While it’s easy to tell people things, it’s much more powerful to learn things. And, as I get older, I see the same lessons being learned by subsequent generations. While this isn’t a post that says “everything is the same as it was before”, there are foundational lessons in life that play out over and over again.
I spent the weekend with a friend from the last 1990s who was the lead banker on the Interliant IPO (I was a co-founder and co-chairman.) Last night, at the Aspen Entrepreneurs event, I was asked to describe several failures and I rolled out my story about Interliant, which, for a period of time (1999 – 2000) appeared to be hugely successful before going bankrupt in 2002. If you like to read IPO prospectuses, here’s the final S-1 filing after INIT went effective and started trading on July 8, 1999.
A few days ago, Fred Wilson wrote a post titled Capitulation? In the middle, he’s got a sentence about the theme of the post.
“Now, the crypto markets are in the eighth month of a long and painful bear market and we are starting to see some signs of capitulation, particularly in the assets that went up the most last year.”
On January 16, 2018 (almost seven months ago) I wrote a post titled It Can All Go To Zero. While I included a lesson from the Interliant experience, I highlighted the top 10 crypto prices, which had already fallen 30% – 50% from their high points a few weeks earlier.
Compare those to the prices right now.
Bitcoin is down another 50% (from 12,001 to 6,157). Ethereum is down over 75% (from 1,118 to 264). XRP, holding strong as the third most valuable cryptocurrency, is down 81% (from 1.37 to 0.26). Stellar, which rallied from #9 to #5, is only down 55% (0.49 to 0.22).
My guess is there are a lot of people who wish they sold their XRP at 1.37. Or, maybe around its all time high of 3.83 on January 4, 2018.
Capitulation in markets is one of those endless lessons that gets learned over and over and over again. My first moment with this was Black Monday in 1987. But that’s not when I learned the lesson. My foundational moment, where I really learned the lesson, happened during the collapse of the Internet bubble in 2000 and 2001.
It’ll be interesting to see if this is the crypto generation’s capitulation lesson moment.
Perspective can be a useful thing. Cryptocurrencies have had a bad 24 hours.
Last night Amy and I watched The Big Short for the second time. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a must watch movie. If you haven’t seen it in at least a year, watch it again. While the events are from 2005 – 2008, they feel like they happened yesterday. And, the cast, including Brad Pitt (my favorite character), Steve Carell (my second favorite), Christian Bale, and Ryan Gosling play their parts spectacularly well.
There are hundreds of lessons in the movie. But, like most things human, we quickly forget them. Or we pretend like they couldn’t happen again. Or we justify what’s going on today as “but it’s different this time.”
In 2000 I was co-chairman of a public company called Interliant. The company had gone public in 1999 and the market cap rose to just under $3 billion ($55 / share, up from $10 / share at the IPO). By the end of 2000, the stock price was at $13. I was on a walk at my house in Eldorado Springs with one of the VPs who asked me how low the stock could go. I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but I remember it being something like “There’s no way the stock will go below $10 / share, right?”
My response was simple. “It could go to $0. I hope it doesn’t, but it could.”
In 2002 Interliant went bankrupt and the stock went to $0.
Now, I don’t have schadenfreude about cryptocurrencies going down. Like many, I’m fascinated by them and the potential implications of both cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. I hold plenty of cryptocurrencies – either directly or indirectly in funds I’m an investor in. So I benefit financially from them going up.
But I’m not a trader. I never have been. I never will be. It’s not my temperament. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t want to spend mental energy thinking about the gyrations of the market – any market. I don’t want to make money on short-term financial trades, but rather by helping create new things over the long-term.
We all eventually die, at least for now. Some people learn from history. Some people suppress or deny it. Many people ignore it. I prefer to reflect on it and make sure the big lessons are inputs into my thinking. If you want a quick, 128-page frame of reference on this, read The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. The cliche “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is a cliche because it applies to a lot of things.
My scan of my morning news feeds included Researchers find that one person likely drove Bitcoin from $150 to $1,000, BlackRock’s Message: Contribute to Society, or Risk Losing Our Support, GE Shares Dive on $6.2 Billion Charge for Problems in Its Finance Unit, and a very interesting post titled Impatience: The Pitfall Of Every Ambitious Person.
I’ll leave you with this.
It’s the summer of 2001. The NASDAQ peak is in the rear view mirror. Many Internet companies are struggling. I’m sitting at the breakfast table at Len Fassler’s house in Harrison, New York drinking a cup of coffee and chewing on a bagel.
Len and I co-founded Interliant (originally Sage Networks) with Steve Maggs and Rajat Bhargava in 1996. We took Interliant public in 1999 on the second attempt (the SEC didn’t clear the filing until a week after the end of the first road show, our first of many misfires with Merrill Lynch, who was our lead banker.) At the peak in the spring of 2000 Interliant hit $55 / share and was worth over $3 billion. By breakfast in the summer of 2001, the stock was trading under $1 / share.
I was exhausted. In addition to my role as co-chairman of Interliant (Len was my co-chairman), I was also a partner at Mobius Venture Capital, sitting on over 25 boards, including five non-US companies. I was on three other public company boards, including being co-chairman of MessageMedia with Jerry Poch, who was Len’s partner in their previous company (AmeriData Technologies – which had bought my first company – Feld Technologies – in 1993). I’d known Len and Jerry for almost eight years and was deep in it with each of them in parallel universes, as MessageMedia was also trading at under $1 / share that summer after reaching a high of $15 / share (and a $1.5 billion market cap) in the spring of 2000.
Back to breakfast. I’m chewing on my bagel staring out the kitchen window wondering what new version of a fucked up shit storm I was going to experience during the inevitable long day that would unfold. I no longer remember why I was at Len’s house that day, but I often stayed at his house when I was spending time at Interliant’s headquarters which was in Purchase, NY. I do remember that the coffee was hot.
Len walked in with a bounce in his step like he had every time I saw him. He stopped, looked at me, and said “what’s wrong?”
I looked up at him and said, “I’m tired. I didn’t sleep well last night. I know today is going to suck. I don’t feel like I can catch a break.”
He looked at me, walked over slowly, stood behind me, put his hands on my shoulders, and said, “Suit up. They can’t kill you and they can’t eat you. We’ll get through it.”
He then gave me a hug from behind. He patted me on the chest and went to get a cup of coffee. I sat there silently for a moment, stood up, turned around, and smiled at Len.
“Thanks,” I said, from the bottom of my heart.
This time he gave me a real hug.
That was the moment when everything changed for me. Len had already had an extremely successful business career. His last company – the one he built with Jerry Poch that had acquired my first company – was bought in 1996 by GE Capital for $500 million. He didn’t have to co-found Interliant with me, Steve, and Rajat. He certainly didn’t have to get up every day and go to the office, which by the summer of 2001 was a real business battle on multiple fronts.
But he did. With a smile. Not just for him, but for everyone he worked with.
Since I’d first met Len in the spring of 1993, he was beloved by almost everyone around him. Sure, every now and then someone didn’t fall head over heals for him, but the number of people who would follow him anywhere, do anything for him, and work tirelessly for whatever he was involved in were endless.
I was one of them.
In that moment, I realized why. Ever since I had met Len, he gives more than he gets. The amount of energy he put into me, and his relationship with me, was unexpected by me when he bought Feld Technologies in 1993. I immediately felt a connection to him and his partner Jerry, which is part of what caused me to ultimately agree to sell Feld Technologies to them. As time passed, I felt loyal to Jerry, and learned an enormous amount from him, but I loved Len.
In the summer of 2001, I felt guilty about dragging Len into the mess that had become Interliant. When I’d mention this to him, he’d tell me to let it go – it was his choice to get involved. As the shit got deeper, there was no time to feel guilty as all our energy was aimed at trying to save this company that was clearly failing.
There wasn’t a single day that Len didn’t give it his all. Even after the point at which he knew there was no way he’d see a dime from Interliant. We had both invested money up front along with a huge amount of time and personal credibility into the company. We had each hired friends, bought companies from people we knew (and had gotten to know), and spent late nights doing unnatural acts to get the company to the point where, in 2000, it was doing $50 million of revenue a quarter and seemed to be a very successful Internet business.
One year later we were on a steep downhill slope to a failed business. But Len kept showing up every day and doing everything he knew how to do for all the people still involved. Including me.
As we got in his car to drive to Purchase, with the ever-present smell of cigars that Len smoked on walks and the end of the day, I once again told him thanks. I didn’t realize it yet, but that morning fundamentally shaped the way I would think about the rest of my working life.
They can’t kill you and they can’t eat you.
And, if that’s true, why do you do it? And how do you do it?
As I procrastinate from going for a run this morning, I started writing a post titled The Pro-Rata Gap Myth. After two paragraphs, I got tired of writing it and hit the “this is bullshit” wall – it’s too complicated to explain a myth that I’m not sure even matters.
So I deleted the post and decided to tell a story instead. This is a story I roll out occasionally with CEOs to help them explain how their words can easily be misinterpreted by their teams, especially as the teams get bigger. But it’s also a way that CEOs misinterpret what their investors or board members (or chairperson) is saying. And it creates endless organizational waste and misalignment when the CEO / investor / board member / leader isn’t clear about what she is saying and who her audience is.
Between 1996 and 2002 I was co-chairman of Interliant, a company I co-founded with three other people. Interliant bought about 25 companies during its relatively short life, helped create the ASP business (the pre-cursor to the SaaS world we know and love today), went public, and then blew up post-Internet bubble and ultimately went bankrupt before being acquired, partly because we created a capital structure (through raising a bunch of debt) that was fatally flawed, ultimately wiping out all the equity value.
While I learned a ton of finance lessons from the experience, I also learned a lot a leadership lessons. Your wall is dingy is one of them.
We had just acquired a company (I don’t remember which one or in which city) sometime in 2000. I was visiting the company post acquisition and wandering down the main hallway with the founder of the company we had just acquired. We were having a causal conversation and I offhandedly said “wow – your wall is dingy.” We kept walking, I did a Q&A thing with the founder and the company, and then went out to a mellow company lunch celebration type thing.
I had other stuff to do in the city so I stayed overnight and came back in early to have some meetings at the company the next day. As I was wandering down the same hall, I saw that there was a crew already in the office painting the wall with a fresh coat of paint. I got my coffee, wandered over to the founder’s office (he was also already in early), and asked why there was someone in the office painting the wall?
Founder: “You told me the wall needed to be painted.”
Brad: “I did?”
Founder: “It was while we were walking down the hall. We were talking about the new car I was thinking about buying and you said that the wall was dingy.”
Brad: “Oh yeah – that was said out of admiration for how frugal you are. You were telling me how this is the first new car you will have, since all of your other cars have been used cars. I admire how thrifty and scrappy you’ve been and thought I was paying you a compliment.”
Founder: “Shit, I thought you were unhappy with how low rent our offices are and were commenting that we needed to make things a lot nicer.”
Brad: “Double shit. I was saying the opposite. Part of the reason you’ve been so profitable is that you don’t waste money on your offices. This is part of what we love about your company. And it’s part of why we were willing to stretch in the deal – we knew you know how to make money and that you value every dollar.”
We eventually both started laughing. It was a good bonding moment. Fortunately, it was just paint and didn’t cost that much, although it was one of 27,393 incremental expenses that helped sink Interliant, especially in a time when rent was skyrocketing and everyone needed fancier and fancier offices because, well, because everyone else had fancier offices.
Ever since that moment I’ve been a lot more tuned into what I say. I still talk the way I did then – plainly and with whatever is on my mind – but I try to add the reason so that I’m not misinterpreted. If I could teleport myself back to that hallway in 2000, I’d say “Wow – your wall is dingy, and I love it, because it reminds me how frugal you are.”
As a leader your words matter. It’s not that you have to necessarily choose them carefully, but make sure you explain them and try to confirm that they are understood.
I tell stories about my favorite investment (Harmonix), an investment we clearly missed and why (Twitter), and my worst and most heartbreaking investment (Interliant), along with lawsuits and eating babies.
I then go on a riff on Startup Communities and Fundraising, where the phrase “Any rich people around here?” popped out and got some applause.
I covered the inevitable question about dragicorns and big financings, went on my culture – competence rant, and then answered whether entrepreneurs are born or made.
I had fun at Big Omaha. While I think Halt and Catch Fire and Mr. Robot are way more interesting than me, this was a pretty good interview.
Yesterday I read Kara Swisher’s post What Does the Recent Tech Stock Downturn Mean? The Truth Is Nobody Knows. It’s great. Go read it – I’ll wait for you.
In the last two weeks there’s been a flurry of articles about the implications of a 25% decline in the public market value of a bunch of Internet stocks. They range from “the sky is falling” to “the IPO market window is closing” to “there will be more stupid television shows about Silicon Valley” (I prefer Game of Thrones and 24, thank you very much.)
As many of the Cylons from BSG are fond of saying, “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”
I remember a moment in time in 1997. We were in the middle of fundraising for Softbank Venture Capital (which became Mobius Venture Capital.) It was the first VC fund I’d helped raise. We probably had about $150m committed and were running around trying to get to $300m for what we had positioned as a dedicated Internet VC fund. I can’t remember the month, but I think it was in the summer, that all the public Internet stocks dropped a bunch (probably 25%). Suddenly every meeting we had turned cold with all of our potential LPs either asking how we were going to make money on the Internet or asserting that there was no way that we’d make money on the Internet. A few months later the public markets for Internet stocks turned around and we closed a $330 million fund which ended up doing extremely well.
In 1999 we filed an S-1 to take Sage Networks public. I was a co-founder and co-chairman. We were planning to go public in the early spring, but in February we acquired a company called Interliant which doubled our side. We had to grind through a refiling of our S-1 which cost us a month. We finally hit the road with the intention of going public by the end of April. Our underwriters (Merrill Lynch) told us not to worry that the SEC hadn’t cleared our filing yet – they always did it a few days before you went public. I spent three weeks on a road show with our president and CFO building the book. Day after day passed and we didn’t hear from the SEC. Two days before we were supposed to price, the book was 10x oversubscribed and our $9 – $11 price looked like it could move up meaningfully. They day we were supposed to price we still hadn’t heard from the SEC. “Don’t worry” said the banker at Merrill Lynch, “We’ll get it done.” The next day, when we were supposed to be trading, a fax came through from the SEC. It was 20 pages long and had about a month’s worth of work to pull together on the F-pages of the filing (we had acquired 20 companies.) That night we all drank a lot of scotch – we knew the IPO wasn’t going to happen that week and we’d just wasted a road show. I remember being completely numb the next day as I flew home from NY to Boulder, not completely understanding how we had just blown the IPO.
A few weeks later Internet stocks started to fall. I vaguely recall that eBay was one of the bellwethers at the time and I think it had a big drop. Suddenly the IPO market window closed. No one was interested in Internet stocks, let alone one that was being tortured by the SEC for accounting disclosure on a bunch of acquisitions of tiny companies.
At the end of June I went to Italy for a week vacation with my wife Amy and my parents. We did a walking trip which I remember being wonderful – 10 miles a day finished off with lots of food and wine in a beautiful Italian countryside. No phones, no email. Until Thursday, when I got a call at the villa we were staying at from one of my board members who said “you have to come home right now.” I responded with “I’m flying home Sunday and will be back on Monday.” He said, “No – now – the road show starts again Monday and you have to be at the printer on Saturday to sign off on the filing.”
I scrambled to find a flight home from the middle of Italy, got to NY by Saturday mid-day, re-started the road show on Monday, and we were public by the end of the week. We went out at $10 and traded up to $15. When I checked the market indexes, they were basically the same as they were two months earlier before things dropped.
Lots of folks are going to pontificate about what is going on in the public markets. Most have an agenda or a vested interest.
If you are an entrepreneur, ignore the pontification and go build your business. Pay attention to the dynamics in the macro, since they will impact you, but don’t get caught up in. Don’t create a narrative to justify something that is going on. Focus on the reality – your reality – and do your best operating in the context in which you can’t control.
All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.