Venture capital’s new normal

In many ways, 2010 was an incredibly surprising year for the VC industry. The pace of investment activity picked up considerably following the economic turmoil in 2008 and 2009. The number of companies started, investment valuations and the speed at which financings were completed all increased dramatically relative to the prior two years. At the same time, the long awaited restructuring of the VC industry started to become reality with fewer traditional funds being raised, more small (angel and micro-VC) funds launching and many VCs leaving the industry for other careers. Finally, the M&A market picked up and the IPO market cracked open a bit, creating more liquidity than the past couple of years.

2011’s even faster start has surprised not only many outside of the VC industry, but also many VC professionals. There has been extensive commentary on what is perceived to be an overheated or irrationally exuberant market, but I believe that we are simply experiencing the “new normal”, at least for the next few years. The reality is that there remains too much investment capital in pursuit of funding the handful of companies started each year that will generate outsized returns for limited partners. VC industry returns have been abysmal for the past decade, so missing out on those winners could mean the inability to raise new funds for many firms. At the same time, the cost of starting companies is lower than ever and angels and funds of all sizes are competing to finance the same, increasingly capital efficient businesses. More sources of abundant capital mean more companies being started and increasingly low odds of predicting which companies will emerge as winners. All of this creates a dynamic in which the first inkling of success for a young company yields multi-million dollar financing offers at seemingly inexplicable valuations ($100 million has become the new $10 million) and proven success generates multi-hundred million dollars financings at unprecedented valuations.

Unfortunately, this is likely to be the difficult reality of the VC industry for at least the next few years. For now, this new normal seems to be limited to the private investing market, not the public market, suggesting that this is not a bubble like the one experienced a decade ago. Further, in the VC market, dollars invested today don’t prove themselves to be ill spent for several years down the road. The repercussions of poor investing take even longer to unfold. The new normal in the private market will not quickly disappear with the bursting of a bubble, but rather slowly give way like an aging balloon bleeding air.

While many VCs will lose playing this new game, the good news is that there has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur, or in all likelihood, a consumer. Capital is freely and cheaply available to those willing to accept the startup challenge, both here in the US and around the globe. The startups that do emerge from the current financing frenzy as market leaders will have created innovative products and services for which consumers will be the ultimate beneficiaries. Those entrepreneurs will have created enormous wealth for themselves. The VCs that supported those entrepreneurs may or may not have generated returns for their investors. Which would you bet on?

Angelgate: Much ado about nothing

It seems that the hullabaloo over Angelgate is finally dying down but I’ve been in Austin the last couple of days and I was surprised to hear how curious people here are about all that has gone on in the echo chamber of the Valley. I’ve been sharing my not particularly unique perspectives (Mark Suster wrote a super post on the topic) with folks here and elsewhere so I thought I would publish them for a broader audience as well.

1)      If you think that some of the smartest angels in the industry were simple-minded enough to get together and attempt to collude in any real way, you just don’t understand how the angel and venture capital investing industries work. The reality is that it would be impossible to collude in a market where the supply of capital is so fragmented, especially for the best investment opportunities. Further, all it would take is one investor to break from the too large group of potential colluders to make it all fall apart. There is nothing unusual about investors getting together to talk about investment trends and overall market dynamics. That happens regularly, just as entrepreneurs regularly trade notes on the fundraising environment, firms, partners, etc. Move along, because there is nothing to see here.

2)      I agree with Ron Conway and Matt Cohler. There are professionals who invest mainly other people’s money, called venture capitalists, and there are professionals who invest their own money, called angels. These two groups have always existed, but historically there have been more similarities than differences. What has happened is that many of the “old school” VCs have gotten bigger and moved to writing larger checks in mainly growth and later stage companies or to investing only in businesses that have the potential to change industries and produce outsized returns. At the same time, the cost of starting companies has fallen and the exit environment for startups has increasingly shifted to outcomes of less than $100 million. All of this created a larger funding gap in the market than existed previously, opening the door for an entirely new generation of angels and venture capitalists (now called micro-VCs for some inexplicable reason). Markets have a natural tendency to fill gaps and that is exactly what has happened in the venture capital industry.

3)      The not newsworthy truth of the venture market is that there is far more cooperation and camaraderie than some would have us believe. As an example, we at Battery have made over 20 seed investments in the past 2.5 years and in nearly every case those investments were made in partnership with angels, “micro-VCs” and/or “old school” VCs. As long as expectations are aligned at each step in a company’s development, there is no reason that this type of cooperation won’t continue even as the market adjusts to its realities.

4)      Raising money is not for everyone. I always tell entrepreneurs that one of your primary goals in any financing should be to maintain optionality. If you want to build a business that will generate great cash flow but not necessarily grow at an incredible rate (a so called lifestyle business….a pretty good one if you ask me) or that you can bootstrap to profitability, I would highly encourage you to do so. But if you’re going to raise money, know that there are consequences to doing so. All investors, angels and VCs alike, want to help entrepreneurs but they also want to make money. So know what the expectations of your investors are when you agree to take their money. Josh Kopelman likes to say that when considering financing, entrepreneurs have the choice of taking the local train (smaller amounts of money typically associated with angels) or the express train (larger amounts of money typically associated with VCs). If you choose the local train, you can likely get off (sell the company) at any stop along the way. But if you choose the express train, you’re on board for the entire ride. And that long, tumultuous ride isn’t for everyone. Be honest about your ambitions, both to yourself and to your investors. You’ll find that the differences between angels and VCs are truly merely about expectations and not whatever nonsense that many with selfish motives and grudges like to spew.

Re-commerce: The reinvention of e-commerce

With the announcement of our investment in Groupon, it makes sense to provide some context for why we were compelled to make the investment at this time. Josh Kopelman has recently written about, the innovation that is taking place in the e-commerce market. At Battery, we’ve been following this same overall trend of innovation and referring to it as “re-commerce”, the reinvention of e-commerce. We believe that Groupon is a major player in this reinventing of the huge and growing e-commerce industry.

For the past 15 years, the Internet has been centered on community, content, collaboration and commerce. Community has been revolutionized by social networking. Content has been changed forever by user-generated content. Collaboration has been re-imagined by myriad online services. Until recently, the modern online shopping experience was nearly identical to shopping online many years ago. We believe that there are fundamental changes taking place in the e-commerce world, similar to what happened in offline retail over many years, with the advent of discount retailers, big box specialty retailers and warehouse clubs.

There are many innovations that we have seen over the course of the past few years, but there are five that have been particularly exciting for us at Battery (*Represent Battery investments) .

  • Private flash sales (Gilt, RueLala)
  • Collective buying / demand aggregation (Groupon*, LivingSocial)
  • Customization (J. Hilburn*, CafePress)
  • Crowdsourcing (Threadless, Modcloth)
  • Democratization (Fingerhut*, Etsy)

The new models of e-commerce that are emerging are not fads. They are tapping into all of the same trends that are impacting the broader web, including social, personalization and gaming. Most importantly, they are yielding e-commerce businesses that deliver better experiences for consumers and are more profitable than their predecessors. Many investors look at the valuations of public e-commerce companies and dismiss the entire sector. You can expect Battery to invest heavily in the sector as we view re-commerce as an opportunity to create enormous wealth by reinventing an industry that has been stagnant for too long.

Why OpenGraph helps Facebook become a $100 billion company

I had the good fortune of being able to attend Facebook’s F8 conference today. While I’ve been quite the Facebook (as a business) fanboy for some time, after today I’m absolutely convinced that with OpenGraph, Facebook has finally exposed the true power of its platform in a way that will help it create incredible value in the coming years. Today’s discussion at F8 didn’t directly touch upon the value of OpenGraph to Facebook, but I believe that the value of the data that Facebook will collect and organize via OpenGraph will allow it to build search and advertising businesses potentially more powerful and sizable than those of Google.

I’ve written before about the importance of data in advertising and the trend towards buying audience rather than impressions. Facebook’s OpenGraph will create the richest user profiles yet, enabling advertisers to target specific audiences based on their friends, Likes, and activity, anywhere that audience can be found on the web. This kind of data and targeting differs from Google’s search-based intent data in that it helps advertisers reach their target consumers earlier in the purchase funnel, enabling what Facebook has called demand generation. This data, combined with the potential of earned media via Facebook and its social plugins, could be the key to shifting billions of dollars in brand advertising spend to the web.

Potentially more important is what I consider to be an entirely new category of search, which I refer to as “subjective search”, that may finally be realized because of OpenGraph data. While Google will likely continue to dominate search for queries where there are objective results, my view is that Facebook will become the default search provider for queries that are subjective in nature. After all, with a graph of my preferences, those of my friends and those of the broader web population, won’t Facebook be in the best position to tell me what Italian restaurant to eat at in Palo Alto, what action movie to see on Friday night or where to go on vacation with my family?

I’m not sure that anyone could have honestly envisioned that we would see another Google-type business in our lifetimes. But by wielding the power of OpenGraph, Facebook could build yet another incredible business based on search and ads. My frequent comment that Facebook will be worth $100 billion sometime this decade has regularly been met with laughter and ridicule. I wonder if that statement will still get the same response after today.

4 sources of long term differentiation and competitive advantage

Despite the slowdown in venture investing during most of last year, it seems like venture activity picked up significantly in Q4. The data is consistent with my own experience during the quarter, where I saw a huge increase in companies seeking financing, the return of multiple competitors for every investment opportunity and incredibly compressed fundraising processes. I fear that we’re returning to an investing and startup environment much like the one prior to October 2008. One impact of this behavior is that we’ll likely see, as before, the funding of many companies in the same market or with similar offerings (many people point to location-based social networking companies such as Foursquare, Gowalla, Booyah, etc. as a good example). That’s led me to try to outline what I think are the only ways for web technology companies to truly have long term differentiation. Clearly, with time and money, talented people render most software and user experiences alone indefensible. So how do Internet and digital media companies create sustainable competitive advantage? 

Network effects: Businesses with network effects have products or services that increase in value as more customers use them. When a network effects business achieves scale, it can have incredibly lasting differentiation because recreating that network poses significant challenges to competitors. Microsoft Office, eBay and Yelp are good examples of these types of products and services. Some network effects businesses can have both positive and negative network effects. For example, as many social media businesses grow in use, the volume of content to filter and absorb can become overwhelming.

Switching costs: Products or services that make it difficult or expensive to use an alternative product or service have switching costs. Creating this kind of lock-in is a true barrier for competition. DoubleClick’s DFA product is a great example of a product that had tremendous value because it was embedded in the agency online media buying process and was used by many people within agencies.

Scale: For a product or service, differentiation can be derived from scale in customer usage, capital expenditure or data. As an example, Google enjoys incredible differentiation and competitive advantage from all three sources. Hundreds of millions of people conduct billions of searches on Google each day, leading websites that want to integrate search to turn to the de facto standard in the industry. Google has spent untold sums of money on hundreds of thousands of machines in datacenters around the world to deliver the fastest, freshest and most relevant search results to its users. The hundreds of millions of clicks generated each day on search results provide Google with a vast quantity of data and insights that help improve search quality. Any new search competitor not only has to deliver a superior consumer search experience, but it also has to spend enormous amounts of money recreating the underlying infrastructure and data that makes Google such a powerful competitive force.

Culture/People: Given that web technology itself is largely indefensible, the greatest source of differentiation and competitive advantage is often execution, and that is predicated on people and the culture in which they operate. Whether it’s the culture of innovation at Google, the culture of customer happiness at Zappos or the culture of freedom and responsibility at Netflix, I’m certain that the management teams from those companies would point to the employees and the DNA of the organizations as the primary reasons for their success. I find that when the culture of a company is well-defined, it is usually a direct reflection of the founder(s) and their conscious decision to establish a well-defined company culture from the start. I only know of a few instances where the culture of an organization was either instilled in the organization at a later point in the company’s development or successfully recast by new leadership.

When choosing what investments to make, I try to keep these sources of differentiation top of mind. It’s easy to get caught up in the appeal of a sexy new consumer application or a seemingly novel approach to a business problem. But lasting, significant equity value is often only created when one or more of these differentiating factors are at play. Are there other sources of differentiation that you would add to the list?

11 tips for the VC pitch

A couple of weeks ago, I gave the presentation below to the companies participating in First Growth Venture Network. The focus of the day was how to pitch investors and while every investor has his or her preferences, I find that there is 80%-90% overlap in what most investors are hoping to see and hear. Given that there are so many great resources on this topic available on the web for entrepreneurs, I wanted to focus on a few key things that seem to get overlooked in advance of and during many pitches. This presentation is a bit incomplete without the accompanying commentary but hopefully you can get the key points and be somewhat entertained in the process (lots of cartoons!).

Here are a few, brief clarifying points:

Pursue feedback: Get feedback on the pitch from people that you trust and make sure you practice it in front of an actual audience. Use this opportunity to test all of your assumptions.

Don’t talk to strangers: Research the partner that you are meeting with, but more importantly, understand why that partner might be interested in what you are doing. Investors see hundreds of businesses each year and they say no to 99.5% of them. Investors are prolific “daters” but they need to feel chemistry to get “married”. I refer to this feeling as emotional resonance and I see very few investments made where that is missing.

Small bites, big appetite: All investors ask themselves whether the business they are seeing is a feature, a product or a company. As an entrepreneur, you need to be able to sell a vision while focusing on near term milestones. Start small and focused but have a plan to get big.

Any and all questions and feedback are more than welcome!

YouTube and FreeWheel grease the wheels for online video advertising

I try not to write about portfolio company news or announcements but some recent press about FreeWheel Media is worth trumpeting given the potential significance it has for the entire online video advertising ecosystem. YouTube has historically made it incredibly difficult for content owners to sell advertising against their content distributed through YouTube. Unlike traditional online advertising which is automatically delivered and optimized via third party ad servers, video content owners working with YouTube needed to hardcode the advertising or have YouTube’s ad operations team traffick the campaigns on their behalf. The integration of FreeWheel’s platform with YouTube changes these old rules of engagement for all of YouTube’s content partners. Now, using a single platform, those partners can easily and automatically scale their video monetization efforts across distribution partners, including YouTube. Some of the specific benefits of the YouTube and FreeWheel integration are:

– Greater ad format options, including pre-rolls and companion banners

– More ad targeting options, including contextual and behavioral

– Automated ad optimization across campaigns and third party ad networks

– Consistency of campaign and metrics across YouTube and other distribution points

The net result is that the online video advertising market can begin to operate more like the traditional display advertising market. Advertisers can expect consistency in delivery and metrics. Content owners can offer consistency in formats and targeting. And distribution partners can expect lower operating costs and greater sell-through. Everyone wins. And that is why all of the players in the online video ecosystem should be paying attention to this news and coming announcements from other FreeWheel partners and customers, like The YouTube-FreeWheel announcement represents a major tipping point for the online video advertising market and the ability of companies to turn online video in a viable business.

3 reasons that data will save online advertising

It’s been nearly 15 years since Rick Boyce and HotWired famously popularized the use of banner advertising campaigns as a model for generating revenue online. Since then, there have been many, significant innovations in online advertising, including new ad formats, new pricing models, new targeting technologies and new metrics for effectiveness. Yet the value of online display advertising is being questioned now more than ever before, particularly in the current economic environment. Numerous organizations are projecting that online display advertising spend will be flat or slightly down in 2009. Growth is expected to recover in 2010, but at much lower rates than earlier in the decade and than search advertising. But the explosion of data and its increasingly effective use hold great promise for online display advertising. There are many types of data for online advertising, including keywords, contextual, behavioral, semantic, demographic, psychographic and social. The relative value of each of these forms of data is still an unknown, but I believe that the value (and cost) of data will soon exceed the value of inventory, which is already deteriorating. Here are three reasons that the use of data will save online ads and help restore their growth.

– Data makes media buying easier: Data from comScore, the IAB and others suggests that while the top 50 online publishers only account for 25%-35% of user attention, as measured by page views or time spent, they represent about 90% of online advertising spend. Why is that? As I’ve written before, the job of an online media buyer is seemingly impossible. Audience fragmentation, the proliferation of ad networks and the emergence of ad exchanges have created incredible amounts of complexity in the marketplace. Learning about all of these sources of inventory, let alone buying from them, is an unenviable task. On the other hand, buying from large, known publishers is simple. This is the default behavior for many online media buyers because it doesn’t entail extra effort or risk. Further, the buying of traditional media, rightly or wrongly, is done largely based on gross rating points, viewership, circulation, listenership, etc. Media buyers purchase audiences at scale. In the online world, media fragmentation has made it a necessity to buy from multiple places to achieve desired scale. Data allows traditional buying behavior (again, independent of whether it’s good or bad) to be replicated online. Data enables media buyers to purchase a specific, consistent audience at scale across many different publishers. Data makes the jobs of media buyers easier, allowing more dollars to be spent online.

– Data increases the value of remnant inventory: Somewhere between 30%-40% of online ad inventory at most major publishers goes unsold by their direct sales organizations. That number is closer to 80-90% for most social media sites, the fastest growing segment of inventory and the one with the most ad effectiveness challenges. Remnant inventory is the direct result of highly ineffective ads that are not relevant to the consumer. There was a time when could sell its inventory because of the association with its brand. That time is long gone as metrics have told advertisers that they are not earning a return on their dollars. Getting value from advertising on social media, where consumers are largely not engaged in commercial activity, is even more difficult. And inventory, both premium and remnant is increasingly being commoditized by the ad exchanges. Effective use of data for targeting (with more engaging creatives) the right audience yields better ad performance and generates real value from remnant inventory. In the end, today’s gap between demand and supply diminishes as data-defined audiences, rather than impressions, are being purchased.

– Data is available to all: The traditional ad agency model is widely recognized as broken. The economics of the agency business dictate that they find more efficient and effective ways to engage consumers on behalf their advertising clients. Along these lines, agencies have come to realize that one of their greatest assets is their consumer and ad performance data. Data, in combination with more innovative creative, can target the right audience at the right time with the right conversation, interactivity and engagement. Publishers also see that it’s becoming more difficult to aggregate sizable audiences and to sell their ad real estate. Differentiation in the face of commoditization comes from their data. And ad networks know that they are in danger of being disintermediated unless they bring unique value to the both advertisers and publishers in the form of greater access to data or better targeting through data. Fortunately, all of these players have their own data assets and increasingly have access to data from traditional offline data vendors, such as Acxiom and TARGUSinfo, as well as from emerging online data exchanges, such as BlueKai (where I am an investor) and eXelate. The competitive dynamics in the online ad industry dictate that the various players leverage data to provide greater value to their constituents.

While data doesn’t solve all of the problems in the online advertising market, it’s clear that data is going to have a huge impact on the future of the industry. The companies that develop the platforms, tools and services to make it easier to aggregate, analyze and utilize data will be the next category of winners in the online ad market. More importantly, they will help grow the online advertising market for all of us. Even as the value of inventory decreases, the increasing use and value of data and the resulting greater sell-through of inventory will yield a larger online advertising market.

Tips for product management success

I work with several early stage companies that are spending all of their time and energy focused on building great products that address real customerpain. To me, this is the most exciting time in a startup’s development. Starting from a blank page and creating something that will hopefully be in the hands of many satisfied users is both an imposing and thrilling challenge. My product management experience has given me several key insights (I think!) into what contributes to the success of a product manager. I’ll share a couple of those thoughts below and hopefully publish additional ideas over time.

I don’t think that you can be truly successful as a product manager if you haven’t experienced the customer or user’s pain firsthand.  Being close to the customer can provide unique insight into product requirements, and even more importantly, can shed light on what is not required in the product at all. Often times, customers and users will say that they want X or Y feature, but that is only what they think they want. What they need is a specific problem to be solved. Having lived with that problem can provide a product manager with the insight required to identify a true solution. All customer and user feedback is not created equal and knowing which feedback to incorporate into product plans is a necessary skill for any product manager.

A successful product manager also knows that he or she is not an engineer. Trust the engineers to do what they do and involve them early and often in product thinking. If the product manager and the management team have hired strong developers, technical leads, etc., they will not only figure out how to build the product correctly but they will help make the end product markedly better. Many product managers don’t have the confidence in themselves or in engineering to avoid micro-managing and over-documenting. But I’ve found that allowing the engineering team members to own what they are expert in leads to greater confidence in the product manager, more collaborative teams and more efficient product development. It also just makes being a product manager a lot easier!

(Thanks to Hiten Shah from KISSmetrics for inspiring this post.)

Bigger (advertising) is not better

Recently, two dozen members of the Online Publishers Association, a trade organization comprised of some of the most well-known and well-respected publishers on the web, announced their solution for attracting more brand advertising dollars….bigger ads. While I’m over simplifying the group’s initiative, it shocked me to see that the best that some of the leading online media brands could come up with was combining a few (already commonly used) interactive elements with a larger number of pixels. If this is the state of the art in online advertising, it’s no wonder that brand advertisers have been reluctant to invest more.

I previously wrote about how the model for so much of online advertising is broken. And I think it remains true that the industry’s approach to creative has not evolved to engage consumers on their own terms and in their own language. The fact is that the value of media (the real estate) in the online advertising equation is diminishing greatly. Volume growth in the online media exchanges is commoditizing media. Recognition by agencies that their long-term sustainability is tied to their data assets is increasing the importance and availability of high quality targeting data across the industry. While media and data are getting increasing attention, it seems that the third leg of the online advertising stool, ad creative, is still being ignored by most agencies and marketers. Without question, attempting something new with creative entails risk. But you rarely get skewered for attempting to engage your audience. In fact, in most cases, you only incite the wrath of consumers when you ignore, insult or bore them. Take the well-publicized Skittles example or the myriad other brands that have embraced the fact that online media allows them to engage and listen to consumers in an entirely new and valuable way. Consumers have spoken and they want to participate in or direct the conversation, not be broadcast to by brands.

Smart companies such as AppsSavvy, Context Optional and Dimestore Media are taking the lead in reinventing ad creative to deliver unique experiences to consumers and greater value to advertisers. I’m hopeful that we’ll see more of this innovation from the larger agencies as well as from startups. As an industry, we need widespread acknowledgement of the need for new creative models to avoid stunting the growth of brand advertising online.