Archive for the ‘Web/Tech’ Category

Governance Models That Don’t Scale: The World According to Charles T. Munger and Jean Jacques Rousseau

JJRMungerCan you name five benign dictators who have ruled successfully for any meaningful period of time (non-fiction)? Can you name five successful, long serving CEO’s (excluding Warren Buffett) whose governance histories are free of the “high-beta” associated with outliers such as Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs?

It’s not easy. Why? Because enlightened dictators and their corporate CEO equivalents are very, very rare; maintaining immunity to the intoxicating effects of power challenges basic human nature.

It is in this context that I found “Corporate Governance According to Charles T. Munger”, a brief article from the Stanford Closer Look Series, thought provoking if not practical. The article was written by David Larker, Director of the Corporate Governance Research Program at the Stanford Graduate School of business, and Brian Tayan, a researcher with Stanford’s Corporate Governance Research Program.

The authors summarize and explain Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charles T. Munger’s unorthodox view of a model for corporate governance.    According to the article, Munger believes that corporations and their boards should empower their CEO’s more, not less. Munger’s effective CEO, modeled, of course, on Warren Buffet, should be unencumbered by rigid process and freed of unnecessary, excessive checks and balances. Why? So that the CEO can lead effectively. How? In Munger’s construct, CEO’s police themselves, holding themselves accountable to their loosely overseeing directors by binding themselves to a trust based system. And corporate directors should reward these CEO’s for creating shareholder value, while deliberately underpaying them in terms of their annual salary-based cash compensation. According to Munger, and as quoted in the article:

“Good character is very efficient. If you can trust people, your system can be way simpler. There’s enormous efficiency in good character and dis-efficiency in bad character … We want very good leaders who have a lot of power, and we want to delegate a lot of power to those leaders…The highest form that civilization can reach is a seamless web of deserved trust—not much procedure, just totally reliable people correctly trusting one another.”

I agree with Mr. Munger completely, while asking the same questions raised by the authors at the end of this article:

“The trust-based systems that Munger refers to tend to be founder-led organizations. How much of their success is attributed to the managerial and leadership ability of the founder, and how much to the culture that he or she has created? Can these be separated? How can such a company ensure that the culture will continue after the founder’s eventual succession?”

Unfortunately, and founders notwithstanding, the collective global capitalist experience since private property rights were invented and enforced has shown that there aren’t enough of those people on this planet.

kozlowskimug1For a specific cautionary example, I am reminded of Tyco International and its former CEO, Dennis Kozlowski. Kozlowski was recently paroled, almost twelve years after his indictment, ultimate conviction, and after serving over eight years in Attica, for a $134 million corporate fraud (this amount represents a small fraction of the losses suffered by public shareholders). The disgraced former directors of Tyco International (vintage 1999), seemingly highly trustworthy and accomplished men and women, also come to mind. This group, along with the enterprise builders at Enron, Worldcom, and Adelphia, to name just a few, are at the top of my list of examples of poor corporate stewardship and help explain why Mr. Munger’s model for corporate governance is still-born.

But I did say the article was thought provoking, as Charles Munger’s corporate governance philosophy, in my view, evokes Jean Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the Lawgiver.  Author Alex Scott summarizes Rousseau’s core thesis from the Social contract succinctly in this excerpt from his book, The Conditions of Knowledge: Reviews of 100 Great Works of Philosophy :

“The general will always desires the common good, says Rousseau, but it may not always choose correctly between what is advantageous or disadvantageous for promoting social harmony and cooperation, because it may be influenced by particular groups of individuals who are concerned with promoting their own private interests. Thus, the general will may need to be guided by the judgment of an individual who is concerned only with the public interest and who can explain to the body politic how to promote justice and equal citizenship. This individual is the “lawgiver” (le législateur). The lawgiver is guided by sublime reason and by a concern for the common good, and he is an individual whose enlightened judgment can determine the principles of justice and utility which are best suited to society.”

I agree! Let’s find that individual and give him (or her) the keys to the public policy car! Munger’s corporate lawgiver, the enlightened CEO, is also an admirable model worth aspiring to emulate.

As with Rousseau’s 1762 treatise, history has sadly shown us that we lack sufficient incorruptible raw material across the entire history of mankind to render the “lawgiver” experiment successfully scalable, be it in public government or corporate governance.

The unbridled exercise of power is the ultimate intoxicant, and very few humans can responsibly limit the flow of that drug, especially not when they have are given the opportunity to administer it to themselves.

 

 

What’s Wrong With This Picture? Precipitous Decline in US Share of Global Equity Listings Continues Unabated

David Weild and Ed Kim originally exposed and reported extensively on the long-term decline in U.S. equity capital market share of public listings relative to other emerging and developed global markets.  Sadly, this graphic update confirms that the trend has gotten worse.  The implications for American innovation are negative.  New capital formation and new public equity listings are critical for economic growth.  New public equity listings provide  strong components of the lifeblood that nourishes economic growth at multiple levels.   Clearly, the root causes behind this trend have not been addressed in the financial and regulatory reforms implemented since A Wake Up Call for America was first published in 2009.

US Listings Decline

 

The 2009 Grant Thornton report proved without a doubt that the U.S. capital markets for listed equities have been in systemic decline since 1997.  This condition is clearly not the result of the technology bubble or Sarbanes Oxley. Most importantly, the absence of U.S. IPOs negatively impacts American entrepreneurs most of all, regardless of whether they have venture capital or private equity backing.

As of 2012, things have not changed much.  For an updated historical perspective on US IPO’s see the chart below:US-IPO-Activity-2002-2012 (1)

In 2012, of the 128 IPO’s completed in the US, the median deal size of $124 million marked a drop of 2% from 2011.  Excluding Facebook, total proceeds from US IPO’s declined by 27% in 2012 from 2011.  According to the Renaissance Capital report ,all the ten top performing companies’ stock prices and the worst performing companies’ stock prices were from IPO deal sizes exceed $50 million.  This data confirms the continuing absence of IPO’s whose proceeds are below $50 million—and this fact remains a major problem for promising US startups. Our country will continue to suffer the consequences of this trend as long as positive economics for supporting small cap companies in the market are absent.

What can we do about it? One possible solution to this trend would be to establish an issuer and investor opt-in capital market that would make use of full SEC oversight and disclosure, and could be run as a separate segment of NYSE or NASDAQ, or as a new market entrant.  It would offer:

  • Opt-in/Freedom of Choice – Issuers would have the freedom to choose whether to list in the alternative marketplace or in the traditional marketplace.
  • Public – Unlike the 144A market, this market would be open to all investors.
  • Regulated – The market would be subject to the same SEC corporate disclosure, oversight and enforcement as existing markets.
  • Quote driven – The market would be a telephone market supported by market makers or specialists, much like the markets of a decade ago.
  • Minimum quote increments (spreads) at 10 cents and 20 cents and minimum commissions – 10-cent increments for stocks under $5.00 per share, and 20 cents for stocks $5.00 per share and greater, as opposed to today’s penny spread market.  These measures would bring sales support back to stocks and provide economics to support equity research independent of investment banking.
  • Broker intermediated – Investors could not execute direct electronic trades in this market; buying stock would require a call or electronic indication to a brokerage firm, thereby discouraging day-traders from this market.

Research requirement – Firms making markets in these securities would be required to provide equity research coverage that meets minimum standards.

This idea has been presented to our legislators before but has not gotten any traction.  In my view, these new statistics reinforce the need to take another look at constructive, market-based solutions to a severe problem that continues to stifle US economic growth.

Pascal Levensohn in New York November 8: Speech at Museum of American Finance on Risks to Angel Investors

MoAF_GREEN_GREY300I first visited the Museum of American Finance a couple of years ago, and it is not only a great space,it is a useful resource for visitors interested in a wide range of current exhibits on current capital markets topics, as well as documents and artifacts related to capital markets, money and banking. The collection includes stocks, bonds, currency, checks, prints, engravings, photographs, objects and books. The Museum has an extensive collection of stock and bond certificates from the Gilded Age, from companies that include US Steel, Standard Oil and the New York Central Railroad.

But I am coming to the Museum to talk about the leading of edge of startup financing in the digital age and about real time investment risk management in the new Wild West– crowd-funded Silicon Valley post the lifting of the ban on General Solicitation. While new entities and forums are sprouting daily to facilitate aspiring venture investors to fund new ventures with as little as $2,500, the investing risks are no different than they were during the time of the iconic entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie.  And, to be clear, the risks of failure then and now remain very, very high.

My talk on November 8 is about some of the immutable laws of risk in startups. While you can package optimism in many different wrappers, in my view it is essential, especially for unsophisticated accredited investors, to understand critical concepts such as equity dilution from follow on rounds. And most important, they need to have some due diligence process in place before they writ the first check, as well as a similar re-evaluation process whenever they are called upon to fund a follow-on round.

I look forward to a lively discussion on November 8 at 12:30 PM.

New Video: Key Startup Investing Risks for Friends, Family, and Angel Investors

Establishing a mutual understanding between investors and entrepreneurs as to what each expects from the other is essential to a harmonious beginning for a new venture.

The future is likely to be challenging;  if entrepreneurs expect to be able to count on additional support from their friends, family, and Angel investors, several key risks that must be addressed in advance.  This video focuses on four of those fundamental risks:

(1) A startup’s high probability of failure;

(2) The mathematics of dilution;

(3) The tendency to misunderstand a company’s stage of development and, therefore, its capital needs;

(4) Understanding the risks associated with investing good money after bad and knowing when to call it quits.

Some important statistics:

In 2012, the average amount of seed or angel capital raised per company was $880,000 (Source: Pitchbook)

61% of seed-funded companies will not be able to obtain follow-on funding (Source: CB Insights)

Those seedlings that won’t find capital will be the victims of the so-called Series A Crunch

While seed investments increased by 64% in 2012, Series A investments declined by 2%. This defines a supply/demand imbalance exists between institutional VC capital and the ‘Seed Crowd’ .

It is a tribute to America’s innovation culture that, while most startups fail, we are currently experiencing such a boom in seed financing in the United States. Institutional venture capital is not increasing; on the contrary, the industry continues to consolidate by firm and is declining in total.

Being aware of the risks inherent to startup investing and having a clear understanding of the basic parameters of dilution mathematics should be helpful to investors and entrepreneurs alike.  If you are an entrepreneur, this video may be very helpful to you so that you can explain these risks to your investors.  If you are an investor in very early stage companies, this video provides useful perspective on risk and portfolio management.

This video is Chapter 2 of the Entrepreneur Essentials Video Series.

How to Sell High Quality Video Content to Your Fans Using Social Media: Introducing LittleCast

LittleCast LogoDigital content providers from traditional print media franchises to traditional television have finally figured out that giving away your valuable content on the Web will only accelerate your ability to go out of business.  We are still in the early days of video monetization, and one of the great gaps in the landscape has just been closed by a new startup, LittleCast, that I co-founded with Amra Tareen and Stephen Ackroyd.  What is the gap that LittleCast now fills?  The discovery problem that plagues most video content on the Web.

If nobody knows who you are, it doesn’t matter how great your content is, because you will remain unknown until you get lucky or become a one-hit wonder.  And the economics of advertising driven models for earning money are not very attractive for the content producer.

But on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, you are part of a community of people who opt-in to following you.  LittleCast lets any videographer sell video on social networks. The videographer sets the price and LittleCast does the rest: the solution publishes the video, of any length up to 3 hours, in standard definition or high definition, to social networks, iPhone, iPad and Android devices.

In addition, LittleCast provides detailed analytics and engagement tools to the videographer to manage the distribution, customer engagement and revenue.

LittleCast is extremely easy to use:  the process is entirely automated and self-serve.  It costs you nothing to try LittleCast—you upload content and start earning money as soon as your Facebook friends and fans buy your videos.  The economics are totally transparent and detailed on the LittleCast website, which is where you go to upload content: www.littlecast.com .

LittleCast has created a real–time mobile and social store for video; the platform is similar to eBay in that the content producer can set the price and change the price.  The viral nature of social networks will also maximize the reach of video sales among friends.  Try it, you’ll like it!

Introducing the Entrepreneur Essentials Video Series

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I’ve written about board governance challenges for startups since 1999, publishing one book, a series of three white papers, and many articles and blog posts on this topic. Because I am both a venture capitalist and a technology entrepreneur, I understand the different perspectives of entrepreneurs and investors from both sides of the boardroom table.

With this new video series, I updated and expanded fourteen years of collaborative work and have structured the content to focus on the entrepreneur’s perspective. The first video will be released on September 5.

Stay tuned for

Chapter 1      Board Dysfunction: Root Causes and Solutions

Chapter 2      Managing Risks in A Startup: Four Key Issues

Chapter 3      10 Things You Need to Know About VC’s (Before You Meet Them)

I intend to help management teams get much more of the flavor of the issues they will undoubtedly face as directors of startups.

Chapter 1, Board Dysfunction: Root Causes and Solutions, updates the material I have developed with other experienced investors and entrepreneurs, emphasizing the challenges that entrepreneurs face.

In these videos, I don’t just ask difficult questions, I answer them.

To learn more, go to my Facebook fan page Entrepreneur Essentials

The SRS 2012 Merger and Acquisition Terms Study: Comments on Key Findings

My comments on the key findings from the Shareholder Representative Services 2012 M & A Deal Terms Study are in bold:

Deal sizes: although the median deal size* rose slightly to $75 million in 2012 from $70 million in 2011, deals $50 million or less grew to 42% of deals in 2012, up from 33% in 2011. An increase in the percentage of smaller deals in and of themselves doesn’t tell us much.  I’d like to know what percentage of those acquisitions are takeunders versus takeovers—a takeunder in this case means that the consideration paid is less than invested capital.  That’s the key statistic on the health of the acquisition market from the 42%-of-the-market-seller’s perspective.

Seller financial performance: acquisitions remain heavily weighted toward Sellers with revenue, and Sellers in the aggregate continue to show improved earnings since 2009. Coupled with a slight increase in Seller-favorable terms generally, data suggests that some degree of market leverage is returning to Sellers that have survived the downturn even as M&A activity remains deliberate. I don’t believe this last point reflects the reality of the market– unless your company is cash flow positive, a ‘slight increase’ in Seller-favorable terms means nothing given the place form which we are starting:  highly favorable terms for the buyer.  The trends absolutely support that buyers are looking for non-dilutive acquisitions.

Cash vs. stock deals: cash is still king in M&A as long-term interest rates decline. That’s for sure!

Earn-outs: usage of financial metrics (revenue and earnings) and multi-metric achievement tests is declining, accompanied by a shift toward longer earn-out periods. Beware the earnout, it is often used by the buyer as a subterfuge for reducing the back-end payment of the acquisition.

Indemnification trends: median R&W survival periods and escrow sizes have leveled off at 18 months and 10–12% of transaction values, respectively, since 2009. Other terms are increasingly Seller favorable, for example, an increase in available offsets against Buyer indemnification claim amounts and requiring that claims exceed a minimum threshold.  I’ve seen very bad behavior here and am glad the median statistics show Seller favorable trends because it can’t get much worse than it has been…

Alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”): mandatory ADR such as mediation and arbitration has steadily declined since 2010, down to 26% of deals in 2012 from 41% in 2010. I am a strong advocate of binding ADR.  Large corporations like to avoid this because they want to wait the little guy out and they have plenty of salaried staff on hand to go to court or posture as if they are prepared to do so.  I’d like to see this trend reverse.

Post-closing expense funds: the median size as a percentage of the indemnification escrow continues to trend upward, at 2.08% in 2012. This is consistent with ADR declining, as more resources that should be going to shareholders are being wasted on post-closing disputes.

Liquidity for Venture Backed Companies Still Comes Largely in One Flavor—Cash Acquisitions

Denis Dougherty of Intersouth Partners was recently interviewed by Brian Gormley of The Wall Street Journal on the decade-long liquidity crisis that continues to plague the venture capital industry. Responding to the question “What do you see as the biggest investment opportunity for venture capital in 2013?”, Dougherty said, “If we have a broadly rebounding economy, the big corporations would begin to buy products and programs that they want to have, not just the ones that they have to have. Venture capitalists that have an inventory of acquisition-ready companies will do well.”

I agree with Dennis. My concern, based on my direct experience negotiating half a dozen acquisitions sine 2008 (three in 2012), both inside and outside of technology, is that the negotiating environment for such ‘acquisition-ready’ companies is fraught with challenge from the seller’s perspective.

Recent reports reveal that mergers and acquisitions still account for over 90% of liquidity events for venture-backed companies in 2012, a lamentable condition that has plagued the US innovation ecosystem for close to a decade. In my view, many acquisitions of emerging growth companies often lead to the burial of promising technologies by incumbents more focused on protecting market share than on delivering the best product or service to their customers… (think Linksys, Flip…)

It is critical to know the state of the art in merger terms leading to an acquisition and in post-merger covenants, particularly with respect to the release of cash consideration held in escrow or as a holdback by the buyer.

Shareholder Representative Services (SRS) has produced another excellent report that investors and management teams should scrutinize very carefully before engaging in merger negotiations.

I have one general comment to make about the SRS report before reviewing its key findings:

In any negotiation, just because the average term is X, you should not abdicate your responsibility to improve your position and negotiate to get a better outcome for yourself.  You may consider some terms to be acceptable in the agreement because your lawyers tell you “it’s the market” in the heat of battle.  That might be OK, but it also might be a rock that will not always be floating above your head…

Old Rag copy


Because the current world of venture-backed exits remains dramatically and asymmetrically skewed to the advantage of the acquirer, the aggregate statistics in the SRS report reveal a landscape pockmarked by buyer-friendly terms. Challenge yourself to do better as a seller!  More on this topic to follow…

Two Important Reports from the NVCA: VC Fundraising Declines 53% in Q3 2011 and U.S. Medical Innovation is in Crisis

medical innovation image 1 Kelly Slone, director of the Medical Industry Group of the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) posted an important article on October 7 on the NVCAccess blog, clearly calling out that the unintended consequences of FDA regulations have precipitated a full-blown crisis in medical innovation in the U.S. This crisis has already damaged America’s global competitiveness and slowed medical innovation in the U.S.  The report “revealed that US venture capitalists are reducing their investment in biotechnology and medical device companies and shifting focus overseas to Europe and Asia, primarily due to regulatory obstacles at the Food and Drug Administration.”

In related news, Mark Heesen, NVCA President, announced today that U.S. venture capital funds raised a total of  $1.7 billion, a 53 percent decrease in dollars from the third quarter of 2010 and the lowest amount since the third quarter of 2003.  Heesen observed in his blog post what he expects will become apparent when Q3 2011 VC investment statistics are released next week : “you can bet the total dollars invested into start-up companies will be a multiple of the amount raised.  It has been this way since 2008 when the industry began investing more than it was raising.  In fact, by the end of this quarter, the venture industry will have invested at least $20 billion more than it has raised in the last 3+ years.And just like a bubble, this imbalance is not sustainable.  Unless the industry begins to raise more money, we can expect investment levels to decline in the coming years in a significant way.”popped balloon

You can download the full report: Vital Signs: The Threat to Investment in U.S. Medical Innovation and the Imperative of FDA Reform, from the NVCAccess blog.

Some key conclusions from the report follow:

U.S. venture capitalists have been and will continue to:
• Decrease their investment in biotechnology and medical device start-ups
• Reduce their concentration in critical therapeutic areas, and
• Shift focus away from the United States towards Europe and Asia
FDA regulatory challenges were identified as having the highest impact on these investment decisions.
We must act now or lose our leadership position in medical innovation, job creation and access to life-saving treatments in the United States. If the current situation is left unaddressed, the implications to U.S. patients and the economy are significant:
• Many promising medical therapies and technologies will not be funded and therefore will not reach the patients that need them.
• Those that are funded may not be brought to market in the United States first, or at all.
• An estimated funding loss of half a billion dollars over the next three years will cost America jobs at a time when we desperately need employment growth.
• The U.S. leadership position in medical innovation will be placed in further danger and economic growth with suffer.

For more factual background on the decades of neglect that have led us to where we are today, you may find the following links to presentation slides useful:

America’s Slipping Global Competitiveness– Implications for the Next Generation of American Emerging Growth Companies, keynote speech remarks delivered by Pascal Levensohn at ICAP Ocean Tomo conference, March 24, 2010, San Francisco

American Innovation in Crisis,Cybersecurity Applications and Technologies Conference for Homeland Security (CATCH) Conference, Walter E. Washington Convention Center Washington, D.C. Keynote Speech by Pascal Levensohn, March 4, 2009

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Equity Traders Acknowledge that Structural Issues Are Crippling U.S. IPO’s

globe in handsIncreasing numbers of professionals in a position to foment meaningful change in the capital markets are recognizing that structural issues underlie the IPO drought for emerging companies with market capitalizations below $1 billion.  This must become a widely held point of view before any meaningful structural reform can take place, setting aside the legislative delays we can continue to expect from the partisan divisions that have rendered our elected leaders ineffective.

I’ve made this structural argument for over three years on this blog and in public speeches.  Again, I urge readers to make their voices heard on this topic.  On November 24, 2008 I wrote A Case Study in the Unintended Consequences of Financial Regulation:  The Death of the U.S. Small Cap IPO? and invited anyone with constructive, practical ideas on how to revitalize IPO’s in the United States to contact me so that I could pass along their ideas to my colleagues at the National Venture Capital Association. In this post, I made a strong argument that structural market issues were the root cause of the death of the small capitalization IPO:

The lack of IPO’s in the U.S. has broad, negative implications for continued risk taking by U.S. venture capitalists. If we have no public market liquidity for emerging growth companies, there will be no next generation of American technology giants. The demise of the technology IPO has also contributed to the structural breakdown in the broader cycle of research and development that underlies the American innovation crisis…

This post followed my exposition of the argument that America would face an overall crisis in innovation, drawing on work by Judy Estrin and others, in September 2008: The Innovation Crisis Is Coming- Let’s Do Something About it Now!

Sadly, the veracity of these arguments is being proven over and over again, as the venture capital industry continues to shrink and the fallacy of an American jobless recovery becomes apparent.  Pointing to the success of several handfuls of social media companies as an index for the general health of innovation in the U.S. in 2011 is not statistically meaningful and irrelevant to the thousands of startups that are finding it impossible to reach the much greater critical mass necessary to access the public equity capital markets today.  To be clear, publicly traded household names that would not be able to go public today based on current IPO requirements include Dell, Intel, EMC, Yahoo!, Intuit, EA Sports, and many others.

access deniedIn an article published on October 6, 2011 in Traders Magazine.Com, conference remarks by several leading international stock exchange professionals show that they are coming around to understanding the downside to small companies of a trading market infrastructure that treats unknown emerging public companies the same way as multi-billion dollar liquid securities:

“Though trading costs have gone down, that isn’t necessarily a good thing, according to Steve Wunsch, head of corporate initiatives at the ISE Stock Exchange. He said low trading costs have made it difficult for anyone to make money trading smaller names, thus drying up markets for smaller companies.”

Joseph Hall, a partner with the law firm of Davis Polk & Wardell, said the government could have caused part of the problem by repealing the Glass-Steagall Act’s separation of investment banks and commercial banks. That allowed a lot of small brokers to be bought up by big banks, reducing niche trading, he said.

Grant Thornton’s [David] Weild placed more of the blame on Reg NMS, which he said homogenized the markets to the detriment of new issuers. He said a one-size-fits-all market structure does not support smaller, newer companies.

The good news, Weild said, is that Washington seems to be paying attention. …

In my view, the bad news is that it’s taken three years since the global financial crisis erupted for us to get an increasing number of influential people to pay attention.  Meanwhile, millions of jobs have been lost, and innovation in America continues to suffer.

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