Skip to content →

Tag: Snapchat

Different Paths to Success for Tech vs Hardtech Startups

Having been lucky enough to invest in both tech (cloud, mobile, software) and “hardtech” (materials, cleantech, energy, life science) startups (and having also ran product at a mobile app startup), it has been striking to see how fundamentally different the paradigms that drive success in each are.

Whether knowingly or not, most successful tech startups over the last decade have followed a basic playbook:

  1. Take advantage of rising smartphone penetration and improvements in cloud technology to build digital products that solve challenges in big markets pertaining to access (e.g., to suppliers, to customers, to friends, to content, to information, etc.)
  2. Build a solid team of engineers, designers, growth, sales, marketing, and product people to execute on lean software development and growth methodologies
  3. Hire the right executives to carry out the right mix of tried-and-true as well as “out of the box” channel and business development strategies to scale bigger and faster

This playbook appears deceptively simple but is very difficult to execute well. It works because for markets where “software is eating the world”:

  • There is relatively little technology risk: With the exception of some of the most challenging AI, infrastructure, and security challenges, most tech startups are primarily dealing with engineering and product execution challenges — what is the right thing to build and how do I build it on time, under budget? — rather than fundamental technology discovery and feasibility challenges
  • Skills & knowledge are broadly transferable: Modern software development and growth methodologies work across a wide range of tech products and markets. This means that effective engineers, salespeople, marketers, product people, designers, etc. at one company will generally be effective at another. As a result, its a lot easier for investors/executives to both gauge the caliber of a team (by looking at their experience) and augment a team when problems arise (by recruiting the right people with the right backgrounds).
  • Distribution is cheap and fast: Cloud/mobile technology means that a new product/update is a server upgrade/browser refresh/app store download away. This has three important effects:
    1. The first is that startups can launch with incomplete or buggy solutions because they can readily provide hotfixes and upgrades.
    2. The second is that startups can quickly release new product features and designs to respond to new information and changing market conditions.
    3. The third is that adoption is relatively straightforward. While there may be some integration and qualification challenges, in general, the product is accessible via a quick download/browser refresh, and the core challenge is in getting enough people to use a product in the right way.

In contrast, if you look at hardtech companies, a very different set of rules apply:

  • Technology risk/uncertainty is inherent: One of the defining hallmarks of a hardtech company is dealing with uncertainty from constraints imposed by reality (i.e. the laws of physics, the underlying biology, the limits of current technology, etc.). As a result, hardtech startups regularly face feasibility challenges — what is even possible to build? — and uncertainty around the R&D cycles to get to a good outcome — how long will it take / how much will it cost to figure this all out?
  • Skills & knowledge are not easily transferable: Because the technical and business talent needed in hardtech is usually specific to the field, talent and skills are not necessarily transferable from sector to sector or even company to company. The result is that it is much harder for investors/executives to evaluate team caliber (whether on technical merits or judging past experience) or to simply put the right people into place if there are problems that come up.
  • Product iteration is slow and costly: The tech startup ethos of “move fast and break things” is just harder to do with hardtech.
    1. At the most basic level, it just costs a lot more and takes a lot more time to iterate on a physical product than a software one. It’s not just that physical products require physical materials and processing, but the availability of low cost technology platforms like Amazon Web Services and open source software dramatically lower the amount of time / cash needed to make something testable in tech than in hardtech.
    2. Furthermore, because hardtech innovations tend to have real-world physical impacts (to health, to safety, to a supply chain/manufacturing line, etc.), hardtech companies generally face far more regulatory and commercial scrutiny. These groups are generally less forgiving of incomplete/buggy offerings and their assessments can lengthen development cycles. Hardtech companies generally can’t take the “ask for forgiveness later” approaches that some tech companies (i.e. Uber and AirBnb) have been able to get away with (exhibit 1: Theranos).

As a result, while there is no single playbook that works across all hardtech categories, the most successful hardtech startups tend to embody a few basic principles:

  1. Go after markets where there is a very clear, unmet need: The best hardtech entrepreneurs tend to take very few chances with market risk and only pursue challenges where a very well-defined unmet need (i.e., there are no treatments for Alzheimer’s, this industry needs a battery that can last at least 1000 cycles, etc) blocks a significant market opportunity. This reduces the risk that a (likely long and costly) development effort achieves technical/scientific success without also achieving business success. This is in contrast with tech where creating or iterating on poorly defined markets (i.e., Uber and Airbnb) is oftentimes at the heart of what makes a company successful.
  2. Focus on “one miracle” problems: Its tempting to fantasize about what could happen if you could completely re-write every aspect of an industry or problem but the best hardtech startups focus on innovating where they won’t need the rest of the world to change dramatically in order to have an impact (e.g., compatible with existing channels, business models, standard interfaces, manufacturing equipment, etc). Its challenging enough to advance the state of the art of technology — why make it even harder?
  3. Pursue technologies that can significantly over-deliver on what the market needs: Because of the risks involved with developing advanced technologies, the best hardtech entrepreneurs work in technologies where even a partial success can clear the bar for what is needed to go to market. At the minimum, this reduces the risk of failure. But, hopefully, it gives the company the chance to fundamentally transform the market it plays in by being 10x better than the alternatives. This is in contrast to many tech markets where market success often comes less from technical performance and more from identifying the right growth channels and product features to serve market needs (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat vs. MySpace, Orkut, and Friendster; Amazon vs. brick & mortar bookstores and electronics stores)

All of this isn’t to say that there aren’t similarities between successful startups in both categories — strong vision, thoughtful leadership, and success-oriented cultures are just some examples of common traits in both. Nor is it to denigrate one versus the other. But, practically speaking, investing or operating successfully in both requires very different guiding principles and speaks to the heart of why its relatively rare to see individuals and organizations who can cross over to do both.

Special thanks to Sophia Wang, Ryan Gilliam, and Kevin Lin Lee for reading an earlier draft and making this better!

Leave a Comment

Snap Inc by the Numbers

If you follow the tech industry at all, you will have heard that consumer app darling Snap Inc. (makers of the app Snapchat) has filed to go public. The ensuing Form S-1 that has recently been made available has left tech-finance nerds like yours truly drooling over the until-recently-super-secretive numbers behind their business.

snapchatnyse.jpg
Oddly apt banner (Image Credit: Business Insider)

Much of the commentary in the press to date has been about how unprofitable the company is (having lost over $500M in 2016 alone). I have been unimpressed with that line of thinking — as what the bottom line is in a given year is hardly the right measure for assessing a young, high-growth company.

While full-time Wall Street analysts will pour over the figures and comparables in much greater detail than I can, I decided to take a quick peek at the numbers to gauge for myself how the business is doing as a growth investment, looking at:

  • What does the growth story look like for the business?
  • Do the unit economics allow for a path to profitability?

What does the growth story look like for the business?

As I noted before, consumer media businesses like Snap have two options available to grow: (1) increase the number of users / amount of time spent and/or (2) better monetize users over time

A quick peek at the DAU (Daily Active Users) counts of Snap reveal that path (1) is troubled for them. Using Facebook as a comparable (and using the midpoint of Facebook’s quarter-end DAU counts to line up with Snap’s average DAU over a quarter) reveals not only that Snap’s DAU numbers aren’t growing so much, their growth outside of North America (where they should have more room to grow) isn’t doing that great either (which is especially alarming as the S-1 admits Q4 is usually seasonally high for them).

table1.png
Last 3 Quarters of DAU growth, by region

A quick look at the data also reveals why Facebook prioritizes Android development and low-bandwidth-friendly experiences — international remains an area of rapid growth which is especially astonishing considering how over 1 billion Facebook users are from outside of North America. This contrasts with Snap which, in addition to needing a huge amount of bandwidth (as a photo and video intensive platform) also (as they admitted in their S-1) de-emphasizes Android development. Couple that with Snap’s core demographic (read: old people can’t figure out how to use the app), reveals a challenge to where quick short-term user growth can come from.

As a result, Snap’s growth in the near term will have to be driven more by path (2). Here, there is a lot more good news. Snap’s quarterly revenue per user more than doubled over the last 3 quarters to $1.029/DAU. While its a long way off from Facebook’s whopping $7.323/DAU (and over $25 if you’re just looking at North American users), it suggests that there is plenty of opportunity for Snap to increase monetization, especially overseas where its currently able to only monetize about 1/10 as effectively as they are in North America (compared to Facebook which is able to do so 1/5 to 1/6 of North America depending on the quarter).

table2.png
2016 and 2015 Q2-Q4 Quarterly Revenue per DAU, by region

Considering Snap has just started with its advertising business and has already convinced major advertisers to build custom content that isn’t readily reusable on other platforms and Snap’s low revenue per user compared even to Facebook’s overseas numbers, I think its a relatively safe bet that there is a lot of potential for the number to go up.

Do the unit economics allow for a path to profitability?

While most folks have been (rightfully) stunned by the (staggering) amount of money Snap lost in 2016, to me the more pertinent question (considering the over $1 billion Snap still has in its coffers to weather losses) is whether or not there is a path to sustainable unit economics. Or, put more simply, can Snap grow its way out of unprofitability?

Because neither Facebook nor Snap provide regional breakdowns of their cost structure, I’ve focused on global unit economics, summarized below:

table3.png
2016 and 2015 Q2-Q4 Quarterly Financials per DAU

What’s astonishing here is that neither Snap nor Facebook seem to be gaining much from scale. Not only are their costs of sales per user (cost of hosting infrastructure and advertising infrastructure) increasing each quarter, but the operating expenses per user (what they spend on R&D, sales & marketing, and overhead — so not directly tied to any particular user or dollar of revenue) don’t seem to be shrinking either. In fact, Facebook’s is over twice as large as Snap’s — suggesting that its not just a simple question of Snap growing a bit further to begin to experience returns to scale here.

What makes the Facebook economic machine go, though, is despite the increase in costs per user, their revenue per user grows even faster. The result is profit per user is growing quarter to quarter! In fact, on a per user basis, Q4 2016 operating profit exceeded Q2 2015 gross profit (revenue less cost of sales, so not counting operating expenses)! No wonder Facebook’s stock price has been on a tear!

While Snap has also been growing its revenue per user faster than its cost of sales (turning a gross profit per user in Q4 2016 for the first time), the overall trendlines aren’t great, as illustrated by the fact that its operating profit per user has gotten steadily worse over the last 3 quarters. The rapid growth in Snap’s costs per user and the fact that Facebook’s costs are larger and still growing suggests that there are no simple scale-based reasons that Snap will achieve profitability on a per user basis. As a result, the only path for Snap to achieve sustainability on unit economics will be to pursue huge growth in user monetization.

Tying it Together

The case for Snap as a good investment really boils down to how quickly and to what extent one believes that the company can increase their monetization per user. While the potential is certainly there (as is being realized as the rapid growth in revenue per user numbers show), what’s less clear is whether or not the company has the technology or the talent (none of the key executives named in the S-1 have a particular background building advertising infrastructure or ecosystems that Google, Facebook, and even Twitter did to dominate the online advertising businesses) to do it quickly enough to justify the rumored $25 billion valuation they are striving for (a whopping 38x sales multiple using 2016 Q4 revenue as a run-rate [which the S-1 admits is a seasonally high quarter]).

What is striking to me, though, is that Snap would even attempt an IPO at this stage. In my mind, Snap has a very real shot at being a great digital media company of the same importance as Google and Facebook and, while I can appreciate the hunger from Wall Street to invest in a high-growth consumer tech company, not having a great deal of visibility / certainty around unit economics and having only barely begun monetization (with your first quarter where revenue exceeds cost of sales is a holiday quarter) poses challenges for a management team that will need to manage public market expectations around forecasts and capitalization.

In any event, I’ll be looking forward to digging in more when Snap reveals future figures around monetization and advertising strategy — and, to be honest, Facebook’s numbers going forward now that I have a better appreciation for their impressive economic model.

Leave a Comment

How Often Does a $3 Billion Valuation Come Along?

Snapchat-reportedly-said-no-to-3-billion-in-cash-from-Facebook

I blogged recently about why companies like Facebook are willing to pay large amounts for barely-in-revenue-if-at-all companies like Snapchat – but that’s a question about the buyer. The question dozens of entrepreneurs and venture investors are asking themselves is: should Snapchat have taken Facebook’s rumored bid?

While the right answer to that is a combination of personal (what does the team want to do) and business (what do we see as the likely path forward for the company), one question we can answer objectively is how often does such an exit happen?

As part of an exercise to try to better understand when and where big venture-backed opportunities lie, I pulled together data from Dow Jone’s Venturesource service and cross-matched it with companies from S&P’s Capital IQ to try to identify the home runs that venture capitalists pat themselves on the back for since 2002 (the end of the 2000’s dot-com bubble and burst).

My dataset showed 23 venture-backed outcomes that exceeded $3 billion in valuation (factoring in a 180-day lockup period that accompanies most IPOs where investors and key employees cannot sell stock, except for companies listed which haven’t had that 180-days of history then which I added the most recent market cap). Five of these (Yandex, Hibu, Biosensor Applications, Carmat SAS, and CTC Media) are not U.S. companies and an additional three (MetroPCS, Antero Resources, and First Republic Bank) are what I would call “unconventional” (i.e., an organization which does VC investments was involved in a pre-exit financing but they don’t fit the usual profile). So, more practically, since 2002, only 15 U.S.-based venture-backed companies have achieved exits in excess of $3 billion.

Company Valuation ($M) Exit Date Type Sector

Google

$53B

Aug 2004

IPO

Search

Facebook

$48B

May 2012

IPO

Social

Twitter

$22B

Nov 2013

IPO

Social

Workday

$9.8B

Oct 2012

IPO

Business Software

LinkedIn

$7.2B

May 2011

IPO

Social

Groupon

$6.9B

Nov 2011

IPO

Coupon

Veeva

$4.8B

Oct 2013

IPO

Business Software

FireEye

$4.5B

Sep 2013

IPO

Security

Tableau

$3.9B

May 2013

IPO

Business Software

Palo Alto Networks

$3.7B

Jul 2012

IPO

Security

Service Now

$3.7B

Jun 2012

IPO

Business Software

Zynga

$3.7B

Dec 2011

IPO

Gaming

Hyperion

$3.3B

Mar 2007

M&A

Business Software

Doubleclick

$3.1B

Mar 2008

M&A

Adtech

Splunk

$3.1B

Apr 2012

IPO

Business Software

Of those 15, only two are acquisitions — Hyperion Solutions (a business intelligence software company bought by Oracle) and DoubleClick (a leading ad exchange bought by Google) – the remainder are IPOs, and only 5 or 6 (depending on if you count LinkedIn) are direct-to-consumer in the same way that Snapchat is.

In short, Snapchat supposedly walked away from an outcome which is extremely rare and so the Snapchat founders/board, if they’re being “rational”, are clearly focused on building a standalone, IPO-able company of the size of a Google/Facebook/Twitter/Groupon/Zynga.

They have had remarkable traction to date and it will be interesting to see if they look back on this as a big mistake or the beginning of when the rest of the world understood just how big of a company they could become.

(Image source – PhoneArena.com)

4 Comments

The Facebook Hamster Wheel

With a $1 billion price tag for Instagram, a $1.1 billion valuation for Tumblr, and a rumored $3 billion bid for Snapchat, many observers are probably scratching their heads, wondering: why are companies like Facebook and Yahoo willing to shell out this kind of cash for barely-in-revenue-if-at-all consumer startups?While I can’t pretend that all these valuations are “rational” in a traditional sense, I can say that it becomes more understandable if you think about Facebook’s business model. Plain and simple, Facebook’s business model revolves around taking the total amount of time users spend on Facebook and making money against it, whether its through ads or charging a “tax” on virtual goods (think Farmville items) or gifts bought on the platform.

As a result, for Facebook to grow its core business, it really has two options:

  1. Increase the total amount of time users are spending on Facebook
  2. Increase how effectively you are monetizing existing time spent on Facebook

The challenge with #2 is that there really is an upper limit to how much money you can make on a minute of user eyeball-time before you start annoying the user base (either because there are too many ads or because the ads get kind of creepy). So, what most internet media companies strive for is #1 – increase the total amount of time users spend on their websites/apps.

The challenge with #1, though, is that every additional user-minute a company gets is an incremental minute of some other activity that the user needs to give up. And, since we all only have 24 hours a day (and need to sleep), that’s a limited number of minutes to go around, especially for a company like Facebook, where its users are already pretty addicted.

This means that Facebook (and other digital media companies like Yahoo and Twitter) is in a horrifying never-ending race not only to get more precious user-minutes but just to hold on to what they already have. Any time a shiny new startup takes off which seems to suck up user-time — especially if its amongst teens/adolescents who, because they don’t have tons of friends on Facebook already, don’t have any strong reason to be on Facebook — Facebook needs to find a way to grab that time back just to stay even. It’s a hamster wheel that Facebook can never get off of short of changing its underlying business model.

It’s this attention economy that drives digital media companies to pay up for startups like Instagram or Tumblr or Snapchat — they’re new threats to Facebook’s growth and business model, as well as new opportunities to get new user-minutes. That’s why these companies are so prized – for digital media companies in the attention economy, it’s the user-minutes, stupid.

5 Comments