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?

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

the instrument of venture investment

source: SEC.gov

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.

Hizook 2011 Notes

Be on the look out for a forthcoming analysis of the Hizook 2011 VC in Robotic List on Hizook about the funds that invest in robotics.   I’m publishing my research notes here so they don’t foul up the article.  Most of this was sourced from company websites, CrunchBase, local media, or whatever I could find using Google with my limited attention span, I think I even remembered to cite a few as I was making this.

The only thing I’d really like to call your attention to, dear reader, is the complete lack of transparency in the private markets.  You’ll see that there are places I could find a round, or an amount, or fund but nothing else.  A lot of the poor citation is me trying to find a better source.  Private transactions have no organized data so if this can be the faintest candle for finding funding for robotics, then I’ve done my job.

As always, I’d love feedback.  I’m hungry for data!

Surprise! Robotics Companies Are NOT Capital Intensive

Please allow me to blow your mind and overturn the common sense notion that robotics companies are capital intensive.  Comparing profitable, public, U.S. based robotics companies to a diverse basket of prominent public companies shows that robotics companies do not require a lot equipment and property to make successful businesses.

In fact, robotics companies have the least property plant and equipment of any of the companies I selected for comparison–which deliberately included such tech giants as a chip maker, an operating system maker, and a search engine giant.  Looking at capital expenditure and depreciation, the robotics companies are again among the leanest of the companies on the list.

The only companies that had such low numbers for CAPEX and depreciation had their assets tied up in very long term investments like real estate and aircraft manufacturing facilities.  Also, most of the robotics companies are still growing and may have their capital expenditures boosted as a percentage of revenues by their anticipated growth.  Take a look at the trend line.

Now what people may mean when they say that robotics is ‘capital intensive’ is that the marginal cost of goods sold for a robotics company is greater than $0/per unit that consumer web applications have–but if that’s what they mean they should come out and say it and not be sloppy in their reasoning.

Angels, VCs, and other investors are you paying attention?  Big plays are going to be made on relatively small bets.

As a Percentage of Revenue
Ticker

Company

PPE Depreciation

CAPEX

Robotics

IRBT

iRobot

6.81%

2.42%

3.05%

ISRG

Intuitive Surgical

11.31%

1.68%

6.79%

AVAV

Aerovironment

7.24%

2.76%

4.61%

CGNX

Cognex

9.86%

1.72%

2.43%

Robotics Median

8.55%

2.07%

3.83%

Robotics Average

8.80%

2.14%

4.22%

Diversified

GOOG

Google

25.33%

3.68%

9.07%

MSFT

Microsoft

11.67%

3.95%

3.37%

T

AT&T

84.50%

14.50%

15.87%

INTC

Intel

43.75%

9.52%

19.93%

XOM

ExxonMobil

45.96%

3.34%

6.63%

BA

Boeing

13.55%

2.12%

2.36%

D

Dominion Resources

206.34%

8.96%

25.40%

AA

Alcoa

77.82%

5.94%

5.16%

DIS

Disney

38.99%

4.50%

7.32%

HD

Home Depot

34.54%

2.39%

1.65%

Diversified Median

41.37%

4.23%

6.98%

Diversified Average

58.25%

5.89%

9.68%

Some notes on the analysis:

-Data comes from the companies last 10-K filing.  Some companies include different things in revenue (where possible I tried to exclude revenue from a financing arm), in deprecation (some include amortization of intangible assets), and capital expenditure (Intuitive, for example, includes the acquisition of intangible assets).

-I wanted to look at a diverse basket of public companies and tried to pick companies that might be similar in some ways to robotics companies but whose earnings would not be unduly influenced by robotic related income.  For example, I excluded offshore oil field services companies because they were too close to being robotics companies, but still not pure enough to get a good view of the diversified company.  I did include Disney (which does anamatronics), Boeing (which has a UAV making subsidiary), and Google (which has a robotic car division) because I thought the revenues contributed to the these companies by robotics related activities had no material impact on the financial metrics.  However, their tangential involvement in robotics speaks to their similarity to robotics businesses.

-Future analysis should look at some other places where capital use can be buried.  For example, Cost of Goods Sold can hide capital that is employed on the companies behalf further up the supply chain.  It is possible that current assets like inventory may also need to be higher for robotics companies.  Also, we should compare total assets and liabilities to the revenue generated to similarly sized public companies to see if there is a substantial difference.

East Coast Chauvinism in Robotics: Time to Face Facts, Silicon Valley is Kicking Our Ass

A cleaned-up version of this article became my first post on Hizook.  http://www.hizook.com/blog/2012/06/25/east-coast-chauvinism-robotics-time-face-facts-silicon-valley-kicking-our-butt#comment-971

_______

I have lots of love for Pittsburgh in particular, but it really pisses me off when people on the East Coast repeat a bunch of falsehoods (See #8) about how Boston and Pittsburgh compare to Silicon Valley and the rest of the world.  Many people in Pittsburgh and Boston—including people I call friends and mentors—smugly think that the MIT and CMU centered robotics clusters are leading the world in robotics.  This is demonstrably false.

If leadership in robotics means forming companies, making money, or employing people, then Silicon Valley is crushing everyone—no matter what the Wall Street Journal editorial page says about their business climate.  I’ve previously published an analysis of the Hizook 2011 VC Funding in Robotics data that shows that the Valley gets 49% of total VC robotics investment worldwide.

I’d now like to add an analysis of U.S. public companies (see bottom of the page).  Basically, the ‘Pittsburgh and Boston are the center of the robotics world’ story is even more ridiculous if you look at where public robotics companies are located.  Silicon Valley is crushing the other clusters in the U.S. at creating value in robotics and in building a robotics workforce in public companies.  (A forthcoming analysis will show that this true worldwide and if you include robotics divisions of public companies not principally engaged in robotics such as Boeing and Textron.)

77% of the workforce at public robotics pure plays is in Silicon Valley companies.  An astounding 93% of the market capitalization is headquartered in Silicon Valley and even if you exclude Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG) as an outlier, the Silicon Valley cluster still has twice as much market capitalization as Boston.

The public companies that I deemed to meet the criteria of being principally engaged in robotics, that they had to make and sell a robot, and not have substantial value creating revenues from businesses not related to robotics are listed in the table below.

The one company that I believe might be controversial for being excluded from this list is Cognex (NASDAQ:CGNX).  However, while trying to do decide on whether to include them, I found their list of locations.  They have three locations in California including two in Silicon Valley.  That means that this ‘Boston’ company has more offices in Silicon Valley than in Boston.  I’m not an advanced (or motivated) enough analyst to find out what the exact employee breakdown is, but combined with the fact that they make vision systems and supply components rather than robots, I elected to exclude them. I acknowledge that a similar case could be made about Adept (NASDAQ:ADEP) that just made a New Hampshire acquisition, but I have decided to include them and count them towards Silicon Valley.   I do not believe that either of these decisions, substantively impact my finding that Silicon Valley is the leading cluster when it comes to public company workforce and value creation.

I’m hoping the people who are spreading the misinformation that Silicon Valley has to catch-up to Boston and Pittsburgh will publish corrections.  I believe that this is important, particularly because I want to see Pittsburgh reclaim its early lead in robotics.  So many robotic inventions can trace their heritage back to Pittsburgh, it is a real shame that Pittsburgh has not used this strength to create the kind of robotics business ecosystem that one would hope.

It is impossible for communities to take appropriate action if they do not understand where they stand.  I hope that this new data will inspire the Pittsburgh community to come together and address the challenges of culture, customer access, and capital availability that have been inhibiting the growth of Pittsburgh’s robotic ecosystem before they lose too many more aspiring young entrepreneurs—such as me—to the siren song of California.

Company (1) Ticker Employees (2) Market Cap $M (3) % of Employees % of Market Cap Robotics Cluster
Accuray NASDAQ:ARAY

                   1,100

  463

20%

2%

SV
Adept NASDAQ:ADEP

                       183

43

3%

0%

SV
Aerovironment NASDAQ:AVAV

                       768

  577

14%

2%

SV
Hansen NASDAQ:HNSN

                       174

 135

3%

1%

SV
Intuitive Surgical NASDAQ:ISRG

                   1,924

  21,840

36%

88%

SV
iRobot NASDAQ:IRBT

                       619

  606

12%

2%

BOS
MAKO Surgical NASDAQ:MAKO

                       429

  1,110

8%

4%

Other
Stereotaxis Inc. NASDAQ:STXS

                       171

 13

3%

0%

Other
Total

                   5,368

24,787

100%

100%

(1) Companies are U.S. public companies that have been identified by Frank Tobe’s or my own research as principally engaged in robotics
(2) Employee Count as of Last 10-K Filing
(3) Market Capitalization as of 6/24/2012