Respect to Hakuho

July 26, 2017

Some readers noticed how I omitted writing about sumo over the last two tournaments and wondered if I had something against (consecutive victor) Hakuho.

Not at all ! On the contrary, I admire Hakuho, the yokozuna who won the sumo championship in May and then again this week. I admit, Harumafuji is my preferred sumo wrestler of the four current yokozuna. I’ve been a fan of Harumafuji back from the days when his ring name was Ama, and I’ll never forget his first championship in Tokyo in September 2009.

However, I must confess I’ve been rooting for Hakuho as of late. Now that he has surpassed both Kaio and (my all-time favorite wrestler, the late/great) Chiyonofuji, it is hard to dispute that Hakuho represents one of the greatest rikishi that sumo has ever seen.

Much respect, Hakuho !

 

Summer reading list 2017

July 21, 2017

Time for the RudeVC summer reading list again. Here are my picks for the summer of ’17.

 

The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Mukherjee has a talent for crafting an engaging, page-turning narrative out of complex scientific topics. His first book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. In some ways, The Gene serves as the prequel, recounting the stories of the ancestors of modern hereditary biology like Gregor Mendel, and leading up to the contemporary day of genome mapping and gene editing technologies. The haunting question is: should humans ever go beyond reading our own genomes to actually writing them?

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Shibumi by Trevanian. This book was recommended to me by my lawyer, of all people, and I always heed his advice. Shibumi is a spy novel in the classical sense, though it is written like a beautiful piece of literature in the methodical way of Rousseau. The word shibumi in Japanese is so rich in context that it elicited a wide variety of reactions from native speakers whom I queried. If you have any affinity for the Japanese design aesthetic, for France’s Basque country, for the strategic game of Go, or simply for spy thrillers in the most refined sense, you’ll love this book.

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The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin. I’ve only read books 1 and 2 of this captivating trilogy translated from one of China’s most prolific science fiction writers, and I’m chomping at the bit for the delivery of book 3. There’s a strange contradiction revealed by the naïveté and kindness demonstrated by humanity when faced with the universe: On Earth, humankind can step onto another continent, and without a thought, destroy the kindred civilizations found there through warfare and disease. But when humans gaze up at the stars, they turn sentimental and believe that if extraterrestrial intelligence exists, it must be from civilizations bound by universal, noble, moral constraints, as if cherishing and loving different forms of life are parts of a self-evident universal code of conduct. Mind-blowing !

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Finally, for any VCs who are still not familiar with the lean startup concept, Eric Ries should be on top of your beach blanket this summer.

Happy reading !

[previous RudeVC reading list editions: 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016]

AI Startups: You’ll want to read this

July 14, 2017

As this recent opinion piece in the New York Times from Lee Kai-Fu suggests, perhaps the greatest threat of Artificial Intelligence is the devolution into a world AI have- and have-not countries. China, Japan, and the U.S. have taken note, and are dedicating research efforts to the domain. If any European nation possesses the same focused sense of urgency on AI, I am not aware of it.

An effort in Asia is underway to assemble some of the brightest minds working on artificial intelligence, be it from research, corporates, or startups.

Dubbed AI Tech Leaders, this effort will take the form of periodic Summits, starting with the first in Tokyo on August 25th.

At the Tech Leaders Summit, a privileged selection of innovative startups working on artificial intelligence will have an opportunity to mingle with world-renowned AI researchers and corporate innovation departments looking for partners or acquisitions. Corporates include: Denso, IBM, Lite-On, Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Persol, Razer, Samsung, Tencent, and Tepco among others.

A maximum of five European startups (with no more than two from any given country) are welcome at the inaugural event. The registration fee is waived for all selected startup finalists.

This is a unique opportunity for startups interested in developing relationships with potential future acquirers in Asia.

To apply

To apply, send the following information by email to aitl@rude.vc

  • name of your company (in the subject field)
  • a 2-3 sentence description of your ambition
  • how your startup uses AI in fulfilling this ambition
  • stage of your startup (concept / prototype / product / revenue)
  • total amount invested, if any
  • location of headquarters and contact information

Applicants who missed the cut for August will be wait-listed for a future AI Summit.

Incumbent banks: startups are coming for you

July 7, 2017

In my previous post I wrote about the sparsity of financial services and products from incumbent banks for small businesses that act globally. This chasm has grown as the increasing proliferation of globally-minded startups face a retail banking sector that is stagnating for reasons of inflexible business models, obsolete systems, and corporate inertia.

Fortunately for SMEs, a handful of disruptive fintech startups have recently started honing in on this very problem. Given that fintech is one of our fund’s core investment areas, and I write occasionally on this blog about the various European or Japanese startups in fintech, I thought it might be interesting to recount my first-hand experiences as a customer of some of these fintech disruptors.

Of the wide array of fintech startups and alternative money transfer providers, I have direct experience with the following: CurrencyFair, Revolut, TransferWise, and OFX. The first three are pure technology players, whereas OFX, formerly called UK Forex or US Forex, is an Australian-based online international money transfer service.

CurrencyFair

I’ll start with CurrencyFair, which technically should be excluded from this list because CurrencyFair does not offer business accounts to U.S. legal entities. This is regrettable because CurrencyFair is unique in offering a currency conversion feature which I really appreciate: specifically, the ability to create an open exchange order with your own bid or ask price, even one that is out of the money. I enjoy using CurrencyFair as a consumer and look forward to the day they open up business accounts for U.S. entities.

Revolut

UK-based Revolut has also just announced a business account, yet similarly does not yet accept U.S. entities. However, I understand that they will do so around the end of this year. Revolut conveniently offers a multi currency debit card, which is very handy when traveling abroad for use at ATMs or point-of-sale locations. Revolut charges a monthly fee ranging from £25.00 – £1,000 for its business account services.

OFX

The service I used most frequently over the past two years for international money transfers was OFX. OFX is technically not a fintech startup but a service that offers foreign currency exchange rates which are more transparent and competitive than those of incumbent banks. Unfortunately, OFX’s rules are difficult to navigate, and each transaction typically requires human intervention. Surprisingly, after 20 approved transactions, another OFX employee informed me that her colleague had violated the company’s compliance by approving my transactions based on a spuriously shifting definition of the term “third party transfer.” I no longer feel comfortable using OFX and cannot endorse their service at this time.

TransferWise

Which brings me to my final candidate: TransferWise. Only a few short months ago, TransferWise launched its Borderless Account product for small businesses. It’s still early days, so I will try to control my enthusiasm, but my initial experience with the Borderless Account is nothing short of euphoria! U.S. legal entities are eligible, and the product supports foreign currency transfers to over 60 countries. TransferWise offers its Borderless Account to businesses for free, and generates revenue in the form of a transparent fee upon currency exchange or money transfer. The company did not ask me to sing their praises; I’m merely a delighted customer acting on my own initiative. [For what it’s worth, here is my TransferWise referral link. I understand that using this link would grant you a free transfer up to £500.]

There may well exist other innovative financial services, for startups by startups, which have not yet come onto my radar. I welcome hearing about anything I’ve missed and will gladly try them.

 

Global startups hamstrung by local banks

June 30, 2017

In countries with developed financial systems, small and medium sized businesses have long been at a disadvantage for banking services relative to large firms and even relative to consumers.

In this piece and the one that follows I’ll review some of the basic business banking services on offer which I’ve experienced firsthand as both an investor and startup owner. But first, how did we get here?

How did we get here ?

The IT revolution facilitated incremental innovations for large companies, and these extended to include the modernization of their financial systems across borders.

Small businesses, however, did not reap the benefits of a globalized financial system. The problem became particularly acute once the internet revolution fostered the creation on a massive scale of startups who, despite their modest initial size, began targeting global markets early on.

This disparity was probably not more pronounced in developed countries than in the U.S. For this reason, I’m restricting my assessment to banks and financial services firms which will accept U.S. SMEs as clients. Not to let European or Japanese banks off the hook — I once wasted 3 months with a French bank to open a local account for my Belgian startup — but at least European and Japanese banks acknowledge that more than one currency exists in the world.

Of the incumbent banks with whom I’ve been working with most recently I will only pick on three of them: Bank of America, Chase Bank, Citibank. Although I would have a lot of positive things to say about incumbents like Lloyds TSB (UK), BNP (France), and Prestia (Japan), they are excluded from this assessment because they will not open business accounts for U.S. entities.

Business banking evaluation criteria

My evaluation criteria prioritize what I view to be the most important attributes for an SME which conducts business globally, specifically:

  • ability to handle multiple currencies
  • online interface for all essential banking services
  • ease of access from multiple countries and time zones
  • currency exchange functionality
  • transparency in fees

I have yet to find a U.S. retail bank that offers a multi-currency functionality to small businesses. Certainly the three largest of whom I am a customer do not do this. All incoming wire transfers in foreign currency are automatically converted into USD at a spot rate net of some opaque and price-gouging spread. Furthermore, the security and access requirements for these banks are so archaic and provincial that they should be forbidden from using the word global in any of their marketing materials.

Chase Bank is the worst offender. Almost any banking activity performed online from an IP address outside the U.S. seems to trigger a freezing of the account. The account can only be unlocked by visiting a physical branch with a photo ID. For a person working internationally, this is so ridiculously inconvenient that it’s laughable. When exactly such an incident forced me to incur a $500 penalty due to a missed deadline, I dramatically curtailed most of my business banking with Chase.

Bank of America is a bit better. They’ve never frozen me out of my account, and their telephone customer service always seems to be first-rate. The disadvantage of B of A’s online system is that their two step verification process requires a U.S. mobile number to which to send the SMS verification code. International mobile numbers will not work, and even U.S. cell phones will not reliably receive the SMS verification when abroad. The only way around this is to use a security token, a privilege for which Bank of America will make you pay $20. It’s a shame because of the three major U.S. Incumbent banks, I think B of A’s  customer service and online web interface is the best.

As a result, Citibank has become my first choice of incumbent financial institution for U.S. business banking. Citibank requires the same security token system like Bank of America but in contrast do not make you pay for it. I’ve been lucky enough to come to know the manager of a certain branch, who responds to my inquiries over email and has proven incredibly helpful. The only knock on Citibank, well two knocks actually is that: i) like their peers, they cannot handle multiple currencies (every incoming wire is automatically converted into USD upon arrival); ii) Citibank’s clunky online banking interface reminds me of the mainframe days of the 1980s.

Is it any surprise that most people, “would rather see their dentist than their banker?” (Goldman Sachs’ Harit Talwar at CB Insights’ Future of Fintech event).

The real killer app for fintech disruptors ?

The good news for globally-minded SMEs is that radical improvements are underway, and it’s thanks to the fintech revolution.

In the next piece I’ll review some of the fintech startups, of whom I’m also a customer, who are aiming to disrupt the aforementioned incumbents.

 

FB Messenger Instant Games Infographic

June 23, 2017

As I’ve said before, I believe that Facebook Messenger’s Instant Games platform has the potential to disrupt the App Store distribution model of mobile games, at least pertaining to casual games.

Playing a snackable, casual game inside a messenger chat feed is far more seamless, in my opinion, then going to the App Store, hunting for a title, downloading, installing, etc. Moreover, I suspect that the inherent social context of the platform should naturally foster casual games which are more interactive among friends.

Today, Facebook Messenger counts over 50 games from 30 game publishers. The game publishers who are currently on the Instant Games platform are the lucky ones. For now, this remains an exclusive club because Facebook has closed the gates to the party. Below is an infographic of the current games on the platform (note that some of these games may not be yet be available in all countries). Special thanks to my intern for helping me compile this matrix.

As investors in one of the publishers on this platform (CoolGames), we are monitoring closely the adoption and engagement metrics of the various games. For example, although it is still early days, we are already seeing viral adoption metrics which are orders of magnitude higher than conventional metrics prior to launch on Instant Games.

[click for full infographic]

5 hacks for jobseekers to catch a VC’s attention

June 16, 2017

Apparently my recent post, “So you want a job in Venture Capital?” proved popular (bumped me up a hosting bandwidth pricing tier, but hey it’s for a good cause).

Some people suggested that since I downplayed the value of drafting a sample investment memo, I should offer some constructive and concrete actions that ambitious jobseekers could consider in order to be noticed by a VC.

Point taken. So while I cannot speak for other VCs, here are five things which would catch my attention:

  1. Offer to write a “quick-look.” Rather than a draft investment memo, which is highly specific to the internal machinations of each VC firm, a one-pager quick-look analysis on a deal is far more versatile and efficient. For an example of a venture capital quick-look document, feel free to search the web or contact me.
  2. Offer to compile our portfolio companies’ historic budget and actual financials into a concise, easy-to-read Excel spreadsheet. As much as we try to standardize our internal reporting, every portfolio company is unique and possesses its unique format of shareholder reporting. Maintaining an accurate and updated synthesis document is an ongoing need at our fund. (Note: this is a bold one because if I enter into an NDA with you to share data, you’re taking a first step to a more formal working relationship).
  3. Offer to provide a market assessment of competitors of one of my portfolio companies. This is another example of an effort which is performed in detail at the time of the initial investment yet not always refreshed as the years go by and the market evolves. Portfolio company CEOs usually prioritize other activities with their limited bandwidth (and I often discourage them from obsessing too much over what their competitors are doing).
  4. Offer to do some groundwork research or other assistance for my blog. A student once offered to redesign some of the images on my blog posts and sent me a couple eye-catching samples. Three weeks later I hired him as an intern. I seem to be regularly facing some minor, nagging WordPress issue which needs attention, so this is an easy one.
  5. Offer to create a concise overview pitch deck encapsulating the core message of my portfolio companies onto one slide each. (Another sneaky hack because by building your knowledge of our portfolio, you start to make yourself indispensable).

These are just five ideas off the top of my head. The fallback option which practically never fails is to simply contact the VC and ask openly, “How can I save you time?”

 

Portfolio job openings

June 9, 2017

Many of our portfolio companies are seeking talented, adaptable individuals with a hunger to join a startup adventure. (For my views on why I believe everyone should consider working in a startup, read: Free your career).

Here are a few open positions among our current investments:

CoolGames

  • Ad sales manager (Japan)
  • Experienced Game Developer (Holland)
  • Front-End Developer (Holland)
  • Internships also available in graphic arts, social media, content management, game quality assurance, social media (Holland)

Lead Media Group

  • Business developer for Southeast Asia
  • Sales representative (India)
  • Sales representative (Canada)

At other portfolio companies (France):

  • VP Operations
  • VP Marketing
  • Data scientist
  • System administrator
  • Media salesperson
  • WordPress developer

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

Any interested candidates are welcome to contact me directly by email.

Stability vs. Security [安定]

June 2, 2017
[image credit: Chris Riddell]

A conversation last night with my friend Shin Iwata from Atomico inspired me to reflect on the choices facing young people nowadays as they embark on their professional careers.

Shin penned a poignant post discussing the difference between stability and security in the professional context in Japan, concepts denoted by the same Japanese word of 安定 (“antei”). I cannot possibly do justice to Shin’s elegant piece, but one of his key arguments is that Japanese youth need to consciously choose which version of 安定 represents their ultimate goal, because stability and security can diverge.

Traditionally, the Japanese educational system conditioned young people to pursue professional security. Work hard in elementary school, participate in after-hours じゅく (cram school) in order to gain admission into a top university, and subsequently enter the pool of fresh graduates recruited by large corporations. Traditionally, the young graduate would join one of these large firms or conglomerates and work their butt off for several years with the implicit promise of a guaranteed job for life. I contend that this phenomenon was not limited to Japan.

The social pact of lifetime employment afforded workers full job security, and simultaneously a high degree of stability, so the two concepts became intertwined in people’s minds. Globalization ushered in the first wedge between the two by fostering conditions in which an employee might be expatriated to another geography for 2 to 5 years. I grew up as an expat child and derived nothing but benefit in bouncing around internationally in my youth. However, I also witnessed firsthand the dependency my father had on his firm. When the company asked us to relocate, my father was, at minimum, strongly discouraged from declining their request. In a Japanese corporation, such a refusal would be unthinkable.

I submit that stability and security have fallen even deeper into contradiction over the past decade, and that this trend is accelerating. The main driver is the second information technology revolution, i.e. the internet.

Stability(large companies) << Stability(innovative companies)

I’ve heard convincing arguments that the first IT revolution — the invention of the semiconductor and its ensuing proliferation of computing resources — represented sustainable innovation. In other words, the innovation of the silicon revolution was dramatic, but it was sustaining rather than disruptive. This innovation wave disproportionately benefited large companies by enabling them to leverage new efficiencies into their economies of scale.

In contrast, the subsequent wave of innovation, ushered in by the internet, is radically disruptive. The first ripple of this wave appeared in the technology sector (look what Slack means for Microsoft, or MongoDB means for Oracle, or AWS means for Cisco, etc.). Now technology startups conceived in the paradigm of the internet and unshackled by legacy baggage are going after large, non-tech industries, whether it be transportation (Lyft), consumer products (Dollar Shave Club), finance (TransferWise), agriculture (The Climate Corporation), etc. As I’ve mentioned in the past, the increasing connectivity to the physical world is enabling us to close the loop in industry, agriculture, and the environment.

Accordingly, large companies may still be able to offer workers a certain degree of security by force of their sheer size, inertia, and a protective labor regulatory context. However, stability in such firms is far from assured.

My message to newly-minted college graduates: Think about your ultimate goal as you embark on your career. The path that worked well for your parents is not necessarily an effective one anymore to achieve the same goal because times have changed. Finally, don’t feel you have to follow the same track as everyone else because conventional wisdom says so. There is more than one track.

Ag/Sum conference on Agtech

May 26, 2017

The Ag/Sum conference took place in Tokyo this week, assembling some of the most articulate thought leaders and compelling innovations in agricultural technology (agtech or agritech, depending on whom you ask) worldwide. The caliber of the speakers, especially the foreign ones, was truly outstanding. It was an honor to play a small role in this in leading a workshop about VC investing in the domain.

Here are my takeaways from this sector of innovation which I’m still discovering myself:

France and The Netherlands have a reputation as the most innovative countries in Europe when it comes to agtech startups. Worldwide, the list expands to include Brazil, India, Israel, and the U.S.

Surprisingly, in agricultural technology, India is ahead of Japan in many respects. Furthermore, India counts roughly as many farmers as the entire population of Japan.

While the need for innovation in agricultural in many dimensions is staggering, the case for venture capital is not always obvious. For example, large corporations may be better positioned to produce sustaining innovations, foodtech solutions with niche consumer markets make may better lifestyle businesses than VC-backed scale-ups, and other more massively disruptive innovations may be more suitable for alternative types of financing. Dedicated funds with a clear investment thesis have the best chance of success in my opinion. Funds like Agtech_VC, NewProtein, and Seed2Growth come to mind.

Japan’s institutional investor base declares a genuine appetite to invest in agricultural innovation globally. Anybody raising an agtech fund should seriously consider targeting Japan for LPs.

As a discerning consumer, the innovations in food on the horizon look appetizing: from seaweed pasta and bacon, to enhanced superfoods which could make my daily ice cream habit actually healthy.

MBA-types and Techies clamoring to enter the agricultural space have not yet proven as effective as the other way around, i.e. ag experts learning about tech. Perhaps it’s about attitude.

Deep bow to Nikkei and the organizers of Ag/Sum for a brilliant event.

Mobile messengers and the post-app world

May 17, 2017

It’s no secret that I’ve been a believer in the inevitability of a swing back toward centralized architectures in mobile. Although I probably mis-timed my call of the HTML5 inflection point, I remain convinced that it is approaching, and I believe Facebook is leading the way.

Facebook has now almost completed its initial worldwide rollout of its Instant Games platform on Messenger. Today, a closed club of about 30 publishers have released approximately 50 games on Messenger. Our portfolio company CoolGames is fortunate to be part of this closed curated platform, and with 4 games live, ranks neck-and-neck with Zynga (who has also engineered an admirable comeback of their own recently) as the number one games publisher on FB Instant Games.

When the post-app world arrives, I believe it will be thanks to the mobile messenger platforms leveraging their social graphs to deploy interactive ‘apps’ on the basis of a sufficiently mature HTML5 technology. I’ve long argued that messenger platforms like LINE and WeChat were miles ahead in innovation over the alternatives in the West. On this trend, however, they’re playing catch-up to FB Messenger. Make no mistake though, they will catch this wave too.

Nightmare scenario: Ransomware-as-a-Service

May 13, 2017

The paralysis of the UK’s National Health Service’s computer resources caused by the WannaCry ransomware this week is perhaps the scariest example of the malicious software at work. (I used to joke about ransomware by telling the anecdote of a friend who was ‘caught with his pants down’ by ransomware while surfing porn sites).

However, rumors that the vulnerability exploited by WannaCry had been previously identified by America’s National Security Agency has turned amusement into terror. It’s not far-fetched to see such malicious code factories take a cue from AWS or VPN services and offer Ransomware-as-a-Service.

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