Category

Startup general interest

Nailing go-to-market strategy

By | Startup general interest | 2 Comments

This chart, from First Round Capital’s recent post Leslie’s Compass: A Framework for Go-To-Market Strategy is super interesting. It’s first use is for founders to work out whether they should have a sales intensive or marketing intensive go-to-market strategy. That’s the point of the post and the summary is that if your business has the characteristics on the left hand side then your strategy should be marketing intensive and if you’re more like the right hand side you should be sales intensive. If you’re thinking this problem through at all I would highly recommend reading the whole post.

The second use, which they don’t cover, is assessing whether a business idea is likely to be successful. It’s an obvious thing to say, but unless a business can find a successful go-to-market strategy, sales will be limited and it won’t succeed. The power of this framework is that it can expose fundamental challenges to the viability of a plan even when it is only a concept, and then it can suggest ways to address those challenges.

Simple plans are easiest to execute and in this case the simple plans are ones that are either marketing intensive, or sales intensive. Plans that sit somewhere in the middle are ok, but products that have some marketing intensive characteristics and some sales intensive characteristics have an inherent contradiction that if left un-addressed will undermine success.

The most common and obvious contradiction that we see is complicated and high touch products that are inexpensive (or have low margins). Even if the product is a bullseye hit with what the customer needs, it won’t be possible to persuade them of that fact without an expensive sales effort, which won’t be covered by the value of the sale.

Other contradictions to watch out for include B2C : complex products and many customers : low fit, but the most important one is definitely cheap products that require a sales lead approach.

Business plans with contradictions like this aren’t necessarily fatally flawed, they are just more difficult to execute, and that brings us to the third and final use of this framework, which is to inform product strategy. If there is a contradiction then one solution is to resolve it through product innovation – if the contradiction is between low price and complexity/high touch then either find a way to either to take the complexity out or to charge more.

Usually those product innovations will be to enable a more marketing led approach, and to generalise, companies that move product categories from being more sales intensive to being more marketing intensive make promising bets. The shifts don’t have to be big either – convenience is a winning proposition. Examples are legion, but Slack is a great one. Last May they became the fastest company to reach a $2bn valuation in large part because they succeeded in making a product that works with a go-to-market strategy that is close to 100% marketing led. Looked at through this lens, their genius was in taking all the complexity out and enabling low touch adoption.

“Don’t run for trains”

By | Startup general interest | One Comment

Around nine years ago I read Nicholas Taleb’s seminal texts The Black Swan (2007) and Fooled by Randomness (2001) and I loved them both. For venture investors everywhere The Black Swan suddenly provided a framework and lingua franca for understanding our business – betting on extreme outcomes that have a low probability of occurring, and perhaps more subtly for those working in this world, an understanding role of chance is critical to distinguishing talent from luck (although we all need luck).

But for me the books were about more than these two key takeaways, they were also an amusingly written philosophy of life and a celebration of avoiding the herd mentality and thinking differently.

One small part of that which has stayed with me is Taleb’s oft repeated advice “Don’t run for trains”. I like this advice because running for trains is stressful and it seems to me that we often take on that stress without really thinking it through. There’s a problem, however, which is that sometimes when we miss trains it makes us late, and it’s rude to be late.

When I was riding my bike to work this morning, Taleb’s advice “Don’t run for trains” popped into my mind. That’s happened a fair few times over the years and as I’ve done before I rehearsed the argument made in the previous paragraph. Then, rather than return to thinking about my day as usually would, I pondered the advice a little longer. I wanted to resolve the dichotomy between the good and the bad sides of “not running for trains” and maybe get a better idea of what Taleb was getting at.

For me the answer is that Taleb’s point is to avoid over-valuing short term gains. If you run and get the train it feels good for a short while, but you will have forgotten it before long, so why put yourself through it. Better surely to apply yourself to something that will deliver value over the longer term. This chimes with Taleb’s long term investment strategy. In his books he repeatedly shows his disdain for investors who chase short term gains (he calls them “yield hogs”) whilst not understanding their long term risks. Moreover, running for trains is often a frenzied activity of the type that with hindsight turns out to be ill-advised.

In the startup world, examples of “running for trains” mostly involve chasing short term growth at the expense of long term value:

  • Selling a poor quality product or service which undermines the brand
  • Putting so much advertising on a web page that it destroys the customer experience
  • Tricking people onto a website with a misleading promise

Long on vision, short on execution?

By | Startup general interest | One Comment

magic-leap-whale-bs

I love the idea of Magic Leap and wish them every success in the world. Who wouldn’t want to see whales leaping out of floors like the one in the picture above?

I also don’t have any inside information about how they’re doing. But I have noted that some in the press are questioning their prospects, alleging that their videos are in effect fakes (including the one from which the still above was taken).

One of the articles I read, finished with a list of tell-tale signs that indicate a company is long on vision, but short on execution (or in this case real tech):

  • Refusing to give a launch date.
  • Refusing to talk about the tech, claiming confidentiality or trade secrets.
  • Using news of investments or hires as evidence of technological progress.
  • Promoting itself on a big stage rather than in a small room.
  • Offering a well-crafted message and vision but becoming immediately vague when pushed on actual details.
  • Offering “exclusive access” – with restrictions.
  • Confusing working hard with making progress.

I offer this list up because some of you will be writing investment decks over the holidays to start fundraising in the New Year and if that’s you, these are mistakes you want to avoid making. At the early stages at which Forward Partners invest, the most common mistakes on this list are being strong on the vision but weak on the details (particularly the short term plan) and assuming time spent on a project equates with progress.

In essence, make sure that when preparing to pitch for funding you have an inspiring big vision, but also ensure the picture you paint is underpinned with a strong plan for execution.

UK: Tech talent remains

By | Startup general interest | No Comments

screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-12-57-05

This is a chart from Atomico’s 2016 State of the Nation report. As a UK investor and citizen it’s pleasing to see that we’re the top destination for tech industry migrants by quite some distance.

What’s interesting is that this is a self-reinforcing metric. As noted elsewhere in the report, when people move country to start their company, access to talent is their primary consideration. More talent, therefore, will attract more founders, who will in turn attract more founders.

The UK has always been a very open country, and immigration from the US and India (two countries with whom we have strong historical ties) are a big driver of this statistic – although we are also the top destination for intra European tech migrants too.

We built this success story in the pre-Brexit era. Our challenge now is to maintain it post-Brexit.

Pre-seed investments work best when there’s a clear plan for short term value creation

By | Forward Partners, Startup general interest | One Comment

Most VCs will say that to evaluate deals they look at the market size, the product and the quality of the team. Different investors place different weights on the three elements but as a rule earlier stage investors place more emphasis on the team and later stage investors place more emphasis on the market. That’s because early stage companies find it easier to change their market than their team whilst later stage companies find it easier to change their team than their market.

Some very early stage investors go as far as to say that for them team is everything. If the founder is great that’s all they need to know to write a cheque. At Forward Partners we don’t go that far. We always say that the minimum requirement to back a company is a great founder AND a great idea, then for us a great idea encompasses an inspiring product vision in a large market.

Breaking that down a little further, what we’ve learned over the three and a half years we’ve been operating is that our pre-seed investments work best when the ‘great idea’ includes a clear plan for value progression in the first six months. In the sectors in which we invest that nearly always means building momentum with customers. Completing product development and hiring team members definitely helps, but it’s dangerous to assume that will be valued by new investors.

With seed stage investments and later it’s usually obvious how value will be created – by maintaining current growth in revenues or engagement. Hence spending time thinking hard about short term value creation is mostly a discipline for the pre-seed stage.

This week our thinking was put to the test by a highly competent serial entrepreneur with a great team who has a strong idea in a large market but who has yet to build out a clear plan for driving value in the short term. We compared his case with a couple of others in which we’ve invested where the short term plan was much clearer but the longer term thinking was hazier and decided we prefer the latter.

Here’s why.

Given time great entrepreneurs will find their way to big opportunities. The question then becomes “how do we give them the greatest chance of having enough time?”. The best answer to that is to generate the short term momentum which will allow them to raise more money and buy more time to navigate to the big upside. If the short term momentum doesn’t arrive then either the next round will be difficult or the company will fail – both outcomes we seek to avoid.

With most things in life, if you plan for it you are more likely to get it, and generating the momentum required to create value in the short term is no exception.

 

Fear of failure can be a good thing, absence of courage never is

By | Startup general interest | 3 Comments

Last night at FPLive I was chatting with an entrepreneur called Nick who has just closed his startup. He talked impressively about what he’d learnt and has an interesting idea for his next company which I am keen to investigate.

There’s an important point lurking in there. He has just failed with his first company but that isn’t putting us off looking at his second. In fact, the lessons he’s learned help his case.

It doesn’t happen as much as it used to but people still talk about the ‘fear of failure’ as being a much more acute problem here in the UK than it is in America, and how that dissuades people from starting companies and holds our startup ecosystem back. That talk gets my back up a bit, partly because fear of failure is rational (it hurts), but mostly because it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy – would be entrepreneurs hear that fear of failure holds our startup ecosystem back which makes them think that failure is more likely and deters them from starting their company.

Returning to my conversation with Nick. He has been working with a large corporate innovation lab and we were talking about what large companies can do to hold onto the entrepreneurs in their ranks and harness their creative power. Getting the incentives right is a big topic, covering 1) how much money they should be allowed to make, 2) how much control they should have and3) what should happen if they fail.

As an investor who’s worked with lots of entrepreneurs I know that if the aim is to retain the best talent the answer to the first two parts of this have to be 1) they can make an awful lot of money and 2) they need to be given control of their startup.

Prior to last night my view on the third point was that companies should make it easier for their employees to be internal entrepreneurs by guaranteeing their jobs in the event of failure. Now I’m not so sure. Nick pointed out that fear of failing is often highly motivating. When your back is up against the wall you are more likely to be out of bed at 6am fixing things, morel likely to burn the midnight oil, and generally more likely to keep battling when the odds start to look impossible. What he has seen is that when people can walk back to their old jobs they are less afraid of failing, that they work fewer hours, and that they give up on the startup idea more easily.

So my emerging view is that fear of failure is not really the problem here. Rather I think we should be working on the other side of the equation – courage. More specifically – how do we help people muster the courage to start companies, even when they understand that painful failure is a possibility.

Strong convictions, weakly held

By | Startup general interest | No Comments

I first came across the phrase “strong convictions, weakly held” through Marc Andreessen, but a bit of Googling showed me it was originally coined by Paul Saffo, then Director of the Palo Alto Institute for the Future. According to this post he advised his people to think this way for three reasons:

  • It is the only way to deal with an uncertain future and still move forward
  • Because weak opinions don’t inspire confidence or action, or even the energy required to test them
  • Because becoming too attached to opinions undermines your ability to see and hear evidence that clashes with your opinion (confirmation bias)

Saffo came up with this logic almost 15 years ago, and as change happens faster and faster it has become increasingly compelling, to the extent that the importance of having “strong convictions, weakly held” is starting to become somewhat of a cliche amongst many of the best investors I know.

However, it applies to the whole startup world, not just investing. In fact it applies to anyone who is (or should be) searching for the truth, or more properly the closest approximation we can get to it. Much of the time in startups we have to make decisions based on minimal information in an environment that is fast moving and where there is no objectively ‘right’ answer. The best we can do is form an opinion based on the facts in front of us and then have the courage to act on that opinion. Then, and this is often the most difficult bit, we must find the courage to change our opinion if new information suggests we were wrong.

When investing as a VC that means quickly deciding which companies make attractive prospects, having the courage to divert time from other prospects to dive in and investigate them thoroughly, then having the courage to advocate them to our partners, then continuing to be courageous by continuing to search for reasons why a deal might not make sense, and then (if necessary) having the courage to say “I was wrong about this, I don’t think we should invest in this company after all”. This last part is tricky because it requires us to park our ego on the side of the road at a time when we’re already feeling bad about our wasted work and the lost opportunity. What makes it particularly hard is that often the reasons we find for not investing are ones that in hindsight should have been obvious earlier on.

I chose investing as an example because that’s the world I know best, but I could equally have chosen startup product decisions, marketing strategy, choice of tech stack, or hiring decisions. These are all areas where the best people have an ability to form strong opinions quickly and then remain open minded.

Note how this process is about a disciplined search for the best truth that we can find. That search is undermined when ego gets in the way and opinions get entrenched, which is the more natural human behaviour. Our confirmation bias makes us look for supporting data and makes us blind to counter arguments. In the best case this path leads to poorer decisions and in the worst case it results in conflict where protagonists read different sources of information and quote orthogonal facts at each other.

Ultimately it’s the job of founders, CEOs and leaders at every level to build a culture where people have the self confidence and courage to put themselves out there by forming strong opinions quickly and where it’s ok to change your mind later. Leading by example is crucial (as ever) but it’s also important to foster an environment where everyone’s opinions are respected and given space. We make ourselves vulnerable when we express an opinion, especially a strong one, and if we get shut down or dismissed it’s harder to find the courage to do it again the next time.

In defence of liquidation preferences

By | Startup general interest | One Comment

I just read a New York Times article that led with the sentence “Deep inside a Silicon Valley unicorn lurks a time bomb”. It turns out that ‘time bomb’ is the much maligned and, I suspect, little understood, liquidation preference.
To be clear, liquidation preferences are sometimes used badly and founders should generally turn away from investors who ask for multiple liquidation preferences. Additionally, they introduce a small amount of complexity and an element of misalignment between the investor and the common stock holder (usually the founder).
For these reasons our investments at Forward Partners are always in ordinary shares.
However, most of the later rounds or companies raise feature simple 1x liquidation preferences and we’re fine with that. To explain why I’m going to look at the role liquidation preferences play in getting deals done.
In any negotiation it’s helpful to look for ways in which the counterparties see things differently to reach other. These differences create the space for win-win solutions and without them negotiations are a zero sum game.
Liquidation preferences are a useful tool because they exploit a difference in the way investors and management see the future. Generally speaking management teams have more confidence in their success than investors do. Not by much, but by enough that it makes sense for them to accept a liquidation preference in exchange for a higher valuation. That trade gives them less dilution and therefore more cash in upside scenarios but less cash (and potentially nothing) in extreme downside scenarios.
This trade off is now so entrenched that it’s become a market standard that most investors and founders make unconsciously, but they are all aware of the implications. Moreover, in the rare situation where investors offer a choice management almost always go for the higher valuation.
Furthermore, provided the instrument is kept simple (i.e. a 1x non-participating preference share) and the company is successful enough to raise a couple of million or more the complexity and misalignment are more than manageable. Then as companies get towards unicorn status management and investors get increasingly sophisticated and their ability to exploit more complex instruments increases.
None of this is to say that some companies haven’t been overvalued and that liquidation preferences haven’t contributed, but it doesn’t sound like a ‘time bomb’ to me.

Automotive data – believe the hype?

By | Startup general interest | One Comment

McKinsey have just released a report which predicts:

that the global revenue pool from car data monetization could be as high as $750 billion by 2030

That caught my attention for two reasons. Firstly $750bn is a truly huge market to come out on nowhere. For context Gartner predicts the wearables market will be $29bn this year (including Fitbit and smart watches). Secondly, in my experience it’s hard to make money out of data that’s produced as a by-product of another service, at least directly. Lots of startups have ‘sale of data’ lines in their business plans and they very rarely come to much. Rather, the way most companies make money out of the data their service produces is to use it to build better products – the way Google uses our search data to sell better advertising (and build a better search product).

The excitement is coming because cars, particularly electric cars, are increasingly connected and will generate huge amounts of data. To their credit McKinsey developed 30 use cases for automotive data. Most of the aforementioned startups don’t go that far. They just assert that their data will be worth something to somebody.

However, the excitement doesn’t make it much beyond that. Some of the use cases McKinsey lists out are interesting (predictive maintenance, usage based insurance), some a bit so-so from a revenue perspective (emergency call service, over the air software add-ins) and some are merely enabled by internet in the car (car pooling, in-car hot spots).

There isn’t much in the report on how they get from these use cases to a $450-750bn market. There are around 1.2bn cars on the road now so that would be $375-625 per car – which is quite a lot. The most obvious way that will happen is if a chunk of the maintenance and insurance markets start to become counted as part of this total.

That’s already starting to happen, particularly on the insurance side. Overall, I haven’t found the new opportunities I hoped I might when I read the report’s $750bn headline figure.

 

How aggressive should your business plan be?

By | Startup general interest | 2 Comments

I was talking with an old friend on Friday about the fundraising pitch for his startup and how his conversations with VCs were progressing. He’s got a great business and I think he will get his round away, but he felt that he was losing some potential investors because they weren’t buying into the upside of his story.

We discussed how he could add a slide making a better link from his impressive recent results to his vision of the endgame and I hope that will make a difference. We also talked about his personal style. He’s low-key and likes to present plans he feels sure he can deliver, and he has a tendency to caveat the upside. The danger with this approach is that investors are used to a punchier presentation style and assume that if the entrepreneur isn’t punchy, the upside is less likely to be realised. As an investor I feel the same way. I know that there are some founders who successfully under-promise and over-deliver, but the majority of successful founders are the other way around – they have a tendency to over-promise.

Since then I’ve been thinking about how aggressive founders should make their business plans. Here are some guidelines:

  • VCs want to back aggressive plans. That means your growth should be as rapid as possible.
  • The plan must be believable – you must believe it is deliverable.
  • Investors expect most of their investments to fail, and that nearly all under-achieve initial plans. If when you look at it objectively you have a 30-50% chance of hitting yours that’s more than enough – although you should believe in your gut that it’s much more certain than that.
  • You should believe more strongly in the first couple of years than in the out years. If you deliver over 24 months opportunities will almost certainly open up.
  • It’s important to show the path from today to the big upside. A series of big steps with no risky big leaps works best.
  • Increasing your financial projections in the expectation that investors will discount them falls foul of the earlier points, and undermines trust.

It’s common for entrepreneurs to start with a big endgame that they think will work for VCs and then work backwards to build a plan that gets there. If you’re going to take that approach then make sure the plan is credible, as per the advice above. If not think about a smaller goal and perhaps different types of investors.