Monday, November 30, 2015

The problem with month-over-month growth rates

Most fundraising decks contain a slide with a chart that looks roughly like this:

Chart #1

Or this:

Chart #2

I’ve also seen charts that look like this:

Chart #3

Or this:

Chart #4

Chart #3 and #4 are good for a LOL (or a “WTF!”, depending on your sense of humour), and fortunately we’re not getting too many of these (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, take another look at the charts). A chart that looks similar to #1 or #2 is something we look at on a daily basis, though.

What all of these charts and their headlines have in common is that they’re trying to convey exponential growth. Since traction is the #1 factor that determines fundraising success, it’s understandable that founders try hard to show exponential growth (which talking about a m/m growth rate implies). This is especially true if you’re one out of 50 startups that present at a “demo day” and you have three minutes to get investors excited. At some of the demo days that I’ve attended, I felt like this led to an arm’s race for the highest growth rates and sometimes made me feel like this:

Let’s look at the numbers behind chart #1 and #2.

Chart 1:

As you can see, chart #1 shows very strong signs of exponential growth: this (fictional) company’s MRR is growing at a relatively steady rate of 18-21% per month, and the amount of net new MRR which the company is adding is growing every month. Mathematically this looks clearly exponential, and yet, since the absolute numbers are still so low, unless you understand the drivers behind the growth you don’t know if there’s real, sustainable exponential growth (e.g. due to product virality) or if it’s just a series of step changes which makes the numbers look like exponential growth.

If this sounds like an academic question to you, think about its impact on the company’s growth projections. If there’s true exponential growth at a rate of around 20% per month, the company’s numbers will quickly go through the roof. If, on the other hand, the growth isn’t driven by inherently exponential drivers, you should expect the growth rate to decline quickly, leading to much lower projections.

Now let’s turn to the data behind chart #2:

If you take a closer look at the numbers, you can see that in contrast to chart #1, in spite of the chart’s headline and trendline, it doesn’t look like something’s growing exponentially here. The monthly growth rate is higher than 10% in all but two months, but it’s fluctuating heavily and the amount of net new MRR is going up and down. You can calculate a growth rate of 40% per month on average or a compound monthly growth rate (CMGR) of 35% without having to lie, and you can have Excel draw a trendline using an exponential regression. But I believe this is highly misleading. A more reasonable way of describing this company’s revenue growth would be to say that the company has been adding between $300 and $700 in net new MRR per month in the last ~ 12 months.

Again, all of this may sound somewhat academic, but I think it has practical relevance in two ways: The first one is about how you communicate your numbers to potential investors when you’re fundraising. The second one is about how you’re projecting growth and what targets you’re setting for your team. Let’s take a closer look at both of them.

1) When you’re talking to investors you of course want to show your numbers in the best possible light, and to say that you’re increasing revenue by $300-700 per month (to use the example from above) may not sound as exciting as a CMGR of 35%. However, keep in mind that experienced investors have very fine-tuned BS antennas, and if an investor gets the impression that you’re getting too creative in your interpretation of your data, that’s a huge turn-off. Therefore I’d recommend the following:

  • If your numbers look similar to chart #2 from above, don’t try to read exponential growth into the chart.
  • If your numbers look more like chart #1, i.e. your monthly percentage growth is pretty stable and your monthly $ growth (or user growth, if you’re a consumer startup and pre-monetization) is going up consistently, it’s fair to talk about exponential growth. That said, as long as you’re at a very low absolute levels (say below ~ $20k in MRR if you’re a SaaS startup) it doesn’t make too much sense to talk about percentage growth rates, and talking about growth in terms of net new MRR per month may be more useful.
  • When you’ve reached what Jason M. Lemkin calls “Initial Traction” – around $1-2M in ARR – consider talking about y/y growth instead of m/m growth. There’s no strong rationale for that, but I think if you’re talking about longer periods of time, y/y growth is more intuitive to understand.

2) As far as your internal goal-setting goes, the problem with an exponential growth assumption is that for early-stage startups it makes short-term goals too easy and longer-term goals too hard (unless you’re one of the 0.0...1% of startups that have a viral growth engine with a viral coefficient greater than 1).

Let’s say you’re starting (almost) from zero and your goal is to be at roughly $80k in MRR in 12 months. If you’re assuming a constant m/m growth rate it looks like this:

Plan #1

The blue line shows the total MRR at the end of the month; the orange bars show the net new MRR added in each month; and the red line shows your monthly growth rate in %. As you can see, you have to add pretty tiny amounts of net new MRR per month until around month 6 in order to reach your goals. Then it goes up quickly, and in the last two months of the year you’ll have to add $20-30k per month. The problem with a plan like this is that if you’re at $8000 after month 6 you think you’re on track, but actually you’ve only achieved 1/10th of what you have to achieve in the year.

You can of course expect that you’re getting better throughout the year as your product matures and as you’re doing more sales and marketing, but I think the slope of plan #1 is too steep. A more helpful and more realistic plan would look like this:

Plan #2

In this version you reach the same result after 12 months, but how you’re getting there is different. In contrast to plan #1, plan #2 doesn’t assume a constant m/m percentage growth rate. It assumes that the amount of net new MRR that you’re adding per month is growing, but on a linear basis. That may make the chart look less exciting, but I believe plan #1 is much more useful. If you use plan #2 and you’re on track after 6 months, it’s much more likely that you will still be on track after month 12.

To sum up, my recommendations for modeling growth:

  • In the first 12-24 months or so after launch, plan to get to your target number by assuming a curve similar to the one shown in plan #2.
  • After that, start using a m/m or y/y percentage growth target (ideally roughly in line with the T2D3 concept)

As you may have noticed, my recommendations for how you should manage your targets internally are very much aligned with my recommendations for how you should communicate your numbers to investors. Isn’t that nice? :)

Friday, October 23, 2015

What sucks about fundraising

Last week I wrote a post titled “What makes fundraising so stressful?” and asked founders to tell me which parts of the fundraising process suck. As of this writing, about 110 founders have completed the Typeform survey. The results are very interesting, and in some cases shocking. More on that below, but let’s start with the responses to the first question:

“Your optionality is an illusion”

More than 60 founders took the time to answer the additional free-form question (“What else has stressed you out?”). In their comments, many people emphasized and provided additional detail on some of the topics shown above, but several founders also pointed out additional issues. Reading through all of the comments has been very enlightening (and in a few cases humbling). Here’s a small selection of the answers:
"The big egos"
"Everything takes 4x more time than initially thought"
"Associates who constantly want calls without involving a partner who can actually get the deal done (or not)." 
“It's venture capital but I have the feeling no VC will take risks. There is always a reason not to invest.”
"Rejection from seed investors saying 'come back once you have X' (where X is in essence enough to raise Series A)." 
"Some investors haven't mentioned at all that they invested in similar company. I found that after the meeting."
"Startup/investor fit. Finding people who understand the business and can support / advise us going forward, vs. wasting time talking to people who don't understand the venture potential of the business." 
"Investors using their lawyers as bad cops."
"Radio silence and/or stringing me along, in service of ‘maintaining optionality’. Hint: if you do this, I won't come back to you next time I'm raising. Your optionality is an illusion."

"Had an investor back out after a long negotiation that culminated in a SIGNED term sheet. This is outright destructive, and all but killed the company."

The next question was “Which of the following things have happened to you already?”. Here are the results:

The final question was: “Anything else you want to point out? Any other input on what VCs can do to make fundraising less stressful for founders?”. More than 45 people answered this question. The comments included:

"If you are not interested, say it right away (I had some of the best meetings with VCs that said it out early in the conversation)."
"Don't waste our time or yours. Be very upfront about interest or not. Give succinct feedback, and don't sugar-coat why you're reacting the way you are." 
"Had an investor back out after a long negotiation that culminated in a SIGNED (but obviously non-binding) term sheet. This is outright destructive, and all but killed the company. Never, ever, ever do this to a young company. I literally hate this firm now. They are the worst!" 
"If you're transparent, direct, clear and fair, I will respect you and come back to you in the future. If you're weaselly, arrogant, or try to manipulate me, I won't."

What are the take-aways?

1) Founders understand that fundraising takes time and they can deal with rejections. But they hate being left in the dark.

The top issues, that is the issues which founders said suck the most, are:

  • "Not knowing where I am in the process, i.e. no ‘yes’ but also no clear ‘no’"
  • "Not understanding why VCs have passed"
  • "Having to answer dumb questions by VCs who didn’t understand our business"

Interestingly these issues are precisely the ones that could be avoided if VCs did a better job. In contrast, things that cost time and energy but are a natural part of the fundraising process – creating a deck, preparing numbers, having many meetings, getting rejections – suck significantly less.

This theme – founders can deal with rejections, but they need clarity – is also what has been mentioned the most in the free-form questions and is the clearest take-away of the survey.

To my fellow VCs’ defense, if you get 300 or more inbound requests per month it’s very hard to give each founder a timely response, so unless an investor intentionally strings founders along in order to keep optionality (or the illusion thereof) I don’t want to blame him or her. But knowing that this is the #1 issue which stresses founders in the fundraising process, VCs should try very hard to become as responsive and transparent as possible. For us at Point Nine, these results served as a good reminder that we have to further improve our internal processes to make sure that each and every entrepreneur gets a swift answer from us.

2) Fundraising sucks across all stages

We also asked founders to tell us what stage they’re in. 59% said that the last round they’ve raised (or tried to raise) was a seed round. 30% said Series A, 11% said Series B.

The only question which showed a statistically significant correlation with the stage was the question about “Getting initial meetings”. For earlier-stage founders, getting initial meetings has been significantly harder than for later-stage founders. That doesn’t come as a surprise, and maybe it shows that there’s at least one thing which VCs are good at: Getting their portfolio founders meetings with other VCs. :-)

3) Backing out after a term sheet has been signed is much more common than we thought

In the world of private equity and M&A, signing a term sheet may have a different meaning but I’ve always thought that if a VC signs a term sheet it means they are fully committed to making the investment. And they ought to be. The purpose of the final due diligence that takes place after a term sheet is signed is to rule out “skeletons in the closet”. By the time you sign a term sheet, you should have made up your mind and should be done with your “commercial due diligence”.

Apparently that’s not the case. 14 people, a shocking 14% of the respondents, said they’ve already experienced an investor backing out after a term sheet has been signed. Unless these 14 founders had skeletons in their closets, that’s 14 too many. As one founder said in the comments, if this happens it can kill a company.

Based on these findings, founders are well advised to do more due diligence on their part before they sign a term sheet with a VC. One of the things you should do is ask the VC what kind of due diligence they’re still planning to do after the term sheet is signed.

Huge thanks to all founders who took the time to participate in the survey! If you want to dive in even deeper into the survey results, please drop me a line and I’ll send you the Excel sheet with the complete data set.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

What makes fundraising so stressful?

In theory, raising venture capital could roughly look like this:
  1. You create an investor deck and send it to 5-10 VCs that you like (1 week)
  2. You meet the ones that are interested and quickly figure out the 3-4 that are really bullish (1-2 weeks)
  3. You have a few more meetings with those 3-4 VCs and answer their questions (2 weeks)
  4. You negotiate with 2-3 of them and sign a term sheet with your favorite one (a few days)
  5. You hand it over to your lawyer for the final due diligence and the legal paperwork (3-4 weeks)
So ideally it's a couple of trips to Sand Hill Road (or San Francisco or London or Jaegerstrasse) over a period of 4-6 weeks to get a term sheet, and after another 3-4 weeks you've got the money in your bank account.

In practice, things rarely go so smooth. More often than not, raising venture capital is a huge distraction for the founding team. Even if things go reasonably well, it usually means that one of the founders spends half of his time talking to VCs for several weeks – time that he or she can't spend on building the business. If things go less well, it's not only a huge time sink but can also be an extremely stressful experience.

Why is that, and does it have to be this way? 

To some extent, it's in the nature of things that convincing other people to give you a lot of money (and to commit to supporting you for the next 10 years) for a small stake in your risky early-stage startup is not an easy feat. The vast majority of startups fail, VCs can invest in only 1% or less of the startups they see, fundraising involves a lot of relationship-building, it's a complex process – that's all pretty obvious so I won't elaborate on that.

But the question is if fundraising really has to suck as much as I think many or most founders experience it, and what investors can do to make it suck less. (I've already written about what founders can do on their end, e.g. by having clarity about their numbers and by pre-empting most DD questions.)

To shed some light on that question I put together a short Typeform survey. If you are a founder or CEO and have raised venture capital it would be awesome if you could participate in the survey. It's anonymous and takes only a few minutes to complete (and thanks to Typeform, you can do it on your iPhone :) ). I will share the results in another post shortly.

Thanks in advance!

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The importance of doing reference checks (2/2)

This is part two of Jenny's article about the importance of reference checks. If you haven't read the first part yet, start here.

Last time we spoke about WHY you should do reference checks and what impact a bad hire can have on your organization. In this second part I’d like to share my personal experience as well as some outcomes that have recently been discussed within the Point Nine family around the HOW.

General thoughts on the HOW:

  1. If you do reference checks, make sure they are one of the last steps of your recruitment process. Because if you do them right (I’ll explain further what that means) it will cost you time. You want to make sure that time is invested in the right candidate.
  2. The number of reference checks people do varies greatly between 1 to 15 checks per person. You want to find inconsistencies within the feedback you receive about the person. Depending on how senior the candidate is, ask for more references. A good start is 2 references for junior/entry roles that you want to increase to 3 to 5 references for middle management positions and 6 to 10 references for a senior leadership position.
  3. Make sure you have a mix of suggested references by the candidate as well some that you happen to know or you proactively approach to give you feedback. A good way to start is with the suggested ones. You can ask those guys who else they find you should talk to. Make sure you still top that up with your own research e.g. via LinkedIn or your personal network.

Now how to do them well?!

  • Have questions prepared. Make sure you know what to ask rather just go for the “So, tell me something about John” kind of question. Ask specific questions about the candidate. Remember, you want to find inconsistencies! Don’t be okay with foggy answers, worst case rephrase the question.
  • Try to establish a relationship with the reference you are talking to. Do a video call if possible and try to avoid written references. Take your 2-5 minutes small talk time at the beginning. Why? It’s much harder to lie into your face when I like you :)
  • Don’t only ask direct peers. It’s much more interesting to talk to people e.g. that got fired by that person (they are usually much more honest and open) or in general someone that has worked below him and got directly impacted by that person. A good mix of people above, around and below works quite well!
  • Obviously try to avoid asking someone at the current company the person works unless he got recommended by the candidate.
  • A good way to challenge the integrity upfront is to ask the following question once you’ve received the suggested references: “Would you mind If I talk to Peter, Fran and George as well”? Watch the reaction closely!
  • Always remember: You hire someone for his strengths not lack of weaknesses so tailor your questions about the strengths you are looking for and make sure that you weigh the feedback you receive according to what you really need. Example: Reference says: “Steve, in his role as Head of Sales, was too pushy in his general approach and sometimes went too fast for the Executive Team and the organization, so it was really hard to follow”. This is generally not the best feedback, but if your company is currently trying to attack a market, someone like Steve might be just the right fit for this period of time ;)

Here are some random questions that might be helpful for your day to day reference check. I usually use a mix of those and tailored ones to the specific candidate and role. Remember we’re trying to find inconsistencies, so use a good mix of questions for every reference check.

Some general questions that I find helpful:

  • What is your relationship with Peter like?
  • What was it like to work with Peter?
  • What was Peter’s management style like?
  • Can you describe a tough/very challenging moment Peter was in and how he has managed to get ouf it?
  • If you think about the time you and Peter have worked together, what’s the first memory that pops up your mind?
  • Would you say Peter is more a team player or does he excel more when he’s on his own? Can you give a specific example for it?
  • Would you describe Peter as a hands on person?
  • Do you regret that Peter has left your company? Why?
  • Should I hire Peter? Why?

There is plenty of reading out there with good stuff on that topic. One post that I can highly recommend is Mark Suster’s post “How to make better reference calls”.

What are your thoughts? What are your favorite questions that you use in reference calls to cut through the bullshit politeness?

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The importance of doing reference checks (1(2)

This is a guest post by Jenny Buch, who recently joined us as a Talent Manager. It's the first in a series of two posts. The second one will appear here soon. 

To follow up on the recently posted interview with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, I’d love to share my experience about reference checks with you.

So, many of you probably made the experience of hiring someone that you would have stated as “a really promising candidate” upfront. But after four months into the job it turns out that the hire was actually a total fail, that your staff is thinking you’re an idiot for bringing him on board (even if they don’t tell you) and that you now have to pay the debts by firing that person and start a whole new time consuming hiring process again to reduce the mess you’ve just done to your organization.

Well, even though things like these sometimes just happen and can have many reasons, there are ways to dramatically reduce the likelihood. One of them is to have a strong hiring process in place with its most important asset, you can guess it – reference checks!

Or, to say it with Christoph’s words “In God we trust, all others bring references”

Reference checks have been quite common in the US and most of the English speaking countries ever since but are still fairly new to many of the European countries. This is due to cultural differences and different common practice that was established in each country years ago. So why changing that good old practice and do references checks? Here is why:

There is only so much you can get out of a certificate, a CV or an interview. Your goal is to get to know your new “promising candidate” as best as you can within a short period of time to make sure you don’t mess things up! Today, and especially in the startup scene, there’s a different need for different skills than there was when “written references” were the way you did it. Here are some classics of the “must have skills” for any kind of candidate that can only really be proved by a good reference check:

  • Interpersonal skills: Interpersonal skills for any kind of role matter much more these days than they did in the past (or to state it correct: people are more aware of them, they’ve always mattered). The interview situation is not the best way to find out whether or not your candidate is actually a great fit since some candidates are extremely good at selling themselves during an interview.
  • Integrity: Today, an intern can become the CFO. Maybe the company sucks and he only became CFO because he went to the same university as one of the founders. As Ben Horowitz likes to say in his amazing book “The Hard Thing about Hard Things”. “There are two kinds of companies in this world. One where matters what you do and one where matters who you are. You can either be the first one or suck.” You want to make sure that his previous company was out of the first category and that besides his great university connections, he actually was the best candidate for the role and that’s why he got it - because he knows shit, works hard and is an awesome guy. I’m not saying that hiring from your university environment is bad, but it shouldn’t be the only reason for a hire - which it is sadly in many startups these days.
  • Right kind of ambition: You are looking for people with the right kind of ambition. So people that love your idea, bring a “get shit done mentality to work” and that thrive to make your company successful. As a side effect it will help them grow their career - not the other way around.
  • Right kind of person: You are not looking for “the Facebook Head of Sales” or the “CMO from Google”. Even though those guys do an amazing job at their current companies, every company is different and every time in every company is different. You need to find the right candidate for your company at this time. So one of your challenges is to make sure that your candidate has the right skillset for YOUR COMPANY.

I guess I don’t have to tell you how big the impact of a bad hire can be for your organisation. Simply do the math. Really do it! Sit down and calculate how much time and money it takes you to get rid of the wrong hire and find a new person and tell the people that you are sorry rather than using this time to talk to 5 people for 10 minutes upfront. If you do that math correctly you’ll figure out that doing reference checks is going to be the easy, cheap and most efficient way for busy startups to get the right people on their rocket ship!

Saturday, October 03, 2015

PNC SaaS Founder Meetup, Edition #4

Jack Newton, co-founder & CEO of Clio, at
the 1st PNC SaaS Founder Meetup in 2012
About three years ago we thought that it would be nice to organize a little meetup for the founders of our still quite young but growing SaaS portfolio. The idea was that by putting all of the SaaS founders in one room for a day, we'd give them an opportunity to compare notes, share war stories and learn from each other. The result has been nothing short of amazing. After the meetup, many of the attendees told us that they've never attended an event which was nearly as useful as this one, and everyone left the meetup energized and eager to implement all the new learnings.

The success of the first meetup, which took place in San Francisco at the end of 2012, encouraged us to do another, bigger event in 2013 in Berlin and an even bigger one in 2014, again in San Francisco. By now it has become a tradition, and last week the 4th annual PNC SaaS Founder Meetup took place in Berlin. Thanks to all the great people from our portfolio and our guest speakers it has once again been fantastic. Here are some (visual) impressions.

One of the reasons why the event is so effective is that it gives early-stage SaaS founders an opportunity to learn from later-stage SaaS founders and other SaaS experts who have already been through many of the challenges faced by the early-stage guys. Especially for founders from Europe and other places outside of the Bay area, this is a pretty unique opportunity to learn from some of the best people who've done it before. Therefore we're incredibly grateful to people like Mikkel Svane (co-founder & CEO of Zendesk), Jack Newton (co-founder & CEO of Clio), Paolo Negri (co-founder & CTO of Contentful), Olly Headey (co-founder & CTO of FreeAgent) and many others who participated in the first meetup in 2012 and keep coming to the PNC SaaS Founder Meetups ever since. Thanks guys, the startup world is a better place with you in it. :-)

PS: If you're a co-investor or friend of Point Nine and wondered why you didn't get an invitation this year: It's nothing personal, we've made it a portfolio-only event this time.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Introducing Jenny Buch, Talent Manager at Point Nine

Once a startup has released the first version of its product, raised some funding, started to get the word out and is getting some traction, the biggest challenge almost always becomes hiring. No matter how great the founders are and how much good advice they get from investors and advisors: You need people to get shit things done. And before long, you need more people (AKA managers) to help other people get shit things done, too. Recruiting great people can be extremely time-consuming and difficult, but if you don’t manage to build a great team, you are guaranteed to fail.

Or, as Michael Wolfe put it in his awesome talk at our 4th annual SaaS Founder Meetup last week:

All companies start differently but end up the same:
Success depends on hiring and managing a great leadership team.

Given that hiring is the #1 challenge for almost all of our portfolio companies, it has always bugged me that we’re not better at helping our founders find great people. It’s not like we haven’t been trying it and sometimes we’ve been able to find someone in our network for an open position at a portfolio company. But I’ve always wished that we’d be able to provide much more help.

Jenny sent me two pics ... and
forgot to tell me that I should pick one. ;-)
That’s why we’re thrilled that we’ve hired an experienced recruiter with a strong network, Jenny Buch, to focus on this challenge full-time. In her role at Point Nine, Jenny will (besides taking care of internal HR issues) advise our portfolio companies on anything related to recruiting, culture, employee engagement and HR strategy and will help them hire awesome people. In her previous roles, Jenny has recruited dozens if not hundreds of people for fast-growing tech startups and we can’t wait to see her magic unfold in the Point Nine family.

Welcome, Jenny!

PS: Hiring a talent manager isn’t a new idea in the VC world, and large firms like A16Z have built big teams to support their portfolio companies in a variety of areas. We can't compete with that, but we’re a little proud that we’re one of the first (the first?) micro VC funds to invest heavily into this role. :)

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