AMA: Aaron Timms of Cage Free Data & Hairshirt Ventures
Transcript of AMA session with Aaron Timms of CFD & Hairshirt Ventures, Dissrupt, NYC, June 12 2015.
VC: Well. Lots of happy faces in the crowd. That’s what I like to see. In 1664, [POWERPOINT] this guy, Louis XIV, or Louis Quatorze as he is or was known in his native France, began work on expanding this [POWERPOINT]: the Palace of Versailles. Today, millions of tourists visit Versailles every year to take in the magnificence of its lush interiors and exquisite gardens, and in 1919 Versailles became the venue for the signing of the treaty that ended World War One.
In 2006, Steve Jobs launched this [POWERPOINT]: the iPhone. A product as magnificent in its own way as the Palace of Versailles. Today, you can pretty much negotiate the equivalent of a Treaty of Versailles in the palm of your hand. You don’t need a palace. The palace is here. We can re-negotiate the end of World War One, in real time, using WhatsApp, or Skype, or Facebook messenger. Maybe not Facebook messenger. A couple of quick swipes and bang, German postwar reparations: done.
What is the point of this? Today, 2015, is your opportunity to build the Palace of Versailles. Not literally. That’s already been done. But figuratively, this is your chance to make something beautiful that could change the course of history.
Some of you are laughing. I get that reaction quite a bit. [POWERPOINT] You know, when I first had the idea for Cage Free Data five years ago, back in the old country — New Zealand or South Africa or wherever it is I’m from — a lot of people laughed. The idea of combining mindfulness, the organic, farm-to-table movement in food, and digital assets seemed ludicrous to many. But I had something they lacked: conviction. I firmly believed that for too long, we had been treating data the wrong way. We all used data, every day, but how many of us treated data well? Inhumane treatment of data was written into the very language we used to describe our interactions with it. We gathered data. We cleaned data, we manipulated data, we crunched data. But data has feelings. Data gets sad. Data has hopes and aspirations just like you and I. Data wants to live. Just give data a chance to live.
The idea behind Cage Free Data was to change that. At CFD we don’t crunch data. We partner with data. No data point in the ecosystem we have built goes unloved. People said it was a ridiculous idea, but just look at the results today: virtually every major corporation on the planet has taken its data cage free. We’ve changed data, and changed the world. Now who’s laughing? It all just goes to show: if no one’s laughing at you when you come up with your business idea, you’re not thinking radically enough. I see that a lot in my new life, now I’m a full-time VC. Even if your idea is shit, and very often it will be, there’s someone out there, somewhere, willing and ready to believe that it isn’t.
So I’ll now open it up to questions, but I just wanted to give you this little bit of advice before we do. Think bold. Think big. Think Versailles. So… who’s first up?
Tree: Logging companies in Latin America often don’t know which trees are endangered, and which trees are open for felling. The amateur tree enthusiast can often have trouble recognizing certain types of tree. And tree scientists rely on patchy and unreliable field data to get a handle on fluctuations in tree population. What we’ve done is build an app that answers all three use cases at once, allowing people to verify tree type and age with the simple click of a button on their phone. We’ve built out the product, but we’re getting a bit of resistance from the logging community. I guess what it would be great to hear from you is… what do you do when you face entrenched interests who hate your product and those interests are part of your core customer base?
VC: So… trees. Why trees?
Tree: There are lots of them. They’re everywhere.
VC: Have you thought about non-tree flora?
Tree: Not really. That’s not what our business is about.
VC: I think the problem you have is that most people just don’t know trees well enough for your business to scale. Name me some trees. Oak, elm. I can’t think of any others. If you want mindshare in a thick user base, you gotta go big. And I hate to say, but trees aren’t gonna get you there.
Tree: Where do you —
VC: Plants. Plants could be useful. Shrubs, ferns, cacti. Plenty going on there. But it’s all about how you go after them. You know, when I was starting Cage Free Data, a lot of VCs were skeptical of our ability to execute. So to answer that scepticism, we built a messaging bus, which we turned into a workflow, which we used to create a dashboard, which we inserted into a car, which we drove off a fucking cliff. After we’d done that, we came up with a business plan. But that’s not the point, the point is that ideas like that are what changes the world. Not… trees. Not trees. So you’re on the right track, just not quite on it, physically. In a way that you can stay there.
Tree: Well, I guess my question would be what do you suggest I do from here?
VC: Forget trees. Pivot to plants. Pivot to plants, and come back to me when you have some basic climbers or shrubs in the pitchdeck. Good luck, though. Guys, when you’re thinking about your business and how you’re going to grow it, never forget to ask this basic question: What’s your vision for the future? Where do you see yourself going? Why am I coming with you? Can you let me off here now, I have things to do. That’s where you should be thinking. And don’t be afraid to be flexible. Don’t be afraid to pivot. You know, I’ve never actually made this public before but at the very beginning, Cage Free Data actually started off as a pizzeria. The first idea that my technical co-founder and I had was that what the world most needed at that particular moment was a higher overall quality of thin crust, authentic Neapolitan pie. So we started off as a pizzeria, and once that didn’t work, we pivoted: we started making cakes, and then we became a patisserie, and then we got fat, and then we opened a gym, and then we launched a personal fitness app, until finally, and very logically, we morphed into a full-stack cloud-based service for the ethical treatment of data. That’s called flexibility, and flexibility is just another word for success. Yep.
Guided tours girl: Hi, I’m Caitlin.
VC: Hi Caitlin. What’s up.
Guided tours girl: Hey. So I’ll just tell you a bit about my business before I launch into my question.
Guided tours girl: For years, people have looked to the guided tour to better understand places they visit abroad. But often the real journey that needs to take place is not physical, it’s spiritual; it’s not overseas, it’s right at home. Guided tours of people’s homes are still siloed within the heads of individual homeowners; they’re a locked circle open only to people close to the homeowner. We want to disrupt the guided tours market by offering people historically rich tours of their own homes — -
VC: Okay, let me hold you up there. Dig the spirituality theme, not so big on the angle you’ve taken to execute. Guided tours. The only people who are interested in guided tours are people who will soon be dead. You need to think bigger — and this is a comment as much for you, Caitlin, as for everyone else in the room. Broaden your horizons. Read TechCrunch. Look around you. We’re living in a golden age of technological change. The revolution is happening in front of your very eyes. We can already connect our shoes to the internet, and things will only get better from here. Ephemeral friendships, peer-to-peer speaking, underwear encryption: all these will become reality within the year. Sounds fanciful, but it’s happening. And think how far this kind of stuff can take us. Put push notifications, augmented reality and the internet of things together and it won’t be long before you’ll be able to regulate your erectile cycle from your phone’s lock screen. This will touch so many verticals. Think of the cost benefits in healthcare, marriage counselling, social work. We’ll save trillions because of this technology. Guys, that real estate, right there, is about to become fully arousable. And if that doesn’t get you hard, nothing will. Assuming you’re a man. Yep.
Bitcoin guy: Hey. So… we’ve started a non-profit to help improve the blockchain technology that bitcoin is built on. What’s the one thing that you think bitcoin needs to do better?
VC: I’ll get to that in a bit, but… a non-profit. Why a non-profit?
Bitcoin guy: We believe strongly that technology exists to advance the common good, not to reap profits for the few.
VC: Okay, okay. Got it. We all try to do the best by humanity. I flew here on coach. It was tough, but I did it because I believe in people. You know? I think bitcoin is really going to transform our lives, so you’re definitely onto something there. Well done. But. You’ve got to monetize. Yeah, it’s great to do good for the world, but you know what’s even better than that? Doing good for the world while vacationing in the Bahamas on your own yacht. That’s really cool. But guys. That doesn’t mean you have to become this evil, bloodthirsty, Goldman Sachs vampire squid capitalist who wants to make money at all costs. You can still keep your values and monetize at the same time. You know, you hear a lot of VCs out there today say that they invest in people. I say it a lot as well: I invest in people. But as a VC, I don’t just invest in them. I go the extra mile: I transact in people as well. I believe in people so much, I value them as an investable commodity so deeply, that I’m willing to take a minority equity stake in them and build a secondary market for their purchase and sale. That way, I stay true to my values, I stay true to my beliefs, I stay true to people, and I generate superior returns for my investors at the same time. Win-win, guys.
Bitcoin guy: Isn’t that just the slave trade?
VC: Isn’t that just the slave trade? What’s your name?
Bitcoin guy: John.
VC: John? Your name’s John? Let me tell you something, mate. As a VC, I do a lot of social cause work, especially in the animal welfare space. There’s an exotic ant population in Rwanda that’s in imminent danger of extinction as desertification forces the Sahara further south. At my firm, we led a fundraising drive to provide food and shelter for millions of ants affected by this imminent catastrophe in Rwanda. Yep, VCs get a lot of animal welfare pitches: help us save dogs, elephants, pandas. We decided to ignore all that and stick up for the little guys. So next time you want to accuse us of reviving the slave trade, John, maybe spare a thought for what we’ve done for ants. Yep.
Advice guy: Hey, what general advice do you have for young founders today?
VC: I get asked this question a lot, and there are three main things. First, always write your goals down — but do it on parchment. If you write the list down on paper, it’ll get lost. There’s lots of paper in the world, but not much calfskin. Another thing I always tell people… Eat good bread. Life’s too short to waste on anything other than the highest quality spelt-grain sourdough. And finally, if you’re in a conversation with a man and he’s barefoot, don’t look down at his feet — it’ll be embarrassing for everyone. [POWERPOINT] Parchment, bread, feet — the three pillars across business, lifestyle, and interpersonal relationships, of any successful startup today. And one final thing. You hear a lot these days about agile deployment and the lean startup. I once knew a woman called Margerithe who was disrupting the flower industry in Germany. Golden hair, large forearms, great business mind. We drank Gewurtztraminer on the banks of the Rhine. I haven’t loved another woman since. Margerithe once told me: “My business model isn’t just lean, it’s succulent too.” And she was right: we can all take something from that. Don’t just be lean. Be succulent. If your business strategy isn’t dripping juices down my forearm as I bite into it, you’ve got problems. Yep.
Media guy: I’m Josh from Chatsack, and we’re actually tossing around a couple of different product sets at this point to augment our core offering, which is a disappearing real-time messaging platform. We have a service that is essentially the pinterest of interests pinned to a board shared among members of a like-minded community. We’re building an add-on with in-app badges that bridges the gap between Goodreads and Uber; basically a service that allows you to book a taxi ride with an annoying guy from Sarah Lawrence who will tell you all about how he only reads Margaret Atwood novels because he’s a feminist. And we also have a widget that is essentially the airbnb of sexual partners. For me, I’d be keen to hear from you about what makes a great entrepreneur, and whether you think it’s possible to keep different balls in the air while building your company out.
VC: Okay, the pinterest of interests pinned to a board shared among members of a like-minded community… is called pinterest. The airbnb of sexual partners is called life. You need to think carefully about what you’re doing here. But to your bigger point. You hear a lot of jargon, a lot of empty boasting when it comes to startup investing. But when you boil it down, what most VCs want is actually pretty simple. They want a clear vision of a kickass idea that’s truly new, truly defensible and truly monetizable with a clear go-to-market strategy, a clean cap table and a great team with strengths across tech, sales, marketing, business development and content, all pulling together to execute a pathway to sticky and viral user growth in a cash-rich demographic that maps easily onto a J curve with an exponential upslope. That’s all. It’s pretty straightforward. Give them that and they’re happy. Frankly, whatever you do after that, is your business and yours only. Go take a taxi with Margaret Atwood if you want; no one will care.
Guys, we’ve joked around a bit today but the real point is this. Technology is advancing every day. The capital required to build the next billion dollar startup is a fraction of what it was 15 years ago. Today, you can pretty much disrupt the entire global aerospace industry with just a laptop, a half-decent wifi connection and a couple of simple lines of code. And it’s not just technology; this is as true of countless other fields in human advancement as it is in tech. As Steve Jobs once said, think historical. He probably said that. We’ve already heard a little bit about Versailles, but just take a moment to consider the pyramids of Giza. Everyone knows those. Tall, triangles, yellow. One of the wonders of the ancient world. Yeah, they’re nice to look at, but too often the conversation stops there. What people don’t want to admit is that barriers to entry for Egyptian pyramid construction have come down drastically since the 26th century before Christian era. If people in Egypt — if Egyptians — were to build the pyramids today, we’d look at them and say, Cool. It wouldn’t be impressive. But give me a human genomics pattern search engine that can generate predictive analytics for infectious disease growth through sub-Saharan Africa, then yeah, okay Egypt: now we can talk. Issue being: technology is moving as quickly, if not faster, than any other field has ever moved before. And we have an unprecedented opportunity here, tonight, and there, tomorrow, to completely revolutionize the way we live. So don’t think about guided tours, don’t think about trees. Think about the future. Because the future is coming, and we don’t want it be run by guys [LOUIS XIV POWERPOINT] who look like this. Cheers.