Archives For Ideas

What’s The Big Idea?

Matt Harris —  October 4, 2013 — 4 Comments

Perhaps I’m just simpleminded, but one of the most important things I look for in a company is the ability to summarize the problem they are solving in one sentence.  Often, at the outset, I’m less interested in solutions than problems; I want to be asked a question that stops me in my tracks.  At the heart of most transformative companies is a simple question, and once you’ve heard that question you are instantly convinced that there has to be a better way.

Starting with a question, rather than with a solution, gives you a telling diagnostic for the magnitude of the problem.  Way too many companies start with a solution and go looking for a problem, and as a result end up without anyone who really needs what they are selling.  Perhaps the most acute example of this in financial services is the current obsession with mobile wallets at point of sale.  “Why can’t I pay for something with my cell phone?” is about as much of a burning question as “Why can’t my dog speak French?”; both things would be cool but aren’t exactly mission critical.

Here are some examples from the industries I follow:

  • Square/Braintree/Stripe:  Why can’t most merchants take credit and debit cards?
  • Xoom/iSend:  Why are international remittance fees 10% of the value being transferred?
  • Taulia/Tradeshift/Billtrust:  Why are most business to business payments made by paper check?
  • Wealthfront/SigFig:  How can the asset management industry extract so much value while significantly underperforming index funds?
  • CAN/Kabbage/OnDeck:  Why do banks underwrite small business loans using the business owner’s credit score?
  • The Climate Corporation:  Why can’t we predict the weather?
  • Bluebird/Moven/Simple:  Is it necessary for banks to charge fees?
  • Paypal/Dwolla:  Why is it so hard to move money around?
  • SoFi/Common Bond:  Why do all student loans have the same interest rate?
  • ZipCar/RentTheRunway:  Why do we have to own expensive goods that we use infrequently?
  • Yapstone/Plastiq/Zipmark:  Why do I still pay my rent with a paper check?
  • DriveFactor/CellControl:  Why do good drivers subsidize bad drivers?

Once you have your question, then you can do the required research to find out the answer.  Sometimes the answer is a brick wall, but other times the answer points towards a solution.  Frequently, as you can see from my answers below, there have been legitimate blockers to a solution historically, but advances in technology newly allow hard problems to be solved.  When you find a circumstance like this, a painfully acute problem that was historically intractable, but due to new innovations is now solvable, please email me.

My Answers:

  • Payments acceptance:  Primitive and stodgy underwriting needlessly excludes many low risk merchants; legacy hardware creates a prohibitive fixed cost for low volume merchants.
  • Remittance expense:  Cash handling, both on the send and receive side, is wildly expensive.
  • Paper in B2B payments:  There is tremendous inertia, driven by workflow on both the AP and AR side.  [This will not be solved quickly]
  • Value destruction in asset management:  In the absence of clear data, investing choices have been driven by brand preference vs. rational analysis.
  • FICO scores in small business lending:  Historically it has been the only scalable and low cost way to underwrite a sub-$100,000 loan.
  • Weather prediction:  The data capture and analysis problem has been too large and expensive to solve.
  • Banking fees:  Banks have to support a very expensive branch infrastructure, as branch location has historically been the primary decision factor for consumers in selecting a bank.
  • Money movement:  The four party payment model and the resulting interchange economics were built to compensate issuers for credit transactions and have been inappropriately applied to other types of money movement.
  • Student lending:  Government driven programs are slow to change, and as a society we have issues with financial discrimination relative to education (and health care.)  [This may still end up being a problem]
  • Sharing economy:  The transaction costs in rental models have outweighed the benefits in the absence of inexpensive real time communication networks and scale infrastructure investments.
  • Checks in rent payment:  Landlords have mini-monopolies once renters move in, and therefore lack motivation to sacrifice any economics to make payments easier.
  • Auto insurance:  Collecting information on safe vs. risky driving has historically been impossible.

Orthogonal Feedback

Matt Harris —  March 7, 2011 — 3 Comments

source: http://rmstar.blogspot.com

I was meeting with some entrepreneurs last week, a terrific young team with an interesting company, and we were discussing their business. About halfway in, I said “Okay, let’s assume that most of this works, and you get some traction. What far fetched ideas do you have to truly create a massive company here?” The team slyly looked at each other and came out with some really interesting stuff. I joined in and had some extremely random ideas that, if they pursued them, would send them in very different directions. Some of it was pointless, and maybe all of it will get thrown out once the excitement of the meeting wears off, but I hope not.

I wish I did this kind of thing more, and I wish more investors did also. Obviously most entrepreneurs come to meet with VCs to get money, but most VC/entrepreneur meetings don’t end up with a check being written … as an example, we invest in far less than 1% of the companies we meet with (most of reasons have to do with our strategy, not the quality of the company). Given that, entrepreneurs should get something, at least. Most often what they get is a sense for what the market is looking for, eg, “mobile payments are really hot right now.” Hearing that once is modestly useful; hearing it a dozen times is distracting and annoying.

I think most VCs focus on sharing that kind of market feedback because they think that’s what’s expected. VCs are not necessarily supposed to have ideas, after all. In my experience, though, most VCs do have interesting ideas, if only as a function of sitting in meetings with smart, hyper-creative entrepreneurs all day long. If you live in a tinder box, you can’t help but have a few sparks once in a while.

[As an aside, if you’re wondering why VCs don’t typically start companies given my claim that they have good ideas, I think there are two reasons, if you’ll allow me some vast generalizations. First, VC ideas are often riffs on an existing play, albeit hopefully novel and not incremental (in my lexicon, orthogonal in some way). Second, the real difference between VCs and entrepreneurs is that entrepreneurs are execution machines, and VCs … not so much. And finally, there are some former VCs who’ve done well, most famously Mark Pincus, but I’m also bullish on Matt Warta, Dan Allen and others.]

So this is my new resolution: that each entrepreneur I meet with walks away with one or two new ideas that at least serve to stretch her thinking a bit. If they get that much from each of the investors they meet with, I’m certain the fundraising process will eventually lose its bad name.

The first task of a revolutionary is figuring out which buildings to burn down.

In that same sense, the first task of an entrepreneurial firm is to figure out what of the existing order to keep, and what to challenge. This is first in a long series of posts (possibly as many as two) riffing on the analogy of entrepreneur as insurgent and traditional big company as the corrupt regime in power. This will eventually be turned into a book, which you can pre-pre-order by sending me $100 right now. i take Paypal, Facebook credits, Zipmark, Dwolla, Venmo, Waspit, etc.

In the event that anyone is offended by the analogy or glib tone of this essay, and feels inclined to point out that it is an insult to liken an entrepreneur, who risks merely her time and treasure, to an Egyptian, Tunisian or Libyan revolutionary, who risks everything … mea culpa. As to tone, I am a dealer in snark, and when all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. As to the analogy, I am gobsmacked by the courage of these young iconoclasts in the middle east, and thrilled by the way they take courage from each other; I can’t help but be reminded of the daring entrepreneurs I am lucky enough to work with.

The essential triumvirate in any insurgency includes the insurgent (entrepreneur), the regime (incumbent big company competitor) and the people (customers/users). The goal of the insurgent is build a movement that leverages his own strength against the regime’s weakness, all in the context of the hopes, dreams, wants and needs of the people. There are many stages to this thing, but the first stage involves getting into the fray and becoming relevant. that inevitably entails some mayhem, and hence this post: if you’re a revolutionary, out on the streets in the early days of an insurgency, which buildings do you burn down?

The initial temptation is to tear it all down, and build a utopia unconstrained by the baggage of the past. This is almost always a mistake. In particular, it’s a mistake not to at least dig deep into the current structure of how things are done, and then when rejecting elements of it, do so from an informed perspective. Even companies that represent radical new ideas leverage existing behaviors and habits. Think of twitter, a company i think we can all agree asked users to engage in a brand new human activity. What are the options you have when you “receive” a tweet? Basically, you can reply, reply all, forward, ignore or delete. Twitter uses its own vernacular, and certainly the fact that it is semi-public is a departure, but it fundamentally builds on heuristics that are deeply familiar from email (and, before that, corporate voicemail). Where possible, don’t destroy or take on those conventions and institutions that you can co-opt and leverage. You may damage the regime, but you’ll also damage yourself, in that you will certainly not delight the people. You don’t burn down the hospitals.

The second category of institution that you can choose to destroy are those that do represent a chance to win favor with the users, but will engender negative consequences from outside the immediate ecosystem. One of the portfolio companies we are very excited about is BankSimple. This is a company that operates in a heavily regulated industry, and is therefore properly cautious to remain within the bounds of what is considered kosher by the regulators. It would be enormously liberating to ignore these constraints, and in fact you could build a retail banking experience that would be absolutely kick-ass if you dispensed with things like Know Your Customer, fraud management and NACHA compliance (I won’t go into it but it’s not something you want at a Superbowl party). You can’t, and shouldn’t. You would hurt the incumbent competitors in the short term, and the customers would be wildly in favor, but forces larger than you would come down hard. You don’t burn down the US Embassy.

Next come the special interests, which exist any society … the privileged classes, the industrialists and landed families who own the factories and the real estate. These are people who have done well by the old regime, and will probably root against you, but who you need, as they control the means of production and have legitimacy (at least some) in the eyes of the people. The answer here depends how radical you want to be. One of our companies, Quirky.com, is clearly revolutionary. Quirky permits designers and investors to collaborate to create products, which Quirky then manufactures and sells. This type of crowdsourced innovation is new to the world and incredibly exciting, and is destined to disrupt the traditional relationships between consumer goods manufacturers and their distribution channels. Why, then, is Quirky also working with traditional retailers like Bed, Bath & Beyond? There is some good analysis here, but the basic answer is that it doesn’t usually make sense to try to innovate all the way up and down the chain when you can leverage some parts of the existing infrastructure. Quirky, at least, has decided not to burn down the office buildings.

Then you have the hard choice regarding the existing justice system. Do you set everybody free? “Free” is kind of a magic word these days, in entrepreneurial circles. The prevailing wisdom is to charge nothing, build a user base, and then “monetize” them. Similarly, when a society’s jails contain both real criminals and good people deemed enemies of the state, it is tempting to let them all free, and figure you can sort out the criminals later. But both of these things are very dangerous to the market dynamics. “Free” is a tough genie to put back in the bottle (also works if you substitute “hardened criminal” for “free” and “jail” for “bottle”.) One of our most exciting companies is called Extreme Reach, which is taking on a dominant incumbent in the video distribution business. It was tempting, at the outset, to compete on price. Instead, Extreme Reach built a technology that let them compete on quality, service and flexibility, maintaining the prevailing price structure. As they now rapidly take share, I can tell you that it’s awfully nice to be getting paid while doing so. There are many, many compelling counter-examples on the consumer side, all of which have built massive audiences by starting out, and largely staying, free. I would say, in general, that revolutionaries do burn down the prisons.

What do you do about the state controlled media? This, after all, is where the people have been getting their information for decades. Can you afford to destroy it, rather than co-opt it and use it for your own purposes? I think this one is increasingly clear. New movements demand new media, and can leverage the hell out of it. Examples here are too numerous to name, both in the insurgency world and the entrepreneurial world, but suffice it to say that getting a seat on Oprah’s couch is now less valuable, for most companies, than a retweet by Chris Sacca. Definitely burn down that state-run TV station.

Finally, there are those elements of the ideology that aren’t just wrong, they are representative of all that is wrong, the root of all evil. They may be lovely, or useful, or valuable, but they just must go, if the revolution is to have any legitimacy. One of our companies, On Deck Capital, has built a platform to enable lending to small businesses. In the last 3 years, they have lent over $100MM to Main St small businesses, with exceptional credit performance. The thing I love most about their model is that they basically ignore the FICO score, that antiquated and creaky credit scoring methodology that was one of the prime causes of the credit crisis. Both in reality, and in the realm of perception, you can’t build a “new” system that relies on emblematic elements of the old. Down with FICO; Up with On Deck! You burn down the secret police building, you burn down the torture chambers, and you burn down the presidential palaces!

In a World With No Sevens…

Matt Harris —  January 14, 2011 — 1 Comment

The Judgment of Paris

As the anecdote goes, a group of women is sitting around discussing recent conquests. One turns to another and asks her to characterize her latest flame on a scale of 1 to 10, but adds “now remember, we’re in a world with no 7s.”

Think how elegantly that puts the answerer on the spot. In my experience, anything reasonably good is always a rated a 7. Forcing yourself to go with either a 6 or an 8 is hard to do … on one side is wheat, and the other, most assuredly chaff. A 6 is only 20% better than average, while an 8 is only 20% away from perfection.

[As an aside, the other ridiculous human tendency in these matters is to add a .5 to whatever scale is offered. 1-5? You will definitely get a 3.5 in the mix of answers (of course, that is the equivalent of a 7). Even 1-10 will produce some 4.5s and 8.5s. People, if we wanted .5s, we would double the scale. We get it … 8.5 out of 10 is 17 out of 20. That wasn’t the question.]

I was thinking about this recently as we analyzed our portfolio companies. We haven’t ever really put it in these terms, but we have a good “no sevens” culture at our firm, thankfully. The temptation is to conclude that most all of your companies are doing well, are “largely on plan” and “our initial investment thesis holds, despite some bumps in the road”. The fact is, some companies are continually raising your eyebrows in a good way, and others in a not so good way, and deep down you usually know it. Having said that, things change quickly in our business, and you really do not want to go negative too early. But there are important issues on the table and decisions to be made, about where you invest your follow-on capital and your time, and “sevens across the board” doesn’t help you to do that. Some firms force rank their portfolios, or have each partner force rank his or her companies; we don’t do either, we just push each other to avoid the banal 7.

This is important for entrepreneurs as well. The most obvious application is in evaluating or hiring your team. GE famously force ranked and fired their bottom 10%. If I thought the evaluation techniques were good enough, I could endorse that; inevitably, they are not. But some flavor of that kind of rigor is vital, to avoid the gentleman’s 7, as it were. I think this can be applied to a company’s pipeline of customers, its funding options, partnership opportunities, etc. Anywhere there are prioritization questions, force yourself to truly separate … it is too easy, and all too human, not to.

Power vs. Influence

Matt Harris —  November 19, 2010 — 2 Comments

Earlier in my career I worked at a large private equity firm (in my view, one of the great ones: Bain Capital), and for the last 13+ years I’ve worked in early stage venture capital. Those two ways of investing, ie buyouts vs. early stage venture, have lodged in my mind the subtle distinction between power and influence.

As a general matter, private equity or buyout firms purchase 100% of their portfolio companies, while venture firms purchase minority positions (though over time and across syndicates, venture capital ownership in aggregate often exceeds 50%). In one sense, the difference between 25% ownership and 100% ownership is just a math difference, particularly when you consider the various “control provisions” many VCs put into their terms, in practice the difference in governance style is (or at least should be) radically different.

I was reminded of this distinction twice yesterday. The first was in a conversation with a search and HR consulting firm, whom I greatly respect. This particular firm works nearly exclusively with private equity funds, but in this case was interested in working with one of our portfolio companies. It slowly became obvious to me that the firm thought they were in my office to make the sale, ie, that I was positioned to decide to use them for a search at one of our portfolio companies. I hastened to make it clear to them that they were in the wrong office, and that the team at the company would make the decision, and at most I would have input, or influence. The second conversation was with an outside director candidate, where similarly I had to make it clear that while my opinion mattered, ultimately we were looking to the management team to lay out a strategy for building an effective board, with our guidance.

I would contrast this with the typical process at a private equity firm, where quite literally the management teams at the portfolio companies work for the private equity folks. That’s a fine arrangement, and probably appropriate for more mature companies, but that would be a terrible outcome for an entrepreneurial, venture-backed company. Any entrepreneur who wants a “boss”, in that sense, is probably not the right person to execute the kind of high risk, high growth innovation that is the underpinning of a successful venture.

The fact is, there is really no sense in which any of my CEOs work for me. From a user experience perspective, most of the time it presents as though I work for them … most of my job consists of helping them meet their objectives, rather than the other way around. (Though, of course, by helping them meet their objectives I sneakily achieve mine, which is to own good-sized chunks of valuable companies.)

While proudly acknowledging that I don’t have any real power, I do think in most cases I have a reasonably amount of influence. I guess, to paraphrase WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, I am the dog in the scenario above. Management teams clearly have the prerogative to go against any opinions I may have, and all of my good ones commonly do that. But it is the case that the stakes of doing so and consistently being wrong about it grow higher over time. Hopefully, in addition, I’ve gained some level of influence just by having a degree of credibility with regard to certain aspects of building companies in my lane (financial services industries).

Lest anyone read this as a venture capitalists currying favor with entrepreneurs (not that I’m above that…), I should admit that my strategy here isn’t just about being a good guy and empowering management teams as a value in and of itself. I do it because I think it’s more likely to make money. Ultimately, my view is that power and accountability go hand in hand. To the extent to which I, as a director and venture capital investor, am making decisions at or for one of my portfolio companies, I am taking on accountability for the outcomes. To the extent to which I take on accountability, I am removing it from the management team. My view is that accountability shared is accountability lost, and a lack of accountability is the first step on the road to ruin.

Predictions

Matt Harris —  October 20, 2010 — 8 Comments

I think that, sometime soon, people are going to stop making predictions.

Actually, tragically, that isn’t likely to happen. Human beings are seemingly irrepressible predicting machines, in that it is a way to sound intelligent without anyone being able to immediately call bullshit. By the time the future arrives, most people don’t care enough to back-test you. I was jolted into reconsidering this issue by the recent news from England, that they are going to go into austerity mode in order to reduce their national debt. Personally, this feels smart to me, in a “I’m no expert but isn’t balancing your books a good idea?” kind of way, but you can definitely find any number of economists violently committed to either side of the debate.

This is an old story, but it bear repeating: At the start of the year, a stockbroker sends a letter to 1,000 prospective clients, each containing his recommended “best pick” for the coming month. He sends a different ticker symbol to each of 10 groups of 100 prospects. In February, after 5 of the 10 stocks perform above average, he targets those 500 remaining prospective clients, further dividing them into 5 groups and repeating the trick. By June, assuming the same level of performance (ie, 5 of 10 picks perform above average), he has 30-odd prospective clients who think he’s a genius. Rinse and repeat, and you’re in business.

How different is that from Roubini and the rest of the economists out there? The bulls were right for the better part of a decade, until they were horrifically wrong, and the bears have famously predicted 7 of the last 2 recessions. Maybe it was always thus, or maybe it’s newly true, but I think at this point we can conclusively say this: the world is too complicated to predict. There are too many variables to fit in any one model. Just focus on what you know, do a good job, try to add value, say/do something novel, don’t listen to the experts, and you’ll be fine.