Culture Archives

An Open Letter To Twitter HQ

Dear Twitter Management:

I have some good news for you, and some bad news.

Let’s start with the bad news first: Twitter, no matter what you do to it, will no longer ever be a hyper-growth product. That time has passed. Yes, I know public investors expect this of you, and I know that’s what all other social network companies strive for, but it won’t happen. Twitter has hit a local maxima, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of — in fact, Twitter’s mainstream success to this point is quite incredible for such a geeky, complicated, niche product. But now, messing with the feed, degrading the design, and all those other copycat changes will not solve this core growth problem.

But, this is only bad news because Twitter is responding to the wants of the outside world. It is listening to others instead of itself. For success, all the answers are inside. Instead, Twitter should double-down on what does work and chart its own path.

This is the good news: Twitter’s hyper-addicted daily active users comprise of some of the most valuable minds and wallets on the planet today. Instead of trying to degrade their experience in favor of growth (which is, in my opinion, not attainable), why not turn that huge, active, valuable base of Twitter addicts into money? Right now, millions of smart Twitter users take actions on feeds like RTs and favorites — why not “Buy” or “Share” to other channels? Why not show me ads that are product endorsements from credible Twitter users? Why not open the API to developers again and have them experiment with new ways to monetize and grow? Why not make Tweetstorms part of the product and get more journalists and bloggers to write on the platform instead of linking (as we know clicks are down for many)?

I write this open letter out of concern and love. For over two years, I have used Twitter without touching native products. Twitter is the service I use the most, and I never go to www.twitter.com or use Twitter for iPhone. I understand I’m a power user, so this doesn’t apply to all, but I do believe it gives me the platform to share my views on the likelihood of success of Twitter in its current form. Twitter, you are now public, embedded into the fabric of society, both complex and simple at the same time. Now is the time to ignore the outsiders, and look within; now is the time to harvest your loyal user base to take the product to the next level. I’m happy to help any way I can.

Sincerely,

@Semil

From Seed To Market, A Peek Into Fall 2014

There is a certain excitement, a certain uptick in pace, in the Fall around these parts. This year, I feel like I’ve seen enough interesting early-stage founders and companies (so much of it falls into patterns) that I sort of have a picture of what we may be talking about as September and the final months of 2014 unfold. Keep in mind that this list is about the Series A level, when bigger institutions get involved — and is by no means an indication of overall success for anyone involved, investors included. (Also, of course, we will all be chattering about Apple and the other big tech giants, as a given.)

In no particular order, here’s what seems to be entering either the echo chamber and/or mainstream conversation:

  • Parking: Yes, I’m obsessed with parking startups. No good reason other than I can’t wait to see the #Parkageddon hashtag spread.
  • Apps That Support On-Demand Economy Companies: See a company like Checkr, which helps the Ubers of the world perform better background checks and processing of labor. These startups and companies will likely need a whole set of services and have likely built their own, as well.
  • Apps That Support On-Demand Economy Workers: This is a category where I’m seeing tons of startups. Like Mailbox clones designed for “the enterprise,” I’ve passed, but I’m just waiting for one to have a clever hack around distribution — most likely to be the preferred vendor of a company like Instacart or Postmates, etc. There’s an opportunity for a new Intuit for 1099′ers out there, but it has to grow like a weed.
  • Block Chain Apps: There will be a few companies that get bigger institutional funding which leverage the block chain to handle business processes, most notably the creation, enforcement, and settlement of contracts. Yes, some of these can be mediated in Bitcoin, but it’s not required to do so.
  • Mobile Commerce: This is the area I’m most excited about, even more than parking! If you’re working in this space or have an app you love, please tell me. I like mobile commerce experiences that either leverage a phone sensor; or have a clever logistics angle; or leverage a proprietary data set; or even those that hold inventory in inventive ways. Of course, I’ll rarely turn down any mobile marketplace, and my old fears about mobile platform fragmentation crippling liquidity is now gone. iPhones, all the way.
  • Consumer-Grade Artificial Intelligence: This totally snuck up on me and I will admit I missed it, even though it was right under my nose. For the first time, I saw an app/service that uses a combination of AI and ML to do a job better than a human and solve multiple problems in the process. Then I started to think — if it can do it for this one task, why not other mundane tasks? I see no reason why not.
  • Interactive iPhone Notifications: No real surprise here. Borrowing from Android, iOS developers now have the power to allow users to take action on an item directly from push. Let’s go back to Uber. The app knows you’re about to leave work (you’re a pattern). The app pushes to you — “Call an Uber?” You gently slide over the push and tap “Yes.” Never go into the app itself. That is huge, and apps like Wut, Yo, and others, as well as the push notification ESP equivalents like Kahuna and AppBoy, are well positioned to secure their place in this new landscape.

Consumer Attention, Friction, and Investing

Here’s a brief thought that’s come up in conversation quite a bit this week, about where consumer attention is:

In venture capital, the one of the biggest categories is consumer, because consumer-facing products and services at scale present the greatest possible market. This is, in part, what drives valuations for early-stage hot consumer deals up — the upside always has huge potential. On the web, consumer products and services could grow and scale based on the network effects of the open web itself.

But, today, we live in a different world — a mobile world. All consumer attention is on mobile, but on mobile, growth and scale are confined to a few “growth pipes” which present their own issues. For instance, gaming is an expensive category to compete in, photo and location apps are usually chased by investors after the fact, messaging apps create network effects but those options have largely been set and regionalized, and then there’s the hottest category out there today –> mobile on-demand services.

I’ve written about mobile on-demand services often here. We all get the picture. In a world where mobile scale is near impossible, better to aggregate consumer demand on the phone, but fulfill that demand through offline logistical prowess. Hence, we have Uber, Instacart, and many others. But, consumer web products could scale with much less friction. In the world of mobile on-demand services, there is significant friction — expanding geographically, hiring and training reliable labor, and so much more. As the coefficient of friction rises, so does the risk. This dissuades some investors from jumping into the space, but it also highlights the importance (or advantage) of having investors with real operational experience in geographical expansion, logistics, delivery models, and more.

There is an inherent friction to this new consumer mobile opportunity. With mobile growth elusive, entrepreneurs have shifted to transactional businesses, and with each transaction comes friction. This is both a challenge and opportunity — a challenge to those founders and investors who are concerned about friction (which is a real concern in venture investments) and an opportunity for those who can identify the categories (and the people behind them) who can overcome any coefficient of friction.

Fall 2014 Fundraising Field Notes

Each August, as the Fall approaches, I try to quickly jot down my “field notes” and tips for folks who enter the marathon fundraising season from Labor Day to Thanksgiving. This Fall is a bit different. More companies, even more money, and new capital sources like the crowd and private equities. For Fall 2014, no long preamble or disclaimers, I’ll just launch right into it, in no particular order:

The Jump From Seed To Series A Is Big: I hear many people in their seed round already talking about their A Round in the next year. Optimism is great, but if that’s the goal, everyone needs to be clear about how to put the seeded company on the right path. If the institutionalized seed folks are looking for six months of trailing data, imagine what the billion dollar funds want.

Don’t Get Tripped By Outdated “Round Name” Terminology: What are seed rounds? What are Series A’s? Who on earth knows anymore. Yet, I see so many folks getting hung up on what to call it that it clouds their vision and judgment. I’ll paraphrase a line from PG: “Series A is when the pros do it and call it that.”

Optimal Ratios Between Branded And Unbranded Money: Every founder is different here, no rights or wrongs. The trap is to get stuck. Some founders want some level of branded money, and some just want money. Know where you stand on this spectrum and execute accordingly. Those who want a mix of branded and unbranded can likely close quicker (as opposed to rolling closes) and save time, as fundraising is quite a distraction to product and company development.

The Trick With Introductions: I’ve seen 100s of founders do the rounds for random intros to investors they want to meet. Those rarely work, in my experience. Rather than play a numbers game, 4-5 targeted introduction requests from people who BOTH you and the investor know will be much better received. It’s really about the strength of the connection between the nodes, that’s what sets up an introduction to be timely, awesome, and potentially game-changing.

Own Your Process: Dorky as it sounds, running a fundraising process is a way for investors to see how a CEO runs process. Investors like to see someone in control, this gives them confidence. Give them something to believe in — like running the process.

The Uber Effect: Uber is the hottest company on the planet now. It’s first round was pegged at $5m, and I believe it was on AngelList. People even questioned the $30m B round from Menlo. Now everyone realizes it was under their noses, so they’re looking for not only breakout ideas, but breakout people — Travis already had a startup he slogged through for six years and was determined to the bone. Motivation reveals itself.

Conversations, Not Pitching: Speaking of conversations, the best advice I received from a mentor in graduate school in preparing for interviews was to turn any Q&A into a conversation. If you can do that, it breaks up the unnatural interrogation and allows an investor to see the range of your thinking, as well as personal characteristics. Also, I just fundamentally believe that people want to have conversations rather than pitches or business meetings — they want to be heard, they want to listen, and they want to feel as if they met someone new that they can work with. That is what creates excitement.

Start The Conversation With Traction: Here’s a bold idea — After your cover slide in the deck, have the first real slide be about traction, usage, metrics. If you don’t have traction, say that upfront and explain where you are. People will still fund things pre-traction (and even pre-product), but just be upfront about that.

Speaking Of Slides, They’re Meant To Attract Others: Slide decks are a way for investors to determine if they want a meeting. Some don’t like slide decks and want to just try the product. Either way, if you have an app — send the investor the app. If you have a deck, make it simple and attract others to want to meet you. The deck or app is just a means to a meeting where you can have a conversation in real life.

Part Of The Pattern, Or Part Of The Portfolio: When a space gets hot, investors want to meet everyone in the space. This helps them develop a thesis, meet the players, and build a pattern. When you’re talking to an investor, try to determine if you’re becoming part of their pattern or can be part of their portfolio. If things don’t move in a manner that has momentum, take it as a “no” and move on…believe me, the investor will rush to get back in touch if they come to a decision later or change their mind. I have done this too — waiting by the phone — and it’s just a bad place to be. Don’t do it! (Tangent: Read this post on “Turf Signaling” – the location of where you meet reflects power dynamics often overlooked.)

Hard Problems or Timing Inflection? A fun criticism of investors is that they (and some founders) don’t “solve hard problems.” It’s a misguided critique. These kind of investment dollars are to be applied to hard problems, yes, but what really drives this is traction, market timing, and potential for inflection. Some do it by chasing after it’s obvious, and others are able to predict when something is on the precipice of inflection. Again, there are plenty of patient investors and capital, but with companies staying private longer, secondaries available but not predictable, and so many investment opportunities around them, investors are going to naturally pick up on things that are already working — where the question isn’t “How big will it grow?” but rather “How big will it grow and how fast?”

Sophistication With Stats: A bad place to be in an investor meeting is when the CEO does not own the metrics. The metrics should be like oxygen to a CEO. Also, the way in which stats are presented (month by month rather than cumulative, properly labeled graphs, etc.) show a level of business sophistication that will be noticed.

Alternative And New Capital Sources: VC firms have used social media and content to convince you that you need it. In some cases, you do; in many, you don’t. There are now tons of alternative funding sources (you know the ones). Additionally, for companies who are growing, there is even more new money coming into late-stage private financings. This is an increase even from last year as companies stay private longer and mutual funds, hedge funds, corporates, and even SWFs are getting into the game with direct investing. There lots of money out there (some may say too much), so make your plans accordingly.

Hard vs Soft Power In Technology Nation-States

Earlier this week, Bloomberg BETA’s Roy Bahat wrote a post about his views on using the “language of war” in startups. It’s worth a quick read. I wrote back to him and said while it can be crass to use belligerent language, there are probably nationalistic reasons (thinking of companies as nation-states) for why this happens. However, why not speak the language of colonization — yes, another unsavory nationalistic tactic — as a means to discuss strategy, growth, and hopefully winning one’s market? In this light, the language of war connotes a “hard power” of coercion and/or the use of force. Could there be room for the “soft power” of persuasion, public relations, and appealing to hearts and minds instead?

When I wrote back to Roy, he replied, “You should write that.” So, it when on my list, until I just got back to my desk and read the bombshell dropped by The Verge’s Casey Newton, detailing how Uber systematically tried to sabotage Lyft. First, a few things out of the way. This is bad, bad PR. I’m also a fan of Uber, and while I don’t expect any company to always “play by the rules,” this kind of stuff could hurt the arc of the company or, worse, engender an image that they can’t shake. In wanting Uber to succeed, I am hoping they learn from this. (By the way, Verge’s Newton did an amazing job scooping the story; this is the type of investigative work tech blogs should be doing to balance out the optimism of funding announcements and product launches.)

So, we are back to “Hard Power” vs “Soft Power.” The terms were coined and popularized by Harvard’s Joe Nye, a hybrid academic and state department official for many years. Nye’s argument was that as society transforms from materials to information and becomes globalized, a nation’s soft power (favorable policies, culture, attitudes, acceptance, values, etc.) can spread to give those nations a competitive advantage via persuasion instead using the coercive hard power (military/industrial complex, offense, arms trading, etc.). Nye’s world is one in which America should win with its soft power, it’s mindshare, positive PR at scale.

As Roy and I were emailing about this, it become apparent that the leading technology giants — Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc. — all use a mix of hard and soft power in concert. To pick on one, Amazon messes with publishers and authors at times, but then buys Goodreads and Twitch and fans love them. Uber right now is winning, no doubt — and they’re using a mix of hard power (against Lyft) and soft power (reducing traffic, drunk driving, etc.) that make them a complex beast. Whereas Google scaled on the back of the Internet with minimal friction, Uber is a network built on top of real world APIs. Uber is coming into contact with our transportation, food delivery systems, messenger routes, ridesharing, and more. Uber can repulse with its hard power, and win hearts and minds with its soft power. It may be easy to criticize from afar (and many of those critiques are likely to be valid), and while we all may want to see soft power at work, the truth of the matter today is that competition is fierce, resources are scarce, people need to get to Point A to Point B, and hard power still has its place in the real world. Drive accordingly.

Mobile Apps And Call Avoidance

No phone, no phone…I just want to be alone today.” –Cake, “No Phone”

Years ago, I was talking with Davy Kastens, CEO of Sparkcentral, about his product. His company builds products for large consumer-facing businesses to handle, triage, and address consumer complaints about products and service. In our chats, he mentioned a term to me — “Call Avoidance.” I didn’t think much of it at the time, but Devy build his product around the costs companies would incur as a result of fielding customer inquiries via phone.

Only recently did this term pop back into my head. You may remember the “Push For Pizza” mobile app and viral video. (If you haven’t watched the video — it’s hilarious, well worth the time.) As soon as I saw it, Davy’s line came back to me. The entire app is built around the concept Call Avoidance. On mobile, all of the apps that have cropped up where you “tap stuff to get things,” many of them replace our need for having to make a phone call and talk to another person altogether. My immediate reaction to the pizza app was: “Ha! But, I would use that.”

And, then it dawned on me…on mobile phones, so many popular apps have essentially replaced our previous reliance on telephone calls with app-initiated API calls. For instance, we now can now call a taxi, order food for delivery, schedule services, or just send a “Yo” by simply tapping our phones with mobile software which replaces API calls with telephone calls. It’s charming yet odd that rapid growth mobile phones enabled us to not to have call other people at all.

There’s a deeper lesson here for people who aspire to build consumer mobile apps. I’d say, observe the world around you and see where people are still laboring to make phone calls on a somewhat frequent basis. You’ll find issues like medical billing and insurance claims (or any kind of customer service) and phone calls made to local businesses, where consumers often spend the most money within a certain radius of their home (and perhaps why Path acquired and integrated TalkTo earlier). Today’s consumers expect powerful yet elegant applications which will make their lives easier, and not having to call anyone to discuss logistics makes life that much easier.

Banh Mi Equity

August in the Valley always turns out to be an introspective month for me. Things slow down, people leave town, and my wife’s work is also a bit slower before kids come back to campus. This year is no different, as I’m in another transition. I have some fun and also much-needed personal items to tend to this month, and I will also take the time to reflect, recharge, and rediscover what makes me most passionate about work. Three years ago this week, I got my real start in the startup world in the Bay Area. People often just assume it all came together neatly — they see that I wrote for TechCrunch or tweet a lot and assume it was just always like that, or that I know what I’m talking about. Not true. If anything, I’m learning it all as I go along, trying to play catch up with everyone around me.

Three years ago this week, my friend Joel made an off-hand remark that I should just join his company — with the caveat that he couldn’t pay me. Jeez, Joel, thanks for the offer, buddy! Yet, at that time, after nearly 11 months of trying to crack into startups, I thought about the offer and realized — I don’t have a better choice. I emailed Joel. I think he was surprised. He replied, paraphrased: “Well, I can’t pay you, but you’ll get plenty of equity and I’ll buy you Banh Mi sandwiches every day you’re here.” Sold! Since then, Rexly somehow was acquired by Live Nation Labs, I went to Votizen (which wasn’t a great fit) and that was acquired by Causes, and Causes was just acquired by Brigade (these are all Sean Parker companies), and then I was lucky to get my first break in VC and joined Javelin Venture Partners for six months as an executive-in-residence where I began to focus on mobile technology and the iOS platform, after which I started working as a formal consultant for a small handful of companies that were designing and launching apps, and then eventually increased my involvement with Swell, where I became an employee until recently. Along the way, I was fortunate to work as a formal consultant to a variety of venture capital firms (and still do) — like General Catalyst, Trinity Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, GGV Capital, DFJ, and Bullpen Capital, among others — and to have the support of everyone I worked with to explore my interests in mobile and investing simultaneously — and to friends and mentors who helped me channel my energy into the creation of a new fund.

All the while, I have met and worked with great people whom I call friends and mentors. Just like startups fight like hell to become “ramen profitable,” looking back on my three short years in the technology startup vortex that is the San Francisco Bay Area, you could say I worked for “Banh Mi equity.” Most of the equity listed above and the subsequent events have been largely ceremonial. It’s been a fun ride to be on, surrounded with the smartest people in the world. And, here I am again, in the dead heat of August, late twilights that stretch longer, at the same desk, typing away, trying to reset, and wondering what the next Banh Mi equity package will look like. I’m in a good spot, but there’s a long way to go, and excited to let life unfold and see what presents itself.

Think Of YC As A Growing Startup

Y Combinator has come up often in discussions of late, and whenever a topic repeatedly comes up in discussions, it’s time to attempt to structure those thoughts. Let me say upfront that while I don’t agree with everything YC does or shares on their blogs (and have written publicly about that), they are, in a way, somewhat underrated in their impact. Two quick anecdotes: I was recently at a dinner where I was seated next to a founder who has been through YC twice. “Why go back again?” I asked. His answer, paraphrased: “I like the social peer pressure of being in a group, I like the pressure that three months places on a team, and I love the network.” Two, I talked to a friend in the current batch who said YC has essentially empowered the technical to master business, and that inspires him to do the same. Pretty hard to argue with the power in those statements.

All this got me to thinking, YC is not just a “startup accelerator” or whatever it is lumped in to. From my vantage point (on the outside), it is an organization which continues to grow in influence and still has so much more room to grow. This isn’t discussed often in a structured way because the chatter focuses aroudn the brand and personalities, as well as the investors who jockey for positioning next to the graduating classes. Consider the following morsels:

  • Growing Headcount: People muse a16z is getting bigger. Look at the team page for YC. Lots more people to manage the growing network. Many founders I’ve talked to like being matched with an alumni mentor but it can be hit or miss (in their view, not mine) who they’re assigned to as a partner.
  • Extending Brand Geographically: “Startup School” as a recruitment tool has extended to New York and Europe. Why not other places, right? It’s just a matter of time. I’ve argued before that we could see YC not just in SF proper, but perhaps in NYC, Berlin, and even China as their brand grows and as they continue to perfect the model of finding talent and building products quickly.
  • Moving Up-Market: It feels like more and more companies are entering YC already with a product that has some traction and/or revenue. Yes, there are people who still get in without an idea, but plenty of companies are quite further along, which is, in part, a reflection of our times, where everyone has a company (or wants to found one), and what ends up separating the visionaries from the doers is evidence of real adoption, even if small.
  • Alumni Network As Investors: As the YC alumni base grows in size and power, those individuals will become angel investors. Of course, many already have. They are likely some of the first choices for entrepreneurs in YC, and why not? They have the most recent experience and can help guide them up to and beyond demo day. This puts competition on the early-stage players who are not in the alumni network. All’s fair in love and war! Further more, there are pre-demo days leading up to the main demo day, which means the pressure to access has increased. And, YC companies, in my view, are getting smarter each batch about the opportunities and risks associated with talking to larger institutions too early in their life cycles. This means the larger funds may have to change their approach unless they want to invest quickly.
  • Shifting Terms: Many assume YC charges 6-7% for each company, but as they move up-market and companies mature, and as the startup ecosystem continues to become more transparent (even for YC!), they do now negotiate on equity percentage.
  • Recruiting Teams To Apply: As the YC partnership extends, like with a16z’s, the partners can hear about more companies which have matured slightly and invite them to apply to YC, which is about the same thing as inviting them to pitch the partnership. In this way, they’re extending into the sales realm of traditional VC, which is super-interesting and quite smart. (A follower on Twitter commented that #YCHacks also fit into this theme, as the winning teams get an interview with YC.)

Again, YC is a force — no doubt. But, I also think its impact on individuals and companies is underrated (despite all the surface-level hype), and I think they’re planting all different kinds of seeds to extend their power and reach. As the traditional venture capital model continues to experience pressure from myriad angles (private equity, hedge funds, lowering costs of startups, cheaper financial instruments, companies started outside Silicon Valley, crowdfunding platforms like AngelList and CircleUp, and so many other factors), the impressive, expansive growth of YC should be added to the mix. YC is like a growing startup, too — it’s just under 10 years old, and not done growing and evolving. As the faces who lead it change, and as it remains nimble to change as an institution, it enjoys many advantages — just like startups do against incumbents.

A Prescient Table Of Contents

In May 2004, Paul Graham published “Hackers And Painters,” arguably one of the most important modern books focused on the intersection of technology and entrepreneurship. I was catching up on reading tonight and saw a post which referenced some passages from the book. I clicked through and was curious, “How old is the book?” Well, it’s just over 10 years old. A decade ago. I cut and pasted the Table of Contents from the book below — the title of each chapter and most of the subtitles are truly prescient, now with a decade of hindsight. I do not agree with 20% of what Graham blogs and tweets about today, but it is hard to argue he didn’t perfectly nail this thesis. Reading through each title, it’s remarkable to see the level of foresight he held, as if he saw the next decade unfolding in his mind.

A few nights ago, I was at a dinner and happened to sit next to a founder who had gone through YC twice. We talked a lot about entrepreneurship, the program, his experiences, and much more. This guest realized I had a lot of thoughts about the topic, so he asked me, “Well, what do you think motivates PG?” My answer: “I believe he wants to empower the people he believes are creators.”

<i>Hackers & Painters</i> Table of Contents

  1. Why Nerds Are Unpopular
    Their minds are not on the game.
  2. Hackers and Painters
    Hackers are makers, like painters or architects or writers.
  3. What You Can’t Say
    How to think heretical thoughts and what to do with them.
  4. Good Bad Attitude
    Like Americans, hackers win by breaking rules.
  5. The Other Road Ahead
    Web-based software offers the biggest opportunity since the arrival of the microcomputer.
  6. How to Make Wealth
    The best way to get rich is to create wealth. And startups are the best way to do that.
  7. Mind the Gap
    Could “unequal income distribution” be less of a problem than we think?
  8. A Plan for Spam
    Till recently most experts thought spam filtering wouldn’t work. This proposal changed their minds.
  9. Taste for Makers
    How do you make great things?
  10. Programming Languages Explained
    What a programming language is and why they are a hot topic now.
  11. The Hundred-Year Language
    How will we program in a hundred years? Why not start now?
  12. Beating the Averages
    For web-based applications you can use whatever language you want. So can your competitors.
  13. Revenge of the Nerds
    In technology, “industry best practice” is a recipe for losing.
  14. The Dream Language
    A good programming language is one that lets hackers have their way with it.
  15. Design and Research
    Research has to be original. Design has to be good.

For Yo, All It Takes Is A Little Push

It all started as a harmless addition to the Product Hunt feed, a little lightweight mobile app which just does one thing — we all know what that is now. But, it can be so much more, and the sheer ridiculousness of the app’s simplicity somehow managed to generate a high level of chatter about the app “Yo” to the point of it being comical. Underneath the jeers and laughs, however, lies something worth paying attention to.

First, we must consider how frustrating Yo’s rise is to others. Think of all the other technology entrepreneurs and investors who are building complex systems for mobile devices. It’s very hard work. And, then, a couple of folks not only have their dead-simple app explode, they also capture the scarce attention of the major tech blogs and influential people on Twitter.

Second, speaking of distribution – mobile distribution is a bitch. I’ve written about this too many times. See here for more details, but TL;DR, only a handful of apps get to experience true mobile distribution, and this is one of them. Additionally, a smaller handful of apps touch on the zeitgeist of consumer word-of-mouth, and Yo was able to do that.

Third, we’ve been beating a dead horse about apps needing to do one thing, and to do that one thing well. And, well, Yo takes that to the extreme. But, then again, why not? A step further, there’s the well-known post about big breakthroughs initially looking like toys (by Chris Dixon). It’s worth reading that post again.

Fourth, push notifications and the notification screen are becoming increasingly important. Most people who mock Yo likely do not have any clue about the changes afoot on the notification screen, how younger users tend to view notifications as media (versus in-app experiences), and how the mobile gatekeepers are planning to modify their operating systems to allow for a range of actions within push notifications themselves, removing the need of opening an app entirely.

And, fifth, we have all seen this movie before. In late 2012, a little app called Snapchat was growing fast, and people couldn’t understand why this simple app with a gimmick built around expiring images could fetch millions in venture capital. Even when I wrote this column a few months later, it generated an unusual amount of feedback for something I write, and to this day, is the most popular post (by traffic numbers) I’ve written. Only now with hindsight do more and more people understand how Snapchat provided a channel for people to share mobile photos without the fear of having recipients “Save To Camera Roll” on their phones. Dead simple, and now, genius. Most recently, the folks at Betaworks have joined a small group to invest in Yo. If there’s one group who understands native mobile consumer products, it is Betaworks. Rest assured they all see a larger opportunity, and not a “simple, stupid app.”

That which is dismissed or overlooked can often hold deep, insightful meaning. What looks simple and not valuable could, actually, be the first step in a more complex architecture and, over time, accrue real value. The line between uselessness and usefulness can be razor thin. While critics pen premature obituaries, it is the builders here who get to write the future. Yo has distribution, has the right location, and now the right timing with push notifications poised to change dramatically. Maybe, we should think of Yo, to date, as a very, very, very v1.0 product. The future may hold many versions.

At the end of “The Dark Knight,” Batman traps The Joker by a cable, dangling his enemy, upside down, from the top of a large skyscraper. The Joker, floating in the air, face to face with Batman, muses, “Madness, as you know, is like gravity…all it takes is a little push [notification].”

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2014 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus