Tag Archives: Start-up

What’s a start-up? (part 3)

My colleague Jean-Philippe Solvay recently asked me to a react to a Facebook post asking what is exactly a start-up. And as you may read there, it is not so easy to answer. One of the best references given in the post is swombat.com rather exhaustive analysis.

In the past, I wrote two posts: “part 1” was in 2011, where I had given my definition: “A start-up is a company which is born out of an idea and has the potential to become a large company” as well as the very good definition by Steve Blank: “startups are temporary organizations designed to search for a scalable and repeatable business model.” (There is something I am not comfortable with Steve Blank’s: I would delete “model”, as a start-up may know what it wants to do, but has not validated it yet. And start-ups copying existing business models would not be ones…)

Then in “part 2” in early 2013, I added the following: “A start-up is a corporation which explores, which is looking for a business model, a market, customers and is trying to innovate. It usually looks for a big market (“scalable”) and therefore service businesses do not qualify (except on the web) as they do not often scale. It is also a matter of strong and rapid growth in emerging markets because the competition is tough and there will be few winners. It often go fast. That is why it is more about a mindset: you are curious, in an uncertain world, trying to bring new things to the world. Because you are looking for a business, you do not have enough paying customers, and you will most likely need external capital (business angels, venture capital) except if your future customers accept to pay a lot in advance. This is why there is a strong correlation between being a start-up and having investors.”

I agree with most features given in the facebook or swombat contributions: “start-ups are new firms focusing on innovation and growth in situations of high uncertainty (or risk)”. They do not have to be about technology and if so, they are called high-tech start-ups. Maybe innovation is not so important, as many just copy others, but growth (through scalability) is critical. Consulting or service firms usually do not qualify because the growth is linear, not exponential (with the number of jobs).

Let me add another point: if the start-up term, was created, there has to be a good reason! When was it created? Wikipedia claims it became popular with the dot.com bubble of the late nineties. However, I found the term in Saxenian’s Regional Advantage (1994) and even in Silicon Valley Fever (1984). There is no doubt the term emerged with the technology clusters Route 128 and Silicon valley, the reason why it is associated with high-tech as well as venture capital. But not all start-ups belong to these geographic clusters. Microsoft and Amazon are based in Seattle, which is (at least was) not really a cluster. When they do not belong to a geographic cluster, they belong to a technology cluster, mostly IT (electronics, software, internet) or biotech/medtech. Tesla Motors is considered a start-up because it belongs to the Silicon Valley ecosystem though it is in an industry where very few start-ups exist. I do not think EasyJet was ever called a start-up because it belongs to no (technology or geographic) clsuter. So I would finally define a start-up as “a new firm focusing on growth in situations of high uncertainty, and belonging to a technology or geographic cluster”.

PS: while looking into the topic again, I found a debate on how to spell the word… In 2007, I had decided for “start-up”, but “start up” and “startup” also existed. It seems “startup” is now more and more popular. I stick to “start-up” for the time being, just to be consistent with what I always did.

What’s a start-up? And a spin-off?

I had given the same title to a post in November 2011! When listening to Pedro Bados, founder of Nexthink (an EPFL spin-off) on Radio Suisse Romande (you can listen to the podcast from time 6’50” (in French!), I needed to come back on the topic.

Let me give again Steve Blank’s definition which I had mentioned in the previous post: “startups are temporary organizations designed to search for a scalable and repeatable business model.” According Pedro Bados, “to be a start-up is more a mindset, focused on permanent innovation, than a question of size.” It is therefore a delicate definition and let me try to give general criteria.

A start-up is a corporation which explores, which is looking for a business model, a market, customers and is trying to innovate. It usually looks for a big market (“scalable”) and therefore service businesses do not qualify (except on the web) as they do not often scale. It is also a matter of strong and rapid growth in emerging markets because the competition is tough and there will be few winners. It often go fast. That is why it is more about a mindset: you are curious, in an uncertain world, trying to bring new things to the world.

Because you are looking for a business, you do not have enough paying customers, and you will most likely need external capital (business angels, venture capital) except if your future customers accept to pay a lot in advance. This is why there is a strong correlation between being a start-up and having investors.

Once you have found what you are looking for, you will need to put more processes in place, you will be less curious, maybe less innovative (at least you will not be 100% innovative anymore) and you stop being a start-up. In a recent post about a new book on Google, I mentioned that “Part II is about growth and it is a change from the chaotic experimental company Google was. Not a dramatic change, but a change.” Google stopped being a start-up at that point. Bados is right. It is not a question of size, not even of age, as long as you fit in this exploring mindset, looking for your business with a lot of creativity. And Blank’s definition is definitely good!

Now what’s a spin-off? It’s a company created from a bigger organization (university, corporation). A spin-off may or may not be a start-up, but most academic spin-offs are indeed start-ups.

A beautiful thriller in the world of start-ups

Today, Peter Harboe-Schmidt presents L’HOMME QUI NE CROYAIT PAS AU HASARD the French translation of his thriller The Ultimate Cure. I had at the time said how much I liked this novel. Do not hesitate to join him on the EPFL campus this afternoon.

Here is a short piece again:

“Take your start-up as an example. Why did you do it? If you analyzed the pros and cons for doing a start-up, you’d probably never do it. But your gut feeling pushed you on, knowing that you would get something very valuable out of it. Am I right?”
Martin speculated on why he was so drawn to a world that at times could appear to be no more than sheer madness. Like a world parallel to real life with many of the same attributes, just much more intense and fast-moving. People trying to realize a dream in a world of unpredictability and unknowns, working crazy hours, sacrificing their personal lives, rushing along with all those other technology based start-ups. Medical devices, Internet search engines, telecommunications, nanotechnologies and all the rest competing for the same thing: Money. To make the realization clock tick a little faster.
“Funny you should say that,” Martin finally said. “I’ve always thought of this start-up as a no-brainer.I never tried to justify it in any way.”

French start-ups (again)

I am attached to France for obvious reasons. And recently, I have read a lot about French innovation. It’s not as bad as the general public may think but it is not as good as I would like. Still there are reasons for hope. Let me comment two recent works:
– an article from Le Monde newspaper, entitled Heureux comme un patron de start-up en France
– a report from OSEO (the French Innovation Agency) which I had mentioned before in You have to go global, and right from the start, but which I had read too quickly!

The article from Le Monde is about French Accelerator Le Camping. The article is optimistic (maybe a little too much), but you should read it if you understand French. What I noticed was:

– “The Hexagon can also count on experienced funds such as Partech (but also Idinvest, Apax) who continued to irrigate the area after the bursting of the Internet bubble in 2000. About fifteen venture capital funds finance about a thousand start-ups and inject 200-300 million euros per year in the digital field, said Philippe Collombel. The French industry is one of the best in the world, judges Christopher Bavaria, president of Idinvest. And there are many areas where a little “Frenchy” managed to make a name alongside the leading Anglo-Saxon player: Dailymotion vs. YouTube, Viadeo behind LinkedIn , Deezer on the heels of Spotify …” I think this is dangerously optimistic but nice! We should not be just a copy-paste version of the USA though.

– “Another asset of the Hexagon: its serial entrepreneurs. The first generation began with the Minitel, has launched the digital era in the late 1990s, and overcame the bubble. They include Marc Simoncini (iFrance, Meetic), Jacques-Antoine Granjon (ventre-privée), Patrick Robin (Imaginet, 24h00), Xavier Niel … Twenty years later, they play the “business angels” for the younger: PriceMinister, Dailymotion, Criteo, or Deezer.” Quite true.

– However, “the Business Angels do not support enough entrepreneurs” […] “There are not enough funds enbling jumping from start-up to that of medium-sized companies.”

[You may also be interested about an analysis of the Acceletor trend from the Financial Times, which is also quite good: Start-ups put their foot on the accelerator. “In the past they could have been labelled an incubator, which is apparently different from an accelerator.” […] “Probably the first accelerator was Paul Graham’s Y Combinator in Silicon Valley. Since 2005 it has fostered almost 500 start-ups, including big successes such as AirBnB and Dropbox.” […] “This method of building new companies at warp speed is fascinating. The philosophy is to try lots of different ideas, fail fast, and pivot if something does not work. I like the sense of urgency, the work ethic, the high-pressure environment that helps drive rapid progress, and the incredible opportunities to network and cross-fertilise.” […] “However, in general, I think start-ups take a long time to become viable – years not months – so trying to achieve so much in such a concentrated period of time feels unrealistic.” […] “There are now an estimated 123 accelerator programmes around the world.” […] “Some veterans think many will close, just as many of the projects they incubate will fail. But all this frantic activity will surely boost entrepreneurship, stimulate jobs, and – in the long run – create wealth, so it deserves applause”]

You can find (in French) the OSEO report by clicking on the picture. I was wrong in my previous post, I learnt a few things! And it has more depth than the good Le Monde article. The first one is about the fears and difficulties of entrepreneurs.


Click on picture to enlarge.


Click on picture to enlarge.

Fear of failing with its attached stigma remains high. Finding customers is the biggest challenge, higher then finding investors. Interesting. Then there is an interesting lesson about the age of founders, which you can compare to an analysis I have made on 165 public companies.


Click on picture to enlarge. Source: personal data

This is a popular topic, and you might read again Wadhwa’s study, his Washington Post article or Is There A Peak Age for Entrepreneurship? I am not sure how to read all this, but I have the feeling there is a tendency to higher age recently… The average age of French founders is 41 whereas the public companies I have have founders with an average of 36.5 (and 34 for the companies founded before 1995).

Finally there is an analysis of “models of development of start-ups”.

The authors compare 2 main classes of start-ups (out of 5), the ones being the most common (classes 3 and 5 in the figure). [Class 4 is more an intermediate status en route to either 3 or 5; class 1 is M&A and class 5 have not developed at all.]

“In class 3, 41% of the total population, companies have a lower level of development because the company is “self-centered”. 50% have no partner, no subsidiary. The project leader is still a dominant position in the capital: 68% have a stake greater than 75% in this class; 1 out of 2 still 50% to 75% of capital.”

“In contrast, firms in class 5, have a proven open behavior. They have opened their capital to have the resources to advance an innovation project. 60% of project owners have less than 25% of the start-up in this class, as well as half of them with between 25% and 50% of the capital. Moreover, almost all listed companies are in this class. 80% of these companies are internationalized (export or implantation).”

“These are companies that have had time to grow: almost half who them are more than 8 years old and almost 40% are between 5 and 8 years old today. The maturity only does not explain, however, their momentum. Indeed, they were faced, too, with problems of redefining their business plans as well as those of class 3, even a little more frequently. However, they saw this less as a constraint.”

“In addition, Class 3 focuses more on public funding which is considered a main lever for growth. The youth of this population and the lower opening of their capital can hypothesize that the public support at the pre-seed and seed stages is an essential substitute to private capital.”

“The statistical comparison classes 3-5 on these variables reveals that:
• The median Class 5 has a higher workforce than class 4, which employs, more people than class 3 (respectively 10, 6 and 4 employees);
• Classes 4 and 5 achieve an identical median turnover (about 580k€) higher than the median Iclass 3 (390k€);
• On the median level of equity, it is still significantly higher for class 5 (409k€) than for class 4 (284k€) and Class 3 (149k€), and more than €1million for the upper quartile of the class 5 only 389k€ for the class 3)”

Of course the conclusion of the report is to encourage the filtering and then development towards class 5. but myless optimistic conclusion is that even class 5 companies are not big success stories…

Is venture capital a universal solution?

Following my post from last Friday, here is a series I have been asked to write for EPFL start-ups. It is logical that it appears also here. This first chronicle is about Aleva, a great EPFL start-up, and it is also abotu venture capital. Here it is.

10.02.12 – Aleva Neurotherapeutics has succeeded in raising 10 million Swiss francs in venture capital. The EPFL start-up has shown that this type of financing is not out of reach for young Swiss companies.

For this initial article in the “start-up of the month” column, it was a “must” to talk about Aleva Neurotherapeutics. Andre Mercanzini, its founder, got his PhD at the Microsystems Laboratory (LMIS4) headed by Prof. Philippe Renaud. What was my motivation? André is a shining example of the enthusiastic and persevering entrepreneur. He obtained an Innogrant in 2008. This grant enables apprentice-entrepreneurs to devote their time to their start-up project for one year. The life of an entrepreneur is not exactly a bed of roses, and as well as enthusiasm you need courage. And you shouldn’t do it alone. By persuading another entrepreneur, Jean-Pierre Rosat, to join the adventure, Andre convinced three venture-capital funds (based in Lausanne, Basel and Zurich) to invest. But it was only in August 2011 that the raising of the 10 million francs became a reality, a full three years after Aleva was founded!

I’m not going to say much about the activity of this start-up. Aleva develops electrodes for neurosurgery and these are implanted in the brains of patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease or severe depression. I am not going to say more about Andre Mercanzini either; he can describe his adventure better than anyone else. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that Andre has already become a role model for other entrepreneurs from EPFL and that he himself had the opportunity to prepare his thesis in a very entrepreneurial laboratory. If you go to the page of LMIS4 mentioned above, you will see that no fewer than 13 start-ups originate from there. Emulation is a key element here.

Risk capital: for start-ups with rapid growth

What matters also to me, beyond the entrepreneurial qualities of the two founders, is to show that venture capital is not an unreachable objective. About 10% of EPFL start-ups have raised such funds. Some entrepreneurs who appeal to institutions in the venture capital area subsequently complain about their conservatism. Others avoid them like the plague, referring to them as “vulture capitalists”. This is open to debate. It’s undeniable that this type of investor is looking for companies with a potential for rapid and global growth, and not all start-ups can fulfill this criteria.

There is now available in the world, in Europe and in Switzerland, much more money than there was 20 years ago, even if there is a lot less than during the “irrational exuberance” period of the Internet bubble. It always has been, and will continue to be, difficult to find money (for any kind of project in fact). However, Aleva, but also Biocartis and TypeSafe (other start-ups from EPFL) have shown that it is possible. Is venture capital a must? I sometimes tend to think so when it concerns high-tech start-ups and I know that I’m sometimes reproached for giving it too much importance. I simply note that a very large number of successful American companies have applied for these funds and that boot-strapped companies are the exception in the USA. In Europe, it’s the opposite!

“In Switzerland, we prefer a small entity that you can control from A to Z”

I would like to finish with a quotation from Daniel Borel, another entrepreneur who studied at EPFL. “The only answer I can suggest is the cultural difference between the United States and Switzerland. When we founded Logitech, as Swiss entrepreneurs, we had to play the internationalization card very early on. The technology was Swiss, but the United States, and later on the world, defined our market, whereas the production quickly became based in Asia. I wouldn’t be at ease with myself if I were to paint a negative picture, because I think that many things evolve and that many good things happen in Switzerland. But it seems to me that in the United States, people are more open. When you obtain funds from venture capitalists, you automatically accept an external shareholder who helps you manage your company, but who can also sack you. In Switzerland, this vision is not so widely accepted: we prefer a small entity that can be controlled from A to Z, rather than a big undertaking that you can only control at 10%, which can be a limiting element.”

You have to go global, and right from the start

I do not make the front page so often so it was fun to be on the EPFL one this morning. Forgetting about ego, I talked about my usual obsession, lack of growth of European start-ups. You may read the interview by clicking on the picture or reading it below.

More seriously maybe, you can read a similar analysis by Oseo, the French innovation agency which published “A look at 10 years of creation of innovative companies in France”. the study is in French and looked at 5’500 start-ups created between 1998 and 2007.

What the study says is that 85% of the company are alive after 5 years [against 50% in the USA; I already addressed the topic in Survival or failure – which success?], they have less than 10 employees, and the one important reason of this situation is the difficulty in building relational networks. Nothing new probably and nothing new in the interview below… except maybe that half of the French start-ups have an international strategy right from teh start and 30% have a foreign-only market!

“You have to go global, and right from the start.”

10.02.12 – How do you go about setting up a business? Hervé Lebret, start-up specialist and head of the Innogrant program at EPFL, answers a few questions. “When launching a start-up, you must think globally right from the start”, says Hervé Lebret, head of the Innogrant program, a support tool for entrepreneurs coming from academia. He believes that both the Swiss and Europeans hesitate too much when creating start-ups. As the person responsible for writing a monthly column dedicated to start-ups on the new EPFL website, starting next Monday, he was more than happy to be interviewed.

Does the current economic situation make it harder to find funding?
This may come as a surprise, but I don’t think that things have really changed. It’s hard to find capital, as it has always been, but not impossible. It depends on the business area concerned, but I would even go so far as to say that there is more capital now than there was 15 years ago. Businesses such as Scala or Aleva, with origins in EPFL labs, have raised significant sums from venture capitalists in the last few years, just as Aïmago, Lemoptix or Attolight which secured 1 to 2 million francs from Business Angels.

Are some areas more favorable than others?
It makes it easier if the know-how is present locally, as is the case here with biomeds or nanotechnologies. Cleantech businesses are starting to lose the favor which they enjoyed until recently. But I’m convinced that ideas can come out of anywhere and get a good reception, as long as their communication is efficient. Incidentally, we shouldn’t pay so much attention to the needs of the market. These don’t suffice to predict which start-up will be the next success-story. Promising areas have needs, but no immediate solutions, and when the start-ups enter the market the first needs have often already evolved and are moving in another direction.

How can one ensure a good launch for their start-up?
Only one start-up out of ten succeeds in raising venture capital like Aleva or Biocartis, and grows to a size of 50 to 100 employees. Then out of these, 10 percent will enjoy success over ten years, like Endoart or Swissquote, which employs over 400 people. The main goal should not be survival. On the contrary, these start-ups sometimes last too long. Some 90 percent of them are still there five years on, but they haven’t grown. In the United States there is a higher rate of renewal: only 50 percent of start-ups are still in existence after this same five-year-period. The problem lies in the conservative stance of Europeans, who are wary of quick growth. I think we should bring students’ attention to this aspect very early, starting in high school. You cannot just turn yourself into a businessperson. We need to encourage children and young people to explore and stop stigmatizing failure, which we still do now in Switzerland. We plan to show a fascinating documentary soon on the topic of students who are eager and interested in creating businesses – it’s called Something Ventured.

How do you carve out a place for yourself?
It’s fairly easy, if you have a good idea, to obtain up to 500,000 francs from public funds or philanthropic organizations, which allows the business to survive one or two years. These contacts also provide free marketing, which can in turn help to find initial business angels and make an initial million francs. The limits come from the young businessperson’s excessive humility, from their self-limitations. In order to succeed, you must be a salesman and somewhat extrovert, or team up with someone who is. Network is essential in effective positioning of the company.

How important are start-ups for the economic fabric of Switzerland?
Some forty start-ups are created each year in the Canton of Vaud, fifteen of which come from the academic world. They play an important role in the future of the Canton, of Switzerland and even Europe. Logitech or Swissquote, for instance, have created many jobs. However, Swiss start-ups in general struggle to grow beyond five or six employees. The biggest problem is well known: entrepreneurs lack risk-taking instincts and therefore struggle to grow their businesses. They prefer to do it in stages. In the United States an “all or nothing” policy prevails, and results in a higher success rate. Facebook, which has just declared its entry on the stock exchange, already employs 3000 people. Individuals who have good ideas go straight ahead and are not afraid of failure. They aim directly for global markets. The biggest mistake is to aim first and foremost for the Swiss market. One should aim for the world market straight away by adopting a global perspective and not being afraid of passing off as arrogant is essential.

Author: Cécilia Carron – Source: EPFL Mediacom

Innovation is not about small or large, it’s about fast.

The debate is recurrent and in my last post, I was questioned about my fascination for start-ups and Silicon Valley. In a way this is related, I will come back on this at the end. Two recent articles nearly surprised me. The first one has a famous author, Clayton Christensen. The Empires Strike Back – How Xerox and other large corporations are harnessing the force of disruptive innovation was published in the latest issue of the MIT Tech Review.

Here are short extracts: “It has been a long time since anyone considered Xerox an innovation powerhouse. On the contrary, Xerox typically serves as a cautionary tale of opportunity lost: many obituaries of Steve Jobs described how his fateful visit to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1979 inspired many of the breakthroughs that Apple built into its Macintosh computer. Back then, Xerox dominated the photocopier market and was understandably focused on improving and sustaining its high-margin products. The company’s headquarters became the place where inventions in its Silicon Valley lab went to die. Inevitably, simpler and cheaper copiers from Canon and other rivals cut down Xerox in its core market. It is a classic story of the “innovator’s dilemma.” […] But now Xerox is turning things around […] In the past, Xerox’s success would have been an anomaly. Less than a decade ago, when we were finishing the book The Innovator’s Solution we highlighted the fact that disruptive innovations are typically introduced by startups, the rebel forces in the business universe. […] Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, only about 25 percent of disruptive innovations we tracked in our database came from such incumbents, with the rest coming from startups. But during the 2000s, 35 percent of disruptions were launched by incumbents. In other words, the battle seems to be swinging in favor of the Empire, as the following examples confirm. The author mentions examples such as GE, Tesla competing with GM, Dow and Microsoft in the article.

The second article comes from The Ecomist and is entitled “Why large firms are often more inventive than small ones.” Let me quote it a little more extensively: “Joseph Schumpeter […] argued both sides of the case. In 1909 he said that small companies were more inventive. In 1942 he reversed himself. Big firms have more incentive to invest in new products, he decided, because they can sell them to more people and reap greater rewards more quickly. In a competitive market, inventions are quickly imitated, so a small inventor’s investment often fails to pay off. […] These days the second Schumpeter is out of fashion: people assume that little start-ups are creative and big firms are slow and bureaucratic. But that is a gross oversimplification, says Michael Mandel of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think-tank. In a new report on “scale and innovation”, he concludes that today’s economy favours big companies over small ones. Big is back, as this newspaper has argued. And big is clever, for three reasons.” The arguments are that 1-ecosystems are big, 2-markets are globals and 3-problems to be solved on a large scale. This is not for small companies. “He is right that the old “small is innovative” argument is looking dated. Several of the champions of the new economy are firms that were once hailed as plucky little start-ups but have long since grown huge, such as Apple, Google and Facebook. […] Big companies have a big advantage in recruiting today’s most valuable resource: talent. (Graduates have debts, and many prefer the certainty of a salary to the lottery of stock in a start-up.) Large firms are getting better at avoiding bureaucratic stagnation: they are flattening their hierarchies and opening themselves up to ideas from elsewhere. Procter & Gamble, a consumer-goods giant, gets most of its ideas from outside its walls. Sir George Buckley, the boss of 3M, a big firm with a 109-year history of innovation, argues that companies like his can combine the virtues of creativity and scale.”

Well I was not surprised for long. The debate is not about small or large. Let me explain by quoting my book again and more specifically the section Small is not Beautiful [page 111] “There is one misunderstanding concerning start-ups. Because they would be young, recent companies, and because many macroeconomic analyses focus on the jobs generated by small structures, there is a tendency to consider with high regard that “small is beautiful” as if it were a motto for start-ups. The ambition of a start-up is not to stay modest. On the contrary, the successful companies have become large, sometimes dinosaurs. In early 2007, Intel had 94’000 employees, Oracle 56’000, Cisco 49’000 and Sun 38’000. These “start-ups” have become multinational companies. […] The San Jose Mercury News, the daily newspaper at the heart of Silicon Valley, publishes once a year for example the list of the 150 biggest companies. The simple comparison of the list between 1997 and 2004 shows that among the top 50 in 2004, 12 were not part of the first 150 in 1997. Zhang also analyzed this astonishing dynamics by comparing the 40 biggest high-tech Silicon Valley companies in 1982 and in 2002 as provided by Dun & Bradstreet. Twenty of the 1982 companies did not exist anymore in 2002 and twenty one of the 2002 companies had not been created in 1982. These dynamics of birth and death are known and positively acknowledged.”

It is exactly what the Economist article explains: “However, there are two objections to Mr Mandel’s argument. The first is that, although big companies often excel at incremental innovation (ie, adding more bells and whistles to existing products), they are less comfortable with disruptive innovation—the kind that changes the rules of the game. The big companies that the original Schumpeter celebrated often buried new ideas that threatened established business lines, as AT&T did with automatic dialling. Mr Mandel says it will take big companies to solve America’s most pressing problems in health care and education. But sometimes the best ideas start small, spread widely and then transform entire systems. Facebook began as a way for students at a single university to keep in touch. Now it has 800m users. The second is that what matters is not so much whether companies are big or small, but whether they grow. Progress tends to come from high-growth companies. The best ones can take a good idea and use it to transform themselves from embryos into giants in a few years, as Amazon and Google have. Such high-growth firms create a lot of jobs: in America just 1% of companies generate roughly 40% of new jobs. Let small firms grow big The key to promoting innovation (and productivity in general) lies in allowing vigorous new companies to grow big, and inefficient old ones to die. On that, Schumpeter never changed his mind.”

I say it again, there is a difference between start-up and SME. This does not fully answer Christensen argument about the Empire striking back. Well it means large companies have smart managers who learnt from the mistakes of the past. But he also implicitely say that 65% of disruptive innovations come from new comers, not incumbents. Gazelles still have a bright future.

Smasher, another Silicon Valley mystery

Smasher is the second Silicon Valley thriller from Keith Raffel that I read. After reading dot.dead, I found this one more complex, and certainly as interesting. A mixture of a traditional thriller where the hero’s wife is smashed by a car, together with a good start-up story where the leader in the field is trying to smash the hero’s company and an academic story of intense competition between researchers in the physics field of [smashed] particles. Hence the title Smasher.

I already mentioned novels about start-ups or Silicon Valley (dot.dead, but also The Ultimate Cure). I have never mentioned though Po Bronson (I loved The First 20 Million Is Always the Hardest) or Michael Wolff (Burn Rate). I have not read (yet) Kaplan’s Start-up. On the academic side, there is Small World by the great David Lodge which I have not read (either…) There are of course many essays on the start-up or academic worlds (I mentioned many in my past posts in the must read category) but there are clearly not so many novels based on these worlds,

Raffel loves to take inspiration from real individuals in Silicon Valley. I had played at recognizing a few in dot.dead. Here it is less obvious; the academic smasher is a mixture of Feynman and Gell-Man. The start-up smasher looks more like Larry Ellison with his dark suits and love for Japanese architecture. But there is a little from Steve Jobs as well. The other characters existed in the first novel. I will not talk about the story and only shortly about the particle physics. I will say more about the start-up and broader Silicon Valley context. Smasher talks of Quarks and quirks, of Murray Gell-Man who got the Nobel prize for their discovery and of SLAC, the Stanford Linear Accelerator (a small CERN). You may identify SLAC both on the map and picture below.

There is indeed a link between particle physics and the start-up world. Raffel reminds us that the World Wide Web was invented at Cern thanks to Tim Berners-Lee. Slac had other spin-offs, but this is another story. Slac was also a home for the Homebrew Computer Club (see [1] and extract from page 214 below)

Smasher is also about women and science. “Stanford was on a campaign to recruit female undergraduates, Ph.D. candidates, and faculty to the natural sciences. My mother’s late aunt had been the first woman in the physics department back in the 1960s. In an effort to honor her and to appeal to what was still the second sex in the realm of natural sciences, the university was naming its particle physics lab after her. I’d lived in Palo Alto all my life and couldn’t recall a building, library, school or academic chair at Stanford labeled with a name except in return for a donation of dollars, euros, yens, dinars, or other convertible currency. So maybe Stanford was really serious about recruiting women.” And the invited professor for the ceremony adds: “We all follow in the footsteps of our predecessors. When I was a girl in France, I wanted to be Marie Curie. After two years as a graduate student at Stanford, after two years of hearing about her legacy, I wanted to be your great aunt.” (Page 12)

What may not be realistic is that this French professor smokes Gauloises (page 213). I know I left France a long time ago but I doubt professors still smoke them! It is pure work of fiction of course but Raffel adds in his acknowledgments that he found inspiration in Rosalind Franklin‘s life. A sad story which shows the complexity of being a woman in science or high-tech

A funny (sorry for the jump for sadness to humor) quote and apparently true [2] on the academic world is Clark Kerr once said his job as president of the University of California was to provide football for the alumni, sex for the students, and offices for the faculty. [The physics and Nobel prize professor] sanctum was twice the size of the [professor of English literature]’s but only a third the size of the business school professor [who is on the board of the hero’s start-up].” (Page 34)

It is also about VCs and term sheets. “VCs, bah. When you had no need for their money, investment offers would cascade over you like a tropical waterfall. When you could use a capital infusion – like now – the money flowed like water in a wadi, a riverbed in Sahara. In other words, it did not.” (Page 20)

“I drove west of Sand Hill Road. This was familiar territory, the Vatican of venture capitalism. In the bubble days of the late 1990s, office space on Sand Hill was the most expensive in the world. Here’s where the founders of Google, eBay, Amazon and Cisco had come, hat in hand, seeking the dollars required to turn the base metal of their dreams into stock market gold.” (Page 41)

Raffel has a few notes on Silicon Valley culture:
“The value of Silicon Valley company wasn’t in inventory or patents. It was in the brain of its employees.” (page 33)
“I had learned in the Valley that no more than two people could keep a business secret and that only worked if one of them was dead.” (Page 45 )
“Under an NDA? I asked. Non-disclosure agreements didn’t usually do much good in the Valley, which was built on loosey-goosey dissemination of intellectual capital, but having one couldn’t hurt. We had a raft of patent applications pending on the technology, but if they stole what we had, we would be defunct by the time we won any lawsuit.” (Page 94)
“Ron Qi, the inventor [of the technology incorporated in our product] and now head of engineering looked down as if examining the polish on his shoes. The other three around the table, Samantha Maxwell, our Korean-born MIT-educated marketing genius; Ori Mohr, the ex-Israeli paratrooper and kick-ass head of operations, and Bharat Gupta, the CFO, all moved their eyes back to me.” … “I saw Ron, who’d been brought up in the more deferential milieu of Taiwan…” (Page 44) [Immigrants again]
“I asked the engineers how the tweaking of the product was going, the sales rep what I could do to help them close their big deals, and the bean counters how much work was left to close the books for the latest quarter. What I heard from them was unfiltered by the vice presidents who reported to me. (The business professor) had told me that I could ask any employee anything but I could only tell my direct reports what to do. Managing the others was – who’d’ve thunk of it? – the jobs of their managers. As I popped into offices or cubicles, I was following the footsteps of the Founding Fathers of Silicon Valley, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, who advocated MWBA – management by walking around.” (Page 102)
“Thirty minutes later, I walked into a building named after Robert Noyce, one of the “traitorous eight” whose departure from Shockley Semiconductor loomed as large in Valley history as the exodus from Egypt did in the Bible. One of the founders of both Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, Noyce was the co-inventor of the microprocessor, the electronic brain that ran everything from cell phones to server farms.” (Page 194)

A few more things on the academic world:

“It seems that the only way for a Stanford professor to win prestige is to start a successful company.
– Americans may not be interested in how the universe is made. I can tell you though, in Silicon Valley, they definitely want to know how money is made.
A researcher at CERN wanted to share information with others physicists. He invented a language to send it around and we ended up with the World Wide Web.
– Of course you would know our wonderful Sir Tim. […] The computer nerds at SLAC in the early 1970s hosted meetings of what they called the Homebrew Computer Club [1]. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak came.” … “And from that came Apple Computer and the whole PC industry. So you’re saying Silicon Valley wouldn’t be much without the physicists?”
(Page 214)

as well as

“I caught sight of a new photo over the desk. His head flanked by two earnest student types. He followed my eyes. “Another sign of my vanity.” Sergey Brin and Larry page developed their search algorithm as Stanford grad students and, of course, started their company to exploit it. Stanford got shares in the venture in return for their ownership of intellectual property.
– And how many millions did that piece of Google add to the university coffers?
– Three hundred and thirty six”
(Page 218)

Smasher is certainly not about literature, but it is (really) entertaining; nor does it belong to the category of the mystery masterpieces. Raffel does not have the genius (or experience) of James Ellroy, or even George Pelecanos and Henning Mankell but he is a real pleasure to read, I appreciate his talent, imagination and his interesting description of SV culture, history and dynamics.

[1] Homebrew Computer Club: “One influential event was the publication of Bill Gates’s Open Letter to Hobbyists, which lambasted the early hackers of the time for pirating commercial software programs.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homebrew_Computer_Club. Another site is Memoir of a Homebrew Computer Club Member

[2] Another legacy was his wit—after writing a serious book “The Uses of the University”, Kerr surprised an audience with this riposte–“The three purposes of the University?–To provide sex for the students, sports for the alumni, and parking for the faculty.” From http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=kt687004sg&chunk.id=d0e21648&brand=calisphere&doc.view=entire_text

What’s a start-up?

Why should I ask such a question 4 years after publishing my book and isn’t this obvious? I do not think it is when I see how many times I need to clarify the difference between a start-up and any corporation. After all, any corporation being launched is a start-up, right? Not so. Thanks to my colleague Pascal :-), I just read another article by Steve Blank, Why Governments Don’t Get Startups, who gives the perfect definition:

“While large companies execute known business models, startups are temporary organizations designed to search for a scalable and repeatable business model.”

In my book, I had said it this way: “A start-up is a company which is born out of an idea and has the potential to become a large company” and I had also added “Apple, Cisco, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, Yahoo, YouTube. You certainly know these names. These companies did not exist forty years ago. They are technology giants today.”

Why do I like Blank’s definition? Because of his use of “temporary” as well as “search for a scalable and repeatable business model”. Apple, Cisco, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, Yahoo, YouTube clearly belong to the start-ups; I had not mentioned that non-existing business model.

Now Blank adds something:

“Scalable startups require risk capital to fund their search for a business model, and they attract investment from equally crazy financial investors – venture capitalists. They hire the best and the brightest. Their job is to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. When they find it, their focus on scale requires even more venture capital to fuel rapid expansion.”

This is the typical Silicon Valley model of fast and usually non-organic growth. Gazelles have often yearly revenue growth of at least 50%, not to say 100%. Look again at the growth rates of Gazelles and Gorillas in my post on the topic or at the revenue growth below (table 8-8 from the book).

I see at least two opened debates:
– In Europe, the growth is often slower, at least less than 100%! Is slow growth compatible with a start-up definition?
– Blank sees two phases of VC funding, the first one to search and validate the business model, the second one to fuel rapid expansion. At least Oracle and Microsoft never had the second funding and their growth was more than 100% during their first 10 years!

dot.dead, a Silicon Valley mystery

I seldom mention novels here. In fact, I only did it one with the excellent “The Ultimate Cure” by Peter Harboe-Schmidt. I nearly bought by accident dot.dead, the first novel written by Keith Raffel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned into a thriller writer. And I enjoyed it.

There is no point in telling you anything about the story. It may not be very realistic, but which mystery novel is? The description of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto and Stanford University is nice and accurate though  and you have the feeling you are back there if you know the places. What I also enjoyed and what is relevant for this blog are the links with the high-tech start-up world.So let me quote Raffel.

– An interesting comment about motivation to be an entrepreneur (page 42), maybe the most surprising thing in the book! “She asked if the hard work required to start a business was worth it. […] -[It is] a kind of Catch-22. To found a successful company, you had to think it was more important than anything. But if you were intelligent enough to run such a company, you had to know it wasn’t. Realizing that, you could not have the drive needed to start the next Sun, HP…”

– A much less important detail (page 45): “[The company] had gone public at $12 a share. After three two-for-one splits, [he] had sold the company for $42 a share. An investment like this might explain the […] comfortable circumstances.” I let you compute the multiple!

– Of course, when you read a fiction about Silicon Valely, you may try to guess if the author found inspiration in real individuals. Paul is the easy one (page 16): “While not quite at the level of Bill Hewlett or Dave Packard, Paul still rated as a Silicon Valley legend. Born in Hungary, Pál Békés had been a baby when his parents carried him across the border into Austria during the 1956 revolution. Paul Berk, as his parents rechristened him, graduated from the Bronx School of Sciences at sixteen and from Stanford…” Well it is not exactly the personal history of Andy Grove at Wikipedia but close enough: “During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when he was 20, András István Gróf left his home and family and escaped across the border into Austria, where he eventually made his way to the United States in 1957. There, he changed his name to Andrew S. Grove. Arriving in the United States in 1957, with little money, Grove retained a “passion for learning.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the City College of New York in 1960, and earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley in 1963.”

– The other people I tried to identify with less success are the board members of the company (page 57): in addition to Paul, there is
” Bryce Smithwick, board member as well as corporate counsel. sat to Paul’s right, leaning forward an Armani-clad leopard.
” Darwin Yancey, the technical genius behind Paul’s previous company. As usual Darwin’s glasees had slipped down his nose so that he peered at Paul with his head cocked back. Darwin had worked eighteen hour days [in the previous start-up] but to everyone one surprise had not followed Paul to [his new start-up]. Instead, he retired with his millions in the south of France. “My wife told me that our firrst twenty years of marriage belonged to work and that the next twenty years belonged to her.”
“A rare representative of her gender in the macho world of top venture capitalists, Margot Fullbright had cofounded Chance and Fullbright. Seated next to me, she had her hands folded on the table like a prim schoolgirl. A sideways glance showed me that the short skirt of her expensive suit was designed to show off the thighs of a Parisian runway model, not a buisiness executive. But Margot, approaching fifty, had a body toned as much as shiatsu, Bikram yoga, and two-thousand-dollar-a-day spas could achieve. Known for her ability to do complex calculations in her head, her mind was in even better shape.
“The fifth board member, wearing his trademark bowtie, hie crew-cut hiar beginning to show a few flecks of gray, was leon Henderson, a Stanford professor. A handful of former students, inculding three Fortune 500 CEOS, had thrown him a sixty-fifth birthday party the previous January. I myself had taken his entrepreneurship course and now met him vevery month or two for breakfast at Stanford’s Tresidder Union, where he offered me parctical advice on management and product positioning.

I do not know who these people are. There are a few women in VC, including Ann Winblad and Esther Dyson. Raffel is right, it is a macho world. They could all exist and look like SV stereotypes.


Ann Winblad (left) – Esther Dyson (right)

Another detail on bankers (page 100): “I had the natural prejudice against investment bankers. We worked seventy-hour weeks to make a start-up successful. Then, when the payoff came, investment bankers got a six-percent cut for a few weeks’ effort.”

Raffel could not avoid telling his Silicon Valley history (page 107). Nicely written: “Riding in the back of my parents’ Country Squire station wagon thirty years earlier, I would have been passing apricot orchards and horse trails. We didn’t know it, but they had already been condemned when William Shockley opened a company in 1955 to exploit his invention of the transistor. In an almost biblical sense, Shockley Semiconductor was the progenitor of hundreds of the firms flourishing in the Valley, for people from Shockley begat Fairchild and people from Fairchild begat Intel and someone from Intel begat Apple, and so on. In a variation on the biblical theme, two of Shockley’s most promising disciples, Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce, revolted against the founding father of the Valley to start that first competitor, Fairchild Semiconductor. Shockley was left claiming betrayal and ended his days using his Nobel Prize to defend his indefensible view on eugenics. This drama set the tone for Valley culture: young, brilliant technologists breaking away from companies run by the previous generation of entrepreneurs and founding their own.”

I plan to discover soon if Raffel’s latest novels bring pieces of interesting data.