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.
Back in 2014, Pascal, another early-stage SF investor who invests in companies at the intersection of local and mobile, introduced me to a kid from Mississippi who is now in the Bay Area starting his company. I searched my email and it turned out Jacob from Exitround (a portfolio company) also tried to make this connection a long time ago, but for whatever reason, we never synched up. The kid’s name: Keith. His company: podcasting.
I get so many pitches around podcasting. It’s hard because it’s just not an area I want to invest in, so I figured some polite way to not engage further. But, then, something interesting happened — I asked Keith about how he started on this, and his answer begin with something to the effect of: “I’ve been doing this since I was 12 years old…”
Oh, really? I rarely hear that, so I listened more (see the pic here, from 1999). Turns out Keith is a huge, huge mega-fan of the Buffalo Bills, so huge that he started building and managing fan sites for the team back when he was 12, living in Mississippi. Since then, Keith went to school, was a producer with Sirius Radio, and during that time, had a novel idea for a product: An app which played fan-oriented podcasts for college sports teams.
To get his idea going, Keith and his team figured out something clever: In many cities where college football was big, VSporto discovered, vetted, and created a monetary incentive for superfans of the local college teams to create a podcast around the team. VSporto aggregates these, pays out CPMs, and builds micro-apps for mobile devices that just focus on a particular school. In this on-demand economy, people are changing jobs and careers quickly. For VSporto, they’ve noticed that people quit their basic day jobs to pursue their interests and talents for podcasting and creating media around the subject they love.
Say you went to Florida State University — VSporto would have ~15 podcasters (or more) who create content, and the app broadcasts those streams through the week leading up to the game. Additionally, one might think the football season lasts a few weeks, but in many of these towns, it’s a full-time job just being a fan.
Check out Vsporto here. To date, they have ten (10) team apps and engagement time for MAUs could be from 47-93 minutes. The average listener goes through two podcasts per day, and nearly 1 out of 5 users will also download the app of the opponent their team is playing; many of their apps have been ranked quite high in the Sports category, which is notable for such a seemingly niche app. The engagement is so deep that the team visited a specific college campus for a football game and hosted a viewing party: Over 200 people showed up. As VSporto commissions content, the company also holds the licensing rights to the media, such as being able to license the content out to various radio stations.
This startup broke a lot of rules for me. I don’t want to invest in podcasting, but they figured out a medium not many others would stick with; and I don’t like to invest often in pure mobile apps because the distribution is choked. When I heard this, I sort of took the meeting as a courtesy, but a few minutes, that’s when it hit me that this is exactly why I don’t like to answer those “What are you looking for?” questions often posed to investors. If I knew what to expect, I would go and try to build it. In this case, I had to have enough patterns around podcasting and Apple’s iOS to make a decision about whether to get involved. I would have never thought of combining commissioned content with an array of scattered apps that all meet on the backend.
It’s early days for VSporto, but I never worry about Keith and the team. They are the only team I know who would have the passion to pursue this idea of building and stitching together niche markets. It is my privilege to support them, to have introduced them to other investors, and to have opened their round on AngelList. In terms of relaying a story about a founder and an a unique approach, it’s probably one of my favorite stories to show and tell.
It’s common practice among investors (and LPs) to “share decks.” In a world where all the action is in the private markets and where deal flow is never ending, scanning a deck shared and received via email is the quickest way to make a first impression and make a subconscious decision to invest more time in the opportunity itself. To be clear for this post, once bigger institutions start getting involved, having a set of slide decks (one to be emailed, one to present with) is critical, though as the market is pushing me to invest earlier and earlier, I’ve made some of my recent very early-investments either with an unpolished deck or no deck at all. And, it all got me thinking — at the very earliest of stages, does a deck even matter?
A number of people who I respect and who have way more experience than I do commented that decks are critical as a test to see how a founder can distill and communicate succinctly. It’s a critical form of business communications. No argument from me — though in the very early stages, what if the product isn’t well defined yet? What if the team is still forming? What if there’s data but it’s paltry? What if the product or service requires a behavior change or new market to form?
When I’ve met these most recent founders, they were working on a product or service, trying to design their model, and I saw something big in the mess of each early-stage company. In some cases, I went in and offered up my point of view of how it could be explained, especially to an investor audience. I don’t believe people starting these new companies spend too much time trying to fit their creation into a few slides or model — in fact, the opposite can be a negative signal, an overly polished slide in the early-stages can oftentimes reek. And, sometimes people creating this stuff don’t fully grasp what they could potentially have — which is why I get interested and involved early.
So, yes, eventually, you’ll need a deck. No argument there. But in the very early stages, other things can go a long way. People using and talking about your product on blogs and Twitter; or people talking about your service in the press (organically); or simply speaking to investors who can offer their own POV on how they conceive of your model after a phone or f2f conversation. Here, a short 3-5 slide investment deck may be worthwhile, just listing team, product, and vision — as a vehicle to get the call or get the meeting. Like Charles, I find the live conversation to be the most revealing.
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.
In this post, I will talk about the presence of women on stage at venture capital (VC) events or as part of digital media. In the past, I created and produced about 75 short TV interviews on TechCrunch TV from about 2012-13, and after that show was cancelled, created and produced interviews with eight (8) VCs which spanned 12 episodes in total. Last year, I helped organize the Post-Seed Conference in SF (Dec ’14), and this year, as a friend, I helped StrictlyVC design and launch the “StrictlyVC Insider Series,” for which there has been an inaugural event and one coming up in May ’15.
Every now and then, someone will inquire about why there aren’t more women involved in these events or on digital media. Sometimes, these inquiries start as accusations rather than trying to open up a conversation with me, so in this post, I will do my best to detail some things I believe everyone should know and discuss openly:
TechCrunch TV: From 2012-13, while I was an official contributor to the publication, I created and helped produce a weekly TV show which included all founders and investors and one journalist (who happens to cover VC). Out of the 75 guests, there were only three female guests, but I certainly did ask many visible women to be on the show, and for whatever reason, they either declined or didn’t return my email. Looking back, I could have pushed it more as an issue, but I wasn’t consciously trying to achieve gender balance on the show.
Sunday Conversations: After the TechCrunch TV show was cancelled, I had a friend who kindly offered to sponsor all the video, editing, and production o the interviews, and for my first interview, I chose the guest who was slated to be on TechCrunch TV as that show was put to bed. After that, I chose a small handful of VC general partners and, in early 2014, decided to not continue them past 2014. I have since stopped, and the last four (4) were all of Keith Rabois. I extended the series with Rabois because of the overwhelming response from the audience who wanted more. I did not ask any VC women general partners to be on the show because almost as soon as it started, it was over.
[Today, I posted the audio and video from Sunday Conversations, and it triggered a conversation on Twitter. You can click here to open up the thread. As I mentioned, as soon as I started the show I basically made a decision to shut it down as my friend was producing the video out of his pocket. So, yes, there were no women out of these eight (8) guests, and had I continued the show, I would most certainly have tried again to bring women GPs on the show. I was surprised to learn some people didn’t believe that I had asked female guests in the past with TCTV, so all I can do is state here that I most certainly did. Many times.]
The Post-Seed Conference: In the organization of this conference, the organizing committee (which comprised of a woman entrepreneur) actively discussed this issue, and we all independently sent requests for speaking to a number of people; in my case, those requests were mostly not returned on email. Did I send an email to every single general partner at a VC firm? No, but I definitely spent time thinking about it and inviting people to speak, and it’s important for me that people know that. I recognize what people see is what they see, so I’m sharing a bit more about what went on behind the scenes. Right before the event, a female friend emailed me the note below, which triggered a conversation. I tried to explain that we did absolutely consider it and sent out invites, but they were not returned:
“Hey! Would love to attend. I have to be honest though, I was shocked guys who I really respect like you and (redacted) would be cool with an event that has only 2 women speaking, both journalists it looks like? There are so many great female investors, I know women can be harder to come by and get to say yes but I can think of 20 women who are in sf and would be great, at least 5 of whom would say yes even on this short notice. Is there room to add more speakers on the panels? An investing conference that ends 2014 with no women investors feels like a step backwards :(“
The StrictlyVC Insider Series: This was started by and is run by Connie Loizos. She is a friend, and I offered to help her organize a small handful of speaking events for her brand and newsletter this year. I will bring it up as a topic of discussion for one of the events.
Ultimately, now in 2015, I have my own blog, and I help out a little with StrictlyVC. I do not engage in organizing any other media or events, so it’s important people recognize this — just this blog and maybe 2-3 events with StrictlyVC. I will do my best to get more women in venture involved. People will see what they want to see, but it’s critical people know that many people do not respond to requests to appear at an event or on media. I’m sure there are many good reasons. Maybe they don’t want the scrutiny at work; maybe they don’t want to be part of a quota; maybe they don’t want to talk about this topic specifically, which would invariably come up; maybe they get too many requests because they’re visible and people are trying to get them on stage more. I could go on and on.
I do not recruit people into general partnerships, so this is a small way for me to bring the issue into the light, though of course, there are other inescapable facts about diversity in venture capital which I don’t have control over. I can think of one thing to do where I’m in total control of what is produced — on my blog — and I will email a bunch of female VCs to see if they’ll share their thoughts on email so I can reproduce them here in a compendium. I hope they respond, but I understand if they don’t want to, as well. (If someone has an email list of women VCs, could you please send that to me or post it here? Thank you.)
There’a a lot of bubble talk again. I’m so confused now I don’t know what to make of it. Here’s what I do know: This is a big up market. There’s a lot of money in the angel and seed and crowdfunding markets. Depending on what stats you believe, the number of microVC funds with $50M or less has exploded in the last few years. And, we have all read that there’s more money moving into the late-stage private markets, with institutions like hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds, and all sorts of people clamoring to get a piece in the next Airbnb — including Airbnb.
Yet, on the other hand, we are living in a time of (1) technology proliferating into the real world and (2) the simultaneous development of groundbreaking platforms….we all know this, but consider that mobile phones are making the largest market the world has ever seen; or that Uber, Snapchat, and Apple’s iOS ecosystem and mobile efforts are pushing technology out into the real world, all around the Earth; and that besides mobile computing spreading with better and fancier sensors, we have drones (an estimated $100B market over the next 8-10 years); innovation in financial technology and automation, like the Blockchain, which despite the ups and downs, could be incredibly disruptive; we have crowdfunding across a number of verticals. I could go on and on.
I personally tend to agree w/ Albert’s assessment, here. I’ll quote his closing paragraph:
Because [this period of private growth] is happening gradually and because the logic looks internally consistent (and add to that the low interest rates), this could continue to go on for quite some time. This strikes me as the classic case of Nassim Taleb‘s point about fat tailed distributions where it is the higher order moments (kurtosis) that really matter. So the process looks very smooth and gradual for quite some time until there is a sudden and fairly violent swing.
All this said, we are all analyzing what we know. What about the unknowns. What about an exogenous shock to the system, even if the system is resilient? I know we cannot predict that, but it is a part of life, and any analysis should also include those potentially known unknowns the exogenous shocks:
Geopolitical, general unrest could foment in parts of the world as it has for the past 4-5 years. To date, the U.S. has been isolated from this.
Macroeconomic, like how the price of oil just dropped. People say “the macro” doesn’t affect technology innovation, and that is true, but it does affect capital markets, and that could have an impact on crowdfunding, smaller funds, and IPO markets.
Natural Disasters, a calamity on the scale of Sendai/Fukushimia (let’s hope not) on the west coast would rattle business as usual.
Adjacent Bubbles, such as student loan debt could mount and cause instability in other financial institutions.
Shifts In Power, as in what we will have next summer in America, leading into the 2016 election.
Loss of Public Market Confidence,Albert commented back on Twitter that it could also be a few public companies which slow growth and perhaps even stall that triggers this, so we have another possibility.
The phrase “consumerization of the enterprise” feels a bit tired, but certainly has merit as it applies to consumer design and strategies to infiltrate larger organizations. Lately, I’ve noticed something taking afoot with entrepreneurs, especially those who are building local, mobile service offerings — they’re offering their customers a new service (like ClassPass) but slapping on a subscription model at the end. No more piecemeal transactions. This has been on my mind for a few days, and finally had the time think through why this is happening:
Investors are tired of piecemeal transactions: I could rattle off 10s and 10s of consumer startups which were either p2p or some distributed model where the company had to grind out transactions (usually for physical goods), and things went ok for a while and then just tapped out and flattened. Unless there’s one transaction a week (at minimum), ideally looking for 2-3 per day (hence, food) it seems investors would rather back models like Spotify where the consumer feels he/she cannot live without the service and charge on a monthly basis.
Subscriptions enable bundling: Every businessperson loves a good excuse to bundle. If done correctly, the consumer pays extra for they actually use, even though they have the right to use more. Startups can then also tweak the pricing and tiers to offer specific bundles and create even more options around how to segment customers, thereby (theoretically) extracting the most revenue from them.
Consumers demonstrating a willingness to subscribe: And, maybe investors are pushing this a bit, but well, consumers are responding. Look at ClassPass, growing like a weed and not even yet two years old. Rather then offering freemium models, these startups are just going right for the monthly or annual subscription. Maybe it’s that these early services are focused on cities and customers with disposable incomes. That is certainly a factor for why it’s being adopted. (For instance, I pay a monthly fee to Gmail, Dropbox, Boomerang, Sanebox, HelloSign, Spotify, Netflix, etc….I now wonder if any individual transaction that I make is on the table for a “subscription bundle.”
Consumers also willing to pay more for convenience of subscription: My theory is that having the subscription, even if it may cost a bit more, reducing the cognitive load for customers to not be burdened with each transaction piling up. It removes that disincentive and in turn creates loyalty to the service.
Subscriptions fit nicely with services versus most physical goods: I have been forced to try some physical products on a subscription. I get why they do it, I’m sympathetic to that. But, I rarely end up needing it. As a service, though, it’s easier to subscribe and know that I could use a service once in a month, or maybe 5x that month. It’s nice to not have to think about that.
“Consumerization of the Enterprise” is one of those phrases that now feels old, in part because it was used so much without real examples. That was then, and this is now — we are now starting to see enterprises adopt design-oriented products like Slack and Zenefits, to name a few. Looking back now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that products designed with principles to suit everyday consumers are preferred by workers at larger companies.
This got me thinking — what about other prevalent consumer business models today? Could concepts like “on-demand services” or “collaborative consumption” take root inside older, larger, perhaps stodgier, less sexy industries? I wrote about this with respect to on-demand services here. While I didn’t find many on-demand services with consumers as the end customer (except for Boomtown), I did start to see some interesting companies in the sharing economy, but now applies to other industries, specifically related to industrial equipment.
Growing up studying economics, textbooks beat into your head that western economies were stronger in part because they were fueled by consumption. Buying things drove GDP, and that had a strong, trickle down effect. Then, 2001 and 2008 happened, and went the tide went out, the people (and industries) who were naked had to scramble to find new places to eek out efficiency and lower their own operational and capital costs. We’ve seen what’s happened to consumer markets, with the success of companies like Airbnb (full list of “sharing economy” companies on AngelList) — so, can larger industries benefit from the trend?
What I found out is: Yes. The first company I found is Cohealo, based out of Boston. When I found them and finally met them, they’d already well passed me by as an early-stage investor, and they’re well on their way to the big time, helping hospital networks share their high-end equipment which requires high, upfront capital expenditures but often just sits around waiting to be used. Cohealo found the white space between centers which own these and those which need them, and now the sky’s the limit for them.
The next two companies I found, I invested in them. The first is Asseta, which provides an aftermarket for industrial parts for semiconductor companies, a capital-intensive business which Asseta helps provide more financial efficiency.
And the second company I found was Getable. There’s a fun story behind it. I had been tweeting about this subject after posting about it, and Kevin from Getable jumped into the conversation. I knew construction, like medical equipment, was a huge industry ($40B+ industry), big enough for a concept like sharing to pervade. It took a while for Kevin and I too schedule our meeting to talk more about this, and I had no idea how they were doing as a company. Finally, Kevin called me to apologize he had to cancel a meeting because they were just about to close a round — and, the light went off in my head.
“Can I invest, too?”
Kevin was busy as a co-founder dealing with the round, but he took my request seriously, checked out my references, and after a few weeks, managed to make a bit of room for me in the latest Series A round that was announced in February. I had a bit of time to really dig into the Getable’s metrics, which now already services more than 50 construction companies across 250+ job sites, process over $3M in construction rentals (saving on average over 20% for companies), and also driving over $20k in sales to suppliers who join the Getable network.
I am grateful to Kevin for taking my call during a stressful time and taking the time to read my posts on the matter. In return, I am now allowed to invest alongside a great syndicate which led Getable’s Series A as the company marches further into a massive industry ripe for new technologies and new business models. Finally, it’s worth noting I wouldn’t have arrived at Getable if I didn’t see the concepts take root among consumers and then, write about them here on my blog. The writing helps reinforce what I see taking place, and then helps me connect with new friends like Kevin, and those connections lead to things that I couldn’t have planned with any grand strategy. That feels good.
Disclaimer: This list is not likely complete nor precise. Please read on: A few weeks ago, I looked at U.S. consumer unicorns and scraped public databases (imperfect sources) to find which institutional investors got into companies that would eventually turn out to be worth over $1 billion. Specifically, I looked back to 2008 and tried to find funds which invested when the company was valued at or under $100m. These are just arbitrary parameters.
Now, I’ve done it for enterprise/B2B companies in tech which have started in 2005 or after in the U.S. Note, there are more of them, but the total enterprise value of these companies added up would still be dwarfed by what has happened in consumer services. Again, please note the data isn’t 100% precise, so if you see an error or omission, please just tell me and I’ll fix it. Also, some of these companies have ballooned above $1b (like WeWork), so while the pre-$100m rule doesn’t apply exactly to that company, I kept it the same here — I don’t know IRR but safe to say some of these firms have outsized returns on just one investment, so congrats to all who made the list.
Mention frequency > 1 are: SV Angel (7); Sequoia (5); Lightspeed (3); Greylock (5); Accel (3); Khosla Ventures (3); Kleiner Perkins (2), Blumberg (2); Benchmark (2); First Round (2); a16z (2); Felicis (2). Note, also, that many YC companies focused on B2B like Zenefits and Optimizely on their way to the billion dollar mark, so if you have suggestions there for a “too watch out for list,” I’ll update this. And, as they say, once is lucky (but still awesome), two is good, and three a pattern.