Monday, April 9, 2012

What kind of fool do you think I am? (Air Supply, the Jam, MoneyMoves, BaubleBar, Simple, Fanbridge & Lot18)

"What kind of fool do you think I am? Do you think I know nothing of the modern world?"

The title consists of song lyrics to a wonderful tune by the Jam!  Why?...I'll tell you in a few lines, but first the news:
Earlier today I was interviewed on BloombergTV's Money Moves by very savvy host Deirdre Bolton (follow her on twitter at @deirdreBolton no, really, follow her -- she's smart as a whip). During the interview, the Instagram/Facebook deal broke and I reacted to it on the spot.
Here's the link.
I also got to talk about BaubleBar, the leading destination on the web for fashion jewelry.  Baublebar is an alumnus of FirstGrowthVN and a portfolio company of mine via GrapeArborVC
The interview also discussed Fanbridge, which is another alumnus of FirstGrowthVN and a portfolio company of mine via GrapeArborVC. Fanbridge is the leading fan management and marketing platform for email and social media.  Stars stay in touch with millions of fans each week via Fanbridge.
Having spoken of two of my angel investments, I turned, in a rare (for me) moment of humility, to discuss two investment opportunities I completely blew -- Simple & Lot18!
So now, here's why the Jam.  I was an idiot: they were right in front of me and I missed it. Formed in the 1970s, I was too busy listening to AirSupply -- yep, bought the damn tape.  How humiliating is that? (Have no fear, "I'm all out of love" for AirSupply right now).  I discovered the Jam some 15 years ago or so, but that was long after they broke up.  Here's a link to their song (quoted above), which isn't even among my top 3 favorite Jam songs (and what a song writer Paul Weller is!) Modern World.  This 1977 song is appropriate because the protagonist is basically screaming about how he doesn't need help figuring stuff out -- he's smart enough to know a thing or two! You can see it as anthemic -- the manifesto of angry young men -- or as hollow (in fact, I do need help, I'm just too stupid to know that).  With the power of hindsight, here's are two opportunities I missed and I confessed both on Deirdre's show:

Lot18 is a marketplace using expert staff to select wines.  Lot18 then connects wine producers and consumers --  the company doesn't own inventory or have classic e-commerce problems (warehousing and overhead).  What it does have is 750,000 users, $45M of venture funding and a team that has grown from 6 to 100 in 2 years.  They know their stuff and I don't own equity!  What was I thinking?
Simple -- well, we all know banks suck at customer experience. I know mine does (and I recently stopped a certain family member from going postal on our bank).  Simple provides an incredible customer experience -- it replaces your bank to provide a great and well designed customer experience.  Banks provide the back end (we can trust them to do things like keep our money in FDIC-backed accounts, etc), but Simple makes a great front end.  I had written a blog post about Simple co-founder (and early Twitter engineer) Alex Payne -- here's that one:
Enjoy and thanks to Deirdre and her team for welcoming me back on, especially during a newsworthy day!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Carousels, Salted Caramel & Magic...My 13 year old's guide to Paris

[My 13 year old daughter, Becca authored the following post.  I've added it because many of the people who have been asking me for Paris tips are seeking the best ideas for what to do with adolescents in Paris.  For context, Becca loves music, swimming, science, her friends (she might reverse that order), books, and fashion.  She aspires to be an entrepreneur.  She eats mostly plain pasta with butter and really, really wishes her family would vacation on the beach (sorry kid, we do love you though)! I should probably note that she wrote it not because she felt inspired by Paris, but because her dad compelled her to use her vacation time wisely...]

BECCA's Guest Post:

On every trip to Paris I “discover” new places I love and want to revisit.  There are, however, ten places that stick out in my head as places that keep drawing me back.  I always have to return to Sadaharu Aoki, an Asian-French fusion patisserie.  Every time that I go to Aoki I have to get the chocolate and salted caramel tart.  While Aoki is a bit of a walk from where I normally stay, it is also close to the much loved Luxembourg Gardens in the 6th arrondissement.  The gardens are huge and have something for everyone.  All kids will love the extremely modern and fun playground, which is right next to a terrific old carousel with an old fashioned ring catching game.  When we go, we also check out the go-cart racing and amazing gardens as well as the occasional pony rides.   Two other things that stick out in my mind about the Luxembourg are: the beekeeping farm and the pond for which you can rent and sail miniature sail boats.  The trail for walking is surrounded by wonderful exhibits of flowers, and stands for crepes, drinks, candy and balloons that come in really pretty marbled colors.  There is supposed to be a great puppet theater, too, but we’ve not made it there yet!  All in all, a fantastic park.

While I enjoy eating and playing, Paris is very well known for its shopping.  Some of my favorite places to shop are: the Bon Marche, shops and stands along the Champs Elysees, and Galeries Lafayette.  The Bon Marche has multiple floors for clothing, toys, fabric, furniture, food, and makeup.  The toy department is any young child’s dream, and for older kids there is amazing shopping and delicious food.  I recently came across the top floor, where I discovered a whole shop full of colorful fabric, string, beads and yarn.  A quick stop there enabled me to buy everything I needed to sew some bracelets for my friends and for myself.  The Champs Elysees is always buzzing with people, food, and shopping (I hear it is the most famous shopping street in the world) but I find it a little overwhelming during the holidays.  I love the Champs Elysees after Christmas, but it is difficult to breathe when all the Christmas shoppers are there. 

Paris is known for its museums and sight-seeing, from among its many museums and famous sights, for me there are certain must-sees.  One is of course, the Eiffel Tower.  I don’t even think you need a description to be sold.  The Pompidou museum has one of the fastest moving lines I have ever seen, and its three dimensional exhibits are always fun to hide or take pictures in.  The “winter room” (at least that’s what my brother and I call it) is super cool.  It was made by an artist named Dubuffet and we love just sitting in the nooks and crannies inside.  A really cool place to take younger kids is the Conciergerie, an old prison-turned-museum with wax figures in the cells. My brother and I love to take pictures of and with those wax prisoners!  La musee de la magie in the 4th arronidssement was a favorite every time we went to Paris with friends.  There are mechanical exhibits, a fortune teller booth, an amusing magic show every half hour, and a gift shop with easy, yet very cool magic tricks that can be purchased for 5 or 6 euros. 

There are always favorite places I can’t visit enough.  Yugaraj is one of those places.  (It doesn't seem to have a web site, so the link goes to a map of Paris showing you where in the 6th arrondissement the restaurant is located and containing some reviews).  The food is amazing. I recommend the paneer naan, which is home-baked warm Indian bread filled with delicious melted cheese but not too much cheese; just the right amount.  Yugaraj never has an “off” night.  The waiters are extremely nice, and are really good about handling special needs, which is a little less common in Paris than in New York (where all of us Americans have special requests). 

Now I know my dad asked me to make this a top ten list, but there is an issue in the macaron industry.  For those who don’t know what a macaron is, it is an upscale, miniature, pastry version of a whoopee pie, if that can be called a definition.  If you ask a random Parisian on the streets where to get the best macaron, they would say Pierre Herme.  But if you asked a second Parisian, they would say Laduree.  Multiple taste tests have been conducted and yet no one can come up with a perfect answer.  I think you’ll have to just try both places for yourself.  Feel free to bring back a few for me…coffee, passion fruit and pistachio are my favorites!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Dar Williams - Iowa (Traveling III)

Dar Williams - Iowa (Traveling III)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Favorite Paris iPhone App: G7 (Joe Le Taxi)

The title refers to the iconic Vanessa Paradis track from 1987 about a Parisian cab driver named Joe. J'aime beaucoup Vanessa Paradis and her tunes (she didn't write this one). My 13 year old daughter has another 10 or 15 months before she's fallen behind Vanessa P, who topped the French charts with this song at the ripe old age of 14! (She hit #3 on the UK charts at the time as well; astounding for a French language song). What's more astounding is that in the 25 years that followed, Paradis has continued to turn out really great albums (not just songs, but albums). Check out for her "best of" album (2011) and tell me you can stop humming track 12 -- Divine Idylle. That disc makes a great soundtrack for your family trip to Paris.
Which brings me to my one essential iPhone App for Paris travel.

G7 (when you speak, it sounds like g-set, though really it is g-sept) is a market-dominating lead generation service for taxis in Paris. Hailing a cab in Paris is tres difficile and quite different from hailing one in NYC. In NYC, you step off the curb and throw your arm in the air or whistle. Unless you look ill or are wearing a Red Sox hat, a NY cabbie will, at some point, stop.

In contrast, however, in Paris, you go to designated spots (the nearest of which may be 5 minutes away by foot, or by stroller, depending on your age). Even then you could end up waiting forever.

When in Paris my good samaritan deed is to tell other American tourists that the current effort they're mounting to hail a cab will fail and they need to walk a few blocks or call G7.
If you stay at a hotel the concierge can arrange for car service but if you aren't doing that, you really want this app. They also have an English language phone number +33 (0)1 41 27 66 99. I like to think that my French is good enough to cal their French language number, but my French really is deplorable.

The car generally arrives in 7 minutes (could that be the "sept" in G7?).

It does cost a few Euros for pre-ordering but it is pretty amazing and very worth it
A few things to note:
--in Paris, when you enter a cab, you must always say bonjour -- it isn't polite to just enter and provide the address. I usually ad a "Ça va?" (the French equivalent of "how's it going?"). Note: when the driver shoots back "Ça va" he's not repeating/mocking; he's giving an appropriate reply ("it goes")
--don't be offended when they don't know where you are going because they pronounce it differently -- I like to show them the address and there's usually this really profound moment of recognition as if they're saying -- "holy cow dude, was that what you were trying to say?"
--if you have more than 3 or 4 people, you may need more than 1 cab
--book well in advance for "rush time" car service (I once stubbornly made my family walk in the rain on Xmas eve for 45 minutes...but that's a much longer story)
--arranging airport pick up is difficult without an account at G7 and you probably don't want or need an account there so plan in advance for that.
--don't get cocky with your French in a cab. I once struck up a conversation in French with an Algerian cab driver. When he mentioned, in French, that the French had crushed his people, I began (in poor French) to speak of the French/Algerian conflict in the 1950s! He quickly, and with some pain, asked why in the world I would mention that when he was talking about the soccer game from last night! Yikes! Humiliating. I apologized profusely, left an enormous tip and shut the hell up. My parting advice, taken from Basil Fawlty: "Don't mention the war. I did once, but I think I got away with it!"
Hope that helps.

Kristof, Goldman Sachs, Sex Trafficking & Investor Responsibility

I know I usually write more light-hearted stuff and pepper my posts with musical allusions. Not this time.

Yesterday Nick Kristof wrote a story (found here: linking Goldman Sachs to trafficking in under-age sex trade. His piece asserts that Goldman 16% equity stake in and board seat at a private company that has 70% of the market for prostitution ads and has been roundly criticized for facilitating under-age sex trafficking. Goldman issues a statement saying it had no ability to influence management. Bull crap. I'd like any VC who ever owned stakes of greater than 10% and a board seat in any company to tell me that if they caught wind of horrific illegalities and human rights abuses at a portfolio company they wouldn't be all over that! One of the nice things about VCs is their ability to have an influence that's usually positive, especially where illegality and fraud are concerned -- ever see a VC catch wind of potential tax abuse at a company? Whatever flaws the venture community has, tolerating illegality isn't one of them, let alone tolerating human rights abuses.
Goldman's blind eye here is unforgivable. I reject the response on Good Men (which Kristof, who likes a fair fight, tweeted so that people could continue the debate) essentially trying to exculpate Goldman (found here Goldman had a diligence obligation and sat on the board for years while the company choked down revenues from despicable exploitation.

Goldman is now in the process of dumping its shares, along with a few other embarrassed stockholders. Again, Kristof is dead on accurate: "If the minority shareholders, Goldman included, worked together instead of rushing for the exits, they might be able to pressure Village Voice Media to get out of escort ads."

This sort of trafficking and prostitution more generally are very complex issues no doubt. Nonetheless, shame on Goldman, again. Goldman: use your position to make a change here, not too do a "walk of shame" as you run from an investment you've held for years -- years during which you were on notice or damn well should have been.