Tag Archive for 'startup'

Why entrepreneurs need to say “fuck you”

One of the StartupBus teams this year was interviewed by Y-combinator. They were turned down. Why? According to the team, it was because they were not a billion dollar company. This is something I’ve warned StartupBus teams before when they pitch investors so it doesn’t surprise me. But there’s a lesson here that I hope all entrepreneurs understand.

Professional investors are in the game to make money. Their motivation is to generate a multiple on the fund they have raised.

Why is that a problem you may ask?

Well, who cares if a company makes a billion dollars? Apparently from sounding cool that you built something like that up, as a founder, you will be so diluted through multiple rounds of funding that you will probably have a 5- 30% equity stake in the business, depending on how capital intensive the business is and how many co-founders you have.

A VC however, not only makes money on a billion dollar exit, but they get to brag about it to limited partners and to attract new entrepreneurs, which helps them raise new funds and get new deals. The way it works in venture capital is that it is all about the brand and communicating your successes. Any investor that doesn’t admit to not knowing what they are doing are full of shit. Because billion dollar exits come in two forms: entrepreneurs who successfully played a game to  take advantage of the current market (ie, an acquisition today that had it not happened may not have become a sustainable business) or fundamentally disruptive businesses that no one saw coming. I can think of many examples of the above, but I’ll hold back as my knowledge of various companies are not mean to be public  — however, all that matters is the point that billion dollar exits are either due to a confluence of market factors or a fundamentally disruptive business model. You can’t predict for that. Which is why the safest strategy, as an investor, is to back a proven entrepreneur who knows how to make opportunities like that happen.

While investors look for the 15 deals that generates 96% of the returns in a year, let’s bring this back to the entrepreneur only making $300m. Put another way, a billion dollar business is more like a $300m business for you financially speaking (assuming you have 30% of the entity, a best case scenario). But if you are a $300m business pitching a VC, you probably won’t meet the investors cost of capital (ie, their fund is $300m+) and so therefore they don’t get the returns to justify their capital. Putting that into context, a billion dollar startup that a founder has a 30% equity stake in and a $333m startup that a founder has a 90% equity stake in — is, financially speaking, the same. And what I mean by that, is the people who will make that “billion” dollars (the founders) will need to work three times harder for the same return…meaning by raising financing, the market problem that needs to be serviced needs to be three timeS bigger so that people sitting in the backseat (the investors) make just as much money out of it.

Which means absolutely nothing about the problem you are solving in the world. The fact the entire silicon valley ecosystem is influenced by the investor industry, at a time when the costs of doing a startup have dropped dramatically — is a misalignment that will change one day.

If an investor says your business isn’t biggest enough, it means 20% of your hard work isn’t high enough to meet their capital hurdle of providing a certain return to their limited partners which will impact the investors future fundraising. And sadly, this fact is lost on a lot of entrepreneurs who feel they need a sense of validation despite having identified a real market problem. Which ironically, I think is what separates the true disruptive entrepreneurs from the rest. They are the ones that say “fuck you, I’m going to make this work”. And they end up disapproving the assumptions the investors falsely asserted when rejecting the teams’ vision because fundamentally disruptive businesses are never obvious from the outset.

A great result for Alakaboo!

Markus Moonie, the Swiss founder of Alakaboo (a vegetable photo sharing site), has announced that Facebook will be acquiring the startup he founded for an undisclosed amount. The two time entrepreneur who previously sold his first startup to the Non-profit Creative Commons, says he found Facebook to have a unique view and aligned passion for what he was building.

 “Starting a business is hard. Creating a website with a ‘to be launched’ page, pivoting three times, feeling importance in being able to hire and fire people, and talking to investors who have no idea in picking the next big star but backed me because I’ve got good SEO on my blog and look like a good bet along with my Berkeley, D-Combinator, Creative Commons branding — means I have the right to talk like I know what I’m doing”. Moonie says that the decision to sell was based on what he thought was best for him, a refreshing change as most entrepreneurs are working to make their investors money and represents a nascent trend in how the power has shifted to entrepreneurs in today’s market.
Moonie considered the funding environment, which is going gangbusters — and what it would take to execute on his vision like an actual product that people want. He believes that it would make much more sense if he was to sell as a talent acquisition so that he can get name brand recognition of Facebook, the 2X tag that puts him on par with other entrepreneurs as successful, as well as stock options in a company that actually has a future. The fact he had no cash left in the bank and couldn’t raise additional money was a secondary consideration, according to Moonie.
We reached out for comment and Facebook declined to comment other than saying they will be shutting down Alakaboo, firing all the non-engineers in the team, and putting Moonie in a Operations manager role for a role that requires relationships with the Creative Commons and nothing to do with vegetable photo sharing. Once again, yet another win for Switzerland and D-Combinator, who produce title-but-not-substance ‘founder’ engineers and inspire the next generation of snake oil producers.
All names, entity’s, and events in this post are fictional.

Snake oil role models and silicon valley’s ponzi scheme

Several years ago, I considered someone “successful” because he had sold a business to a brand name technology company. Recently, I discovered he practically made no money from it. He’s still successful in my eyes, but when it comes to giving people advice on building a successful business I hold his opinion just as high as any other reasonably intelligent person — but no more.

????????  elevator floor illusion

This is a common issue for people living in Silicon Valley that they can relate to: Smart people that “sell” their company and become celebrated entrepreneurs. As a case in point Facebook has quite openly said they only acquire companies for the talent and not for the business itself. What this means is that the products the startup built isn’t the reason they exited; instead the value of the people in the business are what was acquired. If I was to start a solar company and buy expensive furniture — only to be “acquired” for the value of that furniture and nothing more, that’s not success; that’s just money being shuffled around.

I’ve been observing a trend where smart engineers think they are founders. They start a company, but they lack essential skills that makes the startup gradate to a sustainable business: which is what the entire point is for a startup (the search of a business model, which it can then execute on). These smart engineers are smart engineers — but they are not founders. And because there is a talent crunch, these companies will get “acquired” and be considered a success, distorting the story that will inspire and help future entrepreneurs.

A ponzi scheme built on snake oil
If a company is acquired before it generates positive cash flow or even revenue, it means what they build wasn’t a success in the context of “let’s copy that model”. As to why they were acquired, there could be multiple reasons: talent acquisitions are just one example, but there could be strategic value in acquiring a company as it complements the acquiring company’s existing product line. A product is a solution to a problem, and often people build great technology that is better classed as a feature. An acquisition gives these feature driven technologies a fake sense of validation. It’s a ponzi scheme.

Snake oil, Sapa

Economically, this ponzi scheme doesn’t hurt so there is no need to regulate it: these founders cash out something and the company that acquires them can likely absorb the losses. In fact, the maturity of the information technology industry now has allowed for outsourced innovation which I think is a great thing. (Innovating in a big company is practically impossible if you ever meet someone who has lived to tell the tale, and now Silicon Valley giants can acquire disruptive innovation rather than solely relying on it to be generated internally.) But it also creates a fake understanding of what success is. An externality of this are small ideas and nothing game changing, the higher calling for those that can change our world.

A true measure of success
I’ve come to realise that the only metric that matters in business is cash. Not revenues, not number of employees — but cash that sits in the bank and the inflow of it that will grow it. I get nervous when I see companies hire ahead of their revenue growth and skeptical of companies that boast about revenue but sugar coat their margins. Cash is king, and any evaluation of a business is useless without understanding its cash position.

Start -> All Programs -> Cash Machine!

Which leads to why the ultimate goal of a startup is to be able to generate enough cash from customers so that it can fund its operations. You may want to change the world and that’s an honourable goal for a startup — but if you are not sustainable, you’re not going to last long enough to have that impact.

When we hear about smart people selling their companies, stop to ask are they really successful? Technology allows us to automate processes, but this simply allows us to scale operations due to reduced cost. But scalability is irrelevant in the same way revenue is irrelevant for a professional services firm that relies on the hourly input of its staff. If you’ve built something that improves society, while at the same time return increasing profits despite a constant investment — you’re a success and you should be ranked according to the fundamental value of the asset you build. And if you sell your company for whatever reason, you’re still a success: just don’t go around rubbing that snake oil in people eyes, because that’s not the medicine we need to foster the next generation of great businesses.

I’m a hustler baby

Out of StartupBus this year, I’ve seen some amazing hackers. It’s a culture I’ve tried to encourage since we first ran the event (and more on that below on what I mean by that). But what about the non-technical people, are they hackers? Yes, but no. I came to a new realisation this March that you need more than a hacker to be successful in a startup: you need someone who can hustle. And often that’s what the “business” person is in the founding team.

I’m not the first person to realise this and in fact, my friend Micah wrote an excellent post about this last July.

So what’s a hustler? And actually, what’s a hacker? Let’s start there first — Micah says the following:

A Hacker is more than a code monkey, who can quickly build software and find interesting ways to hack together code. Thats a developer. Thats someone who is definitely an important part of a startup, but not critical to its success. A Hacker is someone who looks the problem, and solves it in a unique and special way. A Hacker finds the process of problem solving exciting and interesting, and spends the majority of their time looking at the problem in multiple ways, finding many potential solutions.

Paul Graham wrote a great essay on it many years ago. I’m still trying to work out myself what a greater hacker is, but I would essentially define a hacker as someone who understands how to make the best decisions to prioritise their efforts on what has the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time. Meaning, a perfectionist will treat a challenge as a sum of equal parts, diligently working through all the work without regard of the higher purpose. A hacker, would think of the end goal and take shortcuts on the things that are not core to the long-term effect.

It would be like me saying I need something that looks like a clock, so that it fills a void in the background for a movie shoot I need to do. I tell you that you have 24 hours. There’s nothing you can buy, and it needs to be made by you from materials on a farm the shoot is occurring.
A perfectionist would get lost in the mechanics and the quest to build a functional clock, where the hands correspond to the actual time. A hacker would get a hamster spinning in a wheel, which triggers movement of the clock’s hands. Both work, it’s just the perfectionist will plan on work that will take a month building it, forgetting the fact he needs to do it in 24 hours or he fails; the hacker’s solution isn’t a long term solution, but that’s the point — it’s achieving the purpose for what is needed right now.

So what’s a hustler? I think it’s a different skill set. Micah defines it as follows:

A Hustler on the other other hand is a relationship builder. Someone who can build direct relationships with their customers. They arent really promoters, although they do a lot of promotion. They arent salespeople, although they do a lot of selling. They are passion people. They have the ability to articulate their passion clearly and in a way that gets other people equally passionate.

Unlike a hacker, the hustler isn’t required to prioritise their efforts. Instead, what they do is extract value from, say another person (like paying customers). It’s like saying a hacker is someone who smartly builds value of a product, while the hustler smartly builds value by selling the product. Hackers are good at products and process (the value creation), hustlers are good at selling and relationships (capturing the value generated).

These days in tech, they say a good designer is needed along with a good coder, but I think this is just talking about a specific skill set. Hackers might not know how to code or use photoshop: but they can get the job done. It’s a mentality. And likewise, a hustler can come in very different forms, depending on the industry and the team. But make no mistake, if you’re looking for a founding team, you need a least one hustler. Because without someone to hustle the customers, you have no real business in the long term.

Minimum Viable Business

The first dot com bubble was about moving the offline world online; whereas the second boom dubbed “web 2.0” was about innovating on the “user experience” and making the world a more ajaxy place with the web appear more like the desktop experience. What we’re seeing now is the domination of a new trend, but this time on the capital and business side.

Minimum Viable Product — also known as MVP — was one of the first new buzz words I heard when I moved to Silicon Valley in mid 2009. Two years on, its become one of most over-used terms in the industry along with “pivoting” and the rest of the lexicon branded under “lean startup methodology”, due to the initial insight of Steve Blank and amplified by the work of Eric Ries.

We recently ran StartupBus (coverage here) and Anthony Broad-Crawford on reflection with me when debriefing helped coin terms that described what we were doing.

Twitter _ @Elias Bizannes: "People Accelerator" and " ...

Something that we try to do with StartupBus is have people understand the most effective way to build a startup business. Not the most effective way to build a product or the most effective pitch — but instead, the most effective way to start a business. Last year for example, I threw everyone off on the Santa Monica pier en route to Austin and had them record videos of people that they would pitch their ideas to. The conductors (alumni from last year running one of the buses this year) clearly liked that and this year, each of the six buses had the “buspreneurs” required to engage with strangers like people at bars or in the street — getting immediate market validation of their concepts.

Minimum Viable Business is clearly a play (or is that “pivot”) of the term MVP. But I think it’s more important. Let’s think about this: Why do you raise capital in a startup? Its so we can purchase resources and hire talent. And the reason why we have talent, is so that it will result in building and supporting a product. A product, that we hope will one day have paying customers that will sustain our operations.

So to repeat, why do we build products? So that customers will pay for value we create. But what if we could get customers paying us, without a product — doesn’t that make us no longer a startup business?

MVP is a term that has justifiably made the industry rethink about how we approach product development. But let’s not forget, that a product is a way to gain customers. Just like with product development, we need business development — and building a MVP does not guarantee you anything but a less-white elephant. If we are building a startup, let’s focus on what really matters — paying customers — and work our way backwards to how we can create a Minimum Viable Business.

If you showed your MVB in the middle of a forest, would anyone care? The correct answer, is that they should be hunting you down to hand you cash. Who cares if you have a lean product, it’s much better for you to have a phat one that generates passionate (paying) customers. Call me crazy, but that’s just how business works.

Why the angel bubble is not a bubble but actually the missing link

Naval Ravikant has written a thought-provoking post on the growing “angel bubble”. His thesis is that there is no bubble because the total money amount of money being invested in venture hasn’t increased. What’s changed he claims, is simply that instead of bigger Venture Capital (VC) rounds that are fewer in number, we’re seeing smaller but many more Angel investments occurring. In other words, the VC industry — not the Federal Reserve — are the ones that should be worried about this “bubble”.

I actually think what’s happening is that the market is now more resistent to bubbles. Contrary to a previous post of mine where I hypothesised the seed investment bubble (which I’ve since reconsidered and I’ll explain later in this post), the Angel “bubble” is a externality of one simple fact: it’s now a lot cheaper to build a startup. To understand this, watch the presentation Naval gave a few month’s ago which is the best I’ve seen to date in this trend.

So as a consequence, angel investment has now becoming (and rightfully so) the dominant way for a company to fund a startup company, with the existing VC model being relegated to more of a latter stage role.

Why is this a good thing? Well first of all, a lot more startups are being funded — but with the same amount of money in the economy. Statistical theory will claim that this alone will be good thing for the economy, as there is a higher probability of home runs. By spreading risk among more bases, there’s a better opportunity to generate returns.

But something more important is happening. VC’s now have a better qualification of a business to invest in. The huge amounts of capital they can invest into a business, are now going to be done after having seen a more advanced startup’s potential future, pushed to that stage by the seed accelerators or angels that cover their startup cost.

What I mean, is that by the time a company gets to VC, they will no longer be a startup — which is a business searching for a business model — but instead a high-growth business that’s now executing on their newly discovered and high potential business model. The VC firms are no longer needed in the business of starting something in information technology; they are instead now purely in the business of growing a business (where already some of the larger funds exclusively focus on). And the capital they are putting at risk on behalf of the endowments and pension funds that gave them that money, now have a lower risk of achieving higher returns.

Better still, the VC’s funds can focus on the future of technology like clean energy, biotechnology, and nano  technology — industries that were what information technology was in the 1970s: high startup cost, low chance of return.

And while that’s all well and good for the VC’s, this new funding lifecyle actually opens up opportunities for returns for everyone (which is why this isn’t a bubble). The seed accelerators and angels have the ability to pass the baton and exit their investments to better capitalised groups like the VC’s, allowing them to focus on the earlier stage of the market. With the IPO market dead since the introduction of the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, tech has relied on acquisitions as the sole form of return. But with earlier stage investors like the Angels getting exits to VC’s, and the VC’s having better qualified businesses that they can grow to a large IPO, this is actually going to see the IPO market reopen due to this focus.

All in all, that’s not a bubble: that’s called efficiency and a rejuvenation. The Angel bubble isn’t a bubble but a maturity and evolution of the technology ecosystem. This is actually the missing link in efficient information technology being built — the link which now connects the super-highways of the economy to sustainable growth and value, not bubble.

Why the seed investment bubble is exactly that

Jed Christiansen wrote a thesis on the rise of Y-combinator and other seed-accelerators. He also released the data behind his research, which gives an insight into the success of the seed-accelerators. It’s fascinating to look at these numbers, because Silicon Valley is seeing a bubble emerge — and unlike the previous ones like the Dot Com boom when people realised the potential of websites, or the Web2.0 bubble where shiny AJAX and social was the new black — now we are seeing a bubble emerge on the ‘backend’ through the capital investors.

Why is it a bubble? Well first of all, the hype. Last March at SxSW, I met Mark Nathan who told me he was helping yet another seed accelerator. He told me that 44 of them had been created to date in the US. That and the recent success of Angel List by the Venture Hacks crew — which is effectively commoditising the seed market — is seeing a mini revolution occur in the tech sector.

But as I sit here with my buddy Stephen Weir: a serial entrepreneur who’s invented the spoon-less yoghurt cup, licenced super model of the world for a reality TV show, tried the tech startup thing (like launching the biggest online invitation website in Japan and a reward based mobile gambling application on all three carriers in Japan) but now works in property — we asked, are the returns actually supporting this hype?

How good a business is it

Christiansen says the following:

Y Combinator and TechStars are two of the oldest seed accelerators, and are the only two to have had substantial exits. The TechStars exits have likely already generated a profit, and there are several companies that may still exit at some point in the future. The Y Combinator company exits have likely already brought Y Combinator to break-even, even after having funded over 100 companies. More impressive is that there are a good number of companies in the portfolio that could reach substantial exits at some point in the future. (And potentially a handful that could reach the vaunted $1billion+ exit.)

Y Combinator for example has funded 206 companies to date. At an average $10k in capital as well as $600 in travel costs (applicant companies can get up to $600 in reimbursement costs), they’ve put at least $2m in seed capital and assuming 10-20% of companies get accepted (an assumption by us), then reimbursed travel costs are between $450-900k.  (Note: this is extremely conservative to the point of unrealistic, as companies receives $10k per person so the cost is actually  closer to double or $4m in seed investment — but we’re doing this to prove a point.)

And what’s the return? According to Christiansen, of the 206 companies invested in Y Combinator there has been $89,008,000 in exist value generated. Y Combinator claims the average stake in each company is 6-7%, so the group made $5,340,480 on a 6% return. But we think the companies that actually exited would have been able to negotiate a lower rate, as well as the fact Y Combinator would have got diluted by some of the companies that took additional funding. If we use 4%, then the return is $3,560, 320.

After five years, that’s a gross profit of between anywhere between 500k (assuming 900k travel costs, and 4% return) to $3m (assuming 450k travel costs and 6% return). That means on a conservative back-of-envelope guess, the operational side of Y-Combinator gets about $600k a year, which is what a fund manager would make.

Our conclusion

When paying out salary costs and other admin expenses, break-even seems very likely. Or at least, the profits are very ordinary right now. Put a more realistic capital base of 20k per startup, and you’ve got a terrible loss making business in the medium term. Now to be fair, this is doing it over only a few years. For this analysis to be really accurate, it needs to take into account that the window for a return is ten years – you can’t do dollars-in dollars-out in just three years. Otherwise, how would firms like Sequoia have existed so long. And Y Combinator has got some super-star startups that are the talk of the town now, like Dropbox and Airbnb — an exit on either of those will make a huge difference.

But that said, looking at this at a  high level, we’re not sure if the hype is justified. Paul Graham may emerge a wealthy man, but we don’t know how the other 43 seed accelerators will.

Guest post on TechCrunch

I wrote my first ever guest post. And to think only a few months ago, I was getting high fives from everyone on the surprise coverage on the startup bus from TechCrunch. You can read it here: http://techcrunch.com/2010/06/05/privacy-failures-facebook-dna/

As for the bus, I’m really sorry for the lack of posting – I hope to correct that. In better news, I’ve got some exciting plans for next year that will take it to the next level (feedback so far: “you’re crazy” which is the first idea – by the fifth one people are laughing at how crazy I am).

Looking forward to sharing that once I start moving ahead on that, which I will announce at the end of my series on the startup bus (as I promised).

The Startup Bus

Well, I guess it’s happening now! TechCrunch just wrote about my latest crazy idea which is still only days old in my organisation. It’s a bus from San Francisco that travels to Austin with 12 strangers. The catch? Those 12 people need to conceive, build and launch three startups by the time they arrive, to a packed audience of real tech entrepreneurs.

The concept is to put a remarkable amount of constraints (moving bus, strangers, 48 hours, crappy connectivity, sleep deprivation) among a group of smart people (and the people so far asking to join, include people who have built million dollar businesses). In my experience with these things, real startups can emerge from these efforts (like OpenOnDemand.com/ or BinaryPlex.com, which is where the founders met), but the real motivation is to give a learning experience – and so I am structuring the program so that it maximises that as the experience. I guess you could say it’s like training, or as my friends Bart Jellema and Kim Chen coined for the Australian startup camps, “excercise for entrepreneurs”.

Leena Rao from TechCrunch makes an argument that these efforts can stir up emotions and controversy. But that’s exactly the point – in building a startup, you face obstacles. And if don’t deal with them – which include infighting, things breaking, and crazy pressure – then chances are, you’re not made for the startup world. Which is why these experiences are so valuable – you give people practice and exposure to these issues, and you end up developing better entrepreneurs.

As they say: good judgment comes from experience, but to get experience, you need to have made bad judgment. Here’s to developing entrepreneurs, so that they have better judgment with their real startups one day.

Huge opportunities for exposure for sponsors, which will fund this experience. Contact me for more.

Do entrepreneurs have an expiry date?

Startup’s that are built-to-flip (ie, sold early on) may be the best and dominant way to sustain innovation. How so? Because through observation of the brilliant people I’ve met in technology startup world, I’ve come to realise an important lesson: entrepreneur’s have an expiry date.

I just don’t care any more
I started writing this post sitting in my parents living room last week in Sydney, where I visited for the Christmas break to spend time with family. Chatting away with my parents, my father said something very startling but also very relevant. He was talking about his 73 years of life and the 47 years he’s had as a lawyer. Once a fiery dragon in the courts and of life, he’s now an aged playboy winding himself down. He said he’s thinking of giving it up and going into retirement, as he has been working these last few years purely for the passion. Why quit now, I asked: “I just don’t care anymore”.

I’ve got countless anecdotal examples (but none I can share specifically here, sorry). People I thought that were pushing to create global businesses, are now giving way to other priorities and looking to sell their very valuable company. People who have been involved with a startup for over four years, that’s only now exploding in growth, but feeling fatigued and ready to move on.

It’s not just entrepreneurs
A good friend of mine who has worked for five years at a big bank, is now looking for a change in employer. Several other friends, who have been in long-term romantic relationships for around 3-5 years, are now feeling the pressure of making a decision: get married or stop wasting her time. And sometimes it’s not them making the decision – but it’s what she’s probably thinking.

Passion, fire and ambition is needed to start something – whether it be a new job at a big brand company, a new company that disrupts the industry, or a partner that reinvigorates your life. But like life itself, there is a predictable pattern that follows. What gets born will also mature – and will die, one day. It’s just how life is; what goes up, will go down as well.

Build to flip: it’s a good thing
Bringing this back to the point of this post, I want to highlight that the obsession to build a sustainable business is actually not a normal thing. And I said obsession, because a few years ago I made a naive plea that that was the only way. Now that I’ve seen more, I’ve realised it’s a way but not the common way.

People that create businesses are creative. The same reason that makes them creative, is also the same reason that has them get bored when a process gets repeatable. The types of personality that start a company and battle during its pre-revenue days, are vastly different from the ones that help grow and manage a profitable business.

So the next time people criticise a company that doesn’t stay the course towards an IPO, and let’s itself get bought out – just remember, that sometimes, it’s because the people behind them just don’t care anymore. And that’s perfectly alright. Don’t fight it – it’s how it is.