I had an early train to NYC this morning and I needed to
wake up at 5:50AM. My alarm clock is one
of those plug-in radio clocks that annoyingly reset if there is an unexpected
interruption in power.
Well, last night, there was such an interruption which reset
my clock’s time and (unbeknownst to me) wiped out my morning alarm. Remarkably, I found myself suddenly wide
awake at precisely 5:50AM.
It’s funny, I didn’t fall asleep thinking about my trip, or
the least bit anxious about oversleeping. Maybe my waking up was just dumb luck, but this isn’t the first time it
has happened to me. I’ve also heard of
this happening to many of my friends as well.
I’m no neurologist, but I’ve spoken to a number of folks who
know a thing or two about this. One
fellow – Microsoft's Desney Tan described to me the wealth of subconscious brain
activity that goes on without us knowing about it. Although we may only be focusing on one
topic, or one person that we are talking to, our brain is constantly observing,
processing, and storing information about everything going on around us.
The human machine is really an incredible thing. It’s amazing how much we know about the world
and the universe, but also how little we know about our own brains. I hope that I see a lot of progress in this
field in my lifetime. I’d like to know
what’s going on my subconscious and see if there’s anything useful in there (probably
Some guys I’ve talked to are working on ways to read brain activity
and convert it into useful medical and entertainment applications. I wish them luck… it’s truly innovation that
is nearly indistinguishable from magic. Check out an early demo.
We've been looking at a number of companies in the news and information space. It got me thinking about how I consume news.
I recently started reading the Economist, and I'm in love with it. I got the idea from the book Hedgehogging which is about the hedge fund industry. In the book, a prominent fund manager likens the newspaper to watching a movie one frame at a time (or something along those lines). You are too close to the details to be able to see the story really play out.
In the same way, I love consuming my current events in weekly form. It helps me separate really meaningful stuff from useless fodder. Also, I love the fact that the Economist usually has a point of view, and isn't afraid to take a firm stand on certain issues.
On the flip side, I do sacrifice something by not being able to consume my news on a daily basis. There is a real value to being super-current. For that, I read blogs and other forms of news online. This is how I consume the information that I need to learn quickly and in a timely manner.
It's a good time to be a Boston sports fan! There is actually a legitimate chance that 3 Boston pro teams will content for their league championships. The Sox are up 2-0 in the World Series, the Pats look dominant, and I think the Celts are going to be the beast of the East. Also, BC is unbeaten after an incredible comeback last night against VT.
As a venture capitalist, it’s easy to lose touch with what
consumers really want.
We spend all our time trying to find companies that will be
successful in the future, and usually, that means ideas that initially only
appeal to some small group of “early adopters”.
But how do we know if capturing these early adopters will
lead to anything more? I’ve talked to
many internet entrepreneurs who marveled at the ease with which they attracted
their first 5000 power users, but were equally surprised at how quickly their
growth came to a halt (I have firsthand experience with this from my early
efforts with Letslink.jp)
In a “hot sector” like consumer internet and digital media,
this is an even greater challenge. There
are many thousands of aficionados out there who are willing to try your new
products, give great feedback, and tell you why your company is the next great
thing. But this feedback may not be all
that indicative of anything. In a hot
sector, it’s easy to lose touch with average consumers with simple problems and
get excited about the new cool thing.
So, the question I’m pondering these days is how do I stay
in touch, but still stay ahead of the curve? How do I filter out the noise of fickle beta testers and find the folks
who adopt early but are a sign of millions of others to come? Here are three half-baked approaches I’m
going to experiment with:
Spend time with teenagers
Spend time outside of major technology hubs like Boston, New York, and the Bay Area. Figure out what problems average Joe’s are trying to solve, and whether the solutions that appeal to Silicon Valley geeks have overshot the needs of most consumers
about industries that seem inefficient and dig a little deeper. A lot of the underlying problems are just beneath the surface, and only perceptible to people who operate within them. I’ve been following a few industries for quite some time. One of them is consumer finance. Unfortunately, it is now hot (Wesabe, Mint, etc etc). I guess it’s time to move on…
I'm trying out a new tool called Xobni on my laptop at home. It's very cool so far... allows me to see trends in my email behavior to specific recipients, keeps track of attachments sent between me and others, etc.
It takes a little while to figure out just how powerful some of these features are, so I'll hold off for now until I've played around with it a bit more. But check them out!
I got very excited about a new business idea this weekend. It wasn't a venture investment, but one that I thought would be very interesting if I had the time to start it myself. It's the definition of "un-sexy" - I want to open a butcher shop.
The idea came to me when I was shopping for produce at Wilson Farms in Lexington MA. It occurred to me that there are many people who shop at high-end grocers for their produce, but most don't go to a high-end butcher for their meats. There are obviously a bunch of these places scattered around the city, and when I lived near Palo Alto, I would go to a wildly popular meat shop called Shaub's . But it struck me that there seems to be a real dearth of places like these, and there might be an opportunity to create a small and successful chain of specialty meat stores in surrounding neighborhoods of major cities.
OK, maybe there are a lot of reasons why it might be difficult to start taking over the world one butcher shop at a time. But it got me thinking about un-sexy businesses in general. Being an early stage VC, my firm gets access to many businesses that promise to be the "next hot thing" in the "next hot sector". We've certainly made our share of investments in sexy spaces like video delivery, social networking, and mobile. But often, some of the most interesting opportunities are the ones going after very un-sexy opportunities. Actually, true innovators are the folks who can take seemingly boring, stale businesses and find new ways to compete.
Take my favorite example: Method. Who would have ever thought that there was room in the market for another soap company? And yet, Method has exploded, stealing meaningful share from some of the world's biggest and most competitive companies.
My old firm Ebay got its start by attacking unsexy categories. Who really knew how big the collectibles market was until Ebay started doing billions of dollars of volume selling things like American Girl dolls or WWII memorabilia?
We've seen a couple companies come into Spark recently pitching ideas to revolutionize old, forgotten, and unsexy businesses. My view is that we could use many many more of them. There are so many inefficient markets out there that are ripe for an entrepreneur to make more efficient through a creative business model and by leveraging modern technology. Personally, as I think about how I can help our firm focus our potential investments, it might make sense for me to create some discipline around identifying boring and unsexy industries that might just be ripe for the kind of innovation we love to be a part of.