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Feature Friday: Distributed Identity

Last year at LeWeb I talked about four areas that we are looking at closely to make investments in. One of them is identity. I said this at the very end of my talk:

I predicted that there would emerge a “bitcoin like protocol” for identity. And we’ve been looking for that.

One thing we realized along the way is that this could be built on top of bitcoin or another blockchain. And so earlier this year we made a seed investment in a startup called OneName that is building exactly that. On Wednesday of this week, OneName announced a bunch of things, including our investment, and my partner Albert wrote about OneName at usv.com.

Now many will say “well Facebook, Google, and Twitter handle that pretty well for me” and they would be right. But are you really comfortable with Facebook or Google operating the identity layer of the Internet? I am not. And I think over time less and less of us will be.

But the answer isn’t another startup controlling the identity layer of the Internet either. The answer is a distributed ledger of identity that is open and not controlled by any entity. And that sounds like an application for a blockchain if there ever was one.

I have cleared my identity on the blockchain and it is here. I have verified it on Twitter and Facebook and you can send me bitcoins through it. It’s not much today, but in some ways it is everything. Because everything can be built on this and our hope is it will.

To date about 20,000 people have cleared their identity on the blockchain via OneName. My hope is that number will be in the millions within the next year. If you want do do that today, go here and get started.

Ticketing

I have seasons tickets to the Knicks and I share seasons tickets to the Nets with my friend John. Managing these tickets is a bit of a pain. At the start of the season, I download the iCal files that both teams post on their websites and convert them into CSV files. I then convert them to Google Spreadsheets and then share them with a bunch of people. Then I take the games I can go to, and give away games to friends and family, and sell a few games here and there. John does the same on his “half” of the Nets tickets. The truth is John gets to go to a lot more Nets games than I do but I get to go to the ones that matter, with him in most cases.

This morning I logged into the Nets season ticket holder website, and sent two tickets to tonight’s Nets Thunder game to Alex. Neither John nor I can go so I gave these tickets away. This wasn’t too hard and it would have been even easier if I had done it on the Nets iPhone App.

Like many industries, the Internet and mobile has changed ticketing. These days you have your tickets on your phone, when you board a plane or enter a stadium, you just pull out your phone, they scan the QR code, and you walk through. Getting the ticket on the phone is pretty easy if you have the app installed. And, though I have not figured out how to use it yet, Apple’s Passport App seems like a secondary storage system for tickets for those who don’t want to have hundreds of ticket apps installed on their phones.

But as much as ticketing has changed, it still hasn’t reached the ideal state which in my mind is how Bitcoin works in my Coinbase app. The Coinbase app offers the following options:

coinbase app

I would like to have a ticketing app that offers the same thing. Buy/sell, transfer, account summary. When I want to buy tickets, I just buy them from the app. When I want to sell tickets, I just sell them from the app. When I want to transfer, I just send them from the app.

Bitcoin can be the transactional system that all of these tickets run on top of. You can “color a bitcoin” with anything, and a ticket would be an ideal thing to color a Bitcoin with. Coloring means you take a tiny amount of bitcoin, say one penny worth of Bitcoin, and you attach something to it, like Row 15, seat 9 to tonight’s Nets Thunder game. When that ticket is sent, bought, or sold, that penny worth of bitcoin clears in the blockchain and the transfer is recorded. This insures that there is only one valid ticket to that seat to tonight’s game out there in circulation. That’s pretty important and that’s what most ticketing systems spend a lot of time and effort insuring. You no longer have to build or buy that technology if you want to sell tickets. It’s free for anyone to use. It’s called the blockchain.

Anyway, I think within a decade all tickets will be bought, sold, and transferred this way. The phone, or watch, or ring, or belt buckle, or something else, will house the ticket. And it will be bought, sold, transferred, and cleared on the blockchain. And the whole world of ticketing will be a lot easier for everyone as a result.

Getting Feedback and Listening To It

When you are VC, you live in this protected environment. You sit in your office in a glass conference room with lovely views and entrepreneurs walk in and pitch you and you get to decide who you are going to back and who you are not. People tell you what they think you want to hear. That you are so smart. That you are so successful. They suck up to you. And it goes to your head. You believe it. I am so smart. I am so successful.

You have to get out of that mindset because it is toxic. My number one secret is the Gotham Gal who brings me down to earth every night, makes me do the dishes, walk the dog, and lose to her in backgammon. Actually I have not lost to her in backgammon in over twenty years because she used to beat me so badly that I couldn’t take it anymore.

But blogging is another helpful tool in reminding yourself that you are not all that. Marc Andreessen said as much in his excellent NY Magazine interview which was published yesterday. I loved the whole interview but I particularly loved this bit:

So how do you, Marc Andreessen, make sure that you are hearing honest feedback?

Every morning, I wake up and several dozen people have explained to me in detail how I’m an idiot on Twitter, which is actually fairly helpful.

Do they ever convince you?

They definitely keep me on my toes, and we’ll see if they’re able to convince me. I mean, part of it is, I love arguing.

No, really?

The big thing about Twitter for me is it’s just more people to argue with.

Keeping someone on his or her toes, making them rethink their beliefs, making them argue them, is as Marc says “fairly helpful.” That’s an understatement. It is very very helpful.

That’s the thing I love about the comments here at AVC. I appreciate the folks who call bullshit on me. There are many but Brandon, Andy, and Larry are common naysayers. They may come across as argumentative, but arguing is, as Marc points out, useful.

The comments are also a place where people play the suck up game. It isn’t necessary to do that and I don’t appreciate it. It makes me uneasy.

So I would like to thank the entire AVC community for being a sounding board for my ideas, for pushing back when I am off base, and for resisting the suck up whenever the urge presents itself. I appreciate it very much.

The Personal Cloud

Benedict Evans coined the term “personal cloud” in his writeup of WWDC in June. He said:

what you might call the personal cloud – the Bluetooth LE/Wifi mesh around you (such as HealthKit or HomeKit)

I like to think about what’s next.

Paul Graham said, “If you think of technology as something that’s spreading like a sort of fractal stain, almost every point on the edge represents an interesting problem.”

And in that context, the personal cloud is a particularly interesting “point on the edge” to me. It includes the following things:

1) NFC and other technologies that will turn the mobile phone into your next credit card

2) Phone to phone mesh networking like we saw with Fire Chat in Hong Kong a few weeks ago

3) Wearables like the watch, necklace, and earbud

4) Personal health data recording (HealthKit) in which your phone has a real time and historical chart of your heartbeat, blood chemistry, blood pressure, pulse, temperature, and much more.

5) Airplay and Chromecast and other technologies that will turn the mobile phone into both the next settop box and remote

I could probably go on and list another five things that fit into the personal cloud, but I will stop there.

If the first wave of the mobile phone’s impact on the tech sector was driven by applications running on the phone, the second wave will be driven by the phone connecting to other devices, including other phones.

I am particularly fascinated about what happens when our phones connect to other phones in dense environments and form meshes that don’t need the traditional Internet connectivity to power them. Mesh networks don’t just solve the problem of lack of traditional connectivity (Hong Kong), they also produce a solution to the last mile connectivity duopoly in wireline and oligopoly in wireless. In the future we may just opt out of those non-competitive markets and opt into a local mesh to get us to the Internet backbone, both in our homes and when we are out and about.

And phone to phone meshes form local “geofenced” networks that are interesting in their own right. A nice example of this is the peek feature in Yik Yak where you can see the timeline at various universities around the US. These Yik Yak peeks are not powered by mesh networking, they are just using the geolocation feature on the phone. But they could be a collection of mesh networks operating in various universities around the country. And so that example is enlightening to me.

I wanted to end this post with an image of a person walking down the street surrounded by their personal cloud and all the devices that are connected to it. But a quick image search did not produce it for me. That in and of itself is telling. That’s our future. But right now we are still in the imagining phase of it.

Feature Friday: SoundCloud Cards On Twitter Mobile

Yesterday afternoon I was in a meeting at our portfolio company SoundCloud and I got a Kik from Kirk who said “did you see the new SoundCloud cards running inside Twitter?”

When we had a break in our meeting, I replied and said “No, but I saw the buzz on the feature on Twitter” and then asked him to Kik me a Tweet I could look at on my phone.

He kik’d me this one and I played it on my phone from inside Twitter (open that link on your phone in Twitter if you want to see it in action).

The really cool thing about this new card is you can minimize the SoundCloud card (like you can minimize a video on YouTube) and then keep listening to the music while you move away from the tweet.

That’s a big deal because most SoundCloud tracks are 2-5mins long and you wouldn’t want to keep that tweet open on your phone for 2-5mins if you could avoid doing that just to hear the entire track.

Apparently this feature (called Twitter Audio) will be available to other audio partners. This is a great move for Twitter and a great thing for SoundCloud and other audio companies too.

A Great Job At CSNYC

As many of you know, CSNYC is  a non-profit I helped start a few years ago along with some colleagues. We are attempting to bring computer science education to the 1.1 million children in the NYC Public School system.

The organization is still quite small but has been growing slowly and steadily since we formed it. There are five or six people working at CSNYC depending on if you count people working on it part time.

We are doing a lot with a small crew and this year there will be over 100 public schools in NYC (high school, middle school, and even a few elementary schools) with CSNYC funded classes in them. We do this by partnering with the very best computer science programs around the country and funding them to come to NYC and train teachers and get their curriculum into classrooms.

We also do a bunch of other things and possibly the most impactful of all the things we do is community development. We run meetups and other events to bring NYC public school teachers (and other teachers too) together to talk about how they are using computer science and programming in their classrooms.

Our largest meetup, the CSNYC Education Meetup, has almost 600 teachers in it and has quadrupled in size in the past year. My great hope is it will quadruple in size again this year. Each monthly meetup has a theme, such as Careers in Computing, CS Across Disciplines, Showcase of teacher resources and student work, etc. There is a meetup today actually. It is a meetup today about Teaching the Next Generation of Tech, a symposium led by panelists from ScriptEd, TEALS, AFSE and Flatiron School. Anyone who is interested in learning more about CSNYC, the programs we fund, our teacher meeetups, or teaching computer science to K-12 students is welcome to attend.

So that is a long lead-in to this job opportunity. We have opened another job at CSNYC and this role will be dedicated to running and coordinating all of our meetups, our events, and our communications efforts, including our website and social media efforts. The job posting is here.

This is a great opportunity for the right person. You will get to meet and work with hundreds of teachers who are embracing computer science and bringing it into their schools and classrooms. The right person will enjoy meeting new people, and will be organized, web savvy, and passionate about the CSNYC mission. If you are all of that, and more, please send an email to [email protected].

And if you know someone who would be great at this job, please send an email to [email protected].

This is an important effort that is doing great work and I’m proud to have been part of making it happen. If you would like to support it financially, you can do so here.

The Coin Center

We have found that the best way to deal with policy makers and regulators when something new and threatening and dangerous looking comes around is to educate, educate, educate, educate. You can hire expensive lobbyists, you can try the “ignore and deal with it later” approach, and you can try operating in other more welcoming locations. But in our view the best approach is to take the time and effort to explain things, listen to the concerns, get the best and brightest minds involved to work things out together and come to the right answers.

It is in this spirit that a new organization called the Coin Center has launched. The Coin Center will be led by Jerry Brito who has done some of the best Bitcoin education and advocacy work in his former role at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. So Jerry really won’t be doing anything new here. But he will be able to focus 100% of his time on this work and will have more financial and organization support to do it.

The Washington Post has a good article explaining the Coin Center and who is initially behind it.

I would like to thank Alex Morcos of Chaincode Labs and Balaji Srinivasan of Andreessen Horowitz for all the hard work they did bringing the Coin Center to life. Without their persistence, I don’t think this would have happened.

USV is proud to be a financial supporter of the Coin Center along with a handful of the most active entrepreneurs and investors in the blockchain sector. We will be reaching out broadly to everyone who has an interest in this sector in the coming months to get involved in some way. Technologies such as cryptocurrencies, bitcoin, and the blockchain are important, fundamental, and will foster innovation for decades to come. We must make sure that policy makers and regulators are well educated and informed so that they will put forward policies that will accelerate the development of these technologies, not retard them.

Doubling Down On Ridesharing

Back in February, I wrote about our investment in Sidecar. At that time, Sidecar had recently launched a marketplace model where riders can choose the drivers they want to ride with. That model has proven very popular and Sidecar’s ride volumes grew significantly after it launched. Sidecar followed up that innovation with the launch of Shared Rides this summer and is already matching thousands of shared rides every week in San Francisco.

The tech industry has grouped many different apps under the label ridesharing. The name comes from the idea that anyone can be a transportation provider by taking out their car and giving rides via an Internet network powered by mobile apps in both the driver’s and rider’s hands. That is not really how most of these networks work. In reality, what we have seen develop is a new form of a limo service powered through technology. That isn’t really ride sharing.

And to take it a step further, if there is only a single passenger in the car, that’s not really ridesharing either. True ridesharing would be me taking out my car from my garage, powering up my Sidecar driver app, and accepting rides in which as many people as possible pile into my car and I take them all where they want to go. That’s the most efficient and highest form of utilization for my car and my time and will lead to the lowest cost rides for the passengers (and the most money for the drivers).

If we really want to reduce the number of cars on the road and make ridesharing a game changer in the transportation market, we need to see a model develop where anyone can be a driver whenever they want to drive and as many people as is safe and comfortable can get in the car with the driver and get where they want to go.

That is what Sidecar is building. That is the vision they had when they started the Company, that is the vision they had when we invested last year, and that is the vision they continue to pursue.

I am very excited by the potential of Shared Rides. I don’t really see any other way that regular people who can spend a few dollars, but not tens of dollars, every day to get to work, can take advantage of ridesharing. The leaders in this market can subsidize prices and cut fees for their drivers as much as they want. But that’s not sustainable. What is sustainable is increasing the utilization of the car as much as possible. That’s Shared Rides.

At USV, we are very excited about Shared Rides and Sidecar’s commitment to rolling out Shared Rides in every market they operate in and then expanding the markets they operate in. We’ve co-led a round with our friends at Avalon and Richard Branson which the company has announced today.

Public Writing and Community Building

I realized this morning that many of the biggest changes in Startups and VC over the past ten years (2004-2014) have come about in part because of public writing and community building.

I would put the YC and 500 Startups movements in that camp, and the emergence of vibrant startup hubs in NYC, LA, and Boulder, and the juggernaut that is A16Z.

If you want to make a splash and create  something new, writing publicly and building a community around that is one important part of the playbook.

Do You Unplug

I’m working on unplugging during my six weeks off. I’m doing a decent job but I am not totally unplugged and it is possible that I won’t totally unplug.

I saw this chart in the WSJ (via Twitter) this morning:

unlug

So almost half of us don’t ever unplug.

Do you, and if so, how often?