Posts from Web/Tech

Video Of The Week: Albert and Peter Kafka

This isn’t actually video, it’s audio, but it’s a good one and so I’m making it the video of the week. My partner Albert and Peter Kafka talked a few weeks ago on the Recode Decode Podcast. Peter is one of my favorite tech journalists. He’s been around for a long time, he knows his stuff, and he asks hard questions and is appropriately cynical. He’s the real deal.

The Analog To Digital Move

One of my favorite business moves over the past twenty years was the one Netflix pulled off. They started out as a subscription DVD rental business and evolved into the leader in subscription streaming video. I’ve never seen anything written about whether that was intentional all along or whether they figured it out as the business evolved. It doesn’t really matter, it was a great move in either case.

This move, the “analog to digital”, ought to be more common but I can’t think of many sectors in which it has played out that way.

But we are certainly witnessing another one in the ridesharing sector. If anyone really thinks that ridesharing is a way to get more drivers work, the news this morning that GM has invested $500mm in Lyft and will be strategic partners on “developing a network of self-driving cars that riders can call up on-demand” should put that to rest.

In this case it isn’t DVDs that will go away and replaced by bits. It is the drivers.

How this all plays out is anyone’s guess. But using an analog asset to build a large customer base that can then be leveraged in a native digital model is a great business move and I am surprised it has not been done in more markets over the past couple decades.

The $5 Computer

The mobile phone has made it possible for most people to carry a computer on them all the time. You can buy an unlocked Moto E at Amazon for $99. That’s pretty amazing. A powerful mobile computer for less than $100.

But what is more amazing is a computer for $5. That’s what The Raspberry Pi Foundation announced a week ago:

If you watch that 2 1/2 minute video, you will see that they gave away 10,000 of these Raspberry Pi Zero computers on the cover of the December issue of their magazine. Giving away 10,000 computers seems expensive, but not when the cost is $5.

My colleague Joel showed me a chart last week of the most called resources in GitHub and right there at the top of his list was Raspberry Pi. These cheap computers are finding their way into all sorts of applications these days. Many of these use cases are hobbyists building stuff for their own use or just hacking around. But what Chris Dixon said a few years ago comes to mind

Raspberry Pi also powers two of the more interesting new computers to hit the market this year:

  • The 21 Bitcoin Computer which comes will the entire blockchain in its 128 GB SD card and a dedicated Bitcoin mining chip
  • The Kano computer kit which allows kids to build their own computer and program it

Buy your child the Kano this year and the 21 Computer next year when they are ready for something more. You will be doing them a huge favor as they will be figuring stuff out that will change the world in the coming years.

I am not sure if there is anything more heartening to me than the rise of the nearly free general purpose computer. I’ve been worried that general purpose computing was on the decline as we move to locked down devices with limits on what you can do with them. Raspberry Pi is the counterweight to that trend and such an important force for good things in the world of computing.

Lists

For as long as the web has been around, there have been entrepreneurs trying to build businesses around lists. And I’m having a tough time thinking of any company that has really nailed it in this category.

For one thing, there are two modes of listmaking; making lists for yourself (task management) and making lists for others (publishing). It would seem that by focusing on the single user case (making lists for yourself) a startup could bootstrap itself into a network (making lists for others). But to my knowledge, no startup has successfully done that. I wonder if nailing the single user case forces a company to build features that are orthogonal to the publishing use case.

It is certainly true that there have been some decent exits in this category. This past summer, Wunderlist was bought by Microsoft. Wunderlist is a great product, but to my mind focused more on the single user case and it never really broke out into a network.

Listmaking is the kind of thing that really lends itself to the internet architecture. There are a relatively small number of people who are obsessed with listmaking. But most people are into consuming lists. So, it would seem that, if you can get the obsessed listmakers on your platform, you can build a publishing network that millions will use without having to create any of the content. That’s a recipe for success.

Entrepreneurs continue to explore this area. Recently Expa launched Kit which is listmaking for products. This is an idea that has been tried a lot without any obvious breakout successes. So it is still vacant whitespace as far as I can tell.

I wonder if listmaking is really a vertical thing instead of a horizontal thing. That would suggest that there will be successes in verticals like food, travel, shopping, reading, film, music, etc but that each will be its own thing and not part of some meta listmaking community.

I frequently use the Foursquare app to make lists while I am traveling or doing something new and interesting. Yesterday the Gotham Gal and I went on an art gallery walking tour in the lower east side of NYC. I made this list of art galleries below Houston Street while we were doing that. It is simple to build a list on the go in Foursquare if you know how to do it. I would love to see Foursquare invest more energy in helping users make lists and consume lists. Using a geolocated and geosorted list on your phone while you are exploring a new area is a powerful and magical experience on a smartphone.

I am somewhat perplexed by the lack of breakout success to date in listmaking. It’s an obvious category. And it is certainly not for lack of trying. The commercial internet is 20+ years old now. So you’d think someone would have cracked the code by now. But I don’t think anyone has.

Watch What They Do, Not What They Say

Many of our portfolio companies struggle with the idea of changing something fundamental about their service, such as Twitter’s recent change from stars to hearts. It incites fury from the loyal users who believe they know what is best for the service.

I always encourage our portfolio companies to A/B test a change in a relatively small but representative sample of their users and to watch what users do and don’t spend too much emotional energy on what users say.

Twitter’s switch to hearts has resulted in more engagement with the favorite function. I would bet that Twitter had that data and understood it before deciding to make the change. You can’t make such an important change without first testing it to see what happens.

Loyal users are always going to hate a big change to a service they use every day. I recall the outrage when Facebook rolled out the news feed, which has become the central feature of its product. It was as if they had destroyed the service.

Users’ actions will tell you what they think about a change more than what they write (on your platform and elsewhere).

For what it’s worth, I loved to move to hearts the minute they did it. I feel like I favorite way more now. But Twitter would know. They have the data :)

That Time Of The Year

Last night I got home to watch the World Series and turned on the TV and fired up Twitter. In addition to the Mets Royals, you had the GOP Debate, and fourteen NBA basketball games. Twitter was on fire. I didn’t change the channel once on the TV, choosing to continue my pain from the night before and watch the Mets lose back to back games to the ferocious Kansas City Royals. But my Twitter feed kept me apprised of everything else going on. The Knicks beat the Bucks, the Bulls beat the Nets, KD is back and the Thunder beat the Spurs, and, apparently, Rubio had his coming out party last night in the GOP debate. I’ve always thought the GOP race was eventually going to come Rubio’s way. He’s the best of the bunch even though I prefer Kasich.

This weekend will have the World Series at Citifield, NBA games galore, and the NFL in mid-season form. It’s that time of year when all the major sports are in action. It’s a wonderful time for sports fans and a wonderful time for Twitter too.

I will leave you with this. Twitter does SportsCenter.


Where Is The Value In The Tech Stack?

Yesterday’s discussion was fantastic. Days like that are where the USV community really shines.

David argued that data is the new oil, not software. There’s a lot of validity in that comment.

Kirk pointed out that ISPs are the pipelines of the digital revolution and I liked that.

And TR followed Kirk with this observation:

Oil in all its various forms (software)
Pipeline/delivery (networking/access)
Infrastructure/Drilling Equipment (hardware)

What they were all discussing is the tech stack and where the value is.

A simple version of the tech stack of the information revolution would look something like this:

Data

Applications (software)

Infrastructure (software)

Hardware

Access

At USV, we have invested mostly in the top three layers, and most actively in layers four and five (Applications and Data), but we are increasingly drawn to Access and Infrastructure (software).

But, as I tried to point out in the Dentist Office Software Story, software alone is a commodity. You need data to provide defensibility and differentiation. And so most of USV’s investments have been companies that combine software and data to provide a solution to the market that we believe is defensible, usually via network effects which are a data driven phenomenon.

So why would we move down the stack to Infrastructure (software) and Access? Well there are data driven network effects in those layers too if you know where to look for them. And, increasingly, we are finding them there and finding them at prices that make a lot more sense to us too.

So, in summary, I agree with David that software alone is not the new oil. But neither is the entire tech stack. That’s why I moved away from the phrase “tech is the new oil” that I used in the comments the day before. I also don’t think data alone is the new oil.

The new oil is going to be found in various places in the tech stack where software and data come together to produce a service that has high operating leverage at scale and is defensible by the network effects that the data provides. That’s a mouthful. Software is the new oil sounds a lot better. But the mouthful is more accurate.

Software Is The New Oil

I was with some friends this weekend and one of them was talking about an investment committee meeting he attended and there was a discussion at that meeting about some of the threats out there in the macro investment landscape. One of them was “vanishing liquidity” and the significant change in net cash flows from the global oil sector. Oil producing regions have gone from being a massive cash generator to a relatively small one in the past few years. Now this could well be a temporary thing as the oil market adjusts to some new realities. This post is not really about oil, even though that word is in the title of this post.

As I pondered that, I thought about oil’s role as the thing that captured the economic surplus of the industrial revolution. You can’t run factories, railroads, trucks, etc without carbon-based products and in particular oil. So oil has been a cash/capital magnet for the wealth that the industrial revolution produced. Those that owned oil producing assets (or better yet, oil producing regions) sat back and collected the economic surplus of the industrial revolution and that has been a path to vast wealth and economic power.

What is that same thing in the information revolution? And where is cash piling up around the world? On tech company balance sheets, of course. Apple has $200bn of cash on its balance sheet and produced $53bn of cash in the six months ending March 2015. Microsoft has $110bn of cash on its balance sheet and produced $30bn of cash in the year ended June 2015. Google/Alphabet has $70bn of cash on its balance sheet and produced $14bn of cash in the six months ended June 2015. Facebook could have $20bn of cash in the next year and could be producing $20bn of cash a year soon. Amazon, the company that “will never make money” surprised Wall Street last week with strong profits and it seems to me that they are going to start producing cash like these other big tech companies now.

It makes sense to me that software is the oil of the information revolution. Companies that control the software infrastructure of the information revolution will sit back and collect the economic surplus of the information revolution and that will be a path to vast wealth and economic power. It has already happened but I think we are just beginning to see the operating leverage of these software based business models. The capex spending necessary to be a software infrastructure provider at scale has shielded the cash producing power of these companies (and many others) and may continue to do that for a time, but I suspect at some point the profits are going to overtake the capex at a rate that the cash will be flowing out of software companies the way that oil flows out of wells.

Full Disclosure: The Gotham Gal and I own a lot of Alphabet stock and also shares in several hundred other software based businesses. We are long software.