Consider unintended consequences to reduce confirmation bias

November 10, 2017

The CEO of one of my previous portfolio companies and I held a vigorous debate a while back about an acquisition he wanted to make.

This incident occurred a long time ago, but it lately returned to top of mind for me as I witness the hand-wringing over Facebook’s role in supporting fake Russian profiles which may have influenced the 2016 U.S. elections.

It was an unusual change of roles for us. Often with this company, I had become the VC voice of aggressive growth while he was usually the more cautious one.

In this case, however, this CEO badly wanted to move quickly on an acquisition target, while I was the one slowing the process. He was predicting that his existing business activity was flattening and was eager to keep company growth on track. He interpreted every piece of ambiguous new information about the prospective target as supporting the case for acquisition.

Fundamentally, this CEO was right. When growth starts to falter in a tech startup, it’s often a sign that either the existing business has found its ceiling or that the market has changed. Startups who do not take action may stagnate, and stagnation can be the first step toward irrelevance.

So directionally, the CEO and I agreed that something needed to be done. We differed in our enthusiasm for acting hastily on the particular target in question.

Two circumstantial issues gave me pause: i) the target had already been on the market for over a year; and ii) i had heard a casual comment from another VC in the space which raised doubt on the quality of the asset.

One particular exchange encapsulated our diverging perspectives:

CEO: “Look, we’re not perfect either, and we can’t wait for a pristine, flawless acquisition target to come along at a price we can afford.”

Me: “Agreed, but let’s at least take a moment to consider what can go wrong so that we go into this with our eyes wide open.”

I see this danger of ignoring unintended consequences playing out again in the present Facebook controversy… on both sides of the debate.

On the one hand, Mark Zuckerberg displays a seemingly unshakeable conviction that by building great technology, nothing but good will come to world. I’m sorry but no; technological progress impacts society in a range of ways, many good, but also some less beneficial.

On the other hand, the voices demanding regulation and editorial censorship controls on Facebook also miss an analysis of the potential adverse ramifications of such controls. To imagine just one example, might imposing more “KYC overhead” on FB advertisers hurt the little startup more than the deep-pocketed incumbent ?

I’m not advocating analysis-paralysis. Entrepreneurs wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning if they dwelled on everything that could go wrong. However, I do submit that seeking disconfirming evidence and considering the unintended consequences of our actions will increase our collective ability to guard against worst-case scenario outcomes.

Back on my original anecdote, in the end, the CEO (who was a fantastic manager I might add) came around and agreed on the importance of uncovering the bad news and performing the mental exercise of thinking through the potential pitfalls. There were indeed a handful of blemishes and concerns, but not any deal-breakers with the target, so we proceeded with the acquisition.

 

Japanese government statement on ICOs

November 4, 2017

Almost as if reinforcing the point about constructive regulation, Japan’s Financial Services Authority published a statement yesterday on ICOs.

The brief statement (full statement in english here) warns interested investors of the risks of ICOs: price volatility and fraud potential. The FSA helpfully invites inquires via email.

“A certain token issued in an ICO falls under the virtual currency on the Payment Services Act, therefore the businesses which provide exchange services of virtual currencies on a regular basis must be registered with each Local Finance Bureau that is the delegated authority to the Prime Minister,”

In other words, cryptocurrency exchanges in Japan must be registered. On September 29, the Japanese authorities approved registration applications for 11 cryptocurrency exchanges. Barring a notorious scandal, I believe that the Japanese government will continue on its constructive path of measured regulation.

Japan: Bitcoin #1 now in paperback

October 28, 2017

For those of you who prefer paperbacks over e-books (like me), Japan: Bitcoin #1 is now available on Amazon in paperback form in most major markets. Profits from the sale of this book are directed to rebuilding efforts in Japan’s Tohoku region. I’d like to reiterate my appreciation to the numerous people who helped make this book a reality, from our graphic designer, the myriad blockchain experts interviewed, veterans of Japan’s business sector, and most importantly my co-author Nai Tsu Chen who is a rising star in the venture capital world.

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Here’s an infographic excerpt from Japan: Bitcoin #1 which depicts Japan’s blockchain startup landscape.

 

 

Self-doubt about self-driving

October 21, 2017

Perhaps inspired by some discussions at last week’s Innovative City Forum as well as the prior AI Summit, I’ve been reflecting on the impact on our cities of all this exciting innovation in driverless vehicles.

We speak a lot about the virtues of self-driving cars, and there are many. As evidenced by this recent test city near Pittsburgh, the dream of autonomous vehicles operating safely within an urban environment is approaching reality.

Source: CBInsights, The State of Auto Tech, May 2017

It’s not hard to imagine that self-driving cars will usher in a disruption in transport on the order of what the internet did to print journalism. We’re now realizing how much the interwebs have fundamentally changed human behavior. We read news on news apps and social media feeds. We no longer buy CDs but rather subscribe to Spotify. We binge-watch whole TV series’ seasons on Netflix. We rarely spend a day without checking Facebook1.

So if we’re willing to accept the premise that self-driving vehicles could prove fundamentally disruptive, I submit that it’s worth considering some of the potential unintended consequences arising from the widespread adoption of self-driving cars.

One is the risk of increased sprawl of suburbs. I fear that self-driving cars will encourage suburban living by making long commutes more palatable. I’m not a big fan of suburbs. I view them as sidewalk-devoid, culturally bankrupt plots gridded with McMansions, malls, and Macaroni Grills2. A primary residence in a cosmopolitan city center with an escape dwelling in the countryside in the middle of nowhere makes me happiest. Of course, this is my personal preference, and I mean no offense to suburb dwellers. Some of my best friends are suburb dwellers.

The worst part of suburbs in my opinion are their segregating tendencies. Suburbs isolate people into homogeneous, economic and cultural enclaves, robbing them of the benefits of diversity and communal interaction necessary to a functioning society.

I could also imagine that self-driving cars (and more aptly, autonomous drones), will dramatically reduce the delivery cost of physical goods. This is arguably a benefit; however, my concern is that negligible shipping costs will alter human behavior for better and for worse. One consequence is that consumers may shift from owning physical goods to simply renting them. Why own a vacuum when you can simply have one dropped off and picked up for an hour every week seamlessly? Freeing closet space and pantries of clutter sounds wonderful.

However, another consequence is that consumers may laze into expecting everything on demand. Why cycle to the produce store or local farmers market for a fresh tomato when you can order one delivered on-demand for only a few cents? Eliminate the weekly banter with the local cheese merchant or fishmonger, and we eliminate a piece of our soul.

Finally, if the demand for delivery of physical objects increases, and the pain of commuting diminishes, what will limit our threshold for traffic congestion?

Will our roads be clogged around the clock? Will the epic traffic jams of places like Sao Paulo and Beijing become commonplace in all large cities? Will our pleasant sunny days be shaded by overhead clutter?

1 Disclosure: I quit Facebook years ago for precisely this reason.

2 I chose this U.S. restaurant chain for alliterative purposes; in France it might be Hippopotamus or Buffalo Grill. Every country has some equivalent.

Will Japan ban ICOs ? Constructive regulation more likely.

October 14, 2017

A lot of people have been asking my opinion on whether Japan will ban ICOs.

China and South Korea have essentially implemented full-on bans of cryptocurrency and ICOs. A Siberian winter for cryptocurrencies also appears imminent in Russia.

So will Japan follow suit ?

The short answer is: I really don’t know, but I think a categorical outright ban is unlikely.

Make no mistake, a ban on ICOs in Japan is not impossible. The truth is that it is still early days for ICOs in Japan. As I discussed in my book, only a handful of ICOs in Japan are currently in the works.

  • Payments enabler Omise boasts a largely Japanese team but is based in Thailand.
  • Alis represented the first thoroughly Japanese ICO, successfully completed last month.
  • Tokyo-based Telcoin will offer their upcoming ICO in Singapore.
  • The ICOs of Japan’s Comsa and Synchrolife are currently underway.
  • Tokyo-based bitcoin prediction platform Phantom AI also recently announced its upcoming ICO.

Thus far, all of the ICOs linked to Japan appear to encompass legitimate projects run by credible founding teams. Whether or not you believe in the respective projects, brilliant minds generally reside behind each one. Furthermore, some foreign startups are eyeing Japan for their ICO launches, notably Bread from Switzerland and Drivezy from India.

The Japanese government is thus taking a methodical approach to regulating the sector. Theoretically, it may decide on a blanket ban.

Constructive regulation more likely

However, my sense based on empirical observation and some informal conversations with key actors in the ecosystem and in government, is that a blanket ban on token offerings in Japan is unlikely. Quite the contrary, at the end of September Japan’s Financial Services Agency approved license applications for 11 cryptocurrency exchanges. Barring a high-stakes scandal (which could understandably trigger drastic action), I believe that the Japanese authorities will continue on their measured path of constructive regulation.

Perhaps partly motivated by the country’s historical ceding of ground to other Asian financial hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore, Japan has much to gain by sustaining its healthy environment for the development of cryptocurrency. Less visible but happening behind the scenes is the government’s encouragement of incumbent players, such as the mega-banks, large institutional investors, and certain retailers, to embrace cryptocurrency.

Japan arguably stands at the forefront of the global cryptocurrency market today. I’ll be paying close attention to how the environment here evolves.

Finally, I’d like to thank everyone who has purchased Japan: Bitcoin #1. The sales in the first two weeks have already far surpassed expectations. As a reminder, profits from the sale of this book go to Japan’s Tohoku region, still rebuilding from March 2011.

 

Japan: Bitcoin #1

October 7, 2017

Despite Japan’s accounting for half of the worldwide bitcoin trading volume daily (yes, half !), I could not locate any substantial research on this fascinating phenomenon. Frustrated by this absence, I decided to write a book about it.

A primer on the world’s leading country for bitcoin and blockchain adoption

Japan, the world’s third largest economy, has emerged as one of the key players in the cryptocurrency market space. Establishing a clear regulatory framework has fostered an atmosphere of legitimacy in which consumers and businesses alike feel increasingly comfortable to operate. In April 2017, the Japanese government defined bitcoin as a legitimate means of payment, leading to dramatically accelerated adoption of cryptocurrency.

Japan: Bitcoin #1 explores the primary drivers for adoption of cryptocurrency, predominantly bitcoin, in Japan. It explains why Japan surpasses every other developed nation in cryptocurrency. All of the blockchain actors are discussed, including startups, investors, associations, and regulatory bodies. Furthermore, we explore how Japan possesses the key ingredients to remain a global leader in crypto-assets and blockchain innovation. Special thanks to Nai Tsu Chen for helping with much of the heavy lifting on this effort.

Profits from the sale of this book are directed to Japan’s Tohoku region, still rebuilding from the 2011 tsunami.

Station F is real, and it’s spectacular

September 30, 2017

On a brief trip to Paris last week I finally found an opportunity to visit the freshly opened Station F.

In a former railway depot which spans the entire length of Tokyo Tower* on its side, Station F bills itself as the world’s largest startup campus. The facility opened its doors in July.

Many people in Japan and other parts of Asia of varying organizations have asked my opinion about Station F. Now I finally feel qualified to give it.

I’ll start off with a blanket endorsement:

  1. If you are an Asian startup, VC, or innovation-seeking corporation with global ambitions that encompass Europe, Station F could be the perfect beachhead for you.
  2. If you are in one of the three above categories but for whom Europe is in your blind spot, Station F is a perfect way to enhance your vision.
  3. If you are an Asian startup, VC, or innovation-seeking corporation who is ignorant of the plethora of innovation taking place in Europe these days, read this, this, this, and this. Then return to step 1.

In other words, Europe should be on your radar if it isn’t already. And Station F makes it easy for you.

Granted, the construction dust was still settling when I visited, and the startup section seemed a bit empty. However, the ambition is there. You can smell it. Station F is not just another one of those provincial, franco-French initiatives. I deliberately wrote a piece back in 2016 (Free, unsolicited advice for Station F) in hopes they would not fall into this trap. They didn’t.

Quite the opposite. Station F endeavors to become an entire international ecosystem, hosting 1,000 startups, as well as investors, business service providers, public services (e.g visa assistance), event space, a food court, and soon even a housing extension for 600 entrepreneurs.

Concretely, here are some of the most relevant opportunities Station F currently has on offer:

  • For foreign startups — Station F offers over 25 different incubation and acceleration programs for which you may be eligible. Find out more here.
  • For foreign VCs — Station F was offering for a limited time an access package of 5 – 10 days per month (fee of under $1k/mo) for tier-1 foreign funds. I understand this opportunity may be oversubscribed, but feel free to ping me for a direct introduction.
  • For foreign corporations — Station F will soon introduce a one-day summit package, which would involve a custom-tailored session and startup introductions relevant to the corporation’s specific needs. I understand this package is not quite ready but will be happy to connect you to the appropriate person if you’re interested.

On a final note and to address a frequent inquiry: Station F is not a co-working space, nor is it a service for company domiciliation (both such services are already widely available throughout Paris).

I’m bullish on Station F

Yes, it’s still early days. It remains to be seen whether the reality in execution fulfills the ambition. But I’m bullish on Station F and am encouraging all of my foreign portfolio companies to give it a serious look. You should too.

Sincere thanks to Roxanne and Cédric for the personal guided tour !

* Tokyo Tower is 13 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower, yet only half the weight.

Hooray for Harumafuji

September 25, 2017

This month’s aki basho sumo tournament in Tokyo looked as though it would be an underwhelming yawner in the early days. Three of the four grand champion yokozuna pulled themselves out due to injury, followed shortly thereafter by two of the three ozeki (Takayasu and Terunofuji).

With yokozuna Harumafuji and ozeki has-been Goeido as the only championship-caliber rikishi standing, some fans placed hopes that some of the younger up-and-comers would enter the limelight. A few youngsters did indicate signs of potential — notably Takakeisho, Onosho, and Asanoyama — but also underscored the value of experience.

Experienced Harumafuji revealed that he was not at 100%, dropping three of the first five matches to junior wrestlers. Despite clearly ailing, this honorable yokozuna admirably committed himself to play out the tournament in an effort to keep it remotely interesting for the fans.

Harumafuji over-delivered on his promise. He won just enough bouts to remain mathematically in the trophy hunt, keeping pressure on the nearly undefeated Goeido into the final stretch. Then, what do you know, Goeido stumbles a bit, and suddenly we find ourselves in the final day of the tournament with Goeido facing Harumafuji and the championship still up for grabs.

Harumafuji beats Goeido with typical yokozuna dominance in the final regulation match, thus tying their records and forcing a playoff tie-breaker.

The playoff match left even less doubt. Harumafuji pushed out Goeido with a quick yorikiri and climbed through a back window into his 9th sumo championship.

I’ve been a fan of Harumafuji since way back in the early days when he was known as Ama. In many ways he strikes me as one of the most entrepreneurial sumo wrestlers. As one of the lightest, he must leverage his agility and resourcefulness to overcome his weight disadvantage. His back-to-back victories over Goeido on the final day also relied on a strong tachi-ai, the initial charge in a sumo bout, must like a startup needs to hit the ground running.

Hooray for Harumafuji ! よくできました。

Japan fintech startup infographic

September 19, 2017

Eighteen months ago I wrote about how bullish I was for venture investment in Japan’s fintech sector. Since then, a proliferation of new fintech startups have emerged, in parallel with Japanese VCs becoming much more active.

An investor friend of mine even joked that we might now be approaching “peak fintech” here. He said this because today kicks off a two-week period with a plethora of fintech conferences taking place in Tokyo. First up this week is FinSum, organized by Nikkei, the FSA (Japan’s Financial Services Authority), and the FAJ (the Fintech Association of Japan). Then on September 26th, Net Service Ventures is holding the FinTech Forum. Finally, capping off the month will be Rakuten’s Fintech conference on the 28th.

So in the spirit of peak fintech, here is the Rudescape™ of Japan’s fintech startups we’re currently tracking (special thanks to Adelson Goncalves for designing this infographic).

[click for high-resolution version]

The board meeting question that consistently confounds

September 15, 2017
And I don’t know where you wanna go, but I’m willing to take you there.
— Chronixx, Somewhere (Perfect Key riddim)

There is one question that consistently seems to stump startup management teams the first time I ask it in board meetings. I don’t ask it to deliberately throw management off balance. Rather, my goal is to encourage good habits of thinking about this question regularly. The question is this:

What would like to get out of this board meeting?

The first time I ask it in a board meeting usually produces blank stares. In contrast, good entrepreneurs inevitably have a well thought-through answer ready the second time.

It can be very comfortable for a startup CEO to fall into the rut of treating his/her supervisory board as an organ of approval. They dedicate so much effort to the daily grind of building their companies that the periodic board meeting almost comes as a distraction.

They feel obliged to divert time in order to prepare an elaborate deck that reports on company progress. They seek acknowledgement of their efforts and strive to give the impression that they have everything under control. The reality is that in the world of tech startups, the entrepreneur’s realm of control spans only a limited number of factors affecting the business at any given time.

Venture investors and independent boardmembers with an affinity for startups understand this

True, one function of a startup’s supervisory board involves corporate governance: approval of items affecting the company’s debt or equity, approval of certain expenditures above a specified threshold, etc. It is the board’s duty to prevent the company from doing something rash that could imperil the firm’s livelihood.

However, I would contend that an equally if not more important function of a startup’s supervisory board is one of support.

I submit that entrepreneurs will increase their odds of success when view their boards as resources. This requires a level of trust and a commitment to open (and frequent) communication from the entrepreneur. It also requires boardmembers to behave in a genuinely supportive manner, for example by providing constructive not critical feedback, by resisting the urge to micro-manage company operations, and ultimately by giving the entrepreneur the space they need to execute.

So, entrepreneurs, ask yourself regularly: how can your board help you? What do you expect from each board meeting? Consider your boardmembers as allies in your market battles, as sounding boards on your strategy and priorities, as safe places where you can openly share what’s keeping you awake at night. You’ll sleep all the better for it.

Interview from Japan’s Cryptocurrency Conference

September 8, 2017

Here’s the English version of the interview I gave at this week’s Japan Cryptocurrency Conference in Tokyo.

You mentioned that you believe Japan is taking a leadership role in cryptocurrency. What did you mean by that?

I was referring to both the government and the consumer. As another speaker explained, earlier this year the Japanese government defined bitcoin as a means of payment. This is incredibly forward-thinking as it brings legitimacy to the domain, and now over 200 physical retail locations in Japan accept bitcoin already. Furthermore, I understand that Japan-based entities (mostly consumers) now account for 30-50% of bitcoin transaction volume worldwide.

You come from France. How is cryptocurrency viewed there?

Actually I originally come from Silicon Valley, but yes, I lived over 17 years in Europe. The French establishment has been slow to acknowledge crypto. However, there is a niche segment of highly passionate fans of cryptocurrency, with many talented blockchain developers in France. I would say that the European countries demonstrating true leadership in cryptocurrency would be Switzerland, with their Crypto Valley in Zug, and Estonia, who is contemplating issuing their own government-managed crypto token.

When did you first begin investing in cryptocurrency?

Although our fund skipped the first wave, I became a bitcoin investor personally back in 2012 by sheer dumb luck. Somebody on another continent owed me a couple hundred dollars and offered to pay me in bitcoin. I didn’t really know bitcoin at that point but was curious. So I opened a wallet, received his money, and then promptly forgot about it for a few years. It turned out to be the best accidental investment I ever made.

So which cryptocurrencies do you hold today?

I would rather not give specifics, but I will say that I cashed out a chunk of my bitcoin recently because I’ve already lived through two major bubble corrections in the past. I diversified into a basket of tokens too. However, I’m far from being an expert. In fact, it was only recently that I learned the importance of securing cryptocurrency assets off the exchanges. I am prepared to lose my entire crypto portfolio, so any other outcome I view as pure upside.

Do you believe cryptocurrency will disrupt your business as a VC?

I certainly believe that, by granting access and liquidity, ICOs and decentralized funding methods will fundamentally impact our business. The amplitude and sign of the impact will depend on the VC.

What do you mean by “depend on the VC”?

I see 5 types of VCs:

  • First, the true visionaries who developed an early conviction for blockchain and began staking out positions in blockchain infrastructure companies, Union Square Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz probably being the most famous.
  • Second are the new funds dedicated to cryptocurrency, like Panterra or Blockchain Capital.
  • Third are the conventional VC funds who have already amended their LP agreements to allow investment in the asset class and who have been participating in ICO pre-sales.
  • Fourth is the vast majority of VCs: a group who have recently woken up to the potential of cryptocurrency but haven’t yet become active in the asset class. The main hurdle is that their limited partnership agreements require modification to allow for this.
  • The fifth category are those funds who remain blissfully ignorant of the space. This group will probably be the first to be disrupted.
What are your predictions for cryptocurrency?

Reiterating the caveat that I’m no expert, my gut tells me that the potential of cryptocurrency is being overestimated in the short term but dramatically underestimated in the long term.

Secondly, I think we’re going to see more and more non-blockchain companies issue tokens. Many of these projects will not bear fruit. My best guess as of now is that the projects with the greatest chance of success will be those where the token is integrated into their core business activity. For example, next week Kik Messenger will open the crowd-sale of their Kin token which empowers and enriches their active base of millions of users.

Thirdly, I am excited about the potential for portfolio management solutions for cryptocurrency assets. Solutions like ShapeShift’s Prism, which I’ve just started using, have the power to be truly transformative and democratizing in my opinion.

Lastly, I’d like to point out a brilliant prediction my analyst made: insurance companies should consider offering tailored insurance packages which cover crypto assets.

Exciting job opportunities

September 1, 2017

With September marking the return from summer holidays in most countries, it’s a good time to reflect on a new professional challenge. To spur the creative juices, here are some current job openings within my current investment portfolio. There are a ton of incredible opportunities here in exciting locales, so take a look !

Amsterdam:

  • Front-end developer
  • HTML5 game developer
  • JavaScript SDK developer
  • Medior back-end java developer
  • Multiplayer back-end java developer

Paris:

  • Community & Social Media Manager – SaaS firm
  • Growth Hacker — Sharing economy marketplace

Melbourne:

  • Back-end java developer — AI startup

Singapore:

  • Sales and business developer — Adtech firm

Tokyo:

  • Back-end java developer — AI startup
  • Content marketing manager — Consumer app
  • Front-end developer — AI startup
  • Front-end developer — Consumer app
  • Inbound content marketer — AI startup
  • Investment Manager — IoT VC fund (min 3 yrs experience)
  • Web designer — Fintech startup

And of course, internship opportunities abound, particularly in France, Holland, and Japan.

Any interested candidates are welcome to send me your CV by email, and I’ll facilitate an introduction.

 

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