I and We

Starting a company is, in large part, an act of ego. When that business is a startup, the ego component is even larger. This is a good thing.

Ego is what gives the founder the confidence to create something new. Ego powers the belief that the new thing the founder creates will be good enough to change the way that tens, thousands, even millions of people live their lives. Maybe we don’t always call this ego -- maybe we call it vision, or confidence, or passion -- but the idea is the same.

But as important as ego is to the founding of a company, it is also corrosive to the creation of a good culture. Unbridled ego becomes arrogance. It doesn’t allow for other people to achieve and contribute. Founders who do not keep their egos in check are unwilling to acknowledge the help given to them by others, and have a hard time building and retaining great teams.

To start a company founders need ego, but to build a great company, founders need to be modest. Modesty is what allows founders to see all the things that contribute to their success, especially the things over which they have no control. With modesty, founders can see the important role of luck in their success. They can recognize, acknowledge, and reward the part played by cofounders, employees, and customers. They’re resilient when things go wrong because they can see beyond themselves.

The interplay between ego and modesty is obvious when you hear founders talk about their companies. As a company grows, the best founders increasingly talk about “We” and not just “I.” Every discussion about the achievements of the company is a chance to highlight the contributions of other people and of the organization overall.

This isn’t to say that the best founders disappear into the background of their own companies. The “I” still plays a strong part. It remains the founder’s job to consistently set the vision and the example for every employee. When that goes away, a company risks moving into stasis or decline.

Perhaps the most important place to use “I” over the life of a company is when things go wrong. When figuring out what happened, and who bears responsibility for fixing a problem, “We” is insufficient and even dangerous. In that case, modesty doesn’t drive the use of “We,” arrogance does. Arrogance won’t allow a founder to admit that he was wrong, so he slides to “We” to cover for it, to blame the organization. But diffuse blame means that no one figures out what actually happened and how to fix it. Do that often enough, and the badness grows until it kills the company.

It’s tough to balance “I” and “We” and it gets harder as a company grows and becomes more successful. As a company does better, the easiest stories for the press to write are those about the genius of the founders. At the same time, as more and more things happen at a company that the founders don’t directly touch, founders may start to feel disconnected from the thing that they created. This is a hard thing to face, and some founders respond to it by claiming sole credit for successes that are the work of many people. From the other side, as the company grows, some founders fade into the background and stop providing the singular vision and leadership that the company needs to succeed.

There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer as to how to strike the right balance, nor is there a single paradigm for what works best. What does seem clear, though, is that founders need to keep these questions in mind, and, if they find themselves only using “I” or only using “We,” to think long and hard about what they might be missing.

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Thank you, Colleen Taylor, for your edits.

Presumption of stupidity

I've noticed a common bias that shows up in some founders: they believe that their competitors are stupid or uncreative. They'll look at other businesses and identify inefficiencies or bad systems, and decide that those conditions exist because of dumb decisions on the part of founders or employees. 

This is a bad belief to hold. In truth, competitors in the market are usually founded and run by intelligent people making smart and logical decisions. That doesn't mean that all the decisions they make are necessarily the right ones, but they're rarely a function of outright stupidity.

Where companies do things that diverge from what seems smart from the outside, it's a much better idea to ask why those companies are doing things from the presumption of intelligence and logic rather than the presumption of stupidity. If you don't ask these questions, you might find yourself making the same decisions, or ending up in the same place with your own set of rationalizations. I see this all the time.

In fact, we made this mistake when we started Tutorspree. We looked at all the local agencies and the way that they acquired customers and charged for packages of lessons. We assumed they asked for so much money up front because they were greedy and not smart enough to figure out a better system. It turned out that packages of lessons were a logical outgrowth of high upfront acquisition costs and the long term dynamic of tutor/student relationships. A large enough subset of customers appreciated the breaks on pricing and commitment created by booking multiple lessons up front that it made sense to model the business that way. It took longer than it should have to realize this because of our bias.

If, instead, you presume intelligence and analyze the reasons a business looks the way it does, you will often see the challenges you might face ahead of time and, as a result, design a solution that is actually better, as opposed to simply looking new. It is a lot harder to think this way because it means that you can't just dismiss the things other people do and assume you'll be better. You actually have to prove that you know how to be better. That can be really scary because, much of the time, you might not be able to figure out how to be better. Everything you think of might lead you to the same place you see your competitors.

That, though, is no reason to stop working on your company. I think it's actually a reason to keep going, and to keep gathering information and generating new ideas. This is part of what's so cool about starting a company, you get to make up new rules as you go along, and you can toss out old ones as you go along. Two founders looking at the same problem can easily come up with multiple solutions. Each solution might look similar from far away, but the small differences add up. Importantly, if you know that other smart people started in a similar place and ended up with the wrong answer, you'll think a lot more critically about each of your decisions and never get lazy about challenging your own assumptions.

Of course, just because you presume intelligence doesn't mean that every decision made was smart. People and organizations make bad decisions for all kinds of reasons. The thing is, you don't learn much by understanding that a call was bad, you learn by understanding the inputs and the organization that enabled the bad decisions.

Even with this framework, there's no guarantee that you'll end up in the right place, no matter how much you analyze those whose decisions have left you with an opportunity. At the end of the day, there's only so much you can learn from looking at competitors. Truly great businesses aren't built as counterpoints to existing companies. They become great because they meet a deep need that isn't being satisfied. That usually requires the kinds of creative and cognitive leaps that no amount of market analysis could possibly give you.

Private infrastructure

When infrastructure is built, it usually starts out as a large scale project that can only be accomplished by government. It can be built in undeveloped areas for a fairly large amount of money, or in developed areas with massive amounts of cash and even more political capital. That's hard to do in democracies, though seems to work well in places like China.

This dynamic means that we'd expect infrastructure to fail over time as the inertia arrayed against repairs and new construction grows. That seems to be what's happening in the US.

When infrastructure decays and fails, though, it creates a lot of opportunities. Citizens who were meant to be served by the infrastructure become unhappy and are when that unhappiness is great enough, they will spend their own dollars on alternatives. This is a more direct process  than funding infrastructure through tax dollars, though it can produce different types of outcomes.

In the United States today, these opportunities are being exploited by a range of startups and companies who are essentially building private infrastructure, mainly for the relatively wealthy.

Food

Instacart is building new infrastructure to deliver food to homes. In most early use cases, this looks like pure convenience, however, over the long run it could impact and start to eliminate food deserts. By making food available in more places, Instacart has the power to change where people want to live. That process will reshape how cities grow and, eventually, are built. I'll also say that in a place like NY, where supermarkets are small, crowded, and overpriced, it seems clear that the current system only exists because there's no better alternative. Instacart is that alternative.

Transportation

This process is also starting to play out on our roads. Most of our highway system was created by a single gigantic bill, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. It would be hard to imagine today’s Federal government getting its act together or finding enough money to repair roads on a national scale. Harder still would be believing that a place like the Bay Area would figure out a way to install effective and efficient public transportation to ease the stress on our roads and highways which are nearly always gridlocked. Technology is starting to provide ways to bypass those problems by improving throughput on existing systems without changing the physical plant.[1]

Self driving cars are the most extreme example of this trend. If we do actually arrive in a world where self driving cars are ubiquitous and built on the same standard such that they can communicate with one another at long range, congestion gridlock should largely vanish as the cars plan miles ahead and subtly change speeds to clear up slow downs before they start. Even before that future, though, apps like Waze help drivers plan better routes and alleviate some stress on the most crowded points in the system.

Energy

I think the trend is also impacting power generation and consumption in the US. Companies such as  Solar City will install your own power plant on your roof which means you're no longer subject to brownouts or price increases at peak times. In most of the US, this is more of a ‘nice to have’ and cost saving measure, but in the third world, solar power could provide a viable and efficient alternative to the construction of large power plants and electric delivery systems. These systems would be a fraction of the price of the old way of doing things and be significantly more reliable thanks to their distributed architecture.[2]

Private can’t mean wealthy

There is, however, an underlying tension in the rise of this new infrastructure in that the first segments of the population to get it are generally the wealthier ones who can afford to use it. Two tiered systems may be fine when they exist in non-essential parts of our lives. However, when there are two tiers, determined by wealth, for services as basic as energy, we're in a dangerous place.

That's part of why infrastructure exists the way it does. No single piece of the population would spend enough money to build services and systems useful for everyone. I think that's always going to be true for certain projects, such as bridges. But, as technology drops the cost of delivering the types of services we traditionally associate with infrastructure, I think we'll see the market extend its reach farther and farther. There's a huge amount of money to be made by ensuring universal coverage, but it won't be easy to unlock all of it.

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[1] At best, though, this is a partial solution. Throughput is well and good, but if the roads actually start to collapse, we'll need other solutions.

[2] Even though this seems like a good idea, there are still quite a few hurdles, not the least of which would be figuring out the right financing structure to make the installations profitable for the companies doing them. This is harder than it might seem for developing countries without sufficiently developed/ubiquitous banking systems.


We need to rethink employee compensation

I think that the way that employees are getting compensated at startups is starting to break. The old model of relatively low salary and "high" equity only works when there's a healthy public market for that equity in the not too distant future. If IPOs are getting significantly delayed and are potentially at risk of not happening at all,[1] we need to change how compensation is structured.

Options only make sense as compensation when you can draw a clear line from the point at which you get the options to the point at which those options are equivalent to cash. This happens when two conditions are met: 1) the stock price is enough above the strike price on the options to make exercising worthwhile to the employee and 2) there is someone willing to quickly buy the stock. This tends to happen with access to liquid markets, which traditionally means public ones. That's the only place where an employee can sell whenever she wants and can know the price she'll get with a high degree of certainty. It's also the only place where an employee can really hedge out some or all of the risk of her options.[2] That hedging is important if the value of the options rise significantly and lead to an employee having 99% of her net worth in a single illiquid asset.

When shares can only be sold in private transactions on secondary markets, and, increasingly can only be sold with the consent of the company, the options are actually worth less. This is true for three reasons.

The first reason is that control is an important factor in asset pricing. Think about this in a situation where an employee would like to sell stock to fund the purchase of a home. In a public company, that employee could exercise the options, sell the stock quickly and use the cash to buy that home. If that employee instead wants to sell stock in a private company, and the company does not let the employee do so, the employee cannot get the cash to buy the house. Because that employee cannot do what they want with the equity, that employee should discount the value of the options they hold.

The second reason that options are worth less in the absence of robust public markets is that the terms of sale of stock in the future are unclear. An employee being granted options has no idea under what conditions he will be allowed to sell stock in the future. The future sale might be subject to board approval, there might be a heavily restricted set of buyers, the employee could be told that no sales are allowed whatsoever for a variety of reasons. Each of these possibilities adds uncertainty which makes the options harder to value and worth less.

Founders need to account for this change in the value of options when giving them, and employees need to account for the change when evaluating their offers and negotiating. This is, however, hard to do in the absence of information. Without a liquid public market to value stock, it's hard to say what the options are worth. The best guess an employee has in this scenario is to go by the most recent valuation given to the company during a fundraise. The further from that fundraise an employee is, the less relevant the price. Furthermore, without the ability to compare how different employers control and handle the sale of private stock, it's nearly impossible for an employee to know what is standard.

The third reason for why individual options are probably worth less now than they used to be is that both employer and employee need to account for the fact that the time until IPO or liquidity is longer than it used to be. This is a big issue. To get the true value of offered comp, employees need to add their offered salary to the present value of the options offered. When calculating that, the further out the payout, the less it is worth today.[3]

This is an especially important calculation when trying to hire employees away from larger companies who are already public or can offer larger cash packages to employees. Those offers also tend to include options or stock grants which have known price and sale terms. Because of their easy to understand high dollar value, these offers are hard to compete with. Options in early stage startups are much harder to value even without all these new factors. Given uncertainty around the final value of those options, the time until they can be exercised and sold is hugely important. As you move further out on the curve, not only does the discount factor become a larger lever, uncertainty over the final value gets more extreme. You can be pretty sure that a company currently worth $10mm won't be worth $1b in 3 months, so you have a reasonable band of expectation. Once that value calculation moves to years out, nearly anything is possible and needs to be factored into the calculation.

I'm not the only one thinking about this, and, indeed, there are instruments available that let employees take immediate advantage of long term options. Some banks or private investors will provide loans collateralized by options. This can be good, but debt is very different than having cash. Taking advantage of this kind of strategy could also lead to potentially tricky situations where, if the option value as determined by secondary transactions falls (which could happen quickly and dramatically given the lack of liquidity in the system), the creditor could claim the assets before the term is up. Even if the price then recovers, the employee is out of luck and money.

Founders need to deal with these issues, and given how fierce the competition for good employees is, I think someone will do so soon. One response would be to increase overall options packages to account for the fact that they are now less valuable.

Another path would be to create an internal liquidity pool capable of buying shares from employees at predetermined trigger points. Maybe this could be funded by existing investors, or maybe by other employees or existing shareholders. Because the sale points are predetermined and don't provide an open market, the value of options would still be discounted, but not as much as a scenario with no guaranteed access to liquidity.

It may make sense for some companies to start creating revenue share programs as standard practice - especially for companies that never plan to going public (of which there appears to be a rising number). This could be a powerful means of retention, though would only work with companies throwing off enough cash.

I think that something even more basic needs to happen first: companies need to standardize their secondary sale and options repurchase practices. We're living in the wild west right now - each company and each employee is doing things on their own. An employee that wants to sell shares on the secondary market generally starts asking friends if they know anyone who wants to buy those options. Generally, they'll find a broker who offers to matchmake and who then gets a cut of the overall sale in exchange for their work. The price that gets set isn't shared from one deal to another, and the rules around whether or not the company can block the sale aren't standardized. This isn't fair to employees, and will lead to confusion and bad outcomes.

Maybe what we need is two things. The first is a founder pledge that they will do everything in their power to let common holders sell into secondary markets above a certain valuation, say, $500mm. The second is that founders of highly valued private companies need to participate in a robust, standardized, secondary market to allow for the clearance of those shares.

My guess, though, is that there will be a number of different solutions with the market choosing the best one as evidenced by the quality of talent hired and retained by the company using them. Founders should be watching for that and be willing to adopt best practices as soon as they arise.

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[1] There have been a lot of articles and blog posts about this recently, but Andreessen Horowitz's recent "US Tech Funding - What's Going On" is the best analysis I've seen. They note that the average time to IPO is now 11 years vs. 4 in 99, and that the overall number of tech IPOs is plummeting as privately funded companies raise huge late stage private rounds instead.

[2] You can do this a number of different ways and hedge out either your exposure to the company itself or do the overall market. Hedging out this risk probably deserves an entire post as it can get complicated. And, while nearly impossible to do it perfectly, is important to significantly reduce risk.

[3] We'd do this as a lump sum calculation for simplicity. You can play with that calculation here: http://www.calculatorsoup.com/calculators/financial/present-value-investment-calculator.php

Party (round) all the time?

There are a lot of party rounds happening right now in early stage investing. Definitions vary, but calling a round with greater than 10 investors a party seems about right. My thought is that party rounds tend to leave companies without an investor who cares enough or has pockets deep enough to bridge the company when necessary. Some rounds do actually have a strong lead, along with a syndicate of smaller, useful investors. Those generally have different dynamics.

What I've been trying to figure out is whether or not party rounds are increasing in frequency or not. Anecdotally, it feels like they are. Has something changed in the valley that party rounds should become preferred? The JOBS Act made it easier for large numbers of small investors to back companies in a way that was not previously legal. Platforms like Angel List reduce the friction required to find investors by creating a central, easily accessibly clearing house for companies looking for money and investors looking to give it to them. Or maybe the growing size and frequency of Demo Day type events (YC's included) have created an environment where party rounds are the new normal.

I took a look at Crunchbase, expecting to see that the overall number of party rounds has been rising uncontrollably. Interestingly, that's not what I found.

What's actually happening is that there are more startups getting funded, and the number of party rounds going to those companies is rising roughly in tandem. What's really surprising is that party rounds as a % of overall rounds actually fell from a peak of 3.7% in 2010 to 2.2% in 2012, though it's now back up to 3.42%.

So it seems that we're not seeing a new normal when it comes to early stage investing. We're actually seeing an overall stable pattern ticking up in the last year after a drop. The real story here is the one about the overall number of startups getting funded as the economy has come out of the Financial Crisis. That number is clearly rising, though 2014 tailed off a bit[1]. More startups mean more innovation, and that's great.

The structure and composition of a single round of funding isn't the most important factor in a startup's success or failure. It's just another piece of the story, and one that doesn't seem to be changing much.[2]

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[1] Not sure why the number would have dropped in 2014. Might be a function of the data available to Crunchbase when this run of the db was pulled on April 3, 2015.

[2] I am still curious about whether or not party rounds are a positive or negative influence, but don't yet have an answer.

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