December 27, 2017

The 2017 tech year-in-review

The year is about to come to an end and I wanted to jot down a few thoughts about some of the events that I have found most significant in the tech and startup spaces over the last 12 months.

(1) Amazon goes brick and mortar

 If there is one major corporate transaction that I would highlight that would be Amazon's $14bn purchase of Whole Foods. We are all well aware of Amazon's clout and how much many of us rely on it for buying and selling stuff. This acquisition is a game changer and, even more importantly, it seems like it is not going to be the last of its kind, as in recent weeks there have been multiple rumors, in particular around French leader Carrefour, about Amazon acquiring in Europe.

As NYU Stern's professor Scott Galloway usually says, Amazon is slashing value out of traditional retailers and is likely to become the first $1tn company in the world.  Interestingly, he also points out how Amazon is a threat for competition and advocates for antitrust action that could easily to breaking the company up in different pieces.

Even in such a scenario, Amazon is a global "darling". Case in point: the beauty pageant / auction launched by Amazon among American cities for the purpose of erecting its second American HQ. An astonishing 238 proposals have been received. Game on.

(2) The crypto hype
As blockchain technology evolves, 2017 will be remembered as the year when cryptocurrencies became a new hot thing in tech. I would not dare say the became mainstream but it is obvious that when your mother asks you what bitcoin is and how she can invest in it, there is something going on. I already blogged about this some months ago.

The main cryptocurrencies (in particular bitcoin and ethereum) have had dramatic price increases (chart below; source: Coinbase), which has led to lots of market debate as to whether we are in a new bubble or if, on the other hand, bitcoin is for instance the new refuge replacing gold. There are arguments and interest of all kinds. From Jamie Dimon's - JPMorgan Chase's CEO - calling people "stupid" for buying bitcoin to the CME Group's launch of bitcoin futures a few weeks ago.

But this crypto frenzy has gone past bitcoin and ethereum. ICO is the acronym of the year and funds raised through this mechanism have exceeded $3bn. We have seen a proliferation of new ethereum-based tokens relying, in many cases, in dubious business models.

I took the time this year to learn a bit about all these topics and decided to invest (ie. gamble) some money in various cryptocurrencies to give this thing a shot. It did not go badly, although I am kind of expecting a short term correction and have therefore cashed in for the most part. In any case, in spite of diverse theories, I'd argue nobody has a real clue about how to value these new assets and how things are going to go down the road.

(3) The Uber crash

Uber has been for years the darling among startups and venture capital investors. Aggressive growth all over the world, increasing valuation round after round, huge losses relying on future market domination...and all of this relying on a "bro-kind-of culture" of work hard play hard.

In 2017 the foundations of Uber became under substantial scrutiny as a result of a very unfortunate  sexual harassment scandal which, rather than an isolated event, proved to be part of the company's culture itself. The whole thing led to CEO Travis Kalanick's resignation and to significant user backlash...and planted the seed for the #MeToo movement - which Time magazine has fairly acknowledged as "person of the year" - that exploded with the whole Harvey Weinstein "plot" .

I am very curious to see how Uber recovers under new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi after having moved into such a slippery slope. Corporate culture matters and now that culture-related scandals are reportedly bringing valuation down, executives will most likely pay more attention to it.

(4) Disney threatens Netflix

Star Wars: Episode VIII premiered in L.A. on December 9 and just a few days later in Europe. But this was not the only surprise that The Walt Disney Company had for us before the year end. On December 14 it was announced that Disney would be acquiring 21st Century Fox film and tv studios for $66bn (including debt) which, among others includes the FX and National Geographic networks, a large additional stake in Hulu and valuable franchises such as Alien and Avatar, or TV shows such as "How I met your mother". A massive move that I expect will change the playing field very significantly in the coming years.

I have thought for a long time that entertainment consumption has changed forever and that TV as we have known it is doomed. Disney has understood this and in the last year they have amassed a ton of content on top of their traditional stuff, including Marvel, the Star Wars franchise. Now it is this bold move.

In the last months there have been rumors about Netflix being a target for Disney. However, this may no longer be the case. After deciding to pull content from Netflix, all points in the direction of launching its own service, either from scratch or on the back of Hulu. If you add sports content (i.e. ESPN) to the mix, we do have a new streaming battle ahead. Watch out Netflix, Amazon.

(5) The advent of fake news

2017 has been the year when fake news have become a major threat globally. It all started at the time of the US presidential election in late 2016. As it has been proven, Russia played a a central part in creating fake news that substantially contributed to changing public perception and generating opinion in favor or Trump. Upon becoming president, Trump started a PR war accusing CNN and others of being fake news. Several examples of this unacceptable activity followed for instance with the French election and, more recently, with the pathetic allegations against Spain's democracy fabricated by the Catalonian pro-independence block (and the likes of Russia and Venezuela) supporters) in their crazy and illegal pursue of independence.

Fake news are a 21st century weapon aimed at bringing down the foundations of democracy as we know it. And it is in this instance that technology companies - in particular Facebook and Google given their size and business models - have a huge responsibility to prevent, or at the very least minimize, fake news from happening. They have the budget, the resources and, increasingly, the technology (e.g AI) to address this. I am hoping that they honor their duty.

It's been an interesting year. I am sure 2018 is going to be a ride, which I am going to have to follow even closer. More to come soon.

Happy holidays!

October 29, 2017

Corporate culture does matter...a lot

I had been thinking about writing a post on corporate culture for quite some time. However, I had been postponing it for one reason or another. It was about time.

Yesterday I listened to one of the latest podcasts by K Fund (one the leading VC funds in Spain) - it has lately become a must-listen to me and I very strongly recommend it - featuring David Tomas (founder of online marketing company Cyberclick) and Carina Szpilka (partner at K Fund and former CEO at ING Direct bank in France and Spain). This has definitely pushed me to bring together my thoughts, many of which are in line with theirs.

What is a company's culture? I guess that each one of us will have her own definition. To me, it is the set of values, practices, attitudes and habits that employees embrace and live by. Such a set defines how a company works on a daily basis and, ultimately, what it actually is. One gotta respect and embrace the corporate culture if she wants to succeed. Conversely, the company (ie. founders and/or its management) must make sure that employees honor the culture so the company thrives.

Before joining the startup ecosystem, I worked for approximately 10 years in two of the most reputable law firms in the world. In other words, 100+ years old companies with established cultures that everyone is familiar with, honors and expects others to honor. Service excellence, super high quality standards across the board, teamwork and hard work no matter what are non-negotiable. You may like it or not but, truth be told, the system works and has been working for more than a hundred years. And even if I did not agree with all of it, I do acknowledge that many of those culture attributes were good and have significantly contributed to how I work today.

But building a company's culture is not a piece of cake. And this is particularly relevant when talking about young companies. Plus I would argue that it becomes even more difficult considering that many people disregard this topic to a large extent. As if just having an idea and a great founding team would be enough for long term sustainability...

Hundreds of guides, articles (I like this one by 500 Startups) and books have been written about this topic in the startup ecosystem. I would dare say that there is significant consensus on one thing: the culture is (i.e. should be) a reflection of the company's founders and it is such founders who are responsible - in particular in the early stages of a company's life cycle - for defining, redefining and adjusting it over time. And, maybe more importantly, for spreading it and turning it into the backbone of both the organization and how employees behave and interact towards the company and each other.

Two major points about how not to define a corporate culture:
  1. It is not about perks: do not get carried away by casual wear, free food and drinks, unlimited vacation time, fussball...and all kinds of fancy and sometimes crazy perks - seriously, a shooting gallery? - to attract talent and foster work/life balance. Culture goes way deeper.
  2. The value shopping-list: who is against teamwork, transparency, customer service and innovation, to name just a few "usual suspects"? Just listing some random values on your website won't do it for your culture. It is something that must be lived by on a daily basis.
I would like to point out three axes that can help founders define a culture, sustain it over time and turn it into a competitive advantage:
  1. Know what you want (and don't want) your culture to be: founders should make sure what they want their values and culture to be like. There is not right or wrong answer and everything will depend on the founders' own personality, preferences, working style, etc. Do not let the culture be created "by default". And if at some point you realize the culture is on a slippery slope - tell Uber about it - make sure to address this quickly and thoroughly.
  2. Practice what you preach: founders should be the first on the line to make sure that values are respected and desired attitudes and behaviors are honored and promoted - in other words, lead by example. It founders themselves don't do so, nobody will. Do you want people to be responsive and accountable? Well, make sure you reply to your emails and honor your own deadlines. Do not just refer this "culture thing" to your HR team because that will fail.
  3. Hire (and fire) according to your values and culture
  • In order to ensure long-term success to a larger extent, make sure that whoever you hire is a good match with your culture and values - it is better to have a less brilliant newcomer who does fit than a glowing star that does not care about anything other than himself. 
  • Should the latter occur, fire quickly - it will definitely send the message that the culture is an essential part of the organization. I love the following representation by Dr. Cameron Sepah - Medium post here) of the renowned performance-values matrix developed by GE's Jack Welch decades ago - fire the "assholes" as fast as you can.

Last but not least, if you want to have a thorough and practical example of what culture is (it goes beyond the points discussed above), invest some time reading the renowned Netflix culture deck. It is from 2009 but it is a must for anyone interested in the topic...or in building her own company.

Happy reading.

August 20, 2017

Jumping on the cryptocurrency bandwagon

Blockchain and blockchain-based cryptocurrencies are all over the place these days. Is this just a fad or something that is here to stay? Are we talking about a valuation bubble or is this just the very beginning of a game-changing trend? I could not tell, and I dare say that the vast majority of people - even experts and those very familiar with these topics -  don't know wither.

In any case, I have been wanting to write a bit about this as, little by little, I am getting more immersed and interested in this ecosystem. I am not in a position to give a master class of any kind on blockchain and cryptocurrencies, so I will just jot down some notes about some topics that I find particularly interesting, in particular concerning the financial sector.

Blockchain-based applications and their legal fit
By providing an open, decentralized ledger of transactions, blockchain technology is challenging the status quo of information registration, authentication and distribution. In addition it is expected to provide additional transparency and lower transaction costs - I like how IBM simply and practically explains in this video how blockchain works.

Blockchain is not just a buzzword any more and a lot of applications and ecosystems are being built on blockchain across industries, including the broad financial one. One of the main challenges that I see is how blockchain-based applications are going to fit with existing legislation. One thing is disrupting processes and a different one is circumventing applicable laws which, in most cases, have not foreseen anything remotely close to blockchain.

A good example of this tension is the SEC's decision on initial coin offerings (ICO), according to which crypto tokens are to be regarded as securities under U.S. law. Renowned VC investor Fred Wilson wrote a blog post about this recently. I am sure other countries will follow suit. Again, ICOs may be a a way to disrupt money raising via cryptocurrencies; a different one is getting away from legal guarantees and requirements.

The cryptocurrency universe
A few weeks ago I came across the attached chart, which provides a pretty good view of this new ecosystem of cryptocurrencies that a month ago was valued at a "market cap" of around $80 billion. Yet Bitcoin, Ethereum and Ripple make up the most of that ecosystem, there are now 800+ cryptocurrencies out there.

According to a Bloomberg article, as of last July, more than 90 ICOs had taken place, resulting in more than $1 billion being raised - which exceeds the volume raised via early-stage VC financing.

Bloomberg further points out the fact that many of this ICOs are subscribed within minutes and, in many cases, based on simple product proposals, not on tangible MVPs or initial traction.

One last thing in the article that caught my eye is the fact that an increasing number of "traditional" bankers and investment professionals are migrating into this ICO universe.

Pricing cryptocurrencies
Many argue that there is a cryptocurrency bubble that could burst at any time following rapid price hikes in many tokens in the last months. Case in point: Bitcoin itself - price has quadrupled since January 1.

An interesting point to assess is the correlation between bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. I dare say that it is not clear cut and there is no one-suits-all conclusion. However, it seems safe to say that, in general terms, tokens price are positively correlated. This and this analyses (charts below) I came across online exemplify this point.

So, are we witnessing a cryptocurrency bubble? This L2 video featuring a chat between NYU Stern professors Aswath Damodaran and Scott Galloway - definitely two of my very favorites while at b-school - provides some good insights:

  • you cannot value (i.e. cashflow-based) cryptocurrencies, you can price (i.e. interaction between supply and demand) them;
  • a lot of people have lost trust in paper money, central banks, governments... different crises (e.g. North Korea missiles) may be driving prices up, as cryptocurrencies become a sort of "haven" similar to gold;
  • historically, the value of gold has relied on the "illusion" of people having the chance to sell it to someone else. A similar thing may apply to cryptocurrencies;
  • people think that they have an insight to trade cryptocurrencies, they think they know more than they actually do. And that is a piece of the pricing game; and
  • the subset of people who think that financial markets are overpriced is a fairly large one...and they may be moving to cryptocurrencies to find yield, driving prices up as a result.

In short, a super interesting, rather nascent ecosystem that is being developed at lightspeed and subject to permanent debate. Time will tell where the path ends.

April 27, 2017

Fred Wilson: some VC lessons from one of the best in the business

A couple of days ago, Fred Wilson, co-founder and managing partner of Union Square Ventures (USV), one of the most reputable and successful VC firms in the world, and the blogger behind AVC (a must read blog for anyone interested in the startup, tech and VC businesses) posted a video of a talk (the annual Georges Doriot Lecture) that he gave at MIT in Boston.

You can see the video here:

The chat is priceless and full of VC wisdom and I thought about summarizing some of the points that I found particularly interesting:

  • A VC's most important role is that of a cheerleader (...). It is everything and just very few VCs can do it.
  • The best time to invest in something  is when nobody believes in it besides you (...). You have to totally believe in it and you have to know why.
  • Entrepreneurs and the companies they build are the VCs' customers - not the VCs' investors, who are their shareholders. The entrepreneurs are the center of gravity in the business and VCs are service providers to entrepreneurs.
  • Even though venture capital requires a sophisticated understanding of finance, technology, markets and strategy, it is ultimately a people business.
  • Three things that USV looks at when investing in an entrepreneur: charisma (the ability to convince goes beyond salesmanship), technical expertise (knowing how to make aomething, not outsourcing the making of sonething to somebody else but leading it), integrity (honesty).
  • In order to have better chances to succeed, he recommends angel investors to build a portfolio as broad as possible - broader than that of a traditional VC - and build networks with other angel investors. He also points out that angel investors should help entrepreneurs get to the VCs to raise their series A and subsequent rounds.
  • On how to getting into VC as a profession, as a general piece of advice, very graphically he recommends spending your 20s and 30s working at startups as a path to dedicating your 40s, 50s and 60s to being a venture capitalist. Ironically, he feels like the best VC investors did not take that path.

Interestingly, as a closing remark, Fred pointed out that if he was 35 now he would probably go do VC investments in emerging markets.... anyone up for the next challenge?

Until next time!

April 15, 2017

Fast decision making: reflecting on Jeff Bezos' annual letter

A few days ago Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and CEO delivered his usual annual letter to shareholders. A short must read that is always full of management wisdom, since the first one he wrote back in 2017 - see both the latest and the first ones here.

Rather than reading the countless pieces published about the latest letter, I have followed Brad Feld's advice and have gone directly into the "source".  How he defines Day 1 - "I’ve been reminding people that it’s Day 1 for a couple of decades" and Day 2 - "Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1” - for a company is, simply put, masterful.

He highlights a number of drivers for Day I defense. Leaving aside other aspects, I would like to focus on one of them - high-velocity decision making. According to Bezos, it is not just crucial to make high-quality decisions. It is crucial to make them fast, otherwise Day 2 can be taken for granted. I couldn't agree more. And this just not applies to large corporations such as Amazon but also to any kind of company, yet the most nascent ones that, following an analogous terminlogy, are in Day 0 of their development.

In a very simple, yet compelling, manner, Bezos highlights a few points that drive such high-velocity decision making:

  • decision processes: he argues to "never use a one-size-fits-all decision-making process". Since situations vary, this makes all the sense.  However, a sensu contrario, and as obvious as it sounds, it is fundamental to have a decision process - or several of them - in place. In other words, do not justify not having decision making processes on the basis of how different each situation is;
  • availability of information: obviously, we all like to make as informed decisions as possible. But in real life we hardly face such ideal situations. That is why Bezos points out that "If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow" and he argues how expensive being slow in making decisions is. In short, make a decision as early as you can and once you have a reasonable degree of information. You can always change courses. Holding off too much will kill your company;
  • disagree and commit: I truly love this one, as it transpires humbleness and trustworthiness in those around you. Leadership. It is natural not to be certain at all times. In those circumstances where you are uncertain, most likely everybody feels similarly. And whoever is in charge of a company, team, project is waiting to be actually convinced to make a decision, that may take ages. It's not about letting everyone do whatever they feel like doing, "a chance for the team to weigh [the boss'] view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way". Any organization needs people at any level who can actually be able to push in the same direction than the organization itself when in certain circumstances the former may not necessarily agree with the direction adopted.
  • spotting what is wrong and escalating: sometimes people and teams are not aligned and that creates multiple inefficiencies, reaching the very unfortunate point where "whoever has more stamina carries the decision", which is truly demotivating and frustrating. Therefore, is critical to escalate to sort things out and provide alignment which, at the end of the day, requires considering the three previous points.
All these characteristics must necessarily be part of a company's DNA. Otherwise, the company will be moving from Day 1 (or even Day 0, as I suggested before) to Day 2 at the speed of light.

January 16, 2017

Two weeks in Berlin: my first (biz tech) impressions

It's been two weeks since, with the dawn of 2017, I moved to Berlin. Not long enough to settle anywhere, even less so when you are joining a new company in a city you are not familiar with, where you do not speak the language and know nobody (plus the weather - two cloudy and snowy weeks - and short days do not help either).  But I am taking baby steps each day, slowly but confidently, supported by a couple of acquaintances - how important it is to have friends who can "refer" you anywhere - and a warm welcome at work.

By looking at these past 15 days I can already point out a few local behaviours that have surprised me in areas where technology has been (and is expected to continue) playing a significant part. 

1. Cash is king
After having lived in New York for a long time I got used to paying 90% of anything with debit/credit card (I feel like Spain, or at least Madrid, has also evolved a lot in terms of accepting this payment means in the last years), as I find it convenient and it works great to track my expenses via apps, etc. 

That is not going to work in Berlin, I am afraid. Big bummer. Multiple places - not talking just about the doner kebab shop around the corner - do not accept cards and paying in cash is the only alternative. The same limitation goes for the Stripes of the world. Plus it kind of strikes me that, in particular in a city that has positioned itself as a top European tech hub, payment technology - one of finch darlings - is so detached from the day-to-day.

2. No Sunday shopping 

I typically do not have time Mon to Fri to buy stuff, other than groceries. When it comes to clothing, furniture, personal care, etc, it is Saturday and Sunday for me. 
Realizing that shops close on Sundays in a major and touristy city like Berlin has been a surprise. 

At a time where people are increasingly buying stuff online, this just gives people another reason to continue to do so - for instance, German online retailer Zalando keeps increasing sales vigorously quarter after quarter. I do not see that trend stopping around here (competition isses with Amazon and others left aside). At the end of the day you can buy online any day at any time.

3. No food delivery wars?
In the last few years a lot of money has been poured into food delivery companies such as Deliveroo, Just Eat, etc., just as other players such as Uber launched businesses (UberEats) to get a piece of the action. 

In two weeks I have just seen riders - and not a lot I must say - who work for one company: Delivery Hero's Foodora. I do not know the reason but I must admit I was expecting more activity and more players in the battle field. 

4. Berliners do not like their banks...either
Obviously I needed to open a bank account for my daily operations in Germany. I asked people around and there was no consensus whatsoever about what bank to pick. The consensus was actually on how disappointed most people were with their respective banks.

So, I have decided to give a shot at N26 (formerly Number26), the new German challenger bank backed by Peter Thiel and other VCs. I will be able to provide more info in a few months but I must say that the whole process of opening an account and of getting my cards and activating them was easy, seamless... and all online!

5. Car-sharing is hot
Before arriving in Berlin I had heard stories about how much Berliners use their own bikes - I have not seen a Citibike-like service such as the one in New York - to commute to and from work. Totally true, even if it is -8C outside and snowing. But public transportation - a great network of S-Bahn, U-Bahn, trams and buses is in place - is also very much used. Another thing that has somewhat suprised me is that traffic flows rather nicely when compared - based on my limited perception to date - to New York or Madrid. 

But one thing that is really hot in here is car-sharing. In addition to Mercedes Benz-owned Car-2-Go (which I already used in Spain - the same app works nicely, which is great), BMW has also its own car-sharing service called DriveNow.

There is a lot is to be learned when you relocate to a new country and keeping an eye on how things work is enriching. The European Union may be one single market, but at the end of the day, the differences among country members and their citizens are still very relevant. And I do not see that changing in the short and medium term, it is in each country's DNA.

December 29, 2016

My 2016 in review: the good, the bad & the ugly (of working at a young startup)

There are just a few hours left in this 2016. It's been a curious year, a bumpy, rollercoaster-kind of ride with a lot of takeaways and learned lessons. It's time to look back and do a sincere and objective assessment from a professional standpoint.

(1) 2016 has given me the opportunity to work in the kind of startup environment that I had longed for quite some time, after having worked at multinationals pretty much all my life. I see that as a big success in itself after my bet on pursuing this path and my overcoming the hurdles that I had to face as a result of immigration issues kicking me out of the U.S.

(2) I have learnt a lot of new things following my jumping into an unknown territory that included a new industry, a different role, and multiple and diverse responsibilities. I have had the opportunity to be out there "in the trenches" to a larger extent, to expand my network, to work and get to know some great colleagues and to experience first hand a different way - improvisation, flexibility, I am embracing you - of doing things.

(3) I have been able to go way beyond my comfort zone and to challenge myself as I had not done in quite some time. I am satisfied with my overall performance but, above all, I value my daring to do so. Plus I strongly feel that this has helped me gain new skills and change my personal brand, as I explained in this post.

(4) Leading a learning the in & out's of a fundraising process has been priceless. I have enjoyed every minute of it: from researching, identifying and reaching out to domestic and international investors, to crafting pitch documents, presenting to investors and at different events and negotiating. It's been the most exciting and challenging thing I have done in years.

(5) Enjoying again what going to work means. I had forgotten that magic mix of excitement, cheering, happiness, challenge, commitment... I am aware that such a thing does not last forever but experiencing it again was awesome.

(6) Last but not least, I will remember 2016 as the year in which I was given the opportunity to pursue an exciting fintech opportunity in Berlin, one of the world's tech hubs - more on that here. There is no doubt that it will be a big challenge, both personal and professional, yet I am looking forward to starting.

(1) Things have not finished as I had envisioned them. Twelve months ago I was fully invested in a project and had the stamina and the confidence that we were on the path to building one of the next great companies. Even after having voluntarily decided to part ways, I can't avoid a somewhat bitter feeling of unfinished work and personal failure.

(2) Internal politics. When referring to corporate feuds, I guess we all tend to think of bankers, corporate finance titans such as Gordon Gekko or of powerful Fortune 500 companies' CEOs. Unfortunately, this happens everywhere, even in young startups. And assuming of course that such feuds are no good anywhere in the vast majority of cases, I dare to say that the harmful effects are more relevant in young, smaller companies. Disappointment is probably the word that best describes how I feel about that.

(1) It is cold out there beyond established corporations. Success stories tend to make people think that building a startup - from coming up with an idea through to a billion dollar IPO - is way easier than it actually is. In most early-stage cases, you have limited resources, you do not have a powerful brand to leverage in your sales pitch, you have no significant track record to negotiate with banks and other stakeholders, you face dead-ends any other day... There are times when you feel powerless. You already knew it and embraced the challenge, true...but still.

(2) Having everyone pushing in the same direction and under the same vision is tough. Being able to align everyone in the team, from the CEO to the last intern, is not an easy task. Learning (or trying) to navigate the time-bomb resulting from human relationships in scenarios of uncertainty and cash pressure, is a priceless lesson that I definitely did not learn in my managing organizations course while at business school.

(3) As mentioned above, over the last year I was able to enjoy my work again. But at the same time, I experienced some of the worst days in my career to date. By joining a young, promising project I was confident that I would experience the former, but I would have never expected the latter. Even if this has been the case, I can assure you that I have learnt a lot from the experience, from both my mistakes and those of others.

Overall, in hindsight and having had time to reflect on all these experiences, I can say that it's been a valuable year. Let's see if 2017 is a better year, with more "good's" and fewer "bad's" and "ugly's".

My best wishes to y'all for the coming year!

December 7, 2016

Moving to Berlin: my new challenges ahead in fintech

My new challenges in 2017

A lot has happened over the last 16 months. I have gone through a roller coaster-kind of professional experience where I have had the opportunity to experience the good, the bad and the ugly of what working at a young startup means. I will reflect about such an experience in future posts but one thing is clear to me: I have learnt a lot at multiple levels. And now I am confident that such experience - paired up with my existing background which, as unexpected as it may be, is going to prove pretty helpful shortly - will help me succeed in all all my forthcoming challenges.

There is doubt that 2017 will be bringing me new challenges, opportunities and, in short, a new life in Berlin, Germany. As of January 1, I will be joining Crosslend, an innovative debt capital platform, as Country Manager for Spain.

Crosslend: what is it about

Near-zero and even negative interest rates make it increasingly difficult for investors to get higher returns, while increasingly tighter legal requirements make it harder for financial institutions to lend and push money down to the real economy (ie. SMEs). 

By means of an innovative and disruptive cross-border, single-loan securitization structure, Crosslend is creating a marketplace where both investors and debt originators can better achieve some of their goals. On the one hand, the company wants to help investors obtain higher yields by investing in a sort of new asset class, so the former can better meet their mid and long term yield goals. On the other, there is the challenge of becoming an important player in building the European capital markets union that should helps bridge the existing funding shortage between financiers (banks and others) and underfunded borrowers, by given the former a new alternative to free up capital and keep on going with their lending activities.

Co-CEO Dagmar Bottenbruch summarizes some of the key point sin this short interview at the LendIt conference held in last October.

Getting into fintech

Fintech has always been a sub-sector I have been attracted to and that I have had interest in, mainly as a user/consumer of new tools (wealth management robo-advisors, personal finance tools, international wire transfers, etc.), and also as a follower of disruptive B2B trends (crowdfunding, crowdlending, FX, etc.).

Some friends and colleagues have pointed out in the past that it could be a good destination for me. I think I enjoy an above-average understanding of finance as a whole thanks to my education and work experience, plus now I am able to bring in a more compelling tech / startup background (yet from a different industry) to the table. I am very happy to see that both ends are meeting now and excited about this new opportunity.

Berlin: a great place to be

Anyone who follows the European startup scene knows that in recent years Berlin has become - alongside London (even more so post-Brexit) - the European startup hub. A wealth of entrepreneurs and investors, the availability of international talent, a cosmopolitan environment and a reasonable cost of life (in particular when compared to Paris and London) have given rise to a thriving startup ecosystem. 

Plus Berlin is also a key player in the powerful German (and European) fintech ecosystem - see picture below - which spans across multiple sub-sectors and products, in both B2B and B2C segments.

However, I would be lying if I said that the idea of moving to Berlin has not been a surprise to me. I was not counting on starting my life pretty much from scratch...again. New country, new language (even if you can supposedly live off English quite nicely in Berlin), new friends... it gets harder as one grows older, but still... 

After weighing in Crosslend's promising project (backed by reputed VCs such as Lakestar and Northzone) and inspiring vision, a role that offers me a challenging opportunity and everything that Berlin has to offer, I have made up my mind. It will be curious to jump on a plane on January 1 to kick off such a new time for me.

To an exciting and fruitful 2017!!

November 21, 2016

Reinventing yourself and changing your own market perception

Twenty four months ago I was working in New York and taking the first steps towards what would turn out to be my first job offer at a startup. It was the culmination of a long process - it took me years to get there - that ultimately did not work as planned (after accepting the offer I had received, US immigration authorities ruled out against granting me an O-1 visa that would have replaced my then in force L-1 visa).

Things have evolved substantially since then. Shortly after the disappointment I experienced when my visa got denied, I landed a job at another startup in Spain and, a bit less than 1 1/2 years later, I will be shortly taking a new role at a promising fintech company in Berlin as country manager for Spain.

Even though I cannot say that I have hit a home run yet, I can't help feeling a sense of pride for having accomplished a big transition from professional services - first as an M&A and finance attorney, then in biz dev roles - into the startup space. Little by little, after investing a lot of time and effort, I have been able to change the market perception of my own brand as an employee.

Although certain countries tend to have more flexible recruiting cultures that appreciate transferable skills - e.g. I find the US quite flexible, while Spain is just the opposite - your college degree and work experience will vastly determine how you are perceived in the job market. As you grow older, the "weight" of such background becomes heavier and makes switching industries and functions increasingly harder.

That being said, I thought it would be useful to share my experience and contribute a few thoughts from my own "reinvention" process:

1. Understand your role's and industry's perception: some functions (e.g. financial roles) and sectors (e.g. management consulting) put you in a better place to make a transition, even at a young age. Some others (e.g. law practice - that was my case) are more ring-fenced and harder to leverage outside of their own circle.

Don't get caught for too long in something you know you don't want to do long term, even if it pays well (and assuming you can afford to let it go). You will regret it a few years later.

2. Leverage the master's degree window of opportunity: studying some kind of master's degree can be a good way to change roles and industries (again, I find Anglo-Saxon work cultures more open to change than others). However, bear in mind that the window of opportunity for such a transition is limited: 1 to 1.5 years following graduation, I'd say.

For instance, I completed my MBA from NYU to pursue such change in 2008 when, unfortunately, everything started to fall apart; so my ability to switch was severely compromised.

3. Embrace the two-step transition: you may be able to switch functions and industries at once, but doing so in two separate steps is more realistic and financially rewarding. Leverage what you already know for tour first move; then use what you are learn (and who you know) at your new gig to complete the second step.

I transitioned from being a lawyer to business development roles in professional services. Then, I was able to switch to business-oriented roles in the tech space.

4. Get out of your day-to-day comfort zone: if you want things to change but you keep doing the same things that you typically do in your usual work environment, such change will be much harder. You need to let fresh air into the room. Get out of your comfort zone and find ways to get closer to the industry where you want to be.

I find events and meet-ups particularly useful in this regard. There are plenty of things out there in substantially every industry, so start digging up information and investing time. It is going to be a bit stressful and tiring, but nothing is free, I'm afraid.

Also, network carefully and regularly. Reach out to friends and acquaintances who can make an intro for you. Sometimes it will feel a bit awkward and overwhelming to take the first step but, in my experience, a majority of people are willing to help if they can. Be tactful, thankful and open to return the favor.

5. Show that you really want it: there are many ways these days in which you can show where your interests lie. Start following people and being active (tweet, retweet) on Twitter, start your own blog covering the topics and industries you are targeting, open a Medium profile, be mindful of your Linkedin profile (share your content, tailor your profile), etc.

Again, this will take quite a bit of time but you have an arsenal at your reach.

6. Worship your job hunting: looking for a job is not easy, it is a job in itself, even more so if you are fighting to get to a place where you have never been before.

On the one hand, make sure that you are looking in the right places (it is not the same to look for jobs in, say, startups, than in pharma companies). Once you have spotted those, create customized job search agents to spot openings in a centralized way, search regularly, be methodic and keep track of where and when you are looking.

On the other, make sure that your resume and cover letters convey the messages that you need, both in terms of framing and adapting your background in an appealing way (as you will seldom be as well suited for the roles as others with more specific experience) and highlighting the passion and interest that you have in a specific area.

And if you make it to an interview, research the company as if there was no tomorrow. This is an area where you can beat other candidates who, at first sight, may be better suited for the role.

7. Don't be desperate. It takes time to change jobs. It takes even more time to do so when you are switching drastically. Keep trying, hang in there and cheer yourself for any small accomplishment.

I wish I had been able to transition well before it happened. There were times when I thought about giving up as things were not moving as I would have expected. But I was resilient...and it ultimately paid off.

I hope this helps, until next time!

October 13, 2016

Spanish startups and NBA players: my starting lineup

The new NBA season is around the corner and for any given fan that translates into excitement. I have been a big fan since the Jordan vs. Magic days and, although my interest in the league at some point kind of plateaued out, the increasing addition of Spanish players to the league and my living in the US for 5 years re-sparked my passion.

It is a fact that in the last years we have enjoyed the best basketball generation in Spain ever and the fact that in season 2016-17 we will have 10 Spanish players in the NBA proves that once again. Over the years, an increasing number of Spaniard players has flown across the pond to conquer the Americas - the Gasol brothers being the main case in point - and that is something that we can also increasingly say about Spanish startups.

So, as the new season unfolds, I just thought about giving a shot at coming up with my starting lineup of Spanish startups (across different sectors) that are pushing hard at taking over the US (and global) markets. Obviously, it is hard to pick just five, as plenty of them are doing a great job, so please excuse my bias :). There we go:

1. Ricky Rubio - CARTO: Ricky is regarded as a great defender, passer and stealer, he is one of the best PG in the league. His Timberwolves seem to finally have a promising, yet still young, roster. Success may not be far away. If I had to bet on big success for a young Spanish startup, my chips would go for Carto, the Madrid and New York-based company focused on discovering and predicting key insights from location data. I love what they do and the endless possibilities their product and services offer. They have raised $31M so far and have a great team in place.

2. Pau Gasol - SCYTL: Pau is the best example of NBA success for a Spanish player to date. Little needs to be added, except for the fact that after joining the Spurs he should have another shot (GS Warriors permitting) at another ring. Along these lines, Barcelona-based electronic voting company Scytl has been around for some time (it is not a startup anymore I'd say), has an established presence in the US and there are rumors that it may file for an IPO on the Nasdaq in 2017 after having raised more than $100M in venture capital. There is so much young startups can learn from Scytl, same as young players from Pau.

3. Chacho Rodriguez - WALLAPOP: Chacho is about to start his second stint in the NBA at the 76ers after a not very successful time in Portland and a number of subsequent super fruitful seasons at Real Madrid. Philly is a team that continues to be rebuilt since Allen Iverson's departure and that enjoys the support of Philly's very passionate fans. Chacho has now the ability, experience and the minutes to shine. Following its becoming one of the recent darlings of the Spanish VC scene after attracting a huge (yet non-monetized) community of users to its classified ads marketplace, Wallapop has embarked on its US adventure by merging its US operations with Letgo. However, it will be a tough battle with entrenched players such as Craigslist and others.

4. Marc Gasol - ALIENVAULT: Marc has already enjoyed a pretty long career in the U.S. (in fact, since his high school days upon his family relocation when Pau joined Memphis), has critically helped the Grizzlies get to the next level so they compete face-to-face with the best, plus has also been able to make a personal impact in the league as one of the undisputed best centers. AlienVault was founded in 2006 by Spanish entrepreneurs and since then it has become a quasi-US company based out of Silicon Valley and a very relevant player as a platform providing security solutions for compliance and management threats. The company has raised $118M to date and may pride itself of having renowned investors such as Kleiner Perkins. Does it smell like unicorn here?

5. Willy Hernangomez - SHERPA: Willy will be starting his NBA career at my dear Knicks after a far from ideal last season at Real Madrid. A big challenge for him, as the weight of the Knicks jersey and of the Madison Square Garden is widely known.  The additions of Rose and Noah, the growth of Porzingis and the steady hand of Phil Jackson will hopefully be a good support for Willy. Although its AI-based personal assistant in Spanish has been in the works for quite some time, Sherpa has finally launched and jumped into the battlefield where it will be facing tough opponents such as Apple's Siri or Microsoft's Cortana. Sherpa has already shown big potential after entering into a partnership with Samsung and the growing Hispanic demographic in the US is out there waiting. 2017 will be a significant milestone for the company.

Let's see how the season goes.

October 3, 2016

Startups e inversores: algunas lecciones de Jason Mendelson de Foundry Group

Hace un par de semanas tuve la oportunidad de asistir a una conferencia organizada por Telefonica Open Future para hablar de temas de venture capital y de financiación para startups. A tal efecto, los organizadores tuvieron la brillante idea de invitar a Jason Mendelson, co-fundador de Foundry Group, uno de los fondos de venture capital más reputados y rentables del mundo. 

Jason y su socio, otro mito de este mundillo, Brad Feld (tiene, por cierto, un blog bien recomendable) escribieron hace años el libro "Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist" que se ha convertido en un clásico a la hora de entender las claves de los procesos de fundraising. Según indicó Jason, los principales motivos por el que escribieron el libro fueron “teach entrepreneurs and piss off VCs”. Todo un ejemplo. Por cierto, ahora el libro también está disponible en español gracias a la traducción de Manuel Matés, co-fundador del fondo español Big Sur Ventures.

La charla se centró en recomendaciones y best practices para emprendedores que acuden a venture capitalists en busca de financiación. Aquí comparto algunas de las cosas que más me llamaron la atención:

1)  Cómo acceder a un VC: ser referido por alguien es sin duda la mejor manera. Curiosamente, sin perjuicio de ello, Jason indicó que alrededor del 15% de sus inversiones tienen origen en una llamada a puerta fría del emprendedor.

En ese sentido, si uno va por esta última vía debe ir sí o sí bien preparado porque solo tendrá “one shot to amaze” al inversor, lo que implica tanto conocer bien el background del interlocutor como ser 100% transparente y manejar todos los KPIs y detalles sobre la propia empresa al dedillo.

2) Qué no hacer en ningún caso: tan importante es saber qué hacer como saber qué no hacer. En este último sentido, apuntaba Jason dos grandes errores a evitar: por un lado, no estar preparado (tanto respecto a uno mismo y a su empresa como respecto al VC con el que se va a hablar); por otro, pasarse de autoconfianza llegando a la arrogancia (evitar cualquier sensación de entitlement).

3) Inversores y área geográfica: aunque el approach es diferente en cada fondo, Jason opina que “el antiguo modelo de ser un inversor en tu ciudad ya no es tal”, de manera que hay fondos que invierten más allá de sus fronteras geográficas. Echando un vistazo al perfil de cada fondo y a su portfolio de participadas resulta relativamente fácil hacerse una idea de si siquiera merece la pena contactarle en vista de su ámbito geográfico de inversión.

4) Discutiendo la valoración: es un tema siempre sensible y recurrente y la práctica varía según los fondos. En Foundry Group no discuten demasiado sobre esto y tratan siempre de llegar muy cerca de su mejor oferta desde el primer minuto de conversaciones.  Yo siempre recordaré lo que me dijo Federico Antoni, co-fundador de ALL VP,  fondo líder de América Latina: más allá de la cifra que uno tenga en mente, “tu empresa vale lo que el mercado diga que vale”. En otras palabras, de nada sirve un poner un numerito en tu deck.

5)  Negociando un term sheet: aquí  igualmente variará en cada caso, pero Foundry Group publica en su web un montón de información sobre term sheets – interesante verlo – y sólo negocia option pool, puestos en el consejo y valoración.

6)  La importancia de las aceleradoras: en opinión de Jason, son un player importante para los VCs porque con su selección y aceleración de empresas reducen algo el riesgo para los inversores y dan mayor credibilidad a los proyectos. De manera que si existe la opción de entrar en una, más allá de lo que aporte (indica Jason que es clave mirar su track record, red de mentores, dinero levantado por sus empresas seleccionadas a la hora de elegir), puede facilitar procesos futuros con fondos. Startupexplore publicó hace poco una referencia sobre las que considera mejores en España.

Por último, me llamó poderosamente la atención que Jason indicó que “ser el CEO de una startup es el trabajo más solitario del mundo” y que por eso resulta fundamental que un VC no solo aporte dinero sino que sea capaz de “estar ahí para el fundador y para escuchar sus problemas”. Es por ello que considera fundamental que un CEO sea resiliente, tenga estabilidad emocional y sea capaz de celebrar sus victorias.

Hasta la próxima.