Has the individual investor learned a lesson?

There have been a number of IPO fillings recently, but the one that intrigues me most is the filing by Lindows. As many of you have read, Lindows/Linspire just filed an S-1 to raise $57 million in an IPO. WR Hambrecht is the lead underwriter and will utilize its dutch auction methodology to raise money from individual investors. In my mind, what happens with Lindows will be a barometer of the psyche of the individual investor. It well tell us whether or not the individual investor learned a lesson from the bubble. It will tell us whether or not speculation will run rampant again. As you know, I do find Linux on the desktop intriguing. That does not mean that I believe this is the year and that you should go public now on $2.1 million of revenue in 2003 with a net loss of $4.1 million. On top of that, of the $57 million they are raising, $10 million is going to pay off Michael Robertson, the CEO, for a line of credit he extended the company over the past couple of years. As per the filing,

The approximately $10,400,000 of net proceeds that we intend to use to repay outstanding debt obligations will be paid to Michael L. Robertson, our founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, as payment in full of all remaining outstanding amounts under a revolving line of credit. Mr. Robertson has advanced us funds under the line of credit since July 2002, including advances of $5,600,000 during 2004. Amounts borrowed under this loan are used for our operating expenses. The loan bears interest at the rate of 10% simple interest per year and matures on June 30, 2005.

So not only is this a speculative offering, but also one where the largest shareholder gets paid back $10 million off the top. Michael did pay $4.5 million for the shares that he currently owns but 2/3 of his total capital will be off the table. So how much skin in the game will Michael really have to make this company work? Does this sound like a good investment to you? I am not opposed to the dutch auction and do believe that the methodology has a place in some deals. My big fear is that if this deal does happen, it will only confirm my belief that the individual investor never learned a lesson from the bubble. For the individual investor to forget so quickly about all of the pain and suffering we just went through really scares me.

Founder transition

There are a number of good posts about founder transition in light of the recent changes at Friendster and Plaxo. If you are an entrepreneur, I suggest reading Ross Mayfield’s words of wisdom on this topic. What makes it so interesting is that Ross is a founder, was replaced at a prior company, and is back again as CEO of another company, Socialtext. As Ross says,

Not a day goes by where I don’t brace myself for this change. As a CEO and Founder of an early stage company, I know new stages will come. I constantly question myself if I’m the best person for the job, because the company is more than just me. Its a source of livelihood, investor return and customer bliss — all of which improve over time. I am really darn good at this stage of the company and have proven it in the past. I hope to test my capabilities at latter stages, but also recognize that the day may come where regardless of my ability to lead, manage and deliver — environmental forces may call for the new.

As a VC, we always like to have an open and honest discussion pre-investment about what the entrepreneur expects from us, and what we expect from the founding team. When discussing the idea of transition and building the right team, we learn alot about the founders and what drives them. This does not necessarily mean we will replace the founder with a new CEO, but it is a great way to understand what motivates the founder and how committed they are to creating a successful company, not a one-man show. Some simply want to be CEO come hell or high water-we take a pass on those opportunities. Some tell us what we want to hear, but their body language tells us otherwise-they tense up and there is no positive feeling behind their words. Others like Ross tell us what we want to hear and internalize it. They know the drill and want to be given the opportunity to run the show and prove that they can do the job but at the same time understand that change may happen. These are the founders in which we like to invest.

What aisle/what shelf?

I met with an entrepreneur this week who had a fantastic background and great technology. However, it was a technology in search of a problem to solve. Why? Because he could not readily answer some fundamental questions like what problem are you solving, who is the buyer of the product, and what is the amount of pain the buyer has without your product or solution. This is a problem that I see time and time again. Additionally, many entrepreneurs cannot answer the question, “what aisle, what shelf?” When you go to a supermarket you know that you go to the condiment section to find ketchup, mustard or BBQ sauce. On those shelves, you will find different types of condiments and different brands organized in a way that makes sense. While on any given visit you may see new products on those shelves, they are still condiments. Similarly, your sales prospects need to know where your product fits to determine where you come out of the budget and who is responsible for evaluating new solutions. If you try to create a brand new market category that no one understands simply that will not work. Similarly you do not want to sound like everyone else.

Going back to our earlier analogy, while you want to find a large enough aisle to put yourself into, the struggle is expressing your uniqueness in the 30 second elevator pitch. You do not want to be a “me-too” product lumped in with 30 other companies. If not done correctly, you could end up being thrown into the general data integration, security, or performance management pile. 2 approaches I have seen include defining your own category (aisle) or your own sub-category (shelf). Doing the former is riskier and more expensive (defining a new market is not cheap), while offering the opportunity for outsized returns. More often than not, entrepreneurs with great technology feel like they have to create a distinct new category, and many times they end up creating a market that no one understands or cares about and one in which their dollars come out of the experimental IT budget-not a large bucket or great place to be. It takes time for a new category to become a budget line item. In my opinion, creating a subcategory is easier, gives a company the opportunity to express its uniqueness, allows the sales prospect to understand generally where your product fits in the budget, and still does not prevent you from creating your own category (aisle) in the future. While this may all sound very basic, I would not go pitch a customer or VC without having this nailed down.

Great business model

OK, so times have been tough in the IT market over the last couple of years. Luckily, it is starting to get better. For those of you who understand that selling IT software to enterprises is not easy, I thought you would enjoy this email from one of my portfolio companies regarding differentiation and “secret sauce.”

As X and I have been trekking around Sand Hill Road, and everywhere else venture funds are located, we’ve really paid attention to the issues of differentiation and “secret sauce”. As such, we’ve decided that our company needs a dramatic shift and we have found the answer. We worked on the plan at San Jose airport last night, watching the behavior of customers for this exciting new product. It was reconfirmed this morning as I left Starbucks.

Our company is going to get out of software and information technology completely. No, we are not mad, well, we may be, but that has nothing to do with this discussion. We are going to take the most plentiful resource on the planet, put it in handy plastic bottles and sell it for about $4 per bottle in airports and other convenient locations; but if you choose to buy it from your local grocery store by the case, it will only cost and $4 for a case of either 12 or 24 bottles – purely based on random decision making. This market has been validated by at least 50 other companies, who reap millions of dollars of profit from this market place each month. Our “secret sauce” will be the label – yes, it will be our company name and logo that will differentiate our product from Evian, Vasa, Fiji, San Pelegrino and those many other indistinct brands.

We look for your support at the next board meeting to make this dramatic shift in our company’s strategy!

Please scroll down for some final thoughts!

Can you imagine presenting the idea of bottled water to VC? We of course thought about it after X and I bought two frozen yogurts and 2 bottles of water for $12! Not only wouldn’t we consider drinking airport tap water, we bought bottled water with a name, Vasa, that would make one think it came from Germany – why would I buy water from Germany? I totally cracked up leaving Starbucks (there’s another one!) with my $3.60 non-refillable cup of coffee as I saw a case of water for $3.99 outside a grocery store!

Have a nice weekend everyone!

Linux on the desktop (Continued)

I have written about linux on the desktop in the past (here and here). Today, my partners and I installed the latest version of Xandros 2.0, and I have to admit we were blown away. It installed in about 10-15 minutes with a couple clicks of the mouse, and we had a full working version of a linux desktop which looked and felt like a Windows machine. It partitioned our hard drive so Windows and Linux could run on the same machine (if you really want it to) and allowed the Linux desktop to seamlessly interoperate with my Windows network. The file manager was just like Windows Explorer, and I could easily find, use, and set permissions on my old files. If you have not tried it yet, I encourage you to go to Xandros to buy a copy of the deluxe version ($89). The great news is that we were able to take an old laptop with a P133mhz chip and substantially improve the performance of the machine, extending its useful life. I am definitely going to install this on one of my old laptops at home. What is even more interesting is that with an integrated version of Codeweaver’s Crossover office, you can run many windows-based application seamlessly on your Linux desktop. Unfortunately iTunes does not work yet. Go to the site if you want to learn more about what other applications work. So the Linux desktop is here and much improved, and what is important is that it interoperates with Windows from a networking and management perspective, all very necessary when any enterprise looks at TCO (total cost of ownership). While I do not anticipate huge enterprise adoption this year, I definitely see less barriers to its adoption in the years to come.

Software co-op/software reuse

Lee Gomes from the Wall Street Journal wrote an interesting piece (sorry, not a free site) in his Portals Column about Project Avalanche which is essentially a software co-op for businesses to share their applications and code. Current members include Jostens, BestBuy, and Cargill. According to Lee, the Avalanche Project was started because the founders kept asking themselves the following questions:

“Why were they writing such big checks to their software companies, but getting so little in return? Why were their in-house programming staffs writing the same sorts of custom programs written at thousands of other companies? If Detroit car makers can collaborate on research, why couldn’t U.S. technology users?”

The project is in its early stages but has grand ambitions. One of the founding members discusses what would happen if the group banded together to create their own CRM system or their own Linux-based desktop environment, saving all of the participants lots of dollars on licensing fees. While the idea of software reuse is not new, as developers have talked about this for years, the implementation via a co-op is what’s unique. In addition, most of the other companies or sites that I have seen specialize in sharing snippets of code versus full applications.

If you are interested about software reuse, I encourage you to read up on a company I met with early last year, Artifact Software. Artifact Software has a tool that allows developers to collaborate and create a code sharing community. Its initial target market will be selling to enterprises, allowing their developers to collaborate internally to become more productive. However, its business model is to seed the target market with its tools by allowing users to download its product for free and share code via an open website at www.codejack.com. The website currently lists 33k artifacts of code with over 23k users. Leveraging the open source philosophy, Codejack is not only about searching and finding code, but also about testing, rating, and reviewing code. Other companies to keep an eye on include Component Source and Logic Library which is more enterprise-focused. While developers have been talking about software reuse and its ancillary benefits for years, I have no doubt that given a tough climate for IT spending and the acceptance of open source, that the idea for software reuse and collaborative development will become a big topic again. In the long run, I am sure that the members of Project Avalanche will contribute and develop some interesting software.

Merrill Lynch launches nanotech index

It was just a matter of time before an investment bank launched a nanotech index. During the bubble years we had an index for everything ranging from Internet ad-related companies to Internet commerce companies. Now we have a nanotech index. Is this a sign of another bubble? Well, it is true that nanotech is overhyped now, but I have no doubt that it will one-day be a pervasive technology that will drive growth in alot of industries ranging from materials to semiconductors to health care. Merrill Lynch’s Nanotech Index is an equally weighted index of 25 companies that derive a significant percentage of their future profits from nanotechnology. I encourage you to visit Merrill’s site for a copy of the report. Steve Milunovich, Merrill’s technology strategist, summarized as follows:

Mr. Milunovich noted that there are two significant differences between the Internet and nanotechnology. “Unlike the Internet, significant intellectual property and patents are barriers to entry, and yet barriers to adoption are low.”

Nanotechnology is the science of fabricating things smaller than 100 nanometers. One nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Merrill Lynch believes nanotechnology is the next logical step in miniaturization and that it is only a matter of time before the impact is felt in many industries. “Building at the nano-scale enables new interactions in materials, semiconductors, and biological agents,” said Mr. Milunovich. “The new scale allows manipulation on the cellular level, which should enable new discoveries in pharmaceuticals, biodefense, and many healthcare industries.”

I am not a nanotech guy, but IMHO, I have no doubt that nanotech will be big someday and it is really only a question of when it will happen. While I am not actively pursuing this from a VC perspective now, I am going to track this index for personal interest to get a better understanding of what companies are doing with nanotechnology and how they perform over time.

Update-Rich Skrenta suggests visiting the Topix Nanotech page for those interested in daily updates which are not heavily research oriented.

Thoughts on the Microsoft settlement with Sun

If you are wondering about why Microsoft settled with Sun, I suggest reading David Kirkpatrick’s excellent piece on the deal. In the article, David surmises that the power of the open source movement is really the driver behind the deal.

Open source’s influence is far greater than its current market share in software might suggest. The open-source model increasingly defines what’s possible in technology. What matters now is not where a technology comes from but how it works with everything else. Open-source software can be made to play well with others more readily than any technology we’ve ever seen. Even more than its low price, that’s why companies like it so much—they can modify its guts to their specific requirements.

Right on. This is not a story of free versus paid, but a story of freedom. If you talk to CIOs, you will consistently hear that they favor open systems and architecture, and that they do not want to be a victim of proprietarty vendor lock-in. While Windows still has a larger share of the server pie, what open source is doing is giving the customer choice, which ultimately gives them power, the power to demand interoperability or turn to another non-proprietary solution. Yes, there are other drivers behind the deal but as David points out now Microsoft and Sun can focus efforts to fight a more common enemy, IBM and the open source movement, which threatens their very existence and dependence on proprietary software.

The Street Does Not Forgive

I was with a banker today talking about the influx of new IPO filings and the end result of our discussion was the following:

1. Filing does not mean anything, the companies may never go public
2. Performance is key-revenue visibility is of utmost importance because the street does not forgive

Case in point-if you miss your numbers within the first two quarters after you go public, forget about it. Take a look at Callidus Software which is a provider of Enterprise Incentive Management software systems to global companies, used to model, administer, analyze and report on incentive compensation, or pay-for-performance plans. The company went public in mid-November, hit a high of close to 21 and was recently punished for preannouncing a shortfall in revenue. The stock now trades at $8.34.


Here is what the CEO had to say:

“Callidus Software, like many enterprise software companies, transacts a significant portion of its quarterly business at the end of each quarter,” stated Reed Taussig, president and CEO of Callidus Software. “Our quarterly license revenues are dependent on a relatively small number of large transactions involving sales of our products to customers, and any delay or failure in closing one or more of these transactions could adversely affect our results of operations. In this quarter, we failed to close several transactions due to customers’ merger and acquisition activities. In addition, a number of customers failed to conclude contracts due to their timing or budgetary considerations. We are disappointed with these results. However, we continue to be optimistic about our business, given the potential of the emerging EIM market, our product position, and our strong customer base. We will address second quarter and full year guidance on our planned April conference call.”

So if you want to go public, please make sure you have the visibility in your sales pipeline to hit your numbers the first couple of quarters out of the gate. What this also shows is the enterprise software business is a tough game. It is difficult to sell large licensed software and have real predictability. Salesforce.com will be an interesting company as their hosted, subscription model gives real strong visibility on future quarters. That being said, if you want to go public, you need strong pipeline coverage to make up for potential end of quarter jockeying by potential customers. You need good recurring maintenance revenue. Don’t overpromise on your initial quarters post-IPO, give yourself some cushion to exceed financial expectations. Because if you don’t, the street will not forgive.