Tuesday, February 7, 2017

How to Change the Ratio Now

One of our core values at 500 Startups is diversity and inclusion. It’s well-documented that women are dramatically underrepresented in the technology industry including startups and venture capital.

So in Silicon Valley today, how can you get 50/50 (or more) gender balance in a growing organization of 100+ people?

The technology industry pipeline problem exists for women with barriers at every life stage, from being discouraged to pursue math and science as children, to lack of support for balancing work and parenting as mid-career professionals and many steps between. No one can eliminate every source of structural discrimination overnight.

But what if you still want to change your organization today?

I manage the 500 Startups Growth Marketing and Series A team. Here’s what we do. It’s very simple.

We aim to hire the best candidate for the job and we focus 100% of our recruiting effort on women.

The nature of our work means that we have large industry networks and receive  a consistent flow of high-quality people through referral. Logically, this inbound flow reflects the tech industry and growth-marketing average demographics. To counteract the averages, we primarily hire through active, outbound sourcing of referrals from our network and focus our effort on women. We work extremely hard to meet 3 or 4 women for every man when we are trying to add to our team. And this gets us very close to a 50/50 ratio.

Do this well enough and your organization will develop a reputation that precedes you. The most recent person we  hired told me that she only considered joining after hearing from trusted friends about our commitment to diversity and inclusion.

I’ve described one method that we use to diversify our staff at 500 Startups, but here are many other dimensions to diversity and inclusion.  

Changing the ratio is hard but it’s not complicated. Just start doing it.

You can follow me on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/matjohnson

Friday, January 27, 2017

Profit Pools in SaaS and Infrastructure

Much has been written about Network Effects and Platform Potential and New Monopolies in consumer and/or social products. It’s easy to understand how a marketplace like Airbnb or a messenger like Slack build defensible moats through network effects. It’s even fairly obvious how an infrastructure platform product like Segment can build self-reinforcing momentum that takes profit share away from their analytics partners.

Elsewhere in SaaS and infrastructure, it’s less clear which layers and products in the tech stack will be the ones that profit margin naturally flows to, and which layers will become commodities.

Opinion (and bets) within the sophisticated venture and startup community is always divided. In fact this question is one of the most central to venture investors: given equivalent funding and team quality, which products, approaches and categories have an unfair structural and strategic advantage?

I like to think of this question as analogous to core value investing concepts like Warren Buffet’s quip about preferring businesses that even ‘your idiot nephew could run’

For example, a very smart Series A investor I know told me a couple of years ago that he had a strong thesis that test automation services would tend towards commodity, but that margin and pricing power would pool around server monitoring services.

Smart investors in test-automation companies have a different thesis.

One reason that test automation products may tend toward commodity relative to monitoring products is that a series of passing test runs and successful code integrations does not generate the same uniquely valuable time-series data asset that server logs do.

As an investor, I follow analytics and BI products pretty closely. An interesting conversation that I  have been having with experts recently is the relation between Amazon AWS products like Redshift and Quicksight and the current generation of venture-backed BI companies like Periscope, Chartio, Looker, and Domo. Many of these products pull customer data into Amazon Redshift and then build visualizations and dashboards from there. Now Amazon offers a similar native product: Quicksight. The platform and associated pricing power risk to these startups is obvious. The alternative thesis is that the Amazon product will always need to offer 100% configurability and complexity so won’t fulfill the fundamental promise of the startup BI products to democratize data analysis down from engineers to line business analysts and managers.

As in the first example, there are very smart venture investors on both sides of this bet.

The core value-investing literature on businesses with defensible moats and lasting franchise value with margins of safety from Buffet, Munger, Klarman, et al. provides amazing insight for venture investors operating in what appears superficially to be a completely different asset class. For further reading, some of the smartest writing on technology investing like Bill Gurley’s Above The Crowd and Tren Griffin’s 25IQ really connect the dots between the two disciplines.

You can follow me on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/matjohnson

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Founders Are My Religion

My parents raised me atheist. The first time I attended a wedding, I felt deeply uncomfortable sitting in the church. I didn’t find my religion until last year and it took several years of experience as an investor to develop a way to articulate it.

I’ve come to realize that founders who I deeply believe in are my religion.
Charlie Munger and Warren Buffet say they like to invest in management teams they ‘love and admire’. I haven’t been able to get that phrase out of my head for years. George Zachary says he ‘backs revolutionaries who are changing the world’. I love that phrase too.

As an early stage venture investor, belief in the founder is really all I have. I back entrepreneurs at the beginning of many years of ups and downs. The product will change a lot, the market will change a lot, the customers will change a lot, the world will change a lot. I can’t predict any of that. What I can see today and what will continue to be true in the future is the grit of a founder and her ability to articulate a big vision.

At the end of the afternoon on Friday, the last business hour of the year, I met a friend whose company I backed. Five minutes after arriving, he had to step out and take a call to close one last deal for the year. When he came back, my friend told me his company had grown 50% in the last quarter and expected to grow 50% again next quarter on multiple millions of annual revenue. Definitely someone I love and admire.

Last month, I caught up with another CEO I backed. I invested a couple of years ago. His company has gotten to some scale and doing well, but ever since investing, I’ve thought that a major inflection point is always 4 to 6 months away. Still do. My job is to give the advice I can, but most of all to suspend disbelief, eliminate the doubts I can, and back the founder to the hilt. 

Sometimes it takes a lot of effort and reflection and self work to steel my belief through the ups and downs in advance of sufficient proof. That helps make me the better person I’d like to be.  

To kick off 2017, I’d like to thank the visionary, gritty founders who let us at 500 Startups join them on their hazardous journeys. You make me a better person. Thank you!

You can follow me on Twitter @matjohnson