Fred Wilson Warns Heavily Funded Startups Avoiding Public Markets “Pride Comes Before the Fall”

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Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures reacted to the idea that founders prefer to take money in the private market because they don’t want to answer to public investors who don’t understand them in “Maybe They Do Understand Your Business” While we may disagree on public investors’ level of sophistication, I found this part of his post most interesting:

“It is true that Wall Street will not be tolerant of missed expectations. It is true that Wall Street may focus too much on short term numbers. It is true that you may not be able to control what numbers Wall Street decides to obsess over when it comes to valuing your company.

But I think tech sector is making a huge mistake in thinking that they know their companies and how to value them better than Wall Street. That kind of thinking is arrogance and pride comes before the fall.”

For the 238 startups we are tracking who have raised $200M or more in their lifetime, and especially the 143 who have raised a new round of at least $100M since the beginning of calendar 2015, there is a lot to think about here, and a warning not to let valuations received from private market investors create unrealistic expectations for what a public market valuation might look like.

Which Investors Are Paying High Private Market Prices?

Let’s dig into these 143 rounds to understand which investors are most active in these ‘private IPOs’ or massive late-stage private rounds. I have a hunch it won’t be early/growth stage VCs like Fred, and upon a quick search I can confirm Union Square Ventures hasn’t announced participation in a round of $100M or more in 2015.


To download the full list of $100M+ rounds in 2015, sign up for a free trial of Mattermark professional — it has never been easier to get data that you and your analyst team can use to understand the private market, and this list has a long tail of hedge funds, mutual funds and other investors you might not realize are investing in pre-IPO startups.

Which Startups Have Raised the Most Private Funding?


To download the full list of companies ranked by lifetime funding, sign up for a free trial of Mattermark professional. We also provide an API, Salesforce integration, Excel file exports and automated alerts to help you keep track of the private market.

The Distribution Hacker’s Mission: Create an Unfair Advantage

Published on in Getting Customers by

race-cheetahMore than any particular skill, like how to run an Adwords campaign or write a blog post, software developers struggle to accept distribution hacking as part of their professional repertoire because they find a simple fact, and its corollary, intellectually abhorrent:

Markets are not efficient or “fair” because people participating in the market are not rational actors.

Accepting and internalizing these two facts is particularly challenging for developers because they are used to performing their work with a machine that is supremely efficient and fair, while surrounded by people who are some of the most rational in the world.

Distribution hackers, on the other hand, disregard the reality of this statement at their own peril. Distribution hacking is about understanding and accepting the conditions of reality, and then creating systematic unfair advantages that leverage asymmetry in markets for the company’s benefit.

Creating Unfair Advantage

Startups need to use unconventional and “hacky” tactics for achieving distribution of their products because the conventional ones are crowded channels being executed on by companies with 100s of times more money, time, and manpower. SEO, SEM, display advertising, PR, even social media are channels any marketing person worth their salt can execute on.

If you hire a marketer and tell them to execute “by the book” you will get average results. For startups, average is usually failure. Forget about the list of tactics you put in your job description – the distribution hacker is not a marketing monkey and they crave just as much freedom to act an experiment as any software engineer. You’re going to have to give them some room to operate if you want to get the best results.

With great freedom comes great responsibility to deliver results.

The Birth of a Distribution Hacker

As the titles “growth hacker” and “distribution hacker” grow in popularity there will be people who recast their “social media” or “advertising” careers in this light. While I think these folks are well positioned to become distribution hackers they are generally focused on executing a particular channel, and often I find they are not nearly rigorous enough with their experimentation and metrics.

There is a very real risk that startups hungry for customer acquisition will bring a self-styled “growth hacker” on board and then find themselves disappointed after a few months without results. It is so important to talk to your potential hire about how they imagine creating an unfair advantage for your company. They might not have a detailed plan, but you should look for strong signs that they can think outside the box. If someone claims to be a growth or distribution hacker as them to give you specific examples of how they’ve successfully hacked the system in the past, and demand numbers.

For a distribution hacker, speaking in terms of hypotheses and metrics is second nature because they live in their spreadsheets and mySQL queries day in and day out. If you’re hiring someone who is just getting started with distribution hacking you can usually figure out how creative and analytical they are by leading a brainstorm around tactics and metrics. I think there is a much broader market for bringing someone on board to learn distribution hacking than there is to hire someone who is experienced. Please send them to this blog.

Distribution Hacking as a Mindset

One of my former employees at Twilio, John Sheehan, once quipped “they can copy our hands but not our hearts” upon observing the rate at which Twilio’s developer marketing tactics were being copied by other startups and telecom companies with developer programs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for copying tactics that you see working for someone else, especially when they address the same audience you are trying to reach. When I went to meet with these companies about marketing strategy I found that the imitation of our tactics at Twilio were surface level. Companies who are more interested in the appearance of distribution hacking than the results are playing a dangerous game of “success theater” by going through the motions, without understanding why these tactics were chosen or how to measure if they were working or not.

Quite often we heard the decision to execute on the tactic was driven by board members of a company pointing out “it worked for Twilio”. They were completely focused on the what and how, with little insight into the why of the strategy, since they didn’t have access to our internal tools or processes. We met with many of these teams to help them out, and I encourage you to always remember that no matter how well something appears to be working for someone else you should always keep your own metrics and trust your own results above all else.

Distribution Hackers: Your Job Description

The distribution hackers job is to conduct hundreds of experiments and objectively quantify the results to discover unfair advantages, and exploit them. The ultimate goal is to build systems and processes that create a long-term competitive advantage for your company that will last long after you are gone.

It starts with you, but over time you will build a team to scale your processes as you make more discoveries and layer in more tactics. By the time I left Twilio, I had hired dozens of people who worked for me or on other teams to execute on the distribution hacks we had turned into business processes.

Distribution Hacking is a Methodology, Not a Tactic

This blog might be more popular if I listed a roadmap of unconventional tactics to try. While I will explore specific tactics I’ve used with analysis around their performance, the reality is that there is no quick fix for figuring out how you can get attract, convert, retain, and monetize customers. At the request of many readers I will be digging deep into various vertical markets, business models (B2B, B2C, B2B2C, C2C) and demographics.

Distribution hacking is about more than executing a collection of tactics. It is a methodology of experimentation designed to discover and exploit opportunities gain results and own a new channel. There are plenty of shortcuts you can try to get short term results, and I think its important to have those in your toolbox, too. For an example of that, check out my post Go Ahead, Feed the Trolls about gaming Hacker News votes by engaging with negative commenters.

While these tactics are great for a quick hit of traffic, ultimately distribution hacking is about thinking and acting for the long term by re-imagining your company’s entire approach to product distribution.

Mattermark is hiring for a VP of Marketing. If exploring the distribution hacker methodology, and working with a CEO who deeply respects and appreciates marketing, sounds exciting to you and you have experience building and leading a marketing team please get in touch with us!

Unicorn Startups, Dragon Startups… What Do You Call a Startup That Returns ALL Your Funds?

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returnallthefundsThis morning I wrote about the Fitbit IPO, and casually referenced the company as a “dragon startup”. It turns out I can’t keep these mythical creatures straight, and *technically* at least according to the paper on dragon startups, a dragon merely returns the fund.

Stewart Alsop of Alsop Louie Partners dropped me a quick note to point out:

I think the article that proposed the term “dragon” defined one as returning a multiple of the whole fund, rather than returning a simple $1B. Since the Foundry fund that invested in Fitbit was ~$240m, this is even better — nearly 10x the entire fund (if it’s still worth $6B when the stock is sold or distributed). Even more congratulations due to the firm…

I also chatted with original “Unicorns vs. Dragons” co-author Hemant Bhardwaj, who said:

“Fitbit is definitely a Dragon for Foundry, but because it returned their fund, not because it returned $1B to investors. So this would fall into the dragon label :) but maybe super dragon!”

What Do You Can a Startup Exit That Returns ALL Your Funds?

In Foundry’s case, Fitbit goes WAY beyond returning the $250M fund it was a part of and I believe it may have returned an amount greater than all of the funds Foundry has ever raised.

So what do we call that, a “Google Startup”? It fits the whimsical theme, but it’s kind of taken.