Cash Policies for Startups

I heard a rumor on a call the other day that some startup companies are starting to keep balance sheet cash in higher yield instruments such as corporate debt. This is apparently becoming trendy again as private companies do $25m+ rounds and end up with a bunch of cash on their balance sheets.

This scares the shit out of me. As a high growth startup, I think you should be focusing on maximum protection for your cash, even if the yield is 0%.

In 2001, we had several companies lose over $1m (including one that was public that lost $7.5m) in corporate bonds, which were being pushed on startups by the various banks as “safe.” We also had at least one case of a mess in the 2008-2009 time period with someone with one of those fancy action rate securities that froze cash for a while (they eventually got it.)

And when I say “lose”, I mean the cash just vaporized. I remember seeing the email about the public company that had $7.5m disappear from their balance sheet. No one on the board was even aware that cash was tied up in corporate bonds, let along risky yield seeking ones. It was a powerful signal, at which point I actually spent time learning about the corporate debt market. It’s a good case of “it’s nice until it isn’t, and then it’s really not nice.” It’s probably even more severe today.

Don’t fall into this trap. It’s worth double checking your cash / treasury policy at your next board meeting and making sure your board knows where your cash is. And, more importantly, if you are CEO, knowing where your cash is.

Be careful out there. The scary monsters are starting to hang out at the bar again. They look really cute, cuddly, and intriguing, until they don’t and chomp down on a random body part.

Hint: US Government Treasuries are good.

The Full Day Quarterly Board Meeting

Mattermark team hanging out in KeystoneI’ve been to a gazillion board meetings. I’ve written a lot about them including a book called Startup Boards: Getting The Most Out of Your Board of Directors and piles of board meetings posts on this blog. I still do a lot of them, but I’ve definitely been on a quest the past few years to (a) figure out what works best and (b) try to organize my world around more effective board meetings based on what I’ve learned.

On Friday, I had a Mattermark board meeting. It was our second one since we invested in Q414. Danielle Morrill wrote a post in February about our first board meeting. It was a long board meeting as I’d reserved from 11am until the end of the day for it, followed by dinner together, but it was very different than the one we just had as we search for our rhythm as a board.

At the first board meeting, Danielle, Kevin, and Andy came to Boulder and spent a few days here together. In addition to the board meeting, they spent a bunch of time with founders in other Boulder-based portfolio companies of ours.

This time the Mattermark leadership team, including Sarah, BT, and Beau came to Colorado. They arrived Thursday night and drove up to my house in Keystone (about 90 minutes away). I got up early Friday morning and drove up there, getting there around 10:00am. The Mattermark gang was up, had just finished breakfast, and were doing what lots of startups do when they are hanging out waiting for an investor to show up (queue photo of people sitting around on their laptops.)

We got a little more coffee and then went downstairs into our big, comfy TV room. Last time, we worked directly in a Google Doc. This time, Danielle made a deck summarizing everything we’d been doing back and forth in via the Google Doc over the past week leading up to the board meeting. The deck looked good on our 75″ TV and we fired up Skype on a laptop at the front of the room for Lisa (who couldn’t come) and Megan (our outside counsel.)

We proceeded to spend until almost 8pm going very deep on various aspects of the business, product, product strategy, organizational dynamics, and goals for Q215. During this time, we took 90 minutes off for lunch and had a bunch of Mexican food at Fiesta Jalisco. At about 7pm we shifted into an executive session of just founders and board and then Danielle and I spent 30 minutes just doing a 1:1.

We then jumped into cars and went out to a late dinner. My favorite Sushi place Kemosabe Sushi had an hour wait so we went to Silverheels Bar and Grill next door. We were done talking business so we talked science fiction, crazy obsessive habits, fun ways everyone had met each other, and the stuff you talk about after a long day together.

They then drove back to my Keystone house to spend the rest of the weekend together. I drove home because I really wanted a weekend with Amy just hanging around and chilling out (she’s taking a nap as I write this.)

Overall, I’ve tried to shift my board meeting rhythm to once a quarter. My favorite board meetings are the ones that including the entire management team. I like to have a meal with the entire management team as part of the board meeting. I like to have social time and give the team time and space to get to know me better, and themselves better, outside the normal pressure of the day to day grind that is startup life.

I’m a very deep believer in continuous engagement with companies I’m an investor in. As a result, I do not like a monthly board meeting rhythm. I think it’s too much overhead on a leadership team and lets investor / board members off the hook for continuous engagement. More specifically, I know many investors who only really engage with companies either around the board meeting, when a transaction is going on, or when there is a crisis. While this might be useful for some people, it’s not my style nor how I like to engage.

I’ve only had a few of these “full-day retreat at my house in Keystone followed by management taking over the house” type board meetings and I really like them. I expect I’ll do more in the future and encourage any of the companies I’m on the board of to take me up on them.

Desperately Seeking a Solution to Google Hangouts Errors 212, 213, 214, 215, 216

Google Hangouts ErrorI’m a huge Google Hangouts user. It’s typically a multi-day occurrence that I’m on a hangout and one of the devices connected to the mega-video-conferencing setup in my office is a Chromebox.

A few months ago I got Google Hangouts errors intermittently for a few weeks but it magically cleared up. I noticed it again on Sunday and it has been constant on all my computers in multiple locations on different networks.

I’ve tried clearing the cache, logging out, and resetting the browser / computer, which seems to be the only constructive solutions I can find on the web. The other solutions, that are not so constructive, are “wait for a while for it to clear up” and “use something different.”

Strangely, this problem only exists in Chrome. My iOS Hangouts works fine as does my Chromebox.

Does anyone have a clue how to solve this nagging problem? The screen shot I’m getting in Chrome when Gmail is open is on the left.

Something New Is Fucked Up In My World Every Day

In The Cave of DemonsThis is one of my favorite lines to use to explain the business life I live. When asked what it’s like to be a partner in a VC firm, be on a bunch of boards, and have a continuous stream of random interaction come my way, I like to level set my reality.

It’s simple. Something new is fucked up in my world every day.

Now, just because something new is fucked up, doesn’t mean I’m unhappy. Quite the opposite – I’m usually happy, although when the pile of fuckedupness gets high enough I get tired. And day after day after day of 12+ hour days also make me tired. I used to be able to work through the weekends – now at 49 years old I need them to recover, get patched up by Amy, and get ready to go back out there.

Jerry Colonna at Reboot.io tells a wonderful story about the crucible of leadership on Fred Wilson’s blog with a section titled Eat Me If You Wish (read the whole post but the parable is about half way through.) It’s worth repeating here. Take your time reading it.

“One day,” begins a story re-told by Aura Glaser in thelatest issue of Tricycle Magazine, “[the Buddhist saint] Milarepa left his cave to gather firewood, and when he returned he found that his cave had been taken over by demons. There were demons everywhere! His first thought upon seeing them was, ‘I have got to get rid of them!’ He lunges toward them, chasing after them, trying forcefully to get them out of his cave. But the demons are completely unfazed. In fact, the more he chases them, the more comfortable and settled-in they seem to be. Realizing that his efforts to run them out have failed miserably, Milarepa opts for a new approach and decides to teach them the dharma.

“If chasing them out won’t work, then maybe hearing the teachings will change their minds and get them to go. So he takes his seat and begins… After a while he looks around and realizes all the demons are still there…At this point Milarepa lets out a deep breath of surrender, knowing now that these demons will not be manipulated into leaving and that maybe he has something to learn from them. He looks deeply into the eyes of each demon and bows, saying, ‘It looks like we’re going to be here together. I open myself to whatever you have to teach me.’

“In that moment all the demons but one disappear. One huge and especially fierce demon, with flaring nostrils and dripping fangs, is still there. So Milarepa lets go even further. Stepping over to the largest demon, he offers himself completely, holding nothing back. ‘Eat me if you wish.’ He places his head in the demon’s mouth, and at that moment the largest demon bows low and dissolves into space.”

I put my head in a demon’s mouth every single day. Often, it’s a different, or new, demon. Sometimes it takes me a few days to get ready for this so the demons back up. Other days two or three new demons appear and I can only deal with one of them so the others hang around.

I learned how to deal with this in 2001. That year started out miserable with companies I was involved failing all around me. I did everything I knew how to do to help. I’d go to bed at the end of the day thinking, “Ok, that totally sucked, but tomorrow will be better.” It wasn’t – each day was worse. By about June I realized that every single day of 2001 had been worse than the previous day. I finally metaphorically threw up my hands and internally said, “Fuck it, let’s see what the world can bring on today.” That’s when I started to sit with the demons.

Up to that point, I was fearful of what the day would bring. I would fight against it. I would thrash around looking to solve every problem, chasing the demons around my cave trying to get them to leave. And then 9/11 happened, on a beautiful morning in New York, while I was fast asleep in a hotel room in midtown Manhatten at The Benjamin Hotel after taking a redeye from San Francisco. As the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, Amy frantically called me from the road as she was driving to the airport to come visit me in New York. I had turned off my phone so I expect I snored happily away as the first tower fell. When I finally woke up I to whatever station the clock radio was on, I thought it was all a joke. For about a minute, I struggled through the post redeye haze that enveloped me, along with the existential fatigue I was feeling from nine months of companies failing everywhere, people being angry, unhappy, depressed, stressed, scared, and under immense pressure, and then I realized it wasn’t a dream.

When I finally woke up enough to turn on my phone and call Amy, I was lucky enough to get through. She pulled over to the side of the road and cried. She was sure I had been on one of the planes that had crashed. After a few minutes, we realized a trip to NY was silly so she turned around and went home. I then took a shower and tried to process what was going on and figure out what to do next.

There’s a lot more from that day that shaped me, like it shaped so many others, but suddenly many of my demons just disappeared and went to torture other people. I realized that as fucked up as my world was, it was trivial compared to what was going on 60 blocks away. While I was terrified and trapped in The Benjamin for a while, I had at least four hours before I took action to just sit and process things.

Dealing with the particular set of demons in my cave at this point to another three months. That period was my second of three clinic depressions that ended around my birthday on December 1st. I spent these three months sitting with all of my demons, welcoming more into my world, and just learning from them.

When the really scary ones showed up, I didn’t fight. I just placed my head gently in each of the scary demons’ mouthes and said “eat me if you wish.”

Just like with Milarepa, it worked. And it’s now how I live every day.

Trying Something New On Immigration In Colorado

I’ve been working on the Startup Visa since I first wrote about it on 9/10/2009 in my post The Founders Visa Movement. While there has periodically been improvement on the margins on the issue, I think our federal government has broadly failed us on this front.

So, I’m going to try something different. Yesterday, CU Boulder announced a new Entrepreneurs in Residence program to be administered by the Silicon Flatirons program. While the program is open to any entrepreneur, including those in the US, we are particularly focused on international entrepreneurs.

Through extensive work with Craig Montuori and leadership from Phil Weiser, the Dean of CU Law and head of Silicon Flatirons, we’ve come up with a neat approach that follows from the work that was done in Massachusetts, led by Jeff Bussgang and others, and originally approved as a major state initiative, only to see its funding pulled back after the recent election cycle.

The program in Colorado follows a similar approach with one major difference. It’s privately funded and doesn’t rely on anything from the state. My wife Amy Batchelor and I are putting up most of the funding for the first year program. It’s a major gift from us and more of me trying to put my money where my mouth is on issues I care about.

In the next 12 months, we’ll have four EIRs as part of the pilot program. They will be employed by CU Boulder for 20 hours per week and will receive a stipend of $25,000 per academic year (which starts in July). We’ll cover the cost of the H1-B visa if necessary, which is easy to acquire because H1-B visas for universities are uncapped.

Importantly, consistent with university policy and applicable law, entrepreneurs in the program will be free to work on their existing entrepreneurial ventures or start a new company.

We have a broad model for engagement in Boulder for new entrepreneurs. Between Techstars, Galvanize, Silicon Flatirons, the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, and many other accelerators, there will be significant mentorship opportunities. In the summer time, they’ll be part of Startup Summer (run by Startup Colorado in conjunction with Silicon Flatirons) along with being paired with a new MIT MBA Summer Internship in Boulder that I’m about to roll out (ah – foreshadowing…) And, with our broad #GiveFirst attitude across the startup community, they’ll be welcomed with open arms.

I’ve gotten worn out on the federal level immigration fight. I’m happy to continue to participate in advocacy for change around visas for entrepreneurs, but I’ve decided to focus my energy, and money, on exploring and experimenting with state-oriented solutions.

If you are interested in applying for one of the four EIR slots, just drop me an email and I’ll plug you in.