The Professional Amateur

One way I have described myself is as a “professional amateur”.  I am both deeply proud and deeply ashamed of that.  Let me explain.

For basically my whole career, I’ve been learning new fields and professions from the outside-in.  While I have an undergrad degree in Urban Studies, which ostensibly prepared me for interdisciplinary work regarding cities (and you could argue that’s exactly how my career has turned out), in practice I’ve spent the past 15 years learning other stuff and basically pretending to be a professional at it.  Design, programming, running a startup, tech policy, law, activism, “internet architecture”, market structure, venture finance.  In every case I’ve ended up diving in despite not really knowing anything, and figured it out as I went along.

(An aside: it’s pretty hard to do this without the internet.  Curious about history?  Start reading some Wikipedia articles.  Want to learn to code?  Head over to Codecademy, then make best friends with StackOverflow.  Confused by a legal term?  Google it.  Need to install shingles on your roof?  There are YouTubes for that.  So, it’s easier than ever to be kind of good at something.  Which is so fun.)

I also enjoy lots of different things, and feel like I’m better than average at most of them, (though I’m sure that’s a fallacy): baseball, singing, carpentry, ice skating, writing, cooking, water skiing, juggling, tennis, playing drums, playing piano, rock climbing, etc.  I am not the best at any of them, but I take a lot of pleasure from all of them.

The good way of looking at this is that I can confidently call myself a curious person.  And generally think of myself as capable,  Curious and capable.  I like that.  I can get behind that.

The bad way of looking at this is that it lacks focus.  And probably dedication & determination.  Feeling stuck on that music thing?  Fuck it, go build a shed.

And, it’s in tension with the idea of a “Half, not half-assed” approach.  Do less, but do it really well.   Then move on to the next thing.  I admire that approach, and really do believe it’s central to building a successful product. But it’s hard to pull off — as Eddie Wharton put it on Twitter yesterday: “the best ideas are easy to articulate, but hard to master.”

So, that’s the context.  I’m not looking for any answers, but just putting that out there in an effort to understand my real self.  But reflecting on this, perhaps there are a few rays of hope:

1) “Half, not half-assed” can apply to a lot of different things, and you could argue it’s more about tight execution and shipping than it is about a more broadly restricted agenda (37 signals, who coined that term, built lots of small, successful apps — though they ultimately shed them all and re-focused on Basecamp).  Maybe it’s fine to have lots of interests, and to invest time in different things, but make sure you actually ship.  And when you do, make sure it’s tight, focused, and not half-assed. (For example, USV has a relatively narrow investment thesis that constrains our outlook, but still ends up applying very broadly across sectors)

2) Perhaps having a “beginners mind” is a “deep” skill unto itself.  It certainly fits with the VC business, where one hour you’re talking healthcare and the next, video distribution.  As Andy points out, there are plenty of times when that’s not enough, but perhaps it’s something.

So, there you have it. For better and worse, here I am: a semi-pro, semi-proud, professional amateur.

Half, not half-assed

My favorite book on product development and startups is Getting Real, published in 2006 by the folks at 37signals (now Basecamp).  If you haven’t read it (it’s freely available online), it’s essentially a precursor to The Lean Startup (2011). Back when I was leading a team and running product and OpenPlans, it was like my bible. The copy we had at the office was tattered and torn.

One of my favorite ideas / chapters from the book is: “Half, Not Half-Assed”.  It’s short, so I’ll just include the whole thing here:

Build half a product, not a half-ass product
Beware of the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to web app development. Throw in every decent idea that comes along and you’ll just wind up with a half-assed version of your product. What you really want to do is build half a product that kicks ass.

Stick to what’s truly essential. Good ideas can be tabled. Take whatever you think your product should be and cut it in half. Pare features down until you’re left with only the most essential ones. Then do it again.

With Basecamp, we started with just the messages section. We knew that was the heart of the app so we ignored milestones, to-do lists, and other items for the time being. That let us base future decisions on real world usage instead of hunches.

Start off with a lean, smart app and let it gain traction. Then you can start to add to the solid foundation you’ve built.

This is so important and also so hard to do.  Despite having appreciated this idea since 2006, and having told it to others countless times, I still have not mastered it, and still find myself falling in love with features and ideas that really just end up diluting my efforts.

I’ve been thinking about this because last week I had this exact advice delivered to me on two separate occasions, regarding two things we’re building at USV; once from Brittany and once from Fred.  In both cases they were right, and the advice was important and helpful.

So, there it is. Nearly 9 years later, still important and still helpful, still cleverly-titled :-)

I agree with Ted Cruz: let’s supercharge the Internet marketplace

There has been a lot of debate about how to protect Internet Freedom.

Today, Senator Ted Cruz has an op-ed in the Washington Post on the subject, which starts out with an eloquent and spot-on assessment of what we are trying to protect:

Never before has it been so easy to take an idea and turn it into a business. With a simple Internet connection, some ingenuity and a lot of hard work, anyone today can create a new service or app or start selling products nationwide.

In the past, such a person would have to know the right people and be able to raise substantial start-up capital to get a brick-and-mortar store running. Not anymore. The Internet is the great equalizer when it comes to jobs and opportunity. We should make a commitment, right now, to keep it that way.

This is absolutely what this is about. The ability for any person — a teenager in Des Moines, a grandmother in Brazil, or a shop owner in Norway — to get online and start writing, selling, streaming, performing, and transacting — with pretty much anyone in the world (outside of China).

This is the magic of the internet.  Right there.

By essentially a happy accident, we have created the single most open and vibrant marketplace in the history of the world.  The most democratizing, power-generating, market-making thing ever.  And the core reason behind this: on the internet you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to get started.

And that “anyone” is not just the government — as we’re used to asking the government for permission for lots of things, like drivers licenses, business licenses, etc.

In fact, more importantly — “anyone” means the carriers whose lines you need to cross to reach an audience on the internet.  A blogger doesn’t have to ask Comcast’s or Verizon’s permission to reach its subscribers.  Neither does a small merchant, or an indie musician or filmmaker.

Contrast that with how cable TV works — in order to reach an audience, you need to cut a deal with a channel, who in turn needs to cut a deal with a carrier, before you can reach anyone.  It is completely out of the realm of possibility for me to create my own TV station in the Cable model.  In the Internet model, I can do that in 5 minutes without asking anyone’s permission.

What we don’t want is an internet that works like Cable TV.

So I agree with Ted Cruz — his description of the internet is exactly the one I believe in and want to fight for.

But where I think he and many others miss the point is that Internet Freedom is not just about freedom from government intervention, it’s freedom from powerful gatekeepers, who would prefer to make the internet look like Cable TV, controlling and restricting the mega marketplace we’ve been so lucky to take part in.

Let’s not let that happen.

p.s., I would encourage any conservatives pondering this issue to read James J. Heaney’s powerful and in-depth case for “Why Free Marketeers Want to Regulate the Internet

This is what an Internet Candidate looks like


I just donated to Christina Gagnier‘s campaign for congress.

I’ve gotten to know Christina recently, and I really hope she’s able to pull through this race and make it.  We need smart people in DC who understand technology, tech issues, and tech policy. She is without a doubt one of those people.  She’s an entrepreneur and tech lawyer who knows these issues cold and has lived with them for a long time.

Smart DC consultants have told me that Christina is too far behind to win.  I’m not sure if that’s true or not.  But what I know is that she “gets” technology and tech policy.  And she’s not coming at it from a Silicon Valley perspective — she’s representing California’s 35th District, in the eastern part of LA county, where big technology companies are not the center of the economy, but technology is what is going to connect and power the local economy. Further, Christina has been out in the community nonstop for the last few months, including her Bold Ideas RV Tour over the last month, and I suspect the race will be closer than people think.

Christina gets that privacy and trust are central issues, that we need open networks and broadband infrastructure, and that issues like patent trolls (and software patents more generally) are hurting the tech-driven economy.

So, for those of you looking to make some last minute noise / contributions, I think Christina’s campaign is a great place to do it.





I got this in the mail:


It’s an ad for an extended warranty, disguised as an urgent extension of existing coverage.

This makes we want to throw up.  A business blatantly based on tricking people.

“Immediate response to this notice required…. Our records indicate that you have not contacted us to have your vehicle service contract updated.”


Implying that I have an existing service contract with them.

My wife saw this and thought it was something we neglected and needed to pay right away.  Imagine if you were 80 years old.

“immediate response to this notice required”:


In the tiniest print on the page: “this is an advertisement to obtain coverage”:


The disgusting company behind this is Endurance Warranty Services:


Remind me and anyone I ever come in contact with never to do business with them.

Becoming a leader of men


In terms of leadership, I’ve done some hard things.  Building teams, reorganizing a company, dealing with failure (and success), letting people go, navigating competition, etc.

But I suspect all of that will pale in comparison to what’s up next: this weekend I begin my career as a little league coach.  Starting Sunday, I’ll be leading a troupe of 5, 6 and 7 year-olds (including my son) on a journey to understand and enjoy the game of baseball.

I’ve been thinking a lot about all the coaches I had growing up, especially when I was really little. (I didn’t start playing baseball until I was 8, which is pretty different than 5, so I don’t have any direct comparisons to go on for this).  The more I think about it, the more I respect the coaches I had as a kid.  In particular the volunteer dad coaches (including my own) who had never done it before, and probably had no idea what they were doing either.

I’m really excited and also nervous.  As much as I played baseball as a kid, I honestly never really thought about it from the coach’s perspective.  From fundamental things like “hmm, what actually happens in a baseball practice” and “what are you actually supposed to teach 6-year-olds about baseball” to more subtle things like “how do build a good ‘bench culture’ that is lively and supportive”.  So there is a lot to figure out.

Not to beat a dead horse about the Internet being awesome, but already I’ve started to find some help online.  For instance, as Theo and I have been watching more baseball recently I’m realizing how actually complicated it is, and one question in particular has been tough to explain: force outs.  So I googled “how to teach kids force outs vs tag outs” and lo and behold I came across an excellent post on teaching the difference between a force out and a tag out, from a blog on teaching baseball to kids (with the tagline “Read how I fail so you don’t have to”).  Thank you Internet!

So, off I go.  If anyone has any tips on being a good coach and building a good/fun team — in general or for tiny person baseball in particular — I would love to hear them.

Every once in a while I’m reminded of how awesome the Internet is

I woke up this morning, early, to an email from my mother-in-law pointing me to this:

It’s the story of a 9-year-old boy who built an arcade out of cardboard boxes in his dad’s used auto parts shop. Kids at school teased him about it, and he had zero customers, but he had built something awesome. A filmmaker happened to stop by one day, was (rightfully) amazed, and did a short film about it, including organizing a flash mob to help get Caine some customers.  Simple, and totally awesome in its own right.  Since then:

“• Over $231,000 has been raised for Caine’s Scholarship Fund (which has been officially & formally set up!) thanks to over 19,000 individual donors
• Over 7 million views on YouTube and Vimeo
• Over 1 million views on our Part 2 followup Video
• Launched the Imagination Foundation and our first annual Global Cardboard Challenge with over 270 events in 41 countries engaging tens-of-thousands of kids worldwide in creative play.
• Caine was the youngest ever entrepreneur to speak at USC Marshall School of Business, Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, and recently spoke at TEDxTeen hosted by Chelsea Clinton. Caine also received the Latino Spirit Award from the California State Assembly, and a cardboard key to the city.
• Thousands and thousands of visitors to Caine’s Arcade (he still gets hundreds of customers every week!)
• Launching an Imagination campaign to engage 1 million kids in creative play”

…. which led me to revisiting Kid President, a youtube star who helped publicize Caine’s story.  I had forgotten about Kid President — he’s a young person (11 years old now) who gives amazing video pep talks (like this one for moms).  Turns out Kid has his own amazing story — he suffers from Osteogensis Imperfecta, or “brittle bone disease”, an incurable disease resulting in a lifetime of broken bones.  But he has compensated with an outsized positive outlook:

… which led me to checking out SoulPancake, Rainn Wilson’s production company which now backs Kid President, and which is dedicated to “chewing on life’s big questions.”

… which reminded me of my other favorite youtubers, the Gregory Brothers, who have made incredible  incredible videos “songifying” the news and other videos (my favorite is Double Rainbow, a songification of this).  Here is their behind-the-scenes look:

… at the process that resulted in this — the songified final 2012 presidential debate:

… the point of all this being: holy shit!  Kids. Making amazing stuff.  Making the world better.  Building huge audiences.  I am awestruck and inspired.

And then, I start thinking about how amazing it is that this is possible.  Because on the internet, everyone has a voice and can reach the world — being a 9-year-old kid building an elaborate box arcade isn’t weird, it’s fantastic.  Having an incurable bone disease isn’t a death sentence, it’s an opportunity to inspire people.  Being a crazy musical/artistic/geeky family isn’t strange, it’s awesome.

And then, I remember that it hasn’t always been this way.  Before the internet, none of these stories would have happened. None of the tens of millions of people who’ve been touched by them would have been reached.  Connecting to the world required the permission of a big company, like a record label, TV network, or movie studio.

And finally, I remember that it might not always be this way.  The “openness” of the internet — the ability for anyone to reach everyone, on equal terms — isn’t something we can take for granted.  It’s very much in contention.  It’s a battle — and one that we might not win, unless we get equal parts inspired, pissed, and organized.

Dropbox and personal data

More and more, recently, I’ve been noticing web services that use Dropbox for storing user data.  For example,1Password, OneName and Diaro.

With all the talk about user control of data, data liberation, privacy, etc — I actually feel like this is is a super nice approach, at least for some use cases.

I am more comfortable using Diaro as my journal because they don’t keep the data, I do (sort of — really Dropbox does, but it’s my dropbox acct and I can take it/delete it whenever I want).  I think that may have actually been my deciding factor in choosing Diaro.

In this particular case, using Dropbox has the added (I’d say necessary) feature of syncing across devices so any apps that store user data there can see it anywhere and not have to worry about managing it.

It’s also interesting to note that this wasn’t really the #1 use case (afaik) for Dropbox.  But it does seem to be a natural (albeit relatively fringe) additional use case.  And I wonder if we will see an increasing number of apps (maybe health?) take this route, and marketing it to privacy/control conscious users.

The sweetest pitbull

I had crazy week last week.

On Monday, I went to NYC for the day for work, and was overcome by a strange dizzy feeling.  Walls spinning; hard to concentrate; nauseous.  I thought — maybe I’m just dehydrated. I took a rest during the middle of the day; I drank a lot of fluids.  I made it back to Boston that evening — barely — and went straight to bed, assuming all would be clear the next morning.

When I woke up, the walls were still spinning, just as they had been.  I started googling.  Now — it’s important to note that I don’t have a standard health profile — 5 years ago, right after our son was born, I discovered that I had several large blood clots, in my intestines and in my head, and I’ve been seeing hematologists, neurologists, and rheumatologists, and have been on blood thinners, ever since.  As you can imagine, the intersection of “dizziness” and “blood clots” is not a good one.

So I headed straight to the ER Tuesday morning, and ended up being scanned, tested, and admitted overnight.  Turns out I did not have a stroke, but rather I have Vertigo caused by an enflamed cranial nerve (likely due to a virus of some kind).  Vertigo is a really strange thing: first, it’s amazing how much we take for granted our brain/body’s ability to understand and interact with the space around us; when that stops working, it’s very distressing.  And second, it’s (perhaps even more) amazing how well the brain can adjust, adapt, and re-learn, when certain things stop working the way they had been — I’ve been doing PT to re-train my brain, eyes and ears to understand what’s moving and what’s not moving, and where I am — and it’s been surprisingly effective.

But that’s not the point of this story.  The point of this story is about how much effort, charm, and determination it takes to get effective medical care — even in the best case scenario with excellent health insurance, great hospitals, and top doctors.

One of the toughest things about last week was getting all of the doctors on the same page with one another. I’ve got a PCP, a rheumatologist that I used to see in NYC, a history of cat scans and MRIs (from NYC and Boston), a hematologist in Boston — and now as of last week, a Neurology team in Boston following my case.

All of these doctors — each of whom knows a piece of my story and has expertise to offer — do not have a way to talk to each other, and their method of sharing information is outdated at best.

The result of this situation is a mad scramble.  Trying to get record requests initiated.  Trying to compare new images to old images.  Trying to get the specialists to weigh in with each other or at least communicate at all.  Trying to figure out where the PCP is.  Waiting on hold.  Leaving messages for doctors that don’t get returned.  Being scheduled for new cat scans and MRIs that may or may not be necessary — if only all of the doctors could communicate with one another, and work off of the same set of information.

For instance, the day after I was discharged from the hospital — and we headed to Cape Cod for what remained of our attempted family vacation — the Neurologist in Boston called and said they noticed something new on the cat scan from two days prior — and I needed to come back in for another scan.  That meant a 4 hour drive, finding someone to watch the kids (luckily both sets of grandparents were with us), another night away, and another day worrying about what could be.  And it’s altogether likely that better communication among doctors — and easier use of past records — would have made this unnecessary.

Luckily for me, I have a secret weapon.  My wife.  When it comes to medical issues, she has been through a lot — in particular, a decade of dealing with Chron’s disease and Thyroid Cancer.  She has learned — the hard way — what it takes to get through the confusion, uncertainty, bureaucracy, under-communication and fear of having a complex medical situation.  She know that you not only need to get connected with the right care at the right time, but you have to be a quarterback, pitbull, and snake-charmer at the same time to get things to happen.

In her words, you need to be the sweetest pitbull.

Never ever go away or let anyone off the hook, while at the same time, get everyone to like you and care about you.

My attitude is a bit different — I try to avoid being a burden, and tend to assume that people will do their jobs correctly if you let them.  I leave messages.

Frannie’s approach is different.  On Thursday when we went back for my additional cat scan, we showed up in person at the Hematology unit and the Neuro unit — unannounced; no appointment.  We tried to make friends with the receptionist (critical).  For a moment, it seemed like she would brush us off, but then she said “well, let me call the head nurse and see if she can come talk to you.”  Bingo.

The head nurse (an angel if there ever was one) came out and saw us.  Carved out a few minutes to talk.  Mid-sentence, as I was explaining my situation, she ducked out of the room and came back with record requests forms for NYC.  With her other hand, she dialed in the scheduler for the next possible appointment and got me set up. With her other hand, she took down the Neurologist’s information so she could coordinate with him. With her other hand, she had NYPH records department on the phone.  With her other hand, she scribbled down her direct line, her pager number, and the Hematologists cell phone number.  She had a lot of hands and she was using them all at once.  Because we were sitting there.

When we were done I gave her a huge hug and actually cried a little.  The difference between having a person who knows you, sees you, and can move the gears of medicine for you — and a person at the end of a phone line or email — is astounding.

And I would never have gotten there were it not for the sweetest pitbull gnawing and smiling our way in.

I guess the point of this story is that it shows me how broken the medical system is.  Even in the best case, there is such a lack of communication, coordination and information sharing.  Data is everywhere and nowhere.  Decisions are slower and harder to make than they should be.  Expensive diagnostics are over-used.  Every patient needs their own sweet pitbull to help pry the doors open and get the system to pay attention them and care about them.

Thinking about this in terms of apps and data — it showed me, crystal clear, that there’s got to be a better way to do medical collaboration.  What I wanted, throughout all of this, was a simple private chat room for me and my doctors — all of them — that provided easy access to my history of records, diagnostics, and care providers, across locations and hospital networks.  A place that let me  — and them — ask questions and get answers, and keep everything in one place that everyone could work from.    Of course, there are untold barriers to this vision: insurance, risk/liability, data security.  But it seems obvious to me that that’s the future we should be shooting for.

In the meantime, we can simply hope to recruit the sweetest pitbulls to have our backs. I know I am super thankful to have mine.

The open internet and the freedom to innovate

I spent the last two days in meetings with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and his staff, discussing their proposed Open Internet rules (aka net neutrality).  Monday’s meeting was with a group of NYC VCs, and Tuesday’s meeting was with group of NYC startup CEOs and GCs.

Coming out of these meetings, and after working on this over the past several months, a few things have become increasingly clear.  Specifically, what we mean when we talk about the “freedom to innovate” and why it’s important for the future of the internet (both infrastructure and applications).

The question that the Chairman opened both meetings with was: how can the FCC achieve the dual goals of “access” and “flexibility”.  ”Access” meaning the ability for websites, startups, apps and content providers to reach end-users (and vice versa), and “flexibility” meaning the ability for internet access providers to expand and improve their networks in new (and potentially unexpected) ways.

Access: innovation without permission (on the network)

Yesterday’s startup meeting led off with each company[1] talking about why the open (non-discriminatory, non-prioritized) internet mattered to them — in particular, why it mattered to them when they were just starting out.

Eli Pariser from Upworthy put it perfectly, when he said: “I’m here because I’ve thought a lot about the tests you have to go through as a startup CEO. And I’m very thankful that one of the tests I *didn’t* have to pass was the Knows How To Negotiate A Complex Deal With A Large Telecommunications Conglomerate Test. I’m not sure many of us could have passed that test in the early days of our companies.” Amen.

Many companies noted how long they had operated before they need to hire a biz dev person or an in-house counsel.  David Karp from Tumblr noted that their GC was hire #37 (this was considered early) and they didn’t hire a biz dev person until the company was 7-1/2 years old.  Chad Dickerson from Etsy noted that their first GC was hire #500.  Erik Martin, GM of reddit noted that they he is their policy person (out of a staff of about 50).  Every company in room was able to reach and serve millions of users and customers without having to negotiate a pay-to-play deal with a carrier first.

The buzzword idea is “innovation without permission” — the ability to launch an app, try out an idea, start writing, start competing with the big boys, start gaining real users, just by hitting enter.  Anyone — a 16-year-old kid with an app or a 75 year-old grandmother with a blog — can simply start.   No need to hire a lawyer, negotiate a deal for access, or (in the worst case) file and litigate a complaint with the FCC.

Then, as David Pakman put it in the VC meeting, “the users can king-make the apps” (as opposed to the carriers charging, and picking, winners).

This is what brought us the internet we have today, and this is the world I want to live in.

Flexibility: freedom to innovate (in the network)

Regardless of whether we want ISPs to “innovate” in the first place, a central and critical question in the open internet debate is how to stimulate ongoing investment in our internet infrastructure.  To make internet faster, cheaper, and better for everyone.

This is the contentious issue.  Some argue that open internet rules would remove incentives for investment in infrastructure, by limiting the ways internet access providers are allowed to charge.

In the VC’s meeting on Monday, my colleague Brad said the following (as published in the forthcoming FCC ex parte filing — emphasis mine):

Mr. Burnham pointed out that the relationship between innovation in the network and innovation on the network is more nuanced than often assumed. For example, integrating the network more closely with applications by making the network application-aware may be advantageous from a business perspective, because it allows access providers to control the economics and the innovation at the application layer. Mr. Burnham recalled that when he worked at AT&T, at a time when that company introduced several application aware network architectures in an effort to compete with Internet, the network engineers there were so worried that changes in the network would break applications, that innovation in the network was very rare. At the same time, investment and innovation in and on the Internet was growing exponentially because the Internet’s layered architecture separated the applications from the network and allowed each to evolve independently. He argued that regulatory policy that continues to separate the network and applications layers by requiring ISPs to manage their networks in ways that are application agnostic will promote innovation not limit it.”

In other words, separating the applications layer from the network layer actually stimulates investment in both, by giving both the freedom to innovate.

The Virtuous Cycle

This brings us to a central idea:the “Virtuous Cycle” of innovation and investment:

This theory of innovation and investment — in both the applications layer and the network layer — is the core idea behind the FCC’s 2010 open internet rules.  And, contrary to what many critics argue, this rationale was not overturned in the recent court case vacating the rules.  Rather, the court simply ruled that the FCC could not enforce those rules without reclassifying ISPs as “telecommunications services” under Title II.  From the court’s decision:

“Internet openness, it reasoned, spurs investment and development by edge providers, which leads to increased end-user demand for broadband access, which leads to increased investment in broadband network infrastructure and technologies, which in turn leads to further innovation and development by edge providers.” (link)

“[The FCC’s] justification for the specific rules at issue here—that they will preserve and facilitate the “virtuous circle” of innovation that has driven the explosive growth of the Internet—is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence. ” (link)

So that’s where I’m at right now.  I believe in the power of innovation without permission.  And I believe that we need to stimulate expansive and ongoing investment in our internet infrastructure.  And I think the best way to do that is to align everyone’s incentives and give everyone the freedom to innovate.


[1] Companies attending the 7/15/14 meeting: BuzzFeed, Codecademy, Dwolla, Etsy, Foursquare, GeneralAssembly, Gilt, Kickstarter, Meetup, Reddit, Spotify, Tumblr, Upworthy, USV, VHX, Vimeo, Warby Parker

Joi’s 9 principles of open innovation

I spent the day Tuesday at the Civic Media conference, put on annually by the MIT Center for Civic Media and the Knight Foundation.  In addition to being a gathering of a fabulous community of civic hackers and builders, it’s also where Knight announces the winners of the NewsChallenge grant contest each year (here are this year’s winners, in the category of “strengthening the internet“)

Closing out the conference was Joi Ito, head of the Media Lab (and also on the Knight board).  I always love listening to Joi speak, and reading his writing.  He is like the Yoda of open innovation.  The force is strong in him.

In his remarks, he lays out his 9 principles for guiding the Media Lab into the future, which really double as 9 principles for open innovation. They are:

  • Resilience over strength (I would actually change this to “resilience over rigidity”)
  • Pull over push
  • Risk over safety
  • Systems over objects
  • Compasses over maps
  • Practice over theory
  • Disobedience over compliance
  • Emergence over authority
  • Learning over education

This video is the best example of how I try to think about the world, and how I try to work, as I can think of.  It’s speaks to the USV investment thesis, to the ideas behind Regulation 2.0 (in particular resilience over strength and emergence over authority), and to the impacts that the web is having on every sector of the economy.

Here’s his talk — it’s 27 minutes worth watching, for a pure dose of Joi’s philosophy of innovation and the internet:

The FCC open internet vote

Yesterday, the FCC met to vote on its notice of proposed rulemaking regarding the Open Internet.  As was generally expected, the commission voted, along partisan lines, to move forward with their plan for Open Internet rules — a plan that, as currently designed, would allow for fast lanes and slow lanes on the Internet.  (You can see the summary fact sheet here and the full notice here).

There are really two issues:

1) Should we be striving for an open internet — more specifically, should we ensure that everyone has open accessto the internet, unrestricted by internet access providers; and

2) How do we achieve that

On #1, I would encourage everyone to watch Chairman Wheeler’s remarks from yesterday’s meeting (embedded below). I was struck by how dead-solid he came out with a yes to that question.  He spoke emphatically of “One Internet” and of enumerated all the ways he would stand up to internet access discrimination.

The issue is #2.  The FCC’s current plan is big trouble.

But the win, incremental as it may be, is the rather dramatic shift in tone that the Commission has taken — specifically, explicitly considering reclassifying internet access providers as “common carriers”.   The pressure from internet activists, tech companies (both at the applications layer and the transit layer), and investors, has had an impact.

After yesterdays FCC meeting, I joined a press call and gave the following statement:

Union Square Ventures is a venture capital firm that manages $1B in assets and invests in the applications layer of the internet — apps like Twitter, tumblr, Etsy, Foursquare, Kickstarter, SoundCloud, and many more.

As investors in internet applications, we’ve seen firsthand how the level playing field for startups that has existed with the open internet has been critical to the explosion of innovation and investment over the past decade.

And we also know how an environment controlled by gatekeepers with end-user monopolies can stifle investment and innovation.

That’s why we joined over 100 other VCs and internet investors in communicating this to the FCC and Chairman Wheeler in a letter last week.  Collectively, we manage billions of dollars in investment capital and have invested in internet applications with hundreds of millions of users.  And every one of these services started as a tiny company with virtually no resources, and very little chance of succeeding, even before worrying about discrimination and blocking from Internet Access Providers.

At today’s meeting, we were pleased to hear the passion with which the Chairman voiced his support for unfettered, open access to “one internet”.  It’s clear from his remarks that he believes in the value of, and the need for simple, enforceable rules that protect a wide-open marketplace for internet applications.

Clearly, the debate over the next six months will focus on how best to achieve that goal.

There is substantial concern that the FCC will not be able to practically achieve its open internet goals under its section 706 authority, which means that looking closely at an approach under Title II of the communications act is a logical next step.

So, we look forward to engaging in that discussion, with the FCC, with the startups and other investors we work with on a daily basis, with carriers and with the public that is building more and more of their lives on top of the open internet every day.

So we will see where this goes.  Starting now, and through July 15, the doors are open at the FCC for lobbying and public comment. One thing you can do today is write a letter to the FCC, stating what the open internet means to

The important thing is to keep up the pressure.

FCC’s response to the VC open internet letter

Over the weekend, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler sent a response to the letter that over 100 VCs and angel investors submitted last week.  In the letter, we stressed the importance of an open internet as a foundation for the stunning levels of investment and innovation we’ve seen in the internet applications sector over the past decade.

You can read Chairman Wheeler’s response here (also embedded below).  It reiterates high level support for an open internet and states that all options, including Title II reclassification of internet access providers, are on the table.  The latter part is the key — with the FCC going on the record that a discussion Title II reclassification will be included in the upcoming Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM).

This letter, combined with the reports over the weekend that the FCC may be revising its approach to open internet policy, are, at the very least, a step in the right direction and an opening in the conversation.  But there is still a long way to go on this issue, and a lot of work to be done over this conversation continues over the next few months.  The next step is the publication of the NPRM at this Thursday’s Commission meeting.

For those who are just jumping into the conversation, here is some good background reading:

 * Tim Lee’s explanation of how payments for traffic on the internet work, and why what the ISPs are attempting to do disrupts the whole model

 * AT&T’s filing, arguing against open internet rules

 * Jon Brodkin’s (Ars Technica) coverage of the reaction to AT&T’s letter (Jon’s coverage of this issue is a great place to follow the goings on)

 * Barbara van Schewick’s breakdown of the issue, including concrete examples of threats & harms posed by a non-open internet.

And finally — a concrete action to take, if you haven’t already, is to sign the White House petition in support of an open internet.


Defending the open internet

Over the past few weeks, the future of the open internet has come into sharp focus, as the FCC’s 2010 open internet rules were struck down in court, and then plans for new rules from the FCC came into public view.  Amidst fears that the internet is f**ked, debate has raged about what this all means for internet users, entrepreneurs and investors.

Today, we are joining a group of about fifty over 100 VCs and angel investors to voice our concern to the FCC as they consider how to proceed — specifically, regarding the impact that we expect a retreat from open internet rules to have on internet innovation.

It’s undeniably clear that the Internet has been an insanely fertile platform for innovation and investment over the past ten years.  It’s less well understood that during that time, internet access providers have operated under a de-facto state of open internet policy (dating from this 2005 FCC memo), even before the 2010 formalized open internet rules were announced.

This open market environment has made it possible for tiny startups to build global platforms.  For example, it allowed Foursquare to get to 100,000 users on $25,000 dollars and Tumblr to reach millions before they hired their 10th employee.  They were able to compete on equal terms with the largest incumbents, and gain the love of users purely on the merits of their service.

And we’ve seen how the shift in the mobile landscape from a carrier-controlled market to an app platform market, with the launch of the iPhone in 2007, has blown open the mobile market for innovation and investment.  We’ve also seen how, as mobile app platforms exert more control and restrict access to the market, the cycle of innovation slows.

So today’s letter states our hope that the FCC will weigh all available options when considering how to maintain the most competitive, vibrant market possible for internet applications.

You can read the letter here (also embedded below).  We pulled this together quickly over the past 24 hours, and weren’t able to directly reach as many VCs and other investors as we would have liked, so will gladly welcome additional signatories throughout the day today before we formally file this with the FCC tonight. Email nick [at] usv [dot] com if you’d like to join.

This debate is just picking up, and it will be critical for everyone who cares about innovation on the internet to wrap their heads around this issue, and engage on it, as the FCC runs its rulemaking process through the summer and fall.


Turning 35

Today I turn 35.

30 was certainly a milestone, but somehow 35 feels more solidly different than 30 did (or maybe I’m just 5 years in to being used to 30-level grownup-ness).   Closer to 50 than to 20.  Gives me shivers thinking about it that way.

For a while now, it’s seemed that every coming year, with its associated challenges and opportunities, has been more interesting and more rewarding (though not necessarily easier) than the previous one.  I hope that continues. And as much as it feels weird to be entering middle-ish age, it is also solidly amazing to be spending time with my family as my kids become little people (they are 2.5 and 4.5 now), and to be continuing to explore new frontiers at work.

It’s also odd to be entering an era where I can start to actually remember my parents at that same age.  Not quite yet — my dad was 41 and my mom 36 when I was born — but getting close.  There is something crazy about that.

On this day that’s supposed to be about me, I will just say thank you to everyone who has helped me get this far, who has helped make life possible (mom and dad!), interesting, challenging :-), and fun.  Here’s to more.

I don’t know how to shop anymore

The sole is starting to peel of from my snow boots, so I’m in the market for some shoe goo or Gorilla Glue.  I’d really like to get it today because the flapping sole is getting annoying.

As I was thinking about this just now, I realized that I don’t know how to shop anymore.

In other words, I don’t have the faintest idea how to buy shoe goo, today, in a real place.  I guess 10 years ago I might have googled for shoe stores or department stores, and then called them, but I can’t possibly imagine doing that now.

My (and I know I’m not alone) go-to now is to order on Amazon and forget about it for a day or two.  That is really easy and works for almost anything.  But it’s not the same as getting it today.  And I’d really prefer to buy from a person in a place if I can.

For example, I needed a watch battery for a garage door opener.  Rather than try to figure out where to buy that in the real world, I ordered it on amazon and waited.  That seems silly for such a tiny thing, that is actually available in lots of places.

What i would really like is a shopping interface like amazon, but that just points me to local merchants.  Someone I can walk to on my way to the subway.

You are probably saying: but google shopping already does this!  And you are right, sort of.  They do offer a “find in stock nearby” option — but the problem is that it’s only got big box stores and dedicated e-commerce sites.  My guess is that there is a bottle of Gorilla Glue closer to me than the nearest Home Depot.

The folks at TalkTo are one group that’s approaching this problem — by surfacing answers to the”is this in stock” type questions via a phone-to-web interface, and publishing them online.

It would be great if this, or something like it, works, and I can learn to shop locally again.

Total freedom in exchange for total surveillance

Today I signed up for TSA Pre-Check.  I gave the some (rather minor) details about my background and scanned my fingerprints.  In two weeks, I’ll get a known traveler ID, and will then be able to skip the line and keep my jacket/shoes/belt on when traveling domestically. Convenience in exchange for surveillance.  It’s a trade I’m gladly willing to make, in this case.

This touches on a bigger question that’s been on my mind recently, especially in regards to regulation 2.0, which is: are we trading total freedom for total surveillance?

That’s a provocative way of putting it, but to some extent that’s at the heart of what’s happening now, as we develop new systems for establishing & maintaining trust, both in the private sector (on platforms like ebay and airbnb) and in the public sector (regulations like business and driver licensing).

I’ve put it like this before:

Another way of describing this is:

1.0: establish trust by passing an up-front test (i.e., licensing)

2.0: establishing trust by tracking and publishing your activities (i.e., surveillance)

So, in the case of ebay, airbnb, etc the idea is: have at it, start transacting, with a relatively low barrier to entry; but everything you do will be tracked and analyzed, and used to build your reputation and trustworthiness in the long run.  Freedom to act & transact, in exchange for data-driven accountability.

There are lots of reasons why this model is incredible and groundbreaking.  First off, it’s scalable.  1.0 / licensing-based schemes require a ton of overhead, and can easily be overloaded at high capacity. 2.0 regulation is less expensive and completely scalable.  Secondly, it lowers the barrier to participation, making it easy to get started and experiment.  Whether you’re selling baskets on etsy (that could one day become a huge business) or starting a blog (which one day could become the huffpo) this low barrier to entry is one of the key characteristics of web-enabled innovation.  So, we want to preserve and enhance both of those.

BUT, there is a tension here, which is that innovation/creativity/experimentation means — by definition — stretching/breaking boundaries and acting outside of the status quo.  So while transparency on the one hand increases freedom (by being able to “just get started” in exchange for data), it can also stifle it, by snuffing out good ideas that are outside the norm, or by making it unsafe to challenge power.

In the more mild cases, this can be seen as “weird” and in the more severe cases can be seen as “radical” and threatening to power.  So there is an inherent need to experiment outside of the sunlight of transparency.

A friend recently made the point that we need to think about personal privacy differently than we do institutional privacy (govts, corporations) because of the institutional power that comes with mass data collection, and the potential for that power to be used to manipulate (on the corporate side) or persecute (on the government side) individuals.

Yet at the same time this personal data holds the key to certain kinds of freedom (in the “just get started” kind of way), and also will play a huge role in solving epic societal problems (cancer).

So, if your interest is in supporting experimentation & innovation (as mine is) how can we reconcile these two competing forces?

(p.s., I am going to see how many posts in a row I can use that graphic in)

Pond hockey


Happy New Year everyone.

I love new years.  It always feels to good to turn the page and have a shot at a fresh new year.

And new years in New England is always so so cold — which I think really helps mark the beginning of the real part of winter and the turn of the year.  Even when it’s warm right before new years, as it was this year, it always manages to get super freezing when the time comes.

Which brings me to pond hockey.

Today, we went to visit some friends who live near Lake Boon in Stow, Mass, which is about 45 minutes west of Boston.  Amazingly, because it was so warm and rainy last week, and then so cold this week, the lake got a natural Zamboni treatment — so all 163 acres of it are not only frozen solid but also smooth as can be.  I spoke with a woman who had just finished up hockey with her family — she grew up in the area and said that in her whole life she’d never seen the lake like that.

It’s was unbelievable, really — launching from the town beach and skating as far as you felt like, around the edge of the lake or straight across it.  There were tons of people out on the lake — a bunch of pick up hockey games (our friends counted 5 separate DIY rinks marked out around the lake), people just taking a nice tour, and even a guy riding a motorcycle back and forth across the middle (amazingly).

I’ve written before about why casual & natural is so awesome, and today’s experience totally confirmed my view on that.  Being able to skate around, wherever you like, however you like, passing around a puck and buzzing around the lake: unbelievably awesome.  So so much more awesome than skating at a skating rink — which is also fun, but so much less fluid, with so many more rules, and so much more formality.  You’ll notice in the picture that our friends brought their dog out onto the lake.  How awesome is that?

I think about this idea of the casual / integrated version of a thing, vs. the formalized version of it.  I don’t know why I feel so strongly about this, but I feel so much magic in doing things the casual way.  For example, riding your bike to pick up some groceries, vs organizing a bike ride.  Or skating to work along the Ottowa canals, vs going to a skating rink.  I just love the way fun activities like that feel when they are blended into your daily routine, rather than an event that has to be organized, or done at some special single-purpose facility.

Anyway, it was a great way to start off the new year. I feel refreshed and energized and ready to skate off into 2014.  Here’s to an excellent 2014 everyone.


Pebble: first impressions


Last week, having been inspired by (of all things) this awesome and awful samsung gear commercial, i ordered a Pebble smartwatch.

I can’t remember the last time I wore a watch — maybe it was 20 years ago in high school.  My standard line for the past 10 years has been “why do I need a watch when I have my phone?”.  I’ve carried my watchlessness as a some kind of badge of honor since then, pledging my allegiance to the post-watch generation.

But this is different, of course, as smart watches so much smart watches as wearable computers with a watch app.  There is almost no question tha wearable computers are going to be a big part of our future, so we might as well start experimenting with them.

Here are my really brief first impressions, after having worn the watch for two days:

Apps: the thing I’m most excited about with Pebble is that it’s an app platform, with developers starting to experiment with features that are uniquely suited to a connected watch.

But it’s not yet clear to me what the “killer app” for this watch is.  The use case that seems most appealing to me is calendar integration — specifically, prompting me with information about the when & where of the specific meeting I’m heading to.  I also like the idea of the vibrating alarm (though I don’t really like sleeping with it on).  Email and SMS notifications are OK.  I can’t wait for my first chance to check in with Foursquare from my watch.

That said, the process of setting up the phone did (IMO) a really bad job pointing me to where all the apps are.  The “Get Watch Apps” button included in the Pebble app just links to a list of skins for the default time-telling feature.  I had to google to find the Pebble Apps app, a Play store directory of available pebble apps.

So the initial experience was kind of disappointing — I couldn’t get the app to do much more than tell the time and receive text messages.  I was confused — like “isn’t this supposed to be able to do more?”.  Just an issue with the onboarding process that should be relatively easy to fix.

It turns out that there are a small handful (50 at the moment) of Pebble apps available

Comfort: wearing a watch is cumbersome and annoying to begin with, and this watch is a bit bulky.  So right off the bat, it has made me feel a little bit uncomfortable.

Also, and maybe this is just the way my arms and hands are put together, but I haven’t found a really comfortable way to push the buttons yet.  I’m either reaching over the top of the watch awkwardly or reaching around the bottom of the watch awkwardly.

UX: The basic UX of the watch is pretty simple — a “back” button on the left side, and “up” “down” and “enter” buttons on the right.  You click through a series of side-by-side screens similarly to how you did on early ipods.

You manage your settings using a paired phone app (in my case the Android one)

Again, I feel like there is a lot of room for improvement in the way the app works — especially the onboarding process, where there are some glitches (asking me to connect to my phone even though i’m already connected), and some missed opportunities (pointers to apps, as I mentioned above).

There are a bunch of rough edges — for example, when you load a new app onto the phone, the progress bar gets to the end but then nothing happens prompting you to do the next thing.  And try as I might, I can’t configure my gmail to notify me with my Priority inbox emails rather than the firehose inbox (which, if I can’t fix it, will result in me just turning email notifications off).

Also, the connections between the pebble core app and all of pebble “apps” is confusing, as you bounce around between a variety of apps (the core pebble app, the pebble “loader” app which loads apps onto the phone, the Pebble app catalog app, each individual app, etc).  It’s disjointed and confusing.

All in all, none of these are deal breakers, and I’m sure are just the result of this being a really new platform.  I just hope that enough of the folks who got Pebbles as Christmas gifts aren’t thrown by it, especially the less technical / geeky ones.

So, in conclusion — there’s no question that there is a lot of potential here.  And I really like the Pebble story and approach, and the fact that they are an independent player.  So I am rooting for them, and I will keep wearing the watch, for at least the next few weeks, to see what other habits form or great use cases emerge.

Winning on trust

“It is trust, more than money, that makes the world go round.”
— Joseph Stiglitz, In No One We Trust

The week before last, I visited Yahoo! to give the keynote talk at their User First conference, which brought together big companies (Google, Facebook, etc), startups (big ones like USV portfolio company CloudFlare and lots of way smaller ones), academics, and digital rights advocates (such as Rebecca MacKinnon, whose recent book Consent of the Networked is an important read) to talk about the relevance of human/digital rights issues to the management of web applications.

I was there to speak to the investor perspective — why and how we think about the idea of “user first” as we make and manage investments in this space.

First, I want to point out a few things that might not be obvious to folks who aren’t regulars in conversations about digital rights, or human rights in the context of information & communication services.  First, there has been substantial work done (at the UN, among other places) to establish a set of norms at the intersection of business and human rights.  Here is the UN’s guiding document on the subject. Second, in terms of digital rights, the majority of the conversation is about two issues: freedom of expression/censorship and privacy/surveillance.  And third, it’s important to note that the conversation about digital rights isn’t just about the state ensuring that platforms respect user rights, but it’s equally about the platforms ensuring that the state does.

The slides are also available on Speakerdeck, but don’t make much sense without narration, so here is the annotated version:

As more and more of our activities, online and in the real world, are mediated by third parties (telecom, internet and application companies in particular), they become the stewards of our speech and our information.

Increasingly, how much we trust them in that role will become a differentiating feature and a point of competition among platforms.

A little background on who I am:

I work at Union Square Ventures — we are investors in internet and mobile companies that build social applications.  I also have academic affiliations at the MIT Media Lab in the Center for Civic Media, which studies how people use media and technology to engage in civic issues, and at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School which studies tech & internet policy.  And my background is working in the “open government” space at organizations like OpenPlans and Code for America, with a focus on open data, open standards, and open source software.

So, to start out: a guiding idea is that the internet (as we know it today) is not just an open, amorphous mass of random peer-to-peer communications.  It’s actually a collection of highly architected experiences:

Whether it’s the governance structure of an open source project, the set of interactions that are possible on social platforms like Twitter and Tumblr, or the web-enabled real-world interactions that are a result of Craigslist, Airbnb, and Sidecar, much of the innovation and entrepreneurial activity in the web and mobile space has been about experimenting with architectures of collaboration.

Web & mobile technologies are giving us the opportunity to experiment with how we organize ourselves, for work, for pleasure and for community.  And that in that experimentation, there are lots and lots of choices being made about the rules of engagement.  (for example, the slide above comes from an MIT study that looked at which kinds of social ties — close, clustered ones, or farther, weaker ones — were most effective in changing health behavior).

At USV, we view this as part of a broader macro shift from bureaucratic hierarchies to networks, and that the networked model of organizing is fundamentally transformative across sectors and industries.

One big opportunities, as this shift occurs, it to reveal the abundance around us.

I first heard this phrasing from Zipcar founder Robin Chase and it really stuck with me.  It’s as if many of the things we’ve been searching for — whether it’s an answer to a question, an asthma inhaler in a time of emergency, a ride across town, someone to talk to, or a snowblower — are actually right there, ambient in the air around us, but it’s previously not been possible to see them or connect them.

That is changing, and this change has the potential to help us solve problems that have previously been out of reach.  Which is good, because for as much progress we’ve made, there are still big problems out there to tackle:

For a (relatively) trivial one, this is what most California freeways look like every day.  In much of the world, our transportation systems are inefficient and broken.

…and this is what Shanghai looked like last week as a 500-mile wide smog cloud, with 20x the established limit for toxicity, rolled in for a visit.  We obviously don’t have our shit together if things like this can happen.

…and we have tons to figure out when it comes to affordable and accessible health care (not the least of which is how to build an insurance marketplace website).

…and education is getting worse and worse (for younger grades) and more and more expensive (for college).  There’s no question that the supply / demand balance is out of whack, and not taking into account the abundance that is around us.

So: these are all serious issues confronting global society (and the ones I mentioned here are just a small fraction of them at that).

All of these issues can and should benefit from our newfound opportunity to re-architect our services, transactions, information flows, and relationships with one another, built around the idea that we can now surface connections, efficiencies, information, and opportunities that we simply couldn’t before we were all connected.

But… in order to do that, the first thing we need to do is architect a system of trust — one that nurtures community, ensures safety, and takes into account balances between various risks, opportunities, rights and responsibilities.

Initially, that meant figuring out how to get “peers” in the network to trust each other — the classic example being Ebay’s buyer and seller ratings which pioneered the idea of peer-to-peer commerce. Before then, the idea of transacting (using real money!) with a stranger on the internet seemed preposterous.

Recently, the conversation has shifted to building trust with the public, especially in the context of regulation, as peer-to-peer services intersect more and more with the real world (for example, Airbnb, Uber, and the peer-to-peer ride sharing companies and their associated regulatory challenges over the past three years).

Now, a third dimension is emerging: trust with the platform. As more and more of our activities move onto web and mobile platforms, and these platforms take on increasing governance and stewardship roles, we need to trust that they are doing it in good faith and backed by fair policies.  That trust is essential to success.


In terms of network & community governance, platforms establish policies that take into account issues like privacy, enforcement of rules (both public laws and network-level policies), freedom of expression and the freedom to associate & organize, and transparency & access to data (both regarding the policies and activities of the platform, and re: the data you produce as a participant in the community).

When you think about it, you realize that these are very much the same issues that governments grapple with in developing public policy, and that web platforms actually look a lot like governments.

Which makes sense, because both in the case of governments and web-enabled networks, the central task is to build an architecture around which other activity happens.  You build the roads and the other essential public infrastructure, and then you set the ground rules which enable the community and economy to function.

Of course, there is a major difference: web networks are not governments, and are not bound by all the requirements & responsibilities of public institutions.  They are free to create their own rules of engagement, which you agree to when you decide to participate (or not) in that community.

This is both a plus and a minus, when it comes to user rights — the major plus being that web platforms are competitive with each other.  So that when there are substantive differences in the way platforms make and enforce rules, those differences can be the basis for user choice (e.g., it’s easier to move from Facebook to Google than it is to move from the US to Canada).

I would like to put some extra emphasis on the issue of data, since it’s growing so quickly and has been so much at the forefront of the public conversation over the past year.

We are generating — and sharing — more data than we ever have before.

Everywhere we go, on the internet and in the real world, we are leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that can mined for lots of purposes.  For our own good (e.g., restaurant recommendations, personal health insights), for social purposes (crowdsourced traffic reports, donating data to cancer research), for commercial purposes (ad targeting & retargeting, financing free content), and for nefarious purposes (spying, identity theft).

One distinguishing idea within all of this is the difference between data sharing that we opt into and data sharing that happens to us.  Certain web services (for example USV portfolio company Foursquare, highlighted above) make a business out of giving people a reason to share their data; getting them to buy into the idea that there’s a trade going on here — my data now for something of value (to me, to my friends, to the world) later.  It’s proving true that lots of people will gladly make that trade, given an understanding of what’s happening and what the benefits (and risks) are.

Convincing someone to share their data with you (and with others on your platform) is an exercise in establishing trust.

And my feeling is that the companies that best establish that trust, and best demonstrate that they can stand behind it, are going to be the ultimate winners.

I think about this a lot in the context of health.  There is so much to gain by sharing and collecting our health data.

And If we don’t get this right (“this” being the sensitive matter of handling personal data), we miss out on the opportunity to do really important things.

And there is no shortage of startups working to: a) help you extract this data (see 23andme), b) help you share this data (see Consent to Research and John Wilbanks’ excellent TED talk on sharing our health data), and c) building tools on top of this data (see NYU Med Center’s virtual microscope project).

We are pushing the boundaries of what data people are willing to share, and testing the waters of who they’re willing to share it with.

Which brings us back to the idea of competition, and why winning on trust is the future.

We are just just just scratching the surface of understanding whether and how to trust the applications we work with.

EFF’s Who Has Your Back report ranks major tech & communications firms on their user protection policies.  The aptly-titled Terms of Service; Didn’t Read breaks down tech company Terms of Service and grades them using a crowdsourced process.  And, most effectively (for me at least), the Google Play store lists the data access requests for each new application you install (“you need my location, and you’re a flashlight??”).

You might be saying: “that’s nice, but most people don’t pay any attention to this stuff”.

That may be true now, but I expect it to change, as we deal with more and more sensitive data in more parts of our lives, and as more companies and institutions betray the trust they’ve established with their users.

There is no shortage of #fail here, but we can suffice for now with two recent examples:

Instagram’s 2012 TOS update snafu caught users by surprise (who owns my photographs?), and this summer’s NSA surveillance revelations have caused a major dent in US tech firms’ credibility, both at home and especially abroad (not to mention what it’s done to the credibility of the US gov’t itself).

So… how can web and mobile companies win on trust?

We’re starting to see some early indications:

Notice the major spike in traffic for the privacy-oriented search engine, USV portfolio company, DuckDuckGo, around June of 2013, marked by [I] on the graph.

Some companies, like Tumblr, are experimenting with bringing more transparency to their policy document and terms of service.  Tumblr’s TOS include “plain english” summaries, and all changes are tracked on Github.

And of course, lots of tech companies are beginning to publish transparency reports — at the very least, starting to shine some light on the extent to which, and the manner in which, they comply with government-issued requests for user data.  Here are Google’s, Yahoo’s and Twitter’s.

There are juicier stories of platforms going to bat for their users, most recently Twitter fighting the Manhattan DA in court to protect an Occupy protester’s data (a fight they ultimately lost), and secure email provider Lavabit shutting down altogether rather than hand over user data to US authorities in the context of the Snowden investigation.

And this will no doubt continue be a common theme, as web and mobile companies to more and more for more of us.

And, I should note — none of this is to say that web and mobile companies shouldn’t comply with lawful data requests from government; they should, and they do.  But they also need to realize that it’s not always clear-cut, that they have an opportunity (and in many cases a responsibility) to think about the user rights implications of their policies and their procedures when dealing with these kinds of situations.

Finally: this is a huge issue for startups.

I recently heard security researcher Morgan Marquis-Boire remark that “any web startup with user traction has a chance of receiving a government data request approaching 1″.  But that’s not what startups are thinking about when they are shipping their first product and going after their first users.  They’re worried about product market fit, not what community management policies they’ll have, how they’ll respond when law enforcement comes knocking, or how they’ll manage their terms of service as they grow.

But, assuming they do get traction and the users come, these questions of governance and trust will become central to their success.

(side note: comments on this post are combined with this thread on, as an experiment)