Monday, December 19, 2011

Joining Genacast Ventures

After spending my entire career at startups, including one that went bust and two that got acquired, I became a big bad MBA (stop me if you’ve heard this story before), and joined the corporate development group at a [relatively] large company. While I was having fun meeting with entrepreneurs and reviewing their companies for potential acquisition, I found myself longing to be on the other side of the table. Knowing that there was booming New York Tech scene going on, I decided to jump ship and see what it was all about. After a year of exploration and learning from a bunch of super-fit, super-fun, super-smart, and super-caffeinated entrepreneurs, I am thrilled to announce that I am joining Genacast Ventures as a Senior Associate. My role at Genacast will be to give the fund a full-time presence here in the greatest city on earth, as well as to help Gil and Austin with all aspects of the venture cycle with the goal of increasing Genacast's investment pace from their already phenomenal track record.

This announcement is very exciting to me for a number of reasons:

  1. I have always been energized by startups and entrepreneurs. The thrill of the being the steward of your own destiny; the creativity of inventing your own business model; the reward and recognition not merely for making successful bets but for making any bet at all; is not something that organizations past a certain size are structurally able to offer. I am self-aware enough to recognize that I don’t have the super-high risk tolerance that Alex Taub talks about, so I see VCas my way of helping entrepreneurs by providing them capital - and hopefully more - to enable them to realize their dreams. I hope that the NY Tech community will hold me to this standard.
  2. VC has been my own dream since I first learned about it. I spent the dot-com boom with my head down, writing code, and the second two startups I worked at were not VC-funded, so I didn’t know a whit about finance until I got to business school. After about a week of flirting with private equity I learned about VC, and there was no looking back. You mean there was a job that consisted of meeting and working with entrepreneurs to help them succeed? And I could get paid for it? It was like finding out that not only does Santa Claus exist but that he’ll pay you to ride his sleigh (with all due apologies to the fact that I’m Jewish and the fact that my using this analogy may upset my family).
  3. I <3 New York. I am a product of Ellis Island. Four generations ago my great-grandparents – all eight of them, each in their own way – fled Eastern Europe and settled in the Five Boroughs. A hundred years ago my great-grandfather had a store on the Lower East Side. My paternal grandparents were raised in the Bronx; my maternal grandparents in Brooklyn. My father was born and raised in Queens, and I used to visit my grandparents there a few times a year until they moved to Florida. My grandmother tells me that she always knew I would move back to New York. I had been forced to reconcile with having to choose between tech – meaning San Francisco, Boston, or Israel (another love of mine, but that’s a story for another time) – or NY, but not both. So the opportunity to be a contributing member of the NY tech community feels like having my proverbial cake and eating it too.
  4. The New York tech scene is thriving. Or exploding. Perhaps booming. Showing huge growth. Ron Conway saysNew York has built a tech ecosystem as strong as Silicon Valley” – at a conference in San Francisco – even if Paul Graham doesn’t agree. And we’re all in it together because as PaulG did get right, if there is one thing you can count on New Yorkers for, it’s to come to our city's defense when someone hates. This will be the topic of a separate post, but let’s just say that New York was the capital of American entrepreneurship before California was even a state.
  5. Genacast is a tremendous firm, and Gil is a tremendous entrepreneur and investor. As the co-founder and CTO of TACODA, the first behavioral ad-targeting company, and Real Media, one of the first ad networks back in the mid-1990’s, Gil has been a pioneer in the Internet world. Barely three years into his second career as a VC, he has already participated in successful exits in Invite Media and Demdex, as well as the initial investments in companies like DoubleVerify and Enterproid, both of whom have recently raised significant follow on rounds (the latter of which has a very cool and intuitive product that I finally got the chance to play with the other day). I look forward to learning from him and the entrepreneurs that we invest in.
  6. As a joint venture between Gil and Comcast Ventures, Genacast brings a unique value proposition to technology entrepreneurs. As a seed fund providing the “first money in” to its portfolio companies, our interests are aligned with the entrepreneurs, including the ability to make good returns on an “early exit” rather than needing a moonshot. At the same time, if you do want to go for the home run, we have the firepower of Comcast Ventures behind us, who has invested in follow-on rounds in 3 out of 5 of our early-stage deals (although not in DoubleVerify's $10M or $33M rounds; while we often partner closely with Comcast we certainly do not require our portfolio to work with them). Similarly, if you want to work with Comcast itself, well, we know some people.
  7. Our strategy is to focus on the digital media and internet sector whose innovation is changing the world, with an additional emphasis on core technology as a differentiating factor. We believe that this is an area where our own engineering backgrounds and excitement about solving hard problems with technology allow us to add value to our partners, including our portfolio companies and our co-investors. That’s not to say that we expect a seed-stage company to have a fully built technology platform, but we are looking for founding teams whose engineering and technology chops give us confidence that they will manage to stay one step ahead of the market both on the business and technology sides. When we invest in consumer web companies like PackLate, you can be sure that they are doing something interesting on the backend.

I’ve run out of words to express my excitement, but I’ll sum it up by saying that I am humbled by the opportunity to work with Gil, Austin, the Comcast Ventures team, and all of the amazing entrepreneurs, investors, and hustlers who make this city so great. I have so much to learn and I am super excited to get to it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lean Back Reading

Dave Winer wrote an interesting blog post a couple of days ago on the app vs the web debate, entitled “Why apps are not the future.” The post was written as a rebuttal to various declarations that the web is dead and apps are the future. Dave’s thesis was that the web will triumph in the end because apps don’t have hyper-linking.

This got me to thinking about my own consumption of written content. I am a voracious consumer of the medium formerly known as “print.” I read the print versions of The Economist, New York Magazine, The New Yorker, and Time Magazine every week; I read the print version of Foreign Affairs monthly. I read the Android app versions of the New York Times and PaidContent daily, and I skim through Twitter,, Facebook, etc, which generally refer me to TechCrunch, various startup and digital media bloggers (such as Dave), and the web sites of various news organizations. Between my primary interests of digital media and international relations, I seldom run out of material.

I’ve been noticing recently that I prefer my written content sans links. The lack of links inside of apps is a feature, not a bug. I think content creators understand this, and so did Steve Jobs. Paul Graham certainly gets it; you'll never see a link in any of his essays except to the footnotes at the bottom. For lack of a better term I’ve taken to calling the experience of old-fashion, non-hyper-linked written content lean-back reading

Like everyone else I was seduced by the idea of hyper-linking to adjacent or background content when the web first started, and I confess to continuing that infatuation until recently. I hadn’t even considered the possibility of digital content without links until I started reading the NY Times on their app instead of their web site. However I’m coming to the conclusion that in-content links are a never-ending rabbit hole of distraction that actually prevent me from mentally engaging with the writing and seriously considering the thesis or opinion being expressed, rather than just linking through. Links also keep me from enjoying the quality of a journalist’s or author’s writing, which for publications like the New York Times is often very high, especially for features. Note that I am talking about aesthetics, not technology. I’m perfectly content to have the same lean-back reading experience on my smart phone as in print.

Links were great for the web when it was all early adopters who were really excited to link to each other, like Twitter @ reply shoutouts, but they were adopted wholesale into richer writing by bloggers, journalistic feature pieces, and other content they were never intended for. Blogs and online news have become so link saturated that as a writer the pressure I feel to link to the sources my ideas has reached the point where it has become a distraction and interference with my writing.

In the obsession with the provenance of ideas rather than their content, we are missing the point. Once upon a time links made sense as a way to show where other relevant information lives. However now that we have Google, there is no need to link to everything that explains each term in our writing. See something you don’t understand? Look it up. Want to read the post that inspired this piece? I’ve included enough information for you to find it pretty easy on Google. Too lazy to look it up? It probably wasn’t that important anyways. 

You get the idea.

Legal Ruling Analogizes Twitter to a Colonial-Era Bulletin Board

In United States of America vs William Lawrence Cassidy, in which Cassidy was accused of harassing a Buddhist religious leader via Twitter, the judge drew a fascinating distinction b/w public speech on Twitter and blogs on the one hand, and speech "specifically addressed to and directed at another person" such as email (and Twitter DM's one presumes?). The distinction was based on an analogy to the communications media available at the time that the Bill of Rights was written.

The judge said that a blog, or a micro-blog, was like a bulletin board that a colonist might have planted in their front yard: “If one colonist wants to see what is on another’s bulletin board, he would need to walk over to his neighbor’s yard and look at what is posted, or hire someone else to do so.”

Twitter, according to the analogy, would be like having news from one colonist’s bulletin board automatically show up on another’s. The key is that the second colonist could choose to “[turn] on or off" such a feature on his bulletin board. “This is in sharp contrast to a telephone call, letter or e-mail specifically addressed to and directed at another person,” he concluded.

I love these kinds of historical analogies to existing technology. Basic human needs hardly change over time, so every new technology should have a functional analog from an end-consumer perspective.

In this case however I think the judge's analogy is flawed. Twitter is designed for @ replies to indeed be addressed and directed at another person, despite also being public. The analogy would be something like writing an open letter in the newspaper harassing the victim, shouting at her in the town square in a voice loud enough for all to hear, or perhaps writing her a letter and distributing it to the public on a leaflet in addition to giving her a copy. I'm not a legal scholar, so have no idea what the legality of this would be.

The story was reported by the New York Times here.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

How Air-Conditioning Created Our Current Political Climate

I'm deeply fascinated by the social effects of technology, but this is a particularly good one:

Before there was a long-tail internet full of self-reinforcing blogger and social communities; before there were 24-hour news cycles and Fox News; before there was cable even; there was something even simpler and more disruptive: air-conditioning. By making life in the South more palatable to Northerners, air-conditioning changed the country's demographic landscape, which in turn changed our political landscape. The migration to the South skewed towards older individuals and retirees, who tend to be more conservative. This simultaneously made the South more conservative and the North more liberal. As the Democratic Party became more liberal, the tensions with the conservative Dixiecrats grew until they gradually and then completely shifted to the Republican party. This led first to the liberalization of the Democracts and then to the hard-line conservatism of the Republicans.

Indeed, the first secure Republican seat outside of Appalachia was St. Petersburg, FL - a winter resort - and the second was Dallas, TX.

Credit for this theory and the much more detailed research and analysis that went into it goes to Nelson Polsby, one of the foremost experts on the US Congress.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Henry Blodget is Conflicted out the Wazoo.

This disclosure comes from Blodget's article on the Silver Lake - Andreesen Bid for Yahoo. And it's awesome.
DISCLOSURE: I work for Yahoo (as a host of Yahoo Finance). I am a Yahoo shareholder (since 1998--oof). I know tons of people at Yahoo and on Yahoo's board. I know lots of Yahoo investors, many of whom I like personally. I know Marc Andreessen, Reid Hoffman, and many of the other players in this drama, and I like them personally. Marc's an investor in Business Insider, which I greatly appreciate. Yahoo and Business Insider have a syndication partnership, which I am thrilled about. Yahoo's bankers, Allen & Co, are investors in Business Insider, and I like them personally and don't like to do things that make them not like me. I have relationships with dozens of other folks that might create conflicts of one sort or another when I write about this topic. So, basically, I'm conflicted out the wazoo.