Watching Larry Ellison become Larry Ellison — The DNA of a Winner

In Oracle’s early days Kathryn Gould was the founding VP of Marketing, working there from 1982 to 1984. When I heard that Larry Ellison was stepping down as Oracle’s CEO I asked Kathryn to think about the skills she saw in a young Larry Ellison that might make today’s founders winners.

Though I haven’t talked to Larry face-to-face for 20 years, and haven’t worked at Oracle for 30 years, he’s the yardstick I’ve used to pick entrepreneurs all of these years since.

Larry had the DNA I’ve seen common with all the successful entrepreneurs I’ve backed in my 25 years of Venture Capital work—only he had a more exaggerated case than most. Without a doubt, Larry was the most potent entrepreneur I’ve known. It was a gift to be able to work with him and see him in action.

Here’s what was exceptional about Larry:

Potent Leadership Skill
Larry didn’t practice any kind of textbook management, but he was an intense communicator and inspiring leader. As a result, every person in the company knew what the goal was—world domination and death to all competitors. He often said, “It’s not enough to win—all others must fail.” And he meant it, but with a laugh.

It wasn’t as heavy as it sounds, but everyone got the point. We were relentless competitors. Even as the company grew from a handful of people when I started to about 150 when I left (yes, still ridiculously small) I observed that, every single person knew our mission.

This is not usual—startups that fail often have a lot of people milling around who don’t know what the goal is. In winning companies, everybody pulls in the same direction.

oracle-founders1978: Ed Oates, Bruce Scott, Bob Miner and Larry Ellison celebrate Oracle’s first anniversary

A corollary to Larry’s leadership style was that, at least in my day, he did it with great humor, lots of off-the-cuff funny stuff. He loved to argue, often engaging one of our talented VPs who had been captain of his school debate team. When we weren’t arguing intensely, we were laughing. It made the long hours pass lightly.

Huge Technical Vision
Larry always had a 10-year technical vision that he could draw on the whiteboard or spin like a yarn.

It wasn’t always perfect, but it was way more right than wrong, It informed our product development to a great degree and kept us working on more or less the right stuff. Back then he advocated for

  • Portability (databases had previously been shackled to the specific machines they ran on)
  • Being distributed/network ready (even though Ethernet was just barely coming into use in the enterprise)
  • The choice of the SQL a way to ask questions (queries) in an easy-to-understand language
  • Relational architecture (a collection of data organized as a set of formally described tables) in the first place—all new stuff, and technically compelling

The final proof of a compelling technical vision is that customers were interested—the phone was always ringing. Often it was people cold calling us, who had read something in a trade magazine and wanted to know more. What a gift! Not every startup gets to have this—but if you don’t, you’ve got a problem.

Pragmatic and Lean
Larry ascribed to the adage, “We don’t do things right, we do the right things.” I’m not sure if he ever actually said that, but it is what he lived.

In a startup you can’t do a great job of everything, you have to prioritize what is critically important, and what is “nice to have.” Larry didn’t waste time on “nice to have.”

I am a reformed perfectionist (reformed after those days) so often this didn’t sit well with me. I now realize it was the wisdom of a great entrepreneur. Basically if you didn’t code or sell, you were semi-worthless. (Which is why I had OEM sales as part of marketing—we had to earn our keep.)

This philosophy extended to all aspects of the company. We always had nice offices, but we didn’t mind crowding in. When I started we were in a small suite at 3000 Sand Hill Road. I would come to the office in the morning and clean up the junk food from the programmer who used my work area all night. This was cool!

Oh, and I should say, even though we were at 3000 Sand Hill, VCs kind of ignored us. They thought we were a little nuts. It took a long time for our market to develop, so Oracle wasn’t exactly a growth explosion in the early days. There we were, right under their noses!

Larry was loathe to sell any of the company stock; he generally took a dim view of VCs and preferred to bootstrap. (Sequoia Capital eventually invested just a little in us). Angel investor Don Lucas had his office above ours. I remember Larry telling me that every time we borrowed his conference room we had to pay Don $50. I’m not sure it’s true, but it’s what Larry said. I wonder if he took stock or cash.

Irresistible Salesmanship
Larry wasn’t always selling, didn’t even like salespeople half the time, but boy, when he decided to sell, he was unbeatable.

I’ll never forget sitting in an impressive conference room at a very large computer manufacturer that was prepared to not be all that interested in what we had to say.

Larry just blew them away. They had to re-evaluate their view on their database offering—and they eventually became a huge customer.

He reeled out that technical vision, described the product architecture in a way that computer science people found compelling and turned on the charm. It was neat to be in the room. I saw this a lot with Larry; the performance was repeated many times.

Hired the Smartest People
The old adage “A players hire A players, and B players hire C players” applies here. Larry often philosophized that we couldn’t hire people with software experience because there were hardly any software companies, so we just had to get the smartest bastards we could, and they’d figure it out.

I think he was particularly skilled at applying this to the technical team.

I remember a brilliant young programmer whom Larry allowed to live anywhere he wanted in the US or Canada, didn’t care about hours, where he was or any of that stuff. We just got him a network connection and that was it. This was unheard of back then, but we did it fairly often to get superstars. I remember when we hired Tom Siebel—Larry was so excited, telling me about this deadly smart guy we just hired in Chicago who was sitting in our conference room that very minute! I had to go meet him!

I should say that Larry looked for smarts in men and women—women have always had the opportunity to excel at Oracle. And now there’s Safra Catz—whom I never met, but even back in the ’80s I remember Larry telling me how smart she was.

He Had Some Quirks
Larry would sometimes take time out to think. He would just disappear for a few days, often without telling marketing people (who may have scheduled him for a press interview or a customer visit!), and return re-charged with a pile of ideas—many good, some not so much.

He liked to experiment with novel management ideas, like competing teams. He would set up some people to develop a product or go after a customer or whatever, and have competing teams trying to do the same thing. It’s always fun to experiment, though I never saw one of these fiascos succeed.

I remember one time he had his cowboy boots up on the desk, saying that we’d be bigger than Cullinet and we’d do it with 50 people, and only one salesperson. He was getting high on ideas. Only a computer historian would know Cullinet, an ancient database company that made it to $100M in sales back in the early ’80s. Yes, he was right about “bigger than Cullnet.” The “50 people” was motivated by his dream that we could just have the very, very best developers in the world, and hardly any salespeople—it was just talk. I think he came to appreciate the sales culture later on.

Larry loved to be called “ruthless.” When I asked what was his favorite book, he told me Robber Baronsworth a read even today! And he used to pore over spec sheets for fancy jets he probably thought he could never afford. Funny, I never heard him talk about sailing back then.

I’m not sure how all of this played out later because I wasn’t there. But it was clear, even back in those early days, that Larry had it all: leadership, technical vision, pragmatism, personal salesmanship, frugality, humor, desire to succeed.

I have to think my success in the VC business was due in no small part to seeing Larry Ellison in action back in the day.

Lessons Learned

Great entrepreneurial DNA is comprised of leadership; technological vision; frugality; and the desire to succeed. World-class founders:

  • Have a clear mission and inspire everyone to live it every day
  • Are the best salesman in the company
  • Hire the smartest people
  • Have a technological vision and the ability to convince others that it’s the right thing
  • Know it’s about winning customers and don’t spend money on things that aren’t mission-critical 
  • Are relentless in pursuit of their goals and never take NO for an answer
  • Know humor is powerful — and fun!

Pioneering Women in Venture Capital: Kathryn Gould

I met Kathryn Gould longer ago than either of us want to admit. Kathryn has been the founding VP of Marketing of Oracle, a successful recruiter, a world class Venture Capitalist, a co-founder of a Venture Capital firm, a great board member, one of my mentors and most importantly a wonderful friend. During her career she made a big point of not telling you: she was one of the first women Venture Capitalist’s in Silicon Valley (along with M.J. Elmore and Ann Winblad) – “I’m just a VC.”  Or one of the first women co-founders of a VC firm – “I co-founded a great firm.” She was twice as smart and just as tough as the guys. She has been a mentor and role model not just for a generation of women VC’s and CEO’s but for all VC’s and CEO’s – and I’m honored to have been one of them.

One of the reasons I took up teaching is my strong belief that it’s incumbent on all of us to make those who come after us smarter than we were.” So when I heard Kathryn gave the University of Chicago commencement speech I suggested that she reach out to a larger audience and share her decades of experience.

Her response? “The last thing I want is a bunch of people bugging me while I’m growing my grapes, flying, painting, playing music, and generally goofing off.”  I pointed out that, “Now that you retired, what happens to all the knowledge and experience you’ve acquired?” She still demurred so I gave it one last shot. I sent her an email saying, “When you’re gone everything you learned goes with you. This really is bigger than you. I have two daughters starting careers and nothing could be more inspiring than hearing your story. You really ought to share your journey.”

So for the first time ever, she has. Here’s Kathryn’s story.

——-

Why Give a Commencement speech
One of the more fun things I’ve been asked to do lately was give the commencement speech at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in June 2014.  What I didn’t tell them before, during, or after the talk was that I’d never gone to my own University of Chicago MBA graduation, nor had I gone to my BSc in physics graduation at University of Toronto.  I’ve never been big on pomp, and I had fun jobs I wanted to go to right away after each of them.  And to be fair, I wasn’t summa cum laude in either case.  I was merely respectable, so there was no appealing ego trip involved.  Anyway it was high time I went to a graduation.

The most personally interesting part of writing this speech was thinking about what I could say to the young women that I wish I’d heard at their age. (I heard nothing).

So, for the first time, I thought hard about what it was like to be a woman in a man’s business.  Not thinking about it earlier was a survival strategy—because if I’d thought about it, I’d have wanted to TALK about it, and that would have been stupid. I was working and competing with men daily.  And successfully. And the truth is, I like working with men. Being a physicist-turned-engineer, I have very little experience working with anything but men. So when members of the press or militant feminist types would question me about this stuff, I would avoid and be annoyed. Now that I’m retired I can speak out and let the chips fall. Still, a nod to Sheryl Sandberg for saying her piece while in the thick of it.

In the aftermath of the speech, I got the most resonance in two areas:

1) make unconventional choices that fit YOUR OWN aspirations

2) from women appreciating the advice to go around obstacles, and enjoying hearing from a fellow ‘dragon lady’

Actually it wasn’t “dragon lady,” it was a stronger, less feminine term — “Ball Buster” — but, hey, I couldn’t say that in a speech.  Reason I know is that I’m still very close to most of the former CEOs from my boards. I ran this speech by a couple of them.  Over time they had heard me referred to as that other term. They would jump to my defense – and they report that the people who said this had never met me –it was just the “word on the street.”  Insidious, yes?

Anyway, mine is a study in making unconventional career choices (not that I recommend everybody go be a recruiter for a few years!), and searching for what you’re great at, and meant to encourage women to go right through those walls.

So they call you a “dragon lady”; so what?!

Here’s the speech:

2014 University of Chicago Commencement speech ‘Your Great Adventure’
“I’m so happy to be here today:  First, to help you celebrate your success thus far, and more important:  to celebrate your last day of doing what is expected of you —now each of you embark on your own great adventure—there is no ‘expected’ path from here on. You get to create your own history. No more tests, get into this school, get into that class, get this degree—now the real adventure begins. The second reason I’m glad to be here today is that 2 years ago, when Dean Kumar first asked me to do this speech, I wasn’t sure I”d even be alive, so I had to pass.  More on that later.

So, about your adventure:  should you have a plan? Maybe. But don’t follow it. Planning prepares the mind, and chance favors the prepared mind, but chance usually messes up plans!  When I was where you are, 36 years ago (can ya believe it) I didn’t have a plan—but I did have an aspiration: I wanted to go to Silicon Valley and I wanted to work in startups.  I had no idea how I was going to get from here to there.  I was completely unprepared!  We had literally one entrepreneurship course here in the mid 70s—taught by a guy who commuted in from Silicon Valley.  Compare that to now—with our superb entrepreneurship curriculum, and I understand 70% of this class has either an interest or focus in entrepreneurship.

Chance Favors the Prepared Mind
So here’s how it happened for me.  I had had a love affair with computers since I was 18 and a freshman physics major.img013

Computers were so different from now—arcane, annoyingly difficult— and interesting. But they weren’t really in Silicon Valley at the time—they were in Boston, Minneapolis, New York. So going to Silicon Valley wasn’t an obvious move at the time. It was the invention of the microprocessor that made it obvious for me. I quit my good job here and moved to the valley. Most people thought I was nuts.  I had no idea what I was doing—just that I had to be there, and in a startup—so I took a job with the smallest company that made me an offer (passing up Intel, Tandem and Apple). It wasn’t a great choice, but I was THERE. But then, one our customers was Larry Ellison, with this little company that wasn’t even called Oracle at the time. I loved what he was working on (thanks to perspective in data management from my large company experience here—that prepared mind thing).  So I joined Oracle when it was about 20 people, eventually becoming VP Marketing. And it was an amazing time. Larry was the best entrepreneur I’ve ever known, and completely unconventional…

What can you learn from this story so far?:

Put yourself in the way of success—get in front of an important wave and ride it.

Gravitate to what’s new.

Don’t be afraid to take a step down (Oracle was a $1 Million business, I had been marketing manager for a $100 Million  business).

Build Your Skills Not Your Resume
Eventually I left Oracle, wanting to do another startup. Problem is, startups that have world changing potential are not that easy to find. I wanted another Oracle, not any old startup. So I did something completely crazy and unplanned—which looks brilliant only in hindsight! I noticed that I loved looking for a job, even tho I didn’t’ find a company I wanted to join. I liked meeting people, hearing the company plans, learning about their technology, figuring out if it was for real—all that was fun. How could I do that for a living? The answer of course, was Venture Capital, but that was not in the cards—as yet. I had met a few exec recruiters in the process and thought what they did was similar and interesting.  So I started an exec search firm as a creative way to look for a new startup.  Turns out that I quickly became one of the few best recruiters in the valley for CEO and VP levels, got to work with the best VCs and their startups. And who would have guessed—perfect preparation for the VC business. I ended up doing that for 5 years, and in the process saw about 80 startups in various stages of success and disarray. I developed a deadly accurate intuition on people, an unbeatable set of contacts, and loved working for myself in my little firm. By the 4th year, VCs were asking me to join them, partly for recruiting help, but more because I kept introducing them to startup investment opportunities. As you’ve heard, it’s excruciatingly hard to get in to the VC business, and there I was. Because I”d built some unique skills.

Plus, I had learned some stuff that you don’t get in business school:

  • How to cold call –adrenaline, real time, 3 seconds to grab their attention—learn this!
  • Also the adage As hire As, Bs hire Cs—absolutely true—be careful of the company you keep,
  • And what goes around comes around.   Help people with their careers, their ideas, contacts—and I’m serious, good things come back years later.

I also learned that the first time without a paycheck is a little scary.

Find Your Obession
I joined VC firm Merrill Pickard in 1989. My first IPO wasn’t until 1995—the VC business takes patience. Two companies I helped start in 1992, DCTM and Grand Junction Networks both became Stanford business school cases and very valuable, successful companies. I was on the way to my lifetime IRR of 90%. I loved the business, and I was good at it.  But then, trouble. My two best partners went off to start Benchmark Capital, very successful to this day, so my firm was going to blow up. I went Boogie Boarding where I do my best thinking. I thought, gee, I could already afford to ride waves the rest of my life. That might be neat. But I couldn’t do it. I loved the business, couldn’t stop.  So I started Foundation Capital in 1995. I loved starting my own firm, doing it my way.  We brought in all operating guys—all had done startups, all had technical backgrounds. In 5 years we were one of the top firms in the Valley by any measure.  I had found my obsession.

It’s Not the Calls You Take, It’s the Calls You Make  One of my sayings
You are the creator of your destiny. In whatever business you’re in, there is always so much coming at you that you can stay insanely busy just responding.  Don’t do that. Always think about what is your agenda, what do you want to make happen, what do you want the future to look like.  This is not so easy.

Go Where the Action Is: It’s not over in the Valley
Now 35 years later, should you still move to the Valley (or Hollywood, or London, or Chicago!—or wherever the action is in your area of interest?). I can’t speak to the other places, but I”ll tell you what, it’s not over in the Valley.  From electric cars to drones, DNA sequencing to robotic surgery, enterprise software to social media –the size and variety of these markets makes the Valley of my early days look bush league. There’s no end in sight. The valley startup culture and talent pool is unique in the world.  If you think maybe you should go there—maybe you should.

I retired in 2006. My husband and I bought a vineyard—so I’m a beginner again!  With another startup!

A Word to the Ladies Here
I understand a third of the class is women. I have always said, with an annoyed attitude when people ask, that there are no obstacles to women these days, just look at me! That’s the safe way to answer, right? But it’s not entirely true. One of the gifts of talking to you ladies here is that I forced myself to reflect on this.  I’ll just mention two obstacles that hit me—neither of which I even reacted to at the time, just accepted.

First Obstacle
I wanted to go to Caltech, but they didn’t take women undergrads until 1970. I wasn’t mad about that; I just thought it was my fault for being interested in guy things. So I dated a Caltech student and got to use their computer—first computer I ever met too—a monster. Structural obstacles like this are over with for you.  Good riddance.

Second Obstacle
Remember that business of starting Foundation Capital when my first firm blew up?  I did it because I didn’t have a choice—couldn’t get a job.  Really.  I spent a couple of months talking with the few VC firms that I was willing to join. (yes, I was picky) It became clear it was going to take a long time to get into one, and I didn’t have a long time.  I didn’t want to lose my momentum. Mind you, I was one of the top handful of VCs in the business at the time. Not on the Midas list yet, because it hadn’t been invented, but anybody could see that my results were heading toward extraordinary. I have to think that a guy with my numbers would have been snapped up pretty fast.  For me, starting the firm and raising the money was way faster. Don’t you think that’s stunning? A pretty big fat obstacle. So we went from Boogie Board to money in the bank in 6 months. Not that I’m sorry—it turned out great.  But you ambitious women will surely face something like this in your career. Just go around it!  There is always a way.  Note on the VC business, only 4% of senior VCs are women, according to Fortune Magazine. I don’t think it’s changing anytime soon either.

Now to be fair, consider your advantages:  you’re much more memorable than most of the guys, they won’t forget you, and there is a self selection:  the men who have the guts to do business with you have the extra self confidence to be more successful.  The guys that wanted me on their board of directors had moxy—because of course they had heard all the crap about how I was a dragon lady (all ambitious women get called that as you know) and they still went for it. Who knows—could be why my companies were so successful…

I often walk among my grapevines and think how grateful I am for my life right now.  But if the vines had come first, without the adventure and hard work, it wouldn’t be nearly as sweet. So that’s my story so far—but it’s not over yet, because the cabernet is really good!

Tending a New Crop in My Next Venture

Tending a New Crop in My Next Venture

So now, for each of you, go create your own unique adventure.  You are done preparing—go do it! Make a plan, but don’t stick to it. Let chance favor your prepared mind.  Break rules, find your obsession, be extraordinary!”

View the speech in its entirety here

How Investors Make Better Decisions: The Investment Readiness Level

Investors sitting through Incubator or Accelerator demo days have three metrics to judge fledgling startups – 1) great looking product demos, 2) compelling PowerPoint slides, and 3) a world-class team.  Other than “I’ll know it when I see it”, there’s no formal way for an investor to assess project maturity or quantify risks. Other than measuring engineering progress, there’s no standard language to communicate progress.

What’s been missing for everyone is:

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

Teams can prove their competence and validate their ideas by showing investors evidence that there’s a repeatable and scalable business model. 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. Background about the Investment Readiness Level  here and here.

While the posts were theory I was a bit surprised when John Selep, an early-stage investor, approached me and said he was actually using the Investment Readiness Level (IRL) in practice.

Here’s John’s story.

As Selections Committee chair for our Sacramento Angels investor group, I review applications from dozens of startup entrepreneurs looking for investment.  I also mentor at our local university, and guest-lecture at a number of Entrepreneurship courses on how to pitch to investors, so the task of helping students and entrepreneurs visualize the process of investor decision-making has often been a challenge.

When I first read about the Investment Readiness Level (IRL) on Steve’s blog, I was excited by Steve’s attempt to bridge the capital-efficient Lean Startup process for founders with the capital-raising process for funders. But the ‘ah-hah!’ moment for me was the realization that I could apply the IRL framework to dramatically improve the guidance and mentorship I was providing to startup company founders .

Prior to having the Investment Readiness Level framework, this “how to get ready for an investor” discussion had been a “soft” conceptual discussion. The Investment Readiness Level makes the stages of development for the business very tangible. Achieving company milestones associated with the next level on the Investment Readiness Level framework is directly relevant to the capital-raising process.

I use the Investment Readiness Level as part of my sessions to help the students understand that being ready for investment means that besides having a pretty PowerPoint, they need to do real work and show Customer Development progress.

Since I began incorporating the Investment Readiness Level framework I’ve made three observations. The Investment Readiness Level (IRL):

  1. Ties the Lean methodology (and capital efficiency) directly to the capital-raising process – closing the loop and tying these two processes together.
  2. Is Prescriptive – offers founders a “what-you-need-to-do-next” framework to reach a higher level of readiness.
  3. Enables better mentoring. The IRL provides a vocabulary and framework for shifting the conversation between investors and entrepreneurs from simply “No”, to the much-more-helpful “Not yet – but here’s what you can do…”.

Selep IRLTying Fundraising to the Lean Startup
The premise of the Lean Startup is that a startup’s initial vision is really just a series of untested hypotheses, and that the Customer Development process is a systematic approach to ‘getting out of the building’ and testing and validating each of those hypotheses to discover a repeatable, scalable business model. The Investment Readiness Level adds to this methodology by tying each phase of this discovery process or ‘hypothesis-validation’ to milestones representing a startup’s increasing readiness for investor support and capital investment.  For investors this is a big idea.

I remind entrepreneurs that investors are implicitly seeking evidence of progress and milestones (but until the Investment Readiness Level never knew how to ask for it).  Entrepreneurs should always communicate their business’ very latest stage of customer development as part of their investor presentation. Given that a startup is continually learning weekly, the entrepreneur’s investor presentation will evolve on a weekly basis as well, reflecting their latest progress.

In our Angel investor group, our Applicant Selections process ranks applicant companies relative to the other applicants.  In the past, the ranking process relied on our Selection Committee members having an intuitive “feel” for whether a startup was worth considering for investment.

As part of our screening process, I’ve embraced the Investment Readiness Level (IRL) framework as a more-precise way to think through where applicant companies would rank. (BTW, this does not mean that the IRL framework has been embraced by rest of our Selections committee – organizational adoption is a lot more complicated than an individual adopting a framework.) I believe the IRL framework offers a more-precise method to discuss and describe ‘maturity’, and will likely become a more explicit part of our selections discussion in the year ahead.

Investment Readiness Level is Prescriptive
At first blush the Investment Readiness Level framework is a diagnostic tool – it can be used to gauge how far a business has progressed in its Customer Development process. A supposition is that startups that have validated hypotheses about key elements of their business have reduced the risks in launching their new business and are more ready for investment.

But the IRL is more than a diagnostic. It enables a much richer investor -> founder dialog about exactly what milestones a startup has actually achieved, and ties that discussion to the stages of the business’ Customer Development and business development progress.  In the same way that Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas provides a common vocabulary and enables a rich discussion and understanding of exactly what comprises the business’ design and business model, the IRL provides a common set of metrics and enables a rich discussion and understanding of just where the startup is in the maturity of its processes.

This means the IRL is also a Prescriptive tool.  No matter where a startup is in its stage of development, the immediate next stage milestone – where the entrepreneurs should focus their attention next – is immediately clear.  Although every business is unique, and every business model emerges and evolves in its own unique way, the logical sequencing of incremental discovery and validation implicit in the IRL framework is very clear. No ambiguity. Clarity is good.

Investment Readiness Level Enables Better Mentoring
As you might imagine, our Angel group receives applications for funding from a wide, wide variety of businesses, with highly variable quality of the businesses and their applications, and highly variable levels of maturity of those businesses.  Some of our applicants are not scalable, high-growth businesses, and we tell them quickly if they don’t fit our profile. Others have the potential to be scalable, high-growth businesses, but simply aren’t as compelling or as mature as better candidates in our funnel. During every Selections cycle, as we refine our applicant funnel to select the entrepreneurs to present to our membership, I obviously have to say “No” to far more entrepreneurs than those to whom I can say “Yes”.

The Investment Readiness Level adds a new dimension to those conversations, providing a vocabulary and framework for shifting the conversation from simply ‘No’, to the much-more-helpful “Not yet – but here’s what you can do…”.  It has completely changed the nature of the conversations I have with applicants. The prescriptive nature of the IRL means that wherever a business is in its current state of development, the next step on the ladder is nearly always pretty obvious. Of course, there should always be a little latitude for the unique nature of each business, but the IRL framework is a good guidepost. So the “here’s what you can do…” recommendations are clear, logical, and situationally-relevant to the entrepreneur’s business.

I would estimate that perhaps half of the applicants we see have heard of and use some form of Lean Startup or Customer Development methodology. The idea of a “Minimum Viable Product” is something that has entered the general vernacular, but I’m sure that not all of the businesses tossing the term around truly understand the Lean Startup teachings.

So when I’m providing feedback to an entrepreneur applying to our group for funding, I leverage the IRL framework to guide the feedback that I give. I don’t refer to the framework explicitly, but I provide feedback based on where I assess the company to be in their development, and what steps they’d need to pursue to get another rung or two up the ladder.

For example, I might say “The Sacramento Angels have decided that your firm isn’t quite ready for us to consider for potential investment at this point, but if you were able to discuss your prototype with 50-to-100 potential customers and get their feedback, this might help you identify the specific segments that care most-deeply about the advantages you’re offering over the existing alternative. We’d like to stay in touch with you and hear more from you once you’ve identified your initial target segment and how you are going to reach and service them …”

I’ve almost universally found that the entrepreneurs I’m discussing these recommendations with are pleased to have the feedback, even if they’re disappointed that we may not be funding them. For an entrepreneur, receiving guidance of “Not now, but here’s what you can do…” is better than getting a flat, directionless “No”.  For me, the ability to articulate the concept of maturity, and investment readiness as a continuum, is extremely helpful. Being able to articulate that an applicant’s current stage of development, along that continuum, is not aligned with our group’s investment goals but that with further progress on their part, there may be alignment – this is a fundamentally superior message.

The Investment Readiness Level has given me the tools to engage in a consultative, coaching and mentoring conversation that provides much more value to entrepreneurs, resulting in a much more-enjoyable conversation for all involved.

Lessons Learned:

  • Investment Readiness ties capital-raising to the capital-efficient Lean Startup methodology
  • The Investment Readiness Level is Prescriptive
  • The Investment Readiness Level enables better mentoring

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

Listen to the blog post here

Download the podcast here

Bigger in Bend – Building a Regional Startup Cluster–part 1 of 3

When Customer Development and the Lean Startup were just a sketch on the napkin, Dino Vendetti, a VC at Bay Partners, was one of the first venture capitalists I shared my ideas with.

Dino and I kept in touch as he moved up to Bend, Oregon on a mission to engineer Bend into a regional technology cluster.  Over the years we brainstormed about how Lean entrepreneurship would affect regional development.

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

This post and the two that follow highlight what Dino has learned about the characteristics of the startup and investing landscape in a regional market, and what it takes to intentionally engineer a thriving regional tech cluster.

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. Bend, Oregon is an ideal case study because of its size, location and entrepreneurial characteristics.

Here’s Part 1 of Dino’s story…

———

Let’s get right to the point… I fell in love with Bend, Oregon, once a sleepy logging town, now population 79,000. If you like skiing, hiking, biking, rafting, golfing, camping, fishing, picnicking, rock climbing, and startups – you’d like Bend.1_BalloonsOverBend_2

Before moving to Bend last year, my career took me from engineering development roles at defense contractors in the 80’s to product management and executive marketing roles in companies like Qualcomm in the 90’s, to the world of venture capital at several firms including Bay Partners, Formative Ventures and Vulcan Ventures.

After several visits skiing here, I had become smitten with the “mojo” of Bend – its superb quality of life, recreational opportunities and proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area. The vibe of Bend is appealing, unique and unpretentious given the number of successful business, tech and professional athlete transplants who call it home. It’s home to a small but growing tech community that has been developing over the past decade, and that’s what piqued my interest.

What’s Different
The differences between the Bend, Oregon region and Silicon Valley are obvious. The sheer density of talent, companies, capital and universities that exist in the Valley are second to none. It truly is the epicenter of the startup world and it’s the regional cluster for innovation and entrepreneurship. Working in the Valley, I took for granted the constant and real time networking opportunities, the volume of deals, and the ability to access nearly every corner of the tech industry – no surprise to anyone who has spent any time in the Valley.

However, what I found in Bend was a deeply entrepreneurial community that is leaps and bounds beyond just a destination resort town. Bend fights way above its weight class and is professional scale for its size. Its ability to do so is tied to the deep entrepreneurial DNA that permeates the region (a very similar characteristic to Silicon Valley), originally out of necessity and now out of strategy.

Job creation in Bend is everyone’s business.   People who make the move typically need to start a business to have a job. Bend is the 16th largest metro area in the country for high-tech startup density. Pretty amazing for a town with fewer than 100,000 people.

Startups in Bend
So what types of entrepreneurs and startups exist in Bend?  There’s a concentration around several sectors: software, hardware, medical-technology, aviation, and a specialty of Oregon – craft beer brewing. The chart below shows the clustering of startups around these sectors.

Bend Startup Ecosystem

Bend Startup Ecosystem

In addition to the four major data centers that include Facebook and Apple, Bend currently boasts 95 startups across multiple technologynsectors: 47 software, 26 hardware/semi and 22 med tech related startups. Nearby Portland Oregon (just 160 miles away) is home to over 300 startups; between the two markets, nearly 80 new startups are forming each year.

Silicon Valley Transplants
In addition to local entrepreneurs building startups, I found something else I wasn’t expecting in Bend: a deep pool of talented Valley transplants who’ve made their way to Bend – either during their careers or after. There are retired Fortune 500 CEOs, senior execs from Valley startups and public companies as well as successful entrepreneurs who exited their companies. These smart, successful transplants have gotten involved with the local business community as mentors, advisors, entrepreneurs, or investors.

But the real surprise was learning that for some Bend is a Silicon Valley bedroom community. A daily direct flight on United can have you in your Bay Area office by 8 a.m. Monday. Every week I meet someone new who just moved to Bend and commutes to work for Google, Facebook, Salesforce, Oracle, Marketo, Workday, and on and on….These people are important and useful in the engineering of a tech cluster; as startup coaches, angel investors and advocates for the community. They communicate and pass on the DNA of how Silicon Valley operates and what level of performance is needed to compete on a global scale.

Entrepreneurs in Bend
Within the Bend tech startup community I found three kinds of startups/entrepreneurs:

  • Scalable entrepreneurs similar to those you would find in Silicon Valley (although a smaller concentration exists in Bend). These entrepreneurs want to build a big company. They’re typically Silicon Valley transplants who had enough success and experience to know what they were getting themselves into, what it means to raise capital from investors, what it means to scale a company, and how to engineer an exit.
  • Viable entrepreneurs who think they are building scalable startups but lack either a key element of their business model and/or lack the right team DNA to “go for it..” In this region, these are the majority of new startups I see. They have two limitations, which I help coach to see if they have the capability and desire to become scalable.
    • They go after a market opportunity that’s too limited to result in a truly scalable business (still might be an M&A candidate, but at the lower end of the range).
    • Most teams have a reluctance and willingness to “go for it” when they finally do have a scalable business and have validated the key aspects of their business model. This “small business” mindset is a holdover of how capital starved early stage startups are/were in Oregon. Entrepreneurs (and angel investors) prioritize profitability over growth (this is OK for lifestyle startups, but not for scalable startups where capturing market share and thought leadership is vital).
  • Lifestyle entrepreneurs who are just building a business to make a profit and support their awesome lifestyle (Bend has a lot of these). There is nothing wrong with lifestyle entrepreneurs as they are providing valuable products and services to the local/regional economy, but these do not make for good venture or angel investments under the traditional equity based venture model.

Regional entrepreneurs are at an inherent disadvantage in getting the attention of customers and late stage VCs.  Therefore they need to focus on building the most efficiently scalable business model possible. Without focus, it’s difficult to create enough signal to noise ratio to become relevant in their market segment. The good news is that whether you are an investor or accelerator, if your startup is located in an advantageous regional market (defined below) and if you apply lean methodologies, you can improve your on-base and slugging percentage.

The opportunity and challenge in regional markets is to:

  • Educate the ecosystem about the differences between the three kinds of startups/entrepreneurs
  • Find, nurture and invest in the truly scalable startups and entrepreneurs, as they will be the ones that have the potential to deliver outsized returns

Fixing the Missing Pieces of Infrastructure
The evolution of very capital efficient business models and Lean Startup methodologies has led to easier paths to funding, launching and growing businesses. With a tech cluster developing in Bend, it was clear that there were four missing pieces in its infrastructure.

I decided to fix each of them.

Bend needed a startup accelerator.  While entrepreneurship in Bend was talked about, and everyone read the same blogs, there was no central place founders could get focused and intense coaching and mentorship. So I co-founded the FoundersPad accelerator, a 12-week, Lean Startup program focused on customer development that helps founders develop, refine and grow their business.

Founders Pad

Founders Pad

Bend needed its own venture firm. While Silicon Valley and New York are magnets for great startups, our bet is that awesome startups exist in (or can be attracted to) Oregon and Northern California. So I launched Seven Peaks Ventures with a team of investors that includes some of the region’s most active angel investors. We help Oregon-based startups build and scale their businesses by providing highly relevant mentoring and leveraging our deep network in Silicon Valley and beyond.

Bend needs to attract more entrepreneurs. So I launched The Big Bend Theory with Bruce Cleveland.  We’ll fly founders and their spouses/significant others along with a team member to Bend to meet local startup executives and community leaders and experience the lifestyle. If they choose to relocate in Bend we’ll offer free temporary office space and help get them funded.

Oregon State University’s new Bend campus didn’t have a Computer Science or User Experience design program.  So I helped develop the Computer Science program at Oregon State. (We’re looking for Computer Science professors, so email me if you want to live and teach in Bend!)

Lessons Learned

  • Bend is a bet on a regional tech cluster
  • To build a successful regional cluster, look for an eco-system with:
    • experienced professionals willing to mentor
    • entrepreneurs with the energy and drive to build businesses
    • viable startups under development
  • We are engineering the infrastructure that lacks: accelerator, venture firm, outreach, university and training.
  • It is critical to understand the types of startups and entrepreneurs in your region and for venture funding
  • Seek out the truly scalable startups.

Listen to the blog post here
Download the podcast here

Moneyball and the Investment Readiness Level-video

Eric Ries was kind enough to invite me to speak at his Lean Startup Conference.

In the talk I reviewed the basic components of the Lean Startup and described how we teach it. I observed that now that we’ve built software to instrument and monitor the progress of new ventures (using LaunchPad Central), that we are entering the world of evidence-based entrepreneurship and the Investment Readiness Level.

This video is a companion to the blog post here. Read it for context.

If you can’t see the video above, click here

You can follow the talk along using the slides below

If you can’t see the slides above, click here

Additional videos here

Startup Tools here

Listen the blog post here

Download the podcast here

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