I have been tweeting about some unease I have about the local economy, not out of any great wisdom or experience, but just noticing some random signals. Since then, of course, a conversation has exploded around bubbles, burn rates, and every investor transforming into an armchair economist on Twitter. Offline, this topic comes up so much in conversation, i wanted to briefly outline my point of view on the matter. I thought about doing a Tweetstorm, but I tweet so much that I thought if I do a Tweetstorm, my followers would kill me. So, here are my thoughts on the matter:
1/ Difficulty In Defining Terms: It’s hard to have a discussion about “bubbles” because different people define them differently. For me, I define a bubble as having two characteristics — one, an environment where overpriced assets have no buyers; two, where people take on debt to buy those assets; and three, where the pain associated with the bubble popping is widespread among a population.
2/ Bubbles As Geometric Shapes In Motion: Additionally, it’s not quite right to ask “Are we in a bubble?” The answer to that is “yes.” The more pertinent question is: “In the bubble we are in, how big is the sphere and how fast is it expanding?” The shape, size, and speed is important.
3/ Current Mood Of Public Markets: It’s not totally easy to go IPO right now. A few handful of tech companies have tried and been rebuffed. The public markets are accepting IPOs with certain fundamentals but rejecting others, and are especially harsh on ones with high sales and marketing engines.
4/ Private Market Slices: The private market is so big now as a result of stricter IPO requirements and more patient capital. Crudely, I slice it into three sub-markets: Amateurs, Pros, and Greed. The amateurs (where I sit) consist of the crowdfunding platforms, the accelerators and incubators, and people like me who invest very early. The Pros outsource this risk to the amateurs, and both sides are happy. The Greed (not stated in a bad way) are there to provide growth, patient, and leveraged capital cheaply to companies which want to stay private longer. (The late-stage greed rounds is where many think a mini-bubble has formed or is forming.)
So, therefore, I believe…
5/ Mini-Bubbles Will Concentrate Pain: My belief is that between the companies funded by the amateurs and the greed rounds, many of those will not live on. Many will be subsumed through M&A or go away. The pros are looking for more and more proof points, willing to pay more for more de-risked opportunities, and the public markets have welcomed a good number of companies with open arms, but also given the Heisman to a few, as well. This time around, folks may be hunting for the small acqui-hire exits or the big M&A exits, and some of those may come at prices below what the cost of capital in the previous rounds.
And, so here we are…what to do? For most people in the early-stage, it’s just the same. Maybe we all should be even more sober about the realities of what’s needed for real institutional financing? Maybe we’re about to hit a zone where AngelList backers and newly minted tech millionaires who dabbled in angel investing start putting up big zeroes on the board? But, we all knew that going in to it. For the later stage folks, tech is still hot — and there’s a vibrant secondary market, so maybe the really expensive shares purchased at $10bn can still find a buy tomorrow at $20bn. It all seems plausible until there’s no one left to buy a share.
People won’t say this publicly, but I hear it all the time — many folks across companies, investment firms, and media properties sort of want a bit of a correction. Talent is very fragmented across companies. Consumers are running out of time in the day to try new apps. Today’s exciting new platforms will take time to bake and get market-ready. That doesn’t mean folks should stop trying — but just a little fear might turn out to be a gift for the ecosystem at large.
A few days ago, my friend @KevinRoose (a reporter for New York Magazine) emailed me for some comments and quotes for an article he published today investigating the use of contract workers by on-demand startups. If you are in this space, it’s worth reading Kevin’s article. He is a good reporter. My quotes didn’t make it in, but as someone who has invested in this space (and uses many of these services as a consumer, too), I asked Kevin if I could post the email I sent to him on my blog. He said, “Sure!.” So, here they are:
Link to Kevin’s article in New York Magazine [link]
My quote to Kevin:
I can’t speak for various startups’ experiences, but I’d imagine (1) [hiring contract workers] makes it easier to start and get things off the ground and (2) many of these jobs may have been contracted out or one-offed prior to the startup matching them.
I am personally not aware of any abuse [of contract workers], and knowing many of the CEOs in this space personally, I am certain this is on their minds. Scale matters, of course. The bigger and more important a company gets, that is likely to come with all sorts of responsibilities. I am not a lawyer, but I’d imagine the recent FedEx ruling is being examined – The Information wrote a good piece on this. (I believe the courts ruled that FedEx had to make those people employees because they were working full time and wearing a uniform, etc. Right now, I’d imagine drivers, delivery-people, and other on-demand labor use different marketplaces to find jobs.)
I don’t believe that the startups we all associate with this are in the crosshairs, but with success comes a spotlight, so if imagine the best companies will address this head-on versus waiting to react.
Regarding a potential backlash to the model – it’s no secret that the American economy is pretty uneven overall. That can create a tense atmosphere. In the on-demand world, there will be some workers who benefit from this shift (more income, higher rates, flexible hours, etc) and some will not like how these changes affected their business.
Part of my “time-off” this fall is to travel and explore a bit. I’m still working a bunch but trying to take a few days here and there to catch up, unwind, and help with stuff around the apartment. In October, I’m lucky to be traveling to a few events I’m really excited about it. I’ve never done this before, and it’s rare for me to travel and speak like this (especially with a kid at home), so I figured I’d share the events/links in case any of you were attending or in the area. If there’s any video of the talks after the fact, I’ll try to post them here.
Oct 7-8 | Venture Alpha West, Half Moon Bay, CA [link] [I'll be on a panel about early-stage hardware investing on that Tuesday, in the afternoon. Interesting side note is that former 49ers Quarterback Steve Young will also be speaking there.]
Oct 13-15 | Marketplaces, by Silicon Valley Bank, New York, NY [link] [This is private event on marketplaces and investing in them. I'll be in NYC the day before hanging out.]
Oct 19-20 | Rutberg Mobile Influencers, Los Angeles, CA [link] [This one is about 30 minutes south of LAX, a more private event but I think lots of CEOs are going. I'm moderating a panel on on-demand services with Tri from Munchery, Kevin of Shyp, Basti of Postmates, and maybe one more guest TBD. It's gonna be good fun.]
Oct 26-28 | Stocktoberfest, San Diego, CA [link] [I am so pumped up for this. Have heard great things about Howard's event, and I'll be on a panel about mobile technology and also (potentially) giving a talk about using startup insights to play the public stock market -- something I like to dabble in. Mostly, I'm going to meet other folks in the Stocktwits community who live and breathe this stuff and learn from them. And have fun.]
And, for a more local event I’m helping organize…if you’re in the Bay Area, pay close attention to this one…
Dec 2 | The Post-Seed Conference, San Francisco, CA [link] [In my work with Bullpen, the firm is organizing a one-day conference on Tuesday, December 2 in San Francisco. The event will be solely focused on the changing landscape in early-stage funding and finance. You can read more about it on the site. There will be many draws to this, but in particular, our keynotes for this are amazing -- a16z's Chris Dixon will be interviewed by Bloomberg's Cory Johnson; Khosla Ventures' Keith Rabois will be a featured speaker 1:1;, and I will close out the day's events by hosting a fireside chat with AngelList's Naval Ravikant. If you're an early-stage founder, investor, or writer covering the area, you should definitely explore attending. Registration information is here.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.