Texas Venture Labs / Austin Technology Incubator

My new company, Blacklocus, is an Austin Technology Incubator (ATI) company and we presented yesterday at the Texas Venture Labs Expo in Austin.  I stopped by to hear the pitches of 5 graduating companies, including ours.  I was deeply impressed by the presenting companies, at least 3 of them are truly innovating massive industries including online commerce (us!), nuclear power and combustion engines.  These programs are examples of increasing efforts by the University of Texas to integrate with the local business community to develop entrepreneurs, facilitate investment and commercialize research generated through the University.

Now that we are fully relocated to Austin, I’m really energized to get more involved.  There are several objectives I have for “getting involved” with the local entrepreneurial technology community:

  • Build the BlackLocus brand locally through thought leadership, mentoring and recruiting outreach.  The more we promote our vision and progress, the more attractive we will become to partners, customers and employee candidates.
  • Do my part to further entrepreneurship and development of high growth companies in Austin.  This community has so much to offer for entrepreneurs, venture investment, existing companies looking to relocate and I’d like to become involved in initiatives that promote and actualize those attributes.  Capital Factory and Startup America are examples of successful and far reaching programs to promote our city and develop successful new companies.  There is a real talent shortage here, as in many high tech hubs across the country, and it really is a zero sum game that we need to solve.
  • Actively invest in promising high-growth startups.  As I’ve written about previously, I’m active but picky in my search for investments in new companies where I have something to offer in addition to capital.

Yesterday was a great introduction to a few programs dedicated for furthering local entrepreneurship and I look forward to becoming far more integrated over the coming months.

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Do You Sell Products Online?

I spent the past two days at the Innovate Conference in San Francisco put on by X.commerce, the new “open” eCommerce platform created by Magento, GSI Commerce, Paypal, Ebay, Adobe and with deep Facebook, Kenshoo (online marketing), Milo (local search) and Redlaser (barcode scanning) integration.  Magento and GSI Commerce are the two leading platforms for online merchants to set up their website and sell their goods online.  The launch of X.commerce is a game-changer for online retail in several ways:

  • It is a veritable one-stop shop for anyone who sells product online to create their consumer interface and upload inventory, integrate with Ebay, obtain user analytics from Adobe, create advertising and social outreach campaigns and track conversion, launch international (multi-language) platforms, create a Facebook store and enable single click payments through Paypal.  These things alone are not special, but now merchants have the ability to set all of this up with nearly single button clicks.  A merchant can go from having no online presence to having all of these features and more literally in an afternoon.
  • The X.commerce platform is “open”, which creates opportunities for developers to create new applications for merchants and sell them through the app store.  Some lucky few will have the opportunity to partner with X.commerce directly to offer services to merchants.  This is where my new company, BlackLocus, intends to focus.  Because we provide merchants with a pricing engine, including insight on competitors pricing across the web and recommendations on how to price each product, we are a natural and valuable participant on the X.commerce platform.  The benefit to us?  Instantaneous access and distribution to hundreds of thousands of merchants on the current Magento and GSI Commerce and future X.commerce platforms.

This was an extremely useful few days enabling me to quickly get up to speed on what’s happening in eCommerce, the importance of social, the blurring of online & offline and the trends focusing on mobile devices.  I’m beginning to form a point of view about how and where BlackLocus fits into this ecosystem and am energized to get started with the founders to build a great business.  There is much to do!

Looking for Funding? Try AngelList

I recently attended a talk on Angel investing given by Brad Feld and David Cohen at the Boulder TechStars Bunker.  One of the challenges I’ve been unable to get my head around as a prospective startup investor is how do I get access to the most promising startups?  All of the “high profile” startups that are started by the most accomplished entrepreneurs are almost impossible to get access to.  There’s a small community of well known Angels and entrepreneurs that circle these startups and get first dibs at seed level funding.  Makes sense.  If I’m starting a company, I want “smart” money in my deal.  Not just cash, but cash from accomplished business builders and investors who have a track record of helping companies be successful and generating a return on their investment.

So the question is, as an unknown investor with some success starting and building companies, how do I get access to the better deals?

Enter AngelList, an online marketplace for startup entrepreneurs and prospective investors to connect started by serial entrepreneur Naval Ravikant.  Here’s how it works:  Startups can register and create a listings page that contains their product, screenshots, video, team and advisors.  What really makes it interesting is that you can see which prospective investors are “following” the company and which are “endorsing” the company.  Investors must also register and be “qualified”.  To be qualified, an investor will be evaluated one of two ways, either by how many current community investors are Twitter followers or by having a certain number of current investors “endorse” you as someone they would trust and co-invest with.  This qualification process I believe gives the community credibility and its working based on the list of over 2,000 incredibly accomplished investors and entrepreneurs listed on the site.  The latest, unverified stat I heard was that AngelList was adding 20-40 startups per day.

Now, does AngelList by itself give me access to the most high profile deals?  No, but it sure does begin to provide transparency and level the playing field.  Gone are the days when prominent VC’s had proprietary access to deal flow.  Now everyone – entrepreneurs, Angels and VC’s – has to be scrappy and compete.

This level of market transparency is also great for startup entrepreneurs.  They now have access to a broad range of investors and in this era of AngelList and social media, you can get to almost anyone if you can efficiently articulate your pitch and cut through the volume of social media noise.  But access is no longer the issue.

The final implication to consider from this increasingly transparent and open investment environment is on valuations.  I’ve said before that we are not in a “bubble” similar to high-flying times of 1999, but pre-money valuations right now are pretty darn high I think due to numerous factors but certainly at least two:  1) huge success stories like Facebook, the LinkedIn IPO, Zynga, Groupon, etc. have investors over-exuberant about finding the “next big stock” and 2) an increasingly transparent market (via AngelList, Second Market, Sharespost and social media in general) is allowing anyone to invest in startups, creating more demand and driving prices up.

It will be interesting to see if the market becomes more transparent and open, if valuations will continue to rise, stabilize or fall and what effect a fall in valuations might have on the supply/demand equation for startup financing.

The Next Government Buster?

I’ve read a few really interesting stories over the past few days about Bitcoin, a relatively new, decentralized peer-to-peer (P2P) payment ecosystem that avoids any sort of centralized banking oversight and is anonymous between the transacting parties.  Think about these two attributes for a second.  No centralized government oversight means no regulation, no taxation, no monitoring of how and where currency is being spent, no traceability, no monetary policy.  And anonymous between the parties, in combination with no oversight, means you can buy and sell things – any and all things – without anyone knowing what is bought or sold.  While there are other forms of P2P payment systems such as PayPal in operation, none of them meet these two criteria.  How Bitcoin works is fascinating.

Jason Calacanis, arguably one of the most influential web technology voices and certainly one of the most outspoken about new and emerging web technologies, posted a story about Bitcoin yesterday entitled Bitcoin P2P Currency:  The Most Dangerous Project We’ve Ever Seen.  The gist of his message is that this could be one of the most disruptive web technologies since the creation of the Internet itself due to the potential dis-intermediation of governments and the complete decentralization of a globally centralized system (monetary oversight, central banking).

There was an insightful response to Jason’s post by Robert Tercek, a serial innovator in digital media, entitled Is Bitcoin the Wikileaks of Monetary Policy? that is a must-read.  Robert describes how the Internet has decentralized numerous industries, particularly ones where the incumbents were able to previously control their positions with regulation or by proprietary access to data or licensing.  He sums it up with “Bitcoin is to central banking as Gnutella is to music publishing, as BitTorrent is to motion pictures and as Wikileaks is to government secrets.”

Jason and Robert contend the only way this type of innovation is stifled is by governments making it illegal AND actively prosecuting individuals.  And even this type of threat at best forces a migration of innovation into even more diffusion and decentralization until local government incentives are aligned with the innovation.  In the end, centralization and oversight die.  Wikileaks and Napster started revolutions that spawned even more decentralized and ultimately more effective web innovation.

I wonder, is this capitalism at work?  Can we assume that the intersection of innovation and economics will always result in the most efficient, effective equilibrium?  Or are there areas of centralization, policy and oversight that are beneficial to society as a whole?

This will be one technology to watch.

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