Core & Emerging Platforms as we Move into 2017

Innovation at the platform level (whether it be improved hardware, changes in infrastructure or new ecosystems) has always led to new opportunity at the application level for both entrepreneurs and the investors that back them. As 2016 winds down and we look ahead to 2017, it’s as good a time as any to take stock of the innovation we’ve seen at the platform level in the last few years and the trends in tech that will drive new opportunity in application software.

More specifically, I see four core and emerging trends that will continue to dictate opportunity in B2B software: (1) continued dominance of cloud, (2) acceleration of mobile enterprise, (3) increased attention to AI (more specifically machine learning) and (4) the rise of AR & VR – particularly AR in the B2B setting. The figure below provides an overview that will be explained in further detail below:

tech-platforms

(1) Continued dominance of cloud

This is an “old” one but a good one. Of the four platform trends this is the most established one and has produced the most opportunity to-date.

From a horizontal perspective, the cloud has penetrated (though not yet dominated) every function within the enterprise. Salesforce is the prevalent choice for most in the sales / CRM functions. Companies like Workday, Cornerstone and SuccessFactors have gained real traction within HR. Eloqua, ExactTarget and Marketo are widely used marketing tools. NetSuite has a strong presence in ERP while Zendesk is a strong force in customer success. And there are many other more recent horizontal SaaS companies that have made big waves: Slack, Stripe, DocuSign and DropBox are just a few of many that had big years in 2016. And there are many more opportunities remaining in relatively untouched areas like: sales ops, SMB-focused HR tools, inventory management, market intelligence and customer care analytics.

Vertical software, is still very much in its infancy. There have certainly been some early winners like Veeva (life sciences), RealPage (real estate) and Fleetmatics (fleet management), but there are many more industry cloud winners to come. Industries like manufacturing, construction, logistics, agriculture, oil and gas and others have slowly begun moving to the cloud after remaining cloud-allergic for many years. 2017 will be a big year for many of these industries and the vertical-focused, category-winners that reshape them.

(2) Acceleration of mobile enterprise

Aggregate mobile enterprise revenue in 2016 was just under $100B –pretty solid for a platform that didn’t exist 10 years ago. However, this one is also just getting started. Forecasts show this number doubling by 2020 (and I wouldn’t be surprised if the growth rate is higher than that). Part of this growth is fueled by increased vertical software opportunities. Procore is a great example of a company delivering a vertical specific solution (in construction) via mobile enterprise. Industries like education, insurance and real-estate will soon follow.

(3) Increased attention to AI  

2016 really marked THE year when AI (or more accurately, machine learning) really came into focus in the startup and venture community. As seen in the figure above, deals done and investment dollars poured into the sector have grown exponentially in the last 2-3 years. In that time, AI has done a few interesting things:

  • It has re-opened the door in a real way to more horizontal software opportunities giving rise to the “disruption of the disruptors.” Suddenly, machine intelligence has allowed for greater insights and better products and services that opened the door to new entrants looking to enter horizontal spaces.
  • It has allowed for more focused solutions that really benefit from machine learning applied to large data sets to flourish. Little Bird (a market intelligence and data analytics company based out of Oregon) that was recently acquired by Sprinklr is a good example. AI powered point solutions like Little Bird, once bolted onto larger platforms (like Sprinklr’s social media management platform) can exponentially increase the utility to their enterprise customers.
  • It has brought back IBM’s relevance among innovators and early stage companies. Ironically, rightly or wrongly, IBM’s Watson is the most common machine associated with machine learning. Whether IBM is able to harness the potential of AI remains to be seen, but the company attempts to be mounting a bigger challenge to be a dominant presence in the space rather than giving way to the big four (Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google) as it did with consumer devices, social, ecommerce and search.

Expect AI to be a powerful trend in 2017 and beyond, with both startups and established players getting involved, especially as the technological innovation becomes more advanced.

(4) The rise of AR & VR

AR and VR are the furthest off in terms of real platform potential and 2016 was largely a pretty big disappointment for these platforms. The biggest thing in AR/VR in 2016 was Pokémon Go, which was an entirely consumer play (and appears to largely have been a fad). I expect VR to still be a few years away from going mainstream –and even when it does, it will continue to be a consumer play.

That being said, I do think in 2017 we will see the start of some AR-based software applications that will gain traction among enterprises. And by 2020 forecasted revenues in AR will near $120B. Some of the important early verticals AR will start with will be healthcare, manufacturing, defense and architecture among others. Some of the early startups playing in these spaces, that I’ll be following in 2017 include: CrowdOptics, APX Labs and Pristine.

Revisiting EdTech: Opportunities for 2016 and Beyond

It’s been a few years since I’ve written extensively about education technology and the opportunities that exist in the space. Since my last set of posts back in December of 2012, the space has continued to be a fast growing sector with much opportunity. Back in 2012, the sector was a $4.1T industry globally. That number just topped $5T in 2015 with a 7% CAGR. Unsurprisingly, the education sector remains the second largest industry, trailing only healthcare in terms of global market size.

Likewise, venture capital investment has picked up substantially in the last 3 years. In 2012, Series B investments totaled just $159M—that number is expected to top $500M in 2015 once the final numbers are published. Similarly, deal activity across all stages has picked up. In 2012, the total number of deals across VC/PE was ~500 deals—that number will reach nearly 800 deals by end of year 2015.

Most importantly, exits have finally begun to provide some hope for returns. A scarcity of exits has long been one of the big problems for entrepreneurs and investors considering EdTech. Indeed M&A activity has historically been slow (<1% of all M&A exits from 2002-2012) and IPO showings have often been abysmal (e.g. Chegg which fell 23% during its IPO debut and now has a market cap of just ~$620M, half of its opening day valuation.)

In the last three years, however, there have been a handful of successful EdTech IPOs including companies like 2U and Instructure. Others, such as Coursera, Udacity and Edmodo, are all not far behind in the IPO pipeline. M&A activity likewise has been quite strong. In fact, U.S. EdTech companies tend to command higher revenue multiples than the average tech exit—3.2x for EdTech companies vs. 2.5x for the broader tech industry. Furthermore, M&A exits themselves over the last 5 years have been fruitful with 25 buyers spending more than $100M on U.S. EdTech companies.

exits-1438648868.jpgSource: EdSurge

Yet despite this progress, there remain a wide array of inefficiencies and unsolved problems. Specifically, I see 6 promising near-term opportunities for entrepreneurs to take advantage of and for investors to invest in. In no particular order here are a few thoughts of what we will see beginning in 2016.

1) Cloud SaaS will finally replace on-prem at the school district and system admin level

Having spent time working at the district level in education policy, I was always amazed at how archaic many of the tools districts and school systems use at the city-wide/admin level. Software tools that track important mission-critical information such as attendance, student demographics, building information, zone data, etc. across schools within a district are still often hosted on-premise, using archaic databases and outdated software with GUIs that look like they were designed in the ‘90s. Below is an example of what the NYC DOE ATS currently looks like:

Untitled.pngSource: NYC Department of Education

I suspect that in 2016, as much of the IaaS and PaaS layers begin/complete their moves to the cloud through services provided by the likes of AWS, Azure, SoftLayer, etc, we will begin to see more B2B SaaS applications layered on top to replace the traditional on-prem software solutions. This will bring much needed functionality, analytics and a cleaner user experience to the education world. This in turn will increase productivity for educators working at the district and administrative level across school systems.

2) Learning content will be far more personalized

Recent survey data showed that less than 50% of teachers reported having digital resources that could be used to meet teaching standards. Moreover existing technology solutions often are not tailored to individual students and their specific needs. The next generation of student-centric software tools (across grade levels and subjects) will provide high levels of granularity and insight into the specific needs of individual students allowing for an end-to-end customized experience across lesson planning/ delivery, class activities and periodic assessments. This will be even more important for special needs students in ICT, 12/6:1 or similar learning environments. Personalizing learning content will ultimately allow for a more tailored learning experience and better long-term knowledge retention.

3) K-12 teacher development will rely more heavily on software platforms and tools

As it stands today, professional development for teachers is largely untouched by software tools and applications. At the district level, spend on professional development for K-12 teachers in the U.S. is ~$3B and usually takes 1 of 4 forms: (1) periodic school-wide workshops, (2) observation of other teachers, (3) coaching (usually by a more experienced teacher) and (4) generic online research.

In 2016, we will begin to see more PD content move to the cloud as doing so makes training teachers: (a) less expensive, (b) more accessible and (c) more personalized. Horizontal HR solutions like Workday, Cornerstone OnDemand and PeopleSoft will be re-built / tailored for the education sector enabling professional development in education to be more sophisticated and effective.

4) Higher education software tools will focus more on degree completion  

As the Baby boomer generations’ offspring (Gen X) move beyond the college-age window, the college enrollment growth rate will begin to slow and the focus for many higher-education institutions, from a revenue perspective, will shift away from recruitment/ matriculation and towards retention/ graduation. As of 2012, ~50% of all college students were in at least 1 remediation course.

In the years ahead, there will be a greater focus on retention and remediation of students already admitted into colleges. Software tools will increasingly be used for (1) recruiting the right type of student to admit, (2) providing BI and predictive analytics platforms for identifying and tracking high at-risk students and (3) supporting remediation instruction for at-risk students to get them back “on track.”

5) Online courses and degrees will become more relevant

While online courses (including MOOCs) and degree programs will never replace the off-line experience, these offerings will increasingly be used to supplement off-line instruction as well as provide a new delivery format to non-traditional segments (such as continuing education students). Two important trends are happening that will accelerate the pace at which this happens in 2016: (1) online courses and degrees are becoming more socially acceptable (many programs have been accredited, employers are increasingly hiring graduates from these programs, etc.) and (2) the infrastructure (managing enrollment, handling payment, providing tech support, hosting platforms, etc.) to provide these offerings is cheaper and more readily available.

As such, we will see a greater number of higher education institutions join the ranks of UNC, USC, ASU and many others that provide courses and degrees online. This trend will create a range of software opportunities across: video collaboration, course development and delivery, student / faculty services and recruitment / retention.

6) Demand for software tools that teach skill-based training will increase  

As colleges increasingly charge exorbitant tuition fees while failing to equip graduates will real skills, demand for skill-based programs, vocational certifications and other alternative teaching tools will increase. In 2013, the number of vocational certificates granted was nearly 1M—up 35% from 2005. Similarly, from 2013 to 2015, the number of graduates who graduated from coding programs (such as Codecademy) increased 630%+.

In 2016, we will see an even greater emphasis on tools for skill-based training. Some of this will be purely software delivered via the cloud and some will be more hybrid: software mixed with in-person training. Companies like Lynda (acquired by LinkedIn), Udacity, General Assembly and Udemy have already made significant dents in this space. We will see much more of this in the upcoming year.

Google Glass

Since the beginning of the computing industry, it has been the case that hardware platforms produce software innovation. A single innovation in hardware can provide the base for a multitude of software applications. In the process, thousands of companies are created, millions of customers are acquired and billions of dollars in revenues are generated.

Hardware innovation in the 1970s and 1980s by IBM around the personal computer led to software innovation by now Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft, Oracle, Adobe, Symantec and SAP. In the mid 2000s, hardware innovation by Apple on the iPhone led to many of today’s rising stars: Twitter, Instagram, Flipboard and Waze are all built on mobile platforms.

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It is still too early to tell whether Google Glass will be the next ubiquitously used hardware platform spurring software innovation. It looks like the product development teams have a ways to go to iron out some of the kinks and lower production costs to get the price down to what consumers would be willing to pay In fact, last week Forrester Report published survey results showing that only 12% or approximately 21.6 million U.S. online consumer would use Google Glass on an everyday basis.

Yet, if we looked back in time, I don’t think the early adoption numbers for the personal computer or iPhone would be all that different, especially pre-launch. Nonetheless here we are in 2013 and I can count on one hand how many people I know who don’t have a smartphone or a personal computer.

If Glass is able to capture broad consumer appeal, you can count on another big wave of software innovation. Already, Google has released parts of its developer API and the applications are limitless—everything from education to health to advertising. Smart entrepreneurs and VCs will already start thinking about software applications Glass could enable. It’s a great time for innovation.

Customer Acquisition Challenges for Location-based Startups

Location-based startups seem to be pretty popular these days. Some of the most successful location based startups (i.e. Foursquare, Shopkick, Yelp, etc.,) have received multiple rounds of funding, achieved nice exits and set a high bar for others to follow. Nonetheless, many location-based start-ups still face a number of challenges when it comes to growth – particularly in the area of customer acquisition. This post seeks to dig a little further into the issue of customer acquisition for location-based apps. Here are some steps startups can take to address challenges they face in acquiring new customers. 

  • Performance Measurement: It’s important to first take a step back and reflect on the existing product and existing customers. Some questions to ask include: Who are the customers? Are there different segments? How are the current customers using the product? Are there differences in the ways various segments use the product? How is the product performing among various customer segments? An understanding of these questions will allow the portfolio company to better target its strategy—whether that is to strengthen its position in a current market or pivot a little and go after a different set of customers.
  • Product Differentiation: Startups looking to acquire customers should differentiate their product from the competition and make the value-add very clear. That way, from a customer’s perspective, there is a clear reason for switching to the new product. Product differentiation can build customer loyalty and allow the startup to monetize its partnerships with advertisers or other 3rd party vendors. Mobile represents a huge opportunity to creatively differentiate across a range of platforms. Startups should find unique ways to combine location-based data with mobile platforms to provide users with useful information. Foursquare’s check-in rewards system seems to have championed this strategy.    
  • Personalization/Segmentation: Location-based startups should also focus on personalizing as much as possible when trying to acquire new customers. This means offering a different type of service for different customer segments. LinkedIn has done a great job of this. There is a free service for the 80% of customers who only use the platform a few times a year. Another 15% of the customer segment, who use the product monthly or weekly, pay for a slight business upgrade. The final 5% who use the service daily pay for the most expensive “executive” version—with expanded product features. But personalization should move beyond product lines to also include targeted marketing and sales campaigns so that potential users are finding out about the product through channels that appeal to them most.   
  • Focus on Branding: Location-based startups can also attract customers by building a really strong brand. Brand loyalty seems to be mostly based on three things: differentiation, relevance and emotion. Some examples: Apple has built an incredible brand around the concept of aesthetics and beautiful design. Etsy has built a brand around homemade/vintage goods.  Focusing on the above 3 keys to build a really strong brand can, in turn, attract customers.
  • Customer Service: One way to really attract customers (and to also differentiate from the competition) is to provide strong customer service. This entails providing a high quality service or product experience, showing support for customers during and after the sales process, developing customer loyalty programs and creating a customer service team with a 100% focus on customer satisfaction.

2013: Startups on the Rise

This is definitely a bit over due, but here are my thoughts on the up-and-coming start-ups to keep an eye on in 2013. Some of these have already built quite a bit of traction, others have been lurking for a while waiting for the right time and others were started less than a year ago. I’ll have to do a follow up post at the end of the year to see how they end up doing.

Uber: This mobile app takes much of the hassle out of finding a cab to get around town in. The app allows you to request a cab at any time, let’s you know how far away the cab is, texts you when your cab has arrived and then allows you to pay for the cab using the app. It’s a very convenient way of getting around. I’m hoping the Uber team can work out some of the product kinks (in NYC for example there are many restriction around the black cabs that Uber works with), so that the service can go more mainstream as it’s currently a much-needed service. Once these challenges are resolved, I think this app can have much success in most major metropolitan hubs.

MoviePass: As a movie theater subscription service, MoviePass is building something very new to the movie industry—the ability for viewers to go see an unlimited amount of movies each month for a flat fee rather than paying for each individual movie. It’s kind of like the concept of having season tickets to a sporting event. This will be particularly useful for avid moviegoers who see multiple movies each month. Many of my friends who are movie fanatics have already signed up for beta access to MoviePass.

Fab: Many thought that e-commerce was in decline but Etsy and Fab seem to be proving that theory wrong. Of particular importance Fab, with its focus on “everyday design”, has been an innovator in social commerce—seamlessly integrating with facebook and twitter. Fab also has created better mobile apps than any other e-commerce platform making it easier to make purchases regardless of location.

2U (formerly 2tor): 2U is disrupting education by providing high quality online learning environments. 2U partners with top-tier universities to deliver rigorous, and selective graduate degree and undergraduate for-credit programs online. Some of the universities currently using the 2U platform include: USC, UNC, Georgetown and Washington University in St. Louis. As a recent college grad, former teacher and soon-to-be graduate student, 2U’s approach seems to be the future of education and is already disrupting the way in which many universities think about education technology.

Stamped: Stamped is already becoming popular in several of my various friend circles. Now acquired by Yahoo, Stamp is a mobile app that lets you recommend and share your favorite things like: movies, books and restaurants. One of the best features is the ability to receive recommendations from friends and other reliable sources (rather than anonymous online reviews). The ideas behind this could disrupt the way online reviews and recommendation systems currently operate.

Multi-weather Energy Generators

Each year millions of people are affected by weather related events like storms, blizzards and hurricanes. Among other challenges, these weather events result in wide spread power outages and damages to electrical infrastructure—requiring repair that often takes weeks to restore. It is estimated that nearly 8 million people on the east coast lost power during Hurricane Sandy and another million people faced power outages this past weekend during Winter Storm Nemo. Many of these people went days if not weeks without power.

To address this I propose the creation of multi-weather energy generators (MEGs). Similar to traditional back-up generators, MEGs would provide an alternative form of energy to power homes and commercial businesses during and in the aftermath of major storms. However, these devices would be multi-faceted and would work throughout the year to continually store and synthesize various forms of energy into some sort of battery format that could then be used on an as needed basis. During the Summer/Spring for example, MEGs would use solar panels to continually convert solar energy into stored electrical energy. During the Fall/Winter, MEGs would use wind turbines to convert and store mechanical energy into electrical energy.

For most of the year the energy created by MEGs would simply sit as stored energy in a battery format. However, during the 2-3 weeks of the year when weather sours and households faced major power outages, MEGs could be drawn on to provide much needed power until the power grid is restored. In designing these devices the focus would be on making them light-weight, low-maintenance and affordable to ensure that consumers would not incur a large cost in terms of money spent and time needed to maintain the devices.

Mobile Corner: Some Themes

Mobile has been the one of the big buzz themes in startup land for the last year or so. Companies like Foursquare, Spotify and Flipboard are pushing the limit of what our cellular devices can do and generating incredible innovation in areas like social networking, news delivery, digital entertainment, gaming and peer-to-peer communication. Yet despite these successes the market is still quite raw and much remains unknown about what makes a good mobile app successful. Even less certain is the revenue model. Should mobile startups today go with in-app or separate app freemiums? Virtual currency? Subscriptions? A 100% ad based model?

What does seem clear, however, is that, as with web 2.0, it’s all about creating traffic. If you can create a tool that provides value to users and makes something about their lives simpler or more engaging, you may have something that could garner attention in the mobile market. So here are a few of my thoughts on what might make a mobile startup successful:

1) Be light-weight and simple

I doubt that users of mobile apps are looking to get the same experience that they get on their laptop or home computer. The hours spent on facebook on your couch at home are less likely to happen when you’re up and about. When it comes to mobile, people want things that are simple, fast and easy to use. They want to be connected on the go and are focused more on 1:1 connections rather than large social interactions. Kik for example has pushed the frontier of texting, making it an incredibly fast (we’re talking real time) and light weight platform that goes cross-platforms (Phone, Android, Windows Phone 7, Symbian, and BlackBerry)

2) Consider Gaming

The great thing about mobile devices is that they can be taken anywhere. Most people spend a fair amount of time traveling each day (whether on a bus to school, train to work, etc.,) With that commute comes the time to play games on platforms like Zynga. Games have traditionally been a single player human-to-computer interaction but, increasingly it’s becoming more interactive allowing people to connect with existing friends and play peer-to-peer. There are some “gaming” apps that are a bit more serious in nature. Everest for example is a mobile platform for framing and achieving goals. The app lets you create specific goals, break them down into incremental steps and then focus on achieving these goals with the emotional support of friends. This will be an interesting startup to follow as it moves out of beta.

3) Style. Style. Style.

One of the most important keys to the success of a mobile device is its “elegance” factor. Appearances and first impressions matter in the competitive and still developing world of mobile. Apps should follow basic principles of design and usability; they should also mimic the desktop interface closely (or at the very least follow similar conventions). A thoughtfully and creatively designed product stands a much greater chance of being successful in the mobile world. Here’s a link to some mobile apps that were knockouts in terms of style in 2011:

http://mashable.com/2011/12/27/best-mobile-apps-2011/