Every industry has its jargon. In venture capital, there’s traction, scale, product market fit, etc. The problem with jargon in venture capital is it’s purposely elusive and nebulous.
The core of private equity markets is information arbitrage. There’s information asymmetry between capital and operators. As a result, different stakeholders create different definitions and everyone ends up talking past each other.
Why am I starting this conversation with jargon? It’s important we have a unified definition of what I mean by scale. Scale, from an operators and investment perspective, means I know what inputs I put in and I can predict my outputs/outcomes with reasonable certainty.
Emerging markets present unique challenges when it comes to scaling. They transcend business types and sectors. It makes scaling super challenging for emerging market companies and sometimes create zero-sum industry dynamics. This is why I’m launching a series on the 5 dangers of scaling in emerging markets and how to overcome them. The five dangers we’ll be diving into are:
Customer distribution – Most of the time, market organization is one of the core challenges for companies. How do you organize your market in ways that are scalable and repeatable? Is repeatable important at this point?
Customer education – While building/organizing a market, you might have to do more education to customers which might lead to higher acquisition costs. How do you teach customers but still keep your cac down?
IC ramp up – how do you train people fast enough to execute on your behalf?
Management / scaling operations – How do you create management expertise so your operations can scale with the market opportunity?
Irrational Competition – How do you compete/navigate irrational competitors? what are irrational competitors?
Over the next couple of weeks – I’ll be diving deeper into these areas and exploring potential solutions.
I try to write and post by Friday but this topic had a lot of angles and research involved so I thought I’d take the weekend. Here we goooo.
Earlier this week, I was on a call with a group of black founders thinking of collaborating in a major way. (More details to come) During the meeting, one of the founders said something that I’d never heard before. “ As we work together, we have to understand that many of us have “collaboration trauma” and we need to be cognizant of that as we find new ways to collaborate.”
After the meeting, I went down a rabbit hole trying to figure out if there was any information out there on collaboration trauma and I used my google-fu to find research or articles mentioning collaboration trauma. I couldn’t find anything significantly substantial.
Taking a step back, I walked through my experiences with collaboration to better understand what they meant….Some background for those who still wonder what I do for a living.
I work at Kohactive as a product manager. I help companies build software products for internal and external usage. Yes, that is me on the first page.
I teach at General Assembly as a part-time instructor – I teach product management twice a year.
I invest and advise early-stage startups at the intersection of technology and impact at tiphub.vc
I assist my father with his ventures in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Kenya.
Collaboration, in most of my work, is essential to unlocking significant value for the parties involved. But with certain areas, there’s a lot of structures that are repeatable and trustworthy which makes collaboration easier.
For example, as a product manager at Kohactive, there are processes and methodologies in place for me to leverage to ensure I’m working well with designers, engineers, users, customers, etc. I rely heavily on those processes to make sure there’s maximum collaboration.
As an instructor, there’s a standard norm of teacher/instructor to student. I spend most of my time navigating that predefined role in order to create a positive experience for students. On my end, I look at it as getting paid to learn about different industries.
With tiphub, there’s a lot of collaboration opportunities but this is where most opportunities fall through. Most of the time, I’m caught taking meetings / having conversations that make me feel like I’m stuck in a power struggle. I feel like there’s someone who is trying to finesse me or I’m getting the better end of the transaction.
Working with my father is a total crapshoot. Sometimes it hits and sometimes we get burned. But over time, there are wins.
Epiphany: The Prisoner’s Dilemma
The Prisoner’s Dilemma came to mind as a great mental model to think through strategies of collaboration. (I finally get to show I learned something in econ class.) Here’s a quick rundown:
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a subset of Game Theory that explores the incentives for collaboration between two actors. It was originally framed in the 1950s with this scenario:
Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, but they have enough to convict both on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The possible outcomes are:
If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves two years in prison
If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve three years in prison
If A remains silent but B betrays A, A will serve three years in prison and B will be set free
If A and B both remain silent, both of them will serve only one year in prison (on the lesser charge).
There’s a ton of research on this but one of the best examples of the prisoner’s dilemma is in the movie Dark Knight. Just to give a little more context, during the movie, activities facilitated by the Joker cause two ferries, one full of prisoners that Harvey Dent and Commissioner Gordon locked up and the other full of other people, to escape the city on a boat.
While sailing off, the two ferries lose all power and their engines die. Both ships realize there are explosives all about the boat, and they both find detonators. It is at this time that the Joker’s voice is heard over the loudspeaker of both ferries, and he informs them that they are part of a social experiment. The detonator on each boat is for the other boat.
One ferry must press the button and destroy the other boat by midnight, or else the Joker will destroy both boats. This drags out for a while, but eventually, people in the ferry decide not to blow the other boat up.
If you’re interested- here’s the scene in how it plays out at the end:
Probably on the top 10 list for best movies of all time, this scene encompasses so much.
The Joker, as he’s swinging back and forth, said, “Until their spirit breaks completely.” (keep this in mind, we’ll need it later)
One of the major areas of research in the prisoner’s dilemma is focused on incentives for collaboration. This is best evaluated in a matrix.
The dominant strategy for a player is one that produces the best payoff for that player regardless of the strategies employed by other players. The dominant strategy here is for each player to defect (i.e., confess) since confessing would minimize the average length of time spent in prison.
The payoffs make sense in different scenarios. For example, imagine playing 100 rounds and you don’t know how the person will interact. Tit for tat might become the more effective route.
In reality, there are ways to skew outcomes for effective collaboration. For example, #nosnitching law in the streets ensures you understand what to do if you end up in a cooperate/ defect scenario. Standards and norms, in certain scenarios, set up the way we should play the game. In my work life, instructors vs students roles encompass norms that help us understand the best way to collaborate. Even in product management, agile sprints, user stories, wireframes…etc, all of that are tools to engage in more cooperative outcomes for stakeholders.
As I start to look in other areas, specifically in finance and business development, there’s a lot of tailwinds to effective collaboration. For example, there are fewer norms around cooperation when you’re figuring out how to create untapped value. There’s less trust. And in low trust environments, people tend to operate in their own best interest and have no real incentive to collaborate.
This takes me back to what the Joker said in the clip; “Until their spirit breaks completely.” He was responding to Batman’s assertion that people are inherently good and will choose to cooperate over and over again. I believe Joker was onto something, at a certain point people would get fatigued from cooperating and not getting the same incentive as they should. They lose trust in the game and eventually decide to set up a new game with better players, or they play a whole different game.
Often times black founders who are building startups in the tech space are operating in low trust environments for several reasons:
A smaller amount of resources: Less than 1% of venture capital goes to Black founders. (To give you perspective, there was 34 billion USD of venture capital investments done in 2020 Q1) Most founders are in hyper-competition for resources. So the incentive for collaboration might be misaligned.
Knowledge/ information asymmetry: Black founders in tech are operating in spaces where they have been systematically shut out. As a result, the knowledge of the processes or communities that help facilitate trust and increased likelihood of cooperation is not available. Ultimately, black founders in tech end up in less cooperative scenarios.
I’m sure there are other industries where this happens. I’m sure there are other groups that are shut off from opportunities in way that leads to, as the Joker described, a broken spirit. This is the trauma that many disenfranchised groups carry with them when they think about collaboration.
So how do we fix it? Well at tiphub, we’ve definitely identified this problem and we’ve started to realize transparency is one of the largest impediments to collaboration. So we’ve really been focused on how we can work on exposing things we normally wouldn’t think to share. For example, we have a playbook where we walk through every process about our company and how and why we make decisions. If you want to read more – read here .
We made our playbook open source. We’re also going to start releasing data on our programs and benchmarks to everyone. A lack of transparency and process is the best way to ensure collaboration is difficult. We’re on a mission at tiphub to increase our success rate by sharing already existing frameworks and making sure everyone has the information needed to increase trust and collaboration.
If we’re going to increase the likelihood of more equitable collaboration in our organizations and interactions, we have to look for those spaces where there’s gray area and work to bring process and transparency as much as we can. If we don’t, we’ll continue to stifle collaboration and perpetuate less optimal outcomes.
Marc Andreessen, one of the co-founders of Andreessen Horowitz, wrote a timely piece during the height of the US COVID-19 crisis. Titled “ It’s Time to Build “. It’s essentially a call to arms for builders to focus on creating a better reality where we’re prepared for tomorrow’s challenges. It was a collective call to create a more conducive environment for builders and sounded like a call to get back to what made the United States great; making and creating.
Fast track to George Floyd’s death and we’ve seen a significant outpouring of support and collective action around ending racism and destroying racist institutions. Now more than ever, there’s an awakening to the fact that black people are suffering from systems built to disenfranchise and systematically ensure they’re held down. We’re at a pivotal point globally. We’ve all seen the decentralized protests around the world demanding change and justice for George Floyd and others who have died at the hands of those sworn to protect them. People, now more than ever, want to tear down and rebuild these institutions.
As we think of building and tearing down institutions we should make sure we’re focused on building a more inclusive type of institution. The only way we’ll really achieve the promise of a future where there’s equality for all is to ensure everyone is in the workshop as we’re building. We know this is currently not the reality. Black people lag behind on most indicators that would lead them to be in the rooms to be a part of this building process. In venture capital, for example, where the rubber meets the road when it comes to building, the stats are abysmal. For those who aren’t familiar with the venture capital space, here’s some data to provide some color:
77.1 percent of founders were white—regardless of gender and education.
Just one percent of venture-backed founders were black.
Women-funded startups received only 9 percent of investments.
Latino founders made up 1.8 percent of those receiving funding, while Middle Easterners totaled 2.8 percent.
Asians were the second most-backed group, making up 17.7 percent of venture-backed founders.
We can’t build this new reality if there’s this much inequality in the venture capital industry. I don’t think individual actors are deliberately enforcing inequality – I believe the “system” of risk capital is flawed and perpetuates actors to not act in an equitable way. Venture capital is just one example. There are disparities in healthcare, education, job creation, urban development, and etc. Everywhere we look, there are systems that disproportionally affect black people, and most of the time, for the worst.
If we aren’t careful, we’ll build on the same bias and power structures and we’ll be back in the same spot 20 years from now wondering how we got to where we are.
Chris Rock, one of my favorite comedians, said something some years ago that changed my perception of equality in venture capital. I’d recommend watching the whole thing. He’s dropping gems, especially at the end. Its just a 3-4 minute video.
“TRUE EQUALITY IS THE EQUALITY TO SUCK”
While this goes against what most black people, especially in hyper-competitive white-majority spaces, have been taught, black founders seeking venture capital need this form of equality the most.
Let me explain…
Benedict Evans wrote an article in 2016 on failure and the economics of venture capital here. I’ll be cherry-picking some points so you don’t need to go and jump into reading it now. Essentially, Evans was able to get aggregate data from one of their limited partners on over 7000 investments made by the venture funds they deployed capital to from 1985 – 2014. All to say, they had a treasure trove of data to explore VC activity over a 29 year period.
Here are some major takeaways:
Around half of all investments returned less than the original investment.
6% of deals produced at least a 10x return, and those made up 60% of total returns
A fund gets better returns by having more really big hits, not by having fewer failures
The way venture works, most investments have a high probability of failure, and few companies produce significant returns. Speaking with black founders, there seems like there’s an extraordinary case needed to justify investment in their startup to early-stage investors. Most of the time, they feel like they need to have everything figured out… exceptional team, major traction, product, and massive market. There’s a return the fund hurdle that’s put on each opportunity. Where in other situations, white founders have been given what I like to call “figure it out money”. You may have one exceptional part of the puzzle going for you but go figure it out. This return the fund hurdle isn’t applied equally.
Most companies who get “figure it out money” don’t. Some do. But the opportunity to figure it out or not is at the core of equality. Entrepreneurship is a muscle, the more you flex it, the stronger you get. I agree, black founders need to return the fund, just like every other founder should try to if they accept venture capital but VC funds have to be okay with the reality that black founders will most likely return less than they invested, just like their white counterparts.
“It’s not that I want to be bad, but I want the license to be bad and come back and learn.”
– Chris Rock
A couple of extraneous thoughts I couldn’t fit into the essay
My main goal was to build on a quote from a conversation on Twitter yesterday. “The key here is that Black people need the same room for failure and repeated failure that our white peers enjoy. And can turn their failure into the narrative, in which they’ve emerged on the other side more enlightened.” (from The Myth of Blackness in Venture ) I wanted to add more color to the mechanics behind why failure is essential.
I’d often get into arguments in meetings with my white counterparts about the market opportunity, especially around black founded companies. To be honest, I’ve never really trusted market opportunity slides or rationale. If you’re investing early, the math will most likely change.
That goes to say, its 2020. There’s more than enough data for VCs to learn and understand black focused market opportunities. There’s untapped value to be created if you’re willing to explore.
I’m torn on the conversation that black founders need to find larger markets than black people. I think its a simplistic and outdated statement. Most people build for who they know and what they know. Most of the time, companies who brand themselves as going specifically after black customers most likely have adjacent markets that could add to scale. What I’m trying to say is I somewhat hear the market opportunity argument but it’s up to the investment team and the founders to really think about the bigger opportunity. Extend the same imagination about how an opportunity can work to black founders too.
It’s been a while…. I’ve been quite busy over the last couple of months trying to build stuff….. I’ll explain in another post. In the mean time, I thought I’d share some content I had the chance to write for another reason on to my blog. I’ve realized I do a lot of writing but not a lot of posting. I hope with such a nice set up and audience, I’d switch that around for the rest of the year. So here’s an exercise I worked on a couple of weeks ago on defining an investment thesis for the healthcare sector. Thought it would be interesting to think of how the healthcare industry is changing as a whole and where the opportunities are for the entrepreneur, investor, and everyone else.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve had a well rounded set of experience and exposure to the healthcare industry. I grew up in a healthcare household. My father worked for several cutting edge biotech companies and my mother has worked as a nurse in hospitals and did home care. I had cousins who all became different types of medical doctors. For several summers, I worked and interned at hospitals and pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities in my teens. I’ve been through two near-death experiences where I had to be hospitalized for an extended period of time due to mysterious diseases (a story for another day).
The healthcare industry faces some tough challenges in the next 10 to 20 years. An evolving regulatory environment and changing business models have created declining margins for public and private healthcare in the United States. While margins have declined, demand and costs have significantly increased. We’re seeing growth in our population but also a demographic transition. Baby boomers, for example, are entering a phase in their lives where healthcare will become the primary expense but with diminished savings and labor costs on the rise, how will baby boomers afford to have the same kind of care their accustomed to while dealing with a longer life expectancy and more expensive care?
While the healthcare industry faces regulatory, demographic shifts, and margin challenges, there are some major themes that get me excited about its future. Healthcare, just like other industries, is shifting from responsive to preventative. With the proliferation of the internet, mobile, and other smart devices, healthcare is something that doesn’t just happen when you’re in a hospital. It has the potential to happen 24/7 and this has a significant implication on service delivery, business models, and product innovation. Preventative medicine flips the traditional healthcare business model on its head and allows for an endless possibility in ways we can treat people before they ever step foot into a doctors office.
The shift to preventative health is also driven by access and the creation of information in ways we haven’t seen in the healthcare space. For example, I used 23&Me to learn about my genetic makeup/lineage but also received health reports. This information wouldn’t have been available to the average consumer or even a medical professional 10 or 15 years ago. We’ve also seen an increase in the digitization of health records too. Combined, I see a future trend of personalized and holistic healthcare service delivery that isn’t beholden to location or labor costs. This presents an amazing opportunity to solve for population growth and demographic shifts. We can improve quality of care and also deliver high-quality care at scale.