A few of us from Upstart made it down to the LAUNCH event this week in San Francisco. This was the 3rd year for Jason Calcanis' high-profile startup-a-looza, which obviously competes a bit with SXSW (which starts the same week). Here's some of what I took away:
It's definitely getting a bit "frothy" - but that's not necessarily bad
A recurring question (onstage and off) was "So, does it feel like 1999 again?"… to which most of us old enough to have actually been a part of the boom-and-bust of 1997-2001 said "no way".
And that's a good thing. Back then, the "promise" of the emerging web was so massive and pervasive that it seemed inevitable that it would disrupt/affect every aspect of life and business. Which, of course, it has… but it has taken more than a decade (so far) for those shifts to take place. Back then, the lack of clarity about how - and how much - the web would affect a given industry made it very difficult for people to accurately predict the resulting value creation and value capture… which is what good investing hinges upon.
Today's environment is different in two important ways. First, we have the benefit of 13+ years of watching the effect of internet (and social, and mobile)-driven innovation on various industries and sectors. Collectively, we have a much better sense for how things tend to play out. Second, the capital required to bring an idea to market to "test for fit" is often much, much lower today (staggeringly lower, really… $25K - $250K today vs. several million back then)… which makes for far fewer "big, bad bets".
So, yes - there's a lot of activity. There were more than 5,000 people at the (sold out) show, 40 new companies launched on-stage and over 100 more were competing for attention in the "demo pit". (I know it's not "enterprise SaaS", but I do want one of these skateboards: http://www.boostedboards.com/ ). But fundamental changes in 1) the way investors evaluate opportunities, and 2) the way companies bring their ideas to market for validation (see: Upstart Labs) are making for a higher-quality, lower-ridiculousness environment.
Facebook & Twitter are the most common "role models" - but not the best ones
When asked about what startups should be focusing on most in terms of growth and market capture, several long-time investors talked about the fallacy of Facebook and Twitter as good role models for business plans.
Many entrepreneurs invoke the early viral growth of Facebook and Twitter - in the absence of any obvious business plan or revenue model - as supporting evidence that if they just build a great product and make it available to the world, the rest will take care of itself. Several speakers cautioned against such a "build it and they will come - by the hundreds of millions!" approach:
- Facebook and Twitter (and maybe Pinterest) are about the only examples of such massively organic growth in the current wave, and we're unlikely to see another one in the near future. In any case, it's not wise to base your business plan on the hope that you'll be "the one".
- Investors, in order to feel confident about the value creation/capture opportunity mentioned above, need to see a predictable approach and model. While this is most true of B2B companies, it applies to consumer plays as well - gone are the days when "and then we'll just monetize the eyeballs somehow" is a strong enough plan.
- On the consumer side, just acquiring users isn't enough anymore. To paraphrase one of the panel discussions: "When it comes to users 10 million is really the new million… until you've got 10 million people actively using your service, you can't be sure you that you've got something."
All this underscores the need for 1) a deliberate strategy for creating & capturing value, 2) a strong understanding of your target market, and 3) a Go-To-Market approach that allows you to test & tune your solution to achieve product/market fit - quickly
Bring on the Big Ideas
There was also some prevailing sentiment that investors (and consumers) are tired of ideas that seem largely derivative versions of the current solutions ("Facebook for schools", "Pinterest for sports", etc.). The market is eager for new, bigger ideas about the next wave of social/mobile/content/business platforms.
Monday's agenda included a "fireside chat" with Chamath Palihapitiya (Facebook, Social+Capital Partnership, NBA Owner)… whose comments about his $275MM fund I found pretty inspiring. As an investor, he wants to back ideas that address fundamental challenges of our time (healthcare & education came up a lot) - and put money to work in a way that could truly "change the world". It was a rousing perspective (several outbursts of spontaneous applause in the session) that reminded me that yes - the "return of the portfolio" must be measured in dollars… but as part of the rapidly evolving industry that is technology investing, we should all make sure our returns can be measured in "good for the worldness" as well.