Brad Feld

Month: August 2004

We invested in NewsGator in June and Greg Reinacker and crew have been hard at work building out the next generation of NewsGator for Outlook and NewsGator Online Services (NGOS).

NewsGator is now providing RSS feeds for University Wire (U-WIRE) content as part of NGOS. U-WIRE is a free membership organization for the college press. As many as 300 student-produced stories are gathered and edited every day by U-WIRE’s staff, then made available to nearly 700 college media outlets. Their daily feed is a collection of the best news, opinion, entertainment and sports content produced by the nation’s college newspapers.

This is the second premium content offering NewsGator has announced this month – the other is with Leadership Development Expert Gene Mage. Look for more premium content coming soon.

Newmerix announced today that it had raised $7m in a new financing. Siemens Venture Capital was the new lead investor, joining us and IDG Ventures.

We provided Newmerix’s seed financing – with IDG Ventures – in early 2003. The vision of the founders – Niel Robertson and Ed Roberto – was to create a family of software products that take an entirely new approach to addressing the issues faced by packaged application development teams. As packaged applications – such as Peoplesoft, Oracle, SAP, and Siebel – have become increasingly widespread throughout enterprises, the teams within IT organizations who are responsible for modifying, testing, deploying, and supporting these packaged applications have been hindered by tools that are fundamentally inadequate for the job. Newmerix’s products take a revolutionary new approach to helping these folks who are impacted by the inability to easily implement changes to their packaged application infrastructure.

We funded a first round with IDG in the summer of 2003. I’ve been thrilled with Newmerix’s progress – they launched their first product in February 2004 (less than 12 months after the seed financing – a short time for an IT Management software company) and landed their first reference customer in May.

They’ve had a great summer – both adding customers as well as completing a solid financing that will enable us to focus on growing the company to the next level. We were also able to convince Wendy Lea – a superstar entrepreneur that we’ve worked closely on several companies – to become chairman of the company. Wendy most recently was a senior exec at Siebel running their eBusiness Consulting unit after they acquired Wendy’s last company – OnTarget.

Newmerix’s currently shipping products are for Peoplesoft, so if you know anyone running Peoplesoft that might be interested in Newmerix’s products, please send them our way.

Seth Godin’s ChangeThis project has officially launched. ChangeThis – in their words “is trying to create a new kind of media. A form of media that uses existing tools (like PDF files, blogs and the web) to challenge the way ideas are created and spread.” As one would expect from Seth, the content is stimulating, provocative, and easy to quickly digest.

I’ve agreed to host one of the manifestos on my site – I’ll be putting up a link to How To Be a Boor. It’s a great piece that talks about proper email ettiquite which – as email becomes ubiquitous – is useful to be reminded of.

As a hardcore NewsGator user (and investor), I’ve been a heavy user of several of the NewsGator plug-ins.

As the number of feeds I monitor has increased, I have found that one of the more annoying things with some feeds is that rather than provide all the content of the article, they provide a very short description. For feeds that I skim or watch headlines, this is no big deal. However, for feeds that I read religiously, this is truly annoying. In a lot of cases, the feed publisher could easily change this (for example, Typepad feeds commonly default to 40 word digests, but it’s easy to change it to the entire content) – however, my guess is that many people don’t know this and it’s not obvious in the setup. In some cases, I imagine this is deliberate on the part of the feed publisher to drive traffic to their web site.

Fetchlinks solves this problem. It’s a simple, free plug-in to NewsGator that retrieves the entire web page for the feed. It’s simple to install (takes about two minutes) and can be configured by feed within NewsGator. You turn it on only for the feeds you want to download the full page for – the rest of the feeds remain unchanged.

Technical Note: If you are already a NewsGator User and want to know how this works:

  • go to the NewsGator Subscribe Menu
  • choose a feed
  • click Edit
  • click Rendering
  • click “Use this stylesheet:”
  • click the pull down menu (which probably says “default.xslt”)
  • if you’ve installed Fetchlinks, then “fetchlinks.xslt” will be a choice) – select it and you are done

If you aren’t a NewsGator user, try it free for 14 days (shameless promotion acknowledged).

Last week, I was asked to write up my “Top 10 bootstrapping actions” for a book on bootstrapping that should be coming out later this year. Bootstrapping must be in the air as Fred just wrote about how he teaches about it in his course at NYU Stern and Jerry just wrote about it for his Inc. Magazine column Forget VC Money, Fund Yourself. I recognize the potential dissonance about VCs writing about bootstrapping (or – “how to create a business without taking money from VCs”) – I know Fred, Jerry, and I all feel strongly that VCs are only a small part of the entrepreneurial / company creation ecosystem and the vast majority of companies that get created never take VC money (my first business raised $10 – we had 10 shares of stock at $1 each – and – when we sold it – each share made a share of Google seem like a penny stock – although we only had 10 of them.)

I spent some time with the author – Marcus Gibson – and felt his questions and probing style were very good. Following is my Top 10 list and commentary I gave him to work with.

  1. Figure out how much cash you really have: When someone says to me, “I’m thinking about starting a company” I typically ask them “how much cash do you have.” They usually answer something like “none”, not realizing I am asking them about their personal resources, not the business resources (or investor dollars). I clarify and explain that they are likely going to have to go a period of time with no salary, pay for expenses out of their own pocket, and invest in various things for their new business. I’m not being nosy (and in fact don’t care what their answer is) – I’m trying to make the point that they need to make sure they are cognizant of the potential personal economic toll that starting a business entails. Obviously, some of this is mitigated by an angel or venture investment, but there’s almost always a period of time prior to this investment (and could be forever in the case where no money is ever raised) where the entrepreneur is essentially funding the business, whether it’s through their own lost opportunity cost of not having a job or – more likely – through writing checks or loading up on personal credit card debt to get the business started. It’s critical for a bootstrapper to understand how much financial capacity they actually have.
  2. Figure out how much time you really have: The cliche “time is money” applies to starting a company. The amount of time one has to get a business going is often directly linked to the answer of how much cash one has to get a business going. Often, entrepreneurs overestimate how much time they really have, either by only partly dedicating themselves to their new business (e.g. working a full time job and trying to start the business on the side) or setting expectations that the business will be up, running, and generating enough revenue and income to pay full salaries within an unrealistic period of time. In almost all cases, an entrepreneur is going to have to invest substantial time in a startup to get it off the ground. Understanding how much time you have before you run out of cash, energy, spousal patience, or market opportunity is important to think about going into the startup phase.
  3. Pick a domain and go deep: If your answer to “What kind of company are you going to start?” is something like “Well, I have a few different ideas…” stop immediately. You should pick one idea in one domain and go extremely deep on this idea. Optimally, it’d be something you already know a lot about so that you’ll be leveraging your personal experience and presumably one of your passions. Hedging your bets by thinking about and playing around with a variety of different ideas is a huge waste of energy – you need all of your focus on the one thing you are going to do. Early in my life as a VC, I was in a meeting where an experienced VC asserted that one of the most important questions for a venture-backed company to answer is “What do you want to be the best in the world at?” I think this question broadly applies to all entrepreneurial endeavors.
  4. Surround yourself with experienced people: This is often easier said than done. When I started my first company, I had a very small network which consisted mostly of my father and several of his business friends. Fortunately, I had the advantage of age (or lack thereof) on my side and several of my early clients took me under their wing and acted as mentors for me and my partner. After I sold my first company and shifted my role to be an angel investor in startups, I helped start several companies with young, first time entrepreneurs. I saw first hand how impactful having experienced folks around the first time, inexperienced entrepreneur can be as my new first time entrepreneur friends were perfectly willing to make exactly the same mistakes I had made eight years earlier when I was starting out (hopefully I was able to help them avoid most of them while we made new and exciting mistakes together.)
  5. Find angels: This is a corollary to surrounding yourself with experienced people. While angels are typically associated with “angel investors”, they can also be part time advisors that will work for equity to help you get your business off the ground. I’ve found that finding people that are willing to help for equity (and no cash) are surprisingly easy to find. The trick is finding “angels” (vs. devils) – folks that can really help you and are on your team, rather than people who have an agenda other than helping you succeed and are willing to make a buck in the future if you are successful.
  6. Figure out who you want to look like in 5 years: In 1990, I was sitting in an Inc. Magazine / YEO Birthing of Giants retreat which, at the time – was by far the best professional development experience I’d ever had. I got to spend four days with 59 other entrepreneurs who were running companies from my size (10 people, $1m in annual revenue) to much larger ($250m in annual revenue). We sat together all day, listening to lectures from MIT and Harvard business school professors, other entrepreneurs, and each other. We partied at night and got to know each other well. One of the recurring themes that came up over the long weekend was to look out into the future. I took away an idea that I continually use – I pretend that it’s five years later and I define what my world / business / life looks like. I then look backward and write the story that got me to this point. When you are starting your new company, use this tool. Figure out where you want to get to. I can guarantee with almost 100% certainty that it won’t play out the way you initially envision, but at least you’ll have a vision for where you want to get to that you can start with and adjust over time.
  7. Get customers: Customers can help address almost all the issues that a startup faces. Most importantly, customers generate revenue and cash. But customers also help shape the product, business parameters, validate the ideas, and provide “honest work” for you to do. In the MouseDriver Chronicles, the authors state that business consists of only two things – making and selling. Getting and having customers helps you focus on this. Successful customers will also typically help generate new customers as well as confidence that your business is doing something useful.
  8. Learn everything you can about what you are about to do: This is the corollary to “pick a domain and go deep.” Great startup entrepreneurs are intellectually insatiable about the thing they are trying to create. Learn everything you can about your product, market, competitors, and customers. If you are starting your first business, make sure you spend time learning about yourself and your motivation; figure out what is important to you and why. Be relentless about learning how other entrepreneurs do things, especially those that have had both great success and great failures. If you can figure out how to build continuous learning into what you are doing – without it being a rationalization for not succeeding (e.g. I can’t stand the phrase “We had a lot of ‘learning’ from that experience” – it’s both poor English and shallow thinking – don’t “have a lot of learning” – dig down deep and get to the essence of what is going on a talk about that) – you’ll both have a better chance of succeeding while having a lot more fun.
  9. Figure out your fallback plan: You might fail. It happens. A lot. Your initial idea might be stupid. Potential customers might not care. Competition might be more significant than you thought. You might do a lousy job of delivering your product or service. Failure can be terminal to a business, or it can merely be a setback. If you’ve thought about a fallback plan, especially if you have limited financial resources, you’ll have a different mode you can shift into planned in advance. Time is always working against you when you start a company – the more you’ve thought through the different scenarios – the greater your chance of ultimately being successful.
  10. Figure out what to do if you fail (face your fears before you start):One of my favorite quotes is from Dune – “Fear is the mind killer.” I’ve always believed that fear is one of the most completely useless emotions. “What if I fail” is one of the biggest fears of a startup entrepreneur. Face it – play with it – figure out what happens if you fail. In most cases, failure is not going to be death (although it could be very uncomfortable). Understanding what your fears are and trying to stare them down in advance of actually encountering them will help you enormously in the process of trying to create a new company.

Jeff Nolan’s post Blogs as Early Warning Systems inspired me to try a similar approach with a recent disappointing experience that I had at the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans.

I love staying at Ritz-Carlton’s and – while it’s often an expensive experience – I’m willing to pay a premium for the service and comfort provided. Before I left for Alaska at the end of June, I went to the annual EDS / NMCI Industry Symposium where I was on a VC panel with Captain Christopher who runs NMCI for the Navy. The conference was at a sold out Marriott so my assistant put me up in the Ritz down the block. In addition to being a magnificent hotel, I ended up in a room on the Club Level (which I’m sure I paid more for) which included a nice concierge service and a bunch of free (and very good) food.

I only stayed one night, but had a very pleasant stay. I went to check out at around noon and everything was going smoothly until I looked at my bill. I was shocked by the total (which is usually all I look at) and quickly looked over the bill. I wasn’t surprised by my room charge (which was actually pretty reasonable), nor did the state tax, city tax, or occupancy charge both me as I’ve become immune to all the extra “taxes” we pay for travel. However, the “phone – long distance charges” totalled up to over $230 which blew my mind.

I asked the person checking me out why the long distance charges were so high. My recollection is that he indicated that Ritz-Carlton policy is to charge $15 for the first five minutes of the call and then $2 / minute thereafter (or something close to this.) I was speechless. My room had FREE high-speed Internet access. The Club Level had FREE gourmet food. But – my long distance phone bill was $230? I’d made a few short calls and had one long conference call – but $230? Maybe $23, but not $230.

Normally I’d have used my cell phone to make all my calls. However, in my room, my cell phone didn’t get a signal (it worked everywhere else in New Orleans, including in the Marriott Hotel.) So – I used the phone in the room. It didn’t even occur to me that there would be long distance charges, but if there were, I figured they’d be nominal since long distance service is now less than $0.05 / minute.

I asked the person checking me out if this was for real. I told him that I accept responsibility for not reading the fine print, but this seemed outrageous. He responded that “this is the policy – if you don’t like it you’ll have to take it up with Ritz-Carlton Corporate.” I asked one last time if he was serious – I’d told him that I’d recently stayed in a Marriott somewhere and had paid $10 for high speed Internet and unlimited long distance service. He responded, “We aren’t the Marriott.”

I paid my bill and left, the entire wonderful experience of the preceeding 24 hours completely obliterated by the last five minutes of my stay. As I stepped out into hot, muggy New Orleans afternoon I was baffled, frustrated, and amazed. I thought of all the stuff I’ve read from Seth Godin in the last few years and how he’d be rolling on the ground laughing at how the Ritz blew it.

So – I’m going to give the Ritz-Carlton a chance to redeem itself. I’m not interested in my money back. However, I am interested in the Ritz-Carlton changing their long distance pricing policy. While I’m not going to be so presumptuous as to suggest what they should charge, I suggest they consider pricing it similar to their high-speed Internet access.

I’ve forwarded this post to Simon Cooper (President and COO) and Debi Howard (Managing Director Customer Relationships) at Ritz Carlton Corporate. I’ll keep you posted on their response.

ClickZ – one of the Jupitermedia companies – just chose Return Path as the Best Deliverabiity Product or Service of the year. I wrote about Return Path’s acquistion of NetCreations a month ago and included a short piece about their acquisition of Assurance Systems (which forms the basis for the Return Path’s deliverability products). This award is nice continued validation of our leadership position in the email deliverability market.

“shameless promotion on”: If your company does any legitimate email direct marketing, you should explore using Return Path’s deliverabiilty – and other – services.“shameless promotion off”

Shortly after I sold my first company, I got a call from Len Fassler – my new boss (the co-chairman of the company) – who asked, “Can you start sending me your DOC (pronounced “dock”) report?” I had grown to like Len during the deal process – he seemed to understand me, my general flakiness about whether or not I wanted to sell my company at the time, and was patient with my overall business naivete. However, at that moment, all I could think of was the cliche “the honeymoon must be over” since I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

After I meekly asked Len what he meant, he explained that he was looking for a “Daily Operating Control” report – basically a daily report that summarized the key financial metrics driving our business. Aha – I thought – this is easy. We were a consulting company and our major revenue driver was the number of hours each of our consultants billed per day times their rate per hour (which often varied based on the project they were working for at the time.) Almost everything else in our business was a highly predictable cost on a monthly basis. We relied on a home grown time accounting system that we fondly referred to as FT-BIL. We had built a discipline of entering our time daily so I literally had current month to date revenue numbers within 24 hours. I cranked out a number of FT-BIL reports, including daily billings by consultant and by client and sent it on as an example of what we had.

It turned out that Len didn’t actually want this granular a level of data from me on a daily basis (we were a small part of the overall company), but was more concerned that I had this data, was using it, and understood that it was an important tool to help manage our business performance. This was an instructive early lesson to me about the value of key financial metrics and how they are timeless in managing a business. It still amazes me that companies I’m involved in that have professional services as part of their business – including some of the law firms that work with me and my companies – can’t seem to get a system in place to collect this data on a near-real time basis.

Several years ago, some of y’all may remember an event called “the bursting of the Internet bubble.” Immediately preceeding this event, companies (and investors) focused on growth at any cost. This growth took various forms ranging from the one key financial metric that everyone cared about at the time (revenue) to non-financial metrics such as eyeballs, click-throughs, and affiliates. Shortly after the bubble burst, people started focusing on net income, cash flow, cash on hand, and other financial metrics. Not surprisingly, these were things that most rational business owners had paid attention to since – oh – the beginning of time.

As we were riding down the back side of the bubble bursting, we put a discipline in place at Mobius Venture Capital to track a set of financial metrics on a monthly basis for each of our portfolio companies. Monthly data we collect (and consolidated so everyone in the firm sees it on a weekly basis) includes revenue, cost of goods, operating expense, EBITDA, headcount, cash burn, cash on hand, debt, projected insolvency date, additional cash required to breakeven, and projected first quarter of profitabiity. In addition, each partner began writing a weekly status report with brief updates (typically one to two paragraphs) on each of his companies that was distributed along with this financial data.

In hindsight this seems like an obvious thing to do; however, in my experience, very few venture firms focus on this level of data firm wide on a consistent basis to understand the health of their companies, especially as their portfolio’s grow and they find themselves with a large number of companies. It’s our version of a DOC report (ok – maybe we should call it our WOC report – for “weekly operating control”, but that makes me hungry) and it’s been invaluable to us as we collectively watch and manage our portfolio. It’s clearly not a substitute for regular, deep portfolio reviews, but it creates a consistent baseline knowledge of our companies across the firm.

I’ve tried to instill an equivalent discipline in my portfolio companies. I’ve been successful in some cases, but not in all. I definitely see a correlation between rigorous collection and management of core financial performance data and business success, so I encourage every entrepreneur (and manager) to step back and consider if they are seeing their version of a DOC report.

Amy and I went to our little local movie theater in Homer tonight. The two movies showing are Farentheit 9/11 and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.

We saw Farenheit 9/11 on Sunday. It was as advertised and we were delighted that it made it to our town of 5,000 people. My only simple comment – independent of your politics – is that it’s a must see movie.

We saw Anchorman tonight. My only simple comment – independent of your politics – is that it was hysterical. Will Ferrell has been making the rounds of the Internet in his ACT sponsored White House West. The dude is seriously funny (in that slapstick, cheesy, stupid, juvenille, John Candy inspired, teenage boy way.) I often have to drag Amy to movies like this and I rate them based on her reaction (ranging from hysteria to leaving in the middle of the movie.) Even though she’ll never admit it in public, she was laughing so hard at moments that if she was chewing gum she would have swallowed it. Her funniest moment was an ode to F 9/11 where – at the end of the movie – the narrator did the proverbial “where are they now” voiceover and the “stupid weatherman guy” (IQ 45) had 11 children and was a senior advisor to the Bush administration.

It’s not intellectual, but it’ll crack you up. Women’s rights and equality have made a lot of progress in the last 30 years (ok – there were some not-so-subtle messages in the movie.)

I’ve been having a good summer running in Alaska gearing up for my next marathon. I was considering doing the Salt Lake Marathon in mid-July but I didn’t manage to make it down to the lower 48. I’m now eyeing the Duke City Marathon in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the end of October.

As I’ve been running up and down the monster hills in Homer I’ve been wondering why I’m not getting any faster. I used to be a much faster runner and while I’ve adjusted for age, it’s still frustrating to feel like you are plodding along when you used to be able to cruise at three minutes per mile faster with no discernable difference in effort.

Ben Casnocha turned me on to a great article in today’s NY Times titled “Why Joggers Labor and Olympians Fly“. While the article lays out several specific reasons for my speed deficiency, I’ve decided to take a zen-like approach to it and ask “why faster?” Oh – and the Athens Marathon course looks like a bitch of a run.