Did Yahoo just put up the white flag?

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When I did my quick hit on CNBC today I talked about how well Twitter and Facebook have been doing, especially in the video space.

The topic of Yahoo came up, and the hosts had read my piece defending Marissa and endorsing her spending $10-20b over five years buying startups in the hopes that one or two could transform the company.

Strategies like that have worked exceptionally for Google, which bought two epic, industry-changing products in Android and YouTube. Not to mention Facebook, which has had equal success buying Instagram and WhatsApp.

What did I think of Yahoo giving back all the Alibaba cash?

My snap reaction was “they’re done!” Marissa will be out of there in 18 to 24 months and it will be sold for parts.

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I guess that was a little too blunt because people were like, “whoa.” Of course, I kind of think this should be apparent to anyone who has watched Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg give zero cash back to shareholders — instead deciding to invest that money back into their companies.

When you have great ideas about how to own the future you invest every dollar you can. When you start giving back large amounts of money it’s because one of two things has happened:

  1. You don’t have a lot of great ideas for how to grow your business.
  2. You have so much cash that even with those great ideas you can’t put it all to work.

That second reason has happened once: Apple under Tim Cook (but not Jobs).

In fairness, we are in deep and uncharted territory with Yahoo spinning off their returns for Alibaba into a publicly-traded entity called SpinCo — that doesn’t have to pay ~$14b in tax on the ~$40b windfall.

Continue reading Did Yahoo just put up the white flag?

Facebook’s insane mobile takeover is just beginning

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In August of 2012 Facebook stock was trading at $19 per share — half of its IPO price of $38 — and the prognosis was that FB might have seen better days.

The financial press was pounding the company hard, wondering if social networking — or the life of any one social network — was akin to a fad. Perhaps people just naturally joined one service every couple of years, or perhaps different demographics would be attracted to different social offerings.

Turns out they were right about the faddish nature of social networks — they do fragment along generation, geography, product design, and even devices!

What the markets got wrong was that Zuckerberg would be able to own four of the top six social networks by the end of 2014 — and 86% of the active users.

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Monthly mobile active users of top social apps

Facebook (main app): Not broken out, safe to say 1b

FB Messenger: 500m

WhatsApp: 700m

Instagram: 300m

Twitter: ~250m

Snapchat: 100-200m

Total: 2.9b active monthly users

FB Main App + FB Messenger + Instagram + WhatsApp = 2.5b active monthly (not unique) users *

FB has 86% of the active user count of those six Apps. Stunning.

Now, I would say Twitter’s users are worth 2-5x as much as the average FB users because the product is just much more “upscale.” It draws the more elite, powerful, and intelligent folks (overall). Would be interested in seeing some demographic studies on this if anyone has them.

* These are not unique users, as folks might use two or more of these apps in a month. Facebook’s total monthly mobile is 1.19b, which means they use two apps on average — WHICH IS AMAZING!

When Facebook SUCKED at mobile

It’s hard to believe that Facebook actually sucked at mobile only 24 months ago — but if you go back 36 months they were outright horrible.

Continue reading Facebook’s insane mobile takeover is just beginning

How to win any hackathon — and why they’re important

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UPDATE 2/2: Two great responses to this post worth checking out. First here, then here.

Hackathons serve five main purposes in the world:

  1. To get the host(s) some combination of recognition and/or money (i.e., from sponsors).*
  2. To get participants some combination of jobs, investors, friends and/or co-founders.
  3. To provide enjoyable challenges in a community setting that help people learn new skills — while having fun!
  4. To help sponsors (and hosts in some cases) lure developers into trying their awesome tools — and providing feedback on them through challenges/contests (think a Twilio award for the best use of their API).
  5. To help companies find developers to join their companies (think Google puts up a prize around wearable computing because they are looking to hire developers who are passionate about this space).

That’s why these events are thriving: they provide a massive amount of value for everyone involved.

[ * Important side note: We do not make any money from our events — we simply break even (or sometimes lose a bit). ]

On February 27th, 28th, and March 1st we will be hosting the 4th LAUNCH Hackathon — right before the LAUNCH Festival (which takes place on March 2-4th).

My goal for these events? Inspire folks to create startups that I can be the first investor in.  That’s my job: take the most risk on the youngest startups — but get the best valuation!

How to win any hackathon (including LAUNCH)

Having hosted hackathons a bunch of times I’ve seen a serious pattern: the wow-factor of the demo drives who wins — not who solved the hardest technical challenge or wrote the best code.

The best demo wins — almost always!

[ Click to Tweet: I’m reading @jason’s advice on how to win a hackathon! (can edit before sending): http://ctt.ec/sdUaW ]

Some teams spend 99% of their time on their product and 1% on their demo. You should stop work every six hours and stand up and do your demo. This way, by the end of the hackathon you’ve done at least five or six rehearsals.

What makes a great demo? Well, I actually spend a lot of time coaching companies to demo their products. In fact, I “coached” (I use that lightly) Mint, Dropbox, Yammer, Fitbit, TrueCar  and countless other startups that launched at the Festival. What works in their demos is what works at a hackathon, with one small caveat: at a hackathon you should use the latest, most buzzworthy technology.

So, if you were going to a hackathon in 2007 you might see a lot of facial recognition projects, and in 2009 everything would center around an iPhone. In 2010 the iPad, 2012 3D printers, and in 2013 Google Glass.

What’s hot today? Well, obviously things like drones/quadcopters, the iWatch/smart watches, VR (Oculus), AR, and artificial intelligence.

Most of those things are very physical, which translates into good for the stage and screen. They all have a massive wow factor but lack use cases.

You can take anything that has worked in the past couple of years and just layer the new technology onto them and think, “how could this be better?” Then do the best thing you can think of.

Now you’re in the running!

Continue reading How to win any hackathon — and why they’re important

Should you give advisors equity in your startup?

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“Are advisors worth it?” the young founder asked.

“Depends” I replied.

“On what?” he asked.

“On what you want them to do — and for how much,” I replied.

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Why Advisors Exist

Advisors exist in the world because there are people who could be valuable to your business, but who do not have the money to invest like angels and VCs do.

Advisors ask founders to trade “advice” and “work” in exchange for equity. Founders who haven’t raised money yet typically get advisors because, well, they are unable to get investors!

Cynics (typically VCs) say things like, “if you could get investors — who advise for free — why would you get advisors who don’t put any cash at risk? Those people are not earning their equity!”

The cynical folks are right 80% of the time — the advisors don’t earn their shares. However, they don’t earn their shares typically because the founders don’t create a clean set of expectations (deliverables!) with the advisors.

What Advisors Do & How to Manage Them

Advisors typically have some combination of great networks, great reputations, and serious skills. If you are doing a enterprise software company, having someone like David Sacks (Yammer, PayPal) would be a huge win because he is respected and has a huge network.

Of course, he has money as well, so having him as just an advisor would negative signal that he doesn’t think highly of your company’s ability to return capital — so be careful!

Continue reading Should you give advisors equity in your startup?

Is inventing something new necessary for startups?

Do you have to invent something completely “new” to have a successful startup?

Absolutely not!

Most of the great startups of our time were evolutionary, not revolutionary.

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  1. Google’s search engine was certainly better than the dozens that came before it, but it was still just a search engine as far as users were concerned.
  2. Facebook was a stable, fast version of MySpace and Friendster — there was nothing original about it, truth be told. It was simply executed at a very, very high level.
  3. Apple 2.0 — which I would define as the consumer electronics company — did not invent the mp3 player, the smartphone, or the tablet. All three of those products were in market for years before Apple entered.
  4. Tesla Motors was not the first battery-powered car, but it was the first serious effort in a long time — and it was filled with dozens of innovations that collectively add up to the greatest car ever made (according to the experts).

Those are the biggest companies in the technology space and they made their fortunes based on perfecting other people’s inventions.

And that’s no dig to anyone at those companies. The people who invent truly new things in the world tend to work at University labs or they are science fiction authors!

Now, there are dozens and dozens of choices that are made while building a killer product that change, evolve, or tweak them just enough to make them extraordinary.

So extraordinary are these collections of innovations that these companies will be credited in people’s minds with inventing the category.

Continue reading Is inventing something new necessary for startups?

What should I include in my monthly investment update?

Yesterday’s post on why founders should send monthly updates (in the angel stage), or every other month after their A round, got a lot of awesome feedback.

Investors predictably went crazy favoriting and retweeting the post. How could they not, given the fact that they’ve experienced the silent death of startups they might have been able to sell or save.

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Some founders felt it was excessive, to which I responded “do it in one hour.”

That’s the discipline of investor updates. They don’t have to be “War and Peace” (or even 100% comprehensive).

Here’s a simple list of things you can include that I’ve compiled from the awesome updates my founders send me.

You don’t have to include all of these every month — but never leave out #1.

  1. Money left in back / monthly burn = months of runway

This is important so everyone knows when the raise will need to be done. Takes 15 minutes to get from accounting.

  1. Product updates

Screenshots, Invision links, Skitch drawings, and wireframes are super easy to get together. 10 minutes tops.

Continue reading What should I include in my monthly investment update?

My Job: Never Underestimate Anyone

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Anyone can go from a nobody to a somebody overnight — so my job as an angel investor is to never underestimate anyone.

Truth is, people starting their careers often look awkward, are broke, and they seem desperate.

You know why I know this? Because that’s how I looked when I started Silicon Alley Reporter back in ‘95. I was so broke that I lived in Brooklyn when it wasn’t cool. I had no money, so I printed the first issue of my zine at a photocopy store.

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Back then I would walk my magazine (the 16-page photocopy I delusively called a magazine) to the offices of Razorfish, Agency.com, DoubleClick, Flatiron Partners, Pseudo, and SiteSpecific.

When I brought in the stack of magazines — carried on a cheap luggage cart — people would ask me, “who is the editor or CEO of Silicon Alley Reporter?”

“Me!” I would reply as I untied the bungee cords and handed the receptionist 25 issues.

At the time I had no idea folks were laughing at me and considered me somewhere between a pest and a joke. However, some folks didn’t sleep on me. Some folks noticed the hustle behind the dorky kid with the photocopied magazines who couldn’t afford to UPS them to receptionists.

Continue reading My Job: Never Underestimate Anyone

How much should I raise in my angel round? How should I spend it?

fun couponsIn 2015, I suggest consumer internet and enterprise startups raise $750k in their Seed round. If you’re a hardware startup I would double that.

This will give you 18 months of runway if you burn $35,000 a month, and have $120k in legal, accounting, and capex spending (your laptops). Hardware companies will need the extra $750k to do a crowdfunding campaign, tooling, and a small production run of their product.

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$35,000 per month is enough for four team members to work on a problem for 18 months, while having a decent salary — and a $500 per month desk.

You’re not going to get rich off your salary, nor should you. If you wanted a max salary you would be at Google or Facebook refining their glorious ad networks to target just a little bit better every quarter — and hate your life!

How should you spend your angel money?

The typical composure of a great team, as I can tell, is something along the lines of:

— two developers to manage the code, process, ops, and customer support

— one product manager to do UX, design, product testing, and customer support

— one business head to do operational, fundraising, sales, legal, marketing, and customer support

You’ll notice that in this case your four people are doing at least four jobs each. Everyone is doing customer support, because early in a company’s life everyone has to commit to understanding the customer.

These four people, the founder(s) and founding team, have to be absolutely willing to do anything. Not everyone in the world is comfortable with the concept of “we have to get it done with what we have,” and that’s OK.

Continue reading How much should I raise in my angel round? How should I spend it?

If you want to optimize your Twitter experience do what you do in real life: mute insane people

I was at dinner with an author friend the other day and he was lamenting how his next book was going to make his life miserable. Without going into too much detail, he wanted to take an honest look at the divide between logic and reason in our most polarizing debates (race, gender, science, religion, etc.).

Although he thought the book would be important, well-read, and helpful to society, he had decided he didn’t want to spend his life having to defend himself in these hot-button areas.

“You’re spending a lot of time on Twitter right?” I asked.

He admitted he had, and lamented the neverending stream of people misconstruing his arguments to make him into something he is not. He lamented the way folks ganged up on people without actually reading what they had written.

“So, the crazy people on Twitter are determining what a bestselling author is going to write next?” I asked.

“To a certain extent, yes” he replied candidly.

And there you have it, folks — the inmates have taken over the asylum!

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How the crazy people took over

Blogging was an amazing innovation in which individuals could construct arguments on their blogs and get reaction from the world in the form of a trackback or a comment. It was a very balanced system because in order to join the debate you had two distinct options: 

  1. Write a comment, which would always be subservient to the main post & controlled by the author (i.e., if you got vulgar, abusive, or insane, the author could delete your comment and/or ban you from posting again). Commenting felt just open enough: if you were disrespectful the owner of the blog could excuse you.
  2. Write your own blog post on your blog to challenge the author (thus earning a ‘trackback’ — which basically means the two posts are linking to each other). If you wrote something compelling, folks who read the first post would get to yours via a search engine or link on the original blog post.

This system was super balanced because you had to be able to write either a quality comment or a full blog post to get people to pay attention to you.

There was no 140-character retweet machine gun at your disposal. Your account wasn’t on the same footing as mine by default like it is on Twitter. No, if you wanted to build up a subscriber base on your blog you were welcome to do so: by writing intelligent stuff every day for a year or two!

Continue reading If you want to optimize your Twitter experience do what you do in real life: mute insane people

Is Apple wrong for not taking off Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

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There’s a controversy going on right now about tech companies not giving people Martin Luther King Jr. Day off. Said more correctly, there is a controversy about not doing a full, company-wide shut down on MLK Day, as all technology companies today let their employees pick which holidays they choose to celebrate.

Now, I’m not going to answer the question in the title straight away, as a bit of a social experiment. What I’ve learned in the first 18 days in a row of blogging this year is that many people on Twitter are going to comment deeply on your blog post — without actually reading it.

Some folks will read the first paragraph of this piece and think, “Jason is letting folks off the hook!”

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Now, we writers have always expected that people skim ahead and sometimes favorite a story before reading it. None of us writers actually thought people would try to make detailed arguments for and against our pieces without actually reading them!

I’ve literally been faced with multiple instances of people reading the first half of one of my pieces — or perhaps just the headline — and then telling me a flaw in my argument. That flaw in my argument is actually 100% true … and addressed in the very next paragraph!

I frequently anticipate the objections and debates that will come out of my posts and address them, as it’s easy to do. Yes, if you have someone read your piece before you publish and say “How will people react to this? What will their obvious objections be?” you can actually write a better piece! Brilliant! Obvious!

The other thing I’m learning coming back to blogging is that my perceived status in the world is how a certain group of folks filter my words. When I was nobody, which is to say before I sold a company for a large return, people read my words as “that nobody kid from Brooklyn trying to hype his new startup.”

Today this group views me as some sort of fat, conservative, and entitled powerbroker, while only one of those labels is true (and I’ve lost 24 pounds in the past year — won’t be able to label me fat for much longer). Of course, I still view myself as an outsider kid from Brooklyn who fought his way into the technology industry while many tried to stop him.

Continue reading Is Apple wrong for not taking off Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

The Official Definitions of Seed, Series A, and Series B Rounds

As many of you know, I’ve been elected to my third consecutive term as the Chairman of Startups & the Interwebs. In this official capacity it is my responsibility to give an official definition of confusing or debated terms.

Clearly the most confusing topic of the past year is, “What’s a Seed round vs. an A round?”

Today I will give you a clear definition of these rounds of financing defined by the function of that money. Hopefully we can all be on the same page.

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2014 definition

— Pre-funding: You build a prototype of your product.
— Seed Round: The funding necessary to launch your product.
— A Round: The funding necessary to get product traction.
— B Round: The funding necessary to scale your product.

Now, it didn’t used to be this way. It used to be that you were raising Seed funding to build your prototype!

2004 definition

— Pre-funding: You talk about your idea & write a business plan.
— Seed Round: You build a prototype of your product.
— A Round: The funding necessary to launch your product.
— B Round: The funding necessary to get product traction.
— C Round: The funding necessary to scale your product.

Of course, given where this is going we’re going to hit the following model soon, in 2015.

2015 definition

— Pre-funding: You talk about your idea, you build a prototype & launch an MVP.
— Seed Round: The funding necessary to get product traction.
— A Round: The funding necessary to scale your product.
— B Round: The funding necessary to get founder liquidity, build groovy headquarters, and make competitors give up (or not start in the first place).

Continue reading The Official Definitions of Seed, Series A, and Series B Rounds

The more informed you are, the better you feel about yourself

Yesterday we had our first board meeting of the year for Inside.com at Sequoia Capital (on the world-famous Sand Hill Road).

It’s been a long journey for me with this particular startup, which started as Mahalo.com and after a pair of pivots locked into the Inside.com mobile news opportunity.

It’s going well, and we are just finishing up our first year in public. We don’t have as many millions of users as we did at Mahalo, nor is the growth as staggering (Mahalo was a rocket ship, getting to 15m monthly uniques and the 140th largest site in the USA in under 30 months).

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However, the users we do have are really in love with the product and seek it out daily — they are not just passing through from a search engine. We can tell we are making something of true value that is delighting our consumers.

Inside just feels much more grounded than Mahalo which, although was perfectly aligned with where the world wound up (search + content), was up against a formidable competitor — which also controlled our distribution (Google).

[ Note to self: write a post about how being right is only half of winning. ]

Continue reading The more informed you are, the better you feel about yourself

How to bring vision back to your sophomore startup

“None of the VCs seem interested in our business despite the fact that we did millions last year,” the portfolio company lamented.

“Hmm….” I nodded my head and furrowed my brow, considering the dissonance.

“I don’t want to be a bullshit artist and lie, but … we have a simple business that probably won’t be the next Uber …” he protested.

“Why can’t you be the next Uber?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t want to lie … But I do have some ideas. I just don’t know if they’re going to work,” he explained.

“No one knows if any of this is going to work — that’s the point! Tell me the big ideas!!” I exclaimed!

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The founder in this case stopped trying to think big because he was so obsessed with making his initial vision work. While it’s important to execute, you have to be careful not to give up dreaming big.

Getting out of the weeds

Our job as founders of venture-backed businesses is to build big, audacious things. Of course, when we are at work, we have to take very small steps. Most days it doesn’t feel like you’re building the big audacious thing.

How can it feel like a grand vision when you’re hiring sales people, doing press releases, and dealing with your developers debating all sides of the work-from-home policy?

A founder’s life tends to suck most days. The best you can do is go through the brutally slow progress with good cheer and a sense of purpose.

Many founders get so caught up in the day-to-day of their business they forget why we’re here: to try big things!

Continue reading How to bring vision back to your sophomore startup