The favor economy vs. the show-off economy

June 15, 2015

I received an email from a work acquaintance today. It’s in a stack of about 500 emails, some from people I interact with regularly, some from strangers. This acquaintance was in the middle of the friend vs stranger spectrum, but when performing triage on all those emails, he was among the most important.

The reason? He once did me a favor.

Specifically, he came and spoke in my venture capital class. So now, he moves to the top of the queue when he emails me.

It occurs to me that I do this all the time. The nature of the venture capital business is one of being nice to, and hopefully helpful to, a whole range of people. I try to do favors whenever I can. In the back of my mind, I hope that one day this will work out for me. Someone will send me a great deal, a great connection, an investor in my fund. But I don’t keep track. There is no tally of gives and gets. This isn’t accounting for money. These are favors. And not the mafioso “now you owe me” favors. Just nice things.

In addition to venture capital, it seems that business, politics, entertainment, athletics, basically all fields of human endeavor are fields where relationships can be the difference between success and failure.

As our culture moves more and more towards “look at me” and “I’m great” public projections of our fragile egos, it seems that relationships, and getting ahead, would benefit more from a favor economy than a show-off economy.

Now, if only I could find an app for that.

VCs as TV Stars

December 11, 2014

Dave McClure of 500 Startups, a seed fund in Silicon Valley, has just announced that he’s going to be the star of an Anthony Bourdain style reality show (it is in fact produced by the same company).

This raises an interesting question for venture fund strategy: Does star power improve financial returns?

This is an important question because Limited Partners in venture firms entrust their capital to the firm’s partners (in this case about $50m or so) with hopes of multiplying that capital. The focus is the money, and by extension, the companies the money flows to. If the focus becomes the personalities managing the money, will that lead to distraction? Is the eye still on the financial ball?

Or, craftily, will Limited Partners say “Hey, that guy is interesting and smart and not afraid to use F-bombs on TV, I want to give him millions of dollars to invest for me!” ?

Will the world’s best entrepreneurs say “I like how entertaining he was with that company he invested in. He deserves to invest in my company more than Greylock or Sequoia or NEA!”?

Dave, I count you as a friend. We need to see each other more. Could it really have been as long as the last clove cigarette encounter? Anyway, I’m interested in your thoughts on this one. OK, I’m interested in other readers thoughts as well. What do you think?

15,000 passengers try to fill lifeboats which hold 1,500

November 17, 2014

15,000 people are on an (admittedly large) ship, preparing to steam through treacherous North Atlantic seas. On this particular trip, forecasters put the odds of hitting a cataclysmic iceberg above 50%. The ship has lifeboat space for 1,500.

Do you get on the ship?

If the “ship” is “starting a seed funded company”, then I bet you do. The “icebergs”, of course, are the chance that your company runs afoul of its primary problem — lack of cash.

It turns out that, depending on your data sources, about 15,000 companies are funded by seed funders — everyone from Angelist to your Uncle Beavis. But only 1,500 companies per year are subsequently funded by Venture Capitalists.

Now that’s OK if a few hundred kilobucks is all you need for the life of your company.  But the odds of  a seed backed startup hitting an iceberg, of running out of cash, are quite a bit above 50% in actuality.  If you need more capital, and your rich Uncle Beavis is all tapped out, then you’re going to need more. And VCs are investing in just 10% of you. The “lifeboats” are full. Enjoy the swim; the water is cold.

As a startup company, don’t forget this key point: If you are a money losing entity, your “customer” is more money. The money it takes to get you to cash flow break even is the “lifeboat”. Before cash-flow breakeven, having thousands of downloads of your mobile app, garnering paying customers, or building great product technology are only relevant to the extent that they get you more capital to keep the ship afloat.

And that later money, that lifeboat, is ten times harder to get than the ticket that got you on this leaky ship.

My genomic breeding nightmare

September 30, 2014

For everyone worried about being dominated by our robot overlords or an impending zombie apocalypse, I have a different fear — eugenics style genomic breeding programs.

This from a fellow VC investing in DNA testing companies:

“Already underway in (country x).  Genetic testing is 100x less expensive than when Craig Venter did it first, and over the next 5 years it can become cheap enough that you’ll get you’re DNA tested every time blood is drawn in order to look for changes.”

So (country x) is testing Nobel Prize winners, smart kids in class, and athletes to build a model of DNA markers that create these positive attributes.  Then, they can easily clone a mother’s egg 10,000 times or so, expose them all to spermatozoa, and then test the combined DNA of those 10,000 embryos.  The parents, or (country x), can pick the one with the best genetic markers for genius or athleticism or whatever.”

Voila.  Engineered kids.

I wonder if the smart ones will also have Aspergers symptoms, or the strong ones will have academics bred out of them.  It might be scary, but if they find the DNA marker for “Teenage Irritation Syndrome” I might be a customer.  We could dial that down.


Join the 9 syllable poetry movement

May 6, 2014

I was listening to a radio story about poetry, something we all think we know a lot about. Well, my interpretation of the goal of poetry is to convey a complex story or feeling in as few syllables as possible. For you millennials, poetry is a type of constrained communication — just like Twitter.

Sure, meter and rhyme can matter as well, but it was the frugality of words that struck me. And, in a strange act for a non-poet, I came up with the following:

“Cut costs”
said my spouse,
who costs a lot.

Maybe not for you, but this conveys a complex relationship between two people in just 9 syllables.  Even shorter than haiku.  Is the poet a man or a woman (my wife insists I tell you it’s not me speaking)?  Is the person quoted fearful or just fiscally conservative?  Is the speaker’s view the truth or just a faulty perception?  The poet, receiving this news, has an opinion about the speaker.  But is “a lot” of cost = “too much” cost?  Or is it the speaker’s hypocrisy that is at issue.  For that matter, what exactly are the costs that the spouse incurs — purely monetary?  What will happen next…

SO TRY IT!  respond here with a 9 syllable poem.  Need not rhyme.  It does not need the 2-3-4 syllable structure of my lines.  We can start a movement.

How did you spend the “bonus year”?

April 25, 2014

April 10th has come and gone.  It’s the anniversary of my narrow escape from death by car.  Read about it here.

As it turns out, during the exact moment of this anniversary, I was teaching a class at Stanford.  This is roughly what I said to class:

Exactly one year ago to the minute, I nearly died when a car hit me while bicycling.  I was lucky — my injuries were minor and the geometry was fortunate — just 6 inches to the left and I would have been far worse.

During the same week last year, in an accident very similar to mine, Joy Covey, founding CFO of, friend of many in Silicon Valley, had less fortunate geometry.  While on a lunchtime ride, she was hit, and she died.  At the end of the school day, her son waited for her on the curb as he always did.  And waited.  And waited.  Just imagine that waiting.  Mom always comes.  But not that day.  In the confusion and grief, no one told the school or went to console her son.

So I was given a bonus year, to do something more.  Today I went on a bike ride as my secular prayer, and to reflect on how I have used the year.  I find myself lacking.  I didn’t laugh enough.  I didn’t make other laugh enough.  I didn’t accomplish enough.  I have work to do on me and in the world.

What have you done in the last year?  And what are you going to do in the next?  Today could be the beginning of your bonus year.  We could celebrate it together.  It will be a year we won’t waste.  One we value, savor, build.  And next year, on April 10th, we could get together and judge our performance, and urge ourselves towards more.

You owe your parents’ debts from 30 years ago. Plus puppy photos

April 22, 2014

This blows my mind. If your parents were (maybe) overpaid by the government for things like social security or welfare, you will have to repay it, even if it was 30 years ago. This from the Washington Post (April 10):

A few weeks ago, with no notice, the U.S. government intercepted Mary Grice’s tax refunds from both the IRS and the state of Maryland. Grice had no idea that Uncle Sam had seized her money until some days later, when she got a letter saying that her refund had gone to satisfy an old debt to the government — a very old debt.

When Grice was 4, back in 1960, her father died, leaving her mother with five children to raise. Until the kids turned 18, Sadie Grice got survivor benefits from Social Security to help feed and clothe them.

Now, Social Security claims it overpaid someone in the Grice family — it’s not sure who — in 1977. After 37 years of silence, four years after Sadie Grice died, the government is coming after her daughter. Why the feds chose to take Mary’s money, rather than her surviving siblings’, is a mystery.

We all know our government is the world’s best accountant, so their record must be right.  Right?  Who’s with me?  No one?  Hello?  I guess you’re right, it turns out that even though the Social Security Administration was sending Grice’s SS checks to her current address, they were sending notices of this debt to her old address from 1977.  OK, maybe their record-keeping is pretty shoddy.  But you still owe them whatever they say.  It’s like the old child’s game — “I’m thinking of a number between $100 and $100,000…”

Debts belong to adult individuals or adult married couples.  They do not pass down through generations, or else Bernie Madoff’s great grandkids are going to be bumming.  We do not have debtor’s prisons.  Oh, wait, we are trying to bring them back.

This feels like the freedom pendulum swinging towards business and government rather than having laws which protect individuals from those with more power.  Because of this, you are going to have to start keeping your parents old tax returns for 50 years in a vain attempt to save yourself from retroactive penalty.  Because there is no recourse here.  Also from the Washington Post:

Grice was also told there was little point in seeking a waiver of her debt. Collections can only be halted if the person passes two tests, Clark said: The taxpayer must prove that he “is without fault, and [that] repayment of the overpayment would deprive the person of income needed for ordinary living expenses.”

More than 1,200 appeals have been filed on the old cases, Clark said; taxpayers have won about 10 percent of those appeals.

Now if the Social Security Administration can just combine this with the NSA snooping databases, they can start demanding money from you if you say bad things about the government.  Uh, um, right.  About that.  I’m not saying bad things.  This isn’t critique.  Really, sir.  This is just a light-hearted reflection on Labradoodles, this year’s designer dog:


Who makes money in Facebook’s $2B Oculus Rift Purchase?

April 1, 2014

Facebook bought Oculus Rift, a bit of geeky, Borg-like headgear, for $2B.  Never mind that the company has yet to ship a product.  Their venture backers made more than 50x their initial investments.  The true initial investors, individuals, invested in the company via Kickstarter, which helps companies raise money.  They received T-shirts or discounted pre-release headgear.

And that’s all the initial investors made.  The trouble with Kickstarter is that initial investors aren’t equity owners – they don’t participate in the upside like a venture fund.  And the original Kickstarter investors are fuming over Oculus Rift!

But the real trouble is with the JOBS act, which in theory allows individuals that have no demonstrated financial acumen to invest in start-up companies.  Previously, accredited investor laws limited certain types of investments for those that had sufficient personal financial assets as a proxy for their level of financial sophistication.

Proponents of the act claim that start-ups create jobs and generate financial success, and every American should be able to participate in that.

But this forgets one important, historical lesson.  The laws were created originally because hucksters, shysters, and con-men would take advantage of individuals, sucking their money into “fly by night” schemes.  Start-ups are pretty darn risky.  Full time VC investors see thousands of deals, invest in half a dozen, and still get it wrong 50% of the time.

Kickstarter is not a huckster.  They clearly state that you are not investing in the company, merely giving it money.  The fact that those initial Kickstarter supporters are now up in arms underlines the problem with the JOBS act — these early supporters were not appropriately qualified for this type of investment.

We’ll hear more over the coming years of individuals that are bilked by start-up companies or their fund-raisers.  At some point, when the Bernie Madoff moment arrives, we’ll reinstate the protections lost in the JOBS act.  In the meantime, remember the old adage “if you can’t spot the sucker in the room, it’s you.”


Is Russia a threat? Only if we fight back

March 25, 2014

Today I’ve been thinking about Russia and it’s potential invasion of the rest of Ukraine.  Here is how the logic goes:

  1. The US plus EU have a GDP 15 times Russia’s.  Russia’s GDP is about the size of Italy’s
  2. I don’t feel threatened by Italy
  3. But then again, Italy doesn’t all those nuclear weapons
  4. Nuclear weapons matter.

    Does GDP matter like it did in the second world war? Which then sent me off to understand the GDP perspective on the second world war.  It turns out that at the beginning of the second world war, Germany and it’s ally Italy, after neutralizing the USSR by treaty, were fairly evenly matched against France and the UK GDP wise.  So they invaded Poland.  Then they invaded France and fairly quickly finished them off.  At this point, with only the UK’s GDP to fight against, Germany’s victory seemed assured.  Then, of course, the Germans decided to declare war on the USSR, the Japanese on the US, and by 1942 it was clear that any long ground war was going to be won by the Allies and their superior GDP.  So, new point:

  5. GDP only matters in a prolonged ground war.

    And now the rest of the logic:

  6. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would not be a prolonged ground war.
  7. Russia’s nuclear weapons keep the US and EU from entering into a prolonged ground war.
  8. Russia’s GDP doesn’t matter.

Invade away, Putin!  We’ll slap some sanctions on you.  We’ll downsize the G8 to the G7.  A few years from now, we’ll forgive you (and if you don’t believe that, check out Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus and Morocco’s invasion of the Western Sahara).

Prepare for Financial Armageddon

October 9, 2013

This is a note I’ve started sending to some friends.

Hi!  Short note to say I’ve decided that by Monday I will have as much of my money as I can get my hands on comfortably placed under my mattress.  I’m basically saying the odds of theft from my hiding place are lower than the odds of a banking system lock up.

In the one percent chance (according to Deutsche Bank) that the treasury bill market locks up on October 17th, one thing that locks up with it could be the banking system, including credit card transactions.  I want a number of months cash on hand.  I may delay if the government does a temporary extension.  i’ll monitor it daily through Monday.

In some ways it feels very reactionary of me to do this.  On the other hand, it’s completely reversible, I can just redeposit it when things are settled.  Also on this other hand, I have lots of health, auto, and home insurance to protect me from events whose odds are less this week than the odds of a banking liquidity crunch.  So it seems prudent.

I’m not currently selling stock, but I am debating.  My portfolio is already down 10% so I think I’m going to ride it out.  However, Deutsche Bank also says that partial repayment of America’s previously incurred debt could lead the stock markets to a 45% drop.  That’s more than twice the stock market drop leading the Great Depression.

I wanted you to know what I was thinking.  Depending on the withdrawal size, banks may limit daily withdrawals or require a number of days to fulfill the request.  So I’ll work to understand that today, for me.

Just wanted you to know what I’m thinking so as to get you to think about it as well.  Feel free to pass this along.



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