So I have been away from this Blog for over a year. So much has happened with Sprout that it is time for me to start documenting the journey again. So here’s a first post to remind myself to get back at it.
Received this email today from an advisory. Match this with Ron Conway’s post on Techcrunch and the message is clear. Lean, mean, and survive.
Today, Sequoia Capital hosted a mandatory CEO All-Hands Meeting on Sand Hill Road (where else?). There were about 100 CEO’s in attendance and let me tell you, the mood was somber. I’m not one to perpetuate doom and gloom or bad news, but let me underscore this for you: We are in a serious economic downturn and this is just the beginning. Immediate, decisive and swift action is required, along with frugal, day-to-day management of expenses and our business is required.
Here are the notes from the meeting.
· Mike Moritz, General Partner, Sequoia Capital (he moderated the speakers).
· Eric Upin, Partner, Sequoia Capital (Eric ran the $26-Billion Stanford Endowment Fund and knows a few things about Economics and investing.)
· Michael Partner, Sequoia Capital (Michael was recruited to start Sequoia’s very first hedge fund, coming from Maverick Capital and Robertson Stephens. I know him from my BEA days.)
· Doug Leone, , General Partner, Sequoia Capital
Slide projected on the huge conference room screen as people assembled inside the conference center to take their seats: a gravestone with the inscription: RIP, Good Times.
· The only time Sequoia’s assembled all CEO’s like this was during the dot.com crash.
· We are in drastic times. Drastic times mean drastic measures must be taken to survive. Forget about getting ahead, we’re talking survive. Get this point into your heads.
· For those of you that are not cash-flow positive, get there now. Raising capital is nearly impossible if you’re too far off of cash flow positive.
· There will be consequences for those who hesitate. Act now.
· It’s always darkest before it’s pitch black.
· Survival of this storm means drastic measures must be taken now, so you will have the opportunity to capitalize on this down turn in the future.
· We are in the beginning of a long cycle, what we call a “Secular Bear Market.” This could be a 15 year problem. [many slides on historical charts of previous recessions, averaging 17 year cycles.]
· The credit market [versus the Equity markets] are the issue and will take time to recover.
· Inflection point: Make changes, slash expenses, cut deep and keep marching. You can’t be a general if you turn back.
· This is a global issue and not a ‘normal’ time.
· There is significant risk to growth and your personal wealth.
o Manage what you can control. You can’t control the economy, but you can control everything else.
§ Cut spending. Cut fat. Preserve Capital.
§ Don’t trust your models and spreadsheets. All assumptions prior to today are wrong.
§ Focus on quality.
§ Reduce risk.
· Note: Michael had a lot of slides that were charts, data points and comparisons.
· A “V” shaped recovery is unlikely [√]
· Cuts in spending will accelerate in Q4/Q1. Look at eBay—this is just the beginning.
· This is a different animal and will take years to recover.
· Getting another round if you’re not profitable will be rough.
· Do everything possible to get to cash flow positive. Now.
· Nail your Sales and Marketing message.
· Pound your competitors shortcomings. They’re hurting and they will be quiet. Take the offensive.
· In a downturn, aggressive PR and Communications strategy is key.
· M&A will decrease dramatically and only lean companies, with proven sales models will be acquired.
· Spectrum discussion:
o Capital Preservation ß———————————-à Grab Market
o Everyone should be far to the left (capital preservation)
· Requirements of our companies:
o You must have a proven product
o You must cut expenses. Now and deep.
o Your product should reduce expenses and drive revenue
o Honestly assess your solution vs. your competitors.
o Cash is king [have you gotten this message yet?]
o You must get to profitability as soon as possible to weather this storm and be self-sustaining.
· Operations review:
o Engineering: Since you already have a product, strongly consider reducing the number of engineers that you have.
o Product: What features are absolutely essential? Choose carefully and focus.
o Marketing: Measure everything and cut what is not working. You don’t need large Product Marketing, Product Management teams.
o Sales & Business Development: What is your return on this investment? The Valley has gotten fat with Sales people: Big bases, big variables. Cut base salaries on sales people, highly leverage them with upside (increase variable) and make people pay for themselves via increased sales productivity. Don’t add sales people until you’ve achieved your goals with sales productivity. Be disciplined.
o Pipeline: Scrub the shit out of it and be honest with yourself.
o Finance: Defer payments, what is essential? Kill cash burn.
· Death Spiral
o The death spiral sucks you in, you’re in it before you know it and then you die.
o Survival of the quickest.
o Cutting deeper is the formula for survival.
o You should have at least one year’s worth of cash on hand.
§ Assess your situation. Drop your assumptions, start with a blank page and start zero-based budgeting.
§ Adapt quickly
§ Make your cuts
§ Review all salaries
§ Change sales comp
§ Bolster your balance sheet—if you can add $5M to your coffers, take it and save it.
§ Spend like it’s your last dollar.
1. Show your product within the first 60 seconds
Most folks start their presentations with information like the size of the market they are tackling (tens of billions, we only need 1%!), their inflated corporate bios, the philosophical approach they’re
taking, and boring Powerpoint graphics explaining some convoluted workflow of their product.
The longer it takes for you to show your product, the worse your product is. Folks who have a kick-ass product don’t spend five or ten minutes “setting the stage” or “giving the background.” Folks with killer products CAN’T WAIT to show you their product. Their demos start with their homepage and quickly jump into the users experience. If a picture tells a thousand stories, then a product demo tells a million.
Show your product immediately, and if you don’t have a product to show don’t take the meeting.
2. The best products take less than five minutes to demo
The greatest tech products over the past 10 years would take no more than five minutes each to demo. For example:
a) Larry and Sergey could demo Google search in less than five minutes. Here’s a box, type something in and you get a huge reward.
b) Steve Jobs could demo the iPod in less than five minutes. Plug it in, put in your CDs and it syncs your music. Turn it on and use the wheel to select what songs you want to listen to.
c) Chris DeWolfe could demo MySpace in less than five minutes. Sign up, fill out your profile, and add your friends. For bonus points add some widgets to your page.
I think you get the idea: the better the product the LESS time it takes to demo. If your product demo takes more than five minutes to demo, it probably sucks. All the tiny little features that matter to
you are of course important–God is in the details–however, when presenting your company, you don’t have to show them. Larry and Sergey wouldn’t open up the advanced search tab and the list of operators you can use in Google during a demo.
Steve Jobs does take the demo details to a fairly detailed level, but you and I are not Steve Jobs. There is only one Steve Jobs and there is only one Apple. You’re never going to build something as cool as Steve, and as such there is no need for you to talk about your product for five or ten minutes.
3. Leave people wanting more.
If you take my advice in point two, then folks should be either blown away or intrigued by your core product. If they are not somewhere in that spectrum, you need to rebuild your core product.
When I pitched Mahalo to investors, I had five sheets of paper with different search results on each. I put them on a table and said which one is the best. Obviously I knew my result was the best, and that
simple demonstration lead to MASSIVE discussion: how was the page built? how long did it take to build? what would it cost to make that page? how often do you need to update it? how can you scale that business? how many pages can you create before it breaks even?
It’s best for folks to discover the merits of your product for themselves, and it’s up to you to make such a compelling core product that they are intrigued enough to explore it.
4. Talk about what you’ve done, not what you’re going to do.
Weak startups and their leaders seem to immediately start talk about “what’s next,” as opposed to focusing on the core product. Anyone can say we’re going to add: a mobile version, collaborative filtering, an advertising network, visualizations, a marketplace, a browser plugin, a browser and a social network to their product. In fact, given the amount of open source and off the shelf software out there, combined with the large number of developers in the world, anyone can bolt these things on to their service in a week or three.
Who cares what you’re going to bolt on to your startup? What really matters is the core functionality of your startup.
Steve Jobs has become at once the world’s greatest salesman and product developer because he only announces Apple’s achievements. He doesn’t waste time on what Apple’s going to do: he talks about the here and now. Microsoft’s old strategy was to talk about products that were coming and that put them in the horrible position of having to backpedal when they changed their mind about a product.
5. Understand your competitive landscape–current and historical.
This year I’ve had three companies show me group SMS messaging products, and most of them did not know what UPOC.com was (Gordon Gould’s group SMS messaging service that was five years ahead of its time). I’ve had three or four companies over the past two years of TechCrunch50 conferences pitch me on Third Voice–the controversial “web annotation” service from Web 1.0. [Side note: I loved the concept of Third Voice so much I considered starting a company like it and even bought the domain name annotated.com.]
When I pitched the idea for Weblogs, Inc. to Mark Cuban, Yossi Vardi and Jeff Bezos, I understood all the niche email marketing and newsletter companies from the early and mid-nineties cold. I researched why they worked and why they failed, and I knew which ones were sold and bought and by whom. When I pitched Mahalo to Sequoia Capital, I knew the history of human-powered search and directories from DMOZ to Yahoo Directory to LookSmart.
If you don’t know the competitive landscape, and the shoulder’s you’re standing on, folks are not going to be comfortable giving you their money, time or attention.
6. Short answers are best.
When taking questions about your product answer questions shortly. This is a very challenging thing for many people–including myself–to do. If you’re like me, you’ve probably thought out your startup’s
issues a thousand different ways. When I sit at the poker table I play a game where I think out every possible scenario for not only my hands, but the hands of my opponents (this is fairly standard among
advanced poker players from what I understand).
Say I have Ace King and I raised out of position and the button called my raise pre-flop. Then they re-raised me on the flop, which had an Ace. What does that tell me? They could have an ace, they could have two aces and have slow played me, they could have a medium pocket pair and they want to see if I have an ace, maybe they are on a flush or straight draw or maybe they suck at poker. Who the hell knows?!?! You can go insane trying to figure all these things out–that’s why poker
becomes very addictive.
The point is all that inner thinking is chaos when you try to explain it to another person. It’s pure madness after 60 seconds of talking. The best thing to do is answer the question with the most concise answer. For example, when asked “what happens if Google enters your market?” answer quickly and with confidence:
a) Google has entered many markets, but they are only #1 in search and search advertising. They trail in social networking to MySpace and Facebook, in classifieds to Craigslist, in news to Yahoo and AOL, in email to Microsoft, AOL, and Yahoo, and in instant messaging to Microsoft, AOL, and Yahoo.
b) We’re not sure if Google will enter our market, but hopefully we’ll have developed our product enough that it will be a real sustainable business by that time.
c) We think Google might enter our market at some point, and if they do they and their competitors will certainly consider buying us–creating a bidding war for our entrenched position.
d) Google is a very big company right now with a very big cash machine that they have to focus on and protect–they will never do our business with our level of focus. We will out execute them on all
These are all amazing answers (I did, after all, come up with them), and you can say them in around a minute. However, if you cram all four of these sentences together you’ve spoken for five minutes.
7. PowerPoint bullet slides are death
Do not make slide after slide explaining your business in bullet points, because it’s really, really boring. Powerpoint/Keynote slides that are not boring include charts, product shots, feature set tables
and the like. Things that explain big concepts with ease and grace are great, but bullet points of obvious facts show that:
a) you don’t have the ability to create a compelling story with data
b) you don’t think that much of the person being presented the information
I’m not a huge fan of “funny slides” or lots of graphics for graphics sake. You’re not pitching your company to get laughs–unless you’re on stage–you’re doing it to raise capital, close a partnership or get on stage at a conference. Keep it focused and to the point.
8. How to use this new device called the phone.
When presenting over the phone use a handset and a land-line… only!
It’s amazing to me that any person doing a business call would conduct it on their mobile phone. Mobile phones sound horrible 95% of the time, and they frequently cut out. If you are presenting your company take it seriously and get yourself to a landline. You have limited time and don’t want folks to miss a single word.
Speakerphones are horrible, and putting the person receiving the demo on speaker phone during a demo is just disrespectful. You can hear all the rustling, side conversations and horrible echos when you’re on speaker phone. When doing a demo pick up the handset and speak. If you go to a Q&A session then use speaker phone. That’s why it exists.
Only use a headset if it is very, very high-fidelity and you have the microphone right up to your mouth. Also, don’t eat, drink or breath heavy into the microphone or you run the risk of sounding like an animal. I use an amazing Plantronics headset, and I like me some Green Matcha tea, but I hit the mute key when I sip!
I know it sounds crazy to have a discussion about how to use the phone, but the majority of these young people actually think it’s acceptable to have two or three drop offs in a call–it’s not. Grow up
and get a land line.
9. How to handle questions you don’t know the answer to
After you do your concise presentation you’re hopefully going to get a lot of questions. Here are some important tips to consider when you don’t know the answer cold:
a) take a moment to think about the question. You can even say “Hmmm… that’s a good question. Let me think about that for a second.” Folks appreciate a little consideration when someone takes a
b) if you don’t have an answer be honest and say you don’t. There are many ways to say this including: “I’m not really sure, I’m going to have to think about that for a bit and get back to you,” or “I’m not sure to be honest. What do you think?”
c) feel free to think out loud and brainstorm with the person. You can do this by saying “I’ve never really considered that. Perhaps you can expand the question a little and we can explore it right now.”
d) if you’re not sure of the answer you can always say you’ll cross that bridge when you come to it. “I’m not sure how we would deal with a sudden spike in the cost of bandwidth, we would have to collect more information and answer that question down the road. It is a manageable risk factor I suppose. ”
The worst thing to do when you don’t have an answer is b.s. the person. No one has an answer for everything, except a b.s. artists. So, feel free to say you don’t know–folks find it refreshingly humble
10. Always confirm the time of your meeting/call, and always be 15
People are really busy and meetings get mixed up. Every meeting or phone call I do is confirmed twice: once by email, and once on the day before the meeting. Reconfirming meetings makes you look like a true player and it costs you nothing. You do this by sending a simple email saying “Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow at your offices at 123 Main Street at 3pm. If anything changes you can reach me on my mobile at 310-555-1212.”
Also, be early. Come on. If you’re doing a meeting with someone who might invest in your company, do a business deal with you, etc., you can show a lot of respect by being in their lobby or on hold on the conference call five to 15 minutes ahead of time. Don’t show up more than 15 minutes ahead of time or you’ll look like a stalker. If you get to your meeting 45 minutes ahead of time go to the Starbucks and buy yourself a treat for being so on top of things.
What are your best tips for giving a proper demo of your company on the phone or in person?
In your mind, what are the worst things folks have done during a presentation?