We’ve Moved!

I don’t update this blog these days, but I’m still writing. Eventually I’ll get around to migrating this site off Tumblr and getting the tags set up in a way that makes sense. But for now:

For logistics & supply chain-related content, check out Haven’s monthly Perspectives series. 

For things related to tech, startups, and my other interests, follow me on Medium. This year I’ll be writing a lot about recommendation engines and the intersection of tech & policy. 

I’ll also be keeping an updated list of my work in other publications, podcasts, etc on my site

Happy 2017! 

A win for evidence-based policy, and California kids

Governor Brown signed SB277 – the vaccine bill – into law on Tuesday morning! This is incredibly significant – California is now the 3rd state in the country to eliminate both the personal and religious exemptions that previously allowed parents to simply opt their children out of required vaccines. (in the map below, VT should actually be light green; they killed their philosophical exemption in May!)

image

I have a lot that I want to write over the next few weeks about what we did and how, from the standpoint of a technologist interested in how online platforms have reshaped the strategies needed to run a successful issue campaign. My experience working on this bill and writing about these strategies unfortunately led to doxxing and harassment, which also got me thinking about the unintended consequences of zero-cost publishing, and the tension between free speech and community standards.

But

Continue reading “A win for evidence-based policy, and California kids”

Personal Exemptions from Reason

So, back in November I blogged about California’s abysmal PBE rates and how this lax state-level vaccination policy is terrible for California kids. Well, since that time we’ve had measles and pertussis outbreaks here, and legislators have really stepped up.

Dr. Richard Pan introduced SB-277, which aims to eliminate the “Personal Belief” exemption. I got involved as a volunteer with Vaccinate California, a group of parents working to support the legislation through grassroots efforts. I’ve spoken in favor of it at city council meetings in Berkeley and the Democratic Party committee meeting in SF. My first taste of local politics. 😉 The response from antivax crackpots online was swift and nasty, but that’s a story for another time.

This week I wrote an article for Slate on the fight to get the legislation passed, and on the demographics of California’s antivax movement. It has interactives! It looks at both

Continue reading “Personal Exemptions from Reason”

GIGO

I’ve watched the rise of “Bloomberg for Startups” companies with great interest. And I want to start by saying they’re dealing with some really difficult data problems. Crunchbase and AngelList, the two best sources for raw data on early-stage companies, do their best to be accurate. But Crunchbase is partially crowd-sourced, so there’s a lot of subjectivity in the classifications, and AngelList is limited to the companies that are on AngelList…while that’s an ever-increasing percentage, there are still gaps.

The lack of a widely-accepted taxonomy compounds the problem. For example, I like to research hardware. Since cleantech, solar, and medical device companies often have a hardware component, I could choose to include them. Usually I don’t, because in the VC ecosystem, those three sectors tend to sit apart…different groups of investors, different conferences. But really, this is a personal call and I’m never entirely sure that it’s the right one. Particularly with the health-monitoring wearables vs medical devices, the line is sometimes very fine. So I try to be really clear about what I’m including.

It’s often hard to do an analysis even within a single sector. For a project on robotics, a friend and I pulled down a few data sets from several different providers. Happened to notice that Boston Dynamics was missing…went on Crunchbase, and there it was, tagged only as a Software company. We edited it for the next person (or scraper), but the point is, even keeping a very limited scope doesn’t preclude dirty-data problems. There are plenty of companies that weren’t top-of-mind that we wouldn’t have caught.

This brings us to the 2014 “VC Trend Reports” that have been popping up lately. One post claimed that the “number of seed rounds raised in 2014 down by 30%” and attributed the drop to macro indicators. The other proclaimed that “2014 saw the highest number of seed VC deals since 2009 with 976 financings.” The third said that “seed rounds have declined by count over the past seven quarters…though an increase in convertible note usage might help explain the recent decrease.” These reports rely on many of the same data sources. And those data sources themselves are largely dependent on seed companies choosing to announce their rounds, or raising priced equity rounds.

The reports are primarily content marketing for the companies, which charge hundreds to thousands of dollars per month for a license. That by itself is fine – customers can pay or not pay depending on the value they derive. People who take the time to clean or validate the data are entitled to charge for their value-adds.

That said, because the pieces are content marketing, the data sets upon which they’re based are Continue reading “GIGO”

New year, new gig!

This was a very busy, exciting, and challenging year.

It was year that brought a new facet to my identity: mom, and working mom at that. I want to tell that story as part of a longer post with data viz, though, so for now I’ll simply state that it is both wonderful and very hard. And that my baby still hasn’t slept through the night.

I was fortunate to have spent 2014 as part of two great teams. First, my team of two: Justin is my better half in too many ways to list. This year he became a dad, and we muddled through twelve months of learning how to Xander whilst sustaining a two-career household.

Second, the OATV and O’Reilly Radar folks: truly, some of the most brilliant, perceptive, and thoughtful people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. For three and a half years they’ve inspired me, introducing me to new ideas and challenging me to think about a wide variety of concepts both at scale and in fine detail.

It was a great year.

For 2015, I’m going to change things up a bit.

First, I decided to leave full-time VC for the time being. It’s been a great run, I’m very proud of the teams that I’ve been fortunate enough to back and work with. I’m planning to stay in touch and add value where I can. But as I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do next, while the pull of venture was strong, the pull of drilling into one particular problem ultimately won out.

For a few years now, I’ve been an avid reader of stories about shipping. I’m a logistics geek…no doubt drawn to the space because of some deep-rooted ENTJish obsession with efficiency. In February, while on maternity leave, a friend on Facebook posted an article about container shipping that I’d read and loved. I pinged him, found out it was something of an obsession of his as well. We chatted frequently, bought textbooks, shared insights and discoveries. Tossed around a few ideas for what a startup in the space might offer. I worked on connecting with people in the industry for market research, setting up calls with ocean freight executives in Denmark and China at night when the baby was sleeping. Eventually my friend decided that a container shipping caper wasn’t for him, but connected me with two other logistics geeks with a similar vision and the drive and brilliance to make it happen.

A round began to take shape with some truly top-notch angels and VCs – including OATV! And I decided that I was really excited about this…too much to only participate in a Continue reading “New year, new gig!”

How California’s Terrible Vaccination Policy Puts Kids At Risk

Recently we’ve been looking at preschools, and I’ve been increasingly disturbed by the lax attitude and bizarre public policy around immunization here in California.

Despite the fact that vaccinations are indisputably important to public health, and that fears that they cause autism have repeatedly been shown to be unfounded, California persists in offering the Personal Beliefs Exemption (PBE). To be clear, this is not an exemption given for medical reasons (that’s the PME).

The PBE is an enabler that allows herd-immunity freeloaders to enroll their children in school despite the risk posed to public health. This includes public schools.

School and county-level data is available to the public, so I pulled down the last ten years of CA Department of Public health immunization data.

Let’s dive right in with California’s county-level vaccination trends over the past 10 years. This chart shows the increasing prevalence of using the Personal Belief Exemption to avoid vaccination.

This chart shows the rates of kindergartners entering school with exemptions rather than shots

Here it is in map form.

All states, with the exeption of Mississippi and West Virginia, offer religious exemptions. 18 states additionally offer “beliefs” exemptions, with varying degrees of ease to obtain one. States with the “easy” freeloader pass have non-medical exemption rates more than twice as high as those in states with more arduous requirements – arduous, as in having to consult with a doctor before the PBE is granted.

California has been an “easy” PBE state for decades – the antivaxxer simply signed an affidavit stating that vaccines are counter to his or her “beliefs.” The fact that this process elevates beliefs above a) the facts, and b) the well-being of the community, is what makes the PBE so absurd.

Statewide, we’re seeing vaccination rates hovering at 92.3% for MMR and 92.2% for Pertussis. That isn’t something to be proud of. Bizarrely, the CA Department of Public Health publishes an annual fact sheet proudly proclaiming CA’s >= 92% status without mentioning that immunization rates have been declining for the past 10 years, while PBE instances have risen.

California is one of 21 states with personal exemption rates exceeding 2%. The nonmedical exemption rate was 3.1% among kindergartners for the 2013-2014 school year – 17,253 little kids whose parents chose to enroll them in school with exemptions. The number of who weren’t up-to-date overall was 51,791. There are around 533,000 kids in CA kindergartens.

Across all US states, California is below average on coverage for most vaccines – including DTaP, Polio, and MMR, according to the CDC’s Estimated Vaccination Coverage report.

Recognizing that statewide vaccination rates are approaching dangerously low levels – the herd immunity threshold

Continue reading “How California’s Terrible Vaccination Policy Puts Kids At Risk”

Hardware by the Numbers: A Narrative

Last year in July, I did some preliminary research on the hardware startup ecosystem. The goal was to examine the growth of the sector by looking at funding events, on both the venture and crowdfunding front.

This year, for my keynote at O’Reilly’s Solid conference, I wanted to put together a much more in-depth narrative looking at the trends that are shaping hardware, and leading to that growth. I’m interested in the growth of a community that encourages founders; the new support ecosystem that facilitates building hardware businesses; the manufacturing trends that govern where and how things are made; and the types of businesses that flourish as a result.

This presentation and talk summarize that research.

Here’s an updated table of Kickstarter data* :

Year 2011 2012 2013
Hardware Projects 120 239 784
Product Design Projects 649 1373 2453
Total Projects 26,124 41,440 46,100
HW as percentage of total 0.46% 0.58% 1.70%
PD as percentage of total 2.48% 3.31% 5.32%
Hardware project dollars raised $2,543,850 $9,768,304 $46,645,309
All project dollars raised $104,625,478 $323,555,323 $469,452,086
Hardware $$ as percentage overall 2.43% 3.02% 9.94%
Hardware project number of backers 19,019 91,996 370,189
All backers 1,409,190 4,365,213 6,369,255
HW backers as percentage of overall 1.35% 2.11% 5.81%

And an updated bubble chart showing funding events (Series A and earlier; this latest version includes medical devices):

Botsourcing stats…

My slides (though, really, view them on Presentate – speaker notes and all citations are right there next to the relevant slide, it’s a much better experience):

I’m inspired by numbers. I look forward to Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends every year (and it’s coming out this week!). One of the most challenging aspects of transitioning from Wall Street to seed-stage VC was the relative absence of quantitative data for decision-making. The fact is, while I’ve made a vested effort to source and cite each and every piece of information in this presentation, the underlying data is often dirty or scattered.

If you compare this data set with my post from last year, you’ll undoubtedly find things that are included in one but not the other – this is due to changes in the classification taxonomies of the source databases. Crunchbase 2.0 has made a lot of progress and is a valuable resource, but even it is dependent on users making edits as they discover errors or incomplete information (ie, Boston Dynamics being classified solely as a software company). If you discover any glaring errors, please point them out to me (ideally, kindly!).

If you’d like to chat about other interesting facets of analysis to add going forward, get in touch!

A million Continue reading “Hardware by the Numbers: A Narrative”

Hardware by the Numbers: A Narrative

Last year in July, I did some preliminary research on the hardware startup ecosystem. The goal was to examine the growth of the sector by looking at funding events, on both the venture and crowdfunding front.

This year, for my keynote at O’Reilly’s Solid conference, I wanted to put together a much more in-depth narrative looking at the trends that are shaping hardware, and leading to that growth. I’m interested in the growth of a community that encourages founders; the new support ecosystem that facilitates building hardware businesses; the manufacturing trends that govern where and how things are made; and the types of businesses that flourish as a result.

This presentation and talk summarize that research.

Here’s an updated table of Kickstarter data* :

Year 2011 2012 2013
Hardware Projects 120 239 784
Product Design Projects 649 1373 2453
Total Projects 26,124 41,440 46,100
HW as percentage of total 0.

Continue reading “Hardware by the Numbers: A Narrative”

Long-overdue update: book & baby!

So, I fell off blogging here for a while (though I still wrote occasionally at O’Reilly Radar). This is why.

I’ve been working on a book with my friend Nick Pinkston. It’s called The Hardware Startup: Building Your Product, Business, and Brand. The first four chapters were just released at O’Reilly Solid. The pre-release stamp is pretty funny – Raw and Unedited! Makes it sound like a sordid tell-all. 🙂

It’s been the most time-consuming project I’ve ever undertaken. Both of us want the book to be genuinely useful to hardware founders. Software startups have some great roadmaps, such as “Do More Faster” and “Lean Startup”…there isn’t much long-form material out there for founders working through manufacturing challenges on the product while simultaneously building a business. We’ve been packing it full of case studies with entrepreneurs who have worked through some of the really complex processes unique to starting a hardware business.

Putting out an unfinished pre-release teaser was challenging for me, since I like things to be polished before they see the light of day. It’s kind of a minimum viable product for the book, though, and the goal is to get feedback (which includes negative feedback). If you’re a hardware founder and you have thoughts about what you’d like to see, feel free to comment.

Anyway, tying this back to my last post…I had this crazy idea that I’d be able to get the book done while pregnant. That didn’t happen, but it was primarily because I decided to pack in a bunch of work-related travel right up until 36 weeks. After China, I did a bunch of stuff within the US and then went to a conference in Turkey. My flight back to SF was on the last day I was legally allowed to be on an airplane. 🙂 (The Air Berlin folks weren’t pleased.)

Then I had our baby – I’ve blogged about that a bit on my personal/DIY project blog, and will eventually post something here about the maternity leave experience. In brief, though, Xander was born on December 18th. He’s now 5 months old. He’s a real handful but getting more fun by the day. Obligatory proud mama photos below.


In the hospital


2.5 mo family photo shoot


Yesterday at just past 5 mos.

I also thought I would get the book done while on maternity leave, and that was even more laughably unrealistic. For me, writing requires sustained focus and a big chunk of time. I was able to keep up with email and meetings and discrete tasks, but with a baby who woke hourly and never napped, writing was pretty difficult. I was relieved when we started daycare; Continue reading “Long-overdue update: book & baby!”

Pregnancy and competence

I just got back from ten days in China – factory tours in Shenzhen! photos and video forthcoming! – and am getting caught up on news.

Anti-Foreigner VC Also Supports Hiring Discrimination

One advantage startups have over established companies is that there are no discrimination laws about starting businesses. For example, I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon. But you’re not allowed to ask prospective employees if they plan to have kids soon. Believe it or not, under current US law, you’re not even allowed to discriminate on the basis of intelligence. Whereas when you’re starting a company, you can discriminate on any basis you want about who you start it with.

It is amazing to me that this is news.

It’s amazing because almost every woman I know in the tech industry has known about that Paul Graham quote for years. It’s occasionally still brought up at diversity dinners – when people ask why there aren’t more female founders, or more women VCs. It’s not causal, obviously, but it is indicative of an undertone of condoned discrimination. Occasionally a male colleague hears about it for the first time and doesn’t believe it until he’s read it for himself.

I’m six months pregnant at the moment. Maybe that means I’m less capable than I was six months ago. Maybe it means that in another three months my productivity will suffer some sort of precipitous decline, from which it won’t recover for an indeterminate period of time. No one seems to wonder whether my husband’s work ethic will suffer the same fate.

I don’t talk about gender issues very much on this blog because I prefer to focus on things I do, rather than things that happen to be. But during in my time in male-dominated fields, I’ve gotten the sense that people think differently about professional women during and after their transition to motherhood. That perception has long made me rather ambivalent about having a baby in the first place – what would I be doing to my career, exactly?

It’s not really PC to talk about that kind of ambivalence; being concerned about that sort of thing makes a woman sound like a callous careerist with misplaced priorities. But as we’ve entered our late 20s and early 30s, most of my ambitious female friends agonize about “when to do it” and wonder about the economics of freezing eggs. When I was in finance, we joked about it in terms of amortization. Conventional wisdom says that there’s never a good time for anyone – but when one of the gurus of your industry is publicly Continue reading “Pregnancy and competence”

Hardware, by the numbers

Conventional wisdom around Silicon Valley is that hardware is hot. Influential incubator founders and VCs have been blogging about their interest in the space, and popular tech blogs are constantly writing about prototyping technologies and hardware startup fundraises. However, there’s been very little in the way of actual numbers or data documenting the growth of the ecosystem.

So, let’s have a look at hardware by the numbers: the number of companies started, the flow of venture and crowdfunding dollars, the overall growth of the hardware community, and the degree of broader public interest.

It’s tough to track exactly how many hardware startups are out there, or whether that number has increased over time. One interesting data point to start with is the number that have gone out and attempted to fundraise. AngelList keeps track of this, and was generous enough to share their data. In 2011, 94 hardware companies went

Continue reading “Hardware, by the numbers”

Hardware, by the numbers

Conventional wisdom around Silicon Valley is that hardware is hot. Influential incubator founders and VCs have been blogging about their interest in the space, and popular tech blogs are constantly writing about prototyping technologies and hardware startup fundraises. However, there’s been very little in the way of actual numbers or data documenting the growth of the ecosystem.

So, let’s have a look at hardware by the numbers: the number of companies started, the flow of venture and crowdfunding dollars, the overall growth of the hardware community, and the degree of broader public interest.

It’s tough to track exactly how many hardware startups are out there, or whether that number has increased over time. One interesting data point to start with is the number that have gone out and attempted to fundraise. AngelList keeps track of this, and was generous enough to share their data. In 2011, 94 hardware companies went out and opened rounds on AngelList…25 of them successfully closed a round (though not necessarily via AngelList’s platform). In 2012, that number jumped to 267 opened, 96 closed. So far, as of mid-July 2013, 259 have already opened rounds, and there have been 46 closes. While fundraises aren’t an exact proxy for number of startups, those figures make it seem like there is an increasing number of hardware companies. (The slight dip in percentage closed is also an interesting thing to note.)

Let’s have a look at the actual dollar amounts that angels and VCs are investing in hardware startups. Crunchbase and AngelList both track this information. Since we’re looking for indications of a hot market, I pulled data for angel, Series A, and seed rounds.* The information below comes from Crunchbase and is represented in an interactive chart form so you can dig in and see the underlying funding events. The chart is derived from Crunchbase’s funding data from all 12 months of 2011 and 2012; the data from 2013 stops at 30 June 2013.

There were 52 early-funding events in 2012, totaling $209.5MM; in the first six months of 2013, there have already been 47, totaling $222.9MM.

Since crowdfunding has had a profound impact on the growth of the hardware startup ecosystem, let’s have a look at Kickstarter data as well. Kickspy is a great resource for tracking Kickstarter project stats.

Year 2011 2012 2013
Hardware Projects 121 248 365
Total Projects 26,319 42,113 23,274
HW as percentage of total 0.46% 0.59% 1.57%
Hardware project dollars raised $2,551,986 $9,750,168 $22,683,014
Hardware project number of backers 19,181 93,870 195,449
All backers 1,438,657 4,496,155 3,354,019
HW backers as percentage of overall 1.33% 2.09% 5.83%

Based on the data, in the

Continue reading “Hardware, by the numbers”

Taking VC funding, and tracking metrics

Two more Dear Abby posts are up! It’s been really interesting to see what people are asking. Last week, an entrepreneur asked me whether taking VC funding is necessary at all. This is an increasingly hot topic, particularly as equity crowdfunding rule changes have the potential to impact the early-funding landscape. Here’s an excerpt:

Does every startup need venture funding? Sometimes I wonder if founders think they need funding because it is said so often that they simply start believing it. Do you think if a startup has a true solution and an effective story, venture is needed?
– Female founder, health startup

There are definitely situations in which venture funding is not needed. The primary things to consider are how competitive your market is, and how quickly you are likely to reach a point where your business is bringing in cash. If the market is competitive and a first-mover has a clear advantage, outside funding may be a good idea.

If your true solution and effective story yields results – meaning you begin to gain widespread adoption during the early bootstrapped phase – the dilution you’d take from venture funding may not be worth it. Venture capital is for scaling more quickly than otherwise possible and not every company needs (or wants) to do that. GitHub is one example of a company that became successful without venture funding; they provided a service that their customers loved, and they grew organically. While they did eventually take VC funding, their first round – $100 million – happened when the company was four years old and needed some cash reserves and capital to continue to scale.

This week’s question was about metrics. Specifically, which metrics are most important to monitor following seed capital, while looking ahead to a future Series A raise. It’s a question that reflects the entrepreneur’s desire to avoid the “Series A crunch.”

Once a promising seed-stage company is funded, what are the business milestones that stage-A VCs like to see before investing?
-Female technologist, San Francisco

Meaningful ones! That answer isn’t a cop-out; it really varies according to the type of business the company is in. Generally speaking, the metrics that matter are the ones that track meaningful customer engagement with your product. B2B metrics are very different from B2C, and investors evaluating a company will compare your metrics to comparable companies in the same sector.

Seed stage capital is for finding product-market fit. You want to show trends over time which demonstrate that fit: user numbers continuing to increase, revenue (if you have it) picking up, a growing number of enterprise clients moving through your pipeline. The specifics may vary, but ultimately you’re looking to demonstrate Continue reading “Taking VC funding, and tracking metrics”

Dear Abby for Tech: due diligence

I’ve recently started writing a series of posts for Women 2.0. Instead of picking a topic each week, we’ve been soliciting questions from the community to get at the areas that people feel most uncertain about. We kicked off the new column with a question about diligence:

How do you (and the early-stage VC community in general) like to conduct due diligence on the companies you are interested in funding?

The purpose of diligence is to answer Who, What, When, Where, and Why questions about a prospective deal. At a seed-stage fund, this typically involves four things: market research, competitive research, customer feedback, and founder reference checks. Taken together, these present an investor with as comprehensive a view of a deal as possible. A fifth element, much more common in later stage investing, is an examination of financials.

MARKET RESEARCH

Market research involves looking into trends in a given sector. This type of research is often done well in advance of a specific opportunity coming in, for the purpose of understanding a hot market or with an eye toward crafting an investment strategy. This is because it’s time-consuming, and may be rushed if done reactively around a particular deal. However, sometimes it does happen in conjunction with diligencing a particular deal. Some common questions that investors try to answer include:

  • What are the drivers in that segment of the economy?
  • Is the addressable market of customers growing or shrinking?
  • Is there an underlying regulatory framework that dictates rates, prices, or behavior?
  • Are there changes happening that make this market particularly prone to disruption in the near future?

COMPETITIVE RESEARCH

Competitive landscape research involves examining a sector to determine who the component players are. The first step is to identify the large incumbents – the 800-lb gorillas who serve the majority of customer needs in the space. Then, there is a survey of smaller players and other startups. Who has entered the space recently? Are those startups funded or showing evidence of traction? Is this a “land grab” situation, where dozens of startups are trying to differentiate with highly-specific niche features, or are there few entrants (few entrants isn’t necessarily more ideal; that may mean there’s no real demand)? The competitive companies are then compared to the startup under consideration, typically on pricing, the offering, and/or the technology.

Read the rest here. And if you’d like to send in a question, contact askavc@women2.com

Revisiting bitcon price vs. search volume

On March 19th, The Economist posted an interesting chart and analysis entitled “Bitcoin’s record price looks like a bubble.”

image

I reworked that chart in light of the market correction (or crash, if you prefer) over the past couple of days

image

Note that the old peak search, around June of 2011, has been completely eclipsed by the volume of searches for “bitcoin” now.

Interestingly, “bubble” is not among the top 20 searches for “bitcoin” in the Trends report for the overall period (chart below). It was also not in the top 20 during the thirty days surrounding the previous peak in June of 2011. However, it is showing up as a “breakout search” in data from the past 30 days.

image

The curious economics of the “sharing economy”

Venkatesh Rao published a thought-provoking piece on Ribbonfarm today, comparing the deal-seeking masses who use Groupon and Airbnb with a swarm of locusts. It’s a bit of an intense analogy, but the basic premise is that certain aggregator business models are terrible for the underlying businesses, and that platform middlemen are capitalizing on the predatory instincts of deal-seekers:

They draw in nomadic deal hunters from a vast surrounding region who are unlikely to ever return; … most deal-hunters carefully ensure that they spend just the deal amount or slightly more; … a badly designed offer can bankrupt a small business.

Locust economies are built around 3-way markets: a swarming platform “organizer” player who efficiently disseminates information about transient, local resource surpluses, a locust species in dormant grasshopper mode, and a base for predation that exhibits a scarcity-abundance cycle.

(You should probably just go read it.)

Rao’s piece paints collaborative consumption and daily deals with the same broad brush, but he’s getting at something interesting: despite the idealism underlying the sharing economy, the attempt to turn sharing into big business hasn’t meaningfully transformed self-serving consumer behavior. Most people aren’t there for the sharing; they’re there for the savings.

Building a marketplace requires incentivizing both buyers and sellers. In the idealized sharing economy, the buyer is looking for a unique and authentic experience (community), and values access over ownership (sustainability). In reality, he is most often looking for a deal. The economic incentive is more honestly articulated on the other side of the market: the seller is looking to capitalize on a resource that is otherwise sitting around unused.

The reality of the “sharing economy” is that most of the p2p startups born of the movement aren’t going to survive. They’ve taken venture funding, but they aren’t venture-fundable businesses. The economics just don’t work.

Airbnb has become a household name. It’s the X in “We’re X-for-Y” in pitch decks across Silicon Valley. It’s a success story. And this is because it’s one of the very few exceptions to the locust phenomena described by Rao1. Even assuming bargain-hunting buyers and a cut taken by middlemen, Airbnb generates material value for the seller. The average rental on Airbnb varies quite a bit by city, but in NYC and SF a seller can earn ~$150/night renting her place. Even with Airbnb’s 6-12% cut, renting an underutilized apartment for a weekend nets ~$275. It’s also a low-friction experience for the seller: the apartment is in a fixed location (the buyer comes to you), lockboxes and entry systems are largely a solved problem, and the platform enables cleaning fees and security deposits. It’s tough to do enough damage to render a place uninhabitable (low rate of Continue reading “The curious economics of the “sharing economy””

Everest Base Camp

It took me a couple of months to get these photos up, but from Dec 22-Jan 6th, Justin and I did the Everest Base Camp Trek. It was incredible. The days were strenuous, the nights were freezing, but we saw some of the most breathtaking mountains in the world, made new friends, and experienced a fascinating culture that thrives despite the inhospitable landscape.

image

We started the trip via a flight into Kathmandu by way of Hong Kong. My luggage stayed behind in San Francisco. Pro tip: always wear a complete set of layers and hiking boots on the plane…I would have been so screwed if I hadn’t. The streets in Kathmandu are lined with shops selling knockoff North Face, so I was able to fill in the gaps by renting cheapies.

image

The first day was mostly sightseeing around the Buddhist and Hindu sites in Kathmandu. Early on the second, we woke up and boarded the first flight to Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla. The airport is one of the most dangerous in the world because of its very short, sloped runway, infamous winds, and the ring of mountains surrounding it. The landing was exhilarating – immediately upon touching down, our pilot slammed on the brakes and we screeched to a halt. The 70-mile trek begins right on the runway, so we set off on a three-hour hike to the town of Phakding.

image

We were traveling in the winter (off season), and it was very cold at night (5 degrees F). I thought that since we were staying in tea houses, we’d still be warm. Turns out, they aren’t insulated and only the common areas have (intermittent) heat and electricity. Most have single-pane windows and a squat toilet, because Western plumbing is more prone to freezing. The beds were single-size cots; you’d throw your sleeping bag on, and then borrow a quilt. On most days, we would hike from 10am-3pm while the sun was out, then spend the afternoon reading and playing cards in the main room, which was heated by a wood or yak-dung-burning stove.

image

Tea houses all have the same menu. Locals eat a dish called dal baat several times a day – it’s a bowl of lentil soup, and a plate of rice with potato, cabbage, and carrot curry on top. Everything on the menu is white carbs (noodles, potatoes, rice). Stick with the native food; the attempts at pizza and pasta are a nice gesture, but they taste pretty bad. There are almost no animal products, because livestock are more valuable as beasts of burden…you’re better off not eating meat past Namche anyway, since there’s no refrigeration. All provisions are flown in from Kathmandu and then carried on

image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image
image

Continue reading “Everest Base Camp”

Data visualization for beginners: a discussion around process

Two weeks ago, I moderated a data visualization panel at General Assembly‘s new SF campus. The panelists were code artist luminaries Rachel Binx, Mike Bostock, Tom Carden, and Scott Murray. There are plenty of tutorials and how-tos that illuminate the technical steps to produce a specific type of viz, but there’s not much out there around knowing what to do in the first place. So, we focused the conversation on the creative process. It was geared towards beginners, partly because the moderator is a novice herself. 🙂

A Conversation with Data Visualization Experts

Our writeup on the session is now up at Source magazine, and General Assembly’s sketch notes artist Jeremy Sypniewski produced a must-see set of visuals around the discussion (an example of which appears immediate above this paragraph, courtesy of General Assembly). I learned quite a bit from hearing these folks talk about their work…one of the particularly illuminating bits for me was a discussion of data viz as tool vs data viz as art, and the different thought processes on either ends of the spectrum.

The panelists emphasized repeatedly that data visualization exists on a spectrum. On one side are the pieces that are purely aesthetic and emotional, and on the other, the focus is purely on conveying the insights found in the data. Tom Carden, a data visualization engineer at Square, asks himself if the goal is to grab attention for a new idea, or to build a tool that will be used on an ongoing basis: “Tools need to be actionable, auditable, and they have to stand up to scrutiny long-term.” Tools should be able to accommodate new data, he said, and should grow with companies in such a way that people aren’t surprised by a difference between this week and last week.

Designs that are about grabbing attention can have a more artistic focus; there is more freedom to try new things. Moving visualizations require more of the audience’s attention, so if you’re using an animation, it has to be worth it. Motion can be an encoding itself; if the same object appears in multiple views, you can use motion to explain how the data shifts from one state to the next. One effective way to use this, the panelists said, is to give people agency – giving the user a slider may draw them in more, and help them better understand what’s going on. It’s also important that the animation be an integral part of the visualization and not tacked on as an afterthought. And of course, some browsers may not display certain effects properly, so it’s good design practice to make sure that most of the value of the graphic is there in Continue reading “Data visualization for beginners: a discussion around process”

Startups + science: crowdfunding as micro-patronage

Here’s part II of the Science-meets-startups series I’ve been writing over at O’Reilly Radar! The biggest problem in science today is the cost of conducting experiment, so this one looks at crowdfunding as a way to supplement experimental funds.

Throughout the 20th century, most scientific research funding has come from one of two sources: government grants or private corporations. Government funding is often a function of the political and economic climate, so researchers who rely on it risk having to deal with funding cuts and delays. Those who are studying something truly innovative or risky often find it difficult to get funded at all. Corporate research is most often undertaken with an eye toward profit, so projects that are unlikely to produce a return on investment are often ignored or discarded.

If one looks to history, however, scientific research was originally funded by individual inventors and wealthy patrons. These patrons were frequently rewarded with effusive acknowledgements of their contributions; Galileo, for example, named the moons of Jupiter after the Medicis (though the names he chose ultimately did not stick).

There has been a resurgence of that model — though perhaps more democratic — in the modern concept of crowdfunding…Science-specific platforms have appeared on the scene. Petridish is currently showcasing projects looking for funding to study everything from rare butterflies to mass-fatality events. On Microryza, you can fund investigations into cannibalism in T-Rex or viral causes of lung cancer. RocketHub also has a science-specific project roster and recently had a researcher raise funds to study the psycopharmacology of amphetamines. Widely covered as “Help this scientist build a meth lab,” the researcher’s write-up of his proposal, including his reasons for crowdfunding it, is excellent and worth a read.