Tag Archives: venture capital

Move Fast And Break Things. Like Your Customers’ Hearts?

Move Fast And Break Things is Facebook’s unofficial (or maybe official) motto. It’s part of the hacker ethos, and I get it. You need to try to new things, not follow established patterns, if you want to create really innovative products. “You would never build something great doing it the same way others have done it,” said Mark Zuckerberg.

Except, what if you move so fast that you break essential things? Facebook’s replacement of user emails with Facebook email address was not only a typical Facebook PR disaster, but it turns out that there was a bug so that some smartphone users had emails replaced not just in Facebook, but in their contacts too. So that they were sending emails to people’s Facebook addresses without knowing it. Facebook addresses that recipients don’t check. It was a complete clusterfuck, and users are rightly pissed. How many users ripped their Facebook app right out of their smartphone after that? And how many other users who were thinking about installing the app decided not to?

“Breaking things” is great unless your customers actually rely on those things. Then you are just breaking your bond of trust with your customers. And you never get that back.

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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.

How to Change Corporate Culture

I was recently at an all-day retreat for an organization that is working on changing its culture. Like many fast-growing companies, this group is finding that what worked when it was smaller is no longer working. Ad hoc lines of communication break down as organizations grow. Old timers don’t trust newcomers, and the newcomers chafe under the mistrust. This is a common problem here in Silicon Valley, where growing companies are the norm.

Part of the challenge at this company, and at most companies in this position, is that founder who has gotten the company this far, often by being involved in every decision, is unable to let go even as she brings in experienced managers underneath her. Note that I am using female pronouns here, but this is definitely not a gendered issue.  If the corporate culture is one where nobody can act without founder approval, it will be challenging for the company to grow, no matter the gender of said founder.

More broadly speaking, this raises the question of corporate culture in general, and whether it can change without the people at the top also changing. Generally, corporate cultures reflect the personality of the founder; thus Oracle has a reputation as aggressively cut-throat, like Larry Ellison, while Microsoft long had the reputation as heartlessly numbers-driven, like Bill Gates.  James Baron, a professor at Yale, is one of the leaders in studying organizational change, and he notes that “founders impose cultural blueprints.” With older companies, a culture develops over time; IBM built a culture that was bureaucratic and risk-averse, and only an outsider like Lou Gerstner could change it.

Studies seem to indicate that corporate cultures will not easily change unless that change is driven from the top. This often means a founder ceding control to an outsider, but it can also mean a CEO committing to change and making that commitment public and real. Here are some factors which are essential to a CEO successfully changing a corporate culture:

  1. The CEO must announce the new values
  2. The CEO’s direct reports need to be on board with the changes
  3. A plan should be in place to drive these changes to all constituents
  4. There has to be a cost to violating the new norms; apostates must be punished.

The most important thing, however, is that the CEO needs to live the changes. Corporate culture comes from the top, and if the top doesn’t change the rest of the organization will see the announcement as empty words.

For example, what if a company has a culture of people showing up late for meetings, or not at all? Everyone at the company might agree that this is a cultural artifact they want to change. But most likely this culture exists because the founder is usually late for meetings, if she shows up at all. There are a number of reasons why a founder might act this way, but it doesn’t really matter why; what matters is that as long as she shows up late, everyone else will too. The only way for this culture to change is for the founder to embody the change.  That’s the thing about leadership; it requires you to lead.

Marc Andreesen Finally Calls The Tech Bubble

After months of saying, contrary to all evidence, (like this, this and this) that there was not a tech bubble going on, super-VC Marc Andreesen has finally publicly pulled back from investing because valuations are too high. Duh.

Lean Startups Aren’t So Lean

There was recently an article in PE Hub (that’s Private Equity Hub, for those of you who don’t subscribe) about the breakneck growth of internet darlings like Groupon, Zynga and LinkedIn, and about the massive hiring and marketing spending required to support that growth. Written by the ever insightful Connie Loizos (disclosure: I know Connie and her husband both socially and professionally), the article pointed out that these companies are forced to raise huge private equity rounds (as in hundreds of millions of dollars) to pay for the marketing that drives growth and the hiring that supports it.

As Connie points out, this is a great flaw in the “lean startup” model. Sure, you can build a company with $3 million now instead of $30 million. Open source software and cloud hardware resources allow you to bring a product to market without raising gobs of venture money. But those same trends allow anyone else to bring a competing product to market just as cheaply. So then the race is on to see who can grow the fastest. And that race demands capital, lots of it.

So startups can be lean, but growth companies are fat. All this trend has done is move the locus of capital raising competition a little later in the lifecycle of companies.

More Tech Bubble Datapoints

Here are two more items showing that Silicon Valley is in the midst of another startup bubble:

  1. TaskRabbit, which has A) a dumb name; B) a terrible premise; C) the ridiculous idea that it won’t need to staff up in order to grow (because it has a terribly inexperienced CEO); and D) NO REAL BUSINESS MODEL.
  2. A WSJ article about how PR firms are now turning down clients and taking equity in lieu of cash compensation. Since the main value of PR firms is hiring cute young women who flirt with male reporters to ensure that their clients get press coverage, any time PR firms start feeling as powerful as VC funds (like they did in 1999), you know that you’re in a bubble.
  3. San Francisco apartment rents are skyrocketing, to the point that local real estate people are calling it a bubble.

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.

More on Microsoft-Skype (Microskype?)

The NY Times did a nice summary today of what analysts are saying about the Microsoft/Skype deal. And I don’t think it’s nice just because it confirms a lot of what I said yesterday. I think it’s nice because the author does a good job of quickly capturing and explaining a variety of viewpoints.

FYI, if you are over your 20 article limit on the Times, just clear your cookies. Bing, got more Times!

Microsoft + Skype = Winning

Here are some of my initial thoughts on why the Skype deal is a good one for Microsoft, presented in sections, like a good PowerPoint.

Cool features that won’t make much (or any) money, but might improve market share:

  • In game voice calls when using Xbox
  • Skype someone straight from Outlook
  • Or Hotmail, if anyone even uses Hotmail any more
  • Skypeout someone at any phone number that shows up in any Office application
  • Find a number in Bing and one click call it

Ways Microsoft might use Skype to make money from businesses:

  • Integrate features into Exchange server to enable enterprise VOIP
  • Better yet: integrate features into the suite of online apps for small business – they need the savings on phones more than enterprises and lack the skills to set up their own VOIP
  • Implement a “call me” feature for advertisers

Strategic plays:

  • Integrate Skype into their investee Facebook to help counter Google’s voice products
  • Continue to wall off Yahoo from anything business related, relegating the ‘hoo to being a consumer content company
  • If the SMB play works, leverage it against Zoho, Google docs and other productivity apps
  • Build relationships with phone carriers who are moving to IP networks and losing landlines as fast as Lady Gaga is losing fans

Where it won’t work, even though Ballmer thinks it will:

  • Microsoft mobile OS

Did Microsoft overpay at $8.5 billion? Definitely. But they’ve got about a zillion dollars in cash, earning about zero percent interest, much of it sitting untouchable overseas, where Skype is conveniently located. So what’s a billion or two between friends?

Of course, all of the above assumes that Microsoft executes, which is a big (BIG!) assumption. After all, if Microsoft were good at executing this stuff we would all be using Outlook Live instead of Gmail.

See here and here for NY Times coverage, here for TechCrunch and here for GigaOm.

On Facebook and Intellectual Property Theft

As the non-film press reviews The Social Network, their gloss on the film is driven, not surprisingly, by their philosophy of business. For example, in The New Republic, Lawrence Lessig focuses on how net neutrality enabled Facebook to thrive, because he is a fiend for net neutrality. [Sidebar: his argument makes no sense (typical of Lessig), because Facebook is a low bandwidth application, and net neutrality issues are all about bandwidth intensive applications.] The Wall Street Journal aims more at the lawsuits against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, because it hates anti-business lawsuits (tort reform is one of the Journal’s pet causes; of course, lawsuits by businesses against regulatory agencies are fine) and loves the free market, and nothing is more free market than a successful entrepreneur. TechCrunch also criticizes the lawsuits, not so much from a tort reform perspective but from the Silicon Valley perspective of the heroic entrepreneur who works harder and succeeds; the money quote from this review is when it criticizes the Winklevoss twins because they “spend the majority of the movie demanding compensation over a site that they didn’t build.”

Both the Journal and TechCrunch minimize the lawsuit aspect and emphasis Zuckerberg’s execution of the idea. And to be sure, he executed brilliantly. There were already social networks out there – Friendster and MySpace – and yet it’s Facebook that’s the big winner. Facebook had superior technology, design and social elements, all of which helped it succeed. But to dismiss the Winklevoss claim as a mere “contract dispute” as the Journal does is to slant the story to make a political point. If the claim is true (obviously, I don’t know the facts, but Facebook did pay the twins over $60 million to settle the claim), Zuckerberg signed a contract to build a site for the twins, but instead of working on that site, he stalled the twins while he built a competing site. That is much closer to theft than to a contract dispute. Again, Zuckerberg won on execution, not on theft, but let’s not let that execution disguise or obviate any devious behavior that led to Facebook’s creation.