Safety is the Watchword of Cost Disease

I tweeted this story out yesterday about stairs in Toronto:

Basically, a citizen built stairs in a garden really cheaply (at 0.3% of the cost!), and Toronto took them down.

The story is absurd, but all of it is unfortunately “rational.” You can imagine a bureaucrat at city hall realizing that the stairs don’t meet a number of requirements for safety, reliability, inspectability, and more, so the obvious answer is to tear down the whole thing. Bad stairs are only likely to invite lawsuits, and so the city would prefer stairs

Continue reading...

The Problem With Subscription Software/Media Is High Prices

I am a big believer in subscription models — both for software and for media. As such, I often bring up the topic with friends to get their take, since more publications are moving from ads to subscription, and more apps are doing so as well (for instance, through in-app purchases in the App Store for iPhone).

The consistent view I have gotten is that people absolutely hate subscriptions. That hate is particularly vituperative when it comes to content, but software is given no mercy either. And listening to some of my friends and their stories, it seems people will go to the ends of the universe to avoid paying some of these fees.

That said, nearly every person I talk to does pay for something,

Continue reading...

Startups, Income Inequality, and the Basic Economy

One of the challenges I feel founders face, yet don’t discuss often enough, is how income inequality is changing product development.

One doesn’t have to read through Thomas Piketty’s behemoth Capital in the Twenty-First Century to understand that our society has become far less equal — just take a good, long look around startup hubs like San Francisco and New York. What used to be a continuum of incomes is now turning into a handful of groupings, and products are increasingly targeting a single bucket rather than the broader consumer market.

The best analogy I have to this is the current configuration of domestic airlines. Today, there are roughly four classes of service on Delta and other legacy carriers: Basic Economy, (Standard) Economy,

Continue reading...

Will Autonomous Cars Destroy Cities As We Know Them?

Recently, I had a debate with a group of friends about the future health of suburbs when autonomous cars arrive (let’s set aside when exactly that might be). The general consensus has been that the suburbs are going to grow rapidly, since commutes into the city (or just going out for a night on the town) will be far safer, efficient, and convenient than today’s status quo of driving a car and having to find a place to park.

I disagree with this view quite strongly.

The decision on where to live isn’t made in a vacuum. In fact, quite the opposite - people spend enormous time choosing where to live and the mix of amenities, convenience, and price they are willing

Continue reading...

The Age of Investigative Tech Journalism

In the whirlwind of the daily coverage of the tech world, it can be difficult to take a step back and see the major narratives of coverage. There are literally thousands of news articles published daily by hundreds of media sites, but one thing has become clear: we are no longer in “press release rehash world” anymore.

Take just a snapshot of the last few months. We have had breathtaking and deeply researched reports from Reed Albergotti in The Information and Katie Benner in The New York Times on female founders and harassing venture capitalists that led to the downfall of Binary Capital and apology tours by Chris Sacca and Dave McClure. We had John Carreyrou in The Wall Street Journaland his complete takedown

Continue reading...

Good Lord, Of Course Red Lights Will Still Be Here With Autonomous Cars

Cross-posted on Medium

I’ve been told twice in the past week that red lights (everyone’s favorite traffic signal!) are going to disappear with the advent of autonomous cars. The first time was from a VC friend of mine, after which I got into a fairly extended argument about why red lights and traffic are still going to be with us for a very long time (i.e. forever).

[The second time came from TechCrunch], which interviewed Jeffery Owens, the CTO of Delphi, one of the largest auto suppliers in the world. In the video’s intro, Owens says that (slightly edited) “Ultimately, if every car was talking to each other, you wouldn’t need stop signs or stop lights at all. That would

Continue reading...

RipVanWinkle.js — Returning to JavaScript After 5 Years

Cross-posted on Medium

If there was ever a model of a true love-hate relationship, it would be programmers and JavaScript. JavaScript is the language of the web, perhaps the single most powerful force for innovation and change in our modern societies. With just a few lines of JavaScript, engineers can move markets, change lives, and build the future. But the language has also traditionally been one of the most annoying programming environments available to the contemporary hacker, filled with traps, pitfalls, and awkward behavior.

You could write that javascript == Good && javascript == Bad, but then we would have an argument about equality operators. Such is the JavaScript life.

Or at least, to my eyes, it used to be. I got JavaScript fatigue before it

Continue reading...

“Artificial Intelligence” & “Big Data” Are Newest Entries to My 2017 Dictionary of Uselessness

Cross-posted on Medium

Sometimes you just can’t take it anymore.

Over the past few years, I have seen an absolutely delirious spike in the number of startups quoting “artificial intelligence” and “big data” in their pitches. This would be okay if these startups actually did something with artificial intelligence or big data, but unsurprisingly for early-stage companies, they often have neither the data nor the technology to fully capitalize on these “trends.”

Much like how the words “innovation” and “Silicon Valley” have become meaningless, AI and big data no longer say anything about a startup, but instead represent a completely vacuous description of the otherwise exciting features of a new business. These terms are no longer distinctive, and my (first) advice to founders in

Continue reading...

The Future Public Transit Explosion

I was debating with a friend of mine earlier this week about the future of mass transit and public infrastructure. Naturally, the conversation moved toward autonomous cars and Uber/Lyft. The basic argument, which you can read in stories like Spencer Woodman's tale from Altamonte Springs, is that Uber and self-driving cars are just going to outright replace public transit.

I think that is completely wrong for several reasons.

First, few large cities can transfer everyone to private vehicles and still maintain any flow of traffic. New York City, for example, has some of the slowest car transit in the nation, at just 8.51 MPH in Manhattan. It's hard to believe that everyone who takes a subway today (1.76 billion rides in 2015

Continue reading...

Leaderless Rounds and the Problem of Weasel.vc

One of the quote-unquote negative characteristics of the New York City tech ecosystem that I talked about a few weeks ago is the lack of VCs who will take the lead role in a fundraise. From my count, there is somewhere between 200-300 active VC firms in New York (yes, there is something of that size in the city today — crazy really), only maybe 6-12 are fully comfortable taking the lead in a fundraise.

Why is this? The answer is actually a mix of resources and weird incentives that are not unique to NYC, but that seem to have hit so many firms simultaneously here that it has become the de facto norm.

To illustrate this, let's take a hypothetical $20 million seed fund which

Continue reading...

Observations on NYC Tech

When I chose to move to NYC from Boston three months ago, it was with serious trepidation. I had spent six years living, working, and learning in Silicon Valley, and despite the growing evidence of New York's success as a tech hub, SV still remains the king of innovation by any statistic. To be frank, I'm ambitious like many of the people in tech I work with, and I want to run the kingdom, not some outlying New Amsterdam duchy.

Since summer is of course the best time in both NYC and venture capital to analyze an ecosystem in action, I figured I would give some early indications of what I have observed.

These observations are of course drafts — three months is quite limited to

Continue reading...