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.

A small collection of big data articles

The clearing of the Instapaper continues this time about big data.

Let’s start with the old ones with sequoia and accel pumping $70 million into a Big Data Startup. The Market for Big Data heated up. Here is an interview by Accel’s Ping Li on why Big Data will reshape the enterprise. And I have to say, most in enterprise still do not get it. Qubit is doing it for ecommerce.

Check out this very good overview on how Disney built their Big Data Platform on a Budget. We are actually in the shovel phase, in that the tools are just coming about. Check out a good post about the general market of BI and Big Data here.

We are so hyped that people are talking about killing the term. I really liked a recent definition though that Big Data starts when you stop caring about how much data it is. :)

The last year in advertising

Ok, I am on a role. Followed by ads for shoes I have already bought, I have lots of tabs open for articles in my advertising folder on Instapaper and I wanted to see what is in there and write about it.

It starts off with one of the most promising companies out there called Rocket Fuel and in February 2012 the announced their first profitable quarter. The nice thing about Rocket Fuel is that they seem to succeed at getting branding budgets into the RTB world or online world in general by using a fully metric based approach but on different metrics. Visits of a second page of the site, time of stay, registrations, downloads, you name it, they optimize on numbers but numbers that you make out as furthering your goal, whatever that is.

This online impact is actually something Google is studying as they know they need something more than clicks to really get branding online. This is true for video as for everything else. One problem gets left out there though, in that online is still too fragmented to really make high volume buys. This is something RTB will solve for sure. In its most basic terms, RTB means that you live with fragments but make them into complete pictures in a programmatic way. And fragmentation is just a fact and continuing. Online is growing and people are using more than one device on top of that. The last link is actually a great dataset with lot os stuff, and also shows why Yahoo! bought Tumblr.

26-time-spent-with-social-networking-sites

In the same report from 2010 to 2011 you already see that banner ads are really growing. All in all, great report to look at even though old by now. And I am looking forward to see mobile grow. It was small beginning 2012, tiny actually, and it is still small and really different than standard online, especially when talking about advertising for apps. Of course BVDW says mobile ads stick in the head, but hey, why wouldn’t they.

Nice chart from last year is here, for the performance in the news feed at Facebook. And now you can imagine what it means that they opened up the news feed for retargeting through the FBX. Kabooom. When you are thinking about retargeting, also read this one about what to look out for in general. This will be big. While we are on targeting, check out a good SEL post on Search Retargeting. I was fortunate enough to be being able to listen to a Google Hangout for Adwords help for Startups. First off, yes you need to spend a lot of money to get in, but, there is a treasure trove of targeting options … but you likely need a doctor or deep advertising background to understand them. No wonder agencies and customers are confused.

If it comes to targeting, this ultimately leads to RTB again and the question for publishers: To RTB or Not to RTB. Tough one. I am a technology nut and I would say that you need to go all in, but I do like the strategy to come from the image text space, move that to RTB and go from there. Less risk for the branding business there. But it is not easy getting there.

While we are at RTB, here is a good article on why Google bought Admeld. RTB is High Frequency Trading in the Advertising space and you need QPS (queries per seconds) to make it work. This means that you need more traffic and more bids per adimpression. And when size matters, data matters, and then get a data scientist :). Will data scientists be the new media buyers? Imagine all the physics and math students in an agency environment … boy culture clash ;) Here is a good article about looking at ETFs versus Intent. Great. I still remember root.net as your intent trading system from back in the golden days :) And if you really want to go deep on what RTB really means from a tech standpoint, good article here.

And when you think about all that data, who gets all that data? Google. Discussions if they are a monopoly are still going strong. My view, not sure about the monopoly bit, but hindering competition, sure. And that is why Google is also not giving up on TV because Connected TV Standards will be huge and they will just need to figure out how to integrated user ids across devices, everybody except Google that is, as they already can. Let’s see what Do-Not-Track can do against it.

While people focussing on TV try to open up the big money, others like LeanMarket are looking at getting everyone into RTB. But I really believe that the key will be to just get them to advertise through an easy interface and keep all that RTB crap talk out. Who cares how my ads are delivered, and if you carry them over, fine by me. And don’t count out Amazon in making it just that simple. And the cool thing is that they have the content to do what Google does with Product Listing Ads, and they perform better than standard search ads. And Facebook is blowing away the competition on retargeting. Especially in the news stream.

And then there is the other side … these damn VC backed companies just made online advertising to a big fat mess :)

And with all these different players, different tools, lots of trackability, lots of data, really read Stephan Noller’s post on why we need an algorithm ethic. Or do you want your super market to know more about you than yourself?

Have a great day. my spring cleaning continues :)

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