Cisco raises another $4b in cash and looking for acquisitions

Ashlee Vance from the Bits Blog has a nice piece on why Cisco raised another $4b of cash through a debt offering yesterday even though they have $30b in cash. 

"As word of Cisco’s debt sale hit Wall Street, the standard chatter surrounding possible targets began anew. As usual, companies like EMC, NetApp, Sun Microsystems, Red Hat and BMC were discussed as desirable properties."

Regarding Cisco I have heard the same acquisition rumors.  On the smaller private company side, my two cents would be platform consolidation opportunities in the security space (software that can help tie their disparate security products together), bolstering their Scientific Atlanta acquisition by adding more interactive and ad targeting products for the digital set top box, and tuck-in acquisitions for their EOS or social networking initiative (see CNET article for more on this initiative)

I would love to hear your thoughts on this as well.

Best iPhone Photo App – Phanfare Photon

It is great to see my friend Andrew Erlichson getting some rave reviews for Phanfare Photon, his iPhone photo app.  According to ReadWriteWeb:

"Phanfare's Photon is currently the best photo sharing and photo management app on the iPhone. It is important to note that Photon puts less emphasis on social feature than other services like Radar, which we reviewed last week. Instead, it concentrates mostly on giving you easy access to all of your photos, while also providing you with the option to share them with your friends.

Phanfare's CEO Andrew Erlichson strongly believes that the iPhone and other smartphones will disrupt the traditional point-and-shoot photo camera market in the long run and will allow new players like Apple to get a foot into this market. This app is Phanfare's first step in following the market in this direction by marrying the iPhone's camera feature with a very capable cloud storage and photo sharing service."

I first started using Phanfare in late 2004 and have been a fan since.  Andrew and I go way back as I invested in his first startup, Flashbase, which we subsequently sold to Doubleclick a year later.  As I wrote back in 2004, Andrew believed in the idea of client software which was network enabled and sought to create an iTunes like environment for photos with smart caching and local manipulation of media with smart synching so albums and photos could be viewed from anywhere.  As the online photo sharing market has become more competitive, I have watched Phanfare evolve from a pay only service for sharing photos with small groups to a more wide open version with more community and collaboration.  And now Phanfare has staked its claim in the mobile market with its iPhone app (get it here).  Once again, what I love about the iPhone app is its rich client interface which also has smart caching so my albums and videos can pull up almost instantaneously with limited wait time.  So Andrew's vision of rich network connected clients have moved from the desktop to the next battleground, the mobile handset. As you know, seasoned entrepreneurs know how to be flexible and make course corrections in their business model and distribution strategy as the market evolves. Andrew has clearly done that over the years and it will be interesting to see how his bet on the smartphone market and the iPhone in particular pays off.

Positioning and pitch decks for startups

A friend of mine is putting together his first deck for potential investors.  In typical startup fashion, they launched a product, got a number of users, and then iterated several times to improve the service.  With the product in the hands of tens of thousands of users, they started getting inbound requests from larger organizations who were willing to pay for customized and private group related services.  While Version 2.0 will be released to the greater world in the next 6-8 weeks, you may be interested in what I had to say about the pitch deck. 

IMHO, a great pitch deck is concise (15 slides) and highly focused.  And in the deck I like to see the following points covered (yes, this is my preferred order):

  1. One/Two sentence pitch for company -value proposition (1 slide)
  2. Brief history – founded when, capital raised to date and from whom, capital needed in new round (1 slide)
  3. Who/Team – give me some context of who you are, your backgrounds, success/failures so I can get an idea of your ability to deliver and surround yourself with experienced talent, also include any board members or advisory board members that may be relevant (1 slide)
  4. What's the problem? – too often I see pitches where the entrepreneurs dive right into the product and I scratch my head thinking why in the world we need another lifestreaming service or social network or ad network (1 – 2 slides)
  5. How do you UNIQUELY solve the problem? – solving the problem just like everyone else is not exciting.  You need to show how you solve the problem UNIQUELY and ultimately deliver a 5-10x improvement for the customer in terms of ease of use/functionality and cost.  What this boils down to is your simple product pitch. (1-2 slides)
  6. Product/Tech – make sure to tell me about your secret sauce or core tech that enables you to deliver a unique service – screen shots, overview, etc – could be good time to go into demo in a live meeting (1-2 slides)
  7. Customer traction – is product in hands of customers?  if so, how long in market and share some data on users or beta customers or customers (1-2 slides).
  8. Market size/Competitive Overview – how big is the market and how do you come up with that number – how are you positioned in the market – show graphically maybe by offering or value proposition (this is where you get your typical top right hand corner Gartner like quadrant).  A sin is to tell me you have no competition (1 – 2 slides)
  9. GoToMarket Strategy – how will you grow quickly and in a capital efficient manner?  How will you sell your product – online, direct, or indirect sales?  any potential partners signed or game changing partners that will help you deliver?  (1 slide)
  10. Business/Revenue model – show me that the economics of your business work – note that single digit gross margins will get you thrown out the door pretty quickly (1 slide)
  11. Financials – yes I know for early stage customers it is at best a guesstimate but give me an idea of how this will grow, what the revenue numbers look like over the next 3 years to give me an idea of how the business scales, and ultimately it helps me understand the true cash needs for the business to get to breakeven (1 slide)
  12. The financing round – lay out the dollars you are asking for, how it will be used, and how long the cash will last (1 slide)
  13. Milestones-what milestones have you hit so far and what do you plan on realizing during the next year with the new cash (1 slide)

Ok, pretty basic and that's it.  For those of you have triskaidekaphobia or fear of the number 13, it's ok as it is a lucky number in our house since my wife was born on the 13th.  Anyway, if you cover all of these points the deck should be about 15 pages in length and provide a great overview for potential investors.  One other point that I want to highlight is that how you position your business is key.  Take a look at this post from April 2004 titled What Aisle, What Shelf. You need to make sure that your audience gets where you fit in the ecosystem quickly and how you are different from what else is out there.

UPDATED: One item I forgot to mention: in this world of constant digital bombardment, you must figure out how your product or service becomes a "must-have" versus a "nice-to-have" solution in a customer's daily life.  If you are a "must have" with minimal substitute products then people will clearly pay for what you have.  If you are a "nice to have" in a world of many substitute products even though you may get some usage you will never be able to monetize that base. 

Sundance and a movie about a web pioneer you may have never heard of

My brother-in-law, composer and recent Emmy winner, Ben Decter, is kicking it this week in Sundance while two of his movies Heart of Stone and We Live in Public make the rounds. This summer he and I spoke about We Live in Public and Josh Harris.  It took me a few minutes to remember who he was and meeting him more than a few times while he was out raising capital for one of his many projects, Pseudo.com.

Josh started Jupiter Communications which during the mid-90s was the go-to research firm for market growth numbers for every startup business plan.  As a VC, you couldn't believe them, but it didn't stop every entrepreneur from using the hockey stick projections in their business plans.  Anyway, he went to start Pseudo.com, one of the first production companies for webisodes and streaming media.  In an old New York Magazine article from 1999 Josh proclaimed that ""The potential for a company like Pseudo is to start from a Website and replicate the success of ABC, NBC, or CBS — a long shot but an enormous payoff." He then went on to wire his house with heat sensing cameras so that his and his girlfriend's every move would be streamed live over the Internet."  Anyway, Pseudo.com went under in 2000 and Josh subsequently disappeared in isolation for quite awhile. 

As the writeup for the movie mentions, Josh "proved how in the not-so-distant future of life online, we will willingly trade our privacy for the connection and recognition we all deeply desire.  Through his experiments, including a six-month stint living under 24-hour live surveillance online which led him to mental collapse, he demonstrated the price we will all pay for living in public."  While his predictions were dead on in many respects, it is also quite tragic to see the pain that it inflicts on his own life. Who would have thought how quickly our private lives have become public as we leave a digital trail of ourselves, our loaction, our videos and pictures, and our thoughts all over the web, social networks, and Twitter.  The question we should all ask is where will all of this connectedness leave us 10 years from now.  I hope you enjoy the trailer and more importantly my brother-in-law's music 🙂

Going old school – how to reach people effectively

I had lunch with a friend last week when we were talking about the days years and years ago where it was cool to have an email address on your business card.  In fact, I remember picking attorneys to work on our venture deals in the mid-90s not only based on cost and experience but also based on how digital they were – no AOL email addresses please and if you use IM, then great.  Now I can honestly say that I can be overburdened at times dealing with my email, IMs, sms messages, phone calls, LinkedIn and Facebook messages.  So I must say it was quite refreshing last week when I received a hand delivered note from Robert Samet who runs Madison Search Partners, a well respected boutique search firm for senior level sales searches in the digital media and software sectors.  He, of course, had sent me a few emails before that and also followed up with an email afterwards.  Robert went old school with snail mail and physical communcations and with that got my attention.  Yes this is an old marketing trick but one that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of digital communcation.  I, of course, had to take his call and when we spoke I asked him how his campaign went.  His hit rate was quite high and given his creativity, he is definitely a guy I want to use in the future for a search.  So in this day of constant and immediate communication, physical mail and snail mail can sometimes leave a lasting impression.  As for myself, I actually got some personal stationary last year to send note cards to friends and business contacts when I want to make sure that I deliver a more effective message.

Is 2009 the year of mobile computing?

 As I look around post-holiday season, I am seeing more and more regular, non-technical friends and family get connected on their mobile devices.  What does that mean? A great example is that of my father-in-law who got rid of his old Motorola Startac and exchanged it for an iPhone.  Yes, he got an iPhone, and then days later I got a message to get connected to him on Facebook.  Ever since, he has been using the phone to take pictures nonstop, send emails and SMS messages, stay connected to Facebook, and surf the web looking for the latest news or directions. I last wrote about the iPhone in November 2007 when my wife and her friends started getting iPhones.  Clearly that was just the beginning of a longer term trend for mobile devices to get more powerful, easier to use, and more widely deployed into the market.  Since then, we have the new Google phone, a better Palm device, Blackberrys for consumers, and numerous other devices from Samsung and HTC.

So is this the year that mobile computing becomes mainstream and that mobile software/service companies become a household name?  More importantly, will there be any grand slam venture capital opportunities in wireless?  Through various forms I have been involved from an investment perspective in wireless-related companies since 1996 when I made an investment in a company called AirMedia.  It was way ahead of its time in the sense that it had a hardware device that connected to a paging network to deliver email alerts, stock quotes, and breaking news.  From a business model perspective we had it nailed…or so we thought…buy the hardware device at cost and we would make money back by selling a monthly subscription service.  It raised an additional $30mm of venture capital after we invested and subsequently was long on buzz but short on customer adoption.  I learned a lot from that investment.  The first lesson I learned is that "pioneers get arrows in their backs."  In other words, we were way ahead of the market and were bleeding edge.  Wireless was thought of as the next big thing, but we were way too early and also had to get people to adopt a new device-virtually impossible!  Secondly, I learned that you can't invest in a technology in search of a problem to solve.  It was surely cool stuff but no one really cared and in order to get people to care you had to spend lots of money to define not only a new product but also a new category – the wireless Internet connected device.

Here we are 13 years later and I have seen very few successful wireless pure play software/service related companies.  I wonder if 2009 is the year that some wireless startups breakthrough.  Trust me, I am a big believer in being connected anywhere and anytime but at the same time I am skeptical of how these startups plan to make money.  What is different in 2009 versus 1996 is that we do have a user base, we have some awesome devices that are cheap, powerful, and easy to use, and we have all you can eat service plans with unlimited data.  However the same fundamental challenges still remain as it is still difficult for wireless startups to get their products to the market.  You can either go on-deck through the carrier channel and their walled gardens or off-deck through the web where you will need to have an incredibly viral product or spend lots of money on marketing.  You can also reach users through handset manufacturers like the iPhone marketplace or through Nokia (one of my portfolio companies Gizmo5 is also distributed through Nokia) but in these cases you are either still under one company's complete contrl (Apple) or have to spend incredible amounts of time negotiating with a large company like Nokia.

So even with a huge user base of wireless devices and users, the odds are still stacked against pure-play wireless startups.  If anything, I see wireless as just a natural extension of any web-based product or service.  Take Cisco's Webex as an example.  Even though their users have wanted a mobile app for awhile, they just launched an iPhone app that let's users schedule and join Webex conferences from their device.  Why do we need a pure-play wireless conferencing play if the big guys can easily extend their functionality? So while we read about increased wireless usage it is clear to me that either many folks are still using the lowest common denominator on their devices (taking pictures, sending SMS messages, doing a simple web search) or mostly using the large incumbents' technology like Google Maps or GMail or Yahoo on the Go or Microsoft Search or Facebook.  This is a tough market for startups to break into and while we may see some products get strong adoption out of the gate like a flatulance app on the iPhone, this doesn't mean that these are real businesses.The bottom line is that as more apps become delivered over the cloud, the delineation between a desktop play and wireless one diminishes rapidly unless you are a mobile only location-based service.  Wireless is just a technology and 2009 will be a year where wireless and desktop continue to blur as people only care about what web service they use and always expect to get it from any device over any network.

Cloud computing for SMBs

Cloud this, Cloud that – the word cloud is clearly an overhyped word and reminds me of the beginning of the hype around hosted models and ASPs (application service providers) in the late 90s and the term SAAS today.  Anyway, as I look at announcement after announcement released about cloud computing platforms, one thing is pretty clear to me from an investment perspective.  First, I am not going to invest in the next hot cloud computing infrastructure service that will compete against Amazon, Rackspace, Microsoft, and every other large tech vendor in the world.  This is suicide and far from capital efficient.  Secondly, while everyone looks in the consumer space, I want to look at how software companies can deploy new enterprise-based applications in the cloud, particularly for small/medium sized businesses.  In other words, show me the arms merchants with a recurring revenue model and frictionless sale and I will definitely be interested.

Some of the companies that fit this parameter include Rightscale (founded by Thorsten von Eicken, a cofounder of former portfolio company GoToMyPC) and one that I am looking at in the email archiving and compliance space which has a number of OEM partners reselling its service. Rightscale is an on-ramp to Amazon EC2 and other clouds and provides automate systems management.  It kind of reminds me of a next generation Tivoli or Openview.  The beauty is that the whole sales cycle is quite frictionless and all web-based which means an oppotunity to scale quickly.  There are a number of other recent players I have seen including one for BI in the cloud (not exactly sure what the killer app here is yet) and many others.  Of course the trick here is not to get enamored with the word "cloud" but to really understand the business problem that is being solved and why leveraging a cloud computing platform offers better economics, scale, and competitive advantages.  As I dig deeper into some of these companies, it is clear to me that software purpose-built from the ground up to live in a cloud has a huge advantage since it is hard to retrofit off-the-shelf software to leverage all of the benefits offered by Amazon, Rackspace, and the like.  Secondly, many of the better companies have built some slick tools and services to solve difficult problems like how to make customers feel like they have their own privated, dedicated systems while still keeping costs low.  Finally, from a go-to-market perspective, a number of the companies I have spoken with have not gotten the question of whether or not they could scale as they quickly point to their backend provider and move to the next objection.  So, if you have an application targeted at the SMB market that is taking advantage of cloud economics, please feel free to contact me.

More reasons to watch your burn

Despite these tough times, there are still some bullheaded companies who think they can grow their way out of this mess or find the right M&A partner to bail them out.  I can guarantee you that this is a recipe for disaster.  I was on the phone today with the CEO of one our portfolio companies, and we were joking that we were in unprecedented times since we have been approached by a number of bankers about buying companies that are much larger than us.  So if these bigger private companies are hawking themselves looking for a deal, where does that leave a small startup?

It goes back to my one of my themes about building a business – focus on what you can control and don't try to find a savior by looking at external forces.  What this means is figure out what your core business is and take a scalpel and lop off the areas where you do not see an immediate return on investment.  If you believe you will find a strategic partner to buy you, forget about it because every other private company that has been funded during the last 5 years is trying to do the same.  In addition, I can also promise you that any large or small company looking to buy a startup does not also want to pick up a large burn rate.  Even on a private-private merger, most of these VC-backed companies will do nothing unless the deal is cash flow positive on Day 1.  Do yourself a favor, build an expense line where getting profitable can happen with the cash that you have.  This way you can control your own destiny and also even make yourself a more attractive strategic partner to any company in the future.  One other point for all of those advertising related startups-go find some other revenue streams like becoming a platform for partners via cobranding or hosting fees which scale with usage or find some other premium model because the ad market is drying up and the dollars will flow to some of the larger, more established platforms.

A ray of light in this environment?

I did an interview with Rich Maguire of Datamation last week which he just posted yesterday.  While the markets seemed to get excited for a day about the bank bailout, attention is turning toward an even bigger problem for startups, a potential recession.  The consumer no longer has that ATM called their house and confidence and spending to boot are down.  So what's an entrepreneur to do these days and are there any pockets of opportunity?  Trust me, I am not going to give the party line that it is great to start a company now because, you know what, it really is hard to go out and do that.  However, if you are brave and bold enough to do so, I will tell you that you could be well positioned 18 months from now when the economy does get back into gear.  This market will truly separate out those who are just in it for the money, and those who are out their to build an insanely great product or service.  As for the article from yesterday, here is an excerpt and hope you enjoy.

“We know that whether it’s media consumption, content consumption or even enterprise application, that we’re going to be more and more connected. Speeds on wireless devices will get faster, networks will get faster. Devices will get better. They’ll be more and more to do out there.”

Human activity on the Web creates an explosion of consumer data – every nugget of which is worth something to someone. “Data is everywhere,” Sim says. “Every time you turn on your computer, every click you make, everything you do is a piece of data that’s logged somewhere.”

There’s profit in figuring out “How you take that data and turn it into real information, and use it to sell subscription services, target better from a profiling perspective, etc. So I think the data-driven Web is going to be another opportunity.”

His enthusiasm for the Web, however, doesn’t mean he’ll be funding such Web-centric ventures like Facebook-style sites. We don’t need another Facebook, he points out.

“I think the point is that social networking is weaved into the very existence of all the things we do. You see apps getting weaved into your email. People are getting more and more connected out there, and used to that, because of Facebook.”

This saturation will result in consumer behavior being adapted in large businesses. The potential marriage of social networking and the enterprise has piqued investor interest. “How do you take this social networking and information sharing stuff – the clip and blog and share – is there any opportunity to benefit the enterprise? On a content layer? So I’ve looked at some companies along that spectrum as well.”

Be prudent but don't panic!

The alarm bells are ringing in Silicon Valley and start-up land today with Sequoia Capital and Ron Conway telling companies to prepare for the economic meltdown and to raise cash by cutting their burn.  This is not new news as being in New York we started to feel the real economic impact in mid-September as Lehman melted down and as Merrill Lynch was bailed out by Bank of America.  This is all prescient advice and something I have been espousing to my portfolio companies for awhile – see my last post from mid-September on Doing More with Less, a mantra that all startups should live by.  All that being said, it is not time to hit the panic button.  Don’t go out and fire everyone wholesale and skinny down just because everyone else is. Do it because it is right for your business and because all of your leading indicators tell you to do so.  Do it the right way by not making a 20% cut across the board but by thoughtfully thinking about your business, your priorities, and where you need to focus your capital and resources to grow your revenue but conserve cash.

The good news is that many companies I have seen have learned their lessons from the last bubble bursting and rather than subscribe to the "if you build it they will come" model have turned towards the "release early and release often" model of gaining customer traction sooner rather than later and at much lower costs than before.  As I look at the current landscape, obvious areas of concern are any companies with high fixed costs and heavily reliant on direct sales whether it be advertising related or enterprise related.  It is clear that for these big ticket sales that many corporations are in the mantra of doing nothing rather than doing something and that startups should adjust their budgets accordingly to reflect this reality.  For those companies that live by the frictionless sales model and that are capital efficient with a low fixed cost base, take another hard look at your organization and priorities and haircut unneccessary expenses.  Once you do all of that and feel that you have 18+months of runway, look on the positive side as there will be many great people on the market.  Yes, cash is king and if you have it and conserve it, there will be some phenomenal opportunities to pick up some great talent.