Posts from VC & Technology

Being In The Flow

I have been investing in developer tools since the earliest days of my VC career. The first investment I led in the late 80s was a financing that provided the funds to acquire a programming editor called Brief. It was a text-based editor for PCs. That investment worked out but we didn’t make a lot of money on it. Brief was eclipsed by other better editors.

But that did not cool my interest in developer tools. I have always believed that supporting the people who build software is a great business and it is.

At USV, we have made developer tools a key area of investment and some of our most well-known successes like MongoDB, Twilio, and Stripe are developer tools.

But as I learned from my Brief experience, all developer tools are not equal in terms of creating business value.

Last week, I was discussing this in a texting session with my partner Nick. And he observed that the tools that have produced the most value for the founders and investors, including USV, are the tools that are “in the flow” and not on the side.

That was quite an “aha moment” for me as it clarified something that I have longed felt intuitively but could not articulate. Now I can.

I think this is true for many other areas of software. If you build software that sits in the flow of something important (mission critical, recurring, etc) then it will increase in value over time, and sustain its value, much more significantly than something that “sits on the side.”

So when thinking about what to build or what to invest in (it is the same thing, just depends on if you are investing time or money), try to be in the flow.

#entrepreneurship#VC & Technology

Entertainment vs Utility

The news this week that HQ Trivia has finally called it quits reminded me of this post I wrote back in 2012 about the difference in sustainability (and thus value) between entertainment and utility apps.

What is interesting to me is if you could use a social app or an entertainment app to get to another place (distribution, platform, blockchain, financial services, etc, etc). That feels like a much more sustainable place to be.

But very few social apps and games have been able to do that. And the result has been a predictable boom/bust cycle that has not produced a lot of value for founders or investors.

#entrepreneurship#VC & Technology

Tech in 2020: Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants

Our friend Benedict Evans posted his annual “macro trends” deck this weekend.

You can also download the PDF here.

In the deck, Benedict poses the question “what is the next S-Curve?”

And while he doesn’t exactly answer that question, these two slides are revealing:

There is a lot more in the deck, particularly around regulatory issues in tech and it is well worth a quick skim this morning.

#mobile#regulation 2.0#VC & Technology#Web/Tech

The Long Buy

One of the many things that venture capital has taught me is the value of the long buy.

What I mean by a “long buy” is buying shares in a company over a long period of time. We have investments where we have bought shares seven or eight times over a ten to twelve year period.

There are a bunch of reasons why a long buy is so attractive:

1/ You get to learn more about the opportunity before committing significant funds and each and every subsequent investment is based on a better understanding of the business, the team, the market, the product, etc.

2/ You get to build a blended purchase price which is less dependent on the circumstances of a particular moment in time.

3/ There is often a moment, sometimes several, over the course of a long buy when the company or its market is out of favor, and you can aggressively step up your purchase on more attractive terms than were possible in the first few purchases.

4/ When you own a lot of each and every security (Seed, Series A, Series B, Series C, etc, etc), you are less impacted by the specific terms of any one of the rounds.

There is a special place in the venture capital landscape where this sort of investing is possible and practiced, and that is the traditional early-stage venture capital fund.

Seed funds tend to get tapped out after two or three rounds. And growth funds don’t come into an opportunity until the company has raised three or four rounds. But the traditional early-stage fund can start in the seed round, and keep investing round after round after round until the company no longer needs to raise capital. This is super attractive and not appreciated as much as it should be.

There are not that many asset classes where the manager has a pool of long term locked up capital and the opportunity (and the right) to invest again and again in a company. This combination is possibly the most attractive aspect of the venture capital asset class.

The competition to invest in Seed and Series A rounds is not really about the right to make that initial investment. It is about the right to execute a long buy. And the firms that do that, company after company, fund after fund, are typically the best performing firms in the venture capital business over the long run.

#VC & Technology

You Can't Fire Your Investor

I saw this tweet coming out of the Upfront Summit yesterday (where I will be today):

It is great that the capital markets serving founders have become hyperefficient. Being able to get a round done in a week vs a quarter is huge for founders who have better things to do than run around the country talking to VCs.

However, there is a dark side to this trend and that is the reality that shotgun marriages don’t often work out so well. You might be able to get a VC into your cap table in a week but try getting them out. That’s almost impossible.

Which reminds me of this tweet exchange with some friends about the Knicks ownership situation:

#Sports#VC & Technology

The Management Rights Letter

A friend asked me over the weekend “why do VCs ask for a management rights letter when they make an investment?”

A management rights letter is a short agreement between a company and an investor to allow them certain “management rights.” These are typically the ability to attend board meetings, the ability to have access to financial reports on a regular basis, and the ability to advise and consult with the management of the company.

While it is nice to have these “rights”, the need for this letter actually has very little to do with how venture capital firms want to work with a portfolio company.

The existence of these letters has everything to do with where the venture capital firms get their funds from. If a VC firm has pension fund investors who are subject to ERISA regulations (as USV does), then they need to be a “venture capital operating company (VCOC)”. And one of the best ways to make sure you are considered a VCOC is to have management rights letters for all (or most) of your investments.

This post on Startup Lawyer explains it well:

Venture funds request these rights in order to obtain an exemption from regulations under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. Absent an exemption, if a pension plan subject to ERISA is a limited partner in a venture fund, then all of the venture fund’s assets are subject to regulations that require the venture fund assets to be held in trust, prohibit certain transactions and place fiduciary duties on fund managers. However, a “venture capital operating company” is not deemed to hold ERISA plan assets. To qualify as a VCOC, a venture fund must have at least 50% of its assets invested in venture capital investments. In order to qualify as a venture capital investment, the venture fund must receive certain management rights that give the fund the right to participate substantially in, or substantially influence the conduct of, the management of the portfolio company. In addition to obtaining management rights, the fund is also required to actually exercise its management rights with respect to one or more of its portfolio companies every year.

http://www.startupcompanylawyer.com/2007/12/03/what-is-a-management-rights-letter/

So as annoying as these letters are, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to negotiate away these agreements as the venture capital firm that is asking for it really does need these rights in order to be in business with their limited partners.

#entrepreneurship#VC & Technology

What Will Happen In The 2020s

It’s 2020. Time to look forward to the decade that is upon us.

One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Bill Gates, is that people overestimate what will happen in a year and underestimate what will happen in a decade.

This is an important decade for mankind. It is a decade in which we will need to find answers to questions that hang over us like last night’s celebrations.

I am an optimist and believe in society’s ability to find the will to face our challenges and the intelligence to find solutions to them.

So, I am starting out 2020 in an optimistic mood and here are some predictions for the decade that we are now in.

1/ The looming climate crisis will be to this century what the two world wars were to the previous one. It will require countries and institutions to re-allocate capital from other endeavors to fight against a warming planet. This is the decade we will begin to see this re-allocation of capital. We will see carbon taxed like the vice that it is in most countries around the world this decade, including in the US. We will see real estate values collapse in some of the most affected regions and we will see real estate values increase in regions that benefit from the warming climate. We will see massive capital investments made in protecting critical regions and infrastructure. We will see nuclear power make a resurgence around the world, particularly smaller reactors that are easier to build and safer to operate. We will see installed solar power worldwide go from ~650GW currently to over 20,000GW by the end of this decade. All of these things and many more will cause the capital markets to focus on and fund the climate issue to the detriment of many other sectors.

2/ Automation will continue to take costs out of operating many of the services and systems that we rely on to live and be productive. The fight for who should have access to this massive consumer surplus will define the politics of the 2020s. We will see capitalism come under increasing scrutiny and experiments to reallocate wealth and income more equitably will produce a new generation of world leaders who ride this wave to popularity.

3/ China will emerge as the world’s dominant global superpower leveraging its technical prowess and ability to adapt quickly to changing priorities (see #1). Conversely the US becomes increasingly internally focused and isolationist in its world view.

4/ Countries will create and promote digital/crypto versions of their fiat currencies, led by China who moves first and benefits the most from this move. The US will be hamstrung by regulatory restraints and will be slow to move, allowing other countries and regions to lead the crypto sector. Asian crypto exchanges, unchecked by cumbersome regulatory restraints in Europe and the US and leveraging decentralized finance technologies, will become the dominant capital markets for all types of financial instruments.

5/ A decentralized internet will emerge, led initially by decentralized infrastructure services like storage, bandwidth, compute, etc. The emergence of decentralized consumer applications will be slow to take hold and a killer decentralized consumer app will not emerge until the latter part of the decade.

6/ Plant based diets will dominate the world by the end of the decade. Eating meat will become a delicacy, much like eating caviar is today. Much of the world’s food production will move from farms to laboratories.

7/ The exploration and commercialization of space will be dominated by private companies as governments increasingly step back from these investments. The early years of this decade will produce a wave of hype and investment in the space business but returns will be slow to come and we will be in a trough of disillusionment on the space business as the decade comes to an end.

8/ Mass surveillance by governments and corporations will become normal and expected this decade and people will increasingly turn to new products and services to protect themselves from surveillance. The biggest consumer technology successes of this decade will be in the area of privacy.

9/ We will finally move on from the Baby Boomers dominating the conversation in the US and around the world and Millennials and Gen-Z will be running many institutions by the end of the decade. Age and experience will be less valued by shareholders, voters, and other stakeholders and vision and courage will be valued more.

10/ Continued advancements in genetics will produce massive wins this decade as cancer and other terminal illnesses become well understood and treatable. Fertility and reproduction will be profoundly changed. Genetics will also create new diseases and moral/ethical issues that will confound and confuse society. Balancing the gains and losses that come from genetics will be our greatest challenge in this decade.

That’s ten predictions, enough for now and enough for me. I hope I made you think as much as I made myself think writing this. That’s the goal. It is impossible to be right about all of this. But it is important to be thinking about it.

I know that comments here at AVC are broken at the moment and so I look forward to the conversation on email and Twitter and elsewhere.

#climate crisis#crypto#economics#employment#entrepreneurship#Food and Drink#hacking energy#hacking finance#policy#Politics#Science#VC & Technology

What Happened In The 2010s

My friend Steve Kane suggested I take a longer view in my pair of year end posts this year:

And so I will.

Here are the big things that happened in tech, startups, business, and more in the decade that is ending today, in no particular order of importance.

1/ The emergence of the big four web/mobile monopolies; Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook. A decade ago, Google dominated search, Apple had a mega hit on their hand with the iPhone, Amazon was way ahead of everyone in e-commerce, and Facebook was emerging as the dominant social media platform. Today, these four companies own monopolies or duopolies in their core markets and are using the power of those market positions to extend their reach into tangential markets and beyond. Google continues to own a monopoly position in search in many parts of the world, has a duopoly position in mobile operating systems, and controls a number of other market leading assets (email, video, etc). Apple owns the other duopoly position in mobile operating systems. Amazon has amassed a dominant position in e-commerce in many parts of the world and has used that position to extend its reach into private label products, logistics, and cloud infrastructure. Facebook built and acquired its way into owning four of the most strategic social media properties in the world; Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp. Most importantly, outside of China, these four companies own more data about what we do online and also control many of the important channels to reach us in the digital world. What society does about this situation stands as the most important issue in tech at the start of the 2020s.

2/ The massive experiment in using capital as a moat to build startups into sustainable businesses has now played out and we can call it a failure for the most part. Uber popularized this strategy and got very far with it, but sitting here at the end of the 2010s, Uber has not yet proven that it can build a profitable business, is struggling as a public company, and will need something more than capital to sustain its business. WeWork was a fast follower with this strategy and failed to get to the public markets and is undergoing a massive restructuring that will determine the fate of that business. Many other experiments with this model have failed or are failing right now. When I look back at the 2010s, I see a decade during which massive capital flowed into startups and much of it was wasted chasing the “capital as a moat” model.

3/ Machine learning finally came of age in the 2010s and is now table stakes for every tech company, large and small. Accumulating a data asset around your product and service and using sophisticated machine learning models to personalize and improve your product is not a nice to have. It is a must have. This ultimately benefits the three large cloud providers (Amazon, Google, Microsoft) who are providing much of the infrastructure to the tech industry to do this work at scale, which is how you must do it if you want to be competitive.

4/ Subscriptions became the second scaled business model for web and mobile businesses, following advertising which emerged at scale in the previous decade. Startups that developed the skills to execute a subscription business model with positive unit economics delivered fantastic returns to investors and capital flowed into this sector as a result. This was a very positive development as subscriptions better align the interests of the users and the developers of mobile and web applications and avoid many of the negative aspects of the free/ad supported business model. However, as we end the decade, a subscription overload backlash is emerging as many consumers have signed up for more subscriptions than they need and in some cases can afford.

5/ Silicon Valley’s position as mecca for tech and startups started to show signs of weakening in the 2010s, largely because of its massive successes this decade. It is incredibly expensive to live and work in the bay area and the quality of life/cost of life equation is not moving in the right direction. The physical infrastructure (transit, housing, etc) has not kept up with the needs of the region and there is no sign that it will change any time soon. This does not mean “Silicon Valley is over” but it does mean that other tech sectors will find an easier time recruiting talent to their regions and away from Silicon Valley. And talent is really the only thing that matters these days.

6/ Cryptography emerged in the 2010s as a powerful technology that can solve some of the web and mobile’s most vexing issues. Cryptography and encryption have been around for a very long time, well before the computer. Modern computer cryptography came of age in the 1970s. But the emergence of the internet, web, and mobile computing largely did not integrate many of the central ideas of cryptography natively into the protocols that these platforms were built on. The emergence of Bitcoin and decentralized money this decade has shown the way and set the stage for cryptography to be built natively into web and mobile applications and deliver control back to users. Credit to Muneeb Ali for framing this issue for me in a way that makes a lot of sense.

7/ Technology inserted itself right in the middle of society this decade. Our President wakes up and fires off dozens of tweets, possibly while still in bed. We are all hostage to our phones and the services that we rely on. Our elections are conducted using machine learning technology to segment and micro-target important voting groups. And bad actors can and do use the same technologies to interfere in our elections and our public discourse. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle in this regard, but the fact that the tech sector has such a powerful role means that it will be highly regulated by society. And there is no putting the genie back in the bottle in that regard either.

8/ The rich got richer this decade. Axios wrote in a recent email that:

“The rich in already rich countries plus an increasing number of superrich in the developing world … captured an astounding 27% of global growth.”

But the very poor also had a great decade as Axios also reported:

The rate of extreme poverty around the world was cut in half over the past decade (15.7% in 2010 to 7.7% now), and all but eradicated in China.

The losers in the 2010s were lower middle class and middle class people in the developed world whose incomes stagnated or fell.

Technology played a role in all of this. Many of the superrich obtained their wealth through technology business interests. Some of the eradication of extreme poverty is the result of technology as well. And the stagnation of earning power in the lower and middle class is absolutely the result of technology automation, a trend that will only accelerate in coming years.

9/ This a post publish addition. A huge miss in my original post is the emergence of China as a tech superpower and a global superpower. There are many areas (digital money for example) where China is light years ahead of the western world in technology and that will likely accelerate in the coming years. Being a tech superpower is a necessary condition to being a global superpower and China is already that and getting more powerful by the day.

I will end there. These are the big mega-trends I think about when I think about the 2010s. There is no doubt that I left out many important ones. You can and will add them in the comments (wordpress for now), emails to me, and on Twitter and beyond. And that is what I hope you will do.

#crypto#entrepreneurship#machine learning#policy#Politics#VC & Technology#Web/Tech

Gateways

Most big technology changes don’t come out of nowhere. There are predecessor technologies that predate and portend what is to come. I like to call these predecessor technologies “gateways.”

In the case of the web, there were two important gateways. The first was CD ROMs. There was a moment in NYC in the early 90s when we all thought CD ROMs were going to be the future of media. That is when the NY New Media Association was formed and there was a ton of excitement in the air about new digital.media services that would be delivered to our computers via CD ROMs.

Around the same time we saw the rise of online services like AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy. These services allowed users to connect via dialup modem and do things like chat and email.

The CD ROM wave taught users to browse and explore rich media on their computers.

The online services wave taught users to dialup and chat and email.

So by the time the web browser showed up in the mid 90s, users were primed for the combination of the two – dialing up to chat, email, and browse rich media. It was a killer combination of the two and so much more.

As we think about crypto, we look for these gateways. One is certainly the financial speculation and trading of crypto assets. That has brought millions to the crypto sector and is the primary reason that people own or have owned crypto assets.

Another might be stablecoins that operate on closed or semi-closed networks. These stablecoins may not support the broadest set of applications envisioned by projects like Ethereum and others, but they may get hundreds of millions of people around the world owning and transacting with crypto assets.

It is tempting to get caught up in the big vision of what is possible with a powerful technology.like crypto and dismiss the gateways. But that would be a mistake as they are often necessary to set the stage for what is to come.

#VC & Technology