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”:

Source: Techcrunch
  • 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:

Source: XKCD
  • 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!

Advice VCs Want to Give but Rarely Do to Entrepreneurs Pitching Their Startups

Source: Someecards

I thought I’d re-post a response I wrote a while ago to a question on Quora as someone recently asked me the question: “What advice do you wish you could give but usually don’t to a startup pitching you?”

  • Person X on your team reflects poorly on your company — This is tough advice to give as its virtually impossible during the course of a pitch to build enough rapport and get a deep enough understanding of the inter-personal dynamics of the team to give that advice without it unnecessarily hurting feelings or sounding incredibly arrogant / meddlesome.
  • Your slides look awful — This is difficult to say in a pitch because it just sounds petty for an investor to complain about the packaging rather than the substance.
  • Be careful when using my portfolio companies as examples — While its good to build rapport / common ground with your VC audience, using their portfolio companies as examples has an unnecessarily high chance of backfiring. It is highly unlikely that you will know more than an inside investor who is attending board meetings and in direct contact with management, so any errors you make (i.e., assuming a company is doing well when it isn’t or assuming a company is doing poorly when it is doing well / is about to turn the corner) are readily caught and immediately make you seem foolish.
  • You should pitch someone who’s more passionate about what you’re doing — Because VCs have to risk their reputation within their firms / to the outside world for the deals they sign up to do, they have to be very selective about which companies they choose to get involved with. As a result, even if there’s nothing wrong with a business model / idea, some VCs will choose not to invest due simply to lack of passion. As the entrepreneur is probably deeply passionate about and personally invested in the market / problem, giving this advice can feel tantamount to insulting the entrepreneur’s child or spouse.

Hopefully this gives some of the hard-working entrepreneurs out there some context on why a pitch didn’t go as well as they had hoped and maybe some pointers on who and how to approach an investor for their next pitch.

The Four Types of M&A

I’m oftentimes asked what determines the prices that companies get bought for: after all, why does one app company get bought for $19 billion and a similar app get bought at a discount to the amount of investor capital that was raised?

While specific transaction values depend a lot on the specific acquirer (i.e. how much cash on hand they have, how big they are, etc.), I’m going to share a framework that has been very helpful to me in thinking about acquisition valuations and how startups can position themselves to get more attractive offers. The key is understanding that, all things being equal, why you’re being acquired determines the buyer’s willingness to pay. These motivations fall on a spectrum dividing acquisitions into four types:

  • Talent Acquisitions: These are commonly referred to in the tech press as “acquihires”. In these acquisitions, the buyer has determined that it makes more sense to buy a team than to spend the money, time, and effort needed to recruit a comparable one. In these acquisitions, the size and caliber of the team determine the purchase price.
  • Asset / Capability Acquisitions: In these acquisitions, the buyer is in need of a particular asset or capability of the target: it could be a portfolio of patents, a particular customer relationship, a particular facility, or even a particular product or technology that helps complete the buyer’s product portfolio. In these acquisitions, the uniqueness and potential business value of the assets determine the purchase price.
  • Business Acquisitions: These are acquisitions where the buyer values the target for the success of its business and for the possible synergies that could come about from merging the two. In these acquisitions, the financials of the target (revenues, profitability, growth rate) as well as the benefits that the investment bankers and buyer’s corporate development teams estimate from combining the two businesses (cost savings, ability to easily cross-sell, new business won because of a more complete offering, etc) determine the purchase price.
  • Strategic Gamechangers: These are acquisitions where the buyer believes the target gives them an ability to transform their business and is also a critical threat if acquired by a competitor. These tend to be acquisitions which are priced by the buyer’s full ability to pay as they represent bets on a future.

What’s useful about this framework is that it gives guidance to companies who are contemplating acquisitions as exit opportunities:

  • If your company is being considered for a talent acquisition, then it is your job to convince the acquirer that you have built assets and capabilities above and beyond what your team alone is worth. Emphasize patents, communities, developer ecosystems, corporate relationships, how your product fills a distinct gap in their product portfolio, a sexy domain name, anything that might be valuable beyond just the team that has attracted their interest.
  • If a company is being considered for an asset / capability acquisition, then the key is to emphasize the potential financial trajectory of the business and the synergies that can be realized after a merger. Emphasize how current revenues and contracts will grow and develop, how a combined sales and marketing effort will be more effective than the sum of the parts, and how the current businesses are complementary in a real way that impacts the bottom line, and not just as an interesting “thing” to buy.
  • If a company is being evaluated as a business acquisition, then the key is to emphasize how pivotal a role it can play in defining the future of the acquirer in a way that goes beyond just what the numbers say about the business. This is what drives valuations like GM’s acquisition of Cruise (which was a leader in driverless vehicle technology) for up to $1B, or Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp (messenger app with over 600 million users when it was acquired, many in strategic regions for Facebook) for $19B, or Walmart’s acquisition of Jet.com (an innovator in eCommerce that Walmart needs to help in its war for retail marketshare with Amazon.com).

The framework works for two reasons: (1) companies are bought, not sold, and the price is usually determined by the party that is most willing to walk away from a deal (that’s usually the buyer) and (2) it generally reflects how most startups tend to create value over time: they start by hiring a great team, who proceed to build compelling capabilities / assets, which materialize as interesting businesses, which can represent the future direction of an industry.

Hopefully, this framework helps any tech industry onlooker wondering why acquisition valuations end up at a certain level or any startup evaluating how best to court an acquisition offer.

What Happens After the Tech Bubble Pops

In recent years, it’s been the opposite of controversial to say that the tech industry is in a bubble. The terrible recent stock market performance of once high-flying startups across virtually every industry (see table below) and the turmoil in the stock market stemming from low oil prices and concerns about the economies of countries like China and Brazil have raised fears that the bubble is beginning to pop.

While history will judge when this bubble “officially” bursts, the purpose of this post is to try to make some predictions about what will happen during/after this “correction” and pull together some advice for people in / wanting to get into the tech industry. Starting with the immediate consequences, one can reasonably expect that:

  • Exit pipeline will dry up: When startup valuations are higher than what the company could reasonably get in the stock market, management teams (who need to keep their investors and employees happy) become less willing to go public. And, if public markets are less excited about startups, the price acquirers need to pay to convince a management team to sell goes down. The result is fewer exits and less cash back to investors and employees for the exits that do happen.
  • VCs become less willing to invest: VCs invest in startups on the promise that future IPOs and acquisitions will make them even more money. When the exit pipeline dries up, VCs get cold feet because the ability to get a nice exit seems to fade away. The result is that VCs become a lot more price-sensitive when it comes to investing in later stage companies (where the dried up exit pipeline hurts the most).
  • Later stage companies start cutting costs: Companies in an environment where they can’t sell themselves or easily raise money have no choice but to cut costs. Since the vast majority of later-stage startups run at a loss to increase growth, they will find themselves in the uncomfortable position of slowing down hiring and potentially laying employees off, cutting back on perks, and focusing a lot more on getting their financials in order.

The result of all of this will be interesting for folks used to a tech industry (and a Bay Area) flush with cash and boundlessly optimistic:

  1. Job hopping should slow: “Easy money” to help companies figure out what works or to get an “acquihire” as a soft landing will be harder to get in a challenged financing and exit environment. The result is that the rapid job hopping endemic in the tech industry should slow as potential founders find it harder to raise money for their ideas and as it becomes harder for new startups to get the capital they need to pay top dollar.
  2. Strong companies are here to stay: While there is broad agreement that there are too many startups with higher valuations than reasonable, what’s also become clear is there are a number of mature tech companies that are doing exceptionally well (i.e. Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google) and a number of “hotshots” which have demonstrated enough growth and strong enough unit economics and market position to survive a challenged environment (i.e. Uber, Airbnb). This will let them continue to hire and invest in ways that weaker peers will be unable to match.
  3. Tech “luxury money” will slow but not disappear: Anyone who lives in the Bay Area has a story of the ridiculousness of “tech money” (sky-high rents, gourmet toast,“its like Uber but for X”, etc). This has been fueled by cash from the startup world as well as free flowing VC money subsidizing many of these new services . However, in a world where companies need to cut costs, where exits are harder to come by, and where VCs are less willing to subsidize random on-demand services, a lot of this will diminish. That some of these services are fundamentally better than what came before (i.e. Uber) and that stronger companies will continue to pay top dollar for top talent will prevent all of this from collapsing (and lets not forget San Francisco’s irrational housing supply policies). As a result, people expecting a reversal of gentrification and the excesses of tech wealth will likely be disappointed, but its reasonable to expect a dramatic rationalization of the price and quantity of many “luxuries” that Bay Area inhabitants have become accustomed to soon.

So, what to do if you’re in / trying to get in to / wanting to invest in the tech industry?

  • Understand the business before you get in: Its a shame that market sentiment drives fundraising and exits, because good financial performance is generally a pretty good indicator of the long-term prospects of a business. In an environment where its harder to exit and raise cash, its absolutely critical to make sure there is a solid business footing so the company can keep going or raise money / exit on good terms.
  • Be concerned about companies which have a lot of startup exposure: Even if a company has solid financial performance, if much of that comes from selling to startups (especially services around accounting, recruiting, or sales), then they’re dependent on VCs opening up their own wallets to make money.
  • Have a much higher bar for large, later-stage companies: The companies that will feel the most “pain” the earliest will be those with with high valuations and high costs. Raising money at unicorn valuations can make a sexy press release but it doesn’t amount to anything if you can’t exit or raise money at an even higher valuation.
  • Rationalize exposure to “luxury”: Don’t expect that “Uber but for X” service that you love to stick around (at least not at current prices)…
  • Early stage companies can still be attractive: Companies that are several years from an exit & raising large amounts of cash will be insulated in the near-term from the pain in the later stage, especially if they are committed to staying frugal and building a disruptive business. Since they are already relatively low in valuation and since investors know they are discounting off a valuation in the future (potentially after any current market softness), the downward pressures on valuation are potentially lighter as well.

The Goal is Not Profitability

I’ve blogged before about how the economics of the venture industry affect how venture capitalists evaluate potential investments, the main conclusion of which is that VCs are really only interested in companies that could potentially IPO or sell for at least several hundred million dollars.

One variation on that line of logic which I think startups/entrepreneurs oftentimes fail to grasp is that profitability is not the number one goal.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The reason for any business to exist is to ultimately make profit. And, all things being equal, investors certainly prefer more profitable companies to less/unprofitable ones. But, the truth of the matter is that things are rarely all equal and, at the end of the day, your venture capital investors aren’t necessarily looking for profit, they are looking for a large outcome.

Before I get accused of being supportive of bubble companies (I’m not), let me explain what this seemingly crazy concept means in practice. First of all, short-term profitability can conflict with rapid growth. This will sound counter-intuitive, but its the very premise for venture capital investment. Think about it: Facebook could’ve tried much harder to make a profit in its early years by cutting salaries and not investing in R&D, but that would’ve killed Facebook’s ability to grow quickly. Instead, they raised venture capital and ignored short-term profitability to build out the product and aggressively market. This might seem simplistic, but I oftentimes receive pitches/plans from entrepreneurs who boast that they can achieve profitability quickly or that they don’t need to raise another round of investment because they will be making a profit soon, never giving any thought to what might happen with their growth rate if they ignored profitability for another quarter or year.

Secondly, the promise of growth and future profitability can drive large outcomesPandora, Groupon, Enphase, TeslaA123, and Solazyme are among some of the hottest venture-backed IPOs in recent memory and do you know what they all also happen to share? They are very unprofitable and, to the best of my knowledge, have not yet had a single profitable year. However, the investment community has strong faith in the ability of these businesses to continue to grow rapidly and, eventually, deliver profitability. Whether or not that faith is well-placed is another question (and I have my doubts on some of the companies on that list), but as these examples illustrate, you don’t necessarily need to be profitable to be able to get a large venture-sized outcome.

Of course, it’d be a mistake to take this logic and assume that you never need to achieve or think about profitability. After all, a company that is bleeding cash unnecessarily is not a good company by any definition, regardless of whether or not the person evaluating it is in venture capital. Furthermore, while the public market may forgive Pandora and Groupon’s money-losing, there’s also no guarantee that they will be so forgiving of another company’s or even of Pandora/Groupons a few months from now.

But what I am saying is that entrepreneurs need to be more thoughtful when approaching a venture investor with a plan to achieve profitability/stop raising money more quickly, because the goal of that investor is not necessarily short-term profits.

Our Job is Not to Make Money

Let’s say you pitch a VC and you’ve got a coherent business plan and some thoughtful perspectives on how your business scales. Does that mean you get the venture capital investment that you so desire?

Not necessarily. There could be many reasons for a rejection, but one that crops up a great deal is not anything intrinsically wrong with a particular idea or team, but something which is an intrinsic issue with the venture capital model.

One of our partners put it best when he pointed out, “Our job is not to make money, it’s to make a lot of money.”

What that means is that venture capitalists are not just looking for a business that can make money. They are really looking for businesses which have the potential to sell for or go public (sell stock on NYSE/NASDAQ/etc) and yield hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.

Why? It has to do with the way that venture capital funds work.

  • Venture capitalists raise large $100M+ funds. This is a lot of money to work with, but its also a burden in that the venture capital firm also has to deliver a large return on that large initial amount. If you start with a $100M fund, its not unheard of for investors in that fund to expect $300-400M back – and you just can’t get to those kinds of returns unless you bet on companies that sell for/list on a public market for a lot of money.
  • Although most investments fail, big outcomes can be *really* big. For every Facebook, there are dozens of wannabe copycats that fall flat – so there is a very high risk that a venture investment will not pan out as one hopes. But, the flip side to this is that Facebook will likely be an outcome dozens upon dozens of times larger than its copycats. The combination of the very high risk but very high reward drive venture capitalists to chase only those which have a shot at becoming a *really* big outcome – doing anything else basically guarantees that the firm will not be able to deliver a large enough return to its investors.
  • Partners are busy people. A typical venture capital fund is a partnership, consisting of a number of general partners who operate the fund. A typical general partner will, in addition to look for new deals, be responsible for/advise several companies at once. This is a fair amount of work for each company as it involves helping companies recruit, develop their strategy, connect with key customers/partners/influencers, deal with operational/legal issues, and raise money. As a result, while the amount of work can vary quite a bit, this basically limits the number of companies that a partner can commit to (and, hence, invest in). This limit encourages partners to favor companies which could end up with a larger outcome than a smaller, because below a certain size, the firm’s return profile and the limits on a partner’s time just don’t justify having a partner get too involved.

The result? Venture capitalists have to turn down many pitches, not because they don’t like the idea or the team and not even necessarily because they don’t think the company will make money in a reasonably short time, but because they didn’t think the idea had a good shot at being something as big and game-changing as Google, Genentech, and VMWare were. And, in fact, the not often heard truth is that a lot of the endings which entrepreneurs think of as great and which are frequently featured on tech blogs like VentureBeat and TechCrunch (i.e. selling your company to Google for $10M) are actually quite small (and possibly even a failure) when it comes to how a large venture capital firm views it.