Startup Lessons: Tough Decisions

This is the 6th installment in the Startup Lessons series I have been writing in the wake of my experience with Get Satisfaction. This one is a tough one to write and it is important to acknowledge that when it comes to strategy there is a lot of nuance and the fact remains that you are dealing with a complex multi-variant problem so there is no playbook you can pull off the shelf and just hit go. Having said that, a key failing of startup management teams is the inability to develop and adhere to a strategic planning process that lays out priorities and initiatives that have to be attacked in order to achieve the only metric that matters, growth.

To recap, here is the series thus far:

1) Hiring
2) Dynamic Org Structures
3) Product First
4) Marketing
5) Board Management

6) Tough decisions: Today I want to highlight is the challenge of making tough calls in a startup, decisions that may mean giving up one thing you already have in exchange for something you would like to have. You can’t have it all so you have to narrow down the range of strategies you are executing to those things that sustain the company over the short and medium term, grow shareholder value, and result in a culture of winning. The bottom line is that your resources will constantly be 120% consumed and the only metric that matters is growth, so bias every decision you make to delivering growth

Case in point during my tenure was the observation I made in late 2010 that a reliance on a feature driven packaging approach was hamstringing the company and creating a bias to the direct sales side of the business. Enterprise sales models deliver revenue and there is an extensive library of company case studies on building large businesses off enterprise license agreements but those models don’t deliver customer number growth and coverage across businesses of all sizes.

We kicked this can for a full year – we wasted a year – until we took one step in the right direction and replaced our antiquated billing system. The problem is that this is just one piece of the puzzle and it wasn’t until I took it on myself to start driving change on the pricing model itself that the product, packaging, and pricing aligned. The massively frustrating part of this work was getting people to look beyond the revenue impact in the current customer base. Once we moved beyond the protracted months long debate that centered on existing revenue streams, people got behind it and delivered a thoughtful and well presented agent-based pricing model. and then abandoned it.

This realization helped me understand the human psychology of decision dynamics more than anything else. People, rational and educated people no less, have a tendency to overvalue the thing they already have relative to the thing they are moving to. Looking at the revenue impact of customers moving from high price points to lower price points that are consumption metered misses the point that protecting the existing revenue is not the strategic priority. growing the business is. The risk in allowing the compromise to be driven by existing customer dynamics is that it is is encapsulated by the saying “a camel is a horse designed by committee”. so much gets compromised in order to protect something that you end up in a position that really isn’t much different than where you already are.

When you push out tough decisions that will ultimately never be made with perfect information you are wasting the one resource you will never get more of – time. Assumptions have to be made and decisions fully committed to, the consequences of failing are serious but equally serious consequences result from failing to act when action is precisely what is required. If the decisions and commitments were easy they would already have been made, the fact that teams struggle with tough decisions is not the exception but when you know with certainty that what you are doing today is not optimal and within your capacity to improve, there is no excuse for pushing it for the sole reason that doing nothing is easier until the point when you literally have no choice but to change.

Startup Lessons: Board Management

This is the 5th installment in the Startup Lessons series I have been writing in the wake of my experience with Get Satisfaction. This one will certainly inspire a lot of head shaking around the table as anyone who has been involved with a startup can relate to this.

To recap, here is the series thus far:

1) Hiring
2) Dynamic Org Structures
3) Product First
4) Marketing

5) Board management: My point here is not about criticism of investors because at the end of the day what investors provide above all else is access to capital, and point in fact their motivation is ultimately pure, which is they are in it to make money. Clarity of purpose is really a blessing but as anyone who has been involved with venture capitalists from the perspective of a startup can attest, there is a lot of complexity.

Investors do not do that much to help a company operationally, despite what they may want to believe about their contribution. They are a sounding board and provide critical objective voice on strategic subjects, but an investor is far too removed from the day-to-day decision making to be useful in an operational capacity, and if they are involved in the day-to-day then the are no longer simply investors.

Where this all comes to a head is when a company is facing headwinds. People in general tend to want to simplify things down to the just one thing moment and any problem set in the modern tech startup that can be distilled to just one thing at it’s root is an exception if there ever was one.

An example of this is having a board member say “well you should just charge more” without first considering the competitive dynamics of a market, or the product and customer perspective on value. If the challenge of running and growing a business like this is easy then anyone could do it, so for all the investors reading this right now, it would be helpful to acknowledge that people running these businesses have more knowledge than you do about the business itself. As much as you want to pattern match, that isn’t always helpful because no one person has experience with all the patterns that can be identified and patterns of the past are not indicators of future performance.

Companies and markets are highly volatile multi-variant problem sets that defy simple explanations and recommendations. What investors across the board should be doing in environments like this is helping clear the fog and applying intellectual horsepower where it is really needed, the planning side of the business. Building good forecasting models against the backdrop of fast changing performance factors is no small task, and planning is 1/2 of the planning/controlling responsibility a team is responsible for, but typical boards end up spending a lot of time on the controlling part of the equation.

Furthermore, when it comes to planning the typical startup has the additional dynamic of being not well equipped to push back against investors who have an expectation of growth rates in the early stages that well exceed 100%. This is where the multi-variant challenges rears it’s head, which is that no market is static so while you are building a product, growing a customer base, facing new competitive threats whether they be other startups or incumbents who have identified you as a threat, and then hiring people to support growth in the business. well a lot of things can derail the best laid plans.

Managing for growth vs. managing for margin enters the discussion because investors want to manage cash efficiently while also proving the growth capability of the company in order to get to the next stage of financing. There is little room for error here and the capital markets are far less forgiving of pivots than they were 2 or 3 years ago.

I also want to talk about shareholder interests and the Board members positions are, typically, preferred shareholders. What is really lacking in tech startups today is a strong voice for common shareholders, the employees, in private companies. The executive members of the board are supposed to fulfill this but all too often their voice is not equal to that of the other board members when it comes to shareholder classes. Preferred shareholders are inherently conflicted in this regard because they enjoy advantages such as liquidation preferences and anti-dilution protections that give them a built-in advantage over the common class of stock.

The modern board needs to cast off the standard operating procedures of the past, in the process becoming more inclusive of shareholder classes as opposed to representing the preferred shareholders first and everyone else second. Board meetings require great structure and strong leadership, and board members need to accept that there will be pushback and dissent based on facts and information that they may not see plainly relative to executives of the company.

As a startup you have a choice, you can be subservient to the board, bending to their pre-determined points of view, or you can be a strong force that counterbalances the parochial interests and instead favoring the greater good. Lastly, boards should be focused exclusively on the substance of the company and less about the personalities of the board members and the executive team.

Startup Lessons: Marketing

This is the 4th installment in the Startup Lessons series I have been writing in the wake of my experience with Get Satisfaction. We are getting into the topics that are much more specific to Get Satisfaction, therefore I have an obligation to redact certain details that are confidential however in the spirit of shared learnings I will cover as much as I feel is appropriate.

To recap, here is the series thus far:

1) Hiring
2) Dynamic Org Structures
3) Product First

4) Marketing. and all that implies: What can you say really, if there are 2 things that a startup in tech should be good at, it’s product and marketing, everything else succeeds or fails on the basis of being good at those core activities.

Get Satisfaction was blessed – and I mean truly blessed – with the kind of brand that most companies in the space would kill for. It is at it’s core an aspirational brand message about all of the promises that the social technology revolution has presented to companies as they remake how they interact with people. I really loved telling the story of GS for this reason alone, it is about what is possible by empowering people, customers and employees, rather than saving a few dollars here or picking up some extra revenue there.

The problem with aspirational brand messages is that if you don’t back it up with hard hitting marketing that converts goodwill into revenue, you are wasting it or worse, educating the market about how to evaluate competitive products.

We did very well in 2010 and 2011 with a highly differentiated creative marketing strategy but then we had our VP Marketing leave just after the B round closed (awkward.) and the role went unfilled for the better part of a year. Actually, it was worse than that, we had a consultant that one of our investors recommended and that was a disaster that resulted in a botched website project, what I thought was a stupid book project, and a lurching repositioning of the company to traditional enterprise software. Disaster.

The last issue is particularly sensitive for me because at the time I was responsible for the freemium business and nobody was trying to understand what this part of the business needed in a website. The result was, predictably, a website that catered to the old world traditional call-to-action of “call us and talk about enterprise”. Not surprisingly, the new customer acquisition ramp for the monthly subscription business flattened out dramatically almost immediately when this site launched.

We did eventually replace the marketing consultant with a VP Marketing but by then the damage was done. Brand voice was lost, our demand gen was wonky because of the confusion we were creating around our market focus, and “shit wasn’t getting done”. Remember what I wrote about in my first post in this series about hiring and how bad hires are a cancer?

Even after putting in place a full time marketing leader things didn’t really get that much better. I think this goes to the dynamic that executives in this industry, and others for that matter, exhibit which is in times of challenge they go back to what they know. I do not believe that Get Satisfaction should have been directed at large enterprise sales opportunities as a primary revenue source, but that’s what happened and our marketing reflected that in spades.

My stated preference was to point the marketing at the upper SMB and mid-market buyer, also called the departmental buyer, and qualify 100% of the business off what was coming in from the web funnel. The is what companies like Yammer, Hootsuite, and Zendesk have done, they drive the traffic to the site and skim the enterprise opportunity funnel off the top. The objective in this approach is getting people into a rich product experience and then converting them or upselling them into an enterprise buying lane, rather stating a preference or making them choose up front.

Succeeding at zero to low touch web direct sales models is not a challenge to take lightly, it requires an intense focus on web traffic generation and instrumentation of assets for funnel analytics. It also requires that people think outside of their comfort zone of campaigns, PPC, webinars, and landing pages. in fact I feel more strongly than ever that in order to be successful with this customer acquisition model that tech companies need to act more like media companies with a distinct editorial agenda and content strategy. For this kind of model to work you need a lot of traffic. paid, sponsored, and earned traffic, all of the above.

Even if we did all that I am not sure we would have been successful because at the core we were underinvesting in marketing, both people and spend. However, it is hard to fault us for not investing more in marketing because we clearly had not solidified the Magic Number math that is essential for justifying increases in marketing spend.

There was a bigger issue with the marketing performance that all companies need to be aware of. When you marketing team has as a primary objective enterprise demand generation, well what they measure is enterprise lead generation. Meanwhile, GetSat also had a line of business that was dependent on getting people into the website and into a product experience that converts into a monthly subscription relationship, therefore we had a real sync problem that would not have been resolved with more money thrown at it.

When you measure your marketing spend solely on the basis of lead generation, the slippery slope is changing the definition of lead to juke the stats and show improvement in the specific activity you are measuring. This is something I will forever be aware of, measure the result instead of the activity.

I will close by highlighting something really special I saw happen at Get Satisfaction. Based on the early product work and what we discovered as the first iterations of the business came together, it was clear that social technologies were driving a consolidation of the customer lifecycle that all companies are subject to, with customer support and marketing coming together for the purpose of serving the customers you already have while using that momentum to acquire new ones. Whether or not we did this well in the business is not the point, the fact remains that we identified an important shift in the market well ahead of competing companies. While we did not fully capitalize on this, in no way does that take away from the innovative work that was done to develop a differentiated marketing story to compliment the product.

Startups Lessons: Product First

I have covered a couple of topics in this series, the first being hiring the best people and the second organizing for success based on the attributes of the people you are hiring.

Today I want to go into territory less obvious because let’s face it, hiring the best people and creating conditions where they can succeed is the kind of startup advice that is squarely in the “stating the obvious” category. This next one is also obvious but has so much nuance that it deserves attention.

3) It all starts with the product: Companies can overcome a great many challenges with band-aids, duct tape, and bailing wire. but one aspect of a startup and/or growth stage company that cannot be glossed over is the product. It all starts with the product. Marketing and sales will be amplified with the right product or victimized by the product that falls short, and not investment outside of product will overcome that reality.

Putting forward the right product for the market is absolutely key, but don’t confuse that with putting forward the BEST product. Ultimately you need to achieve best in class but if you try to achieve that in the first iteration you will be hopelessly late. and more on point is that the best product is a result of what you learn from your customers, not what you think you should be doing.

If we did anything egregiously wrong at Get Satisfaction in the 2010-1012 time period it was to under-invest in the product with the assumption that the existing product was good enough. The early architecture conditions created what engineers called “technical debt” and that effectively became weaponized to stall significant investment in fixing the old in order to build the future. Compounding the problem is that we became victim of agile engineering in a poorly structured development organization where there were no clear teams focused on building to the user archetypes and investing in the platform.. engineers paired would jump from frontend to backend erratically at each sprint iteration.

We failed to accommodate the changing demands that are a result of market, competitive and customer dynamics, all of which conspire to put you at a competitive disadvantage when you don’t have a market footprint that legitimately reclassifies you as a platform instead of just a product. Feature development is a result of the demands of the biggest customers with the loudest voices, the platform evolves at the rate which new customer features are required, not anticipated mind you, and lastly the API development is focused on what internal developers require rather than what the partner ecosystem is asking for.

In the absence of an org structure that creates a constructive tension between the product management and product engineering sides of the house engineers will work on things that are interesting to engineers but fail to advance the business. This is where we really erred in our approach, engineering and product management all report up to the CTO, and the company fundamentally underinvested in product management as a functional area.

In all fairness, the fact that the underlying product architecture was constraining product development had to be dealt with because in order to build better product their needed to be a foundational renovation of the substructure, and after years of kicking that can it was finally addressed in 2012. With that in mind I can’t help but remain conflicted by my view on this, either we replaced the architecture and built little in the way of new product or we focused on cobbling together new functional features that satisfied immediate demands while potentially sacrificing long term gains. and by framing it as a binary choice I am perpetuating the problem in many ways. We should have been able to do both.

My experience at Get Satisfaction has left me with a strong appreciation for the role of product manager, which as many in Silicon Valley will point out is the most powerful role in any company. While true, this oversimplifies the challenge of the role, which is not to wield an autocratic sense of control over product direction but rather be an effective consolidator of many sources of information, from all corners of the company. Good product managers hold dear a narrative about the market that is rationalized with the realities of running the business and they are always a half step ahead of the rest of the company in bringing product capability to bear that is great than the sum of a bunch of features. Lastly, a foundational skill of great product managers is GSD.

Startup Lessons: Dynamic Org Structures

Last week I posted the first in a series of posts about my startup experience with Get Satisfaction. The first post focused on hiring and was appropriately the first in the series because hiring decisions will make or break your company.

However, it doesn’t stop there and once you have a team of smart capable professionals you have to create an organization structure that breaths and grows with them as the team accomplishes key objectives and develops an operational cadence around key business metrics.

2) Dynamic organizational structure: Not everyone will scale with the company and an essential strategy for accommodating and driving growth is continual reorganization. At Get Satisfaction we should have done more of this, moving people around as we grew and then pairing up different teams to accomplish specific objectives.

An example is that Marketing was inexorably linked to the enterprise sales demand gen requirements and while that would never go away the fact remains that other parts of the business suffered as that focus became all encompassing. In retrospect it would have been advantageous to pair marketing with a different team each quarter and set an an objective improvement in a key metric not related to demand generation, for example, working with customer support with the singular goal of improving customer communication efficacy.

As a company grows the requirements placed on individual leaders change and not everyone will make the shift so deliberate transition into different roles or out of the company is something that has to be planned. This isn’t a reflection of people failing but rather succeeding and the new demands evolving as a result.

Dynamic organizations reflect this by moving leaders into different roles not as a reaction to what is happening on the ground but as a forward motion intended to create progress in a new and emerging area. Successful startups move early executives into new roles frequently, not in an effort to sideline them but rather take advantage of their unique skills and organization knowledge to advance an area that would otherwise stagnate.

I am taken aback by how much time should be devoted to team and people issues in a startup, for a company like Get Satisfaction I would say at least half of the CEO time needs to be spent on managing this and recruiting the best people for the challenges that are currently being experienced and what lays ahead. Once you have a team of good people you need to continually optimize that for business results but also change it up keep the people you have operating at peak intellectual engagement and interest.

Part of the challenge with “the best people” is that they don’t neatly fit into the existing organization structure, and the other part is that everyone has a sweet spot of company phase that they thrive in. I am a good example of this, very large companies are soul crushing for me, the overburdened process and gravity to inertia absolutely deflates me, yet the pure play startup is equally outside my comfort zone because I don’t bring tools that are well honed for business creation. I am a best fit for a company with presence, a reasonably complete product, and customer assets, in other words growth stage or on the precipice of a growth stage buildout.

Creating organization structures for people based on their capabilities rather than your org chart and recognizing where people thrive and where they outlive their utility is essential.

Equally critical for dynamic organizations is to decentralize decision making to the nodes of the organization. This is no small challenge for companies that achieve mass after having slogged through a startup period that is an all-hands exercise. Top down decision making results in critical time lost and decisions that are inexorably compromised in order to satisfy the personalities of the team rather than the outcomes that is desired. You hire smart professionals who have, ideally, good judgment and intellectual capacity, why not lead them by getting out of the way and letting them do the jobs they were hired to do rather than managing indecision as a result of people not measured by the specific outcomes affecting the strategy and tactics required to get there?

Startup Lessons Learned: Hiring

I spent 3 years at Get Satisfaction, going from around 10 employees to 70′ish at the peak. Leaving was not an easy choice but after 3 years I needed to do something different, not better just different; I detailed my reasons and next move here. After much contemplation I decided to write a blog post in an effort to document my lessons learned about what worked and did not, in an effort to hold myself accountable for personal and professional development. I wrote it and posted it, then immediately took it down because I realized this was far too long for a single post. so instead I rewrote it as a series of posts, the first of which goes up today.

As you might imagine, I learned about more than just a business in my time at Get Satisfaction, and with the benefit of hindsight I was able to reflect on the subtle but critical lessons learned through mistakes and successes over my time there. This is not an easy series for me to write because while the thoughts are crystal clear I don’t wish to reflect poorly on my former colleagues, therefore take what I write with the intention it is written, that of self-reflection for the purpose of learning and self-improvement.

1) Hiring decisions will make or break you, sometimes all at once: The axiom that great companies are built with A team players could not be more true. There are 2 dimensions to this that are worth highlighting, hiring the best people and then structuring them to succeed, which will be addressed in a later post.

It’s not my intention to backstab people after the fact but the fact remains that we hired some people who were simply not up to the task that was in front of us. A worse failing than hiring the wrong people up front was keeping them in place after it became evident that they were not succeeding and taking the rest of the company down with them.

This dynamic is interesting to explore and reflects the challenges of hiring good people in Silicon Valley but more critically reflects the sense of ownership that the executive management team has over top level hires, and the subsequent desire to not have bad hires exposed for what they are, a failing of process and judgment. It happens, everyone is human and in the final equation it is better to just acknowledge a bad hire and move on rather than stick with someone who will impair the business the longer they stay in place.

A bad executive hire is like a cancer and the treatment for a cancer is to get rid of it, not get rid of it and replace it with something else, just get rid of it. I wrote a post about fear shapes personal behavior that was directly in response to my frustrations in dealing with a colleague who was failing in his role.

What makes a good executive hire? If I had to pick one thing in particular I would say good judgment is what is missing in every executive hire gone bad. People skills, execution capability, cross team collaboration, and many more skills essential for the modern executive can all be learned and adapted to different teams, but good judgment is as much a function of DNA as it is education and discipline. Good judgment trumps all because it brings with it focus, confidence, and optimal outcomes relative to execution effort.

Staff hires are no less critical and again the tendency to stick with people who are not A or even B team quality just to have a body in place reflects the challenge of hiring people in the Valley. However the fact remains that if you have a D team member and your aspiration is to bring them up to a C level, what exactly is your strategy? A and B quality people don’t just contribute disproportionately to the success of the company, they inspire other people of similar quality to join as a result of them being there while D quality people drive away the highest quality people you will attract.

In the spirit of full transparency and disclosure, hiring is something I do not consider a particularly strong point in my favor. My personality tends to attract to people who have similar “strange attractors” in their own character and for better or worse I tend to evaluate people on my gut level reaction to them. This has made me more attuned to my own judgment and forced me to be very strategic and deliberate about hires, at any level. Time will tell if I am getting better at it but without a doubt I am more conscious of the consequences of bad hires and looking beyond resume and personality when considering prospective hires.

I have 7 additional posts to publish over the coming weeks, detailing everything from fundraising to product/competitive strategy to managing your board of directors. Stay tuned.

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Facebook IPO Lessons

Like most people, I had the opportunity to review Facebook’s IPO filing yesterday and admit that, like Apple’s recent earnings announcement, this is pretty damn impressive.

Here are a couple of lessons worth reinforcing:

1) People’s view of what is normal and acceptable in emergent online activities is constantly evolving. What Facebook deserves a lot of credit for is not allowing itself to be held back by what a small and vocal group of critics said they should not do. As a result, by constantly pushing forward, and making mistakes, Facebook created a new normal that in retrospect would never have been accepted even 5 years ago.

2) Zuckerberg, like Larry Ellison and Bill Gates most notably, retained tremendous control of their respective companies through outsized stock ownership and voting structures that assured them total control of their destiny. Shareholder rights advocates will say that this is precisely what needs to change about corporate America but stock ownership is not a democracy where every vote is equal… but it is also a structure that shareholders opt into when they buy stock in a company.

3) Don’t discard old business models because they are old… Silicon Valley is home to the shiny new object syndrome and we often forget that old business models are referred to as old because they WORK. Facebook was criticized for not having a business model, well they did and it was a tried-and-true one… advertising. Turns out that a company can still make a boatload of money doing this and it doesn’t require a 60 slide powerpoint deck to explain it.

4) Raise boatloads of money when it is available to you, and do it on your own terms. Facebook benefited from a wide range of factors that drove interest in the company, not the least of which was that for private equity investors who had large funds to put to work, there were few options that scaled to the degree that Facebook did. These investors are not looking for the returns that early stage VCs are, so they were happy to put large amounts of capital to work at high valuations, and it appears that these bets will pay off. Mutual funds and other traditional investors that bought stock in the private secondary market that emerged were also reacting to a scarcity of investment options. The real lesson here is not to be constrained by the traditional venture capital cycle when macro conditions create an environment that allows you to be non-linear.

Lastly, I’ll refrain from repeating the oft-repeated mantra about hiring the best people… would you hire anyone but the best? I hate it when people say things which fall into the stating of the obvious category.

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Tech Diversity, Yes Let’s Look at the Real Issue

Mitch Kapor says we should looks beyond the kerfuffle between Arrington and CNN, and yes let’s do that.

I wrote this 2 years ago and nothing has changed:

Why does this matter, especially coming from someone like me who has a gag reflex about the words “affirmative action” and repulsion at the idea that we, as a society, condone hiring or admittance, and promotion based on anything other than merit? It matters because we are not an economy that searches out natural resources like iron ore, timber, coal or natural ports and waterways to determine where we expand; we are an economy that depends upon businesses identifying clusters of talented human resources to solve problems that have economic value. If our solution is that a bunch of white men, young and middle aged predominately, are going to solve the bulk of problems from here on out, then we will neither be very good at it on a global scale nor efficient as a society in lifting earning power and real economic growth across the board.

Silicon Valley is good at a lot of things but one thing we are terrible at is being self-critical about the culture we have created. Zuckerberg was getting to this with his much quoted comments about Silicon Valley being too short term focused (I wrote about that in 2009 as well, ironically the post also centered on TechCrunch).

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Smallcompanyitis: Death by a Thousand Committees

I realized something recently that in all my years had thus far escaped my attention and it is direct commentary on the distinction between large and small company culture.

A common belief is that small companies (startups in the Valley vernacular) are nimble because they can’t afford to waste time. This is quite true but the difference between successful small companies and meandering ones is that the successful ones value time over perfection and embrace people who are willing to fail as much as succeed. Okay so this much is probably known to you so bear with me.

A common misconception is that the path to decision in a small company is much quicker than that of a large company. It is wrong to assume this because of a unique characteristic of large companies known as turf. In large companies managers of all levels measure their power by the turf they control and a natural reaction to interlopers, other groups who wish to be party to decisions large and small, is to repel them.

In a small company it is quite common for every decision to be made by committee because the stakes are very high for failure and because the interpersonal dynamic in a small company favors consensus, even if the victim of consensus is decision. It is quite strange but I’ve seen it enough to know it is true… every action requires group consent.

I don’t wish to suggest that large companies are more nimble or quick to act than small but it isn’t because they are large, it is because they allow mediocrity in their management ranks and allow process to overcome action, but small companies are just as prone to mediocrity for a different reason, because it is allowed to happen as a result of the unwillingness of the people involved to just act decisively and unilaterally.

A Well Intentioned Bad Idea That Should Not be Stopped

Like everyone who has looked at the issue of immigration, I came to the conclusion long ago that it is a broken and outdated system. Just consider that every H1-B visa is snapped up within 12 hours of becoming available and you see how not only demand outstrips supply but an industry has grown up around a flawed system for the sole intention of gaming it for profit.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote a piece in Business Insider today that highlights a move by some influential VCs (who also have political clout) to enact a Startup Visa Act that would provide foreign entrepreneurs who receive a minimum amount of funding and hire a minimum number of employees a visa that would convert to a “green card” in two years.

Before I get to Pascal-Emmanuel’s article, let’s cover the basics.

The visa that this act would empower isn’t new, it is the EB-5 visa for foreign investors who commit at least $500k of capital and create 10 jobs according to a complex matrix of “allowed activities” dependent on whatever regional center the investment is located in. Presumably the Startup Visa Act would create a new EB-6 visa that mimics the EB-5 (even takes the allocation) and reduces the required initial investment to $250k and number of full time jobs to 5. Over a 2 year period beginning with the date of visa issuance the entrepreneur has to create 5 full time jobs, raise an additional $1m in investment capital or generate $1m in revenue.

Reading the text of the bill it is clear that this bill:

  • takes existing visa and allocates them for the startup visa program
  • defines “super angels” as an accredited investors (yes this is a defined category of investor, look it up on the SEC site), who makes at least 2 minimum $50k investments every 3 years and is a U.S. citizen. Venture capital operating companies are also defined according to existing standards but in order to qualify the fund must be based in the U.S. and be comprised of a majority of partners who are U.S. citizens, have capital commitments of $10m and have been operating for 2 years with actual investments in that period.
  • After 3 years if the conditions of the program are not met the visa, called “conditional permanent resident status”, will be revoked. BTW, it seems like a contradiction in terms to have a conditional permanent resident status… why not just call it what it is, a visa. It’s supposed to be a 2 year time period but the text of the bill explicitly says after 3 year the visa will be revoked if the requirements are not met.
  • It is not clear if the 5 required full time jobs also includes the founding entrepreneur(s).

The bill is a welcome 7 pages long but the brevity, while making for easy reading, also opens it up for potential abuses and Gobry actually has some very good points here. I will also take a moment to submit that the whole exercise of legislative sausage making is incremental and there’s no way this bill would proceed through committee, get voted on and signed into law with 7 pages of text… so let’s assume that I’m not breaking any new ground or discovery here.

Gobry’s primary criticism is that the bill makes entrepreneurs a servant of the investor and on that point I agree. I can’t imagine a situation primed for more potential abuse than one where the entrepreneur is dependent not only for funding from a VC but also residency in this country, a dream of many foreign entrepreneurs despite the state of our economy. While $1.25m dollars is a modest amount of capital, for a seed stage company it is a good sized amount of capital and likely to be allocated not at once but over time as the entrepreneur progresses in planning and execution.

Under this legislation, as the entrepreneur burns his timeline not only is he/she dealing with the pressures of business survival but the threat of deportation that depends solely on whether or not their investors will release more capital when needed. Can you imagine how those discussions would transpire if the investor in question possessed less than altruistic motives?

Another potential problem with this is what happens if the venture firm ceases to exist (it happens all the time to $10m’ish sized funds) over that 3 year period and in the process of disappearing fails to meet the funding requirements of the business? What happens is deportation.

The only “out” for foreign entrepreneurs to get out from under the thumb of investors when operating with conditional permanent resident status is to race to $1m in revenue over the 3 year period (the bill does NOT say annual revenue), in which case they have satisfied the requirements of the program assuming they have also employed 5 people who are not relatives.

The single minded focus on revenue rather than sustainability is another area ripe for abuse and fraud, only in this case it’s not just the integrity of the visa program at stake but also investors. While it is arguable that the incentives are overwhelming for investors to keep things honest, the fact remains that what qualifies as disclosure in private companies is subject to a lot of interpretation.

Lastly, as Goby points out, there is nothing in this bill that requires the entrepreneurs and investors to be focused on technology sectors… as opposed to real estate or automotive painting or whatever. I could foresee a scenario where this program is used by U.S. investors to establish companies onshore with cheap offshore entrepreneurs in exchange for green cards… again it empowers investors to turn foreign nationals into indentured servants.

So where do I stand on this? Well from my reading the initial bill is pretty weak and has few guarantees that the aspirations of professional and reputable investors like Fred WIlson, Paul Graham, and Brad Feld will be met. The weakness is not only in the provisions of the act but in the fact that is will draw on a limited allocation of visas which all but ensures that a legal specialty industry will attach itself to it like a parasite for the sole purpose of selling off access to the visa program. Basically we’ll end up right back where we started.

All of the weakness that I, and others, have identified are not reasons to kill the bill; what they should do is go back and address these weaknesses with draft language that passes muster and puts reasonable checks and balances in place that ensures the intentions of lawmakers and investors are being met.

Why do I call this a “well intentioned bad idea”? I know the investors who are pushing this and I know their intentions are honest, they want to fix a problem that impacts foreign entrepreneurs who would otherwise be welcome in the U.S. and available for U.S. venture capital. It’s a bad idea because it doubles down on the existing visa system that is plagued with so many problems… and because it operates under the constraints of a limited supply visa allocation it is going to be gamed by lawyers and that will increase the costs and lock out smaller funds who would otherwise be ideal participants in such a program. As it is written now, the big VC funds would have all of these visas locked up within hours of the allocations being made.