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

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A New Way to Look at Competitors

Every startup I see invariably puts up a competitive analysis slide that plots performance on a X/Y graph with their company in the top right.

Competitive XY

The slide is a holdover from when existing companies launched products into crowded markets. Most of the time this graph is inappropriate for startups or existing companies creating new markets.

Here’s what you need to do instead.

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The X/Y axis competitive analysis slide is a used by existing companies who plan to enter into an existing market.  In this case the basis of competition on the X/Y axes are metrics defined by the users in the existing market.

This slide typically shows some price/performance advantage.  And in the days of battles for existing markets that may have sufficed.

But today most startups are trying to ressegment existing markets or create new markets. How do you diagram that? What if the basis of competition in market creation is really the intersection of multiple existing markets?  Or what if the markets may not exist and you are creating one?

We need a different way to represent the competitive landscape when you are creating a business that never existed or taking share away from incumbents by resegmenting an existing market.

Here’s how.

The Petal Diagram
I’ve always thought of my startups as the center of the universe. So I would begin by putting my company in the center of the slide like this.

Slide1In this example the startup is creating a new category –  a lifelong learning network for entrepreneurs. To indicate where their customers for this new market would come from they drew the 5 adjacent market segments: corporate, higher education, startup ecosystem, institutions, and adult learning skills that they believed their future customers were in today. So to illustrate this they drew these adjacent markets as a cloud surrounding their company. (Unlike the traditional X/Y graph you can draw as many adjacent market segments as you’d like.)

Slide2Then they filled in the market spaces with the names of the companies that are representative players in each of the adjacent markets.companies updated

Then they annotated the private companies with the amount of private capital they had raised. This lets potential investors understand that other investors were interested in the space and thought it was important enough to invest. (And plays on the “no VC wants to miss a hot space” mindset.)

Slide4

Finally, you could show the current and projected market sizes of the adjacent markets which allows the startups to have a “how big can our new market be?” conversation with investors.  (If you wanted to get fancy, you could scale the size of the “petals” relative to market size.)

Slide5

The Petal Diagram drives your business model canvas
What the chart is saying is, “we think our customers will come from these markets.”  That’s handy if you’re using a Lean Startup methodology because the Petal Chart helps you identify your first potential customer segments on the business model canvas.add the canvasYou use this chart to articulate your first hypotheses of who are customers segments you’re targeting.  If your hypotheses about the potential customers turn out to be incorrect, and they aren’t interested in your product, then you go back to this competitive diagram and revise it.

Lessons Learned

  • X/Y competitive graphs are appropriate in an existing market
  • Mapping potential competitors in new or resegmented markets require a different view – the Petal diagram
  • The competitive diagram is how develop your first hypotheses about who your customers are

Update: I’ve heard from a few entrepreneurs who used the diagram had investors tell them “”it looks like you’re being surrounded, how can you compete in that market?”

Those investors have a bright future in banking rather than venture capital.

Seriously, I would run away fast from a potential investor who doesn’t or can’t understand that visualizing the data doesn’t increase or decrease the likelihood of success. It only provides a better way to visualize potential customer segments.
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Don’t Give Away Your Board Seats

I had a group of ex-students out to the ranch who were puzzling over a dilemma – they’ve been working hard on their startup, were close at finding product/market fit and had been approached by Oren, a potential angel investor. Oren had been investing since he left Google four years ago and was insisting on not only a board seat, but he wanted to be chairman of the board. The team wasn’t sure what to do.

I listened for a while as they went back and forth about whether he should be chairman. Then I asked, “Why should he even be on your board at all?”  I got looks of confusion and then they said, “We thought all investors get a board seat. At least that’s what Oren told us.”

Uh oh.  Red flags just appeared in front of my eyes. I realized it was time for the board of directors versus advisors talk.

Roles for Financial Investors
I pointed out that there are four roles a financial investor can take in your company: a board member, a board observer (a non-voting attendee of board meetings,) an advisory board member, or no active role. I explained that as a non-public company there was no legal requirement for any investor to have a board seat. Period. That said, professional venture capital firms that lead a Series investment round usually make their investment contingent on a board seat. And it sounded like if successful, their startup was going to need additional funding past an angel round to scale.

In the last few years, it’s become more common for angel investors to ask for a board seat, but I suggested they really want to think hard about whether that’s something they need to do now.

“But how do we get the advice we need? We’re getting to the point that we have lots of questions about strategic choices and relationships. Isn’t that what a board is for?  That’s what we learned in business school.”

What’s a board for?
I realized that while my students had been through the theory it was time for some practice. So I told them, “At the end of the day your board is not your friend. You may like them and they might like you, but they have a fiduciary duty to the shareholders, not the founders. (And they have a fiduciary responsibility to their own limited partners.) That means the board is your boss, and they have an obligation to optimize results for the company. You may be the ex-employees one day if they think you’re holding the company back.”Board Fight

I let that sink it for a bit and then asked, “How long have you worked with Oren?”

I kind of expected the answer, but still was a bit disappointed. “Well we met him twice, once over coffee and then over lunch.”

“You want to think hard about appointing someone to be your boss just because they’re going to write you what in the scheme of things will be a small check.”

Now they looked really confused. “But we need people with great advice who we can help us with our next moves.”

Advisory Board
“Do you know what an advisory board is?” I asked.  From the look on their faces, I realized they didn’t so I continued, “Advisors are just like they sound. They provide advice, introductions, investment, and visual theater – (proof that you can attract A+ talent.) An advisor that provides a combination of at least two of these is useful.”

A “board” of advisors is not a formal legal entity like a board of directors. That means that they can’t fire you or have any control of your company. While some founders like to meet their advisors in quarterly advisory board meetings, most companies don’t really have their advisory board meet as group. You can connect with them with them on an “as needed” basis. While you traditionally compensate advisors by giving them stock, I suggest you ask them to match any grant with an equal investment in the company – so they have “skin in the game.”

shutterstock_70458487Equally important is that an advisory board is a great farm team for potential outside board members. It allows you to work with them over an extended period of time and see the quality of their advice and how it’s delivered. If they are world-class contributors, when you raise a Series A round and you need to bring in an outside board member, picking someone you’ve worked with on your advisory board is ideal.”

Finally I suggested that Oren’s request to be chairman of a five-person startup seemed to be coming from someone looking to upgrade their resume, not to optimize their startup.

No Outsiders Until a Series A
As we wrapped up, I offered that there was no “right answer” (see Brad Feld’s post) but they should think about their board strategy as a balance between the amount of control given to outsiders versus the great advice outsiders can bring. I suggested that if they could pull it off they might want to consider keeping the board to the two founders for now, surrounded by great advisors which may include their seed investors. Then when they got a Series A, they’ll probably add one or two professional VC’s on the board with one great advisor as an outside board member.

As they left they were going through the experienced execs they knew who they were going to take out for coffee.

Lessons Learned

  • Your board of directors is your boss
  • Your advisory board is your friend
  • Not all investors get board seats, it’s your choice
  • Date advisors, marry board members

Listen to the post here
or download the podcast here

Fund Raising is a Means Not an End

Not all that glitters is gold
William Shakespeare

For many entrepreneurs “raising money” has replaced “building a sustainable business” as their goal.  That’s a big mistake. When you take money from investors their business model becomes yours.

———–

One of my ex students came out to the ranch to give me an update on his startup. When I asked, “What are you working on?” the first words out of his mouth was his fund raising progress.  Sigh… What I should have been hearing is the search for the business model, specifically the progress on product/market fit, but I hear the fund raising story first at least 90% of the time.  It never makes me happy.

shutterstock_2694848Entrepreneurs need to think about 1) when to raise money, 2) why to raise money and 3) who to take money from, 4) the consequences of raising money.

It all starts with understanding what a startup is.

What’s a Startup? Just as a reminder, a startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.  It’s worth parsing this sentence:

•  Temporary Organization: The goal of a startup is not to remain a startup. The goal is to scale.  (If you don’t have scale as a goal then you shouldn’t be raising money from angel or venture investors, you should be getting a commercial or government small business loan.)

•  Search. Although you believe your idea is the most brilliant innovation ever thought of, the odds are that you are wrong. If you raise millions of dollars on day one, simply executing the idea means you’re going to waste all those dollars attempting to scale a bad idea.

•  Repeatable: Startups may get orders that come from board members’ customer relationships or heroic, single-shot efforts of the CEO. These are great, but they are not repeatable by a sales organization. What you are searching for is not the one-off revenue hits but rather a repeatable pattern that can be replicated by a sales organization selling off a pricelist or by customers coming to your web site.

•  Scalable: The goal is not to get one customer but many – and to get those customers so each additional customer adds incremental revenue and profit. The test is: If you add one more sales person or spend more marketing dollars, does your sales revenue go up by more than your expenses?

•  Business model: A business model answers the basic questions about your entire business: Who are the customers? What problems do they want solved? Does our product or service solve a customer problem (product-market fit)? How do we attract, keep and grow customers? What are revenue strategy and pricing tactics? Who are the partners? What are the resources and activities needed to make this business happen? And what are its costs?

Who to take money from?
First, decide what type of startup you are.  If you’re a lifestyle entrepreneur or a small business, odds are the return you can provide is not what traditional angel or venture investors are looking for.  These types of startups are better suited to raising money from friends, family, commercial and government small business loans, etc.

If you’re a scalable startup, you want to spend small amounts of money (seed capital) as you run experiments testing your hypotheses. Why small amounts? No startup ever spends less then it raises. And at this early stage you’ll be giving up a larger percentage of your firm to investors. A seed round can come from friends, family, Kickstarter, angels – and most importantly, early customers.

These sources are a lot more forgiving of iterations and pivots than later-stage venture-capital funds.

When to raise money
In a Lean Startup, the goal is to preserve your cash until you find a repeatable and scalable business model. In times of unlimited cash (internet bubbles, frothy venture climates) you can fix your mistakes by burning more dollars. In normal times, when there aren’t dollars to undo mistakes, you use Customer Development to find product-market fit.  It’s only after you have found product-market fit (value proposition – customer segment in the language of the business model canvas) that you spend like there is no tomorrow.

Don’t confuse “raising money” with “building a sustainable business.” In a perfect world, you would never need investors and would fund the company from customer revenue.  But to achieve scale, startups need risk capital.

Raise as much money as you can after you have tangible evidence you have product/market fit, not before.

The consequences of raising venture money
The day you raise money from a venture investor, you’ve also just agreed to their business model.

Here’s a simple test: If you’re the founder of a startup, go to a whiteboard and diagram how a VC fund works.  How do the fund and the partners make money? What is an IRR? How long is a fund’s life? How much will they invest in the life of your company? How much do they need to own at a liquidity event?  What’s a win for them? Why?

There are two reasons to take venture money. The first is to scale like there is no tomorrow. You invest the dollars to create end-user demand and drive those customers into your sales channel.

The second is the experience, pattern recognition and contacts that great investors bring to the table.

Just make sure it’s the right time.

Lessons Learned

  • Fund raising is a means not an end
  • Preserve your cash until you find a repeatable and scalable business model
    • Focus on product – market fit
    • Run small experiments testing your hypotheses
  • Raise as much money as you can after you have tangible evidence you have product/market fit

Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

Free Reprints of “Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything”

The Harvard Business Review is offering free reprints of  the May 2013 cover article, “Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything

Available here

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When Hell Froze Over – in the Harvard Business Review

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“I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

Groucho Marx

In my 21 years as an entrepreneur, I would come up for air once a month to religiously read the Harvard Business Review. It was not only my secret weapon in thinking about new startup strategies, it also gave me a view of the management issues my customers were dealing with. Through HBR I discovered the work of Peter Drucker and first read about management by objective. I learned about Michael Porters’s five forces. But the eye opener for me was reading Clayton Christensen HBR article on disruption in the mid 1990’s and then reading the Innovators Dilemma. Each of these authors (along with others too numerous to mention) profoundly changed my view of management and strategy. All of this in one magazine, with no hype, just a continual stream of great ideas.

HBR Differences

For decades this revered business magazine described management techniques that were developed in and were for large corporations –  offering more efficient and creative ways to execute existing business models. As much as I loved the magazine, there was little in it for startups (or new divisions in established companies) searching for a business model. (The articles about innovation and entrepreneurship, while insightful felt like they were variants of the existing processes and techniques developed for running existing businesses.) There was nothing suggesting that startups and new ventures needed their own tools and techniques, different from those written about in HBR or taught in business schools.

To fill this gap I wrote The Four Steps to the Epiphany, a book about the Customer Development process and how it changes the way startups are built. The Four Steps drew the distinction that “startups are not smaller versions of large companies.” It defined a startup as a “temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” Today its concepts of  “minimum viable product,” “iterate and pivot”, “get out of the building,” and “no business plan survives first contact with customers,” have become part of the entrepreneurial lexicon. My new book, The Startup Owners Manual, outlined the steps of building a startup or new division inside a company in far greater detail.

HBR Cust DevIn the last decade it’s become clear that companies are facing continuous disruption from globalization, technology shifts, rapidly changing consumer tastes, etc. Business-as-usual management techniques focused on efficiency and execution are no longer a credible response. The techniques invented in what has become the Lean Startup movement are now more than ever applicable to reinventing the modern corporation. Large companies like GE, Intuit, Merck, Panasonic, and Qualcomm are leading the charge to adopt the lean approach to drive corporate innovation. And  the National Science Foundation and ARPA-E adopted it to accelerate commercialization of new science.

Today, we’ve come full circle as Lean goes mainstream. 250,0000 copies of the May issue of Harvard Business Review go in the mail to corporate and startup executives and investors worldwide. In this month’s issue, I was honored to write the cover story article, “Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything.”  The article describes Lean as the search for a repeatable and scalable business model – and business model design, customer development and agile engineering – as the way you implement it.

I’m  proud to be called the “father” of the Lean Startup Movement. But I hope at least two—if not fifty—other catalysts of the movement are every bit as proud today. Eric Ries, who took my first Customer Development class at Berkeley, had the insight that Customer Development should be paired with Agile Development. He called the combination “The Lean Startup” and wrote a great book with that name.

HBR CanvasAlexander Osterwalder‘s inspired approach to defining the business model in his book Business Model Generation provide a framework for the Customer Development and the search for facts behind the hypotheses that make up a new venture. Osterwalder’s business model canvas is the starting point for Customer Development, and the “scorecard” that monitors startups’ progress as they turn their hypotheses about what customers want into actionable facts—all before a startup or new division has spent all or most of its capital.

The Harvard Business Review is providing free access to the cover story article, “Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything.  Go read it.

Then go do it.

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China Startups – The Gold Rush and Fire Extinguishers (Part 5 of 5)

I just spent a few weeks in Japan and China on a book tour for the Japanese and Chinese versions of the Startup Owners Manual.  In these series of 5 posts, I thought I’d share what I learned in China. All the usual caveats apply. I was only in China for a week so this a cursory view. Thanks to Kai-Fu Lee of Innovation Works, David Lin of Microsoft Accelerator, Kevin Dewalt and Frank Hawke of the Stanford Center in Beijing, and my publisher China Machine Press. 

China Dragon

The previous post, part 4, was about Beijing’s entrepreneurial ecosystem these are my final observations.

Land Rush
For the last 10 years China essentially closed its search, media and social network software market to foreign companies with the result that Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Dropbox, and 30,000 other websites were not accessible from China. This left  an open playing field for Chinese software startups as they “copy to China” existing U.S. business models. Of course “copy” is too strong a word.  Adapt, adopt and extend is probably a better description.  But for the last decade “innovation” in Chinese software meant something different than it did in Silicon Valley.

The Chinese Social Media Landscape diagram below from Resonance does a great job of illustrating the players in the Chinese market. (Note that the inner ring shows their global equivalents.)

China Social Media Ecosystem

The downside is that with so much venture and angel capital available, investors have been willing to fund the 10th Groupon clone.  For the last few years, there really hasn’t been a demand to innovate on top of the ecosystem that’s been built.

New Rules for China
Not only is the Chinese ecosystem completely different but also the consumer demographics and user expectations are equally unique. 70% of Chinese Internet users are under 30. Instead of email, they’ve grown up with QQ instant messages. They’re used to using the web and increasingly the mobile web for everything, commerce, communication, games, etc. (They also probably haven’t seen a phone that isn’t mobile.) By the end of 2012, there were 85 million iOS and 160 million Android devices in China. And they were increasing at an aggregate 33 million IOS and Android activations per month.

It was interesting to learn about China’s digital divide – the gap between East China and Midwest China, and between urban and rural areas. Internet penetration in Beijing is  greater than 70% while it’s less than 25% in Yunnan, Jiangxi, Guizhou and other provinces. While there are 564 million web users with 420 million having mobile web access, 74% of Chinese Internet users make less than $500/month and are students, blue-collar workers or jobless.

Unlike U.S. websites that are sparse and slick, Chinese users currently expect complicated, crowded and busy web pages. However, there’s a growing belief that the “design preferences” of Chinese consumers are just bad design. TenCents WeChat, (designed for an international market) is the first incredibly popular app in China to dramatically raise the bar for what a good user interface and user experience looks and feels like. WeChat may change the game for Chinese U/I and U/X experience. The one caveat about online commerce is that while Chinese users will buy physical goods online (Taobao is huge), they seem to hate to pay for music or software, and the model for games seems to be moving to free play with in-app-purchases for accessories and powers. An interesting consequence of the rigid censoring and control of mainstream media is that blogging – reading and writing – is much higher than U.S.

My guess is the current wave of “copy to China” will burn itself out in the next few years as the smart money starts to move to “innovate in China” (i.e. like WeChat.)

Competition
If you’re a software startup competing in China, the words that come to mind are “ruthless and relentless.” The not so polite ones I’ve heard from others are “vicious, unethical and illegal.” Intellectual property protection is great on paper and “limited” in practice. The large players like Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent historically would be more likely to simply copy a startup’s features than to hire their talent. The large companies strategy seems to be to cover every possible market niche by copying successful models from others.

The slide below from the Zhen Fund shows the breadth of business coverage of each of the Chinese Internet incumbents.  Each column represents a company (QQ, Sina, Baidu, Netease, Sohu etc.) and the rows indicates their offerings in open platform, group buying, online games, microblogging, Instant Messaging, BBS, Q&A and E-commerce.

Internet Giants Want to do it all

Small startups act the same way, simply cloning each other’s products. Sharing and cooperation is not yet part of the ethos. I can’t imagine a U.S. company setting up some subsidiary here and expecting them to compete while they were following U.S. rules.  In some ways, the best description of the market dynamics would be “imagine you were competing with 100 companies who are as rapacious as Microsoft was in the 1980’s and 1990’s.” Eventually, China’s innovation-driven economy needs intellectual property rights and anti-trust laws that are enforced.

Sea Turtles and VPN – the connections to  the rest of the world
Entrepreneurs in Beijing were knowledgeable about Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship and the state of software and tools available for two reasons.  First, there are continuous stream of “sea turtles”—Chinese who have studied or worked abroad—returning home. (The Chinese government must be laughing hysterically over U.S. immigration policy that’s forcing Chinese grad students out of the U.S.) Many of these returnees have worked in Silicon Valley and startups or went to school at MIT and Stanford. (There is a huge difference between the Chinese who have never left and those who went to school abroad, even for a few months – at least a difference in their ability to relate to me and have a conversation on the same wavelength. It’s clear why families try so hard to send their children abroad. It changes everything for them.)

Second, most websites that a non-Chinese would use are blocked including Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Google Docs, Scribd, Blogspot, Dropbox, New York Times, etc. Almost every entrepreneur I met was using VPN to circumvent the Great Firewall. When the Chinese government censors (run by their propaganda department) shutdown access to yet another U.S. web site, they create another 100,000 VPN users.  And when the government tools to detect encrypted VPN’s get more sophisticated, (as it did last year), Chinese users just use stealthier tools. It’s an amazing cat and mouse system.

CCP Propaganda Department logo(Note to Chinese Communist party – the best name for your propaganda department should probably not be the “Propaganda Department.”)

Beijing’s Academic Hub
Right next door to Zhongguancun are China’s top two universities, Peking University and Tsinghua University. Northwest of Beijing is also home to other universities, including technical universities like USTBBITBUPT, and Beihang.  Like Silicon Valley, Zhongguancun also has a critical mass of people who are crazy enough to do startups.  Equally of interest is a good number of them end up in the PLA’s GSD 3rd Department (the equivalent of our National Security Agency. ) And some of their best and brightest have ended up in the organizations like the 2nd Bureau, Unit 61398 tasked euphemistically for “Computer Network Operations.”

While I didn’t get much time with the academic community, in talking to students, education seems to still be one of China’s bottlenecks – rote lectures, passive learning, follow the process, exam-based performance, etc.  And while startups and entrepreneurship courses are now being added to the curriculum, “How to write a business plan” seems to be the state of the art. China’s education system needs to give more attention to fostering students’ innovative thinking, creativity and entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurial Culture

Fear of Failure
Though they’re familiar with technology in the valley, I picked up some important cultural difference from students and startup engineers I talked to. Even though they’re next to Zhongguancun, the hottest place for startups in China, there seems to be a lower appetite for risk, a lack of interest in equity (instead optimizing for a high salary) and very little loyalty to any one company. The overall culture still has a fear of failure. Most of their parents still tell them to work for the government or a big company.

Talent
I heard from a few investors that as the startup ecosystem is relatively new, there’s a battle for experienced engineering talent and lack of experienced C-level execs. The lack of a previous generation of successful startup CEOs means the current pool of mentors to coach this generation is almost non-existent.

Because salaries are cheap, startups seem to try to solve every problem by throwing bodies at it. Startup teams feel like they are 2-5x the size of American teams. There seems to be little appreciation or interest in multi-skilled people.

Turnover of employees in capital in Beijing is very high. Employees work here for a few months and are suddenly gone. There’s a noticeable lack of tenacity in young, new entrepreneurs. They start a project, and if it isn’t a home run, they’re gone. Perhaps it’s the weather. Silicon Valley has great weather and lifestyle, and nobody wants to leave. Beijing has awful weather and pollution, it’s a temporary place to get rich and then leave.

Management 101
The board/CEO relationship still isn’t clearly understood by either party. I’ve talked to entrepreneurs who view the investors as a “boss.”  A good number of startups in Beijing seem driven by the VCs – and not the founders. This might also be a hangover from the command and control system of a state-driven planned economy. Ironically investors told me that the reverse has been true as well. Some startups acted like the VC was a bank. They took the money and then ignored their board. Over time, as investors add more value than writing checks, this relationship will mature.

Creativity
I was surprised that startup teams ask what seems like the kind of questions Americans learn at their first jobs.

Team: “We keep spending money trying to get people to our web site but they don’t come back. We are almost out of money.”

Me:  “Ok.  Why are you still spending money?”

Team: “long…silence…we need people to come to the website.”

On the other hand, for most of them it probably is their first job. And the educational system hasn’t prepared them for executing anything other than a plan. Iterations and pivots are a tough concept if you’ve never been taught to think for yourself. And challenging the system is not something that’s actually encouraged in China.

They also ask questions I just don’t know how to answer. “How do you know how to be creative? What do we have to do to be creative?”  “You Americans just seem to know how to do things even if you’ve never done them – can you show us how to do that?”  This seems to be an artifact of the Chinese rote educational system and its current system of government.

Innovation Ecosystem
On the plane ride home I started to think about the similarities and differences between the innovation ecosystems of Silicon Valley and the TMT segment I saw in Beijing. The motivations are the same – profit – driven by entrepreneurs and venture finance. And the infrastructure is close to the same – research universities, predictable economic system, a path to liquidity, a stable legal system and 24/7 utilities. But the differences are worth noting – it’s a young ecosystem, so startup management tools are nearly non-existent. But there’s a difference in the culture of failure and risk taking –  the current cultural pressure is to “work for a big company or the government.” Outward facing Universities are just starting to appear, and while there’s a free flow of information inside China, it suffers from the constraints of the Great Firewall.

China vs. US ecosystem

But there are two striking differences. The first is the lack of creativity. The Beijing software ecosystem I saw has spent the last decade in a protected market copying successful U.S. business models. “Copying, adopting and adapting,” is not the same as “competing, innovating and creating” in a global market. Perhaps products like WeChat, designed for an international market, might be the beginning of real innovation.

The second difference in ecosystems – the lack of freedom to dissent – goes deeper to the difference between the two systems. In the U.S. entrepreneurs are encouraged to “Think Different.” Our touchstone for creativity is the Apple ad that said, “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers,… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things….” This spirit of rebellion against the status quo got us Steve Jobs.  In China the same attitude is likely to get you jail time. Unless you can speak truth to power, you’ll never have an innovation economy.

Conclusion
China is astonishing. The country has risen. Their economy is the envy of the world. The entrepreneurial and “can do” spirit reminds me of what the U.S. was known for. Chinese citizens are proud of their country and believe the world is theirs in the way Americans did in the 1950’s. Their leadership has shown incredible foresight in engineering an amazing economic engine and formidable military. They come so far, and yet…

To take nothing away from what China has accomplished, a visit to Beijing had all the subtle reminders that this version of capitalism has come without democracy or justice; the guards in the Forbidden City armed with fire extinguishers in case more protestors try to set themselves on fire, the security around Tiananmen Square to prevent protestors from gathering, and the “black jails” to keep rural petitioners out of Beijing.  And of course the “great firewall,” attempting to keep information about the outside world from reaching inside China.

The bet the government is making is that if they can keep the economy cooking and distract the masses with ever increasing consumer goods and foreign adventures, maybe it can survive.

All of these are signs of a weak China not a strong one. They are the signs of a leadership frightened not by external enemies but by their own people.

It usually doesn’t end well.

——

all five China blog posts available as a download here

List to the post here: or download the podcasts here

Zhongguancun in Beijing – China’s Silicon Valley (Part 4 of 5)

I just spent a few weeks in Japan and China on a book tour for the Japanese and Chinese versions of the Startup Owners Manual.  In these series of 5 posts, I thought I’d share what I learned in China. All the usual caveats apply. I was only in China for a week so this a cursory view. Thanks to Kai-Fu Lee of Innovation Works, David Lin of Microsoft Accelerator, Frank Hawke of the Stanford Center in Beijing, and my publisher China Machine Press.

Beijing with Kai-fu Lee

The previous post described the evolution of the Chinese Venture Capital system. The next two posts are about what I saw and learned in my short stay exploring Beijing’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Entrepreneurship in Beijing
In the few days I was in China I met with several VC’s, angel investors, business press and spoke to hundreds of entrepreneurs. I was blown away by what I saw in Beijing. First, I was amazed by the physical impact of the city itself. This was a modern city in a hurry to make a first impression – think of what Rome looked like in the time of the empire or New York in the 1920’s – now it’s Beijing announcing that China has arrived.

However if you scratch the surface, you can still find a bit of the old Beijing in the hutongs. Drive 50 miles outside the city into the surrounding villages and you see the distance China has to travel to bring the rural areas into the 21st century. In Beijing we hadn’t seen air so badly polluted since we had been in Agra in India in the winter where I swear there was a day you could wave your hand in front of you and see traces of it in the air (and their excuse was they burn dung for heat.)

David Lin and the Microsoft China Accelerator was gracious enough to host two wonderful days of events for me. I trained the Startup Weekend Next Beijing mentors and instructors, presented to several hundred entrepreneurs, and had a great fireside chat with Zhen Fund founding partner Xu Xiaoping in front of another roomful of entrepreneurs.Microsoft Accelerator China

Kai-fu Lee of Innovation Works was equally generous with his time. We had a fireside chat with a room full of eager entrepreneurs. And he was generous in sharing his insights about the current state of entrepreneurship and investment in China. And through it all Louis Yuan my patient and wonderful publisher from China Machine Press kept me moving through the events.

But what made the overwhelming impression for me was finding an entrepreneurial software cluster on par with the Internet software portion of  Silicon Valley. The physical heart of the Beijing startups is in Zhongguancun in the Haidian District, located in the northwest side of Beijing. Startups here are primarily in what they call the TMT (Technology, Media and Telecommunications) segment. Not only does Zhongguancun have Chinese startups, but global technology companies (Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, Microsoft, IBM, Sun, Oracle, BEA, Alcatel Lucent, Google) all have offices here or elsewhere in Beijing.

If there ever was any question about the value of China’s Torch Program walk around Zhongguancun. It was the first of the 54 Science and Technology Industrial Parks.

China Venture Capital
An entrepreneurial ecosystem is driven one of two ways; either by a crisis (i.e. innovation in the U.S. during World War II,) or during peacetime by profit.

Finance plus Entreprenuers

If it’s driven by profit then the ecosystem needs both entrepreneurs as well as Venture Finance.

China now has plenty of both.

China has the biggest Venture Capital industry outside the U.S.  To compare the two, in 2011 U.S. venture capitalists invested $26.5 billion in all deals. Out of that total, they funded 967 Internet deals with $6.7 billion.

VC Funding USA

By comparison, in 2011 Chinese VC’s invested $13 billion in all deals. Out of that total, they funded 268 Internet deals with $3.2 billion. About 1/3 of all China’s Venture Capital investment is made in Beijing and the majority of those investments are in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) sector I’ll describe shortly.

As vibrant as the China venture business has been, 2012 was a different story. VC’s pulled back and only invested $3.7 billion in all deals, funding just only 43 deals with $563 million.

VC Funding China

Closed for You, Open For Us
First a bit of context in what the VC’s in Beijing are investing in. China has essentially closed its internal search, media and social network software market to foreign companies who wouldn’t play with the government rules on the Great Firewall. (China blocks “objectionable” website content and monitors everyone’s Internet access.)

Google retreated to Hong Kong and Baidu took its place.  Facebook was too frightening to Chinese censors, so Renren is the leading social media player. Email? Working professionals/white collar use emails, but most users grew up instant messaging on TenCent’s QQ and most are moving to Weixin/WeChat. Twitter? No, it’s Sina Weibo, and if you want games with your chat – TenCent.  Amazon and Ebay? Nope in China it’s Alibaba’s Taobao or 360buy.com.  If you’re outside of China, you never hear about these companies or interact with them because they’re geared to serve only Chinese users.

This closed but very large market means that greater than 90% of Chinese software startups focus exclusively on the Chinese market. (The <10% that decide to go global early do so by starting outside of China. Another 10% may try to go global when they’re larger and have the resources for two languages, cultures and regulations. )

This has resulted in a completely different consumer software ecosystem than found elsewhere in the world. Given the closed market to U.S. Internet companies, VC’s in China have guided startups to execute the “copy to China” model. Thinking, if it worked in the U.S., copying a known model is less risky than trying something new and untested.  The problem is that this space is getting really crowded – from the bottom up as everyone tries the 200th clone – and from the top down, as the major incumbents try to fill every possible market niche.

The table below maps the type of software in China to their global equivalents in each product category in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) sector.

China Vs US players 2

A Huge Market Is Finally Real
For a hundred years the fantasy of global marketers was, “ if only everyone in China would buy one…”  That day is final here. The numbers of mobile subscribers are staggering – 1.18 billon, 260 million are 3G. Chinese Internet companies live in a large closed, self-contained ecosystem with 564 million web users with 420 million having mobile web access. 309 million use microblogs and 242 million shop online. (BTW, market research, financial and other statistical information are usually unreliable in China, but even taken with a grain of salt these are staggering numbers.)

The table below from web2asia.com shows the number of users of online social networks as of 2009.  Did I mention this is a huge market.

Social Network Services in China

Investment in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) sector
The charts below from David Lin, Microsoft Accelerator detail investments in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) sector – almost all of it is centered in Beijing. (Note that these numbers differ from the Zhen Fund data -welcome to statistics in China – but they both provide an overall sense of the market size and direction.)

45% of all Venture Capital Investment in China went into the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) sector.

China VC Market

The number of deals in Technology, Media and Telecommunications more than doubled in 2011 over the previous five years and slowed back down dramatically in 2012. More than 1,600 VC investments in TMT have been made since 2007, with a record high of 436 in 2011.

TMT Investments 2007-2012

Internet investments makes up more than 50% of all the deals in Technology, Media and Telecommunications made since 2011, while, E-commerce investments, in turn, accounts for nearly 50% of the investment deals in Internet. Investments in Mobile Internet makes up roughly 11% of all the deals in Technology, Media and Telecommunications, and have been on the rise since 2011.

TMT Investments by sector 2007-2012

Series-A round investments dominates Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) deals, making up 60% of all.

TMT Investments by round 2011-2012Beijing, Guangdong (including Shenzhen) and Shanghai came out as the most dynamic spots for Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) investments.

TMT Investments by region 2011-2012

Beijing Venture/Angel Ecosystem
While Beijing has VC’s and Angel investors happy to write a check there aren’t as many angels/VCs in China versus US per capita. Several VC’s mentioned that there’s a funding gap for seed stage investments. The Angel/Seed network in Beijing feels fragmented and mostly inexperienced (as are a good number of the China VC’s). Kind of reminded me of the drivers in Beijing – they were all driving in a way that made me think they all just got their drivers license – until I remembered that they did. Car sales in China went from 1 million in 2001 to 14 million in 2011.

Active Player in China VC

Other Beijing ecosystem issues I heard about were the things we take for granted:  the lack of knowledge sharing (“pay it forward” isn’t part of the culture,) limited mentoring (few experienced mentors,) and a lack of open source education, and no AngelList model. In the U.S. it’s easy to share and browse ideas and deals, but in China there’s a long legacy of guarding knowledge as power, and the justifiable paranoia of someone copying your idea prevents sharing.

Liquidity
Unlike the U.S. there are almost no mergers or acquisitions in this market segment. It’s much easier to just steal their ideas and hire their employees. So big companies rarely acquire startups. Liquidity for most Internet startups happens via IPO’s. 70% of exits in China are via IPO (in the U.S. on NASDAQ or the NYSE or on ChiNext, China’s equivalent of NASDAQ) compared to the 90% of exits in US via mergers or acquisitions. Alibaba (commerce), Tencent (games/chat) and Baidu (search) all have market caps over $40 billion.

The next post, the Gold Rush and Fire Extinguishers – Beijing entrepreneurs, startup culture and some conclusions.

Lessons Learned

  • China has the biggest Venture Capital industry outside the U.S
  • For software, the action is in Beijing
  • China has closed its search, media and social network software market to foreign companies
  • Beijing’s VC’s primarily invest in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications segmentLiquidity is via IPO’s not buy outs

Listen to the post here: or download the podcast here

The Rise of Chinese Venture Capital – (Part 3 of 5)

I just spent a few weeks in Japan and China on a book tour for the Japanese and Chinese versions of the Startup Owners Manual.  In these series of 5 posts, I thought I’d share what I learned in China. All the usual caveats apply. I was only in China for a week so this a cursory view. Thanks to Kai-Fu Lee of Innovation Works, David Lin of Microsoft Accelerator, Frank Hawke of the Stanford Center in Beijing, and my publisher China Machine Press.

China speaking 2

The first post described how China built a science and technology infrastructure to support advanced weapons systems development. The previous post described how the Torch program built China’s innovation clusters. This post is about the rise of Chinese venture capital and how it helped build the countries entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The Rise of Chinese Venture Capital
China’s move away from a state system that solely depended on a command and control economy started in the 1990s. The first wave of startups began when R&D centers and universities began to provide the technology and seed capital for new startups that were spin-outs or spin-offs. This could be a group of individuals leaving a university or research center or an entire department leaving. For example, in the 1990’s 85% of the start-up funds of the new technology companies founded in Beijing came from the research center or university they left.

China Startup Funding

The second wave of technology investors were Chinese banks, who provided the majority of the later stage investments in the Torch Program. By 1991, 70% of the Torch funded startups were getting bank financing for expansion and later stages of the new ventures, with local governments acting as guarantors. Like the U.S. SBIR and STTR programs, the Torch Program’s funding for new ventures was limited to seed funding the front end. Being designated as a Torch Program startup gave banks comfort to provide loans to these ventures for technology commercialization.

Technology zones with Science and Technology Industrial Parks were the third source of support for new ventures. Inside the zones were Torch Technology Business Incubators with startups licensed by the local governments.  These local governments financially supported the startups because, by locating in these zones, the new ventures were seen as contributing to local economic development. This helped the startups qualify for funding from banks and venture capital firms.

By the mid-1990s, Chinese leaders realized that the Torch program couldn’t be the source of all capital for startups. At the same time neither banks nor local governments had the cash to finance startups on the scale the country needed. The problem was that in China the government didn’t recognize venture capital firms as a legitimate organizational type. The founding of domestic VC firms began with the establishment of local government-financed venture capital firms (GVCFs), followed by university-backed VC firms (UVCFs). (The State Science and Technology Commission and the Ministry of Finance formed the China New Technology Venture Investment Corporation in 1986, but it was a government agency supporting national technology venture policy objectives, rather than a profit-oriented private enterprise. It went bankrupt in 1997.)

A few foreign VC firms like IDG Capital Partners entered China in the early 1990s. Gradually, from the mid-1990s, the perception of venture capital shifted from its being a type of government funding to being a commercial activity necessary to support the commercialization of new technology. But it wasn’t until 1998 that corporate-backed VC firms could be established, and that started a wave of VC funds backed by government, corporate and foreign capital.

A great summary diagram below from OECD’s Report on China’s Innovation Policy traces the evolution of China’s Innovation Ecosystem.

Evolution of China's Innovation Ecosystem

Investing in China Today
Fast forward a decade, today the Private Equity and Venture Capital business is booming in China with over 1000 firms actively investing. Most of the early deals were done by offshore venture funds – with their fund registered in countries outside China and using dollars. The latest trends are as Renminbi (“RMB”) funds (the Renminbi is the official currency in China.)  In the past foreign funds who wanted to invest in China had to set up funds using dollars with complicated offshore structures with exits through offshore listings. The Renminbi funds have fewer restrictions on what industries the fund can invest in, less regulatory oversight and access to listing a portfolio company in China. There are two types of Renminbi funds: domestic funds and foreign-invested funds.  Domestic Renminbi funds are fully owned by Chinese investors, while foreign-invested Renminbi funds may be partially or fully owned by non-Chinese investors.  Both types of funds are organized under Chinese law and use Renminbi to invest in Chinese companies.

The other big change was the creation of ChiNext, China’s equivalent of NASDAQ stock exchange for start-ups, in 2009. The market was created to provide startups and their investors liquidity. Over 100 startups were listed on ChiNext the first year of its launch at sky-high valuations (average of 66 times earnings.) About 60% of the startups listed on ChiNext were backed by Renminbi funds, making the investors of these funds one of the main beneficiaries of the exchange.

The next posts Part 4  Zhongguancun in Beijing – China’s Silicon Valley and part 5, the Gold Rush and Fire Extinguishers describe the Beijing entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Lessons Learned

  • China’s venture capital system has made a remarkable journey from the “state owns everything” to the free market
  • It’s done it in a series of evolutionary stages, each new one learning from the last

Listen to the post here: or download the podcast here

China’s Torch Program – the glow that can light the world (Part 2 of 5)

I just spent a few weeks in Japan and China on a book tour for the Japanese and Chinese versions of the Startup Owners Manual. In these series of 5 posts, I thought I’d share what I learned in China. All the usual caveats apply. I was only in China for a week so this a cursory view.Thanks to Kai-Fu Lee of Innovation Works, David Lin of Microsoft Accelerator, Frank Hawke of the Stanford Center in Beijing, and my publisher China Machine Press.China Book Unveiling

The previous post described how China built its science and technology infrastructure. This post is about the how the Chinese government engineered technology clusters.

The Torch Program
In size, scale and commercial results China’s Torch Program from MOST (the Ministry of Science and Technology) is the most successful entrepreneurial program in the world. Of all the Chinese government programs, the Torch Program is the one program that kick-started Chinese high-tech innovation and startups.

In the last decade Torch managed to break free of China’s state central planning bureaucracies. Of all the Chinese innovation programs, Torch is the one that was run like a startup – iterating and pivoting as it learned and discovered. This enabled Torch to evolve with China’s rapidly global economy.

Torch has four major parts: Innovation Clusters, Technology Business Incubators (TBIs), Seed Funding (Innofund) and Venture Guiding Fund.

Innovation Clusters
Industries have a competitive advantage when related companies cluster in a geographical location. Examples are Hollywood for movies, Milan for fashion, New York for finance and today, Silicon Valley for technology entrepreneurship. The early clusters occurred by happenstance of geography or history. But the theory is that you can artificially create a cluster by concentrating resources, finance and competences to a critical threshold, giving the cluster a decisive sustainable competitive advantage over other places. Israel, Singapore and now China are the three countries that have successfully put that theory into practice.

STIPS in ChinaThe Torch program created Innovation Clusters by creating national Science and Technology Industrial Parks (STIPs), Software Parks, and Productivity Promotion Centers.

The first Science and Technology Industrial Park was Zhongguancun Science Park in Beijing. It has become China’s Silicon Valley. (This was the area I visited in this trip to China.) In addition to the one in Beijing, China has set up 53 additional industrial parks and in them are ~60,000 companies with 8 million employees. Industry or technology specific versions of these clusters have been set up; for example Donghu in Wuhan – specializing in optoelectronics, Zhangjiang in Shanghai – focusing on integrated circuits and pharmaceuticals, Tianjin – biotech and new energy, Shenzhen – telecommunications and Zhongshan – medical devices and electronics.

The Science and Technology Industrial Parks contributed 7% of China’s GDP and close to 50% of all of China’s R&D spending.

In addition to the 54 Science and Technology Industrial Parks, the Torch program also set up an additional 32 Torch Program Software Parks.STIPs revenue

Another key part of China’s cluster strategy was collaboration between research and business, as well as between large enterprises and tech-based small and medium enterprises. It did so by building a national network of a 1,000+ Productivity Promotion Centers. They provide consulting, promotion, product testing, hiring, training and incubation services to startups.

Technology Business Incubators (TBIs)
While the Innovation Clusters designated specific areas of the countries where high tech was to occur, it’s the Technology Business incubators located inside these clusters where the startup companies physically reside. Much like incubators worldwide, they provide startups with office space, free rent, access to university technology transfer, etc.

By 2011, there were a total of 1034 Technology Business Incubators across China, including 336 as National incubators, hosting nearly 60,000 companies. (20% of the National Incubators were privately-run and their percentage is steadily increasing.) In recent years Business Incubators have developed into diverse models. For example, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science and Technology teamed up to put 45 incubators in universities. There are close to 100 specialized incubators for companies founded by returned overseas Chinese scientists and engineers. There are a dozen sector-specific incubators (a Biomedicine Incubator in Shanghai, Advanced Material Incubator in Beijing, a Marine Technology Incubator in Tianjin, etc.) These incubators are mostly clustered in the eastern coastal regions, and disproportionately target TMT (Technology Media and Telecom) and Biotech.

Some of the startups coming out of these incubators have become large international companies including Lenovo, Huawai, Suntech Power, etc.

Seed Funding (Innofund).
The best analog for China’s InnoFund is the U.S. government’s SBIR and STTR programs. Set up in 1999, Innofund offers grants ($150 – $250K), loan interest subsidies and equity investment. Innofund is designed to bridge early stage technology companies that have innovative technology and good market potential but are too early for commercial funding (banks or VCs.) Innofund applicants have to be in high-tech R&D, have less than 500 people, at least 30% of the employees have to be technical and the majority of the company owned by Chinese. The ultimate goal of Innofund is to get the startups far enough along in technology and market validation so other sources of financial capital (banks, VC’s, corporate partners) will invest.

Since its establishment, there’s been over 35,000 applications with 9,000 projects approved and close to a $1 billion allocated.

Most Venture Capitalists in China viewed the Innofund the same way most U.S. VC’s treat the SBIR and STTR programs – they never heard of it, or they think it takes too much time to apply for too little money. And with the same complaints; tedious, relationship driven application process, bureaucratic reporting requirements, and outcomes often measured in quantity and not quality. However, for startups who have gotten an Innofund grant, it does provide the same positive cachet as an SBIR and STTR grant – the government has reviewed your technology and thought it was worthy.

Venture Guiding Fund
In 2007 the Ministries of Science and Finance raised the stakes to get VC’s focused on funneling more VC money into growing startups – they set up a Venture Guiding Fund. The Venture Guiding Fund invests directly into VC funds, co-invests with VC’s, and covers some VC bets. It does this with four programs: 1) A fund of funds, holding < 25% equity in VC firms, requiring only a fixed rate return; 2) the fund will co-invest with other VC firms matching up to 50% of other VC firm’s equity investment or a maximum of $500K; 3) Risk subsidies for VC firms, where the fund will be compensated for the cost and loss of VC firms which have made investments in technology-based startups; and 4) Grants for portfolio reserves, where the fund will provide grants for technology-based startups which are being incubated and coached by VC firms.

Funding for MOSST Programs

Part 3, the next post describes the rise of Chinese venture capital.

Lessons Learned

  • The Torch Program is the worlds largest “lets engineer entrepreneurial clusters” experiment
  • Torch has four major parts: Clusters, Business Incubators, Seed Funding, and Funds to support Venture Capital firms
  • Torch was the rare government program that was run like a startup – iterating and pivoting as it learned and discovered.

Listen to the post here: or download the podcast here

China – The Sleeper Awakens (Part 1 of 5)

I just spent a few weeks in Japan and China on a book tour for the Japanese Japan bookcoverand China bookcoverChinese versions of the Startup Owners Manual.  In these series of 5 posts, I thought I’d share what I learned in China.  My post about Japan will follow. All the usual caveats apply. I was only in China for a week so this a cursory view. Thanks to Kai-Fu Lee of Innovation Works, David Lin of Microsoft Accelerator, Frank Hawke of the Stanford Center in Beijing, and my publisher China Machine Press.

Summary: I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for 35 years, I’ve taught in entrepreneurial clusters in New York, Boston, Helsinki, Santiago Chile, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Prague, and Tokyo, but the visit to the heart of the Beijing startup world Zhongguancun has truly blown me away.

Each of these clusters has wondered how to become the next Silicon Valley.  Beijing is already there.

———-

What a long strange trip China has been through. After the creation of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, all industry was nationalized, agriculture was collectivized, and the private sector was eliminated. All companies were owned by the state, all planning was centralized, and the state determined the allocation of resources. This was the China I grew up with – the one where private enterprise was a crime and marketing wasn’t a profession.

To say China has transformed itself is perhaps the biggest understatement one can make. China has embraced state capitalism in a way Wall Street can only dream about.

Startups, Venture Capital and the Communist Party: how did this happen in China?
The best analogy to describe the relationship of science and technology and the Chinese startup scene is to understand its parallels with the United States during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.  During World War II, the U.S. mobilized scientists in a way no other country had. For 45 years – post World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union – the U.S. viewed science and technology as a strategic asset. We made major investments in it, understanding that establishing basic and applied science leadership was necessary for us to build advanced weapons systems to defend our country and deter and if necessary, wage and win a war with the Soviet Union.

These investments took the form of building national research organizations, several for basic science (NSF, NIH) and others for applied weapons research (DOD, DARPA, DOE, etc.) Research universities also became an integral part of the military ecosystem as the federal government pumped billions into supporting science.

Startups, entrepreneurship and commercial applications are happy byproducts of those military investments. For example, as the semiconductor business started, the largest customers for Fairchild’s and Texas Instruments new integrated circuits were the Apollo Guidance Computer and the guidance system for the Minuteman II ICBM.

China is following the same path...
Over the last three decades, to achieve strategic parity with the United States and to construct a modern military, the Chinese have made massive investments in building their science and technology infrastructure. China has gone from a land-based army to one that can support its territorial claims to the South China Sea and Taiwan with anti-access/area-denial weapons. This evolution required a transition, moving from a reliance on the numerical superiority of its land army toward a force boasting sophisticated aircraft and naval platforms, precision- strike weapons, and modern C4SIR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capabilities. Its Second Artillery Corps not only controls China’s ICBMs, but also its short range missiles pointed at Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, and U.S. bases in Guam and Okinawa. And its new terminally guided ICBMs have put U.S. aircraft carriers in harms way in any regional confrontation. Its air force and navy have gone from a self-defense force to one that can project regional power effectively to the first island chain and beyond.

DongFeng 21C (CSS-5 Mod-3)

China’s military modernization depends heavily on investments in China’s science and technology infrastructure, reform of its defense industry, and overt and covert procurement of advanced technology and weapons from abroad.

Building China’s Science and Technology infrastructure
Science and startups have come a long way since the 1980’s when the Chinese government owned everything and controlled it through a central planning system.  But before startups could happen, China’s basic science, technology and finance infrastructure and ecosystem needed to be built.  Here’s how a national policy for science and technology emerged.

Beginning in the 1982, China started a series of science and technology programs in five areas: support of basic research, high technology R&D, technology innovation and commercialization, construction of scientific research infrastructure, and development of human resources in science and technology.

The majority of the science and technology programs are driven by MOST (Ministry of Science and Technology) and NSFC (National Natural Science Foundation). As we’ll see later, the MOF (Ministry of Finance) also has had a hand in funding new ventures.

MOST logoThe diagram below from OECD’s Report on China’s Innovation Policy puts the ministries involved in science in context. (Note that it does not show the military technology ministries.)

MOST in China

  • Basic research: National Natural Science Foundation (equivalent to the U.S. National Science Foundation,) ~$1.75 billion budget. The 973 program (National Basic Research Program) part of the Ministry of Science and Technology.
  • High technology R&D: 863 Program (State High Technology R&D Program) headed by ex leaders of Chinese strategic weapons programs, and the National Key Technology R&D Program.
  • Technology innovation and commercialization: National New Product Program, the Spark program for rural innovation, and probably the most important one for startups in China , the Torch Program
  • Science research infrastructure:  National Key Laboratories Program, and the MOST program for the construction of research facilities, R&D databases, and a scientific research network
  • Development of human resources in science and technology: Programs for attracting returnees or overseas Chinese talent: from the Ministry of Education – the Seed Funds for Returned Overseas Scholars, Chunhui Program, and the Cheung Kong Scholar Program. From the Ministry of Personnel – the Hundred Talents Program. From the National Science Foundation – the National Distinguished Young Scholars Program.

Part two the next post, describes China’s Torch Program, the largest government-run entrepreneurial program in the world.

Lessons Learned

  • China is working to build basic and applied science and technology leadership
  • Like the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Cold War they are using science and technology to build advanced weapons systems
  • Technology startups are a side effect from these investments

Listen to the post here: or download the podcast here

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