Rafat Ali on Media Startups and the Nature of Venture

“1) VC money is not evil. 2) VC money is not sustainable.

Those are not contradictory statements.”

Those are Rafat Ali’s words from a post he wrote Friday in reaction to the cascade of bad news for a bunch of venture-backed new media companies. While Rafat’s expertise is concentrated in media (he started and sold Paid Content and now runs vertical travel startups Skift), the statements above apply generally (we’re investors in theSkimm and Cheddar, so clearly believe there is a place for venture here).

The most challenging aspect of taking venture capital is that it’s difficult to step off of the venture train once you’ve taken too much money, or negotiated too high a valuation, or gone too deep on executing a plan that requires high burn ahead of profitability. But complaining about that or assuming it’s fundamentally “evil,” is like getting married and then complaining it makes dating other people difficult. You knew what the ring meant when you put it on.

stack-of-magazines

Side note: I generally enjoy Rafat’s perspectives on media, technology and culture. Here’s a 2016 podcast he did with Recode’s Peter Kafka that’s worth a listen.

If You Work at Google or Apple, I Need You To Read This Post About Charity & “FlashMobs for Good.”

There are 43 days left in 2017. That’s not many for any of us, but it’s an especially important countdown if you work at Google, Apple or any other tech company which has an employer match program for charitable donations. Have you maxed out your match yet? Please consider doing so and let me give you an idea for a fun way involving your team and colleagues.

During my last few years at YouTube we were able to raise tens of thousands of dollars in just a few hours by creating FlashMobs for Good where we turned charitable giving into a critical mass event. Here’s what we did and I’m hoping some of you will try this at your company:

  1. Pick a period of time (24 – 48 hours work best) and declare it a “FlashMob for Good” during which you’ll track the combined donations going from your company to a specific charity.
  2. Any charity works but I found it most successful to select one that’s (a) universally beloved, (b) is approved in your company’s match criteria and (c) has a giving model where donations of different levels are matched specifically against projects or outcomes (such as backing projects on DonorsChoose or buying specific items on Heifer International). (c) makes it especially fun because you can see the combined impact of your work in more than just a sum of money but instead a set of discrete accomplishments – eg “10 chickens, 5 cows and a portable generator.”
  3. Set up an online spreadsheet where each employee can enter their own donation contributions (or enter them as “anonymous” if they desire). Send an email with this info and the details for #4 below to the entire company.
  4. During the 24-48 hour FlashMob period, select a specific 60 minute slot where you reserve a large conference room. Tell employees they can give any time during the 24-48 hour window to participate but that you’re holding a LIVE MOB during that time. They should bring their laptops. Project the donations spreadsheet on the screen. As employees give online during the LIVE MOB, have them enter their donations on to the sheet and ring an online bell every time they complete a donation. Watching the number go up and hearing the bells creates an energetic giving environment. If you’re giving to something like DonorsChoose, it’s especially rewarding to all descend on a single project and complete it for the teacher – ie 10 of you make a $900 project complete.
  5. After the FlashMob period is over, remind everyone to enter their donations for corporate match. And send around a closing email with the matched total.

A large amount of corporate match goes unused because employees forget to give or forget to file for the match. While each person’s situation is different, as tech as an industry becomes wealthier it’s great to see charity become a larger and visible part of our values.

Hope this helps. If you have any questions or suggestions, let me know via Twitter. And if you’re reading this, please try to help me spread the concept.

“Thoughts & Prayers” Won’t Change VC Diversity But Incentives Will. Supporting Female Founders Office Hours.

I hope some male VCs got scared yesterday, and if they didn’t, they should. Seeing Jess Lee of Sequoia bring together a group of amazing female investors as part of Female Founders Office Hours isn’t just about empowering women. It’s about keeping firms who don’t have female investing partners out of this dealflow. That’s not the stated intent of FFOH, which is about relationships and kicking off a “virtuous cycle of women helping women,” but hopefully a secondary effect of this group. And I think that’s great.

I’ve joked that if VCs found diversity as interesting as crypto we’d make much faster progress on solving gender and underrepresentation in our industry. VCs are market-driven — they’ll move towards opportunity with high velocity. Similarly they’ll seek to solve existential threats, otherwise they’re in the business of offense, not defense. Homebrew, my seed fund, doesn’t have a female GP – it’s just me and my cofounder. And even though so far we’ve funded female founders at a rate 5x industry average (26% of our core investments have at least one female founder vs 5% of all VC-backed companies), we know we have some liability from being two dudes.

So you want to get more women into GP positions at VCs? Well, then continue to increase the stakes of *not* having a woman at your firm. And to me, FFOH is a positive push in that direction because it creates another centralized pool of talent your male GPs can’t access. And that’s how VC changes. Not by diversity “thoughts and prayers,” but by incentives. So apply to FFOH here, and scare some male VCs.

Virtual Assistants Are Still Vital to My Productivity But 2017 Was Ho-Hum

The Consumer Virtual Assistant landscape was pretty uneventful in 2017 but it felt more like business model stagnation than any limit in the longterm technologies. Humans are still involved in much of the supply-side fulfillment and, well, human labor is still expensive. In addition, I wonder if consumers will trust Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon AI assistants to truly represent their best interests given ongoing investigations into bias in algorithms, designing for addiction (err i mean engagement), and the regulatory conversations occurring around 2016 elections.

My Year One 2015 summary and my Year Two 2016 summary

jetsons-rosey-mack

What Virtual Assistants did I rely upon in Year Three 2017?

Facebook Messenger M: While M moves more towards auto-replies, I believe I still have access to the fuller version of M that more closely resembles the original virtual assistant beta (remember when you could ask M to do nearly anything?). I use M to make reservations for restaurants and such when there’s not an online booking option clearly available. Also light amounts of information retrieval (call XYZ and ask 123), but stay away from anything more complex.

Wonder: I use Wonder for b2b’ish research but they’re really good for any type of research question where you could imagine a subject expert needing 15-30 minutes to pull you together an answer. Think of it as someone who is really good at Googling. They’ve continued to tune their business model, now bifurcating into faster, subscription-based product and a slower a la carte. Quality can really vary but they’ll redo a project if you find the results insufficient. Use this URL to get yourself $15 off a task: https://askwonder.com/r/hunterwalk

Fancy Hands: Oh Fancy Hands, how I love you. FH isn’t great for work that needs real intelligence/decision making, but I find the timeliness and quality of execution to be great. Often my main purpose is time-shifting not just time-saving – ie having someone call a business during regular daytime hours where I don’t have a chance to prioritize getting it done between 9-5. If you want to use FancyHands, you get a discount using my referral code. Here’s a snapshot of some recent requests:

Screen Shot 2017-11-11 at 11.58.43 AM

Are there other virtual assistant services you use that I should give a try?

Reinventing Political Ads: What If Facebook Went Further Than Regulators Were Asking

The “Honest Ads Act” is, well, boring. As a bipartisan proposal to evolve the way Facebook and other online platforms treat political ads it checks a bunch of boxes. Publicly available records of ad spend and the viewing metrics associated with the campaigns would be an improvement on today’s black box, but would this fundamentally change discourse in American politics? I don’t think so. And even if it helps limit foreign actors, we already see that many of the most destructive, controversial or half-true campaign ads come from within our own borders!

call_inside_the_house

“Honest Ads” and Twitter’s proposed Transparency Center are like putting bandaids on a patient who’s bleeding out. Why can’t Facebook aim higher than regulators when it comes to putting forth a POV on their own platform? What if Facebook set out to create a new ethical high ground? Enter the Constructive Campaigns Pledge.

One: Create the Carrot. Imagine Facebook bundles a number of its tools together into a single program aimed at politicians. A politician can have their FG Page labeled as “Verified,” have access to a pool of Facebook resources for campaign optimization, integrated donation tools, and so on. Any candidate on the ballot for a US-based election is eligible (or set a min threshold to start of Federal election).

Two: Show the Stick. What does a candidate need to do to access these tools? Commit to Facebook’s Constructive Campaign Pledge. This Pledge states that content or ads shared by the official campaign on the platform will be “positive in nature,” in the sense it focuses on explaining the qualifications and policies of the candidate, and does not mention the opponent. No negative campaigning, no voter suppression campaigns. Facebook will use a combination of human review and technology to manage enforcement, just as it does its ad policies.

Three: BUT FREE SPEECH!!! Sorry, free speech doesn’t apply to private platforms. And you know what’s already arbitrary? Facebook’s content policies and ad policies. So why can’t they have specific direction regarding political speech? At Google we always used to believe that a connected, peaceful world was good for our longterm business. Doesn’t Facebook believe that a civil, peaceful, fact-oriented America is good for its business?

Four: It’s Optional And Only Applies to the Campaigns Themselves. If you’re a candidate and don’t like the constraints, no problem. Don’t sign the Constructive Campaign Pledge. You can still use Facebook’s tools, its ad platform and so on. You just don’t get additional access to account management help and so on – no embedded Facebook employees just because you’ve got a big ad budget to spend. You know this already kinda happens in elections regarding the decision for a candidate to take Federal matching funds or not?

pig mud

Facebook, with its immense reach, has a chance to not just reflect behaviors, but evolve, even improve them. “Transparency” is just a quarter-step in the right direction if you believe there are underlying constructive principles guiding political speech and norms. What would a full step look like? Maybe something like what I’ve proposed here?

 

Productivity Hack: Read One Chapter of a Book to Get 90% of the Value

Here’s a fairly reliable productivity hack if you’ve picked up the latest self-help, management theory or sweeping sociological interpretation of our times: only read the second chapter because it routinely contains 90% of the book’s value. Here’s how these books usually go:

Forward by Influencer – obviously SKIP

Chapter 1: Author’s Credentials – author introduced themselves, makes case for why they’re qualified, and evangelizes their path to discovery of their new idea

Chapter 2: THE IDEA

Chapters 3+: Examples of THE IDEA in action and/or anecdotal stories to validate the universality of THE IDEA

FIN!

Note, sometimes Chapter 2 can be Chapter 3, but you can usually figure this out by looking at the Table of Contents.

Happy semi-reading!

Book-Stack

My Favorite Instagram Accounts: Coffee and Notebooks

My Instagram feed is purposefully dominated by coffee cups and notebooks (the paper kind). If you like these things too, here are some of my favorite accounts. If you know of other folks I should be following, let me know!

Coffee

https://www.instagram.com/coffeecupsoftheworld/

https://www.instagram.com/counterculturecoffee/

https://www.instagram.com/heartroasters/

https://www.instagram.com/saintfrankcoffee/

https://www.instagram.com/vervecoffee/

https://www.instagram.com/birchcoffee/

https://www.instagram.com/coffeeshots/

https://www.instagram.com/newyorkcoffeefestival/

https://www.instagram.com/latteart_papergram/

https://www.instagram.com/oakwoodroasted/

https://www.instagram.com/contrabandsf/

https://www.instagram.com/intelligentsiacoffee

/https://www.instagram.com/stumptowncoffee/

https://www.instagram.com/philzcoffee/

https://www.instagram.com/fourbarrelcoffee/

https://www.instagram.com/ritualcoffee/

https://www.instagram.com/bluebottle/

https://www.instagram.com/sightglass/

 

Notebooks, Notebook Art

https://www.instagram.com/suzbaxart/

https://www.instagram.com/pocketinspirationn/

https://www.instagram.com/bujoinspire/

https://www.instagram.com/thesketchbookproject/

https://www.instagram.com/showmeyourplanner/

https://www.instagram.com/jose_naranja/

https://www.instagram.com/fieldnotesbrand/

https://www.instagram.com/baronfig/

 

Arts, Design

https://www.instagram.com/abstractsunday/

https://www.instagram.com/spirographsoph/

https://www.instagram.com/stacytarver/

https://www.instagram.com/lumi/

https://www.instagram.com/groehrs/