Jan 19, 2016

Venture Capital and Future Tech - a Reading List

Reinventing the Past

In a prior post, I wrote about my experience with a food startup.  It was a small window into venture capital, a small, but vital part of new economic growth.

I was reading a Harvard Business article about how venture capital works.  Among other things, I learned that being a good VC is about knowing how to take only those risks you can control and in the right industries (read, growing industries).

I shared the thought with an industry veteran, and his reply was that a lot of VC success is just "luck."   For instance, food delivery business only became a growth industry because VCs were pumping so much money into it.  He said:

"Anything looks good if you pump enough money into it."

Sounds plausible.  The disparity between skill and luck, and the dynamics involved in outcomes made me want to learn more.

In many ways, it's an old story about the force of technology driving businesses to become more efficient.  It's about the good enough solutions dislodging the best, because it's cheaper and easier.  Simply, consumers want it.  Yes, it's an old story, a la Innovator's Dilemma.

Tidal Forces of the Web

In Paul Ford's: What is Code? Ford notes how the profession of programming is very adaptable to change.  Languages written to solve one set of problems is often (inevitably) adopted to solve a problem in another.  For example, with V8, JavaScript could run outside of the browsers for which it was designed.  Now, it could read files, send emails, erase your data, and made the client a server.

In this "flow" of the river of software, we often observe trends toward:
  • abstraction (of information and processes)
  • adaptation (one solution applied to different use case)
  • universality (good patterns can be repeated anywhere)
  • acceleration (solutions enable other solutions)
These trends have resulted in pretty drastic power law outcomes, where you have few big winners, and then everyone else.  How should the modern professional adapt to this reality?

How You Can Keep Up - Great Books About Tech

Perhaps the easiest and the best thing you can do is to read good books.

Great books.  I was particularly interested to read more into the VC world, because it's a bridge to the traditional world of finance.  And importantly, I think it also sheds light to the financial incentives so key to driving change.

In a way, this is a contrast to the craftsman's focus on just building something great for the sake of building.  There are those whose reward is simply to build something great.  There are those whose reward is to get rich.  In our tech world, both must work together.

Tech, Future, Building

Bold: How to Go Big ... Impact the World.  By Peter Diamandis.

Tomorrowland: ... Science Fiction to Science Fact.  By Steven Kotler.

Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age.  By Paul Graham.

Zero to One: How to Build the Future.  Peter Thiel.

More Strictly VC

The Startup Game: Inside ... VC and Entrepreneurs.  By Bill Draper.

Mastering the VC Game.  By Jeff Bussgang.

Venture Deals: Be Smarter than ... Your VC.  By Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson.

Nov 8, 2015

5 Simple mistakes that could kill your product

You can crunch CAC and LTV and MAU and DAU all you want, but there are simpler explanations for why your product may be underperforming.  Noodle on these simple ideas with respect to your business or product.  Hope it helps!

1. Not going where the people are - 

I was among the early members on sites like Producthunt (member # 2921) and theGrid.io (was founding member 16207).  Grid is an AI-based website builder, and is touted as an evolution/revolution in how websites are built.  I agree, but I later realized that for a website to matter you need eyeballs.  And to get that today, you don't build your own website.  You post on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter.

If you are a single dude wanting to find a girl, you don't go to a bar full of dudes.  You join a yoga class full of single ladies.

So, I asked for my money back, and decided I didn't need an AI-built website.

Certainly, team Grid.io is building value, as I'm sure AI will better optimize clicks and impressions and replace many human SEO/SEM consultants.  That said, the technology might be better applied in helping people share on existing platforms.  Or perhaps it can help optimize SMB marketing.  For example, Buffer has become a successful tool first and foremost because people wanted an easier way to post on Twitter and share on social media.

2. Going where it's too crowded - 

Going where people are is a truism.  That's not to say go where the crowd is.  If you show up where all the cool kids are, the problem is you might look like a loser.  At any given four-year term, there's only one President of the United States (POTUS) no matter how talented and smart you are.

Remember #1.  I'm not saying go to an empty pond where you can be king.  But, for the love of God, don't try to be another big social network.  Apart from being annoying, you'll get crushed by Facebook and Google.  So, to be clear, I'm not advocating Blue Ocean Strategy.  Going for an uncontested market either makes you a visionary or a fool.

(Apparently, don't do as I do, but do as I say.  I should be blogging on Medium and Quora, not here.)

3. Differentiate or die - 

Which brings me to marketing 101: differentiate or die.  As the world gets more crowded and user time more scarce, you need to be remembered.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Which is why Hollywood stars know that any publicity is good publicity.  Worst thing is for people to forget who you are.

What are you doing to stand apart from your competition in the minds of your customers?

What are you doing to emotionally connect with your users?

I think one reason StartupDigest was/is so successful compared to other startup events lists is because it's memorable at many dimensions.  It achieved this partly by using local, human curator, who could express the relevant and important startup themes to the audience locally.  You couldn't do that with one global curator.  And even if you could, people appreciate knowing someone local, so you always lose that edge.  (Of course, the offset is cost, but the local curators were volunteers.)

4. Missing the feedback loops - 

This is just another away of saying don't build myopically.  Often, one piece of the puzzle is related with another, with another, with another.  And understanding how that little flame burns will either enable you to build a bonfire or end up flaming out.

With so many tools available to streamline communication (e.g. Slack) and process flows (e.g. Git), this should not be a big problem for most teams.

5. Not minding the culture - 

And building on that last point, it all comes down to your team.  Your processes and good communication will determine how effective your team can work.  But, ultimately, it's your team culture that makes or breaks your team and your product or your business.  It's the most important of the nodes in your feedback loops.  Mess up the culture, and everything else will fall apart.

No need to repeat stories of scores of startups that grew too fast, messed up its culture, and imploded across many dimensions of its business - Homejoy, Fab, WebVan, et al.

Jun 7, 2015

I'm hungry, and what I learned about startup investing: Is it time to eat?

It's not quite noon, and I'm hungry.  I debate whether to drum up a scramble and scour my fridge.  I'm not impressed; supplies are low.

There's a taco joint, a cafe, and a Whole Foods all within a five-minute walking distance (I'm lucky to be in a very central part of San Francisco).  But, I'm in middle of something.  Plus, I want to try something new.  Something convenient.

A meal from SpoonRocket is $10 bucks (including delivery and tips) and promises a fast delivery.  But what really gets me to submit an order is the humor.  Step 3 is "put on your pants."  Hey, how did you guys know?  (I wonder if I would be instructed to put on my skirts if I were a woman.)


I get a two minute warning text almost immediately, so I walk out to the curb.  A minute later, a SpoonRocket delivery truck pulls up, I grab a boxed lunch and I get back to my kitchen.  What did I have?  Grilled chicken apple sausage with BBQ chipotle sauce.  The meal was decent; the speed and convenience was superb.

Motivated by the positive experience and the promotion, I share the referral code on my social media and email a few friends.  My friends will get $10 bucks off when they make their first order.

Free Food

In fact, a few days earlier, my roommate had sent me an email, subject "free food."  I was invited to try Munchery and claim a $10 credit.  Whereas SpoonRocket's tagline is "Good Food Fast," Munchery promises "wholesome meals from the best chefs in town."  I guess I'll eat free tonight.

While at it, I decide to take advantage of promotions by Sprig ("Dine on Demand") as well.  And to fill up on my low running fridge, I try out Instacart.  After placing an order of groceries from a local Whole Foods (yes, the one that's three minute walk away), someone shows up in the evening with a bag of groceries at my door.  Call me a bit old fashioned, but I oddly feel obliged and sorry for the gentleman who delivered the grocery bag.  Is this how millionaires live?  Someone shops your groceries for you and cooks your meals for you.


Insight Into Food Startups

This foodscapade taught me quite a bit about this food startups.  For one thing, I began to be more attentive to the space.  It turned out one of my friends worked for a team that delivers corporate catered meals.  He was paid $25 per hour to pack food.  Not bad.  But, what did I really learn, though?

1. Logistics as core UX - These companies all have to get the logistics right.  Food startups have to assemble the food, manage perishable ingredients, and deliver on time.  These companies were more like Amazon than they were like LinkedIn; more analogue than digital.

2. Engagement model - Sprig's CEO Gagan Biyani often speaks in public about growth hacking.  I once watched him give a presentation about Sprig's user lifecycle.  It shows a feedback loop consisting of "before the buy -> first purchase -> repeat purchase -> referral."  The referral leads to another "before the buy" cycle.  My own story above reflects this business model.  And this gives you an idea about where key drivers and costs of the business are.  What is the drop off from first purchase to second?  From second to third?  What are some things that can go wrong?  Try out the service once or twice, and ask your friends, and you can gain a grasp of these metrics.

3. Expensive customer acquisition - And speaking of the repeat purchase to referral, this is an expensive way to acquire new customers.  Remember that free meal I had?  Well, it wasn't really free.  It's coming out of investor's pockets, and reflects the competitive pressure and pressure to scale quickly.  By contrast, consider Intercom.io.  When I click to download a 'free' e-book, I'm asked to share 2 emails to get the free book.  That friction will lead to something less than 100% conversion, but that's a much cheaper way to build virality in my book.

4. Huge market - So, with logistics as a constraint, and expensive costs, why all the fuss about food delivery services?  Well, as a friend of mine likes to say "I'm pretty good at eating.  I do it three times a day."  And so does hundreds of millions of others.

For me, taking the product or the service for a drive and a little digging helped me put my arms around the business.  For food startups, if I wanted to learn more about the team of executives, I would expect to see some logistics or operational excellence experience: someone from Amazon or Walmart, perhaps.  I would also be keen to pay attention to emails or promotions to assess whether the team can efficiently retain a new customer.

In general, when customer lifetime value (current value of all future purchases by that customer) exceeds the cost to acquire the customer, the business is making money.  Take Munchery, for example.  It took $10 to get me to try it.  If I spend more than $10 down the road (and I did), they come out ahead.  The more profitable customers a business has, the more valuable the business becomes.

Finally, these food startups have different goto market strategies and different market constraints.  For example, if Munchery limits itself to providing food by local chefs, expanding to new cities may challenge greater logistical complexities.  By contrast, a template model of assembly simple food in a kitchen and delivering could be repeated much more efficiently.

Have fun investing!  And don’t go hungry!


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Mar 8, 2015

Practical Personal Happiness and Success Tips

I hope you had a great weekend!  I published a book on how to be happy and successful in your daily life.  The book isn't about tech or product management, but I wanted to share the news with you!  It is available on Amazon.

How To Be Happy: 12 Powerful Steps to Boost Your Confidence, and Live a Happier Life Now

I wrote this book for you to share tips I have applied to move forward when life seemed at a standstill. 

I will show you how to be happy with 12 powerful, yet simple actions you can take. 

book image - how to be happy
How To Be Happy by David Kim

It will be available for a FREE kindle download for the next few days, and I would love it if you downloaded free of charge and read over it.  Also, for your sign-up on BetterAndHigher.com, you'll receive a FREE audio download to Tip #8. "You Say Yes, I Say And."

And, if you like it, then would you please consider leaving me a good review (i.e. five star review) about the book?  Thank you ever so much!