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Your go-to London Olympics form guide

I’m really looking forward to the London 2012 Olympics.  But if you’re like me, you only have half a clue as to who’s been performing well in a couple of sports at best.  And there are over 300 medals being awarded at this years’ Olympic Games.

I recently received a forwarded e-mail from a guy named James Hingston that says this:

Dear all,

Prompted by Richard, and my own desperate fanaticism, I’ve spent the past year putting together a complete form guide for the London 2012. The idea is that for any event… even the really random ones… you can dip in, get a solid idea of the form of athletes and teams coming into the Games, as well as some overviews on developments and changes that have taken place in the sport.

I’ve ended up developing it into a reasonably complete and semi-professional looking document (in for a penny, in for a pound) and so would not only encourage you to use it, but, if you think it’s any good, please distribute it as widely as possible amongst your friends and colleagues.

Many thanks as well (because she’ll kill me if I don’t credit her) to Lindsay for helping proof the document. It’s been designed so that you can dip in and out and use it as a reference guide – you don’t have to read all 184 pages…. She did.

Cheers,
James

This is the link to the document (http://bit.ly/OlyData) so that you can read/download/print it at your leisure.

(I will say that from the little I do know of various sports his medal predictions are a fair bit off, but the data he compiled is absolutely amazing.)

Get it here: http://bit.ly/OlyData

 

 

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Five baseline assumptions on seed accelerators

There has been an explosion of new seed accelerators recently, and with that comes an explosion of press interest, blog articles, and more. I was even interviewed for a recent article by the Wall Street Journal, though my quotes were all cut. (Speaking of which, I learned a lot of about media through that experience. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the writer/journalist thinks, the editor really calls the shots and enforces a point of view.)

I want to lay out the five baseline assumptions that I make when explaining seed accelerators:

  • All accelerators improve the chances of startup’s success
  • There is a wide spectrum to how much help an accelerator gives a startup due to reputation, deal flow, quantity/quality of applicants
  • The best seed accelerators are started in order to do better investing, and partners really make money through follow-on investments
  • A lot of seed accelerators will fail, and there’s no problem with that
  • Entrepreneurs should understand what they’re selling to an accelerator (but not worry about it too much)

And here’s why:

All accelerators improve the chances of startup’s success

While I don’t think that every startup should go through an accelerator, I do believe that going through any accelerator improves the probability that that a startup will be successful. It’s very straightforward: the whole point of the accelerator is to provide tools, mentorship, connections, and support to startups so they can be successful. Perhaps I’m a bit of an optimist, but I would be surprised if any startup coming out of an accelerator would say that the program had hurt their chances for success or provided them with zero value.

Unfortunately, this is a very difficult data point to test. I’ve assembled a lot of information about the status and success of over 1100 startups that have been through nearly 100 accelerators across the globe, but capturing the data for the entire startup ecosystem that hasn’t gone through an accelerator is damn near impossible.

There is a wide spectrum to how much help an accelerator gives a startup due to reputation, deal flow, quantity/quality of applicants

I doubt this is a controversial point. The degree of acceleration that startups get by going through Y Combinator is significantly different than many of the newest accelerators. For example, YC companies have a very high rate of getting follow-on funding, and their alumni network is unparalleled.  Newer programs don’t have anything like this.

When it comes to understanding the seed accelerator ecosystem, the best metaphor is the US university educational system. There are some programs that are clear leaders; like Y Combinator / TechStars and the Ivy League. There’s massive demand to get into these handful of programs, and they attract the very best startups. Once inside, you have some of the best access to people in industry and massive advantages because of that credential. And because they’re so good, they attract the best people with the best chance of long-term success.

There are also more regional accelerators, like the state university system. They tend to be more attractive for people looking to stay closer to home. Some of these have the capacity to be real powerhouses, but many are just average. But even though I call them “average”, by graduating from the university/accelerator, you have a better chance of long-term success than if you did it all on your own.

Finally, I like seeing the growth of vertical-specific accelerators like RockHealth and Imagine K12, which are like professional schools. They provide real benefits for companies in verticals that have very specific needs and very specific markets. It’s no wonder you see companies like Agile Diagnosis go through Y Combinator and then later on also decide to go through RockHealth. As I mentioned in my thesis three years ago, I believe these specialized accelerators are where some really great and successful programs can and will be built.

The best seed accelerators are started in order to do better investing, and partners really make money through follow-on investments

When I interviewed Paul Graham and David Cohen for my thesis back in 2009, one thing was very clear to me. They started Y Combinator and TechStars in order to do angel investing better. In short, Y Combinator and TechStars were primarily founded to make money. This aligns the program and the startups; the startups want to create successful businesses, and the program partners want to make money which can only happen if those businesses are successful. Because they’re judging and assisting startups solely on their product/market fit and potential, I believe they have the greatest chance of generating the exits required to become profitable.

I’m personally not a fan of accelerators that are started for the purpose of, say, “kickstarting the startup ecosystem in Northeast Montana.” They usually get some government funding or grants from organizations that they’ve convinced to fund them. In short, these programs are often funded for ego. Now I don’t think these programs should die, because of the very first point above. (Any program will improve a startups’ chance of success.) But the incentives are not necessarily aligned in this situation. Startups still want to create successful businesses, but accelerators want to prove they’re doing good things for the community. I believe that these programs will not typically generate startups with exits that will make the program profitable long-term, so the program will need to go back to their investors to continue.

No accelerators that I know of do any follow-on funding, though some programs are able to offer convertible loan notes of small size.  This limits the profits that the accelerator will eventually earn. But this hides the fact that the partners of the programs DO invest in follow-on rounds individually through their own personal angel investing. For example, I understand that many/most of the YC partners invest in YC companies, though from what I’ve been told they don’t lead any follow-on rounds. (Probably partly for signaling effects, and partly because they have a lot of demands on their time.) So while the accelerators’ stake is initially 5-10%, it’s diminished with each round of funding. The partners who invest personally are able to continue to invest in future rounds, and while I have yet to do an in-depth analysis here, I believe that’s where the partners REALLY make their money.

Leading on from that, what an accelerator really brings to program partners is deal flow. So even if a program is marginally profitable or unprofitable, the founders/partners could effectively use it as a loss-leader for much more profitable follow-on investing.

A lot of seed accelerators will fail, and there’s no problem with that

I’m modifying this phrase from Pascal Finette’s blog post. A number of accelerators are started for the wrong reasons (ie, not strictly to make money) so I believe that they do not have a bright long-term future. I agree with Pascal that the money many programs earn from exits will never be able to make up for the costs of the program, and many will eventually close.

Seed accelerators failing isn’t bad! Even if an accelerator that’s trying to kick-start the startup ecosystem in north-east Montana runs for two years and then dies, that’s two years of startups that have been trained and two years of connections between startups and investors and mentors. Sure, while it could have potentially had a better outcome, that’s not a bad result.  From my data, just under 10% of the seed accelerators I’m tracking have already failed.  (Though some have been resurrected in other forms.)

Who really loses when an accelerator dies? It’s not the startups; they’ve already gone through and had their experience. The only people that lose are the investors behind the program, and they should have understood what they were getting into before they began.

Entrepreneurs should understand what they’re selling to an accelerator (but not worry about it too much)

When I was speaking to the journalist from the Wall Street Journal, she mentioned her editor was very concerned about the cost of these programs, that startups are giving away too much equity. I believe this line of thinking is short-sighted and wanted to briefly explain why.

The default end-state for a startup is failure. The reason for an accelerator’s existence is to help prevent failure, and they take a small equity stake in companies in order to align their incentives. The accelerator only ever “wins” when their startups “win”. Paul Graham has (of course) written on this topic, and made an easy mathematical argument. You should be willing to give up X% equity if afterward the business has a (100/(100-X))% better chance of success. So if you sell 10% of your equity to an accelerator, you’re better off provided that your business is (100/90 = 1.11) 11% better off than before you went through the program. I think with the vast majority of matches between startups and accelerators this price is most definitely worth it.

There is a market “price” / valuation for different programs, and entrepreneurs should recognize what they’re selling. For experienced entrepreneurs to go through a new accelerator is perhaps not worth the cost, because it could duplicate their existing experience, adding no real value. That’s why these programs should (and do) specialize in new entrepreneurs. Top-tier programs are able to add value even for experienced entrepreneurs, so it’s not uncommon for founders to go through Y Combinator even after starting and successfully exiting a previous YC company.

Summary

Seed accelerators are great opportunities.  For beginning entrepreneurs virtually any program would improve their startup’s chances for success. For beginning program founders, I would suggest that you deeply examine your motivations, and what could/would happen if the program doesn’t get the exits you expect from the first 1-3 years of startups.

There will be more programs founded, and a lot more startups going through them in the next few years. I hope the information here provides a good framework for discussing seed accelerators in the future.

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A sad milestone

My father, Glen Christiansen, died when I was 17 years old, in my senior year of high school. As of today, he’s been gone for half of my life. As of tomorrow, I’ll have lived longer without my father than I did with him.

(I grew up in the US Midwest, where normally this kind of thing generally isn’t talked about in public. Part of me is fighting my instincts in writing and posting this note. But I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and feel a real need to mark this milestone in public. It’s quite a departure from my normal blogging; and is likely the last time I’ll post something this personal.)

My father was a wonderful man. I still have great memories of working with him on projects around the house, on my Cub Scout Pinewood Derby cars, on Boy Scout camping trips, and just as a loving father. My work ethic can easily be traced to the example that my father set. What would start out as a simple project at the beginning of a weekend would transform to a massive project by the end of the weekend, largely because he insisted on doing things right, and designing something that built a product with long-term flexibility and options. He also worked incredibly hard at his job, and in the service of others. Literally days before he died (and during Christmas vacation) he was at home processing paperwork so farmers that worked with his company could get bonuses that were owed them.

No father is perfect, but I think my dad came pretty damn close. And as the years have gone by, what remains are the most warm and generous memories of my childhood. He was diagnosed with cancer just about two years before he died, so our family had two years of knowing the end was near and in that time we were able to really savor that time together. Considering the late-stage cancer, he was in pretty good health that entire time.

I should mention here how much my mother means to me. My mother and father were such a great team, particularly during those last two years. She has always been a strong influence in our lives, but in my father’s final years really became the backbone of our family, and remains so today. We couldn’t have gotten through the experience without her. Her emotional support of our whole family was incredibly strong, despite the fact that she had just lost her husband and partner of 25+ years. I love and admire her strength and character.

What saddens me to my core is knowing how much of my life I haven’t been able to share with my father; how much more I could have learned from him. When he died, he knew that I had a full scholarship to college through the Navy ROTC program. But after he died, I ended up going to a different university. I had amazing experiences at the University of Michigan, and then spent six years in the Navy. I’ve lived in London for the past eight years. More importantly, I met my wife, fell in love, married and now have our first child on the way. I look back and see what I’ve done and how much I’ve changed in the last 17 years.

I wish I could have had him experience racing through the Australian Outback with my university team. I wish I could have had him out on my submarine for a Tiger cruise; I can only imagine the pride we both would have felt. I wish I could have taken him around to all of the amazing places in London. I wish I could have introduced him to my wife; I know he would have loved her nearly as much as I do now. And as I approach fatherhood now, I really wish I could turn to him for advice.

I still remember the last time I saw my father alive; up and walking off to the surgery that we hoped would prolong the time he had left. (It’s still painfully ironic that he survived his very first incredibly risky surgery when a football-sized tumor was removed from his body, but didn’t survive the surgery that was virtually routine.) While this memory will always be bittersweet, I try to focus on the fact that he lived a full life and literally walked with life, energy, and purpose to his dying day.

As sad as this all is, I’m incredibly grateful. For over 17 years, an amazing man helped raise me and become the person I am today. I’m very happy I had a loving father, who taught and guided me and set such positive examples of how to live life. While I’ve missed him for 17 years, and will miss him every day for the rest of my life, I am blessed and grateful for the life and love he gave me. I had a gift of 17 years with a wonderful man, a wonderful father (and two wonderful parents).

I love you, Dad.

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MG Siegler proves he doesn’t understand hard tech

Part of me loves reading MG Siegler, part of me hates reading him.  He’s clearly an Apple fanboy (and therefore an Android/Google-hater), but he’s also a very clear, opinionated and distinctive writer.  MG is also a fellow University of Michigan alum.

But then yesterday I read his post titled “Power“.  In it, he talks about the biggest takeaway from SXSW was battery life, and how it’s becoming a bigger and bigger issue with phones, tablets, etc.  This is very true, battery life will determine size and capability of future devices.  But then he writes this:

I want a laptop that lasts for a week on one charge. I want a cellphone that lasts a month. I want to be able to go to SXSW without a Mophie in each pocket. I don’t want to have to be constantly worrying about battery life every single time I leave my house.

Today’s battery technology is holding back several other advances in technology in major ways. And we are about to see just how bad the situation is in the coming months. Maybe wireless power sources that constantly charge and re-charge devices is the ultimate answer. But it just seems like battery technology is really ripe for disruption.

What a idiotic Silicon Valley-centric viewpoint!  The world of battery technology is one that depends on chemistry and material science.  Moore’s Law has worked for transistors, but no other field of hard science works that way.

In software, new technologies and techniques can be conceptualized, built, and deployed industry-wide in a flash.  Google described the MapReduce framework in 2004; in just a few years it was virtually an industry standard for Big Data applications.  This happens all the time, and because of it, Silicon Valley types get used to that rapid clip of innovation.  But this pace of change is the exception, not the norm.

The companies behind batteries and battery technology are fighting tooth-and-nail for every advantage they can get.  Any company that’s successful can build a billion-dollar advantage in the market.  I worked for years with lead-acid, Nickel-Metal-Hydroxide, and Silver-Zinc batteries; each has their own styles of deficiencies.

MG comes across as an Silicon-Valley-centric arrogant jerk saying that “battery technology is really ripe for disruption.”  It implies that all he needs to do is call attention to this problem, and two hackers in a garage will start experimenting and build a battery that’s better than anything else on the market.  The reasons improving battery technology is tough is because the chemistry and material science problems are orthogonal; the work isn’t x*2, it’s x^2.  Even once you’ve solved the key problems, manufacturing at the scale required for specific use cases becomes a third problem, since it forces a re-evaluation (and sometimes a complete re-design) of the original chemistry and material science problems.

So when I read MG’s post, I really lost a lot of respect for him.  Just because a VC wishes he could have a better battery, doesn’t change the laws of nature.