There is a caricature of certain successful people as being stupid. I never understood this but it is something that has prevailed in our culture.
It is an odd insult often thrown by the less successful at the more successful. If these successful people were really so stupid, why did they accomplish so much?
We have a tradition of calling our President ‘stupid.’
It goes back a long way. Many of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s enemies (including many in his own party) called him stupid and a lightweight. Of course, we do not think of FDR today as a lightweight … but that was a criticism of him for many years.
In my lifetime, almost every Republican President has been caricatured as being stupid. Gerald Ford was the clumsy bumbler portrayed. Anyone of that era remembers Chevy Chase’s hilarious skits on Saturday Night Live.
But Ford wasn’t a clumsy bumbler. He was actually the opposite — Ford was a world-class athlete. He was voted the most valuable player on the University of Michigan Football team.
Then came Reagan. How could an actor be smart? The zeitgeist was that Reagan was stupid and he was being taken advantage of by other members of his party. It was so assumed that he was a dummy that there is a classic SNL Phil Hartman skit that is a parody of the parody. The skit was so hilarious because no one could actually believe Reagan could take control of anything.
The problem is that you cannot use first principles to determine everything. You don’t have the time to do that. You need to rely on proxies who you believed have figured things out and believe in them (until you eventually figure out that the proxies are wrong, frauds, etc.).
For instance, I have never actually done the full proof that the world is round. I don’t actually know, with 100% certainty, the shape of the earth. I use proxies to help me determine that. It might not be round. There might be a conspiracy. Or we might be living inside a simulation. I’m not 100% sure. But I rely on proxies and make an assumption that the world is round (at least for my purposes).
I don’t know (with certainty) that the moon landing in 1969 was real. Some people believe it was faked. But I use proxies who I respect and therefore adopt the belief that the moon landing was real. I believe this even though I have not taken the 100+ hours to prove it myself.
Therefore, I believe the world is round and also believe the moon landing was real. Am I 100% certain? No. But I live life believing it and know that I will likely never take the time to prove either to myself.
Let’s say you are investing money in something, what is the rate you want to be scammed?
You could, of course, say that rate should be zero. That you will tolerate no loss due to scams, unethical practices, etc. But that puts an extreme due diligence burden on you before you make an investment. You can’t be 100% on BOTH precision and recall. If you have fewer false positives, you will inevitably have fewer false negatives.
Being skeptical of everything will allow you to avoid investing with Madoff, but it will also have you miss that angel investment in Facebook and Airbnb. Many ideas seem very crazy (until they aren’t).
This is also true in life.
You can distrust every taxi driver and every construction contractor … but that might lead do you distrusting most people which could lead to a lot of unhappiness.
Or … or … or … you can accept that you will have some rate that you will be scammed.
You should have a rate you want to be scammed.
A good rate is likely 1-3% of your interactions. This can be on taxi cab drivers, investments, hires, etc. If your scam rate is under 1%, you are likely not taking enough chances. If your scam rate starts approaching 10%, you might lose all your money.
If you never get into a car, you will never die in an auto accident. But you will also have a lot of trouble living life. So you need to have some guide-rails (wear a seat belt, don’t get in a car with a drunk (or sleepy) driver, etc.). The same is true for investing or doing anything else in life.
Much of marketing is social proof. You use products because you see other people that you admire using products. This is especially true in B2B marketing.
Social proof, when it works well, is a feedback loop. Actions create evidence which create relevance and then create consequences.
This is true in products you buy personally and products you buy for your business. It is true for homes, schools, medical procedures, and even political candidates. Social proof is the number one thing that convinces you to choose any product that is out there.
If you are a marketer, you need to acknowledge the power of social proof and use it to your advantage.
Social proof is a very good short-cut for people who are doing due diligence of a product. They want to understand who else is using a product and what they think of it.
In marketing, social proof is king, queen, and emperor.
If you are not already making $200,000 compensation in your job, there are five steps to getting you there.
(1) Do everything you say you are going to do.
(2) Manage your boss and colleagues — don’t make them spend time managing you.
(3) Proactively help the organization.
(4) Be positive (don’t complain). Be a “yes, and” person.
(5) Report to someone making over $200k.
Even if your goal is not money, following these steps (save the fifth one) will help you achieve success in any organization you are in (including teaching in a school, being a soldier in the military, being a firefighter, working at a non-profit, and more).
100% of 10Xers do the first four things. Or maybe it is 98%. And these are things ANYONE can do — you do not need to have some sort of superhuman skill to achieve the first four things. If you do these things well, you will likely be a 10Xer to your organization.
(1) Do everything you say you are going to do.
One of the rarest things to do in the work world (and this is also true in the social world) is simply to do what you say will do. Be dependable. When you say you will do something, you do it. You meet expectations. Almost nobody does this. Just doing this one step puts you in the top 10% of employees.
Rapid raise in stock prices result in some people in the company being overpaid. This can be very bad for the overpaid employee and also very bad for the company.
Many tech companies are going public right now and many tech companies have seen significant share price increases in recent years. We can expect that most of these are facing real internal motivational challenges that could be extremely hard to overcome. The weirdness of RSUs in public companies
Let’s say that a company gives you an offer of $100k salary and $500k in RSUs vested over 5 years. That essentially means that the company values you at $200k per year (as stock and salary are fairly fungible in public companies).
Let’s say the stock goes up by 20% after six months. The RSU grant (over 5 years) is $600k and your yearly comp goes from $200k to $220k (a 10% increase). No big deal for the company as you are probably worth more than 10% more than what they originally offered you because you now have been at the company for 6 months, understand the processes there, have grown your skills, etc.
But now let’s look what happens when they stock goes up by 300% after 3 years (which happens in the tech world). Now the original grant of $500k is now $2 million (over 5 years). So the stock alone is $400k per year. Add in the salary (with assuming some raises is now $150k/year) and you pulling in $550k per year.
This is when things get a bit hairy. Because likely the company only values you at $350k so you are making $200k more than you are worth. In fact, if you quit the company and went to work for its top competitor, you might have a hard time getting more $300k.
So you want to start a business eh? “Yes,” you say. “It has always been my dream to start a business. I just can’t figure out what to start.”
The answer is right in front of you. Literally. It is in this post. (just keep reading)…
The best business to start is to figure out the join of: 1. Something that will be very valuable in the future. 2. Something most smart people do not think will be very valuable in the future. 3. Something you have a real advantage doing.
If you find a business that fits all three criteria, you have a very good chance of building a massive business.
Of course, it is really hard to know what will be valuable in the future (criteria #1). As the future is very hard to predict.
But the good news is, it is much easier to figure out criteria #2 (something people do not think will be valuable) and criteria #3 (something you have a unique advantage in) … if you are honest with yourself. If you can get those two things right, you have a real shot on changing the world.
When you are evaluating a business (to invest in or join), one simple heuristic is to understand how easy is it for the business to get new customers.
In B2B businesses, the metric that companies track is CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost). But this metric in itself isn’t that interesting and companies typically track LTV/CAC ratio where LTV is the LifeTime Value of customers. The problem with this ratio is that many companies are constantly focusing on the numerator rather than on the denominator.
The cost of acquiring the next marginal customer should be less than the cost of acquiring the last customer. And you should see this cost decline over time.
The CAC itself should decline each month. If it does, it means you likely have a great business. If it doesn’t, the business is a good business at best.
Of course, CACs should be declining for a specific cohort of customer. If your business was only focused on small businesses and now you are selling to enterprises, your CAC will increase dramatically. In this case, the key thing is to track the CACs for SMBs and enterprise customers separately (with is why so many firms use the LTV/CAC ration to simplify this step).
The best way CACs will decrease over time is if you haver some sort of network effect. LiveRamp (my last company) is a middleware company … which means it is essentially a marketplace of buyers and integration partners. It is a classic network effect business that makes it easier and easier to acquire new customers over time. Once we hit about $10 million, the CACs started dropping fast.
One other way to think about this when selling to enterprise is to track the quota for a full ramped sales rep. Is the quota for an average sales rep going up over time? If so, you have a great business. If not, the business still has some work to get to great.
All platforms follow this logic. Companies like Plaid, Segment, Marqeta, LiveRamp, and Carta are classic platforms where acquiring new customers gets cheaper over time (disclaimer: I’m either an investor or friends with the CEOs of all these companies). These types of companies can take the savings (from not having to invest as much in sales and marketing) and put them into the product. So the product can get better and better over time (which is the double-edge flywheel that all great companies have).
Other companies that have declining CACs are ones with great brands. Essentially every time a company buys their service (and raves about it), other companies are more likely to use it. Twilio and Stripe have declining CACs because they have become the default go-to companies in their space. There is a LOT of power in being the default.
Summation: Once a business gets over $10M ARR and it has declining CACs, it has the makings of a great business.
When venture capitalists tell you “your TAM is not big enough” what they are really saying is “I don’t think your team is smart enough to move to an adjacent market once you dominate your initial niche.”
They are not really saying your TAM is too small. Great VCs invest in companies with small TAMs all the time. They might believe that the founders’ think too small or that the founders just are not very good.
Many great companies started in markets where the TAM (Total Addressable Market) is small. In some cases, the companies under-estimated the TAM (the TAM got way bigger over time). In other cases, the team was smart enough to move to other adjacent markets.
Of course, it is really hard for a venture capitalist to tell a founder “we do not think you are talented.”
Even when a VC truly believes that, they can never actually say it. But founders want to know why a VC is passing and the VC wants to preserve some optionality to invest in the founder in the future (in case the VC’s assessment about the founder was wrong) or in the founder’s friends. So VCs come up with another reason not to invest. A good one is that the TAM is small — that usually satisfies the entrepreneur (who thinks the VC is just not smart enough to see the bigger picture) and satisfies the VC (who wants to preserve the relationship).
Investing in companies that are initially focused on a smaller niche is actually easier to do than investing in companies that are going after a giant market.
If the company is going after a giant market, then there is usually massive competition in the market and you really have to spend a great deal of time understanding the market (and each competitor) before investing.
For instance, if we were thinking of investing in Ford Motor Company (which competes in the giant market of automobile sales), we need to understand a ton of things:
What are the future of of cars? Will demand increase in the short term? What about the long-term?
How does the rise of places like China and India change the demand curve for autos? Even if it greatly increases the demand for cars, will Ford be able to capitalize on it? What about auto tariffs?
Ford makes much of its income on selling trucks (like the F150 — one of the most amazing vehicles). How does the demand curve for trucks change in the future?
What will happen to emissions policies? Is Ford investing in enough green vehicles to take advantage of potential policies?
While Ford is a big company, its market share in the auto industry is really low (because there is SO MUCH competition). So now we need to know about ALL the other car companies (and even potential car companies like Apple) to understand the future competitive dynnamics.
And many, many more things (like the financial profile of Ford, its labor contracts, its capitalization structure, and more).
It is much simpler to invest in smaller businesses that are tackling a smaller niche. We can get our head around the niche faster. We can assess the competition faster.
The essential questions we need to answer when investing in a niche business are just four:
Will this company be able to dominate the niche? Sometimes the company is already dominating the niche. Sometimes there is a network effect reason to dominate the niche.
Is this niche more important than other people realize? Maybe most people think the niche caps out at $50M/year in revenues but you believe it is five times bigger. Sometimes the niche gives the business a jumping off point to other niches because of its centrality. In general, niches that are more central (have more adjacent niches) are more valuable than niches that are less connected.
Is the team capable enough to move to adjacent niches once it dominates its first niche? Some teams find themselves in a good position but cannot take advantage of their position. This is actually why most VCs pass on companies. Of course, they cannot tell the founders that they passed because they do not think the founders are smart enough. So they make up another reason (the “market is not big enough”) which is just code for “we do not think you have an excellent team.”
Is the price of the investment reasonable? This one is hard to understand but if the first three are yes and only a few investors think they are all yeses, then the price is probably reasonable.
LiveRamp’s niche dynamics: dominating onboarding
One interesting example is LiveRamp (NYSE:RAMP). (note: I was the founder and CEO of LiveRamp for its first 9 years … so I am incredibly biased). LiveRamp launched its initial product at the end of 2010 going after the “onbooarding” niche. At the time, the market was less than $3 million worldwide! (Now that is a really small niche).
LiveRamp’s first year revenues from on boarding was $1 million and we ended the year with about 25% market share. But there were a few things that made the niche interesting:
We believed the niche was a total of $50M year. (Turned out we underestimate the niche by 4-6 times). So there was room to grow.
We thought there were network effects in the business — it made sense (for a bunch of reasons we will not go into now) for one company to be the winner — essentially it was a winner-take-most market. Ultimately we were proven correct as LiveRamp quickly got to over 70% market share.
We understand the capabilities of all the competitors and figured that they would not invest appropriately to dominate the onboarding market. Each competitor was already in many other markets and it did not make sense for them to continue their investment.
We believed that onboarding, while a small niche, had significant centrality to other markets in the marketing ecosystem. We assumed we could use our position to move into those other niches. This ultimately turned out to be true in some cases and more difficult than we hoped in our cases.
We had a lot of confidence in our team. Even today, almost nine years later, LiveRamp is known for having an extraodinarily talented team. Of course, most start-ups think they have a great team (and many overvalue their talent). But in 2010 our team was extremely young and inexperienced — so one could forgive an outside investor for undervaluing it.
Carta’s niche dynamics: dominating cap table management for start-ups
Carta, formerly known as eShares, is a great company. (another disclaimer: I am an investor in Carta and also a customer across many businesses).
Carta helps companies manage their capitalization table. If you have invested in a bunch of start-ups, you almost surely have gotten some of your stock certificates via Carta. In fact, of the 130+ start-ups I have invested in, Carta is the ONLY forward-facing cap table management system that I have ever interacted with (except for mergers and acquisitions where I have seen many different systems).
Carta, even from its early days, dominated the cap-table management for start-ups. And yes, it was a small niche (one that many VCs underestimated). But even today, most start-ups run their cap table on Excel — so there is still a lot of growth in the niche.
If you were an investor when Carta was starting, the first thing to understand was do you think Carta could dominate its niche. Surprisingly, many investors that passed on investing actually thought Carta WOULD dominate its niche. Given Carta’s huge current success, the investors either made one of two errors:
They underestimated the power of owning the niche of cap table management in start-ups.
They underestimated the talent of Carta’s team and its CEO (Henry Ward).
My belief is that any VC that passed for Error #1 should stop being a professional investor. That is not a good mistake to make.
However, my guess is that the vast majority of VCs made Error #2. That error is much easier to make as it is extremely difficult to evaluate people (especially after just spending a few hours with someone). Henry Ward has turned out to be an excellent CEO. But everyone has vastly underestimated people before. And everyone has vastly overestimated people before.
What you should do when a venture capitalist tells you that your TAM isn’t big enough
Obviously you should spend time evaluating the TAM. But you should also take solace that many, many great businesses (from AirBNB to Zoom) were passed by talented VCs who underestimated the team.
Summation: When VCs tell you “your TAM is not big enough” what they are really saying is “I don’t think your team is smart enough to move to an adjacent market once you dominate your initial niche.”
Also, the tax rates can change substantially between regions and cities. The top income tax rate in California is 13.3%. The top income tax rate in the State of Washington is zero (the seven states with zero income tax are Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming). So even though Seattle is getting really expensive, you can save a lot of money by taking a job there instead of San Francisco.
So what would happen in there was a law that stated that all salaries need to be quoted in post-tax PPP-adjusted dollars?
Imagine that there was a law that forced every employer to quote both the absolute salary (like $120,000 in SF) and the after-tax PPP-adjusted salary (would transform to probably $50,000 in SF).
What would happen?
First thing that would happen is that many fewer people would want to work in places like San Francisco and New York City. While everyone intuitive knows that these places are high-tax and high-price, seeing the stark different on the job offer would make a significant number of people pause before taking a job.
The second think thing that would happen is that many employers would need to react to this. One way to react is to increase salaries. But the salaries in places like San Francisco are already much higher than most places and would likely need to go up another 50%+ to compensate. The more likely reaction is for employers to hire more people outside high-tax and high-PPP areas.
Long term, more people are going to start thinking about their income in “real” dollars — which means the dollars they have left over after living their life.