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April 21, 2019
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Three keys to cultivating an effective product development culture

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Editor’s note: This guest post is a part of our latest initiative to demystify design and find the best brand designers and agencies in the world who work with early-stage companies — nominate a talented brand designer you’ve worked with.

Chances are you’ve heard one or more of the following statements at work (or some flavor of them):

  • “We’re an engineering-driven company.”
  • “We’re a product-driven company.”
  • “We’re a design-driven company.”

While at first glance the statements above may seem innocuous, what they really imply is a power dynamic where a particular perspective carries more weight and influence in decision-making than others. How did it get that way in the first place? Was the founder a PM in a previous company? Did the first hires all happen to be engineers? Or does the most vocal person happen to be from a particular discipline? These are some examples of how biases get institutionalized. They can get seeded early and compound over time, or happen quickly as new leaders get installed as the company grows.

Whether intentional or not, these imbalances can disempower other disciplines, create fiefdoms, and erode trust between colleagues. Over time, these divisions kill productivity and quality. Internal factions waste valuable time and energy jockeying for influence and control, while the product gets fragmented and confusing for users.

On the flip side, when disciplines and teams are aligned there is less value placed on which person or discipline “made the call.” Over time, teams move quickly, learn together, get through iteration cycles effortlessly, spend more time producing high-quality results that reach users, and less time infighting. It’s like being in a state of flow, but for teams. So what is it that these high-performing teams align on? You’ve probably heard it before, but it’s worth unpacking:

The user.

Ideally, the most important driver of decisions isn’t one person or discipline in your organization—it should be your user. Your job is to help them navigate. Everyone building the product or making decisions about it, regardless of discipline, should understand who they’re building for, and why what they’re doing is contributing to improving that user’s experience.

User-centric thinking is the hallmark of the world-class companies because they love and obsess about you—the user. Amazon calls this customer obsession. Ideo calls this human-centered design. During my time at Pinterest, the most important company value was to “Put Pinners first.”

By focusing on serving the user, it removes the pressure on any individual or discipline to always make the right call. Focusing on what is right for the user, rather than who is right removes ego from the equation. Users ultimately decide anyway—they vote with their behavior and attitudes.

Serving your users better is a goal with no finish line. Understand that the decisions you make will sometimes improve their experiences and sometimes degrade them. Nobody has 100% hit rate, and nobody can predict the future with complete certainty. In a culture of good decision-making, the goal isn’t to get any single decision exactly right (although that’s always nice), but to make consistently good (and better) decisions over time, especially the important ones.

So how do you get your company oriented around users? Consider three important factors: (1) people with the right mindset, (2) an approach to balanced decision-making that starts with users, and (3) the mechanics and properties of high-quality decisions.

1. Identify and empower T-shaped people

Differences in opinion are inevitable. But in order to have consistently productive discussions, debates, disagreements, and ultimately decisions, you’ll need T-shaped people. A T-shaped person refers to someone who has a deep domain expertise in at least one field (the depth of their T), as well as a strong ability to collaborate with people across other areas of expertise (the breadth of their T). Here’s some examples of T-shaped people, who might also happen to make a strong team:

T-shaped people tend to be the best teammates—they have deep knowledge that they are willing to share and explain to their counterparts, as well as a built-in curiosity that welcomes new perspectives. This is especially important in leadership and decision-making roles. What’s more, their curiosity and empathy doesn’t just apply to their colleagues, it naturally extends to users.

What T-shaped people realize is that no single person or discipline is more important than the other, nor should they strive to be. Sure, there are moments where one’s expertise makes their input more credible, but It’s how their collective talents serve the user that ultimately matter most. People (and hopefully T-shaped people) are the most basic ingredients of your culture. Choose wisely.

Ways to identify T-shaped people

  • Look for curiosity and empathy. Top quality execution and results are a given, but don’t stop looking there. What was the user problem they were trying to solve? How did they arrived at that solution? What were the insights that led them to take their projects in a particular direction? What promising directions did they decide not to pursue, and why? Were they involved in research and understanding the users? Can they clearly articulate the needs of the customer? Does it feel like they know them intimately and care?
  • Look for humility. On projects, what assumptions did they make that were completely wrong? How did the user or other disciplines show them a different and valuable perspective? Do they share the credit? Did they help others succeed? Individual talent is important, but building great products is a team sport.

2. Make balanced decisions that start with users

User-centered (aka customer-centric, human-centered) thinking is a way of framing problems with a clear starting point: understanding and empathizing with user needs. If T-shaped people are your basic ingredients, then the user-centered thinking is a recipe—a way to combine and enhance the ingredients to produce amazing results. Here’s what it looks like:

Have your team start by asking “what is the user problem we’re trying to solve?” It’s a deceivingly simple focusing mechanism. It may take some rigorous debate to align on the right problem, but once that happens, decisions from all disciplines have a clear tie back to driving user value first—making the product faster, cheaper, more efficient, more delightful, easier to understand—then orienting their collective effort around providing that value.

Less user-centric teams will do the opposite: look for ways to make their own work easier or more efficient, look to optimize their own sub-team metrics, or satisfy their own personal curiosities—and leave the user to orient themselves around their organizational efficiencies. If you’ve ever felt a broken sign-up flow or confusing onboarding experience, then you know what I’m talking about.

While user-centric thinking starts with users, no single lens is more important than the others. It’s entirely possible to satisfy a user completely, while simultaneously killing your business. That’s not a good decision. Or you could dream up amazing ways to delight your user, but in ways that aren’t achievable with today’s technology—that’s no good either. The overlap of  perspectives is what leads to effective decisions and great solutions. T-shaped decision-makers will know how to make those appropriate tradeoffs.

3. Make high-quality decisions

Evaluating decisions through multiple lenses is important to getting to consistently good, balanced decisions over time. What decision best satisfies your user’s needs, is good for the business (overall, not just for your sub-team or business unit), and technically sound? The overlap is where high-quality decisions are born. But there are additional mechanics and properties that make decisions high-quality.

In my experience, high-quality product decisions are:

  • User-centric. First and foremost, rooted in understanding and serving user needs. Not just listening to what users say or watching what they do, but understanding how they think and feel.
  • Considered. They proactively seek input from, and communicate with, relevant stakeholders and examine the possibilities through multiple lenses before making decisions. They anticipate immediate effects, but also secondary and tertiary effects as well.
  • Balanced. It’s good for the user, good for the business overall, and technically sound.
  • Timely. They don’t take too long, but they aren’t made in haste either.
  • Calculated. It’s important to take risks, but don’t bet the farm unless it’s absolutely necessary. Start small and learn. Double down when it works, readjust when it doesn’t.
  • Communicated before action. They are stated as clearly as possible up-front, before taking action. Their rationale is shared, citing intended effects and flagging major risks.
  • Humble. Good decisions focus on what is right, not who is right. They embrace failure as part of the process, so long as there is valuable learning. For example, a decision may yield a learning that helps you not to pursue a particular direction, saving valuable time and effort.
  • Monitored. They are tracked closely to manage both positive and negative effects.
  • Shared broadly. Their results and learnings are examined and shared broadly (and especially with affected parties), whether results are good or bad; intended or unintended—giving future decisions a stronger starting point.

The case for culture

Very few companies, and even fewer startups, stand the test of time. Products and services today are all dynamic, and expected to evolve with the changing landscape of fickle users and emerging technologies. With limited time and resources, I can already hear people saying, “this seems like a lot of work” and ask, “can we really afford to invest this much thought and energy into culture?”

The bottom line is building great products is hard work. And it’s work that never ends, if you’re doing it well. Over time, your product will morph in small and big ways with each new version, to the point where it may be unrecognizable from your starting point. So what will persist, and why? Your culture—the people, their shared attitudes, values, goals, practices, and decisions—will determine that. So isn’t that worth investing in as much as the product itself? In the end, they’re one in the same.

News Source = techcrunch.com

The next great debate will be about the role of tech in society and government

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The Industrial Revolution dramatically re-ordered the sociology of politics. In the US, the Populist Party in the United States was founded as a force in opposition to capitalism, wary of modernity. In the UK, the profound economic changes reshaped policy: from the Factory and Workers Act through to the liberal reforms of David Lloyd George, which ultimately laid the ground for the welfare state, the consequences were felt for the whole of the next century.

Today, another far-reaching revolution is underway, which is causing similar ripple effects. Populists of both left and right have risen in prominence and are more successful than their American forebearers at the turn of the 19th century, but similarly rejecting of modernisation. And in their search for scapegoats to sustain their success, tech is now firmly in their firing line.

The risk is that it sets back progress in an area that is yet to truly transform public policy. In the UK at least, the government machine looks little different from how it did when Lloyd George announced the People’s Budget in 1909.

The first politicians who master this tech revolution and shape it for the public goodwill determine what the next century will look like. Rapid developments in technologies such as gene-editing and Artificial Intelligence, as well as the quest for potential ground-breaking leaps forward in nuclear fission and quantum computing, will provoke significant changes to our economies, societies and politics.

Yet, today, very few are even asking the right questions, let alone providing answers. This is why I’m focusing on technology as the biggest single topic that policymakers need to engage with. Through my institute, I’m hoping to help curate the best thinking on these critical issues and devise politically actionable policy and strategy to deal with them. This will help put tech, innovation and investment in research and development at the forefront of the progressive programme. And we do so in the belief that tech is – and will continue to be – a generally positive force for society.

This is not to ignore the problems that surfaced as a result of these changes, because there are genuine issues around privacy and public interest.

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 23: Monitors show imagery from security cameras seen at the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative on April 23, 2013 in New York City. At the counter-terrorism center, police and private security personel monitor more than 4,000 surveillance cameras and license plate readers mounted around the Financial District and surrounding parts of Lower Manhattan. Designed to identify potential threats it is modeled after London’s “Ring of Steel” system. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The shifts that have and will occur in the labour market as a result of automation will require far more thinking about governments’ role, as those who are likely to bear the brunt of it are those already feeling left behind. Re-training alone will not suffice, and lifelong investment in skills may be required. So too does a Universal Basic Income feel insufficient and a last resort, rather than an active, well-targeted policy solution.

“The first politicians who master this tech revolution and shape it for the public goodwill determine what the next century will look like.”

But pessimism is a poor guide to the future. It ends in conservativism in one form or another, whether that is simple statism, protectionism or nationalism. And so the challenge for those us of who believe in this agenda of harnessing the opportunities, while mitigating its risks is to put this in a way that connects with people’s lives. This should be a New Deal or People’s Budget type moment; a seismic change in public policy as we pivot to the future.

At the highest level this is about the role of the state in the 21st century, which needs to move away from ideological debates over size and spend and towards how it is re-ordered to meet the demands of people today. In the US, President Obama made some big strides with the role of the Chief Technology Officer, but it will require a whole rethinking of government’s modus operandi, so that it is able to keep up with the pace of change around it.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/Kheng Guan Toh

Across all the key policy areas we should be asking: how can tech be used to enable people to live their lives as they choose, increase their quality of life and deliver more opportunities to flourish and succeed?

For example, in education it will include looking at new models of teaching. Online courses have raised the possibility of changing the business of learning, while AI may be able to change the nature of teaching, providing more personalised platforms and free teachers to spend their time more effectively. It could also include new models of funding, such as the Lambda School, which present exciting possibilities for the future.

Similarly with health, the use of technology in diagnostics is well-documented. But it can be transformative in how we deploy our resources, whether that is freeing up more front-line staff to give them more time with patients, or even in how the whole model currently works. As it stands a huge amount of costs go on the last days of life and on the elderly. But far more focus should go on prevention and monitoring, so that people can lead longer lives, have less anxiety about ill health and lower the risks of illnesses becoming far more serious than they need to be. Technology, which can often feel so intangible, can be revolutionary in this regard.

In infrastructure and transport too, there are potentially huge benefits. Whether this is new and more efficient forms of transport or how we design our public space so that it works better for citizens. This will necessitate large projects to better connect communities, but also focus on small and simple solutions to everyday concerns that people have about their day to day lives, such as using sensors to collect data and improve services improve every day standard of living. The Boston Major’s office has been at the frontier of such thinking, and more thought must go into how we use data to improve tax, welfare, energy and the public good.

Achieving this will better align government with the pace of change that has been happening in society. As it stands, the two are out of sync and unless government catches up, the belief and trust in institutions to be seen to working for people will continue to fall. Populism thrives in this space. But the responsibility is not solely on politicians. It is not enough for those in the tech world to say they don’t get it.

Those working in the sector must help them to understand and support policy development, rather than allow misunderstandings and mistrust to compound. Because in little more than two decades, the digital revolution has dramatically altered the shape of our economies in society. This can continue, but only if companies work alongside governments to truly deliver the change that so many slogans aspire to.

News Source = techcrunch.com

India’s state gas company leaks millions of Aadhaar numbers

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Another security lapse has exposed millions of Aadhaar numbers.

This time, India’s state-owned gas company Indane left exposed a part of its website for dealers and distributors, even though it’s only supposed to be accessible with a valid username and password. But the part of the site was indexed in Google, allowing anyone to bypass the login page altogether and gain unfettered access to the dealer database.

The data was found by a security researcher who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the Indian authorities. Aadhaar’s regulator, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), is known to quickly dismiss reports of data breaches or exposures, calling critical news articles “fake news,” and threatening legal action and filing police complaints against journalists.

Baptiste Robert, a French security researcher who goes by the online handle Elliot Alderson and has prior experience investigating Aadhaar exposures, investigated the exposure and provided the results to TechCrunch. Using a custom-built script to scrape the database, he found customer data for 11,000 dealers, including names and addresses of customers, as well as the customers’ confidential Aadhaar number hidden in the link of each record.

Robert, who explained more about his findings in a blog post, found 5.8 million Indane customer records before his script was blocked. In all, Robert estimated the total number affected could surpass 6.7 million customers.

We verified a sample of Aadhaar numbers from the site using UIDAI’s own web-based verification tool. Each record came back as a positive match.

A screenshot showing the unauthenticated access to Indane’s dealer portal, which included sensitive information on millions of Indian citizens. This was one dealer who had 4,034 customers. (Image: TechCrunch)

It’s the latest security lapse involving Aadhaar data, and the second lapse to embroil Indane. Last year, the gas and energy company was found leaking data from an endpoint with a direct connection to Aadhaar’s database. This time, however, the leak is believed to be limited to its own data.

Indane is said to have more than 90 million customers across India.

The exposure comes just weeks after an Indian state leaked the personal information of more than 160,000 government workers, including their Aadhaar numbers.

Aadhaar numbers aren’t secret, but are treated as confidential and private information similar to Social Security numbers. More than 90 percent of India’s population, some 1.23 billion citizens, are enrolled in Aadhaar, which the government and some private enterprises use to verify identities. The government uses Aadhaar to enroll citizens in state services, like voting, or applying for welfare or financial assistance. Some companies also pushed customers to enroll their bank accounts or phone service to their Aadhaar identity, but this was recently struck down by the country’s Supreme Court. Many say linking their Aadhaar identities to their bank accounts has led to fraud.

The exposure is likely to reignite fresh concerns that the Aadhaar system is not as secure as UIDAI has claimed. Although few of the security incidents have involved a direct breach of Aadhaar’s central database, the weakest link remains the companies or government departments that rely on the data.

We contacted both Indane and UIDAI, but did not hear back.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Dandelion Energy, the Alphabet X spinout, raises another $16M led by GV and Comcast

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As tech companies continue their race to control the smart home, a promising energy startup has raised a round of funding from traditionally-tech and strategic investors, for a geothermal solution to heat and cool houses. Dandelion Energy, a spinout from Alphabet X, has raised $16 million in a Series A round of funding, with strategic investors Comcast Ventures leading the round along with GV, the investment arm of Alphabet formerly known as Google Ventures.

Lennar Corporation, the home building giant, is also coming in as an investor, as are previous backers NEA, Collaborative Fund, Ground Up, and Zhenfund, and other unnamed investors. Notably, Lennar once worked with Apple but is now collaborating with Amazon on smart homes.

As a side note, Dandelion’s investment is a timely reminder of how central “new home” startups are right now in smart home plays. Amazon just yesterday announced one more big move in its own connected home strategy with the acquisition of Mesh WiFi startup eero, which helps extend the range and quality of WiFi coverage in a property.

This is the second funding round for Dandelion in the space of a year, after the company raised a seed round of $4.5 million in March 2018, a mark of how the company has been seeing a demand for its services and now needs the capital to scale. In the past year, it had accrued a waitlist of “thousands” of homeowners requesting its services across America, where it is estimated that millions of homeowners heat their homes with fossil fuels, which are estimated to account for 11 percent of all carbon emissions.

The company is based out of New York, and for now New York is the only state where its services are offered. The funding may help change that. It will be used in part for R&D, but also to hire more people, open new warehouses for its equipment and supplies, and for business development.

Dandelion is not disclosing its valuation, but in its last round the company had a modest post-money valuation of $15 million, according to PitchBook. It has now raised $23 million in total since spinning out from Alphabet X, the company’s moonshot lab, in May 2017.

The premise of Dandelion’s business is that it provides a source of heating and cooling homes that takes people away from consuming traditional, energy grid-based services — which represent significant costs, both in terms of financial and environmental impact. If you calculate usage over a period of years, Dandelion claims that it can cut a household’s energy bills in half while also being significantly more friendly for the environment compared to conventional systems that use gas and fossil fuels.

While there have been a number of efforts over the years to tap geothermal currents to provide home heating and cooling, many of the solutions up to now have been challenging to put in place, with services typically using wide drills and digging wells at depths of over 1,000 feet.

“These machines are unnecessarily large and slow for installing a system that needs only a few 4” diameter holes at depths of a few hundred feet,” Kathy Hannun, cofounder and CEO of Dandelion, has said in the past. “So we decided to try to design a better drill that could reduce the time, mess and hassle of installing these pipes, which could in turn reduce the final cost of a system to homeowners.”

The smaller scale of what Dandelion builds also means that the company can do an installation in one day.

While a pared-down approach this means a lower set of costs (half the price of traditional geothermal systems) and quicker installation, that doesn’t mean that upfront costs are non-existent. Dandelion installations run between $20,000 and $25,000, although home owners can subsequently rack up savings of $35,000 over 20 years. (Hannun noted that today about 50 percent of customers choose to finance the installation which removes the upfront cost and spreads it out across monthly payments.)

This is also where Lennar comes in. The company is in the business of building homes, and it has been investing in particular in the idea of building the next generation of homes by incorporating better connectivity, more services — and potentially alternative energy sources — from the ground up.

“We’re incredibly excited to invest in Dandelion Energy,” said Eric Feder, Managing General Partner for Lennar Ventures, in a statement. “The possibility of incorporating geothermal heating & cooling systems in our new homes is something we’ve explored for years, but the math never made sense. Dandelion Energy is finally making geothermal affordable and we look forward to the possibility of including it in the homes Lennar builds.”

The fact that Comcast is among the investors in Dandelion is a notable development.

The company has been acquiring, and taking strategic stakes in, a number of connected-home businesses as it builds its own connected home offering, where it not only brings broadband and entertainment to your TV and come computers, and also provides the tools to link up other connected devices to that network to control them from a centralised point.

Dandelion is “off grid” in its approach to providing home energy, and while you might think that it doesn’t make sense for a company that is investing in and peddling services and electronic devices connected to a centralised (equally electricity-consuming) internet to be endorsing a company that’s trying to build an alternative, it actually does.

For starters, Dandelion may be tapping geothermal energy but its pump uses electricity and sensors to monitor and moderate its performance.

“Dandelion’s heat pump is a connected device with 60 sensors that monitor the performance and ensures that the home owner is proactively warned if there are any issues,” Hannun said in an interview. “This paves the way to operate it in a smart way. It’s aligned with the connected home.” In other words, this positions Dandelion as one more device and system that could be integrated into Comcast’s connected home solution.

Aside from this, view in terms of the segment of customers that Comcast is targeting, it’s selling a bundle of connected home services to a demographic of users who are not afraid of using (and buying) new and alternative technology to do things a different way from how their parents did it. Dandelion may not be “connected” but even its approach to disconnecting will appeal to a person who may already be thinking of ways of reducing his or her carbon footprint and energy bills (especially since they may be consuming vast amounts of electricity to run their connected homes).

“The home heating and cooling industry has been constrained by lack of innovation and high-costs,” said Sam Landman, managing director of Comcast Ventures, in a statement. “The team at Dandelion and their modern approach to implementing geothermal technology is transforming the industry and giving consumers a convenient, safe, and cost-effective way to heat and cool their homes while reducing carbon emissions.”

Landman and Shaun Maguire, a partner at GV, will both be joining Dandelion’s board with this round.

“In a short amount of time, Dandelion has already proven to be an effective and affordable alternative for home heating and cooling, leveraging best-in-class geothermal technology,” said Maguire, in a statement. “Driven by an exceptional leadership team, including CEO Kathy Hannun, Dandelion Energy is poised to have a meaningful impact on adoption of geothermal energy solutions among homeowners.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

How students are founding, funding and joining startups

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There has never been a better time to start, join or fund a startup as a student. 

Young founders who want to start companies while still in school have an increasing number of resources to tap into that exist just for them. Students that want to learn how to build companies can apply to an increasing number of fast-track programs that allow them to gain valuable early stage operating experience. The energy around student entrepreneurship today is incredible. I’ve been immersed in this community as an investor and adviser for some time now, and to say the least, I’m continually blown away by what the next generation of innovators are dreaming up (from Analytical Space’s global data relay service for satellites to Brooklinen’s reinvention of the luxury bed).

Bill Gates in 1973

First, let’s look at student founders and why they’re important. Student entrepreneurs have long been an important foundation of the startup ecosystem. Many students wrestle with how best to learn while in school —some students learn best through lectures, while more entrepreneurial students like author Julian Docks find it best to leave the classroom altogether and build a business instead.

Indeed, some of our most iconic founders are Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, both student entrepreneurs who launched their startups at Harvard and then dropped out to build their companies into major tech giants. A sample of the current generation of marquee companies founded on college campuses include Snap at Stanford ($29B valuation at IPO), Warby Parker at Wharton (~$2B valuation), Rent The Runway at HBS (~$1B valuation), and Brex at Stanford (~$1B valuation).

Some of today’s most celebrated tech leaders built their first ventures while in school — even if some student startups fail, the critical first-time founder experience is an invaluable education in how to build great companies. Perhaps the best example of this that I could find is Drew Houston at Dropbox (~$9B valuation at IPO), who previously founded an edtech startup at MIT that, in his words, provided a: “great introduction to the wild world of starting companies.”

Student founders are everywhere, but the highest concentration of venture-backed student founders can be found at just 5 universities. Based on venture fund portfolio data from the last six years, Harvard, Stanford, MIT, UPenn, and UC Berkeley have produced the highest number of student-founded companies that went on to raise $1 million or more in seed capital. Some prospective students will even enroll in a university specifically for its reputation of churning out great entrepreneurs. This is not to say that great companies are not being built out of other universities, nor does it mean students can’t find resources outside a select number of schools. As you can see later in this essay, there are a number of new ways students all around the country can tap into the startup ecosystem. For further reading, PitchBook produces an excellent report each year that tracks where all entrepreneurs earned their undergraduate degrees.

Student founders have a number of new media resources to turn to. New email newsletters focused on student entrepreneurship like Justine and Olivia Moore’s Accelerated and Kyle Robertson’s StartU offer new channels for young founders to reach large audiences. Justine and Olivia, the minds behind Accelerated, have a lot of street cred— they launched Stanford’s on-campus incubator Cardinal Ventures before landing as investors at CRV.

StartU goes above and beyond to be a resource to founders they profile by helping to connect them with investors (they’re active at 12 universities), and run a podcast hosted by their Editor-in-Chief Johnny Hammond that is top notch. My bet is that traditional media will point a larger spotlight at student entrepreneurship going forward.

New pools of capital are also available that are specifically for student founders. There are four categories that I call special attention to:

  • University-affiliated accelerator programs
  • University-affiliated angel networks
  • Professional venture funds investing at specific universities
  • Professional venture funds investing through student scouts

While it is difficult to estimate exactly how much capital has been deployed by each, there is no denying that there has been an explosion in the number of programs that address the pre-seed phase. A sample of the programs available at the Top 5 universities listed above are in the graphic below — listing every resource at every university would be difficult as there are so many.

One alumni-centric fund to highlight is the Alumni Ventures Group, which pools LP capital from alumni at specific universities, then launches individual venture funds that invest in founders connected to those universities (e.g. students, alumni, professors, etc.). Through this model, they’ve deployed more than $200M per year! Another highlight has been student scout programs — which vary in the degree of autonomy and capital invested — but essentially empower students to identify and fund high-potential student-founded companies for their parent venture funds. On campuses with a large concentration of student founders, it is not uncommon to find student scouts from as many as 12 different venture funds actively sourcing deals (as is made clear from David Tao’s analysis at UC Berkeley).

Investment Team at Rough Draft Ventures

In my opinion, the two institutions that have the most expansive line of sight into the student entrepreneurship landscape are First Round’s Dorm Room Fund and General Catalyst’s Rough Draft VenturesSince 2012, these two funds have operated a nationwide network of student scouts that have invested $20K — $25K checks into companies founded by student entrepreneurs at 40+ universities. “Scout” is a loose term and doesn’t do it justice — the student investors at these two funds are almost entirely autonomous, have built their own platform services to support portfolio companies, and have launched programs to incubate companies built by female founders and founders of color. Another student-run fund worth noting that has reach beyond a single region is Contrary Capital, which raised $2.2M last year. They do a particularly great job of reaching founders at a diverse set of schools — their network of student scouts are active at 45 universities and have spoken with 3,000 founders per year since getting started. Contrary is also testing out what they describe as a “YC for university-based founders”. In their first cohort, 100% of their companies raised a pre-seed round after Contrary’s demo day. Another even more recently launched organization is The MBA Fund, which caters to founders from the business schools at Harvard, Wharton, and Stanford. While super exciting, these two funds only launched very recently and manage portfolios that are not large enough for analysis just yet.

Over the last few months, I’ve collected and cross-referenced publicly available data from both Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures to assess the state of student entrepreneurship in the United States. Companies were pulled from each fund’s portfolio page, then checked against Crunchbase for amount raised, accelerator participation, and other metrics. If you’d like to sift through the data yourself, feel free to ping me — my email can be found at the end of this article. To be clear, this does not represent the full scope of investment activity at either fund — many companies in the portfolios of both funds remain confidential and unlisted for good reasons (e.g. startups working in stealth). In fact, the In addition, data for early stage companies is notoriously variable in quality, even with Crunchbase. You should read these insights as directional only, given the debatable confidence interval. Still, the data is still interesting and give good indicators for the health of student entrepreneurship today.

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures have invested in 230+ student-founded companies that have gone on to raise nearly $1 billion in follow on capital. These funds have invested in a diverse range of companies, from govtech (e.g. mark43, raised $77M+ and FiscalNote, raised $50M+) to space tech (e.g. Capella Space, raised ~$34M). Several portfolio companies have had successful exits, such as crypto startup Distributed Systems (acquired by Coinbase) and social networking startup tbh (acquired by Facebook). While it is too early to evaluate the success of these funds on a returns basis (both were launched just 6 years ago), we can get a sense of success by evaluating the rates by which portfolio companies raise additional capital. Taken together, 34% of DRF and RDV companies in our data set have raised $1 million or more in seed capital. For a rough comparison, CB Insights cites that 40% of YC companies and 48% of Techstars companies successfully raise follow on capital (defined as anything above $750K). Certainly within the ballpark!

Source: Crunchbase

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures companies in our data set have an 11–12% rate of survivorship to Series A. As a benchmark, a previous partner at Y Combinator shared that 20% of their accelerator companies raise Series A capital (YC declined to share the official figure, but it’s likely a stat that is increasing given their new Series A support programs. For further reading, check out YC’s reflection on what they’ve learned about helping their companies raise Series A funding). In any case, DRF and RDV’s numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, as the average age of their portfolio companies is very low and raising Series A rounds generally takes time. Ultimately, it is clear that DRF and RDV are active in the earlier (and riskier) phases of the startup journey.

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures send 18–25% of their portfolio companies to Y Combinator or Techstars. Given YC’s 1.5% acceptance rate as reported in Fortune, this is quite significant! Internally, these two funds offer founders an opportunity to participate in mock interviews with YC and Techstars alumni, as well as tap into their communities for peer support (e.g. advice on pitch decks and application content). As a result, Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures regularly send cohorts of founders to these prestigious accelerator programs. Based on our data set, 17–20% of DRF and RDV companies that attend one of these accelerators end up raising Series A venture financing.

Source: Crunchbase

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures don’t invest in the same companies. When we take a deeper look at one specific ecosystem where these two funds have been equally active over the last several years — Boston — we actually see that the degree of investment overlap for companies that have raised $1M+ seed rounds sits at 26%. This suggests that these funds are either a) seeing different dealflow or b) have widely different investment decision-making.

Source: Crunchbase

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures should not just be measured by a returns-basis today, as it’s too early. I hypothesize that DRF and RDV are actually encouraging more entrepreneurial activity in the ecosystem (more students decide to start companies while in school) as well as improving long-term founder outcomes amongst students they touch (portfolio founders build bigger and more successful companies later in their careers). As more students start companies, there’s likely a positive feedback loop where there’s increasing peer pressure to start a company or lean on friends for founder support (e.g. feedback, advice, etc).Both of these subjects warrant additional study, but it’s likely too early to conduct these analyses today.

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures have impressive alumni that you will want to track. 1 in 4 alumni partners are founders, and 29% of these founder alumni have raised $1M+ seed rounds for their companies. These include Anjney Midha’s augmented reality startup Ubiquity6 (raised $37M+), Shubham Goel’s investor-focused CRM startup Affinity (raised $13M+), Bruno Faviero’s AI security software startup Synapse (raised $6M+), Amanda Bradford’s dating app The League (raised $2M+), and Dillon Chen’s blockchain startup Commonwealth Labs (raised $1.7M). It makes sense to me that alumni from these communities that decide to start companies have an advantage over their peers — they know what good companies look like and they can tap into powerful networks of young talent / experienced investors.

Beyond Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures, some venture capital firms focus on incubation for student-founded startups. Credit should first be given to Lightspeed for producing the amazing Summer Fellows bootcamp experience for promising student founders — after all, Pinterest was built there! Jeremy Liew gives a good overview of the program through his sit-down interview with Afterbox’s Zack Banack. Based on a study they conducted last year, 40% of Lightspeed Summer Fellows alumni are currently active founders. Pear Ventures also has an impressive summer incubator program where 85% of its companies successfully complete a fundraise. Index Ventures is the latest to build an incubator program for student founders, and even accepts founders who want to work on an idea part-time while completing a summer internship.

Let’s now look at students who want to join a startup before founding one. Venture funds have historically looked to tap students for talent, and are expanding the engagement lifecycle. The longest running programs include Kleiner Perkins’ class=”m_1196721721246259147gmail-markup–strong m_1196721721246259147gmail-markup–p-strong”> KP Fellows and True Ventures’ TEC Fellows, which focus on placing the next generation’s most promising product managers, engineers, and designers into the portfolio companies of their parent venture funds.

There’s also the secretive Greylock X, a referral-based hand-picked group of the best student engineers in Silicon Valley (among their impressive alumni are founders like Yasyf Mohamedali and Joe Kahn, the folks behind First Round-backed Karuna Health). As these programs have matured, these firms have recognized the long-run value of engaging the alumni of their programs.

More and more alumni are “coming back” to the parent funds as entrepreneurs, like KP Fellow Dylan Field of Figma (and is also hosting a KP Fellow, closing a full circle loop!). Based on their latest data, 10% of KP Fellows alumni are founders — that’s a lot given the fact that their community has grown to 500! This helps explain why Kleiner Perkins has created a structured path to receive $100K in seed funding to companies founded by KP Fellow alumni. It looks like venture funds are beginning to invest in student programs as part of their larger platform strategy, which can have a real impact over the long term (for further reading, see this analysis of platform strategy outcomes by USV’s Bethany Crystal).

KP Fellows in San Francisco

Venture funds are doubling down on student talent engagement — in just the last 18 months, 4 funds have launched student programs. It’s encouraging to see new funds follow in the footsteps of First Round, General Catalyst, Kleiner Perkins, Greylock, and Lightspeed. In 2017, Accel launched their Accel Scholars program to engage top talent at UC Berkeley and Stanford. In 2018, we saw 8VC Fellows, NEA Next, and Floodgate Insiders all launch, targeting elite universities outside of Silicon Valley. Y Combinator implemented Early Decision, which allows student founders to apply one batch early to help with academic scheduling. Most recently, at the start of 2019, First Round launched the Graduate Fund (staffed by Dorm Room Fund alumni) to invest in founders who are recent graduates or young alumni.

Given more time, I’d love to study the rates by which student founders start another company following investments from student scout funds, as well as whether or not they’re more successful in those ventures. In any case, this is an escalation in the number of venture funds that have started to get serious about engaging students — both for talent and dealflow.

Student entrepreneurship 2.0 is here. There are more structured paths to success for students interested in starting or joining a startup. Founders have more opportunities to garner press, seek advice, raise capital, and more. Venture funds are increasingly leveraging students to help improve the three F’s — finding, funding, and fixing. In my personal view, I believe it is becoming more and more important for venture funds to gain mindshare amongst the next generation of founders and operators early, while still in school.

I can’t wait to see what’s next for student entrepreneurship in 2019. If you’re interested in digging in deeper (I’m human — I’m sure I haven’t covered everything related to student entrepreneurship here) or learning more about how you can start or join a startup while still in school, shoot me a note at sxu@dormroomfund.comA massive thanks to Phin Barnes, Rei Wang, Chauncey Hamilton, Peter Boyce, Natalie Bartlett, Denali Tietjen, Eric Tarczynski, Will Robbins, Jasmine Kriston, Alicia Lau, Johnny Hammond, Bruno Faviero, Athena Kan, Shohini Gupta, Alex Immerman, Albert Dong, Phillip Hua-Bon-Hoa, and Trevor Sookraj for your incredible encouragement, support, and insight during the writing of this essay.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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