Tag - startups

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Why the Micro-VC Surge Will Drive Innovation Across the US
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The Hidden Challenges of Starting a Company in Secondary Markets
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The Economics Underlying Chatbot Mania
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Ideas Matter
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The Middleman Strikes Back

Why the Micro-VC Surge Will Drive Innovation Across the US

The following was co-authored by Ezra Galston of Chicago Ventures(@ezramogee) and Samir Kaji (@samirkaji) of First Republic Bank.

Over the last several years much has been made of the opportunity, or perceived lack thereof in technology centers outside of the Bay Area and NYC. From Steve Case’s Rise of The Rest Tour, to Google for Entrepreneurs, to Brad Feld’s Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem , the discussion has consistently been overwhelmingly positive.

It’s easy to understand the stance as who wouldn’t want to support entrepreneurship, irrespective of geography? However, it’s hard to discern whether these opinions were borne out of a utopian desire or a sincere belief of true financial viability in markets outside of NYC and the Bay Area.

In Fred Wilson’s widely discussed (and debated) piece “Second and Third Tier Markets and Beyond,” he suggested that the opportunity outside of the Bay Area was significant, citing the successes of USV in New York, Upfront Ventures in LA and Foundry Group in Boulder:

“The truth is you can build a startup in almost any city in the US today. But it is harder. Harder to build the team. Harder to get customers. Harder to get attention. And harder to raise capital. Which is a huge opportunity for VCs who are willing to get on planes or cars and get to these places.

There is a supremacism that exists in the first and second tiers of the startup world. I find it annoying and always have. So waking up in a place like Nashville feels really good to me. It is a reminder that entrepreneurs exist everywhere and that is a wonderful thing.”

In an effort to move past anecdotes however, we wanted to explore one of the components that helps drive and catalyze early entrepreneurial activity in any localized geography — the availability of early stage funding.

Simply put, non-core US tech hubs are reliant on local early stage capital to subsist since seed stage fund sizes often make remote investing impractical (by contrast growth stage investors who manage large funds and have significant resources can easily invest in breakout companies outside their region).

With the hypothesis that quality local seed capital is needed to foster a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem, our analysis is centered on whether the MicroVC surge, has provided (or may provide) a material impact to these “2nd and 3rd” tier US geographies.

Fortunately, there’s good news for entrepreneurs everywhere. Of all of the Micro-VC funds raised since 2010 (this number includes firms currently raising funds), over 40% of Micro-VC’s formed were based outside of the country’s largest tech centers of SF, LA, NYC and Boston, a number we found quite surprising.

In total, those Micro-VC funds raised outside of the four core tech centers since 2010 represent $6.7B in investable capital, the vast majority of which have driven significant investment dollars in their geographies.

More important to note is that the opportunity in these secondary ecosystems is unequivocally noteworthy. Using M&A activity as an evaluation metric, these ecosystems, despite a relative dearth of funding, have performed quite well:

In each year dating back to 2010, the percentage of Micro-VC funds raised outside of SF, LA, NYC and Boston materially lags the volume of M&A activity, on % basis, in those same areas. This suggest that Micro-VC funds located in secondary markets face less competition — and proportionally more opportunity — for strong financial outcomes by betting on that delta. Now, it’s true that these opportunities are a bit geographically dispersed, however it’s clear that certain cities (Seattle, Boulder, Austin, Salt Lake, Chicago) have made great strides in developing great entrepreneurial talent.

This dislocation in M&A proportionality is of course amplified by the concentration of funds in the Bay Area and NYC. Because coastal deals are more competitive due to an oversupply of capital, they boast higher entry prices (valuations) than do deals in secondary or third tier markets — and the effect on a returns basis may also be material. Case in point: according to Angelist, the mean valuation for deals in Silicon Valley since 2010 is $5.1M. That compares to $4.5M in Chicago, $4M in Indianapolis, and $3.7M in Detroit — offering Midwest investors anywhere from a 10–30% discount at entry.

There are other ways of interpreting the data. One could argue that Bay Area deals deserve to be higher priced due to a premium in the quality of founding teams. Or that the pure volume of M&A in the Bay Area and Boston de-risk the level of returns variance for any particular fund. Those arguments may be with merit but are also balanced by data released by Pitchbook that show cities such as Chicago, Seattle and Washington D.C effectively comparable on a multiple of returns basis:

It is nearly indisputable that large technology companies are being built and enormous value is being created outside of the coastal venture markets: examples include Grubhub, Groupon, Domo, Qualtrics, ExactTarget and HomeAway. But these markets will require more patience for company maturity, a willingness by fund Limited Partners to accept greater short-term volatility, and conviction that key talent will stay in non-core markets due to a desire of staying local and the avoidance of the high cost of living present in the major US tech centers.

While the rhetoric around non-core markets has been historically positive, it appears that the early stage capital surge through Micro-VC funds may be a major factor in these areas actualizing on their potential.

Extra special thanks to Peter Christman for his tireless work in helping to analyze, aggregate and process the data underlying this article.

The Hidden Challenges of Starting a Company in Secondary Markets

Fred Wilson’s much debated post, Second and Third Tier Markets and Beyond, sparked an important discussion about operating and investing in businesses outside of the Valley. Case in point: within 48 hours, the piece generated a heated Twitter exchange (including input from the one and only Bill Gurley), a Pitchbook analysis of the best M&A outcomes by region, and even a capitulation of sorts from Fred.

Wilson identified a couple of important challenges of building in these markets, namely lack of conviction, lack of money, lack of infrastructure, and shallower talent pools:

But there is a dynamic that goes on in these third tier markets where the local investors look to investors in the first and second tier markets to come down and “validate” their investments. And the investors in the first and second tier markets won’t come down and do that without a strong local lead. This game of “chicken” happens ways too often in these markets and is incredibly frustrating to entrepreneurs in these markets. These third tier markets need a few strong Series A focused VC firms who have large enough fund sizes to be aggressive lead investors and also have the conviction and stomach to play that game. That is what USV, and Flatiron before it, did in NYC. That is what Foundry did in Boulder. That is the game Upfront is playing in LA. Every third tier market needs a few VC firms like that. And being that investor is a terrific way to make a lot of money.

The truth is you can build a startup in almost any city in the US today. But it is harder. Harder to build the team. Harder to get customers. Harder to get attention. And harder to raise capital. Which is a huge opportunity for VCs who are willing to get on planes or cars and get to these places.

And his insights are a good start. But as someone who’s lived the Chicago startup scene since moving here in 2007 to help build CardRunners Gaming, I’d like to suggest three other non-obvious challenges of building companies in secondary or tertiary markets. This is a tough love blog intended to provide guidance within secondary markets and enable founders to actualize their potential. If you can get through it and internalize it, it’ll make you stronger.

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The Press Challenge

Although the press outside of SF & NY may not be bulge bracket publications, they are nevertheless not constrained either by distribution (digital solves that), nor by space. But they are constrained by a dearth of quality stories. Meaning that Chicago, for example, has a finite number of private unicorns or venture backed IPOs – so, if you want a quote from the CEO of a Chicago unicorn company for example, you’ve got finite people to call.

The effects are that it can force a cycle of manufactured, often unwarranted positivity, feature stories, even local awards on companies that are downright unproven or even floundering. Moreover, it enables certain founders, especially those with a natural PR inclination, to run from magazine shoot to newspaper interview to conference to panel and back, all the while ignoring the actual company they’re supposedly running. It’s akin to Mark Suster’s admonition to Be Careful Not to Become a Conference Ho: “If you’re a startup CEO — don’t kid yourself. Get back to work. There’s a team in the office in need of your guidance.” But that warning is amplified in secondary markets where founders – sometimes entirely unproven, even occasionally on the brink of shutdown – are paraded around by the press, conference organizers and awards shows as local heroes.

PR is a wonderful tool and an extraordinary opportunity for the right situations (building a story for hiring, consumer marketing, etc). But it is a challenge to ignore the phone when the press circuit is continually calling. Local founders must learn to say no at the formative stages of their business.

The Self Delusion Problem

If an entrepreneur goes to raise money in the Valley and is unsuccessful they are forced to concede one of the following points: either (a) I am not a good fundraiser or storyteller, (b) This should not be a venture backed business*, (c) I have not proven sufficient traction, or (d) This is not a good idea period. [There may be other nuances or derivatives of these four, but you get the idea.]

This is because the Valley funds over a thousand new companies annually, plays host to hundreds of seed stage funds, and has the deepest network of angel investors anywhere in the country. Lots of companies get funded and you didn’t.

But in Chicago, an entrepreneur can ignore all of those failings and instead simply blame Chicago: It is Chicago with its low risk tolerance, or its culture of demanding revenue, or its disposition towards boring enterprise businesses, or excuse Z that are the reason my company didn’t get funded.

Unfortunately, some businesses with outsized potential certainly do fall through the cracks in smaller markets (Fred alludes to this as well). But that simply serves to reinforce the potential for self delusion: wherein founders, should they so choose, never need to admit that their startups do not meet the threshold for investment. This can enable a cycle where local founders become resentful and/or spend years fundraising for a business that will simply not get funded.*

The Cap Table Problem

A big pitfall of secondary markets is poor cap table planning and management from the earliest stages that materially affects long-term growth potential. It typically falls into one of two buckets:

(1) We have met multiple companies that were otherwise intriguing except for the fact that a single investor (often an angel) owned more than 50% of the company. This matters because with an option pool, and 25% dilution of the impending financing, it leaves even a solo founder (let alone a 3-person founding team) improperly aligned for future growth needs.

(2) A company that initially raised money from angels at too high of a valuation, that later took on a bridge or even a fresh round of capital from that same group of angels (again, at a higher valuation). SO, by the time the company had proven product/market fit, it’s prior valuation was dislocated from the market values traditionally ascribed by venture institutions.

#2 is a far more egregious problem, often generating a vicious cycle of dependency on amateur investors. Now, to be fair, every market suffers from questionable practices of non-professional investors. But those practices are exaggerated in secondary markets that lack pre-seed infrastructure or successful entrepreneurs to properly seed the next era of startups.

In almost all markets, even ones without much institutional venture, there are copious numbers of high net worth individuals, successful real estate operators, or financial services pros who are looking to enter startup investing – either because they can’t generate alpha in their core jobs or because startups are sexy.

The problem is this: once the vicious cycle of dependency has been initiated (and because no one has an interest in marking down their investments) it is extremely difficult to disassociate from it. Which isn’t to say that great companies won’t be built with such a founding structure. Many have. But it does make it difficult to attract experienced local entrepreneurs or traditional institutions to the cap table.

Summary

Secondary and tertiary markets provide a lot of benefits for startups looking to build great businesses. Lower costs of living enable a lesser burn rate. Less competition for great talent and easier accessibility to successful advisor networks are also a big positive. That I am very bullish on Chicago should be obvious: despite being an East Coaster (DC & NYC) – and with opportunities in numerous cities – I’ve made it my new home.

But pitfalls and challenges abound. The better informed entrepreneurs are, the better non-SF markets are likely to perform.

* My intention is not to be crass or insensitive. There are many great businesses, digital and offline, that are simply not a fit for institutional venture funding. My first startup, CardRunners Gaming, is one such company – profitable from day one and profitable now, even a decade later, although it’s total market potential was at most $10M. Had the company raised institutional money, it would have imploded upon itself trying to stimulate growth in a market that simply could not accommodate it.

Thankfully, other investors such as Bryce Roberts at Indie.vc are building innovative funding models, intended to accommodate non-venture digital businesses. Here’s a great article on their efforts: Venture Capital and Its Discontents

The Economics Underlying Chatbot Mania

Over the last several weeks, we’ve reached peak AI/Bot mania. Most of the conversation has centered around Chatbots and the potential emergence of a new platform/distribution layer. If you’ve been mostly ignoring the press, some good reads are:

Tl;dr – the major takeaways are as follows: given that consumers don’t really download apps anymore, brands & retailers have a new access point to end consumers, sitting on top of existing messaging platforms and leveraging chatbots to ensure mass scale. The truth is that the chatbot platform conversation is really just an extension of the one we had about a year ago during the emergence of Magic/Operator and SMS as the new platform, which we discussed in Are We Already Rebundling Mobile. An important extension given that such bots have been democratized and can now be spun up not just by tech companies, but by traditional retailers (on their own or within Messenger) or even by individuals such as you and me.

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All @TayTweets joking aside, the more intriguing aspect this time around is that Artifical Intelligence and Machine Learning have improved by leaps and bounds. A few articles that reflect this point are: Why AlphaGo Is Really Such a Big Deal, The Current State of Machine Intelligence, Can Machine Learning Predict a Hit or Miss on Estimated Earnings, and The Humans Hiding Behind the Chatbots

But again, the vast vast majority of analysis has focused on bots living within the worlds we frequent (messaging & SMS) and the platform implications. SO – I wanted to spend a few paragraphs to quantify and explore the effects of these advancements from a unit economic or business perspective. The big ones are twofold in my mind: (1) Properly executed AI can transform certain human capital marketplaces from operating as take-rate businesses and transition them into high gross margin software businesses. (2) Chatbots in their current function as customer service agents can make a material impact on contribution margin & overall EBITDA if they can successfully remove the customer service expense line.

20% Take Rate —-> 90% Gross Margins?!?!?

First, some context. About four months ago, writing in “The Middleman Strikes Back” I suggested:

“It’s clear why a hybrid AI/machine learning model is the holy grail for several verticals – replicating [a high] level of personalized service while minimizing overhead labor costs and maintaining extraordinary software level gross margins.”

But in fact, I was wrong. Dennis Mortenson, founder of X.ai in “The Humans Behind the Chatbots” believes that the hybrid in “hybrid AI /ML” should be minimized even further…to zero:

“The two scheduling e-mail bot companies have divergent plans for expansion. Clara, which is slowly letting people off its waitlist and said it currently serves hundreds of companies, charges $199 per month per user. X.ai, on the other hand, plans to move from limited beta to a public release later this year and wants to charge about $9 per month. Dennis Mortensen, its founder, wrote in an e-mail that “only a machine-powered agent can take on the 10 billion formal meetings that U.S. knowledge workers schedule every year.” Mortensen said the service will start asking e-mail senders to clarify when the computer can’t interpret an message—“Did you mean Monday, April 4?”—instead of having an employee read it and infer. “We want to give the job away for free, or for $9, which you can only do if it’s software,” he said.”

Executing on Dennis’ vision, by removing human labor in the middle, you have effectively transformed a take-rate marketplace into a high margin software business, while managing to provide a similar product. Here are examples of some of the service/agent businesses* that could see their economics transform towards 80-90% gross margins when fully leveraging AI:

The Unit Economics Underpinning the AI

Additionally, the company’s variable costs (ie the cost to provide each incremental production or engagement) will transition from significant (paying humans) to immaterial (software cloud hosting fees) enabling a much lower cost of servicing demand, should these companies choose to lower prices. Doing so could expand the audience for such products tremendously.

While I was initially a big skeptic of X.ai, the combination of a product that increasingly works with minimal human intervention and a product priced to undercut the market tremendously at $9/mo is a proof that this transition from human marketplace to pure software is already underway.

Further, there’s even an even bigger opportunity in play. If Matt Turck’s suggested “data network effects” take hold many of these service marketplaces – few of which are operating in actual winner take all markets – could be replaced by a software layer, leveraging data network effects so strong that those markets actually become winner take all.

$$$ Massive Value Creation in Public Markets

Again, this is mostly a theoretical exercise, but let’s imagine for a moment the value creation consequences of fully automated chatbots successfully managing 100% of a company’s customer service interactions.

Here are a handful of examples of some companies you might be familiar with showing their current enterprise value, approximately how much they spend on human capital customer service and the effective sensitivity in their valuation if they could maintain their current level of customer service via no-cost** chatbots:

The Unit Economics Underpinning the AI2

It’s not clear to me this is the optimal way to assess the economic value of chatbots – I kind of doubt anyone knows yet – but what is clear is that the effect to profitability would be tremendous. Massive. And that’s just by automating customer support alone.

Importantly, and intentionally, this exercise ignores the real, global cost of losing so many service level jobs from the economy. I’m not qualified to assess that cost nor its effect. There are many opinions in the market for what an AI economy might look like; Roy Bahat at Bloomberg Beta recently offered an intriguing one to The Twenty Minute VC – a futuristic marketplace actually placing a premium on any human manufactured products or human assisted services because of its rarity. There are others as well. Much discussion around AI is conjecture, but its economic effects are a very serious business.

* Certain of these companies do not publicize take-rate or offer non take-rate subscription models. In these cases, gross margins have been assessed from public interviews, or estimated based on reported hourly worker wages and expected throughput.

** This assumption is implausible as there would still be some associated costs related to the software itself and managing/customizing the software on a daily basis.

Special thanks to Dan Abelon for his feedback on this piece.

Ideas Matter

The debate amongst venture capitalists over whether to prioritize markets or people in investment decision making is as old as the industry itself.

Fred Wilson, famously authored an oft quoted 2004 blog – Execution Matters, Ideas Don’t – which referenced USV’s failed incubation of FaveMail leading to the following conclusion:

“The lesson i take away from the whole thing is great ideas don’t make great investments – great entrepreneurs do.”

Three years later, Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Andreessen-Horowitz, opined differently in “On product/market fit for startups,” noting:

In a great market — a market with lots of real potential customers — the market pulls product out of the startup.

The market needs to be fulfilled and the market will be fulfilled, by the first viable product that comes along.

The product doesn’t need to be great; it just has to basically work. And, the market doesn’t care how good the team is, as long as the team can produce that viable product.

Most recently, University of Chicago Professor Steven Kaplan in his 2009 study “Should Investors Bet On the Jockey or the Horse” in the Journal of Finance concluded:

The results for both of our samples indicate that firms that go public rarely change or make a huge leap from their initial business idea or line of business. This suggests that it is extremely important that a VC picks a good business. At the same time, firms commonly replace their initial managers with new ones and see their founders depart, yet still are able to go public, suggesting that VCs are regularly able to find management replacements or improvements for good businesses.

In spite of Andreessen’s comments, I would say that the working consensus in the early/seed stage venture world for the duration of my tenure has been to bet on special people and let the rest fall into place. That approach was verbalized in my interview with David Hornik on this blog where he outlined his investment approach as “people, people, markets, people.”

But the world is changing. The vast majority of companies I’m referred to are largely derivative ideas of larger tech/startup competitors. Problematically, this is actually fundamentally different than going after large monolithic incumbent corporates in a given space. For whatever reason I think it’s because entrepreneurs are trying to improve processes/better execute on problems rather than re-imagining the reasons those habits/processes even exist.

My sense is that the market is cycling back to the importance of bold, unique, creative ideas – above and beyond the obvious focus on “big markets” or “founder/market fit.” Of course people still matter, just as a large addressable markets have always mattered, but in my estimation there is a subtle yet undeniable shift of interest away from improved processes/products towards ideas that challenge the fundamental assumptions underlying the existence of those processes or products themselves.

In that vein, I was recently asked to prep some talking points for a firm offsite on the state and challenges of investing in consumer tech. I’ve attached those slides here. The theme was very clearly that we are in the “reimagination” stage of venture and my observation is that companies solving pain points but not re-imagining or re-conceptualizing consumer behavior are out of favor with top tier investors.

[Note: It’s always nerve wracking putting detailed thoughts into the market – I’m sure a lot of people disagree with me – but I do appreciate any feedback and counter-examples of places where I’m wrong.]

The Middleman Strikes Back

The following article was originally published on TechCrunch on December 30, 2015

One of the great promises of the internet – a democratic, transparent, open network that would dis-intermediate entrenched industries, remove fee-taking middlemen, and thereby lower the costs of goods – has seemingly been realized. The OTAs such as Priceline and Expedia mostly killed travel agents, Prosper and Avant are fast disrupting bank loan officers, and the car salesman has been diminished in favor of eBay, Autotrader or Craigslist.

And yet, just as surely as we thought they were gone for good, the middlemen have come surging back to life. Only this time rebranded as our best friends: the personal concierge.

Case in point, personal shoppers were once a luxury – a sign of elite class and prestige. No longer: hundreds of thousands of consumers are now communicating with personal stylists (or data-driven human/Artificial Intelligence hybrids) via next gen fashion platforms such as TrunkClub and Stitchfix – two platforms with demonstrative value (Trunk Club was acquired more than a year ago for $450M and few experts would reject Stitch Fix’s $300M recent valuation).

And while fashion is an obvious use case, the concierge economy is thriving –spanning verticals from wellness to design, with a whole host of broad based horizontal concierge services also trying to impress their worth.

Slide1

ET TU, AMAZON?

The logical question is: why? Why, given all the advantages of a fricitionless, democratic playing field, are concierges suddenly surging back to popularity?

I see three likely explanations –

Amazon: If you sell practically any physical good online, Amazon, the internet’s most powerful retailer, is a perpetual threat. With their distribution, leverage, and logistics expertise they have the wherewithal to undercut on price, process and deliver product faster than practically any startup – not to mention, operate at a loss if necessary.

So where is Amazon exposed? On a services level.

Amazon’s operating margins – already tight at 1.3% – don’t allow for much room to train and mobilize a large human concierge force. Which means that building a human-focused, relationship-driven personalization platform actually provides for a tangible differentiator against Amazon – one of the few ways to effectively compete against the giant. And – perhaps more importantly – one of the few ways to build defensibility in a commerce segment traditionally dependent on “brand” as its only de facto moat.

One further point: Amazon is a predominantly a destination for directed search – either on a specific product or specific category basis. But as purchasing increasingly shifts to mobile, it turns out that it continues to be difficult to search, discover and catalogue individual items. Concierges – especially when leveraged via a mobile interaction point – reduce that friction and enable a new purchasing behavior.

Too Many SKUs: We exist in a world of overwhelm. That overwhelm via multi-tasking is affecting how we learn and think, and the overwhelm via optionality and availability of information is also affecting how we process, “shatter[ing] focus,” and deferring decision making as long as possible.

That problem of information overload was initially solved via curation, the mid-point on the spectrum in reduction of cognitive noise:

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But based on the hyper-growth of concierge facilitated platforms, it appears that curation doesn’t go far enough for the emerging set of millennial buyers – that they demand even more assistance and personalization than before.

The question that operators and investors should be asking is not whether consumers are connecting with digital assistants, but if – and at what point – we actually acquire too many concierges, thereby repeating the cycle of cognitive overwhelm, and forcing the next iteration of the operator/customer relationship.

Customer Acquisition: One of the curiosities of the concierge resurgence is that it may have opened the door for the next generation of customer acquisition.

The middlemen – when incentivized via a pay for performance model – actually become de facto customer acquisition agents for the company, serving as outbound salespeople. Trunk Club was one of the innovators of this model and our portfolio company, LGS has leveraged it as well with great success.

It replicates much of the power/incentives of a Multi-level-marketing model without the pyramid-like upfront capital commitments and obligations. MLM is a powerful model (Herbalife is one example of many), but social selling can generate abusive aggressiveness, poor customer relationships, and low return purchase rates. Because the concierge model is instead formulated as an expert/amateur relationship, there is an understood value in paying for guidance and reduce price sensitivity.

A concierge-turned-salesperson model isn’t a customer acquisition fit for all verticals, and it also can’t be as well leveraged by hybrid AI assistants, but it does solve some of the scalability concerns that most consumer businesses experience once traditional digital channels (FB, Google) begin underperforming.

THE DEATH OF THE COMMUNITY

Until recently, there was a strong hypothesis that a thriving, active community would unlock an unprecedented ability to facilitate native transactions. Andresseen-Horowitz General Partner Chris Dixon, when announcing his investment in Soylent, noted:

He said he was interested in companies that appear to be focused on selling X but are really online communities that happen to make money selling X. This helps explain why many investors are confused by the sustained success of these companies. One example he cited was GoPro. Many investors decided not to invest in GoPro because they saw it as a camera company, and camera companies generally get quickly commoditized. However, investors who properly understood GoPro saw it primarily as a highly engaged community of sports enthusiasts, something that is very hard for competitors to replicate.

And yet, at least on a macro scale, the presumed value is very much in doubt.

Last month, it was reported that native buy ads on Pinterest during the holiday season did not meet expectations:

The company began inserting Buyable Pins into its iPhone app in late June, and just added the feature to its Android app in early November. The company says more than 10,000 merchants have joined the program, including big retailers and brands like Macy’s, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Cole Haan and Tory Burch, but at least one of these big partners is seeing fewer than 10 purchases a day on Pinterest, according to a person with direct knowledge of the sales figures. This source and another also said that Pinterest insiders have privately admitted to being disappointed with early sales numbers.

According to the same report, results are similarly disappointing at Twitter and Facebook. One time startup darling, community leveraged shopping portal Polyvore was acquired by Yahoo in 2015 for $200M – a healthy price to be sure, but certainly lower than once hoped. Even GoPro, noted by Dixon as a community outlier, has lost nearly 75% of its enterprise value in the public markets over the past 12 months. True, it trades at a premium to commodity manufacturers, but it appears its community purchasing may not be as strong as once imagined.

Nevertheless, transactional communities with more vertical specificity (such as Soylent) do outperform bare bones e-commerce. And is it clearly the very early innings in Pinterest and Twitter’s efforts to sell product directly through its platform. But don’t be surprised to see the larger horizontal community players continue to struggle, and ultimately acquire companies in the concierge space in order to boost their conversions, order sizes, and frequency.

THE ECONOMICS

The upside of human driven assistant/concierge services is that in most scenarios, they add value to an end user experience. The downside is that they add material costs to a company’s P&L.

Take for example any of the listed wellness apps (Rise, Talkspace, Big Health, etc) which, if it operated on a purely software basis would boast 80-90% gross margins. But a human focused component affects that in one of two ways:

  1. Either the company employs (W2’s) any number of wellness professionals who are expected to interface with a given quota of customers. Although that model enables the wellness app to maintain their gross margins, it cuts deeply into their contribution margins because of the additional labor expense.
  2. The other option is to view the wellness professionals more like marketplace suppliers, and connect them to customers on a 1:1 basis, while paying them a percentage of every transaction, say 70%. Though this does have the effect of removing the wellness professional costs from the G&A line, it also changes the nature of the business – from a 90% margin software business to towards a marketplace model with a 30% take-rate.

Given those two options, it’s clear why a hybrid AI/Machine Learning model is the holy grail for several verticals – replicating the level of personalized service while minimizing overhead labor costs and maintaining extraordinary software level gross margins.

That said, it is still unclear if hybrid AI assistants can provide an end-user experience powerful enough to materially affect purchasing, conversion, and frequency.

For the time being, within the fully human powered services, the winning business models will be ones that can hire relatively inexpensive, untrained people, who can then be empowered via software or leveraged workflows to deliver a meaningfully improved end-user experience. This has the added benefit of yielding greater supply/expert-side scalability in that the pool of potential concierges is far larger (if performance does not require deep inherent expertise) and the level of consistency, even across expertise levels, will be more stable.

Startups trying to wedge into the market using a high level of service need to be highly cognizant of, and focused on, controlling costs. Especially as the investor market continues transitioning away from high cash burn models, obsessive attention on how to deliver a high quality experience, deepening long-term scalability, and leveraging lower-cost labor will yield many compelling outcomes.

Special thanks to Rebecca Kaden, James Conlon, and Peter Christman for their assistance on this article.

[For disclosure, Chicago Ventures is an investor in LGS, Mac&Mia, Rise Science, Retrofit, and Havenly.]

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