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If the Shoe Fits: the Wrongest Way to Close a Company

Friday, September 2nd, 2016

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mIn June we learned the right way to close a company and last month we got a lesson in the wrong way to do it.

Right, wrong; what’s left?

(Allegedly) crooked.

How crooked?

Penny Kim is a marketing professional who relocated from Dallas in July to work for WrkRiot (formerly known as 1for.one and apparently also known as JobSonic) for $135,000 a year plus equity and a $10,000 signing bonus for relocation expenses,

It ended with her dismissal in August after she filed a complaint with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement over failure to properly pay her

If you wonder whether she’s just another disgruntled employee, she’s not.

Not when the CEO gives everyone faked documentation of wage payment.

“Thursday, August 4th was D-Day … That afternoon in the office, Michael emailed each employee a personalized PDF receipt of a Wells Fargo wire transfer with the message: ‘Here is the receipt. It has been calculated for the taxes on your semi-monthly salary and signing bonus. The money is arriving either today or tomorrow. I am sorry about the delay.'”

But the receipts were fake.

Al Brown, former CTO and one of the founders, confirmed much of her account, even the most outrageous accusation: The CEO she dubbed “Michael,” whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as Isaac Choi, gave employees fake receipts for money wire transfers to convince them the company had paid their back wages when in fact it hadn’t.

Not even a good fake, since the photoshopped receipts said 2014.

Even after that two employees lent the company an additional $65K.

All told, Choi burned through $695,000 (his own initial $400,000, Brown’s $230,000 and the borrowed $65,000) in less than a year.

A comment on Hacker News should serve as a bona fide caveat emptor for everyone in the global startup world, not just in Silicon Valley.

“Welcome to the club. It’s pretty much a rite of passage here to spend some time with a psychopath VC, a completely self absorbed CTO with a rich investor dad that fuels his fantasies, or an idiotic CEO with an ego problem, and to pay the price for it (just time if you’re lucky, time+money if you’re not).”

This isn’t a warning not to join, just a note to do so with your eyes open.

There’s a reason it’s called “due diligence” and it’s as much for employees as it is for founders and investors.

Image credit: HikingArtist

If the Shoe Fits: Where’s the Money?

Friday, August 26th, 2016

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mAs an entrepreneur, the constant stress around money in vs. money can at times be overwhelming and deeply emotional. Anxiety/angst/anguish/fear-and-loathing, and all synonyms thereof, best describe the feelings swirling in and around the entrepreneurial community these days when the subject of money, AKA funding, comes up — although not so much if you are one of the “chosen”, i.e. connected/entitled.

That said…

Bambi Roizen, Vator Founder and Managing Partner of Vator Investment Club, actually sees more money available. (Here is the video and full transcript of her talk at Splash one year ago. The quote is edited for clarity.)

There were about 20 post seed venture funds; now my friend Paul Martino counts probably 200 and there’re going to be a lot more funds. If you think that there’s going to be a crunch, don’t worry about it. I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot more funds coming to fill that void. I think there’s going to be a lot more specialized funds. (…) I think that’s we’re actually going to see local funds. Local funds investing in local businesses.

Because remember, this is the opening up of title 3 to the average investor. (…) It’s so hard sometimes to look at companies, because they’re so good at telling stories these days. I knew that was going to happen — you’re such great storytellers, you have to be, because you have to sell your vision. But it makes it really hard for investors to know what to invest in, so they’re going to invest in everyone, right? Money is available.

I asked KG what he thought from his perch as a serial entrepreneur who has raised funds in very different economies and attitudes over the years.

 “What she says is interesting. However, what we’re seeing is the financialization of the startup/entrepreneurship industry, with the consequence that financial investors will get involved earlier, take larger stakes and leave less for the entrepreneur and the team. 

One could say that it is good that capital may become easier to access (if this is true), but the cost of that capital is also increasing since there are now two layers of return that has to be provided much earlier than before — that to the VC and also to the VC’s LPs. 

In other words, entrepreneurs are coming earlier into the VC model where only a few outsized returns matter and the majority of companies are pushed/allowed to fail.”

Many VCs treat startups the same way commercial agriculture treats seedlings — once they get to a certain size they are thinned in order to concentrate resources on fewer plants that will yield a larger harvest.

“This may actually be negative for a whole host of companies that have no way of maturing before being put under the pressure of the VC return machine.”

However, newly emergent investors may bring change to the game. Kobe Bryant and Jeff Stibel have invested together since 2013 and have started a new fund with their own money.

Dozens of other musicians, actors and athletes are investing directly or through funds they started or joined.

Hopefully, that money will be more patient and come with a different mindset than the typical Silicon Valley focus on the connected and entitled.

It would be good to see at least some of the new funding go to the unconnected — especially people of color.

But no matter how much money is out there, I’m willing to bet that will take a lot more than vision/great story/rapid user growth to access it.

These days investors want a solid business plan focused on generating revenue, and, in many cases, a strong spotlight on social responsibility/giving back.

Image credit: HikingArtist

If the Shoe Fits: Are You Dimpatient?

Friday, August 5th, 2016

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mI saw a new Snickers’ commercial and thought how relevant it was to the startup world — founders, employees and candidates.

In case you haven’t seen it, here it is.


Great word. No question what it means and so apropos to the situation.

Most bosses have interviewed a fair number of dimpatient candidates in the course of their careers.

Of course, candidates have been interviewed by a goodly number of dimpatient founders, managers and team members.

And that’s not counting how many founders have presented to dimpatient investors and been forced to interact with dimpatient advisors.

Or, worse yet, because they have no one to blame but the selves, hired dimpatient contractors.

Dimpatience is already rampant throughout the tech world and spreading rapidly to other fields.

Too bad Snickers®adv can’t actually curtail the epidemic.


And if you’re looking for inspiration, information, guidance or solutions click over and browse the August Leadership Development Carnival. You can’t go wrong.

YouTube credit: SnickersBrand
Image credit: HikingArtist

Entrepreneurs: Anand Sanwal’s Conversation with a VC

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

Change-in-Number-Global-Investments2A few weeks ago we looked at the fact that all VCs aren’t created equal and the importance of seriously checking them out, instead of being blinded by the money.

And last week we considered how VCs invest in similar companies and then play favorites.

With that in mind I found a conversation that CB Insights’ Anand Sanwal related in his most recent blog post (you really should subscribe) hilarious.

Our team issues rankings of the most active investors in an industry or geography pretty regularly and occasionally, an investor reaches out and the conversation goes a bit like this.

Investor – “We should be on your ranking.”

Me – “Ok cool. Let’s ensure your data is updated and we’ll edit the rankings as need be.”

Investor – “I can’t tell you the deals. They’re stealth.”

Me – “We can’t put you on the ranking unless we know the deals. We’re a data company so the rankings are based on data.”

Investor – “I can’t tell you the deals. They’re stealth. But we should be on that ranking.”

Me – silence

If a VC won’t answer a valid question from an impeccable source, one that’s privy to more business secrets than any five (ten?) Wall Street firms combined, why would they answer yours — or be truthful if they do?

And thanks, Anand, it’s nice to see a VC on the receiving end for a change.

Image credit: CB Insights

If the Shoe Fits: How VC Favoritism Can Cripple Your Startup

Friday, June 24th, 2016

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mIt’s a know fact that the more you are “teacher’s pet” or a “favored player” the more you will be called on in class and the more playing time you’ll get.

Even in families, the most-favored-child typically succeeds more than their siblings.

So it should come as no great shock that when VCs invest in similar companies, which they often do, they will favor one above the other.

And that favoritism usually results in more money, more introductions, more involvement, in fact, more everything, which results in substantially more innovation.

The data showed that companies tied to a competitor by at least one VC firm in common were indeed less innovative than those unencumbered by such ties; in fact, they were 30 percent less likely to introduce a new product in any given year.

It gets worse.

The UNfavored startups were 55 percent less likely to introduce a product.

Proximity mattered, too; those farther away from a shared investor were 56 percent less likely to introduce a new product.

What if your VC is part of the “golden circle?”

Companies tied to VCs in the top 25 percent of reputation indexes were significantly less likely to introduce new products in any given year.


And I’m willing to bet similar stats apply to super angels, regular angels, incubators and the rest of the funding world.

Rory McDonald’s research is just one more reason not to be blinded by the money and to make sure your due diligence is super-diligent when evaluating funding offers.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Entrepreneurs: Whose Money Do You Want?

Thursday, May 26th, 2016


When it comes to marketing, it’s always important to separate the reality from the hype.

Millennials are supposed to be especially good at ignoring the hype and are supposedly brand-immune.

But not when it comes to funding their dream.

When they’re hot for a deal, VCs will promise all kinds of active help, from introductions and actual engineering help to workspace and wisdom.

And when they’re wining, dining, waving their checkbooks and promising anything you ask it’s hard to remember your dudil.

That’s when it’s most important.

But don’t listen to me, listen to Vineet Jain, CEO and cofounder of cloud storage firm Egnyte.

“Most VC firms say we give you more than money. That’s complete hogwash.”

The same holds true for angels.

So, how do you do dudil on an angel or VC?

Search their name along with words, such as ‘sucks’, that are commonly used for complaints.

Ask your peers; not just the portfolio CEOs, but any who have been raising funds or been around for awhile.

And when you ask, shut up; don’t disagree and don’t argue. Just listen.

Plenty of time later to sort out what you’ve been told.

All relationships are based on trust; if an investor says what you want to hear, or what’s convenient, just to get the deal, then you should have a pretty good idea of just how much help they’ll be down the line.

Flickr image credit: 401kcalculator.org

Entrepreneurs: The Stupidity of Blue Flames

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here.5726760809_bf0bf0f558_m

As most of you know, I subscribe to CB Insights (you should, too). It’s written by co-founder Anand Sanwal — good info and he has a great sense of humor.

Yesterday, I learned that founders are sometimes described as “blue flame.” I’ve never heard this term since we founded CB Insights so it could be that (1) It’s not really a thing or (2) I’m not blue flame.

Basically, blue flame is defined as below:
It refers to young people, preferably in their 20s, with lots of energy and no kids.

A blue flame is a fire that is burning at its brightest. A blue flame founder is willing to do nothing but work, forgoing all else but the company.

Per Twitter, no VCs seem to have ever heard this phrase (or won’t admit it –Miki).

Hilariously, it also refers to people who are too old to invest in.  I wonder how they know the difference without seeing them.

While a founder may be “willing to do nothing but work, forgoing all else but the company” it is the height of either lunacy or stupidity for founders to expect their people to do the same.

Especially in light of recent comments from the likes of Mark Cuban.

“For employees and investors they are SOL [s— out of luck]. That is, unless these companies wise up and start going public … The VC attitude of not going public is crushing the dreams of tens of thousands of employees with options.”

It was different in the first boom, when it was investors who got the shaft.

“In ’01/’02 most of these companies were public, so it played out in the public market. You had companies that went public and then lost 90% of their value or went bankrupt. But in the interim, the employees got something out in the public markets. … Here, there’s no liquidity.” —Alfred Lin, Sequoia

It’s called liquidity and it’s what unicorns like Uber not only don’t offer, but can’t because the public markets won’t support their valuation — public markets have an old-fashioned focus on sustainable business models and profit. (For a detailed look read this from Mckinsey.)

All this just goes to show that whether you’re a six-figure knowledge worker or minimum wage slave, you are cannon fodder to your bosses and the money men.

Flickr image credit: s_p_a_c_e_m_a_n

If the Shoe Fits: Parker Conrad and Zenefits

Friday, February 19th, 2016

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mZenefits founder Parker Conrad traded over-the-top growth predictions for the kind of excessive funding that gooses valuation and earns the company unicorn status.

In doing so he did exactly what Sam Altman warns against, “If a company is profitable, the founder is in control. If it’s not, investors are in control.”

Investors brought pressure (it’s what they do), so corners were cut.

Zenefits never was and still isn’t profitable and, worse still, was cutting corners when those corners are highly regulated.

Now Conrad is out and new management will pick up the pieces.

Conrad could have learned from serial entrepreneur Xenios Thrasyvoulou, who warns, “sanity is more important than vanity” when it comes to fundraising and Andrew Wilkinson’s belief that revenue-based horses have it all over funding-based unicorns.

Instead, once again, the emperor has no clothes.

Image credit: HikingArtist

If the Shoe Fits: Lucas Duplan and Clinkle

Friday, January 29th, 2016

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mYesterday we looked at the bootstrapped success of Tuft & Needle and before that at bootstrapping serial entrepreneur Andrew Wilkinson.

All very successful sans venture money.

Sure, thousands of bootstrapped companies fail, as do hundreds of funded companies; some go with a bang and others with barely a whimper.

But a few provide a cautionary tale for both founders and investors.

Lucas Duplan’s Clinkle is one such tale

Clinkle was supposed to be what Apple Pay is today.

In what is termed a “party round” 22 year-old Duplan raised $25 million dollars, mostly in convertible notes, from high profile investors, including Richard Branson, Peter Thiel and Marc Benioff, as well as VCs Accel Partners, Index Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz.

“In a typical party round, no single investor cares enough to think about the company multiple times a day,” wrote Y Combinator President Sam Altman in a June 2013 blog post. “Each investor assumes that at least 1 of the N other investors will be closely involved, but in fact no one is, and the companies sometimes wander off into a very unfocused wilderness.”

However, in the 5 years since founding, 3 since funding, the company has done nothing, gone nowhere and in an almost unheard of action investors are asking for their money back.

Clinkle had a polished demo that came before things like Apple Pay, said one former employee, who declined to be named. But most importantly that person added, Duplan “was charismatic when he wanted to be” and could “raise money in absurd abundance.”

“It was his one skill,” they said. (Emphasis mine.)

The takeaway is beware of great stories, charm and party rounds where the person at the helm has never sailed a boat.

Knowing the correct names of the equipment doesn’t mean a person knows how to use it in the real world or in what order.

Image credit: HikingArtist



Entrepreneurs: Tuft & Needle’s Bootstrapped Success

Thursday, January 28th, 2016


You hear it all the time, “build a product that solves your own problem.”

That’s exactly what JT Marino and Daehee Park, both software engineers, did when they quit their jobs to create mattress company Tuft & Needle, seeding it with $3000 from each each of them.

They didn’t take venture money because they wanted to build the company for the long term and borrowed the money they needed to grow.

“The reason why we turned them down all those times is because we figured it would change the way we operate as a company.”

Instead, Marino, 30, and Park, 27, took out a $500,000 loan, at a rate of 10%, from Bond Street, one of the new breed of alternative lenders, in order to keep control of the company and continue doing things their own way.

They built the business online — no showrooms and no salespeople.

No hassles returning a mattress you hate. And, perhaps most important, no gimmicks on prices, which range from $350 for a twin to $750 for a king.

They’ve considered other products, even developed a few, but with no investors to force them to expand, they are focusing on the mattress business.

Is it paying off? Absolutely, so no problem meeting their loan payments.

By its first year in business, Tuft & Needle had reached $1 million in revenues. And then it just kept growing, hitting $9 million in 2014, then $42 million in 2015. This year, Marino and Park expect revenues to reach between $125 million and $225 million, a three- to five-fold increase over last year. And, yes, it’s profitable.

However, recognizing that not everyone, especially older buyers, are comfortable buying a mattress online, they are opening their first retail store at 637 King Street in San Francisco (where else?) — first and possibly last.

“It could very well be our first and last store, or it could be the first of many,” Marino says.

That’s the priceless reward for bootstrapping.

Call your own shots, experiment as you choose and stay true to your values.

Image credit: Tuft & Needle

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