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.
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:
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:
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).
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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: