Culture Archives

Contest: On-Demand Startups, But For Enterprise/SMB

In conjunction with The On-Demand Conference we are hosting on May 19 in San Francisco (tickets here), we are also pleased to announce a contest associated with the conference. Specifically, we are asking for submissions for “on-demand” startups that meet two clear conditions: (1) the end customer must be a business or entity, not individual consumers; and (2) the company shouldn’t have raised “institutional capital,” meaning it’s OK to have angel/seed money but not mega dollars from a VC firm. The winner of this “Call For Startups” will be presented with the opportunity to present their company on-stage during the event, and the top (5) submissions overall will be given free tickets to attend the event.

I’m a strong believer that concepts which work for consumer behavior (sharing, on-demand, collaboration, etc.) will create opportunities for entrepreneurs to bring those concepts to models where the end customer is not a person, but rather a business or entity. This has fortunately led me to investments in companies like Getable and Boomtown, among others, and I hope many more. Read more about the contest, and please apply if you’re eligible. Click here for more details.

On-Demand Conference: Line-Up, Agenda, and Few Tickets Remain

About a month ago, we announced The On-Demand Conference (May 19 in San Francisco) in this post (tickets):

After a few months of planning, I wanted to write a short update to highlight who will be represented. We aimed to make this conference inclusive as its a very competitive space, and we aimed to make the content be the main attraction. The conference is designed for founders, operators, investors, and journalists to get a deeper view into the operations, challenges, and opportunities in the growing on-demand sector:

  • Transportation: Uber; Lyft; Shuddle; Luxe; Zirx
  • Food: Sprig, Postmates; Instacart; Munchery; Caviar; DoorDash
  • Consumer Services: Shyp; Homejoy; BloomThat; Alfred; ClassPass
  • Business Services: Managed By Q; Checkr; Onfleet; PlaybookHR; Directly
  • Media: Re/code, TechCrunch, Bloomberg, StrictlyVC, Fortune.
  • Investors: Satya Patel, Shervin Pishevar, Simon Rothman, Steve Schlafman

Wow….what an amazing set of companies, CEOs, operators, journalists, and investors — and I know not every company is up here and i wish we had more space and time. Please know we tried our best to balance all the requests, and there are great companies and ideas we just didn’t have room for. Maybe next year will be two days! On-demand for food, but also help desk tickets for customer service. This will be the premier conference in what is arguably the biggest driver of consumer behavior change today. Additionally, there will be many companies and investors in the audience (we see the registration logs, of course!), so if  you’re in the space or thinking about breaking in, buy a ticket while you still can, click here to register.

Fight Night In The Age Of Social Media

It is fight night tonight. Back when I was in high school in college, in the days of Tyson and Holyfield, boxing occasionally surfaced as a big deal. Nintendo’s “Mike Tyson’s Punch Out” became an instant classic video game. In those days, the fights were all Pay Per View broadcast (PPV) and on ESPN they’d show still pictures of the fight during or right after. It would take a long time for the news to trickle out. It was big money for the casinos and PPV, and there were only two ways to access the show: pay for PPV or show up with tickets.

Fast-forward to today, to tonight, hours away from one of the most highly anticipated boxing matches in recent memory. Lately, boxing hasn’t had the cache it use to have in the days of Tyson, and certainly in the hey day of Ali, Frasier, Liston. It’s been replaced with new sports, like MMA, or Ultimate Fighting. Nevertheless, the old is on display tonight, with two great fighters already set with fame and legend (and money) battling for pride. And, as we fast-forward to today, 2015, tonight’s boxing match, but the world is different now — mainly, because of mobile and social media. Consider the following:

  1. Live Streaming via mobile & social networks: Will someone at the fight tonight try to live broadcast the event from their phones through Periscope or Meerkat? Will those people be allowed to do so, or escorted from the building?
  2. Mayweather’s sordid past: This week saw a surge of reports surfacing to mainstream media but really amplified on social media — all about Mayweather’s disgusting regard outside the ring. Boxing’s a violent sport, and Tyson was beaten up by the media during his reign, but maybe this will tip the scales over to promoters and boxing associations being more careful.
  3. Gambling: Boxing is big business for bookey’s, of course. In the days of Tyson, had to call in bets via telephone or show up at the book. Now, it’s text, apps, FaceTime, messenger apps…bigger audience, more gambling, and more interest overall.

Sports Innovation Conference @ Stanford GSB (2015)

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Last week, I was invited to moderate an hourlong conversation at Stanford as part of the business school’s Sports Innovation Conference. You can link through and see all the great panels, speakers, and topics. While I wasn’t able to stay the whole day, what was clear to me from the energy around the event is that entertainment is a huge, huge business and the management of sports talent and rights within that is a major driver of it. Perhaps that’s obvious to some, but the angle to tech and Silicon Valley isn’t often discussed. (I’ve made one investment related to sports, but what attracted me to this company was their unique approach to mobile.)

My panel was titled “The Future of Sports Content,” and we had Karen Brodkin (WME/IMG), Marie Donoghue (ESPN/Disney) and Dan Reed, formerly of the NBA and now Head of Sports Partnerships at Facebook. Let me say up front that while some folks in the Valley “know the business of sports,” these three blew me away with their breadth of knowledge around the intersection of sports, media, and technology. Here are my high-level takeaways from the panel and Q&A:

  • Live vs Virtual: I proposed whether VR could dampen the live-sports experience for spectators, especially those who pay through the nose for nose-bleed seating. We discussed how a few people will ever have a courtside NBA experience in their lives, but now with VR, they could. It’s early days, but everyone — the leagues/teams, the networks, and tech companies — are gearing up for this.
  • Snapchat & FB Mentions vs Instagram/Twitter: An audience member wondered how an athlete/celeb could manage discussions on Facebook (with Mentions) versus being able to easily reply 1:1 on Instagram or Twitter. I’ve got a friend in the NFL who says he only uses Twitter for broadcast but not interaction because, in his opinion, fantasy and trolling has ruined his experience. Instagram works a bit better, but there are still trolls. He hasn’t experimented much with Snapchat yet, but feels like this is where the world is moving for mobile broadcast. (Currently, ESPN produces their daily Snapchat Discover piece, but are looking for ways to create more and automate them over time.)
  • Talent Management in Sports: I did not wholly appreciate all the various rights associated with sports talent and content.
  • A New Sports Category? An audience member inquired about “Participatory Sports” as they relate to current sports networks. Clearly on Facebook, people share and organize around sports, but it was interesting to hear WME and ESPN discuss more recreational sports (like this, maybe?) and how they could become mainstream phenomena in the future — I mean, a while ago, it sounded silly to watch people play video games, right?

StrictlyVC Insider Series (May 13 in SF)

I’m excited for the StrictlyVC events that are rolling out this year. I’m proud to now be a member of StrictlyVC’s Advisory Board, and the next “Insider Series” event is just around the corner on May 13 in San Francisco. There are a few tickets left, so you can click here to register and get a ticket for the event: http://strictlyvcsinsiderseries.splashthat.com/

The agenda looks awesome for those of you who are venture-nerds like me. Connie Loizos (@cookie on Twitter) has done an incredible job to draw in great speakers who will be in conversation with the group, investors from Sequoia, Lightspeed, and Pantera — and Parker Conrad, the CEO of high-growth startup Zenefits. Specifically, Bryan Schreier from Sequoia will chat with Marco Zappocosta (co-founder of Thumbtack); Connie will have a chat with Lightspeed’s Jeremy Liew (who invested in Snapchat, Whisper, and a bunch of other cool companies; I will sit down with Dan Morehead from Pantera Capital to talk about the current state of Bitcoin, and Connie will end the content session with Parker from Zenefits.

All of that, plus some good beers and conversation before the show starts and after the show ends. I made great new friends at the previous event and ran into a bunch of old friends. For me, even though the content is great, that’s the best part — meeting other folks interested in investing. Get tickets while they’re still available.

A New Conference: The On-Demand Economy (May 19 in SF)

A year ago, I wasn’t sure if the “On-Demand Economy” (ODE) was the real thing or just a fad. I’d keep asking myself, “How can this persist?” and plenty of other people would ask me the same thing, given that out of 70 or so investments I’ve made, over 20 of them touch the on-demand stack in some way. Now as 2015 approaches the midway point, I have since gained more confidence this isn’t a fad, but the early stages of an on-demand world where we will summon goods and services via our watches, via single-purpose connected devices, and perhaps even without consciously thinking about it. Geographically, ODE services are tailor-made for the developing world and urban centers in Asia, especially as those consumers and labor suppliers go straight to mobile devices and skip the laptop and web generations entirely.

So, it was even more good fortune when one of my most frequent seed-stage coinvestors in ODE, Pascal, pinged me on IM to say he’s putting together a conference with my friend Misha @ Tradecraft. I jumped in and we are going to co-host this event on May 19 in San Francisco. Pascal had a good base committed, and so I called up Bastian, Max and Apoorva, Tony, Tri, Dan, Nick to participate — they all loved the idea, as did all the great tech writers who have cover the trend, like Ryan, Eric, Katie, Leena, and even Liz after her breakout series on the topic from 2014. I called up other friends who have also made core investments in ODE, and we are happy to have Satya, Steve, and Simon round out the event. As a bonus, I called up Shervin and convinced him to do a 1:1 Fireside Chat with me earlier in the day.

If you are a potential founder in ODE, work in the sector, want to learn more, cover the sector as a journalist, or invest in it, this is a can’t-miss conference. Here are more details:

Date: May 19, 2015 (all day)
Location: Broadway Studios, North Beach, SF (map)
Website: (link)
Tickets: (register)

Talking VC With Kate Kendall And CloudPeeps At Women 2.0

Last week, Kate Kendall of CloudPeeps invited me to speak with her at Galvanize in SF for a Women 2.0 event. I met Kate about a year ago and was happy to become a small investor in CloudPeeps about six months ago. She wanted to have a discussion with the Women 2.0 crowd about her experience as a female founder and CEO, about how she met and interacted with me, and to field questions from the crowd — which looked to be about 100+ people.

The talk went by really fast. Kate talked about how she raised her seed round (just under $1m) and all the tactics she used. It was fun for me because I didn’t see those, but she is a crafty one! We also broke down how I was intro’d to her, how we communicated while she was in NYC (heavy email). and how she finagled an invite to an event I was speaking at, engaged me in conversation, and a few weeks later — I became an investor in CloudPeeps. (The rest of the Women 2.0 talk was very fast, and most of the questions and answers were pretty generic, so I’ll keep this post brief.)

What occurred to me only in retrospect is that after two years of investing at the angel/seed level, Kate was the 1st female founder I’ve invested in via Haystack. Since then there are two more companies with females on the founding team. In my chat with Kate last week, the topic of “how was it different with Kate being a woman?” never came up in discussion. Reflecting back, it never really did come up in my chats, phone calls, and emails with her. In fact, I never thought about it. And, that’s the hard part to convey — the overwhelming majority of investors I know, even those who invest very, very early, wouldn’t discriminate against a woman as founder or CEO. In fact, I have seen many female startup CEOs be at the center of very competitive financing rounds, fielding multiple offers, and in total control of the situation. One company I’ve been dying to invest in for over eight months has a female CEO, and she has told me “no” at least 10 times.

In my chat with Kate, I did mention to the crowd that the life of an investor comes with saying “no” all the time, all day long. I think about my time and attention so much, I often say “no” to social events or running errands during the holidays with family. So, ultimately, investors are going to say “no” to all sorts of people, regardless of color or race or gender. The position calls for discrimination in the sense that most opportunities are passed on, even if they’re qualified or even exemplary as companies and teams. I myself have made a big $100M-run rate mistake as an investment I passed on for a silly reason. This isn’t to say that things couldn’t be improved or that there are unsavory stories and experiences people experience in the game to get investment, but two years in, for at least what I’ve observed, both first- and second-hand, the overwhelming majority of investors I see are busy chasing anything that’s growing or has evidence of promise and with disregard to “who” is helping make that growth or promise happen.

That Was Easy: Amazon Dash Button In An On-Demand World

The On-Demand Stack gets even more interesting every week. The latest installment, courtesy of Amazon, involves little WiFi-connected dongles with buttons for Amazon customers to summon — with the ease of a finger push — more of the item which corresponds with each dongle. Running low on toilet paper? Just tap the Charmin button provided by Amazon (while your phone is nearby) and Amazon will take care of the rest.

Amazon and Google are competitive along the fault lines of search and intent. Both live on input/output. This creative innovation around input from Amazon makes it theoretically easier to order more toilet paper vs pulling out your phone, finding the Amazon app, then inputting the search term, putting the item in your cart, and you may continue shopping, maybe — and then you have to check out. That said, setting up these dongles won’t be a piece of cake for the average user, either. I’m of the belief that even setting up basic bluetooth devices to the phone will be hard for people, but I believe Amazon will make it easier. And, they can distribute anything.

So, if this works, this is a huge leap forward for input — what about output, i.e. how soon you need the toilet paper? That’s where things have been harder for Amazon.

Back in 2013, I wrote a post titled, “From Amazon Prime To Amazon Pronto, The Future Of Physical Delivery.” Amazon figured out how to get us anything in that 48 hour window. Now, for the past few years, with the combination of mobile devices and a shift in the labor economy, new companies have emerged with new models to add gusto to the “pronto.” Some services are set up to deliver you things on demand, such as Uber and Postmates and Sprig — some things are set up to deliver things in a more scheduled manner, like Instacart, DoorDash, Boxed, and Luxe. Amazon has been trying to chip away at better delivery on the same day — they’ve dabbled in groceries for years, they just announced home assembly services for big orders, and they clearly want to deliver more things faster to our homes and offices.

The output function here is trickier for Amazon to execute on within this 48 hour window. Additionally, my observation of how confusing Prime Pantry is for the average user (as many of those household items are costly to ship, so they devised a confusing tax around them) could make Dash a hit because people may not order things at the point of depletion, but rather when the supply is about to be depleted.

Ultimately, the craftiness with this move around Dash Button is something I’d frankly expect from a startup — in this case, it’s Amazon, the somewhat lumbering incumbent, fresh off the heals of that Fire Phone debacle and stock massacre. It is a terrific concept, assuming consumers can wire them up and they work. Let’s see how consumers behave as these rollout. App installs for these nonviral apps is hard and costly, and Amazon can just shove these into corresponding boxes or send them to us based on our order histories.

The other angle is that Dash Button is likely built to be a broader platform, extending from the regular household inventory systems into specific verticals — think basic stores, or small businesses, or to order dinner, or groceries. It all comes down to SKUs. Every button — like every app — can empower the customer to access a SKU from a variety of sources, and Amazon (or a startup eventually) can help get it to the destination fast. End of the day, I’m impressed. Assuming Dash Button is spread to customers properly and they can onboard, it could be 1,000x easier to order versus a mobile app, no question. So if you’re scoring at home: Output is still a knife fight between Amazon, Google, Uber, and a bunch of startups; but on Input, Amazon’s ingenuity scores very, very high, reminding me of the classic Staples ad campaign with the “Easy” button (pictured above).

The Story Behind My Investment In HourlyNerd

Toward the end of college, and again toward the end of graduate school, there was a predictable recruiting campaign from all sorts of consulting agencies looking to scoop up and hire labor. In exchange for brand, a high salary, and a bit of prestige, graduates would sign up early in the final year, start a plan to payoff their student debt, and sign-up for intellectually challenging work filtered down through various organizational levels.

I know all of this because I almost lived it. Worse, I wanted to live it. As I saw it all go before my eyes, I also jumped into the fray, practiced case questions, riding off the competitive juices of the process of staged interviews. That process exposed me to the partnership model of consulting shops. The hierarchy could be loosely described as “finders, minders, and grinders.” New graduates were “grinders,” grinding out the work with long hours; “finders” were the partners, who found new clients and managed existing ones; and “minders” sat in between the two, minding up and minding up.

Now, what if online networks could put the clients directly in touch with labor? Could that create more efficient flow of information, better working conditions, and better output?

I think so. A few years ago, I used HourlyNerd for a few projects and was surprised by the output. They used a vetted network of current and recent grad MBA students, matched by background and interest, to create slide decks, conduct research, and so forth. So long as I (the client) was able to scope out what I needed, the workers (students here) were more than capable of producing the work with the added benefit that we never had to meet, we were able to email and chat online, and they could keep their hours and location flexible.

Then, out of the blue, the founders pinged me about their latest round. This is a bit later stage from when I invest, but I asked the founders a ton of questions about their plans to scale, about how their marketplace could propel them beyond a services network. Even though my check was small for them at stage, they made a concerted effort to engage with me around all of my nitpicking questions. Through that process, I learned some interesting facts: Over a yearlong period, the company had nearly tripled its average project size, that most customers repeat purchases frequently, that the marketplace had very good liquidity, and an average sale price that would make an investor pretty happy.

So, I am breaking my own model for Haystack and investing “late” into HourlyNerd, partly because they’re empowering the folks who, like me, could’ve also taken that traditional path into consulting. With a company like this, now those workers are free to interact directly with clients, to build their own reputations around topics, to travel and live where they want to, and much more. It’s a mission I can support — not only with an investment, but also my time. Sign up here and give it a try, they offer a great discount to start.

The Story Behind My Investment In VSporto

JasperBack in 2014, Pascal, another early-stage SF investor who invests in companies at the intersection of local and mobile, introduced me to a kid from Mississippi who is now in the Bay Area starting his company. I searched my email and it turned out Jacob from Exitround (a portfolio company) also tried to make this connection a long time ago, but for whatever reason, we never synched up. The kid’s name: Keith. His company: podcasting.

Ugh.

I get so many pitches around podcasting. It’s hard because it’s just not an area I want to invest in, so I figured some polite way to not engage further. But, then, something interesting happened — I asked Keith about how he started on this, and his answer begin with something to the effect of: “I’ve been doing this since I was 12 years old…”

Oh, really? I rarely hear that, so I listened more (see the pic here, from 1999). Turns out Keith is a huge, huge mega-fan of the Buffalo Bills, so huge that he started building and managing fan sites for the team back when he was 12, living in Mississippi. Since then, Keith went to school, was a producer with Sirius Radio, and during that time, had a novel idea for a product: An app which played fan-oriented podcasts for college sports teams.

To get his idea going, Keith and his team figured out something clever: In many cities where college football was big, VSporto discovered, vetted, and created a monetary incentive for superfans of the local college teams to create a podcast around the team. VSporto aggregates these, pays out CPMs, and builds micro-apps for mobile devices that just focus on a particular school. In this on-demand economy, people are changing jobs and careers quickly. For VSporto, they’ve noticed that people quit their basic day jobs to pursue their interests and talents for podcasting and creating media around the subject they love.

Say you went to Florida State University — VSporto would have ~15 podcasters (or more) who create content, and the app broadcasts those streams through the week leading up to the game. Additionally, one might think the football season lasts a few weeks, but in many of these towns, it’s a full-time job just being a fan.

Check out Vsporto here. To date, they have ten (10) team apps and engagement time for MAUs could be from 47-93 minutes. The average listener goes through two podcasts per day, and nearly 1 out of 5 users will also download the app of the opponent their team is playing; many of their apps have been ranked quite high in the Sports category, which is notable for such a seemingly niche app. The engagement is so deep that the team visited a specific college campus for a football game and hosted a viewing party: Over 200 people showed up. As VSporto commissions content, the company also holds the licensing rights to the media, such as being able to license the content out to various radio stations.

This startup broke a lot of rules for me. I don’t want to invest in podcasting, but they figured out a medium not many others would stick with; and I don’t like to invest often in pure mobile apps because the distribution is choked. When I heard this, I sort of took the meeting as a courtesy, but a few minutes, that’s when it hit me that this is exactly why I don’t like to answer those “What are you looking for?” questions often posed to investors. If I knew what to expect, I would go and try to build it. In this case, I had to have enough patterns around podcasting and Apple’s iOS to make a decision about whether to get involved. I would have never thought of combining commissioned content with an array of scattered apps that all meet on the backend.

It’s early days for VSporto, but I never worry about Keith and the team. They are the only team I know who would have the passion to pursue this idea of building and stitching together niche markets. It is my privilege to support them, to have introduced them to other investors, and to have opened their round on AngelList. In terms of relaying a story about a founder and an a unique approach, it’s probably one of my favorite stories to show and tell.

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2015 Semil Shah.

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