The battle to become the Mexican Nubank just started

Banks in Latin America have long dominated the market as oligopolies, becoming highly profitable but not serving well the population.

In the region, Brazil was the first market to have the banks’ oligopoly challenged by neobanks, with Nubank proving that it was possible to break them up. Providing a superior product and exceptional customer support, it was able to attract more than 15 million customers, valuing the company at an astonishing US$10 billion in its latest round.

Although Brazil has been the center of the neobanks’ emergence in Latin America, attention has been shifting toward another country in the region.

The Mexican opportunity

Mexico, the second-largest economy in the region, has become a relevant market for the fintechs in the region.

The reason is not exactly the most flattering; Mexico is a large country with almost 130 million population, but a large share are still unbanked. Indeed, 63% of the adult population still doesn’t have access to financial services, according to the Global Findex database, and banks haven’t been able (or are not interested) to serve them.

Furthermore, Mexicans are very suspicious of banks because of their lack of transparency, as well as recent financial crises.

Because of this skepticism toward banks, together with a cash-based economy, 90% of all consumer transactions are still made in cash, which prompts a rather peculiar situation — twice a month (quincena) there are long lines at ATMs all across the country with people withdrawing all their wages.

On the other hand, Mexico has a digitally engaged population (Mexico is the fifth largest market for Facebook, ninth for YouTube and the third for Uber), with high smartphone penetration (85.8% according to The Competitive Intelligence Unit).

All these elements put together create a rather attractive opportunity for the emergence of neobanks.

Mexico becomes the next battleground

Mexico had a few neobank pioneers in the past couple of years; Bankaool launched its services in 2015, but was too early in the market; later on came Broxel and Albo in 2016 followed by Flink in 2018.

However, the market started to garner more attention in April 2018 when the Iranian Matin Tamizi raised US$2 million from Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) and Kaszek Ventures to create a neobank in Mexico (Cuenca). It is interesting to note that Matin, at that time, had never been to Mexico and only had a slide deck to demonstrate the opportunity.

Neobanks aren’t the only ones trying to get a share of the Mexican wallets.

This event, together with the success of neobanks in Brazil, sparked attention for the potential of the market.

A couple of months after, Albo announced a Series A, raising US$7.4 million. It is currently the leading player in the market, with 150,000 customers and the third debit card issuer in Mexico.

Shortly thereafter, Fondeadora raised a US$1.5 million seed round to enter the neobank market, pivoting from a crowdfunding platform.

Late in September, a new entrant closed a relevant round; Klar raised US$7.5 million in equity and US$50 million in debt financing with the goal to become the “Chime of Mexico.”

Vexi is another player in the market, though it is focused on providing credit cards to people at the base of the pyramid. It has issued, so far, more than 20,000 credit cards and, recently, raised US$2 million in equity and US$1 million in debt financing.

Regional and international players are also becoming interested in the opportunity. The Brazilian giant Nubank announced this year officially that it would be expanding there. From overseas, the leading Spanish neobank, Bnext, announced it would be entering the Mexican market, fueled by a fresh new round of €22.5 million. Different from other neobanks, Bnext partners with fintechs and financial institutions to provide services to its customers via a marketplace.

Nonetheless, there are rumors that other heavyweights, such as the Europeans Revolut and N26, are planning to enter the market, as well as the Argentinian Ualá.

Neobanks aren’t the only ones trying to get a share of the Mexican wallets. Many tech companies such as Cabify, Weex and Rappi are launching digital wallets and issuing debit cards, leveraging their large user base.

To add a final spice to the market, traditional banks are making a significant effort to improve their digital offers — some even going as far as launching digital branchless initiatives. The Spanish Banco Sabadell entered the Mexican market with a full digital strategy, while Banregio (a local medium-sized bank) launched Hey Banco, a new digital account.

On the sidelines, there also are a few neobanks focusing on a different segment. Oyster and Evva are targeting the unattended market of freelancers, startups and SMEs, long neglected by the incumbents.

The stage is set for an upcoming battle

Although the market is still in its early stage with just a handful of neobanks with running services, the stage is set for an amusing upcoming battle. Most players will be launching in the next couple of months, which will trigger a race for acquiring customers and raising more money.

This competition will definitely change the landscape of the financial industry in Mexico, bringing better and more affordable services to its population.

It will be indubitably interesting to watch how the market will unfold in the following years, and the prize for the winners can be quite attractive, as Nubank proved in Brazil.

With Alibaba, Pivotal and Lightbend on board, Reactive flexes its ROI muscle in the microservices world

The Linux Foundation recently announced the launch of the Reactive Foundation. Its founding members are Alibaba, Lightbend, Pivotal and Netifi. So what exactly is this Reactive Kool-Aid, and why are all these companies guzzling it down so fast?

If you buy the premise that developers live in a cloud-native microservices world, then you also understand that most applications are distributed and elastic. The compute is spread across clusters, as is all the data. It could be a few users, or a spike of thousands. Systems need to be architected to handle these spikes. Yet the dark secret of microservices is complexity — the management of resources, costs, performance and latency remain a challenge.

If we break down any application into hundreds of moving parts (such as containers and microservices), then we better have an elegant way to manage those moving parts. These services need to talk to each other, exchange data and ensure that overall performance is reliable, at all times. Easier said than done.

The “big unsolved problem of the cloud”

According to Daniel Berg, Distinguished Engineer at IBM Cloud, “The network is the unsolved problem of the cloud…. We need the network to be a first-class citizen of a cloud system.” Why does the network remain a problem? Is it because we fall back on our old ways, when we need to rethink the new? We have designed the car with the big clunky wheels of a horse buggy. Conceptually, it sounds fine — but it can be a pretty rough ride.

In the layered cake of network protocols, we have the middle layer of transportation (Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol or TCP/IP), and right at the top, we have the application layer. We use a protocol called hypertext transfer protocol (or HTTP) to make sure the web applications can talk to each other. TCP was born in 1974 and is called a “chatty protocol” — it has to go back and forth many times just to do some basic stuff. A TCP joke circulating around proves this point.

HTTP Joke

HTTP came in 15 years later, in 1989, and was used to serve documents in a client-server era. This was when we all had desktops being cooled with whirring fans. We would use a Netscape browser to launch a web page (hypertext) and the web-server would say, “Wait a sec – let me fetch that for you.”

Three decades later, we are trying to make do with HTTP, when the compute layer has exploded. Does HTTP work in the world of millions of interactions with machine-to-machine communications? Our mobile, IoT and edge devices are not quite requesting pages and walls of text. And there is no client-server as much as peer-to-peer exchange. But the network layer is stuck with us and we are trying to make sure these microservices can stay put using some archaic methodologies. “As much as 89% of all microservices architecture is based on HTTP, says Stéphane Maldini, principal software engineer at Pivotal. Pivotal is one of the founding members of the Reactive Foundation. In the process, we are creating a big trade-off in efficiency. We are still using two cans and a piece of string to communicate, when we should use the next iPhone.

HTTP is unsuitable for microservices

If we use HTTP in the micro-services world, we have fundamental challenges. For one, there is no flow control — “which means that data flows from a fire hose,” says Robert Roeser, co-founder of Netifi. Because the data can be dumped at a rapid pace, and multiple threads are opened up, we end up building control features to ensure the application does not crash.

Reactive programming is a paradigm shift at the architectural level. It’s about speed and performance.

Stuff like circuit breakers, retry logic, thundering herd (where a large number of processes wake up, but only one wins, often leading to freezing up) needs to be managed effectively. In HTTP, everything is a request / response, but if we look at a simple notification for an app, we don’t need to keep polling all the time. The request is like a grumpy kid sitting in the backseat whimpering, “Are we there yet?,” when the journey has just begun.

Such inefficient mechanisms cause a huge waste of compute resources when we use the wrong protocol. IBM documented the inefficiency of microservices and concluded that the performance of the microservices is ~ 79% (s)lower than the monolithic model. “We identified that Node.js and Java EE runtime libraries for handling HTTP communication consumed significantly more CPU cycles in the microservice model than in the monolithic one,” conclude the researchers.

Goodbye HTTP, hullo Reactive

The Reactive Foundation sits under the Linux Foundation and aims to accelerate the next generation of networked technologies. It espouses the merits of Reactive Programming Frameworks and builds the community. Ryland Degnan, chair of the Reactive Foundation and co-founder of Netifi, lived the HTTPain while he was a member of the Netflix edge platform.

Ryland understands scale, latency and user experience better than most people. At Netflix, the platform would have billions of requests from over several hundred million members. He says, “We live in a multi-dimensional universe where user experience matters. Developers have to deal with three axes of (a) deployments (b) frameworks and (c) protocols. Spotty connections are unacceptable. Why can’t we pick the stream up from where you left off? If we do that alone, we reduce 90% of our infrastructure.”

Indeed, Facebook has adopted RSocket to reduce the dropped connections over mobile network hops and reduced its edge infrastructure significantly. Steve Gury, a software engineer at Facebook speaking at SpringOne Platform said, “The future is R-Socket.”

Reactive programming is a paradigm shift at the architectural level. It’s about speed and performance. One of the major strengths of Reactive is asynchronous I/O, which allows reduction of edge infrastructure by orders of magnitude.

Andy Shi, developer advocate at AliCloud (a unit of Alibaba), is one of the founding members of the Reactive Foundation. He says, “Alibaba has thousands of developers as we are one of the world’s biggest e-commerce platforms. As we adopt microservices and see that compute is utilized only around 10%, throwing more infrastructure at the service mesh is not the answer. Pods are talking to each other using REST API which is not the way to go.”

REST APIs require multiple endpoints and round trips to get the data. Another founding member of the Reactive Foundation, Viktor Klang, deputy CTO at Lightbend, has been evangelizing Reactive for well over a decade, and feels like the time has finally come. “Our systems need to produce results in the required time frame. Imagine if you could compute an answer to a grand question — like the meaning of life — but if the answer is delivered after you die, the system has failed,” he says.

Comparing service meshes and use cases

While Istio is the 18-wheeler truck best suited for lift and shift, RSocket is the Ferrari — speed and elegance. Experts foresee a world where the two may coexist. Yet there are applications, such as IoT use cases, where RSocket has a clear edge (pun intended). Istio offers load balancing, service discovery, logging and traffic management but with heavy overhead.

In studies, Netifi was able to process 16X more requests and delivered four times higher throughput in comparison while maintaining three times better latency — 372% faster throughput with 300% less latency. “Netifi has the potential to be like a Cisco — the router of the microservices,” says Creighton Hicks, investor at Dell Technology Capital.

Istio was launched by Google, IBM and Lyft, so it is a strong incumbent and with serious brand cachet. But when the likes of Alibaba and Facebook start to showcase the RSocket ROI, the fun has just begun. During a recent presentation in London, the Reactive mafia was in full swing. Ondrej Lehecka, a software engineer at Facebook, and Andy Shi talked about how RSocket is addressing real-world architectural challenges. Shi said, “RSocket is designed to shine in the era of microservice and IoT devices. Projects built on top of RSocket protocol and Reactive streams in general will disrupt the landscape of microservices architecture. The Reactive Foundation is the hub of these exciting projects.”

The budding industry of cannabis tech

From food and drink to health and wellness and beyond, there’s one plant we can’t seem to get enough of: cannabis. It seems like every consumer product nowadays is taking part in reefer madness.

Home cooks are taking edibles to new heights. In places like Denver and California, you can take cooking classes specifically centered around food made with Mary Jane. The editors of Vice’s “Munchies” even put out a cookbook last year called Bong Appétit: Mastering the Art of Cooking with Weed. And it’s only one of many.

But marijuana culture today isn’t all based around the stuff you (er, people you know) smoked in college. Cannabis, long known for its medicinal and therapeutic purposes, is a hot commodity in food tech and other consumer products nowadays. Far more than just a way to get high, cannabis in its various forms has been used medically throughout history and in modern times as a treatment for pain and nausea, and has been found anecdotally or in limited studies to treat glaucoma, epilepsy and anxiety, among other conditions and symptoms. Businesses have caught on, and not a moment too soon.

The food products that utilize marijuana are a far cry from the old classic pot brownies (not that there’s anything wrong with those!). Thanks to modern science, producers are able to separate the two main chemical compounds found in marijuana: THC and CBD. THC has therapeutic benefits, but it’s best known as the part of weed that gets you high. This is because it’s a psychoactive compound. CBD, on the other hand, is not psychoactive — it can (supposedly) provide many of the anti-anxiety, analgesic benefits of the plant without producing a high. For obvious reasons, this gives marijuana a new appeal. It’s now possible to reap the benefits of the plant without experiencing intoxication, so you can lessen anxiety or pain while still functioning normally.

It’s worth noting at this point that many of the health benefits of CBD and cannabis in general are not scientifically proven in statistically significant, peer-reviewed studies. This is for a number of reasons, most significantly that marijuana is still a Schedule 1 controlled substance under federal law in the U.S., making legality an issue in its study.

Clearly, the lack of scientific evidence isn’t diminishing anyone’s desire for herbal refreshment.

But what CBD and other cannabis products lack in evidence, they make up for with enthusiasm. Companies and consumers alike are eager to try CBD in various products, from food to oils to skincare, in hopes of treating anxiety, sleeplessness and other woes. If you live in a place where CBD products are legal, you’ve probably seen them everywhere. Newsweek reported that CBD sales are estimated to grow 40-fold in the next four years, reaching a value of $23 billion. The big business of marijuana and CBD — California-based Arena Pharmaceuticals is the biggest publicly traded cannabis company in the world — is only growing.

You can already find CBD candies and oils at major national retail chains like CVS and Walgreens, and in states and municipalities where it’s legal, green connoisseurs can order CBD-infused lattes and cocktails. Even retailers like Sephora, Neiman Marcus and Barneys are selling curated displays of CBD-infused beauty and skincare products. The aforementioned Newsweek article reports that big names like Coca-Cola and Molson Coors Brewing are among the hordes of companies already working on their own CBD products. Clearly, the lack of scientific evidence isn’t diminishing anyone’s desire for herbal refreshment.

Except for the FDA, that is. The legality of marijuana and CBD is a confusing and often contradictory topic, and a hard one to keep track of because it’s changing all the time at the federal, state and municipal levels. But what can be ascertained is that because so much of the CBD industry is operating outside of any kind of government oversight, legally or otherwise, the quality of products can vary widely. This is something about which the FDA and independent doctors and pharmaceutical experts have raised concerns. Apart from companies making unfounded claims about the effects of their products, the actual ingredient makeup may be inconsistent, with some products containing less CBD than their labels claim. Little regulation and nascent standards of quality mean consumers might not always know what they’re getting.

But given the broad interest in CBD, that’s unlikely to remain the case forever. The FDA may have started cracking down on extralegal CBD product sales, but in the grand scheme of things, that only means that the agency recognizes the significance of the compound. CBD probably isn’t going away anytime soon, and among the food, drug, health and cosmetic industries, the race to do it best and biggest has already begun.

Sequoia shares wisdom with Disrupt SF Battlefield competitors and Startup Alley Top Picks

Editor’s note: James Buckhouse is design partner at Sequoia. 

Last Tuesday, the teams competing in Startup Battlefield at Disrupt SF, as well as founders chosen as Top Picks in Startup Alley, visited Sequoia Capital’s office in San Francisco for a discussion with partners Jess Lee, Roelof Botha, Mike Vernal, Alfred Lin and James Buckhouse. The following is a partial transcript of the session, which was moderated by Buckhouse.

James Buckhouse: We partner from idea to IPO and beyond, but it’s partnering at the idea stage that we love the most — that moment when anything is possible. And it’s happened throughout Sequoia’s history. YouTube incubated in our office. Dropbox was an unreleased demo. Stripe didn’t have a single line of code. Apple was just two dudes named Steve. And so our favorite place to be is in the earliest moments.

We’re not here tonight to share with you lessons of our great wisdom on how company building ought to go. We’re here tonight to say that we understand how hard it is. And the three partners that you’ve got here to talk with tonight — Roelof BothaJess Lee and Mike Vernal — are people who have actually been in the trenches building companies themselves.

Customers

James Buckhouse: Great companies like Apple, Amazon and Zoom all have this one thing in common: customer obsession. That’s an easy thing to think about when you already have a billion customers, and you already have a bunch of money. But what do you do when you’re at the pre-seed stage and you want to be customer-obsessed but you don’t even have a product yet, let alone any customers? How do you even begin?

Jess Lee: I think at the very earliest of stages, all that really matters is product market fit. A common mistake we see is that a founder is only obsessed with the product, and then goes on to think, “I have my product. Let me go find a market that works for this,” when it should actually be the other way around. You should look at the market first, and then get to know the customers in that market by doing customer research.

There’s a great book by Erika Hall where she discusses how to ask the right questions to customers in order to really understand their pain points, their motivations and their needs. That’s a hallmark of some of the best companies that we’ve seen, even at the earliest stages. They spend a lot of time talking to customers and understanding what they want. Something we at Sequoia like to recommend when we work with seed and pre-seed-stage companies is to actually take the time to write down a set of customer personas. Who are your prototypical or your archetypes of different types of customers? In the very early days, you might think, “I know the customer. I can remember this. I don’t need to write it down.” But as soon as you add one new team member, who maybe isn’t as familiar with your customer, a lot of things get lost in translation.

For my company Polyvore, which was in the women’s fashion space, I had a lot of engineers on my team who were men and didn’t understand women’s fashion very well. I would always beat my head against the wall wondering why a feature they designed didn’t quite make sense, and it’s because we did the personas exercise a little bit too late. It made me wish we’d done it earlier. Once we had three very clear personas, I started to notice everything ran more smoothly. I found, whether it was the sales team or the engineering team, people started to clearly communicate the idea of what our customer really wanted. People made better decisions at all levels. That’s why at Sequoia we always encourage even our earliest-stage companies to write their customer research down immediately, way before they think they need it.

Product

James Buckhouse: How does an early-stage startup make sure that they’re on the right track and building the right product?

Mike Vernal: The key thing to me is actually not being data-driven; it’s much more about being hypothesis-driven. The problem is people think about product as art. But I actually think of product as being equal parts art and science. And I think the science part of it, which is really important, especially at an early stage, is being clear about what your hypotheses are, what you think is going to work, why you think it’s going to work and really sort of pressure-testing that on a logical level. And, if you are able to, actually pressure-testing it with real data.

One of Jess’s techniques, which I think is great, is the notion of fake doors. If you want to know whether something’s actually going to hum in the market, whether people are going to care about it, build a landing page for it. Build a sign-up button for it. Run a bunch of ads for it. Test a bunch of different marketing copy and see if people actually want the product. I’ve seen a bunch of companies use this to great effect.

I think that in general the mistakes people make with product is, one, being too artistic and not scientific enough about things. And then two, to Jess’s point, the most important thing before you have a product is finding product market fit. Usually, finding product market fit in a category is a function of two or three important things. Identifying those important things and testing them to get clarity around that first, then designing the full product, is way better than just starting with a masterpiece, and then slowly painting over and over the masterpiece until you get to something that is great.

James Buckhouse: For enterprise companies, Roelof, can you talk a little bit about the Sales Ready Product and Templeton compression approach?

Roelof Botha: If you go to our website and search for Sequoia Sales Ready Product or Templeton, you’ll find very useful content that we put together. The insight came from one of the best leaders that we’ve worked with, in a variety of companies, who argued to not just go for an MVP, a Minimal Viable Product, if you’re building an enterprise company, but what he termed a Sales Ready Product, an SRP.

The difference is that a Minimal Viable Product just gets over the hurdle but doesn’t convince your customer to jump out of their seats to buy your product. When we invested in Cisco in the late 1980s, the first product they shipped had so many bugs it didn’t work. But the product solved such an important need for the customer that they came back to Cisco and asked if they could fix it since they needed the product to work so badly because there was a fundamental problem in trying two networks at the time. And that to me was a Sales Ready Product. You’ve got something that, even if it’s not perfect, really solves your customer’s pain point.

And so to condense the whole theory behind this: Spend a little bit more time, probably another three months, maybe another four, five months, from when you would otherwise ship an MVP to ship an SRP. The reason it matters for an enterprise company is that your sales organization will be so much more effective. Your sales team will ramp up a curve far more steeply and you’ll get sales momentum much, much faster if you sell an SRP.

Culture

James Buckhouse: I’m going to do something a little bit unexpected here and call on Alfred in the back. Could you talk a little bit about what it was like at Airbnb, where they started with culture very early on?

Alfred Lin: Brian, Joe and Nate came and visited Zappos, where we offered tours, to see what the culture was all about (Alfred was COO of Zappos). At Zappos, we started writing down our core values a little late, when we were at about 300 people. And I told Brian, Joe and Nate that that was too late.

After that trip, they went back and wrote down their core values, before hiring their first employee. They knew that they had to create a new category. Home-sharing was not something that people really thought about. And so they needed people who were willing to champion the mission. And that was one of the first core values that they wrote down.

James Buckhouse: Oftentimes, people think that culture is the thing you do later on, once your business has grown large and suddenly you have a lot of people. But that’s not true. Culture matters a lot more than people think. And it matters earlier than people think. Jess, can you talk about your framework on core values?

Jess Lee: This is something we spend a lot of time on with seed and pre-seed companies, who think, “Oh, I already know my culture. I’ll wait to write it down later.” But it’s important to get it right up front. We encourage people to not pick too many core values. Generally, you want a framework that’s a core value and the behaviors you want that exemplify that core value. And most importantly, you need a story. You need some legendary anecdote or example from inside the company that really brings the core value to life.

To use Airbnb as an example, one of its core values is to be a cereal entrepreneur. The reason it’s cereal with a “C” is because at the time, Airbnb was running out of money. They weren’t sure they had product market fit, but they went to the Democratic National Convention to try the Airbnb idea when they were down to the wire in terms of money. In order to just get the word out about the business they made boxes of cereal that said “Obama-Os” and “Captain McCain.” It’s a good example of rolling up your sleeves and doing whatever it takes to get your business launched. Somehow, they actually managed to generate revenue that they put back into the business. The really memorable part of that is the cereal anecdote. Whatever it might be at your company, make sure that the lore lives on. That’s really what brings culture to life. It’s not just the value itself.

James Buckhouse: Roelof, can you talk a little bit about the culture at PayPal in the early days?

Roelof Botha: There are a couple of elements in that. One is this idea of intercept versus slope. For those of you that are fans of math or science, it comes naturally, but sometimes you get to hire people who have a high intercept. They have a lot of experience. In our case, we needed to hire people who knew a lot about financial services, because we as the early, young team didn’t. You hire people with intercept, but then you want people with slope. People who are going to learn very quickly. And at the end of the day, part of what made PayPal successful was that we had a good slope and we learned very, very quickly.

Our culture was very hard-working. We faced a bit of a crunch in June of 2000. We’d raised a bunch of money during the dot-com era, and then we were sitting with seven months of runway and no revenue, burning $10 million a month. It was a “you’re all-in” culture. Management meetings were on Saturdays, because that’s the kind of sacrifice we were going to make as a team to get to the other side. Culture was really important to the success of the company. We had a strong bond between us as team members because we were in the trenches. We had to figure out how to make this business work when the odds were against us and the press had given up on us.

Most people on the outside are going to think that you’re going to fail. Expect that. Don’t be surprised by that. Draw strength from that, and rally your team around your cause. You should ignore that kind of feedback.

Leadership

James Buckhouse: How do you discern a strong founding team?

Roelof Botha: My favorite, especially with companies at the seed stage, is to have no slides and to have a conversation with you about your business. What I find compelling is, the more I dig, the more excited I get, because your depth of knowledge, of understanding the problem that you’re trying to solve, shows itself. There are a lot of people who start companies for the wrong reasons, and they have very superficial knowledge. So as soon as you start to pressure test it, it’s clear that there’s no depth.

The founders who are the best are the ones that are so motivated to solve the problem they’re working on, they’ve researched everything. You would have found a simpler solution to the problem if you could, and you didn’t. That inspired you to start this company. As I ask you questions, you just have this depth of knowledge. You’ve thought about it so many levels deep. Those founders are the ones that keep coming up with new ideas, and that’s why their imitators don’t do so well. We see this in our industry. You come up with a great idea, TechCrunch writes about it, everybody around the world reads about it and now you’ve got 15 competitors in other countries going after what you’re doing. But guess what? They didn’t have the idea, you did. Since you had the original idea, you’ve thought about it more deeply and you can iterate faster than they can.

James Buckhouse: Jess, how about you? What do you look for to discern a strong founding team?

Jess Lee: I do agree, and I think different investors look for very different things. There is probably a notion of founder/investor fit to some extent. For me, I especially appreciate a unique insight and depth of understanding of that customer and that market. But on top of that, the other thing I think about is grit. I think that being a founder is so hard. I felt like I was on the struggle bus the entire time. Either we weren’t doing well, which was a struggle, or we were doing really well and then we were in a state of hyper-growth, and that’s also really hard. Your job changes underneath you every six months. Because even if you’re successful, everything that used to work for you as the CEO or founder is now broken because your team is now 50 people instead of 10.

What is it driving you, to either solve this problem or just driving you in general? Because it’s just not easy, and folks who give up too easily or came into this because they thought being a founder was going to be really cool, it’s not that cool all the time, so I look for that. Sometimes it shows up in the form being really mission-driven, and you have some burning desire to solve the problem. Sometimes it’s just that you’ve been underestimated your whole life and you’re really mad about it, and you want to prove yourself. There are a lot of different ways to suss out grit, but that’s one big thing that I look for.

One thing I also like to see, that is not a must-have but I find very compelling, is if you’re a good storyteller. I think that at the end of the day you have to convince your family that you’re not crazy for quitting your job to pursue this thing. You’ve got to convince early employees to join you when you can’t pay them any money. You’ve got to convince early-stage seed investors to take a chance on you and give you money when there is nothing there yet. And you’ve got to convince customers. Being able to tell a good story, both taking something complicated and making it sound simple, as well as being able to influence and talk about why your approach is interesting and different, not just better than the competitors. I look for that as well. I think that’s important.

One area where I do disagree with Roelof is that I do prefer to see slides. I think it showcases your storytelling ability. I look at a lot of consumer companies and your attention to design and detail is also an interesting thing that you can suss out with slides.

James Buckhouse: How about you, Mike?

Mike Vernal: If you can’t describe the business in a minute or two, then you need to keep iterating. Some bad meetings end up as the following: Someone will come in with 40 slides and want to convey all of the knowledge in the 40 slides in excruciating detail.

I think a couple of things. One is, many investors look at a lot of companies all day long so they might actually know more about your space than you might think. Then two, if you need 40 minutes to explain the business, marketing and all of these other things, then for an investor meeting that might work because you have that time scheduled, but for the random engineer you meet at a party who you want to get excited about joining your company, that’s going to be really hard.

The best pitch is when I’m two minutes in and I’m like, “I get the business. This is super interesting. Let’s ask all these questions.” The tough ones are 40 minutes of being talked at, where there is no real interaction.

Capital strategies

James Buckhouse: Different types of companies need different types of capital strategies. How do you all think about how founders ought to think about their strategy for capital?

Jess Lee: It’s really important to think about three things: First, what is the actual cash you need for your business? If you’re a pure software business you don’t usually need as much as if you’re building hardware or you’re making physical goods.

Second, what is the valuation that actually makes sense? True valuation, when you become a public company, when you do M&A, is actually a function of your free cash flow, or a multiple of your revenue, so just being able to understand in the long, long-term what is a likely five, 10-year-out valuation, and then making sure you don’t overshoot that just because you can. That’s another first principle.

The third thing is ownership. Doing the math, if you don’t need to raise a lot of money, if you don’t need to raise as many rounds, at the end of the day when ideally your company is acquired for hundreds of millions of dollars, or billions of dollars, or you IPO, what is your ownership at that moment? We have founders like Dropbox, that when they went public, Drew and Arash owned nearly 40% of the company. So you have to think — would you rather have 40% of a $10 billion company, or would you rather have 2% of a $20 billion company? That ownership at the end of the day is really important. So you have to think about those three things, which is a pretty complicated equation.

It really hit home for me when my company, Polyvore, went through the M&A process and it suddenly hit me that all the acquirers were not using funny VC math. They were looking at our cash flow and the multiple of revenue. Luckily, we hadn’t raised that much money, as I’d wanted to keep as much ownership as possible. I was optimizing for ownership for the team. Because of that, we actually had a really nice outcome, where everybody made money because we hadn’t over-raised since we didn’t need to. We were a pure software-based, capital-efficient kind of company, but I think not enough founders think about that from first principles, starting from the early days. They just look at who’s raising what, and how much they could possibly get. They want to maximize that, when in reality, it’s not actually the right way to think about it.

Roelof Botha: When you raise money, you’re recruiting a partner. I see too many companies, especially seed-stage companies, make the mistake of accepting funding from whoever shows up, when that’s probably the most expensive equity you’ll ever sell in your business. You could potentially be selling it to people that are not going to be there six months or six years from now, helping you close a candidate, helping you wrestle with an important strategic decision or helping you refine your business model. Those people aren’t going to be there, so it’s a recruiting decision. Take it seriously. It’s also important to check their references. Your investor is going to do references on you. Why aren’t you doing references on them?

The future of sports tech: Here’s where investors are placing their bets

Sports have always been the ultimate unifier — transcending geographic borders, rising above partisan politics and enabling multiple audiences (and generations) to find alignment — the little-known secret behind this global unifier? Technology.

Technology influences how athletes train and compete, how fans engage and consume content and how world-class venues are constructed. Technology has been quietly transforming the world of sports for years, with investment in areas like esports continuing to rise, surpassing a total of $2.5 billion in VC funding in 2018 — and some estimates predicting the sports tech sector will reach $30 billion by 2024.

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics less than a year away, a massive amount of investment and innovation are pouring into the sports technology industry ahead of this globally unifying event. But which technologies are making the biggest impact? Where are investors placing their bets? Which sports are at the forefront of the technology revolution and which factors are holding the industry back?

In an attempt to pull the curtain back on the sports tech industry, we conducted a survey, The Current State of Sports Technology, of industry experts, including investors, founders and professionals from teams, leagues and media properties, to answer these very questions. Below you’ll find some key takeaways from our findings, pointing to the areas we believe the industry is headed in the year to come.

Fan engagement technologies, including live streaming and esports, are set to make the largest impact on sports in the next 12 months

When asked about which technologies would make the biggest impact on the sports industry in the next 12 months, an overwhelming 78% selected fan engagement technologies, such as live streaming, esports and content platforms, compared to technologies related to athlete performance (16%) and stadium experience (6%). Respondents also believe that this will hold true for the upcoming 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

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“Anticipating the next fan engagement trend is critical, whether you’re a team, brand or media company,” says Tom Masterman, global head of Publisher Sales at Genius Sports Media, a leading provider of sports data and technology solutions. “Tokyo 2020 will be a make-or-break event for startups as well as incumbent technologies.”

Having worked on two Olympics at previous digital media companies, Masterman is aware of how quickly the Games come and go. “Among the questions that will keep many of us up at night include, ‘Will fans adopt my tech? Is my sponsorship integration a good experience? Did I choose the right channel partners?’ ”

Top three technologies for investment: Media and content-related platforms; measurement platforms for data, analytics and biometrics; and esports

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From an investment perspective, media and content-related platforms, esports and measurement platforms for data, analytics and biometrics were among the top three areas of interest. Other notable areas include athlete tech and performance optimization, in-venue technology, gambling and gaming and recovery health and home fitness. This is a powerful indication of where venture capital funding focus is trending, given that more than 50% of respondents, coming from a wide array of areas in the industry, identified themselves as investors.

“As investors, we see cyclicality in every industry except sports, which has the biggest consumer ecosystem. Sports had been a very traditional industry powered by legacy tech, but now with the advent of streaming, sports content media distribution is decentralized via social media platforms,” says Gayatri Sarkar, managing partner at Hype Capital, who offered her take on this investment trend. “The sports market has the opportunity to be a multitrillion-dollar ecosystem with technological advances such as 5G, digital collectible trading and the rise of esports, which will fuel new market and social behavior. As the infusion of deep tech continues in smart venue, gambling, performance biometrics and many more sub verticals where data is the engine, we’ll naturally see more and more deep tech investors entering the sports investment landscape.”

Basketball and esports are at the forefront of technology

While esports is a likely leader in the use of technology, with 79% of respondents placing it in the top three category, basketball remains the top pick, with 87% placing the traditional sport at the forefront of innovation.

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As a former NBA-er*, this comes as no big surprise. The league has always been known as a thought-leader in technology and innovation, and their dominance is what is driving the sport’s tech-savvy DNA on a global level.

When talking to Tom Hunt, EVP, Business Operations at the Sacramento Kings about his take on innovation in the NBA, he placed technology as a top priority. Golden 1 Center is one of the most technologically advanced and connected indoor arenas in the world, and serves as our 21st Century communal fireplace,” said Hunt. “We’ve been at the forefront of leveraging technologies such as AI, AR, blockchain and esports (Kings Guard Gaming/NBA 2K) to deepen connections to our brands while customizing and personalizing frictionless fan experiences remains core to our mission.”

That being said, I’d make a bet that baseball-related technology will catch up very quickly. We’ve seen several startups currently working with baseball clubs — enhancing everything from a player’s cognitive reactions to the ways in which your food is delivered to you at ballparks.

What’s holding back sports tech adoption?

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Respondents cited several factors holding back sports technology adoption, with the top three reasons, similar to many non-traditional technology sectors, being unqualified decision makers, risk aversion and cost.

While there’s plenty of blame to go around (and everyone can assume a degree of responsibility), startups in the space need to validate their business model outside of a core sports stakeholder. They need to realize revenue from more than just sports teams, leagues and properties — organizations that have historically reinforced the leading responses to this question. More importantly, relationships with these audiences require long sales cycles and traditionally represent “cents on the dollar” in comparison to partnerships with other industry (e.g. brands) and non-industry (e.g. military, retail, airline, etc.) opportunities.

Parting thoughts

The sports tech industry has and continues to suffer from massive amounts of fragmentation. Whether it be by geography, industry area of focus or funding stage, sports tech startups are missing the community that it has enabled others to realize.

There is a historic opportunity to bring this community together, and when we do, the legacy that we create will be one of continued growth and opportunity — perpetuating the current influx of capital into the space and reinforcing the notion that sports are truly the ultimate unifier.

*I worked for the NBA for more than four years in Global Business Development.

Privacy in a digital world

Technological progress has created a situation of severe tension and incompatibility between the right to privacy and the extensive data pooling on which the digital economy is based. This development requires new thinking about the substance of that right.

In the last decade, both governments and giant corporations have become data miners, collecting information about every aspect of our activities, behavior and lifestyle. New and inexpensive forms of data storage and the internet connectivity revolution — not only in content, but in fact — in just about everything (from smart appliances to nanobots inside people’s bodies) — enable the constant transmission of big data from sensors and data-collection devices to central “brains”; the artificial intelligence revolution has made it possible to analyze the masses of data gathered in this way.

The intensive collection of data and the inherent advantages of the new technology have spawned the cynical idea that privacy is dead, and we might as well just get used to that fact. In what follows, I will describe three aspects of the right to privacy that have become especially relevant in the digital world. I will then demonstrate that not only is privacy still alive and kicking, but also that we should treat it with the respect it deserves as the most important of all human rights in the digital world.

The first perspective on privacy in the digital world is the idea that the appropriate reaction to the massive pooling of data is to enhance this right, so that we all have better control over our personal information. Individuals should be able to choose what space within their personal domain can be accessed by others and to control the manner, scope and timing of its exposure.

From this perspective, and in a different and more extreme fashion than with regard to other human rights, the borders of the right to privacy allow for compromise and flexibility. Thanks to this control, I — as an individual — have the right to view the content of databases containing information about me. Furthermore, no one is allowed to make any use of this information without my consent, except in extraordinary circumstances. I retain the privilege to agree to the terms of use before I download an app onto my cell phone or began to use freeware — product categories whose economic model rests on commercializing my personal data.

Above all, we need to understand the limits of privacy as control.

This approach is reflected in the regulations requiring my consent for others to make use of and process personal data, ensure my access to data about myself and stipulate that I can have it deleted, corrected or transferred to a different company.

But there is one serious problem with this approach: It is utter fiction. It simply isn’t possible to speak about consent to violations of privacy in a world in which data is processed in many ways and for many purposes, some of which cannot be foreseen at the time when consent is granted. Furthermore, every beginning scholar of behavioral psychology will tell you that no one reads the terms of use, even when they are phrased concisely or displayed in large print — neither of which is the case, of course.

Were this not enough, there is also the psychological phenomenon of the “privacy paradox,” which refers to the discrepancy between the concept of privacy reflected in what users say (“I care deeply about my privacy”) and their actual behavior (“A free pizza? Fantastic! What information do you need?”)

The downside of the notion of privacy as control is that our control of our personal data is quite fictional. There is an overall problem — whereby commercial entities avail themselves of huge tranches of private information without having obtained real consent for doing so. This information, in turn, can be put to various uses, some of which are of value, while others pose serious threats to society.

Above all, we need to understand the limits of privacy as control. It is clear that the best approach would be to upgrade our digital literacy and learn how to deal with the situation; but the problems noted here make this idea only minimally relevant. Perhaps the solution is to start with clearer legislation — national or international — that defines reasonable and legitimate uses of personal information and mandates companies to obtain  the consent of the individual involved, only when the proposed use does not fall into that category.

Somewhat paradoxically, the second approach to the right to privacy in a digital world relates to the most basic and classic connotation of the right to privacy — the “right to be left alone.” This refers to our right to preserve and protect our identity and maintain a safe and protected space around our body, thoughts, feelings, darkest secrets, lifestyle and intimate activities. A world with sensors and surveillance cameras all around us, along with recording devices and gadgets that are constantly monitoring what we do, has far-reaching psychological ramifications.

In the discourse on privacy, we tend to deal chiefly with questions of controlling the transmission or management of information after it has been collected, with regards to issues of data anonymization, security and encryption. But what we need at the present time is to ask whether there really is a commercial, business or public need to collect our private data so obsessively.

Against the clear advantages of technological progress, commercial convenience and even law enforcement, we must weigh the chilling effect on curiosity, on trust, on creativity, on intimate activity, on the ability to think outside the box — which is the critical spark to innovation.

What’s more, the essential feature of all digital personal assistants is the human traits (voice, face, language) with which their developers have endowed them. These devices are supposed to give us the feeling that there is another human being in the room. Researchers have shown that in contrast to our behavior with what we perceive as a machine (such as a computer or telephone), we react to humanized technology as if a real person were standing there. The right to be left alone will get a whole new meaning, then, different than in the internet age.

The third approach to the right to privacy is the idea that privacy should make it impossible for commercial or government entities to combine our personal data with big data amassed from other people in order to construct precise personality, psychological and behavioral profiles through machine learning. This phenomenon, known as the “autonomy trap,” applies to information about emotional tendencies, insecurity, sexual orientation (even of persons still in the closet), fears and anxieties and more.

The problem is that the personality profile is used for retargeting advertisements of products or services or for other facets of influencing behavior — all of it in a way that is precisely tailored to the needs associated with the profile.

In a world in which it is possible to pool and analyze information about us in order to generate buying and behavior recommendations “just for you” (purchases on Amazon, shows on Netflix, navigation guides such as Waze), we in effect are unwittingly surrendering some of our decision-making autonomy to systems that know what is the best route to our destination and what we should eat. 

Without individual privacy there is no meaning to an individual’s life.

We also are exposed to attempts at individual persuasion tailored just for us, with a power, invasiveness and capacity that did not exist in the past. Think “self-restraint preference algorithms” power devices, such as personal assistants, whose purpose is to learn as much about us as possible — what we are interested in, who our friends are, our habits, our mood — and then to help us by sending messages, making phone calls, setting appointments, ordering products or making travel reservations.

We must remember the slippery slope from the use of techniques for collecting personal information in order to offer products and services, and the use of the very same techniques to influence our thoughts, creates an autonomy trap about beliefs, and undermines our trust in democratic institutions — in brief, manipulates elections.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal in the spring of 2018 — which took the lid off the exploitation of personal data in order to sway the elections in many countries — shows that the right to privacy goes far beyond individual control of information and extends to a threat to the very possibility of conducting a sound democratic process, and thus — of protecting all human rights.

And so, in the digital world, privacy must be seen as a crucially important right for us as a society, as a collective. At the conceptual level it needs to go through the same process of evolution as its older sibling, the right to freedom of expression. Just as freedom of expression started out as the right of individuals to scream to their heart’s content, and developed into a collective right that sustains a rich and functional public discourse so that we can engage in a healthy democratic process, so too privacy must grow and develop — from the right of individuals to trade in their own data, into a collective right of defense against autonomy traps, in the context of elections and mind control.

The laws governing commercial competition will have to develop ideas that see personal data as an independent market. Antitrust agencies will have to look at the concentration of the personal data held by a single entity.

By the same token, the laws on election propaganda will have to regulate what types of personal information may not be exploited in campaigns, and determine whether there are techniques whose persuasive and manipulative powers are so great that they should be banned.

Privacy is not dead. In fact, it has become our most basic right and must be protected. Without individual privacy there is no meaning to an individual’s life, and without privacy, democracy loses all meaning.

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