consciousness and intent in technology


Credit to Eric Pickersgill at http://www.ericpickersgill.com/removed

We have a thesis we've been discussing internally here at Balderton on The End of Reality. Quantum physics and simulation theory aside, it's clear that we are increasingly escaping our immediate physical reality in favor of alternative digitally (or chemically) constructed realities.

This doesn't come as a surprise to me, but I do think it comes at a cost. While we may be more "connected" than ever, are we as present with those with whom we share physical space? While social media allows us to construct a self according to our mind's eye, do we share our flaws and faults as openly and honestly?

Somehow I feel that in the past year or two we have all collectively begun to go over a brink. I remember in the early days of smart devices people were very conscious of not using them during a meal. Today, it's not uncommon for me to look around at a restaurant and see more than half the groups or couples staring down at LCDs. I think we've slowly started to feel that being somewhere else, and not giving those we surround our attention and our presence, is acceptable.

Are we using technology to enhance our own reality or depart from it? For me this question boils down to intent. App makers are becoming very good at distracting us and keeping us engaged well past the point of accomplishing what it is we originally set out to achieve. For me, this means that I need to be extra vigilant:

Why did I take out my phone?
What was my original intent? Have i fulfilled that intent? If so, why am I still using this? What is the most fulfilling way for me to spending the next few minutes?

I know that if I don't stay sharp on this, then minutes, hours, and days of my life will be spent doing things that aren't high on my priority list, don't help me grow, and that haven't really helped me enjoy or live my life fully.

To some of you it may seem ironic for a tech investor to be stating this, given that many of the companies that have built a foundation for venture returns are driven on attention. But I think that the most impactful and important companies of tomorrow will help enable us to fulfil our intentions, rather than distract us from our life's priorities.

Flurry Analytics reported that in Q42016, Americans were spending 300 minutes (5 hours) a day on mobile devices. That's up from 162 minutes (almost double) from Q12014. 5 hours a day is 30% of your waking life. It is 114 days or almost 4 months every year. No doubt that much of that time was spent video chatting with loved ones, capturing memories, editing documents, listening to awesome albums, and answering urgent emails. But how much of the time was spent on click-bait? On checking your email for the 7th time that hour? On videotaping a concert, taking yourself away from the moment for a video that you will never watch again?

I don't think I'm the only one who is thinking about getting this balance right. I recently spent a week in Brooklyn and while I was there a meditation center and yoga studio opened on my street. I spent last week at a tech conference in Berlin where an entire tent revolved between meditation, yoga, qi gong, and kakao ceremonies. The tent was always full. One of the ways we embody this at Balderton is by banning laptops and smartphones from our Monday meetings so that we can be fully present to engage with one another.

Slowly I think we are realizing that as we plug into the promise of digital interfaces and the instant gratification of their realities, it's becoming increasingly important to slow down and awaken to the feel of the earth under our toes, to listen to the words and smiles of our companions. We need time and space to ponder and process our priorities, and only then can equip ourselves with the right tools to achieve them. It's very unlikely those tools are inside your next push notification.

ethereum and the cryptocurrency opportunity

(Big thanks to Nicolas, the guru)

I have spent some time in recent months thinking and learning about cryptographic tokens and blockchain, specifically Ethereum. This included time at the Ethereum Developers Conference, conversations with thoughtful folks in the space, and a wheat beer at Room77 in Berlin. After these conversations, I feel strongly for various reasons that it is a space we all should be on top of, and where tech investors should be looking to put capital to work, sometimes in unfamiliar ways.

1. Top Down. Cryptocurrencies (mostly Bitcoin and Ethereum) are emerging as an entirely new
asset class with returns we, as technology investors, shouldn’t ignore

In 2010 all the world’s cryptocurrencies were worth virtually nothing, today they are worth between $20-25B. In a world where the existing 5 macro asset classes (currencies, commodities, rates, equities, fixed income) are largely influenced by policymakers, central bankers, and increasingly unpredictable democratic outcomes, cryptocurrencies are providing a relatively uncorrelated asset class that can potentially reduce portfolio volatility and increase risk-adjusted returns.

Not to mention, the returns have been fantastic. In the last 12 months BTC has grown from a market cap of $6.3B to $17.8B. In the last 12 months ETH has grown from a market cap of $850M to $4B. While it’s true that these asset classes have also historically been extremely volatile, it’s also clear from the data that they have thus far delivered consistently handsome returns to early investors. Losses were posted two of the 9 years, with annual average returns of in the ballpark of 350% and 500% respectively for Bitcoin and Ethereum.

We may argue that, as impressive as these numbers may be, we are equity investors into technology companies, and as such these and related asset classes are clearly inappropriate investments. That would be a mistake. These tokens are fundamentally new technologies first, and financial assets second.

2. Tokens are becoming a new funding paradigm. It behooves us to think about how as VCs we can
operate here if we see compelling cases.

Previously, protocol layers (like HTTP or TCP/IP) were largely provided by researchers who didn’t (at scale) monetize their protocols directly. It took entities who built software on top of those protocols, and then either sold that software directly, or built networks large enough to be attractive to advertisers, before the
protocol could be meaningfully monetized.

Networks like Ethereum are entirely different. Through cryptographic token sales, a for-profit entity can issue tokens to would-be participants in the network while retaining some portion of the tokens for themselves. As network participation increases, so does the value of the withheld tokens, which they can use to fund operations, incentivize employees, etc.

As such, as technology investors I think we need to think about how we can gain exposure to these tokens
in the event that we see a company that is attractive to us and meets our investment criteria.

3. It is very early days for Ethereum (genesis block in July 2015), and yet the flexibility of its
scripting language (Solidity) means that it has already garnered lots of developer attention, with the
promise of a much richer and diverse application layer of decentralized applications (DApps) built on
top of it

Big validation points for Ethereum include:

  • $4B market cap less than two year after creation
  • Coinbase’s adoption (July 2016)
  • The formation of an Enterprise Ethereum Alliance including Microsoft and JPMorgan (Feb 2017)
  • Leaders in the space abandoning Bitcoin in favor of Ethereum

You already have an entire ecosystem of developers using Solidity to build DApps
A full list of DApps maintained by ethereum.org

Some examples:

Status – A mobile browser, OS and messaging platform for Ethereum & Dapps
Oraclize – Data carrier for decentralized apps
Ujo Music, Musicoin – Blockchain-enabled digital rights mgmt. for musicians
Etherisc – p2p Social insurance, flight delay insurance, crop insurance
Gnosis – Prediction market platform including automatic payouts
Ethernote – Legal contracts and templates
uPort - Identity Management
KYC Chain – KYC solutions for finance and law
Augur – Forecasting Tool

Risks

To be fair, this space is fraught with risk, of which here are some:

  1. Security
    There have been numerous cases of security breaches at high-profile stores of currencies, most notably Mt. Gox and the DAO. Security needs to be #1 DD item for any investment involved with storing or transferring a high volume of keys
  2. Volatility
    Tokens have been tremendously volatile, which is a direct risk for us as investors but also a risk to mass-market adoption.
  3. Reputational risk
    Ask your friends what they buy with their Bitcoin
  4. Scale
    Both Bitcoin and Ethereum have issues at scale involving block-size, and transaction speeds/costs. Ethereum has an active community and is willing to evolve via hard forks, which suggests it will be the more flexible solution
  5. Is this just batshit crazy?
    I don’t know. Is this so out there? I don’t think so. At this point, there have been billionaires created by investing in these tokens, building companies in the space, and building next generation protocol layers. The value of these networks is increasing exponentially as more and more smart people dedicate their careers and lives to the space.

europe as a platform for tomorrow's BAT & GAFA

As a Californian who grew up in Hong Kong I'm often asked, What are you doing in Europe? My response is consistent. Europe is the most exciting place to be in technology today.

Why?

If in China we have BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent), and in the US we have GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) is the European monolithic tech acronym just around the horizon? Not quite. These acronyms exist because they reflect the concentration of capital and market cap tied up in a handful of companies. I'm not sure Europe will get to that point in the next few years and I'm not convinced we should. We have tremendous potential to be a connector between east and west, between north and south, to connect creativity and execution within a framework mindful of privacy and distrustful of monopoly. That's why I'm excited about European tech.

Let's start from the ground up. Europe has all the ingredients to build globally competitive next-generation technology businesses: education, talent, capital, and markets. Europe is a network with various cities as the primary nodes, and we are just starting to see a degree of density within the individual ecosystems that is driving major synergies both within and across these nodes.

As a platform, Europe is producing businesses with global mindsets and capabilities. At SoundCloud we had 35-40 nationalities represented among fewer than 200 employees in Berlin. That may not sound like a lot but try and sit down and name 40 countries. By the time you've passed 30 you're naming some relatively obscure places. You can't imagine the strength that diversity brings when it comes to product decisions, cultural decisions, and strategic decisions. Moreover, given the heterogeneity of the continent itself in terms of languages, legal frameworks, tax codes, and userbases, the businesses are built to be modular in a geographic sense from the start.

If we look at fundamentals, there are fantastic technical universities spread across the UK, Germany, France and beyond. Moreover, there are practically as many developers today in London, Paris, and Berlin as there are in Silicon Valley. Many of these developers are world class, and you will find former engineers from Google, Facebook and Twitter in California scattered across the coffee shops and startup offices in Berlin, London, Stockholm, or Lisbon. (For a deeper dive into the talent that is powering Europe's startups head over to our recently published Talent Report)

These developers are increasingly pairing up and building companies with business-minded operators who have experience at world-leading tech companies, banks, or consultancies. Since 2010 1,635 early stage (raised <$5M) companies have been backed by angels or VCs in the Bay Area. In London, Paris, Berlin and Stockholm that number is 1,458 companies. For VCs, the investable universe is deep and getting deeper.

This set of circumstances has led to increasingly large & chunky >$1B exits (2016 saw six exits alone worth $70B in Europe) that have two main consequences. Firstly, they signal to the ecosystem that founding a company or working for stock options is a viable career path. Secondly, these exits inject the ecosystem with founders and employees who now have both capital and know-how to reinvest into it.

This, in turn, has started to attract more capital investing in technology businesses through all phases of development. There are new accelerators and incubators cropping up from Shoreditch to Kreuzberg, with more seed capital not far behind. Here at Balderton we feel very confident that our singular focus on European Series A is differentiated, but in later stages Series B+ (and to be fair, earlier as well) we've seen tremendous interest from US VCs like Benchmark, USV, and Sequoia who are as impressed with companies being built here as we are.

All in all, I'm excited about Europe not because it will replicate what we've seen in San Francisco or Shenzhen. Instead, we have tremendous potential here to build world leading companies leveraging the unique characteristics of the European platform: An international core, user-centric privacy frameworks, design-driven products, and competitive markets.

Thoughts? Are you all as excited about Europe as I am? Why or why not?

moving around

(Left) A screenshot of the central map UX of Carjump, centered on Rosenthaler Platz in Berlin. Each bubble is a car, bike or scooter. (Right) A similar screen from COUP

When I'm in Berlin I'm often traveling from meeting to meeting or from Mitte back home to Kreuzberg. I prefer to cycle but some days the weather or distances don't really allow it. On those days I use vehicle sharing.

In large cities like Berlin, London or New York (and to an even greater extent in their EM cousins Beijing, Sao Paulo, Cairo, Jakarta…) cities can be frustrating and expensive to travel within. Many people criss-cross their cities 3 or 4 times a day.

In Berlin Uber isn’t really present (although uberX has recently relaunched) and taxis are relatively expensive. Most people move around on:

  1. Bikes
  2. Public Transportation (very robust, with over and underground trains, trams and buses)
  3. Private vehicles
  4. Vehicle Sharing

The first three of these methods of urban mobility have been around at least 100 years (and for a more general take on mobility read this post by my colleague Nicolas). What I want to talk about here briefly is the fourth mode, and in particular flexible vehicle sharing, which has only really been around in its current form since 2008.

The distinction between flexible and fixed vehicle sharing is important. Fixed schemes have been around longer (like Zipcar's traditional service) and allow you to rent a car from a fixed location but require you to return it to that same location. These schemes are useful if you want to take a trip from A>B>A, like heading to IKEA to buy furniture. Flexible schemes on the other hand are far more useful, because they can be used for any trip from A>B (as long as both origin and destination are within the scheme's geofence.

Berlin is one of if not the global capital of vehicle sharing. I'm aware of at least 12 different vehicle sharing schemes in the city. My estimate is that there are close to 3,000 free floating vehicles in the city (Car2Go with at least 1,000, DriveNow with 800 ..etc) What this means in practice is that I almost always find a vehicle within a 5 minute walk, and more often than not within 3 minutes.

These services are cheap. Car2Go costs on average €0.30 per minute meaning a 10 minute ride puts you back roughly €3.00. DriveNow is marginally more expensive at around €0.33 per minute, and the scooter sharing services are even cheaper with eMio at €0.19 per minute or COUP at a flat €3.00 fee for a ride up to 30 minutes. To put that in perspective a single ride on the u-bahn (subway) costs €2.70.

We've done an overall pricing analysis that shows what a 3 mile ride in a lot of major cities across the US and EU will cost across various services:

So there are major savings here vs. uberx, on the order of 40% (DriveNow) up towards 75% for scooter sharing services.

When I have the flexibility and ease-of-use of a private vehicle on hand within a 5 minute walk at the push of a button, the attraction of owning and maintaining my own car has just fallen through the floor.

Of course, flexible vehicle sharing schemes are not right for every city. It's hard to see the scheme working well in an urban environment as dense as Manhattan with stringent parking regulations for example. Berlin is in a sweet spot where it is dense enough to make the schemes economically viable but not so dense where parking becomes a nightmare. London is another good example. DriveNow is live in London in several boroughs like Islington and Hackney where the population density and parking environment is similar to Berlin's.

One of the reasons why I'm excited by this space is because I do see these schemes as having advantages as we move towards autonomous vehicles. The primary difference between ridesharing and carsharing today is the driver and over time the distinction between these two categories will start to dissolve.

What do you think?

holding the center - a letter

Shortly before the election my Grandmother, who is the most ardent Hillary supporter I know, wrote me and asked if I could help explain Trump's popularity. She just couldn't understand it. Here was my letter in response:

--

Grammy,

Somehow I think the anger that manifested itself in Trump's campaign is related to the deep feelings of unfairness that manifested itself in the Occupy movement of 2011. It's why Bernie mounted such a strong challenge despite seeming like a kooky professor.

People are angry. Inequality and the growing divide has a lot to do with it. I'm not entirely sure that's everything though. I think some of it has to do with the loss of faith in a state that provides and supports for its citizens. This doesn't exist any longer in the US. The most "patriotic" people are also those that detest the US Government.

I think some of it has to do with the sterilization and alienation inherent to a society that has allowed corporate interests to grow virtually unchecked while defunding governments and local communities.

I'd also likely to touch on technology, which on one hand has been an unbelievable boost to productivity and is facilitating some wonderful things in terms of connectivity (I'm emailing you!). It's been a huge boon to society in many ways but we always have to be conscious about how we use the tools available to us. Because on the other hand technology and in particular cellular infrastructure has allowed companies to scale at an absolutely unprecedented speed.

I know about these business because it's my job to invest in them, and I know that software companies will enter every aspect of our society. While I believe in the power of capitalism to allocate resources more or less efficiently, history is rife with examples of where we need strong and clear-minded governments to help us steer the boat, to ensure that externalities like pollution are priced in, to ensure that people are not priced out of the basic goods, services and opportunities they should be afforded as human beings. In the long run it is about the governments ability to regulate these businesses fairly and ensure that the gains are accruing to all stakeholders. To founders, investors, employees, and back again to society (taxes).

The truth is, with the rapid development of artificial intelligence, automation, and robotics, fewer and fewer people are equipped with the requisite skills to work competitively in today's economy. On one hand, economists have argued that technological improvements historically haven't increased joblessness but instead changed the nature of the jobs we do (we become "machine managers"). There has also been a boosted demand effect that increases the volume of goods at equilibrium and thus stems job loss. I find these analyses short sighted because they miss the point that in an absolute sense machines are approaching the computing power of the human brain and the capacity for us to differentiate ourselves vs machines is undoubtedly shrinking.

So, in my and many other's view a Universal Basic Income (UBI) of some fashion will be necessary in the medium term. We have to do a better job of ensuring that everyone, across red states and blue, and not just coastal technologists or investors, are participating in the promise of tomorrow. Despite it's reputation a UBI could actually do much to foster a greater sense of fairness across our society, to ensure that everyone is equipped with the positive rights of education and opportunity and the right to live above poverty. The problem is that with the leaders we have now elected it will be likely impossible in the current environment of Fear and Others politics. The forces that have driven many people to such a feeling of displacement within their own society are only accelerating. Unless those of us who are lucky and well-off stop and think about how to reshape our society to make it fundamentally more fair, the discord and divide between red and blue, black and white, young and old, urban and rural, and between rich and poor, is only going to widen.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

venturing out

A friend asked me recently,

“What makes you think you can decide which ideas are good and which aren’t?”

It wasn’t exactly an innocuous question. I didn’t have an answer for her.

Since then I’ve had time to reflect. I’ve realized that in my new life investing with Balderton I’ll often have to thread a fine line between having the confidence to make the decision and being humble enough to hear challenging opinions, and accept that I’m not always (or even often) right.

I began my new job one month ago yesterday. As many of us do, I tend to equate my work with my identity. But my hope is that the work I do reflects who I am, and not the other way around. While it’s still early days, I know that my job will require the best me. I will need to be honest but measured, understanding but perceptive, empathetic but definitive.

It’s also a job that I would not do well alone. I’m very lucky in that respect to be working with people that frankly, often make me feel stupid. They have a broad array of backgrounds and experiences, of successes and failures. My teammates have brought me into their thinking process since day one. It’s intimidating and invigorating.

I will also call upon everything I’ve learned from prior stages in life both in and outside of work. In a prior life I worked on big Chinese internet IPOs like Qunar and vip.com. Most recently I was at SoundCloud, where from Berlin I ventured out into frontier markets like Indonesia, Egypt and Brazil to help grow and monetize that wonderful playground of sound that Alex, Eric, and that whole team have brought to the world. I called Berlin home for more than two years. I’m excited to continue spending lots of time there, helping to grow companies that can leverage the tremendous creative energy of Warschauer Straße, the diversity of Maybachufer, the design of the Bauhaus, and the famed precision and execution of German entrepreneurs.

Calling the Bay Area home has also taught me that there is no idea too hair-brained, no purpose too ambitious. I graduated from high school in Oakland, a city with an incredible tolerance for diverse approaches. Before that, as a boy in Jakarta and Hong Kong I witnessed the tremendous opportunity and potential of Asia. Each time I return I see how rapidly the region is changing, how quickly economies there are growing (an economy growing 7% per year will double itself every decade). More than half of the world’s 2 billion+ smartphones are in Asia, and I’m excited about backing mobile-first businesses like SoundCloud that will build software that will capture the attention of users worldwide.

I joined Balderton to be able to take my myriad experiences and be helpful to singularly-focused entrepreneurs. While it wasn’t an easy choice, I’m very lucky to be working somewhere where everyday I speak to people who are chasing their dreams.

Lastly, I’m very excited to continue to build and deepen my experience working here in Europe. In a mobile-driven world global businesses can and will be built from any nook and cranny. Brexit notwithstanding, Europe continues to be the most diverse and fundamentally open nook and cranny I have had the fortune to call home.

In the end, what I should have told my friend was,

“I don’t have the power to decide whether an idea is good or bad. The quality of the idea is decided only by what the entrepreneur makes of it. I’m just figuring out whether we should hop on for the ride!”

Here’s to the journey.