SoCal Stunners: Why Homebrew Has Gone South

There’s a question we ask ourselves when investing in a startup outside of the Bay Area: is their location a positive for the company? We believe great companies can be built in many locations – not just beloved Silicon Valley – but we do want to articulate *why* a specific company benefits from its geo. This can be based in the founders (strong hiring relationships locally), the local industry (access to customers, partners, talent) or academic hubs (research, talent).

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Our second Homebrew fund, the one we’re currently investing out of, has three Southern California startups, all of which are absolutely better, more durable companies being based where they are versus if they had started in the Bay Area.

Joymode (LA), Lumi (LA) and Shield (San Diego) each take the DNA of their home cities and imbue their companies with a sense of purpose. They’re amazing technical teams without being myopically focused on just their engineering capabilities. Outside of the echo chamber, they’re all taking innovative approaches to their industries. None of the CEOs are playing – they aren’t doing this just because their friends and neighbors have started companies.

Homebrew was fortunate to lead their seed rounds and they’ve all gotten far enough to attract a next strong fund – Naspers for Joymode, Spark for Lumi and a16z for Shield. It’s clear that SV capital will come South when the idea is big and the team is formidable. So we’re happy to continue being Day One investors for founders building in LA and San Diego.

 

What Happens to Farming When Water Is 10x More Expensive & Labor Is Scarce?

I haven’t written much about Homebrew’s investments in the agriculture space but there are two of note, and both are based on beliefs which might be controversial to some.

  1. Our global food supply chain still functions as if water is free and limitless.
  2. Our global food supply chain assumes that cheap labor is available wherever and whenever needed.

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Climate change, consumer demands from a rising standard of living, and shifting political attitudes towards immigration, have put both water and labor very much at risk, especially when you look at the arc of the next 10+ years. But you don’t have to wait a decade to read about dramatic changes afoot. Chad faces a security and humanitarian crisis very much linked to a pivotal water resource drying up. Cape Town creeps towards its “Day Zero” drought where the city will be out of water. Our beliefs about water supply and where crops will be grown informed our investment in Bowery Farming, now one of the leading indoor vertical agriculture startups. Bowery uses no pesticides and 95% less water to grow its leafy green crops in industrial-scale urban facilities.

Even when you can grow, can you harvest? In the UK, tonnages of food is rotting in the fields as a result of changed migrant labor patterns post-Brexit vote. But you don’t need to look thousands of miles away. There are actually crops here in the US constrained by labor supply — highly manual (and arduous) jobs which can’t attract enough labor, even paying 2-3x minimum wage. Because of this we’ve invested in a startup company here in the Bay bringing a combination of robotics and computer vision to the fields (they’re still in seed mode but will be ready for a Series A before too long 🙂 ).

Satya and I both believe there’s lots more innovation to come in agriculture and the global food supply chain. If you’re working in this area and think we could be good early stage funders for you, please do let us know.

We Don’t Talk Enough About Money In Silicon Valley. No, Really.

“Look, I’m incredibly thankful for this industry. It made me a millionaire.” The person seated across the table from me went through a series of facial microexpressions as I said this — surprise, disgust, analysis and finally, calm. We don’t really talk about money in Silicon Valley. At least not in public in a personal way with near strangers. We *speculate* about people and wealth a shit-ton – based upon a company’s last fundraise, based upon current stock price, based on the market price of BTC – but we don’t really talk our own situations, challenges, learnings. When a notable exception occurs – Jason Hirschhorn’s post about selling his first company – it really sticks for me as important. Don’t values and community come from sharing experiences and being vulnerable together? I think so but then why am I getting nervous about writing this post? This is a fraught area of privilege, assumption, envy, fragility. I’m told I’m in a position of power even if it doesn’t always feel like it. I know I’ve got some reach for what I write, at least within a narrow community.

Over the past 20 years in San Francisco I went from negative net-worth grad student to Silicon Valley “Middle Class” (the 2%) to running a venture fund that, if we do our job, will ultimately put me in the 1% or better (in California the average annual household income of the 1% is an astounding $1.4m+). Over my career I’ve benefited from being in the right place at the right time, from being born TallWhiteMale and from working hard. 21 year old Hunter would be very happy to hear how 44 year old Hunter ended up, even if 44 year old Hunter is still a bit insecure.

[Deep breath] There are five conversations about money I’ve had with zero to a handful of people in private that I’ve been wanting to write about. [Another deep breath]

1. The Big Money Ball Bounces Semi-Randomly, Or At Least It Can Feel Like It

One of the things that’ll kill you is equating wealth with self-worth and constantly comparing yourself to your peer group. The money ball bounces too randomly around here and because of outsized returns from new ventures, being at the right company in the right role during the right few years can be worth $$$$$. Even though your equity is unlikely to make you rich, there are plenty examples of when it does to extraordinary levels. And it doesn’t always end up in the hands of diverse, hardest working or ethical people. We can – and should – continue working on changing that system, particularly with regards to pay gaps between the genders and between whites and underrepresented populations. But at a personal, human level you can’t let this eat you from the inside. Ensure you are treated fairly – never let an employer take advantage of you, make sure to get guidance on compensation, don’t be afraid to negotiate – but take a zen-like approach and reject envy. There’s always going to be some dumbfuck who lucked into a multimillion dollar payday. Don’t waste your energy on him.

2. Knowing There’s Another $20 In The Bank Never Stops Feeling Good

It would be an exaggeration to claim I’ve personally known poverty, but I have had zero dollars in my checking account and a negative net worth. It feels shitty even if the anxiety experienced was only a fraction of a percent that true struggle brings. It leaves a mark, one that you don’t forget. The easiest way to translate my own emotion is this: when I go to an ATM and take out a few $20 bills, there’s an accompanying endorphin surge tied to knowing there are many other $20 bills there for me if I need it. It’s like a low rent version of that Oprah story where she keeps a million dollars of cash on hand just to know she’ll never be poor again (or something like that).

What’s the takeaway from this parable? Just to realize that people experience – or are searching for – economic security in different ways based upon their own personal histories. And this influences in an emotional, sometimes irrational way, the types of decisions they make. When I hear “just start a company, you have nothing to lose” know it won’t ring as true to the realities many founders come from and what they need to overcome. Which brings me to…

3. Many People Are Supporting More Than Themselves. And Many Self-Made People Had Safety Nets.

I was lucky – my parents saved money for my college before my dad’s job disappeared in  a corporate downsizing. That salary never came back. Having four years of school paid for in full already put me in rarified air especially as I met more and more classmates who were drawing major student loans to make their education possible.

Now, as an adult, I also see people who are supporting their parents, or their siblings, a nephew, and so on. The compensation needs of these folks might be different than a 24 year old who still has some help paying the rent. It’s why we counsel founders to understand the situation of a potential employee when designing a compensation package (in ways that remain legal and appropriate). Because maybe someone needs a little more stability in the short-term to make the transition possible. And you lose out on great talent if you can’t at least have these conversations. Don’t assume everyone can just eat ramen and sleep on vesting options. People will make sacrifices to work at your startup – seed companies don’t (and shouldn’t) pay the same cash comp as a Google – but if you’re “one-size-fits-all” then you’re less likely to build a diverse team.

4. How Do I Give My Daughter A Great Life But Instill Values & Appreciation?

I signed my daughter up for the major airlines frequent flyer programs when she was born. Might as well start earning free tickets right? The other day she received a mailing to participate in a private test drive event for the new Volvo SUV. My five year old apparently has the marketing profile of a 32 year old upper middle class mom!

Caroline (my wife) and I raise our daughter in SF because we want her to have a sense of community. Caroline is especially important here through her day job leading Twitter for Good (Twitter’s philanthropy and volunteerism effort) and a myriad of personal nonprofit activities. We do a lot of things to expose our kid to the idea of service, to generosity, to diversity. But she also eats organic blueberries and has too frequent Amazon deliveries of books, arts & crafts and Lego kits.

San Francisco has real challenges in its growth but I get sad when I hear people talk about how they don’t want to raise a kid here because of the homelessness and inequality. These are what we need to take a hand in solving! We don’t shield our daughter’s eyes from it; we answer her questions about sidewalk tents. But still, she’s been to Hawaii three times already. Did I mention the organic blueberries – $6 for six ounces – what the fuck!

I’m open to suggestions on this one. We’re just trying our best to instill compassion, work ethic and citizenship.

5. At Some Point It’s About Giving It Away

This afternoon a second-time entrepreneur told me he, at founding, gave most of his equity in his current company to a nonprofit he cares about. That it motivates him each day more than if he was just creating an outcome for himself. I LOVE THIS!

It feels like something is changing – people around me are giving more to political causes, putting their name next to causes. At the fringes I’m hearing more people take pride in their philanthropy and exert social pressure to their peers to donate. Am I naively optimistic? Are the next generation of bitcoin millionaires going to look to buy fifth cars and third homes? Or will we have more people like Halle Tecco and the anonymous Pineapple Fund?

Personally, I’ve got a number in my head – if I can bank that amount everything else is going towards philanthropy. Today, as a family, our charitable and political donations are between $15k-$30k annually. That’s down a bit from when I was vesting Google stock quarterly and could donate appreciated shares, but it’s still an ok percentage of our combined annual salaries. The tech sector is in a privileged position – can our generosity match our accomplishments?

[exhales]

Ok, those are the five $ conversations I have in private or have been afraid to have at all. Not sure I used all the right words or framed all the issues correctly. If there’s something I can learn more about or expose myself to a broader point of view, I’m open to feedback. Thanks!

Books I Read In 2018

Not gonna lie. All those “Books of 2017” posts made me kinda wishing I kept a list of my own. No way for me to go back and figure out what I read last year (I give away most books once I’ve completed them) so instead will make this a living post, where I add as I finish. If we generously start 2018 on 12/26/2017, here’s what I’ve read so far in reverse-chron order:

5) Against the Grain – James C Scott [non-fiction]

So, that whole thing about humans moving from hunter/gather to fixed agrarian society, and how it was awesome? Well James Scott has a bit of a contrarian viewpoint. He makes the argument that populations weren’t necessarily healthier and better off for domesticating themselves around crops. And that rather than these configurations giving rise to the stability of nation-states, that it was kinda the other way around. That nation-state needed agrarian populations to produce food for the kingdom, that this food could only be effectively harvested through use of slaves or indentured classes and that grains weren’t necessarily the *best* crops but rather than best crops for purposes of taxation. Read this if you’re into societal development stuff.

4) Finding Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [non-fiction]

You know when people talk about “being in the flow” – the stretches where you feel most alive and creative? When time passes without being aware of it? When you’re locked-in on a task that’s both hard and enjoyable? Mihaly is the grandfather of that concept. In Finding Flow, written 20 years ago, he further explains the concept of flow but also how to more regularly optimize for achieving flow in your everyday life. It’s ~150 pages (about 1/3rd of which are skimmable).

3) A Uterus Is A Feature, Not A Bug – Sarah Lacy [non-fiction]

A “personal” one for me as we’ve known Sarah and her family for a quite a while, but really bonded over becoming parents around the same time earlier this decade. Half-memoir, half-reporting, this was one where I didn’t want to let the year end without reading given my hope that 2017 was a turning point in how we think about gender in technology.

2) Lovecraft Country – Matt Ruff [fiction]

I read very little fiction but when I saw that Jordan Peele optioned this book to turn into a HBO series….! Historical fiction + sci-fi + sociology of American racism I imagine this read is a bit too “pulp and cult” for some but I really enjoyed it.

1) Reset – Ellen Pao [non-fiction]

Bought this one after reading a stunning excerpt in New York magazine. I’d met Ellen a few times previously, but wasn’t until this past year that I’d say we became “friends” as we find our daughters in the same school, and more reasons to collaborate given her return to venture. Ellen used her voice to raise a bunch of systemic issues in our community and it’s hard not to see a straight line between her lawsuit and the #MeToo movement of 2017.

In 2018, Focus on Quality of Decision Over Quality of Outcome

We’d barely made our first venture investment when I tattooed Homebrew’s logo deeply into my right shoulder. What did this moment represent, besides a strong conviction we’d never rebrand? It wasn’t a victory lap, that’s for sure, because it takes many years to prove you’re great as a VC. No, it was memorializing the decision to *start* Homebrew, independent of the eventual quality of outcome. Of course I believe that Satya and I have the potential and capacity to be excellent investors and now approaching our third fund there’s ample evidence that at least we’re not terrible and, hey, we might even be good at this. But that wasn’t what I was capturing when that needle jabbed into my skin, depositing a little black ink each time. What I was capturing – what I was owning and memorializing was that it was a really good decision.

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Pale, hairy shoulder described above

There’s a tendency to wait for an outcome and then use that data to pronounce whether the decision itself was a good one or a bad one. Careers, investments, relationships – was it a success? Then it was a good decision, right? Oh it failed? Bad decision.

Not necessarily. Maybe it was the right decision, just a bad outcome. You should make that decision 100x more times, because the probability or magnitude of good outcomes are actually in your favor. In any system with relatively low cost of failure and repeatable game scenarios, it would seem that getting the decision right is actually what matters.

I meet people early in their professional lives who spend too much time calculating the anticipated outcome versus understanding why they were making the decision in the first place. This title versus that title. This salary. That equity grant. And so on and so on. Trying to reverse engineer the right decision using lists of pros and cons, versus an understanding of who they are and who they want to be. My advice to them is usually pretty simple – answer this single question and don’t let fear hold you back from making the right decision. If you build that muscle memory and apply it at each junction, your career will be fine. And you’ll end 2018 in an even better place than you’re starting.

[I use “place” symbolically, but you know, if you’re literally working at a place that you don’t like and think you want to make a better decision, many Homebrew companies are hiring]

Evolutionary Biology: Movies are Slow Humans. YouTube are Fast Guppies.

When Wired claims YouTube is the world’s best film school available, I would agree, but suggest they’re actually thinking too narrowly in their explanation. Writer David Pierce steps us through what he calls “YouTube Film School,” a loosely organized community of content on the platform which unpacks and analyzes the craft. Pierce believes “the best channels are the ones that teach film as an art form, that help you understand why a particular cut or camera move makes you feel the way it does.” And while there is a tremendous amount of YouTube content supplying technical analysis, critique and breakdowns, to focus on these videos alone ignores the most wonderfully disruptive aspect of YouTube: the 100x faster cycles of content creation over traditional media.

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Compare the evolutionary cycles of humans versus guppies. Humans evolve v e r y  s l o w l y, while guppies can experience rapid evolution, seeing meaningful change in just several cycles. Let’s stretch this comparison to movies versus YouTube. Innovation in movies travels slowly because of production constraints: expensive, long development time periods, delays before public release. We think about cinematic influence in generational  timeframes – Scorsese was influenced by Citizen Kane and Tarantino was influenced by Scorsese!

Now the guppies – YouTube videos. Any new trend in YouTube content will be discussed, mimicked, iterated, improved and remixed over just days or weeks. It’s much closer to the “view source” era of website creation than it is to film. During my time at the company I was consistently amazed by how quickly formats would spread and, mostly, how willing the creators were to share their tips and techniques.

In some ways you can think about these differences impacting design principles for systems depending on the outcome you want to bias towards. Systems which have evolutionary friction, prevent easy cut/copy/paste, restrict creation to a small group of individuals – these are likely to be more static and predictable but produce a certain type of complex work. On the other hand, if you support remixing, sustain longtail content and foster collaboration, your system will be more chaotic but also evolve faster and more broadly. Professionally I spent my operating years in the latter (Second Life, AdSense, YouTube) and *loved* the creator population we supported.