This is clearly one of the great boom times in the history of Venture Capital, with more than $29 billion in fresh capital being raised by more than 250 funds over the past year. This represents a 70% jump from the comparable, previous year’s period, and more than a 225% jump from the “nadir” numbers of 2009-2010 (all stats here from the NVCA).
And VCs have seen a lot of successful exits, too (hooray!), with in 2014 more than 115 venture backed companies going public and more than 455 exits via M&A.
Probably most importantly, long term (3, 5, 10, and 20 year) VC returns continue to significantly out-perform the major public equity indices (DJIA, NASDAQ, S&P 500).
All very, very good and exciting stuff, but for the individual investor, is investing in a VC fund a good idea?
It can be, as the return examples above attest, but because of regulatory and technology changes, there are now far better ways to deploy capital into high potential, privately held companies (i.e. the VC investment sweet spot). Here’s why and how:
Market Efficiency. With now over twelve hundred active U.S. venture funds - and in general with them pursuing mostly the same deal sourcing strategies and approaches - it has become extremely difficult for VCs to consistently find and secure high potential, well priced deals.
The result has been a “regression to the mean” - with alpha performance by fund managers being driven as much by randomness and luck (as it has been with public market mutual funds for decades) as by coherent design.
Fees. The world of low and no load management fees that so transformed mutual fund investing for in the 80's and 90's is far from being on the VC radar.
In fact, as opposed going down, venture fund fees have been going in the other direction, with a number of higher profile funds upping their annual fees to 3% (along with asking for a greater share of the returns) versus the standard 2-2.5%.
These high fees obviously eat away at return, and more profoundly are in contrast to the “disintermediation spirit” so at the heart of modern investing.
Friction. Little discussed in most venture fund models are the high costs of deal sourcing, diligence, and oversight.
It is not unusual for a venture fund to sort through thousands of possible investments, deeply diligence a few hundred, prepare and submit term sheets on a few dozen, and then do zero deals.
This all costs money.
And all this doesn’t even begin to measure the management and oversight costs on the deals that are done – which at their barest minimum range from quarterly board meeting attendance to monthly, weekly, and sometimes daily calls and meetings with portfolio companies.
All this work is necessary to do VC investing right, but is also expense and friction filled.
Now, funds do work to charge some of these costs back to their portfolio companies, but usually these offsets flow to the fund’s General and not its Limited Partners.
So what to do?
Well, for those that want access to the unique returns of the asset class, but are reluctant to either a) put all of their eggs in one basket via investing in one particular startup directly and / or b) get the problems with the current VC model per the above, here are two ideas:
1. Explore peer-to-peer lending sites like Prosper.com and LendingClub, all of which offer various forms of fractionalized and securitized investing into the asset class.
And, with the SEC greenlighting equity-based crowdfunding last week, keep a careful eye on crowdfunding sites like Crowdfunder.com that will now be able to directly process smaller-denomination private company investments over the Net.
2. Do Like Warren Does. The Berkshire Hathaway Model of an “operating company owning other operating companies” can be a great gateway to the asset class, combining both diversification along with the the “pop” and fast liquidity potential that a single company investments allows. Well-run companies like this that focus on the startup space are hard to find, but when one does they are definitely worth a closer look.
In short, when it comes to this asset class, the advice here is to avoid the VCs and explore investment models – some new and some old – that provide access to it in a lower cost, higher expected return, and all-around more modern way.
To Your Success,
The confluence of Big Data and high quality, low cost software-as- service (SaaS) programs and applications for virtually every business purpose has made the path clearer than ever as to what entrepreneurs and executives must do to build real equity value in their companies.
It looks like this:
First, utilizing great tools like John Warrilow’s Sellability Score or Dave Lavinsky's Start at the End we define exactly what we seek for our key stakeholders: Customers, Employees, Partners, Vendors, and Shareholders.
For customers, it might be the efficacy / benefits of our products and services.
For Employees, it might be their opportunities for contribution, professional growth, enjoyment and income.
For Partners and Vendors, it might be what we wish our reputation to be, our brand to represent.
And for our Shareholders, it is the equity value we seek to attain, through our stock price, our sale price (to a strategic or financial acquirer), and / or the future value of our cash flows.
With these end points clearly defined, we then score ourselves - i.e. measure the size and nature of the “gaps” between where we are and where we want to be.
Now, for almost all businesses, completing this scorecard requires accessing various SaaS programs, both paid and free, to “get the data.”
We then turn to “the Micro SaaS” – the various “Cloud” programs and applications on which our business partially, mostly, or completely runs.
Programs and applications like Google Analytics, PIWIK, Clicky, and KISSmetrics for our web marketing performance, Salesforce, SugarCRM, Infusionsoft, and Marketo for lead conversion and sales teams, ECI, Sage, Intacct, and Basecamp for operations and project management, and QuickBooks, NetSuite, and Xero for accounting and finance.
Now, here is where, in the last 18 months, the game has really changed.
For the first time ever, we can now automate both the measurement of where we stand against our goals and the Gap Analysis of what we need to do improve results.
This is because the long hoped for promise of business intelligence dashboards, tools and services has reached a tipping point, as best evidenced by the massive financing attained by companies like Cloudera and Domo, and by the incredible traction that smaller company-focused business intelligence dashboard tools like Geckoboard, Leftronic, and my company's product Guiding Metrics have gained.
Combining Exit Planning, SaaS, and Dashboards allows us to automate our strategy, defining what we want to achieve and understanding the industry, market, and competitive landscape we must prevail in…
…and our tactics, the day-to-day marketing, sales, operations, and financial nitty-gritty needing to be done to get there.
And as we attain this seamless integration and automation, we in turn get closer to realizing the ultimate business dream...
…sitting back and watching the dollars and the victories roll in while enjoying and not killing ourselves in the process!
Pretty cool, eh?
Yesterday, TechCrunch posted a neat slideshow on the nine largest venture capital and private equity financing rounds of the past 24 months.
It is an extremely cool piece - profiling seven (two companies on the list had multiple rounds) of the highest flying technology companies in the world.
Let's start with Uber, both because it tops the list, with over $4.6 billion in capital raised, and because most of us can easily understand and relate to the Simplicity, Power, and Promise of its business model.
First, the Simplicity. At its core, Uber utilizes pretty basic technology to better deliver a basic service - a hired ride from point A to point B - that has been in existence since the beginning of time.
It is simple in such an eye opening way that for many folks the first time they download the app, press “Request Uber X,” and magically then a few minutes later a ride appears they are taken with a giddy excitement.
This simplicity masks the Power unleashed by Uber's technology: the initiative of the now over 162,000 and growing Uber Drivers.
There are various reasons (many controversial) why these drivers see Uber as a good and worthwhile use of their time and work energy, and whether or not it is good for our economy and society as a whole.
However, what is clearly not in doubt, is how Uber is massively profiting by harnessing and channeling the entrepreneurial, Sharing Economy Power of these tens of thousands.
That Power in turn leads to the Promise of Uber: To transform our notion of what transportation is, including whether or not it even makes economic and quality of life sense to own an automobile anymore...
…and in an even grander vision how Uber could up-end the shipping industry (and even the mail, too!).
Simplicity, Power, Promise - better and more cinematically embodied in Uber than perhaps in the other six companies profiled, but as you dig into those you will find similar themes.
Didi Dache, which just raised $700 million, is the Uber of China. The core business of SpaceX, which just raised $1 billion from Google, is as Simple and Powerful as they get: shooting rockets into space.
Xiaomi, to bring the promise of high-end “Apple-like” smartphones, to China’s 1.2 billion mobile customers.
The vision of Cloudera, which has raised over $1 billion from investors (and is contemplating an IPO in the near future) is nothing less than to give “all businesses a…360-degree view of their customers, their products, and their business.”
The obvious suggestion is to work to bake these qualities into our business models and entrepreneurial endeavors.
Perhaps less obviously, in my experience these qualities do exist in most businesses, but to find them requires a boiling away of the Complex Excess to get to the essential core.
When you do, while you might not raise $4.6 billion at a $40 billion+ valuation like Uber, my gut is that you will find the path to meaningful growth and a High Value Exit more clearly and easily defined.
This weekend, I read The 80% Solution – a great e-book by famed business coach Dan Sullivan in which he makes the case that “perfectionism” is a misunderstood and under-reported “enemy” of successful entrepreneurship.
Per the title of his book, Sullivan's suggestion to combat this is simple yet profound - just work to get a task / a project / an idea to “80% done and out” and far more often than not that will be more than good enough.
Now, of course, the author makes the necessary disclaimers.
Like an “80% done right” heart surgery or an “80% safe” airplane, or products with 20% defect rates are obviously recipes for disaster.
But for the vast majority of us, cultivating this 80% mindset will do us a world of entrepreneurial good.
1. Most Stuff Doesn't Work. The sad reality is that most business initiatives - no matter how good our intentions or how brilliant we might think they are, and whether they be new products, new marketing strategies, new hires, process improvements - don't work.
The market greets new products with apathy (big yawns).
Process improvements don’t move the bottom line. The most likely return on a new hire…is exactly what you pay him or her.
For sure, some ideas are revolutionary and transformative, but everyone has to cycle through a lot of duds.
So the more we are able to increase our throughput - to throw spaghetti against the wall as fast and furiously as possible - far more often than not, we are the better for it.
2. Energy. Modern knowledge work, with its infinite distractions and always-on nature, is exhausting.
Maybe not so obviously as exhausting as hard physical labor, but exhausting nonetheless.
And, given that so much of it involves a series of virtual interactions with other knowledge workers facing similarly exhausting electronic loads, accelerating our “personal supply chain” via an “80% and out” mindset reduces insidious energy drains like long e-mail back-and-forths, projects extending beyond timelines and conference calls that just drone on and on.
Taking the “80% is Enough” mindset to all of it can free our energy and re-create a lightness and fluidity to our work like when it was fresh and new.
3. 80% is Fun. A great read in this same vein is Happy Brain Chemicals by Lorreta Breuning. Among its eye-opening findings as to the nature of our “mammalian brains,” Breuning talks about the power of the neurochemical dopamine and its influence on our wants and decision-making.
Dopamine can best be described as the neurochemical of anticipation and excitement.
It is that feeling one has right before one takes a bite of a chocolate cake, or the moment right before the kickoff of the Super Bowl (or for those Patriots fans of ours, the moment right when Malcolm Butler makes that interception!).
We all crave dopamine, and as such, we all crave excitement.
And excitement, because of dopamine, is dependent on “new stuff” - new projects, tasks, relationships, and the like.
“80% is Good Enough” frees up bandwidth for more new stuff to be anticipated and experienced.
And thus more fun.
So think “80% is Good Enough” and be more productive, and have more energy and more fun each and every day.
What beats that?
This week, Axial came out with a great report on the challenges and opportunities facing small and middle market businesses in 2015.
Compiled from interviews with over 100 CEOs, it is chalk full of great nuggets like:
The #1 Thing keeping CEOs up at night is "finding capital to grow their businesses." This challenge has many dimensions - from receivables and cash flow, to commercial banks (in spite of the strong economy) still mostly on the sidelines, to the availability of private equity and other forms of risk capital to fund growth initiatives.
Also ranked high on the list was properly "training, educating, and rewarding" employees.
A great white paper by AGC Partners sheds modern light on this challenge, specifically how technology innovations are “incentivizing and enabling individuals to monetize their skills, time, and possessions like never before.”
Companies like Odesk, 99Designs, and Guru are empowering skilled designers, coders, consultants, and marketers to offer their services to buyers directly, on an as needed, per project basis.
How does this relate to the talent challenges of small businesses?
First, by the simple fact that a lot of talented people - who 10 to 15 years ago would have been available for / interested in traditional W-2 employment - are now effectively out of the traditional work force.
Second, the ease with which buyers (business & consumer) can contract for services with providers and cut out “middlemen” companies that "hire and mark up" creates a whole other level of pricing and other competitive pressures.
Luckily, far outweighing these two challenges is the massive opportunity created by this “collaborative economy” for smaller businesses to access types and qualities of talent like never before.
As I have talked about previously, entrepreneurs and executives that master the art of finding and utilizing outsourced, "shared talent" from around the world - and that let go of fixed ideas of what a company is / should be - will have business model and market opportunities open to them like never before.
Finally, the Axial report shares the startling fact, even though the overall economic prognosis for 2015 is about as good as it can get, that 66% of the CEO’s surveyed rank "market forces” and the overall buoyancies of the US and abroad economies as a top worry.
To this, I would suggest a reading of Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s seminal work on negativity bias, where he found “that people regret mistakes twice as keenly as they relish successes.”
When it comes to growth planning, Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, summed it up best when he noted that "When you point out what can go wrong, you sound smart and sophisticated, and when you emphasize what might go right, you sound naive."
It all kind of fits together: exude and embody optimism (and fight the natural propensity we all have to the opposite), conceptualize and take chances on new business models, and the money will follow.
And this is what CEOs really want, isn't it?
With a little luck, 2015 could go down as one of the best years ever for American business.
Here are seven reasons why:
7. Low Oil Prices. For both businesses and consumers, $50 per barrel oil and $3 per gallon gas have both strong real and psychological benefits.
Real, as in lower input costs for businesses and more disposable income for consumers, and psychological in removing that sense of scarcity and dread that high prices at the pump bring.
6. And It’s U.S. Oil. And, oh yes, as opposed to that oil coming mostly from a collection of unsavory, overseas actors (see Putin, Vladimir), now for the first time in decades the U.S. is poised to be a net oil exporter. These dollars staying home naturally multiply themselves - perking up manufacturing, construction, real estate, travel, tourism, etc.
5. Low Interest Rates. Predicting the direction of interest rates is one of the great fool’s errands, but it does certainly feel like we have made a long-term transition to permanently low rates.
A key factor driving this is Federal Reserve's Chair Janet Yellen’s political philosophy - well-documented over decades - that employment is the most important matter of monetary policy and any “tightening” that might lead to rising unemployment is to be avoided at all costs.
And then there is simple supply and demand -- all the “safe” world currencies (Euro, Yen, Pound) sport extraordinarily low rates too so there is no “currency flight” pressure to drive tightening.
4. U.S. Technology Leads the World. In so many of the growth industries of the 21st century - Mobile, BioTech, HealthcareIT, Robotics, Social Media, Internet of Things - U.S. companies continue to lead the way.
In addition to the massive flows of capital and wealth created and distributed by the top tech. companies (to employees, vendors, shareholders et al.), this leadership also attracts the best and the brightest scientists, engineers, and developers from around to the world to our shores.
And from this human capital new technologies and new companies are born. And new wealth created.
3. Record Exports. U.S. Exports reached $2.3 trillion in 2013, both a new record and up more than $700 billion since 2009. And the soon to be in 2014 numbers will show another record year.
Why? Well for one, U.S. companies, aided greatly by an English language and America-dominated Internet, every year become more and more effective in marketing and selling to global customers (while global customers in turn become far more comfortable in purchasing across the wires).
This powerful trend will only continue to accelerate in the years to come – opening new markets and profit opportunities for U.S companies big and small.
2. Cash Piles on Sidelines. With $1 trillion in cash sitting in the coffers of U.S. private equity firms and $515 billion on the balance sheets of leading tech. companies (try Microsoft with $88 billion, Google with $60 billion, and Cisco with $52 billion), and with this cash in our low interest rate environment earning only fractions of pennies of return, there is a high probability we will see a lot of it pour into growth opportunities this year.
And there are no better growth investments than U.S. entrepreneurial companies, especially the smaller, private ones, that over decades have consistently yielded double digit returns for those brave and foresighted enough to invest in them.
1. Momentum. Good times beget more good times. The solid, economic, political, and social news and results we have had for a few years running now are building themselves into a powerful crescendo for the new year.
Yes, more than a little luck is always needed - mostly in the form of no large, negative political or environmental shocks.
Barring that, on balance for entrepreneurs and executives out there seeking to make their mark, 2015 is looking nice and juicy.
Here's hoping we all make the most of it!
The ending of one year and the beginning of another is a natural time to take stock of all that was accomplished in the past 12 months, and more excitedly, to dream and plan on the great promise of the New Year.
In this spirit, below are a few of my favorite quotes regarding dreaming, planning, goal-setting, and "Going for It!”
"You see things; and you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, 'Why not?'"
- George Bernard Shaw
(My comment: reflects the essence of the entrepreneurial spirit)
"What is not started today is never finished tomorrow."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
(My comment: the "fierce urgency of now" must always inform and drive us. We live in too fast-moving a world, too merciless a marketplace, to in any way dawdle or delay.)
"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."
- Winston Churchill
(My comment: The most accomplished executives and entrepreneurs that I have worked with have impressed me as much with their fortitude and resiliency as they have with their “glamorous” attributes - brilliance, connections, salesmanship, etc.
"Really great people make you feel that you, too, can become great."
- Mark Twain
(My comment: This is the essence of leadership in modern, collaboration-driven organizations. The best managers build alignment and focused energy around shared goals and objectives.
"Goals are dreams with deadlines."
- Diana Scharf Hunt
(Our comment: The great ones dream it and do it NOW!)
Happy New Year, and may 2015 be the best year of all of our lives!
December is a natural time to reflect upon the accomplishments of the past 12 months, and to set goals and objectives for the New Year.
In doing so however, most of us think too much about next year, and too little about our longer term and multi-year business horizons.
There are some benefits to this, I mean who can really forecast market and competitive conditions and customer wants and needs beyond just a few months these days?
And, given high rates of personnel turnover endemic to our ever-increasing “low switching cost” workplace, it can feel even more difficult to do so from a “bottoms-up” resource and organizational chart basis.
But forecast we must.
Because it is only through thinking and planning long-term that we access the reflective cores of our minds and spirits to “come up with” breakthrough business ideas simply inaccessible from the “reactive” present.
• How to better leverage our company’s intellectual and brand assets to develop new products and services
• How to lay the ground work for new marketing campaigns, targeting new customers in new markets (with more favorable competitive conditions)
• How to expand globally
• Rethinking our companies’ organizational charts (and rewriting job descriptions)
• How to access outsourced and virtual pools of human talent to scale quicker and more cost-effectively
• Re-languaging our organizations’ value propositions (More pithily describing the features and benefits of our product and service offerings)
• Redrafting our mission and vision statements (and by so doing re-motivating and re-focusing ourselves and our organizations)
• And perhaps most importantly, defining with a laser like precision The Exit Plan for our organizations and for everyone in it (and getting out of No Man’s Land!)
Figuring out how to pursue opportunities and how to overcome challenges like these is almost always best done with a Start at the End approach: visioning out to the future and working backward from there.
How far to look out? I think Three Years is best.
It is long enough to get to that space of the “unbounded future” (reflect on being three years older than you are right now), while being short enough that the projects and action items arrived at very much need to be “gotten after” right away.
So, let’s all use this special time of year to reflect longer term on our more idealistic and on our bigger opportunities…
…the pursuit of which will transform our sometimes humble and prosaic day-to-day work into something far more profound.
Happy Holidays to You and Yours!
Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday.
It acknowledges the best qualities of our blessed land - hard work, diversity as strength, and a focus on solutions not problems.
Whenever I am feeling down about America’s prospects in this brave new world of ours, I reflect on Thanksgiving’s timeless lessons.
As every schoolboy and girl knows, Thanksgiving traces its origin from a 1621 Pilgrim harvest feast to celebrate surviving an extremely difficult first winter in the New World.
The Pilgrims owed their survival to the goodwill of the Wampanoag Indians - the original inhabitants of the area - who taught them how to grow corn and how to fish in the very unfamiliar New England soil and seas.
As a gesture of thanks and goodwill, the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoags to sit down and break bread in a spirit of friendship and camaraderie.
What a story! First, let's reflect on the guts, tenacity, sense of adventure, and just “never say die” hard work and perseverance of the Pilgrims.
Think about it - if they can make it then with their oh-so limited 17th Century resources, what can we do / where can we go with our virtually limitless 21st Century ones?
And let's reflect on that happy day of brotherhood and be justifiably proud of the powerful diversity of modern America.
Doubt me? Then spend a Saturday with me and my 7 year-old son’s AYSO soccer team.
With its Hawaiian coach.
Its son of Ethiopian refugees star player.
And its African - American, Mexican - American and suburban white kid players all happily frolicking in a melting pot scene not to be duplicated anywhere in the world.
Soccer with my sons is a welcome break from what I am sad to say has become a bad, gossipy vice – keeping up with the “news.”
Between the dire talk of tepid economic recovery, government gridlock, perpetual Mideast crisis, disease scares, and impending environmental doom, if you don't catch yourself you can't help but feel sorry for yourself, the country, and the planet.
It is 99% bunk.
Both the world and America have NEVER offered more opportunities for a larger percentage of
us to live affluent lives, to do self-expressive, remunerative work, and to be amazed daily by the wonders of modern technology than it does right now.
On Thursday, let’s give thanks for all that and more.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!
Every day I see entrepreneurs trying to find that right balance between keeping their intellectual property and business models confidential while sharing and promoting themselves to the investors, partners, and customers whose interest they so very much need to pique.
My bias generally falls strongly on the side of transparency - both because it is a virtue unto itself - and because it takes a lot of effort in our “everything end up on the Internet for all to see” age to truly maintain confidentiality.
However, I have a more fundamental reason why I generally advise entrepreneurs and investors not to worry all that much about confidentiality.
Supply and demand.
Quite simply, there very few entrepreneurs out there with the “right stuff” to actually build profitable businesses.
And those that have it are on balance, either too busy, too rich, and/or my favorite just too ethical and decent that 999 times out of 1,000 as opposed to the problem being someone of substance stealing a business idea, that the far more likely reality is a vast and unrelenting sea of apathy toward it.
Now, this does not mean that there is no place for confidentiality in modern business.
But the reason why it is important is usually more subtle than the fear of idea theft.
You see, for the vast majority of companies without eight figure+ R & D budgets, the reason why confidentiality is important has to do with the under-appreciated context of mystique.
Oxford defines mystique as "a fascinating aura of mystery, awe, and power surrounding someone or something."
I would combine this definition with one of my favorite lessons from my long ago MBA marketing class - namely that in a modern marketplace there is zero difference between "actual" and "perceived" value.
So, in these contexts, the value of non-disclosure derives not so much from the threat of a nefarious competitor stealing an idea as it does from how the aura of confidentiality bestows on an idea that “fascinating aura” that draws people and resources to it.
And from this aura flow many wonderful things: brand equity, pricing power, and marketing effectiveness being chief among them.
Now for those who say that this is quite the cynical view of things, I would encourage them for the next seven days to not take in any entertainment media - no movies nor television nor Internet - nor to appreciate the lovely design of an iPhone, and certainly to not gaze fondly on an elegantly dressed and coiffed woman or man.
In other words, to suffer for just one week like the terribly poor, extraordinarily unfortunate and very mystique - deprived people of North Korea must unconscionably suffer through every day of their lives.
And then come back and tell me that mystique doesn’t matter.
So let’s appreciate mystique - that beautiful elixir of the modern marketplace – for its own sake as the incredible gift and blessing it is.
And as marketers, as salespeople, as product designers, as entrepreneurs let’s gracefully use confidentiality and discretion to help create it.