Helium

One of the pillars of USV’s investment thesis 3.0 is “broadening access to capital”, and we often get asked what we mean by that.  While “capital” includes financial capital, we have always meant it more broadly, to include human capital, technology infrastructure capital, and access to “ownership” more generally.

One of the most important types of technology infrastructure is the telecommunications network.  While there is significant investment taking place in this sector, there are still major gaps when it comes to accessibility, in terms of coverage, cost, and usability.  This is why USV has invested in companies like Pilot, Ting (part of Tucows), goTenna and Cloudflare, and will continue to seek out opportunities to invest in projects that broaden access to this critical infrastructure layer.

As the next step in that journey, today we are excited to announce that we have co-led a $15M Series C financing in Helium, along with our friends at Multicoin Capital.

Helium is building a new kind of wireless network. For commercial customers, Helium makes it inexpensive and easy to connect low-power IoT devices (bikes, key fobs, temperature sensors, etc.) to the internet, providing both data connectivity and location services.  For infrastructure operators (independent operators of “hotspots” on the Helium network), Helium represents a new deployment model and business model for building out essential networking infrastructure.

Helium is innovating on both the demand side and the supply side of this new connectivity marketplace, pioneering a number of concepts that we believe have the potential to radically broaden access to wireless connectivity:

Long-range, low-power, low-cost:

“LongFi” is Helium’s wireless protocol that works over long distances and consumes very small amounts of power at the end device.  While low-power, long-range data networks are not a new idea, they are not yet widely utilized and the opportunity to leverage them for new use cases is still open.

Low-cost, low-power, low-data-rate connectivity is not appropriate for every situation, but there are many, many unserved use cases that can benefit from this kind of network. For example, wildfire detection (many small sensors with tiny batteries spread over a large area), pet tracking (small sensor, small battery, ultra low cost), bike theft (small, durable, long-lasting sensors shipping directly inside the frame), agricultural & supply chain uses, and more.  Anywhere where the requirements are small size, long life, low cost and intermittent low-data-rate connectivity.

While there a set of existing wireless technologies that have similar properties that have resulted in promising initial deployments (Narrowband IoT in the licensed spectrum space and The Things Network and Sigfox in the unlicensed space), there has not yet been an open system that unites them into a single network.  Helium’s community-driven approach attempts to solve that problem in a novel way.

Community-driven:

Hotspots, the backbone of the Helium network, can be deployed by anyone, anywhere, simply by plugging into an existing router.  The Helium network will be assembled, over time, by a broad community of volunteers, civic organizations, commercial partners, and ideally a new class of entrepreneurs building out connectivity in new cities and towns.

Economic activity in the Helium network is coordinated through a new type of blockchain that uses “proof of coverage” (proving that a Hotspot is actually located in physical space) to secure the network and incentivize deployment where it is needed most.  We believe that the Helium network has the potential to become one of the most decentralized blockchain networks in existence, due to physical location as the underpinning of the economic and security model.

The Hotspot itself is built from commodity hardware and open source software.  Anyone who wants to can assemble a Helium-compatible hotspot from parts, can download open source software that will link existing compatible wireless radio to the network, or can, of course, buy one pre-assembled from Helium Inc.  USV has ordered a handful of Hotspots and plans to kickstart NYC’s Helium network, unless someone else beats us to it :-)

just_work = true

Finally, because of the design of Helium’s “Data Credits” (non-transferable cryptographic tokens that are redeemable for a fixed unit of bandwidth on the network, and can be pre-loaded on any device), Helium-compatible devices can ship with internet connectivity built-in and automatically on.  

Imagine a world where products automatically connect to the internet, without the need to sign a contract with a cell carrier, set up a credit card account, etc.   Think about the experience of buying a regular old radio: you turn it on and it just works.  Unfortunately wireless internet does not currently work that way -- but with Helium, it can.  This kind of functionality has the potential to unlock dramatically new user experiences around all kinds of connected devices.  We believe that this will be one of the killer features of blockchains and cryptonetworks.

Together with Multicoin, and along with the existing syndicate of FirstMark, Khosla Ventures, GV, and MunichRE Ventures, we are incredibly excited to support Helium as it embarks on this next chapter.

Simulmedia

Those of you who have followed our history may remember that it was a shared angel investment in Dave Morgan’s pioneering Internet advertising company, TACODA, that led to the formation of Union Square Ventures, so we are doubly pleased to have led the most recent financing in Dave’s current company, Simulmedia.

Simulmedia was founded 10 years ago to bring the efficiency and measurability of Internet advertising to television, but it has only been in the last year that advertisers and media owners have begun to seriously embrace that potential. This transition is driven in part by an increasing awareness on the part of advertisers that, despite its target-ability, advertising on Google and Facebook does hit a point of diminishing returns, and in part by advances in targeting technology and media availability in television and premium video. In the last year, this positive development has been clearly visible in Simulmedia’s accelerating sales and profitability.

We have been investors in Simulmedia since its inception, but the recent opening in the market and acceleration of their sales created the perfect opportunity for us to increase our commitment to the company by leading the Series E financing from our 2019 Opportunity Fund.

Welcoming Outschool to USV

Welcoming Outschool to USV

In the last 25 years, the growth and increased convenience of commercial internet has fundamentally changed how we live most aspects of our lives. It has created new ways for us to connect and transact, and it has turned massive industries on their heads who were unable to keep up with the pace of change.

But despite the rapid innovation, our education system remains largely untouched--for most Americans, learning today looks far too similar to what it did 50 years ago. As Dani recently outlined, education has been stagnant. Test scores (the current mark of educational outcomes) are flat. Earning potential for degree holders is flat. Teachers salaries are flat, too. What has been changing in education is access and opportunity, but not in the way we’d hope for. Government aid to higher ed is falling, tuition is increasing, student debt is climbing at a record pace, now reaching $1.5T.

USV’s thesis 3.0 centers on the idea of broadening access. There may be no greater need to make available to many what is currently only available to some right now than in education. But this will require not only driving down the cost of quality offerings and opening up the geographical barriers, but also evolving what it means to learn. This is a theme we’ve been investing in for the last several funds with companies like Duolingo, Quizlet, and Skillshare, businesses that are now reaching many millions of learners and starting to change the landscape. It is also why we are excited to announce our investment in Outschool, an online marketplace for live, online small group learning experiences targeted at K-12 learners.

For $10-15 a class, a fraction of the cost of traditional core or supplemental classes, Outschool allows students to both learn material and engage with one another in real time, online. The course catalogue currently spans 8,000 options ranging from Spanish 1 to Astronomy as told through Harry Potter to a deep dive into Hamilton, the Musical. Teachers control the offerings and curriculum, and, through the platform, find a way to reach a broad network of students and often substantially increase their earnings. Many are K-12 educators, but not all, allowing young learners exposure to a broad range of education styles and capabilities. A UN human rights lawyer teaches a series of classes on debating where she earns more than $10,000 each month. A Mom and gaming columnist teaches critical thinking through Dungeons and Dragons that’s become a platform favorite.

There is also an important “why now” to Outschool. The platform is built on top of Zoom, a technology that makes possible and affordable a convenient real time experience that would have been expensive and cumbersome only several years ago. We believe this underlying technological shift to accessible and reliable video chat is opening up mass opportunities across categories. We have already invested in three companies that are taking advantage of it and will likely invest in others.

Most importantly, Amir, Nick and Mikhail, the Outschool founding team, not only come with deep marketplace and platform experience as leaders at Square, Airbnb, and Google, but are also true believers in the necessity to change what excellent education can mean and who it can reach.

We are excited to lead the Outschool Series A alongside Reach Capital, and for the opportunity to work with companies and teams introducing meaningfully new experiences to education.

Education By The Numbers

We have been spending a fair bit of time thinking about education in the US and wanted to share some of what we’ve learned so far.

Below is a deck with some of the data we’ve come across, and broadly the patterns seem to be:

  • Traditional K-12 education hasn’t changed very much overall in the past 20 years, although there is a small but growing number of homeschool and charter school students.
  • What is rapidly changing are the economics around higher education. University revenues are growing much faster than student enrollment. This may explain why there is a lot of momentum around Income Share Agreements.
  • The other thing that is rapidly changing is the number of educational resources available online, which makes us wonder whether the role of schools may change from a place of instruction to a safe space where learning is encouraged. This is also an area where we are seeing some startup momentum, although because this change is less urgent than the economics of higher education, momentum here seems to be happening more gradually.

Understanding education in the US is an ongoing effort for us. If you think there is something we missed, we will be enthusiastic to hear from you.

Below is the deck and here is the link to view it on Google Slides where the data sources are listed in the presenter’s notes of each slide.

Sofar

At a Sofar, you are sitting on the floor in a room full of mostly strangers, listening to artists you’ve never heard of, perhaps in a city you’ve never been to before, and yet it’s possible to feel comfortable and content. Why does this work, and at scale? Recently, we’ve been thinking about what goes into building a trusted brand and why that matters to people.

Trusted experiences often reveal themselves slowly, over long periods of time. Perhaps trust is enabled through aligned incentives between a service and its users. Or, in delivering the consistency of a user experience. Or even, in creating a feeling of safety. We were first introduced to Sofar Sounds almost 7 years ago and have watched them build their network of artists, guests, and venues slowly and steadily, maintaining their trusted promise: intimate shows in unique venues around the world. As of today, we are also an investor in the company alongside Battery Ventures and Octopus Ventures.

Sofar fits the USV thesis on three fronts: network effects (between users, artists, and hosts), trusted brand (consistently high NPS), and broadening access to well-being (getting people to live events in person). The scale of the Sofar community, to us, is an example of “unspoken” value that Sofar has created for over one million people in 430 cities across 65 countries including London, Paris, New York, Sydney, Bangalore, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, and Seoul. In fact, more people will attend a Sofar in 2019 than will attend Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, and Coachella combined (also, 13 Sofar artists are playing at Coachella this year).

Each Sofar has a few known constraints that make the show feel familiar: it will be in a unique space where you wouldn’t expect to see live music, an MC with a loose script will encourage you to get to know your neighbors, three performers will each play three to four songs, the address will only be revealed a day before the show, and the show will end early, by around 10:30 pm. This is what we call “the Sofar container”. The natural outcomes of the container are less tangible; for example, you will hear great music, you will feel safe and comfortable, you might make a new friend or you can attend solo, you won’t be judged. By bringing people together and creating spaces where music matters, Sofar broadens access to well-being – a core part of our investment thesis.

The beauty of creating a simple container, with known constraints, is that what goes into the container is dynamic. You don’t know who the artists are, who you’ll be sitting next to or what the venue will be like, but we believe that the essence of Sofar lies in trusting the container.

Sofar expands the live music market via its bottom-up network of venues and also expands the number of places artists can perform. The participants also comprise a network: guests, hosts, and artists all create a Sofar together. These roles are fluid: audience members often become volunteers, volunteers become hosts, hosts become employees, and so on. In fact, 75% of Sofar’s full-time staff has come from its community. The strength of the network is derived from the fact that there is a high-level alignment between all three groups.

Artists get a full room of engaged audience members and a chance to be discovered, and even support to play in other cities where Sofar is present. Sofar artists have received over 220 million views on YouTube. Further, Sofar has created a global community of 25,000 artists and over 3,000 volunteers who are expanding the same model into new cities. In 2018, there were almost 6,000 Sofar shows globally; this month alone there will be over 600 shows. More than 40 Sofar artists have gone on to win or be nominated for a Grammy, 29 have been nominated for or won a BRIT award, and 22 have been nominated for or won a Mercury Prize.

We don’t believe that people wake up every day seeking “curation”, “trust”, or “experiences”. Instead, maybe people just want one moment of happiness, a chance to discover something new, to have a meaningful conversation, a human connection. It’s hard to put into words but maybe we don’t need to; eight couples, that we know of, have met at a Sofar and gone on to get married. Through its unique interface — the Sofar — Sofar Sounds brings people together, gives people a chance to feel part of something bigger, and provides a comfortable space to interact with live music. Live music that is completely stripped away, where you can quite literally feel every vibration in an intimate setting, from guitar strings and vocal cords to hands clapping in unison. We can’t think of many things better for mental health, well-being, and fun.

We are excited to welcome Sofar Sounds to the USV family.

Learning & Development at USV

 A few years ago, in a survey of 500+ employees across USV portfolio companies, we were surprised to see questions about best practices in management and leadership bubbling to the top. When we asked people what they expected to spend a lot of time thinking about at work, the number one response was, “better ways to communicate and collaborate internally.”

We wondered: Would it be possible to expose people across USV companies to management and leadership frameworks while leveraging our collective network intelligence across the portfolio?

Since that time, more than 400 people in the USV network have engaged in an outside-led training session as part of our focus on learning and development opportunities. Here’s how we’ve approached each layer:

Managers:

Often, at the stage when mid-level management is introduced in startups, strong individual contributors are promoted. As a result, they are frequently the closest to the toughest growing pains of startup life, having lived through it. I’ve also noticed that these individuals tend to carry a lot of internal social capital with new and old employees alike. It’s also worth noting that these individuals tend to be first time managers. However, we noticed that it’s uncommon for startups to facilitate management trainings internally -- a trend that my colleague Zach noticed has led to a new wave of L&D startups.

Our Approach: Two years ago, we introduced “USV Manager Bootcamp” to our network in partnership with LifeLabs Learning. Like all of our programming, we wanted to bring people together from multiple organizations in the same room -- surfacing new perspectives at the same time as we exposed some sample management frameworks to try. To date, we’ve helped 300 people from 50 different USV companies level up their manager skills as a first-time manager. In surveys of employees three- and six-months after taking the program, we’ve seen a consistently high Net Promoter Score of 74 for the program overall. Additionally, since that time, at least 20 of these companies have continued to level up new managers, either through LifeLabs or other external providers, and it continues to be one of the most sought-after programs that we run.

Executives:

After launching our new management track across the USV Network, the number of requests for additional learning and development programming began to increase. We started hearing anecdotally that some of those employees were returning to their organizations and sharing what they learned, which spurred interest among more senior leaders. We also received repeated requests to better support women leaders in our network and help them connect with each other. While it’s impossible to design a “one size fits all” framework for executive leadership, we wanted to see if we could support our execs the same way we’ve been supporting our new managers.

Our Approach: In 2018, Lauren Young on our Network Team introduced the first cohort of the Women’s Executive Leadership Program. This six-month session brings together 15-20 women execs across NYC companies and, through the guidance of outside facilitation, gives them a space to discuss key issues in leadership and connect with peers. In addition to continuing this program with another 15 executives this year, we’ve started rolling out quarterly “electives” for executives, including a course on “Adaptive Leadership” and one on fostering inclusion at work using principles of “Radical Candor.” So far, 60 Network Execs have engaged in these programs, and we plan to continue these on a quarterly basis.

 

Founders & CEOs:

In many ways, we’ve designed much of our USV Network programming to support individuals other than the founder and CEO of these businesses. While we’ve been running CEO Summits since 2010, we also recognize that our CEOs already receive a lot of outside counsel and advice: From their boards, from their executive teams, from other peer groups, from executive coaches. However, year after year at each CEO Summit (which we organize in an “unconference” style, like much of our USV network programming), we started to hear repeated requests to “bring experts in the room.” We also started to hear an increased number of requests for external executive coaching and exposure to CEOs and other leaders who have “been there, done that.”

Our Approach: Prior to last year’s CEO Summit, we experimented with our first-ever “CEO Master Class” session, inviting Dick Costolo back to USV to speak about his experiences in scaling Twitter from 40 to 4,000 employees through the IPO. For four hours, Dick stood in front of 40 CEOs in our USV office, with nothing more than a whiteboard, and simply told his story. The room was rapt. “More of this,” they requested. Since then, we’ve repeated this course one other time, with two other USV Network “alumni” -- Jerry Colonna and Chad Dickerson -- and we’ve since expanded our “CEO Summit” to a two-day event, including a Master Class again this year.

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Conclusion

As Maria Palma from RRE Ventures pointed out, many startups don’t invest in formal activities to provide real-time feedback, development opportunities, and training. That’s why we, like many other firms, are starting to broaden our definition of portfolio support and engagement. At USV, we see this as just one more way we can use the power of networks to help our companies build better businesses.

Carta Act III

In October 2014 we were fortunate to lead the Series A financing in a company then called eshares. At that point the company was offering cap table management services for private companies in the cloud, at the time a novel idea. About a year later the company rolled out 409A valuation services, quickly becoming the largest, and generally the fastest and cheapest, provider of these services.

In late 2016/early 2017, under the leadership of CEO and co-founder Henry Ward, the company entered two new markets: i) employee stock option services for public companies and ii) fund administration and other investor services for venture capital and other forms of private equity. In doing so, the company rebranded as Carta in Q4 2017, effectively beginning Act II.

Act II was short. Anyone who has worked with or interacted with Henry knows that moss doesn’t grow under his feet. He’s on a mission to change the way private markets operate.

Today begins Act III . The company is announcing a large Series E financing led by a16z and Marc Andreesen is joining Carta’s board. While the amount and valuation will garner headlines, the real news is the use of proceeds:

We’ll use our new funding to enable liquidity across our network. Private markets are so illiquid that founders and employees often wait a decade for an IPO to access liquidity. We think it’s time for this change.

Private market liquidity is a hard problem today unless you’re a large institution holding shares in a “hot” company. At USV, we’re actually selling some shares in this round to manage a potential liquidity issue we have in our 2014 Fund. While there is a lot of work to do, we believe that in a few years Carta and its partners will unlock the keys to more robust private market liquidity for all participants, including smaller investors and individual employees. We’re excited to be investors in this Act III project. Stay tuned.

Free Learning

There is an aptitude test that measures creativity by asking people to name use cases for objects such as a paper clip. People who score in the genius category not only come up with many use cases for a paper clip, they also change what it means to be a paper clip: if the paper clip were 9 feet tall, it could hold up a house. 98% of 5 year olds score in the genius category, but by the time those kids are adults, only 2% do.

To borrow from Picasso, all of us are born curious, the challenge is to remain curious as we grow up. One of our beliefs is that we can collectively build a more curious world if we leverage technology to make it more affordable and accessible for future learners to opt out of traditional public schooling and forge their own paths, learning creativity, curiosity and passion along the way, rather than note taking, test taking and following the rules.

If humanity is a blip in the timeline of the Earth, public schooling is a blip in the timeline of humanity. Modern humans have existed for 50,000 years. Modern public schooling has existed for less than 250.

That is to say, the way public schooling is today isn't the way it has to be. Many of the ideas we take for granted as public schooling are recent innovations. The idea of grouping students by age and advancing them every year was established 170 years ago, the idea of specialized higher-education for secular professions such as doctors and lawyers started 225 years ago, and the idea of teaching math as something that's completely separate from philosophy, music and physics would have seemed absurd in the academies of ancient Greece.

It's true that by many metrics, public schools are succeeding. The high school completion rate is rising, so is the number of students taking advanced math and science courses, teacher salaries are even on the average increasing, and standardized test measurements show that the public school system is able to teach students on the whole to the same level of test score achievement every year.

The current system seems to be working, but only if you measure it by its own yardstick of completion rates and standardized test scores. By any other measurement such as the growing rate of depression among students in the US and the near 50% of people in the US who do not believe their lives will be better off in five years, there is indication that schooling today may fail to cultivate our sense of wonder, accomplishment, openness to learning new skills and self-sufficiency.

The core problem in public schooling is that most of the time, we teach kids to memorize for the test instead of using their natural curiosity to drive the learning. We tell kids that they can’t divide by zero instead of asking them - well what would happen if we tried!* Students are bored in class because we’ve made the learning boring. As per Aristotle, Malala and Richard Feynman, seeking knowledge is what makes us human, and yet, we’ve somehow managed to take all of the joy and wonder out of learning at school.

In A Mathematician's Lament, Paul Lockhart describes a dystopian world in which music is taught to K-12 students the same way math is taught today (though, sadly, music education isn’t available any more to at all to many students). Students memorize the circle of fifths and get points taken away if the stems on the music notes they draw face the wrong way. They never get to hear any music unless they somehow choose to stick with it to an advanced graduate level course.

This, of course, is how we teach math to students, we teach all of the symbols without the bigger picture. Imagine if instead, we taught math to students by starting with big, fundamental questions and mysteries, the same way people like Isaac Newton, René Descartes and Rosalind Franklin grappled with the unknown and asked themselves questions, leading to them discovering new ideas about calculus, curved lenses, and DNA.

“There is no learning without having to pose a question.” – Richard Feynman

Free Learning

This is the core idea of Free Learning. Free learning is free-form and self-directed (much like Free Climbing or Free Diving). In free learning, learners ask questions, they want to know things. They use their innate curiosity to drive the learning.

How does one free learn? The first step is to be passionate, the next step is to ask a question, and then the last step is to find a community where finding the answer is encouraged. This passion and community-driven learning is already happening in music and sports – we join bands and teams that encourage us to learn more, and it is our own passion that drives us to get better – imagine if the same could happen in other subjects too.

In his TED talk, Sugata Mitra, an educational researcher and the founder of The School In The Cloud, explains how questions can drive learning: “There was a time when Stone Age men and women used to sit and look up at the sky and say, ‘What are those twinkling lights?’ They built the first curriculum, but we've lost sight of those wondrous questions. We've brought it down to the tangent of an angle. But that's not sexy enough. The way you would put it to a nine-year-old is to say, ‘If a meteorite was coming to hit the Earth, how would you figure out if it was going to or not?’ And if he says, ‘Well, what? how?’ you say, ‘There's a magic word. It's called the tangent of an angle,’ and leave him alone. He'll figure it out.”

Free learning not only teaches how to acquire knowledge, it teaches that it is fun to do so. Like Andy often describes, while most of us don’t wake up in the morning thinking that we want to learn physics today, we do wake up wanting to feel bewildered and accomplished, both of which we get from working towards and discovering the answers to our own questions.

Even though free learning is not strictly about learning for employment, the skills acquired in free learning are important in today’s changing job market. As automation replaces jobs for which the job has concrete tasks (such as forecast the sales for the next quarter), the jobs that are left are those where the solution is unknown (such as how do we grow our enterprise sales without increasing our salesforce?).

Freelearners.org

This belief that the web can help make alternatives to traditional education an accessible option to more people is one we have been investing in for about a decade: Duolingo, Skillshare, Quizlet and Codecademy, for example, are excellent learning resources available to anyone online.

Alongside this blog post, we’ve published a list of resources for free learners and a list of ideas we think could be interesting free learning companies and projects to start such as ClassPass for university classes, GitHub for academic research and Pioneer for free learners. Not all of these project ideas are high-growth businesses that are right for venture capital, but they are all projects that we think should exist. You can check out both at freelearners.org.

The ability to free learn of course depends on a lot of things: not only the accessibility of information and tools, but also having a safe place to be and supportive family and friends. Part of building this future will also have to be building networks, communities and safe spaces for learners, as well as projects that help free learners start businesses, find meaningful jobs and get into college, if that is what they choose to do.

To quote from Fred on AVC: "The internet and technology writ large are making it a lot easier for someone to learn something. But we have barely scratched the surface of what is possible. Twenty-five years after the emergence of the web browser and the commercial internet, education still works largely like it did back then. That is going to change, is changing, and I am very excited for it to happen."

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* Here’s what happens when you divide by zero. Let’s say, for instance, that we are dividing the number 10 by 1, we get 10. Then if we divide 10 by 0.1, we get 100, if we divide 10 by 0.01, we get 1,000. If we divide 10 by 0.000000001, we get 10 billion. The smaller we make the divisor, the larger the outcome. As the divisor becomes so small it approaches zero, the answer becomes so large it approaches infinity. And so you can’t divide by zero because it is a limit that approaches infinity. It also cannot be the case that 1 divided by zero is equal to 4 divided by zero and is equal to 13 divided by zero, but if we say that they all equal infinity we can get into some messy false logic.

 

Joining Union Square Ventures

I am delighted to announce that I have joined Union Square Ventures partnership. What started a few months ago as a catch up breakfast with my friend Andy Weissman, became a series of conversations with the amazing USV team and an invitation to join their partnership. I feel very glad to be at a place in my career where I am right for USV and USV is right for me.

At my core, I am a student of companies and their leaders, and strive to learn what makes them succeed or fail in the dynamic tech world. I am excited to look at our business and portfolio through the lens of USV’s thesis of backing trusted brands that broaden access to knowledge, capital, and well-being by leveraging networks, platforms, and protocols. My business passion is trying to understand the complex story that the numbers tell about a company. I have applied this orientation to creating value over my entire career.  

My path has not been typical. I have been a camp counselor (Alford Lake Camp), a sell side equity analyst (Hambrecht & Quist & Morgan Stanley), a head of M&A (Symbol Technologies), a banker and early stage investor (Allen & Company) and most recently, a public company CFO (XO Group). I have also collected important experience out of the office as a non-profit (Sweet Briar College, St Regis Foundation) and public company (Monster) board member and as an angel investor. Many days I use my CFO skills but on quite a few days the camp counselor side of me is my biggest secret weapon.

One thing that made USV particularly attractive to me was its women and the position it puts me in to help empower other women. With each year that goes by, my desire (and my platform) to make a difference grows. Meeting Rebecca, Kerri, Bethany and the other rock star women of USV made the decision to join the firm even more of a no-brainer.

At USV, in addition to evolving the underlying operations of the firm, I will be getting back to pursuing one of my passions, applying my accumulated experience to venture investing. I am excited to bring my perspective to the table.  

Now... whether or not I become a prolific blogger... that remains to be seen. I look forward to jumping in… I can be reached at [email protected].

USV 2019 Funds

We are pleased to announce that we have raised two new funds. The 2019 Core Fund has commitments of $200 million (up slightly from our last few core funds which were $175 million) and the 2019 Opportunity Fund is at $250 million (also up from our last 2014 Opportunity Fund of $175mm). We have made investments from the new Opportunity Fund already, including Marley Spoon and several more about to close. We are also about to close the first investment from the new Core Fund. These will be USV’s sixth early stage and third opportunity funds, respectively.

As part of these new funds, we’ve continued to expand our team. First, we are excited to announce that Gillian Munson has joined the USV team as a partner. Gillian has been a longtime friend of the firm dating back to her days at Allen & Co. She will be taking on many of the financial responsibilities that John has handled for many years and also be making investments and taking board seats. Also, Nick Grossman, who has been a longstanding member of the USV team, has become a partner and will be announcing an investment that he is leading shortly. Nick will continue with some of the policy work he has been doing with an ongoing focus on all things crypto.

We will continue to invest with a thesis-driven approach and you can always find our latest thinking on our website (stay tuned for an upcoming design refresh). Investing in blockchain and crypto currencies is part of our current thesis -- which is why we talk about investing in companies and projects -- but it has been and will continue to be a fraction of our overall investing.

It is also worth noting that we continue to invest in the USV Network. The Network team has now grown to four (you can find out more about all the amazing things they do for people working at our 85 active portfolio companies on the USV Network page). Among other things you will find there is the USV talent network which is a way of raising your hand that you want to work at one of our portfolio companies.

A big thanks to all our investors for their continued support and a few new ones for joining the USV family. We are looking forward to working with all the companies in our existing portfolio and adding new ones over the coming years.

Code Climate Velocity 2.0

About a year ago Code Climate announced its Velocity offering which provides engineering insights. Today they are taking the wraps off Version 2.0 for everyone. Existing customers have already had access to many of the new features. I am writing about this today because the whole history of the Velocity offering is illustrative of the right way to launch a new product even when you are a company that already has a mature offering (Code Climate Quality).

Many organizations once they have a mature product fall into a trap. They can’t release something new because they can’t reset the dial to behaving like a startup. Instead of going out with an MVP and learning from customers they want to release something that matches the maturity of their other offerings. They often wind up not shipping at all or after a new startup has already come in and taken the field.

Code Climate did a terrific job avoiding this trap. Their initial release of Velocity was intentionally minimal in the best sense of the word (think first iPhone). It was no frills but provided meaningful value and many customers adopted it. The subsequent feature development has been guided by the needs of these customers culminating in today's release.

If you are looking to enable your engineering team and processes with better insights and analytics, go and check out all the goodness that is now part of Code Climate Velocity 2.0.

Marley Spoon

One of the most basic human needs is the need for food. We all need to eat and drink to survive. And so it is not surprising that substantial parts of our lives, economies and societies are devoted to growing, distributing and preparing food.

Food is also a cultural touchstone. We associate certain foods and flavors with geographic regions. We speak of “comfort food.” And there is ample evidence that eating meals together is a crucial bonding experience among friends, colleagues and even strangers. There is even a saying “Families that eat together, stay together.”

It should therefore not be surprising that food is an important area for innovation. And there is a ton of that happening at the moment, from fundamental research on plant biology to synthetic meats to indoor farming. Another area for innovation is the food supply chain, which at present is incredibly wasteful. Between restaurants, grocery stores and fridges in peoples homes, up to 50% of all food grown on farms goes to waste.

As we think about a planet that is headed for 11 Billion people, it is crucial that we work on making quality food and shared meal experiences accessible to as many people as possible. That is not just a challenge for developing nations but right here in the US healthy meals at an affordable cost are hard to come by for many.

Meal kits are one of several innovations that will broaden access. By knowing their customers’ tastes and having pre-orders, meal kit companies can dramatically reduce food waste. Some people will be quick to point to packaging waste but even that can be reduced by meal kits compared to most grocery stores through compostable materials and by circulating packaging (where boxes are re-used).

The meal kit sector has taken a beating because some companies struggled against outsized growth expectations. But that doesn’t change the fundamentals. Meal kits are not for everyone, but they work well for families that are time constrained yet want to eat a home cooked meal.

We are excited to be backing Fabian and the team at Marley Spoon, who are pioneers in the sector. They have led a number of important innovations, including a big expansion of the available menu choices -- now 20 recipes per week and growing -- and the introduction of a more affordable option with Dinnerly, which costs only $5 per portion. Still it is early days and much remains to be done to unlock the potential of this new food supply chain.

The Distributed Computing Update #3

Last summer, I wrote an overview of distributed computing projects in which I now believe I got one key point very wrong.

At the time, I believed that a distributed compute project’s core strategy should be to undercut centralized compute providers on price. At the time, I thought developers wouldn’t choose a harder-to-use distributed compute platform unless it was significantly cheaper than its centralized competitors.

I no longer think that price is the most compelling way for distributed compute projects to compete against centralized cloud providers; I now believe that it’s more about beating centralized providers on developer integrity.

Integrity

Like Nick described in a blog post last month, when developers invest their time building apps on a platform, they are trusting the platform to be around and available, and not to turn off access to important APIs and features.

Developers inherently understand that building on closed platforms means taking on the risk that the platform will one day shut down or change its rules. There are 14,600 questions on Stack Overflow mentioning vendor lock-in. Developers are hyper-aware of it.

For the first time ever, blockchains make it possible for developer platforms to be around forever (or as long as a single network node is running), and to do so without there being a single company that can unilaterally make changes to the rules of the platform.

Developers can trust that a distributed compute protocol won’t go away, fall down, lock them in, revoke their access, or become their direct competitor. Developers cannot trust Amazon, Google or Microsoft to promise them the same.

This may not be the first time open developer infrastructure wins over closed infrastructure. Brad argues that the reason why Microsoft missed the web was because they missed building an open source server. In the nineties, developers chose open source Linux over proprietary Microsoft.

What about the developer experience

A small portion of developers may care so much about building apps on high-integrity platforms that they may be willing to forgo the great developer experience they’d get with a centralized cloud provider.

We can see this happening already with the developers choosing to build apps where the core logic runs on Ethereum instead of on a centralized platform. It can be a more challenging experience to build apps on Ethereum because the dev tools and libraries are still new, yet some developers are willing to build on it anyway because they value that Ethereum cannot change its rules on them the way that a centralized platform could.

As a project keeps improving its developer experience over time, its developer market share should grow, the same way that more developers started moving to building on Ethereum as there started to be tools like Truffle and Infura that made it easier to do so.

The core team doesn’t always have to be the ones that make the developer experience better. Sometimes those improvements come from tooling built by the community such as Heroku and Zeit building easier interfaces for deploying to AWS, or Infura and The Graph building easier interfaces for interacting with Ethereum. But still, the same principle applies that as it gets easier to use a computing platform, more developers may use it.

The important bit here is that while distributed compute projects can improve their developer experience until they catch up to the centralized providers, it is potentially impossible for centralized compute providers to improve their integrity to catch up to their distributed competitors. No matter what they do, unless they rebuild their platforms on a decentralized network, they will always have the problem that they are a centralized company running on centrally controlled infrastructure. This is just like how Ethereum may after many years achieve a comparable developer experience to AWS, but AWS cannot catch up with Ethereum on developer integrity because it will always be centrally controlled:

Not just compute!

This strategy may work for other developer services beyond compute. FileCoin may be able to offer more trustworthy storage than S3 ever will. Blockstack may be able to offer more trustworthy hosting than Google App Engine ever will. Similarly, Piccolo for databases, Handshake for certificate authorities, and CacheCash for caching. These are just a few examples but there are many. All of these projects offer more challenging developer experiences today than their centralized competitors, but as they improve over time, more developers may switch over from the lower-integrity centralized solutions:

The Opportunity

Nick calls this the startup-sized integrity gap: what centralized players leave lacking in developer trust is a startup-sized opportunity for a decentralized player to fill.

There seems to be four important pieces to successfully executing this strategy:

The first is to emphasize developer trust and integrity by making the platform governance rules transparent and clear. This transparency around changes and governance seems like a critical piece of cementing trust.

The second piece seems to be time - a project has to stay afloat long enough that it can take years to catch up on the developer experience. There are probably two ingredients to doing this: one is to play in a big enough market so that capturing even a fraction of a percent of the market is meaningful revenue, and the other is to be so capital efficient that even if revenue is low, costs are down enough that the team has runway.

The third is to continuously invest in improving the developer experience, and to almost singularly focus on that rather than branching out and building new products and services. This can be done through efforts in the core team, or by working with the community to develop tools.

The final is to consider that while a project may not need to compete against AWS on developer experience on day one, it probably does want to be leading the curve in developer experience amongst the other distributed compute projects.

Distributed compute platforms, by the nature of being built on crypto, can promise developers a level of integrity that no centralized cloud platform can. That feels like a big opportunity.

Ten-thousand better decisions: Building a network around "network effects"

"Normally I’m against big things. I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things" -- Pete Seeger

There are a million decisions that go into the process of building a company. By surfacing perspectives from 75 companies in our portfolio network, we hope to create tools that help people within each company answer even a fraction of these. Added up across this 10,000-person community, if everyone is enabled to make one better call, then this might lead to 10,000 better decisions than before.

When starting a business, the founding team must decide early on what to create, who it's for, and how to build it. Following that, a new set of decisions emerges, including choices like how to launch, who to hire, and how much money to raise. And so, the process repeats itself.

Albert Wenger, one of our partners at USV, likes to refer to this "leveling up" process like beating a new level in a video game. With each new level or phase of growth in a startup, you'll need to use the skills you've already mastered plus an added new challenge. By the time you're a 100-person, Series C company, the number of questions asked (and the sheer number of people deciding things) may have increased by a factor of 10.

Admittedly, the role of an executive team also becomes infinitely more complex along the way.

It's likely that there are people on the executive team who are going through the process of company-building for the first time, and making decisions might seem scary. Part of why it can be helpful to have a board of entrepreneurs, VCs, and advisors is because these people can offer insights, observations, and pattern recognition that you may never be able to see from your vantage point. And certainly, by taking board seats on many of the deals we see at USV, we strive to stick close to our entrepreneurs throughout each step of this process to do just that.

But there are many great people at startups who will never have the privilege to be a part of board meetings or interact with investment partners at any VC firm. Those people still make decisions, too. Maybe not the kind that are discussed the board level, but still decisions nonetheless. These might include things like:

  • How should we design behavioral interview questions for our candidate process?
  • Should we migrate our system architecture to microservices?
  • What PR firm should we work with to announce our Series C?
  • Should the engineers sit next to the sales team, or on a different floor?
  • Would a rebrand make it easier for us to launch internationally?
  • Would this strategic partnership help us meet our OKRs this quarter?

No matter where you sit inside of an organization, you likely have some decision-making power.

Maybe you manage the office pantry and decide what type of food and snacks will give your colleagues the most energy to go about their days. Maybe you run IT and help prevent cyber-attacks or data breaches by educating your colleagues about safety best practices. Maybe you run your events marketing strategy and research the best conferences where you might set up a booth on the trade show floor to generate the highest quality leads for the sales team.

The single weight of any one decision may be quite small, (See: "Should we have both breakfast and lunch snacks in our fridge?") but the outcome of each choice matters. Over time, each "good call" contributes to an additive effect of a stronger, better company. And this is how we've designed the peer-to-peer effects of learning across the USV portfolio network. We want to empower everyone to make the best decisions possible by surfacing as many different perspectives as we can.

Rather than expect 1 person at the top to make the “right” call 100 times in a row, we've designed the USV Network around a second possibility: Can we help 100 people each make one slightly better decision than before?

In aggregate, by encouraging cross-pollination of ideas and experiences through all of the talented people across our portfolio, we believe we can leverage our network to serve as a resource to help all employees learn and grow.

In other words, when looking across our entire startup portfolio, we might ask: Can we help 10,000 people across 75 different companies to each make one better decision?

Each year, there are more than 150 touchpoints for people across this network to come together and share "lessons learned" at various in-person and remote events. Outside experts join us from time to time to time, bringing outside perspectives about management, leadership, or other common questions that arise. And dozens of people have stepped up to lead their own programming or even share back advice in one-on-one interactions with peers. In the end, we hope that by regularly convening people with similar functional roles across different companies, we might introduce new possibilities, solutions, and ideas -- one person at a time.

So, can the USV Network help make 10,000 better decisions? It'll be impossible to know for sure. But we're certainly going to try.

Come for an Action, Stay for the Community

If the last decade has been a time of digital abundance--more followers, more “friends,” more apps--2019 looks to be the year of paring down. 2018 saw the first significant decline in time spent on site for Facebook. Users are deleting the app and replacing it with tools to track screen time. But our desire to find community and connection, and to leverage technology to do so in more effective and efficient ways, hasn’t changed. As a result, the coming years will likely be a time of renewed opportunity in new forms of social systems, the kind that has been difficult to come by during the major platforms’ ascension and dominance.

This is not to say the incumbent platforms are going anywhere anytime soon. But there is likely to be a splintering significant enough to create new startup entrants with the chance to own consumer needs.

This splintering seems to be happening for two central reasons:

  1. Privacy and security. While events like Cambridge Analytica have drawn increased awareness to both the massive sets of data platforms like Facebook hold and the relative ease with which they can land in the wrong hands (let alone what the platforms can and likely will do with it themselves), privacy is still probably the lesser of the two core reasons for the degrading engagement. Increased privacy breaches that hit close to home for users will likely further point out that these platforms have created scale but not deep user trust--and emphasize the need to builded trusted brands to create true longevity. But, for now, its impact is probably lesser than that of reason #2.
  2. Users are no longer getting what they want (or as much of it.) The dominant platforms began with promises of curated communities, but have left us with crafted personas of what we want the entire world to see and a loose web of paper-thin connections. In the case of Facebook, this meant starting first with schools, then geographies, with real identities, initially verified with university addresses. But with an advertising-based model predicated on scale, success meant breadth so their purpose evolved to connecting everyone on the planet. They’ve accomplished this mission with billions of active users. However, the mandate of scale has made that initial premise of community on platforms harder to achieve. A decade plus in, this kind of broad connectivity is starting to seem more addictive but less fulfilling than many originally thought. Users are uber-in the know but feel emotionally disconnected. Lasting consumer businesses have to fulfill some set of human drivers and desires that, despite rapid innovation & technological change, basically remain the same--belonging, connection, curiosity. When they aren't being fulfilled, the products we use change, not the desires.

So what now?

The next wave of social systems will likely emphasize breadth and depth differently than the last--and may not look much like social networks at all. With the current networks, the horizontal nature of the platform is the product. Users come for the community. But it may be that with the next, the community is what keeps users long term engaged but is formed around another intent. Come for an action, stay for the community.

These platforms are likely to have four core things in common:

  1. Users share a common interest or objective (beyond connectivity.) Gaming is the vertical furthest ahead on these kind of new social systems and platforms like Twitch and Discord, in addition to certain games themselves like Fortnite, serve as great examples. Users come to watch a game, but stay to keep debating and discussing with a community of other gamers. Other verticals are earlier but show the same behavior. ShopShops* users sign on to watch livestreams of hosts shopping in retail stores and markets around the world, and to buy in real time. But, while they do, they wind up messaging with each other--responding to questions, sharing thoughts on the items, even splitting purchases (once a shopper only wanted one earring in a pair and another on the livestream happily took the other.) They come back as much to re-engage with the community as they do to find what they want to buy next.
  2. Users have skin in the game--they’ve in some way transacted or are on path to transact. This definition of transaction is broad--they purchase something, subscribe to something, or actionably engage with the brand before entering this group. This creates a deeper level of buy-in and, in effect, creates a “closed” community. There’s a lot of this behavior currently going on across platforms with the community building on Facebook and the transacting happening elsewhere. Duolingo’s* users connect in Facebook groups organized by the specific language they are learning to get extra practice, ask for help around tricky language rules, and share jokes. Embark, which sells an at home DNA test for dogs, has thousands of customers aggregating on Facebook to post photos and guess the outcomes of pending results. Owners with similar breeds connect with excitement, sharing tips. Increasingly, this community piece will be built into the platforms themselves rather than existing externally.
  3. Users in the best communities go through a transition from the specific to the broad. While users may join the network with a particular question or straight from a purchase, the best ones will expand the scope of the applicable quickly once the common ground has been developed. Dia & Co’s* most passionate customers, for example, aggregate in a group where they share best finds from their wardrobes but also ask for career advice and even plan vacations with women they only know through a mutual love of Dia. Glossier has the Into the Gloss community where passionate beauty enthusiasts come--first to talk about their favorite products (Glossier and otherwise), but then to go back and forth on travel tips and best self care post pregnancy.
  4. Multimodal business models--the best of these new networks will, over time, develop multimodal models that both take into account aggregated audiences as well as the services and products uniting them. Connie Chan at a16z wrote a great post on what we can learn from China about what some of these might look like. For the best ones, a multifaceted model that aligns business and customer combined with a platform that promotes transparency and depth of interaction will create a new level of defensiblity and stickiness.

If you are working on a business involving this new evolution of community, I’d love to learn more.

*ShopShops, Duolingo & Dia & Co are all USV portfolio companies

Nice To Meet You

Back in October I read a blog post penned by my now colleague Bethany Crystal about the launch of the USV Talent Network. At the time, I was consulting the French government on how they could attract more American growth stage talent to work at the most promising French startups. I sent a cold email over USV’s way explaining what I was up to and asking if they’d like to chat about talent, networks, and so on. Bethany responded with an enthusiastic yes and a job description of a new role she was hiring for.

Now here I am, just a few months later, penning my own blog post and introducing myself to you as the new Network Programs Manager at USV. So hey there! My name is Matt Cynamon (pronounced like the spice). I’ve spent my entire career in and around tech startups in the United States and abroad. I’ve launched two companies, and joined another that I helped grow from a handful of employees to a $400 million+ exit. Outside of work, I teach a class on how to get a job at a startup, I make mediocre, amateur films, and I spend as much time as possible in Prospect Park.

As the new Network Program Manager I’ll be launching some initiatives that unlock the value of the USV extended network (talent, alumni, partners, etc) to our portfolio of 75+ companies. I’ve been a massive admirer of USV since I moved to New York in 2009 and feel incredibly humbled to be doing my small part in bringing this network a little closer together. So, if you’re interested in working within our portfolio then check out all the open listings here and if you have ideas for how to improve the USV network don’t be afraid to reach out - [email protected] As is a testament to my being here, you never know where a friendly email might lead. You can find me on twitter @mattcynamon.

P.S. If you’re curious where our heads are at, here’s a list of books I’ve been reading to prepare for the work ahead.

The opportunity for learning & development at scale

Millennial employees are less drawn to the perks of their parents’ generation, like company-funded pensions, and more motivated by flexibility, autonomy, and access to the newest technology (cool offices help, too). One thing that has remained unchanged, though, is the desire to grow and learn new skills. Large, established corporations have invested in training for their employees for decades, offering dedicated in-house coaches to make sure their less experienced colleagues have the skills to conduct a meeting, manage personal and professional life, respond to a manager, and speak in public. Amazon offers an intensive, month-long training and leadership program prior to hire and AT&T opened AT&T University where employees can earn technical credentials like web and mobile development, data analytics and entrepreneurship.

This kind of training is desired by millennials, 82% of whom say that formal training from their employers on the job is important in helping them perform their best. However, many startups and smaller companies fail to provide it. A lack of development resources is not only to the detriment of the employee, since training is good for employers too; by improving retention (one study found that 94% of employees would stay longer at a company if it invested more in their career) and engagement (Gallup reported that 67% of employees were not engaged in 2016), companies can also bolster financial performance.

There is a clear opportunity to serve this need in the rising workforce at scale through platform and marketplace approaches that combine coaching and training with technology tools, thus broadening access to professional and personal wellbeing.

Demand in the tech industry started with CEOs searching for personalized coaching and has paved the way for coaches like Jerry Colonna and the Reboot team to be oversubscribed for months at a time. Now, increasingly, interest in coaching has extended beyond executives. Coaching is a large and fast-growing $10b piece of the overall learning and development (“L&D”) market. The question is: how can companies drive down cost enough to broaden access to the type of coaching and development training that was once only reasonable to spend on executives?

Technology may be able to provide leverage in three ways. First, automating logistical tasks such as scheduling allows coaches to work with more employees, driving up their per hour value and increasing their overall capacity. Second, finding an employee the right match increases her probability of being satisfied with the interaction. Third, gathering data and reporting allows for individually optimized training plans. Lin-Jin and Andrew Chen highlight how complex building curated (or semi-curated) marketplaces like coaching platforms can be, and the power of these networks if you succeed.

There are several L&D companies taking this approach. Some examples: BetterUp focuses on psycho- and behavioral analysis to help their customers achieve greater satisfaction at work with coaches. LiveCoach provides life coaches who help to provide structure and perspective in and out of the workplace. Ginger does too, over chat. Torch and GoCoach promote efficiency, engagement, and learning. NextPlay matches employees with each other as mentors. Hone focuses on delivering coach-led leadership development programs with a focus on distributed teams.

Another question is how much technology leverage can exist? Can technologies become the coaches themselves? On the one hand, you may want to get advice from another person (at least some of the time) because common to humans is an emotional inner life that allows for empathy and creates connection. On the other hand, if you’re interacting with a machine (and know that you are) you may be more open and honest about issues over which other humans might be judgmental. We’re still thinking through what aspects of the coaching itself can be impactfully outsourced to software.

A final question is whether it makes more sense for coaching and L&D platforms to go direct to consumer or to sell to enterprises. I tend to think that the latter makes more sense. With the war-on-talent in full swing, it’s possible that training and professional development will become a significant differentiator and selling point for employers when competing with the likes of Amazon and Google (Google offers personal coaching to every new hire in its competitive APM program).

If you’re working on ideas in this space we’d love to hear from you, please reach out.

Our First Network-Wide Diversity & Inclusion Survey

Earlier this fall, Lauren Young on our Network Team collaborated with companies across our portfolio network on our first-ever USV Network diversity and inclusion survey.

One of the things we heard through our monthly USV Network diversity & inclusions discussions is that, while baseline metrics exist at larger organizations like Google, Facebook, or even Etsy, it’s hard to get a sense of where a 100-person startup might set their baseline.

Our goal was to understand a few things:

  • How are startups doing in terms of promoting diverse and inclusive work environments?
  • What initiatives have been the most successful at rolling out a D&I strategy?
  • Are there any patterns or trends we can expose within our network to share any best practices?
  • What, if anything, can we do from our place as a VC firm to help?

In the end, 38 companies* (just over 50% of our active portfolio) participated in this survey, with 55% of respondents falling between 31-100 employees.


While this is obviously still a small sample size of startups, we wanted to share a few patterns that we noticed as well as share the survey questions that we asked among our network, in case you’d like to repeat this with your own portfolio or organization.

 

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What we learned:

 

Companies over 100 employees are most likely to have diverse executive teams.
Of the 38 participating companies, 61% reported having women and 57% reporting having people of color* in the C-suite. While we didn’t ask about any further breakdowns (for instance, whether there is equal representation among men and women among these exec teams), we did find that companies with more than 100 employees were the most likely to have women and people of color in the C-Suite than smaller organizations. We did not survey on under-represented minorities, which we will fix in future surveys.

There's an opportunity at the director level.
In our survey, we found that only 16% of companies have at least 50% representation of women at director level roles and above. Additionally, 6 in 10 companies have less than 20% representation of people of color* in Director level roles or above

Creating inclusive policies seems to be the most common first step.
When we asked companies what steps they are taking to promote diversity and inclusion initiatives internally, we found that writing an anti-harassment policy, creating a code of conduct, and tracking diversity metrics were the most common practices. 71% of companies have at least started implementing anti-harassment policies and a code of conduct. Some of the least explored initiatives included creating an inclusion communication guide and building company-wide “affinity groups.”

The most impactful changes come from deliberate, intentional effort.
We asked our companies to share their biggest “lesson learned” from the efforts they have undertaken thus far. The most common theme that emerged was that it takes repetition, intention, and strong communication to get this right

It's hard to find the time to make it a priority.
One of the free responses questions in our survey asked about the biggest challenges our companies faced in order to get diversity right. Some common answers we heard included building diverse candidate pipelines, integrating D&I into the organizational DNA, committing to spending time on D&I programs.

There's a lot we can do as VCs to support this work.
When we circulated these results internally at USV, we were most eager to explore how we can foster increased opportunities to amplify these efforts among our portfolio. A few great ideas emerged from this research for ways that our firm can help with recruiting efforts, building community, and offering cross-company training opportunities for our network. We intend to explore some of these ideas in 2019 and beyond.

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What’s next for us


While we recognize that this survey is only an early step for us in better understanding the D&I needs for companies across our network, we hope that our companies and other communities can learn and build upon this work, too. To that effect, we’ve open sourced the survey questions that we asked to our network, including a few comments of places where we think we can improve in the future.

We welcome the opportunity to continue collaborating with internal and external partners on this work.

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Acknowledgements:

Special thanks to Kapor Capital, for collaborating on the question set for our survey, and to Jasmine Shells and the whole team at Five to Nine, an employee engagement solution that uses analytics to improve company culture, who helped us analyze these results.

*Our data collection process:

  • We received 38 total responses to this survey, representing just over 50% of our active portfolio at the time it was conducted (October 2018). The demographic breakdown of company sizes reflected in the responses is comparable to the overall breakdown within our active portfolio today.
  • We defined “people of color” as a person of non-white or European descent and did not survey about underrepresented minorities, which was an oversight. In follow-up surveys, we intend to better understand how both populations are represented across the network.

Therapeutic Computing

As part of the broadening access to wellbeing thesis, we have been searching for projects that bring down the cost of therapy and coaching. 8% of adults and 12% of teens (and as high as 20% of teen women) suffer from depression in the US, but traditional therapy costs $75-150 an hour and online therapy like BetterHelp and Talkspace cost $150-$300/month, which are unaffordable for most US households.

One way to approach this challenge is building AI chatbots that act as personal therapists. This is a great approach, but I also think there is an opportunity to build a new kind of therapeutic relationship between a human and a computer that looks different than the traditional relationship between a human patient and a human therapist. Such a model would lean on what a computer can do really well that would be difficult for a human to do, such as ingesting a large amount of unstructured data and deriving insights.

One such model that seems potentially very interesting is software that passively ingests messaging, location, activity, sleep and phone usage and offers observations and guidance in a helpful (and privacy preserving) manner.

One example could be a calendar that passively notices that you haven’t been attending your scheduled plans and helpfully asks if you’d like to set aside time to journal or call a friend. Alternatively, a calendar that has access to your messages and offers you suggestions for what to talk about with a friend before you go to meet them.

Another example could be a keyboard that offers inline observations about your mood and reminds you to stop and breathe if you're about to send an angry message.

A third example could be a fitness app that notices that you haven’t left your house for a few days and offers you a nearby activity you might like to walk over to.

People are building all sorts of passive observational guidance tools that could potentially be very impactful:

  1. Mei and Actual are both building messaging clients that offer advice for how to better connect with the people you talk to. Mei, for example, after watching my messaging threads, suggested I take more notice when my friends get worked up about something.
  2. Maslo and Scribe are both journaling apps that also over time offer insights about your mood and surface the common themes of your journal entries.
  3. Sonic Sleep Coach is an alarm clock that suggests personalized improvements for how you can get better sleep.
  4. Just Not Sorry is a Gmail plugin that helps you draft emails that more strongly communicate your thoughts and ideas.

I’m sure there are others.

Two benefits of a software-only solution are that software is stigma and judgement free, and can be low cost for the user. However, it’s important to be careful that these observations and suggestions are helpful and not hurtful, and so there could be systems that start with or even forever have humans in the loop.

One big question is how to build therapeutic, personal software that is helpful without being creepy. The answer may be to set up technological or business structures that guarantee the user’s trust. In a recent USV meeting, we talked about this idea by Muneeb Ali as the difference between a business with the mission Don’t Be Evil and a business with a structure that Can’t Be Evil.

One example of a Can’t Be Evil technical structure is running data analysis and machine learning on device so that the company has no access to users’ private information. Another is encrypting data on device a la iMessage so that even if data is stored on the company’s servers, the company does not have access to it.

Another example of a Can’t Be Evil business structure is building a governance system that gives some of the control over to users. Another is having a business model that aligns the users’ interests with the business’s such as users paying directly for the product via a monthly subscription, even if it is low cost, such as $1/year.

I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts on therapeutic products that work through passive observation and interested to see what others are building. It seems important to build a world where anyone, anywhere can get access to tools for wellbeing and finding new models to deliver those tools feels like a big piece of solving that access puzzle.

Looking For Syllabus 2.0

Becoming a fast expert in a new topic is still a big challenge.

It’s a big unmet need: there are 26 million students taking courses on Coursera, but only single digit percentages of them are finishing the courses they start. People want to ramp up to proficiency on new topics, but are missing a compelling way to do that quickly.

There are a lot of open resources available on the web, but finding, qualifying, and navigating them--let alone combining them into a self directed system--is a challenge. That's because the tools we use today to search the web are designed for quickly finding facts, not for guiding you on a learning journey. For self-learning new topics, we need something that's more like a coach than an encyclopedia.

In the classroom, the syllabus plays that role. The syllabus is a learning map. It tells you what you should read, in what order, and what is the broader theme you should be thinking about at each step. It also tells you how many weeks the whole thing will take. (PS if you're into old school syllabi, check out The Open Syllabus Project at Columbia University).

There seems to be a big opportunity to reinvent the syllabus and create best of class learning guides crowdsourced from the already existing open materials on the web.

There have been several attempts already to curate online resources for learning new topics. Usually they take the form of a list of links. The problem with the list of links approach is that they are static and they are inefficient. You don't need to read a whole link to get the main point, you want to curate little bits and pieces of open resources: 30 seconds of this podcast, a minute and a half from this youtube video, just these 4 paragraphs from this article.

The thing that is closest to a modern internet syllabi is Susan Fowler's guide for learning physics (it's really amazing, go check it out). What if you could have that type of curated guide for many topics that gets updated by the community over time, with inline discussion with other learners?

I think Syllabus 2.0 could look something like this:

And I think this model could work for a variety of topics, from How to Appreciate Baseball, How to Become An Expert In Machine Learning Without Doing Math, and How To Think About Cryptonetworks. We've created a sample syllabus for this last topic so you can see what we envision in action. It curates 8 hours of podcasts, talks and blog posts into a 30 minute guide. There are inline comments so that learners can have discussions and ask each other questions, and it’s on GitHub so that anyone can suggest changes.  

It may be useful to break out topics into a 5 minute guide, a 30 minute guide and a 3 hour guide. And because learners approach topics with different levels of background knowledge, maybe at the top of each syllabus there is a quick 5 question placement quiz that determines where in the syllabus a learner should start. Someone that can answer some basic questions about a topic can start in the middle of the syllabus while someone who is learning about a topic for the first time should start at the beginning. The syllabus should also adapt to each individual user’s style of learning and the user’s intent –– whether they are learning for fun or to achieve a career-specific goal. And the syllabus could also incorporate quiz questions throughout to close the loop and double check the learner’s understanding.

How would a syllabus project turn a profit? One possibility is that the syllabi are the free content at the top of the funnel and as people are more and more serious about learning a topic, they can pay to join an online class, fly out to take a week-long certificate-granting seminar or get matched with a learning coach. People should be able to learn for the sake of learning for free, and if their goal is to learn in order to change their career or level up professionally, they could have the option to pay to expedite and certify their learning.

There are a few learning coach models that I really like beyond traditional 1-1 coaching. There was a project in 2007 by Sean Dockray called The Public School where if enough people were learning a certain topic, they could come together and find a tutor that would work with all of them in a self-organized class. Another model I like is what Ray Batra is doing with learning gyms. He is building co-learning spaces (think WeWork, but everyone there is actively learning something) where there are coaches there to help. Another model that is less like coaching but still effective is if after reading a syllabus that interested you, you could sign up for a weeklong in-person intensive course on that subject led by an expert.

There are five projects I know of doing something in this space: Learn Anything, which lets people upvote the best resources for learning any topic, Gooru, which lets teachers use existing content on the web to create courses for K-12 content, Holloway and Golden, which are creating open source guides, and Hyperreadings, which is a permanent archival library plus curated reading guides on top. I am sure there are more.

We're actively looking for the learning guide of the future. A large part of our newest investing thesis is about trusted brands that broaden access to knowledge, and an exciting path to achieving that goal may be to modernize the syllabus and bring it online. If you are working on a better syllabus, reach out: I'm [email protected] and I can't wait to learn from you.

“The most valuable thing humans have ever created is our knowledge.” – Juan Benet

 

Welcoming Dia&Co to USV

Today, Dia&Co announced their Series C round, which we recently led out of our Opportunity Fund. The crux of USV’s Thesis 3.0 is about backing trusted brands that broaden access, and this is exactly what Dia is doing.

Dia is a commerce and community platform for plus size women. Their first product has been a curated box with a try-at-home model, where customers keep what they want, send back the rest, and receive increasingly personalized product over time as Dia learns their preferences and styles. But Dia is based on a customer and not a model--how they serve her will evolve; who they serve will not.

There are two core reasons that make Dia particularly exciting as an addition to the USV portfolio. First, the size and current state of the market they are focused on. Second, how well positioned this team is to tackle this problem and the ability they’ve shown to create not just a transactional business but a large, fast scaling, emotionally engaged community.

While the plus size category has been largely ignored by retailers, it has evolved into an ideal opportunity for new brands to emerge that allow high intent, passionate customers to transact in ways they are asking for. It is rare and getting rarer to find real market gaps in the commerce world. Usually, there’s opportunity to improve on the product quality or composition, user experience, or price point. But in plus size there’s a complete supply and demand imbalance.

The stats tell this market’s story cleary. Plus size is defined by size 14 or up--a category that encompasses at least 68% of American women. But a look at 25 of the country’s biggest retailers showed that only 2.3% of their assortment was plus size. It makes up about 17% of retail overall, generally tucked away in basement levels of department stores, unmoved or reimagined for decades. (Nadia, CEO of Dia, and the Gotham Gal go into some of this during this podcast, which is excellent.) Today, even with poor experience and lack of supply, that’s a big market--about $21.5B in 2016 and growing faster annually than any other segment in retail. The potential however is meaningfully bigger.

Better yet, this customer isn’t quiet--she’s high signal. She likes and posts and comments about what she’d want to buy if it was offered. Just like many straight size women, she’s passionate about fashion and trends, even if she’s rarely able to reflect that with her dollars. Nadia Boujarwah, CEO of Dia&Co, knew this well because she’d been this customer her whole life. So when she set out with her co-founder, Lydia Gilbert, to build Dia, she understood the rarity of the opportunity first-hand--a massive market with high demand, high intent, and extremely low supply.

When I first met Nadia and Lydia 3.5 years ago, Dia was in very early days. Nadia and Lydia started by buying the clothes and shipping them to customers they emailed with. It was low tech, high touch, and not yet scalable. But the deep customer desire was overwhelmingly evident. Women were asking when their next box could arrive before their previous one had even made its way back. The more boxes they got, the more they bought--Dia could gain their trust and convince them that in a retail world where they'd always been forgotten, here they were heard and celebrated.  

Several years later, Dia has seen rapid growth and has built scalable infrastructure. Deep data science and algorithmic recommendations complement the army of passionate customers turned stylists. An easy to use interface has replaced email. And sophisticated inventory management, private label creation, and complex reverse logistics make the backbone of best in class merchandising and operations. But, most of all, this trust in the brand has only strengthened and remains the highest potential element of what’s now a big business. For many of their customers, Dia has become more than a commerce platform, but a much needed tribe. Recently, a group of Dia women gathered in Nashville for vacation. They had never met in person but had long been communicating on the Dia&Co Facebook group. In each other they had found commonality and friendship; in Dia, they found a community they feel a part of, and products that they not only wore but felt proud in. Whenever they receive a box in the mail, they immediately post each item to the group to solicit opinions. They are honest with each other on what to keep and what to ditch, but always supportive.

That belonging isn’t unique to the women on the trip. Its seen throughout Dia's base of customers and gives them license to increasingly deepen mind and wallet share. That ability is at the heart of the best consumer transactional businesses and the signal of a real trusted brand.

We are thrilled to welcome Nadia, Lydia, and the Dia&Co team to the USV Network.

Scroll

Differentiated user experiences are a cornerstone of the defensible businesses that USV has invested in for over 10 years. In the most recent articulation of our thesis - 3.0 - we also stressed experiences and trusted brands that expand access to, for example, knowledge. Trusted services are those that have business models that better align the interests of businesses and their customers.

What would such an experience and aligned business model look like in the world of online publishing, that to date feels like it has replicated the offline model in a way that is cumbersome and decreases consumer value through clunky and increasingly invasive experiences? One that was resolutely consumer first by being clean, fast, and safe. One that wouldn't require users to change how they access content in order to benefit from the experience. And one that did not use a paywall.

Scroll is a consumer and publisher service that satisfies these criteria by providing frictionless access to content by removing all ads and ancillary content, making pages clean and fast. It is no surprise that a specific user experience was the focal entry point for this company - the founding team’s background includes Chartbeat, Foursquare, Spotify and Google (some of those companies we have previously founded and backed). USV is excited to be leading Scroll’s Series A financing, announced today, and joined by Samsung Next, Bertelsmann, Gannett, Axel Springer, The New York Times and Uncork Capital.

Scroll is a vastly better way to read or watch, across multiple channels - an open platform that puts consumers in control by offering bundled access (for $4.99 a month) to ad-free and mobile-friendly experiences on content sites around the world. When you visit a Scroll partner, that site automatically delivers an experience with no interruptive ads, pre-rolls, or links to baldness cures at the bottom of articles. Users control their own data through an API, and they can decide what they want to do with it - from requesting their data be anonymized to sharing their history with other services. Using mobile apps like Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn or Facebook or just reading in Chrome, Scroll seamlessly syncs content across devices and is format-agnostic. One can start reading an article on a laptop, continue on a phone on the subway, and then finish as an audio story in a car.

Dozens of publishers are currently part of the network, including Buzzfeed, Vox Media, MSNBC, Business Insider, The Atlantic, Slate, Fusion Media Group, The Daily Beast and more. We believe this model empowers, not disintermediates, publishers by giving them an important choice in addition to their ad-supported business. As important, publishers using Scroll will make more money than using an ad-only model.

Now, more than ever, we need an Internet that feels built for us and a free press able to thrive. Scroll firmly believes in this vision, and USV does too.

Introducing the USV Talent Network

Today we’re excited to announce the launch of our new USV Talent Network.

Our USV Network is a startup community of more than 9,000 employees across 75 companies all over the world. Each company leverages network effects to build stronger businesses and broaden access in differentiated ways.

We operate our portfolio network in a similar way and support every employee in finding access to the people, information, and resources they need to do their jobs better. Because this collective knowledge base increases as our portfolio grows in size, working for a USV company broadens your network each time we make a new investment.

This initiative is the first time we are deliberately seeking to expand the reach of our USV community beyond our current portfolio. We hope to extend our collective footprint even further -- to seek out candidates our companies may want to hire, to identify best-in-class leaders who would like to be a part of our community, and to invite alumni (people who used to work at USV network companies) back into the fold.

Built in partnership with Monday.vc, once you’re accepted to this network, you can request introductions to companies across the USV Network when you see jobs that interest you. Even if there aren’t any current job openings that fit your criteria, you’ll be able to signal your preferences and receive notifications when new roles open up in the future.

If you are interested in working for one of our portfolio companies (either now or sometime in the future), we invite you to apply to join our extended talent community. Over time, we’ll surface interesting jobs to you and invite you to engage with our current portfolio by sharing your expertise or joining us at events. Part of the benefit of being in the USV Talent Network is the ability to connect with the companies directly instead of having to compete with every other person applying to a job.

As an employee of one of our portfolio companies, you’re invited to participate in cross-company peer groups and learning opportunities that support you through all phases of your personal growth at a startup. These include:

  • Meet each other: Get to know peers in your domain and familiarize yourself with common challenges and approaches that others have taken in your role
  • Level up: Participate in cross-company manager training or leadership development tracks to increase your sophistication of startup know-how and establish a peer group
  • Give back: Share case studies and advice from your experiences with our network as an advisory role or peer cohort leader of more junior network members

Throughout the year, the USV Network facilitates more than 150 events (both in-person and digital) to bring together peers in similar domains at different companies and encourage cross-company learning opportunities.

It can be scary to join an early-stage startup. There’s a lot of inherent risk through the discovery process of identifying product-market fit and dozens of complications along the road to scaling a business. If you’re the joining a company sub-50 employees, it’s likely that you’re the only one at that organization in your functional domain area. That feeling can be pretty lonely.

When you get a job in the USV Network, you’re not just joining a company; you’re joining a community. If you’d like to be a part of this community now or sometime in the future, we invite you to join us today and apply here.

Business Model Innovation in Healthcare

Recent conversations around healthcare have surfaced words like “crisis” and “collapse”. Besides being confused by the existing system, 20% of Americans can no longer afford basic healthcare (including their insurance premiums), leading to a higher number of people who are uninsured or underinsured. Now, unbundling is enabling a wave of new business models as the healthcare system shifts towards more virtual, independent, local points of care (an idea introduced to us by Dave Chase in his book, “The Opioid Crisis Wakeup Call”).

These new approaches generally fall into one of two buckets: change of infrastructure (who pays, when they pay, how they pay) and change of venue (from in person to online). The emerging business models tend to be much simpler and instead of operating in bundled networks, there is an increase in independent clinics and care delivered through mobile phones.

Change of Infrastructure

Four novel models of care are emerging: direct to consumer, direct to employer, value-based, and group cost-sharing for catastrophic events. Recently, we’ve been looking at this first category, however, they could all broaden access with the advent of unbundled health services.

Direct to Consumer Healthcare

Direct primary care practices are opening up independently of a hospital network or insurance company. In this model, each physician operates as a separate entity and can decide how to charge their patients. Many, such as Unorthodoc and Gold Direct Care, seem to be using a subscription model and some practices use different tiers of pricing depending on the level of care that a person needs (usually around $30 to $120 per month). Another example, SparkMD, offers custom packages including family rates, house visits, and telemedicine.

While well-loved concierge practice One Medical prices their membership package at a premium (~$150 per year on top of the cost of care), DPC clinics generally hustle, trying to provide affordable options wherever possible. They broaden access. The subscription model for primary care (Healthcare as a Service, or HaaS), whether in person or virtually, aligns incentives more naturally between the patient and provider.

If each primary care physician - which many view as the center of healthcare - operates an independent practice and is able to communicate with local specialists to find the best price for their patients, then smaller microeconomics could start to form in each city or town that allows patients to make decisions with full price transparency. In today's more centralized model, physicians that are part of larger network tend to refer patients to facilities in-house even if they are more expensive.

Direct to Employer Healthcare

Instead of decentralizing healthcare to local neighborhoods, the system can be broken down to a different unit: employers. Today, employer-based healthcare tends to prioritize convenience over affordability. However, with more unbundled services and specialists, what if every employer had its own system for patient care and external referrals? Euphora, Paladina, and Apostrophe are examples of companies enabling this model. In the case of the latter, in particular, by replacing third party administrators for self-insured employers and saving employers money in the process. Elation proposes that employees are more likely to seek out preventative healthcare - and thereby lower downstream costs - through an on-site clinic.

Employers are one of the most incentivized players to keep healthcare costs low and employees healthy. If primary care operated in-house, employers would manage the workflow and payments through a platform like Eden, for example. More interestingly, this can be extended beyond unbundled primary care. Sano Surgery offers self-insured employers access to medical professionals in 13 specialty verticals and even allows them to pre-purchase medical services, which fundamentally changes payment dynamics.

Employer-based healthcare doesn’t necessarily solve the ‘access to healthcare’ problem because employer-based insurance covers only 56% of the US population today. This begs the question, should companies (or even, can companies), in addition to their mission, be focused on healthcare as well?

Value-based care

In value-based care, payment is based on health outcomes for entire episodes of care rather than solely on initial treatment plans. This is straightforward for commoditized parts of healthcare, such as a routine surgery, where a la carte pricing works. A great example of a simple business model is the Surgery Center of Oklahoma, where patients know prices and pay up front for each “episode”. The SCO website lists medical surgeries as food would be listed on a menu. As patients continue to visit from in and out of state, their goal is that more centers and practices will adopt this practice, making the back-and-forth with insurance companies obsolete.

Thinking about long-term illnesses - for example, diabetes management, cancer, or asthma - becomes more complicated. For an independent specialty clinic like Pure Cardiology, value-based care might require making a plan and having the patient pay when specific milestones are reached. While this solution could result in delayed payments for doctors, they can ensure that incentives are aligned for both short-term and long-term episodes of care.

New Forms of Insurance

Medical cost-sharing groups, where people pay to support others in their community, are appearing more often. Medishare, Sedera and Liberty HealthShare are examples of cost-sharing within local communities, neighbors if you will, that combine a non-medical community - either geographic or religious - with their medical insurance for both routine health issues and catastrophic events. In some instances, these groups may appear closer to non-profits than large insurance companies: Liberty HealthShare’s decision guide emphasizes that they are not “insurance”, and are incentivized to work towards decreasing the healthcare burden on the whole group. Still, for-profit innovation is occurring on the insurance side.

Change of Venue

Virtual Primary Care

Many companies are working towards a future with at-home testing, processing prescriptions with one tap on your phone, and virtual appointments (including USV portfolio companies Modern Fertility and Nurx). More fundamentally, there could be a subscription option for primary care for those that only interact with their doctors by mobile phone unless otherwise necessary. Companies like Sherpaa and Nurx are changing the venues of care to text-based conversations, at-home testing, and remote monitoring. Asynchronous, structured data collection thrives in a decentralized model of healthcare because it is cheaper and time efficient, allowing each doctor to help more patients and decrease the points of friction in getting care.

A pure VPC model eliminates fixed costs associated with brick and mortar expansion and is able to focus resources on reaching more patients, recruiting more doctors to their platform, and improving the experience for current patients. Payments on a subscription basis allow doctors to get paid more consistently rather than waiting for insurance companies to process claims and paying overhead costs to negotiate reimbursements with their billing offices.

Pop-up clinics

Mobile, pop-up clinics in different healthcare verticals (from urgent care to specialized medicine) are also growing. An open question regarding broadening access is whether this model is scalable to all parts of the country, or whether it perhaps favors population dense cities. Two examples in women’s health are Kind Body and AskTia. Women can go for a regular checkup or with specific questions related to fertility, IUDs, etc, and receive a highly specialized experience. This can feel much simpler from the patient perspective, as these models often rely on subscription payments or disclosed, fixed pricing for each service. Another example, specific to cardiology, is Heartbeat, where people get direct access to a fully-digitized boutique cardiology clinic. Here, the venue of care is shifted here from hospitals to pop-up clinics, that are smaller and easier to scale.

In Summary

Health-related issues are confusing as is, so the system around it should be as simple as possible. New business models are lowering the barriers to entry for users to get access to high-quality care. Cost is driven down through technology and healthcare is made simpler through new unbundled business models, streamlined payments, and better user experiences. As companies continue innovating in this space, both in terms of business model and venue, the future of healthcare is starting to become clearer. We’re excited for that future.

The Myth of The Infrastructure Phase

A common narrative in the Web 3.0 community is that we are in an infrastructure phase and the right thing to be working on right now is building out that infrastructure: better base chains, better interchain interoperability, better clients, wallets and browsers. The rationale is: first we need tools that make it easy to build and use apps that run on blockchains, and once we have those tools, then we can get started building those apps.

But when we talk to founders who are building infrastructure, we keep hearing that the biggest challenge for them is to get developers to build apps on top. Now if we are really in an infrastructure phase, why would that be?

Our hypothesis is that this is not actually how things play out. We are not in an infrastructure phase, but rather in another turn of the apps-infrastructure cycle. And in fact, the history of new technologies shows that apps beget infrastructure, not the other way around. It’s not that first we build all the infrastructure, and once we have the infrastructure we need, we begin to build apps. It’s exactly the opposite.

A big part of why this is even a topic of conversation is that everyone now knows that “platforms” are often the largest value opportunities (true for Facebook, Amazon/AWS, Twilio, etc.) -- so there is naturally a rush to build a major platform that captures value.  This may be even more true in the distributed web where value often -- but not always -- accrues in the protocol layer rather than the applications that sit on top.

But, as we will see: platforms evolve from an iterative cycle of apps=>infrastructure=>apps=>infrastructure and are rarely built in an outside vacuum.

First, apps inspire infrastructure. Then that infrastructure enables new apps.

What we see in the sequence of events of major platform shifts is that first there is a breakout app, and then that breakout app inspires a phase where we build infrastructure that makes it easier to build similar apps, and infrastructure that allows the broad consumer adoption of those apps. Kind of like this:

Apps and infrastructure evolve in responsive cycles, not distinct, separate phases.

For example, light bulbs (the app) were invented before there was an electric grid (the infrastructure). You don’t need the electric grid to have light bulbs. But to have the broad consumer adoption of light bulbs, you do need the electric grid, so the breakout app that is the light bulb came first in 1879, and then was followed by the electric grid starting 1882. (The USV team book club is now reading The Last Days Of Night about the invention of the light bulb).

Another example: Planes (the app) were invented before there were airports (the infrastructure). You don’t need airports to have planes. But to have the broad consumer adoption of planes, you do need airports, so the breakout app that is an airplane came first in 1903, and inspired a phase where people built airlines in 1919, airports in 1928 and air traffic control in 1930 only after there were planes.

Sometimes all the infrastructure you need is a beach and some spare parts.

The same pattern follows with the internet. We start with the first apps: messaging (1970) and email (1972), which then inspire infrastructure that makes it easier to have broad consumer adoption of messaging and email: Ethernet (1973), TCP/IP (1973), and Internet Service Providers (1974). Then there is the next wave of apps, which are web portals (Prodigy in 1990, AOL in 1991), and web portals inspire us to build infrastructure (search engines and web browsers in the early 1990’s). Then there is the next wave of apps, which are early sites like Amazon.com in 1994, which leads to a phase where we build infrastructure like programming languages (PHP in 1994, Javascript and Java in 1995) that make it easier to build websites. Then there is the next wave of more complicated apps like Napster (1999), Pandora (2000), Gmail (2004) and Facebook (2004) which leads to infrastructure that makes it easier to build more complex apps (NGINX and Ruby on Rails in 2004, AWS in 2006). And the cycle continues.

We also see this pattern with our most recent iteration of mobile apps: first we had a suite of popular mobile apps that relied heavily on streaming video: Snapchat (2011), Periscope (2014), Meerkat (2015), and Instagram Stories (2016). And now, we are seeing companies building infrastructure that makes it easy for mobile apps to add video: Ziggeo (2014), Agora.io (2014), Mux (2017), Twilio Video API (2017), Cloudflare Stream (2018).

This cycle also correctly explains the sequence of events in Web 3.0. We start with the first breakout app: BTC (2008), on top of the Bitcoin network (as the first infrastructure), followed closely by Silk Road (2011) as the most infamous early crypto app. This inspires new infrastructure like Sidechains and Drivechain (2015), Ethereum Smart Contracts and ERC20 (2015), Lightning (2015) that make it easy to build new apps, and infrastructure like Coinbase (2012) and Metamask (2016) that enable consumer adoption of these new apps. This new infrastructure then enables the next wave of apps: tokens/ICOs (2017) and early dapps (Rouleth and vDice in 2016, CryptoKitties in 2017), which inspire new infrastructure: Infura (2016) and Web3js and Zeppelin (2017). We’re now waiting for the next big apps that will help guide the next wave of infrastructure.

The Adjacent Possible

The common theme in the development of each major platform (electricity, cars, planes, the web, mobile, etc.) is that we build what we can given the tools available to us at the moment.  In Where Do Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson refers to this as The Adjacent Possible.  In other words, you can open the door to the next room, but you can’t really skip steps and open the back door from the front porch.  It is hard to successfully build infrastructure that is too far ahead of the apps market.

Each time the apps => infrastructure cycle repeats, new apps are made possible because of the infrastructure that was built in the cycles before. For example, YouTube could be built in 2005 but not in 1995 because YouTube only makes sense after the deployment of infrastructure like broadband in the early 2000’s, which happened in the infrastructure phase following the first hit dot com sites like eBay, Amazon, AskJeeves and my favorite, Neopets.

Chris Dixon and Fred Wilson talk about this concept in a recent episode of the a16z podcast. Chris has a board game from the dot com era called Dot Bomb that makes fun of the silly dot coms of the late 1990’s. And what he points out is that all the ‘silly’ ideas of the dot com era are now the billion dollar unicorns. What is now possible several app => infrastructure cycles into the internet made no sense just one or two apps => infrastructure cycles in.

That is the crux of what we mean by the myth of the infrastructure phase -- if we think about an “infrastructure phase” divorced from the apps that will use it, we run the risk of building too far ahead, in a speculative vacuum.  We need the cycle of apps=>infrastructure=>apps=>infrastructure to keep us honest.

As there are more and more cycles in each new platform it gets cheaper to build and use those apps. Building usv.com in 1995 would have cost us many orders of magnitude more than it would cost to build today, and creating Web 3.0 apps costs more in cash, effort and time today than it will 15 years from now.

Development Frameworks Versus Investing Frameworks

Putting our investor hats on for a second, it’s important to distinguish between technological frameworks that explain when something can be built, and investment frameworks that explain when something can be a good investment.

The apps=>infrastructure=>apps=>infrastructure cycle explains when apps or infrastructure can be built, but doesn’t necessarily explain when to invest in apps versus when when to invest in infrastructure.

Take light bulbs for example. Yes, they were invented before the grid, but looking at it from an investor perspective, no one sold a lot of lightbulbs until the grid was in place.

Wrapping Up

One question we had is: why is it that apps come first in the cycle, and not infrastructure first? One reason is that it doesn't make sense to create infrastructure until there are apps asking you to solve their infrastructure problems. How do you know that the infrastructure you are building solves a real problem until you have app teams that you are solving for? It will be a challenge to build crypto infrastructure now until there is a breakout crypto app that other developers want to emulate and need better dev tools and infrastructure to do so.

There is a narrative in the crypto space that first we need to build great tools, and once we have the tools, then we can build apps. But what we hope to have shown is that in other platform shifts, we are able to build the first few apps before there are great tools (though it is more cash and time intensive), and then those early apps inspire us to build tools.  And the cycle repeats.

Happy building. 

Update (10/5/18):  This post has gotten a lot of attention, has generated some great discussion, and has produced some useful feedback. 

First: duly noted that we spent most of our time here looking backwards at historical precedent, and thus that our diagram on the decentralized web / web3 / crypto was a) admittedly thin, and b) really just focused on the ETH ecosystem.  We have updated that diagram to be a little more clear, and to include important concepts from the BTC ecosystem.  Thanks to Dennis Porteaux for the excellent analysis on this.

Second: our favorite piece of feedback is that crytpo networks, in fact, really blur the line between apps an infrastructure, due their open and interopable nature. That is one of our favorite aspects of them.  So, for instance, an "app" (like CryptoKitties, or any smart contract, or Bitcoin itself) can be infrastructure if someone builds on it.  Of course, there are components of these networks that are **only** infrastructure (Lightning, Zeppelin, etc), but the line is blurred.  Whereas in the past a platform (like Amazon or Facebook) had to make a conscious decision to open up APIs and become a platform, crypto apps are generally open and interoperable from day 1.  This only makes the apps=>infrastructure=>apps=>infrastructure cycle tighter.  Thanks to Denis Nazarov and Jutta Steiner for really articulating this.