First Stage Investor Issue No. 39

First Stage Investor Issue No. 39
By Early Investing
Date October 4, 2019

Invest in the Glowing Future of Natural Skin Care


Startup: Aavrani
Security type: Crowd SAFE
Valuation (cap): $5 million
Minimum investment: $100
Where to invest: Republic
Deadline: January 29, 2020

The U.S. economy may be slowing down. But the natural skin care market continues to grow at breakneck speed thanks to millennials (see more on this below) and the growing popularity of natural and healthy ingredients.

Skin care companies are making out. Legacy companies are buying skin-nourishing brands from fast-charging startups instead of developing and growing their own products. In 2016-2017, L’Oréal bought two startups for $1.3 billion and $1.2 billion. Unilever bought three natural skin care brands – one for $1 billion, one for $500 million and another for an undisclosed amount. Estée Lauder bought Too Faced Cosmetics for $1.4 billion in 2016. And L’Occitane scooped up startup Elemis for $900 million this year.

The one I’m most familiar with? Procter & Gamble’s buyout of Boston-based First Aid Beauty (FAB) for $250 million. FAB was founded and is still headed (as a P&G division) by the most dynamic entrepreneur I know. Her name is Lilli Gordon. (Full disclosure: Lilli is my sister.)

So I’ve seen up close the fortunes bestowed on the founders and early investors of successful skin care startups. It’s pretty amazing. And now another skin care company – which is our recommendation this month – is off to an incredibly fast start. This company has made $1 million in just the past 12 months. The company says it’s on its way to making $5 million next year.

This team knows a thing or two about cultivating foreign brands for an American audience. And its members are bringing their hands-on experience to their current venture… with impressive results so far.

Aavrani is a luxury skin care brand inspired by India’s ancient beauty practices. It uses all-natural and high-quality ingredients such as honey, tea tree oil and shea nut. Its four products are an exfoliator, restoring serum, moisturizer and eye rejuvenator. They’re all nontoxic and have no side effects.

The company is getting rave reviews. Here’s a typical one commenting on Aavrani’s eye treatment: “Have found myself coming back to it over and over again after trying so many other brands! It’s so creamy and light and I’m actually noticing my dark circles fading.

This one on the restoring serum is from a hooked customer: “I made a mistake in my address and now they’re sold out, and I have to go a couple weeks without using it. Seriously this is the first serum I’ve used that calms/evens out my skin without any burning or stinging.

Here’s a “glowing” comment on Aavrani’s exfoliator: “This exfoliator only needs to be on the skin for 5 minutes! I love saving time and this is perfect for a quick exfoliation. Just from the first time I used it my skin was glowing.

And a five-star review from a pleased customer on Aavrani’s moisturizer simply says “I have never loved a moisturizer this much.

More products are on the way. The company is in the final stages of developing an oil-based cleanser, a face serum, lip balms and scrubs using traditional Indian ingredients like rice bran oil, saffron, kokum butter and Himalayan sea salt.

Down the road, the company plans to offer beauty products in hair care, body care and general personal care.

Customers have showered Aavrani with love and money. I don’t see how it could have gotten off to a stronger start. More than 80% of its $1 million in sales is organic… it has more than 500 five-star reviews… and the company is cash flow positive.

Such outstanding progress doesn’t happen without great leadership. So let’s start our four M’s (management, market, monetization and metrics) with what management is doing right.

Management Is Experiencing Déjà Vu

Aavrani co-founder Justin Silver looks like he’s been overindulging in the company’s restorative products.

The Wharton MBA alumnus looks 25. But he runs Aavrani like a wily veteran.

That’s because he’s done this before – for a cosmetics company called Tatcha. Tatcha specializes in traditional Japanese skin care.

Justin worked for Beechwood Capital, a major investor in Tatcha. He helped guide Tatcha’s financial, operational and supply chain activities. He analyzed direct-to-consumer performance and retail performance at Sephora (Aavrani is in discussions with Sephora to carry its products). Tatcha grew revenues by more than 500% in his time with the company and had a $500 million exit.

His co-founder is Rooshy Roy. Rooshy grew up using these kinds of products and based Aavrani’s offerings on her mother’s and grandmother’s beauty practices. She’s also worked for Goldman Sachs – a bank that recruits only the best.

Rooshy and Justin are a formidable pair. How else could they attract an all-star team of advisors that includes the founder of Gilt Groupe, the former chairman of LVMH, North America, and the CEO of Christian Lacroix? It’s a who’s who of the cosmetics industry.

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And what I appreciate most about Rooshy and Justin is that each put $100,000 of their own money into the company.

That kind of skin in the game indicates a high level of commitment. And that’s exactly what investors want their founders to have. It means a lot.

Market Growth: The More Upscale the Market, the Faster It Grows

The $18 billion U.S. skin care market is growing at 6% a year. Not bad.

The $8 billion “prestige” skin care market, a subset of the U.S. skin care market, is growing at a 9.4% clip. That’s pretty good. Aavrani operates in the $4 billion “clean” skin care market, a subset of the prestige skin care market. And that market segment is growing the fastest… at a 30% yearly rate.

If Aavrani takes just 1% of this market, that comes to $40 million. And if it just keeps up with market growth from that point – without stealing market share from competitors – its revenue will still grow to more than $114 million by year five. That’s the advantage of operating in a fast-growing market.

Metrics Trump Benchmarks

It’s nice to measure a startup based on actual metrics rather than benchmarks. And Aavrani has some excellent metrics. We could just look at the $1 million in revenue and more than 500 five-star customer reviews so far and stop there. That would be enough. But there’s more. Aavrani’s gross margin is a healthy 84%. And Aavrani’s repeat purchase rate of over 35% is more than double the industry standard. It’s very early, and these numbers will get either better or worse. Given the company’s execution to date, I’m betting on better.

Monetization Made Easy

It’s remarkable that this barely 1-year-old company has rendered the issue of monetization meaningless. When customers sing the praises of a product, they’re not only professing their love of it. They’re shouting loudly and clearly that they love the product at the price it’s offered. The company is cash flow positive. Enough said. Aavrani passes our “four M” test with flying colors.

How to Invest

Aavrani is raising up to $1.07 million on Republic. If you don’t already have a Republic account, you can sign up for one here. Once you verify your account and are logged in to Republic, visit the Aavrani deal page. Then click the blue “Invest in Aavrani” button. Enter the amount you want to invest, starting as low as $100, and proceed through the required steps. Be sure your investment is confirmed, then you’re good to go.


This opportunity, like all early-stage investments, is risky. Early-stage investments often fail. Aavrani might need to raise another round of funding in a year or two, if not sooner. If it executes well, this shouldn’t be a problem. But that’s a risk worth considering when investing in early-stage companies.

The investment you’re making is NOT liquid. Expect to hold your position for five to 10 years. An earlier exit is always possible but should not be expected. All that said, I believe Aavrani offers an attractive risk-reward ratio here.

The Fed fights the bear

Nobody Rings a Bell at the Top

I recently tried to find examples of a central bank predicting a recession. I couldn’t find a single one. Central banks certainly didn’t hint at anything being amiss before the last two bubbles popped.So I wasn’t surprised when Fed Chairman Jerome Powell recently said the economy looks rosy. That was during the press conference after the Fed announced a 25-basis-point rate cut.

Here’s the thing. Confidence is extremely important in economics. Central bankers know that if they told you something bad was coming, you’d raise cash by selling some stock. People would ditch their credit cards and start saving. Those are the last things policymakers want.

So nobody who works for a central bank is going to show you what I’m going to – the leading signs that we’re late in the cycle and what we can do to prepare for a possible market downturn. Let’s take a look at corporate debt as a percentage of GDP. Note that this does not include banks and their debts, and it would probably look a lot worse if it did.

This chart is the most blatant sign of how late in the cycle we currently are. Corporations have more debt than ever before, and an increasingly large piece of it is considered “junk” rated or just above it.

I’ve discussed this next chart before. But I want to take another look at it because it’s important. It’s the current S&P 500 CAPE ratio. That is the 10-year average of the S&P 500’s price-to-earnings ratio.

The S&P 500 looks expensive with a CAPE ratio over 30. Peaks in this chart tend to coincide with market tops, as you can see in 1929, 2000 and 2008.

On top of this, profit margins have rarely been as high as they have been over the past few years. The historical average appears to be around 6% profits in the S&P 500. As you can see in the chart below, it’s around 10% today.

Most companies have cut costs to the bone. During a recession, it’s likely that profit margins will fall from today’s lofty levels, accelerating the downturn in stocks.

How Does This Play Out?

Historically, these signs have meant a bear market for stocks is on the way. And that does seem likely in the next few years. The problem with that assumption is the Fed seems determined to stop this possible recession before it can even get going. It’s already cutting rates, and the market appears to be expecting inevitable quantitative easing (QE). I’m betting on negative rates in the U.S. and permanent QE eventually.

Powell knows the deal. During his press conference, he acknowledged the role the Fed is playing in the market:

The Fed has through the course of the year seen fit to lower the expected path of interest rates… That has supported the economy. That is one of the reasons why the outlook is still a favorable one.

If the Fed does go “all out,” will it be good for U.S. stocks? I think it probably will work in the short run. But in the long run? I think negative rates and QE infinity will work out about as well as they have for Japan, which is to say “badly.” This is why I’m avoiding most large cap U.S. stocks and especially the broad indexes like the S&P 500.

To be clear, I’m not saying we’re definitely at a top for the U.S. markets. The Fed and U.S. political leaders seem determined to juice markets higher and reflate the bubble (again). It might work for a few years. I’m just reminding you that nobody’s going to ring a bell when we do get to “the top.”

And I feel comfortable saying we are extremely late in the business cycle. We’re 10 years into this bull market. Things are slowing. Many warning indicators are blinking. The Fed says things are fine, but it’s cutting rates from a high of 2.5%. Not ideal.

It’s a strange time in the financial markets, and in my view this environment calls for a strong alternative investment strategy. Lately I’ve been eyeing assets that have underperformed for the past decade – namely gold, silver and emerging markets. When it comes to stocks, I continue to prefer emerging markets. They don’t have nearly as much debt. They’re a lot cheaper. They have better demographics. And they have a lot less distance to fall if the global economy does turn south.

And of course, I’m still investing in disruptive U.S. startups, cannabis and crypto. These are all areas I believe can outperform the S&P 500 over the coming decades.


The Big and Little Reasons for Bitcoin’s Market Dominance

The crypto markets are in a weird place right now. Bitcoin has rebounded quite nicely this year. It began the year at $3,746.71. And as of this writing, it’s trading at $8,263.10. That’s a nice 120.54% increase. Meanwhile, altcoins like ethereum, stellar and zcash haven’t been able to keep pace. Ethereum is up 30.41% this year. Stellar is down 45.45%. And zcash is down 33.63%. There are multiple factors driving this market behavior – both macro and micro.

The Big Picture

Bitcoin is up big. And that’s because the institutional investors are moving into crypto. We expected this move to kick off a big bitcoin bull market last year. But the SEC continued to drag its feet on approving a bitcoin ETF. So instead of waiting on SEC approval, the crypto industry built out its own institutional investing infrastructure. And big investors are responding. In August, Coinbase said it’s seeing between $200 million and $400 million a week in deposits from institutional investors.

Bakkt, a bitcoin futures exchange operated by the New York Stock Exchange’s parent company (Intercontinental Exchange), launched in September. Bakkt physically settles its bitcoin futures contracts, which means institutional investors get actual bitcoin when they invest. Bakkt’s first trade took place on September 22, just after 8 p.m. And Fidelity, with about $2.46 trillion in assets under management, has been trading crypto for several months now. Yale, Harvard, Stanford, MIT, the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina have all invested in crypto funds.

Institutional investors are starting out with bitcoin first and driving this new bitcoin bull market.

“Four factors that were present during the 2017 bull run have been conspicuously absent during the current rally: widespread media attention; spikes in ‘bitcoin’ searches on Google; spikes in tweets about bitcoin; and the aforementioned corresponding rally in altcoins,” reports CoinShares Research on the first half of 2019 (H1). “This suggests that retail interest in bitcoin is relatively tepid compared to 2017, and implies that the H1 rally was largely driven by the long-awaited entrance of institutional money.”

And this institutional money flowing into bitcoin has had an effect on the markets that goes beyond bitcoin’s strong price rebound. Bitcoin dominance is at 68.2% as of this writing. That means bitcoin represents more than 68% of the crypto market. In January 2018, bitcoin dominance was just 34%.There are a lot of big reasons for the surge in bitcoin price and dominance. But there are a lot of little reasons too.

The Little Picture

Binance’s decision to pull its unregulated exchange from the U.S. really hurt altcoins. Binance is the world’s largest exchange by volume. And it offers a vast array of trading options for altcoins. In fact, there are very few altcoins you can’t trade on Binance.

Binance launched a regulated trading service in the United States called Binance.US in late September. But so far, it has only seven coins you can buy and sell. That’s a far cry from what’s offered on the main Binance exchange.

As Binance adds coins to its U.S. exchange, liquidity in the altcoin market will improve. But that will take time. And it’s unlikely that the U.S. exchange will ever have as many trading options as the main Binance platform (which is available to traders in Europe and other parts of the world).

Another micro-example: Coinbase U.K. dropping zcash from its exchange. Every time a popular exchange drops a coin, it creates downward pressure on the coin’s price.

Altcoin Season Is Coming

Altcoin season is coming. But as with winter in Game of Thrones, we’re not exactly sure when it will arrive. At some point, institutional investors will turn their attention from bitcoin to altcoins. And that will be an enormous catalyst for the markets.

Exchanges like Binance and Coinbase will continue to increase the number of altcoins on their platforms – and that should increase the buying and selling opportunities for altcoins.

And over time, altcoins will be able to demonstrate the progress they’ve made on their projects – giving investors a good reason to support them.

But until that happens, caution should be the rule of the day in the altcoin market. That’s why we’ve recommended you allocate 70% of your crypto portfolio to bitcoin and 10% apiece to ethereum, monero and litecoin. In the current environment, altcoin prudence is warranted.


How to Construct a Winning Pot Stock Portfolio

Because marijuana is still illegal throughout much of the world – including at the federal level in the United States – it’s hard to picture cannabis’s place in the global trade picture. But let’s run through that thought exercise here. Because the results will give you the framework to construct a winning pot stock portfolio.

Free Trade Agreements Change Everything

Right now, free trade agreements like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) don’t apply to marijuana. Why? Because marijuana is illegal in most countries. So there can be no legal trade of marijuana between nations. But let’s imagine a time when marijuana is legal throughout most of the world. That’s when the WTO, NAFTA and other trade agreements will kick in.

The WTO is the baseline for all of these treaties. One of the basic premises of the WTO is that if something is legal to produce and sell domestically, then foreign suppliers should have access to the market. And foreign suppliers shouldn’t be subject to any additional rules that domestic providers aren’t subject to. Similarly, domestic suppliers should have access to overseas markets. This is known as the national treatment principle.

So how does this work in practice? Let’s say the U.S. wanted to tax French wine at $15 a bottle. Then it would have to tax domestic wine at $15.

Countries can put rules into place about specific industries – as long as the rules are the same for domestic and foreign entities. These rules are what trade disputes, like the one between China and the United States, are about. And they usually take the form of tariffs and duties. (Tariffs can also be used to force compliance with international norms and trade agreements.)

Another example of trade agreements dictating the nature of commerce is NAFTA (or the pending United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which updates NAFTA). This type of trade agreement builds on the WTO and frequently gives even more favorable terms to participating nations. For example, cars made mostly within the NAFTA region are exempt from tariffs. Cars made outside of the NAFTA region are not. That’s why so many German car companies have set up factories in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. By manufacturing in these three countries, they reduce both production costs (manufacturing in Germany and shipping to North America is more expensive) and tariffs.

When marijuana becomes legal on a global scale, the WTO will kick in. And after some legal wrangling and negotiating (over whether the free trade of marijuana can be restricted by the need to protect public morals), marijuana will become just another agricultural product – like wheat, soybeans or rice – subject to free trade laws.

Cannabis as a Commodity

Once the global trade of marijuana begins, cannabis becomes a commodity. Countries like Colombia and Mexico – where they can grow marijuana throughout the year – will be able to produce weed on a scale and at prices most countries can’t compete with. And they’ll dominate the market.

The global supply of marijuana will outstrip demand, depressing weed prices. The cheap weed prices will make it hard for cannabis growers outside of Colombia, Mexico and a few other countries to compete. The cannabis suppliers outside of these natural grow environments will have to compete on quality. They’ll become the “organic” marijuana farmers and producers. But even then, their profit margins will be significantly smaller than they are today.

The Rise of Products and Brands

While profit margins on the actual marijuana flower shrink, profit margins on quality products and brands will either stay stable or increase. Consumers will judge marijuana products on quality, flavor, efficacy and experience. CBD products will compete with each other the same way pain relief pills and creams like Aleve, Advil and Bengay do. Different types of smokable marijuana will compete against each other the same way beer and cigarette brands do. And medical marijuana will rise and compete with… well, nobody. Medical marijuana is in its own unique space. No plant can effectively treat the variety of ailments cannabis can. Its path for growth is virtually unlimited. That’s why we’re so bullish on medical marijuana.

Constructing Your Portfolio

Because most cannabis companies are in the growth stage, you shouldn’t expect to see much in terms of profits. What you’re looking for are companies that are increasing revenue at a good rate, reducing costs, becoming more efficient, and setting themselves up for future growth and revenue. The lack of profits will depress pot stock prices in the short term. But if you buy now, you’ll likely lock in larger long-term gains.

Additionally, time frame becomes more important as you construct your portfolio. As domestic and global supply increases, cannabis companies whose main revenue stream is growing cannabis will see their growth and revenue slow down. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t invest in those companies. It just means your time frame for these investments should be shorter than it is for other pot stocks in your portfolio. Because the price of weed is going to decline over time. And the decline will be shockingly fast when marijuana becomes a global commodity.

Over the longer term, pot stocks with a focus on brands, products and medical marijuana will become more lucrative.

Free trade is coming. Whether it’s across state borders when the U.S. legalizes pot at the federal level or it’s across international borders. So as you build your portfolio, take time frame into account. That’s going to affect how your portfolio is constructed – and when you buy and sell grower and cultivator pot stocks.


How to Identify the Successful Startups Millennials Love

Gerber baby food. Station wagons. Ranchers. Hula hoops. Valium. Coke and Pepsi. The baby boomer generation poured trillions of dollars into these and other products. Not all of their choices were wise or healthy, but for decades making what the boomers wanted was a surefire recipe for success.

That’s because the boomers were the nation’s biggest generation and earned the most money… and how they spent it was the biggest factor in shaping consumer trends and determining where fortunes were made.

That changed this year.

2019 is the year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, that boomers passed the baton to a new generation. As of this moment, millennials (or Generation Y) surpass baby boomers as the largest living adult generation. There are about 73 million millennials and about 72 million boomers. And Generation X (born after boomers and before millennials) has around 66 million adults.

From now on, millennials will determine the big winners and losers in the economy. And huge changes are coming.

The Opportunity for Startups

Boomers love their sprawling houses, big cars, leisurely meals and fancy hotels. “Impress me and I’m yours” was their siren song. Millennials are the first generation to grow into adulthood in the digital age. They’re the on-the-go generation… dependent on social media for news and consumer reviews. They’re more health and environmentally conscious. “Be honest and help me fix the world” is their song.

We don’t know how everything will play out. After a half-century of boomer-centric consumerism, retailers, manufacturers and financial companies are (belatedly) trying to figure out what millennials really want and how best to get their attention. Companies across the board are revising their playbooks. Some will have to dump their proven playbooks altogether. Which means startups have a huge opportunity to grow their businesses by appealing to millennials in a way that legacy companies find difficult or impossible.

But which industries present startups with the best chance to replace legacy companies as the superstars? And what will startups need to do to pull it off? Let’s look at three sectors where startups will have a significant competitive edge in attracting millennial dollars.

  1. Transportation. How we get from point A to point B is evolving, largely in response to Gen Y preferences. Urban millennials have been a big driver behind the rise of micromobility services – light vehicles like electric scooters and bikes. One reason is millennials prefer city living, and one of the critical factors in moving into or near city centers is access to transit.

    E-scooter services like Bird and Lime have grown rapidly. Today, there are more than 85,000 e-scooters available for rent in 100 cities. By 2030, the micromobility sector is expected to be worth up to $300 billion. That’s bad news for automakers. Because top users of scooter services like Uber’s Jump are also significantly less likely than other respondents to buy a new car, according to the Shared-Use Mobility Center.

    Automakers are developing countermeasures (they don’t have a choice). They’re either buying startups (Ford bought e-scooter company Spin for a reported $100 million) or developing their own micromobility services (GM has launched an e-bike project called ARĪV).

    As an early investor, you need to know that while micromobility has a ton of room to expand, it’s a very competitive space. Baltimore recently bid out a scooter-sharing contract and had to choose among seven applicants. Chicago is trying out 10 dockless e-scooter companies in a four-month pilot. Nor does a city’s adoption of scooters always go smoothly. A recent Los Angeles Times editorial notes how the city is divided into two camps: scooter lovers and haters. The haters say the vehicles are big and dangerous toys being used irresponsibly and they clutter the sidewalks.

    EVELO is a First Stage Investor portfolio company that makes e-bikes. They’ve taken a back seat recently to the scooter craze. But I believe e-bikes could be the next big thing in micromobility. They’re safer and just as fast as scooters, if not faster. They’re going to be a huge player in the space before all is said and done.

    Companies that succeed will have to do equally amazing jobs at accommodating their customers (urban authorities) and their users (riders). It won’t be easy. Execution will be key. I’d look at positive feedback from both metro officials and riders for clues on how well these companies will do in the future.

  2. Fitness. Millennials are more eager to exercise than any generation that came before them. Millennials are also much bigger spenders on exercise. They spend almost $7 billion annually on gyms – double the amount spent by Gen Xers and boomers. But they don’t like traditional gyms (like my gym – LA Fitness). They go very high-end or very low-end. Expensive boutique studios – like SoulCycle, Rumble and Pure Barre – rely heavily on millennials. The average age range of boutique studio members is 18 to 25, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

    Another trend for millennials is their tendency to view exercise as a social group activity rather than an individual one.

    To attract millennial clients, some old-school gyms are tweaking their models and capitalizing on virtual reality (VR) technology. Our fitness play in the First Stage Investor portfolio – VirZOOM – gamifies exercise through VR technology that turns a stationary bike into a flying horse or military tank. Without even realizing it, you’re pedaling hard and getting an incredible workout.

    A friend of mine founded a startup – BurnAlong – that lets gyms stream their workout classes and make them available to their members, who then get their friends to do a class with them at a time of their own choosing. They can see and hear the instructor and friends on-screen, making home exercise a social experience.

  3. Skin Care. Millennials are also bringing a new attitude and a new set of preferences to cosmetics and skin care. They’re buying far more skin care products than any other generation, spurring growth that shows no signs of slowing down. In 2017, the global cosmetics market was worth about $530 billion. It is expected to surpass $800 billion by 2023.

    Millennials prefer natural, high-quality products. Roughly half of millennials reported purchasing skin care products free from synthetic chemicals during the past year. They’re also more willing to pay more for sustainable products (no animal testing is their highest priority).

    Millennials are three times more likely than previous generations to research new brands and products using social media, pushing the door wide open for startups launching direct-to-consumer (D2C) beauty brands.

    Legacy companies will do their best to compete in the digital space. But some (like Procter & Gamble, which purchased D2C cosmetics company FAB) will prefer buying their way into the good graces of millennials.

Riding the Millennial Wave

Startups have the opportunity to grab huge swaths of market share by delivering products that millennials prefer. And that goes for a bevy of other industries too – financial services (including banks), beverages (coffee, nonalcoholic drinks, hard seltzers and craft beers), restaurants, apparel and travel. Generation Y has already played a big role in creating huge winners out of startups following this formula, including Miso Ko (and its sushi kiosks), Mexican seltzer brand Topo Chico, White Claw Hard Seltzer, robo-investment advisor Betterment, Airbnb and SMASHotels.

This is just the beginning. We’ll be riding the millennial wave for quite a while. I’m sorry to see the boomers go (being one of them). But I welcome with open arms a new generation that will create demand for thousands of new products… and bolster the returns of early investors who take the time to learn what this generation consumes and why.

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