startup term sheet and gets back worst case scenario response on the whole thing. Investor initially gets cold feet, but quickly realizes that this particular lawyer is the most conservative, worst case scenario lawyer in the world, and investor realizes that risk is a part of life for the early stage investor and that this lawyer isn't the right person to advise on early stage investments. If investor had listened to this lawyer, investor probably would never make any investments at all and would rather sit home and stuff money in mattress.

Legal help is crucial to both the entrepreneur and investor. It doesn't matter that the legal help sits in a big expensive firm or a smaller shop. Why can't we find good, dependable, and experienced legal help?

In the last few months in working with financings, I have gotten to know the Convertible Notes versus Preferred Equity issue very well. As an angel investor, I am constantly thinking about maximizing my money and I don't have the cash to play the field in a broad, diversified way to not care about this issue like some larger angels. Thus, knowing when to take a deal or walk away is part of the game, and certainly financing terms are part of that decision.

Again, I reference Josh Kopelman's post on Notes and Preferred Equity and think it explains many details well. I'll talk about this topic with his thoughts and some of my own in mind.

Why would I be OK with a Note?

The terms must be good.

Often Notes have no anti-dilution provisions or special provisions that help us in case the next equity financing does not occur. They seem to be hastily drawn up and many details are left out. I have walked away from Notes that didn't have enough good terms in there.

They are mostly unsecured, so I'm OK with that. I know that I'm dealing with an early stage startup and they have little or no assets at this point. What would I do with 1/10th of a PC?

I also want to make sure I am not locked into a particular Next Equity Financing by default. I want to have the ability to back out if company conditions change.

If they require an auto-conversion provision in their to the Next Equity Financing, then I want them to insert a minimum on the money raised, to ensure that they don't do something screwy.

In truth, I don't pay much attention to the interest rate return for early stage startups. This is usually a make or break time for them. If they don't get the Next Equity Financing, then often the company will tank and I won't get any interest payment or my money back yet. I do just make sure it is in range of other Notes I've seen which is about 6-8% per annum.

There is a Preferred Series financing imminent.

Most Notes are used to gain cash to continue company operations just prior to a first Preferred Series financing. My goal is to always get share of a Preferred Series. If I know there is one coming soon, then I'm OK with a Note knowing that I'll convert in a few months. Time is minimized between the Note and the Preferred Series and there is a less of a chance that the company valuation will change dramatically, causing loss in ownership share from when I invested and when it converts.

Why would I NOT be OK with a Note?

There is no Preferred Series in sight, or I am not confident it will happen soon.

If the Note is being raised, but they have nebulous plans for raising the next Preferred Series. I won't do it. The risk of it dragging on for a long time is there, and the more time that drags on before I gain actual ownership in the company, the more chance that it goes not in my favor. The valuation could go up (meaning I convert to less ownership than I originally thought), the company could go under with not enough funds, or I mayjust get paid back and not reap any benefits of having ownership in the company, if the company starts gaining revenue. The company need not be going under for you to not gain the benefits of investing in a company.

Or they may SAY they are going for Preferred Equity fund raising, but I get the feeling they will drag their heels or avoid seriously doing it. As soon as I get some intuition that this is true, I won't do it.

This is a second (or beyond) Note they are raising.

This begs many questions. Is the company trying to be greedy and not give up any ownership? If so, they can build their company on other people's money then. I want to maximize return and getting interest rate return on my money is not the way to go.

Or you have to wonder why this is yet another Note. Why do they need another Note? Why haven't they raised their Series A? Or what is wrong with them that they can't raise their Series A? Many Notes are written vaguely that the Note will convert to Next Equity Financing. They may actually want to convert the last Note holders to the terms of the second Note which may be less favorable to them!

Unfavorable Terms.

Although this may seem like a given, it could mean that the company opportunity is really good, but the Note terms are not.

Terms always take care of the worst case scenario and nobody wants to see them come into action. But sometimes, the terms are there and you can't change them. I've already had a case where I wanted to change the terms but the entrepreneur did not because the current terms were already approved by the lead investor, and he did not want to scare the lead investor off. But, it was obvious that the lead investor didn't really read the term sheet carefully because some of those terms were bad even for him.

By the way, I think this happens frequently in the Valley. There are so many large investors that when they invest, it is a small amount for them but large enough to make them lead investor. But they go through so many deals that they don't seem to be spending time on the terms at all. I've heard from one person that they just write off investments that get diluted to nothing or fail, and employ diversified investing across many different investments and hope that a few make it big to cover the many that return little. Very frustrating for us smaller angel investors.

Always be ready to walk away no matter how good parts of the deal looks...

Investors are not aligned with interests of the company in building value.

Clearly stated in Josh Kopelman's post, it makes sense that as investor I want the valuation kept as low as possible so that I convert to as high ownership as possible. But my model is to help entrepreneurs as much as possible. So if I end up helping them and sign up as advisor, but feel that a Note they may be presenting may not be in my best interests, I may end up not investing at all.

Why I like Preferred Series.

I have ownership in the company.

I gain immediate ownership in the company and this point is not nebulous, as in the situation of the Note.

Generally, preferred terms are pretty favorable to me.

There will be provisions for voting, company control, preference in paying back, potential dividends, etc.

I am aligned with the interests of the company.

Once I have ownership in the company, I can freely and without reservation help the company build value, as my own value in the company will also grow.

Why not Preferred Equity?

Not many reasons to not jump into an investment if Preferred Equity is offered, assuming all other factors are positive.

Sometimes, there is a gotcha in the terms.

Potentially the terms could be not quite right. This happened once where the voting rights were not favorable to the Preferred Series Angel round. I caught this at the eleventh hour and thankfully the entrepreneur agreed to a change in the docs to make this more favorable. Otherwise, our terms and rights could have been wiped out without us having any say in it! You always need to review the terms no matter what and I would do it with a seasoned lawyer who has done many financings before, and hopefully from the perspective of company and investor.

Caveat Emptor - "Let the Buyer Beware" - words to live by and in the investing world you have to dig into every little detail in every deal. It costs more in time and money, but it keeps me out of trouble.

In reading my last post, one may start to think on why either method may be more or less desirable to an entrepreneur seeking to raise cash.

Why a Note?

It is Cheap.
Early stage startups typically have little cash to spend. Closing a Note allows them to bring in money in the cheapest possible way. Preferred Equity will cost them 10 to 20 times more.

It is Fast
Often startups need cash as fast as possible to fund short term operations. A Note closing can be accomplished in as little as two days.

It is Unsecured
For early stage startups, every Note I've seen has been unsecured. If the company goes under, there is no obligation to pay the Note holders back. It could be secured by assets, but generally for early stage startups it is not. Why would you get paid back with 1/10 of a PC?

Maximum Flexibility
In the case of early stage startups, we talk most often about a Convertible Note which Note holders want to convert to some version of stock in the company. Depending on how vague the language of conversion is, a startup could convert the Note holders to common stock, to Preferred Equity, or even to the terms of another Note. There is the potential for maximum flexibility on the part of the company as, in theory, it could convert to anything if they word it right. Another aspect of flexibility comes in next financings. For instance, with a Note, valuation for the company has not been set yet so there is freedom to adjust. It also means there are no preferred shareholders and could be more attractive to certain large investors who want more control in the company.

It is Low risk
The Note holder often has an interest in helping the company and getting in on the ground floor, and they can be generous with the payback period and the terms. Assuming the company either gets to a place of generating money or raising more, a Note of this type can be paid off prior to the due date, or converted to preferred in the financing, in which case the Note turns into equity and expunges the debt.

Why not a Note?

Not many reasons to not use a Note first, from the company perspective.

It misaligns helpful investors with the company.

The startup may have some investors whose contacts you want to leverage, or who are actively giving you help. By executing a Note, the startup creates a situation where the investor is not incentivized to help the company. If the company grows in value, and since Note holders don't have actual ownership in the company yet, then Note holders gain smaller share of the company when the Note converts. Helpful Note holders want to help, but they will see their potential stake in the company if they help drive the valuation of the company upwards.

But read on for some thoughts on Preferred Equity.

Why Preferred Equity?

It aligns the interests of helpful early stage investors with the company.

In Josh Kopelman's blog post about Bridge Loans vs. Preferred Equity, he explains it well. Once investors jump into a preferred series where they have actual ownership in the company and feel good about building value with the company, as their own value in the company increases with whatever value they build.

It rewards early stage investors with their support of the company.

Early stage investors have the riskiest position. They go invest in a company early, and often they get their stakes diluted by subsequent investments until they get nothing back. This seems grossly unfair for people who supported the entrepreneur at such an early time when there is barely no clear value built yet. With a preferred series raised with the earliest investors, they are rewarded for giving their support early on and the preferred equity will most likely resist dilution with the proper provisions.

It attracts investors.

Like with the previous item, preferred series are just more attractive to investors simply because you gain immediate ownership of the company and not have to deal with potential uncertainty of Convertible Notes. Entrepreneurs can increase their chances of getting more investment by offering this early on. Many investors are gunshy of Convertible Notes and want ownership immediately.

Why not Preferred Equity?

It's expensive in time and money.

You spend more money executing the paperwork, and there is a lot more paperwork to do. This may be too much for an early stage startup to bear financially.

It could deter future investors.

Venture funds don't like to have others in potential control of the company. They want it all. Other preferred shareholders could present a problem here as they may have preferential voting rights, perhaps even a board seat. Also, preferred equity terms often have anti-dilution provisions which prevent future financings from grabbing a larger stake in the company.

Operationally, it adds a bit more complexity.

Now a preferred shareholder elected board member may be present, so there may be another voice in the operations of the company. Potentially, other large directional moves by the company may require the preferred shareholders to agree via vote.

Still not an exhaustive list, but some thoughts I've picked up along the way. More interesting thoughts in Part III from the investor point of view, coming up next!

Convertible Notes versus Preferred Equity, Part 1.5

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Oh one other quick word.

When I started dealing with term sheets in both Notes and Preferred Equity, I strove for understanding. I went in thinking that this was an orderly process and that there were standard contracts for this sort of thing.

The one thing I learned is that NOTHING IS STANDARD.

Terms are written purely on whatever the entrepreneur and the investor(s) want. Yes, there are standard things like interest rate payments or anti-dilution provisions, but as for what interest rate to pay or which type of anti-dilution provision of which there are many...all up for grabs.

So if anyone tells you their term sheet is standard in the industry, don't believe them. Everything is negotiable, so just say, "Thanks I'll take a look and get back to you."

Onwards to Part II...

Convertible Notes versus Preferred Equity, Part I

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Just recently the issue of Convertible Notes vs. Preferred Equity came up with an entrepreneur. It was an interesting discussion and caused me to think deeply about both types of financing methods and why entrepreneurs and investors may or may not like either one.

In this Part I post, I describe what I've learned about Notes and Preferred Equity. This is by no means exhaustive or even showing that I'm an expert in this, but I choose to state what interesting information I did dig up over the many months I've been doing this angel investing stuff.

Characteristics of Notes:

1. They are cheap. I just heard a quote from a law firm that, after terms were set, you could close a Note at about $1000 in legal fees.

2. They are quick. You can close a Note in about 2 days, assuming everybody gets their cash transferred in. If you need cash in a hurry and the other larger financing round is going to take more time to close, then the Note can give you cash in the short term very quickly.

3. The paperwork is minimal. Only one document is required, which is expanded from the term sheet and spells out the terms of the Note in exhaustive detail. Investors sign that, the money is transferred, and you've got cash.

4. At early stage, many companies have little assets. Generally, for early stage startups, Notes are unsecured, meaning they are not backed by the assets of the company. So if you go under, you are really under no obligation to pay investors back.

5. It keeps options open for the next equity financing. Valuations may change and the Note doesn't cause any potential issues with Preferred Equity ownership prior to the next round of financing.

6. Negotiation on terms is possible, increasing time and cost to close.

7. Notes, or convertible notes, are basically loans to the company. The investor doesn't own any part of the company, and there is a promise to pay back the loan with interest. The convertible aspect means that at some point, generally when the next financing occurs, the money you invest would convert to the terms of the next financing. Sometimes it's spelled out as to which financing it is, and sometimes it is not.

Characteristics of Preferred Equity:

1. Preferred equity holders gain actual ownership in the company.

2. It locks in a valuation for the company at time of closing.

3. They are more expensive than Notes to close. A recent quote, after terms were set, would cost about $10,000 to $20,000 in legal fees to close a Preferred round (versus the $1000 of a Note closing).

4. Preferred Equity rounds take longer to close. They may take up to 3 weeks to finalize everything (versus as little as two days for a Note).

5. There is more paperwork involved. A Note involves only the expanded Note document. A Preferred Equity round involves a Stock Purchase Agreement, Investor Rights Agreement, filing of changes in the Articles or Certificate of Incorporation, potentially a Voting Agreement, and other supporting documents and changes. After all the paperwork is signed, a Preferred Stock certificate is sent to each shareholder.

6. It will require an official board meeting resolution to approve, and recording of minutes.

7. Negotiation in terms is possible, increasing time and cost to close.

8. Preferred Equity may cause issues in further financing rounds as follow-on round investors may desire more ownership and/or control in a company and may be deterred from investing by the fact that there already are Preferred Equity owners present.

9. Preferred Equity holders get preferential treatment as defined by terms. These can be things like, in case of company liquidation, they get paid back first, or anti-dilution provisions, or special voting privileges, or the ability to select a board member to represent their interests.

In Part II, I look at Notes versus Preferred Equity from the entrepreneur point of view. Part III will look at Notes versus Preferred Equity from an investor point of view.

The First Investor Meetings!

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A potentially scary moment is when you get into your first investor presentations. One of my startups is doing that right now. So before the meetings, I tend to send lots of comments to prepare them. Here are some of them:

1. You will be presenting a term sheet. Most VCs will present their own and I am sure it will be investor friendly. See item 2 below.

2. VCs may tempt you by closing quickly and shoving a term sheet in your face, hoping that the positivity and amount of money will sway you into signing right now to get the money. See item 3 and 4 below. My advice is to never sign anything especially in the emotional euphoria of a positive meeting. I would shop around first and make them compete against each other if possible on terms.

3. Always be ready to say 'Let me think about it.' Don't accept anything too quickly.

4. Don't let desperation cloud judgment. Ever. And it's corollary (see item 2 above), don't let euphoria cloud your judgment either!

5. There may come the option to skip the note if a VC you like wants to close quickly. Be ready to address this as an option, and hopefully a positive result for both you, the VCs, and us angels. By positive I mean that we all invest in and get stakes in the series A. Negative results would mean us angels may get squeezed out.

6. Make the note close between 250K and 400K. Keep the option open to close sooner if you think it's a good idea, or to extend fund raising to grab the extra 150k for a total of 400k. Don't just close on 250k if you think you've got it. You may be able to get the full 400k if you work a little harder and a little more time. Remember item 3 above.

7. VCs may want part of the note. Especially if you're giving a discount. They may demand to write into the note the right of first refusal to invest in the series A of some percentage. I would recommend not letting them do the full amount, but say up to some percentage like 50%.

8. VCs may attempt to squeeze us angels out to gain a higher percentage of ownership of the company. Being an angel, I will only ask that you do not let this happen for our sake.

9. VCs may demand a board seat. This is probably ok, but make sure you select the board member VERY CAREFULLY. You should get along with this person, like them, and want to work with them. Getting rid of a board member is not like firing an employee. You will be stuck with this person for a long time. Choose carefully and wisely.

10. VCs will undoubtedly ask for a huge percentage of the company. I would only say that a smart VC should never un-incentivize an entrepreneur by taking huge stakes in the company and dropping the entrepreneurs ownership to near nothing. It's a dumb move and unnecessary. I would say you could get away with 25-40% depending on the situation.

11. VCs may like the idea so much they want to give you more money. Be also very careful of taking too much money. It will affect valuations, ownership percentages, and also exit strategies. Now venture funds are huge with cash; they want to deploy more whenever possible. Don't let them tempt you into taking too much!

Other stuff:

1. Be prepared for the due diligence process. It involves getting a huge amount of paperwork delivered to potential investors. Get it all organized and ready to go now, and thankfully you haven't been in operation very long or else the paperwork could be immense.

It's always an exciting process to present your ideas and business to potential investors. It is unfortunate that there are so many sharks out there and trying to not get eaten is the name of the game.

Guardian Angel

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The other week one of my entrepreneurs jokingly referred to me not just as an angel (as in angel investor) but as a guardian angel. I laughed.

But it's also got some real serious undertones.

The more I meet entrepreneurs, the more I realize that there are real BIG holes in their knowledge. This is even more apparent with first time entrepreneurs. Even I had big holes in my knowledge base regarding investing and startups when I started David Shen Ventures, LLC.

How did I learn? I tried to find people to sit with me and talk with me. But so many of them are all busy and I also found out that a coffee or lunch is just not enough time to go through everything and have it sink in. I tried looking for books, but many were too generic to be useful. I did find a series of really expensive books on venture funds but they were very complex to read and took a while to figure out what they were talking about.

I eventually paid my lawyer for about 1.5 hours to sit down with me and go through some example financing docs. I made notes on these complex term sheets and other paperwork and then I could go back later and review what I had heard and written down. One funny thing was that when I met with my lawyer, he actually brought on another lawyer whom he partners with in financial deals. He was probably the most conservative, worst-case-scenario lawyer I had ever met; I almost quailed at giving my money to anyone after talking to him! But I also learned that early stage startup investing is not for the risk averse and that you can't get the same security as for other more established companies in later stages. Still, that 1.5 hours was not enough time to let everything sink in, but I had a better base to draw from.

Then I started reading some blogs about venture funds. I especially like Josh Kopelman's blog and I find his posts about investing in general to be really informative. This brought more knowledge in but still didn't complete the picture.

It was when I started doing a few angel investments when I really started to hit my stride. Arguing for terms was one of the best ways to firm up in my mind what risks there were in a particular deal. So many details all intertwined: valuation now and in the future to achieve a given return, percentage company owned, future return, squash prevention (or preventing dilution), notes versus preferred series. I always carry a calculator with big buttons with me at all times to punch in numbers and make sure my mental calculations are correct. I am getting more and more proficient and arguing from at least the point of view of a knowledgeable angel investor.

Now think about the new entrepreneur. Not much cash. No exposure to the financing world for the first-timers. I was willing to pay for some of my education with my lawyer (I just thought of it as educational expense) but others can't afford that. So what do they do? Where do they find help?

As advisor, I feel compelled to help them. And I don't mind as many meetings as it takes to get them educated. With this particular entrepreneur, I have had meetings weekly, many email exchanges, and also sat in with them on presentations. We talk about everything. The presentation, what to talk about, financing strategies, the usual company strategy stuff that I advise on (product, user experience, advertising, etc.), everything.

Before presentations, I email them for things to watch out for, and remind them to mention this and that. Post-meeting I email them again and give them one person's objective view on how it went. We go over the financing strategy and explain to them some of the details that are hard to understand if you haven't done it yet. I give them strategic advice on the pros and cons of doing financing one way or another, and how investors will react to certain terms. I give them example term sheets and show them what terms can look like, and what investors like and don't like and why.

I make myself available to them because I know there is no one else that is willing to spend that much time with them. And while I give them information, I try not to make the decisions for them; I make sure they have as much information as possible so they can make an informed decision and not one that has blind spots.

So from angel (investor), I became guardian angel. I keep them out of trouble as much as possible and in many cases I'm the only guy doing it.

How ridiculous is that. In our world, we seem to have major problems finding mentors who will give their time and expertise to others. If you don't have the connections and relations, then it gets even that much harder to find someone who is willing to help you. I for one hope to change that with my entrepreneurs. It is my belief that whatever knowledge I give them will give them a greater advantage over other companies who are still in the dark.

On Being an Advisor

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When I talk to entrepreneurs about working with them, I make it a point of saying that my business is based on the assumption that they will have a better of chance of success if I am actively helping them versus if I'm not. Therefore, if I invest in a company, I require them to make me an advisor. And yes, it's also a form of investment protection for me since I'm watching over my money by being involved.

One might think that if I were to invest, that the advisorship wasn't necessary. I would be tied to the company through the investment and the ownership that comes with it, and probably care greatly about the company's progress and help when I can. In some sense it's true.

But I have already come across cases where even though people SAY they want my help, they really don't. They just want my money. One way to test that, besides watching my intuition about these things closely, is to see if they will sign me up as advisor.

When they do that, they need to be willing to compensate me for the advisorship. Since I deal with early stage internet companies, often pre-funding, I told myself long ago that I would not ask for cash payment like a consultant. Many people who do what I do will ask for consultant hourly fees to work with a company as an advisor. But I cannot. An early stage startup barely has cash already; to drain them of whatever little savings they may have could cripple or destroy the company. I would rather that they take that cash and build the business. In fact, I don't think they would sign me up if I were to ask for cash. So I ask for options to equity, vesting over my term which is typically between a year to two years.

If they are willing to give up some of their options pool for me, then that is definitely a good sign that they are actively seeking my help since they are giving up some form of payment to me. It's not 100% reliable, but there is nothing better than seeing a company give up something like cash or equity to ensure their engagement in you; they're giving up valuable options that they could give to someone else like an employee, but instead they are giving it to me, so they better utilize me and get their money's worth!

Being an advisor also clarifies my involvement in the eyes of outside world and within the company. I don't want to be perceived as a bothersome investor, who keeps sticking his nose into the company's business. With me, I'd be bugging people about product strategy, the user experience, and online advertising all day long. Without a statement of purpose like "David Shen is our advisor and he will help us in X, Y, and Z", it becomes that much harder to communicate and reinforce why I'm hanging out with the company. I believe with that clarity comes acceptance that my advice will be given, and that they should listen. If they aren't ok with that, then issues would come up during the advisor signup process in which case maybe it wouldn't make sense for me to get involved with the company, if they don't perceive my help as valuable. By the way, this has happened already.

It also clarifies in my mind what I'm supposed to do every week. If I'm signed up as advisor, I have an obligation to help them since I want to earn my options. If my term is over, then I can mentally shift and focus on the other companies whose terms are still on-going.

So is my help going to continue after the term? This part is still a bit undefined since my business is so new. A few thoughts on this:

If I'm an investor, I'll always be around until I exit the investment. To what extent I am involved depends on the state of the company at the time of end of my advisor term.

I always tell people that by the end of my term, my goal is to teach you everything I know, help you get people in place to permanently take on what I have brought to the table, and bring on any relationships you need through my network. Generally, I think one year terms are too short to do this, but 2 years is a bit beyond the point of finishing this task. So somewhere between 1 to 2 years is where I think I'll accomplish those goals (it's very uncommon to do 1.5 year terms even if I think it fits my mental timeline of when I'll finish my goals). For that reason I like 2 year terms better than 1 year, or else I think that the chance of not accomplishing those goals is high and if my advisorship does not get renewed for another year, then I'll feel like my job with them is unfinished. So theoretically, if I do accomplish all that, then you'll have people and relationships in place to do everything I helped you with, and only need minimal involvement from me post-advisor term.

I believe that when people see what value I have brought to them during my advisor term, that they will keep me engaged after my term ends. But I can't keep shepherding them in their tasks; they need to be able to function effectively by themselves since I'm not an employee. And thus it's critical that they hire great people who can do all the things I helped them with, and I will be helping with that aspect as well.

However, if they really want to lock-in my involvement post-advisor term, they should renew my advsior contract and we'll keep going officially.

So far, being an advisor has been a rewarding experience. As I do my work, I am pretty active and aggressive at checking in and seeing opportunities and throwing ideas over to the entrepreneurs. I have found that they have really appreciated it. Anecdotely, I am finding that I am outpacing most, if not all, of the other advisors that they have brought on. I find this to be an interesting revelation. It seems to me that traditionally most advisors are only called upon very sparingly. Perhaps it's because I'm an investor in some of these companies that I care more and want them to succeed; but I also am pretty regular in checking in with companies which are quiet at the moment.

Because of my seemingly extra effort, some of them have offered to find some way to thank me beyond what compensation we've agreed on. While I appreciate it, I do not expect it. The satisfaction I get in helping these entrepreneurs, seeing my help get them to success, getting caught up their energy and excitement for their company and product, being a part of the celebrations of closing their series A funding or their first $1 MM of revenue - it's ample reward to know that I am part of that and that my help is being actively utilized, appreciated, and validation that my help is worth it.

Leaping into the Angel Funding Process

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Three of the companies I'm working with are now approaching the fund raising process. Often with these entrepreneurs, there is a lack of exposure and experience to how the investor process works. Here is an (edited) excerpt from an email exchange regarding some details and expectations from the fund raising process, and about an upcoming meeting with a prominent angel investor:

I'm glad I broached the subject. Thanks for the detailed and insightful response, Dave.

DSHEN: I consider it my job as advisor to teach you as much as possible and get you up the curve as fast as possible to set your expectations correctly, to prepare you for the best and the worst, but also to have a really fun time at all this ;-).

What's a likely scenario in your mind?

* Send term sheet and 1-pager immediately

DSHEN: I think this is a good idea. It will help keep the mtg shorter and you and he can focus on his real questions.

* Meeting on Thursday

DSHEN: Present your deck, field his questions, pray for positivity.

* How many more meetings until we close a deal?

DSHEN: No idea. It will vary from investor to investor. Generally if you have a group of investors, you'll get a general "I'm in" and you should add them to your list. You'll always have to check back with people to make sure they are still "in". Sometimes they may drop out. This motivates you to close funding as soon as possible.

By close funding, I mean:
- accelerate as much as possible meetings with investors. Do not sit around not fund raising, even if you have a lot to do. I suspect that the burden will fall on your US person to do the fund raising since she is here in the US. It will be really tough. You'll have other commitments and try to field them, but if you don't go as fast as possible, this will drag on for months. The longer you wait to close, the higher the possibility that somebody might drop out, thereby lengthening the process even further.

- set a date for yourself to close by. Set a monetary minimum and maximum goal. Setting a minimum both mentally and financially will mean you will be faster in deciding whether you want to stop fund raising, close the funding and collect the funds and finish the massive amount of paperwork, and get back to work. BTW, in a good scenario, you may actually have more investors wanting to give you money than your maximum and may want to decide to take that. This is actually a harder decision than it looks, as it affects valuation and how much of the company is sold to investors.

- the closing process is one of document preparation. You'll get your lawyer to expand upon the term sheet into the relevant docs. Since you're doing a preferred angel round, you'll need a stock purchase agreement, an investor rights agreement, and some others. You'll also need to change the articles of incorporation.

- the closing process is one of gathering signatures. Like herding cats, you'll need to help get all the signatures back to Monty. I would recommend getting an eFax account. It will help you electronically pass around faxed signature pages versus shuffling paper. I have one and love it as all incoming faxes get emailed to me as PDFs. (by the way, it works great also as a document scanner; you just throw the doc into a fax machine and fax it to yourself).

- the closing process is one of collecting money. You'll be surprised at how hard this process can be. Usually, your law firm will setup an escrow account where the money will go to first. This is to prevent you for going to the Cayman Islands with our money if we were to send it directly to your bank account (haha). Once the money is collected, he'll run all the docs, get all the signatures, get everything filed, and then the money goes into your bank account.

- after all this is done, you'll send back to everyone their copy of the signature pages. Your law firm might prepare a nice notebook with all the docs in it, or not. You may want to pay for that or maybe it's part of the package.

And lastly, we get our nice Preferred Stock certificate in the mail from your law firm a few weeks later.

* Dave, it is my understanding that if this investor is in, you're likely to close as well?

DSHEN: Actually my commitment to you is not dependent on that. I have already said that I would invest and now it's a question of exactly how much I will put in, and a final review of terms. Also, I will need the advisor agreement signed with you since that's how I operate, which is I require that I be an active participant (advisor) with any firm that I invest in, on the assumption that my help will raise your chances of success than without my help, thereby somewhat protecting my investment.

BTW, you'll find that some investors won't invest unless somebody else goes in too. A lot of people go on the opinions of others, especially those who aren't as good at evaluating companies in the internet space. Some won't go in unless you reach a certain threshold of dollars committed, also as a way to gauge others' confidence in you. Be prepared to deal with this in your fund raising travels.

* Would we close with just you two, or would we have to wait for other investors to come on board as well?

DSHEN: Most likely with a dollar amount of $1MM, you'll have to have other investors at the angel level. Unless you find someone who LOVES you and what you're working on, AND they are richer than you or I can imagine (there are a few people like that in the valley). You already have a small list of people who have verbally committed; ask your partner about that and I believe I am already in that list.

I understand that these things are not entirely predictable, but we still need to have a clear plan, with milestones and tasks, so we know what we're aiming a and so we can track progress and change our strategy when things don't go as expected, and so we can plan for our finances in the meantime.

DSHEN: Yes, hence my comment on setting a closing date. You should be doing regular check-ins, on progress and keeping a list of investors (ie. Contact info and contact progress (ie. Sent term sheet, no response, got warm response, referred me to his buddy, etc.), amount committed or not, did they refer you to someone else so you can thank them later, how did the mtg go?, were they assholes or not :-), etc.)

The fund raising process is going to double your workload, maybe even more.
Be prepared for sleepless nights for a long time, a lot of frustration at not returned calls/emails, watching the process go super slow, etc. And then be pleasantly surprised if you are able to close early :-).

Last word on this fine cold NYC morning: find investors who are going to help you if you can. Taking non-helpful money is OK, but not as nice as getting someone involved in your company who has skin in your game and can also help your business, like leveraging their list of contacts. Sort of like when I invest, I am doubly motivated to help you than if I'm just an advisor.

Some other notes about investors:

We're dealing with a large sum of money. $10K, $50K, etc. are especially large sums of money for angel investors. You'll find that money changes people and there will be some people that will say they will give it to you and then pull out at the last moment. It's frustrating and you'll wish that people mean what they say, but be prepared to encounter some who won't be able to part with their cash, even if they insist that it will show up tomorrow.

If a few pull out, this could mean that you won't be able to close and you'll have to go back out and raise more money.

Keep the number of investors as low as possible. There will be people who can't stop bugging you about how their money is doing. This is also related to the previous point; this sum of money is a large amount of money and there will be people who will be overly paranoid about losing it. Experienced angels won't act like this since they've done this before, but the likelihood of it happening with unexperienced angels is fairly high. So keep the number of investors low; it will reduce the chance of this happening and reduce the chance of added distractions in keeping investors happy.

The fund raising process can be filled with frustration, consumer incredible amounts of time, and be extremely rewarding building your confidence and your rolodex with each meeting. Have a positive attitude through the whole process, don't give up, and have a great time with it.

Don't Need to be Lead Investor to Affect Terms?

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As I started angel investing into startups, I began realizing that the amount I was investing gave me virtually no leverage to affect terms. The largest investor typically has the most power to affect terms, since the entrepreneur wants their money the most. They are more likely to negotiate and do what that investor wants than other small fry...like me.

One goal I have is to take the cash I set aside now and try to build it over the next few years to a point where I could be lead investor and really affect terms. This usually starts happening at around a $250,000 or more investment.

But I did find one place where I could actually affect terms without requiring large sums of money. First, I asked my lawyer to draft an example Series A term sheet. I also asked him to make the terms balanced towards investor and the company. This was an important point; many times now, I have seen investments go much quicker when the terms were more balanced. This is even true with my advisor agreement, which is neither overly advantageous towards me or the company. It reduces negotiation, and thus legal fees and time - both of which are desirable.

Second, I start advising these companies very early, even pre-incorporation. I help them in the process of defining their fund raising strategy, and give them my sample Series A term sheet. They love that. Otherwise, they would have to get it from their lawyer and that would cost extra cash. Instead, they present that to their lawyer who reviews it and is usually agreeable on basing their actual term sheet off mine. it would cost them extra cash to alter it later to the requests of potential investors, as well as costing money to go over it with their legal help to understand it all.

This is good because now I have a fair, balanced term sheet which I am investing in, rather than something created by the legal support. Given that most entrepreneurs are new to the fund aspect, and the fact that lawyers will most likely default to a company friendly term sheet to protect their client, being aggressive at presenting a sample term sheet which is balanced provides an opportunity to create a situation where I can actually affect terms and not be the lead investor.

The Legends are True! Raising Funds on Powerpoints

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Well, I finally saw it myself. Two friends of mine just raised venture capital for their startups on...a POWERPOINT.

Before this time, it was by rumor that I heard people were walking in with ideas and getting funding. No company, no corporation, no IP, no technology...nuthin! But getting $1MM to $4MM committed. And the rest of the world struggled along with their business plans and prototypes...

I tried to quantify what made these two people unique. Here are some thoughts:

1. They are both very persuasive presenters. Very good at pitching their ideas.
2. They were well-known to the venture fund. Both people had fund partners begging them to start something...anything...so they could fund it.
3. They had decent track records.
4. Both had high integrity, so trust is a factor. They were also very realistic about their prospects and didn't oversell or overcommit.
5. Both could attract talent amazingly well. While everyone else was struggling to hire, these two got committed employees with no company existing! So they were well-known and trusted to the people they got on board.
6. Of course their ideas were pretty damn good too. They were presented as very well thought out ideas and with an answer for all tough questions.

Sorry Microsoft, but I don't think Powerpoint had anything to do with their success. Too bad if that was all someone needed was advanced presentation software to get funding...!

Should You Be a VC by Guy Kawasaki

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As I wrote my last post, I just found this very amusing post, which has some element of truth to it:

The Venture Capital Aptitude Test (VCAT)

Take the test and see how well you do. I got 28 points, which means I should probably just stay away from being a VC and keep doing what I love doing, which is what I'm doing now...

Should you be an Angel Investor...or a Venture Capitalist?

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Sometimes I get asked what it takes to be an angel investor. It also leads to insight into whether or not being a venture capitalist is the right career. While I am not an expert at either, I do have some observations from the many months I spent trying to raise a venture fund and now ending up as an angel investor. These observations are by no means complete or exhaustive, but for now I think they serve as one man's look into the world of investing in startups. These are the results of conversations, feedback, and personal thinking and experiences:

What Does it Take to be a Venture Capitalist?

Beyond that magical ability to pick companies/businesses/the next Youtube, there are a number of things to be aware of.

Investors need to trust you. They are handing you their millions of dollars and want to have maximal assurance that you'll not run away with it, make stupid or poor investment decisions, keep to discipline (which is what you sold them on investing in your fund), and want you to do better than the next guy.

If you've created companies and built them to success, that's a plus. But it's only one piece of the puzzle. Building a great company doesn't mean you can go and pick other companies that will win. Investors like to see that you have engaged in activities that show you can pick successful companies AND make lots of money from it. The 'AND' is important; just saying "I knew Youtube was going to be big" isn't the same as saying "I bet on Youtube when they are two guys in a garage, put my money in it, helped them with XYZ when they needed it, and saw the potential and put my own money where my mouth was, and made 10X on my investment."

How to develop a track record? Angel investing helps, as does working in investment banking or some other similar investment outfit. If you've worked with other prominent investors like in an angel network, that's great too. People who have invested alongside you and made money off your introduction of a company to them is a great trust builder. Experience as an entrepreneur also helps but not as much as (successful) investing experience. (Working in a previous venture fund helps a lot, but hey this paragraph is about whether or not you should be a VC in the first place.)

If you are thinking of joining a venture fund, they need to also trust you, see your commitment, and they have to like you and be able to work with you.

Joining a venture fund is not like taking a job at any other company. With a regular company, you can quit at any time and go to a new company. The commitment is typically 5 years, with potential to extend to 10 years if you still have companies in your portfolio that you have not exitted out of. This is spelled out in the Private Placement Memorandum (PPM) and is a condition for investors to commit. If you decide to leave the fund before the 5-10 years are up, this can, at a minimum, cause uncomfortable questions in investors minds as to the viability of the team they put their money in. It can, at a maximum, cause all the investors to bolt and your fund is left with nothing.

Therefore, venture fund partners want to know that you're in it for the long haul no matter what. It's pretty tough; 5 years is a really long time to commit. You'd really have to want to do it that long and the moment a partner smells wavering commitment, they'll back off you.

Since you're in it for a long time, you want to know that you can all work together and also must like each other. Again, 5 years is a long time to be hanging out with someone. You'd better all be drinking buddies as well as love working with each other to stand each other's company. That is why a lot of venture funds are made up of partners who have known each other for a long time and have worked with each other in the past. Investors like this also; they want to have assurance that the team can function together well and prevent an unrecoverable implosion of the team at some point in the future. They want to know that the team will exist long enough to make them money for the period of time they commit.

Lastly, almost all venture funds require the partners to put up their own capital. I've heard 1% is the norm, but I've also heard it can be higher as well. Doing some quick math - if your fund is $100 MM, you would need to put up 1% of $100MM which is $1 MM of your own cash. It doesn't have to come all at once; venture funds do capital calls when an investment is imminent. So the cash would come in portions as you went out and found companies to invest in. But over 5 years, you'd have to find $1MM to invest. All is not lost; a venture fund has many partners, so the 1% is spread out amongst all the partners. Still, it could mean many 100s of thousands of personal money to commit to the fund, in order to gain trust of the investors. How many people have that kind of cash lying around?

So after reading this, does the above apply to you in the positive sense, if you aspire to be a venture capitalist?

What Does it Take to Be an Angel Investor?

Simply put, being angel investor requires nothing more than cash. I don't think there is any other requirement than that. Of course, if you want to be GOOD at it, you'll need more than that. Read on..!

Things That Apply Both to Angel Investing and Venture Capitalists

Beyond those mentioned above, you will need to be able to pick companies well. The topic of picking companies is beyond the scope of this post, but no matter whether you're an angel or a VC, you have to do this well. You'll probably want to have some expertise in the area that you are picking companies in, like for me I work on Internet companies because that's what I know most about.

Having an extensive business network really helps. Connecting your entrepreneurs with the right folks will help from a company building standpoint, and even potentially on generating an exit at some point in the future. When you are calling on your friends or previous business associates, it works much better than going in cold. They already know you and there is a level of trust built already.

You also can't be risk averse. You need to be more of a risk taker and be able to get behind an entrepreneur, even when there seems to be no intellectual proof that it will be successful. Startup investing is not for the conservative soul; you'll drive yourself crazy if you are conservative by nature.

The Money Aspect

Here is where it differs slightly between venture capitalists and angel investors. When you are a VC, you are playing with other peoples' money; when you're an angel, you're playing with your own money. I say 'slightly' because in the case where you have to put up your money into the fund, then you'll also be playing with your own money as you invest the fund's money.

But with a fund, the bulk of the money you're investing is not yours. So if this is true, you need to feel some kind of fiscal responsibility to that money, and not feel that you can just take unnecessary risks with it. After all, these people entrusted you with their money on the assumption that you wouldn't just piss it away on stupid investments.

When it's your own money, other things come into play. I'll throw some out there which I think are important.

Most financial planners say that you shouldn't put more than 2-3% of your assets into any one investment. This ensures diversification minimizes the impact of any one investment in case of a downturn in that investment. In either case of whether you're committing money into a fund or designating it for angel investing, is that amount larger than 2-3% of your total assets? If it is, you are potentially taking too high a risk with your assets. Investing into these types of companies is not a sure thing. The potential is greater than zero that you could lose it all.

Still, it has been shown that statistically speaking, if you put money in 10 investments, about 6 will tank, 3 will break even or make back a little, and the last one makes back everything you lost on the previous 9 and then some.

Let's do some math: say you put $50K into 10 companies because you want to employ this diversification concept to maximize your chances of making money. That means you need $500K to do this. If we say that we don't want to commit more than 2% of our total assets, then our assets must be $25MM total.

Certainly this can be modified by many factors like are you a risk taker or not. Maybe then 2% isn't the right number but maybe 4 or 5% or maybe more. It definitely bears some thought into what kind of person you really are, and the comfort level you need with respect to your assets.

I think also that you need to be able to let go of that money. You need to be able to say that you will be OK if you never see that money again and just move on. If you cannot let go of the cash emotionally and intellectually, you'll be in a really poor mental state when your investments aren't doing well. Remember, that even if you employ the diversified/statistical method of investing, something like 6 of those companies will fail completely. I would not recommend you get into venture or angel investing if you're going to collapse mentally every time one of your portfolio companies dies. You'll go nuts and probably drive everyone else nuts around you. Because it WILL HAPPEN and you need to be able to deal with it.

You also need to have a healthy attitude towards money. Some people just can't. They assign way too much importance to cash in their lives. They can't let go of it, and they may do a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde thing on you. I've already experienced this once already in my life, and I have heard stories about many more. Friends, family all turning from loving people to the nightmares of your life. They will do things like hate you for losing their money, and never let you forget it. They will lie, cheat, steal - literally money does bring out the worst in people. Are you a closet Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde with respect to money? If you are or even think you are, stay away from startup investing!

What's Your Real Motivation?

I am big on getting real insight into why I do anything. I want to really understand my motivations and feelings on it. So I think it is worthwhile asking yourself why you REALLY want to do this. If after all your inward analysis you still want to do this, then by all means go for it assuming the other stuff we talked about applies positively to you.

One big thing is to not delude oneself about the glamorous life of a startup investor. It ain't glamorous all the time and it takes a lot of work to do it well. And as much as you may say you want to build great companies, you won't be able to ignore the monetary aspect of it and how you're going to get your money out of the deal. Sometimes the two don't sync up exactly and you need to be ready to make a decision contrary to what you really want. You need to prepare yourself on the realities of what is going on here. Can you take your blinders off and really see what it takes realistically?

The Last Word

The last thing I'll say about whether you can be successful at this is: Are you a lucky person? By fate, or by creating your own luck (which I am big into - creating opportunities rather than just sitting back and hoping it will happen), I think luck plays a bigger role than people think. It is that slight edge you get by the will of the gods that will enable your video company to succeed, whereas the other 99 will not...

Really the Last Word

Don't create the 100th video company when there are 99 out there. But if your video company makes it big; then I would say you are lucky. Go invest more and call me to bring me into your next deal (haha).

Angel Investing from a Disadvantaged Position

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I've learned a huge amount about angel investing over the last few months. It started with me sitting down with my lawyer and getting a brain dump of terms, term sheets, provisions of all sorts, talking about notes and preferred series: the list goes on and on. But it's all theory until you get out there and try to invest in something yourself.

I told myself I would try to be a sophisticated investor, meaning that I would spend the time (and money) to get every deal reviewed by my lawyer and I would make best efforts to read everything. It was the only way I could understand everything, which was to experience it in real time.

When I started looking at deals, many things emerged. Here are some of them:

It's the Wild West

There is no such thing as standard. All term sheets have similarities, but everything is different, sometimes subtly different. Every law firm has its own style and favored terms to present, and modify that by the entrepreneur or the venture fund and you get every kind of combination of terms you can think of. All I can say is that I'm glad to have my lawyer around to look at terms with an experienced eye, and I can only hope that over months (years?) I too can gain enough experience at looking at terms and their ramifications.

Law Firms Protect Their Clients

And that's a good thing. The law firms that startups hire will produce documentation that is always company friendly. Which usually means that it's not very friendly for the investor. The terms will inevitably have provisions that don't protect the investor at all. This confounds the process because sophisticated investors will always push back and alter the terms. If there is pushback, then legal fees will mount, as the process of negotiation goes back and forth on the terms.

The downside is that entrepreneurs are typically new to the financing aspect. They don't know enough to ask for more balanced terms when developing term sheets. They just take whatever the lawyer gives them.

I always push for balanced terms that favor neither investor nor company. In my limited experience, it has resulted in the fastest way docments get approved and signed with minimal fuss and cost.

Money Gives You the Lead Position

One thing I found out was that at the amounts I'm angel investing ($25K - $100K per investment), I am typically not the lead investor. That unfortunately means that I have little leverage to modify the terms; if I had put in more money, the entrepreneur is incentivized to negotiate with me and keep me happy in order to get my cash. If I am only putting in a small amount relative to others, or as a percentage of the total raise, then it is up to me to do my best in gracefully pushing for better terms.

Sophistication or Attention to Detail is Severely Lacking in Angel Rounds

During angel rounds, it is often the case that the entrepreneur went to their friends and family to get much of the money. These folks have cash, but almost always have no experience with terms and what is good and what is not. They rely solely on trust of their family/friend to not screw them when it comes to protecting their investment. When I arrive on the scene, it is often the case that a lot of the money has already been raised, and now we have a whole crew of people who have accepted the terms, albeit not fully understanding them, and now I have little leverage to ask for different terms because the entrepreneur would now have to go back to each investor and approve and sign off on changes. This will incur extra costs and perhaps even uncomfortable dialog between the entpreneur and family and friends (ie. you asking for my approval for better terms now...? why weren't they in there when I signed the documents in the first place...?).

Big Experienced Angels Mess Up the Process for us Little Guys

Another issue I have encountered is the prevalence of angels in Silicon Valley with large sums of money. Throwing $50K, $100K, even $1MM into a startup during an angel round is done without attention to terms. How do I know they aren't reading the terms? Because they invested in a company with investor un-friendly terms! And with the amount they put in, they could have easily negotiated changes in the terms.

Now that the entrepreneur has a big investor signed up, I show up with my investment and again I don't have leverage to change terms, even if they favor the big investor, because the entrepreneur doesn't want to go back and re-approve terms.

I asked around as to what these guys were doing. I found out that many have 40+ investments. With that many investments, it is impossible to keep their attention on any of them. And some of them are not experienced enough to know if a given company is good or not. Remember, this does not mean that they aren't smart; it just means that sometimes you're putting money in an industry that you may not have deep experience in. So they spread out their investments as much as possible in order to employ what I call the "Random Method of Investing". Basically, this means you employ the theory that has been proven time and time again by venture funds, which is that for every 10 companies you invest in, about 6 will tank, 3 will do about even, and the last 1 will make back all that you lost and then some. Now you can see the reason for 40+ investments. It's very much a passive investing operation.

My bet with David Shen Ventures, LLC is that I will improve that success ratio by being smart about the busineses I involve myself with, and I get involved with them to give them the benefit of my knowledge and experience. I am betting on an active investing operation and I hope to prove that this will be more lucrative than the passive route, as well as more fun.

Timing is Everything, But Not the Last Word

So far, in every investment I've done where I came in middle or towards the end of the round period, I generally have found that I lose leverage to change the terms. But I ask anyways. And it looks like dependent on the entrepreneur; often they will make best efforts to make changes or even make the change.

When I am at the beginning, I find that I can negotiate much better, even with my small amount going in. Over time, I hope to generate proof that going for funding with balanced terms results in lesser negotiation, less cost, and faster fund raising.

What's the Future?

I think the route that others have taken may be the best. And that is to employ enough capital to be the lead investor in the round, angel or otherwise, and to be able to effect change in the terms because you are bringing so much cash to the table. Definitely, I am not there yet; my hope that is David Shen Ventures, LLC will be successful over time to be able to make succeedingly larger investments to the point where I can manipulate terms to the benefit of both investor and company.

Incubators and Transferrance of Resonance

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The concept of an incubator keeps coming up in my travels. Everybody knows about the big Internet incubators like IdeaLab during the Internet boom years. Lots of investors pouring money into these operations, big plans and huge infrastructure was built to support the development of business ideas, on the assumption that certain resources could be pooled together and shared to increase efficiency and cost. These were building space, internet access, servers, expertise - you name it and you could find it at an incubator in the late 1990s.

The spectacular demise of these incubators put a damper on the creation of new huge incubators. Even now, the lawsuits still go on where angry investors, having lost hundreds of millions of dollars in these investments, are litigating to get some of that back. When I started into this investing business, my ex-venture fund partner and I tried to form an incubator called Ignited Brains where we would employ inexpensive outsourcing to Internet ventures and try to let the marketplace decide on their viability. When we went out to get advice on our operation, we were met unanimously with negativity; incubators, we discovered, was a dirty word in the venture/investing community. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with us at all, which caused us to switch gears to try to raise a traditional venture fund.

As we worked on our traditional venture fund, we also discovered that incubators did exist in other forms. Some venture funds developed the concept of Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIRs), where entrepreneurs with a track record got office space and sometimes were paid staff and they were free to work on whatever projects they wanted. If they were on to something good, the venture fund would then finance it and off they would go. In fact, we had an "lab" in our venture fund which we would activate, with permission of the investors, to operate essentially as an incubator for our own ideas. Another interesting model came up with YCombinator where the two principals would get college students to work with them for 3 months and they would fund them for that time and help them get an Internet business prototype out the door. This is interesting to employ college students who have lots of energy, are super smart, and have skills to throw at a given problem. Another incubator model was tried by those who came through the Internet years with at least one large exit, and thus could fund their own ideas. Basically, they would get some of their smart buddies together, form an LLC or corporation, and work on an idea with minimal cash to see if they could get traction with it.

For me, I think I would have tried the last model, which was to take my own ideas, form a team, and run with it to see if it would work in the marketplace. Upon further thinking and research into this, I think there are limitations on this model. In short, my belief is that you can't work on many ideas, if they are your own AND expect them to be successful in the way you envision them.

The problem has to do with resonance with an idea, and transferring that resonance to other people.

First, an idea has to resonate with me. I must love the idea, understand it, and know how it could be successful. So naturally, I get how to make it work, what a target user might want from it, how to market it, etc. You might say I would be a natural to lead the business.

Herein lies the problem. You can only work on so many things so that they get enough of your time and benefit of your ideas and leadership. It's pretty hard to be CEO of one company, let alone 2 or 3.

And you can't rely on others to take your idea and run with it. That's where the transferrence of resonance comes into play. Since everybody is different, it is a very rare event, in my experience, to be able to transfer your own resonance with an idea to another person so that they feel it as deeply as you do. Without that shared resonance in others, they'll never be able to take an idea to the place you can take it to.

Over the years, in various jobs, I've tried to sell concepts time and time again. And I can't recall a single time that an idea survived longer than me driving it. As soon as I stopped working on an idea, it was impossible for the people there to continue work on it. I believe the same applies to incubators. In fact, I talked to an entrepreneur who actually launched a personal incubator with all his own ideas in it and he also had the same experience I had, which caused him to kill all the other projects and focus on the last two. Once he did that, the two are now flourishing, whereas previously they were actually languishing without his focus on them.

If someone can figure out how to transfer resonance to others, please let me know. Otherwise, are we ADD entrepreneur types doomed to only work on one or two things at a time?

Update on David Shen Ventures, LLC

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I've been doing David Shen Ventures, LLC for about 4 months now and it's been a truly positive and educational experience.

Coming off the difficulties of raising my own venture fund, Chroma Ventures, which showed me that the current market was just too unfriendly to new fund managers, I leaped into the world of early stage internet startups on my own. With only pocket change, when compared to the mega venture funds out there, I tiptoed into the world of angel investing.

Big Education

Early on, I knew I had to learn everything as fast as possible. All this investor stuff was very new to me. I had learned some of it while trying to raise Chroma Ventures, but I hadn't gotten everything yet. So I enlisted my lawyer to sit down with me for about an hour and a half and just go through a whole bunch of financing docs and talk briefly about all the different ways people could screw you.

Lawyers can definitely be worst case scenario guys. They will scare the crap out of you on how you can be taken by everyone. It sure scared me, hearing all the stories of how people were cheated out of millions of dollars, and what happens if you invest on the wrong terms. I listened to all this and it could have made me run for the hills....but it didn't.

Investing in early stage companies, internet or no, is an inherently risky business. I like to think of it as better than gambling as you can personally affect the odds in early stage investing by making the right bets among other things. So you have to take some risks and be ready to lose that money. And sometimes, the investment terms aren't exactly the way you like them. I've walked away from terms that were just too risky. I've also invested in terms that were still risky to a point, but I thought there was a good chance of my risk being mitigated by other things. Basically, to invest in early stage companies, you have to be willing to lose a lot but hopefully win it all back on one or two big wins. (My advice here: if you're not a risk tolerant person, don't invest in early stage companies; you'll drive yourself and the entrepreneurs crazy.)

Learning about terms was one big education. I think I'm getting better at solo-ing on reading a term sheet, but still like my lawyer to go through it and get his take on it. Finding out what terms were company friendly and what terms were investor friendly was really enlightening. I had wished that it was all standardized, but it's actually the wild west of terms out there. Everything is done to personal taste so you have to read every term sheet carefully.

Huge Positive Response

As I went out there, I had no idea whether people would want my involvement this way or not. I already had met some folks who were doing the same thing I was doing: advising for an equity stake in the company. Many were actually paid as consultants to help their ventures. They also touted their contacts in the venture world so they could help an entrepreneur through the funding process. They seemed to be doing OK and had an active roster of entrepreneurs they were working with. But I had no idea on how to find these entrepreneurs.

I started by going to a Silicon Valley Meetup. I met some folks there but also realized that it was not such a good thing to advertise my status as an angel investor - too many people are out there working on stuff that won't ever make it - or they themselves are not true entrepreneur material. I didn't have time to field every business plan that came across my email, nor did I have time to check up on every person to see if they were on the level.

I also met with some ex-Yahoos who had started their own startups and they were plugged into the entrepreneur "underground" in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. This seemed to be a better route than going to the more public forums. Getting to know these guys p