Tag: Entrepreneurship

Feb 17 2016

Stuff That Caught My Attention This Morning

After all these years, I’m still a heavy RSS user. Every morning I click on my Daily folder in Chrome, open it up, and spend whatever time I feel like on it. The vast majority of what I read is in Feedly and includes my VC Collection as well as a bunch of other stuff. It’s almost entirely tech related, as I stay away from mainstream media during the week (e.g. no CNN, no CNBC, no NYT, no WSJ, no USA Today, no … well – you get the idea) since I view all this stuff as an intellectual distraction (and much of it is just entertainment anyway, and I’d rather read a book.)

This morning I came across a number of interesting things that created some intellectual dissonance in my brain since they came from different perspectives. I’d categorize it as the collision between optimist and pessimist, startup and already started up, and offense vs. defense. However, they all shared one thing in common – the message and thoughts were clear.

Let’s start with Tim Cook’s remarkable Message to Our Customers around the San Bernardino case and the need for encryption. My first reaction was wow, my second reaction was to read it again slowly, and my third reaction was to clap quietly in the darkness of my office. I then went on an exploration of the web to understand the All Writs Act of 1789 which is what the FBI is using to justify an expansion of its authority. I love the last two paragraphs as they reflect how I feel.

“We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications.

While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

Thank you Tim Cook and Apple for starting my day out with something deeply relevant to our near term, and long term, future in a digital age.

Shortly after I came across Danielle Morrill’s post Surviving Whatever Comes Next and Heidi Roizen’s post Dear Startups: Here’s How to Stay AliveI’m an investor in Danielle’s company Mattermark and was partners with Heidi at Mobius Venture Capital. I have deep respect for each of them, think they are excellent writers, and thought there were plenty of actionable items in each of their posts, unlike many of the things people I’ve seen in the last few weeks about how the technology / startup world is ending.

Unlike the sentiment I’ve been hearing in the background about deal pace slowing down (not directly – no one is saying it – but lots of folks are signaling it through body language and clearly hedging about what they are actually thinking because they aren’t sure yet), our deal pace at Foundry Group is unchanged. Since we started in 2007, we’ve done around ten new investments per year. I expect in 2016 we’ll do about ten new investments, in 2017 we’ll do about ten new investments, in 2018 we’ll do about ten new investments – you get the picture. We have a deeply held belief that to maximize the value and opportunity in a VC fund, investment pace should be consistent over a very long period of time. We did about ten investments in 2007, 2008, and 2009 – which, if I remember correctly, is a period of time referred to as the Global Financial Crisis. Hmmm …

So it was fun to see my partner Seth’s post titled Welcome to Foundry on the same morning as Danielle and Heidi’s posts. That started the intellectual dissonance in my brain. If you want to see what Seth sends every company he joins the board of after we make an investment in, it’s a good read. It also clearly expresses how we approach working with companies the day after we become an investor.

I then read Ian Hathaway‘s great article for the Brookings Institute titled Accelerating growth: Startup accelerator programs in the United StatesThere are a few people doing real research of the impact of Accelerators and Ian’s work is outstanding. If you are interested in accelerators, how they work, how they impact company creation, and what trajectory they are on, read this article slowly. It’s got a bonus video interview with me embedded in it.

I’ll end with Joanne Wilson’s post #DianeProject. Joanne shared a bunch of info about the #DianeProject with me when we were together in LA two weeks ago. While I don’t know Kathyrn Finney, I now know of her and her platform Digital Undivided. I strongly recommend that you pay $0.99 (like I just did) to get a copy of the report The Real Unicorns of Tech: Black Women Founders, #ProjectDianeThe data is shocking, and there is an incredible paragraph buried deep within it.

“A small pool of angel and venture investors fund a majority of Black women Founders. For those in the $100,000-$1 million funding range, a majority of their funders were local accelerator programs and small venture firms (under $10 million in management). One angel investor, Joanne Wilson and Gotham Gal Ventures, has invested in three of the 11 companies that raised over $1 million. On the traditional venture rm side, Kapor Capital and Comcast’s Catalyst Fund have invested in at least two of the Black woman-led startups in the $1 million club. Wilson, Kapor, and Comcast often invest together, aka “co-invest”, in companies, thus increasing the amount of funding a company receives.”

So – was that more interesting than CNN or CNBC?

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Feb 7 2016

Up Close and Personal: Conversations on Entrepreneurship and Mental Health

I’ve talked openly about my struggles with depression over the years and have engaged deeply in an explorations of entrepreneurship and mental health through several different organizations I’m involved in.

On February 16th, from 3pm to 5pm, I’m doing a free public event with the Carson J Spencer Foundation about entrepreneurship and mental health. For some quick context, they did a short intro video with me on the topic.

If you are interested in participating, please register and join us on February 16th at the Museum of Boulder.

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Feb 3 2016

Is History A Guide In Business?

I was at a fascinating dinner with a bunch of founders and investors last night. Until I was 35, I was often the youngest guy in the room. While this was a seasoned crowd, much of the experience – both around creating companies and funding companies – started around the mid-2000s. As someone who has been doing this since the late 1980s (I started my first company in 1987) I definitely felt like one of the old guys in the room.

At some point, the conversation turned to the current state of things in the broad entrepreneurial ecosystem – both company-side and investor-side. It rambled around for a while but kept locking down on specific issues around the current state of financings and exits, alignment between founders/investors/acquirers, cultural norms that were front and center in today’s startup communities, and a bunch of other issues that tied back to the wonderful Game of Thrones line “winter is coming.”

Throughout the evening, I was regularly reminded of my favorite BSG quote. “All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”

Another one of my favorite quotes is the one attributed to Mark Twain, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.Phil Weiser, Dean of the CU Law School and a good friend, often pulls this one out to remind us to look to the past to understand the future.

While we’ve been in a particular strong part of the startup / entrepreneurship cycle for the past four years, many people are nervous, talking about it, reacting to it, and getting confused, frustrated, and scared by what is going on. Others are in total denial of reality, which never works out well in the long run. Whether you follow the BSG theology or subscribe to Mark Twain, or are somewhere in-between, you recognize the value of understanding the past to exist in the present and deal with the future.

I came out of dinner with about 20 topics for blog posts, many which reflect on lessons I’ve learned multiple times over the past 30 years, which can be applied to today, and tomorrow, and the next few years, regardless of what actually happens. Until last night I wasn’t particularly motivated to blog around this stuff, but the discussion, and people in the room, really stimulated me to put some energy into this. So I plan to.

But remember, all of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again. So if you are impatient, I encourage you to go look at posts from me, Fred Wilson, and David Hornik from 2004 – 2007 for a taste of what I would characterize of “the re-emergence from winter.”

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Aug 10 2015

The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning

I was in a conversation last week with a friend who asked “do you think this is the beginning of the end?” We were discussing something totally wacky that had just happened that clearly could be viewed as an indicator that we have crested the peak of this economic cycle. Then, earlier today, I was on the phone with one of my favorite lawyers and he made a joke about a deal I’m doing as harkening back to the late 1990s. He asked if I thought it was an indication of the top of the cycle. We had a good chuckle (probably PTSD gallows humor from 15 years ago) and I suggested that they slow down the hiring of the associates at their law firm so they wouldn’t have to lay off so many in the inevitable downtown.

Somewhere in between these two conversations I told someone that I thought this was actually the “end of the beginning.” And, tonight at a wonderful dinner, I made the statement to the friend that we were having dinner with that I thought the next 30 years were going to be incredible.

I think we are at the end of the beginning of a dramatic shift in how our species deals with existence. Depending on who you believe, we are either 30 years from the singularity (Kurzweil) or only 15 years away (Vinge). The new science fiction coming out is doing a remarkable job of helping us set a context for the different aspects of what we’ll need to deal with. Some of it will be just as off as Philip K. Dick can be while some will be just as accurate as Philip K. Dick can be. If you are a fan of Philip K. Dick, like I am, you know exactly what I mean. And if you aren’t, I suggest you start with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Humans have serious issues with exponential curves as we want to make everything a line. But a lot of the stuff around us is happening exponentially and we don’t realize it. As a result, we’ve dramatically underestimated the impact of technology on – well – everything. And, since so much of it is exponential, it compounds at an incomprehensible pace. When we look outside at concrete, steel, and glass going up slowly, it lulls us into a sense of normalcy.

The machines want us to feel this way.

Think about it for a brief moment. Suspend disbelief. Wind the clock forward 100 years. Do you think, as a species, we will still be struggling with the things that vex us today? Will we still be arguing about the same stuff? Will physical instantiation of things have the same meaning? We will still be eating Cocoa Puffs?

We are at the end of the beginning. It’s going to get wild. Buckle up.

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Jul 19 2015

Do We Need A New Word For Entrepreneur?

Has the word entrepreneur become too trendy as to have lost its meaning? I’m hearing it and the word entrepreneurship being used in so many conversations incorrectly.

Here’s a simple example. On a daily basis, I have an email exchange with someone who says they are an entrepreneur. I respond “What company did you start?” They respond, “Oh, I didn’t start a company, I was the fifth employee of Company X.”

Another example is the email that I get from someone in a large company who says “I want to create more entrepreneurship within BigCo.”

Now, these are well-intentioned people so I’m not critical of them. But I’m critical of the use of the word entrepreneur in these contexts.

I like Wikipedia’s definition.

“Entrepreneurship is the process of starting a business, a startup company or other organization. The entrepreneur develops a business plan, acquires the human and other required resources, and is fully responsible for its success or failure.”

Merriam Webster’s is also solid.

“a person who starts a business and is willing to risk loss in order to make money”

This morning I read an article in the New York Times titled With Start-Ups, Greeks Make Recovery Their Own BusinessOther than the fact that the New York Times hasn’t yet figured out that It’s Startup, Not Start-up or Start Up it was a good article that got me thinking about this rant.

In 2010, the Startup America Partnership finally got the US government to separate the notion of small businesses with high growth businesses. The word startup was firmly introduced into our lexicon as shorthand for high growth business and now is a comfortable one. While we are still stuck with one government organization – the Small Business Administration – that tries to help both small businesses and startups, the language around this continues to evolve.

For example, I think we are finally starting to differentiate between local businesses (your local restaurant, coffee shop, bookstore, gas station, movie theater, clothing store, art store, or anything else that sells to your local community) from a startup business (a company that might be small, but is selling to anyone anywhere in the world). The language isn’t quite right, as local businesses can evolve into startups (The Kitchen, run by Kimball Musk, is a good example). But we are getting there.

And then there are a several words trying to characterize different stages of startups. A scaleup is a startup that is scaling quickly. A gazelle, a word that has been around for a while and is becoming popular again, is a startup that has achieved critical mass and is a rapidly growing company, kind of like a scaleup, but falling comfortably into the animal taxonomy that seems to include unicorns and dragons.

And that takes us back to the word entrepreneur. Theoretically, the entrepreneur is a person who creates any one of these companies (local business, high growth business, startup, scaleup, gazelle, unicorn, but not a peppercorn.) And entrepreneurship is the act of creating and operating the business. Note the and clause – you need to be the creator and the operator to be an entrepreneur, not just the operator.

As I type this, I realize I’ve buried the lead. I’ve always loved the word founder to describe the person the word entrepreneur refers to. When I started Feld Technologies, I referred to myself and my partner Dave as the founders of Feld Technologies. This was well before anyone used the word entrepreneur (the 1980s) and for many years I used the word founder. Somehow my brain shifted to entrepreneur and entrepreneurship and that’s taken over for me. But it’s now uncomfortable, awkward, and tiresome.

I think I’m going back to founder. It’ll be interesting to see how hard it is to rewire my brain. We’ll see if it lasts. While it’s not clear to me that it matters, given my pedantic obsession with eliminating the hyphen in words like startup and email, it’ll be fun – at least for me – to see where it goes.

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Jul 3 2015

Holidays Can Be Hard

I’m feeling fine today. But I know many entrepreneurs who aren’t. They are under intense pressure, worrying about an endless stream of things coming at them, suffering under the weight of imposter syndrome and other sources of anxiety. And, in some cases they are depressed, but trapped by our own culture which stigmatizes depression.

Earlier this week Biz Carson wrote an excellent article titled There’s a dark side to startups, and it haunts 30% of the world’s most brilliant people. It started with Austen Heinz’s suicide (Austen was the founder of Cambrian Genomics) and then built into a wide ranging discussion about depression among entrepreneurs.

It highlighted a recent study by Dr. Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at UCSF and an entrepreneur, which is the first to link higher rates of mental health issues to entrepreneurship.

Of the 242 entrepreneurs surveyed, 49% reported having a mental-health condition. Depression was the No. 1 reported condition among them and was present in 30% of all entrepreneurs, followed by ADHD (29%) and anxiety problems (27%). That’s a much higher percentage than the US population at large, where only about 7% identify as depressed.

I’ve been very open about my struggles over the past 25 years with depression and anxiety and am quoted in the article. But after dinner last night, Amy discovered on Facebook that the son of a childhood friend of her’s had committed suicide. It reminded me that depression and other mental health issues are widespread and are often extremely challenging around the holidays.

I used to struggle mightily with three day weekend and holiday weeks. While the rest of the world slowed down, I felt like the pressures on me were speeding up. I wanted everyone to get off their butts, stop relaxing, and respond to my emails. I was impatient and didn’t want to wait until Monday to try to address whatever issues were in front of me. I felt disoriented, which just made me more anxious. And when I was in the midst of a depressive episode, time just strung out endlessly in front of me, in a very bad way.

I used to be especially cranky around Christmas time. I’m jewish and didn’t grow up with Christmas, I always thought Hanukkah was a stupid holiday, made up to assuage sullen jewish kids when all of their friends had gift orgies. I felt isolated and different, which just made my general anxiety and impatience around holidays even worse.

In the last decade this has eased. I now give myself up to the slower pace, I give myself space to feel however I want to feel, I rest a lot, and I hang out with Amy. I’m social, but not overly so, and avoid big gatherings which crush my soul. I read, spend time outside, and nap. I let my batteries recharge and I don’t try to get caught up on everything, but instead just do what I feel like doing.

The July 4th weekend is always one that is joyful on the surface. It’s summer. The weather is warm. People do outdoorsy things. Email slows to a trickle.

For an anxious, stressed, or depressed entrepreneur, this can be extremely uncomfortable and exacerbate whatever issues are going on.

If you are one of these entrepreneurs, try my approach this weekend. Just shut down all the stimuli. Get off your computer. Take a digital sabbath. Go outside. Lay on a couch with a book and fall asleep reading. Blow off the 4th of July party that you don’t really want to go to and just stay home and watch TV in the middle of day. Let your energy go wherever it takes you. And recognize that all the emails, all the stress, all the anxiety, and all the people will be there on Monday ready to go again.

If you are the significant other of one of these entrepreneurs, take a lesson from Amy. Be patient. Be loving. Don’t let it be all about your partner, but don’t make it all about you. Just chill. And be together. Have a vacation – from everyone and everything else.

And for everyone else, recognize that holidays can be hard. And that’s ok.

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Jun 14 2015

If You Get All Your Information On The Entrepreneurial Ecosystem From HBO, You’re Screwed

This is the best quote I’ve seen all week. It’s from Greg Sands post on TechCrunch titled The Real Silicon Valley

Greg is a long time friend and co-investor. I’m on the board with him at Return Path and he’s on the board with my partner Ryan at VictorOps. Along with my partners, we are all LPs in Greg’s fund Costanoa Ventures.

Greg’s post is great. Here’s the windup:

“Every time I hear people talking about unicorns, I think “all hat, no cattle” or “another person living in the land of style over substance.” I’ve found myself blurting out, “F$&@ Unicorns!”* twice recently, including when I was on a panel at Stanford School of Engineering on Entrepreneurship from Diverse Perspective. (Yes, I get the irony.)”

Go read it. I’ll be here when you get back.

It’s useful to recognize that the two companies Greg mentions in his post – Datalogix and Yokou (he was an investor in both) are not based in the bay area (Datalogix is in Colorado (in Westminster, between Boulder and Denver) and Yokou is in Beijing)), reinforcing the notion that “Silicon Valley” is a state of mind or a metaphor, rather than a physical place.

Last week a CEO in the bay area who I think is dynamite DMed the following via Slack.

“people don’t talk about what they’re making. all anyone talks about is raising money”

This is a nice link back to Greg’s post, where he quotes Jim Barksdale, the CEO of Netscape (Greg was the first product manager at Netscape.)

“Our purpose here isn’t to make money. Our purpose is to acquire and serve customers. Making money is the logical consequence of doing our jobs well, but it isn’t our purpose.”

I’ve got a post in me called Dragicorns that I haven’t had the time to get out of my head, but Greg’s reminder will suffice for today.

If you are an entrepreneur, focus on the purpose. Your purpose. And your company’s purpose. Once you stop doing this and start focusing only on the money you are fucked.

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Apr 1 2015

Something New Is Fucked Up In My World Every Day

In The Cave of DemonsThis is one of my favorite lines to use to explain the business life I live. When asked what it’s like to be a partner in a VC firm, be on a bunch of boards, and have a continuous stream of random interaction come my way, I like to level set my reality.

It’s simple. Something new is fucked up in my world every day.

Now, just because something new is fucked up, doesn’t mean I’m unhappy. Quite the opposite – I’m usually happy, although when the pile of fuckedupness gets high enough I get tired. And day after day after day of 12+ hour days also make me tired. I used to be able to work through the weekends – now at 49 years old I need them to recover, get patched up by Amy, and get ready to go back out there.

Jerry Colonna at Reboot.io tells a wonderful story about the crucible of leadership on Fred Wilson’s blog with a section titled Eat Me If You Wish (read the whole post but the parable is about half way through.) It’s worth repeating here. Take your time reading it.

“One day,” begins a story re-told by Aura Glaser in the latest issue of Tricycle Magazine, “[the Buddhist saint] Milarepa left his cave to gather firewood, and when he returned he found that his cave had been taken over by demons. There were demons everywhere! His first thought upon seeing them was, ‘I have got to get rid of them!’ He lunges toward them, chasing after them, trying forcefully to get them out of his cave. But the demons are completely unfazed. In fact, the more he chases them, the more comfortable and settled-in they seem to be. Realizing that his efforts to run them out have failed miserably, Milarepa opts for a new approach and decides to teach them the dharma.

“If chasing them out won’t work, then maybe hearing the teachings will change their minds and get them to go. So he takes his seat and begins… After a while he looks around and realizes all the demons are still there…At this point Milarepa lets out a deep breath of surrender, knowing now that these demons will not be manipulated into leaving and that maybe he has something to learn from them. He looks deeply into the eyes of each demon and bows, saying, ‘It looks like we’re going to be here together. I open myself to whatever you have to teach me.’

“In that moment all the demons but one disappear. One huge and especially fierce demon, with flaring nostrils and dripping fangs, is still there. So Milarepa lets go even further. Stepping over to the largest demon, he offers himself completely, holding nothing back. ‘Eat me if you wish.’ He places his head in the demon’s mouth, and at that moment the largest demon bows low and dissolves into space.”

I put my head in a demon’s mouth every single day. Often, it’s a different, or new, demon. Sometimes it takes me a few days to get ready for this so the demons back up. Other days two or three new demons appear and I can only deal with one of them so the others hang around.

I learned how to deal with this in 2001. That year started out miserable with companies I was involved failing all around me. I did everything I knew how to do to help. I’d go to bed at the end of the day thinking, “Ok, that totally sucked, but tomorrow will be better.” It wasn’t – each day was worse. By about June I realized that every single day of 2001 had been worse than the previous day. I finally metaphorically threw up my hands and internally said, “Fuck it, let’s see what the world can bring on today.” That’s when I started to sit with the demons.

Up to that point, I was fearful of what the day would bring. I would fight against it. I would thrash around looking to solve every problem, chasing the demons around my cave trying to get them to leave. And then 9/11 happened, on a beautiful morning in New York, while I was fast asleep in a hotel room in midtown Manhatten at The Benjamin Hotel after taking a redeye from San Francisco. As the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, Amy frantically called me from the road as she was driving to the airport to come visit me in New York. I had turned off my phone so I expect I snored happily away as the first tower fell. When I finally woke up I to whatever station the clock radio was on, I thought it was all a joke. For about a minute, I struggled through the post redeye haze that enveloped me, along with the existential fatigue I was feeling from nine months of companies failing everywhere, people being angry, unhappy, depressed, stressed, scared, and under immense pressure, and then I realized it wasn’t a dream.

When I finally woke up enough to turn on my phone and call Amy, I was lucky enough to get through. She pulled over to the side of the road and cried. She was sure I had been on one of the planes that had crashed. After a few minutes, we realized a trip to NY was silly so she turned around and went home. I then took a shower and tried to process what was going on and figure out what to do next.

There’s a lot more from that day that shaped me, like it shaped so many others, but suddenly many of my demons just disappeared and went to torture other people. I realized that as fucked up as my world was, it was trivial compared to what was going on 60 blocks away. While I was terrified and trapped in The Benjamin for a while, I had at least four hours before I took action to just sit and process things.

Dealing with the particular set of demons in my cave at this point to another three months. That period was my second of three clinic depressions that ended around my birthday on December 1st. I spent these three months sitting with all of my demons, welcoming more into my world, and just learning from them.

When the really scary ones showed up, I didn’t fight. I just placed my head gently in each of the scary demons’ mouthes and said “eat me if you wish.”

Just like with Milarepa, it worked. And it’s now how I live every day.

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Mar 19 2015

Mexican Food and Entrepreneurship for Lunch in Dubai

Amy and I are spending the week in Dubai on the annual Wellesley Art Trip. I’ve been doing some of the art stuff, visited one of our LPs, and have been getting together with local entrepreneurs and investors.

Yesterday, I had a magnificent two and a half hour lunch with three guys from BECO Capital – Dany Farha, Amir Farha, and Sorusch Amiri. It started ten days ago with an email from Sorusch in response to a tweet I wrote asking for a recommendation of a book on the history of Dubai.

“More than 3 years ago, we had this brief email exchange and to this day I’m telling friends and colleagues what a kind and responsive person you are. Since then I ended up at a venture capital firm in Dubai called BECO Capital.

Now it turns out that you are visiting Dubai and looking for a history book. I may not have a good recommendation on that but we at BECO would love to tell you all about this city’s history in person because the family of our founders have been living and working here for four decades.

If you have the time, we would absolutely love to take you out for lunch. :)”

We met at my hotel at 11:30 and rode over to Tortuga. After a few days of Italian and Middle Eastern food I was desperate for some TexMex. Dany, Amir, and Sorusch indulged me.

They then spent the next two hours answering questions that I had about Dubai, its history, entrepreneurship in the region, and the geopolitical dynamics with other UAE states, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran. Each answer begat several more questions as a I wandered into a wonderful new area of discussion I knew almost nothing about.

Magically, in addition to English, we shared a common language – entrepreneurship. At some point, I realized I had a huge grin on my face as Dany was talking about his family history in Dubai and how his own entrepreneurial journey has unfolded. While we touched on plenty of specific investment-related things, what was most fascinating to me was the energy, inspiration, and forward looking vision around entrepreneurship embodied in Dany, Amir, and Sorusch.

The region is tightly connected. On Monday, I had breakfast with Fadi and Fares Ghandour who run Mena Venture Investments and are co-investors with us in littleBits. Dany spoke fondly of Fadi, especially of his success and generosity around the current new generation of VCs like the team at BECO. My philosophy of inclusiveness and #GiveFirst was front and center in this conversation, and Dany, Amir, and Sorusch felt deeply aligned with my approach to investing and company creation.

At the end of lunch, Dany gave me three books.

  • Rashid’s Legacy: The Genesis of the Maktoum Family and the History of Dubai (Graeme Wilson)
  • Poems From The Desert (Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum)
  • Those Were the Days: Journals of Dubai (Shahnaz Pakravan)

Without knowing it, Dany, Amir, and Sorusch gave me the gift that I most treasure – knowledge. I learned more in two hours about Dubai and entrepreneurship than I could any other way. I have a lasting gift of a hand selected set of books that I’ll use to learn more. I had two hours of intense conversation with three guys I expect I’ll have an ongoing relationship with. I have a new thread of inquiry into a part of the world I know very little about.

Most of all, I had yet another moment of reinforcement of the power and importance of entrepreneurship around the world.

Dany, Amir, and Sorusch – thank you for the time today. I hope to see each of you again soon.

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Feb 3 2015

The Rule of 40% For a Healthy SaaS Company

There are lots of blogs and anecdotes on (a) how to build a successful SaaS company and (b) what a successful SaaS company looks like. Yesterday’s post by Neeraj Agrawal from Battery Ventures titled The SaaS Adventure is another great one as he describes his (and presumably Battery’s) T2D3 approach.

If you want to follow these posts more closely on a daily basis, I encourage you to subscribe to the Mattermark Daily newsletter. Or take a look at the VCs I follow in my Feedly VC channel.

I was at a board meeting recently and heard something I’ve not heard before from a late stage investor. He described what his firm called the 40% rule for a healthy software company, including business SaaS companies. These are for SaaS companies at scale – assume at least $50 million in revenue – but my Illusion of Product/Market Fit for SaaS Companies correlates nicely with it once you hit about $1m of MRR.

The 40% rule is that your growth rate + your profit should add up to 40%. So, if you are growing at 20%, you should be generating a profit of 20%. If you are growing at 40%, you should be generating a 0% profit. If you are growing at 50%, you can lose 10%. If you are doing better than the 40% rule, that’s awesome.

Now, growth rate is easy in a SaaS-based business. Just do year-over-year growth rate of monthly MRR. You can do total revenue, but make sure you do MRR also to make sure you don’t have weird things going on in your GAAP accounting, especially if you have one time services revenue in the mix. It’s always worth backtesting this with YoY growth of gross margin just to make sure your COGS are scaling appropriately with your revenue growth, regardless of whether you are on AWS, another cloud provider, or running bare metal in data centers.

Profit is harder to define. Are we talking about EBITDA, Operating Income, Net Income, Free Cash Flow, Cash Flow or something else. I prefer to use EBITDA here as the baseline and then back test with the other percentages. If you are running on AWS or the cloud, this should be pretty simple and consistent. However, if you are running your own infrastructure, your EBITDA, Operating Income and Free Cash Flow will diverge from your Net Income and Cash Flow because of equipment purchases, debt to finance them, or lease expense. So you have to be precise here with which number you are using and “it’ll depend” based on how your SaaS infrastructure works.

While the punch line is that you can lose money if you are growing faster, the minimum point of happiness is 40% annual growth rate. Now, some people will focus on MRR growth rate, others ARR growth rate, and yet others on weird permutations of year of year growth rate by month. Others will focus on the same strange permutations for GAAP revenue to justify growth rate. Regardless, you need a baseline, and I’ve always found simply doing year-over-year MRR growth rate to be the easiest / cleanest, but I always make sure I know what is going on underneath this number by using the other calculations.

I often hear – from sub-scale SaaS companies, “we can get profitable right away if we slow down our growth rate.” And – that’s often a true statement, but you will end up being sub-scale for a much longer time when you end up with a 20% growth rate and a 20% profit. So – if you are going to raise VC money, get focused on the T2D3 approach to get to scale, then start focusing on the 40% rule.

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