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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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When VCs Invest Together, Does Ability or Affinity Matter?

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I woke up to a bunch of VC related things in my twitter stream this morning. I had a nice digital sabbath yesterday so I was a little surprised by how much there was. I tried cranking out a #tweetstorm of them using Little Pork Chop but I found the tweetstream experience to be very unsatisfying and very inauthentic feeling. The links are good, so here they are if you want to get in the headspace for what I really want to talk about.

1/11 Things I Read About VC This Morning I Think You Should Care About In A Compact Little Tweetstorm
2/11 Start with @fredwilson thinking about tweetstorms – http://avc.com/2014/06/tweetstorming/
3/11 Then @msuster on why VC is so much more compelling now – http://bit.ly/1mvIE5C
4/11 and @pmarca on why the IPO is not what it used to be – http://bit.ly/1ljhzlV
5/11 and congrats to @jeff on raising his new fund – http://bit.ly/1m0h6cD
6/11 thx @joshelman to the pointer to the @yoapp hackathon – http://bit.ly/1x0MhbQ
7/11 the #premoney conference recordings will be online soon – http://www.livestream.com/500startups/folder
8/11 the 2nd seed round trend @Mattermark by @DanielleMorrill – http://bit.ly/1iQTCI2
9/11 I end with Haiku
10/11 Tweetstorms perplex me a lot
11/11 Do you enjoy them

The response to 11/11 was generally “no” although a few people suggested that tweetstorming while a soccer game was going wasn’t a particularly useful test.

After I thought I was done I ran across a really interesting set of articles which didn’t make it into the tweetstorm. The first article, In Venture Capital, Birds of a Feather Lose Money Together, was a summary that let to the second article, The Cost of Friendship, which led to the actual article behind the annoying SSRN paywall. After reading the abstract, I decided to buy and read the article, especially since Paul Gompers, one of the great academic researchers on the VC industry, was the lead author.

I was once a Ph.D. student at MIT Sloan School studying innovation. Specifically, my doctoral advisor was Eric von Hippel. Eric was very kind to me, but I was a horrible Ph.D. student because I was also running a company at the time and had no interest in being an academic. Eventually I got kicked out well before I got my Ph.D.

Nonetheless, I learned how to more or less read an academic paper and some social science rubbed off on me. Actually, a lot rubbed off on me – enough for me to know that the headlines written about academic papers and studies rarely capture the essence of what is going on in the paper. Instead, reading the abstract and the carefully reading the non-analysis part of the paper, with a goal of putting yourself in the researchers’ shoes to understand what they are trying to figure out, will help you understand the punch line.

So when I read the first article, it was easy to conclude “VCs who are like each other do less well investing together.” Or, “VCs who like each other perform more poorly when investing together than those who don’t like each other.” This is consistent with the callout from the first article which says “The more affinity there is between two VCs investing in a firm, the less likely the firm will succeed, according to research by Paul Gompers, Yuhai Xuan and Vladimir Mukharlyamov.”

I read the summary, which is kind of the “PR piece” for the article, but I didn’t find it satisfying. It generalized too quickly and I kept wondering how affinity was defined. The hint was that it had to do with ethnicity, educational background, and employment history, which wasn’t how I was defining affinity when reacting to the title “In Venture Capital, Birds of a Feather Lose Money Together.”

Next, I read the executive summary of the paper. This was clear and felt fine to me. It separated affinity and ability. The punch line of the paper is:

“Collaborating for ability-based characteristics enhances investment performance. But collaborating due to shared affinities dramatically reduces the probability of investment success.”

Much different than the marketing piece about the paper that I read first. Basically, if you choose your co-investor because you think she is a great investor, that’s good, but if you choose your co-investor because you like him, that’s bad. But that felt too simple to me – no way that’s the basis for a HBS academic study. So I bought and read the paper, which was pretty easy until I got stuck in analysis stew on p.22. I hung in there and got through it, but once again was reminded of another reason I was a shitty Ph.D. student – I dislike reading academic papers.

I learned that affinity was narrowly and precisely defined, but not in the way I thought it was. Affinity to me meant that the two VCs liked each other, or had an “affinity” for one another, but instead affinity was based on biographic data, specifically gender, ethnicity, educational background, and employment history.

“The education dummy variables Top College, Top Business School, Top Graduate School, and Top School equal one if a venture capitalist holds, respectively, an undergraduate, business, graduate, or any degree from a top university and zero otherwise. Ethnic Minority takes the value of one if a venture capitalist is East Asian, Indian, Jewish or Middle Eastern. Dummy variables East Asian, Indian, Jewish and Middle Eastern pin down a venture capitalist’s ethnicity; the dummy variable Female identifies an individual’s gender.”

Also, success was defined as a company having an IPO (the data range for the study was 1975 – 2003). Now, I’m not going to argue the performance variable, but as someone who has had a lot of financial success with exits that were not IPOs, I’d be curious what happens when the analysis is done where success is defined by “at least 10x return on capital for the VC.”

The big reveal is buried in the middle of p.18.

“On one hand, people display greater inclination to work with similar others.  Similarities may be in terms of ability (e.g., whether individuals hold degrees from top academic institutions) or affinity (e.g., whether individuals share the same ethnic background). On the other hand, these two sets of pairwise characteristics affect performance in opposite ways. Teams with more able participants are more likely to result in a successful investment outcome. On the contrary, investments are more likely to fail when groups are formed based upon similarities between members along characteristics having nothing to do with ability.”

Go read that again. If you pair up two people based on ability, they have better results than if you pair them up on affinity, where affinity is defined by “each went to the same school, each are the same ethnic minority (including Jewish), or each worked together in a previous company.”

Unless I missed something (and it’s entirely possible that I did), the message is “choose to work with people who have ability.”

I kind of feel like this applies to life in general!

It’ll be interesting to see how this paper gets interpreted, or misinterpreted over the next few weeks, assuming anyone else goes beyond the summary and reads the paper, no thanks to SSRN.

Just another reminder to look beyond the headlines. And don’t co-invest with someone who has no ability just because you went to the same school, are the same ethnicity, or once worked together.

Going Beyond Amazon: A New Model for Authors, Retailers, and Publishers

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As many of you know, I have a keen interest in the future of digital publishing.

One of the reasons we started FG Press was to give control and transparency back to the authors. Specifically, at FG Press the author gets 50% royalty on all books sold (up from the traditional 15%) and we employ the latest technologies, promotions, and marketing efforts to help the author build a personal audience who they have a direct relationship with. Ultimately, we want to create the foundation for how future long-form content (e.g. books) will be created and consumed as well as how the connections between reader and author will be established and managed.

But what about sales and distribution? It’s not enough to create great content. It’s equally important to get the content into the hands of avid readers. And, from our perspective, link the readers to the authors.

Right now, most readers purchase their ebooks from Amazon. But as Amazon battles Hachette and others, this could change. Amazon has no incentive to move away from their centralized online store where they own the consumer/reader and the data.

As an author, I’ve found Amazon’s lack of transparency on data to be frustrating. I can blame some of this on the traditional publisher, but given what could be possible, everyone falls short. As a reader, I find the lack of connection with the author infuriating. I know some authors don’t want to be bothered, but for the one’s who do, I’d love to interact with them directly. And, as an author who loves to hear from and interact with his readers, I often want to scream when I am confronted with the wall that is “the publishing industry.”

We’ve explored many different approaches. There are hundreds of startups working on a wide variety of things, many of which we are systematically incorporating into our infrastructure at FG Press. I’ve used some of them for my Startup Revolution series with many more coming now that we have a manageable way to deploy them, and a team to make it happen, versus just me in my spare time, which is basically non-existent.

One of these approaches is BookShout, a technology platform which can allow “any site to become a bookstore.” With iOS, Android, HTML5, and web apps, BookShout has created technology to power the sales and distribution of ebooks from nearly any site. It allows authors and retailers to do things that are difficult to do in the current publishing ecosystem, including:

  • maintain brand identity
  • generate more revenue
  • build direct consumer relationships and like-minded communities

BookShout has also taken the additional step to make sure the content is connected and the distribution is social. As BookShout CEO Jason Illian often says, “Content is king, but viral, connected content is King Kong.”

BookShout’s unique implementation allows every brand or author to use Twitter, Facebook, and other technologies to build audience and naturally stimulate re-occurring purchases and interaction. As an example, not only could Ben Horowitz sell his great book The Hard Thing about Hard Things from the A16Z site (beyond just a banner ad that clicks through to a landing page with a link to Amazon and other places to buy the book), he could also leave notes and create conversations with readers, allow those readers to invite others into the fold, and create new offers and promotions for his next book.

If an e-retailer wants to sell ebooks alongside any of their products on their own site, they can now do so with Bookshout. If a media company wants all of their largest brands to provide ebooks, each brand can build its own community and stay connected around ebooks. If a bestselling author wants to sell her next book from her own site, she now has the tools to generate more revenue and build an audience. Ebay, Urban Outfitters, Nike, James Patterson, NPR, Walmart, Alibaba – they can now each control their own future.

I’m not an investor in BookShout, but I’m a fan and I believe they are on to something big. Look for more from them, and more from us with them.

How Does A Small Company Make A Big Company Successful?

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Every single day I have multiple conversations and emails from CEOs and people at companies I work with about how to work with Big Tech Companies. You know – Google, Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Salesforce, SAP, LinkedIn, Cisco, Yahoo, HP, AT&T, Verizon, Icouldkeepgoingforalongtime.

But this conversation is not limited to just the gigantic tech companies. They include all the up and comers andtheabunchmoreyouprobablydontthinkarethatbigbutare, including a long list of newly public companies or still private but mega-funded companies.

This conversation comes from two different directions.

- BigCo reaches out to LittleCo and has a classic “happy ears meeting” where BigCo talks a great game about all the great things the two companies can do together and how it’s going to be awesome and LittleCo hears what they want to hear, not what has been actually said. And then the giant black time suck hole of the “let’s work together dance” begins. In the typical case, this goes one for months and months without any resolution or action. Eventually everyone gets tired of each other.

- LittleCo reaches out to me and says “Hey – I really think we could be strategic to BigCo. Can you make an introduction.”

My response to each of these is NO NO NO NO NO NO. After I say NO a few more times, I state “You are thinking about it wrong.”

Instead of expecting BigCo to react to you in any way, start from the perspective that if you want a relationship with BigCo, your only goal in life should be to help BigCo be successful.

Start by coming up with a hypothesis about what you are going to do to help BigCo be successful. Then, test this hypothesis. The Lean Startup approach is super helpful here. Test, ship, iterate – just keep trying and keep learning. Use what you are creating to get the attention of BigCo. Don’t spend six months developing a business development relationship. Don’t spend months trying to get the decision maker on the phone before you’ve done anything. Don’t wine and dine endlessly the people you know, or get connected to. And never, ever go single threaded with one person at BigCo, or one BigCo, hoping something good will happen.

Simply go do some shit for BigCo. Be precise. Execute well. Communicate it to the people you know at BigCo. Do it without any formal arrangement. Show BigCo why they care and why you are the one that will move the meter for them.

Then you can start having the business conversation.

As a bonus, this works for sales also. But you probably figured that out already.

Our Latest Book – Sleep Your Way to the TOP – Is Shipping

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Sleep Your Way to the TOPJane Miller‘s first book Sleep Your Way to the TOP is out and available in digital and print. This is Jane’s first book and FG Press‘s second one.

Around the Foundry Group Offices we’ve been referring to Jane as “Sheryl Sandberg meets Chelsea Handler.” If you happened to catch my interview with Jane during Boulder Startup Week, you know exactly how smart, funny, and authentic Jane is. She’s a great CEO (who just sold Rudi’s Organic Bakery) with an incredible amount of experience on the front lines building and guiding businesses. Her writing style is funny while packing a serious punch.

I first met Jane on a street corner in Boulder in the rain. It’s not that random – my partner Seth Levine knew her and was talking to her when I ran into them. Jane sent me over a draft of the book – I read it in one sitting and loved it. We had just started FG Press and I told her immediately that this is the kind of book we want to publish. Fortunately, she was game to take a chance on us.

We’ve had a great time working together to get the book finished and launched. If you want a taste of the Sleep Your Way to TOP launch party at eTown, take a look.

Get your copy of Sleep Your Way to the TOP here, http://bit.ly/sywtbook, or buy it directly below.

“Sleep Your Way to the TOP!” by Jane Miller on Ganxy

And, if you want to learn a little more about Jane, in her own words, here you go!

What Failure Really Feels Like

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I just read an amazing post from Nikki Durkin, the founder and CEO of 99dresses.

It’s titled My startup failed, and this is what it feels like and it is one of the best posts I’ve ever read about startup failure.

I almost titled this post “What Failure Tastes and Smells Like” because Nikki does such an awesome job of describing not just what happened, but what she felt throughout the process. The post is long and goes through multiple ups and downs, just like a startup. It covers four years, several near death experiences, recoveries, and then final failure.

I don’t know Nikki but have immense respect for her taking the chance to put this out there. In today’s world of “look how great we are doing”, we know we all aren’t doing great. It’s fucking hard to fail, deal with failure, and recover from failure, especially when you look around and feel like you are the only failure.

Nikki – if you ever want to turn this, and other lessons you learned from this experience into a book (as you hint near the end of the post), my friends at FG Press would love to talk to you about working with you on it.

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