Startups and Intellectual Property (IP)

Lately questions about Intellectual Property or IP have been cropping up left and right.  Eliot Durbin (my partner at BOLDstart Ventures) and I had a long discussion this morning in preparation for his panel today about IP and patents.  Last week, we met with a company and when we asked about their core IP, they launched into a 5 minute discussion about the various patents they filed.  Do startups really think patents are going to make or break their business?  Yes, having core tech or IP matters but patents are a different question altogether.  Your best protection is continuing to focus on building your business, your product, and getting market share.  So what is my and BOLDstart’s stance on IP and startups.

1. We look at the team and the product and market first

2. We like to think that all of our investments have IP.

3. IP does not mean patent.  IP in our mind is your “secret sauce” for doing what you do better, cheaper, and faster than anyone else. Its great if you filed for a patent but that is a long process taking 18-24 months and by the time you get a patent the market opportunity may have already passed you.  Focus on building your product and market share, not on patents.  That is your best protection and competitive advantage.  Waiting for the patent office to tell you that you have a patent is a nice to have, not a must have.

4. Even if you have a patent, it takes tons of time and shitloads of dollars to defend.  Trust me, I’ve been there, and it seems to me that the only person making money in these cases are lawyers.  In addition when defending patents you will inevitably fight with the big boys with billion dollar balance sheets so that is not a place to spend your time and money.

5. Don’t start a company where there is already a patent battle brewing like email on phones.  We are looking for innovations, the next big thing, not yesterday’s way of doing it.

Hopefully that gives you a good perspective on our view on IP, patents, and startups.

What entrepreneurs can learn from Jeff Spicoli you don't have to have all of the answers

I know I may be dating myself here, but over the past few weeks I couldn’t help but think about the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High and one of the standout characters, Jeff Spicoli.  When asked by Mr. Hand, his teacher, why he keeps coming late and wasting his time, Spicoli answers, “I don’t know.”

 

In several meetings with entrepreneurs during the past few weeks, they would have been better off answering like Spicoli rather than giving me some hollow bull shit answer.  I want to make it very clear that I don't expect entrepreneurs to have all of the answers to my questions.  In fact, many questions I have may not have an answer today so "I don't know" will be your best answer. My one caveat is that the "I don't know" is followed by a how might you figure out the answer or a when might you figure it out.  This line of questioning is really just another way to test how you think and determine how our working relationship might be were I to invest.  I would rather have the honest "I don't know but I'll figure it out" then a made-up answer that will never allow you or your investors to really understand what is driving your business.

Never give up but move on quickly startups are tough, you always have to keep fighting

As a young kid, I was always taught the valuable lesson of never giving up or quitting.  No matter how many times you get knocked down, you have to stand up and keep moving.  That is the same trait that I also admire in many of the entrepreneurs that I have funded over the years.  This mentality is what carries many great entrepreneurs from near death experiences to ultimate success.  However, I do caution that entrepreneurs should temper this “never give up” attitude with a “move on quickly” one as well.

Let me explain.  Many entrepreneurs will take this same “never give up” attitude with the sales process or raising financing.  On the one hand this attitude is what is absolutely necessary to get things done but on the other hand it can be quite detrimental.  What entrepreneurs need to do is learn how to qualify their leads and to do it quickly.  The worst outcome for an entrepreneur i to spend countless cycles on trying to close a deal that is not closable or spending way to much time on a lead only to end up giving away the farm to make it happen.  Never giving up may actually prevent you from finding the next great customer or funder.  I have seen this time and time again from many companies and what is problematic is that time is precious for a startup.  You only have so much time to hit your milestones so use it wisely.  When you are meeting with potential prospects make sure to qualify them in  the first meeting and understand if they really do have a need for what you are selling, the decision making process, the timeframe in which a decision is made, and ultimately the potential budget.  If the information does not meet your needs, move on quickly.  You can take your “never give up” attitude by trying to qualify as many prospects as possible rather than “never giving up” on one or two.

Startups getting caught in No Man’s Land stuck between seed and series a funding

“No Man’s Land” is traditionally known as the area between two trenches.  This is a reference to World War I and the vicious trench warfare and hand-to-hand combat that characterized that war. In “No Man’s Land” lay a wasteland of dead bodies and other debris and shrapnel.  Increasingly I am seeing many startups who were ably seed funded get caught in “No Man’s Land” between the seed round and a true Series A round led by a venture capitalist.

This is happening because there are way too many companies raising seed capital but not enough executing their way to a Series A.  This can happen for many reasons including not raising enough capital in the seed round to begin with and of course not getting your product out the door.  So what does an entrepreneur do when caught in this predicament?  Many try to do an additional seed round or add-on to the prior round.  While not a bad idea, this is rarely successful because many seed funded startups have way too many investors who are more apt to write off the investment then to bridge more seed money.  Secondly many angel investors would rather invest in that shiny new car or first seed round then add more capital to a used car or startup that did not “get there” on its first seed financing.  Smarter entrepreneurs are increasingly doing two things to make sure they don’t caught in “No Man’s Land.”  First, rather than getting 20 great names as seed investors, they are making sure to get at least 3/4 or more of the round invested by a couple institutional seed folks that may have deeper pockets and more ownership in the startup to really care about what happens in the future.  Secondly, the smarter entrepreneurs are really thinking carefully about what milestones need to be hit to raise that first Series A round and work backwards to determine how much financing they need to get there.  While not an exact science, it is imperative to think like this as you don’t want to be one of the many seed-funded companies that will linger in “No Man’s Land.”

The New York Startup Market Rocks and is REAL NYC becoming a gotomarket for startups

OK, I may be biased having been an early stage VC based out of New York since 1996, but I must say that the vibe, energy, and people at the Techstars NYC Demo Day event yesterday was simply awesome.  Dave Tisch and team simply did a fantastic job guiding the startups, recruiting the mentors, and organizing the event.  I was quite honored to have been a mentor and to have had a chance to interact with so many high quality teams.  The audience was awesome as well bringing together many rock stars of the past with those of the future.  In addition, over 750 investors came in from all over including London, California, Boston, and DC to network and participate.

Rather than go in-depth on each Techstar company like Alyson Shontell or Ryan Kim already have, I wanted to highlight some overarching thoughts on the NYC market having been an investor here for over 15 years.  As mentioned above, what I loved most about yesterday was not only catching up with many new friends, but also many old ones who were an integral part of NYC 1.0.  Besides talking about the interesting pivots that many of the Techstars companies took during their 3 month program, many of us simply could not resist talking about how the energy was similar to the mid-90s but why this felt different.  In fact, I would liken the 90’s Silicon Alley scene as one of discovery but also one where you could argue that the “Emperor had no clothes” meaning that there were lots of great entrepreneurs and startups but no real lasting value created.  Look, New York had to start from scratch but 15 years later what makes this different is that we can see a much better result-the same energy combined with real operating and entrepreneurial chops, real succceses and failures, real IPOs and multi-hundred million dollar exits, and a focus on the entrepreneur and product, not on the spreadsheet. So why will this be different this time around:

1. Stronger Ecosystem-accelerators like Techstars, DreamIt, and NYCseedstart have real entrepreneurs and VCs with real experience advising these startups – the pivot and changes from many of these startups from DemoDay was quite impressive and evidence of a stronger ecosystem

2.Real technical experience-what everyone of these startups had in-common was a strong core team of technical founders, rather than business folks outsouring development.  And with that, it was clear to see how much these startups could accomplish with so little capital and just sweat equity.  These entrepreneurs understand the concept of lean startup and as opposed to entrepreneurs of the past who hailed from big media/ad agencies/big companies, this new generation of startups starts with the tech guys, the way it should be.

3. Financial support system-now you have Angels and VCs who get it.  I remember the number 1 complaint in the mid-90s, New York VCs don’t get it.  They are risk-averse and spend too much time on spreadsheets analyzing the nth detail on a financial model instead of focusing on the talent and product/market.  15 years later, we have many Angels who are former entrepreneurs and many VCs who get it that are in NYC.  Add VCs from Boston and CA and elsewhere and you have quite an experienced plethora of investors to work with.

The next inevitable question from this rah rah post will clearly be is this a bubble where yesterday further showed the frothiness of the market?  I can’t comment on the public markets but what I can tell you is how these Techstars companies raise capital and at what valuations and timeframe will surely provide us with some leading indicators.  Hopefully they all get funded but I also hope that these entrepreneurs maintain their confident yet humble approach to building their business the right way and not get too caught up in chasing the highest valuation they can get.  All in all, what a great day yesterday and I hope to see many more awesome startups build real businesses out of the New York area. Regardless of what happens, we now have a history of failures and successes which means that we all have more experience to help guide us as we continue to move forward to solidifying NYC as a go-to place for startup activity.

Reflecting on passed investments important to look back and discover patterns on your decision making

Every 3 months I dig through my “passed company” folder to look at what investment opportunities we passed on and why.  Inevitably, there are a few companies that are near-misses, but we end up passing on for whatever reason.  Did we pass because we didn’t think the team was great or because we didn’t believe that they could get a product launched?  Did we pass because of lack of traction in the beta release or because of concerns on valuation?  Looking at my “passed company” folder gives me an opportunity to test our reasons on passing and to see 3 months later if the entrepreneurs could actually execute or prove our concerns wrong.

While many times I find doing this reflection further confirms our reasons for passing, I also find myself from time-to-time sending up a follow up note to check in on these near-misses or doing a quick Google search to see how the company has progressed since our last communication.  Inevitably, there will be a few that “got away” and seem to be doing quite well.  No one is perfect and looking back every quarter gives me an opportunity to better hone my investing acumen and further refine my understanding on what separates a potential winner from a loser.  Many times we are so busy that we can only look forward to the next new thing or next hot deal, but I encourage you to occasionally take a step back, look in the rear-view mirror, and learn from your past history.  I promise you that this reflection will only make you a better investor in the long run.

Know When to Hold ’em, Know When to Fold ’em need to be honest with yourself on company status

I had a tough call with an entrepreneur this morning.  His company raised a fair amount of seed financing but did not hit the milestones it needed to in order to raise a real round of venture capital.  The product is nice but they took too long iterating and releasing a subsequent version while the market around it moved much quicker.  In the process, the company ramped up too quickly before it knew exactly what the core value proposition was and to whom.  Net net, the entrepreneur was left with a few choices: skinny the company down and try to get to breakeven, look to existing Angel investors for a bridge, shut the company down, or try to sell the business.  I am not going to go through each one of the above decision trees in this post, but given the market dynamics today and the overflow of angel funding, I am sure that this is a conversation that many an angel and entrepreneur are having right now.  Net net, way too many companies have received angel funding and many of these companies will not raise subsequent rounds of funding.

That is ok as that is how markets work.  If you are in this position, all I can say is don’t give up but also be honest with yourself and team.  Assess your strengths and weaknesses, dive into the market and opportunity, and be as lean as possible to give you as much time to get to where you want to go.  If you decide to fight through it and pivot and have the support of your existing investor base then great.  Many companies have been successful that way.  If you decide it is time to move on and capture whatever value you can for the assets then great as well.  Just make sure that you have this conversation with your investors earlier rather than later to ensure you have enough time to execute on the new path. In the end, this process is not unlike what The Gambler from  Kenny Rogers song had to go through at the table.

You got to know when to hold `em, know when to fold `em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you`re sittin` at the table.
There`ll be time enough for countin` when the dealin`s done.

 

Put your users first! focus on an amazing customer experience before all else

As a VC who invests in seed and first rounds, I love revenue just as much as the next guy.  However, the focus on revenue should play second fiddle to a user/customer first experience.  Over the years, how many times have we seen companies grow from next to nothing in user base and somehow forget why they got there in the first place?  Yes, the answer is because they made an insanely great product or service that catered to their users.  Over time they then figured out how to generate revenue without destroying the delicate balance of putting the user first but generating revenue for the business.  In an article in the NY Times yesterday, there is a great quote from the MySpace founder, Chris DeWolfe:

“The paradox in business, especially at a public company, is, ‘When do you focus on growth, and when do you focus on money?’ ” said Mr. DeWolfe. “We focused on money and Facebook focused on growing the user base and user experience.”

This a question that we constantly struggled with at Answers.com years ago and now have found to have struck the right balance.  I remember some of the management and board meetings where we would all intensely debate whether to add an extra advertisement or not on a certain page and how that would impact the user experience vs the revenue line.  While this sounds like minutiae and too much detail, I would argue that if you don’t have this debate internally that you may be tilted too far in one direction.  In the end user experience won, the page views continued to grow, and consequently revenue improved significantly.  Over my 15 years of investing, it is pretty clear to me that the users are in control, keep them happy, and they will come back for more!

2 horse race in mobile – iphone and android android is going to blow past ios

I just caught this blog post from Seth Weintraub from Fortune on Android:

Andy Rubin just Tweeted that Google (GOOG) is activating 300,000 phones a day. That passes Apple’s (AAPL) iOS, that passes Blackberry (RIMM). That even matches any figures that Symbian has ever put up. Google is closing in on an astounding 10 million phones per month. Recall that Apple just had its biggest quarter ever with 14.1 million iPhones sold

It is no secret why every mobile company I have seed funded through BOLDstart Ventures is either already on the Android platform or soon will be.  This whole battle of licensing the OS vs. maintaining control of the full ecosystem from OS to hardware reminds me of the early days of Microsoft and Apple.  We all know who won back then – Apple had the best damn product but Microsoft had more distribution.  I am not saying it will play out the same way but looking at the early numbers it is pretty clear that the Android OS will eventually be in more hands.

This brings me to another point.  Right now we are looking mostly at consumers but what about the enterprises?  RIMM is still the dominant player in large enterprises like banks, etc but as well know RIMM does not have a fighting chance.  Smartphones are entering the workforce and enterprise whether IT likes it or not so how best to deal with it?  Will Apple or Google focus their efforts here?  I just made an investment in a stealth company that solves this problem for Android.  By downloading an app, a user can now run another instance of Android on their device which is secure and can be managed through the cloud by IT with various policies.  Think of it as a virtual machine running on the handset.  This can be great for corporate as now their employees can buy their own Android smartphones, use it personally, but also live within the confines of IT policy by simply clicking on the App and entering work mode, for example.  More to come on this in the future.  Why not start with the iPhone?  Well Apple’s strict policies for applications prevented the company from doing so.  Either way, this will be a great battle to watch in the future.

Standard investor update for startups great starting point on how to communicate with your investors

I remember when we hired a new CEO for one of our portfolio companies and my tip to him was to overcommunicate.  We had a few large VCs on the board and a number of high-profile angels that could also help in various ways.  His job was to keep everyone up-to-date but also to know how to get help when he needed it and from whom.  Given today’s excitement over seed investing it is not uncommon for many of today’s entrepreneurs to have 5-15 investors in any given round.  How you effectively communicate with your investors is an important priority that if done right will give you major value add while also not taking too much of your time.

In order to help our new CEO, I reached out to all of the other investors, and we all agreed that if we all spoke to him a few days a week about the same information that he would not have time to run his business.  In addition, this would be redundant for the CEO since most investors were asking for the same basic information.  In the spirit of streamlining information flow, we worked with the CEO to put together a weekly email to provide us with the key metrics the company tracked along with departmental updates on key high priority projects.  We weren’t asking the company to create something they shouldn’t already have (key metrics, departmental priorities, cash balance) but rather we just wanted the data shared on a timely basis.  Over time, we all found that when we did speak with the management team that we did not have to spend a half hour gathering information but rather we could get right to the point and actually discuss the whys or hows on certain sales numbers, metrics, or prospects.  In the end, we were all much happier and more productive since we had the same baseline of information and could focus our energy on productive and deeper conversation on the business stategy rather than gathering basic data.

Over the last 6 months I have made a number of seed investments and have shared the following company update with them. Each CEO has had their own minor tweak but this should give you a sense of what investors may be looking for and how it can help you streamline your communication and focus on how to extract value from your many investors.  If you choose to update weekly then obviously it will most likely be a shorter piece with maybe only the cash burned and current cash on hand as the financials.  If you choose to send out a report monthly then it may be more like the form I have uploaded on docstoc.

One other important note I forgot to highlight is that since many companies I invest in are web-based and therefore many of them have real-time metrics I can track.  Michael Robertson who started Mp3.com and Gizmo5 (sold to Google Voice) had one of the best real-time dashboards for tracking his business.  I could see number of downloads, minutes used, new paying customers, etc. whenever i wanted to by logging into the system.  Other companies have created an investor wiki or use status.net (full disclosure-a BOLDstart seed investment) or other communication platforms for investors to share ideas and information.  I only imagine this will even get only better in the future.

Anyway, enjoy and I hope to hear some feedback on what is missing or what may be too much information.