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Businesses Facebook The Almighty Buck

One of Silicon Valley's Most Esteemed VCs Says Startups Are 'Mostly Crap' (vanityfair.com) 140

An anonymous reader cites an article on VanityFair: Former Facebook employee Chamath Palihapitiya won't pull punches when it comes to lame tech companies. Palihapitiya's firm, Social Capital, has backed numerous tech companies with valuations in the billions, such as Slack, Box, and SurveyMonkey. But that doesn't mean that he is bullish on unicorn culture. He says "Most of those businesses are fundamentally not good, they're poorly run, and they never should have been invested in in the first place. But the capital came in because the person who had control of the capital was able to justify it intellectually to themselves versus something else that could have become the next Facebook or Google. [...] The reality is, great companies can go public in any market. When we talk about the I.P.O. slowdowns what we're really saying is that there really just aren't that many good companies being built. We need to divorce ourselves from venture capital as an occupation and focus on using capital as a way to take really big bets on things that just seem totally audacious. Right now we haven't done enough of that, and the result is that most of the things we've funded are mostly crap and largely worthless."
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One of Silicon Valley's Most Esteemed VCs Says Startups Are 'Mostly Crap'

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  • by BarbaraHudson ( 3785311 ) <barbarahudson@@@gmail...com> on Monday March 28, 2016 @01:46PM (#51794047) Journal
    It's a bubble, and now it's deflating because, like the mortgage-backed certificates, the underlying assets are crap.
    • Although to be fair, at least the ideas floated in the '90s were at least half-assed plausible (well, most of them).

      I always marveled at the ability of VCs to dump metric tons of money into something that usually has no business plan (and no, "get bought by Google!!OMG!!11!!" is not really a practical business plan). I mean, I get that it's gambling in a way, and one out of 1,000 or so might actually turn a profit (or at least get enough hype to cash out the stock and profit from that), but it looks like on

      • by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Monday March 28, 2016 @02:42PM (#51794457) Journal

        and no, "get bought by Google!!OMG!!11!!" is not really a practical business plan

        You say that, but... ...well, OK before I continue, let's both agree it's not actually a sane plan in a world of reason.

        But there's a problem here: this ain't a world of reason. Citiation: I currently have a startup. Frankly it's mental. Esseintally what most people seem to want to see is a vague plan to get some customers and revenue and blah blah blah but not use that to have any sort of growth or anything sensible, it's to use that to sell out to google (or whatever) as soon as possible.

        Seriously, the equivalent of "get bought by google lolwtfbbq11!!11!11oneONELEVEN11!" is actually the plan they want to see. The purpose of customers is not to bring in revenue, it's to make you a tempting target for purchase AND THAT IS ALL.

        Has anyone done any studies as to what percentage of VC-funded startups actually eke out enough money (somehow) to provide a decent ROI to anyone investing in them?

        Studies? Fuck 'em. Internet of things, man, INTERNET OF THINGS THEN GOOGLE WILL BUY IS DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND IIINNTTEERRNNEETT OOFF TTHHIINNGGSS!!!!

        • by kbonin ( 58917 ) on Monday March 28, 2016 @03:46PM (#51794953) Homepage

          Heh, THIS.

          Anyone involved in the pitching or management of a VC funded startup will tell you - the purpose of the company is NOT to build a company, the purpose of the company is to create an acquisition target.

          The VCs will actively pushback against product release, even against investing too much in building product over building hype to improve the value as an acquisition target.

          • by lucm ( 889690 )

            The VCs will actively pushback against product release, even against investing too much in building product over building hype to improve the value as an acquisition target.

            that's the mistake TIBCO made. For a long time it was so obvious they wanted to be bought by IBM or Oracle it was pathetic. Minimal product evolution. Now it's left behind.

          • The VCs will actively pushback against product release, even against investing too much in building product

            Yes they will and it's really annoying. Dammit I got into this business because I wanted to build these things.

          • bullshit. or maybe true in valley. elsewherebyou can forget about round 3 or acquisition if you dont at least have product and growing customer base.

            thats 2 years though that can be spent in an impossible product while getting paid. vc beware.

      • by frank_adrian314159 ( 469671 ) on Monday March 28, 2016 @03:01PM (#51794593) Homepage

        Has anyone done any studies as to what percentage of VC-funded startups actually eke out enough money (somehow) to provide a decent ROI to anyone investing in them?

        Yes, there have been studies. But you don't need a study - it's enough that there seem to always be VC firms about - proof by existence. The game's no different from what the record industry does (except multiply the numbers on the bets the firms are making by about 50-100x) - you bet on a number of artists/companies; some pay out small, some pay out big, and some you lose money on. It's just about finding that next Adele/Facebook that pays off enough to support the other dogs you picked. It's a model that works, as long as you can tolerate the risks and can pick winners well enough. Plus, if you have enough money to start with, you need put only small portions of your actual wealth into these ventures, mitigating a lot of the personal risk by having your main investments in more secure vehicles and loading the VC fund with more risky investments.

        • Although generally you want to pick an artist that actually stands a chance, there is already some music that seems good for example. You don't just pick a random person off the street, spend years on musical training, then hope you have a hit. The investment for the artist really is not that much so you can afford some failures.

          For startups it's only vaguely similar. First there is often no evidence that the startup is able to succeed even as a moderately successful long term company, there is no techno

        • - it's enough that there seem to always be VC firms about -

          I suppose this is what they call trickle-down-economics: Some mediocre people get rich by exploiting their fellow beings unscrupulously, then their combination of lack of actual talent with lack of scruples means they invest stupidly in the hope of making more, undeserved profit, whereby their money trickles down to feed the next layer of parasites. Am I being too cynical?

      • by swb ( 14022 )

        I always marveled at the ability of VCs to dump metric tons of money into something that usually has no business plan (and no, "get bought by Google!!OMG!!11!!" is not really a practical business plan).

        Isn't some of this that they *know* the startup has no business plan? I always thought they were more or less shopping for clever ideas and that part of the VC investment was applying some semblance of business discipline, both to help actually get the clever idea turned into an actual profitable venture and to make sure their money doesn't get spent on bespoke custom Nerf weapons, strippers or otherwise totally flushed down the toilet.

        I'm sure a lot of startups are completely worthless ideas, but I would

        • by slew ( 2918 )

          I always marveled at the ability of VCs to dump metric tons of money into something that usually has no business plan (and no, "get bought by Google!!OMG!!11!!" is not really a practical business plan).

          Isn't some of this that they *know* the startup has no business plan? I always thought they were more or less shopping for clever ideas and that part of the VC investment was applying some semblance of business discipline, both to help actually get the clever idea turned into an actual profitable venture and to make sure their money doesn't get spent on bespoke custom Nerf weapons, strippers or otherwise totally flushed down the toilet.

          I'm sure a lot of startups are completely worthless ideas, but I would bet that there are some that are actually valuable but die off because the people behind them have absolutely no business sense at all.

          Although in theory getting VC investment includes some of the VC's "business sense", however, the business goals of the VC aren't necessarily aligned with the founders (and often not the employees either). Generally the goal of the VC on an early-stage startup is to attempt to execute a 3-5 year plan and then 'exit'. An exit will generally either result in the ability for the VC's to deploy their winnings (if any) on the next big thing, or have the company crash and burn. The basic business sense that a

          • by swb ( 14022 )

            Of course it would make sense that someone would evolve the VC strategy beyond the notion of developing a "crazy idea" into a successful business and instead look at it as a way to crank money out in 5 years or less.

            I suppose it might be argued that by 5 years if you're not able to be a sustainable business then your idea really wasn't that great anyway, and the capital is better directed at the next idea rather than wasted on the next 5 years of not making it.

          • You put what is often the real problem with VC. If you pull out of a business to cash in after three to five years then you will often end up with relatively little, even for the most successful.. seven to ten years is often a much better bet.
            Facebook was making money on the scale of $50 million per year after three years, $280 million per year after five years, but $3700 million per year after seven years.. and $12,500 million after ten years..
            Google followed a similar kind of path, after 5 years worth abo

  • by Narcocide ( 102829 ) on Monday March 28, 2016 @01:48PM (#51794059) Homepage

    Then he announced his plans for a revolutionary type of new instant messaging/social dating app?

  • No kidding? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by amRadioHed ( 463061 ) on Monday March 28, 2016 @01:50PM (#51794075)

    Didn't Sturgeon already tell us this 75 years ago? Ninety percent of everything is crap, including VC's.

  • Someone who made a ton of money from investing in something worthless is telling the rest of us we shouldn't invest in things that are worthless? Sure thing.
    • "well, thank you, unbiased stranger!"
    • by Actually, I do RTFA ( 1058596 ) on Monday March 28, 2016 @01:57PM (#51794139)

      He's making a ton of money, while saying that people are overpaying him for crap he bought earlier for less. Of course, he's still selling it to them.

      I consider it the equivalent of the poker pro telling everyone he makes a living at this and (some standing backing that up) when he sits down at the table. Just fair warning that someone is going to lose money, and he has the skills for it not to be him.

    • Maybe this is one of those "fuck you" resignations/retirements then. I vaguely remember reading one of those that was posted in 2008. It was from a hedge fund manager that was going long for his clients against his own advice, while they insisted on it or something. He still made all kinds of money from the fees, but he was telling them the whole way it wouldn't last, and they wouldn't believe him. He socked those fees away in something safe, they crashed, he retired.

    • by creimer ( 824291 ) on Monday March 28, 2016 @02:27PM (#51794345) Homepage

      Someone who made a ton of money from investing in something worthless is telling the rest of us we shouldn't invest in things that are worthless?

      When I worked at Accolade, a family-owned video game company, it got bought out by Infogrames, a French video game company, in 1998. Like many companies in the run up to the dot com bust, Infogrames went on a buying spree for other video game companies. When it acquired Hasbro Interactive, which owned the intellectual property for Atari, it moved the company from San Jose to Sunnyvale and renamed itself Atari. As the company slid into bankruptcy after the dot com bust, upper management figured out that they paid two to four times what each company was worth. In short, it was all crap.

      • I actually enjoyed many Accolade titles.....I can't say the same about many Atari or Infogrames titles. There were a few of course, but the vast majority were crap.

      • by tnk1 ( 899206 )

        I still hate Infogrames for the shitfest they made out of MOO3.

  • by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Monday March 28, 2016 @02:04PM (#51794167) Homepage

    Look, the numbers for new businesses are always crap - that's why you get the high returns.

    For every 10 businesses you start, seven go out of business in the first year. One more squeaks along till the 2nd year, another becomes a 'viable loss' (i.e. they make money, but less than their owner could earn if they got a job working for a major corporation), and only the last one makes any money. But that last one will make so much money that the owner becomes wealthy

    That show VC works - they invest in 10 start ups, one of them gives them a return on their investment that is 20x, or 100x how much they gave it, and they go away happy. The other 9 they invested in are just the cost of doing business.

    • You forgot one out of those 10... perhaps #9 makes enough money to live off of, but either has no real growth, or just enough growth to make it viable over sufficiently long periods of time?

      • No I didn't. That's called a viable loss. I repeat, the owner makes a profit, but not as much as they could if they worked for a corporation.

    • Sounds like the lottery. I don't know anything about business, but I don't understand how a society could support this kind of model without most people ending up fucked while pushing all the resources into an increasingly smaller percentage of people.

      • It would be like the lottery if buying every ticket combination in that lottery guaranteed a minimum 10% net profit. With VC stuff you anticipate a 90% failure rate but with an approximate 2000% ROI on the one success out of ten.
      • It is a lottery, and a very unfair one at that, if you started off rich you have a much higher chance of success, you can invest money, take risks, and have connections. If you are poor, you have to worry about surviving day to day before you can even start to invest.

      • by tomhath ( 637240 )
        Most people don't end up screwed; most people end up working for the good entrepreneurs who succeed. A few will try to start their own business, and a few of those will succeed.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by argStyopa ( 232550 )

      "But that last one will make so much money that the owner becomes wealthy"
      For which they (or their descendants) need to be thoroughly punished by taxation into the ground, because "income inequality".

      Signed,
      Thomas Piketty
      (and his friends)
      "the 99%"

      • You are absolutely right. They should not be punished - but neither should their descendants benefit - they should not get the money in the first place. After all, they didn't earn it., their parents did. If they want to be wealthy, they should have to go out and start their own business - from scratch, not a single penny from mom and dad. 100% death tax. No inheritance, all gifts after hitting the age of 18 are taxed at 100%, including paying for college (earn a scholarship you free loader).

        Signed,
        A

        • 1) let's first note first that Adam Smith's observations on 'the evident justice and utility' of inheritance taxes were made in a time when there WAS NO INCOME TAX. Certainly not the confiscatory levels it is today.

          2) after he muses about how children might therefore tolerate some tax once they've moved out of their parents' home, he opines: "There is no art which one government sooner learns of another than that of draining money from the pockets of the people" - hardly a ringing endorsement of the necess

    • But that last one will make so much money that the owner becomes wealthy

      Reminds me of DARPA AI efforts. [wikipedia.org]

    • In general they break even. The 1 in 10 will make 10 times what they spent. It is extremely rare to get the 20x or 100x. They would do so much better if they properly vetted the companies first to weed out the obvious failures.

    • Those silly wind up jumping toy animals are total crap. Yet you find them for sale everywhere. People will purchase them as silly gifts and folks put them on their desks.

      But it makes money. Were they the Google of the toy industry? no. Did anybody learn and have an ah-ha moment after seeing one? probably not.

      Bobble heads too.

    • it's more like every 1 in 999 is runaway successful.
    • by Quirkz ( 1206400 )

      I've had four or five flops, a squeaker, and a viable loss, not in that order. So, just four more business and I'll be onto something? Sadly I'm running out of time and energy, and the day job, while not on the path to make me ridiculously wealthy, keeps giving me sweet murmurings of a long, slow road that would eventually make me comfortable enough that it's hard to let my focus wander any further afield.

  • Business Ideas (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jgotts ( 2785 ) <jgotts@nospam.gmail.com> on Monday March 28, 2016 @02:05PM (#51794179)

    Most business ideas are worthless. The trick is to invest in as many as possible, because a small number will work out.

    This is not rocket science, and this is why owning the S&P 500 is a great idea. The most successful 500 companies will have many bad ideas, and some business will have such bad ideas that they fail. But on average, you will make 10ish percent per year.

    • The problem with this analogy is that with startups if they fail you lose your investment entirely (and this is the majority outcome), that is almost never the case with major companies.
      • by tnk1 ( 899206 )

        It's more dangerous, yes, but the same thing still applies. It's like playing poker. You don't sit down at a table without a bank roll of sufficient size to absorb some bad luck, because even the best players will have the odds against them in a hand and end up with some bad beats.

        In the end, though, as long as you have a reasonable table and you play well, you will ultimately make a profit, even if you get wiped out on a few hands.

        Same thing works goes for VC. You can't sponsor the next Facebook unless

  • by SeaFox ( 739806 ) on Monday March 28, 2016 @02:07PM (#51794183)

    ...But the capital came in because the person who had control of the capital was able to justify it intellectually to themselves versus something else that could have become the next Facebook or Google.

    The problem is many of these companies only get big because of a fad and not for any concrete business reason. Social media companies have no real source of revenue except advertising and data-mining their users. But revenue from that is going to be highly dependent on how popular they (may) become.

    We had that story about the "emoji" company [slashdot.org] a few days back. Sounds like a pretty stupid company, right? But they likely got funding from someone, and now they are being bought for $100 million. Would a person approving that capital have any justification that the business would ever become the next Facebook? Or was Facebook really just that 1 in a million that managed to somehow take off?

    • Sure it's justified. People are willing to pay for it and it makes them feel good. If anyone is looking to invest, my startup is about helping users hook-up with their local heroin dealer. We will give 1% of our profits to saving baby seals so you can justify your rapacious appetite for shit.

    • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 ) on Monday March 28, 2016 @03:04PM (#51794617)

      ...But the capital came in because the person who had control of the capital was able to justify it intellectually to themselves versus something else that could have become the next Facebook or Google.

      The problem is many of these companies only get big because of a fad and not for any concrete business reason. Social media companies have no real source of revenue except advertising and data-mining their users. But revenue from that is going to be highly dependent on how popular they (may) become.

      How accurate does that data end up being anyway? With all the supposed "targeting advertising" companies do nowadays with their advertising, how well does it actually work? I look at some computer parts to upgrade my computer on newegg, I buy them, then for the next month I'm plastered with ads for computer parts. It seems like in most cases targeted ads are either out of date (ie for something you already purchased days if not weeks ago) or totally irrelevant anyway. And yet "targeted advertising", "data mining", and "data monetization" are all you hear from startups.

    • by Ann O'Nymous-Coward ( 460094 ) on Monday March 28, 2016 @03:23PM (#51794777)

      As an aside, I realize that nebuloud was almost certainly a typo for nebulous, but it's actually a wonderful portmanteau word that describes startups perfectly.

      Not only are they nebulous, they're loud in their self-promotion to anyone with two coins to rub together.

      Or maybe it's a portmanteau between nebulous and cloud. Just as apt either way.

  • by ooloorie ( 4394035 ) on Monday March 28, 2016 @02:11PM (#51794223)

    But that doesn't mean that he is bullish on unicorn culture. He says "Most of those businesses are fundamentally not good, they're poorly run, and they never should have been invested in in the first place. But the capital came in because the person who had control of the capital was able to justify it intellectually to themselves versus something else that could have become the next Facebook or Google. [...] The reality is, great companies can go public in any market.

    The reality is also that you don't know what actually is a great company until it has succeeded. After all, both Facebook and Google looked like pretty crappy bets when they started out. And that's why startups have high returns on investment: they are risky.

    Perhaps as a pointy haired boss with a contempt for programmers and who got lucky at Facebook, Mr. Palihapitiya never needed to understand either technology or economics, which is probably why he keeps making a fool of himself.

    • Not even.

      The reality is you don't get a job because you have the skills, the drive, and the product to sell; you get a job because the consumer can pay you. Let me say that again: You get a job because the consumer can pay you.

      You go to McDonalds, and you get a hamburger sold to you by a cash register monkey who gets paid minimum wage. He gets the burger from a sandwich maker who gets minimum wage. He gets the patty from the spatula technician flipping them, also paid minimum wage. He got the uncook

    • Did they? My recollection is both companies offered something significantly better than what was already on the market.
  • Since when do you put periods in IPO?
  • by bigdady92 ( 635263 ) on Monday March 28, 2016 @02:51PM (#51794529) Homepage
    The stories of abject failure, malfeasance, and mismanagement alone would be worth the price of 10 of those startups.
  • That's why 8 of 10 new businesses fail.

  • I have a startup that I have been trying to get funding for in order to finish the product. It is highly technical but all the features I have finished work great. I think it will be 10x better than anything else on the market that it will compete against (it does data management). Yet I can't seem to get any attention from investors. If they can't understand it in a 20 second elevator pitch, they have no interest.
    • I'd recommend you to read Crossing the Chasm. There is a reason for the 20 second elevator pitch -- if the idea cannot be condensed in such a short span it cannot occupy the shelf in the mind of the target market user and so most critically it can't get the word of mouth. The word of mouth is absolutely necessary for any product to be successful since you cannot pay to reach every potential user through advertising, you need people talking about it and 20 secs is the most word of mouth can accept. So try r

      • Thanks for the advice. I actually have no problem telling technical people what it does. Potential customers know what I am talking about when I say 'it is hundreds of times faster than NTFS or Ext3 at finding documents or pictures", or "it can do database table queries faster than PostgreSQL without needing indexes". But when I try to explain it to those who have money to invest, they give you a blank stare and ask "what is a file system" or "what is a database index"? They don't want to take the time to
    • by tnk1 ( 899206 )

      You need to sell the problem that your product fixes.

      A direct assault on performance is a hard sell. You can be 10x better, but if a customer is happy with what they have, they aren't going to budge. A lot of big companies are adverse to change. VCs would know that too. Companies have big investments into the products that they have already installed. And they have a lot of inertia as well. They're not always looking to upgrade, especially if there is nothing that more "quality" or "speed" gets them i

    • by slew ( 2918 )

      I have a startup that I have been trying to get funding for in order to finish the product. It is highly technical but all the features I have finished work great. I think it will be 10x better than anything else on the market that it will compete against (it does data management). Yet I can't seem to get any attention from investors. If they can't understand it in a 20 second elevator pitch, they have no interest.

      Investors need exit strategies. If you don't have an exit strategy for your investors they aren't interested.

      Do you actually think they would be happy to give you a pile of money with no idea how they would get their money back (and get some reasonable return rate on it)? Investors don't want to hold on to their investment for the duration of your career (or your interest/involvement in the business). Can you get sold to a big company (who can understand the value of your product), or can you ever get big

  • Well no shit, Sherlock!

  • Most successful startups are going to look like crap early on. If the ideas behind them were clearly good, there'd be established businesses in the market segment, and it would look dumb to try to break in and make it big.

  • TV might be 99% worthless, but that one time it lets you know a tornado is coming your way makes it worth it. Someone could lose $100 million on ten crappy companies to find that one company that will make them billions.
  • Pets.com anyone? How is this news?
  • Improving VC means they would be able to assess project quality, instead of being misled by nice talks. Is it possible?

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