Can you build a unicorn business outside the Silicon Valley?

This is a follow-on post to my last blog post about building a global-first startup

The tl;dr for my last post is that these days geography is rather confusing. It’s quite common for a San Francisco Bay Area company to start hiring from day one an engineering team that is elsewhere and building up a real hub elsewhere even though everyone sees them as a San Francisco company. Or for a startup located outside of the US to sell to US companies.  The world is a lot smaller than it used to be.  

And so for these reasons, I believe that to start a company, you can start building a startup these days from pretty much anywhere. The most important thing in the earliest stages is to try to get to product Market fit quickly.

Knowledge has become commoditized at the earliest stages – you can pretty much read about Lean Startup anywhere on the internet.  But what about scaling a business? 

The numbers are actually pretty sobering.  I went ahead and graphed some interesting fundraising data from past portfolio companies that I’ve invested in either as an angel or as part of a team where I was a/the decision maker.  

I took my whole portfolio of all companies that I had invested in between 2014-2016 and created pie charts based on geography. N = over 250 companies in this dataset.

Screen Shot 2019-08-30 at 2.30.52 PM
You can see the vast plurality of companies that I invested in during this time were largely international companies  Note: for the purpose of this exercise, I separated out my Canadian startups from the rest of the world. (Canadian startups are so similar to US startups that I thought they deserved a category of their own.)

I did the best job that I could in labeling just one geography for each startup, but this exercise was a bit tricky. For example, a company that I had invested in is categorized as a San Francisco-based company even though the vast majority of their employees are now based in Dallas. The reason for this is that when I invested in them, the founders were and still are based in San Francisco, and the bulk of their decision-making and operations were happening here at the time.  On the flip side, I classified a number of companies whose founders had recently moved to the US from another country and were doing significant operations in that other country as “other int’l”, even if they were US Delaware C corps. As you can see per my last blog post, it gets a little bit complicated. 

I then went ahead and grabbed the companies that made it to the Series A level and graphed what the breakdown of those startups look like by geography.  The reason I say Series A level is that I have a number of portfolio companies who have done well in revenue and have not had to raise larger rounds.  So if a company had raised a series A, I labeled the company as a Series A company regardless of where the raise happened. Now, I understand that there are some issues with the nomenclature because a Series A in the Bay Area is so much later than a Series A in say Australia, but, this was the best I could do. In addition, if a company had not raised a Series A but had hit US Series A milestones – namely $2m+ “net revenue run rate”,  then I counted the company as a Series A company.

Screen Shot 2019-08-30 at 2.34.47 PM

What is interesting about this graph is just how much the percentages have changed.  Let’s come back to the analysis in a second.

I went ahead and did the same exercise with Series B companies.  I graphed my portfolio that had graduated to the Series B level. And again, for companies who raised a Series B – whether here in the US or abroad — were labeled a series B company.  For companies who had hit US Series B traction milestones – namely 10m+ annual net revenue runrate – I also added those companies to this category as well.

Screen Shot 2019-08-30 at 2.35.57 PM.png

You can see that this graph has changed even more.

Here are my takeaways: 

1) The San Francisco Bay Area punches above its weight. (not surprising)

One could try to argue that perhaps my San Francisco Bay Area founders are stronger. While I couldn’t tell you whether that’s true or not, intuitively, my gut feeling is that that is not the case.

What I do think is happening here is that the San Francisco Bay Area has a lot more capital, and so there are more startups that get more funding than in other parts of the world. And by proximity of being here, it is easier to access the capital (even though there is also more competition).

But the other thing that I think is happening is access to talent and knowledge, especially as companies scale. I tend to invest in businesses that require less capital. This tends to skew towards B2B companies or other businesses where the margins are nice. I tend to prefer investing in companies where if they could never raise a dime of VC funding again, they would still be able to survive and thrive.

And I’ve applied this lens across all geographies. So as a result, I would not expect such wild differences in ability to get to the Series A level or the Series B level even if there is less capital available in other markets. But you can see that there is a big difference.  

1b) One side note: also, if I remove startups who have founders with pedigree, then SF doesn’t punch above its weight and proportionally stays the same at each stage. 

2) International companies outside of the US & Canada have a much harder time raising money.

You can see that across-the-board, my international companies have had really had a tough time getting to the Series A or Series B level.

And again, I attribute this to less access to knowledge about scaling, less access to capital, and less access to talent that has scaled businesses before. One potential wildcard explanation for this lack of success is that the US & Canada have pretty established customer acquisition channels.  But, that isn’t the case everywhere globally, so it may also be that customer acquisition makes marketing and sales in the US & Canada just faster and that other international companies just need more time to make headway.  

3) Companies based outside of the SF Bay Area that have been successful have spent significant time in the Bay Area

The last interesting thing I would say here is that if you look at the Series B companies, anecdotally I can tell you that all of those founders have cultivated lots of relationships here in the SF Bay Area to get scaling knowledge and access to capital.

Takeaways:

I don’t think you need to be in the San Francisco Bay Area to start a company. In fact, I actually think that since your money goes so much further elsewhere and knowledge is commoditized regarding starting a business.  As an early stage founder, you really should just focus on product-market fit wherever you feel is best for you to live.

BUT!  If you want to start scaling a business – call it at the Series A level and beyond – that’s when you really need to start having connections ideally to the SF Bay Area to raise money from and have a network / learn from and potentially even a pool of people to hire.  

unicorn

Image courtesy of Giphy

If you are starting a business outside of the Bay Area and want to build a unicorn business, in today’s global economy, it is significantly helpful for you to start building from connections on day 1 to the SF Bay Area.  

Some thoughts on balancing family and a startup

One of the more taboo topics in “Startupland” is around having a family while starting a business.  When I was about to have my first child while working on my company LaunchBit, I was catching up with a friend of mine who was also an angel investor in my business.

And then he asked me, “How do you think about balancing your company with a young child?”

Since then, it’s a question I’ve batted around for years.  Is this an appropriate question?  Is it even a good question?  And what is even an answer to this question?

To be clear, my friend didn’t mean any malice by it nor was he trying to use my answer as a piece of information in making a decision about investing — he was already an investor. He was just legitimately curious. But of course, the immediate counter question that comes to mind (and that I articulated out loud) is, “Would you have asked me that question if I were a male founder / CEO?”

We all know that he wouldn’t have.

For as long as I’ve been running my own company — first at LaunchBit and now at Hustle Fund — I have not often engaged in conversations about family in business meetings / business settings.  When other people talk about their kids, I usually just kinda smile and nod.  In contrast, my business partner at Hustle Fund Eric often talks about his family and his minivan.  He shares photos of his children with our investors in our monthly reports regularly.  I don’t think think most of our investors even know that I have children.  There is an unspoken looming fear that many female entrepreneurs with children have — that their abilities and dedication as a professional will be judged and looked down upon because they have children.  This is because there is a notion held by some people in the ecosystem that having a startup while having children puts you at a disadvantage and shows a lack of dedication.  Obviously, not everyone holds this belief, but there is no upside as a woman to sharing that you have children while running a startup.  And so for so long, I’ve just generally kept quiet / private about the whole matter.

And I’m not the only woman to do this.  Countless female founders of mine over the years have asked me for advice and guidance on managing a family while starting a company but have also asked me to keep these questions on the down low or even their plans to start a family on the down low.  I’ve become a confidante of sorts because I’m a female founder with a family in this taboo world.

However, after mulling on this for a few years, I think the exact opposite needs to happen.  Everyone would benefit by sharing advice on tips for handling parenting while running a startup.  And, so I’ve decided to write this post on how I’ve managed to balance parenting while running 2 startups (had kid #1 while running a product startup and had kid #2 while starting a VC fund a couple years ago).  

Before I had kids, I had in my mind an idyllic notion of parenting.  I thought I would swaddle my newborn in cloth diapers, feed breast milk for a year, and follow every other piece of advice from “ideal mother” websites. But then, reality quickly set in – in having my first child while running my adtech company.  The idea of spending an extra 30s putting on a cloth diaper at 2 in the morning in a half dazed stage all of a sudden seemed less exciting — my stance on parenting immediately changed when I became a parent — I just wanted to make sure my kid stayed alive and healthy! 

The reality check

On one hand, there is truth to why running a startup and raising children isn’t easy.  Many people will say that it’s because children take up a lot of time and attention.  Other people say it’s because they increase your financial burden. Both are true but IMO not the biggest issues namely because people are incredibly resilient to constraints — both time and money constraints.

For example, before I had children, I thought I was quite efficient with my time. Post-children, in looking back, I’m actually 3x+ more efficient with time now. I never thought I could eke out so much more efficiency. You can ALWAYS become more efficient with more constraints.

bejewled.jpg

Playing Bejeweled is something I used to do but don’t anymore…

So, the biggest challenge isn’t additional constraints, because resilient people make things work and make them work better.  I actually think the biggest challenge is that there are just a lot more variables that are out of your control.

For example, your kid gets sick and can’t go to school; that’s out of your control. Your kid wakes up every two hours; you can’t control that either. So how do you deal with last-minute situations? How do you impromptu handle situations you didn’t expect? 

So, here are some key things I’ve learned while leveraging my time as an entrepreneur parent:

  1. You need support. Don’t do it alone.
  2. You need to say no and leverage time.
  3. You need to “let go.” 

Support

It really does take a village to raise children, and I’ve leaned on tons of people for support from the beginning through now. I think people are often afraid to do so, but I think it makes life a lot easier. 

During the first few weeks of motherhood, folks showed up with home cooked food or bought meals / meal gift certificates for me and my husband. Beyond the warmth of love and generosity this brought us, such a little act made a big, practical difference in my day. I could then put my energy towards thinking about my business, focusing on my kid, and even some personal recovery time, instead of worrying about what we were going to eat for dinner. On the flip side, this is probably the easiest, best gift you can get a new parent — meals.

My support network helped me balance time as I became a first and then later second time mom while being an entrepreneur. When my kids were still very young, friends and relatives babysat while I went to networking events, to work, or to sleep when I desperately needed a nap. For example, when I was fundraising for Hustle Fund in 2017, there was a networking event on a Saturday in San Francisco, and my husband was out of town.  For the 2-3 hours that I was there, I left my baby with my friends who lived in the Mission.  As an entrepreneur, at work, you ask for the moon from your business partners and potential clients all the time.  But we don’t often do that with people we’re closest with.  Why not?

My husband holds down the fort a lot, especially when I travel for work or have late meetings or events.  And my parents have spent so much time with my kids when they have no school (and in the very beginning when they couldn’t go to daycare), I can’t imagine accomplishing both startups without them or my extended support network.

Pride is one thing you really can’t afford when launching into the role of a entrepreneur-parent. 

Saying no & leveraging time

As a parent and entrepreneur, I need to leverage my time, and I need as much of my 9am-5pm working block to be free to think / write.

To achieve this, unfortunately, this means I end up saying “no” to a lot and moving things to more efficient channels whenever I can.

For example, people ask other people for coffee meetings a LOT!  Usually without any purpose. I used to do these coffee meetings a lot in my 20s. But, now, I often say “no” to coffee meetings. Critics of this strategy may argue, “Well, I’ve built my best connections through coffee meetings.” And I can agree coffee meetings are great to a) re-build or strengthen rapport with someone you already know / want to catch up with a friend OR b) meet with someone new and build rapport with LOTs of coffee meetings with him/her.  But when I look back, the vast majority of my coffee meetings in my 20s have been one and done, and for those people, that one coffee meeting isn’t enough to end up doing business or hang out socially in most cases.  (there are some exceptions but largely true of the coffee meetings I’ve done over the years) 

Instead, I prefer to stick with email for quick communication and if necessary, move to a phone meeting while commuting. In fact, I set up my Calendly so that bookable times are primarily during my commute at the beginning and end of the day. I end up having a lot of meetings while walking, skateboarding, kick scootering or driving. 

For further “networking”, in lieu of a 1:1 coffee meeting, I like to do group drinks / lunch or hangouts outside of my 9-5 working block.  So if there are a handful of people you want to re-build rapport with or want to get to know, it’s a lot more efficient to group everyone together.  And they’re busy too, so they want to make the most of their limited time too.

This means that when I get to work at 9:00am, I’ve already done a few calls / networking, so most of my 9-5pm day is slated for “thinking work”. I might have a couple of additional meetings during that block where I need to take notes and be fully thoughtful, but I like to have — as much as possible — a whole day to only do thinking and writing work.

The opposite of this schedule is what I had when I was working at Google in my 20s. I had back-to-back meetings all day, and then when I got home, I would, in a tired way, try to think and write. In retrospect, if I were to set up my schedule all over again, I would have skipped many of those meetings, asked people to do most work / coordination over email, and done calls while commuting to free up most of the day.

Exercise

As an aside, exercise is really important to me, and combining work time with exercise (walking, jogging, skateboarding, kick-scootering, etc.) allows me to eke out additional productivity.  I don’t believe in multitasking for most things – I think multitasking makes it challenging to really focus and be present. But I do think that exercise and talking-work goes well together, and this type of multitasking actually is more productive. 

I read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run (excellent book) and learned that our ancestors used to hunt animals by basically jogging a marathon everyday! Since then, I’ve been trying to increase my miles–some days I walk eight miles–and multitasking with phone meetings helps with this goal, too. I’ve also heard that walking is more conducive to thinking than sitting — but who knows?

In addition, I often use voice-to-type to “write” emails on my phone, especially during commutes. Whether walking, jogging, or scootering with my kids, I can still “talk” to do writing work.

Emails

Lastly, everyone gets TONs of email these days, and email management is a big chunk of work in itself.  It’s really important to me to keep my 9am-5pm working block mostly free — I don’t want to be spending most of that time in email.  With the exception of a few emails that need immediate response, I work on email on the Caltrain on the days that I go up to San Francisco or at night after dinner.

I also recommend SaneBox, Superhuman, and Gmail smart responses to streamline emails and Calendly to streamline calls.

I use SaneBox to filter a lot of emails including subscription emails, emails from people I’ve never met, etc.

I use Superhuman for templated responses so that I can tell everyone the same thing over and over again.  For example, if I need to move a conversation to a call, I send the same templated response with just a couple of keystrokes, and people can pick their own time to chat (during commute hours) through my Calendly calendar management.  I also use Superhuman for offline email processing – so for example, if I’m commuting on the Caltrain to San Francisco, I can plough through all my emails offline quickly.

Re-scope responsibilities and letting go

Outside of work, the time it takes to complete simple chores adds up and eats away time and energy you could be spending either working or with your kids. Since working on a startup means having a budget, my husband and I have re-scoped and re-prioritized our chores to make them as manageable as possible.

Laundry. To save time, we don’t fold laundry. We just don’t. I know – that sounds blasphemous. That’s a tradeoff that we’ve made. We each have a laundry basket to keep clean clothes separate, and we wash each person’s laundry in their own load. I also streamline my clothing options by wearing a @HustleFundVC shirt and jeans almost every weekday. I understand that not everyone wants to keep his/her clothes in a laundry basket or wear the same outfit over and over, but I can tell you that it saves me a lot of time. Sometimes you just have to let go and figure out what is really important to you. 

giphy

Photo credit: Giphy

Food. Each week, my husband and I each cook one simple dish, usually on the weekend. One night, we’ll order cheap delivery, one night we’ll end up eating at someone’s house, and one night we’ll pop a frozen pizza in the oven. Leftovers carry us through the rest of the week. Keeping our meals simple means neither of us has to fret over grocery store runs or recipes.

Dropoff and pickup of kids. We only have one car, so we each take a day to do both dropoffs and pickups.  We are fortunate to have managed to get their schools to be close to our work and home, so our commute, in general, is not that long.  (A miracle in the Bay Area where there is tons of traffic) . 

When my kids are not in the car, this is when I do my car calls so that the drive time is not wasted.  When the kids are in the car, it’s actually a good time to chat with our kids.  Conversations don’t just have to be at home at the dinner table.  They can be in the car too.  Since we only have one car, on other days, I will sometimes combine exercise while the kids are in a double stroller or while we’re kick-scootering together and will take calls when the stroller is empty. 

stroller.JPG

Double stroller + skateboard combination day

Contractors. People have often asked me if I have a nanny or if I hire a company to clean our place. I’m not averse to this, and in general, I believe in comparative advantage.  Meaning  — if someone else is way better than you at something, for the right price, you should hire help.  This is how you’d run your business; and, this is how you should run your home.

In our case, both of my kids go to school, so a full-time or even part-time nanny wouldn’t be helpful because he/she would have no children to watch during the day. And by setting up the above the systems, things like laundry actually don’t take more than a few minutes — a chore that could take hours you can shortcut by basically not caring.  So should I pay someone for something that I fundamentally don’t care about is the question? Not sure.

I also make my kids — as young as they are (both under 6) — do chores.  In the beginning, it’s not done well, but at this point, they are actually quite good at cleaning and feeding themselves.

But I do think you should pay for things that you do care a lot about and will take a long time (such as this blog post!). That’s how you can get further leverage on your time.

To summarize

Running a business and being a parent each requires a lot more juggling than without children. But, it also forces you to be pretty dam* efficient that you could possibly imagine.  

To summarize, the biggest way to leverage time with a low budget is to a) ask for help from your community (family, friends, and even your own kids); b) prioritize thinking work and figure out how to get rid of everything else; combine with exercise, and c) reduce how much you care about daily chores. 

My business partner Eric at Hustle Fund is appalled by the fact that I don’t fold my clothes, so these exact strategies are not for everyone, but I do think with some creative juggling, you can eke out a lot of additional efficiencies to make parenting and entrepreneurship work without going crazy. 

Special thanks to my editor Caitlin for pulling the first draft of this together.  Also, the stock photo above isn’t a photo of my kids, but they are cute. 

Why I don’t (usually) meet startups in person

The other day, I tweeted.

Screen Shot 2019-03-07 at 2.32.26 PM

“Contrarian perspective here – it’s ok to *not* meet a founder in person before deciding to invest.”

This set off a tweet firestorm — mostly with people telling me in some form or fashion that I was wrong. (Side note: what I love about the VC industry is that people tend to have incredibly strong opinions based on limited or no data 🙂 )

giphy

Image source: Giphy

It’s interesting — at this point, I’ve been investing in early stage startups for almost 5 years.  And, I still have a lot to learn. But I’ve also personally interviewed 1000+ early stage startup teams.

Most of these teams in person.

And after looking at all this data about interviewing, I believe that it actually doesn’t really matter *for me* whether I interview teams in-person or remotely. Let’s dissect this a bit:

First, why should you interview startup teams in person?

1) I think cultural and historical business norms would say that you should always try to meet people in person and try to build rapport in person to win a deal.

While I don’t think anyone has great proof on this, intuitively, I believe this is true. What better way to win a deal than to fly to a founder and just show up and say, “Hey, I want to invest”.

So for investors playing in highly competitive spaces, this makes a ton of sense. E.g. investors going after a hot series B deal. Or for investors chasing after founders who came from Facebook and MIT who are building the next scooter company that utilizes AI.  Building rapport is really important to winning hot deals.

For me, most of my deals are not hot when I invest. Hah. Often these companies go on to be hot later. But since I’m first check into companies when they basically have nothing, usually it’s just me and the founder’s mom who are investing. Writing the check is in itself the rapport-building activity.

2) You can assess founders better in person.

I also believe you can assess founders better when speaking with them in person. You can detect when there is co-founder tension / drama / something weird. You can detect when a founder is stretching the truth. All kinds of stuff.

I know this because I’m a super blunt / direct person. And, I’ve often called out things to founders directly. For example, there have been many teams over the years where I’ve noticed tension in a meeting between the co-founders. I’ve often pulled founders aside afterwards and mentioned my observations as such.  e.g. “Hey, it seems like there’s some weird tension between you — are you having a lot of miscommunication?”  And every single time, founders have broken down and admitted that they’ve been having some problems.  You can definitely detect co-founder issues in an in-person meeting.

So given these huge benefits, why wouldn’t you meet a team in person?  A bunch of reasons…

1) Unconscious biases.

It’s amazing how a team that is great at pitching can really “fool” you. There have been so many meetings I’ve taken over the years where you walk away from the meeting feeling really pumped and believing that the founders are amazing. And you think, “These are great founders!”

And then, I look back at my notes 24 hours later and re-read everything they’ve done or not done in the last few months, and you think, “Oh, this just sounds ok – they’ve only sorta achieved some things.”

Charismatic people can really fool you. Having charisma is a great trait, just in general.  But, it can mask actual execution.

Moreover, charisma is cultural. What we find inspiring in a leader in the US is very different from what other people in other places of the world find inspiring. So, we have unconscious biases around what makes a charismatic leader. Extroverts, for example, in the US have a huge advantage. We generally think of extroverts as highly charismatic people. But extroverts are not actually any better leaders than introverts. There are plenty of examples of successful introverts who manage to inspired large groups of people towards a common goal. So we let our unconscious biases get in the way in assessing things like leadership because of the way our culture is set up.

One of my learnings over the years in venture is that it’s really important – as much as possible – to be objective.  I try to assess what a team has actually achieved. Or what they are actually doing. But very often, meeting people in person detracts from assessing this, because some founders are much better at selling the dream and others are much worse.

There’s a well known top female VC who works at a very well known VC fund, and she was telling me a few years ago that one day her partnership heard 2 pitches. One of the pitches was by a woman who matter-of-factly just talked about numbers and growth and how she could build a big company. Another pitch was by a man who sold the dream and hadn’t done much of anything. After both meetings, the rest of her partnership talked about how they could really relate and build rapport with the male founder who was quite the visionary. This top female VC, however, realized that, although she was more excited about the male founder’s pitch, when she objectively thought about what he had accomplished, she realized it wasn’t much.  And that the female founder had knocked it out of the park although her storytelling wasn’t as amazing.  This story is a true story and this happens all the time in venture.

In the venture community today, we reward “visionaries” much more than executors. And a big reason for this is that we make investment decisions based on pitches rather than on execution (aka working) in our decision-making.  This is a big problem and this is precisely what I want to change at Hustle Fund (though it takes baby steps).

The last piece about unconscious biases is that sometimes what we see in-person scares away traditional VCs.  Such as pregnant women. Being a pregnant woman and pitching investors is NOT a recipe for success to raise money.  Although there are plenty of successful female CEOs who have children while running their respective startups, it’s still not a positive sign to most VCs.  This is a shame and something that is only noticeable / an issue when pitching in person.

2) Meeting teams in person limits your deal flow.

At the earliest stages, it’s important to see a lot of dealflow.  If you are only doing meetings in person, it means that:

  • Companies can only be located in your geography
  • You need to spend a lot of money and time to fly to other places to see companies
  • You need to spend a lot of money to fly companies to see you.

If you’re a series B firm, all 3 of these can be fine limitations. You presumably have enough management fees to spend money on travel, and presumably, you don’t need to be seeing tons of companies in order to do great deals. But if you are at the earliest stages — such as a pre-seed fund like ours — you need to be seeing lots of deals and generally don’t have the budget to either do a lot of traveling or to fly companies to you.

And at the pre-seed level seeing lots of top-of-funnel deals is critical!

So, meeting teams in person is a tough strategy for small firms like ours — for both time / money reasons.

3) Technology is good-enough for remote meetings these days.

Technology is actually quite good these days. I think 10 years ago, vetting people through video conference might have been rough. But, today, Zoom.us, for example, is an amazing product for doing video interviews. You can see a lot with strong connectivity — including founder tension — and you can really feel like you’re in the room with the founder.

4) Meeting people in person is inefficient.

I don’t want to waste founders’ time and my time. The priority activity for them is in running their business. So for the most part, driving all around the Bay Area (in traffic!) is not a value-add activity for anyone. If we happen to be in the same place at the same time, that’s great — such as a conference / event / co-working space, but for the most part, commutes are a bear that I don’t think anyone should have to put up with if given the choice.

5) Lastly and most importantly, if you construct your portfolio in a certain way, it’s actually ok to miss things in a virtual interview.

At the end of the day, doing VC right is actually much more about portfolio construction and modeling than picking. This is surprising to many people.

After investing in hundreds of startups, I genuinely believe that it is much better to invest based on execution rather than to try to assess accurately based on talking.  But, the entire industry is largely based on making investment decisions based on talking. This is a grave mistake, in my opinion.

Here’s an analogy in the job market — in the old days, you would interview a bunch of candidates. And then you would pick someone to hire largely based on talking. But as it would turn out — people who are great at selling themselves in the interview process are not necessarily the best performing hires! Business people have figured this out, and so these days, at so many companies, you no longer just talk in a job interview. Hiring teams now try to assess in other ways — through projects / short term contracts / tests / etc. In other words, execution-based tests are now used much more commonly to better assess hires.

In VC, the right analogy would be — why don’t we make a small bet for seemingly promising companies? And then try to assess based on execution whether or not to write a much larger check.  (On the flip side, startups can assess us/me, to see if I’m living up to standards as an investor.) And as performers perform, let’s continue to do this. This seems like the much better way to assess performance — by actually assessing performance itself rather than talking.

For this reason, this is why I think it’s actually ok to miss some things in interviewing founders for a potential investment — because I care much more about how a team performs than how they talk & look.

How to build a big marketplace

I’m not very good at keeping up with The Twitters, so I hopped into this conversation about building large marketplaces super late.

It’s an interesting one — when building a marketplace, which comes first?  The chicken or the egg — supply or demand?

chicken_or_egg

Image credit: Rushart’s blog

Obviously both are important for a successful marketplace!  But, if you want to build a really BIG marketplace, here are some observations from over the years.

1) Unlocking large amounts of supply matters A LOT!

This is a bit unintuitive.  Most people who set out to build a marketplace think that if you can get people to pay for something (the demand side), then you’re all set.  I’ll argue that it’s certainly important to test the demand side but it’s almost more important to test how hard it is to get supply.

From my experience in growing an ad network, it is possible to have lots of demand but not enough supply!  This is actually a very common phenomenon.  Case in point, most email newsletter companies have an easy time selling out their ad slots, but it’s incredibly hard to continue growing an email newsletter at a fast clip.  The way that a lot of email newsletter companies solve for this problem is by introducing new lists with the same audience.  E.g. you can receive the daily news digest and also the daily jobs email.  This gives them twice as much supply with the same audience.

2) If you are aggregating supply, the key is to unlock new supply

One of the big areas where I see marketplaces fail is by going after an existing market and trying to amass the same supply that already exists.  So for example, a marketplace for salons or a marketplace for wedding venues or a marketplace for co-working spaces.  These marketplaces are all amassing existing salons or existing wedding venues or existing co-working spaces.  These are existing places that consumers could ordinarily find themselves and pay for directly.  You are literally just moving supply around and not growing it.  The issue with doing this is that this existing supply already has certain expectations for payment, because they are already making money for this service or asset that they provide.  This then makes it hard to be a middle(wo)man and take a cut in between.  You are competing with a strong alternative — to be found directly.

The better way to aggregate supply is unlock new unique supply.  Airbnb is a great example of this.  People were not already using their extra bedroom as a hotel room or their couch as a bed.  They don’t have the same expectations around making a ton of money unlike the Holiday Inn.  Airbnb has effectively brought a ton of new “hotel room supply” to the market that didn’t exist before.  They were not try to resell existing rooms in existing hotels.  Uber and Lyft are equally good examples of doing this in the taxi market.  They brought into the taxi market new “cab supply” that didn’t exist before, and these drivers don’t have the same expectations for monetization as existing taxi drivers.

giphy-1

Image credit: Giphy

Ultimately, unlocking new supply drives demand.  If I can stay on someone’s couch next to the Moscone to attend a conference for 50% of what I’d pay for a room at the Holiday Inn, I’d do it.  You are reducing prices for the end user by unlocking new supply, and this drives demand.

So going back to the original examples of marketplaces for salons or wedding venues, etc, can you get clever / creative in creating new supply?  Can you turn new people who are not in the salon business into a salon owner?  In many cases, doing this might just be too high of a cost and not possible, but in some cases, this approach may be a good strategy.  A good example of this is Wonderschool.  Wonderschool is turning people into new daycare owners — they are not amassing a network of existing daycares but rather unlocking and creating new ones to add to their network.  So think about unlocking new supply rather than moving existing supply around.

3) The unit economics need to work in the long run at scale

Once you initially test both supply and demand, there’s going to be a constant tension between both sides.  Sometimes you’ll be supply constrained.  Sometimes demand constrained.  Often, it may not be clear if the unit economics will work out while you’re building this up.

In fact, ridesharing companies often get a lot of flack from the public, because they are not profitable yet.  But, the holy grail for them is autonomous cars.  Once these become mainstream, they will have access to infinite supply at a low cost.  So while the short-term numbers may be questionable, the long-term future of these companies seems very promising.

Similarly, you’ll need to think about what your long term control over supply will be.  Most marketplaces that are successful have a stronghold on at least a good portion of their supply to help with pricing pressures.  Successful ad networks are a great example of this — Google may run a large ad network across many properties they don’t own, but they also own a lot of their own properties including Google search and YouTube.  Likewise, although Airbnb doesn’t own properties today, it’s rumored they are going into real estate.  So once you get some footing on your marketplace, the next question is how can you think about controlling your future by having access to or creating at least a good portion of your supply?

4) What should I look for in amassing unique supply? 

If I were to build a large marketplace today by amassing supply, I would start by looking around at what is currently wasted (space / time / assets).  Then, I’d think about how this wasted stuff might be cleverly transformed into something else that consumers and businesses currently spend a lot of money for.

Summarizing all of this, to make a marketplace fly, you need to cleverly come up with a LOT of unique supply (obv there has to be demand).  1) Turn something else into supply where people don’t have high monetization expectations (Airbnb, Uber, Lyft).  And/or 2) eventually you own it or part of it (e.g. scooters / Google search).

An analysis of going from $0 to $1m revenue in 1 month

At Hustle Fund, we talk a lot about speed of execution. Part of this is grit and founder hustle. But what most people don’t realize is that speed is also baked into the business model itself.

For example, one of the things that people don’t realize is how much sales cycles and payback periods matter.  As a concrete example, fast growth direct-to-consumer companies are now able to go from $0 to $1m revenue within a month or two with just < $25k in ad spend. This is incredibly fast — unprecedented and very low cost.

How is this possible? All because of fast sales cycles. Let’s dive in:

Let’s start with a simple example. Suppose the following:

  • We start with $25k in ad spend on day 1
  • As soon as people click on our ad, they buy immediately and we get that revenue immediately
  • For every $1 we spend on our ads, we make an average $1.15 in revenue
  • We pour everything back into ads the next day
  • You can see that within a month, we are at an almost $2m revenue generated with just initial ad spend of $25k! This is crazy. You can raise a small pre-seed tranche and get to Series B benchmarks within a month.

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 3.05.37 PM

Now, in practice, the scenario I’ve outlined is near impossible. Namely, most of the time, your ad spend is not this effective on day 1 and often requires iterations and testing. Moreover, it often takes some time to clear with your payments provider even if you generate revenue right after someone clicks your ad.

But this scenario is actually not that far off from what many of the direct-to-consumer incubators are achieving.

Ok, let’s add some delay to make this a bit more realistic. Let’s suppose:

  • We start with $25k in ad spend on day 1
  • As soon as people click on our ad, we do get our initial ad spend back immediately but we don’t make any profit until the even numbered days
  • For every $1 we spend on our ads, we average $1.15 in revenue (on the even days)
  • We pour everything back into ads each day

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 3.07.06 PM

This is a contrived example (profit only on even numbered days??  weird.), but you can see in this example, we went from a near $2m revenue generated at the end of the month to just a $200k revenue generated, even though the delay in our profit is not that long. Not only that, we are making about half the profit as before, but our revenue generated has now dropped by nearly 10x. Why? Because time is a compounding factor.

So when investors are concerned about sales cycles and payback times, this is what they mean. Regardless of whether you are using ads to get customers, if you calculate this out, you can see how just small affects in sales cycles / payback periods hurt you big time. The other thing is that as an entrepreneur, you’re working just as hard in the first scenario as in this one, but your sales are affected 10x.

Both of these examples are still a bit contrived, because as I mentioned above, you usually don’t know if your ads — or any of your customer acquisition channels – are working (they probably aren’t) on day 1.

So now let’s assume that you don’t start with $25k in ad spend.  Let’s start with $5k. Suppose the following:

  • We start with $5k in ad spend
  • As soon as people click on our ad, they buy immediately and we get that revenue immediately
  • For every $1 we spend on our ads, we make $1.15 in revenue
  • We pour everything back into ads the next day
  • We add an additional $5k in ad spend every 5th day

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 3.08.12 PM

You can see that with this example, we can get to near $1m revenue generated by the end of the month ($800k+). In this case, we end up spending a bit more on ads, but this is a more gradual (and realistic) approach to ramping up ad spend. Again, in this example, because we make the $1.15 for every $1 immediately, you can see that this helps us achieve greater revenue than in the prior example.

Here is the spreadsheet with these 3 examples that you can copy and play with.  I’d encourage you to fiddle with the levers of this model in the green boxes. The amount you make for every dollar of spend. The payback periods. Ramping up ad spend. Etc.

In your own business, how can you decrease your sales cycle + payback period by even just 10%? How can you increase your margins by even just 5%? These all add up significantly as you can see over short periods of time.

The tl;dr is never underestimate the value of time in making money.

Featured image credit: Freeimages.com

5 startup opportunities that will be big in 2019

Happy new year!. Lunar new year!  (a month has gone by while I’ve been sitting on this post)

Here are some other 2019 VC predictions that I’ve enjoyed reading:

Here are some things that I think will be big in 2019:

1) Furthering vocational education

I think traditionally, a lot of investors have been shy to invest in education. In US, let’s be honest — we don’t really care about education! Here’s a good post that my friend Avichal Garg wrote on the education landscape several years ago which I think still applies today in the US.

But the tide is changing a bit. Specifically, what we’re seeing in the US is massive student debt. And new college graduates are not able to get a job or a high paying job. For so many people in the US, if you are not majoring in a STEM subject, it probably does not make sense anymore to go to college. Period. The economics of college are just terrible.

So while we don’t care about education in the US, we do care about business and return on investment! And it does make sense now to provide education of “useful” topics for the workplace — for a job, for livelihood. This is why we see the rise of Lambda School which ties your livelihood outcomes to your cost of education.  And there are many other schools that are cropping up such as Make School and Kenzie Academy (we are investors at Hustle Fund) that are trying to teach useful topics that you can actually use and are willing to pay for, because you can use those skills to make money.

I think we will see a lot of new businesses stemming off of this trend.

We’ll certainly see more schools — both in-person and online covering more topics. Everything from coding to digital marketing to sales to even entrepreneurship. But also vocational categories as well. Can you teach medical skills or plumbing skills using VR headsets remotely?

Additionally, I think there will be businesses stemming off of these. Lots of new ways to loan money to students. New ways to provide socialization and networking for remote students. New real estate opportunities for these students.

2) Improving commutes

Commutes are terrible! (and a big waste of time). This year, we will see a lot of businesses built around making your commute better. Commutes can get better in two ways: A) By actually reducing your door-to-door time and B) by making the experience while commuting better. We’ll see opportunities in both.

A) There will be new ways of commuting in less time.

This is really what the rise of Bird and Lime is all about. When it’s faster and cheaper to go from say SOMA to the Financial District of San Francisco by scooter vs car AND is accessible to everyone, people will do it. In contrast, not everyone can ride a bicycle or a skateboard (e.g. more expensive, need balance or skills – not accessible to all)

But scooters really only work in warm-ish places where there are bike lanes / wide enough roads. E.g. places where it snows / places that don’t have bike lanes won’t be great markets in the long run. So there’s an opportunity to come up with a mode of transportation and model that can withstand weather / lack of bike lanes. My guess is that we will just see further advancement of ridesharing combined with autonomous vehicles. An early version of this might be effectively new autonomous bus lines that just go up and down streets continuously.  This is already starting to happen in some cities.

giphy

Photo credit: Giphy

B) As people drive less, they will have more time during their commute

This is a big opportunity for people to do more work, shop, and play more too. For example, we’ll likely continue to see growth in podcasts and tools for podcasts this year. Spotify made clear that they believe in this opportunity by announcing two acquisitions in podcasting this week.

But we might also see the emergence of new commuting activities. Such as new commerce models. In Asia, for example, lots of people shop while waiting for public transportation like this:

paypal-qr-code-smrt

Photo credit: Tech In Asia

Perhaps we will see shopping happen in rideshares — this is already happening — some startups are going after this opportunity.

We may even see new fitness activities. Peloton allows you to exercise at home in a social way. Can you do this on the road? Can you take a stretch class in an Uber? Can you run from Zombies or have a coach yelling in your ear while you run to work?

A general trend we’ve been seeing over the years is the ability to entertain yourself in a retail location, and later this entertainment was brought into the home and then later yet, taken anywhere, especially while commuting.  For example:

Before, you shopped at the mall -> Later you shopped on your Desktop browser at home -> Now shop on your mobile device while commuting

Before, you played video games at the mall -> Played video games on your Desktop -> Now play video games on your phone while commuting

Before, you watched shows at the theater -> Watched shows at home -> Now, you watch shows on your phone while commuting

Before, you went to the gym to workout -> Now, you work out at home -> Later, will you work out while commuting?

Maybe.  I can’t predict the future, but I can tell you that people will have more time with their commutes.

3) Furthering entrepreneurship

When I grew up in the Silicon Valley in the 1990s, entrepreneurship was a ridiculous idea. You were a maverick if you were an entrepreneur. This is no longer the case. You’re pretty mainstream if you’re an entrepreneur today. Even outside of Silicon Valley, so many people have side businesses.

I think entrepreneurship as a category has gotten so big that it needs to be segmented. There are fast growth tech startups — these are the ones that VCs like to find and back. There are brick and mortar retail businesses. Like cafes and restaurants. And there’s a new emerging but fast growing category that I call the “micropreneur”. Micropreneurs are < 10 person companies that are supported largely by existing web platforms and online distribution. With just a handful of people, these founders can generate as much as $100k-$1m per employee because they can leverage a lot of existing infrastructure — online payments, website builders or online store platforms, and even easy-to-use “pseudo-developer tools” such as Zapier. Micropreneurs are fueled by the rise in platforms that help people get a business off the ground — such as Shopify or Webflow (we are investors at Hustle Fund) or Stripe or Udemy. Or even YouTube and Instagram! They are often bootstrapped and often start as side businesses that sometimes become full-time businesses. And unlike tech unicorns, there are tons and tons of them.

I think 2019 is the year where we see products, platforms, and content for the micropreneur.

  • Entrepreneurship education platforms (could be schools / bootcamps / etc of sorts) especially in areas of customer acquisition
  • Loans / financial solutions to provide non-VC funding for these businesses
  • Unique platforms and tools that can make it easy to start a “scalable” micro business
  • networking platforms and clubs (like a YPO for this segment)

In general, I believe that if you can help people make more money, that is the easiest sale, and microentrepreneurs are hungry to buy things that will fuel their businesses that are already doing well.

4) Crypto tools and crypto platforms

Although we’re in the bear markets with crypto, I am bullish on the long term use of cryptocurrency. Why? Fiat works fine in many places.  But, I think what we are increasingly seeing is monopolistic behavior on the internet.

I applaud CEO of CloudFlare Matthew Prince for writing this post a couple of years ago about free speech on the internet.  In this post, he talks about how CloudFlare came to the conclusion they should terminate The Daily Stormer as a client.  It was a difficult decision, not because he agreed with the Daily Stormer’s ideology, but rather because he didn’t believe that internet companies should be policing the internet for people who hold opposing ideologies.

But this is happening.  We’ve seen a lot of large internet companies terminate relationships with people they don’t agree with.  As a response to that, I believe we’ll see new sites crop up to try to bring back a “free internet”.  Payments are usually at the front of new waves of trends, so I suspect, we’ll see decentralized payment options pop up as a response to PayPal / Stripe / et al kicking people off their services.  Technology tends to start off with illicit use cases (such as the VHS tape used for pornography) but then ends up becoming mainstream.

In order for people to pay each other with cryptocurrency, we need reliable and easy-to-use infrastructure that mainstream consumers can use. This includes digital wallets for storing cryptocurrency, easy-to-use exchanges for moving money from currencies to fiat, accounting solutions for cryptocurrency, etc.  Entrepreneurs are currently building in all of these areas, and I’m bullish on innovation in all of these.

In this space – I think the winners will have to be incredible product designers who can build great user experiences.
5) Verticalization of B2B SaaS

In North America, B2B horizontal SaaS business ideas are largely saturated. Not 100%, of course, but for the most part, we have marketing software, sales software, HR software, customer service software, and communications software that largely works. Some of these tools may be clunky archaic experiences, but they are here to stay — at least for a while, in my opinion.

So I think the B2B SaaS opportunities that people will focus on are verticalized use cases.  E.g. Marketo for XYZ industry. Software built around particular sales cycles and workflows for industries like real estate, construction, farming, retail, etc. We already see this happening, but I think there will be a lot more of these types of businesses built around verticals in 2019.

I could be completely wrong on any and all of these predictions! And, even if I’m right, outside of these 5 categories, there will be, of course, many more businesses built.

What startup opportunities do you think will be big in 2019?

Featured Photo credit: World Economic Forum