Big news today about the FAA lifting the ban on the use of handheld electronic devices during take-off and landing. As I was hearing the reports on this on the radio, and remember the tireless crusade of Nick Bilton (and the recent Amazon-commissioned research), it dawned on me just how much time this ruling “unlocks” for content providers, gaming companies, and advertisers. Just like tweeting on the pot (#tweetfromtheseat) has increased time online (and in apps), how much time approximately could this ruling unlock?
Source: Research & Innovative Technology Administration (Bureau of Transportation Statistics) [link]
For this analysis, I’ll use projected figures for 2013.
Number of Passengers, per year: 643M trips or “Px”
Assume: 15 minutes of time at take-off & landing = 15 minutes per “event”
Assume: 75% of USA passengers have a smartphone or e-reader/tablet, but also factor in devices must be in “airplane” mode, so can only access information downloaded to a device or client.
Calculation: (643M Px * 75% devices) * 2 (takeoff + landing) * 15 minutes/event = 14.46 billion minutes per year, or 241 million hours per year. That’s a lot of mobile device time!
Today, NYC-based Union Square Ventures unveiled their new community site under “Beta” at beta.usv.com. Now, while I talk to these guys often, I had no idea today was the day they’d lift the curtains. And, over the past few months, I have talked to folks at USV about how to reinvent systems and how important original content is to connect with like-minded people. Anyway, I was excited to see what they cooked up (and I like it so far), so here are my brief thoughts on it:
This is very “USV’ – I’m not sure another firm could’ve pulled this off. Firms all have content strategies now, but trying to be a destination is a whole other game. Sequoia is building “Grove” and a16z may be able to reinvent the technology news category. There’s First Round Capital with First Round Review, their Harvard Business Review, which is just really high quality. USV’s core strengths here are Fred’s daily blog (plus at least 100 comments per day), Albert’s daily blog (usually around 30+ comments a day, and underrated in my opinion), and occasionally when Andy writes (wish he’d write more!). USV can now combine this reach with the power held in Disqus from their readers and invert the model, asking the audience to suggest what’s important. Yes, it’s very much like what PG did with Hacker News, and there’s no reason that model cannot be verticalized with a more venture or market-based mindset.
Takes Pressure Off Of AVC.com – Fred is his own media powerhouse. This is important to USV in many ways, but I’d sense Fred also doesn’t like it because it takes focus away from the team. While everyone will likely blog on their own sites, people in their community (like me) can now go into their site and directly interact with others via Disqus or other oAuth systems. So, the mindshare goes slightly from the individual back to the firm, which is a nice, subtle touch.
Android-Only, For Now – As I’m an unabashed Android-hater, I love that these guys only released an Android app. Brilliant!
“Pin to USV” Interaction – With a Chrome bookmarklet, folks in the community can now easily pin articles they’ve seen online that are interesting and pump them back into USV.com. The hope is that the community will bubble up the most interesting things, though it could be noisy, too. Let’s see. At least folks will have an audience.
Testing Ideas Outside Of The Hallway – Say the firm is exploring a thesis or idea. Now, without tipping their hand or focusing on an individual blog, they can place articles into the forum or comment and explore those ideas outside the hallways of their offices. That is pretty cool if it works.
Moderation Is Key – I’d imagine this place will be moderated from Day 1, as being on the USV site cannot afford trolling or other types of unsavory participation. If moderated well, I think people will come here more and more, because there aren’t many places that exist like this in technology circles, even though there are plenty of forums, etc.
Transition Planning – Say one day some of the folks at USV aren’t there. Who knows when…but, the point is that individual brands and their audiences may not move, so doing Beta as a discussion forum helps unify the community under the USV brand and makes it easier for a new partner to step in at a point in the future, as I’d assume that new partner blogs and would be the type of person to interact online in such a manner, though they may not have their own audience or brand. This is important for firms to consider in leadership transitions because so much of the intellectual and brand capital can be tied up in individuals.
When Sarver announced he’s joining Redpoint earlier this week, it reminded me just how vibrant the ex-Twitter network is. Last year, March 2012, I wrote this piece below in TechCrunch about how Twitter was poised to spawn the next great “tech mafia.” Sure, nothing will compare to PayPal, but now perhaps ex-Twitter endeavors could be at least on par with or even surpass the FB mafia. Maybe. Who knows? It’s just a fun parlor game, but now that Twitter is marching toward its IPO, many of the seeds planted could bloom in very interesting (and potentially orthogonal) directions.
Originally written in March 2012: In middle school, my teacher assigned a book by Mario Puzo called “The Godfather.” Yes, it was pretty epic. From that work of art, mass audiences were introduced to Don Corleone and eventually its derivatives; Goodfellas, Bugsy, Capone, Casino, Heat, The Departed, and scores of other pieces that romanticized the notion of organized crime across the globe, a world of big bosses, willing soldiers, and internal codes of helping out each other, from family to family.
One reason I believe the Valley is so enamored with these types of groups is because individual stars emerge from an organization that go on to become more influential and powerful. And so, in the world of the web, the term “mafia” has also caught on, albeit in a much more positive way. This has all been written about before. The premiere group is the “PayPal Mafia,” which lumped together incredible minds to form one of the world’s most important companies and whose alumni are now founders and/or financiers of some of the most disruptive new technology companies today. The other important mafia hails from Facebook (which Sarah Lacy has chronicled brilliantly), where early employees have gone on to found Quora, Asana, Path, and Cloudera, among others, and who have also quietly provided angel funding to some of the most interesting new startups (and perhaps even acting as limited partners in other investment funds). Facebook liquidity approaches for many more employees, which will only deepen its impact.
Which leads me to speculate where the next mafia could emerge from: Twitter.
It’s a bit early, but Twitter has the makings for the next “family.” At the moment, Facebook is in a significantly stronger financial position and set to go public this year. Twitter’s future is less certain, but as a loyal and heavy user for three years, I am extremely bullish on Twitter and believe it’s currently undervalued economically today despite the kinks it needs to iron out. That’s an argument for another post, but for now, I believe Twitter alumni have a terrific chance to form the next Valley mafia. We are at the early stages of this, but as the first few flocks of early employees and the founders start to move on, they are already spreading their post-Twitter wings and are in a position to exert a good deal of influence, both financially as well as in the formation of new businesses.
And of course, there are Twitter’s three founders, and early employee Jason Goldman. Obviously Jack Dorsey is still at Twitter but also leading Square, as well as being an early investor in ultra hot startups like Kickstarter, Instagram, Flipboard, and Foursquare. The other two founders, Biz Stone and Evan Williams, have returned to the lab that created Twitter — Obvious Corp — and brought with them product extraordinaire Jason Goldman as a third founder. The group has been somewhat vague so far about its ambitions to date, but we now have an early peek at a potential strategy, as the group is closely tied to Lerer Ventures and has invested in Caterina Fake’s Pinwheel, incubated Lift, and most recently Branch (formerly know as Roundtable).
Along with their product knowledge, wealth, and broadcast influence through creating Twitter, we may start to see these early Twitter stars begin to flex their muscles as an entirely new mafia in fascinating ways. Though it remains to be seen if Twitter will generate the type of wealth that PayPal and Facebook will, the early alums are a good indication of the diversity of talent within Twitter HQ today. Simply living through the fires that the company has survived will toughen present and future alums for bigger risks, and their intimate knowledge of Twitter strengths and blind spots could help them and others chart more precise courses as the ecosystem grows and widens. Only time will tell if Twitter will join the ranks of PayPal’s and Facebook’s mafias, but if the recent past is any indication, there’s a great chance we’ll be using the term “Twitter Mafia” more regularly.
Earlier this year, I sat down with Greylock Partner’s David Sze for a longer discussion about his entire career — and, I just had it transcribed so you can all read it, right here. Sze doesn’t talk publicly often, so this is a rare treat to hear about his career in his own words. It’s a long discussion, but if you’re serious about understanding the the venture capital game in Silicon Valley, this is a must-read. I’ve chopped it into four sections so you can skip around if you’d like. Part 1 focuses on Sze’s arrival to the Valley and his early career; Part 2 on transitioning to investing; Part 3 on joining Greylock; and Part 4 on his advice for aspiring operators and aspiring VCs.
Part I – Post-College, And Arriving In The Valley
@semil: We’re in the studio today with David Sze, partner at Greylock. David, welcome to the studio.
David Sze: Thanks, Semil. Thanks for having me in.
@semil: This is going to be a different discussion, given that you’ve been around the Valley for a long time and have a lot of great experiences. It’d be awesome if you could unpack how you came to the Valley, and what you did before joining Greylock, and then once your Greylock tenure started. Then, maybe roll into a little bit of advice for people who are thinking about either coming to the Valley and are interested in VC, or maybe just graduating college or graduate school. Tell us a little bit about when you came to the Valley and brought you out here. What was the base motivation to come out?
Sze: You know, I grew up on the East Coast, went to undergrad on the East Coast. I had done a sort of very traditional path of management consulting, which was pretty common in the late ’90s, early ’80s.
@semil: You went out of undergrad right into consulting?
Sze: Yeah. I did that in New York for a while and I learned a lot, in terms of thinking about strategy, and some of the classic blocking and tackling. You got exposed to things that were really interesting senior-level problems around running businesses or products, but at the end of the day you were pushing paper and that is just not that interesting to me.
I had always been interested in technology and media and consumers, and I felt like coming out to Stanford and being on the West Coast would be a great thing, a lot was going on there. I ended up at Stanford Business School. Then I sort of immersed myself in technology, consumer, and media, the three things that I cared about.
When I graduated, I ended up taking a very junior job at Electronic Arts (EA). It was much to the chagrin of my parents. The transition of going into Business School, into a lot of debt, and then taking a job that paid dramatically less than the job that I had before, seemed a little odd. But I just really loved technology and how it interacted with consumers.
@semil: What was the role at EA? What were you doing?
Sze: I was an associate product manager. That was my first PM job. At that time, the classic career path at a games company was to be a tester and work your way up to working with the development teams. I was this odd fish for them, coming out of Business School, but I just knew I wanted to do something in technology and something I was passionate about and not follow a standard path. They liked that. They hired me as an Assistant or Associate Product Manager, I don’t remember which one now, and I did that for a while, working on the games. I realized in that industry, product management is just a very different thing. It’s more akin to the movie industry, where if you’re a producer or director or a developer of movies, that was where the action was. And then the product management side, you couldn’t tell me who the head of marketing for Avatar was? It just doesn’t really matter as much.
I ended up moving to the development side and joined a company called Crystal Dynamics, which had one of the first 32-bit systems, the days of the 3DO and the Dreamcast, and just after the Sega Genesis CD System came out. There was a lot of change in the industry. The company that I went to was built to try to be the software play as the hardware changed. So, it was really an interesting time. It allowed me to move to the development side, ended up working as a producer developing products, running teams of engineers and artists/designers, and then game designers.
@semil: Great, so tell us a little bit about this transition from when you were never a PM before, then you were a PM, and now you’re working more on the development side and managing a larger process. Did you feel like you were jumping into it or did you feel like you were accumulating knowledge along the way, or did you go want to go in that path, or were you just thrust into that path?
Sze: I always loved the development side. I always loved the creation of product, and working with the teams. It was pretty natural. I learned each time. Every time, I got thrown a little in the deep end. And then learned quickly. It’s what everyone does in their career. Find good mentors, learn and do, and prove that you’re good at it, and then take on a new task. In fact, usually the problem people have isn’t that they are too challenged or interested. It’s usually they’re kept bored and I never had that problem. I kept always finding things to do.
I had done that for a numbers of years. And then the Internet happened. Mosaic appeared on the scene in the very, very early days of the Internet. We’re talking sort of ’94, ’95 time frame. That just seemed like an incredible change. It had a lot of aspects of both the creative nature that I loved in video games and some consumer media, but also the importance data and fast turnaround information and strategy, and so that seem like a really exciting challenge.
There is so much change that was going to happen. I ended up joining Excite.com, one of the earliest search engines called Architects at the time. There were about 30 people or so. I was brought on as the first person to lead product for the business-to-consumer search engine. We considered them as consumer search engines. They’d previously been like a business search engine, like a Nexis-Lexis for the Internet. Yahoo had just launched, and it was looking like, “Oh, wow. That consumer side looks pretty interesting.” Everyone was running around looking for someone to be their first person to run product. I remember no one knew what a consumer web person looked like. I was interviewing for a job alongside a magazine editor, a TV editor, and a newspaper editor.
They had this idea that it was media and like, “We’re The Valley, and we don’t understand media.” So, we have to go find these things, and eventually they looked at my background and thought, “Well, games is a pretty good analogy and has a lot of those aspects.” I joined. It was about 30 people and was in charge of the product, pretty much from there to the merger with @home in 1999, 2000.
@semil: So you were there about five years?
Sze: Yeah, four and a half.
@semil: Yeah, and did it feel like 10, given all the different roles you had there? It seemed like you did a lot of stuff, it seemed like that was the step for you in your career.
Sze: It was definitely. It was a small company when I joined and then all of a sudden took off. It was, you’re right, four and a half years, but in sort of, dog years, it was a lot more than that. Everyone was going as fast as they could, learning. There had been no precedence for what was going on, so any hypothesis had some potential to be right. There was a lot of uncertainty and you also had people, young people, including myself, that were moving really quickly as the thing grew. I joined and it was 30 people, I left four and a half years later and it was 6,000. And so, huge amounts of change and you learn just incredible amounts.
@semil: What kind of different roles did you have there?
Sze: I started out as director of marketing, and then I was the general manager of Excite.com, and then ran all of the product in network programming, and then was SVP of product strategy, by the end. In some sense, if you step back, it was the same job. It just got bigger, stranger, larger. By the end I was managing 350 people. When I joined I was managing myself, basically, and that was hard enough. You see great successes, you see stresses, you see some of the mistakes that were made and those have all been helpful.
@semil: What was startup life like back then?
Sze: It’s pretty similar, the same kind of commitment, the crazy passion, just working with great people on things that they really loved, the madness, and energy. Cubes were the innovation of how you were seated, that would be one difference than now. It was an open seating plan, that’s so different. It was back in those days, but it was a lot the same.
@semil: What that energy more in The Valley or distributed across the Bay Area? Or did you feel it was concentrated in an area?
Sze: It was more in The Valley, then. Then by the end of the ’90s, it just exploded. It was kind of everywhere, in kind of a crazy way, but it was The Valley. It was heavily like that, but soon dot.com mania had taken over, right?
@semil: Yeah, and anything you noticed, either in the hyper growth of that company, or through the acquisition that impressed upon you years later?
Sze: Tons, tons of things. You know, good, bad, and ugly sort of stuff. There certainly was a lot of learning about how acquisitions are done under pressure, and the kind of mistakes that can be made, or the assumptions that are made by both sides. We saw that in the Excite@Home merger. The big thing about cultures, those were very different cultures. Excite was a very bottoms-up, scrappy, keep running as hard as you can on the treadmill, and be really critical and think about the next thing you can do great. And, @home had always been built from the top down, with John Doerr and the cable companies building it up from there and deeming that it would work. It had a very much more top-down culture. It’s full of really smart people who were really aggressive, but it had been deemed from the top-down to be this thing.
@semil: Different DNA, basically.
Sze: Totally, different DNA, and so that stuck for me. Interesting enough, the experience with Excite and the search engines actually caused me to invest in Pandora, and so there’s a lesson from that, too, which is like, “Whoa. Pandora and Excite — how does that work?”
@semil: Yeah, I wasn’t going to think of that transition, but you’ve got to tell us, what was the insight there?
Part II – Transition Into Venture Capital
Sze: Over time, you pick up learnings. I think the most successful people in the Valley are — and I see this in you in our conversations, you certainly are like this — to be a constant learner. You’re always trying to learn and put a perspective on stuff. A large percentage of what we do is hugely uncertain. And so, if you can look at the patterns, and look at those, and have the humility to know when it works or doesn’t or why it might not be the same thing this time, that helps a lot, even if it just gives you a slightly better predictive success in a lot of chaos.
From one of those examples where in it’s odd analogy, I remember being one of the six or seven search engines when I first joined Excite. We were probably the number five out of seven search engine. We fought our way up to get to be sort of numbers two to Yahoo. Then the world changed, and AOL and Microsoft came in and so you had Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft and then us, and then the rest. It got very hard and that was partially why we looked and said look it’s probably time merge with someone and get an unfair advantage in the next phase of all this.
But I remember watching the search engines that then it was right when everyone had decided that search was just not a good business. No one would make any money. Search engines were going to out of business. VC’s were like “no way am I going to fund anything that looks like search.” There was Google that had been the sort of last man funded. They just kept innovating, to their credit. They focused on search and they made it great and they kept innovating. Just at that moment, when people thought it was the worse business was when the company that’s proven it’s the single best business that everyone is jealous of today.
The same thing was true with Pandora. All the music companies were going to out of business. There was this capitulation moment when Imeem and a whole bunch of other folks went out of business. They’d been holding on and there was just, “Oh my God. There are all these music companies. None of them make any money. There’s not going to be a good company in here.” The whole tide turned. Meanwhile Pandora was losing significant money at that time. It wasn’t like it was a slam dunk. It wasn’t like people were highly irrational. But when you looked at you’re like “Wow, this is a really great brand.” And it’s really growing with its users. And if the other ones all go away and drop the noise it’s going to be the default choice which is already less.
@semil: Had been you been a user of the product?
Sze: Yes, I’d been user over the years. And I like music but I don’t know that that was the fundamental observation.
@semil: Or was that something about meeting the founders?
Sze: I love the founders, right? Certainly something in this business that I tell everyone is, if you don’t like… and the way it’s reflective to the founders. If you don’t love the journey you’re on, which by definition the founders do, and as an investor, you have to love that journey and want to be on that journey. If you don’t love the people you go on it with, all the rest you can’t really control. And what I can guarantee is even the best ones have crazy ups and downs. If you love it and you love the people…
@semil: But, I remember a couple of years ago when Pandora had a point where people knew it was getting really to go public and everything had settled. There had been years of sort of uncertainty around it. And this is kind of tangent but it’s interesting. When the initial investors must have that bet or reading that New York Times article, and sort of looking back it looked crazy. Everything about that company had seemed absolutely nuts.
Sze: Yes, it was a scary time. The effect is every one of the companies that I have invested in that’s done well, at the time I invested and someone was like, “That was crazy.” Then afterwards, they’re say he just did the obvious ones. And that’s truth. Anyone you find in this Valley when they are successful, if you remembered to the time, it was a little bit of crazy in that decision. Otherwise, there’s way too many people focused on things in the Valley not to have it be done and done silly.
That was Pandora at that time. Every one believed music couldn’t work. They were losing significant sums of money. There was pressure around the licensing boards about whether their rates would change dramatically. This analogy to what happened with Google and search, if you stay focused on your knitting, you build the brand, you get the distribution through that, and the other people fade. You can turn that into scale.
@semil: It’s like the Paul Graham about being a cockroach? You never die.
Sze: That’s right. For them, that was survival and focus, and then knowing when the industry changed. But if you don’t love the people, it’s really not worth it. There are way too many tough times even in the best companies.
@semil: I want to back up a little bit two things, one is right at the time where you and your colleagues engineered or sort of merger with @Home from Excite, at that point in your career you seem to have gone against a grain of what some value memes are now. You had an MBA. You were a consultant. You were the Senior Vice President of Strategy. I feel like when I talk to people in startups around here, they don’t want people working on strategy or they view that as soft or the other side of operational. And consultants – they don’t want a consultant around. We want to build within. How is it that you actually emerged with all those skills into those areas even before you got into VC?
Sze: The model has changed somewhat. Rightly so, the model is certainly moved towards a deeper reliance on technical skills. Even then, if you look inside the companies, if you were to really look at who are the leaders after they get to a certain level or even in the mid-stages, you’ll find a lot of people that, somewhere inside there, maybe had a MBA or even an engineering degree (undergrad). Or were involved consulting because it’s a great training ground at some point. But it’s less and less today. That has definitely shifted. But I do think those skills are really useful, the value of understanding how businesses work and thinking about them in strategy.
Now, the title at Excite, by then I was running all the product. Coming up through product, and working with the development, and understanding the core needs of the user is something that, if you look every partner at Greylock now, they’ve all had at least 10 years experience doing that in an operating role in product in those domains. We just think that brings the right perspective.
It’s a little related to something you and I have talked about, which is, “How do you make these calls? What allows you to make the tough calls?” There are a couple of observations we’ve found, when we look at our deals if our group hates it, if everyone hates the deal, it’s probably not a great deal. That tends to be pretty predictive. If everyone loves it, that’s actually not the best result. The best result actually comes from where there is a strong advocate, and a set of domain experts that are pushing for it. There actually is a fair amount of confusion and unclarity in other groups. The deals that have that dynamic where there are strong believers and at least one of the domain folks are very strong for it, and yet there’s a lot of concern, those investments actually end up being the best.
We’ve thought about it. One, we’ve changed process to make sure that dynamic comes out. And two, we’ve thought about why is that the case? The truth is if everyone loves it in our group, giving the spread and all the experience, it’s probably too easy. It’s probably actually a nice idea but it’s going to be done by a bunch of people, or its too simple and obvious thing, and it’s a small business not a big business. But when there are certain people in the domain that understand why this could really breakthrough, but it’s always controversial — all of our investments that had been great were controversial at the time, in some way, shape, or form — that was usually a better indicator.
@semil: Actually, Andy Weissman from Union Square had a great quote about this and he said in passing, “We like when people smartly agitate us.” He said, “Sometimes, they’ll debate an investment over three months and actually get into battles over it.” That’s what it takes to get people over the edge.
Sze: So much about startup building is contrary, you need to be able to let go of logic as the natural states of human beings. Human beings want simple black or white answers, they want safety, they want consensus, all these kind of things. We’re all built to want that. If you’re really going to be great in startups, you have to let go of those things. You have to let go of the fact that there won’t be consensus in your best deals, necessarily. You have to be OK with that.
@semil: You’re saying that even when you’re putting together a BD deal, for instance?
Sze: Yeah. That’s right. It’s that agitation. You have to be OK with people that push you. With normal humans, it’s like, “I don’t want that,” or, “Forget them.” Actually that’s where great change comes from. That was certainly one of the big things in our decision process.
Part III – Joining Greylock
@semil: Got it. It would be interesting to talk about, had you always been interested in investing in venture capital on the back of your head, or did someone pull you aside and say, “Hey, we have this opportunity at Greylock.” How did that happen?
Sze: That was two things. One, I was pretty burned out at that point. I hadn’t been focused on venture. I’d been just running this rat race. We had crazy growth and all these things. Everything was new and being there, I just was pretty burned out. I had two young kids at that time. I knew I needed a change. I had lots of offers to be a CEO on a small founding team of a startup. That was a natural next path.It just turned out that I had enough self-awareness to know that, at that moment in time, I was so fried. It’s a great job, it’s one of the loneliest jobs, and you have to be willing to give 150 percent across so many vectors, personal, employee, investor, customers, everything, and I just wasn’t there.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I actually took some time and helped raise my daughter, and got a chance to settle myself and reconnect with the family. Then Aneel Bhusri was the person that recruited me. Aneel was my partner. He had joined nine months earlier at Greylock and was the anchor player. He was head of our enterprise software business and now is also the CEO of Workday.
@semil: Was Aneel brought on with the Boston contingent of Greylock to help build an outpost?
Sze: Yeah. There were two individuals that were out here investing on their own basis. A partner, Bill Helman, who was running the firm from the East Coast came out and helped them recruit Aneel. Aneel was the senior executive and the number-two guy at PeopleSoft, one of their early guys. Aneel was a big advocate for consumer that we needed to invest in consumer. We had invested in DoubleClick, which had been a huge hit in terms of the first phase of consumer, but that was really it. DoubleClick was really a business-to-business-to-consumer sort of play. Aneel start doing some investments in consumer, and he likes to say, he’d proved that he wasn’t a consumer investor, he was an enterprise investor. When I got hired, I was asked to go and become an enterprise investor when the crash happened.
@semil: How did he find you? How did you guys meet each other?
Sze: We knew each other from business school. We’d been at Stanford together and been reasonably good friends, certainly really close friends. When he heard I was in this mode of “What’s next?” he dove in. I was like, “Venture capital? Really? I’m 32. Why would that make sense? That’s an old-person’s gig.” I was burned out, but I wasn’t take time and go recharge and go back into operations. The more I learned about Greylock, it really clicked to me that there was a huge opportunity. It was a wonderful organization with a great history and culture that matched what I cared about.
There was a chance to work with a superstar friend (Aneel) that I had always admired. Another adage I’ve always believed is, “When world-class people go and do interesting things, that’s a signal.” That’s actually how I joined Greylock, and that’s how I went on to the board of the Rockefeller University. The previous head of research for Genentech had become a close personal friend, a guy I respect at that same level. When he moved back to run Rockefeller University, I said, “OK, that’s an interesting thing.” He’s a world-class, high-quality guy. When he said, “Would you come on the board,” I’m like, “The same thing. 32, venture capital.” I was like, “Biotech? University? That doesn’t make sense at the time.” Wonderful institution, high-quality folks, you can’t go wrong in life, I think, if you follow those things.
@semil: In those early years of Greylock, let’s say around the Pandora and before the LinkedIn investment, what were those days like? How did you build the team? Because I’d imagine starting that it’s a pretty lonely gig. If you’re just starting out the practice, you have to go develop a thesis or something, some kind of filter. How did you approach those years?
Sze: The first couple of years, I was told I should be an enterprise investor. I went out and prove that I was a bad enterprise investor in the early 2000s. That’s probably forgotten. In 2002, 2003, it wasn’t working. I was either getting fired, or I was going to leave.
@semil: You’re into consumer media.
Sze: That’s what I cared about from the beginning. I was like, “This isn’t for me. I’ll go back into operations and consumer. I appreciate the opportunity, I love the organization, but I’m a really bad enterprise investor.”
Aneel and some of the other leadership of the firm at that time said, “Well, tell us why you think that consumer is something you go put your whole career back into again. We’re not going to argue that you aren’t a good enterprise investor, but we’d like to hear this other piece.”
I put together a case that helped explain why I thought consumer was a huge secular trend, but we were in a brutal cyclical downturn. I framed it a way that enterprise investors and an enterprise company with a history of traditional VCs could understand why it wasn’t voodoo and magic. In those days, the words for consumer were, “No barriers to entry, tons of competitors.” They never would be lasting businesses. I tried to frame, “Well, there are barriers. Here’s how brand works, here’s how scale works, here’s how user, consumer, and behavior works. Advertising doesn’t work forever, but until you get to a massive scale, and all of a sudden it works unbelievably well.” They said, “Well, this is really interesting. Why don’t you go and try that?” That was 2003, and that lead to investment in LinkedIn, Digg, Facebook, Pandora, hiring with James Slavet, John Lilly, and Reid Hoffman. It’s great. It’s been a great team. It’s so fun to have people around in this scale. Josh Elman, Sanjay Raman, Simon Rothman. It’s so much fun to have a team. To your point, back in those days, it was pretty lonely. When I knew Sequoia, Accel, those guys, they had people with so many feet on the street, all with consumer investing background, and I was doing it alone with Greylock’s name, little of me, and not a lot of history.
It was hard. I knew I couldn’t cover it. They’d do 10 times as many deals. I got to swing, take, well, one tenth of swings, and I needed to figure out how to have enough success to build an understanding of why this was something to do and attract a franchise. That was really fun. That was the entrepreneurship part of what I was doing, that same passion about working with companies and creating great things. I got to do a little bit of that in Greylock and partnering with Aneel, who supported me, which was a big deal on that side to get that.
@semil: What would you say, if you were to look back and say, what are the one or two biggest changes that Greylock made during your time? Either the size, the way services are delivered, what would you say are the biggest things you would never even have conceived of?
Sze: One of the huge changes was, we fundamentally changed and have consistently applied a different model of what a VC should be. Our model, which was very different from the past, was young, experienced, product people that had gotten to senior levels but had been in junior, mid, and senior levels in startups that they were going to invest in — consumer net or enterprise software — and that had been in small companies, hyper growth, and public companies. We said, “That’s the profile. They have to be smart enough they can be good investors, they have to be constant learners, but that’s better than the traditional, which was take an MBA and have them work in the firm as an associate and move up.” If you look at it today, every partner in the firm who’s investing on the enterprise or the consumer side looks like that. You get someone like Aneel in PeopleSoft, Reid, and LinkedIn. Today, myself and maybe Asheem Chandna are the only partners that also have been not only that, but founders and CEOs. That’s just the right way to help companies but we also think it provides a way of interacting with companies where you understand what they’ve been through, you understand how to help but not cross the line to where you understand that they are the ones who are really building the company day in and day out.
@semil: If we take that first decade shift into more founder operator, deep product experience that you guys took, if you were to look in the crystal ball, let’s say, 10 years out and say, “Here’s what I predict could be one of the top two or three biggest changes that will happen in larger venture firms,” what do you envision? What do you think about it? Because you’re obviously thinking way further ahead than what’s going to happen in 2013.
Sze: That model doesn’t change. It only gets more so. We have to balance that with some of the skills of understanding how to be an investor. It’s one of those things when you’re an innovator. You always have to be working on the next thing, as you were saying. We’re very focused on what’s the next level of balance between all those skills, and can you start to predict that in the hiring. To your point, how you make the decision on which thing to invest in when it’s really hard, no one likes any of it, or it’s confusing. That’s it for us. The fact that we have people that have been there, that were in those kinds of situations, that were building the product right around the consumer with engineering at that moment of inception, at those moments of spark, that’s how you go, “I believe in this,” when other people don’t. You actually are so close to the experience that you understand it. You can start to see it.
Part IV – Advice For Aspiring Operaters And VCs
@semil: That leads into the last segment, which will be really helpful for younger people out there, because I get a lot of people coming to me who are either graduating from college or graduating from business school and they’re interested in venture. It’d be great to hear just your advice for people coming in into this new environment, that’s 2013 and beyond, and the path you took versus what you see happen now. What kind of advice would you give in terms of those people out there on the path to take if they are interested in investing, and then, two, what do you believe helps someone develop intuition around markets and people?
Sze: Sure. Before I do that, I would want to say the other thing that we’re really investing in and that we think goes into the future is services that support our entrepreneurs in the same sense. We have an executive, recruiting team lead by Jeff Markowitz, and we have this really great what we call the “core recruiting team.” All they do is recruiting below VP level, engineers, designers, and product managers for our companies. There’s a small handful of them, and they’re at the point now where an offers extended to a candidate that they sourced from one of our portfolio companies every third day, which is stunning. When you look at the crunch for talent and the ability to do that and help your companies. When we talk to companies, they come to us and if it isn’t the first item in the list, it’s in the top three, which is, “I don’t need this really. I need engineers, designers, and great product managers.”
How do you do the right ways of doing that? You don’t need lots of people. You don’t need to do crazy things. You need to get it right so the effectiveness is incredibly high. We’re operators. We love fixing that and improving it.
Anyway, to your point about students and people coming up, engineering and understanding of engineering and of web development is important now. If I was to do it all over again today, I don’t think it’d be OK not to have that. That doesn’t mean you need to be necessarily a hardcore CS major from one of the top engineering schools. That’ll help, if you can do that, that’s great. That’s certainly the best. Web development has all kinds of aspects, design is incredibly valuable, and user experience in web design. It can come in lots of different ways. But those skills are important to have.
Another set of skills are understanding business strategy. General, more rounded understanding of businesses does help you in the long run, where you want to get to. It’s a good thing to have. The last one is a passion about products and users, and why they use thing, what things are great and inspirational. Those are the building blocks.
Then you need to be a constant learner and you just ought to go get experience. There’s so many stories of, “if you’re good and have those things, it doesn’t’ really matter where you enter the company.” I took a very junior job after business school. A lot of times, actually, you’re better off in the long run if you do that. It allows you, without the experience and the skills, to get exposed to experienced skills at a great company. Whereas, if you try to take the thing that always maximizes the next choice, then actually you’re getting put in worse and worse situations. Those are the only ones that say you’re the perfect person to do that with.
There’s this counter-intuitive nature to saying, “Go out and get experience,” there’s nothing like the experience of working in companies. We won’t hire folks and it would never be a path to partner us to never have worked in the companies. If you just care about investing, quite honestly, you shouldn’t be doing what we do. You should go and be an investment banker, or a Wall Street analyst, or a hedge fund person. For early stage investments, in particular, you have to be passionate about product. You have to be passionate about entrepreneurs, change, technology, potential. You have to have had the experience of doing it, or else I don’t think you can really win.
Investing isn’t really what any of us identify with, it’s a funny thing. No one at Greylock says, “I’m an investor,” or, “I’m a VC.” That is something that feels weird to them. What they’re all about is they feel like they’re product people, they’re operators. They love building companies, they love working with the great new talent to help create great companies, like Facebook, LinkedIn, Pandora, Workday, Palo Alto Networks, the whole list. We’re doing them from the very beginning. Probably a third of our companies, in the sort of Series B or beyond stage, have been incubated at Greylock, in small teams. That’s what we love to do and we have the capability. If you want to go be something like that, then you have to go and get experience.
@semil: Great, well David thanks for coming in and sharing that whole journey.
I finally went a long drive to Marin today. It had been a while, with a new kid at home. Baby and the wife slept in the back on the way up, so I was listening to Swell Radio and caught a short segment from NPR’s Science Friday, featuring Ira Flatow, who was talking about the Voyager 1 spaceship that had just left the heliosphere — our galaxy — and is now in interstellar space. Flatow’s guest was Ed Stone, the guy who chaired NASA’s project. It was amazing to hear this guy on the radio. I can’t imagine what he must have felt today, knowing that just over 36 years ago, the creation he and his team slingshotted into space finally left the bounds of what we know. It is now going to places we can’t even imagine. That is some long-term vision, patience, and planning.
I couldn’t help but notice the year Voyager was launched: 1977. In 1977, Steve Jobs launched the Apple II, the world’s first widely-used personal computer. People said he was crazy to think the mass market would use these machines. In 1977, Bill Gates took his second leave of absence from Harvard, moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico to set up Microsoft. I didn’t realize how many years had passed since Voyager 1 launched, but I happened to pay attention to the broadcast details because 1977 is a year I recognize and have written often: it’s the year when I was born. Maybe 1977 was a good year to launch new ideas ;-)
On the long drive, I couldn’t help but think about Jobs and Wozniak in a garage in Palo Alto, or about Gates and his crew leaving campus to form Microsoft. Hearing Ed Stone’s joy and wonder in his voice on the radio, today in 2013, it hit me that he had to wait thirty-six long, long years to see his creation make it to this point, and it’s still going. It made me think that it took me 36 years to get back to California and to finally do something I love doing in a place I love. And, like Voyager, that I have to still keep going, that the journey is not done, and that the next 36 years could bring many unknowns.
Yesterday, I wrote about how I’d be focusing the bulk of my work going forward on “Mobile Computing.” You can read more about that here. When I mean my “work,” I specifically mean the majority of this blog, my weekly column on TechCrunch (Sundays @ 10am PST), my operational and consulting work with mobile technology startups, and my early-stage investing activities will all be focused on the mobile stack, from the server, to components, to middleware, and all sorts of applications I’m interested in.
In the 24 hours since I wrote yesterday’s post, a mobile-first consumer app quickly raised a Series B round with one of the best investors at the best firms leading the deal. Last night, I realized not only is Whisper based in Los Angeles, but so is Tinder, and so is SnapChat — the three hottest apps are mobile. I know it’s obvious, but the importance of this was reinforced to me when I finally had time to catch up on all the details and insider blogs on Microsoft’s acquisition of Nokia’s handset business. The key point I’m left with is that Microsoft *had no choice* but to do this. Imagine this….one of the most iconic, profitable, powerful technology companies in the world with over $250B+ in market cap had no choice but to spend the money and acquire the hardware manufacturer to pair with its software. Wow.
Tonight, I want to share thoughts about my writing/blogging as it relates to Mobile Computing. Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about the investing piece of all of this.
First, I want to underscore again — nothing of what I’m writing about is new or groundbreaking. Rather, I hope to convey my argument in a manner you may have not yet considered. Second, I’ve collected below some of my most recent and relevant posts on Mobile Computing, both from the investment side as well as the operator’s side. I have made a commitment to build out this knowledge base here and you can expect a significant increase in the mobile stack frameworks and content here beginning the fall. So, my Sunday columns and most of the content (and discussions) here will be on Mobile Computing. Third, I’d like to hear from you about what you’d like to learn about the mobile stack, and what interests you most. I’m taking a long-view on all of this, so please reach out if this speaks to you, your work, or your interests.
And, finally….the main point of tonight’s post and my writing this week is to step back and watch, in awe, at how Mobile Computing continues to disrupt or influence the strongest technology companies on the planet. Six years ago, the iPhone. Two years ago, Google acquires Motorola. Consumers buy not just one but many “mobile” devices. Apps leapfrog websites for consumer attention and experience. Larger tech companies who didn’t natively build for mobile had to play catch-up. A little company called Twitter, and another called Square, were built with mobile in mind from day one. I cannot think of a more dynamic space, a more fundamental shift in technology and user behavior, one that I believe will persist throughout the rest of my career. For instance, I wonder: Who will buy Blackberry, and when? Will Facebook forge alliances with carriers to subsidize data costs for telcos? Will Google Loon and other Wifi technologies and deployments threaten the carriers? Will the next generation of battery improvements mean we can finally have “always-on” mobile computing without the steep cost in user experience?
I could go on and on about Mobile Computing….so, I will. And tomorrow, I’ll talk about how this all comes together with my investing. (Below are some selected posts I’ve written about mobile…)
When I was kid growing up, I’d occasionally watch TV when my dad was in control of the remote. At that age, his taste in shows was boring. One show I did end up watching, however, was “Meet The Press” on Sunday mornings with Tim Russert. For those that follow American politics, Russert is a legend. He was a big influence on me. I don’t think we’ll ever see a political journalist like him ever again. Ever. I still remember exactly where I was when I heard he passed away in 2008. I was driving from Cambridge back to Connecticut for the weekend, and talked to my dad while I was in the car. Disbelief.
Fast forward to about a year ago, I finally got rid of Cable TV. I was concerned about live sports, but quickly got over that. We do get some basic network programming, but it’s not totally reliable. No DVR, of course. Many of the mainstream shows are available as back catalogues on Netflix (which we subscribe to), or through various audio/video podcast apps. We have Apple TV. But, practically, once I junked my cable box, I stopped watching “Meet the Press,” after decades of being a loyal viewer.
This all changed recently one day when the audio version of the most recent episode of “Meet The Press” miraculously appeared in my Swell radio broadcast. I was on a longer drive back from a trip and had plenty of time. It was content that I loved but gave up on because I gave up on the old platforms. And, even though I work for Swell, I had no idea it was in the database. The thought never occurred to me. Forty-five minutes later, after the episode, I felt more informed about what was going on in Washington DC, the world, and for a moment, got more excited that I could now listen to an old favorite by using Swell in the car, while walking, etc. Audio filled the void left by TV, and I felt just as informed, if not more. We had the same thing happen when “60 Minutes” came on in the car — a great episode featuring Jack Dorsey and others. It’s how I discovered all the great tech interviews by Jason Calacanis, and now I listen to him weekly. Fred’s blog AVC comes into my Swell mix every day, and I’m lucky to even hear myself on occasion!
Yes, there’s an efficiency and utility to bringing television content to a mobile form factor, in a format where I can just stream content and don’t have to think about downloading files, or worry about ordering the list of what I hear. Swell just does that for me. Easy. Done. But what’s hard to replicate when a show like “Meet The Press” resurfaces for me, out of the blue, is the feeling back to 2008, to thinking about watching that show as a very young kid with my dad and traveling through a time machine, and to think about his son Luke and the great work he’s doing, and to feel more informed of the dynamic world I often escape from during the week. It’s more than an efficient utility — Swell turns this into an experience for me, one that I couldn’t have scripted but now one that I cannot live without.
I’ve been using FrontBack a lot. I just love the app. No special analysis other than it brings me joy. That’s good enough. If you haven’t tried it yet, definitely worth downloading from the iOS app store.
“Not another photo-sharing app!” is an oft-heard or tweeted phrase. After Instagram combined the power of a networked camera, nostalgic filters, and snappy sharing to various networks to create a mobile phenomenon before selling to Facebook, and after SnapChat created a new behavior with more private photosharing thatnever touched the web (or Facebook), a new iPhone photosharing app is taking over my Twitter feed and, I believe, it’s just a matter of time before it takes over yours, too.
By now you may have heard of Frontback, the app that combines one shot from the regular iPhone camera with one shot from the front-facing camera to create one image showing what you’re seeing on top with a self-portrait of you at the bottom. It appears Frontback is a project born from Checkthis, a NYC-based company that hasn’t raised much funding. Frontback sounds simple enough, and yet that may be all that’s needed to quickly grow. A few months ago, TechCrunch’sRomain Dillet wrote a piece about the app, and since then, investors from Lerer Ventures began using the app a lot (how I noticed it), and then MG Siegler posted about it on his blog (he’s usually right on the money for new photo apps), and then…I was hooked.
The front-facing camera hasn’t been leveraged by most photo apps. Yes, there’s SnapChat, but it took a bit longer for the quality of the front-facing camera on the iPhone to be close to the regular (back) camera. In this video discussion I recorded with K9 Ventures’ Manu Kumar, an expert in computer vision and a prolific investor in such startups, he discusses how it’s usually changes in mobile hardware that opens the doors for software developers to build new experiences. (For instance, future mobile phones may include depth-sensing cameras to record and recognize gestures.)
Before Frontback, Daily Booth tried to leverage the front-facing camera, but it was too early. Back in 2010, MG wrote a great piece on TechCrunch about a talk given by Brian Pokorny, who back then built Daily Booth (which also used the front-facing camera). In the talk, Pokorny talks about how most mobile photosharing apps use the regular camera and focus on “objects,” but the front-facing camera focuses on the cameraman and camerawoman, thereby creating an image which can be immediately engaging for an audience.
Frontback’s in-the-moment images are unblemished by filters and create a more intimate, real-time media feel. When I see Frontbacks appear in my Twitter feed or when I’m surfing through the app, the photos shared on the network oftentimes make me feel as if I’m there with the folks I know. Instagram users shared all sorts of images on the network, images taken in the moment, but also images that were saved to the camera roll earlier, images that were lifted from the web or other apps, or even mobile web or phone screenshots. One result of this ability to share any image is that Instagrams often don’t feel intimate or real-time, whereas Frontbacks mostly do.
“Selfies” have gone mainstream after SnapChat and people love seeing and sharing themselves on camera. Not to be taken the wrong way, though I’m sure Frontback will have its own Chatroulette moment, the up-and-coming generations not only communicate mostly through images and pictures, they want to be in the shots they’re taking as well. One of my favorite creative and commercial applications of this was the brilliant Snoopify app by Snoop Lion, which is a clever app to jazz up your pictures with Snoop stickers, some of which now sell for $99!
Word-of-mouth virality happens when people use it with friends and show their friends the app, right there, live and in person. This is the “soft” part of what makes the app special. I can’t prove it with data, but can only say that when I’m with friends or my family and take a Frontback, I immediately show it to them and they all light up. Just today, a friend who just bought his first iPhone ever and doesn’t really use apps remarked to me, upon seeing an image I created: “that’s clever.”
It is indeed clever, and I suspect many users feel the same way. Now as summer ends, and people come back from vacation, or settle into campus, an app like Frontback is positioned to grow quite fast if the stars align (and if it can release an Android version quickly before it’s copied). And for those who bemoan photo apps, I’ll share a quote from Elon Musk earlier this year at D11: “I actually am not dismissive of things like photosharing apps. There’s a lot of things that provide a small amount of value to a lot of people…Sharing with friends and family is great; if that puts a high value on a company, so be it.”
I am lucky to have this blog. An outlet, a way to connect with the world around me. A sword and a shield. A place that’s entirely mine, where I can craft, mold, refine, and share my ideas, and hear about how great or how wrong it all is in the comments. Now that I’ve been writing here for a bit over a year in earnest, I’ve been pleasantly surprised about how the site looks, feels, and the archives of content, both text and video. I plan to expand on all of it, and to reorganize some of the content in categories, especially the video. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, expect a lot more stuff from now until the end of 2013, more resurfacing of my old videos (with transcripts).
And, thank you for reading, of course. One of the aspects of building this blog that I’ve wrestled with, however, may be counterintuitive. Many readers here and my friends have encouraged me to invest energy in building the audience for Haywire, to use techniques like getting more email subscribers, or to syndicate the content to more networks, or to churn out content more often, and to constantly measure how many views a post may generate. The assumption is: with more views, the regular audience grows, and Google rewards the clicks with more and more relevance.
I wrestle with this because I believe the opposite is true for me. For what I do and what matters to me, I don’t really care how many people read what I write. Sure, it’s nice to have some people come by and hang around, but I am not trying to create a funnel and to pump more into that funnel. Instead, I’m trying to write about what’s on my mind, what’s important to me — to write for an audience of one: you. That’s because I believe an individual unique visitor holds great power. I would much rather have eight people read one of my posts and feel a connection with me, so much that they’re compelled to reach out to me versus being part of the immediate social chatter box.
If you scroll to the bottom of my blog, you’ll see a quote in the footer from Epicurus, which reads:
“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”
People who are writing to get more and more views, and to pump up their brand and drink their own Kool-Aid, or to position themselves as smarter than you — they’re often writing with clear objectives that may not align with your intent, to accomplish a goal, one that usually involves broadcast reach and word-of-mouth. You won’t get that here, I promise. I truly believe that “each of us is enough of an audience for the other” because it’s the depth and strength of a 1:1 connection that makes the difference in business and in life.
I woke up later than usual on Monday morning and had over 100 emails. That is not normal. Most of them were from Disqus. I had planned to have a later start to the day, and found out Fred Wilson not only mentioned me and one of my recent posts on his blog, AVC, but asked his entire community to comment on my blog — not his. This was Monday, August 26, 2013 — in a nutshell, here’s what happened:
Fred’s community listened, resulting in 153 comments and counting. (link here)
The most traffic my blog has *ever* seen in one day, by a razor-thin margin.
A day later, AVC.com is still the largest referrer to my blog, more than Twitter.
The quality of the comments were at least 4-5x better than the original post I wrote, if not more.
I made a new work connection and we’re talking by phone tomorrow.
I helped a founder think through an unsatisfying consumer product journey and demo day she just had.
I spent about two hours replying to as many comments as I could. It was fun and I learned a ton. I don’t know how Fred does it daily. (I love Disqus, and while I love the ability to moderate comments via email, I think it’s impossible for readers on phones to follow the discussion. Hopefully, the good folks at Disqus can make comments look more like native tweets when reading on mobile.)
@FakeGrimlock started trolling my blog on this post and other posts. Hilarious commentary, worth reading. And, FakeGrimlock gave me a nice endorsement for my blog, here.
Overall, it was a terrific surprise and fun to experience what it’s like to have all this discussion and learning online. I can’t believe that Fred has had probably thousands of these kind of experiences online, over the years, and it was clear that his community engages, debates, calls people out but in a respectful way, and is there to learn. It was something I have never experienced on the web before. Thanks Fred! And, now back to your regularly scheduled blog programming.