Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Emperor's New Clothes

A few weeks ago Nick Bilton of Vanity Fair wrote an article on one of my favorite companies, Theranos. "How Elizabeth Holmes' House of Cards Came Tumbling Down" is a fascinating piece, not because of any particular revelations but because it highlights so well the mentality and attitude among certain Founder/CEOs, that they simply don't play by the same rules as you or I, that the narrative of a company is far more important than the reality, and that this behaviour is both enabled and rewarded by VC and tech media.

There are a few points in the story regarding Holmes and Theranos I'll come back to in future posts, however one section in particular hit home for me. This one section of the article reminded me why I'm not a journalist, as in just over a paragraph, Bilton summarises everything about the Venture Capital/Tech Media/Startup ecosystem I've been trying to highlight in this blog, and does so in a way that almost anyone can understand:

While Silicon Valley is responsible for some truly astounding companies, its business dealings can also replicate one big confidence game in which entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and the tech media pretend to vet one another while, in reality, functioning as cogs in a machine that is designed to not question anything—and buoy one another all along the way.

It generally works like this: the venture capitalists (who are mostly white men) don’t really know what they’re doing with any certainty—it’s impossible, after all, to truly predict the next big thing—so they bet a little bit on every company that they can with the hope that one of them hits it big. The entrepreneurs (also mostly white men) often work on a lot of meaningless stuff, like using code to deliver frozen yogurt more expeditiously or apps that let you say “Yo!” (and only “Yo!”) to your friends. The entrepreneurs generally glorify their efforts by saying that their innovation could change the world, which tends to appease the venture capitalists, because they can also pretend they’re not there only to make money. And this also helps seduce the tech press (also largely comprised of white men), which is often ready to play a game of access in exchange for a few more page views of their story about the company that is trying to change the world by getting frozen yogurt to customers more expeditiously. The financial rewards speak for themselves. Silicon Valley, which is 50 square miles, has created more wealth than any place in human history. In the end, it isn’t in anyone’s interest to call bullshit.

The only thing I'll disagree with is the last sentence - it is in almost everyone's interest to call bullshit, just not those currently profiting from the system. The misallocation of society's resources, both in straight cash invested and the working efforts of thousands of the smartest and most talented people on the planet, harms us all. These events have impact beyond just the company and the investors - imagine during Theranos' positive publicity peak in 2015 a scientist promoting their genuinely amazing blood testing technology to VCs, that truly does everything they claim, yet does not meet the fantasy specs touted by Theranos. How well do you think they fared in the fundraising? Exactly. What life enhancing technologies may we have lost because investors demand founders willing to be flexible with the truth?

In the past, I've sat inside a company watching the CEO engage in a war of fantasy performance stats and delivery dates with a competing vaporware company, using the tech press to launch salvos of ever increasing capabilities. When the enemy returned fire with a further 'improved' product, there was panic at the top and demands made to engineering that our product get better or timelines be shortened - statements from those trying to be rational, such as "No. Their numbers are just as made up as ours.", garnered a mix of confused and annoyed looks.

Neither company has, to my knowledge, released a product since then and in part this is connected to these inflated performance promises. It may have been possible to produce a more modest and realistic package that engineering originally wanted to do, but demands for "Perfect. Now." tend to wreck the ability to build anything of quality.

Many people have no problem dealing with bullshit in their working lives, and in fact for many in the legal, marketing, and sales side of business it's an intrinsic part of their day (apologies to the ethical ones among those groups!). Some drink the Kool-Aid and believe, some know the reality but the paycheque keeps coming in and it's not too important anyway. With engineers though, it's different. Our ability to perform and deliver in large part depends on our ability to spot falsehoods and mistakes, the desire for things being 'correct', and our inability to lie to ourselves about the reality of the situation (at least as far as the technical is concerned).

I rarely see engineers quit over pay (except when large inequities are made very clear), but I do see them quit over death march projects or managerial destruction of a long term and rational approach to delivering a product. If they don't quit it's common to see engineers continue on despite the conditions, desperately trying to save the product in the mistaken belief that either they have some form of personal responsibility beyond their employment contract, or that they will ultimately be rewarded for their perseverance when finally things are done. To their own detriment, this can result in significant personal health issues due to the stress, depression that can take them years to recover from, or even in the case of Ian Gibbons, the Chief Scientist for Theranos, can tragically end in suicide. Investors and tech press laud the dedication founders have to their company, to the perseverance, but forget the sacrifices made by those who don't have a 50% ownership in the profits.

In reading this piece by Nick Bilton I realised that the internal divisions I have experienced in companies are often between those who believe or profit from the bullshit, and those who either cannot or will not. It's the common "C-suite vs Engineering" - and in almost every case the former 'win', at least until the point it all comes crashing down. Why? Because making today look better, even at the long term expense of a worse tomorrow, is most profitable for those at the top. This shows up whether it's salesmen pulling forward orders from future years, CEOs cutting R&D for future products to make the bottom line better, or founders and investors "putting the most positive spin on things" (to be polite) in order to sell on to a greater fool.

It looks like the federal government may be cracking down on abuses that have been growing over the last few years, and Theranos seems likely to be the precedent. In my opinion we'll be seeing a rash of prosecutions of startups by the SEC, FCC, FDA, and other regulatory agencies over the next few years, and some very large investments will become worthless. They'll put it off as long as possible, but once it starts to hit the pockets of the large investors, suddenly we'll hear that it is in the interest of everyone to call bullshit. Here's hoping that comes sooner than later.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Whole Lot of Nothing

Energous had a rally in their stock recently, having reached around $18 from only $14 a day or so ago. What happened to cause this rally? Perhaps a product release? A deal announced with a major customer? A licencing deal on their technology? Something to show a product or revenue?

No. Someone read a two year old prospectus and jumped to the conclusion that a deal with Apple existed because the word "Apple" was in the document somewhere. And based on that, the stock rallies from $14 to $18 in 2 days. Here's the wording, image taken from the VentureBeat article:

Let me translate - they expect (but don't confirm) that their products will go through a variety of tests (Apple compliance being one of them), and that this list of tests may change. That's it. Nothing more. Nothing about a deal. Reading anything more into this is just putting your own biases and hopes into it.

I've watched from inside a startup as the tech media made rampant speculation about what we were doing, the technology we had - it was based on nothing, with ridiculous expectations, but it benefited the company for this to continue so why dissuade them of their opinion?

Energous are a publicly traded company, the SEC can get upset if they mislead or leak information, resulting in criminal charges. I expect everything they say to be 100% factual but worded in a way that lets you draw other conclusions if you are so inclined. I've talked about how you can word a press release to make it sound like so much more has happened than actually has.

Take a look at the stock price for WATT (Energous) over the last 3 months. Notice the rises then large drops, such as the $12 to $20 rise from July? That's the rise before Apple events, then the fall at 2pm on the day the Tim Cook doesn't announce Energous wireless charging in iPhones. Expect that to keep happening, someone is making a lot of money on this volatility. 

This is a non-story. The real story is the genius of the Energous team - either the genius in making RF wireless charging possible, or genius in how to earn millions in developing a product that can likely never actually work or get regulatory approval all while never actually lying and staying legal within SEC rules. I know which of those two I think it is.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Honestly? Tech Startups are Giving Themselves a Credibility Problem

The last week has seen some intense scrutiny about the honesty and trustworthiness of some tech startup companies, with a former employee blogging about the startup that 'scammed them', Hampton Creek apparently being investigated by the SEC for its business practices, and Theranos admitting that data it recently presented at the AACC conference didn't follow basic procedures to protect patients. Given the frequency of these 'accidental' behaviours that always seem to financially benefit the company or CEO involved, it seems there might be a selection of personality traits that predispose those leading startups towards such actions.

It's certainly not all startup CEOs who are like this, I've had the pleasure of working for two CEOs who went above and beyond to be fair, reasonable, and honest in their dealings with both staff and customers, as well as a few who while not necessarily exemplary, made sure to follow the rules. Unfortunately there are few who have lived in Silicon Valley and worked in startups who haven't encountered a CEO most would consider between unethical and criminal in their actions, and it's often an expensive lesson for those of us who have been through it. There are enough of these 'bad apples' that make you wonder, like with the finance industry, is there something in the Silicon Valley startup system that's attracting and encouraging this type of person?

Looking at the three cases I mentioned earlier, we can get an idea of the types of scams that can be played on employees and investors, and why CEOs try them even when you would think there is a high likelihood of being found out.

Theranos. Again.
I've written about Theranos several times, a company reporting to perform many blood tests quickly with a finger prick of blood, but whose coverage was more focused on the attention seeking CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, than the company itself. It is under investigation by both the FDA and SEC for claims made about their technology to both patients and investors, and recently they presented at the AACC conference in an attempt to win over the scientific community. While they mostly avoided answering pertinent questions, they presented some new data from their systems, especially regarding a Zika virus test. They were attempting to have their FDA approval of this test expedited due to the urgency of the current outbreak, and it would help them sell the system despite their CEO from being banned from running a blood testing company. They did not win the approval of scientists, but were hoping that this would give them the thin veil of legitimacy.

Well it turns out that they didn't follow the standard basic patient safeguards when gathering this data, and have now withdrawn the test from the approval process. John Carreyrou at the Wall Street Journal continues his excellent reporting on this company, and not only do the company try this even under the scrutiny they are under, amazingly they still try to spin this as a positive for the company:

“We hope that our decision to withdraw the Zika submission voluntarily is further evidence of our commitment to engage positively with the agency,” 

They continue in the Big Lie - if they say it often enough, people might believe it. Their 'mistake' though is so basic that you have to wonder if anyone in Theranos has actual blood testing experience, or why those who do still haven't left in shame. Perhaps this is was done under tremendous pressure from the CEO to have data she could use and corners were cut, but regardless it points once again to a disregard for rules and the rights of others, as well as a lack of empathy for potential suffering. Given that the CEO has complete control of the company, this culture that fails to consider safety and process has to either come from, or be condoned by, Holmes herself.

Just Mayo?
Hampton Creek are a startup that claims it will soon be a 'unicorn', (valued at $1 billion or more), as they produce vegan mayonnaise and other 'healthy' products. It does seem that 'healthy food' startups are getting outsized funding and valuations, and as I've covered before there can be great pressure on a CEO to maximise the company valuations especially in the leadup to a new funding round. Hampton Creek are reportedly being investigated for sending consultants into supermarkets selling their mayonnaise and buying the stock, and then recognising this income as revenue just before a $90 million funding round. While claiming this was a quality assurance program, that's 'highly unusual' and even if so should have been accounted for separately. 

This may seem like a minor thing to do, but is far from it. While any company will want to get the best publicity for itself, artificially inflating sales figures or planting untrue stories in the press regarding deals or valuations move into the realm of fraud. The SEC are involved primarily because this was done just before a large fundraising round, and presumably want to know if investors were shown inflated sales figures in an attempt to artificially raise valuation. For many years Silicon Valley startups have assumed that such securities laws do not apply to them, however recently the head of the SEC has made it clear that this is not the case, and these laws will be enforced. I suspect we will be seeing more such cases in the coming years.

Any company that does this shows that lack of regard for the law, the belief that it does not apply to them, and possibly simply a need for admiration and to boost their self image - and once again in a startup, the founders/CEOs usually have near complete control and there is no-one to place a check on their behaviour.

"The Check is in the Mail!"
Penny Kim blogged about her experience after she accepted a job as Marketing Director of WrkRiot, and encountered an extreme form of a very common form of startup experience - being told that "your paycheck is coming soon!" when the money simply isn't there. Now running a startup isn't easy, and it's not uncommon to be waiting on funding coming in to pay bills, but not being honest with employees about the likelihood of their next pay check appearing is disturbingly common and seemingly acceptable to many. Most states view not paying employees very dimly, and there are can be significant penalties for companies that do so - on top of losing the loyalty of your staff. Every reputable boss I've worked for has been clear - employees get paid first no matter what, and if you can't pay them you talk and negotiate with them as soon as possible.

Having worked at a company that in the early stages chose to have everyone as contractors rather than employees, which then failed to tell us the money had run out (despite a week earlier talking about hiring more staff) and abused the monthly invoicing schedule to have us work 6 weeks without pay before telling us, it's not something you forget even when you later receive the monies owed.  (We later found out they actually did have money in the bank, but were saving it for 'more important things') What WrkRiot allegedly did though was even worse - it looks like they may have fabricated evidence of large wire transfers to the company so that the employees could be paid 'in the next couple of days'. If so, this is fraud, and likely easy to prove once a State Attorney General becomes involved. 

Once Penny Kim realised this, and both applied her legal rights and encouraged other employees to do so as well, the company retaliated and fired her (illegal). She finally received her wages, but not the other monies owed by contract, and in a situation I'm familiar with essentially the company makes it clear that to get the rest of what you're owed you're going to have to go to court. They know most people just don't want that hassle and expense.

What they didn't count on was Penny blogging about the experience, and it was soon discovered who the company was. The company, WrkRiot, then responded on their Facebook page calling her a "disgruntled former employee", that her actions were slanderous (even though 'libelous' is the word they were looking for), and the company would be pursuing legal action. This clearly hadn't been vetted by the company lawyer and soon disappeared.

As a "disgruntled former employee" myself, I want to point out that "disgruntled" simply means "angry, dissatisfied, aggrieved, resentful" and has no implications as to whether that is justified or not. Modern usage seems to imply there is something negative about the term - if what Penny Kim wrote is true then she has every reason to be disgruntled.

Overall this is appears to be quite egregious behaviour on the part of WrkRiot, however ask anyone living in Silicon Valley and working in startups for a time, and they'll tell you stories like this, or worse. Often, the companies in question are funded by large well known VCs or in national publications list of "Best Startups to Work For". What goes on inside such startups is often very different than the facade the media often portray.

Warning signs
It takes experience, and a few scars, to learn to spot the signs of companies and CEOs who behave like this - I've worked for a few and each time I've got faster at noticing the signs and protecting myself. It's still tricky, society and companies work better when there is trust, and most people want to believe the best of others - and it's that attitude a few take advantage of. It's only a small subset of society that think this way, but the large sums of money now in tech startups, along with the minimal oversight from the funders, attract these personality types.

How to spot them without going through the pain yourself? Firstly, not all CEOs who do such things are doing so deliberately, some are simply inexperienced, incompetent, or just out of their depth and panicking - regardless, it's your career and paycheque, and they've chosen to be in that position. You have a contract with your company, they need to honour it, and you don't need to do any more than is on paper - if they fail to meet their side of the deal, you don't have to meet yours (when it comes to that, get a lawyer, don't be cheap). Be clear and communicate with them, but in the end, protect yourself whether it's accidental or deliberate.

Watch what the company does and remember that only three things will tell you how they will act in future - their record of actions, their record of actions, and their record of actions. Don't listen to what they say, watch what they do. If they do it to other staff, they'll do it to you. Isolated incidents of problems do happen in startups, but put the onus on them to prove they are being honest. If things happen more than once, trust your gut and get out early.

I'd recommend reading books such as "The Wisdom of Psychopaths" by Ben Dutton and educated yourself on the patterns of their behaviour and how 'normal' they can seem at first. One poster 'Theodores' on the HackerNews thread on Penny Kim's post made a good observation that finally made clear something I've been struggling to tie together - CEOs who don't make the 'psychopath' definition yet have some similar traits and abuse their position seemingly without remorse.

Even if we have gone through the mill several times we may not be educated as to what is only going on. You have to be done over by someone at the extreme end of the spectrum of personality disorder to understand what really goes on with the tyrants and bullies that frequently own companies, start-up or otherwise. We even elect these 'personality disorder' types to high office without anyone pointing out that they are not fit for the role due to having these psychopath tendencies.

He then links to the Wikipedia definition of Personality Disorder Cluster B which lists the following behaviours:
  • Antisocial personality disorder: a pervasive disregard for the law and the rights of others.
  • Borderline personality disorder: extreme "black and white" thinking, instability in relationships, self-image, identity and behavior often leading to self-harm and impulsivity.
  • Histrionic personality disorder: pervasive attention-seeking behavior including inappropriately seductive behavior and shallow or exaggerated emotions.
  • Narcissistic personality disorder: a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.

and I realised that this is the type of personality, excessive aggrandisement, attention-seeking behaviour, a disregard for rules, and an overblown view of their capabilities, that I feel many of those funding startups are actively looking for. By funding those who do not 'play by the rules' and inflate their apparent valuations, investors are encouraging this behaviour and inflicting it on all of us.

There are no definitive solutions to this - their will always be unethical leaders, especially when money and power are involved, but there are things that can be done to minimise their impact. Employees need to educate themselves as to the personality traits of such people, to know their rights, and be willing to walk away from any such positions. Investors need to take a more active role in selecting more 'reasonable' people to run companies, and to not reward such personalities through funding. Further, once funded, investors need to take a more active role in monitoring their companies, and understand that they can't claim no responsibility, that the actions of these companies are at least in part their fault. It's also in their own interest to do so - a few more stories like the ones above, and potential purchasers of their companies will be more and more wary of buying at a high valuation. Finally, agencies such as the SEC and State Attorneys General must actively enforce existing laws on startups and stop turning a blind eye to it - only once heavy fines are imposed, along with jailtime, will this truly be taken seriously. There seem to be some movement on that enforcement front, and some have been warning that at some point soon, at least one prominent startup CEO will end up in jail for their actions.

As a last point, I want to congratulate Penny Kim on writing about her experience and drawing attention to the abuse heaped on some employees that is rarely covered in the press. It's hard to bring this to light, and the spotlight that falls on you when you speak out can be intense - but the more people who do this, the more awareness is raised, and the harder it will be to happen to others.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

How Is This A Thing?

When talking about what sort of companies get funding from VC, I have a saying: 

Even when you take into account that VCs will fund companies more pointless than you can imagine, VCs will still fund companies more pointless than you imagined.

In that vein, I was amused today to read about Juicero, a company that makes juicers (the things that squeeze fruit and veg and make glasses of juice), and was funded to what was believed to be a total of $120 million. Yes, $120 million. I know it's been covered earlier this year but somehow I missed it, perhaps I assumed it was an April Fool's joke and ignored it, but it's for real.

So what is it? It's a $700 juicer that you buy (yes, seven hundred dollars), and then in the same way you buy different coffee pods for a Keurig, you buy different types of juice packets which range up to $10 each (yes, ten dollars). Hey, pre-cleaning and chopping organic (of course) fruit then putting it in a non-degradable packet is hard work! Pop the juice packet into the juicer, press a button, and a minute later you have a glass of juice. Then you throw away the packet, nothing to clean. But wait, there's more. The packet has a QR code on it (those square, 2D barcodes) and the system reads the QR code to compare with an internet database (it's WiFi connected of course) and see if the packet is in date - if you're in luck the system will press the juice for you just right. If not, or your internet happens to be down, no such luck and the $10 you spent will get you nothing.

So the skeptic in me sees:
  • A solution to a non-existent problem. This solves nothing. No pain point other than a bit of washing up
  • Vastly more expensive and environmentally damaging than the existing method
  • Multiple points of failure and unnecessary complexity
  • At best serves a tiny demographic
Buying the most expensive organic pressed juice in Whole Foods (you know, stuff someone has pre-cleaned and chopped and put in a plastic packet) and putting it in your fridge would be cheaper than this, wouldn't need an initial $700 investment, and you could still drink it when you the WiFi goes down. It's the sort of thing that you'd ridicule an undergraduate student for in their final year "Entrepreneurial Studies" final project, or congratulate them for the best parody startup you'd seen. But it got funded. For $120 million. How?

Industrial Design
The system looks beautiful. Just look at that sleek Jony Ive style design, it's like an iPhone on your countertop, how could you not want that? That alone makes it worth $120 million. OK, you think I'm, joking here? One of the things I've observed in the last few years of watching startup funding is this: Never underestimate the value of the mock-up, it's about the most important thing to show when fundraising. Not the prototype, the mock-up (but be sure to call it a prototype).

As an engineer, I've been more the "show something working even if it's a bag of circuits and wires, cleaning it up later is the easier part". More fool me. What I've learned is that such demonstrations press the 'off' button with investors - instead, show a mock-up or better yet the Industrial Design (ID). Best if you can put it into their hands, but an "artist's renderering" works amazingly well too. Seriously, investors seem to lose any ability to ask questions about the actual product when they're handed a piece of cardboard covered in plastic with a logo on it. "Hey, look how cool this thing is! It's amazing! All the hard work is done, all someone has to do is all the engineering/user design, validation, and testing to make it happen!"

I can see this having been part of the pitch deck to investors, a cool image and saying some ID firm run by ex-Apple designers is on it, and they'll think it's 90% done. Just be sure to accidentally say "prototype".

Market Penetration
Next I can see the slide showing some data on growth in juice bars, which if you live in places like SF or on Main Street in Santa Monica, there seem to be one every block running a 'special' of "4 for $30". I used to sit in the bar or ramen place opposite and count how many went inside during the day. If it got over a couple in an hour it was unusual, I've no idea how they survived. However, if you've got too much money then you all friends know people who 'juice', it's a health thing, and $10 for a juice isn't ridiculous so that's all OK.

Then we get the market equivalent - the Keurig. They'll have some curves showing Keurig's rise to around $4 billion in sales in 2014, and a tag line such as "The Keurig for Juice!". What's not to love about it? They sell the hardware, but then get the lock-in on the juice packets and receive ongoing revenue from that. Even better, the QR code means it won't work with third party packets, and unlike Keurig's failed attempts to create such a lockin, the fact the system is internet connected is the way they'll ensure that it can't be bypassed. Thought it was stupid that there was such a point of failure? No, to investors that's a positive! 

It's not even a system where they buy on demand like Keurig, nope here you go on a subscription and you get your supply sent every week. Better not miss your juice intake for the day, it's your health after all. They'll have that hockey stick curve of 1000 sales in year one, 10,000 in year two, and then a million in years three and out, with the consumables revenue from all those sales building nicely to make this a billion dollar company in year 5. Who wouldn't invest in that?

Supply Chain
Next they'll show how they'll corner the market in the consumable preparation, buying in vast quantities from the organic farmers and driving down the price, getting further margins there. They'll probably be something in there that shows how they can shift the content mix in each packet to use the cheapest ingredients available at the time. Something of a logistical nightmare, but it sounds great.

An Impulse Buy
It seems they aim for the "give away the razor, charge for the razor blades" approach of Gillette - except in this case they "give away" the first part for ~$700. Not a necessity and hardly in the impulse buy category, I have a sneaking suspicion they initially targeted a lower price point than this telling the investors it would sell for the price of a Keurig, with an entry level product in the $100 to $200 range, then just utterly failed to hit it. Right now I can imagine they're telling investors something like "This is the premium version, we've got a plan for cost down for the regular version!" when this probably was the standard version. It won't be the first time a CEO has demanded a product with every feature, in a really short timeframe, and then been shocked at the cost. When you're looking at time, cost, and quality, you only get to pick two, and time is never on your side as a startup.

That $700 may even be a subsidised number (though they claim not), but regardless if you assume that their COGs is around 30% of the price then you're looking at parts and labor of more than what an equivalent product retails for. They had two years to get this going, and while supply chain can take that long, without anything exotic in the design, time was not a restriction in getting this made, they should have had time to Design for Cost. Instead, I suspect a series of changing demands, feature creep, and failure to plan before initiating hardware builds made it take longer than should have been.

The Founder
And here we come to the main event, the CEO, Doug Evans. If ever you have a True Believer who is absolutely invested in this product and actually believes in what he's selling no matter how crazy, this is it. He compares himself and his product to Tesla, and that his method of squeezing gets more Chi, life force, and vibrational energy out of the juice. (Wait, vibrational energy? Maybe it can charge your phone at the same time!). 

How can you not believe in someone who can lead and inspire like this?

“Organic cold-pressed juice is rainwater filtered through the soil and the roots and the stems and the plants,” he said. “You extract the water molecules, the chlorophyll, the anthocyanin and the flavonoids and the micronutrients. You’re getting this living nutrition. It’s like drinking the nectar of the earth.”

He had the "Tenacity, Resilience, Perspiration" needed to never give up, so loved by investors. He even had Domain Experience, having run juice bars before. What does it matter this was a electro-mechanical system, consumer product, software app, supply chain, and retail play, none of which he had experience of. At least he later realised what a huge job it was to get it to market:

“I was just na├»ve,” Mr. Evans said. “I was like Forrest Gump. I had no idea what it took to make a piece of hardware that could ship to consumers safely.”

It's a pity more technically inexperienced founders don't listen to advice from those who tell them their timelines are ridiculous and that there are massive technical and safety concerns that shouldn't be ignored. 

What The VC Sees
Now imagine you're a Venture Capitalist, looking for somewhere to put your money for a possible 10x to 100x return and make your fund profitable, making up for all the other plays that tanked. Do you laugh this "Juicero" out the room, or do you make a mental list of all the positives and evaluate the risk versus the potential returns? If you did that, here's what you might get:
  • A dedicated True Believer Founder
  • A simple tagline, easy to understand 
  • A comparison business model that shows billions in revenue
  • Profit on the product, ongoing revenue from consumables
  • A 'hockey stick' revenue curve
  • No new technology needed, it's really an execution play
  • Digital lockout of third party suppliers
  • First mover advantage
Honestly, I look at that list and think "I can see why someone invested" especially if you can get them salivating over owning a part of "Keurig for Juice" early on and that it's going to be $200 a pop. If you even think there's a 10% chance it could match Keurig's $4 billion a year in revenue, a few million invested actually isn't totally ridiculous. 

So when you pitch your awesome idea to a VC and they don't invest, and then that VC pours a ton of money into a juicer company for a product that no-one is going to buy, have a look at how your business model compares to theirs. 

On paper, Juicero ticks all the boxes and makes sense as a VC investment. In reality, it's totally dumb. Do you see now why this is a thing, and you're not getting funded?

Mock-Ups, Industrial Design, and Prototypes

When you're a company showing a non-existent or early stage product off, you want to give engineers, investors, and the press an idea of where you are going with it, and so you need to have Mock-Ups, Industrial Design, and Prototypes. Each has a slightly different meaning, and while there's no firm line dividing them, I'll give the definitions that have been standard in most engineering fields in which I have worked.

Why does this matter? Because startup founders, CEOs, and PR teams might 'accidentally' get them confused and have you believing that thing they're holding in their hands really works when it's just a painted egg-carton, unless you know what to ask.

This is a very, very early stage representation of how a final product may look. It's done with no or limited user surveys and testing, engineering specs are incomplete, and is usually a basic structure made from cheap parts such as cardboard or plastic to give something to hold in your hands and imagine as to the size, weight etc of the final product. Think elementary school science fair. It's made cheaply, quickly, will change significantly before the final product, and most importantly is completely non-functional.

Industrial Design
This is something more substantial than the Mock-Up. Later in the product development stage, when the engineering specs are more solid, and there's been real user testing data to see what the users want in the product, and your marketing team has defined your target markets and how you want to appeal to the consumer, you do your Industrial Design (ID). This is where you make your product look as appealing as possible while keeping the technical needs in mind, and meeting your unit cost targets.  If you have multiple products you make sure it gives you a 'family' look, so your products are distinct - think Apple, or Dyson. There's usually a substantial amount of work needed to generate the information the Industrial Designer needs (both technical and user), then there's a few iterations of artist's renderings and 3D printed models before the final ID is made. You might spend tens of thousands to millions of dollars per product to do this well, and should be hiring specialists to do it. This is the world where the likes of Jony Ive work.

ID is a fundamental part of any product you actually want to sell, but once again it's important to remember that ID is completely non-functional no matter how pretty it looks. 

A prototype is a non-final engineering system showing some or all of the technical features of the final product, to some degree. Most products go through multiple prototypes during development, and are a critical part of the learning process for engineering, as well as developing the information needed. They are made with engineers in mind, to see performance, manufacturing and test techniques, as a platform to make quick changes and as such is often ugly, loud, expensive, and temperamental. Over time the prototypes get more refined, features more complete (or dropped), until you reach the point where you're just tweaking and then you freeze the design, and move to production. Some engineers also like to use terms such as "Demonstration System" for very early prototypes whose performance does not reach a level needed for a product but still use the same technical methods that will be improved to the point of being useful, that's a personal preference.

The most important thing with a Prototype is that to some degree it is actually functional

Suggestions to Tech Journalists and Investors
If someone shows you what they call a "prototype", try to turn it on, or ask what functionality is in the item they are holding up as a "prototype" (be really specific here, point to it, and ask what that item there can do, not what might be in the lab somewhere, as PR teams sometimes 'forget' to make that difference clear). If it doesn't work and it looks ugly, it's a Mock-Up, and if it doesn't work and looks gorgeous, it's Industrial Design. If they mumble or don't let you touch it, then it's a Mock-Up/ID and they're trying it on. Until proven otherwise, call it a Mock-Up or "non-functional Industrial Design", if it's truly a prototype then any real company will be very quick to prove that to you.

As this article on Theranos so clearly shows, startup founders have a skill of telling no lies, but making you believe there is more to their product without ever saying it, and the word "Prototype" is one of the methods of doing so. Beware.

In her 90 minutes onstage, Holmes did not tell any obvious lies. Her genius was in the strategic leaving out of information -- creating holes that people tend to fill with faulty assumptions. Instead of lying, she prompted people to lie to themselves. Understanding how to avoid being fooled by this technique is important, given how frequently it pops up in fields far beyond science. Fact-checkers often don't spot this brand of deception.

Who Doesn't Know That?

Someone sent me this image today, thinking it was really funny. It's kinda bizarre to me - Who doesn't know that Will Smith is from West Philly? It would be pretty embarrassing to meet him and say something like "I love all your shows. So tell me where are you from?". I bet he's got a really awesome expression for situations like that. Maybe something like one of these?

Yeah, I think those would be pretty close. Anyway, it reminded me that I saw Suicide Squad last week - it wasn't one I was rushing to see, following some negative reviews and that DC has really not been doing too good a job with its films lately. Batman vs Superman was not very good, very poor given the material they had to work with - you have Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, what else do you need? Marvel can get a great film with Ant-Man which I thought was insanity when I heard the announcement, but write a good script with good actors and you can get a fun film.

Well, Suicide Squad surprised me in a similar way to Ant-Man. I had low expectations but enjoyed it, and really wonder why it got the bad press it did. It's a slightly better than average summer action film plot, with solid performances from all the cast but definitely carried by Smith and Robbie in their respective roles as Deadshot and Harley Quinn. They really made you care about them despite their less than pleasant characters, and had a chemistry that worked. Amanda Waller is cold and calculating, in many ways is the villain of the film, as she should be. It had the right balance of action and comic relief, wasn't overly long, and left it open for a sequel, which I'd be want to see.

The Joker seemed almost an add-on, even though he is central to Harley Quinn's character. Other than to have the Joker in it, I'm not even sure why he was there. Leto does a decent performance with him, but I'm not sure that he had any material to really make him exude crazy - Heath Ledger still takes home the prize for most insane and scary Joker. 

Compared to the other summer films, better than both Jason Bourne (retread of the first three, nothing new) or Star Trek:Beyond (exceeds the low bar set by the last two ST films, but not great). Way better than Batman vs Superman, better than X-Men:Apocalypse, though not Deadpool level brilliant. Overall if you like this type of action/comedy film go see Suicide Squad and ignore the reviews. Apart from this one.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Bait and Switch

Raising money from any source can be difficult - you have to persuade whoever has money that you're the best place for it to go, and you're up against a lot of competition. Sometimes you can do that by showing preliminary work and persuading your peers you have a sensible rational approach to moving forward, and the end result is worthwhile - most grants from the government are done this way. Sometimes you can show existing revenue and that market growth will easily allow the money you need to expand to be paid back, and a bank or other lender will see the value. When you are a public company, you have to show returns and potential for growth that make your stock look appealing to retirement funds and the public. With Venture Capital, the goal is to provide outsized returns, billion dollar companies that give 10x or 100x gains or more, ideally to make up for all the other bad bets made and have their VC fund be profitable. It's this last one, and the behaviours it encourages, that we are going to delve into a little deeper.

What Drives Cheque Sizes and Valuations?
When raising from VC, there are multiple things a company needs to take into account. First, there's how much you need to raise, (Many Series A round are in the $3 to $10 million range) and how much of your company you are prepared to part with to get that.  The combination of those two tells you where your company needs to be in valuation to make that possible, for example if you want to give up no more than 20% of your company and to raise $10 million, you need a $40 million pre-funded valuation (that's the value before you take the money) - as the post-value will be $50 million ($40m pre + $10m investment) and then that 20% is the $10 million investment compared to the $50 million post.

Most VCs have an expectation of owning a reasonable piece of the company, usually in the range of 20 to 25% with 15% at the low end, and 30% at the high end. The range of cheque sizes they are prepared to write depends on the size of their fund - how many companies they want to monitor sets the lower bound, and spreading risk to be sure not all their eggs are in one basket sets the upper end. For example, a $200 million fund may decide that a minimum of $3 million and a maximum of $6 million for Series A companies is their comfort zone, leaving some cash over for seed investment and reserved for later stage funding. These numbers vary with each VC, and with time as their fund matures - they typically last 10 years and what they do in year 1 is very different than compared to year 7.

While normally you'd want to boost the valuation of your company to minimize the dilution of your company, setting your expected valuation as very high will immediately remove a number of VCs from your possible pool of funders. For example, if you want a valuation of $100 million with a $10 million raise, then you need to find a VC not only able to write that cheque, but willing to accept under 10% of the company in return (actually, more than one since often there is a lead and then additional companies that split the deal). With a raise of $20 million the pool of VCs willing to fund is even less, but the % of the company on offer is much more palatable. If instead the valuation moves to $40 million then you still have the same pool of VCs as originally, but they will be much more interested in owning 20% of your company than 10%.

Incentives for the Founder to Push Valuation
You as the founder/CEO want to get the most money for the least equity so the goal is to match financial needs, with the cheque size of a VC that is in your area and likes you, and with an idea/company that justifies the valuation to keep VC ownership in the 20% ish area. Seeing as there is an inherent need in people to both raise as much money as possible, and believe the external validation that your company is worth an enormous sum of money, there is pressure to give the 'rosiest' view of the possibilities for your company. As I wrote before, I have even been chastised by a possible investor for presenting a 'realistic' view of revenue and told instead to show the most positive view regardless of likelihood.

A CEO is under that pressure to inflate values, particularly one without a real grasp of the realities of their area such as those who have little or no actual experience in a technical field - Elizabeth Holmes and the like, for example. They can claim ridiculous things to potential investors that no-one who actually truly understands would say, and say so convincingly because they believe it themselves. If you read VCs talk of what they look for in founders, it's almost always a 'fundamentalist religion type zeal and belief in what they are doing'. Notice in that article it's the last 2 of 12 characteristics that what most people consider critical - Domain Expertise and Integrity - and I've found (to my own detriment) that most CEOs I've worked for utterly fail in both of those. 'Tenacity' is the most important to VCs apparently, after all you don't want your investment to be thinking about reality, there might be a sucker somewhere who eventually buys the very dead horse you've been flogging. (Sorry, I mean "overcome the great difficulties being a founder entails")

Basically, VCs set the terms and incentivize what would normally be considered lying or fraud - why are we surprised when that's what we get? Moreover, it weeds out those experienced in a field who simply understand enough to put realistic expectations on what's possible, or have the integrity to refuse to lie.

Exaggerating or Lying?
When does 'rosiest view' change to 'lying'? There is no sharp line before which it's exaggeration and after which it's fraud, it's a grey area. Sometimes you are smart (or lucky) and what you claim turns out to be true, sometimes it's completely wrong, sometimes it kinda does but not nearly as well as you hoped - very occasionally it's massively better than hoped and you end up a Facebook or WhatsApp. Sometimes you might believe you can reach a metric you are claiming, and only have the resources to know for sure post Series A, and when you learn what you are truly capable of you have to 'pivot' and refocus the company on a different, usually smaller, market you can actually address.

What is it, though, when the company knew for a long time that what they were claiming was never achievable? Maybe they always knew, maybe they learned later once they had the staff and funding, but they kept going because to do otherwise was to admit defeat, and give up any chance of that greater fool buying you. So what does someone like that do? Well if we look to Theranos and Energous, the answer is 'Bait and Switch'.

Theranos Poisoning the Well for other Blood Test Tech
Theranos recently Punked the AACC and managed to give a marketing pitch for a new platform rather than actually give results on their old one on which they had raised $700 million. The old system was supposed to have been able to run up to 200 tests on mere drops of blood drawn from a finger rather than a vein, which if achievable would have been a huge leap forward. They were the darling of Silicon Valley, with huge coverage in the press for the founder Elizabeth Holmes (and all on her, not the tech). It turns out that they were not being very truthful in their claims, and now both the SEC and FDA are pursuing criminal complaints against the company as well as eight class action lawsuits from patients who received false diagnoses from the company. These exaggerated claims allowed them to raise that $700 million while still allowing the founder to maintain a majority holding of stock, for a while making her a billionaire until the truth came out.

So what did this new system do? Capillary blood from the finger? No. 200+ tests? No. Cheaper than existing? No. Faster than existing? No. More utility from a single box? Maybe. Essentially everything that made the company viable and worth investing in was a lie, and now they are trying to pretend the company is viable with a far less interesting concept, and one that was stated by experts to not having anything that didn't exist elsewhere. Had they done this two or three years ago, before actually providing patients with false diagnoses, then it would have been a 'pivot' - a company that made a noble and commendable effort but didn't quite work out. But they didn't, they kept the illusion of capability going far beyond when any sane person would have dropped it, and fully moved to the realm of "Bait and Switch". Turns out they get to keep that $700 million despite at some point having moved from 'exaggerate' to 'lie' in their claims - way to reward bad behaviour.

That VCs burn their money (some of which comes from pension funds remember) on a stupid bet is one thing, partly that's what they do, but because they both allowed and incentivized Theranos' behaviour, that target of a fast, cheap, small, versatile, consumer friendly blood testing was the norm for anyone else raising money in that area for the last few years. Imagine you had a product that did literally half of what Theranos claimed, and you pitched to VCs who kept rejecting you because they expected and demanded a company that exceeded Theranos. An honest founder couldn't pitch that, a dishonest or naive one could. By Theranos continuing the charade of their viability they made it harder for those legitimate startups to raise anything at all due to unrealistic expectations. It's great for a company to kill their competitors but not what we as consumers or investors (or I assume LPs in a VC) want.

Energous and the Pointless Product
Energous are wireless power company who claim to use RF (like wifi) to power small devices like phones. No independent third party has ever validated their system or performance, and some claim they are simply using a "Time to Carrot" approach to constantly keep investors thinking that the pot of gold is about 12 to 18 months out, and just put more money in. They have claimed up to 4 Watts at up to 15 feet from the transmitter but there are so many skeptics, myself included, that look at the physics and maths and show that what they claim is simply not possible. After going through an IPO, raising millions of dollars and the top three executives paying themselves almost $5 million a year total with no product or revenue, how do they answer their critics? By releasing a product, but so simple and with specs so low that it is pointless, and calling it "mini" - and now they claim they have a product, and it's just "the big pot of gold is just around the corner...".

The mini-WattUp is a small USB sized device claiming to charge devices, that needs to be in contact to an inch away (not 15 feet), and charges at a rate that would take days at best to fully charge a phone, but it does have FCC approval (because it does nearly nothing). It's like making a car for a soap-box derby and claiming that next year you'll be competing with Tesla. It achieves the goal of continuing the illusion that there is real technology, real hope of a full scale version which will always be "18 months away".

Had Energous tried to IPO the company based on the mini-WattUp then they would have fallen flat on their face - nothing interesting, useful, or better than the competition (by far). If the goal though is to raise the cash, milk it for as long as they can, then a "Bait and Switch" keeps the money flowing, and that's the most important thing. <sarcasm>It's a pity as it destroys any market for real at-distance wireless power companies.</sarcasm>

Speaking of Other "At Distance" Wireless Power Companies
For some reason, I wanted to remind everyone of uBeam's claims of how they will be wirelessly charging at a distance, and by the end of 2016 (only a few months left to wait!). Released specs are:

I can't find anything on safety or efficiency that's public from uBeam, though there are some well written articles on the safety aspect. Just keeping this in mind for comparing to the product uBeam must be releasing soon.

Bait and Switch
So looking at Theranos and Energous, if you're wondering why they make the claims they do which have never been backed up by evidence, it's because they've been paid millions of dollars to do so. The system simply encourages it, and it's basic human trait that when you reward a behaviour you get more of it. VCs by their funding approach are selecting for founders and CEOs most willing to exaggerate, and in some cases willing to lie. If we want to see less distortions in our allocation of capital and see it more go to genuine, viable technologies, then something has to change. In large part, one of the culprits is the tech media, who simply reprint PR scripts they are handed, and give up actual ability to criticise in return for access. We need more willing to ask the hard questions in the way John Carreyrou did of Theranos or Lee Gomes did of uBeam, rather than just parrot a PR line handed to them without question.

Until that happens, expect more companies to raise large amounts on the unfeasible, and then finish the "Bait and Switch".

And finally
Just as I was to publish this, I read a fantastic piece in the The Atlantic by Adrienne LaFrance about "Access, Accountability Reporting and Silicon Valley" which says a lot of what I've been trying to say on the media coverage of tech firms, but far more eloquently. I highly recommend it.