Tag startups

Deprogramming corporatism

There’s a culture to big corporations that is unnatural and detrimental to founders who have spent too much time in them. Some experienced founders have a really hard time coping with starting a new company, and are very frustrated and surprised when things don’t work even when they're working really hard at it. And even when founders overcome that, often they’ll try to grow the team by hiring experienced directors and managers from corporations that are well known and successful. Many of them fail pretty quickly, and it’s always a surprise to everyone, especially the experienced hire. 

These are well-known startup tropes for a reason. There are specific aspects to that culture that cause problems. If you know what they are, then you can at least recognize it and try to counter them.

Doing things without results

People become corporate do-nothings because it’s easy to become disconnected from the act of creating when you’re at a big company. Even at the best big companies, employees can just do things that look like work that aren’t, and you wouldn’t be able to tell. Getting customers is easier (sometimes trivial) with a large installed base, sales force, or huge brand name. There are large protected revenue streams that cover up failure on the quarterly financials. 

Founders from corporate backgrounds aren't stupid. They're just used to doing things and having something happen— they have the wind at their backs at a big company, and there are a lots of things that you can do at a big co that would never work on your own. It's bewildering to work really freaking hard at something and have no results at all come back. But it happens all the time. 

There’s no air cover for startups. You don’t have backup troops. It’s just you versus the world. So naturally, if your product or service sucks, then you die. You can’t just look like you’re doing stuff. You actually have to make it, and almost totally on your own. 

Cover your ass culture

If doing things that aren’t effective don’t get you fired, then what does? Usually making mistakes that make your boss look bad. Big organizations are just groups of people, and people sure like to talk shit. The one thing you can’t do is look like a bozo. It’s fine to work really hard to no effect (hey, you worked hard!), but if you become a social liability, you’re donezo.

What’s worse than just covering your ass is actually taking credit for what other people do. This seems correlated with people who climb high in organizations. Obviously this works poorly in a small startup environment because there’s nowhere to hide. Someone's got to do the work.

In some sense this dynamic is unavoidable, since we are all social animals after all. Startups can sometimes develop a cover-your-ass culture too, but that’s the job of the founders and CEO to keep people focused on things that actually matter. It helps that startups are just smaller, so this toxic effect of group dynamic is blunted. 

Buzzword thinking and trend-following

How do you avoid looking like a bozo? Well, for one thing, if everyone in the world out there is saying it, then nobody can fault you for it. So getting the right corporate whitepapers, or latching yourself to the right buzzword du-jour (e.g. big data, Internet of Things, NoSQL, etc.) is necessary to blend into the pack. Oh, that big data initiative failed? Everyone else was doing it, so our ass is covered and we won’t get fired. 

Founders get this confused all the time and then wonder why they fail. We said all the right secret words! Why am I failing? It was never about those words to begin with.

Startups can’t survive blindly following buzzwords or whatever trend is hot because you actually have to know what’s coming in the future and be right. That’s all there is. If you chose the wrong market, or you’re wrong about what people want, then you’re toast. I’m not saying all things with buzzword labels will fail. I’m saying that startups for big data, for instance, actually have to make life better for specific customers such that people are willing to pay for it. It has to make sense. It’s not enough to be attached to that name. 

This was a tough lesson for me to learn personally. At 23, I turned down the shot to be first engineer at Palantir (now rumored to be worth $20 billion!) even though Peter Thiel personally took me out to dinner to recruit me. I thought the buzzwords were signal, and absolutely zero of the mainstream press or tech blogs were abuzz about the latest hot government enterprise software startup in 2004. It turns out you have to work on things that a) you know are right, and b) most people don’t know yet. This is why Peter likes to ask: What super valuable company is nobody building yet?


Experienced founders who have grown up in these environments are not doomed to failure. Quite the contrary, those who succeed have avoided, overcome, or escaped the problems described above. 

The recurring theme seems to be simply results. We spend a lot of time trying to get founders to focus on action and results — build product, talk to customers, that’s it. Think in terms of concrete numbers, whether it is user growth, savings to customer, or revenue. There are lots of places in the world where you can survive without results of your own, but startups are not one of them. 

Just as corporate culture is a culture that is learned, not innate— founder culture is learned as well. I think one of the reason why YC works for founders is that it takes a village. It takes a bunch of people who all believe a thing, and practice it daily. It takes fundamentally changing your surroundings and the people you’re around. It takes avoiding the coworking space [0], and working harder than you ever have in your own space. 

This is also a big reason why they say YC is a concentrated form of Silicon Valley. For decades, Silicon Valley has been the place where people can escape their corporate cultures and create something new. Now you can do it with a lot more like-minded people by your side. 

[0] http://www.quora.com/Why-doesnt-YCombinator-have-a-physical-space-for-its-startups-to-work-out-of

Share buybacks: Big cos say "We don't know what to do with the cash anyway!" and why it's good for startups.

Stock buybacks are the biggest force influencing equities since 2009 — over $2 trillion have been done.

Some are probably good, but many aren't. In 2011, Warren Buffet wrote about how you can tell: (via Seeking Alpha blogger Chuck Carnevale)

Charlie and I favor repurchases when two conditions are met: first, a company has ample funds to take care of the operational and liquidity needs of its business; second, its stock is selling at a material discount to the company's intrinsic business value, conservatively calculated.

Clearly a lot of buybacks fail the 2nd criteria — but there are so many boards and management teams that are compensated by EPS that the share buybacks keep happening even when the price is not a discount. A natural result when incentive structures meet personal self-interest. One blogger points out, it's actually a form of managers looting their companies. 
By using large stock buybacks to manage the short-term objectives that trigger higher compensation for themselves. By using those stock buybacks to manipulate the share price, which allows them to use inside information to time their own stock sales. By using buybacks to funnel most of the company’s profits back to shareholders (including themselves).  They use the stock market to loot their companies.
It's a claim echoed by the Atlantic in February of this year in an article called "Stock Buybacks Are Killing the American Economy." Rather than new jobs, new factories, new products, it's straight back into the financial system.

Since the companies themselves have no specific better ideas about how to use the capital to grow in real terms (e.g. real new products that drive real new revenue) all their professional managers can do is buy shares back regardless of price. In this world, buybacks are directly related to Thiel's ideas around indeterminate optimism of the markets, where companies are encouraged to be as profitable as possible.

Who cares if you're buying back at a ridiculous price? We don't know what to do with the cash anyway. 

This is interesting because a traditional criticism of whether we're in a bubble is whether P/E ratios are high or low. The E part is Earnings Per Share, and so if managers manipulate the denominator for both P/E and EPS, they can make it seem like things are fine (and get their quarterly bonus to boot!) when functionally there's little happening. 

On the bright side, the lack of innovation in traditional incumbent businesses means that startups have a chance in more arenas than ever. If big companies have management that won't take the risk of failure, and aren't hiring teams to attack new markets, then it's wide open for new players to get capital, hire people, and make these things happen. 

If buybacks are killing the economy, then startups will save it. Pretty sweet if you ask me. 

Chart via Factset
More reading here: ValueWalk 

Defending A16z: Noam Scheiber mistakes a VC portfolio for his 401K

Labor and workforce reporter for the NY Times Noam Scheiber takes on Andreessen Horowitz in this recent piece:

Rather than profiting like Mr. Ovitz and his fellow agents, the venture capitalists may be more like the Hollywood studios — chronically overpaying for projects whose costs they can rarely recoup. Mr. Andreessen and his partners have invested so much in so many start-ups that it would take a remarkable string of successes to make the approach pay off. For all their skill — the firm bought into the likes of Airbnb, Instagram and Pinterest relatively early — their track record suggests it’s unlikely. Already, they’ve suffered a few impressive flameouts, including Fab, on which they are likely to lose tens of millions of dollars.

Even when they pick well, they often bid so much for stars that the return is relatively modest. It’s easier to triple or quadruple your money when you’ve invested $10 million in a $100 million company than when you’ve invested nearly $100 million in a $1 billion company, as they did with the daily deal site Zulily. There are only so many companies that are acquired for billions of dollars or reach that kind of price through an initial public offering. Fewer retain such valuations — Zulily’s stock price has fallen sharply since last year.

Noam doesn't make a data-based argument. He uses an anecdote. Because data would ruin a really good story in this case. He compares Silicon Valley juggernaut Andreessen Horowitz to the excesses of Hollywood and CAA.

There's a big difference here. Let's take Avatar, for instance. It's a film that was made in 2009 for $237 million. It grossed over $2.7 billion worldwide — a roughly 11X return on capital. That's the highest grossing film ever made, and a good proxy for how profitable Hollywood can be at best. 

Let's take another example from Silicon Valley— Facebook. Peter Thiel invested $500,000 in the fledgling company in its first seed round in 2006, and from public records held 22.4 million shares of the stock at IPO. Those shares, if he hadn't sold them, would be worth $1.9B today (at about $74 per share). That's a 3,800X return on capital. 1 

Multi-billion dollar companies happen when non-obvious ideas and huge market needs meet perfect execution. We've seen it before our eyes — Uber, Airbnb, Dropbox, Stripe, Instacart — and when you have the potential for 100X to 4000X returns, it's not about avoiding loss or minimizing downside. A proper venture portfolio is not like your 401K. The only way startup investors truly lose is if they miss the Uber. 

And that, in a nutshell, is why using anecdotes (e.g. Zulily in Sheiber's piece above) as evidence against Andreessen Horowitz makes no sense at all. An individual investment may fail but it's just one in a portfolio. The returns that are possible in early stage technology investing far outweigh anything Hollywood has ever seen or ever will see. Software is eating the world, and the numbers bear it out. 

1 David Hammer suggested a better comparison would be Accel, their Series A partner. Their 10% stake at IPO is now worth $14.8B, so their $12M investment yielded roughly 1100X return.

How does a startup out-recruit Google? Palantir cofounder Stephen Cohen explains.

In a conversation at Stanford with Peter Thiel and Max Levchin, my friend Stephen Cohen (cofounder of Palantir Technologies) says:

We tend to massively underestimate the compounding returns of intelligence. As humans, we need to solve big problems. If you graduate Stanford at 22 and Google recruits you, you’ll work a 9-to-5. It’s probably more like an 11-to-3 in terms of hard work. They’ll pay well. It’s relaxing. But what they are actually doing is paying you to accept a much lower intellectual growth rate. When you recognize that intelligence is compounding, the cost of that missing long-term compounding is enormous. They’re not giving you the best opportunity of your life. Then a scary thing can happen: You might realize one day that you’ve lost your competitive edge. You won’t be the best anymore. You won’t be able to fall in love with new stuff. Things are cushy where you are. You get complacent and stall. So, run your prospective engineering hires through that narrative. Then show them the alternative: working at your startup.

My friend and fellow Y Combinator partner Aaron Iba gives incredible lectures when we visit top CS schools on behalf of YC. He says the sense you get from college recruiters is that you get to write new code. Most great hackers love to do this. But that's not what you get from a software engineering position at the tech giants. You get to maintain old code. The job should really be called software technician. 

So that's why starting a startup or working at a startup is so much more rewarding. You get to keep your edge. 

Travel planning software: The most common bad startup idea

At CMU yesterday, I heard a story about how Yahoo Trip Planner has pretty much zero adoption. It has never taken off, though it remains online even today. Yahoo keeps it around because it's fantastic for recruiting. People love to work on this idea! Yahoo recruiters lure talented engineers, designers and PMs to work on this project, then gradually shift them off to real value-creating projects once they're hired. 

Travel planning software (the kind that you would use with friends and family to plan vacations) is one of the most common ideas pitched. It has been attempted, and attempted, and attempted again. 

It doesn't surprise me that people go after this, though. The idea actually points in the right direction: founders pursuing this idea are looking to solve problems or pain points in their life. Brilliant. And practically everyone has the problem of not spending enough quality time with friends and family. Travel is the best and most meaningful way to do that. Surely this is something that solves a big problem that everyone wants. 

Yet so far, this particular idea doesn't lead to massive success and incredible amounts of value creation. My best guess is that a truly great consumer service needs to be something that is can be used every day. My friend Suhail Doshi, CEO of Mixpanel (he'd know a thing or two about analytics), recently told me that 20% daily retention is probably the baseline at which a service has legs. 

This points to the deeper problem that underlies every product or service: obscurity. I only have a finite number of slots in my brain. If I don't remember it, I won't use it. And I only remember things that I use often. Just like I order Coca Cola whenever I get a cheeseburger... the consumer web/mobile services I use need to be things I use all the time.  

Which leads us back to trip planning. How often do people really plan trips? For the typical working adult, probably once or twice a year if you're lucky. In fact, Americans are notorious for shirking vacation, clocking the lowest rates of vacation on the planet. Twice a year just doesn't cut it.

I used to think nobody needs this. That's probably not true. Lots of people want this. They just won't ever be able to remember it.