3 Things I learned about seed investing in 2015

Inspired by my friend and colleague Andrea Barrica, I want to reflect a bit on what I learned in 2015 about seed investing.

I joined 500 Startups as an investor in April 2015, where I run the Mountain View accelerator.  Since then, I’ve led or strongly advocated for 30-40 investments, and I’ve analyzed a lot of data from 500 Startups’ near 1500 portfolio companies.

These are my biggest takeaways:

1. Product-market fit trumps all

As an entrepreneur and now as an investor, I’ve met a ton of highly accomplished, smart founders with strong domain expertise.  I’ve also seen many of these people fail to grow their business because they just can’t find product-market fit.  A smart founder can increase his/her chances of success by being self-reflective and trying to pivot around to improve the unit economics of a business or finding a peripheral product that has more market demand.

But, at the end of the day, hitting upon a product that lots of people use at the right price point is out of a founders’ control.  It’s called luck.  

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If you ask investors to pick the #1 criteria they look for in a company, many would say “team” or “market” (and obviously, there are many criteria that investors look at – not just one). Having seen so many companies with both great teams and awesome markets fail, my #1 criteria would be product-market fit.

There are a lot of great founders out there in the world and a lot of big markets, but there are not a lot of products that have product-market fit.  I don’t want to bet on luck.

2. Speed is the best indicator of an awesome team

When investors say they are looking for “awesome teams,” I never understood what they meant.  How do you know whether a team is awesome?  (especially if you don’t have history with that team).

Referrals can be an OK vetting source, but having looked at a lot of companies this year from referrals, I’ve found that referrers have very different definitions of who are “awesome teams.”  Plus, it can be hard to discern how strong the referral is.

I invest in accelerator companies to learn more about teams.  What I’ve learned via the 500 Startups accelerator this year has above and beyond dominated my learnings from doing straight up angel or seed investments.  When you do a seed deal, you put money in, and while you might get reports every once in a while, you never really know what exactly is happening at the company.

When teams come to our space in Mountain View, I get to learn in detail about how they think about their business, how they work together, and how they mobilize.  I get to see everything – from the wins to the founder drama to seeing founders go through aha or learning-moments.

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So who are the best teams?  It turns out the best teams are not necessarily the oldest, the youngest, the most experienced, the best-credentialed, or even the smartest.

The best teams are the ones who move quickly; they are fast in all respects.  They execute on short time frames –  time to push product, time to learn, time to hire or fire, time to resolve founder-drama and morale-issues.  They don’t let issues build up. They nip them in the bud.  They tackle challenges head on and immediately.  They are not afraid to ask questions to clarify what they don’t know and are very quick to learn and get help.  How fast a team moves is the best indicator of the greatness of a team, and being quick also helps to extend a team’s runway and try lots of experiments to increase chances of getting to product-market fit.

3. Unit economics > Growth numbers

Although a lot of investors are all about growth growth growth, I’ve seen a ton of high growth companies with poor unit economics get stuck in the later stages of fundraising.

Surprise surprise! Profitability does matter at some point.  If a company is losing more money by selling products than not, this is a very bad sign, even if your growth is phenomenal.

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To an outsider not in venture-backed startups, this may sound like a ludicrous insight.  Afterall, shouldn’t investors be looking at whether businesses are viable?  This isn’t altogether obvious in the Silicon Valley.  There’s a pervasive mentality that you should grow quickly so that you can be a winner who takes the whole market.

This is fodder for a much longer blog post, however, I think this “growth-at-the-expense-of-unit-economics” is really only beneficial to perhaps 5% of venture backed companies.  If you are a business who needs everyone to be using your product in order for it to be valuable, then growing at the expense of unit economics makes sense.  Think Uber.  Think Facebook.  But if you’re, say, a SaaS business or an ecommerce company, your 100th customer’s experience is really not any better because you overpaid for the first 99.

Unit economics for the win.

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Cover photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Why you should cold-email Steve Ballmer

I’m continuing my series on sales tips that have worked well for me over the years.  Yesterday, I wrote about how to cold-email.  Today I’ll talk about who should get your cold-email.  Hint: it should be (someone like) Steve Ballmer.

For my company LaunchBit, I sell ads, but often I don’t know who the decision maker is at a given company.  Sometimes, even after looking through LinkedIn, there can be so many potential decision makers.  What to do?

Aim high

If you don’t know who your decision maker is, email high up in an organization.  I’m talking really high.  Like the CXO level  (SVP and VP levels are OK, too).  This can be REALLY DAUNTING, especially if you are emailing a CXO at a large company.  For a previous company, I used to email a lot of CXOs at Fortune 1000 companies, and the first several emails made me quite nervous.  I was afraid to say the wrong thing.  I was afraid I would hear a mean response.  I was afraid I would hear nothing at all.  But after a while, each email started to mean less and less.

When you email these people, the goal is not to get a meeting with them.  The goal is to get an introduction to your decision maker.  For example, for LaunchBit, I might cold-email the VP of HR at a company, and my call-to-action will be: “Who is the best person to speak with for 20 min about this?”  Even though the VP of HR may know nothing about marketing or ad buys, my hope is that he/she can simply cc the person I want to reach.  Then, this person, my decision-maker, is basically obligated to speak with me because a higher-up added him/her to the email thread.

Higher-up people are more responsive

Aiming high has other benefits, too.  Not only is it easier for them to  delegate down, but there is also a reason people in high positions are where they are.  Even though they may be busier, do you think you get to be VP of HR if you’re not responsive to emails?

You are the CEO.  Act like one.

Still sound daunting?  Even though you may feel small, you should remember that you’re the CEO of your startup. You should be dealing with others at the same level.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how you can find Steve Ballmer and others’ email addresses.

Who do you email when you don’t know who your decision maker is?

 

Cover image credit: Microsoft PDC 

You’re thinking about startup work-life balance all wrong

<RANT>

Most people (including many of my friends, peers, investors) think startup work-life balance is about time – like it’s an 8 hour day or something.  But they are ALL wrong.  Let me digress and come back.

I loved my teenage years.  But, when I describe them to other people, most people think they sounded horrible.  Why?  Because I did homework all the time.  I didn’t go to parties.  I didn’t hang out with friends outside of school.  I didn’t watch TV or movies (I think The X-Files was popular sometime in those years, but to this day, I still don’t know whether Mulder/Sculley was the guy or the chick.)  I spent most Friday nights doing math.  And I programmed for fun.  My parents aren’t Tiger parents.  I just loved it.  That WAS BALANCE to me.  Would I have wanted to take 4 more AP classes?  Hell no.  I would’ve broken down.  Would I wanted to have gone to parties.  Absolutely not – I wouldn’t have had time to work on our robots.  Spending that rough amount of time compartmentalized in that way was right for me.  It made me happy. Things progressed and went well on all fronts.  But, this kind of schedule wouldn’t have been right for other people.  I know lots of people who had this kind of schedule growing up and hated it.  That’s too bad.  Looking back, it was clearly wrong for them.  Conversely, I have other friends who spent way more time studying and on their geeky hobbies than I did and equally loved their time.  I wouldn’t have been able to have had their schedules, but it was the right balance for them.

So, going back to the startup work-life balance issue.  On one hand, you have this article which talks about Elon Musk taking one vacation in the past four years – as if that’s an unbalanced bad thing.  Frankly, it sounds to me like he doesn’t need vacation very often.  That IS BALANCE to him!  On the other hand, Ryan Carson often describes his 4-day week, and that’s balance to him.  Both Musk and Carson are manning fast-moving ships. Balance isn’t something you can quantify as a set amount of time.

Some people work more quickly than others.  Some people think more quickly than others.  Let me dive into something concrete.  People in our industry seem to applaud all-nighters.  Every time you pull an all-nighter, it could be that you don’t need much sleep, and that your optimal achievement-level is on very little sleep.  But, it could also mean that you’re just a lot dumber and less efficient than your peers who could do the same thing without pulling an all-nighter.  I’ve certainly pulled lots of all-nighters at LaunchBit that made me feel super slow the next day.  Clearly, that’s not my optimal point on a regular basis.  We need to think about what schedule is optimal for each of us on an individual level.

So let’s STOP talking about work-life balance in terms of 8-hour days or some other arbitrary fixed amount of time.  Let’s START talking about how we can all find more productivity on an individual level while keeping the ship moving quickly, having fun, and without breaking ourselves.

</RANT>

Surviving 2016 as a seed stage startup: Don’t batten down the hatches but take an umbrella

In late 2008, I was about to turn in my 2 week resignation at Google to start a company when Sequoia sent out a presentation to their portfolio companies.  In their 56 slide presentation of doom and gloom, they told their companies to batten down the hatches and expect to survive a year without external funding.  I ended up leaving Google during one of the worst economic downturns in the last decade, a seemingly stupid move at the time but actually one of the best moves I could have made in my career.

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Image credit: Giphy

Since then I’ve moved to the other side of the fence as an investor.  From my purview at 500 Startups in talking with many seed investors – both angels and VCs – this is what I predict will happen in 2016.  (Note: these are my opinions and not my employer’s):

1. Raising seed capital from VCs who invest in all stages will become challenging.

Investors who invest at all stages are increasingly reserving more capital for follow-on to keep their existing portfolio companies afloat longer.  The IPO markets have been tough, and late stage investors are realizing their unicorns actually are just My Little Ponies in a Halloween costume.  It’s just really hard to get liquidity these days in the late stage game.

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2. Angel investors will reduce their seed investments.

When polling several angel investors, the general feeling is that angels will also be parring back on their startup investments.  For angels, they are not tied to investing in startups per se – they simply want to invest money in channels that will yield good returns.

Some say that if/when the Fed increases interest rates, people will pour their money back into interest-bearing accounts.  Although the interest rates will still be significantly lower gains than, say, holding an index of good startups, if angels cannot get liquidity for their earlier startup investments, they’ll prefer accounts that allow them to take out their cash immediately.

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3. VCs who invest solely in seed companies will continue investing at the same cadence if not increase their investment speed.

Micro VCs such as 500 Startups will continue to invest business-as-usual in 2016 and may potentially even increase our investment cadence opportunistically.  The best times to invest are when others are fearful.  I’ve heard from other VCs who invest solely in seed startups that they plan to do the same.

That said, because I know that it may be challenging for our portfolio companies to raise from downstream investors, it will be extra important for me to believe that companies I invest in will 1) survive even without downstream capital and 2) have the traction to potentially bootstrap for a while if need be.  What this really translates to is that I’ll be extra careful to make sure that a company has really solid unit metrics; growth matters, but unit economics matter more, especially in times like these.

4. All points above don’t apply to international investors.

The general assumption of the above points were for American investors.  That said, international investors are investing very differently.  I see interesting market changes in other places, where many investors are divesting their money into American markets or away from older industries.

Never before has it been more advantageous in the startup world to speak a second language.

What is different between now and 2008?

It seems that every 8 years, money seems tight.  In 2008, raising money as a startup was brutal.  In 2000, we had the dot com bust.  In 1992, we were in a recession.  In 1984, we were pulling out of a really long recession (or so I’m told).

This time, it’s not going to be doom and gloom.  There are plenty of VC firms that have recently raised capital; there is a lot of available cash for startups.  The economy is generally doing well, but investors are cautious.  They are waiting to see what happens to existing unicorns before ploughing more money into new startups.  They are waiting for liquidity.  And yet, there is still plenty of money to go around that needs to be invested.  So, if you are a seed stage startup with a lot of traction and solid unit metrics, you will get funded.  It will be business as usual for you.

However, if you are a seed stage startup with an idea and zero traction or if your unit metrics don’t quite look good or if your growth is say, 5% MoM, it will be a lot more challenging for you to raise in 2016 than it was in May 2015.

What do you suggest?

If you have decent traction numbers for a seed stage company, you should raise money at the beginning of 2016.  Make sure you have enough cash for 18 months, if possible (or can survive off revenues).  Keep your burn low.

If you don’t have the numbers at all, I would go heads down right now and bootstrap to get them.  Times like these are actually good – they force companies to focus on their business because they have no other choice.

Although it was scary leaving my job at Google in 2008 to do a startup (we could not get any funding), ultimately, it helped me focus on the business and not get distracted.  And, times like these also weed out people who are serious about their business and those who are wantrepreneurs.

No need to batten the hatches this time around.  But take an umbrella.

Special thanks to Dave McClure and Brian Wang for their input on this post.

5 things a non-technical founder can do

For all intents and purposes, I’m the non-technical co-founder of my internet company LaunchBit, an ad network for email.  I barely write a line of code anymore.  So what do I do?  I sit around and boss people around. I’m the ideas person.  I write strategy docs.  I manage products.

When I started my failed startup Parrotview, I had no idea what to do.  This is a primer that I wish I’d received myself.  Moreover, if you are a non-technical entrepreneur looking for a technical co-founder, showing that you can do these things effectively will set you apart from nearly everyone else.

Customer Development

As a non-technical co-founder, it can be easy to sit around and do nothing in the beginning because no product has been built. Actually, this is when you are MOST needed.

When there is no product, your job as a non-technical co-founder is to somehow get customers AND keep them happy.  (tweet this)

At the beginning of a potential business idea, I would meet with random people of our target demographic to ask them questions about their pain points and problems. When I first started customer development, it was really daunting.  I would often have to cold-call and approach random people I didn’t know to do these customer interviews. It was absolutely necessary to make sure we were solving a problem, and it was a my job.

Wizard of Oz Customer Validation

Then, after figuring out what problem to tackle, my co-founder Jennifer and I would figure out the minimum viable product (MVP) we’d need to create.  Since speed is everything, we forced ourselves to do MVPs in 2-4 weeks.  This meant there wasn’t a lot of time to build much technically.  So, most of our MVPs have been very concierge-style.  To put it bluntly, the product was just us doing operations manually behind the curtains.

For example, with LaunchBit, our advertisers emailed us their creative, and our publishers would copy and paste it into their newsletter.  Advertisers would send money to my personal PayPal account.  There was no ad server.  No dashboards.  Virtually no technology in v1.  Once we started getting more advertisers and publishers with this approach, things started becoming chaotic.  We needed to keep campaigns straight and keep track of who paid and who needed to be paid.  Sometimes, because there was no technology, mistakes would be made.  A publisher might inadvertently leave off the last couple of characters in an ad campaign.  Or an advertiser might forget to include an image. I’d have to sort out those mishaps.

Customer Service

As a result, both advertisers and publishers would get frustrated or angry because this concierge-style service was tedious – not just for us but everyone involved.  It both hurt a lot and was incredibly exciting to hear these complaints.

Complaints are our #1 indicator that someone even cares about what we are doing.  Indifference is our #1 enemy.

Doing customer service was also my job.  (In parallel, after we had all these customers clamoring for a non-manual product, my co-founder Jennifer started coding like a madwoman to address the most complained about issues.)

Direct Sales

In parallel to Jennifer’s product-building, we needed to keep getting new customers to continue getting feedback to make sure we were improving.  So, I would do a lot of cold-calling and cold-emailing to keep a pipeline full of customers.

I’d never been a salesperson before, so much like with customer development, it was difficult at first to work myself up to emailing and calling random people to do sales.  It still is sometimes.

Growth Hacking

Lastly, once you have product and market fit, it’s the non-technical co-founder’s job to figure out how to grow.  It could be through business partnerships and direct sales.  It could be through online marketing, including advertising, content marketing, built-in product, and virality.  Since your particular company’s growth could come from a number of different channels, the most important skillset at this stage is to figure out a) how to test lots of growth channels quickly and b) how to measure those tests both qualitatively and quantitatively to see what is working.

I’m certainly no expert on all of these things, but these are the skills I’ve found to be the most important as a non-technical founder.  This is what I think non-technical co-founders should be doing in a startup to make themselves useful.  What does the non-technical co-founder of your startup do?

Cover photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

6 Things I’ve learned about careers in the last decade

I’ve been working full-time for the past decade or so, and here’s everything I’ve learned about careers.

tl;dr

Believe in your f***ing self.  That’s it.  That’s all that matters.  Everything else stems from this.  

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1. Failure opens doors to success.

My first job out of college was in customer support/sales in Tokyo.  Getting that job was a total fluke.  One month into it, I got fired.  I couldn’t speak or write Japanese very well, so my company didn’t want me talking with customers.

I was devastated.  Who gets fired from their first job within a month???

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Turns out it was one of the best things that happened to me.  In the subsequent weeks,

  • I got moved into the marketing department at the same company.  Even though they’d fired me, they let me stay for a year, and my job was much more interesting going forward.
  • Because I was not allowed to stay at my job for more than a year, I got into business school at MIT Sloan at age 23.

When one door closes, you’re forced to find another one to open, and that one could be better.

2. Don’t worry about what other people think.

One day in grade school, I was upset by something that some kid on the playground said.  My dad said, “Don’t worry about what other people think.  They can think whatever they want.  They can think you’re 10 feet tall, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

This turned out to be the best advice I’ve ever followed.

In late 2008, Sequoia came out with their famous presentation on how they were going to stop investing.  This was a week before I’d planned to turn in my 2 week notice at Google.  I briefly thought that maybe I should not go through with leaving Google to start my own company.

In the end, I decided to leave.  I left during the biggest downturn in the last decade.  Everyone thought I was crazy and stupid, and lots of people told me so.

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This turned out to be one of the best decisions of my career.  Had I cared what other people thought, I would’ve lost out on the opportunity to learn a TON about growing a company, work with amazing people and partners, sell my company, and get multiple opportunities to join various VC firms as a partner (not to mention a financially better outcome than staying at the GOOG all these years…).

Worrying about what other people think prevents you from taking risks and, by definition, limits your reward.

3. Persistence trumps all.

When you learn to play the piano or soccer, people always tell you to practice to get better.  You read stories about Michael Jordan, who got cut from his basketball team initially and then practiced night and day to eventually become the best basketball player to play the game.

When it comes to other things such as starting a business, no one tells you to practice.  No one tells you that you need to do 5-100 startups before hitting upon some semblance of success.

Since high school, I’ve had many startups and side projects including Pajel, Bazaar, The Stacks, &Backpocket, Parrotview, Shiny Orb, DressMob, and LaunchBit.

The first one (Pajel) was horrible.  It was a web design company that my friends and I started in high school.  This was in the dark ages when no one had websites.  We had 0 paying customers. Zippo.  Nada.  I was so scared to talk to customers, so no one paid us.

Each venture I’ve done has gotten better.  Still no billion dollar successes yet, but each one has been a step in the right direction.

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For LaunchBit, I was still scared to pick up the damn phone, but I had no choice in the beginning. I had to work the phones, or we wouldn’t have ramen to eat.  Like everything else, you get better.  By the time we brought onboard our first sales hire, I had sold near $1m in ads myself.

Anything worth doing is hard.  Just keep going.

4. Optimize for one thing.

There are many blogs that give you advice on what job you should take.  They tell you things like: Take a big corporate job that will challenge you.  Work at a startup.  Start your own company.  Work for the best boss possible.  Hop on a rocket ship.

You can only optimize for one thing at a time in your career.  Think about what that one thing is.

In my early 20s, I optimized for travel.  I wanted to be paid to work internationally.  That’s it.  This is how I ended up working, interning, and doing gigs in Switzerland, Japan, New Zealand, and India between college graduation and when I turned 25.  During that time, I had to forgo making lots of money or working at a notable company or fast-growing startup, or even living near my friends in San Francisco.

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What you optimize for may change over time, but you can only optimize for one thing at a time.

5. Find feedback buried in a haystack and improve yourself.

We all hate criticism and avoid it, but the best thing you can do for yourself is actually the opposite: grow a thick skin and seek feedback on how you can improve yourself.

The best entrepreneurs I’ve met – even rejected – ask questions like, “What can I do to win your business?”  Or, “What would it take to get you to say yes?”

Feedback is sometimes very nebulous, though.  I remember pitching one investor on my company LaunchBit.  At the end of that meeting, I asked him, “So what do you think?”  to which he responded, “Well, I don’t want to say the wrong thing and call you a meek Asian woman, but I question how you will lead 100 people…”

I was shocked.  And pissed.  Who says that?

Days later, I was reflecting back on that conversation.  I started to look at it in a different light.  I was no longer thinking about it in an angry way, but rather, what could I learn from it?  Clearly, he didn’t have conviction that I could lead a company.  If he didn’t have conviction, then how many other investors also didn’t have conviction?

Going forward, I did everything I could to combat any “meek-Asian-woman” impression that investors might have when meeting me.  I became over-the-top loud.  I sat up in my chair more.  I was more outgoing.  And it worked.  After that, I closed a lot more investors.

6. Keep perspective

As an entrepreneur, it can be easy to lose sight of the big picture.  A customer asks for a $45k refund – and you’re wondering, how am I going to deal with this?  (True situation that happened to me).  Your problems can feel so big and overwhelming sometimes.

But, in the last decade, I’ve had several friends my age die.  Cancer, car accidents, childbirth, and other sudden unfortunate fates have taken them.  Though there are plenty of problems left to solve, we live in an amazing world, and all of this can be gone in an instant.

Time is actually your most important commodity, not money.  You don’t know how much more time you have, and every day that passes, it becomes even more valuable.

Keep perspective and make sure that you are using your time wisely.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

 

Cover photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash