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.

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.

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.

Why We Pass Quickly On Things

I passed on something referred to us by a close VC friend (who I’ll call Joe) who I’ve done a bunch of investments with over the years. A few minutes later I got the following email from the entrepreneur.

hey brad – 

if you get a moment, i’d love to hear your unvarnished reasons for the denial. thanks for the time…- i remain a huge fan of your blog…….

I get asked regularly for feedback on why we pass on something, especially when we pass after a single email interaction. As with many things, it’s useful to start with your strategy, assuming you have one.

In Foundry Group’s case, our goal is not to invest in every great company, it’s to invest in ten potentially great companies a year.

As part of our strategy, we have purposely constrained our fund size ($225m per fund, which lasts about three years and covers about 30 investments) and our partnership size (four partners, no associates.) As a result, our goal is to say no in 60 seconds. Sure, we’ll miss some great opportunities, but that is fine as long as we believe (a) there are more than 10 great potential companies for us to invest in each year and (b) our deal flow dynamics are such that we see a lot more than the 10 we end up choosing to invest in.

Based on our current deal flow dynamics, if we had unlimited time, unlimited capital, and unlimited partner resources, there are at least 100 companies each year that we would invest in. This 100 number is not “deal flow” – this is actually investments that we’d make. So given our strategy constraint, we could miss investing in 90% of the things we wanted to invest in and still have enough new, great, potential investments to execute on our strategy.

Many of our quick passes are in the “it’s us, not you” category. There are a few things driving this. Following is the response I sent to the entrepreneur above in response to his question about why I passed.

1. Stage – this is later than our usual entry point. If you’ve raised more than $3m, we generally don’t engage. We don’t have to be the first money in, and we love to work with Joe, so I squinted and made an exception since you’d only raised $4m

2. Focus – We are very selective since we only do 10 new investments a year. I wrote a post about this a while ago (http://www.feld.com/archives/2009/06/say-no-in-less-than-60-seconds.html). I took the first meeting / call because of Joe. I tested high level response internally against the other 100 things that are in front of us. It was no where near the top (we have this discussion continually and use each other for reactions).

3. Engagement – I’m in Dubai next week and then Canada the week after that. Then I’m home for a week, in Cleveland, then in Boston/NY. So the next month is one of those months where nothing much new is going to happen on my end. We hate to play the slow roll game with entrepreneurs – one of our deeply held beliefs is to either engage or not engage quickly. Given #2 and then considering #3, I know that nothing is going to happen for a while and I have no interest in being the schmuck that just hangs around waiting to see if something happens.

Fundamentally, the quick positive reaction was “neat + Joe is awesome” then weighed down by 1, 2, and 3 above, resulting in “I’ll face reality quickly on this – we aren’t going to get there on it…”

While at some level this might not be satisfying to the entrepreneur, and I’ve had many challenge me to go deeper in my exploration of their company, given 20 years of investing it’s usually pretty clear when something is not going to happen. The reasons vary greatly, but having a strategy that causes it not to matter in the long run has been something that we’ve spent many hours talking about and making sure we understand.

Ultimately, understanding what we do, how we do it, and the strategy behind it is key to us being able to run Foundry Group with just the four of us. I take inspiration from a lot of people on this front, including Warren Buffett and his approach to his headquarters team for what is now one of the largest businesses on the planet.

There are clearly more than one way to run a successful VC firm – our goal is to run it the way we think we can be successful at it.

Mentors 11/18: Clearly Commit To Mentor Or Do Not. Either Is Fine

I’m hanging out with Morris Wheeler and his family for a few days in Cleveland. I first met Morris through my friend Howard Diamond, currently the CEO of MobileDay (which I’m on the board of). Both Morris and Howard are extraordinary Techstars mentors, so I was motivated this morning to knock out another post in my Deconstructing The Mentor Manifesto series as foreplay for me starting to work on my next book, #GiveFirst.

When we started Techstars in 2006, the concept of a mentor was very fuzzy. There were many people who called themselves “advisors” to startups, including a the entire pantheon on service providers. While the word mentor existed, it was usually a 1:1 relationship, where an individual had a “mentor”. It was also more prevalent in corporate America, where to make your way up the corporate ladder you needed a “mentor”, “sponsor”, or a “rabbi.”

We decided to use the word “mentor” to describe the relationship between the participants in the Boulder startup community who were working with the founders and companies that went through Techstars. We had our first program in Boulder in 2007 and had about 50 mentors. Many were local Boulder entrepreneurs, a few were service providers who were particularly active in the startup community (including a few investors), and some were non-Boulder entrepreneurs such as Dick Costolo (ex-Feedburner – then at Google) and Don Loeb (ex-Feedburner – also then at Google, now at Techstars as VP Corporate Development). Basically, I reached out to all my friends and said “would you be a mentor for this new Techstars thing we are doing?”

At the time, we had no real clue what the relationship between mentor and founder would be. We knew that we wanted real engagement – at least 30 minutes per week – rather than just an “advisor name on a list.” We expected that engaging local mentors would be easier than non-local mentors. We defined rules of engagement around what mentoring meant, which did not preclude early investment, but did preclude charging any fees during the mentoring period.

Over time, we realized – and figured out – a number of things. When I talk about the early days of Techstars, remember that the concept of a “mentor-driven accelerator” didn’t exist and that the idea of an accelerator was still in its invention phase.

One of the biggest lessons was encapsulated in this part of the mentor manifesto. As mentorship became a thing, we suddenly had a supply of mentors that overwhelmed us. Everyone wanted to be a mentor. In 2008, we knew a little about what was effective and what wasn’t, so we continued to try to be inclusive of anyone who wanted to be a mentor, although I’m sure we blew this in plenty of cases. But we started seeing lots of mentors who did a single flyby meeting with the program, but never really engaged with any of the founders or companies in a meaningful way.

It probably took us until 2011 to really understand this and put some structure around it. By now, we had programs in multiple cities and managing directors who had different styles for engaging the local mentor community. And, mentorship was no longer a fuzzy word – it has shifted over into trendy-language-land and everyone was calling themselves a mentor, even if they weren’t. And being a mentor for a program like Techstars suddenly started appearing as a job role on LinkedIn.

Today we’ve got deep clarity on what makes for effective mentorship. And, more importantly, what makes a mentor successful and additive to an accelerator. A fundamental part of this is a commitment to engage. Really engage. As in spend time with the founders and the companies. It doesn’t have to be all of them – but it has to be deep, real, and with a regular cadence (at least weekly) over the three month program.

If you aren’t ready or able to commit, that’s totally cool. Don’t be a mentor, but you can still engage with the program and the companies through the philosophy I’ve talked about many times of “being inclusive of anyone who wants to engage” (principle three of the Boulder Thesis from Startup Communities).

And yes, this one is a hat tip to Yoda’s “Do or do not, there is no try.”