Archive: Exit Markets

Forget Bubble Talk: A New Dawn for VC-funded Startups?

Msuster Chart

Marc Suster has  published a slideshare presentation that is required reading for any entrepreneur, at least any entrepreneur seeking or considering venture capital.

 

As have Marc Andreessen and Christian Hernandez, Marc Suster argues that after a 10 year “hangover” from the crash of the.com bubble in 2000 and a shift of LP investment focus away from traditional VCs after that crash, the market has bifurcated into a growing seed / early stage sector with many new funds and an increase in volumes in late-stage financing, especially after the financial crisis of 2008. This has led to the A/B-Round Crunch many have been decrying in the past 3-4 years.  However, new types of VC funds are aggressively pushing into this Gap. In other words, new VCs spot and fund new opportunities.

 

In a second slideshare, Marc also argues that far from being in a bubble, rising valuations reflect two factors.

  • social and mobile usage having hit the mainstream creates a wealth of opportunities
  • more importantly, Exits happen later, with more equity getting “in on the game” pre-IPO or pre-Exit. This is what happened with Facebook and is happening with Uber and others.

 

To summarize, comparing the 2000 bubble with today is apples to pears both with respect to the venture market, and in light of the tremendous and accelerating shifts in user behaviour, societal dynamics, technological impact, and the vastly reduced costs of creating a new enterprise today.

 

Let’s grasp these opportunities and build the future. We have no excuse.

 

 

Rezession die beste Zeit für Social Media? [German]

Peter Turi hat ein Video – Interview geposted, dass er mit mir auf dem DLD 09 geführt haben. Darin stellt er solche spannenden Fragen wie:

1) Ist Rezession eine schlechte Zeit für Startups?

2) Wird sich bei den Startups die Spreu vom Weizen trennen?

3) Wird YouTube sevenload verdrängen?

4) Was ist das “nächste große Ding?”

Hier sind meine Antworten:

Interview Turi2 (2009): Interview with Axel Schmiegelow about his entrepreneurship (German) from curtis newton gmbh on Vimeo.

Marketing on a tight budget during a recession

The “Gretchenfrage” most discussed in the advertising industry right now is whether we will have a full-fledged downturn in advertising spending across all media, or whether there are niches and segments of the advertising /media industry that could even benefit from the recession. This being the 2nd downturn that I have experienced in my career, I am firmly convinced that the latter will happen.

I make this assumption based on several factors:

  1. A new generation of marketing decision makers now has control over most large budgets. This generation understands the power of digital communication- even though in the past years it has underestimated the potential impact of Web 2.0 and has continued allocating a disproportionate amount of money to traditional media without measuring that performance.
  2. Cutbacks in marketing and sales budgets are rather absurd when the real problem is crumbling sales, but this happens in every recession and it will happen this time around again. Since at the same time marketing performance will be measured more and more in terms of contribution to sales, marketing decision makers will focus on campaign tools and media that either directly or indirectly increase sales performance. Gone are the expensive TV commercials with bikini clad, young beauties on a tropical island, and in comes unsexy sales-driven below the line marketing. The past 2 ½ years have proven, however, that marketing in a Web 2.0 world need not be dreary at all even while contributing directly to sales lead generation.
  3. Web 2.0 advertising formats and communication models have reached a level of maturity and a critical mass among users that allow them to have a measurable impact on brand communication and sales lead generation.

The coming year will see providers of Web 2.0 campaign solutions and media ad placements achieving disproportionate success considering the downturn and cutbacks of media budgets. This will happen for precisely the reason that in the past 1 ½ years many showcases of Social Marketing have been started that have proven or will prove to have been successful to an unexpected degree. After the Beacon disaster these showcases will turn the tide, much in the way keyword advertising established itself in 2002 – 2004.

Our best reference is http://bmw-web.tv, which generated considerable brand awareness for our client BMW. BMW itself doubled that success by creating, at the same time, a national web TV project that was equally successful called BMW TV which greatly enhanced traction to its own site. For confidentiality reasons I cannot give you figures, but trust me the impact was measurable.

Advertisers of the old school often argue that performance marketing or traditional lead generation marketing does not help the brand gain emotional traction and awareness. That dichotomy is of the past. Social relevance, rich media and video formats allow the digital sphere to create a branding experience that is as emotionally compelling as television and as measurably successful as search engine marketing. That has always been the holy grail of advertising, and we seem to have found it.

If you want more information or need help achieving that success, contact me.

Reps and Warranties in Venture Capital Deals

This weekend a friend of mine called me up, as he was completing – as a leading seed investor – the first round (series A) of a company that I have a minority stake in. He told me that the round being negotiated was just short of Signing, as all main deal elements had been agreed with the investor (a large and well-known VC Fund), but there was one last point of contention left, and – big surprise! – that was Reps and Warranties.

That made me think once again about the peculiar habit of venture capitalists to turn Reps and Warranties almost as much a difficult topic as in M&A. If you think about the term “Venture Capital”, the whole concept is that you venture into something and there is no precisely NO guarantee of success.

Of course it makes full sense to commit founders to proper representation of the state the company is in and to also make them liable for the so-called Title Guarantees, in effect making sure that the shares being transferred to the investor are free of third party rights, are indeed constituted legally and are not subject to any limitations. However, I do not understand why these Reps and Warranties so often go to the core of the risks of the business model, thereby in effect giving the venture capital investment more the character of debt financing, disguised in the Reps and Warranties clause.

Why do I say this?

Because if a founder signs up for – say – a 3 Mil. Euro investment and the company fails due to an event that is at the core of the typical risk of the business model, this may create a warranty case that in the worst of all contract agreements may include full damage to be paid by the founder. This then means that the investor may get up to the total sum of that investment in damages from the founder because of an event that constituted the essence of the typical venture risk.

So put very bluntly, by enforcing Reps & Warranties covering business risks, the investor covered his venture risk by making the founder liable for failure of exactly that risk.

We all know that founders who may be otherwise admirable do not like to focus on legal details and may have bad luck in a choice of their attorneys.

That can be a deadly mistake.

When founders find themselves in such a contract situation, it is not just a reflection of poor negotiation skills on the side of the founders, who – one might argue a bit unfairly – therefore would not deserve anything better.

Such contract clauses are also always a case of misguided priorities on the side of the investor.

While as an investor I have full sympathy for contractual rules that prevent an irresponsible founder from walking away, as in the old adage “with my time and your money to waste, we have nothing to lose”.

However, it is equally unfair to put the investor of a venture in a position where his investment becomes more a case of debt with higher returns and higher default risk than of real venture investment. Moreover, discussions and probable litigation about business risk damage retribution by the founder can divert vital energy from surviving the damaging event, since both the founder and the investor will bes spending considerable time hedging their risks or enforcing their rights. THat can ultimately be much more damaging than the damaging event itself.

Here is my advice to founders in any negotiation about Reps and Warranties:

1) Before negotiation of deal terms, identify the natural risk of your business model

2) Prepare to describe and argue to the investor what the typical risk of the venture is and make it clear from the outset that that risk cannot will not be carried by the founder(s).

3) Make the investor acknowledge these risks early in the process of negotiating the terms

4) At term sheet level make sure that the basic principles guiding an equal distribution of reps and warranties rights between founder and investor include the following

a. Liability of founders is limited to willful behavior and gross negligence

b. There must be a cap of a certain percentage of the investment, in my opinion not more than 50% of the investment sum.

c. For all cases of non-willfull behavior the warranty term should be at most 12 months

d. Each founder is only liable for the fraction of the cap that corresponds to his fraction of shares in the entire company, so a co-founder who has 20 % of shares in a company shall only be liable up to 20% of the cap.

e. All shareholder managers with shares smaller than 7% should be exempt from any liability unless there is a specific reason for that.

f. Damages should be paid only to the extent that the Founder / Manager liable had best knowledge of the Warranty issue.

g. Retribution of damage should be limited to the damage that is incurred directly by the damaging event, confirmed by court ruling and could be reasonably expected. There should be no damage retribution for a loss of valuation of the company, which should be explicitly excluded. Valuation loss is usually covered by downround protection clauses.

h. Retribution of damage should be limited to such damages as cannot be corrected or “repaired”.

i. No damage retribution should be given for damages that are incurred due to lack of cooperation on side of the investor. This could include anything ranging from late payment of investment funds, lack of cooperation in litigation cases, failure of the board members dispatched by the investor to agree in litigating to avoid the damage, and so forth.

k. The most important advice that can be given to any founder signing Reps and Warranties is to put a large amount of energy into the due diligence and disclosure process and the documentation of that due diligence and disclosure process. THis is where attention to detail is a very necessary evil. The contract must include a clause that no events or fact about the company that were or could reasonable have been expected to be known to the investor at the time of the investment can lead to a claim of the investor against the founder. Thus claims are excluded if the the facts that led to the damage were known to the investor.

l. Negotiate all these points, then focus on disclosing well all risks that are part of the business model or lie within the company.


Often investors will present the founders with tough Reps and Warranties basically to incentivize them to puta significant amount of energy in thinking through the risks of the company and the development stage the company is at.

However, founders should rate their investors on the basis on their willingness to accept clauses that correspond with or at least resemble what I advise.

Good Luck!


When do I Invest? – Video Interview [German]

Recently I had the nice experience of being interviewed by the blogger / founder of http://www.easn.de or Everything A Startup Needs. He asked me to relate:

- how dw capital grew out of denkwerk

- what makes our positioning unique

- what are my criteria for investment

- and how much idealism a Founder can sustain

Of course, an [edited] video interview cannot convey all the things and remarkable people that shaped the rich history of 10 years of denkwerk, but maybe the interview gives anyone interested an impression of the philosophy behind our seed venture unit, dw capital. So, here goes:

Video Interview of Axel Schmiegelow

For the record, and because I also have an agency background:

I do believe in Branding, but I don’t believe Branding should be an excuse for bad conversion of a media campaign.

Discussion: Monetization or Reach [English]

Frank Huber recently tackled my post about Monetization in his Blog

http://blog.firstmedia.de/?p=763 (in German)

and contradicted my views of the subject based on 2 reasons: in his opinion, YouTube has shown that “size does matter” and sevenload hasn’t followed my recommended strategy at all. Here’s my reply to his post:

1) It’s undeniable that the “natural market leader”, who’s the one that goes for reach first, is the one who can win the rat race for size. I did point this out myself in my own post. However, it would be wrong to believe that the YouTube strategy and more specifically the YouTube exit is something that can be replicated. Ex post, Google’s investment in YouTube makes a lot of sense for a company that gave up a fraction of it’s shares. But there is exactly one buyer fitting that profile, and that is Google. There’s always exactly one worldwide or www-wide dominant company per segment that can be successful with a sheer “reach” priorization and with such an Exit strategy – so it’s hardly good advice for startups to emulate that model unless the startup is entirely sure of being the first one in its category.

My argument wasn’t that reach or the number of users/clients won is irrelevant- in fact, it’s the opposite. I just think that it is healthier to achieve this reach or customer base with a working and efficient business model than without one. And XING is a good example of this: From its first day back in 2003, Lars Hinrichs (Founder of XING) was already charging 5- € in monthly membership fees, even though at the time subscription models were still widely perceived as unfeasable in the German internet market.

2) sevenload’s strategy is NOT that of gaining a gross increase in our reach at all costs. We’re following an approach of pure, organic growth (up to now we haven’t spent a single € for advertising) which allows us to best offer a differentiated platform and cover the “Long Tail” of content. This allows us to offer advertisers rates that are up to a factor of 10 greater than those of normal video portals – and of most most conventional internet portals as well. Because of this difference, we are the market leader as measured in:

- Unique Visitors (> 10 Mil real unique visitors per month),
- active registered users (> 300,000),
- average visit duration (> 25 min. per visit and registered users > 45 min),
- content volume and
- revenue (we will be the Web 2.0 company with the highest turnover in Germany this year and most likely the only one that will be profitable). We achieve all this thanks to a revolutionary advertising model that is highly effective for advertisers.

Interestingly, though gross reach was not a primary target, this strategy has led to an sustained increase in precisely our gross reach and has put us in second place in the German market in terms of gross reach, right ahead of Clipfish, despite Clipfish’s massive cross-media subsidisation by the leading German TV Channel, RTL, and a full integration in DSDS, Germany’s “American Idol” Format.

In my opinion this once again proves the wisdom of Al Ries’s main marketing theorem:

Create a new category, then dominate it

My post on monetization does nothing more than offer a methodic approach to defining the category a startup strives to dominate in business model terms rather than in media terms.

Monetization or Reach – Discussion [German]

In seinem Media-Blog greift Frank Huber meinen Post zum Thema Monetarisierung auf.

http://blog.firstmedia.de/?p=763

und widerspricht meinen Ansichten mit zwei Begründungen: YouTube habe gezeigt, “size does matter” und sevenload verfolge ja nicht einmal die von mir empfohlene Strategie. Inhaltlich habe ich folgende Antworten:

1) Es ist zweifellos richtig, dass für den “natürlichen Marktführer”, der als erster auf Reichweite setzt, das Spiel aufgehen kann. Auf den Fall YouTube gehe ich ja selbst in meinem Post ein. Ich warne nur davor, die Transaktion von YouTube, die tatsächlich ex post durch die Marktmacht von Google zu einem sinnvollen Investment noch werden kann, als replizierbare Strategie zu beschreiben. Es gibt immer weltweit oder www-weit genau ein Unternehmen pro segment, dem dies als Exit gelingt. Hardly good general advice for startups.

Mein Argument war ja auch nicht, dass Reichweite oder die Anzahl an Nutzern oder Kunden, die man gewinnt, unerheblich sind – im Gegenteil. Ich denke nur, das es gesünder ist, diese Reichweite oder Kundenbasis mit einerm funktionierenden Business Modell zu erreichen als ohne. Ein gutes Beispiel Dafür ist übrigens XING. Lars hat schon am ersten Tag in 2003 5,- € monatliche Mitgliedschaftsgebühr verlangt, als Abo-Modelle noch in verruf waren.

2) Unsere Strategie bei sevenload ist genau nicht die einer Brutto-Reichweitensteigerung um jeden Preis. Wir verfolgen den Ansatz, aus rein organischem Wachstum (bislang nicht ein € für Werbung) die am besten differenzierte Plattform zu bieten und den “Long Tail” of content abzudecken. Dies führt dazu, dass wir für Werbekunden um einen Faktor 10 wertvoller sind als alle anderen videoportale und sogar als die meisten herkömmlichen Internet-Portale – gemessen an unseren Werbepreisen. Mit dieser Differenzierung sind wir heute Marktführer nach Unique Visitors (> 10 Mio echte Uniques pro Monat), aktiven registrierten Nutzern (> 300.000), Verweildauern (> 25 Min pro visit, bei registrierten Nutzern > 45 Min), Content-Menge und Einnahmen (wir werden das umsatzstärkste Web 2.0 Unternehmen in Deutschland in diesem Jahr und voraussichtlich das einzige, das profitabel ist. Wir erreichen dies durch ein Werbemodell, das überdurchschnittlich wirksam ist.

Interessanterweise hat diese Strategie zu einer nachhaltigen Steigerung unserer Brutto-Reichweite geführt, so dass wir inzwischen Platz zwei der deutschen Plattformen noch vor Clipfish belegen.

Ich würde also wagen zu behaupten, dass im Gegensatz zu dem Eindruck, den wir zumindest hier zu erwecken scheinen, der Lehrsatz von Al Ries:

Create a new category, then dominate it

immer noch der beste Rat ist. Mein Post sollte einen kleinen Beitrag zu einer Methode hierzu leisten.

Monetization or Reach?

In a recent discussion I had at a meeting of which I am a non-executive member, the eternal discussion of

whether priority should be given to monetization or to reach and internationalization

was brought up. The debate centered around the question of whether or not the exit perspectives of the venture (of which I am also a shareholder) would increase or decrease, depending on whether the business model was first proven, at the detriment of international reach, or whether monetization should be allowed to lag because entry into several international markets at once would be a priority.

To me, this debate simply has the wrong starting point. While it is true that exit markets, such as the stock market or the M&A market, are – just like any other market – subject to buyer preference analysis, and while there is some credit to the claim that understanding the decision making “fashions” of typical M&A acquirers does help you in setting the price of your venture at exit,

timing towards such an exit market is more of a gamble than a company strategy.

In my experience, having now gone through two boom and one bust phases, the best strategy for a company to pursue is to

create a viable business model that creates value for customers that customers are prepared to pay for.

This may not always be the “sexiest” portrayal a startup can give itself (as opposed to: we are the next Facebook), but to paraphrase the old saying about design following function or form following function-

PR and the Elevator Pitch should follow the strategy and not the other way around.

This is why I literally get angry at classic venture capital thinking that sees company strategy solely in the dimension of “How will this fit my exit market? How can I sell this story to an acquirer?”. I would always strongly advise any founder

to have a clear and separate vision of their business model that cannot be influenced or swayed, save by the customer

and to work relentlessly on proving and creating that.

Incidentally, succesful American start-ups have often proven that this is the best strategy since they have always focused on gaining size and growth in their home markets before over-focussing on internationalization. In general, this has given them the size and clout necessary to, if need be, acquire whoever it was in a landscape within a specific market. It is true, that this does not always work and that some local markets have been lost even for giants such as Yahoo! and E-bay because they haven’t gone local on time, but conversely there is no known example of a company that went for reach without a viable business model and survived.

Eventually, you do have to pay the bills.

So if you do have to reach several international markets at once (because you are in a European market with too small a home market or because your board is adamant or because you have that peculiar megalomania that most entrepreneurs – including me – indulge in, I would advise the following order or priorities in formulating your company strategy:

1) Define your Business Model

2) Prove it by acquiring your reference customer base

3) Identify the growth factors in your business model with respect to paying customers

4) Identify the multipliers or incumbents in other international markets

5) Internationalize on a sales / business model driven basis by acquiring reference paying customers in those markets

The perceptions of your target exit markets can change faster than you can change the positioning of your company.

But a functioning business model and a continuous revenue stream are two realities that a) always let your survive independently of your VC backing and b) always find an acquirer.

Where there is a business model, there always eventually is an exit market.

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