I joined FirstMark as a partner a little over 18 months ago now, and it’s been a thrilling ride. It’s also felt like a steep learning curve: lots of nuances, and lots of institutional memory to absorb. Below is a glimpse into what I’ve seen happening “behind the scenes” on the VC’s side to the table – stuff that was not obvious to me in my former roles as entrepreneur, angel investor or corporate incubator/strategic.
Last night I was invited to speak at the inaugural NYC European Tech Meetup. There are tons of obvious reasons why the NYC and European tech ecosystems should work closely with one another, so a meetup on the topic was long overdue. Congrats to Alban Denoyel and Anthony Marnell for starting it, and thanks for inviting me to speak, was a lot of fun. Below are the slides I used – the presentation was meant to be a “State of the Union” of European tech in NYC, a high level overview fit for an inaugural meetup and get the conversation started.
Many thanks to David Rogg, our newest associate at FirstMark, for helping me with this. I’m sure we missed some companies and people – if so, let us know in the comments, and we’ll update the presentation.
I know, when thinking about hotbeds of startup innovation, France doesn’t exactly jump to mind. Sure, there are interesting things happening in European tech – in London, or Berlin (which I covered here). Or Finland. But France? Ask U.S investors and entrepreneurs, and you’ll hear more or less the same thing: high taxes. Impossible to fire people. Government intervention. Language barrier. Fear of failure. Strikes. The country of the the 35 hour law, where people are prohibited by law to answer email past 6pm.
Yet things have started to accelerate meaningfully in French early stage tech, particularly in the last two or three years. I was fortunate to be recently invited as part of a delegation of US VCs and media guests to spend a few days in Paris to meet with local entrepreneurs and VCs, as well as President Hollande and other senior members of the French government. As a Frenchman who has spent his entire professional career in the US, I’m perhaps more cynical than most about those matters, but I came back from my trip genuinely intrigued by the potential of the French tech scene.
For anyone who cares to look, the fairly obvious conclusion is that there’s a huge gap between perception and reality, when it comes to the French startup ecosystem. Very significant progress has been made on all fronts – more interesting startups, more funding, lots more talent rushing into the sector, improved legistation, etc. – yet the word has not caught on.
Note: This post appeared on VentureBeat, here.
It’s been almost two years since I took a first stab at charting the booming Big Data ecosystem, and it’s been a period of incredible activity in the space. An updated chart was long overdue, and here it is:
(click on the arrows at the bottom right of the screen to expand)
A few thoughts on this revised chart, and the Big Data market in general, largely from a VC perspective:
The field of bioinformatics is having its “big bang” moment. Of course, bioinformatics is not a new discipline and it has seen various waves of innovations since the 1970s and 1980s, with its fair share of both exciting moments and disappointments (particularly in terms of linking DNA analysis to clinical outcomes). But there is something special happening to the industry right now, accelerated by several factors:
Here’s the video from SIIA’s “IIS: Breakthrough” conference that corresponds to the slides in the previous post. Not necessarily the crispest delivery on this one, but here you go.
I’m doing a talk on the Internet of Things tomorrow at the SIIA’s “IIS: Breakthrough” conference tomorrow, and here are the slides I’ll use. It’s meant to be a high level introduction to the topic, for a broad audience of “information industry” professionals. Also used an earlier version of those slides at the WIN Global Innovator last week, which was fun. Feedback welcome.
As the fundamentally important debate over women in technology and entrepreneurship rages on (most recently sparked by what Paul Graham said, or perhaps didn’t say), I’ve been intrigued by the comparatively higher proportion of women who seem to be starting companies in one of my areas of predilection: hardware (broadly defined: open hardware, Internet of Things, wearable computing, 3D printing, etc.).
I don’t have much data here, other than my anecdotal personal experience, both as a VC and as the organizer of Hardwired NYC. But, without having to rack my brain for more than a minute or two, a bunch of names of great female founders and/or CEOs in the general hardware space comes up, including, in no particular order:
- Limor Fried, founder, Adafruit
- Ayah Bdeir, founder and CEO, littlebits (who spoke at Hardwired NYC last November)
- Amanda Peyton, co-founder and CEO, Grand St (see her talk at Hardwired NYC here)
- Jenny Lawton, President, Makerbot (see her talk at Hardwired NYC here)
- Kegan Schowenburg, co-founder and CEO, Sols (speaking at Hardwired NYC next week)
- Helen Zelman, co-founder, Lemnos Labs
- Cheryl Kellond, co-founder and CEO, Bia
- Monisha Perkash, co-founder and CEO, Lumo BodyTech
- Daniela Perdomo, co-founder and CEO, GoTenna
- Mary Huang, co-founder, Continuum Fashion
- Meredith Perry, founder and CEO, uBeam
- Julia Hu, founder and CEO, Lark
- Debra Sterling, founder and CEO, GoldieBlox
And there are many more (both in the U.S and globally), which is exciting.
The question, of course, is why hardware would be an area of particular focus for female entrepreneurs. As a category, hardware is broad, lends itself to all sorts of products, and as a result feels pretty gender-neutral.
Could it be that there are more female role models in hardware, since it is often said that role models are particularly important to female entrepreneurs ? It doesn’t appear that way. Sure, women have run some of the biggest hardware companies in the world (Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman at HP; Ursual Burns at Xerox) but it’s unclear how much of an inspiration they would be to early stage tech entrepreneurs, and more importantly, a number of software or internet companies have been run by women as well. Perhaps more relevant are female entrepreneurs like Limor Fried, who under her “Lady Ada” moniker has become the closest equivalent to a celebrity in the hardware alpha geek world (and beyond, through her appearance on the cover of Wired in 2011).
What’s interesting is that hardware lends itself particularly well to new entrants – there’s been a big gap in innovation in hardware in the last 10 or 15 years (with some notable exceptions like Apple), and as a result there’s a “missing generation”, and plenty of opportunities for new entrepreneurs to become leaders in what, in some ways, feels like a brand new field.
Curious if anyone can think of an explanation?
Regardless, and to the extent this is indeed a trend, it is particularly exciting and promising, and we should collectively think about how to accelerate it and extend it to other areas of tech entrepreneurship.
Got some great feedback on Twitter, and while my initial goal was not to be comprehensive here, thought it could actually be helpful to start a running list of female hardware founders – perhaps it can become a good resource. Here are the people that were recommended to me, who else should I add? (please add in comments)
|First Name||Last Name||Company||Location|
|Jeri||Ellsworth||Technical Illusions||Bellevue, WA|
|Anastasia||Leng||Hatch||New York, NY|
|Christina||Mercando||Ringly||New York, NY|
|Ezster||Ozsvald||Notch||New York, NY|
|Gauri||Nanda||Toymail||New York, NY|
|Lisa||Fetterman||Nomiku||San Francisco, CA|
|Laura||Berman||Melon||Santa Monica, CA|
|Amanda||Williams||Fabule Fabrications||Montreal, Canada|
|Alexandra||Deschamps-Sonsino||Good Night Lamp||London, UK|
|Becky||Pilditch||Bare Conductive||London, UK|
|Jane||ni Dhulchaoinfi||Sugru||London, UK|
|Ana||Burica||Teddy The Guardian||Zagreb, Croatia|
I recently got a chance to participate in a panel focused on opportunities in hyperlocal at the 2013 StreetFight Summit, along with Ben Siscovick. Since they recorded it, here it is, along with a couple of pics.
Note: This post first appeared in TechCrunch, here.
Almost 15 years ago, a friend of mine at McKinsey spent a few nights writing a document called “The Battle for the Home”. The thesis at the time was that with broadband, the home PC was gradually going to challenge the TV as the core home digital system. Over the following few years, that battle gradually grew more complex, as the home saw the adoption of a new generation of HDTV sets, game consoles, set-top boxes and DVR options. But fundamentally, the discussion was about who was going to control the home entertainment system.
Now, the battle has expanded to the rest of the home. With the emergence of connected devices, the entire home is being reinvented as a data product, opening great opportunities to entrepreneurs. A whole new generation of startups is rushing in. Nest, with its beautifully-designed home products, has become the poster child for this phenomenon, but many others are producing exciting new connected devices and platforms, at an outstanding pace.
The irony of this market, not always acknowledged, is that a number of large companies with big brands and existing “pipes” in our homes, have been unusually innovative. From connected locks to mobile-controlled home automation platforms, large companies such as GE, Comcast or Philips have been offering connected home products for a while now, sometimes at the risk of cannibalizing their own analog products. As a result, the new wave of connected home startups finds itself in the fairly unusual position of having to not only execute and build consumer brands, but also out innovate dynamic incumbents. The home is once again at the crossroads of a major battle between startups, cable companies, telcos, industrial conglomerates, and large technology companies.
As VC money is starting to pour into the space (SmartThings, August and Arrayent all announced significant rounds just in the last two weeks, as did Quirky, as part of an increased focus on the Internet of Things), a new battle for the home is heating up between startups, cable companies, telcos, industrial conglomerates, and large technology companies.
The first battle for the home was not always kind to startups. Many found that, once past the sheer difficulties of building a hardware product, consumers often preferred the convenience of package deals offered by cable companies to best-of-breed point solutions, resulting in many failures or tepid exits.
While this new generation of startups has an exciting opportunity in front of it, the path to success will also be narrow. To succeed long term, startups will need to maneuver shrewdly among the giants in the space, and do what startups do best: deliver truly ground breaking products, build developer networks, bet on openness and interoperability, and leverage data in innovative ways.
The new household brands
There are plenty of reasons to be excited about the emergence of new connected home startups. For reasons I discussed in an earlier post, there’s been an explosion of activity in the space, initially financed by crowdfunding and now increasingly by institutional money – SmartThings and August, for example, both just announced large Series A rounds. Each category is seeing rapid innovation: thermostats (Nest), locks (August, Lockitron), security (Canary, Doorbot), lights (LIFX), home automation (SmartThings, Zonoff, Ninja Blocks, Ube, Berg, Twine, Xively, etc.), garden products (Bitponics, Click & Grow), bathroom appliances (Withings), nursery products (Sproutling, in which I’m an investor), and many others.
This is a big opportunity. Beyond the fact that it’s already a significant market ($13 billion, say some estimates), connected home entrepreneurs have an opportunity to create, quite literally, new household brands. The emergence of connected devices is one of those disruptive waves that define entire new product categories. Consumption habits change and reform around a handful of brands that become leaders in the space. Some wonder why smart and ambitious entrepreneurs are scrambling to build products in those seemingly mundane home categories; in fact, those entrepreneurs are attracted like heat-seeking missiles by the opportunity to build category-defining brands. At the current pace, this window of opportunity may not last more than a couple of years, and successful first movers will have a strong brand advantage.
Clearly, the adoption of those connected home products is still largely the province of hobbyists and tech enthusiasts. Interestingly however, large retailers seem to be excited about distributing those products to their mainstream audiences. Many entrepreneurs I speak with report engaging with some of the biggest players, such as Home Depot, Lowe’s, Staples, Apple stores and AT&T.
While this is not a recipe for long-term success, there’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here, where the combination of entrepreneurial energy, investor money and retailer interest could lead to rapid growth for the connected home startups.
Not so fast
However, for all the enthusiasm on crowdfunding platforms and in the press, this is already a crowded space. Many of the existing players are large companies that come equipped with deep distribution networks and a whole ecosystem of service providers that make a living installing and maintaining their products.
First, there are all the incumbents, both in home and energy automation (Crestron, Lutron, Control4, etc) and home security (ADT, Protection 1, Vivint, etc.). Not the most exciting brands? Perhaps.
Second, many large industrial companies have already launched their own connected home products – think, for example, Yale’s Z-Wave deadbolt or the Philips Hue, a smartphone-controlled LED bulb. There are many other examples.
Third, the cable providers and telcos increasingly view home automation as a strategic priority. Comcast (Xfinity), Time Warner Cable, Cox, AT&T and Verizon (FiOS) all have solutions for anything from thermostat and light control to security, accessible through mobile apps.
Last but not least, the large technology companies Apple and Google are already de facto active in the space, as the mobile phone has become the remote control for the connected home. They may want to go deeper. Google’s “Android @Home” effort seems to have faltered so far, but Chromecast is intriguing. Apple is rumored to be interested in the space at the highest level of the organization, and actively meeting with startups. It has been suggested that they should acquire Nest to enter the space and re-acquire the Apple-bred talent there. Microsoft (Kinect), Samsung and HTC all have existing or emerging efforts.
Dancing with the giants
So what’s a startup to do? For those ambitious startups that are gunning for a central position in the connected home, the question is what strategy gets you there faster
One key choice is whether to go “product first” (build a consumer product, like Nest) or “platform first” (build a platform that connects all products, like Revolv). The former involves more hardware, but arguably offers a better chance of gaining rapid sales traction if the product delivers. It is also less of an immediate challenge to most of the large companies in the space. The path to control of the home involves releasing multiple products that connect to one another (which Nest is starting to do with its Protect smoke alarm), and eventually become a platform.
The “Platform First” strategy is more of a software play, and its core value proposition is home automation. It offers strong long term defensibility if you get there, but the journey is fraught with difficulties. First, as Lowe’s has learned with Iris and Schlage with Nexia, it is difficult to get consumers to buy and install a “hub”. In addition, among the early adopters that are likely to do so, a non-trivial portion are Arduino and Raspberry Pi aficionados that prefer to hack their own system. For mainstream adoption, one avenue for platform players could be to work with home developers and gradually get their systems included in new construction, obviously a long process. Second, the Platform strategy places startups in direct competition with Comcast, Verizon FiOS and many other large companies that are also vying to become the hub for the automated home, and already have millions of customers. The bet here for “Platform First” players is that, by promoting openness and interoperability in a way that is harder for large companies to do, they can build a strong network of developers that write to the platform – perhaps starting with hobbyists and the smaller “Product first” companies that need help competing with the “Product first” leaders – the benefit for the customer being that they will be able to connect all their best-of-breed point solutions.
Another key choice, particularly for “Platform First” players, is whether to go consumer (develop your own brand) or enterprise (be an enabling technology for other brands). Some solid companies have chosen the latter, such as iControl Networks (which powers Comcast’s Xfinity and others) or Zonoff (which powers Staples Connect). Others like SmartThings have been building a recognizable brand in the space, which some large companies could perceive as a threat. My sense is that eventually most startups will need to work with the large companies in some capacity to be successful, so perhaps the question is what strategy puts you in the best negotiating position for a partnership (or an acquisition).
Seven Key Characteristics
Beyond positioning, connected home startups will need to combine several characteristics to build long term value and defensibility. Here is my list of seven.
- Design quality is hugely important in transforming those trivial products into objects of desire, and to succeed connected home startups will need to be true “design natives”: Nest, August and Canary are great examples of design done right.
- Simplicity of installation and usage will be essential: little effort in, maximum return out.
- Mission criticality and strong ROI are key in a space where some products could easily be mistaken for nice to have “gadgets”: security, health and energy are great categories from that perspective.
- In the same vein, startups will need to deliver real innovation. Simply adding connectivity to a home product doesn’t make it great. Is the connected product 10X better than its analog equivalent? Or, even better, does it simply not have an analog equivalent?
- A multi-product vision and the ability to release successful products back to back will be crucial in building self-standing, long-term successes in the space – obviously, easier said than done.
- Software openness and interoperability will be necessary to successfully build developer networks and partnerships.
- Perhaps most importantly, startups will need to be true “data natives”. Many connected devices offer exciting opportunities to build “data network effects”: each device captures data that, aggregated and analyzed at the cloud level, enables the extraction of insights that in turn make each individual device smarter, through machine learning and predictive analytics. This is one of the main reasons why the Internet of Things goes much beyond a simple hardware play, and will be a key aspect of the defensibility of the winners in the space: you pay for the hardware, but the software (and data) is what keeps you using the product.
This new battle for the home is just getting started. It will have many twists and turns, and I’m very excited to see how it all unfolds.
Thomson Reuters CTO James Powell runs a great series of podcasts where he interviews people in the technology world about topics of relevance to his organization. I was fortunate to be invited to speak with James about the Internet of Things and Big Data, and it was a lot of fun. Below is the podcast, uploaded on SoundCloud. Thanks to James Powell and Dan Cost for the opportunity.
Some updates on the event/community front:
1) A little while ago, I changed the name of the data event I’ve been organizing from “NYC Data Business Meetup” to “Data Driven NYC”. I originally started the event mostly as experiment, and didn’t give much thought to branding (so yeah, that was a terrible name). The event has now grown quite a bit (over 3.700 members as I write this), so it was time for a better name; also at this stage, it feels more like a community than “just” a meetup, so I wanted a name that reflected this reality.
2) Back in June, I launched a new community called “Hardwired NYC”. It covers startups, technologies and products at the intersection of the physical and digital worlds, including topics like 3D printing, Internet of Things, wearable computing, etc. I developed a strong interest in those areas through my involvement in the Big Data world – the Internet of Things, in particular, is deeply intertwined with Big Data (the proliferation of sensors has been contributing to the Big Data “problem”; equally the Internet of Things will be highly dependent on Big Data technologies if it is to deliver on its promise).
3) As Hardwired NYC is taking off fast (more than 700 members after just two events), I figured that both events/communities should have their own website with full video libraries, including for people who don’t live in New York and are interested in the content. So, with the great help of my FirstMark colleague Dan Kozikowski, I’m launching this week www.datadrivennyc.com and www.hardwirednyc.com. Both sites have a “Watch” section where, from now on, I will post pictures and videos of events (as opposed to this blog).
Note: This post was originally published in TechCrunch a few weeks ago (see original post here). Below is a revised version of the chart, that reflects many of the comments we received. Although the chart is very full, it is likely that some companies are missing.
The emerging Internet of Things — essentially, the world of physical devices connected to the network/Internet, from your Fitbit or Nest to industrial machines — is experiencing a burst of activity and creativity that is getting entrepreneurs, VCs and the press equally excited.
The space looks like a boisterous hodgepodge of smart hobbyists, new startups and large corporations that are eager to be a part of what could be a huge market, and all sorts of enabling products and technologies, some of which, including crowdfunding and 3D printing, are themselves far from established.
The chart above is an attempt at making sense of this frenetic activity. From bottom to top, I see three broad areas – building blocks, verticals and horizontals:
The concept of the Internet of Things is not new (the term itself was coined in 1999), but it is now in the process of becoming a reality thanks to the confluence of several key factors.
First, while still challenging, it is easier and cheaper than ever to produce hardware – some components are open sourced (e.g. Arduino microcontrollers); 3D printing helps with rapid prototyping; specialized providers like Dragon Innovation and PCH can handle key parts of the production process, and emerging marketplaces such as Grand St. help with distribution. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo considerably de-risk the early phase of creating hardware by establishing market demand and providing financing.
Second, the world of wireless connectivity has dramatically evolved over the last few years. The mobile phone (or tablet), now a supercomputer in everyone’s hand, is becoming the universal remote control of the Internet of Things. Ubiquitous connectivity is becoming a reality (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 4G) and standards are starting to emerge (MQTT). The slight irony of the “Internet of Things” moniker is that things are often connected via M2M (machine to machine) protocols rather than the Internet itself.
Third, the Internet of Things is able to leverage an entire infrastructure that has emerged in related areas. Cloud computing enables the creation of “dumb” (simpler, cheaper) devices, with all the intelligence processed in the cloud. Big data tools, often open sourced (Hadoop), enable the processing of massive amounts of data captured by the devices and will play a crucial role in the space.
Unlike the Big Data space, where the action is gradually moving from core infrastructure to vertical applications, the Internet of Things space is seeing a lot of early action directly at the vertical application level. Some notable players like Nest Labs seem to have adopted a deeply integrated vertical strategy where they control key pieces of the product, including both hardware and software, in order to have complete control over the end-user experience (a lot like Apple, which is not surprising considering the founders’ background).
Beyond the Nest, home automation in general has become the central battlefield of the Internet of Things, with some of the most exciting startups in the space jockeying for position. Another hot consumer-facing area is obviously quantified self, which is playing a huge role in developing consumers’ awareness of the potential of the Internet of Things.
Beyond consumer, B2B/enterprise vertical applications of the Internet of Things, fueled in part by robotics, hold considerable promise in a number of areas such as manufacturing, transportation, healthcare, retail and energy. Some of clearest revenue opportunities for IoT startups are in the enterprise area.
While a lot of the action is happening at the vertical application level, the ultimate prize for many ambitious players in the space is to become the software platform upon which all vertical applications in the Internet of Things will be built. For example, several of the home automation providers (SmartThings, Ninja Blocks, etc.) also provide a software platform, and seem to be leveraging their vertical focus as a way to kickstart activity on the platform.
Large corporations (GE, IBM, etc.) are very active in the space and are developing their own platforms. Carriers (AT&T, Verizon) have a large opportunity in the area, as well.
One open question is whether a platform developed for a vertical will easily translate to another vertical. In addition, whether the winning platforms are open or closed will play a huge role in the future of the space. My bet would be on openness.
The related area of connectivity (connecting objects to the network/Internet and to one another through all sorts of rules) is also a very significant opportunity.
The space is extraordinarily exciting, but still very much in its infancy – expect this chart to change dramatically over the next few months and years.