Bill Gurley wrote an incredible post yesterday titled On the Road to Recap: Why the unicorn financing market just became dangerous … for all involved. It’s long but worth reading every word slowly. I saw it late last night as it bounced around in my Twitter feed and then read it carefully just before I went to bed so the words would be absorbed into my brain. I read it again this morning when I woke up and I expect I’ll read it at least one more time. I just saw Peter Kafka’s summary of at at Re/Code (We read Bill Gurley’s big warning about Silicon Valley’s big money troubles so you don’t have to) and I don’t agree. Go read the original post in its entirety.
Fred Wilson’s daily post referred to the article in Don’t Kick The Can Down The Road. Fred focuses his post on a small section of Bill’s post, which is worth calling out to frame what I’m going to write about today.
“Many Unicorn founders and CEOs have never experienced a difficult fundraising environment — they have only known success. Also, they have a strong belief that any sign of weakness (such as a down round) will have a catastrophic impact on their culture, hiring process, and ability to retain employees. Their own ego is also a factor – will a down round signal weakness? It might be hard to imagine the level of fear and anxiety that can creep into a formerly confident mind in a transitional moment like this.”
Fred and I have had some version of this conversation many times over the past twenty years as we both strongly believe the punch line.
Entrepreneurs and CEOs should make the hard call today and take the poison and move on
But why? Why is this so hard for us a humans, entrepreneurs, investors, and everyone else involved? Early in Bill’s post, he has a section titled Emotional Biases and it’s part of the magic of understanding why humans fall into the same trap over and over again around this issue. The “Many Unicorn founders …” quote is the first of four emotional biases that Bill calls out. If that was it, the system could easily correct for this as investors could help calibrate the situation, use their experience and wisdom to help the founders / CEOs through a tough transitional moment, and help the companies get stronger in the longer term.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Bill’s second point in the Emotional Biases section is pure fucking gold and is the essence of the problem.
“The typical 2016 VC investor is also subject to emotional bias. They are likely sitting on amazing paper-based gains that have already been recorded as a success by their own investors — the LPs. Anything that hints of a down round brings questions about the success metrics that have already been “booked.” Furthermore, an abundance of such write-downs could impede their ability to raise their next fund. So an anxious investor might have multiple incentives to protect appearances — to do anything they can to prevent a down round.”
Early in my first business, a mentor of mine said “It’s not money until you can buy beer with it.” I’ve carried that around with me since I was in my early 20s. Even when I personally had over $100 million of paper value in an company I had co-founded and had gone public (Interliant), I didn’t spend a dime of, or pretend like I had a nickel of, that money. In 2001 and 2002 I learned a brutal set of lessons, including experiencing that $100 million of paper money going to $0 when Interliant went bankrupt. And, as a VC, I experienced a VC fund that was quickly worth over 2x on paper that ultimately resulted in being a money losing fund. I didn’t buy any beer or spend all the money on random shit I didn’t need and fundamentally couldn’t afford.
This specific bias is rampant in the VC world right now. As Bill points out, many funds are sitting on huge paper gains which translate into large TVPI, MOC, gross IRR, or whatever the current trendy way to measure things are. However, the DPI is the interesting number from a real perspective. If you don’t know DPI, it’s “distributed to paid in capital and answers the question “If I gave you a dollar, how much money did you actually give me back?” This is ultimately the number that matters. Structuring things to protect intermediate paper value, rather than focusing on building for long term liquid value, is almost always a mistake.
Let’s go to number three of the emotional biases in Bill’s list:
“Anyone that has already “banked” their return — Whether you are a founder, executive, seed investor, VC, or late stage investor, there is a chance that you have taken the last round valuation and multiplied it by your ownership position and told yourself that you are worth this amount. It is simple human nature that if you have done this mental exercise and convinced yourself of a foregone conclusion, you will have difficulty rationalizing a down round investment.”
This is linked to the previous bias, but is more personal and extends well beyond the investor. It’s the profound challenge between short term and long term thinking. If you are a founder, an employee in a startup, or an investor in a startup, you have to be playing a long term game. Period. Long term is not a year. It’s not two years. It could be a decade. It could be twenty years. While there are opportunities to take money off the table at different points in time, it’s still not money until you can buy beer with it, so the interim calculation based on a private valuation when your stock is illiquid just shifts you into short term thinking and often into a defensive mode where you are trying to protect what you think you have, which you don’t actually have yet.
And then there’s the race for the exit, in which Bill describes the downward cycle well.
A race for the exits — As fear of downward price movement takes hold, some players in the ecosystem will attempt a brisk and desperate grab at immediate liquidity, placing their own interests at the front of the line. This happens in every market transition, and can create quite a bit of tension between the different constituents in each company. We have already seen examples of founders and management obtaining liquidity in front of investors. And there are also modern examples of investors beating the founders and employees out the door. Obviously, simultaneous liquidity is the most appropriate choice, however, fear of price deterioration as well as lengthened liquidity timing can cause parties on both side to take a “me first” perspective.
This is one of the most confounding issues that accelerates things. Rather than making long term decisions, individuals optimize for short term dynamics. When a bunch of people start optimizing independently of each other, you get a situation that is often not sustainable, is chaotic and confusing, and inadvertently increases the slope of the curve. In the same way that irrational enthusiasm causes prices to rise faster than value, irrational pessimism causes prices to decline much faster than value, which increases the pessimism, and undermines that notion that building companies is a long term process.
Those are my thoughts on less than a third of Bill’s post. The rest of the post stimulated even more thoughts that are worth reflecting deeply on, whether you are a founder, employee, or investor. Unlike the endless flurry of short term prognostications that resulted from the public market decline and subsequent rise in Q1, the separation of thinking between a short term view (e.g. Q1) and a long term view (the next decade) can generate profoundly different behavior and corresponding success.
The current usage of the word unicorn makes me tired. I could rant about it for a while, but that would make me tired of myself ranting about it.
Instead, I’d like to focus on a word that appeared a month ago by Aileen Lee in Welcome To The Unicorn Club, 2015: Learning From Billion-Dollar Companies. That word is unicorpse.
From section #6 in Aileen’s post:
“Given how much capital our private companies have raised in the past few years, most likely have cash to fund 2-4+ more years of runway. If private capital is no longer available in the future, these companies will seek a public offering or acquisition. Some will demonstrate strategically justifiable metrics and have fantastic ‘up round’ exits; others may see liquidation preferences kick in which will negatively impact founders and employees; others may fulfill the adage “IPO is the new down round”, which has been the case for more than half of the public companies on our list. Or worse, some may become “Unicorpses” :)).”
The word showed up again in Nick Bilton’s Vanity Fair article Is Silicon Valley in Another Bubble . . . and What Could Burst It?
“Indeed, contrary to Kupor’s argument at the Rosewood, it is this later-stage investing—with its shortage of regulation, tremendous envy, and Schadenfreude—that worries many bubble-watchers. “We basically doubled the number of unicorns in the past year and a half,” says Aileen Lee, the founder of Cowboy Ventures, who has herself become a mythic creature in the Valley after coining the term. “But a lot of these are paper unicorns, so their valuations may not be real for a while.” Others, Lee acknowledged, may never see their balance sheets add enough zeros to justify the title. They will be given a new sobriquet: “unicorpse.””
Yesterday, Erin Griffith had a perfect chance to use unicorpse in her article VCs have ‘Dying Unicorn’ lists, but they aren’t sharing them but she missed the layup and went with dying unicorn instead.
“But amid all the unicorns getting their horns, investors have warned of “dead unicorns.” In March, investor Bill Gurley made headlines with his pronouncement that “a complete absence of fear” would lead to dead unicorns this year. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen warned in a tweetstorm that startups with high burn rates would “vaporize.” Last week Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff also predicted dead unicorns as startups seem to focus more on their valuations than their customers.”
Now, I don’t blame Aileen for the word unicorn. And I credit her for unicorpse, which I expect will be a lot more prevalent in the future. It’s not, in Bilton’s language, schadenfreude on my part. Instead, I believe that by focusing on the concept of a unicorn, we are paying attention to exactly the wrong thing.
I once simultaneously sat on the boards of three public companies that were all worth more than $1 billion. One went bankrupt, one was acquired for $0.14 / share ($40m), and one was acquired for $0.025 / share ($25m). I think you can call two of them as unicorpses and one of them a unicorpse with nothing left but dust where the bones should have been.
Don’t feel bad for me. I once was on the board of a company that had generated lifetime revenue of $1.5m and was acquired by a public company for $280m of stock which, by the time the deal closed, was worth around $1.1 billion. Two years later, the public company (which at one point was worth over $30b) was bankrupt.
None of these companies were ultimately worth $1 billion or more. Each of them stumbled for different reasons, but a lack of obsessive focus on product and customer was a big part of why they vaporized. They assumed, regardless of how much capital they had, that they could raise more. They didn’t focus on building a long term, sustainable business that had a huge protective moat around it. I don’t care how disruptive you are – if you don’t build a moat, someone is going to come disrupt you.
I’m encountering an increasing number of companies with burn rates in the stratosphere. I get uncomfortable when the net burn rate for a company goes above $500k / month. In fast growing companies with a balance sheet > $25m I can stomach a $1m / month net burn. But when I see $2m / month net burn rates, I vomit. And a $4m / month net burn rate, even if you have $100m on your balance sheet, makes me physically ill.
As an investor, would I rather own 30% of a company that is acquired for $300m in cash that had only raised $10m or 2% of a company with a paper value of $1b and $200m of liquidation preferences? As a founder, would you rather own 10% of the company that sold for $300m in cash or 2% of a company with a paper value of $1b and $200m of liquidation preferences? There is a lot more in the calculation of value, especially who gets what, than that $1 billion unicorn thingy.
Let me say it a different way.
There is nothing special or magical about $1 billion valuation. It’s just a number.
I’m not predicting a bubble or anything else. I’m not negative about where we are at in the cycle. I hope to live another 50 years as I think this is going to be the most interesting point in the history of our species up to this point.
But I do think it’d be useful for more founders and investors to ponder unicorpses and spend less of their energy talking about, and trying to become, unicorns, lest you one day find yourself a pile of dusty bones.
This is the best quote I’ve seen all week. It’s from Greg Sands post on TechCrunch titled The Real Silicon Valley.
Greg is a long time friend and co-investor. I’m on the board with him at Return Path and he’s on the board with my partner Ryan at VictorOps. Along with my partners, we are all LPs in Greg’s fund Costanoa Ventures.
Greg’s post is great. Here’s the windup:
“Every time I hear people talking about unicorns, I think “all hat, no cattle” or “another person living in the land of style over substance.” I’ve found myself blurting out, “F$&@ 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.
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.