tech | growth | venture | 2017 January
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It was revealed last week that Facebook is experimenting and planning the wide release of a stories feature similar to Snapchat. Haven’t we been here before?  But count me out amongst the many who criticize Facebook for it’s lack of creativity and imagination.

Snapchat’s IPO roadshow will likely reveal just how well Facebook’s strategy is working, but my guess is the impact will be significant especially with customers who prefer the comfort of the Facebook / Instagram platform. Truthfully, Facebook can leverage this familiarity to build a product that is functionally the same but not as good and still likely re-capture a significant share of user engagement from Snap.

The reasoning is simple, take a look at Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends report from last year.  Facebook was DRAMATICALLY better than Snapchat when it came to user engagement (even with Millennials) in terms of AUM’s and time spent on the site, the only place Snap excelled was video.  Since most people visit Facebook first and more frequently, what happens when Facebook is just good enough to keep Snap’s users from needing their feature?


Silicon Valley, and the tech community as a whole, can sometimes become an echo chamber.  However, it’s important to remember the majority of users live outside of the Valley and are more concerned with convenience and utility than originality.

I’m a proponent of listening to the market over building a feature that is “different” or the latest tech.  I’ve personally made this mistake, and have seen it made more than once.  We’ve focused on extra features, design, and new shopping UX’s when customers craved simplicity that competitors provided.

The key to unlocking new business was accepting the market feedback that was so visible all around us. We spent time and resources on building for the sake of building when the customers really wanted optionally of enrollment, an update that took little time and provided a high ROI.

Even when you are building tech that is advanced, always do so with your users in mind.  Never underestimate your competition, if they are growing by leveraging a feature you don’t provide, consider building it or risk losing the customer base you’ve worked so hard to capture.


Over the past month, I’ve focused on my growth in product during the span of the last few years. This led me to reflect on my initial days as a product marketing manager and internalize where we succeeded but also what we could have done better. From those thoughts, I’ve tried to put together a basic framework for mitigating risk in those formative days, weeks, and months.

These ideas are certainly not definitive or complete but I do hope it provides a relatively good structure for your initial thoughts about your product or business. The journey of product building only increases in complexity the further you get from day 1, having a process early creates habits that pay dividends in the long run.

Frame the problem

Fall in love with the problem, not the solution. Research it, talk to users, and become immersed in the problem before building the solution. It’s impossible to build a good product if you don’t understand what problem you are trying to solve. However, just like in economics there is a diminishing point of return on data and research. Nothing replaces feedback from the market.

When founders have an empathetic understanding of a market and they are connected to the problems they are solving, it’s a more ‘mature’ approach to a starting a startup. People tend to forget that your company is your first product, and you have to be intentional about building your company before it’s ready to really grow and scale. — Hunter Walk

Whether the problem is lack of energy choice, expensive diagnosis of a chronic illness, or unacceptable access to higher education, your solution to the problem will change over time. Yet, the product will only succeed if it solves a real problem for its users.

While admittedly a bit biased, this is where the best product managers are able to leverage extensive industry / business knowledge. It is important to have a grasp on which markets will be best for the initial launch, the partnerships that could allow for rapid expansion after traction, and the message that will resonate with customers.

Speaking of messaging, never underestimate the power of storytelling. Whether you are looking for users or investors, the product should be easy to understand and resonate with your audience. Empathize with the needs of the customer and show them you solve their problem.

Sometimes the product canvas is messy

Execute the go-to-market

If real estate is all about location, the go-to-market is all about execution.
Once you’ve researched the problem, it’s crucial to put a timeline in place for getting the product to market quickly.

Simply put, great execution is entering to market in the shortest amount of time possible with a minimal product that solves the problem. As my teammate Jonathan Crowder likes to say, “viable” is part of MVP. Bad execution is a lack of speed to market and inability to apply learnings from market once it has launched.

To achieve the necessary speed in our go-to-market, we broke up the B2B product launch into small sprints. Our goal was to get into the market as soon as possible. As a marketplace in a highly regulated space we looked for a market where the regulation was lowest and where we could generate the supply-side quickly.

Another criteria which we held in high regard for prospective partners (the supply) was the ability to service other markets quickly when we expanded. This strategy paid off almost immediately as the demand for the marketplace exceeded our early expectations and we were able to quickly answer the demand in additional markets where the completion was low.

On that note, if you are fortunate enough to gain traction it is important to understand why. Don’t over celebrate the early returns. This lack of understanding led me to champion a few features that eventually were built and not needed. Which leads me to….

Measure and evolve

The power of incentives and unintended consequences have always influenced my strategic business decision making. I firmly believe that what you measure determines the actions you’ll take and those actions will effect something you don’t anticipate.

It’s important to define these metrics before hand, otherwise you’ll shape them to your narrative or change them to ones that shed your product in a more favorable light.

A little over a year ago, the team at Andreessen Horowitz published two blog posts on startup metrics (32 metrics total; part 1 and part 2) that everyone looking to start or run a company should read. Here are the ones specific to product:
Active Users
M-O-M Growth (if you have a seasonal business, Y-o-Y is just as important)
REVENUE (per user, repeat customers, margins are all critical)

It’s likely that one, or all of these metrics will shed light on issues with your product / business along the way. The important part is working feverishly to improve them as quickly as possible, don’t prolong the problem by refusing to accept the results.

When beginning to improve the product, don’t fall into the trap of making too many changes to the baseline user path at once. Early on it’s likely you have too few resources to measure and then act upon several changes immediately. Focus on the changes you believe will impact your metrics.

As you scale, your capacity for complexity grows but be aware, the increase in infrastructure will tease you to attempt to make more changes than can be accurately assessed resulting in assumptions that might not be true. Adding complexity too quickly often keeps products from success.

There’s no 100% right way to build or launch a product. However, having a repeatable problem solving structure is important for achieving the desired results at scale. Pick a strategy that will allow you to remove emotion from the process and make decisions that are objective and rooted in data. Stay grounded in this approach and the results will follow.

A few days ago, I posted a few of the resources I used as I grew into the product marketing manager / product manager role. With this post, I’m focusing on the things that you won’t read in those books but will likely learn on the job. Being a product marketing manager or product manager is always glorified on podcasts, blogs and in books. However, the path to success is often an exercise in your tolerance for being wrong and your willingness to listen.

Stop, Collaborate, and Listen

Are functions dependent on engineering asking you about the roadmap frequently? If so, it’s possible you’ve made the product roadmap a blackhole. Good product managers clearly and frequently communicate about the product roadmap. Great product managers go one step further and build shared understanding about the trade-offs that have to be made on an ongoing basis.

It’s important to remember that you are the gatekeeper to a finite resource within the company, one that several of your teammates need to achieve their goals or execute on their strategies. Approaching this responsibility with the humility it deserves will go a long way to ensure everyone is on the same page. Ask yourself, if someone has a better thought, would you know?

Product managers will often comment that they “own the product vision”, I couldn’t disagree more. The PM is responsible for executing it and building the vision with everyone in mind. The entire team should be proud of the product the company releases to the market. I’ve always been a fan of healthy internal debate. But while debate is good, buy-in is better.

You Can’t Be a Perfectionist

Scope creep is real. If everything you do must always be 100% complete and perfect before you release it, product management isn’t right for you. Customers will always provide the biggest insight into improving your product. The longer you wait to release it, the longer you have to wait for feedback. In businesses where cash flow and runway are key, this can prove disastrous.

Instead, put a process in place early. Keeping to a two week sprint cycle might seem rudimentary but the habit will ensure that you are keeping accountability and progressing toward a better product on an ongoing basis.

Even when we are working on longer term projects with revenue impacts we’re committed to releasing something that will give us a positive outcome in the near-term. Not only is this important for business reasons, it allows us to always collect customer feedback to improve our product. Additionally, the engineering team gets a chance to impact the business regularly with new features. Never underestimate the importance of this, engineers LOVE knowing they are building products that have an impact on the top line.

Shiny Objects Almost Always Fade

There’s a time in every company where the path to explosive growth seems hidden or the initial push has slowed. At LAUNCH this year, Jason M. Lemkin warned SaaS companies that it is tempting to enter a new segment with your product when you hit the wall.

We aren’t SaaS at Choose, but I do believe every company eventually faces the decision to improve the core business or enter a new segment. It’s likely you have plenty of room to continue to improve the core even if it isn’t exciting. Focus on your mission and take a deep dive into what your customers want. Scott Belsky of Benchmark uses a phrase I love, “mission centric, medium agnostic.”

As much as we wanted to be a “purely digital” platform for energy choice, some consumers needed the comfort of a voice on the telephone. Our mission is energy choice for all because we believe it saves customers money and allows them to pick the source of their energy, should we care if they do this online or on the phone?

As it turns out, a great shopping platform combined with industry leading selection is an avenue to success once we gave customers a choice in the way they transacted. Focus on your customers, not what other companies in different industries are doing with the “latest tech”.

Execution is a Sprint, Vision is a Marathon

We have a strict rule at Choose, once a sprint starts, it doesn’t get changed. However, that doesn’t apply to the day before the sprint or the quarterly roadmap.

Your goal as a PM should always be to execute on the highest value features, this changes frequently, especially in startups. However, being adaptive doesn’t come without its traps. It is easy to be coerced into creating throw-away work.

Recently, we had to make the decision on which core piece of our product we wanted to improve first. We subscribe to the Bill Gurley theory that conversion is the most important metric, and with this in mind decided to improve the checkout process for our customers. This was a massive undertaking, so we broke it into actionable pieces.

First, we focused on changing the validation scripts and content. The sprint, easy fixes that would have immediate impacts. Due to the nature of our business, each checkout has idiosyncrasies that dictate they all have slightly differing code leading us to the marathon. We improved the code base to allow us to be more performant and flexible with improvements. The result: we’ve reduced the time to add new features in checkout by about 66%, and improved conversion by ~20% after customers enter checkout.

You’re Going to Be Wrong

Know this, building the right product is hard. If you’re doing it right, and moving fast you will be wrong a lot. It’s what you learn and how fast you adapt that determines how successful you’ll ultimately be.

After we had launched our B2B product at Choose Energy, I was damn sure we needed to build two things: 1) an input for our customers to enter their monthly electricity spend to get a better price and 2) a way for our partners who weren’t on API’s to upload prices more quickly. I pushed for these almost every chance I got. Neither worked and I’d wasted our engineers’ time. I was certain that customers valued price above all else and this was our way to give them the most savings. As it turned out, they valued their time more.

Instead, our customers enjoyed the simplicity of just selecting home, small business, or large business and seeing prices immediately after. Our partners didn’t put out more tailored rates because the new upload features weren’t a vast improvement on our old process nor did they increase acquisition.

Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes, the sooner you admit them, the faster you can correct them and build something your customers love. Even more, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. 80% certainty is almost always good enough, driving out all uncertainty tends to waste a lot of time and speed matters.

There you have it, a few skills I’ve learned on the job in product and the experiences that go along with them. You might have noticed there are two skills noticeably absent from the list. HUSTLE & CURIOSITY. Simply because I believe you need those skills to excel no matter the job, and they’re hard to teach. I hope this list leaves you with a few skills you can apply to your day-to-day basis and as always, if you have more to add, I’d love to hear it.

Last week, I introduced a series which I hope will be of use to new product managers in markets outside of Silicon Valley. For the first installment I am focusing on a few resources that really shaped my view of product management over the last three years.

Udemy (Coursera, EdX, Khan Academy)

Silicon Valley is full of classes for aspiring PM’s or PM’s who are looking to reach new heights in their careers. I work in Dallas where the cupboard of resources for true product management courses is bare and courses are focused mostly on young developers learning to code.

A few years ago, I made the decision that having a few PM / coding skills would come in handy down the road and enrolled in a few classes on popular online learning marketplace Udemy. Coursera, EdX (I took CS 101 from Harvard here), Codecademy and Khan Academy all provide free or low cost classes for anyone looking to learn a new skill.

I wanted to focus on a few coding languages and a high level overview of web development.  Below is my Udemy curriculum with a synopsis of each course.

The Complete Web Developer Course — Build 14 Websites: This was the first class I tackled upon enrolling in online courses and was a great entry point for someone with limited knowledge of website tech stacks. This 10 section class spans 245 lessons and covers intros to HTML5, CSS, JS, jQuery, WordPress, PHP, SQL, and API’s (including Google Maps’ and Twitter’s APIs). Additionally, you’ll learn how to setup an FTP to send files to and from a sample website you build early on in the course. This class won’t dig deep on any topic, but after it I felt a rudimentary understanding of how web development works at a high level.

The Ultimate Excel Programer Course: I know, I know, no one programs in Excel anymore but hear me out. For anyone who has never coded before, and three years ago this was me, programming macros in Excel is a great starting point for two reasons. The first, VB in Excel corrects your syntax and makes it obvious where your code is broken. There’s even in a function that allows you to run through your code step by step which not only allows you to correct it easily but shows you exactly which lines of code correspond to action. The second, learning a language with assistance was invaluable when I moved to languages like R, Python, and SQL. Suddenly, coding didn’t seem so unfamiliar anymore.

The Ultimate Python Programming Tutorial— This course was my first into to common programming terms like strings, boolean, and lists. However, I had learned some terms like loops and else in the Excel programming class above. This course focuses on the basics of Python, a great language especially for data applications. The most useful skill in this class is learning to define and call functions through out your code. Something that proves useful if you are running the models consistently with the same variables.

Applied Data Science with R — Full disclosure, I am a stats junkie. It was my favorite class in grad school and I continue to love it. Just knowing how to run and interpret regressions the right way is an immeasurable skill. This course will walk you through some basics in the R language and a few key concepts in statistics (though I’d recommend a full course on stats if you’ve never taken one). R is a powerful tool for statistics and having even a minimal grasp on it will allow you to run models and explain them with ease given the vast amount of packages available in the R library. Think of R as a multitool in your pocket.

Note: while I did not take a class on it, I highly recommend anyone looking to be a PM learn SQL. I was lucky enough to have a colleague teach me the basics and then I expanded on my knowledge through YouTube, Stack Overflow, and other online resources.


One great thing about product management is that due to its immense popularity as a career path, there are a plethora of books from which to choose. Here are a few of my favorites:

Hooked, Contagious, Inspired: I placed these books in the same category because they all have different approaches on how to create and implement products people love and how those products gain traction. Hooked focuses on how to build products that consumers will use repeatedly while Contagious turns its attention to methods that are used to get ideas and products to catch on. The combo is powerful: how to build habit-forming products and how to spread the word. Inspired takes a slightly different approach focusing on how to decide which product opportunities fit best with your mission, how to implement Agile once you’ve decided how to move forward and how to manage expectations / goals of management.

Agile Product Management with Scrum (short form of Essential Scrum): This book is the resource for learning Agile at a high level and provides best practices for implementation. There are two versions here, the first which while shorter still provides valuable techniques for organizing your product team and the second which is the long-form for more granular learning. This book is most similar to a text book and should be required reading for anyone getting into the field. It’s likely you won’t stick to the techniques word for word but they do provide a framework for product strategy.

The Lean Startup: This is the quintessential product read for PM’s in startups and for good reason. As you develop a product and companies grow, the natural inclination is to make the product and process that goes along with building it more complex. Eliminating a focus on simplicity and clarity of vision is common. This book will keep you focused on moving quickly based on data insights.

Podcasts / Blogs

One of the traits that I believe helped me quickly evolve as a PM is being highly curious. This took a few different forms; 1) don’t be afraid to take inspiration from your competition or products that do things really well. There are sites that collect product inspiration, use them! 2) Listen to really smart people who’ve already accomplished the goals you wish to achieve. Much like product being a popular topic for books, it is also the foundation for many popular sites and podcasts since most founders are indeed product focused.

Product Hunt (site and podcasts): The reason for using PH is simple, great people posting great products on the site, and great people discussing great product on the podcast. Want to see what’s coming next? Visit the website. Want to hear from successful product owners and founders. Listen to the podcast. (Note: they haven’t posted a podcast in a few months, but the previous ones are still amazing)

Little Big Details: A fun website that posts unique, and sometimes hidden details that make a big difference in UI / UX. Most of these insights come from companies you might have heard of like Apple, Amazon, and Google.

This Week in Startups: It’s no secret that jason has one of the best podcasts in Silicon Valley and for PM’s it is a must listen. The great founders that visit this podcast often, share how they solved their biggest product issues from all aspects including ideation, implementation, and the strategy behind it all. Even if you don’t hear a product insight on an episode, there’s no doubt you’ll learn something about startups that you can relate to or use in your day-to-day.

This Is Product Management: This is Product Management is a podcast about a variety of topics and where they intersect with product management ideas. Past topics have included, IoT, APIs, Venture Capital, and storytelling. The diversity of topics will broaden the way you think about product strategy and what outside forces shape it.

Silicon Valley Product Group: Marty Cagen (author of Inspired mentioned above) and Chris Jones post once or twice a month on all aspects of product management. This is a must read for a variety of reasons but among my favorite is the breadth of topics on the blog. Marty and Chris write on product, product leadership, diversity in product, strategy, vision, and much much more. This isn’t just a good read for product mangers but for those who manage or work extensively with them as well.

The availability of resources for aspiring and evolving product mangers is immense. I’ve selected a few that really guided me during those first few years where I felt a bit underwater at times. I would love to hear from you and any resources you’ve found valuable on your journey as a product manager.

The next part of this series will focus on a few skills these resources don’t teach. Next, we’ll move on to leveraging both industry knowledge and business acumen to guide product strategy. Finally, I’ll put it all together with a timeline of how I approached product management from being a complete novice to only slightly green after learning from these resources and mistakes I made along the way.

Jonathan and I are at the CBI Insights Innovation Summit in Santa Barbara this week. Below are a few quick takeaways from yesterday’s panels and discussions.  Enjoy.

  1. As can be expected, voice and text will be the biggest winners at the intersection of UI and AI over the next few years.  People can now interact with devices without knowing how to read and write. For developed nations, this means that toddlers now interact with computers for the first time by voice instead of touch.  However, the implications for the developing world are even greater. Since illiteracy will no longer be a limiting factor to bringing people online 2B additional people will have the chance to connect to the rest of the world.After the Q4 and CES success surrounding Echo and Alexa it’s pretty clear that Amazon is leading the way in voice. Yet, Google and Apple still have one big competitive advantage, an OS in your pocket.  Consumers generally want to interact with one OS across multiple devices so this hurdle is likely to be key for Amazon.The industries that will be impacted range from retail to content / media to healthcare.  The order of implementation is likely to go from low risk to high risk.  As Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed Ventures said, “health won’t be the first real domain, rather a something like shopping where no one dies if it goes wrong.”
  2. The IPO and M&A climate is changing.  Just as early as a few years ago, growth at any cost was the standard way to IPO  Now, companies are taking a growth at some reasonable cost approach. I wrote last week that non-tech firms entering the startup M&A fray is likely to put a focus on sustainable business models and the IPO market looks to be following suit.  Scott Kupor of a16z believes “companies with 30% annual growth and near-term profitability are likely to have good IPO prospects”
  3. Chamath Palihapitiya of Social Capital was his usual quotable self and several of his insights will be long-lasting in my mind.  Among them:More big companies should partner with VC firms. Combining their balance sheet with access to talent is a game changer. These large, incumbent companies should share the risk with talented startups instead of defining exactly what they do. This mindset prevents them from building big, meaningful businesses. FinTech is a great industry for incumbents to do this. because by definition there must be an ecosystem for consumer interactions.Working around regulatory is immature, Silicon Valley should being working with regulation.  Regulatory standards keep consumer trust in industries like finance, utilities and health where this is paramount.  This trust often leads to more users which leads to more revenue.  In addition to these benefits, regulation helps companies build a sustainable moat and weeds out those who don’t have the courage to run the gauntlet of starting a business.
  4. With the copious amounts of data coming online the way we think and work with data is changing rapidly.  Among the challenges businesses will face; cleaning data that comes from multiple collection points (IIoT, energy) and consumer privacy.AirBnB’s Chief Economist Peter Coles elaborated on both challenges on the panel focusing on big data.  AirBnB wanted to work within the regulatory frameworks of major cities as they expanded their footprint but in order to do so needed to share data with those cities without compromising customer privacy.  The solution: aggregating data in order for these cities to spot trends without violating user trust. Sometimes solutions are beautiful for their simplicity.The other insight Peter provided was on measuring data.  Most of us default to one off queries on our database to solve the problem of now.  Instead, AirBnB has taken the time to create “core metrics” in order to eliminate one-off problem solving.  This is something I know I have done in the past and am betting most of you have too.

There were several more great insights from panelists and presentations from amazing companies like SigOpt and Affective.  The future is filled with talented people solving massive problems.  I’m looking forward to another productive day focused on big industries like auto and insurance.

With most of my usual newsletters and bloggers taking the final week of 2016 off, I spent the last week of the year reviewing the blogs, podcasts, and books that had the most influence on my thinking.  One of those posts was Fred Wilson’s Second and Third Tier Markets And Beyond in which Fred discussed the challenges founders and investors face in markets outside of Silicon Valley.

This post and the conversation around it, led me to start thinking about the other roles in startup ecosystems differ drastically depending on their environment. Naturally, I settled on examining what it is like to become a PM outside of the Valley.  Hint: it’s tough, luck plays a large role, you need a supportive team and you have to love to hustle.

As I began digging into the differences between product management in locations where the mentorship and resources run deep and emerging startup ecosystems, I became reflective on my evolution from the very first days to how I think about managing a product today.

Given that the Product Manager and Product Marketing Manager roles are so prevalent in the Valley, I figured more decorated PM’s than I had written on what they had learned. My assumption was correct.  In this search I came across 50 Things I’ve Learned About Product Management by John Cutler on Medium. While I highly recommend you read the entire list, point number 6 stuck with me:

The best way to get people off your back is to deliver value continuously (with data to back it up). Real results (and a proud team) eat everything for breakfast.

I was, and in some ways still am, green as a product manager, but by far the easiest way to get buy-in from your team is to produce results using the skill-set you have at your disposal. However, what is even more crucial that you never stop growing the skill-set you have at your disposal so you are able to continuously deliver value and insight.

Product management is one of the most desired startup jobs in the Bay Area, and as the entrepreneurial culture begins to spread to other metros, the competition for these jobs will be fierce. There will always be someone more experienced and better qualified but if you enjoy the grind of learning, success will find you.

With that point in mind, over the next few weeks I hope to deliver some insight into how I evolved as a PM outside of Silicon Valley.  In this series, I’ll work through some of the lessons I’ve learned as a PMM, why I believe strategy and business knowledge are just as important as the technical skill, and the resources I leveraged to become a more effective PMM.

Since I am just beginning to write on a consistent basis, this might be fluid but at least for awhile my plan on Friday’s is to write briefly on one of a few topics: a product feature I really enjoy or think needs some work, something fun (for those days when I am short on time), or a funding that I find interesting.

One product I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is Amazon Alexa / Echo.  Judging by the the reports from CES so is everyone else.  Not only are the skills Alexa can do expanding rapidly, now over 7,000, but sales of Echo during the holiday reportedly grew 9x over last year.

Yet, despite all of this growth, I am still not sure that the Echo will gain long-term, broad appeal.  The reasoning is simple, and I’ve experienced this first hand, engagement with the device dwindles over time.


The graph above illustrates this point well.  Almost everyone “plays” with Alexa when they open it out of the box.  But as time goes on and the novelty wears off, Echo begins to be just another household electronic.

While sales are great, and growing, consumers don’t appear to be continuously engaging with Echo.  Using myself as a case study, I have Prime, but I also subscribe to Fresh, Kindle Unlimited, and Amazon Music.  Despite all of these Amazon products the only things I use Echo for are a timer, changing my thermostat, and music (Pandora).  However, I used all of these features less than once a month at best.  I don’t even use the features that generate revenue for Amazon, like ordering from a shopping list.

The remedy to this problem could be in the news that Amazon has licensed it to Lenovo. Officially making Alexa an OS for other devices in an effort to become the platform for home devices amongst growing competition from Google Home and, assuming it ever happens, Apple’s smart home platform.  It makes perfect sense as the value isn’t in the device itself but in increasing the likelihood you’ll use Amazon’s other services much in the way Android is used to get other Google products into consumers’ hands.

Obviously, Amazon has a great product with Echo and the home is the next great frontier for technology.  Much like mobile, a few devices and operating systems will own a significant share of the market and Amazon has a significant lead thus far.  While the numbers focus on sales of the device, the real trend to watch will be how often Alexa finds it’s way into homes via other devices. Time will only tell if they can leverage Alexa much in the way Google used Android to gain significant share in mobile.



A few days ago Hunter Walk (quickly becoming one of my favorite VC blogs to read) posted a blog on the new reality that is non-tech firms being more frequent acquirers of startups than tech companies.

Yesterday, CB Insights did the same putting the spotlight on several of the companies that exited to traditional companies with the graph below to highlight the change over the last few years.



As a result of more traditional firms getting into the M&A fray, I believe 2017 is the year we’ll see more startups try to build more sustainable, or close to profitable businesses. Sure, there will still be a few outliers like Jet and Cruise who were likely not operating even close to profitability but Dollar Shave Club appears to have been on its way before being acquired.

There are a few reasons for my thinking:

  1. Over the last year or so, growth rounds (B and beyond) have required tougher metrics for funding and good valuation meaning that companies need to have some optionality in the event they cannot raise capital at the valuation they want or because of internal growth metrics.  This squeeze will put the focus on sustainable business models.
  2. Traditional companies like businesses with economics that make sense when synergies and adjusted revenue are applied.  Hunter’s post had amazing insights on the different levels of acquisition but my particular favorites were levels 3 and 4. Non-tech companies are looking to prevent themselves from the same fate as their peers in retail since Amazon arrived on the scene, which gives reasoning behind level 4.  But I would argue that most of the M&A activity will occur in level 3 where startups with decent unit economics have the chance to provide a real product line or new acquisition channel to a non-tech company where the economics get better with synergy from a bigger firm.

An example of this thinking is Seventh Generation v. The Honest Company.  Two very similar companies but with different business models.  Seventh Generation, while older built itself like a real business, gained profitability after year 10 and took $100M in funding along the way.  Unilever acquired SG for 600-700M in 2016.

The Honest Company, by contrast, has taken the “growth” approach raising $228M in 5 years, has 3X more staff, and the same level of sales.  Fortune highlighted the comparison in December and reports that The Honest Company is restructuring to build higher margins after being snubbed in acquisition talks by Unilever before the SG transaction.

Though the exit horizon for SG was much too long for VC,  the business model contrast with Honest highlights an important point.  In some industries, especially those that non-tech firms are interested in, margins and sustainability matter greatly.

One particular industry that I believe will see this happen is FinTech, banks are slowly being disintermediated from their consumers and Bitcoin is picking up a lot of steam as of late.   As a result, we’ll see more formal institutions create partnerships and acquire FinTech companies focusing on security and payments, digital currency, and customer engagement.

Earnest, SoFi and Student Loan Genius, all of whom are re-thinking the way lending, credit and payments work, are prime examples of acquisition targets for banks that want to engage young, educated consumers who are likely to use their other products like home loans, credit cards, and investment vehicles.  These startups represent a chance to acquire new customers while pre-empting an existential threat on the chance that new loan processes leak into traditional bank products such as mortgages.

With all of the capital raised in 2016 and prices coming back into alignment, it is almost certain we will see increased M&A activity in 2017.  The most interesting question will be if these acquisitions accelerate the pivot of startups building for sustainability instead of growth.

A few days ago I read M.G. Siegler’s Medium post on his 2016 Homescreen which provoked me to think about the apps I use on a daily basis.  Siegler does a really great job explaining not only how his workflows have changed but how the changes in tech are affecting his daily app usage.  I thought it would be a good idea to do something similar but instead look at the apps with which I’d like to interact more over the coming year based on my goals.  Below is my list, which is primarily focused on reading more efficiently, interacting with a new, evolving platform, and contributing content to both my personal and professional networks.

  1. Kindle I’ve always preferred real books to e-books but this year I am looking to read more on my iPad.   Depending on how much I enjoy a particular book I’ll still purchase a hard copy and transfer my notes there to have a permanent record.  This should give me a second chance to digest important content as well. Audible was an option I considered here but I love to take notes and while I could increase my throughput of content I’m not sure the quality of consumption would be the same.
  2. Alexa – I’ve had an Echo Dot in my kitchen for about 6 months now and still only use it for music.  Like most, I see voice becoming a more prominent AI in 2017 and it’ll be important to get a sense of what third-party apps are doing particularly well on Echo and Google Home.
  3. SoundCloud As a frequent podcast listener I’ve always struggled to find an app that syncs across multiple devices.  Despite a lackluster mobile UI and search, SoundCloud works seamlessly across multiple devices and operating systems.   There’s also a social and discovery component to SoundCloud I really enjoy and want to interact with more.
  4. Evernote / Bear- These are two notetaking apps that I already use almost as much as any app on my mobile devices but I plan on writing more in the coming year.  Each of these apps serves a unique purpose, Evernote is great for collecting and organizing information / ideas while Bear is a clean, distraction-free writing app.  Additionally, this is an app category that has always interested me.  Between these two apps, Wunderlist, To-Doist, Trello, etc… there is still not one app that serves every function I’m looking for in a great productivity app.  The perfect combo for me would be Evernote’s organization with Wunderlist’s to-do list structure combined with a word processor similar to Bear. Instead, I’ll live with all three apps on my phone for now.
  5. Instagram- Here’s another app that I already use almost daily but only for keeping up with my friends and family without much engagement.   My goal is to share a bit more and begin to generate more personal and professional content across multiple platforms.  Instagram will be my primary mode of sharing with my family and friends much in the way I plan on using Twitter and Medium to distribute content relating to my professional interests.

There you have it, the apps I plan on engaging with more in the coming year.  This is something I plan on revisiting yearly to hold myself accountable and also to see the evolution in tech much the way Siegler has over the last three years.


This past week, our CRO John Tough provoked a conversation over email about our success at Choose Energy and he’d noted a change in our culture over the last few months.

Culture is something which had always been top of mind for us, but lately something had been clicking. As any good leader does, John often pushes me to think deeper about trends within the business and asked me to think about why “culture” never comes up in our conversations anymore, was it overrated or was it now engrained in our company?
I am a huge believer in culture, mission, and values as a company so my answer as the latter. Below are a few quick thoughts what makes for a quick transformation from average / non-existant culture to great culture.

Early hiring is crucial and eliminate bad culture swiftly and ruthlessly

Great culture begins with the very first hire. I know you’ve likely read this cliche over and over again but there’s a reason. Think about this, your first hire likely hires 3–7 people, those 3–7 people hire at least 1–2 people and so on. If the first hire poisons the well, it could be poisoned until the very last person on that hiring tree is let go. Which leads me to this, hiring early is CRUCIAL.

If early and new hires do not exhibit core values and dedication to the mission they must be let go quickly, if no action is taken it’s likely one of two things will happen: 1)since bad culture is evident, the employee is promoted because they “have been there the longest” putting them in position to influence other employees and their new hires, and setting the expectation that time = value, 2) the employee isn’t promoted but believes they should be only based on their “time served” and begins to spread the word inside the company that “hard-work” isn’t appreciated or rewarded. Both terrible outcomes that compound an initial mistake. Take action, remove bad apples as it is likely they are just as unhappy at work as you are with their performance.

If you are constantly talking about culture, it’s likely because you believe it’s not there

Think about your goals as an individual. Do think about your big core values and mission everyday? Or is it a subconscious effort to take action based on them? For me, it’s the latter, I know the values and goals that drive my decision making are but I don’t repeat them to everyone I know over and over. Instead, I work on taking action towards them then evaluate periodically for progress.

Companies should be very similar, core values are great but if you are hiring people who truly believe in them they are not something that must be repeated everyday. Instead, those people will set quarterly goals that are set in your mission and act on them accordingly.

Establish one main, clear goal and march towards it with every action, rather than words

Speaking of action, it is ALWAYS the number one driver of company culture. It’s easy to hang a poster that lists something like “we put customers first, be relentless, be resourceful, have a sense of humor” etc… But what actions are your leaders taking to show employees they live these values?

Establishing one clear goal can help companies with culture problems begin to build one they can be proud of. For example, if you set a goal of profitability as some startups have been lately, pick a metric that you believe drives towards that goal. We’ve done something similar with conversion on our product team because it lowers CPC and improves revenue both leading to better unit economics.

We took action immediately on this goal, posting a real-time metrics board in the center of the office where anyone walking by must face the reality of our performance. Lately, performance has been amazing, so we added a gong to celebrate wins throughout the day. These little things might seem silly but the impact on camaraderie has been immeasurable.

You have to lead by example, culture is set by leadership and there are no short cuts

Similar to taking action, leadership leads by example. This not only applies to the values of the company but also the common traits of leadership. Leaders are almost always curious, relentless in work-ethic, good listeners, and ambitious in goal setting. Good leaders have most, if not all of these qualities, if not it’s unlikely they can spearhead or drive the company mission.

Leaders who aren’t relentless in problem solving, listening to the employees on the front lines, and must have things done their way are unprepared to lead a company to the results needed to fortify great culture.

There are a multitude of paths to creating great company culture.  No matter where your company is on the growth curve, remember culture starts early (there’s no bigger reward than setting the foundation for a successful business) and it must be LIVED not just spoken about or hung on a wall in the office.