Andy Tryba, Founder & CEO at Think3, talks about his thoughts on exits and why you should sell your startup. He suggests that the more times you sell (or exit in general), that you’ll be able to start another startup and make it more successful than the first one. He says “Because, certainly, as you get to startup four or five, you’ve learned a lot, versus startup one and two. As a result, your chances and your odds to be able to actually take more shots on goal enables you to statistically have a better chance of actually then making that unicorn.” So, in other words, stop wasting your life. Know when it’s time to sell your company. Get out there and make another unicorn.
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Full Transcript Below
Andy Tryba | Founder & CEO at Think3
Good morning. Just a quick show of hands in here. How many people in here have founded at least one company or are currently founders? Okay, great. Awesome. I love talking to founders. I’ve founded five companies or so within the last 15 years. The latest is kind of this fund that I’ll tell you about. As entrepreneurs, we basically …Ooh, we got all kinds of issues here. Well, so, I don’t know. This thing doesn’t work, maybe? Ooh. There we go.
As entrepreneurs, we always go through this. No matter what company you’re starting, literally you could be inventing cold fusion and there’s always people out there that are like, “The idea is dumb. It’s never going to work. You’re dumb.” It’s just always this barrage of negativity that gets thrown at your concept and your idea.
As founders, we are perpetually optimistic because we not only have to hear this from your husband or your wife, your grandma, your investors, your potential customers, we constantly have to overcome that and even pitch it to our employees, and what have you. I think that it creates this sense of optimism that you believe, you start believing after a while. It’s really important for us to, as founders, to keep that optimism in place.
This is going to be a bit of an issue here. Am I like supposed to point this at something? Great.
As entrepreneurs, of course, we all are basically the guy sitting here on the couch, where like we do everything under the sun. This is one of those that like, it doesn’t matter if you’re a startup founder and if you have one person and two people working for you, or you’ve got a company of a hundred or a thousand, you’re still kind of doing this, the same model here.
We go through these crazy highs and lows where, again, you’re super excited at the beginning of when you thought of your idea, and you kind of get it up and going. You get your first initial investments out there, and the roller coaster’s going up. You then realize, “Oh, wow. It’s actually really hard to do what I’m trying to do. There’s a reason why someone hasn’t done this yet.” Then you kind of go through that.
You get your first customer and then you’re like, “Oh, wow. Now I actually need to go get funding,” and all this other good jazz. You literally go through these crazy ups and downs. Literally, sometimes this could be within a matter of minutes.
In this model, this actually shouldn’t be said, this shouldn’t just say, “first day at the startup.” This is basically any day at a startup where you have no parachute. You might have left your corporate job, hanging out, what have you, with all the safety and you’re like, “I’m going to go take this risk.”
I think that there’s a certain level of confidence and there’s this risk taking that I love about founders, and I always love talking to founders as a result.
When you look at the amount actually invested in startups over the last five years, it’s literally more than doubled on a global basis. It was about a 65 billion or so in 2013. This last year, it was anywhere between 145 and $160 billion. Literally, other than perhaps the craziness of the dot-com era, there’s been no better time to go and actually be a founder.
The numbers you’re putting up there, are you cutting this off at like Series B or something? Because to start by putting a billion dollars into something is great capital.
Sure, yeah. I know exactly. Well, there’s obviously the large spectrum of investments where you have some … That’s also another good point where being an entrepreneur, there’s opportunities now to actually get billions of dollars, which is something that simply wouldn’t happen in the past.
All that to say, it’s been an unbelievable ride to be able to be a founder. Literally, I can think of no better time throughout history to be a founder.
Now, the other side of the equation though that most people don’t talk about … The formatting is a bit little bit off here. The actual number of exits is actually down pretty substantially over the last four years. Where, so you’re getting more and more money infused into startups and you’re having more startups being funded and started around the world. Yet, what ends up happening is that if there’s not some kind of exit plan, then you’re stuck with your company for longer.
This is what’s actually occurring here and this is, again, the formatting’s a bit off here. Between buyouts, IPOs and what have you, basically, you’re now averaging seven or eight years even to have some type of exit. Even that, from a statistic percentage, is down substantially. You’re in a scenario where you have all this money coming into the industry, but companies are actually staying private much, much longer. As an entrepreneur, you’re in a situation where you’re saying, “Hey, what are my options?”
One of these days I’m going to get this here.
As a result, for the companies that are growing revenues that … What Jason talk about from a triple, triple, double in revenue perspective, that’s fine. You continue to grow, continue to be private, continue to do what you’re doing, and it’s actually a great model but that’s a minority of the companies, of course.
The other 70%, we’re in a situation where you’re literally killing your career because the fact that it’s lasting longer to have some type of exit, enables it so that you actually have less shots on goal, and you have less opportunities to actually go and create your next unicorn.
If you think about your typical entrepreneurial lifespan, it’s roughly about 15 years or so. I mean, at some point you’re sick of eating ramen noodles. Your husband or your wife is like, “All right, we need to start paying for college education.” I mean, you really, you don’t have an infinite amount of time to do startups.
If you’re in a scenario where you’re taking seven or eight years for the first startup and another seven or eight years for the second startup, you really only have two shots on goal. No matter what game you’re playing, if you only take two shots, the probability of you actually succeeding in either one of those two shots is low.
I mean, it doesn’t matter if you’re actually playing a game or if you’re writing a term paper, but certainly, my first draft … I think back towards the first company I started, and all the learnings that I took into my second company. You learn substantially time and time again.
Again, if you’re in a scenario where, again, all this money’s coming in but there’s no actual exit model, then you end up in a scenario where, again, people have less shots on goal.
Now, VCs, of course, have known this for years. They have a portfolio based approach, which is super intelligent. Where no matter how much VCs say, “Oh, we love your company,” and what have you, there’s no world that they’re betting their entire fund on your company.
They hedge their bets, because they know that even in the perfect conditions, not all companies are going to succeed. Even in the perfect conditions, that you need to have multiple bets on the plate because sometimes you have no idea which of them end up becoming your unicorn to make your fund and which of them, of course, end up kind of going away.
Now as a founder, however, you’ve got one dot. It’s rare that a founder starts five companies at the same time. Elon maybe is a rare exception, but it’s rare. You have, basically, this one bet that you’re looking to make and it’s not a portfolio-based approach. As a result of that, you are betting everything on this one, versus the portfolio.
We fundamentally believe that, again, getting back to that 15 year time horizon, is that if we can enable and encourage entrepreneurs to actually take more shots on goals within that 15 year time period, it’s better for everyone. If you’re in a scenario where every three years that you’re making a decision on whether or not this is going to be your unicorn or not, and then having a way to be able to actually monetize and exit that is actually better.
Because, certainly, as you get to startup four or five, you’ve learned a lot, versus startup one and two. As a result, your chances and your odds to be able to actually take more shots on goal enables you to statistically have a better chance of actually then making that unicorn.
If you look, actually, at unicorns, the Cowboy Ventures actually did a really interesting … Ooh.
Cowboy Ventures actually did a really interesting analysis of unicorns. The three pieces that actually caught my attention were, one, that 90% of these teams had actually worked together in the past. These were experienced team members that had worked together in one way, form or fashion. They could have been, they worked together in college. It could have been they’ve done companies together, whatever it may be. Nonetheless, literally 90% of them were actually teams that worked together.
The second stat that actually kind of piqued my interest is that they’re not all 20-something-year-old kids that are making these unicorns. The average age of the founders is 34. Now, to some of us, 34 is still really young. Nonetheless, it’s not your 20-year-old Zuckerberg startup that’s actually the norm. It’s actually much older than that.
Then the other element of it is that 90% of these companies actually never pivoted. Where, pivot is always one of these interesting terms that we’ve developed over time. Where it used to be that pivot meant, “Oh, shit. My idea didn’t work and I need to go do something else, and change the company in that way.” Now it’s like, “Oh, we just went through another pivot,” and what have you.
Most of these companies, actually, they do nail it on the first time. There’s, obviously, tweaks along the way and what have you, but nonetheless, it is that first time. If you’re in a scenario where you’ve been doing your company for seven or eight years and if you’re, again, if you’re growing and tripling, double and tripling revenues, that’s great.
If you’re not and you’re growing companies and your company’s doing fine, growing at 20 or 30% of whatever else it may be, the question is, “Do you believe that revenue will actually increase over time?” Which is unlikely. Revenue, as a percentage, actually, a growth percentage, actually declines over time.
Or is it actually time to make an analysis and say, “Hey, you know what? That was my first shot on goal. I’m going to then go to my second shot on goal. I’m going to go to my third shot on goal,” and continue to actually be able to monetize what you’ve been able to build.
We’ve been buying companies now for the better part of 20 years. We’ve bought about 60 companies or so. These quotes are some that I hear time and time again from the CEOs.
The first one is a company that we bought that, we actually did approach them and we’re like, “Hey, listen. We’d love to buy your company.” They’re like, “No, no, no. We’re going to go through another pivot. We’ve got some money in the bank still from VCs, and we’re going to go make that happen.”
Unfortunately, I love this last quote, which was they knew in their heart that it wasn’t going to … The horse wasn’t going to grow a horn. They wasted that 18 months, which is incredibly valuable. Time is by far the most valuable asset that we all have. Unfortunately, we don’t treat it in the same way as we treat our bank accounts.
The second quote is the same deal. Where this company, we actually bought. We went to them, we said, “Hey, listen. We love your company.” They actually ended up going bankrupt after another pivot and then we ended up buying them at a bankruptcy.
We went and talked to that founder and, again, it was like another two and a half years that they spent on this. Literally, that entire two and a half years is wasted time in their life, where they could have been going out and doing something different and using those key learnings.
The reason we started this fund was really to be entrepreneur centric. Well, we’re not bankers, we’re not operators … We’re not bankers, we’re operators in that, and we realize that if you can enable a model where founders themselves can actually have this means of being able to really understand where they’re at from a company perspective, you really know in that three year time period whether or not this particular startup is going to go to the moon or whether or not it’s a fine company, and it’s time to actually sell it.
We created this model, literally for entrepreneurs, to be able to say, “Hey, listen. Let’s give you guys an out.” Let’s make it so that we, as an entrepreneur community, can then say, “Listen, you know what, I’m going to treat these as shots on goal,” versus, I’m going to say that, “This is my one bat that I have throughout my career.” Because that’s just simply not the case.
I mean, you guys are all creative people and you know that you have tons of other ideas that you’d love to go build on. There hasn’t really been an avenue to be able to go and enable entrepreneurs to go and free up that intellectual capital.
That’s why we raised this fund. It’s about a billion dollar fund. We buy SaaS companies. We buy SaaS companies anywhere from $2 million a year in ARR, all the way up to $400 million or so in ARR. Again, it’s intended to be able to take more shots on goal.
Unlike other firms where you, obviously, if your company is purchased, they want you to stick around. Like, “Hey, listen. I bought this company because I believe in, not only your idea but I believe in and you and I want to make sure that you stick around.” Which again, defeats the purpose. Like a lot of times you want to go do another startup and go take those ideas, and yet you’re sitting around waiting for some type of option clause to get done.
What we do is the exact opposite. What we do is basically say, “Hey, listen, okay, great. In four weeks we’ll do the diligence, but then in the next hundred days, we’re going to transition out you and your team. You can take whoever you want, and you guys can go start another company. We’ll actually even give you $500,000 in a no-equity seed round.” Where literally, this is more or less a gift per se, where it’s like, “Listen, here’s another $500,000.”
Because a lot of times, no matter what happened with the companies, you still need some kind of funding to be able to go and get the new one up and going. That’s what we do there. Then there’s also a million dollar option but that has to then have some equity.
Nonetheless, the whole intent of this, again, is to be able to sit around and be able to enable founders that, again, have a great company but then really have reached the limits of what that company is really going to do.
Then I believe, again, fundamentally that similar to the unicorn slide, that there’s just so much potential when you learn from the previous learnings that you can go, and again, create even more value out in industry.
This is our last acquisition. It’s a company called Business Apps. They basically make it so that it’s, for small businesses, it’s easy for small businesses to have IOS and Android apps. They have, basically, a templated app model. It doesn’t take a lot of technical knowledge to kind of drag and drop, submit it to the store and you’re good to go.
This is another classic case where this company is doing great. It was growing. I want to say that it was growing at a 30% per year, but Andrew had been doing it for eight years and he knew that even though the growth rate had been good over that eight year time period, that there’s no world where Business Apps was going to become a unicorn. There’s no world where this was suddenly going to become Uber.
He’s like, “Great. You know what? I want to go start this additional company in the blockchain space. Let me actually enable a model where I can actually take this company and put it into good hands so that the company actually continues, so that I can actually go do something else.” That’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re literally in the middle of this transition period.
Him and his staff are training up our folks so that we can run the business, ideally, again, for the next 10 to 20 years. We buy these companies not to lever them up with DAT and shine them up to sell. We actually buy these to operate them and run them over the next decade.
This is what we’re doing. With Andrew and his team right now, we’ve got a product, per se, that we call Fuse. We’re going through all the knowledge transfers. The red zone deal transfers. We’re doing peer support. We’re doing peer programming so that we can kind of learn the business to be able to, again, enable Andrew to go take his key staff to go and go start his next company.
It’s a bit of a unique model, but the whole reason, again, we do that is to enable people like Andrew, who I think is a great entrepreneur, to be able to go and take his team and go start something new.
One of these days, I’m going to get this.
Okay. We, again, we fundamentally believe that if you can enable an easier way for founders to be able to take their concepts and to be able to go monetize it, but not really wait for the IPO and all that other good jazz, then you can, again, unlock tons of this social and economic value.
What we do believe, that it takes a ton of experience to go build successful companies and sometimes you nail it out of the chute, but more times than not, the first one was great, the second one’s even better.
We’ve created this to be able to, again, create that transactional model where we’re going to run these companies for, again, the next decade or so. We want to encourage entrepreneurship and we want to encourage people to really look at their companies.
Though I’m, again, a big fan of founders and I’m a big fan of being perpetual optimists, and what have you, really looking at the trend line over the last three years and really saying, “Okay. What is the exit velocity needed for me to be able to go and monetize this?” Then being honest about where that is. Then saying, again, “If there is a means to be able to monetize it, let me go do that, and then let’s go, and go start the next one.”
That’s it for me.