Author Archives: auren

a service to help you understand all the products and services your friends use

Enter: UltimateReviewer!

If you’re a company and want to pick a vendor, you can check out what products companies you admire use (see SafeGraph’s list of vendors on Siftery (a service of G2 crowd)). You can browse tools they use and discover tools that make sense for your company.

But there is no way to do this in your personal life.

Want to learn what the best mattress is? The most efficient way is to either go to a definitive review site (like WireCutter) or poll your friends on Twitter/Facebook. It would be a lot better if many of the people you know have already logged what mattress they use and what they think about it.

Of course, this is true for everything you use. What to find a plumber? What about a good tennis racket? How about where is a good kid-friendly resort near Tampa?

Note: This is a series of my free open-sourced business ideas. Feel free to copy, fork, use them, etc. All I ask is that if you become a bazillionaire, you must take me to dinner.

Getting a graph of your friends and colleagues today is cheap. It is easy. You can pull down graphs from Facebook, Twitter, and your mobile contacts.

But 15 years after the social networking revolution, it is still amazing that most of these services are 100% aligned to get you to spend massive time on the site (all about user engagement) rather than focused on giving you more value. Most social graph services are just about time wasting rather than making you much more productive or knowledgable (which is where their real power comes in).

There should be a service to help you understand what you want to spend money on and giving you tools to more quickly and efficiently make purchases. This is still a holy grail of the Internet that has not yet fulfilled its promise.

You can get a full list of someone’s purchases or actions by asking them to auth their email (or credit card or physical location). You can get a graph of their friends from email mining, Facebook, Twitter, auth’ing contacts, and more. Combine what you bought and who you know and you have real power to help people!

People spend a crazy number of hours researching things to buy. They research and research and research. And then research some more. Sometimes it is a local search (like house cleaner, plumber, doctor, dentist, or car repair). Sometimes it is more of a global search (like the best bluetooth earbuds). Many people spend more time planning their vacation than actually being on vacation.

Imagine a service where one can put in past purchases and it uses that data to recommend products (purely unbiased). The service should be acting in the REAL best interest of the consumer (not like most recommendation services which are specifically designed or gamed or hawk specific higher margin products) so one can implicitly trust the service.

Purchases can be anonymized for privacy reasons (so the service does not broadcast to others that “Auren Hoffman” bought the headphones … but instead it aggregated to give real value AND protect sensitive information.

Of course, the simple revenue stream is affiliate links. But once you get the trust of the buyer, you can also add an ad-words-like feature (which would be incredibly compelling to an advertiser to get in front of a person right at the time of purchase).

Summation: UltimateReviewer is another billion-dollar idea that I will never do … so offering the idea up for free to all of you to take on.

America’s Bank – struggle to create Federal Reserve – great book

If you want to learn more about early 20th-Century America, look no further than America’s Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve by Roger Lowenstein.

You will learn a a great deal about the years from 1907 – 1914, about the great figures of the time (William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Nelson Aldrich, Paul Warburg, Carter Glass, JP Morgan, and more).

Before the creation of the Federal Reserve (in December 1913), money was issued by banks, not by the state. (Even after 1913, it took a long while for the federal government to issue money that we think of today).

A $20 bill from 1900 issued by the First National Bank of Carlyle, Illinois

Much of banking was decentralized and uncoordinated. While this had the pro-Jeffersonian benefits of having limited involvement from the Federal Government, it led to a lot of boom and bust cycles.

Lowenstein is also the author of When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management (which is a fantastic book) which covers a much more active Federal Reserve 85 years later.

One of the most interesting things that I learned from this book is that in the early 1900s, protectionism was championed by the entrenched aristocracy (the wealthy business people and the New York bankers) and the anti-tariff movement was championed by the populists (like William Jennings Bryan). Of course, today, tariffs are seen as a populist agenda. Interesting how issues can flip over a hundred years.

Summation: America’s Bank is worthwhile and well-written book. Rating 4 of 5.

Venture Capitalists are MUCH LESS ambitious than their private equity siblings

Venture capitalists rarely take their own advice when it comes to their own businesses.

There’s a common narrative that venture capital doesn’t scale. That narrative is so well accepted as truth that venture capitalists themselves don’t bother taking the advice that they generally dole out.

Here are some common truisms that are often passed down by VCs but aren’t applied in their own business:

Establish dominant market share and become the very best. VCs advise companies to find a niche and exploit it — and do not enter a super competitive space. But the venture capital industry is crazy competitive — often competing with 100 firms (that are usually staffed with super-smart people).

Have one CEO. VCs advise companies to have one core decision-maker. In the rare case, maybe there is a co-CEO. But many VC firms are run as a partnership with 3–8 equal partners (though some partners may be more equal than others). They’d never invest in a company run by committee.

Founders should demonstrate deep commitment to future value creation by taking low salaries. But VCs do not usually trade some of their short-term salaries for long-term upside. Most VCs pay themselves salaries out of their typical 2% management fees. If VCs took their own advice, they would be using most of that 2% fee to build systems and invest in the future. Or they would trade the bulk of the management fee for greater carry.

Companies should invest in growth and market dominance over profitability. But VCs themselves are extremely profitable. They do not hire aggressively, invest in technology, spend time on automation, or make any of the other investments in themselves that they would expect their portfolio companies to make.

Leverage existing advantages to expand into adjacent markets. VCs want companies to hire great people and continually level-up the management team. Yet the VCs grow their own businesses very slowly and do not take risks. VCs rarely move into adjacent markets, expand their brand, etc.

Keep expenses low — spend less on rent, fly economy, and generally be frugal. Yet most VCs do the opposite with their own expenses — often spending lavishly on rent, travel & entertainment, and more.

Companies should be long-term focused and should be doing things that outlast the founders. But many VCs set up their firms in a short-term oriented way. VCs often have much bigger key-man risks than the companies they invest in. And VCs, even successful VCs, rarely outlast their founders.

Governance structure in portfolio companies is a high priority. VCs think it is wise to have investors and independents on a company’s board. But VCs themselves often have much less oversight. Many thrive on potential conflicts of interest.

Companies should go public and being a public company is very good for the long-term. But venture capital firms themselves rarely go public.

Acquisitions can be accretive and strategic. The growth of a synergistic merger often can outweigh the dilution that comes from growing the firm. VCs rarely acquire other firms.

Venture Capitalists, as a class, are much less ambitious than one would expect.

Almost no venture capitalist would fund themselves. They are looking to fund people that are essentially the opposite of themselves. They are looking to fund outliers because their returns come in power laws. But for their own business, they are looking to play it safe and be conservative.

VCs generally do not want to rock the boat. They don’t want to do something different. They don’t want to change the industry. In fact, for many VCs, their biggest fear is that the industry will fundamentally change. They want to keep collecting their two and twenty.

That’s not to say there are not ambitious venture capitalists. There are. Many people are looking at changing the game. Naval Ravikant’s AngelList is a full frontal assault on venture capital. Tim Draper invented the venture capital franchise model. Masayoshi Son’s Softbank Vision Fund is changing everything in the late-stage venture capital (as did Yuri Milner’s DST before that). Sequoia’s amazing work ethic and competitiveness to be number one. Peter Thiel runs four large venture capital funds, a global marco hedge fund, and many other investing vehicles. Chamath Palihapitiya’s Social Capital is taking a long view on venture capital. Chris Farmer’s SignalFire, while yet unproven, is attempting to automate venture capital through data (like Renaissance Technologies and Two Sigma has done in the hedge fund world). Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz create a full-service firm which aims to have the best marketing, best recruiting, best conferences, etc. And the most ambitious people in Silicon Valley may well be Paul Graham, Jessica Livingston, and Sam Altman from Y Combinator.

Many readers may have an adverse reaction to some of the people above. They may think these people too bold or too reckless. And some of them may well be (time will tell). They will not all succeed with their grand ambitions. But their ambition is exciting. It is refreshing. And these individuals are acting more like the entrepreneurs they fund than the classic VCs that are the funders.

Most venture capital firms are surprisingly less ambitious than the entrepreneurs they fund. And they are also much less ambitious than their siblings who run private equity firms and their cousins who run hedge funds.

Private equity firms are run significantly differently from venture capital firms. As a recap:

  • PE firms have 1 or 2 CEOs. VCs have 3-8 CEOs
  • PE firms make large investments in back-office, consulting, and data science (Vista Equity has been so successful with this model). VCs usually don’t.
  • PE firms create new products and become international fast (Blackrock spun out of Blackstone … and Blackstone also built up an incredibly successful real estate practice). VCs rarely create new huge products.
  • PE firms focus on having succession plans. VCs have trouble making the transition.
  • Many PE firms are public. It is extremely rare for a VC to be public.

PE firms are generally much more ambitious than VCs. They are often 10-100 times larger in size (both in the number of people they employ and in the dollars under management). And they generally have much larger dreams.

The most successful PE titans are more wealthy than the most successful VCs. And while wealth does not equal ambition … it is correlated. There are an order of magnitude more PE billionaires than VC billionaires. And many of the most successful VCs made more money founding companies before they became VCs than they did as VCs.

Lack of ambition among VCs could be feature (not a bug).

Many entrepreneurs like the idea that venture capitalists are less ambitious. A founder might not want want someone on their board that is crazy ambitious … because that VC might not be able to make time for the new founder.

So there is definitely a possibility that perverse thing could happen: a less ambitious VC might actually be more successful because it might allow them to get into the best deals. (Yes, this is a weird theory and there is a 58% chance I will disavow it in the future … in fact, there is a 38% chance I will disavow this entire post in the future).

Of course, there is nothing wrong with only wanting to be worth $200 million and not $2 billion. That extra zero is not going to change their lifestyle much. So why rock the boat for that extra zero? Why get everyone to hate you to get that extra zero? Why take huge risks for an extra zero that is not going to change your life?

Venture capital can think bigger.

A few random thoughts that an ambitious venture firm might think more about:

  • Instead of ruling by consensus, VC firms could have a designated CEO (or co-CEO). While many firms do have this in practice, making this more explicit would add clarity.
  • Fund-by-fund equity really creates short-termism and creates lots of conflicting incentives. Imagine if Amazon gave out equity in each of product lines (AWS, Prime Video, e-commerce, Alexa, etc.). Ultimately an evergreen fund (like Berkshire Hathaway) will lead to greater ambition.
  • Passing the baton to a new generation should not completely wipe out the equity of the older VCs that founded the firm. But the older VCs can’t keep running the firm while spending most of their time at their winery either. Being a good VC should be intense and take over 60+ hours a week. The older VCs could maintain equity in the evergreen company while issuing new equity to new employees (and new LPs).
  • Run the firm with the aim to go public. That’s how you run a company. Think about how to get big.
  • Look to acquire other firms. And yes VC is a services firm — but services firms can be run well at scale. Think of Accenture which has $41 billion in revenues and market cap of almost $100 billion at the time of this writing.
  • Defer more cash payments to equity. While layering fees has been a great way to get rich in the last 15 years, it does seem like this model is very fragile.
  • Look to dominate a niche (rather than competing with the smartest people in the world). Look to build a moat and some sort of network effect. That might mean significantly changing the game (like AngelList or Y Combinator).

Summation: Venture Capital firms rarely take their own advice when running their own firm. Private Equity firms (like Blackstone, KKR, Vista Equity Partners, etc.) are actually much more like venture portfolio companies than VCs are.

This is modified from a Feb 2018 Quora post.  Special thank you to Tod Sacerdoti, Jeff Lu, Tim Draper, Will Quist, Joe Lonsdale, Bill Trenchard, Ian Sigalow, Villi Iltchev, and Alex Rosen for their insights, thoughts, and debates on this topic.

Big Ambitions: Robert F. Smith, CEO of Vista Equity Partners

The Dinner Party — restaurant for engaging discussions

So you and your significant other are headed out for the night. You want to do something intellectually interesting … but going to a lecture can be so boring. Plus, there is no good food at a lecture. You could go to a movie but the only thing playing is Transformers 8. So what to do?

Enter a new restaurant theme: The Dinner Party.

Note: This is a series of my free open-sourced business ideas. Feel free to copy, fork, use them, etc. All I ask is that if you become a bazillionaire, you must take me to dinner.

Buying a ticket (pay-up-front to prevent no-shows) is required for to The Dinner Party. You arrive at a designated time (like 8p) and you sign up for the type of discussion you’d like — from religion, art history, sports, entertainment, modern history, physics, bio-ethics, book discussions, or even U.S. politics. You also choose a knowledge level.

You can come single, with your significant other, come with a sibling, or arrive in a big group. You get assigned to a table of the topic of your choice. The table has up to 8 people and is very small so you can hear everyone at the table (ideally the room has a series of small sound-proof booths) complete with question cards to pose to the table.

The Dinner Party would be a marketplace for dinner discussions. It can help create a better world by allowing people to change their mind.

It is simple and fun. But it is work. And it is run as a “private club” so you can readily exclude “members” that are jerks or not respectful of others (or people that get insulted too easily). Everyone rates their table mates and The Dinner Party keeps tabs of everyone’s ratings. Want to be at the big kids’ table … you have to prove yourself over time.

It is like having a built-in intellectual Dialog any night of the week. And if you are on a business trip in Kansas City and do not know anyone there, this is a great place to have an interesting discussion, learn a lot, and meet super interesting people.

There is a real need and desire for people to learn and to engage with others. But most smart people do not want to just be talked to … they want a real participatory discussion.

Summation: count me and my wife in as regular customers when you create The Dinner Party.

selling the ultimate pill – the “Placebo”

The most effective drug in the world is “Placebo.” Placebo is more effective than most of the drugs on the market. Placebo cures the flu, fever, the common cold, and is even more effective at fighting cancer than most drugs.

Yes, Placebo is the wonder drug.

It is usually made of the compound C12H22O11 which is abundant in the Americas. When taken orally, C12H22O11 is very sweet and delicious. It is often used as a sweetener in cookies, baked goods, and candy. So next time your mom tells you that candy is bad for you, tell her it is full of Placebo.

For this free open-sourced business idea, I’m offering you the wonder drug of all wonder drugs: Placebo. All you need to do is market it and get it on the shelves of Walgreens (alert: there is already a whole load of candy on the shelves of Walgreens).

Talking Placebo will cure your pain, combat your depression, and even marketably improve your sex life. It is just that good.

Placebo is also getting better and better over time. And, even crazier, the more you charge for it, the better it works. As Dan Ariely says, “drugs are are effective because people believe in them.” The more you believe, the better it works. It turns out the mind is truly powerful.

So take two Placebos and call me in the morning.

kickstarter for real estate development

Note: I’m spending much of this month open-sourcing business ideas. Feel free to copy, fork, use them, etc. All I ask is that if you become a bazillionaire, you must take me to dinner.

One of the interesting things about new destinations is that they become more valuable as they become popular. If you could get together with 100 of your friends and all decide to buy a lake house on the same random lake in Minnesota, you’ll find all the property on that lake and around that lake will likely triple in price really fast.

People don’t go to Aspen or the Hamptons just because they have great mountains or great beaches. There are plenty of places that are beautiful. They go to these well-known destinations because everyone else wants to go there.

Places are popular purely because they are popular. There is a recursive loop. Popularity breeds investment which breeds exclusivity which breeds more popularity.

So let’s say you find a really beautiful lake in Minnesota. It is gorgeous as a summer destination. It is close enough to a major airport. It has natural beauty. It is close to some amazing restaurants. The people are really friendly. And, oh yeah, you can buy two lake-front acres for $100,000.

How do you profit from that?

A traditional real estate developer will buy up a massive amount of property on the lake, build a community, and maybe some shared tennis courts and a golf course. Then the developer would market it as “Lakeside Commons” or something trendy like that and target rich people in Chicago or Houston (to escape the summer heat) to buy into the community.

Traditional real estate is very risky so it is in the real estate developer’s best interest to reduce those risks. Things are kept cookie-cutter. Things don’t deviate much from the tried-and-true approach.

enter kickstarter for real-estate

Now let’s revisit a new business idea. A community that forms online that wants to start a in-real-life community together. 50 to 250 families getting together to use their joint buying power to purchase a place. Each person is committed to marketing and building the new area so they see price appreciation (and a community that they want to spend time in).

Envision an entrepreneur scouting an amazing place and creating a vision for what it could be in the future. She negotiates to buy it. Then she recruits people to her vision and, if enough of them commit their dollars, they buy in. But not buying in just as investors … they buy-in as members of the community.

“We will buy this property if we raise at least $10 million from 100 different families.”

And sure, some of the community members will flip their holdings and make a quick profit. But most of the community will be formed with committed members that want to invest the next decade into seeing it blossom (and then benefit from the real appreciation).

Just think about getting together with your 20 best friends from high school and all deciding to focus your energies on owning a second home in the same place. You’d have an instant community.

Summation: if you start a kickstarter for real-estate, invite me to join your community.

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

the ultimate combination: doughnut and mochi – the Doughchi

Note: I’m spending much of this month open-sourcing business ideas. Feel free to copy, fork, use them, etc. All I ask is that if you become a bazillionaire, you must take me to dinner.

We’ve all heard of the cronut — the croissant crossed with a doughnut that is yummy delicious. (I have not yet tried one myself, but I 100% take for granted that they are amazing). I have had the pretzel croissants at The City Bakery in New York which are out-of-this-world good.

That got me thinking … the doughnut is amazing food. It represents much of what is great in life. The doughnut crossed with lots of things is almost certainly going to be really good. And lots of people have already tried. (though not sure I would recommend the pickle-doughnut).

One thing that is super over-rated is the jelly doughnut. Jelly is just not a good filling. Jelly isn’t really tasty.

But other doughnut fillings ARE really good. Nutella-filled doughnuts are mouth-watering.

So started to think … what would be an even better filling for a doughnut???

Well, the only thing that is better than a doughnut is mochi. Mochi is amazing. And I’m not talking about crass ice-cream filled mochi. I’m talking about pure rice-and-sugar mochi.

only mochi is better than a doughnut

So pretty much the best dessert in the world would be a mochi-filled-doughnut. Whoa … my mouth is watering just thinking of it. I’m about to fly five Chicago police-officers (the best doughnut experts I can think of) to Tokyo for a taste test.

Just think … you bite into a doughnut and have a delicious chewy middle.

Yum.

And yes, you will have a 18% chance of having a heart attack.

But … yum.

Ok … the next thing is marketing. We need to market this invention really well so that everyone remembers it and forms crazy lines around the block hours before the Brooklyn bakery opens (yes, this is mostly likely to happen in Brooklyn … or Portland).

Originally I was thinking of copying the “Cronut” (which is actually trademarked) and calling this the “Monut” or even the cooler “Moghnut.” But besides for worrying about trademark violations, that name might be selling this creation short.

First, this creation would not have a hole in it (because it is a filled doughnut). Thus, no “nut.” Plus, who cares about the “nut” part of the doughnut anyway. The “dough” part is what everyone really likes.

So I give you (drum roll please): THE DOUGHCHI !!!

Enjoy the doughchi. And if you are lucky enough to create one, please consider me to give you needed product feedback. I will also offer up my kids and wife as beta testers.

Summation: enjoy this free business idea.