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eShares

This post is self serving to some degree as USV is an investor in eShares. But in the world of VC and startups there isn’t much that is more broken than cap table management. eShares fixes that by putting the entire cap table online and allowing your company to issue new shares and options directly from the platform. It’s kind of like writing checks directly from your accounting system. Everything gets recorded and there are no missing stock certs or broken promises.

I explained this to one of our portfolio companies last fall around the time we made our investment in eShares. One of the co-founders replied via email “we don’t need that, our cap table is all in a single spreadsheet.” A month or two later, as we were doing a round of financing, when the lawyers were doing their diligence, it came out that our cap table spreadsheet was missing some shares that had been issued but not recorded. I had a good laugh at that because it is always the case that something is not recorded. A perfect cap table is very rare, unless you are using a tool like eShares.

The VCs and angel investors aren’t hurt so much by this because our investments are large and mistakes made on our shares are easily caught. Employees are the ones who have the most to gain from eShares because they are the ones whose issuances are most often missed or not properly recorded on a cap table and these mistakes can go on for a long time before being caught. This causes issues in terms of exercise price changes and tax issues for the employee.

If you are starting a company, do yourself a favor and start building your cap table day one on eShares. If you have been managing your cap table in a spreadsheet for years and are tired of doing it that way, talk to eShares. They will help you “port” your cap table to their system. That’s part of the onboarding service they provide. And then you can start issuing shares the way you’d imagine it would be done in 2015. The way most companies is doing it is circa 1900. I’m serious about that.

If you want to learn more about eShares, contact them here.

The AVC Apple Watch Survey

With the Apple Watch available via pre-order, we are starting to get some data on how it is doing. I thought I’d take this opportunity to survey the AVC community, an early adopter crowd if there ever was one, about it. Please take a minute this morning to answer five short questions about your interest and intentions for Version 1.0 of the Apple Watch.

Click here to see the early results (roughly 700 responses at 9am eastern)

On The Beach

The Gotham Gal and I have spent the winter in LA and are heading back east at the end of this coming week.

This morning I took a walk on the beach and thought about the past three months and how it has impacted the way I’m thinking about life and work.  It’s hard to do anything other than grind on what’s in front of you when you are in it. And I’m always “in it” when I’m in NYC and spending the week in the office with back to back to back to back meetings every day. It’s even worse when I fly to the Bay Area for a few days of non-stop meetings. 

So getting on the beach this winter has allowed me to clear my head and think a bit about where the VC and mobile/internet business is heading and where and how I want to engage with it.

It’s not like we took the winter off. I was in the bay area every week for at least a day and sometimes two days. But the ability to go in and out quickly provided some context for me that was helpful. 

And I worked every day, often starting at 6am or 7am because the west coast starts the day later than Europe and the east coast. I was often done by 4pm and took the opportunity to do a ton of late afternoon yoga, which I highly recommend and will try to continue when I get back east. 

But the thing that shifted for me as a result of being out of the office was I read and wrote and thought more (I’ve written more private google docs and google sheets this winter than the entire past year).

I’ve also focused more energy on our existing portfolio companies and less energy on making investments. That has been a thing for me for a while now (I’ve gone from four new deals a year to one or two a year and feeling much better as a result).

I can’t say that I’ve had any big “aha moments” but I do have even more conviction than ever that I want to be investing in what may happen in five to ten years and not commit a lot more time, energy, and money to what is happening now. 

I believe the VC business has gotten hyper efficient at spotting what is happening now and it’s really hard to get outsized returns doing that. Plus there is a lot of headfake risk in doing that and when the antes are so big, headfakes cost you dearly.

I’d rather spend the next few years at the bleeding edge and see if we can get a few things right. I think that will cost us less when we are wrong and reward us more when we are right.  

The great thing about early stage technology investing and beaches is that there’s always another wave coming and when you catch one right, it’s a thing of beauty.

PS – I wrote this post on my phone sitting on the beach. It’s a great place to write.

NYC Computer Science Opportunity Fair

This past Monday, over 1200 NYC public school students went up to Columbia University for the second annual NYC Computer Science Opportunity Fair.

In 2014, at the first event of this kind, we had about 300 students attend. The fact that the number of students who take CS classes in a NYC public school and want to attend an event like this has gone up 4x in a year is testament to the great work that a handful of non-profits in partnership with the NYC Department of Education are doing to dramatically change the availability of CS classes in middle school and high school in NYC public schools.

This school year, 2014-2015, CS classes are being taught in over 100 NYC public schools to over 10,000 students. Given that there are over 1700 schools and 1.1 million students in NYC’s school system, there is a lot more work to be done. But considering that three years ago, only a few of the elite “test” schools, were offering such programs, I think there is a lot to be excited and encouraged about.

The financial sponsors who made this event possible were Microsoft (who hosted it last year), AOL, Facebook, Two Sigma, the NYC DOE and EDC, and CSNYC.

The following companies had booths where the students could learn about technical job opportunities in NYC that will be available to them if they continue their technical education through high school and college: 

  • AOL
  • Codesters, Inc.
  • Etsy
  • Facebook
  • Floored Inc
  • Google
  • IBM
  • J.P. Morgan
  • Jozii LLC
  • Kickstarter
  • Microsoft
  • NYTimes
  • onTarget Technologies Inc
  • PhotoShelter
  • Stack AI
  • TreSensa
  • Two Sigma
  • Vidcode
  • Viridis Learning
  • Yext

The following higher education institutions had booths where the students could learn about where they can continue their technical education in college:

  • Columbia University Office of Undergraduate Admissions
  • Columbia University, Computer Science
  • CUNY- City University of New York
  • CUNY – Graduate Center
  • ITP/NYU
  • NYU Courant
  • NYU Game Center
  • NYU Poly
  • Pace University

And the following after school/weekend/summer programs had booths where the students could learn about where else they can continue their technical education: 

  • All Star Code
  • CSTUY
  • Dream it. Code it. Win it.
  • FIRST Robotics
  • Flatiron School
  • Girls Who Code
  • Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship
  • NYC Department of Youth and Community Development
  • NYC Parks and Recreation – Computer Resource Centers
  • The Flatiron School
  • The Knowledge House
  • The Makery
  • MakerState

Here are a couple of my favorite tweets I saw on Monday, from NYC’s CTO and Cornell/Technion’s Director of K-12 Education. In them you can see both their excitement for what this means for the future of NYC and the kids themselves.

and

A Note On Anonymous, Pseudonymous, Guest, and Regular Commenters

One of the best things about AVC is the engaged and active community that envelopes this blog. It has been for many years a conversation among friends and the occasional stranger. I’ve called it a bar where I get to be the bartender. The people in the community come and go. There are regulars who come every day. There are regulars who come every few days. Some come once every week or two. Some have left never to return. Some return on occasion. That’s all as it should be and quite like what goes on in the real world.

I’ve always chosen to allow people to comment using a guest login. I’ve always allowed people to comment anonymously. And I’ve always allowed people to comment using a pseudonym. I believe that allowing people to comment the way they want makes a community richer. I do not think comment identities should always be mapped to a real name and a real identity. It’s great when it is. But there are many reason why that’s not a good option for some.

We’ve managed the trolling and spam by actively moderating the comments. I did that for many years myself and in recent years I’ve been aided by AVC regulars William and Shana who swing by every day even when I’m not active to make sure a thread isn’t filling up with spam or there isn’t some sort of other bad behavior going on. Our moderation policy has been heavy to clear the spam and light on everything else. We lean in favor of giving everyone a voice even when its a tough call.

There is one thing that has evolved into a community norm that is important and I’d like to highlight today. Regular commenters use Disqus Profiles to comment here at AVC. These profiles can be pseudonyms like Fake Grimlock, abbreviations like JLM, or real names, like fredwilson. That really doesn’t matter and I think its best to have a lively mix of all of that. But the frequency of seeing the avatar next to the name in the comments breeds trust, respect, and in many cases real friendship.

If you are a drop in commenter, none of this matters. But if you want to hang out here on a regular basis, I encourage you to build a Disqus Profile, invest some time and energy into it, and participate as everyone else does. It’s how we do it around here and it is one of the many reasons this community works so well.

Can Mobile Banking Improve The Lives Of The Poor?

It feels to me like mobile banking is arriving. Whether its M-PESA in Kenya, Venmo in the US, or Bitcoin around the world, more and more people are using mobile services connected to the cloud to store and exchange money with other people and businesses.

And one of the big potential impacts of this trend is on the unbanked, those people who traditional banks won’t service.

The Verge’s Ben Popper and Bill Gates wrote a piece in The Verge this past week about the potential of mobile money to improve the lives of the poor. It’s a good read.

Bill Gates wrote this in his annual letter:

By 2030, 2 billion people who don’t have a bank account today will be storing money and making payments with their phones. And by then, mobile money providers will be offering the full range of financial services, from interest-bearing savings accounts to credit to insurance.

That’s 15 years from now, a long time for sure, but the part of that prediction that is the most important is the “don’t have a bank account today” part. That’s a huge number of people who will have the basic infrastructure in place to allow them to consume other financial services. That feels like a massive market opportunity to me. And it feels like a massive life improvement opportunity to me too. Doing well by doing good. There isn’t much better than that.

Some Thoughts On Seed Investing

We (USV) raised a new venture fund at the start of last year and started investing it in the spring of 2014. It is called USV 2014. We have made six investments in it so far and five of them are seed investments. That’s a very high ratio for USV and we do not expect that ratio to continue over the life of the fund. In fact our next investment will be a classic Series A so we are already lowering the ratio. But it is a bit of a return to form for USV as half of the initial investments in our first fund (USV 2004) were made at the seed stage.

In our core early stage funds (as opposed to our Opportunity Funds), we make initial investments at the seed, Series A, and Series B stages. In an ideal world for USV, there would be a normal distribution of these entry points with the highest percentage in the Series A stage. Over the entire history of USV, that is very much true. But on a fund by fund (or year by year basis) it varies a lot. It is mostly us reacting to the market. When the later stage rounds are too expensive on a risk/reward basis, we tend to move earlier. And when we can get good risk/reward opportunities in the Series A and Series B stages, we tend to move later. The downturn of 2008/2009, for example, led us to move a bit later in our 2008 fund because we could invest in more mature (and therefore less risky) opportunities at attractive prices.

The current market environment has pushed us to invest earlier. Some of it is that the Series A and particularly the Series B valuation environment has gotten very expensive relative to the risk as we see it. And some of it is that we are in a period of flux, where it is not entirely obvious to us where the next big things are going to happen. We have some ideas, of course, and I have been exploring them here at AVC and we have been exploring them as a team on usv.com. We think that in times of flux it is attractive to make a bunch of smaller seed investments in areas we think are going to emerge as important in a few years.

So that explains the move to seed as our primary entry point last year. I think it will continue this year but maybe moderate a bit as some of these developing markets mature and become more investable at scale.

Ok. Now that I’ve explained why I’m thinking about seed investing a lot these days, I’d like to talk about how we do seed at USV. Here are the important points:

1) We do not take a shotgun approach. We do not view seed investments as “options”. We only make a seed investment if we have as much conviction on the team and the opportunity as we would at the Series A round. We are as committed to our seed investments, both in terms of the time we spend with them and the willingness to follow-on in them. They are core investments with as much stature in our portfolio and in our firm as any other early stage investment. This is critical to understand. And it is not true of many (most??) VC firms who make seed investments.

2) We like seed investments in teams and opportunities where they have built and launched a product already. We don’t like investing in a concept or participating in a round where the uses of the capital will be to build and launch a product. This means the vast majority of seed rounds are not a fit for us. We pass on a lot of seed stage opportunities because it is “too early” for us. That is a comment on the specific opportunity however, and not seed stage investing as a whole. This confuses a lot of people. They tend not to think of USV as a seed investor when in fact we do make a lot of seeds (over 80% of last year’s investments, for example).

3) We will often lead the Series A (and sometimes Series B) in companies where we did the seed investment. We led both the Series A and Series B in Etsy and we co-led (with Spark) the Series A and Series B in Tumblr. We were seed investors in both companies. We continue to do that where it makes sense for the founders and USV. That is not a requirement or an expectation, but it does happen and I believe it is a very good thing in the right circumstances.

4) We like to participate in syndicates in our seed investments. We don’t focus too much on ownership at the seed stage. We do focus on the investors coming together around a project. We like partnering with smart angels, seed funds, and even other VCs, if the other VCs are aligned with us on how they are thinking about the particular seed investment. Our investment with Spark in the seed round at Tumblr is a good example of two VC firms partnering up at the seed round and doing a good job working together and scaling into the opportunity.

USV will never be confused with a seed fund, but we sometimes act very much like one, except that we can and will invest 20-30x our initial investment over the life of the company. That combination (a committed and active seed investor + deep pockets) is unusual. You can get one of those two a lot. But rarely both. So if you are working in an area that is interesting to USV, and if you have launched something into the market already, and if you are doing a seed round, please do reach out to us. We are in the business of making seed investments and doing a lot of it these days.

A Lens Into The Future Of Enterprise Software

I’ve been working with our portfolio company Work Market for four years now. It’s been a real learning experience for me as enterprise and SAAS has never been my long suit. We were attracted to Work Market because, as their name implies, they use a marketplace model to help enterprises get work done. Specifically, they created and are the leader in the Freelance Management System market. We like software that has a network effect built in because it is harder to commoditize. A marketplace of freelance workers inside an enterprise software application seemed to us to be exactly that. And that has been true. But along the way we’ve learned quite a few other things:

1) Mobile matters, a lot. I mentioned in my What Just Happened post that mobile is starting to really impact the enterprise software business.

At Work Market, the freelancers want to get work, accept work, and close out work on their phones. So mobile app development has become a huge part of what the Work Market engineering team has to work on. At some point, the enterprise will likely want to issue work orders on their phones too.

2) Freemium and transactional business models work in the enterprise just as well as they work in consumer. Work Market has a free tier with a transactional revenue model for enterprises that want to try the system or plan to be an occasional user.

WM pricing

We know that “freemium SAAS” works well for horizontal enterprise applications like Dropbox, Slack, Google Apps, etc and I believe we will start seeing freemium SAAS models applied to vertical applications as well. We already are.

3) Enterprise applications must also be platforms if they want to scale into the largest enterprises. Salesforce is the poster child for this trend. They have become a very powerful platform and distribution partner for SAAS applications. But every SAAS application should have APIs that allow their users to plug enterprise software together. Work Market can talk to the other large applications that enterprises use for managing talent (HR, VMS, etc) and that is a requirement for the largest deals. It will soon be a requirement for all deals.

I am seeing a bunch of new SAAS companies get started whose entire value proposition is building on the open APIs that most enterprise SAAS products have released in the past few years. If you are in finance, or HR, or marketing, or sales, you are now using a host of SAAS applications to get your job done and a big trend in the market is new applications that tie all of those together (via APIs) so that you can have a single view into your workflows. This is the “platformization” of SAAS and it is upon us.

The big takeaway for me is that all the things we have seen happen in consumer web and mobile software are happening in the enterprise and the impact of that is already being felt. I am seeing it up close at Work Market and fortunately they got started recently enough that they have been able to take advantage of all of these trends (marketplaces, mobile, cloud, freemium, platform) as they go to market and build their business. That is, among many other reasons, why we recently led a growth round to help Work Market’s new CEO, Stephen DeWitt, scale into the freelance management system market opportunity that they created a few years ago.

Video Of The Week: The Berlin Conversation

Last month, my partner Brad and I found ourselves in Berlin at the same time. We decided to do an event for entrepreneurs in Berlin with the help of the folks from Tech Open Air Berlin. We rented a space, brought in some entertainment and food, and then had an hour long conversation about technology, startups, trends, and a little bit about Germany and Berlin.

Brad and I started USV together in 2003 and we’ve worked closely together for over a decade now. We rarely (if ever) do public appearances together so this was a pretty special event for us. I think this video does a good job of showing how each of us comes at the issues from a different place but get to the same answers most of the time. It’s been a very successful partnership and I think this video shows some of why that is.

Feature Friday: The Dashboard

Our portfolio company Duolingo did something interesting this week. They launched a new product by adding a dashboard to the existing product.

For those that don’t know, Duolingo is the most popular language learning app on mobile phones (and the web) around the world.

They saw many students and teachers around the world adopting the Duolingo app as learning tool in the classroom even though Duolingo was built as a horizontal product without any specific use cases in mind. So they thought that building a version specifically designed for schools would be a good idea. And the big new feature that allowed them to do that was a dashboard for teachers. The students use the same app they’ve always used and the teachers get a tool to help them understand, manage, and react to each student’s individual progress.

This is a great example of the consumerization of vertical applications and markets. There are plenty of companies that try to sell technology into schools and school systems top down. They build all the features to support schools day one and then attempt to get schools and school systems to purchase their product.

Duolingo was shipped as a free mobile and web app that anyone can use to learn a language. Teachers and students adopted it. And then Duolingo shipped a single feature, the dashboard, that makes the service way more useful and impactful in the classroom.

Duolingo is entirely free to use, including the new Duolingo for Schools. Duolingo monetizes its business by providing certification services like Duolingo Test Center. I wrote a bit about this freemium model in education last summer. I think its a powerful model when combined with a bottoms up (consumer) go to market approach.