Four Steps to the Epiphany: the Moby Dick of start-up books

Image: Front Cover; Source: Amazon

If your experience of Moby Dick was that you were constantly aware that you were reading one of the best books of all time that was opening your mind to new ideas if only you could keep your eyes open, you understand.  Four Steps to the Epiphany is the great white whale of start-up books for a reason.  Although it is not nearly as easy to read as his disciple Eric Ries’s more famous book, The Lean Start-up, it is much more systematic.  This books has some profound insights about understanding why some start-ups can do it one way and others need to do it completely opposite.

Instead of abstracting and generalizing the insights, Blank focuses on the issues of managing under extreme uncertainty in their native context.  He tackles every aspect of the non-engineering side of the business.  Most of the book is about how to systematically eliminate the market risk for your product, this will be somewhat familiar to you if you’ve read the Lean Start-up.  However, seeing the original idea and seeing it laid out in full detail, in the context it originally sprang from adds a lot of richness and practicality to the idea.  Blank devotes a good deal of time to understanding how to make technology push and market pull work together.  He covers when to go for broke spending money to enter a market and when to hold back and let the customers come to you.  Most importantly, this comes with some practical steps to discover when to do each.  He even covers how to start converting to mature company once you’ve almost made it.

Much like Melville, Steve Blank will say something really profound and insightful, then launch into a description of whaling–er, uh–start-up processes that are needed to implement that idea.  This can make the book a tough slog, because reading a process description around bed time can definitely have soporific effect.  However, this tough slog is absolutely worth it if your a practitioner in the world of technology start-ups.  You can’t hand it to your cousin that works at a big company and expect him to read it.  This is meant for the start-up community.  If you are a start-up practitioner, get this book and make yourself read it.   You will not be disappointed.  I expect my copy to become much more dog-eared than it already is before it gets confiscated for some future company museum.

So how does this relate to robotics…

Reading this book will further persuade you that many if not most management teams of robotics companies don’t have a clue.  You’ll even be able to look at robotics success stories and realize–wow–compared to software our industry’s state of management practice is pretty dismal.  Many successful robotics companies just fell bass-ackwards into their success.  Many were product driven companies to a fault that were able to expensively keep trying until they finally hit a success.  This is not the same thing as systematically eliminating and consciously balancing market versus technical risk to produce the greatest chance of creating successful business that uses robotic technology to make money and make the world a better place.

We’ve got a long way to go as an industry.  Luckily, now that we know that there’s nothing inherently ‘capital intensive’ about the robotics industry we can start addressing why we have so often screwed it up before.

Newsflash: Business School Professors Wrong, Delaware is Not Always the Answer

I’m working on incorporating a start-up and I discovered something very interesting, Delaware is NOT necessarily the best place for initial incorporation of your start-up.   If you are profitable, public corporation, Delaware is almost a no brainer.  However, there is no tax liability associated with moving to Delaware and most start-ups are not profitable or public.

Being incorporated in Delaware adds complexity and several fees and expenses that you might not incur when incorporating in your home state.  Especially if your state follows the model corporation act, you might consider incorporating there.  If you are not profitable, the corporate income tax rate of your state is irrelevant, you save a bunch of fees, the complexity of having registered agents, and having to qualify as a foreign corporation in your state.

The advantages of being in Delaware are in legal provisions that only apply once you have many classes of stock, the taxes on profits once you have them, and the power of officers and directors, particularly once the corporation is public.  None of these matter if you are pre-seed stage and may not matter at all until an IPO.  If the VCs demand that you be a Delaware corporation, okay, no big deal it can get done in less time than it will take them to finish their paperwork, but in the meantime, you’ve saved some money and most importantly some headaches of dealing with a state that is constantly trying to put its hand in your pocket.

I had been told by several entrepreneurship professors that Delaware is the only choice for incorporation of a start-up.   I was surprised to learn that this is not necessarily the case.  Others seem to think so as well.  Pass it on and consult with your counsel to  make a decision that is right for your circumstances.

Is a dollar worth a dollar on a tech company’s balance sheet?

Previously, dear reader, you and I have discovered that robotics companies are firmly entrenched in the knowledge economy and their assets look like other knowledge economy companies’s assets.  Robotics companies only hold only a limited amount of real assets but lots of financial assets.

As a related question, what is the value of the cash (and financial assets) on the balance sheet to investors?  There might be several issues with holding so much cash.  Particularly, money in a company should be employed making more money, ‘earning or returning’ as the saying goes.   Are there valid reasons to hold so much cash?  And if so, how should we value the cash that knowledge economy companies hold?

Cash Is King! (Or at least a founding father)

Bottom line up-front:  Valuations are always wrong.  What’s interesting is how they are wrong.  Assuming a dollar is worth a dollar is as good a rule as any, but is almost always wrong.  Nobody is really sure which way (too much or too little) it is wrong.  Below, is an elaboration of some of the issues with valuing cash which may come into play when valuing particular companies.  (And you thought that at least cash of all things had a fixed value  —  don’t we all wish!)

There are various criticisms of excess cash on the balance sheet, below are some of the most common.

1)  Holding the extra cash reduces returns, i.e. to buy into the business you have to buy a pile of cash beyond what is ‘necessary’ to run the business.  Further, the rate of return on cash has been essentially zero and certainly below inflation lately, so holding the portfolio the stock represents of a highly profitable business, plus cash must necessarily produce a lower expected return than just the business.

2)  Because of agency problems, management may be incentivized to use the cash to reduce volatility or ‘save’ the business if it falls on hard times, even if the investors could get a markedly higher rate of return in the market.  From an investor’s point of view this would be systematically wasting money.  Employees, customers, management, and trading partners might have a very different view.

3)  Holding lots of cash is said to signal that the company does not have profitable investment opportunities commensurate with the cash that it is generating and the company’s growth may slow in the future.  Further, holding lots of cash signals that you don’t know, or are ignoring, the traditional Anglo-Saxon business administration.  English speaking investors generally expect management to maximize monetary returns over the forecasting horizon and put shareholder interests ahead of all others.

Some countervailing points that you will often hear are along the following lines. 

A)  Although holding cash reduces returns, for a volatile security like a fast growing knowledge economy company, having cash on the balance sheet dramatically reduces volatility.  If investors want more exposure to the underlying business for the same initial investment, lever-up.  Since we are talking about cash holdings, buying on margin is almost a perfect antidote to management’s lackadaisical cash management policies if you feel that way.  [But seriously, who is their right mind thinks you need to lever-up when buying tech stocks?]

B)  Although management might ‘burn’ cash saving a failing business, which would be better redistributed to investors, more likely, they are going to have the flexibility to engage in acquisitions and new ventures without having to deal with the whims of the security markets.  [Has anyone seen a rational market lately?  Please let me know.]

Or has anyone read the Wall Street Journal?  Tech companies are routinely attacked for having their fixed life fund investors exit—Groupon and Facebook each got front page hatchet jobs over the past two days with nary a mention that these funds had been planning to sell now for, oh say, 8-10 years!  Talk about journalistic malpractice.  Would you want to go to the public markets in that environment?  I sure wouldn’t.  If I was management, I’d say that if investors are that irrational, I’ll keep the cash and do what they should have done with the money.

C)  Finally, although cash on hand may sometimes signal that the companies are running out of investment opportunities, it certainly signals to would be competitors that the said company is in a position to stick around for a long time and bitterly contest any erosion of their market position.  This may greatly enhance the value of the underlying business asset.

D)  This is a successful tech company.  It is run by the founders, for the founders (i.e. management).  If you don’t want the privilege of investing and taking whatever returns the founders deign to give, please step aside and allow the next investor to purchase stock.  But this isn’t really a justification.  Founders are investors too, especially once the company goes public, with theoretically the same motivations as other investors since their stake is highly liquid.

Further research on technology companies and their cash management policies should address the following issues:

I)     Are there structural reasons beyond the creation of new businesses and defense of existing businesses for technology/knowledge companies to hold lots of cash?  It does not occur to me that there is anything about a maturing knowledge business that seems to require massive amounts of cash.  Law firms and accounting firms do not seem to hold too much cash, but they are also typically private and can make much more drastic changes than public companies.

II)   Are there frictions between the interests of various classes of investors?  Particularly when there is a founder controlled/managed company, cash on the balance sheet is probably as good to them from a control perspective as cash in the bank and better from a tax perspective.  Should investment banks or others creating the classes of stock have new mechanisms to deal with this?

III)  What are the true limits on investment opportunities?  My firsthand observation has been that the greatest constraint on growth of robotics companies is management attention.  It may be that most technology companies have massively profitable investment opportunities, but management attention is engaged on current projects and hiring into the management circle is not that easy.  What is the needed resource to change this?  How can cash be used to obtain this resource?  Can it?  Is passion required?

IV)  Are there ways that management could resolve some of the market frictions that require them to hold lots of cash?  The public markets seem to mercilessly abuse tech companies—no they don’t look like utilities, but the highs and lows that they are pushed to seems unjustified—there just doesn’t seem to be enough new information about their future prospects to justify either one.  Can management take steps to make access to public markets, particularly debt markets more reliable?  Could banks make money by providing massive, typically undrawn, lines of credit that would provide much of the same protections to management?

DARPA is about to show the Navy’s shipbuilding plan is bull****

What is a powerful enough word to describe how the Navy’s shipbuilding plan is wasting thousands of man years and hundreds of billions of dollars on prejudices, untested assumptions, and bureaucratic inertia?

Luckily, DARPA is doing exactly what Congress created them to do way back in the Sputnik era: they are creating and protecting against technological surprise.  It would be fantastic if the Navy would jump on board and run phase 7 of this recently awarded DARPA contract.

Source: DARPA

For those of you who do not come from defense, here is my take on the conflict between how the traditional Navy looks at ships and how DARPA and the embattled progressive minority in the Navy look at naval platforms including unmanned naval vessels.

The big, traditional Navy believes–and they have some experiences that gives rise to this belief–that naval ships ought to be flexible, broadly capable, and completely independent assets.  Take a modern Arliegh Burke class destroyer (DDG-51 class), the backbone of the U.S. fleet, as prime example.  It can deploy itself to the theater of operations, maneuver tactically, sense targets, make engagement decisions, engage the target, and retrograde tactically and strategically from the operation.  Moreover these ships can do almost every mission that they might be called on to do.  They are among the most capable ships at anti-air, surface, and anti-submarine warfare.  Additionally, they respond to things like pirates, search and rescue, and humanitarian relief operations.  Sounds pretty cool, right?  And it is.

However, being able to do everything comes with two main drawbacks.  First the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ phenomenon is far more likely to be true because of design compromises in engineered systems than it is in people.  Second, adding all this capability costs a lot of money.  These destroyers are about $2B a copy and on the order of $1M/day to operate if you add in everything.  This means that we can only have so many and they cannot be everywhere.

DARPA and the progressive faction within the Navy believe that there is a fundamental change at hand in naval warfare.  Looking at how the Army/Air Force team conducts operations and the improvements in automation and communication technologies at sea, the progressives believe that the tradition of having big capital ships that do everything is outdated.

In contrast to the completely capable Navy platforms, Army units often only do one or two things.   Almost no Army units have strategic mobility.  Most can only do one or two things.  Intelligence units often only have the ability to sense. Artillery units only have the ability to do tactical maneuver and fire, but cannot sense.  Transport units move other units and equipment but cannot fire or sense; sometime they cannot even maneuver tactically.  The Army has huge staff units that do nothing but process information and make decisions to keep all these specialist pieces working in coordinated fashion on the battlefield.

DARPA and the naval progressives believe that a similar future is in store for the next globally dominant navy.  Which we hope will be, but does not have to be from the Unites States.  They envision swarms of inexpensive specialist vessels such as the one DARPA is building running around coordinated by a few manned ships.  The components of these fleets would be optimized to do a couple things well, be relatively–we’re talking about defense here–cheap, and be deployed in large numbers.

The reason that this is an urgent argument is that there is wide consensus within the U.S. Navy, across both the traditionalists and the progressives, that the Navy will not be able to meet its strategic obligations to our allies and American political leadership in a decade or two.  This is a ways off, but still within the service life of all the ships commissioned in the last decade.  The traditionalist seem to hope for a larger budget and the chance to ditch some missions (the Obama administration just took steps in this direction in their last budget), while the progressives say that if the Navy is receiving half of global naval spending it should be able to keep all its obligations by changing the way the Navy is organized.

The problem is that the traditionalists point out, correctly, that the progressives have not proved their scheme will work.  Then they say that they cannot cut even one ship or submarine which would build about a hundred of these future systems so that this alternate path can be tested.  It sounds to me like someone’s rice bowl is about to be overturned, and deep down they know it.

This is why DARPA’s ACTUV program is so important.  It puts at least one of these vessels out on the water so that people can see with their own eyes that they work.  They will be able to see the SAIC team turning around the vessel in record time and the ship controlled remotely and also sailing autonomously.  They will get to see that anti-submarine warfare works when done with a robot instead of hundreds of men on ships.  DARPA will start smashing the traditionalists reality, or at least put some big cracks in it.

Three cheers to DARPA for their continued work pushing the United States forward whether we all want to go or not!

My reflections on #AUVSI North America 2012

I got to spend two days at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) North America 2012 trade show last week.  As a first pass, the industry continues to grow even as defense cuts start to put a damper on things.  Other domains besides air are also starting to look like real possibilities though their manufacturers don’t always see fit to join AUVSI.  There is still tremendous excitement about the FAA’s recent moves that seem to indicate real progress in the last year.  Privacy concerns are being taken seriously, hopefully early enough to nip the issue in the bud, because the safety issues seem to be close to resolved.

  • The show is bigger than ever with more and more companies in attendance.  Based on my entirely unscientific method of walking around the show and looking at the booths at random, it seems to me that there are more companies offering services and software, about the same number offering components and hardware, and many fewer trying a hawk new platforms.  I think this reflects the reality of customer budgets and also the maturity of the industry.  The show didn’t have quite the same clubby feel that I used to remember, but maybe that’s good as well.
  • There was real concern and real awareness of the image problems that our industry has.  AUVSI is still definitely focused on the air side of things, but ground and maritime are definitely on their radar.  There is real determination on the part of the association leadership, both professional and volunteer, to counteract the negative press that the industry has been getting.
  • The Brookings Institution and the American Civil Liberties Association (ACLU) were both in attendance to participate in a privacy forum.  The Brookings and ACLU seem to have a great deal of common ground with the AUVSI membership at large on at least the law enforcement uses of unmanned aircraft.  That is the fourth amendment is still in effect and the same sorts of procedures that govern manned aircraft data collection ought to govern unmanned aircraft data collection.  Further, most people here on both sides of the panel were far more personally concerned about being tracked by cellphone data than unmanned aircraft.
  • The show is still definitely defense centered.  However, there is a feeling in the air that the FAA will actually do something and get unmanned aircraft out in the airspace soon.  Lots more booths are starting to have material that touts civilian use and more thinking is going into what will happen after the FAA starts allowing unmanned aircraft in the airspace.  Personally, I’m still skeptical that FAA is going to meet its deadlines, but I am certainly hoping that they will.
  • Robotics is starting to be used more in the same breath with unmanned systems.  Most of the AUVSI education outreach efforts don’t talk about unmanned systems at all (except maybe in an acronym) but do talk about robotics education.  I think this is a really positive development.  I would like to see AUVSI, the RIA, SAE robotics, and the robotic medical device companies operate under some kind of shared banner.  We all have the same workforce concerns, similar regulatory concerns, and face the same kind of backlash whenever we try to introduce new applications.  I believe that there is strength in numbers and it is always great to get the back-up that the fallacious counter arguments being trotted out against your robotic application are the same ones trotted out against other robotic applications that have gone on to be successful.  Particularly when we go to Capitol Hill to try and get rules changed so that we can compete on level playing field with legacy systems I think that there is value in having the Boeings (NYSE:BA), Intuitives (NASDAQ:ISRG), and Schillings (acquired by FMC NYSE:FTI) of the world support each other.


Which VCs are investing in robotics? Here is the list.

the instrument of venture investment


My overview of the Firms Behind the Hizook 2011 VC in Robotic List has graciously been published at Hizook.

Bottom line:  We don’t have a cadre of dedicated robotics investors, but we can get investment from the industries that serve as our customers.

I wish you all luck in getting some of that VC Cash.  …on second thought, no, actually, I don’t–I  wish you all luck in signing up major partners who will give you progress payments to complete your product without diluting your investment.

But whatever your situation I hope that you use the appropriate capital structure to make lots of robots, lots money, and lots of good in the world.