Posts tagged VC

Explaining the ‘lack of’ Venture Capital in Toronto

I figured it would be appropriate to write about the lack of a growing and robust venture capital community in Toronto since it cropped up in three places over the last 2 days  – once with several folks at Startup Drinks last night, today over coffee with Jeremy Laurin of OCE’s Investment Accelerator Fund and on Quora (the new social network launched by the ex-CTO of Facebook). On a side note, Quora is actually pretty snazzy with super-high-quality people.

Back to the main point of this thread — I’ve been talking about this situation for roughly 3.5 years now — first in the biotech/life science VC community in Toronto and now with the ICT community. I believe there is one problem at the root of both sectors — we need a kick-start in Canada.

What does that mean, a kick-start? Well, most people believe that there is a fundamental funding gap in Toronto’s venture community between pioneering research (in universities, by startups, etc…) and venture capital finance-able deals. That may be the case, but that is a different argument for a different day. I believe there is a more substantial funding gap that exists once a ’successful Canadian company’ reaches the point of raising a round of capital greater than $15 million. The existing VCs in the community (generally) just can’t get those kinds of deals done. It’s not in our Canadian cards (given the average fund size, risk thresholds, etc…). Canadians need later-stage financing options (or Government money) to back those deals and to create a better later-stage ecosystem.

So, what happens instead? Great Canadian companies knock on the doors of VCs South of the border who are flushed with cash and willing to invest larger amounts in later rounds. For the record, I love US VCs. However, for the purpose of this discussion, or monologue rather, they have tended to bring companies close to home to minimize their geographical risk with the investment. Now, as companies continue to grow and are eventually sold, the successful founders and key employees of those companies often (not always) stay South of the border to further progress their careers — joining US companies, or launching other companies in those locales. Worse for Canada, those successful folks often reinvest in US VC funds or Angel invest in other local US companies rather than Canadian startups.

Envision that cycle reoccurring over and over for the last 30 years. The trend becomes large enough that a substantial amount of capital, and human capital for that matter, gets lost from the Canadian startup ecosystem.

Some say that there is a lack of venture capital in Toronto because there just aren’t great deals. I disagree. I think that there is a lot of talent in Toronto and in the surrounding areas, like Waterloo for example.

Now, the scenario I’ve described may not be the only reason for the lack of capital in Toronto (or Canada), but I feel that it is a significant part of the problem. What are your thoughts?

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The Importance of Customer Acquisition Costs for Startups

I recently came across the blog of David Skok of Matrix Partners and was inspired to write this post by an article on customer acquisition costs. If you have not yet read through his blog’s vast resources for entrepreneurs, I suggest you do so – particularly if you plan to pitch your startup to VCs anytime soon.

After being pitched countless times by startups, as a VC I’d like to identify a common misconception that web-based startups often have about their own growth potential and the costs associated with their plans. Management of web services companies, SaaS companies and mobile (web-based) applications commonly believe that because they are situated online, customers will come across their service, submit a purchase order (or subscribe) and notify friends or other companies to use the service as well. Although this may happen from time to time, it is very rare for any company to experience sustained viral growth.

Many companies don’t understand the difference between viral marketing and viral growth. Viral marketing is essentially “word of mouth” or “person-to-person distribution” and is the latest buzzword. Viral growth implies a K-factor greater than 1 (i.e. for each new person who tries a product/service, they will each invite more than 1 registered user of the product on average). Since true viral growth is so hard to achieve in practice, many companies miscalculate the actual costs it will incur to acquire customers. As David points out in his article, the majority of startup pitches lack detail/emphasis on how much it will cost to acquire customers. I second this statement entirely.

Business Model Viability
For a business to be profitable on each new customer, startups must balance two variables: (1) Cost to Acquire Customers (CAC); and (2) Lifetime Value of a Customer (LTV).

CAC can be calculated by taking the business’s entire cost of sales and marketing over a given period (including salaries and other employee expenses) and divide it by the number of customers that the business acquired in that period.

LTV can be calculated by looking at the Average Revenue Per User/Customer (ARPU) over the lifetime of a business’s relationship with a customer.

As Steve Blank mentioned in his recent post, an early indication that a business has found the right business model is when the cost of acquiring customers becomes less than the revenues generated from the customer. “For web startups, this is when the cost of customer acquisition is less than the lifetime value of that customer. For biotech startups, it’s when the cost of the R&D required to find and clinically test a drug is less than the market demand for that drug.”


Credit: David Skok.

Zynga is a great example of a company that has managed to decipher the business model of online social gaming. After thousands of A/B tests and experiments, Zynga finally found a business model where CAC was less than LTV. Once they cracked the nut, the company spent so much on customer acquisition that it was rumored that they accounted for upwards of 30% of Facebook’s revenue in 2009 though its aggressive social ad buying strategies. Similar business models and opportunities exist in virtual worlds, massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) and many other online businesses. Many social games, such as those created by Zynga, leverage virtual currency, micro-transactions, emotional response mechanisms and social influence to promote the sale of decorative and functional virtual goods.

Before investing in a web-centric startup, good VCs will look deep into a company’s business model and know to look for CAC and LTV metrics. In fact, Trident Capital recently held a meeting with their online advertising and ecommerce companies to help exchange best practices for customer acquisition and improving LTV. My advice to startups: prove out your business model and you will have a much better shot at raising VC dollars. Skok suggests that two key equations be followed by web startups:

  • CAC < LTV (3x appears to be a rough minimum for SaaS businesses)
  • CAC should be recovered in < 12 months (for subscription businesses)

Startups, if you’ve already figured out your business model and how to make CAC < LTV, stay very quiet and add as much fuel to the fire as you can afford. Your competitors will likely try to hone-in on your tactics and fight back for their share of the market.


Credit: Steve Blank.

Leverage Startup Metrics
Startups are different from larger companies and therefore need different metrics than larger companies. Metrics will give startups a lens into how well the search for the business model is going and help to identify when to scale the company. Besides CAC and LTV, some essential metrics that startups should be familiar with include Viral Coefficient (K-factor)  and Customer Lifecycle. Dave McClure from Founders Fund recently updated his Startup Metrics for Pirates presentation for web sales pipelines. Take a look!

Questions to my Readers
Please consider the following questions and share your perspectives with my other readers and the tech community at large.

  1. What metrics do you consider the most valuable?
  2. Do you use any tools to help measure specific metrics for your business?
  3. What mistakes have you made (and corrected) that can help others succeed?
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Larry Cheng Updates Global VC Blog List

Larry Cheng updated his Global VC Blog list today (originally posted in May 2009 as top-100 in Google Reader subscriptions) and has re-ranked the global top VC blogs by average monthly unique visitors on compete.com for Q4 2009 (oct+nov+dec)/3.

As per the latest global VC blog listing, Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures (Blog: A VC) took the top spot, shifting Guy Kawasaki from Garage Technology Ventures (Blog: How To Change The World) into second place.

Here’s the top 1012 for Q4 2009:

  1. Fred Wilson, Union Square Ventures, A VC (100,279)
  2. Guy Kawasaki, Garage Technology Ventures, How To Change The World (82,838)
  3. Paul Graham, YCombinator, Essays (71,924)
  4. Brad Feld, Foundry Group, Feld Thoughts (45,633)
  5. Mark Suster, GRP Partners, Both Sides of the Table (39,389)
  6. Bill Gurley, Benchmark Capital, Above The Crowd (23,084)
  7. Dave McClure, Founders Fund, Master of 500 Hats (21,462)
  8. Josh Kopelman, First Round Capital, Redeye VC (12,972)
  9. Bijan Sabet, Spark Capital, Bijan Sabet (12,451)
  10. Jeremy Liew, Lightspeed Ventures Partners, LSVP (12,097)
  11. Mark Peter Davis, DFJ Gotham Ventures, Venture Made Transparent (12,010)
  12. Larry Cheng, Volition Capital, Thinking About Thinking (11,851)

I kept 12 for obvious reasons. Check out the full list.

Larry, thanks for keeping tabs on all these metrics — it’s a great service to everyone looking to find knowledge in the VC and startup domains. The only problem with this methodology is that compete.com tracks only US traffic, while the blog listing is global in scope. Perhaps your next update in April 2010 can use Alexa rankings or some other novel solution.

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ExtremeU Pitch Day

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to attend ExtremeU Pitch Day, put on by Extreme Venture Partners (EVP). The attendance was filled with VCs, Angels, media and members of the EVP team to listen to pitches from the 3 graduates of their first class at Extreme University. Those graduates were Assetize, Uken Games and Locationary.

ExtremeU was a summer technology start-up program that focuses on industry networking, technology mentoring and delivering a product to potential investors after only 12 weeks. The intensive program was led by Farhan Thawar (Dean of ExtremeU), who is also the VP Engineering at Xtreme Labs.

Assetize

Assetize helps Twitter users monetize their content stream by displaying ads from Google AdSense and other ad networks into your Twitter stream. They are hoping to be the AdSense of blogs, but on Twitter. Assetize will share revenue with content publishers (content publishers receive 60%). The company has a content analysis and targeting algorithm as well as an ad-matching algorithm that helps advertisers reach targeted audiences. Since they began coding 3 months ago, Assetize already publishes 15,000 messages per day across all channels and has published approximately 56 million ads to-date. Some early competitors in this space include Sponsored Tweets, Ad.ly and Magpie.

Uken Games

Uken Games, founded by Chris Ye and Mark Lampert, creates social games. Their first game is called SuperHeroes Alliance and is based on the Facebook platform, they have also recently launched an iPhone version of the application (with data synced on the server-side so that you can play the same game across platforms). Since their launch in March 2009, they have amassed 130,000 total users and over 50,000 monthly active users (MAUs). Even in their early days, they have found that people will pay for virtual goods for a whole host of reasons, and that a couple of users even spent over $2,000 to compete against others in the system. So far, they have been working hard to build their “Adaptive Game Engine” and they plan to use this the churn out more game in more verticals (that will remain nameless due to confidentiality). Look out for some more interesting games from Uken.

Locationary

Locationary is an interesting and massive undertaking, taken-on by Grant Ritchie, to create “The World’s Place Database … Created by You.” Essentially, the company is trying to create the Wikipedia of the YellowPages by crowdsourcing the information and subsequent updates and generating incentive through game mechanics and point-scoring systems.  So far the company has cataloged over 100,000 places. Locationary has ambitious goals (I like to see that) of having 15 million placed indexed within the next 12 months and 100 million places indexed within 2 years. This is a very difficult space and I wish the company good luck in getting the public to be their puppeteer!

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