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After a year of zero travel for business, I’ve started to venture out into the world again. I just got back from my third business trip this summer – this time to Seattle for the past three days.
After 20+ years of traveling 67%+ of the time for work, I was sick of it. So I’m wandering back in with a little trepidation.
I’ve decided to take a very different approach. Historically on a three day trip to Seattle, I’d have 10 meetings a day, starting early in the morning and going until after dinner. I’d pop from place to place, taxi-ing (now Uber-ing) around town. I’d check my email in cars between meetings, and I’d be a sweaty, smelly mess by the end of the day. I’d meet with every company we are investors in (Moz, Cheezburger, BigDoor, Rover, Techstars, and Impinj), meet with a bunch of entrepreneurs for companies we might be interested in, hang out with a few of my long time Seattle friends, visit at least one or two Seattle VCs, and do a public event or two. And then I’d stay up until 1am trying to grind through my email.
This time I planted myself at Moz on Monday and Tuesday and then Cheezburger on Wednesday. While I had plenty of meetings at Moz, they were all about Moz. I spent Monday with each of the four product teams, going really deep on the existing products. I spent time with people on the leadership team, including significant time with Sarah Bird (CEO) and Rand Fishkin (Founder). I had a dinner with Sarah Monday night followed by a hangout at Rand’s house with Rand, Geraldine, Sarah, her husband Eric, and the tireless Jackson-child. We had a board meeting on Tuesday along with a bunch of 1:1 meetings. Tuesday night I had an awesome meal on the roof of Terra Plata with the Moz leadership team. And just for fun on Tuesday morning I went for a run on the waterfront with my long time friend TA Mccann, who if you know our origin story includes a run at the first Defrag (where he kicked my ass, just like he did Tuesday morning.)
I slept in on Wednesday, did some email in my hotel room, made a few phone calls, and had a late breakfast with Andy Sack at Purple. I then had lunch with Ben Huh (how’s that – breakfast and then lunch, with nothing in between – what more could you want out of life) followed by a great board meeting at Cheezburger.
As I napped on the flight home last night, I felt very different returning home. I love Moz and Cheezburger – and the people I get to work with there. Each company has had different challenges over the past two years (like every company I’ve ever worked with), but both feel like they are in a great place to me right now. When I was walking to lunch with Ben, he asked me a question about how I was feeling in general and I said that at this point I believe that I’m only working with entrepreneurs who I love, adore, have respect for, and am friends with. That’s a big part of it for me. I know this doesn’t always, and won’t always happen, but as I’ve gotten older I realize it’s an important part of my value system and selection criteria for who I work with.
While I’m not going to turn the travel spigot back on in a radical way, being very deliberate about how and why I’m traveling is part of my new trip planning mantra. We’ll see how it works on the next ones, which are to Austin, LA, and New York.
I was on an airplane for the first time for business in a while and when I woke up from my nap I found my self staring at CNBC on the DirecTV seat back display. I never watch CNBC so I was attracted to the talking heads, who were silent since I didn’t have earphones in. I kept thinking I was watching ESPN with all the sports metaphors, blinking lights, constantly changing headlines, and tightly coifed and good looking men talking at me in rapid fire.
Between a headline about Carly Fiorina exploring a run for president and Zebra Technologies equipping all NFL players with tracking devices I noticed one about companies who were raising prices to inflation proof their business. At least, that’s what I thought it said since it flashed up there quickly between a headline about “Steel is on Fire” and then a video of Warren Buffett walking around without a headline so I had no idea why they were showing him.
The inflation proofing headline stuck in my head. We’ve had a very long period of low to no inflation, at least based on the way the government calculates it. While my cynicism around government math and how inflation is calculated is substantial, there isn’t much question that since 2008 capital has been extremely cheap. Fred Wilson wrote a great post titled The Bubble Question a while ago where his punch line was:
It is the combination of these two factors, which are really just one factor (cheap money/low rates), that is the root cause of the valuation environment we are in. And the answer to when/if it will end comes down to when/if the global economy starts growing more rapidly and sucking up the excess liquidity and policy makers start tightening up the easy money regime. I have no idea when and if that will happen. But until it does, I believe we will continue to see eye popping EBITDA multiples for high growth tech companies. And those tech companies with eye popping EBITDA multiples will use their highly valued stock to purchase other high growth tech business and strategic assets at eye popping valuations. It’s been a good time to be in the VC and startup business and I think it will continue to be as long as the global economy is weak and rates are low.
But I think cheap capital is only half of the equation. The other half is ever increasing labor costs across all aspects of the wage chain. When I was in business school in the 1980s, we talked a lot about the productivity paradox. The premise was that computers and automation would drastically improve productivity, making labor less important as tasks were automated, resulting in lower cost of labor.
As the technology industry rapidly evolved, the notion of non-productivity kept coming up. Nicolas Carr’s HBR Article “IT Doesn’t Matter” was probably the capstone piece around this and how companies could take advantage of the commoditization of IT, rather than how IT was a transformative input into companies and societies.
Suddenly, in 2010, technology was disrupting everything and the technology industry was booming. By 2013 everyone was talking about a bubble, even though the companies being created this time around were substantial. Once again, wages for IT employees and computer scientist were skyrocketing and suddenly coding schools were popping up everywhere, to the point that people are now saying that Computer Programming Is a Trade; Let’s Act Like It.
Capital remains incredibly cheap, so it’s flowing into wages. But that’s only at the high end of the market around technology jobs. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the famed jobless recovery with the elimination of massive numbers of jobs that previously existed, especially in industrial and Fortune 5000 companies. While this is happening, we have an entirely new class of entrepreneurs, or self-employed, being created by companies like Uber.
Yeah – this shit is super complicated and it plays out over a long period of time. In fact, it might only be really possible to understand what is happening in hindsight. But the combination of cheap capital and expensive labor has created a very powerful economic dynamic which right now is driving massive innovation across virtually every industry sector around the world.
We know that extremely low cost of capital will not last forever. We know that eventually there will be real inflation again. And we know that wages can’t increase endlessly. I wonder what happens to the allocation of capital, entrepreneurship, and the impact on society when capital gets expensive again?
I know many entrepreneurs who feel that VCs have played them, gamed them, deceived them, or bullshitted them. But this doesn’t only happen to entrepreneurs. VCs play this game with VCs all the time.
One of our deeply held beliefs at Foundry Group is that there is no value in bullshitting anyone. We screw up a lot of things, make plenty of mistakes, and often look back and say some version of “oops.” But we never bullshit each other or bullshit anyone we work with.
Seth, Jason, and I had an awesome dinner with one of our LPs last night. In addition to being an incredibly supportive investor in us from the beginning, this LP has become an extremely close friend. He’s someone we trust with anything and listen to carefully whenever he has feedback. And we always enjoy being together – a lot.
As I was walking home after dinner, I thought about the person who had introduced us to this LP. His name will be familiar to plenty of you – it’s Fred Wilson. This LP is also a long time investor in Union Square Ventures and was one of the first people Fred introduced us to when we started raising the first Foundry Group fund in 2007.
In 2014, it’s easy to reflect on what has happened over the last seven years and feel good about it. I’m fortunate to have three amazing partners, an awesome team that I get to work with every day, a hugely supportive set of about 20 LPs, and hundreds of entrepreneurs who we love to work with, and whom I think respect us and appreciate us a great deal.
But is wasn’t always this way. In 2007, when we set out to raise our first Foundry Group fund, early stage tech VC was in the shitter. No one believed that you could make any money as an early stage VC and when we went out to raise our first fund, we heard over and over again that we were on a fools errand. The prior fund that I had co-founded – Mobius Venture Capital – had blown up after having a very successful first fund in 1997. The collapse of the Internet bubble was not kind to us and by 2005 it was clear that our second fund – raised in 1999 – was a disaster, and our third fund – raised in 2000 – was off to a very rocky start.
In early 2006, my partners at Mobius and I decided not to raise another fund. In 2007, several of us (Jason, Ryan, Seth, and I) set out to create a new firm.
I thought I had a lot of VC friends and supporters from the last decade of my life as a VC. I quickly learned that it was easy for these so-called friends to say “I’ll help” and very hard for them to actually follow through.
When we started raising our first Foundry Group fund in 2007, I called many of the VCs I knew and asked them for introductions to their LPs. While some of them said they would help, I only recall three who actually made any serious introductions.
Fred Wilson at Union Square Ventures was by far the most helpful. Fred introduced me to all of his significant institutional LPs. We had been friends for a long time and had worked together on several companies. I had deep respect for Fred and I think he felt the same way about me. There was no hesitation on Fred’s part – he made real introductions, advocated strongly for us, and was unbelievably supportive. Over 33% of our capital ended up being from the same LPs who invested in USV. I will never, ever, ever, forget this. Fred can ask me for help on anything he wants for the rest of his life and I will always be there for him.
The next person on the list of supporters is Scott Maxwell at OpenView Venture Partners. Scott and I were both on the Microsoft VC Advisory Board that Dan’l Lewin organized and ran. While we had never invested together, I felt like Scott was a kindred spirit. We both spoke truth to Microsoft execs, even though they mostly ignored us. I remember a meeting with the Microsoft Mobile 6.0 team as they were pitching us their vision for Microsoft Mobile 6.5. Both Scott and I, on iPhone 1′s or 2′s at the time, told them they were completely and totally fucked. They ignored us. A year or two later they had less than 3% market share on mobile. We had a blast together and as we went out to raise our Foundry 2007 fund, Scott made several introductions which resulted in two wonderful, long term LP relationships.
The last person who was helpful was Jack Tankersley at Meritage. When I moved to Boulder, Jack was one of my early mentors. He was a partner and co-founder of Centennial Funds and he and Steve Halsted basically created the VC industry in Colorado in the early 1980s. Jack was extremely helpful in coaching me on how to create a new firm and made a number of introductions, one of which became an LP. I appreciated the energy he put into this immensely.
There were at least a dozen other VCs who said “I’d be happy to make some introductions for you.” Very few of them did, and the ones that did made introductions to junior people at LPs who quickly blew us off.
My partners and I are forever appreciative of Fred, Scott, and Jack’s help. And, after 90 meetings in the first three months of fundraising, which resulted in 20 immediate rejections and no obvious path to a fund at the end of the first quarter, our appreciation for these three people grew. As we started to have momentum in the second quarter, Fred and Scott really stepped up and advocated for us. By September we were oversubscribed and did our first close with our final close in November. We’ve never looked back.
The wonderful dinner last night with the LP Fred introduced me to reminded me of this. But more importantly, it reminded me of how often VCs bullshit each other and entrepreneurs. And, in the situations where they don’t, how incredibly powerful it is.
Fred, Scott, and Jack – thank you.
We’ve all got to start somewhere.
Over the weekend my mom gave me a CD with the recording of my first known live interview. I’ve tossed it up on SoundCloud for your listening pleasure.
This recording was done by KERA, our Dallas-based public radio and TV station when I was four. It was for a video segment on a painting I had done that showed on Channel 13 (our public TV station.) My mom hasn’t been able to find the video so the audio will have to do.
While Amy and I listened to it, we made a bunch of observations over the 15 minute segment.
- At age 4, I had my dad’s NY accent. Even though we were living in Dallas, my accent hadn’t been neutralized yet.
- My OCD tendencies were painfully apparent in how I described things, especially the lines and dots.
- I was very clear that I liked watching cartoons on Saturday – and this was on Friday. Amy was impressed that I knew the days of the week so clearly at this age.
- I didn’t like to physically fight. I still don’t like to physically fight, but I’m not afraid of battle.
- My brain was racing. I described it as being like a motorboat. I have no idea where the motorboat metaphor came from.
- Even at age four, numbers had personalities for me. They still do – I love numbers. Especially prime ones.
- All the dark colors were my favorite colors, which is still true today.
Thanks mom for digging this up. And for being a great mom.
I expect most of you know the fable of the scorpion and the frog, but if you don’t, it goes like this (quoted from Wikipedia):
“A scorpion asks a frog to carry him over a river. The frog is afraid of being stung during the trip, but the scorpion argues that if it stung the frog, both would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog agrees and begins carrying the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that this is its nature. The fable is used to illustrate the position that no change can be made in the behaviour of the fundamentally vicious.”
Over the weekend, there was some commentary on AWS in fight of its life as customers like Dropbox ponder hybrid clouds and Google pricing. Amazon turned in slightly declining quarter-over-quarter revenue on AWS, although significant year-over-year quarterly growth, as explained in Sign of stress or just business as usual? AWS sales are off slightly.
“Could Amazon Web Services be feeling the heat from new public cloud competitors? Maybe. Maybe not. Second quarter net sales of AWS — or at least the category in which it is embedded– were off about 3 percent sequentially to $1.168 billion from $1.204 billion for the first quarter. But they were up 38 percent from $844 million for the second quarter last year. In the first quarter, growth in this category year over year was 60 percent. So make of that what you will.”
Could Amazon’s nature be catching up with it, or is it just operating in a more competitive market? A set of emails went around from some of the CEOs of our companies talking about this followed by a broader discussion on our Foundry Group EXEC email list. It contained, among other comments:
- AWS is not the low price provider.
- AWS is not the best product at anything – most of their features are mediocre knock offs of other products.
- AWS is unbelievably lousy at support.
- Once you are at $200k / month of spend, it’s cheaper and much more effective to build your own infrastructure.
While we are in the middle of a massive secular shift from owned data centers to outsourced data centers and hardware, anyone who remembers the emergence of outsourced data centers, shared web hosting, dedicated web hosting, co-location, and application service providers will recognize many of the dynamics going on. Predictably in the tech industry, what’s old is new again as all the infrastructure players roll out their public clouds and all the scaled companies start exploring ways to move off of AWS (and other cloud services) into much more cost effective configurations.
Let’s pick apart the four points above a little bit.
1. AWS is not the low price provider. When AWS came out, it was amazing, partly because you didn’t need to buy any hardware to get going, partly because it had a very fine grade variable pricing approach, and mostly because these two things added up to an extremely low cost for a startup relative to all other options. This is no longer the case as AWS, Microsoft, and Google bash each other over the head on pricing, with Microsoft and Google willing to charge extremely low prices to gain market share. And, more importantly, see point #4 below in a moment. Being low priced is in Amazon’s nature so this will be intensely challenging to them.
2. AWS is not the best product at anything – most of their features are mediocre knock offs of other products. We’ve watched as AWS has aggressively talked to every company we know doing things in the cloud infrastructure and application stack, and then rather than partner eventually roll out low-end versions of competitive products. We used to think of Amazon as a potential acquirer for these companies, or at least a powerful strategic partner. Now we know they are just using the bait of “we want to work more closely with you” as market and product intelligence. Ultimately, when they come out with what they view of as a feature, it’s a low-end, mediocre, and limited version of what these companies do. So, they commoditize elements of the low end of the market, but don’t impact anything that actually scales. In addition, they always end up competing on every front possible, hence the chatter about Dropbox moving away from AWS since AWS has now come out with a competitive product. It appears that it’s just not in Amazon’s nature to collaborate with others.
3. AWS is unbelievably lousy at support. While they’ve gotten better at paid support, including their premium offerings, these support contracts are expensive. Approaches to get around support issues and/or lower long term prices like reserved instances are stop gaps and often a negative benefit for a fast growing company. I’ve had several conversations over the years with friends at Amazon about this and I’ve given up. Support is just not in Amazon’s nature (as anyone who has ever tried to figure out why a package didn’t show up when expected) and when a company running production systems on AWS is having mission critical issues that are linked to AWS, it’s just painful. At low volumes, it doesn’t matter, but at high scale, it matters a huge amount.
4. Once you are at $200k / month of spend, it’s cheaper and much more effective to build your own infrastructure. I’ve now seen this over and over and over again. Once a company hits $200k / month of spend on AWS, the discussion starts about building out your own infrastructure on bare metal in a data center. This ultimately is a cost of capital discussion and I’ve found massive cost of capital leverage to move away from AWS onto bare metal. When you fully load the costs at scale, I’ve seen gross margin moves of over 20 points (or 2000 basis points – say from 65% to 85%). It’s just nuts when you factor in the extremely low cost of capital for hardware today against a fully loaded cost model at scale. Sure, the price declines from point #1 will impact this, but the operational effectiveness, especially given #3, is remarkable.
There are a number of things Amazon, and AWS, could do to address this if they wanted to. While not easy, I think they could do a massive turnaround on #2 and #3, which combined with intelligent pricing and better account management for the companies in #4, could result in meaningful change.
I love Amazon and think they have had amazing impact on our world. Whenever I’ve given them blunt feedback like this, I’ve always intended it to be constructive. I’m doubt it matters at all to their long term strategy whether they agree with, or even listen to, me. But given the chatter over the weekend, it felt like it was time to say this in the hope that it generated a conversation somewhere.
But I worry some of the things they need to be doing to maintain their dominance is just not in their nature. In a lot of ways, it’s suddenly a good time to be Microsoft or Google in the cloud computing wars.