Category: The Memo (Page 2 of 5)

NSA Ventures is changing: Highlights from the annual meeting

This post is from the Northstack Memo, our newsletter and commentary on recent happenings in the Icelandic startup ecosystem, written by @kiddiarni.

The numbers: $3.6m in losses due to writedowns

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that NSA Ventures was quiet last year. No fresh investments, and just over 200m ISK (~$1.6m) in follow ons. These are normally not announced or specifically listed.

The fund sold its share in three companies – Gogogic, Andrea Maack Perfums, and Transmit. At least two of them, Gogogic and Transmit, have been defunkt for some time, so the sale is more about housecleaning than realising gains. The fund’s portfolio now holds 29 companies. In addition, the fund wrote down 433m ISK (~$3.6m).

Obviously, judging the fund by a its annual report is pointless – profits of a fund like this can vary wildly between one year and the next.

Major changes in personnel

The most interesting story about NSA Ventures these days is the changes in personnel. First of all, three (of four) investment managers left late last year to found their own VC fund. Now it’s also public that the fourth investment manager, Egill Másson, will leave NSA Ventures at the beginning of next month. On top of that, Smári, the CFO, is on leave of absence.

That leaves Huld – the new CEO – and Svala the office manager to oversee NSA Ventures, one of Iceland’s main investors in early stage companies.

And wait, there’s more.

Almar Guðmundsson, chairman of the board, who’s discussed changes in the operations of the fund for some time now, was let go from the Federation of Icelandic Industries (in a chaotic, strangely handled debacle). He’s been chairman of the board for the last three years, and was there when Huld was hired. Whether or not he remains on the board is unclear, but I would say unlikely, as he sits there as a representative of the FII.

Problems and solutions

Almar’s notes in the annual report, as then-chairman of the board, notes several main issues (that I’ve detailed several times in the Memo).

The investments are too old (three companies are older than 20 years old, and seven companies have been in the portfolio for more than ten years), exits have been sluggish (three sales last year but no real returns) and fresh investments have been lacking (no fresh investments in 2016 and only one in 2015). He then discusses the need to reevaluate the legal framework around NSA Ventures, and suggests that the new minister is indeed inclined to do so.

At the annual meeting, Þórdís Kolbrún R. Gylfadóttir, the minister of industry and innovation made a speech. In broad strokes, she discussed the history of the fund, and more importantly, its purpose: to support innovative new companies at their earliest stages, to combat market failure that historically has made it difficult to raise money for new ideas and companies. She mentioned that representatives of the fund have suggested the fund partner with private operators of an early stage fund (General Partners), which could provide positive returns and lower operating costs. She closed the speech by announcing a four person working group that will work on suggestions. She didn’t disclose who was in the group.

In reality, not much new here. Those who have followed this story for the past year(s) have figured it out:

Everything points to NSA becoming a fund of funds.

I’ll discuss what that could mean for the ecosystem later (sign up for the Memo to get all of this straight into your inbox), would love your thoughts and feedback until then. 

What do you think will happen? What do you think should happen?

Send me an email with your thoughts.

Þórdís Kolbrún in interview with VB – several thoughts

This post is from the Northstack Memo, our newsletter and commentary on recent happenings in the Icelandic startup ecosystem, written by @kiddiarni.

A couple of weeks ago, Viðskiptablaðið published its annual Entrepreneurs magazine. The paper named Platome startup of the year (í: sproti ársins) and Mint Solutions entrepreneur of the year (í: frumkvöðull ársins). In my opinion, the most interesting part of the magazine was an interview with Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir, Iceland’s minister for Industry and Innovation. I’ll highlight several quotes (translated by me).

  • Þórdís: “We’ve done many things regarding [support for the entrepreneurial ecosystem]. The innovation bill last year, the result of work done by the minister of finance and minister of innovation, greatly improved the environment. That doesn’t mean we can just mark it as done. The new law includes things like tax deduction for individuals that invest in startups and increased tax-refund for companies that invest in research and development. In my opinion the maximum refund should be increased even more. These things were a big step, but we always need to try and do even better.”

A couple of comments.

I’ve written about the innovation bill several times, and specifically discussed the tax deduction for investment in startups. There were several big issues with that change. Based on my discussions with active angel investors, a survey of similar initiatives in other countries, and the fact that only three companies have applied for the status for this deduction to be available, suggests that these laws haven’t been the great success they were set out to be. I’ve previoysly written about the bill in general, and the investment tax deduction specifically. If you’re interested in these issues I recommend you take a read.

The other, and more significant, point in this quote is the fact that the minister thinks the maximum refund should be increased more. If she’s able to move on that it’s great news for both tech companies in Iceland, and the ecosystem as a whole.

It’s public knowledge that Icelandic tech staples like CCP and Tempo have discussed that the environment for R&D is better for them in other countries like Canada or the UK. The R&D tax refund is a part of that environment. The committee that discussed the bill specifically decided not to increase the maximum refund because in their view the bill was for smaller companies. Hopefully this emphasis from the current minister will get through.

  • Þórdís: “I wonder whether we should decide what kind of entrepreneurial- and innovation country we want to be. Are we on the journey of doing everything and being good at everything, or do we perhaps need to consider being excellent at something specific? I don’t necessarily mean one specific sector, but rather that it’s not necessarily the right way to try to be best at everthing, that it could be reasonable to have a clear focus and not spread our efforts in too many places.”

A very interesting comment there, signaling that the minister has been (at least) thinking about whether to focus the governmental effort on specific sectors or technologies. Of course, there are pros and cons to decisions like that, and I will be writing more about these in the coming weeks. But if we were to decide that Iceland would focus on a specific sector or technology, it would mean broadly two things. First, Iceland would have a high-level, long-term strategy in building up innovation capacity in a specific sector, that hopefully would attract companies, specialists and investors in the space to Iceland. Second, it would require not only action on behalf of the Ministry of Industry and Innovation, but a much broader effort including education, finance and more.

All in all it’s encouraging to see that our new minister has both a good understanding of what’s happening in the world of tech and entrepreneurship, and ideas on where to go and what to do.

What do you think about here comments? Did you read the interview? Send me a message and let me know or tweet at me (@kiddiarni)

Who finances startups in Iceland? A look at LP’s

This post is from the Northstack Memo, our newsletter and commentary on recent happenings in the Icelandic startup ecosystem, written by @kiddiarni.

While some investors – most notably angel investors – invest their own money in startups, venture capital funds mostly get their money from other investors. VC funds are set up in partnerships, and it’s the LP’s – limited partners – that bring the money. So just like founders and CEO’s pitch VC’s for funding, VC’s pitch asset managers at LP’s for their money.

For most LP’s, investing in venture funds is a part of their diversification strategy, and seen as a low-risk way for outsized returns. Low risk, because the absolute amounts are small compared to their assets under management (AUM), outsized returns, because the best VC returns can be mindboggling (Seqouia Capital and their 10x return on a $400m fund is a good example).

Scott Kupor, managing partner at VC fund Andreessen-Horowitz wrote a post on VC economics, and I highly recommend it. For the purpose of this post, I’m highlighting one part, where he discusses the types of institutions that usually function as LP’s:

  • University endowmentsYale is a famous example

  • Foundations – Non profits that invest their funds to fund their charity

  • Pension funds – That receive money from workers and invest them

  • Family offices – Investment managers that work for very high net worth families

  • Sovereign Wealth Funds – Investing the economic reserves of a country, like the Norwegian Oil fund

  • Insurance Companies – Invest their customer’s premiums, to be able to pay out when something happens (and also to make money)

  • Fund-of-funds – Investment companies that have their own LP’s and allocate money on their behalf

Who invests in Icelandic VC?

In Iceland, we currently have four VC funds (and one on its way) – Brunnur Ventures, Frumtak 1, Frumtak 2, and Eyrir Sprotar. Looking at the LP’s in those has some interesting points:

  • Pension funds are by far the biggest player
    Both in terms of participants (we tracked 12 pension funds that are investors in Icelandic VC funds) and proportion of capital. Around 62% of the roughly 17bn ISK that have been invested (or promised) in Icelandic venture capital since 2008 come from pension funds. While in comparison to the VC market, this is a very big portion of the market, it’s important to keep in mind the vast amount of money available to these institutions. LÍVE (Iceland’s biggest pension fund) alone has 600bn ISK under management, and even if LÍVE was the sole backer of Icelandic VC, this allocation would be way below the 5% mark many pension funds in the US allocate to VC. (It should be noted that LÍVE could of course be an investor in foreign VC funds directly or through fund-of-funds).

  • Of the pension funds, LÍVE is the most active
    This is not surprising, because the fund is the biggest in Iceland. It participated in all four of the funds, and in three of them utilized most of its 20% allowance (Pension funds are only allowed to own 20% of a company structured like a VC fund – more here). In total, the fund has a little under 3bn invested in VC funds, around 0.5% of its AUM.

  • The next biggest LP players are banks
    Which is interesting, as banks aren’t mentioned as LP’s in Scott Kupor’s discussion of LP’s. In any case, all three banks have participated in at least one venture fund. Landsbankinn has participated in three, Arion banki in two and Íslandsbanki in one. In total the banks contribute around 3.2bn ISK, just under 19% of the total money.

  • There’s a lot of LP groups missing
    There are no insurance companies, university endowments, charitable foundations, or sovereign wealth funds listed as participants in the Icelandic VC’s. There’s a couple that could count as family offices – holding companies of high-networth individuals are (small) participants in some – so we’ll call them that.

What does it all mean?

These numbers and observations suggest several things.

  • Icelandic VC’s rely a lot on pension funds, and other types of funds haven’t participated in VC (yet). This could very well be due to the fact that we don’t have a long history of returns in the VC industry, like the US one has. We’re looking at four funds over 9 years, while the US industry has decades to build on.

  • There might be fundraising opportunities for Icelandic VC’s in insurance companies. They are active in other types of investments and might be open to investing in VC. (If you’re a VC and have tried to raise from an insurance company, please let me know – just hit reply).

  • The structure of available capital in general is very different from the US. We don’t have university endowments or big charitable organisations that need to invest their money, or a long history of wealthy families that need investment managers for their family wealth. At the same time, the banks in Iceland step in and participate in these activities. This could mean that we need to find different types of backers for our VC funds.

I’d be very interested in knowing how this matches up to the Nordics and rest of Europe. It could be that this difference is mostly size-related. Iceland is so small that we don’t have massive bequeathals to charitable donations or a lot of family offices. It could also be cultural – I don’t think may European universities run investment offices for their massive endowments.

What are your thoughts? Do you work on the LP side? Can I buy you a coffee and discuss this topic (off-the-record, if you wish)? Send me a message and let me know.

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NSA Ventures’ future, structure, and role in the ecosystem

This post is from the Northstack Memo, our newsletter and commentary on recent happenings in the Icelandic startup ecosystem, written by @kiddiarni.

NSA Ventures is standing on crossroads right now. Two investment managers and the CEO left in December to start their own fund. (They’re titled “Venture advisors” on the fund’s website). A braindrain like this calls into question the fund’s long term strategy and plans. These employees have more info on where the fund is headed and chose to venture out on their own.

Late March, the board of NSA Ventures announced Huld Magnúsdóttir as the new CEO:

Huld is an experienced manager with a diverse background from both the private and the public sector. From 2009 she was the Director General of the National Institute for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Deafblind and was the acting director of the Social Insurance Administration between 2015 and 2016. Between 1993-2008 she worked at Össur in Iceland and abroad in various management positions,  …

According to Almar Guðmundsson, chairman of the board of NSA Ventures, Huld is a great catch for the fund. “Huld has extensive business knowledge and experience in innovation, strategy and international operations after working world wide. She has the experience we’re looking for now that the next steps of the fund will be formulated.

The last two lines are in my opinion the most interesting ones. Almar didn’t comment any further on what exactly that means, but I’ll dump my ideas here.

  • The comments signal something that has been on the horizon for some time. From our notes from last year’s annual meeting:

    There will be a full re-evaluation of the funds’ legal structure this year. This is not new, and is mentioned in the Ministry for Industry and Innovation’s plan for entrepreneurship. According to the plan, NSA will focus on investing in funds, rather than individual investments.

  • These statements fit well with Huld’s CV, which doesn’t look like a classic VC hire. Her experience doesn’t come from founding or operating a startup or the finance industry. Rather, her last jobs have been administrative and management roles in institutions, which would be useful if the fund is aiming towards major changes in its strategy and operations.

These two things suggest to me, that the plan is to continue on the road to a fund of funds. This would focus the fund’s capital into investment funds, instead of NSA Ventures funding individual companies.

NSA’s structure (and legacy?)

NSA is an official institution, but not a governmental agency. It’s not part of the governmental budget but its existence is defined in law (nr 61 / 1997). This means that operational details like how directors are appointed to the board is law.

The initial capital used to start the fund is from several funds of the time (including the Fisheries Fund and Industry Development fund). That, in part at least, has led to some interesting rules (when we look at it now) in regards to who sits on the board. It’s a five person board, nominated by the Minister for Industry and Innovation as follows:

  • one without nomination (at the minister’s discretion)
  • one based on suggestions from a coalition of industry (I’m guessing that’s the Federation of Icelandic Industries, SI)
  • one based on nomination from the minister in charge of innovation and development in fishing (The Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture)
  • one based on suggestions from the coalition of companies in the fishing industry (I’m guessing SFS)
  • one based on a nomination from ASÍ (Icelandic Confederation of Labour)

Let’s break this down a bit. Two of five are discretionary picks from two ministers – innovation and fishing. Two are suggestions from the business community – general industry and fishing. One is from the labor organisations.

The discretionary picks make sense to me. While NSA Ventures is an independent institution, it’s built on official money. It’s understandable that the government wants influence in that case. Whether it should be on or two discretionary picks is up for debate.

The suggestions from the business community also make sense when you look at the history of the fund. Some of the initial capital came from industry specific investment- and loan funds. The financing for those came at least in part from the industries, and the law discusses this. The appendix to the law from 1997 discusses the reasoning for this.

The fifth board member comes out of the blue from the labor organisations. Reasoning for why the labor organisations should have a representative are completely absent in documents accompanying the initial bill.

It’s notable that one of the committee members reviewing the initial bill objected to this arrangement. “Nominations to the board show that the authors of the bill are still stuck in the old division by industry. Fisheries and industry have a nominee each, but the service industry has none.” The review further comments that there were suggestions of different arrangements, including nominations from the universities and engineering societies.

Any review of the laws about NSA should definitely look into how board nominations work. In today’s world, it’s worrying that technology industries are not explicitly represented, but the labor organisation is.

This arrangement was debated in 1997, and should absolutely be scrutinized now, twenty years later, in 2017. This is especially worrying now, that the funds most interesting investments are in software and health- or bio technologies. Also, just clearing up why ASÍ should be there would be nice (if you can make sense of it, please let me know).

NSA’s role in the ecosystem

An interesting part of the initial laws that founded NSA Ventures is the discussion about where in the funding stage the fund should operate. The memo that accompanies the law identifies three stages of startup funding: seed, start-up and expansion, and then states:

“The main role NSA will take in investment projects will be … funding expansion.”

It’s likely that this has been changed since the fund’s inception, especially because most of the fund’s fresh investments are in the earlier stages.

But it opens up the discussion about what the role of the fund is, and what it should be. Which leads to the bigger discussion of how the government should support investment in startups and innovation, which initiatives suit best for each challenge, and so forth.

With the new hire, a new minister, and obvious changes in operations at NSA Ventures, a holistic review is in order. Stakeholders – including officials and representatives of the ecosystem – should look at the fund’s role in the bigger picture, diagnose where the challenges are, and apply tried and tested initiatives to address those challenges.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Send me a message with your thoughts.

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Are we looking at a startup downswing in Iceland?

The last two Memo’s discussed the general interest in startups. A month ago, I wrote a post titled “Is interest in startups in Iceland decreasing?”. The main point there was to bring forward data about the declining participation in cornerstone events like Gulleggið – business plan competition, and some accelerators.

And yes, I’m completely aware that I’m starting to sound like a negative tech-journalist-type that wants clicks. But well, I’m neither (not a journalist, don’t care about clicks), and I’m only looking at some numbers. Please, if you have insights or comments, let me know (email). I’m easily persuaded.

There’s just a little under two weeks left of Q1 2017, and if nothing changes – if no investment is announced, that is – it is the first time for a long time that there have been fewer than two investments in a quarter, two quarters in a row. A picture explains this better. The sad block in the lower right corner is us right now. (Also, this means that there’s very little point in doing a quarterly funding analysis for Q1, which makes me sad 😞 )

rounds-per-quarter-001

In fact, the last time we had two quarters in a row with only one investments each was Q3 and Q4 2013. At that time the only active fund investing in startup was NSA Ventures, I believe. Frumtak 1 had closed a year earlier (it was active until Dec 31, 2012) and no other VC fund had started investing.

In some ways, we’re in a similar situation now; there’s only one fund – Brunnur Ventures – that’s effectively active right now. NSA Ventures is capped, Frumtak 2 probably won’t invest in many new companies (they need capital to follow up on their investments), and Eyrir Sprotar is in a similar place, based on the most recent information I have.

Outlook

While it surely doesn’t look good right now, there are (some) positive signs up ahead.

First: the board of NSA Ventures will announce who will be hired as CEO of NSA Ventures this week. Almar Guðmundsson, chairman of the board, confirmed this in an email earlier. That means we should start seeing some movement there. (note: it seems the board did in fact not announce who would be hired as CEO)

Second: Crowberry Capital is raising, and hopefully they’ll close (soon). We could definitely use an early stage fund to keep the momentum going.

Third: I’ve heard rumours about an business angel network initiative. It’s something that has been on the horizon for some time, but apparently there’s some movement getting into that work now. That might spur some angel investment – although I have a feeling that there’s way more of that already going on than the numbers suggest.

Obviously, these three points are only enablers, not drivers, of startups. The main ingredient is founding teams and business ideas, and without them, any amount of VC money won’t help.

What do you think? Are we in for a downswing? Is the golden age of startups in Iceland over, or yet to come?

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Feedback Monday: Is interest in startups in Iceland decreasing?

A couple of weeks ago we looked at some data regarding activity in the startup scene. We received some very good feedback, and are posting it here:

On the gut feeling based on QuizUp and that not many startups spun out from there.

Helga:

  • 1. When evaluating the spinoff effects of a company, you have to have a more long-term view. Many of those that go off and create a new company do so when the former company moves out of the “initial” stage into a more “more of the same” stage. Ie. you have to look at people that have left Quizup since the very early days, esp people that were part of the initial team or the first round of hires.2. It is also too early to tell. The initial response for many employees is to seek a “safer” employment after a startup closes up and then after a short or long stint in the security of a larger employer they decide to venture out again.

On the economic upswing:

Hjálmar:

  • The economic upswing is definitely a factor as well. We saw a clear trend in 2004-2008 when hardly a single startup was created as “everyone” could get a well paid and (allegedly) safe job in finance. And while it’s the logical conclusion for each person individually, it’s not good for society collectively.

Egill:

  • I think it’s obvious that the economic upswing affects the entrepreneurial drive – the same happened in 2004-2007. This also applies, I think, to the interest of angel investors in this asset class. It has decreased somewhat, because there is a lot of other investment opportunities available.

On the basic premise of the article:

Salóme:

  • I think one of the reasons for the development you seen in the data is more options. For example, applications to Startup Tourism increased this year. There’s more available for people interested in startups than before: three accelerators, more focus on innovation and entrepreneurship within the universities, and a specific Entrepreneurship Master’s programme at University of Iceland. In general, I think the activity has held steady, in spite of the economic upswing.

Eggert: 

  • Regarding your thoughts on less startup interest, I think you’re right in many ways. However, my hope is that the startups that are active are becoming better, so that in the end its quality, and not quantity, that decide how well we do in this space.

Hrafn:

  • I’m a computer scientist, and up until recently worked at a startup. The company was going well, but not well enough for salary development to follow the cost development in Iceland. At the same time, expenses grew, and the idea of investing in my own real estate became less attainable.
    Therefore, I decided early this year to move, to a well established company that could offer better salaries and benefits. This is a theme I hear from other people.I think the reason behind this is a mix of many things. But when it comes down to it, I think the main reason is less exciting than many others: people just need to be able to pay there bills. While the bills are growing every month, it’s hard to work at bootstrapped startups.

 

Is interest in startups in Iceland decreasing?

First rule of writing non-fiction online is that ending your headlines with a question mark is completely lame (and the question is usually easily answered with a “no”). However, this time around, this question is honestly something I’ve been thinking about over the last couple of weeks. I’m going to share a couple of thoughts (and data).

My (pessimistic) gut

This thinking started a while back, after we saw that most of QuizUp’s former employees started working at established companies. A large part didn’t even go to startups, but bigger corporate gigs, and only one company was founded from the remains.

At the same time, the economy in Iceland is going well. Low unemployment, low inflation, everything chugging along. Thinking that people that were otherwise inclined to entrepreneurship, find themselves in a nice job instead, could affect this as well.

Competition participation is trailing down

Last week, the Golden Egg business model competition (Gulleggið) announced ten finalists. Gulleggið has been a part of the Icelandic startup and entrepreneurship space for a long time (2017 is its tenth year). I would almost go so far as to say that organised startup community activity was nearly non-existent at that time. Why should it have started before? Everyone worked in finance and life was good.

Anyway, ten finalists were chosen out of 123 business ideas. A decent number, if you look at it in a vacuum. But if we plot the number of business ideas that entered the competition for the last five years, a trend emerges.

gulleggid-graf

The trend for Startup Reykjavik and Startup Energy Reykjavik isn’t quite as clear. Startup Reykjavik bounced back last year after a big drop, and looks to be on an upwards slope, while Energy applications are slowly declining.

accelerators

What do you think could be causing this development in participation? Send me a message.

Events are up and attendance not as much

Anecdotally, I’ve heard comments that event attendance is diminishing. Some attribute it to event fatigue – there’s so much to choose from, the average attendance goes down – but it could also be lower interest levels.

So, we scraped some data (thanks to our main engineer Kári Tristan) and got attendance data for events ranging back to 2011. These are events hosted by Icelandic Startups, Startup Iceland, Innovit, Innovation Center Iceland (NMÍ), Gulleggið, Startup Reykjavík, Startup Energy Reykjavik, Northstack, Sjávarklasinn and Innovation House. We got data for a total of 170 events covering 2011 until this moment in 2017.

Remember, I’m not a statistician and I haven’t done the prerequisite deviation and confidence interval calculations on this for it to be scientific. It’s mostly for the fun, and limited insights. If you’re interested in doing some of that number crunching, I can send you the data we have.

number-of-events

There’s a decent upwards trend in the number of events, which is something most of us that follow the ecosystem have probably noticed. There’s more people planning events, and startups in general have gotten more attention (anecdotally) than in the earlier years.

event-attendees

This graph shows the average event attendees per event by quarter. So an event in Q3 2014 had, on average, 95 attendees. There’s a trendline here, but not as strong as in the total events (and, remember, not scientifically tested).

My hypothesis is the following: Supply of startup related events has grown faster than demand / size of market, which leads to smaller groups of attendants (on average).

Sadly, we don’t have more nitty-gritty data, to see, for example, unique event attendants per quarter, or event attendance retention.

What does it all mean?

Not much, really. You made it to the end of the post, and there’s not a “No” answer to the question posed in the headline. There isn’t a “yes” answer either; it’s a total “I don’t know”.

What kind of data could we use to try to answer this? If you have ideas, let me know 🙂.

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The Technology Development Fund’s role in the Ecosystem

Everyone somewhat involved with startups in Iceland knows of TDF (Technology Development Fund). The fund gives out grants to a lot of companies, and is the lifeline of many in the early stages. While some might argue that angel investments are lacking in Iceland, the TDF definitely takes part in the early stage funding of the Icelandic startup scene.

With recent changes, the fund now offers bigger grants over a shorter period of time. Something that many had been calling for regularly. Last week the fund announced the first recipients of their new, big grant: $600k over two years ($300k per year).

TDF’s announcement:

Sprettur is a major grant, meant to support companies with good opportunity for big growth in the next five years. The companies need to show equity based funding to match the grant.

Obviously, great news for the companies. The one thing I’m puzzled about is the role of TDF in all this. As it is now, TDF and its vetting method (Business plan / excel sheet, who many will tell you is mostly made up) is the gatekeeper for government matching of investment money. Actually, this way the investors are matching the government money.

Now, I’m no expert on government matching programs, but this sounds a bit strange. Most matching programs I’ve heard of – be it Yozma BIRD, or varius angel matching schemes in Singapore, Korea or elsewhere – have the government funding following the investor, not the other way around.

I haven’t found any data on any of this, so I can’t make a judgment, but just based on basic intuition it would make more sense to me that the person making the decision have skin in the game, which is something the TDF definitely doesn’t have.

What do you think of this? Send me a message with your thoughts.

Feedback Friday: Stock Options in Icelandic startups

A couple of weeks ago I sent out a Northstack Memo titled “Do startups in Iceland offer stock options?” discussing whether companies used them or not, and if not, why. I got a lot of feedback on that post, some of which is published below. If you have any thoughts, comments or questions, shoot me a message.

  • Jenný: I sit on five startup boards. One has no share option plan, two initiated a share option plan to employees during the past two years and two implemented a share option plan which I handed to them. My feeling is that this is in pretty good shape in our portfolio. The first point on founders losing stake can easily be addressed with founder vs common class of stocks.
  • Founder: We offer options at my company and have used the new laws to do it in a flexible and nice way. We think it’s a necessary as a way to give a sense of ownership, and not only for the earliest employees, but also for the ones that will come later. I don’t think Icelandic startup employees think much of the value of their options, which is reasonable because most startups fail, or never become valuable enough for the options to gain massive value. It might be that Silicon Valley employees deem the options too valuable, but there’s probably some middle ground there that is correct.
  • Sigurður: We are focused on this. We want a minimum option pool of 10-20%, depending on the company. I think all VC’s emphasize this. We want the company to have options available to make recruiting easier and make the team better. A startup should pay lower salaries and give out options.
  • Helga: We don’t have options, but we have a bonus plan instead. In general, Icelandic employees don’t value options that highly. They mostly look at what they get paid every month, and don’t focus on the long-term possible upside; which is understandable, because there are very few instances of upsides affecting employees.
  • Haukur: I am a founder and CEO and I will definitely offer stock options when it comes to hiring, which I hope I can do Q2 this year. Especially in the early stages, I believe wholeheartedly that it will benefit the company morale and increase productivity. It was one of the things we specially discussed when noting up partnership agreements between the founders.
  • Investor: I’m not sure whether the company’s I’ve invested in offer stock options, but it seems common for early employees to get equity. It’ll be interesting to see whether the new law will make stock options more common. I think your speculations are largely correct.

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Do startups in Iceland offer stock options?

Startups and employee compensation

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had several discussions about the technical talent pool in Iceland. Some of them led to discussions about compensation schemes.

One of the topics was employee stock option plans and whether they’re frequent or not. Personally, and anectdotally, I have a feeling that they’re not, but I don’t know.

A little background. Until recently, stock options in Iceland were taxed as income at the date of exercise. That means if an early employee decided to leave a startup and wanted to exercise her options, she would have to pay the tax on gains at the time of exercise. With innovation bill this changed, and Iceland is now one of the most lenient countries in the world when it comes to stock option taxation. Even Silicon Valley has people stuck in “handcuffs” because exercising their rights would create a huge tax charge.

But I have a feeling there is something else at work here as well. Because even though taxation like this could stop people from leaving the company, it doesn’t stop top-tier companies in handing out stock options, and employees expecting them, in Silicon Valley. As an example, Facebook – now one of the world’s most valuable companies – gave stock options to the guy who sprayed graffiti on the office wall.

My hunch is that the following mix is at play (caveat: wild guesses, the point is to start a discussion):

  • Owners / founders prefer not to give options because they don’t want to lose their stake. Icelandic exits are few, far apart, and often modest, which leads to the marginal utility of each percent to be higher. That is, if a company is sold at 100m ISK, each extra percent of ownership for the founder has more value to the founder than if it is sold at 10.000m ISK.
  • Employees aren’t used to options. Iceland is a heavily regulated labor market. Theoretically, people could go through their whole working lives without ever negotiating compensation. A labor union has done it for them at some point. Perks and benefits are often also pre-negotiated (like the May and December “bonuses”, vacation days, and random stuff like eyeglass- and fertilization grants). Basically: Employees don’t ask for options. Which leads to them not getting them.
  • VC’s not focused on this. In fundraising rounds, VC’s can affect the option pool available to employees both in nice and not-nice ways. Not blaming VC’s for anything (remember, I don’t have any real confirmation that this is an issue) but I’d guess that VC’s would want their companies’ employees to have a stake in the upside.
  • Maybe people are using other forms of bonus or compensation schemes tied to outcomes. The Icelandic gray market for startup stocks has probably not been very liquid, so stock options could often end up being just worthless paper. Some founders might be using bonuses or similar instead.

What do you think?

  • Are you a founder / executive? Do you offer options to your employees? Why / Why not?
  • Are you a startup employee? Do you have options? How do you feel about that?
  • Both: would you participate in a study / survey about compensation in startups?

As usual, just shoot me a message and tell me what you think!

Update: I got a lot of responses to the Memo when I initally sent it out, some of which I’ll feature in next week’s Memo – sign up here so you don’t miss it.

This post was originally sent out as part of The Northstack Memo – our weekly newsletter with commentary and updates on the Icelandic startup and tech scene. You can sign up here.

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