Digital innovation in the Baltics

August 12, 2018

I spent part of this summer returning to Europe’s Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania). Over ten years had elapsed since my last visit, so a return trip was overdue. Not to mention that I had never been to Latvia.

It’s incredible how digitally-connected these small countries have become, and how much they continue to punch above their weight in so many areas. Indoor fiber and outdoor 4G networks are ubiquitous (71% fiber penetration in Lithuania, 65% in Latvia, for example). Mobile voice and data subscriptions per capita are over 140% in all three countries.

The cashless economy is also on the rise in Baltics. Estonia leads Europe in over half of all point-of-sale transactions taking cashless form. (For comparison, cashless represents only 13% of all POS transactions in Spain and only 14% in Italy). Anecdotally, almost every merchant interaction I observed in Riga and Vilnius were not only cashless, but also contact-less. All three countries have adopted the Euro, beginning with Estonia in 2011 and finally Lithuania in 2015.

Establishing a business now in Tallinn is the most painless incorporation process I’ve witnessed in any developed country. This is thanks largely to Estonia’s move in 2014, when the country extended its e-Estonia digital identity system to non-Estonians worldwide, called e-Residency. With e-Residency, eligible citizens of other countries can gain access to many of the digital services provided through the government’s e-Estonia portal, as well as register a location-independent business in Estonia. This endeavor allows Estonia to further extend the virtual borders of its national influence into digital communities and attract global citizens.

Blockchain talent actually felt deeper in Latvia (population 2 million) than in Japan (population 127 million). Bitfury is probably one of the most well-known success stories of Latvian origin within the crypto community, representing over 10% of worldwide bitcoin mining at one point. However, there are dozens of other interesting projects, both crypto and blockchain, currently flying under the radar of most international VCs (hardly any VC firms reside in Latvia).

In Vilnius, I had the honor to meet the developers behind an AI-based image recognition technology that even the NSA can’t reproduce. Lithuania’s capital also houses the Vilnius Blockchain Centre, a central hub attracting blockchain talent from all over Europe.

Baltic entrepreneurs hold no illusions about the size of their domestic markets and hence aim global in their ambitions. Skype, Bitfury, Revolut are of course brand name global successes now, yet all had their roots or early traction in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, respectively.

If you’re interested in witnessing agility on digital innovation in Europe these days, the Baltic States are a must-see.

The real heroes of the Paris bike sharing programs

August 5, 2018

If I had to rank in order of my appreciation the various French government services, topping the list would undoubtedly be the Paris firemen (les Pompiers de Paris).

This group of heroes has saved the life of one of my visiting relatives, and on another occasion, rescued me from a world of hurt as the victim of a hit and run.

Beyond saving lives and extinguishing burning buildings, Paris’ firemen apparently have another duty in their job description: fishing out dockless shared bikes from the canal and river.

I took the above photo this morning when I noticed a fireman in a wetsuit diving into the Canal St Martin to pull out a moBike (yes, that is seaweed dangling from the handlebars). I teasingly asked him if he had to do this every year, expecting to be surprised by his answer that it was more frequent than once a year. “Are you kidding?” he responded. “Several of us have to do this every day.” Every. freaking. day.

The scene was the only downer to an otherwise perfect Sunday morning in Paris.

I’ve lamented before about the sad cycle of Paris bike sharing. When Paris first initiated the Vélib bike sharing program back in 2007, it set Paris on the path to a delightfully eco-friendly liveable city. Granted, Paris city hall bungled the renewal of the Vélib contract with supplier JC Decaux, and arguably some funds were squandered on costly construction of docking stations throughout the city. However, the real culprits ruining the bike sharing scheme are the handful of abusers.

For example, some mischievous scoundrels began stashing their dockless shared bikes in their buildings’ inner courtyards, common in Paris apartments, checking out of the rental while essentially locking the bike away from public use. Or they are simply tossing them into the waterways, it appears.

I am a big fan of these bike sharing programs. During a recent trip in Northern Europe, I employed shared bikes to shuttle between meetings. I enjoyed the convenience, the opportunity to discover the various cities, and the chance to benefit from a little healthy exercise in the gorgeous summer weather.

Incidentally, I noticed that in Northern Europe consumers universally parked their dockless bikes in an orderly fashion. I imagine that there could be some broader conclusion which can be drawn about cultural differences throughout Europe from this observation.

So tip your cap to the Paris firemen for saving us from our own worst qualities.

 

Sumo Nagoya 2018: Time for the next generation?

July 22, 2018

Congratulations to Mitakeumi, winner of sumo’s latest basho, the July tournament in Nagoya. This young rikishi from Nagano has demonstrated relative consistency at sumo’s third-best rank of sekiwake. Now he holds a championship trophy.

With all three yokozuna injured (one of whom, Kisenosato, might need to hang it up any day now), could it be that this victory from 25 year-old Mitakeumi combined with strong performances from other young wrestlers like Asanoyama, Hokutofuji, and Yutakayama may be a harbinger of regime change ? These are some of the most exciting periods in sumo. Looking forward to seeing more of Mitakeumi.

RudeVC Summer reading list 2018

July 14, 2018

Time for the RudeVC summer reading list again. Here are my picks for the summer of ’18.

 

Grave New World: The End of Globalization, the Return of History, by Stephen D. King.

Grave New World presents one of the starkest accounts I’ve read yet of the technological trade-offs facing our era. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, there may well have been economic, financial, and technological globalization, but there was not a globalization of institutions nor ideas. King sounds the alarm on risks such as self-censorship enabled by technology, and how the inconvenient traceability of voting records thwarts nuance, diplomacy, adaptability, thus giving rise to populist outsiders.

.

.

..

.

 

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyrou.

On a panel at a recent VC/PE conference, I was asked by the moderator what keeps me up at night as a VC. A conventional answer to these sorts of questions might be along the lines of “FOMO.” Instead, I answered, “investing in a fraud like Theranos and not getting out.” Pulitzer prize-winning investigative reporter John Carreyrou’s dogged perseverance brought to light one of the worst frauds in the history of Silicon Valley. In this gripping read, the villains are clear, and the heroes come from unexpected places, surviving intimidation tactics which could charitably be described as no less than disgusting.

.

.

.

.

The Kingdom and The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura.

The Kingdom and The Thief are two distinct books by this rising Japanese writer. I discovered only after reading them that Nakamura links the two in his mind. Both are simultaneously fascinating and thought-provoking. For anyone who values being in control, these two existential works depict how much of an illusion that may actually be. If you haven’t read Nakamura yet, he is one of Japan’s most accomplished writers of the day.

.

.

.

.

 

Japan Bitcoin #1 and Land of the Rising Blockchain.

Switching gears from the professional authors above, I’d be remiss to not mention my two recent books about bitcoin and blockchain in Japan. If you’re willing to overlook the amateur writing quality, I can assure you that the topic matter is interesting and timely. Also, I contribute all profits from the sales of these books to Japan’s Tohoku region, still in reconstruction following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

.

.

.

[Past editions of the RudeVC summer reading list: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012]

Frontignan Triathlon

July 12, 2018

Race report on this week’s triathlon in Frontignan (south France)

Pros:

  • lots of actual pros, including British national team triathlete
  • nice open water swim in Mediterranean, choppy but safe, Australian exit well-organized
  • charming seaside location with traffic blocked off
  • top-notch organization and volunteer staff

Cons:

  • a 3pm start during peak heat of the day
  • a 7-loop drafting-legal bike course, surprisingly devoid of any serious accidents
  • could have used one extra aid station during the hot run

My personal GDPR

July 6, 2018

Following a talk I gave in Tokyo last month about European innovation, a number of Japanese corporations have been asking me about GDPR, and whether it applies to them.

My answer has been consistently to encourage them to check with their own legal counsel, but that there is a good chance that they fall under the GDPR regulation if they are collecting data on any European person, whether they realize it or not. Here is an introductory overview on GDPR for reference: Consent is King: GDPR arrives.

Otherwise, I thought that now would be a good time to clarify my own personal policy on privacy of the data on people with whom I interact. This is not so much a legal framework but rather a set of my own best practices when it comes to professional relationships.

Email

A political boss once famously said something along the lines of, “Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.” Despite this political wisdom, I treat email as a private exchange with the other party. The beauty of email communication is that it can be performed asynchronously. This is convenient when I’m in Tokyo and need to communicate with someone in Paris, as is often the case. Or perhaps I’m in transit, and during a flight connection at some ridiculous hour I can send over my thoughts or reactions on something without disturbing the other person’s sleep schedule.

Even though emails are easily forwarded, I generally do not do this unless it is implied in the context of the email to allow for this. For avoidance of doubt, I will never share an email from a sender who has requested that I keep it confidential.

I feel quite strongly about this policy because without it, people may feel reluctant to share things with me in writing. Investing in and sitting on boards of startups requires excessive communication, often about sensitive topics. There are simply not enough hours in the day — especially convenient hours spanning multiple time zones — to require telephone or face-to-face communication for every sensitive exchange.

Note that this same policy applies to exchanges sent to me over messenger applications like LINE, WeChat, Whatsapp, Slack private messaging, etc.

Secrets

Perhaps the best way to make me forget something is to tell me that it’s a secret and make me swear to never tell anyone else. Not only can I assure you that I will never repeat it to a soul, but most likely I will forget it promptly after I hear it. This was a mental trick I implemented decades ago to ensure that I take any secrets to the grave, and now it has become so second-nature that I find it hard to remember any secrets at all as I grow older.

Gossip

In contrast with secrets, when you start to tell me something that smacks of gossip, I already stopped listening. So not to worry, it cannot be repeated.

Debts

I do not keep a record of the money I lend to other people. So if you borrow money from me,  I will trust that you will not forget to pay me back. If on the other hand you are unscrupulous or find yourself in financial distress, you can deliberately decide to never pay me back and will get off scot-free. The converse of this, however, is also true. In other words if you lend me money, I will not keep a record of it and may even forget to reimburse you (especially if the loan was for something “secret”).

All of the above notwithstanding, however, if I invest in your company, especially when I am investing on behalf of other people’s money which is my main vocation, you can be assured that I will behave rigorously in tracking the progress of your company and all rights you have granted in exchange for my investment.

Happy GDPR ramp-up to all !

 

Japan has its successful Unicorn. Next it needs its first Unicorpse.

June 22, 2018

[Note: The Japanese version of this piece can be found here: 初のユニコーンを手にした日本、次に必要なのはユニコープス? ]

Japan witnessed its first successful unicorn take flight this week in the IPO of Mercari.

Since its launch in 2013, Mercari has become Japan’s leading online flea market platform, allowing people to buy and sell secondhand items on a smartphone app with a brilliant UX. In just five years, the startup has reached a valuation of $6 billion, the largest IPO for a tech company since Line Corp. went public in July 2016.

Hats off to the investors who backed Mercari, especially East Ventures who subscribed to the vision during the company’s seed round. And deep bow to the tireless leadership of Shintaro Yamada and his team at Mercari for your collectively heroic efforts!

My hope is that Mercari represents a watershed moment for tech innovation in Japan. I’ve encountered mixed prognostications here in Tokyo this week. Some view it as a game-changer. Others remain skeptical, contending that Mercari remains an exception in a culture which stigmatizes failure.

Numerous people in both camps have told me that the absence of unicorns in Japan has been an embarrassment to the world’s third largest economy and former technology powerhouse viewed with intimidation in the West.

True, the U.S., Europe, and China possess herds of tech unicorns. Even today, I would submit that Europe punches above its weight in its proportion of unicorns. As I had explained in a recent interview to ITmedia News, Europe now counts about 30 technology unicorns, over 25% of the U.S. figure, which is impressive given that Europe only receives 1/10th of VC funding with substantially lower fundraising rounds compared to the U.S. As a VC during the breakout years of Europe’s tech sector, I have been fortunate to witness and invest in this magical phase.

And magical it is. The birth of unicorns in Europe has awakened international investors to the Old Continent’s potential. Capital from America and China has found it way into Europe. Now it appears that a few savvy investors from Japan are discovering the potential as well. Perhaps Mercari can unleash a similar stampede.

Granted, the term unicorn is annoyingly overused and increasingly inaccurate. However, investment bankers, research analysts, and investors love it (not to forget tech journalists, of course). Government officials across the globe have also almost universally adopted the unicorn mantra. Some use it as a metric on which to score points in petty rivalries about whose nation boasts the best tech ecosystems. One could also argue that a proliferation of unicorns is a sign of inefficiency in the capital markets.

Although I am hopeful that Japan will produce more tech unicorns in short order, I submit that the real litmus test will come in the form of a more macabre milestone: Japan’s first unicorpse.

[image credit: J.Peng]

Now please don’t misunderstand me. I applaud each and every aspiring unicorn venture, and I wish them no harm. I also salute the as-of-yet unsung heroes: the entrepreneurs who are still struggling out of the spotlight to reach escape velocity. Some of you will hopefully join the unicorn club, whereas many of you will not cross the $1B barrier but still build great companies of lasting value. Just as I wept at the end of Seabiscuit, I would not take pleasure in seeing a bunch of dead unicorn carcasses.

However, although Aileen Lee’s term refers to an arbitrary valuation threshold (remember: $1B is just another number), there is something stratospheric, ostentatious, and memorable about the $1 billion mark. On today’s scales, when you’ve crossed $1B, you’ve made it beyond the big leagues; you’ve become a near-mythical creature.

By the same token, a $1B failure will also be monumental. The topic of faltering unicorns is still a bit taboo, and the projected “dying unicorn lists” are not publicized (I know of one in particular that has recently attracted Japanese VC funding to the surprise of the local insiders).

But make no mistake, there has been and will be more blood. Probably several more unicorpses around the world. Such is the nature of venture building. This is actually a good thing, because global success stories of game-changing disruption cannot exist in an environment devoid of colossal failures.

Japan’s first unicorpse, whenever it happens, will represent a new inflection point. How the community reacts will reveal the true potential of Japan’s innovation ecosystem.

 

 

Japan’s Airbnb mishap

June 15, 2018

Today, the registration deadline for Japan’s new rule on private lodging services like Airbnb comes into effect. I’m going to try to be as diplomatic as I can here: the implementation of this new legislation is a head-scratcher.

Two prominent requirements of the new law are: i) a restriction on the number of rental nights to 180 per year, and ii) a requirement that all hosts register with the land ministry. Each local municipality may levy additional restrictions. The restriction on the number of nights destroys the economics of short-term lodging services for many owners. The registration requirement, likely well-intentioned, has resulted in a bureaucratic logjam of applicants leading over the past two months since the law was announced.

Apparently Airbnb was forced to remove nearly 80% of its more 60,000 listings when the Japan Tourism Agency, which oversees accommodation platforms like Airbnb, announced earlier this month that private websites offering such lodging would have to de-list unlicensed properties.

The direct losers of this law are market leader Airbnb and the vast majority of Airbnb hosts in Japan. Indirectly, Japan’s image is also a loser. In fact, it’s difficult to see who really wins from this new law with one clear exception: local Airbnb copycats like the Hyakusenrenma who allegedly lobbied behind the scenes for this new restrictive legislation.

I’ve written before about how Airbnb’s hosts in Japan should be celebrated, not punished (see: Italy on the Pacific: How Airbnb can alter Japan’s trajectory).

With foreign tourists facing unexpected last-minute cancellations of their lodging for upcoming visits to Japan, this mishap undermines Japan’s otherwise admirable efforts to boost tourism as the country ramps up for the 2020 Olympic Games.

Crypto merchant acceptance

June 8, 2018

As I argued in Japan Bitcoin #1, the Japanese government’s designation of bitcoin as legal tender in April 2017 unleashed dramatic consumer adoption as well as cryptocurrency merchant acceptance. Today, over 50% of the world’s bitcoin trading volume occurs in Japanese yen and nearly 20,000 retail and online merchants in Japan accept bitcoin as payment.

Granted, the debate over whether bitcoin makes a better form of payment or store of value (or neither) is warranted; however, this ignores a broader point about merchant acceptance.

When a housewife walks into one of the hundreds of BIC Camera stores nationwide (a well-known national consumer electronics chain) to buy a new washing machine, ubiquitous banners advertising bitcoin acceptance reinforce cryptocurrency’s perception of legitimacy. The bitcoin logo is becoming nearly as prevalent as the AMEX logo at many national chains.

Japan led the way, but merchants around the world are increasingly adopting cryptocurrency as payment options.

Even Slovenia has recently opened its BTC City. Just outside the capital Llubljana (which is a gorgeous little city if you haven’t been yet) a 475,000 sq.m. stretch encompasses 500 retail stores united in their acceptance of bitcoin.

One of the unintended consequences of writing two blockchain books is a near inundation from crypto promotional requests. I ignore the bulk of them, but this one caught my attention, perhaps because I enjoy eating poké:

Joining the ranks of several Manhattan eateries, a restaurant called Pokee in Greenwich Village is now accepting cryptocurrencies as a form of payment. At Pokee, you can order a bowl of the much-loved Hawaiian cuisine of poké and pay for it with Ethereum, IOSToken, or even OmiseGo which we know well in Japan.

Next time I pass through NYC I intend to visit Pokee for some poké. Not sure I’ll pay with cryptocurrency, but we’ll see. If you find yourself in Greenwich Village anytime soon, please consider dropping by Pokee and tell me how it is.

Are you a 0 to 1 person, or 1 to 10 person ?

June 1, 2018

I was having coffee the other day with an entrepreneur I admire who has recently come to the realization that, as he put it, he’s “a 0 to 1 guy not a 1 to 10 guy.”

I, too, use this expression a lot to describe people. It has even become a bit of a cliché in some circles since the release of Peter Thiel’s book of the same title, but there’s an important point in this anecdote. This entrepreneur had already built up his company from creation to product, to product-market-fit, and now into a steadily growing base of recurring revenue in the millions. I had invested at this startup’s Seed stage, and the company subsequently raised a Series A financing round. Now with the scaling levers clear, this founder faced an opportunity to raise a substantial Series B round to fuel further growth, and was already receiving unsolicited inbound interest from new VCs.

But something was holding him back. He admitted to me that after almost a year of painful soul-searching, he finally realized that his true passion lie more in creating companies, generating something from nothing, rather than scaling businesses with a proven model. To spell it out: he preferred taking a project from “0” (the idea stage) to “1” (the manifestation of the idea with product and market validation). The 0 to 1 phase involves inventing something new, testing hypotheses, taking contrarian bets, soliciting market feedback, and developing products which address a validated market need.

The subsequent phase of a business, i.e. going from 1 to 10, requires attention to a different set of tasks. Its success relies more heavily on activities such as client management, business development, recruiting, implementation of processes and controls, automation, distribution, partnerships, and m&a. It requires a different set of skills, but more importantly, a different set of interests.

This entrepreneur confessed that once he gained the self-awareness from acknowledging to himself which phase of the business he preferred, he felt liberated. Everything else clicked into place.

I’ve come across my share of entrepreneurs who struggle to make such an acknowledgment; I’ve even been in this situation myself. The challenge is that entrepreneurs pride themselves in being able to do everything. Acknowledging that you excel at creating companies but are less capable of scaling them feels like admitting a weakness.

The reality, however, is that acknowledging one’s limitations is not a sign of weakness. I would submit that most entrepreneurs, who by nature possess a high degree of determination, could become adept at scaling companies too if they enjoy doing that. Sheer dedication and repetition alone could be enough, provided that the entrepreneur actually takes an interest in it.

By re-framing the question from, ‘Is there anything I cannot do?’ to ‘I could do anything but what would I like to do most?’, the choice becomes far less daunting.

Reaching such self-awareness not only unlocks the potential of your startup but will also liberate your soul.

Sumo’s greatest on display

May 28, 2018

Sumo’s natsu basho (夏場所), which ended yesterday in Tokyo, proved one of the most exhilarating in recent memory. The top three contenders for the Emperor’s Cup of this tournament each manifested some of the best traits of sumo today.

All three are foreign-born, yet have integrated into Japanese culture with humility and dedication. Two are yokozuna grand champions — with Hakuho arguably one of the greatest rikishi of all time, and Kakuryu one of the most persevering yet under-appreciated wrestlers — both Mongolian. Then we have the veteran from Georgia — Tochinoshin — who until this week had risen to the sport’s third-highest rank of sekiwake. Tochinoshin had won the January tournament this year, and he nearly pulled off his second trophy, which would have triggered an interesting debate for its contrast with stagnating Kisenosato, who had been promoted to yokozuna upon only one yūshō victory.

As it were, another of the hardest working men in sumo today, Kakuryu, plugged his way to a back-to-back tournament victory for a solid fifth championship of his career. Tochinoshin will undoubtedly receive a well-earned promotion to sumo’s ozeki rank. Hakuho demonstrated his longevity in spite of his seniority in the sport.

Portfolio job opportunities

May 23, 2018

Upon request I’m going to make an effort to post job openings in my various portfolio companies at a frequency more commensurate with their pace of growth. Here are a handful of the more notable employment opportunities at some of the companies in which I’ve invested. [As a reminder, a search on the ‘jobs‘ tag on this blog will reveal a more comprehensive list at any given time, scattered with some opinionated career advice.]

France:

  • A CTO Co-founder opportunity in a project that combines the passions of music and technology
  • An account manager and head of operations for a SaaS marketing tech firm

Holland:

  • HTML5 game developers, javascript developers, and head of technology at a leading mobile games publisher

APAC:

  • A variety of positions within a newly-minted fintech unicorn (Japan and Southeast Asia)
  • A mobile developer and a content marketer at an imaginative new storyteller app (Japan)
  • A data engineer, data scientist, and SaaS developer at a fast-growing AI startup (Japan with remote possibilities)
  • A developer for a radical new blockchain venture (Japan)
  • A part-time advisor for a new crypto investment fund (Japan)
  • Enterprise salespeople for a SaaS fintech startup (Japan)

Worldwide:

  • Casual games developers for a blockchain-based DApp marketplace

Any interested candidates are welcome to contact me directly with an email which I can easily forward.