It’s time to boycott Saudi money (aka Masa’s Vision Fund)

It’s time for founders and venture capitalists to say “not yet” to Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund — commonly referred to as Masa’s Vision Fund in tech — due to the deteriorating state of human rights in the Kingdom.

[ Disclaimer: at least one of my 200+ investments has taken money from Masa’s Vision Fund — which as I said is majority-powered by Saudi Arabia — so I’ve benefited from their presence in tech. As an angel investor, I wasn’t involved in the decision. ]

For the past decade I’ve struggled with the question of whether it’s better to isolate or engage with the kings and queens, and often dictators and despots, of nation states that can’t reach the baseline of human rights we take for granted here in the West: freedom of speech, freedom to be who you are (gay, trans, Christian, Jewish, atheist, woman, etc.) and a justice system that doesn’t rely on cruelty, corruption and torture.

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We’re not perfect here in the United States, with the waterboarding-adoring presidents Bush and Trump, or the progressive-gentleman Obama who couldn’t figure out how to close Gitmo after eight years (we never did get a straight answer on that one, did we?).

However, when you pull out the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we’re on the right side of history despite our weakest moments that drive us to embrace the death penalty, or our capitalism-gone-wild experiment with paid prisons. Not to mention a justice system that statistically treats people differently based on their skin color.

Another factor we should be proud of is that we live in a country where debating, investigating and fixing these systems occurs out in the open — and without the arrest of those pushing the resolution of these difficult issues (as just happened).

Engagement or Isolation?

In the engagement camp, it’s easy to point to that fact that we’ve avoided a massive military conflict with China thanks to our intertwined economies, while disagreeing on basic human rights.

Perhaps that’s why Sergey at Google is embracing a censored Google for China (Dragon, how clever :eyeroll:), or maybe Brin’s getting run over by his own company — hard to know what Googlers think since they’ve mastered the art of obscuring the decision-making process through deliberate levels of management and shell companies.

[ Side note: Where have you gone, Sergey Brin?! Speak up kid, your silence is brutally deafening, and what’s the point of making tens of billions of dollars if you can’t speak for what’s right in your own company? ]

On the side of isolation, or perhaps a polite “not yet” as I’m advocating here, is Saudi Arabia, which went through a great “we’re changing!” tour with their partner, Masayoshi Son of SoftBank — a true gentleman and visionary leader.

That was before they brutally dismembered a journalists for lightly criticizing them, in a coordinated hit that included a bone saw, and in Friday’s breaking news that nine intellectuals, journalist, activists — and their families (!!!) — have been jailed.

Two of the women round up are dual citizens of the United States and Saudi Arabia, and one of them is pregnant, according to reports.

Are they being tortured?

Have they been dismembered like Khashoggi?

Is the baby still alive?

It’s a sick, demented question to ask, but it’s sicker that we have to ask it.

It’s clear that in the case of the Kingdom, even with Masa Son’s vision, we’ve sent the wrong message to the world.

Silicon Valley is where massive fortunes are made, and we’ve taken the easiest cash double-up in the world — the IPO — and we’ve given it to the Saudis.


Because it’s easier to take their money than to deal with the headaches of going public?!

Because they are willing to pay next year’s, or the year after’s, price for our shares?!


Are we that desperate for a quick markup that we’re willing to sell out the system that generated the value to begin with?

Founders should turn down Masa’s Vision Fund until they disengage from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.

If you’ve already taken the money, you should be respectfully vocal about your displeasure with the Kingdom’s human rights issue.

Respectful, so that it’s easier for them to change and not dig into their position.

If you’re an investor, you shouldn’t go to Saudi Arabia for their conferences and you shouldn’t allow them to be an LP in your funds.

We should take our companies public instead of doing insane late-stage rounds, because it’s healthier for everyone — founders, investors, Americans and people suffering under dictatorships — to give the IPO business to our retirement funds, endowments and retail investors.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t engage, but it’s time for us to go back to showing the world the better path — as opposed to taking the quick buck.

What’s the point of being rich and powerful Americans if we can’t tell people who behave in a way that’s so fundamentally un-American, “Thanks for the offer but that’s not how we do it here in the USA.”


PS – Like anyone who has invested for a decade in tech I’ve got many conflicts, so many that I don’t even know them all! Some of my closest collaborators probably have Saudi funds, and I’m sure many of my portfolio companies who are talking to Masayoshi Son will read this and — in the short term — not be pleased with me for potentially screwing up a deal or two. If that’s the case, let’s talk it out and figure out how to get you funded without compromising who we are.

The Valuation vs. Traction Matrix

Early-stage valuations for startups are hard to understand because typically there is very little traction or data to go on in the first year or two of a startup.

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Startup valuations are not science, but they’re not magic either. It’s a bit of alchemy, combined with bizarre marketplace dynamics like famous founders getting 3x the price for half the traction, or Y Combinator hosting a gigantic demo day in order to create FOMO with novice investors who are explicitly told not to think things through and just cut a big check (literally, that’s their bad advice to investors).

The chart above, a work in progress, is called “The Valuation vs. Traction Matrix” and it pivots on two variables: traction (aka “stage”) vs. valuation.

I started the valuation at the basic valuation we tend to see in technology startups, which is $1-2m and go up to the eye-popping $12m (which is actually not the peak, just the highest end of normal).

When you have just an idea or mockup, you are likely to do a “friends and family” round in the $1m range.

If you have an MVP or unpaid pilots, you might get some angels or seed funds involved.

When you get to paid pilots or revenue, then you are most likely to get seed funds and syndicates involved, after which the VCs start buzzing around. VCs invest, on average, when you have $2-3m in revenue these days (they might engage you in discussions a lot earlier, obviously).

Above the green line tends to be less value and below the line is more value.

As you can see, I try to operate just below the line with two of my investment vehicles, the LAUNCH Accelerator and We do this by finding startups that are not in Silicon Valley AND that have customers paying them.

The green line in this chart approximates the average startup. I would say that most startups in the United States would go along this trajectory unless one of four things happens:

  1. You have a famous and successful founder, which gets you 3x the valuation for 90% less work.
  2. You create a marketplace where many investors are competing for an allocation, which is the double-edged sword that the demo day FOMO device is designed to create.
  3. Your engagement or product is otherworldly.
  4. You find the dumb money which doesn’t understand that you can invest in two or three startups — with the exact same traction — for the price of one overpriced startup.

We see number four all the time when a founder tells you not to worry about the valuation of $18m because it will all work out when they’re a unicorn, which is true, but this assumes you don’t have better deals you can prioritize.

In our case, we typically have so many opportunities that we can place three $6m bets in startups that are just as good (or better) than the founder demanding $18m.

The Danger for Founders

This is the danger of founders overoptimizing for valuation early, which is, they drive away the smart money and open up the floor for dumb money. The other well-known phenomenon is that a founder who succeeds at getting a massively high-valuation early on might raise too little money in a “party round.”

In this scenario, a founder might raise $1m at a $20m valuation, only diluting 5%. If they are burning $75,000 a month they then have about a year to build a company worth $20m. To be worth $20m for a SaaS or consumer subscription product, that would be around $100-200,000 a month in revenue.

It’s possible for a founder to do this, but it’s not probable. What happens if they don’t get to $150,000 a month in revenue to justify the previous $20m cap? One of three things:

  1. They lower the valuation and do a down round.
  2. They get bridge funding from their existing investors.
  3. They shut down or sell the company.    

If the same founder raised $1m at a $5m valuation, they would only need to hit $25-50k in monthly revenue to get a round done at ~$10m.


When a founder goes to an accelerator like LAUNCH, Techstars or YC they have a ~$2m valuation, which is a function of accelerators getting half their equity for cash ($100-150k) and the other half for running a program. Accelerators are a great deal for investors, but they require massive work. You need to have a large, full-time staff, space and a massive interview process to run an at-scale accelerator, which I think costs most programs ~$25-100k per startup.

If you add the operational cost back, an accelerator is likely investing on a $3-4m valuation. Still a good deal, but it’s 100x the work of a solo angel investor and 50x the work of a seed fund.

I suggest new angel investors and seed funds do their first 25 deals in the space to the right of unpaid pilots, in the area in the green box below. In this box you can pay above or below the line, knowing that you’ve eliminated the founders who can’t get to some basic level of product/market fit because it’s very hard to fake paying customers.

You should absolutely avoid Investing in the red box, where founders are looking for really high valuations for their ideas, mockups or MVPs. If you’re going to take on the risk in the idea and pre-traction phase, the yellow box, you at least want to get three or four swings at bat for the price of startups in the product/market fit phase.

So, if you invested $100k for a $10m startup with $750k in yearly revenue in the green box, I could see you investing $25,000 into four ~$2-3M startups.

Angel University

We will be discussing this important topic and more at the Angel.University tour, which is making the following stops:

  • April 19: Washington, DC (hosted by Riverbend Capital)
  • April 23: Boston, MA
  • April 24: New York City (supported by EquityZen)
  • April 26: Columbus, OH (hosted by WillowWorks)
  • April 29: Miami, FL
  • June 17: Sydney, Australia
  • July 15: San Francisco

The AU course is four hours followed by a dinner. Look forward to seeing you at this highly interactive course, which is worth attending if you’ve done zero or over 100 investments.  

How to become an analyst at a venture capital firm (hint: apply now)

We’re looking for an analyst to work at LAUNCH to help us sort through the dozens of applications that come in a day for Founder.University, LAUNCH Accelerator, Jason’s Syndicate and our events (SCALE, LAUNCH Festival, Angel Summit).

The analyst position a venture firm is considered the best way to break into investing, but that’s not true. The best ways to break into investing — in order — are:

  1. Make a huge amount of money and start your own firm (see Chamath)
  2. Be part of taking a company public (or selling it) for a huge return, which will result in you being invited to join a major venture capital firm (see Roelof Botha of PayPal or Alfred Lin of Zappos, both recruited to Sequoia Capital).
  3. Be the growth person at a top startup (see Josh Elman of Greylock)
  4. Go to Stanford or HBS (in the old days)
  5. Be a world-class journalist (OM, MG)

An analyst is a very hard gig to get, but they do come up once and a while.

Since I came into the game and made my own lane, I’m looking for someone like me: a writer.

Why a writer?

Because writers spend every day trying to cut through the bullshit that is thrown at them by CEOs and PR firms, to give their readers the truth (or at least that’s what journalists used to do). 

Also, I’m planning on having this writer not only send me coverage of 20 startups a week, I want them to publish one overview a day to the 

If you’re interested in this gig, here’s the link to apply. We are looking for someone for our Toronto or San Francisco office but would consider a remote team member if they were exceptional.