Posts from July 2016

The Golden Age Of Open Protocols

Protocols are a geeky topic. It’s way more interesting to talk about applications. People will go on and on about why they like gmail or some other email application. But not a lot of people get excited about SMTP and IMAP which are the underlying email protocols that allow the gmail application to talk to other email applications.

Open protocols are at the heart of many of the most important systems that we have. The Internet works because of TCP/IP. The web works because of HTTP. Email works because of SMTP. These are open systems that developers can build applications on top of. There are plenty of proprietary protocols out there too. But proprietary protocols tend to lock in users and drive value to the owners of the proprietary protocol, like Microsoft, Apple, Google, etc.

One of the problems we have had in tech is that there aren’t large monetary incentives to create and sustain open protocols. If they are open they cannot be easily monetized by traditional means.

However, that is changing with the emergence of blockchain technology and crypto-tokens. My partner Albert wrote an important post about this last week. Here are a couple paragraphs from that post:

Now, however, we have a new way of providing incentives for the creation of protocols and for governing their evolution. I am talking about cryptographic tokens. You can think of these like the tokens you might buy at a fair to get on a ride: different operators can have their own rides and set their own price in terms of tokens. You only need to buy tokens once (in exchange for fiat currency) and then can use them throughout the fair. With blockchains we now have a way of issuing and redeeming these tokens digitally (the underlying blockchain can be Bitcoin or Ethereum or possibly its own as in the case of Steemit).

A for profit company can now create a new protocol and create value for itself (and its investors) by retaining some of the tokens. If the protocol becomes widely used, the value of the tokens will increase. For instance, think of a decentralized storage service (a la Amazon’s S3). Anyone can implement the storage protocol in whatever language they want to as long as they meet the protocol spec. They can then get paid in the relevant storage tokens. The original creator of the protocol will make money to the extent that it is adopted and to the degree they have retained some of the tokens (so they can sell them at a higher price later on). This is not hypothetical as there are a variety of such protocols out there, including Storj, SIA and Filecoin.

This is super important because the more open protocols we have, the more open systems we will have. If Twitter had been built and monetized this way, things could have played out very differently. In the early days of Twitter, there were third party applications (Summize for Search, Tweetie for iOS client, etc). These were all built on Twitter’s API. If Twitter had imagined itself as a protocol instead of an application, these third party applications would not have had to compete with (or get bought by) Twitter. But at the time, there wasn’t an obvious way for Twitter’s founders and management team to benefit from a protocol-based business model.

In this emerging model, Twitter could have adopted a protocol-based approach and issued a crypto-token, Twokens, that users could earn from things like amassing followers, reporting abuse, etc. Twokens could also be sold by the Twitter founding team to finance their operations. Crypto-exchanges could make a market in Twokens so that anyone who wanted to speculate on the future value of the Twitter protocol could do so.

I am not criticizing Twitter for the approach they took. I was there in the early days and was completely bought into and supportive of that approach. It was the one that made the most financial sense at the time. I am also not saying or predicting that some new Twitter competitor is going to emerge using this new model. What I am saying is that we now have a new model that supports a protocol-based business model and I believe we will start to see innovative new protocols emerge that are based on this new business model. Obviously Albert believes that too and so does the rest of USV. As Albert mentions in his post, we are invested in a number of projects that are taking this approach. It’s a brave new world and we are grappling with what it means for us as investors and how we engage with and invest in this model.

But, as I have said many times here at AVC, I believe that business model innovation is more disruptive that technological innovation. Incumbents can adapt to and adopt new technological changes (web to mobile) way easier than they can adapt to and adopt new business models (selling software to free ad-supported software). So this new protocol-based business model feels like one of these “changes of venue” as my partner Brad likes to call them. And that smells like a big investable macro trend to me.

Video Of The Week: Khizr Khan’s Speech

The most moving and powerful speech I saw in the past two weeks, which have been full of speeches, was Khizr Khan’s speech on Thursday night.

Of course it was political and an attack on Donald Trump. But on this issue, religious and ethnic tolerance, Trump deserves the attack. And Khizr did it wonderfully.

Kickstarter’s Impact On The Creative Economy

Professor Ethan Mollick of The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School has been studying our portfolio company Kickstarter in his research. Late last year, he published his research on how many projects actually ship after getting funding on Kickstarter (answer is roughly 90% ultimately ship). Now he’s back with another piece of research looking at the broader impact of Kickstarter on the creative economy. We know that over $2.5bn has been raised by project creators on Kickstarter to date but what we don’t know is what has happened with all of that money.

Here are the findings from Prof Mollick’s research:

The study finds that Kickstarter projects have:

  • Employed 283,000 part-time collaborators in bringing creative projects to life.
  • Created 8,800 new companies and nonprofits, and 29,600 full-time jobs.
  • Generated more than $5.3 billion in direct economic impact for those creators and their communities.

Filmmakers, photographers, artists, authors, designers, musicians, and others reported that their project led to professional growth, greater earnings, and career advancement.

  • 37% said that their Kickstarter project helped them advance their careers.
  • 21% reported receiving an increase in annual earnings after running a successful project.
  • 19% said they found a new job opportunity as a result of their Kickstarter project.
  • 7% said their project helped them successfully switch careers.

Creators also reported meaningful professional gains within their fields:

  • Filmmakers reported that Kickstarter helped them secure distribution deals.
  • Musicians reported that Kickstarter helped them secure record or publishing deals.
  • Video game creators reported that their Kickstarter project helped them secure a publisher or attention from reviewers.
  • Authors and comic book creators reported that their Kickstarter project led to attention from mainstream publishers.
  • Journalists reported that their Kickstarter project gave them freedom from the external control of editors and publishers, and helped them create work that served an underserved audience.

I remember taking economics growing up and learning that an economy can have a multiplier effect on money. A dollar in can create multiple dollars out.

And it turns out that is the case with the Kickstarter economy. So when you back a Kickstarter project, something I do regularly including yesterday, you are helping way more people than just the project creator.

And, like most things about Kickstarter, that feels really good to me.

The AI Nexus Lab

In Matt Turck‘s recent blog post about the state of NYC’s tech sector, he wrote:

The New York data and AI community, in particular, keeps getting stronger.  Facebook’s AI department is anchored in New York by Yann LeCun, one of the fathers of deep learning.  IBM Watson’s global headquarter is in NYC. When Slack decided to ramp up its effort in data, it hired NYC-based Noah Weiss, former VP of Product at Foursquare, to head its Search Learning and Intelligence Group.   NYU has a strong Center for Data Science (also started by LeCun).  Ron Brachman, the new director of the Technion-Cornell Insititute, is an internationally recognized authority on artificial intelligence.  Columbia has a Data Science Institute. NYC has many data startups, prominent data scientists and great communities (such as our very own Data Driven NYC!).

And now NYC has our very own AI accelerator program based at NYU’s Tandon Engineering School Accelerator, called The AI Nexus Lab.

The 4 month program will immerse early stage AI companies from around the world with NYU AI resources, computing resources at the Data Future Lab, two full time technical staff members, and a student fellow for each company. Unlike a traditional accelerator, they are recruiting only 5 companies with the goal of market entry and sustainability for all 5. They won’t have a Demo Day, the program will end with a day long AI conference celebrating AI entrepreneurs, researchers, innovators and funders during which which they will announce the 5 companies. Companies will get a net $75,000 for joining the program.

If you have an early stage AI company and want to join this program, you can apply here.

The Tortoise And The Hare

One of my favorite childhood stories is Aesop’s The Tortoise And The Hare.

I just love the idea that slow and steady ultimately wins the race.

I thought about that story when I read that Pokemon Go had set a record with 75mm downloads in its first few weeks in the app stores.

Mobile games have these explosive take up rates but don’t last forever.

Contrast that with something like Minecraft which emerged slowly but seems to chug along getting more and more popular each year.

And, outside of the games sector, I can’t really think of any super popular technology product (app or device) that blasted off and sustained itself over a decade or more.

When I ran this question by my brother in law last night, he mentioned the iPhone and the iPad, but both of those were relatively slow builds, certainly compared to these mobile game launches.

We could not think of a huge product, in tech or outside of tech, that blasted off and was a sustainably popular product for a decade or more.

Can you?

Hailo and MyTaxi

The news broke this morning that our portfolio company Hailo is combining forces with MyTaxi.

The combined company, which will operate under the MyTaxi brand, will be the dominant taxi hailing app in Western Europe.

Hailo is huge in the UK and Ireland and has a strong position in Spain. MyTaxi operates in Germany, Australia, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden. So this combination is a great strategic fit and the new company will benefit from a lot of synergies.

Andrew Pinnington, the current CEO of Hailo, will become the CEO of MyTaxi and the company will consolidate its operations in Hamburg Germany. The combined company will be majority owned by Daimler.

Unlike the US, the regulated taxi business in Europe got on the ridesharing bandwagon early and it is as simple and easy to hail at taxi in Europe as it is to use Uber. If you travel to Berlin frequently, you will know that ridesharing in Berlin is all about taxis.

I can’t reveal numbers, but the combined MyTaxi/Hailo business will operate at a scale that puts it in the big leagues along with Uber and a number of other emerging winners in the ridesharing business.

This is a great outcome for Hailo and I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Andrew Pinnington for his incredible leadership at Hailo over the past 18 months. Without that, none of this would have been possible.

Start, Grow, Mature, Consolidate

The life cycle of tech companies is pretty straightforward. They start, they grow, they mature, and they consolidate.

The news that Yahoo is finally selling to Verizon and joining forces with AOL is a not in the least bit surprising and probably long overdue.

Yahoo has not been a growth business in quite a while.

Putting AOL and Yahoo together allows Verizon to cut costs and rationalize the two businesses and add scale to Verizon’s growing base of Internet assets.

But this is yesterday’s news in many ways. It is the denouement of the web 1.0 era when AOL and Yahoo were the Internet to many. They operated the training wheels that got so many of us online.

I am not saying these businesses do not matter anymore. Together they serve hundreds of millions of Internet users around the world, they produce a lot of revenue, and when structured properly, a lot of profit.

But these are not growth businesses, they are mature businesses. So it is time to extract profits, not revenue growth, and run them appropriately for what they are.

And that is what is happening with this merger that will be announced this morning.

In twenty years, the same thing will likely happen to thousands of businesses that are starting up this year.

That is the life cycle of tech businesses, shorter than many sectors, but a wild ride while it lasts. As was Yahoo.

On The Beach

I’m taking the weekend off to spend it with my entire family (parents, brothers, wives, children) on the beach.

Here are a couple podcasts that Harry Stebbings did with my partners Albert and Brad in case you want to spend some time going deep on USV this weekend

Podcast w/ Brad

Podcast w/ Albert:

Hard Forks

The crypto-currency Ethereum completed a hard fork on Wednesday. The Ethereum core developers, after getting a vote of support from the Ethereum community, hard forked Ethereum to “get back” the roughly $40mm of Ethereum that was taken in the hack of The DAO.

Hard forks are a bit of a lightning rod issue in the blockchain sector. The Bitcoin community has been debating the idea of doing a hard fork to increase the block size for well over a year. It seems that most of the Bitcoin core developers are against a hard fork and see it as risky. Bitcoin did have an accidental hard fork back in 2013, but that was dealt with quickly and confidence in the Bitcoin blockchain was restored.

I believe that hard forks are an inevitable occurrence in the blockchain sector. There have been, and will continue to be, issues that crop up that are best solved with hard forks. I do not think they will be common and I do not think they should be common. But they are an important tool in the toolset that core developers have to move these protocols forward. And so I see the successful Ethereum hard fork this week as an important milestone for public blockchains.

I like what Cornell CS Professor Emin Gün Sirer said about the Ethereum hard fork:

It’s a point of strength to be able to adapt to that change, to be able to respond to it, to be able to do it in an orderly fashion. Ethereum just demonstrated this. I think this is a rite of passage for ethereum.

In my mind, adaptability is more important than immutability.

And to some extent, that is what is now at the center of the Bitcoin vs Ethereum competition for the hearts and mind of developers. I believe the Bitcoin core developers have more or less landed on immutability and Ethereum core developers are very much into adaptability. It may be that it is useful to have two significant, liquid, and highly capitalized public blockchains, one that is immutable (think of gold) and one that is adatpable (think of the dollar).

There was a time when I was a Bitcoin absolutist. That changed a while ago and I now believe that we are going to have multiple blockchains, multiple currencies, and a ton of app tokens, some with their own blockchains, some built on top of Bitcoin or Ethereum.

It’s a very interesting time in the public blockchain sector right now. Stuff is happening. Lot’s of stuff.