I often get asked, “how do I get a meeting with a VC?” Here is my slightly tongue-in-cheek view.
How to build regional entrepreneurial communities has just gotten it’s first “here’s how to do it” book. Brad Feld’s new book Startup Communities joins the two other “must reads,” (Regional Advantage and Startup Nation) and one “must view” (The Secret History of Silicon Valley) for anyone trying to understand the components of a regional cluster.
There’s probably no one more qualified to write this book then Brad Feld (startup founder, co founder of two VC firms – Mobius and Foundry, and founder of TechStars.)
Leaders and Feeders
Feld’s thesis is that unlike the common wisdom, it is entrepreneurs that lead a startup community while everyone else feeds the community.
Feld describes the characteristics of those who want to be regional Entrepreneurial Leaders; they need to be committed to their region for the long term (20+ years), the community and its leaders must be inclusive, play a non-zero sum game, be mentorship-driven and be comfortable experimenting and failing fast.
Feeders include the government, universities, investors, mentors, service providers and large companies. He points out that some of these, government, universities and investors think of themselves as the leaders and Feld’s thesis is that we’ve gotten it wrong for decades.
This is a huge insight, a big idea and a fresh way to view and build a regional ecosystem in the 21st century. It may even be right.
Activities and Events
One of the most surprising (to me) was the observation that a regional community must have continual activities and events to engage all participants. Using Boulder Colorado as an example, (Feld’s home town) this small entrepreneurial community runs office hours, Boulder Denver Tech Meetup, Boulder Open Coffee Club, Ignite Boulder, Boulder Beta, Boulder Startup Digest, Startup Weekend events, CU New Venture Challenge, Boulder Startup Week, Young Entrepreneurs Organization and the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado. For a city of 100,000 (in a metro area of just 300,000 people) the list of activities/events in Boulder takes your breath away. They are not run by the government or any single organization. These are all grassroots efforts by entrepreneurial leaders. These events are a good proxy for the health and depth of a startup community.
Incubators and Accelerators
One of the best definitions in the book is when Feld articulates the difference between an incubator and an accelerator. An incubator provides year-round physical space, infrastructure and advice in exchange for a fee (often in equity.) They are typically non-profit, attached to a university (or in some locations a local government.) For some incubators, entrepreneurs can stay as long as they want. There is no guaranteed funding. In contrast, an accelerator has cohorts going through a program of a set length, with funding typically provided at the end.
Feld describes TechStars (founded in 2006 with David Cohen) as an example of how to build a regional accelerator. In contrast to other accelerators TechStars is mentor-driven, with a profound belief that entrepreneurs learn best from other entrepreneurs. It’s a 90-day program with a clear beginning and end for each cohort. TechStars selection criteria is to first focus on picking the right team then the market. They invest $118,000 ($18k seed funding + $100K convertible note) in 10 teams per region.
Role of Universities
To the entrepreneurial community Stanford and MIT are held up as models for “outward-facing” research universities. They act as community catalysts, as a magnet for great entrepreneurial talent for the region, and as teachers and then a pipeline for talent back into the region. In addition their research offers a continual stream of new technologies to be commercialized.
Feld’s observation is that that these schools are exceptions that are hard to duplicate. In most universities entrepreneurial engagement is not rewarded, there’s a lack of resources for entrepreneurial programs and cross-campus collaboration is not in the DNA of most universities.
Rather than thinking of the local university as the leader, Feld posits a more effective approach is to use the local college or university as a resource and a feeder of entrepreneurial students to the local entrepreneurial community. He uses Colorado University’ Boulder as an example of of a regional university being as inclusive as possible with courses, programs and activities.
Finally, he suggests engaging alumni for something other than fundraising – bringing back to the campus, having them mentor top students and celebrating their successes.
Role of Government
Feld is not a big fan of top-down government driven clusters. He contrasts the disconnect between entrepreneurs and government. Entrepreneurs are painfully self-aware but governments are chronically not self-aware. This makes government leaders out of touch on how the dynamics of startups really work. Governments have a top-down command and control hierarchy, while entrepreneurs work in a bottoms-up networked world. Governments tend to focus on macro metrics of economic development policy while entrepreneurs talk about lean, startups, people and product. Entrepreneurs talk about immediate action while government conversations about policy do not have urgency. Startups aim for immediate impact, while governments want to control. Startup communities are networked and don’t lend themselves to a command and control system.
Feld believes that the Community Culture, how individuals interact and behave to each other, is a key part of defining and entrepreneurial community. His list of cultural attributes is an integral part of Silicon Valley. Give before you get, (in the valley we call this the “pay it forward” culture.) Everyone is a mentor, so share your knowledge and give back. Embrace weirdness, describes a community culture that accepts differences. (Starting post World War II the San Francisco bay area became a magnet for those wanting to embrace alternate lifestyles. For personal lifestyles people headed to San Francisco. For alternate business lifestyles they went 35 miles south to Silicon Valley.)
I was surprised to note that the biggest cultural meme of Silicon Valley didn’t make his Community Culture chapter - failure equals experience.
Broadening the Startup Community
Feld closes by highlighting some of the issues faced by a startup community in Boulder. The one he calls Parallel Universes notes that there may be industry specific (biotech, clean tech etc.) startup communities sitting side-by-side and not interacting with each other.
He then busts the myths clusters tell themselves; “lets be like Silicon Valley” and the “there’s not enough capital here.”
There’s data that that seems to indicate a few of Feld’s claims about about the limited role of venture, universities and governments might be overly broad (but doesn’t diminish his observation that they’re feeders not leaders.) In addition, while Silicon Valley was a series of happy accidents, other national clusters have extracted its lessons and successfully engineered on top of those heuristics. And while I might have misread Feld’s premise about local venture capital, but it seems to be, “if there isn’t a robust venture capital in your region it’s because there isn’t a vibrant entrepreneurial community with great startups. As venture capital exists to service startup when great startups are built investors will show up.” Wow.
Finally, local government top-down initiatives are not the only way governments can incentivize entrepreneurial efforts. Some like the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps have had a big bang for little bucks.
Entrepreneurship is rising in almost every major city and region around the world. I host at least one region a week at the ranch and each of these regions are looking for a roadmap. Startup Communities is it. It’s a strategic, groundbreaking book and a major addition to what was missing in the discussion of how to build a regional cluster. I’m going to be quoting from it liberally, stealing from it often, and handing it out to my visitors.
- Entrepreneurs lead a startup community while everyone else feeds the community
- Feeders include the government, universities, investors, mentors, service providers and large companies
- Continual activities and events are essential to engage all participants
- Top-down government-driven clusters are an oxymoron
- Building a regional entrepreneurial culture is critical
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We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…
John F. Kennedy, September 1962
The irony is that as good as some of these nascent startups are in material science, sensors, robotics, medical devices, life sciences, etc., more and more frequently VCs whose firms would have looked at these deals or invested in these sectors, are now only interested in whether it runs on a smart phone or tablet. And who can blame them.
Facebook and Social Media
Facebook has adroitly capitalized on market forces on a scale never seen in the history of commerce. For the first time, startups can today think about a Total Available Market in the billions of users (smart phones, tablets, PC’s, etc.) and aim for hundreds of millions of customers. Second, social needs previously done face-to-face, (friends, entertainment, communication, dating, gambling, etc.) are now moving to a computing device. And those customers may be using their devices/apps continuously. This intersection of a customer base of billions of people with applications that are used/needed 24/7 never existed before.
The potential revenue and profits from these users (or advertisers who want to reach them) and the speed of scale of the winning companies can be breathtaking. The Facebook IPO has reinforced the new calculus for investors. In the past, if you were a great VC, you could make $100 million on an investment in 5-7 years. Today, social media startups can return 100’s of millions or even billions in less than 3 years. Software is truly eating the world.
If investors have a choice of investing in a blockbuster cancer drug that will pay them nothing for fifteen years or a social media application that can go big in a few years, which do you think they’re going to pick? If you’re a VC firm, you’re phasing out your life science division. As investors funding clean tech watch the Chinese dump cheap solar cells in the U.S. and put U.S. startups out of business, do you think they’re going to continue to fund solar? And as Clean Tech VC’s have painfully learned, trying to scale Clean Tech past demonstration plants to industrial scale takes capital and time past the resources of venture capital. A new car company? It takes at least a decade and needs at least a billion dollars. Compared to IOS/Android apps, all that other stuff is hard and the returns take forever.
Instead, the investor money is moving to social media. Because of the size of the market and the nature of the applications, the returns are quick – and huge. New VC’s, focused on both the early and late stage of social media have transformed the VC landscape. (I’m an investor in many of these venture firms.) But what’s great for making tons of money may not be the same as what’s great for innovation or for our country. Entrepreneurial clusters like Silicon Valley (or NY, Boston, Austin, Beijing, etc.) are not just smart people and smart universities working on interesting things. If that were true we’d all still be in our parents garage or lab. Centers of innovation require investors funding smart people working on interesting things - and they invest in those they believe will make their funds the most money. And for Silicon Valley the investor flight to social media marks the beginning of the end of the era of venture capital-backed big ideas in science and technology.
Don’t Worry We Always Bounce Back
The common wisdom is that Silicon Valley has always gone through waves of innovation and each time it bounces back by reinventing itself.
[Each of these waves of having a clean beginning and end is a simplification. But it makes the point that each wave was a new investment thesis with a new class of investors as well as startups.] The reality is that it took venture capital almost a decade to recover from the dot-com bubble. And when it did Super Angels and new late stage investors whose focus was social media had remade the landscape, and the investing thesis of the winners had changed. This time the pot of gold of social media may permanently change that story.
It’s sobering to realize that the disruptive startups in the last few years not in social media - Tesla Motors, SpaceX, Google driverless cars, Google Glasses - were the efforts of two individuals, Elon Musk, and Sebastian Thrun (with the backing of Google.) (The smartphone and tablet computer, the other two revolutionary products were created by one visionary in one extraordinary company.) We can hope that as the Social Media wave runs its course a new wave of innovation will follow. We can hope that some VC’s remain contrarian investors and avoid the herd. And that some of the newly monied social media entrepreneurs invest in their dreams.But if not, the long-term consequences for our national interests will be less than optimum.
For decades the unwritten manifesto for Silicon Valley VC’s has been; We choose to invest in ideas, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. Here’s hoping that one day they will do it again.
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A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.
Venture Capitalists who are serious about turning their firms into more than one-fund wonders may want to have their associates actually start and run a company for a year. Running a company is distinctly different from simply having operating experience – (working in bus dev, sales or marketing.) None of that can compare with being the CEO of a startup facing a rapidly diminishing bank account, your best engineer quitting, working until 10pm and rushing to the airport and catching a redeye for a “Hail Mary” close of a customer, with your board demanding you do it faster.
Today, you can start a web/mobile/cloud startup for $500,000 and have money left over. Every potential early-stage Venture Capitalist should take a year and do it before he or she makes partner.
Venture capital as a profession is less than half a century old.
Over time Venture firms realized that the partners in the firms needs a variety of skills:
Some of these skills are learned in school (finance), some are innate aptitudes (people skills), some are learned pattern recognition skills (shadowing experienced partners, hard won success and failures of their own), and some are learned by having operating experience. But none of them are substitutes for having started and run a company.
How to Become a VC
Early-stage Venture Capital firms grow their partnerships in different ways, some hire:
In surveying my VC friends, I was surprised about the strong and diverse opinions. The feedback varied from:
Carrying the Cat By The Tail
When I finally became a CEO it was after I had spent my career working my way up the ladder in marketing in startups. I did every low-level job there was, at times sleeping under my desk (engineering was doing the same.) By the time I was running a company, having some junior employee tell me why they couldn’t do something because of “how hard it was” didn’t get much sympathy from me. I knew how hard it was because I had done it myself. Startups are hard.
What running a company would do is give early-stage VC’s a benchmark for reality, something most newly-minted partners sorely lack. They would learn how a founding CEO turns their money into a company which becomes a learning, execution and delivery engine. They would learn that a CEO does it through the people – the day-to-day of who is going to do what, how you hold people accountable, how teams communicate, and more importantly, who you hire, how you motivate and get people to accomplish the seemingly impossible. Further, they’d experience first hand how, in a startup, the devil is in the details of execution and deliverables.
My hypotheses is simple: what most VC’s lack is not brains or rolodex or people skills – but hands-on experience as a startup CEO – knowing what it’s like trying to make a payroll while finding sufficient customers while you’re building the product. Sure, a year as a CEO won’t make them an expert, but it will change them quicker than 10 years in the boardroom.
Does it Matter?
There’s a school of thought that says the skill set of a great early-stage VC – awesome people skills, curiosity, likable, etc. – versus the attributes of a great entrepreneur – pattern recognition, tenacity, etc. may not have much overlap. Early stage investing is not a spreadheet, quantitative driven exercise, nor is it about technology – it is a deal business and people drive the deals. And while having experience as a startup CEO may make you a better board member, it may not substantively contribute to your career as an early stage investor – which depend on many more important skills.
Steel in their eyes
Ten years ago starting a company required millions of dollars and first customer ship took years. Now it’s possible to build a company, ship product and get tens of thousands of customers in a year with less than $500K. For venture firms who want to groom/grow associates or operating execs into partners (rather than hiring proven partners), here’s my suggestion:
This process will create a new generation of venture capital partners, ones who have been battle tested in the trenches of a startup, hardened by hiring and firing, tempered by making a payroll and losing orders, and will never forget it’s all about the people.
These VC’s would return to their firms with steel in their eyes. They’d be relentless about accountability from board meeting to board meeting with laser like focus on the one or two issues that matter. They would understand the CEO-VC-board dynamic in a way that few who hadn’t lived it could. They’d be ruthless in their choice of people and teams, looking for those few who have natural curiosity, a passion to win, and who won’t take no for answer.
- Venture Capital is still a “craft business”
- Early stage VC’s should have startup CEO experience
- It can now be gained cheaply and quickly
- It will give them perspective and edge that would take a decade to learn
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I was invited to Finland as part of Stanford’s Engineering Technology Venture Program partnership with Aalto University. (Thanks to Kristo Ovaska and team for the fabulous logistics!) I presented to 1,000’s of entrepreneurs, talked to 17 startups, gave 12 lectures, had 9 interviews, chatted with 8 VC’s, sat on 4 panels, talked policy with 2 government ministers, 2 members of parliament, 1 head of a public pension fund and was in 1 TV-documentary. More details can be found at www.steveblank.fi
This is part 2 of 2 of what I found. Part 1 can be found here.
Toxic Business Press and Contradictory Government Incentives
Unique to Finland with its strong cultural emphasis on equality and the redistribution of wealth is a business press that doesn’t understand startups and is overtly hostile to their success. When MySQL was sold for $1B and the cleantech company the Switch got acquired for $250M, one would have expected the country to celebrate that they had built these world-class companies. Instead the business press dumped on the founders for “selling out.” In 2010 it got worse with an Act in parliament about the Monitoring of Foreigners’ Corporate Acquisitions. Many founders mentioned this as a reason not to incorporate or grow their companies in Finland.
While the government says they love startups, the first thing they did this year is raise the capital gains tax. While it might have been politically expedient, it was not a welcome sign for long-term investment. I suggested they consider an investment tax credit for pension funds that invest in Finnish based VC firms.
Nokia as “He Who Must Not Be Named”
I was in Finland three days before I realized that no one had mentioned the word “Nokia.” After I brought it up in a meeting, you could have heard a pin drop. Nokia was Finland’s symbol of national competence. Most Finns take their failure as a personal embarrassment. (Note to Finland – lighten up. Nokia was blind-sided in a classic disruptive innovation. 50% the fault of a Nokia management that didn’t see it coming, while 50% was due to brilliant Apple execution.) Ultimately, Nokia’s difficulties will turn out to be good news for Finnish entrepreneurs. They’ve stopped hiring the best talent, and startups are not looking so risky compared to large companies.
Nanny-Culture, Lack of Risk Taking, Not Sharing
What makes Finland such a wonderful place to live and raise a family may ultimately be what kills it as a startup hub. There’s a safety net in almost every part of one’s public and private life – health insurance, free college tuition, unions, collective bargaining, fixed work hours, etc. And what’s great for the mass of society – a government safety net verging on the ultimate nanny state – makes it impossible to fail. You find early stage employees expecting to work normal hours, to get paid a regular salary, and not asking or expecting equity. There isn’t much of a killer instinct among the masses.
It’s the rare region where risk equals experience. By nature Finns are not good at tolerating risk. This gets compounded by the cultural tendency not to share or talk in meetings, sometimes to the point of silence. This is a fundamental challenge in creating an entrepreneurial culture. This extends to sharing among startups. The insular nature of the culture hasn’t yet created a “pay it forward” culture.
The young entrepreneurs I met are bringing impressive energy and intelligence to their goal of building one of Europe’s leading technology hubs in Helsinki. Finland itself has significant engineering talent, and is also attracting entrepreneurs from Russia and the former USSR. It will be fascinating to see if they can lead the cultural change and secure the political support (in a government run by an older generation) to support their vision.
- Finland is trying to engineer an entrepreneurial cluster as a National policy to drive economic growth through entrepreneurial ventures
- They’ve gotten off to a good start with a start around Aalto University with passionate students
- Startup incubators, business angels and VCs are starting to emerge
- The country needs to figure out a long term privatization strategy for Venture investing
- Finnish culture makes risk-taking and sharing hard
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I spent the month of September lecturing, and interacting with (literally) thousands of entrepreneurs in two emerging startup markets, Finland and Russia. This is the first of two posts about Finland and entrepreneurship.
I was invited to Finland as part of Stanford’s Engineering Technology Venture Program partnership with Aalto University. (Thanks to Kristo Ovaska and team for the fabulous logistics!) I presented to 1,000’s of entrepreneurs, talked to 17 startups, gave 12 lectures, had 9 interviews, chatted with 8 VC’s, sat on 4 panels, talked policy with 2 government ministers, 2 members of parliament, 1 head of a public pension fund and was in 1 TV-documentary.
While a week is not enough time to understand a country this post – the first of two – looks at the Finnish entrepreneurial ecosystem and its strengths and weaknesses.
The Helsinki Spring
Entrepreneurship and innovation are bubbling around Helsinki and Aalto University. There are thousands of excited students, and Aalto university is working hard to become an outward facing institution. Having a critical mass of people who think startups are cool in the same location is a key indicator of whether a cluster can catch fire. Finnish startup successes on a global stage include MySQL, F-Secure, Rovio, Habbo, Playfish, The Switch, Tectia, Trulia and Linux. While it’s not clear yet whether the numbers of startups in Helsinki are sufficient to ignite, it feels like it’s getting there, (and given the risk-averse and paternal nature of Finland that by itself is a miracle.)
The good news is that for a 5 million person country, there’s an emerging entrepreneurial ecosystem that looks like something this:
9-to-5 Venture Capital
Ironically one of the things that’s holding back the Finnish cluster is Tekes, the government organization for financing research, development and innovation in Finland. It’s hard enough to pick which existing companies with known business models to aid. Yet Tekes does that and is trying to act like a government-run Venture Capital firm. At Tekes, government employees (and their hired consultants) – with no equity, no risk or reward, no startup or venture capital experience – try to pick startup winners and losers.
Tekes has ended up competing with and stifling the nascent VC industry, indiscriminately handing out checks to entrepreneurs like an entitlement. (To be fair this is an extension of the government’s role in almost all parts of Finnish life.)
In addition to Tekes, Vigo, the government’s attempt at funding private business accelerators, started with good intentions and got hijacked by government bureaucrats. The accelerators I met with (the ones the government pointed to as their success stories) said they were leaving the program.
Tekes lacks a long-term plan of what the Finnish government’s role should be in funding startups. I suggested that they might want to consider putting themselves out of the public funding business by using public capital to kick-start private venture capital firms, incubators and accelerators. And they should give themselves a 5-10 year plan to do so. Instead they seem to be stuck in the twilight zone of not having a long-term vision of their role. (There has been tons of reports on what to do, all seemingly ignored by an entrenched bureaucracy.)
Lack of Business Experience
Direct government funding of startups has also delayed the maturation of business experience of local angels and VC’s. Finnish private investors don’t yet have enough time-in-grade to have developed good pattern recognition skills, and most lack operating backgrounds. I have no doubt they’ll get there by themselves, but in wouldn’t take much imagination to attempt to recruit some seasoned overseas investors to add to the mix.
Even a more serious challenge is the lack of global business competence. The number of serial entrepreneurs is very low and until recently most of the talented sales and marketing professionals choose to work for Nokia.
Not understanding and agreeing what “Entrepreneur” and “Startup” mean can sink an entire country’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
I’m getting ready to go overseas to teach, and I’ve spent the last week reviewing several countries’ ambitious attempts to kick-start entrepreneurship. After poring through stacks of reports, white papers and position papers, I’ve come to a couple of conclusions.
1) They sure killed a ton of trees
2) With one noticeable exception, governmental entrepreneurship policies and initiatives appear to be less than optimal, with capital deployed inefficiently (read “They would have done better throwing the money in the street.”) Why? Because they haven’t defined the basics:
What’s a startup? Who’s an entrepreneur? How do the ecosystems differ for each one? What’s the role of public versus private funding?
Six Types of Startups – Pick One
There are six distinct organizational paths for entrepreneurs: lifestyle business, small business, scalable startup, buyable startup, large company, and social entrepreneur. All of the individuals who start these organizations are “entrepreneurs” yet not understanding their differences screws up public policy because the ecosystem in supporting each type is radically different.
For policy makers, the first order of business is to methodically think through which of these entrepreneurial paths they want to help and grow.
Lifestyle Startups: Work to Live their Passion
On the California coast where I live, we see lifestyle entrepreneurs like surfers and divers who own small surf or dive shop or teach surfing and diving lessons to pay the bills so they can surf and dive some more. A lifestyle entrepreneur is living the life they love, works for no one but themselves, while pursuing their personal passion. In Silicon Valley the equivalent is the journeyman coder or web designer who loves the technology, and takes coding and U/I jobs because it’s a passion.
Small Business Startups: Work to Feed the Family
Today, the overwhelming number of entrepreneurs and startups in the United States are still small businesses. There are 5.7 million small businesses in the U.S. They make up 99.7% of all companies and employ 50% of all non-governmental workers.
Small businesses are grocery stores, hairdressers, consultants, travel agents, Internet commerce storefronts, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc. They are anyone who runs his/her own business.
They work as hard as any Silicon Valley entrepreneur. They hire local employees or family. Most are barely profitable. Small business entrepreneurship is not designed for scale, the owners want to own their own business and “feed the family.” The only capital available to them is their own savings, bank and small business loans and what they can borrow from relatives. Small business entrepreneurs don’t become billionaires and (not coincidentally) don’t make many appearances on magazine covers. But in sheer numbers, they are infinitely more representative of “entrepreneurship” than entrepreneurs in other categories—and their enterprises create local jobs.
Scalable Startups: Born to Be Big
Scalable startups are what Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and their venture investors aspire to build. Google, Skype, Facebook, Twitter are just the latest examples. From day one, the founders believe that their vision can change the world. Unlike small business entrepreneurs, their interest is not in earning a living but rather in creating equity in a company that eventually will become publicly traded or acquired, generating a multi-million-dollar payoff.
Scalable startups require risk capital to fund their search for a business model, and they attract investment from equally crazy financial investors – venture capitalists. They hire the best and the brightest. Their job is to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. When they find it, their focus on scale requires even more venture capital to fuel rapid expansion.
Scalable startups tend to group together in innovation clusters (Silicon Valley, Shanghai, New York, Boston, Israel, etc.) They make up a small percentage of the six types of startups, but because of the outsize returns, attract all the risk capital (and press.)
Just in the last few years we’ve come to see that we had been building scalable startups inefficiently. Investors (and educators) treated startups as smaller versions of large companies. We now understand that’s just not true. While large companies execute known business models, startups are temporary organizations designed to search for a scalable and repeatable business model.
This insight has begun to change how we teach entrepreneurship, incubate startups and fund them.
Buyable Startups: Born to Flip
In the last five years, web and mobile app startups that are founded to be sold to larger companies have become popular. The plummeting cost required to build a product, the radically reduced time to bring a product to market and the availability of angel capital willing to invest less than a traditional VCs– $100K – $1M versus $4M on up – has allowed these companies to proliferate – and their investors to make money. Their goal is not to build a billion dollar business, but to be sold to a larger company for $5-$50M.
Large Company Startups: Innovate or Evaporate
Large companies have finite life cycles. And over the last decade those cycles have grown shorter. Most grow through sustaining innovation, offering new products that are variants around their core products. Changes in customer tastes, new technologies, legislation, new competitors, etc. can create pressure for more disruptive innovation – requiring large companies to create entirely new products sold to new customers in new markets. (i.e. Google and Android.) Existing companies do this by either acquiring innovative companies (see Buyable Startups above) or attempting to build a disruptive product internally. Ironically, large company size and culture make disruptive innovation extremely difficult to execute.
Social Startups: Driven to Make a Difference
Social entrepreneurs are no less ambitious, passionate, or driven to make an impact than any other type of founder. But unlike scalable startups, their goal is to make the world a better place, not to take market share or to create to wealth for the founders. They may be organized as a nonprofit, a for-profit, or hybrid.
When I read policy papers by government organizations trying to replicate the lessons from the valley, I’m struck how they seem to miss some basic lessons.
To date, Israel is only country that has engineered a successful entrepreneurship cluster from the ground up. It’s Yozma program kick-started a private venture capital industry with government funds, (emulating the U.S. lesson of using SBIC funds.), but then the government got out of the way.
In addition, the Israeli government originally funded 23 early stage incubators but turned them over to the VC’s to own and manage. They’re run by business professionals (not real-estate managers looking to rent out excess office space) and entry is not for life-style entrepreneurs, but is a bootcamp for VC funding.
Unless the people who actually make policy understand the difference between the types of startups and the ecosystem necessary to support their growth, the chance that any government policies will have a substantive effect on innovation, jobs or the gross domestic product is low.
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The combination of Venture Capital and technology entrepreneurship is one of the great business inventions of the last 50 years. It provides private funds for untested and unproven technology and entrepreneurs. While most of these investments fail, the returns for the ones that win are so great they make up for the failures. The cultural tolerance for failure and experimentation, and a financial structure which balanced risk, return and obscene returns, allowed this system flourish in technology clusters in United States, particularly in Silicon Valley.
Yet this system isn’t perfect. From the point of view of scientists and engineers in a university lab, too often entrepreneurship in all its VC-driven glory – income statements, balance sheets, business plans, revenue models, 5-year forecasts, etc. – seems like another planet. There didn’t seem to be much in common between the Scientific Method and starting a company. And this has been a barrier to commercializing the best of our science research.
Today, the National Science Foundation (NSF) – the $6.8-billion U.S. government agency that supports research in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering - is changing the startup landscape for scientists and engineers. The NSF has announced the Innovation Corps – a program to take the most promising research projects in American university laboratories and turn them into startups. It will train them with a process that embraces experimentation, learning, and discovery.
To commercialize these university innovations NSF will be putting the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) teams through a class that teaches scientists and engineers to treat starting a company as another research project that can be solved by an iterative process of hypotheses testing and experimentation. The class will be a version of the Lean LaunchPad class we developed in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, (the entrepreneurship center at Stanford’s School of Engineering).
This is a big deal. Not just for scientists and engineers, not just for every science university in the U.S., but in the way we think about bringing discoveries ripe for innovation out of the university lab. If this program works it will change how we connect basic research to the business world. And it will lead to more startups and job creation.
Introducing the Innovation-Corps
The NSF Innovation-Corps program (I-Corps) is designed to help bridge the gap between the many scientists and engineers with innovative research and technologies, but little knowledge of the first steps to take in starting a company.
I-Corps will help scientists take the first steps from the research lab to commercialization.
Over a period of six months, each I-Corps team, guided by experienced mentors (entrepreneurs and VC’s) will build their product and get out of their labs (and comfort zone) to discover who are their potential customers, and how those customers might best use the new technology/invention. They’ll explore the best way to deliver the product to customers, the resources required, as well as competing technologies. They will answer the question, “What value will this innovation add to the marketplace? And they’ll do this using the business model / customer development / agile development solution stack.
At the end of the program each team will understand what it will takes to turn their research into a commercial success. They may decide to license their intellectual property based on their research. Or they may decide to cross the Rubicon and try to get funded as a startup (with strategic partners, investors, or NSF programs for small businesses). At the end of the class there will be a Demo Day when investors get to see the best this country’s researchers have to offer.
What Took You So Long
A first reaction to the NSF I-Corps program might be, “You mean we haven’t already been doing this?” But on reflection it’s clear why. The common wisdom was that for scientists and engineers to succeed in the entrepreneurial world you’d have to teach them all about business. But it’s only now that we realize that’s wrong. The insight the NSF had is that we just need to teach scientists and engineers to treat business models as another research project that can be solved with learning, discovery and experimentation.
And Stanford’s Lean LaunchPad class could do just that.
Join the I-Corps
Today at 2pm the National Science Foundation is publishing the application for admission (what they call the “solicitation for proposals”) to the program. See the NSF web page here.
The syllabus for NSF I-Corps version of the Lean LaunchPad class can be seen here.
Along with a great teaching team at Stanford, world-class VC’s who get it, and foundation partners, I’m proud to be a part of it.
This is a potential game changer for science and innovation in the United States.
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Scientists and engineers as founders and startup CEOs is one of the least celebrated contributions of Silicon Valley.
It might be its most important.
ESL, the first company I worked for in Silicon Valley, was founded by a PhD in Math and six other scientists and engineers. Since it was my first job, I just took for granted that scientists and engineers started and ran companies. It took me a long time to realize that this was one of Silicon Valley’s best contributions to innovation.
Cold War Spin Outs
In the 1950’s the groundwork for a culture and environment of entrepreneurship were taking shape on the east and west coasts of the United States. Each region had two of the finest research universities in the United States, Stanford and MIT, which were building on the technology breakthroughs of World War II and graduating a generation of engineers into a consumer and cold war economy that seemed limitless. Each region already had the beginnings of a high-tech culture, Boston with Raytheon, Silicon Valley with Hewlett Packard.
However, the majority of engineers graduating from these schools went to work in existing companies. But in the mid 1950’s the culture around these two universities began to change.
Stanford – 1950’s Innovation
At Stanford, Dean of Engineering/Provost Fred Terman wanted companies outside of the university to take Stanford’s prototype microwave tubes and electronic intelligence systems and build production volumes for the military. While existing companies took some of the business, often it was a graduate student or professor who started a new company. The motivation in the mid 1950’s for these new startups was a crisis – we were in the midst of the cold war, and the United States military and intelligence agencies were rearming as fast as they could.
Why It’s “Silicon” Valley
In 1956 entrepreneurship as we know it would change forever. At the time it didn’t appear earthshaking or momentous. Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, the first semiconductor company in the valley, set up shop in Mountain View. Fifteen months later eight of Shockley’s employees (three physicists, an electrical engineer, an industrial engineer, a mechanical engineer, a metallurgist and a physical chemist) founded Fairchild Semiconductor. (Every chip company in Silicon Valley can trace their lineage from Fairchild.)
The history of Fairchild was one of applied experimentation. It wasn’t pure research, but rather a culture of taking sufficient risks to get to market. It was learning, discovery, iteration and execution. The goal was commercial products, but as scientists and engineers the company’s founders realized that at times the cost of experimentation was failure. And just as they don’t punish failure in a research lab, they didn’t fire scientists whose experiments didn’t work. Instead the company built a culture where when you hit a wall, you backed up and tried a different path. (In 21st century parlance we say that innovation in the early semiconductor business was all about “pivoting” while aiming for salable products.)
The Fairchild approach would shape Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial ethos: In startups, failure was treated as experience (until you ran out of money.)
Scientists and Engineers as Founders
In the late 1950’s Silicon Valley’s first three IPO’s were companies that were founded and run by scientists and engineers: Varian (founded by Stanford engineering professors and graduate students,) Hewlett Packard (founded by two Stanford engineering graduate students) and Ampex (founded by a mechanical/electrical engineer.) While this signaled that investments in technology companies could be very lucrative, both Shockley and Fairchild could only be funded through corporate partners – there was no venture capital industry. But by the early 1960′s the tidal wave of semiconductor startup spinouts from Fairchild would find a valley with a growing number of U.S. government backed venture firms and limited partnerships.
A wave of innovation was about to meet a pile of risk capital.
For the next two decades venture capital invested in things that ran on electrons: hardware, software and silicon. Yet the companies were anomalies in the big picture in the U.S. – there were almost no MBA’s. In 1960’s and ‘70’s few MBA’s would give up a lucrative career in management, finance or Wall Street to join a bunch of technical lunatics. So the engineers taught themselves how to become marketers, sales people and CEO’s. And the venture capital community became comfortable in funding them.
Medical Researchers Get Entrepreneurial
In the 60’s and 70’s, while engineers were founding companies, medical researchers and academics were skeptical about the blurring of the lines between academia and commerce. This all changed in 1980 with the Genentech IPO.
In 1973, two scientists, Stanley Cohen at Stanford and Herbert Boyer at UCSF, discovered recombinant DNA, and Boyer went on to found Genentech. In 1980 Genentech became the first IPO of a venture funded biotech company. The fact that serious money could be made in companies investing in life sciences wasn’t lost on other researchers and the venture capital community.
Over the next decade, medical graduate students saw their professors start companies, other professors saw their peers and entrepreneurial colleagues start companies, and VC’s started calling on academics and researchers and speaking their language.
Scientists and Engineers = Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Yet when venture capital got involved they brought all the processes to administer existing companies they learned in business school – how to write a business plan, accounting, organizational behavior, managerial skills, marketing, operations, etc. This set up a conflict with the learning, discovery and experimentation style of the original valley founders.
Yet because of the Golden Rule, the VC’s got to set how startups were built and managed (those who have the gold set the rules.)
Fifty years later we now know the engineers were right. Business plans are fine for large companies where there is an existing market, product and customers, but in a startup all of these elements are unknown and the process of discovering them is filled with rapidly changing assumptions.
Startups are not smaller versions of large companies. Large companies execute known business models. In the real world a startup is about the search for a business model or more accurately, startups are a temporary organization designed to search for a scalable and repeatable business model.
Yet for the last 40 years, while technical founders knew that no business plan survived first contact with customers, they lacked a management tool set for learning, discovery and experimentation.
Earlier this year we developed a class in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, (the entrepreneurship center at Stanford’s School of Engineering), to provide scientists and engineers just those tools – how to think about all the parts of building a business, not just the product. The Stanford class introduced the first management tools for entrepreneurs built around the business model / customer development / agile development solution stack. (You can read about the class here.)
Starting this Thursday, scientists and engineers across the United States will once again set the rules.
Stay tuned for the next post.
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While on vacation I had a phone interview with Kevin Ohannessian of Fast Company who wanted a few “funding stories.” Here are two of them. Apologies for the rambling stream of consciousness. The original interview in Fast Company can be seen here.
Throw in the Photo and You Have a Deal
When we were trying to raise money for E.piphany, my last startup, I was negotiating with a venture capital firm called Infinity Capital. They really wanted to invest, but it was the beginning of the bubble, and I wanted (what was then) an absurd valuation. All we had were six slides, and I wanted a $10 million post-money valuation. But it was my eighth startup and my partner Ben was even more experienced: ex VC, ex Harvard Computer Science professor, genius at building products and teams. I had sat on a board of an Electronic Design Automation company with this VC, and we had gotten to know each other. So when I wanted to start a company he wanted to fund us. We had gone back and forth with them on valuation, but this was a new firm and they wanted to close a deal with us.
After about our fifth meeting I’m in their conference room. I say, “Why can’t you guys do a $10 million post money valuation?” Picking the biggest number I could think of for three founders without a product a semi-coherent idea and badly written slides. Finally they admitted, “Steve, we’re a new fund; everybody will think we are idiots if we do that.” I said, “All right. Can you do some other number close to my number?” So I stepped out of the room as they caucused, and they called me back in 10 minutes later and said, “So listen. We can do $9.99 million.” I’m trying to play poker with the deal, and one of the partners at the time was a great photographer–the firm had big prints of his on the walls. I was really in love with the one in the boardroom. So without thinking, when they made me that offer, trying to keep a straight face, I reached behind me, grabbed the photo off the wall and slammed it on the desk, and said, “If you throw this photo in, you got the deal!”
The look on their face was utter astonishment. I was thinking it was because I was being creative by throwing the photo in, but then I noticed that this cloud of dust was settling around me. I turn around and looked at the wall and it turned out the photo had been bolted into the drywall. And there was now a hole–I literally ripped a part of their boardroom wall off as I was accepting the offer. Without missing a beat they said, “Yes, you can have the photo. But we’re going to have to deduct $500 to repair our wall.” And I said, “Deal.” And that’s how E.piphany got its Series A.
Invest in the Team
Before we closed our Series A with Infinity, I had called on Mohr, Davidow Ventures, the firm which had funded my last company, Rocket Science. The senior partner at the time was Bill Davidow, a marketing legend and a hero of mine who had also funded other Enterprise software companies. I went in and pitched Bill the idea about how to automate the marketing domain. He gave me 15 minutes, then as politely as he could do it, walked me out the door and said, “Stupidest idea I ever heard, Steve. Enterprise software means across the Enterprise. Marketing is just one very small department.” As he was walking me out, I remember as I physically crossed the threshold of the door that: A. He was right, and B. I figured out how to solve the problem of making our product useful across the entire enterprise. So E.piphany went from a bad idea to a good idea by being thrown out by a VC who gave me advice that made the company. He has reminded me since, “Sometimes you invest in the idea, but you should always be investing in the people. If I would’ve remembered who you were, I would’ve known you would figure it out.”
(Kleiner Perkins would do the Series B round for E.piphany. After our IPO Infinity’s and Kleiner Perkins’ investment in Epiphany would be worth $1 billion dollars to each of them.)
I still have the photo.
Back from vacation soon.
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My friend Ben Horowitz and I debated the tech bubble in The Economist. An abridged version of this post was the “closing” statement to Ben’s rebuttal comments. Part 1 is here and Part 2 here. The full version is below.
It’s been fun debating the question, “Are we in a tech bubble?” with my colleague Ben Horowitz. Ben and his partner Marc Andreessen (the founder of Netscape and author of the first commercial web browser on the Internet) are the definition of Smart Money. Their firm, Andreessen/Horowtiz, has been prescient enough to invest in social networks, consumer and mobile applications and the cloud long before others. They understood the ubiquity, pervasiveness and ultimate profitability of these startups and doubled-down on their investments.
My closing arguments are below. I’ve followed them with a few observations about the Internet that may help frame the scope of the debate.
Are we in the beginnings of a tech bubble – yes.
Prices for both private and public tech valuations exceed any rational valuation to their current worth. In 5 to 10 years most of them will be worth a fraction of their IPO price. A few will be worth much, much more.
Is this tech bubble as broad as the 1995-2000 dot.com bubble – no.
While labeled the “dot.com” bubble, valuations went crazy across a wide range of technology sectors including telecommunications, enterprise software and biotech, not just the Internet.
Are tech bubbles necessarily bad – no.
A bubble is simply the redistribution of wealth from Marks to the Smart Money and Promoters. I hypothesize that unlike bubbles in other sectors – tulips, Florida land prices, housing, financial – tech bubbles create lasting value. They finance companies that invest in new technologies, new ideas and new products. And it appears that at least in Silicon Valley, a larger percentage of money made in the last tech bubble is recirculated back into investments into the next generation of tech startups.
While most of the social networks, cloud computing, web and mobile app companies we see today will fail, a few will literally remake our lives.
Here are two views how.
The Internet May Liberate Us
In the last year, we’ve seen Social Networks enable new forms of peaceful revolution. To date, the results of Twitter and Facebook are more visible on the Arab Street than Wall Street.
One of the most effective weapons in the Cold War was the mimeograph machine and the VCR. The ability to copy and disseminate banned ideas undermined repressive regimes from Poland to Iran to the Soviet Union.
In the 21st century, authoritarian governments still fear their own people talking to each other and asking questions. When governments shut down Google, Twitter, Facebook, et al, they are building the 21st century equivalent of the Berlin Wall. They are admitting to the world that the forces of oppression can’t stand up to 140 characters of the truth.
When these governments build “homegrown” versions of these apps, the Orwellian prophecy of the Ministry of the Truth lives in each distorted or missing search result. Absent war, these regimes eventually collapse under their own weight. We can help accelerate their demise by building tools which allow people in these denied areas access to the truth.
Yet the same set of tools that will free hundreds of millions of people may end their lives in minutes.
The Internet May Kill Us
The next war will more than likely occur via the Internet. It may be over in minutes. We may be watching the first skirmishes.
In the 20th century, the economies of first-world countries became dependent on a reliable supply of food, water, electricity, transportation and telephone. Part of waging war was destroying that physical infrastructure. (The Combined Bomber Offensive of Germany and occupied Europe during WWII was designed to do just that.)
In the last few years, most first world countries have become dependent on the Internet as one of those critical parts of our infrastructure. We use the net in four different ways: 1) to control the physical infrastructure we built in the 20th century (food, water, electricity, transportation and communications); 2) as the network for our military interconnecting all our warfighting assets, from the mundane of logistics to command and control systems, weapons systems and targeting systems; 3) as commercial assets that exist or can operate only if the net exists including communication tools (email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and corporate infrastructure (Cloud storage and apps); 4) for our banking and financial systems.
Every day hackers demonstrate how weak the security of our corporate and government resources are. Stealing millions of credit cards occurs on a regular basis. Yet all of these are simply crimes not acts of war.
The ultimate in asymmetric warfare
In the 20th century, the United States was continually unprepared for an adversary using asymmetric warfare — the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Soviet Anthrax warheads on their ICBMs during the cold war, Vietnam and guerilla warfare, and the 9/11 attacks.
While hacker attacks against banks and commercial institutions make good press, the most troubling portents of the next war were the Stuxnet attack on the Iranian centrifuge facilities, the compromise of the RSA security system and the penetration of American defense contractors. These weren’t Lulz or Anonymous hackers, these were attacks by government military projects with thousands of programmers coordinating their efforts. All had a single goal in mind: to prepare to use the internet to destroy a country without physically killing its people.
Our financial systems (banks, stock market, credit cards, mortgages, etc.) exist as bits. Your net worth and mine exists because there are financial records that tell us how many “dollars” (or Euros, Yen, etc.) we own. We don’t physically have all that money. It’s simply the sum of the bits in a variety of institutions.
An attack on the United States could begin with the destruction of all those financial records. (A financial institution that can’t stop criminal hackers would have no chance against a military attack to destroy the customer data in their systems. Because security is expensive, hard, and at times not user friendly, the financial services companies have fought any attempt to mandate hardened systems.) Logic bombs planted on those systems will delete all the backups once they’re brought on-line. All of it gone. Forever.
At the same time, all cloud-based assets, all companies applications and customer data will be attacked and deleted. All of it gone. Forever.
Major power generating turbines will be attacked the same way Stuxnet worked– over and under-speeding the turbines and rapidly cycling the switching systems until they burn out. A major portion of our electrical generation capacity will be off-line until replacements can be built. (They are currently built in China.)
Our transportation infrastructure– air traffic control systems, airline reservations, package delivery companies– will be hacked and our GPS infrastructure will be taken down (hacked, jammed or physically attacked.)
While some of our own military systems are hardened, attackers will shut down the soft parts of the military logistics and communications systems. Since our defense contractors have been the targets of some of the latest hacks, our newest weapons systems may not work, or worse if used, may have been reprogrammed to destroy our own assets.
An attacker may try to mask its identity by making the attack appear to come from a different source. With our nation in an unprecedented economic collapse, our ability to retaliate militarily against a nuclear-armed opponent claiming innocence and threatening a response while we face them with unreliable weapons systems could make for a bad day. Our attacker might even offer economic assistance as part of the surrender terms.
These scenarios make the question, “Are we in a tech bubble?” seem a bit ironic.
It Doesn’t Have to Happen
During the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union faced off with an arsenal of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons large enough to directly kill hundreds of millions of people and plunge the planet in a “Nuclear Winter,” which could have killed billions more. But we didn’t do it. Instead, today the McDonalds in plazas labeled “Revolutionary Square” has been the victory parade for democracy and capitalism.
It may be that we will survive the threat of a Net War like we did the Cold War and that the Internet turns out to be the birth of a new spring for us all.
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My friend Ben Horowitz and I debate the tech bubble in The Economist. This post is the “rebuttal” statement to Ben’s opening comments.
An edited version of this post originally appeared as part 2 of 3. Part 1 is here.
You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold them
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
Kenny Rogers – The Gambler
My esteemed colleague Ben Horowitz essentially makes four arguments: 1) look at how relatively cheap Apple, Google and Amazon stock is compared to their growth; 2) Major technology cycles tend to be around 25 years long with the bulk of the purchases occurring in the last five-to-ten years. The major adoption wave for the Internet technology platform will hit in the next 8 years; 3) the economics of building Internet businesses has changed; 4) the markets are much bigger.
Therefore Ben concludes that boom is coming…and do you want to miss it because it has the possibility of becoming a bubble?
If this were a magic act, we’d suggest that Ben’s arguments are misdirection. To answer the question before the house, “Are we in a tech bubble?” Ben offers that as Apple, Google and Amazon survived the dot.com crash, we can ignore the fate of the thousands of failed public and private dot.com companies when the bubble burst in March of 2000. I believe the issue isn’t whether we’re on a 25-year tech cycle or that the next 8 years are really going to be great. The issue is whether the next 100+ tech IPO’s carried by this bubble will be worth their offering price in 8 years.
One of the least understood parts of a bubble is that there are five types of participants: Smart Money, the Shills, the Marks, the True Believers and the Promoters. Understanding the motivations of these different groups help make sense out of the bubble chart below.
Smart Money are prescient angel investors and Venture Capitalists who started investing in social networks, consumer and mobile applications and the cloud 3, 4 or 5 years ago. They helped build these struggling ventures into the Facebooks’, Twitters’, and Zyngas’ before anyone else appreciated these companies could have hundreds of millions of users with off-the-chart revenue and profits.
In a bubble the smart money doubles down on their investment in the awareness phase, but when it starts becoming a mania – the smart money cashes out. (Really smart money recognizes it’s a bubble and bets against it.) They manage this all with knowledge of the game they’re playing, but they don’t hype it, talk about it or fan the flames. They know others will.
The Shills are the middlemen in a bubble. They profit from the boom times. They’re the mortgage brokers and real estate agents in the housing bubble, the investment bankers and technology press in the dot.com bubble. Since it’s in their interest to keep the bubble going, they’ll tell you that housing always goes up, that these bonds are guaranteed by a big bank, and that this tech stock is worth its opening price. All the stories peddled by Shills have at their heart why “it’s a new age” and why “all the old ways of measuring value are obsolete.” And why “you’ll be an idiot if you don’t jump in and reap the rewards and cash out.”
The Marks are your neighbors or parents or grandparents. They’re not domain experts. They know nothing about real estate, financial markets or tech stocks, but they don’t want to miss the “investment opportunity of a lifetime”. They hear reassurance from the Shills and take their advice at face value, never asking or questioning the Shills financial incentives to sell you this house/mortgage/tech stock. They see others making extraordinary amounts of money at the start of the mania (just buy a condo or two and you can sell them in six months.) What no one tells the Marks is that as they’re buying, the smart money and institutional investors are quietly pulling out and selling their assets.
The True Believers don’t financially participate in the bubble like the Marks (lack of assets, timidity, or time) but they could if they would. They have no rational evidence to believe, but for them it’s a “faith-based” belief. By their numbers they give comfort to the Mark’s around them.
The Promoters are the ones who keep the bubbles inflated even when they know that the asset exceeds its fundamental value by a large margin. While Shills have no credibility, Promoters have “brand-name” credibility that makes the Marks trust them. What makes the role of the Promoter egregious is that they are a small subset of the Smart Money. They loudly tell the Marks and Shills that everything is just fine, enticing them to buy into the bubble, even as the Promoters are liquidating their own positions.
Investment banks who sold CDO’s (synthetic collateralized debt obligations,) in the financial meltdown and the mortgage lenders in the housing bubble are just two examples. Some investment banks actually bet that the very investments they were selling their customers would fail. There’s a special place in hell waiting for these guys (only because our political and financial regulatory system won’t deal with them while they’re on earth.)
To support his position Ben used a quote from Warren Buffett I wish I had found, “The only way you get a bubble is when a very high percentage of the population buys into some originally sound premise…that becomes distorted as time passes and people forget the original sound premise and start focusing solely on the price action…
The “facts” that Ben raises, “the size and scale of these new markets have never been seen before; some of these applications and companies will reach billions of customers, generate unprecedented revenues and profits,” are likely true. But they don’t support his justification of the bubble valuations we are seeing for companies filing for IPO’s (Pandora Media just priced its IPO at $2.6 billion dollars while admitting it will have operating losses through the end of fiscal 2012.) But to support his position for future valuations Ben lists the low price/earnings ratios of Apple, Amazon, Google, Salesforce.com. He argues that if we are in a bubble these companies ought to have their prices inflated as well.
It turns out that’s not how a bubble works. Bubbles attract Marks and Shills to new shiny toys, not existing ones…, Apple, Amazon, et al are not the current objects of desire of this bubble. The question is, are we in a new tech bubble? Do the new wave of social/web/mobile/cloud companies going public have valuations which exceeds their fundamental value by a large margin? (today and in the foreseeable future.)
In other words, “would you want your mother to buy these stocks to hold them – or flip them?”
Every bubble is a big-stakes game – played for keeps. In it the usual cast of characters appear; the Smart Money, the Shills, the Marks and the Promoters.
There’s a saying in Poker, “If you can’t figure out who the Mark is at the table, it’s you.”
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We won’t get fooled again
We don’t get fooled again
Don’t get fooled again
First, let us start with a definition of a tech bubble.
A tech bubble is the rapid inflation in the valuation of public and private technology companies that exceeds their fundamental value by a large margin. It is accompanied by the rationalisation of the new pricing, and then followed by a spectacular crash in value. (It also has the “smart money” investing early and taking profits before the crash.)
Bubbles are not new; we have had them for hundreds of years (the Tulip Mania, South Sea Company, Mississippi Company, etc.). And in the last decade, we have had the dot.com bust and the housing bubble. This tech bubble is unfolding just like all the other bubbles before it.
Today, the signs of the new bubble are the Linked-In initial public offering (IPO), Facebook’s stratospheric valuation and the rapid rise of early-stage startup valuation. Hiring technology talent in Silicon Valley is getting difficult, and the time it takes to drive across Palo Alto has tripled—all signs of the impending apocalypse.
Dr Jean-Paul Rodrigue, in the Department of Global Studies & Geography at Hofstra University, observed that bubbles have four phases; stealth, awareness, mania and blow-off. I contend that we are approaching the early part of the mania phase.
In the stealth phase, prescient angel investors and Venture Capitalists (VCs) start investing in an industry or market segment that others have not yet found. In the case of this bubble, it was social networks, consumer and mobile applications, and the cloud. VCs who understood the ubiquity, pervasiveness and ultimate profitability of these startups doubled-down on their investments. Long before others, they saw that these applications could have hundreds of millions of users with “off the chart” revenue and profits.
The awareness phase is where other later-stage investors start to notice the momentum, bringing additional money in and pushing prices higher. The Russian investment group, DST, is an example, with their $200 million investment in Facebook, at a $10 billion valuation, in 2009. This was followed by another $500 million investment (along with Goldman Sachs) in 2011, at a $50 billion valuation. Meanwhile, the bubble for “seed stage” startups began when Ron Conway’s Silicon Valley Angels and DST guaranteed every startup out of a YCombinator $150,000. And it was hammered home with Color—a startup without a product—raising $40 million, at a reputed $100 million valuation, from brand name VCs who should have known better. When they did launch their product, it was compared to boo.com, and entered the dot.com bubble hall of infamy. Meanwhile, smart VCs continue to invest in this segment and increase their ownership of existing companies. The technology blogs (TechCrunch, et al.) start cheerleading, and the general business press/blogs start paying attention. And all of the investors trot out explanations of “why—this time—everything is different”.
We have just entered the mania phase. The Linked-in IPO valued the company at $8.9 billion at the end of the first day of trading. It sent a signal that there is an irrational demand for tech IPOs. Silicon Valley startups are falling over each other to file their S-1 documents to go public.
Some precursors to the bubble happened when Chinese Internet companies listed on United States stock exchanges. In December 2010, Youku—the YouTube of China—went public, with a valuation of $4.4 billion at the end of the first day (on $58.9 million in 2010 sales). In May 2011, RenRen—the Facebook of China—had a first day valuation of $7.4 billion (on $76.5 million in 2010 sales).
Dr Rodrigue’s description of what happens next sounds familiar: “the public jumps in for this ‘investment opportunity of a lifetime’. The expectation of future appreciation becomes a ‘no brainer’…Floods of money come in creating even greater expectations and pushing prices to stratospheric levels. The higher the price, the more investments pour in. Unnoticed from the general public, the smart money as well as many institutional investors are quietly pulling out and selling their assets…Unbiased opinion about the fundamentals becomes increasingly difficult to find as many players are heavily invested and have every interest to keep asset inflation going.”
“The market gradually becomes more exuberant as ‘paper fortunes’ are made and greed sets in. Everyone tries to jump in and new investors have absolutely no understanding of the market, its dynamic and fundamentals…statements are made about entirely new fundamentals implying that a ‘permanent high plateau’ has been reached to justify future price increases.”
We are seeing this bubble unfold by the book.
No one doubts that social networks and web and mobile applications are reinventing commerce. Obviously, some of these companies will have hundreds of millions of customers, unprecedented revenue growth and great profits. Yet none of these companies have earned the valuations that they are receiving.
For all of these reasons, I believe this House should vote in favor of the motion before it.
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Last week I had 15 Finnish entrepreneurs out to the ranch (Aalto University has a partnership with Stanford’s Technology Ventures Program.) Monday we hosted 40 Danish entrepreneurs for dinner and today its graduate students from Chalmers University in Sweden.
Looks like the ice is melting in Scandinavia.
Welcome to the democratization of entrepreneurship.
Hermione Way of TheNextWeb grabbed me for a short interview below that covers the challenges and opportunities of startups outside of Silicon Valley and the never ending discussion of the “new bubble.” (Skip the first minute.)
There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come
When The Boardroom is Bits
A revolution has taken hold as customer development and agile engineering reinvent the Startup process. It’s time to ask why startup board governance has failed to keep pace with innovation. Board meetings that guide startups haven’t changed since the early 1900’s.
It’s time for a change.
Reinventing the board meeting may offer angel-funded startups that don’t have formal boards or directors (because of geography or size of investment) to attract experienced advice and investment outside of technology clusters (i.e. Silicon Valley, New York).
A Hypothesis – The Boardroom As Bits
Startups now understand what they should be doing in their early formative days is search for a business model. The process they use to guide their search is customer development. And to track their progress startups now have a scorecard to document their week-by-week changes – the business model canvas.
Yet even with all these tools, early stage startups still need to physically meet with advisors and investors. That’s great if you can get it. But what if you can’t?
What’s missing is a way to communicate all this complex information and get feedback and guidance for startups who cannot get advice in a formal board meeting.
We propose that early stage startups communicate in a way that didn’t exist in the 20th century – online – collaboratively through blogs.
We suggest that the founders/CEO invest 1 hour a week providing advisors and investors with “Continuous Information Access” by blogging and discussing their progress online in their startup’s search for a business model. They would:
What Does this Change?
1) Structure. Founders operate in a chaotic regime. So it’s helpful to have a structure that helps “search” for a business model. The “boardroom as bits” uses Customer Development as the process for the search, and the business model canvas as the scorecard to keep track of the progress, while providing a common language for the discussion.
This approach offers VC’s and Angels a semi-formal framework for measuring progress and offering their guidance in the “search” for a business model. It turns ad hoc startups into strategy-driven startups.
2) Asynchronous Updates. Interaction with advisors and board members can now be decoupled from the – once every six weeks, “big event” – board meeting. Now, as soon as the founders post an update, everyone is notified. Comments, help, suggestions and conversation can happen 24/7. For startups with formal boards, it makes it easy to implement, track, and follow-up board meeting outcomes.
Monitoring and guiding a small angel investment no longer requires the calculus to decide whether the investment is worth a board commitment. It potentially encourages investors who would invest only if they had more visibility but where the small number of dollars doesn’t justify the time commitment.
A board as bits ends the repetition of multiple investor coffees. It’s highly time-efficient for investor and founder alike.
3) Coaching. This approach allows real-time monitoring of a startup’s progress and zero-lag for coaching and course-correction. It’s not just a way to see how they’re doing. It also provides visibility for a deep look at their data over time and facilitates delivery of feedback and advice.
4) Geography. When the boardroom is bits, angel-funded startups can get experienced advice – independent of geography. An angel investor or VC can multiply their reach and/or depth. In the process it reduces some of the constraints of distance as a barrier to investment.
Imagine if a VC took $4 million (an average Series A investment) and instead spread it across 40 deals at $100K each in a city with a great outward-facing technology university outside of Silicon Valley. In the past they had no way to monitor and manage these investments. Now they can. The result – an instant technology cluster – with equity at a fraction of Silicon Valley prices. It might be possible to create Virtual Valley Ventures.
We Ran the Experiment
At Stanford our Lean Launchpad class ran an experiment that showed when “the boardroom is bits” can make a radical difference in the outcome of an early stage startup.
Our students used Customer Development as the process to search for a business model. The used a blog to record their customer learning, and their progress and issues. The blog became a narrative of the search by posting customer interviews, surveys, videos, and prototypes. They used the Business Model Canvas as a scorekeeping device to chart their progress. The result invited comment from their “board” of the teaching team.
Here are some examples of how rich the interaction can become when a management team embraces the approach.
We were able to give them near real-time feedback as they posted their results. If we had been a board rather than a teaching team we would have added physical reality checks with Skype and/or face-to-face meetings.
Show Me the Money
While this worked in the classroom, would it work in the real world? I thought this idea was crazy enough to bounce off a five experienced Silicon Valley VC’s. I was surprised at the reaction – all of them want to experiment with it. Jon Feiber at MDV is going to try investing in startups emerging from Universities with great engineering schools outside of Silicon Valley that have entrepreneurship programs, but minimal venture capital infrastructure. (The University of Michigan is a possible first test.) Kathryn Gould of Foundation Capital and Ann Miura-Ko of Floodgate also want to try it.
Shawn Carolan of Menlo Ventures not only thought the idea had merit but seed-funded the LeanLaunchLab, a startup building software to automate and structure this process. (More than 700 startups signed up for the LeanLaunchLab software the day it was first demo’d.) Other entrepreneurs think this is an idea whose time has come and are also building software to manage this process including Alexander Osterwalder, Groupiter, and Angelsoft. Citrix thought this was such a good idea that their Startup Accelerator has offered to provide GoToMeeting and GoToMeeting HD Faces free to participating VC’s and startups. Contact them here.
For startups with traditional boards, I am not suggesting replacing the board meeting – just augmenting it with a more formal, interactive and responsive structure to help guide the search for the business model. There’s immense value in face-to-face interaction. You can’t replace body language.
But for Angel-funded companies I am proposing that a “board meeting in bits” can dramatically change the odds of success. Not only does this approach provide a way for founders to “show your work” to potential and current investors and advisors, but also it helps expand opportunities to attract investors from outside the local area.
- Startups are a search for a business model
- Startups can share their progress/get feedback in the search
- Weekly blog of the customer development narrative
- Weekly summary of the business model canvas
- Interactive comments and questions
- Skype and face-to-face when needed
- This may be a way to augment traditional board meetings
- This might be a way to rethink our notion of geography as a barrier to investments