Jul 292015

Payment service Stripe joins the unicorn club as credit card company Visa becomes the latest investor reports the Re/Code website.

Two years ago this site interviewed John Collison, one of the Irish twins who founded Stripe about their mission to bring the payments industry in the 21st Century.

With the Visa investment it now means two of the world’s three major credit card companies are investors in Stripe, the other being American Express, and this shows the incumbent players are acutely aware of the changes happening in the payments world.

That credit card companies are investing in the businesses that threaten to disrupt their industry indicates the incumbents’ savvy management; while there are cultural and ethical barriers in trying to undercut the existing profitable products, having a stake in the new competitors gives companies like Visa and AmEx to remain relevant in a post credit card world.

For Stripe, investment from what could have been their major competitors not only takes some of the pressure off the the business but also opens opportunities for technology sharing and access to bigger markets.

Probably the most important thing for Strip with the Amex and Visa investments is they legitimise the business and the entire payments startup sector. It’s an important vote of confidence in the technologies and market.

For the Collison twins it also helps build better businesses, as John told Decoding the New Economy two years ago, “if we just building a business to take transactions from PayPal and get them onto Stripe, that’s not that interesting. What is interesting is if we can create new types of transactions that would not have existed otherwise.”

“By providing better infrastructure for anyone to build a global business. That will change the kind of things people will build.”

Now more people will be looking at what they can build on these payment platforms.

Jul 182015

As the world worries about whether China is the next Japan, the Japanese themselves are getting on with life in a low growth economy.

One of the latest ideas is to convert disused golf courses into solar energy farms as manufacturing giant Kyocera proposes a solution to deal with the nation’s power shortage after the closure of the Fukushima power plants.

Japan’s golf course boom of the 1980s, which they exported around the world, was a classic case of overinvestment driven by easy money and lax lending standards. Something that China has certainly had in spades.

The aging nation isn’t doing a perfect job however with the Washington Post reporting that the country’s over 65s are convicted of more crimes than juveniles and the sad reason is seniors are shoplifting to survive.

One of the major mistakes made by Japanese governments through the 1990s was to pour money into corrupt civil projects to stimulate the economy. That money was largely wasted on bridges to nowhere and bullet trains to tiny towns which did little to add to the nation’s productivity or build a safety net for the aging population.

Japan may well be leading the way for other aging nations, we need to heed their mistakes before our societies follow them.

Jul 132015
steam train and inefficient business

Are today’s tech unicorns like the 19th Century railway companies? Massive consumers of capital and ultimately transformative technologies but never in themselves particularly profitable?

In the 1840s Britain was gripped by a railway investment mania which saw 10,000km of railroads built in 1846 alone, the current network extends 18,000km.

Eventually the bubble popped after the Bank of England raised interest rates, something that should focus the minds of many of today’s investors.

The UK railway boom left a legacy of valuable infrastructure across Britain, Europe and the Americas, perhaps we’ll see a similar legacy from today’s boom.


Jul 012015
bonuses, commissions and other incentives can distort a business

“Raising money is like ordering dinner,” says startup founder Geoff McQueen about attracting investors. “If you’re only a little bit hungry, you should only buy an appetizer.”

McQueen was writing about his company, professional services platform Affinity Live, achieving its first round of funding. While the amount raised is a relatively modest two million dollars, the main gain for the company is getting some experienced business people on board.

Unlike many of the high profile billion dollar ‘unicorns’, cash flow positive businesses like Affinity don’t need large swags of cash to grow. As McQueen points out, big investment rounds put pressures on management and risks the company’s culture changing “from one of discipline and taking on the world to one of comfort and entitlement”.

Pushing out the owners

Another risk for founders is they could end up diluting themselves out of the business they’ve built, as venture capital investor Heidi Roizen points out it’s possible for the creators of a billion dollar startup to find themselves broke.

Roizen observes “venture capital is not free money. It’s debt. And then some”, something that’s overlooked by many commentators who think a fund raising – and the resultant valuation  – goes straight into the pockets of a company’s founders.

Unless it’s Google Ventures doing the investment, it’s unlikely the founders will be buying Porsches after a VC round and usually the funding goes into growing the business. For many big name startups those capital needs can be huge as we see with Uber where reports indicate the company is currently losing two dollars for every dollar it earns.

Beating the burn rates

Most businesses though can only dream of burn rates in the hundreds of millions a year and their needs are far more modest illustrating McQueen’s point about excess capital.

As we saw in the dot com bust it was the lean and focused companies that survived the downturn, there’s little to think the next industry shake it will be different. That’s why companies like Affinity Live and founders like Geoff McQueen will probably still be around when the dust and hype settles.

Jun 292015

Every few years the tech community goes through a mania for a type of business. Five years ago it was deal of the day sites led by Groupon where around the world copycats firms gleefully accepted the money of eager investors.

Today it’s food delivery services and industry analysts CB Insights have mapped the investments of US Venture Capital firms in the sector.

Recent years have shown that tech investors like to flock in packs and the current focus on delivery apps is just another example. So right now if you want to pick up some VC money, setup something that delivers food to people.

If you’re lucky, the greater fool model might deliver a nice pay off as larger companies suffering from Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) desperately grab some of the more higher profile players.

Be quick though as the mania tends to dissipate quickly as the hundreds of Groupon copycats eventually discovered. When the hordes move on, they don’t leave much for those left behind.

Jun 272015
business return on assets is falling away

One of the features of the current tech investment mania is the ‘greater fool’ business model of building a startup with the aim of flipping it to a larger company.

That model is based upon gaining as much publicity and users as possible to justify a high price for further investme, a buy out or stock market listing.

In that environment making money is irrelevant, in fact to many Silicon Valley investors a profitable startup is less attractive to one burning investors’ capital.

Now New York’s top tech investor, Fred Wilson, says he’s sick of that model.

But I’m a bit sick and tired of the objective of every operating plan I see is to get the business to a point where it can raise money at a much higher price. That’s nice and it’s how the VC/startup game is played. But at some point I’d prefer to see an operating plan that has the objective of getting to sustainable profitability. And I do mean sustainable.

When the froth comes off the current investment market it will be the profitable businesses, or those with a prospect of making a return, with the best prospects of survival.

Fred Wilson’s pint is a warning for the many of today’s investors; profits matter and startups need to be able to show how and where they are going to eventually a return.

Jun 252015

The United States has only half the publicly listed companies of twenty years ago, writes Barry Ritholtz in Bloomberg View.

While the Initial Public Offering still remains one way for startup businesses to release  wealth to founders and early investors, the number of mergers and acquisitions has seen the total number of public companies fall over the last two decades.

Most of the fall has been due to existing companies being bought out through mergers and acquisitions while there have been fewer new businesses listing to replenish the stocks.

Last year we interviewed Don Katz, the founder of talking book service Audible which was listed in 2000 and acquired by Amazon in 2008.

Katz found the running of a listed company was onerous and more value, and investment funds, was added by being part of a larger organisation.

The view of Katz and Audible’s shareholders that there is better access to markets and capital through larger companies probably drives much of the enthusiasm for M&As along with serving to increase the economic concentration of large corporations.

Ritzholtz speculates another reason could be the deepening pools of private equity and venture capital which mean newer businesses don’t have to rush into a listing to raise funds or give founders and early investors an exit.

Another reason could be that companies have become more profitable with US corporations being more profitable than any time since before the 1929 stock crash. More money coming in means it’s easier to fund the business using cash flow and investors can make a good return on dividends rather than share sales.

The cost of money could also be affecting listings, with debt so cheap companies can raise bonds cost effectively without diluting their equity or having the hassle of running a listed corporation.

Finally, it may be the ease of setting up a business makes listing not so necessary. A software company needs nowhere the capital required by a manufacturing venture so going to the market just isn’t necessary.

Should the lack of listing be a permanent thing then again we may see another force changing management and business cultures.