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"Millions make me lose interest. It should have a 'B' in front of it."
May 4, 2013 9:24 AM   Subscribe

How can a company that earns no money be worth a billion dollars? How you answer that question will determine whether you believe that what is now occurring in the office parks and strip-mall coffee shops of the San Francisco Peninsula is the last gasp of another speculative financial bubble or the early articulations of a new world order.
posted by four panels (106 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Because capitalism can be such a silly, silly thing.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 9:26 AM on May 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


“If there’s not going to be another Google,” Graham said, “then we’re so deeply screwed that we all should be getting bags of silver and shotguns.”

Huh, funny. Huh huh. Huh. Errrr.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:36 AM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ugh the bit about strong accents is really true. The white dudes around here who talk about tech being a meritocracy make me shake my head at this whole thing.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:37 AM on May 4, 2013 [13 favorites]


Coffee's worth a billion dollars to me for several minutes each day.
posted by 2bucksplus at 9:42 AM on May 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


Bmillions?
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:47 AM on May 4, 2013 [17 favorites]


It's been nice to see the startup funds loosen up again. Much as with the reemergence of CDOs, people with too much money can only last a certain amount of time before they start gambling again.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:49 AM on May 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


The Valley rewards failure, remember?
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 9:51 AM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


A “Kickstarter for T-shirts” that imagines themselves a billion-dollar business? Someone is a bit optimistic.

(Besides, didn't Cafepress already have that area covered?)
posted by ymgve at 9:51 AM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Paul Graham, an infectiously giddy and hyperarticulate programmer, investing magnate and essayist who, depending on whom you ask, is the closest thing the technology community has to either a Bertrand Russell or a P. T. Barnum.

The New York Times has no idea who Bertrand Russell was.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:52 AM on May 4, 2013 [37 favorites]


Ugh the bit about strong accents is really true. The white dudes around here who talk about tech being a meritocracy make me shake my head at this whole thing.

It's not only true for white people. A good rule I think is to be fluent in whatever language the VC's native language is. I certainly wouldn't want to pitch a company to a native Chinese VC...
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:52 AM on May 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


Ugh the bit about strong accents is really true. The white dudes around here who talk about tech being a meritocracy make me shake my head at this whole thing.
Entrepreneurship is most definitely not a meritocracy, and neither is tech, but tech is far more a meritocracy than the fund-raising, making pitches, and all that other bullshit that CEOs do for entrepreneurship.

And I think it's important to distinguish the two. Most people in tech don't necessarily want to put up with the entrepreneurship stuff. And there's a lot of people that want to do the entrepreneurship, or perhaps just reap the financial rewards of entrepreneurship, but don't want to do tech. And in terms of 'merit' when it comes to entrepreneurship, this is a very hard thing to measure. In the end, it's all about success, and success is mostly about being able to convince people, be they engineers or investors or customers, to work towards your 'vision' which changes week to week, and you must be able to convince people that yes, you've always been at war with East-Asia. What does merit even mean in something like this other than being able to communicate with and convince the social sphere that gets you the resources you need, whichever social sphere that ends up being?

At least with tech, there's a working or non-working product at the end that works presumably with minimal social input, whereas the end-product of entrepreneurship is completely inextricable from it's social web. But as I age, I see how the success and failure of technologies, particularly software projects, are at least as dependent on creating a political movement as they are on the code actually working as intended.
posted by Llama-Lime at 9:57 AM on May 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


Unmentioned in the pitch is the fact that Crosby herself, after a 12-year marriage, divorced — amicably, she says. One source of tension in her relationship, she said, was her determination to start Wevorce.

Well, if Zuck had to screw over his friend to make his millions with a B, sounds like this lady's on the right track. Hot on the heels of the "Have you considered that you might be too foreign to get funded?" stuff, this was the moment in the article where I completely lost interest in the fortunes or misfortunes of the protagonists.
posted by ulotrichous at 9:58 AM on May 4, 2013


I'll take "speculative financial bubble" for $1 bmillion, Alex.
posted by CosmicRayCharles at 10:04 AM on May 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


How exactly would that preclude her from running wevorce? Are you just assuming this makes her a terrible person?
posted by ominous_paws at 10:13 AM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


i lurk hacker news officially because there's occasional interesting technical knowledge, but really it's because i enjoy hating on the creepy personality cults and mental hygienists and awful young tech libertarians. there's a recurrent genre of four hundred word link bait blog posts by inch deep white guy entrepreneurs gumming trivialities in a poorly xeroxed fabrication of insight or intelligence that i'm particularly fond of. i think it's something pg started and has now of course been picked up by a host of more or less sincere devotees.

anyway, i eventually realized my fascination with the whole thing is because it represents a worldview that isn't just abhorrent to me, but is also almost too alien to be understood. Strong Recommend.
posted by Ictus at 10:20 AM on May 4, 2013 [58 favorites]


"How you answer that question will determine whether you believe that what is now occurring in the office parks and strip-mall coffee shops of the San Francisco Peninsula is the last gasp of another speculative financial bubble or the early articulations of a new world order."

when Facebook buys Instagram for 1 billion dollars or Twitter buys Tweetdeck for 40 million, the thinking is less about these startups being able to generate that kind of revenue than it is about what kind of financial damage the start up can do to the big guy is left alone.

it is a quasi-monopolistic strategy more so than it is uninformed stupidity based on hype.
posted by striatic at 10:28 AM on May 4, 2013 [9 favorites]


I don't believe it's a bubble. I think the problem is that venture investors, themselves, need to be disrupted. VCs do business roughly the same way they have for 50 years, and the net result is that the VCs get rich while the LPs (the people who actually give the VCs the money they invest) get mediocre returns.

The VCs like to brag about how they "add value" but studies seem to indicate that they're basically just checkbooks.

And like so many self-important assholes, VCs like to imagine that they couldn't possibly be replaced by tech or by crowds or anything else. They like to imagine that innovation would simply stop on a dime if we didn't have a thousand assholes who split their time between listening to pitches, and skiing in Tahoe. Personally, I don't buy it.

I'd like to see a large-scale experiment where the gatekeepers aren't privileged white males with finance degrees, but rather are people from all sorts of backgrounds. Writers, artists, musicians, nurses, teachers, firemen, doctors, salesmen, mechanics; people from different cultures, different cultures and different countries; people who speak different languages; people who went to different schools and studied different things.

VC is broken. We must all escape VC-istan.
posted by grudgebgon at 10:29 AM on May 4, 2013 [26 favorites]


people with too much money can only last a certain amount of time before they start gambling again

people with too much money fill swimming pools with it and dive in, or heap it in a big mound and sleep on it. people who have a pile of someone else's money start gambling.

it's about having billions of OPM.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:39 AM on May 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


Well, if Zuck had to screw over his friend to make his millions with a B, sounds like this lady's on the right track.

I think it was more likely a case of having an unsupportive husband/partner weighing her down. It's a good thing she got out of that.
posted by discopolo at 10:45 AM on May 4, 2013


VC's are way overrated. I have been up close and personal with technologies that could have - and should have - been transformative in increasing the social and intellectual capital of millions of people, worldwide. Those technologies needed financial support to scale to a place where they could have impact.

Within my experience - and the experience of a number of founders that I have worked with - VCs (including many prominent ones) are just what the author suggested - i.e checkbooks.

I can't even begin to describe the sheer lack of competence of many (not all) of the VCs that I have encountered.

Money talks, and it often talks nonsense. Try sitting in a room with someone who is there only because s/he has money - and who thinks that money provides a special conduit to knowledge about what will - or will not - make it.

My most recent experience in this realm, with one of the more prominent VCs, was even more shocking, where they turned down a guy who could make a massive difference in the world of educating the poor, because they felt he wouldn't "own" the education space - as if anyone ever will! I left the meeting room shaking my head, frustrated at the millions of learners who could profit from his technology, but probably never will.

Silicon Valley is hot, and a lot of cool stuff has come from there, but it's ripe for disruption.
posted by Vibrissae at 10:48 AM on May 4, 2013 [15 favorites]


Graham's Hackers and Painters essay is a classic example of a tortured analogy, showing how someone with expertise in one area can believe himself to be an expert in other areas, but actually is full of shit.

This article with Graham's racist comments about Chinese accents should be the final nail in his coffin. Hey asshole, do you understand that the city you live in was mostly built by Chinese immigrants, who were basically slave labor?
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:55 AM on May 4, 2013 [11 favorites]


"The general public doesn't understand start-ups at all," Buchheit said. "They’re mystified how a company with no revenue can be worth a billion dollars. It's because of this power law: If a company has a 1 percent chance of being a hundred-billion-dollar company, then it’s worth about a billion dollars."

... so the goal is to end up with a hundred-billion-dollar company with no revenue?
posted by oulipian at 11:03 AM on May 4, 2013


... so the goal is to end up with a hundred-billion-dollar company with no revenue?

And sustain the illusion long enough that google/Facebook/whoever buys you, and you cash out. That is exactly the goal.
posted by junco at 11:08 AM on May 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


Or be like Amazon, who have made $5 billion in profit in their entire existence.
posted by PenDevil at 11:10 AM on May 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


With the exception of the e-divorce lady, the hoodie and sneaker-clad gang of young entrepreneurs seemed to be overwhelmingly male (I'll add here that women can't get away with wearing a hoodie and jeans to a pitch meeting, and it sounds like the e-divorce lady had to wear a respectable, if casual, outfit). Am I reading too much into the article's details, or is this an accurate reflection of the gender dynamics at work here?
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 11:20 AM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


This all makes me so sad, I don’t know why I read this stuff. End of Empire and all that. That this is the driving force and focus of our society is mind boggling. It’s hard to see how this is different than Tulip Mania. I don’t know if there’s any possible outcome except collapse, pain, and disaster. At least I don’t have kids.
posted by bongo_x at 11:22 AM on May 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


Kickstarter and maybe some future B2B version of Kickstarter are GREAT potential disintermediators of traditional early stage VC in at least some sectors.

A guy with a good, coherent and simple idea for something people buy upfront and a start-a-food-truck level bank account can use them to finance the 1 to 2 year capex and negative working capital that first institutional rounds used to provide. For many other ideas, though -- biotech where there's nothing legal to sell until it's been made and proven to work, advertiser- or subscription driven concepts, extremely complex things -- it'll stay VC or nothing.

That said, VCs aren't leprechauns with magical pots of gold. Persuade endowments, pension funds, OPEC member states, and poeple who got rich in non-tech businesses that you can do a better job finding the next great tech idea for them than those nasty Sand Hill Road MBAs, and, guess what, you're a VC too. If it hasn't happened yet it's not because VCs are bad but because no one else has persuasively demonstrated they're better to the investors who matter.

Vibrissae, it seems like you're wishing VCs could be like the Gates Foundation, but that's what the Gates Foundation is for (and VCs are there to make the money that people like the Gates Foundation can eventually give away).
posted by MattD at 11:26 AM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I work in what I think is still considered the heart of (West coast) VC firms - Sand Hill Road - and all I know is that the parking lots of our complex are filled with idiots who park their expensive cars wherever and however they damn please because they are very important and have important meetings with people who they want money from.

I knew that this part of the economy was on an upswing when the traffic for the Sand Hill exit off 280 started backing up to Woodside. Sigh.
posted by rtha at 11:26 AM on May 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


San Francisco is the city that was founded to sell shovels to miners hoping to strike it rich.

100+ years later, nothing has changed.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:27 AM on May 4, 2013 [43 favorites]


Every major productive technology since the modern stock market (let's call it 19th century though certainly there are earlier examples) led to some sort of speculative bubble that destroyed heaps of capital and often ended up with a different group of winners than you might have predicted at the beginning of the time period.

So it's quite plausible it is both a speculative bubble and some sort of dawn of a new era.
posted by JPD at 11:27 AM on May 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


VC returns aren't crap only because of fees - it's because it a terrible asset class for a lot of behavioral reasons. Most funds with good returns were invested during times of stress in the start up world. Of the total sum of VC capital invested nearly all of those investments were made when times are good.
posted by JPD at 11:30 AM on May 4, 2013


It’s hard to see how this is different than Tulip Mania.

You can eat tulips.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:40 AM on May 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


I lurk Hacker News to laugh at Paul Graham's unscalable toy Web app language as the continuations get GCed and the next-page links become invalid.
posted by nicwolff at 11:42 AM on May 4, 2013 [12 favorites]


It's just gambling, except the money pays out some salaries for a while. I should think everyone would be thrilled; people with two much money are throwing that money at people who want it and don't have it, who are paying other people who want it and don't have it, on the off-chance that their investment will turn into a much, much, much larger amount of money (and by the way, the people working for the company would get to keep making money.)

Tulip Mania or not, you invest your money and take your chances, but at least some people are getting work out of it.
posted by davejay at 12:12 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


After my own brief dip into these pools a couple years ago, I was left with the mental image that the Valley is just a bunch of guys jerking each other off (so, yes, Foxy, the gender dynamic is still that bad). When I see articles like this, the only question is whether they'll portray this is a good thing, a bad thing, or "this bad thing is actually a good thing" contrarianism.
posted by fatbird at 12:13 PM on May 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


is this an accurate reflection of the gender dynamics at work here?

Well, Paul Graham isn't really known for being a big supporter of women's equality. From his essay, "What You Can't Say":
So another way to figure out which of our taboos future generations will laugh at is to start with the labels. Take a label-- "sexist", for example-- and try to think of some ideas that would be called that. Then for each ask, might this be true?
For example. Just a random example.

He also said,
I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon. [emphasis added] But you’re not allowed to ask prospective employees if they plan to have kids soon…Whereas when you’re starting a company, you can discriminate on any basis you want about who you start it with.
So yeah, I'm surprised there was even one woman mentioned in this article.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 12:13 PM on May 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


I lurk Hacker News to laugh at Paul Graham's unscalable toy Web app language as the continuations get GCed and the next-page links become invalid.

Huh, really? I'm familiar with the technique, but is it used on Hacker News? I just checked, and the URLs seem pretty standard, and don't look like they're embedding a continuation ID or anything.
posted by jcreigh at 12:15 PM on May 4, 2013


Silcon Valley venture capital is not a bubble, and it's not the tulip market. It's a day at the horse races.

A bubble will pop and take everyone with it. Tulips are delusional madness. But there is a simple fact: some of these tech companies will actually make it, and most of them won't. Which companies will make it are hard to predict when you're in the world of Series A financing. Venture capitalists line up these companies in cycles in which companies ultimately compete against each other on the financial scoreboards.

There are endless numbers that the VCs can analyse before making a bet on one of these companies, but nothing that will tell them, with any specificity, which will succeed. Sometimes, a dark horse emerges from out of the pack and the VC will win big with a long shot. Other times, the odds are dead on.

These are men - yes, almost invariably men - who want to sit on the boards of companies or up on the sidelines, have a drink and cheer on "their" companies as they circle the tracks. Some will come in late, some will fail entirely, while once in a while, they will win big. There is a start point and an end point, an amount of time, CEOs as jockeys riding the poor employees underneath them who don't understand they're all a part of these rich mens' game.

You have to understand, this is sport.
posted by eschatfische at 12:16 PM on May 4, 2013 [20 favorites]


The fact that this kind of money is being thrown around on this basis fills me with an inexplicable urge to go shopping for a nice Chianti and a $17,000 sniper rifle.
posted by localroger at 12:21 PM on May 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


jcreigh, just click into a fairly big comment thread, wait 15 minutes, and then click next page at the bottom.
posted by feloniousmonk at 12:22 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I work in the photo industry in the bay area and a very common assignment here is to get sent to shoot a startup for some business magazine (I've been to YC on 2 occasions).

One time I was on a shoot for some kind of social photography app that was much hyped. Neither the founder nor the marketing person could explain in English what the hell their app did to us, a team of photo pros.

Their huge, modern downtown office was filled with vintage Eames chairs and they had a ball pit in the basement.
posted by bradbane at 12:40 PM on May 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


What's a ball pit?
posted by spicynuts at 12:53 PM on May 4, 2013


If I make an app that reshuffles the chairs on the deck of the Titanic, do you think they would award me a 100k?
posted by Divest_Abstraction at 12:55 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


(Ball pit)
posted by ceribus peribus at 12:56 PM on May 4, 2013


If I make an app that reshuffles the chairs on the deck of the Titanic, do you think they would award me a 100k?

No no no, that doesn't leverage the power of social media disruptively enough. Try making it a game where players competitively / collaboratively rearrange the deck of the Titanic in a gigantic game of musical chairs. And whoever rearranges the last deck chair wins the Titanic or something. Except Peter Molyneux beat you to it.
posted by oulipian at 1:06 PM on May 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


... so the goal is to end up with a hundred-billion-dollar company with no revenue?

I worked at a startup once that got a swinging-dick new CEO in who was going to make us profitable enough to get acquired. His Big Hard Decision was essentially to layoff everyone in the company who actually did anything and retain management. I am not exaggerating in any way. If you Did A Thing, you got let go. If you had Manager or VP or C-level titles, you were retained. For a few weeks, it worked brilliantly. With all of us off the balance sheet, they showed an amazing level of profit because they had all these customers but didn't have to pay for the hundred or so of us that had been working there previously. This was his Blackadder-class cunning plan.

The downside, of course, is that there was no longer anyone who actually did work and said CEO was actually befuddled when the customers all began bailing for the simple reason that there was no longer anyone to answer their questions or configure their accounts or fix their problems or even interact with them on Twitter. There was considerable panic in the management ranks and the poor dears apparently even started trying to Do The Things themselves to save customers only that just made it worse and the bleeding continued. There were apparently lots of frantic meetings where they brainstormed ways to make the customers come back or stick around though none of them involved actually hiring or rehiring the people that had previously made the company go.

They staggered around for a few months before they finally went under. Naturally, for his sins, he became a C-level somewhere else shortly thereafter.

So yes, that wouldn't surprise me at all.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:07 PM on May 4, 2013 [20 favorites]


Graham's Hackers and Painters essay is a classic example of a tortured analogy, showing how someone with expertise in one area can believe himself to be an expert in other areas, but actually is full of shit

Hmmm - it looks pretty interesting to me actually, facture in painting and dynamic coding ? Not very dissimilar.
posted by sgt.serenity at 1:12 PM on May 4, 2013


I too lurk Hacker News as a hater. I have learned a lot of superficial information about new languages, web frameworks, and databases from the technical posts. These are the tools that make it possible to release a polished web app in a few months. The talented programmers who make them usually give them away for free.

Meanwhile the Y Combinator web apps consist of a number of these tools strung together with glue code that any comp sci student could churn out in junior year. Those are the ones getting rich.
posted by scose at 1:12 PM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I definitely think we're in a bubble again but the idea that companies have to be making money during their nascent stages is ridiculous (and anyone who's seen my writing here before knows I'm hardly a knee-jerk capitalist).

This is really pre-basic stuff that people studying finance on the left and right agree with. The economic idea is simple - the company has money they have earned - should they put it into profits (i.e., paying off the stockholders) or should they re-invest in the company? The pure finance answer is simple - they should do whatever has the best rate of return (where the comparison strategy has the investor into something safe like treasuries).

And the economics of being a small or middling company are daunting. When you invest in a company, you're purchasing a lottery ticket, and it only pays off if the company becomes big.

So, in many cases, it's perfectly rational to be losing money all the way as you grow larger and larger. Now, of course, there are many ways to go wrong doing this. The typical error is not managing the change from "massive growth" to "steady state" - you need to start cutting back in your investments before growth starts to level off or you end up with a lot of factories, data centers or shops that are underutilized.

And even more likely is that you simply overestimated what the possible target could be - like the billion-dollar t-shirt store.

But these are fundamental reasons that these ventures go wrong. There's absolutely nothing a priori wrong with companies not making any money for many years while they're experiencing their fastest growth, and a lot of positive features about it as a strategy.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:12 PM on May 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


Bubbles don't only come about because of some mad and unbound hope in a certain sector, but more worringly:
“One of the reasons,” he said, “is because there’s nothing else to invest in. ..."
posted by Jehan at 1:22 PM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


If I make an app that reshuffles the chairs on the deck of the Titanic, do you think they would award me a 100k?

Depends on if you put enough gel in your hair and call everybody "brah-man" and have enough wild, drug fueled sex stories.

Oh wait, that's Wall Street.
posted by discopolo at 1:29 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


These kids are too chickenshit to play at the grown up tables: politics.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:31 PM on May 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


This is really pre-basic stuff that people studying finance on the left and right agree with. The economic idea is simple - the company has money they have earned - should they put it into profits (i.e., paying off the stockholders) or should they re-invest in the company?

These guys aren't doing that. If anything its the opposite. They lose a lot of money - its not "Should we invest internally generated capital or return it to shareholders" its "We've been able to sell another piece of the company for a higher price so we can invest in the business"
posted by JPD at 2:02 PM on May 4, 2013


For the most part these businesses are not like say Amazon where management makes a case that they are investing gross margin dollars from the maturing businesses into the next gen of growth. These guys mostly don't have gross profits yet.
posted by JPD at 2:07 PM on May 4, 2013


I am also a Hacker News lurker, mostly for the interesting tech links (which are becoming fewer and farther between). The site seems to have a lot of smart people, but the comments are so petty and there's no sense of community at all. Every second link is self-promotional. And the modding is absolutely horrible, they edit the titles of threads all the time so you don't know if you've already clicked on something or not, and there is no transparency or consistency to the moderation at all. It's like an anti-MetaFilter, so it's funny that it's the opposite color, orange vs. blue.
posted by oulipian at 2:21 PM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


My favourite Hacker News moment, when I still posted there, was getting into an argument about gender balances at conferences with someone who felt that, because existing imbalances were part of the technology employment landscape when most male geeks entered the field, they had a just expectation that those imbalances would continue to exist, that any change to the status quo that relatively disadvantaged them on the basis of their gender was, analytically, sexist. Thus, the removal of acknowledged privilege was, in itself, sexist against men.

You can't parody them.
posted by fatbird at 2:33 PM on May 4, 2013 [12 favorites]


I found it really interesting that the article chose to focus on three start-ups who not only had a paying-customer business model but actually had a track record of real, and growing, revenues. Only one of three startups (the tool for building mobile sites) was a tech company in any real sense; the others being a customer t-shirt company and a brick-and-mortar based legal self-help concept.

In the case of the last of three ("Wevorce") I was also interested in the implication that you attract legendary Silicon Valley angel investors better by showing them you are building up your retail outlets in flyover land than by showing them the bullpen in SoMa or Santa Clara that you plan to fill with 20-something Stanford- and Cal-grad biz dev managers.

If all of this is reasonably representative of the creative and investor focus in Silicon Valley, that suggests to me a really encouraging dynamism and diversification in the way that investors view the interface between tech and the rest of the economy, and the role that venture capital as a process and resource can play in a much broader concept of entrepreneurship.
posted by MattD at 2:34 PM on May 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


I liked the Times magazine article. The wevorce startup story is very interesting. Her parents were in a divorce when she was five and the attorneys put her on the witness stand and made her tell the court which one she loved more?

Did I get that right? That is a ghastly story but I don't want to invest my money in the pitch. That is like tons of WTF?
posted by bukvich at 2:35 PM on May 4, 2013


ymgve: "A “Kickstarter for T-shirts” that imagines themselves a billion-dollar business? Someone is a bit optimistic.

(Besides, didn't Cafepress already have that area covered?)
"

That's more like Spreadsheet.

But IMO, there SHOULD be some competition for CafePress. That place sucks so much ass. They could really be *something*, and I'd do a lot more with it, if the UI and Storefront templates weren't such shite.
posted by symbioid at 2:49 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hacker News is high comedy. I love the way there is always a new language/framework of the month, making the previous stuff obsolete! Meanwhile, apps that need to scale are still targeting the JVM.
posted by sonic meat machine at 2:51 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bukvich -- it's a terrific pitch. VCs look for "why" and "who" every bit as much as they look for "what." A clever idea is nice, but you have to be able to articulate why the market craves it and why you're the person who can carry it to fruition.

In telling this story she is illustrating the why ("modern divorce is horrible enough that people will pay for good alternatives") in an exceptionally vivid way, and showing in the same exact anecdote that she is someone whose personal history should give her requisite insight and motivation to execute on solutions.
posted by MattD at 2:56 PM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


there is always a new language/framework of the month, making the previous stuff obsolete!

The whole field seems so prone to this delusion. Extreme Programming! Executable UML! Even OOP, which has significantly failed to deliver many of the blessings that it promised. That's no problem, though, because we're going to just do everything in Haskell now!

All of these things have merits, sometimes great ones. But none of them are going to solve all your problems. There's a whole industry based around telling people that they will, though, and selling training and consulting services.
posted by thelonius at 3:01 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wait - I just said that "Executable UML" has great merits. I want a do over.
posted by thelonius at 3:04 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I got hundreds of billion dollar ideas. I'll toss you guys a couple for free, kinda thin the herd.

oneonme.com. Kickstarter for drinks. Buddy does you a favor? Pay into a bar tab he can access via a prepaid cdebit card. Some local bars do this with a blackboard, you can buy a drink for someone and when they come in they see there name and get their drink. This shit is web scale though.

playitagain.com IVR based pandora service, turn your old ass flip phone into an iPod. Carriers are either going to love this or hate it. We sell direct and also push this to carriers.

Whatsgood.com location aware service finds bars, happy hour and drink specials near you. Twist, SMS based so it works with your old ass Nokia. Can also have it robocall you if you are driving. Later expand to other shit like sales. Whenever I visit my parents I always have to look stuff up on my smartphone because nobody else has one. Local business who want to be listed pay.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:07 PM on May 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


To investors looking at mountains of business plans there really are no good or bad ideas only ones that are fundable or not fundable. The decision about what is fundable comes down to what it costs to get in vs what payoff is and the risk profile. If you knew how to make Facebook, you'd make it. If you had a billion dollar fund Facebook and CueCat might look the same at the early stage. I mean you just don't know you have nerds with a dream; it isn't your dream.
posted by humanfont at 3:35 PM on May 4, 2013


San Francisco is the city that was founded to sell shovels to miners hoping to strike it rich.

100+ years later, nothing has changed.
--Cool Papa Bell

The whole 'sell shovels to miners' started with Sam Brannan, the gold rush's first millionaire, who...sold shovels to gold miners.


Some people here are critical of VCs, but in the article, Michelle Crosby tried her local banks first and they wouldn't even give her $10K. And the VCs gave her $100K. So maybe there are problems with VCs, but it sounds like there are even worse problems with local banks.
posted by eye of newt at 3:39 PM on May 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


Too late Ad hominem: oneonme.com has already been done: tweet-a-beer.com.
posted by monotreme at 3:42 PM on May 4, 2013


I'll add that I hope that crowdsourcing campaings like Kickstarter can fill the role of VCs and local banks. I look forward to the disruption.
posted by eye of newt at 3:46 PM on May 4, 2013


So maybe there are problems with VCs, but it sounds like there are even worse problems with local banks.

This is a bad comparison because banks generally aren't in the business of making loans for speculative ventures. You can't point to the banks as somehow failing Crosby here.
posted by fatbird at 3:54 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ghostride The Whip, that story could have come straight out of Putt's Law.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 3:58 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, banks used to be in the business of making loans for speculative ventures (considering that any new business is a speculative venture). Now, it seems, they are more interested in playing games with money. So the VCs have the business for themselves and as a result Silicon Valley grows like crazy.

After the businesses get really big, then the banks come in to work their money magic.
posted by eye of newt at 3:59 PM on May 4, 2013


Yea, while small business loans do exist, the underwriting is much easier on an existing small business with historical revenues and a repeat customer base.

I'd like proof that your average savings and loan "used to be in the business of making loans for speculative ventures," because I don't recall that era.
posted by pwnguin at 4:00 PM on May 4, 2013


I hope that crowdsourcing campaigns like Kickstarter can fill the role of VCs and local banks.

Totally different niches! Local banks want to give money to sure bets, so they can get it back with interest. VC’s want to give money to long shots, so they can get it back hundreds of times over for the tiny percentage that succeed. Kickstarter backers want to give money to artistic projects, so they can feel the warm & fuzzies of supporting the otherwise-unsupportable and maybe getting a gift in return.
posted by migurski at 4:02 PM on May 4, 2013


then we’re so deeply screwed that we all should be getting bags of silver and shotguns.

Imagine a world where Vampires and Werewolves come along every few years. You can either pick that intruder off with double 0 Jean Chastel shells, or not. If you pick it off, it’s market price for silver, which varies. But if you don’t pick it off, you’re out of the game.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:08 PM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


The most ridiculous HN post I've ever seen was Show HN: An anonymous P2P social network for Android, written in Clojure. I saw it soon after having discovered a joke Twitter HN feed.

I'm not sure what's real any more.
posted by A dead Quaker at 4:17 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd like proof that your average savings and loan "used to be in the business of making loans for speculative ventures," because I don't recall that era.--pwnguin

Well that is how Amadeo Giannini's Bank of Italy (later to become Bank of America) ran his business.

But you have a point: VCs assume that up to 90% of their investments will go under, but that they'll get rich off of the 10% that make it.

Banks, on the other hand, get cold feet when a loan goes under, starting with the oldest bank in the world Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena:

The bank also was credited with maintaining a prudent, and generally risk-averse, loan portfolio--a policy adopted in part because of the bank's losses from participating in the funding of Christopher Columbus's expedition in 1492.
posted by eye of newt at 4:22 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I hope that crowdsourcing campaigns like Kickstarter can fill the role of VCs and local banks.

Totally different niches! Local banks want to give money to sure bets, so they can get it back with interest. VC’s want to give money to long shots, so they can get it back hundreds of times over for the tiny percentage that succeed. Kickstarter backers want to give money to artistic projects, so they can feel the warm & fuzzies of supporting the otherwise-unsupportable and maybe getting a gift in return.
--migurski

It is this type of compartmentalizing that goes on everywhere that allows Silicon Valley to continue to rule the entrepreneurial world.
posted by eye of newt at 4:33 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


If a bank had to carry appropriate capital to fund speculative businesses the loan costs would look like a sub prime credit card - 30%+

And then you would complaining it was usery.
posted by JPD at 4:46 PM on May 4, 2013


Actually let me take that back. Like 100% a month.
posted by JPD at 4:59 PM on May 4, 2013


I mean you understand the simple mechanics of why a bank needs its money back and a VC fund does not.

Early banks basically were VC funds. But only rich people who could afford to lose all their money in the banks were in the bank. Look at etymology of the word.
posted by JPD at 5:14 PM on May 4, 2013


Kickstarter can never make a single red cent of profit, and still make its investors insanely wealthy by creating viable businisses they can support with VC or by funding ecosystem startups based on or around Kickstarter successes. Look at it as a pre-angel investor - you get your research done for free by crowdsourcing, and you get to judge how well the operation is run by looking at whether and how they delivered. If I wrre running a VC, I'd be tossing all sorts of money at them, too... it's a service worth paying big for.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:21 PM on May 4, 2013


The most ridiculous HN post I've ever seen was Show HN: An anonymous P2P social network for Android, written in Clojure. I saw it soon after having discovered a joke Twitter

We discussed the very same thing here on metafilter :) Based on distributed hash tables and public key encryption. Ours was way more buzzword compliant. Not surprised to see someone did it.

Of course ours specified clients for desktops to act as superpeers.

Too late Ad hominem: oneonme.com has already been done: tweet-a-beer.com.

Nice, proves there is a market. Ima disrupt that shit.
posted by Ad hominem at 5:27 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh here is another. I was thinking of how to market oneonme.com. You know those coffee sleeves? Make them for pint glasses.

Here is the kicker, take them one step further, brand them with beer logos so some dude carrying 5 pints can tell them apart when he gets to the table. Add in a cutsie yet cheap way for the drinker to mark them in some way so 10 people sitting at a table don't mix their beers up, and put an advertisement. People will leave an ad on their pint glass all night.
posted by Ad hominem at 5:37 PM on May 4, 2013


So far, Kickstarter has kept themselves out of VC-like patterns. I was pleasantly surprised by their Not A Store announcement, because it defended the core KS arts focus from the faster-moving, flashier product design pitches like Pebble, Ouya or the metal coffee bean.

Ad Hominem: little pint glass drink umbrellas, for beer. To go with the biscuit meatspoon for beer.
posted by migurski at 5:41 PM on May 4, 2013


playitagain.com IVR based pandora service, turn your old ass flip phone into an iPod.

Sorry again, Ad hominem – a friend and I built this in 2006 on Asterisk with about $1.5 million of VC money, called it Foneshow, and wound the company down once the iPhone came along and everyone who wanted mobile content delivery got smartphones.
posted by nicwolff at 5:43 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I just checked, and the URLs seem pretty standard, and don't look like they're embedding a continuation ID or anything.

The "More" link at the foot of every story-list page except the home page looks like

https://news.ycombinator.com/x?fnid=P2741aBQQgzkFYsaBYwFrY

which includes the ID of a suspended Arc function whose context is memory-resident on the news.ycombinator.com server waiting to deliver the next page of results. Try that link now, it's fun! (Note: not actually fun.)
posted by nicwolff at 5:59 PM on May 4, 2013


I don't understand all the HN hate here. I've been reading for about a year now and most of what I've seen is interesting projects, technical banter, and articles on new tech. (And I don't think I've seen anyone say that the technology du jour makes all the old stuff obsolete -- that seems to be more of the domain of bloggers and pundits.) Am I missing some dark undercurrent to the site or something?
posted by archagon at 6:07 PM on May 4, 2013


(I mean, I'm not a fan of Silicon Valley VC culture either, but that's not really what 90% of the articles posted to HN are even about.)
posted by archagon at 6:14 PM on May 4, 2013


I don't really get the HN hate either. Sure some of the stuff is kinda goofy, it is full of blog posts like ”private methods are fucking stupid and so are you if you use them, oh and OOP is dumb too" where some kid complains that he created a private method once then had to make it public so the dude in the cube next to him could use it. I don't see a lot of "kickstsrter for hyper local curated crowd sourced iOS app in erlang is going to change history" type stuff, people are pretty skeptical there.

Sorry again, Ad hominem – a friend and I built this in 2006 on Asterisk with about $1.5 million of VC money, called it Foneshow, and wound the company down once the iPhone came along and everyone who wanted mobile content delivery got smartphones.

Wow that's cool.

What about developing countries.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:17 PM on May 4, 2013


What about developing countries.

Excellent thought which we had as well, and I still wish we'd spent our time and money building the carrier and SMS vendor* relationships we would have needed to roll out in India first; but by the time we accepted that the US market was waning our investors didn't have interest in trying again.

Which is actually (finally!) relevant to this post: when you take VC money, you lose control of your board, and probably can't make the drastic quick moves that are sometimes a startup's salvation. Incubators that take less ownership (the one I've been around is TechStars) leave the founders a lot more flexibility.

* SMS because we texted each user a new phone number for each piece of audio content as we got it from one of their selected RSS feeds, then cross-referenced their caller ID with the number they were calling to play that show with no IVR touchtone navigation needed – but used the IVR to afford pause, skip, jump back, share, &c. The investors own that patent now...
posted by nicwolff at 7:04 PM on May 4, 2013


"I think the problem is that venture investors, themselves, need to be disrupted."

AngelList is doing just that.
posted by gen at 8:24 PM on May 4, 2013


I don't get the Teespring thing. They already have $750K/month in revenue and are growing quickly, and they choose to spend their time pitching to VCs? And for only $1.3 million? Seems to me they probably could either grow organically or secure some sort of loan if they need a bridge. $1.3 million from multiple investors seems like to much hassle for the money; why bother diluting the ownership? If I was an investor, I would wonder how badly their business is run that they feel the need to spend months prepping to pitch to me for such little money. Wrong priorities, seems to me.
posted by roquetuen at 9:52 PM on May 4, 2013


I don't get the Teespring thing. They already have $750K/month in revenue and are growing quickly, and they choose to spend their time pitching to VCs?

Unlike most web companies, where the business model is selling some sort of infinitely reproducible pile of ones and zeroes, these guys actually have to put ink on fabric and mail it. It looks like a one-colour design on the cheapest shirt available is $7.80, which seems roughly in line with other custom shirt suppliers. My (uninformed) guess is that profit margins are low; like 10% low. So the $750K revenue is suddenly $500K on blank shirts and $150K on printing and $25K on warehouse space and only $75K back to the founders, where other companies turn $750K revenue into $740K to the founders and a $10K hosting bill.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:36 PM on May 4, 2013


Here's some more HN satire to go along with the above-linked "hacker news onion" twitter account - Hacker News Tips.
posted by thedaniel at 12:02 AM on May 5, 2013


AngelList is doing just that.

No, AngelList is to VC as Myspace was to bands in the end - necessary "social proof" to show to the real movers and shakers. "We have 10,000 friends on Myspace, so you should definitely book/manage/sign us" == "Look at our solid AngelList testimonials, we're clearly legit and you should fund us".
posted by thedaniel at 12:06 AM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Graham's Hackers and Painters essay is a classic example of a tortured analogy, showing how someone with expertise in one area can believe himself to be an expert in other areas, but actually is full of shit.

I'm confused about sort of qualifications you think Paul Graham lacks to write about painting?
posted by lambdaphage at 12:07 AM on May 5, 2013


the thinking is less about these startups being able to generate that kind of revenue than it is about what kind of financial damage the start up can do to the big guy if left alone

This is indeed the crux of the matter - big companies hate competition and innovation and their first instinct is always to stop it with whatever tools are to hand.
posted by colie at 3:21 AM on May 5, 2013


I don't understand all the HN hate here.

I don't hate and appreciate some of the posts and comments, but it's certainly a hive of libertarian villainy.
posted by panaceanot at 4:45 AM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


The thing about Hacker News is that it was originally called Startup News. It was a place for YCombinator kids & wannabes to pass around Paul Graham essays and talk about how awesome and disruptive whatever they're building is.

The name changed, but the content didn't.

It doesn't help that the mods have an agenda (promoting YCombinator and YC-funded startups.)
posted by cdward at 8:23 AM on May 5, 2013


a hive of libertarian villainy

Not libertarian villainy per se. It's a hive of the kind of 20something middle class male "don't tread on me, I'm gonna be a superhero, why can't you be?" optimism that sends them in droves to buy San Francisco shovels, looking for their millions that are their just reward for changing the world with the power of code. Along the way they'll make a username with "galt" somewhere in it, and argue at length about how poor people are that way because they deserve it, and the solution to sexism is for people to just stop being sexist.

In fairness, HN is also a good place for the burned out startup junkies who are learning that they were suckered by the system early on, and that things like reasonable hours and alternative activities are wonderful things.
posted by fatbird at 8:39 AM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm confused about sort of qualifications you think Paul Graham lacks to write about painting?

Look at his painting. He says he will only put that one painting online because his paintings suck. That painting sucks too. He says the painting on this book cover is his too. It sucks. These aren't paintings, they're studies. Boring, academic studies of draperies and shadows. Graham has reduced art to a technical formula and stripped it of all feeling and emotion. Graham demonstrates his greatest personal flaw: he has no soul. I mean that in the most literal sense, he has eliminated any spiritual qualities his mortal existence might have once had.

Graham does not understand fine art. Certainly this disqualifies him from making analogies between fine art and programming.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:45 AM on May 5, 2013


If your criticism of Graham is that he is not an interesting painter, it's a criticism universally acknowledged, not least by Graham himself. (I remain puzzled by your diagnosis-by-painting that Graham's life is literally not worth living, but hey.)

I'm still searching, though, for a point Graham makes in that essay which would require his being a veritable old master, rather than someone who has studied art history and tried to put some oil on the canvas. Are you able to locate an argument of Graham's that relies on his personal testimony about the creation of Great Works?

For that matter, what if Graham were a brilliant painter? Do you think his remarks about art would have been any more helpful? Although I am what is derided 'round these parts as a "STEM-centric technocrat", I have a lot of friends in the art world and in my previous life as a philosophy student I would often try to ask them about their art: what was it about? what were they doing when they were "doing art", and why? (NB: These weren't hostile questions; I sincerely thought something interesting was going on and wanted to understand it.) What struck me most about these conversations was the fact that none of the responses made any sense to me; in fact, they seemed more like post-hoc confabulations. (NB: This is not a criticism of artists; I just find it most parsimonious to conclude that my friends might have had limited conscious access to the machinery of the creative process.)

Interestingly, Plato came to the same conclusion in the Ion where Socrates asks the eponymous rhapsode how he does what he does so well, and finds out that he really has no idea! In a memorable line, Socrates describes performing rhapsodes as "ενθεοι οντες και κατεχομενοι" [filled-with-a-god and thoroughly-possessed]. Obviously I don't credit divine madness as a theory of aesthetic performance, but the fact that great artists are not exactly lucid expositors of their own abilities is well-attested in the historical record.

If you want to understand what painting is about, are you better off with the cryptic aphorisms of the master whose command of the art is effortless and largely subconscious, or the notes of someone who has had to work on it?
posted by lambdaphage at 1:56 PM on May 5, 2013


Y Combinator? Excellent! I'll just leave this nsfw here:

Salò, or the Funding Round
posted by meehawl at 3:40 PM on May 5, 2013


On one hand, the projected valuations are nutty and the way they are being coached makes it appear like a beauty contest, with Simon Cowell in the judge's panel.

That said... they are being coached that way for a reason. It's all about persuading money-hungry people that you have the potential to be that one in a hundred that becomes worth a helluva lot. And the way they are being coached will help them, not only as far as how they sell themselves, but also as far as making it pretty clear what the expectations are at that particular game.

The idea that this is gambling or a sport kind of misses the obvious. The investors might be gambling, but their risk is spread amongst numerous different companies, some of which will be big winners, and most of whom will be losers.

Is it overpriced? Sure. But it's still generally profitable, in amongst a world full of crap investments. And the thing about these startups? They get a *HUGE* competitive advantage. For every Wevorce that moves to the Silicon Valley and searches for VC money, there are numerous other dotcom startups that start up in someone's garage in Des Moines, try growing locally and organically, small and profitable, possibly with a better initial website... but find themselves marginalized by a company with VC funding that's able to eat several years of massively negative earnings, expanding everywhere all at once, with ads and big buzz at SXSW and articles with all the right papers and magazines.

But the thing is, there are people who gamble, but who have the odds stacked on their side. (i.e. the House.) And in the case of dotcoms, it's hard not to see the VCs and the financial institutions that work on companies going public as the House, as far as this game is concerned. They've got that sweet, sweet pre-IPO stock to look forward to, or, even better, the company will be flipped... a quick ROI.

Frankly, as someone who has lived around here a long time, I actually find it somewhat encouraging that these companies are being developed not just with the intent to be flipped, which was a serious problem with pre-Dotcom bubble companies. Instead, most of the goal seems to be about scaling a hopefully successful business model out ASAP, and then hopefully finding that it's a moneymaker. It's not all a question of wishing for a Deus ex Machina, which is a nice change.

The thing about VC-backed dotcoms is that the VCs fully expect most to fail... while the others will have a *HUGE* competitive advantage over other companies for becoming the dominant player in their niche. And, since about half of VC money flows into the Silicon Valley, in real terms, that likely means better funding for such businesses here than anywhere else, and that they'll probably have the dominant market player about 60-70% of the time.

Yes, a lot of VC-backed businesses fail here. Then again, it's also why this area has tons of corporate HQs of successful, well-known businesses. It's why you'll find that unemployment in the mid-peninsula is about 5.7%, which, if this area was a state, would put it about 14th out of 50, about 7/10ths of a percent better than Texas as a whole... just a tad higher than in Austin, but significantly better than Dallas. It's also why we've got cities like Los Altos and Saratoga, which are both at 3.7 percent unemployment. The well-off are staying well-off... and staying employed.

It's also why many places in the Silicon Valley have seen unemployment drop nearly two percent in the last year. Jobs are coming back, and many of them are coming back at the corporate HQs first. They may not pay as well as they once did, but the one things that VC-backed companies do is increase the level of competition for labor, which will start to increase salaries in the area -- and presumably real estate prices -- soon enough.

It's an imperfect, rigged game... but thankfully, it's primarily our game.
posted by markkraft at 6:02 PM on May 5, 2013


Oh yeah, HT, I agree that t-shirt printing is pretty low margin so it isn't surprising that there might be a cashflow issue. But smart growth can overcome that. Just seems to me that's another reason why not to dilute the ownership, especially with itchy VCs who are scrounging for ultra high returns.
posted by roquetuen at 7:25 PM on May 5, 2013


But it's still generally profitable, in amongst a world full of crap investments.

the aggregate returns to VC investing are about the worst around for any asset class.
posted by JPD at 5:03 AM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


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