Investor updates for startups

I’ve invested in about 30 companies over the last 6 years and received a lot of different investor updates. Some companies send few, sporadic (often too detailed), updates whereas others send updates with a fixed structure and on a predictable schedule.

I think the sweet spot for many micro vcs with a portfolio is quarterly updates which arrive on a predictable schedule – e.g. 2 Mondays after the end of Quarter. Founders who update investors on a predictable schedule generally build better companies, in my experience, as there is a correlation with discipline and organization.

Here is my suggested template for sending updates, although this is not meant to be prescriptive and more to summarize the bases covered:

Many startups often miss the ‘Metrics’ section and I think this is the area where most could benefit for improving their reporting.

Template (Quarterly)

Summary

  • Key milestones hit/missed
  • Important takeaways

Highlights

  • Limit to <5 bullet points
  • New customers, product wins, critical hires, geographical expansion

Lowlights

  • Limit to <5 bullet points
  • Lost customers, product failures, lost employees

Metrics

  • Consumer: DAU/MAU, Revenue, Retention/Churn Metric, Employees, Cash, and Burn Rate
  • Enterprise: # of customers, Revenue, New customers, Sales pipeline, Employees, Cash and Burn Rate
  • I recommend showing the same metrics in a table Quarterly and then highlighting YoY and QoQ growth

Product

  • New features or products shipped and a short summary of their impact / future impact

Team

  • New hires / team changes

Other

  • Anything that is not covered by the sections above e.g. Press coverage

Fundraising

  • If fundraising add this section to show progress / any key milestones
  • Also useful for converting existing investors for additional funding

Help

  • Specific intros to investors or potential customers generally yield the best results

I know some founders feel like these updates don’t do noticed but I read every single once of the updates I get from founders, even when I don’t reply.

New Products in Remittances

The current business model for remittances will become obsolete in the long term – margins from transfer fees and fx is going to decrease as both the underlying payment rails get cheaper, competition intensifies and new technology (e.g. blockchain) creates new mediums for international money transfer (e.g. Telgram ICO, Sureremt RMT tokens)

Customers will switch if cheaper, faster, secure alternatives emerge that can gain consumer trust. I hear from remittance providers that they have extremely good customer retention, but most have been the services that customers are switching to because they provide a step function better customer experience.

Existing remittance businesses are not going to cover operational costs at super thin margins and entrants like messaging apps with no customer acquisition cost and no requirement for profit beyond retention in their apps (Whatsapp, WeChat) will kill all small remittance startups as well as inefficient, expensive incumbents (e.g. Moneygram, Western Union)

In order to grow revenue existing remittance firms will need to leverage their unique knowledge of the sender->receiver relationship to retain their customers better, and make higher margins per dollar transferred. I think this will require significant product innovation – e.g.

  • Bill Pay – will drive customer retention because of the monthly payment cadence for bills, will improve monetisation as receiving companies (e.g. tv company or water company) will often pay a commission of a few % and the remittance provider can also batch transactions to pay many bills at the same time reducing the cost of each transaction
  • Credit – remittance companies can use historical remittance data to lever up a remittance in shock – e.g. family death or a medical bill, and then the sender can pay the remittance business back over time vs. the receiver who would not qualify or credit or get credit on much worse terms (note: this requires lots of new licenses which is a large barrier to entry)
  • Savings – if remittance companies know what receivers are going to buy and when they plan to buy the product, they can monetize it through referrals or asset finance

The remittance companies that are best placed to execute on this already have users in their platform. They will need to track retention of customers to make sure they are not losing these customers to alternatives, and then invest in new products and transfer methods to drive retention and better monetization.

Kenya – entrepreneurship, funding, and technology

Note: I wrote this about 9 months ago after spending most of 2015 living and working in Nairobi. I have had enough people express interest in reading my notes that I thought I would share broadly.

Summary

  • I lived Kenya over the last 6 months and left feeling inspired. I believe there is tremendous opportunity for awesome entrepreneurs to build products for the East African market. In particular, I would be well suited to focus on something that bridges the gap between the West and Africa 
  • There is a lot of raw talent, fundamental problems that need solving, and plenty of enthusiasm and excitement around building technology companies
  • There are few excellent company builders / focused executors and a lack of a proper seed/venture firm or decent incubator. ‘A’ level entrepreneurs (silicon valley, local or elsewhere) who have built a successful business are sparse
  • Access to seed and early stage capital is difficult and the fundraising process is suboptimal due to the lack of proper local vc funds which leads to entrepreneurs chasing short term revenue and lack of focus on the long term objective – funding/focus is a chicken/egg problem

Startups and Entrepreneurs

  • Entrepreneurs are hungry, have lots of enthusiasm and there is a plenty of excitement in young talent who want to build something awesome.
  • Startups are solving fundamental issues vs. incremental issues in the west –  access to good education, electricity, health care and phone/internet. There are opportunities to build on top of these solutions or provide additional products and services that are already mainstream in the west – I’m particularly excited about financial services.
  • Entrepreneurs often have their fingers in lots of pies, can be distracted by too many ventures, and seem to be doing too much with too little capital and too few people. This leads to lots of half-formed businesses versus a few well built ones
    • Chasing (short term) revenue is required to grow businesses here due to lack of access to capital for early stage businesses
    • This is partly due to the opportunistic nature of working in Kenya, and more commonplace with local entrepreneurs
  • Entrepreneurs lack role models in the community that they can get mentorship from who can help them with product strategy, marketing, assembling the right team, raising funding, and scaling the business. Some missing pieces:
    • Best in class experience – understanding of what ‘great’ looks like
    • Successful Kenyan technology entrepreneurs – groups of people who have built and exited an excellent businesses in Kenya (or East Africa)
  • Foreign entrepreneurs are met with mixed feelings especially when it’s believed that they are only in Kenya for a fixed period of time. I believe that foreign entrepreneurs can add a lot of value by mentoring local talent especially if they have best in class global experience and hire local teams

Investment – Venture Capital / Incubators

  • Local funds either have very little capital to deploy or strict mandates about where they can deploy their capital because of conditions stipulated by their LPs – leads to defocusing in startups
  • Entrepreneurs looking to raise small seed rounds have a few options:
    • Raise capital from local angels who are not often sophisticated investors and often don’t understand what they are signing up for
    • Raise money as grants or from funds (with LPs who have strict investment criteria) and these come with conditions that often result in unnecessary/unhelpful changes in strategy
    • Go on long (many month) investment trips across Europe and USA which are also usually an uphill battle and often result in small ticket angels vs. larger funds
  • This current fundraising process feels inefficient and distracts entrepreneurs from focusing on their product and company from both a time and strategy perspective
  • Local incubators have unfriendly terms for entrepreneurs and are not run by successful entrepreneurs or investors
    • Incubators typically have many companies vs. a few companies with lots of mentorship and focus
    • $25k investment for 15-25% of the company plus terms which are not founder friendly e.g. ratchets, clawbacks, pushing to early exit
    • Many incubators have shut down their program as they could not find enough quality companies – I think this is in part due to the fact that they were going for scale vs. focused set of companies
  • Grant funding can be disruptive and distracting – companies are incentivised to abandon their vision in the ‘short term’ (to get the grant) and end up building a frankenstein company with multiple focuses which is hurtful in the long term

Working in Kenya – personal learnings

  • Talent gap still pretty significant (orders of magnitude worse than Silicon Valley, which is not surprising) although there is thirst for learning and a no lack of young people who are not afraid to work very hard
  • Mid-Skill workers care more about job protection than innovating and often see change/removing things from their plate as scary – will they lose their job, or not be good at the new thing we need them to do
  • Micromanagement is necessary to make progress – you can’t just email people and expect stuff to get done. There is constant checking in and auditing of people’s work. The level of trust still does not exist at the same level as working with ‘A’ level talent in a place like San Francisco
  • My decision point is between spending my time training, teaching and mentoring in East Africa or or serve this market from abroad (with an already high performing team) and travel back and forth as needed
  • Local:
    • Pros: Close to market – context, people, can really help mentor, market changing fast, partnerships easier
    • Cons: spending time on micromanagement v.s solving hard problems, personal life issues, quality of life
  • Foreign:
    • Pros: Better team quality, valuations, exit options, potential to build global business
    • Cons: not close to customers, coordination overhead, travel burden, missing important things

Changing my career

I left my job at Pocket Gems in 2015 to figure out what I should do next with my life. I had always wanted to work on technology in emerging markets (particularly sub-saharan Africa) and did not really know the best way to start doing that. I’m Kenyan, born in Mombasa, but have spent the majority of my adult life in the UK and USA. I decided to move to Kenya temporarily to figure out the best way for me to work on emerging market problems. 

I met over 50 startups, investors and technologists, spent a few months working at M-Kopa and learned a lot from my time in Nairobi.  I realised how much my eyes opened up by just spending time physically in the country and interacting with like-minded people on a day to day basis. I spent around a year learning, thinking and considering what to do next and it was one of the most rewarding years I’ve had in a long time. 

I ultimately decided to work at Segovia Technology, based out of NYC, which is a financial services company focused on sub-saharan Africa. I chose to do this over moving back to Kenya for a variety of personal and professional reasons and I’m excited for this next phase of my career. 

Segovia has a mission that appeals to me (using technology to aid poverty alleviation), has an excellent team who is hungry and focused on succeeding, and is primarily focused on Africa. In the best case, we will be able to reach hundreds of millions of people and in our fail case we help a few thousand people receive aid. 

I’d like to spend the next phase of my career building products for sub-saharan Africa and supporting amazing entrepreneurs who are focused on the region through angel investing (e.g. OKHI, M-Kopa, BRCK). I feel like technology is the path to economic development and poverty alleviation in countries like Kenya and I’m excited to be a part of the journey.

Individual Contributor to Manager

In my last role at Pocket Gems, I transitioned from an individual contributor (IC) to a manager and then to a manager of managers. It was a hard transition as we grew from 5 people to 150 in less than a year and a half, but I learned a lot along the way. I was directly responsible for a team of about 10 -15 product managers and indirectly responsible for a multi-function team of about 120 people.

In order to transition from an IC role to a manager role, it’s important to be a functional expert so that you can win the respect of the people that you manage. If you’re not a top quartile functional product manager it’s very difficult to progress into a management role. When you transition from a management role to a manager of managers the skill set is completely different. Your skills as an IC become less relevant and your role evolves into a strategy, staffing, prioritisation and coordination role vs. being a great IC. You need to create systems to be able to get the right information at the right time through data, people, and process. This then informs strategy, which leads to prioritisation and staffing.

I personally found the transition from IC to a manager of managers role quite depressing. I realised that I gained fulfillment from completing tasks (running analyses, designing features etc) and I was doing very little of these tasks any more. I became much more comfortable in the role after I did a few things:

  1. I read the High Output Management and the Hard Thing about Hard Things
  2. I kept 10-20% of my time to work on IC type projects from running a particular analysis to designing a new feature that I wanted to test.
  3. I gained fulfillment from developing others and seeing them grow as product managers

I do think the best leaders are able to work along all the dimensions of IC, Manager and Manager of Managers. People who perform well at all these dimensions scale particularly well at growth startups and are a great fit for leadership roles at early stage companies.

There are a few other things that I learned, mainly by screwing them up a few times and dealing with the ramifications of my screwups. These mistakes can permanently break trust with people, create really strained working relationships and are hard lessons I learned along the way.

  • Genuinely care about people on your team. There is no substitute for authenticity and your team will be able to tell if you’re apathetic towards them.
  • What you say as a manager is amplified because of your position – you have to be even more thoughtful about what you say as you can distract the team unnecessarily and also affect morale both negatively and positively with even a few words.
  • You should never take credit publicly (give to others) and always have tough conversations 1-on-1 privately. Building loyalty with your team will pay for itself 10x in the long run.
  • Great managers never complain about their team. They understand what the individuals are capable of, set them up for success and then manage expectations upwards.
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes – figure out what motivates them, what they care about and manage to those things. This should be one of the first conversations you have with someone new on your team. I often talk about my motivations first in order to break the ice.
  • Make each person feel respected and valued regardless of their role – if someone’s role is a thankless job (e.g. QA) it’s even more important to celebrate wins.
  • Focus on process to make things better vs. placing blame on individuals (very easy to do, especially in the heat of the moment). It’s very easy to damage relationships permanently by doing this repeatedly.
  • If there are personnel / performance issues – deal with it fairly and expediently – the person affected and the rest of the team will appreciate this in the medium term (but often not in the short term). Dragging your feet here will lose you respect at all levels of the organisation.
  • Learn how to influence. People respond much better if they feel like they came to the conclusion themselves vs. forcing the outcome onto them. There are lots of levers for influence and using these levers thoughtfully is an art e.g. do it for yourself (own goals), do it for the company, do it for the team, do it for me (manager).
  • Be transparent with your team. If people have context they will perform better. This does not mean sharing noise (information that is not a useful signal or irrelevant) with the team; a common misconception when talking about transparency.

I am learning more every day in this capacity, and writing these learnings down helps me systematise my learning.  I hope that others out there find some of this useful as well.

Better consumer banking and investing

Almost everyone I know has too much of their assets in cash sitting in bank accounts relative to their risk profile. It’s generally hard to figure out how to get started as an investor and most people just don’t know how to go about it. Financial advisors are typically fairly expensive (2% management fees) and it’s fairly complex for people without proper finance training to buy a range of assets (stock, bonds, currency, commodities, natural resources etc). Banks benefit greatly from this, as they take savings from your bank account and invest them making 5-10% returns on your money and pay you a fraction of this in interest (0.5%).

I really like what Wealthfront has done to simplify the process of investing – they make it very easy for you to assess your risk tolerance and then automatically allocate your funds into different assets. They’ve built technology to automatically reallocate when it makes sense and built other tools for investors to optimise their tax burden (tax loss harvesting being the main one). I think this is a great start, but it still requires you to decide how much you are comfortable investing in public markets.

What if we had a new kind of online bank that took in your cash and got you to set your risk profile, and then allocated your investments based on this profile and your liquidity preference? It’s basically a combination of Wealthfront and an online bank like Simple. You could then manage all your finances from one account, figure out how much you want to keep as a cash buffer, how much to invest in fully liquid investments, and how much to invest in illiquid investments.

A system like this gets rid of a lot of middlemen and unnecessary costs like bank branches, financial advisor middlemen, and gives me better overall return on my assets with much less hassle. I hope banking evolves into something like this soon.

Making great games

I started working in the games industry in 2010 and joined Pocket Gems as the first product manager to help us create free to play gaming as a new category on mobile. Mobile phones are personalized, portable computers that are carried around everywhere by people, and it made sense to me that for many people in the world, this would be their primary gaming device.

It was a really interesting time to be in mobile games; Apple had just launched in-app purchases, app discovery/advertising was nascent, and almost all causal developers were focused on Facebook/Web vs. Mobile.  In 2010, for some additional perspective, King.com (Candy Crush) which now has an annual revenue of >$2BN (95% mobile) had zero mobile revenues and Supercell (Hay Day and Clash of Clans), which is now valued at >$3BN, did not even exist.

In 2010, in order to succeed we had to create products that had mass appeal and were first to market. People played our games because they were casual and fun at a time where few free to play games existed on mobile. Our design was simple, and often inelegant, and we did an excellent job with merchandising and tactics but often lacked insight into player behavior beyond what our (fairly sophisticated) analytics told us. We lacked empathy for our players and designed products which were inauthentic to us, and over the long term I think this became evident to our players as well.

We have since realized that we will never be a creator of really great products and games if we continue to develop them in this manner. I was responsible for the design and development of one of the simulation games in our last cohort, Animal Voyage, which will end up making a small profit but we don’t consider it a success because we didn’t create a lasting franchise. I was never a player of sim games, and struggled to get into the mindset of the player. It resulted in a product that was inelegantly designed, with too many disjointed mechanics and a lack of attention to player experience. Over time, our players realized this and long term retention was poor despite really strong early metrics (which we used to determine the game’s viability). In the end, lack of empathy for our players and lack of focus on making the game really fun (measured by long term retention) led to the downfall of the product. 

I’m now working on a new title, and the emotions I experience while playing the game remind me of games that I loved growing up. I’m excited to tell my friends about it, I’m excited for our daily throwdowns and I’m really excited about how energetic our team is about the product and the vision. I have come to the realisation that to even have a shot at creating something great you have to have great passion for the product, care greatly for your players and make design decisions that are consistent with your mission and objectives. I have also realized how important it is that your team cares about the product, is deeply invested in the outcome, and makes every decision, no matter how small, with the player in mind. I think that even a team with all the right skills and talents needs this mindset to be able to create something amazing, and I’m personally really excited to be developing new games with this philosophy.

I hope it leads to a game that has many loyal fans and becomes a lasting franchise but even if it does not, we’ll feel much better about the path because it at least gives us a shot at achieving this goal.