Category Archives: Entrepreneurs

Term sheet making and taking

In venture capital, sometimes you have the luxury of being a term sheet maker. In other words, you get to have a strong say on the terms at which you’re investing in a company.

The conditions under which this is more likely to occur are when there is limited competition for the deal, you have a unique ability to add value to the company which is recognized by the founder, you’re investing a relatively large check size, and, better yet, a combination of multiple of these conditions.

But often, these conditions aren’t present. There are multiple bidders at the table, each of these bidders is in a position to add value to the company or at least this is what’s perceived by the founder, and your investment amount is relatively small.

When this is the case, you often have to take the term sheet that is put forth by the company. In other words, the company dictates most of the terms.

While this is suboptimal from an investor perspective, not doing these deals would mean missing out on some great companies. In fact, some of the conditions which produce an environment where you need to accept being a term sheet taker are the direct result of the quality of the company. For example, higher quality companies attract more bidders to the table and this gives the companies a stronger say on the investment terms.

When this is the case, if you really want to be part of the company, you have to take the term sheet on the table.

Internalizing an outcome

I remember reading that visualizing what an outcome looks like makes you more likely to reach that outcome. For example, visualizing yourself after you’ve built a successful company increases the odds that you build a successful company.

The reasoning behind this line of thought is that visualizing an outcome places in motion the subconscious changes in your actions which are necessary to achieve that outcome.

The problem was that, after trying the approach on some small goals, I noticed that it doesn’t work for me. So I tried a different approach. Rather than visualize what the outcome looks like, I decided to write about it. My reasoning was that the general practice of internalizing an outcome might be right while the specific medium which I was using to internalize the outcome might be wrong for me.

Sure enough, when I began to write down what specific outcomes would look like, I began to achieve them much more readily. It turns out that I think through writing rather than images. Given the fun I have writing this blog, this isn’t surprising.

So if there’s an outcome you seek to achieve, it helps to internalize the circumstances of the outcome through whatever medium works for you. This could be by writing about it, visualizing it, recording yourself talking about it, or another medium specific to you.

The hype around initial coin offerings

There’s a new hype in cryptocurrency land these days. They’re called initial coin offerings (ICO’s) and they’re basically a way for aspiring services to raise money by issuing new digital tokens on the blockchain. If the services are successfully built and widely used, these tokens appreciate in value, thereby rewarding early investors.

People much more knowledgeable than I am on the topic have written about ICO’s at length elsewhere. I’m not going to repeat what they’ve said, but will point out one flaw in the arguments that ICO advocates are making.

In particular, advocates of ICO’s state that ICO’s are a great way to solve the chicken and egg problem when attempting to attract users to a new service with network effects.

A service with network effects is one which becomes more valuable for users as more other users use the service. This makes it difficult to attract users at the beginning, when there are few other users using the service. As a result, centralized service providers resort to offering incentives (financial and non-financial) for users to participate in the network. The discounts that car-hailing companies offer passengers and the bonuses that they offer drivers are great examples of this.

Since ICO’s offer investors the potential for appreciation in the value of the service’s underlying token, the argument is that they help solve the chicken and egg problem. They do this by giving early investors tokens which, since they will increase in value if the service is widely used, the investors are incentivized to use.

The problem with this argument is that, while centralized service providers traditionally give money to their users to use the service, services that perform ICO’s are requesting money from their users. In other words, the direction of money transfer is reversed. You will get a lot more people to use a service by giving away money than by requesting it. As a result, services built upon ICO’s appeal to a much smaller pool of potential initial users than services built by centralized providers. The solution which ICO’s offer to the chicken and egg problem is therefore not nearly as big as ICO advocates make it out to be.

In addition, if we think of the people which a service gives money to as its users, and the people which a service takes money from as its investors, services built upon ICO’s are currently claiming to create a new class of investor users. The problem with this is that the level of diligence required to be a user of a service is different than the level of diligence required to be an investor in the service. In the former, you’re consuming, and consuming is easy. In the latter, you’re producing or at least understanding how something is being produced, and that’s hard.

ICO’s are currently making people believe that it’s easy to do what’s hard.

This is an attractive value proposition. It explains why there’s so much interest in ICO’s, to the point where services are raising millions of dollars in minutes for a service which they often have yet to build.

The problem is that, in reality, doing what’s hard isn’t easy. As the services built upon ICO’s are built, or are not built, and are used, or are not used, reality will emerge.

Performing on auto-pilot after thoughtful preparation

My High school basketball coach always said that when you’re on the court, you have a single responsibility. And that’s to perform to the best of your abilities.

The alternative is to think about how you’re performing. While valuable in order to improve your performance, the right time to do this is when you’re off the court. If you do it while playing on the court, you end up second guessing your performance, and the resulting feelings negatively impact how well you perform.

In other words, when you step onto the court, your performance is already predetermined by the practice and thought that you put in up to that point. You’re effectively on auto-pilot.

The same is true for your non-athletic goals. You perform best when on auto-pilot after thoughtful preparation.

The implications of Amazon buying Whole Foods

Amazon announced yesterday that it has reached an agreement to buy Whole Foods for $13.7 billion in cash. Here are my thoughts on the implications of the deal:

1. A few days ago, Amazon was rumored to be interested in buying enterprise messaging platform Slack for $9 billion. The alternative for Slack is a $500M funding round at a $5 billion post-money valuation. Independent of which path Slack takes, the fact that a single company is in a position to realistically bid for a grocery chain and an enterprise messaging platform in the same week shows the extent of Amazon’s past ambitions and current cross-market dominance.

2. Amazon is paying $13.7 billion in cash for Whole Foods. This is 64% of the $21.5 billion of cash on Amazon’s balance sheet as of the most recent quarter. Amazon has recently been eeking out small profit margins thanks in large part to the financial performance of Amazon Web Services. In addition, the deal will likely attract debt financing without much difficulty given Amazon’s size and the health of its businesses. However, this is a very large transaction, even for Amazon. In fact, it’s the company’s largest acquisition to date, considerably ahead of its second largest acquisition to date of Twitch for $970M. This signals the importance of the move.

3. Amazon’s move is consistent with the omni-channel strategy that it has recently begun rolling out, for example by opening physical bookstores to complement its core e-commerce book sales. As fairly commoditized products, both groceries and books are categories where the benefits of physical stores are lower than those for non-commoditized product categories like furniture and clothing. However, after an e-commerce company acquires its initial online native customers, physical stores remain an essential part of growing the business due to the fact that the majority of customers in product categories like groceries still shop offline. There will come a day when this is no longer the case, but we’re not there yet. The end game is different than the approach necessary to get to the end game and Amazon’s move shows that it acknowledges the latter fact.

4. Whole Foods’ premium customers are a great match for the Amazon Prime subscription service as both customer groups are high spenders. Adding Whole Foods deliveries to Amazon Prime will make the latter service much more valuable to existing and new customers, while Whole Foods locations will help expose the supermarket’s high spending customers who don’t use Prime to the service.

5. Amazon’s logistics capabilities make it likely that it will take over Whole Foods deliveries from Whole Foods’ existing delivery partner Instacart. I don’t know what fraction of Instacart deliveries are from Whole Foods, but Whole Foods is the grocery chain that is said to have had the biggest contribution to Instacart’s early traction. This is why Whole Foods invested an estimated $36 million in Instacart. Instacart currently faces the real risk of losing one of its biggest partners, if not the biggest.

6. Whole Foods’ more than 460 locations across the US and Canada will serve as a great testing ground for, and enable the mainstream rollout of, Amazon Go checkout technology. This will further improve Whole Foods’ premium customer experience.

7. Since Whole Foods only operates in the US and Canada, companies that face the risk of being displaced by Amazon making similar moves in other countries have the opportunity to prepare their defenses and preempt these moves. These companies include horizontal e-commerce players, offline grocers, and logistics companies. Given the scale and scope of Amazon’s ambitions and demonstrated execution, it’s likely that what these companies don’t do, Amazon eventually will.

Getting accepted, formally and informally

There are two ways to get accepted into an institution. Examples of such institutions include companies and schools.

The first is to apply using the institution’s formal application process, and the second is to offer up your candidacy through informal means, by getting directly in touch with people at the institution.

If you take the first approach, you’re competing head-on with thousands of other candidates. It’s hard to differentiate yourself.

The second approach makes you stand out. It shows that you want the position more than the thousands of people who applied through the formal process, and that you’re entrepreneurial in getting what you want.

Desire and entrepreneurship are important predictors of success in the eventual role, so most people respond positively to seeing them in a candidate. If they don’t, you might want to question whether you want to be part of an institution where these qualities aren’t valued.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t need to be qualified for the position. I’m not advocating for cronyism or nepotism. Although these unfortunately also often produce results, these results are hollow as you haven’t earned the position.

But the formal process has so many qualified people that you need to do things to stand out. You need to do the informal.

Providing ranges in a negotiation

In a negotiation, it’s important to develop a view on the range of outcomes which your counterpart will accept. You can either do so indirectly, by building up a view based on a combination of placing yourself in your counterpart’s shoes and interpreting the signals that they’re sending you, or do so directly by asking them. This post is a short observation on the latter approach.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume a single variable negotiation where that variable is the deal value. When directly asked for the value at which they’re ready to do a deal, many people respond by giving a range.

The problem with this answer is as follows:

If you’re a buyer, the upper limit of your range indicates what you’re willing to pay and your counterpart can ignore the lower figures. It’s then up to them to try to get you to pay more.

Similarly, if you’re a seller, the lower limit of your stated range reveals what you’re willing to sell at. Your counterpart can then try to get you to sell at a lower figure.

As a result, if you’re asked for the terms at which you’re ready to do a deal, and you feel comfortable sharing this information, it’s better to simply share a specific figure.

If you’re not, you might want to ask the same question directly to your counterpart. Maybe they’ll respond with a range.

Hasan on BloombergHT

My partner Hasan recently gave an interview on BloombergHT.

In the interview in Turkish, Hasan talks about the startups we’ve invested in, his intercity trucking managed marketplace Webnak, and the current state of tech startup investments across the world.

I couldn’t embed the video in this post but you can watch it in the first 14 minutes and final 3 minutes of the 23 minute video at this link.

The investment memo

An investment memo is a very useful tool to help collect your thoughts in advance of an investment decision. It’s basically a document that summarizes the important factors which help inform an investment decision.

In the context of a startup, these factors include a minimum of the team, the market, traction (if the company has it), and the investment terms. It can also include case-specific factors like likely future expansion areas and regulation.

Rather than invest solely based on consuming the information presented by the company you’re evaluating, the advantage of investing based on an investment memo that you prepare is that it forces you to articulate your understanding of the company. Doing so may help you identify weaknesses in the argument you’re trying to make which may lead you to reconsider your conviction in the investment, holes in your knowledge which you need to go back and address, or alternative approaches to areas like the team, market, and investment terms which you may want to discuss with the company.

In terms of format, investment memos tend to come in the form of Word documents or Powerpoint presentations. I prefer written text because it promotes substance over style and forces you to articulate your thoughts at the level of depth enabled by sentences rather than the more superficial level which results from using bullet points.

And an investment memo doesn’t need to be long. If you’ve done your research and thought about the startup at length, 2 to 3 pages of crisp text written in half a day is all it takes.

The resulting improvement in the rigor of your thinking and the quality of your investment decision makes the time investment well worth it.

KPI’s, company before investor

After an initial meeting with a founder, if an investor decides to dive deeper into the startup’s performance, there are two ways to go about it. You can either request specific KPI’s and analyses that you’d like to use to evaluate the business, or request that the founder share the company’s KPI dashboard.

While the former approach may make you feel better because of the sense of control that it provides over the process, I prefer the latter. The reason is that the company’s KPI dashboard shares how the founder evaluates and seeks to improve his business. Whether you agree with it or not, since the founder will be driving the business forward, understanding how he thinks about and measures the company’s performance is more important than how you would do it.

That said, after initially getting the company’s KPI dashboard, you should certainly ask for the additional KPI’s and analyses that you believe are necessary to evaluate the business. If these are different than what the founder presents, the ensuing debate might help you uncover the reasons for the differences.

The founder might convince you as to why his approach is better, you might end up helping the founder, or you might realize that your views are too far apart to partner.