Possible Insight

Valuing Seed Stage Startups

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One of the questions I most frequently answer about RSCM is how we value seed stage startups. Apparently, being not only willing, but eager to set equity valuations sets us apart from the vast majority of investors. It’s also the aspect of our approach that I’m most proud of intellectually. Developing the rest of our process was mostly a matter of basic data analysis and applying existing research. But the core of our valuation system rests on a real (though modest) insight.

We’ve finally accumulated enough real-world experience with our valuation approach that I feel comfortable publicly discussing it. Now, I’m not going to give out the formula. Partly, this is to preserve some semblance of unique competitive advantage. But it’s also for practical reasons:

  • Our precise formula is tuned for our specific investment theses, which are based on our larger analysis of exit markets, technology dynamics, and diversification requirements.
  • The current version of the formula doesn’t communicate just how adaptable the fundamental concept is (and we do in fact adjust it as we learn).
  • There’s a lot of truth in the wisdom about teaching a man to fish rather than giving him a fish.

Instead, I’m going to discuss how we constructed the formula. Then you can borrow whatever aspects of our approach you think are valid (if any) and build your own version if you like.

The first part of our modest insight was to face the fact that, at the seed stage, most of the value is option value not enterprise value. Any approach based on trying to work backwards from some hypothetical future enterprise value will be either incredibly expensive or little more than a guess. But how do you measure a startup’s option value from a practical standpoint?

The second part of our modest insight was to ask, “Is there anyone who has a big stake in accurately comparing the unknown option value to some other known dollar value?”  The answer was obvious once we formulated the question: the founders. If the option value of their ownership stake were dramatically less, on a risk-adjusted basis, than what they could earn working for someone else, they probably wouldn’t be doing the startup. Essentially, we used the old economist’s trick of “revealed preference“.

We knew there could be all sorts of confounding factors. But there might be a robust relationship between founders’ fair market salaries and their valuation. So we tested the hypothesis. We looked at a bunch of then current seed-stage equity deals where we knew people on the founder or investor side, or the valuation was otherwise available. We then reviewed the founders’ LinkedIn profiles or bios to estimate their salaries.

What we found is that equity valuations for our chosen segment of the market tended to range from 2x to 4x the aggregate annual salary of the founders. The outliers seemed to be ones that either (a) had an unusual amount of “traction”, (b) came out of a premier incubator, or (c) were located in the Bay Area. Once we controlled for these factors, the 2x to 4x multiple was even more consistent.

Now, the concept of a valuation multiple is pretty common. In the public markets, equity analysts and fund managers often use the price-to-earnings ratio. For later stage startups, venture capitalists and investment bankers often use the revenue multiple. Using a multiple as a rule-of-thumb allows people to:

  • Compare different sectors, e.g., the P/E ratios in technology are higher than in retail.
  • Compare specific companies to a benchmark, e.g., company X appears undervalued.
  • Set valuations, e.g., for IPOs or acquisitions.

Obviously, 2x to 4x is a big range. The next step was to figure out what drives the variance. Here, we relied on the research nicely summarized in Sections 3.2-3.6 of Hastie and Dawes’ Rational Choice in an Uncertain World. In high-complexity, high-uncertainty environments, experts are pretty bad at making overall judgements. But they are pretty good at identifying the key variables. So if all you do is poll experts on the important variables and create a consensus checklist, you will actually outperform the experts. The explanation for this apparent paradox is that the human brain has trouble consistently combining multiple factors and ignoring irrelevant information (such as whether the investor personally likes the founders) when making abstract judgements.

So that’s what we did. We asked highly experienced angels and VCs what founder characteristics are most important at the seed stage. (We focused on the founders because we had already determined that predicting the success of ideas this early was hopeless.) The most commonly mentioned  factors fell into the general categories you’d expect: entrepreneurial experience, management experience, and technical expertise. Going to a good undergraduate or graduate program were also somewhat important. Our experts further pointed out that making initial progress on the product or the business was partly a reflection on the founders’ competence as well as the viability of the idea.

We created a checklist of points in these categories and simply scaled the valuation multiple from 2x to 4x based on the number of points. Then we tested our formula against deals that were actually in progress, predicting the valuation and comparing this prediction to the actual offer. This initial version performed pretty well. We made some enhancements to take into account location, incubator attendance, and the enterprise value of progress, then tested again. This updated version performed very well. Finally, we used our formula to actually make our own investments. The acceptance rate from founders was high and other investors seemed to think we got good deals.

Is our formula perfect?  Far from it. Is it even good? Truthfully, I don’t know. I don’t even know what “good” would mean in the abstract. Our formula certainly seems far more consistent and much faster than what other investors do at the seed stage. Moreover, it allows us to quickly evaluate deal flow sources to identify opportunities for systematically investing in reasonably valued startups. These characteristics certainly make it very useful.

I’m pretty confident other investors could use the same general process to develop their own formulas, applicable to the particular categories of startups they focus on—as long as these categories are ones where the startups haven’t achieved a clear product-market fit. Past that point, enterprise value becomes much more relevant and amenable to analysis, so I’m not sure the price-to-salary multiple would be as useful.

Written by Kevin

September 17, 2012 at 3:33 am

Even If You’re “Good”, Diversification Matters

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I privately received a couple of interesting comments on my diversification post:

One of RSCM‘s angel advisors wrote, “I would think most smart people get it intellectually, but many are stuck in the mindset that they have a particular talent to pick winners.”

One of my Facebook friends commented, “VC seems to be a game of getting a reputation as a professional die thrower.”

I pretty much agree with both of these statements. However, even if you believe someone has mad skillz at die-rolling, you may still be better off backing an unskilled roller. Diversification is that powerful! To illustrate, consider another question:

Suppose I offered you a choice between the following two options:

(a) You give me $1M today and I give you somewhere between $3M and $3.67M with 99.99% certainty in 4 years.

(b) You give me $1M today and a “professional” rolls a standard six-sided die.  If it comes up a 6, I give you $20M in 4 years. Otherwise, you lose the $1M. But this guy is so good, he never rolls a 1 or 2.

The professional’s chance of rolling a 6 is 25% because of his skill at avoiding 1s and 2s. So option (b) has an expected value of $5M. Option (a) only has an expected value of $3.33M. Therefore, the professional has a 50% edge. But he still has a 75% chance of losing all your money.

I’m pretty sure that if half their wealth were on the line, even the richest players would chose (a).  Those of you who read the original post probably realize that option (a) is actually an unskilled roller making 10,000 rolls.  Therefore:

Diversifying across unskilled rolls can be more attractive than betting once on a skilled roller.

Of course, 1 roll versus 10,000 hardly seems fair.  I just wanted to establish the fact that diversification can be more attractive than skill in principle.  Now we can move on to understanding the tradeoff.

To visualize diversification versus skill, I’ve prepared two graphs (using an enhanced version of my diversification spreadsheet).  Each graph presents three scenarios: (1) an unskilled roller with a standard 1 in 6 chance of rolling a 6, (2) a somewhat skilled roller who can avoid 1s so has a 1 in 5 chance of rolling a 6, and (3) our very skilled roller who can avoid 1s and 2s so has a 1 in 4 chance of rolling a 6.

First, let’s look at how the chance of at least getting your money back varies by the number of rolls and the skill of the roller:

The way to interpret this chart is to focus on one of the horizontal gray lines representing a particular probability of winning your money back and see how fast the three curves shift right.  So at the 0.9 “confidence level”, the very skilled roller has to make 8 rolls, the somewhat skilled roller has to make 11, and the unskilled roller has to make 13.

From the perspective of getting your money back, being very skilled “saves” you about 5 rolls at the 0.9 confidence level. Furthermore, I’m quite confident that most people would strongly prefer a 97% chance of at least getting their money back with an unskilled roller making 20 rolls to the 44% chance of getting their money back with a very skilled roller making 2 rolls, even though their expected value is higher with the skilled roller.

Now let’s look at the chance of winning 2.5X your money:

The sawtooth pattern stems from the fact that each win provides a 20X quantum of payoff.  So as the number of rolls increases, it periodically reaches a threshold where you need one more win, which drops the probability down suddenly.

Let’s look at the 0.8 confidence level.  The somewhat skilled roller has a 2 to 5 roll advantage over the unskilled roller, depending on which sawtooth we pick.  The very skilled roller has a 3 roll advantage over the unskilled roller initially, then completely dominates after 12 rolls. Similarly, the very skilled roller has a 2 to 5 roll advantage over the somewhat skilled roller, dominating after about 30 rolls.

Even here, I think a lot of people would prefer the 76% chance of achieving a 2.5X return resulting from the unskilled roller making 30 rolls to the 58% chance resulting from the very skilled roller making 3 rolls.

But how does this toy model generalize to startup investing? Here’s my scorecard comparison:

  • Number of Investments. When Rob Wiltbank gathered the AIPP data set on angel investing, he reported that 121 angel investors made 1,038 investments. So the mean number of investments in an angel’s portfolio was between 8 and 9. This sample is probably skewed high due to the fact that it was mostly from angels in groups, who tend to be more active (at least before the advent of tools like AngelList).  Therefore, looking at 1 to 30 trials seems about right.
  • “Win” Probability. When I analyzed the subset of AIPP investments that appeared to be seed-stage, capital-efficient technology companies (a sample I generated using the methodology described in this post), I found that the top 5% of outcomes accounted for 57% of the payout. That’s substantially more skewed than a 1 in 6 chance of winning 20X.  My public analysis of simulated angel investment and an internal resampling analysis of AIPP investments bear this out. You want 100s of investments to achieve reasonable confidence levels. Therefore, our toy model probably underestimates the power of diversification in this context.
  • Degree of Skill. Now, you may think that there are so many inexperienced angels out there that someone could get a 50% edge. But remember that the angels who do well are the ones that will keep investing and angels who make lots of investments will be more organized. So there will be a selection effect towards experienced angels. Also, remember that we’re talking about the seed stage where the uncertainty is the highest. I’ve written before about how it’s unlikely one could have much skill here. If you don’t believe me, just read chapters 21 and 22 of Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Seed stage investment is precisely the kind of environment where expert judgement does poorly. At best, I could believe a 20% edge, which corresponds to our somewhat skilled roller.

The conclusion I think you should draw is that even if you think you or someone you know has some skill in picking seed stage technology investments, you’re probably still better at focusing on diversification first.  Then try to figure out how to scale up the application of skill.

And be warned, just because someone has a bunch of successful angel investments, don’t be too sure he has the magic touch. According to the Center for Venture Research, there were 318,000 active angels in the US last year. If that many people rolled a die 10 times, you’d expect over 2,000 to achieve at least a 50% hit rate purely due to chance! And you can bet that those will be the people you hear about, not the 50,000 with a 0% hit rate, also purely due to chance.

Written by Kevin

May 15, 2012 at 11:30 pm

Diversification Is a “Fact”

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In science, there isn’t really any such thing as a “fact”.  Just different degrees of how strongly the evidence supports a theory. But diversification is about as close as we get. Closer even than evolution or gravity. In “fact”, neither evolution or gravity would work if diversification didn’t.

So I’ve been puzzled at some people’s reaction to RSCM‘s startup investing strategy.  They don’t seem to truly believe in diversification. I can’t tell if they believe it intellectually but not emotionally or rather they think there is some substantial uncertainty about whether it works.

In either case, here’s my attempt  at making the truth of diversification viscerally clear.  It starts with a question:

Suppose I offered you a choice between the following two options:

(a) You give me $1M today and I give you $3M with certainty in 4 years.

(b) You give me $1M today and we roll a standard six-sided die.  If it comes up a 6, I give you $20M in 4 years. Otherwise, you lose the $1M.

Option (b) has a slightly higher expected value of $3.33M, but an 83.33% chance of total loss. Given the literature on risk preference and loss aversion (again, I highly recommend Kahneman’s book as an introduction), I’m quite sure the vast majority of people will chose (a).  There may be some individuals, enterprises, or funds who are wealthy enough that a $1M loss doesn’t bother them.  In those cases, I would restate the offer.  Instead of $1M, use $X where $X = 50% of total wealth. Faced with an 83.33% chance of losing 50% of their wealth, even the richest player will almost certainly chose (a).

Moreover, if I took (a) off the table and offered (b) or nothing, I’m reasonably certain that almost everyone would choose nothing. There just aren’t very many people willing to risk a substantial chance of losing half their wealth. On the other hand, if I walked up to people and credibly guaranteed I’d triple their money in 4 years, almost everyone with any spare wealth would jump at the deal.

Through diversification, you can turn option (b) into option (a).

This “trick” doesn’t require fancy math.  I’ve seen people object to diversification because it relies on Modern Portfolio Theory or assumes rational actors.  Not true.  There is no fancy math and no questionable assumptions. In fact, any high school algebra student with a working knowledge of Excel can easily  demonstrate the results.

Avoiding Total Loss

Let’s start with the goal of avoiding a total loss. As Kahneman and Tversky showed, people really don’t like the prospect of losing large amounts. If you roll the die once, your chance of total loss is (5/6) = .83.  If you roll it twice, it’s (5/6)^2 = .69.  Roll it ten times, it’s (5/6)^10 = .16. The following graph shows how the chance of total loss rapidly approaches zero as the number of rolls increases.

By the time you get to 50 rolls, the chance of total loss is about 1 in 10,000.  By 100 rolls, it’s about 1 in 100,000,000.  For comparison, the chance of being struck by lightning during those same four years is approximately 1 in 200,000 (based on the NOAA’s estimate of an annual probability of 1 in 775,000).

Tripling Your Money

Avoiding a total loss is a great step, but our ultimate question is how close can you get to a guaranteed tripling of your money.  Luckily, there’s an easy way to calculate the probability of getting at least a certain number of 6s using the Binomial Theorem (which has been understood for hundreds of years).  One of many online calculator’s is here. I used the BINOMDIST function of Excel in my spreadsheet.

The next graph shows the probability of getting back at least 3x your money for different numbers of rolls.  The horizontal axis is logarithmic, with each tick representing 1/4 of a power of 10.

As you can see,  diversification can make tripling your money a near certainty. At 1,000 rolls, your probability of at least tripling up is 93%. And with that many rolls, Excel can’t even calculate the probability of getting back less than your original investment. It’s too small. At 10,000 rolls, the probability of less than tripling your money is 1 in 365,000.

So if you have the opportunity to make legitimate high-risk, high-return investments, your first question should be how to diversify. All other concerns are very secondary.

Now, I will admit that this explanation is not the last word. Our model assumes independent, identical bets with zero transaction costs. If I have time and there’s interest, I’ll address these issues in future posts. But I’m not sweeping them under the rug. I’m truly not aware of any argument that their practical effect would be significant with regards to startup investments.

Written by Kevin

May 2, 2012 at 12:25 am

Brad Feld and I Discuss Data

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What do you do when you have to make decisions in an uncertain environment with only mediocre data?  Startup founders and investors face this question all the time.

I had an interesting email exchange on this topic with Brad Feld of Foundry Group. First, let me say that I like Brad and his firm.  If I were the founder of a startup for whom VC funding made sense, Foundry would be on my short list.

Now, Brad has an Master’s in Management Science from MIT and was in the PhD program. I have a Master’s in Engineering-Economic Systems from Stanford, specializing in Decision Theory.  So we both have substantial formal training in analyzing data and are both focused on investing in startups.

But we evidently take opposing sides on the question of how data should inform decision-making. Here’s a highly condensed version of our recent conversation on my latest “Seed Bubble” post (don’t worry, I got Brad’s permission to excerpt):

Brad: Do you have a detailed spreadsheet of the angel seed data or are you using aggregated data for this?… I’d be worried if you are basing your analysis… without cleaning the underlying data.

Kevin:  It’s aggregated angel data….   I’m generally skeptical of the quality of data collection in both… data sets…. But the only thing worse than using mediocre data is using no data.

Brad: I hope you don’t believe that. Seriously – if the data has selection bias or survivor bias, which this data likely does, any conclusions you draw from it will be invalid.

Kevin: …of course I believe it….  Obviously, you have to assess and take into account the data’s limitations… But there’s always some chance of learning something from a non-empty data set.  There’s precisely zero chance of learning something from nothing.

Brad: … As a result, I always apply a qualitative lens to any data (e.g. “does this fit my experience”), which I know breaks the heart of anyone who is purely quantitative (e.g.
“humans make mistakes, they let emotions cloud their analysis and judgement”).

I don’t want to focus on these particular data sets.  Suffice it to say that I’ve thought reasonably carefully about their usefulness in the context of diagnosing a seed investment bubble.  If anyone is really curious, let me know in the comments.

Rather, I want to focus on Brad’s and my positions in general. I absolutely understand Brad’s concerns.  Heck, I’m a huge fan of the “sanity check”.  And I, like most people with formal data analysis training, suffer a bit from How The Sausage Is Made Syndrome.  We’ve seen the compromises made in practice and know there’s some truth to Mark Twain’s old saw about “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” When data is collected by an industry group rather than an academic group (as is the case with the NVCA data) or an academic group doesn’t disclose the details of their methodology (as is the case with the CVR angel data), it just feeds our suspicions.

I think Brad zeroes in on our key difference in the last sentence quoted above:

…which I know breaks the heart of anyone who is purely quantitative (e.g.
“humans make mistakes, they let emotions cloud their analysis and judgement”).

I’m guessing that Brad thinks the quality of human judgement is mostly a matter of opinion or that it can be dramatically improved with talent/practice.  Actually, the general inability of humans to form accurate judgements in uncertain situations has been thoroughly established and highly refined by a large number of rigorous scientific studies, dating back to the 1950s.  It’s not quite as “proven” as gravity or evolution, but it’s getting there.

At Stanford, I mostly had to read the original papers on this topic.  Many of them are, shall we say, “difficult to digest.” But now, there are several very accessible treatments.  For a general audience, I recommend Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, where he recounts his journey exploring this area, from young researcher to Nobel Prize winner.  For a more academic approach, I recommend Hastie’s and Dawes’ Rational Choice In an Uncertain World. If you need to make decisions in uncertain environments and aren’t already familiar with the literature, I cannot recommend strongly enough reading at least one of these books.

But in the meantime, I will sum up.  Human’s are awful at forming accurate judgements in situations where there’s a lot of uncertainty and diversity (known as low validity environments).  It doesn’t matter if you’re incredibly smart.  It doesn’t matter if you’re highly experienced.  It doesn’t even matter if you know a lot about cognitive biases.  The fast, intuitive mechanisms your brain uses to reach conclusions just don’t work well in these situations. If the way quantitative data analysis works in practice gives you pause, the way your brain intuitively processes data should have you screaming in horror.

Even the most primitive and ad hoc quantitative methods  (such as checklists) generally outperform expert judgements, precisely because they disengage the intuitive judgment mechanisms. So if you actually have a systematically collected data set, even if you think it almost certainly has some issues, I say the smart money still heavily favors the data rather than the expert.

By the way, lots of studies also show that people tend to be overconfident. So thinking that you have a special ability or enough expertise so that this evidence doesn’t apply to you… is probably a cognitive illusion too. I say this as a naturally confident guy who constantly struggles to listen to the evidence rather than my gut.

My recommendation: if you’re in the startup world, by all means, have the confidence to believe you will eventually overcome all obstacles. But when you have to make an important estimate or a decision, please, please, please, sit down and calculate using whatever data is available.  Even if it’s just making a checklist of your own beliefs.

Written by Kevin

April 22, 2012 at 11:52 pm

Full Year 2011 “Seed Bubble” Update

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Back in April 2011, I crunched the data on seed investing dollars to show there was probably no generalized bubble. Then in November, I updated the numbers for the first half of 2011 and showed that seed investing was pretty flat.

Now that the full year 2011 angel data is out from the CVR, I have once again combined it with  the VC data from the NVCA and super angel data from EDGAR listings. (My current collation of the data is available in this Excel file) There is a healthy uptick, but it still looks much more like a recovery than a bubble.  Here are the dollar volume charts:

As you can see, angel activity is up substantially. Looking at the detailed CVR reports, seed dollar volume went from a $6.9B annual rate in 1H2011 to a $12.1B annual rate in 2H2011, for a total of $9.5B in 2011.  The fraction going to seed and early stage deals ticked up slightly from 39% to 42%.  So angel seed/early funding is still down 25% from its peak in 2005 for the year. However, 2H2011 was about the same as the peak years 2004-2006. I’d say that seed funding from angels has recovered and if it continues growing, we might see bubble territory in 2012 or 2013.

VC seed funding  dropped dramatically in 2011.  Down 47% in just one year! Average “seed” deal size was down from $4.6M to $2.3M.  I’m always hesitant to generalize from one year’s data, but it certainly looks like something might be changing for VCs.

Which brings us to the super angels. If you look at my spreadsheet, I’ve gotten a bit more structured in this analysis. Per the comments from the last edition, I now break out the planned versus actual fund sizes when looking at the SEC data.

Interestingly, Jeff Clavier’s SoftTech VC actually exceeded his planned number, hitting $55M instead of $35M. Of course, this doesn’t affect my analysis because the firm is a member of the NVCA and presumably included in their numbers. Roger Ehrenberg ‘s IA Ventures hit $98M out of an originally planned $100M and then increased the planned size to $110M. Ron Conway’s SV Angel only had $12M out of a planned $40M, but I’m pretty confident he can hit whatever number he wants. IMAF looks to only have raised $1.5M out of their planned $13M. Note that super angels are still less than 5% of the seed funding market.

Looking forward to 2012, Dave McClure’s 500 Startups is planning to raise a $50M fund and Chris Sacca’s LOWERCASE Capital is planning to raise $65M.  Healthy increases for both of them, but nothing that will fundamentally shift the industry. Individual angels and traditional angel groups are still driving total volume.

Written by Kevin

April 13, 2012 at 5:29 am

Update on the “Seed Bubble”

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Earlier this year, I showed that there was little hard evidence of a general bubble in seed-stage investing.  As this recent TechCrunch article shows, the meme has persisted.   So I thought I’d take another look to see if anything has changed.

I re-crunched the CVR and NVCA data, including the new information for 1H2011 (which I annualized to make the numbers comparable).  Bottom line: there has been a slight recovery in the angel contribution and continued growth in the superangel segment.  But these increases  have been mostly offset by a decrease inVC seed activity.  (My collation of the data is available in this Excel file.) Here are updated version of the dollar volume charts.

This is about what I expected.  I think angels’ willingness to invest is driven primarily by the macro environment, which has been improving, albeit rather slowly.  I think LPs willingness to give VCs more dollars to invest is driven by both the macro environment and historical fund returns, which have been very poor.

Now I was a little surprised at the super angel situation.  I had expected a really dramatic expansion from super angels.  First, I searched for new super angels using TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and Google.  I only found two.  IMAF (focused on North Carolina) and Michael Arrington’s CrunchFund (no Web site as of this posting).  According to their SEC Form Ds, they are $13M and $16M respectively.

Second, I searched the SEC Edgar database for all the funds on the original list from Chubby Brain.  Other than Quest Venture Partners, I was able to locate filings for all the significant funds.  Jeff Clavier’s SoftTech VC and Ron Conway’s SV Angel both had decent increases, from $15M to $35M and $20M to $40M respectively.  But in my opinion, those two have reputations such that they could support much larger funds.  Equally strong were Lerer Ventures’ increase from $7M to $25M and Thrive Capital’s increase from $10M to $40M.

The big winner was Roger Ehrenberg ‘s IA Ventures with a jump from $25M to $100M!

But nobody else has appeared to raise a new fund.  Even with these increases, the total confirmed super angel dollars “only” rose from $253M to $440M.  That’s a lot, but not the $1B I would have guessed given the press coverage.  Also, a ~$200M boost spread over multiple years just isn’t that significant when you’re talking about a market that is $8.5B per year.

So I’ll stick to my guns.  No general seed bubble (at least for now).

Written by Kevin

November 28, 2011 at 9:42 pm

A Meta-Startup Manifesto

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As most of you know, RSCM is part of the group offering every TechStars company an additional $100K investment.  When we first started talking to the TechStars folks, my immediate reaction was “kindred spirits”.  This was also my reaction when we first spoke with Adeo Ressi of TheFunded and Founder Institute.  Recently, I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I think of us all as similar.  I think I’ve got it.

We’re all meta-startups—startups that working to improve the process of launching startups.

Up until a few years ago, founding a tech startup usually followed the same haphazard process it had for decades.  Founders were pretty much on their own to thrash around and figure out how to test their innovations in the marketplace.  It’s how I did my first startup in 1993.  It’s how I did my last startup in 2004.  Same with Dave Lambert, my partner at RSCM, with his first startup in 1993 and his last in 2003.  It’s what we saw all our entrepreneurial friends do.

This “process” has a high bar for founders to clear and a low success rate, limiting innovation.  Now, the Internet increased the speed at which the haphazard process can execute.  So the situation has modestly improved over the last 15 years.  But what we want is fundamental improvement.  What we want is the equivalent of an Amazon, Google, or Facebook to change the rules of the startup game.

High-volume, high-speed incubators like Y Combinator (2005), TechStars (2006), and Founder Institute (2009) are a great leap forward in discovering a more systematic startup process.  They’re paving the way toward more startups, higher success rates, and dramatically more innovation.  Many of the improvements they pioneer should diffuse out into startup community.  So they’ll enable startup in general, not just the ones in their programs, to launch more smoothly.

Our role in this revolution is eliminating the huge seed stage funding roadblock.  Now, with all the press about angels and superangels funding startups in Silicon Valley and New York, you may think getting seed funding is easy.  But I’ve run the numbers.  Seed funding is actually down 40% from it’s peak in 2005.  I’m pretty sure the cost of doing a startup hasn’t dropped 40%.   And I’m quite sure that the number of quality founding teams hasn’t dropped 40%.

Startups succeed by challenging conventional wisdom.  As a meta-startup, we are no different.  Luckily, our job is easier than most tech startups’.  They have to challenge the conventional wisdom about the future of technology.  There just isn’t much data to go on.  We have to challenge the conventional wisdom about funding startups.  In our case, there’s a lot of data that existing investors are just ignoring:

  • The seed stage generates very high returns.  There’s a good dataset of angel investments from the Kauffman Foundation, mostly from 1998 and later.  Depending on your selection criteria, returns are at least 30% and possibly over 40%.  Calculations here and here.
  • You can’t pick winners at the seed stage.  This is precisely the kind of prediction tasks where “gut feel” or “expert judgement” performs poorly.  Human predictions almost never beat even a simple checklist.  Review of evidence here.
  • Interviewing founding teams is a poor indicator of their ability.  There’s been an incredible amount of research trying to figure out how to predict who will be good at which job tasks.  Unstructured interviews are the worst predictor.  Highly structured interviews or matching of past experience to current requirements does better.  Review of evidence here.
  • Grand slams aren’t necessary to achieve high returns.  You don’t have to do anything special to make sure you get the “best” deals.  First, nobody has shown they can identify such startups before they release a product.  Second, even if all you get is base hits, you’ll still have returns of about 30%.  Calculation here.

The conclusion from this evidence is pretty straightforward.  But it implies a seed-stage funding approach very different what we see today.  A classic opportunity for a startup (or meta-startup).

If the seed stage has high average returns but you can’t pick specific winners, basic financial theory says to use a portfolio approach.  You want enough investments to have a reasonably high confidence of achieving the average return.  I’ve done the calculation, and my conclusion is that you want to build a portfolio of hundreds of seed-stage investments.

That may sound like an unreasonable number.  But if you don’t have to spend hours doing multiple interviews of every founding team, you can dramatically streamline the process.  In fact, we have a demo version of our software that can produce a pre-money valuation from an online application in a few seconds [Edit 3/16/2013: we took down the Web app in Jan 2013 because it wasn’t getting enough hits anymore to justify maintaining it.  We continue to use the algorithm internally as a spreadsheet app]. After that, it’s a  matter of back-office automation.  Luckily, previous generations of startups have made such automation pretty easy.

Just think about how these conclusions should lead to a much better environment for seed stage startups.  Investors will actually decrease risk by making more investments.  The same process that allows them to efficiently building a large portfolio means they can give a much faster response to entrepreneurs.  Lower transaction costs mean startups will see more of the money investors put on the table.  As always, innovation is a win-win.  And in this case, we’re innovating in the process of funding innovation.  A meta-innovation, if you will.

Even better, the average person on the street wins too.  Because, as I’ve shown before here and here, increasing the rate of startup formation increases the rate of economic growth.  So if meta-startups can permanently increase this rate, the returns to society as a whole will quickly compound.

Written by Kevin

October 11, 2011 at 12:37 am

Posted in Economics, Innovation

Moneyball for Tech Startups: Kevin’s Remix

with 14 comments

Several people have pointed me to Dan Frommer’s post on Moneyball for Tech Startups, noting that “Moneyball” is actually a pretty good summary of our approach to seed-stage investing at RSCM.  Steve Bennet, one of our advisors and investors, went so far as to kindly make this point publicly on his blog.

Regular readers already know that I’ve done a fair bit of Moneyball-type analysis using the available evidence for technology startups (see here, here, here, here, here, and here).  But I thought I’d take this opportunity to make the analogy explicit.

I’d like to start by pointing out two specific elements of Moneyball, one that relates directly to technology startups and one that relates only indirectly:

  • Don’t trust your gut feel, directly related.  There’s a quote in the movie where Beane says, “Your gut makes mistakes and makes them all the time.”  This is as true of tech startups as it is of baseball prospects.  In fact, there’s been a lot of research on gut feel (known in academic circles as “expert clinical judgement”).  I gave a fairly detailed account of the research in this post, but here’s the summary.  Expert judgement never beats a statistical model built on a substantial data set.  It rarely even beats a simple checklist, and then only in cases where the expert sees thousands of examples and gets feedback on most of the outcomes.  Even when it comes to evaluating people, gut feel just doesn’t work.  Unstructured interviews are the worst predictor of job performance.
  • Use a “player” rating algorithm, indirectly related.  In Moneyball, Beane advocates basing personnel decisions on statistical analyses of player performance.  Of course, the typical baseball player has hundreds to thousands of plate appearances, each recorded in minute detail.  A typical tech startup founder has 0-3 plate appearances, recorded at only the highest level.  Moreover, with startups, the top 10% of the startups account for about 80% of the all the returns.  I’m not a baseball stats guy, but I highly doubt the top 10% of players account for 80% of the offense in the Major Leagues.  So you’ve got much less data and much more variance with startups.  Any “player” rating system will therefore be much worse.

Despite the difficulty of constructing a founder rating algorithm, we can follow the general prescription of trying to find bargains.  Don’t invest in “pedigreed” founders, with startups in hot sectors, that have lots of “social proof”, located in the Bay Area.  Everyone wants to invest in those companies.  So, as we saw in Angel Gate, valuations in these deals go way up.  Instead, invest in a wide range of founders, in a wide range of sectors, before their startups have much social proof, across the entire US. Undoubtedly, these startups have a lower chance of succeeding. But the difference is more than made up for by lower valuations.  Therefore, achieving better returns is simply a matter of adequate diversification, as I’ve demonstrated before.

Now, to balance out the disadvantage in rating “players”, startup investors have an advantage over baseball managers.  The average return of pure seed stage angel deals is already plenty high, perhaps over 40% IRR in the US according to my calculation.  You don’t need to beat the market.  In fact, contrary to popular belief, you don’t even need to try and predict “homerun” startups.  I’ve shown you’d still crush top quartile VC returns even if you don’t get anything approaching a homerun.  Systematic base hits win the game.

But how do you pick seed stage startups?  Well, the good news from the research on gut feel is that experts are actually pretty good at identifying important variables and predicting whether they positively or negatively affect the outcome.  They just suck at combining lots of variables into an overall judgement.  So we went out and talked to angels and VCs.  Then, based on the the most commonly cited desirable characteristics, we built a simple checklist model for how to value seed-stage startups.

We’ve made the software that implements our model publicly available so anybody can try it out [Edit 3/16/2013: we took down the Web app in Jan 2013 because it wasn’t getting enough hits anymore to justify maintaining it.  We continue to use the algorithm internally as a spreadsheet app].  We’ve calibrated it against a modest number of deals.  I’ll be the first to admit that this model is currently fairly crude.  But the great thing about an explicit model is that you can systematically measure results and refine it over time.  The even better thing about an explicit model is you can automate it, so you can construct a big enough portfolio.

That’s how we’re doing Moneyball for tech startups.

Written by Kevin

September 27, 2011 at 10:56 pm

The VC "Homerun" Myth

with 9 comments

In spreading the word about RSCM, I recently encountered a question that led to some interesting findings.  A VC from a respected firm, known for its innovative approach, brought up the issue of “homeruns”.  In his experience, every successful fund had at least one monster exit.  He was concerned that RSCM would never get into those deals and therefore, have trouble generating good returns.

My initial response was that we’ll get into those deals before they are monsters.  We don’t need the reputation of a name firm because the guys we want to fund don’t have any of the proof points name firms look for.  They’ll attract the big firms some time after they take our money.  Of course, this answer is open to debate.  Maybe there is some magical personal characteristics that allows the founders of Google, Facebook, and Groupon to get top-tier interest before having proof points.

So I went and looked at the data to answer the question, “What if we don’t get any homeruns at all?”  The answer was surprising.

I started with our formal backtest, which I produced using the general procedure described in a previous post.  It used the criteria of no follow-on and stage <= 2, as well as eliminating any company in a non-technology sector or capital-intensive one such as manufacturing and biotechnology.

Now, the AIPP data does not provide the valuation of the company at exit.  However, I figured that I could apply increasingly stringent criteria to weed out any homeruns:

  1. The payout to the investor was < $5M.
  2. The payout to the investor was < $2.5M
  3. The payout to the investor was < $2.5M AND the payout multiple was < 25X.

It’s hard to imagine an investment in any big winner that wouldn’t hit at least the third threshold.  In fact, even scenarios (1) and (2) are actually pretty unfair to us because they exclude outcomes where we invest $100K for 20% of a startup, get diluted to 5-10%, and then the company has a modest $50M exit.  That’s actually our target investment!  But I wanted to be as conservative as possible.

The base case was 42% IRR and a 3.7x payout multiple.  The results for the three scenarios are:

  1. 42% IRR, 2.7x multiple
  2. 36% IRR, 2.4x multiple
  3. 29% IRR, 2.1x multiple

Holy crap!  Even if you exclude anything that could be remotely considered a homerun, you’d still get a 29% IRR!

As you can see, the multiple goes down more quickly than the IRR. Large exits take longer than small exits so when you exclude the large exits, you get lower hold times, which helps maintain IRR.  But that also means you could turn around and reinvest your profits earlier.  So IRR is what you care about from an asset class perspective.

For comparison, the top-quartile VC funds currently have 10-year returns of less than 10% IRR, according to Cambridge AssociatesSo investing in an index of non-homerun startups is better than investing in the funds that are the best at picking homeruns. (Of course, VC returns could pick up if you believe that the IPO and large acquisition market is going to finally make a comeback after 10 years.)

I’ve got to admit that the clarity of these results surprised even me.  So in the words of Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, “I think we’ve got to call this myth BUSTED.”

(Excel files: basecase, scenario 1, scenario 2, scenario 3)

Written by Kevin

August 23, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Don’t Forget the State Budgets!

with 4 comments

Surprise!  Another post on state budgets.  Apparently, this topic has become at least a pet peeve and perhaps a mild obsession.  Today, I saw that Tyler Cowen replicated a graph from a post by Karl Smith, a professor at UNC.  The claim is that government tax revenues aren’t growing as fast as they used to and that eventually this may result in a relative decrease in the role of government.  (There’s a backstory of political commentary here that I’m ignoring because it’s not relevant to my point.)

Of course, Karl only looked at federal government revenues.  However, with my state budget OCD, I immediately saw the flaw in this analysis.  As one would expect from a public economics professor, he did a good job of controlling for inflation and population, but he forgot that the federal government isn’t the only one with it’s hands in our pockets.

Here are his graph of real per capita federal revenues and my graph of real per capita federal+state+local revenues.

Karl claims that the slope has changed since 2000 so that the rate of growth has significantly slowed or even turned negative.  But I claim that if you add in state and local revenues, the peak to peak trend seems relatively steady since about 1980.  (Note that Karl’s graph is of quarterly data and mine is of annual data, because the state and local series is only available yearly.)

Here are his graph and my graph of the 10 year growth rates:

The peak and trough from this last business cycle look very slightly lower, but my eyeball estimate is that it’s not significant.  Government spending has continued it’s inexorable rise.  All that’s happened is we’ve shifted the relative tax burden modestly from the federal level to the state+local level.

(Like Karl, I generated the data using the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis’ FRED Graph tool.)

Written by Kevin

June 7, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Posted in Government