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What most people don’t know about being a startup CEO/founder

Techblogs tend to paint a glamorous picture of how easy it is to raise a billion dollars in funding and build a startup. Reality is very different – it is hard work, a long journey and compared to a job, you are never really off the job.

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As a startup founder for 20+ years and counting, 10 years as an angel investor, and lately  a Venture Capital investor through BootstrapLabs, I have seen a number of interesting patterns in startup founder’s/CEO’s behavior.

One thing I think a fair bit about is the ‘obsessive’ behavior of successful founders that I advised and invested in for the past 10 years (and I see this trait in myself as well…).

Startup CEOs are working super hard, and not always at the office. They always seem to be preoccupied, which drives spouses and family members crazy sometimes.

It’s not that they are literally working 90+ hours a week in an office, doing work tasks such as coding, recruiting, selling, etc. Once they start to grow their team and begin getting traction, to be successful they need to shift into how to really drive the business. And they always need to be thinking about the next big thing, and how to get the company to the next level or stage of growth.

The reason for this is that startups are not really executing a business model, they are in search of a hyper scalable business model. And that search continues until they get escape velocity, die, or divest for other reasons.

So on the journey of a startup CEO you don’t have a quiet moment in your head most days, you are constantly thinking about your ‘baby’, and trying to figure out how to solve problems 24/7 around the clock 365 days a week (or sorry, I mean per year).

As I tell many founders that pitch us at BootstrapLabs, you need to surround yourself early on with a team that shares this ‘obsessive’ behavior to drive your startup forward. And your most important job is to find those people and make them excited about the being part of the journey.

So even when having dinner with friends, or taking care of the kids, or in the morning shower, the founder/CEO is thinking that to hit that $5 million annual run rate to raise the “A” round, you need to ramp up hiring of the sales force and marketing teams. And you need somebody that has experience in X and skills in Y. Or that a particular piece of the product is inhibiting the growth, or is not good enough to drive Product Market Fit, etc.

When launching a new startup: You usually start in a search & discovery mode – that seems to be all over the place for many of the people around you. But once you start to get data points and validation of what you do, you need to quickly shift into a very different approach that is laser focused. At the same time you need to stop every 2 weeks or so and question just about everything and make sure that your assumptions are still valid.

From early assumptions to Laser Focus: Once you have found what to zoom in on, your most scarce resource is actually neither money or time, but personal attention span – which is why most startup CEO’s go into a reductionist mode to create a clear focus on the most important things that need to happen to bring the company to the next level. If you focus on the right things at the wrong time, your company dies.

This is why there are a few key things you need to learn early on as a founder/CEO of a startup:

  • You need to recruit co-founders and team members that give you leverage (execute things independently better than you) – this will increase your attention to other things you do better.
  • Early on and for the core team, you need to find people that share your obsession & passion.
  • You need deep domain skills for the core things you are trying to do within the team, for everything else you need great advisors that can give you sharp insights a few times a month.

Because of the shift from discovery to reductionist mode, the early team is extra hard to build, as very few people are capable of shifting successfully between these two operating modes. In part, this is why it is so hard to find co-founders, since this prerequisite skill is so scarce.

After you have found a focus it becomes a tad easier, but you still need to build a core team with an almost obsessive drive to take things to the next level, and then work really really hard to become a Unicorn.

“No sleep for the wicked”

Venutre Capital Industry: at the dawn of a new era

Venture Capital Industry: At the Dawn of a New Era

2015 has been a banner year for BootstrapLabs. During the past 12 months, we led our first Series A round in an exciting FinTech company, all our portfolio companies raised follow-on funding at higher valuation and we continued to expand our Expert in Residence team to support our portfolio companies.

We believe that technology is a driving force for positive change in the global economy, in society in general, and our daily lives in particular. We continue to be impressed by the talent and passion our founders demonstrate every day and look forward to continuing investing in disruptive technology companies that can transform the way we live, the way we work, and the way we connect with the world around us.

Many believe private companies are overvalued, while others think the next tech bubble is coming. At the same time we see that seed stage investments, where BootstrapLabs focuses, are more vibrant and exciting than ever (e.g., a $25K seed stage investment in Uber would be worth ~ $125M at the $40B valuation mark; even if you assume that Uber is worth $1B, it would still be an investment worth ~ $3M, or 125x the invested amount).

BootstrapLabs is “deep in the stack” alongside its founders day after day, driving the venture market momentum forward. Our global innovation discovery network, combined with our Silicon Valley investment and execution model, provides us with a unique vantage point on what is happening in every corner of the world. Here is what we are observing:

The HOT tech industry is attracting new, mostly late stage, institutional investors that need to invest tens of millions per deal to move the needle.

In 2015, over 566 deals were financed by investment banks, mutual funds, hedge funds, asset managers, and others, while 78% of the deals over $1 Billion have been lead (read priced) by non-VC investors.

Rounds into Tech Companies

Rounds into Tech Companies

Late stage deals are becoming more competitive and less price sensitive due to a combination of i) pent-up demand driven by lower public market returns and the relative rarity of such high growth private technology companies and ii) more financial engineering and deal structuring that aims at lowering the risk for investors, independent of valuation paid (e.g. preferences, ratchets, dividends, etc.) Arguably, these higher valuations are behaving more like “out-of-the-money strike prices” of call options rather than rational valuations driven by operational and technological performance. The chart below outline the dramatic increase in valuation in the later stage as well as the larger amount of money invested by these non-VC investors.

late stage private company median valuation

late stage private company median valuation

Median round size for mid & late stage startup rounds by investor type

Median round size for mid & late stage startup rounds by investor type

There are also NEW sources of capital targeting the Tech Industry via Equity Crowdfunding and platforms that are driving retail investors into the venture market.

Global Equity crowdfunding amount

Global Equity crowdfunding amount

As these platform emerge and private companies can do “public offering of private equity”, secondary market for private equity trading/exchange will gain momentum and importance. One big signal of such trend was the recent acquisition of SecondMarket, the leader in the space by Nasdaq.

Why are non-VCs investing in the tech space?

Startups are staying private longer prior to IPOs today, which means that private investors are making the most of the value from their investment during the pre-IPO period. Traditional public investors, like hedge funds and mutual funds, are starting to realize that in order to capture more value they have to move earlier in the game and start investing in pre-IPO rounds (Private IPOs). See this prior post from Ben Levy, Co-Founder of BootstrapLabs on How to Milk a Unicorn…

Also, traditional VCs have realized that they have to invest earlier in the cycle in order to maximize their investments and not become irrelevant themselves in a world that is changing fast.

Value is Captured Earlier

Because it takes a lot less capital and people to build a proven and scalable product/model, early stage investment has become the most important and possibly the most lucrative part of the value creation chain in our opinion.

late stage valuation

late stage valuation

Later, Access is King

Late stage investors will only succeed if i) they can identify outliers early and ii) they can win a seat at the table during the next fundraising round (hint: money is not enough)

These structural changes, combined with deregulation, have created a once in a lifetime opportunity to form and scale new ventures, as well as new VC firms to finance them. As shown by this recent research report published by Cambridge Associate, more than ever before in the history of the Venture Capital industry, newly formed VC firms have been able to invest and capture some of the top performing startups.

Yet, the opportunities for individual investors remains limited as the industry is shifting to a new model/structure. Similar to the situation with established VCs and hot startups, an individual investor better gain access to future hot new VC funds/managers now, because the best performing funds will have limited access for existing LPs and possibly no access for non-existing LPs in their future funds.

Quality vs Quantity

The number of startups created each year has exploded and will continue to grow quickly as the cost of building technology companies has decreased by at least 10x in the last 20 years, and success stories continue to be blasted across the media as a source of inspiration and validation. The problem will be to identify the good startups as the noise level continues to rise.

Early stage growth no longer signals long term success and the ability to iterate, build and improve your product has become one of the most valuable success skills in the tech space. At BootstrapLabs we excel at finding top talent, bringing them to the best ecosystem (Silicon Valley) and supporting them in their full-cycle “build-measure-learn” iterations.

Innovation is a constant requirement for corporations to remain relevant and it is a pillar of subsistence for our society. Tech innovation will continue to grow and generate outlier returns for the best VCs (and their investors) in the industry. As someone recently mentioned to us “VC is at a dawn of a new era”. Just look at these numbers:

  • 3.6 Billion unique mobile subscribers in 2014
  • 2+ Billion people connected on major social media networks (1.4B FB, 250M TW, 300M LNKD, 300M Instagram)
  • 120x faster online speed (6.7 Mbps US average today)
  • 243 million machine-to-machine connections
  • 50 Billion connected devices by 2020
  • $1.7 Trillion e-commerce spend

The total of all the Unicorn valuations today is worth about half the value of Apple. Some of them will go public, some will be acquired. Apple could actually acquire most of the Unicorns and still have billions in its bank account to spare.

The slow growth in the number of IPOs is a consequence of a historical switch and the growing importance of innovation. Companies need to invest most of their cash flow in innovation, while public market investors expect short term revenue first. Many startups are building for long term success, and if they go public too early they will be unable to maximize their innovation or opportunity. As Marc Andreessen said during a recent interview: “It’s not a tech bubble, it`s a tech bust”… many of the innovation and technology companies are still undervalued and we are strongly optimistic about the great future in front of us”. So is BootstrapLabs!

Venture Capital Disrupts Itself- Breaking the Concentration Curse

Venture Capital Disrupts Itself: Breaking the Concentration Curse

Please note this is a short version of the Venture Capital Disrupts Itself: Breaking the Concentration Curse report published by the Cambridge Associates. At the end of this blog post you can find the link to access to the original file.


 

Venture Capital Disrupts Itself: Breaking the Concentration Curse

The Old Wives Tale … Conventional investor wisdom holds that a concentrated number of certain venture firms invest in a concentrated number of companies that then account for a majority of venture capital value creation in any given year. Therefore, LPs seeking compelling venture capital returns should only commit to a handful of franchise managers. And those are precisely the managers that do not offer access. Thus, LPs are “cursed” and will never experience the differentiated return pattern offered by venture capital exposure.

Is Flawed. As the venture capital industry and technology markets have evolved and matured, however, more managers are creating significant investment value for LPs, with value increasingly created through companies located outside the United States and across a range of subsectors. Specifically, our analysis of the top 100 venture investments as measured by value creation (i.e., total gains) per year from 1995 through 2012, an 18-year period, demonstrated:

  • an average of 83 companies each year account for value creation in the top 100 investments in the asset class for each year;
  • in the post-1999 (i.e., post-bubble) period, the majority of the value creation in the top 100 each year has, on average, been generated by deals outside the top 10 deals;
  • an average of 61 firms account for value creation in the top 100 investments in venture capital per year; and
  • the composition of the firms participating in this level of value creation has changed, with new and emerging firms consistently accounting for 40%–70% of the value creation in the top 100 over the past 10 years.

In short, the widely held belief that 90% of venture industry performance is generated by just the top 10 firms (which our analysis shows was somewhat relevant pre-2000) is a catchy but unsupported claim that may lead investors to miss attractive opportunities with managers that can provide exposure to substantial value creation.

You can access the full Cambridge Associates report here.