The disruption in mobile gaming that few are talking about

February 21, 2017

With GDC approaching next week, mobile gaming is on my mind. Truth be told, I was never much of a gamer myself, yet the industry has always fascinated me from an investment perspective.

In 2016 we witnessed numerous noteworthy events in mobile gaming: the record-breaking success of Pokémon Go, the critically debated walking start to Super Mario Run, the demise of Flash games, the return of HTML5 with FB Messenger’s explosive launch of Instant Games, etc.

Earlier last year I wrote about a looming threat to the most powerful tool in Japanese game companies’ business models. This potential disruption seemed to receive little attention in the markets, yet I contended that it represents a potential ticking bomb for the industry. I’m referring to the guidelines governing Gacha mechanics, self-imposed by the Japanese online gaming association back in Q2 last year.

The monetization technique of gacha has proliferated in Japan while remaining relatively unheard of until recently in the West. (It’s a mechanic derived from the original gashapon ガシャポン in which vending machines popular in Japan would dispense capsule toys at random. Here’s a more thorough explanation of the various gacha mechanisms).

Under gacha monetization, game companies target big-spending “whales.” The dependency of certain mobile games’ business model on whales cannot be understated. According to marketing firm Swrve, the top 10% of players contribute to nearly half of all mobile game revenues, and 48% of revenues come from a mere 0.19% of all players.

Due to a controversial incident where a “whale” player spent over $6,000 during a single evening in pursuit of a gacha character, Japan’s Online Game Association sprung into action.

In an effort to stave off more draconian government measures, the Association self-imposed a new regulation that established two significant constraints on gaming monetization: a minimum 1% payout ratio, and a maximum 50,000 JPY billed per player. Technically, these industry “guidelines” are not law.

I expected most game companies to adhere to these guidelines to avoid stricter government intervention.

Adhering to such guidelines would however drive a sword into the heart of one of the most profitable monetization techniques in history. For publicly-listed firms, I expected the corresponding hit to earnings to result in stock price corrections.

It’s hard to conclude definitively that such a sector-wide stock correction is taking place. Here’s why: several of Japan’s notable mobile games companies have not adopted the new gacha guidelines.

It will be interesting to see how established mobile games companies confront the new market environment in 2017.

12 employee incentives for your startup which hardly cost a cent

February 13, 2017

I like to preach that Silicon Valley no longer has a monopoly on tech innovation. Startup ecosystems around the world have emerged and have produced many game-changing innovations over the past couple decades.

Yet in one area several of these communities (not all, but many) remain in the dark ages relative to North America: employee incentive management.

Readers of my blog know that one of my recurring gripes is the regulatory difficulty in granting equity to stakeholders of French startups. France, however, is not uniquely guilty. The government in the Netherlands, for example, has made granting stock options in startups so fiscally unappealing that the instrument is useless.

Between bouts of complaining though, I had also promised to expand on some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years on establishing non-monetary incentives in venture-backed startups across Europe. Many of these lessons could be applicable to innovators in any geography.

A personal story

First, a detour into a personal anecdote. When I first graduated from university with a degree in Electrical Engineering, like most clueless 22 year-olds I didn’t know which career to pursue. I just knew that I didn’t want to become an electrical engineer for a living. This was in the 90s, a period in which the default career step for new grads who didn’t know what to do was… consulting.

Despite not really understanding what management consultants actually did, I miraculously received a handful of job offers from the main firms and decided to join one which seemed like the best fit for me. No offense to this firm, which is world-class, but within three months of my first job out of college I realized that I was not the best fit for consulting.

I began spending spare weekends (spare evenings were non-existent) with a former classmate brainstorming on new business ideas. The positive energy from these sessions drew a stark constrast with my day job. I almost resigned in anticipation, but then my employer pulled a jedi mind trick on me which completely shifted my momentum:

They gave me a prize.

The partners of our firm’s office presented me with an award of recognition for my purportedly extraordinary efforts on a client engagement. It was a glass trophy, with no monetary award attached, but a plaque inscribed with my name and the words, “extraordinary achiever” or something like that.

And you know what, it worked. This glass trophy (which probably cost a mere dollar to manufacture in China) re-energized my motivation and loyalty to my firm for another year. Crucially, I was presented this award during a quarterly all-hands meeting, on a stage to the applause of the entire office. This event motivated me more than any bonus or raise ever could have. Even when I try to look back on the occasion with detached hindsight to laugh, I can still sense some of the residual pride I had felt that day.

With this demonstration of human psychology as a backdrop, and in the spirit of spurring creativity among all company-builders reading this, here are a handful of ideas to attract, motivate, and retain your employees on a startup budget.

12 cost-effective ideas to motivate your team:

  1. Give awards. Recognize performance in a manner visible to the whole company. Prizes could take the form of inexpensive trophies, French Open or Stade de France tickets, Michelin restaurant vouchers, etc.
  2. Hold internal competitions. For example, create an 8-week internal hackathon comprised of cross-functional teams (1 salesperson, 1 developer, 1 designer) to produce a viable new revenue line for your company. Teams present their creation in front of the company at the end of the period. Allocate one hour every Friday morning on company time for teams to collaborate. Pride and ego will probably encourage teams to work on their project outside of company time. The winning team receives a prize, but the real winner will be your startup.
  3. Invite a star performer to join a board meeting on occasion (for those whom would enjoy this and not feel intimidated by it).
  4. Grant extreme flexibility in work arrangements: let employees work the hours they wish, from the location they wish, and measure them solely on deliverables, not “office time”.
  5. Create a warm and fuzzy office environment where employees enjoy spending time. Let employees decorate their own desk, provide free monthly catering from a company like La Belle Assiette (I’ll even give you a 40€ voucher if you’re in Belgium, France, Germany, or UK). Or consider relocating your office to a place like Station F. I recently visited one office that put a barbershop in a side room with a barber on-demand which I thought was really cool.
  6. Invite a visiting speaker once a semester, such as a Silicon Valley type on vacation, or a developer to talk about the latest techniques in Rails, or anyone that might be of interest to the staff.
  7. Be creative in granting job titles. Job titles cost the company virtually nothing yet can deliver immeasurable perceptual value to the employee.
  8. Give employees the latest iPhone. As with job titles, there’s an arbitrage opportunity here between the perceived value vs. cost of free smartphones.
  9. Hold periodic company retreats to brainstorm on strategy in a remote environment like a wine-tasting outing, a farmhouse, a kayaking trip, etc. The key is that everyone be invited to contribute to the discussion. You can abandon company hierarchy for a day.
  10. Empower your employees. Give them some autonomy and the ability to fail without repercussions. To the extent possible, allow them to control their own budgets up to a certain limit.
  11. Communicate as openly as you can about the opportunities and challenges facing your business. Twitter and Medium founder Evan Williams is frequently praised by his employees who remain fervently loyal to him. Keeping employees in the dark is a recipe for underperformance.
  12. Make your employees feel that they’re a part of something big. Treat your employees like fonctionnaires if you want to run your startup like a government agency and go nowhere.

 

Hatsu basho: Kisenosato finally breaks through

February 7, 2017

It feels appropriate to bring the relief of closure to a topic that I’ve referenced in recent pieces: the fate of Japanese sumo rikishi Kisenosato.

In Goeido’s perfect sumo tournament: when talent and consistency converge and Sumo in Kyushu: the lesson of killer instinct, I drew some broader lessons about the qualities of diligent work ethic and killer instinct.

In entrepreneurship as in sumo, I argued, the traits of diligent work ethic vs. killer instinct are uncorrelated virtues. The very qualities required for an entrepreneur to plod along meticulously do not directly translate into a take-no-prisoners mentality. Diligent perseverance is necessary to be positioned at the right place at the right time. However, when circumstances line up to disrupt a market, killer instinct will determine the winner.

Kisenosato exuded the first virtue: he won the most sumo matches in 2016 and consistently notched one of the best annual records in prior years. However, what Kisenosato possessed in consistency, he lacked in killer instinct. He always found a way to choke in late matches and thus never win a tournament championship. Kisenosato represented sumo’s perennial bridesmaid.

Until now.

Kisenosato dominated January hatsu basho in Tokyo, clinching his first Emperor’s Cup on the penultimate day, and beating the traditionally invincible yokozuna Hakuho on the final match.

Kisenosato finally conquered his demons. The Japan Sumo Association promoted Kisenosato to the highest grand champion yokozuna status by the end of the month, the first Japanese rikishi to reach yokozuna in 19 years.

It’s inspiring to see what people are capable of when they push themselves outside their comfort zones.

Act Globally, Eat Locally

February 1, 2017

By 2050, we’ll need to find a way to feed 9.7 billion people.

Current food production methods will not suffice. They’re too inefficient (it takes at least 9 calories of food production to produce 1 calorie of edible meat) and harmful to the environment (see Environmental impacts of farming). Many developed countries will even struggle to meet their Paris Climate Accord commitments.

Fortunately, some fascinating new innovations in agritech are emerging. Vertical farming, plant-based meats, lab-grown foods, drone-enhanced farming to name a few.

Japan is one of the most forward-thinking countries in this area. The government as well as a number of Japanese industrial groups are seeking to spur innovation in this domain. I’ve been solicited to help identify investment opportunities in agritech startups that are interested to explore the Japanese market.

Beyond finally learning how to distinguish a tasty tomato from a bland one, I’m still a neophyte investor in this domain and eager to learn more. Any relevant technology startups innovating in agriculture and interested in Japan are welcome to contact me.

Furthermore, Asia’s largest agritech summit will take place in Tokyo in May and is worth a look.

A day without AI is like a day without wine

January 23, 2017

As I mentioned in my predictions post, I believe 2017 will be a breakout year for deployment of Artificial Intelligence. By this I mean that AI companies will start to master the processes of expectation management and social engineering in order to bring AI across the chasm of consumer perception. Several VCs smarter than I am have made predictions along these lines, so I am by no means uniquely prescient. I also share the view that AI will become the new mobile, and accordingly have begun familiarizing myself with the variety of startups innovating around AI in Asia.

One such startup, for instance, has developed a clever application for deep learning to improve rice crop yields. By taking photos of their rice fields with their smartphones, farmers can obtain AI-driven analytics and disease diagnoses in real-time in order to optimize usage of pesticides, fertilizers, water, and energy on their crops.

This led me to thinking: would a similar application be appropriate for vineyards? For example, could a winemaker minimize pesticide usage based on an AI-informed recommendation of insect susceptibility? Or perhaps even the harvest date could be optimized? If this field is ripe for innovation, it would seem to me that a startup from one of France’s major wine regions would have some legitimacy in this area.

Happy to hear from anyone working on this.

Incidentally, my favorite venue for meeting AI entrepreneurs in Tokyo is the aptly-named Deus Ex Machina, a surf shop that doubles as a café (or vice versa). If you appreciate AI (or even just a well-balanced Gibraltar, albeit brewed by a human), Deus is worth a stop. If you bump into me there, I’m probably meeting with an AI entrepreneur, so please introduce yourself. However, please don’t “out” me as a VC since the staff of the Deus only know me as the California surfer dude.

 

More entertaining than nitrous oxide, but M&A was no laughing matter for AirGas

January 17, 2017

Even those who may not get excited about the stodgy industrial gases business but with a passing interest in the topic of M&A may find this story intriguing. It gives a glimpse into two hostile takeover defenses: the poison pill and a staggered board.

It’s also a tale that hits particularly close to home (if home is France) because the happy ending involves Paris-based CAC40 member Air Liquide successfully acquiring its American counterpart, AirGas.

Finally, as with any compelling story, there’s a victim-turned-hero: AirGas CEO Peter McCausland, and a villain: American giant Air Products (and arch-rival of both AirGas and Air Liquide).

The industrial gases sector is a textbook oligopoly. A handful of corporations dominate the boring but ridiculously profitable business of producing chemicals in gaseous state — largely oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, but also a basket of other gases like inerts or rare gases. Customers of industrial gases count almost every type of manufacturing business (semiconductors, automotive, food, consumer products, etc.) as well as service sectors like health care.

[An inside joke once shared with me by my VC fund’s LP, Air Liquide, went as follows. Q: How does the production of oxygen for the health care sector differ from that for the manufacturing sector? A: Slap a big “HEALTH CARE” sticker on the side of the oxygen tank and triple the price!]

Anyway, the industrial gases sector is slow-growth but predictable. Innovation usually takes the form of incremental cost savings initiatives. Profitability in this mature market follows general macroeconomic trends. The relatively low volatility and consistent dividend policies of this sector’s firms makes them a reliable bedrock of a long-term retirement portfolio. The only way these firms can unlock a step function in growth is via the rare acquisition of a peer.

Back in 2010, Air Products thought it saw some vulnerability in its U.S. rival and made a hostile takeover bid for AirGas at a value of approximately $5 billion. Remember, in 2010 the U.S. stock market was still early in its recovery from the financial crisis. AirGas chief executive Peter McCausland judged this valuation too low and resisted the takeover bid.

When Air Products persisted, raising their offer and upping the pressure, AirGas enacted a poison pill defense, which prevented parties from acquiring more than 15% without the approval of AirGas’ board of directors. Furthermore, AirGas had a staggered board, meaning that only three directors (out of 11) were eligible for election each year.

So Air Products escalated its battle on two fronts: a proxy fight and a lawsuit. Air Products lobbied AirGas shareholders to advance the annual meeting and replace the directors: three at a time but six within a four-month window. The lawsuit challenged the validity of the poison pill in a Delaware court. AirGas lost the first skirmish but prevailed in court in a controversial ruling, essentially granting the company more time to fend off the hostile bid.

In 2015, Air Products’ new CEO approached McCausland again with an aggressive stance to acquire AirGas by leveraging the support of some activist shareholders. The historical bad blood between the companies, reinforced by the new Air Products CEO’s menacing attitude, motivated McCausland and AirGas to seek a white knight.

They found their chevalier blanc in Air Liquide. Air Liquide offered and all-cash deal valuing AirGas at $13.4 billion (including its outstanding debt), more than double the highest hostile bid from Air Products.

It’s hard not to root for the AirGas CEO in this story. By resisting the hostile takeover, McCausland doubled the value of his company and found a friendlier acquirer.

Air Liquide proved far more lavish on price, paying twice as much as Air Products had offered. However, the complementary geographic coverage turned Air Liquide into a highly motivated strategic buyer. In contrast, the bad blood resulting from Air Products’ aggressive tactics impeded a constructive deal, probably at any price.

Reinforcing the rationale for this acquisition was the year-end merger of two other sectoral giants: Linde and Praxair, a transaction whose highest praise was “not the worst deal in the world” by the Motley Fool.

Finally there’s a moral to this story for all activist investors and meddlesome board directors: sometimes, even against your better judgment, management is right.

 

Experimenting vs Predicting

January 11, 2017

I am more inclined to invest in entrepreneurs who excel at experimenting rather than excel at predicting. I acknowledge the irony of writing this on the heels of posting a series of tech predictions for 2017.

Let me explain.

The act of making predictions is fun… and invaluable. It’s a prerequisite that entrepreneurs form a view of what’s going to happen in a particular market and build a company toward that vision (similar for VCs, by the way). Smart people are capable of thinking critically about their environment and accordingly, are good at making educated guesses about the future. While even the most brilliant minds are often wrong, they’re right often enough to make a difference.

The principal dangers with predictions are two-fold: i) wasting too much time ruminating so as to impede action (analysis paralysis); and ii) holding too steadfastly to our worldview while the market evolves. Changing our view means admitting we made an error. It’s a failure of sorts, and we’re wired to abhor being wrong. So we dismiss disconfirming evidence and embrace data that reinforces our view.

Meanwhile, as time progresses, the cost of reversing course increases. The stakes rise.

Experimentation, in contrast, has the expectation of failure baked in.

Adopting a mindset of experimentation is difficult because experimenting means admitting we don’t have all the answers. It means embarking on a series of paths where failing or reversing course will be necessary on multiple occasions. It means positioning ourselves to be wrong at some future point.

I submit however that experimentation is one of the most important habits of entrepreneurs, especially for those operating in a fast-paced sector like technology. Predicting the direction of change is one thing, but predicting the speed and specific form in which it arrives is impossible to do reliably.

By valuing experimentation, entrepreneurs are recognizing the complexity of social-technological-economic systems. Conducting a collection of small-scale experiments is the most efficient way to identify the best solution for the challenge at hand: be it related to product, pricing, positioning, business model, etc. Each failed experiment becomes an opportunity to learn, when the stakes are low, and enables the company to allocate more resources to the experiments that are working.

Entrepreneurs should espouse a culture of experimentation in their startups. In turn, their investors and boardmembers should foster an environment in which the founder feels safe to experiment and is not crucified for the inevitable missteps.

 

A few more predictions for 2017

January 7, 2017

I sincerely appreciated all the positive feedback on publishing my past predictions scorecard as well as on this collection of 2017 predictions from an exclusive all-women cast of investors. Thank you.

Some readers also prodded me to stake out my own set of tech forecasts for the year ahead. While I contend that the best insights came from my peers, here are a few more:

  • Mass consumers in the West will finally acknowledge definitively that Asia is capable of producing truly inventive new applications of consumer tech. My guess is that a breakout gadget like this “facial perfection” selfie camera in China will take off in the vanity-stricken cultures of most Western countries. With functionality embedded directly into the camera, this Casio automatically removes blemishes, slims the face, whitens the skin, and enlarges the eyes (perhaps a skin tanning function will emerge in the culture of sun worshippers).
  • The “down-with-the-banks” element to the fintech revolution will lose some of its luster. The saturation of fintech startups in Europe will witness consolidation, with the winners having already attained scale and found ways to partner with the banks rather than replace them; however, Japan’s fintech space will accelerate.
  • Agritech (or Agtech), in contrast, will ascend the curve of inflated expectations. “I can’t believe it’s not meat” substitutes and water-efficient avocados will attain widespread acceptance, taste great, and be less filling.
  • 2017 will be the year AI crosses the chasm of consumer perception. I cannot take credit for this prediction because a number of smarter VCs have made the same prognosis. However, I share the view that AI will become the new ‘mobile’. I also suspect we will see more surreptitious acts of AI, such as the recent stealth play of AlphaGo in the online Go community.
  • The invincibility of the app stores will soften, with the pendulum of centralized vs. distributed IT architectures swinging back. Streamable ‘apps’, HTML5 light versions, and integrations of mobile applications in other creative ways will emerge as a viable alternative to the tedious mobile app on-boarding process.
  • Kisenosato will win a sumo championship. He is the only ozeki to have never brought home the Emperor ‘s Cup despite being the winningest wrestler of 2016.

Happy and healthy new year to all. がんばってください。!

Forecasts for 2017 from Five Insightful Investors

December 28, 2016

With the first full year of Brexit implementation, French elections, the inauguration of President-elect Trump, and a start to the baseball season with the Cubs as the reigning world champs, the world could not feel more unpredictable. In 2017, entropy feels more palpable than ever before.

‘Tis therefore the season to invite some of my colleagues in VC to offer some predictions for the upcoming year. These talented individuals are much smarter than I am, so it’s an honor to solicit their wisdom during this period of chaos.

Claire Houry, Ventech, Paris

For 2017, I see e-tailers going offline, reinventing the offline world and merging the physical and digital world to create an immersive environment. We shall see augmented and virtual reality booming in marketing applications, data-driven indicators and online analytics entering the offline world and intelligent apps (virtual customer assistant) performing some of the functions of a human assistant. Be ready to see internet of things invading all types of products.

Geopolitical views: With the world’s biggest start-up campus to open in Paris in April 2017, I also see France getting high attention in the tech world. Ventech supports the project and will launch its ParisPOC program for its foreign portfolio companies, willing to expand into the French and the European market.

.

Anna Boffetta, Balderton Capital, London

i) The list of winners in machine learning will shift from including only those who can gather the biggest dataset for training to also include those who develop training methods that rely on fewer and fewer data points. In the past years we have made huge progress in Artificial Narrow Intelligence (automation, optimisation, prediction etc.) but, thanks to the increase in computational power, the next years will begin to build towards Artificial General Intelligence, where computers get closer to human-like intelligence.

ii) 2017 will see the rise of new interfaces. While today’s dominant human-computer interaction is done through the display and visualisation, mostly on mobile, new interfaces like voice, audio, messaging etc. will start seeping into everyday life. More data will be collected, structured and analysed by machines which will deliver the results to humans through conversational interfaces.

.

Allison Baum, Fresco Capital, Tokyo

i) Increase in cross-border M&A – The US startup ecosystem is ripe for consolidation and most corporates in Asia are currently cash rich but innovation poor. We are already starting to see the beginning of this trend with our own portfolio companies, where we are receiving inbound interest from international companies looking for new business lines, tech IP, or an entry point into the US.

ii) Edtech goes mainstream – Education technology has incorrectly been identified and relegated to a niche market. However, the combination of the economic and political turmoil we’re seeing in all corners of the world, and a rapidly accelerating rate of technological progress (self driving cars are very real now), jobs are going to be in focus. Tech related and tech enabled training will no longer be a nice to have, but instead a critical need for the health of individuals, corporations, governments, and society as a whole.

.

Adizah Tejani, Former Level 39 Fintech Accelerator, now at Token.io, London

Over the last few years, finance has undergone change as technology shifts the landscape on what is possible. With the up and coming PSD2 changes across Europe, I think the move to platform banking driven by an API economy will start to become clearer in 2017. Banks and technology companies will continue to adjust through collaboration to navigate this change.

.

Anja König, Novartis Venture Fund, Basel

I like to quote Yogi Berra, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” With this caveat in mind, one doesn’t have to be a wizard to predict that it will be easier for European companies and academic institutions to recruit top talent from the US.

.

.

All the best for 2017.

 

My prediction scorecard

December 26, 2016

I ruffled a few feathers back in February when I wrote how I think HTML5 games will become trendy again. Nine months later, Facebook launches Instant Games, offering HTML5 games directly inside the chat feed. Perhaps a bit premature to brag, but I’d like to suggest that I really nailed this one.

.

In contrast, earlier I had predicted that the sense of touch would become more deeply integrated into our smartphone UXs, i.e. kind of haptic feedback 2.0. This one didn’t materialize, at least not yet.

.

I had also predicted that the UK would remain in Europe and that Hillary Clinton would be elected President of the U.S. I’m going to try to resist making political predictions in the future.

.

Coming up next, some astute predictions about technology and innovation from some truly brilliant and globally-minded VCs.

Giving thanks for 2016

December 20, 2016

Around this time every year I make a habit to reflect on the countless benefits in my professional life for which I am thankful. Out-ranking these items are a multitude of blessings on the personal side, but I’ll restrict this list to the business ones.

2016 proved a tumultuous year on the geopolitical front, making this exercise of appreciative stock-taking all the more important in my opinion. Here are five things for which I was grateful in 2016:

  1. For starters, the management teams of my various portfolio companies, both in Europe and Japan. A few experienced breakout years, others struggled, yet all approached the challenges they faced with dignity and diligence.
  2. The people that have worked for me, both current and former. I would not have accomplished so much without your collaboration.
  3. The luxury of my work allowing me to shuttle between my two favorite cities of the world: Paris and Tokyo, and the opportunity to interact with inspiring individuals in each.
  4. The progress which I’ve had a front row seat to witness of the innovation ecosystems of France and Japan. The former has sped from laughable to laudable in the 15 years I’ve invested in it. The latter is at an earlier stage, and I’m enthusiastic about its prospects in several sectors, such as fintech, AI, agricultural technologies.
  5. Pertaining to Japan, I’m also grateful for the professionals who have guided me as I stumble my way into a new investment ecosystem. The fellow VCs, the talented entrepreneurs, the savvy journalists and friendly bankers, the captains of industry who have hospitably welcomed me into their circles. Thank you.

Happy holidays to all.

France’s tech incubators and accelerators [infographic]

December 14, 2016

In complement to my post last week about Station F, which proclaims to not be an incubator but rather a ‘startup campus’, I figured it would be helpful to publish an infographic of the numerous incubator/accelerator options for startups in France.

If the chart below appears cluttered, that’s because tech incubators/accelerators are beyond the saturation level in France. Too many? Probably. However, I generally believe the best policy is to let a thousand flowers bloom and then garden appropriately.

Special thanks to my intern Wen-Chiao for assembling this RUDEscape of France’s tech incubators and accelerators.

rudevc-incubators-accelerators-france