Jan 302016
 
thomas edison

Around the world governments are trying to replicate the Silicon Valley startup model. But does that model really matter?

On the Citylab website, Richard Florida looks at which cities are the leading centres for startup investment.

Unsurprisingly eight of the top ten cities are in the United States with San Francisco and San Jose leading the pack. While London and Beijing make up the other two, the gap between the regions are striking with the Bay Area being home to over quarter of the world Venture Capital investment while the Chinese and London capitals com in at around two percent.

global-startup-cities

While these proportions are impressive, the numbers are not. The total VC investment identified by Florida in 2012 is $45 billion, according to the Boston Consulting Group there was $74 Trillion of funds under management in 2014.

That makes the tech venture capital sector .06% of the global funds management industry.

In the US alone over 2013 small businesses raised $518 billion in bank loans, more than ten times the global VC industry.

What this scale shows is how small the tech startup sector really is compared to the broader economy and, more importantly, how the Venture Capital model perfected in the suburbs of Silicon Valley is only one of many ways to fund new businesses.

Even in the current centre of the startup world, it’s estimated less than eight percent of San Francisco’s workforce are employed by the tech industry although that goes up to nearly a quarter in San Jose.

None of this is to say the startups are not a good investment – Thomas Edison’s first company raised $300,000 in 1878, $12 million in today’s dollars, from New York investors including JP Morgan. The Edison Electric Light Company, while relatively modest went on to being one of the best investments of the 19th Century.

That twelve million dollar investment looks like a bargain today and it’s highly likely we’ll see some of today’s startups having a similar impact on society to what Edison did 140 years ago.

Edison’s success created jobs and wealth for New Jersey and New York which helped make the region one of the richest parts of the planet during the Twentieth Century and that opportunity today is what focuses governments when looking at encouraging today’s startups.

So it’s understandable governments would want to encourage today’s Thomas Edisons (and Nikola Teslas) to set up in their cities. The trick is to find the funding models that work for tomorrow’s businesses, not what works for one select group today.

While the Silicon Valley venture capital model receives the publicity today, it isn’t the model for funding most businesses. Founders, investors and governments have plenty of other options to explore.

Jan 182016
 
Nano_Dimension_DragonFly_2020_produces_PCBs_for_prototyping-444943-edited-height-500

Nano Dimensions may not have shipped a product since it was founded in 2012 but is worth $49 million dollars and was Israel’s best performing tech stock last year reports Bloomberg Business.

It’s not surprising that Nano Dimensions has caught the imagination of investors, the company was founded in 2012 to develop advanced 3D printed electronics, including printers for multilayer PCBs (printed circuit boards) and the nanotechnology-based inks those machines rely upon.

Should the technology prove successful, the application of those printers in fields like rapid prototyping is immense. The company speculates their devices may even get RFID tags down to the magical one cent figure which opens may opportunities in industries like logistics and retail.

In a GeekMe profile of the company last June, the writer even speculated Nano Dimensions could be heralding a disruption to the electronics industry similar to that the music industry faced when home users could burn their own CDs and stream music.

While that – and the speculation that 3D printing of electronic devices will kill Chinese manufacturing – may be some way off, it isn’t hard to see the potential of this technology.

The Israeli aspect of the Nano Dimensions story is interesting as well, with the company receiving a $1.25 million investment from the country’s office of the chief scientist after it was reverse listed onto the local stock market by taking over a moribund company.

For countries like Australia, Canada and the United States which are likely to have many moribund small mining and energy on their stock markets in coming years, such reverse listings may be an opportunity to spark their tech sectors with fresh capital and talent.

 

While Nano Dimensions is still very a speculative venture, the company illustrates a number of possibilities for 3D printing, electronics, the Israeli tech industry and the future of fund raising at a time when the Silicon Valley venture capital model seems to be under stress.

Another fascinating aspect of Nano Dimensions is that it’s one of the new breed of hardware startups, a field that until recently was dismissed as ‘too hard’ by most tech investors. Overall, the Israeli businesses an interesting company to watch for many of the aspects it touches upon.

Jan 172016
 
Doordash_home_delivery_startup_failed_unicorn

Doordash, one of the myriad home delivery services the current tech bubble has spawned, is abandoning its hopes of becoming a unicorn Bloomberg reports.

The company was seeking a valuation of a billion dollars from its latest fund raising round but in the face of disinterest from prospective investors the company has started lowering expectations.

Even at $600 million dollars that valuation seems rich and for existing shareholders offering more equity at the same valuation this is bad news as their stake is being diluted out.

For Doordash, the lack of investor interest is only one of their problems. Last year the company was sued by iconic Californian burger chain In ‘n Out for alleged trademark infringement and deceptive practices.

As market leader Instacart raises prices and looks to cut costs it seems the home delivery mania is coming to an end. Doordash could well be one of the wannabe unicorns that never quite made it.

Jan 072016
 
twitter-headquarters

Twitter is in trouble, its share price has fallen 70% in the past two years and the service is not gaining new users. To halt the stagnation, CEO Jack Dorsey is reportedly considering ditching the 140 character limit.

Commentator Josh Bernoff suggests playing with character limits will do little to address Twitter’s lack of momentum which is almost certainly correct given the underlying problems at the service.

The one most desired feature by Twitter users is the ability to edit their posts, although the New York Times points out this may not be a good thing, another popular change would be for the service to crack down on abusive behaviour.

Stagnant management

It seems however that Twitter’s management can’t make those changes and this is understandable given the company’s executives not understanding how the service is used and their desperate obsession to justifying its stock valuation which, despite falling 70% over the past two years, is still $14 billion.

Justifying that stock valuation with no clear path to monetising the service is a paralysing problem which means other useful changes aren’t being made while the company still embarrassingly cosies up to sports, pop and movie stars in the hope their fame will bring advertiser dollars to the platform.

For Twitter the solution is to accept they aren’t a fourteen billion dollar company which would take the pressure off the executive team to find unsustainable ways to justify that valuation and instead focus management’s efforts on improving the user experience.

Making Twitter useful

To make the service more useful, management has to understand how Twitter is used which means finding experienced and capable leaders who also use the service.

Adding features that allow users to make some changes to tweets and lists would be a start and clamping down on the bullies, trolls and frauds to make it more friendly to new entrants would be a start. Creating an easy way for new users to find useful information would also help engagement and retention.

The most important task though is finding executives who actually use Twitter and have an understanding of social media instead of hiring from the tech, advertising and broadcasting industries without any regard of whether those individuals have ever used the service.

Twitter is a valuable service but it’s dying as management play games. If it is to survive, accepting it isn’t as big as it wants to be and finding leaders who understand why its users find it so useful is essential.

Jan 012016
 

Crowdfunding site Indiegogo dissects 29,000 campaigns to find what the formula is for success in funding projects.

Their finding show longer campaigns, in excess of sixty days, do better and engaging with supporters are the keys to success.

That latter point isn’t surprising, if you’re looking the community to raise funds then keeping them informed and excited is essential.

As crowdfunding evolves, engaging with community is going to be essential to stand out from the pack. In some respects, this is exactly what crowdfunding originally promised.

Dec 242015
 
happy guy with lots of money

It’s not all good news when a tech company becomes a unicorn reports the New York Times as it often means employees and other ordinary stockholders may be diluted out by later investors holding preferential shares to secure their big bets.

The danger with these high private valuations is the later investors whose big cheques created the unicorn mythology insist upon preferential shares to protect their stake. Should the company go public or be sold for less than the valuation then it’s the common stock holders who take the greatest hit.

Good Technology’s sale to BlackBerry is the example cited in the New York Times’ story. The company’s last round of funding valued the business at $1.1 billion but it’s eventual exit was less than half of that.

As a consequence, the common stockholders lost 90% of their wealth in the company while executives and late stage investors came out with only a slight dip in the preferred shares valuation. The CEO walked away with nearly six million dollars.

With the last two years investment mania and the clear topping of the market, situations like Good’s are now becoming common. The New York Times points this out in the story.

The odds that the unicorns will all reap riches if they are sold or go public are slim. Over the past five years, at least 22 companies backed by venture capital sold for the same amount as or less than what they had raised from investors

For employees in these highly valued startups, those valuations and the risk of losing most of your own equity is a serious concern. Analyst firm CB Insights flagged earlier this week an exodus of talent from overvalued firms with dubious prospects is a great opportunity for the top tier companies.

While the headline numbers for unicorns are impressive, the reality for employees, founders and early stage investors is an overvaluation is a dangerous place to be.

Dec 212015
 

One of the most dangerous things for a startup business is trying to grow too quickly.  In his blog, Jun Loayza describes how RewardMe, one of the startups he was involved in, failed after it tried to scale to fast.

In his list of factors that led to RewardMe’s demise Loayza cites an undue focus on customer acquisition, however this is a fundamental part of the current Silicon Valley greater fool model.

As the exit strategy is to sell the business, whether it’s to a trade buyer or through an IPO,  the aim is to maximise the value of the operation ahead of that sale. Boosting the numbers of users is a key task for management.

Loayza says in retrospect he would have liked to focus on product development rather than user acquisition, but that’s a luxury not available when you’ve taken venture capital funding.