Month: January 2014

Jan 31 2014

Real Transparency

Lots of people talk about being transparent. Lots of companies espouse principles of transparency. Lots of statements start out with “I like to be transparent” or “I’m being transparent when I say …” And several years ago the notion of transparency became the new in thing, especially around the VC and startup worlds.

Most of it is bullshit.

If you want to see real transparency, take a look at Moz’s 2013 Year in Review: More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Moz, and Then Even More.

I love being an investor in this company.

When Rand Fishkin decided to hand the CEO reins over the Sarah Bird, he wrote Swapping Drivers on this Long Road Trip Together. Or if you want to compare how they did in 2012 to 2013, just read Rand’s post Announcing Moz’s 2012 Metrics, Acquisition of AudienceWise, & Opening of Our Portland Office.

And while Sarah and Rand were disappointed in their off-plan performance of 33% revenue growth, GAAP revenue of $29.3 million, and an EBITDA loss of $5.7 million, as an investor I’m delighted. Given all the things in motion, they and their team have done an amazing job of navigating another step function in the growth and development of the company. They are extremely well positioned on all levels for 2014 – product, strategy, infrastructure, financials, cost structure, and team. And they have huge hearts.

I know transparency is hard. Our legal and regulatory system makes it even harder. Having been on public company boards, I’ve been involved in the endless discussions about level of disclosure. I’m not naive about how the system works. And I know how many people view opacity as a competitive advantage, which is some cases it is.

But when you talk about being transparent, it’s often useful to have a standard of “real transparency” to compare yourself too. I’d put Moz at the top of that list in my book.

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Jan 28 2014

I Invest In CEOs Who Are Learning Machines

On my run this morning, my mind drifted to a common characteristic of CEOs that I work with. It was prompted by me randomly thinking about two back to back meetings I had yesterday – the first with Eric Schweikardt (Modular Robotics CEO) and his VP Finance and then with John Underkoffler (Oblong CEO) and his leadership team.

I’m regularly blown away by these two guys ability to collect new information, process it, and learn from it. Any meeting with them is not an endless socratic session from me to them, but rather the other way around. They know what they are trying to figure out and use me, and my broad range of experience, data, and opinions, to solicit a bunch of data for themselves that they use as inputs into their learning machine. Sure – I ask plenty of questions, but they do also, and as we go deeper, the questions – and the things that come out – get richer.

So – as I turned around on my run and headed back home (today was an out and back run), I started thinking about other learning machines that I get to work with. The ultimate is David Cohen, the CEO of Techstars. The entire model of Techstars is build around the context of the entrepreneur as a learning – and teaching – machine, where learning and teaching (which we call “mentoring”) are the different sides of the same coin.

Bart Lorang (FullContact CEO) is an awesome learning machine. While Bart isn’t a first time CEO, his level – and intensity – of inquiry is stunning. It reminds me of a younger Matt Blumberg, who has taken the concept to an entirely new level in his book Startup CEO.

I could keep going – almost of the CEOs I work with are in this category of learning machine. As I rounded the last turn and headed for home, I realized the learning machine model is consistent with a deeply held value of mine – reading and writing. More about that in another post.

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Jan 27 2014

CEO Bootcamp with Jerry Colonna

It’s really hard to be a CEO. Becoming a great CEO takes a lot of time, work, focus, coaching, and introspection.

My very close friend Jerry Colonna is hosting his second CEO Bootcamp from April 2 – April 6. Several CEOs from the Foundry Group portfolio went last year and each had an amazing time. This year I’m going to be attending as a special guest and participating throughout the four day program.

I’ve learned an enormous about from Jerry over the past 20 years.  We first met in 1994 when I was a chairman of NetGenesis. Jerry had recently invested in a company called eShare, which ended up buying a product called net.Thread (one of the first, if not the first, threaded discussion group system – which was written in Perl) from NetGenesis. I joined the eShare board as part of the deal and a very deep friendship and working relationship ensued.

When Jerry told me about the first CEO Bootcamp a year ago I encouraged a number of CEOs in our portfolio to attend. Each one came back saying some version of “it changed my life”, which wasn’t really a surprise to me knowing Jerry but was a strong positive affirmation of the experience.

This year, when Jerry told me the dates for CEO Bootcamp and asked me to spread the word, I asked if I could come and participate. It’s in Colorado at an awesome place called Devil’s Thumb Ranch so I can drive to it and is a topic that’s front of mind for me given my relationship with the various CEOs in our portfolio.

I try hard to develop a deep personal relationship with the CEOs I work with. I’ve written in the past about Being Vulnerable and think it’s one of the most important qualities of a leader. As Jerry says so well in the overview of the requirements for attendees, “you may be tired, but you must be vulnerable, curious and courageous.” The full list of requirements follows:

  • You’re the CEO of a tech start­up that has employees.
  • This is the first time you have been a CEO within a company of this scale.
  • You’ve logged immeasurable hours and have made tremendous sacrifices.
  • You’ve had success with your company. You realize there is more to this game than “success.”
  • You may be tired, but you must be vulnerable, curious and courageous.

I’m planning on participating in the entire event. The agenda is still being finalized, but the current plan is for me to do a joint talk with Jerry on Friday, fireside chats with Jerry on Friday and Saturday, and hikes after the main sessions.

I know two of Jerry’s three partners in this endeavor and think Sam Elmore and Ali Schultz are dynamite. To be clear, I’m volunteering my time and participating – this is Jerry, Sam, Ali, and Michael’s gig so I’m going to do whatever they want me to – or not to – do.

Registration is open until 2/9/14 at midnight MST. 20 CEOs will be accepted. I hope to see you there.

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Jan 26 2014

Stopping Writing For Other Web Sites

One of my goals, and a tactic for being happier, this year is Doing More By Doing Less More Deeply. To that end, I’ve decided to stop writing for other web sites and magazines.

Over the past few years, I’ve expanded the “channels” that my original writing appears in. In some cases, I’ve written specific content for sites and magazines like Inc. and Entrepreneur. In other cases I’m participating in the grand content expansion strategies of sites like LinkedIn, Huffington Post, WSJ, and Forbes. And in others, it’s just random stuff on sites from people building up their content in a particular area.

While it’s been a fun experiment, it has become an overwhelming chore. I get a request for something new from somewhere multiple times a week. I say no a lot, but I’m constantly having to think to myself “do I want to do this or not.” I’ve never been good at moderating, so it’s much easier for me to abstain and just say no to everything.

In some cases I’ve done this to learn about the content expansion strategies of either tradition or new media companies. I feel like that learning has hit very significant diminishing returns – sure there is more to learn, but it’s not significant enough to outweigh the effort and cost.

I love to write. And I very much appreciate the opportunity others have given me to contribute content to their sites. But I’ve gotten tired of the pressure from external sites to produce material for them on a particular time frame or in response to prompted topics, which some people love but I’ve grown to dislike. And most importantly, I’ve realized that I really like three types of writing best.

  1. Short form that I completely control, such as blog posts like this.
  2. Long form, such as books like Startup Boards.
  3. Commentary on other people’s writing, such as comments on other people’s blog posts or GoodReads book reviews.

I’ve been spending a lot of my writing energy recently on a new project that we are about to unveil. I expect that by stopping writing for other sites, I’ll free up enough energy to allocate what I want to for this project. And that feels like Doing More By Doing Less More Deeply.

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Jan 24 2014

Impact in Angel Investor Decisions

I’ll be speaking at an Impact Angel Group event on February 12th. With a few other angel investors, I’ll be talking to other angel investors, along with prospective angel investors, about the role of impact investing the community, as well as in our own portfolios.

Among other things, we’ll discuss our angel investment strategies and openly share things like the percentage of our wealth that we allocate to angel and impact investing. We’ll also talk about how we balance our impact, risk, and financial goals. Finally, I’ll also discuss our experience with FG Angels and AngelList, along with the angel investment strategy I’ve used over the past 20 years.

I deeply believe that one of the best ways to accelerate a startup community is through more seed investing in new startups from local angel investors. We’ve seen a great increase in the number of angel investors in the Boulder and Denver area over the past seven years. Hopefully that trend will continue, as more people who have some wealth allocate a portion of it to making early stage investments in new, high risk, high potential startups.

While First Western Trust Bank (a local Boulder/Denver bank Amy and I work closely with and admire) is one of the sponsors, there is an additional cost to the event. If this was aimed at entrepreneurs, this wouldn’t be ok with me, but since it’s aimed at angel investors, I’m fine with it. In addition, the cost is really the cost of a normal lunch after the $30 discount to Feld Thoughts readers.  None of the money goes to me – it’s just to cover the cost of the event.

The details are below.

When: February 12, 2014 from 11:30am to 1:30pm
Where: The St. Julien in Downtown Boulder
Cost: $75 – Sign up by 1/27 and use the promo code “FELDTHOUGHTS” for a $30 discount. (Ticket sales go toward covering the cost of the event.)
Registration: Sign up

If you are an angel investor, or a potential angel investor and this interests you, I’ll see you there.

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Jan 23 2014

Cookie Cookie Cookie

This is a public service announcement for all entrepreneurs and investors. Remember not to take yourself too seriously. At least not all the time.

In that vein, the following Real Life Conference Call reminds of us the pain of trying too hard.

And we’ll end this morning’s video fest with my other alter-ego from Sesame Street – Animal – doing his thing on the drums, looking just like I do when I try to play them.

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Jan 22 2014

The 99 Investor Problem

When the JOBS Act was finalized, one of the rule changes that had a lot of fanfare around it was the increase in the number of shareholders a private company could have. Prior to the JOBS Act, it was 500, after which point the company had to register and report to the SEC just like it was a public company (even if it hadn’t gone public.) This was a major issue for many fast growing companies that either went through strange contortions not to have 500 investors, or filed with the SEC to get no-action letters. There were plenty of nuances around this rule and I was in the middle of several situations that structured around it legally. Each time it was a lot of overhead for the company in question, none of which added anything to the system except fees to the lawyers.

Lifting the number of investors to 2000 seemed to make sense. In the situations I was involved in it would have immediately solved the specific problem. So that’s good.

But ever since we started working with AngelList on FG Angels, we’ve been wrestling with something called we’ve been referring to as the 99 Investor Problem. We structure our investment in companies via an LLC that has all the individual FG Angels syndicate members in it. This simplifies life for the company as they only end up with 1 investor – the FG Angels syndicate LCC – rather than a bunch of individual investors. At this point we have 217 backers in our syndicate, so with us each company would end up having 218 separate investors if we didn’t use the LLC.

If everyone was on the cap table, the company would have to chase down 218 signatures for everything. Instead, using our approach, they have effectively two investors – our FG Angels syndicate (one investor) and Foundry Group (another investor). Two signatures. Much easier. We handle the Foundry Group signature. AngelList handles the syndicate signature.

Except it doesn’t work that way. The SEC limits an LLC to having 99 investors. So we can only have 99 of the 217 syndicate members participate. Now, there’s a nuance that excludes “qualified purchasers” (QPs) – individuals with $5M in assets and firms with $25M in assets – from the 99 investor count. Overall our QPs + the top 99 investors in our syndicate represent $321,000 based on committed amounts to FG Angels. If you include the balance of the 237 members, we end up at a syndicate of $439,000. The company then gets our commitment of $50,000 on top of that.

As a result of this 99 investor limitation, we have two disappointing problems. First, we have over 100 investors who would like to invest in our syndicate with us who get excluded because of the 99 investor rule. Next, there is $118,000 per investment that we’d like to include in each syndicate that the companies we are investing in won’t get. Bad for the companies and bad for the investor.

We’ve spent lots of time over the past 60 days trying to solve the 99 investor problem. At this point, we’ve run into a dead end. We’ve tried multiple LLCs – that doesn’t work as they end up getting viewed as a single entity. We’ve tried other structures – that doesn’t work. We’re certainly open to ideas at this point.

In the mean time, until we solve this, AngelList is making the following changes to their Syndicates product.

Qualified Purchasers: AngelList will include all Qualified Purchasers (individuals with $5M in assets and firms with $25M in assets) in each syndicated deal as they are exempt from the SEC’s 99-investor limit. We will soon email your backers to determine if they are Qualified Purchasers (QPs) and we will update your syndicate management interface to indicate the QPs.
Top 99 Backers: The next time you syndicate a deal, we will include all QPs and the top 99 non-QPs by commitment amount. You can override this default to include specific backers who are not in the top 99. The top 99 backers will change dynamically as backers adjust their backing amounts.
Funds: We are working on new funds products to allow additional investors who are not in your top 99 backers or QPs to participate in your syndicated deals.
Notifying Backers: Finally, we will notify your backers of the SEC’s 99-investor restriction this week and give them the opportunity to change their backing amounts.

We are bummed about this because part of our goal is to build a very large angel network as a result of the FG Angels activity. The 99 investor rule directly undermines this, and limits the amount of investment and support for the companies we are investing in. It’s another example of the challenges of the JOBS Act and another discovery on our part of the “miss” between the goal of the new law and the implementation.

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Jan 21 2014

My Message About The Singularity: Be Optimistic

I did a really fun hour long interview with Nikola Danaylov – who goes by Socrates – on the Singularity Weblog. We covered a wide range of topics around humans, machines, the singularity, where technology is going, and some philosophy around the human race and it’s inevitable Cylon future.

This was one of the more stimulating set of questions I’ve had to address recently. My fundamental message – “be optimistic.” Enjoy!

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Jan 21 2014

AngelList Accreditation Report

One of the most annoying things about being an angel investor is filling out the same Accredited Investor Questionnaire over and over again. I’ve made about 200 angel investments and over 50 VC fund investments at this point since 1994 and I’ve filled out some version of this form at least 250 times.

A few weeks ago Fred Wilson made an open request for A Web Service For Qualified and Accredited Investors. He was referring to the form that used to be required under what is called “501” that now goes by the friendly name 506(b). I doubt he has yet to fill out a form for 506(c), which is the new requirement for “general solicitation” under the JOBS Act. At least I hope he hasn’t, because there are a whole host of new and exciting issues with companies that use 506(c).

It’s incredibly annoying to fill out the same paperwork over and over again for each investment. So Fred’s request was timely and likely something on a lot of people’s minds – or at least mine.

And the gang at AngelList. They totally nailed it by releasing the AngelList Accreditation Report. It’s exactly what Fred wants and is another great example of how far ahead of the curve AngelList is. If you have no idea what AngelList is trying to accomplish overall, read the great article from this week’s BusinessWeek titled AngelList, the Social Network for Startups.

We’ve been working really closely with AngelList lately on our FG Angels initiative. We’ve completed one investment, have a second that should close this week, and a third that we are about to launch. We are settling into a tempo of about two a month and hope to be at four a month by Q2. We’ve had to do a lot of work – with AngelList – to get the documentation, legals, and workflow correct and appropriate for a fund like ours. But we feel like we are almost there.

The AngelList gang continues to be a joy to work with. And things like the AngelList Accreditation Report show that they’ve got a deep understanding of what is needed to truly democratize angel and seed investing.

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Jan 20 2014

Learn Everything You Need To Know About Venture Capital in 90 Minutes

My partner Jason and our dear friend Professor Brad Bernthal are attempting to teach everything there is to know about the venture ecosystem in 90 minutes on January 28th.  The link to the event is here.

Now realistically, you won’t learn everything, but they have been teaching a class on the subject for the past five years and it is not only excellent, but was one of the reason Jason and I wrote our book Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist.

This should be a great event.

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