There’s a great scene in Office Space where the movie’s heroes check their ATM balance after one of them has written a program to scrape tenths of pennies off of Paymetech (the movie’s fictional company) transactions. The guys figure this action will both go unnoticed and also generate a relatively modest sum for them. Instead when they check their balance it turns out that the sum of their tiny rounding transactions actually equated to over $400k to them over a weekend!
It’s a funny scene (and a funny movie) but the moral here is actually important: The sum of a large number of small actions can be huge.
For years we’ve seen the benefit of companies giving back to their communities through the Entrepreneurs’ Foundation network. Since it’s founding 7 years ago, EF Colorado alone has generated over $3M in direct philanthropy back to local non-profits. And we’ve seen participating companies benefit from the incorporation of clear values from their very founding.
But we can and should do so much more.
Pledge 1% aims to encourage all companies to incorporate a small pledge of philanthropy into their corporate culture through the pledge or gift to a non-profit of their choosing. This gift can be in the form of stock from the company, a pledge of stock from founders or other employees, gifts of time, gifts of profit or gifts of product. We’re encouraging the entrepreneurial community to put a stake in the ground around the importance of giving back. Pledge 1% acts as a clearing house for these gifts and pledges with simple tools to encourage and facilitate giving. In addition to myself, the Pledge 1% founders include Mark Benioff of Salesforce, Ryan Maretns of Rally, Scott Farquhar of Atlassian, Jeremy Stoppleman of Yelp and Dan Siroker of Optimizely.
Check out what we’re doing at www.pledge1percent.org. And join me in making the pledge.
If 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s easy to get lost in the celebration of high flying companies that quickly take an idea to market, scale and sell. It’s exciting, financially lucrative and makes for great reading. We’ve been fortunate enough to have a few companies like that in the Foundry portfolio (Zynga, AdMeld and Gist all went from idea to sale/IPO in a relatively short period of time). But the reality is that most companies take years (and years and years) to develop – the average time from company founding to exit event is now approaching 10 years. And in many respects, being a great entrepreneur isn’t about coming up with company ideas and executing against an initial product spec. Its really about the perseverance, dedication and stubbornness that is required to see a company from that point just after the initial exuberance of getting a product into market and having a few people use it, through the realization that building a scalable business is going to be really freaking hard (I called this period the “trough of disillusionment in a post years back), to the point where you (hopefully) have proved the skeptics wrong and despite the obstacles, mistakes and miscalculations find yourself with a real scale business.
Years 3-10 in a business are the real heart of entrepreneurship. Figuring out how to scale an organization, realizing that you need to bring in a set of managers above many of your initial key executives, playing with product market fit that you thought you’d already figured out 10 times, going through a downsizing of the business after you ran a bit too hot, having a co-founder leave, trying um-teen different sales and marketing ideas as you struggle to create a scalable sales model, all the while trying to make sure you don’t run out of money in the process. This is the meat of company building. And it’s hard. And messy. And rarely pretty.
So here’s to those entrepreneurs who are toiling away because they truly believe passionately in what they are doing and are going to make their idea a success whatever it takes. Building a business is crazy hard. You’d have to be half insane to even think about trying. So kudos to those who are out there toiling away at it. You are the real stars of the entrepreneurial world!
A few years ago I was talking to a fellow venture capitalist about an entrepreneur he had previously backed. “That guy should love me!” he exclaimed, “I made him 50 million bucks!” And then moved on to some other topic which I can’t remember because I was numb with disbelief at his previous statement. He backed an entrepreneur who built a business that after a number of years had a very nice exit and he made the entrepreneur money? Obviously his logic is completely backwards. And while I don’t know that many VCs would express such an extreme view of that sentiment I do think that most believe that not only is a healthy VC ecosystem important for entrepreneurship to flourish but that VCs create that ecosystem.
I disagree – Entrepreneurs come first. Not VCs.
Boulder is a great example of this. The local capital base is anemic, but the entrepreneurial ecosystem is flourishing (Boulder is the best city for start-ups, the happiest city in America, etc. – see here for some additional thoughts on why Boulder rocks for entrepreneurs and start-ups). And while one data point doesn’t prove a theory, Boulder is a pretty powerful argument for the notion that capital follows entrepreneurship and not the other way around. And while there were some VCs involved in helping shape the great start-up environment we have in Boulder, don’t mistake participation for causation.
Entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of Venture Capital, not the other way around.
At this week’s VCIR Winter the RMVCA will be announcing a partnership with the Entrepreneur’s Foundation of Colorado. In case you’re not familiar with the organization, the mission of EFCo is to encourage entrepreneurs and companies to give back to Colorado by endowing their communities with a gift of stock early in the life of their company. The hope is that this gift will serve as both a seed for a philanthropic culture within member companies and, of course, will mature into a cash gift that will help strengthen community organizations (each company specifies the recipient of their gift).
As a founding Trustee of EFCo, I’ve been involved with helping spread the message about the great work of the organization throughout our community and in encouraging participation by local companies (In support of this, Foundry has pledged a portion of our carry to the foundation).
Starting at VCIR, the RMVCA will begin working more actively to help support the Entrepreneur’s Foundation of Colorado mission in our communities by both helping support EFCo fundraising efforts as well as encouraging companies from around the RMVCA region to make a pledge of their stock in support of their local communities (and helping EFCo expand beyond Colorado). Having been involved in both organizations for years, I couldn’t be more thrilled to see them coming together to help each other out.
As part of this partnership, the RMVCA has encouraged VCIR sponsors to make an additional sponsorship donation, 100% of which will go to support the work of the Entrepreneur’s Foundation. This donation will be recognized at the annual VCIR poker tournament. In addition, the poker tournament will feature a buy-back-in option with a suggested donation of $100, again 100% of which will support EFCo. I’m happy to report that some great firms have stepped up to participate in support of this worthy cause at VCIR – KPMG, Square 1 Bank, Holmes, Roberts and Owens, Silicon Valley Bank, Cooley and Holland and Hart. In addition, the RMVCA itself has also participated in this sponsorship.
I’d encourage you to learn more about what the Entrepreneur’s Foundation is up to. And, as always, if you have any questions feel free to reach out to me directly.
There’s a great CNN opinion piece out today by Amy M. Wilkinson that argues strongly (and correctly) that the government needs to do more to support entrepreneurship and small businesses. I whole heartedly agree.
Quoting from the piece: “According to the Census Bureau, nearly all net job creation in the U.S. since 1980 has been generated by firms operating less than five years.” This conclusion is backed up by the National Venture Capital Association which tracks the impact of private companies who receive institutional venture financing. You can read the recent NVCA report on the impact of venture capital on the overall economy here (the quick take-away is that this impact is extremely significant).
With that as a backdrop, why is the US taking so many steps to stifle the innovation economy? Here are some thoughts, including and expanding on what Wilkinson proposes in her article.
1) Look to start-ups for job creation. Given the conclusions above, this may seem obvious, but it’s not how the government behaves. The vast majority of stimulus money that has gone to companies in the past 18 months has gone to prop up the nations largest employers (many of whom have continued to shed jobs). Instead of always looking for companies that are “too big to fail,” let’s look at some that are smaller and more likely to drive growth in the economy. With Obama about to endorse using bail-out funds for new job creation, let’s make sure that money actually gets directed to companies most likely to actually create jobs.
2) Stop being so xenophobic. As Wilkinson points out, “We are a country of immigrants, and yet in recent years, we have made it incredibly difficult for immigrants to launch companies in the U.S.”. The absurdity of our immigration policy is mind-blowing to anyone who has lived through the experience of trying to obtain a work permit in the US (or watched a friend or colleague do so). My partner Brad Feld along with Paul Kedrosky wrote a passionate argument in the Wall Street Journal yesterday about one immigration reform idea, the Start-up Visa movement (worth reading the entire piece, see it here). But let’s take this idea further. For example, how could it possibly make sense to deport a recent graduate school graduate (someone with the kind of technical degree that we so badly need here in the US and who received significant federal and state subsidies to study here)? We should be doing everything we can to keep smart, educated, motivated immigrants here – we want them contributing to our society and to our economy.
3) Stop putting up barriers to investment and making it hard for start-up companies to operate. My partner Jason Mendelson wrote about Senator Dodd’s recently proposed changes to the accredited investor regulations, the result of which would be significantly increased costs for companies raising money. This will surely result in fewer companies being able to obtain financing (and as far as I can tell provide no meaningful added investor protections). Fred Wilson wrote about this a few days ago as well. This is bad for investors, bad for companies and bad for the economy.
While we’re talking about administrative and costly burdens, can we please address 409(a)? (here’s a quick explanation of 409(a) for those that want a refresher) As far as I can tell the only ones that benefit from 409(a) are the valuation firms that charge $6k-$8k to provide companies reports that allow them to price the stock options they issue to employees. Collectively, it amounts to a massive tax on private companies – but one where the neither the government, the companies or employees benefit.
4) Stop treating venture capitalists as the enemy. Honestly, we’re really not bad people. And we’re not here to take advantage of the system. Most of us are passionate about entrepreneurship and about helping companies grow and prosper. We don’t need to be regulated more than we already are (it looks like we’ve avoided this for the moment), we don’t need our taxes raised for the long term work that we do and we definitely need to have some clarity on FAS 157 which is a complete mess at the moment and is at best going to introduce significant incremental costs into the system (which will take time and money away from our investing activities). [note: we have more to say on FAS 157 – look for that in an upcoming post]
Hi, I'm Seth Levine, a Boulder, CO based technology investor and managing director at Foundry Group. While I love technology I’m also a husband, father, avid cyclist, snowboarder and outdoors guy. I live just outside of Boulder with my wife Greeley and our three wonderful kids.