The SF Scooter Wars & Proposal for Urban Safe Harbor Zones

In case you haven’t heard, civil war broke out in San Francisco last month, and it’s over dockless scooters. Battery-powered single-rider scooters which can be signed out using a mobile app and then left wherever the rider disembarks. The economics only work when you’ve got a density of riders so multiple companies descended on San Francisco, each hoping to beat the other in a landgrab. My understanding is that most (all?) of them launched without any particular outreach to SF city government, preferring to take an “ask for forgiveness” approach given that (a) they’re not illegal, (b) regulatory impact falls between multiple agencies and (c) venture-backed startups live and die on growth.

[*since publishing, one person reached out to say at least two of the scooter companies reached out to one of the city departments pre-launch and got implicit ok. I don’t have details to confirm one way or the other.]

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So what happened? Like pigeons these scooters flocked, creating at best a visual detritus, and, at worst, blocking doors, sidewalks, disability accessibility and so on. The scooter companies insisted this was the riders’ fault – their apps clearly say to park the vehicles out of the way and to not ride on sidewalks. And shortly social media, tech blog and local politicians were all making noise about our city’s latest transportation option.

I fell into the camp of “ugh,” at least with regards to the clumsy launch that shoved all of the usage externalities on to non-riders. When they blocked my way I *gently* pushed them aside with a kick, and I hungered for a creative street art stickering project to turn Lime into SLime and Bird into Turd.

At the same time, it’s clear these scooters – or something like them – will be part of our future urban landscape. They make sense, are fun to ride and will be a puzzle piece in solving sprawl. So the companies are likely to go through some back and forth with the city before everyone arrives at some sort of productive conclusion.

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But what could entrepreneurs and regulators take away from this spat? Should every urban startup go through an approval process just to operate (separate from business licensing, etc)? That sounds horrible and overreaching. And would also favor deep pocketed companies who post-launch would gladly support new regulations as a way of keeping potential additional entrants at bay. On the other hand, the “simply ask forgiveness” playbook sure feels very 2014 and out of step with where we want our tech values to settle post-bro.

What if city officials created a type of “Urban Startup Safe Harbor” where new products could be trialed for a limited period of time over a particular density. Startups would agree to proactively “file notice” of a test and share resulting data with the city. All tests are approved on an opt-out basis. That is, if the public official overseeing the Safe Harbor initiative has concerns, they can block the test but a judge will review the materials and rule within a few business days. The test can stay private for up to 28 days or so, after which the basic information will be made public by the city.

I’ve lived in SF for 20 years and am now raising a family within its boundaries. There are a host of growth challenges facing this town and technology companies need to be part of the solution. Not just by creating jobs but by coming to the table and building frameworks and transparency that take all citizens into account.

The Empty Chair at the Table During Meetings: Who Should Be In The Room That Isn’t

When you sit at a management meeting are you representing yourself or someone who isn’t in the room? I was recently chatting with a startup CTO, who recently joined his company’s Board, about the responsibilities of being a Director. That it’s not a role about advocating for your own interests but instead trying to make the best decisions on behalf of the company. There’s a great passage about this from a podcast with USV’s Fred Wilson and Reboot’s Jerry Colonna:

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I also recently came across another variation of this “who isn’t in the room” metaphor in a conversation Greylock’s Reid Hoffman had with Starbucks’ Howard Schultz.

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I really like these ideas as guardrails to make sure that as individuals and as groups, you’re not making decisions that run in opposition – strategically or ethically – to the constituencies which aren’t – or can’t be – represented in management conversations.

For VCs, Your Thesis Is Your Portfolio Page, Everything Else is Just Hopes and Dreams

“We invest in rebellious outliers.” “We invest in the Future of Work.” “We invest in frontier technologies.” “We invest in diverse founders.” “We invest with social good in mind.”

I hear, read, see examples every day of investors espousing differentiated theses with regards to why they exist. Why a founder should take their dollars. And why a LP should give them theirs. Sometimes there’s substance behind these statements; others are rickety content marketing or breathless trend hopping. Fortunately there’s a source of eventual truth! Your portfolio page. Your portfolio page is your thesis. It’s where you’ve committed dollars, not just Medium posts. It’s who has actually taken your checks, not the deals you wish you were in.

One challenge for seed investors especially is that your portfolio page is a lagging indicator of your interests. Startups often don’t announce their initial funding for quarters or years, which leads to the “oh I didn’t know you guys invested in that area” challenge for early funds like ours.

So we network, we write blog posts, we research, we tweet. And hope to continue adding amazing companies to our portfolio page. Because the portfolio page is real.

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Photo by abigail low on Unsplash

YouTube Lets People Decide Their Own Truths – And That Was Once a Good Thing

The most intense week of my life occurred in the spring of 2009. A small group of tech folks were in Baghdad – and not just the Green Zone. We traveled across the city to meet with government, military, NGOs, professors and students. It was the kids who made the most impact upon me, specifically a 17 year old girl. I still remember what she told me about YouTube, where I was running product at the time.

She was very thankful for YouTube. First, because it made her feel connected to other teenagers across the world. She saw that even though her circumstances were quite crazy, that at a human level she was no different than a boy in Tokyo, or a girl in San Paolo. Friends, parents, school, crushes. YouTube turned her into a global citizen.

Second, she told me that YouTube was valuable because it allowed her to develop her own sense of the truth. She’d grown up in a repressive regime that historically limited her access to information. But YouTube provided her with first-person perspectives, citizen journalism that captured what was really taking place in her country. And news clips from around the world to add context to the explosions she heard nightly.

Nine years later we look at platforms like YouTube and wonder whether the “truths” they’re telling are really lies. Conspiracy theories, divisive content, deceptively edited video which is a minority of the content on the site, but exacerbated by algorithms, engagement and our own temperaments. All significant problems to be sure and these companies will be judged ultimately by their ability to adapt to these new understandings. But I hope we can still create global citizens and I hope we can still empower people to develop their own sense of truth. My Iraqi friend would be 25 now. I wonder if she’s still in Baghdad or did she move far away. I wish I could talk to her again. I hope she’s ok.

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Photo by Jay Wennington on Unsplash

 

Giving Visionary Women Their Due

Even though I finished reading Emily Chang’s Brotopia last month, it’s lingered. One passage in particular — Jennifer Hyman, CEO of Rent the Runway, talking about how we call many men in tech “visionary” but fail to apply this characteristic as often (or at all) to women.

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Reflecting on Jennifer’s assertion, I thought of our experience with theSkimm, one of the most dynamic audience companies out there today and a startup we were fortunate to first back in 2013. While reading Brotopia, we were also helping theSkimm finish up their new financing, with Google Ventures and Spanx founder Sara Blakely joining the cap table. Over the past five years, I’ve witnessed theSkimm be underestimated by the venture capital industry, by pundits and press. During that time I’ve heard many male media founders lauded as “visionary” – Jonah Peretti, Shane Smith, Bill Simmons. They certainly deserve it. I’ve rarely heard Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg described the same way. They deserve it too.

“Visionary” is defined as “thinking about or planning the future with imagination or wisdom.” What, in my mind, makes them visionary when it comes to theSkimm?

  1. Email as Format – at a time when they were being told to just try and grow on the back of Facebook and other social platform, they took a medium decried as moribund and reignited it.
  2. Smart Summarization as Wedge – helping make it easier to live smarter. Taking real news – not women’s news – and delivering it in a branded tone.
  3. Leveraging 1% Fans – the Skimmbassadors as a group, now 30,000 strong, which helps drive the passion and provides a realtime focus group.
  4. Paid App – One of Apple’s Top Five Highest Grossing News Apps since the day it launched. A $2.99/mth product delivering a seven-figure revenue stream… and growing.
  5. Calendar Integration – The app integrates into your calendar and posts things coming up you need to know about – ranging from entertainment and lifestyle events, to activism and political deadlines.

Some of this ground was completely new to the industry. Some was shared by similar thinkers such as Mike Allen and The Week. But the package is unique. And that’s why 7+ million active readers start their day with theSkimm. A number that’s almost all US-based, professional and aspiring professional. A number that’s the equivalent of a Top Five news network.

Digiday recently did a podcast with Carly and Danielle and it’s a lively snapshot of how they think about the present and the future of theSkimm (transcript). Listening to it I thought one thing – visionary.

Congrats to the team on their fundraise and here’s to being underestimated!

Human Resources Policy at Startups

One thing we try to do at Homebrew is help startups who *aren’t* part of the portfolio and one way we do that is by providing whatever we can publicly, not just to the companies we’ve backed. Our Head of Talent Beth Scheer is the catalyst for a lot of this and she just published great Human Resources Policy materials which have been vetted by legal (in the US) and other subject experts. Take a look,