The ethics of venture capital

I’m attending the Techstars Summit this week in Torino, Italy. It’s the annual meetup of this international network of startup accelerators (I’m a mentor in the Montreal AI program). I was recently named “All-Star Mentor” in the global Techstars network and the organizers invited me to network and speak on a mentorship panel.

There were many interesting discussions over the three days of the Summit, but one presentation stood out for me. Dr. Johannes Lenhard, an anthropologist of ethics, gave a presentation on “the ethics of venture capital”. Having spent a lot of time thinking about the ethics of technology over the last two years, I was curious to learn more about how this can apply to venture capitalists (VCs) as well. I’ll share below my personal notes from Lenhard’s presentation, but you can also read his three blog posts.

The ethics of venture capital:

Johannes Lenhard has been interviewing VCs to better understand what they do and how they see the world. He explained to us the importance of researching the VC industry:

  • Venture capital is much more than money (they’re not bankers).
  • VCs are the first filters of the future economy
  • 7 of the 10 most-valued companies were VC-backed
  • Because VCs are kingmakers, we need to understand their motivations, incentives and value systems
  • And historically, there’s been tension between “doing good” and “doing well”. VCs are in the business of breaking things.

So, that leads to the following questions:

  • Is there room for ethics in this?
  • What kind of ethics would make this model better?
  • Where do incentives come from?

Recently, the zeitgeist has been about reinventing capitalism. The Financial Times called for a reset of capitalism, saying “Business must make a profit but should serve a purpose to. Harvard Business Review recently suggested the era of “move fast and break things” is over and proposed the idea of a “minimum virtuous product”.

Lenhard said that changes in tech industry could be driven by various stakeholders:

  • Consumers (and the growth of ethical consumption). They put pressure on companies via impact on revenue.
  • Governments. They put pressure via fines and regulations.
  • Employees (ex: the recent Google walkouts). They put pressure via retention.
  • VCs and Limited Partners (LPs). They put pressure via reputation.

He also wondered if a new model of financial incentives was in the making and gave the following examples:

  • Beyond Meat is doing good and well
  • Uber has turned from startup poster child to loss-maker, partly based on ethical issues
  • Zenefits. Started out as a perfect company and had to be fully restructured after 2016 because of cheating.

Lenhard suggested that, in the startup world, you can be a temporary pirate, but you need to eventually become “navy”. You should never be a psychopath (doing illegal or unethical things), committing fraud, lying, creating bad company culture as these types of behavior now lead to economic consequences. You have to be better now to do well financially. Diversity matters too.

So, what roles can venture capitalists play to help with this?

  1. Ethical due diligence
  2. Strategic advisor (culture building, sounding board, etc.)
  3. Board member (oversight, checks/balances, etc.)
  4. Patient capital (avoid pressure, be in it for the long term)

He did call out VCs’ blind spot in all diversity dimensions: gender, race educational background and suggested that to fix those blind spots, VC funds should be i) start early, ii) be intentional and iii) don’t rely on personal networks too much.

Lehman’s key takeaways were:

  • Ethics matters, behaving badly can have immediate economic consequences, like lost valuation, no exits, reputational damage, disruption in leadership structure.
  • So far, investors and many startups have been not proactive. They’ve been fined, sued, moving forward until stopped.
  • But things are changing. More stakeholders, consumers, employees, LPs, are starting to care; the financial incentive model might turn even further.

2013: Gazing Into Seb’s Crystal Ball #technology #trends

Friends and colleagues who’ve known me for a long time know that I love to regularly polish and gaze into my crystal ball to try to forecast trends and predict the future of technology. It’s a game I really love to play. With a well curated Twitter feed, I’m able to “listen” to opinion leaders and early adopters throughout the year, day in, day out, and instinctively identify what technology trends seem to be important today. In addition, the end of the calendar year is also a great opportunity to digest and compare notes with other people via “2013 trends”-style blog posts. As you’ll see in the list below, those trends go much further than local & social (my blog’s theme since 2006), probably reflecting my personal interest list as well  (or maybe everything is social and local now, and we don’t need to mention it anymore!)

Without further ado, here are a series of technology topics that I think are important right now (in no particular order):

Screen and usage fragmentation

  • Internet usage is fragmenting and this has a tremendous impact on product design and features.
  • Size of screen and in-home/out of home use impacts design and usage patterns.
  • Without a doubt, today you should design services with smaller screens in mind (streamlined, fast loading, bigger-sized fonts, etc.).
  • I still believe product prototyping (or beta versions) can be done on the Web before working on native mobile apps.
  • If you launch mobile apps, launch iPhone & Android versions at the same time. Currently intrigued by the potential of Windows 8 and the Blackberry 10.

“Native” ads

  • The flavor of the month in content advertising: ads and content become interchangeable. This is not new (sponsorships and advertorials have existed for a long time in traditional media) but we see many experiments these days. By the way, I hate the name (same with “transmedia” but I digress).
  • Rebirth is probably related to the failure of display ads/banner advertising to deliver solid value/ROI. On a related note, the New York Times is trying to “save” the banner ad.
  • But beware! The Atlantic Monthly showed us that the format can be problematic (and The Onion had good laugh…)
  • Related: brands are now also becoming content producers, hiring journalists and creating new content.

Social media

  • Social media has matured. It’s now present across the organization, not just in one department.
  • We’re slowly seeing the disappearance of social media experts (being integrated in marketing-communication departments) and we will eventually see the disappearance of community managers (integrated in customer care).
  • Social media advertising is still unproven and, as executed today, is not exciting, very far from the original conversational marketing promise.

Big data

  • Important concept but there is a bubble. This will probably be part of every technology infrastructure and we will stop calling it that way.
  • Alex Howard (O’Reilly Radar) thinks that data will be more liquid, “ flowing across sectors previously stuck in silos”.

Enterprise products and services

  • Enterprise is hot again, as it generates faster (and more) revenue than consumers products.
  • It’s cyclical. We’ve seen that cycle before, circa 2002-2004.

Dark social

  • Dark social (defined by Eric Wheeler in Fast Company) is a form of word of mouth that happens in email and instant messaging. These still need to be leveraged and mined. Social media didn’t kill these methods of communication and they’re more alive than ever.

The sharing economy

  • We’re seeing more and more peer-to-peer marketplaces (often called Collaborative Consumption).
  • It leverages underutilized physical goods or resources (like time)
  • Examples include Taskrabbit, Uber, etc.

Marketplaces

  • We’re seeing the emergence of vertical marketplaces (players like Uber, Airbnb, etc.) that are completely integrated along the customer purchase decision process (from research/pre-shopping to merchant comparison to merchant selection to transaction to post-purchase, in one environment). I believe this is where the future of local search lies. Look at the top 100 Yellow Pages categories. They will each have a category killer in the next 10 years.
  • Related in part to the sharing economy.

Open Government

  • We’re seeing a push by citizens for a more transparent government, asking for open data and more accountability. Governments are slowly opening up. It’s still early but this is a huge democracy game changer. It obviously has tremendous impact in our local lives.
  • You can read about open governments in this Aeon Magazine article.

Privacy

  • Privacy will be top of mind for the next 3 to 5 years. It can now be an important feature of new services. For example, SnapChat allows you to share pictures with your friends and those pictures are available for up to 10 seconds only.
  • People worry that what they’re sharing can be used against them and I believe that a better social networking solution will come along in the next 5-10 years and change the game via “privacy” (and it’s probably not Path).
  • This trend leads us directly into “personal data ownership” where we own our data and we can transport it anywhere we want. We can also give permission to use it for marketing/targeting purpose, etc.

CRM/Marketing automation

  • Related to big data, these tools are arriving to provide marketers with a better understanding of customers and a better targeting of advertisers.

“Lead with design”

  • When markets are crowded, design becomes a strong differentiator.
  • This is the mantra right now in Silicon Valley.

Pricing management

  • Merchants/brands are being equipped with dynamic pricing/yield management tools to optimize pricing and maximize revenues.
  • Consumers will be equipped with solutions to help them time their purchase to get products/services at the lowest price.
  • It’s an arms race and is related to the big data trend.

Coupons

  • Now with less papers, more digital, more mobile (ex: Passbook on the iPhone)

Hardware

  • We’re finally seeing the return of hardware. Easier and cheaper to manufacture than before.
  • Expect many new hardware projects piggy-backing Arduino (open source electronics platform) or Raspberry pi or Beagle Bone.
  • 3D printing is probably part of that trend.
  • Hardware needs to marry perfectly with software. Both skills are needed now for new projects. Design is key.
  • New hardware solutions (like Fitbit) are enabling the capture of the “physical graph”.
  • Related to the “Internet of things” trend
  • Of note, if you have children, you should buy them toys that will prepare them for this new life. Pamela Fox recently wrote a great blog post about “Getting Kids into Programming

Local manufacturing/ Insourcing

  • Local manufacturing is back.
  • It’s better for local economies, for the environment, and companies can charge more today for “local” products.
  • You can outsource elements of production to Asia (take a look at Alibaba.com) but products are often designed and assembled in North America/Europe.

Crowdfunding

  • The great funding democracy movement. More money available for more projects.
  • Some growing pains: i) projects that are not delivered and ii) without a network (or help from traditional media’s amplification), it’s still difficult to raise big money.

Humans are data/bits

  • Rise of health startups (DNA analysis, life optimization, weight loss, etc.)

Smart Cars

  • Self-driving cars are being tested (Google, Audi).
  • Emergence of an in-car apps ecosystem.
  • Volvo’s Vision 2020: “By 2020, nobody shall be seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo”
  • Will we still need a driver’s licence in 20 years?

Ambient

  • Symbolized by products like Google Glass or Memoto.
  • Things are happening around us and data is collected without friction.

Products/services that have seemingly magical properties or give consumers pretend super powers

  • Related to the design-first and hardware trends.
  • Heavy lifting done by hardware and software, not the human.

Time as a currency

  • I first wrote about the Temporal Web in 2010. Still a very important trend.
  • Trendwatching thinks that “in 2013, consumers will look to their mobile devices to maximize absolutely every moment. Hectic, urban lifestyles mean that no amount of (micro) time will be too fleeting, or activity too absorbing, to cram in more content, connection, consumption or simply more fun.”