I recently was in an email thread where a Black founder had a powerful and clear response to the question from one of her corporate partners. The question was:
How can our (the corporate partner’s) team better support diversity in our work, particularly in our sourcing, diligence, and onboarding efforts?
The entrepreneur responded with a long explanation that was a brilliant and extremely helpful perspective for me. It follows.
I think one of my core experiences, and a truth that we all have to grapple with, is that programs like yours should be thought of like higher education in 1960, or getting into a NYC Specialized High School today.
Were there no Black students at Harvard because Black people aren’t brilliant? No.
There were no Black students at Harvard because you have to get a certain score on the SAT to get in.
People who score well on the SAT either:
Because of institutional racism in our society, Black people:
If we juxtapose that analogy with startups, your team will need to ask itself what criteria you’re using for startups.
Black entrepreneurs have to find a way/make a way/invent a way to launch businesses with two arms tied behind our backs because we don’t get the same funding as our white counterparts.
So I have raised $2.5MM and have to compete with companies who have raised $25m and $70m respectively.
And yet, I’m constantly asked, “What’s your traction?” which is similar to “What’s your SAT score?”
We know that as a society, we are starving Black businesses for capital, and yet we expect them to hit the same milestone markers as businesses that have a plethora of capital. It’s like not feeding a cow yet expecting them to produce milk. It’s literally madness and maddening.
Thinking about your sourcing of Black companies is going to be a far more complex question than “Who do we call to find the amazing Black companies?” It’s going to be “How do we change our lens so we can see the amazing Black companies?” followed by “Once we bring them into our ecosystem, how do we support their journey in meaningful ways that can help to level the playing field = e.g. get them capital or get them revenue?”
Maybe we should stop asking “What’s your SAT score?” and instead ask, “Wow. How on earth did you maintain a 3.7 GPA, and cook for your little brother and sister every night because your mom had 2 jobs, and get an A in calculus without a high-paid tutor, and work a full-time summer job at Key Food while taking a class to teach you how to code at night? That’s a lot of grit!”
Maybe we’re measuring the wrong things in our entrepreneurial society, just as we’ve measured the wrong things in our larger society. Maybe we all need to start talking about grit instead of metrics that can only be achieved with money, and then make sure all entrepreneurs get the funding required to achieve equivalent metrics.
Yesterday we closed our fifth fund, Foundry Venture Capital 2016, L.P. As with all four of our other funds, it’s a $225 million fund.
In 2007 we raised our first fund – Foundry Venture Capital 2007. We subsequently raised a $225 million fund in 2010, another one in 2013, and a late stage fund in 2013. Our 2013 fund was originally raised in 2012, but we didn’t start investing it until 2013 so we renamed it 2013.
Except for our late stage fund, each of our funds has 30 investments (+/- 2) in it. Each is $225 million. Each is roughly invested 1/3rd into companies in Colorado, 1/3rd into companies in the bay area, and 1/3rd into companies in the rest of the US (Boston, NY, Seattle, LA, Portland, Austin, Minneapolis, Washington D.C., Burlington, and Phoenix.)
Our investment strategy has been unchanged since we raised our first fund in 2007. We are thematic investors, an approach we pioneered with a few other firms that today is trendy (and often mislabeled). We invest $5 million to $15 million in a company over its lifetime. We are early stage investors – if you’ve raised more than $3 million you are too late for us. We only invest in the US, but will invest anywhere in the US. We are syndication agnostic – we’ll invest with other VCs or invest by ourselves.
Our late stage fund gave us flexibility to invest more money in our later stage companies. We aren’t a growth investor, but rather interested in investing more money in our winners. This fund has already seen two big exits – Gnip and Fitbit.
We view our jobs as taking a box full of money that our investors give us and giving them back a bigger box full of more money over time. It’s pretty straightforward. We try to do this our own special way while having a lot of fun doing it. We have a small number of investors (around 20) who we appreciate deeply for supporting us in our journey.
And we couldn’t do any of this without the founders we get to work with. We appreciate them more than anything. Well, other than Jason’s musical abilities. For example:
We are in a cycle again where how much you raise is the story. It’s what the press likes to write about (e.g. Company X raised Y from A, B, and C). Now that everyone is overly focused on unicorns, the headline number on the valuation (e.g. Company X raised Y at a valuation of Z from A, B, and C) has crept into the story on big rounds.
While this makes for press release fodder and ego gratification, it’s of very little use to entrepreneurs. There’s no real story there. No understanding of the human dynamics behind the financing. No understand of what actually went down. No underlying metrics that drive the financing. No real perspective on how people thought about things and the choices they made. Just happy talk focusing on the dollar raised. Zero educational value around anything.
Recently, the gang at SalesLoft told the detailed story of their $10m financing. Kyle and his team went through Techstars Boulder in 2012 before moving back to Atlanta and being leaders in energizing the Atlanta startup community. Kyle followed the tradition of extreme openness about the financing process that I think Rand Fishkin started with his post three years ago titled Moz’s $18 Million Venture Financing: Our Story, Metrics and Future.
If you’ve never read Rand’s post on our financing, it goes through an extraordinary amount of detail about Moz’s business, the financing process, the terms, and the timeline. Rand did NOT run this by me before posting it – I saw it at the same time as the rest of the world. He did ask if it was ok with me that he’d be this transparent. I reminded him that I signed up for TAGFEE when I invested, it was his company, and he could write whatever he wanted.
After he posted it, he sent around the link to a few prominent people in the tech media. None of them covered the financing in any way. A few days later, I sent out a few emails asking folks I knew at these sites why they hadn’t written anything, since they so quickly write Company X raised Y from A, B, and C. I didn’t get responses from everyone I wrote, but the ones I got back said something like “Rand wrote too much – there was no story here once he put that post up.”
I found that fascinating. When I pondered it, I realized how divergent the media was becoming from what entrepreneurs were thirsty for in terms of substance.
Late last year, Danielle Morrill followed in Rand’s footsteps with an epic post about our $6.5m financing of Mattermark. In it, she talked a lot about the process, just like Rand did, along with disclosing all kinds of information about the business, the valuation, and what she experienced. I also wrote a post about the financing using Mattermark as An Example of How We Decide to Invest.
Interestingly, the media wrote more this time. I don’t know if it’s because Danielle is in the bay area (while Rand is in Seattle), or the story has broadened. But when I go back and read the media stories, they are still overly focused on the amount of the financing, rather than the story behind it.
Another company that did an awesome transparent funding announcement was Buffer (and app and company I love, but am only a tiny investor in via an AngelList syndicate) when they announced We’re Raising $3.5m in Funding: Here is the Valuation, Term Sheet and Why We’re Doing It. Data, data everywhere. And lots and lots of story.
Now, I’m not suggesting that every entrepreneur should write transparent funding announcements. That’s up to the entrepreneur. But I think it’s super valuable to read the ones that are out there. The amount of useful information to entrepreneurs who are building their companies, both for process, dynamics, and comparables, is enormous. And, while these funding stories are positive, the path to them is often a complete mess, such as Rand’s Misadventures in VC Funding: The $24 Million Moz Almost Raised or Danielle virtually stomping her feet in frustration when she wrote Mattermark Has Raised $2M in Our Second Seed Round.
In my book, this is a lot more useful to read than Company X raised Y at a valuation of Z from A, B, and C. Thanks to the entrepreneurs who are brave enough to put this out there.
I hear some version of this one all the time.
It’s probably bullshit. There are so many reasons companies raise more money in the future that even making an assertion like this is generally nonsensical. But even if you, as the founder, believe it, you are still probably deluding yourself.
Now, there are points in time where a company doesn’t have to raise any more money. I’m on the board of several significant companies that are profitable and generating meaningful free cash flow. They don’t need to raise any more money unless they want to. And, there are a few reasons they might want to, but we’ll get to that later in the post.
There are also companies, like my first one (Feld Technologies) that bootstrapped and never raised any money. Well – almost no money. We funded the business with $10 (for ten shares of stock) and my dad personally guaranteed a $20,000 line of credit with his bank. We promptly spent the $20,000 on our first few months of operations, realized there was no more where that was coming from, fired everyone, paid back the line of credit over the next six months from our very modest positive cash flow, and then made a profit – and had positive cash flow – every month for the rest of the seven years of the business up until the day we sold the company.
But I’m not talking about bootstrapped companies. I’m taking about angel and VC backed companies. You know, the ones that generally lose money for a while before they make any money. And need money to fund their operations.
Imagine being an investor and being approached by a business SaaS company that has raised $5 million, has $100k / month of revenue, has been growing at about 5% per month, and is doing a $10 million round. “This is the last financing we’ll ever need” is the lead in statement. My first question is “how fast do you want to grow year over year for the next few years?” When the number comes back over 100%, my next question is “Do your customers pay monthly or annually, up front or in arrears.” Unless you are getting paid annually upfront, it’s highly unlikely that your cash coming in is going to outpace your cash going on on a monthly basis for a while. It’s simple math – give it a shot if you want. Sure, every now and then something magical happens (very high price point, very low cost of customer acquisition, zero churn), but that’s a serious edge case.
Now things are working nicely for you and you are growing quickly after raising that $10 million, but you have a competitor that is chasing you from below and a giant public company who is suddenly attacking you from the top. You decide you need to add a direct sales force to augment the self-service / low-touch sales model you’ve been using. Yup – that’ll be more money. Or you realize that you have massive technical debt because you’ve underinvested in scaling and your AWS bills are now increasing non-linearly with your revenue all of a sudden because of the way you’ve architected things. Or you have a major outage and decide you need some redundant infrastructure. I could come up with 100 more items.
You want to do an acquisition, but the seller wants some cash. Your revenue growth flattens out for a few quarters but you didn’t get ahead of the cost dynamic. There is a macro downturn and 25% of your customers vaporize (Don’t think this happens? Ask one of your friends who was a CEO of an Internet company in 2001.)
Where there is a wonderful fantasy about never needing to raise more money, and it does occasionally turn into a reality, I recommend you not lead with it when you are out raising money. It simply undermines your credibility.
One of the dynamics of going away for a month off the grid is that you come back to a wall of data. I’ve been absorbing it the past two days and it’s fascinating to ponder how my brain is processing it versus the normal continuous flow of information on a real-time basis.
I’m not a predictor. As we enter the time of year where every media-related thingy publishes it’s “best of 2014” and “predictions for 2015” lists, I simply pass on participating in all of them and read none of them. So – I’ll start with that – this is not a prediction, rather it’s a hypothesis, which is as long as there isn’t a cataclysmic macro event, Q115 financing activity is going to be insane.
The number of large, “later stage” financings are remarkable – both in size and velocity. We had several close last month and have some more in process. The number of companies I’ve heard of (mostly outside our portfolio) who are “getting ready to raise money in Q1” is a very long list. I’d noticed this before I went away, but the wall of data that I came back to reinforced it in a way I hadn’t completely processed.
The deals tend to fall into two categories – easy and immediate, which multiple bidders generating an rapidly escalating valuation or a long slow slog through lots of “almost there but we are passing because of some arbitrary reason.” If you translate the passes into english, they seem to fall into one of three categories.
At some level, these are obvious reasons. But they are often extremely frustrating to strong, mid and later stage companies growing 25%+ year over year. They are maddening to mature CEOs who have built real companies that dominate their market segment but are in either an out of favor segment or using an approach (e.g. enterprise software license sales) that is no longer trendy.
In our world, none of this matters that much to us. We aren’t momentum investors. We are syndication agnostic and are happy to continue to finance strong, later stage companies in our portfolio with or without new co-investors. We are transparent with our financing intensions early in the process. We are happy to support whatever process an entrepreneur wants to go through.
Regardless, it feels like it’s going to be an insanely busy Q115.
I know many entrepreneurs who feel that VCs have played them, gamed them, deceived them, or bullshitted them. But this doesn’t only happen to entrepreneurs. VCs play this game with VCs all the time.
One of our deeply held beliefs at Foundry Group is that there is no value in bullshitting anyone. We screw up a lot of things, make plenty of mistakes, and often look back and say some version of “oops.” But we never bullshit each other or bullshit anyone we work with.
Seth, Jason, and I had an awesome dinner with one of our LPs last night. In addition to being an incredibly supportive investor in us from the beginning, this LP has become an extremely close friend. He’s someone we trust with anything and listen to carefully whenever he has feedback. And we always enjoy being together – a lot.
As I was walking home after dinner, I thought about the person who had introduced us to this LP. His name will be familiar to plenty of you – it’s Fred Wilson. This LP is also a long time investor in Union Square Ventures and was one of the first people Fred introduced us to when we started raising the first Foundry Group fund in 2007.
In 2014, it’s easy to reflect on what has happened over the last seven years and feel good about it. I’m fortunate to have three amazing partners, an awesome team that I get to work with every day, a hugely supportive set of about 20 LPs, and hundreds of entrepreneurs who we love to work with, and whom I think respect us and appreciate us a great deal.
But is wasn’t always this way. In 2007, when we set out to raise our first Foundry Group fund, early stage tech VC was in the shitter. No one believed that you could make any money as an early stage VC and when we went out to raise our first fund, we heard over and over again that we were on a fools errand. The prior fund that I had co-founded – Mobius Venture Capital – had blown up after having a very successful first fund in 1997. The collapse of the Internet bubble was not kind to us and by 2005 it was clear that our second fund – raised in 1999 – was a disaster, and our third fund – raised in 2000 – was off to a very rocky start.
In early 2006, my partners at Mobius and I decided not to raise another fund. In 2007, several of us (Jason, Ryan, Seth, and I) set out to create a new firm.
I thought I had a lot of VC friends and supporters from the last decade of my life as a VC. I quickly learned that it was easy for these so-called friends to say “I’ll help” and very hard for them to actually follow through.
When we started raising our first Foundry Group fund in 2007, I called many of the VCs I knew and asked them for introductions to their LPs. While some of them said they would help, I only recall three who actually made any serious introductions.
Fred Wilson at Union Square Ventures was by far the most helpful. Fred introduced me to all of his significant institutional LPs. We had been friends for a long time and had worked together on several companies. I had deep respect for Fred and I think he felt the same way about me. There was no hesitation on Fred’s part – he made real introductions, advocated strongly for us, and was unbelievably supportive. Over 33% of our capital ended up being from the same LPs who invested in USV. I will never, ever, ever, forget this. Fred can ask me for help on anything he wants for the rest of his life and I will always be there for him.
The next person on the list of supporters is Scott Maxwell at OpenView Venture Partners. Scott and I were both on the Microsoft VC Advisory Board that Dan’l Lewin organized and ran. While we had never invested together, I felt like Scott was a kindred spirit. We both spoke truth to Microsoft execs, even though they mostly ignored us. I remember a meeting with the Microsoft Mobile 6.0 team as they were pitching us their vision for Microsoft Mobile 6.5. Both Scott and I, on iPhone 1’s or 2’s at the time, told them they were completely and totally fucked. They ignored us. A year or two later they had less than 3% market share on mobile. We had a blast together and as we went out to raise our Foundry 2007 fund, Scott made several introductions which resulted in two wonderful, long term LP relationships.
The last person who was helpful was Jack Tankersley at Meritage. When I moved to Boulder, Jack was one of my early mentors. He was a partner and co-founder of Centennial Funds and he and Steve Halsted basically created the VC industry in Colorado in the early 1980s. Jack was extremely helpful in coaching me on how to create a new firm and made a number of introductions, one of which became an LP. I appreciated the energy he put into this immensely.
There were at least a dozen other VCs who said “I’d be happy to make some introductions for you.” Very few of them did, and the ones that did made introductions to junior people at LPs who quickly blew us off.
My partners and I are forever appreciative of Fred, Scott, and Jack’s help. And, after 90 meetings in the first three months of fundraising, which resulted in 20 immediate rejections and no obvious path to a fund at the end of the first quarter, our appreciation for these three people grew. As we started to have momentum in the second quarter, Fred and Scott really stepped up and advocated for us. By September we were oversubscribed and did our first close with our final close in November. We’ve never looked back.
The wonderful dinner last night with the LP Fred introduced me to reminded me of this. But more importantly, it reminded me of how often VCs bullshit each other and entrepreneurs. And, in the situations where they don’t, how incredibly powerful it is.
Fred, Scott, and Jack – thank you.
I was in the bathroom this morning catching up on all the blogs (via Feedly) that I hadn’t read this week since my head was in a bunch of other things. I came across one from Nic Brisbourne (Forward Partners) titled I’m a stock picker. I wish he had called it “This Unicorn Thing Is Bullshit For Early Stage Investing” but I think he’s a little more restrained than I am.
My original title for this post was “How Can This Be A Billion Dollar Company and other bullshit VCs ask early stage companies.” It was asked by VCs to several companies I’m involved in last week. While I get why a late stage investor would ask the question when the valuation is in the $250 million range, I really don’t understand why a seed investor would ask this question when the valuation is in the $5m range.
Now, I’ve invested in a few unicorns in my investing career, including at least one unicorn that went bankrupt a few years later (I guess that’s a dead unicorn.) But I’ve also invested in a number of companies that have had exits between $100m and $1b that resulted in much larger returns for me, both on an absolute basis as well as a relative basis, than unicorns have for their later stage investors.
I’ve never, ever felt like the “billion dollar” aspiration, which we are now all calling “unicorn”, made any sense as the financial goal of the company. Nor have I felt it made sense as a VC investing strategy, especially for early stage investors. We never use the phrase “unicorn” in our language at Foundry Group and while we aspire to have extraordinarily valuable companies, we never approach it from the perspective of “could this be a billion dollar company” when we first invest.
Instead, we focus on whether or not we think we can make at least 10 times our money on our investment. Our view of a strong success in an investment in a 10x return. Our view is simple – we don’t really view anything below 3x return a success. Sure – it’s nice, but that wasn’t a real success. 5x – now that’s nice. 10x – ok – now we are in the success zone. 25x – superb. 50x or more – awesomeness.
We also know that when we invest in three people and an MVP, we have absolutely no idea whether this can be a billion dollar company. Nor do we care – we are much more focused on the product and the founders. Do we think they are amazing and deeply obsessed with their product? Do we understand their vision? Do we have affinity for the product? Do we believe that a real business can be created and we can get at least a 10x return on our investment at this entry point?
I recognize other VCs have different strategies than us, especially when they are investing at a later stage. Applying our model, if the entry point valuation is $100m or more, then you do have to believe that the company is going to be able to be worth over $1 billion if you use a 10x filter. But in my experience, most later stage investors are focused on a smaller absolute return as a threshold – usually in the 3x to 5x range. And, very late stage / pre-IPO investors already investing in companies worth over $1 billion are interested in an even smaller absolute return, often being delighted with 2x in a relatively short period of time.
So, let’s zone this in on an early stage discussion. Should the question “how can this be a $1 billion company” be a useful to question at the seed stage? I don’t think so. If it’s simply being used to elicit a response and understand what the entrepreneurs’ aspiration is, that’s fine. But if I asked this question and an entrepreneur responded with “I have no fucking idea – but I’m going to do everything I know how to do to figure it out” I’d be delighted with that response.
On April 16, 2013 I wrote a post about the horrific tragedy at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Here’s how it started:
At 3:55pm yesterday I cried.
I was getting ready for a Google Hangout back to my office with my partners and I noticed something about an explosion at the Boston Marathon on twitter. I did a quick scan of Twitter, clicked through to a few links, and realized a bomb had gone off near the finish line.
I went blank – just stared at my computer screen – and then started crying. I called Amy – she hadn’t heard about it yet and told her what had happened. I collected myself and called in to my Hangout. My partners were all shaken also – Seth lived in Boston for many years, Ryan has done several marathons, and Jason just did his first marathon last year in Detroit.
A few days later Brent Hill tweeted that he was going to run Boston in 2014 as a show of strength and did anyone want to join him. Dick Costolo and Matt Shobe quickly joined in and I piled on with a commitment immediately.
This resulted in a group of us running the Boston Marathon in 2014 as part of a team called #boston2014. The team includes a number of well known tech entrepreneurs, including Dick Costolo (Twitter CEO), Brent Hill (Origin Ventures), Matt Shobe (Angel.co), Elizabeth Weil (A16Z) and a bunch of Dick’s gang from Twitter including Chris Aniszczyk, Kelly Flannery, Taylor Harwin, Katie Haynes, Charlie Love, Dale Maffett, and Kevin Weil.
We are all running with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s (LLS) Team In Training which has a mission-to help find cures and more effective treatments for blood cancers. Several close friends of ours have survived lymphomas and it’s a cause I care about.
As a team, we decided to make a big goal of raising $250,000 and I’ve personally committed to raising $50,000. My wife Amy Batchelor and I are kicking off my fundraising with a personal gift of $10,000 from our foundation.
Please support my, and the #boston2014 team effort, to raise $250,000 for LLS. Any amount is appreciated. And keep Boston running strong!
For all of you out there who are wondering, Amy is doing fine. We’re in Boulder, she’s happy, in some pain, but enjoying the delightful impact of Percocet, and making her way through MI-5 Season 8. Thanks for all of the support, emails, and kind words.
I’m about to head out for a five hour run (broken into three separate segments) in preparation for the 50 miler I’m doing in April after I help her take a shower (which ordinarily I would be excited about), but first I thought I’d write some thoughts about a call I had with an entrepreneur yesterday.
The call was about a potential financing he is considering. I’ve gotten to know him some from a distance over the past year and am impressed with what he’s created. He originally just called me for advice on his financing strategy but I started the call by telling him I was interested in exploring leading a round, would be willing to give him advice also, and would quickly tell him if I was dropping out so he could flip me into “advice only mode” if we weren’t going to end up being a potential investor.
We had a wide ranging conversation over an hour about the current state of the business and how he’s thinking about the financing. Several times over the course of the hour he sounded defensive about a particular issue – well – not defensive, but uncertain. He’d frame what he thought was a negative in the context of the way he’d heard it from a previous potential investor (let’s call them BucketHead Ventures) who hadn’t gotten to a deal with the company in the past.
One of these was around churn – he asserted that one of the clear weaknesses of the business was the high churn rate. I pressed him on what he meant and we went through some numbers. He didn’t have a high churn rate at all – in fact, his churn rate after a customer was paying for three months was minimal. The problem – described by BucketHead Ventures as “high churn” – was a combination of what happened in the first three months and BucketHead’s inability to do cohort analysis, so BucketHead looked at absolute churn on a monthly basis rather than on a cohort basis.
In my head, I thought to myself “bucketheads – they pretend to understand businesses like this but have a total miss at a basic level.” The entrepreneur understood the miss, but had internalized BucketHead Ventures feedback and was letting it color his view of his business. And, more importantly, it was making him gunshy. Instead of articulating a powerful story about low customer acquisition costs with minimal downstream churn, he lead with “the worst problem with the business is our high churn rate.”
I see this all the time. While some entrepreneurs think all VCs are bucketheads (they aren’t), other entrepreneurs think all VCs understand this stuff (they don’t). Even ones who seem to be experts, or should be experts, or claim to be experts. Especially the ones who claim to be experts. Often, they are just bucketheads. Listen to their feedback, but don’t let it make you gunshy if you think they are wrong.