After 17 years in M&A, Derivatives and Trading, I'm spending my time with young entrepreneurs in and around financial technology and digital media.... Read more »

December 27, 2009

How I Invest

As part of my year-end reflection and 2010 road map, I have been thinking deeply about how exactly I invest. How do I pick the companies and sectors on which to focus? I quickly realized that the principles I applied in the math of derivatives are the same ones I use as a venture investor. In short, I look at everything as a limit: "What does this (company/sector) look like at infinity?" I see most progress as being asymptotic, e.g., there is a period of accelerated development and rapid growth, beyond which gains are much harder and more costly to achieve. The goal is to find businesses at the early part of the rapid growth phase, but where they are close enough to rapid growth that they don't require decades of funding to get there. For instance, if you had invested in machine learning in the 1960s (or natural language processing in the 1980s) back when it held so much promise, you'd have gone bust many times over waiting for commercial success. Does it mean that machine learning and NLP are unattractive fields? No. But if you were 20-40 years early then I'm sure it seemed that way. My goal as an investor is to avoid such delayed gratification.

While other investors invariably have their own language to describe this exercise, I find calculus to be a helpful tool for testing one's assumptions around a particular investment and for providing valuable discipline to avoid "style drift." Though I make the occasional investment to learn about an interesting business or to work with a particular group of investors, my investing is largely characterized by the discipline noted above.

From a process perspective, this generally means that I have a vision of the future "at infinity" and work backwards to identify potential investment candidates. The key for me is once a candidate is identified, are they close enough to the rapid growth phase and is the market sufficiently ready for this growth to take place? How many times have you heard an entrepreneur say "We were just too early." The road is littered with great ideas whose time had not yet come from a commercial perspective. It is this timing issue where I spend a tremendous amount of time on due diligence, reaching out to industry contacts and testing their receptivity (and willingness to buy) the product/technology in question. Does this approach mean I'll miss some huge ideas that were simply on nobody's radar screen? Sure. But is it a more risk controlled way of reaching for big gains? I think so.

So given this approach, what are some of my "visions for the future?"

1. Machine-driven trading will continue to proliferate, and represent a sustained source of alpha.

If my thesis is right, the most attractive opportunities will exist in the following areas:

  • Alternative data. The key question is whether it is more valuable as a distributed vendor product or as a closely-held proprietary product that is traded.
  • Modeling platforms. Most platforms today have the ability to ingest structured, quantitative data. Future platforms will be able to consume and model both structured and unstructured data, and to mash up disparate data sources with a limitless number of systematic trading models. They will also provide for straight-through processing, generating trading instructions and executing trades directly from the modeling platform.
  • Database architecture. The relational database of today will be inadequate to process the massive amounts of unstructured data - in real time - that tomorrow's (and, in fact, some of today's) trading models require. This also encompasses distributed and high-performance computing.
  • Predictive analytics. Extracting insight from large bodies of textual data will challenge current analytical frameworks. New methodologies will arise to meet this challenge. This also includes event notification and anomaly detection, which has relevance for anti-terrorism and anti-fraud applications as well.

2. Tomorrow's ad exchanges will resemble the stock and options markets for equities.

This has implications for liquidity, price discovery and hedging:

  • Aggregated buy- and sell-side ad demand. Fragmented exchanges will be be stitched together, leading to a consolidated view of sell-side inventory and buy-side interest. Price efficiency will skyrocket. Buyers will be able to hedge and speculators will be able to take a view on the direction and volatility of context-specific impressions.
  • Consolidated buy-side optimization platforms. Agencies and brands will have access to platforms that integrate disparate forms of data and metadata, exchange prices and enable ad campaigns to be optimized and ROIs to be calculated. They will control the structuring, buying and monitoring of online ad programs.

3. Social media will simply be called "media," and viewed as a fully-integrated part of the overall media buy.

Distribution, monetization and ROI measurement will be key drivers of success:

  • Apps that aggregate fragmented audiences across Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets.
  • Platforms that facilitate monetization of these fragmented audiences, and deliver a powerful suite of tools for agencies, brands and content owners to use for advertising, promotion and ROI measurement.
  • Tools that enable agencies, brands and content owners to carefully control which ads and promotions are displayed to which audiences, placing reputation protection and control in the hands of those with the brand and relationship equity.
These are but three of the themes I am actively pursuing today. Success is by no means assured: I am banking on a vision of the future which may or may not come to pass. But if the focus is on true seed stage investing, then not to take a bold forward-looking approach is dooming one to derivative and "me too" ideas. This is simply not the way I choose to invest. It isn't fun, and in my opinion won't ultimately yield the greatest profits, either.

December 25, 2009

2009: A Year of Opportunity

2009 entered like a lamb. A tired, wounded lamb. The financial markets were in shambles. Consumer confidence had plummeted. Fear permeated almost every walk of life. Holiday parties a year ago were filled with gallows humor: "Boy, this has been a crappy year. How can things get much worse?" From a public markets standpoint, they did get worse until an abrupt V-turn in April caused both equity and credit markets to soar. Confidence began to creep back into the picture, though the average consumer - as well as the largest venture capitalists - were still feeling a chill from the economic downturn. 2009 is closing on a big up note, with continued strength in the equity markets coupled with some apparent improvement in the labor markets. With rising interest rates in the offing, however, there is still plenty of uncertainty going into 2010 - notwithstanding the historic Wall Street payouts.

From a personal standpoint, I couldn't have imagined how fertile the environment would be for early-stage investment. I personally invested in 12 companies during 2009 across my three areas of focus: financial technology, advertising technology and digital media (only 10 are listed on my IA Capital Partners deal page as two of the companies are in stealth mode). Even more importantly, both my legacy portfolio and my 2009 vintage companies performed well from an operating perspective, notwithstanding the challenging economic environment. Being a small, non-institutional investor with liquidity gave me opportunities to deploy capital at attractive valuations with terrific entrepreneurs without butting heads with larger venture funds. 2009 also saw the rise of the small and nimble venture fund ($15-$40MM), with the ability to write $250-$750K checks and roll up the sleeves to help nascent entrepreneurs succeed. Founder Collective (Domdex, AdSafe Media), Contour Ventures (Ticketfly) and Metamorphic Ventures (OrcaOne) are but three of the VCs in this size range who have been great partners to work with. And while Betaworks isn't technically a fund, I put them into this same camp of hands-on, value-added partner (Bit.ly, TweetDeck, Stocktwits).  I also have had the pleasure to work with some larger venture funds who are willing to invest early in a company's evolution and act like smaller VCs, but with the resources to finance continued growth as circumstances warrant. True Ventures and Foundry Group fall into this category. They have shown me that being larger doesn't mean being impersonal and risk-averse.

While social media might seem over-heated, in many ways it feels as if it is just now coming of age. Buddy Media saw astonishing growth in 2009, fueled by brands' recognition of the importance of social media and the power of ROI-based online campaigns. Ticketfly, which brings state-of-the-art integration of social media and e-commerce to concert venues hit the ground running and is already generating substantial revenues in only its first year. TweetDeck and Bit.ly also witnessed rapid user adoption as Twitter and Facebook continued their inexorable growth, bringing one's real-time presences together in one place and generating valuable data about online trends. TLists has already indexed hundreds of thousands of Twitter Lists, and rendered them easily discoverable through its powerful semantic search technology. It has also brought a suite of powerful List management tools to publishers, including partners such as the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and Huffington Post. And Stocktwits has continued in its mission to bring smart, experienced, action-oriented content to its users and partners such as NASDAQ and Bloomberg.

Like social media, advertising technology has seemed like a field with too many ideas chasing too few scale opportunities, but portfolio companies Invite Media and Domdex have carved out important and valuable niches in the spheres of ad optimization and search re-targeting. My positioning in financial technology has been heavily focused on the systematic/quantitative trading community, having backed Selerity (ultra low latency event notification), Alphacet (high-end quantitative modeling with automated order routing) and my home-grown company Kinetic Trading. Each firm is generating revenues and has momentum going into 2010. I believe that start-ups in predictive analytics, high performance computing, database architecture and event detection will be important areas for investment in 2010.

Thanks to all who helped make 2009 a year to remember. I couldn't have dreamed of working with such a great group of entrepreneurs and co-investors at the beginning of what was shaping up to be a dismal year. Notwithstanding the inevitable macroeconomic challenges of 2010, I am confident and early-stage investment will continue to provide attractive opportunities for those with the vision - and the guts - to take advantage.

December 05, 2009

Thoughts on Taking Venture Money

My (highly intelligent and experienced) friend Chris Dixon just posted on the importance of VC brands. He makes many good points and you should read his perspective. But the issue Chris raises begs a more fundamental question: whether or not to take venture money, and if so, from whom?

There are many variables that come into play. Are you a seasoned and successful entrepreneur? Do you have a functioning product with demonstrable traction? Does your team include a strong founder-technologist with a strong reputation? Taking venture money early is simply not an option for many, if not most, start-ups. If you are a guy like Chris who has already made top institutional investors money (Bessemer, General Catalyst) from a prior start-up (SiteAdvisor, sold to McAfee after 14 months), getting venture backing for your next company (Hunch) is not much of a struggle. But this is the exception and not the rule. And while raising money as a seasoned and successful serial entrepreneur from legacy backers isn't difficult, it is generally a wasteful time-suck pursuing venture money early in the game. This is not the same as "Don't talk to VCs." Absolutely not! VCs are invaluable sources of input, contacts, and pitching experience for the new entrepreneur. These are opportunities not to be missed. But to spend enormous amounts of time trying to raise first-round money from venture investors is almost always a mistake.

So where to go? Strategic angels. Small venture firms and "super angels." Entities, be they firms or individuals, whose charter is to take pre-revenue risk at a fair price and help these nascent companies succeed. At the seed stage it is critical, absolutely critical, to build the right investment syndicate. Getting money from mom, dad and friends is ok, but is not going to deliver the value-added of a strong seed-stage syndicate of professionals who may be tough on valuation, but bring a discipline and culture of support to the venture. Angels and small firms, just like brand-name VCs, can be due diligenced fairly easily. There are a finite number of these people and firms, and they can be tracked down through either VCs, online research or smart networking quite easily. But as is the same with venture firms, warm introductions are critical to getting the right meetings and being taken seriously. Fair or not, reality is that the best of these investors get bombarded with deals, and need to impose filters to effectively manage inbound traffic. And the most powerful filter is receiving a deal from a trusted source. So if you are a start-up seeking seed funding, I'd create my target list of angels and small firms/super angels and work my rolodex like hell to get the right introductions. Otherwise, you are fighting an uphill battle.

Let's say that you've gotten that seed funding, something in the $250K-$1.5MM range, that has helped you prove out the business model, win early customers and generate some revenue traction. And let's say that you are in a capital-efficient business, where you don't need $20MM to ramp growth, but something in the $2-$5MM range. While it may make sense to take more money down the line, this amount is likely sufficient to build a very valuable business at scale (but perhaps not the $100MM+ business that we all dream of). Where should you get this Series A money? The "big brand" firms with huge pools of capital? Medium-sized firms? Small firms? Not an easy question, with virtually countless permutations. That said, t I do think there are three factors all entrepreneurs should keep in mind when making this decision.

  1. Size of fund
  2. Deal partner
  3. Domain expertise

Size of fund: In general, the larger the fund, the larger the required exit in order for an investment to be worthwhile. A fund with assets north of $500MM is going to be hard-pressed to invest $3-$5MM in a company and be ok with an exit less than $100MM, assuming they own 20% of the company. The payoff simply doesn't move the meter. They want to "lean hard" (e.g., put more money into and shoot for a mega-exit) on winners, because nominal dollar returns to pay back the fund are critical. This is where alignment of motives breaks down. ROI is not the measure, it's dollars returned. This creates a problem for entrepreneurs who may want to accept the $60-$70MM exit (which, incidentally, is many times more likely to occur than the multi-hundred million dollar exit), but where the VCs have a blocking position and can force such a deal to be turned down. So it's important to understand that taking money from large, "brand name" firms (and the two generally go hand-in-hand) often means that you are "going for it" - no sub-$100MM exit for you. It will either be a home run or you'll be stuck for a long, long time. As long as you go in eyes wide open, then ok. But this is a material barrier to those running capital efficient businesses who want to preserve the optionality of exiting across an array of scenarios.

Deal partner: As mentioned above, having the right deal partner is critical, regardless of whether you are talking about the seed round, the A round, B round or beyond. A strong deal partner can help materially de-risk a business through sound mentoring, prudent board leadership and valuable connections. The brand of the deal partner is far more important than the brand of the firm. While having a brand name firm might help in future fund-raisings (unless they choose not to invest - then you're screwed), it pales in importance to a great deal partner. Deal partners become great because of what they do, not who they work for, so raising the next round with a great partner, even if they're not at one of the "elite" firms, does not in my experience represent a barrier to fund raising. And if the deal partner has good chemistry and a positive attitude towards working with the first-money in seed investors, so much the better. Then everyone can be pulling in the same direction. It is a powerful combination.

Domain expertise: An extension of the deal partner concept. Certain firms have experience at certain things. Those firms most active in your space and close to the end-users you want to sell to should be the highest on your hit list. They have the benefit of "pattern recognition," having lots of data about firms like yours, how they might stumble and ways in which the growth plan can be better executed. They are also likely to have great contacts on the recruiting front, absolutely essential to building a Series A company in rapid growth mode. And while your deal partner is the one you work with most closely, having others in their firm able to help out with introductions, occasionally sit in on strategic Board sessions and to identify key recruits will prove invaluable over time.

While there are always exceptions, these are the factors I've found most important in helping entrepreneurs achieve their business and strategic goals. Good luck, and be careful out there.

November 30, 2009

Vertical Integration in a Rapid World

I have long been a student of organizational structure. In general, I've been a proponent of specialization and laser focus. This works against the concept of conglomerates specifically and vertically-organized enterprises generally. A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighting several recent examples of vertical integration piqued my interest. Just why is it that vertical integration seems more compelling today than it did even five or ten years ago? What has changed in the environment to have caused the perceptions of many to do a 180? Is this a rational adaptation to a different landscape or a costly fad that will invariably run its course?

Vertical integration has often been linked with monopolists seeking to exercise control over a particular product or market, e.g., Andrew Carnegie and steel in the 1850s, Henry Ford and automobiles in the 1900s. From mining operations to refineries to ships and rails to factories and distribution, these companies controlled every part of the their supply chain. They overpowered their supply chains with capital, and barriers to entry were high. Starting a new steel company was no mean feat, and competing against Henry Ford wasn't a picnic, either. But over time, as these industries globalized, the value of each part of the supply chain shifted. Japan became a powerhouse in steel from a processing perspective, creating high-quality steel with few defects at low cost. But they didn't have control over the raw materials supply chain. Technology and quality management became the key sources of differentiation, and the US steel companies that were slow to adapt got crushed. A similar phenomenon happened with the Japanese and the auto industry, where they didn't control the bottom layers of the value stack but used technology, process engineering and customer focus as sources of competitive advantage. In the face of superior technology and control processes, the power of vertical integration withered.

Fast forward to today. We're seeing several examples of the return to verticalization, including those cited in the WSJ article: Oracle, Boeing, HP, and Apple. The general knock I've had against these kinds of moves is that a company has a core competency, and when it strays from that competency it sub-optimizes. For example, can a company really design and manufacture the best hardware AND software? Can it design and manufacture the best printers, communications equipment AND run a world-class consulting business? Wouldn't it be better to put all of one's efforts into a particular area, achieve market dominance and high profit margins, and dividend the cash out to shareholders rather than spending it on acquisitions to achieve vertical dominance? Certainly over the last 30-40 years the pendulum had swung towards specialization, as the vertically integrated companies got picked apart up and down the value stack: there were always companies better, stronger, faster than members of a vertical organization. But something has changed. In a word: speed.

The world has flattened. Supply chains are global and fragmented. Information dissemination happens at lightening speed. Customer preferences drive design and not the other way around. Think about the impact Apple has had by controlling the user experience, a seamless integration of hardware and software. This is markedly different than the Dell/Microsoft/Intel experience. Apple is selling not just a product but an experience, an image. Dell is selling a bundle of features. And Apple is able to achieve this partly because of vertical control of its value stack. Dell is a procurer and an assembler. And they are very good at it. But Apple's tight integration laid the foundation for a host of add-on hardware and software solutions that augment the core experience. Dell simply can't go to these places because it lacks the holistic perspective and control. Assuming perfect access to all materials in its supply chain, might Apple be able to deliver its customer experience better and more cheaply by simply focusing on software and product design than it does today? Sure. But given that perfect access doesn't exist and that speed is critically important to adapting to changing customer preferences, does vertical integration create a kind of option value that a more fragmented supply chain lacks? Undoubtedly.

Historically specialization has conveyed perceived option value, where the best suppliers can be tapped at all times and with weaker suppliers being replaced in the name of ruthless efficiency. But I believe option values have flip-flopped. Specialization may, in fact, represent a short option position, as scarce resources can be parceled out by sharp suppliers to the highest bidder, while those with vertical control can respond and react in real-time to changes in market conditions. Might the pendulum swing back in the other direction? It always does. But might vertical integration be in vogue - and the rational and adaptive approach to best serving customers and maximizing profits - for the next few decades? I'd say so. And I have to admit I never thought I'd say that...

November 21, 2009

Rethinking The Wall Street Business Model (Part 1)

"Too Big To Fail." "Shrink Wall Street."" Ban credit default swaps." These are just a few of the themes dominating the discussion around the Wall Street business model. They all, unfortunately, miss the point. Size, scale, and instruments that properly used help manage risk have their benefits. Lost in the fallout of the financial crisis is the reason why Wall Street exists: to facilitate capital formation and to provide tools for efficient capital allocation. These are customer-focused activities. This cuts across the Wall Street firm, touching underwriting, credit, M&A, security sales and trading, derivatives, foreign exchange and asset management. I'd argue that these business lines are appropriate for the Wall Street firm and really do help customers, be they corporations, municipalities, sovereigns or institutional investors, achieve their objectives. The problem is that both regulators and risk managers have not kept pace with the increasing scale and complexity of the 21st century Wall Street firm, leading to the dramatic (over) reaction to the financial crisis by the US Government and the populist backlash from ripped-off US taxpayers. Further, the role that ratings agencies have come to play in the capital formation and asset allocation process must also be considered, because without them the recent crisis could not have happened. And this chaos has opened the door for opportunistic, PR-centric intellectual lightweights and politicos to foment movements around new regulations that will hurt - not help - capital formation and market efficiency. In short, it is a mess. But some reason needs to be brought into the discussion - and fast.

First, which elements of today's model don't fit and should be shut down or hived off? Then, what needs to be done to ensure that the model functions as intended? My over-riding goal is to provide customers with the products and services they want without promoting the privatization of profits and socialization of costs. Somewhere along the line we got off the rails, and it is easy to point fingers, e.g., ill-informed and simple-minded regulators, greedy and opportunistic Wall Streeters, incompetent and money-grubbing rating agencies, etc. Bottom line, we need to move beyond the finger pointing and towards real solutions. Here are my initial thoughts of what needs to be done, with an eye towards practicality and reason:

Idea #1: Separate proprietary trading operations from Wall Street firms

When thinking about Wall Street, it is important to remember its core mission: to facilitate capital formation and provide tools for capital allocation. Internal proprietary trading operations do not fall under either category. They are, in essence, subsidized hedge funds with an implicit Government guarantee. Artificially cheap financing costs. Less transparency than their independent hedge fund counterparts of like scale. These operations are readily separable from the customer-driven business. There is simply no rational reason why they should exist as an appendage of a Wall Street firm. Move them out and make them compete in the free market with their independent peers. Note, however, that this does not mean that all proprietary trading risk is wiped away on Wall Street. Desk traders as part of the main sales and trading operation will always take proprietary positions, making markets and taking views. This is a far cry from the separate, off-trading floor synthetic hedge funds run across Wall Street (like Andrew Hall's Phibro, which was recently split off from Citigroup, or my former employer, DB Advisors), and are part of the customer-facilitation business.

Idea #2: Push over-the-counter assets onto exchanges

This is not just limited to credit default swaps. Most derivative contracts. Most cash bonds. Even many larger syndicated corporate loans. There is no good reason why such assets shouldn't be listed and traded in a public forum. This would help with liquidity, transparency and risk capital weighting. This would also assist with the overall risk management of the firm. Many assets have been slow to migrate to exchanges because - surprise - transparency and liquidity tends to drive down bid/offer spreads, making them a less interesting proposition for those standing in the middle of these deals, e.g., the Wall Street broker/dealer. Trading volumes should somewhat mitigate spread compression, but the benefits to society of moving previously opaque assets onto exchanges shouldn't be minimized. This is a no-brainer. 

Idea #3: Eliminate sell-side payments to rating agencies (and perhaps the agencies themselves)

I'm including rating agencies in the Wall Street discussion because they are inextricably linked. Paying for favorable research is a non-starter in the equity business. Why should it be any different in the fixed-income world? The way the rating agency industry has grown up is fraught with conflict and must be changed. Is rating agency research valuable? Let the market decide. Insist that the buy-side pay for it. If the very concept of quasi-sanctioned ratings falls by the wayside, and it becomes more akin to the buy/sell/hold of high-quality equity research, then two things will happen: (1) value-added research providers will emerge to compete with the rating agencies, as firms will fill the information vacuum once headline ratings are eliminated; and (2) the buy-side will have to get back to basics and do real research, without offloading their fiduciary duty to the rating agencies. Only good stuff comes out of this change. Sure, pension funds and endowments across the globe will have to rewrite their investment policies to eliminate allocations tied to ratings, but then the brainless exercise of filling these allocations will stop and be replaced by bona fide research. Unlike Wall Street, the rating agency business is one that really need not exist. Stop the gravy train and make the buy side pay for value.

Idea #4: Revisit risk-weighted capital methodologies and move towards a mark-to-market framework

In a world where Wall Street assets are far more liquid and transparent, but where assets are far more correlated than previously imagined, a new view of risk management and capital provision needs to emerge. Wall Street firms will principally have two types of assets: exchange-traded and non-exchange traded. Exchange-traded assets will each attract their own risk capital provisions based upon liquidity, volatility and float, with a portfolio-wide benefit given for some measure of imperfect correlation among the asset classes (though with correlation matrices that are informed by fat tails and black swans, which we know are extremely fat and not so rare). These assets will always and at any time be marked-to-market. The non-exchange traded assets are more complicated. As I've written previously, I believe these assets should be marked-to-market unless they are (a) intended to be held to maturity AND (b) the firm has term financing in place to be able to carry the asset until maturity. There can be no 30:1 levered balance sheets aren't almost entirely marked-to-market; this problem became immediately apparent in the wake of the market meltdown. "You mean [name your favorite Wall Street firm] can't finance itself overnight??" This should never happen, yet it did. It shouldn't happen again.

Idea #5: Give traders an equity interest in their strategies

The compensation culture on Wall Street is severely messed up. Trader payouts look like a long call option: lose your salary on the downside but get a percentage of profits fueled by a massive balance sheet and cheap capital on the upside. And with a calendar-year orientation driven by the annual bonus cycle, there is motivation to swing for the fences to lock down that "career year," or to swing for the fences when you are down since, hey, what do you have to lose beside a few hundred grand of base salary? I know it sounds crass, but this is reality. Sure, clawbacks can help address some of this asymmetry, but overly complex and punitive pay structures will cause the great traders to all move to hedge funds, leaving Wall Street the victim of adverse selection (some would argue this already happens today). But what about literally creating a trading account for each trader than can rise and fall, where only a portion of the year's gains can be withdrawn with the balance remaining invested in the trader's strategy? One of the big downsides of trading on Wall Street and not at a hedge fund is that you start at -0- at the beginning of each year, while at a hedge fund you get the benefit of compounding capital, e.g., I get to keep my capital account and compound off that higher base each year. Over time, the power of compounding drives many traders to hedge funds, but there is no reason why such an alignment of motives shouldn't exist on Wall Street. Wall Street's shareholders should want this, too, because traders will begin thinking long-term, like their better hedge fund brothers and sisters. Shifting from an asymmetric payout culture to an entrepreneurial hedge fund culture would help with risk management as well, smoothing returns and generating more rational decision-making over time. Revolutionary, yes. Impossible, no.

This is simply the beginning of my thoughts on this theme. I'd love to hear your ideas, too. I'll be sure to incorporate your thinking into my next installment.

November 12, 2009

"Social Leverage" in Venture Capital

I will soon be participating in a panel at Defrag titled "Is Social Leverage the next big thing for VCs?" with my friends Fred Wilson, Howard Lindzon, Brad Feld and Jim Tybur. This is an interesting question that can be interpreted a few different ways, so I thought I'd put a stake in the ground to spur my panel-mates to challenge my perspective.

The venture investing business is, without question, a social business. Working with entrepreneurs. Identifying good co-investors and advisers. Plumbing one's rolodex to help make connections. Cultivating potential business development opportunities. However, there are elements of venture investing that sometimes work against this social nature, e.g., scarce capacity in a "hot" deal, leading VCs to be quite anti-social and to block other participants. While I lack the data to back my thesis, my belief is that in true early-stage venture investing the value creation of an investment syndicate (assuming the co-investors are truly value-added) exceeds the value give-up of sharing scarce investment capacity. This is one aspect of "social leverage," as the non-linear increase in contacts arising from a right-sized syndicate can substantially de-risk an early-stage investment. I have put this into practice in much of my early-stage investing, and it has worked as expected: co-investors with domain expertise and a wealth of industry-specific contacts can drive tremendous value to a start-up, especially in its early, formative, high-risk period. Help with recruiting. Identifying and gaining access to early adopter clients. Different product use cases to help chart strategy. These are just a few ways in which getting a group of super smart people involved with financial skin in the game can help an early-stage venture. Bottom line: social leverage is alive and well in the venture capital business, provided VCs aren't piggy and are focused on what's best for the business, the entrepreneur and, in the long run, themselves.

Another take on social leverage is as an investment theme. Several examples can be found in my portfolio: bit.ly, StockTwits, TLISTS, TweetDeck. Twitter and Facebook are clear examples as well. These are companies whose value is partly driven by community, where the value of the platform increases in a non-linear way as participation goes up (I would posit that this value function looks like an s-curve, where value accelerates during a period of rapid growth, but then flattens out as network effects have largely been exploited). Now, this assumes that this increase in usage is managed well, from both technology and user-experience perspectives (sometimes we bemoan the growth of Twitter because of this, no?). But there can be little doubt that these companies are facilitating the growth of communities, building affiliations, and promoting social leverage through their platforms, I think this is an investment trend that will continue for some time, as more vertical applications of social leverage emerge to drive a richer user experience to those with common interests, e.g., StockTwits and investing. And more tools will emerge to help monetize these communities in contextually-specific ways, e.g., TLISTS.

So this is my story and I'm sticking to it. Now we'll see what Fred, Howard, Brad and Jim have to say...

November 07, 2009

Deal With It, Mr. Einhorn

David Einhorn is without question an exceptionally bright man and a very astute investor. However, the latest message being delivered from his bully pulpit, proposing a ban on credit default swaps (CDS), is misguided at best and dangerous at worst. Are his motives for putting forth this radical view pure, or perhaps informed by the complexity of being an equity investor in a world where the entire capital structure can be sliced, diced and priced? I have no idea. But banning CDSs is akin to banning Twitter. Are there some negative outcomes associated with using each of these tools? Sure. But do their overall benefits outweigh their costs? I believe so.

Here are a few extracts from Henny Sender's Financial Times' story on Mr. Einhorn's Letter to Investors:

“I think that trying to make safer credit default swaps is like trying to make safer asbestos,” he writes in a recent letter to investors, adding that CDSs create “large, correlated and asymmetrical risks” having “scared the authorities into spending hundreds of billions of taxpayer money to prevent speculators who made bad bets from having to pay”.

CDSs are “anti-social”, he goes on, because those who buy credit insurance often have an incentive to see companies fail. Rather than merely hedging their risks, they are actively hoping to profit from the demise of a target company. This strategy became prevalent in recent years and remains so, as holders of these so-called “basis packages” buy both the debt itself and protection on that debt through CDSs, meaning they receive compensation if the company defaults or restructures. These investors “have an incentive to use their position as bondholders to force bankruptcy, triggering payments on their CDS rather than negotiate out of court restructurings or covenant amendments with their creditors”, Mr Einhorn says.

********************

“The reform proposal to create a CDS clearing house does nothing more than maintain private profits and socialised risk by moving the counterparty risk from the private sector to a newly created too big to fail entity,” he notes.

That’s because it is almost impossible to adequately capitalise against such developments. “There is no way a clearing house could demand enough collateral,” he says. “The market can be so big and discontinuous that it is very hard to figure out the correct amount of collateral.”

The crux of Mr. Einhorn's argument is that CDSs, by their nature, are negative tools, e.g., the holder wants the company to do poorly, and will do things to hasten this fact, and that merely putting CDSs on exchanges won't solve the larger problem of taxpayer support for "too large to fail" institutions. 

Are CDS negative tools? Sure. Is shorting stock a negative tool? Certainly. The ability to go long and short creates what I call "positive stress," e.g., it's stressful, but it keeps managements' focused and penalizes poor corporate decision-making. They both provide essential checks-and-balances in the financial system, provided they are not used fraudulently. The mere fact that an instrument is "anti-social" is no reason to ban its use: Mr. Einhorn knows this. And while he might argue that shorting a stock doesn't have as direct an impact on a company's need to enter bankruptcy, it might be that a poorly run company should be in bankruptcy with its assets better deployed by others. Also, the CDS market has been a kind of early detection system for the equity markets, providing a leading indicator of corporate woes before this information has been fully priced into stock prices. Taking away this kind of information hurts everyone, including Mr. Einhorn. And if bankruptcy laws need to be brought up-to-date to reflect the fact that a multi-trillion CDS market has emerged, then so be it. But to merely toss out the information value associated with the CDS market is ludicrous. In fact, I'd argue that the market should be bigger, more transparent and more liquid, which gets to Mr. Einhorn's second point.

Clearinghouses are not a panacea, according to Mr. Einhorn, because the CDS market is too big, their price movements too discontinuous and collateral requirements too difficult to quantify, invariably leading to private profits and socialized costs. One word: Garbage. Think about it this way. As one moves down the capital structure, from senior debt to junior debt to equity, price volatility and discontinuity goes up. Why? Leverage and the hierarchy of claims. A company's equity price can move all over the place while its senior debt trades in a narrow range. It stands to reason, therefore, that CDS should have price movements more stable, e.g., less discontinuous, than equity prices. Do stock prices gap? Yes. Can CDS prices gap? Yes. But because of the seniority of their underlying in the capital structure they should gap less frequently and less violently than stock prices. Yet Mr. Einhorn doesn't want to ban equity trading. What would become of his hedge fund?? The issue is one of liquidity and transparency. Discontinuity comes from opaqueness and thin trading volumes, both of which can be addressed through an exchange mechanism. And this is directly related to the collateral question. As the market becomes more liquid and more continuous, collateral requirements will be increasingly easy to set, far easier than they are today through the daisy-chain of over-the-counter margining arrangements. So at the end of the day, I find Mr. Einhorn's arguments specious and likely self-serving.

As a rule, turning back the clock of innovation is almost never a good thing, and it isn't here, either. Better to harness it and use it prudently than to pretend it simply doesn't exist. Mr. Einhorn knows better, which is why this whole meme makes me very curious...

November 06, 2009

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

After reading the news, participating in key industry conferences and doing some thinking, I've come to the following conclusion: the regulators - and Congress - are barking up the wrong tree. They would have you believe that the equity markets are rigged, retail investors are screwed and that the market structure is flawed. They would further argue that the equity markets are in need of dramatic new regulation, flash orders and high frequency trading are the root of all evil and that "dark pools" are something promulgated by Darth Vader. I have only two words to say to Congress, the SEC and the White House: Bull. Shit.

There are some problems to be sure, but they are not what the spin-meisters in Washington would have you believe...

Which markets stayed open for business every day in the teeth of the crisis? The EQUITY MARKETS. You know, the ones that are now in the cross-hairs of every member of Congress with a populist agenda in dire need of scoring points with their electorate. The markets that were virtually closed for weeks? The DEBT MARKETS, including the OTC DERIVATIVES MARKETS. Why was this the case? Uh, maybe because the equity markets are EXCHANGE-BASED and didn't have BS entities called RATING AGENCIES that lobotomized decision-making and facilitated hundreds of billions to be deployed in assets investors didn't really understand.

And which entities are receiving the most heat? The exchanges. The least? The OTC derivatives markets and the rating agencies. Why is this?

The exchange players have awful public relations. The come across as ultra-complex, technologically incomprehensible and in league with the reviled financial institutions and hedge funds. And clearly dark pools and high frequency traders fall into this category. Markets go up and markets go down. The main thing that matters is that they stay open, provide access to investors big and small and promote competition. The exchanges have done a masterful job of delivering on this for both institutional and retail investors. But Congress and the White House appear destined to focus on policies that ostensibly focus on the retail investor (though it is arguable as to whether the prescriptives will actually help; they most likely will hurt), though the retail investor has become increasingly less important in the overall scheme of the equity markets. Most retail money is handled through pension funds and mutual funds, effectively institutionalizing much of the potential retail flow. Further, the retail investor has never had better access or cheaper execution than they have today, yet the picture is painted that they are getting screwed at every turn. It just makes no sense.

In every era certain subsets of market participants made investments to gain an edge. Whether it was the stagecoach, the telegraph, cheap silicon, abundant fiber or co-location, innovators with capital have always sought to be one step ahead. It is this inexorable move towards better, cheaper, faster that delivers benefits to all, even if more benefits go to those who made the investments. Should the retail investor get the exact same execution as a smart algo that is the result of millions of dollars of development, leverages (and pays for) co-location and puts enormous amounts of capital at risk? Not in my opinion. If the ultimate goal is that every market participant, regardless of size, amount of investment or capital at risk is in the EXACT same boat, then we'll see what happens to innovation: It will plummet to zero. The populist denizens in Congress and in the White House are pushing towards the lowest common denominator: mediocrity for all.

Why, oh why, haven't the broken OTC derivatives markets and rating agency crimes been aggressively pursued by lawmakers and regulators? One reason: because they are far less sexy than the exchanges and don't DIRECTLY impact the retail investor. Not too many mom-and-pops have purchased a 5 year GM CDS or stop by Moody's for a report on the SocGen CMBS Non-Conforming Pool XII. They are far more likely to have a brokerage account, an IRA or a self-directed 401k. What's more systemically important, banning "flash orders" or mitigating the counterparty risk associated with tens of trillions of over-the-counter derivatives contracts? We already know the answer, since Mr. Geithner and his friends did a back-door bail-out of Wall Street with taxpayer money via the AIG gift. This was due to credit derivative counterparty performance risk, friends, not because they had a lousy stock portfolio that they couldn't liquidate. And why do rating agencies even exist? They have simply resulted in an abrogation of responsibility on the part of investors: THEY are the true WMDs, which is ironic considering Mr. Buffet's long-standing position in Moody's. Yet we seldom hear about this.

Sadly, we live in a world of sound bites, and Congress and the White House have found far better sound bites to attack the denizens of the equity markets rather than the derivatives and debt markets. And as usual, it will be this stupidity that will cost us all, except the Congresspeople who will have pandered to their constituents in order to get re-elected. Someday, perhaps, we'll have a vehicle for measuring the efficacy of elected officials, not on the basis of success in getting their measures through but in the worth of the measures themselves. There will be many perceived winners when Congress and the SEC enact short-term popular and long-term stupid regulation that increases costs (including to retail) and stifles investment. Quite simply, they are barking up the wrong tree.

This is why I seldom blog anymore. Because just thinking about the irrationality and long-term consequences of this stuff makes me sick...

   

September 30, 2009

Golden Opportunity - I Need a Technical VC Investment Associate

I am currently spending a lot of time evaluating companies targeting "big-data," predictive analytics, anomaly detection, machine learning, high-performance computing, data visualization and related fields, and am seeking an Associate to be involved in all stages of the early-stage venture investment process.

The successful candidate will be a key member of a small team of highly successful investors and entrepreneurs. This individual will be a highly analytical, innovative and driven self-starter with deep technical experience combined with business judgment.

Responsibilities:

  • Create and support point-of-view on potential investments
  • Conduct all stages of due diligence, including: financial modeling, market analysis, and primary and secondary research
  • Source new investment opportunities through networking and strategic partnerships
  • Identify emerging areas of strategic importance in and around the ecosystem
  • Provide hands-on operational and strategic support to portfolio companies

Requirements:

  • Strong technical background - Ph.D or other technical graduate degree strongly preferred
  • MBA a plus
  • Understanding of financial markets
  • Experience with/understanding of the following a plus: machine learning, parallel computing, "big-data" analytics, computational linguistics, natural language processing
  • Entrepreneurial operating experience a plus
  • Proven analysis and research expertise
  • Strong verbal and writing skills
  • Ability to communicate at all levels from CEO to individual contributor
  • Ability to analyze, evaluate, and quickly form independent judgments on a wide variety of businesses
  • Exceptional organizational skills and a strong attention to detail

Please send inquiries to jobs@iaventurepartners.com. This is a pretty cool opportunity for the right person. If you don't exactly meet the spec but come pretty close and can make the case, then go for it. I  put off hiring help for a long time. I hired @bsiscovick this summer and that was a good move. But the time has come for me to get more leverage against my deal opportunities, and the time is now.

August 02, 2009

Fixing Wall Street? The Feds Blew It.

Today's press is constantly filled with bluster about "new" regulatory regimes, Executive Pay Czars and other gripping topics stemming from 20/20 hindsight and populist zeal. Sadly, they all miss the point. Wall Street's weakest link, it's super-leveraged capital structure and reliance on overnight funding, was laid bare in the depths of the financial crisis last fall. If not for the wide-open purse strings of the US Government, institutions ranging from Citigroup to Goldman Sachs would have gone down. No doubt. This was the moment in history when smart minds could have gotten together and projected - really projected - what a better, safer, smarter Wall Street might look like, a Wall Street that wouldn't have collapsed like a house of cards so completely in the face of the mortgage crisis and credit derivatives melt-down. Rather than mindlessly shoveling liquidity in the system to prop up a broken model and failed institutions, a concerted effort could have been made to call time-out, not with respect to the markets but with respect to the institutions whose functioning had just been shown to be dangerously fragile. Needless to say, this is not how it was handled and we are suffering the aftermath today.

What we have is a return to business-as-usual. Except it's worse than that. The US taxpayer has been systematically looted out of hundreds of billions of dollars, yet the press is focused on Andy Hall and his $100 million payday. Whether this is too much pay for Mr. Hall misses the big picture. Yes, the Wall Street pay model is messed up, and I recently provided an alternative approach. But how about the fact that Goldman Sachs is posting record earnings and will invariably be preparing to pay record bonuses, not nine months after the firm was in mortal danger? Whether anyone will admit it or not, without the AIG (read: Wall Street and European bank) bail-out and the FDIC issuance guarantees, neither Goldman nor any other bulge bracket firm lacking stable base of core deposits would be alive and breathing today.

Goldman is a great firm with a stellar culture, and in most circumstances it's risk management and funding practices have been second to none. Except when the crisis hit. It stood with the rest of Wall Street as a firm with longer-dated, less liquid assets funded with extremely short-dated liabilities. And while it had a massive cushion of collateral, it would likely have been inadequate if the Treasury and the Fed hadn't come to its rescue. In exchange for giving the firm life (TARP, FDIC guarantees, synthetic bail-out via AIG, etc.), the US Treasury (and the US taxpayer by extension) got some warrants on $10 billion of TARP capital injected into the firm. While JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon prefers to poke a stick in the eye of the Treasury, seeking to negotiate down the payment to buy back the TARP warrants, Lloyd Blankfein smartly paid the full $1.1 billion requested. He looked like a hero for doing so, a true US patriot repaying the US Government in full for its lifeline, thanking the US taxpayer in the process. $1.1 billion... $1.1 billion...Hmm...something doesn't seem right. You know why it doesn't seem right? BECAUSE THE US TREASURY MIS-PRICED THE FREAKING OPTION.

There is not a Wall Street derivatives trader on the planet that would have done the US Government deal on an arms-length basis. Nothing remotely close. Goldman's equity could have done a digital, dis-continuous move towards zero if it couldn't finance its balance sheet overnight. Remember Bear Stearns? Lehman Brothers? These things happened. Goldman, though clearly a stronger institution, was facing a crisis of confidence that pervaded the market. Lenders weren't discriminating back in November 2008. If you didn't have term credit, you certainly weren't getting any new lines or getting any rolls, either. So what is the cost of an option to insure a $1 trillion balance sheet and hundreds of billions in off-balance sheet liabilities teetering on the brink? Let's just say that it is a tad north of $1.1 billion in premium. And the $10 billion TARP figure? It's a joke. Take into account the AIG payments, the FDIC guarantees and the value of the markets knowing that the US Government won't let you go down under any circumstances. $1.1 billion in option premium? How about 20x that, perhaps more. But no, this is not the way it went down. I thought the best way was to impose Good Bank/Bad Bank restructurings on troubled institutions, making plain the value of the assets, hiving off the most troubled and letting the healthy institutions live on and thrive with a healthier capital structure and significant US taxpayer ownership that would eventually be re-offered to the marketplace. An alternative would have been a more accurate and representative pricing of the option inherent in the bail-out given to Wall Street firms. But the US Government elected to pursue neither approach.

Where we are left today, dear taxpayer, is a lot poorer. Unless you are a major shareholder and/or bonusable employee of Goldman Sachs. Brains, ingenuity and value creation should be rewarded in all fields, Wall Street included. But when value created is the direct result of the risks borne by others for your benefit, the sharing of benefits needs to be re-allocated. This has not and apparently will not be done, and we, dear taxpayer, are the worse for it. Further, such a crisis could have provided the opportunity and the impetus for a re-look at capital markets risks, getting CDS users to support a central credit derivatives exchange and revised capital rules to incentivize better gap management. The banks lobby like hell against these changes, because it cuts into their fees, notwithstanding the systemic benefits such changes could have on the global financial markets. Banks now lobbying with US taxpayer dollars against changes that could protect the US taxpayer from more harm in the future. Something is terribly wrong with this picture, yet all anyone wants to talk about are executives getting paid too much. It's called missing the forest for the trees, and it is a fixture of both those trying to sell newspapers (get clicks) and run our Government, and it pisses me off.

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