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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Amazon’s Scorpion Problem

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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:

  1. AWS is not the low price provider.
  2. AWS is not the best product at anything – most of their features are mediocre knock offs of other products.
  3. AWS is unbelievably lousy at support.
  4. 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.

Why The SBIC Doesn’t Work For Venture Capital Anymore

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I woke up to an article in Daily Camera today titled Small Business Administration trying to bring SBIC funds to Colorado.

There are so many things wrong in the article I felt compelled to write about it. This isn’t a knock on the writer (Alicia Wallace) – I like Alicia and think she does a good job. Rather, it’s an example of the difference between signal and noise in any kind of reporting around the VC industry.

I’m an investor in over 40 VC funds around the world (mostly in the US) and three of them are SBIC funds. Each of the SBIC funds were raised in the 2000 – 2002 time period. On paper, only one is in positive return territory as a fund, but the SBIC leverage is a substantial negative factor for the LP investors in that particular fund. And, in the other two, I don’t expect to ever see any of my capital back because of the SBIC leverage. Furthermore, I don’t believe any of the GPs in any SBIC-backed fund would ever take money from the SBIC again.

So I’m speaking from at least a little experience – albeit indirectly – with the SBIC, as I’ve never been a GP in a fund that had SBIC leverage.

The article starts off saying that “Matthew Varilek has traveled across the state, proselytizing the potential benefits of the Small Business Investment Company Program.” As a partner in one of the most visible VC firms in Colorado and an LP in many of the Colorado VC firms, I’ve never heard from Matthew or anyone from the SBIC. Matthew, if you really want to have a deep discussion about why the SBIC program isn’t effective for VC funds anymore, feel free to give me a shout. I’d be happy to meet with you.

Next, there is the wonderful PR quote about the SBIC that says “Since the program’s inception, SBIC “success stories” include the funding of companies such as Apple, Costco and FedEx when they were burgeoning small businesses.” The SBIC was instrumental in the creation of the venture capital business. The Small Business Investment Act of 1958 helped catalyze many of the VC firms created in the early 1960s. When I first heard about VC firms in the late 1980s, and my first company (Feld Technologies) started writing portfolio management software for some Boston-based VC firms, many of them had funds with SBIC leverage, although even by the late 1980s this was changing and many of them had shifted away from the SBIC. If you want to see a fun quote on it, read A History of Silicon Valley which quotes:

“ …many venture capital pioneers think the SBIC program did little to advance the art and practice of venture investing. The booming IPO market proved the model of investing in new companies, as some SBICs cash out at attractive levels. SBICs did give a boost to early venture firms, and some like Franklin “Pitch” Johnson, profiled below, thought the new law made the US “see that there was a problem and that [venture investing] was a way to do something… it formed the seed of the idea and a cadre of people like us.” Bill Draper, the first West Coast venture capitalist, has been more blunt: “[Without it] I never would have gotten into venture capital. . . it made the difference between not being able to do it, not having the money.” Many believe SBICs filled a void from 1958 to the early 1970s, by which point the partnership-based venture firms took off. The US government, however, lost most of the $2 billion it put into SBIC firms.”

So, while Apple, Costco, and FedEx benefited, the PR would be more credible if the SBIC was trumpeting iconic companies created after 1990 or even 2000, especially where the lead investors (rather than follow on investors) had SBIC capital.

Peter Adams, head of Rockies Venture Club, is quoted a few times. I like and respect Peter, so this isn’t aimed at him, but rather at the clear lack of understanding of the capital dynamics around VC funds.

“It looks really great on the surface,” said Peter Adams, executive director of the Rockies Venture Club, a nonprofit aimed at connecting investors and entrepreneurs. “Then when you dig into it, there were some problems.” Adams, who has been involved in many of the meetings with the SBA and members of the investment community, said the greatest concerns voiced by investors and venture capitalists involved management team qualifications, investment track records and the addition of debt to the equation. No. 1 for us is they want a management team with multiple people that have track records in venture capital and have worked together as a team before,” he said. “I can see where they’re going with it, but the VC industry in Colorado has been fairly decimated through the economic downturn.”

Peter is right about the context, but has two fundamental things wrong here. First, the VC industry in Colorado wasn’t decimated through the economic downtown. It was decimated because of lack of performance between 2001 and 2009, just like much of the rest of the VC industry around the US. There’s nothing special about Colorado in this mix, and it has nothing to do with the economic downtown. This dynamic has been reported thousands of times so I don’t need to go through it again, but we don’t have to look back very far to hear the drum beat from the media, LPs, and everyone else about how “VC is dead.” And if you’re curious, it wasn’t too long ago that Silicon Valley was also dying.

The other problem here is the need of the SBIC to invest in “a management team with multiple people that have track records in venture capital and have worked together as a team before.” Any VC firm that fits this qualification is unlikely to have difficulty raising money in today’s environment, and subsequently has no need for the SBIC leverage. And, more importantly, the only firms that will look for SBIC leverage are one’s that don’t have this, which is a classic adverse selection problem.

Then there’s this:

The recession also then plays into requirements that the management team members have been involved in a meaningful number of successful exits during a four- to six-year period. “From 2008 to 2013, that was not a good time for exits,” Adams said.

Huh, what? At Foundry Group, our significant exits (at least 10x capital returned) since we raised our first fund in 2007 include AdMeld, Zynga, MakerBot, and Gnip. We’ve had plenty of other exits, but these are the big ones. One of those companies, Gnip, is Boulder-based and another from our older funds (Rally Software) also generated a greater than 10x return for us. Techstars (which we helped start) have also had a steady stream of significant exits, including local Boulder companies like Filtrbox, GoodApril, and SocialThing. And then you’ve got plenty of Boulder / Denver monsters on paper – some in our portfolio (like SendGrid and Sympoz) and others like Zayo, Ping, Logrhythm, and Datalogix. Finally, if you look across the country, the exits have been awesome the past three years.

It keeps going. There’s talk about the “angel cliff” (e.g. we need funds to invest between angels and VCs – nope, been there – remember “gap capital” – not so effective) and the SBA rules and regulations (which I believe are toxic and inhibiting to a successful VC fund.)

One of the other problem is SBA and SBIC’s behavior in governance of the fund. The paperwork is silly and the overhead is non-trivial. The control over distributions and negative incentives to hold or distribute capital often generates bad decisions when companies go public. And at least one close friend who is a partner in an SBIC fund has now found a new LP to buy out the SBIC so they could actually invest capital in their winners, rather than be limited by the SBIC’s constraints on the amount of capital you can invest in any particular company.

The SBIC could be a powerful force for good in the venture capital industry. But it has to approach things very different and based on my experience with the SBA over the past decade, I don’t see it happening unless there is real leadership somewhere in coordination with leaders in the VC industry. I’m certainly willing to help, if only someone bothered to reach out to me.

UPDATE: It turns out my partner Seth Levine had met with Matthew a while ago. Seth said “Your blog was right on and much of the type of thing I related to Matt and some senior guys he brought in. The gist of my conversation with them was pushing them to consider a different model – that the current one basically led to lowest common denominator GPs and sub-optimal returns. Plus the SBIC leverage could be crushing. I don’t think they have a ton of flexibility around this but they at least listened to the feedback. I’m going to see a bunch of them in a few weeks – I agreed to help judge a business plan competition they were hosting. Like you I’m not a huge fan of the program as it has existed but I give the new guys some credit for both reaching out and trying to be proactive about thinking through this.”

UPDATE 2: Matthew Varilek reached out to me and we are setting up a time to talk.

Mentors 5/18: Listen Too

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As I’m about to head down to Austin for Techstars FounderCon (the annual meeting of all Techstars founders), I figured I crank out a few more Mentor Manifesto items this week.

Item 5 is “Listen Too.”

Pause and ponder for a minute.

Do you talk too much? I do – it’s one of my weaknesses. I often try to make my point by giving examples and telling stories. I’m not afraid to be wrong so often I’ll toss out and idea and talk through it. I don’t go so far as to “think out loud” like some people I work with, but I regularly find myself talking too much and have to consciously ratchet it back to listen.

There’s an old Irish proverb “God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we ought to listen twice as much as we speak” that is useful to consider in the context of being a mentor. My friend Matt Blumberg reminds me of this regularly and any great salesman knows that the ability to listen is a very powerful sales tool.

In a mentoring situation, it’s easy to fall into the trap of asking a bunch of questions (being socratic) but then immediately give an answer. While some people are excellent at listening to the answers, many people don’t listen carefully, as they are already starting to think about the next question. This is especially true when the answer is vague or fuzzy, as it’s easier to move on to the next question rather than to use something like the 5 Whys to get to the root cause of the answer.

The next time you ask a question, empty your mind after the question and listen to the answer. Look the person you are talking to directly in the eyes and concentrate on what they are saying. Don’t feel an urgency to move on to the next question, or even to respond. Just listen – and let them talk. When silence eventually comes, let a little space happen before you go on to the next question.

Now, don’t be non-emotive. Make sure the person sees you listening. Give them whatever clues you can from your body language. Nod your head. React appropriately if they generate some emotion. Encourage them to “go on” if they stall out in the middle of what they are saying.

But listen. Really listen. And make sure you are hearing what they are actually saying.

Use Your Competitors’ Products All The Time

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I was sitting with the founders of a company we’ve funded the other day talking about their competition. I love this product and I use it every day. It doesn’t yet have widespread adoption, but it as extremely actively used by the early adopters.

This company has several competitors – long time incumbents with somewhat stale, but useful products, and several new competitors, including well-funded and noisy ones. I use several of these products regularly in different situations and have encouraged the founders to use them also.

During our conversation, we started off by talking about pricing and go-to-market strategies. As part of this, we were talking through a strategy to change the current game being played in the market, both from a product and pricing perspective. We had clarity on the product side (we have several fundamental architectural differences that enable a powerfully different approach at scale) but thrashed for a while on the pricing perspective.

I realized I wasn’t very clear on the pricing strategies of the competitors so we went through them on-line. While this was sort of useful, our knowledge of their products, how they work, and what the current limitations of them are was more enlightening. Ultimately the product differentiation drove the pricing differentiation discussion, which resulted in our hypothesis about how to change the game which we are now testing.

If we hadn’t all be active users of these competitors products, we would have had a stupid conversation. While we have limited visibility into the competitors’ product roadmaps, we know how hard it will be for them to change several dimensions of their products. Sure, we should assume they can and will do this, but as we enter the market in a serious way, I think we can carve out a unique and very significant position for ourselves by leading with the product differentiation and supporting it with a pricing strategy that undermines theirs. In the absence of the product information we have from our experience using their products, we wouldn’t have been able to tie these two constructs together, and our resulting approach would be weak.

My general approach to competition is to “obsess about their products while completely ignoring the company.” If you can identify competitors, use their products continually, if only to have that knowledge when the moment comes that you have the conversation about how you are going to change the game.

Second Order Impact of FG Angels

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If you’ve been following along at home, you know that we recently created an AngelList Syndicate called FG Angels. Our goal is to make 50 investments through AngelList before the end of 2014. We’ll contribute $50k to each investment; our FG Angels Syndicate will contribute up to $450k.

Shortly after doing our first few investments, I got a really nice email from a member of Impact Angel Group, a Colorado-based angel group that organized an investment in the FG Angels syndicate. It shows a second order effect of what we are trying to accomplish with FG Angels. I thought it was worth sharing.

I just wanted to say thank you for all of your work in breaking through the red tape to put together FG Angels. I believe all of our committed members have completed their investments as individuals and we have made our first investment through the LLC we put together.

We really appreciate the time you spent to answer our questions and work through the details. I thought it might be helpful for you to see the positive impact you are making for our small group, which I’m sure can be multiplied a hundred times over. As you all know, herding angels and getting new angels to actually pull the trigger is not an easy task. FG Angels has helped us address all of our major angel-herding challenges through the following:

  1. FG Angels increased the amount of capital our group has committed since our official founding in 8/13 by 103% which will certainly help us with deal flow, member acquisition etc.
  2. 18 of our 37 angels pledged to participate and 14 are actually participating. Our members have a variety of different backgrounds and interests, so this is the largest participation rate for one deal that we’ve seen to date. 
  3. 15 of the 18 had never visited AngelList prior to researching FG Angels.
  4. 6 of the 18 who pledged and 4 of the 18 who participated are never-ever angels. 
  5. 7 of the 18 are making their first investment as Impact Angel Group members.
  6. 2 angels are considering creating their own AngelList syndicate as a result of their experience.
  7. We created an LLC of 145k to allow some of our newer angels to participate at smaller amounts. 1% of the carry will go to the Entrepreneur’s Foundation of Colorado. 1% of the carry will go back to us to help us support angel investing in Colorado.
  8. I learned an incredible amount about SEC regulations, crowdfunding and the logistics of AngelList.

 

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