Blog articles

Video Of The Week: John von Neumann on K12 CS Education

A VC - April 20, 2019 - 6:43am

As many of you know, I have spent a fair bit of my time over the last ten years on increasing the amount of CS Education in our K12 system in NYC and around the US.

My friend Rob sent me this short (2 1/2 min) clip of John von Neumann in the early 50s talking about how important CS Education and in particular K12 CS Education would be.

We largely ignored his advice for the last sixty years but I am optimistic that we are finally heeding it.

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Funding Friday: Chili Peppers

A VC - April 19, 2019 - 5:20am

This project is hot!

I backed it this morning

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A Hackathon At NYC’s City Hall

A VC - April 18, 2019 - 4:40am

I like going to hackathons. A number of USV portfolio companies have emerged out of hackathons, like our portfolio company Dapper which created its hit crypto-collectible game CryptoKitties at a Hackathon in late 2017.

So yesterday I headed down to NYC’s City Hall which was hosting the finals of a citywide hackathon competition (called The Hack League) among NYC schools to create the best software applications to make the city better.

The final projects were judged by people like the Chief Policy and Data Office (Comptroller’s office); the Chief Analytics Officer (City of NY); the Chief Technology Officer (Mayor’s office); the Executive Director of NYC311 (City of NY) and other folks in city government tasked with a similar mandate.

There were 28 finalist teams at City Hall yesterday competing to win the trophy. They were from all five boroughs, representing schools from all kinds of neighborhoods. It was as diverse as the city is and that is a wonderful thing.

I gave them a pep talk at the start of the day and encouraged them to “instrument their applications” so that they and others can determine how their users are getting value from them.

This is a photo I took of the students as I was about to address them:

The winning teams came from these schools with these applications:

Middle school Winners:
1st: Queens TWYLS – “Trash Go” game that incentivizes proper disposal of trash

2nd: Staten Island IS63 – “Oh Deer” app for residents to report on deer sightings and upload photos so the Dep’t of Environmental Conservation can track the deer

3rd: Brooklyn Parkside Prep – “Hero Foods” app that delivers nutritious lunches to students with special needs (financial or health)  

High school Winners:
1st: Brooklyn International HS at Lafayette – “Busted” app for students to report real-time data about buses (such as too full, never arrived)

2nd: Manhattan Bridges High School – “Heat track” app that tracks temperatures inside and outside of homes and communicates to landlords about issues.

3rd: Bronx Millennium Art Academy – “Safety 1st” bi-lingual alert system to keep students informed when they are without their phones during the school day.

I was super impressed by how focused and committed the students were on making their applications better yesterday:

Here is a photo of all of the students who competed yesterday in the City Hall Rotunda.

These are the employees of the future for NYC startups, larger tech companies, and, frankly, every company in NYC. And let me tell you something. They are going to be really good.

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Healthcare At USV

A VC - April 17, 2019 - 6:05am

Over the last five years, we have stepped up our investing in and around healthcare. About 15-20% of the early stage companies we have invested in over our last two fund cycles are working in this sector.

If you look at our current investment thesis at USV, you will see that wellness is one of the key areas of interest for us:

USV backs trusted brands that broaden access to knowledge, capital, and well-being by leveraging networks, platforms, and protocols.

So where in the healthcare sector are we focused?

Rebecca tweeted this out yesterday and I think it is a good articulation of what we find most interesting in healthcare:

What excites us about whats happening in healthcare:
1) tech + humans: data powered humans=better decisions than either data or humans alone
2) broaden access by increasing value & decreasing cost of care
3) outcome orientation: not just care, better delivered, but better care

— Rebecca Kaden (@rebeccak46) April 17, 2019

Making affordable healthcare more available to everyone seems like the winning formula in this sector.

Take our portfolio company Nurx for example. They make birth control and other important prescriptions and home testing kits available to millions of people who have found them difficult to obtain through traditional channels.

I hope and expect that we will increase our investment in the health and wellness space in the coming years. It is an important sector that has immense challenges, but also immense opportunities.

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Underground Infrastructure

A VC - April 16, 2019 - 7:23am

One evening last week my daughter and I spent an hour with a team from our portfolio company Pilot Fiber who were pulling a new fiber cable from Sixth Avenue to Fifth Avenue along a cross street in lower Manhattan.

My daughter is doing a project and wanted to understand how this all worked and I was curious myself. It was fascinating.

We met them at a manhole near Sixth Avenue where they had pulled a fiber cable into a building where one of their large customers is based.

The team uses a thin line of “mule tape” that is placed in the conduit between the manhole and the building to pull the fiber cable from the manhole to the building. Ideally the mule tape stays in the conduit so that the next team that needs to run fiber from one manhole to another or into a building can use it again.

Pilot had a couple of their trucks on the street that have huge fiber spools on the back of them.

The team runs fiber using the mule tape in the conduits that exist from manhole to manhole. This was the next manhole they worked in that evening.

You can see that there are a lot of fiber cables in these manholes. The big clunky plastic things are splice enclosures that protect the splices that join fibers to each other.

You can see a line of mule tape on the lower right of the photo above that the team was using to pull the fiber cable from one manhole to the other.

When we got to Fifth Avenue, the manhole was cavernous. One of the team members was comfortably working down in the hole which would not have been so easy in the manholes on the cross streets.

I learned quite a bit that evening about how all of this infrastructure is laid and managed. But mostly I was so interested in how this modern infrastructure (fiber) has overwhelmed the prior kind (copper and coax) under the streets of NYC.

If you want high speed/reliable/reasonably priced fiber Internet in Manhattan for your company, you can get that from Pilot Fiber who is out on and under the streets of NYC most nights laying the cables to make it happen.

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More S1 Fun

A VC - April 15, 2019 - 5:05am

I am continuing my mini series on reading S1s (IPO documents). We are enjoying an IPO bonanza this year, so we might as well use it for some good and learn something.

When a company files for an IPO, I like to think if there is a publicly traded company that looks a lot like that company and if so, I lik to run some numbers comparing the two.

Well we have that exact situation with Uber filing to go public last week. Here is Uber’s S1.

We can compare Uber’s numbers to recently public Lyft, which I blogged about earlier in this S1 Fun series.

Here are Uber’s profit and loss numbers from their S1:

We can compare this to Lyft’s profit and loss from my prior blog post:

I put all of these numbers into a spreadsheet and added some estimates for 2019 that are nothing more than back of envelope guesstimates.

What you can see from this is that Uber is 4-5x larger than Lyft, growing a lot more slowly, has slightly better gross margins, and both are still losing a lot of money but both are moving towards getting profitable on operations in a few years.

Finally lets look at market valuations. Lyft is currently trading at a market cap of $17bn. If you say that Uber is 4-5x larger than Lyft, then Uber ought to be worth in the range of $70bn to $85bn.

There are other factors that will be in play when Uber eventually prices their IPO and trades. Uber owns minority interests in a number of other ridesharing businesses that could be worth as much as $10bn of additional value. On the other hand, Lyft is growing more quickly than Uber.

Ultimately we will see how the market values Uber. But from this analysis, and the public market comparables from Lyft, we can see that Uber should be worth quite a bit when it goes public.

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Functionality Vs Content

A VC - April 14, 2019 - 7:14am

I saw some chatter on Twitter this past week about Netflix and Disney in the wake of Disney’s announcement of Disney+:

I’m long $dis myself and no $nflx at the moment. That said will never not pay $nflx at current pricing https://t.co/aInOGQQFXZ

— Lindzon+ (@howardlindzon) April 12, 2019

Disney’s stock was up 11% on the week

And Netflix stock was down 5% on the week

Certainly getting into the streaming game will be good for Disney. But I am less sure that content matters that much when it comes to Netflix.

A friend of mine shared this with me earlier this week:

When I saw that data, I replied to him with this:

It is the frustrations of the prior model (interruptive advertising, by appointment consumption, etc) that open the opportunity for the next model

Given that the new model, streaming, is well entrenched now, I am not saying that functionality alone will save Netflix or anyone else.

But I do believe that the functionality of a service (no ads, binge watching, user interface, curation, notifications, price, etc) are just as important, or possibly more important, than whether or not you can watch The Incredibles on it.

And most importantly, it is the frustrations of the prior model, as I mentioned above, that creates the opening for the new model.

So if you are working on a new model, for anything (it could be crypto, health care, education, finance, etc, etc), you should look very closely at what are the most annoying and frustrating aspects of the current model and focus on leading with features that remove them.

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Audio Of The Week: Coinbase Custody

A VC - April 13, 2019 - 5:57am

And now a word from your sponsor:

Coinbase is a USV portfolio company, I am on the board, and I am deeply invested in this business.

Coinbase’s regulated custody subsidiary is an important part of their overall business and I am also on the board of it.

This Unconfirmed Podcast with Sam McIngvale is a really good explanation of what Coinbase is doing in the custody market and how they are developing new income earning options for their customers.

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Funding Friday: Math In America

A VC - April 12, 2019 - 4:29am

Did you know this?

Well, this film that is being funded on Kickstarter is all about the math crisis in America. I backed it this morning and you can too.

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A Registered Token Offering

A VC - April 11, 2019 - 10:29am

Our portfolio company Blockstack tweeted out this today:

After rounds of private comments, we’ve publicly filed for a $50M token offering with the SEC.

Upon qualification, our network and the Stacks tokens will be available to retail investors, including the US. https://t.co/OuPVbA4eJt

— Muneeb Ali (@muneeb) April 11, 2019

Given that USV is an investor and one of my partners is on the board, I don’t want to opine on this in any way.

But I do think this is an interesting development in the evolution of tokens as investable assets.

So here is a Coindesk post on this news.

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Dronebase Goes Thermal

A VC - April 10, 2019 - 6:00am

Our portfolio company Dronebase is announcing some big news today.

They are going to be offering thermal imaging missions in partnership with FLIR, the leading provider of thermal sensors. And FLIR has made a strategic investment in Dronebase.

What is thermal imaging? Thermal imagery, which is also called infrared imagery, is the ability to see a much larger portion of the electromagnetic spectrum than what is visible to the eye. This page from FLIR’s website does a good job of explaining the technology.

If you put a FLIR thermal sensor on a drone, you can learn a lot more about buildings, equipment, terrain, etc, etc. The military sector has been doing this for years and the commercial sector is starting to use the technology a lot now too.

Here is an image of a roof captured with a traditional drone camera:

And here is an image of a roof captured with a drone using a FLIR thermal sensor:

This drone mission, recently run by Dronebase, identified water damage and leakage on this roof.

So what is the big deal here?

Dronebase offers the world’s largest drone pilot network. They have pilots all over the world who are skilled at operating commercial drone missions. And they have an API that captures information from drone missions at scale. Now enterprise customers can use their pilot network and API to capture thermal imagery. This will significantly reduce the cost and increase the availability of drone-based thermal imagery to enterprises of all sizes and locations.

If you want to learn more, you can contact Dronebase here and start using thermal imagery to improve your business operations.

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Get Your Message On Mobile

A VC - April 9, 2019 - 4:41am

I finally got around to reading the Political Advertising Report from Tech For Campaigns. My conclusion is we are going to see our phones light up with political messages over the next year and a half. Here is why:

Only Trump spent a percentage of total spend on digital that is close to what companies do When you buy Facebook ads, you are buying mobile ads The older you are the more likely that you click on ads on your phone

So let’s brace ourselves for the messages that are going to start coming into our phones from politicians over the next 18 months. Mobile advertising works.

I am closing comments to this post because I don’t want to turn this blog’s comments into a soapbox for certain people and we all know who they are.

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Scaling A Company While Controlling Costs

A VC - April 8, 2019 - 4:42am

Over the last decade, the costs of scaling a company in the bay area, NYC, and many other startup regions in the US has escalated sharply. We have encouraged our portfolio companies that are located in these high cost regions to build out secondary locations where they can hire high quality engineering and other talent at lower costs. Locations in North America that have been attractive to our portfolio companies are cities like Des Moines, Indianapolis, Toronto, and a number of others.

Another approach that has worked well for our portfolio companies is to have a secondary location outside of the US, where talent can be hired a much lower cost than the US.

So it was with interest that I read this in Zoom’s IPO prospectus;

we have a high concentration of research and development personnel in China

It turns out that Zoom has most of its engineering team in China, where they can hire high quality engineering talent at much lower cost.

Look at this P&L.

Zoom spends most of its opex on sales and marketing because it has kept its engineering costs lower as a result of building product in China.

This is something to think about as you scale your company.

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The Heartbeat (Continued)

A VC - April 7, 2019 - 6:56am

I wrote a post last year called The Heartbeat in which I advocated for a cadence and a rhythm in an organization.

I was reminded of that in this exchange on Twitter over the last 24 hours:

I am a fan of routines and set cadences

— Fred Wilson (@fredwilson) April 7, 2019

Many of USV’s portfolio companies use an OKR process to create this rhythm in their teams. What I have learned from watching these companies and listening to how the teams talk about the OKR process is that to some extent it is “form over substance” in that the process is ultimately more important than the specific objectives and key results that flow through the process.

I am not saying that teams shouldn’t be thoughtful in setting objectives and committed to hitting them. They should.

But I am saying that the regular setting of objectives (quarterly is a time frame most companies use) and the weekly or bi-weekly reporting against them is the most valuable thing that comes from the process. It sets the heartbeat and keeps it. And that is so valuable.

Many VC firms, including USV, use a weekly team meeting, often on Mondays, to align the group, report on the week that has past, and focus on the week to come. That weekly cadence allows us to be responsive to entrepreneurs, come to relatively quick decisions as a group, and stay in sync.

Public companies report on a quarterly basis. That rhythm sets up a cadence of setting expectations (guidance) and reporting on results (earnings reports). It is not entirely different from the OKR process in a few important ways. It creates a cadence that is super valuable for execution and performance.

I am a fan of all of these processes. They set a cadence and rhythm for an organization and force decision making and provide for timely execution.

The best companies master this and working in those organizations is fun and rewarding. Setting objectives and meeting them on a regular basis is a virtuous system that brings out the best in people and teams.

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Video Of The Week: AI and Society

A VC - April 6, 2019 - 6:58am

Earlier this week, Kara Swisher interviewed Kate Crawford and Meredith Whittaker, who run NYU’s AI Now Institute.

It is an interesting and thought provoking discussion. I don’t personally love Kate and Meredith’s answers on how society should be thinking about these issues. They feel very “20th century” to me.

But regardless of what you think about their particular take on the issues, I do think we all ought to be paying a lot of attention to AI and its impact on and role in our society. It is important.

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An important new book

Beyond Money - April 5, 2019 - 10:32pm

Rebuilding after Collapse: Political Structures for Creative Response to the Ecological Crisis

Edited by John Culp

As society grapples with the reality of climate change, many believe that technology will somehow save the planet. As this book argues, that is not enough: larger-scale collaboration, coordination, and funding is needed. Individuals and groups, even with significant personal resources, will not be able to reverse the present course of ecological disaster. What our endangered planet needs is broadly supported community action, which is what happens when people come together and organize for the common good. What we need, in short, is political structures and actions. The essays in this book examine the political structures that have led to our present crisis and offer concrete lessons from the U.S., Japan, Brazil, and Greece, that can, if heeded, bring us back from the brink and toward an ecological civilization.

This book of essays emerged out of some of the presentations that were given at a major conference, Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization. that was organized by Center for Process Studies and held at Pomona College (CA) in June 2015 and attended by more than 1500 people. It includes two of my own essays, Greece and the Global Debt Crisis, and How Private Currencies and Credit Clearing Exchanges Can Help Save Civilization, as well as essays by John Cobb, Ellen Brown, Gayle McLaughlin and several others.

The full list of contents and order form can be found here. The book can also be ordered on Amazon.com

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Funding Friday: Code Society

A VC - April 5, 2019 - 4:13am

Code Society is like Schoolhouse Rock for Computer Science. They use hip hop music and videos to teach computer science concepts to diverse communities.

They are doing a $40k project on Kickstarter (and are about half way there) to create content and applications. I backed it earlier this week and you can back it here.

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Orthodoxy

A VC - April 4, 2019 - 5:54am

I am not a fan of Orthodoxy.

I appreciate the power of religion although I am not religious personally. I respect the followers of Allah, Jesus, Moses, Buddha, and other religious figures. I know that the beliefs of religious people give them great comfort and a purpose in life.

What I don’t appreciate is when a person of faith believes so deeply that they cannot tolerate beliefs that are different from theirs. I call this Orthodoxy and it has led to wars, horrible crimes, and many other bad things. It is the downside of what is and should be a very positive thing for humanity.

We see this same behavior developing in the crypto sector. Bitcoin and other cryptoassets have become a belief system. That is at the core of their value. Why would I give you $5000 of my dollars for one of your Bitcoin? Because I believe in Bitcoin and want to own it.

This faith in the value and power of cryptoassets is good. It is necessary for all of the other good things that can come of them.

But like religion, there is an Orthodoxy in these communities that borders on obsession and leads some people to be extremely intolerant of any other community or cryptoasset. The crypto community calls these people “maximalists”, a term I don’t like and don’t use.

I believe that we will see many cryptoassets emerge to solve different kinds of problems, just as we have seen many different religions develop to serve different groups of people. This diversity is good. It leads to a richness of thought and innovation that moves us forward.

If someone wants to believe deeply in one thing and nothing else, we should understand and appreciate it. But when that leads to hatred, nastiness, and ridicule, we should reject it. We should call it out for what it is and we should not accept it.

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The Annual Computer Science Fair

A VC - April 3, 2019 - 4:16am

Here in NYC, we are about halfway into a 10-year effort to get computer science classes into every public school building in NYC. We are already seeing significant impact and outcomes.

Most of the students taking CS classes at school live in neighborhoods in NYC where there are no tech companies and they can’t see the pathway that they are on if they want to be. That is where the Annual Computer Science Fair comes in.

This year was the sixth annual CS Fair. We invite high school students who are taking CS classes to take the morning off from school and come to the Armory in Washington Heights and meet tech companies that they could one day work for and colleges/universities that they could attend.

I spent much of yesterday at the Fair and had the honor of taking Mayor de Blasio, who has been funding CS4All since the early days of his administration, through the event. Here are some photos from what is always a fantastic day for me.

I hope these young women made it over to the Etsy booth Where they could have learned how Etsy uses data science to personalize everyone’s shopping experiences This young man from the Bronx made a multiplayer video game in javascript and told me and the Mayor that he wants to work for a tech company out of high school. I asked him to send me an email. This teacher from Information Technology High School in Queens had two teams of students showing software projects in the student showcase. She and her students took a selfie with the Mayor.

The Annual CS Fair would not be possible without the financial support of tech companies who underwrite the expenses. I would like to thank the major sponsors for making this possible.

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The Shed

A VC - April 2, 2019 - 6:14am

Yesterday morning, in raw, windy, 30 degree weather in NYC, I took a walk up the Highline to Hudson Yards. As I made the turn west at 29th street, I saw The Shed emerge through the tall buildings.

The Shed is a new arts institution created to commission works from artists, both emerging and established, across multiple genres. It is all about facilitating and celebrating artistic innovation.

I got involved with The Shed about four years ago around the time Alex Poots was selected as the Chief Executive and Artistic Director. Alex is an impresario of the modern age, comfortable working across many genres and with artists of all kinds, from Grammy-winning musicians to kids he sees dancing in the streets. It is Alex’ ability to stitch all of this together and make it coherent, entertaining, and inspiring that infected me with an interest in what The Shed can be.

I have consulted with The Shed on technology matters and the Gotham Gal and I have been benefactors as well.

Yesterday The Shed was dedicated and the opening performance, The Soundtrack of America, which features performances from roughly thirty emerging black musicians, will open friday night. We will be there.

The person who made The Shed happen is my friend Dan Doctoroff. It was a proud moment for me yesterday to see Dan standing up on stage talking about this thing that he helped to make happen.

It is my hope that The Shed will have the same cultural impact on NYC that Lincoln Center, Brooklyn Academy Of Music, and similar arts institutions have had.

It is really rewarding to get involved in projects like this. Watching the idea come together, then watching it get built, and then watching it open. It reminds me that imagination and will can achieve so much.

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