Ten years ago the iOS App Store launched — and the mobile revolution was off. Entrepreneurs everywhere rallied to take advantage, building category-defining consumer companies like Twitter, Uber, Lyft and Square, among many others.
There’s no better time for an entrepreneur to start a company than when a new platform like mobile emerges. The rising tide in these moments becomes a tsunami: Eager customers descend on services through word of mouth and new acquisition channels; there’s outsized press interest; and sales take off in part due to growth of the platform itself.
Now is not one of these periods. Mobile appears mature, and the next great enabling platform is still just past the horizon. That’s why many early-stage VCs have shifted their focus away from consumer and to other new enabling technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, blockchain and AI/ML.
I have a different view. I think now is a great time to build consumer companies, even without a new platform. There are three reasons for this. First, the internet has created big problems for humans, organizations and society, which entrepreneurs can attack at scale. Second, the first wave of mobile-enabled companies have laid a foundation — including processes, seasoned executives and business models — that new entrepreneurs can borrow. And third, mobile technology is still changing and evolving.
Let’s take a closer look at all three.
Solving big problems
The last wave of breakout companies created interactive platforms (Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, etc.) that have entertained many. They didn’t solve big societal problems. There’s now a big need — and big opportunity — for companies that can help people save time, money and sanity, even as they build great businesses.
Most of us now realize the major problems that a connected, mobile, always-on world has wrought. These include:
- Income inequality. Lower-income Americans are struggling more than ever. Entrepreneurs should be thinking of ways to help folks where they need it the most: the pocketbook. That might mean unlocking found money, ensuring that available financial resources are being used wisely or saving consumers from the growing number of “gotchas” imposed by financial institutions.
- Too many choices. When you can buy or choose anything, it’s hard to pick what you actually want. There are wide-open opportunities for concierges, curation and trusted guides.
- A lack of intimacy. With everything online and available at the touch of a keypad, genuine human interaction has become more rare. There’s a need for companies that can provide real care and curation for matters that affect our daily lives.
Newly available resources
After a decade of building companies for mobile, there are now untold stories, battle scars and people available for future companies to learn from. This makes it easier for startups to assemble playbooks and experienced teams. It also reduces the downside risk for investors, opening new paths to capital for companies that need it.
For instance, it’s now clear that consumer brands must define, own and curate an end-to-end experience. A great new example is GOAT, the online sneakerhead marketplace. Faced with a sneaker market full of rampant knock-offs, the founders invested in a capital- and time-intensive process to manually inspect every shoe for authenticity. The result is an experience that every sneakerhead loves and a breakthrough consumer brand.
Building a breakout consumer platform will be more complex, more challenging and often more capital-intensive than it was for the prior generation.
There are also lots of executives and teams that know how to lead and manage complex operations, especially on the ground. This is crucial to scale logistically complex ideas like Opendoor, Instacart and others.
The other thing needed to help scale these companies is capital. And right now, there are two particularly relevant new kinds of investors: 1) mega equity funds like SoftBank Vision Fund, and 2) alternative lending funds that provide non-dilutive capital to companies to finance the acquisition of traditional assets. Those capital sources enable companies like Opendoor (disclosure: I’m a personal investor) to own and manage a truly delightful end-to-end experience.
Mobile today is not mobile tomorrow
Mobile devices have come a long way over the last decade. And there will be many more meaningful improvements in the near future, allowing for new uses and new companies.
I anticipate breakthroughs that will boost the ability of the chips and subsystems on a phone to perform optimally for far longer. Right now, these are throttled due to heating issues and other problems. As companies solve these issues, they’ll create order of magnitude improvements on what our phones are capable of, bringing technologies like VR and AR, to take two examples, far forward into everyday use.
On the network side, 5G and subsequent buildouts will meaningfully change what kinds of bandwidth we can handle, enabling even more data and compute to be in the cloud.
Mobile today is about one-to-many broadcast platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Tomorrow’s great consumer companies will leverage a better vector: one-to-one customer intimacy. Companies like Grove Collaborative (disclosure: Mayfield is an investor) are experiencing hypergrowth in part by using real people connecting with consumers over text to bring a curated, personalized experience to shopping for household staples. I expect this to be a major trend, with the companies that earn the right to communicate more with customers the ones that win.
Building a breakout consumer platform will be more complex, more challenging and often more capital-intensive than it was for certain titans of the prior generation. But for those with the vision and substance to bring a valuable service to the world that solves real problems, the resources and emerging technologies will be there to help create the next groundbreaking consumer brand.
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