“Why does this matter to you?”
This is one of my favorite questions to ask Founders. The answer to “Why does this matter to you?” is telling. It’s tough to hide behind a question which betrays so much about motivation. There is a difference between starting a company to solve a problem and starting a company to seize an opportunity. It reveals whether someone is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. It can tell whether someone will tough it out through the turbulence every startup is bound to face. It shines a light on the vision that a Founder has for his or her company.
In early January, I met with Jonathan Downey and asked him this question. He replied that his grandfather was a pilot, his father was a pilot, and that he was a pilot. He told me that he first became consumed by autopilot systems during his freshman year at MIT. It was the reason he joined Boeing when he graduated, and the reason that he decided to start a company. He hated that every autopilot was a black box. In fact, they were designed to be impenetrable, which meant that tweaking them for payload or task requirements was unbearable.
There wasn’t any need to tell me that he was passionate about flying and piloting systems. His life story made it clear that this was his obsession. At First Round, these are the Founders we love to see in our community.
Of course, it helps when they have a vision as compelling as the one that Jonathan has for Airware: Building the OS for unmanned aircraft. At lowest levels of the stack this represents the autopilot systems for both fixed wing, helicopter and multiple rotor aircraft. The next layers are the detections systems which could allow drones to spot the areas of a farmer’s fields which need irrigation, land which may be subject to forest fires or powerlines which could be down. And depending on the application, Airware’s system will be able to deploy a payload, whether it’s fertilizer, GPS coordinates or a photograph.
First Round Capital is thrilled to finally disclose our seed investment in Airware. We partnered with the company in January, and the short time since then they have made terrific progress. Today’s announcement of the Series A financing is a testament to that. Jonathan and his team have recruited an enviable group to support the company including Andreesen Horowitz, Google Ventures, Y Combinator, Lemnos Labs and Shasta Ventures. Developing the OS for unmanned aircraft matters to all us now too. Please join me in “officially” welcoming Airware to the First Round Community!
One of the myths consistently perpetuated in Silicon Valley is that great companies are built overnight. They aren’t. Companies with impact take time to build – often because their founders see the future before anyone else can live it and as Jeff Bezos says, “are willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time“. Out of the limelight, great founders fight on when everyone else doubts them.
That is most certainly the story of Oren Michels and the Mashery team.
Even if the name “Mashery” doesn’t ring a bell, you have probably unknowingly used a product powered by their technology. Ever stream a movie with Netflix? Check an ESPN app? Visit CBS interactive? Read about a car on Edmunds? Research a house on Trulia? Check the news from the NY Times, USA Today or The Guardian? Answer questions with SurveyMonkey? Then you’ve touched their tech.
Mashery helps companies manage, scale, and secure their APIs. As with many innovations, this product concept is really easy to take for granted today. In 2006, when First Round Capital sat down at a dinner table with Oren, Scott Rafer, Kirsten Spoljaric and Clay Loveless to literally sketch out the plan for Mashery on a napkin, things were different. Not only were Fortune 500 companies not looking to open their platforms to developers, most didn’t think of their technical infrastructure as a an extensible platform. Instead they had big systems, just a few applications, and thought that was just fine.
When you build an enterprise business, you’re often not rewarded for seeing the future before your customers – and the term “educating the market” is a bad thing. Although few companies were embracing APIs, the Mashery team persisted on with their belief that the future would be different. While customer wins were slow, everyday they saw more evidence that that the web was making it imperative for businesses to think of their backend systems as platforms to build on. Slowly, customers began to ramp.
With the launch of the iPhone AppStore in July 2008, the world began to catch-up to Mashery. With each app that was downloaded, it became more apparent in enterprises around the world that customers would demand products that worked across platforms, and that the best way to enable these types of experiences was with a robust and dynamic API. Even then, Mashery remained its most creative evangelist. The company founded the Business of APIs conference to bring together the pioneers of their space. Every attendee in SF, New York and London felt like they were part of a movement. And like most great enterprise companies, they built a tremendous sales culture.
Mashery has long been a steady force behind some great overnight successes. But today, with the announcement of Intel’s acquisition of the company, we’re thrilled to see Mashery take it’s turn in the limelight. We couldn’t be more excited for Oren and the entire Mashery family. Congratulations. Thank you for letting us be a part of the journey and we can’t wait to see what you can do in your new home.
For more on the Mashery story – watch our exit interview below…
Some quick observations of people, technology, communication and expression.
Observation 1. Our computer screens are no longer black. Our typeface is no longer green. When the Macintosh was introduced in 1984 that changed. We discovered the word font for the first time. We made art with a mouse and MacPaint. Consumers became creators.
Observation 2. People have always looked to technology to help them communicate. In 1994, Radiolinja launched the first commercial SMS service. And a year later, they worked with Telecom Finland to offer interoperability so that their customers could send messages to one another no matter who was their service provider.
Observation 3. Despite these decades old advances, SMS largely looks like it did when it launched. Yes, we can send pictures and video through MMS but when we want to express ourselves, we still use emoticons. In the US, more than 155B SMS messages are sent every year and the best we can do is ASCII art emoticons. :-/
Observation 4a and 4b. (Metcalfe’s Law) Any next generation system which would allow for richer communication would have to be instantly cross-platform. The same way that SMS was useless when consumers could only communicate with people who used the same service provider, it would be useless if they could only communicate with people on the same device. Any next generation system which would allow for richer communication would have to instantly have many users.
Last spring, when I met with Arjun Sethi to learn about his new product MessageMe, we talked about everything above. It was easy to agree with him on the first three points. The challenge was how to overcome Metcalfe’s Law. Arjun replied by telling me about his background – he previously built one of the extraordinarily viral Lolapps. He then told me about his product plan – he wouldn’t launch until he was on iOS and Android. Then he let me install an alpha version of MessageMe on my phone. I was instantly hooked – as was the whole team at First Round. We could easily send doodles, videos, voice messages or (my favorite) pictures with snarky scribbles on them.
I’m proud to say that since First Round made our investment in MessageMe last spring, my emoticon abuse has fallen – I’m sending doodles and videos instead of ASCII winks. The first release is now generally available on iOS and Android. Get it today and together we can move past peak emoticon.
The first adage is “The only thing that matters is the people.” Start-ups are malleable forms, especially in their earliest days. The product plan is immediately dated as soon as it is drafted. The first user tests will do nothing, if not show how far off the mark a company’s original assumptions were. The product and direction of any start-up is bound to change. The constant is the people. If you invest in the right people, they will know how to continually revisit, reshape and adapt their original vision to build a great company – even if it ultimately is very different from the one they originally set out to build. These people are heat seeking missiles.
The second adage is “Bet on the racetrack, not the horse.” In other words, find a large, fast growing market and you are bound to have a good outcome. If the team is just mostly right about the product, the product will at least be good enough to build a business around it. The rising tide of a new and growing market will create value. The market will have a greater impact on the outcome of the business than the individuals behind it.
There’s an obvious tension between these two viewpoints. More often than not, I find myself leaning towards the people part of the equation. The primary thing that matters is people. The best people find great markets in which to build products and companies. This is what unifies the two opposing adages.
If you could find a team that included Facebook’s first Partner Engineer, someone who has carried the beeper for Google.com, and a stud Google engineer coming off of his first start-up exit, you’d know that they were working on something big. And that’s why I’m so excited to welcome Artillery to the First Round portfolio. Ankur Pansari, Mark Logan and Ian Langworth are turning every browser into a game console. If you have followed Valve, you know about the power of simple discovery. If you have followed Nexon (remember the EA rumors?), you know about the power of free to play. The team at Artillery is working to to combine simple discovery and free to play with instant play. A game console in every browser.
Artillery is a big idea. I’m not surprised that a team with so much fire power is working on it.
The New York Times is currently running a series called “Genetic Gamble.” The series covers new approaches to treating cancer based on genetic data and analysis.
The writing is very human with the reader accompanying patients on their journey from the discovery of their cancer through the treatment of it. The Times’ coverage is by turns fascinating, heart wrenching and hope inspiring. These feelings are all the stronger if you have ever known someone who has suffered through cancer. And who among us hasn’t?
The stories made me even more proud of First Round’s support of DNAnexus. They are tackling The Biggest data problem.
But, the stories also made me angry. As a people, we haven’t done enough to fight cancer. We’ve chosen other battles. We’ve chosen to allocate our resources elsewhere. Early this week, I was bemoaning this to a friend and I wrote to him that in this election cycle we need a Presidential candidate to say:
There is no greater external threat to the health & safety of the American people than cancer. It is a natural born suicide bomber. It has killed more Americans in the past year than in all other wars in US history. It is responsible for the deaths of more Americans than Al Qaieda. Make no mistake, it is more lethal and determined than any terrorist. Now let’s go get the f–k.
And then we would get dollars reallocated for research, ease FDA restrictions on experimental treatments, and provide physicians pushing the limit with protection from malpractice complaints.
We have the capabilities. Now let’s choose to beat it.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners
A reason to revolt against King George III listed in the Declaration of Independence. Our Founders knew a bad H1B program when they saw it.