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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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Yesware Is For Salespeople

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Yesware just announced a $4 million financing. I’ve joined the board. If you are a salesperson who uses Gmail, go download and try it now.

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.

It’s Hard To Tell Someone They Suck

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I discovered Josh Breinlinger’s blog this morning via a tweet from @stefanobernardi. I added it to the Ask the VC blogroll, read carefully through his post  VCs are liars. And so am I, and declared it the VC post of the day.

And – Josh is right – it’s super hard to say “you suck” or “your team sucks” as a reason for passing. Most VCs aren’t willing to do this as they either don’t want to deal with it, don’t have the emotional constitution for it (it’s hard to say no constantly throughout the day, every day), or don’t recognize that’s the actual reason they are passing.

At Foundry Group, our most common reason for passing is that what you are working on doesn’t fit within our themes. We try to pass on these companies in less than 60 seconds. If you assume that you are one of the 1,000 or so companies a year we see that fit within our themes, we quickly narrow it down to about 100 companies that we spend real time on based on one of three reasons.

  1. We don’t like the team
  2. We aren’t excited about the business
  3. You are too late stage for us

We usually figure this out in the first meeting. You’ll rarely get past interacting with one of the four of us if one of these three is the case. I’ll come back to this, especially point #1, in a minute.

If you end up in one of the remaining 100 companies a year we look at, recognize that we’d probably like to invest in your company. So by this point we like the team – that’s the not the reason we end up passing. Nor is it the business. Our challenge is that we can only invest in a dozen companies a year. We’ve purposefully constrained the number of companies we invest in a year to 12 +/- 2  (our fund is $225m, we have four partners, and have no interest in ever growing bigger.)

100 companies a year we love? 10 – 14 potential investments a year. How do we choose? At this point it’s completely qualitative. We just spend time going deep, individually and together, on every company in this set. We dig into the people and the product. It’s usually pretty obvious when all four of us are off the charts excited about investing. If we aren’t, then we don’t.

The toughest cases are the ones where we are excited, but something qualitative is holding us back. This is always either people or product. But it’s not because we think the people (or the product) suck – we are way past that point. Rather it’s something that just doesn’t catapult it into our “we are out of our mind with enthusiasm about investing.”

So – in our case, the equivalent of “the people suck” happens early – as we narrow from 1,000 to 100. In those 900 that we pass early in the process on, often people issues are the drivers. It’s not necessarily that the people suck, but it’s often the team doesn’t inspire us, we don’t click with them, we think there are weaknesses somewhere that are significant, or we just don’t get the right vibe. We are often wrong on this, but if asked will be blunt about it. It’s hard, so it’s more “reactive” when someone asks rather than “hey – we’ve decided to pass because you suck”, but we try to never hide behind something else when someone asks for feedback.

Having now done this for 18 years (eek) and said no to people about investing somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 times, it’s really hard to tell someone the reason is them. But, when asked, I try. And I’ll keep trying.

Everyone Needs A Diversion

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Everyone needs a diversion. We’ve updated our Foundry Group web site with the new Liquidation Preference beer photo. Yes – we make beer – or at least my partner Ryan McIntyre and our long time friend Matt Galligan does.

If you miss our old web site pictures, you can now get to them via the diversion tab on the top right. Seth as Frankenstein, Jason as Don Draper, or Ryan at Mr. Pink (or was he Mr. Blonde?) – how could that not make you smile.

And with that, I leave you with our hard hitting documentary on the lives of four venture capitalists. Time to stop procrastinating and do my next call.

Too Many Seed Investment Choices

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Yesterday I sent emails out passing on participating in two seed rounds for companies I really like. They had lots of investors trying to invest and each company was competitive with two other seed stage companies we’ve seen in the past 30 days. All are exciting, all are working on something that we like, and all of them are at the starting line with different strengths and weaknesses.

So far this year the number of high quality seed investments we are seeing in themes that are relevant to us is overwhelming. This is an awesome situation – for us and for entrepreneurs – and something I’m extremely excited about. But it forces us to think about our strategy, especially at the seed stage, and make sure we are comfortable with it. We are, but it occurred to me that it’d be worth putting it out there both so it’s known how we are thinking about seed investing and to get feedback on how we are approaching it.

First, some background. We’ve made a conscious decision as a firm never to grow – either number of partners or size of fund – so we are limited to the number of new investments we can make a year based on our approach. This translates into about a dozen new investments a year plus or minus a few.

Our strategy is “early stage” – so we are comfortable with seed investments, first round investments, and what might in the past have been called Series B investments if the company hasn’t raised much money to date (less than $3m). We summarize this as saying to entrepreneurs that if you’ve raised less than $3m so far, we are a target for you; if not, we aren’t. We are willing to invest as little as $375k as our first investment (e.g. Next Big Sound) or $15m as our first investment (e.g. SEOMoz).

We only invest in companies in our themes and only invest in US-based companies so we can say no in 60 seconds to 99% of the companies we see. Our goal isn’t to invest in all of the great companies; it’s to invest in around a dozen great companies a year. We are geographically agnostic – anywhere in the US – about 33% of our investments are in Colorado, about 33% are in California, and the rest are spread around the US. We are syndication agnostic – happy to invest alone and equally happy to invest with firms we like to work with. And we are very patient – we’ll lead our own follow-on rounds (at markups if warranted), are willing to invest up to $10m in a company before we declare “the moment of truth” as we’ve seen many companies break out in year three or year four of their life, and play for many years with the goal of building meaningful companies.

Finally, we believe strongly in active engagement as a seed investor. It’s not natural to us to make a bunch of passive seed investments or to toss $100k directly into a company without engaging with the company at the seed stage. We don’t have a seed program, nor do we expect to – if we invest, we are in for the long term.

So – what do we do?

1. Pass on the cluster: Per the intro to this post, if we see a cluster of seed investments in an area that we like, we are passing on all of them and trying to engage with them with the goal of leading the next round for one of them. Our belief is that we have to earn the right to invest and we want the entrepreneurs to choose us. At the same time, we want to invest in entrepreneurs who want to work with us and view us as a unique resource for them rather than just another check. In almost all cases like this, the seed round is easy to raise right now, which is awesome for the entrepreneur and gives her more choices downstream. We hope to earn our way in as one of these choices, while at the same time getting to know the entrepreneur better over a reasonable period of time. Of course, part of this is keeping the individual entrepreneurs plans confidential so we are very careful not to share any information between companies, although we’ve found several clusters where all of the entrepreneurs know each other and are already friends.

2. Support accelerators – especially TechStars – to create more seed opportunities: We co-founded TechStars and are investors in the program. Last year we helped put together (and invested in) Star Power Partners, which invests $100k in a convertible note in every TechStars company. As a result, we are tiny indirect investors in all of the companies that go through TechStars. Many of these companies raise less than $3m coming out of TechStars – all of them are subsequently in our zone for the next round financing.

3. Support other seed stage VCs: We’ve actively supported (as investors in their funds – individually, not through Foundry Group) many seed stage VCs including Jeff Clavier (SoftTech), David Cohen (Bullet Time), Manu Kumar (K9), Chris Sacca (Lowercase), Dave McClure (500 Startups), Eric Norlin (SK), and David Beisel (NextView). We don’t expect anything for this other than a role as a typical LP, but we view it as increasing the seed ecosystem.

4. Stay firmly focused on our strategy: We’ve seen strategy drift destroy VC returns, create chaos within VC firms, and make a mess of many VC / entrepreneur relationships. We know what we do well and are intent on continuing to do it for a long time.

As I mentioned at the beginning, we’re always thinking hard about how we do things and would love any feedback.

Raving Fans – How Our Themes Evolve

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We had our Foundry Group annual meeting yesterday. I enjoy our annual meetings – we get to spent a focused chunk of time with our investors. We have a straightforward meeting – a dinner for our advisory board the night before, drinks after for all LPs, our advisory board meeting first thing in the morning, and then the full meeting until lunch time. There’s no crazy party, no big events – just substance on our part and direct interactions with the investors supporting us. Our goal is simple – provide a clear update about what is going on in our funds, talk about what we are thinking about, and get direct feedback from our investors.

We spend the day before the meeting as a team putting the final touches on our presentation and reflecting on the previous year. We always talk about our key principles that we established when we started Foundry Group in 2007. One of these key principles is a “thematic investing approach.” An important part of our themes is that they are continuously evolving (if interested, we publish details on how we are currently thinking about themes on our Foundry Group website.) Our LPs understand this well and always like to hear how we are currently thinking about themes at our meeting.

On Tuesday, we realized that we have made several investments yesterday that have a concept in common – that of raving fans. I first thought of raving fans when I read Ken Blanchard’s book by the same name in 1993 when I was CEO of Feld Technologies (my first company). The message rang true for me then and still does today. The tl;dr version is “Your customers are only satisfied because their expectations are so low and because no one else is doing better. Just having satisfied customers isn’t good enough anymore. If you really want a booming business, you have to create Raving Fans.”

Our investment in Sympoz (owners of Craftsy) is an example of a company built on raving fans. Craftsy is a community of people who love to make things  - knitters, quilters, sewers, jewelers. If you know a knitter (I do – Amy is a fanatical knitter as is my mom Cecelia) you know that knitters are “raving fans of knitting.” We invested in Sympoz in our Distribution theme, but it has this special characteristic around its community that felt a little different to us.

We classify our investment in SideTour as “Other”. We say that we aren’t slaves to our themes – we’ll occasionally do something outside of a theme if we love the entrepreneurs and have a special connection to them. In the case of SideTour, they were one of our favorite companies in their TechStars New York class and we were infatuated with the types of experiences they were talking about providing in their marketplace. As we were talking about Sympoz (which is doing extraordinarily well) and SideTour, we realized that the “raving fans” concept applies to each of them.

I had a call yesterday with another entrepreneur running a company that we passed on the seed round. We all like the entrepreneur a lot, but the company didn’t feel like it fit in any of our themes and was too vertically oriented for us. The company is doing great and as we were talking about it a week or so ago we said “it feels a little like Sympoz, but has some characteristics of SideTour.” Yesterday, when I was talking to the entrepreneur, I realized it also was about a community of raving fans.

I love raving fans as the phrase for this theme since it sets an incredibly high bar of the dynamics of the people in the community these companies appeal to. These aren’t “vertical social networks” or “vertical exchange marketplaces” – there is something deeper going on in the relationship between the people and the company, and the people and community. And it’s something that is magically enabled by the current state of technology – mobile, video, real-time social – a bunch of things have come together than make this work.

Look for more on raving fans from us as it evolves. For now, you have a little bit of a window into how we think about themes.

Update – My partner Seth reminded me that our investment in CrowdTap (in our Adhesive theme) is all about helping brands interact with their raving fans, Todd Sawicki said “dude – how about Cheezburger” (in our Distribution theme) and Jeff Malek, the co-founder of BigDoor (in our Glue theme) said “ahem!” So it seems like we’ve got a lot companies involved in the construct of raving fans!

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