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Yesterday, we had a chance to talk with longtime venture investor Brad Feld of Foundry Group, whose book “Venture Deals” was recently republished for the fourth time, and for good reason. It’s a storehouse of knowledge, from how venture funds really work to term sheet terms, from negotiation tactics to how to choose (and pay for) the right investment banker.

Feld was generous with his time and his advice to founders, many dozens of whom had dialed in, conference-call style. In fact, you can find a full transcript of our conversation right here if you’re a member of Extra Crunch.

In the meantime, we thought we’d highlight some of our favorite parts of the conversation. One of these touches on SoftBank, an organization that Feld knows a little better than many other investors. We also discussed what happened at WeWork and specifically the difference between a cult-like leader and a visionary — and why it’s not always clear right away whether a founder is one or the other.  These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

TC: We were just talking about startups raising too much money, and speaking of which, you were involved with SoftBank long ago. Your software company had raised capital from SoftBank, then you later worked for the company as an investor. This way predates the Vision Fund, but you did know Masayoshi Son, which makes me wonder: what do you think of how they’ve been investing their capital?

BF: Just for factual reference, I was initially affiliated with SoftBank with a couple of other VCs; Fred Wilson, Rich Levandov and at the time Jerry Colonna, who now runs a company called Reboot. During that period of time, a subset of us ended up starting a fund that eventually became called Mobius Venture Capital, but it was originally called SoftBank Venture Capital or SoftBank Technology Ventures. We were essentially a fund sponsored by SoftBank, so we had SoftBank money. The partners ran the fund, but we were a central part of the SoftBank ecosystem at the time. I’d say that was probably ’95, ’96 to ’99, 2000. We changed the name of the firm to Mobius in 2001 because it was endlessly getting confused with the other [SoftBank] fund activity.

I do know a handful of the senior principals at SoftBank today very well, and I have enormous respect for them. Ron Fisher [the vice chairman of SoftBank Group] is the person I’m closest to. I have enormous respect for Ron. He’s one of my mentors and somebody I have enormous affection for.

There are endless piles of ink spilled on SoftBank, and there are loads of perspectives on Masa and about the Vision Fund. I would make the observation that the biggest dissonance in everything that’s talked about is timeframe, because even in the 1990s, Masa was talking about a 300-year vision. Whether you take it literally or figuratively, one of Masa’s powers is this incredible long arc that he operates on. Yet the analysis that we have on a continual basis externally is very short term — it’s days, weeks, months.

What Masa and the Vision Fund conceptually are playing is a very, very long-term game. Is the strategy an effective strategy? I have no idea . . .  but when you start being a VC, it takes a long time to know whether you’re any good at it out or not. It takes maybe a decade really before you actually know. You get a signal in five or six years. The Vision Fund is very young . . . It’s [also] a different strategy than any strategy that’s ever been executed before at that magnitude, so it will take a while to know whether it’s a success or not. One of the things that could cause that success to be inhibited would be having too short a view on it.

If a brand-new VC or a brand new fund is measured two years in in terms of its performance, and investors look at that and that’s how they decide what to do with the VC going forward, there would be no VCs. They’d all be out of business because the first two years of a brand-new VC, with very few exceptions, is usually a time period that it’s completely indeterminate as to whether or not they’re going to be successful.

TC: So many funds — not just the Vision Fund — are deploying their funds in two years, where it used to be four or five years, that it’s a bit harder. When you deploy all your capital, you then need to raise funding and it’s [too soon] to know how your bets are going to play out.

BF: One comment on that, Connie, because I think it’s a really good one: When I started, in the ’90s, it used to be a five-year fund cycle, which is why most LP docs have a five-year commitment period for VC funds. You literally have five years to commit the capital. In the internet bubble, it’s shortened to about three years, and in some cases it shortened to 12 months. At Mobius, we raised a fund in 1999 and a fund in 2000, so we had the experience of that compression.

When we set out the raise Foundry, we decided that our fund cycle would be three years and we would be really disciplined about that. We had a model for how we were going to deploy capital from each of our funds over that period of time. It turned out that when we look back in hindsight, we raised a new fund every three years and eventually we lost a year in that cycle. We have a 2016 vintage and a 2018 vintage and it’s because we really deployed the capital over 2.75 to three years . . .It eventually caught up with us.

I think the discipline of trying to have time diversity against the capital that you have is super important. If you talk to LPs today, there is a lot of anxiety about the increased pace at which funds have been deployed, and there has been a two year cycle in the last kind of two iterations of this. I think you’re going to start seeing that stretch back out to three years. From a time diversity perspective three years is plenty [of time] against portfolio construction. When it gets shorter, you actually don’t get enough time diversity in the portfolio and it starts to inhibit you.

TC: Very separately, you wrote a post about WeWork where you used the term cult of personality. For those who didn’t read that post — even for those who did — could you explain what you were saying?

BF: What I tried to abstract was the separation between cults of personality and thought leadership. Thought leadership is incredibly important. I think it’s important for entrepreneurs. I think it’s important for CEOs. I think it’s important for leaders, and I think it’s important for people around the system.

I’m a participant in the system, right? I’m a VC. There are lots of different ways for me to contribute, and I think personally, rather than creating a cult of personality around myself, as a contribution factor, I think it’s much better to try to provide thought leadership, including running lots of experiments, trying lots of things, being wrong a lot, and learning from it. One of the things about thought leadership that’s so powerful from my frame of reference is that people who exhibit thought leadership are truly curious, are trying to learn, are looking for data, and are building feedback loops from what they’re learning that then allows them to be more effective leaders in whatever role they have.

Cult of personality a lot of times masquerades as thought leadership . . . [but it tends] to be self-reinforcing around the awesomeness that is that person or the importance that is that person, or the correctness of the vision that person has. And what happens with cult of personality is that you very often, not always, but very often, lose the signal that allows you to iterate and change and evolve and modify so that you build something that’s stronger over time.

In some cases, it goes totally off the rails. I mean, just call it what it is: what business does a private company have, regardless of how much revenue it has, to buy a Gulfstream V or whatever [WeWork] bought? It’s crazy. ..

From an entrepreneurial perspective, I think being a leader with thought leadership and introspection around what’s working and what’s not working is much, much more powerful over a long period of time than the entrepreneur or the leader who gets wrapped in the cult of personality [and is] inhaling [his or her] own exhaust.

TC: Have you been in that situation yourself as a VC? Could VCs have done something sooner in this case or is that not possible when dealing with a strong personality?

BF: One of the difficult things to do, not just as an investor, but as a board member — and it’s frankly also difficult for entrepreneurs — is to deal with the spectrum that you’re on, where one end of the spectrum as an investor or board member is dictating to the charismatic, incredibly hard-driving founder who is the CEO  what they should do, and, at the other end, letting them be unconstrained so that they do whatever they want to do.

One of the challenges of a lot of VCs is that, when things are going great, it’s hard to be internally critical about it. And so a lot of times, you don’t focus as much on the character. Every company, as it’s growing the leadership, the founders, the CEO, the other executives, have to evolve. [Yet] a lot of times for various reasons, and it’s a wide spectrum, there are moments in time where it’s easier to not pay attention to that as an investor or board member. There’s a lot of investors and board members who are afraid to confront it. And there’s a lot of situations where, because you don’t set up the governance structure of the company in a certain way, because as an investor you wanted to get into the deal, or the entrepreneurs insist on [on a certain structure], or you don’t have enough influence because of when you invested, it’s very, very hard. If the entrepreneur is not willing to engage collaboratively, it’s very hard to do something about it.

Again, if you’re an Extra Crunch subscriber, you can read our unedited and wide-ranging conversation here.


TechCrunch

Transportation startup Lime is shutting down LimePod, its car-sharing service that it launched last November in Seattle. Lime plans to start removing its vehicles from the streets of Seattle next month and will completely shut down the service by the end of the year. The news was first reported by GeekWire.

Lime has operated a pilot program in Seattle since last year and is set to conclude at the end of the year. Throughout the program, more than 18,000 people took more than 200,000 trips in LimePods, according to a Lime spokesperson. At launch, the plan was to explore carsharing for short distances and eventually replace its vehicles with an all-electric fleet. Lime, however, is not looking to make LimePods a permanent fixture of the city at this point.

“While the program was a great learning experience,  at our core, we are an electric mobility company first,” Lime wrote in an email to LimePod users. “We are committed — like Seattle is —  to sustainability, lower carbon emissions, and to make cities more livable, all of which require reduced car travel.”

Additionally, Lime said it was not able to find the right partner for its LimePod’s electric fleet, which led to the decision to end the program at the end of the pilot period.

“We deeply appreciate our partnership with the Seattle community and the opportunity to collaborate on our LimePod Pilot Program,” a Lime spokesperson told TechCrunch. “The experience is a testament to the city’s forward-looking position on the future of transportation and the necessity of sustainable options for citizens. We are similarly committed to that goal and the information gained during our pilot will support the work necessary should we decide to expand and improve this service with an all-electric fleet in the future.”

Lime, which got its beginnings as a bike-share company, has deployed its scooters and bikes in more than 100 cities in the U.S. and more than 20 international cities. Recently, Lime hit 100 million rides across its micromobility vehicles. Clearly, Lime sees more a future with shared bikes and scooters than it does with cars.

Earlier this year, Lime raised a $ 310 million Series D round led by Bain Capital Ventures and others. That round valued the startup at $ 2.4 billion.


TechCrunch

Five billion dollars. That’s the apparent size of Facebook’s latest fine for violating data privacy. 

While many believe the sum is simply a slap on the wrist for a behemoth like Facebook, it’s still the largest amount the Federal Trade Commission has ever levied on a technology company. 

Facebook is clearly still reeling from Cambridge Analytica, after which trust in the company dropped 51%, searches for “delete Facebook” reached 5-year highs, and Facebook’s stock dropped 20%.

While incumbents like Facebook are struggling with their data, startups in highly-regulated, “Third Wave” industries can take advantage by using a data strategy one would least expect: ethics. Beyond complying with regulations, startups that embrace ethics look out for their customers’ best interests, cultivate long-term trust — and avoid billion dollar fines. 

To weave ethics into the very fabric of their business strategies and tech systems, startups should adopt “agile” data governance systems. Often combining law and technology, these systems will become a key weapon of data-centric Third Wave startups to beat incumbents in their field. 

Established, highly-regulated incumbents often use slow and unsystematic data compliance workflows, operated manually by armies of lawyers and technology personnel. Agile data governance systems, in contrast, simplify both these workflows and the use of cutting-edge privacy tools, allowing resource-poor startups both to protect their customers better and to improve their services.

In fact, 47% of customers are willing to switch to startups that protect their sensitive data better. Yet 80% of customers highly value more convenience and better service. 

By using agile data governance, startups can balance protection and improvement. Ultimately, they gain a strategic advantage by obtaining more data, cultivating more loyalty, and being more resilient to inevitable data mishaps. 

Agile data governance helps startups obtain more data — and create more value 

With agile data governance, startups can address their critical weakness: data scarcity. Customers share more data with startups that make data collection a feature, not a burdensome part of the user experience. Agile data governance systems simplify compliance with this data practice. 

Take Ally Bank, which the Ponemon Institute rated as one of the most privacy-protecting banks. In 2017, Ally’s deposits base grew 16%, while those of incumbents declined 4%.

One key principle to its ethical data strategy: minimizing data collection and use. Ally’s customers obtain services through a personalized website, rarely filling out long surveys. When data is requested, it’s done in small doses on the site — and always results in immediate value, such as viewing transactions. 

This is on purpose. Ally’s Chief Marketing Officer publicly calls the industry-mantra of “more data” dangerous to brands and consumers alike.

A critical tool to minimize data use is to use advanced data privacy tools like differential privacy. A favorite of organizations like Apple, differential privacy limits your data analysts’ access to summaries of data, such as averages. And by injecting noise into those summaries, differential privacy creates provable guarantees of privacy and prevents scenarios where malicious parties can reverse-engineer sensitive data. But because differential privacy uses summaries, instead of completely masking the data, companies can still draw meaning from it and improve their services. 

With tools like differential privacy, organizations move beyond governance patterns where data analysts either gain unrestricted access to sensitive data (think: Uber’s controversial “god view”) or face multiple barriers to data access. Instead, startups can use differential privacy to share and pool data safely, helping them overcome data scarcity. The most agile data governance systems allow startups to use differential privacy without code and the large engineering teams that only incumbents can afford.

Ultimately, better data means better predictions — and happier customers.

Agile data governance cultivates customer loyalty

According to Deloitte, 80% of consumers are more loyal to companies they believe protect their data. Yet far fewer leaders at established, incumbent companies — the respondents of the same survey — believed this to be true. Customers care more about their data than the leaders at incumbent companies think. 

This knowledge gap is an opportunity for startups. 

Furthermore, big enterprise companies — themselves customers of many startups — say data compliance risks prevent them from working with startups. And rightly so. Over 80% of data incidents are actually caused by errors from insiders, like third party vendors who mishandle sensitive data by sharing it with inappropriate parties. Yet over 68% of companies do not have good systems to prevent these types of errors. In fact, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica firestorm — and resulting $ 5 billion fine — was sparked by third party inappropriately sharing personal data with a political consulting firm without user consent. 

As a result, many companies — both startups and incumbents — are holding a ticking time bomb of customer attrition. 

Agile data governance defuses these risks by simplifying the ethical data practices of understanding, controlling, and monitoring data at all times. With such practices, startups can prevent and correct the mishandling of sensitive data quickly.

Cognoa is a good example of a Third Wave healthcare startup adopting these three practices at a rapid pace. First, it understands where all of its sensitive health data lies by connecting all of its databases. Second, Cognoa can control all connected data sources at once from one point by using a single access-and-control layer, as opposed to relying on data silos. When this happens, employees and third parties can only access and share the sensitive data sources they’re supposed to. Finally, data queries are always monitored, allowing Cognoa to produce audit reports frequently and catch problems before they escalate out of control. 

With tools that simplify these three practices, even low-resourced startups can make sure sensitive data is tightly controlled at all times to prevent data incidents. Because key workflows are simplified, these same startups can maintain the speed of their data analytics by sharing data safely with the right parties. With better and safer data sharing across functions, startups can develop the insight necessary to cultivate a loyal fan base for the long-term.

Agile data governance can help startups survive inevitable data incidents

In 2018, Panera mistakenly shared 37 million customer records on its website and took 8 months to respond. Panera’s data incident is a taste of what’s to come: Gartner predicts that 50% of business ethics violations will stem from data incidents like these. In the era of “Big Data,” billion dollar incumbents without agile data governance will likely continue to violate data ethics. 

Given the inevitability of such incidents, startups that adopt agile data governance will likely be the most resilient companies of the future. 

Case in point: Harvard Business Review reports that the stock prices of companies without strong data governance practices drop 150% more than companies that do adopt strong practices. Despite this difference, only 10% of Fortune 500 companies actually employ the data transparency principle identified in the report. Practices include clearly disclosing data practices and giving users control over their privacy settings. 

Sure, data incidents are becoming more common. But that doesn’t mean startups don’t suffer from them. In fact, up to 60% of startups fold after a cyber attack. 

Startups can learn from WebMD, which Deloitte named as one standout in applying data transparency. With a readable privacy policy, customers know how data will be used, helping customers feel comfortable about sharing their data. More informed about the company’s practices, customers are surprised less by incidents. Surprises, BCG found, can reduce consumer spending by one-third. On a self-service platform on WebMD’s site, customers can control their privacy settings and how to share their data, further cultivating trust. 

Self-service tools like WebMD’s are part of agile data governance. These tools allow startups to simplify manual processes, like responding to customer requests to control their data. Instead, startups can focus on safely delivering value to their customers. 

Get ahead of the curve

For so long, the public seemed to care less about their data. 

That’s changing. Senior executives at major companies have been publicly interrogated for not taking data governance seriously. Some, like Facebook and Apple, are even claiming to lead with privacy. Ultimately, data privacy risks significantly rise in Third Wave industries where errors can alter access to key basic needs, such as healthcare, housing, and transportation.

While many incumbents have well-resourced legal and compliance departments, agile data governance goes beyond the “risk mitigation” missions of those functions. Agile governance means that time-consuming and error-prone workflows are streamlined so that companies serve their customers more quickly and safely.

Case in point: even after being advised by an army of lawyers, Zuckerberg’s 30,000-word Senate testimony about Cambridge Analytica included “ethics” only once, and it excluded “data governance” completely.

And even if companies do have legal departments, most don’t make their commitment to governance clear. Less than 15% of consumers say they know which companies protect their data the best. Startups can take advantage of this knowledge gap by adopting agile data governance and educate their customers about how to protect themselves in the risky world of the Third Wave.

Some incumbents may always be safe. But those in highly-regulated Third Wave industries, such as automotive, healthcare, and telecom should be worried; customers trust these incumbents the least. Startups that adopt agile data governance, however, will be trusted the most, and the time to act is now. 


TechCrunch

Amazon’s two-year-old Instagram competitor, Amazon Spark, is no more.

Hoping to capitalize on the social shopping trend and tap into the power of online influencers, Amazon in 2017 launched its own take on Instagram with a shoppable feed of stories and photos aimed at Prime members. The experiment known as Amazon Spark has now come to an end. However, the learnings from Spark and Amazon’s discovery tool Interesting Finds are being blended into a new social-inspired product, #FoundItOnAmazon.

Amazon Spark had been a fairly bland service, if truth be told. Unlike on Instagram, where people follow their friend, interests, brands like they like, and people they find engaging or inspiring, Spark was focused on the shopping and the sale. While it tried to mock the Instagram aesthetic at times with fashion inspiration images or highly posed travel photos, it lacked Instagram’s broader appeal. Your friends weren’t there and there weren’t any Instagram Stories, for example. Everything felt too transactional.

Amazon declined to comment on the apparent shutdown of Spark, but the service is gone from the website and app.

The URL amazon.com/spark, meanwhile, redirects to the new #FoundItOnAmazon site — a site which also greatly resembles another Amazon product discovery tool, Interesting Finds.

Interesting Finds has been around since 2016, offering consumers a way to browse an almost Pinterest-like board of products across a number of categories. It features curated “shops” focused on niche themes, like a “Daily Carry” shop for toteable items, a “Mid Century” shop filled with furniture and décor, a shop for “Star Wars” fans, one for someone who loves the color pink, and so on. Interesting Finds later added a layer of personalization with the introduction of a My Mix shop filled with recommendations tailored to your interactions and likes.

The Interesting Finds site had a modern, clean look-and-feel that made it a more pleasurable way to browse Amazon’s products. Products photos appeared on white backgrounds while the clutter of a traditional product detail page was removed.

We understand from people familiar with the products that Interesting Finds is not shutting down as Spark has. But the new #FoundItOnAmazon site will take inspiration from what worked with Interesting Finds and Spark to turn it into a new shopping discovery tool.

Interesting Finds covers a wide range of categories, but #FoundItOnAmazon will focus more directly on fashion and home décor. Similar to Interesting Finds, you can heart to favorites items and revisit them later.

The #FoundItOnAmazon site is very new and isn’t currently appearing for all Amazon customers at this time. If you have it, the amazon.com/spark URL will take you there.

Though Amazon won’t talk about why its Instagram experiment is ending, it’s not too hard to make some guesses. Beyond its lack of originality and transactional nature, Instagram itself has grown into a far more formidable competitor since Spark first launched.

Last fall, Instagram fully embraced its shoppable nature with the introduction of shopping features across its app that let people more easily discover products from Instagram photos. It also added a new shopping channel and in March, Instagram launched its own in-app checkout option to turn product inspiration into actual conversions. It was certainly a big move into Amazon territory. And while that led to headlines about Instagram as the future of shopping, it’s not going to upset Amazon’s overall dominance any time soon.

In addition to the shifting competitive landscape, Spark’s primary stakeholder, Amazon VP of Consumer Engagement Chee Chew departed at the beginning of 2019 for Twilio. While at Amazon, Chew was heavily invested in Spark’s success and product managers would even tie their own efforts to Spark in order to win his favor, sources said.

For example, Amazon’s notifications section had been changed to include updates from Spark. And Spark used to sit a swipe away from the main navigation menu on mobile.

Following Spark’s closure, Amazon’s navigation has once again been simplified. It’s now a clutter-free hamburger menu. Meanwhile, Amazon’s notifications section no longer includes Spark updates — only alerts about orders, shipments, and personalized recommendations.

In addition, it’s likely that Spark wasn’t well adopted. Just 10,000 Amazon customers used it during its first 24 hours, we heard. With Chew’s departure, Spark lost its driving force. No one needed to curry favor by paying it attention, which may have also helped contribute to its shuttering.

6/14/19, 10:20 PM ET: Updated with further context after publication.


TechCrunch

Twitter has suspended a large number of Chinese-language user accounts, including those belonging to critics of China’s government. It seems like a particularly ill-timed move, occurring just days before thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4.

“A large number of Chinese @Twitter accounts are being suspended today,” wrote Yaxue Cao, founder and editor of the U.S.-based publication China Change. “They ‘happen’ to be accounts critical of China, both inside and outside China.”

Cao then went on to highlight a number of the suspended accounts in a Twitter thread.

The Chinese government reportedly began cracking down late last year on people who post criticism on Twitter. The author of that story, The New York Times’ Paul Mozur, has also been tweeting about the takedowns, noting that “suspensions seem not limited to accounts critical of China” and that it appears to be “an equal opportunity purge of Chinese language accounts.”

In response, Twitter’s Public Policy account said it suspended “a number of accounts this week” mostly for “engaging in mix of spamming, inauthentic behavior, & ban evasion.” It acknowledged, however, that some of the accounts “were involved in commentary about China.”

“These accounts were not mass reported by the Chinese authorities — this was a routine action on our part,” the company said. “Sometimes our routine actions catch false positives or we make errors. We apologize. We’re working today to ensure we overturn any errors but that we remain vigilant in enforcing our rules for those who violate them.”

By this point, the deletions had attracted broader political notice, with Florida Senator Marco Rubio declaring, “Twitter has become a Chinese govt censor.”

And while Cao acknowledged Twitter’s official explanation, as well as help she’s received from the company in the past, she said, “Per @Twitter’s explanation, it’s cleaning up CCP bots but accidentally suspended 1000s anti-CCP accts. That doesn’t make sense.”


TechCrunch

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