This morning, Mapbox announced a $52.55 million Series B financing. We’ve been on a wonderful ride with them ever since we led their first financing – a $10 million round – in October 2013.
Let’s start with the simple stuff. My partners and I have a massive founder crush on Eric Gundersen, the CEO of Mapbox. My partner Ryan McIntyre was introduced to Eric by another CEO we’ve backed, Zack Rosen of Pantheon. I remember Ryan raving about Eric and pushing me to squeeze in a meeting before I had to run out of town one day.
Zack is also a total star who I connected with immediately so his referral carried a lot of weight. I first met Eric in the summer of 2013 on a trip he took to Boulder to buy imagery from a satellite company in the area. I remember feeling super rushed at the end of the day and wasn’t in the mindset to sit through a presentation. Eric clued on in this immediately, or maybe Ryan warned him, so rather than drag me through slides Eric just started showing me stuff that Mapbox did.
He started with an algorithm that made clouds go away. He then launched into a custom map design tool which Foursquare had just used to switch out Google Maps. By this point my jaw was on the floor. Words kept tumbling out of Eric’s mouth and amazing maps kept appearing on our large conference room monitor. I looked over at Ryan and he gave me that “yup – I wasn’t kidding – this is fucking awesome, isn’t it” look that we share between ourselves when we see something beautiful, incredibly hard to do, presented by an entrepreneur who is completely and totally obsessed by what he is doing.
I knew Gnip was doing some Twitter data visualizations with Mapbox, so I asked Jud Valeski, the technical co-founder of Gnip, to see what he thought. Jud responded with something akin to “Mapbox is amazing.”
Even better, Eric and team had been at it for several years bootstrapping development and had just decided to raise their first outside capital. They had done this amazing amount of stuff with no investment. No hype. No bullshit. Just crazy deep tech abilities.
In 2013, the mapping space was in yet another wave of turmoil. Waze had been snatched up by Google for over a billion dollars just a few months earlier, further consolidating a space dominated by a few giants. Those giants were investing billions a year in maps. And we were still getting over our fresh scars that confirmed how hard the geo technology was after our failed investment in SimpleGeo (acquired by Urban Airship). Mobius, our prior firm, had been a long time investor in deCarta (now owned by Uber) and had been mostly recapped out of the investment after years of struggle. So mapping didn’t feel natural to us.
But in 15 minutes of watching and listening to Eric, I realized something Ryan already knew. Mapbox is an API company, not a mapping company. The map simply was the output of the API. And, like the best API companies we’ve been involved in, such as Gnip (now part of Twitter), it was right at the intersection of our Glue theme and our Protocol theme.
Seth and Jason had similar reactions. So we invested. Since then Eric and team have built an incredible company that is the foundational building block for any developer, large and small, who wants to include mapping in their product. In case there is any question about scale, MapQuest, which still has 40 million active users, confirmed it was switching all of their maps to Mapbox.
Eric and gang – we are buckled up and ready for the next part of the ride!
There is a moment during the exploration of a new relationship where a switch flips and the answer is “I want to do this.”
With Mattermark, I remember the moment clearly – I was at The Kitchen in Boulder with the founders (Danielle Morrill, Kevin Morrill, and Andy Sparks) and my partner Seth. I had just put a garlic french fry in my mouth (if you’ve never had them at The Kitchen, they are epic) and looked over at Seth. He looked at me and gave me that “yeah – we should do this” look. And that was it.
As an investor for the past 20 years, I’ve had this happen many times. When I first started investing as an angel investor in 1994, I was focused on a very simple set of criteria. First, did I care about / have affinity for the product? Next, were the entrepreneurs obsessed about their product? Last, did I want to be a long term partner with the entrepreneurs?
With a slight diversion in the late 1990’s when everyone (including me) lost their mind for a few years, I’ve held to this algorithm for all my investing. If you look at the boards I’m on, including companies like Fitbit, FullContact, Oblong, Orbotix, littleBits, Yesware, and Return Path, this pattern should be pretty clear. And if you ponder how I originally got involved in Techstars, and how my role has evolved, those three criteria loom large.
I’ve been interested in private company data since I started Feld Technologies in 1987. Well before the web existed, I was physically tearing articles out of industry magazines and sending them to customers, prospects, other entrepreneurs, and my partner Dave, who probably got tired of the stack of paper with notes scribbled on them that landed on his desk each day. I’ve been through multiple iterations of competitive databases, endless applications for trying to keep track of companies I’m either an investor in or compete with, and every different type of alerting system you could imagine.
During the first decade of my experience with this, I couldn’t afford to subscribe to anything. Every now and then I’d get a free trial and realize how shitty the underlying data was. For the past almost 20 years, I’ve been able to afford the subscriptions, but the data is still shitty. There have been several efforts to crowdsource this kind of data, or make it publicly available, but none have resulted in anything magnificent.
So, regarding the question of “do I care about / have affinity for the product of Mattermark”, the answer was a strong, unambiguous yes. I know how hard the problem is, how wide open the opportunity is, how far it will scale in multiple directions (not just the data set, but the use case, target market, and ultimate product family.) My affinity in this case borders on obsession, just like it does with the Contact Management problem.
Now, let’s shift to #2: “Are the entrepreneurs obsessed about their product?” If you know Danielle, Kevin, and Andy, you know the answer is yes. But there’s nothing quite like experiencing it. Over the past year, as I’ve gotten to know Danielle, I’ve seen her obsession and focus, not just on the short term Mattermark product, but on the long game she and the team is playing. During dinner at The Kitchen, which was the first time we were face to face since we’d met at the beginning of the year, and the first time I’d interacted with Kevin and Andy, all I had to do was sit there, prompt every now and then, and I got another layer of product vision. Obsession. Endless intellectual exploration of where this could go. When I challenged ideas, there was no defensiveness, just more exploration. When I suggested things, there wasn’t blanket approval or rejection, but rather a socratic inquiry as Danielle, Kevin, and Andy tried to understand what I was suggesting. I watched Seth do his thing and the gang continue to engage the same way. At some point, Seth and I had the look I referred to at the beginning of this post.
I’ve always been impulsive about #3: “Do I want to be long term partners with the entrepreneurs?” For the first decade of my investing experience, I made a lot of mistakes on this dimension. Howard Diamond, a close friend and entrepreneur I’ve worked with since 1996 (now the CEO of MobileDay), regularly criticized me as been too trusting, too willing to see the good in people, and too patient with people. This kicked me in the ass very, very hard between 2001 and 2004. While it didn’t make me cynical, I calibrated my filters as I slogged through three more very long years between 2004 and 2007. I like to believe that I brought a new frame of reference around this to Foundry Group, informed by Howard’s constructive criticism, feedback from lots of other friends, learning from my mistakes, and all the long-term positive relationships that I now had as a frame of reference.
I also have a lot of people in my world who know me well, know what I like, and know who I will work well with. This includes a small set of VCs, such as Jon Callaghan at True Ventures and Greg Gottesman at Madrona who know me so well that they only approach me with companies and founders they know I will love. But mostly I use the many CEOs and entrepreneurs I have developed a long-term relationship with to help me calibrate what Amy likes to refer to as my “poor impulse control”, sort of like Raven’s from Snow Crash.
The combination of my own experience and feedback from my universe – both good and bad – made it clear that I wanted to be long term partners with Danielle and team. Recognize that I’m not looking for unambiguously good feedback – we are all flawed in different ways, make mistakes, and have endless and enormous opportunities to learn. An understanding and appreciation of that by the entrepreneurs I work with is deeply important to me.
Back to dinner. Seth eventually had to leave and we kept at it for a while. Driving home, I rolled around what was left in my mind as questions and concerns I had about making an investment. When I got home 20 minutes later, I had none. When we got together the next morning for more discussion, it was easy to look forward and pretend I was already an investor, which felt good. At some point, we shifted to a mode where I asked Danielle, Kevin, and Andy what they wanted, expected, and demanded from an investor. I let them ask me whatever they wanted for a while. But by this point I was all in, as long as they wanted to work with me.
Sure, we did some more up front work and some formal legal diligence, but in that moment at The Kitchen, Seth and I knew that we wanted to be investors in Mattermark.
And that was that. Last week we led a $6.5 million round in Mattermark. I’m delighted to finally be an investor in a problem I’ve been obsessed about for 20 years. We are at the beginning of the journey – check back in a decade from now to see whether or not we are successful. But, regardless, this is a team I hope to work with for the rest of my investing career.
I can’t make angel investments in tech companies anymore because of my Foundry Group fund agreements. So I’ve been making angel investments in food companies. Justin’s Nut Butter, Rick’s Picks, Blue Bottle Coffee, and Quinn Popcorn are some recent examples. I figure if things don’t work out at least I can eat some of the inventory.
I ran into the guys from Barnana at an event in San Diego a few months ago. Matt and Nikk came up to me with a Box of Barnanas and said Brad we’re in the banana business, and we think you’ll like our banana snacks. They literally handed me a box of bananas, filled with these delicious organic banana snacks called Barnana. They have since vanished into my stomach. They are insanely good.
I’ve stayed in touch with Barnana guys as they have continued to grow into new channels and regions. They are now launching the Rocky Mountain region with Wholefoods and Natural Grocers Vitamin Cottage. More Barnanas for me.
Interestingly, a majority of the Barnana team is comprised of tech guys. It seems more and more people are entering the fast growing natural foods space from other high growth industries like tech. I asked Matt why he feels natural foods world is so appealing to techies.
“We are transitioning from a price based economy to a meaning based economy. Not only meaning for your customers, but meaning soup to nuts throughout the entire organization. The notion of meaning is supported across multiple verticals, from the maker revolution to local and organic foods, to the various kickstarter campaigns. It’s simple – people want meaning. And bananas.”
The Barnana guys passion for bananas is beyond belief, and their story is just as good. And – as a runner – I’d rather eat chocolate covered bananas as a snack instead of Hammer gels on a medium run.
Once a quarter my partners (Seth, Ryan, Jason) and I spend 48 hours together. Unlike a typical offsite that ten zillion organizations have, we tend to spend less time on formalities and more time on wider ranging, forward looking discussions about what we are doing, both professionally and personally.
Last night, over an amazing meal, we ended up talking about what we’ve been investing in over the past four years. When we reflect on the 37 companies we’ve invested in since we raised our first Foundry Group fund in 2007, we’re delighted with the mix of companies and entrepreneurs we are working with. We have a very clear thematic strategy that we’ve discussed openly, along with a few other key principles such as being willing to invest anywhere in the US and being syndication agnostic.
At dinner we zoned in on all of the current activity in early stage tech. There’s an awesome amount of exciting stuff going on right now and a real entrepreneurial revival throughout the US. Sure, there’s all the inevitable bubble talk going on which I’ve encouraged entrepreneurs to simply ignore and play a long term game instead, and once again many VC firms are spreading themselves wide and chasing after whatever the latest interesting thing is. But entrepreneurship, especially throughout the US, is vigorous, exciting, and creating many really interesting companies, some of which will be important in the future.
When we think about what has driven the success of some of our investments, we realize that we’ve chose the macro environments to invest in really well. Our HCI, Adhesive, and Distribution themes are all great examples of this. With HCI, we are at the very beginning of a massive shift over the next 20 years around how humans and computers interact. Adhesive plays the macros of digital advertising – every year meaningful ad spend is shifting annually from offline to online and that will continue for quite some time. And with distribution we’ve benefitted from the application of the concept of social to extremely large existing online markets where innovation had stagnated.
Our conversation shifted to 2015. While we still believe there are many exciting opportunities within our existing themes, we think that given the velocity of technology innovation and the way we use technology, things will shift dramatically over the next four years. Completely new and unexpected innovations are emerging and entrepreneurs who are obsessed with transforming existing industries, creating radical new technologies, or dramatically changing the use case of existing technology are starting to work in 2011 on things that will matter immensely in 2015.
We have one new investment coming up that reflects this and, when we start talking about it, you’ll see the kind of entrepreneur and company we are searching for. We decided last night to look for a lot more of it. While our deeply held beliefs about what we invest in and how we invest are the same, we’ve decided to open up our intellectual aperture and make sure we’ve incorporated a stronger view of “what is 2015 going to be like” into our thinking.
As I read the Berkshire Hathaway 2008 Annual Report, a thought kept popping into my mind that had also come up over and over again while reading Bogle’s Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life. “Be an investor, not a speculator.”
As a venture capital investor, I have a long term time horizon on my investments. Since I’m investing very early in the life of a company, I’m usually an investor for five or more years. Sometimes I’m an investor for over ten years. I’m rarely an investor for less than a year, although it happens occasionally.
I don’t invest directly in the public markets and I haven’t for a long time. Periodically I end up with a public company stock as the result of the sale of a company I’m an investor in to a public company, or via that mythical thing called an “IPO”. In these cases, I have a very specific strategy for exiting my position in the public company over time.
I do have public market exposure, primarily through a combination of index funds (and equivalents) and some hedge fund investments with friends. However, I pay zero attention to this on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. When I look at the aggregate performance over any meaningful period of time, it is irrelevant when compared to my performance as a VC and angel investor.
When I reflect on this, I realize that I spend 99.9% of my time as an investor and 0.01% of my time as a speculator. Whenever I realize that I’m in a speculative thought process (such as noticing the Dow on CNN on the ubiquitous airport TVs), I immediately try to stop. My goal is to spend 100% of my time as an investor.
Not surprisingly, there’s a huge amount of noise going around the system about speculation that is masquerading as investment. Worst, the two get conflated on a regular basis in the context of what the government should be doing (e.g. incenting “investment” when they are merely either "incenting speculation” or “encouraging speculation”). Of course, the endless stream of talking heads in the media don’t help this distinction.
When I read Buffett or Bogle, the distinction between investment and speculation is painfully clear to me. I believe that much of the pain the global financial markets are feeling right now is a direct result of speculation. As a result, I’m trying to come up with some simple parables for “investment vs. speculation.” For example, “if you don’t understand what you are investing in, it’s speculation.” Or, “if your time horizon is less than two years, it’s speculation.”
One of values I’ve always adhered to is that “I’m an investor, not a speculator.” Now that the government is deeply in the mix, I think we need to spend a lot more “system time” thinking about how to incent and motivate investment, and how to avoid speculation.