Posts from marketplaces

The Decentral Authority

We’ve been big fans of Reddit since it was part of the first Y Combinator class ten years ago this summer. We’ve watched closely as it emerged as a community powered mostly by its users. There was a period when the entire company was one or two developers. And yet not only did Reddit survive that period, it actually thrived during it. It is a quintessential example of the lightweight people powered app that we look for and love at USV.

The growing pains that Reddit is going through as it evolves into something more are particularly interesting to us. We’ve always wondered if a people powered community that is owned as much by its users as anyone can work as a traditional corporate entity. We’ve been through similar situations in our career (Geocities and Twitter among them) and we know how hard it is to reconcile the needs of the users, the management, and the shareholders.

I am not going to come down on the side of any of these stakeholders in this current situation. They all have very valid needs and desires and there are no easy answers to the struggle that Reddit faces. I am particularly sympathetic to the need to manage the trolling activity. Twitter also struggles with this issue. Free speech has an ugly underbelly and when you stare at it up close and personally, it makes you want to puke. And yet where do you stop on the slippery slope of deciding what is acceptable and what is not?

We have also wondered what the first killer app of the blockchain is going to be. Is it going to be personal finance (bitcoin), is it going to be peer to peer connectivity (mesh networking), or is it going to be something else?

There’s a chance that the answer to the struggle that Reddit is going through will also answer this question. It may be that there is no viable middle ground between a centrally controlled media platform and an entirely decentralized media platform. You are either going to police the site or you are going to build something that cannot be policed even if you want to.

The interesting thing about an entirely decentralized media platform is that you can have clients that choose to curate, police, and censor and clients that choose not to. Twitter, as originally architected, could have headed down this path. But for many reasons, reasons I supported to be clear, it chose not to.

But someone is going to go there. And I think it will happen soon. And I think it most likely will be built on the blockchain. There have been plenty of attempts to do this before. And none have succeeded. So why now?

Well for one, the blockchain is here and waiting for its killer app. And there are no shortage of entrepreneurs who want to build it. And platforms like Twitter, Reddit, 4Chan, and others have fed the desire to have something more but for reasons that are entirely valid are coming up empty for some.

The demand is there. The supply (technology) is there. And we’ve seen a bunch of teams working on this. I think one or more will get it right. And I think that will happen soon.

To be clear, this does not mean the end of Reddit or Twitter or any other of the current media platforms that are out there. They will likely move more and more into a centrally controlled media platform. I think that is the natural evolution of platforms that need to cater to the needs of management and shareholders. There is a good business to be had in a centrally controlled platform.

But there is also a very interesting opportunity to build a truly decentralized media platform. I am not sure it will be a good business. I am not sure it will even be a business. But it can be a very powerful community and platform. And there is a market for that. A big one I think.

La Ruche qui dit Oui!

La Ruche qui dit Oui! (the hive that says yes) is a marketplace that connects farmers to people who want farm fresh food in their kitchens and on their tables. We got to know the company last winter when my friends Simon and Toby from Mosaic introduced me to Marc-David Choukroun, one of the two founders of La Ruche. The Gotham Gal and I were in Paris and we met up with Marc-David at a Ruche on a saturday morning. We sipped coffee and talked to the farmers and customers who were stopping by to pick up their weekly supply of meat, cheese, milk, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and bread. We were smitten.

For years, USV has been on the hunt for a way to invest in the “farm to table” market sector. As you all know very well, we believe in the power of networks to solve the challenging problems of our time. And making high quality farm fresh quality food available at a reasonable price to everyone is certainly one of those challenging problems. The most affordable food is also the most mass produced and, generally, the most unhealthy food. How can we get back to a time when the food we eat is produced nearby, is high quality, and is healthy?

One way is to use the power of the network to connect farmers and consumers. And many entrepreneurs have been working on this problem over the past twenty years. We have met with most of them. Unfortunately, not many of them, until recently, met our test of a lightweight, peer to peer, capital efficient, people powered network. We call these “thin networks” and we are drawn to them as investors and as consumers.

La Ruche has been operating in France and Belgium for the past four years. Their marketplace connects farmers, consumers, and, most importantly, hosts together to form communities (Ruches or Assemblies) that come together once a week to exchange products, feedback, and friendships. These are communities in the truest sense of the word. My colleague Nick went to a Ruche in Paris last month and there was live music playing and people were hanging out enjoying the lovely spring day. A community is the thing that La Ruche’s marketplace software helps people create.

The business model is simple. Consumers order the food they want to pick up in advance and pay for it. The farmer comes to the community at the designated time, sets up next to the other farmers, and delivers his or her products in person. The farmer keeps most of the money, but the host and La Ruche split a small take rate for facilitating the transaction. It is a win/win/win. Farmers make more money selling directly, consumers get high quality products at reasonable prices, and the hosts make money for their effort to create the community, recruit the consumers, and curate the farmers. For many hosts, the income they get from creating and running these communities helps pay the bills, in the same way that selling on Etsy can help a family make a little extra money each month to make ends meet.

La Ruche has expanded to the UK, Germany, Spain, and Italy recently. The communities are known as La Ruche qui dit Oui! in France and Belgium; The Food Assembly in the UK and Germany, ¡La Colmena que dice Si! in Spain, L’alveare che dice Si! in Italy and Boeren & Buren in flemish Belgium. With its recent expansion in Europe, the network now has 100,000 active customers, 4,500 local producers, 700 communities. The company has 70 employees operating in six countries.

Over the past six months, USV has worked with Marc-David and his partner Guilhem Cheron to put together the right investor group to help La Ruche with their european expansion. La Ruche is a socially conscious mission driven organization that values farmers and communities and the needs of both as much as (or more than) the pure profit motive. In the US, they would be a B Corporation. And so they needed an investor group that was aligned on that. I am pleased and proud to say that they have succeeded in finding that investor group and USV is part of it. Our partners in this adventure are Frederic Court of Felix Capital, existing investor Rodolphe Menegaux and Xange, Eric Archambeau and Aymeric Jung of the social venture capital fund Quadia, and a few angel investors who are aligned with the company and its mission.

If you find yourself in France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Italy, or the UK in the coming months, go to La Ruche and find a Ruche or Assembly and stop by and check it out. It’s something to see. Here’s a map that will help you find one near you.

Future Friday: OpenBazaar and OB1

Yesterday our portfolio company OB1 announced a seed round led by USV, Andreessen Horowitz and William Mougayar.

From the OB1 blog post:

OpenBazaar will always be open source and MIT licensed. As a global software community, we’ve intentionally created OpenBazaar so that there are no fees required to use the network, and there is no central authority controlling trade, taking a cut, or monitoring data.

So OpenBazaar is a decentralized open source marketplace protocol that allows trade to happen between parties without a central marketplace operator and without a take rate.

There is a real question about how one can make money doing something like this. And there is a real question about how you avoid bad people doing bad things in a marketplace like this.

My partner Brad, who led this investment for USV, addressed both in this blog post on usv.com yesterday. I can’t recall an investment we wrestled with more in recent years. We love the team, we love marketplaces, we believe in emergent decentralized innovation, and we are big fans of bitcoin and the blockchain. So in the end we went with all of that and are accepting the obvious risks of supporting something like this. We are very excited to see how this all plays out.

The Freelance Economy

I was on the phone last night with Stephen DeWitt, the CEO of our portfolio company Work Market. He was talking about a specific community of people and I asked him how many of them were likely to be freelancers. He said “well the statistics say that 3 to 4 out of every ten people these days are freelancers.”

I thought that sounded high but after reading Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report, in which she says that “34 percent of the work force in the United States, 53 million people, now consider themselves independent contractors, short-term hires or other kinds of freelancers”, I think Stephen has it exactly right.

Look around you on the subway, the baseball park, the movie theater, 3 to 4 out of every ten people are freelancers. That’s a big number. And its growing pretty rapidly. Younger people are more inclined to be freelancers. Older people turn to freelancing for flexibility or economic necessity. And employers are more inclined to hire freelancers as technology makes the management and compliance requirements around freelancers easier to handle.

The biggest section of Mary’s report, some twenty or thirty slides if I recall, was on freelancers and the “on demand” economy. Technology, the Internet, mobile devices, and the communications and financial systems that have been built across all of these technologies is making freelance work easier and easier to issue and easier and easier to do.

When I got home last night for dinner, my son and his friend were checking out jobs on care.com. When I was their age, finding work was a manual process. Now you just pull out your phone, scan your feed, and get some work.

It’s a new era we are living in and the nature of work is changing and changing fast. There are tons of opportunities in and around this trend and we are invested in some of them. It’s one of the big megatrends of this century.

Rinse And Repeat

I’d like to call out a really great blog post (and talk) my colleague Nick Grossman delivered last week. He called it Venture Capital vs Community Capital, but to me its about the endless cycle of domination and disruption that plays out in the tech sector. This bit from the post rings so true to me:

So there’s the pattern: tech companies build dominant market positions, then open technologies emerge which erode the the tech companies’ lock on power (this is sometimes an organized rebellion against this corporate power, and is sometime more of a happy accident).  These open technologies then in turn become the platform upon which the next generation of venture-backed companies is built.  And so on and so on; rinse and repeat.

So, all that is to say: this is not a new thing.  And that seeing this as part of a pattern can help us understand what to make of it, and where the next opportunities could emerge.

Nick wrote the post and did the presentation for the OuiShareFest, an international gathering of folks interested in the peer economy. Nick starts out noting that the early enthusiasm for the peer economy has moderated with the understanding that a few large platforms have emerged and have come to dominate the sector.

Nick’s presentation and post, therefore, was a reaction to those emotions and a reminder that what goes around comes around eventually. That is certainly what I have observed in the thirty plus years I’ve been working in tech. Rinse and repeat. Same as it ever was.

Dronebase

A couple years ago, in early 2013, I started writing a lot about Drones. I have always thought that Drones represent the leading edge of a robotics age. There are a host of reasons for that but the main ones are that they are already being actively used in military and some commercial applications, they require less coordination with the “real world”, and they represent a 10x improvement in cost and speed over things they replace (helicopters and planes).

However, finding an investment in this sector that fits well into our investment thesis has been challenging. We’ve looked at quite a few Drone investments but until recently we have come up empty. However, last month that changed when we closed on a seed investment in Dronebase.

Dronebase is a marketplace for Drone services. This is not a consumer oriented marketplace. This is a business to business oriented marketplace. If you are in the construction industry and want to hire a Drone Service Provider to monitor or survey your job site, Dronebase is for you. If you are in the mining industry and want to hire a Drone Service Provider to measure inventory values in your stockpiles, Dronebase is for you. If you are in the real estate industry and want to hire  Drone Service Provider to create aerial imagery for your properties, Dronebase is for you.

Dronebase is standardizing pricing and quality around two basic offerings to start; aerial imagery & video and more data-driven mapping & surveying (including the relevant analysis).

Like all investments, who is doing this is as important as what they are doing. Dronebase was founded by Dan Burton, a former Marine Infantry Officer, who saw the power of Drones firsthand in his time in Iraq and Afghanistan. He came back to the states and worked in a number of interesting jobs, but never lost the fascination for and the interest in Drones. So he started Dronebase to facilitate the commercial adoption of Drones.

This is a seed investment for USV. Dronebase is operating, but only in the Los Angeles market right now. They have big expansion plans which this seed capital will help facilitate. They are looking for software engineers and sales and operations people in the Los Angeles area. If you are interested in working at Dronebase, check out their careers page and apply.

Throwback Thursday: Etsy in 2007

This video was made to celebrate Etsy’s year in 2007. That was the third year the company was in business and the second year we were invested. I think this does an incredible job of showing what the secret sauce was that made Etsy what it is.

People Plus Packages

The ability for anyone to get in their car and open up an app and get business has turned into an enormous market in the past five years. The two biggest categories are “ridesharing” (Uber, Lyft, Sidecar) and “delivery” (Postmates, Deliv, etc).

But there isn’t any reason why these two categories need to be separate. The most efficient utilization of the car and the driver’s time is to put people plus packages into the car at the same time.

And that is what our portfolio company Sidecar is announcing today. Sidecar has leveraged their shared rides technology (where two riders can share a trip and save a lot of money) to make it possible for a driver to pick up a passenger and then a package (or the other way around) and do the trip at the same time.

Sidecar is not doing the delivery piece direct to the consumer (like Postmates or UberFresh) but instead is a third party logistics provider to ecommerce companies that want to offer same day (or same hour) delivery to their customers at a price that is affordable.

Sidecar has been offering “people plus packages” in San Francisco for a while now and it has reached 10% of total ride volume. Their ecommerce partners are getting prices that are up to 80% below traditional same day delivery fees and they have cut delivery times in half. Today they are announcing that they are expanding their same day delivery service to all of their markets in the US.

Combining people plus packages is a win/win/win. Riders get even lower prices for their rides. Drivers make more money (up to 75% more in the San Francisco trial). And ecommerce companies get a less costly and faster way to get their products delivered same day (or even same hour).

Sidecar has a delivery API that allows you to integrate their driver network directly into your app so that your users can see the progress of their delivery in real time. If you are an ecommerce company that wants to leverage Sidecar’s network of drivers around the US, you can visit their Delivery page and learn more.

The innovation cycle in the “ridesharing” market is breathtaking. If you want to stay in the game you have to keep innovating and do that quickly. The result is new services, new markets, and new possibilities. And people plus packages is exactly that.

Deep Web Marketplaces

Last week Joel sent everyone at USV an email outlining his journey through and exploration of the Dark Web which ultimately resulted in a purchase of a pair of boots for his girlfriend. Jonathan replied to all with “this is the best thing I’ve read on the Internet this year” to which I replied “except it isn’t on the Internet. it should be”.

Joel got around to posting it to the Internet earlier this week. It is here.

If you haven’t used Tor, if you haven’t bought stuff from these anonymous marketplaces, if you haven’t laundered your bitcoin, if you haven’t arranged for an untraceable shipment, you might want to read how all of this goes down on the Dark Web.

As my partner Brad explained in a follow up post on the topic of the week thread on usv.com, we were so fascinated by Joel’s exploration of these Dark Web marketplaces because it feels like a trip into the future in some ways. Brad said:

The really interesting thing about Joel’s analysis is what it tells us about the future of open, transparent and legal markets on the Internet.

and

All this leaves me wondering not so much if the world will move toward decentralized, and disaggregated marketplaces, but when and why. Because the activities on the dark web are largely illegal, there is no other choice. For the rest of us, we are still generally willing to depend on a centralized platform for discovery, and identity management. For the moment, we are also still willing to accept the fees, the terms of service, and the bundling, these platforms enforce. My guess is the models pioneered on the dark web will come into the light first as leaner more efficient competitors to the first generation of peer economy companies, but the question I am still struggling with is where to look. Are there legal markets where the value of a decentralized market is greater so this transition will happen sooner, or will it happen first in any market where a first generation peer economy company goes too far by economically and politically disenfranchising the value creators at the edge of their network?

This conversation gives me some small desire to go on a shopping spree myself because its easier for me to understand something with my hands than my eyes. If and when I do, I’ll report back here, as always.