Posts from Uncategorized

What Will Make Solar Take Off?

Our house in LA where we spent two and a half months this past winter has a solar panel on its roof. That panel generates enough electricity to heat and cool the house and charge the Tesla we own so that when I’m driving around LA, I’m using non-carbon based energy to get around. I would bet a lot of electric car owners in Southern California charge their cars with solar energy.

I have told this little tidbit to many people since this winter because I feel like its a glimpse into the future. And the reaction I often get is “that is awesome. I want to do that.”

If electric cars are the future, will they also be the thing that finally makes solar take off? Or will there be some other catalyst?

The economics of solar has always been challenging. Ten year paybacks are not the path to rapid adoption. I believe that the cost of solar has come down a lot and that might reduce the payback times but energy costs have also come down a lot too so I don’t know if we’ve really seen payback times decline that much.

We don’t invest in cleantech at USV so I am not particularly well versed in this topic. But instinctively it feels to me that wide adoption of solar is inevitable and we just need a catalyst to make that happen.

Maybe that will be electric cars. Or maybe it will be something else. I’m interested in what folks here at AVC think about this question.

Volunteering

Philanthropy is most often seen as giving money to a cause and that is something we should all celebrate and do within our means to do so. But giving your time is just as important and it is something that way more of us can do.

This weekend I attended the ScriptEd Hackathon in the Google Cafeteria in the Google NYC offices. ScriptEd runs in-school and after-school coding classes in something like 15 NYC public schools.

These schools sent students to the Hackathon where they formed teams and built software projects around the theme of music.

In this photo I took of the event you will see people wearing blue shirts and orange shirts. The blue shirts are the students and the orange shirts are the volunteers.

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There were almost as many volunteers as students at this event. Maybe that’s why the hacks were universally so good.

The winning team made a space invaders style game that dropped beats from Soundcloud tracks and the players needed to grab them as they came raining down.

Here is a photo of the winning team pitching me on their project.
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I love Hackathons because they teach multiple things at the same time; building something quickly, working in teams, and pitching. That latter thing, explaining what you built, is such an important life skill and these kids are learning it in high school.

If you have some free time that you can volunteer, I highly recommend it. If you want to help kids learn to code, ScriptEd and Teals are two great programs to work with. They are doing important work.

Why be civically engaged if you’re in tech?

Tomorrow, Ron Conway and I are going to kick off Disrupt NY 2015, with a fireside chat with Kim-Mai Cutler. We plan to discuss philanthropy and civic involvement. I’m looking forward to this talk. I think folks in the tech sector need to embrace philanthropy and civic involvement and I look forward to making the case for that.

I’ve been working in the VC business since the mid 80s. And for most of that time, I’ve felt that the tech sector was surprisingly uninterested and uninvolved in things outside of the tech sector. That’s a great strength of the tech sector, it’s is focused on innovation, making things, and building companies. And it does not get distracted by things outside of that realm.

But we know that the things we make and the companies we build have great impact on those outside of the tech sector. It can be for the good, like building cars that don’t use carbon fuels and showing the auto industry that it can be a good business to do that. It can be for the bad, like automating away jobs that once paid the way for a middle class lifestyle.

It feels to me that our economy and our society is now deeply entwined with technology and being significantly impacted by it. If that is true, I believe it is shortsighted to avoid getting engaged in the discussions and debates about what kind of world we need to work toward. I think one way or another the tech sector is going to get pulled into these debates. It will be one thing if that happens thoughtfully and positively and another if the tech sector is pulled into them kicking and screaming.

Regular readers of this blog know that my partners and I have been involved in these discussions since we started USV over a decade ago. We spend our time, energy, and capital in areas like policy debates, philanthropy, and civic engagement. There are others in the tech sector who do the same. Ron Conway comes to mind as someone who has spent a similar amount of time, energy, and capital on this stuff. And I am thrilled to share the stage with him tomorrow as we discuss these issues.

We go on stage at 9:05am eastern tomorrow. I’m hoping the talk will be livestreamed and you can watch it live. If it is, it will be somewhere like here.

On Europe Time This Week

The Gotham Gal and I flew to Paris last night and we arrived this morning. I’ve got meetings here the next few days and then we plan to enjoy Paris with some friends late this week and weekend.

I watched The Social Network on the flight over for the first time. The depiction of VCs in the film and the way the cap table got reconstructed was horrifying to me. I know stuff like that happens but it is not the way we do business nor is it the way many people in the VC and startup sector do business. So it is unfortunate that a popular film about the startup sector revolves around that narrative. It makes for a great story, and possibly is true (I don’t really know) but it does not paint our sector in a particularly good light. Otherwise it was an entertaining film with great performances.

I plan to post at my regular early morning hour so those of you on the west coast might see new posts going up before your bedtime this week.

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.

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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.