October 15, 2007

Entrepreneurs against the abolition of taper relief

I don't want to use this blog for politics (believe me, if you get me started, I'm not likely to stop).


If you want to see the entrepreneurial climate in the UK continue to thrive, please sign up to this this Facebook group.

What's it all about?

In the recent pre-budget report, the labour government has decided to scrap business-asset taper relief. This is bonkers. Why?

If you are an entrepreneur and you sell your company you currently pay 10% on the capital gain.  The new rules will see this roughly double.

Various British governments from both parties have tried a series of initiatives to encourage entrepreneurialism, recognizing that it is a core driver of growth. Some have been failures (Uni Challenge funds, VCTs) but others have been successful, namely the taper relief (tax benefits for entrepreneurs), EIS scheme (tax benefits for angels) and EMI scheme (tax benefits for employees).

What are they thinking?  That they need do no more for British entrepreneurs?  Well sure we're doing pretty well compared to 10 years ago, but we've still got a long way to go.

Please do sign up.

October 04, 2007

The Ebay Skype write down is bad news for venture capital

Since ebay admitted that, really, they messed up with Skype, there is an amusing opportunity for the vcs who passed on investing into Skype 3 years ago due its lack of revenue model to say "I told you so".  It would not be the first time that the vc community thinks its a lot smarter than the listed markets.

But why does the Skype write down worry me? Surely, I hear people say, the vcs shouldn't care. They got in and out and made some good money.

This is quite wrong.

The point is that we will all need to sell a number companies into listed web companies.

We want their acquisitions to make them money so they come back to us for more.

The FT does a good job of comparing the terrible Skype acquisition with the wonderful myspace acquisition which has made lots of money from Newscorp.

A pity they can't all be like Newscorp.

I also think Nic is missing the point.  it's not what you can auction them up to in the short term, it what value these businesses create over the longer term.

I REALLY REALLY hope that CBS eventually turns a terrific profit line from Last.FM .  And I really hope, not that Facebook sells for $10bn but that Facebook creates real value. Real revenues and real profits for an acquiror or for retail investors at IPO.  Without real value being created, over the longer term VCs will be on shaky ground.

September 19, 2007

The Post-Google VC

I have been spending some time with some great entrepreneurs across Europe as part of the FOWA Road Trip and yesterday in Copenhagen was no exception.

In particular it was great spending some time with Nikolaj Nyholm and Nicolaj Reffstrup.

Nikolaj Nyholm made one comment to an entrepreneur which really resonated with me.  To paraphrase:

“You need to raise money from a post-Google VC.  An investor who has lead a company in the last 5 years since Google has been so dominant.”

At one level this is another contribution to the discussion of what makes a great VC (I will leave that one to Fred et al.)

It is, however, of far more significance for entrepreneurs with a web app or offering.

Working for Reevoo and Glasses Direct, both very different businesses, taught me the significance of distribution, and the dominance of Google.  Some examples:

You need first rate SEO?  That will be >£100k p/a for a 19 year old whiz kid.  Someone who will be impossible to manage but can transform your business with organic traffic.

You need to bolster traffic in certain niches?  That’ll be a potentially bottomless pit of adword spending.  (Particularly true if you’re late to a competitive market: look at the differential in adword spend between gocompare, moneysupermarket and confused)

That’s not to mention the possibility of Google using some of their warchest of come after your particular market.

Many entrepreneurs are so focussing on building such a great offering that they also assume virality of distribution is inherent or inevitable.  Unfortunately its not that easy, and Nikolaj is dead right to warn that getting help from people who “get it” is crucial.

September 17, 2007

Calling Copenhagen: Entrepreneurs & Angels

Are you based in Copenhagen and doing something cool on the web? If so come on down to the FOWA Road Trip tomorrow at The DublinerRyan Carson has put together some cracking evenings to date each with a whole bunch of great people. It’s sort of like Open Coffee but with beer, more entrepreneurs, more angels and local VCs (apart from us ).

If you wanna have a word or meet up before hand.  Ping me.

September 02, 2007

Why you can’t trust BT (off topic)


In the last 2 months I have bought and set up BT broadband and BT Vision. BT is woeful.  One simple reason.  Lack of trust.

BT just don’t get it. Start-ups do.

I think I’m qualified to talk about this. I spend all day registering on betas from start-ups.  Giving personal information. Gambling my laptop’s security by downloading new applications. 

And yet, I have NEVER had an issue with malware, data sharing etc (admittedly running joost and spotify at once screwed me up but this is a result of the machine’s lack of power).

So why my issue with BT?

1)    BT screws my setup.
In order to get the BT wireless you have to install the CD.  The CD installed loads of unwanted apps, changes my defaults to a proprietary Yahoo browser, and also Yahoo messenger. Lesson: BT forces  crappy software on you that you jut don’t want.

1)    BT gave me a virus.
I then get the sasser virus ( lsass.exe).  I find out this can only be transmitted by Yahoo messenger.  I don’t use Yahoo messenger. I don’t want Yahoo messenger.  Now £800 of laptop gives up the ghost.  Lesson. BT gives you viruses.

3) BT marketing is, like, so last 1990s.
I had to sign up to an additional package for one month in order to get the PVR “BT Vision V-box” (which by the way makes a piercing whining noise louder than my 3 week old daughter).  Whilst a slightly odd offer, I talk to the awful BT call center and look online at the football package. I read: 
“What is BT vision sport? 46 live Barclays Premier League games”
I go for “Standard sports” package where I get  “125 Coca-Cola Football League and Carling Cup games, plus archive sport”.
This sounds good.  I can see Southampton FC win the championship live and watch live premier league game.
… guess what this doesn’t transpire.  It’s not live and its only the odd game. 

BT have succeeded in over-promising and under-delivering.  I’m not just disappointed but I’m now actively opposed to them. I hate BT’s call centers.  I hate BT’s marketing. I hate BT’s PVR. I hate BT’s crappy software. 

And then my dad tells me that he doesn’t use the web much because he doesn’t trust it.  Well you sure as hell can’t blame the developers or the entrepreneurs.  You can blame BT.

What stuns me is how BT, with all its heritage and marketing campaigns and brand consultants can mess up something so fundamental as trust?  Seedcamp 2007 commences tomorrow where loads of start-ups are spending time with corporates to learn some of their secrets. 
I hope BT come and I hope at the marketing sesion they listen to the startups rather than try to impart any of their marketing “magic”.

August 21, 2007

Why you probably don’t need venture capital

VCs are looking for freaks.  Wierdos.  We long to see mutants: companies that are not normal.

VCs are looking for category definers.  Companies that return five or ten times their investment.  This is weird. It is not normal to build a company that will grow from zero to $1bn in four years.  Yet, it can happen and this is the potential that most investors look for.

Saul Klein has been saying some excellent stuff recently from about how it IS possible to build billion dollar companies in Europe.  The presentation  he gave at Nextweb was a great motivational rallying call to us all.

European entrepreneurs should be going after the massive opportunities. 

But I want to remind entrepreneurs that its also OK to not raise VC.  There are loads and load and loads of great businesses that shouldn’t touch the VC world.  These companies can still make the founders rich.  Just probably not as rich as the founders of Skype.  Nor have the rewards of Last.fm at such a young age.

What are the reasons not to raise VC.  Why not?
·    VC is the most expensive money you can get.  This is a fact.  The cost of debt is lower than the cost of equity and venture carries the highest risk premium of all.  This means that you have to give up BIG CHUNKS of your company. (Nic has recently written on how important it is to get right the amount you raise at the first round.  My point is, however you do it, it's expensive). 
·    You can’t get big enough. Remember that VCs need 5 – 10 times their investment.  Ask yourself; can your web app really be worth $500mn? 

Ryan Carson is a great guy to talk to or read blog post on this.  Some time back, he analysed his DropSend business and realised that he could make a great business out of it.  It would make him money year on year.  Just it wasn’t going to take over the world.  He wouldn't need to riase external finace. Consequently his focus on building a brilliant web app and profitable business has made him very successful.

I chatted to him about this recently and he said his personal metric was 100 million dollars.  Unless he has a business that can sell for more than a yard of US, there’s no way to justify the dilution.

He also pointed out it’s a personality thing.  From some entrepreneurs there is great pride in keeping it small. It’s also a question of risk.  If you have the risk profile to keep betting the farm on three cherries you are right for VC (explanation).

So you should only really be looking to raise VC if
·    You need the brand, network and advice of a marquee investor
·    The market opportunity is massive.  Ridiculous. Whitespace.
·    You can’t do it off cashflow or debt.

For these companies, VC is a wonderful option because rather than having to re-mortgage the house and invest, what Fred Wilson calls “divorce equity, lack of sleep equity, gaining 15 lbs equity”  you can take someone else’s cash and risk that.  VCs can also offer loads of additional help in terms of sage advice (what not to do!) introductions and network.  Lots of our portfolio businesses also enjoy the additional credibility of having a marquee investor to show off about: it helps to gain credibility with certain partners.

If you still think you raise VC that’s great.  Drop me a line.

August 16, 2007

Why we love seedcamp

Seed Camp

I am back to work this Monday and have a stack of seedcamp applications to process.

I think there are two particularly exciting things about Seedcamp:

1) Ecosystem

Seedcamp is a terrific opportunity for some young and bright entrepreneurs to spend a week meeting the most incredible set of people.(This speech and this link gives a flavor on the board, but I understand Saul will soon be revealing some incredible mentors flying in).

The power of a network is fascinating.  Some people seem to think that it’s an end in itself.  I don’t agree. 

A network is not a set of business cards.  A network is not someone you’ve met once at a rabid networking do.

The best people I know, I have worked with.  Working in their company, with their board, negotiating a deal on the same side or the opposite side of the table. Sharing my opinion and experience.  Having it shouted down, debating and sometimes being listened to ;)

What is wonderful is that the successful seedcampers will get to meet a cracking set of people and engage with them. Hearing their opinions and experiences inside successful businesses.  Strongly disagreeing, debating and sometimes agreeing;  The closest thing to actually working with them.

2) Thinking big

Seedcamp gives entrepreneurs the opportunity and a very supportive environment to think big. 

I am a strong believer that the “go big or go home” mentality is absolute rubbish. Entrepreneurs should not feel obliged to manically strive to create businesses that change the world.  Its just not the right path for some people, some business models or some risk profiles.

However, if you don’t consider how you can build your idea into a billion dollar business at the start, its very hard to turn it into one halfway through. If you don’t “just go for it” when you’re young, it’ll be much harder when you have a mortgage and a nice car to drive to a comfy job at a business park in Bracknell.

That’s why I’m excited about seedcamp.

April 19, 2007

European Venture Capital: What have we learned?

Now that I am no longer an advisor (albeit still on gardening leave) I can look back with some detachment on the whole process of raising capital or selling your company.  I want to do two posts: what does the VC market looks like today, and to answer the question, what is it with advisors anyway?

The market today:

Over the last 8 years I have been privileged to work with some incredibly talented management teams and entrepreneurs.  Through-out each process I have sat through some meetings with remarkably astute, insightful and experienced VCs and corporate acquirers and also some incredibly rude and clueless investors.   (I have also met a similarly diverse range of entrepreneurs!)

Let me focus on VC: I will cover M&A in another post.

I think that the European VC scene is a notably better place and that  THNGS ARE GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME. 

  • The ecosystem for entrepreneurs is getting better: from uni spin-out hubs & clubs to booze fuelled dinner table debates.
  • The quality and segmentation of investors is getting better; from international success-stories like Index to small, ultra focussed funds like Eden Ventures. 
  • The DIALOGUE is getting better; I doff my cap to initiatives like open coffee club which fosters mutual understanding. I believe VC –entrepreneur relationships are far less adversarial and far more informed than they were 8 years ago. (Fred has a nice angle on this too)

It is this last point that raises the question: what is the point of advisors? Let me explain. In the bay area there are no corporate finance houses running Series A B or C rounds.  This is done in-house, by an NED or maybe by the lawyer. European VCs ask me: why do European entrepreneurs need people like First Capital?  I will turn to that in the next post.