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Pulling a Nadella

Posted: October 18th, 2014 | No Comments »

blockheadVery few times do I feel like the subtle, shapeshifting bias that women face in their business careers becomes REAL and VISIBLE.  Prejudice in the workplace is kind of like chasing mercury…it’s been pushed down so deep by HR, PC, etc., you can usually never quite nail it and say, “There it is!”.  In my career, when bias bubbled to the surface, it was just a phrase, a moment, and usually unwitnessed.  But, then, sometimes you are gifted with a Nadella.

My sadness over Nadella’s statement is not that he holds ignorant attitudes.  I know that bias is insidiously or innocently an undercurrent in every debate, every negotiation, every interview I have in business.  My sadness stems from the undeniable confirmation that someone who is so ignorant of our challenges has been responsible for the advancement of 37,000 women in his company.  The fish stinks from the head.

I am sad for all the women who unfortunately reported to him.  Where are all those women who nervously asked for raises, were not only told no, but then judged for asking?  How many of those women were passed over for promotions, great assignments, a chance to be mentored by a brilliant engineer because they were labeled by him as pushy, naggy girls?

The great news about getting a Nadella once in a while is that you feel like you caught the mercury.  I am a big fan of getting things out in the open, out for all to see.  As my mom says as she puts the cutting board outside to air…”Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

A quick CEO lesson from Captain Jeter

Posted: September 26th, 2014 | No Comments »



I don’t really follow professional sports.  I like college sports better because they make a lot more crazy unexpected mistakes and the game is much more exciting.  And I went to Michigan, so go blue.

But there was a great article in the New York Times about Derek Jeter, and how people try to chat with him when they’re on second base (apparently he’s a second baseman).   The article talked about how, while not chatty to press, he is very chatty with other players while he stands around second base.  He must be aware at this point about how his stature affects other ball players, but he works hard to make them feel comfortable and give them encouragement.  He uses words like “I’m proud of you guys” which shows he understands the role he can play as a captain.


What’s interesting is that the encouragement is not limited to his own teammates, but to the opposing team’s players who happen to have made it to second base.  I found that a strikingly simple concept that can often be overlooked by CEOs.  You need to focus not just those who are directly dependent upon you (your team).  You also need to focus on the success of others to make the game great.  That can extend to people who are not on your team, and whose success does not directly bear on your own.   That level of self-confidence, and long-term outlook to improve baseball is demonstrated by Jeter subtly, and without fanfare.  Yet it makes a tremendous impact that leaves a lasting improvement on the game as a whole.  I draw similarities to female CEOs who need to support other women CEOs publicly and privately.  We all need encouragement and support, but to get it from industry captains and each other would be priceless.

“You can’t count on the girl.”

Posted: September 19th, 2014 | No Comments »

Starting back up.  Those of you that like annual posts, my blog should be at the top of the list.

LIRR_M-7_EMU_InteriorA 49ers announcer got suspended today for making <<cringe>> insensitive remarks about the whole Ray Rice debacle.  I cringe because I know if it’s only insensitive, as opposed to outright racist or sexist, there is going to be a whole bunch of eye rolling by people who think everyone is overreacting.  Anyway, this guy apparently said that Ray’s wife not reporting the abuse, “is the saddest part of it.”  Okay, clearly, that is hardly the saddest part of it.  I’d say getting cold-cocked in the head by your husband was the saddest part of it.

But, never fear, a super hero emerged on the train yesterday.  He restored my faith that not everyone thinks one-inch deeply prior to speaking.

SCENE:  One guy and one superhero behind me, heavy Long Island accents, sound early 40’s.  I am bracing for the conversation as it turns to Ray Rice.

Guy One:  Dude, what about that Ray Rice thing?

Guy Two:  I didn’t see the video, man.

One:  I saw it, I saw it.  I mean, dude, I just have to say, if you were going to hit your wife…not that you ever would hit your wife…but if you found that you hit your wife, and she’s laying on the floor cause you lost your mind for a second and hit her.  Wouldn’t the first thing you think be, “WHAT IN THE HELL DID I DO??”  I mean wouldn’t you be like, “OH MY GOD I CAN”T BELIEVE I HIT HER!”.   [starts laughing]

Two:  I guess so.

One:   Not this guy, not Rice, man.  He was throwing her out of the elevator like a sack o’ potatoes, man.  I mean I would be like, “I CAN’T BELIEVE I DID THAT” and there he is all dragging her around the elevator, throwin’ her around.  Some other guy came and helped her.  [Laughing]

[Now, here’s the great part:]

One:    You know, you can’t count on the girl, man.  You just can’t count on her.

[I grip the armrest a little tighter…waiting for the inevitable misogyny…]

Two: What?

One:  Now you can’t count on her now, man, to tell people what happened and all.  I mean there are all these reasons she couldn’t’ve said nothin.  She coulda been scared, or he coulda told her not to say anything.  I mean you have no idea what is going on with her.  You just can’t count on the girl to say somethin’ about that stuff.


Here’s what I love about the guy behind me.  He said what others have been trying to say, but in his authentic, macho kinda way.  He said his very unsexist thing in a kind of sexist way.  He somehow understood the complex dynamics behind abuse, or at least appreciated that they might exist.  He then slipped it in kind of in an insulting way, like she’s weak or incapable, but it was a way that was totally digestible to the other guy.   The other guy agreed, and there it was…victim blaming quashed, one man at a time.

Guy behind me on the train, I salute you.




Sheryl Schadenfreude, Marissa Misogynist: Ladies, let’s not eat our own.

Posted: May 1st, 2013 | No Comments »

I’ve heard two of the only female tech conglomerate executives called lots of names recently:

Sheryl Sandberg – elitist, vain, selling herself

Marissa Mayer – boastful, anti-mom, anti-feminist

The thing that disturbs me the most is that many of the name callers have been other successful women in business.  Women in the media, women in power, women across the conference table, women at cocktail hours.  I cringe any time a woman in power is attacked…there are so few of them that the attacks always strike me as somewhat personal.  However, when the attacker is another business woman…it really sends me for a loop.  And a tweet by Lena Dunham crystallized my thinking:

Advancing the Cause

Ladies, the mere presence of Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer in top executive slots is advancing the cause with an impact about which we can only dream.  When only 3:100 top CEOs are women, their presence is outsized as a win for us.    Having women who are competent, well-spoken and experienced putting themselves forward in positions of power furthers our cause.  These are executives who want to grow businesses, create jobs, push their product forward.  And, thanks to all that is holy, they are women and not men.

That, ladies, is advancing the cause of gender equality in the workplace.

The narrow expectation that women in power can only advance the cause by LITERALLY making pro-women decisions is myopic and misguided.  We have been at this for hundreds of years, and probably for hundreds more.  Whether we personally feel that one policy decision each female CEO makes is supportive of women in the workforce is inconsequential.  Much more at stake at this point in our struggle is the fact that it was a woman who was empowered to make that decision.  I look forward to the time when all women have to do to advance the cause is make a bunch of empirically pro-feminist business decisions.  In the meantime, the fight right now is just to GET into those positions of decision-making.

Bad Attitudes

What does not advance our cause are people who tsk-tsk, and finger-wag at the women who finally, finally have gotten to the top of the corporate pyramid.

Sheryl seems to have pissed everyone off by ‘blaming the victim’ since she herself is far from a victim.  Whether or not you agree with her, making an impassioned monologue about how she’s wrong serves two separate purposes.  One, that you are smarter than her.  And two, that the most powerful tech woman in the world isn’t as smart as you.  I’m pretty sure at least that second perception, when repeated thousands of times in blogs, news stories, and tweets, is not good for Sheryl’s success.   And when you go further and take her quotes out of context and criticize a book you haven’t bothered to read, then I need to ask: do you really think you’re furthering the cause by making sure everyone knows you are right — or possibly hurting the cause by making sure everyone knows Sheryl is wrong?

Marissa Mayer can move us forward by being an extraordinary CEO that turns a really messed up company around, when no man could do it before her.  In a world where only 1.5% of CEOs in the world’s 2,000 top performing companies are women, we need her to make Yahoo! one of those top performers.  She is not making decisions to ‘tweak’ the H.R. dials at a company that has lost over 40% of its value over the past 5 years.  She’s trying to save it.  And the more outlandish questions she has to answer about whether she’s anti-woman or anti-mom, the more she will not be able to accomplish that.

Do you want to be right?  Or be equal?

Women need to recognize that the constant attention to the failure of these high profile women is the foundation upon which illogical, misogynistic gender bias builds.  A Darden study found that the stock in a company drops after announcing a new female CEO, but not when new male CEOs are announced.  Gender is mentioned more in the articles that write about those new female CEOs than those about new male CEOs.  Being female is wielded as prima facie evidence that we will fail.

Influential women attacking other high-profile women helps strengthen that large, sexist misinformation beast.  The re-tweeted shortcomings of women in power weakens us as a gender much, much more than your being right advances it.  The relentless, full-throated attack by women on other women is what resonates and remains the retardant of their, and all of our, career trajectories.

I’m not saying support these women blindly and suppress your own opinion.  I myself don’t necessarily agree with the individual positions these women have taken.  I am saying, though, take more time and thought in why, how and when you criticize them.  Take the time to think about how others will (consciously or not) use the negative momentum you create to hold us back as a gender.  I’m asking you to play the long game.

In the tallest poppy syndrome, we cut down figures who have risen to places of power in order to raise our own stature.  Trust me, ladies, there will be no lack of other people to cut the Sheryl, Marissa, and Megs down.  You don’t have to prove you can do it better.

Whether or not Sheryl and Marissa can make their companies successful, we need to pray to the Fortune 500 gods that they can.  Only that spectacularly hard-earned level of win can truly move the underpinnings of the workplace gender-bias from where it exists today.




The re-tweeted shortcomings of women in power weakens us as a gender much, much more than your being right advances it.  The relentless, full-throated attack by women on other women is what resonates and remains the retardant of their, and all of our, career trajectories.  Get a hold of yourself.

Can you hug the 800 pound gorilla? (Gorilla Part 2)

Posted: April 9th, 2012 | No Comments »

What can you do to test the waters of the deal strength?

This post is a follow-on to the discussion about a large-conglomerate offer to a smaller company.  Having gone through an almost-deadly major investor deal, I wanted to write more about how to avoid our mistakes.  One area of focus could have been making sure that an operating partnership gets struck…if they’re really interested, they will jump at the chance.  A partnership, if done correctly, can help you survive any eventual unwinding with your dignity and company in tact…and possibly better off (see third example).

1. Conduct a ‘test’. 

So, I like this one the least.  I find that tests between companies can fail on multiple levels.  1) The wrong test set-up, so it was never going to work, 2) testing the wrong attributes of the partnership so drawing bad conclusions, 3) lack of time to prove the true value since Rome wasn’t built in a day.  I have found that tests often mean “we’re not sure”, as opposed to “let’s blow the doors off this thing!”.  There was a NYC digital content company that jumped through hoops and hoops with a large portal.  They showed lift in click through from content, lift in ad effectiveness, lift in SEO.  Lift, lift, lift.  In the end, it was a positive test, but the conglomerate couldn’t see the test being actualized at scale.  It’s hard to show you’re going to drive tens of millions of dollars when you drove a few bucks in a few months.  There’s a lot between here and there, and all the doubters can poke holes in any test methodology.

2. Is there a sales channel opportunity?

This one is hard, unless you’re already on the rails.  Merging anything is a challenge, but it’s especially hard to motivate teams to commit to the hard work if there’s no actual deal in place.  Your sales team needs to hit their numbers, and were planning on doing it without this partner.  They would need to be convinced that the ‘distraction’ from their plan will be worth the effort.  If it was such a slam dunk, why wouldn’t they have been pushing *you* for it in the first place.  On the conglomerate sales team’s side, they will need some vig.  Assuming it’s a seamless add-on, they’re happy to sell more if they make more.  Some components that should align in order to make it work are: 1) if you are finding that you are already heavily overlapping in clients, 2) that you are meeting with the same people, and 3) both your money comes from similar budgets, so your company can tuck in to the larger buy quickly to prove 1+1=3.  My guess is, again per my last post, someone from their sales team would be the investment’s business ‘owner’ already…he would understand you enough to put his own job behind your numbers.  If it’s being forced on anyone…it’s time to ask yourself if the sales channel opportunity is too risky to bet the deal on.

3. Can they be a customer?

This is the best structure under which to construct a ‘test’.  Can they use your services themselves?  Then, go get money from them.  Use the contacts, momentum and support you have to construct a great vendor deal with their team, and come out the other side either being convinced it’s a great partnership, or with a nice big revenue check from them.  What did you lose if the deals fall through?  Nothing.  What did you gain?  A new customer.  Either way, winner.

Trying to ensure that your big conglomerate investment or acquisition deal goes through is no enviable task.  You rarely have the leverage to turn down the $6 bil Google offer, so how can you survive the process?  First, be glad that you’ve changed someone’s game enough to be interesting even at your level of sales.  Second, remember that’s the most valuable leverage of all.


comScore: 1 + 1 = 3 (UGC + Pro Video = Big Lift)

Posted: April 4th, 2012 | No Comments »

Published another quarterly newsletter, this one revolving research with comScore on the combined impact of user gen plus professional video to tell a complete story.  The headline is that not only were the two videos almost exactly additive in impact on consumers, but the were additive only to consumers who were using competitive products.  There was no increase in consumers willing to switch within the client’s own line to the featured product when using one video or both videos.

To me, the most interesting side finding of the research was the held attention span on the UGC video…it way outperformed 30 second spots…but also way outperformed the professional video.  We didn’t cover that a lot in this webinar, but we’re commissioning a whole separate study around why people were so taken with the user content later this year.  Stay tuned and sign up to get our next newsletter.

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What to do when the 800 pound gorilla wants to dance

Posted: October 21st, 2011 | 1 Comment »

I was at a CEO summit the other day where the discussion was, “What happens when the 800 pound Gorilla lands on your doorstep.”  The question was in the context of a potential acquiror or strategic investor.

I think we all know what to do when you want to say no.  Witness Groupon turning down a $6 billion acquisition offer.  You just say no, thanks, and hope you’re right.

But what about when you want to say yes?  How can you survive the 800 pound gorilla process to get to yes?  Here was some advice offered by other CEOs, plus an additional treat describing EXPO’s experience with an 800 pound gorilla that went south a few years ago.

  1. SIZE OF CONTRIBUTION:  Generally, you aren’t of much interest to a conglomerate unless you are above $10 mil, on your way to $25 mil.  At that point, no matter who the conglomerate is, they can imagine you having an impact on their business someday (mostly through sales integration with some other piece of their company).  Another way to make it happen is to be a straight technology platform play, where it’s better to buy than build for them.
    EXPO’s example
    :  In our case, we were under these amounts, but tripling revenue each year.  Being small probably made the deal much easier to kill.
  2. ACQUIROR OWNS THE NUMBERS:  Someone on their side HAS to own your numbers.  Deals in conglomerates get vetoed by the CFO all the time…not because the CFO doesn’t believe in the business or the numbers.  They will kill it because no one will step up to OWN the numbers.  Believing in the numbers and owning them are two separate things.  Believing means that the revenue growth makes sense to you.  Owning means that you take responsibility, understand exactly where the revenue will come from, put your rep on the line that you/the team will make it happen.  That requires a deep understanding of what you do, how you do it, and who your customers are.  Depending on how closely your internal champion already knows and understands your business, that’s a lot to ask.
    EXPO’s example
    :  In retrospect, we had many operational champions who believed, but none who would own.  I think the barrier to owning was that they did not truly understand our business.  If you’re selling banner ads all day and shooting for 5% topline growth, I can imagine it’s very difficult to stand behind a evangelistic new media product that is planning to triple growth.  (Which, btw, we did).
  3. NO MARKET FLUCTUATION ON THEIR SIDE:  Assuming the 800 pounder is a public company, one of the variables to check would be the gorilla’s own market stability.  Any external market fluctuations in their industry, or hiccup in their own story for the Street can lead to unpredictable, last minute decision making.  While the stars don’t have to align for the transaction to move to close, especially if you have a numbers ‘owner’ above, the stars definitely can’t be out of whack.  In an unstable environment, new announcements like investments and acquisitions, even smart ones, become market moving variables they will not want to introduce.
    EXPO’s example:  2 weeks after our deal went south, the other side announced lower revenues for the quarter, year to date, and the rest of the year.

I want to attribute many of these thoughts to a particular CEO, Adam Slutsky, who is CEO of Mimeo, a hyper-fast growing online, on demand document printing solution.   He was also co-founded Moviefone, which was acquired by AOL and then stayed at AOL awhile.  So, he was able to provide a lot of experience from all three of those vantage points.

Next post:  what can you do to test the waters of the deal strength?

EXPO’s first newsletter!

Posted: July 13th, 2011 | No Comments »

We published our first newsletter a little while ago.  It was meant to be much more about what we’re learning than to sell our services.  Of note in it are:
o One of the first disclosures we are live on diapers.com
o Making available our research on why people write on brand websites

Let me know what you think, and definitely sign up for the mailing list!

Exit Multiples for Startup and Growth Companies: Update

Posted: April 8th, 2011 | 1 Comment »

My cofounder and generally extraordinary financing-whisperer, Bill Hildebolt wrote an email to a colleague who was asking about current multiples of tech/new growth companies.  As an update to my blogpost about multiples earlier in the year, the market is definitely more frothy and more yielding in certain spaces.  Bill’s analysis breaks down some key changes in the marketplace and their limitations.

Here is Bill’s email response to a ‘current multiples’ question by a colleague:

  • yes, most companies are going to be looking to sell (or finance) based off a multiple of revenues, even, typically, runrate or even forward revenues (so, not last years). So if someone wanted to buy us today and we were willing to sell, we’d say it had to be off our 2011 anticipated revenues
  • premium deals are trading at up to 10x. here’s a couple of examples of that:
    • Salesforce just bought Radian6 at that level
    • OpenTable and Logmein – the two big tech IPOs last year – both went out at 10x revenues and have traded up from there
  • To get that level of multiple, though, you have to:
    • Be at a certain critical mass of revenues….maybe $20mil
    • Still be growing as fast as ever
    • Have strong market position (and even buzz)
    • Be in a sector where the revenues are perceived as recurring / sustainable, probably with one of two characteristics:
      • like SAAS or cloudbased software
      • network effects like Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  • So, VCs will try to do financings in the 3 – 5x revenue multiple range, with the idea that a sale will occur potentially at 5 – 10x revenue. That way, the VC benefits from two things: a) growth of revenues, b) multiple expansion
  • Here’s a great example of a range of acquisition outcomes in one story.  Three acquisitions on one day by one company of similar companies with 3 different outcomes:
    • KickApps had $12mil in revenues and got bought for around $45mil….so 4x
    • Kewego had $10 mil in revenue and got bought for around $25mil…so 2.5x
    • Kyte had $4mil in revenues and got bought for around $5mil….so 1x.
  • If a business is more of a “services” business….for example, like all of the people building Facebook apps…the multiples are going to be lower – say 2 or 3x – with two big caveats:
    • If they are CRAZY profitable.
    • If the space is on fire (Facebook servicers) and they are perceived as a leader. Like Vitrue, who just raised $17mil. But even others in that space have gotten far less attention because at the end of the days, its just time and materials
  • With all of that context, the bottom line is that valuation is driven by two things (as with any company) and if you keep your eyes on these two balls, you definitely won’t sound crazy to the guy on the other side of the table:
    • Actual and potential growth rate. If it’s growing like a weed with a recurring, sustainable & defensible revenue stream (like EXPO!), valuation rises
    • Company context. If the company is running out of money without a plan, or the CEO has quit, there’s a looming competitive threat, or even there’s only one buyer….valuation is going to get hammered.  The difference between a 10x exit and a firesale is often breathtakingly slim. The ability to accurately “sniff” a situation is critical to getting to the ‘best’ answer

If that’s what you get from Bill in an email, imagine how insightful he is in person!

The big NYC clean

Posted: November 7th, 2010 | 1 Comment »
Date Acquired Acquiror Price and Multiple
May 18, 2010 Assoc. Content Yahoo $90 mil est 3-4x trailing revenue
September 28, 2010 5min AOL $65 mil est. 6-8x runrate revenue
October 29, 2010 drop.io Facebook asset purchase
December ?? 2010 cafemom Yahoo? $100 mil rumor, est 4x trailing revenue


Not as relevant on retail multiples:  November 7?, 2010 diapers.com by Amazon for $540 mil, est 1.5x runrate revenue

*Caveat: I have not been an investment banker in decades, and most of these multiples are ‘informed guesses’ on my part. I invite anyone to write me with better estimates and I’ll update the post.

UPDATE:  Please see my updated post here

Within the past 6 months, some well-run, well-funded NY new tech companies have been wholly acquired by major conglomerates. Cafemom also seems up for grabs, rumored to be sought by Yahoo.  By the time this post is up, I understand Quidsi/diapers will also be gone.

So, why would these companies, with relatively good growth metrics, sell at the bottom of the ‘great recession’? Why not hang on 1-2 years for the inevitable multiple expansion on top of higher revenues? Even 5min, with the healthiest acquisition multiple of the bunch, had people guessing why they would have sold now as opposed to waiting for better multiple post-recession on obviously expanding revenue.

There are multiple considerations that may have made selling today the right decisions for these companies despite strong growth prospects. Many of these we lived ourselves at EXPO at some point. Overall, while it’s generally a buyers market, other factors can make it the right time for founders & investors to look past doubts about selling in a downturn. My co-founder, Bill Hildebolt, and I came up with a list why we think we’re seeing so much sales activity that we personally know all too well.

Unplanned need for cash driven by slower sales
In an economy marked by corporate spending decreases, many newcos are experiencing lower than expected sales. Usually a remedy for this would be lowering costs. However, many new tech companies have high fixed costs – people – which means that cutbacks are not easy to make to maintain support of existing clients (not to mention severance, etc.). For many of these companies, you can’t lower costs by just buying less plastic and then making fewer widgets. With lower than planned revenues, and an inability to lower costs correspondingly, companies find themselves needing to raise money either a) faster than anticipated, or b) more than anticipated. Either way, VCs, insiders, even angels, aren’t attracted to that type of story.

Poor terms when capital is available
Raising capital in most markets isn’t something executives dream about (well, maybe in their nightmares). But in this market, terms could have been so unattractive that an early, but fair exit became a better alternative. While we’ve heard there’s money out there for seed, and for strong B rounds, there doesn’t seem to be a lot for ‘follow-on’ A rounds. Plus, you’d be trying to raise capital on revenues that you feel don’t reflect your true value, on multiples that are currently depressed. Who wants to do that for a year?

Cash wasn’t just king, it was also queen.
Conglomerates started hoarding cash into the downturn. They cut costs quickly and found other ways to raise cash. They’ve continued to hold that cash even as their P&Ls have stabilized. At the same time, interest rates are at historic lows and so there’s no return on that cash. An attractive use for cash in that environment could be to ‘buy growth’.  With their own shares depressed in the market, conglomerates are using 100% cash as the payment consideration — with Quidsi being the latest example with $500 mil rumored to be in cash. All of the ongoing business deals listed above were for reportedly all or almost all cash. Knowing that immediate liquidity was possible, many VCs or angels may have just decided that an all-cash acquisition proposal was too good of an opportunity to help them balance their own portfolios. Cash isn’t appearing every day for them, and many are tapping out of old funds but haven’t raised new ones. They may have put pressure on executives to liquidate because of a premium they may have had for the cash.

What’s the opportunity cost of holding on?
Despite growth, promise, and great product, executives might have just run the numbers and not liked what they saw. With IPO markets far from frothy (albeit also very far from dead), and a potential hard road for revenue growth for a few years, some founders might have just run the numbers and decided cashing out now was in their best interest. It’s been a tough two years for most of us, and it’s easy to decide you’ve ‘topped out’ on your personal risk-reward returns for the next couple years. Most of us entrepreneurs don’t display the reserve of Mark Zuckerberg, who said “I don’t think I’m going to have another idea this good for a long time.” Most of us think we have an idea every minute.

My co-founder and I have gone through almost all of these stages since founding the company. Sometimes in the down market, we’ve run the numbers, not liked what we’ve seen, but either had the foresight or plain luck to not have been forced to make any decisions at that point. Most of that credit goes to my partner, Bill, who planned our financials knowing that “Most companies don’t go out of business because they’re bad businesses. They go out of business because they run out of cash.” As our headlights become longer now as our business model has taken shape, it helps us project that the wait will be well worth it.

Congrats to the execs who have found their right exit now, and here’s to the rest of us who are intending to find it later.

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