Thinking Big

I hate Twitter generalizations where people make emphatic, often binary statements about companies, people, investors. Companies are this or that. Founders are this or that. I guess its useful to simplify and emphasize a point in 280 characters. So I’ll try it here 😂

I think the founders of all my portfolio companies DREAM BIG. They want to build industry-creating or industry-changing companies.

Some founders THINK BIG. By that I mean, they are very aggressive and take risks to grow fast. And often they do grow fast. Other founders fail to THINK BIG, they aren’t aggressive, they don’t take big risks and they don’t grow fast.

So you gotta DREAM BIG and THINK BIG.

Six Must-Dos In a Turnaround

My last post covered COVID planning. Several people asked how a turnaround actually happens behind closed doors.

If this is TL;DR for you, do these 6 things:

  • Surround yourself with completers — people who provide strength where you are weak
  • Have a tight, focused strategic direction (know where you’re taking the business) and use that to make decisions
  • Debate, even argue but decide
  • Be as generous as you can
  • Act fast and with conviction
  • Communicate quickly as one

Turnarounds are damn hard. Some of you may be in the middle of one now. Figuring out “what” needs to be done is probably not so difficult. If you step back the answers are pretty clear unless you lack a strategic direction. Figuring out “how” is hard because it invariably leads to decisions about people. Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, wrote a heartfelt note to his employees about this. Fortunately Airbnb has an excellent cash position so he was able to offer extraordinary severance benefits. We weren’t nearly as lucky.

A turnaround is not just about laying off some people and moving on. It a whole series of things you do to reset the company in a new direction with a new (lower) level of resources. Here I’ll talk about the lay-off component. In a future post I’ll talk about resetting the direction.

COMPLETERS: I leaned heavily on my CFO and my head of HR to turnaround Organic. Both were awesome and I’d work with them again in a heartbeat. Both were consummate professionals. Having a CFO that was very focused on the bottom line, and a head of HR who was very focused on managing change (reductions) in the right way allowed me to focus on strategic direction, decisions and communication. Good balance of thinking. Of course our office and team leads were superb and an integral part of the turnaround but I’m talking about my day-to-day “completers” here.

STRATEGIC DIRECTION: Decision making usually followed an agenda like this:

  • Let’s recap our strategy. Done. Now, how does this initiative, team or person fit into our strategy?
  • How much value can this initiative, team or person potentially create? Over what time period? How certain is success?
  • What happens to the organization if we take this initiative, team or person out?

Digging into the assumptions was hugely helpful in figuring out where to downsize (which is a nice way of saying deciding who had to go). During our darkest days, we had to downsize nearly 1,000 positions and close offices around the world over a 12-18 month period. That was an excruciating time. We were at a size where I had direct reports — office and team leaders — that had to put the individual names on the reduction list. Agonizing decisions. We had the same dialog about strategic focus, alignment with priorities, about things we could continue to do, and things we could not, about costs, risks, ROI. Even when we were clear about a tighter focus with fewer strategic initiatives, we still had people we couldn’t afford. The decisions were not neat and tidy. They were the hard, messy decisions.

DEBATE BUT DECIDE: Most managers really struggled with decisions about whom to keep and whom to let go. They pushed back hard for their team, for their stars; people they were close to. I would too in their shoes. We argued. Fought. To a point this was healthy and resulted in better, clearer decisions. Some managers were able to get there. At some point, if we couldn’t reach agreement, I had to say “enough!” I often used a lifeboat metaphor. We could only go forward with a small number of people or we would all go under. Period. Each team leader had to make the decisions about who would stay and who would go. Period. It was viciously, brutally, crushingly difficult. These decisions would put people out of work in a period where jobs were very, very difficult to come by. These decisions would break up well-functioning teams. These decisions would destroy morale. But our survival was at stake and we couldn’t overload the lifeboats or we’d all sink. Some managers ultimately made the hard decisions. Some flat-out refused. Last minute heroics — ‘I’ll die for my team, but I won’t let anyone go’ — were not helpful. As the CEO, I had to force those decisions. And more often than not, that manager would be asked to leave.

Generosity is key here. Offer as much severance as you can and — with employees’ permission — circulate their resumes with recommendations to your network.

ACT FAST: Once we had the list, we had to do the terminations as quickly as possible. Why? Everyone knew it was coming and fear paralyzed the company. Communicating terminations was tough. We tried pretty much every method and none was good — in groups, 1:1. All sucked. No type of coating made the pill easier to swallow. In today’s world, there are security concerns about disgruntled employees. Err on the side of caution. At Organic, there were times when we had security on site and visible during terminations. It is an additionally awful feeling for everyone. The best advice is to be prepared and make it a simple, short, dignified conversation. Don’t wax poetic about earlier days. Don’t burden the person with your emotions. For many people, learning they are let go shocks them to the core and its hard for them to process anything on the spot. Give them space and time. Let them absorb the news. Give them the option of coming back to you with questions.

COMMUNICATE QUICKLY AS ONE: Once the go-forward team was in place, it was very important to realign around the strategy and direction — discussing roles, responsibilities, timeframes, risks, etc. — while acknowledging what happened. “Survivor guilt” was powerful. We recognize it. Discussed it. During this time, it was very important for senior managers to “speak as one.” By this, I mean that all senior managers needed to “own” the decisions we’d made. Otherwise, a we/they situation emerged which was counter productive. Believe me, many times, managers laid the tough decisions at my feet. “I didn’t want to let so-and-so go, Mark made me do it.” Demonizing the CEO or other senior managers was not helpful as we moved forward. It created more anger and mistrust. It was much better to come back to the goal of surviving and succeeding, back to the strategy. So when you make the decision to cut your team, the leadership team needs to own that decision together. As one. And communicate as one.

Do these 6 things. Questions welcome. AMA.

Pandemic Planning

I feel your pain, your panic even. How do you plan when you have no idea what’s around the corner?  I don’t have the precise answer but I can share my experiences.

This is a TL;DR read.  Key messages:

  • This is bad. The economy is probably 3-5x worse than what you are planning for
  • Make hard decisions fast, build a flexible cost model
  • Communicate with your team 3x more than you are now
  • Iterate or pivot quickly if your product isn’t selling
  • Don’t give up, this is about grit

I’ve been through multiple recessions in this century but NOTHING like this.  Look up at the red circles in the chart and you’ll see the recessions and associated job loss in the light blue shaded areas.  In 2002, I thought my world was ending.  Again in 2008.  But these look nothing like 2020.  The speed and magnitude of loss is shocking.  30 million jobs disappeared in a month.  POOF.

In 2000, I was running Organic, Inc. after the dot-com bubble burst.  We built websites and did online campaigns for big brands — many in ecommerce.  After the bubble burst, no one would even say the word “internet” let alone invest in internet businesses.  Startups couldn’t get funding. Companies that were scrambling to build an internet presence stopped cold. Executives and staff building websites at big companies lost their jobs — going from heroes to pariahs overnight.  With that, our $100M sales pipeline literally vanished.  Poof!  It was shocking —  like trying to catch a falling knife.   It was crushingly difficult but we made it through.  How?

We set a plan (one of many), made the hard decisions, cut staff, closed offices, reduced our real estate liabilities, got to break-even, took our publicly-traded company private with private equity money and started growing again.  But, it was really messy along the way.  Our financial plan was often wrong, especially in the early days.  Revenue was like a reverse hockey stick. We underestimated the drop in revenue too often.  From this, we learned to do weekly rolling forecasts (iterative planning) where we scrubbed the data until it bled.  We carefully watched trends and then reforecast.  (Hit Google and you can find examples of how to do these helpful rolling forecasts with waterfall charts) We then did worst case scenarios and planned costs to them.   The key was getting to forecasts we could believe in and having the fortitude to make awful, gut-wrenching decisions.  

Then, just as things were looking up, 9/11 struck.  It was heartbreaking on so many dimensions.  Our NYC office was two blocks from the WTC so it closed immediately and staff began remote work, albeit traumatized by what they saw from the office windows on that horrific day.  

Within the company, sentiment and revenue became volatile again.  People had had enough: rolling staff reductions, promises not kept and the general stress that comes with working in a business with a highly uncertain future.  I think we should expect this roller coaster ride with COVID.  As we began to grow, we used more contractors so we could avoid lay-offs when revenue disappeared.  Cost flexibility was key.

It was no surprise that the private equity firm put immense pressure on us to perform.  We were expected to hit our targets, especially profitability.  We got there but it was rocky because nothing was certain.  Regular forecasting and extreme cost discipline were essential.

I learned a lot about communications in those tough times.  As a CEO I wanted to tell the big story, focus on the vision, the future.  But these situations become very personal, very individual, for employees.  Its about survival. People want to know if the company will live or die and what will happen to their job and when.  They want reassurances.  They want probabilities.  They want timeframes.  As a CEO, you’ll know in these times by looking at the numbers, there is no certainty.  I’ve read posts on Twitter where people say that if you’re a mission-driven company, employees will give you more latitude.  I’m not so sure. People are too smart for a bait and switch.  As a CEO it’s ok to say “I don’t know,” to shut up, to listen. In fact, it’s absolutely necessary.  I said it all the time.  That non answer was in fact an answer.  You cannot over communicate.  All-hands, small groups, one-on-ones. Zoom, Slack, FaceTime, whatever works for you.  Every time I thought I was finished communicating our plan I learned people wanted more information, more insight.  Communication wasn’t something you finished.  It was something you did.  Everyday.  It wasn’t just a task it was the job. That being said, action is important.  More important than words. Speak.  Act.  Deliver.  That was the only way out of the black hole.

We also made a company-saving pivot towards the budgets in big companies — away from IT (website development) toward marketing (online campaigns).  We also invested a lot in UX design before it was cool.  Forrester named us a leader in that area.  So we had a highly differentiated new service line.

As online advertising kicked into gear again, revenue began growing at a significant clip and the business began delivering record profits. I guess you could say our story had a happy ending.  Many didn’t.

Why did we make it?  All the things above plus luck.  And grit. There were many nights I’d lay in bed going over the massive boulders in our path thinking we wouldn’t make it.  The next day, I’d get up and chip away at those boulders.  Other teammates felt and did the same thing.  Together we reduced the boulders to sand and cleared the path to success.  Hard work.  Determination.

 

 

 

 

Quixotic Portfolio Returns

 

Early stage venture returns are definitely quixotic.  Impractical.  Idealistic even.  But thousands of us are chasing them. At the end of 2019, I reviewed the performance of my portfolio:

  • My Cash-on-Cash return is 10x in 13 years
  • My Realized+Unrealized gain is 13x in 13 years

My goal is to for Quixotic Ventures to grow value (R+UR Gains) by 1x per year.  🔥

How did I get to a 10x Cash-on-Cash return?  Twitter, various other exits and TheRealReal.  TheRealReal — the global leader in luxury consignment — went public in June 2019!  Hooray for my second IPO (Twitter was the first)!!  Wow, it takes a long time for these eggs to hatch.  At the close of the first day of trading, the company was valued at $1.6B.  I joined the board back in 2012 when the company was doing about $80,000 a month in GMV (sales on the platform).  At IPO, GMV was about $80,000,000.  Achieving 1,000x growth in 7 years was an amazing scaling experience… basically a double PhD in building a $Billion e-commerce business. The IPO was a proud and joyous moment for me, even beyond the great financial return.  I was thrilled to see a woman at the helm, over 50, join the ranks of female CEOs running public companies.  It doesn’t happen nearly enough and it was very exciting to see first-hand.  I have enormous respect for Julie Wainwright.  She is an internet giant. I was also excited to see the success of my former Linden Lab colleagues in the CMO and CTO roles at TheRealReal, and all the amazing team members that built this extraordinary company. 

Other portfolio highlights…

Offerup acquired US competitor LetGo, building a powerful combined company serving major US markets. Last time I checked the appstore, Offerup was the 7th most popular free shopping app right above Ebay and right behind Walmart, and Letgo was the 10th right above Target.  These companies, combined, have a powerhouse position in used goods.  Wow!  When I invested in Offerup in 2012, it had about 1,000 monthly active users in Seattle. Now the combination has more than 20 million monthly active users — 20,000x growth since launch.

In 2019, Refinery29 was acquired by Vice Media so now I own some Vice shares.  Vice gives me a very different perspective than my daily fare of the WSJ, NYT, WAPO and NPR. 😱 😲😀

Homelight, which raised $109M in 2019 has become a significant company using AI in residential real estate transactions to match sellers and brokers in value-adding ways.  You’ll hear more about Homelight in the future as I am super impressed with their growth.

SKTCHY made an interesting (and highly profitable) pivot.  SKTCHY picks the most popular artists from their community to create online courses for artists.  Although this offering is less than a year old, it is doing extremely well and the unit economics are fantastic.  Startups take grit, and Jordan — founder of SKTCHY — has been single-mindedly focused on profitable growth.

WherebyUs builds tools for content creators and media to grow and connect with engaged communities (and to monetize that connection).  I’m a big believer because this is the way forward for media.

Apptopia provides app publishers & developers access to app intelligence worldwide.

Blanket.ia helps companies book more demos – important in this B2B sales environment where in-person connections are rare.

Granify is nicely profitable.  Snapwire is motoring along.

I invested in three companies: 

  • Flourish offers seed-to-sale supply chain tracking for the CBD and Cannabis industries. This is my first investment in the Cannabis industry.  It fits my thesis of enabling ecommerce…in this case Cannabis-Commerce.  A big thanks to Krillion Ventures for the referral.
  • Mathison is the largest diversity recruiting network and platform, connecting diverse job seekers to organizations that value equity and inclusion.
  • Remoov picks up, sells and donates or recycles all your unwanted items. Goodbye clutter hello relief!  This is my 5th investment in the used goods space.

Fame and HYP3R closed shop — which happens in the venture world. The founders of both companies are go-getters so I expect great things from them in future endeavors.

How I Do What I Do

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My last post was about my performance over the past 11 years.  Read about it here.  This time I’m writing about how I do what I do.

I’m a bit of a misfit and always have been. When I was a kid, I was making art when everyone else was playing with swords. In my teens, I read classical literature instead of playing video games. In college, I didn’t move into student housing until my senior year (then moved out as fast as I could). I didn’t work the required 2-3 years between undergrad and business school, I jumped right in. Early in my career, I didn’t job hop to optimize salary and position, I stayed put, worked hard and (relatively quickly) moved up. I’m “different” and over the years I’ve learned to “own” it because it’s worked for me.

Similarly, when it comes to venture investing, my approach is different from many investors. Most early-stage investors go for:

  • Large Portfolio Size: Many people believe you need a massive (think 500 Startups), diversified portfolio to get hits. I believe that’s a strategy but not the only strategy. I have shown you can get outsized returns with a tight portfolio (11x in 11 years) — which takes selectivity, restraint, focus and sometimes intensive founder support. I go for selectivity and support over portfolio size.
  • Major Startup Hubs: Many people believe you need to live in one of the major markets. I live in Miami, not Menlo Park although I do spend a lot of time in NY and SF. I do deals where I find them…Seattle, Edmonton, Miami and of course the major markets. I don’t screen out companies based on their location as others do. Valley VCs didn’t want to do OfferUp’s seed because the company was in Seattle. I go wherever I find a great company (within reason).
  • Hot deals: Many people believe you have to be in the hottest, highest-profile categories chasing incendiary deals where every firm is fighting for allocation and those with the inside track win. I’m sure it works for some but it’s not the only way to win. It may be essential at the Series A and beyond stages but not so much at the Seed stage. Some of the greatest unicorns lost the “hot or not” match up at the seed stage. Just talk to those founders and they’ll tell you how hard it was to raise their first round. I don’t jump on noisy bandwagons. Sorry for the mixed metaphors. Even though I was the CEO of Second Life and learned a lot about virtual reality and virtual currency (both Second Life and the Linden Dollar were the largest virtual worlds and virtual currencies at that time), I haven’t done a VR or Cyber Currency deal although I’ve had good deal flow. I think we’re still at an early stage of development in both areas. When the right company comes at the right time I’ll jump in. Nor do I shop hot “trends” like AI. Yes, I like AI applied to a very specific business problem but I don’t get hung up on the fact that it’s AI solving that problem. I didn’t invest in Blackbird because it used AI to power amazing visual search results (their side-by-side comparisons were breathtaking.)…I liked the tremendous business benefit that the company could provide to its customers. I don’t look for hot deals, I look for great companies.
  • Major Market Visibility: I’m not above, or even in the crowd. I don’t hang with the cool kids south of Market. I didn’t work at Facebook or Google or graduate from Stanford. I’m not on a hit TV show. I don’t party with celebs. I’m not a prolific blogger, Tweeter or Quora contributor (although I am a HUGE consumer). Sure, I’d like to be famous but chasing that isn’t my thing. I avoid the accelerators and I don’t enjoy conferences (except TED — yea, yea I know it’s not a conference). But I do cultivate my network — which I’ve built assiduously over decades — so I’m blessed with great (and sometimes overwhelming) deal flow.  And I prospect actively. When I see something I like, I call on the founder (e.g., Twitter, HomeLight and TheRealReal).
  • Proprietary Deal Flow: Some investors believe you have to have proprietary deal flow to drive returns. What does that mean when everything is on Angel List or comes through an accelerator? At one time it was about proprietary flow…but now – more than ever – I believe it’s about selectivity. I believe selectivity is THE super power at the seed stage.   And that is a truly contrarian belief today. More on that in a bit…

If I had to categorize myself, I’d say that I aspire to be the “Good to Great” VC. I’m a huge fan of Jim Collins and I aspire to be humble, generous in spirit and focused on excelling at the basics.

As for my super power, I think its Selectivity. It’s not because I think I’m some kind of savant. Not at all. No, it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule at play.  Except I’ve studied companies for 70,000+ hours. How the hell is that possible? Well, here’s how: I was a management consultant for 12 years, working 60+ hours a week. That’s 36,000 hours in which I evaluated industries and markets to find those most attractive, assessed companies to find their strengths and weaknesses, evaluated organizations to find gaps, dug into operations to find shortcomings to fix and core competencies to exploit, rolled up my sleeves to help companies build new businesses, optimize operations and employ technology to win in the market. It was an amazing learning experience. Then I ran a big digital agency for 8 years, helping companies leverage the internet to build new businesses, reach new markets and get and keep customers. That’s 24,000 more hours. On top of that I’ve been selecting startups for 11 years. Now, when I look at a company, I can pretty quickly understand the size, dynamics and attractiveness of the market, the uniqueness of the company’s proposition and the strengths of the team. With 70,000+ hours of experience, I’m quick and thorough. And I believe this gives me an edge.

How Am I Really Doing? 11x in 11 Years

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Every investor asks this question daily but with 7-10 years to exit, it takes a hell of a long time to get a good read on how you’re doing. I’ve been doing this 11 years and I still wonder how I’m really doing. This is a tl;dr post, so if you need a shortcut just reread the title and you’re done! Yes my return (realized and unrealized gains) is 11x in 11 years.

Earlier this year, I was invited to give a talk to a business group (YPO) about venture investing – what I do, how I do it and whether I’m any good at it.   Even though I’ve been investing for 11 years, I’ve never formally calculated my performance using typical VC measures so I haven’t benchmarked my performance against industry data. Why? My LPs (me, myself and I) don’t require it. (Yes, I do keep a running tally of Cash-on-Cash returns and I wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t pay off handsomely) My YPO talk gave me a good excuse to do some benchmarking.

I had to poke around to find good benchmark data. Just looking at industry averages for angel investors wasn’t helpful. The data was too old and too general. With the help of a friend at a big firm, I benchmarked my performance against the top performers among <$50M and <$100M funds for vintage years 2006-2010.  No I don’t have anywhere near $100M at work but I went up to that size to get a larger data set. I started investing in 2006 and I really “heavied up” in 2010 so I decided to benchmark myself against the single best performer in that five-year range. (Choosing only one vintage year gave me a tiny dataset hence the five years and two fund size categories.)

Here is my cut at my performance compared to the top performing fund in the 2006-2010 vintages for both fund size categories:

  • Cash-on-cash returns for the top-performing firm is 3.2x in those vintage years and both fund size categories (this is not an average, it’s the single best performance of any firm in any of those years in both fund size categories). My Cash-On-Cash Return is 7.5x. The average for the peer group is .71. Yes, point-seven-one. That means, on average, the funds returned 71% of the money they invested net of fees to investors. Ouch.
  • Realized plus Unrealized Gains together for the top performer in both fund size categories is 6.2x in both vintage years.  My Realized and Unrealized Gains are 11x.   I calculate unrealized gains by looking at the valuation of the most recent funding round (waterfall approach). I don’t do anything creative or exotic like options pricing, etc. on unrealized gains.  And if I’m iffy about a company’s prospects (AKA the walking dead or wounded) then I don’t include them at all (some people would include their last valuation, or mark them down). As a result, this is a rough but hopefully reasonably conservative number. I completed this analysis in Q1 and several of my companies closed significant up rounds recently so this number will increase in the next analysis.
  • The IRR (realized gains only) for the top performing fund in both vintage categories is 34.5%.   My Internal Rate of Return is 62%. The average for the peer group is 12%.

Another measure I think about is consistency in picking winners. If your benchmark is whether the fund contains mythical creatures like Dragons (an investment that returns the fund), Unicorns (a company with a $1B+ valuation) and Sparkle Ponies (my term for companies with a $100M+ valuation), then I have a very colorful and exotic menagerie:

  • Twitter was a Dragon. Ev, Jack and Biz, thank you for having me!
  • If OfferUp exited today at its most recent valuation, it would be another Dragon for me. Nick, thank you for writing that LinkedIn message way back in 2012.
  • Fab was once a Unicorn, but sadly perished. Jason and Bradford, it was quite a ride and it was great to work with you.  At that valuation it probably would have returned all the capital I’d invested at that time.
  • TheRealReal is a Sparkle Pony that is headed toward Unicorn status. Julie you rock! Thanks for taking a breakfast meeting with me way back in 2011. Refinery29 is another Sparkle Pony well on its way to Unicorn status. Thank you to Philipe, Piera and Justin for having me.
  • I have a handful of Glitter Bunnies (my term for a company that’s growing fast and has successfully raised a Series A and beyond) such as Apptopia, HomeLight and Granify.
  • And I have some dogs (#Fails). More than a few, in fact. Fab is the most famous and you can read why here.

Another data point early stage investors look at is whether their companies raise additional funding rounds. 78% of my companies have gone on to raise later rounds. That’s probably double the industry standard (https://www.quora.com/What-percent-of-start-ups-raise-a-series-A for companies that raise a Series A. Often I help with fundraising (I love pitching!!). Through my direct referrals, I have helped my portfolio companies raise just under $100M in follow on capital. Others are seeing what I see in these companies and that’s awesome validation.

Some funds see a lot of singles or doubles in which companies are acquired relatively early and deliver a decent and immediate cash return that juices the IRR for the fund. For better or worse, I don’t see many singles or doubles. I think it’s the type of companies I invest in. Since they’re mostly consumer internet plays, they’re not enabling technologies that someone can acquire and fold into their tool kit. One exception is Blackbird.Ai – a visual search company that sold to Etsy for a tidy sum just five months after I made my investment. Blackbird is part of Etsy’s tool suite for small merchants. A quick turn-around like that certainly tickled my IRR.

So am I good or lucky or both…or is the jury still out? You decide. 11x in 11 years sounds good to me. I think detractors would say every squirrel gets a nut – particularly advocates of large portfolios given that I am super selective with a tight portfolio (just over two dozen companies). I think supporters would encourage me to keep swinging the bat.

The past eleven years have been a blast and I’m VERY THANKFUL to the founders for letting me bet on them and to the other great investors who have been willing to share that early risk with me.

My next post will be about how I do what I do.

(Note:  I did this analysis for myself by myself.  I didn’t use a third party.  Admittedly it’s imperfect. BUT, my big gains are…well…big (and easily identified and calculated) so I am confident the analysis is pretty accurate.  If at some point I use a third party to do the analysis, I will update this post)

No #FakeNews

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I’m at #TED2017 this week. I’m so grateful to be here. A lot to digest. There was a great talk yesterday about Cyber Security by Laura Galante.  One thing she said (I’m paraphrasing mightily here) really hit me hard…while our cyber security efforts focused on stolen credit cards, Putin was stealing the election. The Russians hacked our election. It’s a fact. Not #FakeNews.

As an early investor in Twitter, I was utterly shocked – no, sickened — at how effectively Twitter and Facebook were used to promulgate a compelling but false narrative – a false narrative that likely influenced the election in a country the world looks to for its democratic ideals. Really, the work was darkly brilliant because it used the self-reinforcing elements of Social Media. We tend to follow people like ourselves in social media. So when something gets inserted it reverberates around and around, gaining tracking and sadly credibility, reinforcing even the most absurd beliefs. Birtherism?! Pizzagate?!

Coincidentally, I got an inbound pitch this week for an AI startup focused on eradicating #FakeNews. This, coupled with a couple of TED talks, got me thinking about the best way to attack #FakeNews. Is it an AI toolkit that finds #FakeNews? Is it a site like WikiTribune that provides crowd-curated RealNews? Or a site like StopFake.org that debunks #FakeNews. Or is it something else entirely? Is it a movement – enabled by social tools — that encourages people to find empathy by connecting with people who are different, people outside their narrow social graph who help add balance and perspective to the conversation?

What *it* is I don’t know yet, but I know there is a huge social (and commercial) need for this company and I am sure a lot of people are “on it.”

Please send me deals that attack this problem head-on.

Simple Tricks to Get My Attention

imagesI am blessed with good inbound deal flow.  I’d say I have great deal flow but Airbnb, Slack and Uber didn’t pitch me :/  Deals come from people I know (warm) but mostly people I don’t (cold).

If you’re writing me cold and want to maximize the likelihood that I respond, write a very clear and cogent email — who you are, what your company does and why you think I’m a good fit.  This last part is important.  If you haven’t bothered to research what I do and deals I like, then it shows me you’re not invested in me as a potential investor.  And please attach a deck.  There is some commonly held wisdom that says a founder should pitch her/his deck in person or on a videoconference or call rather than simply email it to the investor.  That’s bunk.  I tune out when a founder insists on a call before the grand reveal.  Show me the deck already!  Who has time for “cute” games?

I do try to respond to every email but sometimes email falls through the cracks.  Feel free to ping me a second time.  Make it easy by forwarding along your first email.

Keep your introductions short and sweet.  Here’s a good example:

Hi Mark,

We built the first XYZ platform for ABCs. In one click, we can _______. We’ve built XYZs for over 1,000 ABCs with 9,000 more on our wait list.

We’re raising a seed round to support and sustain our rapid growth. If you’re interested, let me know when you might be free for a meeting. I’d love to have you on board as an investor and partner in helping our company reach its full potential.

To see some examples, here are links to two XYZs we’ve built: ______ and _______.

All the best,
John Doe

What makes this good?  The first paragraph clearly explains the value proposition AND shows traction.  The second paragraph makes the “ask.”  The third paragraph shows two work examples if I want to dig deeper.  No deck attached but it came shortly afterward.

Did it work?  Yes I wrote a check.

 

Not All Money Is Created Equal

Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 1.53.22 PMOK so if you’re pitching me and you’re not sure you want to take VC money, what exactly are you doing?! I’ve had a enough similar meetings with founders I think its time for a blog post on the subject.

Here’s how the conversation goes…”I made some money in my last gig/startup/whatever. I self-funded this project.” It’s going well but I’ve burned through my capital. One of my early investors is an investment banker. He says he knows other wealthy guys and we don’t have to go the VC route, give up board seats, deal with their firm’s baggage and listen to their myriad opinions.” OK that’s a bad start to a meeting with someone who is a gateway drug to more traditional venture funding. In many cases, it is also a bad way start to a tech company. Do your research and figure out what kind of money you want and need.

Funding from experienced early stage investors offers very valuable things beyond capital:

  • There is an established, milestone-based template for your development that you can follow which enables you as founder to focus on building a (profitable… well, eventually profitable) product your customers love.
  • There is a very organized — if sometimes opaque — marketplace for capital. With a little time and effort you can develop a long list of potential high-fit investors who cover your category, don’t have conflicts and have a good track record of success. And these investors are used to looking at deals, are comfortable with the lightweight due diligence possible at the seed stage and know the typical deal terms. Plus they can help you on future rounds of funding. I’ve directly introduced almost $100M in growth capital (other peoples’ money) into my portfolio companies over the years. Start on AngelList.
  • Speaking of deal terms, VC type investors know the difference between a priced round, a SAFE agreement or a straight up convertible note. They’re not going to come up with exotic funding agreements that turn off future investors. Good ones will be sure you’re set up for success in the next funding round.
  • Good seed stage investors have experience helping companies get to the next important milestone…which is product-market fit and the all important Series A. And let’s be honest, how many companies do you know that leave the seed stage so profitable with such great growth that they don’t need additional funding?!
  • And a great seed stage investor can become an excellent board member when you do your Series A. I’ve been a board member in about 25% of my deals over the years. A seed stage investor as board member has a couple of valuable attributes: they’ve grown with the founder and are a known quantity; they have different motivations and drivers than a typical multi-partner VC firm; often times they have operating experience.

I’m a contrarian in many areas but not in funding. I think companies should innovate in product, not financing. I’ve seen some big problems when founders take money from inexperienced investors:

  • “My early investor wrote a big check but has some pretty aggressive terms if I’m not successful.”
  • “My early investor introduced me to his rich real estate friends and they all want to write checks but I can’t get anyone to agree to deal terms. I don’t think I can get this thing closed and now I’m hosed.”
  • “My early investor wrote a big check but wanted a controlling interest in the company which seemed OK at the time.”
  • “My early investor was a father/son combo. The father was experienced in business but got busy doing other things and the son has no interest in helping us grow. In fact, he wants the money back for other things that he thinks are cool(er) — like a Lamborghini.”  (No joke)
  • “My early investor is pushing me for an immediate exit because he wants a return and wants to deploy the capital in other places.”

Who needs this freak show? Find good, experienced, balanced, helpful seed investors who know what they’re doing.

Investor Updates. Why Bother?!

Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 1.43.23 PMInvestor updates – especially in the early days – are a must yet founders often neglect to do them. Why and when should founders do them?

Before the Series A, companies usually don’t have boards so there is no formal mechanism for reporting. Early investors are believers who understand the founder is super busy building her/his company. Many don’t demand regular progress updates. But it behooves the founder to build the discipline of regular reporting. I think a good discipline is to do a quick monthly update (a good, solid email is fine) for the first 12 months then move to more structured reporting quarterly. Why? It’s good practice and it’s an insurance policy.   I heard a phrase recently that I like — “Practice like you play” meaning if you’re practicing a sport or musical instrument or whatever, it’s likely you’ll play like you practice. So give practice your all. And I think building early reporting discipline will get you in good shape to do it once you raise your Series A and have specific reporting expectations. Plus – if you’re like many companies – you’ll be going back to the same early investors asking for a tweener investment before you get to your full blown Series A. And if the investor hasn’t heard from you since they wrote the first check — and the news isn’t totally rosy — they’re going to be less inclined to write another check.

Most of my portfolio companies suck at reporting. Truly. Some, however, are awesome. In the early days of Twitter, Biz Stone wrote a wonderful Sunday night note to the company about everything that happened that week and he forwarded it to the early investors. It wasn’t an investor update per se and wasn’t so much about metrics and milestones but it was a beautiful and heartfelt insight into what goes into building a great mission-driven company. It featured stories about people in the company and how users were using Twitter in mind-bending ways. Biz should turn those early notes into a book. Jason Goldberg also did terrific updates in the early days of Fab. In fact, I’d say he was radically transparent.  Among all my portfolio companies, the best at early reporting has been SellBrite. Brian, the founder, writes a regular, detailed report about the business. No hyperbole. Just fact and insight. It’s a pleasure to read, not just because the charts are all up and to the right (which they are), but because it gives a very good overview of how things are going…hits and misses…kpis…milestones…what’s keeping the team up at night…everything you need to know to understand the health of the business. At the end of the post, I’ll share an outline of what the best updates include.

I can usually gauge the health of the company from founder communications. In all cases, if a founder is good at sharing wins and keeping investors up to date in some fashion and then goes silent it’s never because the company is crushing it. One of my companies was on a great trajectory for months and months then went silent. In the back of my mind I thought hmmm something’s up. I finally got around to writing the founder and sure enough they’d hit a big speed bump. I think in those situations, the instinct is to hunker down and focus on the problem. But I think that instinct is absolutely wrong. I think the right thing to do is be open and engage your investors. There is a high likelihood one of your investors has seen this movie before and might have valuable insight.  It was the same story for another one of my companies…everything was going well…updates were terrific then…crickets. After a few months of silence, I got a panicked note that the founder needed a bridge because cash was short. Ultimately I contributed to that bridge but it took a while for me to reconnect with the company and founder and frankly it left me feeling a little squeamish. You have a bond with your early investors. Keep that bond. You might need it.

So if you’re a founder and it’s early days you know what to do. WRITE THOSE UPDATES. Once you get to a Series A or B (and other peoples money) you can be more casual with early investors. Post Series A, if I haven’t heard from a founder, I’ll do periodic check ins. “Hey, how are things going…” And I’ll often re-engage around fundraising. I have a good network and have helped founders with introductions that have produced almost $100M in checks.

Now, a few words for investors. I’ve seen investors who are absolute jerks. They write a small check and feel like they own the company. They hit “reply all” to every update email and panic at every hiccup, offering advice on every little thing. OMG shut up!  If you want to opine, make sure the topic is material and your input is worthy. The worst is when you see a note that says something like “my niece used this app and shared it with her friends. They all said they don’t get it. You need to do XYZ.” Who knows if the niece is even the target market. The founder has much better sources of insight data. So now you see why founders shy away from updates. In cases like this, I’ll usually have a quiet and polite conversation with the investor about what’s reasonable. It usually starts with “Dude you need to chill out!”

What’s in a great update:

  • KPIs (every category has it’s unique metrics, e.g., MRR for SAAS, GMV and liquidity for marketplaces)…Share the numbers and context.
  • Hits/Misses i.e., Good/Bad…here’s where you can share whats working and what’s not…and ask for help if you need it.
    • How you’re progressing on the product roadmap
    • How you’re doing on customer acquisition, CAC trends, etc.
    • What you’re doing in BizDev.  What’s working and what’s not
    • How the team is coming together, key positions you’re hiring for
  • Cash On Hand and Burn Rate
  • Help Needed From Investors (fundraising, hiring, BizDev intros, etc.)