Stored Hashcash

One of the greatest inventions in the history of computer security is Hashcash. Internet blights like spam and denial-of-service attacks are what economists call “tragedy of the commons” problems. They exploit the fact that it’s free to send email and make web requests. At zero cost, you can have a profitable business even at extremely low success rates.

One way to fix these problems is to impose tariffs that hurt bad actors without hurting good actors. For example, you could impose “postage fees” on every email and web request. Unfortunately, in practice, this is impossible, because you’d have to set up billing relationships between every computer that wants to communicate.

The brilliant idea behind Hashcash is to replace a monetary postage fee with a computational postage fee. In order to send an email, the sender first has to solve a math problem. Legitimate activities suffer an indiscernible delay, but illegitimate activities that require massive volume are hobbled.

Hashcash is a great idea, but cumbersome in practice. For example, the cost imposed on senders varies widely depending on the performance of their email servers. It also hinders legitimate bulk emails like clubs and retailers sending updates to their mailing lists.

The offline analogy to Hashcash is a postal system where senders are required to perform some work every time they want to send something. If you’re a lawyer, you need to practice some law before you send mail. If you’re a doctor, you need to cure something before you send mail. Etc. This of course would be a preposterous postal system.

Adam Smith called money “stored labor“. You do your work and then store your labor as money, which you can later exchange for labor stored by other people. Storing labor in the form of money turns out to be a very flexible system for trading labor, and far superior to the barter system of performing work whenever your counterparty performs work.

So Adam Smith’s version of Hashcash is a system where you get credits for doing computation. You store your computational credits and spend them at your leisure. If you want to send an email, you can spend a little stored Hashcash. If I send you an email and you reply, we’re even. If you send out a billion spam emails, it costs you a lot and undermines your spammy business model. 

There are other important problems that stored Hashcash could solve. Denial-of-service attacks are spam attacks except they happen on HTTP instead of SMTP and the payoff is ransom instead of spam offers. Computer scientists have long believed that pricing schemes could dramatically reduce network congestion. Like every large-scale distributed system, the Internet benefits when scarce resources are efficiently allocated.

It seems plausible that if a system like stored Hashcash were developed, some people would prefer to purchase stored Hashcash directly instead of generating it themselves. A market for stored Hashcash would emerge, with the value being some function of the supply and demand of scarce Internet resources.

So here’s my question: suppose someone invented a way to store Hashcash. It could dramatically reduce spam and denial-of-service attacks, and more efficiently allocate network bandwidth and other Internet resources. How valuable would stored Hashcash be?

Some thoughts on startup crowdfunding

Like a lot of people, I’m excited about crowdfunding, and specifically the crowdfunding of startups now that’s it’s legal in the US. Based on my own experience investing in startups, here are some thoughts and issues that come to mind regarding startup crowdfunding.

1. Startup financings tend toward the extremes of being very oversubscribed or very undersubscribed. If you graphed out investor interest, it would look like a “U”. This is primarily the result of signaling – once a few investors commit (especially high quality ones), other investors pile on. If investors don’t commit, other investors start to wonder what’s wrong. So when you consider startup crowdfunding, it’s important to distinguish the oversubscribed cases from the undersubscribed cases. (Although one counter to this is that the U is the result of an inefficient market – when the crowds get involved valuations will float to their market clearing prices).

2. Historically, startup investing returns have tended to obey power laws (Peter Thiel has a good discussion of this phenomenon here). The vast majority of the returns came from the breakout hits. And if you go back and look at the early financings of breakout hits, a lot of them were hotly contested and oversubscribed. If amateur investors had been trying to invest in those startups via crowdfunding sites, they probably would have been squeezed out. If those amateurs were part of a syndicate, the syndicate lead would have felt pressure to drop them, at least for those hot deals. (Counterargument: the power law is caused by the myopia of traditional investors looking for the next Google. The crowd will be able to find new investments that greatly expand the set of successful startups)

3. Crowdfunding works best when the backers have special knowledge about the project that leads them to fund things that otherwise would have been overlooked or undervalued by traditional investors. This happens, for example, in the Kickstarter video games category, where most of the backers are game enthusiasts. The most promising scenarios for startup crowdfunding are where the backers are potential customers of the product (e.g. HR managers backing new HR software). This could also solve the adverse selection problem, as the startup founders would probably favor these backers over traditional startups investors.

4. When you look at the biggest crowdfunding markets – publicly traded stocks on NYSE, NASDAQ, etc – you find that a) In general, non-professional investors lose money when they try to pick individual stocks. This suggests that something similar to mutual funds would be the best mechanism for amateur participation. b) There is a constant cat-and-mouse game between regulators and sketchy market participants. If this happens with private financings, and more and more rules and regulations get added, many of the advantages of being a private company could go away.

5. Most successful seed investors will say that it is mostly about investing in great people, and it is very hard to evaluate people even after multiple in-person meetings. If founders are going to be evaluated online without in-person meetings, great care has to be taken to make sure the evaluation mechanisms are sufficiently nuanced and reliable. (The counterargument is that this might be true when individual professional investors evaluate startups. In the aggregate, the crowd can outsmart individual professionals even with fewer direct interactions.)

6. One way to look at startup crowdfunding is as the first step in a process that includes additional steps that prevent adverse selection, sketchy behavior etc. For example, a startup I know raised money recently from a single lead investor and then found additional investors via a crowdfunding site. They ended up rejecting many of the interested investors but found a few useful investors that they otherwise wouldn’t have found. In this model crowdfunding looks more like LinkedIn for investors – extremely useful for connecting, but only the first step of a process that includes interviews, reference checks, etc.

The product lens

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the markets for startup financing. Many of the discussions use words like “valuations” “bubble” “crunch” etc. Words like that generally mean the writer is discussing the world through the lens of finance. This is a useful lens, but I’d like to suggest there is another lens that is also useful: the product lens. First, some background.

Two markets

Startups sit in the middle of two markets: one between VCs and startups, and one between startups and customers. These markets are correlated but only partially. When the financing supply is low but customer demand is high, entrepreneurs that are able to finagle funding generally do well. When financing and startup supply is high, customers do well, some startups do well, and VCs generally don’t. And so on.

When VCs get too excited, people talk about a bubble. When VCs get too fearful, people talk about a crash. Historically, downturns were great times for startups that were able to raise money because competition was low but customer demand for new technology remained fairly steady. Downturns also tended to coincide with big platform shifts, which usually meant opportunities for entrepreneurs.

These markets shift independently between different stages and sectors, although there are connections. The amount of financing available is relatively constant, because of the longevity of VC funds and the way most VCs are compensated (management fees). Less financing in one sector or stage usually leads to more financing in others.

The stages are related because the early stages depend on the later stages for exits and financings. The result is a bullwhip effect where changes in later stages (the latest stage being public markets) lead to magnified changes in early stages.

Smart VCs understand these dynamics and adjust their strategies accordingly. Smart entrepreneurs don’t need to think about these things very often. Fundraising is necessary (at least for companies that choose to go the VC route – many shouldn’t), but just one of the many things an entrepreneur needs to do. The best advice is simply to raise money when you can, and try to weather the vicissitudes of the financial markets.

The product lens

Good entrepreneurs spend most of their time focusing on the other market: the one between their company and their customers. This means looking at the world through the lens of products and not financing. This lens is particularly important when you are initially developing your idea or when you are thinking about product expansions.

The product lens suggests you should ask questions like: have the products in area X caught up to the best practices of the industry? Are they reaching their potential? Are they exciting? Are there big cultural/technological/economic changes happening that allow dramatically better products to be created? Sometimes the product lens guides you to the same conclusion as the finance lens and sometimes it doesn’t.

For example, there has been a lot of hand wringing about a financing crunch for consumer internet startups. One theme is that investors are pivoting from consumer to enterprise. The finance lens says: for the last five years or so, consumer was overfunded and enterprise was underfunded – let’s correct this. It also helps that enterprise IPOs have performed much better than consumer IPOs in the last year or so.

The product lens is tricky. My sense is that, at least for the non-mobile consumer internet, the product lens and financing lens agree. Anyone who has had the misfortune to use enterprise technology lately will tell you that the hardware and software they use at home (iPhone, Gmail, etc) is far and away more sophisticated and elegant than the software they use at work. It feels like the enterprise tech is way behind in the product upgrade cycle.

Mobile seems like a case where the lenses disagree. The finance lens says: billions of dollars have been invested in mobile apps. It has become hit driven and there have been very few “venture-scale” startups created.

The product lens says: the modern smartphone platform began about four years ago when the iOS app store launched. This is clearly a major new platform. Platforms and apps interact in a push-pull relationship that takes decades to play out. Innovative new apps, designs and technologies are created all the time. It would be surprising – and contrary to all the historical patterns – if the mobile product evolution were already played out.

That is not to dismiss the finance lens. It could be painful along the way:  financing markets might dry up, and profits might accrue to the platforms over the apps. But clearly mobile is just getting started.

Some of the biggest mistakes I’ve made as an angel investor stemmed from being beholden to the finance lens. The finance lens feels more scientific and therefore appeals to analytical types. It might sound unsophisticated to say “the products for X are crappy, and I have an idea for how to make them great.” But in many cases, it’s actually that simple.

The economic logic behind tech and talent acquisitions

There’s been a lot of speculation lately about why big companies spend millions of dollars acquiring startups for their technology or talent. The answer lies in the economic logic that big companies use to make major project decisions.

Here is a really simplified example. Suppose you are a large company generating $1B in revenue, and you have a market cap of $5B. You want to build an important new product that your CTO estimates will increase your revenue 10%. At a 5-1 price-to-revenue ratio, a 10% boost in revenue means a $500M boost in market cap. So you are willing to spend something less than $500M to have that product.

You have two options: build or buy. Build means 1) recruiting a team and 2) building the product. There is a risk you’ll have significant delays or outright failure at either stage. You therefore need to estimate the cost of delay (delaying the 10% increase in revenue) and failure. Acquiring a relevant team takes away the recruiting risk. Acquiring a startup with the product (and team) takes away both stages of risk. Generally, if you assume 0% chance of failure or delay, building internally will be cheaper. But in real life the likelihood of delay or failure is much higher.

Suppose you could build the product for $50M with a 50% chance of significant delays or failure. Then the upper bound of what you’d rationally pay to acquire would be $100M. That doesn’t mean you have to pay $100M. If there are multiple startups with sufficient product/talent you might be able to get a bargain. It all comes down to supply (number of relevant startups) and demand (number of interested acquirers).

Every big company does calculations like these (albeit much more sophisticated ones). This is a part of what M&A/Corp Dev groups do. If you want to sell your company – or simply understand acquisitions you read about in the press – it is important to understand how they think about these calculations.

Notes on the acquisition process

Ten years ago, startup financing was an insider’s game. Since then, the topic has been widely discussed on blogs, to the great benefit of entrepreneurs. Comparatively little, however, has been written about the important transaction at the other end many startups’ life, acquisitions. Here are some things I’ve learned about the acquisition process over the years.

– There is an old saying that startups are bought not sold. Clearly it is better to be in high demand and have inbound interest. But for product and tech acquisitions especially, it is often about getting the attention of the right people at the acquirer. Sometimes the right person is corp dev, other times product or business unit leads, and other times C-level management.

– Don’t use a banker unless your company is late stage and you are selling based on a multiple of profits or revenues. I’ve seen many acquisitions bungled by bankers who were either too aggressive on terms or upset the relationship between the startup and acquirer.

– Research the potential acquirer before the first meeting. Try to understand management’s priorities, especially as they relate to your company.  Talk to people who work in the same sector. Talk to industry analysts, investors, etc. If an acquirer is public, Wall Street analyst reports can be helpful.

– Develop relationships with key people – corp dev, management, product and business unit leads. The earlier the better.

– Don’t try to be cute. Leaking rumors to the press, creating a false sense of competition, etc. is generally a bad idea. Besides being ethically questionable, it can create ill will.

– What you tell employees is particularly tricky. Being open with employees can lead to press leaks and can annoy acquirers. Moreover, some public companies insist that you don’t talk to employees until the deal is closed or almost closed. Employees usually get a sense that something is going on and this can put you in the awkward situation of being forced to lie to them. I don’t know of a good solution to this problem.

– Understand the process and what each milestone along the way means. As with financings, acquisitions take a long time and involve lots of meetings and difficult decisions. Inexperienced entrepreneurs tend to get overly excited about a few good meetings.

– Strike while the iron is hot. Just as with financings, you need to be opportunistic. Waiting 6 months to hit another milestone might improve your fundamentals, but the acquirer’s interest might wane.

– There are two schools of thought on price negotiation: anchor early or wait until you’ve gotten strong interest. Obviously having multiple interested parties makes finding a fair price a lot easier.

– Deal structure: the cap table is an agreement between you and the shareholders that says, in effect: “If we sell the company, this is how we pay out founders, employees, and investors.” Acquirers have gotten increasingly aggressive about rewriting cap tables to 1) hold back key employee payouts for retention purposes, and 2) give a greater share of proceeds to employees/founders.  Some even go so far as to try to cut side deals with key employees to entice them to abandon the other employees and investors. In terms of ethics and reputations, it is important to be fair to all parties involved: the acquirer, founders, employees, and investors.

– Research the reputation of the acquirer, especially how they have behave between LOI and closing (good people to talk to: investors, other acquired startups, startup lawfirms). This is when acquirers have all the leverage and can mistreat you. Some acquirers treat LOIs the way VCs treat term sheets, as a contract they’ll honor unless they discover egregious issues like material misrepresentations. Others treat them as an opportunity to get free market intelligence.

– Certain terms beyond price can be deal killers. The most prominent one lately is “IP indemnification.” This is a complicated issue, but in short, as a response to patent trolls going after IP escrows, acquirers have been trying to get clawbacks from investors in case of IP claims. This term is a non-starter to institutional investors (and most individual investors). You need to understand all the potential deal-killer terms and hire an experienced startup law firm to help you.

– Ignore the cynical blog chatter about “acqui-hires” (or, as they used to be called, “talent acquisitions”). Only people who have been through the process understand that sometimes these outcomes are good for everyone involved (including users when the alternative is shutting down).

Finally, acquisitions should be thought of as partnerships that will last long after the deal closes. Besides the commitments you make as part of the deal, your professional reputation will be closely tied to the fate of the acquisition. This is one more reason why you should only raise money if you are prepared for a long-term commitment.