The Virtue Of Patience

Our portfolio company Duolingo is known for their super popular language learning app. According to Wikipedia over 300mm people all over the world have used Duolingo.

Back in May 2014, Duolingo launched something called the Duolingo Test Center. The idea was to compete with expensive and inconvenient foreign language tests like TOEFL.

It makes sense. If you are in the business of helping people learn a foreign language, you might as well be in the business of helping people demonstrate their mastery of a foreign language.

But there is a “chicken and egg” problem in the foriegn language testing market. If you don’t have a lot of test takers, it is hard to get your test accepted by educational institutions and corporations. But if you aren’t accepted by educational institutions and corporations, it is hard to get anyone to take your test.

Duolingo has been patient, largely because they have a primary business that is doing incredibly well. Slowly but surely they have gotten institutions to accept their test.

I saw this tweet this morning from Luis, Duolingo’s founder and CEO:

That is the kind of adoption that Duolingo’s tests need to become a standard.

And once you become a standard, you have a fantastic business, largely because it is so hard to accomplish that.

Many companies would have given up on a project like this. The payoff is too long and the effort too high.

But Luis has a personal interest in this offering. You can read about it in the blog post when he announced the service.

That is the power of founders on a mission. They can be patient and see things through that big companies never will.

There is a virtue in patience. You don’t see it that much in business. But it is powerful in the right hands.

Unlimited Capital

This post on the WeWork IPO ends with the following observation:

In fact, I would argue that the WeWork bull case and bear case have more in common than it seems: both are the logical conclusion of effectively unlimited capital.

I don’t think there is unlimited capital. If that were the case, every idea, every startup, every person would be able to get the capital they need/want.

And I see proof every day that is not the case.

But it is true that for some things, some companies, some ideas, there is effectively unlimited capital.

Probably the biggest change I have seen in my 30+ years in VC is the huge amounts of capital that are available to “big ideas” like WeWork, Uber, Bird, etc

And the questions to ponder are whether this is a temporary phase based on global macroeconomic conditions or the new normal and whether it is only true for companies at certain stages of their development.

Does Uber, now that it is a public company subject to the rules of rational capital markets, have the same unlimited access to capital it had while it was a private company?

Will WeWork, once it becomes a public company, have the same unlimited access to capital it has had in the last five years?

And what does the next economic downturn look like? Will capital availability dry up like it normally does?

I have heard the arguments why the business cycle has changed, why monetary policy is more effective now, and why rates will remain near zero for a long time.

I just don’t know if they are correct. I suspect we will find out in the next few years.

Fifty-Eight

Fifty-eight years ago this morning, my mother went to the hospital at West Point New York and shortly thereafter I arrived on planet earth.

I’ve always liked having a birthday late in August, at the tail end of the summer and right before labor day.

It is the most relaxed time of year for me, with the start of the fall season right around the corner.

I plan to celebrate it at the beach with family and friends.

Crypto IRA

I have an old IRA that I don’t pay much attention to. I thought about cashing it out but the tax load to do that was too much for me to stomach. So then I thought about investing it in crypto.

But that turns out to be pretty hard.

I think there is an opportunity out there for a crypto brokerage to offer IRAs or an IRA custodian to offer crypto, or both.

Given the tendency for many investors to buy and hold crypto, it would lend itself to a long term investment product like an IRA.

Seems like an opportunity to me.

The Long Engagement

The Gotham Gal and I met when we were 19 and got married when we were 25. We lived together for most of those six years before we got married. By the time we tied the knot, we knew each other very well.

While venture capital investing and marriage are two different things, I think there are some things one can take from love and marriage into the world of startups and venture capital investing.

One of them is the value of long engagements.

I have never understood why founders want to run a lightning fast process to select business partners who they may have to “live with” for the next seven to ten years.

And yet we see this behavior all of the time. Often it is driven by other VCs who toss in “preemptive term sheets” thus turning a fundraising process into a sprint.

What I would prefer to see, and do see in many cases, is a founder who takes the time while they are not raising money to build a number of relationships with potential investors and then engages those investors in a process when it is time to raise capital. I like to call this process the “long engagement”.

It might sound like a lot more work than the fast and furious fundraising process that many founders are running these days.

But I don’t think it is a lot more work. Building relationships over a six to twelve month period can take the form of an occasional face to face meeting, emails back and forth, and even a few visits to the office by the investor. And none of that has to have the pressure of a pitch, an ask, and a price.

For the investor, this is a much better process. It allows them to see the founder and the business execute over time. It allows everyone to develop comfort with each other.

I would argue that it is a much better process for the founder too. It let’s them see which investors are truly interested in their business, their team, their product, and their success. It also reveals which investors are “here today, gone tomorrow.” You want the former on your cap table, not the latter.

It is easy to get caught up in the game of startups and investing in them. A fundraising process is at its heart a competition. And everyone wants to win. But you don’t get a trophy for winning this game. You get into a relationship. Often a very long one. So I think stepping back from the game theory and stepping into the relationships is the way to win long term. Which is the only form of winning that really matters.

Video Of The Week: A Reminder

As the US government thinks about regulating big tech and constraining crypto-currencies, I think a reminder about the value of open markets and freedom to innovate is important.

Zooming

For the past three or four years, I have been trying to reduce my air travel for a host of reasons (wellness, reducing carbon footprint, increasing productivity, etc) and I would say that this effort has largely been successful.

The main tool that I have used to accomplish this is videoconferencing and although I use whatever videoconferencing software that the other side wants to use, it turns out that I am mostly Zooming these days.

We use Zoom at USV for all of our team meetings and for many of the pitches we receive over video (which has increased significantly in the last few years).

And the vast majority of our portfolio companies use Zoom too.

There are many days when I will be on Zoom for three, four, five hours and I can get a lot done that way.

We had a board meeting yesterday that was one of the best meetings that the company has had and everybody was on Zoom.

I will say that video works better when everyone knows each other well (like the USV team) and the benefits of body language are less.

But without a doubt, videoconferencing has arrived and it can and should reduce your need for air travel. We can’t fully replace the in-person, face to face experience, but we are pretty close to it now. And so we should leverage that to improve our lives, our effectiveness, and our business.

Tumblr

The news hit yesterday that WordPress has purchased Tumblr from Verizon (which owns it by virtue of its acquisition of Yahoo! and AOL).

USV seeded Tumblr along with our friends at Spark in the summer of 2007 and were actively involved in the development of the company until its sale to Yahoo! in 2013.

I maintained an active Tumblog from before we invested in 2007 until October 2016, when I stopped posting there. There was no moment when I decided to stop posting there. I just did.

The narrative around the sale of Tumblr to WordPress is all about Yahoo! paying more than a billion for it and selling it for $3mm. It is absolutely true that Yahoo! never figured out how to turn Tumblr into a business and ending up losing its shirt on the investment.

But it is also true that Tumblr was bypassed by native mobile applications like Instagram and Snapchat where it was even easier to post about your life. Tumblr was both a blogging platform and a social media application and while I always loved the versatility of the platform, native mobile applications benefit from simplicity, not complexity.

There was a time around 2010 and 2011 when Tumblr was the most engaging social platform that I was on. I followed and met quite a few interesting people there and it was a lot of fun to be on it.

David Karp, the founder of Tumblr, always focused on making Tumblr a “positive” experience. That is why he refused to have comments, even though I pushed him to do it and hacked Tumblr by putting Disqus on mine. That is why he made the primary (only?) form of engagement a heart.

And it worked. Tumblr was a happy place and using it made people feel good about themselves.

While the world of social media has evolved a lot in the last six years, since Tumblr sold to Yahoo!, it has not really gotten better. One could make a very strong argument that it has gotten a lot worse. Tumblr was an example of how to do social media right and we can learn a lot from it.

Open Finance First, Open Data Second

My partner Nick put together a deck outlining USV’s approach to crypto investing earlier this year and we have been using it with founders and investors since then.

One slide I particularly like from that deck is this one which describes how we think the crypto market will develop over time.

We have already seen an explosion of assets issued on blockchains and a number of very large and profitable custody/brokerage/exchange businesses built. We expect we will see continued innovation in the open finance (finance 2.0) sector in the next few years while the open data (web 3.0) sector will take longer to develop.

We also think that open finance will inevitably lead to open data as users (both consumers and businesses) will start to understand and appreciate the benefits of increased user control, lower transaction (and other) costs, and other benefits of decentralization.