Five Years Too Late

March 31, 2009

If You Build It…

Filed under: venture capital — Tags: , , , , , , , — fiveyearstoolate @ 10:38 am

Stuart Ellman

Stuart Ellman

Eric Wiesen

Eric Wiesen

“Should I build my company to be a profitable, standalone business or should I be aiming to fit into the long-term plans of my likely acquirers to facilitate an M&A exit?”

This is a question that entrepreneurs ask themselves every day. If you asked a hundred venture capitalists this question, I suspect the overwhelming majority of us would give you the canonical answer – build for long-term profitability and a standalone business, because the tides of M&A can come and go. In the previous era, many VCs liked to see every investment as an IPO candidate. And that made sense in an era when a pre-revenue web company burning cash could actually go public. But in today’s market, when even nine-figure companies with positive EBITDA can’t go public, it is worth asking this question again.

The argument for the traditional answer is simple and compelling – when you go to start your company, you don’t know what Google or Cisco or Dell will be buying in 3-5 years when you achieve sufficient scale to be interesting to them. As a result, if you build toward M&A, you’re likely to build toward whatever they’re buying when you start, and that will likely change significantly over the build period of your company.

There is also a huge issue of stage and valuation. Acquisitions tend to happen in two lumps. First is the “cheaper and quicker” route. This means that Dell can buy something for $10 to $25mm because it is cheaper and quicker than building it themselves. The second is “they already have scale” route. Obviously, a company like Dell can pay a great deal more for a company that sufficient scale that cannot be reliably replicated simply by recreating the technology. A good example of that would be the acquisition of Pure Digital Technologies (creator of the Flip video camera) by Cisco. Could Cisco build its own version? Sure. But they paid almost $600mm because Flip already had brand and scale . (BTW, kudos to Jonathan Kaplan, CEO of Pure Digital and a former RRE CEO). If you are selling in the “cheaper and quicker” category, it better be at a single-digit valuation. Nothing past a Series A.

The emerging counterargument is that the IT landscape has so significantly consolidated that the it’s become easier to project the tectonic movements of the “continental” companies like Microsoft, Google, Cisco and Dell. But is this true? Can you forecast what these companies are going to do? We sold MessageOne to Dell because it wanted to make a big move in hosted services. Could we have forecasted this in 2001 when we funded the company? Again to the Pure Digital example, how could you have guessed that Cisco would be going after the consumer market in 2002 when Jonathan was raising his first round.

We think this question is being answered in real-time. The standard advice to build for the long term is still good advice, but if all the exits are going to be via M&A for the foreseeable future, we’ll be thinking pretty hard here at RRE about what the big guys are really looking for. We still want to fund great entrepreneurs solving big problems in growing markets. But we also want to know what acquirers are looking for. Time to get smart in this area.

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October 24, 2008

Flat is the new 40% Markup

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — fiveyearstoolate @ 11:57 am
Stuart Ellman

Stuart Ellman

I was in a board meeting yesterday and somebody was talking about selling some shares. He just wanted to sell his shares at the same price as the last round of financing. No problem, right? Actually, yes problem.

This is an issue with mark-to-market pricing of private companies. The assumption tends to be that, since no new round has been done, the company is worth the same as it was the last time money was raised (and hence a valuation was determined). That just isn’t reality, although during normal conditions it tends to be close enough. Today, however, most of the major public indices are down 40% or really close to it. Some of the tech indices are off even more, but let’s stick with 40% since it is a nice, round number.

You might reply (and some do) that because there is no IPO market, the public market pricing has nothing to do with venture valuations. This is totally wrong. Everything is priced off of public market valuations eventually.

Not a pretty picture...

Not a pretty picture...

When a VC invests in a company, many factors are in play, but there is one overriding consideration: at what IRR (Internal Rate of Return) can I exit this deal? We work for our limited partners. We can be the greatest guys in the world, but if we don’t make money for our limited partners, we are out of business. So, we invest assuming there will be a public market.

Well, you may ask, what about acquisitions? The answer is that the best acquisitions happen when the alternative is going public. For example, if I can go public at $500 million, I might be willing to take $450 million from an acquirer to save the risk of an IPO. However, when I cannot say to the acquirer that my alternative is to go public at $500 million, what is he going to offer me? What is his incentive to offer $450 million? More likely than not, he will put in a low-ball offer because I have no liquidity alternatives. And, by the way, when I do want to go public, the bankers will value the company against public market comparables. In the end all pricing derives from where the public market comparables are trading – even when using typical discount models from recent private transactions.

So, the number is 40% down. What does that really mean? It means I can buy 5% of a public technology company for 40% less than I could have one year ago. It also means that private market valuations — all other things held equal — need to come down 40%. Thus, if you have a company that has grown so much that it warrants a 40% markup in valuation in a normalized market, you should expect a flat round in this market. If your company has a few issues and would likely have a flat round in a normalized market, then it should have a 40% down-round in this market. You get the idea.

The reason that it usually takes 12 to 24 months for private market valuations to adjust is because of our necessity to mark to the last round and the way that VCs can play with that. Whenever I teach my class at Columbia Business School, I explain that VCs can only mark to the most recent round. Students typically yell out that it is not fair (or clunky at the very least). But, there is no better way. There is no liquid market. If we try to mark down to an arbitrary marking, then we also need to mark up to one. Since VCs don’t like to take write-downs, they will sometimes starve a company that needs a new round so that it doesn’t take in new money at a lower price. Or, they put in a bridge which is un-priced. Both of those scenarios are simply stalling tactics where people are hoping that markets will improve. We at RRE try not to do that. More often than not, we push for the washout rounds to “right price” the companies, even when that means we hurt ourselves a bit in the process. We refer to this discipline as ‘living in the present’.

So, everybody in startup land, pay attention. Pricing is down 40% right now. Until the markets come back up, that is the reality. If you want to raise money, take a realistic look at yourself. You might not like the pricing being offered, but it beats the alternative of running out of money.

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September 13, 2008

Barnacle Companies

Filed under: Startups — Tags: , , , , , , , — fiveyearstoolate @ 10:13 am

From time to time we see a company come in to pitch RRE that pitches us on a business that is fundamentally dependent on another (typically larger) business. An example of this would be Xobni, the (very useful) inbox extension for Microsoft Outlook. But it’s not always a big company (think Summize, the search company recently acquired by Twitter). We sometimes call these companies “barnacles” because of the way these companies latch onto a larger host and add incremental value to users of the host company’s products. This is becoming more and more common as companies either actively promote an application infrastructure built on top of the core platform (Salesforce.com, iPhone App Store, Facebook Platform) or as companies simply open up API access to allow other applications to take advantage of functionality or data.

There are pluses and minuses to these types of businesses, and like everything we see, the ultimate decision of whether or not it’s a business we’ll want to fund comes down to the strength of the people and how big a problem their product purports to solve. But barnacle businesses have some specific characteristics to them that are distinctive.

GOOD: Barnacle companies don’t have to build an ecosystem of interest to support their products.  Xobni, to continue our example (and note that we are not investors in Xobni) doesn’t have to convince millions of users to use Outlook – Microsoft has already done that. They just need to convince existing Outlook users to install their product to enhance productivity. Now that’s not the easiest sell in the world, especially given the IT attitudes present in many large Microsoft environments, but it’s a lot easier than trying to build the ecosystem from scratch.

BAD: The flip side to the above, of course, is the vulnerability barnacle companies have to host companies. When your business is entirely dependent on another company, that company has substantial power over you. That can come in the form of a decision to duplicate your functionality, at which point you rely on any IP you might have or the stickiness of your product, or to modify their product (or API) to block you. If the host company decides to prohibit one of these products from attachment, the startup can find itself adrift at sea.

GOOD: There is no more obvious acquirer for a barnacle company than the host.

BAD: There may be no other acquirer for a barnacle company than the host, so be very careful to establish a good relationship.

In an era where a greater and greater number of ecosystems are being built (Microsoft, Facebook, Salesforce, etc…) it is becoming increasingly feasible to build a business that is a barnacle, but these come with an unusual set of challenges, and require some careful maneuvering, particularly around fundraising and exit.

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