Posts from August 2018

Feature Friday: Gmail Reminders

I don’t know when Gmail started doing these for me but it was around the time I switched over to the new UI. Most likely this is one of the features of that new UI.

When I have not responded to an email that Gmail thinks is important, or when someone has not responded to an email from me that Gmail thinks is important, it resurfaces that email near the top of my inbox.

It looks like this:

The first email is a reply I sent to an email and the recipient has not responded in seven days. Gmail is suggesting that I follow up.

The second is a back and forth with my brother and I failed to reply to his latest. I just did. Thanks Gmail.

While this is a relatively small feature in the overall Gmail offering, I have found it quite useful in the month or two that I have had it.

Thanks Google.

Atoms and Bits

There is a framework I’ve/we’ve used over the years to think about where to invest and where not to invest that I call “atoms vs bits.”

I am not sure where I got it from but the concept is simple. Is the software being built and taken to market dealing with just bits or are atoms also involved?

The idea being that it is going to be easier to make something work if there are just bits involved. Atoms make things more complicated and more expensive.

In the 90s, when I first came across this framework, it led us/me to focus on areas like media and financial services where the product was end to end digital. And the first industries to be truly disrupted by the Internet were the ones, like media and financial services, that are end to end digital (or can be).

I’ve held on to this framework over the years and while we’ve veered from it from time to time, often unfortunately, it still holds up.

If you look at machine learning, possibly the most impactful technology right now (and I mean right now), you can see this at work.

Machine learning algorithms have massively transformed online advertising (just bits), online commerce (just bits on the UI), trading of financial assets (just bits), and our attention (just bits and neurons).

But in areas where atoms are involved, not so much. There appears to be a growing acknowledgement in the tech sector that the timeline to fully autonomous vehicles is going to be longer than some had thought. It is not that surprising. There are lots of atoms and lives involved.

I’ve been waiting patiently for the day that I don’t have to do the dishes after yet another amazing meal by The Gotham Gal. I will likely wait longer. Atoms are involved.

I am not saying that we should not work on these harder problems. We should. But we should also understand that the timelines will be longer and the road to adoption will be more challenging. That means these efforts will be more capital intensive and should ideally be investable at more attractive valuations. Sadly the latter has not been the case.

When you are investing other people’s money, you need to be mindful of where the timelines are shortest and the path easiest. And that has been bits for the totality of my investing career.

Crypto On Campus

Our portfolio company Coinbase partnered with Qriously to study the adoption of blockchain and crypto on campuses around the world.

They published their findings on the Coinbase blog yesterday.

Here are some interesting findings:

Stanford, Cornell, and Penn lead the way in the number of crypto and blockchain courses offered to students.

Blockchain and crypto courses are taught by math, science, business, finance, and social sciences departments.

 

Almost 20% of surveyed students own crypto assets and 26% want to take a course on crypto.

You can read the entire report here.

Chromebook

I’ve been thinking about moving from a Mac to a Chromebook as my primary computing device.

I have not used desktop software for probably a decade now. The browser is how I do all of my desktop computing. Paying up for a full blown computer when all I need is a browser seems like a waste.

And there are some security things that appeal to me about a Chromebook. I like the ability to do two factor authentication on signing into the device, for example.

I am curious what advice those of you who use Chromebooks have for me.

I like to use a desktop style setup vs a laptop unless I am traveling. So the Acer Chromebase and Chromebox look interesting to me.

But I am hearing great things about the Pixelbook and am wondering if I should start there.

I am also curious how one uses a Password Manager on a Chromebook. That’s the one desktop app that I regularly use.

If you have any advice for me as I consider this move, I would appreciate hearing it.

Being Public

The back and forth that Elon Musk did over the last few weeks about being public begs the question about whether the challenges of operating a public company outweigh the benefits.

Elon wrote this in a letter to Tesla’s employees:

As a public company, we are subject to wild swings in our stock price that can be a major distraction for everyone working at Tesla, all of whom are shareholders. Being public also subjects us to the quarterly earnings cycle that puts enormous pressure on Tesla to make decisions that may be right for a given quarter, but not necessarily right for the long-term. Finally, as the most shorted stock in the history of the stock market, being public means that there are large numbers of people who have the incentive to attack the company.

I fundamentally believe that we are at our best when everyone is focused on executing, when we can remain focused on our long-term mission, and when there are not perverse incentives for people to try to harm what we’re all trying to achieve.

A few weeks later, Elon wrote this:

After considering all of these factors, I met with Tesla’s Board of Directors yesterday and let them know that I believe the better path is for Tesla to remain public. The Board indicated that they agree.

So which is it?

I strongly believe that being public is the best form of shareholder ownership for the vast majority of companies and advocate for that path to the companies in the USV portfolio that have the opportunity to be a public company.

The pressure of quarter to quarter execution is hard on a team. But running a company is hard. And the accountability that comes from this quarterly reporting is a good thing too. If you have problems in your business, you can’t hide them. You have to come clean about them, deal with the implications of them, and fix them.

The long-term vs short-term thing is the critique I hear most often. But I don’t buy it. The best run public companies manage to think and act with a long-term focus while being public. I think it comes down to leadership, courage, and foresight more than whether you are public or not.

Stock price volatility is a factor no matter if you are public or not. At least when you are public, everyone knows when your valuation is going down. Private companies are able to hide that from their employees, the media, and others. Which is just kicking the can down the road and that always ends badly. I prefer the transparency of being public on this one.

And the short seller argument is nonsense. People are always working against you. Your competitors are working against you. The media may be working against you. The regulators may be working against you. Short sellers are just another group that wants to see you fail. But they are not the only ones and you can make them pay by executing against your commitments and guidance.

For me, it just comes down to leadership, courage, execution, and setting and meeting expectations. All good companies must have those in place. If you do, being public is not only manageable but preferable.

And I am pleased to see more and more high growth tech companies coming to this conclusion and taking the plunge.

Duty Honor Country

I was born at and spent a fair bit of my childhood at the United States Military Academy where my father taught engineering.

It’s a magnificent and beautiful place, full of history and meaning.

The motto of the academy, enshrined in its coat of arms, is “Duty Honor Country”.

In 1962, when I was less than a year old, General Douglas MacArthur came to West Point to accept the Sylvanus Thayer Award and gave the famous Duty Honor Country speech, in which he said:

“Duty, Honor, Country” — those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. 

I am reminded of those words upon the passing of John McCain, a man who embodied them in the world of politics that is mostly bereft of them.

Though I did not vote for John McCain when he ran against Barack Obama in 2008, I always appreciated the way he conducted himself in a political system that mostly seems to bring out the worst in people.

He was a sharp contrast with our current President, who exhibits none of these values.

Rest In Peace John McCain. You were a great American.

Funding Friday: The Last Blockbuster

We’ve been talking about the “over the top” video business and other related subjects here at AVC.

But this documentary is about something whose time has come and gone.

The video rental store.

I backed this project to make a documentary about The Last Blockbuster earlier this week.

I can’t wait to watch it when it comes out.

Mapping A City

My friend Ro Gupta co-founded and runs a company called Carmera which makes real-time HD maps for the autonomous driving market.

They do this by operating “an owned and professionally crowdsourced vehicular sensor network” (ie Google StreetView) which captures real-time data about what is happening at street level.

In an announcement they made today, they describe a partnership with the City of New York in which they “will share data with the NYC Department of Transportation, including historical pedestrian density analytics and real-time construction detection events. In turn, we’ll gain access to key city data sets that allow all parties to work together to improve the accuracy of street inventories while doing our part to increase private-public transparency.”

This is an example of a pedestrian density map of the west village in NYC, where we live.

This is an example of a growing trend I am seeing where tech companies, which traditionally have wanted to “do it ourselves”, are partnering with the broader ecosystem (large companies, governments, public agencies, etc) to build more comprehensive data sets.

It is also an example of goverments and other large bureaucracies getting more comfortable sharing their data and being more open to working with startups and the broader tech sector.

This is a very hopeful trend.

We have significant problems to solve in the coming decades around a warming planet, overloaded and failing transportation systems and urban infrastructure, and many other things.

If all sectors of society come together to work on these problems, we stand a much better chance of solving them.

The 30% Tax

Apple and Google’s duopoly on mobile operating systems give those two companies incredible power in the market and one of the most obvious places to see that power is the 30% tax they take on transactions that happen in their app stores. For subscriptions the tax is 30% in year one and 15% on the renewal.

Typically transaction fees on payments are 5% or lower with the credit card networks being the obvious comparison at roughly 3%.

But Apple and Google are able to charge 5-10x what a typical payment system charges because of their dominant market position and because the economics of acquiring a customer and renewing that customer in their ecosystem is so strong.

While it is hard to stomach the 30% number, it is the case that many companies have done the work to look at their acquisition and retention numbers in and out of these environments and often it is the case that paying the 30% tax is rational behavior.

So I was interested to see that Netflix is currently testing a bypass strategy. Certainly the biggest brands like Netflix and Spotify have the market power to at least consider this approach.

If the biggest brands can condition users to bypass the app stores maybe we are seeing the beginning of a crack in the armor. It may also be possible for these big brands to bundle subscription offerings and take a piece of the action themselves.

Imagine if Netflix let you subscribe to a bunch of other services via your Netflix account which you pay for directly on the web outside of the app stores. Or imagine if Amazon offered something similar.

The economics of that relationship for a smaller company could be more attractive than the economics of the current Apple and Google channels. And most companies would likely participate in multiple channels, including the app stores, as well as sell direct.

It seems inevitable that subscription bundling is going to happen. It already does via the Apple and Google app stores but that’s a crude version of what I’m thinking is on the horizon.

Consumers have demonstrated a willingness to pay for the apps and the content they value most. The subscription business model is a terrific one that aligns the interests of a company and it’s customers. But managing dozens of subscriptions via multiple payment systems is annoying. And there should be attractive economics for both bundlers and bundled apps.

So while I’m not predicting the end of the 30% tax anytime soon, I do think we will see Apple and Google’s largest competitors build significant bypass user bases and potentially start competing with Apple and Google in the subscription bundling business. There is a lot of money up for grabs and I think at least some of it is available for companies other than Apple and Google.