Balancing Conventional Wisdom

There is a lot of conventional wisdom out there. Most people are happy to share even when not asked to do so..

And often it sounds really smart. I am referring to the kind of things that just make sense when you hear them. For example:

Founder A is looking to raise money for their startup. They will ask fellow founders, friends, family, investors, read blog posts and listen to podcasts. She will hear statements like the following:

Take whatever you can raise. Raising $1M is the same work as raising $2M or $10M so raise more if you are already raising.

Diligence your potential investors. Be sure they add value beyond capital and that they will be there for you during the hard times and not just the good times.

Raise only what you feel is completely necessary. Grow through hustle and hard work to create value that will be recognized in the next round’s valuation terms.

These three statements all make sense but could actually be contradicting each other. The best board member may not have the deepest pockets. The more capital you raise, the faster you can grow, right? Or are hustle and grit more important?

Let’s take this one step further.

Investor B is considering an investment. In “VC school” they were taught the following:

Never miss investing in a great company because of valuation.”

Be sure to make the numbers work because it is all about returns to your LPs through your ownership percentage.

Both are really important points. Which often contradict each other. This exacerbates the challenge faced by our Founder A above as she tries to develop her fund raising strategy and navigate the process, balancing the feedback she receives from each pitch.

Creating a balance and clear path from all of this good advice, is not simple. It is the “art” part of venture capital. Different funds have offered alternative approaches to solving this.

The large firms – A16Z or First Round Capital – have done a great job of creating value beyond their capital and an ability to support companies long-term. They are truly great investors and not just a brand name. But these types of offerings are limited to large funds who generously invest portions of their management fees (the larger the fund the more fess there are to go around) towards creating these support systems for their portfolio companies.

Smaller funds need to be more creative. A lot of the value is added through the active involvement of the investing partners themselves, with limited support staff if any. This makes the balance a lot trickier. I really like the approach created by Founder Collective (and now copied by many other small funds including SapirVP) by which they focus on getting all their capital in early and then position themselves to be diluted alongside the founders. This creates an alignment that I have found valued by most founders. In return the founders are willing to give up a little more equity in the early round so as to have such an investor onboard and in their corner for the subsequent rounds. 

Both approaches focus on value-add investing. These were the best type if investor I’ve worked with and from whom I learned much. Now it is our turn to provide this for the next generation of great founders.

I think it is important for Founder A to remember that when an investor says that they are “founder friendly” that does not necessarily mean that they are exactly on the same page. There are different interests at play. Maintaining this balance is not simple and can often derail an investment process. As I am constantly reminded. But when the balance is established great achievements can be realized together.

For further reading on this topic I suggest Jeff Bussgang’s Mastering the VC Game.

Musings from a second lockdown…

We have now been in our second lockdown for 2 weeks and we have at least another two weeks to go. While our work is being done differently, it has not slowed down. On the contrary, we are finding ourselves busier than ever with even more to juggle. Despite no need to commute.

Since we are at the mid-way point of this lockdown period (we hope!), I thought it might be a good time to stop and reflect. Here are some observations and musings from my mind wandering. I welcome your feedback and perspective.

  • Deals are getting done in the VC world. Valuations are down but some may say this is just a “correction”. That is ok as long as we aren’t slashing valuations just because we can. Rather it should reflect companies adjusting to COVID and understanding the long-term impact on their market. In some industries that might actually raise a company’s valuation (Amazon? Zoom?).
  • As long as the players continue to act in good faith then good deals should get done. Founders need to be a little more modest and investors need to be a little less greedy. Don’t forget, this is a repeated game and long-term brand matters.
  • Real estate is going to change. Across the board and across geographies. I should have bought into many of the deals I have seen the past couple of years but passed on because “I wasn’t doing real estate…” – invest early and often. The secret of compounding.
  • Remote work will remain significant, but I don’t think we will eliminate offices entirely. The adoption of tools and new practices was accelerated but so are the downsides to it. We will not all just work from home going forward. But more of us will, even if just part of the time.
  • EdTech is more complicated. Thank God I am married to a licensed teacher who wasn’t actually practicing that craft when COVID hit. She is home shepherding our kids through classes and assignments while not actually needing to teach a class remotely herself. Teachers and students need to be back in a classroom. That is, until we can actually bring a virtual classroom experience to the home (pick your futuristic pop-culture reference). Not all learning needs to be done in a classroom – I am glad to see more assignments and work done virtually – but this Zoom thing isn’t working for us.
  • Digital Health is also a different story. Here I think we will see the longest and greatest impact as technologies enabling telemedicine, health operations efficiency, discovery and diagnostics are all being rapidly adopted by an industry which has been reluctant to change. There are many more elements here that I think will stick around once we get past this pandemic. If only for the fear of the next one.
  • As I have written before, for me personally and for my “job”, the lack of in-person meetings has made things more complicated. Sure, I hate sitting in traffic like everyone else. And air-travel gets old quick too. But I miss being able to spend time with people and get to know them. To pick up on the non-verbal cues and body language. See them in their element and in other settings beyond their Zoom-background-of-the-day. I look forward to walking through the labs and “feeling” the team/science/product/culture of each company. I’m even ready to got back to coffee-shop meetings which I had become bored with. Please make my latte soy. Thanks!

New Year Restrictions

In Israel we are on our way into lock-down. Again. Just as the Jewish High Holidays are upon us. A time of coming together to bring in the new year with prayer – giving our thanks for the previous year and sharing hopes for the new one – with family and friends, in synagogues and around our tables… Well, that is not going to happen this year.

While some may argue that this is most fitting considering the past 6 months, it is still frustrating. Frankly, I think we could have done better.

It is easy to blame the government (now that we finally have one!), and some might even say that they prefer this approach as the easy way out. It seems to me that the timing of the lock-down actually makes sense. Besides it limiting the masses customarily coming together, it also takes advantage of the numerous vacation days already built into the Israeli calendar during this time of the year. In their defense, I do realize that this is the first pandemic they have been called on to lead us through. But the numbers are rising quickly and every delay creates a sense of “too little, too late”.

The period leading up to Rosh Hashana – the Jewish New Year – is a period of introspection. Taking stock of where we are and who we are. Compare these with what and who we want to be. Make commitments to do better in the new year… Take personal responsibility for making the world a better place by each doing our part.

“An early lesson I learned in my career was that whenever a large organization attempts to do anything, it always comes down to a single person who can delay the entire project.”

Ben Horowitz
The Hard Thing About Hard Things:
Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers

I look around and I know that we can do better. We must take personal responsibility to adhere to the social-distancing guidelines, while creating personal accountability for the health of others in our communities.

That is the only way we can contain the pandemic, as we continue the search for a vaccine… May it arrive swiftly in the new year so we can start to rebuild – emotionally, economically and, most importantly, together.

Shana Tova! May it truly be a good year of health and prosperity for us all.

Q&A: Fundraising and COVID-19

When the pandemic first started making an impact on our lives back in March, I was scheduled to meet with a team of MBA students out of Tel Aviv University. These students were working on a project with a real company, helping them map the milestones and strategy required to be an attractive investment opportunity for venture capital. At the time, things were already in flux and there was no clear path forward. Elana Benedikt created a good summary of our interview and I had intended to post it here…

Last week I participated in an open Q&A session for the MassChallenge Israel 2020 cohort to discuss seed stage investing. While some of the questions were the standard fare – what is the difference between Seed and Series A? What is a pre-Seed? when should we approach angels vs micro-funds vs venture funds? etc. – there were definitely several questions directed at the world post-COVID19 and the impact on venture capital at the Seed stage.

I went back to the summary Elana had created and found that it was mostly still very relevant and reflected the conversation from the MC panel last week. So I am (finally) sharing it here. Thank you to Elana for the summary. Thank you to MC and my fellow panelists for the great session.

At the time this blog post is being written the world economy is struggling with the current repercussions and difficulty of future predictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Large corporations, small businesses, and investors are dealing with new dilemmas. In light of that, we wanted to lay out the key aspects of the Israeli venture capital (VC) environment, with its collaborative nature and emphasize important markers for early success, as a service to early stage ventures. We had the opportunity to learn more about Sapir Venture Partners value set and its approach to finding startups and entrepreneurs that show the most potential to impact the world. We set out to hear about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the investment sector and to gain insight into securing future investment. – Elana Benedikt, April 28, 2020

What Can You Tell Us that Makes the Israeli Early-Stage VC Environment Unique?

In the Israeli ecosystem, early stage VCs are very collaborative. Prior to COVID-19, VCs and entrepreneurs would attend many conferences a year in person, exchanging contact information with each other, and establishing relationships. These events are how most early stage VCs hear about new startups in the market and how entrepreneurs meet investors.

Having a warm introduction from a trusted source or connecting at an industry event, is much more impactful and valuable than sending a cold email. Establishing a relationship with a VC prior to sending a proposal is important for an investor to gain insight into the entrepreneurial team and company.

Successful entrepreneurs develop relationships with many different investors and maintain understanding of the specific type of investment that each VC specializes in. Entrepreneurs need to conduct extensive due diligence to truly understand the business model of each VC and the optimal way of approaching them. Each startup business development team member should be networking, actively seeking these investors, and developing meaningful relationships. Once these relationships are established, entrepreneurs need to be selective in maintaining deeper relations with the key investors in their specific industry and who invest at the relevant stage for their company. Additionally, entrepreneurs should understand the general rule which states that they will be “giving up” approximately 20-35% ownership per round in the early stages.

What is Your Viewpoint of the Early Stage VC Market?

An important fact to keep in mind is the number of opportunities VCs receive per year. For larger VCs it is approximately 1,000/year. Most funds invest in only 5-10 startups a year, and most will assume a 3-year deployment period. Each partner of the firm will personally be active in 5-6 startups at any given time.

Additionally, early stage investing involves significant collaboration between VC firms. This interaction multiplies the size of the network, amplifies ideas, and includes more people adding value. Most early stage rounds will have a single lead investor and other VC firms join as followers but can still contribute to the success of the company through a collaborative approach.

How has the Venture Capital Sector Been Impacted by the COVID 19 Pandemic?

Many investors would say that they are actively looking to invest, even though they may temporarily lack capital, or they prefer to preserve capital for their existing portfolio companies which may require more support. At the early stages we are seeing deals getting a 20% evaluation cut since March 1 2020, and that can be even higher for Series A or Series B companies. Most investors are focused on companies which they had already been engaged with prior to March 1st. Once these deals close, it is difficult to predict how future deals will be initiated and diligence will move forward with limited real-world contact.

What Should Entrepreneurs Do During the COVID 19 Pandemic?

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, investors and entrepreneurs could attend meetings and conferences in person. Today they should be attending as many online networking events as possible, so as to stay relevant and establish relationships with potential investors.

The first step to address during the crisis is to make sure you have enough capital to survive in the short term. Once this is accomplished, secondly focusing on R&D and further developing innovative technologies and solutions. Lastly, you should be prepared to take advantage of the upswing expected when the markets return.

Founders need to be strategic during this time and continue moving their companies forward wherever possible. Despite the challenges. If they can’t be out closing sales then they should focus on R&D and learn from their customers by doing market research to better design their solution. By pivoting away from focusing only on sales, these entrepreneurs can showcase their progress and path to profitability to investors once investing increases again.

A Few Final Quick Tips

If the team has received an offer for investment, there are a few important factors to consider, especially in a time of crisis. There are investors willing to take advantage of entrepreneurs during this difficult time, for example by requesting a larger proportion of equity than they would in a more stable market. Thus, it is imperative to have experienced professionals fully review the term sheet before accepting one from an investor. Another recommendation is to request to be put in contact with other founders in the investor’s portfolio. And reach out to them independently. By doing your due diligence, you’ll be able to identify the best potential fit with an investor and turn down offers that may be challenging partners in your efforts to realize your vision.

Remote Investing

As we begin to create a “new normal” for life with Covid-19 (coronavirus), there is a lot of discussion about how “work” is going to change.

During the peak of the outbreak, to comply with stay-at-home orders, many who could would work from home- did. This was especially relevant for tech companies who already used various collaboration tools to enable long-distance team work. In some cases this transition seemed almost natural. Some even argue that the pandemic has sped up market adoption rates by as much as 10 years for these tools, essentially changing the nature of work as we know it.

It would seem to me, that this can work well for pure software companies. However, for hardware being developed in the shop or biotech being developed in a lab, things are a little more complicated. Indeed, many parts of the innovation can be outsourced these days, but the core science needs to be done within the company. And, at the end of the day, someone, somewhere, needs to get in the lab to run the experiment and record the results. Most of us cannot do this at home.

Across our portfolio we have seen different approaches to the work-from-home situation. Anyone who could accommodate did, and most have shared only limited dips in productivity or even improvement. This seems to support the research about time wasted in traffic and the stress it creates, taking a toll on the productivity of our teams.

As someone who has been working out of the home office for almost 10 years, this was a non-issue for me. I knew how to hold video conference calls and had a comfortable working environment where I could be productive. I was more than happy to spend less time in traffic or at coffee shops for the two-days-a-week of meetings-in-person schedule which I was keeping. But I do miss visiting the portfolio companies. The insights from being on the ground are vital to providing good counsel to a CEO.

For us, the biggest challenge so far has been the inability to meet with founders of potentially new portfolio companies. It is much harder to assess the passion, conviction and nature of a founder when you only meet virtually. I remember this from my early days as an investor when I was reviewing companies with the team at TechU, where everything was done by video conference. I needed to “feel” the team to get comfortable. So when we set out to start our own fund, we made this a priority. At Sapir VP we are deeply engaged with the founders since we see ourselves as part of their team. We don’t dial-it-in, figuratively or literally.

As such, while we have been very active as investors during the pandemic closing a new investment each month, this may change in the near future. As we move forward with the opportunities we had engaged with before the pandemic locked us at home, and look to move forward with newer opportunities, even the ones we really like, we find harder to commit to. The concern is not about the tech, the market or the terms of a round. Rather it is truly about the people and whether we are a good fit to support them on their journey.

At the moment, we are trying to overcome this hurdle by spending more time with these founders, online. This has slowed down our process. It is frustrating to us just as it must be for the founders we are engaging with. I am sure we will miss out on working with some great teams because of this, but I prefer not to keep them hanging if we can’t get there at the moment.

Show me the “exit”?

Last month, I had what was technically our first “exit” as an investor.

One of our portfolio companies from our angel fund – A2Z Venture Partners – was acquired. This is definitely an exciting event. But the outcome as an investor is still unknown.

I am happy for the founder, who has become a good friend during this journey. And on paper our new holdings reflect a nice return. But it is all still on paper.

The above led me to question some of the data around “time to exit” of startup companies. We all know that companies are staying private longer. And that the tech titans of today created more value for their investors post-IPO rather than pre-IPO.

It used to be a rule of thumb that it was 6 years to success – either to get acquired (aka M&A) or long-term viability through profitability (aka IPO). Crunchbase shared data at the end of 2018 which indicated a very broad range of time-to-exit, depending on the industry, from 5 years and up to 16 years. In Israel, IVC shared data at the end of 2019 showing an average time-to-exit of 7.89 years for VC-backed Israeli companies.

When does this data stop the clock? Is it when the deal closes or when the investors see a capital return?

Based on what I’ve learned so far I would assume the former.

What should I do during a Pandemic?

A month ago we sent out a letter to all of our portfolio companies regarding the novel Coronavirus pandemic (COVID19). Our intent was to show our support, offer practical suggestions and make ourselves available to help them wherever needed.

It is hard to believe that it has only been a month, but the world truly feels like a different place. We recognize that the current situation, while improving, is not going anyway soon. Despite the optimistic voices around the table or on the news. So, as we look to develop long-term strategies and new ways of doing business, we went back to review what we wrote at the time.

Here are some excerpts which we thought are still relevant:

The world is a different place than it was when March 2020 began. We hope that you and your families are safe at home, with plans to stay there until we can overcome this pandemic. I wanted to take this opportunity to share our perspective on the start-up ecosystem and share updates from SapirVP.

I am sure you have all seen the famous “Sequoia letter of 2020”. In a step which mirrored their approach to the downturn of 2008, the experienced firm shared their perspective and recommendations to their portfolio companies. These are good insights and valuable recommendations which I suggest you consider for your companies. The full letter can be found here.

While we are hearing other voices that do not completely align with Sequoia’s, we believe the following:

1. You need to prepare for the worse-case scenario.

2. You need to take advantage of this situation to enhance every aspect of your company.

To break this down to practical considerations: Regarding #1 the assumption needs to be that there will be significant, and potentially long-term, market disruptions on all fronts – customer interest, supply chain and fund raising are the most critical to an early stage venture. Regarding #2 – this is the time to refocus internally on product development, learn the voice of your customer through interviews and position your offerings for better market-fit in a changing world.  We are forced to stop, take stock and adjust.

This is also an opportunity to make improvements to your team – trimming (only) where necessary, cutting those who were not pulling their weight and hiring great talent that was hard to come by just a month ago. Of course, maintaining a positive culture is critical. Our approach has been to frame these steps as a way to boost the company and rally the troops to your mission. Protecting your employees as much as possible (safety and financially) is a solid way to lead by example. Choose to maintain a positive attitude and seek out the opportunities this situation has created.

These times call for swift and decisive actions to preserve what you have built while positioning your company as one of the few still standing, prepared to take advantage of the world post-Covid19 impact.

We all need to adapt. SapirVP remains engaged in evaluating new opportunities and closing investments to which we had committed before the world went into lockdown. But we are also reevaluating investment strategies so as to provide these companies with the best starting position to weather the storm.


Stay safe. Stay healthy.

BBB

Bring Back Blogging.

These are different times we live in. New experiences and new challenges, which bring with them new opportunities. We are forced to stop our lives and reconfigure. This is probably a good thing overall, but the impact will be meaningful. While many focus on the negative, there is also light shining through, highlighting the positive aspects.

I am trying to do what I can during this time. First for my family, and then our portfolio companies, our investors, our local community and the overall ecosystem. With people more available and interested in consuming content, I saw this as an opportunity to begin blogging again. In the spirit of @pmarca in his recent post, I wanted to get back to the feeling of building something again.

Initially we will be digging into some of the ideas and the thinking that we have been sharing in smaller conversations or online workshops. As the content develops and the world continues to adapt and reshape, I expect the content here will do so as well. Hopefully, we can expand our contribution to the ecosystem through this medium.

I look forward to your feedback.

Stay healthy.

Mission: Impossible?

When engaging with entrepreneurs trying to change the world, we look for people who are on a mission. We are not unique in using these buzzwords as many other investors also claim to back “mission driven founders”. So, for the sake of clarity (and transparency in the industry), we wanted to break down what “mission-driven” means to us at Sapir.

Let’s start with the formal definition offered by a Google search:

a formal summary of the aims and values of a company, organization, or individual.
“a mission statement to which all employees can subscribe”

Google

Even with such a simple definition there is already a lot here for us to unpack.

formal summary – indicates it should be crafted with a formal tone and language but in brief form rather than War and Peace.

aims and values – this is the core of the statement as it is the message you are conveying in the to grab the attention of your audience and connect with them around what truly matters.

statement – I recommend one sentence. It can be a long sentence, but the message needs to stay brief.

all… can subscribe – the end product needs to inspire and drive to action.

With this in mind we would like to propose some practical steps to create this monumental sentence so it is deserving of being called a Statement.

1. Define your purpose. What are you setting out to do? How will you be changing the world and making it a better place? Why does the world need your company? Why now? – If you have read our previous posts about your company’s Vision and how to create one then you have already developed this core material.

2. Drill down to first principles. Get specific around what is important to you as far was what you want to achieve and the values that guide you in your pursuit of these aspirations. First principles make it easier to quickly comprehend your message.

3. Create inspiration and drive action. A call to arms, so to speak. This statement will be the rallying call that introduces or reminds the audience of the grander (and longer) vision each time they hear or see it.

4. Iterate until you have a single comprehensible sentence.

Your Missions Statement is not your vision. It is not a grand description of the utopian future you are creating or a list of your core values. It is not even your Why. These are all different components of your corporate culture and each piece plays a different part. I’ll illustrate how you can use your mission statement with a personal story.

After 4 months of basic training and 3 months of advanced training our infantry platoon was stationed at an outpost along the Israel-Lebanon border. Our training had included seminars on ethics and conduct, not to mention the code-of-honor drilled into our minds throughout, balanced with the need for a military force to defend the Jewish people (the IDF is the most moral and ethical military force in the world!). But despite all of this advanced preparation, in every mess hall and briefing room there was a sign that said: “Protect the Northern Towns!”

A brief history can be found here, but ultimately we knew we were there so as to guarantee that civilians living in a town or in a kibbutz a couple of kilometers away could do so peacefully. And yet, every time we walked into the room, we had that super simple three-word statement front and center reminding us of all the other details – values, purpose, training, etc. – without needing anyone to repeat them all again.

The Mission Statement is concise because it can be if there is a strong vision shared in advance which incorporates the grand purpose and core values so it does not need to iterate them again. Rather it is a sentence that reminds those who know already and captures the attention of those who do not yet so they will want to learn more.

It is also important to emphasize that your Mission Statement is not your Elevator Pitch. We plan to discuss the Elevator Pitch in a separate post. The Mission Statement can be part of your Elevator Pitch, but it is still just one sentence so at most it would be 10 seconds worth of your 1 minute elevator ride.

As a final note, you can have multiple mission statements geared towards different audiences. Though the core should remain the same and thus the different versions are similar, the emphasis can be adjusted to best address an employee or a customer or an investor.

Sapir Venture Partners empowers Israeli founders solving grand problems by leveraging deep-technology and cutting-edge science, while holding themselves to core inspirational values with which we align allowing us to provide mentorship at the early stages of their journey to create a positive global impact.

Sapir Venture Partners

This is our mission statement.

Super Vision

In a previous post we discussed the need for a strong Vision as a way to inspire people to join you in your pursuit of making the world a better place. It is an important part of your story which can be used to attract talent, customers and investors.

How do you create your Vision? – We share here a 3-step process to get you started.

First you need to understand what your Vision is. Read this post.

Next, I recommend answering the following 4 questions which I have used with dozens of founders in my sessions at MassChallenge. The best results will come if you can be honest and detailed in your answers.

1. Purpose: What is my company’s reason for existing? Why do what I’m are doing? Why now?

2. Values: Why do it this way? What are the values by which we operate and which will guide us as we pursue our goals? How do we do it better/different than everyone else?

3. Impact: What is the ultimate impact we want to have on the world? What is the utopian future we are creating?

4. Customer: Who is my customer? Why does my customer need me? What do I need to be able to provide so as to allow my customer to benefit from what I offer?

If you are a team of founders then using brainstorming techniques to develop your answers will be very helpful once you have each answered these questions individually.

Some tips for getting good results when answering these questions:

  • Keep it simple and clear
  • Think long-term (5-10 years out)
  • Dream big yet stay rooted to reality
  • Focus on factors that will drive success
  • Make sure you can convey your answers with conviction

The last step is to test and refine till you are happy with your end result. One way to test yourself is to try and define specific goals and metrics by which you can evaluate the realization of your vision. If you can’t identify these yourself then, most probably, others will not be able to do so either. Another test to share your vision with others – family, friends, mentors, etc. – and get their feedback. Did they react with a resounding “can I join you?” or were they more like “ok, good luck!”?

Developing a strong vision for your company will take numerous revisions. It is a process that ultimately tells a story across time – where you have been, where you are today and where you want to be in the future – which requires iteration to both hone the message and learn to convey it passionately.

The final product of these exercises is intended to be a paragraph or two, not necessarily a single sentence or statement. It should be future based – aspirational and motivating. It should be a clear message which drives your business forward. These will in turn be used to further develop your Mission Statement (one sentence) and Elevator pitch (1 minute). We will cover these in future posts.