Jon Sakoda is a Partner at NEA and is an entrepreneur turned venture capitalist. The views expressed here are not necessarily shared by NEA.
Jon Sakoda is a Partner at NEA and is an entrepreneur turned venture capitalist. The views expressed here are not necessarily shared by NEA.
Fun video of Bryan Schreier of Sequoia and I responding to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Thanks Clara Shih and Steve Garrity from Hearsay Social! Next up — Scott Sandell and Forest Baskett from NEA, and Doug Leone and Jim Goetz from Sequoia!
Opower went public this week on the New York Stock Exchange — this was my first investment as a partner at NEA and was a long and fulfilling journey. The WSJ wrote a great article on how Opower bested Google and Microsoft — great lessons here for entrepreneurs! http://on.wsj.com/1n5Mhln
“Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the world” – Archimedes, c250 B.C.
Today we are excited to be a part of Opower’s IPO—an amazing milestone for founders Dan Yates and Alex Laskey, who shared the vision that a software company using big data and behavioral science could one day affect climate change.
We first met Dan and Alex six years ago when Opower was piloting a new kind of energy efficiency program to just a few thousand homes with a small utility in Sacramento, California. The program had a simple hypothesis: by giving people personalized data-driven insights about their energy consumption, you could help them save energy. Inspired by Dan and Alex’s enthusiasm and belief that Opower would one day become pervasive in the global utility industry, NEA led the their first round of institutional venture capital when the company had just 12 employees.
Since 2008, my partner Harry Weller and I have had the privilege of being a part of Opower’s journey, and watching Dan and Alex’s dream become a reality. Opower today reaches over 32 million households and businesses through 93 utilities in eight countries, analyzing over 100 billion meter reads a year. Their IPO milestone today will enable the company to continue to deploy its products around the world, working hand in hand with some of the largest customers in the $2.2 trillion utility industry.
The utility industry has historically underinvested in technologies such as CRM and consumer engagement (a company like Opower could not have been imagined just 10 years ago!) In recent years the industry has changed, and utilities have come under increasing regulatory and environmental pressure to build fewer power plants, find cleaner sources of fuel, and compete with new entrants like solar installers. Around the world, utilities are embracing Opower to leverage advanced behavioral science, cloud computing, and “Big Data” analytics to give us all a rich understanding of our energy use. The results are inspiring – Opower provides utilities with a reliable low-cost alternative to building more power plants, saves money for consumers on energy bills, and prevents tons of wasteful carbon emissions every year.
Opower was far from an overnight success and required amazing passion and persistence to overcome the odds. The company’s remarkable journey can be attributed to two incredible entrepreneurs who have largely defied and debunked conventional wisdom:
Congratulations to Dan, Alex, and the Opower team. You have proven that “Big Data” is a big deal in the fight against climate change, and have inspired us all to do our own small part.
Even though many VC firms are backing away from seed investing, NEA is just getting started! My interview with Silicon Beat…
The VC industry faces a multi-front war. How will we respond? My interview with the WSJ…
We are excited to announce our Series A investment in Swiftype, a rapidly growing “search as a service” platform that makes it possible for any website or mobile application to add modern search to their product in less than a minute. As an early seed investor, we have had the privilege of watching Swiftype grow from a proof of concept to a service that is today used by over 100,000 customers including some of the largest e-commerce, media, and technology companies in the world. This tremendous growth has largely been accomplished through word of mouth adoption and, remarkably, without any sales or marketing investment. In the past 12 months since launching their service, Swiftype has quietly become the largest search engine you’ve never heard of!
For several years NEA has been investing in the rapidly growing area of cloud services that simplify very complex tasks for technical users, such as Braintree for payments (recently acquired by eBay for $800 million) and CloudFlare for web security and performance. As these companies have captured the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of businesses, they have achieved significant competitive advantage through network effects, scale, and data that have made them as formidable and knowledgeable as the largest tech companies in the world in their unique area of expertise. Swiftype today is already seeing more than 200 million search queries a month, and we believe their focus will enable them to provide the very best “search as a service” for any website or mobile application as their platform expands over time.
We are excited to work with Matt Riley and Quin Hoxie, the founders of Swiftype, who long ago asked why website search was inaccurate, inflexible, and expensive to implement. With Swiftype, luckily we no longer have to search for an answer.
We are excited to be a part of today’s $50 million financing in Blue Jeans Network, the world’s fastest growing cloud-based video conferencing service. NEA invested in Blue Jeans over 2 years ago and has had the privilege of watching the service grow from a proof-of-concept to a disruptive product now serving over 2,000 customers and 3 million participants. The premise behind Blue Jeans is very simple – make video conferencing as pervasive and easy to use as audio conferencing by providing a service that works from any device with a two-way camera (across Cisco and Polycom room systems, Microsoft, Google, and Skype clients, and every browser and mobile phone). By providing interoperability across these services, Blue Jeans has become the missing link in real-time collaboration and one of the fastest growing software-as-a-service companies in our portfolio.
Blue Jeans is an incredibly simple service to use and describe, but it is an extremely complex technical solution that was not possible (or feasible) just 5 years ago. First, high quality video bridging has traditionally been done through special purpose (expensive) processors, and it is only recently that multi-core processors have reached a price point for video interoperability to be performed on commodity hardware. Second, significant advancements in H.264 compression have made it easier for high quality video to be streamed through low bandwidth connections. Finally, pervasive cloud infrastructure has made it possible to scale up to support millions of users overnight, a requirement to meet the demands of the largest customers around the world. The convergence of these technology trends has made it possible to launch Blue Jeans, and to unlock the true potential of video in the workforce.
It is truly a privilege to work with the founders of Blue Jeans, Krish and Alagu, who have realized the vision of video as a “dial-tone” service that would connect the world around us. Today we can see this vision coming to life, transforming many industries that have adopted their service. We see universities using Blue Jeans to turn physical lecture halls into virtual classrooms that can bridge in students from multiple countries. We see doctors using Blue Jeans to connect medical experts into emergency procedures, enabling patients to get the best care even in remote locations. And in a workforce that is increasingly geographically dispersed, we see millions of people using Blue Jeans to see their customers and colleagues, and to discover what is possible with pervasive video.
Want to see the future? Just try www.bluejeans.com!
*This post is a follow-up to my “Ask a VC” interview with Leena Rao at TechCrunch who posed the question, “Why does a $2.6 billion fund make seed investments?”
NEA is one of the largest VC firms by assets under management, and has quietly become one of the most active seed investors in the industry. Launching a seed program was controversial, both within the firm and throughout the seed investment community. The primary concern was “signaling risk”, or the notion that when a large VC fund makes a seed investment but chooses not to invest in a Series A round, the company’s ability to raise additional capital is significantly impaired. That negative “signal” could damage both the reputation of the company and the relationship between the entrepreneur and its investor. After 35 years of building a reputation of trust and respect with entrepreneurs, we probably worried as much—or more—about this “signaling risk” than anyone. As a result, since launching a dedicated seed program in early 2011, it’s something we have proactively measured and monitored from day one. The early results so far have been surprising to many with whom we’ve shared the data.
NEA’s seed program has made more than 50 investments totaling north of $20 million. The portfolio spans multiple sectors of technology (consumer, enterprise, healthcare, energy) and geography (Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, LA, and DC) and represents the diversity of interests and strategies employed by our global partnership. We have recently analyzed our first cohort of 35 seed investments, all of whom raised their initial seed rounds between March 2011 and July 2012. The data is as follows:
(*this category includes companies that have not yet tried to raise capital, have raised seed extensions in advance of Series A, or are otherwise too early to tell)
Given all of our concern about signaling risk, we expected to see more companies that are NOT funded by NEA struggle to raise a Series A. Instead, we have found the opposite.
The fact is that many VC firms choose to invest in NEA-seeded companies even if NEA does not lead the Series A. There are many reasons why this occurs, but a few of the more consistent ones are:
On this last point, it is important to remember that building a successful start-up is one of the hardest undertakings on the planet. It should not be surprising that investing in start-ups is equally challenging. When we make a decision to invest—or not—in a Series A, it does NOT always mean we’ve made the right call. We are human and we make mistakes. We aim not to repeat those mistakes at Series B, Series C, and beyond.
To be clear, we are not claiming that signaling risk does not exist. To this day we are still very careful and selective about our seed investing for this very reason. Entrepreneurs have many choices for how to build their seed syndicates, and those that choose to work with NEA get a partner with a long term perspective, at any and every stage of their growth, no matter how much money we’ve invested. We aspire to help entrepreneurs build very large companies, and have a track record of doing so that spans four decades. This is the strongest signal we send to our entrepreneurs, to our co-investors, and to the market, and it is a signal that hopefully continues to drown out the noise of signaling risk.
Why does a $2.6 billion fund make seed investments? Good question from Leena Rao at Techcrunch!
“You are on Mount Everest. This is not for everyone” – Sherpa Tensing, June 2001
Note: I went on a trek to Everest Base Camp in 2001 prior to starting my first company. I unexpectedly learned one of the hardest lessons about entrepreneurship, loyalty, and leadership while on the mountain. This post is for entrepreneurs that have scaled their companies to the highest of altitudes, and have come face to face with the realization that not everyone on their team can make the climb.
The trek to Everest Base Camp is one of the most beautiful and challenging treks on earth. Visited by thousands every year, most groups start their journey by flying into a small village at 9,000 feet in the heart of the Himalayas, and spend the next 7-10 days pushing up the mountain to nearly 19,000 feet*. Those that come to Everest train hard to prepare themselves for the effects of ascending a mountain at such high altitude, but there are few places in the world to simulate such strenuous conditions. The trail itself is steep and at extreme elevations your brain and muscles become deprived of oxygen. Your body rapidly dehydrates. You experience headaches, can’t sleep, and lose your appetite. And the conditions only get harder every day as you climb higher.
At the beginning of the trek, the group is fueled by the pure adrenaline of being on the trail of the tallest mountain on earth. But by 12,500 feet, the climb gets steeper and the effects of Everest begin to set in on everyone. A few people begin to fall back, and the pack breaks into two – those that can keep pace, and those that cannot. At ~14,000 feet, the gap between the leaders and stragglers grows larger and the landscape turns dry and barren – it is a startling reminder that the conditions do not allow for biological life to thrive. By ~16,000 feet, everyone is starting to show concern for friends and colleagues that are struggling, and the group must stop to make tough decision. The final stage of the trek, from ~16,000 to ~19,000 feet, is the greatest challenge. Your guides inform you of the choice the group must make: some people will get to Everest, and some people will have to stay back or go home. It seems unfair that some of the hardest working and best prepared in the group are feeling the most fatigue, and that everyone has come so far only to turn back now. But as the group approaches the highest altitudes on earth, the conditions are extreme and it is very clear who will need to stay back for the good of those that will continue the journey.
As an entrepreneur, you don’t need to go to Everest to know that there are a lot of parallels between climbing a mountain in extreme conditions and building a start-up. Starting a company is one of the most physically and emotionally stressful activities you can undertake, and it will test even the best trained and qualified of individuals. Similar to the beginning of any great expedition, start-ups can thrive on the adrenaline of the adventure ahead. But as you scale your company, the path gets steeper and the conditions more challenging. Whether you are at 50 or 500 employees, the road ahead is always more difficult than the already steep trail you’ve climbed and you must confront the reality that you are pushing your team to the highest of altitudes.
In a high growth company one of the hardest tests of leadership and loyalty is determining who can make the ascent and who will lag behind. Paradoxically, the bonds of friendship, camaraderie, and trust that make start-up teams strong in the early part of a company’s life become the hardest obstacles to overcome in making the tough decisions that set up companies to take on the challenges ahead. How can you lead your company through these transitions? Here are some best practices I’ve seen great leaders follow through the years:
Enforce an Honest “Bell Curve” Ranking and Don’t Inflate Grades – every manager loves their team and needs resources to accomplish their goals, but CEOs need to be honest about their “A” players (10-20%), “B” players” (60-70%), and “C” players (10-20%). Stacked and forced rankings of every employee reveals who is likely to keep up, and who is likely not to make it.
Don’t Make “Churn” a Bad Word – in a scaling company, there is a relentless focus on hiring great talent to fill important roles. But it is equally important to assess overall quality, not just quantity, along the way and to be honest about hiring mistakes that are inevitable in a hyper growth environment. Make employee “churn” a metric that is measured every quarter, and don’t make “churn” a bad word.
Look to Promote from Within – when it becomes clear that one of your managers isn’t keeping up, the natural tendency is to recruit a seasoned executive. But one of the best, and frequently overlooked, sources of talented and fresh leadership is within your own organization. Rather than force an outside hire, find the “A” players deep within your organization that are setting the pace for everyone else.
Don’t Force People “Up or Out” – an “A” player can become a “B” player if given too much responsibility, too fast, and spread too thin. Creating a culture that rewards and recognizes “A” players, even if they are in entry level and individual contributor roles, gives you the best chance at getting your entire team up the mountain.
I am constantly reminded of and humbled by the trials of entrepreneurship at its highest level. I have witnessed firsthand how difficult it is to challenge the loyalty entrepreneurs have for their teams in order to honestly assess who is ready for the road ahead. But starting and scaling a large and successful company is one of the most challenging endeavors on earth. Those blazing the trail must remember that at the highest of altitudes, not everyone can make the climb.
*Everest Base Camp is the START of professional expeditions to the top of Mount Everest. Though thousands of tourists (like me) go to Base Camp every year, only a few hundred professional climbers successfully climb to the top and as many as a dozen die trying.
WSJ coverage of the challenges entrepreneurs face in the hyper competitive environment of Silicon Valley.
“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste” – Stanford Economist Paul Romer, speaking to a group of venture capitalists, 2004
The U.S. education system is facing a public crisis of confidence. Students at the K-12 level consistently underperform in math, science and reading compared to peers in China, Japan and Australia[i]. School tuition is prohibitively expensive for many, and graduates of U.S. higher education institutions today carry more than $1 trillion in collective student debt. Those who do graduate from college often struggle to find long-term employment, spurring some to question whether the return on a U.S. higher education merits the investment—particularly in a difficult economic environment where the quality of classroom education is increasingly threatened by lay-offs, downsized curriculum, and shut-down facilities at institutions struggling to survive. With the prospects for over 75 million students and our economic future at stake, the U.S. has no choice but to confront these challenges. We must reform and revive our education system, and everyone must do their part.
The venture capital industry has a longstanding history of bringing U.S. innovation to market—fueling industries like the Internet, computing, telecommunications, semiconductors, biotechnology, and many more. However, the industry that catalyzed the creation of companies such as Apple, Intel, and Google has been largely absent from the classroom, investing less than 3% of its dollars in education every year. Today’s education crisis calls for more than politics and policy changes, but for a revitalization and re-imagination of our education system for the 21st century. At New Enterprise Associates (NEA), we see a unique opportunity to invest in entrepreneurship and technology in this education crisis and believe that now is the time for our industry to step up and do its part. Working hand in hand with entrepreneurs, we are already seeing amazing results today from schools investing in technology to transform their campuses and classrooms. We are inspired by what teachers and students can do through innovation, and are confident that we are on the brink of a renaissance in education technology.
Entrepreneurs and investors have historically proceeded with caution in education, for two major reasons. First, selling new technology directly to schools is expensive. There are over 100,000 schools in the U.S. alone, with unique and often complex buying processes. Second, measuring the value of new technology in classrooms has been challenging in a sector that has diverse and often subjective methods of assessment. It has been difficult for schools and vendors to demonstrate the efficacy of new learning technologies without prohibitively expensive long-term studies requiring years of data collection. These hurdles have made it difficult for small start-ups to reach economies of scale without significant capital, resulting in only a handful of VC-backed success stories in education over the last 15 years.
These historical perceptions are changing in an industry that is rapidly embracing new technology and reinventing its methods for teaching and learning. Advancements in cloud computing have made it possible to run courses online for free. The mass proliferation of tablets and smartphones has made it possible to introduce new educational content to millions of teachers and students without working through traditional publishers. Furthermore, low-cost bandwidth around the world has made it possible for anyone with an Internet connection to pursue a world-class education. These significant advancements have led to a Cambrian explosion in education start-ups here in the U.S., with VC dollars invested in the sector more than tripling over the last five years.
There are four major themes shaping and disrupting the education industry as we know it today, which we believe create compelling investment opportunities:
1. Disappearing Classroom Walls
The classroom has traditionally been a broadcast-like experience confined to a physical space and time. Teachers lecture, and students listen and learn (hopefully). Homework is assigned, and class is dismissed. This dated traditional model is being transformed by online and mobile platforms. Schools today are adopting “always-on” virtual classrooms that facilitate interactive learning anywhere, anytime. Campuses are rapidly deploying wireless infrastructure to support laptops, tablets, and smartphones, enabling teachers and students to bring their own devices to class. Instructors can host their content online, poll students on their laptops in class to see if they understand key concepts, and adapt their lessons in real-time based on student feedback. Teachers can connect on social learning sites like Edmodo and exchange K-12 content and curriculum with over 10,000 peers at other schools. Students can collaborate any time, day or night, just by touching an app on their phones, and discussion forums can be joined by anyone with an Internet connection. The virtual classroom has transformed how teachers and students engage, both within and beyond physical classroom walls, and has invigorated schools to rethink the way they teach.
2. Democratizing Educational Content
The textbook industry has been traditionally dominated by a handful of major publishers, concentrating control over the distribution of educational content to schools. The emergence of tablets and smartphones, coupled with free distribution channels such as YouTube and iTunes, has created an open marketplace for educational content of unprecedented scale. Schools today can create their own content at low cost, or source content from thousands of publishers offering both free and paid libraries of interactive educational material. As one example, the non-profit Khan Academy today offers over 3,000 free classes and has grown to six million monthly visitors in just four years. EverFi has delivered financial literacy and substance abuse courses for free to more than 4 million students, one of a growing number of companies that are creating quality content online in partnership with corporations and foundations. Education apps represent the second-largest category in Apple’s app store, with over 70,000 active applications from thousands of publishers. Parents and students now subscribe to education services such as BenchPrep to access hundreds of standardized test prep courses for just $20 per month. This democratization of content enables schools and students to choose the best product, from the best publisher, at the best price, forcing traditional publishers, non-profits, and aspiring entrepreneurs to compete on a more level playing field.
3. Learning from Big Data Analytics
Amazon.com, a pioneer in “Big Data” analytics, can recommend the best products for each customer in real-time based on prior behavior, and can even predict when you will abandon your shopping cart. Using similar technology, schools can improve student outcomes based on personalized learning pathways and can aid struggling students well before it is too late to act. Using platforms such as Desire2Learn, administrators can aggregate learning analytics at the school district, state, or even national level, enabling best practices and insights to be shared among stakeholders. The State of Tennessee recently demonstrated the power of Desire2Learn’s statewide predictive analytics, lowering their annual dropout rate by 25% across 45 university campuses by looking at historical student data and identifying opportunities for faculty and administrators to intervene. This is one of the most promising frontiers in education technology, only recently made possible by shifts to more competency-based (or outcomes-based) education (CBE / OBE), standardized curricula (e.g., Common Core) and analytic technologies such as Hadoop.
4. Transforming Local Campuses to Global Institutions
Though the U.S. today is the largest market for education globally, it is far from the fastest growing. China, India and Brazil are rapidly increasing their investment in education and have national aspirations and mandates to catch up with the developed world. China already graduates more college students with math, science and engineering degrees than the U.S., and Chinese citizens spend 3.5 times more of their disposable income on education than Americans on a percentage basis. The U.S., particularly in higher education, is home to the most respected learning institutions on the planet, and the emerging markets have seemingly insatiable demand to access it. More than one million students have registered for free for online classes through Coursera, which partners with more than 30 leading institutions like Stanford, Penn, and Michigan. Today the vast majority of those students are from outside the United States, forcing schools to rethink the boundaries of their campuses. Technology has made distance learning effective and economically feasible, and schools must embrace a global student market if they are to thrive in tomorrow’s education economy.
These four trends indicate a seismic shift in the education landscape, and they are creating unique opportunities for entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to develop innovative technology that can bring about a critical transformation in education. Through our growing portfolio of companies in this space, we can see what is possible when educators and entrepreneurs work together. We are not naïve to the challenges ahead, nor to the obstacles that will be faced in reviving our education system. But venture capitalists are by definition optimists, and we believe the technology we are helping to build today will empower the transformation of the education industry over the next decade. We believe we can improve learning outcomes and decrease education costs. We believe in our teachers and our schools. And most importantly, we believe that we must invest in our entrepreneurs and education system to confront and address the challenges we face today. We see amazing opportunity in this education crisis. And, after all, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.