APIs First

Lots of discussion about whether a service should be “mobile first” or “web first”.  I tweeted it actually should be “API first”, and I got a lot of reaction to that comment and asked to expand.

First let me clarify.  I believe mobile IS important and a huge emerging channel.  Source of traffic has shifted dramatically and I don’t have my head buried in the sand in that regard.  Across many of my companies, mobile origination (tablet included) comprises anywhere from 30-50%+ of traffic.  I recognize that access patterns have structurally changed.

When I say API first, I mean that an idealized service needs to start with a core infrastructure with robust APIs that is tapped into via any number of “front ends”:  web, mobile, and even 3rd party ecosystems.  If you look behind many “web first” companies today, including in our portfolio, you’ll see a very clean architectural split between the front end and the back end.  The back end exposes a range of services that allows the front end to innovate independently and be re-purposed in interesting ways depending on changing business needs.  The rate of change on the front end is usually a LOT higher than in the back; the scale and stability requirements on the back are far more demanding than on the front.

“Mobile first” companies really are just a front end selection accessing a solid API driven backend infrastructure.  The use case, the logic, and what the app is optimized for may be a subset or different than Web, and I think this is what Fred Wilson and others are focused on.

But as I look at the world, while point of entry may vary, I believe having all three elements of web, mobile and 3rd party are going to be table stakes in the future.  You CANNOT be one only.  Users want different experiences for their different point of engagement.  Mobile is about speed of access, much more transactional and timely, very much about getting something done.  The web is great for researching, deliberating, and exploring.  Both are different aspects of the same service, and I’d want both as a user depending.  Finally, enabling third parties is a realization of the web services and SOA manifests from the late 90s that allow for programmatic distribution and can launch powerful new economic models.

Facebook has already shown us the above and what a powerful, mature, winning service looks like.  They have their core site, their massively used mobile applications, and their various graphs 3rd parties access which gives them tremendous power, platform extension, and plata.  Instagram, normally cited as the poster child for “mobile first”, recently announced they intend to move consumption to their core web site.

So to wrap up, sure, there might be some apps that are best started purely in a mobile context.  But I’d bet 99% of the services out there will have to incorporate all three elements and that starts with building an incredibly solid foundation.  API first, front end second, all screens third.

Excited to Announce Artisan!

Sometimes the best journeys are the ones into the unknown.  I remember catching up with Bob Moul after he had left Dell late last year.  He had spent a lot of time focusing on Philadelphia’s startup tech scene, passionately working with the Mayor’s offices and programs like DreamIt.  The one area Bob kept coming back to was mobile – as a new frontier, a new challenge, and potentially a new opportunity.

He met Scott Wasserman, founder/CTO of AppRenaissance, and joined on as CEO.  It was a talented team of mobile developers building custom mobile apps for companies.  While the apps they built were really solid, to say it’s not an obvious venture investment was an understatement.  But we loved Bob and the great work he had done at Boomi (sold to DELL in November 2010), and were going to partner with him in whatever area he found interesting.  “Don’t worry, by working closely with customers we’ll find the product opportunity in here,” he said.  That was a few months ago.

Well, today I am thrilled to announce they found that product far more quickly than I anticipated.  Artisan aims to bring to the mobile app world the deep set of tools and infrastructure that exist on the web today.  The initial product is an A/B/n testing software, which allows companies to target specific users with a different look and feel, without requiring coding changes and resubmission to the app store.  Simple examples could be showing a Platinum color app for holders of an American Express Platinum card, while Gold for others, and Blue for those on that product.  One could test how button placements affect conversion.  Or explore user flows within an app.  Again, all areas marketers understand well, have done on the web, now available on mobile!

The best thing is that the platform will extend to a lot of different areas, ranging from advertising to personalization.  Lots more to come here, but I think Bob’s vision of building a large public software company out of Philadelphia is much closer to reality.  I’m delighted to partner with the team and sure as heck we took that journey into the unknown!

What Changes the Second Time Around?

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged but I’m trying to get myself back on it again. I thought I’d kick off on the backs of our seed investment into appRenaissance announced today.

The CEO of appRenaissance is Bob Moul, whom I had backed in his last company Boomi in 2008. They were a pioneer in the cloud based integration market and Bob led the business to a great exit in 2010 to DELL. Bob left DELL a year later to jump back into the startup world. He eventually caught the mobile bug and joined appRenaissance as CEO earlier this year. When I got the call, it was a no-brainer and we were delighted to partner together again. It got me thinking, what changes the second time around?

  1. Price and terms get figured out quickly. Seasoned entrepreneurs know the game; they know the pros and cons of too high/too low; they know the danger of running out too quickly or overcapitalizing; they don’t get sucked in by the hype in the echochamber; you don’t have to unwind all the misconceptions that exist out there. There is a tremendous clarity that allows us to virtually waste no time in coming to a handshake. Whether it was Bob Moul at appRenaissance or Chet Kanojia at Aereo, the conversation took a total of 10 minutes and we were onto building something great.
  2. Don’t need proof because the trust is there. For first time entrepreneurs, generally people like to see some evidence of execution. We want to see what you’ve been able to accomplish, before and now. The relationship is so new that it’s hard to take people simply on their word. We want to see it in some numbers somewhere. The second time around, we already know what you can do and have done before. We’re glad to take early risks blindly because the trust is there.
  3. Neither side worries about protecting outside case scenarios. You know the ones I mean… Spending a few weeks defining “Cause” and how to get a ladder of severance lengths based on that. Taking great pains to ensure you approve budget because someone might set one at zero and pay themselves insanely. Having to define exit thresholds and multiples because both sides worry about blocking (or not accepting) an exit because someone didn’t think they made enough money. In general, we never get hung up on the above, but they are real and these are the outside cases that strangers might try to protect. The second time around everyone focuses on the core issues, dealing with things that set up good governance and good mutual accountability, and knock them down easily.
  4. It’s a lot more fun. If you’ve had a good outcome with someone, it’s likely the second time, an entrepreneur will be thinking bigger, focused more clearly and will want to build longer. Bob’s goal now is no less than to build a big public software company based in Philadelphia. We love BHAGs like that – it clarifies the mission and energizes all around.

Since starting FirstMark in 2008, I am getting my first wave of entrepreneurs coming back for our second time together, and it’s fantastic. We’ve made it a point to build early, deep and longstanding relationships that make us a place to go again and again. They serve as the best references for new entrepreneurs (first time or repeat) we endeavor to work with. And I look forward to doing so in the future with the many incredible first time entrepreneurs I’m so privileged to be involved with now.

Here Comes Android

Certain things are all about timing.  My situation with my smartphone is one of them.  I have grown incredibly frustrated with AT&T’s service on the iPhone, to the point where I am close to a breaking point.  3-4 drops on a stationary 30 minute call with full bars?  As much as I love the iPhone with all its applications, there are definitely a few things I would change about how it handles email support.  I can’t help but think back to the simple but reliable days of my Verizon Blackberry (putting aside of course my VC requirement to have an iPhone).  I am vulnerable, I am questioning, I am searching for how this gets better.  Timing could not be better for some solution to this, as so far, the only answer has been to hope the iPhone continues to innovate and launches on Verizon in 18 months.  As those doubts have come creeping in, I see the promising “iDon’t”, “Droid Does” ads from Verizon, causing me to pause and think.  And I don’t think I’m the only one.

Android itself comes at an impeccable time.  The entire industry is in pain, with the exception of Apple, who is now suffering from the woes of its partner’s network.  The industry is crying out for a viable third party, open solution.  Windows Mobile is currently getting terrible reviews, Linux on the mobile has had fleeting momentum, and Android is benefitting from the major halo surrounding Google.  Motorola is staking the next generation of its franchise around the device.  Verizon’s strong network and user reputation is using Droid as their play against the iPhone until Apple comes to the table with more reasonable terms.  New specific function devices are proliferating, with the launch of e-readers, tablets, slim phones, smartphones, TV/movie devices, etc, all requiring a system to manage resources.  And a whole community of developers is inspired to make Android successful – in and outside of cell phones.

My belief is that Android will become a lasting, successful platform in the mobile device space.  I also believe the ecosystem around it – including an open store, applications, games – all will follow.  Apple has the clear lead, but with no other player having the critical mass to build an alternative (other than Microsoft who seems to losing momentum), Android becomes a real galvanizing alternative.  Whatever the outcome, I hope it leads to reliability and choice for consumers!

Fearing the iPhone Push

With Apple’s 3.0 version of the iPhone quickly approaching, one of the most widely anticipated features is the “Push” functionality.  This allows developers to send alerts, notifications, and other communications to the phone without the application actively being run. 

While one can see the obvious utility in the feature, the part of me that manages my email inbox is dreading the feature.  I am not as bad (or efficient, you pick the term) as those who manage to a “zero inbox“, but I do try and make an effort to have no unread emails every few days.  With this new Push feature, I’m envisioning throngs of app developers desirous of keeping me engaged with their app sending daily, hourly, and minutely notificifations.  I’m imagining paging across the screens in my iPhone and seeing 40+ apps each claiming I have 30+ new notifications.  And I’m thinking the Email manager in me will start to feel very behind….

So what will happen?  I’d bet the following:

  1. I will find exceptional utility from the few apps that I use regularly that provide me with notifications, and will try to stay as current as possible with them.  The Push feature will enhance my productivity.
  2. I will no longer feel comfortable looking at screen after screen of apps I barely recognize indicating I have a bunch of missed messages.  I will start deleting apps that I currently dont use but keep on my phone in the background. 
  3. I would bet my reaction will not be dissimilar to others, and notification “spam” will eventually hit a tipping point.  Apple will step in to regulate the push feature.  They will ensure all notifications are explicitly opt-in and customizable, not simply by virtue of agreeing to download the app.

All of the above is with the caveat that I dont have the details for how Apple will make the feature available to developers.  But I’m hoping I don’t have a new stack of attention draining activities to manage….