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Silicon Valley should reward zebras, not unicorns

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Silicon Valley has a unicorn problem.

While no one is calling for startups with high valuations to go extinct, there ought to be a lot fewer of them. At least that’s what many young founders have concluded after looking at the trials and travails of billion-plus-dollar private companies.

A unicorn is a mythical animal, so investors expect magical results: Lightning growth, near-monopolies and a record-setter IPO yielding 100x or 1,000x returns. A “zebra” company is different. Zebras are real animals that have evolved to fill and thrive in a particular niche. Unlike unicorn companies, zebras are lean, efficient and consistent.

Exponential growth is neither the best nor the only way for businesses to operate.

Too often, a company’s name or perceived cachet — rather than its actual product or realistic business prospects — becomes the thing it is selling. For the most recent, and maybe most damning, example of this trend, look at WeWork .

The company’s 2019 failed IPO was the corporate debacle of the decade; few businesses since Enron have fallen so far so quickly. When the market got a chance to examine the unicorn, they discovered it was really a one-trick pony with a cardboard horn. Adam Neumann built his company for net worth, not actual value, and his employees and supporters paid the price. Then again, imagine if the IPO had been a success: How much of the company’s worth would have evaporated when COVID-19 rolled around in March?

Although most tech innovation requires venture capital in today’s economy, unicorns sometimes become case studies in taking too much of a good thing. Round after round of funding can, as in the case of WeWork, disguise rickety foundations and unsound business plans.

Earlier this month, the mobile video unicorn Quibi folded less than a year after its launch. Film and TV critics weren’t surprised, and neither were those few consumers who’d heard of the company.

Well before its ill-timed launch in early April, most observers knew it was a bad idea. So why did Quibi receive so much funding? The big names attached to the company, including Dreamworks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and one-time HP CEO Meg Whitman, attracted investors who somehow didn’t realize that everything about the product, from its name to its pricing, was wrong.

What a unicorn offers isn’t as important as the fact that it’s a unicorn. The opposite of a unicorn company, to my mind, is a zebra company. They may be a little odd, they may not get the front-page headlines or breathless news coverage, but they’re built to last and built to do something.

Unicorns thrive so long as they remain in the enchanted forest of endless venture rounds; zebras tough it out in the savannas of the free market. A zebra company won’t become the next behemoth like Facebook or Amazon, but neither will it become the next Quibi or WeWork.

The emergence of zebra companies like Handshake and Turo, and to some extent corporations like Ben and Jerry’s and Patagonia, speaks to a broader change in our business and economic understanding. Even before the coronavirus shut down much of the world, endless growth was looking less and less attractive.

Instead of extracting ever more value from the economy, companies like Patreon realize that the same dollar can be earned multiple times as it circulates through the economy. One-way extraction of value is replaced with a circular flow of value. Exponential growth is neither the best nor the only way for businesses to operate.

For most of us, the new year will be a relief: 2020, over at last. But we shouldn’t neglect the opportunity to reflect on the past and plan for the future that a new year offers. The mistakes of WeWork and Quibi are all too easy to repeat; chances are that somewhere in Silicon Valley, a venture capitalist is giving too much money to a doomed business. We’ve been too focused on the unicorns. It’s time to give the zebras the attention they deserve.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Gillmor Gang: Win Win

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Just finished a Twitter Spaces session. It is an engaging platform, somewhat clunky in feature set but easily a tie overall with Clubhouse. I don’t see this as a horse race, however, more as cooperating teams fleshing out a platform where both will be major players. Like notifications in iOS and Android, the feature set is a push and pull motion where Android delivers deep functionality and Apple alternately pulls ahead and consolidates gains. Though the details can vary, the combined energy of effectively 100 percent of the consumer base mandates best practices and opportunities for innovation.

Something similar is going on in Washington as the Democrats test out their majority of none on the pandemic stimulus bill. The headline in the Times says bipartisanship is dead, but the subheading is the real story. The battle for control of the Senate is closing in on the arcane gerrymandering of the filibuster, or what passes for it after Republican whittling of the original talk ’til you drop croaking of Jimmy Stewart as in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The telltale giveaway is Senator Lindsay Graham, who complains bitterly that the Democrats are steamrolling the COVID Rescue Bill without Republican votes “because they can.” The actual bipartisanship is between the progressives and moderates in the Democratic Party, as the Senator from West Virginia moderates one aspect of the bill to gain the prize of something the President can sign. Not only does it establish Biden’s power to govern but it also provides a roadmap for justifying the necessity of altering the filibuster equation.

Notice how Biden changed the subject from bipartisan negotiations to the power play it turned into. He used the polls to squeeze the Republican moderates where they fear most, the primary battles for control of the House in the midterms. The wave of vaccines are making it almost impossible to put up a political firewall; the anti-mask mandates seem like clueless floundering as people begin to have hope of an exit from the gridlock of partisan obstructionism. It will be hard to run on a platform of denial and death as we reach the end of May.

Governing by success undercuts the argument that government doesn’t work. Breaking the back of the filibuster requires the framing of the issue as finding a way to let government keep working in a bipartisan way. That brings us back to changing the definition of bipartisan as evidenced in the technology arena. In the Apple/Android example, two viable entities bring different strengths to insuring the ability to survive long enough to govern. Google’s lock on the network effect in advertising and “free” services may be challenged by Apple’s focus on privacy and a hardware revenue base, but the net effect is to cancel each other’s vulnerabilities due to the market force of their positions. The bipartisan finesse is that each platform has the other as a dominant customer.

In the same vein, Twitter v. Clubhouse is really not the point. Certainly we can cherrypick the battle as startup v. incumbent: Clubhouse filled with unicorn celebrities and rockstar investors and a builtin tension with the media, Twitter protectively fast following with its natural social graph advantages and struggling with scalability and the fear they’ve sown of abandoning projects before they can thrive. The question begged: what is the nature of the bipartisan compromise that will ensure both end up winners?

The answer is how to make each player the best customer of the other. Twitter’s problem is focus, and harnessing the power of users to hack the system to both theirs and the company’s advantage. The @mention spawned the retweet, providing the analytics that drive Twitter’s indelible social graph. Instagram may be Facebook’s best attempt so far at challenging the fundamental strategic value that the former president used to dominate, but Clubhouse promises to go one big step better with its hybrid of mainstream media and a Warholesque factory engine that creates new stars and the media they generate. This in turn migrates through the entertainment disruption led by the streaming realignment. What exactly is this NFT thing really about?

So Clubhouse has to open up its ability to multitask with Twitter and other curated social graphs. Facebook as a source for Clubhouse notifications and suggested conversations is different than Twitter’s But patching into the sharing icon on iOS will offer substantial access to blunt Twitter’s native integration in Spaces. On the flip side, Twitter’s Revue newsletter tools present an opportunity to mine the burgeoning newsletter surge, using its drag and drop tools to bring not just default social network citations but the implicit social graph of curated editorial rockstars. Not only is the influencer audience rich in signal for advertisers, but these same brands will prove most attractive to Clubhouse listeners looking for value. Win win.

from the Gillmor Gang Newsletter

__________________

The Gillmor Gang — Frank Radice, Michael Markman, Keith Teare, Denis Pombriant, Brent Leary and Steve Gillmor. Recorded live Friday, March 5, 2021.

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

@fradice, @mickeleh, @denispombriant, @kteare, @brentleary, @stevegillmor, @gillmorgang

Subscribe to the new Gillmor Gang Newsletter and join the backchannel here on Telegram.

The Gillmor Gang on Facebook … and here’s our sister show G3 on Facebook.

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The iMac Pro is being discontinued

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Chalk this up to inevitability. The iMac Pro is soon to be no more. First noted by 9to5Mac, TechCrunch has since confirmed with Apple that the company will stop selling the all-in-one once the current stock is depleted.

One configuration of the desktop is still available through Apple’s site, listed as “While Supplies Last” and priced at $5,000. Some other versions can also still be found from third-party retailers, as well, if you’re so inclined.

The space gray version of the popular system was initially introduced in 2017, ahead of the company’s long-awaited revamp of the Mac Pro. Matthew called it a “love letter to developers” at the time, though that particular letter seems to have run its course.

Since then, Apple has revamped the standard iMac, focusing the 27-inch model at those same users. The company notes that the model is currently the most popular iMac among professional users. The system has essentially made the Pro mostly redundant, prefiguring its sunsetting. Of course, there’s also the new Mac Pro at the high end of Apple’s offerings.

And let us not forget that the Apple silicon-powered iMacs should be on the way, as well. Thus far the company has revamped the MacBook, MacBook Air and Mac Mini with its proprietary chips. New versions of the 21.5-inch and 27-inch desktop are rumored for arrival later this year, sporting a long-awaited redesign to boot.

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Investors still love software more than life

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Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Want it in your inbox every Saturday morning? Sign up here.

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.

Despite some recent market volatility, the valuations that software companies have generally been able to command in recent quarters have been impressive. On Friday, we took a look into why that was the case, and where the valuations could be a bit more bubbly than others. Per a report written by few Battery Ventures investors, it stands to reason that the middle of the SaaS market could be where valuation inflation is at its peak.

Something to keep in mind if your startup’s growth rate is ticking lower. But today, instead of being an enormous bummer and making you worry, I have come with some historically notable data to show you how good modern software startups and their larger brethren have it today.

In case you are not 100% infatuated with tables, let me save you some time. In the upper right we can see that SaaS companies today that are growing at less than 10% yearly are trading for an average of 6.9x their next 12 months’ revenue.

Back in 2011, SaaS companies that were growing at 40% or more were trading at 6.0x their next 12 month’s revenue. Climate change, but for software valuations.

One more note from my chat with Battery. Its investor Brandon Gleklen riffed with The Exchange on the definition of ARR and its nuances in the modern market. As more SaaS companies swap traditional software-as-a-service pricing for its consumption-based equivalent, he declined to quibble on definitions of ARR, instead arguing that all that matters in software revenues is whether they are being retained and growing over the long term. This brings us to our next topic.

Consumption v. SaaS pricing

I’ve taken a number of earnings calls in the last few weeks with public software companies. One theme that’s come up time and again has been consumption pricing versus more traditional SaaS pricing. There is some data showing that consumption-priced software companies are trading at higher multiples than traditionally priced software companies, thanks to better-than-average retention numbers.

But there is more to the story than just that. Chatting with Fastly CEO Joshua Bixby after his company’s earnings report, we picked up an interesting and important market distinction between where consumption may be more attractive and where it may not be. Per Bixby, Fastly is seeing larger customers prefer consumption-based pricing because they can afford variability and prefer to have their bills tied more closely to revenue. Smaller customers, however, Bixby said, prefer SaaS billing because it has rock-solid predictability.

I brought the argument to Open View Partners Kyle Poyar, a venture denizen who has been writing on this topic for TechCrunch in recent weeks. He noted that in some cases the opposite can be true, that variably priced offerings can appeal to smaller companies because their developers can often test the product without making a large commitment.

So, perhaps we’re seeing the software market favoring SaaS pricing among smaller customers when they are certain of their need, and choosing consumption pricing when they want to experiment first. And larger companies, when their spend is tied to equivalent revenue changes, bias toward consumption pricing as well.

Evolution in SaaS pricing will be slow, and never complete. But folks really are thinking about it. Appian CEO Matt Calkins has a general pricing thesis that price should “hover” under value delivered. Asked about the consumption-versus-SaaS topic, he was a bit coy, but did note that he was not “entirely happy” with how pricing is executed today. He wants pricing that is a “better proxy for customer value,” though he declined to share much more.

If you aren’t thinking about this conversation and you run a startup, what’s up with that? More to come on this topic, including notes from an interview with the CEO of BigCommerce, who is betting on SaaS over the more consumption-driven Shopify.

Next Insurance, and its changing market

Next Insurance bought another company this week. This time it was AP Intego, which will bring integration into various payroll providers for the digital-first SMB insurance provider. Next Insurance should be familiar because TechCrunch has written about its growth a few times. The company doubled its premium run rate to $200 million in 2020, for example.

The AP Intego deal brings $185.1 million of active premium to Next Insurance, which means that the neo-insurance provider has grown sharply thus far in 2021, even without counting its organic expansion. But while the Next Insurance deal and the impending Hippo SPAC are neat notes from a hot private sector, insurtech has shed some of its public-market heat.

Stocks of public neo-insurance companies like Root, Lemonade and MetroMile have lost quite a lot of value in recent weeks. So, the exit landscape for companies like Next and Hippo — yet-private insurtech startups with lots of capital backing their rapid premium growth — is changing for the worse.

Hippo decided it will debut via a SPAC. But I doubt that Next Insurance will pursue a rapid ramp to the public markets until things smooth out. Not that it needs to go public quickly; it raised a quarter billion back in September of last year.

Various and Sundry

What else? Sisense, a $100 million ARR club member, hired a new CFO. So we expect them to go public inside the next four or five quarters.

And the following chart, which is via Deena Shakir of Lux Capital, via Nasdaq, via SPAC Alpha:

Alex

 

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