chinese menu of startup blogs

Last summer I mentioned some of the best startup blogs for entrepreneurs.  Since then, there’s been a notable proliferation of great startup blogging, so I wanted to note my current approach to keeping up with all the useful content.

I call this the Chinese Menu approach (“Pick one from Column A, one from Column B . . .”): Group blogs together by thematic category, and then read only one blog in each category. Every once in a while, I’ll change up the one that I pick in each category, so I don’t get sick of the same meal time after time.

Column A:  General Startup News

Column B:  Venture Capital

Column C:  Startup Advisors

Column D:  Coaches

Column E:  Founders (currently starting new business)

I add and drop blogs from categories all the time, and some blogs could be in multiple categories.  But the key is to just read one in each category.  This approach works well for me.  Switching up the meal selection once in a while helps keep me open to different perspectives.  I never miss anything truly essential, as great posts tend to be cross-linked extensively, or come to me by other means.  Incidentally, the same approach works ok for Twitter (though it’s not ideal).

mistakes were made

Compare and contrast -

In the startup world, failure is a badge of honor.  An honest postmortem of mistakes made along the way is greatly appreciated by the community.  For example:

The comments on each of those posts are overwhelmingly sympathetic, admiring and supportive.  Celebrating failure in context is a distinguishing aspect of our business culture versus many other countries.

In contrast, when the President of the US admits mistakes, the national and international coverage seems to imply that the admission itself its newsworthy and perhaps unwise.  Comments are largely vitriolic and incoherent.

Now, I think that failure can be overrated as an indicator of future success.  But I firmly believe that the openness to failure in business is one of the things that makes this country truly great.  It’s ironic and sad that this cultural gem does not extend into our political arena.

UPDATE 4 Oct 2010: Here’s a great list of the 25 best startup postmortems.

new york state of mind

There’s nothing like New York City – this has been said so many times in so many ways that it hardly bears repeating.  But the compulsion to declare love for New York is like the compulsion for love itself:  it doesn’t matter that countless generations have found this magic and proclaimed their discoveries to the world, each person still engages in a distinct journey for a song of one’s own heart.

I was born in New Jersey, grew up about 45 minutes outside of the city, and went to school and started my career in NYC.  I’ve been out in the San Francisco bay area for over a decade now, and I’m firmly rooted here with family and career, but the thought of going back to The City (the one and only “The City” – pretenders begone!) still occasionally buzzes in my head like a bee in a speeding car.  However, on a trip back to New York last week, I realized that one of the things that prevented me from moving back is my own very New York attitude.

Over the past few months, a few New York based technoscenti have carried a conversation about NYC as a startup environment.  Chris Dixon said conditions are ripe for a new NYC tech revival, Fred Wilson and Charlie O’Donnell agreed but noted that NYC has been a strong tech scene for years, and Dixon and Wilson came together to agree again that the NYC startup sector is special.  All this caused me to reflect on why I left the city that I love to pursue a tech career in Silicon Valley, and why I’d do it again.

It all goes back to why I went to NYC in the first place.  I was learning the law, I wanted to be a dealmaking lawyer.  And while there’s law and lawyers all over the world, the pinnacle of the practice is in New York.  Routine transactions in New York would be considered fantastically complicated almost anywhere else, and complex transactions in New York are so far above other places that they can’t be considered the same category of endeavor at all.  So if I was going to be a lawyer, I had to try to do it in the belly of the beast.

And it was a great time, but after a few years I realized I wanted to be more connected to the creation of something from nothing, rather than the financial engineering of something into vast amounts of money.  That meant working in startups, because startups aren’t about money but about value creation (a distinction often lost on New Yorkers).  So I shifted the path of my journey, but I retained that New York attitude of wanting to play on the biggest possible stage, and in the startup world, that meant going to Silicon Valley.

There are other great startup scenes in the world, and New York is certainly a special startup environment.  But if you’re a stage actor, you don’t go to New York dreaming of playing Off Broadway; you dream of your name in lights on the Great White Way.  Because I grew up as a New York dreamer, dreaming of a startup career meant leaving New York for the biggest and baddest startup scene in the world.

It’s all a bit ironic, and I’m not saying this “big stage” attitude is right.  In fact, it’s almost certainly not a healthy way to live.  A healthier attitude would be less entranced with the size of the stage, and more focused on the production and your role within it.  I think that’s the attitude held by Chris, Fred and Charlie, and I really look forward to seeing those guys continue the public conversation (and private work) about making New York into one of the great startup locales in the world.  For those interested, Elie Seidman is another good new voice in the thread, and of course Joel Spolsky is a longtime stalwart for software engineering in NYC (or anywhere).

iocane advice

Chris Dixon and Fred Wilson provide a very special kind of bad advice on the topic of equity grants in startups.  Now, Dixon and Wilson are both very smart and very successful, and what they say about equity grants is absolutely true, so the advice is not bad due to its supporting expertise nor its substantive merits.  The advice is bad because nearly everyone who attempts to use this advice will use it to their own harm, and the few folks who cannot be harmed by this advice have already lived a life full of preparation and savvy choices.

Dixon emphasizes that the most important thing about equity grants is the percentage of the capitalization granted, and Wilson adds that the implied valuation of the grant (number of shares times share price of most recent financing) is also useful.  While these things are true, my objection is that the probable audience for this advice is composed of prospective startup employees, and the use that they will make of this advice is to try to choose a job based on the value of the equity grant.

This is a bad idea for two reasons.  First, valuing an equity grant is only secondarily about determining the percentage of the company – it is primarily about determining the exit value of the entire company, an exercise at which professional investors in the field routinely fail. (Fred himself will tell you that 2/3 of venture investments in a successful fund will break even or lose money.)  If you are thinking about joining a startup, and you have 2 choices, you are very unlikely to have any rational basis for believing that 0.1% of one startup will be worth more or less than 0.2% of the other.

Second and more importantly, if you want to work in a startup, you should not choose where to work based on compensation.  You need to pick the project and the people that get you most excited, period.  Without a belief in the mission and an authentic fit with the team, you will not be successful anyway, so any compensation will be a waste of your time and their money. If you have other employment options, you should explain that to the place you want to join, and if they want you they will make the comp work within their range, and you should accept.  Or, if you simply want to work at the place where you will be paid the most, you should not work at a startup. (Don’t be offended, this isn’t a test of character or a judgment of your soul – if you’re not a startup person, that doesn’t make you any worse or better than the people who are.)

Dixon actually gives really good advice in his post, for those who are paying attention:  “If management tells you the number of shares and not the total shares outstanding so you can’t compute the percent you own - don’t join the company!”  As I’ve said before, the reason to have a detailed conversation about equity comp with your manager is to test management’s clarity and forthrightness in general – not because you have any hope of making a correct equity valuation.

I would be willing to bet that neither Dixon nor Wilson has ever made a choice of company to join or invest in based on equity percentage.  They made their choices from their interests in the market, the product, the team – and then later, after a decision to join/found/invest has essentially been made, they did some optimization around the equity.  Choosing the other way around is about relying on luck, not successful choices and preparation.

[Bully for you if you know the reference for the title of this post!]

weighing your options

A friend asks:

I’m working through a start up analysis based on a web-based software app. What is “options consistent” with a start up?

The short answer:  show the prospective employee a 5-figure number, and convince the employee that it makes sense.

The long answer:

This is highly dependent upon the type of startup and the position of the employee. I’ll answer for a typical situation of a VC-backed startup and a developer from entry-level to senior (sub-exec) level. You could have a very different answer for startup that was not VC funded, or an executive level position. You might even have a slightly different answer for non-developers, certainly in the areas of marketing, administration, customer support. (I’m putting aside for the moment the question of whether it is “right” to treat execs or different functional areas differently.)

Many propspective employees seem to take a highly illogical view of evaluating startup options. They compare the raw number to that in their other offers, or to offers that their friends received. (“Well I think I deserve at least 30,000 shares in this company, because my friend Jonny got 20,000 shares in his company, and he’s an idiot!“)

This seems nonsensical because the value of the options must be calculated with respect to the specific company situation, especially in terms of the company’s existing capitalization and prospects for liquidity and growth. Having 20,000 shares in a company that has 10 million shares outstanding is, absent other facts, five times more valuable than 20,000 shares in a company that has 50 million shares outstanding. That’s simple enough, but it is by far less important than the other main factor. Having 20,000 shares in a company that is about to go public might be much more valuable than having 20,000 shares in a company that has just started.

Might be. Or might not.  What if the company that has just started is the next Google, as they all think they are? The problem here is that you have to evaluate both distance to liquidity and prospects for growth. Figuring out which startups will be successful and when and how big they can get is extraordinarily difficult – these are things that professional money managers routinely get wrong. A prospective employee has very little hope in getting this evaluation right.

So let’s look at it from the other side: how do companies decide how many options to offer employees? Typically a company budgets a particular target of dilution from issuances of options over 12 to 18 months. For an early stage startup, this target is often around 15-20% of total capitalization (including the options pool). A one-year hiring plan in that stage might call for something like one new executive, 3 senior employees, and 12 employees from entry to mid level. So the company would budget its options accordingly, obviously also aligning grants with external market conditions.

A prospective employee who wants to know whether an offered grant is “fair” really has no better method of evaluating this than by asking the company to explain how they came up with the number. Ideally as an employee you’d want to ask:

  • What’s the fully diluted capitalization?
  • How far is the company from liquidity? What type of liquidation event does the company anticipate?
  • What are the company’s business prospects for the current year?
  • What is the options range for my position, and where am I in this range relative to other recent hires?
  • How far into the hiring plan is the company for the current year? How many and what positions will be hired?

And you ask these questions not because you can actually value the company based on the answers.  You ask as a test to see if the hiring manager has thought through the offer, and sounds as if there has been rational thought behind your compensation.  You want to work at a place where the management can provide sensible answers to these questions, independent of whether the answers can add up to a company valuation.

Many candidates do not feel comfortable asking these kinds of questions. Worse, some companies will not answer them, and will view the asking of such questions as a sign of impudence.  I’d say you should think twice about working for any company that would be insulted by the asking of these questions, but unfortunately that company attitude is not uncommon.

As a result, the best guideline to fall back upon for many prospective employees is back to good old Jonny:   What have I been offered at other companies, and what are my friends getting at their companies?

Which turns out to be not such a dumb way of evaluating offers, because many companies use more or less the same budgeting processes and have similar investor and advisor networks. So most companies end up in a similar range of options for similar positions. For most mid-to-senior positions, this will be a 5-figure number, and as long as that number can be justified to the employee, then you can move on to more important questions, such as why anyone would want to work at this company in the first place. There should be a lot of answers to that question, and the options offer should be only a very small piece of the puzzle.

best startup blogs for entrepreneurs

I once made a case for pmarca as the best startup blogger evah.  Now that I’m in the midst of my own entrepreneurial efforts, I’ve had plenty of occasion to revisit the category.

I still think no one matches Marc for the sophistication and deep experience of his posts.  But I think that once you have the background that he covers, if you are working on a startup you might want something that gives you more guidance about what you are facing day to day.  So here are a few possibilities for interested entrepreneurs:

ReadWriteWeb is running a serialized book called Startup 101 that describes the startup life cycle.  It has a number of factors against it:  the information is very broad and basic, it’s directed only at web startups, it assumes little to no experience in business generally.  Nevertheless it looks to be shaping up as a nice basic primer for first-time startup folks.

Venture Hacks has some good info, mostly about fundraising but also assorted other categories.  This is possibly the best resource for those who are mystified about how VCs think.

Eric Ries has made a name for himself around the catchphrase “The Lean Startup” – a solid summary of fundamental principles of running a low-burn, nimble business.  Much of this might seem fairly obvious to folks who have worked in modern web startups, but Eric has a really nice clean delivery of the concepts.

Steve Blank has shared the stage with Eric for “Lean Startup” presentations, so the two have a common mindset.  Steve differentiates himself with a much longer history of entrepreneurialism, which gives him great authority and many informative war stories to share.  His customer development model is highly valuable to any startup (though a bit better oriented to enterprise customers than mass consumers).

Steve’s blog has risen to another level in recent posts about how entrepreneurs can stop lying to themselves and deserve an epitaph that signify a family life well lived.  I haven’t seen any other startup blogger come closer to giving this topic the time and attention it deserves – managing the demands of a startup in balance with a rich family life is incredibly difficult.  Perhaps too few have succeeded in this to inspire many good blogs about it.

Finally, probably my favorite category of startup blog is from those who are blogging the process while they’re doing it.  Signal vs. Noise is a classic in this category, but I like to find new blogs from relatively unknown startups.  Two that I happened across recently are from the founders of Expensify and Alice.

What are your favorite startup blogs?  I’m particularly interested in finding ones from startup founders who are blogging it while they’re doing it.

entrepreneurial lobbying

Warning:  this post is very long and concerns tax policy, and so is likely to suck your soul while you read.  However, if you have been or ever will be a highly successful entrepreneur, then I’m talking about matters that mean millions of dollars to you.  Enjoy.

We are in a time when the government’s hand in the U.S. economy is heavier than at any time since as least as far back the 1930′s.  Makes me wonder who, if anyone, lobbies in D.C. for the benefit of entrepreneurial activity?

The National Venture Capital Association has been in the news of late, as it tries to avoid Congressional and Treasury proposals to regulate “private pools of capital” – a generic term that includes hedge funds as well as venture capital funds.  Hedge fund activity in the credit markets may have contributed to the systemic failures in the financial system, but commentators indignantly proclaim that venture capital had nothing to do with the current mess.

The NVCA is the main lobbying organization of the venture capital industry, and in their stated mission and nearly all of their public policy positions, they say they have a broader mandate to “support entrepreneurial activity and innovation.”  The NVCA wants Washington to understand the VCs are not merely investors, but part of the lifeblood of the entrepreneurialism that fuels massive portions of the U.S. and world economy.

I suspect that at first the fine folks at the NVCA made this connection to entrepreneurialism because it sounds worthy and friendly to politicians, as compared to being cast as mere financial speculators.  But now this connection has become a key conceptual anchor of their argument that venture capital should be treated differently from hedge funds and other private equity funds.  Those other guys are pointy-headed number crunchers, see, who move massive amounts of money and credit with extreme disregard for our financial system.  VCs are closely involved with startup innovation, heck they are practically entrepreneurs themselves!

This conflation of VCs with entrepreneurs is even more critical in what has become the most important lobbying battle in the history of the NVCA, the fight over carried interest tax policy.  I think if more entrepreneurs understood this particular public policy issue, there might someday be better lobbying in DC for related issues that are closer to the hearts and wallets of entrepreneurs.

Briefly, VCs are typically compensated in two ways, with management fees and carried interest.  Management fees are a small percentage of the total capital commitment of the fund.  For example, a $100 million fund might have a 2% management fee, so the VCs receive $2 million per year for their operating expenses.  Carried interest is basically profit sharing on the investment.  So for example, if the $100 million fund operates for 10 years, and makes $500 million, a 20% carried interest might be applied on the profit – that would be $500 million less the $100 million of invested capital, less the $20 million of management fees (assuming 2% per year).  So 20% of $380 million is $76 million.  I’ve smoothed over a lot of variations and complexities, but this is basically how it works.

And how the U.S. tax system works – smoothing over a thousand times more variations and complexities – is that you either pay ordinary income tax of 35%, or long term capital gains tax of 15%.  Have you guessed what the carried interest tax policy battle is about?  That’s right:  carried interest has historically been taxed as capital gain, but many are now calling for it to be taxed as ordinary income.  In the example above (which would not be a particularly large or extraordinarily successful fund), the 20% difference in tax rates would mean $15.2 million less for the fund managers.  You can see why this is the Battle of the Century for the NVCA.

Now, let’s get back to this point about VCs being practically entreprenuers themselves.  In Congressional testimony, the NVCA says that venture capitalists rise above mere “financial engineers” (presumably the hedge funds and private equity guys), contributing sometimes daily management attention and real “sweat equity” into startup companies.  Some entrepreneurs may snicker at that testimony, and others may pluck their eyeballs out rather than read it.  I can freely admit that I’ve seen VCs who do make invaluable contributions to their portfolio companies, far above merely providing money.

But if the NVCA really wants entrepreneurs to view their efforts to “support entrepreneurial activity” favorably, they ought to extend their views on tax policy to the issues that really and directly affect entrepreneurs.  See, although startup founders can readily enjoy capital gains treatment on the value of their equity, some bizarre tax policies in this country often have the practical effect of forcing ordinary income treatment on the equity stakes of many private company employees.  The NVCA is fighting tooth and nail so that VCs (who are almost like entrepreneurs, after all) can get capital gains tax treatment, while saying not a single word about the policies that cause millions of startup employees to have their equity gains treated as ordinary income.

There are many ways that the NVCA could advocate tax policy for the benefit of entrepreneurs, but I’ll note the two most obvious ones, one a layup and the other a long ball in difficulty of change:

The layup is the Section 83(b) issue.  This is just an utterly bizarre policy that is harmless to entrepreneurs if you file all your paperwork correctly, but it is ruinous to entrepreneurs (and often their companies and lawyers) when there is a mistake in filing.  Briefly, founders and very early employees of startups usually receive stock (not options, but the stock itself) that is subject to vesting.  The tax code says that ordinary income tax is due as the stock vests, on the spread between the price paid for the stock and the value on the date of vesting.

That’s a real problem, because even as the stock vests, it has no liquid market – meaning that the stock can’t be sold easily.  So an entrepreneur who holds this stock in a successful company would get huge tax bills that he or she cannot pay.  Fortunately, the IRS allows the stockholder to make a “Section 83(b) election” – this is an election to pay the tax at the time of the initial stock purchase.  Since typically the price paid for the stock is the fair market value of the stock at the time of purchase, there is no spread and therefore no tax is due.

So that would be harmless, except that if you don’t file the election in the right way at the right time (30 days after purchase), you have to pay taxes the default way.  And that kind of mistake does happen, and it can cost millions – not just for the taxpayer, because ruinous tax issues for company founders and early employees can easily sink the company itself, and also typically results in malpractice suits against the company lawyers.

Why should the default position in the tax law be to pay a ruinous tax that no rational person would ever voluntarily elect to pay?  Why not just have a law that says if I don’t do a cartwheel on my lawn every 30 days, then I have to give my house to the IRS?  This is just utterly inane, so inane that it should be an easy win for the NVCA if they were to take it up as a lobbying cause.

The long ball would be for the NVCA to go after AMT/ISO reform.  This is a very complicated issue, but bear with me, because this problem does routinely affect startup company employees.  In a vast, vast oversimplication:  the problem is that the Alternative Minimum Tax requires Incentive Stock Option holders to pay a tax on exercise of their options, even though the company is private and there is no liquid market for their shares.

In a successful company, this can mean a tax vastly exceeding the assets of the employee, with no means of paying it.  A typical solution for many is to sell their shares at the mercy of the less liquid secondary markets (at severe discounts), in order to be able to pay the taxes.  And of course, a sale in that situation is typically taxed at ordinary income rates rather than capital gains rates, because of ISO tax rules.  So AMT and ISO rules conspire to mean that startup employees often are forced to sell their stock at discount values, and to add insult to injury the gain is taxed as ordinary income rather than capital gain.

So, NVCA:  you need to go after those two issues before any knowledgable person should regard you as an advocate for entrepreneurs and innovation.  Not only would you get the cosmic satisfaction of your actions actually conforming with your words, but you would also likely get grateful contributions from entrepreneurs and their lawyers.