Day 1 is about over and after having sat through a number of interesting pitches, it is funny to hear the PR folks saying that many of the journalists are more interested in consumer/web-oriented companies than the enterprise-related businesses. Has the pendulum swung back to the consumer and web? It seems to me that home entertainment, wifi networks, and blogging are all the rage these days. And yes, they are hotbeds of innovation. Recently enough, the idea of VCs getting excited about the web/consumer area was contrarian, and now I am sensing it is not that way anymore. OK-I loved alot of the discussion in the morning and the agile enteprise afternoon session wasn’t as enlightening as I hoped, but there were definitely some interesting companies that presented. One is Metapa (full disclosure-a portfolio company) which is bringing the power of commodity computing (Lintel) to the data warehousing market allowing companies to realize 10-50x price performance over the standard Teradata, Oracle, IBM and Unix $1mm+ systems. Another interesting company was IMlogic which has a platform to allow you to integrate existing enterprise applications with IM.
I am at Demo 2004, and it is great to feel the positive buzz in the room. There are lots of VCs and press in attendance, and it is clear that entrepreneurship is alive and kicking. In fact, it never went away as a number of companies that presented in the morning have been around for a few years. Hopefully, I will get a chance to post on some interesting companies and technologies that I see but for now please stay on top of Demo through Jeff Nolan’s Day 1 posts.
While tapping the growth of the Chinese market sounds like a good idea, a fellow VC who just got back from a trip to Beijing and Shanghai says he completely understands why his companies are not getting any real traction in that market. Besides the highly politicized nature of business, there is a pervasive “catch me if you can” philosophy inherent in the economy. Think about it-moving from a world where the state owned all enterprises to a hybrid form of capitalism is not easy. In the past, it was always the people versus the government, and therefore there was little respect for financial instruments like debt. It did not matter if you defaulted because you would be bailed out anyway. Extend this same thinking on debt into the private market, and you get a system that does not function well. Therefore alot of business is done cash on delivery as business credit does not exist. Throw in lax IP laws and the fact that China is thousands of miles away from the US and you get a difficult market to operate your business. So the next time someone tells you that they will get x% of the market in China, remember how difficult it really is to operate in a far away land with different rules of engagement in the business world. This will obviously get better with time.
Fred Wilson has a great post about building a “customer-obsessed company” as opposed to a “technology-obsessed company.” This is good advice and reminds me of a number of companies built during the bubble period which were technology companies in search of a problem to solve. For early stage companies building their business, some of Fred’s advice includes investing “in the customer facing side of the business and in particular account management and customer service which are the “eyes and ears” of the organization and in product management (the “soul” of the organization) to synthesize this feedback into new and better products.” One important point when working with customers is to make sure that you do not support too many “one-off” requests. You must be extremely careful to make sure that the features and fuctionality that you build are “market-driven” meaning a number of customers or prospects support them versus one-off deliverables.
I was just at a board strategy session with one of our new investments where we are in the process of ramping up the business. As we reviewed the 2004 budget and dove into the technology department and product deliverables for the year, it was clear that the developers were getting pulled into many different directions. This is a common problem. Many companies that bootstrap their businesses tend to have developers acting as presales support, post sales support, and customer service. Every second a developer is out helping with a customer is a second not focused on advancing the product. Every second a developer is coding is time not spent answering customer support issues. As you ramp, this is not an ideal solution. So our recommendation was to make sure that the company created a separate presales group/sales engineering group to work with the sales team and to make the investment now to create a separate customer service organization to build for the future. As Fred mentions, too many companies overlook the customer support side of the business. Many times, putting the right customer support processes and organization in place early can mean the difference between success and failure.
And yes, product management is an incredibly important role to fill early on in a company’s life. This function should serve as the intermediary between market and customer requirements and engineering. If you have someone too close to sales performing this function, you may end up with a focus on short-term results where too many one-off requests are made to just close a deal. If your engineering handles this, you may end up with an over-engineered product that does not meet customer needs. Your product person should be in marketing with significant experience balancing the short-term and long-term needs of the various stakeholders. This includes gathering data from customers (direct meetings, customer support, sales team), prospects, analysts (yes it is a necessary evil), and your own team to prioritize the product “must-haves” for the next release.
Many of you have heard the analogy that the VC due diligence process is like dating and getting the investment is akin to being married. For all of you in relationships, you also understand that honest and open communication is one of the keys to success. Similarly, the VC and entrepreneur relationship should be built on the same foundation. Trust me, I know when one of my portfolio companies closes a new and important deal because good news always travels fast. However, bad news does not travel so fast. I urge the entrepreneur to share the bad news just as quickly as the good news. Why? If you tell the VC sooner rather than later, we can help. If you have an experienced VC as an investor, you can bet that he has seen the movie before and at the very least can offer advice and words of wisdom to help you in your decision making process. If you wait for the board meeting, it is too late for us to have any impact. Secondly, VCs don’t like surprises. Err on the side of too much communication initially than too little. Sure, we won’t be happy with bad news. We’re even unhappier about bad news when we are told at the 11th hour with no ability to influence the decision. You can tell alot about your VC by his demeanor when confronted with tough and unexpected negative situations. In fact, in your investment process, ask yourself this question, “When things are going bad, is he going to roll up his sleeves and help or simply yell and bark orders.” As Clint Eastwood said in the movie The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, “There are two kinds of people in this world. Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.” Hopefully, you won’t have the VC with the loaded gun, but rather the one who will pull out a shovel and help.
I was quite frustrated recently when one of my portfolio companies presented the board with a 2004 revenue forecast which was not based on reality. While I am not a sales expert or spreadsheet jockey, there are 2 important factors to consider when building a sales forecast-ground it in reality and use a handful of simple assumptions so you can manage your key resources, people and cash, appropriately. Yes, there is always a mysterious aura about forecasting sales, and it is alot of art, but to the extent you can bring some science and process into it, the better off you are. Many companies subscribe to certain methodologies to better quantify a sales pipeline such as Solution Selling or Targeted Account Selling. What I do not like are percentage closing numbers randomly assigned to prospects where a number like 80% probability of closing has no defined criteria and differs deal by deal based on feel. Here are a few simple assumptions I like to see that drive the sales forecast:
1. Number of sales people
2. Quota per sales person (usually overassign 10-15%)
3. Average Selling Price (ASP)-in today’s market, you may see a small pilot deal followed 3 months later with a much larger sale (model this appropriately). If you take 2/3, you get an approximate # of deals you expect each sales person to close annually
4. Sales cycle-how long does it take to close a deal
5. Time for a sales person to be productive (usually around 4-6 months depending on maturity of product and market)
6. Lead generation-how many new leads per month and what % becomes qualified leads
Too many assumptions and drivers in a model make it too complicated and too hard to use as a management tool. It should be easy for you to add a sales person, change the ASP, etc. and see how it impacts your sales. To ground it in reality, I like to take a step back from the bottom-up approach listed above and take a top-down view. For example, does this company have the resources to go from $1m to $4mm of revenue or from $5mm to $10mm? Is the market ready for this? Where will it get the leads? Is a $2mm quota for a missionary sale and market realistic based on past history, looking at other markets, and using public company comparables?
One experienced VP of Sales told me that he likes to have a 3-4:1 coverage in his pipeline of 80% and above deals going into a quarter. Of course, the definition of 80% depends on what sales methodology you use, but the point is you should have quantifiable criteria where 80% could be defined as deals where you have had multiple meetings, identified a real pain and a decision maker and a budget, defined a decision making process, and feel a strong probability of closing by the end of the quarter. That way, if a potential customer delays a purchase for whatever reason, you have 2-3 others that could potentially replace it. In addition, you have some good visibility for the next quarter. While many early stage companies rarely achieve pipeline coverage like that, the important point is to run the numbers and ground them in reality. Also, be realistic and harsh about your pipeline. Throw out the garbage, the deals that have just hung around for a long time and have no momentum.
More often than not, management teams tend to put an overoptimistic pipeline in front of the board thinking a larger pipeline is better. I would rather have a higher quality, filtered pipeline that is well scrubbed than a larger pipeline with no meaningful criteria to move deals along in the sales process. With the former, we all have a real tool that can help us better manage our resources.
Besides taking a brief time out to celebrate the Expertcity deal, I have spent a fair amount of time interviewing VP candidates for one of my portfolio companies. As with any smart executive who cares about the value of equity, the question I am often asked is, “What is your exit strategy.” My answer is quite simple-every company we invest in must have IPO potential (IPO potential as defined by non-bubble metrics) but along the way if someone makes an offer for the company because it is an attractive, rapid growth business, we can evaluate it appropriately. What we will not do is invest for the sole purpose of having a company acquired. That is a losing proposition. The ultimate way to create value is to have a real business with real cash flow and a strong balance sheet where you can show your potential acquirer that you do not need any other sources of funding besides self-sustaining growth. VMWare certainly used this approach when it decided to sell to EMC. You have to be able to show your potential acquirer that they are not the only way to create liquidity for your business.
Companies are bought and not sold. What I mean by that is good exits usually happen when someone tries to buy your company rather than you trying to sell your company. In other words, these good exits usually happen when your company is approached by a potential buyer-i.e., you are seen as desirable in someone else’s eyes rather than you telling someone how pretty you are. Typically, these types of exits result from already existing, revenue-generating business relationships. It is not that big of a leap for an aquirer to make an acquisition offer on the higher end of a valuation range knowing how its partner does business, how the management teams work together, and how the product sells through to its customers. Other times it can happen when your company consistently beats out a competitor in the market and is seen as a thorn in the side. In either case, your company is a known quantity and the potential acquirer has seen you perform in the market.
What does this all mean? My advice to entrepreneurs and management is quite simple: if you focus on what you can control (growing and managing your business), then the external factors (exit strategy) will take care of itself. However, if you try to force it and shop your company, that shows a sign of weakness and more often than not will result in a fire sale. Remember, companies are bought and not sold. If you do not get the price you want, it will not matter since you have a business built for the long-term. For a strong, well manged company, opportunities will always present themselves.
Om Malik (ex-senior writer for Red Herring) has been writing about the commoditization of hardware. In a recent article in Business 2.0 titled “The Rise of the Instant Company,” Om talks about how hardware has become commoditized to the point where hardware expense as a cost of goods sold is de minimis. In other words, companies can now cobble together off-the-shelf-hardware with proprietary software to create companies that can quickly and cost-effectively go after large incumbents. This is a great point and what it comes down to is that software companies can now “package” themselves as hardware plays and successfully leverage the hardware channel from a sales perspective. This is quite attractive from a VC perspective because now we get the opportunity to invest in business that can grow rapidly like a hardware play at software like gross margins (depending on price point 65-85%).
Given this backdrop, I believe that we will see 3 types of software companies in the future. The first will be companies selling expensive applications which will rely on extensive professional services to install and customize. This is the market dominated and characterized by large companies like SAP, Siebel, Peoplesoft and their ancillary professional services partners like Accenture, IBM Global Services, and other consulting companies. The second will be companies that will sell their software as a service (ASP model). These are companies like Salesforce.com, Liveperson, and Expertcity (LPSN and Expertcity are both fund investments) which took the above market segment and made it really easy for customers to buy and in effect, removing the complexity of managing and installing the software. Finally, there will be software companies that have a componentized product that is easy to install which can and may be packaged into an appliance to leverage the channel sales model. This could mean that companies are selling their own appliance or OEMing their software to hardware vendors who in turn sell an appliance. Companies like Neoteris and Network Appliance fit this model. From a venture perspective, the sofware companies that are most interesting to me are the ones with ASP and appliance offerings. In this posting, I would like to focus on software packaged as an appliance.
While the average selling prices for companies that leverage the channel are much lower than pure, direct enterprise sales, I like the fact that these types of companies can utilize a seed and harvest model. In the seed and harvest model, companies that have lower price points can seed a number of customers with a low, entry price product and go back to them later to harvest accounts to sell multiple instances of the product. While the initial sale may not be $1mm upfront, you may be able to get $1mm in the life of a deal. The benefit for the software company is hopefully a shorter sales cycle (it is easier to get sign off for $50k vs. $500k) and the ability to leverage other people’s feet to sell your product.
From a VC perspective, I like to see companies which can leverage other people’s sales forces to grow. Yes, your company will give up some points in margin and also lose some control over customer relationships, but will hopefully make up for it in terms of more volume. For early stage companies, it is already quite difficult and expensive to sell into Fortune 1000 accounts. Many of the companies under the first model (pure enterprise license sales) need expensive direct sales forces which sell high-priced products which have long sales cycles. If the price point of your product is not high enough, then there is little likelihood of you ever building a real, profitable software company from direct sales alone. In addition, if you want to get the excitement and interest of service providers like IBM Global Services and Accenture, you better be able to drive $10s of millions of dollars of service revenue.
Just to be clear, I am not saying that software companies do not need direct sales forces as it is incredibly important in a company’s early phase of development to own the customer relationship and gain valuable feedback about its product. In fact, no matter what kind of software company you aim to be, you need to have customers to get channel partners, know what it is like to sell to an end customer, and successfully manage an end customer in order to train your channel and OEM partners. Therefore, most companies will require some form of direct sales force to begin with, but over time, I like to see the mix of revenue moving towards greater than 50% into the channel and OEM model. What this means, at least for me, is that selling $1mm software licenses with 3-6 month installation processes is not interesting and has gone the way of the dinosaur from an attractiveness perspective in terms of funding. The fact that hardware has become commoditized has really opened up new ways of selling software and building companies, ways that can be quite attractive for both entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.
Jeff Nolan from SAP Ventures has some interesting insights on building sales teams. One other I would add is pay commissions when you get paid.
Yesterday I participated on a panel at the Mid Atlantic Venture Conference on the current venture capital market and how to raise capital. While this was a plain-vanilla panel about venture investing, there was one theme that was echoed by a number of my fellow panelists from Rho Ventures, New Venture Partners, Edison Ventures, and Cross Atlantic-today’s world requires software companies to have a capital-efficient business model. What is a capital-efficient business model and why does it make sense? From my perspective, a capital-efficicent model is one that allows a company to use as little cash as possible to generate significant growth and become self-sustaining and profitable. Growth at all costs without profitability does not get you there and neither does profitability with no growth. Finding the right balance is important. Given this backdrop, the real question is how does today’s VC generate a 10x return? Yes, that is easier said than done, but let me walk you through why it is imperative for VC investors today. During the bubble years, a $500mm to $1b exit for a software company was not uncommon. A bad deal for a VC was a $100mm sale. However, many of the software companies during the bubble years required $50mm or more to create meaningful exit value, and in many cases the companies were still not profitable. Today and into the future, I believe we will return to a sense of normalcy where a great exit for a venture investor will mean $100-200mm of value. If it takes $50mm or more to get there you are talking about a 2-4x multiple for a GREAT deal. That is not terribly exciting. A capital efficient software model should only require $20-25mm to get to profitability. With those numbers a VC could earn 4-10x their investment, even at today’s reduced values. Given my perspective on what ultimate exit values will be, it will serve the entrepreneur and venture investor well to do as much as they can with as little capital. This is doable-looking at history, Peoplesoft only raised $10mm of venture funding, Documentum raised $13.5, and Veritas raised $6mm. This does not mean skimping on growth, but it requires companies to:
1. Focus on getting product into the hands of its customers earlier rather than later-do not build the perfect product (see an earlier post);
2. Grow carefully-do not ramp personnel too far in advance of revenue;
3. Leverage offshore resources where appropriate;
4. Leverage reseller and OEM relationships (direct sales is way too expensive).
Each bullet point above deserves its own lengthy discussion, and I hope to address some of these in future postings. The impact this will have on the industry will mean that venture capitalists will need less capital for each company resulting in smaller funds and a better ability to generate multiples of invested cash for its investors. For today’s entrepreneurs, it will mean that they rethink their go-to-market strategy and remember to balance growth with getting to profitability sooner.