What is a startup vs a lifestyle business (and why it matters for VCs)

There is a lot of misconception around the moniker “lifestyle business,” with many founders thinking it’s an insult, which is understandable since said moniker usually comes from an investor with a pile of money and who is giving a “hard no” to a founder who just spent the time to pitch them — in rejection, comes reaction.

[ Click to Tweet (can edit before sending): https://ctt.ac/4EXd3 ]

When people in Silicon Valley call a startup a lifestyle business, they are actually implying that it’s a GREAT lifestyle for the founders, perhaps with a certainty of pulling out a million or two in profits a year, as opposed to the 5-10% chance of waiting a decade to have a greater return.

VCs tend to be impressed with these lifestyle businesses and their advice is given because it’s in everyone’s best interest — it’s certainly not to diminish founders.

As I mentioned above, the timing of the lifestyle business assessment is a key issue here. The founders getting this designation from investors want VCs to invest in their businesses, and have poured their hearts out in pitch decks and partner meetings — they believe that they deserve to clear market and they haven’t.

Many investors don’t have great bedside manners and don’t unpack their choice enough not to invest, based on my experience as a founder, investor and in running an accelerator with almost 100 graduates.

At LAUNCH, we like to walk founders through our “declining to invest AT THIS MOMENT,” with a lot of details. This acts as a great moment for us to codify our decision-making in a transparent way with the founder and gives the founder the ability to remind us of how stupid we were years later.

A simple email like this can take the edge off the “no”:

“Jane & John,

We really enjoyed hearing your vision for Acme Incorporated. We are going to pass on investing at this time because we are unsure if this can be venture scale. Venture scale today means having a realistic chance of hitting $100M in revenue in under 10 years, with great margins. If we’re missing something, please let us know because we often get it wrong.

Also, “at this time” is the key phrase in this email, we often invest years after first meeting a founder, so we would love to stay in touch with you. You can send your monthly updates for investors/non-investors to
updates@launch.co. We read them all and we respond to many.

Best, Jason”

If I think it’s a lifestyle business, I will often say to the founder:

“Most VCs are not going to consider this venture scale in my opinion, because it’s based on low margin service revenue. I wonder if you’ve considered optimizing your business to throw off two million dollars a year for the next ten years.

If you do that, you will make $20M and still own a great services business you can sell for 2-5x EBIDA at the end of that decade if you want. That will give you $20M in earnings and a final $4-10M sale at the end, if you do sell.

Most founders never make $25M+ from their startups, so you might want to avoid VC money and go for the sure(r) bet.”

This tweet was super instructive in regards to how much misconception there is about the lifestyle business designation.

Venture capitalists are not trying to offend or make founders feel bad by saying they have a lifestyle business. That’s a naive reading of the situation. If a venture capitalist tells you that your business isn’t venture scale, they likely believe it, and are telling you so that you don’t get yourself into a dysfunctional situation, and so you’ll have a better outcome.

No venture capitalist wants to be on a dysfunctional board with an unhappy founder — that’s literally the worst scenario an investor can be in. They avoid it at all costs.

Best,
Jason

PS – Do you know an awesome lifestyle business that is throwing off $1M in profits and wants to try and 100x it? Email 100@launch.co

How to Predict the Future (Don’t)

Nobody can predict the future.

Everybody can tell you what’s possible.

The art is in knowing what’s probable.

I’ve spent the last 10 years investing in startups, half that time as a hobby and half that time as a career, and in that time I’ve learned that most people are scared, little aliens.

[ Click to Tweet (can edit before sending): https://ctt.ac/uzlFV ]

All day long I ask people what they want to happen in the future and what their plan is to make that vision materialize, and the bold and true of heart answer these questions without pause. They have studied their market, talking to customers and doing competitive intelligence on incumbents. They have timelines they’ve built, tests they want to run and a plan B and C in case they run out, or get offered a bucketload, of money.

However, the majority of tourists I meet in startup land freeze like fragile snowflakes landing on a hardened lake, suddenly paralyzed by the realization that they’re a commodity, both in how they think and who they are.

They recite the codas of cowards with confidence: “well, nobody can predict the future” and “I guess it’s possible.”

What a profound realization! “It’s possible” and “no one knows the future,” that’s amazing! How did you come to this realization, and does anyone remember the quick key for the facepalm emoji?

As a writer, I hate wasted words, and as a (hu)man of action I hate cowardice and telling comrades that which they already know is their height of cowardice.

The job of elite investors and founders is to look at what’s inevitable and build a plan that accelerates that timeline and capture the value from that compression.

Self-driving cars are inevitable? It’s possible that humans will not die from car crashes in our lifetime!? That’s obvious, so let’s focus on building a product road map with all the milestones that need to be solved to get us there, that takes into account getting massive funding — from revenue and investors — that allows us to go 10x faster than anyone thought possible, crushing all cowards in our path.

It’s possible that robots will replace back-breaking manual labor? Fantastic, let’s make a list of the 100 things that haven’t been automated and figure out which ones are most probable to solve now (Roomba for cleaning floors and Cafe X for making coffee), and which ones are most probable after that’s done (drones to clean windows?).

When I look at an investment I don’t focus on what’s possible, I focus on what’s probable.

Five years ago I didn’t ask, is it possible the world will embrace meditation and mindfulness, I asked if it was probable that a large number of people would embrace it. It was clear to everyone that smartphones and subscriptions would enable it, and it was clear that a passionate minority were already embracing mindfulness on varying levels, but with tremendous results across the board.

The fact that it was so probable made it so much easier to make that bet.

If you catch yourself, or a partner, saying “it’s possible,” that’s an opportunity for y’all to dig in and do the hard work of asking if it’s probable.

On the podcast, I always ask folks to “set a line” for when we will have some amazing outcome, be it flying cars or general AI, and the resistance I face from intelligent people is just extraordinary.

Take a moment to “set a line” or put a percentage on your claims and watch how much better you get at this game called “startups.”

Resolving co-founder conflicts

Related image

Got a lot of feedback on my post on “How to find a co-founder” yesterday, including founders asking me how they can resolve conflicts with their co-founders.

[ Click to Tweet (can edit before sending): https://ctt.ac/Gzath ]

This is one of the hardest questions for me to answer because conflicts are so situational, often personal and if they are hard to resolve they are often complex with multiple resolution paths.

Before we talk about the conflict at hand, we need to look at the founders themselves and ask, are these emotionally mature founders who are self-aware? Most of the founders I work with are highly-driven, highly-skilled, persuasive and passionate individuals, but often they are young and emotionally inexperienced. Sometimes they are older but not very self-aware.

Most conflicts I see are a subset of all startup conflicts: the problems co-founders can’t resolve and they bring to a trusted 3rd party, in this case, an investor.

These conflicts are often not as hard to resolve as they seem, and are driven by the co-founders being under massive pressure and having not done the work to connect deeply with each other.

Let’s create a scenario. Two founders are debating if they should fire their director of sales, Joe. Joe is a great culture fit and is super positive, but his performance is below average. He misses targets and after two PiPs (performance improvement plans), he hasn’t improved.

Co-founder John, the product visionary, believes that since they have money in the bank and since Joe is loved by everyone, they should keep working with him. Perhaps there is another role in the company, and Joe was their first hire. Joe recruited three of the best people in the company and he hosts the weekly happy hour. It would be a shock to lose him.

Co-founder Joanne, the CEO, and operations killer, believes that Joe had his shot, had two PiPs over nine months, and since Joanne has to manage Joe, it’s her call and she believes it’s a waste of time to keep average people around. Besides, Joe can’t even come in on time and is the first to leave, with his jacket on at 5:29 PM. With a gentle transition out — for example, a three-month consulting agreement — we can manage the culture issues.

Things have devolved to the point at which I’ve been brought in as the angel investor. This is what I would do:

  1. “Joanne and John, let’s take a walk and have lunch.”
  2. “Why don’t you each explain to me your positions?”
  3. “I think I understand the situation… it feels like there are many solutions to this problem. Why do you think it’s come to a head? Are there other uncomfortable issues we need to put out on the table now since we’re hashing everything out so that we can get back to work?”

In these situations, what I’ve seen is that the issue at hand is almost never the actual issue. All kinds of issues can come pouring out during these sessions, and that’s a good thing. The more you talk about the issues, the less power they have over you.

I set up this scenario as a coin toss on purpose.

Was your initial reaction to try to solve the problem?

Did your mind immediately take John or Joanne’s side?

In this situation, if the company were Slack or Uber, you could obviously do a coin toss and the company would do just fine taking Joanne or John’s side. What matters here is that the two co-founders take the time to hear each other out and have the emotional maturity — and agility — to say to each other, “this is a coin toss, I trust you and I’m fine with whatever decision we make; let’s just agree to monitor the situation and stay focused on what matters: our customers.”

If only life were this simple. I’ve seen founders who are dealing with children or serious mental issues (anxiety, depression, bipolar, etc.), as well as founders who simply lacked any self-awareness. Sometimes folks have substance problems, other times their marriages are breaking down or their parent is dying of cancer.   

Business is very personal, despite what they say in the movies, and co-founder conflicts often require taking that long walk or having that long family-style meal. It might also require calling your investor and admitting that you can’t resolve this conflict, or that the conflict is the smoke and that the fire is a highly personal issue.

If you have a great investor, they’ve seen it all and they will help you. That’s why we’re here, to help you when things are hard to resolve… send the text, set up the walk and talk and don’t let things fester.

How to find a co-founder for your startup

If you’re a first-time founder, you probably want to have a co-founder or two to lean on.

The second most frequent question I get from new founders, after “will you give me $250,000?” is, “do you know a technical co-founder?”

[ Click to Tweet (can edit before sending): https://ctt.ac/178_d ]

If you can’t find a co-founder for your startup, you’ve disqualified yourself as a fundable entrepreneur, because who in their right mind would back someone who can’t convince just one talented person to join them on a crazy journey?

Finding a co-founder isn’t easy, but it’s not the hardest thing you’ll do as a founder, and recruiting for your startup is going to be a lifelong practice.

It. Never. Ends.

I’m 30 years into my career in technology and I’m still spending a significant portion of my time building my teams.

That being said, there is a simple three-step process to recruiting a co-founder:

  1. Identify what skills you don’t have & that your startup needs.
  2. Find people you know with those skills.
  3. Have coffee with those people & let them know how enormous you think this opportunity is and that you can’t do it without them. Ask them for their feedback on the idea, and tell them they would be crazy not to join you on this adventure because this problem needs to be solved (alternatively, “this product needs to exist in the world”).  

When I give this advice to folks they give me the following excuses:

  1. “But I don’t know anyone”
  2. “But I don’t have any money to pay them and they have kids and a mortgage and won’t leave Google to do this!”
  3. “I’m not good at networking.”

If you throw up these kinds of roadblocks for yourself you’re simply too weak — at this time — to found a company. You should go work for someone who isn’t as meek and milktoast as you are. Someone who is so passionate about their idea that they will find 100 people who are qualified, and relentlessly explain to them to come on the journey until they’re told, “stop asking me to do this with you — I’m out and you’re annoying as heck!”

This is what it takes to find a co-founder and if you have any complaints about this being unfair or unjust or too hard, well, guess what: startups are really f@#$#@ing hard and life is not fair.

Either do the work or don’t, but don’t complain about how hard it is to change the world. If you’re not up for this simple task, then go work for someone who is and take notes.

Comments are open, but if you complain in the comments I reserve the right to savage you.

Spreading the Gospel of Angel Investing

As many of you know from reading (or listening) to my book, I’ve taken on the challenge of educating and inspiring rich people to angel invest in startups.

[ Click to Tweet (can edit before sending): https://ctt.ac/1Qe3j ]

Rich people are sitting on large hoards of zombie capital, be it bonds, index funds or cash, that sit passively in the cloud, allowing the rich to stay rich, beating inflation and sometimes a bit better.

Sure, some of these bonds and index funds are backing interesting projects, but the truth is, this capital doesn’t change the world in the way startups do. I’m trying to inspire 10,000 rich people to become half- to full-time angel investors, moving a small percentage of their zombie capital, on an individual basis, into startups.

If 10,000 individuals worth $10m each put 5% of their net worth — $500,000 — into angel investing over the next five years, that’s a billion dollars into seed stage startups.

In order to do this, my friend Mike Savino and I, along with the LAUNCH team, created Angel.University, a half- to full-day course on the basics of angel investing. We’ve done them a half dozen times already, including in Sydney and now Hong Kong.

[ Angel Summit will take place on Friday the 25th in Hong Kong at the Startup Impact Summit: https://whub.io/startup-impact-summit and is put on by WHUB ]

The likely scenario I’ve seen in angel investing is that people who do it as a career and who do it with discipline, which most do not, will likely lose half of their money, or double it, with an outside chance of doing much better.

However, most folks don’t angel invest with discipline. They meet their first startup, dump $250,000 of their $500,000 angel investing capital into it, and watch it burn.

The truth is, you want to start very slow, investing tiny amounts of capital, say $5,000, into each of your first 30 investments in year one and two, tracking which ones hit revenue, significant user growth and/or follow on investment from known investors. Then you need to double or triple — or 10x — your investment in those breakouts.

Of course, the advent of syndicates allows for the participation in angel investing without the massive, time-consuming search for deals and the extensive due diligence required to avoid costly mistakes.

That’s where the book, the course, and the podcast come in, which all urge new angel investors to take their time, study the craft and take the work seriously.

Right now our syndicate at Jasonssyndicate.com has ~2,900 members, making it the largest syndicate in the world (by far). We think we can get to 10,000 over the next five years by adding three or four people a day.

If we can hit 10,000 members we will be able to syndicate a qualified startup deal every week, perhaps even two deals a week eventually.  

And who knows, in another year or two, we will likely see the definition of accredited investors in the United States expanded to include people taking a course or having related work experience, qualifying them to do startup investing.

PS – Anyone interesting I should meet in Hong Kong? Email me jason AT calacanis.com

Will an Amazon.com come out of the crypto collapse?

Yesterday I had Anthony Pompliano on my podcast to discuss crypto. He runs a crypto fund, and we’ve had a great time debating ICO scams, Bitcoin Zero and token-based equity on Twitter for the past couple of months.

[ Click to Tweet (can edit before sending): https://ctt.ac/3i4oO ]

He was a fantastic guest, and despite our Twitter debates, it turns out that we agree on about 90% of what’s happening in crypto right now.

The big question I tried to figure out on the podcast, and that I’ve been trying to figure out personally as an investor is, will a killer use case and $100b startup come out of the crypto and ICO crater of 2018 — which saw most ICOs and imaginary digital currencies lose 90-99% of their value.

In other words, will an Amazon.com, led by a visionary founder, come out of this global, anonymous gaggle of grifters and cryptodipshits.com.

We also talked about why so many people think Ripple/XRP is a scam (and why Anthony won’t hold the #3 crypto project), wash trading and how much crypto folks should own.  

https://youtu.be/v7fSARKYCKA

We also had my old friend Mick Liubinskas on the podcast, he’s a consultant to startups I met over a decade ago in Sydney. He just launched a cool book called, She’s Building a Robot. Please go buy 10 copies of his book, it’s something we need to see more of in the world: content that inspires girls to get into tech — as opposed to much of media which shames them about being geeks and praises them for being part of the Industrial Princess Complex.

Show notes:

0:48 – Jason introduces Mick Liubinskas. The two talk about the Australian startup environment and Mick’s book “She’s Building a Robot.”

5:40 – Jason introduces Anthony Pompliano. The two talk about what Anthony is working on and the current situation of bitcoin.

10:34 – Mick shares his thoughts on the rise and fall of bitcoin.

14:07 – Jason thanks sponsor LinkedIn. Claim a $50 credit toward your first job posting: linkedin.com/twist.

16:18 – Why hasn’t there been a killer use case for crypto after so many crypto ICOs?

24:22 – Jason thanks sponsor Kruze Consulting. Visit kruzeconsulting.com/twist to receive a free tax consultation and tax credit white paper.

26:08 – Backstory of bitcoin and cryptocurrency, ideal crypto use cases to come, and crypto bans around the world.

35:58 – Thoughts and speculation on what the outcome of bitcoin will be in the United States.

40:59 – Jason thanks sponsor Capterra. Visit capterra.com/twist to find the right business software for you.

42:59 – Ripple: how it works, the issues around it, and why some people consider it a scam.

55:23 – Crypto as an alternative for venture capital, and crowdfunding platforms Kickstarter vs. Indiegogo.

58:04 – Problems with accreditation laws in the United States and Australia, and smart investment strategies.

1:05:33 – Global Black Swan rankings: higher education, aliens, China, and impeachment.

1:18:44 – Anthony talks about how his index fund works, gives bitcoin advice and shares thoughts on Masayoshi Son.

Founders: Watch the FYRE doc and learn what not to do

At Fyre Festival, guests get cheese and bread instead of ...
Founders: Watch the FYRE doc and learn what not to do

Last night I watched the schadenfreudeful documentary FYRE on Netflix, which chronicles a sociopathic grifter named Billy McFarland and his greedy celebrity partner Ja Rule, as they bilk investors and music-festival-going Instagrammers out of their money.

[ Click to Tweet (can edit before sending): https://ctt.ac/nUR97 ]

The movie is a commentary on the power of social media models like Kylie Jenner, combined with a criminal disguising himself as a visionary founder.

FYRE has flashes of the familiar startup and entrepreneurial struggle, with insane deadlines and a cash crunch being resolved with a combination of brilliant, world-class marketing and bold fundraising driven by RFID bracelets being loaded with cash and angel investors pouring money into an event that the founder knows is a multilayered fraud.

McFarland’s enablers detail their journey from true believers in the original vision of Fyre, a completely reasonable concept to build a marketplace for booking talent, to the utter chaos of the weeks and days and hours leading up until all hell broke loose — and millennials were fed cold cheese sandwiches while fighting for shelter in leftover emergency tents.

When everything collapses, you’re left with everyone around the far-from-mastermind criminal, McFarland, leaving pain and suffering in the worker bees who tried their hardest to make his vision reality.

If you’re a founder, the important takeaway is that while grinding and hacking your way to success is what it’s all about, doing illegal things while selling your stock to investors is securities fraud.

Our justice system in America might be inconsistent and slow, but it takes particular pride in its ability to take down people who commit crimes in combination with a cap table (see Theranos, the Zenefits settlement, ICO actions, etc.).

When I started daily blogging for Calacanis.com, one of my first posts was one imploring founders to read biographies, which are an amazing way to unpack how success happens — and it’s often messy and far from a straight line.

Documentary and dramatic films about founders are also a great way to unlock entrepreneurial lessons — what are your favorite startup films?

Founder? Startup? Comments are open!

Note: I’ve only watched the Netflix FYRE doc, I understand there is ANOTHER doc on Hulu. Will watch that one next.

This is your Captain again, I’m canceling drink service

In July I wrote a message to my founders, warning that things could get choppy, titled “This is your Captain speaking, I’m turning on the fasten seat belt sign.”

Well, this is your captain again, and we’ve got turbulence ahead so I’m canceling drink service and asking everyone to check your seatbelts.

[ Click to Tweet (can edit before sending): https://ctt.ac/Bfrnm ]

On the day I wrote the last piece the NASDAQ was at 7,932 (July 25th), and over the next couple of months, it crashed over 20% to 6,192.

It’s since recovered to ~7,000.

While no one can time the market, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

The Black Swans are hiding all around us in plain sight, while at the same time big tech companies have soaring sales, letting them build mountains and mountains of cash.

When I look out there I see three things that make me cautious:

  1. The Russian investigation combined with the growing impeachment movement
  2. The Chinese trade war combined with the arrest of the Huawei CFO in Canada and another employee in Poland. A Canadian citizen in China has been sentenced to death for drug smuggling, as well — coincidence?
  3. The Corporate Debt bubble

In the last piece, I explained to founders what happens when things collapse. In short, angels and VCs slow or stop investing, and the startups with under a year of revenue and no prospects of hitting breakeven go away.

Will the market crash? No one knows, but I do know that the Boy Scout motto is as true today as it has ever been: be prepared!  

Bottom line: For my founders, I want you all to check that you have 18 months of runway in your bank and a clear path to profitability — if you’re not profitable yet. Be. Pre. Pared.

More:

Corporate Debt

Canadian citizen sentenced to death

Huawei arrest in Poland

Always Have a Plan B and C Teed Up

I spent 10 years living in Los Angeles, traveling up to the Bay Area every other week, sometimes weekly, to do angel investing.

During that time I learned that SFO is a complete disaster, with Karl the Fog creating all kinds of trouble. Also, I was frequently missing flights with insanely unpredictable traffic patterns in L.A. and the Bay.

[ Click to Tweet (can edit before sending): https://ctt.ac/n9b7e ]

When I made a little cheddar, I started treating myself to the fully refundable Southwest Premier tickets, you know the ones, that let you board first and take the aisle seat in row two. The coveted seat that lets you put your bag under the seat in front of you which in turn lets you bolt past the row one customers who are fumbling for their overhead luggage.

So, I started having my EA book me three flights back at 5PM, 6PM and 7PM to avoid the issue of delayed and canceled flights and traffic snafus.

I also started booking two flights out — one landing at San Jose, which is 3x farther from the city but has no delays — in addition to my SFO flight.

So, five flights booked for a two-flight need.

Paranoid? Overkill? Unethical?!

The results speak for themselves: zero missed meetings, no delays and no drama, with the only cost being an extra 30-45 minutes of an EA’s time (to book and refund 3 flights, 2x). If you look at the cost of an EA, say $40 all in, it’s $20-30 to have this kind of parallel planning.

What’s the cost of missing a meeting with a new hire, investor or customer!?

Answer: more than $20!

I bring this up because there is a bigger issue from this lesson, which is, not only should you always have a Plan B, you should have a Plan C as well and, if possible, have them teed up to switch to — in your startup and life.

Inspired by Fred’s post while he was stuck at LAX: “If The Train Is Delayed, Find Another Way Home”

https://avc.com/2019/01/if-the-train-is-delayed-find-another-way-home/

What’s your favorite travel hack? Gray and black hat techniques are welcome but not condoned.

Zuckerberg tries to buy off journalists with .3% of Facebook’s yearly revenue

Yesterday I wrote the first piece in a three-part series about how Facebook could turn around their “WORST. YEAR. EVAR!!!”

[ Click to Tweet (can edit before sending): https://ctt.ac/cRafE ]

The basic premise: share revenue with publishers, Instagrammers/influencers, App developers and anyone else creating content on the platform, just like YouTube, Airbnb, Apple and Google’s App Stores and countless other partnership platforms do.

Right on cue, Facebook does the most misguided, heavy-handed and unsustainable version of sharing the wealth, by sharing $100m a year — .3% of their yearly revenue — in a series of grants.

The cynical take is that these kinds of one-time payoffs, to highly influential media organizations, are designed to silence and tamper criticism — they’re buying off influential people for a pittance.

The most gracious take is that Facebook feels bad for being such a horrible partner to the press and democracy.

Either way, it’s not sustainable and it’s braindead stupid. Who on earth is advising Zuckerberg about this?!

In June of 2017, Apple reported they shared $70 billion with App developers.

Google doesn’t break out YouTube’s revenue, but everyone knows it’s tens of billions, and that they pay out 55% to partners. The rumor in 2015 was $9B in total revenue, and we can assume that has grown to $20b+.

If YouTube paid out 55% of even $10B that’s $5.5b to content creators — we’re talking Netflix-level spend, and 55x the pittance Facebook is splashing around a bunch of journalist nonprofits.

The data in this chart is from Forbes, not YouTube, so it’s likely incomplete, but if this is anywhere in the ballpark, YouTube is paying it’s top five stars MORE than what Facebook is donating to non-profit organizations.

Right now Facebook makes $33B+ a year, or almost $100M a day, off the backs of Instagrammers, Facebook users and publishers — they share zero point zero.

If I were running Facebook I would commit 20% of top-line revenue to creators, from the New York Times to podcasters to App developers, and splash $7B to creators — a fraction of what Apple pays out a year, but what would build a base of stakeholders in the future of Facebook.

Right now Facebook has zero friends in the industry, and legions of enemies and detractors, including the founders of WhatsApp and Instagram. Think about what a poor job Zuckerberg has done building goodwill with his juggernaut. Even the founders he made billionaires are attacking him on the way out the door with their paychecks?

Facebook Misguided Announcement

https://www.facebook.com/facebookmedia/blog/doing-more-to-support-local-news

Apple Inspiring Announcement

https://www.apple.com/newsroom/2017/06/developer-earnings-from-the-app-store-top-70-billion/