Bubbles and Terrelle Pryor

I spent a large chunk of last week at Google, participating in a design sprint with some members of their UX research team and eating far too much free food. During one of those gorging sessions, I struck up a conversion with a partner at Google Capital and like almost any discussion about startups these days, the conversation quickly turned to discussion of bubbles.

While her specific thoughts on bubbles weren’t all that provocative or divergent from mainstream – and thus not really notable for the purposes of this post – what really struck me is something she said about the companies that were pitching her: although Google Capital is a growth-stage investment fund for proven businesses, she felt that a lot of the entrepreneurs that she met with really didn’t have much understanding of the fundamental metrics of their business.

This floored me. How could that be?

It struck me later in the day that there is an irony embedded in growth, particularly the kind of growth that will ultimately enable you to reach a size where you need growth-stage capital. That kind of explosive growth is such a fortuitous rocket ship that it tricks you into thinking that explosive growth is possible forever and that stoking that growth once you’ve found it is the only important thing.

Now obviously the former is false and the latter is debatable but both wash out at the same point: eventually that growth vector you’ve found becomes saturated. When it does, you may have a real problem, particularly if you’ve spent zero time on understanding your acquisition costs, mapping it across channels, building a proper reporting infrastructure, and getting an iron-clad picture of your LTVs. There’s only so many times you can raise money on the pitch of “Well, we’ve got a shit ton of users!”, especially as markets turn downwards.

The additional irony here is that so many seed and Series A-level companies have those basic unit economics down cold. They have to. If you’ve got a very finite amount of capital to work with, you better believe you’re maximizing the return of every dollar spent. They might not be able to get over the Series A hump because they don’t have the explosive growth I previously mentioned, but I believe 100% that most of these companies know their fundamentals better. My friend at Google Capital will never see them though, since a majority of them will never find the product-market fit to grow large and grow quickly enough to eventually need investment in her criteria.

The sports analogue here is Terrelle Pryor, one of the most talented high school athletes to come out of Pennsylvania and QB at Ohio State, the Oakland Raiders, and elsewhere. Pryor was such an athletic freak that he simply destroyed the competition at the high school and college level, using his innate gifts to dominate without properly learning the fundamentals of the position. This was his ultimate downfall; once he got to the NFL, his throwing mechanics and decision-making were far below acceptable standards.

Compare that to any number of QBs who came to the table with far less natural gifts, but instead focused their energy on learning as much as possible in the film room, grinding away in the gym, slaving away on the practice field – only to find out that what was once a rather average set of natural talents was now a rocket ship when paired with a clear understanding of what it takes to succeed.


The Importance Of Optics

My COO Adam often gets anxious when I’m scheduled to speak at a conference, because I have a tendency to be very outspoken with my opinions. As anyone who has every gone to a conference can tell you, most conferences are pretty close-to-the-vest, with speakers not really saying all that much, very similar to how football coaches say very little in post-game press conferences. I like to think my style of being somewhat brash and irreverent is a breath of fresh air, but to him, it’s nothing but a headache.

This is an issue for him because as the owner of all of our business relationships, he sometimes has to deal with the fallout of someone who was turned off by something I said about them or the industry or what have you. I can’t help it; I’m a passionate guy. But I get it. He’s the one who has to clean up after me, and that is frustrating, particularly when the mess is totally and utterly avoidable.

Anyway, today there was a vaguely viral story going around about Martin Shkreli and how he raised prices on a necessary and ultimately life-saving medication by over 5,400% after purchasing the rights to distribute and market it.

Now, I’m far from a bio-tech expert and pretty much anything I say on the subject would be glib and ignorant, so I’ll punt and simply say that if the story is as cut-and-dry as the New York Times seems to think, then he’s a scumbag and that’s pretty much that. What’s more interesting to me is his Twitter, where he’s recently vacillated between a defensive and flippant series of responses and another, different series of severe conspicuous consumption, thereby doubling down on the public’s enmity.

There is certainly something to be said for the Internet rage washing machine: it’s a page-view driven world where outrage is stoked, aggregated, and provided with gasoline. A good example of this is the story of Pax Dickinson, the former CTO of Business Insider, who had a couple of out-of-context, yet patently offensive tweets buried in his history spiral into his public excoriation and even more public firing. The tweets in question for him were undoubtedly offensive, but the swiftness of the public response caused the narrative to get crucial things wrong, such as misunderstanding context and making perhaps unfair generalizations about him based on a thin-slice of evidence.

But it’s giving Martin way too much of a pass to chalk up his current problems on that. Even if we ignore that his Wikipedia page seems to indicate a history of ethical and legal problems or this Gawker article which lays out a history of SEC violations quite damningly, he doesn’t seem to realize that it’s his own arrogant, indifferent responses to legitimate criticism that is compounding the issue. If his motives were really as misconstrued as he would like us to believe, would he act the way he has, the equivalent of all of the former baseball players, cyclists, and track stars who have indignantly pounded the table declaring their steroid-related innocence, only to have to eat their words later? Probably not.

I firmly believe that you learn more about a leader and really, anyone by looking at how they handle themselves in times of crisis. Many do extremely well. I like to think that I do OK, with a personal growth area related to being more open, communicative, and seeking of help instead of just loading it onto my back. Martin here seems to be doing everything wrong, particularly the public-facing optics of the situation and those optics are incredibly important – even if he really is being portrayed unfairly, no one would ever know because no one likes to defend an asshole.

But defend him they will – his investors, his PR people, everything, all over a mess that could have been handled much better every step of the way. That’s probably how Adam feels whenever I run my mouth and piss someone off at a conference.


An Introduction

I’ll be the first to admit it – I’m not really a blogging person. Or at least, I haven’t been, historically. It hasn’t been for lack of ideas, or even interest; it’s more that I’ve simply always convinced myself that I didn’t have time and further, it wouldn’t be of interest to anyone.

I’m not really convinced of the former just yet – although Fred Wilson, who is exponentially busier than me, posts every day – but on the later, I’ve come around to thinking that whether or not my thoughts are of our interest to anyone is sort of beyond the point. Getting in the habit of elucidating the ideas that rattle around in my brain can only be a good thing, but if you do happen to be reading this, I’m glad you’re here.

Anyway, the introduction: I’m Nik. I’m a lot of things: a son, a brother, a boyfriend, a Yinzer, a founder and CEO, a veteran of multiple successful startups and even an acquisition. I’m also not a lot of things that I wish to be; I plan to talk about that a lot, and I think I’ll start on my very next entry.