Archive: growth

The Winds of Change in European Venture Capital

Lights in Europe

Recently I commented on my perception of the deficiencies of the Approach of European VCs to their investment decisions, criticizing what I perceive to be non-analytical herd investing reflexes. Startups are deemed “hot” or not, irrespective of their disruptive potential.

 

Two posts prove me a bit wrong and show that their may be a set of “new VCs” who are eating the world of the “old VCs”.

 

Ciaran O’Leary (@ciaranoleary) explains why he disregards business plan targets and focuses on the startup doing what is right to build its value proposition here: http://berlinvc.com/2014/09/19/doing-what-is-needed-to-achieve-the-plan-vs-doing-what-is-right/

 

Christian Hernandey (@christianhern) describes how a new(er) set of VCs are adressing the series A Crunch and taking a different approach, helping close the US-Europe gap in Startup Funding:

 

This is very encouraging, though understanding how Venture Capitalists decide remains the most important question LPs should ask themselves.

 

 

 

Labor Costs and Service Prices in the US economy: hidden flexibility?

Travelling through the US once again and hearing comments about the recession every day, I was struck by the elasticity of US business once again. As much as the business climate is intoxicating to the point of being hectic in boom times, as seen in 1999/2000 and once again in 2007, in bear times everything gets very gloomy.

I was riding in a cab in Las Vegas headed to CES and for once in the habit of European cab fares I forgot to tip the cab driver. He commented “You Europeans never tip, do you?”. After paying the due tip, I reflected on how dependent employees in all services industries were on tips for their regular income. I also noticed that tipping behavior on the part of Americans differed strongly from what I had experienced just 6 months ago on my last extended trip to California. People now, out of need or out of fashion, were downright stingy. Given that such large portions of the US economy are service based, I could not help but wonder how that had the same effect as a wage cut in many of these industries. At the very least, it shows that employers, who deflect part of the necessity of paying market wages to the culture of tipping and its encouragement in the policies of their businesses, thereby have an instrument to reduce and flexibilize their labor cost. In boom times employees earn more from tips and in bust times they earn less without the employer having to enforce wage cuts. This benefits the employer because he remains at his (low) wage cost basis, keeps his prices stable and lets the customer reduce tips if he feels he needs to. Since tips are part of the price structure of using a service, this means that lower tipping amounts to a deflation of service prices from the point of the customer. Thus, in a way, the business owner is leaving part of the pricing to the customer who can deflate the price he pays at will if his pockets are tied – as is the case in a recession.

Now while this, from a European perspective, could be perceived as an unfair advantage the business owner has in his relation to employees and customers, it could also be described as an “entrepreneurial risk” of the employee. Employees that commit particularly well to the service they are a part of and endear themselves to customers will invariably in good or bad times reap better tips from the customers. An employee who does well will probably convince a business owner to give him the responsibilities (assigned tables, assigned services) that will have the highest likelihood of earning him tips. One can already observe that some businesses compete on a labor market by installing policies that encourage tips.

A hamburger chain called Fat Burger places a small tip box next to a big tip box at the cash register and each time a larger tip is paid into the so called “fat tip box” the cashier yells out “FAT TIP!” and all other employees chime in yelling “FAT TIP!” as well.

As ludicrous as a discussion of the macroeconomic effect of tipping might seem at first glance, the impact on the US economy must be sizable. Considering the service industry is a 10s of billions of dollars segment of the economy and that average tipping is between 10 and 20 % of a purchase, tipping could well amount to several billion dollars in the economy. Adding or subtracting billions of dollars of volume to the price structure of the service industry could in turn have stronger than imagined effects on inflation and deflation, as well as on purchasing power in low income segments of the population.

As I am not an economist, I will leave the discussion at that, but I sure would find it interesting to know if this has ever been explored academically.

What makes good leadership?

A lot is being said and has been written about how strategies and market mechanics determine the success or failure of ventures and large companies. But any entrepreneur will confirm that it usually is execution which decides the fate of the company, especially in venture companies. Thus, leadership capabilities may be the most important skill set of venture management.

Leadership, management, and the principles which guide how employees are motivated and directed in their tasks are usually treated either as a self help topic in management books or as the HR side of company organization.

It might be time to focus on leadership and HR capabilities in the strategic dimension they have for the company. This means to recognize that the best company strategy can be killed by the wrong leadership methods. Good leadership is not only an important requirement for management. It is the necessary condition for company success!

In the region of North Germany where part of my family comes from we say that a fish always stinks from the head, which in my opinion puts in a nutshell the essence of leadership. If your venture team is not motivated or doesn’t excel, start at the head.

Ted Levitt once said that

organizations exist to enable ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things,

which I believe is only a way to say that things happen only if people do them. The success of a company is only achieved if the employees and the managers of that company willingly take the necessary actions to enable that success.

That is certainly first and foremost a question of deciding which of the actions that are available in a given situation is chosen, but it is equally importantly a question of ensuring that every employee executes that strategy in the way that best ensures success, including feedback and adaptation of the strategy when problems arise.

Achieving this, however, is a question of leadership.

Since all dictatorships eventually fail, leadership cannot be reduced to the ability to bark orders. All great historic figures acclaimed for their leadership, from Julius Cesar to Napoleon, from Spartacus to Martin Luther King, are all admired for their ability to inspire, to motivate, and to convey a sense of purpose to a large number of people, i.e. to the organization that they led.

Inspiration however, is nothing without credibility. Credibility, in turn, is only achieved through authenticity. Authenticity is only achieved through honesty. Applied to the world of the 21st century and the context of leadership in business organizations, this means that a truly successful leader needs to combine the ability to inspire others with a set of skills and principles that are tenets of credibility as a leader:

1. An inspiring sense of purpose.

2. A clear set of unflinching values. Shifty leaders command no respect.

3. Honesty at all costs.

4. The ability to communicate necessities and convey a sense of urgency to a team.

5. The ability to define the organization as a community serving a common goal.

6. The ability to honestly admit own mistakes and address the weaknesses of the organization.

7. Relentless commitment to the company goal, including the necessary ability to “punish underperformance”, without humiliating anyone in the organization.

8. The ability to lead by example, including in personal matters such as health or respect for others.

9. The discipline to pursue a strategy and tactics that belong to that strategy and to adapt these whenever necessary, not only “acting from the gut”.

10. The intelligence to always overestimate competition and underestimate your own position.

Most of these traits require a certain level of self-assurance, respect for others, and clear view of your own shortcomings that is incompatible with most managerial egos. But while there are enough cases of at least temporarily successful egomaniacs, in the long run only those entrepreneurs intelligent enough to value, respect, and reward their performing team members, and self-critical enough to recognize their own mistakes become truly great.

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?

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.

Back to Hands On !

Some of you who know me already know this, but I’ve been back in hands-on business with the Next Big Thing for the past couple of weeks. Can’t say too much about it now, but I’ll share with you – those of you who know the feeling – the sense of excitement at building an exponential-growth company. We’ll be stealthing some more the next couple of months. As soon as we have the technology in place, our company will kawham! – At least, that’s we’re fighting for.

My life as an Investor will continue, but I’ll focus on the Angel & advisory part and have increased staff on dw capital to do the operatives of our Seed Funding. That gives the Startups more worth (and more professionalism, too). It leverages the dw capital positioning as “Founder friendly like an Angel and professional like a VC“. Plus I gain more insights on an operative level, which will decrease the half-life of my know-how. Growth must always become institutional if it is to prevail!

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