Tag Archives: entrepreneurs

Silicon Valley Shakeout: Yes, Many Startups Fail

The press is going crazy here in Silicon Valley with pieces about the coming shakeout in startups. The basic story is that over the past few years, the growth in angel investors led to a lot of mediocre ideas getting seed funding, and now that the froth is off the market, those mediocrities are finding it difficult to raise additional money from venture capitalists.

PandoDaily gives a good summary here. Dan Lyons, a well known tech journalist (and creator of Fake Steve Jobs), has a more savage take here. The following quote kind of summarizes his piece:

For the past few years we’ve had people calling themselves “investors,” who have no experience investing, swanning around the Valley, slinging money at people calling themselves “entrepreneurs” who have never held an actual job, let alone run a company.

My view is that this shouldn’t surprise anyone. The current social/mobile bubble has been obviously following the trajectory of the 1999-2000 dot.com bubble (see my prior posts on this topic here, here, here and here), and any rational observer could see how it was going to end. Just like a decade ago, the promise of quick riches drew hordes of young, aggressive tech wannabes who launched me-too companies, features posing as companies, or simply bad ideas. And just like a decade ago, huge amounts of capital desperate to be put to work meant that bad ideas got funded. But bad ideas become bad companies, and bad companies start to fail, and VCs don’t put more money into failing companies.

Ten years ago, the mantra was “let’s dot.com category X.” Now it’s “let’s take category X social. Or mobile. Or both.” But either way, good ideas with good execution get traction, and bad ideas don’t. PandoDaily looks at the travel space and explores it as a microcosm of everything that’s happening. Bad companies with bad names ( Dopplr, Tripl, Gtrot) are all going away, because they never should have existed.

This is really a standard Silicon Valley cycle; it’s just getting worse. There was once a time when VCs funded one hundred disk drive companies, which also ended poorly. Now it’s that the cycles are stronger and draw more wannabes from further away. More press and more billionaires mean more people coming to enter the lottery. I mean, now we have a reality TV show about good-looking young entrepreneurs (or perhaps I should say “entrepreneurs,” since the folks on that show are exactly the people Dan Lyons savaged). Back in the 1980’s nobody made a reality TV show about 45 year old engineers starting disk drive companies.

Will Enterprise Startups Require Different Entrepreneurs?

VentureBeat ran an interesting article today about how startups are learning that the “Dropbox Effect” is a myth. That is, corporate IT departments will not adopt a consumer-driven solution just because users like it. There are too many issues around security and support for CIOs to be swayed by consumer products, no matter how sexy they are.

In this article, CEOs from very hot Silicon Valley startups are talking about the need to add executives with enterprise experience, from established companies like IBM and EMC. My question is whether, if going after the enterprise requires traditional enterprise approaches — security, support, sales & marketing — does that mean that we’ll see a move away from the 25 year old entrepreneurs who are currently the rage in Silicon Valley? I don’t know; part of the reason young folks can make good entrepreneurs is that they are willing to break the product mold, and that can be just as valuable in the enterprise as in the consumer market. But as the VentureBeat article points out, and as our QWERTY keyboards remind us on a daily basis, the best products don’t always win. If the way to sign enterprise customers is to have an enterprise-ready organization, maybe entrepreneurs will need to have enterprise experience.

Outsourcing Parenting to Technology?

I was at an event the other night featuring a panel of education technology entrepreneurs talking about how their companies teach kids skills beyond the traditional three R’s of the school curriculum. For example, Class Dojo is supposed to use gamification to improve kids’ behavior, with the founder talking about the importance of improving self-control (the famous marshmallow experiment). EverFi teaches kids financial literacy and Mindset Works is meant to change the very mindset, or self-conception, of children.

Then I got home, and saw on TV that Verizon commercial in which a kid’s family can’t be at his French horn recital, but they can watch him via connected devices. It’s a sweet commercial, for sure, and someone sitting on my couch (not me) got a little misty eyed. But it got me thinking that maybe we are outsourcing too much parenting to our technology.

I mean, yes it’s sweet that the kid’s dad uses a tablet camera to watch the recital, but wouldn’t it be better if the dad were actually there? And to the extent that self-control can be taught, shouldn’t parents be teaching it rather than some technology company? Especially since most of these education tech companies are started by entrepreneurs, not educators or child psychologists (except for Mindset Works).

I’m not trying to criticize any of these companies or entrepreneurs, all of whom are doing good work trying to help kids. And I’m not criticizing parents or teachers who use these tools. I’m not even definitively saying that I think using these tools is bad. After all, leveraging technology is something that we all do. When I use Excel instead of green ledger paper, am I outsourcing my financial analysis to Microsoft? No, I’m just using a tool that makes me more efficient. So why does it feel different when it comes to parenting?

Perhaps I am just hopelessly retro, thinking that parents should manage kids themselves, instead of using every tool available. Perhaps it is because I am not (yet!) a parent, so don’t fully appreciate the desire to do everything you possibly can to improve your children’s lives. Or perhaps I fear that parents who outsource teaching their children aren’t using the found time to be with their kids, but on themselves. I can’t rationally pin down why this parenting technology makes me uncomfortable; it just does.

Readers, what are your thoughts?

Education Trumps Entrepreneurship

There is a growing trend among universities to devote resources to studying entrepreneurship. This trend is primarily focused in the business and engineering departments, but it is spreading inexorably across campus. It seems as if everyone wants to create a new class of entrepreneurs. This impulse is understandable; after all, if you are the university that graduates the founders of the next Google, there are big donations in your future.

But this focus on entrepreneurship doesn’t come without costs. Universities generally don’t have limitless budgets, so if increased resources are flowing to entrepreneurship studies, that means resources aren’t flowing into other departments. At my alma mater, Stanford University (see below), our alumni magazine seems to be constantly writing about new initiatives to train entrepreneurs, but it almost never talks about a new program in English or history. I think that universities’ movement toward entrepreneurship has gone too far.

Not that entrepreneurship is a bad thing. If people want to start companies, that’s great. I’m happy that companies like Google exist. And Amgen, and Hewlett-Packard, and even General Electric, all of which were started by entrepreneurs. But notice that none of those companies were started by people who had studied entrepreneurship. In fact, they were all started before this trend in teaching entrepreneurship had even begun. It’s not as if this country had a serious lack of entrepreneurs before universities started training them.

But more important to me is the fact that there is more to a university education than just training for a future job, whether as an entrepreneur or engineer or ethicist. College is also about producing well rounded people, who can analyze life in a variety of ways, who are prepared to be good citizens of their country. And I’m not the only one who thinks that way. Thomas Jefferson founded UVA with the goal of “elevating the views of our citizens generally to the practice of the social duties and the functions of self-government.” John Adams thought that education was so important that he put it in the Massachusetts constitution:

Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country.

If people want to start companies, they will certainly do so. They always have. So let’s not waste their four years of college making them “better entrepreneurs,” as if we even know what that is. Let’s just make them smart, well-educated people, and the entrepreneurship will inevitably follow.

Yes, It Is A Tech Bubble

We’ve seen lots of talk recently about whether there is another technology bubble going on, with LinkedIn’s super successful IPO, and shares of Facebook, Twitter, et. al. trading on secondary markets at multibillion dollar valuations. I lived through the first dot.com bubble in 1999-2001, and based that experience I am saying right here, categorically and emphatically, that we are definitely in another bubble. I will add some caveats at the end, but listed below are my top reasons for calling this a bubble. Every single thing I list below also happened in 2000, and made rational observers then realize that we were in a bubble. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

A) Insanely high valuations with no reasonable relation to the metrics (revenue, income) of the company (LinkedIn, Groupon)

B) Retail investor hunger for tech stocks. Back in 1999, we were all talking about Joe Kennedy’s famous line: “when you get stock tips from your shoeshine boy, it’s time to sell.” When the public is hungry to invest in a category, it’s a bubble

C) Farcical metrics. In the dot.com era we were supposed to look at eyeballs, not revenues. Now Groupon tells us that we should ignore marketing costs and look at “adjusted consolidated segment operating income

D) The emergence and venture funding of many copycat businesses. How many flash sale or social coupon businesses do people need? And what about Color, which raised $41 million to launch yet another iPhone photo sharing service, and reputedly only shared 5 photos during the iPhone developers conference and had its president leave within months of launch?

E) Especially the emergence and venture funding of narrow vertical copycats. For example, Juice in the City is Groupon for moms, Pawsley is Facebook for dogs, Everloop is Facebook for tweens (who will, by definition, leave as soon as they are old enough to join Facebook), etc. Anyone who lived through the dot.com remembers “vertical portals.” That didn’t work out so well.

F) Society and entertainment figures or kids fresh out of Stanford and Harvard business school as entrepreneurs.  (Juice in the City, Rent the Runway, Ashton Kutcher.)

G) Venture funds you’ve never heard of leading rounds in vertical copycats (Juice in the City funded by HU Investments and Tandem Enterprises)

H) Companies you’ve never heard of buying prime time TV commercials (Peel)

I) Ridiculous and nearly identical company names (Buzzr, Socialzr, Apptizr  etc.)

J) Weekly launching of new “incubators,” in which people, some with limited experience, will mentor new companies in return for some equity (Growlab, Capital Factory). Or one incubator, 500 Startups, that funded two nearly identical companies: StoryTree and Vvall.

K) Putting a tech sheen on non-tech companies so that they can raise money at tech company valuations (The Melt)

L) Features posing as companies. A clever little web widget, even a useful one that gets a lot of users, might not be enough to support a viable company. And starting companies that you know can only succeed by being acquired is a classic bubble move. For example, StumbleUpon, Blippy. Actually, Blippy alone is enough to prove my bubble hypothesis. Only in a bubble could that company have even existed.

Now for the caveats, or counterpoints:

As many have noted, some of these companies, particularly the big ones (LinkedIn, Groupon) are generating real revenues. Back in 2000, revenues were a rare thing. However, I should note that neither LinkedIn nor Groupon are particularly profitable. Neither is Pandora. Twitter still doesn’t really have a revenue model. The random widgets and apps that are raising money? Not so revenuefull.

There are more customers now. With the spread of broadband and smartphones, an online business has a much larger base of potential customers than in 1999. That means that the same capital investment can, theoretically, be spread over a much larger revenue base.

This bubble is focused on consumer-facing internet businesses. Not all tech companies are being lifted by the bubble. Microsoft, Google, Amazon and the ilk at still trading at normal to relatively normal valuations.