Everyone says they want to invest in startups targeting a large, growing market, led by an amazing founding team. That description is not exactly helpful to you, the startup founder.
So let me be more specific, regarding what I am currently interested in.
E-mail. It’s a boring old technology (BOT), but it’s still the #1 tool people use to interact with each other online. The messaging apps (including WhatsApp and Facebook) are giving it a run for its money, but e-mail is here to stay. But e-mail hasn’t really evolved much. Maybe machine learning can help distinguish the important e-mail I care about. Is your startup taking a fresh look at e-mail? Great!
You can’t talk about e-mail without talking about Facebook. Is Facebook a good platform for startups? It’s always dangerous to build your startup on top of someone else’s walled garden. If you become too big, they can pull the plug anytime. Zynga learned that expensive lesson.
I have been holding a somewhat contrarian opinion for a long time: Facebook Ads can be very powerful, sometimes better than Google AdWords. That’s why I invested a few years ago in AdEspresso, which a few weeks ago, was acquired by HootSuite. So it worked out well, but I’m not sure I’d do it again. The question to ask is: if you are so succesful that you are generating $1B, what can Facebook do? And saying “they’ll acquire us” is not the right answer.
Another favorite topic of mine, which is getting a lot of media attention these days, is fake news. Specifically, I think online discussion forums could be so much better:
There is tremendous knowledge online. Unfortunately, it’s hidden behind senseless arguments, trolls and other nonsense. Anonymity is not helping. I don’t want to waste my time arguing with 14-year olds who think they know it all (they don’t). How can nuggets (great comments) surface? Threaded forums were a great improvement about two decades ago. It’s time for another revolution. Why can’t we aggregate great comments from different sites, based on what I’m interested in? Where is Big Data when you need it? Twitter has failed miserably at solving that problem.
If you look at what e-mail and discussions have in common, I guess online collaboration would be the underlying theme. That probably explains my investment in Padlet. Too early to tell if it will solve a real problem.
What about Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality? It’s definitely hot. But just like the first IBM PC, it will be almost impossible for a startup to reach the scale required to manufacture a winning product. So forget about doing hardware. Instead, focus on writing the killer app for the right hardware platform. That’s how your startup can win big. The challenge of course, is that no one has any clue what hardware platform will win and what the killer app should be. But that’s ok, our confusion is your opportunity.
I’m also opportunist: I like to invest in strong teams showing cool technology. That’s why I had high hopes for Clef: online security is a real problem that is only getting worse, and complicated solutions will never get adopted by the average consumer. Too bad that particular startup didn’t work out.
Talking about cool technologies, I find Machine Learning fascinating. It’s entirely possible that only a few years from now, programming will become irrelevant, replaced with feeding huge amount of data to all kinds of neural networks. Remember the personal computing revolution of the 80s (probably not)? Geeks were writing code in their garage. No one took them seriously. ML has the potential to be just as disruptive. Tinkering. Exploring. Frankly no one really knows why it works, but everyone can tell something is going on.
Disclaimer: these are my personal interests. The Startup Conference Pitch Competition for 2017 is not limited to those areas, so if you think you have a great startup, apply! See you on May 17 in Redwood City!