Part of the novelty in new social products is the fresh start on a social/interest graph. Especially now that we’re smarter in the dark patterns of ‘autofollow all contacts’. and so on, I find anecdotally that more people are going with a Slow Graph (add selectively as they figure out how to use the product) versus Fast Graph bootstrap. Threads is an interesting exception because we usually don’t see a new launch successfully from a company which already has a robust social product, and thus, existing relationships for you (in this case Instagram itself). Meta’s onboarding allows (encourages) you to simply recreate that list onto Threads, even putting Instagram accounts which haven’t yet created their Threads profile into a ‘pending’ status. Once they’re ‘live’ you’ll automatically add them.
I’m here today to encourage the normalization of the unfollow, especially as you decide how Threads will fit into your habits. Toss the social anxiety off and liberally hit that button. Don’t end up ruining your own experience!
But you probably will. Because the growth objectives of these business and our own stubborn behaviors/incentives push us to add add add follows.
“We found out it was a privately owned company in Queens, and I’m already running around making more money than — look, you got to imagine how rich you are when you’re making about $32 million running around on tour. From where I was at? Think about the transition. I stopped feeling the financial transactions. The money that was physically around me didn’t even count. The money that counts is at the accountant’s office. When I say “How much?” and I’m looking at the monthly, it’s all black-and-white. It’s not green. So if I do the deal with Vitamin Water, I don’t really need the money up front. The big money, on the back end when they sell it, I need to participate in that. And it changed the way artists look at deal structures. Because until those stages, they were not looking to do deals like that. They was looking for how much they could get an advance right quick, get the shot, and go from there.”
Stop with the Fake FOMO (Chris Neumann) – Trying to create fake FOMO when fundraising almost always fails and even when successful, creates a bit of a ‘winner’s curse’ – you get the type of investors who fall for this stuff. Per my earlier interview with him, I appreciate that Chris covers a lot of core topics for founders and startups. There are of course lots of things you should do in a fundraise to build momentum, but Fake FOMO ain’t one of them. In Chris’ words,
Remember, investors receive hundreds of emails from founders each month. I promise that it’s glaringly obvious when founders try to push fake FOMO. You might think you’re being smart, but the VC on the other end is likely rolling their eyes.
Zadeh Kicks had been offering the Cool Greys for as little as $115 since the fall before the drop. On release day it owed customers more than 600,000 pairs—an enormous chunk of Nike’s entire stock, which sneaker site Housakicks estimated at 1.2 million to 1.7 million pairs. Malekzadeh had no hope of filling the order. What’s more, the cycle was already repeating: Even as he scrambled to find Cool Greys, he was getting tens of thousands of preorders for the next big Jordan release, the Air Jordan 4 Retro Military Black, due out the following May.
After the Supreme Court overturned abortion rights, following her home state’s own restrictions, she posted again: “When you live in Texas and all you wanted was a hot girl summer, but now you have a ‘no reproductive rights’ summer.”
I’m always a fan of investors who write consistently, while blending personal experience and utility, versus just content marketing. Chris Neumann (of Canada’s Panache Ventures) checks these boxes so I asked him to come on my blog (currently less consistent, hopefully still the other two) for Five Questions.
Hunter Walk: So why venture capital, why early stage, and why Canada?
Chris Neumann: I’ve been lucky to have been a part of 5 startups going back to the late-90s, including two that were VC-backed (DataHero and Aster Data). After DataHero was acquired, I felt like it was time to try something new. 500 Startups was looking to add someone with an enterprise background to their investing team, so I made the leap into venture at the start of 2017.
At 500, I had the opportunity to work with early-stage founders from around the world and quickly realized that this was where I wanted to spend my time. I really enjoy the creativity and problem-solving that takes place during the early stages of a company, when founders are trying to solve a crazy number of challenges in parallel in order to get to product-market fit.
As to “why Canada?”, I’ve spent a lot of time in international ecosystems over the years (I’ve invested in startups in more than 20 countries and helped run accelerators on 5 continents). That exposure gave me insight into the significant knowledge gap that exists between Silicon Valley and the rest of the world. When you spend most of your time in the Bay Area, you’re oblivious to how much of a global outlier the region really is in terms of the density of experience and availability of people who have “been there before”. I felt that there was an immense opportunity to help narrow that gap for international founders, which led me first to found Commonwealth Ventures and eventually to move back to Canada and join Panache Ventures.
In the last 5 years, the Canadian tech ecosystem reached a significant inflection point in terms of the frequency with which world class startups were being founded and the ability of the ecosystem to support the creation of globally-impactful tech companies at scale. Toronto has now firmly established itself as the third largest tech/startup ecosystem in North America (sorry Miami) while Vancouver has finally embraced its proximity to Silicon Valley and the advantages that come from being the only major international city in the same time zone as San Francisco. What’s happening in Canada right now from coast-to-coast-to-coast is really quite remarkable.
HW: Your blog, which I love, tries to bridge a knowledge gap between founders and investors, often explaining ‘why investors do/care about X’ and so on. If you could magically give one piece of advice to every founder seeking venture capital what would it be?
CN: Thanks so much – that means a lot coming from you.
Speaking to international founders – which is really my focus – the number one piece of advice I would give is to spend time in the Bay Area. And I don’t mean going for a vacation or one of those week-long “startup tourism” trips, but really spend time there. Like a month or two.
The corollary to my earlier comment on Silicon Valley’s outlier status is that many people who live outside of the U.S. downplay or outright dismiss the advantages of being in the Bay Area, without really understanding them. They latch on to the narrative that “great companies can be built anywhere” and assume that founders around the world are competing on a level playing field, when they couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a mix of naivety and nationalism that is detrimental to the success of both the individual companies and the broader ecosystems.
That doesn’t mean I’m advising founders to permanently move to Silicon Valley, but all of the best founders I’ve met have spent serious time in the Bay, immersing themselves in the tech culture and dynamics of the region. They return to their home countries far more informed and educated in terms of what they’re up against and far better positioned to win vs. relying on bad advice and what they read in the media.
HW: Of the companies you’ve backed that truly failed financially (let’s define that as weren’t able to return the invested capital back), what percentage of those CEOs would you back again? What are some differences between those you would line up again to support and those you merely wish best of luck to?
CN: That’s a great question. I’d have to say that number is probably less than 10%.
For me, there are three major differences between CEOs I would back again and those I would not:
First and foremost, how capable were they as CEOs? In many cases, it becomes apparent over time that a particular founder isn’t actually well-suited to the role of CEO. Maybe they can’t sell. Maybe they’re too stubborn and their own idea gets in the way of hearing the market’s feedback. Maybe they have trouble letting go of things and empowering others as the team grows. Being the CEO of a company is a singularly unique role with demanding expectations and responsibilities, and most people really don’t belong in that role.
Secondly, how effective are they as communicators? The best CEOs I’ve worked with prioritize communication and keeping key stakeholders in the loop. That doesn’t mean that I expect to get a weekly call from a founder, but it’s essential that I have some idea of what’s going on with the company if I’m to gain confidence in the CEOs ability to navigate the ups and downs of a startup. That’s why investor updates are so important.
Finally, are they able to thoughtfully reflect on and learn from their failures? Once the dust has settled and the CEO has had time to process the emotions that come with having your startup fail, can they look back objectively and identify things that they might have done differently or decisions they made that turned out to have negative long-term consequences? That’s a big one for me.
It also goes without saying that how a CEO handles themselves in the final days and weeks of a company plays a crucial part in how investors ultimately see their legacy. You’ll never be able to tie everything up with a bow, but acting ethically and with integrity while trying to take care of your team is ultimately what matters.
HW: What’s the dumbest argument that our industry is currently having and why is it “remote vs hybrid/in-person?” But seriously, you’ve been a founder/CEO – what choices did you make about the culture of your startup that you think suited you well, and which ones would you revisit (or try to do differently)?
CN: If I never again have to read a bunch of entitled tech bros mansplaining on twitter about their way of working is the only way, I will die a happy man.
When we founded DataHero back in 2011, there was a trend going on where people were obsessively trying to “design” their company cultures. I never understood that – how on earth you could reason from first principles about culture and simply proclaim “this is what it will be” (Later, when Ben Horowitz published his book “What You Do is Who You Are,” I realized that I wasn’t the only one). Overall, we just tried to do the right thing. Treat people well. Show them that you respect and appreciate them. But also make sure everyone understands that startups are hard and work ethic is important – so keep the bar high.
In terms of specific choices, I think we did a really good job of being pragmatic. We didn’t overthink things. For example, we had a hybrid work schedule starting in 2012. M/W/F in the office. T/Th work from home. Why? Because Bay Area traffic sucked. That’s it. That simple.
We also worked really hard to keep a pulse on how people were feeling and take breaks when needed. For example, I remember one period where the whole company had been grinding for a couple of weeks leading up to a big release. It was apparent that everyone on the team was getting really stressed, so one day we declared that we were closing the office at lunch and going to get massages. We then took the entire team down the street to a Thai massage place, paid for everyone to get one, and went out for beers afterwards.
I think the hardest choices for me were around people who were underperforming. It’s easy to proclaim that you’re going to “hire slow and fire fast,” but when it comes down to it, very few people do that effectively – especially in resource-constrained startups. I can think of a few cases where I kept underperformers far longer than I should have, leading to longer-term cultural issues amongst the rest of the team.
HW: Who’s an investor you consider to be a role model and why?
CN: There are so many investors I’ve had the privilege of learning from over the years. Josh Kopelman was an early investor in Aster Data and for me really exemplified what it means to be generous with your time as an investor and show respect for founders. When Aster Data was acquired and I left to found DataHero, he spent more hours than I can remember meeting with me and brainstorming about the potential for cloud BI. On the one hand, he was definitely playing the long game and hoping for a potential investment, but it was more than that. Even after passing on our Pre-Seed round, he continued to make time. It was only later that I realized how much of an outlier he was in the way he interacted with founders.
From a partnership standpoint, the guys at Foundry (who ultimately led our Pre-Seed round) have been another role model for me. They make a point of encouraging founders to reach out to any of the partners – and have no ego around that. When I was a founder, it was such a powerful way of supporting portfolio companies. Now that I’m an investor, I can see how much efficiency and effectiveness comes from trusting your partners – not only when it comes to deferring on “risky” investment decisions, but also in terms of handing over a bit of “control” of the relationship with portfolio founders. There are a lot of things they do from a portfolio support perspective that we’ve looked to as examples at Panache.
“A product manager today faces a key architectural question with AI : to use a small language model or a large language model?”
Where Your VC Can’t Help (Ellen Chisa) – Product manager turned founder turned VC chimes in with some of the areas that your VC can’t (or shouldn’t) help. Specifically “I can’t tell you what product or company to build,” “I can’t find your first engineer,” “I can’t help you ship,” and “I can’t make someone use your product.”
Entrepreneurial Archetypes (Jared Hecht) – The founder of GroupMe and Fundera compares and contrasts five types of entrepreneurial motivation (the serial inventor, the opportunist, the problem obsessor, the industry expert, and the academic), along with the pros/cons of each. Jared starts to get into what I think would be a great follow-up post, which is what about cofounder pairings? Which combo well together and which are too much, or too little, of a good thing.
“In a world where all funds were part of the same ecosystem, the venture capital business worked like a relay race. The pre-seed and seed investors worked with companies to get traction, the Series A and B investors provided capital and support to help them prove out scale, and growth-stage investors helped prepare them for life as public companies. Each participant had their own lane and specialty and mostly focused on the thing or things they did well until it was time to transition that company to the next person in the chain.”
He also touches on how company exit size (and its return to normal expectations on average) is such a huge impact on fund models. The smaller funds that lack concentration will find that even winners don’t really move the needle enough (you need several) and the larger funds are trapped by their own AUM. Summer 2022 this was one of my two biggest statements about what the downturn means for startups and venture.
My friends at Weekend Fund recently put out a round-up newsletter of some investor responses to the question “Do Valuations Matter?” It’s all worth reading but I’ll excerpt my thoughts here since it’s a discussion Satya and I have often with new VCs.
Homebrew is an evergreen fund investing primarily in pre-seed, seed and Series A rounds.
Like NEA, Homebrew takes an ownership-driven approach to investing. They view valuation as an important guardrail in evaluating an investment opportunity. Hunter also breaks down their framework for evaluating an investment opportunity when achieving their target ownership exceeds their maximum check size, and the “opportunity cost” of doing so resulting in less diversification.
More from Hunter:
“In our historically concentrated approach to seed stage investing, hitting our ownership target mattered more than valuation *but* valuation was an incredibly important guardrail in evaluating an opportunity, for it has great impact on the company and our portfolio management overall.
We set a ‘max check size’ for our initial investments which was meant to get us, on average, 10-15% ownership and if held to, would overall guide us to an investment period that provided both time and company diversification for the fund. It also drove our reserves strategy. So in any negotiation, whether we wrote our ‘max check’ to get the target ownership was a factor of round size, company stage, and so forth. But we would rarely walk away from an opportunity based on valuation if it fits within that target ownership and check-size box.
In situations where targeting the 10-15% ownership would have required a commitment larger than our ‘max check size’ we had to decide whether (a) the opportunity here was worth 1.5 or 2 slots – ie are we going to make one fewer investment out of the fund in order to do this one or (b) would we stick with our check size but take lower ownership as a result or (c) walk away. Of these three, (c) was the most common decision for a variety of reasons that were about being consistent in our strategy and product offering.” — Hunter Walk (Homebrew)
Compare your level of conviction to the price the market is setting
“The ‘valuation question’ is one that comes up frequently in our discussions with the emerging managers we back via Screendoor (where we will invest up to 10% of a fund’s target raise and bring them into a community of investors ongoing for these types of questions). While situations can differ, my general rule is that the market determines the price, so you have to kind of decide whether your conviction in a company is equal to, greater, or less than price the market is telling you they are ‘worth.’”
Be disciplined to ensure you can hit a minimum portfolio size
“It’s a power law business so an EM wants to be able to show the quality of their access, picking, and winning. Having hard and fast ceilings on what you’re willing to pay, or trying to over focus on the upper bound of your ownership target too early in your venture lifecycle might make it tougher to prove selection success. So don’t routinely overpay or outbid, especially when you don’t believe in the company as much as the market does, but potential LPs will be more interested in the number of successful investments you picked than your entry price in them. Just maintain enough discipline to ensure you can hit a minimum portfolio size.”
Valuation negotiations can reveal a lot
“Besides the math of it all, valuation negotiations can tell you a lot about what matters to the founders, the type of relationship they want to have with their investors, and the goals they need to achieve to complete successful next financing.”
My daughter and I love San Francisco’s driverless cars from Cruise and Waymo. It’s extraordinary to see these autonomous vehicles putter around our streets, sometimes with non-driver passengers in the back seats.
I know they’re not perfect. I know lots of capital was spent and commercialization has been slower than some pundits imagined (although some of the reasons are up for debate). And the left-turn problem is more interesting to me than the trolley problem. But I can’t help but think ‘moonshot in motion’ when I see them and it brings wonder to our faces, which helps reinforce and remember that technology continues to have amazing potential.
“The biggest understanding gap I see between founders and VCs today is this understanding of the relationship between the investor focus on terminal outcome and the founder focus on the microeconomics and unit economics….. The net result is a lot of of frustrated founders who don’t understand why they can’t raise with $1-2 million in ARR and investors who don’t understand why founders don’t realize they are in small markets, regardless of early traction.”
As Charles also notes, this is exacerbated by the rapid increase in venture fund size. Every dollar increase effectively needs another several dollars of startup exit value to justify the AUM growth.
Just articles, posts and thoughts that I’ve found interesting
Crooks’ Mistaken Bet on Encrypted Phones (New Yorker) – How European police have cracked “safe” encrypted phones often used by criminals, and the wealth of data it’s provided. Come for the tech story and stay for insight into why cocaine is huge in Europe, how smuggling logistics work, and the slang used to describe murder.
The Dangerous Rise of ‘Front-Yard Politics’ (The Atlantic) – Derek Thompson on why obsessing over slogans and words (and the performative display of them), is further distracting us from getting stuff done and creating artificial conflict.
“To get big-brained about it, something like La Sombrita could only happen in a high-regulation/low-trust society like the US. In every other variation (low regulation/high trust, high regulation/high trust, low regulation/low trust) you get either larger public works without fear of vandalism or misuse (a proper bus shelter), or like in Quito (a lower regulation society) you get natural ad hoc bottom-up solutions.”
It’s often ok to just shutdown. I wasn’t suggesting that every founder/team/investors would prefer an acquihire to other forms of wind down, and definitely not that founders always “owe” their investors this attempt. If anything I was trying to emphasize to founders that it’s ok to try a different process, often against the common wisdom.
To founders (some in our portfolio) who assumed I was specifically subtweeting them. Nope. Of course the suggestion was spurred on by what I’m observing in the market – including a lot of stories from founders we haven’t backed – but I was commenting on the market at large.
I don’t want to fund an acquihire marketplace. If you want to build a marketplace for small acquihire transactions go right ahead but my post wasn’t a Request for Startup 🙂
Some people disagreed with me! “Nah, you give up all leverage when you do what you recommended,” was the feedback from a few readers. My POV is that it’s more nuanced than this. You have no leverage – or at best fake leverage aka bluffing – when you don’t have alternatives. Go have some private conversations, float some trial balloons, etc. But I truly believe the strategy I detailed is UNDERUSED in our industry.
Makes the Founder Seem Like a Loser? No way. I think it’s artful and thoughtful when done correctly. All of this is changing IMO – analogous might be layoff lists these days – no shame in being included in one when you know you did the best you could but the company had to make cuts. Obviously more falls on the CEO/founder shoulders but again, I think my strategy is going to be self-selecting for the type of leaders who authentically can articulate the situation and has some value to transact.
Appreciate the discussion – it’s why I enjoy blogging 🙂
“Worst case scenario we’ll sell to a larger startup or public company for about ~$1.5m per engineer.” Yes, this was the ‘fallback plan’ for many team in the web2 era and they weren’t wrong. Especially in the early days of mobile/iOS engineering, if you hired strong technical talent into your early stage company, you basically created an acquisition outcome floor. I was on both sides of these transactions – buying startups for Google/YouTube and angel investing in high quality technical founders. Sometimes you’d even get lucky and receive stock in the acquirer, which was how I gained pre-IPO equity in high growth stars like Pinterest and Facebook.
Starting our venture fund Homebrew professionalized and scaled my insights into soft landings. Acquihire potential absolutely isn’t enough in and of itself to justify venture funding (we play to win!), but in certain situations investors do talk about these things as positive optionality. And during our first few years we leaned in to help teams find the right home when it didn’t work out for them as an independent company. This produced two successful intra-portfolio acquisitions where one team joined a larger startup we previously seeded (Chime and Bowery Farming were the buyers) and a whole bunch of other transactions. The proverbial win-win-win: founders got to land their company often with some retention premium; employees got job offers; and we got capital back, that even if it wasn’t a power law return, allowed us to recycle into new investments or the existing portfolio. I’d say that for a small, two person fund we got pretty good at this motion when needed!
And now I’m telling you the world is different. Very different.
In 2023 with few exceptions acquihires are dead as we knew them. The majority of typical acquirers (large and small) don’t have incremental headcount budget. Those who do, often believe they can hire from the open market without the hassle of an acquisition. Cash is at a premium so it’s not going to cap tables (preferred or common walk away from the deals with no dinero). In fact, sometimes acquirers are asking for the remaining cash on hand from the startup in order to ‘zero out’ the salary burden they’re taking on [HW note: 99.9% of the time my answer is no fucking way]. And when they’re giving stock to existing shareholders instead of cash it’s at high 2021 valuations, buried below a preference stack.
None of this means we’ve backed off helping founders in these situations, but we do try to set expectations with them and collaborate with the other investors. My personal rule of thumb is that to the extent there’s cash or valuable IP still in the company, we need to make sure that we’re good stewards of those assets (per above, why I balk at giving up cash in an acquisition where there’s little bidirectional value exchange). But when it comes down to the forward-looking time of the founders and team – eg do they actually want to go work at the potential acquirer – their opportunity cost and happiness is really important. No founder should feel compelled to sign up for four years of earn out misery just to get their venture investors a few cents on the dollar.
Times like these call for somewhat different strategies, perhaps shifting from the ‘companies are bought not sold’ mindset (which is very much true in situations where the startup has optionality or at least competitive offers). My counterintuitive suggestion is that more founders should publicly announce they need to find a home when seeking this outcome. Put together a great post or deck about the situation, quality of the team, what they know how to do better than anybody else, and why they’ve had trouble raising additional capital. Let potential acquirers find you (who knows you might even end up with some funding offers). It’s sort of a litmus test – if you can’t make the argument convincingly in public I’m suspect you’re going to somehow magically figure it out in a quiet, closed door process. Not in today’s market conditions.
Downsides? Emotional I guess. But really, “this didn’t work out the way we hoped” is the theme song of startups so join the chorus.
Giving up negotiating leverage with a potential acquirer? Again, not really in this market. The only way you get to negotiate is if you have a BATNA, and my POV is this will increase that likelihood for 80% of companies in this position. So go talk with a few of your most promising relationships first, but don’t hesitate to go wide when you’re not getting immediate traction.
Some VC with an operations team should go build out the template for this – make it easy for founders and normalize this process, removing any stigma. Instead of spending your last quarter of existence digging through haystacks for needles, build a magnet, and pull the needles towards you. If over the course of the next year you see any Homebrew portfolio company try this out, I’ll let you know! And good luck, it’s rough out there.