5 Things Young Software Companies Typically Don’t Know

Posted on August 6th, 2017 by Chip Davis

IMG_0007We hear a lot of pitches from young companies with well developed software capable of solving interesting (high dollar) business problems. There is rarely a solution whose value proposition is so self evident and powerful that it can circumvent typical buying patterns. The danger of most elegant software (at initial commercial release) is its hypnotic distraction from what is required to cause a purchase. In this context, we have listed some opinions and questions for young companies to ponder. In no particular order:

  • If you think you just had a “great meeting” with a prospect, you most likely did not. How do you determine the truth?
  • What it is about the particular business problem of interest that is dragging out your sales cycle and how do you reduce drag?
  • When is a trial the right thing to do for the company?
  • Is your sales force doing too much lead generation and why is this bad?
  • What are the first signs that you should not allow a prospect to become your customer?

Consider these points in earnest and founding shareholders of promising software companies will need less money to evolve and own more stock at exit. Make sure your money source has some answers.

Darwin’s Theories on Software

Posted on March 7th, 2017 by Chip Davis

We occasionally get our hands on business cases prepared internally by companies wanting to purchase enterprise software products. These documents generally include recognizable dialects of business rationale. Software purchase initiatives are generally grounded in some emotional driver obscured by economic rationale. We thought we would share with you some of the unstated reasons we believe are really in play:

“If this works I might get promoted.”
“This will get me home 15 minutes earlier.”
“Everyone else is doing it.”
 “I have been doing it all wrong and this application can be my confessional booth.

A Hidden Cost of Fueling Your Car

Posted on October 18th, 2016 by Chip Davis

A New World for Home Buying

Imagine for a moment you are considering buying a home. When you sit down with the seller, he indicates that he is pretty sure that he owns the entire house but there is a possibility he may not own around 19% of it. You express your concern with this possibility, however, the seller is nonplussed and quickly comments…”If you don’t want it…there are others who do.” You would like to own a home so you don’t walk away.

The compromise you reach with the seller is that he gives you thirty days prior to closing to figure out if he owns the property or not. Based on this you send your guy to the courthouse who sifts through the records and tells you what he thinks about the seller’s ownership status. Your bank then mandates that an attorney looks at the same information and gives you their opinion. Oh…and you can not buy title insurance.

If you were in the business of buying and selling houses of which the seller may not own up to 19%, you would necessarily factor this risk into your business model as a cost of doing business. If you can’t lower your cost of goods, then you find another way to protect your margins.

Oil & Gas

Oil & Gas property transactions are usually negotiated in secrecy and closed subject to very tight time constraints. The protections afforded a buyer in such a deal are, on a relative scale, inexplicably limited in both dollar amount and term. There is very limited time afforded a buyer to make a claim against the seller and you generally can never get a significant percentage of your money back. The “home buying” metaphor above is normal course for oil & gas companies operating in the United States.

What’s the Problem?

The ambiguity of oil & gas rights ownership has a simple root cause:

There are many types of “economic interest in oil & gas” and a single patch of land can concurrently have many dozen “owners.” Over time…the many dozen owners can pass around their varied interests however they see fit.

The formula below was created by an oil & gas attorney to reflect the mineral ownership rights of one party among 67 on a 150 acre parcel of land – for a single type of economic interest.


Before the attorney created this formula he had to understand what formula to create and may have drawn a picture like this:


The spreadsheet from which the above formula was taken required approximately 9,200 cells to cover 150 acres of ownership issues. This spreadsheet revealed 160 unique formulas.

For a company acquiring 25,000 acres, this extrapolates to 1.53 million cells and and 26,666 unique formulas: all done by hand – from one spreadsheet jockey to anotherlet’s not act like there aren’t a lot of errors.

Somewhere in there are errors which negatively impact the cost of being in the oil business. These errors cause the oil company to pay for land they aren’t entitled to use and send royalty checks to payees not entitled to them. It also causes them to spend a lot of money figuring out what went wrong. Imagine a bank that doesn’t know if you have money on deposit or not.

I doubt the oil company’s reaction to the above is…”our mistake…let’s just eat these costs.” There is little doubt in my mind that at least some portion of this error has found its way into my own gas tank. To at least one outsider it seems nothing short of insanity.

A Not-So-Obvious Way to Gather Market Intelligence

Posted on May 2nd, 2016 by Chip Davis

Human Tendencies and The Corporate Organism

No one likes to plan for their own demise and as humans, we are generally hedonists. When things are working well, it is a relief from daily anxiety to direct our attention toward having achieved prosperity. Companies are collections of humans.

For almost every successful new company, there is another that was in a position to make that success its own. Thisimages opportunity lost can be a function of several failings: “We didn’t see this or we misunderstood that.” When companies and board rooms contemplate what’s next, it is many times in the context of their current customer set. Customers are good sounding boards for market feedback; however, what actually happens next (or after that) is not always found through customer dialogues. Customers are only going to discuss “what is next” within certain boundaries (i.e. what they are willing to share, what they think is germane to the listener, what they had for breakfast). It is these boundaries that many times are the raw material for a narrow view of the likely reality of “what’s next.”

I once heard former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice posit that the eventual demise of so many geopolitical strategies is a failure to establish competent “listening posts.” She was speaking to an audience of technology investors using her career observations as a proxy applicable to the technology company organism. To this technology listener, she meant that most companies don’t establish engines/teams/processes dedicated to considering what technologies might be coming out of left field to undercut strategy and market position. Her eventual point was that many times this results in “opportunity lost” and evolves into something seriously detrimental to shareholder value.

Baby Steps

In the world of software and the Energy Industry, it is very common for the target market to deliberate “build our own.” Software vendors must regularly compete against the prospect’s view that what they envision provides a competitive advantage and needs to be proprietary. I would argue that this mindset sets a course that deprives the prospect of an interesting form of “listening post.” How?

A good software company is a de facto market intelligence-gathering organism. Through the proliferation of product in the market, the software vendor creates neural pathways between companies (prospects) that compete against each other. A software company’s mission is to gather various formsimages-2 of “what’s next” from across the installed base and put that information into code/practice. By examining a software vendor’s product road map and long-term vision, a prospect/customer can develop the sense of what his competition is up to. It is an avenue for detecting and handicapping certain types of market messaging (and your competitor’s priorities around competitive advantage) to which the listener otherwise likely would would never construct any form of foresight.  In his own “buy vs. build” deliberations, the prospect is unknowingly trading away the implicit “listening post” (i.e. buy) for the belief of short-term competitive advantage (i.e. build).

So What Am I Saying?

Obviously this dynamic is not absolute; however, it is very common reality. Many great enterprise software companies have developed successful playbooks based solely on this notion. Does the “listening post” construct always materialize to the favor of the prospect? NO.  But I think I would rather avail myself of the possibility of YES than the probability of opportunity lost.

Explanation of Houston Ventures

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Too Good to Be True

Posted on April 25th, 2016 by Chip Davis

imagesThere is a long history of oil industry participants getting duped by software companies. Unsuspecting prospects are lured by low annual license fees combined with a one-time services load creating the appearance of an attractive total cost of ownership. The prospect is lead to believe that the highly attractive delta on the license fee (compared to competing vendors) more than offsets a higher one-time services load and, on this basis, he makes his selection. Next stop, “deployment.”

“Domain expertise” is the high level measure used to convey software’s fit for a particular use case. The services load for any deployment is generally inversely correlated to the degree of domain expertise inherent in the code. High domain knowledge in the code = lower services etc etc. When the prospect gets a quote reflecting a high services load, it is a glaring signal that the code “doesn’t know my business.” So in assuming the high services project, the customer is really saying…”I will take the risk of teaching you my business of which you currently know very little.” This is where projects fail.

If the software vendor does not have five other similar prospects, then your code is a one-off. The code is dependent entirely on you to evolve beyond the initial specifications. The vendor is not coming to you continually with “domain specific” enhancements discovered from a larger user community. As a result, you continue teaching and continue paying for what otherwise would come at no additional charge in the once-contemplated high annual license fee. This raises the total cost of ownership.

We have many times seen portfolio companies competitively lose prospects only to have those prospects come back a year later. On the one hand we like the business and on the other…it is painful to know the story behind their return.

Explanation of Houston Ventures

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Oilfield Service Talks About Software

Posted on April 6th, 2016 by Chip Davis

In this video, the CFO of an oilfield service company discusses how software helped operations impacted by a reduced labor force.

Who is the Customer?

Posted on March 7th, 2016 by Chip Davis

Without limited partners, private equity funds can do nothing. This truth many times causes a fund manager to set his priorities around a belief that limited partners are the primary customer of a private equity fund. If we contemplate the business model of a private equity fund through the lens used by the fund manager to consider a potential portfolio company, a different answer can reveal itself.

What Are We Selling?

Houston Ventures is structured to invest in technology companies that solve operational problems in the Energy Industry. There is a wide range of simple problems that result from the remoteness of the oil & gas development supply chain such as (a) what do I do next? (b) how should I do it?, (c) can I do it?, (d) did I do it?, (e) did I do it right?, and (f) is everyone happy? Finding companies that meet our criteria reflects a large number of variables to consider. Examples in our portfolio of companies having met our criteria include LiquidFrameworks, Geoforce, NuPhysicia, and Oseberg.

The purpose of market specialization for us is two-fold: (i) having an ability to gauge the market’s prioritization of its operational problems in both up and down markets, and (ii) understanding operational frameworks (at the portfolio company level) that have proved successful for young companies and that fit the DNA of the Energy Industry. Many companies with great “horizontal” technology have hung a shingle in Houston, Texas (et al) only to vacate with no success and not understanding why.

The companies we have in our portfolio are there because they believed that market specialization from a capital source mattered heavily.  imagesThey were shopping and we were selling.  The existence of alternatives required Houston Ventures to engage in a form of value selling (just like the companies themselves). This in turn required us to understand the problem set of the prospect company, prioritize those problems, and convince the listener that solutions we might provide were meaningful and better than those against whom we compete. This is especially complex given that many times the listener must first be educated to the existence of problems he has yet to detect. It is not a short sales cycle. Here is a real world example of one shopper’s evaluation screens.

So Who is the Customer?

Without diminishing the import of LP’s, a lot more intellectual property is required to address the “buying decision” of a small technology company targeting Energy than for a potential LP considering an investment in the Houston Ventures funds. We have to look at ourselves in the following vein, “If a prospect company’s principal value pitch to us is “product price”, we want to end the sales cycle as quickly as diplomatically possible”.  Why should the evaluation of a funding source be any different?

It is in this sense that one might consider a portfolio company to be the “true customer” of a private equity fund.  We are the product, they are the customer. Focus on how the customer is underserved, act on it expertly, and shareholders (LP’s) prosper.

Explanation of Houston Ventures

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Interview with “The Energy Makers.”

Posted on February 15th, 2016 by Chip Davis

Russ Capper meets with Chip Davis to discuss operating problems and technology solutions for the Energy Industry. The EnergyMakers Show is a weekly video production featuring interviews with energy industry thought leaders, innovators and public policy makers discussing challenges and solutions to the world’s rapidly increasing need for energy. The Show is broadcast over the web, and featured segments are broadcast on the radio in Houston on NEWS92fm.

Energy Makers