Get the Heck Out of the Building in Founder’s School: Part 2

With a ~$2 billion endowment the Kauffman Foundation is the largest non-profit focused on entrepreneurship in the world. Giving away $80 million to every year (~$25 million to entrepreneurial causes) makes Kauffman the dominant player in the entrepreneurship space.

Kauffman launched Founders School – a new education series to help entrepreneurs develop their businesses during the startup stage by highlighting how startups are different from big companies.

In January 2014 Part 1 of the “Startups” section of Founders School went online.

Now you can watch Part 2 “The Lean Approach“.

Founders School

This group of six videos provides an overview of how to successfully do Customer Discovery. You’ll learn how to:

  • get to know your customers
  • devise ways to test your hypotheses
  • glean insights from what you learn outside the building
  • get, keep and grow customers

As in the first part of this series, I’m in good company – I’m joined in Founders School by Noam Wasserman of Harvard teaching Founder’s Dilemmas, Craig Wortmann University of Chicago covering Entrepreneurial Selling, Peter McDermott helping understand Intellectual Property, and Nathan Gold offering how to give Powerful Presentations.

These videos are not only great tutorials for founders but also provide educators with another source of well produced and curated resources.

These “Startup and The Lean Approach” videos are a great general purpose companion to my “How to Build a Startup” lectures on Udacity.

And you get a tour of my living room and office…

Introduction, for Part 2 is here

Module 1, The Lean Method

  • 0:50: There are No Facts Inside Your Building — Get Outside
  • 1:28: Using the Business Model Canvas
  • 1:49: Use Customer Development to Test Your Hypotheses
  • 2:44: What is a Pivot?
  • 4:24: No Business Plan Survives First Contact with Customers

Module 2, Getting Out of the Building: Customer Development

  • 0:24: What is Customer Development?
  • 1:09: How Do You Start the Customer Development Process?
  • 1:36: Customer Discovery is a Series of Conversations
  • 2:05: The Founder and Customer Development
  • 3:16: Real World Example of Customer Development

Module 3, Customer Development Data

  • 0:31: Designing Experiments to Test Hypotheses
  • 0:48: Doing Customer Discovery Without Collecting Data is a Sin
  • 1:06: Insight is Key
  • 1:49: Why Accountants Don’t Run Startups

Module 4, Minimum Viable Products

  • 0:18: What is a Minimum Viable Product?
  • 0:38: What to Test, Why to Test and How to Test
  • 2:05: You’re Not Building a Product … You’re Getting Customer Feedback
  • 2:53: Use MVPs to Run Experiments
  • 4:15: Real World Example of an MVP

Module 5, Customer Acquisition and Archetypes

  • 0:47: Get, Keep and Grow Customers
  • 1:00: Create Customer Demand
  • 1:46: Customer Archetypes: Getting to Know Your Customers
  • 3:35: Matching Archetypes to Acquisition
  • 5:28: Growing Customers: The Lifetime Value
  • 7:35: The Biggest Mistake in Customer Acquisition

Listen to the blog post here

Download the podcast here

Is This Startup Ready For Investment?

Since 2005 startup accelerators have provided cohorts of startups with mentoring, pitch practice and product focus. However, accelerator Demo Days are a combination of graduation ceremony and pitch contest, with the uncomfortable feel of a swimsuit competition. Other than “I’ll know it when I see it”, there’s no formal way for an investor attending Demo Day to assess project maturity or quantify risks. Other than measuring engineering progress, there’s no standard language to communicate progress.

Corporations running internal incubators face many of the same selection issues as startup investors, plus they must grapple with the issues of integrating new ideas into existing P&L-driven functions or business units.

What’s been missing for everyone is:

  • a common language for investors to communicate objectives to startups
  • a language corporate innovation groups can use to communicate to business units and finance
  • data that investors, accelerators and incubators can use to inform selection

While it doesn’t eliminate great investor judgment, pattern recognition skills and mentoring, we’ve developed an Investment Readiness Level tool that fills in these missing pieces.

—-

Investment Readiness Level (IRL) for Corporations and Investors
The startups in our Lean LaunchPad classes and the NSF I-Corps incubator use LaunchPad Central to collect a continuous stream of data across all the teams. Over 10 weeks each team gets out of the building talking to 100 customers to test their hypotheses across all 9 boxes in the business model canvas.

We track each team’s progress as they test their business model hypotheses. We collect the complete narrative of what they discovered talking to customers as well as aggregate interviews, hypotheses to test, invalidated hypotheses and mentor and instructor engagements. This data gives innovation managers and investors a feel for the evidence and trajectory of the cohort as a whole and a top-level view of each teams progress. The software rolls all the data into an Investment Readiness Level score.

(Take a quick read of the post on the Investment Readiness Level – it’s short. Or watch the video here.)

The Power of the Investment Readiness Level: Different Metrics for Different Industry Segments
Recently we ran a Lean LaunchPad for Life Sciences class with 26 teams of clinicians and researchers at UCSF.  The teams developed businesses in 4 different areas– therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices and digital health.  To understand the power of this tool, look at how the VC overseeing each market segment modified the Investment Readiness Level so that it reflected metrics relevant to their particular industry.

Medical Devices
Allan May of Life Science Angels modified the standard Investment Readiness Level to include metrics that were specific for medical device startups. These included; identification of a compelling clinical need, large enough market, intellectual property, regulatory issues, and reimbursement, and whether there was a plausible exit.

In the pictures below, note that all the thermometers are visual proxies for the more detailed evaluation criteria that lie behind them.

Device IRL

Investment Readiness Level for Medical Devices

You can watch the entire presentation here

Therapeutics
Karl Handelsman of CMEA Capital modified the standard Investment Readiness Level (IRL) for teams developing therapeutics to include identifying clinical problems, and agreeing on a timeline to pre-clinical and clinical data, cost and value of data points, what quality data to deliver to a company, and building a Key Opinion Leader (KOL) network. The heart of the therapeutics IRL also required “Proof of relevance” – was there a path to revenues fully articulated, an operational plan defined. Finally, did the team understand the key therapeutic liabilities, have data proving on-target activity and evidence of a therapeutic effect.

Therapeutics IRL

You can see the entire presentation here

Digital Health
For teams developing Digital Health solutions, Abhas Gupta of MDV noted that the Investment Readiness Level was closest to the standard web/mobile/cloud model with the addition of reimbursement and technical validation.

Digital Health

Diagnostics
Todd Morrill wanted teams developing Diagnostics to have a reimbursement strategy fully documented, the necessary IP in place, regulation and technical validation (clinical trial) regime understood and described and the cost structure and financing needs well documented.

Diagnostics IRL

You can see the entire presentation here

For their final presentations, each team explained how they tested and validated their business model (value proposition, customer segment, channel, customer relationships, revenue, costs, activities, resources and partners.) But they also scored themselves using the Investment Readiness Level criteria for their  market. After the teams reported the results of their self-evaluation, the  VC’s then told them how they actually scored.  We were fascinated to see that the team scores and the VC scores were almost the same.

Lessons Learned

  • The Investment Readiness Level provides a “how are we doing” set of metrics
  • It also creates a common language and metrics that investors, corporate innovation groups and entrepreneurs can share
  • It’s flexible enough to be modified for industry-specific business models
  • It’s part of a much larger suite of tools for those who manage corporate innovation, accelerators and incubators

Listen to the blog post here

Download the podcast here

What I Learned by Flipping the MOOC

Two of the hot topics in education in the last few years have been Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) and the flipped classroom. I’ve been experimenting with both of them.

What I’ve learned (besides being able to use the word “pedagogy” in a sentence) is
1) assigning students lectures as homework doesn’t guarantee the students will watch them and 2) in a flipped classroom you can become hostage to the pedagogy.

Here’s the story of what we tried and what we learned.

MOOC’s – Massive Open Online Courses
A MOOC is a complicated name for a simple idea – an online course accessible to everyone over the web. I created my MOOC by serendipity. Learning how to optimize it in my classes has been a more deliberate and iterative process.

If you can’t see the video above click here

When my Lean LaunchPad class was adopted by the National Science Foundation, we taught our original classes to scientists scattered across the U.S.  We adopted WebEx, a web video conferencing tool, to hold our classes remotely. Just like my students at Stanford, these NSF teams got out of the building and spoke to 10-15 customers a week. Back in their weekly class, the scientists would present their results in front of their peers – in this case via Webex, as the teaching team gave them critiques and “guidance”. When their presentations were over, it was my turn. I lectured to these remote students about the next week’s objectives.

Is it Live or Is It a MOOC?
After the first NSF class held via videoconference, it dawned on me that since I wasn’t physically in front of the students, they wouldn’t know if my lecture was live or recorded.

Embracing the “too dumb to know it can’t be done,” I worked with a friend from Stanford, Sebastian Thrun and his startup Udacity, to put my Lean LaunchPad lectures online. Rather than just have me drone on as a talking head, I hired an animator to help make the lectures interesting, and the Udacity team had the insight to suggest I break up my lecture material into small, 2-4 minute segments that matched students’ attention spans.

If you can’t see the video above click here

Over a few months we developed the online lectures, then tried it as a stand-in for me on the NSF videoconferences, and found that because of the animations and graphics the students were more engaged than if I were teaching it in person. Ouch.

Now the NSF teams were learning from these online lectures instead of video conferenced lectures – but the online lectures were still being played during class time.

I wondered if we could be more efficient with our classroom time.

Flipping
Back at Stanford and Berkeley, I realized that I could use my newly created Lean LaunchPad MOOC and “flip” the classroom.  It sounded easy, I had read the theory:
1) A flipped classroom moves lectures traditionally taught in class, and assigns them as homework. Therefore my  students will all eagerly watch the videos and come to class ready to apply their knowledge, 2) this would eliminate the need for any lecture time in class.  And as a wonderful consequence, 3) I could now admit more teams to the class because we’d now have more time for teams to present.

So much for theory. I was wrong on all three counts.

Theory Versus Practice
After each class, we’d survey the students and combine it with a detailed instructor post mortem of lessons learned.  (An example from our UCSF Lean LaunchPad for Life Sciences Class is here.)

Here’s what we found when we flipped the classroom:

  • More than half the students weren’t watching the lectures at home.
  • Without an automated tool to take an attendance, I had no idea who was or wasn’t watching.
  • Without lectures, my teaching team and I felt like observers. Although we were commenting and critiquing on students presentations, the flipped classroom meant we were no longer in the front of the room.
  • No lectures meant no flexibility to cover advanced topics or real time ideas past the MOOC lecture material.

We decided we needed to fix these issues, one at a time.

  • In subsequent classes we reduced class size from ten teams to eight. This freed up time to get lecture and teaching time back in the classroom.
  • We manually took attendance of who watched our MOOC (later this year this will be an automated part of the LaunchPad Central software we use to manage the classes.)
  • To get the teaching team front and center, I required students to submit questions about material covered in the MOOC lecture they watched the previous evening. I selected the best questions and used them to open the class with a discussion. I cold-called on students to ensure they all had understood the material.
  • We developed advanced lectures which combined a summary of the MOOC material with new material such as lectures focused on domain specific perspectives. For example, in our UCSF Life Sciences class the four VC’s who taught the class with me developed advanced business model lectures for therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices and digital health. (These advanced lectures are now on-line and available to everyone who teaches the class.)

The class, now taught as hybrid flipped classroom, looks like this: Lean LaunchPad Class Organization

There’s still more to do.

  • While we use LaunchPad Central to have the teams provide feedback to each other, knowledge sharing across the teams still needs to be deeper and more robust.
  • While we try to give students tutorials for how to do Customer Discovery we need a better way to integrate these into the short time in quarter/semester.
  • While we insist that an MVP is part of the class, we need a more rigorous process for building the MVP in parallel with Customer Discovery

Outcomes
Besides finding the right balance in a flipped classroom, a few other good things have come from these experiments. The Udacity lectures now have over 250,000 students. They are not only used in my classes but are also part of other educators’ classes, as well as being viewed by aspiring entrepreneurs as stand-alone tutorials.

My experiments in how to teach the Lean LaunchPad class have led to a 2 ½ day class for 75 educators a quarter (information here.) And we’ve found a pretty remarkable way to use the Lean LaunchPad to organize corporate innovation/incubator groups. (We opened source our teaching guide we use in the classes here.)Educator's Program cover

Lessons Learned

  • Creating engaging MOOC’s are hard
  • Confirming that students watched the MOOC’s is even harder
  • The Flipped classroom needs to be balanced with:
    • Student accountability
    • Instructor time in front of the class
    • Advanced lectures

Listen to the blog post here

Download the podcast here

Sometimes It Pays to be a Jerk

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
William Shakespeare Henry V | Act 4, Scene 3

band of brothers

The concepts in my Lean LaunchPad curriculum can be taught in a variety of classes–as an introduction to entrepreneurship all the way to a graduate level “capstone class.”

I recently learned being tough when you select teams for a capstone class pays off for all involved.

Here’s why.

—-

Our Lean LaunchPad class requires student teams to get out of the building and talk to 10-15 customers a week while they’re building the product.  And they do this while they are talking a full load of other classes.  To say it’s a tough class is an understatement.  The class is designed for students who said they want  a hands-on experience in what it takes to build a startup – not just writing a business plan or listening to lectures.

The class syllabus has all kinds of “black box” warnings about how difficult the class is, the amount of time required, etc.

Yet every year about 20% of teams melt down and/or drop the class because some of the team members weren’t really committed to the class or found they’ve overcommitted.

This year that drop out rate went to zero when I ran an accidental “be a jerk” experiment.

Here Are the Rules
We set up the Lean LaunchPad class so that teams hit the ground running in the first class. Before students are admitted, they formed teams, applied as a team with a business model canvas, had homework and were expected to be presenting their business model canvas hypotheses on day one of the class. Our first class session is definitely not a “meet and greet”.  The syllabus is clear that attendance was mandatory for the first class.

This year, at one of the universities where I teach in the engineering school, our quarter was going to start right after the New Year.  Some of the teams had students from the business school, law school and education school whose start dates were a few days later.

To remind everyone that attendance at the first class was required, we sent out an email to all the teams in December. We explained why attendance at the first class was essential and reminded them they agreed to be there when they were admitted to the class. The email let them know if they missed the first class, they weren’t going to be allowed to register.  And since teams required 4 members, unless their team found a replacement by the first week, the team would not be allowed to register either. (We made broad exceptions for family emergencies, events and a few creative excuses.)

I had assumed everyone had read the syllabus and had planned to be back in time for class.

Then the excuses started rolling in.

Be A Jerk
About 25% of the teams had team members who had purposely planned to miss the first class.  Most of the excuses were, “I thought I could make it up later.”

In past years I would have said, “sure.”  This year I decided to be a jerk.

I had a hypothesis that showing up for the first class might be a good indicator of commitment when the class got tough later in the quarter.  So this time, unless I heard a valid excuse for an absence I said, “too bad, you’ve dropped the class.”

You could hear the screaming around the world (this is in a school where the grading curve goes from A to A+.)  The best was an email from a postdoc who said “all his other professors had been accommodating his “flexible” schedule his entire time at the school and he expected I would be as well.“  Others complained that they had paid for plane tickets and it would cost them money to change, etc.

I stuck to my guns – pointing out that they had signed up for the class knowing this was the deal.

Half the students who said they couldn’t make it magically found a way to show up.  The others dropped the class.

The results of the experiment?  Instead of the typical 20% drop out rate during the quarter none left – 0.

We had a team of committed and passionate students who wanted to be in the class.  Everyone else failed the “I’m committed to making this happen” test.

Lessons Learned

  • Commitment is the first step in building a startup team.
  • It washes out the others
  • Setting a high bar saves a ton of grief later

Listen to the blog post here

Download the podcast here

Time For Founders School

Having a film crew in your living room for two days is something you want to put on your bucket list.

photo 2

photo 3-1

With a ~$2 billion endowment the Kauffman Foundation is the largest non-profit focused on entrepreneurship in the world. Giving away $80 million to every year (~$25 million to entrepreneurial causes) makes Kauffman the dominant player in the entrepreneurship space.

Kauffman just launched Founders School – a new education series to help entrepreneurs develop their businesses during the startup stage by highlighting how startups are different from big companies. After weeks honing the script and days of filming, I’m honored to present the “Startups” section of Founders School.

And I’m in good company – also in the series is Noam Wasserman of Harvard teaching Founder’s Dilemmas, Craig Wortmann University of Chicago covering Entrepreneurial Selling, Peter McDermott helping understand Intellectual Property, and Nathan Gold offering how to give Powerful Presentations.

These videos are not only great tutorials for founders but also provide educators another source of well produced and curated resources.

These “Startup” videos are a great general purpose companion to my “How to Build a Startup” lectures on Udacity.

And you get a tour of my living room…

Startups” introduction is here

Module 1, What We Know About Startups

  • 0:17: A Startup is not a smaller version of a large company
  • 0:45: The definition of a startup
  • 1:53: Types of Startups
  • 2:18: Startups in an Existing Market
  • 3:10: Startups in a New Market
  • 4:31: Startups in a Resegmented Market
  • 5:28: Startups in a Clone Market

Module 2, Startups Versus Big Companies

  • 0:43: Business Plans versus Business Models
  • 1:46: The Differences: Accounting, Engineering & Sales
  • 2:21: Accounting Metrics in a Large Company vs. Metrics that Matter in a Startup
  • 3:35: Job Titles in a Large Company can Sink a Startup
  • 6:07: Engineering: Waterfall Development in a Large Company vs. Minimum Viable Product in a Startup

Module 3, The Lean Method

  • 0:50: There are No Facts Inside Your Building — Get Outside
  • 1:28: Using the Business Model Canvas
  • 1:49: Use Customer Development to Test Your Hypotheses
  • 2:44: What is a Pivot?
  • 4:24: No Business Plan Survives First Contact with Customers

Module 4, Building Your Startup

  • 0:41: Don’t outsource Customer Discovery
  • 1:33: How to build your startup
  • 2:48: How to building your team
  • 3:15: Look for overlapping skill sets and complementary temperaments

Module 5, Pivot or Proceed, How to Decide

  • 0:33: Is there Product-Market Fit?
  • 1:00: Most startups fail
  • 1:20: Adopt a mindset of learning
  • 1:27: Proceed, pivot or restart

The second half of the “Startups” series is coming in March.

Go watch Founders School now.

Listen to the blog post here

Download the podcast here

Engineering a Regional Tech Cluster-part 3 of 3 of Bigger in Bend

Dino Vendetti a VC at Bay Partners, moved up to Bend, Oregon on a mission to engineer Bend into a regional technology cluster.  Over the years Dino and I brainstormed about how Lean entrepreneurship would affect regional development.

I visited Bend last year and caught up with his progress.

Today with every city, state, country trying to build out a technology cluster, following Dino’s progress can provide others with a roadmap of what’s worked and didn’t.

Here’s Part 3 of Dino’s story…


As a transplanted Silicon Valley VC and now a regional investor, I often get asked, “How do we go about building up our local tech ecosystem?”

The short answer is, “One step at a time.”

In the beginning in Bend, “necessity was the mother of invention.” Local entrepreneurs just made it up as they went. But today we are intentionally engineering six distinct activities to support this tech cluster: entrepreneurial density, university, transportation, capital, accelerator, and business community.

Let’s look at each of these six elements in more detail and I’ll explain what we have been doing in Bend to accelerate each of these.

1. Entrepreneurial Density:
Density – the connection of like-minded firms and their support services – is a critical component of a cluster. The most fertile source of entrepreneurs is the population of existing entrepreneurial companies. But for clusters without sufficient firms you first need to attract companies to your region. However, it’s difficult to create density overnight. Entrepreneurs need to understand and believe the reasons why they should want to cluster in your region given there are other alternatives (nationally Silicon Valley or New York; regionally Seattle and Bellevue, Portland and Bend).

In addition to technical and entrepreneurial talent, a region also needs experienced executive talent with industry appropriate backgrounds and personal networks. The goal of this talent is to help mentor startups as they scale and navigate the myriad of issues they will face in growing their business.

Bend’s economic development agency (EDCO) and city leaders (Visit Bend, City of Bend) get it – and have started communicating that Bend welcomes and is friendly to entrepreneurs and startups. Word is spreading and there are lots of people up and down the West Coast who know of and have been to Bend. But it’s easy to get drowned out by the noise from Silicon Valley and other cities in Washington and Oregon. That means that in regional communities like Bend, everyone needs to turn up the volume to consistently sing praises that will not only put the community on the map but also ensure it doesn’t slip.

2. University
Almost every successful tech cluster has a local technical university. This provides a source of technical talent, research, etc. It’s extremely difficult to import enough talent to fuel a rapidly growing tech cluster, so a university is critical to organically generate and retain talent within the region. In particular it’s critical to offer technical degrees that train the talent pool needed to drive the local tech cluster

OSU-Cascades is a new four-year university in Bend that is beginning the build out of its new campus in Bend and offer computer science and user design courses. This effort was over a decade in the making and something that the local community fought hard for.

3. Transportation
Direct flights to the San Francisco Bay Area and other major metro areas (depending on location of the region) are vital to reduce the friction of conducting business, encourage talent to test drive your community, and attract investors and other ecosystem partners to the region.

Bend’s economic development agency (EDCO) has worked very hard to establish direct flights to major West Coast cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and Denver. At times this required rallying local business leaders to make advance purchases of flights to ensure enough passenger volume for the airlines.

4. Local Early-Stage Risk Capital
Early stage venture funds are more important than your mother. If this doesn’t exist your regional cluster is dead-on-arrival.  Organize risk-capital in the form of angel funds or venture funds, particularly at the early stage where the largest capital gap exists. This should be a strategic initiative within your state to close the capital gap with in-region capital sources.

Bend is now home to Seven Peaks Ventures and Cascade Angels, both born over the past year in response to the opportunity in the region. The state of Oregon is also making funds available to invest in and support the formation of venture funds within the state.

bvc-winner

Bend Venture Conference Winner

5. Local Entrepreneurial Community Entrepreneurial-driven Events
The local entrepreneurial community has been active in running Startup Weekends, launching the FoundersPad accelerator, running hackathons and Ruby on Rails conferences (Ruby on Ales), building out shared tech space, offering incentives (The Big Bend Theory) for startups to relocate to Bend from the Valley, and building up the state’s largest tech/venture conference, the Bend Venture Conference which is now going on its 11th year. There are many more efforts underway to build upon what has worked and continue the process of evolving and learning.

6. Business Community Support
One of the most difficult things to do is technically the easiest – a dispassionate self-assessment to understand what assets your community has and what you lack.

First, what is your value proposition to a family or business to locate in your region? Recognize that a big part of your job is to remove friction, drive awareness, and amplify the efforts of your local entrepreneurs. Successful entrepreneurs attract other entrepreneurs, so it’s vital to kick start the cycle.

Next, identify your goal. Is it creating a job works program? Stopping brain drain in the region? Attracting and building some key core competency in the region? Ideally your existing talent base and ecosystem naturally support the “core competency magnet” you want to develop.

Finally, put your money where your mouth is – help fund the events and programs in the early years. Once the tech cluster forms, these activities will become self-funding. The ROI won’t be obvious for some early on, but will pay dividends in time.

Regional Cluster Ecosystem

Regional Cluster Ecosystem

Summary: Bend Is a Global Entrepreneurship Experiment
There are about 25,000 economic development agencies in regional markets across the U.S., all trying to expand the number of businesses that create products and services sold outside their region. These regional businesses create primary jobs that lead to the creation of local secondary jobs.

The Bend experiment is a model to consciously engineer an entrepreneurial cluster in a regional market to spur economic development and job creation.

In the past most regional growth strategies have focused on attracting established companies looking to expand or open a new plant. While it may be strategic for the region to recruit some of these established businesses, those deals usually involve huge tax subsidies and typically create a small finite number of jobs. What isn’t part of most regional growth plans is the organic growth of an entrepreneurial tech cluster in the region. If successful, sewing the seeds of entrepreneurship can lead to a more rapid and sustainable job growth for the region.

By engineering a regional tech cluster, we can impact the trajectory of growth in the region and:

  • Slow and even reverse the historical migration of tech talent and capital out of the region/state
  • Locally grow successful tech companies to become amazing primary job creators
  • Recycle the wealth that is created by re-investing in the region versus transferring wealth to Silicon Valley
  • Help local successful entrepreneurial and technical talent stay local – by creating their next startup in the region versus emigrating to Silicon Valley
  • Create a more diversified and healthy economic base that includes tech entrepreneurs

The democratization of entrepreneurship has created a huge opportunity for any region with the right characteristics to create its own sustainable tech cluster. But, as with any true democracy, it won’t happen without the combined participation of the community and desire of entrepreneurs to lead the movement. This is happening in Bend, and I look forward to hearing from others about your own experiments.

Lessons Learned:

  • Regional tech clusters can be engineered if …
    • the region has key attributes and a focused effort from the entrepreneurial and business community
  •  Opportunity exists for economic development in regions where tech clusters can be formed
    • potential to dramatically increase the growth of entrepreneurship and job creation in the region.
  • Entrepreneurs are the path to job creation and growth…
    • attract them, reduce the friction to growth, and do everything possible to cause the wealth created to recycle locally

Listen to the blog post here

Download the podcast here

Early-stage Regional Venture Funds–part 2 of 3 of Bigger in Bend

Dino Vendetti a VC at Bay Partners, moved up to Bend, Oregon on a mission to engineer Bend into a regional technology cluster.  Over the years Dino and I brainstormed about how Lean entrepreneurship would affect regional development.

I visited Bend last year and caught up with his progress.

Mt-Bachelor-Ski-Resort

Today with every city, state and country trying to build out a technology cluster, following Dino’s progress can provide others with a roadmap of what’s worked and what has not.

Here’s Part 2 of Dino’s story…

——-

Tech investing is risky. Success depends on finding startups that have identified acute customer pains in large markets where conditions are ripe for a new entrant. Few entrepreneurs find this scalable and repeatable business model because it’s not easy. However, four critical advances over the past decade (cloud, accelerators, Lean, and Angels) not only changed the math for tech investing but made regional tech clusters possible.

  • The cloud, open-source development tools and web 2.0 as a distribution channel have vastly reduced the amount of capital a startup needs at the early stage when the risk is greatest. (Startups still need capital to scale once they find good product-market fit and a repeatable-scalable business model.)
  • Accelerators, which became mechanisms for focused entrepreneurship mentoring and delivery of best practices to startups. This was valuable to startups in the Valley and has been vital to startups in regions where the ecosystem is less developed.
  • The Lean Movement, led by Steve Blank (and others,) created a set of methodologies that ushered in the era of Evidence Based Entrepreneurship. This has changed the way entrepreneurs think about building their startups and how investors should look at them.
  • Angels & Crowdfunding: Coincident with the capital efficient movement came the current wave of angel investors, this time armed with the ability to collectively fund startups to the point of meaningful value creation on modest amounts of capital. Sites like AngelList have only amplified the collective reach of individual and grouped angel investors.

These four developments, while important to Silicon Valley, are vital to developing regional tech clusters. While the density of Silicon Valley startups can’t be replicated in regions, the barriers of money and resources have disappeared. These changes make entrepreneurship possible anywhere.

What’s Missing Is Early Stage Capital
While the technology gap is closing, what’s still missing in local regions is early stage capital.

Three types of regional venture funds exist today:

  • Regionally located funds, such as Foundry Group in Boulder, are located outside of Silicon Valley or NY but their investments are primarily in the Valley or NY… they are not a regional fund per this discussion.
  • Regional Angel funds that pool investors capital and typically make a one time investment in a startup, sometimes at an early stage but often at a slightly later stage.
  • Late stage large regionally based funds that invest in late stage or mezzanine deals.

Large regionally based early stage funds have mostly failed.  They failed due to:

  1. the dearth of deals in the region that have IPO potential and
  2. most of those funds were also raised and invested prior to the huge capital efficient wave of the past 6-8 years. These regional funds invested in capital-intensive startups that required large initial investments. The result was too much money in too few deals. The inevitable failures then damaged returns.

The Oregon startup scene today looks very different from what it did 10 years ago. Today it’s dominated by capital efficient software, web and mobile startups whereas 10 years ago it was dominated by semiconductor and hardware startups that consumed huge amounts of capital before their first dollar in revenue.

So a regional fund must do three things:

  • focus on early stage investments
  • “right sized” for the exit environment;
    • if it’s too big you won’t be able to intelligently deploy capital;
    • too small and you won’t be able to follow on and protect your investments or make enough investments to ensure you have enough “at bats.”
  • find and focus on the entrepreneurs and deals that want to build scalable startups

We believe that regional funds need to walk a delicate balance…but it doesn’t take huge IPOs to return multiples of capital on a small fund.

Why Valley Rules Don’t Work in Regional Economies
A typical VC fund in Silicon Valley might raise $200 -$400 million.  And over a 10-year life of a fund only one out of five deals will deliver all the returns.  A good return to your investors is 20% per year. That means over 10 years investors expect ~6x return on their investment. This means that those winning deals have to make a ~30x return to provide the venture capital fund that 20% compound return (the 6x).

The Valley strategy is to get as much money to work in the high flying deals that are going to pop….It’s an educated/calculated swing-for-the-fences model and it can work and be extremely lucrative if you can consistently get in those deals.

The problem for a regionally based investor is that there will be a limited number of startups in your region that have a realistic chance at an IPO. The percentage of VC backed startups that go public is very small, so counting on those exits in a regional fund would not be prudent (nice if it happens but don’t build the model to rely on it).

The reality is that the super vast majority of liquidity events are M&A and the majority of those are in the under $100M range. As a result, large multi-hundred million-dollar funds focused on early stage investing in the region can be challenging. There just aren’t enough “right” regional startups to invest in.

Regional Moneyball
Bend playing Moneyball makes a lot of sense. In fact, it’s the only game that investors in a regional cluster can play.  Regional investors need a way of improving their odds of getting base hits and minimize strikeouts.

Playing Moneyball in venture capital means making smaller, smarter bets focused on companies and deals that the big teams, the Silicon Valley heavyweight investors, pass up; because the deals are too far from Silicon Valley, not yet known to them, not in their comfort zone, or not the fad of the month.

Playing Moneyball also means playing with the money you have.  The reality for a regional investor is that you have to match the capital you raise to the deal/exit environment you are in.

Specifically this means that a regional fund should be $10-30M. (With a portfolio of at least 20 investments, or you are at risk of the adverse selection problem.) And the fund should be looking at startups that can provide $20M to $100M exits – almost certainly as M&A deals.

The chart below diagrams our regional fund strategy.

Funds for Regional Markets

The good news for regional investors is that these factors allow you to play Moneyball if (and that’s a big IF) you are investing in entrepreneurs who are living and breathing evidence-based entrepreneurship and who are building scalable startups. This is true whether the company is concept stage or ramping revenue. I’ve found a lot of companies in the region that have found a way to get to some level of revenue traction but haven’t broken out. When you dig in, the reasons are usually easily discoverable and observable.

The Bend Experience
One of the fundamental benefits of being so active in building the FoundersPad accelerator (a 12-week, Lean Startup program focused on customer development) is working with the cohort participants on refining their business models. This experience has provided me a whole new set of pattern matching filters as an investor.

The business model canvas and the customer development process provide investors an incredible opportunity to evaluate how deeply an entrepreneur has engaged with their target customers and, more importantly, what they have learned about the problem-solution space they are going after. This learning and the measurements and metrics that surround it is what evidence based entrepreneurship is all about and what makes it a powerful tool for entrepreneurs, investors and accelerators.

If you are a regional accelerator or investor and would like to talk and compare notes please feel free to email me.

Lessons Learned

  • Regions are missing early-stage capital.
  • Valley-sized VC funds don’t work.
  • Build $10-30M funds.
  • Look for $20-100M exits.
  • Focus on capital efficient, scalable startups and founders

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