The Knowledge: Ron Conway
When renowned Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway finds a product or innovation that interests him, we want to know about it. Here he shares the emerging trends, philosophies, and even the country that he’s keeping his eye on. From new ways to build consumer loyalty to word-of-mouth charity contests, Conway provides examples of modern solutions being applied to age-old offline problems.
‘Rent instead of buy’ doesn’t just apply to houses anymore. Now there’s Zipcar for car sharing, Listia for swapping physical goods, and Zaarly for soliciting local services – all of which have the potential to disrupt long-established industries. New societal and technological changes are creating online communities built around trust and reputation where users can transact directly with one another, offering flexibility and removing the burden of large fixed costs.
Brazil is South America’s biggest economy and largest recipient of foreign investment, and it’s gaining a powerful new middle-class of eager consumers who should be on the mind of any company that’s looking to innovate on a global scale. With hosting duties for World Cup soccer in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 on Brazil’s agenda, I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more in the next few years.
Software Eating the World
I’m really inspired by what fellow VC Ben Horowitz said in a recent online debate: That our economy is shifting because software is ‘eating’ the world. Put simply, software from Amazon to Netflix to Pandora is consuming and transforming huge offline and physical markets at an unprecedented clip, creating new businesses and rendering old ones unrecognizable. The fundamental trends that Ben cites, like a tenfold increase in programming productivity, enable this to happen and render previous market size estimates obsolete.
It’s one thing to build a successful company online but it’s another thing entirely to build a beloved consumer brand. Warby Parker, an online eyeglasses retailer headquartered in New York, sells hip and high-quality glasses through a gorgeous interface at almost unimaginably low prices, because its founders discovered a brilliant way to cut out the ‘middleman’ factor. They also donate a pair of glasses to a person in need for each pair that they sell.
You might know Chris Poole as ‘moot,’ the founder and moderator of the forum 4chan – a huge, influential hub of internet pop culture and viral trends. (Ever heard of ‘lolcats’ or the Rickroll? They started on 4chan.) Last year, he debuted Canvas, a site that gives creativity- and humor-minded internet users like 4chan’s a broader suite of tools so they can build the next wave of digital micro-entertainment. Poole is extraordinarily young – he was 15 when he started 4chan in 2003 – but is one of the smartest people out there when it comes to understanding how online communities grow and thrive.
Online to Offline
Thanks to advances in mobile technologies, the links between online and offline commerce are becoming much stronger. We’re seeing the merger of digital payment models with incentives for consumers to go to physical stores, where merchants can forge more meaningful relationships with them. Services like Groupon and shopkick add a tracking component, letting merchants know how online behavior influenced offline purchases. Social media and social commerce sites are also creating loyalty and advocacy, influencing the ‘traditional’ offline business.
Just being able to shop online isn’t enough. The most innovative new retailers are seizing new ways to build buzz and get shoppers to help them spread the word. Niche retailers like Fab, Everlane, and Lot18 bring limited-inventory shopping to discerning buyers who seek the feel of an independent boutique, and reward users for sharing their finds with friends; while sites like Svpply and Pinterest let users curate what amounts to their own digital product catalogs. It’s inspiring to watch these new brands build loyalty.
University of California at San Francisco Medical Center
I’m a member of the Chancellor’s Advisory Board here and am active in fundraising for its new UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. Last year, we partnered with Causes.com on a fundraising competition where we rewarded not the deepest pockets but the ability to spread the word. The competitor who encouraged the most other people to donate received naming rights for a new recreation space in the children’s hospital. Influential people from all over the tech community, from Google’s Marissa Mayer to actor-investor Ashton Kutcher, led ‘teams’ of their own.
Social Discovery & Community
Many new ways are springing up for people to meet one another based on shared interests and affinities. I’ve invested in a few companies that are really pushing the boundaries here, like LAL (short for ‘like a little’), a sort of digital icebreaker for college students looking to meet one another, and Friend.ly, a question-and-answer site that encourages you to express yourself so that your friends can get to know you better. These sites are building really engaging communities.
Founders at the Helm
The common wisdom used to be that if you were a young entrepreneur, one of the first things you should do is hire somebody experienced to run your company. But after seeing the extraordinary dose of creativity and energy that Apple received after Steve Jobs’ return following a decade’s absence, the value of a founder is more important than ever to the world’s most innovative companies. Now you see young founders like Dennis Crowley of Foursquare and Brian Chesky of Airbnb who are as eager to build and lead a company as they are about hatching the next big idea.
"It’s one thing to build a successful company online but it’s another thing entirely to build a beloved consumer brand"
- Published September 2011