January 28, 2012

Steve Blank vs. Steve Jobs

 

The Four Steps to the Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Products that Win

I am co-teaching a class at Harvard Business School on entrepreneurship called "Launching Technology Ventures" along with my friend and colleague, Professor Tom Eisenmann.  The class kicked off this week with two cases:  Dropbox and Aardvark.

As I reflect on the class discussions, one of the interesting tension points that arose is the challenge an entrepreneur faces in selecting their primary product design approach.  Should they follow the Steve Blank, Customer Development Process school of product development or the Steve Jobs "vision" school?  In other words, should they pursue a user-centric design paradigm -- setting priorities based on rigorous tests and listening excercises that determine what users want -- or should they pursue a more top-down approach akin to Steve Jobs, who famously said: "It is hard to design by focus groups because most of the time people don't know what they want until you show it to them. "

Steve Blank's book, Four Steps to the Epiphany, has become an instant classic in Start-Up Land for good reason.  Along with the complimentary book by Eric Ries, The Lean StartUp, it provides an incredibly useful guide for starting companies, testing hypotheses and creating products that users love.  Dropbox and Aardvark were terrific first case studies for the HBS students -- both adhered to user-centric design principles quite religiously, but sprinkled a little founder vision in for good measure.

In the case of Dropbox, founder Drew Houston was brilliant in developing an MVP (minimum viable product) that was no more than a simple prototype and then used a rudimentary online video to test user reactions to the prototype.  Houston kept focusing on a test and learn approach to product development, event creating a "Votebox" feature that allowed users to vote for the product changes they wanted most.  But Houston did not strictly follow the Blank/Ries paradigm religously.  For example, after launch, he ignored the most requested feature that users asked for:  enabling the service to synchronize files outside outside the Dropbox folder.  In ignoring his customers' top request, Houston was exerting a Steve Jobs-like, top-down vision in order to stick with the focus on simplicity.

In the case of Aardvark, a social search start-up that was later acquired by Google, co-founder Max Ventilla, was obsessed with following user-centric design principles.  At one point in the case, Ventilla notes:  "We were wary of relying too much on vision and intuition in developing a product."  Yet at the same time, the company refused to provide an archiving capability in the early days of the product, focusing the service on a conversation paradigm rather than Quora's reference paradigm.  Again, the insertion of a Jobs-like product vision.

So in both cases, founders adhered to the Steve Blank school of product design, yet allowed their vision and instincts to overrule user feedback.  What's going on?  When should you choose between the two?  

First, I would observe that the dichotomy may not be as stark as it seems.  Blank is careful to point out in his book that when a company first begins, "there is very limited customer input to a product specification."  Therefore, "start development based on your initial vision."  Yet, in both the Dropbox and Aardvark cases, the founders ignored their customers well into the development cycle.  

I would submit that there are two guiding principles that founders should use when considering overriding their users.  First, when the feedback is in violation of a coherent set of product principles.  In the case of Dropbox, this was an unwavering focus on simplicity.  In the case of Aardvardk, a focus on social search being a conversation.  Second, founders should only have the confidence to develop these principles and  override their users when they possess very strong domain knowledge.  When product-centric founders deeply understand their customer's viewpoint and have tremendous customer empathy, they have the right to make hunch-based product decisions rather than data-driven.

That said, founders should never let themselves off the hook to applying the test and learn principles of Steve Blank to monitor their decisions and continuously validate them.  And the bar should be very high for such overrides.  As the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed:  “Talent hits a target no else can hit.  Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

Founders who override their users are betting on genius.  Steve Jobs and Drew Houston have proven that genius pays off.

January 14, 2012

A Democrat's Defense of Romney

I am a card-carrying Democrat and supporter of President Obama.  I will vote for him again in November.

But the attacks against Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital - by both his Republican brethren and Democrats - and the demonization of the private equity industry are really starting to annoy me.  I won't vote for him for president based on his policies and the policies of the party he represents, but I believe Mitt Romney's business track record at Bain Capital, and the private equity industry as a whole, is deserving of a full-throated defense.

First, Bain Capital is a great firm.  I have co-invested with them and some of my closest friends are managing directors there and you will not find a smarter, higher integrity, harder working group of professionals.  They have also been incredibly generous with their success and become philanthropic leaders, both in the Boston community and beyond.  If you are going to pick on a private equity firm for bad behavior and hubris (of which there is plenty), they are the last ones to select.

Second, the work of private equity is a healthy part of our capitalist system.  Damning private equity as a maket force is absurd in a free market economy.  Should bad, poorly managed companies be allowed to destroy value?  Should fast-growing, innovative businesses receive capital and support to accelerate their growth?  And should hard-working pensioners and retirees be allowed to invest their svaings in an asset class that outperforms nearly every other one available?  Private equity has an important role and should be lauded, not lambasted.  The WSJ does a nice job of making this case here.  

I'm not saying Romney, Bain Capital or private equity are perfect.  I'm sure there were bad bets made or cases or situations where Bain Capital was overly aggressive in pulling out fees and, as a result, bankrupted the businesses they invested in, such as GS Industries.  And Romney, as much good as Bain Capital does for investors, entrepreneurs and businesses, is a bit fast and loose with his soundbite claim of creating 100,000 net jobs at Bain Capital.  Dan Primack of Fortune does a nice job of running through the fact and fiction behind the various claims here.

But the fact that Bain Capital has amassed over $60 billion in investor capital, and the fact that there are over 2,300 private equity firms managing $2.4 trillion, suggests that this is a massive force in our global economy that attracts the best talent, capital and companies for a good reason. 

I am tired of seeing politicians from both sides of the aisle talk out of both sides of their mouth.  Capitalism is a force for good and we are counting on the capitalism system to enable us to grow our way out of this economic malaise by creating wealth and jobs, expanding free trade and innovation.  So let's stop this name-calling nonsense (is Warren Buffet a corporate raider?) and instead focus on the important policy issues surrounding the economy, health care, foreign policy and social policies.

That's why I'll vote for Obama for President again in 2012.  Not because Mitt Romney is anything but a spectacular entrepreneur and business executive. 

January 04, 2012

Scaling is Hard

At the onset of 2012, many start-up executives around the world are sticking their copy of Lean Start-Up on the shelf, leaning back, and bemoaning the fact that they have a new set of challenges ahead of them.  Although there is a plethora of advice now being given about how to find product-market fit for your fledging start-up, there's a dirty little secret out there:  once you've achieved product-market fit, the hard work really begins.  Scaling is hard.

After three or four years of jamming on your start-up, you've finally crossed a few million in revenue, gotten north of 10-20 employees, and it's all starting to click.  Now the pressure really begins.  Your employees start doing what I call "phantom equity math" (if this company were worth a billion dollars, I'd become a multimillionare!), your VCs shift you in their mental models from "too early to tell" to "high return potential" and your spouse starts asking about when all that hard work is going to really pay off.

Yet, the hard scaling challenges and decisions that will enable true value creation, not just interim progress, are all ahead of you.  Here are a few of the top ones that I see start-ups wrestle with once they start seeing their initial revenue projections finally come to fruition:

  1. Product Strategy:  Stay Focused vs. Broaden the Footprint.  The initial product is working well and now the question is how broad a product strategy should you pursue?  If you think the total available market (TAM) for the existing product is large enough to satisfy yours and your investor's ambitions, stay focused.  But, typically, the allure of pursuing the bigger win draws founders into ambitious efforts to broaden their product footprint through organic development efforts or even M&A.  My partner, Chip Hazard, likes to refer to the broadening efforts as the "lilly pad strategy":  focus on jumping on to a lillypad next to you rather than across the entire pond.  By pursuing natural adjacencies, a company can increase its TAM - ideally by leveraging existing customers (meet their needs more broadly), channels (given them more things to sell) or products (extend the current prodcut footprint with natural adjacent add-ons).  I'm often surprised that companies don't think through the basics of competitive strategy when evaluating these adjacent opportunities.  At the risk of getting some eye rolls for evoking Michael Porter, I encourage start-up CEOs to think carefully about the new lilly pad's competitive intensity, entrance threats, threats of substitute products as well as the power of suppliers and customers when evaluating the adjacent opportunities. 
  2. Financial Strategy:  Exit vs. Raise Additional Capital.  Once things are working well, there is a magnetic power that demands pouring more fuel onto the fire.  If the customer acquisition costs (CAC) are proving out to be $1 and the customer's lifetime value (LTV) are $2, why not raise millions of dollars to acquire more customers?  Obviously, it's not that easy a decision.  Raising capital can be a hugely distracting, draining process and the dilution implications, as well as the choice of investors, has deep repercussions on your future options.  On the other hand, pursuing an early exit can be appealing, particularly if the entrepreneur has never had a win before, but there are many difficult considerations here as well, which I touch on in a blog post (Walking Away From Liquidity) as does Roger Ehrenberg (To Sell or Not To Sell).  
  3. Human Capital Strategy:  Hire Grownups vs. Stay Young.  There is a certain charm and many benefits to the founding team sticking together and scaling with the start-up.  The culture remains true to the founding core, the young talented employees get growth opportunities, and there's an appeal to minimizing the disruption that outsiders bring.  Yet, frequently, the talented founding team that gets you to the point of scaling is not the right team to lead the scaling process.  I refer to the three stages of a start-up's life as "the jungle", "the dirt road" and "the highway".  The team that is skilled at hacking its way through the jungle is often not as well-suited to accelerate rapidly once a dirt road has been discovered.  Yet when more senior, experienced executives arrive, preserving the founding culture and maintaining alignment is critical.  The best companies build teams for scale early on (e.g., hiring great VPs who can be both effective players and coaches as their department grows) and work hard to select for cultural fit (Google's top recruiter, Mike Junge, had a great interview on hiring best practices in PE Hub, "Why It Pays To Be Nice").
  4. Founder's Dilemma:  Bring in a Professional CEO?  Ultimately, one of the biggest decisions a scaling young company makes is - who should be the CEO?  The founder may be one of the uniquely talented individuals who can scale from the jungle all the way through the highway, but more often than not a senior, professional CEO is hired to help take the company to the next level.  This decision is truly make or break.  It rests on the founder's desires as well as the board's confidence in their ability to transition from a product-centric, pre product-market fit world to a sales and marketing execution-centric, post product-market-fit world.  Investors would always prefer to see the founder make that transition, but if the skillset isn't there, having an orderly transition with open communication is key.  HBS Professor Noam Wasserman has written a series of cases on this topic that show some of the do's and don'ts of navigating this transition.  It's never an easy one to embark on.

Each of these decisions can be gut-wrenching, bet the company moves.  There's a nasty image I hear used in the board room about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  If things are going well, you want to let them evolve naturally and achieve some measure of victory, albeit a small one.  This may mean sticking with a founding leadership team, a niche product strategy and selling early.  

Why should each of these decisions sound limiting?  Because great entrepreneurs are competitive, ambitious types who attract ambitious management teams, advisors and investors.  There's a natural allure to moving aggressively to scale once the initial product-market fit assumptions become validated.  Just scale wisely.  Going from $1-10 million in revenue is no easier than achieving that initial $1 million.  And getting to $100 million and beyond, well now you're really in the rarified air that gets the people around you excited - and sets expectations soaring higher.

December 05, 2011

Go Vertical

Start ups are great barometers for the future.  Those of us who spend our time immersed in the world of young companies are priviledged to get a glimpse of what's coming around the corner by meeting with entrepreneurs who are trying to bring the future forward.

In that context, I enjoyed USV's Christina Cacioppo's blog post, What Comes Next, where she summarized a few trends that are coming out of some of the start up incubators.  I have also seen the componentization of software and the shift to independent work agents, the latter of which has interesting policy implications for a jobs-obsessed policymakers.

Yet, in my own work with various incubators, I am often struck by the lack of vertical focus.  Perhaps it is because incubators are full of young entreprenurs who have less domain knowledge and therefore are not as well-positioned to transform existing industries.  But if you believe software is eating the world, vertical industry by vertical industry, business process by business process, then we should start seeing more entrepreneurs pursuing vertically-centric strategies.  When I heard about this weekend's $3.4 billion acquisition by SAP of HR software company SuccessFactors (which barely got any coverage from the tech press), I was further struck by the opportunity.

Many mature, massive industries are ripe for innovation.  Here are a few obvious ones where we at Flybridge have been spending time:

  • Education.  The education industry is a massive one, growing quickly and full of outdated models.  Online learning, peer-to-peer learning and the redirection of student expenditures are all areas that we find interesting.  Companies like Open English, SimpleTuition and Skillshare are all gaining significant traction in this vertical and taking novel approaches that get around traditional gate-keepers.
  • Health care.  If the multi-trillion dollar health care industry isn't the perfect area for innovation, I don't know what is.  Whether it's in areas like cost containment, process automation or point of care diagnostics, there appear to be plenty of openings for entrepreneurs.  We see companies like Patient Keeper, T2 Biosystems and Athena Health leading the way in this vertical - avoiding FDA risk by simply delivering software or diagnostic devices that makes the entire system more efficient.
  • Financial Services.  With the financial markets upheavel, there are massive dislocations going on in the financial services industry.  Subprime lending has disappeared.  Payments are going digital and mobile.  And banks are under increasing pressure to stay focused on their core businesses.  As a result, companies that either focus on providing services where banks used to tred (ZestCash, GreenDot) or are working with banks to help enhance their revenue opportunities or efficiencies (Cartera Commerce, Convoke Systems) are finding significant growth. 

I could name others - advertising, manufacturing, insurance and human services - where we are seeing old hands coming to the "transformation table" as well as the young bucks, who are also asking "why not?"

The impact of horizontal technological advancements - such as cloud computing, big data, broadband penetration, smart phone penetration - takes time to be felt broadly in business.  Hopefully some of these start ups will make a dent in core business processes and therefore the all important metrics around productivity, which we need desperately as a country.  And hopefully we'll see more start-ups realizing that going vertical can be very rewarding.

November 16, 2011

Europe’s Autumn (or, Why You Can’t Outrun Big Debt Forever)

"I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the President or the Pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everyone."

--James Carville

The news out of Europe just goes from bad to worse.  With debt levels so high and confidence in government so low, the bond market has come a knocking and is intimidating the heck out of European governments.  Interest rates on sovereign debt soar (see chart below) when the trust in the sanctity of that debt, and the country’s ability to tighten their belt while growing out of it, plummet.  First, the bond market knocks on Iceland’s door (see Michael Lewis' Vanity Fair article and his book Boomerang), then Ireland's, then Greece's and now Italy's.  And when the bond market comes to collect on the debt, leaders are overthrown – Papandreou in Greece, Berlusconi in Italy.  Who’s next?  Spain?  France?  If the bipartisan “Super Committee” of 12 senators and congressman can’t get their act together and come to a compromise that raises taxes while cutting spending in time for next week's deadline, the US of A?

What does all of this mean for entrepreneurs, other than a queasy feeling in your stomach when you read glance at the Wall Street Journal?  I have three pieces of advice:

  1. Plan for Anything.  My father used to always tell me, “don't assume anything”.  The range of possible macroeconomic scenarios has exploded in the last few months.  We are entering a time of such uncertainty that one needs to be prepared for a far broader range of scenarios than ever before.  Will the economy muddle through?  Will we avoid a double dip?  Are we entering a massive, 5-year EndGame of de-leveraging and no growth?  Will high tech entrepreneurs be unaffected when they play in such massive secular growth areas, such as cloud, e-commerce, online advertising, mobile and others?  No one knows, so develop a range of plans for 2012 with objective external triggers that would steer you towards one plan or the other – see The Art of the Long View for a guide on how to do this – and have them on the shelf ready to execute when the time is right.
  2. You Can’t Fund a Big Debt Forever.  Startups don’t typically take on financial debt (and certainly not at the level of a sovereign government), but there are many other kinds of debt in a startup in particular and in life in general that one can find oneself in the midst of.  For example:
    • One of my portfolio companies often talks about their “Technical Debt” – the notion that they paying the price for historically putting off building a robust platform in order to meet short-term customer needs.
    • I love the movie, Pay it Forward.  It beautifully depicts  the benefit of being nice to someone for no personal gain and then encouraging them to “pay it forward” to another party.  If that kindness becomes too one-way between two parties, “Relationship Debt” can form.  I often find myself reflecting on how luck I have been in my life to have had such great mentors and hope that I provide enough reciprocal relationship value to them so as to not be too deeply in debt to them.
    • My wife and I talk to our kids a lot about “Behavior Debt” – the notion that you have to deposit some kindness and good behavior “in the bank” if you want to get something in return from someone down the road (you can imagine how annoying a parent I must be…).
    • If you miss a number over and over again or a deadline, you build up “Commitment Debt”.  One of my portfolio companies gives the same caveat when reporting on the status of a promising partnership developing with a Fortune 50 company:  “Remember, though, this is a company that has never hit a single deadline they’ve given us.”  At the start of the 2012 planning process, one of my fellow board members commented ruefully in the private session:  “The plan sounds good.  Remember, though, this is a company that has never hit a single plan number they’ve given us.“ (note to self:  when someone starts a sentence with “Remember, though...”, it’s not likely to be a positive comment).
  3. Paying Off Debts Is Painful and Demands Sacrifice.  It’s never easy to step back and pay off your debts, but it is often the right course.  Unfortunately, when you’re an entrepreneur, you don’t always find yourself in a position of strength when it comes to paying off debts.  Going into “technical debt” is often required to survive and drive cash flow.  Commitment debt can be out of your hands if you’re never able to secure the necessary resources required to deliver on your commitments.  You get the picture. 

I suggest you make these debt trade-off decisions consciously, not unconsciously, and keep an eye on those debts as they  accumulate.  The last thing you want is to find that debt roughly knocking on your door some night when you least expect it, or are in a position to handle it.  Isn’t that right, Washington DC?

 

 

 

 

November 01, 2011

Top 5 Scaling Lessons From Superhero CEOs

JLA
Scott Kirsner of The Boston Globe called them the startup equivalent of the Justice League of America. Seven superhero CEOs gathered on Friday afternoon at the Mass TLC Unconference to discuss the challenges of scaling their young companies. The CEOs on the panel were (from left to right):

  • Michael Simon, CEO/founder of LogMeIn (2009 IPO) 
  • Scott Griffith, CEO ZipCar (2010 IPO)
  • Gail Goodman, CEO Constant Contact (2007 IPO)
  • Niraj Shah, CEO/cofounder of Wayfair ($500m revenue)
  • Colin Angle, CEO/cofounder of iRobot (2005 IPO)
  • Paul English, CTO/cofounder of Kayak ($200m revenue, S-1 filed)
  • Matt Lauzon, CEO/cofounder of Gemvara (reportedly $10m revenue) 

The panel was particularly fun because the environment was very relaxed - the Unconference uniquely creates a dynamic free-for-all where different topics are created spontaneously and teams are formed throughout the day to address big issues.  This panel on scaling was touted by Scott over the course of the week via numererous tweets and so attracted a large audience.

Here were some of the key takeaway lessons from this august group:

1) What Got You Here Won't Get You There. Each of the executives talked about tough decisions that they had to make with early team members that helped build the company to the point of scaling, yet held them back because they didn't have the right skills to lead the organization to the next level.  An "A" executive during the scrappy start-up days has a very different profile than an "A" executive at scale.  To drive this point home, I often use a metaphor called The Jungle - there are three stages to the life of a company: The Jungle (where you are hacking away to find a path), The Dirt Road (where the path is established but still bumpy) and The Highway (where the path is smooth and it's all about achieving maximum speed in a well-defined direction).  It is a rare executive that is skilled at two of these stages and nearly unheard of to be great at all three stages.

2) Outside Catalysts Force (Healthy) Change.  Sometimes you need an outside force to act as a catalyst to change the way you do things from scrappy start-up to more process-oriented, scalable business.  The CEOs pointed to this frequently, whether it was an acquisition (cited by Paul English when they acquired SideStep), global expansion (cited by Scott Griffith when they entered the UK) or filing for an IPO - these event jolted the organization into changing the way things were done in a very positive fashion, forcing discipline and processes that didn't exist previously.

3) Create a Culture Based on Integrity.  Paul English pointed out that the word integrity has an important definition beyond truth, and that is consistency.  His point being the consistency of the culture that emanates from the leadership is critical to help companies as they scale.  The implication, which resonated with the others on the panel, was to avoid creating a culture that is inconsistent with your identity and your authentic core as a founder.  Pursue the priorities that get you personally fired up.  Niraj Shah cited the fact that he avoided taking outside money for over 10 years and ignored much of the outside advice that urged Wayfair (fka CSN Stores) to over-expand as an example of staying true to your authentic self  and what strategy feels the best reflection of your mission.

4) Nothing Comes Easy.  When young entrepreneurs read about the success stories of founders like the ones on this panel, they sometimes forget that there were many ups and downs along the way - and there still are!  Many of these companies were "10 year old, overnight success stories" and each of them had their struggles.  Michael Simon talked about taking years to discover the business model that led LogMeIn to be so successful.  Niraj Shah joked wryly that the Wayfair rebranding resulted in his company going from low brand awareness to no brand awareness and each of the public company CEOs clearly struggle quarter by quarter to drive results and demonstrate success.  Michael Simon told me before the panel, with a smile, that when his stock goes up, it's because of LogMeIn's strong business momentum and when it goes down, it's because the market is having a bad day.  None of these CEOs are resting on their laurels.  Gail Goodman once told me she felt Constant Contact was in the second or third inning of a nine inning game.  And she's been CEO for 12 years!

5) Alignment, Alignment, Alignment.  Gail Goodman hammered the importance of alignment.  Some of her investors were ready to sell the company when it hit $30 million of revenue and over $100 million of market value.  She wanted to build a billion dollar company, and had to find investors that were aligned with this bigger vision.  

I could have listened to this panel of CEOs all day.  The hour went by way to fast and I hope there is a sequel coming soon - we need the Justice League to point the way to acehiving entrepreneurial success and scaling!

Ironically, the panel was conducted a day before an interview with Mark Zuckerberg, where he indicated that if he were starting Facebook now, he would have stayed in Boston.  I guess others are noticing that you can scale great companies in Boston nowadays! 

October 21, 2011

Why Groupon (and other high-flying start-ups) Should Take a Page From Ayn Rand

Aynrand

Fountainhead is one of my all time top ten favorite books. The lead character, Howard Roark is an independent-minded architect who bucks conventional wisdom and delivers buildings with vision and verve in the face of criticism and doubt – in short, a true entrepreneur.

One of my favorite scenes is when his antagonist, Ellsworthy Toohey, an obsequious newspaper columnist, captures a private one-on-one moment with Roark and asks him: "Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us." Roark replies, “But I don’t think of you." The sentiment is simply delivered; no antagonism or emotion – Roark truly doesn’t even consider Toohey or other critics like him when embarking on his work.

As he embarks on his long-anticipated IPO road show, Groupon’s founder and CEO Andrew Mason will need to channel a bit of Howard Roark. Critics love to throw stones at the company, as they do for other high-flying start-ups. I admit, even I have my doubts about the daily deal model and how sustainable Groupon’s approach will be in the face of merchant and customer attrition over time. This week’s news that smaller daily deal rival, BuyWithMe, is retrenching and laying off half its staff is not a good omen.

Yet I really respect what Mason and the Groupon leadership have built and, in truth, I wish them well. I want more young companies to succeed, break through the IPO glass ceiling, and continue to prove out the venture capital-backed company-creation process can work. I want Groupon to settle in at a strong valuation that generates wealth and further fuels the Chicago entrepreneurial ecosystem while returning capital to liquidity-starved investors. And as a Boston-based venture capitalist and start-up cheerleader, I like that Groupon is proving that not all the good companies have to come out of Silicon Valley.

So why is it that so many people are so eager to tear the company down? I guess schadenfreude, that odd feeling of happiness humans feel when they see other people suffering, is not simply a German phenomenon. For whatever reason (too many type A competitive folks in one small Petri dish?), the start-up community is a very snarky one. VCs are famous for bragging about their portfolio companies and snidely putting down their rivals. I remember when I was an entrepreneur and my company, Upromise, was raising money, one VC heard I was talking to a famous partner at a rival firm and sniggered, “Really? Is he still in the business?”

Yet the best entrepreneurs (and VCs, I suppose) know to ignore the critics and naysayers. In fact, like Howard Roark, they don’t even think of them. They keep their head down and focus on building a great service that their customers love and creating a great culture that engenders loyalty and passion amongst their employees.

Good luck, Andrew.

October 11, 2011

Peace Through Entrepreneurship?

Palestinian delegation photo

I had an out of body experience last week.  A few days before Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar and a spiritual day of remembrance, I found myself in front of ten Palestinian high tech CEOs talking about entrepreneurship.  At the end of the session, they invited me to meet with Palestinian President Abbas to advise him on how to build a thriving IT sector (which now employs 3,500 across 300 companies).  How did this juxtaposition come about?

It all began a few months ago, when Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick visited Israel on a trade mission.  He met with numerous Israeli entrepreneurs to foster greater business partnerships and opportunities with Massachusetts businesses.  While there, he met with a few Palestinian entrepreneurs as well and invited them to come to Boston to establish closer relationships with local businesses.  Last week, they took him up on this offer - coming to both Boston and Silicon Valley to meet with business leaders from the IT industry.  The Boston visit was coordinated by the Progressive Business Leaders Network, a business organization I co-founded, and Governor Patrick came to meet with the group to welcome them to Boston.

Honestly, when I was invited to speak to the Palestinian delegation, I paused.  You see, my father is a Holocaust survivor and finished high school in Tel Aviv.  My kids attend a Jewish day school, study Hebrew, and are being raised, like I was, as ardent Zionists.  I donate money to AIPAC as well as our local Jewish federation (CJP).  Although I strongly support a two-state solution, I worry that anti-Semitism remains rampant in the Middle East and that the demonization of Israel and Jews is at an alarming high.  And so the question I asked myself before accepting the invitation was:  would a strong Palestinian IT sector be a good thing for peace in the Middle East?  What if the next Skype or LogMeIn was started by a Ramallah-based entrepreneur instead of a Swede or Hungarian, respectively - would that be a good thing?

My conclusion:  100% yes.  And after meeting with the Palestinian CEO delegation, I would say 200% yes.

Thomas Friedman said recently that the surest cure to poverty was entrepreneurship.  I would say the same regarding peace.  If the Israelis and Palestinians are busy cooperating commercially, creating jobs and wealth for both sides, it will meaningfully reduce the tension that unemployment and a lack of opportunity for young and old represent.

I was blown away by the group of Palestinian entrepreneurs – they had more in common with entrepreneurs in Boston, Silicon Valley and NYC than probably many of their own people.  They could have stepped right out of Techstars central casting – smart, scrappy, ambitious, hungry.  I enjoyed hearing their stories of their entrepreneurial journeys to create their companies.  (I joked with some chagrin with the one female in the delegation – pictured above – that their male : female entrepreneurial ratio matched our own).

Traveling with the delegation was a USAID executive who is assigned to the region to foster more business development with entrepreneurial companies.  I was able to enlist a Palestinian Harvard Business School student (we hosted the event at Harvard’s new Innovation Lab, which is spectacular), to join us.  He was raised in Bethlehem and worked at a Palestinian venture capital firm last summer, called Padico, scouting opportunities for investment.

Who knows what will happen with the peace talks, but if these ten entrepreneurs are any indication, there’s hope yet for peace in the Middle East through posterity and entrepreneurship.  At least that’s what I was praying for in synagogue on Saturday!  With the recent bombshell announcement that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has secured the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, perhaps we are a step closer.

 

October 03, 2011

Entrepreneur-Friendly Policies (Finally) Showing Promise - But Leadership Required

The policy conversation regarding jobs and economic development is starting to show some promising signs, particularly in helping young companies flourish.  The fact that the entrepreneurial ecosystem is critical to job creation should be obvious, but there remains a misperception that small businesses create jobs.  In truth, it’s not small business that represents the country’s job engine.  It’s new businesses.  The Kauffman Foundation’s research on this matter is clear:  from 1997 to 2005, job growth in the US was driven entirely by start-ups.  What this means is that any economic development effort must be framed in the context of the following central question:  how can the government help more young companies be formed, grow faster and achieve long-term success?

Fortunately, there is a constructive policy conversation in this area on both sides of the political spectrum.  Unfortunately, it's going to take leadership and bi-partisan cooperation to push them through, and it's not clear where that leadership is going to come from.  Here are some recent policy developments worth tracking, as well as my own two cents on the policies I think should be getting more attention to support company formation, growth and ultimate success:

Policies:  Company Formation

One of the most valuable resource for American start-ups are immigrants who come to the US to pursue entrepreneurial careers.  Such household names as Google, Intel and eBay were started by at least one immigrant founder.  Yet, we make it very difficult for immigrant entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams and build their companies in America.  To address this, Senators Kerry and Lugar proposed a Start Up Visa in March 2011, providing “Entrepreneur’s visas” for immigrant entrepreneurs.  This bill needs to be passed immediately (it is in the midst of hearings and keeps getting caught up in partisan bickering over broader immigration reform) and should be expanded to provide green cards for those with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.  For more on this important bill, read here and here.  The administration has proposed additional changes to process immigrants in a more streamlined fashion, including a recent set of policies that the US Citizens and Immigration Services department has advocated which can be found here.

The other major lever to improve company formation is facilitating the flow of ideas out of our university system.  Flybridge Capital recently created an organization called URES (University Research and Entrepreneurship Symposium) in partnership with the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer (NCET2), to bring together researchers, investors and entrepreneurs to act as catalysts for company-building.  Greater attention and support for these efforts will help accelerate the process for research to be commercialized.  The recently passed Patent Reform Act is a good step forward in this area as well, simplifying red tape and reducing the backlog (despite last-minute, dysfunctional nods to special interests). 

But to really jumpstart company formation, the government should consider meaningfully increasing NIH funding – perhaps 2-3x its current level.  Most medical research labs around the company are dependent on NIH funding and it is one of the highest leverage investment we can make – supporting 325,000 researchers at over 3,000 universities around the country.  Yet, NIH funding is at a ridiculously low $31 billion per year, roughly the same in constant dollars as it was ten years ago.  We spend $21 billion on tax breaks to the oil and gas industry and tens of billions of dollars on farm subsidies.  This anemic NIH funding level remains despite the well-known fact that the impact on health care costs and job creation is enormous.  In diabetes alone, the total government support for research is a mere $1 billion in contrast to the $200 billion per year that diabetes costs the economy.  In addition to the clinical impact, each dollar of NIH funding generates more than twice as much in state economic output, not including the jobs generated by the companies who are spun out of NIH funding.  I'm shocked that there isn't more discussion about channeling more dollars towards this inmportant institution.

Policies:  Grow Faster

Once new companies are created, they need access to both financial and human capital to grow faster.  Just to prove that good ideas can come from unusual sources, Republican majority whip Kevin McCarthy proposed in September the Access to Capital for Job Creations Act, a piece of legislation that would widen the universe of potential investors for small businesses around the Securities Act of 1933.  Packaged with other proposals around expanding the number of shareholders private companies can have, this act would be an accelerant for small companies seeking access to capital from a broad range of sources. 

Access to human capital is another critical component to allowing young companies to grow faster.  The dearth of trained computer science and engineering is crippling the growth of many Innovation Economy companies.  Worker training efforts in combination with educational efforts, such as the emphasis on STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is a start, but are woefully underfunded and under-supported.  For example, Congress nearly cut the $181m Department of Education’s Math and Science Partnership Program and the NSF’s programs in this area also do not get enough attention.  In thinking through our investment choices, we should keep asking ourselves, if they had a massive shortage of software engineers, What Would China Do?  The President’s Jobs Bill contains some good ideas in this area, such as a “Bridge to Work” program, which could have a big impact when the details are fully worked through.

Free trade is another critical component to support small business expansion.  Coming out of the recent economic crisis, there has been protectionist pressure that threatens to choke off the opportunity for small businesses to expand via global exports.  The free flow of capital across borders is one of the most critical ways to expand opportunities for US companies.  In September, the Council on Foreign Relations issued a new report that concludes that America is at risk of being left a bystander in the global trade arena as our share of exports and direct investment has plummeted.  Huge emerging economies in India and Brazil need to be opened up more aggressively with the help of the Congress and White House.  A more aggressive free trade policy, coupled with stricter punishment for unfair trade practices, must be embarked on.

Policies:  Achieve Long-Term Success

For young companies to truly have a shot at achieving long-term success, they need to be able to access the public markets through an IPO.  Unfortunately, the IPO market was the victim of excessive regulation in the wake of the Enron scandal, leading to the passage of the very restrictive Sarbanes Oxley, among other things.  Policy makers have finally been listening to the start-up and entrepreneurial community to adjust the policies to prevent the choking off of growth.  In September, Congressman Ben Quayle introduced the Startup Expansion and Investment Act, which seeks to make it easier for new companies with a market capitalization of less than $1 billion to go public by opting out of some of the more onerous regulations imposed by Sarbanes-Oxley.  This is a good start.  The National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) has put forward a comprehensive list of policies that need to be followed to make an event larger impact here.  Hearings on this have started.  Action needs to be taken.

Conclusion

Despite the partisan rhetoric and bickering, the last few months have seen substantial progress amongst policy makers in the areas of helping the startup economy thrive.  The link between startups and jobs is becoming more broadly understand, as are the policies required to help business form, grow and ultimately succeed.  It will require extraordinary leadership to step forward and advocate these policies in a comprehensive way that transcends the classic “left” vs. “right” debates.  I sure hope that leadership is on its way.

September 26, 2011

Mastering the VC Game - in Paperback

I'm pleased to announce that my book, Mastering the VC Game, is now available in paperback, complete with a new introduction and a few updates.  Amazon has priced it at $10.88 for Prime customers.  Frankly, I'd prefer to give it away for free as making money off the book isn't really my goal.  The folks at Penguin have a business to run, though, so books still cost money.  That said, I was able to convince them to let me give away the first 40 pages for free - so download it here or at the book website at www.jeffbussgang.com to get a taste.

Since the publication of Mastering the VC Game in 2010, I have received wonderful feedback from the entrepreneurial community. In fact, I have been blown away by the response from such a diverse population of entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs around the world. One twenty-something entrepreneur working at a non-profit in Australia wrote me:

 “Thank you for writing this book. It was a captivating read that gave me the basics of how the industry looks. I loved it. My only problem was feeling inspired to action, which made me put the book down to send emails to friends, and look up companies, which was a great problem to have.”

Inspiring entrepreneurs into action was my original goal for the book. The need for entrepreneurship is greater than ever. Policy makers and business leaders have both come to recognize that the capacity of human beings to innovate is our best hope for addressing and ultimately solving society’s thorniest problems. It has never been more critical that we brew up that magic elixir that comes of mixing entrepreneurs, who are the source of innovation, with investors, who are the source of capital to fuel that innovation.

I wrote Mastering the VC Game to contribute in some small way to this phenomenon and inspire entrepreneurs around the world to arm themselves with the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to take action and to succeed in their endeavors.  When entrepreneurs and investors align and work in harmony, the long odds for start-up success are greatly improved and real magic can happen - creating that next Google, Facebook, or Twitter.  Let me know what you think!

September 14, 2011

Techstars on TV – Hit or Miss?

Like many members of the start-up ecosystem, I was excited to watch the Bloomberg TV show on Techstars NY last night.  The opportunity to see our little subculture of whacky characters and idiosyncrasies playing out on television was so alluring that it was worth foregoing my usual nightly email binge.

Yet, when the show was over, I was strangely disappointed.  I had that same feeling you get when you eat a bag of potato chips, which taste good going down, but then feels unfulfilling and unappealing after the last chip is gone.  In short, I think the show was a huge wasted opportunity.

First, I should say that I’m a huge fan and supporter of Techstars.  My partners and I are personal financial investors in Techstars Boston and we funded one of the first Techstars companies (oneforty) and have served as advisors to countless others in NYC and Boston.  Finally, I am a huge fan of David Tisch, Katie Rae and the other Techstars managing directors.  What they have created from nothing a few years ago, with the backing and support of Brad Feld and David Cohen, is nothing short of remarkable.

OK, caveats aside, here’s what I didn’t like about the show:  the tone was all wrong.  The edgy graphics, music and camera shots tried to bring a crass, reality TV feel to a serious and sophisticated business.  The producers apparently wanted to create something akin to “the Bachelor metes The Apprentice” and, in doing, cheapened the whole endeavor.  Get rich quick, kids, was the message, complete with hip sound track, sound bites and quirky camera angles.

I would submit that’s not the point of entrepreneurship or, for that matter, Techstars.  I would have much preferred to see a more sophisticated show that brought out the “change the world” passions of the founders and provided a more nuanced view of the ups and downs of start-up life.  I wanted to see more big picture thinking, for example an explanation about the game-changing (and, in many cases, life changing) impact start-ups are having in our society, transforming industries and households up and down the economic stack.  

I’m not suggesting Bloomberg should try to emulate their own Charlie Rose, and risk putting the audience to sleep, but at least channel a bit of Jon Stewart (who, Bill Moyers recently put, is brilliant at taking “a critical view of the news and marinating it in humor”).  I would have much preferred to see the producers treat the audience like adults, able to digest serious issues and trade off decisions that the founders were struggling with, rather than target hipsters that are looking for dramatic founder break-ups because they’re too busy to watch mid-day soaps. 

Perhaps the start-up community needs a Jon Stewart-like figure to act as our guide through the Techstars process – more of an shrewd yet entertaining narrator than an MTV host.  Some of the quick-hit interviewees on the pilot show would be great candidates for this (e.g., Fred Wilson, Roger Ehrenberg, Brad Feld).  Start-up life has plenty of drama that doesn’t need fabrication or exaggeration.  Hard problems are being faced by each team professionally and personally.  The characters in most start-up dramas are fascinating people, with compelling stories – I know many of the folks depicted in the show and they are deserving of more than surface treatment, but rather real character development and dimensionality.

Sure, I enjoyed seeing so many friends and familiar faces on screen and seeing “my world” exposed to a broader audience.  But, objectively, I thought the actual show kind of stunk.  That said, I’ll be tuning in to the second episode.  And hoping for the best.

September 12, 2011

Why Venture Capitalists Invest In Pigs, Not Chickens

ham eggs

There is an old parable about the concept of commitment when it comes to breakfast. The story goes that when looking at a plate of the traditional fare of ham and eggs, it's obvious that the chicken is an interested party, but the pig is truly committed.

When I tell this story to entrepreneurs, my point is usually to contrast the approach VCs have to start-ups as compared to entrepreneurs. The VC is an interested party, but at the end of the day, if their start-ups live or die, they typically still have their job, their office and their portfolio of other investments. The entrepreneur, on the other hand, is the pig - truly committed to the outcome, with no fallback.

But lately I've been thinking about the parable of the pig and the chicken in the context of the characteristics that make a great entrepreneur - and the kind of entrepreneur that we VCs in general, and my firm Flybridge Capital in particular, like to back. In short, we like to back pigs - entrepreneurs who are truly and completely committed to the outcome of their venture, have a lot of stake, and no fallback.

How do we discern the difference between the two entrepreneurial archetypes? It's usually relatively easy, but sometimes subtle. Here are a few of the top characteristics we see in entrepreneurs who appear to be exhibiting behavior that suggests they're more like "chickens" when it comes to their start-up:

1) Prefer to wait to start their venture only after they receive funding ("We are ready to go, as soon as you give us your money." ...um, does that mean you won't start the company if I don't give you my money?).

2) Don't quit their day jobs before receiving funding. ("This has been a side project for a year, and I can't wait to focus on it full-time" ... um, if you can't wait - why are you waiting?)

3) Don't physically move themselves or their teammates to be in the same geography when starting their venture (think Eduardo Severin in the Social Network spending his summer in NYC).

4) Prefer to play a hands-off chairman role or look to quickly hire a COO/president in the early days rather than operate as the hands-on CEO/president. (I'll leave out the numerous examples to protect the innocent, but as a rule of thumb, companies with fewer than 40 employees don't typically need a COO).

5) Are unwilling to fully leverage their own personal and professional networks to drive recruiting, fundraising and business development.

On the other hand, the top five characteristics we see in "pig" entrepreneurs include:

1) Commit to the new company everything they have - even if that means moving their families, quitting their jobs, or even dropping our of their schools (as much as I don't want to condone or encourage this!).

2) Put themselves "out there" publicly and visibly with the industry, their relationships, family and friends. If the company is a failure, it will not be a quiet one.

3) Have not yet achieved a mega-success already and/or yet achieved wealth beyond the point of needing to work again. (I remember my mentor and boss at Open Market, CEO Gary Eichhorn, congratulating me when I became a first-time homeowner in the mid-1990s and observed: "I hope you got a large mortgage so that you are locked in and highly motivated to create wealth!").

4) Participate in a minimal set of outside interests and hobbies that aren't directly related to their business. Starting a company is a consuming, obsessive, 7x24 endeavor. Raising a family and remaining healthy is enough of a battle. When we see entrepreneurs with long lists of hobbies and outside interests, it's a red flag. One of my partners went so far as to look up the number of times an entrepreneur played golf one summer (which apparently is public information somehow, although I'm not a golfer so still don't know how he figured this out) as a barometer for how hard they were applying themselves to their new venture.

5) There exists a rare breed of entrepreneurs that have already had mega-success are so special and driven that they remain obviously hungry and scrappy. For these entrepreneurs, the key is to watch and see if they're still as hands on as they ever were (e.g., obsessed with the product, knee-deep in the financial model, out in front of the organization in selling). Again, these entrepreneurs are very special.

So what are you - the chicken or the pig? Investors clearly prefer one model over the other, not just in the founder, but in the entire team. As a result, as you are assembling your start-up team, be careful not to hire chickens. In the eyes of prospective investors, you may find it's even less kosher than hiring pigs.

August 23, 2011

Summer Reading

One of my favorite parts of summer is having the opportunity to catch up on pleasure reading.  Like many, I read so much work-related material that it is refreshing to have the luxury to broaden my thinking and information intake by reading non-work related books.

Inspired in part by the Wall Street Journal's recent piece on VC Summer Reading, here are a few of the books that have been capturing my imagination lately, organized by topic.

Life Management/Happiness/Health

Despite being a computer scientist/technology wonk/business type, I am fascinated with books on the philosophy of life and seeking happiness.

Family/Kids

My three kids remain one of my most passionate obsessions, so I'm a sucker for any recommended books about child-rearing and family management.  A few of my recent favorites:

Fiction/Fun

When you don't feel like serious non-fiction, a little light fiction hits the spot.  For example:

  •  The Strangler by William Landay.  Full disclosure:  Billy is my brother-in-law, but as a former prosecutor in the DA's office, he's got a great angle on crime mysteries.  His third book, Defending Jacob, comes out next winter and is also outstanding.
  • Delirious by Daniel Palmer.  This is a very fun and a bit freaky fictional work about a start-up CEO who goes insane.  Murder, drama and software all play heavily.  Palmer used to be a start-up executive and gives a great view into this world. 
  • The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson.  A hedge fund buddy of mine recommended this to me.  Wry and somewhat bizarre depiction of a philo-Semitic (as opposed to anti-Semitic) world view. 
  • Cityboys:  Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile by Geraint Anderson.  A buyside equity analyst buddy of mine recommended this one to me.  Anderson is a London-based trader who provides a laugh out loud fictional (but based on fact) inside look at the hypocrisy and idiocy on the trading floor. 

So those are a few of my top suggestions - many are a bit off the beaten track but very enjoyable.  Happy reading!

August 08, 2011

Catch the Wave 8.0 - Live From Kennebunkport

Every summer we invite our portfolio company executives and their families along with friends of the firm to Kennebunkport, Maine for some fun and sun.  The event is all about having fun and community building - no conferences or panels allowed.  On Saturday night, we have a costume bash and in past years, people get really into it.  

This year's theme was Saturday Night Live and my (very creative) partner David Aronoff produces a video each year to show at the party.  You can see this year's video here, with numerous guest stars and a brilliant "Mr. Bill raises VC money" skit:

David promises me this is the last year he'll make fun of me for writing a book.  I'm not holding my breath.  Here's a picture of the Flybridge team in full regala:

 FCP Team

August 05, 2011

Arranged Marriages

My wife and I have picked out the perfect spouse for my son.  They have developed a wonderful relationship together over the years, with great chemistry and warmth.  She comes from a family that has identical values and priorities to ours and would make wonderful in-laws.

They are both 9 years old.

This example - admittedly absurd (although we still do talk about it!) - got me thinking about the challenge of arranged marriages in the world of entrepreneurship.

Many entrepreneurs come to us and say "I have this great idea, all I need is a technical co-founder" or "I have a killer technology that I'm developing, all I need is a business co-founder."  They look to us to help make the match in the hopes that they will complete their team and live happily ever after.  

Unfortunately, arranged marriages are hard to execute.  You can't force a partnership.  It has to come naturally and evolve organically.  When two partners have worked together already and come to us, we know that "team risk" has been meaningfully mitigated.  But even when a founding team has a long personal history, if they don't have a professional history together it can be hard to predict whether things will work out harmoniously.

We have had a few examples in the Flybridge portfolio where we have been able to make matches between business builders and technical founders that have really worked.  In particular:

  • Virtual Computer, where we were able to match the late Alex Vasilevsky (RIP) with CEO Dan McCall to build a successful desktop virtualization company.
  • Cartera Commerce, where we were able to match technical founder Dave Andre with CEO Tom Beecher to build a successful e-commerce and performance marketing company.
  • Digital Lumens, where we paired a data communications veteran, CEO Tom Pincine, with a lighting guru, Brian Chemel, to start the leading LED-based solid-state lighting company.

But we have also seen plenty of examples where it has not worked - where putting two strong personalities together to build a venture leads to disaster.  Here are a few tips based on lessons learned in trying to make arranged marriages work:

  1. Sign a pre-nup.  Two founding team members may think they have a clear agreement as to how they are going to divide up responsibilities, but unfortunately humans have a tendency to listen to what they want to hear.  To avoid misunderstanding, write it down.  Write down the roles and responsibilities, the mechanisms by which you will resolve disputes, and what the financial deal is (equity split, deferred compensation, etc.)  between the two of you.  HBS Professor Noam Wasserman wrote a good blog post on how to think through the initial equity split that I highly recommend.
  2. Celebrate diversity.  I have found that it's best to have two founders who are really different - different skills, backgrounds, different perspectives on the world.  Otherwise, there is a risk that they step on each other's toes by inserting themselves into the same set of issues.  Which founder will be Ms. Outside vs. Ms. Inside?  Which founder will handle fundraising vs. product development?  These questions should have obvious answers based on skill set and experience, rather than coin-flipping.
  3. Don't rush it.  Having a year long engagement period is a good practice in marriages - it allows the newlweds to "try on" the whole marriage concept over a long period of time.  Similarly, allowing a founding team to have some hang time together and not rush into a relationship is an important practice.  With a fast-moving industry, a year is typically not practical, but take a few months to "try it on" before you jump in to a founding partnership.
  4. Talk it out - in private.  I believe it was President Bill Clinton who began the practice of weekly lunches with his Vice President, Al Gore (cute joke on that here).  That cadence of private 1 on 1 sessions is a valuable mechanism to set up between two founders to make sure they remain in synch.  If employees sense even slight disagreements between founders, it can lead to confusion and misalignment.
  5. Seek a counselor.  I am a big fan of busines coaches and would advise founding teams to consider hiring a professional coach or nominating an advisor to help them resolve disputes - before any disputes arise.  There's a good reason complex business contacts have a built in agreement on the dispute resolution process.  In the heat of the moment, that's the last thing you want to negotiate.  Similarly, founders should setup a neutral party and process to assist them in resolving issues so that when they inevitably arise, it's an orderly, rational process.

My wife and I will keep a close eye on my son's evolving relationship with his nine year old girlfriend.  In the meantime, I'll keep looking to make more great entrepreneurial matches.

July 28, 2011

The Start-Up Law of Comparative Advantage

I can type faster than my assistant.  If she is reading this blog, she may dispute this (and we may have to have a show down with the help of an online typing test), but I'm a pretty darn fast typer.

But, if my assistant were to sit in on my board meetings for me while I stayed back in the office and typed, I'm not sure my entrepreneurs would be very happy (at least, I hope not!).

Thus, despite the fact that I may be a faster typer than she on an absolute basis, it's way more important for my job as a VC that I maximize my time working with entrepreneurs, something I am comparatively better at than she is.

This simple example is derived from an economic law discovered by David Ricardo that has always fascinated me, called the Law of Comparative Advantage.  This law says that it does not matter  whether a nation is better at producing a particular good on an absolute basis as compared to another nation.  What matters is whether a nation is comparatively better at producing a particular good as compared to other goods it can devote its resources to producing relative to another country.

Unfortunately, I see too many founders ignoring the entrepreneurial corollary to this law, the Start-Up Law of Comparative Advantage.  I'm no David Ricardo, but it seems to me that if entrepreneurs followed this "law", the gains to their start-ups would be akin to the gains attributed to free trade.  Here's why:  founders are typically gifted, multi-talented, versatile professionals.  As such, they get sucked into spending time doing things that they may be better at than the others in their organization on an absolute basis, but that, comparatively speaking, they are worse at in relation to the handful of things that they are uniquely suited for.

I work with one founder/CEO who is so talented, I think he literally could perform the job function of each of his direct reports better than they could.  But if he spent all his time doing operational project management or tactical sales activities, he wouldn't be able to spend time on the things that only he uniquely can do relative to his teammates.  

In a fast-growing start-up, a founder needs to be very protective and strategic with how they spend their time.  Founders are always complaining that they are spread too thin, are overwhelmed with the job at hand, and struggle to figure out how they should be prioritizing their efforts.

I would submit that, above else, there are two areas a founder should not delegate:  product and people.  Product-related activities include developing customer intimacy (studying the "voice of the customer"), designing features, thinking through product strategy and setting priorities.  People-related activities include hiring, setting the culture, coaching and mentoring.

If a founder finds themselves spending the bulk of their time on issues not related to product or people issues, they are violating the Law of Comparative Advantage.  They need to rethink whether they're delegating in the wrong areas, and not being (appropriately) obsessively hands-on in the right areas.

I remember reading once that in the early days at Microsoft, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer would review each other's calendars on a monthly basis and give feedback to each other on where they should be spending their time.  That concept has always stuck with me, and my partners and I endeavor to do the same periodically. 

Try the following exercise:  at the end of the week, write down the top 6-8 categories of time spent on your start-up (e.g., product, people, project management, operations, marketing, sales, investor relations, miscellaneous).  Just as a lawyer would, track your hours at the end of the week by "billing" each of these buckets.  When you step back and analyze how much time you are actually spending (as opposed to how much time you think you are spending), you may find you can make appropriate adjustments to better deploy your time. 

Adhering to the Start-Up Law of Comparative Advantage may not earn you the Nobel Prize in Economics, but it will help you direct your time more productively when starting your company.

July 13, 2011

Why You Should Eliminate Titles at Start-ups

There has been a recent dialog around a theme I'll call "hacking the corporation" - creating novel approaches to building young companies, particularly when they are in their formative start-up stage and pre-product market fit.  One of them, reinventing board meetings (or, "Why Board Meetings Suck"), has gotten some attention from leading thinkers like Steve Blank and Brad Feld.

I'd like to submit another item to add to the "hacking the corporation" punchlist:  elimnating titles.

At business school, I learned all about titles and hierarchies and the importance of organizational structure.  When I joined my first start-up after graduation, e-commerce leader Open Market, I found the operating philosophy of the founder jarring - he declared no one would have titles in the first few years.  If you needed a title for external reasons, our founder told us, we should feel free to make one up.  But we would avoid using labels internally.  In other words, there would be no "vice president" or "director" or other such hierarchical denominations.

Why?  Because a start-up is so fluid, roles changes, responsibilities evolve, and reporting structures move around fluidly. Titles represent friction, pure and simple, and the one thing you want to reduce in a start-up is friction.  By avoiding titles, you avoid early employees getting fixated on their role, who they report to, and what their scope of responsibility is - all things that rapidly change in a company's first year or two.

For example, one of my first bosses in the company later became a peer, and then later still reported to me.  Our headcount went from 0 to 200 in two years.  Our revenue grew from 0 to $60m in 3 years.  We went public only two years after the company was founded.  We were moving way too fast to get slowed down by titles and rigid hierarchies.  Over the course of my five year tenure, I ran a range of departments - product management, marketing, business development, professional services - all amidst a very fluid environment.  Around the time that we went public, we matured in such a way that we began to settle into a more stable organizational structure and, yes, had formal titles.  But during those formative first few years, avoiding titles provided a more nimble organization.

So when I co-founded Upromise, I instituted a similar policy:  no titles.  We had an open office structure and functional teams, but a fluid organizational environment and rapid growth.  One of our young team members changed jobs four times in her first year.  Only after the first year, as we settled into a more stable organizational structure and I recruited senior executives who were more obviously going to serve as my direct reports on the executive team did I begin to give out titles (CTO, CMO, CFO, etc.).  With the title policy, there was some early tension and discomfort (one young MBA kept referring to himself as a VP externally, although he was clearly playing an individual contributor role and was soon layered).  Often, when you are running your start-up experiments, you are not even sure of the right profile for employees or organization structure for optimal execution.  But you can establish role and process clarity without having to depend on titles.

I haven't been able to institute this systematically in our portfolio, but whenever young start-ups are formed, it's one of the first things I counsel the founder.  Don't let your founding team and early hires get too attached to titles and hieararchy.  In fact, in that formative first year, see if you can avoid them altogether.

June 16, 2011

A New, Intellectual Fertile Crescent - Allston and Cambridge

In ancient history, the Fertile Crescent extended from lower Egypt, through modern-day Israel and into Assyria and Mesopotamia.  Thanks to the waterways, population density, and diversity of peoples, it was characterized by an unparalleled flow of goods and services and intellectual foment.  The region's nickname, "The Cradle of Civilization" is well-deserved.

Today, Harvard University is announcing that the school is finally progressing with its stalled expansion in Allston to create 700,000 square feet of new lab space and a 36-acre enterprise research campus with a dozen building to house start-ups, biotechs and VCs.

If this project can be completed as planned (something Larry Summers tried to complete during his term as president, but it was stalled due to the economic crisis), it will form a modern-day, intellectual fertile crescent between Harvard and MIT's Kendall Square, linking academia, industry and capital along the Charles River.

To be clear, this is not just a Boston phenomenon.  The scientific progress being made in Kendall Square and throughout the region in the areas of human genomics, bioengineering and personalized medicine at the Whitehead Institute, the Broad Institute and the Wyss Institute are having international impact.  If the Harvard Stem Cell Institute were to move to the new campus and sit alongside the newly created Harvard Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, nestled next to Harvard Business School and the newly created Innovation Lab, the amount of collaboration and innovation would simply explode.  Notably, each of the institutions mentioned above are 5-10 years old and thus are still extremely early in their progress in bringing to market all the implications of the intersection of the human genome project, big data, cloud computing, Moore's Law and advancements in nanotechnology.

There is a big idea nestled in here.  Let's hope local, state and national leaders recognize the opportunity...and seize it.

June 03, 2011

Groupon S-1: Mind The Ratios

When evaluating company documents and filings, a hedge fund manager friend of mine has a simple mantra: "read the footnotes".  So when the Groupon S-1 was posted last night, I was eager to pour over it and find a few hidden nuggets that might explain the company's success and provide some indication of what the future might hold.

I think I found it on pages 74 (not the footnotes, I grant you, but buried quite deeply in the 110 page document).  The company presents two case studies for its two oldest cities, Chicago and Boston, and provides a few datapoints that allows one to infer two of the most important metrics for the business - customer churn and customers per merchant.

Let's look at the longest-tenure city - their hometown of Chicago.  Here's the chart they provide in the S-1 for performance over time:

Groupon-Chicago


All the numbers are growing, which is terrific.  But what matters in these situations is the ratios of growth, not just the absolute growth.  So let's do some simple calculations.  First, subscriber (defined as someone who receives an email from them) growth per quarter and percentage growth:

Groupon-Chicago 2

As you can see, quarter over quarter subscriber growth is slowing considerably in Chicago.  In Q1'10 it was 81%.  In Q1'11 subscriber growth was only 37%.  This is incredibly important because there are going to be inactive subscribers - also known as attrition or churn - and that number will likely grow over time.  Groupon needs to fill this leaky bucket with new subscribers every quarter.  If not, growth will slow, flatten or decline.

Now, let's look at customer growth.  Typically, I would expect the definition of a customer to be someone who purchases a Groupon in that period.  But a footnote on page 8 provides a different definition.  A customer is defined as anyone who has purchased a Groupon since January 1, 2009.  That is, it is a cumulative figure representing anyone who has purchased in Groupon's history.  Thus, the change in customers is far more important than the absolute number.  Here's what that looks like:

Groupon-Chicago 3

As with the subscriber numbers, this figure is slowing in quarter-over-quarter growth.  In Q1'10, the change in cumulative customers (that is, new customers) was 69%. In Q1'11, it was 35%.

Now let's look at things from the merchant's view.  The number of Groupons sold per merchant and the number of Groupons sold per customer per merchant are two important ratios of merchant success and customer activity.  Here's what that looks like:

Groupon-Chicago 4

As you can see, these ratios are also in decline, with Groupons per merchant per 1000 customers dropping 10x from Q3'09 (21.3) to Q1'11 (2.3).  This ratio is a good proxy for how active the cumulative customer base is.  The lower the ratio, the more likely there are large pools of inactive customers.  Again, if customer engagement attrits over time, then there is a leaky bucket that can only be filled with new customer acquisition. In saturated markets, it is typical for new customer acquisition to slow down and become more expensive over time.

To be clear, I'm incredibly impressed with this company and what it has achieved.  But a careful read of the rations is instructive when thinking about persistence and durability of the model.  Groupon has so many assets at their disposal and is so early in their innovation cycle, that I'm sure we haven't seen anything yet in terms of targeting, loyalty and other techniques to provide sticky customer relationships.  But the ratio data above suggests that the basic model they're executing on right now has some weaknesses that will become more acute over time.

May 13, 2011

5 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn From the Navy SEALs

There has been a surge in interest with the world of the Navy SEALs since the Osama bin Laden action (this piece in the WSJ was a particularly good profile) and I confess to being caught up in it myself.  One of my portfolio company CEOs, Will Tumulty of Ready Financial, is a former Navy SEAL (1990-1995).  Will was kind enough to introduce me to a SEAL classmate of his, Brendan Rogers (SEAL 1990-2000), who joined me and 20 NYC CEOs/founders from the tech scene last night to talk about the SEALs - the training, the planning and the operations behind their combat operations - as well as draw out some relevant lessons for entrepreneurs.  Brendan went on to HBS and McKinsey after the SEALs and then started his own hedge fund with a partner, so he had an interesting, multi-faceted perspective.

The discussion was wide-ranging and entertaining.  The five key lessons Brendan highlighted were as follows:

  • What's hard is good.  SEALs go through an intensive 6 month training program called Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S).  That training program is designed to test a candidate's physical and mental limits.  Traditionally, by the time of SEAL graduation, the attrition rate is as high as 70%.  SEALs quickly learn that the punishment and pain of training hardens their minds and bodies and adapt to embrace the tough environs.  Brendan pointed out that start-up executives who go through hard times should learn to relish them, recognizing that the hard times will toughen the team and train them properly for "battle".
  • 80% training, 20% execution.  SEALs are incredibly well-trained and when they are not on acutal combat deployments, they are spending the vast majority of their time training for a number of different types of missions.  In contrast, at start-ups, executives typically spend 100% of their time executing and 0% of their time training.  Brendan emphasized the importance of training and practice in all areas - employee onboarding, management practices, etc.  He commented on the importance of training for unexpected situations.  The simultaneous shooting of three Somali pirates at sea as part of a hostage rescue two years ago was an example of the kind of outcome possible when  SEALs train under all possible conditions.  The CEOs in the room had wide eyes and were certainly thinking hard about their training regimens and scenario planning after that example.
  • Every seat counts.  Brendan pointed out the price of settling for mediocrity, even in a big organization.  Every SEAL needs to know with 100% confidence that the man behind them will be able to save their life and get them out of a bad situation.  The CEOs in the room were asked if they could say the same about their management teams and if those management teams, in turn, could say that about their lieutenants.  One CEO objected that he had 1000 employees in his company and couldn't possibly hire all "A's".  Brendan replied by citing the example of DDay.  Eisenhower planned DDay with a small number of subordinates who he turned to and said, select 12 men underneath you who can trust with your life to execute this mission.  Each of those men did the same.  And so on and so on.  That cascading effect resulted in the successful employment and combat engagement of over a 2 million troops throughout Europe.  The lesson?  Don't let a large organization be an excuse for mediocrity.
  • Everyone is expendable.  The SEALs are trained in a nearly identical manner and no one SEAL is indispensible to the unit or the mission. The nature of combat is that anyone can be lost at any time.  Entrepreneurial companies have a harder time executing on this philosophy since there are specialists and superstars, but Brendan's message was to make sure contingency plans were thought through for any set of personnel circumstances.
  • You never know the measure of a person until they are tested.  As mentioned earlier, the SEALs training program weeds out 70% of participants.  Brendan conveyed that the people he thought would never drop out did while others proved to be more resilient and tougher than imagined.  Until your people are really tested (see "what is hard is good"), you can never be sure who will step up and who will falter.  One sure sign, based on pattern recognition, is that those that talk tough and are full of bluster are predictably those that are the first to blanche in the face of adversity.  Quiet strength and determination in a start-up are invaluable.  When you see it in your people, bottle it.

Everyone left with a great appreciate for those brave men who serve our country so ably, and the system behind it that produces such a consistent, excellent "product".  Brendan is also the co-founder of the Navy SEALs Foundation, a non-profit that helps take care of the families of SEALs when things don't go as smoothly as they did in Pakistan a few weeks ago.  I was inspired to make a donation to the organization immediately after the dinner.  You can read more about them here.

One final humorous note - Brendan observed that the spouses of Navy SEALs are as tough as nails themselves and impossible to impress.  They still make their spouses take out the garbage, do the dishes and change diapers - no matter how impressive their accomplishments in the field of battle.  I suspect many start-up executives have similar, appropriately humbling marital arrangements!

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