• VC Josh Felser: Small Steps are Better Than None

    bio-joshfelser (1)This week, a new study found that tropical cyclones worldwide are moving out of the tropics and more toward populations of people, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s the kind of news about which we should be more aware, and concerned. But in the land of social media, it commanded about as much attention as a new software update from Blackberry — which is to say it went largely unnoticed.

    Josh Felser isn’t okay with that. Which explains why the successful entrepreneur turned venture capitalist is trying to change the conversation through #climate, a new nonprofit that has enticed a small but growing number of people to download its app.

    Here’s how the process works, loosely: The months-old organization researches and produces information on hundreds of climate-oriented nonprofits. It then produces shareable “actions” based on users’ interests. If I were predominately focused on the Amazon rainforest, for example, I might be pointed to the Rainforest Trust organization, along with a tweetable link about saving the cotton-top tamarin. My Facebook friends or Twitter followers could then click on that link to learn more about why these small primates are endangered and, hopefully, donate to Rainforest Trust.

    It’s a tall order, of course — getting people to use the app, as well as ensuring the prompts are so compelling that social media users, despite their short attention spans, take the time to click on them.

    Felser argues that he had to start somewhere. “You can’t look at this as a viral media app,” he told me during a chat last week. “Getting people to focus or take action on a negative [like global warming] is hard. But we know that in the last three weeks, we’ve driven 35,000 unique visitors to various nonprofits’ sites. That’s hard to do and I feel really good about it.” (Asked if his team can track how many donations have resulted from those visits, he says the technology exists, but that getting nonprofits to change their code is “a bit of a challenge.”)

    So far, certain sports and entertainment figures have had the most impact on social media, including the band Guns N’ Roses, which has been asking fans to help save the Amazon, and the NBA, which has been promoting green initiatives and sustainability.

    Felser would like to see many more of his colleagues in tech take an interest, though. Tweets of congratulation on his efforts have been nice, he suggests, but as far as he’s concerned, the Silicon Valley startup community needs to get more visibly involved in amplifying the work of climate organizations.

    “We’ve created climate change and we have to fix it or it will destroy us,” says Felser, alluding to drought in the Middle East and Africa and rising sea levels that are putting people at risk in coastal regions like eastern India and and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. “It makes poverty worse, it makes malaria worse, it makes everything worse.”

    Felser says not everyone has to get behind climate change, though he thinks they should. Eventually, his organization will broaden its mandate to include many other causes.

    Either way, he persuasively argues that the tech industry is missing an easy opportunity to be helpful. “I’m not sure that people in tech understand the impact they can have, with their knowledge, expertise, and reach. All are underutilized resources. They’re so passionate about entrepreneurship and tech that many forget the substantial impact they could have on the world if only they’d apply [themselves] to a cause.”

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  • VCs and Twitter: A Simple Relationship Turns Complicated

    VCs on TwitterOver the weekend, New York Times reporter Jenna Wortham wrote of Twitter that it “seems to have reached a turning point, a phase in which its contributors have stopped trying to make the service as useful as possible for the crowd, and are instead trying to distinguish themselves from one another.”

    If Wortham is becoming disillusioned with the platform, she’s hardly alone. Even venture capitalists – among Twitter’s savviest and earliest users –no longer view Twitter with the same zeal they once did, with a growing number turning away from the service for longer periods of time, if not logging off altogether.

    Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz talked with investor-entrepreneur Semil Shah last November about why he no longer tweets as actively as he once did. “I actually think Twitter has changed,” said Dixon, whose tweet count is nearing 15,000. “Part of it is Twitter just got more popular…For me, the golden days of Twitter were 2010 maybe, 2011, where it was a bunch of early adopter/startup people…now, everyone realizes that if you say something wrong, it’s going to be excerpted and put on Business Insider…so I just think everyone is vastly more on guard, and it’s just not as fun.”

    On New Year’s Day, another power user, Shervin Pishevar of Sherpa Foundry, announced that after an astonishing 34,777 tweets dating back to 2007, he’d decided to “take a break” – for all of 2014. It was time to “disconnect from this overtly present present and live in the moment more,” Pishevar wrote on Medium, the newest publishing platform launched by Twitter’s cofounders.

    In a more recent renouncement of the platform, Paul Lee, a general partner at Chicago-based Lightbank, tweeted last Wednesday that he was “Going to be taking a break on twitter for a while (at least trying).”

    When afterward, I asked Lee why, he explained that Twitter “ended up taking a lot of mindshare and creating a lot of noise in my head.” Though Lee consumes more than he publishes (over the last six years, he has sent 2,342 tweets), he finds Twitter just as distracting as someone who more actively participates in conversations.

    “Imagine you’re in a meeting and you have eight people sitting on your shoulders,” he said. After logging on, even for brief periods, “It kind of felt like that. My mind was going 100 miles per hour.”

    Plenty of VCs still actively use Twitter, of course. Homebrew cofounder Hunter Walk says that among the ways it helps him as an investor is his ability to share his thoughts, meet new people, and “lazyweb” questions about who is working on what.

    Walker, who says he spends “toooo much” time on the platform (he has composed more than 18,000 tweets), says it doesn’t exhaust him primarily because he tries to use it “as a human being who also happens to be a VC.”

    Josh Felser, a cofounder of Freestyle Capital, similarly says that his approach is not to overthink things but rather “say mostly whatever I want.” Felser (12,600 tweets) also notes that Twitter is “helpful in building my business brand” particularly given that “most entrepreneurs are on it.”

    Lee acknowledges the same value in Twitter that Felser sees. In fact, he says Lightbank has funded two startups that it sourced through Twitter. “So from a branding perspective – meaning branding of [Lightbank] and self-branding – it’s been really effective.”

    Still, Lee says he’s prepared to avoid it for a while, even if he’s uncertain for how long. “It’s only been a few days,” he told me Friday morning. He said he was already feeling “less tied to it, less compelled to check it.” But he was also quick to call it “an experiment. I don’t want to get ahead of myself.”

    Meanwhile, the Twitter fatigued might pay special attention to Marc Andreessen, someone known for the shrewd way in which he has marketed his venture firm. A big fan of “counterprogramming,” Andreessen has taken to Twitter with great relish over just the last month.

    In the six years prior, he sent out two tweets.

    Correction: The original version of this story referred to Wortham by her Twitter handle, @jennydeluxe.

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  • Series A Investors Take the Gloves Off

    bio-joshfelserIn recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about the symbiotic relationship between seed-stage and Series A investors.

    But things are becoming a little less symbiotic of late, suggests Josh Felser, co-founder of Freestyle Capital, a San Francisco-based seed-stage firm that recently closed on a second, $40 million fund. Felser says that he has encountered a number of Series A deals recently that “pitted the entrepreneur against the seed investors.”

    Here’s the scene that Felser has seen playing out more and more: A VC agrees to invest $5 million into a company with a $20 million pre-money valuation, giving the startup a post-money valuation of $25 million. The company’s seed investors, presumably holding convertible notes, ask to invest an additional $2 million in the Series A round to maintain their pro rata rights. But the VC refuses to go above the $25 million post money, telling the entrepreneur that if he or she wants to make room for those seed investors, the company will have to accept a lower pre-money valuation.

    It isn’t a new tactic. It’s always been the case that some VCs don’t play nice with seed-stage investors. In certain situations, too, there are simply too many seed-stage investors to accommodate; if everyone maintains their pro rata rights going into the Series A, it doesn’t give the VC firm enough of an ownership stake to make the investment worth its while.

    Still, in recent years, some Series A investors have either left room for seed investors or at least been upfront about their designs to maintain specific ownership levels, thus giving entrepreneurs the opportunity to look elsewhere.

    That’s changing, says Felser, who has been involved with two recent investment rounds where VCs have put entrepreneurs and their seed backers in precarious positions by not disclosing their true intentions until very late in the game.

    Felser tells me of one startup raising a Series A round that asked Freestyle to invest less than the $750,000 it had planned after the Series A investor laid down some inflexible terms. Felser and Freestyle co-founder Dave Samuel — successful founders themselves — reminded the entrepreneur of how much work they had poured into the startup. (As Felser jokingly tells it, for effect, they refreshed the entrepreneur’s memory over lunch in a darkly lit nightclub that opens out into an alley.)

    Ultimately, the founder made room for Freestyle, accepting a lower pre-money valuation in the process. But Felser says the trend is “something [for early investors] to be worried about” and calls relations between seed and Series A investors “symbiotic still, but tense.”

    Says Felser, “We depend on each other.” He acknowledges that “fixing the post-money [valuation of a startup] can make a ton of sense,” too. But he doesn’t like that some VCs are starting to play hardball, or that it’s happening “sneakily deep in the process” all of a sudden.

    “It’s something we’re mindful of,” he says.

    Photo courtesy of Freestyle Capital.

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