Tesla Lost $700 Million Last Year, So Why Is Tesla’s Valuation $60 Billion?

Automobile manufacturers shipped 88 million cars in 2016. Tesla shipped 76,000. Yet Wall Street values Tesla higher than any other U.S. car manufacturer. What explains this more than 1,000 to 1 discrepancy in valuation?

The future.

Too many people compare Tesla to what already exists and that’s a mistake. Tesla is not another car company.

At the turn of the 20th century most people compared existing buggy and carriage manufacturers to the new automobile companies. They were both transportation, and they looked vaguely similar, with the only apparent difference that one was moved by horses attached to the front while the other had an unreliable and very noisy internal combustion engine.

They were different. And one is now only found in museums. Companies with business models built around internal combustion engines disrupted those built around horses.  That’s the likely outcome for every one of today’s automobile manufacturers. Tesla is a new form of transportation disrupting the incumbents.

Here are four reasons why.

Electric cars pollute less, have fewer moving parts, are quieter and faster than existing cars. Today, the technology necessary (affordable batteries with sufficient range) for them to be a viable business have all just come together. Most observers agree that autonomous electric cars will be the dominate form of transportation by mid-century. That’s bad news for existing car companies.

First, car companies have over a century of expertise in designing and building efficient mechanical propulsion systems – internal combustion engines for motive power and transmissions to drive the wheels. If existing car manufacturers want to build electric vehicles, all those design skills and most of the supply chain and manufacturing expertise are useless. And not only useless but they become this legacy of capital equipment and headcount that is now a burden to a company. In a few years, the only thing useful in existing factories building traditional cars will be the walls and roof.

Second, while the automotive industry might be 1000 times larger than Tesla, Tesla may actually have more expertise and dollars committed to the electric car ecosystem than any legacy car company. Tesla’s investment in Lithium/Ion battery factory (the Gigafactory), its electric drive train design and manufacturing output exceed the sum of the entire automotive industry.

Third, the future of transportation is not only electric, it’s autonomous and connected. A lot has been written about self-driving cars and as a reminder, automated driving comes in multiple levels:

  • Level 0: the car gives you warnings but driver maintains control of the car. For example, blind spot warning.
  • Level 1: the driver and the car share control. For example, Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) where the driver controls steering and the automated system controls speed.
  • Level 2: The automated system takes full control of the vehicle (accelerating, braking, and steering). The driver monitors and intervenes if the automated system fails to respond.
  • Level 3: The driver can text or watch a movie. The vehicle will handle situations that call for an immediate response, like emergency braking. The driver must be prepared to intervene within some limited time, when called upon by the vehicle.
  • Level 4: No driver attention is ever required for safety, i.e. the driver may safely go to sleep or leave the driver’s seat.
  • Level 5: No human intervention is required. For example, a robotic taxi

Each level of autonomy requires an exponential amount of software engineering design and innovation. While cars have had an ever-increasing amount of software content, the next generation of transportation are literally computers on wheels. Much like in electric vehicle drive trains, autonomy and connectivity are not core competencies of existing car companies.

Fourth, large, existing companies are executing a known business model and have built processes, procedures and key performance indicators to measure progress to a known set of goals. But when technology disruption happens (electric drive trains, autonomous vehicles, etc.) changing a business model is extremely difficult. Very few companies manage to make the transition from one business model to another.

And while Tesla might be the first mover in disrupting transportation there is no guarantee they will be the ultimate leader. However, the question shouldn’t be why Tesla has such a high valuation.

The question should be why the existing automobile companies aren’t valued like horse and buggy companies.

Lesson Learned

  • Few market leaders in an industry being disrupted make the transition to the new industry
  • The assets, expertise, and mindset that made them leaders in the past are usually the baggage that prevents them from seeing the future

Innovation, Change and the Rest of Your Life

I gave the Alumni Day talk at U.C. Santa Cruz and had a few things to say about innovation.


Even though I live just up the coast, I’ve never had the opportunity to start a talk by saying “Go Banana Slugs.”

I’m honored for the opportunity to speak here today.

We’re standing 15 air miles away from the epicenter of technology innovation. The home of some of the most valuable and fastest growing companies in the world.

I’ve spent my life in innovation, eight startups in 21 years, and the last 15 years in academia teaching it.

I lived through the time when working in my first job in Ann Arbor Michigan we had to get out a map to find out that San Jose was not only in Puerto Rico but there was a city with that same name in California.  And that’s where my plane ticket ought to take me to install some computer equipment.

39 years ago I got on that plane and never went back.

I’ve seen the Valley grow from Sunnyvale to Santa Clara to today where it stretches from San Jose to South of Market in San Francisco.  I’ve watched the Valley go from Microwave Valley – to Defense Valley – to Silicon Valley to Internet Valley. And to today, when its major product is simply innovation.  And I’ve been lucky enough to watch innovation happen not only in hardware and software but in Life Sciences – in Therapeutics, Medical Devices, Diagnostics and now Digital Health.

I’ve been asked to talk today about the future of Innovation – typically that involves giving you a list of hot technologies to pay attention to – technologies like machine learning.  The applications that will pour of this just one technology will transform every industry – from autonomous vehicles to automated radiology/oncology diagnostics.

Equally transformative on the life science side, CRISPR and CAS enable rapid editing of the genome, and that will change life sciences as radically as machine intelligence.

But today’s talk about the future of innovation is not about these technologies, or the applications or the new industries they will spawn.

In fact, it’s not about any specific new technologies.

The future of innovation is really about seven changes that have made innovation itself possible in a way that never existed before.

We’ve created a world where innovation is not just each hot new technology, but a perpetual motion machine.

So how did this happen?  Where is it going?

Silicon Valley emerged by the serendipitous intersection of:

  • Cold War research in microwaves and electronics at Stanford University,
  • a Stanford Dean of Engineering who encouraged startup culture over pure academic research,
  • Cold War military and intelligence funding driving microwave and military products for the defense industry in the 1950’s,
  • a single Bell Labs researcher deciding to start his semiconductor company next to Stanford in the 1950’s which led to
  • the wave of semiconductor startups in the 1960’s/70’s,
  • the emergence of Venture Capital as a professional industry,
  • the personal computer revolution in 1980’s,
  • the rise of the Internet in the 1990’s and finally
  • the wave of internet commerce applications in the first decade of the 21st century.
  • The flood of risk capital into startups at a size and scale that was not only unimaginable at its start, but in the middle of the 20th century would have seemed laughable.

Up until the beginning of this century, the pattern for the Valley seemed to be clear. Each new wave of innovation – microwaves, defense, silicon, disk drives, PCs, Internet, therapeutics, – was like punctuated equilibrium – just when you thought the wave had run its course into stasis, there emerged a sudden shift and radical change into a new family of technology. 

But in the 20th Century there were barriers to Entrepreneurship
In the last century, while startups continued to innovate in each new wave of technology, the rate of innovation was constrained by limitations we only now can understand. Startups in the past were constrained by:

  1. customers were initially the government and large companies and they adopted technology slowly,
  2. long technology development cycles (how long it takes to get from idea to product),
  3. disposable founders,
  4. the high cost of getting to first customers (how many dollars to build the product),
  5. the structure of the Venture Capital industry (there were a limited number of VC firms each needing to invest millions per startups),
  6. the failure rate of new ventures (startups had no formal rules and acted like smaller versions of large companies),
  7. the information and expertise about how to build startups (information was clustered in specific regions like Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, etc.), and there were no books, blogs or YouTube videos about entrepreneurship.

What we’re now seeing is The Democratization of Entrepreneurship
What’s happening today is something more profound than a change in technology. What’s happening is that these seven limits to startups and innovation have been removed.

The first thing that’s changed is that Consumer Internet and Genomics are Driving Innovation at scale
In the 1950’s and ‘60’s U.S. Defense and Intelligence organizations drove the pace of innovation in Silicon Valley by providing research and development dollars to universities, and defense companies built weapons systems that used the Valley’s first microwave devices and semiconductor components.

In the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, momentum shifted to the enterprise as large businesses supported innovation in PCs, communications hardware and enterprise software. Government and the enterprise are now followers rather than leaders.

Today, for hardware and software it’s consumers – specifically consumer Internet companies – that are the drivers of innovation. When the product and channel are bits, adoption by 10’s and 100’s of millions and even billions of users can happen in years versus decades.

For life sciences it was the Genentech IPO in 1980 that proved to investors that life science startups could make them a ton of money.

The second thing that’s changed is that we’re now Compressing the Product Development Cycle
In the 20th century startups I was part of, the time to build a first product release was measured in years as we turned out the founder’s vision of what customers wanted. This meant building every possible feature the founding team envisioned into a monolithic “release” of the product.

Yet time after time, after the product shipped, startups would find that customers didn’t use or want most of the features. The founders were simply wrong about their assumptions about customer needs. It turns out the term “visionary founder” was usually a synonym for someone who was hallucinating. The effort that went into making all those unused features was wasted.

Today startups build products differently. Instead of building the maximum number of features, founders treat their vision as a series of untested hypotheses, then get out of the building and test a minimum feature set in the shortest period of time.  This lets them deliver a series of minimal viable products to customers in a fraction of the time.

For products that are simply “bits” delivered over the web, a first product can be shipped in weeks rather than years.

The third thing is that Founders Need to Run the Company Longer
Today, we take for granted new mobile apps and consumer devices appearing seemingly overnight, reaching tens of millions of users – and just as quickly falling out of favor. But in the 20th century, dominated by hardware, software, and life sciences, technology swings inside an existing market happened slowly — taking years, not months. And while new markets were created (i.e. the desktop PC market), they were relatively infrequent.

This meant that disposing of the founder, and the startup culture responsible for the initial innovation, didn’t hurt a company’s short-term or even mid-term prospects.  So, almost like clockwork 20th century startups fired the innovators/founders when they scaled. A company could go public on its initial wave of innovation, then coast on its current technology for years. In this business environment, hiring a new CEO who had experience growing a company around a single technical innovation was a rational decision for venture investors.

That’s no longer the case.

The pace of technology change in the second decade of the 21st century is relentless. It’s hard to think of a hardware/software or life science technology that dominates its space for years. That means new companies face continuous disruption before their investors can cash out.

To stay in business in the 21st century, startups must do three things their 20th century counterparts didn’t:

  • A company is no longer built on a single innovation. It needs to be continuously innovating – and who best to do that? The founders.
  • To continually innovate, companies need to operate at startup speed and cycle time much longer their 20th century counterparts did. This requires retaining a startup culture for years – and who best to do that? The founders.
  • Continuous innovation requires the imagination and courage to challenge the initial hypotheses of your current business model (channel, cost, customers, products, supply chain, etc.) This might mean competing with and if necessary killing your own products. (Think of the relentless cycle of iPod then iPhone innovation.) Professional CEOs who excel at growing existing businesses find this extremely hard.  Who best to do that? The founders.

The fourth thing that’s changed is that you can start a company on your laptop For Thousands Rather than Millions of Dollars
Startups traditionally required millions of dollars of funding just to get their first product to customers. A company developing software would have to buy computers and license software from other companies and hire the staff to run and maintain it. A hardware startup had to spend money building prototypes and equipping a factory to manufacture the product.

Today open source software has slashed the cost of software development from millions of dollars to thousands. My students think of computing power as a utility like I think of electricity. They can get to more computing power via their laptop through Amazon Web Services than existed in the entire world when I started in Silicon Valley.

And for consumer hardware, no startup has to build their own factory as the costs are absorbed by offshore manufacturers.  China has simply become the factory.

The cost of getting the first product out the door for an Internet commerce startup has dropped by a factor of a 100 or more in the last decade.  Ironically, while the cost of getting the first product out the door has plummeted, it now can take 10’s or 100’s of millions of dollars to scale.

The fifth change is the New Structure of how startups get funded
The plummeting cost of getting a first product to market (particularly for Internet startups) has shaken up the Venture Capital industry.

Venture Capital used to be a tight club clustered around formal firms located in Silicon Valley, Boston, and New York. While those firms are still there (and getting larger), the pool of money that invests risk capital in startups has expanded, and a new class of investors has emerged.

First, Venture Capital and angel investing is no longer a U.S. or Euro-centric phenomenon. Risk capital has emerged in China, India and other countries where risk taking, innovation and liquidity are encouraged, on a scale previously only seen in the U.S.

Second, new groups of VCs, super angels, smaller than the traditional multi-hundred-million-dollar VC fund, can make small investments necessary to get a consumer Internet startup launched. These angels make lots of early bets and double-down when early results appear. (And the results do appear years earlier than in a traditional startup.)

Third, venture capital has now become Founder-friendly.

A 20th century VC was likely to have an MBA or finance background. A few, like John Doerr at Kleiner Perkins and Don Valentine at Sequoia, had operating experience in a large tech company. But out of the dot-com rubble at the turn of the 21st century, new VCs entered the game – this time with startup experience. The watershed moment was in 2009 when the co-founder of Netscape, Marc Andreessen, formed a venture firm and started to invest in founders with the goal to teach them how to be CEOs for the long term. Andreessen realized that the game had changed. Continuous innovation was here to stay and only founders – not hired execs – could play and win.  Founder-friendly became a competitive advantage for his firm Andreessen Horowitz. In a seller’s market, other VCs adopted this “invest in the founder” strategy.

Fourth, in the last decade, corporate investors and hedge funds have jumped into later stage investing with a passion. Their need to get into high-profile deals has driven late-stage valuations into unicorn territory.  A unicorn is a startup with a market capitalization north of a billion dollars.

What this means is that the emergence of incubators and super angels have dramatically expanded the sources of seed capital. VCs have now ceded more control to founders. Corporate investors and hedge funds have dramatically expanded the amount of money available. And the globalization of entrepreneurship means the worldwide pool of potential startups has increased at least 100-fold since the turn of this century.  And today there are over 200 startups worth over a billion dollars.

Change Number 6 is that Starting a Company means you no longer Act Like A Big Company
Since the turn of the century, there’s been a radical shift in how startups thought of themselves.  Until then investors and entrepreneurs acted like startups were simply smaller versions of large companies. Everything a large company did, a startup should do – write a business plan; hire sales, marketing, engineering; spec all the product features on day one and build everything for a big first customer ship.

We now understand that’s wrong.  Not kind of wrong but going out of business wrong.

What used to happen is you’d build the product, have a great launch event, everyone high-five the VP of Marketing for great press and then at the first board meeting ask the VP of Sales how he was doing versus the sales plan.  The response was inevitably “great pipeline.”  (Great pipeline means no real sales.)

This would continue for months, as customers weren’t behaving as per the business plan.  Meanwhile every other department in the company would be making their plan – meaning the company was burning cash without bringing in revenue.  Finally the board would fire the VP of sales.  This cycle would continue then you’d fire the VP of Marketing, then the CEO.

What we’ve learned is that while companies execute business models, startups search for a business model. It means that unlike in big companies startups are guessing about who their customers are, what features they want, where and how they want to buy the product, how much they want to pay.  We now understand that startups are just temporary organizations designed to search for a scalable and repeatable business models.

We now have specific management tools to grow startups. Entrepreneurs first map their assumptions and then test these hypotheses with customers out in the field (customer development) and use an iterative and incremental development methodology (agile development) to build the product. When founders discover their assumptions are wrong, as they inevitably will, the result isn’t a crisis, it’s a learning event called a pivot — and an opportunity to change the business model.

The result, startups now have tools that speed up the search for customers, reduce time to market and slash the cost of development. I’m glad to have been part of the team inventing the Lean Startup methodology.

Change number 7 – the last one – is perhaps the most profound and one students graduating today don’t even recognize. And it’s that Information is everywhere

In the 20th century learning the best practices of a startup CEO was limited by your coffee bandwidth. That is, you learned best practices from your board and by having coffee with other, more experienced CEOs. Today, every founder can read all there is to know about running a startup online. Incubators and accelerators like Y-Combinator have institutionalized experiential training in best practices (product/market fit, pivots, agile development, etc.); provide experienced and hands-on mentorship; and offer a growing network of founding CEOs.

The result is that today’s CEOs have exponentially more information than their predecessors. This is ironically part of the problem. Reading about, hearing about and learning about how to build a successful company is not the same as having done it. As we’ll see, information does not mean experience, maturity or wisdom. 

The Entrepreneurial Singularity
The barriers to entrepreneurship are not just being removed. In each case, they’re being replaced by innovations that are speeding up each step, some by a factor of ten.

And while innovation is moving at Internet speed, it’s not limited to just Internet commerce startups. It has spread to the enterprise and ultimately every other business segment. We’re seeing the effect of Amazon on retailers.  Malls are shutting down. Most students graduating today have no idea what a Blockbuster record/video store was. Many have never gotten their news from a physical newspaper.

If we are at the cusp of a revolution as important as the scientific and industrial revolutions what does it mean? Revolutions are not obvious when they happen. When James Watt started the industrial revolution with the steam engine in 1775 no one said, “This is the day everything changes.”  When Karl Benz drove around Mannheim in 1885, no one said, “There will be 500 million of these driving around in a century.” And certainly in 1958 when Noyce and Kilby invented the integrated circuit, the idea of a quintillion (10 to the 18th) transistors being produced each year seemed ludicrous.

It’s possible that we’ll look back to this decade as the beginning of our own revolution. We may remember this as the time when scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs were integrated into the fabric of society faster than they had ever been before. When the speed of how businesses operated changed forever.

As the time when we reinvented the American economy and our Gross Domestic Product began to take off and the U.S. and the world reached a level of wealth never seen before.  It may be the dawn of a new era for a new American economy built on entrepreneurship and innovation.

Why the Navy Needs Disruption Now (part 2 of 2)

The future is here it’s just distributed unevenly – Silicon Valley view of tech adoption

The threat is here it’s just distributed unevenly – A2/AD and the aircraft carrier

This is the second of a two-part post following my stay on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Part 1 talked about what I saw and learned – the layout of a carrier, how the air crew operates and how the carrier functions in context of the other ships around it (the strike group.) But the biggest learning was the realization that disruption is not just happening to companies, it’s also happening to the Navy. And that the Lean Innovation tools we’ve built to deal with disruption and create continuous innovation for large commercial organizations were equally relevant here.

This post offers a few days’ worth of thinking about what I saw. (If you haven’t, read part 1 first.)

The threat is here; it’s just distributed unevenly – A2/AD and the aircraft carrier
Both of the following statements are true:

  • The aircraft carrier is viable for another 30 years.
  • The aircraft carrier is obsolete.

Well-defended targets
Think of an aircraft carrier as a $11 billion dollar portable air force base manned by 5,000 people delivering 44 F/A-18 strike fighters anywhere in the world.

The primary roles of the 44 F/A-18 strike fighters that form the core of the carrier’s air wing is to control the air and drop bombs on enemy targets. For targets over uncontested airspace (Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, etc.) that’s pretty easy. The problem is that First World countries have developed formidable surface-to-air missiles – the Russian S–300 and S-400 and the Chinese HQ-9 – which have become extremely effective at shooting down aircraft. And they have been selling these systems to other countries (Iran, Syria, Egypt, etc.). While the role of an aircraft carrier’s EA-18G Growlers is to jam/confuse the radar of these missiles, the sophistication and range of these surface-to-air missiles have been evolving faster than the jamming countermeasures on the EA-18G Growlers (and the cyber hacks to shut the radars down).


This means that the odds of a carrier-based F/A-18 strike fighter successfully reaching a target defended by these modern surface-to-air missiles is diminishing yearly. Unless the U.S. military can take these air defense systems out with drones, cruise missiles or cyber attack, brave and skilled pilots may not be enough. Given the F/A-18’s are manned aircraft (versus drones), high losses of pilots may be (politically) unacceptable.

Vulnerable carriers
If you want to kill a carrier, first you must find it and then you have to track it. In WWII knowing where the enemy fleet located was a big – and critical – question. Today, photo imaging satellites, satellites that track electronic emissions (radio, radar, etc.) and satellites with synthetic aperture radar that can see through clouds and at night are able to pinpoint the strike group and carrier 24/7. In the 20th century only the Soviet Union had this capability. Today, China can do this in the Pacific and to a limited extent, Iran has this capability in the Persian Gulf. Soon there will be enough commercial satellite coverage of the Earth using the same sensors, that virtually anyone able to pay for the data will be able to track the ships.

During the Cold War the primary threat to carriers was from the air – from strike/fighters dropping bombs/torpedoes or from cruise missiles (launched from ships and planes). While the Soviets had attack submarines, our anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capabilities (along with very noisy Soviet subs pre-Walker spy ring) made subs a secondary threat to carriers.

In the 20th century the war plan for a carrier strike group used its fighter and attack aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the cruisers to destroy enemy radar, surface-to-air missiles, aircraft and communications (including satellite downlinks). As those threats are eliminated, the carrier strike can move closer to land without fear of attack. This allowed the attack aircraft to loiter longer over targets or extend their reach over enemy territory.

Carriers were designed to be most effective launching a high number of sorties (number of flights) from ~225 miles from the target. For example, we can cruise offshore of potential adversaries (Iraq and Syria) who can’t get to our carriers. (Carriers can standoff farther or can reach further inland, but they have to launch F-18’s as refueling tankers to extend the mission range. For example, missions into Afghanistan are 6-8 hours versus normal mission times of 2-3 hours.)

In the 21st century carrier strike groups are confronting better equipped adversaries, and today carriers face multiple threats before they can launch an initial strike. These threats include much quieter submarines, long-range, sea-skimming cruise missiles, and in the Pacific, a potential disruptive game changer – ballistic missiles armed with non-nuclear maneuverable warheads that can hit a carrier deck as it maneuvers at speed (DF-21d and the longer range DF-26).d21d range

In the Persian Gulf the carriers face another threat – Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FIAC) and speedboats with anti-ship cruise missiles that can be launched from shore.

The sum of all these threats – to the carrier-based aircraft and the carriers themselves –  are called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.

Eventually the cost and probability of defending the carrier as a manned aircraft platform becomes untenable in highly defended A2/AD environments like the western Pacific or the Persian Gulf. (This seems to be exactly the problem the manned bomber folks are facing in multiple regions.) But if not a carrier, what will they use to project power?  While the carrier might become obsolete, the mission certainly has not.

So how does/should the Navy solve these problems?

Three Horizons of Innovation
One useful way to think about in innovation in the face of increasing disruption / competition is called the “Three Horizons of Innovation.” It suggests that an organization should think about innovation across three categories called “Horizons.”

  • Horizon 1 activities support executing the existing mission with ever increasing efficiency
  • Horizon 2 is focused on extending the core mission
  • Horizon 3 is focused on searching for and creating brand new missions
    (see here for background on the Three Horizons.)

Horizon 1 is the Navy’s core mission. Here the Navy executes against a set of known mission requirements (known beneficiaries, known ships and planes, known adversaries, deployment, supply chain, etc.) It uses existing capabilities and has comparatively low risk to get the next improvement out the door.

In a well-run organization like the Navy, innovation and improvement occurs continuously in Horizon 1. Branches of the Navy innovate on new equipment, new tactics, new procurement processes, more sorties on newer carriers, etc. As fighter pilots want more capable manned aircraft and carrier captains want better carriers, it’s not a surprise that Horizon 1 innovations are upgrades – the next generation of carriers – Ford Class; and next generation of navy aircraft – the F-35C. As a failure here can impact the Navy’s current mission, Horizon 1 uses traditional product management tools to minimize risk and assure execution. (And yes, like any complex project they still manage to be over budget and miss their delivery schedule.)

Because failure here is unacceptable, Navy Horizon 1 programs and people are managed by building repeatable and scalable processes, procedures, incentives and promotions to execute and the mission.

In Horizon 2, the Navy extends its core mission. Here it looks for new opportunities within its existing mission (trying new technology on the same platform, using the same technology with new missions, etc.) Horizon 2 uses mostly existing capabilities (the carrier as an aircraft platform, aircraft to deliver munitions) and has moderate risk in building or securing new capabilities to get the product out the door.

An example of potential Naval Horizon 2 innovations is unmanned drones flying off carriers to do the jobs fighter pilots hate such as serving as airborne tankers (who wants to fly a gas tank around for 6 hours?) and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), another tedious mission flying around for hours that could be better solved with a drone downlinking ISR data for processing on board a ship.

However, getting the tanker and ISR functions onto drones only delays the inevitable shift to drones for strike, and then for fighters. The problem of strike fighters’ increasing difficulty in penetrating heavily defended targets isn’t going to get better with the new F-35C (the replacement for the F/A-18). In fact, it will get worse. Regardless of the bravery and skill of the pilots, they will face air defense systems evolving at a faster rate than the defensive systems on the aircraft. It’s not at all clear in a low-intensity conflict (think Bosnia or Syria) that civilian leadership will want to risk captured or killed pilots and losing planes like the F-35C that cost several hundred million dollars each.

Management in Horizon 2 works by pattern recognition and experimentation inside the current mission model. Ironically, institutional inertia keeps the Navy from deploying unmanned assets on carriers. In a perfect world, drones in carrier tanker and ISR roles should have been deployed by the beginning of this decade. And by now experience with them on a carrier deck could have led to first, autonomous wingmen and eventually autonomous missions. Instead the system appears to have fallen into the “real men fly planes and command Air Wings and get promoted by others who do” mindset.

The Navy does not lack drone demos and prototypes, but it has failed to deploy Horizon 2 innovations with speed and urgency. Failure to act aggressively here will impact the Navy’s ability to carry out its mission of sea control and power projection. (The Hudson Institute report on the future of the carrier is worth a read, and a RAND report on the same topic comes out in October.)

If you think Horizon 2 innovation is hard in the Navy, wait until you get to Horizon 3. This is where disruption happens. It’s how the aircraft carrier disrupted the battleship. How nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines changed the nature of strategic deterrence, and how the DF-21/26 and artificial islands in the South China sea changed decades of assumptions.  And it’s why, in most organizations, innovation dies.

For the Navy, a Horizon 3 conversation would not be about better carriers and aircraft. Instead it would focus on the core reasons the Navy deploys a carrier strike group: to show the flag for deterrence, or to control part of the sea to protect shipping, or to protect a Marine amphibious force, or to project offensive power against any adversary in well-defended areas.

A Horizon 3 solution for the Navy would start with basic need of these missions (sea control, offensive power projection – sortie generation) the logistic requirements that come with them, and the barriers to their success like A2/AD threats. Lots of people have been talking and writing about this and lots of Horizon 3 concepts have been proposed such as Distributed LethalityArsenal Ships, underwater drone platforms, etc.

Focussing on these goals – not building or commanding carriers, or building and flying planes – is really, really hard.  It’s hard to get existing operational organizations to think about disruption because it means they have to be thinking about obsoleting a job, function or skill they’ve spent their lives perfecting. It’s hard because any large organization is led by people who succeeded as Horizon 1 and 2 managers and operators (not researchers). Their whole focus, career, incentives, etc. has been about building and make the current platforms work. And the Navy has excelled in doing so.

The problem is that Horizon 3 solutions take different people, different portfolio, different process and different politics.

People: In Horizon 1 and 2 programs people who fail don’t get promoted because in a known process failure to execute is a failure of individual performance. However, applying the same rules to Horizon 3 programs – no failures tolerated – means we’ll have no learning and no disruptive innovations. What spooks leadership is that in Horizon 3 most of the projects will fail. But using Lean Innovation they’ll fail quickly and cheaply.

In Horizon 3 the initial program is run by mavericks – the crazy innovators. In the Navy, these are the people you want to court martial or pass over for promotion for not getting with current program. (In a startup they’d be the founding CEO.) These are the fearless innovators you want to create new and potentially disruptive mission models. Failure to support their potential disruptive talent means it will go elsewhere.

Portfolio: In Horizon 3, the Navy is essentially incubating a startup. And not just one. The Navy needs a portfolio of Horizon 3 bets, for the same reason venture capital and large companies have a portfolio of Horizon 3 bets – most of these bets will fail – but the ones that succeed are game changers.

Process: A critical difference between a Horizon 3 bet and a Horizon 1 or 2 bet is that you don’t build large, expensive, multi-year programs to test radically new concepts (think of the Zumwalt class destroyers). You use “Lean” techniques to build Minimal Viable Products (MVPs). MVPs are whatever it takes to get you the most learning in the shortest period of time.

Horizon 3 groups operate with speed and urgency – the goal is rapid learning. They need to be physically separate from operating divisions in an incubator, or their own facility. And they need their own plans, procedures, policies, incentives and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) different from those in Horizon 1.  

The watchwords in Horizon 3 are “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”

Politics: In Silicon Valley most startups fail. That’s why we invest in a portfolio of new ideas, not just one. We embrace failure as an integral part of learning. We do so by realizing that in Horizon 3 we are testing hypotheses – a series of unknowns – not executing knowns. Yet failure/learning is a dirty word in the world of promotions and the “gotcha game” of politics. To survive in this environment Horizon 3 leaders must learn how to communicate up/down and sideways that they are not running Horizon 1 and 2 projects.

Meanwhile, Navy and DOD leadership has to invest in, and clearly communicate their innovation strategy across all three Horizons.

Failure to manage innovation across all three Horizons and failure to make a portfolio of Horizon 3 bets means that the Navy is exposed to disruption by new entrants. Entrants unencumbered by decades of success, fueled by their own version of manifest destiny.

Lessons Learned

  • Our carriers are a work of art run and manned by professionals
    • Threats that can degrade or negate a carrier strike group exist in multiple areas
    • However, carriers are still a significant asset in almost all other combat scenarios
  • Speed and urgency rather than institutional inertia should be the watchwords for Horizon 2 innovation
  • Horizon 3 innovation is about a clean sheet of paper thinking
    • It’s what Silicon Valley calls disruption
    • It requires different people, portfolio, process and politics
  • The Navy (and DOD) must manage innovation across all three Horizons
    • Allocating dollars and resources for each
  • Remembering that todays Horizon 3 crazy idea is tomorrow Horizon 1 platform

Thanks to the crew of the U.S.S. Vinson, and Commander Todd Cimicata and Stanford for a real education about the Navy.

Why the Navy Needs Disruption Now (part 1 of 2)

The future is here it’s just distributed unevenly – Silicon Valley view of tech adoption

The threat is here it’s just distributed unevenly – A2/AD and the aircraft carrier

Sitting backwards in a plane with no windows, strapped in a 4-point harness, wearing a life preserver, head encased in a helmet, eyes covered by googles, your brain can’t process the acceleration. As the C-2 A Greyhound is hurled off an aircraft carrier into the air via a catapult, your body thrown forward in the air, until a few seconds later, hundreds of feet above the carrier now at 150 miles per hour you yell, “Holy Shxt.” And no one can hear you through the noise, helmet and ear protectors.

I just spent two days a hundred miles off the coast of Mexico aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson landing and taking off on the carrier deck via a small cargo plane.nimitz class carrier

Taking off and landing is a great metaphor for the carrier. It’s designed to project power – and when needed, violence.

It’s hard to spend time on a carrier and not be impressed with the Navy, and the dedicated people who man the carrier and serve their country. And of course that’s the purpose of the two-day tour. The Navy calls its program Outreach: Americas Navy. Targeting key influencers (who they call Distinguished Visitors,) the Navy hosts 900/year out to carriers off the West Coast and 500/year to carriers on the East Coast. These tours are scheduled when the carriers are offshore training, not when they are deployed on missions. I joined Pete Newell (my fellow instructor in the Hacking for Defense class) and 11 other Stanford faculty from CISAC and the Hoover Institution.

I learned quite a bit about the physical layout of a carrier, how the air crew operates and how the carrier functions in context of the other ships around it (the strike group.) But the biggest learning was the realization that disruption is not just happening to companies, it’s also happening to the Navy. And that the Lean Innovation tools we’ve built to deal with disruption and create continuous innovation for large commercial organizations were equally relevant here.

The Carrier
U.S. aircraft carriers like the Vinson (there are 9 others) are designed to put the equivalent of an Air Force base anywhere on any ocean anywhere in the world. This means the U.S. can show the flag for deterrence (don’t do this or it will be a bad day) or to control some part of the sea (to protect commercial and/or military shipping, or protect a Marine amphibious force – on the way or at a place they will land); and project power (a euphemism for striking targets with bombs and cruise missiles far from home).

On an aircraft carrier there are two groups of people – the crew needed to run the carrier, called the ship’s company, and the people who fly and support the aircraft they carry, called the Air Wing. The Vinson carries ~2,800 people in the ship’s company, ~2,000 in the Air Wing and ~150 staff.

Without the Air Wing the carrier would just be another big cruise ship. The Air Wing has 72 aircraft made up of jet and propeller planes. The core of the Air Wing are the 44 F/A-18 strike fighters.

The F/A-18 strike fighters are designed to do two jobs: gain air superiority by engaging other fighter planes in the air or attack targets on the ground with bombs (that’s why they have the F/A designation). Flying on missions with these strike fighters are specially modified F/A-18’s – EA-18G Growlers that carry electronic warfare jammers which electronically shut down enemy radars and surface-to-air missiles to ensure that the F/A-18s get to the target without being shot down.

Another type of plane on the carrier is the propeller-driven E-2C Hawkeyes, which is an airborne early warning plane. Think of the Hawkeyes as airborne air traffic control. Hawkeyes carry a long-range radar in a dome above the fuselage, and keep the strike group and the fighters constantly aware of incoming air threats. They can send data to the fighters and to other ships in the battle group which identifies the location of potential threats. They can also detect other ships at sea.

The other planes in the carrier’s Air Wing are 16 helicopters: 8 MH-60S Nighthawk helicopters for logistics support, search and rescue and special warfare support; and 8 MH-60R Seahawks to locate and attack submarines and to attack Surface targets. seahawk helicopterThey carry sonobuoys, dipping sonar and anti-submarine torpedoes. And last but not least, there is the plane that got us on the carrier, the C2-A Greyhound – the delivery truck for the carrier.

You’re not alone
Carriers like the Vinson don’t go to sea by themselves. They’re part of a group of ships called the “carrier strike group.”  A strike group consists of a carrier, two cruisers with Tomahawk cruise missiles which can attack land targets, and two destroyers and/or frigates with Aegis surface to air missiles to defend the carrier from air attack. (In the past, the strike group was assigned an attack submarine to hunt for subs trying to kill the carrier. Today the attack subs are in such demand they are assigned by national authorities on an as-needed basis.) The strike group also includes replenishment ships that carry spare ammunition, fuel, etc. (The 150 staff on the carrier include separate staff for the strike group, Air Wing, carrier, surface warfare (cruisers with tomahawk missiles) and air defense (Aegis-armed destroyers.)

strike groupThe strike group also receives antisubmarine intelligence from P-3/P-8 anti-submarine aircraft and towed arrays on the destroyers, and additional situational awareness from imaging, Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and radar sensors and satellites.

Before our group flew out to the carrier, we were briefed by Vice-Admiral Mike Shoemaker. His job is aviation Type Commander (TYCOM) for all United States Navy naval aviation units (responsible for aircrew training, supply, readiness, etc.) He also wears another hat as the commander of all the Navy planes in the Pacific. It was interesting to hear that the biggest issue in keeping the airplanes ready to fight are sequestration and budget cuts. These cuts have impacted maintenance, and made spare parts hard to get. And no pay raises make it hard to retain qualified people.

Then it was time to climb into our C-2 Greyhound for the flight out to the aircraft carrier. Just like a regular passenger plane, except you put on a life vest, goggles, ear plugs, and over all that a half helmet protecting the top and back of your head while enclosing your ears in large plastic ear muffs. Then you and 25 other passengers load the plane via the rear ramp, sit facing backwards in a plane with no windows and wait to land.

On the U.S.S. Vinson
Landing on an aircraft carrier is an equally violent act. When you make an arrested landing, a tail hook on the plane traps one of the four arresting cables stretched across the deck, and you decelerate from 105 mph to zero in two seconds. When the plane hit the arresting wire on the carrier deck, it came to a dead stop in 250 feet. There was absolutely no doubt that we had landed (and a great lesson on why you were wearing head protection, goggles and strapped into your non-reclining seat with a four-point harness). As the rear ramp lowered, we were assaulted with the visual and audio cacophony of crewmen in seven different colored shirts on the deck swarming on and around F-18s, E2Cs, helicopters, etc., all with their engines running.

flight deck shirts

Captain Doug Verissimo and his executive officer Captain Eric Anduze, welcomed us to the carrier. (One of my first problems onboard was translating Navy ranks into their Army/Air Force equivalents. For example, a navy captain equals an Air Force/Army Colonel, and a rear admiral is a brigadier general, etc.)

flight deckThen for the next two days the carrier’s public affairs officer led us on the “shock and awe” tour. In four years in the Air Force I had been stationed on four fighter bases, three of them in war zones, some with over 150 planes generating lots of sorties. But I had to grudgingly admit that watching F­-18s landing on a 300-foot runway 60 feet above the water, on a pitching deck moving 30 mph at sea – one a minute – at night – was pretty impressive.  And having us stand on the deck less than 50 feet away from these planes as they landed trapping the arrestor wires, and launched via a catapult was a testament to the Navy’s PR acumen. Most of crew on the flight deck are in their late teens and maybe early 20s. (And for me, hard to believe 4 decades ago in some other life I was doing that job.) Standing on the deck on a Navy carrier, it’s impossible not to be impressed with the precision choreography of the crew and the skill of their pilots.

Our group climbed the ladders (inclined at a 68-degree angle – there are no stairs) up and down the 18 decks (floors) of the ship. We saw the hangar deck where planes were repaired, the jet engine shop, jet engine test cell, arresting cable engine room, the bridge where they steer the ship, the flag bridge (the command center for the admiral), the flight deck control and launch operations room (where the aircraft handler keeps track of all the aircraft on the flight deck and in the hangar), and the carrier air traffic control center (CATCC).LPO

At each stop an officer or enlisted man gave us an articulate description of what equipment we were looking at and how it fit into the rest of the carrier.

(What got left out of the tour was the combat direction center (CDC), the munitions elevators, ships engines and any of the avionics maintenance shops and of course, the nuclear reactor spaces.)

During lunch and dinners, we had a chance to talk at length to the officers and enlisted men. They were smart, dedicated and proud of what they do, and frank about the obstacles they face getting their jobs done. Interestingly they all echoed Vice-Admiral Shoemaker’s observation that the biggest obstacles they face are political –  sequestration and budget cuts.

Just before we left we got a briefing from the head of the Carrier Strike Group, Rear Admiral James T. Loeblein about the threats the carrier and the strike group face.

Then it was off to be catapulted back home.IMG_8187

It’s clear that the public affairs office has a finely tuned PR machine. So if the goal was to impress me that the Navy and carriers are well run and manned – consider it done.

However, it got me thinking… new aircraft carrier’s cost $11 billion. And we have a lot of them on order. Given the threats they are facing are they going to be viable for another 30 years? Or is the aircraft carrier obsolete?

Tomorrow’s post will offer a few days’ worth of thoughts about carriers, strike groups and how the Navy can continue to innovate with carriers and beyond.

Lessons Learned – part 1 of 2

Thanks to the crew of the U.S.S. Vinson, and Commander Todd Cimicata and Stanford for a real education about the Navy.

What Founders Need to Know: You Were Funded for a Liquidity Event – Start Looking

There are many reasons to found a startup.
There are many reasons to work at a startup.
But there’s only one reason your company got funded.   Liquidity.


The Good News
To most founders a startup is not a job, but a calling.

But startups require money upfront for product development and later to scale. Traditional lenders (banks) think that startups are too risky for a traditional bank loan. Luckily in the last quarter of the 20th century a new source of money called risk capital emerged. Risk capital takes equity (stock ownership) in your company instead of debt (loans) in exchange for cash.

Founders can now access the largest pool of risk capital that ever existed –in the form of Private Equity (Angel Investors, family offices, Venture Capitalists (VC’s) and Hedge Funds.)

At its core Venture Capital is nothing more than a small portion of the Private Equity financial asset class. But for the last 40 years, it has provided the financial fuel for a revolution in Life Sciences and Information Technology and has helped to change the world.

The Bad News
While startups are driven by their founder’s passion for creating something new, startup investors have a much different agenda – a return on their investment.  And not just any returns, VC’s expect large returns. VC’s raise money from their investors (limited partners like pension funds) and then spread their risk by investing in a number of startups (called a portfolio). In exchange for the limited partners tying up capital for long periods by in investing in VCs (who are investing in risky startups,) the VCs promise the limited partners large returns that are unavailable from most every other form of investment.

Some quick VC math: If a VC invests in ten early stage startups, on average, five will fail, three will return capital, and one or two will be “winners” and make most of the money for the VC fund. A minimum ‘respectable’ return for a VC fund is 20% per year, so a ten-year VC fund needs to return six times (6x) their investment. This means that those two winner investments have to make a 30x return to provide the venture capital fund a 20% compound return – and that’s just to generate a minimum respectable return.

(BTW, Angel investors do not have limited partners, and often invest for reasons other than just for financial gain (e.g., helping pioneers succeed) and so the returns they’re looking for may be lower.)

The Deal With the Devil
What does this mean for startup founders? If you’re a founder, you need to be able to go up to a whiteboard and diagram out how your investors will make money in your startup.

While you might be interested in building a company that changes the world, regardless of how long it takes, your investors are interested in funding a company that changes the world so they can have a liquidity event within the life of their fund ~7-10 years. (A liquidity event means that the equity (the stock) you sold your investor can now be converted into cash.) This happens when you either sell your company (M&A) or go public (an IPO.) Currently M&A is the most likely path for a startup to achieve liquidity.

Know the End from the Beginning
Here’s the thing most founders miss. You’ve been funded to get to a liquidity event. Period. Your VCs know this, and you need to know this too.

Why don’t VCs tell founders this fact?  For the first few years, your VCs want you to keep your head down, build the product, find product/market fit and ship to get to some inflection point (revenue, users, etc.). As the company goes from searching for a business model to growth, only then will they bring in a new “professional” management team to scale the company (along with a business development executive to search for an acquirer) or prepare for an IPO.

The problem is that this “don’t worry your little head” strategy may have made sense when founders were just technologists and the strategy and tactics of liquidity and exits were closely held, but this a pretty dumb approach in the 21st century. As a founder you are more than capable of adding value to the search for the liquidity event.

Therefore, founders, you need to be planning your exit the day you get funded. Not for some short-time “lets flip the company” strategy but an eye for who, how and when you can make an acquisition happen.

acquistion steps
Step 1: Figure out how your startup generates value
For example, in your industry do companies build value the old fashion way by generating revenue? (Square, Uber, Palantir, Fitbit, etc.) If so, how is the revenue measured? (Bookings, recurring revenue, lifetime value?) Is your value to an acquirer going to measured as a multiple of your revenues?  Or as with consumer deals, is the value is ascribed by the market?

Or do you build value by acquiring users and figuring out how to make money later (WhatsApp, Twitter, etc.) Is your value to an acquirer measured by the number of users? If so, how are the users measured (active users, month-on-month growth, churn)?

Or is your value going to be measured by some known inflection point?  First-in-human proof of efficacy? Successful Clinical trials? FDA approvals? CMS Reimbursement?

If you’re using the business model canvas, you’ve already figured this out when you articulated your revenue streams and noted where they are coming from.

Confirm that your view of how you’ll create value is shared by your investors and your board.

Step 2: Figure out who are the likely acquirers
If you are building autonomous driving aftermarket devices for cars, it’s not a surprise that you can make a short list of potential acquirers – auto companies and their tier 1 suppliers. If you’re building enterprise software, the list may be larger. If you’re building medical devices the list may be much smaller. But every startup can take a good first cut at a list. (It’s helpful to also diagram out the acquirers in a Petal Diagram.) Petal diagramWhen you do, start a spreadsheet and list the companies. (As you get to know your industry and ecosystem, the list will change.)

It’s likely that your investors also have insights and opinions. Check in with them as well.

Step 3: List the names of the business development, technology scouts and other people involved in acquisitions and note their names next to the name of the target company.

All large companies employ people whose job it is to spot and track new technology and innovation and follow its progress. The odds on day-one are that you can’t name anyone. How will you figure this out? Congratulations, welcome to Customer Discovery.

  • Treat potential acquirers like a customer segment. Talk to them. They’re happy to tell anyone who will listen what they are looking for and what they need to see by way of data or otherwise for something to rise to the level of seriousness on the scale of acquisition possibilities.
  • Understand who the Key Opinion Leaders in your industry are and specifically who acquirers assemble to advise them on technology and innovation in their areas of interest.
  • Get out of the building and talk to other startup CEOs who were acquired in your industry.  How did it happen? Who were the players?

It’s common for your investors to have personal contacts with business development and technology scouts from specific companies. Unfortunately, it’s the rare VC who has already built an acquisition roadmap. You’re going to build one for them.Network diagram
After awhile, you ought to be able to go to the whiteboard and diagram the acquisition decision process much like a sales process. Draw the canonical model and then draw the actual process (with names and titles) for the top three likely acquirers

Step 4: Generate the business case for the potential acquirer
Your job is to generate the business case for the potential acquirer, that is, to demonstrate with data produced from testing pivotal hypotheses why they need is what you have to improve their business model (filling a product void; extending an existing line; opening a new market; blocking a competitor’s ability to compete effectively, etc.)

Step 5: Show up a lot and get noticed
Figure out what conferences and shows these acquirers attend. Understand what is it they read. Show up and be visible – as speakers on panels, accidently running into them, getting introduced, etc.  Get your company talked about in the blogs and newsletters they read. How do you know any of this?  Again, this is basic Customer Discovery. Take a few out to lunch. Ask questions – what do they read? – how do they notice new startups? – who tells them the type of companies to look for? etc.

Step 6: Know the inflection points for an acquisition in your market
Timing is everything. Do you wait 7 years until you’ve built enough revenue for a billion-dollar sale?  Is the market for Machine Learning startups so hot that you can sell the company for hundreds of millions of dollars without shipping a product?

For example, in Medical Devices the likely outcome is an acquisition way before you ship a product. Med-tech entrepreneurship has evolved to the point where each VC funding round signals that the company has completed a milestone – and each of these milestones represents an opportunity for an acquisition. For example, after a VC Series B-Round, an opportunity for an acquisition occurs when you’ve created a working product and you have started clinical trials and are working on getting a European CE Mark to get approval.

When to sell or go public is a real balancing act with your board. Some investor board members may want liquidity early to make the numbers look good for their fund, especially if it is a smaller fund or if you are at a later point in their fund life. If you’re on the right trajectory, other investors, such as larger funds or where you are early in their fund life, may be are happy to wait years for the 30x or greater return. You need to have a finger on the pulse of your VCs and the market, and to align interests and expectations to the greatest extent possible.

You also need to know whether you have any control over when a liquidity event occurs and who has to agree on it. (Check to see what rights your investors have in their investment documents.)  Typically, a VC can force a sale, or even block one.  Make sure your interests are aligned with your investors.

As part of the deal you signed with your investors was a term specifying the Liquidation Preference. The liquidation preference determines how the pie is split between you and your investors when there is a liquidity event. You may just be along for the ride. 

Above all, don’t panic or demoralize your employees
The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club! The same is true about liquidity. It’s detrimental to tell your employees who have bought into the vision, mission and excitement of a startup to know that it’s for sale the day you start it.  The party line is “We’re building a company for long-term success.”

Do not obsess over liquidity
As a founder there’s plenty on your plate – finding product/market fit, shipping product, getting customers… liquidity is not your top of the list. Treat this as a background process. But thinking about it strategically will effect how you plan marketing communications, conferences, blogs and your travel.

Remember, your goal is to create extraordinary products and services – and in exchange there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Lessons Learned

  • The minute you take money from someone their business model now becomes yours
  • Your investors funded you for a liquidity event
  • You need to know what “multiple” an investor will allow you to sell the company for
    • Great entrepreneurs shoot for 20X
    • You need at least a 5x return to generate rewards for investors and employee stock options
    • A 2X return may wipe out the value of the employee stock options and founder shares
  • You can plan for liquidity from day one
  • Don’t demoralize your employees
  • Don’t obsess over liquidity, treat it strategically

I’m on the Air – On Sirius XM Channel 111

Starting this Monday, March 9th 4-6pm Pacific Time I’ll be on the radio hosting the Bay Area Ventures program on Sirius XM radio Channel 111 – the Wharton Business Radio Channel.Untitled

Over this program I’ll be talking to entrepreneurs, financial experts and academic leaders in the tech and biotech industries. And if the past is prologue I guarantee you that this will be radio worth listening to.

On our first show, Monday March 9th 4-6pm Pacific Time join me, as I chat with Alexander Osterwalder – inventor of the Business Model Canvas, and Oren Jacob, ex-CTO of Pixar and now CEO of ToyTalk on Sirius XM Radio Channel 111.

Oren Jacob - CEO ToyTalk

Oren Jacob – CEO ToyTalk

Alex Osterwalder - Business Models

Alex Osterwalder – Business Models

On Monday’s show we’ll be talking about a range of entrepreneurship topics: what’s a Business Model Canvas, how to build startups efficiently, the 9 deadly sins of a startup, the life of a startup CEO, how large companies can innovate at startup speeds. But it won’t just be us talking; we’ll be taking your questions live and on the air by phone, email or Twitter.

On April 27th, on my next program, my guest will be Eric Ries the author of the Lean Startup. Future guests include Marc Pincus, founder of Zynga, and other interesting founders and investors.

Is there anyone you’d like to hear on the air on future shows? Any specific topics you’d like discussed? Leave me a comment.

Mark your calendar for 4-6pm Pacific Time on Sirius XM Radio Channel 111:

  • March 9th
  • April 27th
  • May 11th
  • June 29th
  • July 13th
  • Aug 24th in NY

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

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

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

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

Here’s what was exceptional about Larry:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned

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

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