Network Effects are Magical

30 Mar

ImageNetwork Effects are magical.  They are the pixie dust that makes certain Information Technology businesses, especially on the Internet, into juggernauts.  They can be found in both consumer and enterprise companies.  Network Effects are special because they:

  1. Provide  logarithmic growth and value creation potential
  2. Erect barriers to entry to thwart would-be competitors
  3. Can create “Winner Take All” market opportunities

Network Effects are like a flywheel–the faster you spin it the more momentum you generate and enjoy.  But not all markets lend themselves to Network Effects.  They are not the same as Economies of Scale where “bigger is better.”  To be certain, Economies of Scale can give strong competitive advantage and defensibility to the first to get really big (or Minimum Efficient Scale as the economists call it.)  For example, SAP and Oracle benefit from having massive revenue bases which enable them to employ armies of engineers who develop rich feature sets and also to hire huge sales forces.  However large these companies are today, though, their growth rates, especially in their early years, were far more modest compared to those Network Effect companies whose growth resembled a curved ramp off of which they launched into the stratosphere.

There are four main types of Network Effects:

  1. Classic Networks, in which the value of a product or service increases exponentially with the number of others using it.  Communications networks like telephones, fax, Instant Messaging, texting, email, and Skype are all examples.  Metcalfe’s Law captured this as a simple equation where the Value of a network = N², where N is the number of nodes.  Typically, each node in a classic network is similar to each other and possesses both send and receive capabilities.  This will become clear juxtaposed against the other network effects below where there are different types of nodes.  Other examples of classic Networks are social networks (eg Facebook) and payments (eg PayPal).
  2. Marketplaces, where aggregations of buyers and sellers attract each other.  Lots of sellers means variety, competition, and price pressure, which all serve to attract more customers.  And because the customers flock, more sellers are enticed to participate in the marketplace.  eBay, stock exchanges, and advertising networks are all examples.  One nuance of marketplaces, however, is they differ in terms of the scale required for acceptable liquidity.  For example, ad networks can achieve sufficient reach and liquidity at relatively low levels which is why you see thousands of online ad networks, where they each exhibit network effects but not in a winner take all fashion.  Stock exchanges and payment networks require far greater scale for network effects to operate, which is why you see much greater concentration in these industries.
  3. Big Data Learning Loops.  “Big Data” is all the rage in techland, but just having gobs of data is not necessarily a Network Effect, nor any sort of competitive advantage per se.  What you really need is unique data and algorithms that process that data into insights which then lead to decisions and actions.  A flywheel effect comes when you get a critical mass of data that you mine for insights; pump that value back in to your product or service; which attracts more users which get you more data.  And so on.   Venrock portfolio company Inrix is a good example, where they mine GPS data points to derive automotive traffic flow data.  The more commercial fleets, mobile app users, and car companies they can get data from, the better their traffic analysis becomes, which gets them more users and hence more data.  They turn data into an accuracy advantage that earns them the right to get even more data.
  4. Platforms are a very special and powerful form of network effects.  In Information Technology, a true “platform” is where other developers build technology and businesses on top of your technology and business because you offer them one or more of the following:
    1. Lots of users/customers, and you represent a distribution opportunity for them
    2. Compelling development tools, technology, and (sometimes) advantageous pricing
    3. Monetization opportunities

Example include Operating Systems like Microsoft Windows, Apple App Store, and Amazon Web Services.

Each of these four types of network effects can be extremely powerful on their own.  Yet, even more power is derived when a business can harness multiple types of network effects in synergistic ways.  Google, Apple and Facebook do this for sure, but a less well known example is Venrock portfolio company AppNexus that operates a real-time online advertising exchange and technology platform.  The exchange aggregates advertisers, agencies, publishers and ad networks for marketplace liquidity, but also offers a hosting and technology platform for other AdTech companies and ad networks to augment their own businesses.  And the vast troves of data AppNexus processes every millisecond flows back into the system as optimized and targeted ad serving.

Network Effects are what you want fueling your business.  Sometimes you just need to get clever about discovering and harnessing them.

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How to Moderate a Panel That Doesn’t Suck

6 Apr

On April 14th I am moderating a panel at the Digital Healthcare Innovation Summit in New York City titled “The Hospital as Production Center:  Holy Grail or Impossible Dream?” [For anyone who wants a discounted registration rate, see the end of this post.]  In an effort not to suck, I’ve put some thought into what makes a great panel.  Like many conference junkies in the tech and finance worlds, I’ve sat through hundreds of panels, been on a bunch, and moderated a few handfuls over the years.  Here’s a list of a dozen suggestions that I plan to implement:

  1. Have at least one colorful character on the panel. Conferences can be a grind, and lots of people find the most value is in the lobby, meeting people.  For those willing to actually sit through your panel you want to entertain them as well as inform them if you expect them to pick their heads up from their smartphones and remember anything from the hour of so they give you of their (partial) attention.  Having at least one spicy rebel on the panel that is willing to share provocative views and mix it up with the other panelists is key.
  2. As the moderator, get your panelists on a call ahead of time to brainstorm and interact with each other. This is your opportunity to figure out if you’ve got the right mix of characters and also form a plan for what you’ll cover and set expectations.  Don’t procrastinate on this.
  3. Know your audience. Conference organizers purposely cast a wide net in their marketing and promotional materials so they can get the best turnout.  Find out for sure who the bulk of the audience is really likely to be.
  4. Send questions ahead of time. Your goal as panel moderator is to make your panelists look brilliant, not to try and stump them so you look like the smartest person on stage.  Give them the questions ahead of time and know who is likely to have the best answers for each of them.
  5. Keep intros brief.  Maybe not at all. Most intros take too long and are pretty boring.  If the conference materials have speaker bios, I personally don’t think there is any need to go into detailed introductions other than to identify who is who.
  6. Know the context of the rest of the conference.  Pay attention and make reference. Planning your topics and questions ahead of time is great, but you want to keep in mind the context of the rest of the conference so there is minimal duplication but appropriate linkages to other topics and speakers, etc.  If prior speakers or panels have covered topics relevant to your panel, make reference to them.  It shows the audience you were not sleeping through the earlier sessions, so maybe they won’t sleep through yours.  J
  7. Use social media to promote, distribute, and even moderate in real time. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, your blog, are all great ways to promote your panel ahead of time.  SlideShare is a great way to distribute PowerPoint or materials afterwards.  Set up a Twitter hashtag to solicit questions ahead of time and from the audience during the event.  I’ll be using #hosprod as the Twitter stream for my panel.  Feel free to send me questions ahead of time, and check for comments during the panel.
  8. Hit the hard deck, dig for details and examples. Give the audience reasons to take notes by getting granular.  Force the panelists to get specific and give real information.
  9. Stir the pot.  Incite a riot. A panel where everyone agrees with every point is boring.  Elicit differing viewpoints and force the discussion to explore the conflicting opinions.  This will likely be the most useful content, as well as the most entertaining.  Avoid chair throwing.
  10. No crop dusting. It can be very monotonous when the moderator goes up and down the row asking each panelist each question.  Pick your respondents strategically and use them for different purposes.  Move on to the next question as soon as the topic has been sufficiently covered, regardless of whether everyone answered.
  11. Engage the audience, but moderate ruthlessly. Audience Q&A can be very useful and fun, but can also attract rambling questions, people shamelessly plugging their own company/viewpoint, or all manner of unexpected divots.  It’s your job to be respectful but firm in keeping the Q&A on track out of respect to the rest of the audience.
  12. Watch the clock. The ultimate respect for your audience is to finish on time.  Even if your panel is rockin’ and everyone is having a great time, you should finish within the allotted timeframe.  If they still want more, they can follow-up with you and the panelists afterwards.

If you are interested in attending the www.digitalhealthcaresummit.com enter the special key code VNRPR  to receive the discounted rate of $695.00.  You can also contact Cathy Fenn of IBF at (516) 765-9005 x 210 to enroll.

Forget Super Bowl Commercials…these web companies know how to create awesome marketing videos.

6 Feb

By the time you read this post, Super Bowl XLV will be over and everyone will be talking about the … commercials.  Why?  Because most of them are entertaining, some are memorable, and the $2.5 million price tags (for air time alone) pique our curiosity.  Why are brands willing to pay so much?  Because it is one of the only ways to reach 100 million consumers simultaneously, and because a great 30 second video ad packs an emotional payload in support of your brand unlike virtually any other form of advertising.

Over the past few years I’ve noticed more and more web companies producing great videos to market their companies, often presenting them front and center on their homepage as the introduction to their company.  A great video overview can really help explain what you do for customers, how you do it, and present your brand in a flattering light.  The best videos go viral and bring you exponential attention and new visitors.   And web videos have never been cheaper to produce (at 1/2000th the cost of a super bowl commercial even a start-up can afford them.)  So, here are five thoughts on what makes a great marketing video for web companies, and a bunch of examples:

Answer WIIFM: A great marketing video should clearly and convincingly articulate a few simple benefits that customers care about.  Mint.com does a terrific job of this, as does Dropbox, both front and center on their homepage.  The Dropbox video is particularly noteworthy because it takes an esoteric concept and uses analogy to demonstrate user benefits everyone can relate to.

Show how it works: A great overview video shows just enough of the product and how it works to lend credibility to the benefit statement.  Word Lens does a terrific job of this for a product that truly needs to be seen to be believed.  A full blown demo would have been less effective than just these short glimpses of the product in action.

Be yourself: Video is such a rich and engaging medium it is perfect for showing the personality of your brand.  It is a great way to set tone and speak to your customers and prospects in an authentic voice.  Flavors.me does a terrific job of this through music and images alone, letting actions speak louder than words in convincing you that they can make your personal homepage look amazing because they do such a killer job of presenting themselves through this video.  Style personified.

Be fun, get remembered: Great marketing videos are fun to watch and somewhat memorable.  You don’t have to be knee slappin’ funny or so hip it hurts, just smile-inside funny will go a long way.  SalesCrunch and SolveMedia both take pretty dry categories (CRM SaaS and AdTech respectively) and rivet their viewers through entertaining use of cartoons and wit.

Be Brief: Even a great marketing video starts to feel long after two minutes.  Shoot for less.  This video from Smartling gets the job done in 38 seconds.  [Disclosure: Smartling is a Venrock investment.]

These are the five characteristics which I think make for a great marketing video for your web company.  If you think there are points I missed, or have other great examples, please comment and add to the list.  If you are the production agency responsible for making any of these videos please take a bow by claiming your work.  I’m sure others will want to contact you.  If you are looking for more of a live action marketing video, SmartShoot and other online videographer marketplaces can help produce custom video for ridiculously low rates.

Thank you to Ward Supplee, David Pakman, Dev Khare, Dan Greenberg, and Arad Rostampour for sharing some ideas for this post.

The single best financial reporting tool ever

18 Jan

Today I faced a choice.  Should I go out and enjoy the beautiful weather and waves and go for a surf or should I blog about my favorite financial reporting tool?  Seems like a pathetic question for a surfer to ask, or maybe this financial reporting tool is really that great.  I’ll settle for an answer of “both”.

The tool in question is the Waterfall Chart.  It’s a way to compare actual results across time periods (months or quarters usually) against your original Plan of Record, as well as forecasts you made along the way as more information became available.  It packs a ton of information into a concise format, and provides management and Board members quick answers to the following important questions:

1.      How are we doing against plan?  Against what we thought last time we reforecast?

2.      Where are we most likely to end up at the end of the fiscal year?

3.      Are we getting better at predicting our business?

The tool works like this:

Across the top row is your original Plan of Record.  This could be for a financial goal like Revenue or Cash, or an operating goal like headcount or units sold.  Each column is representative of a time period.  I like monthly for most metrics, with sub-totals for quarters and the full fiscal year.  Each row below the plan of record is a reforecast to provide a current working view of where management thinks they will wind up based on all the information available at that time period.  Click the example below which was as of August 15, 2010 to see a sample, or click the link below to download the Excel spreadsheet.

click to enlargeWaterfall Report spreadsheet

Periodic reforecasting does not mean changes to the official Plan of Record against which management measures itself.  Reforecasts should not require days of offsite meetings to reach agreement.  It should be something the CEO, CFO, and functional leaders like the VP Sales or Head of Operations can hammer out in a few hours.  Usually these reforecasts are made monthly, about the time the actual results for the prior month are finalized.  When you have an actual result, say for the month of August, $2,111 in the example above, this goes where the August column and August row intersect.  On that same row to the right of the August actual you will put the new forecasts you are making for the rest of the year (September through December.)  In this fashion, the bottom cells form a downward stair step shape (a shallow waterfall perhaps?) with the actual results cascading from upper left to lower right.  You can get fancy and put the actuals that beat plan in green, and those that missed in red.  You can also add some columns to the right of your last time period to show cumulative totals and year to dates (YTD).  With or without these embellishments you’ve got some really powerful information in an easy to visualize chart.

Two questions an entrepreneur might ask about this tool:

By repeatedly comparing actual to plans and reforecasts, won’t my Board beat me up each month if I miss plan or even worse, miss forecasts I just made? If you are a relatively young company, most Board’s (I hope) understand that planning is a best-efforts exercise not an exact science.  Most Boards will react rationally and cooperatively if you miss your plan, as long as you avoid big surprises.  By giving the Board updated forecasts you decrease the odds of big surprises because the latest and best information is re-factored in to the equation as the year progresses.  They probably won’t let you stop measuring yourself against the Plan of Record, but at least you’ve warned them as to how results are trending month to month and course corrections can be made throughout the year.

Won’t this take a lot of time? Hopefully not a ton, but it does take effort.  However, it should be effort well worth it beyond just making the Board happy, because as a management team you obviously care about metrics like cash on hand, and this should be something you are constantly recalibrating anyway.  The waterfall is the perfect tool to organize and share this information.

Most of my companies using this tool track five to ten key metrics this way.  Typical metrics include:

  • Revenue
  • New bookings
  • Cash on hand
  • Operating expenses
  • Net income
  • Headcount
  • Units sold or new customers acquired
  • Some measure of deployed/live customers (if there is a lag between a sale and a live customer)
  • For internet companies, some measure of the “top of the funnel” such as Unique Visitors or Page Views

Whether or not you agree this is the single greatest financial reporting tool ever, I hope you give it a try and find it useful.  Now I’m going surfing….

Why Are VCs So Scared of Hospitals?

8 Nov

There is much conventional wisdom in venture capital.  One such belief is that hospitals are a really horrible market for tech startups to pursue.  Back in 2002 when we invested in Vocera, an innovative communications system for hospitals (think Star Trek), many other firms had looked at the deal and passed.  Although this was the company’s third round of financing, the company was still pre-revenue and pre-launch, and this was the first round raised subsequent to their strategic shift from a horizontal solution to one vertically focused on hospitals.  Most VCs ran from it.  Following are some of the reasons potential investors gave for hating the hospital market then, most of which persist as concerns, often valid, today:

1.      Hospitals are highly budget constrained

2.      Most hospitals don’t have profits motives and are not subject to the same competitive forces as for-profit businesses

3.      Hospitals are complex political environments with many forces that influence decision making and purchase behavior that seem counter to rational business judgment.  Those who decide, those who approve, those who pay, use, benefit from, can all be different roles in the organization.

4.      Sales cycles are very long, often measured in years.

5.      Hospitals are technology laggards when it comes to adopting information technology.

6.      Hospitals are dominated by large technology vendors such as GE, Cerner and IBM.

There is some truth to each of these, but here’s the counter argument that led us to make a second investment in the hospital market, namely Awarepoint, an indoor GPS system for tracking people and assets in the hospital.

1.      There are lots of hospitals.  Over 5500 in the US alone, and there are little blue signs pointing you to each of them.  Given the annual budgets of your typical hospital, this translates into a very big market.  Vocera now serves over 650 hospitals and more than 450,000 daily users, and is still growing very rapidly, believing they have tapped less than 10% of their core market opportunity.

2.      Hospitals are sticky.  Once your product is adopted, and assuming it works well, they are reluctant to switch you out because solutions get so enmeshed in different processes and systems, and so many employees get used to them.  You can’t screw up, or raise prices dramatically, but you may not have to sing for your supper every time a competitor issues a press release.

3.      Hospitals are willing and able to spend on IT if it is a priority and they see an opportunity for a large return on investment.  This is one of the things helping Awarepoint penetrate the market, and they are not alone. Companies like Allocade , which creates dynamic patient itineraries to improve throughput, are also having success based on the ROI they can deliver.

4.      Because hospitals are underpenetrated by information systems, there is lots of low hanging fruit and relatively basic problems to be solved.  Electronic Medical Records vendors are having a field day, both because of stimulus incentives but because many hospitals, especially the 72% of all community hospitals with under 200 beds, still don’t have this basic form of digitizing their information.  The trend towards Accountable Care Organizations, and the related financial incentives, will require greater clinical integration of care across health care settings (inpatient, ambulatory), greater financial efficiency, and increased transparency and flow of information about the process, costs, and outcomes of health care, all of which will require better healthcare information technology.

5.      Hospitals are similar to each other and willing to serve as references to each other.  Yes, they do compete in some ways, and each has its unique attributes, but you find a higher degree of collegiality and similarity than most industries where competitors hate each other and each may have very different ways of doing their core activities.

There are a few reasons why the hospital market is ripening for startups and the VCs who love them:

1.      Hospitals are feeling financial pressures to run efficiently.  With healthcare reform there will be more patients coming in their door requiring services, while price caps will get tougher.  And there will be financial penalties for things like readmission rates that often correlate to operating inefficiently, and which technology can help prevent.

2.      With the EMR mandates and installations, the Chief Information Officer is now in an elevated position in the organization and even considered a revenue generator.  Many EMR installation projects are leading to ancillary projects and opportunities to automate and digitize other aspects of hospital operations.

3.      New IT paradigms like cloud based services, open data initiatives (thank you Todd Park @ HSS), APIs, and Open Source means that it is less expensive to build and deliver better products into the hospital.

4.      Wireless technologies, and relatively cheap and robust devices like iPhones and iPads, make it easier to reach caregivers on the go, whether nurses at the bedside or Doctors on the golf course.  Companies like AirStrip are getting real-time info to the caregiver wherever they are, and caregivers love it.  Also, WiFi and Zigbee in the hospitals means your equipment and monitors, and even staff, can transmit their info from wherever they are without wires and expensive, disruptive installations.

5.      This current generation of Doctors and are used to technology in their personal lives.  They use email, carry iPhones and Blackberries, shop online, etc.  And the residents entering hospitals today are Digital Natives.  There will be an increasing expectation that hospitals adopt these technologies that most other verticals have embraced.

While we fear the unexpected visit to the hospital as much as anyone, Venrock is looking forward to more investments in companies that serve them with compelling HCIT solutions.

Building Healthcare IT Companies: 11 Insider Insights

5 Oct
This blog post was a collaboration with my Venrock colleague Bryan Roberts, who in addition to being a great bio-tech and medical device investor, was also an early lead investor in athenahealth, and currently on the Board of Coderyte and Castlight, two really hot HCIT companies.

Having participated in healthcare IT for the last 10+ years, we decided to collect and share some lessons learned. The list is by no means exhaustive, so let us know your thoughts – where you disagree, what you would add, etc.

  1. The product must be a true “have-to-have”, not a “nice-to-have”. Any healthcare IT product needs to solve an important problem for a defined customer base (providers, payors, patients) and this is where lots of companies go astray. The product needs to help someone enough for them to be compelled to adopt it, while they are busy worrying about a lot of other things, and it is not enough to have a product that helps out the “system”. If you can’t convince yourself that it is one of the top three things that your specific customer is concerned with, forget it.
  2. Healthcare is actually an aggregation of many small “markets”. While the overall healthcare market is measured in billions – if not trillions – very few needs, ideas or businesses can span the entirety. Many companies/ideas are only applicable to a subset (breast cancer, arthritis, heartburn, etc.) of healthcare or require significant re-work as one moves from one disease area to another – think content for different diseases. This dynamic also substantially impacts some of the revenue stream opportunities and the critical mass needed to make a business viable. For example, pharma advertising for a given drug is targeted at patients with a specific disease, not all healthcare consumers, and so the number of overall users needed to amass a specific target population and access that ad revenue, is many multiples of that target market.
  3. Start-up revenue streams and value propositions are elusive. There are lots of potential revenue streams in healthcare, but many are only accessible to a business that has hit scale (perhaps $100MM revenue) and critical mass creates an ecosystem such that the network has value above and beyond the interaction between the individual customer and the product. This is especially true for advertising and data revenues, but also for lead generation and others. It is much simpler to create viable revenue streams when your business reaches a substantial size than it is to find the revenue stream that gets you from $0 to $50MM… So think hard about the value proposition and revenue stream for the start-up phase of your business before you hit critical mass and dominate a space.
  4. Customers must have more money with your product, than without it. There is no room for broad adoption of products that are a financial drain. Remember that every participant in the healthcare system is strapped for cash – hospitals are lucky to run a profit, doctors’ earnings have decreased consistently over the last decade and patients are used to “free” healthcare. You have to offer hard, demonstrable ROI. You can get away without it for a small number of leading edge customers for a while, but the primary goal of those customer engagements must be to get the ROI data that will be necessary to support broader customer engagement. Adding another cost, even with a long-term ROI is very hard.
  5. Businesses with strong network effects are gold mines. Given that healthcare has complex problems and customers are tough to secure (long sales cycles), a network effect can solidify a first mover advantage and continually decrease sales cycles, as well as afford sub-5% annual churn rates. Happily, the healthcare industry is ripe to create businesses with network effects given the historical underinvestment in the space and the proliferation of “big data” business opportunities. Every customer should benefit from the cumulative customer base, with each subsequent customer deriving and creating more value than prior customers.
  6. The customer is mobile. Unlike many verticals, most health care providers do not sit at their desks all day; they are doing rounds and moving between exam rooms or even buildings. Meanwhile, consumers are making decisions that impact their health (eating choices, exercise, lifestyle) while out in the real world, living their lives. This situational complexity cuts both ways. On the one hand it makes some traditional enterprise strategies more difficult, while on the other, especially when combined with the proliferation of smart wireless devices, it creates opportunities for a new breed of mobile healthcare applications not seen previously.
  7. Expect to have a service component to your business, but avoid becoming a customized consulting shop. Healthcare is complicated and confusing, and although technology may solve a multitude of problems, it will require some handholding and take time. There is nothing approximating shrink-wrapped software in healthcare – and you want to use the service component of your business to help improve your software product. There is a virtuous cycle between the software and service. On the other extreme, the technology infrastructure should not be stove piped or custom-built for each individual client, even “marquee” clients. In healthcare, for a variety of reasons, there are significant pressures to bring your technology infrastructure directly under the thumb of the customer—the servers, the code, the management of the upgrade schedule, etc. Try to resist these pressures and ensure that you build a common chassis that you own with “plug-ins” for individual clients as needed.
  8. Beware of businesses dependent upon heroics…Make it easy. The healthcare sector is a notorious technology laggard, and for good reason. The environment can be chaotic, collaboration is complicated and staffing is convoluted. Simplicity is key with user interfaces and alerts are essential. For businesses targeting health systems, if your business depends on the brilliance, creativity and bandwidth of hospital IT, think again. Hospital IT is massively overworked and understaffed and has a list of number one priorities a mile long. The perfect solution for hospital IT is one that requires little or no effort on their part. For business targeting consumers, it’s dangerous to assume that consumers will wake up and start taking better care of themselves. Consumers will eventually start taking better care of themselves, but it is unlikely to occur before you run out of cash.
  9. Know your domain. Healthcare IT is neither healthcare nor IT. Concepts and actions that traditionally work in each of those established spaces can run afoul in Healthcare IT. Navigating this sector is complicated – from a regulatory perspective, privacy, relationships, etc.
  10. Secure customer references and studies. Winning “lighthouse” accounts, such as the prestigious clinics and teaching hospitals (Mayo or Johns Hopkins), can be great validation for your product or service. These customer references will earn you respect, but unfortunately many customers will look at those institutions as fundamentally different from their own situation (whether based on size, financial resources, scope, etc) and thus not relevant as case studies. Often you will need multiple, credible local references in each geography before you can enjoy the efficiencies of reference selling. Same goes for ROI and effectiveness studies.
  11. Do well by doing good. Healthcare can be viewed as a business or a calling, but the most successful ventures view it as both. It is hard to beat an entrepreneurial team that is powered by the dream of both financial and social rewards. So strive to create value across the board (customers, investors, community).