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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Dear Uber and Lyft – Get Your Shit Together

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Let’s start out by saying that I’m a big fan of both Uber and Lyft. I’m indirectly an investor in both companies as I’m an investor in three VC funds that are investors Uber and one VC fund that is an investor in Lyft. I have no idea how much actual equity I have in either company, but based on current valuations the dollar value of my indirect ownership is non-trivial. And Foundry Group came close to investing in Zimride (the predecessor to Lyft) but we ended up withdrawing from what we thought was an inappropriately high priced round, which, in hindsight, was clearly a miss on our part.

Regardless of my support and enthusiasm for these two companies, I’m bummed at the mud they are slinging at each other. I get that this is an intensely competitive market. I get that the stakes are huge. I get that all the reporting I’m reading is second hand and might be fiction. But the ad hominem attacks are escalating rapidly and the behavior they are surfacing isn’t pretty.

Techcrunch summarized this pretty well yesterday, after multiple articles from a variety of places including the NY Times and WSJ. The headline sets the tone: Uber Strikes Back, Claiming Lyft Drivers And Employees Canceled Nearly 13,000 Rides. The NYT article is Accusations Fly Between Uber and Lyft and the WSJ article is Uber and Lyft Rivalry Turns Nasty in War of Words.

I have no idea what, if any of what is being said is true. The tactic being asserted that is most disturbing is this one:

Accused Lyft behavior: “Lyft employees, drivers and one of its founders ordered 12,900 trips on Uber’s app and then canceled them with the goal of slowing down drivers who would otherwise be picking up actual, paying passengers.”

Accused Uber behavior: “177 Uber employees have requested and quickly canceled more than 5,000 rides from Lyft drivers over the past 10 months, Lyft said, in an effort to frustrate Lyft’s customers and drivers.”

As a customer, this sucks. If I was a driver for either service, this sucks. I think this ultimately backfires against each company equally.

Guys – both of you are trying to disrupt a massive market dominated by incumbents and government regulation. I’m sure these incumbents are now laughing their asses off at y’all are acting like petulant children, as they wait patiently for you to chew up capital, value, partners, customers, while generating additional scrutiny from the government forces in the incumbents’ pockets trying to slow you down.

I get that you believe price is a weapon – how you use it for you and your investors to decide. But by messing with each other’s service, especially in a way that negatively impacts your two key constituents, consumers and drivers, you are opening yourself up to a ridiculous amount of scrutiny and quickly playing a no-win, zero-sum game. There is no need at all for this given the massive size of the market opportunity before you.

One, or both of you, should rise above the fray. Keep on competing aggressively. But recognize that you are radically disrupting a market desperately in need of disruption and doing it beautifully. Don’t shit all over it, and yourself in the process.

Amazon’s Scorpion Problem

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I expect most of you know the fable of the scorpion and the frog, but if you don’t, it goes like this (quoted from Wikipedia):

“A scorpion asks a frog to carry him over a river. The frog is afraid of being stung during the trip, but the scorpion argues that if it stung the frog, both would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog agrees and begins carrying the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that this is its nature. The fable is used to illustrate the position that no change can be made in the behaviour of the fundamentally vicious.”

Over the weekend, there was some commentary on AWS in fight of its life as customers like Dropbox ponder hybrid clouds and Google pricing. Amazon turned in slightly declining quarter-over-quarter revenue on AWS, although significant year-over-year quarterly growth, as explained in Sign of stress or just business as usual? AWS sales are off slightly.

“Could Amazon Web Services be feeling the heat from new public cloud competitors? Maybe. Maybe not. Second quarter net sales of AWS — or at least the category in which it is embedded– were off about 3 percent sequentially to $1.168 billion from $1.204 billion for the first quarter. But they were up 38 percent from $844 million for the second quarter last year. In the first quarter, growth in this category year over year was 60 percent. So make of that what you will.”

Could Amazon’s nature be catching up with it, or is it just operating in a more competitive market? A set of emails went around from some of the CEOs of our companies talking about this followed by a broader discussion on our Foundry Group EXEC email list. It contained, among other comments:

  1. AWS is not the low price provider.
  2. AWS is not the best product at anything – most of their features are mediocre knock offs of other products.
  3. AWS is unbelievably lousy at support.
  4. Once you are at $200k / month of spend, it’s cheaper and much more effective to build your own infrastructure.

While we are in the middle of a massive secular shift from owned data centers to outsourced data centers and hardware, anyone who remembers the emergence of outsourced data centers, shared web hosting, dedicated web hosting, co-location, and application service providers will recognize many of the dynamics going on. Predictably in the tech industry, what’s old is new again as all the infrastructure players roll out their public clouds and all the scaled companies start exploring ways to move off of AWS (and other cloud services) into much more cost effective configurations.

Let’s pick apart the four points above a little bit.

1. AWS is not the low price provider. When AWS came out, it was amazing, partly because you didn’t need to buy any hardware to get going, partly because it had a very fine grade variable pricing approach, and mostly because these two things added up to an extremely low cost for a startup relative to all other options. This is no longer the case as AWS, Microsoft, and Google bash each other over the head on pricing, with Microsoft and Google willing to charge extremely low prices to gain market share. And, more importantly, see point #4 below in a moment. Being low priced is in Amazon’s nature so this will be intensely challenging to them.

2. AWS is not the best product at anything – most of their features are mediocre knock offs of other products. We’ve watched as AWS has aggressively talked to every company we know doing things in the cloud infrastructure and application stack, and then rather than partner eventually roll out low-end versions of competitive products. We used to think of Amazon as a potential acquirer for these companies, or at least a powerful strategic partner. Now we know they are just using the bait of “we want to work more closely with you” as market and product intelligence. Ultimately, when they come out with what they view of as a feature, it’s a low-end, mediocre, and limited version of what these companies do. So, they commoditize elements of the low end of the market, but don’t impact anything that actually scales. In addition, they always end up competing on every front possible, hence the chatter about Dropbox moving away from AWS since AWS has now come out with a competitive product. It appears that it’s just not in Amazon’s nature to collaborate with others.

3. AWS is unbelievably lousy at support. While they’ve gotten better at paid support, including their premium offerings, these support contracts are expensive. Approaches to get around support issues and/or lower long term prices like reserved instances are stop gaps and often a negative benefit for a fast growing company. I’ve had several conversations over the years with friends at Amazon about this and I’ve given up. Support is just not in Amazon’s nature (as anyone who has ever tried to figure out why a package didn’t show up when expected) and when a company running production systems on AWS is having mission critical issues that are linked to AWS, it’s just painful. At low volumes, it doesn’t matter, but at high scale, it matters a huge amount.

4. Once you are at $200k / month of spend, it’s cheaper and much more effective to build your own infrastructure. I’ve now seen this over and over and over again. Once a company hits $200k / month of spend on AWS, the discussion starts about building out your own infrastructure on bare metal in a data center. This ultimately is a cost of capital discussion and I’ve found massive cost of capital leverage to move away from AWS onto bare metal. When you fully load the costs at scale, I’ve seen gross margin moves of over 20 points (or 2000 basis points – say from 65% to 85%). It’s just nuts when you factor in the extremely low cost of capital for hardware today against a fully loaded cost model at scale. Sure, the price declines from point #1 will impact this, but the operational effectiveness, especially given #3, is remarkable.

There are a number of things Amazon, and AWS, could do to address this if they wanted to. While not easy, I think they could do a massive turnaround on #2 and #3, which combined with intelligent pricing and better account management for the companies in #4, could result in meaningful change.

I love Amazon and think they have had amazing impact on our world. Whenever I’ve given them blunt feedback like this, I’ve always intended it to be constructive. I’m doubt it matters at all to their long term strategy whether they agree with, or even listen to, me. But given the chatter over the weekend, it felt like it was time to say this in the hope that it generated a conversation somewhere.

But I worry some of the things they need to be doing to maintain their dominance is just not in their nature. In a lot of ways, it’s suddenly a good time to be Microsoft or Google in the cloud computing wars.

How Much Do IT Folks Work? Take A Survey And Potentially Win A Fitbit

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Our portfolio company JumpCloud is running a survey to dig deeper into the professional lives of IT folks and their move to DevOps. If you are open to sharing your thoughts and experiences, please take their survey. It’s only about five minutes long and they are sharing all of the raw data (anonymized, of course). The survey ends at the end of June.

The IT sector is undergoing some interesting transformations as a result of the cloud, DevOps, and mobile. I’m interested to see what the data tells us.

If you happen to have at least 100 servers, JumpCloud is looking to pick your brain about how you manage them. If you are open to it, let me know and I’ll connect you with them – I’m sure that they will make it worth your time (and I appreciate the help)!

As a bonus, JumpCloud is raffling off a Fitbit Flex (another one of our portfolio companies), an Amazon Fire TV, and Samsung Gear Neo 2 Smartwatch if you complete the survey. Please take a few minutes and help us get some interesting data on how the IT sectors works.

Thanks Elon Musk For Being A Real Leader On Patent Reform

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Fred Wilson beat me to it this morning with his post A Big Win For The Patent Reform Movement but he’s got a couple of hour time zone advantage over me. Regardless, I love Fred’s punch line:

So it was with incredible joy that I read these words by Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla Motors and possibly the most innovative entrepreneur in the world right now. [Elon wrote in his post All Our Patent Are Belong To You] “Yesterday, there was a wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of our Palo Alto headquarters. That is no longer the case. They have been removed, in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.”

I’ll pile on with my accolades to Elon. While I don’t know him, I’m long time friends with his brother Kimbal who lives in Boulder so I always feel like I get a little taste of Elon whenever I talk to Kimbal. So – Elon – thank you for being a real leader here and taking action.

I’ve been asserting for a number of years that while software patents are completely fucked up, the general patent system stifles innovation. More and more research is appearing on software patent issues and patent trolls in general, including this recent piece by Catherine Tucker, an MIT Sloan professor of Marketing, titled The Effect of Patent Litigation and Patent Assertion Entities on Entrepreneurial Activity. As Ars Technica summarizes in New study suggests patent trolls really are killing startups:

Turns out there is a very real, and very negative, correlation between patent troll lawsuits and the venture capital funding that startups rely on. A just-released study by Catherine Tucker, a professor of marketing at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, finds that over the last five years, VC investment “would have likely been $21.772 billion higher… but for litigation brought by frequent litigators.”

As my lawyer friends tell me, “the Supremes” are finally making some calls on this. The induced infringement theory, a particularly obnoxious patent litigation approach, is no longer valid. The main event, Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank, is still waiting to be ruled on. Let’s hope the Supremes take a real stand on when software claims are too abstract to be patented this time around, unlike the punt they made on Bilski.

Boulder / Denver Big Data Meetup on 5/21/14

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Earlier today, I got a note from Andy Sautins, CTO of Return Path, about the four year anniversary of the Boulder / Denver Big Data Meetup. Andy is a good friend and one of the really strong CTOs in Boulder. It’s pretty cool to see what he and his gang have created around Big Data.

While Big Data is often an overused buzzword, this meetup is about helping people solve data problems in new ways that allow them to build and scale their business faster than ever before.  Over the past four year over 1,850 people have joined our group with over 100 routinely attending the monthly meeting.

For the upcoming meeting, Ted Dunning will be talking about machine learning with Mahout.

If machine learning interests you, especially on larger datasets, please sign up and join on 5/21/2014 at the CU ATLAS Room 100.

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