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I was reminded of the importance of starting with the customer experience while I was watching this brilliant video from WWDC 1997 of Steve Jobs. In the video, Jobs appears to be responding to attack by a troll, but is actually doing something much more interesting. Rather than take the bait and react, he thinks carefully in real time and makes a critical philosophical point about his – and Apple’s – approach to creating new products.
The punch line happens early when he says “you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards for the technology.” It’s five minutes long and worth watching, if only to see how incredibly durable Jobs’ philosophy has been over the past 15 years.
When I think about the companies we’ve invested in, some of them embody this philosophy deeply in their culture. Oblong, MakerBot, Orbotix, Fitbit, and Cloud Engines immediately come to mind. The entrepreneurs running these companies are completely and totally obsessed with the consumer experience of their products, even though their products embody an incredible amount of technology (in each case, both hardware and software innovations.)
As an investor, I often lose sight of this, especially when I’m working on non-consumer facing companies (e.g. enterprise software companies). But I believe very strongly in the consumerization of IT – namely the notion that innovation in software is now being driven by consumer applications, and correspondingly by consumers, not by enterprise IT organizations and enterprise software vendors. If you accept this, it means that if you are working on enterprise applications, you also need to be obsessed with the customer experience.
When I think about this abstractly, especially in the context of “software eating the world” or my view that the machines have already taken over and resistance is futile, I completely buy the premise that the consumer experience trumps all technical decisions in any context. Apple has proven this throughout the entire customer experience, including being exposed to the product, buying the product, implementing the product, upgrading the product, and getting help with the product. And I think it’s going to get a lot more important going forward.
I’ve worn glasses since I was three years old. I was trying to look at something on my iPad yesterday without them on and I heard Amy burst out laughing with “you really can’t see a thing without your glasses.” True – my eyes are defective. I’ve contemplated getting LASIK’s a few times but chickened out each time – if 42 years of glasses have worked, I expect another 42 will be just fine.
For years I’ve fantasized about getting glasses that have a heads-up display (HUD) integrated into them. This HUD would be connected to a computer somehow, which would of course be connected to the Internet, which would then give me access to whatever I wanted through my glasses. I can’t remember a sci-fi movie over the past decade that didn’t have this technology available and since my jetpack now seems like it’s finally around the corner (I’m hoping to get one for my 46th birthday), I have hope for my HUDglasses.
The pieces finally exist since I’m carrying a computer in my pocket (my iPhone or my Android) that’s always connected to the Internet. My glasses just need bluetooth to pair with my phone, an appropriate display, a processor, a camera, and the right software. Optimally I could control it via a spatial operating environment like Oblong’s g-speak.
I’m interested in investing in a team going after this. The magic will be on the software side – I want to work with folks that believe the hardware will be available, can integrate existing products, are comfortable with consumer electronics products, but are obsessed with “assembling the hardware” and “hacking the software.”
If this is you, or someone you know, please aim them at me. In the mean time, I tried to hunt down Tony Stark but don’t have his email address.
I’m in my car on the way to Aspen for the weekend (Amy is driving – I’m in the passenger seat.). The top is down. It’s absolutely beautiful on I-70 as we travel at a high rate of speed. And I’m sitting here blogging on my iPad.
There is no way to describe this as anything other than magic. I’m in an extremely creative zone of my life and trying to spend as much time as I can working on stuff I really care about. I love the entrepreneurs I work with, my partners are extraordinary, the team that supports us is dynamite, and because of magic technology I have an enormous amount of time and space freedom.
I’m as busy as I’ve ever been, but I’m finding that I can be even more effective now that I’m detached from physically having to be places in order to interact and communicate. Sure – I still have lots of face to face activities and interactions, but I’m starting (finally) to be more focused with it, especially on things and with people I really want to be with.
As I sit here writing this, I realize that I couldn’t have worked this way a decade ago. When I think of what the next decade is going to be like, I get chills of excitement.
I love magic technology. Thank you to all the awesome people out there helping create it!
Once a quarter my partners (Seth, Ryan, Jason) and I spend 48 hours together. Unlike a typical offsite that ten zillion organizations have, we tend to spend less time on formalities and more time on wider ranging, forward looking discussions about what we are doing, both professionally and personally.
Last night, over an amazing meal, we ended up talking about what we’ve been investing in over the past four years. When we reflect on the 37 companies we’ve invested in since we raised our first Foundry Group fund in 2007, we’re delighted with the mix of companies and entrepreneurs we are working with. We have a very clear thematic strategy that we’ve discussed openly, along with a few other key principles such as being willing to invest anywhere in the US and being syndication agnostic.
At dinner we zoned in on all of the current activity in early stage tech. There’s an awesome amount of exciting stuff going on right now and a real entrepreneurial revival throughout the US. Sure, there’s all the inevitable bubble talk going on which I’ve encouraged entrepreneurs to simply ignore and play a long term game instead, and once again many VC firms are spreading themselves wide and chasing after whatever the latest interesting thing is. But entrepreneurship, especially throughout the US, is vigorous, exciting, and creating many really interesting companies, some of which will be important in the future.
When we think about what has driven the success of some of our investments, we realize that we’ve chose the macro environments to invest in really well. Our HCI, Adhesive, and Distribution themes are all great examples of this. With HCI, we are at the very beginning of a massive shift over the next 20 years around how humans and computers interact. Adhesive plays the macros of digital advertising – every year meaningful ad spend is shifting annually from offline to online and that will continue for quite some time. And with distribution we’ve benefitted from the application of the concept of social to extremely large existing online markets where innovation had stagnated.
Our conversation shifted to 2015. While we still believe there are many exciting opportunities within our existing themes, we think that given the velocity of technology innovation and the way we use technology, things will shift dramatically over the next four years. Completely new and unexpected innovations are emerging and entrepreneurs who are obsessed with transforming existing industries, creating radical new technologies, or dramatically changing the use case of existing technology are starting to work in 2011 on things that will matter immensely in 2015.
We have one new investment coming up that reflects this and, when we start talking about it, you’ll see the kind of entrepreneur and company we are searching for. We decided last night to look for a lot more of it. While our deeply held beliefs about what we invest in and how we invest are the same, we’ve decided to open up our intellectual aperture and make sure we’ve incorporated a stronger view of “what is 2015 going to be like” into our thinking.
“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble.” – Macbeth
Every time I hear the word “bubble” I think of that quote from Macbeth. I also think of Tulip Mania and the South Sea Company which purportedly was the source of the concept of an economic bubble. And then I remember Charles Mackay’s classic book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds.”
When I returned last weekend from a week off the grid I encountered the word “bubble” over and over again when referring to the tech industry. A variety of people were using it to describe the current situation. This has been going on for at least a quarter or two, but the velocity of it seems to have picked up with a wave of high priced financings along with large financings for nascent companies. While plenty of tech bloggers were tossing around the word “bubble”, I also noticed it among the mainstream media. But more interestingly I saw it in my twitter feed from some entrepreneurs and VCs who I respect a lot. So I spent some time on my run yesterday rolling the idea of a bubble around in my head.
In the tech industry, the great Internet bubble inflated between 1999 and 2000 and deflated (or popped) in 2001. I remember it well as 2001 was easily the most challenging year of my business life. I made a lot of mistakes in 1999 and 2000 that I’ve hopefully learned from (I believe I have) and took on a lot of challenging things between 2001 and 2005 which laid the groundwork for the business context that I find myself in today. So, in hindsight, the great Internet bubble of 2001 was very powerful and useful to me, even though it was very painful.
I refuse to make predictions as the only thing I know with certainty is that some day I will be dead. I view predictions as irrelevant in the context of what I am working on and trying to accomplish. Sure – I pay attention to what is going on around me, have hypotheses about what’s going to happen, and adjust my behavior accordingly. But I think making predictions with certainty such as “we are in a bubble” are useless, especially in the absence of recommendations about what to do to either defend against or take advantage of the situation.
I find this discussion about bubbles especially bizarre and entertaining against the backdrop of the downward economic cycle of the past few years. In 2008, everyone in business and politics was consumed with the “global economic crisis”. However, entrepreneurs just put their heads down and continued to accelerate the current web revolution which started around 2004 with “Web 2.0” being articulated by Tim O’Reilly. Today, there is once again enormous focus on entrepreneurship as the salvation for many things, with the naysayers starting to say “but it’s a bubble” or some variant.
If you recognize that we are in a strong, positive, upward segment of the current “tech company creation cycle”, that’s more than enough. You should accept that we’ll be back in a downward part of the cycle at some point, but that we don’t know if it’ll be in a week, month, year, or decade. We also won’t know the slope of the curve although if you are a hedge fund trader you probably think you can calculate the derivative of some equation about the future that will tell you what to buy and sell. Whatever – have fun and good luck.
If you are an entrepreneur, you can build a significant, powerful, sustainable business taking advantage of market expansion during the up cycle and consolidating your position during the down cycle. Don’t get distracted by speculating about “bubbles” other than the ones in your bathtub. Instead, spend your energy creating amazing products, thrilling your customers, building an awesome organization, and living your life. Always remember that one day you too will be dead.