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. 

Steve Jobs and Farhad Manjoo are wrong: Dropbox can do what Apple, Microsoft and Google can never do.

Farhad Manjoo writes in Pando Daily about how Dropbox is just a feature. Unfortunately the examples he talks about seem to support the exact opposite.

Someday, someone will figure out how to make this sort of thing work well, but I suspect it will most likely be one of the companies that makes a major operating system: Either Apple, Microsoft, or Google. Each of these firms has a file-storage and/or syncing solution that it’s pushing, and I expect that those efforts—iCloud, Skydrive, Google’s Chrome syncing and perhaps the mythical Gdrive—will gradually incorporate more and more of the features I’m looking for.

This assertion is about as wrong as could be. Earlier in the piece Farhad talks about how things just plain worked as Dropbox synced things from his Windows desktop to his Macbook Air. What are the odds of Apple getting their sync client right for PC's? Just about zero, considering what they've done in the past with MobileMe sync.

Same goes for Microsoft writing sync software for the Apple platform. Arguably Google is in the best shape to provide a seamless multiplatform experience... well, except for iOS! The odds of a viable multi-platform option emerging from one of these big three seem slim to me.

The truth is none of these behemoths will execute perfectly on this scenario in the way Dropbox (with no ulterior platform motive) can.

Dropbox is probably working to build many of these features as well. But as third-party app, it’s just not in a very good technical position to do so. In order to sync programs and window states, Dropbox would need access to some of the deeper parts of my various gadgets’ OSes. This is easy for some operating systems and impossible with others—including iOS and probably Amazon’s Kindle Fire. Apple could easily build a way to sync the current browser tabs between my Mac and my iPhone, so that I can switch from reading Pando on my couch to reading it on the train. Dropbox will need to go through incredible hacks to achieve the same functionality, and it probably won’t manage to do so even then.

Sadly Farhad is just wrong on this too. Getting native bare-metal access is easy to get on every platform that matters except iOS. On iOS, Dropbox *already* has a huge lead on all of the other file syncing platforms by virtue of wide support by the developer community. Apple will undoubtedly get some share of iOS developer love, but it is yet to be seen whether Apple will actually unseat Dropbox.

Truthfully, it is foolish to count large platform players out. But my money is on Dropbox. Until Apple wins every last device over (not even a goal of theirs), Microsoft steals the show for mobile and regains share on desktop (highly unlikely), or Google wrests mobile supremacy from the hands of iOS (not going to happen) -- the ongoing platform cold war will assure it's Dropbox that's going to be how we keep our data.

Why the new task UI in Taskrabbit has great behavioral design

Taskrabbit is a cool service that helps people list local tasks that they'd like to hire people to do. It's also a great example of behavioral design-- helping users not just complete the task but want to do it as well. 

Here's the new task UI:

1) Great copy is great communication

Copy is UI, UI is copy. The only way you can explain what's happening on the screen is by the text and elements on the screen. They work together. You must explain what's going on, and what's next. Yes, you know what's happening, but you're the creator of the UI. Users have no such context.

Remember that as a designer, you must design with intention in mind, but evaluate what you create with beginner's eyes. Often in YC office hours, PG will point out glaring holes in people's designs -- but it is because he has honed this skill of viewing a web page with the eyes of a novice, even if you've been talking about the idea with him for hours.

Clear your mind, read what you've got, and if it doesn't make sense, then explain. Rinse, repeat.

2) Great use of contrast to determine what's important and what's more information 

You'll notice the darkest pieces of information (highest contrast) are the headers for the specific inputs. "Title of your Task" for instance. It's big, it's dark, and it commands the most initial attention. This establishes a visual hierarchy. All things below that title pertain to that particular input. There's proper padding between inputs so that the grouping is further reinforced. 

Some products mistake extreme brevity for being simple. Wrong. You should strive to have enough text to properly guide the user to their task. A long block of text that is undifferentiated won't be read, of course -- so your main tool here is to make the important stuff bolder, larger, and command more attention. Then write additional text in a smaller, lower contrast font.

If they care, they'll read it. If they don't, they won't. And that's just OK. The important part is that people complete the task. 

3) Show a lot of examples

It's the worst when UI doesn't show an example at all. It's the rudest experience. Imagine a brusque waiter, or a bank clerk who can't be bothered to help you with what you're trying to do. That's what you're doing when you don't show more examples. 

Yes, that even means helping people with writing titles.Notice how Taskrabbit drops a greyed-out tip right there in the textbox.

DO THIS. There's nothing that will orient a user more as to what they should put than text right there inside the textbox they're about to fill out. Don't forget to clear it when the textbox gets focus, though.

4) Progressive Disclosure

See those little links at the bottom? They're optional. And they don't take more space than they need. If someone wants it, they'll click. If someone doesn't want it, they won't. 

This is virtually your only tool to create things that are both powerful and simple. Use it everywhere and you too will be both easy to use and powerful. 

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Remember, UI is a conversation that you have with your users, hundreds if not thousands of times a day. But if you can make that conversation go well... it'll be a few million times a day soon enough. 

Again, props to Sarah Harrison, @sourjayne, Taskrabbit Director of UX. I am impressed. Two thumbs up, way up.

Like this article? PS, you can follow me on twitter here.

Is an MBA a Plus or a Minus in the Startup World? Both, but @guykawasaki is more right.

Vivek Wadwha, writing for TechCrunch, rebuts Guy's assertion that engineering degrees are most important.

Engineering degrees can be very technical and can actually narrow one’s horizons. To innovate, you need to understand customers and markets. To build a successful product—one that actually sells and makes an impact, you need to understand distribution and finance. So even in the lower echelons of technology, a broader educational background is a plus.

The truth is, the fastest path between two points is a straight line. When I go to college campuses to try to pass along stuff I wished I knew back in college, the #1 thing was that I wish I spent more time *creating* and less time *analyzing* startups and markets.

I do meet engineers who probably should get an MBA. They need to round themselves out, think more about users and markets and distribution. Get out of the lab or cubicle. These are the minority.

I meet far more people with a will and a dream, but no engineering/design capability to create it. This is why Guy is right when he says an engineering background is far more essential.

Kawasaki explained that his issue with MBAs is that they are “taught that the hard part is the analysis and coming up with the insightful solution”. In other words: implementation is easy and analysis is hard. “But this is the opposite of what happens in startups. Implementation is everything in a startup.”

Indeed, ideas are merely multipliers on execution. Everyone has ideas. We can all imagine a world where ____ is made better. But to make that dream a reality, ah, that is the rub. And that is why Guy is right.

Square (squareup?) is super badass.

Looks like Square went public today. Hot. Its a device and service that lets you take payments from any credit card anywhere via iPhone.

Rumor has it that the device (that hooks into the iPhone audio jack) should be super cheap too.

I think they have the potential to totally change personal payments. Isn't this what PayPal was supposed to be originally?

FINALLY someone will solve that dreaded "How do we split the bill?" issue. I can't wait to get one.

How Wage Slaves vs. Entrepreneurs look at money

Really amazing analysis of business, interpersonal communications, and life coming out of ribbonfarm.com.

In particular, this latest piece on capital is brilliance.

My conception of money completely changed in the years and months leading up to work Posterous. The bargain when working as an employee is completely different. Its very easy to spend money like water when times are good and you've got a steady, reliable, and more than adequate. Its a renewable resource that in the moment seems to be infinite.

But if you want to make it on your own, you can't look at each dollar as something to be spent on your own happiness. That latte won't really make you happy. The only thing that may really make you happy is to be able to reinvest the money into yourself. It is, as Venkatesh points out above, building material for your dreams.

Get things done. More building, less talking: A simple rule of thumb for raising money.

We're impressed by teams that get things done, and unimpressed by teams haven't even started to build something. I've often found myself thinking, "If you think this is so great an idea, why haven't you spent some weekends building a version 0 prototype?"
--Trevor Blackwell, partner at Y Combinator, via news.ycombinator.com

Seriously, whether you're raising pre-seed from YC, seed from angels, or Series A from VC's, you've got to get moving.

This is not college admissions -- nobody is here to pat you on the head. If you want to get ahead, you've got to build, build, build. A great idea on its own is worthless without a team that can make it real.