You may have noticed, I haven’t been posting much here lately. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say, probably just the opposite (!) but have be full out from dawn until dusk working on a number of exciting new projects including our own development (more on that in a few weeks.) One project that has been front of mind the past few weeks is a new company we are developing that is directly inspired by Paul Graham‘s great advice to “solve problems that affect you directly”.
A bit of background. When I was in banking, one of the achievements I was most proud of was effectively using web technology to transform how (debt) capital was raised (at least in Europe*.) At DrKW, we built what for many years was the state of the art capital raising platform, whose core product was our eBookbuilding platform (now in Commerzbank yellow!) It completely revolutionised what had heretofore been a disjointed, manual, somewhat ad hoc process into a seamless, collaborative, mostly painless process. Initially it met with enormous resistance from other (much bigger and more successful) banks and syndicate managers, who as ‘guardians of the temple’ jealously guarded their power, derived (in their minds) from the information asymmetry they enjoyed (vs issuers and investors.) However – and despite being at best a middling player in the fixed income new issues market – our disruptive technology was such a big improvement on the status quo that eventually the market adopted our standards (with everyone then rushing to build their own analogous platforms.) In the spirit of making sure these platforms could ‘play well together’ we even published our XML-Schema for new issues and invited all our competitors to contribute to it and use it. (Which had the effect of basically freaking out our competitors. They thought we were crazy – like Ali – because they didn’t have the slightest idea what it means to compete in a world of information abundance and platforms, but that story is for another day…)
Anyhow, when I became seriously and then professionally active in ‘venture capital’ or more generically speaking, in investing in private companies, the lack of technology available to manage workflows surprised me; I was particularly puzzled because ostensibly this was a world populated with techophiles, early adopters and people who ate disruption for breakfast (quite unlike the world of institutional capital markets). Further, there is much talk (and consensus) around the fact that it is hard/impossible to scale venture investing. And while I think this holds at some level, it struck me that a significant number of the gating factors limiting the ability to scale could be vastly improved. Not to infinity but substantially, perhaps by an order of magnitude. Pulling out an example from my old career, when I started life as a bond trader 20 years ago (ack!) the number of bonds that a typical good trader could manage numbered in the dozens at best (and even then, you would find that a trader really traded 10 to 20 bonds 80% of the time and sort of went through the motions for the other bonds hoping most of the time not to trade.) Then came Bloomberg. And excel spreadsheets. (And later bespoke pricing and analytic tools and platforms.) And all of the sudden, a trader could manage a book with hundreds of securities. There was still a degree of 80/20 but everything was an order of magnitude bigger.
I don’t know if our new initiative will definitely achieve that degree of change in the private investment market, but we are convinced that there is a better way and having a fit-for-purpose platform to help company management, non-executive directors and investors communicate, collaborate and manage their positions and responsibilities would be a huge step forward. It’s not that nothing currently exists, but I would say we are at the ‘excel spreadsheet’ phase to use my bond trading analogy – with many firms and people starting to use things like Google Apps or Basecamp and the like to better manage information flows and collaboration. But while this (and excel for traders) is (was) a good start, the real juice comes when dedicated, purpose-built platforms emerge. If you have a screw that needs driving, a hammer is better than nothing (or a rock) but a screwdriver is even better! (A power screwdriver better still!)
So we conceived of (what has been provisionally named) CiRX – the corporate director and investor relations information exchange:
CiRX is a purpose-built platform enabling private companies, directors and investors to communicate and collaborate more efficiently saving time, money and effort. By streamlining processes and connecting stakeholders in an intuitive and context-rich environment, CiRX offers a tailored yet consistent solution to the challenge of managing information and documentation flows, reducing administrative burdens and creating opportunities for a richer, more dynamic and flexible approach to corporate governance and strategic management.
Over the past few months, we have been developing the concept, the business model and have done a significant amount of macro research to identify the potential size of the market opportunity and now have started to take the next step and ‘talk/think details’ as they say. In order to support this next stage of development, as we are poised to start ‘cutting code’, we wanted to get more direct feedback from the community – of company executives and founders, non-executives, angel and institutional investors – to better understand how their experiences and perceptions were both similar and different to our own. To do so we created a short(ish) survey and have sent it to a number of our contacts across all these communities, but if we missed you and you are a company founder or non-exec director or investor in one or more private companies and you are interested in contributing your views, you can find the survey by clicking here.(We’ll leave the survey open for a couple weeks probably but if you are so inclined to complete it, we are excited to be presenting CiRX at mini-seedcamp London next week so would be great to have as much feedback as possible before then.) Of course you are also welcome to share your views – good, bad and ugly – in the comments below.
* That e-bookbuilding (generic) never gained acceptance in the US (at least not while I was still in the market) is in my opinion a telling manifestation of the oligopoly of Wall Street (which gives us things like 7% IPO fees with the spooky consistency of North Korean election results) which absent the pressure of competition, allowed the dominant underwriters to resist this change tooth and nail. It was even more glaringly apparent when these same US firms operating in Europe adopted e-bookbuilding as strongly as everyone else once it was obvious it was an evolutionary winner…
You may have noticed that I haven’t posted much in the last couple months and given all the interesting things going on in the world it certainly wasn’t for lack of material. Breaking my arm obviously didn’t help increase my productivity (or make typing very easy) but it wasn’t the main reason for the silence. It’s much simpler than that: I was busy!
Busy investing in a whole bunch of super exciting and interesting new businesses. Busy working on the sale of ODL Group (where I was the lead independent non-executive director) to FXCM to create a true global leader in FX trading. Busy working with my partner Uday and FT Advisors on a number of interesting strategic advisory projects, in particular focused on the electronic and algorithmic trading space. Busy helping two of our portfolio companies raise follow-on financing. Busy working on our own corporate structure and capital raising where I hope to be able to communicate some exciting news in the not too distant future. Busy.
So what have we been investing in? Here is a quick rundown (in alphabetical order):
Babuki – 2008 seedcamp winner, launching soon (will update) with an innovative platform for social gaming
Blueleaf – investment information management and planning software “to help people like you see all their savings and investment accounts in one place; understand their financial information more completely, more quickly; securely share information and collaborate with spouses, family or advisors; save their data, even if they change financial institutions; and maybe most importantly, help them stay financially safe and secure.”
Timetric – builds services to make sense of time-series statistics, based on the Timetric Platform: a proprietary service for publishing, analysing, and performing calculations on very large quantities of time-varying statistical data. Have a look at this neat little demo website they have built for tracking equity portfolios.
Metamarkets – provides global, real-time media price discovery by aggregating billions of electronic media transactions in order to deliver dynamic price data, proprietary price and volume aggregations, and comprehensive analytic media market views to sell-side media principals.
[not yet closed - will update soon]
Over the next few weeks or so, I plan to do a proper write-up on each of these businesses and the reasons we think they have bright prospects. So watch this space.
Now, though it maybe hard to predict what innovations PayPal’s platform will enable, it’s safe to say that the payment industry is going to change dramatically. As money becomes completely digitised, infinitely transferable, and friction-free, it will again revolutionise how we think about our economy.
The author talks excitedly about PayPal’s new open platform X.com and how it is poised to change the current payments landscape which continues to be dominated by the credit card companies. PayPal launched this new approach late last year with their first developers conference Innovate09. Here’s what PayPal President Scott Thompson had to say about the conference:
As you might imagine, given my views on both the enormous opportunity that exists to disrupt an increasingly anachronistic financial services industry and my enthusiasm for “platform-based” business models, it is quite satisfying to see someone like PayPal take on this opportunity in such an aggressive manner. Not only do they help to validate the opportunity – bringing both human and financial capital to bear – but they can capture the attention and imagination of a generation of engineers and entrepreneurs in a way that we simply could not (at least not yet), even if we had a very large amount of capital to deploy. And that can only be good news, except perhaps for the management and shareholders of dominant incumbents like Visa:
“What we witnessed was truly a perverse form of competition,” said Ronald Congemi, the former chief executive of Star Systems, one of the regional PIN-based networks that has struggled to compete with Visa. “They competed on the basis of raising prices. What other industry do you know that gets away with that?”
Of course payment networks are classic “two-sided” markets, with strong natural tendencies towards monopoly providers (due to strong network effects and high barriers to entry. Further the structure of these markets allows providers to levy charges on only one side of the market (merchants) while seemingly offering the other side a free or inexpensive service. Last fall The Economist explained why, in such a market, regulation is often ineffective and can often actually produce worse outcomes in some cases:
The case for tight regulation seems strong, at first glance. In rich countries, where paying by plastic is now commonplace, the firms that run card-payment systems look like other utilities, which have long been subject to price caps. Visa and MasterCard are associations run on behalf of their member banks. Competition officials are usually wary of such shared ventures but accept that it is more efficient for rival banks to band together in one network in order to process payments and settle accounts. A common fee structure stops members from abusing the rule that retailers must take all cards issued with the association’s brand. It also obviates the need for countless bilateral deals between thousands of banks. Even so, regulators still fret that banks might use their combined heft to overcharge.
They need to tread carefully. Judging how much credit-card firms ought to charge for their services is trickier even than setting the right price for water or energy supplies. That is because the payment-card system is a “two-sided” market. What sets this type of enterprise apart is that it caters to two distinct groups of customers and each sort benefits the more custom there is from the other sort. Consumers will sign up for a credit-card brand if it is widely accepted as a means of payment. Merchants will more willingly accept a card if lots of consumers use it.
In my opinion, the best way to ensure good value to all the participants in the payments value chain is to encourage and facilitate competition: new approaches, new ideas, new entrants. PayPal has long been the poster-child for “start-up” innovation in financial services, but had seemed to have lost its way in stuck in the corporate bureaucracy of eBay. It’s great to see them breaking free of that and striving to re-ignite their creative and entrepreneurial juices. (Although I still think they would probably be better off independent of eBay…even better, how about a merger of an independent PayPal and an independent AWS: now that is a stock I would love to own!)
For several years now, it has been dead obvious to me that new and exponentially improving information and communications technologies would create the foundation upon which bright, ambitious entrepreneurs would build new companies and business models that will disrupt the moribund incumbents and their 20th century business models. And that’s why I started Nauiokas Park. We’ve made some good decisions along the way, and we’ve learned a lot. But one thing we got spectacularly wrong was our naive belief that leading incumbents in the financial services sector would embrace our vision and our proposition as an opportunity to hedge the strategic risk of continuing to rely (exclusively) on their existing business models. That they would look at the management failures and massive value destruction suffered by the traditional media and telecommunications companies and look to deploy multiple strategies to mitigate the risk of being caught unawares in the same way. But it would seem that they are uninterested. A toxic cocktail of hubris, myopia, inertia and institutional politics seems too often to blind them to the risks posed to their continued hegemony. As if admitting Christmas exists – let alone voting for it – would make it’s inevitable arrival more likely.
Today Markit Group announced that General Atlantic has invested $250 million, valuing the 7 year old company at a whopping $3.3 billion. Founded by Lance Uggla, Kevin Gould and Rony Grushka in 2003 to address the growing need for quality data in the burgeoning credit derivatives market, what followed was several years of unbelievably good execution and disciplined acquisitions which has positioned the company as a critical component at the heart of the trillion dollar OTC derivative markets. The products they provide aren’t considered sexy (something that is often given all too much importance in this status conscious industry) – but their data, valuations, indices, trade processing and other products and services are the plumbing that is key to the continuing operation of many financial markets. They are a great example of creating value by building a great platform and understanding how to monetize data. I had the good fortune to be a non-executive director from 2003 to 2006 and I can say without hesitation that this team is one of the best I’ve ever seen and fully deserve the success they have achieved. (Congratulation guys. Awesome, truly awesome.)
And I am certain there is more to come. Their primary constraint has and will likely continue to be the physical/logistical limitations of growing as fast as they have but each year they only improve and in terms of acquisitions the company they most remind me of (in terms of disciplined and deliberate execution) is Cisco. Besides, General Atlantic doesn’t invest in companies where they don’t think they can make 20-30% annual returns or more.
And yet many (most) people in the ‘start-up’/'tech’ scene whether in the UK or the US have never (or only vaguely) heard of Markit. (For example, I counted only about 50 or so tweets referencing the announcement today, less than for any TechCrunch launching start-up…) Why is that? Obviously I can’t say for sure but (in no particular order) would guess the explanation perhaps lies in the following:
not venture capital funded; funding initially came from it’s cornerstone customers, the investment banks, and then later from some very smart hedge funds
focused on the wholesale financial services industry (and not on consumer or media or other mass markets)
key products and services (and associated economics) unknown to those outside finance and even worse generally considered ‘boring’
management team laser focused on execution, not PR (although to be fair they had this luxury not needing to sell to the mass market)
and so folks like TechCrunch and VentureBeat don’t know or write about them (aka “if a startup isn’t listed in CrunchBase does it really exist?” syndrome)
Indeed for me, Markit is a poster child for the cognitive, cultural and expertise chasm that exists between ‘Wall Street’ and ‘the Valley’ (or the ‘City’ and the ‘Roundabout’ to use the less good UK-centric metaphor.) They might as well be on different planets. Indeed bridging this divide is at the core of what we set out to do at Nauiokas Park and was the driver that led Paul Kedrosky and Tim O’Reilly to launch the Money:Tech conference in 2008 (which sadly didn’t survive the financial crisis and quite frankly was met by a deafening indifference by the vast majority of the Wall Street side of the equation.)
And yet, the opportunities available to those who can successful bridge this gap are enormous. Well, anyway that’s what we think. And the crisis in venture capital ostensibly caused by too much capital? I’m going to disagree with Paul and Fred and suggest it’s not too much money overall; rather it’s too much money concentrated with too few investors, focused on too few sectors, who end up all chasing the same deals. So to the LPs out there my message would be: don’t shrink the pool, enlarge the opportunity space. Oh, and try to make sure you’ve got exposure to the next Markit Group.
AmazonJP Morgan, displaying a sense of urgency that is perhaps driven by the pending launch of Apple’s tablet-style computeranti-trust legislation which will end the US banking oligopoly, is turning its Kindle devicebanking and payments infrastructure into a platform. The SeattleNew York-based company has announced that it will allow software developers to “build and upload active contentapplications” and distribute it through the KindleChase Store “later this year.” AmazonJP Morgan will be giving out a KindleChase Development Kit that will give “developers access to programming interfaces, tools and documentation to build active content innovative financial services and products for Kindle.Chase” The company will launch a limited beta effort next month. From the press release:
“We’ve heard from lots of developers over the past two years who are excited to build on top of KindleChase,” said Ian Freed, Vice President, Amazon KindleBo Nusmore, EVP, JP Morgan Chase. “The KindleChase Development Kit opens many possibilities–we look forward to being surprised by what developers invent.”
Vertically integrated black box? Or open platform? Which type of bank makes for a more robust system? Which type of a bank is more evolutionarily fit to compete on a level playing field? I know that their is an enormous moat protecting large financial institutions from competition but I would hope they would be using the super-profits that this affords them to prepare for the day the moat is breached. And perhaps behind the parapets they are. Because I pretty sure there are an increasing number of very clever, ambitious (and even angry) folks starting to congregate on the edge of that moat and while it might take some time and a dash of luck, it would seem certain that eventually they will be inside the castle. And then, it just might be too late.
I’ve been avoiding putting together a list of predictions for 2010 (more on that later) but just couldn’t resist suggesting that 2010 could well be a breakout year for weather risk management. All of the conditions necessary have finally started to come together and with the worst of the 2008/2009 hysteria behind us (without passing judgement on the future direction of markets), companies (and hopefully individuals) will start to wake up and respond to the risks and opportunities inherent in weather variability. I wouldn’t be surprised if weather risk was one of the top three risks faced by the vast majority of (non-financial) corporations, perhaps even the most important risk in some cases, and of the same order of magnitude as liquidity, foreign exchange, commodity and interest rate risk – all risk categories for which massive global markets in risk pricing and transfer exist. Weather in this regard remains significantly underdeveloped:
(via Ben Smith, First Enercast Financial) For example the Department of Commerce estimates that more than $1 trillion of U.S. economic activity is exposed to weather. Even if a small fraction of new risk is hedged through derivative contracts, 2010 will be a very good year for these markets.
The massive costs incurred in much of the northern hemisphere over the last few weeks due to heavy snowfalls and cold temperatures are just one more example of how important a factor in economic outcomes weather risk can be. For example, just take the exceptional – and uninsured – costs incurred by local authorities and airport operators across the UK for snow removal, sanding, salting, loss of revenues, etc. Previously, a manager of a company (or government entity) who suffered an exceptional weather-related loss could shrug their shoulders and plausibly say “it was out of my hands.” In a way that would be impossible if for example their organization suffered a massive loss because their buildings or equipment perished in a fire and they were not insured. In that scenario, shareholders or taxpayers would be incandescent with rage at the incompetent risk management of the managers. Not managing weather risks is no different in substance (now that appropriate weather insurance and derivatives are increasingly widely available), only remaining so in perception as awareness lags.
Of course I am biased, having invested in Weatherbill, which is at the vanguard of transforming weather risk markets:
(via J. Scott Mathews, WeatherEX LLC) The weather market was built upside down, which is quite a feat, even for financial engineers. What we mean is that it started on the wholesale level without any retail underpinnings. It started out like a castle in the air…The changes coming in 2010 for the weather derivative market will be keyed “from the bottom up.” Solutions companies such as Guaranteed Weather and Weatherbill who bring management choices to “ground level” risk holders are helping to complete a strong base to keep that castle from crashing on us.
The difference between weather derivatives (Weatherbill.com) (or any other new risk management tool) and say books (Amazon.com) is that risk management tools need to be ‘sold’ – there is a learning curve, however shallow; and while most people instinctively understand and can conceptualize their weather risks, their survival instincts – honed by decades of doing business with rapacious financial services firms – and fear of ‘getting their eyes ripped out’ means that they are understandably cautious when considering using weather risk management instruments for the first time.
This is where Weatherbill’s business model I think is particularly well adapted to the opportunity: on the one hand, they have a very modern (open) approach to pricing: anyone can go to their website and play around in their pricing ‘sandbox’. Try doing that ten years ago when you wanted to price up a complex FX or interest rate option. Basically it was build your own model or keep sending pricing request to your favorite sales person (who would then have to go beg the trader for a price, and in addition to the regular parameters, the client’s identity, the salesperson and the trader’s mood would also be imputed into the price. That is of course if he felt like making one.) On the other hand, (and this is something that has evolved over the past couple years) Weatherbill has aggressively sought out distribution partners – insurance brokers, industry platforms (eg travel sites), etc. – as trusted providers to their respective customer bases, they are ideally positioned to help their customers manage their weather risks by leveraging Weatherbill’s platform. I first wrote about this a few months ago, and since then they have signed up a number of new and significant partners.
I love skiing and my family take a season pass at Les Trois Vallees. Obviously weather risk is central to running or enjoying a ski resort. While there are many different types of risk you could look at in the context of a ski resort, in the interests of simplicity (ease of understanding/customer acceptance) and maximum pain relief, there are two risks that I would have loved to have had an embedded hedge for in our season ticket (and I suspect the same would go for someone buying a week-long pass for their holiday, in fact they would probably be even more sensitive/appreciative.)
Not enough snow to ski risk: ie not that the snow is great or this or that…the basic risk that the pistes are closed. For most modern ski resorts this is actually a function of temperature and not precipitation, as they use snow-making machine to lay down a base. Temperature risk is much easier to measure and price (than snowfall) and has much lower geographic variability ie you don’t need a weather station on every piste on the mountain.
Rain risk: ie the only time it is absolutely unpleasant to ski is when it is raining. Also, rain typically doesn’t help the existing snowpack, making skiing after rain often unpleasant as well.
Using Weatherbill to hedge their risk, Les Trois Vallees could offer a ski-pass that reimbursed me for every rainy day and for every day say less than 80% of their runs were open due to lack of snow. In an age of increasing climate uncertainty (or perception thereof) I am 100% certain this would help them market (and sell more) season tickets. And for week-long tickets, it would be a great marketing tool for advance sales (with significantly positive cashflow benefits), and great for improving the user experience. Imagine a vacationer whose week in the Alps is ruined by 5 days of torrential rain…getting their money back on the lift tickets (irrespective of whether or not they braved the elements) would go a very long way to having them consider giving it another try next year.
Of course this is but one example, I’m sure all of you can think of hundreds more. In fact it might be harder to think of services or businesses that are completely immune to the weather. So really, what are you waiting for? Start hedging!
One of the downsides of having a reasonably ‘international’ life is having to manage foreign exchange risks and effect international currency transfers and payments reasonable regularly. If you only do this once every few years for a few thousand pounds/dollars/euros/etc., you may not notice or care that your bank generally makes this quite hard to do and charges you an arm and a leg for the pleasure (no commission is just dishonest marketing-speak.) If however, you need to make a few foreign currency payments or transfers each year; and/or you have more significant sums at stake, your bank is probably not the best place to do your FX business.
You could (and perhaps do, as I did) use one of the literally hundreds of FX brokers, and if you have the time, knowledge of spot rates and inclination to haggle and shop around, you will get a good price. For a transfer of £10,000 for example you could easily save on the order of £100 or more compared to your bank. However (aside from needing the time, skill and energy to haggle and shop around), in my experience that is the easy part. It is only once you have traded that the fun really starts. Faxes, printing pdfs, clunky websites… getting your money to the broker and then back out in the new currency to the destination account is all too often a long and painful experience. Not completely surprising given the traditional business culture found in financial services: the trade is done (and revenue is booked), the rest is just ‘back office’, paperwork…boring. But from a customer point of view, this is upside-down: the trade is the easy part, undifferentiated, relatively painless (notwithstanding the see-what-you-can-get-away-with pricing algorithms of most of the industry.) Your time (and mental health!) is valuable, being able to trade painlessly in just seconds is often times as valuable or more than a tight price. In any event, you shouldn’t have to choose between them, and now you no longer need to.
So when an ex-colleague of mine Nigel Verdon came to me with a new concept in FX payments and broking, one that was predicated on transparency, simplicity and automation, I listened. I liked what I heard and I became one of the first guinea pigs customers. I liked it so much, I bought (a stake in) the company. The company of course is FX Capital Group which I’ve written about previously, here and here. Nigel and his team have built an extremely robust and technologically modern FX payments platform that essentially acts as middleware between any end user and their bank accounts and the enormous and highly efficient wholesale, interbank currency markets. On top of this platform, they have built two applications: FX Capital – adapted for corporate customers, and RabbitFX for private clients. In the coming weeks, they will also release their API, with the clear objective of allowing anyone to embed FX and international payments into their website, workflow or application. Indeed, one of the first target markets for their platform technology is the hundreds of FX brokers who currently struggle with poor or non-existent technology. By allowing them to focus on what they do best (generally distribution – client acquisition and relationship management) and improve the level of service to their customers by outsourcing the technology to FXCG, everyone – client, broker, FXCG – is a winner. Think of it as FXaaS (FX as a Service.)
…[FX Capital Group provides] FX-as-a-Service.
The reason for today’s post however is to announce the new RabbitFX website, which I hope you will agree looks fantastic and even more importantly is easy to use and understand. It’s not perfect (still lots of improvements and features in the pipeline) but we think it is ‘good enough’: we are confident that the user experience is better than any other specialist FX broker in the market. And this starts right from the beginning: sign up for an account today and you’ll see what I mean. For UK customers, you should be able to get everything done online; customers based outside the UK (and some UK customers) can do 90% online and will need to send some identity documentation (in order for RabbitFX to fulfill its ‘know-your-customer’ regulatory requirements.) And once your account is open, I’m sure you’ll find like I did that making a FX payment has never been easier.
This week NEA announced the close of their latest fund at $2.5 billion. That seems like a lot of money for one venture fund, although perhaps if the intention is to focus on (highly capital intensive) clean tech and/or biotech they will be able to deploy this amount effectively. Of course NEA, founded in 1978, has a long and successful track record, with I imagine many long-standing relationships with LPs and excellent ‘brand recognition’ within the universe of potential LPs, and so it is hardly surprising that they are able to raise such large funds. After all – especially with respect to institutional investors – the analog to the ‘nobody-ever-got-fired-for-buying-IBM” paradigm operates in their favor.
A couple years ago, when I first started thinking about what would become Nauiokas Park, a good friend told me that private equity was all about raising capital, not investing it. Of course I understood what he
…private equity is about raising money, not investing it.
was saying, but thought he was using hyperbole to make the point that raising capital was more important than just a means to an end (investing.)
Now I understand that however cynical it may sound, he wasn’t trying to be clever: the way the institutional marketplace for private equity (including venture capital) is structured is all about raising capital and only incidently about investing that capital.
For better or worse, the year-end is typically a time to step back and take stock, to reflect on the year that was and the year to come. And indeed I have been thinking about what we could have done better or differently last year and what we need to focus on in this new year. And the short answer is we need to spend less time thinking about the economic and industrial landscape, developing our investment framework, sourcing potential investments and nurturing our existing investments, and more time soliciting potential investors: pitching our skills, our approach and the opportunity we believe exists to people and institutions that will determine whether or not we can turn our vision into reality. And like any start-up, we are going to have to be hard-headed about how we approach this as the proverbial runway is running out. As they say, there is a fine line between tenacity and obstinacy. I want to try to stay on the right side of that line.
Of course, once the lightbulb goes on it becomes obvious that raising money would be the most important talent of any prospective private investment firm: your LP’s, shareholders, investors are your customers (and not your portfolio companies.) They are they ones that ‘pay the rent’. They consume your service which is to invest their capital. Ah but the better the service, the more customers you have and the more successful you will be, right?
Well not exactly. In investment management generally it is very hard to determine a priori the quality of service one is likely to receive, which is why so often prospective investors – be they retail or institutional – fall back on historical performance to make their judgements. This reliance on historical data is clearly imperfect. However, when considering (many types of) hedge fund or mutual fund, given the typical investment horizon and liquidity profile, a consumer of these services can at least adjust relatively dynamically if they make a mistake. The effect of this is to reduce the psychological barrier to ‘taking a risk’ on any particular investment manager in these asset classes. But given the long time horizons and relative illiquidity in private equity, investors cannot exit a decision easily and so are (even more) inclined to stick with well-established firms and are less open to considering newcomers.
Basically “track record” is the box that needs to be ticked. And is much more important than having a coherent, well-researched and plausible investment thesis. After all, if you have the money, the deals come to you. But a track record in private equity is hard to come by quickly. (And it needs to be the ‘right’ kind: the first time I was told (by a prospective investor) that having been a founding investor in two multi-billion dollar companies didn’t ‘count’ because I wasn’t “a professional investor” when I made the investments was frustrating and somewhat irritating I have to admit.)
A company active in a two-sided market provides it’s services to two distinct constituencies. Often times, they provide those services for free to one side of the market, in order to increase the value of the services they provide to the other side of the market. For example, Visa provides consumers a free payments service (and actually often pays consumers to use their service via loyalty programs, cash back, etc.); in so doing they can charge merchants to use their services which have value to the merchants because of the number of consumers who use their platform. In effect, Visa sells ‘access to consumers’ to merchants. In a different context but the same vein, Google sells access to consumers to advertisers.
Successful private equity and venture capital firms “sell” access to dealflow to their investors and limited partners. It is a two-sided market. And so it is natural that network effects apply and rational for investors to be pre-disposed to the biggest, most established players. It is reasonable to think that NEA (and KPCB, Index, etc.) or Blackstone (and KKR, Carlyle, etc.) will see a high proportion of the best deals. So far, so true. But unlike electronic payments or algorithmic online advertising, investing (in private companies) does not scale and so unlike these markets, the law of diminishing returns kicks in much, much earlier. The industry (well, much of it) admits as much: I suspect if you offered the GPs of NEA a $10 billion fund, they would probably demur. Indeed I suspect if you offered USV a $500mn fund, they would probably turn it down. The key point is that for any given private investment strategy (sector, stage, etc.) there is clearly a maximum optimal fund size. For a company like Visa or Google, this is not the case – more customers, more merchants, more searches, more advertisers – it’s all good.
Jeff Bussgang recently estimated that the (US?) population of active VC partners was approximately 1000. I don’t know how many mutual and hedge fund managers there are but I suspect it is at least an order of magnitude higher than this. This seems intuitively wrong: investing in a private company is more work and there are more of them. You have a thousand investors looking at a universe of tens of thousands (or more) of investable private companies and tens of thousands of investors looking at investing in a universe of thousands of public companies…
Paul Kedrosky (and others) have written extensively and intelligently on how the venture capital industry needs to shrink. How too much money, chasing too few opportunities has destroyed returns. The logic is compelling. However I would posit that the problem is not too much money per se, but too much money with too few and homogeneous investors.
Let’s look at these two constraints sequentially (although they are co-dependent to a large extent.) If you double the number of GPs but provide ten times more investment capital, on average the valuations of the investments they make will go up five times (thus significantly compromising their future returns.) Ah but this logic assumes a closed system – ie that both the number and types of investments are held constant, and so increasing the ‘money supply’ drives inflation (and lower real returns.)
And we uncover the Achilles Heel of the (otherwise extremely successful) ‘Silicon Valley’ model: the relative homogeneity of the environment leads inevitably to a collective narrowing of the universe of potential investments that is considered and amongst these, an additional narrowing in the way they are evaluated and considered. ie Everyone sees the same deals and runs the same slide rule over them. And so more capital simply means valuation inflation and ultimately, lower returns.
But what if we were able to disrupt this state of affairs? Having spent the past two years intensively researching the markets we are interested in, I simply don’t accept that the ‘problem with venture capital’ is a bounded set of investment opportunities. I’m sure there is some limit to the number of good entrepreneurs, viable business models and attractive market opportunities but we are nowhere close to reaching it. In fact, it is so far away we can’t even see it yet.
No, the problem is a failure of market design. (The irony being of course if this market design failure were in any other industry, venture capitalists would be aggressively investing in companies and business models designed to correct and take advantage of this failure.) The problem simply stated is too small a number of too many similar venture capital and private equity investors. The solution is more, and more diversity. The question is how?
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that I have a few ideas on the subject, and for my first (and only) New Year’s resolution, I will endeavor to articulate these in a multi-part series I will call ‘Saving Private Equity’. Some earlier thoughts on the subject can be found here.
The more cynical amongst you might accuse me of simply ‘talking my book.’ Perhaps. Probably. A more flattering way to look at it is that I am living my convictions. And the lesson I’ve learned is that we need to focus almost exclusively on fund raising for now even if that means disappointing some of our portfolio companies or missing out on a great investment opportunity in the short term. It’s not fun or particularly interesting but like almost any other startup, without capital the rest is just theory. Time to stop thinking and start pitching!
So my question is when does Amazon.com split its retail operations from its AWS platform business. I’d love to see these priced separately. Actually, truth be told, I suggest Amazon.com is actually three businesses:
Earlier this year I suggested that AWS in particular could well be the totemic representative technology that inaugurates the sixth techno-economic paradigm:
Just as Intel’s 4004 microprocessor was the catalyst for a wave of creative destruction in the 70s and 80s, will AWS prove the same for the 00s and 10s? Probably. We’re seeing it already. And it’s going to disrupt the hell out of the mastodons of industry across most sectors of the economy. Why? Because their cultures and leaders are entirely ill-equipped to face such a fundamental paradigm shift. They know how to play by the old rules. The strategic competitive advantages they built up over decades risk suddenly – poof! – to become obsolete.
The central concept in this new option is that of the Spot Price, which we determine based on current supply and demand and will fluctuate periodically. If the maximum price a customer has bid exceeds the current Spot Price then their instances will be run, priced at the current Spot Price. If the Spot Price rises above the customer’s bid, their instances will be terminated and restarted (if the customer wants it restarted at all) when the Spot Price falls below the customer’s bid. This gives customers exact control over the maximum cost they are incurring for their workloads, and often will provide them with substantial savings. It is important to note that customers will pay only the existing Spot Price; the maximum price just specifies how much a customer is willing to pay for capacity as the Spot Price changes.
Spot Instances are ideal for Amazon EC2 customers who have workloads that are flexible as to when its tasks are run. These can be incidental tasks, such as the analysis of a particular dataset, or tasks where the amount of work to be done is almost never finished, such as media conversion from a Hollywood’s studio’s movie vault, or web crawling for a search indexing company. For most of these tasks their completion is not time critical and as such they are ideal targets for additional cost savings.
Before I go any further, let’s just say it’s pretty exciting to see vision become reality even if in this case I’m only a distant spectator. Markets in anything. Digital markets. Themes that go back to the founding mission statement of the Park Paradigm:
(December 2005) The technology of the digital age is driving an unprecedented explosion in the ability to create markets in anything. Trade anything. Not just physical goods. Not just financial instruments. But ideas. Events. Outcomes.
The emergence of these kinds of markets will – over time – impact how we view and interact with the world in all aspects of our personal and professional lives. They will fundamentally alter the current world economic and social paradigm.
Chris Swan calls them virtual resource markets and correctly points out that, at least for now, the market is “closed” – ie users cannot trade their capacity amongst themselves, however I suspect that it is just a matter of time before such a market is organized. But what would be even more useful (and exciting) than a closed market on Amazon EC2 resources, would be an open marketplace for on-demand spot computing resources. ie A marketplace which is agnostic as to where the compute resource comes from, so long as it is a robust and more or less uniform resource.* However for this to be useful for the end consumers of this computing commodity, the ability to switch automatically and seamlessly from one cloud computing source to another based on price and/or availability would be crucial. Indeed this would be the key value driver for anyone hoping to operate a compute resource exchange. Sure the price discovery and transaction mechanisms would be necessary but these are relatively trivial to build and hard (in isolation) to monetize. The real value creator for any exchange (just ask the CME) lies in clearing and settlements. (For the non-financial amongst my readers this is the back-end of the trade, fulfillment essentially.)**
Note, however, that this feature is not market-based pricing. Amazon determines the spot price and can raise that price enough to gain back capacity at will, at no real cost to itself. There is no competition. There is no commoditization. There is just consumption of what is not being used.
The truth is, real commoditization of infrastructure services–or any other cloud service, for that matter–isn’t in the best interest of Amazon or any other service provider.
Regardless, commoditization can’t happen without open standards that allow easy portability and interoperability of data and code, as well as security, control, service-level assurance and compliance systems. Those standards are coming, but it is impossible to predict when they will arrive. I only hope Amazon embraces them when they do.
I’m not sure I agree with his view however that commoditization isn’t in the best interest of Amazon. The underlying asset is ultimately relatively undifferentiated (a compute cycle is a compute cycle is a compute cycle) which is in fact the definition of a commodity. If you are a provider of a commodity – unless you can maintain a monopoly or a cartel – it is in your interest to create as big and vibrant a marketplace as possible. Supply creating demand. And particularly if you fancy yourself the most efficient, large scale producer of said commodity (as I’m sure Amazon does), all the more reason to want a big, liquid market of consumers. It is the exchange and clearer that want to create lock-in, not the producers. To be fair, for the moment AWS is both and indeed this is the point James is making I think, but I would be surprised if they had the intention (hubris?) to think this is anything but a transitionary arrangement.
Of course, as a traded market in this critical 21st century resource develops over the next decade and beyond, the business opportunities abound. Better yet, many of them are well known and can quickly be adapted (from other asset markets) to apply to the compute resource market. It’s not a business yet, but it only took a few hours before the first ticker tapes(here also) began to appear for EC2 pricing:
An entire ecosystem will surely emerge – exchanges, prime brokers, risk management derivatives, algorithmic trading… I’m sure there will also be some interesting second-order opportunities. Linking spot computing prices with spot electricity prices. Selling green compute cycles (ie powered by renewable energy sources only.) Allowing anyone to sell compute cycles into the grid (think SETI@home meets micro-generation). The mind races.
Welcome to the sixth paradigm.
* like a bond futures contract, one could imagine allowing any compute resource fitting a certain minimum specification into the “basket” of deliverable resources; typically in this scenario there would be a “cheapest-to-deliver” resource in the basket which presumably would get allocated first.
** I can’t help but wondering if the amazing technology developed by our portfolio company CohesiveFT couldn’t be adapted or re-purposed to form the core fulfillment engine of a compute resource exchange. The fact that they are Chicago based and their CEO/Founder is ex-O’Connor makes me wonder even more!
A couple of months ago, I had the privilege to have been invited to speak at eComm 09 in Amsterdam. I have posted on this previously but recently the video of my talk was posted and perhaps will make it easier to understand my accompanying presentation. If you can spare 20 minutes (there is an additional 10 minutes of q&a at the end) and are interested in understanding how Nauiokas Park defines our opportunity space, please have a look as it is probably the most succinct expression of the worldview we bring to investing and analyzing potential investment opportunities.
And here is the presentation again, in case you would like to follow along as you listen to the video:
Well-built developer platforms are the future of every industry. (-ReadWriteWeb)
Note: Their is a small glitch around 7:40 where the video skips over a few seconds; funnily enough (for the conspiracy theorists out there) this is exactly where I say that had ZSIN’s existed, the extent of the disasters that occurred in the mortgage securitization markets would have been at least an order of magnitude smaller…)