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Entrepreneurship behind the wall: A trip to Palestine

IMG_2174If you’ve been a reader of my blog for any time you’ll know that I’m intrigued by (and a big fan of) the notion of The Democratization of Entrepreneurship. It’s not that I think entrepreneurship solves all the world’s challenges, but I deeply believe in the notion of entrepreneurship as a catalyst for positive social change across the globe. It’s a powerful force and we’re seeing more and more examples of entrepreneurs creating real change around the world, community by community.

Late last year I had the opportunity to spend a week in Palestine working with entrepreneurs and traveling in the region. It was part of my work as an advisor to Sadara Ventures – the only Palestinian focused venture fund (Google, Soros, the EU, Skoll Foundation and others are investors in the fund). It was an eye opening trip to say the least and a truly amazing experience to be working with entrepreneurs in an area that is experiencing so much turmoil.

This is a personal story and one about entrepreneurship. But it’s impossible to tell that story without the context of the political reality on the ground. In fact everything in Palestine to some extent takes place with that backdrop (and perhaps – at least as it relates to business and investment – in spite of it).  I’m in no way trivializing the conflict nor suggesting that the answers to the region’s problems are easy ones that can be fixed if we only better supported entrepreneurs. But it was refreshing to spend time with people living literally behind the wall, but looking past the political situation to try to create an environment in which entrepreneurs can survive and thrive. While in Palestine I had the opportunity to work with a number of entrepreneurs, meet with locals in shops and restaurants, but also to meet with a handful of key business leaders as well as the Vice President of the Palestinian Authority. The perspective I gained was a true cross section of Palestinians and as varied as the backgrounds of the people I met.

A little background and context. Palestine can be a rough place. GDP per capita is low – about US$ 1,650 per capita. The overall labor force participation rate is only 43% and unemployment is over 20%. The population is very young – 70% are below the age of 30 (and 40% younger than 15) and youth unemployment is over double the overall rate.

Movement in the territories is pretty restricted (and here I’m referring to the West Bank and not Gaza, which is completely closed off). The West Bank itself is about 5,600 square kilometers (so not exactly tiny) but movement into and out of the territory is difficult. As a foreigner I could come and go as I pleased (as a side note, getting into the West Bank was much easier than getting out – really meaning getting back into Israel; the very heavily armed Israeli soldiers weren’t all that impressed with my US passport, nor I suspect my very Jewish sounding name given where I was coming from).  Some Palestinians do have papers that allow them to travel into and out of the West Bank (particularly those born in/living in East Jerusalem which is an area in dispute, but is on the Israeli side of the wall). Israelis are restricted from entering Palestine – by the Israeli government (presumably concerned that any violent act by or on an Israeli would case a political storm) – and several of the Israelis associated with Sadara had to obtain day passes to enter and exit (they were denied the ability to stay overnight in Palestine and instead had to drive back to Jerusalem each night; I was able to stay in the center of Ramallah at what turned out to be a pretty nice hotel). Cars in the West Bank are restricted to the territory if they have a white license plate but can access Israel if they have a yellow one. Even in Israel travel is a somewhat restricted with frequent check-points on the main highways (traffic slows, but does not stop through these).

Entrepreneurs in Palestine are like entrepreneurs everywhere – optimistic, hard working, a tad fanatical at times. And while many of the businesses I was helping with were building products targeted to the Arabic speaking world in the EMEA region, the businesses they are creating would be familiar to any entrepreneur – travel and hotel bookings, content for kids, a gaming platform, 3D rendering systems, etc. It’s that passion for their projects combined with their desire to build businesses in Palestine that really stuck out to me from my visit. Many of the entrepreneurs I met with were educated in the US or Europe and had papers that would have allowed them to start their businesses elsewhere. But they’ve chosen to come back to Palestine to work there in an effort to try to make a difference in their homeland. Many spoke eloquently about this choice and the decision to move back home. I have a lot of respect for that kind of national pride. But especially in the context of the political situation in the West Bank where another Intifada would put the region again in a tailspin – business leaders in Palestine talk openly about wanting to avoid this but also with the understanding that there was little anyone could do to either predict or prevent another uprising (although they also recognized that economic stability leads to greater political stability).

I left Palestine completely energized about the work going on there in the entrepreneurial community and hoping that I can continue to help pursue economic development in the region.

What follows are some images from my visit as well as some background about them.

Video from the “no-man” zone on the Palestinian side of the wall but not yet truly in Palestine (the Israelis set this area up basically as a buffer to Israel but its become this sort of bizarre in-between land that’s neither a true part of Israel or Palestine. There are several refugee camps just to the south of this area that we passed on our way in.

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The difference between the Israeli side of the wall and the Palestinian side makes it clear who erected the barrier. The Israeli side is pristine while the Palestinian side is covered with graffiti.

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Pictures of Yasser Arafat are everywhere in Palestine.

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I was fortunate to have the opportunity to have lunch with Dr. Mohammad Mustafa, Vice President of the Palestinian Authority. He’s widely talked about as the next PM of the Palestinian Authority. Interesting to say the least (my visit happened to coincide with a visit to the region by John Kerry, the US Secretary of State).  The details aren’t appropriate to get into, but Dr. Mustafa has an economics background (he was trained in the US and worked for 20 years in Washington) which I think lends itself to a pragmatic view of the world. Although even with that, the severity and length of the conflict leave even practical thinkers on both sides at odds over certain of the most difficult points of contention.

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I had a chance to tour Jerusalem for half a day. It was my first time in Jerusalem – obviously a city rich with history. The pictures below include me at the Western Wall as well as some of the marketplaces and architecture around town.

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My tour guide in Jerusalem said something to me that, while I hope isn’t true, really stuck out to me. We had just gone through the Church of the Ascension and were ending our tour. Sitting on the steps of the Church I said to him: “You seem like a pretty reasonable guy and you’ve lived here for something like 20 years, what do you think the solution is to the fighting and disagreement in the region?” To which he responded: “That’s such an American question. What makes you think there’s any solution? This is a place where people have been fighting each other for 3,000 years. Maybe that’s just how it’s going to be.” I certainly hope that’s not the case, but the idea of finding a “solution” as being a distinctly American way of thinking was something I’d never thought about in that way before (I asked him if this view was broadly held he said it was, although he and many of his friends do hope that there’s some kind of path to peace).

I was also able to tour around Ramallah and the West Bank a bit and captured some photos from that part of my trip as well. Among the photos below is the “Stars and Bucks” coffee shop in Ramallah, the still under construction city of Rawabi – sometimes referred to as the “Palestinian Settlement” (it’s a full city being constructed for Palestinians in central West Bank; I had a chance to meet Bashar Masri who is a well known Palestinian entrepreneur and the main force behind the project). There’s also a picture below of the Entrepreneur Meet-up that we hosted in Ramallah one of the evenings of my visit. We had over 100 Palestinian entrepreneurs get together to talk about creating entrepreneurial communities and enhancing opportunities for Palestinian entrepreneurs. There’s also a picture of the “Startup Weekend Ramallah” sticker that I saw on many laptops around town – Ramallah has now hosted two such weekends.

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The final story from my trip comes as I was leaving. The airport in TelAviv is famous for its security – I had to show my passport 3 times before I even got to the check-in counter. As part of this process every passenger goes through a triage process where they’re asked various questions about why you’re traveling, what they were doing in Israel, etc. Basically trying to suss out whether you’re likely to want to try to sneak a bomb onto your plane (based on this interview they then put you through various tracks of security ranging from pretty much what you’d experience in any US or European airport to hour+ interrogations accompanied by detailed bag and person searches). Upon taking a look at my passport the triage team in my case then spent the next 10 minutes quizzing me in a way that I can only summarize as “Exactly how Jewish are you?” I had provided them some information on the purpose of my visit (but no details on where I went or whom I met with) so that had at least a little context – you would think – to give them reason to ask about what I was doing there. But no – all the questions were centered on where I went to temple, how often I went, etc. Apparently I successfully convinced them that I was Jewish enough because after 10 minutes they let me through the light version of Israeli security.

A huge thank you to Saed and Yadin from Sadara for hosting me. And especially to all the great entrepreneurs I met with while I was there (especially George for the great meal in East Jerusalem and Yousef for our breakfast in Ramallah). It’s both humbling and exciting to be welcomed so warmly into this great community of entrepreneurs.

Is the cost of starting a business less than zero?

featurepics-Chart With Downward Trend-102143-1635446There has been a well documented and discussed deep decline in the cost to start a technology business over the past ~ 15 years. From the days where every website was custom and each site element was a de novo build to today where virtual servers are easily and cheaply spun up and down and where frameworks exist for just about every feature and functionality that you could imagine building, the cost of starting a tech business has gone from $5-$10M to maybe $50k or less. It’s a remarkable trend and one of several key factors driving the Democratization of Entrepreneurship.

But is it possible that the cost of starting a tech business has fallen to less than zero? In some cases I think this is now the case. It’s now possible for entrepreneurs to seed ideas into the market and get people to put their money where their mouths are before even laying down a line of code. And this trend is true perhaps even more powerfully on a product level from existing companies.

We recently announced our investment in LeadPages – a platform that allows publishers to quickly create and host lead and conversion pages. The company actually started by selling the product that it was thinking of building, rather than building it first. Co-founder Clay Collins put out the idea for the LeadPages product on his marketing blog and before they had even scoped the project had $40k of pre-orders (paid pre-orders). With that money he built the beginnings of what became LeadPages.

Also in the Foundry portfolio BetaBrand is doing the same thing on a product level through its ThinkTank initiative. The idea is pretty simple – customers “vote” on new product ideas by agreeing to buy them. The ideas that get enough support get made.

Browse Dragon, KickStarter or Indigogo and you’ll see lots of examples of this (not every crowdfunded project fits this but many do) – show your support for something and if we reach a certain threshold, we’ll create it for you.

Another great example of a company taking advantage of this trend is Filament. It’s ThinkTank for web apps. As they describe it: “We show you a vision of a Web app. Your votes determine whether we build it, and its features.”  Exactly what I’m talking about.

I think this trend is incredibly powerful. And we’re just at the start of it. Just as we’ve seen the control of IT systems become decentralized across organizations of all sizes, I think we’ll also see a similar decentralization of the product ideation and development process. And while not every product and innovation can be developed in this way, many many can, should and will.

I’d love your thoughts on this as well as other examples of companies getting creative about pre-sales.

October 4th, 2013     Categories: Uncategorized    

Boulder is for Media

Recently Boulder based Datalogix announced that they had raised $25M to accelerate the build-out of its online ad targeting data business. The Datalogix story is one of perseverance and adaptation and it’s great to see them taking off. TechCrunch reported on the financing here. One thing caught my eye in the story and got my hackles up. In the very first paragraph about the financing Josh Constine said the following:

Since it’s based in Denver you don’t hear a lot about Datalogix, but the 250 employee startup is crucial to the future of advertising

Living in Boulder and being one of the more active adtech investors in the country (see our Adhesive investment theme) I can’t let this pass without responding. The Denver/Boulder market is actually a vibrant place for digital media companies. And you don’t have to look very hard to find them.

A few years ago Walter Knapp of Federated Media (who has a 70+ person office here after their acquisition of Lijit Networks in 2011) and I put together a conference called B.Media – a gathering of both local and national leaders working in digital media. And it was clear from that gathering that there’s no lack of energy around digital media companies here in Colorado (both on the technology side as well as the publisher side). From our early roots in ad serving with MatchLogic (acquired by Excite in ’98), and Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s 700+ person media agency headquartered here; SpotXchange which is doing pioneering work in RTB video; Yieldex (which was founded here in Boulder before moving their headquarters to New York); LinkSmart, a Foundry funded audience development network; Lijit which was mentioned above and built a very successful business here; Altitude Digital down in Denver; and Victors & Spoils which was recently bought by Havas.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. Denver/Boulder is a great place to start and build great digital media businesses.

May 6th, 2013     Categories: Uncategorized    

The Democratization of Entrepreneurship

One of the great trends we’ve been witnessing over the past decade, and in particular the past 5 years, has been what you might call the “democratization” of entrepreneurship”. It’s a powerful trend and one that I think will have a huge impact not just on the US economy and workforce, but perhaps even more intensely on other areas of the world – particularly developing economies.

There are several underlying factors that I think underpin this sift that are worth noting:

- The breaking down of geographic boundaries that confined entrepreneurial communities. Fundamentally entrepreneurial communities are networks (not hierarchies). And as such they thrive best in open environments that lack artificial restrictions. They also thrive best when information sharing is free and when entrepreneurs have access to other entrepreneurs (in this way entrepreneurial communities follow Metcalfe’s law of networks which states that the power of a network increases exponentially with the number of nodes on that network; entrepreneurial communities are exponentially stronger as they add more entrepreneurs to their “network”). The globalization of economies combined with the free flow of information fostered by the internet and other media has enabled entrepreneurs to establish connections that extend beyond traditional geographic boundaries and create virtual communities of peers where they once couldn’t exist.

- Entrepreneurship is becoming more highly valued. While many societies have thought of themselves as “entrepreneurial” it’s really only been in the past 10 years or so that entrepreneurs, as members of the creative class, have been truly celebrated. Where once striking out on one’s own was considered overly risky and either big companies (or in some countries state enterprise) was the path to job security and economic independence, now in many parts of the world entrepreneurship is embraced (think of the emphasis both candidates in the recent US election put on entrepreneurs as the growth engine of the US economy, for example). This acceptance (even celebration) of entrepreneurship is opening doors for many people around the world that were until recently closed due to cultural and economic pressures.

- Entrepreneurs don’t care about pedigree. I referenced above a belief that entrepreneurial communities are networks, not hierarchies. Openness, the free flow of information, the lack of community gatekeepers and entrepreneurs as leaders are hallmarks of these networks (vs. hierarchies which are closed, tend to have a small number of people who control access to the system and where information flow is controlled and limited). As a result the fundamental tenants that underpin these networks there is a decreased emphasis on pedigree, background and connections. While this hasn’t completely taken hold in all countries, in many places entrepreneurs are rightly judged by the strength of their ideas, the value they bring to the community and the success of their past efforts and not on their family name or where they attended school. This has opened the door for many entrepreneurs who 10 or 20 years ago would have found themselves cut off from the opportunities they have today.

- A focus on mentorship and giving first. One of the most powerful trends in support of the democratization of entrepreneurship has been the establishment of broad mentor networks that support entrepreneurial communities. These networks are aided by the trends noted above and stem from the fundamental belief that a larger and larger number of experienced entrepreneurs are embracing of giving first, getting later. Ultimately the best mentor relationships become two way but the going in expectation of the mentor needs to be that they’re participating first to give with no expectation of anything they’ll personally take away other than the satisfaction of helping out. The development of these mentor ecosystems – bolstered by the rise around the world of accelerator programs (the Unreasonable Institute being a great example) – has allowed entrepreneurs greater access to advice and counsel and I think helps create better entrepreneurs and more vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystems.

Fundamentally the world benefits from the democratization of entrepreneurship as more people look to themselves as the engine to grow beyond their circumstances. And importantly this phrase works in reverse as well – entrepreneurship promotes democratization. Entrepreneurs value the stable systems that democracy tends to bring, they see themselves and not government as the answer to their societies challenges, they provide jobs and economic stability that promote stable society and they work in networks that by their nature are fundamentally more democratic than hierarchical regimes. I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know exactly what the next 20 or 50 years will bring. But I do believe that the global trend towards entrepreneurship will continue and that the world will be much better for it.

February 20th, 2013     Categories: Uncategorized    

Welcome Costanoa

While the world may not need more venture capitalists, it definitely needs more good ones. Enter Costanoa Venture Capitallaunched today by long time investor and entrepreneur (and friend) Greg Sands.

As an entrepreneur, Greg is probably most famous for having named Netscape – literally, he was the guy who came up with that name. And of course, working there for quite a while in the seminal days of the internet.  As a VC, Greg has been a long time partner at Sutter Hill Ventures.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Greg on a number of investments over the years, including both LinkSmart and isocket in the current Foundry Group portfolio (these are both Costanoa investments). He’s a thoughtful and extremely helpful co-investor and board member. I love working with him.

And so it’s very exciting to see that he’s hung up a shingle and started his own firm. Because the world does need more good investors.

 

As a side note, and in the interest of full disclosure, my wife and I are investors in Costanoa. That’s a pretty good endorsement!

December 12th, 2012     Categories: Uncategorized    

Some thoughts on your ABBA round

I’ve noticed an ongoing trend over the past year or so that’s worth highlighting and commenting on. As valuations have risen (become “frothy” in VC speak, which is our nice way of saying “too high”) companies have started raising much larger Series A rounds. This is anecdotal – I’ll try to validate it when the numbers are released – but where companies used to raise $3-$5M for their Series A, one response to higher valuations has been a much larger number of companies raising larger and larger Series A rounds (say $6M-$10M). I think this is driven both by entrepreneurs who want to take risk out of their business with more cash on the balance sheet, as well as by investors who, despite higher frothy valuations, are looking to hit certain ownership thresholds. The obvious result of this is much higher post money valuations of Series A companies which puts more pressure on the exit dynamic (ownership thresholds may still be achieved, but the threshold for the proverbial 10x has gone way up).

But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about your cash burn.

You already know that I believe that you’re burning too much money. This is an especially slippery slope when you have $7M or $10M on your balance sheet. Traditionally companies raised enough money in their Series A to last 12-18 months. And there’s a temptation with that much cash on your balance sheet to up your cash spend. Maybe significantly. But I think think this is a mistake. The right cash burn for your business is dependent on your stage, the opportunity in front of you and your ability to manage scale, more than it is a function of the cash on your balance sheet (obviously cash can’t be ignored, but having more cash in the bank doesn’t equate to a license to spend money more rapidly). Think of your larger Series A as really an A/B round together (or at least A and part of B). And spend accordingly. I counsel entrepreneurs who have raised a larger A round to act like they still raised the typical $3-$5m. Set burn appropriately and look for specific product and market milestones to increase cash burn, just as they would if they had raised less cash. Ultimately this takes advantage of the larger raise. Because in my experience, in the early stage of a business, spending more money generally doesn’t equate with a higher degree of likelihood of success (nor often true speed to market).

November 14th, 2012     Categories: Uncategorized     Tags: , ,

Accomplishment vs. Success

I had a great conversation with an entrepreneur the other day talking about the difference between accomplishment and success. Accomplishment is what happens on the road to success, but declaring something a “success” vs. recognizing that it’s simply one of a handful of requirements to get to success. And of course viewing something this way changes the lens through which you consider that accomplishment and can significantly change decisions you make because of it. Think of it like drawing a line through a single point (or even a couple of relatively closely grouped points) – it’s easy to delude yourself into thinking you’re on one path before you actually have the data to prove it. And for a start-up, this can mean spending precious resources inefficiently, before you realize what line you’re really on. I’ve lived through this so many times (as has the entrepreneur I was talking with), plowing full speed ahead without recognizing that we had blinders and only later realizing (after wasting a bunch of money) that we misinterpreted some early accomplishment as successfully having figured something out (which we hadn’t).

October 15th, 2012     Categories: Uncategorized     Tags:

Process vs. outcome

I’ve had a few conversations recently about the right balance between process and outcome. I’ve been involved with a group that’s been very (very) process focused- which has lead to some great discussion, but has hampered action/outcome and it’s got me thinking about where the balance lies between the two.

When I was younger (and apparently somewhat more patient)  I was much more process oriented. Outcome alone as the measure of success wasn’t enough  – there needed to be a solid process behind it. I’m reminded of my days at a Quaker camp in Vermont where we’d hold lengthy “town meetings” to make decisions. All decisions were made by consensus and often discussions on relatively mundane topics extended for hours. But it was truly the process that mattered the most –the outcome was secondary.

I’ve also been in organizations where the opposite was true. Often there was no process at all – or only a process that was specifically designed to get to a single outcome (and worse – make us feel like we somehow had input). That was efficient in decision making, but mercurial and very few voices actually were heard (and a a result, while decisions were made quickly, they weren’t always the best decision and certainly didn’t reflect the collective expertise of the group).

But I don’t think the balance is in the middle. To me, outcome is more important and should be weighted higher. The process should support decision making (although not be designed to reach only one conclusion – there’s no benefit in that) but shouldn’t take over. Not everyone needs to be heard on every decision and there needn’t’ be “process checks” every 30 minutes.  Everyone should understand going in what the process is going to look like and consistency and adherence to what you say your going to do is probably the most important aspect of making a process work.

I’m curious your experience with this.

August 23rd, 2012     Categories: General Company, Uncategorized    

How much should a start-up CEO make?

I was asked this question at a talk I gave to the recently graduated TechStars Boulder class and thought it deserved wider dissemination than to just the group in the room at the time. This is a loaded question and while there are many variations I do actually think there are some general norms that are followed in most cases. So here goes with some guiding principals and then below that some numbers. Keep in mind that I’m talking about Seed and Series A stage businesses.

- Pay yourself as little as you can. Cliché, of course, but true. At the seed stage the modest amount of money you have raised is best spent on product and attracting initial customers than it is on paying yourself. This advice is generally true across the organization. It’s also true that generally founders and early employees own a large portion of the business at this stage and as a result, business progress at this stage disproportionately benefits founders. So the trade-off is most beneficial to the founders and employees – including the CEO.
- Don’t starve. There’s no sense in paying yourself so little that you can’t live or will be overly stressed about paying your bills. Seed stage investors are sympathetic to varying life conditions and you don’t need to tighten the belt so much that it ends up distracting you from your focus on building a great business. Some founders are happy to live in their parent’s basement and take almost no money; others have families or student loans, etc. and can’t work for minimum wage.
- Have an open conversation with your investors about what you need. As is typically the case, you should be as transparent as you can with your investors on this topic and have a open dialogue about compensation.
- Map out a plan. As part of this open conversation be clear about what your expectations are going forward and what milestones might trigger incremental compensation (raising a larger round, getting product into the market, hitting a certain revenue target, etc.).

So what does this all translate to? I think market (and this seems to be true whether you’re in San Francisco, New York, Boulder or somewhere else) is that companies that have raised $1M or less tend to pay their CEO between $75k and $125k (skewed very much to the low end of that scale – companies that have raised less than $500k tend to top out at $75k for CEO comp). Companies that have raised between $1M and about $2.5M tend to pay their CEOs around $125k. Companies who have raised above that amount skew up from there. Not science, but these observations are based on a sample size in the many hundreds.

August 22nd, 2012     Categories: Company Creation, Fundraising, Uncategorized     Tags: , ,

The most important provision of the JOBS Act

When the JOBS Act was passed several months ago there was much fanfare about the key provisions. Especially the raising of the number of investors that a private company could accumulate before being forced to report as a public company and the so-called “crowdfunding provision” which allows companies to raise up to $1M of private capital from an unlimited number of investors (regardless of whether they are accredited or not). The Act also changed the rules around general solicitation and advertising for certain private capital raises and eased the regulatory burden on some newly public companies.

One of the provisions that didn’t get much attention but that I felt was perhaps the most important of the Act was the provision that allowed companies to privately file an S1 registration statement with the SEC. This provision only requires companies to make their filing public 21 days prior to commencing a road-show. Prior to this, S1 filings were public as soon as they were filed – allowing anyone to see the company positioning and financial results of a potential IPO candidate. And of course by publically filing an S1, a company was declaring openly its intent to go public. The SEC review process is typically around 6 months, meaning that companies have all the public and competitive overhead of being public with none of the benefits.

The JOBS Act changed that drastically. Now companies can file privately, run the review process with the SEC in secret and only declare their intent to go public as they finalize preparations to go on the road (in effect around 5 weeks before pricing their stock). And as was just reported, many companies are taking advantage of this provision of the Act. In fact, more companies have submitted private filings with the SEC than have submitted public ones – approximately 30 in total according to VentureWire.

And with no IPO coming to market since Facebook’s challenging debut, I’d imagine that a number of the companies who made their filings privately are glad they did so…

June 12th, 2012     Categories: Uncategorized     Tags: , ,