Month: April 2015

Apr 29 2015

Transparent Funding Announcements

We are in a cycle again where how much you raise is the story. It’s what the press likes to write about (e.g. Company X raised Y from A, B, and C). Now that everyone is overly focused on unicorns, the headline number on the valuation (e.g. Company X raised Y at a valuation of Z from A, B, and C) has crept into the story on big rounds.

While this makes for press release fodder and ego gratification, it’s of very little use to entrepreneurs. There’s no real story there. No understanding of the human dynamics behind the financing. No understand of what actually went down. No underlying metrics that drive the financing. No real perspective on how people thought about things and the choices they made. Just happy talk focusing on the dollar raised. Zero educational value around anything.

Recently, the gang at SalesLoft told the detailed story of their $10m financing. Kyle and his team went through Techstars Boulder in 2012 before moving back to Atlanta and being leaders in energizing the Atlanta startup community. Kyle followed the tradition of extreme openness about the financing process that I think Rand Fishkin started with his post three years ago titled Moz’s $18 Million Venture Financing: Our Story, Metrics and Future.

If you’ve never read Rand’s post on our financing, it goes through an extraordinary amount of detail about Moz’s business, the financing process, the terms, and the timeline. Rand did NOT run this by me before posting it – I saw it at the same time as the rest of the world. He did ask if it was ok with me that he’d be this transparent. I reminded him that I signed up for TAGFEE when I invested, it was his company, and he could write whatever he wanted.

After he posted it, he sent around the link to a few prominent people in the tech media. None of them covered the financing in any way. A few days later, I sent out a few emails asking folks I knew at these sites why they hadn’t written anything, since they so quickly write Company X raised Y from A, B, and C. I didn’t get responses from everyone I wrote, but the ones I got back said something like “Rand wrote too much – there was no story here once he put that post up.”

I found that fascinating. When I pondered it, I realized how divergent the media was becoming from what entrepreneurs were thirsty for in terms of substance.

Late last year, Danielle Morrill followed in Rand’s footsteps with an epic post about our $6.5m financing of Mattermark. In it, she talked a lot about the process, just like Rand did, along with disclosing all kinds of information about the business, the valuation, and what she experienced. I also wrote a post about the financing using Mattermark as An Example of How We Decide to Invest.

Interestingly, the media wrote more this time. I don’t know if it’s because Danielle is in the bay area (while Rand is in Seattle), or the story has broadened. But when I go back and read the media stories, they are still overly focused on the amount of the financing, rather than the story behind it.

Another company that did an awesome transparent funding announcement was Buffer (and app and company I love, but am only a tiny investor in via an AngelList syndicate) when they announced We’re Raising $3.5m in Funding: Here is the Valuation, Term Sheet and Why We’re Doing It. Data, data everywhere. And lots and lots of story.

Now, I’m not suggesting that every entrepreneur should write transparent funding announcements. That’s up to the entrepreneur. But I think it’s super valuable to read the ones that are out there. The amount of useful information to entrepreneurs who are building their companies, both for process, dynamics, and comparables, is enormous. And, while these funding stories are positive, the path to them is often a complete mess, such as Rand’s Misadventures in VC Funding: The $24 Million Moz Almost Raised or Danielle virtually stomping her feet in frustration when she wrote Mattermark Has Raised $2M in Our Second Seed Round.

In my book, this is a lot more useful to read than Company X raised Y at a valuation of Z from A, B, and C. Thanks to the entrepreneurs who are brave enough to put this out there.

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Apr 28 2015

Non-Attachment vs. Detachment

At dinner on Sunday night I had a short discussion with a long-time friend about the phrases detachment vs. non-attachment. I don’t remember the specific thing that brought it up, but I stated that I was much more interested in non-attachment in how I react to things. We bounced around words a little and then went back to our Mexican food and the broader conversation with the other people at the table.

I’d been playing around with a framework with my therapist for the concept of attachment, especially around stress and anxiety, and trying to figure out a metaphor around it. I had a long discussion on a car ride to Shambhala Mountain Center with Jerry Colonna about it where he helped me clarify some of the edges of my thinking.

Use the universe as the background for the metaphor.

Attachment is like the activity around a black hole. You are constantly fighting against getting sucked into it. All of your energy is focused on not ending up in the black hole.

Detachment is like being in no gravity. You are just drifting. Nothing exerts any force on you in any direction.

Non-attachment is like being in a swirling galaxy. There is stuff going on everywhere. You interact with it. But none of it pulls on you excessively. You are involved and impact some of it but a lot of it is exogenous to you.

There are many situations that arise that cause me to feel like I’m fighting against being sucked into a black hole. I used to react to these situations as they used to cause immense stress or anxiety, which are different but related things for me. While I have gotten much better at this over the years, one of my motivations for starting to meditate was to try to be more mindful, especially around the anxiety (note – Headspace has a great 30 day meditation routine specifically on anxiety.)

Detachment for me is linked to my struggles with depression. When I’m depressed, I’m completely detached. It’s an extremely uncomfortable feeling for me. I’ve very functional, like I am when I’m non-attached, but nothing about it feels good.

While many people suggest that detachment is the right approach to stress and anxiety, and others feel that it’s the path to enlightenment, it doesn’t work in my case. Now, I’m defining the phrase, so for some detachment might be an awesome way to deal with things, but for me it falls in the category of “indifference” and “disengagement” which I apply to things I don’t care about, but doesn’t work for things I am engaged, interested, or involved in.

Non-attachment ends up being the right word (at least in this framework) for what I’m looking for. I realize that some people view non-attachment as a synonym for detachment, but I like the use of the word, and the notion of “actively non-attaching” to things.

When I apply this filter to a stressful or anxiety-producing situation, where I know that I have to engage with it, but am “non-attached” to it, I’ve found a calm focus comes over me. And that calmness can sustain over a long period of time, even in the face of incredible stress. Like putting your head in the mouth of the demon, it makes the black holes disappear for me.

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Apr 24 2015

Open Boulder Meet and Greet at Zayo – 4/30/15

Dan Caruso (Zayo founder/CEO) and I are hosting an Open Boulder discussion on the future of Boulder 0n Thursday 4/30 from 6-8pm. Please join us!

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Apr 24 2015

Silicon Valley – Religion, Operating System, or Something Else?

Earlier this week I wrote a post titled The Religion of Silicon Valley. It was intended to be provocative and exploratory.

The comments were great and helped me think through this concept more (note: the comment counter is broken on the main page due to a plug-in conflict – we are trying to figure it out. The counter is correct on the post page…)

Then I wrote a post titled The Board Operating System. A few folks tied together the concepts of Religion and Operating System as an operative metaphor for Silicon Valley.

That stimulated a bunch of other phrases in my mind to use as metaphors. As I ponder them, I’m curious which ones fit or don’t fit, and why. Some phrases include:

  • Religion
  • Operating System
  • Frame of Mind
  • Culture
  • Cult
  • Something Else?

If you are game to play and help think through this, comment away!

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Apr 23 2015

The Paradox of VC Value-Add

Scott Maxwell of OpenView Partners had an awesome post up this morning titled The Truth About VC Value-Add. Go read it – I’ll still be here when you get back.

You may recognize Scott’s name – I wrote about him in my post When VCs Don’t Bullshit You.

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.

That’s how a friendship develops, at least in my world. You do stuff together, learn from each other, and then do things for each other. Simple.

Scott’s post is a great history lesson about the evolution of “value-added VC” behavior, especially around organization building by VC firms to “add more value” to their portfolio companies.

Before I dig in, I need to express two biases. First, whenever someone says “I’m a (adjective) (noun)” I immediately think they are full of shit. When someone says “I’m a great tennis player”, I immediately wonder why they needed to tell me they are great and it makes me suspicious. “I’m a deep thinker” makes me wonder the last time the person opened a book. “I’m a value-added VC” makes me think “Isn’t that price of admission?”

Second, I went through the scale up of the organizational VC firm in the late 1990s at Mobius Venture Capital. When we started Mobius, we were four founders and two EAs. At one point we were a 70 person organization, with 10 partners, 20 associates, two business development people, three recruiters, a marketing person, two incubators (anyone remember Hotbank?), a staff to run the Hotbanks, a big back office for accounting, EIRs, and some others folks.

It was a disaster. Now, you can argue that we were terrible at it. Or that we completely fucked it up. Or that our basic premises about what we were doing was wrong. Or that how we managed it was ineffective. Or that it would have worked great if only the Internet bubble hadn’t collapsed. Or probably 83 other arguments.

Regardless, it created a very deeply held belief that I share with my partners at Foundry Group that we wanted to run a VC firm that had none of this. We didn’t want associates. We didn’t want to grow. We didn’t want to build an organization. Instead, we wanted to be extremely close to the entrepreneurs and do all the work ourselves. It just occurred to me that we are bare metal VCs. That kind of fits with the word Foundry in our name.

So, my fundamental biases are (a) I don’t like the phrase “value-added investor” and (b) I have no interest in building a VC firm that looks like one that is configured the way many of the current larger VC firms are organizing themselves.

However, while it’s a bias, I have no opinion on whether it’s a better or worse approach. It’s a different approach. And that’s totally cool – there are lots of different ways to do things successfully. And there are lots of different ways to fuck things up.

In my opinion, Scott is one of the guys that is doing this effectively. I’m an investor in Scott’s funds and a very happy one. Scott’s also been thinking about this and working on it for over 15 years, now at two different firms, so he has a lot of run time with what works and what doesn’t. Many folks that are trying to incorporate “value-add infrastructure” into their firms would be wise to read his post carefully.

Now, if you are paying attention to my biases, you’d logically ask “So why did you co-found Techstars and why are you and your Foundry Group partners so involved?” Remember that it’s a different approach. We deeply believe that the way companies are created and funded, especially at the seed stage, is radically changing on a permanent basis. Techstars, at the very beginning, was based on this premise. It’s scaling magnificently around this premise and the iteration loop on learning is incredibly tight. And, while we are very close to it, Techstars is not “our firm” so we can help with our opinions, lessons we’ve learned, and belief system without having to run it.

Remember, there are lots of different ways to do something. However, there’s a huge difference between “doing something” and “doing something successfully.” The distinction is always worth paying attention to.

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Apr 22 2015

The Board Operating System

In the comments to my post yesterday titled The Religion of Silicon Valley, Rosey commented that the choice of metaphor could be “operating system” instead of religion.

“Brad, I expected your choice of metaphor would be ‘operating system’ more than ‘religion’, as the term ‘religion’ carries a lot of baggage and generally involves some supernatural truth claims. An ‘operating system’ both defines its environment and thrives within it — and the idea of an OS seems less cluttered with other analogies, like heaven, hell, and Eden.

Can you, for example, take the SV’s operating system and drag and drop it into Boulder or Kansas City? You can — but the VC’s the operating system needs to plug into may not be fast or scalable enough — the peripherals the OS expects to interact with.

The SV OS ought to work in a Bolder or Kansas City if we can ‘install it.'”

I love the phrase “operating system” to describe things. I saw a presentation from Anil Dash a year or two ago that completely recast government and how it works into the construct of an OS (it was epic – I wish I had the slides).

Yesterday I got an email from a CEO of a late stage company I’m involved in who is modifying his “board operating system.” He has a new late stage investor and it’s time to change the board OS to incorporate this new director and how he likes to work into the mix in a way that is additive to everyone, especially the company and the CEO.

It’d be easy for the CEO to fight this and say, “Nope, this is how we do things” but he’s wiser than that and instead is spending time thinking through how to modify the OS so that it works for everyone, including all the existing investors who are very happy with the existing board OS.

Here’s a quick table of the “current” and “future” board OS. The communication is clear and the rhythm is well-defined.

Board Operating System

In 2014, Paul Berberian, CEO of Sphero, wrote an email to his board (which I’m on) titled Orbotix Board of Directors Expectations. We use this as our board OS at Orbotix and it’s been incredibly helpful. If you are struggling with your board dynamics, it’s worth reading and contemplating creating something similar.

I’m a strong believer that a great CEO sets the expectations for how the board of a private company works. Too many CEOs of startups don’t put the energy into this and as a result boards take on default behavior that is a function of the experience, style, and temperament of individual board members. This is, at best, suboptimal, and is often a clusterfuck.

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Apr 20 2015

The Religion of Silicon Valley

There has been a lull in the chanting that “Silicon Valley is the center of the tech universe.” I’m in Boulder for the next three weeks and I woke up pondering something Ben Casnocha said to me the last time we were together.

Silicon Valley is a religion, just like Crossfit is a religion.

This has stuck with me for a long time and I’ve read many posts about Silicon Valley through this lens. For a quick frame of reference test, try these three:

I’ve been trying to decide the best phrase to describe the phenomenon around Silicon Valley. All of the easy phrases – culture, dynamics, ecosystem – either feel wrong or are too limiting. Religion seems to be the one that works.

Since religion is a loaded word for so many people (including me), I went searching for a comfortable and expansive definition of religion to use that transcends human history and belief systems. I liked the Wikipedia definition of religion.

A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that aim to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, people may derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle.

Let’s change this to “The Religion of Silicon Valley.”

The Religion of Silicon Valley is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the order of existence. It has narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that aim to explain the meaning of Silicon Valley and/or to explain the origin of Silicon Valley. From their beliefs about the human nature, people may derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle.

That seems like it works. As an observer, but not participant, in Crossfit, this definition also seems to work for Crossfit. It also seems to work for Fight Club, which I watched recently at an offsite with Seth, Jason, and Ryan and we all agreed that it definitely does not pass the test of time.

Religions are incredibly powerful, but they have great weaknesses and limitations. Religious leaders are dogmatic. They are slow to change their fundamental beliefs and in some cases refuse to. Over time, some religious leaders alienate their subjects or try to control society through top down control. And, when religions clash, conflict and human extermination can be quite dramatic. Religious leaders are often overthrown after a period of time.

Metaphorically, this is a risk of the Religion of Silicon Valley. I’ve been saying for over 20 years that there are many different ways to create amazing companies. Recently, in my book Startup Communities, I asserted that you can create a startup community in any city in the world.

The Silicon Valley way is one of them, but not the only one. Today, it’s a powerful epicenter, just like Detroit was a powerful epicenter in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s even earning a place in America’s Arsenal of Democracy during World War II with its sister cities Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. But the notion that the Silicon Valley way is the only way is a dangerous one.

I’m intrigued by people who say “the only place you should start a tech company is Silicon Valley.” I keep thinking that I’ll never hear that again, but I just heard it two weeks ago from an entrepreneur I met. He’s very accomplished and starting a new company not in Silicon Valley. He called me looking for an understanding about how to combat the argument he was getting from VCs he was talking to who said “the only place you should start your company is in Silicon Valley.” I was in New York on Friday for Techstars Demo Day and I saw evidence over and over again that the statement was false.

Religion often devolves into “my way is the only way.” I strongly believe in freedom of everything, including religion. I also believe you can learn an enormous amount from religions, even if you don’t subscribe to them. I’m sure this shapes my view that there are some amazing things about the Religion of Silicon Valley but some to be very careful of, or avoid entirely.

I like this metaphor a lot. I’m curious what reaction it invokes in you.

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Apr 17 2015

History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, But It Does Rhyme

My favorite Mark Twain post, which I share with my close friend Phil Weiser (the Dean of CU Boulder) is “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

There is a lot of rhyming going on. If you want a quick taste, go read today’s Fred Wilson’s blog post Coming Up With A Better Name For NYC’s Tech Community.

If you know me, you know that it think that it is tragic to label things Silicon Blah. New York isn’t Silicon Alley. It’s New York. And Fred has been ranting about this since at least 2008 when he made a public plea to bury the name Silicon Alley.

Surprise. In 2015 there’s apparently a new effort in New York to rekindle with force the name Silicon Alley.

Here are some rhymes I hear on an almost almost basis.

  • “There is no bubble.”
  • “Raise as much money as you can.”
  • “Things are structurally different this time.”
  • “The only place to build a tech company is in Silicon Valley.”

Whatever.

I was at HBS the other day talking to a bunch of second year students about anything they wanted to talk about (we just did 90 minutes of Q&A). I just let them take the conversation where they wanted. The questions were great, but some of what they were hearing about venture capital was scary as shit. A handful of them had jobs in venture capital firms and we talked about how to be effective as a freshly minted associated. They had heard insane suggestions like “The market is hot – do as many deals as you can before it all crashes.”

Um. Yeah. What? Are you fucking kidding me? It’s not about doing the deals. If you do a bunch of shitty momentum deals as fast as you can, you are simply emulating what most VC firms (including the one I was part of) did in 1999 when we committed an entire $600 million fund in nine months. At one point that fund was up over 2x on paper (TVPI for those of you that like names for the different VC metrics.) 15 years later the financial performance (DPI) of that fund is a disaster. We didn’t get lucky and have one company that bailed us out. Too bad for us.

I told them it’s not about getting into the deals. It’s about building real value and then over time monetizing your investments. Having a strategy, being deliberate, and executing that strategy over a long period of time.

But suddenly so much of the focus is about getting into the deals. Venture Investing Just Had Its Biggest Q1 in 15 Years, Says PwC Report. $13.4 billion in Q1 in 1020 deals. Some other statements, all obvious stuff based on what everyone is seeing on a daily basis. But the headlines, and the focus, is all about input. Now, I haven’t read the PWC Report so they might have a deep analysis on the exit math, and then input / output dynamics that justify $13.4 billion in Q1 as a reasonable number. Or a segmentation analysis that shows that $7 billion of it is actually a substitution effect for what would have otherwise been public money going into IPOs, so really it’s only $6.4 billion going into venture capital.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Now, don’t misinterpret what I’m suggesting. The easy sound bite “Feld thinks there is a bubble.” But that’s not even close to what I am saying. I have absolutely no idea whether there is a bubble. I have no idea where we are in the current part of the cycle. I have no idea what the dynamics of the cycle are.

But it’s easy to see the rhymes. And they are super helpful in understanding, and reinforcing, the best way to execute an effective strategy. But only if you are looking for them, thinking critically, and acting accordingly.

Don’t be the scorpion in the famous scorpion / frog parable. And always remember that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

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Apr 16 2015

Announcing the Global EIR Coalition

Yesterday morning, over scrambled eggs and smoked salmon with Jeff Bussgang of Flybridge Capital (he had yogurt), we talked about immigration reform and our broken immigration system. Both Jeff and I have been working hard on making it much easier for immigrant entrepreneurs to get visa’s to start their companies in the US. Both of us have been unsuccessful in our efforts at a national level. At the end of the discussion, we decided to start the Global EIR Coalition to open source our approach and try to help every state in the US implement a similar program.

Last year Jeff and a bunch of his friends in Massachusetts created the Massachusetts Global Entrepreneur in Residence pilot program. The MA GEIR was a brilliant approach to a state level solution to this problem. The MA group did extensive legal work on this and the MA legislature passed a bill for it as part of their 2014 Jobs Act.

I watched from the sidelines with intrigue. I had become very discouraged at a federal level and have been spending mental cycles pondering state’s rights issues and state level approaches to things. I have deep respect and admiration for two our Colorado’s congressman – Michael Bennet (senate) and Jared Polis (house) – each which have worked very hard on immigration reform – and have learned a huge amount from them, including how hard it is to get things done in Washington. I also have enormous respect for Mark Udall who was Colorado’s senior senator and one of the original sponsors of the Startup Visa bill.

So when I started seeing what Jeff was doing in Massachusetts, I started working on a similar approach in Colorado with Craig Montuori, and Chris Nicholson of Venture Politics. This culminated in our recent launch of the Colorado EIR program.

One difference between the MA and the CO programs is funding. In MA, there was originally $3 million of state funding. I decided I wanted to try this in CO without any state funding, so I just funded the program myself for the first year to the tune of $150,000 (CU decided it was important to provide some funding directly as well, so they are contributing $50,000 to the program.) Unfortunately, after the election, the new MA governor defunded the program (although he has reinstated $100,000 of funding) so the group in MA is now working on a funding approach that does not rely heavily on the state.

As we iterate on this, we are learning an enormous amount about what works and what doesn’t work. Jeff and I agreed that we should amplify and expand our learning, so other states can build off of our experience as well as help us figure out a long-term, sustainable approach. We are clearly in experimentation mode, but with strong support intellectually from local leaders, such as Phil Weiser (Dean of CU Boulder Law School and head of Silicon Flatirons.)

While I’m not giving up on a federal solution, I plan to put my money and my energy into a state level solution. The dynamics around gay marriage and legalization of marijuana have intrigued me greatly, and as I read early American History, I understand (and remember) the original dynamic of the United States, where there are States that are United from the bottom up, rather than simply a federal government dictating policy top down.

As someone who loves networks and hates hierarchies, this is the right approach for my psyche. I’m ready to take another big swing at this from a different angle.

If you are working on something similar in your state, please reach out to join the Global EIR Coalition. Today is our first day in existence, so expect us to be chaotic, underfunded, and under-resourced just like every other raw startup. But, like Steve Blank and Eric Ries inspire us to do, we are just launching, aggressively doing customer developing, and iterating rapidly.

And, if you are a foreign entrepreneur who wants to build your company in Colorado, email me to apply to the Colorado GEIR program.

For Jeff’s perspective on what we are doing, take a look at his post Hacking Immigration – The Global EIR Coalition.

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Apr 13 2015

The Long Lost Myth of Capital Efficiency

I miss capital efficiency. It seems like you were our best friend just yesterday.

Were you a myth? A lie? A justification by VCs to explain away their lack of capital to invest? A rationalization by entrepreneurs to explain away their inability to raise capital?

Do you remember all the blog posts about how companies needed so much less money? All the articles about how capital efficient businesses were a result of AWS, better software development tools, easier starting points, better scaling technologies, and lots of other things.

Do you remember when it was “all software, all the time?” There was no discussion of hardware, or any need to build hardware companies. Internet of Things wasn’t yet a buzzword. If you had any notion of manufacturing in your business VCs would immediately say “you can’t build scale and value like a software-only company.”

This was all just five years ago. Oh how things change.

Was it just bullshit? Or is it actually a parallel universe of happiness?

I’m going to assert it’s a parallel universe of happiness based on the successful companies in our portfolio that I would categories as capital efficient. We have a bunch of them. And we’ve learned that it is a lot easier to make a 10x return on capital on a company that has only raised $10m then it is to make a 10x return on capital when a company has raised $100m.

And we like that. We aren’t afraid of going for a 10x (or more) return of capital on companies that have raised a lot more money, but when a company can become cash flow positive on a small amount of capital (say $5m – $10m) and grow over 100% year-over-year without raising another nickel of equity, well that’s a silent killer.

If you want a few more discussions about this, I did a quick search on “venture capital capital efficiency” and came up with:

Seems like our little corner of the universe might need an episode of Mythbusters.

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