Posts from 2023

The Rebrand

I’d guess that upwards of half of USV’s portfolio companies have changed the name of their company during their lifetime. It is not hard to understand why. Founders start out with an idea and not much more. By the time they have built a product, built a team, and found product market fit, they might be doing something a bit different or a lot different than where they started out.

Most often the name change comes in the first few years when the business opportunity comes into clarity and the original name becomes an issue.

But occasionally it comes much later in life.

A good example of the later in life name change is our portfolio company Dronebase which changed its name to Zeitview this week. We made a seed investment in Dronebase eight years ago about six months after the company was formed. So the company is in its ninth year.

Zietview does aerial inspections of buildings, renewable energy infrastructure, and telecommunications systems using advanced AI/ML software. It is a high-growth business that just raised a $50mm late-stage round.

Over time, the company has adopted many techniques to acquire the imagery that they use to do the AI/ML inspections. Drones are still a big part of the mix but only when they are the best way to acquire the imagery.

So it came time for a rebrand. The Company took its time, thought a lot about it, hired a rebranding agency, surveyed all of its stakeholders, cleared all of the typical conflicts, and landed on Zeitview. They rolled out the name change this week.

I will miss the name Dronebase. I have had good success investing in companies with “base” in the name 🙂 But I am already warming to Zeitview. The two-syllable name with a well-known noun in the second spot is always a great approach to a name.

#entrepreneurship

The Cleanse

I’ve never done a cleanse. But many of my friends and family members have done them. There are various flavors of cleanses but the basic idea is you cut back your consumption of food and drink and replace it with mostly liquid nutrition for anywhere from a day to a month. I believe the most common lengths are in and around one week.

As I understand it, the theory behind the cleanse is it helps your body eliminate all sorts of toxins that build up over time from a poor diet and other unhealthy practices and allows you to reset. I’m told that people feel great when they complete the cleanse.

I like to think of what we’ve been going through in the tech sector/startup land/venture capital over the last year as a cleanse. Things had gotten so nutty, frothy, and out of control that we needed a reset. It was not just valuations that got out of whack, although they certainly did. Cost structures got out of whack. Compensation structures got out of whack. Company cultures got out of whack. Venture capital firms got out of whack.

Things just moved too fast, we lost track of what made sense, and focused on doing more than thinking. Everyone was reacting to everyone and everything. All of this hyperactive behavior was driven by fear of missing out and the idea that the path to success was more, more, more.

So now we have stopped eating all of that bad food and drink and are on a liquid diet of cost containment, extending runways, focusing on unit economics, getting back to deal sizes and valuations that make sense for the long run, and growing profitably.

The first few days of a cleanse are apparently unpleasant. And the last year of the tech downturn has also been unpleasant. Lots of people have lost good-paying jobs. VC portfolios have been marked down upwards of 50% and more. Stock prices of publicly traded tech companies are down between 30% and 80%. It has been hard for many people.

It is my view that we are entering the part of the cleanse where the body has adjusted and is starting to feel better. Everyone is starting to get comfortable in the new normal.

This cleanse is likely to continue for most, if not all, of 2023 but I think it gets easier from here. At least for most people who work in tech and startups.

And when it is over, sometime in the next twelve to eighteen months, possibly sooner, we should all feel a lot better. New technologies are emerging that provide a lot of opportunities to start and build new companies. The pool of talent that is sitting on the sidelines and available to work in these new companies is quite substantial. We are already seeing the seeds of all this being planted now.

For established companies that grew up in the go go years, my mindset is to survive the downturn and invest in new products and services that the market will want when things snap back. Many/most of the companies that I get to work with are doing just that. I think they will be rewarded for getting back to basics, building and shipping new things, and improving their products and services meaningfully during the downturn.

I’ve been through a few down cycles now that I am in my fifth decade in tech/startups/venture capital and while they are all a bit different, they all eventually end and those who survived, invested and built, and improved their market positions materially during the downturn have always been rewarded for that. I see no reason why that would not be the case this time as well.

#VC & Technology

The AI Assist

I wrote last week that I have started coding again. And I have been amazed at how much easier it is now that I can code and deploy in the cloud without having to spin up anything myself.

But the other massive improvement in programming is the “AI assist.”

I am working in a Javascript library called jQuery and I don’t really understand its commands and syntax very well.

So I turned to ChatGPT last week and got back this:

That is like having every line of code commented out so you know exactly what it is doing. Once I understood what the code was doing, it was pretty simple to edit it to do something different.

GitHub also has a service called CoPilot that I have just set up so I haven’t used it yet. They call it “your AI pair programmer” which sounds like exactly what I need. I hope to get it working this week and that will help me even more.

Like all things AI, some will say that machines will replace humans in writing code. I think that could happen, but what certainly is happening is machines are making humans more productive in writing code. AND AI is allowing humans who aren’t very good at writing code to be able to do it much more easily.

The machines replacing humans narrative is powerful. But the narrative I prefer is that AI is making things available that have been expensive and unobtainable for so many. And that is not limited to programming. It is true of so many things.

#machine learning

Coding Again

It has been many years since I’ve written code. I’ve hacked around in HTML and CSS a bit on this blog and a few other places. But I have not actually written an application in a very long time. I think it might be thirty years since I’ve done any real programming.

Over the year-end break, my partner Nick taught me how to use GitHub Codespaces and Netlify to quickly spin up development and deployment environments. I forked his Google Sheets NFT Playlist app and have been making changes to it to suit my needs.

Forking someone else’s application is a lot easier than starting from scratch. I always encourage teachers who are introducing students to coding to start that way. There is nothing more intimidating than a blank screen.

Coding is like solving puzzles. It stretches the mind and causes you to think in different ways. I quite enjoy it and I’m glad that I am doing it again. Debugging something to make it work correctly is also a lot of fun for me.

It is really amazing how easy it is to write and deploy code in the cloud these days. I hope that I will use my new Github Codespace and Netlify accounts to make some fun things this year and beyond.

#non fungible tokens

Machine Learning and Schools

I read last week that the NYC Department of Education has banned ChatGPT from its networks and devices. I understand that reaction and mentioned the issues that AI/ML create for educators in a post a few weeks ago.

I attended a dinner this past week with USV portfolio founders and one who works in education told us that ChatGPT has effectively ended the essay as a way for teachers to assess student progress. It will be easier for a student to prompt ChatGPT to write the essay than to write it themselves.

However, I would like to suggest that educators embrace these new tools rather than block them.

We are entering an era when AIs will be available to everyone to use to do work, entertain ourselves, and many other things. We cannot put this genie back in the bottle. We need to embrace it.

I think a better approach would be to require students to use ChatGPT to write an essay or at least help write an essay and then have the students compete to see who can leverage this technology to create the best essay. That would teach the students to use these tools rather than pretend they don’t exist.

I own a slide rule that my dad gave me. He used it for many years until calculators emerged. He told me when calculators first showed up, many educators wanted their students to continue to use slide rules. But eventually, they realized that calculators were better and embraced them.

I think the same thing will happen with AIs. So we might as well get busy integrating them into education instead of banning them.

#hacking education#machine learning

What Will Happen In 2023

I want to focus this post on the macro environment for tech, startups, web3, and climate because that is where my head is at right now.

I believe that sometime in the first half of 2023, the central banks around the world will start backing off the tightening that they have been engaged in as inflation continues to ease and the economy continues to cool. Interest rates will level off in the first half of 2023 and I think there is a good chance of a “soft landing” or a very mild recession in 2023.

With that macro view in mind, what would that mean for tech, startups, and web3?

The largest tech companies will emerge from this downturn leaner and more profitable and growing more slowly. They will be mature businesses that behave like the blue chips that they are. I think these companies, like Apple, Amazon, and possibly Google, will see their stocks come back into favor ahead of everything else in tech. I am hedging on Google because I believe the massive advances in AI/ML that we are seeing right now may be a threat to their core search franchise.

Startups are going to have a tough year in 2023. While many have gotten their burn rates way down, most startups still are losing money and will eventually need to raise capital in 2023. Because most startups avoided raising in 2022, there will be a glut of startup companies in the market for capital this year and while there is plenty of venture capital sitting on the sidelines waiting to be deployed, VCs will be much more selective, instead of funding everything that moves as we’ve done over the last few years.

Good businesses with product market fit, positive unit economics, and strong leadership teams will raise capital although it will be at the new normal in terms of valuation. I believe that “new normal” is more or less where we were in 2015 where seed rounds were done around $10mm, A rounds were done around $15mm to $25mm, B rounds were done around $25mm to $50mm, and growth rounds had a cap at 10x revenues. This new normal will lead to many flat rounds, down rounds, inside rounds, and rounds with a lot of structure on them. None of that is good, but the worst of those options is rounds with a lot of structure. I believe founders and CEOS and Boards should take the pain of a new valuation (flat, down, whatever) over structure.

But there is a huge number of startups out there that have not really found product market fit, have not created positive unit economics, and have unresolved issues in their founding teams and leadership teams. These startups will struggle to raise capital at any price and most of them will fail. This has already started to happen but because so much capital was raised in 2021 and the early part of 2022, it has taken longer for these companies to fail. I think we will see a lot of startups in this category go under or taken out in fire sales in the first half of 2023.

While all of that sounds gloomy and downright horrible, I do think the startup sector will end the year in a much better place. The good companies will have gotten funded, the bad ones will have shut down, and VCs will be back to competing with each other to win deals, which is where founders always want VCs to be.

I think web3 will behave similarly in some respects but different in others.

I think the large caps in web3 (BTC and ETH mainly) will start to attract more interest from investors and should do well in 2023. I am more bullish on ETH personally because it has the best underlying economic model of any web3 asset.

Like the startup sector more broadly, web3 will go through a triage of sorts in 2023. Projects and protocols that have found product market fit, have real token economics, and ship new features quickly will attract new interest and rise in value. But many web3 projects have not found product market fit, have weak or no token economics, and do not execute well and I think we will see many of them continue to flounder and fail in 2023.

There is a much larger overhang in web3 right now when compared to the broader startup and tech sectors. There are entities that are insolvent but have not been restructured. There are funds that are so far under water that they may be forced to liquidate. These kinds of activities will produce ongoing sell pressure on web3 tokens for at least the first quarter of 2023 and maybe for much longer.

While there are compelling values out there in web3, I am not convinced that it is safe to go back into the water just yet unless you have a very strong stomach and a very long time horizon.

Climate, where USV has been actively investing for the last three years and now has two funds dedicated to the sector, has mostly been spared the carnage that has hit the other parts of USV’s portfolio. 2022 brought largely good news to the sector in the form of the oddly named Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) that will flow billions of dollars of capital into the sector over the next decade. Many leading VC firms have dedicated climate funds now and we see huge amounts of capital available for climate startups with strong teams and novel approaches.

Last year I predicted 2022 would be a big year for carbon credits and while we saw a lot of growth in the market for these credits, particularly among the large tech companies, I was way too optimistic about how fast the market would grow. That said, I think 2023 will bring more growth in this market which provides the underlying business model to many of the new climate startups VCs are funding right now.

We are also seeing a noticeable movement of tech and startup talent into the climate sector in search of new problems to solve, more meaning in their work, and many more job openings too. I think 2023 will be a big year for this talent migration.

There is a pattern to much of this and it is that 2023 is going to be a tough year for most but those that get through it should find themselves in a good place, with leaner cost structures, less competition, and healthier employer/employee dynamics. Surviving is thriving in 2023.

So to everyone who is reading this, Happy 2023. Buckle up, hang tough, and be smart.

#blockchain#climate crisis#crypto#economics#employment#entrepreneurship#management#stocks#VC & Technology#Web/Tech#Web3