All posts in “economy”

Jane.VC, a new fund for female entrepreneurs, wants founders to cold email them

Want to pitch a venture capitalist? You’ll need a “warm introduction” first. At least that’s what most in the business will advise.

Find a person, typically a man, who made the VC you’re interested in pitching a whole bunch of money at some point and have them introduce you. Why? Because VCs love people who’ve made them money; naturally, they’ll be willing to hear you out if you’ve got at least one money maker on your side.

There’s a big problem with that cycle. Not all entrepreneurs are friendly with millionaires and not all entrepreneurs, especially those based outside Silicon Valley or from underrepresented backgrounds, have anyone in their network to provide them that coveted intro.

Jane.VC, a new venture fund based out of Cleveland and London wants entrepreneurs to cold email them. Send them your pitch, no wealthy or successful intermediary necessary. The fund, which has so far raised $2 million to invest between $25,000 and $150,000 in early-stage female-founded companies across industries, is scrapping the opaque, inaccessible model of VC that’s been less than favorable toward women.

“We like to say that Jane.VC is venture for every woman,” the firm’s co-founder Jennifer Neundorfer told TechCrunch.

Neundorfer, who previously founded and led an accelerator for Midwest startups called Flashstarts after stints at 21st Century Fox and YouTube, partnered with her former Stanford business school classmate Maren Bannon, the former chief executive officer and co-founder of LittleLane. So far, they’ve backed insurtech company Proformex and Hatch Apps, an enterprise software startup that makes it easier for companies to create and distribute mobile and web apps.

“We are going to shoot them straight”

Jane.VC, like many members of the next generation of venture capital funds, is bucking the idea that the best founders can only be found in Silicon Valley. Instead, the firm is going global and operating under the philosophy that a system of radical transparency and honesty will pay off.

“Let’s be efficient with an entrepreneur’s time and say no if it’s not a hit,” Neundorfer said. “I’ve been on the opposite end of that coaching. So many entrepreneurs think a VC is interested and they aren’t. An entrepreneur’s time is so valuable and we want to protect that. We are going to shoot them straight.”

Though Jane.VC plans to invest across the globe, the firm isn’t turning its back on Bay Area founders. Neundorfer and Bannon will leverage their Silicon Valley network and work with an investment committee of nine women based throughout the U.S. to source deals. 

“We are women that have raised money and have been through the ups and downs of raising money in what is a very male-dominated world,” Neundorfer added. “We believe that investing in women is not only the right thing to do but that you can make a lot of money doing it.”

Building a great startup requires more than genius and a great invention

Many entrepreneurs assume that an invention carries intrinsic value, but that assumption is a fallacy.

Here, the examples of the 19th and 20th century inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla are instructive. Even as aspiring entrepreneurs and inventors lionize Edison for his myriad inventions and business acumen, they conveniently fail to recognize Tesla, despite having far greater contributions to how we generate, move, and harness power. Edison is the exception, with the legendary penniless Tesla as the norm.

Universities are the epicenter of pure innovation research. But the reality is that academic research is supported by tax dollars. The zero-sum game of attracting government funding is mastered by selling two concepts: Technical merit, and and broader impact toward benefiting society as a whole. These concepts are usually at odds with building a company, which succeeds only by generating and maintaining competitive advantage through barriers to entry.

In rare cases, the transition from intellectual merit to barrier to entry is successful. In most cases, the technology, though cool, doesn’t give the a fledgling company the competitive advantage it needs to exist among incumbents, and inevitable copycats. Academics, having emphasized technical merit and broader impact to attract support for their research, often fail to solve for competitive advantage, thereby creating great technology in search for a business application.

Of course there are exceptions: Time and time again, whether it’s driven by hype or perceived existential threat, big incumbents will be quick to buy companies purely for technology.  Cruise/GM (autonomous cars), DeepMind/Google (AI), and Nervana/Intel (AI chips). But as we move from 0-1 to 1-N in a given field, success is determined by winning talent over winning technology. Technology becomes less interesting; the onus on the startup to build a real business.

If a startup chooses to take venture capital, it not only needs to build a real business, but one that will be valued in the billions. the question becomes how a startup can create durable, attractive business, with a transient, short-lived technological advantage.

Most investors understand this stark reality. Unfortunately, while dabbling in technologies which appeared like magic to them during the cleantech boom, many investors were lured back into the innovation fallacy, believing that pure technological advancement would equal value creation. Many of them re-learned this lesson the hard way. As frontier technologies are attracting broader attention, I believe many are falling back into the innovation trap.

So what should aspiring frontier inventors solve for as they seek to invest capital to translate pure discovery to building billion-dollar companies?  How can the technology be cast into an unfair advantage that will yield big margins and growth that underpin billion-dollar businesses?

Talent productivity: In this age of automation, human talent is scarce, and there is incredible value attributed to retaining and maximizing human creativity.  Leading companies seek to gain an advantage by attracting the very best talent. If your technology can help you make more scarce talent more productive, or help your customers become more productive, then you are creating an unfair advantage internally, while establishing yourself as the de facto product for your customers.

Great companies such as Tesla and Google have built tools for their own scarce talent, and build products their customers, in their own ways, can’t do without. Microsoft mastered this with its Office products in the 90s, through innovation and acquisition, Autodesk with its creativity tools, and Amazon with its AWS Suite. Supercharging talent yields one of the most valuable sources of competitive advantage: switchover cost.  When teams are empowered with tools they love, they will loathe the notion of migrating to shiny new objects, and stick to what helps them achieve their maximum potential.

Marketing and Distribution Efficiency: Companies are worth the markets they serve.  They are valued for their audience and reach.  Even if their products in of themselves don’t unlock the entire value of the market they serve, they will be valued for their potential to, at some point in the future, be able to sell to the customers that have been tee’d up with their brands. AOL leveraged cheap CD-ROMs and the postal system to get families online, and on email.

Dollar Shave Club leveraged social media and an otherwise abandoned demographic to lock down a sales channel that was ultimately valued at a billion dollars. The inventions in these examples were in how efficiently these companies built and accessed markets, which ultimately made them incredibly valuable.

Network effects: Its power has ultimately led to its abuse in startup fundraising pitches. LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram generate their network effects through Internet and Mobile. Most marketplace companies need to undergo the arduous, expensive process of attracting vendors and customers.  Uber identified macro trends (e.g., urban living) and leveraged technology (GPS in cheap smartphones) to yield massive growth in building up supply (drivers) and demand (riders).

Our portfolio company Zoox will benefit from every car benefitting from edge cases every vehicle encounters: akin to the driving population immediately learning from special situations any individual driver encounters. Startups should think about how their inventions can enable network effects where none existed, so that they are able to achieve massive scale and barriers by the time competitors inevitably get access to the same technology.

Offering an end-to-end solution: There isn’t intrinsic value in a piece of technology; it’s offering a complete solution that delivers on an unmet need deep-pocketed customers are begging for. Does your invention, when coupled to a few other products, yield a solution that’s worth far more than the sum of its parts? For example, are you selling a chip, along with design environments, sample neural network frameworks, and datasets, that will empower your customers to deliver magical products? Or, in contrast, does it make more sense to offer standard chips, licensing software, or tag data?

If the answer is to offer components of the solution, then prepare to enter a commodity, margin-eroding, race-to-the-bottom business. The former, “vertical” approach is characteristic of more nascent technologies, such as operating robots-taxis, quantum computing, and launching small payloads into space. As the technology matures and becomes more modular, vendors can sell standard components into standard supply chains, but face the pressure of commoditization.

A simple example is Personal Computers, where Intel and Microsoft attracted outsized margins while other vendors of disk drives, motherboards, printers, and memory faced crushing downward pricing pressure.  As technology matures, the earlier vertical players must differentiate with their brands, reach to customers, and differentiated product, while leveraging what’s likely going to be an endless number of vendors providing technology into their supply chains.

A magical new technology does not go far beyond the resumes of the founding team.

What gets me excited is how the team will leverage the innovation, and attract more amazing people to establish a dominant position in a market that doesn’t yet exist. Is this team and technology the kernel of a virtuous cycle that will punch above its weight to attract more money, more talent, and be recognized for more than it’s product?

These are the most successful companies to emerge from Y Combinator

Earlier this month, Brex, a credit card provider to startups, announced it had raised $125 million at a $1.1 billion valuation.

The round was impressive for a couple of reasons. 1. The founders are a pair of 22-year-olds that had set out to build a virtual reality company before pivoting to payments. And 2. They had only completed Y Combinator, a well-known Silicon Valley startup accelerator, the year prior.

Y Combinator is responsible for many successes in the startup world, certainly more than its fellow accelerators, which are all known to provide early-stage companies with a seed investment  — in YC’s case, $150,000 — mentorship and educational resources through a short-term program that culminates in a demo day.

Today, YC has released the latest list of its most successful companies since it began backing startups in 2005. Ranked by valuation and/or market cap, Brex, sure enough, is the youngest company to crack the top 20:

  1. Airbnb: An online travel community and room-sharing platform founded by Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk. Valuation: $31 billion. YC W2009.
  2. Stripe: A provider of an online payment processing system for internet businesses founded by John and Patrick Collison. Valuation: $20 billion. YC S2009.
  3. Cruise: Acquired by GM in 2006, the company is building autonomous vehicles. It was founded by Kyle Vogt and Daniel Kan. Valuation: $14 billion. YC W2014.
  4. Dropbox: A file hosting service and workplace collaboration platform founded by Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi that went public in March. Market cap: >$10 billion. YC S2007.
  5. Instacart: A grocery and home essentials delivery service founded by Apoorva Mehta, Max Mullen and Brandon Leonardo. Valuation: $7.6 billion. YC S2012.
  6. Machine Zone: A mobile games company, founded by Mike Sherril, Gabriel Leydon and Halbert Nakagawa, known for “Game of War.” Valuation: >$5 billion. YC W2008.
  7. DoorDash: An app-based food delivery service founded by Tony Xu, Stanley Tang and Andy Fang. Valuation: $4 billion. YC S2013.
  8. Zenefits: The provider of human resources software for small and medium-sized businesses founded by Laks Srini and Parker Conrad. Valuation: $2 billion. YC W2013.
  9. Gusto: The provider of software that automates and simplifies payroll for businesses, founded by Josh Reeves, Tomer London and Edward Kim. Valuation: $2 billion. YC W2012.
  10.  Reddit: An online platform for conversation and thousands of communities founded by Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman. Valuation: $1.8 billion. YC S2005.
  11.  Coinbase: An digital cryptocurrency exchange and wallet platform founded by Brian Armstrong and Fred Ehrsam. Valuation ~$1.6 billion. YC S2012.
  12.  PagerDuty: A digital ops management platform for businesses founded by Baskar Puvanathasan, Andrew Miklas and Alex Solomon. Valuation: $1.3 billion. YC S2012.
  13.  Docker: A platform for applications that gives developers the freedom to build, manage and secure business-critical applications, founded by Solomon Hykes and Sebastien Pahl. Valuation: $1.3 billion. YC S2010.
  14.  Ginkgo Bioworks: A biotech company focused on designing custom microbes founded by Reshma Shetty, Jason Kelly, Barry Canton and others. Valuation: >$1 billion. YC S2014.
  15.  Rappi: A Latin American on-demand delivery startup founded by Felipe Villamarin, Simon Borrero and Sebastian Mejia. Valuation: >$1 billion. YC W2016.
  16.  Brex: A B2B financial startup that provides corporate cards to startups. Its founders include Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi. Valuation: $1.1 billion. YC W2017.
  17.  GitLab: A developer service founded by Sid Sijbrandij and Dmitriy Zaporozhets, that aims to offer a full lifecycle DevOps platform. Valuation: $1.1 billion. YC W2015.
  18.  Twitch: An Amazon-acquired live streaming platform for video games used by millions. Its founders include Emmett Shear, Justin Kan, Michael Seibel and Kyle Vogt. YC W2007.
  19.  Flexport: A logistics company that moves freight globally by air, ocean, rail and truck founded by Ryan Petersen. Valuation: ~$1 billion. YC W2014.
  20.  Mixpanel: A user analytics platform that helps each person at a business understand its users founded by Suhail Doshi and Tim Trefren. Valuation: >$865 million. YC S2009.

The full list of Y Combinator’s 100 most successful companies is available here.

SpankChain spanked

SpankChain, a cryptocurrency aimed at decentralized sex cams, has announced that a hacker stole about $38,000 from their payment channel thanks to a broken smart contract. They wrote:

At 6pm PST Saturday, an unknown attacker drained 165.38 ETH (~$38,000) from our payment channel smart contract which also resulted in $4,000 worth of BOOTY on the contract becoming immobilized. Of the stolen/immobilized ETH/BOOTY, 34.99 ETH (~$8,000) and 1271.88 BOOTY belongs to users (~$9,300 total), and the rest belonged to SpankChain.

Our immediate priority has been to provide complete reimbursements to all users who lost funds. We are preparing an ETH airdrop to cover all $9,300 worth of ETH and BOOTY that belonged to users. Funds will be sent directly to users’ SpankPay accounts, and will be available as soon as we reboot Spank.Live.

The hacker used a ‘reentrancy’ bug in which the user calls the same transfer multiple times, draining a little Ethereum each time. The bug is the same one that previously affected the DAO.

The company pointed out that a security audit on their smart contract would have cost $50,000, a bit more than the amount lost. “As we move forward and grow, we will be stepping up our security practices, and making sure to get multiple internal audits for any smart contract code we publish, as well as at least one professional external audit,” they wrote.

I’ve reached out to the company for clarification but in short it seems the spanker has become the spankee.

The Hack Fund will use crypto to give startups early liquidity

Now that “utility” tokens have become a popular and international way to fund major blockchain projects, a pair of investors are creating a new way to turn tokens into true equities. The investors, Jonathan Nelson and Laura Nelson, have created Hack Fund, an early stage investment vehicle that allows startups to launch what amounts to “blockchain stock certificates,” according to Jonathan.

“Our previous business model exchanged equity from startup companies for services, and wrapped that equity into funds that we then sold to investors. These fund investors have included family offices, institutions, and high net worth individuals,” said Jonathan. “However, Hack Fund represents a new business model. Because Hack Fund leverages the blockchain, investors all over the world at all levels can participate in startup investing by trading blockchain stock certificates. Also, its SEC compliant structure means that it is also available to a limited number of accredited investors in the US.”

The team originally created Hackers/Founders, a tech entrepreneur group in Silicon Valley, and they now support 300,000 members in 133 cities and 49 countries. Hack Fund is a vehicle to support some of the startups in the Hackers/Founders network.

“HACK Fund, through its Hackers/Founders heritage, has a large, unique global network,” said Jonathan. “This provides Hack Fund with unparalleled reach and deal flow across the global technology market. There are a few blockchain-based funds, but they are limited themselves to blockchain-only investments. Unlike typical venture funds, HACK Fund will provide quick liquidity for investors, leveraging blockchain technology to make typically illiquid private stocks tradeable.”

The idea behind Hack Fund is quite interesting. In most cases investing in a company leads to up to ten years of waiting for a liquidity event. However, with blockchain-based stock certificates investors can buy shares that can be bought and sold instantly while company performance drives the value up or down. In short, startups become liquid in an instant, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the founding team.

“HACK Fund is a publicly traded closed-end fund. The fund’s venture investments are valued on a quarterly basis by an independent third party, audited and posted to the blockchain for all token holders to review. There are no K-1 statements issued, there is no partnership/LLC, rather HACK Fund is an investment company akin to Berkshire Hathaway which invests in the same manner as early-stage venture capital,” said Jonathan.

The team is raising a little over $2 million in an ICO to build out the fund. They’ve already raised most of their $100 million total goal from individual investors but the ICO will let retail investors buy some of the tokens as they are made available on the BRD wallet.