• VCs Want to Know: What Else Have You Got?

    whatchou gotIt’s getting tough out there for entrepreneurs. No longer is it enough to create a sustainable, profitable, fast-growing product that’s beloved by customers.  These days, top VCs are placing a bigger premium on what’s next.

    Andreessen Horowitz is “generally willing to take more risk on a product that hasn’t yet been built,” Marc Andreessen told me last month.

    “We want to be in the most extreme propositions — the sort of thing where it’s either a moonshot or a smoking crater in the ground,” he explained. Toward that end, he’d said, “We’re willing to impute value into [what’s coming next out of a startup] if we’re highly confident that the team can build it and that the market is really going to want it.”

    Ranjith Kumaran has seen this focus on the future vision first-hand. Kumaran, who cofounded the file sharing and online data storage company YouSendIt (renamed Hightail last July), is CEO of PunchTab, a nearly three-year-old loyalty and engagement platform that helps customers like Arby’s Restaurant Group create instant loyalty programs.

    PunchTab’s trajectory has been impressive. In addition to growing revenue five times over last year, it has expanded its enterprise customer base from 10 to more than 40. Nevertheless, Kumaran finds that the VCs with whom he meets care most about Punchtab’s “next-horizon solutions”; they want entrepreneurs to paint a picture.

    “I believe that wasn’t the case before,” he observes. “Series B was about how fast you’re growing and how you get to next revenue [milestones].”

    If VCs are no longer enamored of velocity alone, the shift likely owes to a number of factors, beginning with the fact that fewer venture firms have come to control greater amounts of capital and need bigger returns than ever to justify such pools.

    “It’s a very different dynamic today,” says Brian O’Malley, a general partner at Battery Ventures. “The market has gone from venture people sitting in their office, waiting for whatever company to come and pitch them, to chasing the companies that everyone else wants to invest in. If you’re part of that inner crowd, life is very good and there’s lots of money being thrown at you.”

    But you need some imagination to get there.

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  • Battery Ventures on CPG: It’s Simple, Great Product Wins

    mainimage_consumerpackagedgoodsLast week, I met up with Battery Ventures’ Brian O’Malley, who invests in a range of things but has been particularly successful leading some of the firm’s e-commerce investments. Among the related companies that O’Malley has championed at Battery are Skullcandy, the now public earphone maker; the fast-growing grooming products startup Dollar Shave Club; and high-end home furnishings company Serena & Lily.

    While e-commerce has been falling in and out of fashion on an almost yearly basis, O’Malley suggests that making smart retail bets, including on consumer packaged goods companies, isn’t that complicated. He starts with knowing what not to do, like focusing on the “things that are already done versus the things that are yet to come.” He elaborated during our sit-down. Our chat has been edited for length.

    You seem to be a big fan of consumer packaged goods companies. But they have a spotty track record. What’s the appeal?

    The good thing about CPG is high-frequency purchase rates. Take Dollar Shave Club. Guys shave every day, and once you get that staple, you [then sell] the toothpaste and hair gel and aftershave. There’s a whole list of products that you can add on afterwards. With CPG, you can very quickly get to hundreds of dollars of spend per customer.

    Is the trick to avoid low-margin businesses?

    Low margins are part of the challenge. CPG companies are also logistically complicated, they take a lot of money and time to scale, and there’s a big change [required] in behavior. So if I’m a Gillette customer, I might not like the idea of spending $20 for razor blades, but I don’t go to Google and type in “razor blades.” So companies typically have to spend a fair amount of money to gain visibility and change consumer thinking.

    Is there a model way to invest in these types of companies then?

    Well, if you need to raise big money to scale them over time — $25 million to $50 million rounds – you’re at the whim of what’s exciting to big money at that time. That’s the issue. So the types of things we’ve invested in on the consumer side have very quick payback periods on the unit economics. So you’re either paying back your advertising in three to four months because the advertising is cheap and the margins are good, or there’s more of this shared-risk model where you’re paying either a sales rep or an affiliate based on what’s actually sold. That way you’re always kind of marginally profitable.

    You make it sound so easy. Where do you think some of the bigger-known names, like Beachmint and ShoeDazzle and Fab, have gone wrong?

    Each one is different, but at the end of the day, the old adage that retail is detail is very true. It comes down to running a really tight ship. So you need to be very proficient at logistics, and with marketing and so forth. But when a lot of money was flowing at these companies, many of them became professional fundraisers as opposed to professional operators.

    People grew enamored with the idea of changing a business model or selling online, when at the end of the day, great product wins. If you have a great product, it doesn’t matter if you have a flashy business model. People will tell other people to come back and buy it.

    Does it matter what the product is?

    I don’t really care what the product is. I’ve got companies that sell everything from custom men’s shirts to baby bedding to wine devices. The question is: how big is the opportunity, what’s the pain point, how do you tell people about what you’re doing, and then what’s the buying behavior from there. Is it viral? Will users tell more people about it?

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  • Brian O’Malley of Battery Ventures: “Investors Are Fundamentally Lazy”

    brian-omalley-bigYesterday afternoon, I sat down with Brian O’Malley of Battery Ventures in the gleaming marble lobby of San Francisco’s Four Seasons Hotel. 

    Despite having a cold, O’Malley – who has led Battery’s deals in a long line of solid companies, including Bazaarvoice, which helps e-commerce companies manage customer reviews; SkullCandy, which makes headphones and earbuds; and the hotel booking service HotelTonight — spoke animatedly on a wide variety of topics. We chatted at length about the consumer packaged goods space, for example. I’ll share that part of our interview next week. In the meantime, here’s a quick excerpt from our discussion of the ever-evolving dynamics of post-Series A investing.

    Money for anything past the Series A round seems to have tightened up this past summer. What are you seeing?

    It really depends on the company. The way the market is working today, growth-oriented investors are much more interested in getting into the right company in the right space, versus taking a risk on something that’s unknown. They’ll pay five times the price to get in the Series B of some hot company rather than do something that maybe has some question marks around it.

    Do you subscribe to the winner-take-all theory? Do you think there are only a small number of breakout companies worth chasing?

    Investors are fundamentally lazy, so a lot of the time, they aren’t going to figure [out a business’s potential] on their own unless they’re super savvy about a particular space.

    On the flip side, most VCs now recognize that the winner in any given space does get 90 percent of the economics, while the second-place company gets 8 percent, and everyone else [shares] 2 percent. So by Series B, people are already starting to see how the market is evolving; they’re already starting to see how repeatable your business is, and they’re spending much more time chasing the one or two dozen companies that everyone wants to get into.

    And you think that makes sense?

    I think it’s a function of larger funds needing bigger exits to make their math work.

    As the funds get larger, what you need from a success gets larger as well. For funds for which it’s incredibly easy to raise money, their limiting factor is their time. And companies take longer to exit [these days], and so [the VCs] have less capacity for new investments. And when you have less capacity, you need each of your investments to return more money. That’s one of the big challenges.

    What’s another?

    What’s interesting, and what has surprised me, is how much people are influenced in terms of which companies they think will break out based on which companies are having success today.

    There’s a lot of emphasis right now on these more enterprise-focused businesses, which has a lot to do with enterprise-focused businesses doing incredibly well on the public market. But the reality of my doing a Series B investment is that I’m not going to be selling for three to five years, and the market might be very different by then. Even still, people are willing to back much less mature companies in the space du jour rather than invest in something that has some scale in a space that’s out of favor.

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