AngelList Syndicates Half a Year Later

There we go. It has been 6 months since I started to join AngelList syndicates. It has been a wild ride ever since, with a few hiccups but an amazing AngelList team to get them solved. Probably being one of the first people from Germany to join a Syndicate, the first wire took two weeks as the automatic matching didn’t really work. Fixed. You couldn’t see when you sent which money and the history of your balance. Fixed. A lot more details have been ironed out, but all in all, even back then, after I took the leap, it was really easy. Join a syndicate, wait for deals to come in.

One of the important things is that wiring money from Germany to the United States takes AGES! Roughly a week to be exact. So if you join Syndicates that requires you to have the money on your AngelList account as the investments are pre approved, you need to have enough money on your account.

I am still undecided about some of the syndicates to join and how much to screen deals. Based on the 24 deals I saw and 21 that ended up as an investment, I have to say though that you do not get a lot of information anyway. That is not how this is supposed to work. You back people you trust to provide good deals or rather, the kind of deals, deal structure and investment philosophy you like. Like with investing into startups directly, you have to think whether you believe that person will be successful and have an idea (however wrong it might be) about why.

I did back Jeff Schox Syndicate for example. He owns a patent law firm and has a lot of customers and if he sees something very good, he invests … and takes the syndicate with him. Some very interesting past investments and already interesting deals in the syndicate. But first and foremost I understand which this might just work.

Another is Brock Pierce, whom I chatted with ages ago about another company he founded. He is starting to really have a name in the Bitcoin space, also being a Bitcoin Foundation Board Member. I know he is an entrepreneur at heart and has a brain that is hard to match. Why else would he have invested in Koinify, allowed me to back independently. I also would have backed his latest deal but I only came into the syndicate when it was closing and you can’t enter a syndicate deal anymore then it seems, even though there was still space left. Sad.

I have to admit that I am still undecided about Jason Calacanis syndicate and the separate funds Gil Penchina started (SaaS and Bitcoin) as the both have a size that requires / allows for larger deals and are moving into becoming more VC like structures and I am not sure yet if this is will work. Especially due to the speed that Jason is adding new deals, I am looking a lot closer at them. I like Syndicates as an addition to a good VC in a deal and both of them can do a deal alone. I am not sure if this works without a management fee that allows you to really have a support staff dedicated to the deals. They are working on those or already have them in place.

So what kind of investments are coming out of this, and I can’t talk about all of them yet.

OpenDoor happened with Khosla Ventures and lots of other people through Naval with Keith Rabois being one of the 4 founders. HoneyBook also through Naval includes Evan Williams, Michael Birch and others as main investors and is reshaping the events industry. Paintzen was a deal that came in through the Barabara Corcoran Venture Partners Syndicate … I invested with a Shark. :) Brilliant, Red Clay and Birdi came over Jason Calacanis. Vouch Financial via Gil Penchina with Greylock and First Round Capital.

Do I know that these investments will work? No. But I am making sure that I can spread my money over a lot of deals and have the time it takes to see if venture investment is successful. On top of that, based on the people I back, I do believe this has a very high chance of success. And don’t be fooled by the amount that I invest in companies listed on my profile. That is a only that high because I also invested into my latest startup, Giant Swarm, where we are working on changing how you as a developer handle your infrastructure both as a start and at scale. We are building this based on our experience having worked with everything from Metal and PaaS to IaaS providers and seeing that things like CoreOS and Docker can really change the game.

Once the syndicate model comes to germany I might actually want to look at getting a syndicate in as one of the investors. I need to get experience on the other side too. Then the only thing left would be having your own syndicate but for that I am too busy with making Giant Swarm a kick ass company.

Another Way to do AngelList Syndicates

After having solved the tax issues with joining AngelList Syndicates from Europe, I have joined several of them and it has been an interesting ride that will surely add another post about in the comment months. This is about something else.

Syndicates out there seem to be Market or Angel Focussed, but what about doing Syndicates that are focussed on what the startups need. This should really increase deal flow for those syndicates and allow them to pick and choose. An example would be the “Payment Syndicate” with people from Paypal, Stripe, Coinbase, Square, VISA and the like. Or the “RTB Syndicate” with leads from Google’s AdX, Facebook, MediaMath, Criteo and AppNexus.

Why the syndicates look like they do today is clear, they are just too young. But what is their future. At the moment they tend to look very similar to crowd funding, arguably with some pretty nice people. It should be more. It can be more. The above, the Need Focused Syndicate, should be there and establish a new category not of super angel based on them having more funds available, but a quasi virtual angel that is more than the sum of its parts.

Looking forward to seeing it happen.

Joining an Angellist Syndicate from Germany (or even Europe)

If you are from Europe and want to invest in an AngelList Syndicate, here is my experience getting the required paperwork finished. But first, some background for those who don’t know the syndicates system from AngelList.

AngelList Syndicates are a system to commit relatively small amounts of money, starting at $1000, to co-invest with angels on the platform. You essentially choose an angel you trust and back him, allowing that angel to invest higher amounts, their and your money. Gil Penchina for example has a personal syndicate. He will invest an average of $10.000 per deal, but can commit over $3 million from over 300 different backers. This allows him access to totally different deals and he earns (if he chooses to) a share of the potential profit, similar to how a VC makes money.

There are lots of questions whether angel investment make sense, but based on founding multiple companies, and interacting with some of the best angels in europe doing it, I can safely say that it can work very well indeed. One of the important items, also mentioned by AngelList COO Kevin Laws, is that you invest in a lot of different companies to spread your risk. This makes Syndicates even more interesting. If you want to commit $40.000 to angel investing in an asset class type of way, you will need to do 40 $1000 deals to spread your risk. This is not possible by yourself, but possible on AngelList. (Note: It is still risky though :))

There is one specific FAQ entry though that is important for people outside of the US: Can investors outside the U.S. back syndicates?

Yes they can, but they should have a Tax Identification Number, or TIN. DISCLAIMER: I AM NO TAX ACCOUNTANT AND THIS COULD BE WRONG! But at least it is some answer :)

Due to many Angels in Europe investing from Investment Holding Companies, I will look at the process for investing from such a company. As a company you need an Employer Identification Company (EIN). The “Employer” part is misleading. The reason is that AngelList needs to know what to do about Taxes payable in the US when you join such a syndicate, as it is organised via AngelList. Without a TIN, they will just withhold the normal Tax on investing income, roughly 30% from my knowledge.

(Update: I think you might also be able to get an EIN instead of an ITIN as an individual, but you need to have registered a business, even if it is not an LLC. But research that yourself and/or leave a comment. :))

Through form W-8ben (instructions), you can notify the fund in case of an exit that there is a tax treaty between your country and the US. This way, they can send over the entire amount without withholding taxes. Pay attention though that there is a new form for foreign companies to use called W-8ben-e, which is so new it does not even have instructions. For now you can still use the old 2006 version of the W-8ben. So this will not stop to be fun. :)

Important now is the EIN. In all honesty, it is actually pretty well explained on the IRS site, if you can find it. Finding the right form is really the hardest part. But here are the two links you need:

Now the cool part: You can call the IRS and get your number directly. The relevant office is in Philadelphia and opening hours are 7am till 10pm (wow!). I suggest, and they do too, that you fill out the form to be prepared for what the IRS agent will ask you. But the important items are this:

  • You want to do investments into US startups
  • You are doing so from an investment holding that is an LLC in your country
  • You are the sole owner
  • You are doing this to receive a reduced rate of withholding pursuant to an income tax treaty
  • Keep the address of the company at hand

After 5 minutes you will have your EIN and be ready to join a syndicate. Have fun.

Book Review: The Year without Pants by Scott Berkun

First off, it’s a great book. In The Year without Pants Scott Berkun gives a good view into the daily workings and culture of Automattic, the company WordPress among others. Here are some of my highlights from my Kindle.

He starts with the basic idea that WordPress supports:

Product creators are the true talent of any corporation, especially one claiming to bet on innovation. The other roles don’t create products and should be there to serve those who do. A classic betrayal of this idea is when the IT department dictates to creatives what equipment they can use. If one group has to be inefficient, it should be the support group, not the creatives. If the supporting roles, including management, dominate, the quality of products can only suffer.

While this is a really black and white view, it provides a good guideline for people that do not believe it. I always said that I do not want mere managers but impact, but by now I am happy to say that a good support group will improve performance a great deal. There are a few very nice words for new and old WordPress recruits:

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

I like the general idea of such words and I really like that they are clear and specific. Often something like that is a lot of blah blah. Scott is taking a lot of time to discuss the idea of working remotely, with some good points, e.g.:

Most people doubt online meetings can work, but they somehow overlook that most in-person meetings don’t work either.

The inability to scale is one of the stupidest arguments against a possibly great idea: greatness rarely scales, and that’s part of what made it great in the first place.

WordPress really has a simple way of working, something that Scott later says might be holding WordPress back from solving and building the real challenging and long running problems. Normally there are 7 steps for building things at WordPress.

  1. Pick a Problem
  2. Write Support and Launch Page
  3. Consider what data will tell you it worked
  4. Get to work
  5. Launch
  6. Learn
  7. Repeat

This is mainly made possible though being a real product led company. Everybody working at Automattic uses their products and wants to improve their products. Everyone is their own product manager. It is really interesting to think about whether this works in general or if it only worked as they had the time to turn profitable with the model and that without time pressure.

The responsibility of people in power is to continually eliminate useless traditions and introduce valuable ones. An organization where nothing ever changes is not a workplace but a living museum. […] The most striking expression of this is that management is seen as a support role. The company stays as flat as possible for this reason. Schneider described his philosophy in this way: 1. Hire great people. 2. Set good priorities. 3. Remove distractions. 4. Stay out of the way.

This is actually similar to what Dee Hock said. You hire great people and then get out of their way. This is something I fully believe in. But it is extremely hard. Getting out of the way is actually harder than standard management. This is also true for remote work, it is surprisingly hrd to do. And one problem I saw is that you need to find a way to “come home” if you work from home.

Remote work is merely physical independence, and the biggest challenge people who work remotely face is managing their own psychology. Since they have more independence, they need to be masters of their own habits to be productive, whether it’s avoiding distractions, staying disciplined on projects, or even replacing the social life that comes from conventional work with other friendships.

One of the most fascinating parts of wordpress is how much they use data to make decisions and how much data they track, while at the same time allowing people to self manage and try things out.

data paradox: no matter how much data you have, you still depend on your intuition for deciding how to interpret and then apply the data. […] When a culture shifts too far into faith in data, people with great intuitions leave. […] Data was recorded about employees too, and not just their Happiness statistics. Since P2s were visible to all, MC recorded basic information about everyone’s activity. […] The general advice you’d hear is that everyone should be active and communicate, but there were no quotas. It was a scoreboard, but one you had to go out of your way to find, much like my experience during my support tour. There was a mature balance of reporting data yet leaving people free to decide what they meant or how much they wanted to use in their thinking. […] However, the only way the world learns of what makers makes, whether it’s art or trash, is when they’re brave enough to say it’s done and put it out into the world.

And the management system is very hands off, even in light of problems. I can really relate to that problem in some environments where the risk of an error is seen as more important than the chance of success.

Defensive management is blind to recognizing how obsessing about preventing bad things also prevents good things from happening or sometimes even prevents anything from happening at all.

Yep, you need to break things.

As a rule, everyone who launched something was expected to stay online for a few hours to ensure things went smoothly.

This made me laugh out load. I always had the same rule when talking to people, or a little bit harsher version of this. Sure, do something, you can break anything, just make sure you have the time to fix it. You break it, you fix it.

How can they work without schedules? How can there be no safeguards? Why wouldn’t things blow up and collide all the time? A major reason it works at Automattic is belief in a counterintuitive philosophy: safeguards don’t make you safe; they make you lazy. People drive faster, not more slowly, in cars with antilock brakes.

And very important: People do not want to break things. They want to serve happy customers.

Now for a few words that ring very true to me, especially the clarity part. You need to KNOW what you want and you need to make sure everyone understands it.

Ambiguity makes everyone tolerant of incompetence. […] What I didn’t want was to spend days riffing on yet more ideas, only to return home was as much ambiguity as when we’d arrived. The bottleneck is never code or creativity; it’s lack of clarity. […] you never invest more in your flank than your front line. If you did, you’d always be defensive, not offensive.

As to working remotely, here is the key point that Scott comes up with after having worked at WordPress for some time.

Many Automatticians, including Mullenweg, believe that distributed work is the best possible arrangement. I don’t quite agree. There is personal preference involved in how people want to work and what they expect to get from it. For me, I know that for any important relationship, I’d want to be physically around that person as much as possible. If I started a rock band or a company, I’d want to share the same physical space often. The upsides outweigh the downsides. However, if the people I wanted to work with were only available remotely, I’m confident we could do great work from thousands of miles away.

He also tried to add a bit of management system to get the big ideas going, but …

All combined, Automattic had a unique relationship to friction:

  • No formal schedules
  • Little competitive pressure
  • No influence from marketers
  • Minimal hierarchy/flat structure

Most people work at places with high friction from these sources and struggle to imagine working without them. There are entire jobs, like project management, based on applying friction and driving schedules. As work on Highlander and Jetpack intensified, I had to find ways to introduce friction into a culture that hadn’t felt it before.

He also again talks about great teams and that great teams beat any methodology.

Too often teams are imprisoned by methodologies when they should be empowered by them (a sentiment captured in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, a set of simple principles for making software1). Methodologies are often another bad friction that managers impose, putting more faith in a bunch of rules than in the people they’ve hired. I’d take a great team with bad methods over a lousy team with great methods any day.

This also means that your focus should be on building great teams first and foremost. All else will follow.

A good idea: Always start with the interface first!

The natural mistake engineers make is to build from the bottom up. They leave the user interface last, assuming it is the least complex technology. This is wrong. Humans are much more complex than software, and since the interface has to interact with people, it’s the most difficult to do well.

And a last one, why I really still do not want titles that mean anything too specific.

Organizations become bureaucratic as soon as people define their job around a specific rule, or feature, rather than a goal.

Great book. Go buy it if you want to learn about the future of management.

My Apps of 2013

There are lots of lists out there and ideas for the future. But by now I am old enough to know that I am as clueless as the next guy to know the future. What I do know is what I used the last year and that might actually prove interesting for some of you.

So here we go. While I did buy a Nexus 5 to play with Android, iPhone is still my main platform. I left out special iPad software for now but this will give you enough information and maybe some apps that will not have been on your horizon up till now.

So what did I use?

  • Audible – I love audio books and listened to a lot of them in 2012.
  • Instacast – The other thing I love is podcasts, what better to listen to in the car then a bit of Entrepreneurial thought leader series from Standford, or Geekstammtisch, or TWiT.
  • Spotify – I finally ditched my entire music collection. I am still not warming up to the fact that I should share my car, or not own a car (or several), but I did understand that “owning” my music is stupid. I listen to so much more new and different stuff like this it is scary. Mind you, I did backup my music collection ;)
  • Instapaper – It is part of my remember all.
  • Kindle – Reading books, I’d say 80% on the Kindle. And more and more of my “normal” friends now use a Kindle too. Actually one friend already said that she uses the Apple iBook Store… because she likes turning pages. It’s the small things that matter :)
  • reeder using Feedly – I used Google reader before, and now I use Feedly and am back where I was. I still absolutely need RSS for consuming my news.
  • Simplenote – I am using different text editors from time to time but I always end up with Simplenote because it just makes working with texts and finding old ones so much easier.
  • Circa – This is the first news app that I end up opening again and again. Simply brilliant concept.
  • Dropbox – I tried Google Drive, Bitcasa, Copy, lots of them… but Dropbox ends up being the one that I use most.
  • WordPress – Still blogging here even though we moved Catalyst Zero to Ghost. I will probably move there some time too, or maybe not, who knows about the future.
  • Evernote – By now, this is a big part of the rememberall.
  • Amazon – The app is actually great. Makes me buy more from Amazon … wait … is that really good? ;)
  • Vivino – The first wine app I am really using. Scanning wines by taking pictures is great and it is wonderful to have a list of all the wines you own with more information. Buy the pro version.
  • Google maps – Still not warmed up with Apple Maps.
  • Moves – Yes, this is really the one and only quantified self app I am using again and again. Everything else I stopped using up will now.
  • Withings – Yes I have the scale. And I love it. Period. Might be getting other stuff from them simply because it is a great company.
  • Asana – We are using it as a task management system at CØ and I am starting to really grow fond of it.
  • Coinbase – My bitcoin wallet of choice.

That completes my list of most used apps for 2013 and I hope you found something to look at.

How to Manager Your Bitcoin from Germany

I thought this might be on the mind of some, so I should just write a short post about it. You might want to choose Bitcoin.de as your exchange, but they are only on their way to be a real exchange. At the moment they are just facilitating dealings between you without bitcoin and somebody else with bitcoin and you need to wire money to their accounts. This is why the trust score at Bitcoin.de is so important. With full Integration with the Fidor Bank this will be easier. The process will on the surface be the same just that people with Fidor bank accounts will have that system fully automated.

Easier and a lot more liquid is using Bitstamp to buy your coins. Yes, you will be wiring your money into a foreign country, but the exchange is liquid and you will be easily and quickly buying bitcoins without further wire transfers.

Then comes the question of where to store your bitcoins. You need to remember that Bitcoins are like a wallet and you wouldn’t walk around with thousands of EURs in your wallet either. Hence you need it somewhere secure. The safest I have found is Coinbase. First of all they raised money from Union Square Ventures, which gives them a bit credibility. Second, they are employing a different system in that you do not have a wallet there but you can generate multiple wallet ids that never really hold any bitcoin. You have an internal Account with Coinbase and they take care of moving 90% of your bitcoins into secure offline storage. And for those even more paranoid, you can use their paper wallet system to print a wallet and move it into your safe.

Paying with bitcoin is still a bit harder and too hard actually in the offline world for my taste. It was easy with Coinbase’s iPhone App, but that has been removed from the AppStore by Apple. This will of course change in the future. To keep up to date on all the Bitcoin news, I suggest Coindesk.

How to hire great people

For the above subject, Google always were the light posts out there, especially with their hard questions, brainteasers and numbers driven approach. Now Google admits that the brain teasers really aren’t worth the time spent in the interview. This is not really too surprising I think, but having it come from Google, who simply analysed the interview data and later performance appraisals of their employees, is something else.

But, I still like those brain teasers, but for something completely different. I couldn’t care less how people answered, and in Google’s numbers approach, that obviously has value. They grade the answer.

To understand my view, please read the most important sentence ever written about hiring by Dee Hock from Birth of the Chaordic Age:

Hire and promote first on the basis of integrity; second, motivation; third, capacity; fourth, understanding; fifth, knowledge; and last and least, experience. Without integrity, motivation is dangerous; without motivation, capacity is impotent; without capacity, understanding is limited; without understanding, knowledge is meaningless; without knowledge, experience is blind. Experience is easy to provide and quickly put to good use by people with all the other qualities.

This was our guiding light in all our hiring talks. That, and including the entire team in the decision.

And you can use different means to look at the different parts of the above sentence, but brain teasers actually provide an answer to some of them. It’s not about the answer, but about getting people out of their comfort zone, see their reaction in a weird question, and look at their approach to the answer. Did they answer at all or did they say that they do not do stupid stuff like this. Did they think around it to provide an educated guess or calculate it through? There are a million things you can do but it does provide an idea of how they are thinking, visual, analytical, by example, … . I do agree with Google though that having a real problem to talk about, and talking about something they did in the past, what they are proud of, that kept them awake.

So yes, answers to brain teasers aren’t worth something, but the how of the answer still might hold value.

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