Raising capital and meeting expectations

What I like to tell portfolio companies is that on average it will take 6 months to raise capital with some cycles being shorter and some being longer. Given that, it is imperative for a company to start thinking about its next round well ahead of time and the milestones it needs to hit to have the right momentum to get potential investors excited. One area that I would like to caution entrepreneurs is being too aggressive on the milestones and revenue forecast, particularly in the near term.

Let me explain. Like any other VC, I love to invest in companies going after big markets with huge revenue potential. That being said, I also like to see plans grounded in reality as well. Rather than get me excited, showing a revenue ramp from $1mm to $17mm to $65mm will actually do the opposite for me, raising more questions and concerns than general excitement. Along those lines, it is also imperative that when you share your plans with investors that you are pretty confident that you will realize your milestones or hit your numbers in the next 6 months as investors like to see if you can deliver on your promises. One cardinal sin is being overly optimistic in the near term and falling flat on your face in the due diligence process. It is much better to position yourself in a way that you can meet and exceed expectations during the due diligence process than the other way around. When this happens the rest of your forecasts become more believable.

The next generation web – scaling and data mining matters (continued)

I had some interesting meetings yesterday and as I reflected on them this morning, one common theme emerged which is that the next generation of the web will be built on data mining and extracting intelligence from the reams of data web services collect on a daily basis.  This reminds me of a post I made in March of 2006 titled "The Next Generation Web – scaling and data mining will matter" where I mention:

I truly believe the next battleground will be based on scaling the back end and more importantly mining all of that clickstream data to offer a better service to users.  Those that can do it cheaply and effectively will win.  The tools are getting more sophisticated, the data sizes are growing exponentially, and companies don’t want to break the bank nor wait for Godot to deliver results.

My first meeting was with a well known research analyst covering Internet stocks.  While we discussed the usual topics such as how the Internet was taking share from traditional advertising budgets and how the top brand advertisers have not really embraced the web yet, our most lively discussion centered around next generation advertising technology which all centered around increasingly complex forms of data analysis.  To that end, I mentioned one of the fund’s portfolio companies, Peer39, which is using natural language processing and machine learning to create highly precise matching of commercial offers and user generated content.  As you might guess, the secret sauce is the algorithms that the company has created.

Later in the day I had lunch with a friend who we had funded years ago.  What was interesting to hear was how many of the future product lines that we discussed a few years ago were finally starting to emerge as real revenue drivers for the business today.  Years ago the company’s first data center cost around $20mm and the latest one which has orders of magniture more customers cost only $3mm.  Clearly, any data-driven opportunities a few years ago were cost prohibitive in the first place and too early for the customer to understand in the second place.  That was the case because many businesses were just worried about not getting Amazoned and today they are all on the web thinking about how to drive better results.  That is why our discussion led to a massive data warehousing project his company was working on to take all of that data across his huge customer base and to help them better monetize their sites.

What I love about these kinds of opportunities is that algorithms scale, have high gross margins, and are proprietary and defensible.  The next generation web is not about what you click and see but what is happening behind the scenes every time you click on a page and move from site to site.

Old school content has value…again

Every day it seems we are reading about the power of social networking to transform the Internet and how we communicate online and also consume and discover new content.  While that is true and clearly changing the consumption habits of online users, today seems like a flashback to the old school Internet days where traditional content was king.  First IAC announced the acquisition of Lexico Corp which owns dictionary.com, thesaurus.com, and reference.com and then CBS announced the acquisition of CNET.  With $400+ million of revenue in 2007, it seems like a good buy for CBS at a little over 4x trailing revenue.  So looking at the fact that people are recognizing that social networks are not as easy to monetize as previously thought and the understanding that old school content can still be monetized, I wonder what other old school content companies may be in play in the future (can anyone say the Knot.com or the thestreet.com – full disclosure, i bought shares of these companies for my own account during the last couple of months).  Given the weakening ad spending environment and the fact that many of these small public Internet companies reported lower guidance for the rest of 2008, it is clear that now is a good time for strategics to buy and expand their uniques and ad inventory.  As I have always said, when it comes to the web, scale matters!  Also see Silicon Alley Insider for some comments from the CBS conference call regarding scale and the value of premium content:

CNET’s been very disappointing for past few years. What are your strategy for improving CNET revenue growth, margins?

CFO: We think that they have the asssets to do that, they’ve revamped a number of the sites. Combining with us is good because there’s very little overlap with our advertisers (auto, pharma, etc), but CNET audience demo very attractive to our advertisers. And then they reach advertisers (electronics, etc) that we don’t. Other efficiencies: One public co instead of two. Combining some ad platforms, etc.

Given MSFT/YHOO, other consolidation, does this make you big enough on the Web?

Les: We just tripled our digital platform. Are there possibilities to do tuck-ins? But right now, we have taken a major leap forward. We are very happy with the cards we’re holding now.

CFO: We’re now a top 10 Internet company. Could we be a top 5 over time? Sure. But would be through growth, not acquisition.

Les: Remember! Premium content!

Open vs. closed networks and Facebook chat

As you know, I have always been a believer in open standards (see my post from January 2006).  Being a market leader, it is quite easy for Facebook to create their own standard similar to how every other instant messaging network was started.  And to that end, Facebook started down that path.  But just today, it announced that it was extending its chat and opening up its service by offering XMPP/Jabber support.  Assuming there are no restrictions, this is a huge win for openness.  Maybe one day Skype and MySpace and others will adopt the same strategy and move us to a world where we can IM anyone from any network and have one IM identity rather be forced to live in a world that was similar to the dark ages of email where Prodigy, Compuserve, and AOL users could only communicate with users on the same network.  Once Facebook starts with chat, maybe when and if it ever offers VOIP, it would leverage the open SIP standard as well. Rest assured that the development team at portfolio company Gizmo5 is digging into the details of the Facebook annoucement and in short order can offer seamless connectivity to Facebook chat from your mobile phone.  From the day Gizmo5 was started, it was built to live in a world of open standards leveraging the SIP protocol for VOIP and Jabber/XMPP for IM and Presence.  As you might imagine, the smaller networks who needed users were the ones to adopt open standards first.  Slowly but surely, larger and larger networks have adopted these standard starting with Google Chat in 2006 and now Facebook with its dominant market share in social networking.  It seems as if the floodgates are opening and this is quite exciting.  As I mentioned in my post from 2006:

Whatever happens it will be interesting to see if true open standards will triumph over closed and proprietary and how long that will take. At the end of the day consumers don’t care about protocols, they just want it all to work seamlessly and easily, and they do not want to be on their own island for communications.  What I want is one identity or phone number that works on any IM network, VOIP network, or even integrates with my PSTN and cell phone identity?

Nokia-an Internet company???

As I have mentioned before, Nokia is one of the few handset manufacturers to get it (See my post from 2/07 on this).  Nokia understands that hardware margins are eroding and like in many technology businesses the value is in the software and monthly service revenue.  In addition, as time goes by, more and more people will be using their phones and data services to get information and communicate with friends.  Therefore it is no surprise that Nokia announced yesterday that it wants to be more like an Internet company and less like a manufacturing company. 

Our new structure is helping  Nokia to be more integrated as we focus more attention on developing new businesses around Internet services. Over time, it will allow us to be faster and more agile in bringing out new products and services, in serving our operator customers better, and in meeting our customers’ needs in different parts of the world.

Our goal is to act less like a traditional manufacturer, and more like an Internet company.

The other piece that Nokia gets is that if they don’t start offering services on their devices, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo will.  The delicate dance that Nokia is playing is how to fend off the traditional Internet guys while also adding value to its carrier partners.  Despite the fact that Nokia is one of the few companies that sells a significant number of phones direct to the consumer, carriers still matter.  To that end, it will be interesting to see how VOIP plays into this delicate balance.  For more on this, take a look at Michael Robertson’s latest blog post (full disclosure-Dawntreader is an investor in GIzmo5 and I am on the board) on the world’s smallest dual mode wifi phone.  6300iwithball_2 Yes, dual mode wifi means the phone can make VOIP calls over wifi networks.  As MIchael says:

"This is not Nokia’s first wifi phone, but it is significant for several reasons:         

It has a street price of $200-300 (vs $400-900 for previous phones)

    Power utilization has improved so it can do ~3 hrs VoIP calls and ~4 days WLAN standby (historically wifi phones have had awful battery life) It’s Nokia’s first s40 wifi phone (the majority of Nokia’s phones are built with s40 parts so it will be very easy to create many more wifi models)

From my perspective, what is great is that the price point is falling quickly for dual-mode handsets, the battery usage/life is getting better, and manufacturers like Nokia are willing to offer innovative services on them through partners like Gizmo5.  2008 will surely shape up to be an interesting year in the wireless industry.