Category Archives: Management

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

Shorter deadlines for offers lead to better employees

Deadlines for offers should be extremely short. Ideally they are under 36 hours. There is even a good argument for deadlines to be under 20 minutes (as long as the employee knows it is coming).

Beside the obvious criteria for a great employee (smart, gets things done, etc), the number one (less obvious) criteria is that they REALLY want to work at your company. They will be so much more effective if they really want to work for you.

They need to have a REAL attraction to your company. Maybe is is because of the company’s mission. Maybe is is because of the culture. Maybe it is because of the people (or their direct supervisor). Maybe it is because of the technology. Maybe it is to get rich. … there could be MANY reasons … but that reason has to equal a genuine excitement to join your company that is beyond the rational pros and cons.

This is why you should give offers with a really short deadline. If someone needs a lot of time to make a decision whether to join your company or not, they probably are not super excited about your company. They still could pick your company and be a solid contributor … but my experience is that they rarely turn out to be amazing.

The a phrase in romance “he’s just not into you” applies in recruiting as well. You want people that want you. If a candidate, after the hours and hours of interviews, projects, reference checks, etc. still needs more time to decide to join your company or not, you should move on.

Summation: to most optimize for a 10Xer, keep deadlines for offers short.

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How to Select Vendors: look for rate of improvement in the product

When selecting software vendors, besides for just doing the usual (feature analysis, price, compatibility, ease-of-use, etc.) look for one core x-factor: rate of improvement of the product.

The faster the product has been improving in the last year, the more likely it will improve in the coming years.

Look for products that get better quickly. Look for products that fix bugs and performance issues quickly. Look for products that add new features. Look for products that keep delighting customers.

One way to do this is note your evaluation of the product when you first see it and then in subsequent times that you see it.

Look for companies that publish change logs

Reward companies that publish clear change logs on their product and show how the product is getting better over time (which means they are honest about past bugs). We’ve been experimenting with publishing change logs at SafeGraph and it has significantly helped our sales cycle and ability to gain customer trust. In addition, it is helpful for current customers to keep track of our ongoing changes. We would love for other companies to copy us.

Summation: a great way to chose a vendor is to look for the rate their product is improving.

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The LiveRamp Mafia (and company alumni networks)

the LiveRamp team on Aug 22, 2012

Many companies have strong alumni networks. The most famous of which is the PayPal Mafia which includes Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, Elon Musk, David Sacks, Jeremy Stoppelman, Luke Nosek, Keith Rabois, Reid Hoffman, Max Levchin, Roelof Botha, and many others. It is a truly astonishing alumni network.

The best predictor of having a strong alumni network is a company that: (1) had a successful outcome but not crazy successful (like a Facebook or a Google); (2) the company went through a bunch of trying times (and almost went out of business); and (3) the employees built a company that was super enduring and even prospered post-exit.

PayPal fits all three of these criteria. It had a strong exit (but not Google-like escape velocity), it almost went out of business multiple times (highly recommend reading PayPal Wars by Eric Jackson), and it continues today as an independent company (NASDAQ:PYPL) that was spun out of eBay (its original acquirer in 2002).

I often get asked why the LiveRamp alumni have been so successful. While the exit was only 20% of PayPal, it had many of the exact same characteristics. (1) The exit was good; (2) the company almost went out of business multiple times (and like PayPal, we had to pivot hard from “Rapleaf” to “LiveRamp”); and (3) we built a company so enduring that it ended up being the crown jewel of the acquirer and now is an independent public company (trades at NYSE:RAMP).

At the time of announcing our exit (in May 2014), LiveRamp was around 50 people. It is amazing how many of those original LiveRampers are now doing super interesting things.

So without further ado, I list the notable LiveRamp alumni and what they are doing at time of writing (Jan 2019) … please let me know if I missed anyone.

  • Caitlin MacDonald Bartley – CEO at Cred
  • Ryan Buckley – CEO at MightySignal
  • Eric Chernoff – CEO and cofounder at Retain.ai
  • Phil Davis – Chief Business Officer at TowerData
  • Ken Dreifach – Member, ZwillGen
  • Bryan Duxbury – Chief Technologist at StreamSets.
  • Dayo Esho – CEO and cofounder of TravelJoy. Dayo was a cofounder of LiveRamp.
  • Greg Fodor – fmr CTO and cofounder at AltspaceVR
  • Auren Hoffman (that’s me) – CEO of SafeGraph. Previously CEO and cofounder of LiveRamp.
  • Thomas Kielbus – cofounder at RideOS
  • Chris Kline – cofounder at CTO at TravelJoy
  • Ron Johnson – Vice President Sales Analytics at Workday
  • Anders Jones – CEO at Facet Wealth
  • Jeremy Lizt – on the beach taking a much needed break. Jeremy was cofounder of LiveRamp and ran engineering from founding (2006) until Jan 2018.
  • Nathan Marz – founder of Apache Storm
  • Travis May – CEO and cofounder of Datavant. (Travis succeeded me in running LiveRamp in 2015)
  • Luke McGuinness – President & COO at TVision Insights
  • Patrick McKenna – Founder, HighRidge Venture Partners
  • Bryan Morris – CFO at Kinetica
  • Brent Perez – President and cofounder at SafeGraph
  • Mike Safai – Founding Partner at Dexterity Capital
  • Armaan Sarkar – CTO at Wove
  • Dan Scudder – CEO at Highland Math. Dan is the person responsible for coming up with the “LiveRamp” name.
  • Pete Schlaefer – VP Business Operations at AppLovin
  • Justin Schuster – Head of Marketing at Blend
  • Manish Shah – CEO of Peerwell. Manish was cofounder of LiveRamp.
  • Mohammad Shahangian – Head of Data Science at Pinterest
  • Vlad Shulman – cofounder and CTO of Retain.ai
  • Eddie Siegel – CEO and cofounder at Wove
  • Dan Stevens – cofounder at VP Data at Windfall Data.
  • Vivek Sodera – Co-Founder at Superhuman. Vivek was cofounder at LiveRamp.
  • Nikhil Sud – CTO at CoWrks
  • Chris Taylor – CRO at Wove
  • Michel Tricot – cofounder at RideOS
  • Alex Wasserman – cofounder at Wove
  • Takashi Yonebayashi – CTO at SafeGraph

In addition, many of the best people at LiveRamp are STILL at LiveRamp. That includes:

  • James Arra – President and Chief Commercial Officer at LiveRamp
  • Sean Carr – VP of Engineering at LiveRamp
  • Anneka Gupta- President and Head of Products and Platforms at LiveRamp
  • Joel Jewitt – VP of Strategic Operations at LiveRamp
  • Allison Metcalfe – General Manager of LiveRamp TV at LiveRamp
  • Rebecca Stone – Head of Marketing at LiveRamp
  • and many many others at the company

Summation:  while LiveRamp was a company chock-full of talent. Its alumni success was due to being a company that: (1) had a successful outcome but not crazy successful (like a Facebook or a Google); (2) the company went through a bunch of trying times (and almost went out of business); and (3) the employees built a company that was super enduring and even prospered post-exit.

To improve, focus on your strengths (and ignore your weaknesses)

One of the hardest things to figure out is how to improve. How do you get better and what should you focus on.

The best improvement strategy is to focus not just on your strengths … but on just 1 or 2 strengths.  Focus, focus, focus on making your strongest traits even stronger.  Especially once you are over 30 and you have more of a clear assessment of your skills and abilities.

How do you know what your strongest traits are?  A good exercise is to ask the twenty people closest to you (friends, colleagues, spouse, parents, siblings, etc.) a simple question: “what are the 3 things that you think I am excellent at.” While you will get a lot random answers that will be just noise, you may find some super consistent answers (especially if you are focusing more on work colleagues). Gather that data and investigate those strengths.

The strategy most smart people use is to get good at lots of things at the same time. They spread their improvement time like one might spread peanut butter on toasted Wonder bread.  This strategy does help you improve and you will notice the improvements really fast (because you are often focused on things you are bad at where just a little work will go a long way).  And that feedback loop of getting a bit better and seeing the progress is addicting (especially to smart people) so they spread the peanut butter even more and get better in more diverse areas.  This is improvement and it is growth and it is positive … but …

you could grow much greater by focusing on just 1-2 strengths and getting even stronger.

The most successful people in the world (think Bill Clinton and Steve Jobs) have glaring weaknesses … and it is unclear if they ever seriously worked on those weaknesses.  Would they be better if those weaknesses went away?  Of course.  But then they might not have focused as much effort on their strengths.

If you are a terrible public speaker but great at communicating by writing, then focus on getting even better at writing.  Strive to become the clearest writer in the world.  Take really hard concepts and clearly state them.  Don’t succumb to pressure from your coworkers, friends, etc. to get a speaking coach and spend hours becoming a better public speaker.  Focus instead on what you are already naturally talented at go from good to great.

That said, there ARE certain weaknesses that are so debilitating that you need to focus on them if you have them. For instance, someone addicted to daily heroin use should probably spend all their time defeating that addicting (rather than focusing on their strengths). But most people’s weaknesses are not nearly as pronounced as being a heroin addict … and most people should instead focus on their strengths.

Summation: focus on getting better at your strengths and mostly ignore your weaknesses.

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How you change a corporate culture (at a large company)

It is extremely hard to change a large company’s culture for the better.  (It is relatively easy to change the culture for worse.)
So first, let’s assume you are trying to change a company’s culture for the better.

Given that, you first need to assess the current company’s culture.  There are two vectors to assess:
1. Do the employees have high expectations of themselves?
2. Do the employees have high expectations of the other employees?

If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then you likely have a good culture already and it just needs some tweaking.  It is a High Performance culture.  This is the ideal state and pretty much every high-performing company (whether large or small) in history fits in this category.  

If the answer to both questions is “no,” then you might as well not even try.  The company is a lost cause and will eventually become a discarded fossil.  Unfortunately, even some of the best companies can evolve to this state over time.  If you find yourself working for one of these companies, find a new job immediately.  

The harder discussion is what happens if your company answers “yes” to one question and “no” to another.  Let’s explore this.

The Hero Syndrome
If the culture is defined by employees having high expectations of themselves but low expectations of their colleagues (“yes” to #1 and “no” to #2), then you have a culture of hero syndrome.  It means that some people feel it is their duty to carry the team.  It also means there is a lack of trust that others in company will do a great job.  It causes the high performers to work longer and longer hours to carry everyone else.  And it means that there are way too many low performers in the company because there are few consequences for free-riding.  

In the Hero Syndrome scenario, you have the ability to change the culture to become a high performance culture (getting to “yes” answers to both questions).  It is extremely hard work and most companies fail to make the transition, but it is possible.  The main thing you need to do is upgrade your team and promote trust.  Here are the things you need to do to make the changes:

1. Upgrade your executives.  Most CEOs are afraid to upgrade their executives because they are worried (1) about how the rest of the organization will feel if “Bob” leaves; (2) worried about how the street or investors will think; or (3) worried that if Bob leaves before his replacement starts, the CEO will have to jump in and do the work.

If Bob is an executive and is not a high-performer, he is a cancer in the organization.  You cannot upgrade your talent without starting at the top. 

Of course, this assumes that you (the CEO) is a high-performer.  If you are not, there is no chance for transition.

2. Lay off the low-performing people.  This is obvious but so many companies forget this step.  And when you lay off the low performers, you need to signal to everyone else in the company that you laid these people off BECAUSE they are low performers.  Too often when companies do lay-offs, they tell a story that people were “redundant,” or they are making cuts in a division.  Or it was “market forces.”  And while this explanation makes the people being laid off feel better, it makes the people remaining at your company feel insecure.  A high performing person could interpret the layoff to think that their job could be at risk if market forces change.   So simply, when you lay off low-performers, communicate to everyone in your organization that you laid them off BECAUSE they were low performers.

2a. Never, ever, lay off a high performer.  If the employee is awesome and their job becomes “redundant,” move that person somewhere else in the organization (even if the move ruffles feathers).  Once you identify a superstar, do everything to make sure they continue to work in your company.

3. Change your internal policies to promote trust.  You cannot move to “yes” on questions #2 if people in your organization do not trust each other.  You need to do everything that promotes trust.  Some ways to promote trust:

  • Moving your HR, IT, and reimbursement policies to mimic the “Netflix HR Model” — see Reed Hasting’s slides on the Netflix Culture
  • Let people know that you trust them by stopping to micro-manage them.  The only reason to micro-manage someone is because you do not have full faith in them.  If you find yourself micro-managing someone, you need to take a step back and think about if you have the right person.
  • Decentralize as many decisions in your organization as possible.  This is especially true in IT — empower the people using a software product to buy the software product directly (and not be dictated by IT). 
  • Eliminate necessary meetings and reporting that have been put in place because trust is low.

The good news is, you CAN move from the Hero Syndrome to a High Performance culture … but it is just really hard.

The Hypocrite Syndrome
The opposite of the Hero Syndrome is the Hypocrite Syndrome — employees having low expectations of themselves but high expectations of their colleagues (“no” to #1 and “yes” to #2).  

In this case, I think it is almost impossible to change the culture to a high performance culture.  You are going to be stuck in a nasty loop.  

Unless what you are doing is a matter of world peace, I would suggest you leave the company and try to join one that already has a high performance culture.  Being in the Hypocrite culture is often about nasty politics, blame, and stagnation.

Summation:
All high performing companies have employees that have both high expectations of themselves AND high expectations of their colleagues.  If your company does not have that, the only other redeemable scenario is a company with employees that have high expectations of themselves and low expectations of their colleagues.

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