Posts from NYC

An Open Letter To Jeff Bezos

This ran as a full page ad in the New York Times today. I signed it along with the top labor leaders in NYC, the top political leaders in NYC, top business execs, and the leaders of NYC’s higher education institutions. I believe it was a mistake by Amazon to pull out of NYC and I very much hope they will reconsider.

Token Summit IV

Chris Burniske reminded me yesterday of something I said a while ago:

We are in the post crash cycle in crypto and that has made the sector interesting to me again. Prices are way down and there is a lot of great work being done on projects we are invested in and projects we want to invest in.

And no better place to soak up all of that progress than at Token Summit IV, run by our friends William Mougayar and Nick Tomainoon May 16th in NYC.

When William asked me if I thought they should do it this year, I said “hell yes” but also suggested that they dial it back in line with crypto prices. And that is what they have done.

They are capping the number of attendees at 550, about the same number they had at the inaugural Token Summit in May 2017. They are planning to do it at an intimate venue and keep the content and attendee list very tight.

The first 200 early bird tickets are available for purchase immediately at a price of $699. After 200, anyone can sign up but they will be “invite only” and they are selecting signups based on quality, experience and diversity of thought they bring.

This year’s Token Summit will focus on the following issues:

  • Cryptonetworks and open source blockchain protocols versus startups: what are the differences and similarities?
  • Open finance: what are the challenges to getting open, global financial products in the hands of millions of users?
  • dApp development: can next-generation dApp platforms be a catalyst for greater adoption?
  • Latest practices in extracting blockchain data for insight: what can we learn and why is this important now?
  • Are we decentralized yet? Is there an optimal criteria for decentralization, and how do we get there?
  • How do we quantify the value of blockchain protocols, and applications?
  • What are the success factors in deploying decentralized protocols?
  • Decentralized governance – what is working now versus what is experimental?
  • Tokens evolution- what are the best cases with real innovation, real users and real benefits?
  • The regulatory front: Is the US losing its position as the standard bearer? Is there a perfect jurisdiction?


NYC Is Savills’ Top Tech City

Savills World Research, a global property agent, has been ranking the world’s top tech cities based on a bunch of criteria for years. In this year’s rankings, NYC tops SF to become the number one tech city in the world.

This is just one survey and I am certainly not going to assert that NYC has surpassed the bay area in terms of the best place to start a tech company.

But the bay area is absolutely struggling with some challenges. Labor and real estate costs have skyrocketed in the last decade. And from what we are seeing it is easier to convince someone to leave the bay area and move to LA or NYC than it has been in the past. The bay area is not an easy place to live and work anymore.

Truth be told, NYC has some of those same issues, but it has the benefit of five boroughs, a mass transit system that even with all of its problems moves 5.5mm riders a day, and a vibrant business community that is diverse and talented.

Another truth is that any of those thirty cities would be a fine place to start a company. Tech has gone global and so has tech talent. And investors are eager to fund innovative tech companies in many places around the globe.

USV has portfolio companies in about a dozen of those top thirty cities and, while we limit our investments to North America and Western Europe, we certainly hope to increase that number in the coming years.

But regardless of all of that, I am proud of what NYC has been able to accomplish over the last twenty-five years. In the mid 90s, I doubt NYC would have been a top ten city on this list. And now it is number one. Well done Gotham.

The Amazon Backlash

NY State Senator Michael Gianaris is leading the efforts to stop Amazon from opening up a large presence in the borough of Queens in NYC.

I get that this makes for good politics at some level. Standing up for the taxpayer and expressing outrage at a massive tax giveaway to the one of the wealthiest companies in the world, run by one of the wealthiest people in the world, makes for great stump speeches.

But there is one problem with all of that. The voters and taxpayers in Queens, particularly the minority voters and taxpayers, approve of Amazon’s move to Queens by very large margins.

The very people that Gianaris and others like Ocasio-Cortez represent and are “standing up for” want Amazon in Queens by large margins.

What the voters and citizens of Queens seem to understand is that this is a once in a decade type opportunity to change the face of a borough and a city.

As historian Kenneth Jackson explained in this excellent NY Times Op-Ed piece yesterday, history shows that the economic fortunes of cities change quickly with once dominant industries moving on and new ones arriving. This is a fantastic opportunity for NYC to cement its role as a leading tech sector and one that should not be missed. There is no guarantee that the NYC of tomorrow will be as vital as the NYC of today. We have to work to make it so and this effort to recruit Amazon to NYC is exactly the kind of work which will make it so.

My friend Kathy Wylde also penned an important argument in favor of Amazon in yesterday’s Daily News. Kathy explains that Queens has been planning for this sort of thing in Long Island City for over a decade and many of the issues that the rabble rousers are raising have been considered, planned for, and are already being worked on.

In my view, politicians like Gianaris and Ocasio-Cortez are being irresponsible and reckless in their opposition to Amazon while playing politics with something that is without question good for NYC, good for Queens, and good for their voters. Their voters know it and so should they.

Winternships

I heard about a cool program that helps NYC tech companies build more diverse teams. It is called Winternships.

The program is run by a group called WiTNY (Women in Tech and Entrepreneurship in NY) which is a three year-old collaboration between Cornell Tech and CUNY to drive more female students into tech majors or minors, and into the NYC tech ecosystem.

It works like this:

A Winternship is a paid, three-week internship experience during the January academic recess for freshman and sophomore women in tech. Participating companies design an ‘immersion’ experience in their business – students sit in on meetings, meet executives, go on site visits — and they work together on a challenge project that they pitch on the last day. WiTNY identifies students based on a match between your needs and their skills. Their team will even help you craft the Wintern experience if you want.

Here are some stats on the program:

Last January, 46 companies raised their hand and welcomed 177 CUNY women into their companies. Amazingly, 54% of these young women were able to parlay that experience into a paid summer tech internship somewhere in the city.

And here is the demographic of the CUNY student body:

CUNY is among the largest and most diverse universities in the country, with 250,000 undergrads and approximately 85% students of color.

If your team is trying to figure out how to diversify your internship and entry level hires, or just want to open your doors to transform the lives of young New Yorkers, considering hiring a Wintern team this January. And if you’re a small startup or a non-profit, WiTNY will even pay the student stipends for you.

Sounds great, right? If you want to host a Winternship at your company this January, you can get started here.

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.

A Fair Share From Airbnb

I will be attending a press event today in NYC where Airbnb is announcing a $10mm program to support local efforts that improve the lives of New York State residents.

Airbnb calls this program A Fair Share and it estimates that the $10mm is just 10% of what a home sharing tax in New York State would produce for the city and state governments.

The $10mm in financial support is going to seven organizations. They are:

  • The New York Immigration Coalition

  • New York Mortgage Coalition

  • New York State Rural Housing Coalition, Inc.

  • Win

  • GMHC

  • CSNYC

  • Abyssinian Development Corporation

These are all organizations that benefit from city and state tax dollars but need to tap into the generosity of others to deliver their services.

Take CSNYC, where I am leading the $40mm CS4All private sector capital campaign to bring computer science education to every public school building in NYC. CS4All is a ten-year $80mm effort develop over 5,000 public school computer science teachers. Half of that $80mm is coming from the NYC taxpayers. The other half is being raised from private donors. Airbnb’s generous support helps us meet our budget this year and beyond and we are very grateful for it.

But there is a larger point being made here and one that I want to highlight. Airbnb wants to operate legitimately in New York City and New York State. It wants to collect taxes on behalf of hosts of non-hotel accommodations in New York. And it wants to be a positive force for the economy in New York. But its opponents, largely the hotel industry and its employees, are standing in the way of that. This is politics getting in the way of good sense. And that is irritating to me as a citizen of New York City and New York State.

I am thrilled to accept the generosity of Airbnb on behalf of CSNYC and I am also happy to be a participant in helping Airbnb make a larger point about what is right and what should happen here. I hope that A Fair Share helps them do that.

What Was, What Is, and What Will Be

A friend shared this book and blog with me called Vanishing New York. Both chronicle the loss of the culture and institutions that made NYC a magical place to live in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Certainly rising rents, rising wealth, a rising proportion of apartments owned by people who don’t live here, and all in all, a major bout of affluenza is afflicting Manhattan and possibly greater NYC right now.

But I personally struggle with sentimentality and wistfulness. Yes, the NYC that I fell in love the in the early 80s is no more, replaced by something that is much harder to sing the praises of.

But what interests me more is not what was or even what is, but what will be?

Where is NYC heading?

How will it manage it’s transportation crisis?

How will it cope with rising sea levels?

How will it deal with entire blocks of empty store fronts, brought on by the rise of ecommerce and landlords who won’t accept that their space is no longer worth what it once was?

I loved this Atlantic piece that suggested NYC should reimagine it’s massive array of subway tunnels as the underground highways for autonomous vehicles. I have no idea if that is a good idea or even feasible. But I love the ingenuity and thinking the author displays.

The Gotham Gal and I are making an apartment building in Brooklyn that is heated and cooled by solar power and has enough left over that we can sell it to the deregulating energy markets in New York State. We hope to make a few more of these buildings and maybe we will inspire other developers to do the same.

I am drawn to the vitality of life in the outer boroughs where the melting pot vibe still pulses through the neighborhoods. Of course, gentrification can and will mess them up the same way it has messed up Manhattan if we aren’t careful. But we still have time to implement policies that can mitigate the negative aspects of gentrification.

My point is this.

We can, and probably should, bear witness to what has become of NYC and what we have lost in the process.

But we must also be working on, investing in, and imaging what NYC (and life in general) can and will become.

Change is the only constant. Fighting it is a losing proposition. Shaping it is the winning one.

Tech:NYC Turns Two

It seems like yesterday when a bunch of folks in the NYC tech sector decided that it was time to form an organization to represent the tech sector in NYC.

But in fact, it was a little more than two years ago.

There was some upfront work we had to do and in the summer of 2016, we announced Tech:NYC.

Two years later the organization is 630 member companies strong, including over 500 small early-stage companies.

Yesterday, Tech:NYC issued their second annual report, which is just one long web page.

I really like this way of doing annual reports. It’s easy to consume and accessible to anyone with a computer or mobile phone.

If you are involved with or care about the tech sector in NYC, take a minute to read the annual report (it won’t take much more) and see about all the great things that are going on in NYC’s fastest growing economic sector.

And if you aren’t a member yet, you can join our email list at the end of the report and start hearing from us, which hopefully will lead you to join.

Airbnb and NYC

There is a bill in front of the NYC City Council called Intro 981 that will impose reporting requirements on Airbnb and their hosts in NYC. There will be a public debate on that bill this coming week.

The backdrop here is the growing housing affordability crisis in NYC and the idea that Airbnb is a significant contributor to it.

While I am not an expert in the economics of housing, I have lived in NYC for the past thirty-five years (my entire adult life), and my wife and I are also landlords in several of the neighborhoods in Brooklyn where rents have been rising most quickly. I have a layman’s understanding of the issue and an on the ground feel for it.

It is my view that we have a fundamental supply and demand problem at work in the rapidly gentrifying outer boroughs of NYC (most acutely in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx). NYC has added almost 500,000 residents this decade alone, a 5.5% increase in population from 2010 to 2017. This is driven by multiple factors but there are more people choosing to live in the five boroughs and less people choosing to leave them.

A major change in the last fifteen years is the emergence of the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx as the preferred place to live for many young professionals. They moved into these communities in their 20s to escape an increasingly unaffordable Manhattan and have stayed and are now raising their families in them.

This sea change in demand for housing has not yet been met with an equal increase in supply. There are cranes all over Brooklyn and Queens so I am optimistic that we will see the increases in supply that we need, but there is a lag in the supply of housing coming to market. And we need two kinds of supply, market-rate housing for those that can afford it, and subsidized housing for the displaced families that no longer can afford market rate housing.

And so where does Airbnb fit into this picture? It’s a reducer of supply to some extent as landlords take rental units off the market and list them on Airbnb instead. But having looked at multiple studies on this issue, I believe that Airbnb is a marginal player in this story, not the root cause of the problem. If Airbnb decided to stop operating in NYC (a terrible outcome in my view), I do not believe we would see a material change in the affordability issues that plague NYC.

And yet, elected officials in NYC and NY State have chosen to make Airbnb the poster child of the problem and impose restrictions and constraints on their operation. And, of course, the industry that Airbnb most threatens, the hotel industry and its labor unions, have fought back aggressively and effectively. It is hard to know what is good policy and what is good politics. I suspect we are seeing a lot of the latter and not enough of the former.

I am for reporting of listings as required by Intro 981. But I am not for the city using that data to come after hosts and harass them. Similar reporting requirements that have been enacted in SF, Chicago, and Seattle have included those protections for hosts. Intro 981 should too.

But more than that, I am for a comprehensive solution to the issues that short-term rentals raise. I am in favor of requiring a mechanism for neighbors to register complaints. And I am in favor of requiring Airbnb to collect taxes on short-term rentals in NYC and NY State, which is estimated to produce $100mm of incremental revenues for the City and State. A comprehensive bill that would legitimize the short-term rental market in NY State and NYC would unlock those revenues but the forces at work against Airbnb are fighting it. That makes no sense to me.

It is time to accept that Airbnb is here to stay in NYC and NY State. It is time to legitimize the practice of short-term rentals. It is time to put sensible complaint mechanisms and reporting requirements in place. And it is time to start collecting the taxes on this activity and using those revenues to solve other pressing issues like transportation, schools, and most importantly, our ability to house those who can’t afford to pay market rents.

I would encourage our elected officials to do all of that.