That’s what I’ve been hearing since we published Part 1 of our rare interview with Sean Ellis.
Here’s part 2.
In Part 1, Sean discussed what you do before product/market fit: how to get there, how to measure it, and how to survey your users so you can improve fit.
In Part 2, he explains what you do after fit: optimizing your positioning, implementing a business model, and optimizing your funnel — all so you’re prepared to acquire users quickly and profitably.
If you don’t know Sean from his blog or tweets, he lead marketing from launch to IPO filing at LogMeIn and Uproar. His firm, 12in6, then worked with Xobni (Khosla), Dropbox (Sequoia), Eventbrite (Sequoia), Grockit (Benchmark)… the list goes on. 12in6 “helps startups unlock their full growth potential by focusing on the core value perceived by their most passionate users.”
This is the first time Sean has done an interview on the record. I’m really psyched he’s making his insights public — this interview is a must-listen.
We use several phrases interchangeably in the interview: Growth = scaling = acquiring customers with a known ROI. Preparing for growth = after product/market fit = optimizing promise + implementing economics + optimizing the funnel.
Here’s an outline and transcript of Part 2.
What comes after fit?
Prepare for growth
a) Put the metrics in place
b) Optimize the funnel
c) Optimize the messaging
Prepare for growth as quickly as possible
Remove bottlenecks to preparing for growth
Preparing for growth is not a low-burn period
Preparing for growth doesn’t require growth
Use a business model to grow quickly
Grow and create new channels
Nail the first user experience while preparing for growth
Hiten Shah from KISSmetrics recently sat down with me to explain how to use their product, survey.io, to measure product/market fit and find the “best grass” in your product. You may know Hiten from his Crazy Egg days.
survey.io is a free survey tool that helps you implement some of Sean Ellis’ techniques to get to fit. KISSmetrics actually built survey.io with Sean. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been great documentation for survey.io besides Sean’s launch post. Until now.
Sean Ellis recently sat down with us and explained how to bring products to market. You should listen to this interview for ideas on how to get to product/market fit, how to measure fit, and how to survey your users so you can improve fit.
If you don’t know Sean from his blog or tweets, he lead marketing from launch to IPO filing at LogMeIn and Uproar. His firm, 12in6, then worked with Xobni (Khosla), Dropbox (Sequoia), Eventbrite (Sequoia), Grockit (Benchmark)… the list goes on. 12in6 “helps startups unlock their full growth potential by focusing on the core value perceived by their most passionate users.”
This is the first time Sean has done an interview on the record. I’m really psyched he’s making his insights public — this interview is a must-listen. We’ve broken the interview into two parts: 1) before fit and 2) after fit. This post contains Part 1 (and here’s Part 2.)
KISSmetrics built survey.io with Sean — now they’re collaborating on KISSMetrics, a new tool for funnel optimization.
You’ll get more out of this interview if you also read:
An example of the survey.io survey Sean uses before fit. (Several phrases we use in the interview mean the same thing: Product/market fit = Fit = 40% of surveyed users consider the product a “must-have” = 40% of surveyed users would be “very disappointed” if they could no longer use the product.)
In the second part of my interview with Eric Ries, we discuss (1) acquiring customers without launching and (2) opening up board meetings to the entire company.
At IMVU, Eric and the management opened up board meetings to the entire company. Why?
To give people the information they need to do their jobs.
To teach everyone in the company to think like the CEO.
To prevent employees from gossiping about board meetings.
I’ve synchronized the audio with some simple slides below. That’s my favorite way to consume the audio. You can also find a transcript and stand-alone audio below. Please let me know if you find the transcript useful.
Read on to learn what kind of employee Eric used to “show the door” at IMVU…
How do people find out about our product if we haven’t launched?
Nivi: And this gets to a second topic, which is you guys weren’t doing any of this really in public, because you had not launched a product, right?
Nivi: Nobody knew who you were, but people were, at the same time, were using the product, so how did you do that?
Eric: I got a question today which was something like, “I’d love to follow your advice about not having a public launch, but we need to get early beta users for our product launch. How can we do that if we are not willing to talk to bloggers? Nobody really knows who we are.”
I think a lot of people have that attitude, that without PR, you just can’t get any early customers. Again, we have got to start with, “What is the goal of early customers? Why do you want them?”
If you are charging from day one, one of the reasons you want them is you actually want to make money. You want to show that your business is viable. But even if you are not charging money, you have a need to find out whether your business is viable, whether you have that minimum viable product, whether the business model, at the end of the day, is going to work.
For that, you do need customers, and you do need to be putting customers through a product experience that will give you that information. But you don’t need a lot of customers. I think that is where people get confused.
For a big fancy launch you can get hundreds of thousands of customers to show up for one day. But for metrics analysis, generally a cohort of 100 people or 1,000 people are plenty to learn from.
If you change your goal from, “How do we get the maximum number of customers,” to, “How do we get the minimally sufficient number of customers to learn what we need to learn,” new possibilities get opened up to you.
Acquiring customers on $5 a day
Eric: For example, at IMVU, we practice the $5 a day AdWords campaign. I was the VP of marketing in those days. If I actually knew anything about marketing, I would have known not to try this. By traditional marketing standards it is considered crazy to spend only $5 a day, but we had a pretty low budget and we really were pretty frugal.
I discovered that in those days you could buy clicks for five cents a click. But to me, $5 a day meant every single day 100 human beings are coming to try my product.
If you think about that from a beta testing point of view, especially if you look back at the old days of software shipped by CD, getting 100 people to try your product is actually a lot and you can learn a lot from that. And at 100 people a day, you are in good shape, just at that tiny, tiny level.
The risks of doing that are really quite low. I think a lot of engineers have this idea that once you put your product out there in public, the investigative journalists are going to find out about it and write about it and we are going to lose control of the story. Let me tell you. You should be so lucky.
IMVU was a top 1,000 website in the whole world before it got any press whatsoever. We were making millions of dollars a year. The press was writing about newly funded, venture backed competitors that had no traction whatsoever; because those were the guys sending them press releases.
It was frustrating, and psychologically you want to have that cover story on WIRED that you can send home to mom, but you know what? We did not start this company to have good vanity covers printed about you in the press. We were there to serve customers and serve them well.
Running experiments under a different brand name
Nivi: How do I run experiments, if I already accidentally got that TechCrunch article and I…?
Eric: Yeah, I am sorry. You are not doomed, but you are going to have to go waste energy later cleaning up the positioning that you put in that article, which is undoubtedly wrong.
Nivi: Right. There is that aspect of it, but do you think you should, just basically pretend that article never existed, or do you run tests under a different brand name?
Eric: That is not a bad idea. Especially on the iPhone, I see this because of Apple’s stringent release process where there is this huge delay before you can actually bring things to market.
And also because people want to get into the top 25. That is where all the action is in the Apps store. There is a lot of competition to make sure that on the day you launch your app you get all the right coverage lined up and all the stuff happening.
People feel like they don’t want to do a bad launch under their real brand name, because that will harm their ability to do the proper launch later and get to the top 25.
But there is no law that says you can only bring out products under one brand name. I strongly, recommend that to people if you are very concerned about your precious brand. I think most startups are way too concerned about the power of their brand. They should be so lucky to get some kind of brand going.
Even still, bring it out under a terrible name. I specifically recommend people bringing products out under brand names that they hate so that they won’t ever be tempted to make that into their real official brand name and then become afraid to experiment with it.
You have got to be bringing products out under a brand that you feel comfortable experimenting in. Then once you find the right formula, there are two possibilities.
Either you will be able to port that product over to your new brand name and it will be great, or the product concept you brought up under that bad brand name will be so powerful, you just can’t get people away from it.
It is too sticky and you are stuck with it. But congratulations! You are successful! Is it really so bad that you personally don’t like the brand if customers do like it? I think it is not so bad.
Running pricing experiments in public
Nivi: A friend of ours has a popular subscription based product that they don’t charge for and now they want to start charging for parts of it for the premium model, and they want to find the optimal pricing strategy. How can they run those experiments in public and in secret? What would you suggest to them?
Eric: I would actually not be afraid to run them in public. It is hard for people who are afraid of what the worst possible thing that could happen is, to do this. But I think it is good to just try it and get over it.
What happens is, it is true that customers don’t generally like the idea that one customer got charged one price for something that somebody else got charged a different price for the same item. So there is some risk when you do different pricing offers in a split test.
But in my experience, there are two mitigating factors that make it not so bad. The first is it is actually incredibly difficult for most customers to figure out that is happening, especially if you only do it in a limited time window.
For example, I am going to tell you a story that may not seem related, but bear with me. When we were at there.com, the virtual world company, we would do a lot of QA. That was a heavy QA company.
For hours every day we had QA testers sitting in a lab together running the virtual world software and testing to make sure that it worked. I remember one day getting called in to see about…
There was one tester. They were around a physical corner from each other. So you couldn’t see each other, but they were not more than 20 feet away. They were both engaged in this activity.
The guy called me down and he said, “I am in this dune buggy riding around with somebody in the virtual world and we are seeing this glitch. We are not seeing the same thing. Something is not right.” They were calling back and forth, trying to pin down what it was.
I remember sitting there really confused about what the problem was, because it looked like the two of them were sitting there in the dune buggy and everything was fine.
I walk around the corner to the other guy. I talk to him about what the problem is. I look at his screen. On his screen, he and the other guy are engaged in a paintball match. They are not in a dune buggy at all.
He was almost a mile physically distant in the virtual world from where the other guy was, yet their conversation was perfectly consistent to them and it never occurred to anybody to ask, “Wait. What planet are you on in this time that we are comparing notes?”
They had no clue that this was happening. I think, we totally tend to underestimate just how powerful the pull of what you see is to most people. They basically can’t imagine the world, any other way than the way that it is.
Entrepreneurs don’t have that problem, so a lot of times they don’t grasp what is true for customers. It is actually very unusual for the customers to go onto a forum and post, “Here are all the offers that I am being offered and exactly what I see. Does anybody else see the same thing?” Our natural assumption is that everybody else sees the same thing.
So you are not totally likely to get caught. That is a mitigating factor. It is actually not as bad as you think when you do get caught, because don’t forget; you have the power of the apology, especially as a startup.
If you screw up… You are going to screw up all the time. If you are a customer of a startup, your general experience is, “These guys are constantly screwing up.” What customers care more about than whether you screw up or not, is how you treat them when you do screw up.
They care that you listen to them and take them seriously more than if you always get it right. If they want to work with a company that always gets it right, they will go work with some premium giant company that really has a very carefully constructed customer experience.
If you get caught doing this thing, you can always say, “We are so sorry. We were experimenting with this pricing. We didn’t mean for this to treat anyone unfairly. And if anyone was treated unfairly, we have gone back in the records and we are going to give them all double the money back for the thing that happened,” or whatever you have to do to make it right.
That is OK! It is really not that bad. What happens then is people say, “Wow. These guys are serious about making sure that we get treated fairly.” Meanwhile, you get to keep experimenting.
Opening board meetings to the entire company
Nivi: Yeah. You have talked a couple times on your blog about how you opened the board meetings up to the entire company and the positive benefits of that, and people’s perceptions of negative benefits.
Eric: Yeah. Well this is not something that a lot of companies adopt. This is considered pretty crazy.
I don’t know if it’s that most people are actually afraid of giving the whole company information they need to do their job, because it might lead them to judge the top management harshly, but people judge you harshly whether you give them the information or not, from my point of view.
Just give them the information! Your pathetic attempts to hide what’s happening don’t fool anybody.
Having been on both sides of that divide, I can tell you I never felt like I was being successfully fooled. And if you do manage to fool me for a limited time, I’m awfully pissed. My point of view is: you want people to have the maximum information possible.
You need to do it in a trust-building way. You’ve got to make sure the people you’re giving it to understand what they can and can’t do with that information, and they understand that they need to keep company secrets confidential.
If you don’t trust your employees to keep company secrets confidential, you’ve got bigger problems and you should go address those problems first.
There is some board business that has to be done in secret for legal reasons, so it’s not true that absolutely every meeting that any time ever happened at the board level is open to the public.
Employees have critical things to say in board meetings
Eric: But the interesting part about board meetings is the strategy conversation where you present progress, show data, and you make discussions about what should happen next. And that’s the part of the meeting I strongly recommend people open up to their employees.
What we did is we actually had a board of advisors and then a board of directors that was a subset of those advisors. We would convene the full set, advisors and board, at nine o’clock in the morning and we would have a maybe two-hour strategy conversation followed by maybe a half-hour or one-hour private board meeting.
For the strategy conversation the rule was: every employee can attend. We did this up until we were a 50- or 60-person company. We actually, physically crammed everybody into one room, and we had the employees sit around in as much seating as we could fit and the board members would sit at the big table.
It wasn’t a free-for-all, most of the employees were encouraged to listen, not to speak. But every once in a while the rule was that if someone had something they really needed to say, they could be recognized by the CEO and say their piece.
It was amazing. We would, occasionally have a board meeting where we would have a moment, where there would be data we were presenting to the board, and it would indicate that on a certain day, a certain metric went up and that was due to us launching that feature that day, or whatever our interpretation of what that data meant.
And not an insignificant number of times we would have an employee raise their hand and say, “Excuse me, but do you also realize that something else happened on that day?” Yada, yada, yada.
And occasionally, I’d be the one presenting! On the one hand, I’m really embarrassed. So I’m like, “No, I didn’t realize that.” This is a critical thing about running my own business I didn’t know.
But once I got over my personal embarrassment, what you would find is the board loved it! They’re like, “Thank God that guy was sitting in the room and could enlighten us about that. That changes our interpretation of what this means.”
And quite a few times I think we saved ourselves months of work by coming to a realization of something way earlier than we would have, because the right guy happened to be sitting in the room.
And yeah, occasionally you had an employee who’d make an off-color comment or say something that really shouldn’t have been said in front of the board, but people learn from those experiences. Most of the time most people had really substantive conversations.
Nivi: Did you ever get in a situation where some of the employees were like, “I don’t even care about these board meetings. I don’t even want to go?”
Eric: Yes, yes! We eventually had people who on occasion would beg me not to have to go to the meeting. And we eventually made them voluntary. For a while I was really rigorous, I said, “No, everyone has to be there. If I have to be at the meeting, you have to be at the meeting. Why do you think I’m any more privileged or unprivileged than you?”
Yeah, because board meetings are actually pretty boring. But when people are outside the room looking in — and you know most conference rooms have some form of glass — people can see what’s going on. They’ll come up with an excuse to walk by, kind of peek in. They will make up whatever crazy conspiracy theories are consistent with the data if they’re not there.
An, in my point of view, that’s such a source of waste: people gossip and there’s rumors and people don’t know. Let them be in the room, let them see how boring and mundane most board meetings are. So that for the occasional one where something actually interesting gets decided, let them be there to hear it themselves.
Everybody in the company has the ability to understand what everybody else in the company has to understand
Eric: There are some costs, definitely some down sides to doing it. One which took us by surprise was that, people can occasionally get confused about who’s in charge, we did occasionally have people — some board member would say, “You guys should really build feature X.”
Board members occasionally would just spout off about what’s randomly on their mind, and occasionally you’d have an employee get confused that that means the company is now going to go do feature X because board member so-and-so said so.
And that was actually good practice for us, to be a constant reminder that no matter who you are, no matter what it says on your business card, nobody gets to decide randomly that the company’s going to do feature X. Right? I don’t care if you’re the CEO or the lowliest person, we’re going to have a reasoned and considered process for deciding what to do.
Nivi: And it’s a learning opportunity.
Eric: It’s always a learning opportunity. The other thing that was hard for me personally was it’s hard to have your people who work for you see you be criticized in public. That was not fun.
Nivi: Hard for whom?
Eric: Well, it’s hard for me. My emotional reaction was like, “Wait a minute! I’m doing the best I can and now you’ve got to watch me get smacked around because I screwed something up.” But once I got over my personal emotional response to it, it was wonderful.
Because it humanized me to the people who worked for me — they got to see, “Oh, I see the pressure that he’s under” — but more importantly, when I needed something from somebody for the purposes of presenting to the board I could go to them and say, “Do you remember what happened the last time I didn’t have the right answers to these questions or I had shoddy this? You’re really going to send me in there with this? Come on, you’ve got to help me out!”
So it made us collaborators in creating solutions for the board rather than I’m constantly asking them for stuff and they don’t know why.
And I think, get over your own infallibility. We all make mistakes and it’s better for people to see what the real stuff is.
Nivi: I think you wrote about this on your site, basically the assumption is that everybody in the company has the ability to understand what everybody else in the company has to understand.
Eric: That’s right.
Nivi: The assumption is I have the ability to understand what the CEO has to understand.
Eric: That’s right. And that makes people uncomfortable, because sometimes we would say, “You have the obligation to understand what the CEO’s going through right now, because it’s going to impact the way you do your job.”
Some people would say, “I just want to sit in my narrow corner, do my little thing, and I don’t want to worry about what the company strategy is.” And we would show those people the door. We were really serious about that.
You really needed to have people who were… they didn’t have to be good at it! We weren’t asking them to be good at the CEO’s job, but we are asking them to understand why is the CEO making the decisions that he’s making. Because they’re going to have to make CEO-level decisions sometimes.
Sometimes the actions that have the biggest impact on the company’s performance are taken by people at the line employee level. They may not realize it’s going to have that big impact, but they are going to make those decisions. By the time the CEO finds out about it, sometimes it’s way too late to do anything about it.
We sure hope that the guy at the line level understands what the company strategy is and how his decisions impact, at least the best that he can.
Nivi: Yeah, I think maybe their decisions impact the company more than the CEO in the sense that if the CEO doesn’t come in to work, who cares? The company proceeds, but if the team doesn’t come in to work nothing happens.
Eric: OK, let me tell you: when the community manager takes a day off, you can have serious, serious meltdowns in the community if it happens to be the wrong day. That can have major impacts on the company.
Should we share bad news with employees?
Eric: I’ll say one more thing because this is a real effect that people are afraid of, which is that if you give people information about how a company’s doing, it can impact morale negatively. Sometime the company’s not doing well.
It makes some people have this idea that part of your job as a manager is to shield people from bad news or shield them from chaos. Because it’s not fair to them to have them have to do their job and also be confused about how the company’s doing. I just think that’s a really paternalistic attitude that we just need to let go as an industry.
If you want people to believe you when you tell them the good news, you have to sometimes tell them bad news. Otherwise, you have no credibility. And when there’s bad news to be shared, yes, it negatively impacts morale. But for a good reason, because things aren’t going well and we now need to rally the company around the fact that we need to change what we’re doing.
And there’s nothing like actually seeing the board say, “You guys have a major crisis on your hands that you have not yet understood,” to get everyone in the company saying, “We’re alarmed. We need to do something about it.”
That can cause some chaos, and that can be disruptive, but if you build trust and rapport with your employees then what you could do is you can sit everybody down for an analysis meeting after the board, which we would always do, and say, “OK, let’s talk about what we heard and what does it mean for the company,” and let people share their perspectives.
Let people say stuff like, “This says to me we need to cancel all our projects and completely retool.”
You need to get that idea out in the open because when somebody thinks that, you don’t want them to just unilaterally go execute on that plan! You want the opportunity to tell them and everybody else who didn’t have the courage to say the same thing: “No, we’re not retooling, but we are going to make some adjustments and here’s how we think about it, here’s what we’re going to do about it and here’s what’s going to happen.” That was pretty powerful.
Eric Ries and I recently sat down to talk about minimum viable products: the product with just the necessary features to get money and feedback from early adopters.
The minimum viable product (MVP) is often an ad on Google. Or a PowerPoint slide. Or a dialog box. Or a landing page. You can often build it in a day or a week.
I recorded the interview and synchronized it with some simple slides below. That’s my favorite way to consume the audio. You can also find a transcript and stand-alone audio below. Eric also highlighted some excerpts from the conversation on Lessons Learned and put together his own presentation on MVPs. Let me know what you think — I’m especially interested if you like the synchronized audio and slides.
Nivi: First of all, this is Nivi from Venture Hacks, and I’m talking to Eric Ries from… where are you from?
Eric Ries: From the Lessons Learned blog.
Nivi: From the Lessons Learned blog, formerly from IMVU, formerly an advisor to Kleiner Perkins. We’re just going to have a discussion on a few topics of Eric’s and my choosing.
Nivi: First topic: What is the minimum viable product? Talk to me about minimum viable products.
Eric: OK, well let’s start with the question. Why do we build products in the first place?
In the end, we hope to be able to launch product to lots of customers and have them give us money so that we build a great business.
One approach to solving that problem would be, let’s build a product with the maximum number of features that will maximize our chance of success in the end. But the problem with that is you won’t get any feedback until you’ve already built all those different products.
All those different features, so you ship this product with a ton of features, and generally, by the time it’s done, it’s too late to make sure that you are on the right track.
The alternative would be, let’s do the release early, release often thing, and let’s get feedback as we go. The issue there is, if you just follow the release early, release often mantra, you find yourself running around in circles, because you ship code, you get some feedback from people, you do a focus group.
Some customers say, “Give me feature X,” “Give me feature Y,” now you’re kind of like, maybe sometimes you do what they want, maybe sometimes you’re going to do what you want, and then they get mad at you, and you’re chasing your own tail a little bit because you’re not operating against a clear, long-term vision of what you’re trying to accomplish.
The idea of minimum viable product is useful because you can basically say, look, our vision is to build a product that solves this core problem for customers, these kind of general feature areas, and we think that for the people who are early adopters for that kind of solution, they will be the most forgiving.
And they will fill in their minds the features that aren’t quite there if we give them the core, tent-pole features that point the direction of where we’re trying to go.
The minimum viable product is that product which has just those features and no more that allows you to ship a product that early adopters see and, at least some of whom resonate with, pay you money for, and start to gave you feedback on.
Nivi: So there is some set of customers out there, we believe, that just with these features alone, this product is useful to them.
Eric: Exactly right. And sometimes it’s useful to them because early adopters have the same kind of visioning power that entrepreneurs do, but because they can see what the end product is going to be.
Getting developers on the IMVU platform with a MVP
Eric: There are cases where you ship them a product that actually doesn’t work very well — at IMVU, the first version of our product worked pretty terribly, but, for example, it was all about user-generated content. We wanted to get developers on the platform.
The problem with developer platforms is this chicken and egg problem. Developers don’t want to develop unless there are customers who are there to buy their products, and customers don’t want to come on the platform unless developers are there selling them something useful.
What we did is we took early adopter developers and we told them a story about how IMVU was going to take over the world and be this really powerful product for mainstream customers and we made them believe it.
And we gave them an economic incentive that said, the earlier you get on board with the platform, the bigger your take is going to be for derivative products that get created down the road.
We shipped a product that basically had almost no customers — certainly no mainstream customers, and the developer tools weren’t that great — but, because we had told that story effectively and we really understood those early adopter developers, we got a ton of them on the platform developing.
Because they felt like they were in the middle of a gold rush, despite the fact that there was really no evidence to support that belief other than their own power of imagining what this thing was going to be down the road.
Luckily, we delivered on that vision, and so they actually were — a lot of them — pretty happy.
A non-MVP: The Kerry vs. Bush avatar
Nivi: I want some examples of these crazy minimum viable products. By which I mean, for example, and you can talk about any of these, the AdWords approach, the approach you talked about in terms of dialogue boxes and just popping those up, and just trying to sell a PowerPoint slide to an enterprise customer.
Eric: Let me start with an example of a time we didn’t know the minimum viable product, to illustrate my point.
It was 2004 — you have to remember 2004, Bush versus Kerry election. At IMVU, we had this idea — it happens to entrepreneurs all the time, you wake up in the shower and you’re like, “I’ve got an idea for a killer product.”
The idea for us — this was probably September/October 2004, debates are happening, politics is in the air — our idea was, we’re going to sell presidential debate avatar set that we would either dress up like Kerry or Bush, and you’ll be able to debate with your friends in this 3-D presidential debate product.
Now, put aside for a second whether that actually seems like a good idea to anybody else. We convinced ourselves it was a great idea, and we spent two full weeks racing to get this thing built, because it was time sensitive, the election is coming, the debates are happening, every day counts.
We thought it was a great idea for that whole two weeks. We built it out and we shipped it and we spent countless hours debating exactly what features had to be in it or not in it, and we were going to sell it for $1.99.
Our theory was, pricing won’t get in the way of anybody buying this thing. We want to make it cheap and easy and it will make lots of buzz and Wall Street Journal and New York Times are going to cover this thing; it’s going to be awesome.
I remember for us in those days, two weeks of development was a lot, because we were a pretty fast team. We did that, we shipped it — cut to the chase, nobody bought it. We sold exactly zero copies of the Kerry vs. Bush avatar.
We tried a bunch of different permutations and different variations of it and added features, and we changed the price, and eventually we gave it away for free, and even at free we couldn’t sell any copies.
Nivi: Well how many bought it for free?
We literally couldn’t give this thing away. This thing was a dead weight money loser. There was actually nobody in AmErica interested in having a presidential debate avatar.
How to turn the Kerry vs. Bush avatar into a MVP
Nivi: How would you have approached this exact same product by taking the minimum viable product approach?
Eric: Well it’s interesting. We thought we were taking the minimum viable product approach because we had only spent two weeks on it. Right? Where we had made a very early prototype and put it out there.
But, if you think about it, going back to the definition of the minimum viable product, which is the minimum features that are required to learn what customers want, we had spent way too much time on it.
What we should have done, and what we did for a lot of features thereafter, is started with a landing page that promised people that product. Then we should have taken out the AdWords we were planning to take out, drive traffic to that landing page, and offer people to buy the experience that we are talking about.
What we would have found out if we were doing that experiment is 0% of people would have clicked through, which means it doesn’t matter what is on the second page.
The first page is so bad, not because it is badly designed, but because the features are wrong that you don’t need to go through the effort of building out the product. So we wished we had done that, and we did make that mistake really.
Nivi: How would you have marketed that minimum viable product to your existing customers?
Eric: When you already have customers you need to have some way to experiment with making them an offer. In a lot of cases the minimum viable product really is just that offer.
You can crisply articulate to customers what they’re going to get and how much they’re going to pay for it. You can learn a lot by just popping up a dialogue box that says, “Hey, would you like this new feature?” or showing them a banner ad for that feature.
For example, on IMVU we would have a system setup so that we could arbitrarily from the server select a small percentage of customers and make them an offer by inserting a dialogue box into their conversation, and basically it’s a simple “Yes” “No,” would you like this thing, “Yes” or “No?”
When they say “Yes,” we take them to a landing page where we try to sell it to them. Eventually if they really did want it, we would have to make up some excuse why we couldn’t give it to them like, “We’re experiencing technical difficulties right now.” “We’re not quite ready to give it to you. Give us your email address and we’ll email you when it’s ready.”
Again, you’ve got to remember that 99% of the time nobody wants it. Most offers that appear to an entrepreneur as a good idea are actually horrible, horrible ideas. By making the offer and having it be rejected by customers, we learn not to waste time building stuff that nobody wants.
Nivi: Right. Maybe the right definition of a minimum viable product, like you were saying, is, essentially a test to see whether people will actually want the product that you’re imagining in your head.
Rejecting false negatives: “But my customers don’t know what they want!” #
Eric: That’s right. The reason why this is an art and not a science is, I’ll have entrepreneurs come up to me and say, “But hold on, my customers don’t know what they want. If I ask them ‘Do you want this thing?’ They might say no when the answer is really ‘Yes.’”
Unfortunately, that’s an excuse that is used way too often, but there are situations where it’s true. The judgment call is; what really is the minimum set? In some cases like in entertainment products it might actually require you to build an early prototype, or a mockup, or even version one of the product with the minimum possible set of features that you think could go.
The nice thing about minimum feature set is you can always try intermediate points to ask yourself, “Am I at the minimum feature set yet? Am I at the minimum feature set yet?”
As long as you’re not afraid of the false negative, that is, if you don’t get discouraged because you’ve built your first paper prototype of it and shown it to people and nobody wanted it. That can’t mean that you give up because, “Oh, forget it, we’ll never make it.” You’ve got to say, “OK, well then let’s iterate some more.”
If you keep iterating at it, you keep making it a little bit more sophisticated, at a certain point after you’ve been through 10 iterations, that you still got no uptake whatsoever, and the feedback you’re getting from customers is still a yawn, you might say to yourself, “You know what? We’re not moving in the right direction. In fact, we’re past the point of minimum viable product. This just isn’t a viable product.”
Nivi: Right. Back to your point about entertainment, in Hollywood they start off in scripts. If the script looks good, then they will make a pilot. If the pilot looks good then they might order a few episodes from the first season. After the first season, then they make from there. They don’t build all three seasons, and then try to ship them.
Eric: Yeah, which means that some great shows never get made, because the early tests look negative and the people involved don’t have the courage or stamina to see it all the way through.
On the other hand, sometimes people have the courage and stamina to see through a really bad idea. That’s why the concept of learning is so important. This cannot be done on a spreadsheet. You have to keep training yourself on multiple iterations and multiple attempts to start to develop good instincts for it in your particular domain, your particular market space, what’s likely to work and not work.
Then you can do that as an entrepreneur, but even more powerful is if you can get your whole organization, everybody, training themselves constantly to do that kind of learning, so that good ideas will be passed around the whole organization.
Building products like packets get routed on the Internet
Nivi: Also minimum viable product ties into the concept of “build it before you sell it.” Are there any other out of sequence things that you guys did at IMVU or elsewhere that you found helpful? For example; you guys probably wrote tests before you coded to some degree as well, didn’t you?
Eric: Yeah, that’s right. I mean test driven development is the same principle.
Nivi: I’m wondering if there are some other things that you guys have done.
Eric: If you think about the full range of the product development life cycle; from specification to design, to implementation to testing, to maintenance to sales to deployment.
Nivi: Deployment and all that stuff.
Eric: I now think about that rather than as a linear sequence, I actually think about it as a big network. The question is; just for any given feature, in what path should you route it through that network? Different features should be routed differently, just like on the Internet we route packets differently as necessary.
Nivi: I’m wondering if you have some specific examples of paths you’ve taken.
Eric: Yeah, we just talked about writing tests first. We’ve talked about selling first. We’ve talked about deploying first.
Deploy first, code later
Nivi: When do you deploy a product? When have you deployed something before you built it?
Eric: All of these forms have offers of products. For example in a lot of Internet products, how does the customer know that the feature exists? Yes, there might be 100 pages of fancy stuff, but how do they even know that stuff exists?
Generally, it’s because there’s a link in the header. There’s one link on one key page that notifies them that they can go do this other thing or at a key moment they receive an email, even though the feature might be wide and complicated.
Generally, access to the feature is controlled through a simple choke point. We would often add those choke points in a split test just to see first of all, did anybody click on them? So we could look at the click-through rate of people that now believe there is this feature.
We would also see an interesting phenomenon, sometimes the presence of a feature, even if nobody clicks on it, still impacts their behavior in other ways.
For example — I can’t remember the data, we saw an experiment where, this isn’t exactly right but something to this effect, we added a link to the header notifying people that there was a VIP Club for special people only to get access to on IMVU.
Now, it’s not the same as what we have now. IMVU does have a VIP club today that is not anything related to this. But, in those days, the idea was, we were trying to test whether people wanted to have some kind of premium experience.
What happened was few people actually clicked on that link to go find out about the VIP club, but in the experimental cohort for people who were shown that header, their average spending was higher.
By constantly reminding them that there was such a think as a premium experience, we primed them to want to do more spending on IMVU. It was a very unexpected result.
And it’s a good example of why you always do full cohort-based split tests. Always test for the macro effect, don’t look at the micro effect. That’s a case where deploying a feature before we’ve built it actually can give you an insight that maybe you don’t need to build a feature after all.
Nivi: Interesting. Yeah. That reminds me of an example that one of our friends told us about where they couldn’t get people to sign up for a free product, so they put a paid version of the product right beside it, and I don’t think anybody signed up for the paid version…
Eric: It made the free version look a lot more…
Nivi: Yeah. It made the free product look legitimate. And they started to actually convert on that basis.
Design first, code later
Eric: There are also cases where you want to design a product last, rather than design it first.
We would often ship things in a schematic form with horrible design to see if we’d gotten the information flow and information architecture right, and really good interaction designers, if they’re being honest, will tell you that that’s always the sequence.
You always re-factor your design out of specific use cases and out of specific uses, rather than starting with the broad vision of what it’s like.
Nivi: Basically the trails where the people walk, you pave those?
Eric: Exactly right. And you could do that — I remember one time we used to use paper prototypes where you have designers sit down with a focus group of people and show them a fake screen shot that they came up with in Photoshop.
And then the customer says, “I want to click that button,” and you go grab the piece of paper that represents what happens when you click that button, you show them another prototype, and we used to do them that way.
We actually built a paper prototyping website into our website where, for certain customers, the designer could come in and actually replace sections of the website with full-on mockups from Photoshop that were sort of clickable and sort of functional.
Then we would bring a customer in and have them register an account; we would specify that that account should see the paper prototype, and then we would go through with them, do the focus group.
But the customer doesn’t know they’re seeing something that’s a mockup. They think they’re using the product.
And, yeah, the product is a little weird, because sometimes they click things and nothing happens, and sometimes things won’t look a little right, but customers think that about your product anyways, so it’s not particularly abnormal for them to see a product that looks completely incoherent to them. That’s the state-of-the-art for most customers and those products.
That was another case where we would — and we would, occasionally, come up with some prototype that that functioned well enough that we would ship it to real customers while we’re working on the full on, blown, beautiful version of it.
Sometimes customers would see a schematic version from which we would gather more information about whether we’re on the right track, and put things in the right place.
Where did you get the money to experiment?
Nivi: What allowed you guys to do all of this experimentation? Specifically from a financial point of view? Not about the mentality behind it and so on. Time is short and money is running out, or were you basically break-even this whole time, or how did you work that?
Eric: No, we believed in a concept we called “bridge to profitability, ” which is, whenever we raise money, we always raise money on the basis of a plan that we honestly believe, would get us to profitability on just that round.
If you notice, that doesn’t mean that we actually got to profitability on that round. In fact, we kept raising more rounds because we kept believing that we had the opportunity to pursue a bigger opportunity by raising money, but we never had to raise money. We always felt like we could get there on our own.
But that meant that we were constantly a dollar short, because plans to get to profitability on a round generally involve you going negative and then catching up before the money runs out, so we were not eager to learn, eager to experiment.
We did not love metrics. We were very scrappy and very afraid of running out of money, so we only ever adopted practices that we thought would have a high ROI.
The issue is that these practices do have a high ROI, and we got to them because we kept following the traditional model and failing and feeling like, God, we are burning money like there is no tomorrow. We keep building features that nobody wants. We literally don’t have the time and we can’t afford to keep doing the same old thing over and over again.
I don’t know if we were just lucky that we had that mindset, but, for whatever reason, even though at some level we always believed the next feature we shipped was going to save the day and have a step change in our profitability and take us to the moon, because it’s just the best feature since sliced bread.
Because we were so desperate to actually make money, we — I’m trying to think of how to put this — we became obsessively committed to actually being right rather than just believing in the next thing to save us.
If you look at the traditional hockey stick shaped curve, it’s flat for an awful long time. We had been in a company previously where we were always promised, “Yeah, it’s flat now, but we’re on the verge of the hockey stick.”
The problem with the hockey stick plan, when that’s your plan, is you just work for a year and then the 13th month you’re going to go to the moon. For the 12 months, you don’t know if you’re making progress or not, because you’re following the plan.
Everything is flat like it’s supposed to be, because when the final feature comes into place, you’re going to go to the moon.
We just didn’t believe that was going to happen. So we forced ourselves to actually test each feature to see if it was going to be successful.
Then we just stopped being able to drink our own Kool-Aid, because we were just wrong so often, it became harder and harder and harder for us to convince ourselves that it was a good financial investment to just randomly try the next new thing versus actually trying to say, “Hey, is there a way that we can increase the probability of having a successful feature.”
Nivi: Yeah, and I think, there are probably two other things here, right? You charge from day one, so basically every experiment you ran was an experiment to make more money, right?
Eric: That’s right.
A preview of part two
Nivi: Why would you not run experiments if you’re charging from day one. And then, the second thing is — this gets us to the second topic, which is: You guys weren’t doing any of this really in public because you had not launched the product, right?
Nivi: Nobody knew who you were. But people, at the same time were using the product, so how did you do that?
Naval and I recently put together a talk for AngelConf, a conference for new angel investors. The conference was organized by Y Combinator and included a great group of notable angels like Ron Conway. According to the AngelConf website,
“Investing in startups seems mysterious and difficult. How much are you supposed to invest? What legal agreements do you need? Where do you find startups to invest in? How do you pick winners?”
People liked Naval’s presentation — Dave McClure called it an “awesome fucking talk,” and other tweets seemed to agree. So we thought you might like it too — it’s good advice for investors and entrepreneurs alike.
Paul Graham from Y Combinator wrote up his talk in a wonderful essay called How to Be an Angel Investor. So we’re calling our presentation “How to be an angel investor, Part 2”.
Here’s a transcript of the conversation. I’ve highlighted some of my favorite bits.
Nivi: Hi, this is Nivi from Venture Hacks.
Naval: And this is Naval from Venture Hacks.
Nivi: Naval recently gave a talk at Y Combinator’s AngelConf on how to be an angel investor and we thought we would record it — people liked the talk — and we thought we would record a slightly longer version and put it online.
Naval’s going to do most of the talking and I’m going to jump in with a question or a comment.
Naval: So, I’ve been in this business for a little while now, been involved with starting about seven companies, been an investor as an angel or a VC in well over 30 companies and been an advisor to over a dozen companies, and of course co-author Venture Hacks with Nivi.
After a while, you do enough of this and you start pattern matching — you notice a few things — and so I’ve put those together here and I’m using those to help out people who may want to get into the angel investment or even early stage venture business.
What do you need to be an Angel?
Naval: Basically, to be in the angel business you absolutely have to have three things — to be in the business and to do well. First of course, is access to capital: either you own or you manage to raise the funds or somebody just gives you money.
You need good dealflow and by good dealflow, I mean, proprietary or a high-quality dealflow that not everybody has seen or you have some unique ability to get in to. There has to be some reason why people will take your money instead of somebody else’s. Otherwise at the end of the day, you are commoditized and you get bid out of the game.
Finally, you need good judgment. Access to capital you either have or you don’t. If you don’t have it, then you probably shouldn’t be in the angel business, you’re just wasting people’s time. If you have good judgment, everybody thinks they have, and it takes about 10 years to figure that out so I can’t really help you there.
Naval: So, what I’m mostly going to focus on is dealflow, which is how do you find good dealflow, how do you process it efficiently, how do you get into good deals, how do you evaluate them? When it comes to dealflow, there are a lot of bad kinds of dealflow and there’s some good dealflow. Early on, you will be seeing very few deals and you’ll just be trying to get in the dealflow.
After you’ve made a few investments, you’ve got a few entrepreneurs who know what you’re doing, you have built a bit of a brand, you’ve connected to the other angels you will have too much dealflow, and you will quickly have the opposite problem. If you raise your hand and you say to the world, “I can write a check”, the world will beat a path to your door.
I’m going to help you with an odd problem, which is helping you filter the bad dealflow as well. So, you’re going to get a lot from your social friends, these are the people whose kid goes to school with your kid or someone you just hang out with.
Most of this dealflow, although you should be polite and you should see it, you’re going to have learn how to say no without taking a meeting, otherwise you’re going to find your time chewed up very quickly because these people are not in the business, they don’t have the same filters that you do, and they will pass along anything that looks like a company that’s raising money.
You, yourself, are going to be tempted to do the same thing and forward deals to other angels. Don’t ever forward a deal you wouldn’t do yourself.
Nivi: Or you’re not seriously considering.
Naval: Yes. It’s going to hurt your credibility, and it’s also going to also waste the entrepreneur’s time. The first thing any serious investor will ask you if you, yourself, are an investor and you forward a deal and say ‘”Are you investing?” You don’t want to hem and haw at that point.
You either want to say “Yes, I’m seriously considering it and I’m in the middle of my evaluation process” and you should mean it or you should actually be doing it. Those are kind of the only two legitimate answers.
If an entrepreneur asks you to forward a deal that you have passed on, your best approach is to politely explain to them that, it does not make sense for you to do so as it would send a very negative signal.
Nivi: Yeah, and if you’re an entrepreneur in that situation, I would actually ask for some names of potential investors and tell the angel that just turned you down that you’re not going to use their name to reach out to these people, but you just want to get a list of names to find some other prospective angels to reach.
Naval: Yeah, that’s a very good point. A lot of angels know a lot of other angels, you get a list of names then you have to sift through your own resources and frankly, you browse through your LinkedIn and your Facebook networks. If you’ve been around in Silicon Valleyfor a little while, you can usually find someone who knows someone.
Finally, one issue that crops up a lot when people first get in to investing is, they think they’re going to add their value in some unique process-oriented way, and so they come up with non-standard models. One could be incubation; another one could be acting CEO or so on.
They kind of say, “OK, I’ll put in some money and then I’m going to be super-active, and I want this and that and I’m going to take more stock into that.” I would suggest not doing that. Certainly you can offer it to people you know well, and certainly people can ask you for additional help or these kinds of non-standard deals, but they have two problems.
One is if you end up taking too much equity early on. It makes the company difficult to fund by VCs down the line. Secondly, it will lead to an adverse selection case, where if you’re putting out your services as a rent-a-chairman or a rent-a-CEO, you’re going to see the companies that are so desperate raising financing where they won’t entertain that notion.
Most really great entrepreneurs, yes they could use some advice and they’ll listen to it, but they don’t need you to run their company for them. So be careful about that adverse selection trap and be prepared that with some of the very, very best companies, your only value-add is essentially will be your money plus a few connections and a little bit of advice here and there.
What’s good? Deals that come from other angels who are doing them are usually very good. You build these up by quid pro quo. If they send you deals, you send them deals back and vice versa.
Branding your advisory services is very good. So if you have particular domain expertise, you are the founder of a company that was successful in a certain space, then you should be able to brand yourself in such a way that you will see the companies in your space.
Another way to brand yourself would be through some kind of a horizontal play. If you’re a marketing genius for consumer web companies, then people may come to you for help on that.
Nivi: Yeah. So, here are a few examples of that. The way that Naval put it at AngelConf was Paul Buchheit is the Gmail guy; Naval, himself, is the Venture Hacks guy and he’s also an expert on viral marketing and Facebook, and Paul Graham is Paul Graham. Those are the kind of examples you want to try to follow.
Naval: So, let’s assume you’ve worked out this incredible dealflow pipeline and you’re getting a lot of companies that are coming to you. You want to get through them relatively efficiently. What you will find very quickly is that most business plans, executive summaries are a waste of time.
You can’t sign NDA’s, because doing so exposes you to far too much down the road. So what you really need is very high concept pitch where somebody explains to you, “we are this for that” like an analogy…
Nivi: Friendster for dogs.
Naval: Exactly. Dogster. Maybe a short 10 slide deck. If somebody comes to pitch you, don’t schedule hour-long meetings, you don’t need an hour to figure it out.
Usually within 20 minutes, is enough for the company to get their points across and you should not be pitching yourself at this point. First, you should just be listening; you can always pitch yourself a little bit later.
Nivi: I would say a high-concept pitch, like Friendster for dogs is great. One paragraph, or a couple paragraphs elevator pitch in email form is great, and if the company has it, a 10 slide deck. Of course, more important than any of that is a working demo or screen cast or mock-ups or some realized version of the product.
Naval: Generally, it’s a poor sign if a start-up comes to you, especially if they’re on the web, or consumer web, or iPhone, or one of these spaces where it’s pretty easy to hack something out and they haven’t put together a prototype or they haven’t, as Nivi would point out, made early and meaningful contact with the customer.
Nivi: Which can be done through things like surveys, as well, right? If its offline and it involves hardware or whatever, they could have gone out and talked to the customer via surveys or interviews, or they could have spent the last 10 years of their life working with that exact customer and know them inside out.
Evaluating Startups: Team
Naval: So, now when it comes to a valuable startup, you’ve got the short pitch, you’ve taken the half-hour meeting. There are times when you can eliminate the startup on the basis of team; this is not, obviously, fool-proof. Investing is not a science, it’s an art.
But here are some general rules of thumb I’ve developed over the years, which helped me, filter dealflow. One of those is that usually the optimal configuration for a company, in terms of the founder basis, two to three founders and three is the max.
Five is a very unstable configuration, eventually it will fall apart. You cannot have five cooks in the kitchen.
One is too difficult. The person gets too lonely and it gets too difficult to continue on, because they don’t have a thought partner. So two to three turns out to be ideal.
If you look at the very, very successful companies in the Valley, Apple had Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak; Microsoft up in Seattle had Bill Gates and Paul Allen and later on Paul Allen dropped out, they had Steve Ballmer and of course, Google had Larry Page and Sergey Brin; even Oracle had Larry Ellison and quickly thereafter had Ray Lane.
So generally, you need teams of two founders at least. You want someone in the company who can build and someone who can sell and if there’s going to be an imbalance; it should, probably, be in favor of the builder.
Of course, it depends on the exact company, but you would rather be investing in a startup that has two builders and one salesperson, rather than have two sales people and one builder.
Generally, you want to say no to companies where the founders are all lawyers or all business guys and they don’t have the product development expertise to back them up or where they are outsourcing the product development completely.
Companies that outsource product development completely, generally have a hard time iterating and keeping up with the changes in the market and the competitors.
One learning that I’ve found the hard way is that is that, especially in consumer web deals, traction matters more than anything. It’s very hard to predict mass consumer behavior. It’s a very efficient market out there.
So, it’s good to find real customer adoption before you put too much money to work, whereas in enterprise deals, where you are selling to a small number of large customers, the team can make a meaningful difference.
Nivi: One thing on the topic of a guy that can sell; it doesn’t have to be your conception of a prototypical salesman or a car salesman or whatever. If you are in a one-on-one meeting with Bill Gates, even though he is a complete nerd, you would be extremely compelled by whatever he has to say to you.
So in that sense he is a salesman, right? A lot of nerds in their nerdiness can actually be extremely compelling in the proposition that they are trying to put in front of you.
Naval: Yes, by salesman, I don’t mean the bag-carrying enterprise sales quota matching guy. It’s exactly as Nivi said, people who are compelling and who can convince early customers to sign up, through whatever means possible. They can convince early employees to sign up when the company has very little cash. They can convince early investors to sign up.
In fact, usually if someone can sell you in an investment meeting really well, and you walk out dizzy, saying I don’t really get the product or this space, but this guy almost sold me. That’s a good sign.
Nivi: Yes, that in and of itself is an asset in terms of being able to sign on customers, employees, other investors, and so on.
Naval: One other thing to think about is when you are evaluating companies at an early stage, the appropriate title for the people in the company is usually founder, or engineer, or things of those sort.
If you see a company that’s very top-heavy, has its CEO, its CFO, VP of this, SVP of that, then it’s usually a bad sign. It means that the people involved are more interested in building up impressive titles for themselves or building a large organization than they are in having a successful product and a good financial outcome.
Nivi: Yes, we want builders.
Naval: In evaluating entrepreneurs, Warren Buffett often says that when he looks at the company he buys, and very often these are multi-billion dollar companies, he’s looking for intelligence, energy, and integrity. I find that the same criteria works extremely well in evaluating start-up founders also.
Intelligence for obvious reasons.
Energy because drive and passion are the number one predictor of an entrepreneur’s success, and it’s not actually intelligence in that case.
And integrity is paramount, because if you have someone with high intelligence and high energy, but they don’t have high integrity, you’ve basically got a hard-working crook. You don’t want to be associated with that. In fact, you prefer lazy, dumb crooks to hard-working smart crooks.
Nivi: Yes. They will have many opportunities to screw you, if they don’t have any integrity.
Evaluating Startups: Customers et al
Naval: So, intelligence and integrity I would not compromise on any of the three.
Similarly, we talked a little bit about teams. Let’s talk about the customers. As we talked about earlier, you don’t want to invest in companies that have made no contact with the customer yet whatsoever.
For an enterprise software company, it might be surveys; it might be a few big customers’ meetings references. For a web company, it usually means the product has been released or some facsimile of it has been released and tried out.
You definitely want to look at a lot of companies, before you make early investments. The usual failure mode for individual angel investors is that they invest too early and too quickly. Part of this is you don’t have a partner who can veto you.
Venture funds are deliberately organized, in such a way that there are a lot of experienced people saying no to the new guy’s urge to go invest in the first hot thing he finds.
In angel fund, I would suggest that you be disciplined either by numbers, so say to yourself, I’m not going to make an investment until I see at least twenty companies. One hundred might not be a bad number. In a busy year, I’ll easily see four, five, six hundred companies.
An even better approach might be to find some experienced angels that you team up with and give them an effective veto. No matter how much you like the deal, if you can’t talk them into it, don’t do it.
Nivi: Yes, and along those lines, you could just say, I’m not going to invest in any deals that these five notable angels are not also investing in for my first couple of companies.
Naval: So, saying no is something that you are going to be doing far more often than saying yes. So, let’s get that out of the way. You have to learn how to say no, you have to learn how to turn down people.
It’s uncomfortable, but usually people appreciate a quick and up-front and reasoned no, with some good advice and hopefully a little bit of help attached to it, than they do a dragged out long process where at the end then you hem and haw and have to say no.
So, the best time to say no is before you take a meeting. If some of these deals fail your filters, or if you just can’t see yourself getting excited about the company or the business, say no over email before you meet.
If you hear the pitch, and it is not compelling, take five minutes out after the pitch, talk about it, think about it, and then say no to the entrepreneur before they even leave.
Since angel deals tend to be pretty small, you are investing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, you don’t want to drag it out over months. You don’t want to take weeks of the entrepreneur’s time. You don’t want to cause them to generate additional documents or write code just for you.
So try and be efficient about it. Don’t spend more than a couple of hours of their time, or if you had to noodle on it yourself for more than a few weeks, then it probably isn’t right for you.
Warren Buffett makes two really good points. Actually, Ron Conway lists one of them at the angel conference, which was don’t invest in people that you really aren’t excited about working with, because at the end of the day, the business model will change. The details will change. The company’s progress will change.
The only constant will be the person you invested in. If you don’t like to take their phone calls, if you don’t like to sit down there and talk to them all the time, then eventually you are going to see the deal as a burden.
You will eventually run out of time. So, it’s very important that you only pick the people that you want to work with. I just can’t emphasize that enough. It sounds like an easy thing to say, and hard to follow, but in reality, you will find that it will make all the difference in the long term.
The other thing that Buffett points out is that this is a game where the swings that you don’t make are not counted against you. You just have to find a few hits, and if you let a lot of hits go by while you are waiting for the perfect pitch, that’s absolutely fine. So, when in doubt, just say no.
Since the angel community is very small, the entrepreneur community is very small, your reputation is everything. So, it’s very important that you try and add value to every company whether you invest in them or not.
If they took the time to present to you, and they paid you that honor, then you should take the time to maybe make an introduction or two for them, or give them some useful, honest advice. Generally, it’s not a good idea to try and withhold your capability to help them too much, just because you did not make an investment.
Navi: Yes, and that is where you area of expertise, whether it is raising money or marketing or Facebook or whatever, can really shine right at the end of a meeting.
Saying Yes: Terms
Naval: So, let’s talk about the terms for a moment. So, let’s say you’ve processed a huge amount of deals, you’ve found a company that you want. You’ve said no to the ones that you don’t want. You want to make an investment. Some things to keep in mind is that one of the biggest risks of angel investing is the downstream financing risk.
You may look at a company and say, I could see this being a small but highly likely exit. That’s not initially a great company for you to invest in. The danger there is that a lot of companies use up cash very quickly, they run out of cash. You don’t want to put money after your own investments, because you are obviously now a biased investor.
And VCs always evaluate things in terms of their huge market potential, as VCs have very large funds. It ends up being a little bit of what the economists call the Keynesian beauty contest, which is you pick a winner based on who you think the judges are going to pick to win in the next round.
So, you are not initially picking the most beautiful start-up, you are picking the start-up the judges are most likely to pick. So, it is a dead-end trap to finance too many companies that don’t have the possibility of turning into something huge somewhere down the line.
One way to mitigate that is to co-invest with other venture capitalists. This is where you’re an angel, you’re putting a small amount of money and the VCs are putting in most of the money.
The issue there is that VCs are ownership sensitive. They want to own a lot of the company, but they tend not to be as price sensitive as angels because they have lot of money to throw around. So, one way to mitigate that is to give the VC some different rights that you don’t care about, such as the ability to invest more money the next round, and in exchange keep the valuation lower for you as the angel of this round.
Another opportunity for some superstar angels, or if you are taking a very active role in the company, is you might be able to get a little additional advisory stock, relative to the amount you invested.
Nivi: Just to be clear on Naval’s concern, his concern is that the seed round — that VCs get involved — ends up being for a lot of cash coming in at the high valuation. That makes it economically uninteresting for you as an angel investor, because you will end up owning a very small slice of the company because the valuation will be high.
So his suggestion, if I understand it right, is you basically give the investors — you do the round at a low valuation, you have a reasonable amount of cash coming in, the VCs co-invest, and what you give them is basically an option to invest in the next round. Is that right?
Naval: That’s correct. And in fact, another point of the economics is a lot of first-time angels, especially when investing their own money, tend to invest in what are called “uncapped debt.” So they’re put in a convertible note at a 20% discount to whatever the next round is going to be.
That’s an extremely uneconomic proposition. The odds of a startup going out of business are far greater than 20%, or the 16% that would be required to cover your investment. In fact, there are corporate bonds trading in the public markets today that are yielding 15-16%. So they are far more liquid with companies that are far better capitalized.
Generally, you’re looking for a 3X, 4X, 5X increase in valuation between rounds, which means you are price sensitive. So it’s OK to do a convertible note because that’s often simpler for everybody involved, from a legal perspective. But you generally want to establish a conversion price cap, which pays you back for the risk that you’re taking at this stage.
Nivi: One thing, just going back to the VC thing, from the perspective of an entrepreneur, if I have VCs investing in the seed round, the issue that it creates for me is that if those VCs don’t want to invest in the series A, it makes it very difficult to do the series A, because the inside investors who knows the company best are basically saying the company is not a venture investment.
Naval: One other point about investing with groups. A good reason to invest with other angels, no matter how much you like the company, is that stuff always goes wrong with a startup. And when stuff goes wrong, very often the entrepreneur can make the choice to walk away, especially if the company has a very small amount of money invested.
Or the entrepreneur can choose to do something that would be adverse to you, because you’re a minority shareholder without a lot of the protections that VCs often have. If you’re in a group of angels, you are much more likely to have a good outcome in that situation.
An entrepreneur is much less likely to walk away, if there are five good angels as investors than if there’s only one. An entrepreneur is less likely to change the terms that are adverse to you, if you’re with four other angel investors rather than if you’re alone.
One way in which, if you’re an angel investor, you can squander a lot of time is if you’re board seats. Essentially if you’re taking board seats, you’re going to be limiting yourself to only being able to handle five, six, seven investments, which may not be enough for you to achieve the portfolio affect that you need for the economics to work.
If 1-out-of-20 to 1-out-of-30 angel investments work, and you can only make five because you’ve taken board seats and your time is full, then your economic model is in trouble, and you would have to augment it by sprinkling around a lot of companies where you almost spend no time with them.
Board seats are really only worthwhile taking if you’re getting paid for it, if you have some unique and proprietary insight to the company and it’s market — maybe you started a company in a similar space that did really well — or in that unique case where the company is just someone who is very, very close to you.
Otherwise, realize that boards spend a lot of time on corporate governance issues, which often isn’t the best use of your time.
Nivi: Yeah, I mean, you can simply advise the company. You don’t have to be on the board to advise the company. The other downside is if you’re not willing to leave the board whenever the company asks you to, you can screw up their series A investment, because VCs don’t want to come into a company, which has a random guy who was one of the angels on the board of directors.
Naval: Yeah. It depends on who the angel is, of course.
Nivi: It depends, yeah.
In terms of how much of the company you want to buy, you’re not going to end up with 40% or 50% of the company after an angel or seed round.
You should be thinking more in terms of 5%, 10%, 20%. Capital that is coming into the company is $25K, $50K, $100K, up to $250K, the valuations that you’re looking at are going to be in the $0.5 million to $2 million dollar post-money valuations.
The way you justify the company’s valuation isn’t on the basis that the company is actually worth that much money, in the sense that somebody would buy the company for that price today. The way you justify it and the way entrepreneurs justify it, is through dilution.
You need to leave enough of the company in the hands of the entrepreneurs who are the guys who are creating value for you and for themselves alike, to be incented to create value for the two of you.
If after the first round they own less than half the company, and there are three more rounds of financing coming along over the next five years, they’re not incented to create value for you or for themselves.
So that’s where you end up with the angels or the seed investors owning somewhere between 5% and up to 20% of the company after a seed round.
The other way entrepreneurs justify the valuation is just through a market clearing price. Things are worth what people pay for them, and as long as someone is willing to pay $2 million post money for a company, you have to pay the same price, either if you want to invest alongside them or you want to outbid them.
Naval: So let’s talk about the economics a little bit. Think of yourself as a patron of the arts. If you were in 16th or 17th century Italy, you would be investing in paintings and sculptures. You’re doing the same sort of thing now. You’re not really in this so much to make money, as you are to help the next batch of entrepreneurs get to where you got to.
It’s unlikely that most of us as entrepreneurs would have been successful and gone up in value, without angels as investors, and now you’re giving that opportunity to the next young batch. And I say that because it’s very difficult to make money in this business.
The hit rate is extremely low; the economics are tough because on the really interesting companies it gets bid up by the venture capitalists.
And very often even if you find a hit company and you manage to get a piece of it early on by making and investment, very often you can get wiped out if there’s a bump in the road down the line and you don’t have the capital to pony up.
So think of yourself as a patron of innovation. You’ll sleep a lot better at night, if you assume your investments are lost on the day that you make them. And I’m not the only one to say that. At AngelConf, I think most of the professional angels, including the ones who had been in it for a long time like Ron Conway, made that point.
And your personal portfolio, outside of your angel investments, should be balanced with ultra-safe investments. Nassim Taleb, the author of “Fooled by Randomness” and “The Black Swan,” advocates having a 10% ultra-risky portfolio, in other words, looking for a positive “black swan.” And the other 90% being in T-bills and cash and equivalent safe investments.
But it’s an extremely rewarding business in the sense that you get to work with very, very bright people who are young, full of energy and fire. They show up and they tell you everything they’ve learned about a topic, that they’re deeply passionate about, in a short period of time. So the learning curve is high.
It’s extremely fun, but if you’re not careful you can lose a lot of money and annoy people.
Nivi: I don’t think that I’ve been involved in a company that somewhere along the way was not catalyzed by an angel investor or a seed stage investor. I don’t know if that’s the case for Naval or not.
Naval: I have, but usually the ones that had good angel investors worked out much better. In the angel case, as an entrepreneur, you can get the advice and help and connections that you look for out of a VC but you can get it with much less dilution and much less capital and, most importantly, much less control over your company.
If you’re really looking for good advisors, it’s usually a much better idea to go and get a couple of angels than it is to raise a big VC round. If you need a lot of capital, because you have something that you’ve figured out is working and you want to scale it, that’s when venture investment makes sense.
Nivi: Yeah. One way to think of yourself as an angel is, as basically an advisor that pays for the privilege of advising a company, and in the process gets a little chip in the business, in the case that the company happens to be a Google or a sub-Google like exit, Skype, MySpace or whatever.
Naval: And to echo a point that Paul Graham made a long time ago, the best, highest quality people that you want involved in your startup are usually already pretty successful. You’re not going to be able to recruit them as employees, you probably won’t even be able to bring them on as advisors for small amounts of equity.
The only way that those people will participate in your businesses is, if they have a meaningful stake.
And you don’t want to give huge stakes to a person just for a few words here or there where you don’t know what the value will be down the line, no matter how famous or how successful they are. So the way the market clears is they get to invest in your company.
Naval: If you have any questions about this or if you would like to talk more about it, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d also like to know if you’re an angel investor who’s available to invest capital and what your profile is.
So feel free to email us with that and we will try to show you interesting companies. What we would ask is that you tell us how much capital you have to invest, how much you’re looking to put to work, and what your particular areas of expertise are.