Nic Brisbourne's view from London on technology and startups

Dollar Shave Club and the bull case for eCommerce

By | Ecommerce, Uncategorized | No Comments

The cue for this post was Harry Stebbing’s 20MinuteVC interview with David Pakman, the partner at Venrock who led the Series A and Series B rounds at Dollar Shave Club and recently had his faith justified with a $1bn exit to Unilever.

He said that when he made those investments in 2012 and 2013 eCommerce wasn’t a hot sector with VCs and that remains the case now, but here at Forward Partners we’ve made a number of ecommerce investments and, like David and his partners at Venrock, think there will be more Dollar Shave Club scale exits going forward. We are happy investing in sectors where we see opportunity, even if others don’t.

If you poll investors for reasons not to invest in eCommerce you will generally hear three things: low margins, low multiples on exit and high working capital. Some will also throw in the threat of competition from Amazon for good measure.

These are all great points. There are plenty of eCommerce companies where these characteristics are risks and realities. Great care is advisable before investing in them. Without some extra bit of magic they will be unlikely to achieve huge exits.

But there are also eCommerce companies that escape some or all of these issues and many of them are good investment prospects. Here are three reasons why:

  • Consumers are hungry for direct relationships with the brands they buy. That’s part of the story behind Dollar Shave Club, Nike, Apple and many other iconic brands today. However, most traditional brands (think P&G, Unilever, much of traditional fashion) have never dealt directly with their customers and don’t know how. Meanwhile sales through their traditional retail channels are falling fast: creating the opportunity for upstart brands to steal significant market share. These direct-to-consumer eCommerce brands are often able to leverage their relationships and data to win on the basis of superior product. Example companies: Dollar Shave Club, Bonobos, Warby Parker and amongst our partners Spoke and Lost My Name.
  • Few traditional retailers are nailing it online. Their skills of supply chain management, curating a catalogue of product to fill their shops and in store merchandising are less important in the current online and omnichannel era. Today, inventory can be an order of magnitude larger and there are huge opportunities for curation and re-imagining supply chains. All the while, declining High Street revenues and high fixed cost bases are starving them of cash to invest in innovation. In their place what you might call eCommerce 2.0 businesses are offering consumers compelling personalised selections from massive inventories with marketplace, no-stock or stock-light models. They are able to scale rapidly and go global quickly. Amazon is the proto-typical example in this category, others include Jet.com, ASOS and amongst our partners Thread.comLive Better With, Hubbub and Patch.
  • Consumers have a range of preferences, styles and budgets and it’s hard to picture a future in which we don’t buy from a range of online retailers. Shoreditch locals don’t want to shop in the same places as investment bankers a mile south of here. As you might have read on this blog I have a ton of respect for Amazon but they aren’t going to take the whole market. In particular they aren’t good at the product categories where people don’t know what they want and traditionally look to retailers to help them make choices.

Online penetration of retail is now pushing 20% in the UK, so there is still a long way to go in this market. In his interview David said that after little interest in Series A and Series B rounds at Dollar Shave Club the Series C and Series D rounds were hotly contested. I think we will see a similar turnaround in investor appetite for eCommerce more generally.

Helpful cognitive biases and their interplay with rational thought

By | Startup general interest | No Comments

In November 2013 I saw the headline Five cognitive distortions of people who get stuff done, and thought “wow – all the cognitive biases I know get in the way of rational thought and are unhelpful”. My surprise at finding that irrational thought could be useful prompted this post at the time.

Since then I’ve been on a (slow) journey to understand the interplay between intuition and rational thought, particularly helped by Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Richard Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I wrote a number of other blog posts too, most notably Thinking fast and slow at a VC fund, Debating with intuition as well as logic, and How our rational brains justify our intuitive decisions.

The more recent posts are mostly about recognising the role intuition plays in our decision making and how to counter it when appropriate. My understanding of the importance of intuitive thinking was limited to the fact that it helps when decisions need to be faster.

Then this morning I read How Our Delusions Keep Us Sane: The Psychology of Our Essential Self-Enhancement Bias on brainpickings. It took me right back to the November 2013 ‘aha moment’ that in the right places and right doses irrational thought makes us happier and more successful. The article opens with the following paragraph:

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope,” Helen Keller wrote in her 1903 treatise on optimism. But a positive outlook, it turns out, isn’t merely an intellectual disposition we don — it’s a deep-seated component of our evolutionary wiring and the product of powerful, necessary delusions our mind is working around-the-clock to maintain. At the root of that mental machinery lies what psychologists have termed the self-enhancement bias — our systematic tendency to forgo rational evaluation of our own merits and abilities in favor of unrealistic attitudes that keep our ego properly inflated as to avoid sinking into the depths of despair [and keep us motivated when times are good].

There are two points of interest here. Firstly we are wired to be irrationally optimistic about our own abilities. Early primates who kept believing when times were hard survived and mated more often than their more pessimistic brethren. Hence being rational is hard. Secondly, being irrationally optimistic is useful – at least sometimes. Puncturing the bubble with rational analysis might result in a loss of motivation with no discernible gain.

When I think about this in the context of business activities it seems to me we need a switch. The vast majority of our opinions and hence decision making should be rational, but allowing a dose of unconscious irrational optimism helps us motivate ourselves and others. It’s how we achieve the seemingly impossible. However, we need the switch when that irrational optimism stops serving us well. When I was at Reuters Venture Capital, for example, we worked like crazy to raise our second fund in the tech nuclear winter of 2001-2003 and kept believing, but there came a point when we flipped the switch and gave up. That was painful, but it was the right thing to do. To keep trying would have been like banging our heads against a brick wall.

The challenging thing for teams is that different people have different levels of optimism, and it gets really hard when one person wants to flip the switch and others want to keep believing. That’s where the leader needs to carry her organisation (and make sure her switch is in the right place). The example I gave above was literally life and death for us, but the same dynamic plays out all the time at much smaller levels. In VC firms it often relates to whether investments will get made, in startups it often relates to whether partnerships will deliver, sales will be made, and key metrics will move. Establishing clear parameters in advance that will lead to the switch being flipped takes discipline, but is one useful trick.

Fascinating stuff.

If you have a few minutes I heartily recommend you read the full brainpickings article.

How our rational brains justify our intuitive decisions

By | Startup general interest | No Comments

I’m sure you’ve heard about how unless we’re careful we very often make our minds up about things in just a few seconds – decisions on candidates in job interviews is a well known example. Here’s how that happens.

  1. We make an intuitive, largely subconscious, decision based on what we’ve seen and learned over the years, a decision that will often display all of our prejudices and biases.
  2. The rational side of our brain seeks justifications for our decision
  3. As soon as it finds a justification the search stops. The case is closed and we move on to thinking about the next thing.
  4. We become resistant to opening up the debate again.

You might have spotted the flaw in this process already. The rational side of our brain doesn’t make a balanced assessment of the evidence it only looks for one piece of evidence to prove the case. There are pros and cons in every complex decision so we are always able to find something to justify our position, even if the weight of the evidence is wholly in the other direction.

If more rational decision making is the goal, and in a business context it generally should be, then the first step is to be aware that we all have this tendency. If you are hit by a wave of irritation when someone presents you with data that suggests you should change your mind try to take that as a signal that your rational brain might be losing out to a faulty piece of intuition.

None of us can get over this problem entirely, and rapid intuitive thinking is often appropriate.

Four reasons why startups fail

By | Startup general interest | No Comments

We see a lot of startups that fail, it’s the nature of the beast in an environment that is so incredibly fast moving and competitive. These are some of the more common and avoidable mistakes that we work hard alongside our partner companies to help them avoid.

This post was inspired by John Zeratsky’s post Eight common dysfunctions of design teams. Design is at the heart of a lot of the early important work at a startup, hence the overlap.

  1. Starting with solutions – founders start by having an idea and then most check it’s feasibility by visualising a solution. That’s the right thing to do. However, having established that there’s one potential good solution the best next step is to go back to building a deeper understanding of the problem space and customer to check if there’s a better solution. This applies to everything – product features, visual identity, copy, UX, tech stack and go to market strategy. To avoid this mistake spend time with customers and establish goals and metrics before creating solutions.
  2. Groupthink – these days companies and their products and brands need to be remarkable to win. In Zeratsky’s words: “Groups are no good at making decisions—at least not the way we normally do it. We want everyone to be happy, so we talk and talk until we’ve reached consensus on a decision. And we let social dynamics get in the way: power relationships, seniority, loud mouths, etc. This all leads to decisions that nobody is excited about—decisions that don’t reflect a unique, opinionated perspective.Solution: Use voting to capture everyone’s opinions, then lean on the decider to make the call.”
  3. Polishing a brick – as Zeratsky says, we spend far to long polishing and perfecting unproven solutions. These days a minimum level of quality and design is required before people will take notice of a new solution, but understand what that is and ship as soon as you’ve reached it. If you find yourself believing that your product will only work if it’s fully featured and highly polished you should go back and double check whether your core proposition is strong enough. To avoid this mistake give yourself deadlines that you can’t get out of. Being clear on what you have to achieve by when to get your next round of funding and breaking that down into monthly targets is a great discipline.
  4.  Shaky foundation – every startup is built on a foundation of assumptions about the customer, the product, and the world. Too often founders let those assumptions go untested, even unstated. In The Path Forward we advocate first making sure that the company’s idea is valid – and that requires listing out the assumptions and testing them to know that the fundamentals of the business are strong, that there is a need for the product and that the company has the right skills to prosecute the opportunity. Many companies move too quickly to focus on the product or even on scaling the business, but if the foundations aren’t strong growth will always be more challenging and will eventually falter. Solution: Follow The Path Forward to validate your idea and lay strong foundations that will allow you to build a valuable business.

Evolving “openness” at marketplaces

By | Startup general interest | One Comment

I just read the following quote in a post about platform failures:

Because platforms depend on the value created by participants, it’s critical to carefully manage the platform’s “openness” – the degree of access that consumers, producers, and others have to a platform, and what they’re allowed to do there. If platforms are too closed, keeping potentially desirable participants out, network effects stall; if they’re too open there can be other value-destroying effects, such as poor quality contributions or misbehavior of some participants that causes others to defect.

Marketplaces are a type of platform in which Forward Partners routinely makes investments. They make up around one third of our portfolio. We love these companies because (done right) they are better for the supply side and the demand side and because at scale they exhibit significant network effects which make them very valuable.

The early marketplaces were modelled on stock markets and were very open. Companies like ebay offered full visibility over supply and demand, few restrictions on who could use the platform and let the marketplace determine pricing. More recently marketplaces have started operating more curated models with much less transparency and more control over pricing. Uber is one of the more extreme examples – as I imagine you know passengers have to accept the car they are given and Uber decides on the pricing.

Amongst our more recent marketplace investments Lexoo is a good example of a highly curated marketplace. They connect companies with legal services but rather than have an open marketplace where customers browse through lawyer profiles they’ve built a sophisticated matching engine which identifies the best lawyers for a particular job and gets four of them to quote within twenty four hours. Similarly ClickMechanic, another of our partner companies, fixes the price of jobs that mechanics do through the platform and finds the mechanics rather than asking the customer to do the work.

In the Uber, ClickMechanic the Lexoo examples the marketplace is doing much more work than a more traditional model. Companies like ebay find the supply and demand, optimise the browsing and search process, build trust systems, and then process payment, whereas marketplaces like Lexoo, ClickMechanic and Uber are doing that, but also assisting much more with selection and making sure the transaction runs smoothly.

Getting the right level of ‘openness’ is critical to marketplaces’ success. In our experience finding the optimum level starts with the founders’ vision and then evolves following customer research and how the supply and demand side respond to early versions of the product. There’s no generic right answer but rather individual marketplaces need to find the solution that works best for their supply and their demand, as measured by conversion. The less work a marketplace does the cheaper it is to build, of course, so there is a trade-off between cost and time to market on the one side and conversion and customer satisfaction on the other. As marketplace models are moving to new industries with more complicated transactions the trend is definitely towards more cost.

 

FOMO – A dangerous game for VCs

By | Venture Capital | No Comments

“No VC has ever failed because of NOT having invested into a company.”

This quote is from Alexander Ruppert’s The first year in Venture Capital — Lessons (to be) learned. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that a couple of Associates have been fired for passing on Uber or A.N.Other hot deal of the moment, so I’m not sure it’s 100% true, but the message here is spot on. Fear of missing out is a highly dangerous for VCs.

Ruppert’s number one lesson after his first year in venture is to avoid group thinking, and that’s the context in which he offers the quote above. I agree, succumbing to the hype and seeking to beat the herd into hot deals creates perverse dynamics for VCs.

  1. Speed wins, so there’s less time to conduct thorough analysis.
  2. The time pressures can lead to difficult questions not being asked, or glib answers to difficult questions being accepted.
  3. Over-paying is a real risk. Hot companies run quasi auction processes, and the winner’s curse is at play.

So much better to rise above the fear of missing out and have the courage to chart your own path.

But the benefits of not being dominated by the fear of missing a winner aren’t limited to the quality of decision making, they extend to the efficient management of time – both for individual VCs and for firms overall.

Investors who know what they are looking for and spend their time researching and meeting companies that fit their target profile and that builds up knowledge and connections that improve their filters and decision making. They can very quickly pass on deals that don’t meet their strategy.

Investors who are afraid of missing out spend more time chasing entrepreneurs and have to spread their expertise over more areas. Their filters and decision making are much slower to improve, and processing the long tail of deals takes much longer.

Not all VCs think this way, and at a simple level it would seem that fighting hard to get into the seed or Series A of any of the today’s unicorns would have been a smart thing to do. However, survivorship bias is at work here, and the problem investors face is that it’s not clear which of the thousands of companies raising seed or Series A will go on to have outsized success. Sometimes it is the highly hyped company, but more often it isn’t.

 

UK venture post Brexit – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

By | Venture Capital | No Comments

This post originally appeared on the Forward Partners blog.

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“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” is an old French saying that translates literally as “The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing”

Before the Brexit vote there was a lot of debate about the trajectory of the venture capital markets and that has intensified considerably in the last couple of weeks. Venture investment has been pretty steady for nine months now in both Europe and the US, albeit with a lot of month to month volatility, but there are fears that the 2015 slowdown could precipitate a full on crash, that public market woes might transfer to the private markets, and now that our exit from Europe will hurt our ecosystem. In my opinion there is a danger that these fears are being blown out of proportion.

Impact of Brexit on the economy

I was as shocked and disappointed as the next Londoner when we voted to leave the EU on June 23rd and I was dismayed by the uncertainty and political turbulence that followed. However, I’m pleased that we now have a new Prime Minister and are on the road back to more stable government. My next hope is that the Labour Party regains its status as a credible opposition party.

Now that Theresa May has moved into 10 Downing Street and chosen her cabinet we can start to predict what our path out of Europe might look like.

From the perspective of the startup ecosystem, the most important question is whether we continue to allow the free movement of labour from Europe. We know that many of the best founders we see hail from countries within the EU and we want them to continue to come here, and similarly we want our partner companies to continue to easily source talent from the whole continent. London’s magic has always been that it’s a open, cosmopolitan city and few people here want that to change.

May has said many times that Brexit means Brexit and she has chosen two prominent ‘Vote leave’ campaigners for the cabinet positions that will negotiate our exit. For me that means we are overwhelmingly likely to leave the European Union, and that the decision is now between ‘hard leave’ where we fully extricate ourselves, and ‘soft leave’ where we accept continued free movement of labour in return for full access to EU markets.

Of those two options I think ‘soft leave’ is the most likely. It’s what the City of London wants and what business wants more generally, and polls conducted by the BBC are indicating that the majority of the population expects that immigration won’t fall. The interests of the country and the expectations of the electorate both point to us leaving the EU, but staying in Europe. That also seems to be what key figures in our new government want, most of whom are, above all, pragmatists. May was a ‘moderate Remainer’, Phillip Hammond, our new Chancellor, has always been pro-Europe, and before the Brexit campaign Boris Johnson, now Foreign Secretary, was an advocate of staying in Europe provided we got a better deal.

The stock markets are another indicator that a ‘soft leave’ with little disruption is the expected outcome. The FTSE 100 has recovered its losses and is now at a 2016 high whilst the more UK focused FTSE 250 is trading well above the average for 2016 to date. There is no sign that public market investors are anticipating a recession.

Foreign exchange is the one market that has moved significantly, with sterling down around 8% against the dollar from its trading range before the run up in the week immediately before the Brexit vote, but devaluation boosts exports and that will most likely be positive for the UK, and especially for our startups who have their cost bases here but sell globally.

So for me the only significant negative indicator has been sentiment, but given that there is little actual change I expect people will soon realise that their fears are overdone and return to business as usual.

Impact of Brexit on London’s status as Europe’s premier startup hub

I’ve been asked by a number of LPs whether Brexit will undermine London’s strengths as a startup hub and whether we might now lose out to Berlin. It’s true that we have voted to separate from Europe, making us a less open society and that startup ecosystems thrive on open-ness and immigration, but once again I don’t expect too much to change. As I explained above I think it likely that free movement of labour between the UK and the EU will be retained, and if that’s the case London’s attractions as a startup hub will remain undiminished.

To set it out, our deeper capital markets, English language, low taxes, low regulation, and expertise in accounting and law make this city a uniquely attractive place to found a startup.

Trends in venture more generally

We now have Q2 venture capital investment data (US and Europe) and it looks increasingly unlikely that the sharp slowdown in activity last summer will turn into a crash. Investment volume and value have been flat to up for three quarters now and whilst there’s a lot of month to month volatility and it’s hard to read the data with confidence, I expect us to trend upwards from here.

VCInvestmentByCountryv2

As you can see from the chart above activity in Europe has been particularly strong. Per capita investment levels in Europe are at least 5x lower than in the US, but the gap has been closing and over time I expect that the growth in venture activity will continue here until we approach parity.

Moreover, the fundamentals in favour of startups remain strong. The world continues to change at a faster and faster pace, pushing innovation from large companies to small companies and increasing the number and quality of investment opportunities. We are swimming with the tide.

Conclusion

There are lots of plausible scenarios as to how Brexit and the startup world will evolve over the next 12-24 months, but the most likely is that the referendum won’t change much and that the venture industry gets back to growth following last year’s correction. There are risks to that prediction, but for most of the time since 2008 we have had geopolitical risks hanging over us. Grexit, Russia/Ukraine and terrorism spring to mind as recent examples. Here in the UK we now have to add ‘hard exit’ to the list, but new risks intensify and weaken, and come and go. As operators and investors in this market the best thing to do is get our heads down and focus on building our portfolio. For potential investors it’s right to compare the geopolitical risks across different markets, but as I’ve been arguing, it seems to me that the Brexit vote doesn’t significantly change the risk profile of the UK.

E-comm opportunity – Surfacing products that consumers don’t even know they want

By | Ecommerce | One Comment

Benedict Evans recently published a post noting that there’s no Facebook of ecommerce. He notes that we get our news from sites like Facebook that direct us to articles we might find of interest from all over the world, but that when it comes to products there’s nothing similar. All we have is Amazon, which is amazing, but only when we know what we want.

As Benedict points out the main barrier to people buying things online now is knowing about them. If you know they exist you can find them on Amazon, or maybe Google. If you don’t know they exist then Amazon and Google won’t help you – you can’t search for things you haven’t thought about.

The analogue in traditional retail is walking into a shop because they have interesting things in the window, and then coming out with something you didn’t necessarily know you wanted. In this scenario the shop has generated the (foot) traffic and created a sale through curation and/or recommendation.

So, as Benedict says:

Someone needs to do the [online] demand generation – to tell you there’s something you might want.

In other words – they need to curate and/or recommend products that people don’t know, or aren’t sure, they want. That’s the broad middle of products that aren’t well known enough to be searched for but have wide enough appeal to be worth curating.

Forward Partners (and others) have been investing on this thesis for a bit now with two broad strategies:

  • Multi-brand retailers who build a loyal audience through recommendation and/or curation across a large range of SKUs. The key for these businesses is to have collections that resonate enough for customers to sign up for emails, notifications or other regular reminders to come back and check the service. This was the thing that Fab.com got very right – everybody loved receiving their Fab emails and clicked through to the site to see other cool stuff. Examples from our portfolio include Thread.com, Patch, and Snaptrip.
  • Vertically integrated single brand retailers who build an audience loyal to their small range of products. The key for these businesses is to have products that are strong enough to generate brand loyalty. Once again email is a powerful tool to drive repeat custom. There are many good sized US businesses with this approach – Bonobos and Warby Parker are two of the better known. Interestingly there are fewer in the UK and Europe. Examples from our portfolio include Spoke and Makers Academy.

The concept of the ‘broad middle’ points to other markets that might be interesting to build businesses that won’t have to compete with Amazon. In general it’s industries where there’s no dominant brand and online penetration is low – say sub 10%.

From a venture perspective the opportunities are investable if they can generate huge returns, and that’s a function of the number of people in the target market, how much they might spend with the service and the margin on that spend.

Q2 US investment data suggests fears of a slowdown are overdone

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

“Keep calm and carry on” is so deeply ingrained into the British psyche that we’ve made a national joke out of it, but that’s how I feel about business at the moment. Many in the venture world fear for the future following the slowdown in investment activity last year and the Brexit vote two weeks back, but in my opinion there’s a high chance that in the startup world the next couple of years will be similar from a prosperity perspective to 2010-2012. In other words, times will be good, but not crazy.

I say that because the fundamentals are still strong. Change is happening faster and faster which is pushing innovation into smaller and smaller companies, and the overall economy is in reasonable shape.

There are risks to this scenario, to be sure, including a messy divorce from Europe and a crash in the venture market, but I don’t think these risks are worse than other systemic risks we’ve seen in recent times – e.g. the Greek debt crisis.

I’m writing all this now because the June investment data from Mattermark is out for the US. Their post is titled Series A Rounds Slip in Q2, but to me the chart below shows that activity is pretty much flat over twelve months. That’s better than the picture looked at the end of May when we feared activity might be trending down. We shouldn’t over-egg the significance of what is so far only a one month pick up in June, but to me this data says we should keep calm, and carry on.

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Post Brexit thoughts – we need leaders

By | Comment | One Comment

I was as surprised and disappointed as most Londoners after we voted to leave Europe last Thursday but I have been shocked by the depth of everyone’s misery since.

Here’s what I think:

  • We are in for a prolonged period of increased uncertainty
  • There are plenty of hotheads but key figures like Angela Merkel and Teresa May want a sensible compromise that keeps Britain trading with Europe
  • Therefore, the likelihood is that at the end of the day we will still have free movement of labour and access to European markets for most goods and services – i.e. not much will change

The big concern for me is how much damage comes in the short term as a result of the uncertainty, a concern that’s heightened by the almost embarrassing collapse of leadership at the top of our two main political parties. The current run on property funds is a great example of fear induced value destruction. Within our portfolio there hasn’t been much fallout, but we are hearing the odd story of people sitting on their hands and not doing deals. Similarly I was with an Israeli investor today who is revisiting his plans to open a London office.

Paradoxically it seems to me that its elements of the Remain camp that are now causing the biggest problem. Their anger and fear is increasing the uncertainty we’re suffering from which is causing more redemptions, which is, in turn, increasing the anger and fear, and I could make a similar argument about sterling’s depreciation.

So I wish everyone would quit with the handwringing and get on with life, and especially with business. In the case of Forward Partners nothing has changed. I’m a little concerned that with heightened perceived risk there might be less appetite for investing in venture capital funds, and we will work a bit harder on the fundraising side of our business as a result, but other than that it’s business as usual.

For me the most worrying thing about this whole affair is how clear it now is that huge swathes of the country feel totally abandoned by our political system. It’s been hard to see that from within London, but the picture is now very clear. It’s imperative that we fix our fractured society. Otherwise we will get more protest parties and crazy votes like the one we’ve just had. Like it or not immigration is a huge part of the issue, and whilst I am totally sold on the economic benefits of bringing people into our country, it’s clear that those arguments hold little sway with most voters. These are difficult problems which will take strong leadership to fix, and at the moment it’s hard to see where that comes from.

In fact, it’s an absence of leadership that landed us in this mess in the first place.

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