Category Archives: Uncategorized

Film and TV distribution startups please roll up

By | Startup general interest, Uncategorized | No Comments

I’ve just read an awesome description of the disruption going on in all the major storytelling media by one Hugh Hancock. I haven’t come across Hugh’s writing before, but he gets right inside the worlds of film, TV, games, prose, virtual reality and comics, with an insider’s knowledge and a light and witty style.

It’s the TV and film pieces that got me the most. In both cases production is changing at an unbelievable pace with new technology driving down cost and opening up new possibilities. This paragraph from Hugh’s post gives you a good sense of what’s going on:

Cameras are becoming cheaper, sure, but they’re also becoming lighter. At the same time, brushless motors and cheap IMUs mean that robot camera stabilisers are taking over from Steadicams for stable moving shots. And all of that means that a shot which used to require a guy who’d trained with a Steadicam can be done to 90% of the same quality by some untrained muppet (me) with a basic knowledge of how to walk smoothly and a magic box that does the rest of the work. And that magic box means that directors can rethink the rest of their shoot too, changing dolly shots (big pile of kit, couple of big hairy grips to work it) into a shot with a gimbal and a $200 self-balanced scooter. But all that might be irrelevant too because who the hell needs to wobble about on a scooter when you can probably just get a drone to do the shot?

And I could have chosen a couple of other paragraphs describing a similarly dazzling but very different array of changes.

So far so amazing. But the problem is that distribution hasn’t changed and we are now in a world where it is apparently a cliche to say:

There’s never been a better time to get your movie made, and never been a worse time to get anyone to watch it.

That’s a situation that can’t persist for very long, hence the title of this blog post.

That said, media distribution startups aren’t easy. It’s been obvious for some time that the legacy world of TV channels and movie studios is ripe for disruption and lots of entrepreneurs have had a crack at it, yet the old world remains largely unchanged. The biggest reason for that is money. TV and film makers need money to fund their production and the people who control distribution are in the best place to cut those cheques precisely because they control distribution. New distribution platforms have faced the catch 22 of needing to cough up lots of money to get good content to get an audience and needing an audience to get the money to cough up for good content. Netflix cracked the code by building a big DVD rental business and using the cash from that to fund rights acquisition but others have found it more difficult, including many startups that used VC dollars to buy rights and try to crack the code that way.

Still, difficult problems require creative solutions and that’s where entrepreneurs excel, and the growing imbalance between production and distribution can only be making this problem space more tractable over time.

Thoughts on curated marketplaces and perfect competition

By | Startup general interest, Uncategorized | One Comment

Jeff Jordan, now a partner at Andressen Horowitz, and previously CEO of OpenTable and senior exec at Paypal and eBay, has a post up on the A16Z blog about online marketplaces. He argues that all online marketplaces are fundamentally the same and hence should be managed by the same principle of “nurturing and managing perfect competition”.

Jeff offers a full definition of perfect competition in his post that’s worth reading. …. If you want the quick version, perfect competition is when the market is totally open, with full price transparency, full information for buyers and no concentration of either supply or demand.

I agree with Jeff, but only about half the time. For marketplaces like eBay, Craigslist and Etsy he is right. The more they can nurture perfect competition the stronger the proposition will be for consumers and the easier it will be for high quality sellers to rise to the top.

But there are plenty of marketplaces where pursuing perfect competition isn’t the best answer.

Uber is perhaps the most visible example of such a marketplace right now. If they were promoting perfect competition they would allow drivers to set their own prices, but they found that consumers prefer consistency and convenience over price transparency and went for a different model.

Another example is Lexoo, one of our portfolio companies. They are a marketplace connecting businesses with legal services. Perfect competition isn’t the best model for Lexoo because the services from different lawyers aren’t equivalent and buyers prefer to be connected to pre-screened quality lawyers than go through the difficult process of working out for themselves which lawyers are best.

Lexoo and Uber are both curated marketplaces – i.e. marketplaces where the marketplace does some work on behalf of the buyer and doesn’t just rely on market forces to optimise the user experience. There are lots of markets where this is the best model.

Why writing makes you smarter

By | Startup general interest, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

I started writing this blog back in 2006 when Twitter was only three months old and long form content user generated content was all the rage. Back then lots of people wrote blogs whereas today most folk rely on Twitter to share their views and news with the world. Periodically I revisit whether I should change from my pattern of daily blogging in favour of more tweeting, which would give me more reach for less effort, but I haven’t made the switch in part because of the feeling that blogging helps with my thinking.

I’ve historically explained how it works by saying that blogging forces me to complete my thoughts, but reading this Business Insider article titled Learning hacks that will maximise your memory I’m now thinking it is more accurate to say that writing makes me smarter. I always love a good listicle, and this one lists seven ways to make yourself smarter by improving your memory. It turns out that writing long form content forces you to do five of them.

  • Retrieval – remembering things before writing them creates new neural connections and strengthens the memory
  • Elaboration – connecting ideas to other ideas also creates new neural connections
  • Generation – creating hypotheses on directions of markets and startup best practice enhances learning and memory
  • Reflection – reading posts back before publishing them is a powerful tool for self-improvement
  • Calibration – feedback from blog posts and on Twitter helps immensely with learning (especially when it’s tough feedback)

The logic of this extends to all long form contemplative writing, whether on blogs or private memos. The nice thing for me about blogging is that the public scrutiny makes it easier to keep the habit of daily posting. If I was writing in a private journal I would find it more tempting to miss a day, or write notes instead of complete sentences.

Will we persist with two mobile app ecosystems?

By | Apple, Google, Mobile, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

In the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store we currently have two vibrant mobile app ecosystems. Going back a few years the prevailing wisdom was that network effects would ultimately make this a winner takes all markets and that over time users and developers would eventually coalesce on a single platform. That was the lesson we all learned from Windows in the 1990s.

Then more recently people have been saying that both the ecosystems are large enough to be self-sustaining and that Google and Apple have both ‘won’.

That view made sense to me. Both ecosystems were growing and Apple’s dominance at the high end meant that developers mostly built for iOS first giving them sustainability in the face of Android’s faster growth. That’s part of the reason I ditched my long term allegiance to Android and bought an iPhone earlier this year.

Now new data from Apple and Google compiled by Benedict Evans is an early indication that the duopoly might not be stable after all (caveat: this analysis is based on a small number of datapoints and may be subject to large rounding errors).

IOS Growth Slow

The news is that iOS growth looks like it has stopped – Apple App Store revenue has flatlined at $10bn. Meanwhile Google Play Store revenues are continuing to grow fast. Extrapolating the trend lines for the last year suggests that Play Store revenues could overtake App Store Revenues this year.

There are many more Android devices out there and hence the revenue per device is significantly lower on Android, but there too the gap is closing.

For developers gross revenue on the platform and average revenue per device are key numbers and if/when the Play Store passes the App Store on these metrics I expect increasing numbers of developers will choose to go Android first, which will bring users across and further accelerate the growth of Play Store revenues. That in turn will encourage more developers to switch and we may see a repeat of the Windows movie from the 1990s when the winner takes all.

And I will have to switch back to Android.

 

Capitalism is being replaced by ‘talentism’

By | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 14.26.55

This is a super interesting perspective. I’m not a big fan of inventing new words and I’m not proposing that we all start talking about ‘talentism’, but I do think we should all understand the key message here: As capital is increasingly commoditised the pace of change increases it is human talents that drive value creation.

This move towards human capital is manifesting itself in the startup and venture community in two ways. Firstly power is shifting from investor to entrepreneur, as evidenced by the rising celebration of founders, and secondly investors are increasingly bundling human talent with their investment of capital.

Forward Partners aims to be in the vanguard of both these changes.

Lean startup methodology is brilliant but confusing

By | Forward Partners, Startup general interest, Uncategorized | 22 Comments

I just read two articles which beautifully illustrate the brilliance and challenges with the Lean Startup methodology.

First up was the story of Blue River Technology an agriculture robotics company whose first product is called LettuceBot. They were part of Steve Blanks Launchpad class at Stanford and followed lean principles to great effect. Their first idea was an autonomous lawn mower. In conversations with customers they discovered that was a bad idea, but also learned that farmers have a problem with weeding fields of carrots. Through more customer development they found that thinning lettuces is a bigger problem, and LettuceBot was born. They then sold their first LettuceBots off Powerpoint and had huge validation before they started building product. Brilliant.

Second up was Dan Kaplan’s critique of Peter Thiel’s critique of lean. I’m with Kaplan in thinking that Thiel is wrong in his critique of lean, but the interesting thing is that the problem stems from Thiel’s understanding, not from any fundamental issues with lean:

  • Misunderstanding 1: Lean is only good for making small changes to things that already exist
  • Misunderstanding 2: Customer development is nothing more than listening to what customers say they want
  • Misunderstanding 3: Identifying and testing hypotheses isn’t a planned process
  • Misunderstanding 4: MVPs are half baked products

Those are Thiel’s confusions as described by Kaplan. Then as a bonus Kaplan also points out that most people misunderstand the word pivot, mistakenly defining a pivot as when a company switches from one product or business idea to another (e.g. when Stuart Buttefield switched from the failed flash game Glitch to Slack) whereas Steve Blank defines a pivot as a smaller iteration of a business model or idea (e.g. a change of channel or customer segment).

To be fair Thiel’s critique of lean is bound up in a wider critique of incrementalism and a desire to see more step change thinking, but these points illustrate that lean methodologies are hard to understand and implement. It’s interesting to note that Steve Blank was in the classroom with Blue River Technology to help them with any misunderstandings and to stay disciplined. Most entrepreneurs don’t have direct access to Blank, and maybe that’s why they struggle. At one point Kaplan says:

if more entrepreneurs understood it [Lean] and applied it rigorously then fewer startups would fail

I agree with this. The high failure rate for startups is an unnecessary source of misery and loss. The opportunity now is to do something about it by helping entrepreneurs understand and apply lean. That means making it simpler and more practical.

You will see more on this subject from Forward Partners over the coming weeks.

How great VCs add value

By | Forward Partners, Startup general interest, Uncategorized | One Comment

Vinod Khosla and others have said that 70% of VCs add negative value. I wouldn’t want to be one of those (although I probably was at one point…). How then, should VCs add value?

This is from Founder’s Notebook:

  1. provide concrete help with hiring, fundraising, and intros;
  2. encourage you to figure things out without pressuring you to expand prematurely;
  3. share what’s working from their other startups;
  4. ask great questions that you wouldn’t otherwise have thought about; and
  5. focus on real metrics rather than buzz among other VCs and the media.

We try to do all five of these at Forward Partners, whilst avoiding mistakes like these. Numbers 1 and 3 are where we are strongest.

Re 1.: Our startup team are often the first team members for our idea stage companies (albeit part-time), and then after a month or two of working faster because of our support they typically start recruiting their own full time team members. Matt Buckland, our Head of Talent, plays a key role in helping them do that.

And re 3.: Because we are tightly focused on early stage ecommerce we have a lot of relevant learnings to share with our partners. So much so that we are writing them down. So far we’ve captured them ad hoc on our blog but going forward we will start to publish them under a framework we are calling The Path Forward. More of that soon…

Electricity storage costs on the cusp of a precipitous fall

By | Startup general interest, Uncategorized | No Comments

Elon Musk’s announcement of Tesla Energy and the Tesla Powercell (combined solar cell and battery) is the big news today, but it’s best understood in the context of longer term changes in the electricity industry. Two days ago I wrote about exponential increases in the use of solar energy, but solar energy only gets you so far without efficient storage to keep the lights on when the sun isn’t shining.

This ‘storage problem’ has long looked like the thing that would hold solar energy back. The cost of solar cells has been falling exponentially for some time and that has driven increased production, but if solar is ever to be more than a small percentage of the grid then storage needs to be solved, and battery technology has been advancing more slowly than solar cells (improvements have been linear rather than exponential).

The Tesla Powercell is a big step in the right direction. Ramez Naam compared the cost of electricity from the Powercell with the grid and found it to be roughly twice the price. Given that battery costs are halving every 2-3 years it won’t be long before it reaches grid parity. Meanwhile, early adopters, customers who suffer badly with outages, and countries where there’s a lot of sunshine and electricity costs are high will drive demand in the short term.

Exciting stuff. We could be on the cusp of a virtuous cycle that heralds a new era of cheap energy. This is from another Ramez Naam post from last month:

Energy storage is hitting an inflection point sooner than I expected, going from being a novelty, to being suddenly economically extremely sensible. That, in turn, is kicking off a virtuous cycle of new markets opening, new scale, further declining costs, and additional markets opening.

To elaborate: Three things are happening which feed off of each other.

  1. The Price of Energy Storage Technology is Plummeting. Indeed, while high compared to grid electricity, the price of energy storage has been plummeting for twenty years. And it looks likely to continue.

  2. Cheaper Storage is on the Verge of Massively Expanding the Market.  Battery storage and next-generation compressed air are right on the edge of the prices where it becomes profitable to arbitrage shifting electricity prices – filling up batteries with cheap power (from night time sources, abundant wind or solar, or other), and using that stored energy rather than peak priced electricity from natural gas peakers.This arbitrage can happen at either the grid edge (the home or business) or as part of the grid itself. Either way, it taps into a market of potentially 100s of thousands of MWh in the US alone.

  3. A Larger Market Drives Down the Cost of Energy Storage. Batteries and other storage technologies have learning curves. Increased production leads to lower prices. Expanding the scale of the storage industry pushes forward on these curves, dropping the price. Which in turn taps into yet larger markets.

 

 

 

Trust moving from individuals to systems

By | Startup general interest, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Trust decline Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 14.50.11

I just saw this rather depressing chart in the Washington Post. I guess there are a bunch of things that used to be commonplace that we don’t do anymore because we are worried about bad people – hitchhiking and letting our kids play on the street are two examples that spring to mind – so maybe it isn’t a big surprise. Not good though.

What’s curious, though, is that the sharing economy has exploded whilst trust has been declining. How can it be that we are more afraid to hitch-hike, but more willing to stay in a stranger’s spare room? As the Washington Post points out the explanation is that we are moving our trust from individuals to systems.

In other words we might no longer be willing to trust a random hitchhiker, but we have learned to trust a rider’s average 4.9 star review on BlaBlaCar.

“Reputation is everything” is an old cliche, but maybe it will be increasingly true. As more and more people find employment and suppliers through marketplaces from ebay to Uber maybe it will become true that those of us without a good rating will start to find life more difficult.

Perhaps more interesting is what new companies can do to leverage these trust systems. Free delivery or maybe point of sale credit to customers who have good ebay buyer ratings is one such idea, on the basis that these customers will have higher life time value and/or will be less likely to make returns. Generalising, we get to the question of what a good rating on service X implies about how a customer will use service Y.

Are accelerator programmes backing more mature companies?

By | Uncategorized, Venture Capital | 3 Comments

This tweet from YC’s Sam Altman was in my feed this morning:

You can see why he’s pleased. Lots of his companies have got a $1mm revenue run rate which is a sign they are valuable.

It takes a while to get to a $1m run-rate and I’m wondering if YC is trending towards backing more mature companies and fewer true startups.

Here in the UK it seems to me that Seedcamp and Techstars have made a similar shift in strategy. It makes sense, they get similar equity positions in businesses with more proof points that are therefore more likely to be successful. On top of that the introductions these programmes can make to potential investors, customers and advisors are more valuable to companies that have product and revenues.

That leaves a gap for true startups. Which is where we play :-)

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