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Atlanta’s Latest Decacorn: Mailchimp

Today Intuit confirmed that it’s acquiring Mailchimp for $12 billion. Mailchimp started by building software for other clients. Then it built a product to simplify marketing via email, pivoting the entire company around offering it to small and midsize businesses. Since then, the product has expanded into other areas, but it’s still focused on empowering SMBs.

Congrats to the Mailchimp team for a huge win. Atlanta has known this company is something special for a long time. Today, that was demonstrated to the world in a big way!

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Distribution Is Changing the Banking Landscape

I’ve shared a few of my views on Apple’s potential to be a consumer bank and how consumer lending is heating up. Yesterday I had the opportunity to chat with someone who’s worked at one of the largest US banks for over twenty years. Our conversation was social, but I couldn’t resist sharing my views and getting his take on where banking is headed. Our chat was enlightening. I learned a great deal about the inner workings of the bank, how the largest banks view Atlanta as a strategic city and are expanding rapidly, and how this has led to a hyper competitive Atlanta market for bankers, with salaries rapidly increasing.

One of the biggest takeaways was that what matters to consumers in a banking relationship is changing fast. Historically, large banks won because of their branch networks. The more branches, the better. Consumers knew that wherever they were, they could find a branch and get whatever help they needed. The branches were banking’s version of distribution. The branches were a core part of how the products and services the bank offered reached their customers. Establishing a network of brick-and-mortar branches was costly and time consuming, so the largest players had moats giving them defensible competitive advantages.

Now, consumers are rapidly shifting from in-person banking interactions to digital banking interactions. You don’t need to go to the bank to deposit a check or get a loan. You can do many tasks electronically via a mobile app or website. Because of this shift, consumers evaluate banks differently. Consumers care less about a network of branches because they don’t need to visit branches. They care more about digital tools. They want the best and easiest-to-use technology.

This banker was telling me that digital distribution is changing the banking world. The large banks that previously had the best distribution because of their branches are seeing their moats erode quickly. The companies that offer the best digital experiences are winning.

How companies get their solutions in customers’ hands matters a lot. Said another way, distribution matters a lot. The digitization of distribution will drastically change banking. Apple, Square, and other companies will compete for banking relationships like never before.

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Early Start-up Employee Turned Fund Manager

I had a great conversation with another investor who’s had an interesting journey. He worked in corporate America learning hard skills out of undergrad. Then he joined a start-up as an early employee. His skills helped the start-up minimize painful learnings and release a superior product in less time. Equity was part of his compensation package. Eventually, he made his way to venture capital and learned how to invest in early-stage companies. The start-up he’d worked at years before went public, and his early equity turned into a significant financial windfall. He began doing personal angel investments, and now he’s planning to raise a fund to help founders in his area of expertise.  

He understands start-up life and entrepreneurship from various perspectives. Now he’s taking what he’s learned and the wealth he has amassed from his journey and using them to help more founders become successful.

People like this have a huge impact on start-up ecosystems. The combination of capital, operator knowledge, and relationships can be game-changing for early founders. I look forward to watching this investor transition to fund manager. I’m sure he and his team will move his space forward!

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Big Boys Going after Consumer Lending

Earlier this week, I shared my thoughts on consumer lending heating up. It’s a large and growing market that’s big enough for multiple winners and hasn’t kept up with changing consumer behavior. The market opportunity could move the needle for any company, even a juggernaut like Apple.

Today it was reported that Apple is partnering with Affirm to offer a buy-now-pay-later option for Apple devices purchase in Canada. This is yet another big announcement in the consumer lending space within a short time. Apple and Square are making big bets on it. (Affirm was already in the space.)

I figured consumer lending would be strategically important and change quickly, and it appears to be changing even faster than I thought. Change is generally good—I’m a fan of it. Especially when it helps solve pain points for consumers in a better way. I can’t wait to see how this space is revolutionized by these new entrants.

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Consumer Lending Is Heating Up

Last month I shared my thoughts on how I could see Apple as the go-to consumer bank in the future. Since then, it’s been reported that Apple has partnered with Goldman Sachs to offer a buy-now-pay-later option for products purchased via Apple Pay on Apple devices. Today it was reported that Square is acquiring an Australian pay-later company for $29 billion. This announcement caught me off guard and got me thinking.

Consumer lending is a large and growing market. It plays a key role in the overall economy, so it’s big enough to move the needle for a huge company like Apple. And the market is large enough for there to be multiple winners. It’s not on the cutting edge—it hasn’t kept up with other changes in consumer behavior. Considering these and other factors, the moves by Apple and Square make perfect sense. I suspect they won’t be alone—we’ll see more companies entering this space.

I think consumer lending is about to change rapidly. I’m excited to see new entrants in the space and can’t wait to see what direction this goes in.

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Preparing Financially for Entrepreneurship

An aspiring founder asked what I did financially to prepare for entrepreneurship and what I recommend. I started my company over a decade ago. I wasn’t far removed from college, and the world was a different place in general (inflation is real). Here are a few things I thought about that others may find helpful:

  • Reduce fixed expenses – Your personal cash flow (i.e., salary) will likely decrease during your early years as a start-up founder. Reducing your fixed expenses (recurring fixed monthly payments) will give you more flexibility. You want to be able to focus on the company. But you don’t want to reduce them to the point where life is miserable, either.
  • Reduce debt – Eliminating or reducing unnecessary debt is easier said than done. But if you’re fortunate enough to be in a position to do it, it will help diminish financial stress and lower debt repayments or remove them from your fix expenses altogether.
  • Increase savings – Start-ups are hard and unpredictable. It’s not unheard-of for founders to take small salaries, go without a salary, or inject personal capital into the company when times are tough. Savings are a financial cushion that helps you weather the early years. If you can, increase your savings before you start your company.
  • Get buy-in from loved ones – If others are affected by your entrepreneurial decision (e.g., family or a significant other), being on the same page is important. Discuss how entrepreneurship will affect the household (including finances). It’s important for everyone to have an idea of what the journey will look like and buy in.
  • Consider a Roth IRA – If you’re eligible, consider opening a Roth IRA (you can fund it later). This is a great retirement vehicle in the traditional sense and also an interesting tool that founders can strategically use to invest or hold alternative investments (e.g., private company shares).
  • Eat in – We eat three meals a day. Eating out is expensive, so eating in can improve your personal cash flow quite a bit.

These are just a few things that aspiring founders can consider doing before they start their company. Everyone’s situation is different, so some of these won’t be feasible for everyone. Still, they’re good things to be aware of and think about. Building a business is hard. Minimizing stress in other areas in your life can help a lot.

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Bootstrap or Raise? Why Not Both?

Had a great conversation with a founder who’s taking a hybrid approach to capitalizing his company. He raised a small amount of initial capital and used it to build the early version of his product. He’s been acquiring customers and fine-tuning the product based on feedback, in search of a product–market fit. Instead of raising more capital, he has his customers sign one-year agreements and pay for the entire year up front. The company is cash-flow positive and can stay afloat without raising again as long as it continues to acquire customers. The founder is thinking about raising a large round to accelerate growth once the business achieves product–market fit.

This founder’s capitalization strategy is interesting, and it’s working well for him. He raised capital to get off the ground but began bootstrapping the company after the investor capital was spent and the product launched. Customer revenue is the cheapest and best source of funding for a company. The challenge is getting enough of it to fund investments in future growth, which this founder is doing with annual up-front customer payments.

I like this founder’s approach, and I’m looking forward to watching his journey. I’m sure he and his team will find more creative ways to build a big business!

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Company Equity: A Few Things to Know

Today I had independent conversations with two founders about founder equity versus investor equity. Founders usually set up only one company, so they often need to rely on other people’s advice. A few things I shared with these two founders:

  • Common shares – Common shares are usually issued to founding team members who actively work in the business—ideally full-time if the business can pay salaries. It’s a good practice (and a requirement of many investors) that common shares issued to founders be on a vesting schedule.
  • Preferred shares – Preferred shares are usually issued to an individual or organization that injects capital into the company but doesn’t actively work in the business. Preferred shares have a stronger claim to company assets than common shares do. Preferred shares issued to investors are usually not on a vesting schedule.
  • Cap table – A cap table details who owns what amount and what type of shares, how much capital investors put into the company, and other details regarding capitalization of the company. Many founders do this in a spreadsheet because it seems easy enough, but small mistakes can be extremely costly down the road. Using—as early as possible—software like Carta or LTSE Equity (formerly known as Captable.io) is highly recommended.

Every company and investment has its own nuances and circumstances, so the info above isn’t set in stone. It’s just a high-level starting place for founders. Company equity and cap tables are important and something founders should pay close attention to. It’s worth spending the time to do research or ask others if you don’t understand something related to these topics.

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Founders Who Need Liquidity Don’t Have to Exit

Today I read an article that detailed how individuals borrow against their assets. The piece goes into detail about how and why to use this strategy, but one section jumped out at me. It gave examples of founders and senior executives who’ve borrowed against their company stock to access cash while maintaining their ownership stakes. A few months ago, I shared my thoughts on founders derisking without selling the company. This article highlights another path for founders to consider.

Building a company often takes many years, during which founders take low salaries. It’s understandable that founders may need some liquidity as they transition through life stages while building their companies. Selling the entire company isn’t the only path available to them. The examples in the article include founders and CEOs at FedEx, Tesla, and Shift4Payments, all of which are publicly traded companies. Many founders won’t have the same options available to them as those folks do, but the examples are still food for thought.

Founders shouldn’t let concerns about liquidity limit their visions or how big they dream. If they want to swing for the fences, they should! They can rest assured that there will be opportunities to access capital along the way.

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More Investors Will Be Buying Small E-Commerce Companies

Yesterday I predicted that we’ll see a record number of e-commerce businesses sold this year. I shared why I think the timing is opportune for many founders to sell. A friend pointed out that it takes two sides to complete a transaction and my post didn’t address the buy side. He’s right.

I believe significantly more buyers will be looking to acquire e-commerce businesses doing less than $10 million in annual revenue. Here are my reasons:

  • The pandemic accelerated the shift to e-ecommerce, and this trend will continue. Buyers who want to participate in this trend but don’t want to spend time catching up and building something from scratch will be interested in buying a business.
  • We’re in a low-interest-rate environment. Cash is earning nearly nothing, as are savings accounts and other risk-free investments, so people are looking for other investments to earn returns on their money.
  • Many other asset classes have appreciated significantly in the last year and a half. We’re at peak prices historically for many asset classes, and some investors aren’t sure how much upside appreciation is left. Multiples on businesses have increased as well, but a small business in a large market that’s growing quickly has the potential to appreciate significantly.
  • Finally, sophisticated investors are raising large sums of money to buy these businesses.

E-commerce businesses have historically been viewed as less sexy than other types of businesses and have received low multiples. I think that will change this year!

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