Just this one post, then I'll shut up about bootstrapping ;-) - just reread this post from October 2005: EarlyStageVC: The Web 2.0 Entrepreneur Bubble which is worth your attention. Peter Rip calls it an "Entrepreneur Bubble" but it might just as well be called a "bootstrap bubble" since it is so cheap and easy to start a web business nowadays, and it is surely no exaggeration when you hear it said that several teams alone work on facebook clones in Germany.
Ken Hess - Bootstrapping vs VC funding
More from the Edinburgh - Stanford link/EDI Bus School Entrepreneurship Club (see previous post) lectures: a Scottish Executive funded research exchange, esp in the AI and language technology areas. Also tasked to improve the entrepreneurial culture at the university. Tonight's talk was by Ken Hess, the "World Expert on Bootstrapping" (not is words), well he's written the book anyway ;-)
His big success was Family Tree Maker: the company behind it made 23m turnover, 150 employees, eventually sold to Broderbound.
Free notes, no claims to accuracy or completeness; the entrepreneurship club promised to put up the slides.
- Bootstrapping: pull yourself up by your own bootstraps;
- Today: very limited capital; cant do it with every company.
- if done right it earns more money for the entrepreneur than through VC funding (but only if not a homerun exit)
- however, even if you compare a $100m exit with a bootstrapped $20m exit, the likelyhood of the latter is much greater... [hm, is that on comparable timescales?]
- plus: fundraisng is costly: opportunity cost, VCs have different agendas from entrepreneurs not least concerning the exit.
- arguably constrained funding increases creativity, example of unsuccessfully hiring an ad agency
- Being in the marketplace is more valuable than just sniffing around; get feedback and have knowledge of the channels
- With an bootstrapped, low burn rate you get to know about opportunities first
- With VC funding, you switch on a rocket and cant switch it off again, or alter direction easily...
- crucial to pick the right product:
- high value product that sells itself, which can sustain direct personal selling
- a solution to a task people perform despite difficulties which gives you a 10x improvement
- productivity play: differentiable, solvable problem/task, that people perform anyway despite the difficulty, yielding a solution that provides an order of magnitude improvement. Why? because otherwise the sale is too tough
- management offers special expertise in product area - you need to be the world expert in the given area
- no significant existing competition and barriers to entry
- takes advantage of technology
- profitable: very short development time and reasonable support cost
- control over all key technologies and relationships
- Key lessons:
- top management attention to product architecture (best years out)
- essential features only to begin with, scruffy is good enough
- resourceful and on time strategy: subordinate design to available components and features set to schedule
- don't rely on opinions when facts are cheap: test test test
- I would have thought even a vc backed firm would benefit from this advice.
- Early sales and marketing:
- Ken says stay in stealth/under the radar before you ship
- Direct sales channel is best: control message, caputer feedback, distributors are too powerful, simpler & cheaper
- Learn about sales options (aka Sales learning curve)
- Development team:
- as small as possible (cheaper and faster cf "the mythical man month", Fred Brooks)
- one team member must be able to hold the whole design in their head (irrespecive of written spec which is also essential)
- founders should be able to code
- don't quit your day job as long as you can
- dont rent an office, Go bedouin!
- apply for credit lne before you quit job
- Play on being small
- measure everything so you don't repeat mistakes
- Just say no: eg dont believe the minimum 3 advertisements to judge its effect
- Bootstrappers paradox:
- salary is biggest expense hire young or experienced hires?
- sweet spot: some experience, but not too much: expenses are moderate, traning is minimal and respond well to growth opportunities
- plus: move sweet spot: good documentation, hire self learners, not ust self starters (use tests for that)
- "entry department": one manager to focus on training and acculturation; eg create one expert at hiring and training
- Hiring: controls
- only hire people if you had extra x$ in sale per employee ie hire ONLY after extra sales are achieved
Leaving bootstrap mode
- When product has sustainability
- markers: founder must delegate tasks, look at product development again, increase employee experience level cautiously
Very likely: first product will be not quite right, but gives you the market knowledge to succeed; require very good market knowledge to really go for the 10x improvement.
My takeaway: comparison of VC funded vs bootstrapped is bogus.
The argument goes like this: 1 out of 100 firms manage to raise VC money, and if they do, much time and effort is spent on managing the investors. Moreover, the success probabilities of VC funded firms are rather low (few home runs, a couple of middling exits, an few insolvencies) - so the odds are stacked against you as an entrepreneur even then. So Ken had some figures that showed the chances for the entrepreneur for a vc sized return are not worse in the bootstrapped area, due to the higher ownership retained, and the likelihood of success is much higher. The risk is more that it takes longer and the downside is potentially it just turning into a lifestyle business. The important qualification here is that the bootstrapping approach is a genuine alternative for entrepreneurs, but probably not in markets that are so large as to attract venture funded entrants. So look for the 10x improvements but think niche not google sized markets. On the plus side, if you manage to identify a product/service that does offer a 10x improvement and practically sells itself, then you should be able to take VC money if your competitors are threatening to, but on rather better terms. Punchline: VC vs bootstrapping is a a somewhat bogus contest, and I imagine it's only really an issue if you have VCs banging on your door but you can see that you can bootstrap successfully anyway (like Microsoft, or OpenBC closer to home - although both eventually took the money).
Silicon Valley in Scotland - Sean Foote
Interesting speaker series that I only just discovered, put on by the Entrepreneurship Club by the Edinburgh University Business School and the Edinburgh Uni School of Informatics. Pretty switched on if they can pull talent from Silicon Valley like Sean Foote from Labrador Ventures last week.
Sean's lecture last week was actually driven by questions from the audience, and covered a good deal of familiar venture capital ground. The most interesting insight to come out of his talk was his emphasis on advertising driven business models, something they actively seek and look for (besides tech and material science investments). In the context of the Web2.0 backlash (I've mentioned before that some believe the whole thing to be nothing more than a "Google affiliate program" and describe the Web2.0 business model as "Ajax, Adsense and Arrogance" ;-). However, it is probably true that if you build a webproperty with an unfair advantage of some sort (he mentioned Pandora, one of their investments), addressing a defined audience, then you will be able to make money in venture sized proportions from advertising. I wonder to what degree that is true for European companies. I can't think of many that live successfully off advertising alone.
Another interesting remark was about the "VCs as lemmings" debate - he agreed that most (presumably himself included :) do behave like lemmings often; however in their defense he pointed out that particularly early stage funds such as his rely to some extent on follow on financings from other, later stage funds. That requirement works against contrarian anti-lemmings.
Ether = Questico 2.0?
Ether is a decentralised riff on the original keen.com anno 99 model of allowing people to charge for advice over the phone. As for so many startups, keen.com had a German cousin, Questico. It took Questico a few iterations and unblinking investors to come up with a business model that works, but thanks to focussing on Astrology advice the company now grows like wildfire. They presented at the German Tech Tour last year and when they showed their growth rates the sharp intake of breath was audible ;-).
Will it work? I don't know; what I find most interesting about it is the decentralised approach. It seems to become more and more a defining feature for web2.0 type companies with potential. Having said that, just offering a platform (without a trust/ratings system it seems) won't be enough, you have to become a sort of market maker in specific niches just like Questico discovered and now owns the astrology/horoscope market in Germany now.
One wonders why Skype hasn't long since offered something similar, but that's another story. Would be nice to publish your own number to telemarketing firms though.
Via TechCrunch » Super-Stealth Ether to Launch Tonight (Hat tip to Oliver)
6A new funding
Strangely quiet - how come this hit PE Week Wire before the blogs?
Six Apart Ltd., a San Mateo, Calif.-based provider of blogging software, has raised $12 million in new VC funding, according to Investment Dealers’ Digest. No word on the new backers for Six Apart, which previously raised money from August Capital. www.sixapart.com
The German clone of f**kedcompany.com relaunched itself today as boocompany.com aka DCT 2.0 as they smell a new bubble. Who knows, perhaps their stringers puke behind the piano at the dld06 reception right now, harhar.
Alex "Mr. Milliondollarhomepage" Tews is at it again, this time he found a way to make people pay for tags instead of pixels. And, by coming up with a way to get people to pay for shared tags, he has effectively unlimited tag space to mine and sell, as opposed to a limited pixel-screen. Pretty ingenious if you ask me. Techcrunch has more.
Link: 1000tags.com [via Scott Rafer]
Target Partners Thanksgiving Vernissage
It all went swimmingly for Target Partner's annual Thanksgiving Vernissage/Party in their long, open plan offices. No wonder the picture was one of the first to be sold. Almost more impressive than the very smooth organisation (apart from the also annual power failure at the beginning ;-) was the erie lack of any traces of work - as a notorious clutter fiend I can only imagine the agony of having to put away weeks' worth of carefully composed piles of paper and notes.
Generally there was a buzz about the place that had been missing for some time, reminding me of old First Tuesdays but in a good way. Wellington kindly went on a two year fundraising expedition in the wilderness, so that the rest of the German VCs are now able to raise money in their slipstream. Much backslapping about this fortuitous timing went on, only occasionally sobered by having still to slog it out on the fundraising trail ("Good to be on the other side for a while yadayada crocodile tear"). I wonder if they think of the entrepreneurs as customers as Fred argues.
As a bonus point I had my first "hey I read you blog" conversation, with a German crypto VC blogger no less. Alas he gave his up some time ago so no link love for tonight.
Cool Amazon Mechanical Turk
Several sites pointed to the beta of the Amazon Mechanical Turk. It's a distributed outsourcing service. Turning on the fact that many jobs, such as low level data processing, anything requiring a modicum of creative input or stuff that isn't worth training a whole computer cluster on but can be solved by a human brain in seconds could be dealt with by many people given access to a computer. It's hardly a new idea (characteristically, Martin Geddes told me about something like it before), but simple and quite powerful for all that. I will be interested to see where Amazon will take that, it has potential and is quite scalable.
PS: I didn't care for the name at first, but I guess it's a clever twist on the original Mechanical Turk, because it looks like automation when it ain't....
Influence of locusts on the German economy
The German private equity association BVK and PwC published a study about how companies performed if they are PE-backed.There are 5.500 PE and VC financed companies in Germany, accounting for 5,2% of GDP, not bad. Growth-rates are also significant: 10% pa on average over the whole sample (No Cagr?)
What I’d like to know is how much of a survivorship bias is built into these figures – per definition this survey only looked at those companies that remained active since the survey was last carried out in 2001… Odd picture for the title as well – are we replacing the infamous locusts with an ice-breaker steaming through the German pack-ice?