Scratch’s 10th Anniversary

The Scratch programming language and community is ten years old and we celebrated that last night at a gala in NYC where the Scratch Foundation raised funds to support their work and they chose to honor me for our K12 CS Ed work in NYC.

Here’s what I said to those who were there, I thought it would be nice to share it with the world.


If you want to be filled with joy, take off the morning, head off to one of hundreds of middle school or high school buildings in NYC, and check out an introduction to software engineering class. Or go visit an elementary school home room where the teacher is doing a computing module in a history or science lesson.

Here is what you will see. Roughly thirty young students, slightly more than half girls, and a rainbow of race, religion, and means. You will see girls in hijabs, boys with afros, kids who speak Spanish or some other language at home, all sitting together working on some sort of creative project, often in teams, solving problems, getting excited, and doing something that challenges them and interests them.

And there’s a good chance that the software they are running on their computers will be Scratch, a visual programming language that makes building software as easy as building a Lego project. But Scratch is way more than a programming language. It is a community, free for everyone to use, now more than 70mm large, where the software creators share what they made with others and let others reuse and remake what they made. It is remix culture for making stuff on a computer.

Scratch is also a gateway drug to serious software engineering. I know many young adults who started on Scratch and now work on some of the most serious programming challenges in computer science at big tech companies, startups, and the top research labs and universities.

Scratch is a gift to the world from Mitch Resnick and his team of colleagues at the MIT Media Lab. You all know the saying, “don’t give someone a fish, teach them to fish”? Well that is what Mitch and his colleagues are doing with Scratch and they are doing it for tens of millions of people all around the world. I suspect the magnitude of this gift they have given the world is on the order of things like the personal computer, the smartphone, and the web. It’s that big.

When I got interested in making sure every young person in the NYC public school system could learn to instruct a machine about seven or eight years ago, I didn’t really know how we were going to make that happen. Like most things I do, our organization, called CSNYC, just threw ourselves at the problem, listened and learned from those, like Mitch, who had been working on the problem for a long time, and we tried lots of things.

One of the things we tried early on at The Academy For Software Engineering was Scratch. AFSE is a new public high school we started five years ago where students learn computer science and which has a few students in attendance tonight. And it has become an essential tool in our CS4All curriculum all over NYC. I see it in elementary school classrooms, I see it in middle schools, and I see it in high schools. I don’t know of a better way to get a student programming a computer than firing up the browser and pointing it to scratch.mit.edu.

There are certainly other tools that are used to teach programming in K12 classrooms across NYC and across the country and the world. Scratch can’t teach everything. But it can get the student going, excited, productive, and hooked. And that is the biggest step.

So while I am honored to be recognized this evening for the work we are doing in NYC and around the country, I want to make sure that everyone knows that our work would be impossible without the fundamental building blocks that have been put in place over the last 15-20 years, and Scratch is right up there at the top of that list.

So thank you to the Scratch Foundation for this honor but mostly thank you for doing what you do and let us all help them keep doing that.

PS – Michael Preston, who runs CSNYC, sent me this photo of the students who sat with us at our table last night and Sean Stern who left a good paying job writing software for Amazon to teach them. A picture tells the entire story.

Climate Change

Yesterday brought us an executive order rolling back much of the (meager) progress we’ve made reducing the US’ reliance on carbon energy and the resulting impact on climate change.

The New York Times has a good editorial piece today on this and other moves this administration has made in its short tenure to protect the carbon energy industry.

I am of two minds on this. On one hand, I am pissed off, annoyed, irritated, upset, and dismayed that we have such a luddite in the White House that he can’t see what carbon energy has done, is doing, and will do to our planet. But on the other hand, I am well aware of the progress that wind and solar and other clean energy technologies have made in the last couple decades and I believe that market forces are on the side of our planet and against the carbon fuel industry and that these market forces are getting stronger every day.

Among other things, we will be doing our monthly match this weekend for a climate change focused non-profit and I hope you all will join us to raise money for climate change and stand up against these outrageous acts.

We are considering the following organizations:

350.org

Natural Resource Defense Counsel 

Earth Justice

Sierra Club

Nature Conservancy

Environmental Defense Fund

We may add others to this list. If you have any thoughts on these organizations or want to propose others, please do that in the comments.

Brain Computer Interface

The WSJ reported yesterday that Elon Musk is developing yet another company, this one based on neural lace technology, to create a brain computer interface.

Neural lace technology, as I understand it, involves implanting electrodes into the brain so that the brain can control machines directly without the need for an IO device like a mouse, keyboard, or voice interface.

I have no idea how advanced this technology is and whether it is ready for commercialization or if this is basically a research project masquerading as a startup.

But in some ways that doesn’t matter if you believe that at some point someone or some group of scientists and medical professionals will figure out how to directly connect our brain to machines without the need of an IO device.

There are so many times that I have thoughts that I don’t do anything with. They sit idle and maybe go nowhere. But if my brain passively passed those thoughts onto a machine for storage or some other action that could lead to a more productive train of thought that could be incredibly valuable. Or it could drive me insane.

I generally subscribe to the theory that all progress is good as long as we understand the negatives of the technology and we (society) engineer controls and the proper repoanes to it (nuclear weapons being​ an example).

But every time something as mind bending as the idea of connecting our brain to external processing, storage, and communication infrastructure comes before me I do have to pause and ask where this is all going.

At times like this it helps to have a belief system (progress is good). I am all for pushing the envelope of progress as long as we spend an equal amount of time and energy thinking through what might go wrong with things like this.

Hat tip to Niv Dror who read yesterday that I wasn’t sure how I was going to post today and encouraged me to write about this topic.

A Return To Eastern Time

For the past few months, I’ve been living and posting from the west coast, as has become our routine during the winter months. Regular readers have likely noticed that new posts show up around 9am/10am ET instead of 6am/7am ET. This will be the last post from the west coast this winter as we are returning home to NYC this afternoon.

I am not entirely sure how I’m going to get a blog post in tomorrow morning as we arrive late and I’ve got an early breakfast, but I always seem to find a way. It certainly will have to be posted by 7:30am ET before I start my day. Maybe I will write it on the plane home this evening.

The winter out west routine works really well for me. It gets me away from the hustle and bustle of NYC and in a bit more reflective and relaxed mood. It’s not a vacation. I work ten hour days, but I start them at 5am and end them mid/late afternoon, in time for a bike ride or a late afternoon yoga class.

I am going to miss all of our friends and family in LA and the incredible weather, vegetation, sights, and smells. Here’s a photo I took from a sunset walk on the bluff with my friend Mark last week.

I will miss this place, but I’m also eager to get back to the big apple.

Board Feedback

One of the most frustrating things about Board meetings is that it is difficult for founders and CEOs to get feedback on them.

I’ve seen some interesting approaches to addressing this problem lately.

Some companies are sending around post meeting feedback forms and asking all attendees to fill them out.

Some CEOs have asked their Board members to send emails to them summarizing their thoughts and take aways after the meeting.

I am a fan of anything that produces meaningful feedback for management from Board meetings.

My preference is to build the feedback function right into the meeting with a post meeting executive session between the CEO and directors where the feedback is delivered face to face in real time.

The big challenge with the post meeting executive session is that all Board meetings seem to run over on time and the end of the meeting is a time crunch.

So making time for the executive session is often challenging. But it is worth it in my view.

Regardless of what technique you are using, if you are running Board meetings and not getting feedback on them, you are doing it wrong.

Fun Friday: The Story Of My Avatar

I got this tweet today:

The answer is yes I have but it was eight years ago. I thought it would be fun to re-run that post.

Here is is:


 I saw this tweet when I got up this morning:

hey @fredwilson – whats the story behind ur avatar?

While longtime readers know it, I figure many of you don’t. So here it goes.

Starting about four years ago, Howard Lindzon started commenting actively on this blog. He was funny, he was smart, and I enjoyed our banter in the comments.

One march vacation, our family made a short stop in Phoenix, where Howard used to live. He emailed me and offered my son and me two tickets to the Suns game. We took him up on that and that’s how we met for the first time.

It turned out Howard was hatching an idea for a web show for investors. Think Rocketboom meets Jim Cramer. I told him it was a good idea and encouraged him to do it. Howard would fire ideas at me and I would give him feedback on them.

Out of that came Wallstrip. Here’s a post I wrote a little over three years ago announcing the launch of Wallstrip.

One of the original ideas for the show that never really worked out was that there would be a dozen well known bloggers who would write short posts about each daily show. Howard asked me to do that and I agree to do it at least once a week.

So that’s how the avatar came to be. Howard asked his friend Jenny Ignaszewski to draw up avatars for all dozen of the stock bloggers using photos of them that were available on the web. The first time I saw my avatar was when Wallstrip launched and there it was along with Howard’s and a bunch of others.

Fredwilson

From the minute I saw it, I liked it. It uses my favorite color (green) as the backdrop and the eye color (my eyes are sometimes blue and sometimes green and sometimes something else). It looks like me, but not too much.

So I began to use it a bit here and there around the web as I set up new profiles. But by no means was it the only profile picture I used. For corporate oriented services like LinkedIn, I’d use my Union Square Ventures headshot. For social nets like Facebook, I’d use a regular headshot. I used a photo of me taking a photo on Flickr for a long time.

But then I started to realize that the Wallstrip avatar was becoming my online identity. People would comment about it all the time. Around the time we sold Wallstrip, Howard asked Jenny to do a real painting of it which I now have in my office at Union Square Ventures. It’s a real conversation starter.

Sometime in early 2008, I just decided to go with it everywhere. It’s at the top of this blog and everywhere else I have an online identity. It’s my online brand now.

Like this blog, this was not planned. It just happened. That’s the way most of the important things in my life have come to be.

AI For Legal Cases

Our portfolio Casetext was in the news yesterday for raising $12mm, but the more interesting thing about Casetext is their product, called CARA.

CARA is a research assistant for lawyers that offers a super simple proposition:

Securely upload a brief and discover useful case law

CARA uses Casetext’s wikipedia-like database of >10mm court cases and annotations and sophisticated natural language analysis and artificial intelligence to understand the brief and recommend related cases for a lawyer to analyze and possibly cite in their brief.

Lawyers seem to love CARA. According to Silicon Valley Business Journal:

Casetext’s customers include Quinn Emanuel, Fenwick & West, Ogletree Deakins, Greenberg Traurig and DLA Piper.

“CARA is an invaluable, innovative research tool,” Quinn Emanuel partner David Eiseman said in a statement. “With CARA, we can upload a brief and within seconds receive additional case law suggestions and relevant information on how cases have been used in the past, all in a user-friendly interface.”

We think the legal business is ripe for AI-driven innovation. Much of legal research can and will be automated with tools like CARA.

If you are a lawyer and do a lot of legal research, check out CARA. Securely upload a brief here and check it out.

The Disqus Demo Day Story

I’ve told bits and pieces of this story here on AVC over the years but I don’t think I’ve ever told the whole story. Y Combinator (YC) Demo Day has been going on over the past few days up in Silicon Valley and it prompted me to remember a demo day in Boston (where YC started) ten years ago:


It was the summer of 2007 and back then YC would do a summer session in Boston and a winter session in the Bay Area. Paul Graham eventually moved himself and YC to the Bay Area and the summers in Boston ended. I agree with my partner Andy that those early demo days in Boston were something special.

So a few days before demo day, Paul Graham emailed me and told me that a YC team wanted to launch its new product on AVC at demo day. He explained it was a new modern comment system that was better than the ones that came with WordPress and Typepad (which was where AVC was hosted back then). I was intrigued as I really hated the Typepad comment system. But I did not want to do any work to add a new comment system to AVC. Paul suggested I give him the login credentials to my blog CMS and he would give them to the founders. I agreed and over a few days, Daniel Ha and Jason Yan, the two founders of Disqus, put their comment system onto AVC. They left all of the old comments in Typepad and set up Disqus to power the comments on the new blog posts.

I showed up at Demo Day excited to see all of the companies (19 that day) present. When it came time for Disqus to present Daniel got up on stage, explained that the current comment systems were terrible, and that they had built a better one. Then he pointed the browser on the presentation computer to AVC, scrolled down to leave a comment, and there was Disqus running at the bottom of the post. He showed how easy it was to login, post a comment, and how it rendered nicely in line with the post. It was slick and I was impressed.

After the presentations, the investors would mingle with the founders. Paul and Jessica put out a super nice cheese and cured meat spread. I went up to Daniel and told him that I really liked his presentation. He thanked me and asked me if I would keep Disqus on AVC. I can’t remember if it was even called Disqus back then. But anyway, I told him that if he and Jason could build me one feature quickly, I would keep Disqus on AVC.

Here’s that feature request. The Typepad comment system would email me every time someone posted a comment on AVC. But I would have to go to AVC to reply. It was clunky and I hated it. So my feature request was “send me the comment notification emails with the ability to reply right in my email” (on my Blackberry at the time). Daniel said they would look into it.

I think Demo Day was on a Thursday. The following Monday, I got an email from Daniel saying that they had launched my requested feature over the weekend. So I tested the feature and it worked exactly as I had imagined it.

I had been making this feature request of Typepad for some time and they had not been able to get to it. I totally understand that a big company with a long roadmap is different than two founders with a brand new product. But the fact that Daniel and Jason had built it and shipped it over the weekend impressed me.

Disqus has been running on AVC ever since and I still love the product and the founders.

But I did not think about investing in Disqus at the time. I thought it was a utility that could be replaced by an even better comment system that would come along some day. In January of 2008, I caught up with Daniel in San Francisco and he explained that Disqus was running on tens of thousands of blogs and everyone who commented on the AVC blog with a Disqus profile could also comment on those blogs with the same profile. Then it dawned on me that Disqus was a network, not a utility. USV invested something like $300k in a seed round a month or so later and we have been investors in Disqus ever since.

To me, this is the quintessential YC story. Two “hackers” built something that the market needed over the course of a month or two during a summer in Boston (they were based in SF), demoed it to a bunch of investors, hooked one of them with the slick presentation, and eventually got the VC to invest in their company. But the part I love the most about this story is the feature request that they implemented over the weekend. That feature turned out to be highly viral because anyone who left a comment on any Disqus powered blog would get an email when anyone replied to their comment (and still do). That brought people back and the conversations flowed much better on Disqus powered blogs than on the incumbents’ comment systems. That is the power of listening to your customers. And the power of turning a customer into an investor.

Stocktoberfest East

My friend Howard Lindzon, who I met on this blog something like twelve years ago, runs an annual conference for fintech entrepreneurs and investors called Stocktoberfest.

Yesterday he hit me up on sms and told me they are doing Stocktoberfest East in NYC next week on March 29th and 30th. He asked me if I would do a chat with him. I told him that I’m not that interested in stocks but super interested in digital assets, cryptocurrencies, blockchain, etc. So we are going to do a 30min chat and I’m calling it Cryptoberfest.

My vision for this talk is a completely unprepared and unscripted talk between two old friends about all the amazing things happening in crypto land these days. It should be fun. If you want to attend, you can get a ticket here.