Of Virtualization and IPOs

VMWare is the little company that could. When it was launched in the late 1990’s, the “smart money” wouldn’t touch it. It wasn’t just that it was open source – a big “loser” badge at that time. It wasn’t just that it was founded in part by a husband-wife team who had established business (Tandem, SGI,…) and academic credentials (UCB, Stanford, MIT,…) – an even bigger “loser” badge that still persists in some dark corners. It’s biggest damnation by old-line investment was that virtualization was a trite idea. I heard this myself frequently from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, during the time I was working with 386BSD and InterProphet, and I pitched a similar idea to Tandem’s CEO back in 1996. It was the next obvious step – at least to a technologist.

Given the tremendous success of this IPO, you might ask “How could they have missed this one?”. Technology, like fashion, goes through phases, and sometimes smart people get so hung up on fashion they miss the trend line change from computer as a calculating device to computer as an organizing device (and vice-versa). If a computer is a calculating device, you want the most cycles. If it’s an organizing device, you want to spend time adding stuff, not managing stuff. A bit processor, like blit-bit processing for graphics, the more concrete, discrete and obvious the instructions executed at the bottom level, the more goodness you get out of the machine. A symbol processor, like parsing language or voice recognition built out of abstraction, is not as deterministic by the nature of the function desired, so capacity to process symbols and the benefit it provides overrides performance.

This happened with virtualization. At that time overfunded Internet companies (remember Egghead, for example, anyone?) and their backers absolutely believed that the most important technical issue was to build a site industriously out of C++ code to maximize performance. They didn’t believe sites based on scripting languages would be powerful or scalable enough for their millions of customers. They underestimated the demand for rapid creation and deployment of new features. Now everyone uses scripting languages like Perl, Python and PHP (we use Python on all our sites for example) – it’s faster and easier. VMWare realized that people allocated servers for containers of scripted sites when performance was impacted, and it didn’t make any difference if it was virtual or real. As reducing power demands becomes a “hot” button topic, virtualization will be increasingly used in datacenter and networking applications.

Fun Friday – Internet FSBOs, Business YouTubes

A few items on the Internet front. For years realtors have been hammering customers that selling their home with them gives the buyer a 16%+ sales advantage. This has made Internet-based FSBO sites a queasy deal for somebody’s biggest investment / nest egg. So a bet on who got the best deal from their home sales between a couple of bored economics profs at Northwestern (one used a realtor, the other did a FSBO) resulted in a detailed analysis of a successful (20% of the market) Internet FSBO site versus realtor sales in Madison. And guess what – the Internet site did just as good at the end of the transaction (considering size, locale, and so forth) as the realtor-mediated transactions. The FSBO site did take longer, but that may simply be due to the reluctance of buyer’s agents to show any FSBO houses – a problem that may disappear as buyers demand to see houses they see on the Internet. The future is starting to look more rosy for Internet-based realty businesses.

Business Week has decided to launch a “VC” video pitch competition, where desperate entrepreneurs line up to convince cynical readers their ideas, like Frosted Flakes, are “Grreat” (thank you Tony the Tiger). Those ideas that survive the slings and arrows of ridicule (likely those so stupid or so obtuse nobody can understand them) undergo a final beauty contest via a biz plan competition for the princely sum of $500,000 “from a VC firm to invest in the proposed business”.

No word as to what serious VC would put half a million on a business by public acclamation, but I’d place my money on a series of Sanjaya-inspired hair salons. Wow, think of the possibilities.

I’ve been involved in a number of biz plan competitions over the years (along with real meetings with real investors), both as a participant and a reviewer. I’ve done video pitches. I’ve developed video pitch technology for CEOs. And I’ve watched other CEOs do video pitches. And while the views were great (they were restricted to VCs invited by the CEO – business plans are actually very valuable), nobody believed Internet video would ever “catch on” enough to matter. Amazing the difference one Sequoia with one YouTube can make!

Don’t believe this? Think that everybody knew YouTube would be a success before 2006? To illustrate, I once decided to enter the Berkeley Haas business plan competition in 2004 with an interesting Internet video startup idea I had while I was working with the physics department on our alumni greeting card video project. It seemed a good idea at the time. People were watching, the system worked, and it was easy and fun. And I made sure to run the business plan by some pros in the Valley. I do my homework.

So it was a straightforward business plan to evaluate – good customers, good technology, and good numbers. A no-brainer, really. I looked forward to seeing how Haas dealt with it – remember, I’ve participated in and co-founded a number of venture-backed companies over the years, so I’m no novice. But did they evaluate the business? No! When I got back the comments, I got things like “They have some TAM numbers from an analyst. But…they really haven’t done a good job in showing the SAM” (nobody had, and nobody could). “Their exec summary is 3pp long. In general, I tell people I won’t look at anything over 2pp” (such terrible food and such small portions). And finally, “regardless of their domain experience, etc., I would never back this team. I will NEVER back a team where it appears that the founders are husband and wife or domestic partners. We did it once; it was a painful lesson”. I always wondered if this last comment was their usual fallback ploy for businesses presented by African-Americans or Jews or single women – funny how you don’t hear they won’t invest in white / Indian / Asian guys because they “did it once” and it failed. It’s hard to fight prejudice.

After the inept evaluation and overt bigotry I received at the hands of Haas biz school, I resolved only to talk to real professional VCs who could afford the time to actually read a 3pp exec summary and understand the business. In other words, don’t go this route if you really care about your business. Do the hard work of developing the relationships instead, or get someone in the biz who can.

Don’t hold your breath to see all these cool startup ideas anytime soon – Business Week is still shopping around for someone to build the site for them. Knowing mags as well as I do, it won’t be a lucrative deal for the site designer.

Fun Friday – Electric Sportscars and Commodity Chips

From prototype electric sports cars to commodity chips, a few items of interest to round out the week.

Yesterday the much-hyped Tesla Motors Roadster prototype was seductively displayed outside of PARC, courtesy of JB Straubel, Tesla Motors CTO. While the motor was buttoned-down and just out-of-reach, the leather seats were quite accessible and comfortable and the light carbon-composite body with aluminum frame attractive and shapely. The TM salesman was carefully positioned with a towel to wipe off any drool and greasy fingerprints from careless admirers.

One of the primary objections to all-electric cars is that they require new battery technologies which are untested on a massive scale and can result in unpredictable and costly liability suits. Even Li-ion batteries have had their share of “combustible” announcements, like when Sony manufacturing standards slipped as laptops went up in flames.

Tesla Motors decided that the benefits of a standardized Li-ion commodity battery (the 18650) outweighed the risk, and developed a fault-tolerant battery architecture that isolates each battery in 6800 individual metal cells with microprocessor-mediated power management and monitoring. As batteries fail, capacity reduces safely over time.

With $30M in orders already on the books (the first 100 orders at $100,000 up-front, and follow-on orders at $50,000 up-front) and plans for a plant in New Mexico, Tesla Motors may be the first car company in 50 years to introduce a new car well under the half-billion dollar cost estimate that is routinely bandied about by modern car companies. Of course, if you want one you’ve got to wait in line. It isn’t a touring car (consider a 200 mile limit), and it won’t fit a trunk. It does fit a couple of golf clubs, but I’d rather take an overnight bag and a guitar and drive to Santa Barbara.

Here’s a quiz for our hardware guys. How long does it take to get delivery on a little 8-bit commodity processor sample for development from the manufacturer? A few days? A week? As Don Adams of “Get Smart” liked to say, “Would you believe six months?” Yes, six months. That’s the delivery time one engineer recently complained he got for an Infineon 8 bit Microcontroller (PLCC – 84). He set out the call pleading with people to tell him why a common part in appliance products with volumes of millions would be so hard to obtain in a timely way.

Like a Zen Koan, the answer to the question is the question. Because it’s a common commodity part. Infineon ships this little chip in volume with six month advance orders because there is no reason to do it any other way at the low cost per piece. So if your little company wants it too, but you’re not going for a million volume order, the manufacturer will think you’re getting “too good a deal” piggybacking off of everybody else’s big order because they made it so cheap. Want it fast? Go to Frys and pay retail.

We once did this at Symmetric Computer Systems with DRAM during the memory wars of the 1980’s. When 1mbit DRAM rose from $12 to $40 in a day, we went to Frys and bought every single piece they had at $19 to make shipment to the NSA. The next day, their price went up to about $50. About the same time, Apple’s CEO Scully went off on vacation and left CFO Debi Coleman minding the store. When the DRAM crisis hit, she and the other Apple execs went on a buying binge. The resulting oversupply nearly killed that company. It was very funny.

Buying retail isn’t the solution for every chip. Little guys are in the pole position for exotic or new parts, and manys the time I’ve had field service engineers sit in my office pushing their cool new I/O or multicore products. My philosophy is always go for the low end of the exotic parts for tests because the sales and FAEs hand them out to our eager design engineers like jellybeans. Then sell them on how your hot new innovative cutting-edge state-of-the-art startup is going to use their high-end product still on their drawing boards to drive both our sales. That’s something they’re never going to hear from the 8-bit chip big guys. And that’s how a smart small company deals with a big guy — even Intel or Infineon. Have a good weekend.

Hints of an Apple-Disney Merger – “Who’s the Big Dog?”

Did anyone notice the announcement today from Disney that they would soon be giving away their broadcast content on the Internet? Some might think this means that the Disney deal to sell “Lost” and other TV show episodes on ITunes is a dead duck – after all, who would buy these shows from Apple when you can download them for free?

But are things really as they appear? One Silicon Valley dealmaker sees the signs of a bigger deal pending. “It’s all about ‘Who’s the Big Dog’. The ITunes model breaks a lot of things for distribution. When the content biz takes it seriously, they won’t do the $1.99 per video pricing model anymore. They can’t vary the pricing – you’ve got to play pricing games to profit off of premium offerings at least some of the time, and begin the process of moving to value pricing.” So what’s going on here? It’s pretty simple…

Knight-Ridder Sold, But San Jose Mercury News Goes on the Block

So Knight-Ridder got sold, for a premium say some and for a steal say others. Since the San Jose Mercury News is a KR paper, the buyout on the surface appeared to be cause for celebration. Matt Marshall said “But we can confirm that many Knight Ridder employees are breathing a sigh of relief. McClatchy has an excellent reputation for quality journalism, and its headquarters in Sacramento and relative strength in central California means that KR’s Mercury News, Contra Costa Times and other papers in Contra Costa, Monterey and San Luis Obispo will help make the combined company a California powerhouse.”

Maybe so, Matt, but since McClatchy has announced they’re selling twelve papers including the Merc because they only go into “high growth markets” (Pruitt, McClatchy CEO, NYTimes), perhaps the staff should put the cork back into the champange bottle. The only one dancing with glee right now is the SF Chronicle.

More to the point, the analysis of the buyout forsees a lot of debt for McClatchy in a shrinking market. Newspapers aren’t the cash cows they once were, and Internet companies from Google to Craigslist continue to gut both their content and classified revenue. Is this a good buy, or is it a “good bye” for the Merc? One analyst I know here in Silicon Valley said “for what it’s worth, the journalists at that paper might want to polish up their resumes and start blogs ASAP”.

Fast Internet Movers and the Long Term

Bill Burnham’s slant on “Deal flow is dead, long live thesis driven investment” makes a number of good points for rethinking investment for Internet companies. Ben Savage of Wasserstein & Co counters “So a firm that pursues thesis driven deals in ‘unpopular’ sectors I think is partially dooming itself to be a firm that hits for average and not for power. Unlike in public markets contrarian investing doesn’t seem to work so well in ventureland.” Perhaps even more to the point, it is a reminder that our industry isn’t “one size fits all”, and the key factors for enterprise versus Internet, for example, demand different evaluatory criteria.

The success of thesis investment depends on the time-to-market of the product vended. Having co-founded startups in bottom of the food chain semiconductors (InterProphet, w/Vint Cerf on the board, doing layer-4 semiconductors for datacenter / interconnects) and top of the food chain Internet services (ExecProducer, realtime video/audio production datacenter hosted services for Internet/DVD/3GPP) I’ve found the demands on IPR and product roadmap are completely different.

InterProphet was granted it’s first patent 3 years after founding and after an intense product development cycle that is still ongoing. ExecProducer in contrast was up and running with partners (we don’t sell direct) and referenceable accounts producing movies for customers instantly (in other words, no manual intervention = no expensive engineering / design staff required) within one year with none of the concerns that a fabless semiconductor networking company faced (equipment, expensive engineering personnel, high legal/patent expenses, due diligence with customers, and so on).

It took several years of time / expense to worry out the patents for a successful ringing strategy for InterProphet, and I’m still working on one of the landmark results papers. It took about a year of part-time work on a fun project with Berkeley to get a successful paper on pioneering massive video production accepted to ACM SIGCHI ACE2004, the conference that Disney and Warner and Pixar shop their papers.

I think Bill’s idea to get ahead of the game by calling up potential investments works well for top of the food chain companies like ExecProducer. However, given the capital and intellectual demands (plus the reputational and technical challenges) of areas such as enterprise software or telcom or networking, and the years of work to establish a presence, Ben’s view is probably quite correct for that space, and unlikely to change in the near future.

The Last Man Standing

Tom Foremski of SiliconValleyWatcher spoke with Alex Gove and Steve Eskenazi of WaldenVC in San Francisco about media investments. According to Tom “I’ve often discussed how best to fund development of new media technologies – and I’ve said that I believe many new companies will use private funding, rather than venture capital.” Perhaps one of the reasons is that most VC firms aren’t up-to-snuff on the emerging digital Internet.

Tom believes that WaldenVC is on the ball here – “I was delighted to find that these guys “get” this whole thing I’m calling media technologies.” They’ve made ten quiet investments so far, apparently focussing on advertising / marketing – “Most of these companies are run by ad/marketing people and they need help growing the company” according to Steve.

Ads are one important revenue growth area for the Internet, but advertising and marketing mechanisms are followers, not leaders. It still remains to see who’s going to shape the real digital media Internet. Taking bets right now, but better put your wagers in soon.

Who’s Doing the Icon’ing?

So, Steve Jobs got annoyed at a publisher’s attempt to sponge off of his rep and decided to kick out all of Wiley’s books from the Apple stores. Matt Marshall pulls some really funny quotes from the NYTimes from the beleaguered author, a kind of “pity me, I’m an orphan because I killed my parents” defense:

“This guy is out of control,” Mr. Young told the Times, referring to Jobs. “I’m just a little guy. I’m just one of many guys Steve has destroyed over the years,” he added, though it wasn’t clear from the NYT article exactly what he meant. Young added: “He has an amazing ability to con people.”

So does the author, apparently, who according to “the late Jeff Raskin, a former Apple employee”, didn’t mind a bit of imaginative invention himself. As an author myself, I can’t really feel any sympathy for a publisher and author who can’t even pull off a good scam. Steve is better – that’s a surprise?

My take to Matt today:
“Figures you’d get the pathetic cry for sympathy from a hack writer who rehashed a lousy 20 year old book.

But the real problem is Wiley. They’re the ones who got something on the cheap and said “Hey, let’s just respin this – who’s gonna do anything about it?” Well, guess they found out. 🙂

Maybe Wiley should pay a *real* writer to do a bio. Isn’t Silicon Valley worth the insight and talent of a Tom Wolfe or a Ken Kesey – or a Tracy Kidder, who’s “Soul of a New Machine” captured the sheer thrill of competition in the computer industry?

I think after changing the world, innovators in Silicon Valley deserve a real writer for a change. Put the hacks on the throw-away Britney Spears bios, and give us the literary positioning we deserve.”

When First Mover Doesn’t Help You

An engineer I know was infuriated to find that a software architecture proposal a friend had done several years ago and presented to Microsoft as an enhancement to work done at InterProphet appeared in another company’s patent claims – even though he’d presented a similar idea to Microsoft long before. “Well, I guess I can at least go to my grave claiming we did it first” he laments. And as I was there – I can vouch for them. They did it first. This happens occasionally, and we have to ask ourselves “Does being first really matter”?

First mover isn’t always best mover if you’re dependent on a behemoth like Microsoft. It’s when the market is ready – even IBM and Cisco face this problem. The first mover in Cisco’s area was Proteon. They had 100% of the router market. Haven’t heard of them? Not surprising.

What Makes a Great Venture? It’s the team, execution, and trust…

John Doerr spoke with his usual inspirational passion at the Stanford Entreprenuerial “Thought Leaders” seminar. He asked “What makes a great venture?”. Well, I’ve been around the startup block a few times or more, so that’s easy – team and application. “What makes a great company?” How about focus and execution. And “What makes a great group?” Piece of cake – interdependence and communications. And most importantly – trust.

I’ve heard most of this stuff time and time again, so I was jazzed he wanted to skip a lot of the canned presentation and move on to questions. So my question that got written under the biz catagory was:
“WSJ reported last week that ad revenues are finally moving substantially to Internet / online from print. Does this mean, as some claim, we’re in a “second Internet bubble”, or do you think it’s just the promise of the first Internet rush finally realized – in other words, it just took longer than expected.”

While a lot of others were of the “gee, what’s hot to invest in” and “how about my pet venture” variety (and dispatched quickly), mine made him pause a while and think about it. Can you see why?