The musings of a former London PE guy turned Silicon Valley technophile
With a lot of fundraising activity going on the the valley these days, founders of successful startups are finding themselves oversubscribed with VCs trying to give them their money. Founders have the ball in their court on terms and can potentially liquidate some of their stock.
I’m all for hardworking founders of companies getting paid for their hard work. If they built a business that is worth $1 billion in a year – they should definitely be paid for it. But EVERYONE at the company that helped to build success should be paid for it.
I think it’s wrong when founders try to cash out too early. I understand the perspective that founders may need liquidity to buy a house, pay off their loans, etc. and I’m all for it.
Is it just me or is there something wrong when founders use a majority of capital they just raised to pay themselves? This was the case in Groupon and Andrew Mason pulling out $30m before the company going public. Groupon went from a $30 bn company to now a $6 bn dollar company in 3 months.
And now it’s the same with Air BnB…
Recently it was leaked that Chamath Palihapitiya wrote an email to Brian Chesky of Air BnB. I think this email is totally spot on and so well written. Too bad it was leaked for Chamath’s sake…
This what probably led Drew Houston and Dropbox to keep all stock in the company…
Email from Chamath to Chesky:
From: Chamath Palihapitiya
Date: Sat, 1 Oct 2011 11:16:05 -0700
To: Brian Chesky
Subject: Airbnb financing…
Cc Marc, Reid, my deal team
Thanks again for giving me the chance to participate in your latest financing. I had a chance to review the docs at length yesterday and I wanted to follow up as, quite honestly, I’ve never seen a deal like this over ~60 investments I’ve done and I’m pretty concerned.
I’m all for getting the best valuation you can, minimizing dilution and maximizing control. We did this brilliantly at Facebook…all of our financings (except our first $$$ from Peter Thiel) were done not out of necessity but opportunity. As such, our investors had virtually no control and it resulted in a much better outcome. As we’ve discussed, I generally don’t believe investors add much to a success story and so minimizing their impact is a great strategy when you are onto something that is working.
This said, while several of these concepts are reflected in the current deal, there is one big thing that I am fundamentally against and violates my principles and will prevent me from participating in your round. When I saw that you guys were taking $31M out of the company, I didn’t think much of it as I just assumed it would entirely be via a secondary sale.
But as I understand the deal, it seems that you are doing only $9.6M in secondary and $22.5M as a dividend to common (of which $21M goes to you and your co-founders). I am really uncomfortable with this and don’t think its in the spirit of building a good, long term business. Effectively, it is a strategy that allows you guys to take money out of the business and not dilute yourself — I’m not sure why this is such a big deal when you guys are almost 90% vested and the financing is at $1.2B where your dilution is marginal. Further, it excludes many of the employees that probably have helped you and your co–founders get the company to this place as most of these folks probably don’t have any stock but have unexercised stock options and thus won’t get a dividend.
My basic principle on this stuff is that if you want liquidity, that’s fine, but you should make it available to everyone. Otherwise, no one should get it. Your current deal is the farthest away from this principle that I’ve seen in a while…this strategy has been done once before — at Groupon. We can see how “well” they are doing and how short term the investor community is now viewing their motives. I really think you can do better than this…and that you are better than this.
Separately, when you look at successful tech companies, it seems that dividends are an approach used by cash rich operations to distribute excess earnings — in fact, the most successful, cash rich tech company in the world, Apple, hasn’t issued a dividend and they have more than $75B in cash! Again, while I think Airbnb will be a good company, this is nowhere near the truth now — you guys still need to scale and build this thing for the future.
I really think you are onto something but I would implore you to not take the easy way out. Treat your employees the same as you’d treat yourself. Do things that you will be proud of and can defend to anyone including your Board, employees, prospective hires etc. In such a competitive hiring market, you are competing with not just your obvious competitors, but also any successful tech company who is also looking for great talent. A principle that treats your employees as well as you’d treat yourself is a huge strategy for differentiation, retention and long term happiness of the exact types of people you will need to be successful. In contrast, if you are viewed as self-dealing and shady, it will only hurt your long term prospects…
In summary, I’m passing on this financing because I strongly disagree with what’s going on. I’m not sure who advocated this approach but I did mention this to Reid [Hoffman, another Airbnb investor via Greylock Partners] last night and he was of a similar mind to myself and surprised this was the approach being taken. If you want some good advice — I would ask that you consider pinging him about different ways to think about going about the liquidity portion.
If you change your mind on how to close this financing, let me know and I’d love to reconsider. Otherwise, good luck and lets keep in touch.