Catastrophic Success

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

There are many ways to fail as a startup, like selling something nobody wants, spending too much on unimportant features, or missing a market’s needs, but one of the most interesting ways to fail is by achieving success past your ability to handle it. The furniture maker who suddenly goes viral and takes thousands of orders that he can’t fulfill and ultimately drowns in cancelled orders and chargebacks. The chain restaurant that expands to dozens of locations in response to demand that turns out to only be temporary. The website that crumbles under the load of sudden popularity. In all cases, a smaller dose of success would have been much better for the firm.

These are all examples of companies experiencing what I call Catastrophic Success: the achievement businesses goals so far beyond your ability to respond that the success turns into a catastrophe.


Income distribution Burning Man attendees

Monday, August 1, 2011

There was a question on Quora about the income distribution of Burning Man attendees that piqued my interest. The data available from Black Rock City, LLC in their Afterburn Report is a little old,[1] but it also lacked a baseline (i.e., the distribution of US incomes[2]). So, I looked up some income distribution data from 2008 to answer the question.

It turns out that Burners are wealthier than an average US resident,[3] and while those earning under $35,000/year are a bit less likely to attend than average, people earning over $80,000/year are much more likely to attend. Here's the same data with in bar chart form.[4]

[1] And potentially inaccurate. With n=1573 for the data set and over 47,000 attendees it's easy to imagine that some selection bias may have come into play. There's also the question of self-reporting accuracy (for both the US Census and the Burning Man census), but we'll just have to work with what we've got.
[2] Of course not everyone from Burning Man is from the US, but a good portion are, so let's roll with it.
[3] Which makes sense, given that Burning Man is a week-long vacation that requires quite a bit of pre-planning. You don't have to be a millionaire to take part, but having a little extra cash to buy those goggles & all that sunscreen sure helps.
[4] I've been experimenting with OmniGraphSketcher & am enjoying checking out its new features. I thought the area graph did a better job of showing income distributions, but I didn't like the loss of data specificity.


I love my Chrome bag

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

I love my Chrome bag. It’s an over-the-shoulder bike messenger bag & I’ve used it as my primary travel bag for the last year and a half[1]. It holds even more than my old roller bag, fits absolutely everywhere[2], and doesn’t make noise going over tile floors.

Chrome started as a messenger bag company in 1995 in Boulder, CO. It now has its headquartered in San Francisco and a manufacturing plant north of the city in Chico, CA. Despite its tenure, Chrome is still a pretty local brand – you’ll see non-bikers in San Francisco carrying Chrome bags, but I only saw about one/month when I lived in Boston.

My bag is one of their older models, from 2000 or 1999. It’s a Kozmo bag. I have fond memories of the company – they delivered movies & ice cream to my dorm room for a few years while I was in college, and we ended up with a small collection of video tapes that we’d been to lazy to return when they went out of business. Kozmo is also a great symbol of everything that went wrong in the dot-com bubble of 1999. They offered free delivery of corner store items in under an hour, and aggressively expanded to cities where the bike messenger concept just wasn’t practical (like L.A., Atlanta, Dallas). By the time they ceased operations, they were in more than 15 cities in the US & Europe, had instituted delivery charges, and were actually profitable in NYC, Boston, and San Francisco. But, by that point, they’d burned through more than $100M in funding and weren’t ever going to provide a reasonable return on that investment, so the company was shuttered.

Almost ten years later, I carry a bag around both as a reminder of what incredible reach a company can achieve in a few years, and as a reminder that profit needs to be in the plan eventually. I've traveled with it enough that it made it into this self portrait a few years ago:

I’m glad that companies are still trying to get parts of the Kozmo promise to work, and I’m happy that my Chrome bag (and Chrome the company) are still in great shape and thriving in San Francisco.

[1] My roller bag, having served me for 7 years of consulting, gave up the ghost on my very last BCG flight – its retractable handle jammed while fully extended. It was preceded by my old business laptop and several Blackberries and is survived by a leather briefcase.
[2] It really does fit everywhere. I’ve gotten it under the seat in front of me and even the micro-overhead bins in Embraer 120s and CRJ 200s.


Moonwalking with Einstein

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I love participatory journalism. It has come to refer to bloggers and citizen journalists in recent years, but when I first heard the term it was being used to describe George Plimpton’s Paper Lion[1] or Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas[2]. There’s something exciting about non-fiction that still has a protagonist, but isn’t solely biographical. Biography often covers such a long portion of a person’s life that there can be no central story; people’s motivations and priorities change over time. Participatory journalism is necessarily a shorter arc, and is usually narrated by someone just starting out at a new activity, giving the reader a sense that she, too, could do what the protagonist does.

Sometimes these books wander away from straight facts, and sometimes it’s wholesale fiction -- my introduction to the genre was through Roald Dahl’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar[3]. No matter what the context, I love the way the authors weave together seemingly unrelated areas (as experts in any field can) to create a new narrative that changes the way I think about their subject. A. J. Jacobs has done two stints -- one year reading an entire encyclopedia, another living by the literal word of the bible. His reflections on vast works that everyone knows of, but no one reads gave me an appreciation for the strangeness of that sort of status in our culture.

Most recently I’ve been reading Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. He’s the younger brother of two literarily accomplished siblings[4]. In one year he becomes obsessed with the US Memory Championships and spends a year training for that contest, ultimately competing in its finals. He draws together oral traditions and how memory has evolved over time -- why, for instance, the Odyssey always refers to “Bright-eyed Athena” even when she is tired or weeping. Like all good participatory journalism it reads like a long story from a good friend who just came back from an adventure. I’d recommend it for the beach or the plane ride on the way.

[1] From Amazon: “In the mid-'60s, Plimpton joined the Detroit Lions at their preseason camp as a 36-year-old rookie quarterback wannabe, and stuck with the club through an intra-squad game before the paying public a month later.”
[2] Fear & Loathing is not participatory in the sense that he raced in his assignment’s putative subject (the Mint 400) but is instead about his experience getting so high that it’s often said that the most amazing aspect of the book is that he was able to write or remember anything at all.
[3] While technically a work of fiction, I don’t begrudge Dahl’s invention for its departure from reality. Henry’s Sugar’s ability to see through cards after 3 years of fierce concentration staring into a candle is not something I could ever achieve. Then again, the idea of going on a week-long drug binge in Las Vegas (and living to tell the tale), becoming a highly-paid escort in New York, or learning to memorize a deck of playing cards in 90 seconds all seem equally remote. I don’t discount Henry Sugar’s magical realism because all of this participatory journalism has an air of realistic magic to it.
[4] Jonathan Foer wrote Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close while Franklin Foer was the editor of The New Republic.


Taking an Investment from Chile

Monday, March 7, 2011

Last year my cofounders and I joined StartUp Chile, an incubator run by the Chilean government and headquartered in Santiago (I wrote about that experience on Quora). We learned a lot, met some very interesting people, built a prototype and tried to do some fundraising in Chile.[1] This is a brief summary of what I learned about the Chilean investment landscape and how it differs from the one we knew better here in the Bay Area. As they say, venture capital is local, and Chile is no exception. Just as New York is different from San Francisco is different from London, Chile has its own idiosyncrasies and standards. The three main differences from San Francisco were in processes, experience, and government leverage.

There are few venture capitalists in Chile and they are all relatively new. Most raised their first venture capital fund in 2008 or later, although several were involved in later-stage investments in the past. While Chile has long had policies that were very welcoming to new business, much of their innovation has been driven by larger companies, firms entering the Latin American market, or companies started by independently wealthy individuals. A robust angel marketplace does not exist in Chile yet. While some wealthy individuals might invest in an entrepreneur, there aren’t standard terms and there certainly aren’t expectations like there are in Silicon Valley of convertible notes. A result of this newness is that decisions seemed to be taken slowly. We heard that an average timeline for funding was four to six months.

Most companies in the StartUp Chile program were incorporated in other countries and will need to create a Chilean subsidiary in order to take Chilean investment. More about why that is in the “Government Leverage” section below. The process usually takes at least a month (more if the company doesn’t have people on the ground in Santiago pushing the application forward).

Being in the VC business for a long time gives you experience with being a venture capitalist and lets you build connections to other VCs.

The venture capitalists we met with all seemed like very bright businessmen (all were men; we also met several wealthy individuals who considered acting as angels which included some women). While as of December 2010 none of the VCs had gotten to an exit or a Series B for any of their portfolio companies, we saw nothing to indicate that they weren’t managing their investments well. Everyone we met had significant business experience and was spoken of highly by their portfolio companies.

Chilean VCs have some connections to Silicon Valley (they invested in Bling Nation (opens .pdf), for instance), but as a result of distance they naturally are connected more to the Chilean marketplace than the San Francisco ecosystem. I really didn’t see many links to the New York media scene or the Boston biotech scene, but then again we weren’t pitching that kind of business so its natural that we didn’t see any evidence.

Government leverage
The Chilean government has several programs to encourage investment in innovation.[2] One program was called “F-3.” It provides a forgivable loan of up to three times a fund’s total value, provided its deployed within 24 months and used within Chile. So for instance, let’s say I create a new fund: Deadly Fine Wealth (DFW), get commitments for $10M and file paperwork with the government by April 2011. CORFO[3] will loan RockChile up to $30M. The money won’t be distributed to DFW until the investors cash has been invested and must be used within two years (by March 2013 in this example). So if I decide to invest $4M in a new tennis academy, I call in $1M of my investor’s money & CORFO provides the other $3M. The loans carry an interest rate of near, or slightly above prime. They must be paid back as the fund goes through exits, but can be forgiven if the fund does not make money. So, if DFW invest all $10M in tennis academies, a new talk radio station, and a new cruise line and all the businesses go bust, the fund doesn’t have to pay back anything. If the cruise line turns into a winner and they get a $5B exit, the loans must be paid back in full. If, however, the fund’s returns are something below the cost of the loans (including interest) all of that money goes back to CORFO. An additional caveat is that the money distributed through CORFO must remain in Chile. This doesn’t mean that the company couldn’t be based in the US, but it does mean that the company would need to have a presence (like a development office or a customer service center) in Chile that would spend the CORFO money.[4]

This creates some interesting incentives. The first (and most intended) consequence is that by giving VCs leverage they’re more willing to invest in businesses and willing to commit more money at higher valuations than they would otherwise. That, in turn, is meant to encourage more entrepreneurs to start companies. The second (possibly unintended) consequence is that the funds don’t get anything until their returns have exceeded the CORFO loan threshold. Venture capital is already a hit-driven business, and this makes it more so. The result is that they may push their portfolio companies to take bigger risks, even if it decreases the overall chance of success. The third (definitely unintended) consequence is that a fund could find itself ambivalent about the outcome of its last portfolio companies. For instance, suppose the DFW fund above invested $40M in 10 different companies for a 33% stake in each, and that nine of them went bankrupt over a period of five years. DFW could find itself on the hook for $40M in loans (the $30M with interest), which would mean that its last company would need an exit above $120M in order for them to make money. While rational, a decision to ignore an investment that might make a $100M exit is not what CORFO intended.

To try to address this problem, the government created a new program called K-1[5]. K-1 is a convertible equity instrument for up to 1.5 times the VC’s investment that can be turned into debt on the fund level. Let’s take DFW with $10M again. If they were to invest $2.5M in a new video delivery service at a pre-money valuation of $2.5M, their investors would provide $1M and CORFO would provide $1.5M. DFW would own 20% of the company and CORFO would own 30%. If the company sold a month later for $50M, DFW would get back $10M and CORFO would get $15M. However, DFW would have the option to convert all of CORFO’s equity into debt at ~prime, but only if the fund did it for all of its portfolio companies. This means that if most of the companies in a portfolio have gone bankrupt, the VC can still extract some value from its successes, but if one or more of the companies is wildly successful the VC can also capture most of that upside.

I hope this is helpful to companies in the StartUp Chile program or considering applying to it. I’m sure I’ve gotten some of the details of these programs wrong; my apologies. I’ll try to update this as I (others) identify mistakes.

[1] We talked to four venture capital firms, which I believe are the main ones:
  • Aurus
  • Austral (they also have an office in San Francisco: )
  • Copec-UC -- a fund of Universidad Católica in Chile
  • Equitas
We also talked to about a half-dozen Chilean angels.
[2] I’m not a lawyer, and my understanding of the program is certainly incomplete. I’m putting down some thoughts here as a start.
[3] CORFO is the Chilean government agency that implements policies related to entrepreneurship and innovation. For instance, it is CORFO who funds StartUp Chile.
[4] It is unclear to me how strictly this rule was enforced.
[5] My understanding of these details is very weak. I think I’ve got the general form of the instrument right, but I could be wrong about major details.


New Word: Gourmandise

Monday, February 7, 2011

My friend Nicolas taught me a new word that I think should find its way into the English language: Gourmandise (noun). It has the same root as “gourmet” and refers to that final bit of food (usually sweet) served well after you’re full, that is nonetheless too delicious to ignore. Typical examples: a small piece of chocolate, a macaroon, a small chocolate chip cookie given with the bill.

“We were totally stuffed, but the waiter brought some gourmandise with the bill. This is why I’ll never lose those 10 pounds.”


No One From Porlock Can Be Blamed For the Quality of This Post

Friday, January 14, 2011

I woke up this morning to discover that I'd written a limerick in my sleep.

When I was in my third year at Vassar
I traveled to Chandrapahassar
I was packing my stuff
But then things got tough
When I realized I'd lost my passport

There was only one way out to pursue
A kite-flying contest was due!
We took to the air
With the wind in our hair
Each aiming for judicial review

The field went through diminution
Til only us two sought restitution
I won handily
(there was a trophy for me!)
And thereby achieved resolution

This isn't super high-quality stuff, but I was super impressed that I'd created anything in a dream state and managed to bring it back to the waking world. Happily I got it all down without interruption.


A Theory of Air Travel Agony

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Stories about bad experiences with air travel are dull because everybody has them. Every trip involves indignities, personal slights, and some discomfort. I keep perspective by trying to quantify how bad things are getting. My trips all start with 2 points. Then I adjust based on my mood, what happens, and what I expect. So, for instance: going on vacation? +1; Traveling with someone I like? +1 -- these things help buffer the unpleasantness. Screaming child? -1. No seats in the waiting area? -1 No outlets in the waiting area? 0 (I don’t expect there to be any; laptops have been around for fewer years than most airports).

Using this system, my worst flight ever was BOS-SFO on United. It was terrible, but I know that most of that was because of baggage I brought to the party.

Here’s an example from a flight I took from Boston to Aruba.
Base score: 2
Vacation: +1
Glow of getting a cheap awesome vacation: +1
Seats with the smallest pitch I’ve ever seen (seriously -- like <20”): -1
Screaming child: -1
2-hour flight delay: -1
Net: 1. Despite no legroom and a screaming child, this flight was a win.

I started tracking this a few months ago. What I realized was that I was virtually guaranteed to have a miserable experience from time to time but that very little was the result of company decisions by airlines (and therefore, very little could be avoided by avoiding particular carriers). Sometimes agents are mean, and sometimes policies suck (but they’re usually industry-wide). It’s a relaxing thing to remember: whether a flight is terrible or awesome, it’s mostly in my head.


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