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.

Is it a tech bubble?

Every week a “we are in a tech bubble” article seems to come out in a major newspaper or blog. People who argue we aren’t in a bubble are casually dismissed as promoting their own interests. I’d argue the situation is far more nuanced and that people who engage in this debate should consider the following:

1) Public tech companies: Anyone with a basic understanding of finance would have trouble arguing many large public tech companies are trading at “bubble valuations” – e.g. Apple (14 P/E), Google (18 P/E), eBay (16 P/E), Yahoo (17 P/E). You could certainly debate other public tech stock valuations (there are a number of companies that recently IPOd that many reasonable people think are overvalued), but on a market-cap weighted average the tech sector is trading at a very reasonable 17 P/E.

2) Instagram seems to be the case study du jour for people arguing we are in a bubble. Reasonable people could disagree about Instagram’s exit price but in order to argue the price was too high you need to argue that either: 1) Facebook is overvalued at its expected IPO valuation of roughly $100B, 2) it was irrational for Facebook to spend 1% of its market cap to own what many people considered one of Facebook’s biggest threats (including Mark Zuckerberg – who I tend to think knows what is good for Facebook better than pundits).

3) Certain stages of venture valuations do seem on average over-valued, in particular seed-stage valuations and (less obviously) later-stage “momentum valuations.” The high seed-stage valuations are driven by an influx of angel/seed investors (successful entrepreneurs/tech company employees, VC’s with seed funds, non-tech people who are chasing trends). The momentum-stage valuations are driven by a variety of things, including VC’s who want to be associated with marquee startup names, the desire to catch the next Facebook before it gets too big, and the desire of mega-sized VC funds to “put more money to work”.

4) Certain stages – most notably the Series A – seem under valued. Many good companies are having trouble raising Series As and the valuations I’ve seen for the ones who do have been pretty reasonable. Unfortunately, since the financials and valuations of these companies aren’t disclosed, it is very difficult to have a public debate on this topic. But many investors I know are moving from seed to Series A precisely because they agree with this claim.

5) No one can predict macro trends. The bear case includes: something bad happens to the economy (Euro collapses, US enters double dip recession). The warning sign here will be a drop in profits by marquee tech companies.  The bull case includes: economy is ok or improves, and tech continues to eat into other industries (the “software is eating the world” argument). Anyone who claims to know what will happen over the next 3 years at the macro level is blowing hot air. That’s why smart investors continue investing at a regular pace through ups and downs.

6) The argument that sometimes startups get better valuations without revenue is somewhat true. As Josh Koppelman said “There’s nothing like numbers to screw up a good story.” This is driven by the psychology of venture investors who are sometimes able to justify a higher price to “buy the dream” than the same price to “buy the numbers.” This doesn’t mean the investors think they will invest and then get some greater fool to invest in the company again. For instance, at the seed stage, intelligent investors are quite aware that they are buying the dream but will need to have numbers to raise a Series A.

7) No good venture investors invest in companies with the primary strategy being to flip them. This isn’t because they are altruistic – it is because it is a bad strategy. You are much better off investing in companies that have a good chance to build a big business. This creates many more options including the option to sell the company. Acquisitions depend heavily on the whims of acquirers and no good venture investors bet on that.

A few points about the “tech bubble” debate

Pretty much every day now a major blog or newspaper writes an article asking whether we are experiencing another tech bubble (e.g. see today’s NYTimes). I don’t know whether successful private companies like Groupon, Zynga, Facebook and Twitter are over or under priced since I don’t have access to their financials. Regarding public tech companies, it seems to me that incredibly innovative companies like Apple and Google trading at 19 and 22 P/Es respectively is pretty reasonable.

Rather than take a side on the bubble debate, I mainly just wanted to make a few points that I think should be kept in mind in this discussion.

1) A bubble is a decoupling of asset prices (valuations) from their underlying economic fundamentals (which is why the graph at the top of the NYTimes article today is meaningless). During the housing bubble of 2001-2007, smart economists noted that housing prices were significantly higher than their fundamental value (in housing, a common way to measure this is price-to-rent ratio, which is analogous to price-to-earnings in the stock market). During bubbles, investors stop valuing companies based on fundamentals and instead invest based on the expectation that prices will continue to rise and “greater fools” will buy the assets from them at a higher price. This process is unsustainable, which is why bubbles eventually pop.  But when the economic fundamentals are strong, the last buyer can always hold onto the asset and collect a return through the asset’s cash flows, thereby preventing a pop.

2) The forces that drive the internet economy are strong and will probably only get stronger. I argue this regarding online advertising here so won’t repeat it. Since I wrote that post we’ve also seen a number of tech companies emerge that are generating significant revenues through non-advertising means – “freemium” (e.g Dropbox), paid mobile apps, virtual goods (e.g. Zynga), transaction fees (AirBnB), etc.

3) I think it’s a good thing that the speculation on large private tech companies is happening in secondary markets where the risks are being taken by institutions or wealthy individuals. This is in stark contrast to the dot-com bubble of the 90s where many of the people holding the bag when bubble popped were non-rich people who bought stocks through public markets. Obviously this could change if we have a bunch of tech IPOs.