Equity value

Warren Buffet once said:

Buy into a business that’s doing so well an idiot could run it, because sooner or later, one will.

This is a useful way to understand the meaning of “equity value”. You learn in finance that equity value is the overall value of a the stock (i.e. equity) of a business, which in turn is the present value of all future profits. Of course with startups the future is extremely uncertain, leading to a huge variance in valuations.

In perfectly competitive markets, all profit margins tend toward zero. So equity value is a function of the degree to which you can make your market inefficient by making your business hard to copy (so called “defensibility”). If your defensibility depends solely on having superior people, you have what VCs call a “service business.” In a competitve labor market, service businesses tend to have low margins and therefore low equity value. A popular saying about service businesses is “the equity value walks out of the building every night.”

Different types of tech businesses exhibit different relationships between capital, revenue, profits, and equity value. Enterprise software companies tend to require lots of capital to get to scale but command high equity values once they do, partly because enterprises are risk averse and like to adopt the most popular technology, leading to winner-take-all dynamics. Adtech companies tend to be quick to revenue but slower to equity value, and sometimes risk becoming service businesses. The equity value of consumer internet companies vary widely, depending on their defensibility (usually networks effects and brand) and business models (e.g. transactional vs ad supported). Biotech companies require boatloads of capital for R&D and regulatory approval but then can generate lots of equity value, with the defensibility coming primarily from patents. (Patents introduce market innefficiencies, but, proponents argue, are necessary to create sufficient incentives for entrepreneurs and investors). E-commerce companies generally require a lot of capital as well, since their defensibility comes mostly through brand and economies of scale.

Incumbents die due to irrelevance or ineptitude

Judging from the tech press, you’d think the biggest risk to successful companies is competition. But when you examine the history of technology, incumbents usually decline because the world changes and they lose relevance, or because they lose visionary founders and the organization decays. Some examples:

– Dell thrived when PCs dominated the computer market and Dell was the low cost provider of commodity hardware products. The shift to mobile and tablet computing meant that hardware quality (not price) was once again the primary basis of competition. As a result, Dell’s laser-like focus on cost reduction became a liability.

– The New York Times was, for many decades, one of the few premium channels through which brand and classified advertisers could reach mass consumers. Thus car companies and real estate brokers subsidized foreign reporting and investigative business journalism. The internet provided a vast alternative channel, and the Times became far less relevant. At the same time, the internet provided many new sources for breaking news, editorials etc, hurting the Times on the subscriber side.

– Yahoo didn’t lose because Google out-competed them on search. They lost because they didn’t really care about search – indeed, they outsourced algorithmic search to Alta Vista, Inktomi and then Google itself. The leading portals back in circa 2000 (Yahoo, Excite, Lycos etc) desperately wanted to keep keep users on their site – the buzzword was “stickiness” – but Google knew better and focused on getting users off of Google to other places on the web. Yahoo became just another place to read celebrity gossip and use generic web services.

– Netflix thrived when they could simply ignore the movie companies and rely on the first-sale doctrine to get DVDs. The market shift to streaming video created a new and brutal dependency. They had to go make deals with content companies. Now they are even trying to create their own content to lessen this dependency. They have a brilliant and visionary management team but this is a tough transition to make.

– Sony relied on its Steve-Jobs-like founder, Akio Morita, to repeatedly develop incredibly innovative products (among them: the first transistor radio, the first transistor television, the Walkman, the first video cassette recorder, the compact disc) that seemed to come out of nowhere and create massive new markets. Since he left, the company has floundered and the stock has fallen dramatically.

– Google’s biggest risk isn’t a direct competitor. Startups and incumbents who’ve tried to create better search engines have barely cut into Google’s market share. Google’s primary risk – and they seem to know this – is that they are no longer relevant when people find content through social sites, and where an ever increasing portion of the web is uncrawlable.

Google released their “Dropbox-killer” a few days ago. I don’t know if Dropbox has yet achieved incumbent status, but they certainly seem to be the market leader. They also seem to have a very competent management team. So if history is a guide, Dropbox’s biggest risk isn’t a competitor but irrelevance – if, for example, files become less and less important in a web services world and Dropbox doesn’t adapt accordingly.

Accurate contrarian theories

When Google released its search engine in 1998, its search results were significantly better than its competitors’. Many people attribute Google’s success to this breakthrough technology. But there was another key reason:  a stubborn refusal to accept the orthodox view at the time that “stickiness” was crucial to a website’s success. Here’s what happened when they tried to sell their technology to Excite (a leading portal/search engine in the late 90s):

[Google] was too good. If Excite were to host a search engine that instantly gave people information they sought, [Excite’s CEO] explained, the users would leave the site instantly. Since his ad revenue came from people staying on the site—“stickiness” was the most desired metric in websites at the time—using Google’s technology would be counterproductive. “He told us he wanted Excite’s search engine to be 80 percent as good as the other search engines,” … and we were like, “Wow, these guys don’t know what they’re talking about.” – Steven Levy, In The Plex (p. 30)

Famed investor/entrepreneur Reid Hoffman says world-changing startups need to be premised on “accurate contrarian theories.”  In Google’s case, it was true but non-contrarian to think users would prefer a better search engine. What was true and contrarian was to think it made business sense to get users off their site as quickly as possible. The business model to support this contrarian theory wouldn’t emerge until years later, and by then Google would already have become the world’s most popular search engine.

Google’s social strategy

It is widely believed that Facebook presents a significant competitive threat to Google. Google itself seems to believe this – Larry Page recently said that all employees would have their bonuses tied to the success of Google’s social strategy.

Why does Facebook present a threat to Google?  A few reasons:

– The utility of Google’s core product – web search – depends on the web remaining fragmented and crawlable.  Facebook has become the primary place web users spend their time and create content, and is mostly closed to Google’s crawlers.

– Facebook controls a large percentage of ad impressions and will likely launch an off-Facebook.com display ad network to compete directly with Google’s display ad business (built from its $3.1B acquisition DoubleClick). It is generally thought that display ads will become a larger portion of online advertising spend (versus direct response text link ads) as more brand advertising moves online.

– There are many other “wildcard” risks – e.g. Facebook competing with Google (and Apple, Paypal etc) in payments, Facebook gaining power on mobile (threatening Android), and the possibility of a greater share of internet intent harvesting happening on Facebook through not-yet-released features like a search and/or shopping engine.

When going after Facebook, Google has at least three key strategic choices to make:

Strategic choice #1: Should Google try to make social networking commoditized or new profit center? (For more about what I mean by this, please see this post on Google’s overall strategy and these posts on “commoditizing the complement” herehere and here).

The advantage of creating a new social networking profit center is obvious: if you win, you make lots of money. The advantage of commoditizing social networking is that although you forgo the potential direct profits, you open up a wider range of pricing and product options. For example:

– When you try to commoditize a product, you can offer a product for free that other companies charge for. This is what Google did with Android vs iOS and Google Apps vs Microsoft Office. Of course, making social networking free to users won’t work since Facebook doesn’t directly charge users (I say “directly” because they make money off advertising & payment commissions, among other ways). However reducing the cost to zero for 3rd-party developers like Zynga who have to pay Facebook large commissions would entice them toward a Google platform (note that, not coincidentally, Google invested $100M in Zynga).

– Interoperate / embrace open standards – Normals don’t care whether a product uses open standards, but by interoperating with other social networks, messaging systems, check-in services, etc., Google could encourage 3rd-party developers to build on their platform. If Google chose, say, RSS for their messaging system, it would already work with tens of thousands of existing tools and websites and would be readily embraced by hackers in the open source community. The web itself (http/html) and email (smtp) are famous examples where the choice to open them unleashed huge waves of innovation and (eventually) killed off closed competitors like AOL.

Strategic choice #2: How should Google tie its new social products into its existing products?

Besides a mountain of cash ($30B net, generating $10B more per year), Google has many existing assets on top of which to build. Google Buzz tried to build off of the “implicit social network” of Gmail contacts, which hasn’t seemed to work so far and raised privacy concerns.

Google’s recent mini-launch of its “+1″ button seems to be good use of the strategy known as “anchoring”. Google is apparently trying to create a federated network where websites embed +1 buttons  the way they embed Facebook’s Like button except the +1 button would be a signal into Google’s organic ranking algorithm (as an aside, this is where Gmail becomes useful as having millions of logged in users makes spamming +1 buttons much harder). Websites care a lot about their Google organic search rankings (which is why, for example, helping websites improve their rankings is multibillion-dollar industry).  A button that improved search rankings would likely get prominent placement by many websites. Making +1 appealing to users is another story.  The user value is much clearer for the Facebook Like and Twitter Tweet buttons – you send the link to your friends/followers. Providing value to users in addition to websites is a good reason for Google to acquire Twitter (something I think is inevitable if Google is serious about social – see below).

Finally, Android and YouTube are intriguing potential anchors for a social strategy. I’ll leave it to smarter people to figure out exactly how, but products with such large footprints always present interesting tie-in opportunities.

Strategic Choice #3: Should Google buy or build?

Historically, it is very rare to see tech companies adjust their “DNA” from within. Google’s best new lines of business over the past few years came through the acquisitions of YouTube and Android. Moreover, these acquisition were unusual in that they were left as semi-independent business units. Facebook’s hold on social is incredibly strong – besides the super-strong network effects of its social graph, Facebook has made itself core infrastructure (e.g. Facebook Connect) throughout the web. If Google really wants to catch up, they’ll need to go back to the strategy they succeeded with in the past of acquiring relevant companies and letting them run as separate business units.

* Disclosure: I’m an investor in a bunch of startups, so you could reasonably argue I’m highly biased here.

Timing your startup

I never had the opportunity to invest in YouTube but I have to admit that if I did I probably would have passed (which of course would have been a huge mistake). I’d been around the web long enough to remember the dozens of companies before YouTube that tried to create crowdsourced video sites and failed. Based on “pattern recognition” (a dangerous thing to rely on), I was deeply skeptical of the space.

What I failed to appreciate was that the prior crowdsourced video sites were ahead of their time. YouTube built a great product, but, more importantly, got the market timing just right. By 2005, all the pieces were in place to enable crowdsourced video – the proliferation of home broadband, digital camcorders, a version of Flash where videos “just worked,” copyrighted web content that could be exported to YouTube, and blogs that wanted to embed videos.

Almost anything you build on the web has already been tried in one form or another. This should not deter you. Antecedents existed for Google, Facebook, Groupon, and almost every other tech startup that has succeeded since the dot-com bubble.

Entrepreneurs should always ask themselves “why will I succeed where others failed?” If the answer is simply “I’m doing it right” or “I’m smarter,” you are probably underestimating your antecedents, which were probably run by competent or even great entrepreneurs who did everything possible to succeed. Instead your answer should include an explanation about why the timing is right – about some fundamental changes in the world that enable the idea you are pursuing to finally succeed. If the necessary conditions were in place, say, a year ago, that might still be ok – YouTube happened to nail their product out of the gate, but if they hadn’t a company started later might have succeeded in their place.

Often the necessary conditions are only beginning to emerge and knowing when they will do so sufficiently is very hard to predict. We all know the internet will become fully social, personalized, mobile, location-based, interactive, etc. and lots of new, successful startups will be built as a result. What is very hard to know is when these things will happen at scale.

One way to mitigate timing risk is to manage your cash accordingly. If you are trying to ride existing trends you should ramp up aggressively. If you are betting on emerging trends it is better to keep your burn low and runway long.  This takes discipline and patience but is also the way you hit it really big.