Sand Hill Road is Now the Wall Street of the West Coast

By Stephen Forte,

Everyone is talking about replicating and building the “next Silicon Valley” with the rise of Silicon “roundabouts” and Silicon “beaches” in several locations around the world.  While this is going on very few people are talking about how Silicon Valley is evolving: specifically that Sand Hill Road is now the Wall Street of the West Coast. 

The rise of the “Uber” Round

More and more tech startups are raising hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars in later stage “uber” rounds. (I call these the “uber” rounds as a play on the German for “super” or after the company Uber that has raised well over $4 billion in Venture Capital.) As of this writing, Lyft has just closed a $680 Series E. According to Crunchbase, Lyft is one of 20 startups that have raised $1B or more in venture funding in the past 5 years.

Companies are going public later and later, a trend started by Facebook; instead of rushing to an IPO, companies are staying private longer and are taking more and more uber rounds. (Some people think that these companies should be going public as the investing public can’t participate in the later stage growth, allowing the rich to get richer.) The average amount of money that companies have raised before going public has been going up, more than double since the 2008 downturn.

What is Going On?

Most pundits think that companies are staying private longer to avoid the hassle and expense of going public as well as regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley. While those are all reasons to stay private, the real reason is that Silicon Valley VCs on Sand Hill Road have evolved to grow larger and focus on late stage massive growth. 

Typically an IPO is for massive growth. A company will get to a certain stage of maturity and then raise anywhere from $300m to over a $100b at an IPO. The IPO accomplishes a few things: allows early investors and employees to “cash out” and sell their shares to the public as well as provide much needed capital for massive growth. 

Today companies are delaying the IPO and raising the growth capital with their uber rounds. On the surface this looks crazy. But in reality, it is genius. 

Lean Startup and Uber Rounds

Let’s take a made up startup LeanCo as an example. Assume LeanCo already took a Series A ($8m) and Series B ($30m). Now they are kicking butt and are growing at the same rate as the other high performing startups. Say they have well over $250m in sales, expanding market share, healthy margins, and are expanding internationally. This is the textbook case for an IPO.

What would happen is that LeanCo would go to a big Wall Street bank and raise approximately $5-$10+ billion in an IPO. After all the costs and fees and the Wall Street bank’s cut, the company would have a lump sum of money, let’s just say $5b. Now the company has the war chest it needs in order to grow. Typically LeanCo will acquire smaller rivals, enter new markets, and build out new products and services. 

Instead, the LeanCos are choosing to raise billions for growth before an IPO. Instead of raising $5b in an early IPO, they are raising $2-5b privately before a much later IPO (at a much higher valuation.) They are raising the money $400 or more at a time. Here lies the genius of this approach: LeanCo only raises what it needs, when it needs it in a private (closed) market that will provide a higher valuation than a public one. There are also other benefits to staying private during the growth stage, like not disclosing your financial health and spending to competitors. 

For the investors, this is actually a much more conservative approach. By only giving LeanCo the money when it is needed and doing it incrementally, LeanCo has to operate in iterative cycles similar to the Lean Startup and Agile Development. For example, if investors provided LeanCo with $5b in one lump sum, LeanCo may spend it unwisely feeling that they have a lot of capital on hand. If investors give LeanCo $400m or so at a time, LeanCo will have to take an incremental approach. If LeanCo were to go under after an IPO, investors would lose all of the $5b. If LeanCo were to fail after raising “only” $2b, investors lose far less money. 

The Post-IPO World

The VCs on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park have changed the game. I remember in the .com bubble, the largest Venture Fund was $1b and the largest deal was around $75m. Now the VC funds on Sand Hill Road are all well over a few billon each and think nothing of leading a $500m round. 

Eventually the startup companies are going public, however, that is only because at some point they have to in order for the VC investors to sell their positions and the employees to cash in their stock options. I’m sure that over time, Sand Hill Road will evolve past the IPO, where companies stay private forever and large East Coast financial institutions buy back those positions from the VCs and earn returns via dividends, etc. You are already starting to see the signs of this when large pension and investment banks such as Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, and Goldman Sachs are part of the last round of financing for companies like Lyft, Box, and Uber. In the future, you won’t be able to buy shares in a Facebook individually, but you will buy shares in a Fidelity “Silicon Valley” Mutual Fund. Silicon Valley is disrupting Wall Street. 

What Does this Mean for Startups in Silicon Valley

We all know that New York City and Wall Street is the IPO center of the world. Did a startup have a competitive advantage by being located in New York? As a native New Yorker who built three startups in New York City, I can confidently say no. Mark Zuckerberg proved that when he showed up to his Wall Street pre-IPO meetings in his hoodie. When your company is ready and has the right numbers, the Wall Street Investment Banks will work with you, no matter where you are.

What about tech startups located in Menlo Park, Palo Alto, or Mountain View, close to Sand Hill Road? (Sticking to the geographical description of Silicon Valley.) Same thing, when your company is large enough to take the uber rounds, it does’t matter if you live in Menlo Park or Montana, or Mongolia, the VCs on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park will work with you. You are already seeing this with startups being located in the City of San Francisco and not down south in Silicon Valley. The larger established companies such as Facebook (Menlo Park), Tesla (Palo Alto), Google (Mountain View), etc are down in Silicon Valley, but the young, early stage startups are up in San Francisco. This means San Fransisco is about the startups and Silicon Valley is about the money.

San Francisco is the new Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is the new Wall Street. 

Dynamic Founder Agreements

By Stephen Forte,

In my role at Fresco Capital and as an advisor to several startups, I’ve seen it all with founders: disputes over shares, disputes over money, disputes over a new laptop, founders break up, a founder falling ill, founders get married, founders get divorced, founders get into physical arguments. Often this leads to one founder completely disengaged from the business and still holding a significant amount of equity or even a board seat. We’ve seen this at large companies such as Microsoft and more recently at ZipCar. Typically you need this equity to hire executives or attract investors. Worse, if the company is being acquired, you now have one founder who can hold up the deal if they are on the board and disengaged. That of course is a problem, but one that can be solved with a dynamic founder agreement.  

Founder Troubles 

Most founders settle the division of equity question with a static founders agreement. It usually goes something like this: 

Founder 1: 50%, vested over 4 years, 1 year cliff 

Founder 2: 50%, vested over 4 years, 1 year cliff

This solves a lot of problems, such as if a founder leaves after two years, they will still have 25% of the company but give up the second half of their equity. What happens if one founder is not “pulling their own weight” or contributing enough to earn the vesting (in the other founder’s eyes) but did not leave the company? What happens if they have to leave due to illness or personal emergency? What happens if there is misaligned expectations as what skills a founder brings and what role a founder will play?

I’ve seen this happen at one of my own startups. One of our founders was a lawyer and at the time we sold the company, he could not represent us due to it being a clear conflict of interest. While the legal fees were not all that bad (maybe $50k), to this day, almost ten years later, my other co-founders are still mad at the lawyer co-founder. This was clearly misaligned expectations.

This is what Norm Wasserman calls the Founder’s Dilemma, or the unexpected consequences of not spelling out the roles and expectations of the founders early on combined with the unintended complications of a founder leaving early or disengaging. He suggests a dynamic founders agreement.

The Dynamic Founders Agreement

The dynamic founders agreement is a way to mitigate the risk of an underperforming founder by changing the equity based on pre-set parameters. For example say I am starting a company with my friend Sam. Sam and I agree to a 50-50 split with Sam being the “business guy” and me being the “tech guy”. The assumption is that I will be the coder of V1 and lead the development team after we get funding. But what if I need to leave the company due to family emergency? What about if I decide that I don’t want to code anymore, before we can afford to hire a developer? What if I only give 30 hours a week and consult on the side? 

A dynamic founders agreement is a big IF THEN ELSE statement that spells all of this out. IF Steve works as expected, his equity is 50%, if Steve has to leave the company, if he becomes disengaged, here is the pre-negotiated equity and if we have to buy Steve out, here are the terms. For example:

IF:

Steve works full time as CTO performing all the coding and technical duties of V1, his equity is 50%, vested over 4 years, 1 year cliff.

ELSEIF:

Steve works part time, is disengaged, or we need to hire developers sooner than expected, his vested equity is reduced by half and he forfeits his unvested equity. Loses board seat. 

ENDIF:

If Steve has to leave the company because he needs a job or a family emergency:  if Steve built V1 then the buyout is a one time payout of $50,000 USD cash or 2% vested equity, if Steve did not build V1, the buyout is 0.5% vested equity. Loses board seat. 

 Having a dynamic founders agreement won’t solve all of your problems, however, it will make the the process of removing a founder much less stressful. Sure some of the language in the dynamic founders agreement will be subject to interpretation, but the “spirit of the agreement” is much easier to follow or even if you have to litigate, more robust.  If you never need to use the dynamic founders agreement, but built one anyway, it will force a frank and open conversation about roles and commitment among the founders. This only strengthens the relationship between founders, increasing the chances of success. 

 

The Startup Advisor Cheat Sheet

By Stephen Forte,

All startup teams need help. The good news is that there is no shortage of “startup mentors” out there. The bad news is that there is no shortage of “startup mentors” out there. How you recruit and work with your advisors is critical as the right advisors managed properly can really have a powerful impact on your business.

Many startups that I work with like to build as impressive a list of advisors as they can. When talking with founders about advisors, I usually focus on two things:

  • Making sure the advisors augment the skills lacking in the current team
  • Formalize the relationship with the advisor and compensate them according to an objective standard

The Team’s Needs

Look at the needs of your business over the next six months to a year and then look at the skills of your team. You will have a lot of gaps. Start to think how an advisor can fill some of those gaps. Some teams will need help figuring out BizDev or do pricing of their products. Some will need help with higher level technology decisions-or someone to interview a CTO candidate/co-founder. Some teams have all the necessary parts but lack a little “gray hair” or folks with the battle scars of doing business a long time. Some teams lack the network to raise money and some teams lack domain experience. (Which I question why are you in that business in the first place.) 

You need to find advisors who can augment your team with skills, experience, and connections. If you are all PhDs in astrophysics and are building a related startup, you don’t need the head of your University’s Physics department or even a Nobel winning Physics on your advisory team. You will need some people with business and fundraising experience. Also, don’t try to go get famous people to be an advisor; I know that Mark Zuckerberg is not meeting with you monthly and won’t add much value except for the coolness factor. 

The good news is that there are a ton of people out there willing to give you advice. The challenge is keeping the advisors engaged.

The Dreaded Conversation: How to Formalize and Compensate an Advisor 

Your advisors mean well and want to help, but they are busy people. You need to set the expectations up front as to what kind of advice you need and how often you will be asking for it. If you don’t have this conversation with your advisor, you run the risk of some very misaligned expectations, leading to a bad experience for both sides. Typically for companies that I advise, we usually have a call once month or every six weeks. But when something comes up that I am uniquely qualified for, the frequency is higher. 

You also need to formalize your relationship with you advisors! This is important for several reasons, but the first is legal liability. If overnight your company is worth billions and your advisors have been informally advising you without a contract, they may think that they are due a large stake in your company and sue. Another reason to formalize your advisor’s relationships is that by formalizing it, they will take the relationship more seriously. So many companies ask me to advise them, but the ones I say yes to and have a formal agreement with, I feel more obligated to make the time for. An easy way to lock down an advisor is to use one of the standard Advisor Contracts. I have used this one several times

Lastly, you need to compensate the advisors in order to keep them engaged. If your advisors want a huge chunk of your company or a salary or stipend, they are not the advisors for you. Use the following matrix to determine how much to compensate the advisor with. First determine what stage your company is at: idea, startup, or growth. Idea is usually pre-seed, startup is usually Seed stage, and Growth is typically a Series A or later. (I explain the stages of funding here.) This is important due to the amount of risk your advisor is taking. Then determine what kind of advisor you are signing up: Standard, Strategic, or Expert. I know that these are kind of vague, but they usually line up pretty easily. Make a proposal and then use the equity number in the box. This should be a standard and non-negotiable. If the advisor tries to negotiate away from these numbers, don’t have them as an advisor. They should not be in it for the money/equity, the compensation is more of a “nice to have.” They should be advising you because they want to.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 7.44.56 PM

Lastly, have a vesting schedule and a way to easily remove the advisor. Typically you have an advisor for a year or two, depending on the need of your team. For example, if you lack a technical team at the idea stage and engage with an advisor who is very technical and expected to help you recruit and hire an CTO within a year, you probably only need to sign that advisor up for a year or two. Then make room for other advisors in other domain areas. 

Advisory Board vs Board of Directors 

What is the relationship between a Board of Directors (BOD) and your advisors? Nothing. More importantly,  your board members are responsible for the governance of the company and legally liable for its execution, while your advisors are responsible for nothing and legally liable for nothing. Your directors have high engagement, often meeting in person several times a year. Your advisors are less engaged and often engaged via email and Skype. 

 Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 7.42.58 PM

Communication 

You should update your advisors (and investors) with a bi-weekly or monthly email: explain the good, the bad, the ugly since the last email communication. At the end of the email put in the ask, or what you want your advirosrs to pay attention to or what you need from them. While your advisors may only skim over the updates as they come in, at your next call, the advisors can review those emails before the call and make the call more efficient. You won’t have to spend the first 10 minutes of the call updating the advisor on what happened over the past month. I love getting these emails, it shows me that the companies that I advise are organized and understand proper time management. 

 My Experiences Advising 

I’ve advised many companies over the years. I’ve been asked by many more than I’ve said yes to, I only say yes to companies that I can add value, are in an exciting space, and the founders are awesome people to work with. (Now that I am an investor, I say no to almost 100% of the asks to prevent a signaling issue. I did, however, recently agree to become an advisor to a company where my skills made me uniquely qualified to help.)

What was my experience like? Some companies rarely contacted me. Some contacted me randomly, usually when they needed some specific advice. Other’s scheduled a regular phone call. I’ve done it all: lots of general strategy, accelerator application advice, fundraising tips, team compensation, interviewing CTO candidates, make introductions, M&A advice, and sitting in-between founder breakups. I’ve even pretend to be Paul Graham and asked them YC interview questions. 

Some of my companies have had exits, sometimes the money from my shares was great; one exit was small and paid for an awesome dinner and night out with the team. One company I advise recently shut down and I helped the founder find a new gig. All my experiences were worth the time I put in and lots of fun.

Lastly, I learned a lot advising, as much as I taught the founders! 

  Category: Startup Tips
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The New New Funding Stages

By Stephen Forte,

If you have ever seen me speak at an Accelerator or startup event, I usually refer back to my experiences fundraising for my past startups. I’ve had experience raising venture capital in four distinct eras: the “dot com era” circa 1999, the post dot com crash circa 2002, the post Google IPO-pre-Lehman collapse era (2006-2008), and the more current (post-Lehman) environment. While many of the rules of fundraising are the same, the stages, amounts, and terms have drastically changed over the years. Living and investing in Silicon Valley, I have observed the new pattern of fundraising, which I have broken down to four stages.

The four stages are:

  • Acceerator Round/Initial Capital
  • Seed
  • Series A
  • Series n

While there are all kinds of startups out there from pure software to BioTech to hardware, I’ll use the example of a typical software startup in the example below. The rounds and rules hold true in broad strokes for most startups, but the dollars, metrics,  and sources may very. 

Accelerator Round/Initial Capital/Friends and Family ~$100,000 USD

This is the round where you move from idea to prototype, possibly to a first version you let people play with. Lots of experimentation, MVPs, and customer discovery. You use this round to get a sense of a “product-market fit” but not necessarily a business model. Typically you have two or three founders working on sweat equity and some money borrowed from friends and family. This is the stage to go through an accelerator or have a single angel investor. The average size of this round is about $100,000 USD, excluding the value of the sweat equity. Once you have demonstrated the ability to execute and launch a functional prototype and can extrapolate the results, you are ready for a seed round. 

*Note that if you are a hardware startup, your Kickstarter campaign, would typically come into play here. 

Seed Round ~$1-1.5m USD

This is the round where you obtain “product-market fit” and find your business model. You develop and release your product and start to measure the results. Your customers may not pay you a lot at this point, but you have built an audience or customer base. This is the round where you bring on your first non-founder hire and move out of the garage, typically to a co-work space. The range of this round is between $1m to $1.5 USD structured as a convertible note. The typical scenario is that you have 3-4 investors, one lead at half the round at $750k and the other 3 investors in at $200k – $300k each. It is important to have a lead that is capable of investing in your next round, possibly leading that round as well. As general advice, beware of an AngelList Syndicate as your lead during this round, a lot of the time that syndicate is only good for the amount of the syndicate in your seed round and not capable to lead the Series A. Syndicates are good to round out the round, but not to lead-unless the Syndicate head has the ability to lead your Series A.

Series A ~$3-7m USD

This is the round where you execute on your business plan and scale. You have paying customers, you know where to find them, and you just need to accelerate the process of onboarding them. Typically with a Series A, you don’t need the money as you can grow organically, however, you raise a Series A in order to grow faster. Typically you use a portion of the funds raised for customer acquisition as well as some new hires in both sales and marketing roles. The range of this round is typically between $3m-$8m USD with some if not all of your seed investors participating. Sometime about now you think about moving out of that co-work space and into your own office. 

Series N… $25m-$1b USD

After a Series A, typically the later rounds (Series B, C, n…) are for massive growth. I like to use the analogy for a Series B as “rocket fuel.” For example, you found your product market fit in your seed round, you developed and executed on your business plan in your A, and you have a repeatable business that scales. You’re making money and have a great team. You know where your customers are and how to get them to give you money. If you grow out of revenues, you are going to get to the target (say 30% market share or $150m in revenues), but it will take you a long time organically, say 3-5 years. This is the airplane taking off and going fast, but hovering above the tree line. With a Series B, it is like pouring afterburner rocket fuel on to your airplane and the goal is to get to the target in 1-2 years, not 3-5. Later rounds continue this trend and are also used for acquisitions to speed up the process as well as provide some capital to enter foreign markets. 

 

While this is not the exact path that your startup will take, it is the “textbook” course a startup will take. Use this information as a guide and as with everything in this business, your milage may vary

Don’t Meet With an Investor Unless They Match These Three Criteria

By Stephen Forte,

Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of early stage companies looking for funding. They all seem to approach fundraising the same way: make a big list of investors, ping their network for warm intros, and take every meeting with any VC that replies. Unfortunately this is not an efficient way of doing things.

Instead, I advise startups to filter the list of potential investors by three critical criteria and only meet with an investor that matches all three. If an investor meets only one or two of the criteria, you are wasting your (but potentially not the investor’s) time. So what are these three criteria?

Size of Check

Perhaps the most important criteria, and also the most overlooked by a founder, is the typical size of check written by the investor. For example, let’s say your startup is looking to raise a seed round of a $1.5m convertable note. The typical scenario is that you have 3-4 investors, one lead at half the round at $750k and the other 3 investors in at $200k – $300k each. If this is the amount of money you are looking for, don’t seek out Angels who are only going to put in $25k-50k at a time or don’t seek out VCs that typically invest $25m or $75m in a round. The size of the check that they typically write won’t match up with what you are looking for. 

Domain

Another common mistake is to hit up an investor who matches your check size, but doesn’t invest in your domain space. For example, let’s say you are a hard core B2B business and you approach an investor who only invests in consumer mobile apps, looking for the next Instagram. Big waste of time. What if you just finished your Kickstarter campaign on the next awesome IoT breakthrough and you approach an investor who has never made a hardware investment before. If they were even willing to invest, why would you want their money, they have no expertise in hardware? Instead filter only investors who actively invest in the space that you are in. They will add the most value since they understand your domain. In addition, they will have the most patience since by definition they are a believer in your space.

Location

Location is often is overlooked as a third matching criteria. I don’t mean your physical location, which is important to some investors-particually in Silicon Valley or a government backed fund, but rather the location of your target market and customers. If you are a startup targeting the Indian market, find an investor that is comfortable with that market and has an expertise there. You don’t necessarily have to find an Indian investor, but one where you are located that understands the Indian market and is not frightened by it and can connect you with the local ecosystem. 

After you have applied your three criteria filters to your list of investors, now it is time to reach out and get those warm intros. Only then will the meeting be productive. Often times I get pushback from founders saying that they are meeting with Investor XYZ that meets two of the three criteria. I tell them that the investor is wasting your time. What they are doing is taking the meeting to learn about your domain or target market without having to invest. For example if Investor XYZ never invested in Africa and your target market is Africa, they may take the meeting to see what is going on in Africa and report back to their partners. For them a one hour meeting in their office hearing your pitch is a worthwhile use of their time to get educated for free.

Same if an investor typically writes larger checks, say $25-50m average, but also has a new “seed” fund. Avoid those investors at the early stage. You get very little synergy from the brand name and will never meet the famous partners. In addition, if it really is a seed fund and there is no avenue for follow on pro-rata, you are back to square one when you are pitching the “main” fund. Also, in some instances the “seed” fund at a larger fund is typically the “B” team-young partners recently hired who are thrown into the seed fund without any real influence at the senior partner level.

  Category: Fundraising, Investing
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