2020 has caught everyone by surprise. First, the coronavirus emerged and China was taking swift action in shutting down cities but the world was paying little attention. Then the virus spread and the global economy ground to a halt. Now we are all scrambling to adjust ourselves to the new reality that is mixed with fear and anxiety.
It might be easy to surrender ourselves to the overwhelming news and the uncertainties to the future. But if history is of any guide to us, we know that major crises are usually filled with mega opportunities, and that things will return to normal one day.
But for now, enter social distancing.
You have nowhere to go but to stay at home, with yourself. And our minds are not used to that. We were used to grabbing morning coffee with our friends, chatting with the coworkers during the day, and cuddling with the loved ones at night. And now, suddenly, we stare at the mirror and the mirror stares back. We are by ourselves.
Even though I still fill my schedule with back-to-back conference calls but it's just not the same. Somewhere inside me keeps asking me the question: so what truly matters to you.
The COVID19 outbreak provided us the opportunity to take a pause and re-evaluate our priorities. I had the chance to think about several issues in life since I had been working from home for the last week. To remind my future self on what is important and what is not, I want to compose them here:
Health and families come number one.
Without health and families, the future does not matter. Early this year, I already lost my grandma and I certainly want to see myself and my families stay healthy.
Helping others matters.
It takes courage to go beyond our egocentric selves and to care for others. In the past, it was easy to brush it away by simply saying that I was too busy but during this crisis, witnessing countless medical professionals and volunteers stepping up had a significant impact on me. We all need other people's help one day. It's all for one and one for all.
Humanity as one.
In a crisis, it's easy for us to turn against each other out of fear and hatred, but let's resist that. The world does not need one or two politicians to lead us. But instead, all of us can start from within to calm the fear and start to embrace the uncertainties.
As a human race, we have to reckon the damages we have done to the environment, other animals and the earth. As we all become adults, we have long put aside our childhood ambitions to become astronauts or to save the earth. But maybe it's time we all pick it up.
Do your job, but with a bigger goal.
Each of us has a role to play in this society. The once-in-a-century crisis offered us the opportunity to examine our contribution to the world and, once again re-appreciate the things we take for granted. Many restaurants we visit are now closed. The over-talkative barber who we once felt overwhelming is now much missed. The noisy bars across the street are not filled with dreadful emptiness.
As a generation who grew up without the Great Depression or severe property, we think the world is always up-to-the-right, with many services available to us, just one click away. The so-far weeks-long social distancing teaches us the lesson of valuing other people's work and rethinking of our own.
I hope when the whole thing is over, we come out of the other end much stronger. Much more energized in building the common future. I certainly am. I know that after the pandemic passes, the world will be the same, but yet not the same.
It is often said that crises are embedded with opportunities. I'm a true believer in that. As a VC, in a way as a societal resource allocator, I will be even more excited to find the next opportunities with resilient founders.
Our world economy mirrors nature. New species and vibrant ecosystems only emerge after a devastating storm. We are in the midst of that. I'm worried as anybody else, but I'm ever optimistic about the future.
My grandmother and I were really close together. She raised me mostly and had made me who I am.
She was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer in late December 2019, and we had been told there is not much time left. Mom called me and was weeping on the phone, telling me the news. I asked to video chat with grandma. She was lying on the bed, looking tired, but as usual, her voice was loud. She managed to smile while we were talking somehow. Looking back now, she must have made an enormous effort not to let me worry. At that time, I was in Europe, planning to return for the CES and other business meetings in the States. After the call, I felt like there might a bit more time left. Not much, but probably enough to wrap up my US business commitments before returning to China. At least that’s what I had thought.
My mom called again one day later and said grandma wanted to see me. I knew it was different now. Over the years, Grandma was always considerate about my job, my sleep, and even my diet. She must have been suffering from the condition. So I booked a last-minute flight, leaving the very next day for China.
From the Netherlands to my home town in Fujian, as it turned out, it’s about 22 hours away by flight. During those long hours, I was immersing myself in the past. I couldn’t recall much of my early childhood, but I can always remember the bits about grandma and me. She loved kissing me on the forehead, even as I grew taller and as she appeared smaller.
Some memories were so vivid they were just there in front of me when I closed my eyes, like a movie playback.
To make me eat my food when I was about five years old, grandma would make up stories about the shapes of food such as pickles: I was made to believe that some were shaped like Monkey King, and some were like evil monsters — so that a five-year-old boy would find it interesting to eat more. And believe me, I had “destroyed” a lot of those kings and evil monsters. And I was a chubby kid.
Grandma liked to save food, particularly for me. When I was a kid, she always kept me tons of cookies and treats. And I’d shamelessly indulge myself each time I visited her. Over the years, grandma still managed to save snacks for me, even though I am a grown-up man and no longer even enjoy snacks. She would some times hand me molded snacks with a happy face, as she couldn’t see the expiration date well. Each time, I’d just laugh and tell her that’s not healthy. She then brings the snacks closer to her eyes and mumbles, “how weird, why it went bad quickly.” Visibly disappointed, she had to throw away food.
Grandma was fond of music. She was a very outgoing person. She also enjoyed teaching people to dance. There were a lot of memories where I was her reluctant, awkward dance partner. Every time I messed up, she would laugh and say to me, “Silly, this is so simple…. see, just follow me like this…” Memories like this concluded many summer evenings when I was a child.
Grandma was born in 1937, before the CCP took over China. Being fierce and brave, She had gone through WWII, the Japanese invasion, the Great Chinese Famine, and then the Cultural Revolution. In my memories of her, grandma had always been a very optimistic person too. She always said, “No difficulty is too big to overcome. Things are going to pass, and life will go on.” I heard she said things like that over the years.
My grandma was one of the very first women who attended college before the Cultural Revolution. She was smart and bold. Grandma told me saddening stories about the Cultural Revolution and how she and my grandpa were persecuted just because they were intellectuals. She told me there were times when the “Red Guards” would just appear in our house and ask to take grandpa out for a “humiliation walk.” Many people committed suicide due to the emotional and physical suffering. But my grandparents survived. Grandma usually ended the stories with some conclusion like: “Things are going to pass, and life will go on,” as it was just a little chapter of her life.
After the Cultural Revolution, grandma became a math teacher in high school and community college. She loved teaching me math too! But as a young kid, I had always disliked these “after-school math sessions”. I wanted to play soccer, basketball, or just fool around with my little friends. So I tried to find ways.
Grandma didn’t have good eyesight. She had to wear glasses when trying to look for things. Most of the time, she just had a good sense of where things were. But it’s hard to track a kid who was determined to sneak out and play. My mom always fondly recalled the stories where I’d sneak out of the house and then only to surprise grandma later when she was yelling my name at the balcony. I wouldn’t say that happened many times, but indeed for the one time I can remember, Grandma was surprised and then rushed me to the dining table half-blaming, half-laughing. It was just like yesterday.
Then I went abroad. Grandma and I would talk over the phone or even video chat from time to time, but we hadn’t been spending much time together. Sometimes I would manage to visit my home town and grandma once a year but often it was usually once every few years. Each time when she saw me, she was so excited, hugging me tight, just like a little kid. The saying seems true — as you’ve grown up to be an adult, your parents and grandparents become like kids.
Each time when I’m home, grandma would give me a small piece of paper where she wrote down her “new friends” numbers and ask me to input them to the phone. Without me asking, she usually fondly told me where she made these friends, who they were, and all the gossips that related to it. There were times when I was impatient and didn’t heed the stories. But she didn’t mind — she was just happy to talk to me. Now looking back, grandma must have waited a long time to tell me all the tales of her new friends. Much like when I was in kindergarten, eagerly waiting to share my day.
As I am writing this, all of the fond memories are floating before my eyes. I am incredibly grateful for having such a caring grandma over the last 30 plus years. She had made me who I am.
Thank you; for the unconditional love that you had given me. Thank you; for demonstrating what optimism looks like in the most challenging life situation. Thank you; for teaching me how to be a courageous person, just like you.
My grandma passed away on January 5th, 2020, after fighting late-stage liver cancer.
I love you, grandma. Rest in peace.
As I'm writing this, I just finished a long email with a startup founder. This startup has a stellar team, and they quickly realized what didn't work. The company is going through a pivot. The CEO and I have been on the phone, on the email over the past few months, during which we have discussed, tested, and debated no less than five ideas.
I will be the first one to admit that, at times, as a VC/ advisor, it's tempting to jump in and offer one's own idea.
But that's not the right way to do it.
For one, VCs are generally good at observing the macro trends and betting on it - but terrible at originating great ideas. If we look at the iconic consumer tech companies over the past decades - Netflix, Uber, Airbnb, Twitter, Snap, TikTok, etc - none of those startup ideas come from VCs. Almost 100% of the time, these ideas were products of founders' own life experience and insights, which could be very different from a typical Sand Hill VC. That's why when the majority of great consumer companies get started, they had the most challenging time to convince others to invest. On the contrary, consumer startups who had an effortless time to raise money early on - thanks to VC hype - often turn out to be living short of the expectation and running of gas in the long term.
Secondly, VCs do play an important role and add value to a company's early life. Investors usually have the privilege to observe the macro market and study the ever-evolving dynamics by comparing multiple companies and tech. But VCs have to be very thoughtful about how an investor's insights can be translated into a company's actions. Over the past 10+ years as an investor, I've shared boards with both excellent and mediocre VCs. I learned that a good VC tends to ask great questions to provoke new thinkings from founders, whereas a bad one tends to force-feed his / her thoughts into the company.
During a startup pivot, the dynamics could be confusing and sometimes frustrating. And that's when a great founder / VC partnership is needed.
Started about last year, I began working out. Although I went to the gym in college now and then, I completely dropped it after I started working professionally. I was so busy with everything else that I forgot to take care of my body. So around mid last year, I was changing to a new platform at the time, and it came with the stress of further adjustment.
I felt that I needed to take care of my body better. I needed a change.
At first, my weight-lift routine started with only 15 minutes. No more, no less. I told myself that that’s all I’ve got per day. As you can imagine, 15 minutes pass very fast and it sort of makes it fun because I WANTED to work out more. Little did I know, with a small habit I could easily stick to, I was building strength and resilience. And I got better too. From 15 minutes, I finally allowed myself to work out for 30 minutes. And now I find myself easily spend 1.5 - 2 hours in the gym while listening to the music/podcast that I enjoyed.
Not only the 15-minutes starting point empowered me to take care of my body. I now eat better too. And I stress less. Looking back, I’m grateful for the small initiative I made last year, and modest progress does matter.
As I’m writing this, the president of the United States has been sending out tweets that he claimed as “not racist.” Of course, it has stirred many debates - from the ones who are deeply offended and from the ones who are defending the president. As a first-generation immigrant who was sworn in when Obama was in office, I’m very disturbed and offended by Trump’s words and behavior. I was born in China, though not an “sh*t hole” country in Trump’s list (yet), but I can understand what “go back to your country” mean. They are the words of “us v.s. them” and they are words of division.
America was built by immigrants from the founding time of this nation to the modern age of US's tech leadership. And it was exactly the fundamental valuing of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that draws many immigrants to this country, including myself. However, unlike many other immigrants, I have been a lucky one. I got the chance to receive a full education in the US, not have to work in hard labor, and to have met and worked with many wonderful people in the US. On a day to day basis, I meet entrepreneurs from all over the world who come to Silicon Valley to pursue their dreams. Some are foreigners / soon-to-be immigrants, and many are US founders who are first or second or third generations of immigrants. They might be holding different passports, but they have one thing in common: they are determined in life. They are convinced that they are changing the world.
Changes can be scary - even the positive ones. Just like many progress have taken place in human history. The world is moving towards a place of unity, not division. And we must embrace that. Fundamentally, no matter where we come from, we all want the same thing in life - that in 50 years, 100 years, our children and our children’s children are living in a clean world that has peace, happiness, and prosperity.
And we can only achieve that by embracing the human race as one.
I was invited for a panel on cross-border A.I. along with Lu Gang, Founder of Techcrunch China and Sophie Yao at Fenox Ventures. We discussed many topics, including how over-valued A.I companies have been due to the hype of the space. It quite predictable to see all of us agreed that investors need to very cautious in investing in today’s AI companies.
However, it’s worthwhile to point out that we are at a unique time and space where A.I. is packaged just right for its commercial applications. And the packaging is everything.
Mobile internet was talked about and being invested in as early as the late 90’s but none was viable until the wireless speed caught up and the iPhone showed up in the late 2000s. Similarly, A.I. is not a new thing. It was talked about roughly 40 years ago as an academic topic. But not until decades later when a) data accumulated to a high volume for A.I. training and b) cloud/ AI computing advanced further, it is now possible to have A.I. “package ready.” Ready to be efficient, accurate and invisible for the main applications.
I often say that the startup ecosystems in China and the US are very much like Yin and Yan. They are parts of the global innovation hub but they provide different flavors. It’s the same with A.I. innovations.
The US’s A.I. companies often come from top universities such as M.I.T, CMU, Stanford and Berkeley. We have seen some incredible innovations coming from these campuses/ labs. These companies are backed by well-known VCs, doing frontier A.I. researches and related breakthrough tech.
On the other side of the world, China’s A.I. companies are good at figuring out business applications for A.I tech. Look at SenseTime (TCL Capital is an investor), Face++ and Bytedance — all three companies utilize AI in true commercial use cases and gain business traction because of it. More importantly, China, being a huge market it is, seems to be more willing and quicker to adopt newer tech and bring it to scale. Another factor is the speed to gain data cost-effectively and at scale. Due to regulation and culture differences, China’s A.I. companies seem to have a leg up here too.
China is in at a unique crossroad of the history in that — on one side, China still craves for top talents and deep researches to fuel such tech needs; on the other side, China is experiencing a societal upgrade where the economy is shifting from labor-heavy production economy to a high-tech economy.
As cross-border investors, we are at a very unique timing in the global tech evolution. The US and Silicon Valley will continue to be the center of gravity of tech innovation, as it always has been. However, just perhaps, the next Google and Facebook will be more global, more AI-driven, and may be created in China. YC made its bet in China by convincing Lu Qi to found and run YC China. I think that’s a brilliant move.
The optimistic side of me is very intrigued to see how the next iconic A.I. companies are founded in this new era global economy. That will be the topic of the next post…
I just returned from a two-week long business trip from China. It felt like it has been two months. In a good way.
A lot of activities were jammed in those 14 days. Starting with speaking at SLUSH conference in Shanghai to meeting many China entrepreneurs, the trip was packed with much energy and many late-night meetings (and many high-carb meals!)
It was first formally introduced to the valley community via Sequoia’s Mike Moritz article on China earlier this year. It was controversial and I understand why. China shares a very different work culture than the US, in that it is (still) very top-down driven with a blurred line between work and personal life. For example, it’s no secret that in China, people conduct business conversations over after-work meals and over Wechat. As a result, the business response cycle is much faster. However, as a regular tech worker in China, it’s hard to take a real break.
In addition, on a higher level, China has the so-called 996 (9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week), which I heard it’s now evolved into 007 (0 am to 0 am, 7 days a week). I think that’s just too much and it compromises productivity. But many companies are doing it.
You can perhaps interpret it from two angles:
Which one is it? Probably China has both. And the next Google, next Uber for China will have to come from the companies who view work from the 2nd angle. Just like how the valley has been over the past decades.
"You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future." — Steve Jobs
I’ve been thinking about the past a lot lately. Some meaningful events of the past often define who we are today.
I read two (old) books last year and this year. One is called “eboys” by Randall E. Stross and the other is “Startup” by Jerry Kaplan. Both are fascinating stories — the former is about starting the legendary VC firm Benchmark while the latter is about starting the first “pen computing” industry and lessons learned. Both stories took place during 1980s to 1990s.
Strangely enough, I can relate to the tech background of both stories, even though I was half the earth away.
In mid 1990s, my parents, both business persons, were among first ones in China to adopt the pen-computing “palm assistant” — I couldn’t remember the exact brand or name but I recall how cool it was that I could write on the device and it would just recognize the letter that I draw. Of course, most of the time, I used it to play simple games like Hangman Words, which I never mastered.
In late 1990s, not too long after Jack Ma made his first visit to the US, China was embracing its first wave of internet. Again, my parents were among the very few who were willing to spend 10,000 RMB (roughly $2,000 USD) at the time to buy a personal computer — a Lenovo desktop.
To put things in perspective, 10,000 RMB equated to roughly 5 months of salaries in the small town where we lived. It was a BIG investment. So big that dad was at times paranoid and insisted that we keep the “computer room” clean so that it would not catch “viruses.”
This is a 3D program by Lenovo to help people understand programs better. One might say it’s the first VR program in the 90s. Nonetheless, since I can’t find the real photo of my computer, this one should do the justice — and yes, I do usually paint while I work on my computer stuff, just as the pic showed :)
I loved my first computer. I loved that you can simply “dial-up” and be connected to the world.
From there, I joined BBS (Reddit of stone age if you will), feeling like a big shot. I created by my own email address, exchanging “deep thoughts” with people who I had never met. I learned to program my first website and showed it to my mom — she was so proud that she just keep refreshing my site to help me boost up my “visitor count number.” (thanks mom!)
Little did I know that I was so fortunate being able to play with a computer, being able to connect to the internet at a very young age. Little did I know that from there, I would commit my career and the rest of life time to technology.
Looking back now, those dots were connected beautifully. To that, I’m thankful.
It’s quite common to hear startup founders say: “I just want to finish fundraising quickly so that I can get back to building.” Understandable and I would probably have said the same thing if I were in their shoes. However, there is a fine balance between raising capital too quickly V.S. taking your time to know your funding partner.
In other words, speed matters when you are launching your rocket ship, not necessarily when you are building it — because getting it right is way more important than rushing rough it.
I saw this tweet couple days ago and couldn’t help but respond:
No question that early stage (seed and pre-seed) investing is hard. So is the company building, especially at its earliest stage. The conventional logic for startups raising capital quickly (via convertible notes) is that they can get back to building the product, securing early customers and get to the next series A milestone. While the logic is sound, it heavily discounted the value that seed stage capital could (and should!) bring to the table. Entrepreneurs at this stage (typically the first $500K — $1m) are severely underserved by quality capital.
On the VC side, the mega funds trend is accelerating — we now have over twelve Sand Hill funds with $1B+ AUM — and it’s mathematically difficult for $B-size funds to be meaningfully engaged with pre-seed/ seed stage companies. On the angel side, we have come to somewhat accustomed to the idea of party round, of optionality, and of FOMO. While I still believe many angel investors add great values to companies they back, I don’t believe the set value is the same when you have an institution who takes on a more proactive partner approach to helping a company. Even at pre-seed /seed stage.
The analogy of marriage V.S. fundraising is overused. So I might try a different one. Perhaps wholesome food V.S. fast food? Both satisfy your hunger but the former will benefit you in the long term, even though it might take some time.. To be clear, fast food is fine, but you don’t want to over do it and do it for too long (i.e. a $5m seed convertible party round that you raised over 3 years).
If we go back to the origins of venture capital — it’s all about writing the very first check, backing the very audacious companies. It was the same when Sequoia wrote the first $100K to Apple at$3m pre, and then $1m to Yahoo at (amazingly, still) $3m pre. It remained the same when First Round Capital backed Uber at $4m pre.
There is something magical when you are part of the founding team at the earliest stage. And there is a reason why venture capital had “venture” in its name. The very first meaningful check is the driver for extraordinary venture returns, for both founders and investors.
Finding a good long term partner matters. Surely, investors vote with their capital. But hopefully, they vote with their intelligence, network and value-adds along the way as well. For founders, the fundraising process could be incredibly distracting. But it doesn’t have to be. Founders should note that it’s a two-way streets. Ideally, each time you have a investor meeting during the fundraising, it’s a learning process for both sides. Don’t partner with the ones you wouldn’t onboard as a “cofounder” nor have a good chemistry with, despite the fund size and the its name.
I fear that, in today’s world, in the name of speed, we often forget to take our time to find the right partner for the long journeys ahead.
P.S. Fred Wilson wrote a similar post today on "Time and Money" where he said: "If one has time to evaluate the time commitment issue as part of an investment process, it becomes a bit easier for both sides to get this right. A rushed financing makes it harder and can lead to miscalculations on both sides." --- Different angles but similar conclusion.
My first organized meetup was in October 2013. It was creatively titled “What’s New in Tech” with my partner Chris Hollenbeck at Granite Ventures. At the time, I had no idea what we were going to talk about or where the venue is going be at. So, nervously I posted the question on Founders & VCs page : “Any venue suggestion :)?” Surprisingly, somebody quickly responded and volunteered their work space! That was the first time I felt the magic of a community.
Ok, the venue was set. So was the starting time of 6pm. Around 5, I started walking up to Jackson Square from SOMA. I still remember the unsettling feeling of “what if nobody is going to show up — that’d be embarrassing!"
It was a chilling day October in San Francisco but it seemed to get warmer as I got close to the venue. There were couple of people who arrived early as well, chit chatting with each other — maybe a bit confused of how to get in, just as I was. Eventually, we figured it out. I was moving chairs around and putting pizza (of course!) on the table. And then more people showed up… 26 people to be exact. More people that I expected but it was a very intimate event. We chatted about tech (duh!), fundraising and shared some laughs over jokes about VCs.
It was A LOT OF FUN!
So we went on to have 18 more and the community grew from the initial 26 people to now 2800-member strong! Who’d have thought!
Thankfully, To make us look less crazy, many kind luminaries have joined the conversation --
We hosted David Hornik from August Capital to chat about the importance of finding a good VC partner; we talked with Ethereum Co-founder Gavin Wood when Bitcoin was not even a thing in the valley; Hans Tung from GGV Capital shared his VC journey with us and encouraged many companies to go global; Rotten Tomatoes’ co-founder Patrick Lee told the untold story of the early days of the company and its ultimate exit; Mayfield’s Tim Chang showed how VR could be an “empathy machine” and how founders can take advantage of a new tech platform.
There are simply too many who I need to be thankful for.
Many oversea founders told me that the event gave them an first hand experience of what Silicon Valley was like on a true community level. Many founders appreciated the platform where they could socialize and mingle with other VC investors informally instead of simply pitching to them.
At the core of Silicon Valley where I live, it’s about being nice to each other (for no reasons); it’s about building relationships; and it’s about giving rather than taking.
In truth, I’m the one who have benefited the most. I’ve got a chance to work with my volunteer co-hosts Cris Miranda, Kim Pham and Donna Zhou, who had attended a community event once and then decided to help out the community generously and unconditionally. Along the journey, I have also been fortunate to meet with founders from all over the world. Sometimes, I even got to see startups and partnerships been formed because of our events. Heck, I even sourced good investment from the community!
In a blink of an eye, it has been almost 5 years. So where do we go from here?
In short, I’d like to continue the conversation. But in a larger scale way. I’m starting my own website called www.amisfit.vc (that’s me!) where I will blog regularly and host “fireside chat” podcasts with highly respected founders and VCs. To that end, I will turn off the meetup group on meetup.com shortly.
As for offline meetups, I am not ready to let it go yet. But interestingly, I want to scale it down — in a way that’s more intimate, more of a safe place to share the dos and donts in startups and venture. The meetup will be on a invite-only basis, prioritizing more involved members in the amisfit.vc community.
As always, feel free to say hi. And don’t be a stranger! :)
Onwards and upwards.