In the spirit of clearing out some half-formed thoughts, one takeaway is that we’re again in a period where the most exciting investment opportunities possess real technology risk. When we started Homebrew in 2013 our industry was, in retrospect, probably midway through a cycle where innovations were in business model rather than underlying technology. Observing a handful of companies, such as Uber, Airbnb, Warby Parker, founders were taking those models and trying to apply them to other verticals. Sure there were underlying technology changes driving the success of these companies (mobile app penetration for example), but many of the successor startups relied upon applying a business model innovation to a seemingly new vertical.
Labor marketplaces for a variety of professions. A ton of private label vertical commerce. On-demand and excess capacity apps. Monthly subscription in a box. And so on.
There were – and are – many valuable companies still growing from this time period but the venture investor wasn’t making a primarily technical bet. They were making an assumption about the team, business model and operating excellence. We found a handful of investments in these areas in our first fund, trying to be early or contrarian rather than just throw money after a bunch of “Uber for X,” but also struggled to find conviction in the most crowded of spaces (such as food delivery).
When I look at our dealflow (and investments) over the past 18 months I see an interesting shift back towards more technology risk than business model emulation. Think of what venture investors have been pursuing lately: AI, autonomy, VR, computer vision, bioscience, agriculture, material sciences. These startups are VERY difficult to start without having one or more key technical members on the founding team. And you can’t diligence many of these companies just using assumptions in a spreadsheet. There’s real possibility that the company’s technology doesn’t pan out – or at least not at the level of sophistication where it can become a durable competitive advantage.
Some investors believe it’s going to be difficult to invest in these areas without an advanced degree in the discipline. Satya and I disagree, and to date, have made several investments in very talented teams (well, not in VR — we’re currently sitting that out). But it’s exciting to see the seed stage impact of “software enabling the world” (our version of “software eating the world”) and how a fund like Homebrew can assist.