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Loaded for Bear?

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

I follow quite a few blogs, especially in the startup and VC space, and what surprises more than anything is that not many are discussing the pending US (WW?) recession. I first posted on this in October 2007 (Subprime Mortgage Crisis and Startups)  but since then things have become a lot clearer, and a lot worse. In my opinion it is time to batten down the hatches and get ready to weather the storm.

What does that mean if you are a startup? Well, first off - if you are already funded and going to need to engage in a new round any time soon (say in the next 9, maybe even 12 months) - I would recommended moving your schedule up and doing it now.  It isn’t that the VC’s money will evaporate anytime soon, it is just that they will start being more cautious with investments, things will take longer and valuations will go down (as far as I can tell they already are). Right now most VCs don’t seem to be worrying too much about the upcoming recession - but sometime soon (I’ll guess sometime in the summer) they will - so use this time to your advantage.

If you are pre-seed, and haven’t already been funded, be prepared for a longer gestation period before you can reach the appropriate milestones to get to your next round of funding (especially if they have anything to do with customers, or market validation). In my opinion, you can just assume that anything you start now won’t have a market for about a year. That means that if you have any chance at all to get funding soon - do it now (perhaps at even a lower valuation), and use the rest of this year to build up your product and get ready for 2009.

Enterprise Software Startup Valuation

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

Not a blockbuster headline, but I just noticed that Workplace, Inc. bought Cape Clear. I had never heard of Workplace before, they sell various Enterprise applications using a SaaS model. I had heard of Cape Clear, they are (were?) a pretty welll known Irish startup in the Enterprise Integration\SOA space - providing Enterprise Services Bus middleware.

Most the articles I have seen about the acquisition focus on the aspect of how integration into existing systems is a key capability for SaaS players, and that the Enterprise middleware space is rapidly consolidating. Makes sense, but for me what is more interesting is what this says about enterprise software startups and their valuation. The details of the deal are confidential - but I am guessing that the deal isn’t a blockbuster (given the size of the acquirer), and I’d be surprised if the deal was for more than $50M (maybe much, much less), all stock. Now according to Joe Drumgoole’s blog about $48M has been invested in Cape Clear over the years - so a $50M exit doesn’t leave much for anyone. Here is his list of Cape Clear investments:

  • 2 Million in seed funding from ACT in 2000
  • 16 million in Series A funding from Accel and Greylock in 2001
  • 10 million in Series B funding from Accel and Greylock 2003
  • 5-10 million: A phantom series C round raised as a set of warrants amongst existing investors. It was never press released and their is no mention of it on the net.
  • 15 million in a series D round in the last few weeks (April 2006 - Jacob) with InterWest

Cape Clear seems to have been a “technology” acquisition for Workday - which brings me to my point about Enterprise Software startup valuations. It is very difficult to become a stand alone player in Enterprise software (especially with all of the consolidation going on), and if you aren’t a viable stand alone enterprise software company - well that means you need to plan for the fact you will be acquired - probably for technology. To make sure that a technology acquisition is a viable exit path you need to make sure your valuation isn’t too high in the early stages. Enterprise technology companies seem to sell for $15M-$100M, depending how strategic they are to the acquirer - but require a lot of money in the later sales and marketing phases.

So make sure you don’t over value your company early on, it will come back and bite you later.

Microhoo - My Thoughts on a Microsoft-Yahoo Merger

Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

Well, it is in the news everywhere, the possibility of a $44B Microsoft/Yahoo merger.  Given that I have spent a lot of ink discussing how to manage mergers after they happen - I find it hard to believe that this merger will actually end-up as a net positive for either company over time. The companies are just too different. Yahoo has been spending the last few years making itself into a media company (though lately they have been talking about getting back to their technical roots), and Microsoft is, in the end, a software and engineering company. My guess is that it will be hard for the merged “Microhoo” to be both a media and software company at the same time, which will cause enormous tension w.r.t to management attention and resource allocation. I wouldn’t want to be the one who has to make that merger work…

Another point that has been discussed ad-naseum is whether this will help or hurt the start-up eco-system. I attached a table taken from the Israeli government website about recent acquisitions of Israeli comapnies. Taken in a purely Israeli context it will probably be a net plus. First of all Yahoo has been a complete non-player in Israel, while Microsoft has both a large presence and made three acquisitions lately (see the table below). People are right that Microsoft will be busy for a while digesting the acquisition, which will slow its pace. The good news is that it will probably cause other players to pick up the pace of their acquisitions - AOL (which bought Quigo and Yedda which even aren’t on the list), Ebay which has bought Shopping.com and FraudScience (also not on the list). Maybe even some of the other advertising\internet players - e.g. Google, Amazon, IAC, News Corp. will start acquiring differentiating technology in Israel which would more than make up for any slowdown by Microsoft.

Recent Israeli m&a activity chart

Incubating Innovation – part 2

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

I am at heart a technologist. I still get excited hearing about new, cool software technology and solutions. All of my past experience, and now at eXeed, my time goes into figuring how to mold new technology so that it solves a real problem for a large set of potential customers. At IBM Research our group used to use the term “Research in the Marketplace”. Continuing that tradition at eXeed, we work pretty much only with startups that have unique technology, so my comments are very much focused on technology based startups.

In my previous post I tried to show why the numbers make it hard for corporations to create “startups” internally. Beyond the numbers, there are two basic truths about technology based startups that make it very difficult to cultivate them in a large corporate environment:
1. Over a short period of time technology-based startup products need to morph (sometimes repeatedly) to meet customer\market needs –experimenting in the marketplace  while leveraging the same basic core technology. Very few technology startups start with the same set of product (ideas) and business model as they exit with – but in most cases the new direction still leverages the same core technology. 

2. Startups start out small, with very little (if any) revenue. One thing to remember is that even an exponential curve starts out slow – and only speeds up as time goes on.

These two “facts” make it hard for a startup to be incubated in a large company – there are just too many barriers to being nimble enough to make point 1 work, and point 2 usually means that the corporation looses interest before success can be shown (especially given the ambiguity associated with point 1, and since there is usually an existing set of products that can generate more short term revenue with the same investment).

I guess the basic point is that the impedance between running an existing business and starting a new one is so great that unless the corporation is willing to experiment with new, unorthodox models, and can commit long-term high-level executive support, it just won’t work. Even then there is still the issue of getting the right people (and giving them a loose enough rein)  – but I will discuss that in another post.

Investor Presentations

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

I have been seeing a lot of presentations from budding entrepreneurs trying to at least get in the door to present their ideas to some source of funding. Of course, there is great variation in the quality of the presentations (both style and content) – but it isn’t the quality of the graphics that matters (though you can spend hours with Powerpoint wasting time on the presentation), but rather the content and your presentation style.

There are quite a few primers on the web on how to create a good presentation for VCs and other potential investors (e.g. 102030 rule, enetrepreneur pitch guidelines) so I don’t feel the need to write yet another one. In general two simple rules that I use are probably good enough:
1. When creating a presentation a good rule of thumb for the order of a presentation is: Tell them what you’re gonna tell them, Tell them, Tell them what you told them (I heard this first from Stephen Boies while I was at IBM Research).
2. Get to the point – quickly. Since we are a technology oriented fund, tell me about the technology, what it does and why it is unique. So you may actually need to tweak the presentation based on the audience. Or maybe just do it without slides (some of the best pitches were from someone just telling me their story – not a fancy Powerpoint presentation).

One pet peeve of mine is the use too many superlatives – you want me to get excited, but don’t tell me this is the best thing since sliced bread – every entrepreneur thinks that about their idea. You need to convince me. Tell me something I didn’t know. Convince me you know your technical domain and business environment (including competitors).

Another pet peeve is “patent pending technology” – important to mention since it shows that you have respect for your IP and protecting it. Beyond that – it doesn’t really say much. Anybody with a “dollar and a dream” can submit a patent, and in many cases even when it is issued – it doesn’t actually mean much about the value of the idea or technology.

Increasing Your Chances of Success as an Entrepreneur

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

I am revisiting the topic I mention in my previous entry on “Overconfidence and Entrepreneurial Behavior” because of an interesting post I found on the subject by Bob Warfield. He points at a study from the Harvard School of Business, that essentially comes to same conclusions about experience as the Israeli study in my previous post, but has some interesting insights that are useful to a first time entrepreneur.

First their definition of success is different than that of the Israeli study - success is effectively defined as an exit (closer to the hearts of most VCs than the definition used by the Israeli study). Here is my summary of their findings:

1. Entrepreneurs who succeeded in a prior venture (i.e., started a company that went public) have a 30% chance of succeeding in their next venture. By contrast, first-time entrepreneurs have only an 18% chance of succeeding and entrepreneurs who previously failed have a 20% chance of succeeding.

To be honest the relations seem about right - though the actual numbers seem a bit high, but maybe it isn’t if you take into account that an exit doesn’t necessarily mean that money was made.

2. Companies that are funded by more experienced (top-tier) venture capital firms are more likely to succeed. This performance increase exists only when venture capital firms invest in companies started by first-time entrepreneurs or those who previously failed. Taken together, these findings also support the view that suppliers of capital are not just efficient risk-bearers, but rather help to put capital in the right hands and ensure that it is used effectively.

This is really important news for entrepreneurs (since you really can’t just increase your own experience) - if you don’t have the experience yourself, you should “buy” it. Choose your investors not just on the basis of money, but on the basis of their experience, and how much of that experience they are willing to put into a company (one day a month just isn’t enough). Or, if you can then you should hire the experience even though it is expensive. If you look at the numbers in the study - by getting the appropriate experience on board - you can increase your chances of success by 7%-12%

3. The average investment multiple (exit valuation divided by pre-money valuation) is higher for companies of previously successful serial entrepreneurs.

in other words - by getting the appropriate experience on board, you can not only increase your chances of success - but leave more money in your pocket when you are successful.

So for me the study proves the model that we are using at eXeedtechnology, while expensive, is the right model for entrepreneurial success (early heavy involvement of experienced industry veterans as an integral part of the startup). While it doesn’t increase your chances of a home run (which seems to be heavily predicated on luck) – it significantly increases your chance of a successful exit.

‘‘I think I can, I think I can’’: Overconfidence and entrepreneurial behavior

Wednesday, October 10th, 2007

I actually “borrowed” the title from an interesting article in the Journal of Economic Psychology’s January edition. Not a journal that I usually read, but my interest was triggered by a post in Marc Andressen’s blog. When I first saw the article (especially the introduction) that explained that “The strongest cross-national covariate of an individual’s entrepreneurial propensity is shown to be whether the person believes herself to have the sufficient skills, knowledge and ability to start a business. In addition, we find a significant negative correlation between this reported level of entrepreneurial confidence and the approximate survival chances of nascent entrepreneurs across countries.”

So I thought to myself “aha – I finally understand why there are so many high-tech entrepreneurs in Israel” – the national trait of over-confidence is actually causing the Israeli propensity to create startups. This actually fit pretty well with the findings that I mentioned in an earlier post on Age and the Israeli Entrepreneur. Then I looked a bit closer at the numbers in the article.

Turns out the article is about new business in general, not just high-tech, and Israel has an relatively low percentage of entrepreneurs that perceive that they have sufficient skills, knowledge and ability to start a business (only 30% of respondents, as opposed to 61% in NZ, 55% in the US – but only 11% in Japan, Israel is in the bottom third of the countries mentioned). So clearly it isn’t a national trait, but one that seems more localized to the technology community. Given that, I think there may be a different trait involved rather than just self-confidence. Since the Israeli technology community is relatively small (and pretty close knit – many having served together in the Army) I think another factor mentioned in passing in the article may play a larger role in Israel’s technology startup phenomenon - “Knowing other entrepreneurs is also positively associated with start-up propensity.

The Death of Enterprise Software Startups?

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

In Israel, it has become close to impossible to get an investment for an Enterprise Software startup, even worse than in the US. One of the main reasons is that enterprise software sales are hard, and expensive ( a lot of high cost man power, and long sale cycles) - which is true. Everyone is looking at models to get around those issues (e.g. open source, SaaS), but fundamentally it remains an issue.
Not that there aren’t problems or opportunities in enterprise software (see The Trouble With Enterprise Software for a nice overview of some of the issues), there are huge issues with enterprise software, and SOA (Services Oriented Architectures) are no panacea. So opportunities for technical innovation abound, it is just that most VCs don’t believe that it is a good investment of time or capital. Since VCs are awfully busy, and have more on their plate than they can handle, once this is a “rule-of-thumb” it is hard to get their ear.
I think this will have grave implications for Enterprise IT shops (and vendors). In last few years most large IT vendors have gotten into the habit of “outsourcing” their technical innovation - they buy companies rather than develop the technology in-house. If the VCs stop investing - then in a few years, innovation in the enterprise software market will dry up. Given the current state of enterprise software, that can’t be a good thing….
I think that things will change - since there is still a lot of money in enterprise software and large vendors need technology, someone will have to provide them with it. Enterprise software companies probably will have smaller chance at IPO - but given the relative lack of competition they should have a better shot at M&A. The trick is to have unique, innovative technology that solves a problem for enterprise IT departments – or even better, for the business. I also think the pendulum has swung too far, and will swing back in a couple of years - making any investment done now, much more valuable in the future

Age and the Israeli Entrepreneur

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007

I read with interest a whole set of blog posts about the age of successful entrepreneurs in the US (one of the better ones was by Marc Andreessen, you can find it here  Age and the entrepreneur, part 1: Some data). In my opinion it was a debate over whether youth and enthusiasism trumped age and experience in the high-tech startup world. One thing that immediately jumps up at you is that most of the high-tech entrepreneurial super stars were young (e.g. Bill Gates, Larry Page, Sergey Brin).

I was wondering whether anyone had done any real studies on how things worked in Israel.  Even though the Israeli VC and start-up model is based on the US model, the culture, environment and people are different than in the US.  Thigs work diffefrently here (and I think the Israeli VCs will need to change in order to adopt - but I’ll write more on that in a separate post). For example, most Israeli entrepreneurs go through maniditory army service - for three years or more (and many Israeli high tech companies started are based on teams that worked together during their Army service). I guess that is why Israeli work better in teams than Americans - and the list of differences go on and on (probably write a post on that too:)

That leads me to an article I read yesterday in the Marker (an Israeli business daily) that quotes a study by Dr. Eli Gimon (sp?). I would have put up a link but I couldn’t find the article on the web - and both the article and summary I found was only in hebrew….

I thought it was telling to see what he actually measured - whether a company that started in a high-tech incubator was around for at least seven years. That was his definition of success. I am not sure any VC would agree with that definition - but it does make sense in an Israeli context. While most US VCs (and Israeli too) are looking for the elusive “home-run” - Israeli produces very few of those. It mostly produces companies with innovative, solid technology - which is why so many Israeli companies are snapped up by overseas companies - they provide technology innovation, depth and skills. These companies get acquired for anywhere between $10M-$200M - where over $100M is rare and high-end. Very different than the US model…

Bottom line - what Dr. Gimon (sp?) found was that the most important ingredient to success for an Israeli start-up is management skill and experience - not age, sex, schooling or national origin of the founder. Also whether they built the company based on their own technology made a difference.

I imagine these findings are probably very different than in the US…

Israel Chief Scientist Grants - Should Startups Use Them?

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

I was just looking at the new version of Israel’s “Chief Scientist’s Law” (the new version - updated June 2005) Encouragement of Industrial Research and Development Law 5744-1984. For those of you unfamiliar with this government program - it is essentailly a loan program to startups (and other manufacturing\technology companies) that is repayable as royalties or as a settlement on sale of the company. Companies submit proposals to the Office of the Chief Scientist, which decides on the merits whether to provide funding. The law itself is relevant for both manufacturing and IP based companies - but for most start-ups, the rules regarding IP are the the more interesting.

So is it worth it? Seems like easy money - right? Fill in a few forms, talk to a few people and get some serious funding. So whats the catch?

In general the law tries to be fair - if there is a sale of the company the government gets a percentage of the sale value relative to the amount invested, plus interest. More or less like any VC - except the calculation seems to be as if the investment is the relative part of 100% of the company ((government_grants/all_investments_in_company)*sales_price) - so what about the founders and employees? Is that supposed to be only out of the other investors share? Well, for that there is clause 19B.j.1 “The Ministers may affixx rules for calculating the Sale Price in a manner that will take account of the shares that have been issued to entrepreneurs and employees otherwise than for cash ” - besides the weird english (well, it isn’t an official translation) - it seems to say that the government doesn’t have to actually leave anything for the founders and employees from thier part of the proceeds, but they may decide to…

However, the biggest problem is with uncertainty that the law creates with the transfer of IP outside of Israel in the event of an acquisition. They allow for the transfer based on the decision of a committee (described in text of the law) - which according to the wording doesn’t have to allow the transfer of IP (though in most cases it probably will). Not being able to transfer IP abroad could kill an acquisition - or make it less valuable to the acquirng company. Many international corporations (e.g. IBM) require that all of their IP belong to corporate - so if the IP can’t be transferred, the IP remaining in Israel could be an issue - and will at least be a price negotiation point.

So if you are facing a choice between closing the company (or not getting off the ground) and taking Chief Scientist money - take the money - but make sure you know what you are getting into. Like with any transaction - caveat emptor…

Related reading: Export of Technology Developed With Chief Scientist