My thoughts on $TWTR, senseless IPOs, and public internet companies

I just read this headline: Twitter Falls Below IPO Price as Concerns Mount Over CEO, Growth source

Surprised? I sure hope not.

It continues to astound me that websites with a large user base and trajectory seem to be a good enough reason to go public. Many of these sites are the fad of the month but happen to catch mainstream hype at just the right time.

Zynga, anyone?

Let me say this: Because you write software and attain a large audience and good traction and get decent mainstream press, these reasons alone are not a good enough to go public.

There's a catch-22 in the internet business: Salaries are often subsidized with equity. This traditionally works well with traditional, brick and mortar companies. We're talking about companies that build hotels, chains like Starbucks, or the company that makes the straws that we all use in our Starbucks drinks. But it seems as if internet companies now feel pressured to cash out or go public because of the amount of options they've given away to their early hires, and the number of people relying on them who expect an exponential return. Also layer in the fact that VC firms expect to turn theoretical value on paper into real, cold hard cash in a relatively short period of time. As a result, you're left with a whole slew of companies who aren't ready to be scrutinized in the public financial market.

The old criteria for an IPO candidate used to be businesses with remarkable traction and revenue trajectory. But when the internet came along, everything changed. Suddenly, companies could see exponential growth almost instantly. (Come on, that's pretty easy. When you go from 0 to X...) But as we've seen, that doesn't necessarily ever last. Anybody remember the .com bubble? It almost seems like user adoption maybe isn't the best metric for long-term financial success. Crazy!

Back to Twitter...

For those who don't remember, Twitter didn't start out as a startup with hopes of ever going public. In fact, the founders of Twitter, in 2006 at the time it was created, worked at a podcasting website, Odeo, and things were headed downhill. They realized they needed to reinvent themselves and ended up creating the concept that Twitter is today.

When it comes down to it, Twitter is a marketing site where its audience (users) is sold to advertisers. Let me say it differently: the users are the product and the advertisers are Twitter's customers. Unfortunately, that's nothing unique to Twitter, nor to many internet startups and their stocks that have flatlined. Twitter hasn't built a railroad, nor a coffee chain like Starbucks, nor those straws that we sip out of every morning on our way to work. How is Twitter different than Facebook, from a monetary perspective? Not much, except that Facebook has done it better. Twitter has built a website that millions of us visit on a daily basis (and yes, I use it all the time) but when it comes to financial investors who don't understand crap about the internet, they're looking at a different metric. "Did you hit the growth potential we expected? Did you hit the advertising dollar figure we were looking for?" If not, you're screwed.

"But Cory, what about company X that was super popular?" Let's take a look.

Groupon:

Hmm, what about Retailmenot? (Whaat? Retailmenot is public? Yes.)

Are we sensing a trend?

Oh, one more for you, ladies and gentlemen. Yelp:

In Yelp's case in particular, when their user growth and revenue flatlined, they had to find other ways to keep the charts looking like hockey sticks (up and to the right) and that's when it came out that sales reps were writing negative reviews about businesses, then calling them to upsell them to a plan where they could manage their reviews. How's that for a business model?

So for those of you who put money into Twitter, or Yelp, or Groupon, just because of their upward growth... did you really think they would become the next Google? Or Apple?

Put your money into a company like Salesforce, a company that continues to spread its tentacles into the hearts of businesses across the world. Put your money in Tesla, a company that's changing how we build cars. Or give your money to Google or Amazon, companies that continually create products that increasingly hold the data that we all depend on. Dropbox is an ideal candidate for an IPO - an established business with customers who pay for their services directly, and who continue to expand into other markets (B2B) as they become a more mature business. Uber is another company that has reached such critical mass and has such a large customer base with potential to move into other markets that they also will do incredibly well at an IPO.

Let's move away from putting our money into companies that rely on us visiting their webpages, to survive. Real intellectual property is created when a company builds something better and more unique than anybody else.

I wish companies like Twitter, Groupon and Yelp stayed private. These companies are immensely useful for a large audience, but when those growth numbers wear off, they shouldn't be penalized by investors who don't understand their value. Instead, they should stay private until the point where they are such a critical part of our lives where growth metrics don't matter, and instead, we value them upon their contribution to our lives.

An open letter to Flightcar

Dear Flightcar,

I tried. I really tried. When I found out about you, I was stoked. "Finally!" I thought, "A company that's going to disrupt the miserable car rental business!" And in theory, the concept is great. The only problem: The car rental business is a customer service-intense industry. Translation: your customer support has to be on point.

Unfortunately, the customer support department at Flightcar seems to be largely non-existent. (Quite frankly, this is the last thing I expected from a well-funded Silicon Valley startup with top tier investors.) But before I detail my laundry list of personal experiences (including the phone call that put me over the edge), let's check some recent tweets.

Notice the timestamps on these tweets. These are all from just the past few weeks.

The quote from @andrewjiang is spot on: "The human element is broken."

I can safely say the encounters I've had with the people at Flightcar (non-sales related) have been some of the worst experiences I've ever had with support teams. We're talking along the lines of AT&T, Verizon, and dare I say Comcast?

Flightcar, you have to fix this if this business is going to continue.

The encounter I had tonight is just icing on the cake, but before I get there, let's just review some former personal experiences with Flightcar that come to the top of my head. (These are largely the same as many other complains that can be found online. Just read some Yelp reviews or do a search for @flightcar on Twitter.)

Summary of previous issues

  • The first time my wife and I rented through Flightcar, we waited for our airport pickup for 45 minutes before giving up and Ubering ourselves to the Seattle station.
  • We ordered a 2009-2015 luxury sedan and were given a 2004 Audi A6. (Build-in navigation - what I was hoping for? Fat chance.) I returned the vehicle the next day. Getting our refund took 7 emails over 8 days.
  • Deciding to give Flightcar the benefits of the doubt, we entered one of our vehicles in the monthly rental program. We were told the max monthly mileage put on the vehicle would be 1,800 miles. Our Jeep was pummeled with over 2,300 miles in less than a month, so we pulled it out.
  • Within that time period, email notifications stopped working for a portion of it and we received no updates about when our Jeep was returned or rented, and no notice from Flightcar about the issue.
  • There were multiple encounters of waiting a week for a response to emails, and on several occasions, no responses at all. On at least two occasions, I was told my emails went into the spam folder. (Seriously? The Zendesk spam folder??)
Tonight's phone call(s)

But the latest issue in my series of terrible interactions, and quite frankly, my breaking point, involves a support call about missing floor mats from the Jeep we loaned to the monthly program. Getting no response in over 3 days, tonight I decided to call.

  • I called the Flightcar support line, explained the missing floor mats, and asked to be transferred to the Seattle office so I could find out if anyone could locate them.
  • The woman on the phone, bless her heart, believing my name to be Clory, couldn't find my account. (Really? Clory?? And yes, I clarified several times but it just wasn't processing.) After the battle to get that figured out (Cory with an i like igloo or y like yo-yo?), she asked if I could describe what a floor mat is. Let me repeat, and I quote: "Can you explain more what is a floor mat?" Ma'am, I think you might be in the wrong business.
  • BUT, it gets better. After getting transferred to the Seattle office, I can overhear the male representative talking to someone (possibly the woman from the call center), but he didn't know I could hear him. Some of the phrases I overheard included: "I've seen some floor mats but I don't touch them." "Yeah that's a lost and found thing." "This is the second person who's asked about floor mats."
  • After several minutes of me listening in and waiting for him to address me, the call was disconnected. Not dropped. Disconnected.

At this point, I decided to record the call when I called back. The recordings aren't nearly as money as the first call, but you'll get the gist.

I believe the woman at the call center is the same woman I had previously talked to, though having talked to me literally 10 minutes before, it didn't ring a bell for her. And this time, she thought my name was Troy.

Once transferred to Seattle, I was again able to hear the other end of the call. He didn't say anything this time, though. And so finally, a few minutes in when I realized the rep had no intention of introducing himself to me, I decided to speak up. Sure enough, he could hear me and responded. Although, seriously, those phone skills... :-/

Toward the end of the call, we got disconnected AGAIN. Hoping to give him my phone number so he could have someone call me back in the morning, I called the support center a third time. Except this time, the call center was closed for the night.

Great. Still no resolution to my missing floormats.

I had intended to try to loan Flightcar another vehicle, but seriously Flightcar, enough is enough. I'm done, and I hope you can clear up these amateur mistakes up very soon. You've lost my business for good, and from what I'm seeing on social sites, I'm not the only one.

Thanks for listening and I wish you the best.

Cory

Don't waste your money on college

Student Loan Debt

I often sit in coffee shops where I overhear conversations about college, finals and financial aid. And we all know the end result: tens, if not over a hundred thousand in student loans. And for what?

Let's take a look at the typical careers for the first 10 years after graduating college: Retail clerks. Baristas. Receptionists. Independent creatives (we'll visit this one later). Or best of all, working back at a university, usually in recruiting new students, at the same school they graduated from. Do we really need tend of thousands of dollars of debt to land us those jobs? Is this what we thought college would do for us? And do we need to spend the best years of our lives doing nothing but stressing about paying off loans that landed us in this mess in the first place? If I were in that position, I would march into the administration's office demanding my money back.

Of course there is merit of a college degree for certain jobs where it is necessary to be licensed, but for the vast majority of us, it is real-world experience, not long-form Scantron tests, that ultimately decide our fate. So why do we all go to college? "You won't get hired without a college degree" is usually the retort that a parent will tell you. But now, in 2015, I think it's time to challenge that argument.

My Personal Experience

I wouldn't have gone to college if it weren't for my parents who mandated it as a life requirement. I basically went kicking and screaming. In high school, I developed a knack for video production and made a good amount of money producing live event DVDs for schools and musicals. I was fortunate enough to have parents who supported my creativity in this, and allowed me to spend a lot of time in high school developing these skills. But when it came to college, I still had to go. Naturally, I ended up pursuing a degree in communication, what I now know to be "the easy degree you get when you have no idea what you're going to do with your life."

From my freshman year, I had no interest in my classes. I cared little about "college life" and decided to find an internship as a freshman. I wanted to do something with my life! (I was required to do a 1-semester internship during college.) I think I ended up doing 4 or 5 internships in total. And for me, this was the best "career move" I could have made. I interned with a record label, a concert promotion company, video production company, and a company that build websites for the mortgage industry. I started out managing a Myspace page, then email campaigns, then a website, then doing work in Photoshop and even handling technical-sided customer support calls.

Before my internships, I had built a personal website (back in 2002 at the age of 15) but aside from that, I didn't do much with the web. But it was during my internships that I began to find a niche for myself.

Back in college, I spent the majority of my college classes sitting in the back row, building $500 websites for clients that I would find on Craigslist. Over the years, I began to build a portfolio. I had real-world skills I was able to add to my resume. These weren't just credentials on paper. I was actually building things for real people, and for a real purpose. As a junior in college, I had enough experience building websites where I was able to jump my freelance rate from $15/hour to $50/hour.

Just Do Good Work

You can compare my tract with the long-lost concept of "apprenticeship". And now we're back to a society where the focus in on production, not titles. If you can show real-world experience in many fields, you're likely to get hired, regardless of the letters behind your name. (I've never been asked for my college transcripts, and in my time of hiring people, I've never really cared either.)

Of course I'm not negating the need for college for those who want to be doctors or lawyers or work in highly regulated industries. I'm simply saying that for most of us, college (in terms of landing a career) is just a big joke now.

Millennials, in the new economy, hold down jobs for much shorter periods of time and tend to work as independent contractors. There is less loyalty to employers because employers are less loyal to employees. But fortunately, because many employers look for experience over degrees, that gives job seekers a lot of opportunity to stack their resume. Independent creatives - artists, musicians, and digital creators don't need college, either. They just need tangible skills that will land them a gig in this new economy.

Trade Schools

When we hired people at Preact, we looked for people with real-world skills. We did hire a couple developers who received the equivalent of a trade school certificate but who didn't go to college for a degree in their field, which I think is a great alternative to college. I really wanted to attend The Art Institute because of their focus on resume-building skills and teaching tangible knowledge about software programs, although my parents ultimately nix'd that decision. Today, organizations like General Assembly teach anything from software development to product development to digital marketing. They're not accredited, but not many people care about that anymore. That's right, you don't have to spend 2 years of college re-learning the basics about English or simple math (although these are very important and hopefully were learned by high school). I should point out: most job applications list a college degree as a requirement. However, I've never found this to be the case, instead allowing "relevant experience" as a satisfactory qualifier.

The Changing Landscape

Thanks to the internet, you can now you can teach yourself almost anything you want to learn. Between tutorial sites like Lynda.com, or Youtube, or this great resource called Google, you can learn these skills faster than ever before. No longer is higher learning held within the confines of the great walls of universities. Aside from the social aspects of college, there are few benefits for a future career than there were decades ago.

Summary for High School Grads

The massive inflation in college prices is unlikely to be stopped anytime soon. Whenever the government gets involved and starts throwing their money at things, prices never go down because they're always willing to pay out. And with the false notion that college is a requirement to survival in life, there is no shortage in kids looking to get into college. With limited supply, high demand, and a government that thinks throwing more money at the problem is going to solve things, there is no recipe for a logical solution in sight.

So my recommendation to recent high school graduates is this: Live at home for a couple more years: Save some money. Find an internship or two. Work hard. Learn as much as you can from people who are doing things. (If someone is paying them money for something they're doing, they're clearly doing something right.) Then when you have the right experience and the time is right, start jumping up the corporate ladder.

The reason businesses enjoy hiring interns is because they're cheap. The reason working for cheap is good is because you don't have a ton of expenses yet. It's a symbiotic relationship: They get the work done, you get the experience you need to climb up the ladder in society.

Stop buying into the lie that college is going to land you a great job and a successful life. The more likely scenario is that you'll usually wind up in massive debt and spend a good portion of your life trying to pay it off. Sure, you may have a fun few years meeting some new people. But I'll venture a guess you can find some new friends outside of the college experience while keeping $50,000-$100,000 in your pocket. And to me, that tradeoff is well worth it.

The only website that closes at night

The revolutionary thing about the internet is that it's "always on". Do some shopping at midnight in your PJ's? Yep. Watch a movie at 3 AM from bed? Absolutely.

Which is why I was astonished to discover a website that has "normal business hours" and actually closes at night. Of course it would be a government website, namely the Social Security Administration.


How did I discover this?
I recently heard it's possible to estimate your future social security benefits on the Social Security website, so I decided to try it out. But following the link that says "Estimate Your Retirement Benefits", I was greeted with a CLOSED message, which is probably the only website in the world that actually closes at night.

Turns out since it's 10:22 PM here on the West Coast, I'm outside of those normal operating hours for those East Coast servers.

Seriously, what in the world?

<rant> Please don't send an email like this to customer support

In this episode of "the life of a business owner..."

People say the darndest things when writing in to customer support. Here's a recent example sent in to FolioHD.

"My service is still not working. My business depends on the reliability of this website and if this can't be fixed I'll have to switch providers immediately."

Do customers think support people are more inclined to respond faster if they include a line like this? Do they subconsciously think a slight threat is going to get their problem fixed any faster?

The unfortunate fact is that 99 out of 100 times, the "problem" is a user error (at least in our case - in this particular instance, a misconfigured domain name). But when you're the service provider, it's never the customer's fault -- and I'll gladly take on their problem as if it were the most important thing in the world, but because I want them to have a good experience, not because of their tone.

There's just something inside me that hopes they don't correlate their slightly threatening tone to what got their problem resolved, because it really doesn't help.

</rant>