Last Night with Ben Horowitz

I had the pleasure of listening to Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz speak to a room full of people last night at FirstMarks’s Data-Driven event. His presence alone was palpable. When he entered the room, the only thing you could hear was people’s jaws dropping to the floor. It’s kind of lame to say, but I haven’t been that star struck since I met Mark Tatum, Deputy Commissioner of the NBA. Ben is a living legend and also sounded like a pretty regular guy all at the same time.

He went on stage to speak with Matt Turck right after the VP of Developer Relations for Google Cloud & former CTO of Cloudera, Amr Awadallah. Amr presented Anthos, a hybrid cloud offering from Google. Since Ben’s a busy guy, he wasn’t able to make Amr’s presentation. Without knowing what the other guests presented, he kind of dissed Hadoop right in front of Amr. Amr wasn’t too happy, but everyone in the audience thought it was kind of funny. Ben later apologized.

Anyway, what I found most entertaining was Ben’s conviction and relentless attitude toward creating an unbiased view of the world. He told story after story about how culture develops in companies, families, and friendships. He spoke about folks being blind to talent in favor of seeing ethnic and groupthink demographics instead. He talked about a16z’s search for a partner to lead the Cultural Leadership Fund.

Here’s a little bit about the CLF:

He told a story about an unnamed person who was leading the search for a new CLF Partner. The unnamed a16z employee only looked at candidates with an investment banking background. The CLF was supposed to be a relationship-driven organization, not a bullpen full of ivy league history majors. After hearing that this guy was only looking for people with an IB background, Ben asked, “since when did anyone like investment bankers, let alone black people with no ties to wall street?”  

The guy running the search stumbled and tried to back up his criterion with the fact that IB churned out people who were detail-oriented, quant-minded, boar, boar, boar… In reality,  a16z didn’t need someone who could bang out a pitchbook, or someone who could do an LBO on paper. They needed someone in-tune with pop culture, and someone who could connect with the Kevin Durants, Will Smiths, Beyonce’s of the world. They needed a relationship-driven person who could connect with black leaders the way no IBer ever could. 

In fact, the guy they ended up hiring, Chris Lyons, previously a music consultant and worked in the restaurant world. At one point, he even worked at the Cheesecake Factory. Cheesecake Factory employees have a quasi-NPS score calculated by total tips/total bill ratio. The higher your ratio, the better you were ranked against your peers. Chris had one of the highest scores in the national Cheesecake Factory franchise. Nobody really likes their waiter, but people loved Chris.

The point is, I imagined that Ben was going to speak about something like whether AI should be a product or as a feature. Instead, we got to listen to something much cooler. He spoke about meeting people halfway and understanding what talent looks like without a preconceived notion or bias in mind. You can’t fit a square peg in a round hole.

My biggest takeaway from the night is that as cliche as it sounds, your virtues are not what you say or think, but they’re what you do. VCs can say they respect entrepreneurs and want to be founder-friendly, but a16z values an entrepreneur’s time so much that they’ll fine their own investors $10 for every minute they’re late to a meeting.

Hi, again…

My mom’s been recovering from ankle reconstructive surgery. It’s going to be a really painful next few months and I really feel for her. Since she’s laid up in bed, she’s been reading everything she can while I try my best to be on her good side. The other day, after apparently googling our whole family, she called me on the phone with bitterness in her voice. She told me she was ‘pissed off’ I never told her about this blog.

Which reminded me, I started this blog as an online home for my thoughts, ramblings, and weird ideas as a sort of journal to come back to. I never used it for it’s worth. In 2019, I think I published 2 posts. People have created followings and digital personas on the internet that have helped them tremendously in their careers. I don’t intend to do that. Instead, I want to do what this blog was originally set out for. I want to start sharing my thoughts, ramblings and weird ideas. Most importantly, I want to exercise the part of my body that hasn’t been getting enough attention, my writing muscles.

Growing up, I wasn’t enamored with technology. I was usually outside playing sports, or running from friends backyard to backyard. Playstation and xbox sat idly by while I perfected my free throws and curveballs. Books were common, but only until I attended college did the internet, cloud, and tech make a breakthrough in my life. Before meeting some more tech-minded friends, I was certain I would work at the intersection of the arts and something profound. I prided myself on my writing ability and persuasion with the pen and paper. Nowadays, I notice those skills fading.

Even though I get to write my fair share of emails and more short-form twitter literature, I miss exercising my creative and more eloquent writing muscles that have been neglected by limiting myself to only produce what needed to be completed for work.

So let’s hope that this isn’t the only post I make in 2020.  

Kelly Slater didn’t consider product market fit

On May 5th, 2018, The World Surf League (WSL) held a tournament in a peculiar place. Landlocked and over 100 miles from the sea, the top competitors in the world gathered in Lemoore, California for what would go on to create a unique surfing-only type notation system. Since I haven’t seen anyone else coin this phrase, I’m going to make it my own: B.K.E – Before Kelly’s Era.

Kelly Slater is undoubtedly the king of surfing. He’s both the youngest and oldest person to win a world title, amassing an astounding 11 world championships. It’s safe to say his bald head has seen a lot. Kelly is a polarizing figure in the world of surfing – he’s been the driver behind much of surfing’s recent comeback, as well as the sports commercialization and prior downturn. Like Kelly, there are two sides to everything. Surfing is no different. With the advent of high-priced surfing technologies in the form of boards that make wave riding easier, wetsuits that keep surfers warmer for longer, and even earplugs that offset surfers’ ear, technology is segmenting the surfing population.

Traditionalists believe in an old-school view of a wave-riding hierarchy where those who’ve surfed the mush should have priority over visitors when the stars align. To them, surfing is a holistic, spell-binding ritual where surfers interact with an ever-changing wave that evolves with the ocean floor and wind. The boards they ride come from shapers who spend hours meticulously crafting every inch of the foam.

On the other hand, contemporary surfers, believe in almost nothing. There’s no rhythm or rhyme to when someone is supposed to drop-in. Beaches are littered with massively produced assembly-line boards with Go-Pro cameras stapled to the nose. There are meme pages associated with novice contemporary surfer. Often times you’ll see the newest Rip Curl wetsuit on someone holding a board with the fins on backward. It seems like surfers of today resemble a cutout of what technology has done to much of America.

There’s nothing wrong with either segmentation. Often times, traditionalists are assholes and contemporary surfers are dangerously ignorant just trying to have fun. The main point is that technology is impacting surfing in an unprecedented way. However, the debate among surfers as to where they should buy their boards from, or whether or not they were tough enough to last in the cold ocean is over. The new debate is no longer man vs. man, but instead, man vs. machine.

Flashback to December 5th, 2015 when Kelly unveiled his ten-year-long experiment to the world. A video was released showing him surfing a perfectly shaped artificial wave being ridden in none other than Lenmoore, California. The quest for the worlds perfect wave has ended. It’s not in Tavarua or Teahupoo, but in Lemoore California, and it could be coming to your backyard.

When Kelly unleashed the video back in 2015, the world flipped on its axis. The traditionalists condemned it – the contemporaries loved it – but everyone wanted to try it.

Here’s how the wave works. 

  1. A 100-ton hydrofoil – named “The Vehicle” – run down a track with the help of more than 150 truck tires and at around 18 miles per hour (30 kilometers per hour);
  2. When the swell hits specific areas of the lake’s bottom, the wave starts to break thanks to the influence of the contour reefs
  3. Giant lateral gutters mitigate the bounce-back effect that occurs on the pool walls forming the wave
  4. It takes three minutes for the surf pool water to calm down and return to a completely static state

Today, the wave pool costs about $9,500/hour, plus an additional $288 booking fee. A high price for retail, but this is just the beginning. Have the stars all of a sudden aligned for surfings newest innovation? Or was it strategically positioned for global distribution? The 2020 Olympics will be held in Japan, and with surfing on the docket for the first time as an Olympic event, Kelly Slater’s Wave Pool technology is ripe for the masses. 



Normally, surfers head to event locations weeks in advance to prepare for the upcoming tournament. Similarly, tournaments could last weeks at a time because of the sports unpredictable X factor – the waves. In surfing, scoring is subjective and with each wave, rides are incomparable – up until now.

Now, surfers can be scrutinized on a fair playing field, one in which every rider has the same course. Along with its technical predictability for unadjusted scoring, the artificial wave comes with a massive pool – one that’s ~700 meters long and 100 meters wide. At the recent WSL event, spectators came to what could be easily confused as a soccer stadium with big screen televisions publicizing every angle of the event.

Still, the International Olympic Committee, International Surfing Association and Tokyo 2020 maintain that surfing’s debut will take place in the ocean.

Despite being acquired by WSL Holdings in 2016 for an undisclosed price, kswaveco was an arduous project to undergo. It took $30M, ten years, and multiple iterations. Kelly brought the passion, and Adam Fincham, Associate Professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Southern California brought the brains. There were no feedback loops, UAT, or product market fit analyses. It’s now up to the consumers to decide whether or not this is something that will complement ocean surfing, or disrupt it. There will either be kswaveco country clubs, or just the infamous one. 


Thinking about SEMs before bed

Recently, I’ve been reading about SaaS-enabled marketplaces. I’m mostly interested in whether or not some of the great SEMs of today strategically set out to create these competitive moats, or if they stumbled into it.

Chris Dixon argues that Instagram is one of the easiest examples to understand. At the time, Instagram was the best place to get free filters for photos. He argues that users came for the filter, but stayed for the network. What started as a tool (the filter) turned into a network (feed). The network enabled a premier online marketplace for programmatic advertising and retail sales.

Snapchat, on the other hand, never made it there. With a clunky UX and a prophecy to remain loyal to its original MVP, knowing where your friends are, missed out on this opportunity. I’m a big fan of Snapchat and think it has merit in the market, but it would have been interesting to see an advance in their original business model to include such capabilities. With a potential Amazon acquisition, this just might happen.

Even if Snapchat gets acquired, it won’t matter. Instagram won in a zero-sum game. The next frontier of marketplaces will lie within the physical realm. One where I could imagine using vitals and real-life experiences to make recommendations/drive sales.

If your Apple Watch knew you just ran 5 miles and was hooked up to your Meal Pal app, it could remind you to order something with more protein in it because you need it to fuel your day. Or, if you had your phone connected to all apps, and it was Jon’s birthday, it could remind me his favorite baseball team is the Mets (since he posts on facebook about it so much), and I could buy tickets for him since they’re in town.

The winner of the marketplace will be the company that understands the consumer and can predict what they’ll want through data-driven insights.

It’s a bit far fetched to think people would be okay with giving their phone all that access, but it would be a superior marketplace. You wouldn’t have to come for the network, because you’re always plugged into it.

Reimagining payments with Token

A few weeks ago, I spoke with Co-Founder and CMO of Token, Marten Nelson. I was introduced to Marten after expressing interest in learning more about their patented Smart Tokenization technology. Following our conversation, I realized that Token is uniquely positioned to take on both sides of the banking ecosystem.

Unlike many of its digital bank counterparts Token is disrupting both open banking and the traditional banking ecosystems. Token facilitates fast and secure payments through Smart Token technology, giving banks a simple and quick path to PSD2 compliance. Allowing for data integration and direct payments. Token is a multifaceted approach to fixing the payments and banking systems.

Currently, all the primary payment systems in the world were created over 50 years ago, much before the invention of the internet. Instead of sending money over outdated, slow and insecure payment systems like ACH and wire transfers, Token hopes to disrupt the payments industry through smart tokenization. Token’s platform gives banks, payment service providers, and merchants smarter and quicker data aggregation as well as direct payment channels driven by Smart Token technology.

Token works directly with banks, merchants, peer services providers and developers to move money swiftly and securely. Currently, Token offers banks a simple way to comply with PSD2. Simply put, PSD2 mandates that EU banks build API’s or interfaces for third party use. This will likely result in a confusing mess of banks scrambling to comply with the impending regulation. By aggregating third-party API’s, Token solves a huge problem for EU banks. Founded in late 2015, Token already has 3,918 banks on their aggregated API platform.

PSD2 levels the playing field between banks and merchants, allowing third parties access to data previously monopolized by banks. This directive is the first opportunity for traditional merchants to implement financial services solutions, cutting out third party middlemen. Merchants can retrieve account data from the bank with account holder permission, cutting out the Visa’s, PayPal’s and Stripes of the world. Allowing merchants access to user-data not only accelerates technological innovation but leaves banks open to disruption.

Token made history on June 1st, by becoming the first licensed Payment Initiation Service Provider (PISP) to conduct an end-to-end payment through a public bank API.

The payment of £4.99 was confirmed as the first of its kind by UK Open Banking (the Open Banking Implementation Entity). Token fired the starting gun on the new age of API banking in Europe, driven by the recent introduction of PSD2.
With the infrastructure operational, banks, merchants and other providers of payment and data services can now leverage open banking to reduce costs, generate new revenues, increase security and deliver a simpler, more convenient digital payment experience for the end user.

Moving forward, it’s important to understand their go to market strategy. When you visit Tokens site, this chart is displayed:

It’s unsurprising that Denmark and Finland are next on the list. Right now, all retailers in Denmark must accept cash, but that hasn’t stopped huge numbers of Danes from embracing digital options.

Nearly 40% of the population use Danske Bank’s MobilePay, which allows money transfers between people, as well as purchases in stores or online. Token is specifically targeting digitally enabled countries.

When I spoke with Co-Founder and CMO, Marten Nelson, he said Token was strategically speaking with North American financial institutions to create partnerships and revenue streams for when PSD2 hits the United States and Canada. Partnering with banks and other FinTech’s is key to unlocking the key to both open banking and digital banking. To date, Token’s payment services run deep within n26, a leading digital bank.

Token has positioned itself to disrupt the banking industry through years of experience. Token’s led by serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Kirsch whose had successful exits from FrameMaker (acquired by Adobe Systems), and Infoseek, (acquired by the Walt Disney Company), as well as former Global Chief Technology Officer of Citigroup, Yobie Benjamin.

Token’s most recent funding round occurred on April 24, 2017 for $15M of Series A, pushing them to $18M total from EQT Ventures, Octopus Ventures, and Plug and Play. After speaking with Marten, it was clear that he was interested in adding investors to their next round.

In total, Token is a contrarian play hedged with regulatory serendipity. Their open banking platform and API aggregator serve as a great opportunity for Bedrock as it fits your thesis well. The team is top notch as is the technology behind them. I’m excited to see where Token goes, and the profit that follows.

Reminiscing after one year

Prior to graduating college, I secured two full-time job offers. One being in equity research and the other in business development for a clean-tech energy provider. I was interested in both, but neither made me excited to wake up in the morning. I wanted to help companies succeed, but these jobs didn’t give me the freewill and range to do that. To the dismay of my friends and family, I turned down two impressive offers to pursue something I wasn’t sure I’d be able to ever have.

However, that wasn’t the hardest decision of my life, in fact, maybe one of the easier ones. I knew I wouldn’t find my dream job sending cold applications, but rather through connections who knew and understood the type of person I was along with the ambition I had. I wanted to connect with everyone who was driving change. I was exchanging emails constantly, researching companies and hosted skype chats sometimes twice a day all while balancing school, a venture fellowship and pro-bono consulting work for an up and coming startup.

I got a taste of what I ultimately wanted – a life symbiotically intertwined with work and pleasure. During that year, I was positively impacting the companies I helped, and the people I met. I had exciting conversations that made me feel like I was on the path to attaining my goal, and I was. I met people from all walks of life ranging from VCs and startup founders to designers and carpenters. However, changed when I received two more full-time offers.

 In the palm of one hand, I had an offer from a strategic financing startup that specialized in helping small businesses scale. I loved everything about the company from the team to the dream.

 In the other, I had a great learning experience at one of the largest tech companies in the world. I was promised a role in strategy with the opportunity to help grow companies and startups alike.

This time around, I was happy with both offers and excited to start. The only problem was that I couldn’t work at both. For days I was unable to figure out which was best for me.

At first, the startup provided me the proximity to the companies I wanted to help, but not necessarily the mentorship and skillset I desired. I was scared to throw myself into a role while being so nascent to the industry. I thought this might actually hinder my chances at breaking into this type of role later in life.

When it came to the tech company, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed or sucked into a technology that didn’t interest me. I was told that I would be in strategy, something I saw as the perfect runway.

After toying with these ‘what if’ scenarios for days on end, I made my decision. Despite having a sexy title at the startup, a little bit of equity and enough dogs to play with until I became allergic, knew this was the right move. Being self-aware, I realized I didn’t deserve the role they gave me. I was confident in my skills, but figured they might’ve had clouded judgement if they were willing to give me such a key role so early in my career.
I felt like giving me complete autonomy and decision-making power over others wasn’t the best move for where I was in my career – the start. I didn’t build the company from the ground up and I didn’t help finance the operation. This was a company that was growing fast, and rather than finding the right person for the role, they found the first person for the role. I was extremely grateful, but wanted exposure to the wide variety of the technologies I so craved.

Looking back, I couldn’t be happier with all the choices I made. I’ve grown tremendously since my original skepticism and found I’m able and willing to help others even if I don’t benefit immediately. I was originally scared to be pigeonholed into a bad group, but quickly realized that hard work, networking and a little bit of luck trump any computer-generated pigeonhole.

Today, I’m a digital strategy consultant at IBM where I’ve worked on blockchain offerings, helped kickstart a Tech Talk series and even pushed a Fintech platform to market. I’m happy to be bridging the gap between the corporate world and startup ecosystem and can’t wait for the next adventure.

Hey kid, you should learn to code!

code

Here is a link to an article that made me want to kick myself. I recently proposed an app idea to a friend in which I wireframed the design and basic function of an app that would curb social media usage. I figured it would be pretty simple to loop in data from the background of user’s phone battery and screen time. From there, I wanted to create an adviser that would access said data and then make a recommendation based on what applications were consuming the phones battery and screen time. I still think it is really easy to do.

It would be quick turnaround. Maybe two weeks after downloading the app and allowing it to monitor ones background, the adviser would send a push notification telling the user that he/she has been on App-of-choice and maybe they should take a break.

Unfortunately, my friend didn’t want to learn iOS and help a brotha out. It’s okay.

I wasn’t upset he declined the offer. Times like this are when I wish I knew more than basic code. However, stretching oneself too thin on external projects doesn’t serve anyone well. I kind of hope someone sees this and builds it. I’d rather see it built than just sitting in the back of my mind. Lucky for future me, my blog isn’t popping off to the point where people visit to poach my ideas.