DC Needs a Fred. Any Takers?

FredWilson cropped.pngProfiled in Sunday’s New York Times, Union Square Ventures‘ Fred Wilson is a legend of contemporary venture capital — a title previously reserved for West Coast luminaries like Moritz and Doerr, and maybe a couple others. At Web 2.0 Expo in New York last week, Wilson was greeted with cheers usually reserved for celebrities. . . or rock musicians.

We don’t need a celebrity here in DC. But it would be great to have a venture capitalist with a fraction of Wilson’s passion, commitment, and drive. It’s not so much that he’s an investing legend. . . what’s amazing is his sheer devotion to his companies, his followers, and everything Web 2.0.

By his own admission, Wilson’s had his share of bad calls. But most of that goes back to The Bubble, when he was at Flatiron Partners. I was at a startup (liveprint.com) pitching Flatiron in 1998. I met Wilson briefly back then, as well as the firm’s the most vocal partner, Jerry Colonna; the partner who ended up leading our investment was Bob Greene.

Flatiron’s highest-profile investment was probably deliver-to-your-door service Kozmo.com. I remember getting a Kozmo.com hat. Kozmo raised $100M, before its legendary implosion. I left liveprint.com after the first Flatiron (~$3M) round, before an additional ~$40M bought all those Aeron chairs, and the chairs were acquired (along with the rest of the company) by Kinko’s in a transaction so complicated that no one knew what they had until a check arrived in the mail.

According the NYT profile, Flatiron wrote off a third of its investments.

But Wilson returned, humbler and smarter. To me, he’s the quintessential early-stage VC. Why? Because he’s so focused on his space, and passionate about his companies. True, he’s been accused of shilling for them . . . but from an entrepreneur’s standpoint, the benefits of having such a high-leverage, high-profile investor on your team is literally worth millions (not to mention what you’ll save on not needing a PR firm.)

Just watch Wilson work. He uses nearly every one of his portfolio company’s products — twitter (6,571 follow him @fredwilson), disqus, tumblr. Add these to his blog (A VC), and he’s one of the most prolific posters on the planet.

DC needs a Fred.

Or maybe a Josh. Josh Kopelman, though less vocal than Wilson, has put his money where his mouth is, on behalf of the venture fund he founded just outside Philadelphia, First Round Capital. In fact, First Round has made no fewer than 57 early-stage investments, nearly triple USV’s portfolio.

Or maybe a Bijan. Or a Brad.

And this isn’t just about attitude. There are clear metrics here. Several mid-Atlantic firms talk about their ‘seed’ programs. But the litmus test is: name the ones routinely doing investments in the $250k – $1M range. For most firms, the funds are just too large for the math to work — invest a $250M fund $500k at a time, and you end up with 500 startups in your portfolio. That’s a helluva lot of board meetings.

Which is why First Round usually doesn’t take a board seat. (Most VC firms have a six-seats-per partner limit.) This is about volume (or more accurately, statistics). Quicken the cycle of investment, trim the due diligence, invest more with the gut . . . and let the odds work in your favor over a larger statistical sample. Though time will tell, based on initial exits, it seems these guys are doing pretty well.

So while it’s good to see them on the East Coast (Silicon Valley has sufficient players that none is noteworthy) — and Baltimore, DC, and Northern Virginia are certainly within their flying radius — it’s just not the same as having our own local VC hero. I mean, how sad is it that a local meetup was organized for DC Fans of Fred? (Full disclosure: I was there, and met some great, like-minded entrepreneurs.)

And perhaps more than anything else, these guys get Web 2.0. Unlike most VC firms, USV is not only not afraid to invest in pre-revenue companies, they will invest before a revenue model is even figured out (twitter, tumblr, disqus). So who out there will claim this mantle? Anyone? Anyone?

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What's a Social App Developer to do?

To Mike Lazerow, CEO of new-age ad agency BuddyMedia, Facebook is the future. Big brands trying to reach the world’s 500,000,000 social network members are ringing his phone off the hook, because his firm has the skills to create branded apps — what he calls ‘the new ad unit.’ But what might they bode for us ‘pureplay’ app developers?

For most, not good. First of all, BuddyMedia, Context Optional, and a few others are blazing this trail because traditional ads — display and links — don’t work, which is why (as we all know) there’s beaucoup excess inventory and CPMs are in the crapper. Second, consider this: branded apps are all about engaging users, and those 250,000 active users playing Rundezvous (the game BuddyMedia built on behalf of New Balance) are, uh, not on your app.

Third, what they’re doing contributes more to the overall signal-to-noise problem than you might expect. Not so much that they’re adding to the 32,000+ Facebook apps anywhere near what 400,000+ registered developers are piling on each day, but because each branded app media program includes buying engagement — Lazerow averages $1/user to get them to show up. (Oh, you hadn’t planned on spending $100k to seed your app?)

Finally, it stands to reason that these guys will get better at what they do. Since Rundezvous players earn ‘AceBucks’ redeemable for actual (not virtual) running shoes, a whopping 57% of users came back at least nine times. BuddyMedia developed a Facebook version of InStyle magazine’s Hollywood Hair Makeover — an app that lets you swap your face with a celebrity’s, so you can see how you’d look in their hairstyle — which had negligible traffic on InStyle’s website.

Hollywood hair.png

At O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 Expo in New York this week, Lazerow provided Makeover’s latest Facebook stats:

➢ 185,000 installs in 6 weeks

➢ average time on app: almost 7 minutes

➢ 47% of total user base has returned to the app more than 25 times

➢ the average user tried 3 hairstyles

Some pretty decent numbers. And, unlike traditional ad campaigns, this one hints at something that just could be perennial. (Women were even printing out the results and taking them to their hairdressers.) Dang, if there were a second-order viral component to it (more than than just telling your friends), it could kill.

So what’s a social app developer to do?

Well, it still starts with building a great app with true viral attributes, getting it up, testing, tweaking — nothing’s changed there. But if it’s revenue you’re after (duh), time for some new creative thinking. We’re working several angles for our startup, CHALLENJ, a social gaming utility (under construction). Here are two — maybe one fits what you’ve got.

1. Can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. If you’ve got a themed game, why not pull a BuddyMedia? Get your own advertiser, and turn it into a branded app. (Try to think of it as a sponsorship . . . rather than selling out.) This, of course, would be easier if you’ve already launched and are putting up some respectable numbers.

2. Market your engine. Less applicable to most maybe, but what we’re working on is something has some underlying functionality that’s not only useful for us, but would be useful to BuddyMedia and their ilk. Without going into detail, it’s analogous to, say, a polling app, or better yet, the functionality of social-debate platform CreateDebate.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. At the Social Gaming Summit in San Francisco this past June, Acclaim Games‘ Chief Creative Officer Dave Perry cited 29 business models for games.

There is still success to be had — and money to be made — if you’re creative. Time is not on our side, however. With apps that enable non-programmers to build apps now emerging — lolapps recently raised $4.5M to do just that — it’s only going to get noisier out there.

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Beg, Borrow, or Steal (Okay, Maybe not) Your Way into O'Reilly (Pt. 1)

Conferences, MeetUps, BarCamps, (even Par-Tays) play a critical role in your startup’s development. Don’t underestimate their value in networking, knowledge-building, and recruiting. Get out there, don’t wait. And budget for one big one.

In an earlier post, I talked about PodCamp/SearchCamp Philly — these, like Refresh DC (and other Refreshes) are no-brainers, because they’re mostly free. Get on their lists — and check DC Tech Events for others upcoming.

Now I’ll tell you about the other end of the spectrum — the vaunted O’Reilly experience (cue the ethereal angelic choir) — that was my epiphany in April.

My partner and I often talked about meeting up at some event (he’s in Phoenix), if nothing else, for the inspiration and change of venue (that’s French for ‘a place where our wives can’t bug us’). But with a self-funded start-up, the ~$1,500 Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco was a tad out of reach. Now, necessity is a mutha, so here’s what I did: I found every blog I could that offered free tickets, and entered their contests. Some were raffles, others with deep questions I spent hours working on responses to.

And I won.

The email arrived just before midnight — I woke up my wife like the house was on fire. “I won I won I won!!” It was fate — meant to be! An omen (the good kind) for CHALLENJ.

Just after midnight, I got the kicker while checking SideStep for flights. Since winners weren’t notified until four days before the conference, the cheapest airfare was $700. Gakk! Find some points — “Honey, wake up! Where are those vouchers we had”” — must get there, I said.

I even called a cousin who lives in SF whom I’d hadn’t seen in over twenty years. (“Hey, cuz, how the hell are ya? Mind if I crash at your place for a few days?”). As I said, necessity. . .

(btw, I have since learned about AirBed&Breakfast — a startup (of course) that enables people to offer their place (pad?) for you to crash at for way less than a hotel. (It kind of takes me back to my hitchhiking hippie days — my wife thinks it’s a perfect scenario for murder.)

Anyhow, somehow, it all came together. California, here I come!

Remind yourself that this is what startups do, that someday when you’re on your yacht in the Caribbean, you can bore people with this story!

Next post: Part 2: Why you must get to at least one O’Reilly a year.

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