[clarification: i was a private angel investor in Mint's A round back in early 2007, when i was also doing some marketing consulting for the company. i was not directly involved in the Founders Fund investment in Mint's C round a few months ago. the comments below are primarily drawn from my personal experience with the company before i joined Founders Fund]
Dear Jason Fried:
Sorry, You're Fucking Wrong.
Flipping is GOOD.
Let me explain...
2) it's a growing trend "indicative of VC-induced cancer that’s infecting our industry and killing off the next generation"
3) young entrepreneurs should be more bold, audacious, go all-in on their vision, in order to "kick the ass" of the collective incumbents / dominant players
In order, these assertions are:
1) Fucking Wrong, and Irresponsible Conjecture & Hyperbole
2) Completely Wrong, and in fact Exactly the Opposite trend is going on, and finally
3) Wrong in most cases & crap advice for young entrepreneurs.
I'll now address each point specifically, and explain why Jason Fried -- although in his own right, an accomplished entrepreneur, whose products i use and respect -- is full of shit in this particular instance.
First & foremost, while i respect Jason's opinion and right to post whatever the fuck he feels like, his article was -- by his own admission -- not based on any fact-checking. At the beginning of his post, Jason states "i don't know the full back story, but i bet this sale was encouraged by a Mint investor." IMHO, this is just incredibly irresponsible: you're a *very* visible figure ripping other folks on mere conjecture.
Perhaps you might want to contact one of these investors -- who, like me, are all publicly listed in Mint's entry on Crunchbase -- and ASK one of them, before you blow such a wild assertion out of your ass? You probably know several of them, and certainly through your connections it would be fairly easy to reach one of them to confirm or deny your suspicion. While i don't expect folks who aren't breaking-news bloggers to follow basic journalistic principles, making such an accusation without the tiniest shred of evidence is lazy at best, and borderline slanderous at worst.
Or, if you're simply too damn lazy to do some basic research, maybe you could just ask any experienced entrepreneur or venture investor why in the hell would it make any fucking sense for Series B investor Benchmark to encourage a sale that's likely only 4-5x its investment, or Series C investors who just put money in 30 days ago? or do you somehow think the seed or A round investors were controlling Aaron's actions with a car battery attached to his balls? if you had any knowledge of Aaron whatsoever, you would know that he is one confident sonuvabitch who RARELY lets anyone force him into doing anything.
In short, your logic here is not only faulty, it's piss-poor and reveals your absolute ignorance of what goes on in the venture world. Sure, you're absolutely correct there are some VCs that might force an entrepreneur's hand -- however, in most cases IT'S IN EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE SCENARIO of what you suggest. They usually want the entrepreneur to stay in the game, NOT sell, and aim for a larger / later win -- typically by FORGOING an acquisition and instead taking a round of capital -- which, in fact, was exactly what Twitter did when you were hypocritically whining about them last week.
Although there may indeed be examples of VCs forcing an entrepreneur to sell to get liquidity to investors, it's not at all typical and usually the opposite of institutional investor motivations.
The "Growing Trend" in Internet deals is towards More & Smaller Acquisitions. But it's not because of VCs, or the Financial Crisis, or Sarbanes-Oxley. It's because the Web is Maturing, and Internet Platform Giants are outsourcing / buying Innovation.
The second point that Fried asserts is that this is somehow a growing trend, and that VCs are changing the industry, "killing off the next generation" of entrepreneurs by forcing premature acquisitions. Again, nothing could be further from the truth... and in fact, the EXACT opposite is the notable trend going on in the industry right now.
First it should be noted that M&A have always outnumbered IPOs, but regardless IPOs basically shut down in tech after 2001 due to the dot-com blowup. Subsequently, many armchair analysts have stated that Sarbanes-Oxley legislation has made it more expensive to go public. Others have noted the financial crisis ending as a reason for more acquisitions. Still other conspiracy-theorists like Jason think VCs seeking liquidity for investments are at fault.
While any of these may be contributing factors, the more basic trend is this: there are now tens, if not hundreds, of large online platform companies with millions of users and positive cashflow. In addition to Google, Yahoo, & Microsoft, there are also eBay, Apple, Amazon, News Corp, Facebook, AOL, CBS Interactive, ComCast, IAC, etc, etc, etc. There are tens of companies that can pull the trigger on a <$500M deal, and 100s that can do a <$100M deal.
What's fundamentally different in the last ten years is that most big companies didn't have a need or facility for acquiring web startups. They didn't understand them, and couldn't figure out how to integrate them into their business. However, as the Internet has matured, ALMOST EVERY company is now a web company, and the Internet is both a primary and low-cost distribution channel. It is now very easy to integrate a web-based acquisition [at least from a technical standpoint... might be more challenging re: politics & fiefdoms]. And since most innovation doesn't happen at big companies, it's almost guaranteed that we'll see more acquisitions of small startups to help grow larger company platform strategies.
In fact, as more platform companies compete for deals, you'll likely see deal size go down as they try and acquire products & talent ever earlier in the startup lifecycle. There's no need to wait for companies to become $1billion-dollar powerhouses -- it's much more capital efficient to acquire them after they've proven out basic technology & gotten a little elbow in their customer adoption. Why buy it for $500M a few years later, if you can buy it for $50M now? I'm sure this was part of Intuit's thinking about Mint... as soon as they saw the Series C deal go down, they realized if they waited another 2-3 years, the pricetag might go up even further. So they cut a deal now.
This particular trend is what is scaring the shit out of big VCs right now. Both lower capital costs for startups and lower average exits for acquisitions are screwing up large VC firm strategy. Fred Wilson and others have written about this, & experienced investors like Alan Patricof have downsized funds to under $100M to make them more manageable in this "small-ball" environment.
While this trend may negatively affect some VCs, it's actually a very positive trend for angel investors and smaller VC funds, and it's an especially GOOD trend for entrepreneurs. This creates a great market environment for small investment / small exit deals that are exactly what Web 2.0 entrepreneurs are serving up. In other words: the Future is Bright, Time to Buy Sunglasses.
Why Flipping is GOOD, & Why Young Entrepreneurs Should Probably Sell Their Startup Sooner than Later.
Finally, i'll make an intentionally controversial stmt:
Young Entrepreneurs Should Sell Out Early (and not Late or Never)Why? For the same reason Why Dogs Lick Their Balls -- BECAUSE THEY CAN.
Look, i'm not trying to get anyone to sell their grand vision short. If you've got a great business to build, by all means give it your all and run it forever. However, for most entrepreneurs it's not going to be the only business they do in their lives. And for the young entrepreneur -- particularly those under 30 who've never done it before -- the single best thing you can do to ensure your future success is TO GET A DEAL DONE. It's heroic and glamorous to "go all in", but realize that many times that means you may come away with NOTHING. Playing well sometimes means you take a single or a double instead of getting thrown out trying to steal home. And sometimes it means just taking 4 balls and getting on base. However you play the game, swinging for the fences every damn time may work for Babe Ruth and Albert Pujols, but i'm personally more a fan of Ichiro Suzuki and Billy Beane. Small-ball and MoneyBall can be just as beautiful as a homerun.it almost doesn't matter how large or small it is (altho firesale acquisitions don't count), the ability for an entrepreneur to have future success is typically judged by historical metrics. and since most startups FAIL, the fact that you can take a startup to ANY size exit proves you can beat the odds, and that you may have the ability to do it again. Once you have a deal under your belt -- whether it's a $3M deal, a $30M deal, or a $300M deal, you are bankable. People will bet on you again. Investors, Partners, Employees, Reporters, etc will all believe you can do it (sometimes to their detriment, because again the odds are most startups fail -- even those by previously-successful entrepreneurs).
In addition, contrary to all these haterz who paint acquisitions as a bad deal or a sell-out, i actually think it's a great thing -- imagine being able to take 3-5 years to build a product, develop it to some level of usefulness, grow customers, build revenue, and then sell to a larger organization that decides it could use that innovation to help their business where it sees new opportunities. Isn't that awesome? Isn't that a vision fulfilled? How about the fact that you can perhaps after a few years go back out & do that again? Why is it that no one seems to think switching jobs every 3-5 years is a bad thing, but somehow think that selling your business to someone who really wants it and will grow it isn't terrific?
Lastly, here's the thing i really want to stress, more than peeing all over Jason's post: more transactions of any kind or size help improve overall startup ecosystem health.
Fact is, startups operate in a financial system that is inefficient, illiquid, and challenging to manage.
Venture Capital exists because startups are generally deemed too risky for debt capital, or for traditional financing. This item is often overlooked by entrepreneurs (and investors) who view the VC field as glamorous and confident, when it fact it is mostly ignorant and risk-averse. VCs like to maintain asymmetric information advantages over their competitors, and sometimes even over entrepreneurs. Keeping competing VCs, and even sometimes their own LPs & entrepreneurs in the dark about value and pricing is sometimes in their best interest -- it KEEPS PRICES DOWN. However, infrequent financing round / transactions and lack of objective pricing actually don't serve the interests of entrepreneurs. As with most markets, liquidity and transparency provide the enabling mechanisms to grow the market larger and to reward market participants more richly.
This is a non-obvious point.
More & smaller transactions in the market actually improve ecosystem efficiency, and provide better pricing transparency. In the long-run, it benefits all system participants for small transactions to occur, because it makes the overall market more knowledgeable -- this in turn, reduces risk and encourages greater investment... which also encourages greater [overall] returns.
In summary, the benefits of selling startups early -- or simply when a transaction is available -- may be a smart strategy for both entrepreneurs and VCs to help improve the market, and reward themselves at the same time. It may not be the best strategy for Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or other titans of industry, but it might be a reasonable strategy for 1st-time entrepreneurs under 30 looking to establish their careers & ensure that future endeavors are more likely.
And Jason: now that i've ripped you a new one, i'd like to apologize for all the harsh commentary and say that altho i disagree with you on this issue, i still think you're an amazing entrepreneur, and i still use your products. Happy to buy you a beer and shoot the shit anytime.
Hit it Gordon: