Posts from January 2016

A Cautionary Tale

What do you do if you are a crowdfunding service and one of your high profile projects fails to deliver leaving roughly 12,000 backers high and dry?

Well our portfolio company Kickstarter (where I am on the board) decided to shine a light on the failure by hiring an investigative reporter and giving him freedom to research and then tell the story of what went wrong without any interference by Kickstarter.

The journalist, Mark Harris, published his findings a few days ago. You can read the entire story here.

The project in question was called Zano and the idea was to build and ship a small autonomous drone. I am not going to summarize the story here on AVC. Those of you who want to read it should go read the entire piece. 

But I will say that the Zano story is a cautionary tale that anyone who backs projects on Kickstarer should read. Not every project works. In fact, it is shocking that something like 90% of projects funded on Kickstarter have eventually delivered although many are late.

Creative projects fail. Startups fail. Banks fail. Governments fail. Marriages fail. Failure is an important part of the human experience. I have personally failed more times than I want to remember. 

And so I hope that Kickstarter figures out a way to continue to shine a bright light on the big failures. They should not be swept under a rug. They should analyzed, discussed, and understood by the Kickstarter community and beyond. That is a very healthy thing.

Politics and the Future

It is political season in the US. For the next three months (ish) the two major political parties will select their nominees, then there will be a lull while the two nominees prepare for the general election which will kick off with the two conventions this summer and then it will be off to the races until election day in November. So for the next ten months the US will be in the throes of a Presidential election cycle. 

Its a good time to get all of issues on the table and debate them. One issue that I feel has not gotten enough air time yet and is fundamental to most everything is what is going on in the global economy (not just the US economy) and what that means for policy at home and abroad.

I saw a link to this post on Twitter today. I don’t know the author but it strikes me as directionally correct about the macro tends in the global economy. Here are some charts from it:

  
  
  
The author goes on to say:

The individual GDP share of the food, energy and healthcare industries of the total economy are larger than the ITC sector. What will the world look like if the total value of these would contract in similar fashion than we have had in ITC industry? Will we face an era of technological deflation? Most likely yes. Will it be a good or bad thing?

Deflation is a scary word. We have seen the Fed and other monetary bodies around the world print money for going on eight years to offset the effects of deflation and yet it feels like the deflationary pull is stronger today than ever.

It may be that the diverging lines in that first graph are going to continue to diverge no matter what we do from a policy perspective. The advancement of our technological capabilities may drive down the costs of living dramatically and also drive down the amount of human work that is required to produce and sustain our current quality of life.

This is a big deal. And yet we hear almost nothing about this in the current political debate. We hear old school jobs programs from the left and shrink the government and cut taxes from the right. 

We hear hawks talking about carpet bombing the middle east but no mention of what happens to that region if the world no longer needs their oil.

I don’t expect much from the political process because it hasn’t given us much other than some high quality entertainment value, which may be its core function in society right now. Which is a sad thought.

But if I were advising Hillary, or Bernie, or Cruz, or Rubio, or, god forbid, Trump, I would get their heads wrapped around these global macroeconomic trends and what they might mean ten, twenty, and thirty years out and suggest they start talking straight with the american public about them. Because they have the stage right now and they are the conversation starters and we have to start talking about this stuff.

The First Annual AFSE Fundraiser

AVC folks will know that my first foray into K-12 Computer Science Education work, which has now become almost a second full-time job, was the effort four years ago to open NYC’s first dedicated computer science high school. That high school is called The Academy For Software Engineering (AFSE) and this year they will graduate their first class. Here is Tylor Fields, AFSE’s first student to be accepted to college.

Tylor Fields

There will be many more college acceptances at AFSE over the course of the next few months. And a number of AFSE students will be going on to study computer science in college.

Students at AFSE receive 4 years of computer science courses, opportunities for internships and real work experiences, and 4 years of one-on-one mentoring with professionals in the tech community. 

In addition to graduating its first class this year (with a graduation rate in excess of 90%, which is off the charts for an unscreened high school in the NYC public school system), AFSE is also doing it’s first annual fundraiser this year.

The fundraiser is on February 3 from 7-10pm at Suite36 on 16 W. 36th Street. AFSE is seeking to raise $125,000 which will give the students in the Class of 2017 the following:  

  • Each student is matched with a professional, college-educated mentor from iMentor for all 4 years of high school. This means an email each week, an in-person meeting each month,  and a go-to person for each phase of high school including completing college applications.
  • Each student receives personalized college counseling through junior and senior years, as well as financial support for SAT/ACT exams, public and private college application fees, college visits and college deposits.
  • Each student who is on track for high school graduation but not on track for college graduation is invited to participate in an intensive OneGoal course for the last two years of high school and first year of college.
  • Each student has access to job shadowing, internships, and other work-based learning experiences to build their personal resumes and apply their learning in a real world context.

If you would like to buy a ticket to the event or donate to it, you can do so here.

Time Zone Management

I spent last week in Utah on Mountain Time and I found myself booking meetings in Europe, NYC, and the Bay Area regularly. I am certain that some of those meetings and resulting calendar entries are going to be wrong, wreaking havoc on me and multiple executive assistants. For some reason the cognitive load of managing multiple time zones in my head is really hard for me. I’ve gotten pretty good at doing the EST and PST thing and can do that in my head without much work. But once I get into three or four time zones at the same time, I can’t keep it all in memory.

I’m curious if there are any tricks, apps, or approaches out there for this sort of thing. I use google calendar on web and iPhone and I’m not moving away from that to solve this issue. So if the solution is to move to a new calendaring app, I don’t think I can go there right now.

But a companion app to google calendar that makes scheduling multiple time zone events would be awesome for me. Does such a thing exist?

And yes, I do have an executive assistant. She is awesome. But sometimes I need to schedule things in real time, or it is personal business which I don’t offload, or it’s something with friends which I also do myself. So while I don’t do a ton of my calendar and scheduling work, I do enough of it, usually on the go on my phone, to make this a problem worth solving. And maybe some of you struggle with this too and are looking for a solution.

So with that, any ideas or suggestions?

Contextual and Granular Notification Controls

I love getting notifications on my phone. I’ve written a lot about notifications, at one point calling the notifications screen “my home screen.”

But I don’t like how we are forced to control notifications, which ones we want, which ones we don’t want, how we want them, etc through the settings in the mobile OS, and/or through the settings in the mobile app. And the controls we are offered are not granular enough for my needs.

What I want is contextual and highly granular notifications controls. What I mean by that is I want to be able to tap on the notification itself (or swipe it, or use some other gesture on it) and get the ability to control it with a lot of granularity.

I have Twitter set up to notify me when certain people I follow tweet. Yesterday I was getting tweet notifications from a Patriots fan I follow. I wanted to mute my friend temporarily from my notification channel and I wanted to do it right from the offending notification.

I get notifications from the NBA App when games are close in the final minutes. This is an awesome feature. But there are only certain games and certain teams where I want that notification. I’d like to be able to tap on a notification telling me that the Lakers Phoenix game is close and tell the NBA app that I don’t care about the Lakers or the Suns and don’t need that notification.

I get notifications from Dark Sky when there is some weather event coming. I’d love to be able to click on that notification and tell Dark Sky to notify me when a rainstorm is coming but not a snowstorm.

Part of what I want is the ability to change the notifications settings in context, right from the notification that generates the desire to change the settings. And part of what I want is way more granularity in the notifications I get.

So for this user experience I want to show up, we need the Android and iOS folks to build more functionality into the way their notifications services work, specifically contextual notification control. But we also need app developers to make their notifications smarter and to give users the ability to control them with a lot more granularity.

Bitcoin Is Dead, Long Live Bitcoin

I’ve been writing about the Bitcoin blocksize debate here at AVC (the only place I write and I’m hard core about that) for the past year. It’s a big deal. At the core of the debate is whether the Bitcoin blockchain should be a settlement layer that supports a number of new blockchains that can be scaled to achieve various goals or whether the Bitcoin blockchain itself should evolve in a way that it can scale to achieve those various goals.

In my simple mind I liken it to this. Should Bitcoin be Gold or should Bitcoin be Visa. If it is Gold, it’s a store of wealth and something to peg value to. If it is Visa, then its a transactional network that can move wealth around the globe in a nanosecond.

Mike Hearn, one of the early members of the Bitcoin core developer team, published a blog post yesterday stating that “Bitcoin Has Failed” in which he explains that the block size stalemate plus a few other big issues have led him to believe that Bitcoin is now a failed experiment.

When one of the most important people in Bitcoin states something like that you have to listen. I read his entire post a couple times. And I generally agree with his description of what has happened and, more importantly, what has not happened. I’m not ready to declare that Bitcoin has failed. But I’ve always viewed Bitcoin as an experiment that could fail and I still do. I personally own a material amount of Bitcoin, but in our personal asset allocation it is at the very bottom, below our wine collection. And I’m not a wine collector.

In every Bitcoin investment we’ve made at USV, and we’ve made four with multiple rounds in one, we have identified the failure of Bitcoin as a core risk element. We haven’t stopped including that in our risk factors. So we have our eyes wide open about the fragility of Bitcoin. But we also have our eyes wide open about the potential and the importance of this technology.

I personally believe we will see a fork accepted by the mining community at some point this year. And that will come with a new set of core developers and some governance about how decisions are made among that core developer team. But it could well take a massive collapse in the price of Bitcoin, breakdowns in the Bitcoin network, or worse to get there. And all of that could cause the whole house of cards to come crashing down. Anything is possible. Even the return of Satoshi to fix things as an AVC regular suggested to me in an email this morning.

The Bitcoin experiment is six years old. There has been a significant amount of venture capital investment in the Bitcoin ecosystem. There are a number of well funded companies competing to build valuable businesses on top of this technology. We are invested in at least one of them. And the competition between these various companies and their visions has played a part in the stalemate. These companies have a lot to gain or lose if Bitcoin survives or fails. So I expect that there will be some rationality, brought on by capitalist behavior, that will emerge or maybe is already emerging.

Sometimes it takes a crisis to get everyone in a room. That’s how the federal budget has been settled for many years now. And that may be how the blocksize debate gets settled to. So if we are going to have a crisis, let’s get on with it. No better time than the present.

Tenacity

One of the things I admire most in companies and their leaders is tenacity. I don’t mean sticking with a failed idea for too long. That is a mistake I see a lot of entrepreneurs make in the Seed and Series A stages. That does nobody any good.

I mean years 5-10, or years 10-15, of building a company. I am talking about the period long past when you find product market fit, long past when you raise your first eight digit round, long past your first revenue check, maybe even long past your first profitable month.

Every successful company I have been involved in has gone through periods where things didn’t work, where something important took too long (a re-architecture project, an important business deal, a fundraising process) and the doubts start to creep in. Employees start to lose faith, the media turns cruel (sometimes deservedly so), and you’ve got to hold it all together. “You” is the founder, CEO, and/or the leading investors and board members.

Most of this holding it together falls on the founder and/or CEO. The investors and directors can help a lot during this period, and, conversely, they can hurt a lot too. An aligned founder, CEO, and board can make these rough periods go a lot easier. A misaligned founder, CEO, and board can be devastating.

So now I’m going to tell some stories to make my point more real.

Yesterday our portfolio company SoundCloud announced that they had finally concluded a licensing deal with the music industry’s largest rights holder, Universal Music Group. In the TechCrunch story about that news Ingrid Lunden noted:

SoundCloud .. inked its first partners deal in August 2014 when it launched On SoundCloud. It announced its first big label deal only in November 2014, with Warner Music. An agreement with Merlin — which represents some 20,000 independent labels — came in June 2015

What Ingrid didn’t say is that the conversations with the music industry that led to these deals started at least a year earlier at the start of 2013. So SoundCloud has been working with the music industry for over three years to get a license in place to allow them to do things that have never been done before.

Alex Ljung, the CEO of SoundCloud, said this in that TechCrunch piece:

if you look at SoundCloud generally it’s the first time someone has tried to do something of this scale. We have over 100 million tracks on the platform and play over 10 million artists in a given month. We are really trying to create a platform that embraces all kinds of creativity, something that never existed before. There is no off-the-shelf solution for licensing for this. We had to work with the whole music industry to create something that never existed before, and that takes a little bit of time.

A little time? Maybe a very long time would be more accurate.

For the past three years the narrative around SoundCloud has been that it was stuck in the mud, that remixes and other derivative content were getting taken down, that labels were forcing artists to take their content off the service. All of which was true, but the real narrative was that SoundCloud was going through a difficult and complicated process of developing a new business model for audio content in partnership with an existing industry that has done things a certain way for a long time. Through all of that period, however, SoundCloud’s user base and listening time grew larger and larger and during that period it became one of the top music apps in the world

music category

Through all of that period, which isn’t entirely over, the leadership of SoundCloud, Alex, his co-founder Eric, and the entire senior team stuck together, kept the business moving forward, built a strong management team, and kept the Board aligned and informed. I believe they have emerged much stronger for the experience.

Another story is Return Path, a company that I have worked with since 2000. Return Path’s founder and CEO Matt Blumberg has started, built, sold off, and built again a number of email services for the enterprise that has become a very large business. Matt has gotten the business profitable three or four times only to choose to incubate and build several new businesses and go back into the red. He has survived at least three of our near death experiences where the company was on fumes and it wasn’t clear how we were going to make it another month. Each time he pulled something off, often with the help of his Board and investors.

It was at Return Path where I learned the value of an engaged and aligned Board. Matt put together a real Board early on, with strong outside directors with operating experience, and he has always leveraged his Board to help him through the tough times. Matt has also built a strong culture inside Return Path which is often cited as one of the best places to work in corporate America.

The lesson from Return Path for me is you can survive the tough times and the near death experiences if you have a team that believes in each other and a Board that is equally engaged and aligned. I doubt Return Path would be around today without both of those things.

Another example is Foursquare. Maybe no USV portfolio company (with the exception of Twitter) has taken it on the chin more for being the “hot company that fell out of favor.” And yet sitting here today, Foursquare has built a very real business that is growing nicely and has a very bright future. They survived a move that almost killed the company (the app splitting decision almost two years ago that is still getting critiqued daily and will certainly be critiqued in this comment thread). Their financing processes have played out in the press with a transparency that few companies could tolerate.

And through all of this the founder Dennis Crowley and his team have taken the hits and kept moving forward. They have built technology for detecting locations that is state of the art. They have a location API that I believe is the most used location API in the business. They have kept improving and evolving the best localized mobile search experience and the most fun local social experience. And they have built a real business that is sustainable and has attractive economics.

You can say what you will about Foursquare, and don’t bother because it most certainly has already been said and not very nicely, but it has survived and is thriving. Very few understand that, but those close to the company do. Which is the hallmark of a tenacious and durable founder and leader and his or her company.

I’m almost done but before I wrap this longish post, I’d like to say something about the now public USV portfolio companies. I can’t and won’t talk specifically about their businesses because they are public and I don’t want to go there. I also own large positions in each and every one of them. Their stock prices are all, without exception, in the dumps. And yet I believe in each and every one of them and their leadership and their prospects. They are all led by tenacious leaders and teams who I believe will keep their heads down and execute and get through the negativity and second guessing that is coming at each and every one of them. I admire these companies more today than ever.

Building and operating a business is not easy. I believe it gets harder, not easier, as the years pile up. That is where tenacity and believing in yourself and your team and your business is required. The leaders who exhibit that have a special place in my heart and my head.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, Turn and face the strange  David Bowie

Just this week I’ve been on the receiving end of a half dozen of those emails. They start with the news that a valued colleague has made the decision to move on. It goes on to thank everyone for a wonderful experience and ends with best wishes.

It’s that time of year. Year end bonuses have been paid. Quotas have been earned. Options have vested. And so people are moving on. Or arriving.

I grew up an army brat. Every spring my dad would come home from work and tell us where we were moving to that summer. I didn’t know that people lived any other way. Each fall I’d find myself in a new school, facing the strange.

So I’m a fan of changes. I crave them. And so when I get one of those emails, I’m happy for the person and hopeful that they will find new challenges and new colleagues and friends in their next endeavor.

But what about the company that is being left behind? Well every departure is an opportunity to rethink the role and the organization. You can’t find an exact replica of the person who has left. But you can find a person who will bring different things. You can split the role in two. Or you can even choose to eliminate it.

My advice to the leaders of our portfolio companies is to embrace change and the possibilities it brings. And, even more importantly, I advise leaders to be open and transparent about the change and how it opens up opportunities for the organization.

The thing I caution against is the tendency to get upset at departures and departing employees. I’ve seen leaders take the mob boss approach of “your are dead to me now” with departing employees. The better approach, which I think is a hallmark of great companies, is the idea that departing employees who leave on great terms are roving ambassadors for your organization. After all, you never know when you are going to come across someone again in business. And it might be a situation where you need something from them.

It sucks to lose a valued colleague or employee or boss. It creates anxiety in the organization about what is going to happen next. But if you are working in or leading a startup you signed up for a boatload of change. Accept it. Embrace it. Make it work for you. Because you can’t make it go away.

Network Equity

Our portfolio company LaRuche is leading an effort in France to allow platforms to share the equity in their businesses to the broader network of participants on their platform. As more and more businesses leverage the power of networks to create economic value, there is a question of whether the network participants should share in the value they help create.

Reddit has expressed a desire to share equity in Reddit with its community and went as far to announce that intention when it raised capital in the fall of 2014. The last I heard, Reddit had put those plans on hold in anticipation of more regulatory clarity around this issue.

Regulatory clarity is what is lacking, both in the US and in other countries, and France is no exception. Marc-David Choukroun, co-founder and CEO of LaRuche, wrote a tribune in Les Echos, the leading financial newspaper in France, explaining his views on the issue. I’ve pasted a translation of it here:

Long seen as the future, the sharing economy is now accused of being responsible for all society’s ills. In response, some experts on the new economy have suggested that platforms should be transformed into cooperatives. But is that really such a good idea?

By Marc-David Choukroun, CEO of The Food Assembly (La Ruche qui dit Oui !).

Not so long ago, the sharing economy was seen pretty much universally as a sort of magic bullet for the social and environmental crises of our times. Then, all of a sudden, the tone changed. The new economy was blamed for a whole swathe of ills, including widespread job insecurity, excessive commercialisation, and generalized fraud. The spectre of “Uberisation” is hanging over the world. The problem is that, while attempting to apply this concept to just about anything, we foolishly let the debate become polarised between the partisans of California-style capitalism and the white knights of the common good.

In the midst of this great wave of criticism, which has often been justified but sometimes excessive, the following idea is increasingly being put forward: that online platforms should be transformed into cooperatives. Give or take a few details, is the sharing economy not a form of unconscious mutualism? Indeed, leading specialists in the new economy met recently at a conference entitled “Platform Cooperativism” in New York to debate this question.

There are upsides to the idea: after all, the concern of fair sharing of value between users, freelancers and platforms themselves is a fully legitimate one. But I am rather afraid that this idea may be a bit more difficult to put in place than it seems. As things stand, the structure of a cooperative involves a lot of complications that make it ill-adapted to digital companies.

In 2011, I co-founded a collaborative platform called “La Ruche qui dit Oui !” (“The Food Assembly” in English). At the time, the concept of the “sharing economy” hadn’t yet emerged. And to be quite honest, we didn’t care much about labels. We knew that if we were to have any chance of taking the slightest bit of ground from the giants of food distribution, we could not afford to remain just one more “local food” initiative. And if, as we say in start-up jargon, we were to “scale up”, then the form of a commercial enterprise was a must.

Is there a legal structure that is perfectly suited to this sort of hybrid entity, somewhere in between a conventional business and a network? We very seriously considered the cooperative option a year ago. The conclusion was clear: as things stand, the idea doesn’t really stand up. The form of a cooperative involves a certain number of requirements that are complicated, and above all incompatible with managing an innovative start-up. Firstly, their governance is arduous and complex, while agility is needed. And secondly, the diversity of statuses and motivations in our network – some are guided by a spirit of activism, while others are simply seeking some extra income – is one of the strengths of our model. Another major difficulty is that the shares in cooperatives are fixed at their nominal value of issue, which is just inconceivable for a growing start-up(*).  

It is also difficult for cooperatives to raise funds, as the complexity of their structure tends to deter investors, yet the costs of developing and maintaining a platform are far from negligible: the largest collaborative platforms employ hundreds of developers. It is therefore best to avoid economic purism and one-size-fits-all solutions.

That does not mean that the issue of sharing value fairly should not be raised – far from it. It is evident that the success of a collaborative model relies largely on the commitment of the members of its community of contributors. It would be fair to be able to involve this new type of entrepreneurs in the company’s capital. In an economy that involves more and more freelancers, this is even a key issue.

Yet instruments to reward them already exist and simply need to be adapted, such as stock warrants for business creators (bons de souscription de parts de créateur d’entreprise, BSPCE) in France. These are stock options that can be awarded free of charge to the employees of a company. To strengthen our ties with the freelancers in our network, this instrument could simply be expanded beyond employees alone – for a new sharing of risk, a new sharing of value is needed. A cooperative system compatible with the digital economy still needs to be built, so let us start by laying the first foundations.

Marc-David Choukroun is a co-founder and the CEO of The Food Assembly (La Ruche qui dit Oui !).

(*) On this specific point, it is important to note that a number of exceptions are possible, complicating matters further still.

Like many political debates, there are many views on this issue. The purists would like to see cooperativism strengthened and applied to these platforms. Others want to regulate these platforms to protect the workers/freelancers in a union style model. But the middle ground, which seems more sensible to me, is to allow platforms an easy and elegant way to share their equity with network participants so that the broader ecosystem can share in the value these platforms are creating.

I hope the French government sees the wisdom of this approach. It would be great if governments around the world, including, of course, the US government, would evolve the legal and taxation frameworks around the sharing of equity so that network platforms can choose to share the value creation with their broader ecosystem.