Category Archives: Bubble

The Great Reckoning: Thoughts on the Deflation of Technology Bubble 2.0

This post shares a collection of thoughts on what I’ve variously heard referred to as “the tightening,” “the unwinding,” “the unraveling,” or “the great reckoning” — the already-in-process but largely still-coming deflation of technology-oriented stock valuations, particularly in consumer-oriented companies and particularly in those that took large, late-stage private financings.

The Four Horsemen

Here are four key signs that trouble has already arrived:

  • The IPO as last resort.  Box is the best example of this, and while I can’t find any articles, I have heard numerous stories of companies deciding to go public because they are unable to raise high-valuation, late-stage private money.
  • The markdowns.  Fortune ran a series of articles on Fidelity and other mutual funds marking down companies like Snapchat (25%), Zenefits (48%), MongoDB (54%), or Dataminr (35%).  A unique feature of Bubble 2.0 is publicly-traded mutual funds investing in private, VC-backed companies resulting in some CEOs feeling, “it’s like we went public without even knowing it.”
  • The denial.  No bubble would be complete without strong community leaders arguing there is no bubble.  Marc Andreessen seems to have taken point in this regard, and has argued repeatedly that we’re not in a technology bubble and his firm has built a great data-rich deck to support that argument.

The Unicorn Phenom

If those aren’t sufficient signs of bubbledom, consider that mainstream media like Vanity Fair were writing about unicorns  and describing San Francisco as the “city by the froth” back in September.

It’s hard to talk about Bubble 2.0 without mentioning the public fascination with unicorns — private tech companies with valuations at $1B+.  The Google search “technology unicorn” returns 1.6M hits, complete with two unicorn trackers, one from Fortune and the other from CBInsights.  The inherent oxymoron that unicorns were so named because they were supposed to be exceptionally rare can only be lost in Silicon Valley.  (“Look, there’s something rare but we’re so special, we’ve got 130 of them.”)  My favorite post on the unicorn phenom comes from Mark Suster and is entitled:  Why I Effing Hate Unicorns and the Culture They Breed.

As the bubble has started to deflate, we now hear terms like formercorns, onceacorns, unicorpses, or just plain old ponies (with birthday hats on) to describe the downfallen.  Rumors of Gilt Groupe, once valued at $1.1B, possibly selling to The Hudson’s Bay Company for $250M stokes the fire.

What Lies Ahead?

While this time it’s different is often said and rarely true, I do believe we are in case when the unwinding will happen differently for two reasons:  (1) the bubble is in illiquid assets (private company preferred shares) that don’t trade freely on any market and (2) the owners of these illiquid shares are themselves illiquid, typically structured as ten-year limited partnerships like most hedge, private equity growth/equity, or venture capital funds.

All this illiquidity suggests not a bubble bursting overnight but a steady deflation when it comes to asset prices.  As one Wall Street analyst friend put it, “if it took 7 years to get into this situation, expect it to take at least 3.5 years to get out.”

Within companies, particularly those addicted to cheap cash and high burn, change will be more dramatic as management teams will quickly shift gears from maximizing growth to preserving cash, once and when they realize that the supply of cheap fuel is finite.

So what’s coming?

  • Management changes.  As I wrote in The Curse of the Megaround, big rounds at $1B+ valuations come wrapped in high expectations (e.g., typically a 3x valuation increase in 3 years).  Executives will be expected to deliver against those expectations, and those who do not may develop sudden urges to “spend more time with the family.”  Some CEOs will discover that they are not in the same protected class as founders when these expectations go unmet.
  • Layoffs.  Many unicorns are burning $10M or more each quarter.  At a $10M quarterly burn, a company will need to layoff somewhere between 200 and 400 people to get to cashflow breakeven.  Layoffs of this size can be highly destabilizing, particularly when the team was putting in long hours, predicated on the company’s unprecedented success and hypergrowth, all of which presumably lead to a great exit.  Now that the exit looks less probable — and maybe not so great — enthusiasm for 70-hour weeks may vanish.
  • Lawsuits from common stockholders.  Only recently has the valuation-obsessed media noticed that many of those super valuations were achieved via the use of special terms, such as ratchets or multiple liquidation preferences.   For example, if a $100M company has a $300M preference stack and the last $100M went in with a 3x preference, then the common stock would be be worthless in a $500M sale of the company.  In this case, an executive with a 0.5% nominal ownership stake discovers his effective ownership is 0.0% because the first $500M of the sale price (i.e., all of it) goes to the preferred shareholders.  When people find they’re making either “no money” or “car money” when they expected “house money,” disappointment, anger, and lawsuits can result.  This New York Times story about the sale of formercorn Good Technology provides a real example of what I’m talking about, complete with the lawsuits.
  • Focus will be the new fashion.  Newly-hired replacement executive teams will credit the core technology of their businesses, but trash their predecessors for their lack of focus on core markets and products.  Customers unlucky enough to be outside the new core business will be abandoned — so they should be careful to ask themselves and their vendors whether their application is central to the company’s business, even in a downturn or refocus scenario.
  • Attention to customer success.  Investors are going to focus back on customer success in assessing the real lifetime value of a customer or contract.  People will remember that the operative word in SaaS is not software, but service, and that customers don’t pay for services that aren’t delivering.  Companies that emphasized TCV over ARR will be shown to have been swimming naked when the tide goes out, and much of that TCV is proven theoretical as opposed to collectible.
  • Attention to switching costs.  There is a tendency in Silicon Valley to assume all markets have high switching costs.  While this is certainly true in many categories (e.g., DBMS, ERP), investors are going to start to question just how hard it is to move from one service to another when companies are investing heavily in customer acquisition on potentially invalid assumptions about long-term relationships and high pricing power.

Despite considerable turmoil some great companies will be born from the wreckage.  And overall, it will be a great period for Silicon Valley with a convergence to the mean around basics like focus, customer success, and sustainable business models.  The real beauty of the system is not that it never goes out of kilter, but that it always returns to it, and that great companies continue to be produced both by, and in cases despite, the ever-evolving Silicon Valley process.

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Footnotes

This post was inadvertently published on 12/23/15 with an incomplete ending and various notes-to-self at the bottom.  While I realized my mistake immediately (hitting PUBLISH instead of SAVE) and did my best to pull back the post (e.g., deleted the post and the auto-generated tweet to it, created a draft with a new name/URL), as the movie Sex Tape portrays, once something gets out in the cloud, it can be hard to get it back.

Unicorn Tears, Beyond Ultimate, and the Silicon Valley Hype Mentality,

Back in the day we working on a press release and I was a CMO.

Me:  “Somebody, get Randy (the PR director) in here.”

Me:  “Randy, what is this press release calling our new offering the ultimate in business intelligence?”

Randy:  “Yes and the problem is?”

Me:  “The problem is it’s not the ultimate, it’s better than ultimate, it’s beyond ultimate … there must be a word for that … I don’t know, maybe penultimate.”

Randy:  “Chief,” he said sheepishly after waiting a minute, “penultimate means one less than ultimate.  Ultimate means ultimate.  There is no word for one more than ultimate.”

Me:  “Oh.  Well, God damn it, go make one up.”

It was at that moment that I realized I’d been fully sucked into the Silicon Valley hype machine.  Just as unique means unique and requires no modifier like “amazingly,” so does ultimate means ultimate.

Speaking of “amazing,” during my tenure at Salesforce, I used to count the number of amazing’s Marc Benioff would say during a speech.  You’d run out of fingers in minutes.  But somehow it worked.  He was a great — no, amazing — speaker and I never got tired of listening to him.

This is Silicon Valley.   The land where one of my competitors can still peddle a cock-and-bull story about how he, as an immigrant limo driver with $26 (and a master’s in computer science), sold a company (where he was neither founder nor CEO), worked as (a member in the office of the) CTO at SAP, and is growing stunningly — no, amazingly — fast (despite a rumored recent down-round and rough layoffs).  Fact-checking, smact-checking.  If it’s a Man Bites Dog story, people will eat it up.  Blog it, hit publish, and move onto the next one.

Maybe I should pitch the equivalent story about me:

Lifeguard and Self-Taught Programmer Who Arrived in California with Only $30, a Red Bandana, and a Box of Bootlegged Grateful Dead Tapes Becomes CEO of Host Analytics

“Dude, I was guarding by the pool one day and this wicked thunderstorm hit and, flash, like totally suddenly I realized the world needed cloud-based, enterprise planning, budgeting, modeling, consolidation, and analytics.”

And we could discuss how I “hacked” on paper tape back in high school:  “the greatest part about hacking on paper tape was you could roll bones with it when you were done and literally, like, smoke your program.”

It would be a roughly equivalent story.  I’m sure they’d eat it up.

Silicon Valley is a place, after all, where we can create a metaphor for something that doesn’t exist — a unicorn  — and then discover 133 of them.

Is our reaction “bad metaphor?”  No, of course not.  It’s “wow, we’re special, we’ve got 133 things that don’t exist.”

Unicorns (generally defined as startups with a $1B+ valuation) are mostly of a result of three things:

  • The cost and hassle of being a public company, post Sox.  Why go public if you don’t have to?
  • The ability to raise formerly IPO-sized rounds (e.g., $100M) in the private markets.
  • A general bubble in late-stage financing where valuations are high enough to create the IPO-as-down-round phenomena

As the late-stage financing bubble appears to be near popping, you increasingly hear new terms for unicorns.  For example, Good Technology, a “onceacorn,” sold earlier this month for $400M.  Since I love words, I’ve been tracking these new terms closely with some amusement:  formercorns, “just horses with birthday hats on,” usta-corns, dying unicorns, and unicorpses.

So, hopefully, as the financing fuel that’s stoking the fire starts to die down, the hype bubble will go with it.  Until then, enjoy this tweet, which captures the spirit of Silicon Valley today just perfectly:

vape

The Curse of the Megaround

With what everyone seems reluctant to call a bubble in late-stage, private financing in full swing, I thought I’d do a quick post to drill into a concept I presented in my 2015 predictions post, something I call the curse of the megaround.

We will do that by examining the forces, and the winners and losers, surrounding a megaround.  Let’s start with a hypothetical example. Company X raises $200M at $1B pre-money, giving them a $1.2B post-money valuation.

Champagne is popped, the financing is celebrated, the tech press bows, and the company is added to many unicorn trackers.

Now what happens?

  • The CEO is under immediate pressure to invest the additional capital.  If you take the rule of thumb that most venture rounds are designed to last 18-24 months, then a $200M raise implies a cash burn rate of $8 to $10M/month or $25 to $30M/quarter.  That is an enormous burn rate and in many cases it is difficult or impossible to spend that much money wisely.
  • The CEO is under heavy pressure to triple the value of the company in 2-3 years.  The investors who do these rounds are typically looking for a 3x return in 2-3 years.  So the CEO is under huge pressure to make the company worth $3.6B in 2-3 years.
  • This, in turn, means the CEO will start investing the money not only in promising growth initiatives, but also dubious ones.   Product lines are over-extended.  Geographic over-expansion occurs.  Hiring quality drops — in an attempt to not fall behind the hiring plan and lose all hope of achieving the numbers.
  • In cases, money is waste en masse in the form of dubious acquisitions, in the hope of accelerating product, employee, and customer growth.  However, the worst time to take on tricky acquisitions is when a company is already falling behind its own hypergrowth plans.
  • All of this actions were done in the name of “well, we had no hope of making the plan if we didn’t open in 12 countries, hire 200 people, add 3 product lines, and buy those 2 companies.”  So we may as well have tried as we would have been fired anyway.  At least we gave it our best shot, right?
  • This often comes to a head in a Lone Ranger moment when the board turns on the CEO.  “Didn’t we agree to that hiring plan?  Didn’t we agree to those product line extensions?  Didn’t we agree to that acquisition?” the CEO thinks.  But the board thinks differently.  “Yes, we agreed to them, but you were accountable for their success.”

Yes, being CEO can be a lonely job.  This is why I call it the curse of the megaround — because it’s certainly a curse for the CEO.  But the situation isn’t necessarily a curse for everyone.  Let’s examine the winners and losers in these situations.

Winners

  • The founders.  They get the benefit of a large investment in their company at low dilution without the downside of increased expectations and the accountability for delivering against them.
  • The private equity fund managers.  Provided the turmoil itself doesn’t kill the company and new, more realistic plans are achieved, the PE fund managers still get their 2+20 type fee structure, earning 2% a year baseline and 20% of the eventual upside as carry.  In a “more normal” world where companies went public at $300M in market cap, there would be no way to earn such heavy fees in these investments.

Losers

  • The CEO who is typically taken out back and shot along with any of the operating managers also blamed for the situation.
  • The company’s customers who are typically ignored and under-served during the years of turmoil where the company’s focus is on chasing an unreachable growth plan and not on customer service.
  • In the event the company is sold at a flat or down valuation, the common stock holders (including founders and employees) who can see their effective ownership either slashed or wiped-out by the multiple liquidation preferences often attached to the megaround.  (People love to talk about the megaround valuation, but they never seem to talk about the terms that go with it!)
  • The private equity limited partners whose returns are diminished by the very turmoil their investment created and who are stuck paying a high 2+20 fee structure with decade-ly liquidity as opposed to the 1% fee structure and daily liquidity they’d have with mutual funds if the companies were all public (as they would have been pre-Sarbox.)
  • The private equity limited partners who ultimately might well end up with a down-round as IPO.

In some situations — e.g., huge greenfield markets which can adopt a new solution quickly and easily — a megaround may well be the right answer.  But for most companies these days, I believe they are more curse than blessing.

Kellblog’s 10 Predictions for 2014

Since it is the season of predictions, I thought I’d offer up a few of my own for 2014, based on my nearly three decades of experience working in enterprise software with databases, BI tools, and enterprise applications.

See the bottom for my disclaimer, and off we go.  Here are my ten predictions for 2014.

  • Despite various ominous comparisons to 1914 made by The Economist, I think 2014 is going to be a good year for Silicon Valley.  I think the tech IPO market will continue to be strong.  While some Bubble 2.0 anxiety is understandable, remember that while some valuations today may seem high, that the IPO bar is much higher today (at around $50M TTM revenues) than it was 13 years ago, when you could go public on $0 to $5M in revenues.  In addition, remember that most enterprise software companies (and many Internet companies) today rely on subscription revenue models (i.e., SaaS) which are much more reliable than the perpetual license streams of the past.  Not all exuberance is irrational.
  • Cloud computing will continue to explode.  IDC predicts that aggregate cloud spending will exceed $100B in 2014 with amazing growth, given the scale, of 25%.  Those are big numbers, but think about this:  some 15 years after Salesforce.com was founded, its head pin category, sales force automation (SFA), is still only around 40% penetrated by the cloud.  ERP is less than 10% in the cloud.  EPM is less than 5% in the cloud.  As Bill Gates once said about prognostication, “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”  IT is going to the cloud, inexorably, but change in IT never happens overnight.
  • Big Data hype will peak.   I remember the first time I heard the term “big data” (in about 2008 when I was on the board of Aster Data) and thinking:  “wow, that’s good.”  Turns out my marketing instincts were spot on.  Every company today that actually is — or isn’t — a Big Data play is dressing up as one, which creates a big problem because the term quickly starts to lose meaning.  As a result, Big Data today is nearing the peak of Gartner’s hype cycle.  As a term it will start to fall off, but real Big Data technologies such as NoSQL databases and predictive analytics will continue to face a bright future.
  • The market will be unable to supply sufficient Data Science talent.  If someone remade The Graduate today, they’d change  Mr. McGuire’s line about “plastics” to “data science.”  Our ability to amass data and create analytics technology is quickly surpassing our ability to use it.  Job postings for data scientists were up 15,000% in 2012 over 2011.  Colleges are starting to offer data science degrees (for example, Berkeley and Northwestern).  There’s even an a startup, Udacity, specifically targeting the need for data science education.  Because of the scarcity of data science talent, the specialization required to correctly use it, and the lack of required scale to build data science teams, data science consultancies like Palantir and Mu Sigma will continue to flourish.
  • Privacy will remain center stage.  Trust in “Don’t Be Evil” Google and Facebook has never been particularly high.  Nevertheless, it seems like the average person has historically felt “you can do whatever you want with my personal data if you want to pitch me an advertisement” — but, thanks to Edward Snowden — we now know we can add, “and if the government wants to use that data to stop a terrorist attack, then back off.”  It’s an odd asymmetry.  These are complex questions, but in a world where the cost of data collection will converge to free, will the privacy violation be in collecting the data or in analyzing it?  In a world where one trusted the government to adequately control the querying and access (i.e., where it took a warrant from a non-secret court), I’d argue the query standard might be good enough.  Regardless, the debate sparked thus far will continue to burn in 2014 and tech companies will very much remain in the center of it.
  • Mobile will continue to drive consumer companies like Dropbox and Evernote, but also enterprise companies like Box, Clari, Expensify, and MobileIron.  Turns out the enterprise killer app for mobile was less about getting enterprise applications to run on mobile devices and more about device proliferation, uniform access to content, and eventually security and management.  (And since I’m primarily an enterprise blogger, I won’t even mention social à la SnapChat or mobile gaming).  As one VC recently told me over dinner, “God bless mobile.”  Amen in 2014.
  • Social becomes a feature, not an app.  When I first saw Foursquare in 2010, I thought it should be the example in the venture capital dictionary for “feature, not company.”  Location-awareness has definitely become a feature and these days I do more check-in’s on Facebook than Foursquare.  I felt the same way when I worked at Salesforce.com and we were neck deep in the “social enteprise” vision.  When I saw Chatter, I thought “cool, but who needs yet another communications platform.”  Then I realized you could follow a lead, a case, or an opportunity and I was hooked.  But those are all feature use-cases, not application or company use-cases.  Given the pace of Salesforce, they fell in love with, married, and divorced social faster than most vendors could figure out their product strategy.  In the end, social should be an important feature of an enterprise application, almost a fabric built across modules.  I think that vision ends up getting implemented in 2014.  (Particularly if Microsoft ends up putting in David Sacks as its next CEO as some speculate.)
  • SAP’s HANA strategy actually works.  I was one of relatively few people who was absolutely convinced that SAP’s $5.8B purchase of Sybase in 2010 was more about databases than mobile.  SAP is clearly crafting a strategy to move both analytics and transactional database processing onto HANA and they have been doggedly consistent about HANA and its importance to the firm going forward.  They have been trying for decades to eliminate their dependency on Oracle — e.g., the 1997 Adabas D acquisition from Software AG  — and I believe this time they will finally succeed.  In addition, they will succeed — quite ironically — with their ingredient-branding strategy around HANA using a database to differentiate an application suite, something that they themselves would have seen as heresy 20 years ago.
  • Good Data goes public.  Cloud-based BI tools have had a tough slog over the years.  Some good companies were too early to market and failed (e.g., LucidEra).  Birst, another early entrant, certainly hasn’t had an easy time over its ten-year history.  Personally, while I was always a fan of cloud-based applications (having become a big Salesforce customer in 2003), I always worried that with cloud-based BI tools, you’d have too much of the nothing-to-analyze problem.  Good Data got around that problem early on by adopting a Crystal-like OEM strategy, licensing their tools through SaaS applications vendors.  They later evolved to a general cloud-based BI platform and applications strategy.  The company was founded in 2007, has raised $75M in VC, is reportedly doing very well, and an IPO seems a likely event in its future.  I’m calling 2014.
  • Adaptive Planning gets acquired by NetSuite.  Adaptive Planning was founded in 2003 as a cloud-based planning company and — despite both aspirations and claims to the contrary — in my estimation continues to play the role of the low-priced, cheap-and-cheerful planning solution for small and medium businesses.  That market position, combined with an existing, long-term strategic relationship whereby NetSuite resells Adaptive as NetSuite Financial Planning, makes me believe that 2014 will be the year that NetSuite finally pulls the trigger and acquires Adaptive Planning.  I think this deal could go down one of two ways.  If Adaptive continues to perform as they claim, then a potential S-1 filing could serve as a trigger for NetSuite (much as Crystal Decisions’ S-1 served as a trigger for Business Objects).  Or, if Adaptive hits rough road in 2014 for any reason (including the curse of the new headquarters) then that could trigger NetSuite with a value-shopper impulse leading to the same conclusion.

I should end with a bonus prediction (#11) that Host Analytics, our customers, and my colleagues will enjoy a successful 2014, continuing to execute on our cloud strategy to put the E back in EPM — focus and leadership in the enterprise segment of the market — and that we will continue to acquire both high-growth companies who want an EPM solution with which they can scale and liberate enterprises from costly and painful Hyperion implementations and upgrades.

Finally, let me conclude by wishing everyone a Happy New Year and great business success in 2014.

Disclaimers

  • See my FAQ to understand my various allegiances and disclaimers.
  • Remember I am the CEO of Host Analytics so I have a de facto pro-Host Analytics viewpoint.  
  • Predictions are opinion:  I have mine; yours may differ.
  • Finally, remember the famous Yogi Berra quote:  predictions are hard, especially about the future.

Bubble 2.0 Video

This is making the rounds. It’s not incredible, but it’s not bad either and well worth the 2:45 to watch it.