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Today, Rover announced that Menlo Ventures has led a new $12m round of financing. As is our style, we participated, but we’re excited to have a new partner to join us, Madrona, and Petco in this fast growing adventure.
Lots of VC firms are once again talking about online marketplaces. Some get it; many don’t. Being systematic about what it takes to build and scale a marketplace effectively and make it an enduring enterprise is difficult.
We learned this dynamic in the early 2000’s with our investment in ServiceMagic. We invested in the company in 1999 during the ascension of the Internet bubble. We loved the two founders, Michael Beaudoin and Rodney Rice, but knew very little about marketplace businesses or the home improvement category. But a lot of people were funding marketplaces and other online “things” in this arena – well over $500 million of VC capital went into the home improvement market alone.
It was an unmitigated disaster for almost every company except ServiceMagic. In 2000, Michael and Rodney cut the business drastically, changed the business model to a lead-fee system, which they pioneered online. By 2003 nearly all of their competitors had failed, the companies that went public pre-bubble were trading sub-$1 / share, but ServiceMagic was growing like crazy and was very profitable.
Before ignoring vanity metrics became trendy, ServiceMagic ignored them. Michael and Rodney were data obsessed, getting hourly reports with key metrics. They understood the different dimensions of the business and were laser focused on drivers of supply and demand in each market they operated. They eschewed slick marketing, were systematic about growing headcount, learned how to master local expansion models, and stayed obsessively focused on the quality of transactions, instead of simply the quantity, moving through the marketplace.
We invest early in the life of a company. While we weren’t the first investor in Rover, when Madrona partner Greg Gottesman called and told me that I had to meet Aaron Easterly, the co-founder of Rover, I happily obliged on my next trip to Seattle. In ten minutes I knew I wanted to back Aaron as he had the same characteristics as Michael and Rodney. And, while after 10 minutes I knew nothing about the dog sitting market, as a dog owner I instinctively understood and appreciated the problem.
So – our first order sort in the case of Rover was Aaron and the team. We loved what we saw. No bullshit. Total quants. Deep domain love. Complete lack of interest in marketing nonsense and overpromotion.
And yes – after a little more exploration it was clear that Rover had a huge addressable market. Current commercial solutions are generally despised and the opportunity for a two-sided marketplace is enormous. Best of all, there are very obvious RAM (remnant asset monetization) dynamics to the marketplace.
Sure enough, a year after our initial investment, our premise for the investment in Rover shows clearly in the data. All of the underlying marketplace metrics – including activation, fill rates, and repeat usage – are accelerating rapidly. Dogs owners trying the service now will spend twice as much monthly as those trying the service 18 months ago. Sitters joining the marketplace now will earn 50 times more money in their first three months than those signing up 18 months ago.
Oh – and Michael Beaudoin from ServiceMagic joined the board last year as one of our outside board members.
If you are a dog owner, or want to be a dog sitter, try Rover out today.
I’ve been using Yesware since the first alpha release. While I’m theoretically not a salesperson, I believe every CEO and professional plays the role of a salesperson. And many people, especially in young, fast growing companies, are salespeople even if that’s not their title. As far as I’m concerned salespeople are the unsung heros of most US companies.
The brilliance of Yesware is that it was conceived and built by salespeople, for salespeople, from the perspective of living in email. Most salespeople I know live in email, hate their CRM system, and are constantly switching between the two while bemoaning the idiocy of the whole thing. The whole CRM thing is for sales managers who want to actually track what the salespeople are doing. But it’s all about email for the salespeople. And that’s what Yesware is focused on.
As a seed investor in Yesware, it has been pretty awesome to watch the product evolve and and the user growth spread to over 40,000 users through word of mouth only. As a result of our word of mouth approach, the product has to be great and responsive to the users.
As an investor, I’ve encouraged the team to push a new release once a week, focus on both registrations and daily active users, and instrument every aspect of the product so we can see what’s happening at a very granular level. While Yesware is only available for Gmail, it’s been an outstanding platform to iterate aggressively on and get this kind of feedback. Now that Yesware has nailed the use case with the seed financing and has a serious user ramp happening, it’s time to go after Outlook.
I’m psyched for the Yesware team and proud to be involved with them.
For all of you out there who are wondering, Amy is doing fine. We’re in Boulder, she’s happy, in some pain, but enjoying the delightful impact of Percocet, and making her way through MI-5 Season 8. Thanks for all of the support, emails, and kind words.
I’m about to head out for a five hour run (broken into three separate segments) in preparation for the 50 miler I’m doing in April after I help her take a shower (which ordinarily I would be excited about), but first I thought I’d write some thoughts about a call I had with an entrepreneur yesterday.
The call was about a potential financing he is considering. I’ve gotten to know him some from a distance over the past year and am impressed with what he’s created. He originally just called me for advice on his financing strategy but I started the call by telling him I was interested in exploring leading a round, would be willing to give him advice also, and would quickly tell him if I was dropping out so he could flip me into “advice only mode” if we weren’t going to end up being a potential investor.
We had a wide ranging conversation over an hour about the current state of the business and how he’s thinking about the financing. Several times over the course of the hour he sounded defensive about a particular issue – well – not defensive, but uncertain. He’d frame what he thought was a negative in the context of the way he’d heard it from a previous potential investor (let’s call them BucketHead Ventures) who hadn’t gotten to a deal with the company in the past.
One of these was around churn – he asserted that one of the clear weaknesses of the business was the high churn rate. I pressed him on what he meant and we went through some numbers. He didn’t have a high churn rate at all – in fact, his churn rate after a customer was paying for three months was minimal. The problem – described by BucketHead Ventures as “high churn” – was a combination of what happened in the first three months and BucketHead’s inability to do cohort analysis, so BucketHead looked at absolute churn on a monthly basis rather than on a cohort basis.
In my head, I thought to myself “bucketheads – they pretend to understand businesses like this but have a total miss at a basic level.” The entrepreneur understood the miss, but had internalized BucketHead Ventures feedback and was letting it color his view of his business. And, more importantly, it was making him gunshy. Instead of articulating a powerful story about low customer acquisition costs with minimal downstream churn, he lead with “the worst problem with the business is our high churn rate.”
I see this all the time. While some entrepreneurs think all VCs are bucketheads (they aren’t), other entrepreneurs think all VCs understand this stuff (they don’t). Even ones who seem to be experts, or should be experts, or claim to be experts. Especially the ones who claim to be experts. Often, they are just bucketheads. Listen to their feedback, but don’t let it make you gunshy if you think they are wrong.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about the importance of a company announcing a financing in the absence of any other activity. “Dear World: We Just Raised $X From Investors A, B, and C.” Ok, but so what?
In my book, there is only one real reason for this – to attract new potential employees: “We’ve just raised $X and are hiring 20 people including types A through types Q – see our jobs page at jobs.companyname.com and apply now.”
Unfortunately, very few funding announcements are focused on this for two reasons. The first is the stupid one – many entrepreneurs get tangled up in the ego dynamics of a financing (“look ma – we raised money’) and lose sight of the notion that raising money is just one tiny step on the path to success. In my book, once you’ve completed a financing, take a deep breath, tell everyone in the company so they know how much money is in the bank, and then get back to work creating amazing things for your customers.
The second is less stupid, but is something I see over and over again, even with companies we are investors in (and we know better). When you do a financing, you file something called a Form D with the SEC. This process is fully automated which means it is easy for our friends like Dan Primack at Fortune to see any new filings that are made. Dan was one of the first people I knew who regularly published Form D info – it’s now spread widely across most of the VC-based publications, but I’ve give Dan credit for being the most diligent with this (and with many other things he reports on.)
Once you’ve filed your Form D, the data is available on Edgar with a simple search. There are other ways to get it as well since there are plenty of services that republish Edgar data with a better UI for searching. Regardless, the info on Form D is out there on the web.
Some VCs I know claim that you don’t have to file a Form D. Having researched this, I think it’s a dumb move. Most credible attorneys that work with corporate securities, especially those in the VC industry, will insist that you file a Form D if you have more than one investor, or if you have investors in more than one state. In our world, we just tell companies we invest in to file it and not worry about it.
This takes us back to the beginning of the post. For some reason, some companies want to keep their financings quiet. That’s fine – just file your Form D and say nothing about it. It’ll get picked up in the daily VC publications, like Term Sheet and VentureWire. Maybe it’ll end up on TechCrunch if you’ve got some famous investors that they like to write about. And, if your local paper is on the ball, it’ll show up there also. But it’s meaningless – “Joe’s Company Raised $X From Investors A, B, and C according to a filing with the SEC.” Next.
But if you are going to announce your financing, do it right – in conjunction with your Form D filing. Have your jobs page up. Make it clear that you are hiring. If you have substantive stuff to announce around the financing, say an acquisition, a major strategic partnership, or a new product release, announce it at the same time. Substance matters here – the more the better.
Make your noise for a day – and then get back to work creating amazing things for your customers.
My friend Paul Kedrosky – who spends some of his time as a Senior Fellow at the Kauffman Foundation – has a thoughtful short video (as part of the Kauffman Sketchbook series) on where entrepreneurs get their money. While it’s easy to get confused and think that VCs are the center of the financing universe, Paul reminds us that most entrepreneurial companies are funded by the entrepreneur’s savings, cash flow, credit cards, friends, and family.
It’s a creative three minute video with plenty of meat to it.