Technology Archives

The Story Behind My Investment In Onfleet

Yes, the company name is Onfleet, not “On fleek,” though they are actually are “On fleek” when it comes to providing platform services and routing infrastructure to the on-demand economy. I could bore you with stats such as powering volume growth at a 30% month by month rate (40% scheduled, 60% on-demand), or how they’re growing B2B revenues by 35% per month, but that’s par for the course these days in SaaS.

The interesting part of the story is how I met Khaled, the CEO, and how I came to invest in the company. @Rafer, for those of you who know, is a friend and tireless supporter of the early-stage companies he fosters. Onfleet is one of those. Back then, in April 2014, the company was called “Trak,” and the founders had recently left Stanford and started their entrepreneurial journey.

At the time, I was writing about the on-demand economy and making a few investments in companies like Instacart and DoorDash. Rafer figured I should meet Khaled, and while I liked him initially as a person (we had a great first conversation), I wasn’t sure I wanted to invest because I didn’t feel a personal connection to the company. My first impression was Khaled was too reserved, but I came to learn letter, I misinterpreted that first meeting. We stayed in touch after I said “no,” and in fact, we discussed this very point. It’s not an easy conversation to have, and who I am to make such judgments.

To his credit, Khaled heard me out and, despite that, asked me very nicely for help in getting the story, pitch, and details together — and so I did, as a friend. He responded really well, and over the next few weeks, we traded a ton of emails, texts, calls. Three months in, Khaled was rolling in his round, and he called me up again — asking me to come on board. Now, looking back, I was lucky I got a second chance to invest, and I took it. Khaled has really grown and matured as a technology and operations CEO, building a team of 10 and providing critical platform services as part of the on-demand stack — right in the middle of one of the biggest trends in consumer behavior we’ve seen.

What Onfleet focuses on and where they’re going, you can read about that in all the news today as they launch into the public sphere. For me, what I’ll remember about this investment is that the frenetic pace of seed often doesn’t afford an investor the chance to get to know someone over a period of time. With Khaled, I had that luxury of time and no pressure other than our mutual respect for each other — and I had a second chance to learn that while he may be reserved in person, he’s relentless in his own quiet way. As I mature as an investor and begin to change my own style, I will look back on how I got to know Khaled over time as a potential model for how I operate as an investor in the future.

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?

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)

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 Gyroscope

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In the middle of 2014, one of my friends on Twitter (@Stammy) kept retweeting an account into my feed, usually with a screenshot. Turns out, it was his friend and roommate, and that friend and roommate had created software which just looked different than other products.

I conducted a bit of Internet sleuthing and discovered my friend’s roommate used to work for a company I was dying to invest in earlier but couldn’t convince them. That company creates great web and mobile products, too, so my interest piqued. I asked my friend for an intro, and after a few months, it came through. I rushed to meet the entrepreneur a few days later.

Turns out, my timing was good.

Anand had built the v1 of Gyroscope, currently web-based software which served as a hub for all of a person’s connected device and monitoring/tracking data. By connecting various accounts to your Gyroscope, the products gives you a kaleidoscopic view of where you’ve been, the pictures from those places, how many steps or calories you’ve collected and more. But more than just aggregating data, there’s something about the product, the design and animation, which makes it compelling.

I wasn’t sure where Anand was in his thinking. I wasn’t sure if he wanted to join a company, or still travel. We talked broadly about his options and I didn’t share any of my own views on what he should do, except that if he thought about it and wanted to start a company, I would be his first check and help him close the round.

A few days passed and he got back in touch. He was ready to start. I didn’t expect that, but was psyched about it, no doubt. We put our minds together, came up with a plan, started engaging lawyers, and all those details — we priced the round, I wired my funds, and started making introductions for Anand. We also opened up a small AngelList Syndicate, which has been closed for a while. At the end of it all, a larger fund also came in to give Anand and Eric a good solid cushion to build out v2 of the product.

As 2015 unfolds, the landscape has changed. Apple has committed some of its attention with Apple Watch to digital tracking, fitness, and health sensors. We are accumulating more connected devices which collect more and more data about us or our surroundings. What will do with all of it? Who owns that data? These are big questions, and while I don’t know the answers, I have a good feeling Gyroscope will be in that conversation.

Meerkasting In A Brave New World

Meerkat has the makings of not only becoming a big, important platform, but you can already start to see how disruptive it may be given all the reactions it generates (“get off my lawn!”) and serious questions it raises about other media networks and platforms. Observing the way folks are using it and how different people are tweeting about its varied potential for over a week now, I believe it has the makings of that rare disruptive platform. Here’s how I think about it:

  1. The best “entry point” into a live experience: So far, we think of Twitter as the real-time network, so it must be that a livestream product would need Twitter as a base. I don’t think this is true. Think of other avenues where real-time information has currency — sports, finance, etc. — and also of online communities and niches that run within these verticals. For instance, breaking news about a football team midweek could affect Vegas odds, fantasy rosters, and more. The best analysts in right now tweet or work for big sports networks (like ESPN); pretty soon, they can just “Meerkast” instead of traditional TV (ESPN) or online (Twitter) broadcast.
  2. Twitter needs Periscope to grow: Twitter has a user growth issue, and offering Periscope “in-line” as a broadcast feature to major celebrities will be a killer feature for the users, but also to help Twitter grow. Media like this can help onboard new users and give them an excuse to follow a few accounts. “OMG, Steph Curry is practicing dunks right now and giving away a few signed balls on Twitter, I need to watch this right now.” Furthermore, these notifications on mobile could have way more currency and make Twitter notices look static. Contrast a notification like “Steph Curry just tweeted: xxx” vs “Steph Curry is practicing dunks….right now. Tune in and win!”
  3. Meerkat can be extensible: While Periscope will live within Twitter, Meerkat can use all of this attention to encourage creators and audience members to create their own accounts and extend the network to other big social media sites. Imagine being able to read a LinkedIn Influencer piece while you’re browsing the site and then see your favorite business authors or self-help coaches give live training via Meerkat. Or a platform like Pinterest, imagine curators showcasing a wedding they’ve planned or a party, or showing off goods they want to sell exclusively on Meerkat.
  4. Speaking of sales, Meerkat’s nativity could lead to money: If Meerkat can figure out the right entry points to grab your attention into their native app or their web browser while you’re logged in as a Meerkat user (regardless of entry point), they can also leverage payment gateways to help facilitate transactions with the ease of a click. Imagine that Taylor Swift is practicing a new single that’s not yet polished, and for charity, she wants to sell the song for $0.99, so as a viewer you can offer to pay and the money is collected and routed to Taylor’s account. Taylor would also know which fans hang out in the room (better analytics on mobile vs multiple tabs on browsers). Hopefully, the infrastructure will support such a big network.
  5. And, speaking of infrastructure, Meerkat’s is great so far: Garry Tan has one of my favorite lines: “The best software is invisible.” So far, Meerkat just works, but to pull off high-fidelity, real-time, synchronous broadcast from one device to many requires robust infrastructure that cannot just be engineered in a month. This gives them the type of defensibility an external investor would look for and also raises the bar for Twitter/Periscope upon release. As more mobile devices come on board, it will not only strain those users devices (video bandwidth is costly in many ways), but may also require a different network architecture that a blockchain-enabled mesh could provide. The timing may be impeccable here.
  6. Mobile software is eating mobile hardware: Just a few months ago, GoPro was the talk of the town; now, our phones are GoPros, thanks to Meerkat’s timing. Will people Meerkast from comedy clubs, sports arenas, private boardrooms, and so on and so on? As there are endless possibilities for celebs and big brands to leverage this new channel, but what about individuals who can disrupt what is bread and butter to networks like CNN, ESPN, The Cooking Channel, and so on…instead of paying a toll to cable operators and studios, content creators now could have yet another layer stripped away and capture more value. There are too many examples to list here, so just pick your favorite show, guesstimate the economics, and now add more to the protagonists and you’ll start to see how Meerkat can leverage the web to trigger this transfer.
  7. The end-user watch points are also aplenty: Where will I watch my favorite Meerkasts — on my mobile devices? In the browser? As a channel or network of channels inside Netflix or Roku or Apple TV? If Twitter only offers Periscope, is there room for Meerkasts to extend and not need to rely on Twitter? You bet there is! And, what if I could watch a Meerkast via virtual reality? A sideline reporter or a network of cameras on a football field could capture the live feed, and I could view in total immersion — in real time.

And, therein lies the challenge and opportunity. The challenge is that while we’re enjoying the flurry of experimentation today, the cost of watching video (especially poorly produced grainy and unstable video) is very high to the audience. It can feel noisy or disorienting. Very few things will have real-time currency, but as more people experiment, no doubt interesting things will emerge. Also, Meerkat couldn’t’ve exploded without ambushing Twitter, and now that Twitter also has its own competitive product, has a huge incentive to bring the feature in-line and give preference to Periscope. While we have Net Neutrality now for our big pipes, the social and interest pipes on top of the web do not have their own flavor of net neutrality. Now, Meerkat will have to go through the work of building out user accounts, finding other networks to integrate with, and helping those with large and niche audiences produce this new style of media. That’s the opportunity ahead, and I’m sure the team will have enough talent and dollars chasing it to see if they can make it into a reality.

A final, personal aside about Meerkasts and blogging — nothing I do in life ever has true real-time currency, so in a Meerkat world, I’m likely to be a consumer, not a creator. In the world of text, I can create, but blogging for me is a way to structure thoughts over time — I’ve been tweeting and thinking about Meerkast for a week, and finally had a chance to write this as my daughter is napping. By contrast, I technically could’ve opened up my Meerkat and broadcast this to you all, but it wouldn’t have been as structured, and it would’ve been significantly more boring!

 

Five Years Into “SoLoMo”

In 2010, John Doerr coined the term “SoLoMo,” the combination of social , local, and mobile. Doerr, who correctly called and invested in technology’s two previous waves (personal computing and networking, and Internet 1.o like Amazon and Google), now believed SoLoMo was the next wave.

And, now in 2015, looking back, he was absolutely right, though not always in the exact ways in which he envisioned.

  • Social: For instance, it turns out our phones, phone numbers, and various messaging apps (like Snapchat, Instagram, and Whatsapp) are social but not because of Facebook or Twitter’s graph, but because of our phones being social devices themselves.
  • Local: We have spent the past five (5) years basically using mobile phones to rewrite and reinvent the local goods and services delivery model. Pick any consumer behavior which occurs which some frequency — transportation, buying food, laundry, home & office cleaning, parking cars and valets, dog boarding and dog walking, and so many others. Most people spend their money within a specific radius of their home, and with phones, entrepreneurs have built entirely new consumer brands (with Uber leading the way, of course) to reinvent local.
  • Mobile: This is the easy one, as we’re doing all of this on our phones. This was the main driver of the trend. In 2010, we all didn’t realize how much of a driver, as in 2015, it all seems obvious now.

Looking back on the creation of the acronym in 2010, which also became a bit of a joke given how it sounds, it’s pretty clear to me it was spot-on and prescient. How it all unfolded was a bit different, and it’s still happening, creating multiple billion-dollar companies almost out of thin air.

My Six Takeaways From Apple’s Watch Keynote

FullSizeRender (2)Yesterday, Apple unveiled Apple Watch. I followed along via Twitter, read some blogs, and also had a bit of an idea of what was going to be released. But then, late last night, when everyone had gone to bed, I watched the Watch portion of the keynote address by Tim Cook and Kevin Lynch, and putting on my mobile operator and product marketing hat, here’s what stuck out to me as a sentimental watch geek — I’ve saved my old watches (above) and can’t wait to get Apple Watch:

  • Patience with v1 Speeds: This is very much v1. It took a while to load, not just WiFi enabled, but for core apps which wouldn’t need to access the network. We have to remember how slow the first iPhone would feel now. The issue here is the potential mismatch in compute speed for my 6+ vs the v1 Watch. For certain things, it may “feel” slow and, as a result, I may go for my phone out of habit and a need for speed.
  • Gestures Too Deep?: I’m sure this will be fixed eventually, but I noticed it took Kevin Lynch a long time to “heart” a photo on Instagram. So many taps and swipes. Instagram is such a beautiful app, I’d rather just go to my phone. Contrast that with the face itself, just being notified about the next meeting, and those are the types of quick glances I want — I don’t want to go to deep into nested settings or interaction flows on the Watch.
  • Can’t wait for third party apps: Again, the team at Instagram can write blazing fast mobile-native software. We are going to have to experience some core apps from Cupertino and wait for the platform to iron out kinks, but when the 3rd party folks are ready, it will be a great moment. Right now, I’d love to have apps on my phone be location aware and send me pictures of faces and places around me….however, I love the friends dial on the Watch, it’s like the “favorites” in Contacts, but done in a much more intuitive, easy to access manner.
  • Status symbol, fashion, luxury: Much has been written about this, but one thought which occurred to me — with the decline of car ownership rates as the new generation comes into their own, Watch could fill that space as a status symbol, like fine-crafted jewelry, which sits on our wrist (whereas it’s polite to keep our phones away during coffee or dinner). When we wave our hands, or call for a waiter, or give a presentation — it will be right there, all different colors, different faces, out in public. “Oh, Sally has the Watch Edition, 18k gold — she must be doing really well.”
  • Siri needs to step up its game: I want to just talk into my phone and say “Uber,” and have the Uber come. I don’t want to scroll through the tiny Watch face to go 3-4 gestures deep. On my 6+, Siri is just not good. Apple needs to figure this out, I hope they do. (More on how Watch can increase lift for on-demand services, like Uber.) Watch as a passive consumption or data collection device makes sense, but as an input device,
  • The initial killer app is two-factor authentication: The biggest thing Watch pessimists and Android fans are missing is the unique ability of Apple, within its iOS ecosystem, to provide two-factor authentication for users to pay or verify identity or a check-in with a very natural gesture. People can say Apple Pay isn’t that great, credit cards work fine — but now just move your wrist past the payment terminal, the Watch communicates with your phone, and you don’t have to grab the credit card from your wallet or grab the phone. Checking into a bar, restaurant (hello, beacons?), or for your flight. When people start seeing this work while waiting in line at Starbucks or boarding their next flight, over and over again, they’ll want that interaction — and it’s an interaction which won’t be available on Android, that’s for sure, as it requires the thoughtful, patient integration of TouchID, Passbook, Apple Pay and Watch. This will be the killer use case for v1. Developers will build the next killer app, no doubt.

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