Ross Wehner – a new writer for the Denver Post – had a nice article in the paper this weekend titled Colorado high-tech industry shows some signs of revival. There’s been some perception in Colorado that we got hit harder than other states – primarily due to our emphasis on telecomm – although I think Colorado has experienced roughly the same tech dynamics (boom – bust – normal renewal) that other states have seen.
Ross quoted me a few times. When he called to fact check, he said “hey – I ran across this quote from 2000 about bowling – can I use it?” I told him I wish people would forget about it, but it was fair game since I’d said it and it had been printed. I explained to him that the quote was intended to emphasize that people are my highest order sort when I evaluate an investment (e.g. if I don’t like the people, forget it), but that it had been repeated so many times as to have lost its focus. The quote that’s getting repeated is:
Back in the go-go days of the dot-com boom, Feld used to evaluate the people he was funding by taking them bowling. “The reason I chose bowling is because it’s a stupidly absurd sport,” he remembers saying. “You don’t sweat, you wear funny shoes, you usually eat cheesy nachos and then (you) stick your hand in a heavy ball.”
The quote certainly qualified as pithy and memorable since it resulted in me being the recipient of a bowling ball with my name engraved on it, free passes to a variety of bowling events (with the entrepreneurs who wanted to pitch me), an occassional pre-meeting lunch of bad nachos, an a variety of other bowling related items (I have a really nice velour shirt with my name on it.) And NO, I’m not a particularly good bowler, nor do I like bowling very much.
However, I think it’s a bad quote because it doesn’t capture the essense of what I was trying to say, which was “When I evaluate a new investment, the highest level filter for me is the people. Once I get interested in someone, I like to do something unusual with them to get to know them better. Bowling is one of those things …” You get the picture.
I have a close friend – Jenny Lawton – who is a long time, extremely talented, and irrepressible entrepreneur. For a decade she ran a high-end network integration company that was doing Internet stuff well before Internet stuff was cool. She sold that company to a public company that was a large application service provider and stayed on for several years, playing a number of different leadership roles in that company.
She retired (burned out, got tired, decided to move on) and – rather than dive back in to technology – bought a bookstore called Just Books in her home town of Old Greenwich, CT. Several months later, she decided to expand and opened a second book store (Just Books, Too).
Today she announced that she is buying the coffee shop next to one of the bookstores.
Viva entrepreneurship – way to go Jenny! If you are ever near Old Greenwich (or Greenwich where their other store is located), stop in, tell Jenny hi, and buy some books (and coffee) from her.
I was on a board call for a company today that pays their employees bi-weekly (every two weeks). At some point in time there was a rationale for this since this company has a lot of hourly employees and there was a perception that folks would want to be paid every two weeks. So – presumably this was a logical decision at the time.
However, it creates havoc with our monthly reporting and forecasting as we have at least two months per year with three pay periods. This adds an extra pay period to our expense structure for those two months (and lowers it correspondingly for the other months where we only have two pay periods). As a result of this, we are constantly backing out expenses (or adding it back in) to get “apples to apples” monthly comparisons.
The vast majority of the companies I’ve been involved with pay employees semi-monthly (twice a month – usually on the 15th and last day or the month). While you obviously can do the work to “normalize” month to month expenses if you pay your employees bi-weekly, do yourself and your investors a favor and pay semi-monthly. It’s so much easier to deal with.
Fred wrote two stories on the cliche “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.” I saw it right after I responded to a few comments on my To Participate or Not post and was chewing on the notion of the behaviorial dynamics and mismatch that often occurs between investors and entrepreneurs, even when both sides are behaving as rational actors.
Amy and I have a saying that “The fantasy is better than the reality.” It comes up when incongruent situations appear in our life, where something that hasn’t yet happened appears irrationally magnificent in comparison to something that already either exists for us or something that is also a good thing and more achievable, but not as magnificent. After we chew on it for a while and think about the unintended consequences and side effects, we often conclude that we’ll stay with what we have, but enjoy thinking about the fantasy. Now – I’ve never been accused of not “going for things”, so you need to imagine “big fantasies” here.
This is a corollary to Fred’s anecdotes – which rang true with me this morning.
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.
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.
I thought I’d give you a break from the DNC coverage in the blogosphere (and everywhere else).
I wrote the following article on “financial fitness for entrepreneurs” last year for the Kauffman Foundation’s Entreworld web site so it’s reasonably fresh; I got a lot of positive feedback and it ended up in USA Today. It’s aimed at any entrepreneur – not just those running venture funded companies. While it’s aimed at an early stage entrepreneur, I think it’s useful whether you have one employee (you, the founder) or thousands of employees in your business. It was “professionally edited”, so it lost some of my special voice (you’ll notice the lack of cuss words.) Enjoy.
While creating a growth business can be exhilarating, many entrepreneurs – especially those starting a company for the first time – don’t pay enough attention to some core issues surrounding the financial management of their businesses.
Often, founders don’t have formal training in finance – they’re “techies” launching the next Apple Computer or Netscape, professionals putting together advertising, management consulting, or human resources agencies, or super-salesmen types who’ve figured out how to sell a pizza or deliver a package faster, better and cheaper. Always, they’re intimately involved with their core product or service. Often, they are too busy to burrow into the details of some of the company’s functions, of which finance is the most critical.
These entrepreneurs are savvy enough to know they must work with financial professionals, such as their CFO and outside auditors or CPAs. However, no matter what their background or inclination about finance, founders need to have a working understanding of the basics. An elementary level of financial literacy means they’ll work more intelligently with their financial advisors and become the first line of defense for spotting potential problems in the young company.
What follows are some fundamental financial tenets that all early-stage entrepreneurs should be aware of, understand, and heed.
That’s the list. Read it over, familiarize yourself with it, and begin developing a lay entrepreneur’s understanding of finance. You’ll then be able to work deftly with your pros to put the company of your dreams on the sound financial footing necessary for success.
I wrote the following article for The Kauffman Foundation’s Entreworld web site some time in the late 1990’s. Someone reminded me of it the other day and I looked it up. It’s especially relevant today after all the major public company scandals of the past few years, the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley, and the renewed attempts at activism by boards of directors. A few of the comments – such as the one on D&O insurance – are dated (D&O insurance for private companies is economical, although not often that useful). I’ve sat on plenty of boards and when I reflect on them am sad to say that they are spread equally between the first two categories I list below (I’ve been on lame duck boards, but have resigned quickly after realizing that’s what they were). I wish I could say they have all been (and are all) working boards, but I can’t. I guess it’s up to me to continue to be vigilant about changing that in the future.
Every large public company has a board of directors. The news is filled with stories about prominent people joining boards, about boards kicking out presidents and founders, and about personal liability of members of the boards. In a large public company, the board plays an incredibly important, and often controversial role in the governance and development of a company.
Given this, should a startup or small entrepreneurial company have a board of directors? I say, emphatically, YES!
By definition, every corporation has a board of directors. The minimum legal size of the board varies by state. In some states, the minimum size is three people (typically a president, secretary, and treasurer–also referred to as the officers of the company). In other states, the minimum size is linked to the number of shareholders–if there is only one equity holder in the corporation, there only needs to be one board member. Of course, there are several different types of companies, such as partnerships or sole proprietorships that do not require a formal board.
For many companies, the board of directors ends up being the founders of the company. However, I believe there is huge value in expanding the board to include “outside” directors–those that do not work for the company, but offer their time and advice to help shape and guide the company. These outside directors serve a similar function to those of a public company, but often with a much different approach.
It is important not to get a board of directors confused with a board of advisors or a strategic advisory board. These other boards are incredibly valuable tools for a company, but they serve a dramatically different purpose which I will discuss in a separate article.
I have been a member of many boards of directors and I have come to classify each board as one of three different types:
The only type of board that I believe is useful for a small, entrepreneurial company is a working board. The pressures in an entrepreneurial company are great enough that the founders and the management team need everyone involved doing everything they can to make the company successful. This does not mean that everyone agrees on everything, or the members of the board are not critical of the management team. But, it does mean that there is an active, open commitment to work with the founders and management team to make the company succeed wildly.
Board members come in many shapes and sizes. In my experience, a good size of a board is five to seven people, including the insiders. If there are only one or two insiders on the board, a total board size of five is plenty. If there are more than two insiders on the board, seven board members is more appropriate. I recommend that several of the outside board members be highly experienced entrepreneurs in the market that the company is going after. The rest of the board members should be experienced entrepreneurs in other business segments, but with a particular interest in something about the company.
The chairman of the board is often one of the insiders, such as the president or CEO. However, in many cases, you may want the chairman to be one of the outsiders, especially in a situation where one of the outsiders helped start the company by putting up some of the initial seed capital. The role of the chairman varies dramatically, but it often raises the level of commitment of the individual board member that is the chairman and the overall board in general.
Significant outside investors, especially venture capitalists, will want board seats. I recommend you limit the number of outside investors on your board, unless they fit the criteria listed above. A venture investor only needs one board seat – if you have a syndicate of venture investors (several different venture capitalists that invested together in the round), consider offering one board seat and extending observer rights (e.g. the right to attend any board meeting) to the other investors. These rights should be negotiated as part of the investment.
In addition to functioning as a regular sounding board for the management team, board members can contribute substantially to the business, both as a group and individually. Board members can be incredibly useful during financings, merger and acquisition activity, general corporate strategy, and executive recruiting. Do not overlook the experiences and skills of each of the individual board members–they can often play high value, short term consulting roles as needed.
Board members should be compensated for their efforts. At the minimum, their travel expenses should be paid. Most entrepreneurial companies should set up an option package for the board members – depending on the level of effort requested of the board, this could be as little as 0.25 percent of the company or as much as 2 percent of the company vesting over four years. In addition, many board members are interested and willing to invest in the company. I always believe that it is in the best interest of a company to have the board members have a meaningful equity stake in the company.
In some cases, the directors that you recruit will have a substantial personal net worth. In these cases, they might ask if the company has “Director and Officers Insurance” (D&O Insurance). This is insurance that protects the director from having personal liability in case the company gets sued. Small companies cannot afford D&O insurance (in fact, most private companies cannot afford this), while most public companies must have this as a requirement of the underwriters in an initial public offering. So, when confronted with the question, the best solution is to make sure that the articles of incorporation of the company provide the directors with the highest limitation on liability afforded by the state the company is incorporated in. Don’t waste your time investigating D&O pricing – it won’t be economical.
Finally, take good care of your board members. These are busy folks that are making a substantial time and energy commitment to you. They share in the rewards if you are successful, but their time and energy is at risk since their primary form of compensation is equity in your company. Feed them. Make them comfortable. Have fun together! You’ll be pleasantly surprised how much faster the relationships evolve and how much more valuable they become when everyone is working hard, but having a good time together. Don’t ever let your board get bored.
This article can be found on the Kauffman Foundation’s Entreworld web site at the following link.
I was in the middle of responding to an email and I used Visicalc as an example to make a point (remember Visicalc?). I couldn’t remember how to spell Bob Frankston’s last name (I’ve been friends with Dan Bricklin, the co-investor of Visicalc since I lived in Boston – but I’ve never met or talked to Bob) so I did a quick Google search on Visicalc.
I hit the jackpot. Dan has a copy of Visicalc that you can run on a PC. I downloaded it and three minutes later I was staring at the Visicalc screen from my childhood (the first time I ran Visicalc was when I was 13). The MS-DOS version is 27,520 BYTES. That’s 27k. Not 27MB. 27k. Smaller than most GIFs and JPEGs.
Amy (my wife – who still pines away for the days of Lotus Agenda) just walked in and – after seeing Visicalc up on my screen – said “What was wrong with DOS anyway – wasn’t it good enough – at least I could find all of my files.”
Dan / Bob (who I still don’t know, but feel a special character-based and forward slash bond to) – thanks for the memory. / S Q Y.