#CXOTALK: Design for innovation, digital transformation, and organizational change

Design plays a crucial role in modern technology companies. From creating user experience to helping organizations become customer-centric, design is fundamental to digital transformation.

Design in Tech 2016

Design in Tech 2016

This broad concept of design, going far beyond attractive screens and pretty colors, is connected closely to innovation and evolving business models. For this reason, both startups and large, established companies have recognized the importance of creating user experiences that are both functional and compelling.

John Maeda is one of the world’s most prominent voices advocating this expansive view of design. Currently a partner with the leading VC firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, Maeda was previously President of the Rhode Island School of Design and held posts at MIT and other prestigious organizations. His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Cartier Foundation in Paris.

Maeda’s 2016 Design In Tech report, analyzes the state of design among technology companies and is an essential reference and compilation of data. The report examines M&A activity and offers advice to both small and large organizations on the economic importance of design.

Maeda has extended the concept of design to include economics, leadership, and organizational change. He describes three kinds of design (and designers):

  • Classical design
  • Computational design
  • Design thinking

As part of the CXOTALK series of conversations with innovators, I spoke with Maeda to learn about the report and gain color on his findings. Listen and watch our conversation, which is embedded below. You can also read a complete transcript of the discussion.

What are the three kinds of design?

Classical designers are trained in the old way. The way of the physical world and in print; all the most beautiful thought design for centuries has lived in this space.

Design can be applied to making a user experience; that’s computational design.

And then there is design thinking. It’s the idea that your company doesn’t move fast enough, and if you can think more creatively, like a designer, your company can innovate better.

Of the three kinds of design, design thinking and computational design are going to have the biggest impact on the economic success of countries today.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is all about organization agility; rediscovering innovation over execution. In the case of design thinking, they’ll take Post-it notes and use a whiteboard and think about ideas and move them around as if they’re sketching the organization, the people roles. So it’s all about the ability to sketch. Not just to draw, mind you; the ability to ideate very quickly.

People who do design thinking may not be classical designers; they may not be computational designers. But they’re a kind of designer that can think in the medium of organizations and ideas and people.

It’s going to help your team, your units; the whole company gets a little more malleable by sketching ideas, testing them and working them out together through a non-rigid medium; in this case, post-it notes and whiteboards, clips of paper.

Is design about active ideation rather than the specific output or medium?

The whole idea behind design, at the most basic level, is process. It’s a process of approaching a problem. It’s medium-agnostic at its highest level. A great experience is made by having plastic processes, meaning to iterate and test ideas before you execute. What is the famous phrase by Frank Lloyd Wright, “It’s better to put a pencil to paper than have a sledgehammer at the construction site.”

What is the role of empathy?

You have to care about what the customer feels.

But, in the world of pure software engineers, empathy isn’t part of the goal. The goal is to execute on durable code, test it with code. Code that won’t fall down, like a bridge maker, like a person who designed a bridge wants to make sure that, number one, it doesn’t fall down. But while doing that, they need to think about the person that’s going to cross the bridge.

Designers in Silicon Valley have been bringing in the viewpoint, which is obvious to everyone except the people making the bridge, which we have to ask, “How does a person crossing the bridge feel?”

Empathy. So, empathy is what designers bring to the table all the time. They ask, “How does that make you feel and how can I make you feel better? How do I improve the experience?”

So, successful design combines empathy with creating a meaningful experience that’s appropriate for the context?

Engineering is important in relationship to design. And a business model to make that product affordable. Good business, good engineering, and good design are important together; they make great products, but not in isolation.

It’s synergistic but depends on the product too. They’re three things that pull on each other, but at the base level, the engineering has to work. Design can’t solve a bad engineering solution.

What about teams and leadership?

At a startup, you’re not designing a product; you are designing a team that can build a product. At large companies, you are designing products, designing companies to make great products in perpetuity.

The hands-on makers have a hard time becoming leaders, and so in the report, I feature two characteristics of a company in which design leaders can make a difference: culture and systems.

How can companies create a culture of design?

It requires the CEO to care about design. Not just as a buzzword, but to understand there are three kinds of design and to understand there are three kinds of designers in their company.

It requires the executive team to understand that design is not just about pretty things, like a good looking shirt. But, there are business design thinkers who can help the company think in a more agile way. There are computational designers who work [at huge] scale and reliability. And yes, there are the traditional designers who design amazing, quality experiences in print in the old way.

Bring design expertise into the boardroom, into the executive team meetings. Not to review design, but to ask how can design thinking be used in our company? How can we help our culture innovate better?

Watch CXOTALK for in-depth conversations with the most innovative business leaders on the planet!

(Cross-posted @ ZDNet | Beyond IT Failure Blog)

Half Lives. Social Media. And Snapchat Stories.

I’ve been online for nearly 30 years (yes, there was CompuServe and Prodigy before the www), blogging for 10 and using social media tools since the earliest days.

I love to watch networks evolve, see how crowds gather and communicate and curate and share.

Twitter was the most unique social sharing platform that had emerged in my experience because it unintentionally innovated on a constraint of 140 characters (initially so that it could send messages as SMS, which it self had a size constraint). The constraint forced people to use links and link shorteners and thus to drive traffic.

In the early days of Twitter most users didn’t follow too many people, which was good and bad. On the good side we had a lot more public “conversations” on Twitter, making it feel like a chat room. Because it felt small and we also felt like we didn’t miss much and when we shared our friends saw it.

As Twitter grew everybody’s followed counts grew, which meant that we missed things in our timeline and our friends missed a lot of what we shared. Twitter became ephemeral. I found that if I shared a post at 5am PST it would get 300–400 clicks and then drop off a cliff. By the time my West Coast friends were awake and Tweeting nobody would see it.

I began experimenting with time-of-day, number of Tweets, headline text, etc and learned a ton about usage patterns of Twitter and I even invested in a social media analytics company called, an influencer network called Adly and a data firehose company called Datasift (who now powers the Facebook Topics feed).

I learned that the “influencers” I wanted to reach — often my friends — used Twitter late at night when other people were off the network and few used it during the day when we were all at work. We secretly still wanted that small network chat room experience as a place to chat amongst friends.

Because Twitter was a reverse chronology network once a Tweet had passed by your stream you were unlikely to see it. The “half life” was very short. As somebody who invested his time heavily in writing and wanting to share his thoughts through a blog I learned that I had to Tweet a post 3 times to get it read: 5am, 8am and 10pm. The readers seldom overlapped so nobody seemed pissed off at me as being an “over sharer” but it was clearly a fear of mine. You don’t want your friends to stop following you because they think you’re polluting their stream.

Facebook had an elegant solution to the “half life” problem in that it developed an algorithm that determined what users saw in their feeds. I’m not an expert in the algo but essentially if a “post” got some heat (lots of people clicking, favoriting & sharing) in a short period of time then more people saw the post in their feeds. The more heat you got the more your post would stay at the top of the feed of your friends.

Of course there was good and bad to this also. The bad was that it seems like when I shared media on Facebook I wouldn’t get any heat initially so Twitter was my go to place to share my blog. But if a post got read and resonated then Facebook finished stronger than Twitter.

I’m sure Twitter knew this but the community of Twitter was so public and vocal about “not fucking with the feed” that they resisted changing anything to the “purity” of followers seeing everything that got posted and always is reverse chronology. Twitter was “full fidelity” and Facebook was “curated” by an algo controlled by the company.

The puritans in us loved the former, the pragmatists in us knew the algo produced more engaging results. Eventually Twitter acquiesced and started putting Tweets that you missed “while you were away.” I actually think they did a pretty good job of introducing what was a controversial change and navigating the trolls in all of us that resist change.

As a technology prognosticator, watching Twitter and Facebook grow up was a real pleasure.

And Snapchat has changed the game and in ways that I think the community doesn’t even quite understand yet. (If you’re not a Snapchat user and want a taste of what I do there check out: where I save the videos permanently.)

As many of you know, Snapchat started a place to send ephemeral photos with friends and thus was perceived to be only a sexting app for teens in the same was as Twitter was pegged as a place to share what you ate for lunch. Neither caricature of course was correct.

Snapchat’s big innovation was “stories” in which users could post everything from their last 24 hours in one “reel” that would combine videos and photos plus fun (filters, face swaps, emojis, stickers).

There are two reasons that stories was a big leap forward for Snapchat.

First, prior to stories users had to spam every follower by pushing every snap into their inbox. It was annoying as a user to get random snaps and felt spammy as a content creator. Stories allowed people to publish into a stream in which the users could choose to watch the story or not. It was better for consumer and producer for this type of use case and you could still privately message people like an IM platform (or DM in Twitter, PM in Facebook).

Second, there is one big innovation that the market hasn’t talked about. Snapchat stories takes everything that I do in a 24 hour period and builds it into one cohesive story.

Think about that. On Twitter if I post at 7:35am and again at 8:15am there will probably be 150 Tweets in your stream between those meaning there is no cohesion in my successive Tweets and meaning that if you log in at 8:30am your chances of seeing my 7:35am Tweet is slim-to-none. That’s not necessarily good or bad — but it’s different.

On Snapchat when you click on my “story” you see every post of mine sequentially for my entire past 24 hours. This is a big deal. If you don’t want to “complete” my story you simply swipe left and you’re on to the next story.

But here is what I’ve learned about Snapchat.

  1. The story structure allows me to create a more cohesive storyline and when I consume other people’s content (even when it’s just life casting) I feel like I get a better, more cohesive story of what’s going on in their life. Right now I’m getting about 9,000 views at the “top end of my funnel” video on my story. By about the 5th or 6th video I have about 25% of my viewers drop out. If you complete 10 videos of mine the completion rate to the end is like 85% meaning if you like the topic I’m sharing that day and invest in it you’re highly like to complete.
  2. Snapchat has a much longer half life. For a content creator this is BIG. There is no ephemeral stream in which my content is mixed with others. People go to their stories and see whom they follow and decide whether to consume that story. So the consumption of my stories remains very consistent throughout the 24 hours when a story is live. I put a story out once and I’m done and for consumers they know that they don’t have to log in at the same time I’m producing in order to see my story.

Snapchat is biggest innovation in media right now and the biggest innovator in product design from a user perspective. Will that continue? Will new players emerge? Will the titans fight back and recapture share-of-mind and share-of-time?

I have no idea. But as somebody who loves to watch, play with and learn about media and applications it has sure been a pleasure to watch over the past year.


(If you want to learn more Snapchat basics: Snapchat for old folks, why Snapchat is an important media company, why Snapchat can work for business and how & why I do Snapstorms.)

(Cross-posted @ Both Sides of the Table)

Research: Digital creates CIO innovation opportunities but challenges remain

A recent survey of 3,352 CIOs and IT leaders sheds light on important aspects of the CIO role and describes CIO perspectives on areas such as digital disruption and cloud. Most important, the study offers proof points of the conflicting demands that face CIOs and IT during this time of digital transition.

The research is a joint project of recruiting firm, Harvey Nash, and consulting firm, KPMG.

Research summary

CIO operational priorities. The top three CIO priorities are:

  • Increasing operational efficiencies
  • Improving business processes
  • Delivering consistent and stable IT performance to the business

In other words, the CIO is responsible for ensuring that business systems run smoothly and efficiently at low cost. Further down the list, we see points such as improving time to market, enabling change, and other attributes associated with truly innovative CIOs.

These priorities demonstrate the tension between CIO aspirations to innovate and practical realities of running IT and “keeping the lights on,” to use a familiar expression.

CEO priorities. While CIOs focus on stability, creating efficiencies and improving business processes, CEOs seek IT projects that make money. Right here, we have the core CIO paradox: the company wants growth, but the CIOs first job is consistency and systems that work.

The most successful CIOs figure out how to deliver operational stability as the foundation for innovation and growth. In effect, this requires the CIO to run two business models simultaneously: one to maintain stability and the second for growth.


CEO priorities for the CIO

CEO priorities

Budget influencers. Increasingly, stakeholders outside IT are influencing, or even controlling, how the CIO spends his or her budget. This corresponds to the exploding proliferation of technology expertise outside IT.

As marketing, finance, and line of business functions com to rely on specialized technology and applications, they will exert greater control over IT budgets.


Influence on IT budgets

Influence on IT budgets

Cloud adoption. The three top justifications for moving to the cloud are:

  • Agility and responsiveness
  • System availability
  • Innovation

All three are great reasons to adopt the cloud, and they indicate that CIOs know IT must become more responsive partners to the business. This message comes across loud and clear.


Reasons for cloud adoption

Reasons for adopting cloud

According to the survey, the primary inhibitors to cloud adoption are security concerns and challenges around data integration.

The security argument is an issue because only the largest companies in the world have even a chance of protecting their data centers at the same level of top cloud providers. Few organizations possess the security resources and expertise of cloud vendors like Microsoft, SAP, Oracle, or Salesforce, to name a few major providers.

Data integration is a reasonable concern. Whether systems are on-premise or in the cloud, IT must manage data exchange with other applications.


Obstacles to cloud adoption

Obstacles to cloud adoption

Agile dominates. As we can see in the chart below, agile methodologies have become commonplace among IT departments. Certainly, when I talk with innovative CIOs, agile is the preferred approach in almost every case. One CIO recently told me, “Agile forces everyone to participate and help solve problems, rather than be the voice of ‘No’.


Approaches to increase responsiveness

Agile methodologies prevail

IT project failure and success rates. Top performing CIOs talk about “operational excellence,” the need to deliver useful projects on-time and within budget.

This survey shows that only around half of all projects actually succeed. Among IT failure research, the data presented in the chart below is unique, because it breaks out project success by type of project. The overall failure rates reported are consistent with other research.


IT project success and failure rates

IT project failure and success rates

Digital disruption. Of course, we are all interested in attributes and characteristics of digital transformation.

As one might expect, media tops the list of industries facing disruption.


Digital disruption by industry

Digital disruption by industry

Similarly, advertising and media companies are most likely to have an enterprise digital strategy.


Digital strategy by industry

Digital strategy by industry

Importantly, ownership of digital initiatives has become strategic for many organizations. However, this presents a leadership question for CIOs, who must find ways to create their own involvement in these core programs going forward.

Part of the CIO challenge in creating leadership is to recognize that influential, rather hierarchical control, is a crucial part of this equation.


Ownership of digital strategies

Ownership of digital strategies

Advice for the CIO

The research offers a compelling view into important aspects of CIO life. Based on my experience, frequently talking with CIOs and interviewing many on the CXOTALK show, there are three important lessons.

Operational excellence is the foundation. Create an IT organization that delivers the right projects on-time and within budget. As CIO, operational excellence must be your baseline. If your plans are not highly successful, then start a program to figure out why and fix it. Project success leads to credibility and organization support for innovation.

CIOs face a core chronic conflict. The urgent requirements of daily IT deliverables create a focus on inward-facing activities that crowds out innovation. Top CIO priorities include cost savings, efficiency, and improving processes. Although these are worthy goals, CEOs want IT to support core company strategies, particularly revenue. The gap between CIO activities and CEO mandates is a real challenge.

Said differently, ultimate CIO success can only come when IT supports the CEO’s most important business strategies.

Digital creates opportunity. With the rise of digital transformation, CIOs have a golden chance to rethink relationships across the enterprise. Now is the time to clean up IT, establish the essential ability to deliver operational excellence, and put together an innovative IT organization.

Digital is shaking up established relationships between technologists and business functions. For CIOs, these changes open the door to new positions of influence. However, taking advantage of the opportunities requires IT to possess a profound understanding of the business, the ability to listen accurately and respond with precision, and excellent communication skills.

Therefore, start by making a dispassionate assessment of your IT organization (and yourself), to be sure that these skills and capabilities are present on your team.

(Cross-posted @ ZDNet | Beyond IT Failure Blog)

How I Invest

vc-chest-300x201I was speaking recently to the team at NuOrder, an LA-based company we’re an investor in about “realism in startups” — an impromptu talk I have given to any of our portfolio companies who ask.

During the Q&A I was asked about how I make investment decisions in early-stage businesses. I was asked again in an LP meeting later in the week and then again at a founder breakfast gathering we hosted yesterday. I answered in the same way I always do so I thought I’d just write it publicly.

“I fall in love.”

Yes. I know that sounds trite but it’s the best way I can describe my early-stage investments.

I fall in love with both the founders and the concept. If I don’t do both then it’s highly unlikely I will invest. I know now that investments will consume many hours including late nights / early mornings and weekends. I know there will be good times and bad. I know there will be victories, set-backs and even some fights.

How else can I begin this multi-year journey if I’m not in love?

Maybe some people can be dispassionate financial investors. I cannot. I spend hours thinking about the products, competitors, market opportunities, recruiting and financing of these businesses. I feel personally committed and engaged. I often form very close friendships with the teams — even if I know that I still have a fiduciary responsibility and at times could even be at odds with the economic interests of a team. But frankly, if you’re honest, that’s the same exact situation every CEO/Founder often has with all of their team members, too.

For the most part I think life is too short to work with people you don’t deeply respect, admire and like or on concepts you aren’t deeply passionate about.

As a starting point I have to believe the founder has the attributes of an entrepreneur that matter most to me: Tenacity, resiliency, inspiration, perspiration, attention-to-detail, competitiveness, decisiveness, risk tolerance and integrity.

I have to believe the founder is cost-focused, mission-driven and aligned on cultural values to me, which mostly relates to integrity and how to treat other people. I like over communicators who err on the side of transparency and candor. I need to know when we’re in tough times that we’re in it together, with mutual respect and trust in each other to be good actors.

Of course I also have to the concept. It’s not enough to love the founding team. I don’t pretend to have all the answers about what is the best type of investor or the best type of investments so please don’t take this as my saying this is how everybody should invest. But I have a strong preference for:

  • Non obvious ideas. Often as I describe to people privately why I invested the first reaction is not to immediately get it.
  • Reasonably technical concepts. At heart I’m still a tech nerd from childhood and I love to see how technology is changing business and society. I am much more attracted to technical product teams than to new business concepts or commerce types.
  • Innovator’s Dilemma. I love businesses that aim to massively reduce the costs of products or services in a way that makes a product or service vastly more accessibility and in which incumbents would have a hard time competing. I prefer to compete more with other startups than with giants.
  • Mission driven, commercially focused. I tend to love concepts where the founder is driven by a larger mission but understand the need to earn financial results to have an impact. I work with two companies that aim to change education but both are indirectly aiming to do so. When you talk with the founders privately the list this as their motivator. I work with a few computer vision companies. One believes it can predict certain diseases through observation even though this has nothing to do with the core mission of the company. The other is driven by the need to increase privacy in providing its service relative to competitors using cameras.
  • Early stage. I think I’m better at the product stage of a business and helping with strategy, marketing, pricing, feature sets and so forth than I am at evaluating later-stage businesses based on financial results and business metrics and priced accordingly. I know investors who are great at this (including several of my partners) — but that’s not me.

I have fallen in love several times in the past 2 years and in a strange set of circumstances most companies prefer to stay below the radar screen for much longer these days so most of them have not been announced. That’s hard, too, because when you’re passionate about companies and teams it’s hard to conceal it! But obviously I respect the wishes of those teams.

Anyway, since I’ve now been asked three times in the past week I thought I’d just write publicly what I often say privately. No magic. But hope it helps you think about how one investor approaches his job.

(Cross-posted @ Both Sides of the Table)

Facebook LIVE with SAP’s Millennial CIO: ‘Customer satisfaction is a competitive advantage’

Discussions about digital transformation and the CIO role usually evolve toward one of two conclusions:

SAP logo

  • CIOs are destined to become stewards of infrastructure, more or less disconnected from broader business strategy. Call this the doom and gloom case.
  • Digital transformation has created a golden era of CIO opportunity, where IT can participate in the most strategic discussions facing his or her organization.

During several conversations with SAP’s new CIO, Thomas Saueressig, fellow ZDNet columnist, Dion Hinchcliffe, and I explored these topics in some depth. Here is a video of one of those discussions, which was streamed live and entirely unscripted to Facebook:

Talking with Saueressig, one point becomes immediately apparent – his age. At 31, he is a Millennial and certain among the youngest Fortune 500 Chief Information Officers. At the same time, he has worked at SAP for 12 years, first as a CRM implementation consultant, then rotating through various positions that gave him an overview of how the interlocking pieces of SAP connect. For the last five years, Saueressig has worked in IT, building SAP’s mobility center of excellence.

The conversation started with Saueressig presenting his view that the CIO must “understand the business in its entirety and have empathy for end-users.” Techniques such as “shadowing users” and “shop rotations” can help IT understand how users engage with software.

Although I believe this view is precisely right, few CIOs have the luxury of Saueressig’s training inside SAP. As a board assistant, he was exposed to company functions at the highest strategic level. Clearly, his basis as a CIO is grounded in the business. The lesson for CIO’s: do whatever you must to understand business users and their goals; being a technologist alone is not sufficient.

The topic of culture was among the most interesting parts of our discussion. Here are paraphrased comments from Saueressig:

There is a lot to do culturally from a mindset perspective. Taking people with us as we ramp up the new journey, ensuring we have the right skill sets. Culture is a key topic for IT.

We have to be highly collaborative and work across all functions, including the CDO, CMO, CFO. IT is the glue that holds everything together, so we need to play a highly collaborative role. The CIO needs to take a leadership role while supporting the goals of other C-Suite colleagues. For example, the CMO may have specific goals around digital marketing, which the CIO must support with technology.

To drive closer engagement with the business, SAP has switched to an agile delivery model. By working closely with users, their needs become the starting point for IT activities. Accordingly, user adoption is a primary goal for Saueressig:

Great work in IT only comes to value when users adopt those solutions. At SAP, this means developing solutions that 78,000 people around the world will find sufficiently useful to adopt.

To increase adoption, Saueressig plans to follow the marketing model of personalization. Based on each employee’s personal interests and technology (including platforms, tools, software, and devices), tailor technology distribution with targeted change management to meet the individual’s specific needs.

We asked Saueressig about his metrics for success:

My most important KPI is customer satisfaction [among internal employees]. Happiness is a competitive advantage; if we have happy employees, they will make our customers happy. This is a direct correlation. We need to put employee productivity at the center of our activities. The key goal for every IT employee is customer satisfaction and put the user at the center. We want to excite them and inspire them.

The bottom line. In a world of digital transformation, collaboration is the core competence and foundation of modern IT. With collaboration, IT automatically becomes part of the business conversation. Without collaboration, IT becomes little more than a commodity supplier of technical goods and services.

SAP is a CXOTALK partner and paid most of my expenses for travel to SapphireNow 2016, where this discussion took place.

(Cross-posted @ ZDNet | Beyond IT Failure Blog)

Why Solving Big Food & Healthcare Problems Will Yield Spectacular Companies

I’ve spoken before about our desire at Upfront Ventures to fund really big ideas that solve hard problems, are science led and if successful will both have a positive effect on people’s lives as well as make great financial returns.

We’re not Pollyannaish about this. We believe that it is incrementally harder to differentiate on simple Internet products or mobile apps and while great companies are built doing this, our goal as a fund is to try and fund things that can be 100x returns if they work. In short, we’re after venture returns.

We know to do this we need to fund projects that are more difficult in scope, more ambitious in industry transformation, less obvious in market adoption and a higher probability of not working. We know that to be successful we need to fund truly transformational entrepreneurs grounded in unique academic skills and with the self confidence and ambition to try and achieve results in which the market will naturally be skeptical.

We have have been funding agriculture technologies, water conservation, wireless electricity, aquaponics and so forth in addition to our standard investment themes in software, data, video and retail innovation.

One of the companies we’ve been proudest to watch its evolution is Nima, a company that is solving the problem of food allergies for people with severe problems such as Celiac disease and also addressing the much broader market of people with gluten intolerance. They have plans to go after they peanut allergies and move on to a host of other food-related illnesses and problems including dairy.

This may sound straightforward but to test for conditions with extreme accuracy and speed requires designing a small hardware device that is capable of creating a chemical reaction with food, interpreting the results in real time and doing so for a cost that is acceptable for consumers.

When we met Shireen (CEO) and Scott (Co-founder & CTO) in late 2014 they had been inspired to create Nima to address their own personal food issues and empower other people to live their healthiest lives. We are predisposed to backing founders who solve problems in which they have personal knowledge that is authentic. Shireen had been studying for her masters in business at MIT and thinking about her own food allergies and Scott was a graduate of the mechanical engineering school at MIT with an emphasis in product design.

We were inspired by their vision and determination so we led their first large funding round (co-investors SoftTech, SK Ventures, Lemnos Labs and others) and we participated heavily in their most recent $9 million funding led by our good friends at Foundry Group that was just announced today. They have raised $14 million to date.

It seems that many others were impressed as well. Since our initial funding round the company went on to win the TechCrunch Startup Battleground in a head-to-head competition with some very impressive startups.

Since their seed, the team has been working hard to test and roll out an effective, trustworthy product, Nima, which detects the presence of gluten in food products. It’s still in pre-sale, but reception from beta testers, previews and the industry (tech and consumer) has been enthusiastic.

I’ve seen firsthand how food can impact your well-being, in my case with helping me keep my ADD in check. I also have an aunt with Celiac Disease and a nephew who carries an EpiPen to deal with his severe peanut allergies. So it immediately resonated after Kevin Zhang and Yves Sisteron brought the deal into our firm (Yves is on the board) after a visit to see our friends at Lemnos Labs.

As a market, food allergies are unfortunately on the rise — estimated to affect 15M Americans, food allergies have grown 50% in past 20 years — and food intolerance to gluten, soy, dairy is growing.

As healthcare costs have risen dramatically in the past few decades we believe that the market will shift to more preventative approaches led by science, data and devices and billion-dollar companies will be created.

We have been so encouraged by the progress of Nima and couldn’t think of a better board member, mentor and co-investor than Brad Feld at Foundry Group.

We can’t wait to see what the next few years bring.

(Cross-posted @ Both Sides of the Table)

What is it Like to Wake Up and Have the Press Ready to Torpedo Your Business?

In case you missed it, the press yesterday ran several stories questioning the viability of a wireless charging company I invested in called uBeam. Obviously my day turned out very differently than I had anticipated when I woke up, but it wasn’t half as bad as the entire team at uBeam must have felt yesterday.

I received a flurry of emails and texts and I was going to write a letter to the many investors in uBeam reassuring them that we are indeed making strong progress on releasing a product but then it occurred to me that it may be more constructive to do so here since so many people are asking.

So What Happened?

Several months ago the VP of Acoustics for uBeam, Paul Reynolds left the company on his own volition. I was disappointed to see him go because he was technically very strong and throughout my time working with him he reassured me we could solve the technical challenges and our approach was viable.

I asked him to reconsider leaving but when it was clear that he had made up his mind I realized we couldn’t change it. I knew he wasn’t happy for reasons I won’t go into.

He recently wrote a series of blog posts that were negative about the company and spoke with several journalists about his views. Throughout my many discussions with Paul over our time together, he never questioned the viability of uBeam and the technology that he was critical in developing. In stead he expressed concerns that we not overstate our capabilities or fall pray to hyperbole. I don’t want to put words in Paul’s mouth — but that’s how I’d characterize our many discussions.

Obviously I wish he wouldn’t have written negative posts but it’s a decision he made and we can’t erase his words or actions. Of course I wish he understood that the consequences of his actions are much wider than he may have thought when he began his critiques.

But there’s no reason to spend undue time getting angry about what’s been said. I’m pretty on record as saying that if you harbor anger, you lose twice.

What is the Reality?

Wireless electricity using ultrasound works — that isn’t in question. The questions that arise are: can it work at long distances, can you produce equipment cost effectively and will it be useful enough that businesses will install it or consumers will want to use it. Yes, there are other questions skeptics have raised as well — but it’s not worth trying to refute every point.

We have a lot to prove. The team knows that. It’s hard work. We haven’t yet shipped product or shown the public our prototypes. The product isn’t yet where we want it to be — like most startup products, it is a work in progress.

But we do have detailed plans for four generations of product releases through 2019 and we have a very talented COO, Jeff Devine, who is leading our efforts. He was VP of Global Supply Chain for Cisco and held similar roles at Nokia and Palm. He is a calming force, an experienced hand, a straight shooter and a great long-term planner. I have huge confidence in Jeff.

We also have a very talented VP of Engineering, Sean Taffler, who is a Phd from Oxford, and has been with the company since shortly after I funded it. We have a VP of Acoustics, Paul Chandler who is a Phd from UC Irvine and formerly with Philips Ultrasound.

Of course no amount of Phd’s guarantee that uBeam will deliver a successful and compelling product but as a board member and as the investor closest to the company I can tell you that this team is incredibly hard working, heads down and making progress every day and week.

Ultimately we know that if we deliver product the market will judge us for the quality of what is produced and its efficacy. Are we behind schedule? Of course. But the overwhelming majority of products I’ve ever built have been late or cut scope and I’ve never personally built anything nearly as ambitious as what uBeam’s engineers are attempting.

What I can tell you is that Meredith Perry is amongst the most driven, committed, hard-working and smart entrepreneurs with whom I have worked. Meredith is in her twenties and this is her first rodeo. I wish I had half of the determination, grit and ambition at her age.

Has the company received enormous press? Sure. Has Meredith at times been prone to promising revolution or hubris? Of course. I think she would even acknowledge this, but having a grand vision is vastly different from making fraudulent claims. Has her vision risen to the level of personal attacks she has to receive in the press or the claims of falsifying information?

No. These claims are abjectly false. Any references to Theranos are spurious at best.

At heart Meredith is a nerd and loves the most inane, geeky things to do with space or scientists or technology theory. Were she a shy, pimply, awkward male engineer with a pocket protector she would fit an archetype that would make sense to observers. But she’s not. She’s confident, communicative, outspoken, young and blonde.

She’s still a geek. And a geek in the way I appreciate and respect. And on occasion she makes some really strange video or joke or comment that makes me think she’s from a different planet and then I remember that looks can be deceiving. Geeks come in all packages.

Meredith has made claims that she will deliver a working product and I believe her whole heartedly based on my experience in working with the team over the past 18 months. She has never lost her confidence or determination in doing so and she knows the world is watching her. How would you fare under this pressure? Wouldn’t you want the time and space to deliver without vitriol?

uBeam is far more than any one individual and there are an entire team of engineers working hard on delivering product to the market. I continue to be encouraged that this group of people will deliver a working product and I have seen nearly every version of the hardware, software, prototypes and algorithms.


If for any reason we fall short of expectations we have set in the market, I will be the first person in line to admit it and then to immediately fund Meredith’s next company. Her strengths so vastly outweigh any weaknesses and her vision, tenacity and resiliency far exceed any perceived limitations.

What are the Consequences to the Company?

Of course we lost two full days of productivity. We had an all hands meeting yesterday and Meredith and I encouraged the team to do their best to ignore the constant emails and texts from friends and family members — but how can you, really? Nevertheless they are already back at work delivering a product that they plan to demonstrate when it’s ready.

Of course it will make it harder to recruit candidates because we’ll now have to spend more time explaining the situation. But we’ll redouble our efforts and continue to persuade engineers who join by showing them actual products in progress.

The uBeam team will keep their heads down and either deliver or not. That’s what the startup industry does. And if you are afraid of failure and if you never take risks and if you never try to push the boundaries of what is possible — then you certainly will never succeed in break-through innovation.

I’m not at all afraid to put my name behind Meredith, Jeff, Sean, Paul Chandler and all the other great engineers hard at work. I feel confident they will exceed expectations.

What Next?

Back to work, I hope. I told Meredith I would write this because I really want her focusing her energy on the only thing that ultimately will decide the fate of uBeam — shipping a product.

I’d rather be asleep right now. It’s nearly 2:00am and I have a board meeting in the morning and I could do without all of the drama. But that’s startup life.

I wrote a little post a few years ago to try and help others who have to go through this situation, “What Startups Can Learn about PR and Crisis Management.” While I don’t envy any of you who have to go through this — I hope this guide can be of some comfort in moments like this.

(Cross-posted @ Both Sides of the Table)