Right after OMGPOP released DrawSomething to rave reviews (and traction), I was catching up with my friend Nabeel Hyatt and chatted a bit about the game’s meteoric rise. I joked that the success was eerily well timed with him joining Spark as a Venture Partner, although of course, the development of the game was well in the works before then.
I asked Nabeel (who was previously the GM of Zynga BOS) how the company developed the hit game after a number of years with more moderate success. His answer: “They just decided to throw a fastball right down the middle”.
What he meant was that the company had previously tried to be innovative in a number of different ways in their game development. That led to a catalog of beautiful games that were edgy and different on many dimensions, but ones that didn’t quite have the growth everyone was hoping for. With Draw Something, they took a pretty plain vanilla, tried and true playbook. They started with a popular and familier offline game (Pictionary), added asychronous social components (a-la Words with Friends), and of course, built it beutifully with good viral loops. They focused on building the best drawing game they could, instead of trying to be too cheeky, cute, or implement a bunch of other innovations on the edges. It helped Draw Something become one of the fastest mobile games of all time, even if that growth wasn’t sustained long term.
Since then, I’ve noticed that many really interesting companies start out as fastballs right down the middle. And many pivots look like that too. The reverse is that I often see less successful companies start out very complicated, or require customers to make too many leaps.
Mobile payments is a good example. A lot of companies have gone after this opportunity, and tried different versions of stored value on phones, wireless payments, etc. But what’s the company that has really broken out here? Square. They started with a little white dongle that allowed merchants to just take credit cards. They are moving beyond this, but they started with a fastball right down the middle. As Angus Davis (the founder of our portfolio company Swipely) has said, “millions of people are walking around with a mobile payment device in their pocket… it’s called a credit card.” Similarly, Swipely is starting to show terrific traction based on a that simple premise
Increasingly, when I speak with companies that seem to be in a promising space but aren’t quite getting the traction they hope for, I ask myself “what’s the fastball down the middle for this business?” It’s hard at time to give up on the elegance and innovative-nature of the more complicated solution, but sometimes, the best way to earn the right to be completely transformative is to do one simple thing really really well.
We have our NextView 2013 Annual meeting this afternoon. I blocked off the morning expecting to have to do a bunch of last minute preparation, but everything seems to be pretty much ready to go. If you are an entrepreneur and are unfamiliar with these, think of it as a board meeting, but with more participants and a bit more gravity since it only happens once or twice a year.
There is a fair bit of work and preparation that goes into VC annual meetings. One could get overly focused on presenting information in just the right way or scripting the message perfectly. It can be pretty stressful.
We’re tried to maintain a different perspective over the years. I find these meetings to be a really good way to force ourselves to look at the forest from the trees, and think less about day-today activities and try to take the long view on our business and our industry. It’s helpful to be able to synthesize our thinking and get feedback from our limited partners based on their own extensive experience. We’re lucky to be in business with some great Limited Partners, who are a mix of terrific institutions as well as a number of individuals (many of whom have known us for a long time).
We also want to have fun and enjoy the day. Not that our meeting is all that entertaining (it’s fairly serious), but it’s a nice time to reflect on how lucky we are to do the work we do, with partners we like and respect, and with entrepreneurs that grind it out each day to try to change the world. When I think of it that way, I can’t help but enjoy the process, even if the material is dry, and we have to share both good and bad news. I find this perspective also frees us to be more intellectually honest about the state of affairs, and more authentic in our interactions overall.
Anyway, I better post this and make sure everything is in order and ready to go. Thanks for reading this stream-of-consciousness post! I might post some follow-up thoughts in the coming days/weeks.
I’ve been using the days.am app for a few months now. (Full disclosure, I’m an investor in their parent company, Wander). It’s a beautiful, visual diary that allows you to capture life “unfiltered”. You can read more about the thinking behind the product here.
It’s been a fun app to play with, and one that has brought with it some cool, unexpected surprises. First, it has changed my behavior and made me start cataloging many more life moments. These moments were one’s I enjoyed, but then again, why would anyone really care about a mediocre picture of a door, or a bee, or a fountain in isolation? Previously, I’d just take a mental snapshot, and move on.
I also was pleasantly surprised by what I saw from other people. It’s amazing how I feel like I “know” the people that I followed in the closed alpha, even though I may have never met many of them. Sharing the moments in their life in an unfiltered way, with a low-bar of “does this make me look good” was really cool. It gives you a unique lens into the way your friend see the world and themselves.
Consumer social services are always pretty tricky. They aren’t really utilities (at least at the start), and it’s hard to pinpoint why something may or may not work. Also, some social utilities come out of the gates fast, and others are a slow boil. But long-term, it’s not how fast you are out of the gates, but how you finish that matters.
What I think gets me excited about a consumer social application is whether a) it changes my behavior meaningfully and b) I feel excited to see what my friends are posting. Pretty simple, and I think days.am has done a nice job on both counts.
Congrats on Jeremy, Keenan and the team on the initial product and launch. Below is one of my favorite days from a trip to NY a few months back. Click through to see the comments, some animation, and check out the app. Enjoy, and have fun!
Last night I attended a really fun event called the NEVY’s put on by the New England Venture Capital Association. It was a wonderful showcase of all the great companies, people, and investors that have helped the Boston technology market come roaring back in recent months and years.
It was fun to attend, and I was really pleased that a bunch of our portfolio company founders (and many other friends) were nominated for awards that night. Click here for the full list of nominees and winners.
I was reminded last night why I moved to Boston from Silicon Valley many years ago and why I think the ecosystem is so great. There have been naysayers in recent years about the strength of the ecosystem here, and I think people are finally waking up to the reality that that meme is simply untrue. It’s funny that it’s taken so long – given that the raw data on large-scale venture-backed exits is so strong relative to some other markets.
But forget what the media says. There are things on the ground here that make this place really great, and the folks that were honored last night really hammered it home for me. In particular, I love this place because:
Boston is a town of substance. Maybe this is why the tech community here has been less embraced by pop-tech media which seems to care more about movie-star investors than real businesses. But I love the focus here on real substance. Now, substance can take many forms. Where this market has gone wrong ~5 years back was in failing to understand that “substance” could mean something different from “hard science” or “a guy who sold his company for $500M and is doing it again”. The definition of substance is much broader, but the new crop of investors and entrepreneurs totally get that. And along the way, amazing businesses of substance have been built. Wayfair in particular was honored as the “best startup” in Boston, and what a startup it is. Although other flashy e-commerce sites might have greater notoriety, none can come close to matching Wayfair for scale ($600M+ revenue), profitability (bootstrapped all the way until last year), and long-term potential (that’s my own commentary). And by the way, check out all the “deal of the year” candidates and you’ll see a bunch of other extremely substantial businesses in the making as well.
Boston founders want to finish. Acme Packet won the award for exit of the year for its $2.1B acquisition by Oracle. What impressed me was that the company is still led by its founder Andy Ory who stuck with the business from inception, to IPO, and to acquisition. Similarly, I’ve really admired Steve Kaufer, who founded Tripadvisor and saw it through its acquisition by Expedia, but then continued to lead the company as it was spun out as an independent public company. You hear a lot about founders leaving formerly “hot” startups and starting new companies to great fanfare, and that can be good at times. But I do love that many of the best Boston founders want to start, build, and finish. Just as impressive, I find many entrepreneurs that are far earlier in their careers really seek to build their abilities and leadership so that they can scale to be GREAT CEO’s, not just great founders. Sravish Sridhar, who was the “rising star entrepreneur” award is just this sort of guy, and I admit I regret not being in business with him just because of what a great CEO he is becoming. Our portfolio company founders at IS2, Boundless, Plastiq, and Lookout were also all nominated for various awards, and fit this bill as well.
Boston is a town of grit. After the horrific bombings a few weeks back, pretty much everyone who commented publicly about this city said something like “Boston is tough”. It’s funny – people know that this is a tough town, it doesn’t seem that way outwardly, but everyone knows it inwardly. People here just have a lot of grit, and can bounce back from challenging times. That’s why the story of Atlas Venture is so captivating for folks here. Fred Destin (who is a new but terrific member of the tech community) wrote a really wonderful post yesterday about the re-invention of Atlas in light of their newest fund. As he describes, the firm had their “battle of Thermopyles” moment, but the team there took the bull by the horns and wrestled the beast to the ground to build a really terrific firm that entrepreneurs rave about. All startup founders know how much grit is involved in building great companies, and I love this town for the grit you see everywhere you look.
I was born in the Philippines and lived the first 17 years of my life in Manila and in Hong Kong.
It occurred to me that this year marks the year that I have lived in the United States longer than I have lived anywhere else combined. It’s kind of crazy.
I have a lot to be thankful for about this country. I was educated here. My best friends are Americans. My wife and children are Americans. I’ve had the professional opportunities I’ve had because of this country, and I’ve become the person I am largely because of the values instilled by this country.
I’m lucky that I have always been able to secure H-1B visas to stay here and work, at least prior to getting my green card. But it honestly changed the calculus for me in many ways about risk and professional ambition. I know it’s impacted the lives of many friends who have had trouble staying in the country because of their career choices. And I’m on the board of two companies led by founders who had to jump through hoops to get their O-1 visa so they can build their companies in America and continue to contribute to the local economy and hire lots and lots of people. Pretty nutty.
Immigration policy is pretty confusing, and it isn’t that cut and dry, obviously. Many elements are a total no-brainer, but as Fred Wilson discussed in his last post, these policies end up getting intermingled with other, more controversial initiatives as part of immigration reform. Check out his post here.
I’ve actually been pretty torn on immigration reform overall. But I’m coming around. I come from a long line of immigrants. My grandfather left China to be an indentured servant in the Philippines. My Mom fled China to Hong Kong after her father was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. My parents left the Philippines to go to Hong Kong during the revolution that over-threw the Marcos regime. And as a Christian, I think it’s quite clear that the story of my faith is one OF immigrants welcoming immigrants.
I’m pasting below Fred Wilson’s call to action and suggestions for how members of the tech community can help. Please spread the word, and let’s get something done.
“There are many opponents to the comprehensive immigration reform bill out there. And they will use anything, including things like what happened in Boston last week, to kill it. We need everyone in the tech industry and the world of startups to get behind this bill. Not only because it addresses pretty much every request we have made on immigration but also because the US is a land of opportunity and diversity and it is our greatest strength that we allow good people to come here and build a life, a career, a family, and a company.