Facebook is here to stay

An interesting thing about being plugged into the startup world is the frequency with which one sees “new ideas”. Many of them, alas, are just old ideas being rebranded or old ideas that the person proposing them is not aware of.

Facebook’s widely documented travails, with legislators inquiring into Facebook’s role in the 2016 US Presidential elections – and possibly more – on both sides of the Atlantic, mean there is once again a swell of entrepreneurs clamouring to make a “new Facebook”. Within just the last week, one tweeted he wanted to make a privacy-first, open source Facebook. Another in a closed founders’ group described a portfolio company, which is a combination of “Facebook and Gmail.. no spying, no ads, secure social platform, where you own the content and the network .. no fake users, ever”.

Which reminded me of another interesting thing about being an old hand on the web: we know what hasn’t worked, exactly why it didn’t work, and all that it may take to make it work.

Anyone remember Diaspora? It was founded on three principles: decentralisation, freedom, and privacy. But as social networks go, how many people do you know who use Diaspora? I admit I know none.

Then there was ‘Ello, which I am somehow still on, though yet to figure out how it adds any value to my life. May be I am in the minority. There are and have been others such as Path (uh!), Google+, MySpace, and Peach (ok, I admit ignorance).

Successful ones include Whatsapp, which is embroiled in its own version of “fake news” controversy (link may require registration) in the world’s largest democracy. Others are Slack, with its purpose built groups, and Quora, the knowledge community with over a 100 million users.

But none has yet matched Facebook’s near-total control of the conversations among the global user base of connected, mobile, literate people.

An early adopter, I was on SixDegrees.com somewhere around 1997. Many people discussing these networks have not heard about it though a Wikipedia page exists, as it should, for the super early mover in the social networking space. My observations through the years say that we all want privacy, no-ads, control over who sees our content, no fake names or bots, anonymity when we want to overshare or share stuff we should not be sharing, ability to join or leave groups, ability to engage safely, and the freedom to take our data when we leave. However few of us really know what it takes to build something like that. Fewer still know what it takes of us to ensure all of that on the platforms we use.

Let’s take the privacy and control pitch. Facebook has excellent, granular privacy controls. I should know. I operate my Facebook like a walled garden. To work it, however, you have to be alert to how your life is organised, make appropriate lists, and then be diligent about controlling who sees what out of your shared material. As I have written elsewhere, user motivation to figure out your product is a huge – and unhelpful – design assumption. The product and the UI need to be simple to use and easy to figure out.

Google+ made much noise about making privacy and control simpler and easier but Google really did not succeed at converting a sizeable chunk of its Gmail user base into Google+ users. This highlights the importance of switching costs and network effects in building a successful social network.

Then there is that bugbear of fake names, bots, and anonymity. Quora is by far and away my favourite community since 2010. It started off well. With a “real names” policy. That is how so many of us participate and write there with our real identities. Monitoring and policing real identities is a job and a half. There is a reporting feature, which active users, Top Writers, former moderators, and topic gnomes use heavily. It is difficult for users to keep on reporting if they keep seeing the reported users come back with changed names, or bots and sock puppets returning with a vengeance to vandalise content. It reduces the SNR on the website and can damage the culture of the community rapidly. It takes lots of people. Or machines. To keep bots, fake names, and anonymous usage under control. Oh, and real names mean nothing. On LinkedIn, people use real names and their employer names and yet there is open and inbox harassment, racist remarks, trashy comments on people’s posts.

Which brings me to the problem of “using the web while <insert minority type here>”. Did I say Quora is my favourite community on the web? But I am asocial as hell there. Others cannot comment on my content, nor can they message me. How did that come about? I was enticed to Quora by the purpose of sharing information and learning. At one point, there was a massive growth through influx of users, who did not understand or care about community policies, brought their own cultural artifacts and assumptions, and had a considerable impact on the experience in the community. I was quick and preemptive in battening down the hatches but others continue to suffer – Muslims, Jews, black people both Afro-Caribbean and African American, LGBTQIA persons, and women in general. This is a problem that no social network has licked yet though noises are often made in this regard.

In 2015, Facebook spent a reported $2.5Bn on capex including data centres and other infrastructure. LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft which has almost $90Bn in cash, Whatsapp is owned by deep-pocketed Facebook, Quora is a unicorn valuated at around $1.8Bn. The point is that even if the perfect product is created, and somehow users can be enticed to switch in huge numbers, creating and running a social network at scale is expensive business. One must not forget that users are used to “free”, so promises such as “no ads”, no data mining etc will lead to inevitable questions about the monetisation model.

All this can be summarised as “barriers to entry” in the social networking space.

And yet, every other day, there is an aspiration to create a new social network.

Back to Facebook then. With over 1 Bn users, Facebook is no longer a “social network”. Especially if information — fake or otherwise, and I am including Whatsapp’s challenges in this — is the stock-in-trade, Facebook fits the classical definition of “utilities” and, at the moment, it is also a natural monopoly. It is not a public utility. If, however, its externalities are anything to go by, including its impact on democracy and the information asymmetry created by its machine learning algorithms, it needs to be regulated. Those arguments have been made repeatedly over the last few years. One of my favourite commentators, danah boyd, wrote about it in 2010.

So how might Facebook be regulated? And will that reduce or increase the “barriers to entry” for new networks?

One of the best models of utilities regulation is the British one where regulation is seen as a second choice to a well functioning market. It focuses on consumer choice, competition, and forward-looking incentive regulation. Forward-looking what?

There lies the rub. None of us is paying for using Facebook. In fact, if pricing were introduced at this point, there will be an almighty uproar because, to many, it is like an “essential product” now.

If no consumer is paying to use Facebook, is it really a “market”?

As definitions go, we are in uncharted waters.

More importantly, how will regulating ensure or improve consumer choice or competition?

It is structural barriers, and consumer behaviour challenges, not Facebook, that prevent alternative social networks from achieving the same roaring success it has achieved.

In other words, unless regulators break Facebook up perhaps into consumer and business networks or force Facebook to shut down, or Facebook boldly starts charging fees, eroding its user base and reducing its own power, or an earth shattering paradigm emerges in economics and business regulation, Facebook is here to stay.

It may be forced to become more transparent, and build better governance like other listed entities. But it is here to stay.

 

“I failed. Now what?”

This article is the twenty-first, and the penultimate, in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on August the 21st, 2017.

“I failed. Now what?” Whenever I hear these words, the first thing I do is remind the founder: People don’t fail or succeed, ventures do.

A “failed” venture can mean various things e.g. the venture fails to reach key milestones on a projected timeline, the venture runs out of money before raising money, founders fall out and some or more want to call it quits, the venture is going bankrupt, the venture needs to be wound down.

In some of these scenarios, there are ways to “exit” a failing venture depending on the founders and the agreement between them. Those of you, who have been regular readers of this column, will remember I advise often that founders engage and pay competent lawyers.

If some or more of the founders are leaving, a robust shareholding rights agreement would have outlined in advance what happens to the shares of those founders who are leaving, whether they can retain them or sell them, and the restrictions on selling them including who has the right of first refusal. If such a framework is not in place, the process of negotiation can be long drawn and worsen the pain of all concerned.

If the venture’s prospects are unclear and if the venture has some assets including intangibles such as a brand, trademarks, designs or other intellectual property, one could look for a buyer for those assets. If the business has run out of cash or is barely surviving, this is unlikely to be a good option especially since the process is costly and potentially long drawn.

If all else fails, winding down the company is always an option. It is better to have gone into battle and gotten scarred then to have sat on the sidelines, worse, on the fence, and never have experienced the horrors and lessons of war. The issues of ownership of intangible assets will still need a resolution either between the founders or otherwise.

No matter what route is taken, founders are bound to feel the pain. Failed ventures hurt. And then they hurt again. But many founders go on to build other ventures after a failure. Some, who may still be hurting, are driven by just trying to prove to themselves that they can do more, achieve more. A few go on to learn lessons and build big successes. Yet others choose other career paths altogether.

To that extent, failed ventures are useful things. They provide the opportunity for a lot more reflection and embody a lot more learning for founders than successful ventures do. In my experience and observation, learning from failure is a form of success on which further success — and indeed new kinds of failures — can be built.

Before embarking on a new venture, it helps to take some time to review the lessons from the experience of failure. I also advise — and practise myself — an exercise in gratitude. Yes, as a founder of a now-failed venture, you may have a broken heart, but you still have your smarts, your body, your ability to work hard, and now, some freshly baked wisdom. Taking a pause to reflect on what one has versus what one has lost reframes the experience and helps the process of moving on. Taking a short break, if one can afford it, also helps.

It helps to remember that apparent successes can also essentially be failures. It was after a massive victory in a war, in which an unspecified number of men were killed, that Ashoka realised his Pyrrhic victory was not worth it. He won the war but the cost was massive, to humanity, to the cause of political unity. His ‘success’ wasn’t a success after all. He took note of the “transaction cost” and did not deem it a success after the fact. Following this realisation, he sought and turned to Buddhism. That decision meaningfully altered the course of South Asian history.

Founder conflict: disagreement on fund raising

This article is the nineteenth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on July the 12th, 2017.

Is there such a thing as disagreement among founders on fund raising? Isn’t external fund raising seen as some kind of marker of validation for startups, one that sets them on the growth path like a rocket ship?

Yes, I know you are incredulous.

But it happens.

Founders can and do disagree on the idea of external fund raising, on the timing, on terms, on some combination of these.

First, the idea of external capital. In his research, Stanford’s Professor Noam Wasserman has found that most founders give up management control long before their companies have an IPO. The process of letting go of control to maximise financial gain, he found, is not easy. He asks: do you want to be “rich” (less control but maximum financial gain) or do you want to be “king” (all control but less than potential financial gain)? These two aims are often at odds with each other. It is important to understand and agree on the vision for the startup, but also on how each founder visualises the path to get there.

Can doing due diligence before agreeing to be cofounders help us with the dilemma in the future? May be.

How can you assess whether you are talking to a “rich” or a “king” type potential cofounder? Look at their past decisions! Even though past behaviour may not be a guarantee of future decisions or performance. How did they choose investors, employees, team mates? What kind of relationships have they built and with what kind of people? Did they make different decisions when they were in control versus when they were given an order?

Doing all this helps, but the revealed preference when push comes to shove may be quite different. That is where conflicts arise, and as conflicts go, this one is pretty fundamental to the direction a startup will take. The founder who wants to be “king” may not want external funding, which means the startup may have to rely on organic, often slower, growth. The founder who wants to be “rich” would want to get on with the job of raising capital, and will have to be the one to recognise signals that warn him or her of the challenges ahead.

Second, some founders may disagree on when to raise funds. Fund raising can take anywhere from 6 months to a year. Founders, who disagree on timing, may also not recognise that fund raising takes time and that the company may run out of money before they succeed at raising. This can be a challenge to the existence of the business. Founders need to start discussing and working on the fund raising much earlier than they think they will want the money.

Third, some founders may disagree on terms on which to accept money. Since no investor worth taking money from will fund an unincorporated company, this is something founders can and should have addressed at the time of forming the company.

The question of resolving disagreements amongst founders would have been addressed in a good shareholder rights agreement. Including the scenario, where there is an impasse or a deadlock on a material action such as fund raising. Remember how I have harped through this column series on about paying a competent lawyer? This is another reason why. A good lawyer would have had experience of conflict and conflict resolution between founders, and should have advised you on its probability.

If there is no shareholder rights agreement in place, then like much else, it is a matter of negotiation. That means the outcome cannot be predicted.

Finally, what if you come to the fund raise, and one of the founders wants out? Should the other founders try to talk him or her into staying, or should they let him or her go? This can be tricky. The founder, who wants out, may be tired, fed up, no longer interested. The feelings can be fleeting or they may have made up their mind. Find out which it is. Make a call on whether it is a distraction you can afford right now. Whatever it is, your shareholding rights agreement should have addressed this scenario. When someone wants to go, let them go. As long as the rest of you are on the same page, you have a finite chance of making something of your startup and your vision.

Founder Conflict: Key Asset Ownership

This article is the seventeenth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on June the 7th, 2017.

In this and the next couple of columns, I shall write about founder conflicts commonly encountered but not often easily resolved.

Some are foreseeable e.g. what happens to the equity of a co-founder who ups and leaves, and hence addressable, e.g. in the case of this example, through a shareholding rights agreement for which you ideally paid a lawyer, who helped you understand what you were agreeing to.

Some arise from human beings being human beings, ranging from unpredictable and flaky, to stubborn and demanding. These conflicts are harder to resolve because they require us to think creatively, to minimise immediate and future damage to the startup, and to stay focused despite all provocation.

One of the most common disagreements arises from the ownership of things that founders may bring to the potluck called the startup, and that really are essential business assets. The social media real estate is sometimes acquired before the company has been formed. Getting handles on platforms aside, this may mean one of the founders, who may not yet legally be in a contract with other founders, pays for the domain name or names. In the hubbub of early days, the domain name ownership transfer never happens and the founder, who paid for it, continues to own the domain name.

Should he? The short answer to that question is: No.

The domain name is an intangible asset of the business, among other IP. The renewal incurs a recurrent cost. If the person makes the expense out of his pocket, he can solidify his claim on the domain name. If the company reimburses him this expense, it is further unclear why he continues to hold on to the domain. This creates a fog for accounting and governance purposes.

As the business grows, in revenue and in value, the domain name will also grow in value. But hey, if you didn’t effect a clear transfer of ownership, it doesn’t belong to the company. How will it be accounted for in the books? At any rate the person owning the domain can hold you to ransom and play hardball at any time he likes. This is unlikely to end well.

Should the business wish to file a trademark on the name, the person holding the domain may be in violation of the trademark, assuming he lets you file trademark in the first place and doesn’t stake a claim. See comment about hardball above.

Should you attempt to raise growth capital at some stage, this will come up and raise a red flag as to the vigilance of the directors and founders. See comment about hardball again.

Transferring ownership is the ideal scenario. But let’s imagine, other founders agree that he can continue to own the domain.

The company may then want to consider signing an agreement with him to let the business use the domain name. Such a deal will have an agreed monetary consideration and will hopefully be for a clear but renewable term. Your shareholding rights agreement should allow for such a deal, and as cofounders, you should consider the governance and risk impact of such a deal on the future developments in the business. If you don’t, your investors, if vigilant, will point out what a bad idea laxity on this account has been!

While this sort of a deal remains a possibility, you may want to consider negotiating a one-time offer to buy the domain off him instead. If there is resistance, I would ask you to consider the possibility that the domain name ownership issue is just an indicator of other undesirable issues that may arise in the future.

As cofounders, you can apply this test of ownership to any other assets essential to the business that one of the cofounders brings to the table. It is worthwhile taking stock of “who brought what” at the time of forming the company and start with a clean slate where all assets are placed on the company’s books, with adequate compensation made as agreed.

How to be a valuable non-tech co-founder

This article is the thirteenth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on April the 3rd, 2017.

The excessive media focus on techies as startup founders often makes non-techies doubt their ability to found and build a startup and create value. Many non-tech persons I meet believe that they won’t get investment without a tech co-founder whom they then spend considerable time trying to find. Many techie founders on the other hand seem to not think of finding non-tech co-founders with the same keenness. Both approaches need a rethink.

For starters, both the tech and non-tech founders have to stop using the term “non-tech”. The term suggests the primacy of tech skills which, while not inaccurate, does not highlight its limitations i.e. unless the technology is solving a problem and can create a product or service for which someone will pay, there is no business there. “Non-tech” in other words is the business person in a startup team.

A well-known story where a “non-tech” leader changed the fortunes of a “tech” company is of Mark Zuckerberg, the tech founder of Facebook, bringing Sheryl Sandberg on board as the Chief Operating Officer. At the time, Facebook was privately owned, valued at $15 billion, making nearly $56 million annual loss. Within eight years, under Sandberg’s leadership, Facebook grew its revenue more than 65x, made nearly $3.7 billion profit, did a successful IPO and, at $320 billion, now ranks as the fourth-most valuable tech company in the world.

So, how to be a valuable business co-founder?

Bring an understanding of the target customers. Talk to as many as you can. Listen with an open mind. Don’t look for patterns too early. Don’t challenge their reported lived experience even if it clashes with research data. Just listen, with attention.

But what if you are building is something truly path-breaking such as Henry Ford’s car? Ford famously said if asked for what they want, customers would have asked for faster horses! Even in such a case, you will still need to listen, evangelise, recruit champions, and build an organisation to reap the rewards for the startup. That was the magic Sheryl Sandberg brought with her operational nous to growing Facebook!

In an early stage startup, the business co-founder would translate the understanding of the customer to the tech team building the product. Being the champion of the customer and the community through the development process is not easy and will require great empathy with the tech team and the development process as well. At the same time, it is important to emphasise how some tech decisions should not be made before the business issues are resolved. A startup I advised learnt to its considerable cost that it is wise to get the payment gateway sorted before signing up to the customisation of a shopping cart and e-commerce platform. This folly of putting the cart before the horse was also quite expensive.

Test your product, service or app yourself first, and do so remembering the customer feedback you collected. Go further and involve some of your strongest critics in that testing. Enable iterations with an eye on the customer’s concerns, balancing the customer journey with technological feasibility. In a startup I was involved in, the business co-founder wanted the website to be designed to be accessible even on low bandwidth as many consumers were likely to be. Her concerns were overlooked to such an extent by the tech co-founder that the end result was an unusable website, the death knell for the e-commerce-only venture.

Examine all the processes, interfaces, “touch points” where your customer and community interact with your business. Ask if you are treating them well – addressing their concerns, reducing friction in how they can pay for something or raise complaints or indeed give feedback to the business.

In another startup, customers wanted the ability to consult a human being on the phone or chat before completing a purchase. The lack of such a possibility was frustrating customers and ending up in no sales being made. Neither the tech nor the business co-founder had paid attention to that feedback from the customer testing phase, as they were both used to eschewing human contact in favour of online experiences while shopping.

Examine the processes and organisation design for whether they are fit for purpose, efficient, and scalable. Does your business have seasonal cyclicality? Will you need more staff to ship thus increasing costs in your high season? How will you process returns if all your staff is dedicated to shipping faster and more? These questions are often not thought of in advance, as I saw in case of a fashion startup, whose success exceeded their expectations.