Why Uber is The Revenge of the Founders

A version of this article is in the Harvard Business Review

Uber, Zenefits, Tanium, Lending Club CEOs of companies with billion dollar market caps have been in the news – and not in a good way.  This seems to be occurring more and more.  Why do these founders get to stay around?

Because the balance of power has dramatically shifted from investors to founders.

Here’s why it generates bad CEO behavior.

Unremarked and unheralded, the balance of power between startup CEOs and their investors has radically changed:

  • IPOs/M&A without a profit (or at times revenue) have become the norm
  • The startup process has become demystified – information is everywhere
  • Technology cycles have become a treadmill, and for startups to survive they need to be on a continuous innovation cycle
  • VCs competing for unicorn investments have given founders control of the board

20th Century Tech Liquidity = Initial Public Offering
In the 20th century tech companies and their investors made money through an Initial Public Offering (IPO). To turn your company’s stock into cash, you engaged a top-notch investment bank (Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs) and/or their Silicon Valley compatriots (Hambrecht & Quist, Montgomery Securities, Robertson Stephens).

Typically, this caliber of bankers wouldn’t talk to you unless your company had five profitable quarters of increasing revenue. And you had to convince the bankers that you had a credible chance of having four more profitable quarters after your IPO.  None of this was law, and nothing in writing required this; this was just how these firms did business to protect their large institutional customers who would buy the stock.

Twenty-five years ago, to go public you had to sell stuff – not just acquire users or have freemium products. People had to actually pay you for your product. This required a repeatable and scalable sales process, which required a professional sales staff and a product stable enough that customers wouldn’t return it.

Hire a CEO to Go Public
More often than not, a founding CEO lacked the experience to do these things. The very skills that got the company started were now handicaps to its growth. A founder’s lack of credibility/experience in growing and managing a large company hindered a company that wanted to go public. In the 20th century, founding CEOs were most often removed early and replaced by “suits” — experienced executives from large companies parachuted in by the investors after product/market fit to scale sales and take the company public.

The VCs would hire a CEO with a track record who looked and acted like the type of CEO Wall Street bankers expected to see in large companies.

A CEO brought in from a large company came with all the big company accoutrements – org charts, HR departments with formal processes and procedure handbooks, formal waterfall engineering methodology, sales compensation plans, etc. — all great things when you are executing and scaling a known business model. But the CEO’s arrival meant the days of the company as a startup and its culture of rapid innovation were over.

Board Control
For three decades (1978-2008), investors controlled the board. This era was a “buyer’s market” – there were more good companies looking to get funded than there were VCs. Therefore, investors could set the terms. A pre-IPO board usually had two founders, two VCs and one “independent” member. (The role of the independent member was typically to tell the founding CEO that the VCs were hiring a new CEO.)

Replacing the founder when the company needed to scale was almost standard operating procedure. However, there was no way for founders to share this information with other founders (this was life before the Internet, incubators and accelerators). While to VCs this was just a necessary step in the process of taking a company public, time and again first-time founders were shocked, surprised and angry when it happened. If the founder was lucky, he got to stay as chairman or CTO. If he wasn’t, he told stories of how “VCs stole my company.”

To be fair there wasn’t much of an alternative. Most founders were woefully unequipped to run companies that scaled.  It’s hard to imagine, but in the 20th century there were no startup blogs or books on startups to read, and business schools (the only places teaching entrepreneurship) believed the best thing they could teach startups was how to write a business plan. In the 20th century the only way for founders to get trained was to apprentice at another startup. And there they would watch the canonical model in action as an experienced executive replaced the founder.

Technology Cycles Measured in Years
Today, we take for granted new apps and IoT devices appearing seemingly overnight and reaching tens of millions of users – and just as quickly falling out of favor. But in the 20th century, dominated by hardware and software, 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.  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.

However, almost like clockwork, the inevitable next cycle of technology innovation would catch these now-public startups and their boards by surprise. Because the new CEO had built a team capable of and comfortable with executing an existing business model, the company would fail or get acquired. Since the initial venture investors had cashed out by selling their stock over the first few years, they had no long-term interest in this outcome.

Not every startup ended up this way. Bill Hewlett and David Packard got to learn on the job. So did Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore at Intel. But the majority of technology companies that went public circa 1979-2009, with professional VCs as their investors, faced this challenge.

Founders in the Driver’s Seat
So how did we go from VCs discarding founders to founders now running large companies? Seven major changes occurred:

  1. It became OK to go public or get acquired without profit (or even revenue)

In 1995 Netscape changed the rules about going public. A little more than a year old, the company and its 24-year-old founder hired an experienced CEO, but then did something no other tech company had ever done – it went public with no profit. Laugh all you want, but at the time this was unheard of for a tech company. Netscape’s blow-out IPO launched the dot-com boom. Suddenly tech companies were valued on what they might someday deliver. (Today’s version is Tesla – now more valuable than Ford.)

This means that liquidity for today’s investors often doesn’t require the long, patient scaling of a profitable company. While 20th century metrics were revenue and profit, today it’s common for companies to get acquired for their user base. (Facebook’s ~$20 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, a 5-year-old startup that had $10 million in revenue, made no sense until you realized that Facebook was paying to acquire 300 million new users.)

2.     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.

3.     Technology cycles have compressed
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 are at risk of continuous disruption before their investors can cash out.

To stay in business in the 21st century, startups  do four 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.  So who best to do it? The founders.
  • Finally, 20th century startups fired the innovators/founders when they scaled. Today, they need these visionaries to stay with the company to keep up with the innovation cycle. And given that acquisition is a potential for many startups, corporate acquirers often look for startups that can help them continually innovate by creating new products and markets.

4.     Founder-friendly VCs
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 none had actually started a company. 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 of teaching 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.

5.     Unicorns Created A Seller’s Market
Private companies with market capitalization over a billion dollars – called Unicorns – were unheard of in the first decade of the 21st century. Today there are close to 200. VCs with large funds (~>$200M) need investments in Unicorns to make their own business model work.

While the number of traditional VC firms have shrunk since the peak of the dot com bubble, the number of funds chasing deals have grown. Angel and Seed Funds have usurped the role of what used to be Series A investments. And in later stage rounds an explosion of corporate VCs and hedge funds now want in to the next unicorns.

A rough calculation says that a VC firm needs to return four times its fund size to be thought of as a great firm. Therefore, a VC with a $250M fund (5x the size of an average VC fund 40 years ago) would need to return $1 billion. But VCs own only ~15% of a startup when it gets sold/goes public (the numbers vary widely). Just doing the math, $1 billion/15% means that the VC fund needs $6.6 billion of exits to make that 4x return. The cold hard math of “large funds need large exits” is why VCs have been trapped into literally begging to get into unicorn deals.

6.    Founders Take Money Off the Table
In the 20th century the only way the founder made any money (other than their salary) was when the company went public or got sold. The founders along with all the other employees would vest their stock over 4 years (earning 1/48 a month). They had to hang around at least a year to get the first quarter of their stock (this was called the “cliff”).  Today, these are no longer hard and fast rules. Some founders have three-year vesting. Some have no cliff. And some have specific deals about what happens if they’re fired, demoted or the company is sold.

In the last decade, as the time startups have spent staying private has grown longer, secondary markets – where people can buy and sell pre-IPO stock — have emerged. This often is a way for founders and early employees to turn some of their stock into cash before an IPO or sale of company.

One last but very important change that guarantees founders can cash out early is “founder friendly stock.”  This allows founder(s) to sell part of their stock (~10 to 33%) in a future round of financing. This means the company doesn’t get money from new investors, but instead it goes to the founder.  The rationale is that since companies are taking longer to achieve liquidity, giving the founders some returns early makes them more willing to stick around and better able to make bets for the long-term health of the company.

7.   Founders take Control of the Board
With more VCs chasing a small pool of great deals, and all VCs professing to be the founder’s best friend, there’s an arms race to be the friendliest. Almost overnight the position of venture capitalist dictating the terms of the deal has disappeared (at least for “hot” deals).

Traditionally, in exchange for giving the company money, investors would receive preferred stock, and founders and employees owned common stock. Preferred stock had specific provisions that gave investors control over when to sell the company or take it public, hiring and firing the founder etc.  VCs are giving up these rights to get to invest in unicorns.

Founders are taking control of the board by making the common stock the founders own more powerful. Some startups create two classes of common stock with each share of the founders’ class of common stock having 10 – 20 votes. Founders can now outvote the preferred stock holders (the investors). Another method for founder control has the board seats held by the common shareholders (the founders) count 2-5 times more than the investors’ preferred shares. Finally, investors are giving up protective voting control provisions such as when and if to raise more money, the right to invest in subsequent rounds, who to raise it from and how/when to sell the company or take it public. This means liquidity for the investors is now beholden to the whims of the founders. And because they control votes on the board, the founders can’t be removed. This is a remarkable turnabout.

In some cases, 21st century VCs have been relegated to passive investors/board observers.

And this advent of founders’ control of their company’s board is a key reason why many of these large technology companies look like they’re out of control.  They are.

The Gift/Curse of Visionary CEOs
Startups run by visionaries break rules, flout the law and upend the status quo (Apple, Uber, AirBnB, Tesla, Theranos, etc.). Doing something that other people consider insanity/impossible requires equal parts narcissism and a messianic view of technological transformation.

Bad CEO behavior and successful startups have always overlapped. Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Tom Seibel, etc. all had the gift/curse of a visionary CEO – they could see the future as clearly as others could see the present. Because they saw it with such clarity, the reality of having to depend on other people to build something revolutionary was frustrating. And woe to the employee who got in their way of delivering the future.

Visionary CEOs have always been the face of their company, but today with social media, it happens faster with a much larger audience; boards now must consider what would happen to the valuation of the company without the founder.

With founders now in control of unicorn boards, with money in their pockets and the press heralding them as geniuses transforming the world, founder hubris and bad behavior should be no surprise.  Before social media connected billions of people, bad behavior stayed behind closed doors. In today’s connected social world, instant messages and shared videos have broken down the doors.

The Revenge of the Founders – Founding CEOs Acting Badly
So why do boards of unicorns like Uber, Zenefits, Tanium, Lending Club let their CEOs stay?

Before the rapid rise of Unicorns, when boards were still in control, they “encouraged” the hiring of “adult supervision” of the founders. Three years after Google started they hired Eric Schmidt as CEO. Schmidt had been the CEO of Novell and previously CTO of Sun Microsystems. Four years after Facebook started they hired Sheryl Sandberg as the COO. Sandberg had been the vice president of global online sales and operations. Today unicorn boards have a lot less leverage.

  1. VCs sit on 5 to 10 or more boards. That means most VCs have very little insight into the day-to-day operation of a startup. Bad behavior often goes unnoticed until it does damage.
  2. The traditional checks and balances provided by a startup board have been abrogated in exchange for access to a hot deal.
  3. As VC incentives are aligned to own as much of a successful company as possible, getting into a conflict with a founder who can now prevent VC’s from investing in the next round is not in the VCs interest.
  4. Financial and legal control of startups has given way to polite moral suasion as founders now control unicorns.
  5. As long as the CEO’s behavior affects their employees not their customers or valuation, VCs often turn a blind eye.
  6. Not only is there no financial incentive for the board to control unicorn CEO behavior, often there is a downside in trying to do so

The surprise should not be how many unicorn CEOs act badly, but how many still behave well.

Lesson Learned

  • VC/Founder relationship have radically changed
  • VC “Founder Friendly” strategies have helped create 200+ unicorns
  • Some VC’s are reaping the downside of the unintended consequences of “Founder Friendly”
  • Until the consequences exceed the rewards they will continue to be Founder Friendly

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

What Do I Do Now? The Startup Lifecycle

search build growLast week I got a call from Patrick an ex-student I hadn’t heard from for 8 years. He was now the CEO of a company and wanted to talk about what he admitted was a “first world” problem. Over breakfast he got me up to date on his life since school (two non-CEO roles in startups,) but he wanted to talk about his third startup – the one he and two co-founders had started.

“We’re at 70 people, and we’ll do $40 million in revenue this year and should get to cash flow breakeven this quarter. ” It sounded like he was living the dream. I was trying to figure out why we were meeting. But then he told me all about the tough decisions, pivots and firing his best friend he had to do to get to where he was. He had been through heck and back.

“I made it this far,” he said, ”and my board agreed they’d bet on me to take it to scale. I’m going to double my headcount in the next 3 quarters. The problem is where’s the playbook? There were plenty of books for what to do as a startup, and lots of advice of what to do if I was running a large public company, but there’s nothing that describes how to deal with the issues of growing a company. I feel like I’ve just driving without a roadmap. What should I be reading/doing?”

I explained to Patrick that startups go through a series of steps before they become a large company.

Search
In this first step, the goal of a startup is to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. It typically takes multiple iterations and pivots to find product/market fit – the match between what you’re building and who will buy it.

searchYou’ll realize you’re ready to exit the Search step when you have customer validation:

  • You’ve found a sales channel that matches how the customer wants to buy and the costs of using that channel are understood
  • Sales (and/or customer acquisition in a multi-sided market) becomes achievable by a sales force (or network effect or virality) without heroic efforts from the founders
  • Customer acquisition and activation are understood and Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) and Life Time Value (LTV) can be estimated for the next 18 months

Startups in Search mode have little process and lots of “do what it takes.” Company size is typically less than 40 people and may have been funded with a seed round and/or Series A.

Most startups die here.

Build
At about north of 40 people a company needs to change into one that can scale by growing customers/users/payers at a rate that allows the company to:

  • achieve positive cash flow (make more money than it spends) and/or
  • generate users at a rate that can be monetized…

buildUnfortunately as you hire more people, the casual, informal “do what it takes” culture, which worked so well at less than 40 people, becomes chaotic and less effective. Now the organization needs to put in place culture, training, product management, processes and procedures, (i.e. writing the HR manual, sales comp plan, expense reports, branding guidelines, etc.)

This Build phase typically begin with around 40 employees and will last to at least 175 and in some cases up to 700 employees. Venture-backed startups will often have a Series C or D or later rounds during this phase.

Grow
In the Grow phase the company has achieved liquidity (an IPO, or has been bought or merged into a larger company event) and is growing by repeatable processes. The full suite of Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) processes and procedures are in place.

Lucky you’re not the ex-CEO
I pointed out to Patrick that he was in the middle of the transition from Search to Build. And I suggested that he was lucky to be encountering this problem as a 21st century startup rather than one a decade or two ago. In the past, when venture-funded startups told their investors they’d found a profitable business model, the first thing VC’s would do is to start looking for an “operating exec” – usually an MBA who would act as the designated “adult” and take over the transition from Search to Build. The belief then was that most founders couldn’t acquire the skills rapidly enough to steer the company through this phase. The good news is that VC firms are beginning to appreciate the value of keeping the founder in place.

I reminded Patrick that the reality is startups are inherently chaotic. As a founder he got the company to the Build phase because he was able to think creatively and independently since conditions on the ground changed so rapidly that the original well-thought-out business plan became irrelevant.

He managed chaos and uncertainty, and took action rather than waiting around for someone on his board to tell him what to do, and his decisions kept his company from dying.

Now Patrick would have to pivot himself and the company. In this Build phase he was going to have to focus on how to thoughtfully start instituting things he took for granted in the Search phase. He was going to have build into his organization training, hiring standards, sales processes and compensation programs, all the while engineering a culture that still emphasized the value of its people.

Patrick took a bunch of notes, and said, “You know when I figuring out how to search for a business model, I read the Startup Owners Manual and Business Model Generation, but where are the books for this phase? And come to think of it, in the Search phase, there are Incubators and Accelerators and even your Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps class, to give us practice. What resources are there for me to learn how to guide my company through the Build phase?”

Time to Make New Friends
I realized Patrick just hit the nail on the head. As chaotic as the Search phase was in a startup, you were never alone. There was tons of advice and resources. But in the past, the Build phase was treated like a smaller version of a large company. Operating execs hired by investors used the tools they learned in business school or larger corporations.

I suggested it was time for Patrick to consider four things:

  1. Read the sparse but available literature that did exist about this phase. For example, The Four Steps to Epiphany Chapter 6, Company Building, Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things (a series of essays) or Geoff Moore’s classic Crossing the Chasm
  2. If he already had an advisory board (formal and/or informal), add CEO’s who have been through this phase. If not, start one
  3. Get a one-one CEO coach or join a CEO peer group
  4. And potentially the most difficult, think about upgrading his board by transitioning out board members whose expertise was solely rooted in the Search

As we finished our coffees, Patrick said, “Thanks for the advice, though I wish someone had a methodology as simple as the Lean Startup for how to scale my company.”

Lessons Learned

  • Startups go from Search to Build to Scale
  • The Search to Build phase happens ~40 people
  • Very different management tools and techniques are needed to guide your company through this new phase
  • You need to reset your board and your peer advisers to people who know how to manage building a company versus starting one

It’s About Women Running Startups

Just before the holidays I had coffee with Anne, an ex MBA student running a fairly large product group at a search engine company, now out trying to raise money for her own startup. She had an interesting insight: existing content/media companies were having the same problem as hardware companies that rarely made the leap to new platforms. And she had a model for a new media company for mobile and wearables.women innovation I thought we were going to talk about her product progress, so I was a bit taken aback by her most pressing question, “Why is it so hard for a woman to still get taken seriously by a venture capitalist?”

I had lots of answers, but none of them good enough for either of us.

I had a better one when I came back from New York.

——
Entrepreneurship at Columbia
I was in New York last week teaching my annual 5-day version of the Lean LaunchPad class at the Columbia Business School. We had 130 students in 30 teams who got out of the classroom and did 2154 customer interviews in 5 days – a remarkable effort for 120 hours. Their amazing Lessons Learned presentations can be seen here.

In the last year entrepreneurship at Columbia has taken a pretty remarkable leap across the entire university. The Columbia Startup Lab is a visible symbol of how the university is making entrepreneurship an integral part of all colleges at the university.

New York Startups
The Columbia Startup Lab is in a building completely taken over by WeWork – a company that provides co-working spaces in 12 cities worldwide. I wandered through four full floors of SohoWest WeWork sticking my head into the random startups’ offices.

Looking at office after office of startups a few things stood out.

  • This was just one of the 14 WeWork co-working spaces in New York City— there are over 100 co-working spaces in New York
  • Michael Bloomberg has yet to get his due for engineering the New York entrepreneurial ecosystem
  • I was struck by something that had been slowly percolating through my head during my entire week – there are a higher percentage of women on the founding teams of New York City startups than in Silicon Valley

Women in New York Startups
This last point is definitely not a data-driven survey. However after spending a week teaching 130 entrepreneurship students, ~35% of them women, and then walking through ~100+ WeWork and TechSpace offices in New York, I get the impression that the number of women leading startups in New York is much higher than in the San Francisco Bay area.

When I mentioned this to my friends running the NYU and Columbia entrepreneurship programs, they looked at me like I just discovered that it gets dark at night. Their answer seemed to make sense: a higher percentage of startups in New York are focused on media, fashion, communications, real estate, financial tools – all the products of industries centered in NYC – and all are attempting to disrupt them with products that run on and are delivered by 21st century platforms. (Think of what Refinery29 is doing to Conde Nast.)

These are industries where women have had a history of leadership positions and more importantly, where young women entrepreneurs can find role models and mentors as their male counterparts do in Silicon Valley’s tech-centered, pay-it-forward culture.

This raises an interesting question: is the credibility of female entrepreneurs in the eyes of New York VC’s something about the venture firms, or is it about the industries they are funding?

One can make the case that New York venture capital industry is rooted in the 21st century not the 20th. While some venture firms have been around for awhile, perhaps the newer partners have a different model of what a successful founder looks like than their west coast peers.

Or perhaps it’s as simple as New York VC’s are funding startups that play on the disruption of New York’s key strengths in Media, Fashion, Finance and Real Estate, and the women founding New York startups have an existing track record in those industries, and pass a gender neutral “VC credibility” bar.

Correlation does not imply causation
Those bemoaning the dearth of women founders in Silicon Valley might want to see if there is a real disparity between the coasts or if it is just my selection bias?

If it’s real why?

  • Women founders already had leadership roles in the industries they’re about to disrupt?
  • Women can find existing role models?
  • Women have built a network of women mentors?

What role does the type of startup play?

  • Companies that get started and built in New York City tend to be applied technology
  • Companies that get started and built in Silicon Valley have historically focused on core technology

What role does venture capital play?

  • Is there any difference in funding women for old-line firms versus 21st century firms?
  • What role does industry segment play? (i.e. lots more women founders in media companies than you find in enterprise software companies.)
  • On the West Coast the history of successful startups is technology first, and perhaps VC’s weigh that more in what they want to see in founders.
  • Is it as simple as having credibility in the industry you want to startup in?

—–

I sent Anne, my student, an email when I returned, “You may want to take a trip to NY and pitch some of their VCs.”

Lessons Learned

  • Lots of entrepreneurial activity in NY
  • Different industry focus than in Silicon Valley – more media, finance, real estate
  • Women seem to be more represented as founders
  • If a NY bias toward women as founders is true, why? And what are the lessons for Silicon Valley?

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

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

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

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

Here’s what was exceptional about Larry:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned

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

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

Pioneering Women in Venture Capital: Kathryn Gould

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

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

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

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

——-

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

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

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

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

1) make unconventional choices that fit YOUR OWN aspirations

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

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

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

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

Here’s the speech:

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

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

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

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

What can you learn from this story so far?:

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

Gravitate to what’s new.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tending a New Crop in My Next Venture

Tending a New Crop in My Next Venture

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

View the speech in its entirety here

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