Last week Rover launched on-demand dog walking in Denver. They’re enhancing their existing marketplace experience by adding an assignment option, similar to Uber and Lyft, and bringing it to Colorado. It’s another exciting move by the company, and their Denver announcement caused me to me reflect on my five years as an investor and board member at Rover.
Three thoughts came to mind.
Rover executes. I can’t believe that Rover has rolled out an entirely new way to purchase dog walking in three cities, with their fourth on the way, and we’re not yet three months on the other side of the DogVacay integration. That integration – a result of Rover acquiring DogVacay, both started and ended in Q2, and surpassed the best-case-scenario metrics that the team presented to the board. While we talk about the power of “just executing” in the startup world, Rover is a case study of execution in action.
Rover is completely obsessed with its customers. Only an absolute determination to get the customer experience right would drive this team to build two separate versions of a new product, given the complexity of their overall business. But Rover shares this common trait of product-obsession with other great teams that I’ve known as an investor and board member, and it’s inspiring to watch. This is yet another instance of a team that knows what it’s doing, listens carefully to its customers, and, like my dog Cooper, jumps all over things to make sure that it gets its experience right.
Rover is an old-school example of how great companies drive customer loyalty. Their monthly new customer LTVs have increased steadily every year as a result of customer loyalty for six years in a row, without a single counter-example. While some increases can be accomplished through branding or marketing initiatives, Rover has done it the old-fashioned way, which is through careful and thoughtful sequencing of product launches and improvements to the marketplace.
If you live in Denver, give Rover’s on-demand dog walking experience a try and let me know what you think. I’ll pass it on to the team at Rover, as I know they will be very interested in your feedback.
Welcome to Force Friday, one of my favorite days of the year. I still fondly remember watching Star Wars with my dad when I was 11. As I walked out of the theater, I asked him if we could buy another ticket right then and watch it again. He denied me that night, but we went and saw it again a few days later.
Next up is the littleBits Droid Inventor Kit.
May the Force be with you.
In October 2015, Pioneer Square Labs launched. We led the financing, and I joined the board to work more closely with Greg Gottesman, Geoff Entress, Mike Galgon, and Ben Gilbert to build a long-lasting and enduring startup studio in Seattle.
Today, Julie Sandler joined Pioneer Square Labs as the fourth managing director. Julie previously was a partner at Madrona Venture Group and is deeply involved in the Seattle startup community. She has also been a leading voice for women in technology as a founding member of the Seattle Entrepreneurial Women’s Network and Startup Weekend Women’s Edition.
Basically, Julie is awesome. And it makes me super excited to get a chance to work more closely with her at PSL.
Foundry Group has a deep connection to Seattle. In addition to currently being investors in Pioneer Square Labs, we are also investors in Boundless, Glowforge, Mighty Ai, Moz, and Rover. Over the years, Techstars has expanded their footprint, now running Techstars Seattle as well as the Alexa Accelerator (powered by Techstars). And, as many of you likely know, Techstars acquired UP Global several years ago, which was headquartered in Seattle.
As I’ve gotten to know Julie over the years, I can’t think of a better person to join the PSL team. The PSL entrepreneur-in-residence program has become an attractor for quality entrepreneurs in Seattle – both experienced and emerging ones. In some cases, entrepreneurs come to PSL to work on a specific idea the PSL team has developed, while others choose to iterate on a product of their own and launch something new with the PSL team.
This has happened in an incredibly short time. If you had told me 18 months ago that PSL would have already spun out six VC-backed companies already, along with building out the now 17 person PSL team, I wouldn’t have believed you and would have suggested a time frame about double that. But the PSL team has achieved that and, with the addition of Julie to the team, is moving even faster on its mission.
Julie – welcome!
littleBits Code Kit leverages kids love of games to learn to code. It uses Google Blockly which has rapidly become a popular visual editor. My favorite line from a teacher so far is that littleBits Code Kit is “better than recess”, citing a situation where students would rather stay in the classroom and invent with Code Kit instead of going out to recess.
littleBits Code Kit is shipping today and aimed at kids in grades 3 to 8, although this 51-year old big kid is getting one also.
If you’ve been in our office recently, you’ve seen me fiddling around with one of my newest toys – Ultimate Lightning McQueen by Sphero. It’s now available for the world.
Based on what I know about robotic toys, I believe it’s the most advanced robotic toy ever made. Owen Wilson is even included in it (well – his voice – as LMQ …).
It started shipping yesterday so it’ll probably sell out quickly as Sphero ramps production. If you are into RC cars, amazing robots, or you have children who like the movie Cars (even grown up children like me), you can buy it online from Sphero or Amazon.
This morning’s launch of Maps for Unity brings the full stack of location tools to the world’s most popular game development platform and shows that location and maps are the new building blocks for AR and VR games.
We think the maps look amazing and are insanely fast.
Bringing location and maps to game developers is a big deal. Pokemon Go had maps because Niantic, the game’s creators, started as part of Google and the company is run by John Hankey — the former CEO of Google Maps. The maps in Pokemon Go were customized because John secured special access to Google’s proprietary datasets. No one else could have maps like that, until now.
Today’s Mapbox release is not about just maps but is about location and how the gameplay matches the real world around you.
“In this one, the spaceships are different sizes, so we built an API that only lets spaceships in parks where green areas are big enough. Using our traffic endpoint, we see all the walking paths in the park, so when you land the ship, it spins so the door faces the paths where people walk.”
Ryan and I have been trading emails like this with Eric, the CEO of Mapbox, talking strategy around the SDK since last Summer when Pokemon Go launched. Stuff like this just wasn’t possible before — we think game studios are going to go crazy for it.
Unity, with its massive user base and comprehensive tools radically decreased the time to market for game makers. But until today’s release, doing anything with real-world maps in Unity was virtually impossible. The Maps SDK gives Unity developers the kind of ready-to-use tools Mapbox has already brought to mobile and the web.
Looking at the beta demos, we think the games built on this will look amazing. Not only can designers change the look and feel of the map, they can now access open APIs for searching local places like coffee shops and stores, elevation data and satellite imagery, and turn-by-turn directions to guide people through the game and the real world at the same time.
Design is everything for gameplay and in the last year, Unity has radically invested in its core rendering tech to the point where it’s now hard to tell what has been filmed versus rendered in real time.
Eric and the team at Mapbox have built an incredible platform. Mapbox now has more than 750,000 registered developers with maps used by 250 million end users each month — including National Geographic’s city guides, AirBNB’s service in China, and Doordash’s real time directions.
Adding a Unity SDK alongside SDKs for iOS and Android opens up Mapbox to one billion more monthly active users. Game on.
FullContact is one of our silent killers. Unless you are a customer or partner, you don’t hear much about a silent killer until it’s suddenly everywhere, leading the market it is in, and functioning extremely well at scale. One of the hints of these silent killers is their inaugural user or partner conference. An example of this from our past was the 2013 Big Boulder Conference that Gnip (now part of Twitter) put on.
Connect ‘17 is FullContact’s inaugural conference exploring social and customer intelligence, to help companies reimagine the customer journey. The goal of the conference is to get together professionals in marketing, media, customer intelligence, and other roles which focus on knowing and serving their customers better.
While this is not a new idea, we are at another inflection point in the development of tools, technology, products, and processes around this. As an industry, we’ve learned a lot about this over the past decade since web 2.0 started to emerge. Today, the components are there to once again completely redefine the customer journey and the business of personalized marketing.
- Falon Fatemi, CEO Node, Google’s youngest ever employee
- Chris Voss, CEO The Black Swan Group, former FBI hostage negotiator
- Ryan Leslie, Founder Disruptive Multimedia, former hip hop recording artist/producer, accepted to Harvard at age 14
And yes, I’ll be there the morning of May 11th hanging out and participating on a panel.
The conference is from May 10th through 12th at the Curtis Hotel in Denver, Colorado. While they are close to selling out, I got them to give me some discount registration codes. If you want to join us, use the code HalfOff on the registration page.
I love silent killers.
If you are an NCIS fan, you are probably excited about the upcoming 48 Hours: NCIS which premieres on Tuesday, April 25, 2017, 10pm ET/PT. I like NCIS, but I’m especially excited about Oblong’s Mezzanine product being a central part of the show.
John Underkoffler has been showing us – through Hollywood – the future of user experiences since Minority Report (where he was the science and technology advisor.) It makes me smile to see him, and his gang at Oblong, continue to lead the way.
Foundry Group is best known for our investments in startups, but our vehicle currently investing in other venture funds, Foundry Group Next, is off to what we believe to be a great start and I wanted to share an update about it by talking about our new investment in a fund managed by Founder Collective.
I’ve written previously about why we created Foundry Group Next. We have been personally investing as LPs in funds of other managers for decades and found the activity to be emotionally rewarding. When we decided we wanted to expand and formalize that activity, it gave us a chance to work more closely with Lindel Eakman, who was the largest investor in our first fund through his role at UTIMCO. Lindel joined Foundry Group as a partner to lead the fund investing activity of Foundry Group Next.
We’ve made about a dozen investments in funds including funds offered by Union Square Ventures, True Ventures, and Forerunner Ventures. One of our recent investments, offered by Founder Collective (FC) – an eight-year-old manager with offices in Boston and San Francisco – is an excellent example of what we look for when we invest in funds offered by other managers.
It starts with the people. We don’t invest in managers unless we can picture working with them for decades. We’ve had the opportunity to work with Founder Collective’s partners – David Frankel, Eric Paley, and Micah Rosenbloom – over the years on several companies. We also know many of the entrepreneurs in their portfolio. From those founders, we are aware that FC takes their mission “to be the most aligned fund to founders at the seed stage” very seriously.
We aren’t a generational firm, but investing in other VC funds gives us the benefit of working with managers who challenge and enhance our thinking while sharing the lessons we’ve learned with other investors. We want to work with people who bring a focused and complementary perspective to investing and were interested in the Founder Collective mantra of being “stage-focused and sector agnostic.”
This means FC avoids trends and relentlessly questions entrepreneurs about how their product enables specific use cases and market opportunities. This approach has paid off and helped the team to identify hot sectors well outside of the current hype cycle. If you look at the Founder Collective portfolio, you’ll see many well-recognized companies that they invested in at the very first round. In general, these investments were rarely competitive at the time of their first financing.
“Founder friendly” is an overused term, but there is a big difference between marketing this as a concept and living it every day. The team at FC has structurally designed their firm around alignment to founders. They’re a rare venture fund that doesn’t exercise pro-rata rights over the lifetime of an investment, meaning they dilute alongside company founders, which they believe better aligns their interests as seed investors with the entrepreneurs.
At a time where funds are aggressively deploying capital and not considering the downsides for founders, FC is actively promoting the value of efficient entrepreneurship and helping founders maximize their outcomes and optionality. Not only are the downsides of overcapitalization problematic for founders, but FC also examined overcapitalization in upside scenarios by studying the data from the last five years of tech IPOs. The findings were surprising in that the amount of money a company raised and its success in the public markets were not positively correlated. In fact, the companies that raised less money out-performed the most funded over time. Needless to say, having investors that keep this balance in mind can be precious to founders.
It’s one thing to have a unique perspective; it’s another to generate returns with it. As an LP, I’ve had the good fortune to be an investor in many funds, including some exceptional ones. Before diving into diligence, we had a sense that Founder Collective had strong performance based on their portfolio. When we saw their financial track record, we realized how special the performance was.
We know many firms that build portfolios with great logos by buying into companies at later stages and higher valuations. FC’s portfolio is made up exclusively of seed stage investments at seed valuations.
These aren’t just paper gains – they have already returned a meaningful amount of cash to their investors. Founder Collective’s first fund has the potential to be enshrined in the annals of VC history. Their second fund is tracking ahead of the first at the same point in development.
Needless to say, we had many reasons to hope to be part of their third fund. The only problem was they didn’t have any room. We found out they were oversubscribed just from their existing Fund II investors – that’s without pitching any new LPs. But they didn’t take advantage of that demand. Instead, they stuck to their principles and kept their fund size the same as their previous fund.
We love seeing that strategy discipline as we believe it is the mark of good fund managers. When Union Square Ventures’ 2004 fund was on fire, Fred and Brad raised their next fund at the same size. This has also been our approach at Foundry Group.
In the case of Founder Collective, the partners effectively shrunk their fund regarding outside capital by increasing their personal financial commitment to their fund. This investment generates additional evidence that they are confident in their strategy while creating more alignment with their LPs.
As a GP I applauded the approach and accepted that as an LP we had to beg and plead our way into to the fund. All the same, we were honored that Foundry Group Next was the only new investor in Founder Collective III due to our long and trusted relationship.
By virtue of time and focus, we can only help so many startups, but we’re proud to be investors in funds like Founder Collective, which is deeply committed to helping enrich the startup ecosystem. We are delighted to be working alongside them and finding other managers of their caliber going forward.
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought —
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
– from Lewis Carroll, Jabberwocky
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
I can almost see Obi-Wan swinging his lightsaber.
It delights me that we’ve invested in a company called Looking Glass who is making their own version of a vorpal sword.
Well, ok, it’s a volumetric display. But we’ll get there …
We’ve been investing in stuff around 3D since we started Foundry Group in 2007. Our first 3D-related investment was Oblong, which has reinvented the way we engage with computers (which we call infopresence) through the use of their 3D spatial operating system called g-speak and their collaboration product Mezzanine.
Well before the current generation of VR/AR/MR/XR/whateverR came about, we focused our attention and investing in the notion of a radical change in human computer interaction (HCI). We believed that in 2007 we were at the beginning of a 30+ year shift that would make the WIMP interface, which emerged in the early 1980s and was dominant in 2007, look and feel punch-card archaic in the future.
While we dig the moniker XR (for extended reality), we are much more interested in, well, reality. Our investments in 3D printing, first with MakerBot (the first successful consumer 3D printer) and now with Formlabs and Glowforge, cross the boundary between designing in 3D and making physical things. Our investment in Occipital has changed how we, and many others, think about 3D inputs and what to do with them. And life wouldn’t be much fun if you couldn’t play Rock Band in 3D, so Harmonix has you covered there.
So, why Looking Glass? After Stratasys acquired MakerBot for over $400m in 2013, we didn’t pay much attention to 3D printing for a few years. But, in 2015, when we invested in Glowforge, we realized that we had only begun to play out physical interaction with 3D. The industrial laser cutter market presented the same opportunity as the industrial 3D printer market, and hence our investment in the first 3D Laser Printer.
In 2016, when we invested in Formlabs, we had another insight that was reinforced by one of the ubiquitous Gartner Hype Cycle graphs. I think it speaks for itself.
We are now enjoying market leadership during the plateau of productivity.
One day, I was in Jeff Clavier’s office at SoftTech VC in San Francisco. He made me sit down with Shawn Frayne, the CEO of Looking Glass. Thirty minutes later, I called John Underkoffler, the CEO of Oblong, and said “John, I finally saw what you were trying to create with your holographic camera.”
And, as a bonus, the physical camera, which for over 20 years lived in the basement of my close friend Warren Katz’s house, now lives in my Carriage House in Longmont. It’s in several pieces, but that’s a detail that some day John will remedy.
It was an easy decision to invest in Looking Glass.
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.