To ICO or to Venture, that’s the question.

With the number of successful ICOs that have been completing in the last 12 months ($1.5Bn raised in 2017 alone), some have declared venture capital on its dying legs.

“I think the Sequoias of the world will go out of business. I think all the big VCs are done. The role isn’t there anymore.” Brock Pierce, Founder of Blockchain Capital.

Is venture dead? While worth posing, I think the question is inherently incomplete, as it conflates many ideas into a simple debate for impact. In this post, I’m not hoping to declare one type of investment as the winner (or loser), but rather, to showcase where each has their place — and where the models might even be reconciled or combined.

Firstly, there is a difference between the mechanism/structure investors use to invest in a company, and the value-add (if any) which the investors bring to the founder, alongside their financial investment. Another way of thinking about is to think of Venture Capital as a bundled product, combining capital, advice and assistance (e.g. with hiring and recruitment). ICOs, from this perspective, represent one further evolution in the commoditization of capital and the beginning of the de-bundling of venture capital — and perhaps even progress for LPs, measured through liquidity (see Spice VC).

From the capital point of view, an institutional investor, typically a VC, in theory, can invest via any mechanism/structure (eg. crowdfunding, ICO, etc), but there is a reason why they prefer (for now) some structures, and this partly has to do with governance & institutional restrictions (which is usually imposed on them by their LPs and from prior experience of where things can go wrong) and partly due to economic return alignment as things stand as of today (more on that below). A non-institutional investor (eg. someone participating in crowdfunding), by contrast, has less limitations and thus can invest in whichever structure she or he wishes to.

From the relationship point of view, a founder circumventing traditional pools of institutional capital of high quality (let’s put aside those less value-add investors which generate some of the pain founders feel when raising), might be passing up more than just a source of capital. They may also be inadvertently declining key industry/financing relationships, as well as investor experience that cuts across industries and founders they’ve worked with in the pas.

Thus, the original question of whether to ICO or to pursue traditional Venture could be broken up into these parts that are included in the conflated question:

1) What does the investor(s) bring to the table above and beyond their capital? Do you need that value-add for the specific project being worked on?

2) How many investors will be allowed to invest in Token sales / ICOs by their LPs and get comfortable with the idea of questionable liquidity to fiat in the short to medium term (thus forcing founders more towards crowd-funding via ICOs and at the exclusion of traditional VC)?

3) Will the ICO/Token-Issuance deal-structure be the preferred investment structure over traditional equity/convertible rounds in the next 5 years for professional/institutional investors due to reduced complexity?

4) How will governance evolve in the ICO world to capture some of the best practices which have been honed over years in the VC world, within the ICO world?

In the words of my colleague Kyran Schmidt —

The question of governance is an interesting one and I think we may well see evolution in structures so that token builder incentives more closely replicate the traditional incentives provided by venture capital — e.g. milestone-based financing. You could even see blockchain-based smart contracts as an enabler for that e.g. capital is only sequentially released to a foundation or developers if certain milestones are hit (network usage, transactions processed, etc).

My colleague Tom Wilson has this to say on this point —

I don’t think the primary driver behind higher governance in ICOs will necessarily be VCs’ LPs, but it will likely be a driver as the market matures and LPs understand the space more. I think that many of the key governance matters (information rights for example) actually help companies rather than hinder and hence why they’ve become standard in all financings and will find their way into ICO docs etc. Good governance can actually align interests and ICO companies should look to incorporate rather than fight against such rights.

I also think another driver of higher governance in ICOs will, unfortunately, likely be a large high profile failure (i.e. a team, ‘company’ or protocol developer, that has raised a large amount on an ICO making off with investors’ money) — this will not only drive the market to get hotter on governance matters but will inevitably drag the regulators and legal system to look into regulations around ICO offerings (this will probably happen quicker in jurisdictions where it’s possible to offer to non-sophisticated investors).

So, what do I expect to be the outcome over the next few years? Firstly, I think that there will be some mapping of traditional investment best practices into ICO structures, secondly, I think more and more institutional investors will get comfortable with investing in the new structures and assets being created by ICOs, and lastly, as an industry, we will develop better ways to leverage relationships with token developers, token holders and sources of capital.

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The future of the workplace in a post-A.I. world

Last week and this week have seen two amazing conferences focusing on the future of Artificial Intelligence. This week, we had CogX in London (led by the guys over at CognitionX), and last week, we had the first Transform.ai conference in Paris, where I was moderated a panel with David Yang (ABBYY), Polly Sumner (Salesforce), Jacques Bughin (McKinsey), and Christos Tsolkas (Philip Morris International) on the subject of the future of the workplace in a post-artificial-intelligence world.

We covered questions such as: What happens when machines can do what you can do? How is AI is reshaping the workplace? Everyone, from factory workers to oil drillers to doctors to fashion designers will have to work alongside machines, sometimes very “smart “ones... What type of jobs will exist in the future? How will it change the way managers perform their jobs (from hiring, to evaluating to promoting talent)? Will the machines manage us? What type of skill sets will we need and how can companies prepare their workforce and their leadership for this new world?

One of the themes that came up in both conferences is the impact the Singularity will wield on us. The term the ‘Singularity’, made famous by Ray Kurzweil, and it refers to a point in the near future where the scales tip in favor of AI-enhanced beings. Sci-fi writers, fear-mongers and futurists all compete to imagine what this would look like. Though changes may not be as drastic as those seen in terminator, one can extrapolate that many of the things we call ‘labor’ today will be drastically different. Basically, the future of the workplace and workforce is uncertain, and therein lies the problem in discussing the topic today.

Just as industrial robots have changed the landscape of manufacturing, AI will change the currently ‘secure’ world of knowledge-workers, but how, no one really knows.. will we be integrating AI-enhanced bio-compatible hardware to help us make decisions? Will we be simply relying on machines to do all the heavy lifting and humans therefore become the ‘creatives’? Is creativity even ‘safe’ in the workspace of what humans can do better than machines, or will creativity be replaced with a human-fooling ‘simulation’ of creativity?

In that spirit, let’s start by looking far ahead and then work our way backwards to today. The big questions we need to answer include: What new types of jobs will be created in a post-AI world? What will be the phases of our integration with AI? And finally, what businesses are being created today that can either augment the capability of, substitute, or increase the efficiency of, a human-worker?

Let’s address the hardest one first: what are the jobs of the future.

AI will replace us gradually. During this process, there will be short term and long term jobs. According to a recent MIT article, these jobs fall into three types: The Trainers, those who improve AI systems, The Explainers, those who interface with commercial or other entities not in direct contact with the AI, and The Sustainers, those who ensure AI operates as intended. Further examples of these roles ‘in practice’ can be found in the article.

Whilst that article does present a very interesting angle on how things could evolve in a world where machines take over all elements of our decision making, one of the points that Polly brought up in the panel was around ethical/human decisions that even Trainers (to use the article’s language) will not be able to fully solve. For example, how do we create consistency across AI platform decisions in a world where different companies with their own different motivations, might train AI systems to varying degrees of choices ranging from discriminatory for some, to too progressive for others? Would it be a human committee that settle’s matters for example? It all kind of boils down to a simple question — Will general AI every truly pass the Turing Test across all types of interactions, including those that require credible emotional responses or the resolution of complex ethical dilemmas? Across the web many, including Polly and myself, don’t agree that we will fully get there, but I do think we will be able to feel for and have empathy for machines, which is the inverse of, but still quite different that the key point we discussed.

As such, perhaps the transition to how we replace our workforce entirely by machines will be far more gradual and in far less ‘singularity’ sounding ways. One of the points David brought up was around the subtle integration we will likely go through in incorporating AI technology. We might go from our current wearable-tech phase to a phase where we are embedded with AI systems that help supplement our decisions. In a recent podcast interview with two Seedcamp AI Healthcare companies Viz.ai and Gyant.com, we walked through how this might work as doctors leverage technology to make better decisions and possibly move a lot of the diagnosis to machines which might make fewer mistakes than exhausted humans. Moving away from wearable or embeddable, we enter into the phases of integration which start resembling science fiction, including autonomous general AI and ideas like Von Neumann probes, which the sci-fi book We are Legion, does a great job of illustrating how autonomous systems could help us conquer the galaxy. In his book, Nick Bostrom, also highlights other ways a super-intelligence could surface in the future.. here is his summary:

A speed superintelligence could do what a human does, but faster. This would make the outside world seem very slow to it. It might cope with this partially by being very tiny, or virtual.
A
collective superintelligence is composed of smaller intellects, interacting in some way. It is especially good at tasks that can be broken into parts and completed in parallel. It can be improved by adding more smaller intellects, or by organizing them better.
A
quality superintelligence can carry out intellectual tasks that humans just can’t in practice, without necessarily being better or faster at the things humans can do. This can be understood by analogy with the difference between other animals and humans, or the difference between humans with and without certain cognitive capabilities.

Putting all this ‘Supply Side’ tech to one side, one of the points Jacques brought up on the panel was around the demand for these technologies in markets and companies he advises vs. the supply of technologies we hear about. Jacques made it very clear that demand lags far behind, as there are many complexities, not only in understanding the implications of the technologies that are surfacing, but also the process of integrating them. Christos, who has worked in the space of digital transformation, shared examples of how complex integrating digital services across a company’s functions such as, Targeting and Planning, Customer Service, Internal Collaboration, and Customer ordering can be. Nevermind the issue of then trying to link them into AI systems which might be pseudo-autonomous and could wreak havoc across different parts of the larger organization.

In conclusion, the future is both exciting and uncertain. Exciting because there are a huge amount of opportunities for AI to reduce risk for humans in jobs that are dangerous for humans or where humans’ imperfections create danger. Think defense-related jobs, public hygiene-related, or toxic-material management related, all of which will help reduce a lot of social and health problems (possibly). Uncertain, however, because there is some risk that AI might just be able to crack that Turing Test across the board and leaving us totally jobless.. unless it doesn't, leaving us humans ‘safe’ to deal with jobs that are classically in the realm of what we consider ‘human’: creative jobs, empathy-centric jobs, ethics-centric jobs, and lastly jobs where discerning the fine line between good data from the bad data is critical.

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The 5 things you need to know to scale a startup

Scaling a company, particularly after having received substantial funding, is no easy feat. It requires an entirely new set of skills that are not exactly those that allowed a founder to succeed in finding product market fit in the first place. Whilst nimbleness is always a top priority in any stage of a startup’s life, there are some areas of the startup that start breaking without the right processes to provide structure amongst diverse groups within the organization (if you want to read more about moving relationships into a process check out my post on that here). There is some good literature out there on the subject of how to organize and scale teams to perform better as they are pushed to outperform themselves and their market rivals. One of the classic works in this space is the book Scaling Up.

However, nothing is better than sitting down with founders that have just gone through something to get the modern feel for the hurdles of any challenge. In order to prepare anecdotes for a panel I had at the Collision Conference on this subject (scroll to the bottom for the embedded video), I had the chance to sit down with notable scale-up founders Kristo Kaarmann of Transferwise, Geoff Watts of EDITED, Laura Woo of Shippo, and Andy McLaughlin of Huddle to discuss the topic of scaling and their experiences.

After hearing the war stories and challenges they had in scaling their companies from a small founding team to well over hundreds of employees, I noticed a few commonalities. It should come as no surprise that most of these commonalities revolved around dealing with people. How to find them, hire them, train them, and empower them.

The top 5 commonalities that surfaced during our chats to consider when scaling a company are:

The Evolution of founder from operator to manager — The role of a founder evolves and needs to grow to that of a manager, focusing on hiring people and fundraising. If necessary, hiring an exec coach can be useful to help deal with many of the questions a founder will have during this process.

Geoff shared — “You’ve got to trust your managers and develop yourself as a manager too; you need to get buy-in from people and can’t make decisions unanimously… Everything becomes a teaching moment not an execution moment.”

Laura shared — “You role as a founder changes every 6 months, always expect new issues to come up after you start getting used to how things are.

The Transition from one team to managed teams — The inflection point of direct involvement operationally to having others take over, seems to hover around 20 people. This means, that at this point, founders start struggling to keep track of all operational matters and needs to get comfortable with a scaleable structure that trusts managers.

Kristo shared — “The philosophy we implemented was sharing a strategy into as many as independent units as possible and giving them autonomy to execute on it. Parallel autonomous teams. Provide guidance naturally, but transition into an independence model, and hire accordingly. Let them (the teams) make decisions themselves.”

For further reading on this, check out Kristo’s blog post on the matter — 
http://tech.transferwise.com/we-inspire-smart-people-and-we-trust-them/

The Focus on scaleable hiring — Hiring is a huge bottleneck, so at some point, having an internal recruiter really helps to deal with that process more efficiently. Staff don’t always scale, and so expect some attrition or people you’ll have to let go. Have a way of clearly determining the value new hires bring in and make decisions quickly.

Laura from Shippo shared — “Early employees can sometimes stop scaling, and you need to be able to think about transitioning them out, for if not, they can become toxic. Acquiring talent and hiring can be a full time job. Early on, at roughly 25 people, we hired an internal recruiter, and wished we had got one earlier. Onboarding is critical— keeping culture alive after 25 people, particularly where you can’t talk to everyone any more. Lastly, you need to be comfortable at hiring people that are much better than you, and let them loose on tactical stuff, and you focus on setting the vision.”

The Agreement on and adoption of company values and culture — Getting a company culture down clearly and creating an on-boarding process that instills this in new hires is critical. Once accomplished, it allows founders/managers to provide the teams the manage with the independence highlighted in the previous points on this blog.

Bretton Putter, founder of CultureGene.ai, breaks the process down into three parts:

Define — Surface your company’s unique purpose, vision, mission and values.
Embed — Embed your culture into every business policy, process and function.
Learn — Develop self-managing leaders who experiment, learn and grow.

CultureGene is a culture-first consultancy and culture-centric executive search firm. Feel free to get in touch with Brett here — hello@culturegene.ai

The Balancing of company culture with the use of scaling tools and processes— Lastly, start creating policies (eg. expenses policy, hiring policy, etc) that allow for you to scale, but don’t let the policies run away and hold your culture hostage (eg. how United Airlines dealt with a passenger because they needed a seat free in their flight).

Kristo shared an example of how he sets guidelines for his staff, but then gives them room to do what’s right, and in alignment with the company values — “we have less than 300 people in customer service and they don’t have scripts; we let them decide how to deal with calls. There are some dos and don’ts but we need to hire people who can do it on their own.”

Hopefully, by keeping these 5 points in mind, you will be able to scale up without any huge hiccups, but more importantly, empower your team to help you achieve your company’s goals.

Below is the video of the panel session I had at the Collision Conference 2017. On the panel with me was Max from Instacart and Vince from Avast.

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Relationships -> Process -> Product

One of the things that has allowed Seedcamp to scale from a few startups in our early years to over 250+ companies today is an understanding of what elements of our operations need to sit in the RPP stack (what I’m calling it).

The RPP stack, in short, is:

Relationships — This includes how you engage with not only your customers, but also your employees.

Process — This is born out of relationships, meaning you need to understand the scope of relationships, where things can fall through the cracks if not structured, and where things can only scale across new teams members joining, if not adequately structured.

Product — This is born out of the combination of Relationships and Process as it serves either your customers or your employees. Yes, you can have products for internal use as well as for external commercial gain. In theory, many businesses could operate within Relationships and Process alone, but are only truly capable of scaling once they take some of those and convert them into a Product that leverages both Relationships and Process. Naturally, there are some businesses, where the Product is front and center as the start of the company, but let’s face it, it’s just a manifestation of Relationship and Process at the end of the day, it’s just that the process is not really affordable to do without the Product from the onset.

Questions for reflection

Where is your company in understanding which relationships could benefit from process to increase the quality of that relationship across a larger group of team members?

Does your company have processes that would be better suited in converting into a product to allow you to scale faster?

Does your product accurately represent the trust dynamic between your relationships and the processes they need?

Do your relationships suffer because the quality of your interaction suffers between interactions due to the lack of support from a process and/or product?

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Martha Lane-Fox and Joe Gordon-Levitt on the This Much I Know podcast

If you have’t caught up on the ‘This Much I Know’ podcast in a while, now is the time to check it out! Just search for it on your fave podcast app..

A couple of our recent highlights include Baroness Martha Lane Fox

and Actor and founder of Hitrecord.org Joe Gordon-Levitt

Hope you are finding the podcast fun and please feel free to @ tweet me anyone you think I should interview or questions you’d like answered.

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