Posts from mobile

The Mobile Phone Addiction

A year or two ago, the Gotham Gal and I were at dinner and were seated next to a young couple. It wasn’t clear if the young couple were on a date, or they were in a relationship, or they were married. We didn’t ask. But they were on their phones for the entire dinner. They did not talk to each other much, if at all. That scene bothers me. I see it all the time in one way or another.

My mobile phone addiction has waned over the years. The worst was the early Blackberry years of the late 90s. I couldn’t keep my Blackberry in my pocket. It was not good. I learned over time how to manage the addiction and by the time the smartphone arrived, I had largely conquered that urge to pull the phone out to distract, disengage, and go somewhere else. I still do it, but I am aware of the urge, and resist it constantly.

Last weekend, we arrived at a restaurant early for a dinner with a friend. The place was packed and the area around the bar was jammed. They asked us to wait at the bar until our table was free and our friend arrived. We were getting pushed and bumped into. Waiters and waitresses were constantly asking to get through. It was not pleasant. We couldn’t even get to the bar to order a drink. I felt this powerful urge to pull out my phone and distract myself from all of that craziness. But I decided to keep my phone in my pocket and just stand there and be present in the chaos. So that’s what I did. But that urge to pull out the phone was powerful. It’s a drug like any other drug.

I see my kids and their generation struggle with this addiction. When a text comes in, they can’t ignore it. They have to grab the phone and see who it is. And as the conversation goes on, they can’t put the phone down even if there are people in the room they can easily converse with. And it is not just the generation that grew up with a phone in their pocket. It is all of us.

The worst of it is in the car. Texting and driving is a scourge. We must find a solution to that. Maybe its a societal movement, like the way we have approached drunk driving. Or maybe its a technological solution. I’ve written about that before.

Having a powerful computer in our pocket that is connected to billions of computers in other pockets in real time is the reality of our time. And it is a drug. And we are all addicted to it in some ways. Being aware of the addiction and working on controlling it has helped me a lot over the years and I encourage everyone to work on it. You can either control it or it will control you.

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.

Hiring Mobile Engineers vs Training Engineers On Mobile

We have watched many of our large “web first” portfolio companies struggle to make the change from web first to mobile first. By now, most of them (but not all of them) have made the transition. And it is not an easy transition.

Most of them built up “mobile teams” that are made up of mobile product managers, mobile engineers, and mobile designers. These teams are tasked with designing and building mobile apps to compliment the web apps that made these companies successful. This can and does work, but it is suboptimal for a whole host of reasons.

Some of those reasons are:

1) mobile engineers, designers, and product managers are in short supply and are very expensive. on the engineering side, an iOS or Android specialist could cost as much as 1.5x to 2x what a web specialist costs.

2) the web and mobile apps are not two separate things. they are a continuum of user experience from web to mobile or mobile to web, and back. having two entirely different teams building these two applications can cause all sorts of problems.

3) many things need to be rolled out on web and mobile at the same time. localization is a good example of this. so is a new payments system.

The other approach is to train your product, engineering, and design teams in mobile so that your web specialists can become mobile specialists too. This fits nicely into the notion of a “full stack engineer” who can do it all when necessary.

Several of our “web first” portfolio companies have invested in this model with great results. This is not something that you can do overnight. It takes time. So its not a great solution for a raw startup, but there are examples of very young USV portfolio companies where one or two of the leading engineers on the team picked up iOS and Android development skills quickly and led the mobile development efforts.

The thing of it is that a great engineer can learn any new environment or any new language if you give him or her the time and place to do it. The same is true of a great designer and a great product manager.

Mobile requires new skills and new ways of thinking. Mobile is different. But it also can be learned if you make the right investment in your people and partner with the right training partners.

In a board meeting of one of our most successful “web first” companies last week, we learned that they no longer have a mobile engineering team or a mobile product team. All the engineering and product teams do mobile and web at the same time in the same team. They still have some small teams that work on mobile growth and other specific issues that are unique to mobile. But most of the product, design, and engineering work on mobile happens in the same teams that do the web work. They have fully absorbed mobile into the way they plan, design, and make things. That was a watershed moment for me and led to this post.

This all comes back to the question of hire from outside vs invest in your people. Of course you have to do both if you are growing quickly. But as Jerry Colonna told me many years ago now, the companies that invest in their people are the best companies to work for and to invest in. So when you are thinking about how to do something new, don’t always look outside for new blood. Think about getting your best people to learn some new tricks. It can work and it does work.

Another Tweetstorm Rant

I got fed up yesterday with seeing this on my phone all the time

facebook notification

That red notification next to the Facebook app is basically permanent because it is about messages that I need to download FB messenger to receive and clear the notification. I love notifications, they are the primary way I navigate my phone, and I am just a little bit OCD about clearing them. But I don’t use FB messenger. I use iMessage with my family, Kik with USV folks and a few others, and SMS via iMessage for the rest. So I’ve avoided downloading FB Messenger because I don’t need yet another messenger on my phone.

Yesterday afternoon I ran out of patience after seeing a new notification, clicking on it, only to find it was yet again a prompt to download FB Messenger. I decided to rant a little bit on Twitter and fired off the following tweetstorm:

ts #1TS #2TS #3

I am a big fan of the “constellation” approach to mobile apps. Google does it well. Dropbox does it well. Facebook does it well. I think its a trend that will continue because less is more in the mobile app user experience and app developers and the mobile operating systems are making it easier to seamlessly move from app to app, like what happens on the web already.

But there is a bridge too far and I think using mobile notifications to force someone to download an app they really don’t want, just to clear the damn notification, is exactly that.

I’m hoping users and developers reject this approach. I’m afraid they won’t because it has worked so well for Facebook.

Homescreen.is

If you want to see what mobile apps are the most popular, you can do a number of things.

You can look at the mobile apps that have the most downloads by checking out the leaderboards in the iOS and Android app stores. They will differ from country to country. You can use a service like AppAnnie to help you do this kind of work.

You can try to figure out what apps have the most MAUs and DAUs. That is a lot harder. There are some services out there that attempt to do that. comScore’s Mobile Metrix will give you that data. It’s a paid service so not everyone can afford it. Full disclosure, I used to be on comScore’s board and still own stock in the company.

Another interesting metric is homescreen real estate. Being on a user’s homescreen will tell you something about the loyalty the user has to the app and it is most likely correlated to MAUs and DAUs (why would you have an app on your homescreen that you don’t use regularly?).

I’ve been pretty obsessed with homescreen real estate and have posted my homescreen here on AVC a number of times. My homescreen moves around a lot, particularly when I’m traveling and need certain apps more than others. For example, the Delta and Uber apps are on my homescreen while I’m in europe because I’m using both frequently while I’m over here.

My friend John Borthwick is also obsessed about homescreen real estate and he and his colleagues at Betaworks have built a service to aggregate homescreens and then create a data service around them. The service is called homescreen.is and it’s pretty simple. If you have an iPhone, you download the app, you take a screenshot of your homescreen, and you upload it to homescreen.is via the mobile app.

Each user has a profile on the site with their current homescreen on it. Here is mine. There is a leaderboard, of course, which is here. And you can see some interesting things, like the top homescreen apps of people who follow someone on Twitter. Here’s that data for me. It turns out the top homescreen apps of my followers on Twitter is not much different from the top homescreen apps for all homescreen users.

Right now, this data is heavily skewed to the geek/tech insider crowd. You can see that in the data. 1Password, Pocket, and Overcast are top apps on Homescreen.is. They are not top 100 apps, maybe not even top 250 apps. But they are very popular in the same crowd that is using Homescreen right now.

Can Homescreen go viral and get mass adoption such that its data will be more mainstream? Maybe. Sharing homescreens seems like something everyone would want to do. Making Homescreen.is fun, engaging, and viral seems like the thing they need to do to get the app on everyone’s phones. An android version would be good too.

In the long run, Homescreen.is could be a great tool for discovery. The mobile app ecosystem could use some help with that.

Veniam

I’ve been talking a lot and writing a lot about mesh networking. I think it has the potential to wrest control of the last mile of the wired and wireless internet from the carriers who mostly control it around the world. Peter Kafka noticed yesterday that we had finally put those words to work with a mesh networking investment:

We made this investment, in a neat company called Veniam that comes out of Porto Portugal, some time earlier this year but they finally got around to announcing it yesterday.

My partner Brad talked about it in a short post on usv.com yesterday. And our partner in the investment Om Malik talked about it here.

I had breakfast with Om in NYC earlier this year and told him about Veniam. Those breakfasts do pay dividends eventually. This is how Om describes that breakfast and what came of it:

Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson introduced me to João after a long, spirited discussion about network neutrality, new models of networks, and policies that will influence the future of the internet. As we walked back to our office (aka my favorite cafe), he said, “You should talk to this guy in Portugal that my partner Brad [Burnham] has been in touch with. He has some interesting ideas.” An email introduction with João followed, and we were soon talking to each other via Skype. He quickly came to San Francisco, and we met for coffee on the weekend and then again the next day. João likes to talk: It is his super power. And here we are.

So enough about all of that. What does Veniam do? They make a “stack” of wireless technology that lets moving objects (think buses, garbage trucks, cars, vans, etc) carry a wifi access point/router and mesh with each other and anyone else who wants to join the network. With enough density, buses driving around your city can provision a wireless mesh that anyone can use on their smartphone when they are out and about. It’s a big vision and will take a lot of work (and luck) to realize, but this or something like it is eventually going to work and we are going to have a better way to access the internet on our phones than we have today.

Here’s a video of Veniam’s technology in action in Porto. I suspect you will want this in your city too. I certainly do.

Values and Culture

If the Uber mess over the past few days tells us anything, it is that values and culture matter more than anything. They seep into the product, the user experience, the brand, and ultimately define the company in the market. And all of this comes from the top.

It is absolutely true that when you hit the bigtime, which Uber most certainly has, the media will take it to you with a vengeance. I still cringe when I think about Jessi Hempel’s Fortune cover story about Twitter in 2011. They build you up and then they bring you down. That’s the media game. You have to expect it. And right now is Uber’s turn to get the takedown.

But Uber makes it so damn easy. The win at all cost approach is so deeply ingrained in the culture that they take that attitude with the media as well. And that’s not a winning strategy with journalists. I prefer the “turn the other cheek” approach when it’s my turn to get savaged. You just have to take the heat and move on. Fighting back will get you nowhere but a world of hurt.

USV has investments in not one, but two Uber competitors. So I’m not the least bit objective here. But I’ve watched this company closely for a long time now and what I see is ruthless execution combined with total arrogance. I am in awe of what they have done. It is about the best execution I’ve witnessed in a long long time. But I am not in awe of how they conduct themselves. And I wonder if the two are connected at the hip. Can they lose the swagger without losing the execution? I guess we will see. That is the $100bn question.

Feature Friday: Phone Number Parsing

So it’s been about four weeks since I switched from a Nexus5 to an iPhone6. It’s going ok. I feel like someone who has spoken english their entire life and finds themselves living in a city where everyone speaks spanish. I can function but everything seems a bit off for me.

But there is one thing that is driving me crazy. On an Android, whenever I come across a phone number, in an email, a calendar event, a website, whatever, it’s clickable and I don’t need to cut and paste it into my phone app. On iOS it is almost always the case that when I come across a phone number, it is not clickable and I need to cut and paste it and I also find cutting and pasting much harder on an iPhone. The latter might well be “spanish vs english” but I am pretty sure the former is not.

I’m hoping that all of you iOS users out there can help me. I’m open to suggestions except that I can’t move from gmail to the native iOS mail app. I am totally reliant on gmail’s priority inbox feature and can’t operate without that. I would be happy to move my calendar from the native iOS calendar app to something that supports phone number parsing better.

Podcasting

NY Magazine has a piece up on podcasting. I think this is the money line in the post:

Connected cars are a boon for the entire streaming audio industry, but they’re especially exciting for podcast makers, whose shows are perfectly suited to in-car listening. Just as TV watchers can now choose Netflix or Amazon streams over surfing channels, radio listeners will soon have a bevy of on-demand options at their disposal.

As is often the case, a simple little thing turns out to be the big thing. That little thing is that almost every car that has been sold in the past five years has had bluetooth connectivity to the car audio system. These days your phone is connected wirelessly to your car the minute you open the door and get in it. That’s a powerful thing. The phone has become the portal to the car audio system. And so if you can get podcasts on your phone, which is trivial these days, you can listen to them on the way to work or your way home.

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It is also true that the quality of podcasting content has massively improved in the past five years. Back in 2005 and 2006, our family used to do a podcast called Positively 10th Street. It was a fun experiment but we were pretty terrible at the podcasting thing and dropped it after a year or so. All of the episodes seem to have vanished from the Internet which is shocking to me but probably a happy fact for my kids.

As the NY Mag piece explains, many public radio veterans have started podcasts and they are, as you would expect, very good. And you have things like the A16Z podcast and Spark’s Hallway Chats to listen to if you are tech or startup person and want to listen to tech/startup stuff on the way to work. The trending audio page on SoundCloud shows the most popular talk content on SoundCloud. The diversity of subject matter and styles is really extraordinary.

And there are also a host of podcasting clients for mobile phones that have come to market recently. Stitcher, Overcast, and Instacast are three popular ones. I mostly just listen on SoundCloud but if you want to have a single client that can aggregate RSS feeds as well as SoundCloud and other audio hosts, the mobile phone client is the way to go.

The only thing we need now is for Howard Stern to leave the airwaves and move to podcasting. Then podcasting would take over the world of talk radio. It seems inevitable.