Tag Archives: Equity

The Rise and Fall of BlackBerry

Very interesting article in the very good ParisTech Review: The Rise and Fall of BlackBerry. The article shows how disruption is more and more threatening not only for established companies but also fast growing start-ups.

Blackberry was founded in 1984 as Research in Motion by two young engineering students from the University of Waterloo – Mike Lazaridis – and the University of Windsor – Douglas Fregin. They were about 23 years-old. Eight years later, an experienced business man, James Balsillie, would join, invest some of his money ($250k) and become Co-CEO with Lazaridis. RIM funded a lot of its initial activity with partners (Ontario New Ventures – $15k; General Motors – $600k, Ericsson, – $300k, University of Waterloo – $100k, Ontario local development – $300k) so that it raised investor money in 1995 only, including Intel in 1997. The company went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange in October 1997 and then on Nasdaq in 1999.


As the authors notice, “though BlackBerry has less than 1% of the smartphone market share today, it once had more than 50%. […] In this era of disruption, the mother of disruption stories is the BlackBerry story. A company that introduced the BlackBerry in 1998 became a $20 billion company from nothing in less than a decade. Then four or five years later, it was back down to a $3 billion company, gasping for breath. It’s not only a disruption story; it is a story of the speed of the technology race today.”

They explain how Lazaridis was a visionary when mobile phones had to be simple devices and how he failed a few years later: “The pivotal moment is January 2007 when Steve Jobs walks onto the stage in San Francisco and holds up that shiny glass object that we all [now] know and love so much, and says, “This is an iPhone.” […] The really compelling part of the BlackBerry story is how they reacted that day. Over in Mountain View, California, you had the folks at Google under a secret project. One was for a new keyboard phone and the other was for a touch screen phone that was going to be run on Android. The minute they watched that live, streaming on the internet, they realized that their project keyboard was dead, and they immediately shifted everything to the touch screen phone…. Mike Lazaridis looked at this announcement, looked at what Steve Jobs was offering, and said, “This is an impossibility.” Again, the conservative engineer brought up on conservation said, “The networks won’t be able to carry this. It’s an impossibility. It’s illogical that anyone would even propose this.” He was right for the first two years. Remember all the dropped calls, all the frustrations, all the lawsuits against Apple and the carriers. It didn’t work…. But then it did, and RIM got it wrong. Two years is a lifetime at a technology rate, and by the time they realized what a serious threat it was, they were at that point followers.”

Blackberry was (still is) the success story of the University of Waterloo and Wikipedia mentions how much Lazaridis has given back to his alma mater: in 2000, Lazaridis founded the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. He has donated more than $170 million to the institute. In 2002, Lazaridis founded the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo. He, with wife Ophelia, has donated more than $100 million to IQC since 2002. This looks very similar to what Logitech and Daniel Borel are to EPFL (where I work). You should read the full article and I conclude here with my usual cap. table…

Blackberry CapTable

Startup Land : the Zendesk adventure from Denmark to Silicon Valley to IPO

Many of my friends and colleagues tell me that video and movies are nowadays better than books for documenting real life. I still feel there is in books a depth I do not find anywhere else. A question of generations, probably. HBO’s Silicon Valley may be a funny and close-to-reality account of what high-tech entrepreneurship is but Startup Land is a great example of why I still prefer books. I did not find everything I was looking for – and I will give one example below – but I could feel the authenticity and even the emotion from Mikkel Svane’s account of what building a start-up and a product means. So let me share with you a few lessons from Startup Land.


The motivation to start

“We felt that we needed to make a change before it was too late. We all know that people grow more risk-averse over time. As we start to have houses and mortgages, and kids and cars, and schools and institutions, we start to settle. We invest a lot of time in relationships with friends and neighbors, and making big moves becomes harder. We become less and less willing to just flush everything down the drain and start all over.” [Page 1]

No recipe

“Along the way, I’ll share the unconventional advice you learn only in the trenches. I am allergic to pat business advice that aims to give some formula for success. I’ve learned there is no formula for success; the world moves too fast for any formula to last, and people are far too creative—always iterating and finding a better way.” [Page 6]

About failure

In Silicon Valley there’s a lot of talk about failure—there’s almost a celebration of failure. People recite mantras about “failing fast,” and successful people are always ready to tell you what they learned from their failures, claiming they wouldn’t be where they are today without their previous spectacular mess-ups. To me, having experienced the disappointment that comes with failure, all this cheer is a little odd. The truth is, in my experience, failure is a terrible thing. Not being able to pay your bills is a terrible thing. Letting people go and disappointing them and their families is a terrible thing. Not delivering on your promises to customers who believed in you is a terrible thing. Sure, you learn from these ordeals, but there is nothing positive about the failure that led you there. I learned there is an important distinction between promoting a culture that doesn’t make people afraid of making and admitting mistakes, and having a culture that says failure is great. Failure is not something to be proud of. But failure is something you can recover from. [Pages 15-16]

There are other nice thoughts about “boring is beautiful” [page 23], “working from home” [page 34], “money isn’t only in your bank account, it’s also in your head” [page 35], and an “unconventional (possibly illegal) hiring checklist” [page 127]

I will quote Svane about investors [page 61]: “I learned an important lesson in this experience – one that influenced all of the investor decision we’ve made since then. There is a vast spectrum of investors. Professional investors are extremely aware of the fact that they will be successful only if everyone else is successful. Great investors have unique relationships with founders, and they are dedicated to growing the company the right way. Mediocre and bad investors work around founders, and the company end in disaster. The problem is, early on many startups have few options, and they have to deal with amateur investors who are shortsighted and concerned with optimizing their own position.” [and page 93]: “Good investors understand that the founding team often is what carries the spirit of a company and makes it what it is.”

And about growth [page 74]: “Even after the seed round with Christoph Janz, we were still looking for investors. If you’ve never been in a startup this may seem odd, but when you’re a startup founder you’re basically always fund-raising. Building a company costs money, and the faster you grow, the more cash it requires. Of course, that’s not the case for all startups – there are definitely examples of companies that have come a long way on their own positive cash flow – but the general rule is that if you optimize for profitability, you sacrifice growth. And for a startup, it’s all about growth.”

In May 2014, Zendesk went public and the team was so extatic, many pictures were tweeted! The company raised $100M at $8 per share. They had a secondary offering at $22.75 raising more than $160M for the company. In 2014, Zendesk revenue was $127M!… and its loss $67M.


There was one piece of information I never found neither in Startup Land nor in the IPO filings: Zendesk has three founders, Mikkel Svane, CEO and author of the book. Alexander Aghassipour, Chief Product Officer and Morten Primdahl, CTO. I am a fan of cap. tables (as you may know or can see here in Equity split in 305 high-tech start-ups with founders, employees and investors shares) and in particular studying how founders share equity at company foundation. But there is no information about Primdahl ‘s stock. I only have one explanation: On page 37, Svane writes: “the thing about money is, it’s happening in your head. Everyone processes it differently. Aghassipour adnSvane could live with no salary in the early days of Zendesk, but Primdahl could not. It’s possibly he had a salary against less stock. I would love to learn from Savne if I am right or wrong!

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Biocartis, the (could have been) Swiss success story

Biocartis might have been a Swiss success story but most of the company is now based in Belgium. Probably not a decision of investors (as people think when company move) but from management! One of the founders is from Belgium and an impressive serial entrepreneur: Rudi Pauwels. Here is what you could read in the IPO document:


Still the numbers are interesting. The company has raised more than €200M before its €100M IPO this week. Despite such huge amounts the founders have kept about 5% of the company. Its IPO prospectus is available on the company web site. It has signed deals with Philips, Hitachi, Biomérieux, Abbott, Janssen and Johnson & Johnson and counts Swiss-based Debiopharm among its mains shareholders. Here is my usual cap. table:

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Another billion dollar start-up founded by young people? Except they are out of Etsy

Etsy is the most recent IPO filing to date. It’s a well-known ecommerce start-up, based in New-York, seed funded by Caterina Fake, Stewart Butterfield, Joshua Schachter & Union Square Ventures (Albert Wenger and Fred Wilson), further funded by Accel Partners, Index Ventures and Tiger Global, with a total of at least $100M raised before the IPO.

The three founders (Robert Kalin, Chris Maguire, Haim Schoppik) graduated from NYU around 2005 just before founding their start-up, then in their early to mid-twenties. But there is no info on them in the S-1 document. Kalin was CEO until July 2008 (came back between Dec. 2009 and July 2011). many employees and co-founders Maguire (Software development) & Schoppikleft in August 2008.

Founders: Robert Kalin, Chris Maguire, Haim Schoppik

and here is the usual cap. table. Interesting to check what the value at IPO will be…
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Celebrating a (too rare) Swiss IPO: Molecular Partners

I could have said: Celebrating a (too rare) European IPO. Molecular Partners is a spin-off from the University of Zurich, founded by Professeur Andreas Plückthun, Christian Zahnd, Michael Stumpp, Patrik Forrer, Kaspar Binz and Martin Kawe in 2004. It was funded by private investors: a first round of CHF18.5M in 2007 and a second round of CHF38M in 2009. Molecular has also signed a number of agreements with pharmaceutical companies, which explains the high income for a biotech start-up. The University of Zurich is also a shareholder thanks to a license agreement signed in 2004, through which it also receives royalties.

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I think it is interesting to illustrate the evolution of its ownership trhough the financing rounds, including the IPO that has brought about a hundred million to Molecular.

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I also like to mention the age of the founders. The IPO document provides data and I “guesses” the others from the academic career (based on a age of 18 at university entrance…) It gives an average of 33 with a range of 20 years between the extremes. I know that money is a taboo; Europeans do not like to disclose their wealth, which remains highly theoretical, because one does not sell shares in a biotech as easyly as a Facebook employee… But it seems to me important to celebrate the success of founders and their investors … Congratulations to all!


Zalando files to go public

Zalando, one of the very visible European start-up should become a public company on October 1st in Germany. It’s not so much the numbers which I found of interest, but how difficult it was to get them. As usual, Europe is showing less transparency. Finding the prospectus was not easy, and I am not sure I could have found it without claiming I live in Berlin. And still, I have no clue how much the company has raised, at which price and when. This is not in the prospectus – I just have all capital increases dates and shares number, it does not help much.

Rubin Ritter, David Schneider and Robert Gentz

I could still build my usual cap. table and here is what it gives. Revenues are impressive, as well as losses. Founders have been diluted, btu given the capital increases and losses it is not so surprising…



The (sad) state of high-tech IPOs on the Paris Stock Exchange

I just read an excellent article in the newspaper Le Monde: Investors get tired of IPOs.

The first reading could suggest positive news, as shown in the following charts:
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I looked in more detail at the IPO prospectus of 11 of these strat-ups. For reference, the 11 companies studied are:
Ask http://www.ask-rfid.com
Awox http://www.awox.com
Crossject http://www.crossject.com
Fermentalg http://www.fermentalg.com
Genomic Vision http://www.genomicvision.com
Genticel http://www.genticel.com
Mcphy energy http://www.mcphy.com
Supersonic Imagine http://www.supersonicimagine.fr
Txcell http://www.txcell.com
Viadeo http://fr.viadeo.com/fr/
Visiativ http://www.visiativ.com
and here I let you discover the 11 capitalization tables.

I show you here the two most successful and Supersonic Viadeo:

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Why did I feel the need to use the term “sad” situation? Because:
– Valuations do not exceed €200M
– Amounts raised do not exceed €50M
With such numbers, neither entrepreneurs nor investors can not be compared with their U.S. counterparts. (I refer you to my summary of U.S. IPOs, if you are not convinced).

And if you’re still not convinced, I refer you to an excellent debate on France Culture including Osamma Ammar, founder of The Family: Is France heaven or hell for start-ups? Osamma Ammar describes the historical weaknesses of the French system, too much government intervention, IPOs (like those Viadeo rightly) that are so low that they would not take place in the USA (whereas a French start-up such as Criteo could be quoted on the Nasdaq). There is much to say from the 11 IPOS, but I leave you to think about what they mean …

GoPro proves start-ups can be hardware and successful

GoPro just filed to go public (check here its SEC S-1 document). Its founder Nick Woodman is so unconventional that he is called the Mad Billionaire.


But what is really unconventional is the fact that a hardware company can still go public in the social media era. There are other unconventional features, particularly in the shareholding. Its founder and his father own together more than 40% of the company. The first developer still owns about 5%. Of course, the investors do not have as much… Silicon Valley is also known for the network strength so how is it a surfer could get the attention of the region? Because the GoPro cameras are great! Well this might not be all… Irwin Federman is a legendary VC, shareholder in GoPro… and Woodman’s stepfather…

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Swiss Founder’s Dilemmas

Following my recent post about Wasserman’s book, The Founder’s Dilemmas, let me react about recent (and less recent) events related to Swiss start-ups and founders. Do we have here the same dilemmas Americans face, that is building a company which is either control-oriented or wealth-oriented? If you do not know what I mean, read the blog or let me just add that there is this binary model of either slowly creating value with your customers and partners with not much investor money or taking the risk of fast growth with investors, in anticipation of customer demand.

The ultimate example of this in Wasserman’s book is Evan Williams who founded Blogger, Oddeo and then Twitter, with diverse strategies. Paul Graham addresses the issue often (for example in Startup = Growth or in How to Make Wealth) and for a young entrepreneur, getting a million can be very important. At the macro-economic level, there is also a debate which I honestly never really understood. I think an ecosystem is (or should be) interested in fast growing companies, and slow growth should be less of a focus, not because it would not be important, but because it has always existed and will continue to exist with or without public support… However, because there are many SMEs in Switzerland, the support to small firms seems to be important. So is the situation very different from what I know in the USA? Let me try a simple description.

Sensirion is a very succesful Swiss start-up which is a good illustration of the debate. In an article written in 2008, its co-founder, Felix Mayer wrote about “How to finance the Growth? Being somewhere in the middle between the “US American” who is shooting for the moon and the Swiss who develops his technology on the cash flow of a one man company we did not choose the classical venture capital path to finance the first growth phase of the company but were able to find a private investor. In Switzerland, if you look for private investors, you may find experienced entrepreneurs who are willing to invest into a promising business. They are also known as “business angels”. It took quite a while to get from a prototype to a product family or from 1 to 10 to 100 as described before. You need knowledgeable and patient partners to survive this phase with many ups and downs. Usually, it takes longer than you expect. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, you have to get to the point where you generate growth by your own cash flow, which Sensirion reached 6 years after its incorporation. Since then, we generate enough cash flow to finance our yearly growth of around 30%-40%. In order to manage this growth we are of course continuously looking for excellent people!”

Is Sensirion a different model? I went to the Swiss register of commerce and looked at Sensirion financing (the Canton of Zurich is offering very detailed information). It was not an easy exercice and I am not sure about the accuracy (You will see the figures differ slightly!). I tried also to show the dilution of founders over time:


and here is Sensirion employee growth since its inception


Sensirion is clearly a success story, but is it that different from the US model? There might be no VC, but the private investor(s) have put a total of CHF13M with a valuation of CHF190M at the last round. The growth was as fast as many VC-backed start-ups, so I am not sure the investors were more patient and the exit might be less of a priority. This is very similar to many US start-ups… But Sensirion is often mentioned as an example that start-ups would not need venture capital (hence investors). There is not that much difference between a private investor and a VC (or is there?)

Now it is true that many of the Top 100 Swiss Start-ups raise very little money with business angels In the order of CHF1-2M. Recently EPFL’s Jilion has been acquired by Dailymotion for an undisclosed amount and the local press mentions Jilion had raised about one million. Optotune in Zurich is a similar model with 200’000 raised according to the register of commerce. Techcrunch was concerned recently about BugBuster (small) CHF1M A round. Dacuda raised about one million too at a CHF7M valuation. LiberoVision raised CHF200k with Swisscom at a CHF2.5M value before being bought for about CHF8M (it might have been more with upsides). Netbreeze was acquired by Microsoft after raising about CHF5M from one group of investors which owned 80% of the company. Wuala was acquired by LaCie 2 years after its creation and it was totally self-funded. And the list is nearly endless.

But there are also fast growing companies. Covagen, GlyxoVaxyn, GetYourGuide, InSphero, Molecular Partners, Nexthink, TypeSafe, UrTurn have raised a lot of money with VCs. And people who would say Switerland is about health related firms will see it is more diverse…

Company Field Money raised Latest valuation Investors
Covagen Biotech 56M NA Gimv, Ventech, Rotschild
GetYourGuide Internet 16M 50M Highland
GlycoVaxyn Biotech 50M 37M Sofinnova, Index, Rotschild
InSphero Biotech 4M 16M Redalpine, ZKB
Molecular Partners Biotech 56M 115M Index, BB Biotech
Nexthink Software 15M NA VI, Auriga
Sensirion Electronics 13M 190M Undisclosed
TypeSafe Software 16M NA Greylock
UrTurn Internet 12M 36M Balderton


And of course, the founders have been diluted. I will not specifically show the dilution in each company but anonymously illustrate this with the data I could found online (non confidential data).

Company Founders Seed A B & Later ESOP
1 9% 26% 65%
2 30% 33% 31% 6%
3 34% 32% 33%
4 40% 7% 12% 41%
5 43% 47% 10%
6 35% 11% 27% 28%

I am not sure, with all this data, that Switzerland is qualitatively that different… I will finish with an interview of Daniel Borel, the co-founder of Logitech: “The only answer that I may provide is the cultural difference between the USA and Switzerland. When we founded Logitech, as Swiss entrepreneurs, we had to enter very soon the international scene. The technology was Swiss but the USA, and later the world, defined our market, whereas production quickly moved to Asia. I would not like to look too affirmative because many things change and many good things are done in Switzerland. But I feel that in the USA, people are more opened. When you receive funds from venture capitalists, you automatically accept an external shareholder who will help you in managing your company and who may even fire you. In Switzerland is not very well accepted. One prefers a small pie that is fully controled to a big pie that one only controls at 10%, and this may be a limiting factor”

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