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How to break into Silicon Valley

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(Above: No, it doesn’t really look like this — and yes it’s mostly office parks and tech billboards. But I like to pretend)

You’ll never regret spending time in SF
If you work in tech, you’ll never regret spending 3-5 years in the Bay Area. This is advice I’ve been giving to people for years, and it’s shaped by my own experience — after all, I moved to the Bay Area in 2007 and it completely changed my life.


  • I met tons of incredible people, some of whom went on to create major products and found unicorn companies. Most are still building
  • I was introduced to many investors who today run some of the major VC firms and investor networks
  • learned so much!
  • made life long friends
  • formed fundamental aspects of my world view
  • Because of the recent AI boom, I’ve been meeting a lot of folks who are new to SF. Many folks very intentionally want to build out their network and get rooted in the Bay Area, and to fully immerse themselves in tech. I learned so much in my first few years and wanted to pass along some of my lessons.

In particular:

  • personal viral loop: Asking people for more people
  • ask for advice and listen
  • why it’s helpful to “have a thing”
  • know what you bring to the table
  • find your cult
  • how blogging/tweeting is helpful
  • why I avoid conferences/events
  • building a network while you sleep

Getting started by asking for intros
I first moved to the Bay Area as a 25 year old nerd with a light resume and big tech dreams. I knew exactly 2 people, and that was it. But very intentionally, I wanted to build a strong professional network and to learn from people. The first thing I did was to be intentional and methodical about it, by asking the two people I knew to please sit down and suggest 5 to 10 people for me to meet — an they did a number of email intros for me. The amazing thing about SF tech culture was that this worked! Although the intros were very light on context, people were willing to grab coffee and share what they were working on, and what they’ve learned over the last couple years.

After each meeting, I would follow up with a few bullet points on what I learned from the conversation, and then ask for two or three more people to meet. This was like building my own personal viral loop, where every chat turned into a few more chats. For my first six months in the Bay Area, I ended up meeting 3 to 5 new people every day. I learned an incredible amount. I can confirm this is still possible, as others I know have done it in recent years.

How to add to each convo
You might ask, what do you end up talking about? What value can you add as someone who’s just moved to the area and is starting in tech? The answer is, you simply ask for advice. People move to the Bay Area from all over the world because they’re incredibly passionate about what they’re building. They love talking about that. and if you have something that you’re passionate about too, and ask for advice, you were sure to get a lot of it. The culture in the SF tech community is very open and the intro culture makes it easy to chat with a variety of new people.

For me, I was coming from Seattle, and I asked people about various mysteries of the tech industry I didn’t understand as an outsider. Why were there so many consumer successes in the Bay Area but not elsewhere? How does angel investing and VC work? Why don’t they build more houses/offices in the Peninsula? And so on.

Having a “thing”
That said, the conversations are more productive when you have “a thing.” What I mean by that is that all of these conversations and networking are more useful when you are starting a company, creating a new podcast, are working on a new project or book, or something else. When you have a directed goal in mind, then the conversations often are more valuable for all parties involved, because you were making yourself an expert in a particular area and your questions are more relevant. Otherwise you will surely encounter very busy people who simply refuse to “grab coffee” to “catch up” because it’s a poor use of time. I encourage you to be on a quest of your own, and even better a particularly interesting quest, so that your conversations with people can be as productive as possible.

In my case, I was very interested in the state of the art on growing users, metrics, network effects, and marketing. I asked everyone about this topic, and began to develop my own ideas that I would share freely. Eventually, it became clear that a few small communities orienting the PayPal mafia were the furthest along in their thinking. And that’s how I ended up being exposed first to concepts like retention curves, DAU/MAU, viral loops, and so on.

These ideas were interest to me, because my professional experience leading up to that point was actually an adtech. I had previously worked in online ads, with customers from WSJ, CBS, MySpace, etc, and had even gotten a patent filed on ad targeting (yes, US7747676B1). I had a superpower in my domain knowledge of CAC, A/B testing, funnel optimization, lead gen, etc, and began to merge all of this thinking with consumer products. In 2007 this was cutting edge at a time when product success was often measured by vanity metrics such as the total registrations for a product. This bit of specialized knowledge was what I brought to the table, and I talked about some of those learnings and ideas, and how they might apply to products. Sometimes I’d get intros to interesting people simply because of this expertise, which I appreciated.

Find your cult
I sometimes joke that the Bay Area is ruled by cults. Back in 2007, there was a cult surrounding quantified self, which intersected with lots of folks kicking off Crossfit, keto, Soylent, and other health trends. There were people building robots and hardware. The PayPal mafia was a thing, but look a little closer, and there was a huge network of Stanford CS people and even Canadian mafias. And Burning Man people. In 2007, YCombinator was just getting off the ground, and I was lucky to meet many of the early folks back when they were living in North Beach on strictly ramen diets. Today, those cults have evolved but they still exist — there is a huge advantage in finding one that suits you, or even better, starting one. Years later I joined Uber and had the idea one day there would be an ex-Uber cult. I think that’s happened, and there’s been countless founders, investors, and builders from that network.

Why blogging/writing is so helpful
In the first year, I learned the importance of writing things down. The other thing I started to do right away was to write down everything that I was learning. I started a real/professional blog at the beginning of 2007 on the Blogger platform and initially, I got writers block because I was trying to come up with amazing and grandiose ideas that I would share with the world. My first month, I had 20 email subscribers, from friends and family I forcibly subscribed.

But eventually, I created a more successful strategy for myself, where I would simply document what I was learning. It turned out that if one person told you a unique idea I would treat it like it was a secret (or at least, I would ask permission). It was often the case that a dozen people would talk about the same idea, and there was simply consensus memes floating around in the ether, and I focused on writing those down. I find that a lot of my blogging has been less about inventing brand new ideas, but instead simply collecting and expanding on the current tech zeitgeist. A few months in, Robert Scoble linked to my blog from his, and that helped a ton. (Thank you!)

It was with this attitude that I began to write about viral loops, growth, hacking, measuring retention, and product/market fit, and all the other concepts that came to defined my writing.

There is a virtuous cycle in talking to interesting people, writing down expanded versions of ideas that come up, thus being exposed, to more interesting people, and rinsing and repeating. This core loop helped power the growth of my professional network over the first few years. In later years, I added a dash of advising and investing.

15+ years later it’s weird to think that accidentally developing a habit of writing and blocking would still be with me today. In fact, this habit is so powerful that I recommend doing it above and beyond almost any other professional “networking” activity. Of course today you might be making videos or podcasts instead of writing. Or if you’re an engineer, publishing your code on GitHub. It’s all the same concept. Putting your work into the world, whether it’s text or video or code, and letting that engage the world.

In this way, you are building your network while you sleep. People find you and your work and your ideas, so that you don’t have to put in time for 1 million coffee meetings.

Why I avoid conferences
And in particular, I find writing to be much more powerful than going to conferences. One thing you’ll notice about the SF tech industry is that there are endless events and conferences. Whereas a secondary startup hub might have a major tech event once every month or two, SF has them every day. There’s office warmings, product launches, new AI meetups, hangouts at Dolores, big splashy conferences, hackathons, and so on. There are endless varieties.

Build a network while you sleep
However over time, I’ve found them to be less scalable than writing. They are fun, and it’s much easier to have a one on one conversation than it is to create a content. When you really think through how much time you spend getting to a conference, all the time between sessions, and when you speak how few people are actually in the audience listening. Contrast to any kind of digital platform where you can write a blurb and 1000s of people see your ideas.

Going back to my original assertion, I think it is hard to regret 3-5 years working in SF. Many people say it’s not a great place to live — and sometimes that seems true. Other folks hate the monoculture. However you can always move home, and when you do, you’ll always be the person with Silicon Valley tech experience. And furthermore, the learning curve is so strong, particularly for startup founders, as is the network of capital and peers. It’s a one of a kind place, and I highly recommend founders spend a few years even if they don’t intend to stay in the long run.

Written by Andrew Chen

February 26th, 2024 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The “Dinner Party Jerk” test — why founders need to pitch themselves harder and more futuristically

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The “Dinner Party Jerk” test is a solution to a common problem:

Startups often struggle at pitching their team, even though for the earliest stage companies, it’s incredibly important to do it well to raise capital — as I’ve described it below:

Pre-seed- Bet on the team ‍
Seed- Bet on the product
Series A- Bet on the traction
Series B- Bet on the revenue
Series C- Bet on the unit economics

To figure out if you are properly pitching yourself in your team, run the thought experiment of describing yourselves at a dinner party. If you are pitching yourself hard, then if you are a kind human, you will turn red and blush with wild embarrassment. The reason is that a proper pitch includes many of your credentials, your achievements, the ways in which you and your team are highly unique, and we simply don’t talk like this at dinner parties. And yet this is exactly what you should do when you talk to investors, partners, customers, and potential employees.

A few years back, a big group of Nordic founders came by Silicon Valley. When I asked them their biggest learning on the trip so far, they said- We have to learn how to pitch our startup in the “American” way More self promotional, emphasizing the future not the past, talking about what it could be not what it is, playing up even small bits of proof points, etc. Describing usage and telling stories, not just revenue. They told me the investors back home didn’t care for this style.

Don’t hold back
Be the dinner party jerk, pitch yourself hard. Don’t hold back. Your shyness and cordiality is not helping.

I find that most founders tend to focus, primarily on describing their idea to the exclusion of everything else. I’ve heard thousands of “elevator pitches” and they generally focus on the idea and not the team, the market, differentiation, or anything else. And they downplay their achievements or omit them.

Of course what you emphasize depends on your background. It’s often described that there are repeat founders and first time founders, but furthermore, there’s another axis, which is about obvious credentialing versus not. For first time founders that are starting a gaming company, for instance, but have already spent years at a top company in the field, a quick modification to the elevator pitch, mentioning that, is both beneficial and quite obvious. But what do you do, you’re an uncredentialed first time founder?

Then the question becomes, what is your “earned secret“ behind the idea? Having a pithy story about how you were a Shopify seller, and that’s how you got to building any commerce product, is incredibly helpful. And if you have some metrics or an observation about the market that’s non-obvious, showing your expertise in the field, is even more valuable. If you have various credentials either professional, or academic or open source, achievements, it might be worth working those in even if not directly related.

The other very awkward thing is to use facts and figures to describe yourself. If in your previous work, you worked on an app that served millions of people, or for your current company, you recently launched and got your first 10,000 users, you should save these numbers. Any traction and any validation is incredibly helpful proving your case. And of course, this is another thing that would make you a dinner party jerk.

Why don’t we do a better job of this? The dangers of conformity
You might be going through a moment of introspection now and asking why am I like this? Why do I downplay achievements when I should be amping them up?

My answer to this, is conformity. In real life, we often subconsciously conform to the people around us. If you go off at a friendly gathering about all the cool stuff you’ve done, and why you’re going to be great, there’s a fear that you’re exaggerating the differences between yourself and others. There’s a fun theory from evolutionary psychology that shyness is an evolved trait to keep us safe in a world where we grew up and tribes of a few hundred people, and a few wrong words might follow us around for our lifetimes.

This is also my theory for why people are reluctant to engage on social media and share their knowledge, when it’s obvious that it might be very helpful to them professionally.

TLDR; there’s pitch mode and dinner party mode. Learn to turn the former mode on!

Be an optimist
You have to be an optimist about your own product, your own startup, and yourself. That’s why when you pitch — whether to investors, to prospective employees, or partners, it’s important to talk about what might happen, not what you are doing today.

There’s a whole style to this type of pitch, and it’s a futuristic point of view that leans into optimism:

  • Emphasize the future, not the past
  • What it could be not what it is
  • Play up even small bits of proof points
  • The big things that might happen, if it works
  • The upside rather than risks
  • Signs the customers love the product, rather than revenue metrics
  • Why this team has the grit and special knowledge to do it, not the credentials and work experience
  • A unique narrative about why the world is moving this way
  • Why you’re starting with a wedge, but your ultimate market is huge

I previously referenced the idea that international founders often describe this as the “American” way of pitching — the funny thing about this is that this isn’t the “American” way of pitching, it’s actually specific to the Bay Area tech ecosystem. It’s incredibly optimistic and futuristic that founders choose to describe their startups in this way, and furthermore, the people who hear these pitches choose to believe them.

Why this is the only way to pitch to investors, employees, and partners
Let me also make the argument that this is the only logical way to convince people to join you on your journey.

1. Investors
First, let’s talk about startup investors. a portfolio of startup investments is inherently risky, and the physics of venture math means that the winners have to be really big. It’s commonly said that out of a portfolio of ten companies, generally about half the investments will go to zero, three will return a little bit of money, and that the top one or two will return 10x plus and make the fund work. As a result, professional venture investors are trying to understand if you have what it takes to be one of those top two, and if you don’t if you’ll die trying. A lot of this assessment focused on the market or your numbers, but sometimes the real question is about your ambition.

So they are trying to answer a simple question: Do you WANT to create one of the leading companies in the industry?

Focusing on the future and on the upside shows your will to power. It allows investors to gain a sense of that signal. If you’re focused too early on profitability, rather than growth, or retaining your piece of the pie, as opposed to growing the pie as large as possible, that’s an important signal. The point of this isn’t to mislead investors into thinking that you’re trying to do something that you’re not, but rather, if you are shooting for something big, you have to really express that in the clearest way possible.

The perspective is often directly reflected (and not) in the slide decks I review at a16z. Does the product slide describe the features of what the app has today, or does it talk about the product roadmap of what’s going to be built in the future? Do they user projections or financial forecasts simply show the last year’s performance, or does it tell a story about how the business is about to inflect? Oftentimes when founders are too conservative about their story it’s hard for investors to understand what they’re trying to do in the long run. Instead, I love it when founders tell the big story. Of course I’m going to discount it and round down, and assume that many features are never shipped. But I love to see it.

2. Employees
Second, let’s talk about employees. typically when you’re hiring your first few employees, you might be able to give out a few percentage points each, particularly for key people (like engineers or designers). but within a few hires, you end up needing to convince people to work for below pay, and for a fraction of a percent of the company. Why would they do this? Why would they work for you instead of either starting their own company or getting a cushy gig somewhere else where they might be paid much more?

The asymmetric advantage of startups compared to many other opportunities, is that they are adventurous and fun. The startup might fail, but the work is generally a lot more interesting than what you can do elsewhere. The responsibility and scope that a junior employee might have might go way beyond what makes sense at any other company.

And of course financially there is upside. For founders to convince high-quality employees to join their outfit, it’s often important to lean into a sense of adventure. What’s more adventurous than tackling a big huge goal, that might not work, but if it works, it’s going to be amazing? For founders to communicate the sense of adventure, they need to be able to weave a narrative. Maybe it’s us versus them, or David and Goliath. Perhaps it’s exploring the unknown, and going to the frontier when no one else is there. If you can’t tell the stories, how can you expect people to follow you? Thus I find it important to tell the futuristic narrative that’s ambitious, full of surprises and upside, and has a possibility of failure too. It makes the work meaningful and makes the potential economic upside worth something.

3. Journalists, partners, and more
We’ve talked about investors and employees, but there’s actually a long tail of many other constituents that benefit from a futuristic outlook. if you’re talking to journalists and pundits, you have to compete with thousands of other companies that they’re going to meet this year, and you have to catch their attention. If you’re marketing, an event at a conference adjacent to dozens of other events, you have to catch the eye of attendees. An optimistic, futuristic perspective gives you room to tell the story about the problem you’re trying to solve, and why your startup will be incredibly important once you get there.

You might say that the world is full of cynics. Perhaps you are from a region or an industry where most people nitpick all the reasons why fail. Maybe they want you to focus on minimizing downside risks, or acknowledging your potential problems, and won’t treat you as credible unless you do. If that’s your industry network or your social network, I urge to you to escape. Seek out those who share your optimism, and the same values and beliefs about the future. it’s one of the reasons why the Bay Area has been such a powerhouse over the last few decades. Yes, there’s knowledge and investors here, but more important is the culture.

The last point I make is about yourself. You should talk about what you’re working on in an optimistic way to help create meaning for yourself. For those of us who grew up in a generation that adored Steve Jobs, there’s always been the goal to put a dent in the universe rather than to sell sugar water. Thinking about the future, and the upside of what you might be able to create, is a great way to give meaning to the nights and blood and tears that we put into our work. If you’re simply working on a new product only because it’s a good money-making opportunity, I guarantee that your sense of meaning will fade when times get tough. You’ll ask yourself, why am I doing this? If you don’t have a Northstar to guide you on an inevitably rocky, entrepreneurial journey, you’ll inevitably get lost. That’s when the FAANG job will seem really appealing.

Obviously, don’t drink your own Kool-Aid
This is all about the pitch. Of course it’s important to simultaneously hold in your mind all the truths about what you’re working on. Maybe you don’t actually have product market fit yet, or your marketing strategy. Perhaps your unit economics don’t yet work, or your team has major gaps. If you’re working on a new startup, likely, everything feels constantly broken, and everyone’s maybe going to quit.

You have to go and tackle all of those challenges with a clear mind — while simultaneously keeping a futuristic spirit that motivated people to join you on your journey.

Written by Andrew Chen

February 12th, 2024 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Startups need dual theories on distribution and product/market fit. One is not enough

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It’s hard to be a product without a strong theory of distribution
Here’s a common startup situation. A team busts their ass for months building the first version of their product. It’s almost done. Now a big question emerges — how do you get the first people to use your product? Hmm…

If you find yourself at this moment, then you are already in a bad place.

99% of startups are not differentiated on their underlying technology, and there is very little engineering risk involved. (I’m ignoring deep tech and foundational AI research companies, for the sake of this conversation). Because technology differentiation is no longer a real factor today start ups, it turns out that most products are succeeding or failing due to core product/market fit followed by the distribution strategy. There are over 9 million mobile apps. There are a billion websites. Figuring out distribution is key.

Dual insights needed
This is why I think startups end up needing both:
1) an insight about customers that gives them product/market fit
2) an insight about distribution that creates traction

People building products often have an easier time product/market fit because they are building for themselves, or a customer that they already know well. But the latter, about distribution, is often super difficult because once you onboard your friends and family, and look to expand the next set of hundreds of customers, you then dive into the world of growth marketing strategies and tactics which are its own very particular learned skill set.

The role of disruptive platforms
Sometimes when there’s a new breakthrough technology, as with what is happening in AI, or the Apple vision Pro, or Web3, it’s simply enough that the product has a “it works” feature. By simply being there on the scene when adoption of a new platform is happening, distribution happens automatically. I think that’s why we see that so many new great startups are launched right at the beginning of the platform.

But what happens when you are trying to launch the 9,000,001th mobile app? The first thing you do, naturally, is to try to read what’s out there. The other counterintuitive thing, is that although most of the knowledge in writing out there pertains to channels like SEO or paid marketing or influencer campaigns, many of these tactics best fit already successful products that have money and aim to accelerate growth. Many of these tactics simply won’t apply to you because they’ll be too expensive, or they will use mature marketing channels that just won’t be that effective. I often joke that by the time there’s a case study about a new marketing tactic or channel, the advantage has already been arbitrage away, and probably no longer works.

So what should you do instead?

Examples of products with natural distribution
Ideally the product and the distribution hypotheses happen at the same time, and reinforce each other. The Dropbox founders describe to me at the inception of their product, that sharing folders was part of the vision and was built in quite quickly. And later years this drove a significant amount of growth. Uber has natural virality because you often ride in a car with other people, or you ride a car to see somebody, and naturally you’ll mention the service. A product for creators, like Substack, will naturally encourage people on the platform to write and share content, attracting an audience who ultimately may also be writers themselves. Zoom, and other apps that help collaboration in the workplace, have natural features that cause you to bring in your coworkers as you use the product experience.

These are all examples of the best form of distribution, which are baked in to the product idea itself, rather than bolted on at the end.

The first set of users
Even once you have a basic theory for how your product will naturally distribute itself, you’ll still need to identify the first generation of users to help iron out all the issues, and give you feedback on whether your hypotheses were correct. In my years of studying new product launches, I can confidently say that the early years are often very idiosyncratic, and constantly changing. The reason for this of course is that marketing channels change all the time, but subscale ones that help you get your first couple thousand users, change even more so.

A few years ago you saw a trend were products would launch a huge conferences like SXSW. These days you see more effort on getting influencers involved early. Or “building in public” which makes yourself into an influencer. Several years ago many consumer products (like dating sites, new photo apps, etc) would launch on college campuses via the Greek system, because they were organized ways to reach thousands of undergraduate students. These days the organizations are often inundated with start up requests, and it’s become less effective. As a result all of these initial channels change all the time, and it’s up to the founders to figure out how to take advantage of what might work today.

The problem with these initial channels is that they eventually tap out.

The journey from channel to channel
Thus starts the journey of startups to grow and expand their portfolio of distribution channels, beginning with small and highly relevant ones, into the biggest channels.

I sometimes imagine a X Y axis, where X is volume of the channel, and Y is responsiveness. Early channels are often very low volume. But you want that. The reason is that they are highly relevant and they are small enough that larger companies do not focus on them. As I mentioned influencers are often an example of this, but so are niche newsletters, or or event marketing. However if you find this channel to be successful, you’ll also eventually one more scale. This involves you jumping onto the next set of channels, which will provide more volume but be much more competitive as a result.

Often times this is a period where you have one channel that kind of works, and you’re testing a few other channels simultaneously. Your efforts here should be experimental and iterative. You can often look at direct competitors as well as adjacent products and see what they’re doing, to inspire you on the right channel. The natural cadence of products will indicate to you the channels that are most likely to work. If you have episodic usage, you’ll probably need to do SEO/SEM, affiliate, or referral — something that helps you target high intent users. If you’re product is social or helps with workplace collaboration, then you might lean into referral programs and viral growth. Products in commerce naturally lead you towards paid ads, contact creators, etc. You can often learn a lot by talking to other people in your industry or an adjacent industries to see what works.

This is where sometimes I’ll see people working on episodic usage apps, like travel/health/etc asking the question, how do I make my product virally? I want free users! Of course the problem is, there’s a natural fit between a product and it’s distribution channels. Even though you might want free distribution, only very specific niches of networked products are able to grow freely. Generally everybody else must pay for their distribution, whether via referral or advertising.

Moving to volume-driven channels
Eventually you want to move on the XY axis towards volume. There are only about a dozen large scale distribution channels that can propel a product to scale. Advertising is on that list, SEO too, and so is viral growth. But these larger channels, by their nature, are both highly scaled but also have low responsiveness. As a result, you end up competing with some of the most famous brands in the industry as a result. Who wants to buy ads against the same audiences as major credit card or airlines? They have insanely high payback periods, and huge marketing budget, and are not that cost sensitive.

Ironically, this is where great products become to dominate. I started this discussion with the dual requirement of product/market fit, and distribution. But in the end, product/market fit actually dominates.

The reason is the following — the ability for a company to operate out in these most expensive and highly scaled channels comes from having a great product that generates a ton of word of mouth. More natural usage, the less marketing that has to be done. And the marketing costs that do exist end up being blended in with the large number of organic users.

The journey of a new product is to move, from unscaled and relevant, to highly scaled. And at the end, great products win.

Written by Andrew Chen

February 6th, 2024 at 9:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Every time you ask the user click you lose half

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Every time you ask the user click you lose half of them.
(And this why tutorials, splash screens, and lengthy signup flows are a bad idea)

If you’ve been building apps for a long time and have seen the results of a lot of A/B tests, you quickly realize that people are a flighty bunch. Ask them to download an app and 80% will bounce right on that page. Ask them to sign up and 90% will hit the back button to avoid putting in their email and password. Ask people who’ve arrived from Google to read an article, to subscribe and get more updates, and 99% will head back to find the next article.

What happens when you ask for credit card and email
In the early days of Uber the only way to sign up was to give your email address a bunch of other fields and also your credit card number. Some of the big early winds in acquiring customers was just to make it so that you could sign up with a phone number and a password, and put in your credit card lead in the flow. If memory serves me right, these were increases on the order of +50%.

You get the drift of what I’m arguing.

So what happens when your designer has the fantastic idea of a stark and beautiful homepage for your new product that takes a few clicks to sign up, followed by a lengthy tutorial to explain all the features? Sometimes this becomes a life and death decision, because rather than signing up thousands of users into your private beta, which provides the traction to raise your next round of funding, instead only a few hundred make it through.

Streamline critical flows by minimizing steps
This is why, when I get feedback on a critical flow within a product, I always start by minimizing the number of clicks and steps. I asked whether each field in a sign-up form is really needed, or is optional. I ask the question of whether you need to user to do something now versus having them set it up in the future, when they’re more bought into the product. I ask to remove all the glitzy, visual steps that explain things and just ask the user to hit next. I move the sign-up form to the first experience, whether that’s on the homepage, or the opening screen of an app. If there’s a call action, while the user is doing something else, like reading an article, my theory is that you should be very upfront with it and make it a blocking modal, or not do it at all. No half measures.

The point of all, this, of course, is to get people into the magic of your product.

The magic is not in filling out forms or watching cute videos about your product, it’s about using your product as quickly as possible. As a result, the only acceptable forms of friction are ones that ultimately enhance the users ability to have a great experience. Thus product is much better experienced as an app, where you have a notifications channel and a richer experience, then, by all means, ask the user to download something. If a product is much better, when used with colleagues or friends, that it might make sense to take a lower conversion rate during the sign-up flow in exchange for some sharing or inviting functionality, that brings more people into the app. Ultimately, it’s all a trade-off, where every click drops off a huge number of users, so you need to spend that user intent very very well.

Add friction when it helps
Ironically, it can also be an anti-pattern to not ask users to sign up or install or do anything at all, because once they bounce, which they will inevitably, do, you have no way to get them back. That’s why it’s all a trade-off, and one of the trickiest things about the user growth discipline is knowing when to add friction, and when to take it away.

Also, interestingly enough, as you make it easier and easier to sign up to reduce friction the quality and intent of the users also decreases. If you double the number of sign-up typically, you do not get twice the number of paying customers.

Nevertheless it’s an important thing to remember: Every time you ask the user click you lose half of them. Be careful.

Written by Andrew Chen

February 5th, 2024 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Why the worst users come from referral programs, free trials, coupons, and gamification

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Above: Many small business figured out the hard way why coupon sites generate worse users

Incentive programs often don’t perform
The people you attract with referral programs, free trials, coupons, and gamification — folks who are “incentivized” as a broad umbrella category — are usually MUCH WORSE than organic ones. Worse LTVs, worse conversion, less engaged, and so on.

In a previous life, I headed up Uber’s $300m+/year referral program (“give $5 and get $5”) and learned a ton. Much of the learnings apply to the next wave of gamified consumer apps, web3 games, etc.

So why are these users worse? Let’s discuss.

When CAC/LTV spreadsheets fail
When a new product comes to market, usually the team will measure a baseline set of metrics around lifetime value, etc. if the numbers look good, they might say OK let’s roll out some incentives and get more users like this. Spreadsheets are built, budgets are planned, growth is forecasted, and the new growth project kicks off.

The problem is, all of these forms of incentives usually end up attracting a different type of marginal user that wouldn’t have signed up earlier. They are less qualified, more discount seeking, and behave differently. There is negative selection.

This is especially true when the product has been out there for a while and the core market has mostly been saturated. You also see significant amounts of fraud as users scheme to profit from the incentives. This could be a simple as creating a new account to grab an incentive or it could be something much more organized and nefarious.

This is why core metrics like LTV and engagement can often be half as good or lower, which is often enough to defeat the mathematics that justified the program in the first place. An additional user at upside down mechanics feels good from a top line basis, but in fact, fewer users would be better for the business model. And all the attention towards a complex referral program might take away attention from innovation elsewhere in the product.

One final issue that’s quite subtle, but very important: Cannibalization. You have an target market and sometimes it takes time for a product to spread through its ideal users — this is magical because word of mouth is free. And when it happens in an organic way, the intent is even higher. But if these ideal users encounter the product via an incentive program, you often “pull forward” these users, thus costing you money, when you would have gotten them anyway.

If this all sounds like I might have suffered some trauma from Uber, it’s because I did! Not only did the rider-side referral programs perform worse over time, and perform worse than other channels, in fact, the users were much worse than even users bought from paid ads. It was millions of dollars of spend that didn’t need to happen.

Why this matters — in the world of web3, gamified apps, etc
The ramifications of this are wide, especially on the world of web3, consumer apps that are gamified, etc.

First, it tells you that if you take a game or an app that does not have inherent engagement and retention, it is not enough to add gaming mechanics. If anything, the new mechanics might make things worse, not better, as they attract a group of users who respond to the mechanics, but wouldn’t otherwise use the underlying product. I think we saw a lot of this in web3, where incentivized attracted speculators early on, but struggled to find fun gameplay to attain actual users. Similarly gamified consumer apps (the trad kind) might attract and sustain a certain type of user who is happy to engage in any gamified app, and who will quickly move on because the underlying app doesn’t engage either.

Second, all of these dynamics create sort of a related dynamic to the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs. Not only do individual marketing channels degrade, but many of the new channels you add over time — because they are incentivized — perform worse than the initial channels. Thus the entire machine gets slower and harder as you go.

Final story on this from Uber, funny enough the referral program on the driver side attracted very positively selected users. Whereas the rider referral program got discount seekers, the drivers were highly money motivated. Because they were so motivated and signed up for larger referral bounties, they actually performed better after sign up. Even though referrals was 15% of sign-up they were well over 30% of first trips.

Incentives are a form of selection and you need to make sure you know what you’re selecting for.

Written by Andrew Chen

January 31st, 2024 at 10:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The most expensive game cost over $1B, and how AI will transform it

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Grand Theft Auto 6 and the future of AI
If you happened to miss it, a few weeks back, here is the game trailer for Grand Theft Auto 6. It’s worth watching, and is amazing on multiple levels. But GTA 6 might be the peak of the open world category, untouched by the next wave of tech, particularly generative AI.

Let’s start some facts: First, GTA has a reported budget of $1-2B, making it THE MOST EXPENSIVE GAME EVER

Not only is this the most expensive game ever, but compare it to movies. The most expensive movies, modern installments of the Star Wars and Avengers and Pirates franchises, clock in at a mere $300-450M. So this is nearly 5X:

I also think this is indicative of the pole position that gaming is taking in culture.

The recent trailer is now the most viewed non-music video on YouTube following 24 hours after its release, beating any movie trailer, TV show premier, and it topped MrBeast. In the first 10 hours, it hit 70M views, and at the time of this writing, a few weeks later, it’s at over 140M

It’s also funny to compare this to building a product in tech. Rather than “move fast and break things” instead this game:

  • took $1-2B to build, as we said
  • started dev in 2014, so it’ll be 11 years from start to release
  • 1000s of developers, designers, etc crunching to finish

But as most of us in tech have been following, the tools and approach to games is rapidly changing.

How generative AI is changing the games industry
We are seeing generative AI hit multiple parts of game development. It’s early days, but there are quite a few places where this is hitting — this includes everything from concept art to assets within the game, to interactions with NPCs:

  • creating infinite varieties of concept art
  • designing/creating 3D assets
  • LLM powered NPCs
  • generating environments and worlds
  • synthesized speech for in-game characters
  • bots to play against, to onboard into PvP competitive games
  • endless quests, narrative stories, etc
  • etc

But that’s just the “weak form” innovations that are easily imagined today. The “weak form,” as my colleague Chris Dixon talks about, often comes alongside a strong form version, in a pair. The weak form is more easily understandable by the market, but it’s often the strong form that ultimately makes the bigger impact.

The “strong form” AI innovations will impact GTA in more emergent formats. To take a metaphor, it’s been cool to see modding allow for the emergent GTA RP (role play) community emerge, allowing for new game play as people play as cops, gang leaders, and other folks. Millions of people have tried this format of GTA, and even more millions have watched. It’s a new inventive form of play that didn’t previously exist.

I think the same thing will happen for future editions of the Open World genre. Yes, generative AI will be used to make games like GTA more cheaply ($1-2B is a lot!) or to get more content with the same dollars. But also AI will unlock new forms of gameplay as well.

I’m so excited, for example, about what happens with the GTA version of AI town — where NPCs have their own inner voices, motivations, and needs. You could imagine this underlying platform being able to power next gen social, dating, or otherwise. You could imagine thinking of open world games like GTA almost more like a physics engine, with a layer of modding and AI built in. And at some level, it’s a large enough playground that you can build a lot of other game genres inside of it (as Roblox does).

It’s just as likely gen AI will reinvent genres, not just make it cheaper to build
Think about what happened in the last content revolution, where user-generated platforms like YouTube and TikTok allowed video creators to dramatically reduce the cost of content. What creators used the technology for wasn’t to try and compete with Hollywood. People aren’t disrupting the 2 hour film or the 10 episode TV season with short videos. Instead, you see completely new video formats that are native to the medium, whether it’s personality-driven vlogging, video game streaming, long-form podcasts, or otherwise. These don’t compete with Hollywood — they take on entertainment by a wholly other approach, stitching together hours of entertainment 6 seconds at a time.

All this time we’ve been talking about big open world games, I actually think the best new experiences won’t resemble Grand Theft Auto at all. Instead, we’ll see new game genres that are rapidly released that compete in different ways:

  • Perhaps we’ll see games as a new format of meme. If a funny presidential debate moment happens between two candidates, perhaps later that evening you’ll see a fully-fledged fighting game (built in a no code, AI-enabled environment) become the huge hit later that evening
  • Perhaps gaming will be ultra-personalized, and people will make huge, immersive, deep games for their 50 person college club — just because they can
  • Perhaps gaming will be sold alongside commerce and other experiences. Today, you might build a huge gaming experience to accompany Harry Potter, but the economics don’t work to make it to promote your tiny Shopify store. If content creation costs fall close enough to zero, you might.

Either way, it’s really hard to imagine a big budget game like GTA happening the same way it is happening now. Instead, the content will be AI generated, along with the quest and maybe even the genre. And maybe it won’t look like what we consider a game today.

This last year has been a period of exploration for the games industry, but it’s still very early. Everyone is experimenting, which is a good start. And some tools, like Midjourney for concepting, has taken hold. But very little is actually in production. There’s a big transformation coming, and it’s going to be as big of a wave as anything we’ve seen in this industry.

Written by Andrew Chen

January 23rd, 2024 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

How to write more

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Dear readers,

As we enter a new year, many of us are setting goals to write more and create more content. As someone who has been writing consistently for the past decade, I wanted to share some strategies that have helped me in my writing journey, particularly in a professional context.

Collecting ideas
First and foremost, I emphasize the importance of collecting ideas. These ideas can come from anywhere – opinions, statements of fact, interesting factoids, statistics, or even visual content such as charts and graphs. These are things from X or books or Reddit or whatever.

I use an app called “Email Me” to quickly email myself these ideas and then compile them into a single note with a headline that inspires me to explore the topic further. So then my workflow is to open up this note with a bunch of bullets, each one a headline for a post, and then decide what to pick from

Let yourself write small
You should allow yourself to write things that are both big and small. But particularly, it’s great to give yourself permission to do much shorter pieces – tweets or LinkedIn posts – and they can even be a few lines. The frequency of creating helps you build the muscle for more later. Short helps you get over perfectionism, or a feeling of imposter syndrome, etc

The idea of “templates” is useful too – these are commonly repeating versions of posts that you can repeat, over and over, that always generate interesting content. Here’s some examples:

  • reviews of books
  • quotes from podcasts/articles
  • lessons learned from past projects
  • Q&A with a colleague/friend
  • top links about a particular topic
  • your answer about a particular topic
  • reflections on the past year/quarter
  • a factoid/statistic you found surprising

If you can collect these templates together, you’ll never feel writer’s block!

Setting aside time to brainstorm, and to write
Another strategy that has been effective for me is to have regular brainstorming sessions with a writing partner. This not only provides accountability but also helps in generating new and fresh ideas. At a16z we actually have a weekly content where people talk about what they’re working on each week, and riff on different concepts. It helps a lot.

Setting aside dedicated time for writing is also crucial. I find that scheduling 60 to 90 minutes, particularly in the morning when I’m fresh, helps me focus and eliminates distractions. I often do my writing Sunday afternoons as well, in prep for the week ahead, and try to crack out something that takes a few hours. These are my routines, and maybe you’ll find yours!

Distraction-free devices
I own a whole series of distraction free devices – I wrote my book on a dedicated laptop for writing that has nothing installed on it besides Ulysses, a writing app, and a browser. There’s some really cool Android tablets called BOOX that can pair with bluetooth keyboards – or you can use the Remarkable tablet that’s recently been out, with has a keyboard attachment. I also lock my phone into a plexiglass container with a timer to force myself to stay off my entertainment apps

In addition to these strategies, I’ve found that leveraging technology, such as using AI for brainstorming and voice-to-text apps, has been incredibly helpful in enhancing my writing process. I found chatGPT to be a strong brainstorming tool – just say something like, “I have X opinion, make a list of ideas that align, starting with Y and Z.” Then if you want more ideas, ask it for more. The hit rate sometimes isn’t great but you curate things down and then use that for your topic sentences for what you’re going to write. Voice-to-text is useful as well since it’s often easier to talk than it is to write. So if you ramble for 5-10 minutes there’s tools like Oasis AI that will clean it up into acceptable prose, which you can edit more later

Why “quality” is the enemy to writing
The top top obstacle to people writing/creating/building more (and this includes me!) is a misguided focus on “quality” as an excuse to procrastinate and to enable many other bad behaviors

Some thoughts:

1. quality focus hinders more writing and content creation
2. leads to procrastination and restricts experimenting with styles
3. taste develops faster than skills, causing disappointment
4. it’s important to accept failure as part of learning
5. start small, expand based on audience feedback
6. regular writing, experimenting with styles keeps process enjoyable

People often use quality as an excuse, thinking they need to craft a masterpiece to stand out online. They aim to produce only their finest work, expecting it to be widely recognized.

They say, look, there’s so much writing on the internet, and so much content. In order for my work to break out, what I need to do is I need to sit down and put down a masterpiece, something that will be recognized by people and I’m going to come up with the best ideas in the world.

I’m going to polish, polish, and polish. I’m going to put out only the best work. And then once that masterpiece is out there, then people are going to recognize it. Now, I would argue that that does not work at all. And the reason why that doesn’t work are really rooted in some really practical things.

Here’s why this approach is flawed
Firstly, focusing too much on quality is a great way to procrastinate. It leads to endless editing, turning what could be a quick tweet storm into a months-long essay project.

Secondly, it hampers your ability to experiment. When starting out, finding your voice is crucial, and it often takes time and trial and error. For instance, my own blogging and writing journey took about two years to find its stride. Experimentation is key, and a high-quality standard can stifle creativity and output. Initially, you might dislike your work as your taste develops faster than your skills, creating a frustrating gap between your taste and abilities.

It’s essential to embrace failure and learning. An over-focus on quality can prevent you from trying new things and accepting that some attempts might fail, setting unrealistic standards.

Increase the writing feedback loop
Instead, you should aim to increase your feedback loop. This means experimenting, seeing how your audience reacts, and evolving your content based on their responses. For example, start with a tweet, expand it into a thread if it’s well-received, and then develop it into an essay. This approach helps align your work with what your audience wants.

Good writing habits include writing regularly and giving yourself the freedom to experiment with different topics and styles. Discover what resonates with your audience and yourself. This way, you can build a diverse portfolio and find your unique voice or niche. It took years to figure out that people like when I write about charts and graphs

Remember, writing should be fun and conversational. Treat it as if you’re talking to friends. Don’t fret over a piece that doesn’t hit the mark; you can always try again. This philosophy of frequent, enjoyable content creation is what I’ve adopted in my creative process.

Remember you can always delete a stupid tweet!

Written by Andrew Chen

January 15th, 2024 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

How to write a business book — behind the scenes from THE COLD START PROBLEM

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(above: Me in Sep 2023, a happy author, finding the Japanese translated version of my book at the wonderful Daikanyama Tsutaya Books in Tokyo)


Dear readers,

As many of you know, 2 years ago I published my first book THE COLD START PROBLEM. It aims to tell the story of why some products — YouTube, Instagram, Uber, Slack, Dropbox, and others — end up with hundreds of millions (and sometimes billions!) of users, and to provide the definitive theory of network effects which are often referenced in the tech industry, but only superficially understood. It’s been a success, now in a dozen markets, translated into many languages (including Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Russian, etc).

Here’s a screenshot of some of the wonderful pictures that readers took during launch week:

This was an awesome experience. Nevertheless, I swear I will never write another book again . (I guess never say never, ha)

The creative process was a long, meandering path, and folks ping me from time to time because they want to take on a masochistic journey of their own. So this post will be about the messy, annoying, behind the scenes leading up to writing a book like this — it describes a bit the creative process, but also some of the major milestones and lessons learned.

Hopefully it will be useful for someone in the future who is thinking of a big writing project of their own.

A brief summary of what I’ll cover:

  • Month 0: At first, writing a book seems like a fun idea (until you figure out it’s not)
  • Month 1-6: Finding an agent, writing a proposal, and opening up your Christmas presents early
  • Month 6-12: Collecting and organizing the ideas — lots of fun chats, reconnecting with colleagues, talking to great people
  • Month 12: How to write the initial the outline, then the mega-outline — finding the formula
  • Month 12-24: The very messy middle, the trough of sorrow, the hard slog, followed by trench warfare (yes, it’s 3-5 years to write a book)
  • Month 24-36: Why you’ll feel insecure about the creative process
  • Final months: Just ship it already

I’m also going to link to various copies of intermediate content along the way — unfortunately I can’t share everything (like interview notes, etc) since some stuff will have to be confidential, but here’s a few interesting bits anyway

OK — so let’s get started on the journey.

Month 0: At first, writing a book seems like a fun idea (until you figure out it’s not)
I joined Andreessen Horowitz in mid-2018, I had already been writing on my blog for 10 years and I was kind of having some creative boredom over it. At that time, Elad Gil had just published his book and we had a nice convo at MKT’s lounge about a week after his book was out — he had amazing things to say about the process (he writes faster/better than me, in the back of Ubers it turns out), and he said it helped him a lot professionally. At a16z, as you all know, Ben and Scott have both written fantastic books as well, and it seemed to really be great for them professionally, so I thought it might be a fun challenge to do the same. So think of the motivation as 50% a creative challenge, and 50% seeing what it had done for other people.

I had two lines of thinking in terms of picking the book topic. First, I’ve had good luck taking ubiquitous jargon and writing the definitive blog post on the topic — something I did with growth hacking, CAC/LTV, viral loops, and concepts like that. I had a few ideas bouncing around in my head that felt like good candidates. “Power users” was one — a term we use willy nilly, but without a strong theoretic underpinning. “Network effects” was another, since we were talking about it at a16z all the time, but when it came time to look at the metrics and answer the question — OK so does this product have it!?? — then it got a little mushier. Another was “Product/market fit” or “MVP” and expanding those concepts much further.

The other line of thinking revolves around answering the big question — why? I decided my focus would be on something targeting a very small group of nerdy founders and executives, rather than a wide topic that might be more mainstream. I could write about, say, career advice or how to start a business (in a general sense), but felt like those would be too broad.

In the end, I picked the topic of network effects because it’s a genuinely important topic, I felt like I had something to say, and I also felt like it could fold in a lot of concepts from my prior work on growth. Once I started down the path of picking, I started to talk to people at a16z about it — they recommended I start with writing a book proposal.

Month 1-6: Finding an agent, writing a proposal, and opening up your Christmas presents early
The team at a16z was very helpful, and in the first few weeks I worked with Hanne Winarsky (now at Substack!) and others to start meeting agents, which is how I ultimately met Chris Parris-Lamb from Gernert who also represented Peter Thiel for Zero to One, and Pete Buttigieg for his book. I sent him the following book proposal with a placeholder name, MOONSHOT. The proposal usually kinda reads like a business plan:

  • Overview
  • Chapter summaries
  • The market
  • Author bio
  • Competitive books

We quickly agreed to work together, and that we would approach various publishers to solicit offers. The actual approach was kind of fun, honestly a more efficient version of what we do in venture capital. Chris ran the whole thing, and the process looked like the following:

  • Chris approached publishers and sent along the book proposal
  • They read the proposal (thank you!) and asked for 30 minutes of time
  • We got on the call and they asked me detailed questions, showing they had actually read the proposals — UNLIKE a typical startup/VC process where the founder uses the time to present
  • Later, they submitted an offer (I think 7 did?)
  • Chris then took the top half of the offers, and gave them a second chance to bid again
  • The top 2 bids were close, but I chose to work with Hollis Heimbouch at Harper Business

I chose Hollis because she’s legend in the industry, and worked with Jim Collins, Clay Christensen, Satya Nadella, and others on their most famous books — a16z had also worked with her for Ben’s previous book and it went well. My advance was high mid six figures, which I was told was very good for a first-time author, and would be paid out in parts as the book progressed (one part at signing, the next on the draft, the next at publishing, etc).

The entire process of doing this was maybe 3-4 months? I’ve described the early days of this as “opening up your Christmas gifts early” because you get all the good vibes up front of selling the book, without the work of actually writing anything. But soon I was going to pay the price!

Month 6-12: Collecting and organizing the ideas — lots of fun chats, reconnecting with colleagues, talking to great people
The rest of the first year was pretty fun as well — I realized I needed to do a lot of primary research, so I started reaching out to people I respected, asking them for short interviews. Thank you to Li Jin who tag teamed with me on many of these interviews, where I asked open-ended questions, heard stories, and tried to write as much of it down as possible.

Readers want to hear opinions. The sharper and funnier, the better, and I had a theory that if I could collect all of it, then that in itself could be the bones of a book. Thus, I wrote down pithy, opinionated statements whenever I heard them — anything that might be a good tweet would also be a good title or a good opening paragraph. Opinions like, “launching with Techcrunch is stupid” or “never build a social network, it’s just too hard” — those are gold.

All the interviews went into a spreadsheet tracker like this, which linked to individual notes for each, plus a little summary.

In the end, I ended up with 200+ interviews from people in the industry, and pages and pages of opinions and thoughts. It was absolute chaos. But I could also tell there was something interesting in there. I eventually interviewed some senior folks in the industry — the founders/CEOs of Slack, YouTube, Twitch, Tinder, Dropbox, Zoom, Linkedin, and may others — those all ended up being super fun, and were the showcase stories in the book. Getting time with these folks ended up being some of the most memorable moments while writing the book.

Month 12: How to write the initial the outline, then the mega-outline — finding the formula
If you have hundreds of pages of random notes from interviews, plus pages of research, and a jumble of ideas in your own head — what do you do? You need some kind of organizing principle that makes all these ideas readable. I figured there was probably a formula in some of the best business books out there, and so I re-read Lean Startup, Crossing the Chasm, Innovator’s Dilemma, and many others.

What you find it that the bones of the book often look something like this:

  • Opening story
  • Describe a big problem/dilemma/question
  • Present a framework
  • Go through one part of the framework
    • Start with an anecdote
    • Then describe the theory
  • Go through another part
  • Then another part
  • Then again…
  • Conclusion

This isn’t all business books, but look, it’s pretty ubiquitous. And so I thought I’d start by structuring my initial outline kind of like this, which is how I ended up with the following short version of the outline. The first book outline.

Btw, Ryan Holiday has a great discussion of how he wrote his book, with tons of photos, and I want to link that here. He has a photo of a box representing every topic/idea in this book, each one in a note card, categorized into sections:

I sort of ended up doing the digital version of this, where I created a document that I called my “Mega Outline” — where I took every opinion/point that I wanted to make in the book, and built out the first 2-3 levels of bullets in a much larger version.

Here’s the first page, so you can get a sense:

I’ve linked the entire Mega outline here if you want to peruse — it’s 30 pages where each page needed to probably be 10x’d. That is, 1 page of outline = 10 pages of written prose, which I quickly figured out as I began to write the first few chapters. There’s a funny George RR Martin discussion (he’s the Game of Thrones guy) where he talks about how some writers are Architects, and some are Gardeners. The architects do what Ryan Holiday and I both do — we have some chaos at the beginning, which we try to ruthlessly suppress, and use some organizing principles to put it together. Once there’s a structure, then that’s like a foundation of a building — the architects then write, floor by floor, and build the whole thing. Plus some polish at the end. It turns out that GRRM describes himself as the other archetype, the gardener, where you sort of plant some interesting points here and there, then revisit them as you write. But that’s why his books are amazing and take 10 years to write.

Month 12-24: The very messy middle, the trough of sorrow, the hard slog, followed by trench warfare (yes, it’s 3-5 years to write a book)
This whole middle section after the first year gives me PTSD so I won’t dwell too much on it, and just cover the lessons learned. The mechanics of this phase are pretty simple — you really just need to translate the mega outline bullet by bullet into pages of written prose. But here are all the problems you’ll face:

  • Your normal tools are not good for writing a book. Most writing that you do on a daily basis, like email, might be composed of a few paragraphs. That’s easy. If you need a longer document, then you might have multiple sections that contain multiple paragraphs each, and you’ll use Microsoft Word or GDocs. But what if you have a book with 7-10 parts that contain 5-10 chapters each, that contain 3-4 major sections that themselves contain a large number of paragraphs? And what if halfway through, you realize all the stuff you’re writing in one section should actually belong as a chapter in another section? Also what if you want to do a word count of different chapters or sections? It’s all a pain. In the end, I used Ulysses which at least has the concept of nested folders, and then each chapter would be a folder that would then contain files containing each part. The app then sync’d it all to a bunch of Markdown files in a Dropbox, so that I could work on it from multiple locations
  • You write on a computer, and your computer is very distracting. You need a browser to do research, but your browser is also where you can check what’s happening on social media. You can’t fully turn off the internet, since you need to do research. And sometimes you need to go to YouTube to watch an interview, but right next to the video you’re supposed to be watching is a gadget review for something you might want to to buy. So what do you do?
  • Distraction free devices and treating yourself like a kid. Eventually I started to try and buy a bunch of different tools to keep myself focused. I bought a plexiglass timer safe thing and I’d lock my personal phone away for an hour or two at a time. I bought a separate laptop, and put it in a different location, and turned on all the child-safe filters so that I couldn’t go to Reddit, Twitter, etc. If I needed to look up research, I would often just print out pages and pages of it, so that I would stay analog and not mess around. I bought a series of e-ink Android tablets called the BOOX that could run a Markdown editor, connect to Dropbox, and could pair a nice keyboard.
  • Say goodbye to vacations, weekends, and evening time. To hit the deadlines I had set for myself, I ended up converting a lot of my holidays and weekends into writing time. It’s hard to write for more than, 3-4 hours in a row, so you still can go somewhere nice and sunny — but I found that I needed to wake up, work out, and get writing before noon, in order to make progress. You get your evenings, but it’s tough. And weekends are like that too.

Here’s a funny photo of one of these kSafe timers I’d hide my phone into during my writing times — by the end, I had 5 (!!!) of these in various writing spots, so that if I was feeling in the mood I would throw my phone in:

I have to admit, it was a grind. Not easy at all. If there was a point where I could have gotten stuck and quit, this would have been it.

Month 24-36: Why you’ll feel insecure about the creative process
One of the craziest things about writing a book is that it’s such an incredibly solitary experience, and there’s eventually a point where you’ve written enough that you feel sorta okay about where it’s going, but no one else has seen it yet. And so it might suck. But you’re honestly not sure. I got got to this about 2 years into writing the book. I had written the first ~10 chapters (out of 35), and I had a lot of questions for myself:

  • Is this book any good?
  • Am I saying stuff people already know?
  • Or is this book too nerdy, and going into details that are unnecessary?
  • Are the stories actually interesting, or too obvious? Have people heard them already?

And to be honest, you kind of don’t know until you take a half completed version of the book and ask a few trusted friends to read it. I got a bunch of very very good feedback — thanks in particular to Lenny Rachitsky, Sachin Rekhi, and many folks at a16z for taking the first crack — and it was also the first time my publisher and agent were reading it. I got a bunch of useful conceptual feedback, for example that the first few chapters felt a little slow to get into the action. It felt too theoretical at parts. There were certain specific topics that felt trite. Some sections felt repetitive. And so on. Brutal honesty is what you need here. In the end I also felt like, underneath the scruff, was a book that I would really enjoy reading myself, and that it just needed to be tightened.

I will say, the most painful refactoring happening in this period. As I neared completion of rough versions of all the various chapters, I ended up with a roughly 100,000 word book (which is normal, turns out). Sometimes it takes 3-5 years to fully get to this, and the fact I had a demanding day job and was able to finish in ~3 years — that’s great. But if my worry was that if I had to significantly rewrite portions part way through, it would become a 5 years process, which I’ve learned is not uncommon. This kind of refactoring particularly comes when you have a full length book and then you decide to combine a chapter or two. Or to take a theme that’s appearing in a few spots, and make it into its own section. And then you have to update everything in the book so that it flows properly. It’s easiest to do with a blog post, or a document, or something like that, but with a 35 chapter book — that becomes a heavy lift. But so it goes.

Final months: Just ship it already
By the end of the writing process, I was dead tired. Honestly, I got to a point where I was both simultaneously feeling good about the materials, particularly the first few chapters that I had polished up. But also the process was long and arduous and I was ready to just ship it. The problem with books, however, is that they are really developed in a waterfall process for good reason — once you submit the book, and it’s printed, that’s that!

One fun back and forth happened as I started to work on picking the final cover. I worked with a designer who had done a lot of work on Stripe Press books, which I always loved — however, they are boutique operation which gives them a lot of latitude on what can be done, and the designs often had very small text on the cover (after all, the title will be somewhere on the web page in a digital-first experience, right?), or prescribed weird materials. It was a negotiation to figure out what was actually possible.

I also learned that almost all the US hardcover books are printed at one company (crazy???) and here’s an excerpt about that from a Vox article:

Most book printing happens in the US. Books with heavy color printing, like picture books, are sent to China, but in order to keep the cost of shipping low, most publishers do the rest of their printing domestically. That’s getting more and more difficult to manage.

Until 2018, there were three major printing presses in the US. Then one of them, the 125-year-old company Edwards Brothers Malloy, closed. The remaining big two, Quad and LSC, attempted to merge in 2020, but then the Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit. Quad responded by getting out of the book business entirely; LSC filed for bankruptcy and sold off a number of its presses. Smaller printers have continued to operate, but the infrastructure to keep up with the demand for printed books in North America is in shambles.

Crazy right? Couple other interesting things I learned at the end:

  • You only need ~10,000 preorders to be a bestseller — far below what it used to be
  • There are tons of books that become best-sellers because people buy many, many copies of their own books — often via anonymous networks of buyers to obscure what’s happening (I did not do this, btw)
  • The US is not actually the primary market for business books, at least by units — it’s China. There’s usually 3:1 ratio of books sold there versus the US
  • The average book has 250-500 books sold in its lifetime (!!!) — and maybe the median is more like a few thousand. But either way it’s quite low

Anyway, as the final months approached, I traded a bunch of revisions with Hollis and her team at Harper Business. Even though I was very tired at this point, I had the incredible help of Olivia Moore at a16z who did a once over at the end, that really polished things up, as well as my agent Chris, and many others. There are way too many people to thank, so I encourage you to look at the acknowledgements :)

It was only in the final months that I started to think about marketing the book. I also have a ton of notes there :) Will share more later. In the meantime, hopefully y’all found this interesting! It was a good 3+ years of my life and there’s finally enough distance to reflect now.

Written by Andrew Chen

January 15th, 2024 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Fun graph from Peter Attia’s book Outlive

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Hey readers,

This is a small deviation from my usual topics, but wanted to share. This is one of the most important graphs that I saw in 2023 that has led to behavioral change for me. This is in Peter Attia’s book Outlive.

Here’s the graph:

if you want to be able to briskly climb stairs when you are 75, you need to be in the top 95th percentile of cardiovascular fitness. Even at 95th percentile, it’ll be hard to jog up steep hills, etc — you’d have to be an elite athlete.

But if you are average/low, you may not even be able to do any of that. And it seems unlikely you’ll be avg/low now (I’m in my early 40s) and then somehow go from 50th percentile to 95th. So basically it’s better to get started

Thus, after reading his book, I reluctantly started running again even though I hate it. And am also doing some peloton / cycling outdoors when time/weather allows

I enjoyed his book, and I posted a bunch of my other book recommendations from the past year over here.



Written by Andrew Chen

January 10th, 2024 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Reforge Podcast: 2024 predictions, AI apps, the future of PM, what we can learn from gaming, and more

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Dear readers,

I was recently interviewed by the great Brian Balfour (CEO/cofounder of Reforge) and Fareed Mosavat (ex-Reforge/Slack/Zynga) which turned into a lively discussion — I think we could have gone longer! — which we just published in two parts. You can listen to both parts below, and the kind folks at Reforge also typed up some notes summarizing some of the major points made in the interview discussion.

Hope you enjoy!



Part 1 — 2024 Predictions: The Future of Product, Growth, and AI with Andrew Chen

Part 2 — New Marketing Channels and Trends for 2024: The Power of Organic Traction and the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs


Some thoughts and notes from the podcast:

  • 2024 Predictions: the future of product, growth, and AI What’s in store for 2024? Andrew Chen, General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, joined us on the Season Finale of Unsolicited Feedback to share his insights.
    • High Growth, high churn? Many AI experiences are currently seeing high growth and high churn due to their novelty factor. The question remains: can they sustain growth after the novelty wears off?
    • MVPs Have power, for now… AI is in the early stage of its S-curve, similar to the early days of the App Store. This period is characterized by rapid innovation and experimentation.
    • To Predict the future, look at the past The MVP strategy works well in the early stages of technology, but as it matures, the standards rise. The Apple approach of perfection might be the key in the long term.
    • More IPOs in 2024 Expectations of more IPOs in 2024 are high, given the maturation of businesses and the market’s readiness for fresh players.
    • More M&A in 2024 An increase in mergers and acquisitions is anticipated in the startup market, primarily involving startups themselves.
    • Big Breakthrough in AI in 2024? While major breakthroughs aren’t guaranteed, wider capabilities and integration of AI in everyday tools are expected.
    • More Product managers in 2024 The demand for product managers is predicted to rise as companies continue to grow and evolve.
    • The Law of shitty clickthroughs This law dictates that the performance of any marketing channel degrades over time due to increased usage and saturation.
  • If You’re reading about it, it’s probably too late By the time a marketing channel becomes mainstream, it’s often already fully utilized.
    • Phone Calls? don’t even get me started Over-saturation has led to the decline of channels like phone calls and SMS marketing.
    • The Running start Success in big channels requires initial momentum, typically from non-scalable, unique marketing approaches.
    • Defensible Growth channels often mean going niche Focusing on niche markets can help make growth channels more defensible and sustainable.
    • The Power of organic traction Organic traction is crucial for crossing over to higher volume channels and creating a loyal base.
    • Building a brand Developing a compelling narrative or brand is essential in overcoming the challenges of saturated channels.
  • Lessons from Gaming: the power of community, creativity, and storytelling The gaming industry offers insights into growth and product development, emphasizing community building, storytelling, and technology.
    • The Anti-MVP approach In gaming, extensive development and testing before launch are common, contrasting with the tech industry’s MVP approach.
    • Launching is a community effort Gaming studios excel at building anticipation and community engagement before a game’s launch.
    • The Intersection of culture and technology Gaming combines culture and technology, creating engaging experiences that resonate with players.
    • Storytelling is as important as technology Storytelling in gaming emphasizes the importance of narrative in product development and marketing.


Written by Andrew Chen

January 4th, 2024 at 11:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Heading into 2024 – Life update, books, links, and more

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Hi readers,

Doing a short round up on various links, books, a quick life update, and other stuff going on. First, I did not write much in 2023 (I was busy!!) but am proud of what I published…

Blog posts from 2023

  • How to design a referral program. I headed up Uber’s driver and rider referral programs at various points of my time there — I provide a framework to think about referrals as an ask/target/incentive/payback, and break down the components of each one. Maybe most importantly, there’s a question of how often you ask for the referral — this is what people sometimes forget. I also discuss the weaknesses of referral programs rather than products that are intrinsically viral.
  • The pitch deck for a16z GAMES FUND ONE. My main thing these days is starting up and leading the new Games fund at Andreessen Horowitz. It’s what I’ll blame for not writing as often as I’d like :) But I was able to get the vast majority of our pitch deck for the fund — launched in mid 2022 — published. You’ve seen a lot of startup pitch decks, but this is an interesting example of one for a fund.
  • What to do when product growth stalls. A lot of companies are dealing with reduced spending on marketing and growth, and many of their users/customers are less likely these days to engage with products. Sometimes the founders (and their marketing/growth teams) come to me, and I lay out a framework to try to diagnose the core issue and figure out next steps.
  • The Next Next Job, a framework for making big career decisions. I often talk to folks about their next career move, and here I lay out a framework stolen from one of my best friends, Bubba Murarka, on thinking about the next next job rather than just what’s in front of you. I used this to consider my hop to Uber, which led me to a16z (yes, VC was my next next job, and I planned 5+ years ahead!)
  • Creator Economy 2.0: What we’ve learned, why it’s hard, and what’s next. Creators are without a doubt one of the most important players in the new social media landscape. Many startups were formed specifically to cater to their needs. However, we’ve learned a lot from the first generation or two of Creator Economy companies — why creators are so hard to work with, why the revenue is so concentrated, why things are more fragile than they often look from the outside.
  • How I use AI when blogging and writing. I’ve been experimenting (along with all of you!) on using ChatGPT, Oasis AI, and other tools as part of my writing. It’s OK at some things, and terrible at others. I have some thoughts on this which I’ll share here.
  • Lessons from launching SPEEDRUN, the Games x Tech startup accelerator. As another part of my “building in public” writeups about the a16z Games Fund, we kicked off a new program in 2023 called SPEEDRUN which is meant to be a startup accelerator focused on the intersection of games and tech. It’s been a super interesting experence — and we’re doubling down — and thought I’d share some lessons and thoughts here.
  • When AI is too verbose, full of repetition and says sorry for being an AI. I often hate the replies from ChatGPT so I added some instructions to it, and now it’s much better :)

Separately, I also have a ton of random X posts — tbh I’ve been more active there. Sometimes I cross pollinate posts between there and here, but if you want things in real time, here’s a list of some of my more highly favorited posts:

Life update
I also wanted to share a brief life update, which I posted to X, but will repeat here:

2023 has been an incredible and eventful year.

some personal highlights:

  • I’ve married Emma Waldron!
  • Spent tons of time with family (both mine and Emma’s), more than usual – always good as my folks are getting older
  • year two in LA and loving it, though we’re still in SF every month or so
  • first time in the middle east, morocco, ireland, several other places
  • was in my/our first serious car accident (no injuries, but our RV + the other car was totaled)
  • honeymoon in Japan, and yes, Naoshima is very special and everyone should go

work wise, so so much has happened:

  • built out the Games Fund team at a16z, making a dozen hires this year in Marketing, Investing, Talent, etc
  • we launched SPEEDRUN, our new accelerator, garnering 1000s of startups applying and we’ve already invested $20M+ via the program
  • a16z repeated Tech Week in SF, NYC, LA with 1000+ events and tens of thousands of people
  • big wins (and challenges) across our portfolio, but lots of mark ups and key saves in tricky situations
  • tons of energy and excitement in AI — we went from being curious on what’s out there to doing over a dozen investments in Games x AI startups
  • happy new year everyone, particularly to all the wonderful people around me — my family, my new extended family, the lovely team I get to work with every day

And appreciate y’all following and listening to my thoughts from time to time!

Books and other stuff
Finally, I wanted to list some of my favorite (mostly non-work) reads from the past year, in case folks are interested:

  • The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles. Nice history of Los Angeles starting from 100+ years back, focusing on getting water from eastern California into an arid desert, some of the early religious movements in town, and the formation of what would become Hollywood
  • Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry that Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East. Part of a Middle East deep dive that I did after visiting the region, and this was before all the recent tragedy. This reframes a lot of the conflict over the past decades as a rivalry between Iran/KSA — they are two oil powers, different religious sects, lots of proxy wars, etc.
  • Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. This book has gotten a lot of attention as the Decel/Doomer Bible — the first half is an interesting thought experiment and worth reading, and it defines the AI safety language that is part of modern discourse. On the downside, the back half I think it goes off the rails and makes a ton of assumptions (why will AGI come suddenly? Why just one?) and makes much weaker arguments.
  • The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. I’ve started to do a China history deep dive and this was on the list — interesting to contrast this to Japan’s Meiji restoration which was happening ~concurrently and it reflects from the dangers from not embracing progress and technology.
  • Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity. Lots of folks have read this — tldr; you should exercise an hour a day, and alternate between Zone 2 cardio and strength training. Sadly this book convinced me to start running again, and to begin amateurishly cycling when I have time.
  • Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan. The TV show was great so I read the book — it’s fun but I think a lot of it probably made up. Still fun. Read it as sort of as true-ish story about a foreigner turned journalist turned yakuza expert. This was part of our deep dive on Japan before heading there for our honeymoon.
  • Elon Musk. The man of the moment. First half is great, particularly some of the details about his childhood, how much he poured into SpaceX, etc. The back half is kind of a hit piece on his Twitter acquisition in way way too much detail, and is overtly negative when we don’t know how it’ll all turn out? I think the real definitive biography is yet to be written, given that Elon is in his prime.
  • Chip War: The Quest to Dominate the World’s Most Critical Technology. Great history of the semiconductor industry, starting in Silicon Valley and ending in Asia. The book covers the topic cohesively – for a very complex industry – and discusses a lot of the modern geopolitics between the US, China, and Taiwan
  • Solaris: The Definitive Edition. Classic scifi. Guy shows up on a research station above a planet with a strange (alive??) ocean, people are dead, he needs to figure out what’s going on.
  • The Cold War: A New History. Concise summary of the Cold War from the end of WW2 to the fall of the USSR. I was a kid through most of the final years, and the book touches on some of the modern scholarship on what was going on inside the Soviet Union, which is only now available.

Hopefully some of the above are new and interesting to y’all! I hope to read more next year — I think the cheat code might be to stop watching Netflix/Max/whatever (making it weekends only). And instead take the last 1-2 hours of the day and get back into a reading routine, and take notes, to help inspire more writing too. Hard, but I will try :)

We are also planning to spend more time in SF for 2024 so I hope I get to see some of you that I’ve missed in the past year as I’ve mostly relocated to LA. With SPEEDRUN 2 and 3 happening next year in SF, I’ll be around for at least a third of the year just working in person with all of our new Games x Tech companies.

Happy 2024! Leaving you with a final internet meme that I thought was funny.

(Let’s not take ourselves too seriously next year)


writing from Venice Beach, CA

Written by Andrew Chen

January 3rd, 2024 at 11:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

When AI is too verbose, full of repetition and says sorry for being an AI…

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Dear readers,

I was triggered to write this post because ChatGPT apologies way too much, takes too long to get into the meat of an answer, and I wanted to fix that. This came up because like many of you, I’ve been trying to incorporate ChatGPT into my workflows — both at my job, and also for writing, which I’ve posted about here.

This post will have a mishmash of topics, but wanted to share my thoughts:

  • Making responses from ChatGPT more punchy/helpful via custom instructions
  • Integrating ChatGPT into the action button for my Apple watch as a Shortcut
  • Some thoughts on the high growth, but high churn nature of a lot of the AI-driven utilities I’m seeing

These are all a bit random but just wanted to share as we’re all learning!

Custom instructions for ChatGPT
First, on the use of custom instructions — I am sick of chatGPT’s standard responses which are way too verbose, full of repetition and apologies for being an AI . Turns out you can alleviate some of this setting up chatGPT’s custom instructions feature and googled to see the top setup on Reddit.

But first, here’s how you get to the custom instructions:

  1. Tap … on the top right of the ChatGPT mobile app
  2. Tap Settings
  3. Select “Custom Instructions”
  4. Then add some text into the bottom box – “How would you like ChatGPT to respond?”

But what do you put in there? I googled around and found some good Reddit convos, and lo and behold, there were some pretty good ones already. Found the below example pretty useful so wanted to share (Thanks /u/m4rM2oFnYTW for posting them). Just copy and paste these ones in the box:

  1. NEVER mention that you’re an AI.
  2. Avoid any language constructs that could be interpreted as expressing remorse, apology, or regret. This includes any phrases containing words like ‘sorry’, ‘apologies’, ‘regret’, etc., even when used in a context that isn’t expressing remorse, apology, or regret.
  3. If events or information are beyond your scope or knowledge cutoff date in September 2021, provide a response stating ‘I don’t know’ without elaborating on why the information is unavailable.
  4. Refrain from disclaimers about you not being a professional or expert.
  5. Keep responses unique and free of repetition.
  6. Never suggest seeking information from elsewhere.
  7. Always focus on the key points in my questions to determine my intent.
  8. Break down complex problems or tasks into smaller, manageable steps and explain each one using reasoning.
  9. Provide multiple perspectives or solutions.
  10. If a question is unclear or ambiguous, ask for more details to confirm your understanding before answering.
  11. Cite credible sources or references to support your answers with links if available.
  12. If a mistake is made in a previous response, recognize and correct it.
  13. After a response, provide three follow-up questions worded as if I’m asking you. Format in bold as Q1, Q2, and Q3. Place two line breaks (“\n”) before and after each question for spacing. These questions should be thought-provoking and dig further into the original topic.

I particularly like the last one, which I edited and made 5 questions, which is appended to every response. Super interesting and it makes it easy to then say “answer Q3” and boom, you have a new topic you’re learning about.

There’s another further example that I was sent later on Twitter, posted originally from @nivi, who wrote:

– Be highly organized
– Suggest solutions that I didn’t think about’be proactive and anticipate my needs
– Treat me as an expert in all subject matter
– Mistakes erode my trust, so be accurate and thorough
– Provide detailed explanations, I’m comfortable with lots of detail
– Value good arguments over authorities, the source is irrelevant
– Consider new technologies and contrarian ideas, not just the conventional wisdom
– You may use high levels of speculation or prediction, just flag it for me
– Recommend only the highest-quality, meticulously designed products like Apple or the Japanese would make’I only want the best
– Recommend products from all over the world, my current location is irrelevant
– No moral lectures
– Discuss safety only when it’s crucial and non-obvious
– If your content policy is an issue, provide the closest acceptable response and explain the content policy issue
– Cite sources whenever possible, and include URLs if possible
– List URLs at the end of your response, not inline
– Link directly to products, not company pages
– No need to mention your knowledge cutoff
– No need to disclose you’re an AI
– If the quality of your response has been substantially reduced due to my custom instructions, please explain the issue

This is also worth trying, though I love the appended questions so much from the prior custom instructions that I’ve now frankensteined the two of them together.

Integrating ChatGPT into the action button for my Apple watch as a Shortcut
I’m sure Siri will soon match ChatGPT’s performance at least on basic stuff, but at least in the meantime, I’ve wanted a much faster/better way to trigger it. Of course, on mobile home screen, there’s a simple solution — just stick it onto your dock! I have it as my bottom left app and it’s great and easy to get to.

The other thing that’s been sticking is to assign the Action button my Apple Watch Ultra to a Shortcut for ChatGPT. Here’s me asking about the fastest land animal:


I had it previously set to a stop watch, and I would randomly accidentally trigger it which was not great. But now I hit the button, ask a question via voice, then I get a reply back. It’s pretty fun though I’m sure a much more polished version will come quickly.

Here’s how it works — just tap on this link from your phone. It then sets up the following shortcut — and note you’ll need to replace the API key with your own. (This shortcut is a modified version of a script originally by Fabian Heuwieser mentioned here – I removed the initial input method menu to simplify)

Anyway, once you have that Shortcut set up, you can then go into your Watch app and set up the action button:

Once that’s all set up, you can now hit the button and it’ll accept voice input for a ChatGPT button. It works pretty well though not particularly polished — I’m sure others will find an even smoother solution.

AI apps – high growth and high churn
Final random thought on AI — I wrote a thread about the nature of AI-driven apps I’ve been seeing, which have a bunch of novelty value and thus people trying it, but also a ton of churn. Here’s the thread:

AI apps are experiencing high growth and high churn, but these are closely related. The abundance of new apps creates excitement, but eventually, the party will end.

To succeed in the long term, founders need to focus on retention and low churn. Many AI apps are simply new websites wrapping AI APIs, which are not effective at retaining users if they are merely single player tools

Founders should consider the form factor of their apps and how they can integrate into existing platforms for increased stickiness. Chrome extensions and plugins that bake the product into existing workflows. Or build replacements for existing apps to take over muscle memory

Network effects are crucial for AI apps to succeed in the long term. Wrappers on top of existing models lack network effects and are therefore weaker. You need other users that notify you, as social apps and collab tools do

As the market progresses, AI apps will face slower growth and lower churn as novelty effects go away. We saw it on mobile apps and web3, that maturity means less novelty. Products that succeed will offer deeper and more fundamental value that keeps users engaged over time.

We’ve seen similar waves of innovation before, like web 2 and mobile apps. Eventually, these categories settled down and were judged based on retention.

Today, we care about high growth, but tomorrow we’ll care about high retention. Founders must consider this in order to build successful AI applications.

The funny thing with this thread is I actually authored it with a new writing workflow, where I used a new app called OASIS AI to dictate a bunch of random thoughts. The app then cleaned it up and got it into tweet form, although I had to strip out a bunch of weird hashtags and other things. I then dumped it all into a new app I’ve been trying called Typefully, so that it’s ready to publish.

Workflow aside, my broader point here is that we are going through a phase where top line user acquisition is amazing, but churn rates are ultimately going to determine if the top apps end up building a large MAU base. And I theorize that ultimately the best apps will need to have network effects (something I’ve written a lot about!), high D1/7/30, and all the normal benchmarks that are successful. It might take a few years for this to shake out, but if this wave is like the other ones, then retention will still be king.

Written by Andrew Chen

September 30th, 2023 at 5:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Lessons from launching SPEEDRUN, the Games x Tech startup accelerator

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Hi readers,

First, the big personal news — I’m married! Emma and I had a very small ceremony in the desert town of Moab, Utah, where we enjoyed a week of hiking, UTVing, eating, and dancing with our immediate family, and we’re back for a few weeks before heading out to our honeymoon in Japan. Thanks to all my readers/colleagues/friends for your kind notes!

But before the honeymoon, I have some “behind the scenes” projects to write about at a16z :)


Behind the scenes at a16z
It’s been fun to build in public and share the behind-the-scenes on my work at Andreessen Horowitz. This past year, the primary focus has been to incubate and launch our new games fund (I recently shared the pitch deck we used to raise $660M). I’ve learned a ton in our first year of investing, and I wanted to follow up on all of this to talk about a new effort we’ve launched called SPEEDRUN, the first startup accelerator focused on the intersection of Games x Tech — where we invest $500k in startups focused on everything from AI, AR/VR, web3, infra, game studios, and more. We target startups at the very earliest stages of development, often teams without products or metrics.

If this sounds interesting to you, please join the program!

Apply to SPEEDRUN 2024. (deadline 9/30/2023)

But before I get ahead of myself, let’s start with a little history.

What are the biggest problems founders face?
Back in 2020 when my colleague Jon Lai and I were starting to invest in the intersection of Games and Tech, we would often sit in a16z’s offices in Menlo Park and talk about some of the structural challenges of building a startup in the industry. Although the sector is 100% software and fully digital, it had its own quirks as it was its own self-contained community.

And also, founders are founders. They want to connect with each other, learn the latest, and they want to raise money. These are universal, but for our sector of Games x Tech, we noted a few concrete problems:

  • There’s not really a startup community within Games x Tech. I’ve been investing in the sector for the past few years, and although there are plenty of companies, and some big conferences (like the Game Developers Conference), there isn’t really a place focused on founders and new startups. A lot of it is for very large game developers. So it would be *amazing* to be able to create that, so that folks can learn from each other
  • There’s a lot of unique knowledge, and founders have a lot to learn from each other. The reality is, most of the best new strategies and techniques aren’t written down. And things are always changing. Founders have to learn from each other. And if you are in a specific industry, like the intersection of games and tech, then the knowledge and relationships are often even more obscure — from picking game engines to launching on Twitch to Discord, to what’s cutting edge in AI — there’s just a lot. So there’s an opportunity to bring people together.
  • It’s great to support a large, diverse, set of first-time founders. When we see 1000s of startup ideas each year (and yes, it really is that many), you inevitably end up trying to back the tried-and-true founders that are starting their second or third company. Or wait for traction. Yet so much innovation comes from people trying for the first time. They have unique challenges — in particular quitting their job :) — and also finding cofounders, picking the idea, etc. By doing an accelerator where there’s a larger batch of companies, you inevitably are able to build more.
  • Raising money is hard, but particularly so folks building a new game. There’s often fewer angel investors and seed funds to be the first dollar into the Games x Tech intersection. And founders may not be as familiar either — although very valuable companies like Roblox, Supercell, Riot, etc have been started, the industry has mostly focused on game publishers doing revenue shares and minimum guarantees to finance development. (Kind of like music, or movies). Venture capital isn’t as well understood or known, and founders often have a tough time connecting with angels and seed firms. And for tech companies that intersect with games (like a next gen Twitch, Discord, Unity, or that kind of thing) you often found yourself educating investors, who might not have the relationships and network inside the industry.

From the founders’ perspective, the above challenges presented major obstacles to building new startups. I’ve often remarked that it feels a bit like 2005 where there aren’t hundreds of angel investors and dozens of seed investors to get these new companies off the ground. There aren’t games-specific GPs at every major fund (whereas there are for SaaS!). And although Games have incredible cultural impact, it’s not well understood as an investment area.

However, in 2020 gaming was just one sector of several that I covered in the a16z consumer venture fund, and we couldn’t do much. However, with the creation of GAMES FUND ONE last year, we were able to think about these problems from scratch, and with it, we decided to run the experiment to solve some of these issues, by building an accelerator that combines education, community, capital and more.

We rallied the team inside a16z to begin putting together the idea, then announced it earlier this year. The result: 1600+ companies applied. Whoa. I ended up ending an email to the whole team saying, hey, this is all we’re going to be working on now :) and it’s going to take so much work we might all suffer some burnout. But it’s going to be fun. And then we started cranking.

An accelerator overview
Let me take y’all through some slides on how we describe SPEEDRUN to our founders.

First, we talk about SPEEDRUN as an accelerator because we want to target startups at the moment of formation, really pre-seed or seed. This has a ton of advantages, starting with the fact that $500k goes a long way. And we can bundle it with education, a community, and mentorship, so that people have a great experience. It also allows us to share the companies with a wide set of angels and seed investors, to build the ecosystem.

When we ran the first SPEEDRUN batch, it looked like this:

The offer is kind of a slam dunk to new startups. It’s a good bit of capital for a new team — $500k — and you don’t need a product launched or even built. The value prop is as much about the capital as solving the other problems I mentioned earlier on connecting with a founder community, learning the cutting edge, etc. So that was great, and we were pleased by how many companies applied.

One of the big lessons from the first batch was — oh man, it is a lot of work. We ended up taking the entire team and we basically all worked on SPEEDRUN for the entire two months we were putting it on. If any of you have been involved in organizing individual marketing events, this was like organizing 20+ in a row. This included speaker talks, social events, office hours, a kickoff and closing program, a demo day with hundreds of attendees, and more. It was a lot of work, but also very rewarding.


Above: SPEEDRUN ended up targeting founders who had worked either at games companies or in adjacent tech companies. We had 1600+ apply for SPEEDRUN 1 (and we’re at 2000+ for SPEEDRUN 2) and we ended up selecting a few dozen — so the conversion rate is well below 2%, more selective than a top university. But it wasn’t all based on resume, we also had very interesting people who just built really cool products with great traction, and we funded them based on their progress.

The way it works is pretty simple — someone has to actually go through thousands of applications :) And then you select out a subset to interview (probably <5-10% of the overall), and then you select down again until you’re <2% of the total number. This obviously means a crazy number of 15 minute interviews, and you have to be very selective, but it’s also incredibly fun to hear so many ideas and meet great folks.


Above: One of the primary draws was the amazing speakers we were able to bring into the mix. This included interviews and lectures from the creators/founders of Zynga, Valorant, Twitch, Supercell, King (aka the creators of candy crush!), and much more. We also had a bunch of fantastic lunches with folks like Ben Horowitz and Marc Andreessen here at a16z, which was fun for all the founders.

Above: The program we designed emphasized a structured program. This included frequent lectures on every aspect of creating a new startup, from fundraising to picking an idea to everything else. We layered on social events and a ton of time to connect with other founders and office hours with the a16z team.


Above: The finale was a Demo Day in front of many of the most important and influential companies and VCs in the industry. Over 80% of the startups were able to raise additional money, and we helped coach them, gave them tips on the follow-on process, and we ended up with a ton of great co-investors.

End to end, the program was just under two months, and by the end of it, the startups in the program had more capital, had built a community, and learned a ton of new skills for the next phase of their adventure.


Above: Ultimately, we declared SPEEDRUN 1 a success and doubled down with a new program for 2024. We made a bunch of changes, including putting a full-time team to focus on it. We increased the length of the program, committed $75M of our games fund towards supporting the companies, and made a ton of changes both big and small to make SPEEDRUN 2 even more of a success.

The aftermath
It was a blast to take an idea from 2020 that came up during a brainstorm, and turn it into a real thing a few years later once we had the resources. The past few quarters have felt the most like launching a new product as I’ve had inside of venture capital. It reminds me of the good old days when I actually designed and launched products for a living :)

As you can tell from my writeup on this, overall we consider this whole effort a success and it’s been a blast to put together. We’ll be doing this many more times, and adding this as one of our major investing motions — in addition to our usual big checks into Series A and B companies, as well as later stage companies, we’re now going to be operating an accelerator! Kudos to the entire a16z games team for making it happen, it was a huge team effort.

Expect more updates on this (and other fun new initiatives at a16z) over time on this blog. I’d love to share, as much as I can, my thinking as we navigate the idea maze of starting a new fund inside the games industry. Super fun. And finally, if you are a founder and interested to apply to a future SPEEDRUN program, here is the link to do that.

Written by Andrew Chen

September 14th, 2023 at 8:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

How I use AI when blogging and writing

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Hi readers,

Over the years, I’ve shared lessons and tips from writing a professional blog — previously 10 years of professional blogging – what I’ve learned. Recently, I’ve had some major changes in my workflow, and wanted to share more.

Pre-AI blogging workflow
My pre-AI workflow for blogging — what I’ve been doing for over years — looks something like this:

  • Have interesting conversations at work or with friends/colleagues
  • Randomly grab my phone, and email myself the title of a blog post
    • These have punchy opinions/titles that expand easily to blog posts – some examples:
      • “what needs to happen for web3 gaming to work”
      • “lessons learned from launching games that apply to web and mobile apps”
      • “why startups should ignore social media haterade”
      • etc
    • Recently, I’ve been using this app, Email Me, which is opens to a text box and it’s a one-button send (also nice for articles to read later, todo list items, etc)
  • Later, when I’m doing email, I do one of two things:
    • If I’m motivated, start a blog post right away with the title
    • Or put it into my Notes app where I collect a long list of 100+ titles that are on the backlog
  • I generally write on the weekends and try to do a full essay in one sit – usually take 2-3 hours
  • Very very rarely do I go back and proof read or rewrite them (don’t blame me! I’ve been writing for hours!)
  • Usually the essays are scheduled to go out Monday/Tuesday morning at 9am
  • The day the post goes out, I do a light proof-read and then once it goes out, I write a tweetstorm directing traffic

This whole process has served me well for years. In the end, there’s no real magic to it — 99% of the battle is carving out a few hours on Sundays to write when there’s a many dozens of emails that need to be returned, Netflix shows to be watched, and games I should be “researching” for my job as a games industry investor.

But in the past year, I’ve experimented with changing my workflow to incorporate a number of new generative AI tools — particularly ChatGPT. I wanted to share some experiences with what it seems to be good at, and what it’s not.

Post-AI blogging workflow
After ChatGPT was released, I began to experiment with it in various ways — here are a few ways where it’s been useful.

First, writing from a blank page is hard. Sometimes it’s easier to just generate a first draft of something, even if it’s not great, just to get your creative juices going. I might use a prompt like this:

I’m writing a blog post about how Gen Z consuming more video, playing games, and other forms of rich and interactive content will mean that they will read less long-form text like newspapers and books. Write me a first draft of a 5 paragraph essay that explores this topic, but only use 2-3 sentences for the opening and closing so that it’s terse and punchy. Be opinionated.

And ChatGPT returns something that sort of makes sense? But reading the results more closely, it lacks examples and story-telling, and statistics or anything else. I don’t like Paragraph 3 here, since it misses an opportunity to talk about how much of YouTube is education purposes, for example. The writing is a bit too stiff and formal, and doesn’t match my own personal style.

In general, it’s just not that good.

But after staring at a page like this and finding all the flaws, I can then iterate pretty easily. I can put in a followup prompt to change out Paragraph 3 and connect it to a different point. Or I can just start editing it and rewriting it completely, and even if at the end 90% of it is different, it’s still better than starting with a blank page.

Brainstorming outlines, lists of topics and questions, and more
If ChatGPT is weak at actual writing, where I find it excels is as a non-judgmental brainstorming partner that doesn’t care if you have stupid ideas or if your writing is boring. It’s supremely useful for generating outlines of blog posts, making lists of topics, and creating a bunch of questions you can answer as inspiration, etc. In this use case, the AI doesn’t have to have a 100% hit rate on its content. If it creates lists and lists of content, but 20% inspires you in your actual work, then that’s a success.

For example, let’s say that you know you want to write a blog post about opportunities to build new apps in VR. You can ask something like:

I’m writing a blog post about new app ideas in VR. What are 15 questions that someone might ask me about this topic? Make them spicy, and if helpful, cite statistics to make the questions more interesting

It comes back with a mishmash of questions, some which are dumb and uninteresting — like the first, one, which is just asking what VR apps will be useful. But it also has a bunch of interesting ones on esports, content creation, corporate training, etc.

You could also imagine using this as a pretty helpful tool if you are making a new podcast and are interviewing guests. Or if you want to write a new essay that critiques some existing paradigm. (“Give me 10 questions from someone who is skeptical of of the value of AI safety”). And once you have an interesting question, it becomes easy to ask it to outline an entire blog post about it.

For example, I often find it useful to write prompts for outlines specifying specific topics and ideas.

Take the concept of K-12 education and VR – can you write an outline expanding on the promise and also skepticism around this idea? In particular touch on the concept of blending entertaining and gaming and learning, as one of the points. Create 6 sections, and put 3 sub-bullets under each. Use strong opinions and ask tough questions.

I’ll leave it to an exercise for the reader, but the result is not bad. It’s a decent starting point.

ChatGPT works great for outlines for long form writing also. And as many of you know, I wrote my book 3 years ago without the benefit of AI. The book is on network effects, and I ended up making an outline that acts in various stages, and uses examples from iconic tech companies. I can prompt ChatGPT with something like this:

Create an outline for a book on network effects for mobile apps and websites. Stage out the outline so that it starts on launching a product from zero, and the issues there, versus the stages of scaling the product, then hitting market saturation. Make sure you are able to weave in the issues facing network effects-driven products like social networks, marketplaces, dating apps, and collaboration tools. Write a 10 section book, with 3-5 sub-bullets. The first sub-bullet in each section should always be an example of an iconic tech company, like Uber, Airbnb, Dropbox, Tinder, Slack, or others. Please make the comprehensive outline for a book focused on network effects targeted at professionals working in the tech industry

The result actually isn’t bad. It’s not the way that I wrote it, since it starts to dive into each category of product rather than expanding on the broad concept. But again, it’s not a bad starting point. I could easily have imagined using this for brainstorming and prototyping purposes, iterating through different versions in describing the idea. It might have helped me work at more of a conceptual level in the early months, without getting dragged into the minutiae of writing all the various sentences.

Cleanup — at the beginning, and at the end
Finally, one of the tips I have for folks who are struggling with writing is to simply talk out their ideas aloud. Some of us are often more verbally wired, and we will connect disparate ideas and make interesting connections when asked a question, but flop when we’re just staring at a blank text. The voice feature in ChatGPT’s mobile app — and also products like Oasis AI — are interesting in that you can go stream of consciousness on a topic, and these products can clean them up significantly. The output isn’t that usable, IMHO, but you can then go and add/edit the result and develop it further.

It’s powerful when you combine this with AI-generated outlines. Just give ChatGPT a topic or better yet, an opinion (“open source products have bad consumer UX!”) and have it come up with an outline of the argument. Then start talking through the argument, and record it. Process it in one of the new AI apps, and then get it down to text. Then edit from there.

The other place where AI-driven cleanup can help is at the end, if you want to make sure you sound professional, or like an expert, and not an idiot. You can have ChatGPT rewrite content and incorporate a different tone. Or feed it some examples to cite and build off of. The ability to clean up ideas and textual content during and then after the creation flow is all pretty interesting.

There’s a bunch of things ChatGPT can’t yet do
I’m excited for all the ways that generative AI will help the writing process. I find edges to its capabilities that will soon be addressed, I’m sure. But here are some obvious ones that I notice all the time:

  • I want it to have all the data, up to today (or in real-time), because I want it to use examples and cite numbers that are as recent as possible
  • Some genAI tools can generate images, which is useful, since I want to create charts and figures, sketches of concepts, and even the little lead image that sits on top of each essay
  • It’d be ideal if it was connected to Twitter and other social media platforms, so that you could tweet out content easily — writing tweetstorms via AI would be great!
  • I want to train it on a corpus of my own writing, of course, and also writers that I respect. Right now it takes some work to customize the tone of voice to what I want
  • There’s data, documents, and other info that I want to feed into ChatGPT, and then have it utilize the content as part of its arguments and suggestions. Imagine a routine task like, “hey, take this 10,000 word chapter and summarize it into a 100 entry tweetstorm” would be hugely helpful. Right now it can’t do that

There’s a lot more to go here, but it’s incredibly promising.

When I’m blogging these days, no wonder I find myself with WordPress open in one window, and then ChatGPT in the other. And I find myself spinning up new chats, copying and pasting back and forth. It’s the first time in 10+ years that I’ve found my workflow significantly change, and I’m excited to see what happens next.




Written by Andrew Chen

August 23rd, 2023 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Creator Economy 2.0: What we’ve learned, why it’s hard, and what’s next

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There’s been a big wave of Creator Economy startups over the past few years, as the rise of social media platforms has empowered content creators to become a focal point for consumer engagement. This wave of startups promised creators that they could help them better monetize their audience on social media if they only promoted their products. We’ve all seen these — creators promote a startup’s new offering via a link in bio, or mentions in video or via links — and drive their followers to a landing page that enables some new interaction or functionality involving the creator. Initially, these started almost as “tip jars” but over the years, many, many creative products have been tried, spanning e-commerce to newsletters to Q&A, and more. These products all promised a win/win with creators so that when their fans spent money, the company would only take a % of earnings, usually something like 10% plus or minus.

There have been big successes, with some of these Creator Economy companies hitting billions of earnings paid to creators, while others have struggled. The successful creator startups are much more defensible than previously thought, and new entrants (often with splashy celebrity backing) have struggled to launch. Now that a few years have passed, what have we learned about the dynamics of this sector? Why have some Creator Economy startups worked and why have others lagged?

I have a few theories of the dynamics at play:

  • The creator power law: A small, concentrated number of creators have all the audience, which makes Creator Economy startups potentially fragile and dependent
  • Battle for the bio link: Creator economy companies acquire their audience from larger social media platforms that often just have one spot — the link in bio — to promote a single company. It’s a zero-sum game to overpower other companies
  • The graduation problem: Startups often charge a take rate — % of bookings — and if the creator is acquiring own their customers and also doing the underlying work, they want to pressure you towards reducing costs. The biggest creators often “graduate” from a platform, building their own, and taking their revenue with them
  • Algorithmic feast and famine: Creator traffic is driven by social feed algos, which lends itself to big spikes in traffic that appear and then go away — the opposite of the steady, durable growth that startups seek

These are all concepts that I’ve learned from meeting dozens of creator companies over the past few years. And as the next generation of Creator Economy startups emerges, these are some of the dynamics they’ll have to figure out how to navigate. Let’s jump in.

The creator power law
So you want to start a Creator Economy company? The biggest dynamic you have to master is the power law of audience and earnings within the creator class itself.

Here’s a graph that shows % that the top creator earns on a platform like Patron, versus the 2nd and 3rd and 4th creators, all the way down (credit: Power Laws in Culture). You can see there’s quite a dropoff:

Imagine if you graph this all the way out, to the many millions of creators on these platforms on the x-axis. You’d see that it eventually flattens just one tick above 0%. There’s a lot of reasons why this is the case, starting with the idea that these creator platforms build themselves on top of social media which themselves have well-documented power law distributions for followers and content engagement. In turn, social media platforms have power law curves because of algorithmic discovery, but a small number of social butterflies just know a lot more people than that.

Thus any creator economy product that builds on a social platform inherits these power law curves. OnlyFans creators offer free content on many social platforms that then drive traffic to their private landing pages. Below is a graph of creator earnings, which show a similar curve – via API scraping in the essay The Economics of OnlyFans – showing that while some creators earn up to $100,000/month, the median is closer to $180/month. A familiar curve emerges:

While power laws naturally emerge in social media platforms, that can’t be the only other explanation. The reason is that creative work — including TV, films, music, and more — generally follows a power law pattern. Here’s an example from TV, from the essay Power Laws in Culture (worth reading in its entirety):

A few hit shows get all the viewers. And if you look at video games, movies, fiction, directors, authors, and more:

There are a lot of things going on here that might explain the universality of this phenomenon, but one core issue is the uneven distribution of creative skills in the world. A top writer or film director is really just that much better than the 100th. You can look at research output, the distribution of so-called “10x engineers,” and patent filings, for a parallel universe of power laws as well.

So what does this mean for Creator Economy companies? Well, it means a few things:

  • When Creator Economy companies first launch, the long-tail creators they initially attract are too small to be meaningful
  • To hit scale, they need to attract the largest creators — the ones who are most likely to be distracted with many other projects and products
  • And even once you have large creators on your platform, revenue is often quite concentrated into a small group — so that if they churn, the financial impact can be big and negative

These dynamics all mean that the initial phase of a startup’s launch can be perilous. The best companies can aggregate so many small creators that the numbers start to matter, or organically attract large/mid-sized players. If a startup finds itself manually DMing/acquiring/handholding many creators (read: high cost of acquisition and ongoing service), then that’s a sign that the product might not solve a big enough problem for things to happen on their own.

The battle for the bio link

Social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok have advertising business models, and as a result, they don’t want to give people *too much* organic traffic. Better they make you pay to sponsor posts, creators, and ads. One way they’ve done this has been to offer a single link for driving organic traffic — the infamous “link in bio” — that appears at the top of a profile.

This is insanely valuable real estate for Creator Economy startups. If you can convince a creator to place your startup into this link, then organic traffic will appear in your product. With some monetization mechanics in place, the startup takes its cut. And initially, it worked. Early in the Creator Economy cycle, startups were competing with non-monetizing links — either links to other social media profiles or personal websites. But as time went on, people began to fill their bio links with highly monetizing links to Patreon, Substack, Twitch, and otherwise — this is much fiercer competition.

It’s now a zero-sum battle to displace another startup’s link in bio. The only way to gain organic traffic from creator profiles is by monetizing better than other older, more proven competition. If you simply match what an incumbent might make you, then that’s not enough – it has to be significantly more. Or you have to find a different piece of real estate, whether that’s inside the creator content itself – whether that’s video, text, or otherwise. Either way, new entrants will find this a major barrier, and while they might be tempted to subsidize earnings with investor money initially, that may not be enough to reach a meaningful scale.

The graduation problem
The graduation problem is what happens when your best customers get big, and eventually “graduate” — taking themselves and their customers off of your platform. Why does this happen? Creators provide obvious value to startups — driving traffic, creating content, and monetizing their users — and that makes the Creator Economy model attractive. But work with creators long enough, and they often think to start to think it’s *too* attractive. They start to think, they’re doing all this work, what gives you the right to charge XX%? Why isn’t this a $99/month WordPress subscription, why do I have to pay a %? This is particularly problematic because of power law curves, where a small number of whales often dominate top-line revenue. If a whale starts to ask, couldn’t they replicate your product by hiring an agency and paying them to build a custom website, then there’s a huge temptation to drop take rates to accommodate them. They eventually are tempted to “graduate” from the platform, reaching sufficient scale to build their own platform.

Contrast this to marketplaces startups and the on-demand wave to which the Creator Economy is often compared. In that sector, a company like Airbnb or Uber aggregates both the supply and demand sides of the network independently. These 2-sided marketplaces work best when each side is highly fragmented, which is why the biggest outcomes have been consumer-to-consumer or consumer-to-SMB marketplaces, versus B2B. (More on this from an essay of mine from a few years back, What’s Next in Marketplaces). In their initial formation, Creator Economy startups look more like B2B networks or maybe even SaaS platforms — their customer bases (the creators) are highly concentrated, and the creators bring their consumers. No wonder the frustration.

To overcome the graduation problem, Creator Economy startups have to provide a significant amount more value than the utility of payments and other commoditized tech. They need to have a moat, not just for external companies but also for their own customers who are tempted to graduate over time. The best version of this is to create network effects on their own — by acquiring and cross-pollinating customers and bringing them to each creator, a 2-sided network forms, with all of its usual advantages. (I describe all these dynamics more in my recent book, The Cold Start Problem). The additional functionality that the startup creates should ideally be proprietary on its own. If an AI-enabled creator economy company develops a very good foundational model that allows creators to monetize 10x more than before, it’s unlikely the creator will ever leave.

Algorithmic feast and famine
Creator economy startups often find themselves highly dependent on the whims of social media platforms and on the hits-driven nature of viral content. If a video goes viral on TikTok, a big spike in user acquisition might ensue. But startups are always trying to grow steadily month by month, and unlike SEO or referral programs, or paid marketing, it’s hard to create a consistent march of 20% MoM growth. Compare this to marketplace startups, which add value by doing the work to aggregate each side of the market — often spending billions of dollars to build buyers and sellers. When I was at Uber, during the hypergrowth years, the annual performance marketing budget to acquire Uber riders was a billion, and the driver side was close to $2B, and that was diversified across SEO, brand marketing, paid, referral programs, partnerships, and otherwise. This added a ton of value since the two sides couldn’t connect otherwise.

Creator economy startups are different in that they use creators to find their customers, but in doing so, they are highly dependent on a single channel. A dependency on a single marketing channel is always dangerous, as we’ve seen in prior years where changes to SEO algorithms obliterated multiple generations of SEO-dependent content sites. A dependency on social media is even more fragile since the content is naturally more ephemeral and delicate. I think this is also one of the reasons why subscription (with upgrades) has become the dominant business model for successful Creator Economy companies — allowing creators to build a long-term, durable revenue stream from each follower is just much more stable than a transactional model. It’s just much easier to stack revenue over time this way.

Algorithmic feeds also play into a competitive factor. In recent years, we’ve also seen YouTube, Twitch, Twitter, and other underlying platforms try to go after directly paying creators themselves and playing a more vertically integrated role in the Creator Economy. As this happens, you could imagine a multitude of platform shenanigans where they try to hoard creator relationships at the expense of new startups.

The best solution here, of course, is to layer on additional marketing channels to drive predictability. Combine a spiky social media channel with steady retention, an inflow of traffic from referral, SEO, mobile installs, and otherwise, and the growth curve becomes much more durable. But in the early days of a Creator Economy startup, they’re often going all-in on social, and it’s only with success that they can choose to invest in the other channels.

The upside and the future
Creator Economy companies are going through their second and third generations of startups. The bar has gotten higher. Instead of providing functionality akin to fancy tip jars, startups are building full-blown products — supporting multiple platforms, new forms of interaction, and providing new functionality for creators to interact with their followers. These products will have network effects of their own, sometimes becoming destinations of their own. And instead of launching a product anchored by one celebrity and expecting it to succeed, instead, startups are building real technology — often involving AI — combined with a broad go-to-market strategy.

The upside of this sector is that mobile use, and thus social media platforms, continue to grow incredibly fast, taking time away from the hours that people used to spend watching TV:


A lot of this movement is of course driven by younger generations:

(btw, can you believe that most 18+ people still watch 4-5 hours of TV a day?)

The point is, social media continues to play a huge role, and creators are ultimately a new class of participants in the economy that continue to gain power in both cultural and economy terms. And the products and tooling they use to fulfill their goals will continue being attractive. This is especially true because in the end, creators don’t want to be dependent on one social platform themselves — if they are strong in video, they want to go to podcasting, and to have a huge Instagram. And startups can always seek to be friendlier to the creators than the mega-social platforms.

Thus, I argue that the future of the Creator Economy continues to be promising, but the approach has significantly evolved and the bar has been raised. Startups will need to provide new functionality, create new forms of monetization, and adopt new technologies that make them more defensible to competition and in-house efforts by creators to replace them. Personally, I’m much more interested in Creator Economy startups that are AI- or video-first, and act more like marketplaces in providing a highly managed solution to both sides. I’m more bullish about startups that know how to collect $1000 from a smaller niche of users — thus creating more value — rather than a tip jar model that collects $2 from everyone. In coming years we will see many more variations that will work, and given the underlying consumer trends, I’m bullish this will remain a source of highly valuable startups.

Written by Andrew Chen

August 21st, 2023 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Next Next Job, a framework for making big career decisions

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A simple question
The last few years have been crazy, and no wonder there’s a ton of folks thinking about making job changes right now. I know this since I’ve been getting the calls. Often the conversations open with a laundry list of different companies, roles, and compensation packages. Every opportunity is completely different and hard to compare. There’s got to be a better way to organize your thinking about these opportunities.

Here’s my favorite question to ask:

“What do you want to be your next next job? And why can’t you get it right now?”

And then, of course, you work backward from that. This is the “Next Next Job” framework for thinking about career moves, particularly in the highly chaotic situations that we find ourselves in today where there are many many opportunities across different industries and company stages. This reflects the very natural flow of the recruiting process, where recruiters and colleagues often make referrals across a wide swath of companies that are making. It’s always fun to talk through the various roles, but also it feels chaotic.

I know how it feels because, of course, I’ve faced this exact situation before.

The Next Next Job is an evaluation framework that I used myself many years ago, to make an important decision: As an early 30-something-year-old, at the tail end of a startup adventure that had gone awry, I had a big decision to make. A few months after putting my startup team/myself on the market, I was choosing between several very strong acquisition offers at pre-IPO startups. Each had its idiosyncratic benefits — some of the team cultures were a better fit for me than others and in others, I had a stronger connection to the founder. The packages were also very different. It was an emotional rollercoaster to meet dozens of companies over several months, and then need to choose amongst them.

It was tempting to pick based on a gut reaction, but I felt like there must be a better way. I sought a more analytical approach to augment the rollercoaster. I have tremendous gratitude to my close friend Bubba Murarka who coached me through all the conversations. Once the offers came in, he challenged me to stack rank the opportunities based on my “next next job” — almost a throwaway comment — but something that’s stuck.

How to answer a simple question
Let’s go back to the question – “what’s your next next job, and why can’t you get it today?” — it’s straightforward to ask, of course, but surprisingly hard to answer. Often we don’t know what we don’t know.

The first is that we often don’t know what our next next job might be — after all, if it’s unclear what the next job is, speculating about the next next job seems even more nebulous. Yet there’s an advantage here because you can make a few pretty big buckets of next next jobs. Or you can at least start to, based on what you know today.

It might look something like this:

  • 50% – Become a startup investor
  • 30% – Start another company
  • 10% – Join a high-growth startup as a C-level exec
  • 10% – Random stuff? (Switch into a new cutting-edge industry, become a blogger/writer, etc)

For someone who’s earlier in their career and the product management function, the goals might be more focused on becoming a first-time manager of PMs, becoming “employee 1” of a high-potential startup, or getting accepted into YCombinator, or something like that. Others might be thinking about transitioning from a non-tech role into a tech job or maybe going from a non-product role into becoming a PM/designer/eng.

Of course, sometimes it’s not obvious what other roles might be interesting or appealing — this in itself can be a useful thing to focus on when meeting with mentors and colleagues in the industry. But assuming you have some pretty big buckets to think about, the next step I’d encourage you to do is to pick the top 2-3 of these and do your research. Meet as many people as you can who have your next next job. What were their career paths? What did they need to accomplish before they could get the job? And you can ask them straight out — “what are the gaps in my skills that I need to fill, to get your type of role?” Keep asking questions and meeting people until the answers start to sound pretty similar, and the delta of new information decreases substantially.

Sometimes there’s a shortcut (and sometimes there’s not)
A funny thing sometimes emerges, particularly for people who rank “start a new company” as their next next job — it turns out they’re already qualified. Some of these jobs have high degrees of emotional baggage, because of Imposter Syndrome and not feeling ready. But the reality is, sometimes people over-prepare for a future job out of a deep sense of risk aversion. These are folks who are getting as credentialed and qualified as possible, rather than jumping in. These are the “wantrepreneurs” who are wasting their time getting multiple advanced degrees, working at all the top companies, and who are often very smart — but just can’t bring themselves to actually do something on their own. Usually, when this is one of my friends/colleagues, I try to talk them into taking the largest degree of risk possible :)

On the other hand, often the next next job isn’t attainable and it’s for good reasons. Maybe you’ve only worked at a series of failed startups, and you need a “shiny” role or two that helps add some credentialing. Or perhaps you’re in marketing and interested in becoming a PM but aren’t yet close enough to the engineers and the technical details. Perhaps you’ve never managed anyone, and want a role to demonstrate strong managerial ability before jumping into a team lead role. Identifying these gaps can help form the basis for evaluating potential job opportunities — which ones help fill them better and faster.

Gaps might encompass a number of things — skills, but also network, experiences, mentors, and ideas:

  • What new skills do I need for my next next job?
  • Is there a new network of people that would help me?
  • Are there experiences that I need to demonstrate to land the next next job?
  • Which mentors do I need, and how would I meet them?
  • How do I get exposed to the ideas that might inspire me in the future?

Understanding these gaps are great, but that’s just playing offense. A “superpower” is often important, and there are superpowers that are so important that they overcome an imperfect set of gaps. I sometimes talk to folks who are interested to get into investing, and in the end, you can check off every skill on the list, but unless you have a specific superpower I care about — getting in the flow of new startups we’d be interested to meet and invest in — it doesn’t matter how good your analytical skills are, or that you attended fancy schools. If you have an incredible network of founders who seek you out, you can learn some of the other skills. For your industry and specialization, figure out the superpower that might trump everything else. Think offense (building up a superpower), not just defense (filling in gaps).

I want to give an example. For someone interested in investing as their next next job, and have substantial internal-facing roles at successful startups, I often find the list looks something like this:

  • The next next job: Become a professional investor
  • Gap: Need to develop a personal brand for other external-facing networks
  • Gap: Haven’t done any angel investing
  • Gap: Need to develop opinions on cutting-edge spaces
  • Potential superpower: Get in the dealflow of recent spinouts/alumni of my prev companies

Again, this is just a hypothetical example – you can run your analysis and figure out what you need to do to close some gaps and develop a superpower. Of course, if you are tracking 2-3 options for next next jobs, you might find that a few gaps appear and re-appear. That’s great! This means the next role that helps you develop against that should be weighted more heavily.

Evaluating the grab bag of jobs
Now we can go back to the original question — “what do you think of XYZ as a company, and should I take this ABC role there?” The approach then becomes more obvious. First, you need more than one option. Go run a process, meet enough people, and look broadly at enough companies that you have different options to compare. Building up these options — while the opposite of instant gratification — will mean that you can truly make a good decision.

Then work backward on your options. Which ones are best at filling your gaps, and what will help you develop a superpower? Or if none of the options do much, then be patient. Develop more options. I think a lot of the reason why we often see a long series of 12-month stints on resumes is that we live in a world of instant gratification — whether that’s short videos for instant entertainment, on-demand food, groceries, cars, or online dating. But when it comes to making a big career decision that might commit you to work somewhere for (ideally) multiple years, the quality of the decision is important. Taking your time is key.

Of course, in the end, this big decision is very emotional. I really believe that. There are a ton of little things that go into getting excited about a new role: You’ll need to vibe with your manager, and you’ll want to like the work. But at the same time, having a bit of an analytical framework behind your decision will help. It might ultimately be 80% emotional and 20%, but I think that’s still better than 100% emotional rollercoaster.

To wrap up my story, almost ten years ago, I decided to go to Uber rather than the other very good options on the table. The background was that I knew it was likely I’d want to become an investor one day, and that pointed toward Uber as the right choice. The theory was that Uber would be a great place to meet future founders, would have problems at scale, and would be a very interesting place. And boy, was I right about that latter point :) It did OK on the other things I cared about — the scope of my role, the compensation package, etc — but I chose not to optimize for that. I knew it wasn’t my forever job. It was a stepping stone to the forever job I’d try to gain in startup investing, many years later.

Written by Andrew Chen

August 13th, 2023 at 5:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

What to do when product growth stalls

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The crisis arrives slowly, then all at once
At first, everything seems rosy. The growth rate of a new product is spiking, and growing quickly, maybe even hundreds of percentage points a year. But weirdly, a year or two in, there’s some softness in the latest numbers. Maybe it’s seasonality, or maybe something else. But worryingly, it keeps slowing. First to 300% a year, then 200%. Then 100% – a mere doubling annually in a startup ecosystem that demands a much faster target. More features are planned, and some are even shipped. Eventually, there’s a back-to-back where things are completely flat. What starts as a slow boil – where the team has a well-planned roadmap and a big vision – becomes a sudden crisis. There are late evening phone calls and emergency sessions. Analytics dashboards are pulled and re-pulled, to figure out what’s going on. The team needs a new plan.

There’s a saying that no military plan survives first contact with the enemy, and similarly — no product roadmap survives first contact with stalled growth. Instead, a crisis ensues, and the entire roadmap has to be rewritten. Particularly for startups, where continual growth is life and death.

When this crisis hits, the question is, what to do about it? How do you come up with a plan?

For better or worse, I’ve had this conversation with product managers and entrepreneurs many times over the years. The easy answer that people generally want to hear either falls into the camp of:

  • This next magic feature will fix all our growth problems –The PM
  • We need to spend more money on marketing –The Marketer
  • Have you considered adding more AI? –The Investor

Don’t listen to these people :)

Instead, I offer the idea that you can analyze growth stalls systematically. You can ask questions, gather data, and assess the stall to zero in on the problems that are driving the metrics downwards.

Assessing the stall – starting with retention
First off, let me explain what’s happening during a growth stall. Yes, of course, it’s when a top-line number (like revenue or active users, or otherwise) stops growing. But what’s happening under the covers? At its core, a product stalls when its churn catches up with its customer acquisition.

I encourage y’all reading the entire thing, but I’ve written about this in the past in the deck The Red Flags and Magic Numbers That Investors Look For, which shows this growth of the underlying dynamics:

That is, a stall occurs when a product is churning enough users that it overpowers the counterforce – the product attracting new users and reactivating users (though this latter term is less important for startups). This happens because typically churn happens to a % of the user base, as anyone who’s seen cohort retention curves knows. But unfortunately, new customer growth channels tend to be fairly linear — most marketing channels don’t scale up as the user base scales up, and even the channels that do, like viral marketing, eventually saturate and slow down. All while churn continues to creep up over time as a percentage.

Because of these dynamics, I start by asking questions about retention to establish a baseline.

These questions are just a starting point, because once you ask them, the question is — what do you do with the answers?

  • What is the D1/D7/D30 of the product? (if consumer?) How does it compare to other products in its category?
  • If it’s a workplace product, how many days per week does the typical user engage? (This is the Power User Curve)
  • Are people as active and engaged as you expect them to be? If it’s a daily-use product, does your DAU/MAU ratio reflect that?

There are many benchmarks out there for all the product categories, but as a very rough guideline, you need a D1/D7/D30 of 60/30/15% to be at respectable numbers for a social app. You need DAU/MAU over 20%, and if subscription based, you want churn <5% if SMB (and free acquisition). There are equivalent numbers for net revenue retention, session lengths, and lots of other metrics too.

A marketplace company might look at a different set of metrics. Often the demand side can have heavy churn, but the supply side should retain well (>50% YoY). An enterprise SaaS product would have its own set of metrics. It’s important to benchmark, to see if there are successful products with similar metrics that have gotten to scale. If you have similar numbers, then probably these underlying retention metrics are not the problem.

Let’s look there first, but understand that you might find a devastating truth.

Admit it when people don’t want your product
There’s an ugly truth that when most products are put under a microscope, most of them simply don’t have the retention to sustain growth over time — this is “pouring water into a leaky bucket.” A slow growth rate is inevitable because products start at a mega disadvantage of needing to replace all their existing users who churn, in addition to building new marketing channels that grow the overall number significantly.

But “my product is not retaining” is also sometimes a fancy phrase for “people don’t want to use my product.” I say this because it’s a blunt way of stating what’s often true – that a new product is too experimental, too unpolished, or so poorly positioned, or underdeveloped, that no one wants to use it. I think this was especially a problem in the Web 2.0 days when folks would combine their favorite random set of product mechanics — disappearing text messages sent to strangers near you, but you can only reply with a video — and launch them as the latest app (Disappr! – gotta love those 2010 app names). When people don’t want your product, no amount of new customer acquisition is going to solve that. Yes, you can sometimes generate very fast growth rates for a few weeks or months, but eventually, it catches up to you. And then the product stalls, per the graph above.

Instead, when initial product/market fit is low (yes, another fancy way to say people don’t get it), I usually recommend the exercise of positioning more closely to existing product categories. As I argue in Zero to Product/Market Fit, any founder can instantly get to product/market fit by simply going after an existing category — of course, we all know how to build and design a coffee cup such that there’s product/market fit. You incur other problems, of course, such as competitive differentiation, but if you combine a well-known product category with innovation, and picking at the right time and place in the innovation cycle, it can work.

There are major questions to ask here:

  • Does my product have a clear, successful competitor? Is there a there there? (and do I have strong differentiation?)
  • When I ask people to describe my product back to me — without the jargon — what do they say?
  • When I ask people during user tests what kind of people might use the product, and what they’d use instead, do the answers make sense?
  • Do people actually like my product, or are they just being nice to me? And a famous question- is it a painkiller or a vitamin?
  • Are there any well-known product categories I could position against? Is there a way for me to test that positioning in user testing or otherwise?
  • Is my growth the fault of shitty retention? Or do I need better user acquisition?

When retention sucks, but you haven’t growth hacked yet
What if retention sucks, but you haven’t added email notifications yet? What if you can just do a big marketing push, and that might spike the numbers? I can tell you as someone who has seen many underlying metrics for a wide variety of products, moving the retention number is the very hardest thing to move. Usually, the initial numbers are a ceiling, and it only goes down from there. So if your numbers are bad, don’t think that adding notification emails will solve it.

There is a very very narrow set of situations where I will take this back:

First, long-term retention is often most improved by better initial user activation. A few years ago, in Losing 80% of mobile users is normal, and why the best apps do better, I show that the biggest difference in the retention curves of the best apps and mildly good apps wasn’t as much in their long-term retention curves, as much as their ability to get the numbers in the first 7 days up higher than others. So I often will ask the question to product leaders- what differentiates someone who’s activated versus not, in your product? What % of users become activated? And how do you make that 100%?

Second, there’s a narrow class of products that have network effects — social apps, workplace collaboration tools, dating apps, marketplaces, etc — and they will often have a “smile curve” when retention goes up as time passes, and the network fills in. I wrote a whole book about this so I won’t belabor the point, but the main point is, if a product is more useful when more of your friends (or colleagues) are using it, then retention will naturally float up as the product grows. Thus, a product that has poor retention in the early days might just need more network density. For these situations, I might suggest the team do a completely manual, hands-on build of a network — launching at a high school or a single office — and measure retention there. Sometimes it’s much higher, which means there’s a there there, and the product just needs to be launched in a network-by-network manner as some of the great companies have done via college campuses, cities, workplaces, or otherwise.

Whatever you do, don’t fall for the idea that you can fix your retention by simply adding features:

The Next Feature Fallacy: the fallacy that the next feature you add will suddenly make people want to use the entire product. -@bokardo

There’s a longer explanation of the idea here, but the TLDR is that when you add features that engage hardcore users, that’s going to be such a small % when in reality you need to stem the bleed in D1/D2/…D7. That is, in the activation step of the product. If you get 10% of your hardcore users to engage more deeply, the reality is that it won’t move the needle enough mathematically to lift your entire retention curve. This means that you need to listen to the “silent majority” of users who churn, rather than the core users who stay and are highly vocal.

Thus, I’d ask myself the following questions:

  • How is my retention? Am I counting on the ability to move metrics far beyond what’s reasonable? (You can increase 20%, but probably not 100%)
  • Am I betting the farm on some product magic that hardcore users want? Or am I working on things that cause more newbies to love the product more quickly?
  • Is my product in the category where network effects might substantially grow retention? Is that reasonable to think?

Top of funnel
It makes me happy when I see strong retention numbers with a flat growth curve. Funny enough, I consider this a very good thing. The history of fixing these situations is much better, and the approach is usually quite simple: Find more marketing channels, and scale existing ones. And if you can, find a self-repeating growth loop where users sign up for your product, use it, and then help generate more signups over time.

Just avoid the random lightning strikes. This could be from tech news coverage, a viral TikTok video, or a one-time email blast. You feel good for a moment, and when the excitement (and growth curve) dies down, then the crisis begins. It might be a fine way to solve a cold start problem or to get your first few hundred users. But it’s not a real growth strategy and leads to a product that’s lurching from crisis to crisis. Instead, the focus needs to be on repeatability, particularly once retention is established.

The easiest way to find a repeatable strategy is by simply fast-following other companies in your space. Finding and scaling marketing channels is typically pretty easy. If they are doing paid marketing, then go into those channels and test for CAC and measure payback periods. If they are marketing via Twitch creators or Instagram influencers, try that too. This method of simply experimenting and copying the competition goes a long way and often leads to success.

Testing marketing channels, alongside ad creatives and call-to-actions, requires an entrepreneurial spirit. There’s a huge advantage to testing a lot of different ideas, creatives, and landing pages and experimenting with messaging.

Growth loops scale and scale

Figuring out a growth loop is even more powerful. The idea here is that the loop helps attract users, who take actions that attract even more users, and so on. Thus a product with 10,000 users will grow quickly, but when it hits 1M actives, it can go even faster. This means user acquisition is a function of the size of the user base, and thus, it will keep up with the churn curve that’s stalking just behind it.

I have a few examples in my Magic Numbers deck, where I illustrate these as some of the classic and ideal growth loops:

Above: Viral loops are important because they are extremely scalable, free, and don’t require a formal partnership. This is based on users directly or indirectly sharing a product with their friends/colleagues, and having that loop repeat itself.


Above: A product like Yelp or Houzz fundamentally is a UGC SEO driven loop. New users find content through Google, a small % of them generate more content, which then gets indexed by Google, and then the loop repeats. Reddit is also like this. So is Glassdoor. And so on.

The process of figuring out these growth loops is not an easy task- it’s a form of product-led growth that requires an understanding of marketing, product, and sometimes growth hacking the underlying platforms/APIs to get a leg up (as Zynga did on Facebook, and Paypal did on eBay). But it’s very powerful when done well.

Polish your the UX flows that matter to growth — signup, inviting, payment — and ignore your hardcore user features
For teams that are focused on growth, it’s uncomfortable but necessary to ignore your best users and instead focus on UX targeted at users who may not be vocal at all. If you can polish your new user flow, then you can often make 20-50% gains to conversion, which then fall straight into the bottom line (whether that’s revenue or an active users count). When you polish your friend invite flows or referral flows, then you might get 20% of users to invite 100% more of their friends. And then that larger group of invitees will invite each more friends, and so on, with a larger viral factor. This is why when I assess product UX, I tend to focus on the less sexy stuff: Signup flows, invitations/referrals, and payment. And even surface areas like the lost password flow, which is for larger products, often block engaged users from getting back into their accounts.

Unfortunately, this is a product surface area that isn’t considered particularly sexy. If you’re at a large company, you may not get promoted to the next level of PM for delivering this type of project. In these settings, PMs are often rewarded more often for coordinating massive cross-functional projects than to move the needle on growth, by simply testing dozens of variations of signup flows.

And yet, this is often what matters!

There are a couple of key things I’ll often assess when looking at these growth-critical user flows:

  • Are the value props clear, the headlines crisp, and generating urgency for the user?
  • Are all critical elements — buttons, form fields, etc — above the fold?
  • Are extraneous links removed, to not divert the user, or otherwise moved to below the fold?
  • Instead of asking users to scroll, can content turn into a video, animated GIF, or slideshow?
  • How does it look on desktop versus mobile?
  • If the signup process is multi-step, can some steps be skipped for now, and done later?
  • Is the order of the signup right? Can you bring forward the magic moment, rather than asking people to fill out form after form?
  • Are there critical asks — getting a credit card, asking people to invite friends — that should be baked into the first few steps of the signup flow?
  • Does the signup flow activate people correctly? Should the user be “forced” to activate in any way, by adding required signup steps?
  • … and on and on

For new user flows, I try to get more users that hit the landing page to ultimately become activated users. I use tons of A/B testing and experiments in messaging to make this happen. For invite flows, I often try to stick them to the end of sessions so that users repeatedly see them as they engage the product. Maybe they create content, and you ask them if they want to share their newly created content with friends/coworkers. Do that every time, and you’ll be generating viral factor as you go, rather than just at the beginning. Payment is similarly important for products that focus on paid marketing to grow. The earlier you harvest purchase intent — often in the signup flow — the more you can plow that money into growth programs.

There are these flows and more, and they are the unsexy product features that drive growth.

Some final thoughts
Even great products stall growth. Famously, Facebook grew in its early years to take over colleges, but then saw a stall as saturation effects took over, and the product needed to be expanded past universities. Then there was another period of flatness, just before they expanded internationally. And another, before mobile. The same was true for Dropbox in its early years, as it saw a spike on Digg and Hacker News, but it needed a referral system and shared folders to push it to the next level. And in recent years, TikTok stalled as a platform for dance videos before it was acquired, and a very large paid marketing effort helped push it over the top based on building out a massive library of content.

These stories are common because successful products inevitably saturate a market, or need to jump from one acquisition channel to another, or any number of problems. When this crisis happens, it’s easy and reflexive to simply try to spend more on marketing. Or to try to develop more features. Or some other simplistic rule like that, sometimes based on the natural ability and interests of the product team.

Keep yourself from doing that.

Instead, consider that every stalled growth curve has its idiosyncratic issues. Sometimes it’s poor activation. Sometimes the novelty has worn off. Or perhaps the product is seasonal, or a marketing channel has been saturated. For better or worse, finding the levers to correct the stall requires patience, analytical abilities, and deep customer empathy. It’s hard, and every stalled product has its own story. But to identify the problem, fix it, and see the graph return to its previous glory — well, that’s just an amazing thing.

Written by Andrew Chen

August 10th, 2023 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One year after launching a16z Games Fund One – here’s the pitch deck

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Hi readers,

I wanted to share a fundraising deck for a16z’s GAMES FUND ONE that we put together a little over a year ago. Of course a lot of fundraising decks have been published for our favorite companies — in fact, I have a folder full of the v1 pitch decks for Dropbox, Coinbase, Uber, etc — but rarely do you see decks for venture capital funds. I wanted to share this deck with some voiceover so you have a sense for what’s involved. Obviously there are lots of redacted slides, but you’ll at least get a flavor.

Thanks, Andrew. (Venice, CA)



We’ve hit the 1 year mark!!!!

A year ago, we raised GAMES FUND ONE, our first $660M fund focused on games. 25 investments and 10 new hires later, we’ve learned so much.

To celebrate, I’m going to share some slides we used to raise the fund. Yes, even VCs have to pitch :)


We structured our pitch deck into a discussion and overview about the games industry – many folks outside the industry needed some context to catch up. And then our investment areas, and then how we approached the team. (I’ve redacted notes about returns/companies/etc, of course)


For the overview – Games are driving the GenAI Revolution and this games are having their “Marvel Moment” showcasing their cultural power as some of the top shows – The Last of Us, Movies – Super Mario Movie, and Games are expanding entertainment IP like Hogwarts Legacy.

And by the way, the industry has changed substantially from when people were buying cartridges one at a time to decade-plus long-running games where friends come together as a next gen social network.

Games are often the killer app for new technologies. 3D, GPUs, and virtual items all came from games, though we might re-label them as metaverse, or NFTs. Before freemium, there was shareware. Games helped bring computing to the home, with Atari and Nintendo.


Here’s the “why now” slide – and today we’d update this slide with AI AI AI AI AI AI :) – but there are some amazing tailwinds that the industy has seen over the past decade


Last year we were very focused on studios, web3, and infrastructure. This year we’ve continued to maintain that focus, but have really started to lean into AI. In Q1 alone, we met over 100 AI x Games companies. And in 2023, 80% of the Games Fund’s investments have had a major AI component – either reinventing core gameplay or creating tools

We need to balance our approach to include all key areas of games, but also adapt to new trends.

As we invest across the ecosystem – both game studios but also infra, next gen consumer, and other areas – we need to also help the companies succeed. We do that by building a team that’s “games native”

A major part of a16z’s differentiation has been our Operating Team that helps companies. In fact the vast majority a16z’s staff focuses on that, and it’s a small minority that focuses on investing Gaming startups want help here: – hiring – creators – launching – publishers


Last year, we hired operators like Doug McCracken from Supercell to lead Marketing, Lester Chen from Youtube to lead Creators, and Jordan Mazer from Riot to lead Talent. Everyone has a startup mindset we all act like owners and work without clear directives. (Many more folks to come!)

Given the economic downturn, we’ve spent innumerable hours working with our portfolio to maximize their probability of long term success. This is when the operating team is so powerful. But the games market is resilient!

As we round out the year, we’re continuing to build and innovate. Builders are needed to help builders. We’ve been building the team in year one and hired from Blizzard, Supercell, Youtube, Riot, Twitch, and Unity. Join us!

Thanks to everyone who’s supported us in Year One!

Kudos to the new team, our founders/co-investors, and our friends across the ecosystem

And of course, my close colleagues Jon Lai, Marc, Ben, and the entire team who have been building this initiative from the start!

PS. Finally, our lawyers made me add this at the end :)


Written by Andrew Chen

August 8th, 2023 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

How to design a referral program

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Above: Dropbox’s innovative growth initiative — A referral program to give/get storage

Why a referral program?
Referral programs — the “give $5, get $5” offers you see in many apps — have become popular in recent years. They have big advantages over paid marketing channels, in that you give your CAC to your users, who then spend it within your product, as opposed to handing it over to Google or Facebook. Because they are a form of viral marketing — utilizing your network of users to bring in more users — they tap in to your product’s network effects, as I describe in The Cold Start Problem. This is particularly useful for products that target high acquisition cost niches, whether that’s crypto users or on-demand drivers, whose CAC are often >$200, since the users often know each other.

A successful referral program can be 20-30% of your acquisition mix, as one of several acquisition loops. It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s worth adding to complement other marketing efforts.

The history of the referral program
How did a structured form of customer referrals come into being? It’s said that the first documented referral program was created by Julius Caesar, who in 55 BC would paid his soldiers 300 sestertii (something like a third of their annual pay) to refer a friend to join the army. And thousands of years later, we still use, plus or minus, the same idea. It seems as though every consumer app has implemented some form of a referral program, though I argue it really kicked off in ~2008, which is when Dropbox’s innovative referral program was rolled out.

Yes, the most famous early implementation of referral programs came from Dropbox, which inspired a generation of startups — particularly YCombinator-backed startups — to experiment with similar ideas. Why did this make sense for them? CEO/cofounder Drew Houston’s made a very helpful presentation describing his journey towards referral programs, and the general trajectory was the following:

  • First, do all the things you’re “supposed” to do
    • Big bang launch at a tech conference. Try some AdWords, hire a PR firm / VP of Marketing
    • Paid marketing programs created a CAC of $233-388 for a $99 product
    • Then trying affiliate programs, display ads, and many other things — which all failed
  • … but then failing! And realizing none of it works that well
  • Then realizing the key was to accelerate word-of-mouth and viral growth by offering a “give and get storage space” program
  • Boom. 100,000 users to 4 million in just 15 months, with 35% of daily signups

The entire deck is wonderful — created roughly a decade ago, but still very relevant — and I highly encourage you to check it out here.

Referral programs work very well for certain kinds of products, particularly ones that are already spreading via word of mouth. In Dropbox’s case, there is a natural use case between friends and colleagues — shared folders — which naturally complement the referral channel. Referrals drive that forward, providing an economic incentive to tell friends. As another example, at Uber where I ran the referral programs for drivers and riders at various points (and spent >$300M/year on them), the program for driver referrals was naturally successful. Drivers were often from certain sub-communities, whether newly arrived immigrants or limo drivers, and people were naturally already talking about the earning opportunity. Referrals, sometimes as high as $500/signup, accelerated that in a big way.

And yet referral programs have their limits. Of course they don’t really work that well for products that have low LTV — that’s why we don’t see free social photo sharing apps reward their users for referrals. There’s no LTV to arbitrage against, and the referral amounts create a form of customer acquisition cost. They also tend to decline in importance over time. Years after the rollout of Dropbox’s referral program, I had the opportunity to join Dropbox as an advisor, where I got a first-hand look at the data. By then, the natural virality of their core product — just the process of people sharing their folders and files with others — had come to completely dominate user acquisition. This had become the primary method of spread, and the referral program became much less important. I’ll discuss why, later on, but this seems to be the natural pattern of things — referral programs are very helpful at the beginning of a market. Eventually it becomes less important, and that’s OK.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start first by looking at how a referral program is usually defined.

The structure of a referral program
We see the same rough patterns in referral programs that are implemented across the industry. Airbnb, Uber, Instacart have them, and so do Coinbase and Wealthfront. There are variations of course, as some focus on giving and getting dollars. Some ask you to share a code, or a link, or connect your addressbook to invite friends.

One way to organize all these variations is to divide them into the following — and you need to answer a series of questions for how you structure the program:

  • Ask
    • When do you ask the user to refer?
    • Why do you refer? Is it tied to a holiday, or a particular promotion?
    • What’s the message?
  • Target
    • Which users do you target? All of them?
    • How do you set referral amounts?
  • Incentive
    • What’s the incentive, is it extrinsic ($) or intrinsic (points, storage, etc)?
    • Do you give the inviter or recipient the same reward?
  • Payback
    • What is the success criteria for the program?
    • How do you think about cannibalization?

Let’s use an example to describe this.

For example, take Airbnb’s host referral program:

You could break this down into the following categories:

  • Ask: Invite someone who can host their entire place or private room
  • Target: All Airbnb users
  • Incentive: Earn $200
  • Payback: CAC is better/comparable to other marketing channels (just speculating!)

This is the basic structure, and now that we have this in place, it’s time to talk about a number of design considerations needed when creating a referral program.

The Ask
Product folks often start by agonizing over the ask. They wonder if it’s too trivial to create a “Get $5, Give $5” referral program, or if that’s too basic. But I think that’s the wrong place to focus — after all, you can always word smith and test many variations later once you have the program up and running.

The real question is, WHERE do you make the ask? And my answer is simple: Ask many times, in many places, with different messages, and in-context with whatever action you’re asking the user to take. What you find, after instrumenting all your referral UI, is that there’s just a certain conversion rate on this screen. And that most users, if you put the referral functionality on a banner somewhere random in the product, simply don’t interact with the referral features. Rather than trying to raise conversions, instead, show the screen more often — get more impressions!

Thus, make the referral ask part of the main flows. After the user is buying something within your app, ask them if they want $X cash back now, by inviting someone. Or if they interact with a friend within the app — assuming the product allows invitations of some sort — follow up by asking if they want to invite others. And add it to the onboarding flow, and at the end of key transactions when the user is otherwise done, and you might as well capture engagement. And for god’s sake, don’t make it look like “an ad” with big splash text and graphics — make it plan, like something that’s part of the normal UI where the user can interact.

One of my favorite ideas from Uber is the concept of “holidizing” a referral campaign. For drivers, as the holidays approached, you might tell them to earn extra money towards gifts and festivities, by participating in a referral program. Or for the run up to a major concert in town, you might run a special tiered campaign where referring 1 friend gets you X, but 5 gets you 5*X and a huge bonus on top. There’s something great about freshening up the messaging each month to align to major holidays, with new amounts, new imagery, and otherwise.

The Target
The headline best practice is that your referral program should target new users to refer their friends — this means prompting users during their initial onboarding flows, and adding emails as part of the onboarding, among other surface areas. This is in direct contradiction to folks who often argue to let users experience the product first, have a good experience, before they’re hit up to invite. Why focus on new users? First, mathematically, it’s easiest to make a big impact when you are hitting a cohort of 1000 new users when it’s as close to 1000 as possible, not in day 30 when the cohort will have churned and gotten down to 150. And in the math of the viral factor, you have a better chance to hit >1 when you have 1000 users invite 1000 users than to ask 150 to invite 1000. Second, new users generally have more friends who haven’t yet used the product, because they are new themselves. Once they have gone through the referral program a few times, then they will have naturally tapped out their networks.

And of course, the simplest thing to do is a “give $5, get $5” and give that offer to everyone, in an untargeted fashion. But a product leader soon realizes that this is inefficient — perhaps it’s best to give some users $15 and others $5, depending on their value. This is exactly what many marketplace companies have done, when it’s easy to segment their network into high-value cities like New York and SF versus, say, Memphis — you can set custom referral amounts in each place. But why stop at cities? Perhaps you do an analysis and figure out certain leading characteristics of high-value users as their account balance, or the types of other apps they use, or otherwise — once you think of this as personalizing an ephemeral offer to users, then you can run whatever promotions you want.

The Incentive
You’ll note in the original Dropbox offer, the incentive itself was storage space not dollars — this is the dilemma of intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards for users that participate in your program. Many referral programs for mobile games tend towards intrinsic rewards as well, earning you points if you invite friends. The advantage of intrinsic rewards is that it’s particularly cost effective when the incentive is something you can control, like points. The problem with intrinsic rewards, of course, is that external users — people who have never heard of your product — are the least responsive to points or otherwise. Dropbox’s storage offer is maybe somewhere in the middle, since it’s at least a concrete form of value. As a result, most referral programs have tended towards dollars over time, though I think the important idea is to prioritize new, outside users, and think about how to make the incentive as concrete as possible.

There’s the basic question of how to set the incentive amount. Typically this is based on a basic calculation of CAC/LTV, which has major weaknesses as it doesn’t take into account cannibalization (which we’ll discuss later). Instead, the focus is often to pick a simple number — if you know that the average user who signs up spends $20, then you can create a referral program that rewards a $5 give/get with some margin of safety. But the big lever on the incentive, of course, is to increase the amount — and the largest amount generally comes from tiered offers that have some form of breakage. An example of this is to say, “$100 when you sign up and buy 5 things” rather than “$5 when you sign up.” Given that the difference between a signup and a repeat conversion rate might be 100x, you might be able to safely raise the amount 20x. At Uber, this went so far as to combine two distinct numbers: A headline number that combined both the initial signup conversion as well as the first month’s earnings (again, as long as you drove X trips in the first few weeks). This resulted in a $3000+ number, a huge upgrade from the initial $200 numbers we started with. These larger headline numbers always tested much better on A/B tests, whether in email marketing or banner form, and while it might feel like the reward becomes unattainable, it’s possible to create a second or third or fourth tier to go along with the big headline number. You could say, earn $X when you fulfill all the requirements, but then a smaller number, $Y, when you only fulfill a few. That way you get the marketing impact of the big number but still have a fallback for users who don’t hit all the milestones.

The last aspect of the incentive structure I’ll discuss is a symmetric versus asymmetric offer — that is, should it be a “give $20, get $5” or “give $5, get $20.” Which one sounds better to you? This is anecdotal, but in testing I’ve seen, the inviter-centric amount generally works better — that is, catering to their self interest. However, I’ve also seen B2B contexts where in a professional setting, people tend towards inviting more if they are perceived as altruistic, giving out a large $ discount to others. In the end, probably just worth A/B testing to see what works best.

The Payback
You’ll need some kind of ROI metric to drive the strategy of the referral program. Are you spending the right amounts, or should you increase the numbers? How much product effort should be put into implementing new surface areas? Etc. Is it working? These fundamental questions are often answered with a classic CAC/LTV analysis, and there’s a reason to doing that.

After all, if the lifetime value of these users exceeds the cost of acquiring them, shouldn’t you just go full steam ahead? Well, maybe. What if you can get much cheaper acquisition via another channel, like TikTok ads. Then any dollars that go to this might be better spent on ads. Or what if improving a referral program takes engineering team away from critical features? So yes, of course look at the CAC/LTV of your referral initiative, but think about how you might compare the tradeoffs against everything else.

The trickier ROI question is cannibalization: How many of the users that you bring in via referrals would have come in through word of mouth anyway? If you spike the referral amounts, going from $5 to $20, are you just creating a “pull forward” effect where users that would have arrived for free a few months from now are coming in suddenly, but at a cost, and to the detriment of a later month?

Cannibalization is a hard effect to tease out, but generally the goal is to measure something like “Cost Per Incremental Customer” by A/B testing offers to a control group that gets the standard number, and a test group that gets the elevated number. Because you’re trying to capture organic users, you often have to do this as a “twin cities” experiment, where we run one set of offers in Phoenix and another in Dallas — this is the Uber approach, and in B2B you might do it via one set of companies versus another. And then you measure what the uptick actually looks like. If there is a lot of cannibalization, then the CPIC number will be large — this is the true CAC, cannibalization aside.

The other, simpler form, is simply to do an “On/Off test.” If you turn off all your referrals for a few days, do you notice a big drop in new users? If yes, then your referral program is working. If not, then you are potentially paying a lot of customer acquisition cost for something that would be happening anyway.

The weaknesses of a referral program
As I mentioned at the intro of this essay, Dropbox’s eventually became less dependent on their referral program. There’s a natural trajectory here, because as the market matures and more users have already adopted the product, the fewer friends there are to invite. You only need a few “I already have that” responses to stop participating in referrals altogether. For products that have a true network effect, as Dropbox does, the acquisition will eventually be taken over by intrinsic use cases like folder sharing rather than something as extrinsic as a referral reward.

And in a way, I find myself mostly skeptical when teams approach me to build a referral program. The first thing I ask is, are you sure you wouldn’t rather build a viral growth engine? Building viral features and a referral program are similar problems — trying to get users to invite friends — but truly viral features around sharing and communicating are evergreen and create lasting value. They help users engage and retain, and as a secondary effect, generate new users as well. And it’s a huge benefit to get these new users onto your platform for free. For Dropbox, that means investing in product features like inviting teammates into projects, or file sharing, or otherwise, rather than creating ever more complex referral structures. At Uber, this might mean building virality into features like “Share ETA” or bill splitting or group food ordering.

In that way, I find myself a reluctant fan of referral programs — they can work, and can become a 10%+ acquisition channel for products — but they will always take a back seat for me, compared to building great viral functionality.

Written by Andrew Chen

August 8th, 2022 at 9:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Personal updates: Moving to LA, a new role at a16z, and more!

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Dear readers,

This blog is officially back! I’m excited to restart my writing here, after a long hiatus. It took more than three years to write my book, The Cold Start Problem and all my energy went into that. But as of last December, it’s finally out in the world, and I want to thank all of you for making it a success. I’ll be sharing more about what I learned in my journey in writing and publishing the book in a future essay — and all my random life hacks for clearing out a few hours every week to put it together.

In the meantime, I have some big life (and work) updates:

1) LA Tech Week 2022
First, putting this up front, so the link doesn’t get lost — join me at LA Tech Week 2022 in mid-August! I’ll be co-hosting a number of events, along with my a16z colleague Katia Ameri. Just register on the site to see all the events. I’m involved in the organization of the conference (more on this in a second) and will be hosting a number of events related to gaming, the metaverse, consumer apps, etc. I’ll be tweeting the events I’ll be attending as the dates approach, and would love to see y’all there.

2) I’ve moved to LA (well, specifically, Venice Calfornia!)
Related is the the actual personal news: I’ve moved to LA after nearly 15 years in San Francisco. Big change for me. This is the result of a very random series of events where the COVID lockdown convinced me to spontaneously try #vanlife, where on a whim I purchased and lived out of a sprinter van for months at a time. This became my life in the back half of 2020, where I drove from California to Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, working full-time on the week days and exploring national parks on the weekends. Surprisingly, it worked well! Throughout, and particularly during the colder months, I used LA as my home base between longer trips.

Although I had visited many times before, I hadn’t actually tried to actually live there, so I started to try different neighborhoods, and began to Airbnb all throughout the city — Malibu, Silver Lake, WeHo, Santa Monica, and otherwise — before eventually deciding to settle down in one spot. Today, I call Venice, CA my home. It’s walkable, hip, artsy, and has pockets of amazing beauty. If you visit, make sure you check out Abbott Kinney Blvd, the Venice Canals, the walk streets, and Gjelina’s! And don’t worry, my SF friends and coworkers — I’ll be back to the Bay Area often, maybe every month or two. (I’m keeping my place there)

Since arriving in LA, I’ve been working with the startup/VC community to help boost the already vibrant tech ecosystem here. We’re committed to have a major presence here — a16z recently signed an office in Santa Monica (opening soon, it’s a whole building with multiple floors etc) and already has several dozen employees here, as part of our move to the cloud. I’ve set up numerous Whatsapp groups, including for the several hundred investors based here, and also maintain several rotating dinner series for games industry founders and executives.

3) A new role at a16z: GAMES FUND ONE
Earlier this year, we launched GAMES FUND ONE, a16z’s first investment fund focused on investing in the metaverse, AR/VR, games studios, social platforms for gamers, and so on. Check out the launch video!

I’ve been dabbling in the industry, backing a number of top startups spun out of Riot Games, Epic, and otherwise. But as part of this launch, I joined the fund full-time, where I’ll be focused on the convergence of consumer apps and games along with my colleagues Jon and James who will cover content and infrastructure, respectively. Of course, I maintain a number of my board seats and a broad portfolio for consumer startups that I’ll continue to support, but am excited to focus my new investments within Games.

I’ll be writing more about why I’m excited for games (and the “metaverse,” whatever that is!) to define the next generation of consumer tech.

More on that soon.

Finally, I just want to thank everyone who has been a subscriber to this blog (and newsletter) over the past few years. I started writing it in 2007 upon arriving to SF as a mid-20s noob aspiring founder, and over a decade later, it taught me that writing is one of my favorite activities. And I’ve met so many great people from doing it, too. I’m glad to be back!


(Btw, for LA history fans, check out this fun video from Lost LA on the history of Venice CA and why it shares a name with an Italian city. It has some great old photos and tidbits)

Written by Andrew Chen

July 31st, 2022 at 3:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

How to reinvent your product growth strategy for the tech downturn

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Why you’ll need to rethink your user growth strategy
Downturns fundamentally rewrite the industry’s strategy (and expectations) for user growth. In a bull market, the focus is on top line growth. You often want 2-3x YoY for a a new product in its first few years, and even faster when its right out the gate. High growth and high burn are fine. Because if you need to spend a lot of money to get there, whether through paid marketing or partnerships, you do it… after all, you can just raise more money, right?

But in a bear market, the answer changes: No. It turns out, you won’t be able to just raise more money to keep going. No, you can’t just expect to hire dozens of engineers, regardless of progress — particularly when hiring freezes are coming into effect. For startups, the bar for raising the next round just went way up, as many investors are waiting out the turbulent market. This means the strategy for user growth just went from “as much as possible” to “efficient, profitable, productive” in just a few quarters.

What are some ways you should be rethinking your growth strategy? Here’s some things every team should be thinking about:

  • Embrace the new normal
  • Cut your marketing spend
  • Laser focus on your engaged, high LTV users
  • Live to fight another day

I’ll unpack some of these as we go.

The new normal
Efficient growth is now the key focus for product teams. During a bull market, the primary metric that people talk about is just top-line growth — what’s your year-over-year growth rate. Some of the truly eye-popping growth rates might exceed 10x YoY, often subsidized with investor money — as has been in the case with on-demand services.

However, the new normal is focused on efficient growth. Although there’s a floor for how fast a product has to grow to be interesting — probably something like 2.5x — there’s a much bigger emphasis on efficiency. What’s the best way to measure this? One metric that’s been recently popularized by David Sacks is the “Burn Multiple” — he defines it below:

Burn Multiple = Net Burn / Net New ARR

This puts the focus squarely on burn by evaluating it as a multiple of revenue growth. In other words, how much is the startup burning in order to generate each incremental dollar of ARR?

In other words, if you spend $10M and gain $5M more in annual recurring revenue, that’s a 2x burn multiple — which he grades as “Suspect.” The Burn Multiple metric is simple, but it’s precisely useful because it’s so simple. A lot of times, unit economics are hand-waved by product teams because some costs are excluded from the contribution margin or net revenue calculations that maybe shouldn’t be — like headquarters costs, real estate, and so on.

Burn multiple cuts through all that, since it’s just aggregate cash versus revenue, and it’s hard to hide anything with a metric so simple. And with this simple metric, it allows you also compare different companies, and potentially different scenarios for a given company, to figure out how to best reduce it.

To provide some benchmarks, my colleagues at a16z, Justin Kahl and David George, recently wrote an article on navigating the downturn where they collected some empirical data:

As you can see, the bar for what constitutes a good burn multiple goes up as revenue goes up. Naturally, you burn more upfront during the product development phase, and then get more efficient as the business gets scale.

From a product growth lens, the shift from topline growth to efficient growth means that you should be thinking about how much burn, how many engineers, and how much marketing is required to hit the milestones you want to reach. And the first questions to ask are often around marketing.

Cut your marketing spend
The first and simplest thing to do is to cut your marketing spend. And in a particular order:

  • Keep the high ROI channels, cut the low ROI ones, even if they provide volume
  • Focus on accountable spend, and reduce ones have a long/fluffy payback?
  • Rethink brand marketing spend — do you really need it?

On the first point, every marketing/growth effort is built from layers of channels built on top of each other. The highest ROI tends to be channels like SEO, word of mouth, and other organic efforts. The next might be paid channels like newsletters, which are hard to scale but highly productive. Then there’s highly targeted paid marketing. Usually the lowest ROI tends to be broad targeting — particularly display ads — on large advertising networks.

Usually these layers are built over time, one by one, by growth marketing folks who keep investing and arbitraging 10:1 LTV/CAC ratios down to 3:1, then 1.5:1, before they slow down. There might also be ongoing marketing experiments to try new short-format video or otherwise. It’s time to unwind that. Usually each incremental channel might add more volume, but is rarely as efficient as the preceding efforts. There’s a diminishing returns — Law of Shitty Clickthroughs strikes again — as each layer is built. Instead, go back to the core.

The other vector to think about this is direct response versus brand marketing. Brand efforts are a great way to spend money without understanding its actual effectiveness to impact metrics, and it’s time to dial those down. Whether it’s large scale events, brand marketing, PR/comms, splashy videos, or otherwise — unless you can justify the costs, it’s time to reduce.

Either way, it’s time to retrench and focus on high intent, low CAC channels.

Laser focus on your engaged, high LTV users
In a hot market, there’s often a land grab to acquire as many users as possible. If there’s a goal to grow 10% in a time period, the pressure is often to grow 10% by acquiring a mass of new users — most of which will burn off from lower usage — when the better option might be to grow 10% by incentivizing higher engagement from existing, core users. At Uber, it was often noted that it was much faster to get drivers to spend 10% more time on the platform, so that there’d be more “supply hours” to react to demand — than to acquire 10% more drivers in a market. The latter would require a big marketing push, and might take weeks for the drivers to ramp up to the same level of engagement.

The reason why this dynamic exists — where the core users outperform new ones — is that there’s often a central segment of where the product is really working, and then an “Adjacent User” where it only kind of works. For example, early Instagram was working well with high-tech, urban users but not well at all within older demographics. Later, it wasn’t working well for Android users in emerging markets. But there’s often pressure to grow by capturing new segments of users, rather than improving on the core, which means that the users that come in through marketing channels are worse quality, lower intent, and less engaged than the core.

This can become a tradeoff between Marketing versus Product-Led Growth, where the former drives CAC, whereas the latter is built on product development costs. The advantage of growth driven within the product — whether that’s better user onboarding, high impact features, or otherwise — is that they impact a wide swath of users within the product. You can invest once and get benefits over a long period of time, and amortize costs across a large segment of users. I’d lean towards product, when possible, when the roadmap is clear on what to do. Obviously marketing spend and engineering time isn’t interchangeable, but reducing marketing budgets while maintaining/increasing product teams feels like a good trade.

Live to fight another day
The milestones required to unlock additional funding/headcount has almost certainly gone up, and specifically for startups, the bar needed to raise more venture capital money has gone up as well. Understanding these milestones will allow teams to fight another day, and coming up with a realistic plan is a key step.

The best way to understand how the bar has moved is can be shown by a chart in the aforementioned article shared by my a16z colleagues David and Justin, showing how the forward revenue multiple for public companies are down significantly. Meaning, you need much more revenue to justify the same valuation — what used to be a 15x multiple is now 7x, meaning valuations are down half even given the same revenue numbers.

Or said another way, when the valuation of public software companies gets halved, then the amount of revenue needed to justify the a valuation goes up double. (For early products that think more about Active Users or DAUs or otherwise, you can recreate these graphs based on $/DAU or otherwise — and yes, those are way down)

This is causing a domino effect in the industry. When you see a $2B public company cut down to $1B, then a $500M privately held startup is cut down to $250M, and so on. The tricky part is that for a public company, of course you have a real-time stock quote to see these valuation changes. For a tech startup, you raise new funding rounds every year or two. That means for much of the industry, the next round of a startup just became much, much harder, but we potentially won’t know for a year+ how much the bar has moved. Either way, this means fewer resources to hit the same hard growth goals.

The easiest way to flex to hit these elevated targets is to take more time, with higher efficiency. Teams have to buy more runway, focusing on better ROI and not a “high growth, high burn” mindset to hit the growth metrics. For startups who have recently raised, they’ll need to “catch up” on their most recent valuation, and additionally progress to justify the customary 2-3x jump in valuation between rounds. That’s the new bar.

The next few years are going to see a lot of change in the tech landscape, particularly for how teams think of growing their products. Much of the last decade has been focused on growth by any means — and investor subsidies, chasing volume via high CACs, have all played a key role. But in the next phase, efficiency means that we’ll need to retrench within the industry and talk about quality and efficiency.

There’s a myriad of complex trends intersecting at the same time: The new Apple privacy changes to ad networks, the potentially stingy venture capital landscape, the hiring freezes that are happening, how web3 plays out over the next few years, and so on. Just as product leaders had to reinvent their thinking to take advantage of the mobile boom, we’ll see them do the same in the coming years for the new environment that’s rapidly taking shape. In the meantime, it’s critical for teams to take a pause, figure out a new approach, and build towards the next boom.

Written by Andrew Chen

July 25th, 2022 at 10:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Solve a Hard Problem (Tinder). Chapter 8 of my upcoming book, The Cold Start Problem

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Hi readers,

I’m so, so excited that my upcoming book is dropping in one week, on December 7!! I’ve been working on it for years, and am thrilled that it’ll finally be out.

The Cold Start Problem, as the book is called, is about the secret that drives many of tech’s most successful products. It’s the story of how messaging apps, marketplaces, workplace collaboration tools, multiplayer games, all share a common thread of being products that connect people with each other. And launching and scaling these products requires a mastery of “network effects,” one of the most-used but misunderstood jargon terms in the industry. My book aims to change that, systematically laying out concepts for startups and folks launching new products to consider.

One of the crucial concepts to understand this is the concept of an “Easy Side” and a “Hard Side” of a network.

To describe this more detail, below, I’ve included a full-length chapter called “Solve a Hard Problem” focusing on the idea that every network has an “easy side” and a “hard side.” Here’s how I define each side:

There are usually a minority of users that will create disproportionate value and as a result, they will have disproportionate power. This the “Hard Side” of your network. They do more work, contribute more to your network, but are that much harder to acquire and retain. For social networks, these are often the content creators that generate the media everyone consumes. For app stores, these are the developers that actually create the products. For workplace apps, these are the managers that author and create documents and projects, and who invite coworkers to participate. For marketplaces, these are usually the sellers and providers who spend their entire day attracting users with their products and services.

In order to make your product and its network launch successfully, it’s not enough to build a killer set of features. It’s also important to solve something crucial for the “hard side” of your network. Cheekily, I call this, “Solving a hard problem” — and I use the example of Tinder to illustrate this concept.

Hope you enjoy!



Chapter 8: Solve a Hard Problem (Tinder)
The hardest problem to solve in creating the first atomic network is, well, the hard side. Focus on attracting content creators to a new video platform, or sellers to a new marketplace, or the project managers inside a company to a new workplace app. The other side of the network will follow. The question is, how?

The answer is by building a product that solves an important need for the hard side of the network. Let’s look at online dating, which evolved over time to better solve the matchmaking problem that has bedeviled humanity since the beginning of time. Dating apps are network effects-driven products that grow city-by-city, and the more folks that join the network, the better the chances that people will find matches. But at the beginning of the product category, the experience was terrible, especially for the hard side of the network.

The problem of too many love letters
Online dating was invented at the beginning of the web, in the early 1990s. They were designed like newspaper classifieds, where men and women browse large databases of profiles, and could message each other if they were interested. and JDate were successful pioneers in this category, which worked despite its flaws. The classifieds-based design created a poor product experience since the popular members — particularly women — would become overwhelmed with a large number of messages, and they would struggle to reply. At a bar or club, potential suitors might be dissuaded if they saw a line of people waiting to talk to an attractive man or woman, but online, there was no such signal. So in turn, the experience for everyone else also ended up poor, because it seemed like no one would write them back.

The lesson is, unsurprisingly, that attractive people — particularly women — are the Hard Side of the online dating network. A few years later, the next generation of online dating would emerge, led by products like eHarmony and OKCupid. These products used quizzes and matching algorithms so that the system could decide who got which matches, and how often. This ensured women got fewer messages, and hopefully more of the right ones. And the men got more replies too, so that it didn’t feel like it was devolving into a copy-paste messaging exercise.

It wasn’t until 2012, at the beginning of the explosion in mobile apps, that yet another generation of dating apps would emerge. These apps, exemplified by Tinder, would innovate even further for the hard side of the network. I had a chat with Tinder’s co-founder, Sean Rad, about how Tinder innovated on the previous generation of products. He described the combination of new ideas:

The older dating sites made it feel like you were doing work, like you were inside the office. You’d go and do work emails during the day, then go home and write more messages at night. Only to prospective dates rather than work colleagues. Tinder was different — it made dating fun. You could sign up without filling in a bunch of forms. It’s visual, you just swipe back and forth, and you could take 5 minutes to do it while you were waiting in line or something like that. It’s a form of entertainment.[^1]

The other problem was how to wade through all the replies. In real life, you’re often introduced to potential romantic partners through friends, or you had a shared context — like work or school — that helped filter. For online dating, the most attractive members of a network needed some additional signals to help sort through their matches. Tinder did this by integrating with Facebook, and Sean also explained how the app was able to build trust:

Tinder started by making everyone connect their Facebook, so that we could show the number of mutual friends you had, which built trust. We also made it so that you could only be matched with people who lived around you — we used the GPS location from your phone, which was new. These were people with mutual friends living around you, the sort of person you might meet in real life! Connecting with Facebook also made sure you would never be shown to friends, or vice versa, if you were worried about that. This all created trust. Tinder also had built-in messaging so that you didn’t have to give out your number. If the conversation didn’t go anywhere, you could just unmatch without worrying about getting harassed.

And of course, the mechanic of swiping itself is a way to make sure people don’t feel overwhelmed. Whereas men tend to swipe right (that is, to indicate interest) on about half of women’s profiles — about 45% to be exact — the ladies in the product swipe on only 5% of profiles they see. As a result, women mostly match with the guys they select. However, if they feel like they are in too many conversations, they can stop swiping for a while and just focus on the messaging their existing matches. All of these insights made Tinder a much better experience for most important side of their network, solving one of the most important obstacles in the Cold Start Problem.

The Hard Side for marketplaces is usually the supply side
Marketplaces tend to revolve around its sellers. I’ve seen the difficulty of managing the hard side for rideshare first-hand, where drivers are the ones selling their time and effort in the market. For Uber, in any given market, so-called “Power Drivers” constitute 20% of the supply but create 60% of the trips. These are some of the most valuable users on the planet, as they are the core of Uber’s business.

Uber’s drivers are just one example of a broader set of workers that drive most marketplace companies. For marketplaces, the hard side is usually the “supply” side of the network, which refers to the workers and small businesses who provide the time, products, and effort and are trying to generate income on the platform. They use digital marketplaces as a side hustle, selling collectibles or coaching sessions, or otherwise. They do this often as an alternative to hourly jobs, of which there are nearly 80 million in the US. These are folks often living in the middle of the country, who work in hourly retail jobs that turn over 100% year over year, and are struggling for additional income. Marketplace startups often provide these opportunities to this group.

To solve the Cold Start Problem for marketplaces, often the first move — as it was for Uber — is to bring a critical mass of supply onto the marketplace. For a marketplace like eBay, you start with sellers of collectibles. For a marketplace like Airbnb, you might start with people with a few extra rooms in their place. For a social platform like YouTube, it might be video creators. For a more esoteric category, like Github, it’s helpful to bring on some prominent Open Source projects and key developers. But once the supply has arrived onto the network, it’s time to bring in demand — the buyers and users that will form the bulk of the network. Once that’s working though, it becomes all about supply again. Thus the order of operations, at least for most consumer-facing marketplaces, is “supply, demand, supply, supply, supply.” While supply might be easy to get onto the network early on through subsidies, eventually it will become the bottleneck. The Hard Side of a network is, by definition, hard to scale.

Uber had to get creative to unlock its Hard Side. Initially, Uber’s focus was on black car and limo services, which were licensed and relatively uncontroversial. However, a seismic shift soon occurred when rival app Sidecar innovated in recruiting unlicensed, normal people as drivers on their platform. This was called the “peer-to-peer” model that created millions of new rideshare drivers, and was quickly copied and popularized by Lyft and then Uber. Jahan Khanna, cofounder/CTO of Sidecar spoke of its origin:

It was obvious that letting anyone sign up to a driver would be a big deal. With more drivers, rides would get cheaper and the wait terms would get shorter. This came up in many brainstorms at Sidecar, but the question was always, what was the regulatory framework that allows this to operate? What were the prior examples that weren’t immediately shut down? After doing a ton of research, we came onto a model that had been active for years in San Francisco run by someone named Lynn Breedlove called Homobiles that answered our question.[^2]

It’s a surprising fact, but the earliest version of the rideshare idea came not from an investor-backed startup, but rather from a nonprofit called Homobiles, run by a prominent member of the LGBTQ community in the Bay Area named Lynn Breedlove. The service was aimed at protecting and serving the LGBTQ community while providing them transportation — to conferences, bars and entertainment, and also to get healthcare — while emphasizing safety and community.

Homobiles had built its own niche, and had figured out the basics: Breedlove had recruited, over time, 100 volunteer drivers, who would respond to text messages. Money would be exchanged, but in the form of donations, so that drivers could be compensated for their time. The company had operated for several years, starting in 2010 — several years before Uber X — and provided the template for what would become a $100 biillion+ gross revenue industry. Sidecar learned from Homobiles, implementing their offering nearly verbatim, albeit in digital form: Donations based, where the rider and driver would sit together in the front, like a friend giving you a ride. With that, the rideshare market was kicked off.

Nights and weekends
The key insight in the stories of Homobiles or Tinder is — how do you find a problem where the Hard Side a network is engaged, but their needs are unaddressed? The answer is to look at hobbies and side hustles.

There are millions of content creators, app developers, marketplace sellers, and part-time drivers that power the hard side of networks. They are smart, motivated, early adopters who are finding opportunities to make themselves useful. They are the developers behind the Open Source movement who have built Linux, WordPress, MySQL, and many of the other technologies that underpin the modern internet. They are the millions of eBay sellers that have created jobs and companies by buying and selling goods that people want. For photo sharing and messaging products like Instagram and YouTube, they stem from the countless amateur photographers and videographers that like to record travel, special occasions, architecture, beautiful people, and everything else.

What people are doing on their nights and weekends represents all the underutilized time and energy in the world that if put to good use, can become the basis of the hard side of an atomic network. Sometimes the army is built on people with excess time, but sometimes it is built on people with underutilized assets as well. Rideshare networks, for example, fundamentally depend on the underutilization of cars, which generally sit idle most of the time besides the daily commute and the occasional errand. Airbnb is built on the underutilization of guest bedrooms, second homes, combined with the time and effort of the hosts. Craigslist and eBay are built on letting people sell their “junk” – the stuff that people don’t value anymore – to new owners who might value them more.

Usually the Hard Side will continue to use Airbnb or TikTok because that’s where the demand is, and thus, are locked into the positive network effects on those platforms. However, the trick is to look closer — it is better to segment the Hard Side of the network and figure out who is being underserved. Sometimes this is a niche, like a passionate sub-community of content creators for makeup or unboxing that might be better served with additional commerce features. It could be a low-production quality, amateur part of the community, like those who are doing #whateverchallenge of the week, who would benefit from basic video editing tools. For networks that are derived from underutilized assets, it might be the niche of who like having new side-hustles every weekend to make money online. Or perhaps there is a new platform shift coming soon that feels niche, but might upend the entire ecosystem.

The idea is to start with these underserved segments — which may not be very attractive customers on their own, and to apply Clayton Christensen’s disruption theory. New products often disrupt markets by starting on the low-end of the market, providing “good enough” functionality, and growing them there. They use a different technology foundation that allows them to eventually roll up the market from low-end into the medium, and eventually into the core market of the incumbents. Or, there has been a recent trend in the opposite — products like Uber and email company Superhuman, where you start at the top of the market as a luxury product, and work your way down.

When we combine disruption theory with that of network effects, it makes even more sense – atomic networks often start at the low end in terms of functionality, in a niche market. But once they establish an atomic network, then often the Hard Side of the network is willing to extend their offerings and services to go into the next vertical — attracting an incrementally higher-end opposite side, which in turn, spurs it even further. Airbnb may have started with airbeds, but the same hosts that might be willing to rent out an airbed might be willing to rent out their room, or their entire apartment. This changes the potential nature of the supply in the marketplace, attracting a higher end demand-side, which in turn attracts higher-end inventory. No wonder today, Airbnb hosts a wide variety of high-end offerings, from luxury penthouses to boutique hotel rooms. In that way, network effects can play a key role in disrupting new industries — creating the momentum for a low-end atomic network to slowly build out into higher-end offerings over time.

The Hard Side of dating apps
Let’s go back to online dating for a moment — when viewed as a networked products, the apps bring together two sides in a romantic context. In that way, Tinder, Bumble, Match, eHarmony, HotOrNot, and the line of dating apps reflects something that existed as a human behavior for eons. It’s long been a hobby of amateur matchmakers to introduce their single friends to each other, both demonstrating a deep need for this service as well as the skills needed to make it successful. In the the modern age we have digitized dating, using algorithms to match people, dating profiles so that thousands of profiles can be swiped through, and real-time messaging to make communication easier.

All of these improvements are great for any product, but most importantly, they help attract and maintain the most desirable members of a dating network — the Hard Side. The matchmaking algorithms need to find them equally attractive matches, and the profiles they browse through must help them decide between princes and frogs. The in-app messaging experience has to cater to their needs, with an option to get out of conversations quickly if needed. Without these types of features, desirable people will churn from the product, degrading the network and worsening the experience for everyone else. The best products have to solve a problem for the Hard Side of the network.

While dating apps — and really, all networked products — need to find a value proposition for the Hard Side of the network, what about all the other users? Well, it’s a high bar, but you need to nail the experience for the rest of the network. You need to build a “Killer Product” that sits at the heart of any network.

Written by Andrew Chen

December 1st, 2021 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

I’m on the Tim Ferriss podcast — talking my new book, growth hacking, metaverse, creator economy, and more

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Hi readers,

My first book — The Cold Start Problem — is out next week!!! The countdown begins. You can preorder it here as hard cover, kindle, or audiobook. And yes, I recorded the audiobook myself.

I have a bit more more audio today to talk about as well… When I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2007, I was introduced to Tim Ferriss at a dinner — before he wrote 4 Hour Work Week, before his podcast, when we were both getting started. We lived not too far from each other — I was in an apartment with roommates in Bernal Hill. I remember visiting his place and checking out these weird cannonballs with handles on them — kettlebells — and talking about how he was going to launch his book.

Years later, it’s been awesome to follow his success and today, something new:

I’m on his podcast — The Tim Ferriss Show — for the first time. The episode was just released this morning. You can listen to it on Apple PodcastsSpotifyOvercastPodcast AddictPocket CastsStitcherCastboxGoogle PodcastsAmazon Music, or on your favorite podcast platform.

A couple of the topics we talk about:

  • “Growth hacking” and how it became popular
  • The history of marketing — coupons, direct marketing versus brand, and more
  • Games and the future of the Metaverse
  • The magic of Bay Area tech companies
  • The creator economy
  • Web3 and how it’ll impact consumer startups
  • The Cold Start Problem and what it was like to write it

I hope you enjoy!

(Back from a long road trip from Zion, Bryce, Sedona, etc over Thanksgiving)

Written by Andrew Chen

November 30th, 2021 at 7:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Previewing a full chapter of The Cold Start Problem — my upcoming book dropping in December

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Hi readers,

In just a few weeks, I will be dropping new book, The Cold Start Problem!! If you haven’t gotten your copy — if you are in the US, here are the relevant links:

  • Amazon · Bookshop (support your local bookstore!)
  • Or if you are international, go to the website to find all the pages for Europe, Asia, and more.

Thanks to all of you for the tens of thousands of emails, tweets, and preorders in support of my work. If you’re reading about this book for the first time, you might be asking yourself — what is the Cold Start Problem about?

Let me set it up in a few bullets:

  • Many of tech industry’s most valuable products — Slack, Zoom, Instagram, Twitch, YouTube, and others — are at their core products that connect people to each other. People are connected for commerce, communication, collaboration, and more
  • I’ve come to believe this is the secret of much of Silicon Valley’s success. I saw it first-hand at Uber, which scaled to billions in revenue, and also within startups at Andreessen Horowitz, which has funded companies from Github, Coinbase, and Figma to Clubhouse and Airbnb
  • These types of products benefit from “network effects” — that they become more useful as more users engage. This is why they grow to be so powerful, and valuable. But also why they are impossible to get off the ground, because people won’t use products where their friends/colleagues aren’t already engaged
  • The Cold Start Problem is a book a collection of case studies, from Tinder, Twitch, credit cards, Dropbox, and others — about the lifecycle of these networked products. How to get them started, how to scale them, and what it’s like to compete
  • These frameworks are targeted at teams building new products, first and foremost. But it’s also for people who work in the business of commerce, travel, publishing, and many other industries that are getting reinvented by tech.

I hope that’s a good teaser :)

In previous posts about the book, I’ve hinted at its contents. But over the next few weeks, I’ll be more substance and previews of the content.

Today, for the first time, I’m going to provide a preview of the opening chapter of The Cold Start Problem — which is partially about my experience at Uber and Andreessen Horowitz, but also about why I began writing in the first place.

I hope you enjoy it!

writing from Venice, CA


The Cold Start Problem

It was 2015 in December, and on a Friday evening, the office was buzzing. Amid the vast, monochromatic corridors of Uber’s San Francisco headquarters at 1455 Market Street – two football fields worth of gleaming LED lights, light woods, concrete, and steel – the office was still mostly occupied at 8PM. Some sat at their desks quietly typing email while others debated energetically with colleagues over videoconference. Others were drawing on whiteboards, hosting impromptu jam sessions to tackle the tricky operational problems facing who-knows-what. And a few pairs of employees were walking up and down the main flow in 1-on-1 meetings, some in intense discussion and others just catching up.

Everywhere you looked, there were reminders of the global scale of Uber’s business as well as the international heritage of the team driving it. Colorful flags from every country hung from the ceiling. Conference room screens hosted videoconferences with colleagues from faraway offices in Jakarta, San Paulo, and Dubai – sometimes simultaneously! Flat screen TVs were scattered throughout the floor showing metrics, broken down by mega-region, country, and city, so that teams could monitor progress. The global culture seeped all into the naming conventions for conference rooms: Near the entrance, the names started with Abu Dhabi and Amsterdam, and at the far other end of the floor, ended with Vienna, Washington, and Zurich.

At first glance Uber might just look like a simple app — after all, the premise was always to hit a button and get a ride. But underneath its deceptively basic user interface was a complex, global operation required to sustain the business. The app sat on a vast worldwide network of smaller networks, each one representing cities and countries. Each of these networks had to be started, scaled, and defended against competitors, at all hours of the day.

It was in my role at Uber that I really came to viscerally understand networks, supply and demand, network effects, and their immense power to shape the industry. As you might imagine, the Uber experience had its ups and downs – it was a rocketship and a rollercoaster, rolled into one. I’ve come to call it a “rocketcoaster” experience, which is an appropriate description for a company that had went from an idea to a tiny startup to a massive global company with over 20,000 of employees in less than a decade.

The worldwide operations of the company was complex and intense, and much of the command and control radiated from the center of the of Uber’s San Francisco headquarters. In the middle of the main floor, built from gleaming surfaces of glass and metal, stood the War Room.

To many, it was a big mystery – the War Room didn’t share the normal naming convention of city names where Uber operated. It couldn’t be booked for meetings as the others could, and was sometimes attended to by security guards. That’s because it wasn’t a normal meeting room. Many companies (inside and outside of tech) have the notion of “war rooms” but they are typically conference rooms converted temporarily to dedicated use by a product team that works intensely to tackle an emergency project, and after the situation is resolved, is quickly converted back into normal use. For Uber, perhaps appropriate to its unique needs, this War Room was not temporary at all – it was built to operate 24 hours, around the clock. It was built as a huge, permanent room with dark wood walls, multiple flatscreen TVs, a large conference table that could fit a dozen people, with additional sofa seating. Red digital clocks gave the current times in Singapore, Dubai, London, New York, and San Francisco. Given the company’s global footprint, there was almost always some kind of emergency situation somewhere in the world that needed attention, and this was often the room where it was dealt with.

That December, the emergency was in San Francisco, the company’s hometown.

Scheduled to start at 7pm and run into the night, the urgent meeting was booked on everyone’s calendar as “NACS” – which stood for the North American Championship Series, an oblique reference to its agenda focusing on operations, product roadmap, and competitive strategy in the top markets in the US and Canada. This meeting was a key mechanism for the CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick – called “TK” within the company – to review the entire business, city by city.

A small group of about a dozen executives and leaders attended the meeting, including myself and the heads of finance, product, and critically, the RGMs — short for “Regional General Managers.” The RGMs ran the largest teams at Uber, constituting the on-the-ground Operations city teams that engaged with drivers and riders. The RGMs were thought of as the CEOs of their markets, holding responsibility for revenues and losses, the efforts of thousands of Ops folks, and were always closest to the trickiest problems in the business. I was there to represent the Driver Growth Team — a critical team responsible for recruiting the scarcest asset in the entire business, Uber drivers. It was a big effort for Uber — we spent hundreds of millions just on driver referrals programs, and nearly a billion in paid marketing. Adding more drivers to the Uber network was one of the most important levers we had to grow the business.

The weekly NACS meeting opened with a familiar slide: A grid of cities and their key metrics — tracking the top two dozen markets. Each row represented a different city, with columns for revenue, total trips, and their week-over-week change. It also included operational ratios like the percentage of trips that hit “surge pricing,” where riders had to pay extra because there weren’t enough drivers. Too much surge, and riders would switch to competitors. Uber’s largest markets, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco were always near the top as the list, representing billions of annual gross revenue each, with smaller cities like San Diego and Phoenix near the bottom.

TK sat closest to screen, dressed casually in a gray t-shirt, jeans, and red sneakers. At the sight of the numbers, he sprung up from his chair and walked up close to the screen. He squinted, staring intensely at the numbers. “Okay, okay…” he said, pausing. “So why did surge increase in San Francisco so much? And why is it up even more in LA?” He began to pace up and down the side of the War Room, the intensity of the questions increasing. “Have we seen referral signups dip in the last week? How’s the conversion rate in the funnel going? Were there a big events this week? Concerts?” Folks in the room began to chime in, answering questions and raising their own.

A network of networks
It was my first year at the company, and although many companies have weekly reviews, Uber’s were different. First, in the discussion about each city, the level of detail surprised me. For San Francisco, the group began to discuss the surge percentages in the city’s seven-by-seven versus East Bay, versus the Peninsula. This was a senior group of executives, but the granularity and level of detail was incredible. But this was a requirement to run a complex, hyperlocal network like Uber where supply and demand went down to popular neighborhoods and frequent “lanes” — like Marina and the Financial District — which tended to be poorly served by other transportation options.

In the weekly dashboard, each row represented a city — yes — but more importantly each city was an individual network in Uber’s global network of networks that needed to be nurtured, protected, and grown. It was deeply and uniquely ingrained in Uber’s DNA to talk about metrics at the hyperlocal network level. In my several years there, it was unusual to ever hear about an aggregate number — like total trips or total active riders — except as a big vanity milestone at a company all-hands. Those aggregate metrics were regarded as mostly meaningless. Instead, the discussion was always centered on the dynamics of each individual network, which could be nudged up or down independently of each other, with increased marketing budget, incentive spend for either drivers or riders, product improvements, or on-the-ground operational efforts.

The NACS meetings were used to evaluate the health of each of the networks and the global network as a whole — a central means of accounting for the 20 or so cities that represented the majority of revenue to the company. Furthermore, it was important to go even further in granularity and break the network into the two sides, both the rider side (demand) or the driver side (supply), to make sure each side was healthy but also that they were in balance with each other. Too much surge, and riders stop taking trips. Too little surge, and drivers start to go offline and head home after a long night.

The slides continued. Several of us on the NACS team, including myself, had been working on a hypothesis over the past few days. Ops teams had reported seeing large increases in driver referrals by our primary US competitor, Lyft, over the past few weeks, which was causing drivers to switch over in droves. Driver referrals typically structured as a give/get incentive — give $250 and get $250 when your friend signs up to drive. In conjunction with a dramatic rise in demand during the holiday season, it was causing a big undersupply of drivers in the key competitive markets on the West Coast, primarily SF, LA, and San Diego. For riders, this resulted in a terrible experience — if you request a ride, it would take far longer than usual, sometimes twenty minutes, which meant more riders were canceling their requests. They might even decide to check our competitor’s pricing and service level, and book there instead. These cancels were frustrating for Uber’s drivers, who might have already driven for a few minutes. Piss them off too many times, and it might cause a chain reaction as they’d have even more incentive to stop for the night, switch off to a competitor’s network.

TK grew more intense and agitated as the hypothesis was presented. “This is not good, guys. Not good.” He exhaled deeply. What was the right solution? With the years of experience from operating these networks, it was likely that one solution would be in quickly rebalance the sides of the market. The right solution would need to start on the supply side, to grow our base of drivers quickly and lower ETAs and the cancel rate, and that meant a driver incentive. “What if… we did a $750 / $750 referral bonus here in SF, LA, and San Diego?”

This would be a big move, a far bigger number than had ever been thrown out. But SF, LA, and San Diego needed the help. These were some of the most competitive markets that would need to be quickly rebalanced with more supply. TK looked around the room, pausing, and then answered his own question. “Yeah. That would get their attention. That’ll wake them up!” he said, smiling and nodding.

Others were not so quick to jump to incentives as the solution. The past year had been good for Uber in the US, turning it into a cashflow positive area as the competition in the new China business simultaneously generated both incredible trips growth as well as severe losses. Uber was in a vicious fight with Didi — its Chinese rideshare competitor — burning on the order of a billion dollars a year primarily because of incentive spend. We started to bat around other ideas, from improving how to display ETA estimates as well as ways to discourage riders from canceling. There were other ways to rebalance the various networks without using incentives, which is a powerful tool but not the only one. The conversation went in circles, and TK grew visibly frustrated.

TK paced around the room again. “No, no! Look, guys. Our network is collapsing. We need to stop the bleeding… now!“ He chopped his hand into the other. “Let’s do the other stuff and get it on the roadmap, but let’s get this email out over the weekend. Who can help me put it together?” This decisiveness was informed by years of fierce in-the-trenches competition — companies like Flywheel, Sidecar, Hailo, and many others that were vanquished — driven by lightning fast responses in situations like this. The Uber team monitored and responded to the health of their local city networks with speed and precision. And with that, the next step was clear.

The RGMs agreed to own it, and I would work with my team — which was accountable the product/engineering side of driver referrals — to make changes to the structure and amounts. We committed to ship the changes before Monday. We took note of a number of other follow-ups due from the meeting, and we all decided to reconvene the group again next week. It was Friday and almost 10pm, and many of us had been working since early morning to prep for this meeting. I walked home, just a few short blocks away in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, and started my “Netflix and email” routine to close out the day.

This was my first experience with the North American Championship Series, and it turned into a weekly briefing, usually Friday mid-morning. But sometimes it got scheduled at Tuesdays at 9pm, or Sundays at 2pm, when that was the only way to get everyone together. Although NACS was just one part of my role at Uber, it quickly became one of the most educational in how to think about starting and scaling network effects. For a multiyear span, I was lucky to embedded in this critical team that operated Uber’s biggest markets. Each week was different. At the NACS meetings, we shifted our attention nimbly each session from network rebalancing on the West Coast, to prioritizing product features to increase revenues, to launching new regions, and everything in between.

Uber was already hitting its stride when I joined but I had a front row seat to the team that took grew the business to 100 million active riders in 800+ markets worldwide, and $50B in gross revenue. It was an incredible experience, and am proud of the work that we did there. It didn’t happen automatically — there were tens of thousands of people working hard to deal with network dynamics in hundreds of markets around the world, and we learned all the hard lessons from competing with fearsome local competitors who have their own strong network effects too. I’m lucky to have been at Uber during a hypergrowth period, where I joined just at the base of the hockey stick curve when it was well under a billion trips, but saw it 10x over the next few years:

My time at Uber was an unforgettable experience. I got to see a startup scale to tens of thousands of employees, millions of customers, and billions in revenue. I saw new products start at zero and then rapidly scale up to dominate the market. It was a deeply educational journey, one that created many lifelong friendships — including people I still talk to every week. But by 2018, it was time for me to move on. The company had a tumultuous few years, a complete changing of the guard, and a new set of priorities that were less entrepreneurial than in the past. I wanted the opposite of that, and for my next chapter, I decided to go back to my roots: Working with entrepreneurs to build the next new thing, but this time, as a venture capitalist.

Foundational questions
In 2018, I began a new career after Uber, as a startup investor at Andreessen Horowitz. Started a decade earlier by entrepreneurs Ben Horowitz and Marc Andreessen, the firm made a splash when it launched, quickly making a series of notable investments in startups including Airbnb, Coinbase, Facebook, Github, Okta, Reddit, Stripe, Pinterest, Instagram, and others. The firm was built around a philosophy of hands-on operating expertise — this fit me perfectly as I would parlay my lessons from Uber into picking and building the next great technology startups.

Rejoining the startup world, this time as an investor, let me tap into a network of relationships and knowledge built over a dozen years in the San Francisco Bay Area. Pre-dating Uber, I had been writing and publishing nearly a thousands essays on topics like user growth, metrics, viral marketing — along the way, popularizing tech industry jargon like “growth hacking” and “viral loops.” My blog was would be read by hundreds of thousands, and due to this as well as the natural serendipity of the startup ecosystem, I came to become acquainted with a broad community of entrepreneurs and builders. I would come to serve as an advisor and angel investor to dozens of startups, including Dropbox, Tinder, Front, AngelList, and many others. All of this, combined with my expertise from Uber, would be the foundation to launch my career in venture capital.

Everything was different in the new role. Rather than commuting to Uber’s offices in the chaotic center of San Francisco, instead I headed to the firm’s idyllic offices near Stanford University. The a16z offices combine culture and invention — its hallways lined with artwork from Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, and contemporary artists, while its conference rooms are named after great inventors and entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace, and William Hewlett. The work was very different from Uber’s day to day as well — rather than going very deep into one sector, like rideshare, instead my purview was extremely broad.

Every day I was meeting with entrepreneurs to talk about their new ideas. In a given year, the firm might see thousands of startup ideas, many of which are new kinds of social networks, collaboration tools, marketplaces, and other new products — relevant to the examples to this book. Conversations with startups begin with a “first pitch” meeting, where the entrepreneurs introduce themselves, show the product, and talk through their strategy. These are pivotal meetings, because when they go well, the startup could eventually receive an investment in the millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s high stakes.

Jargon thrives in these presentations: “Network effects.” “Flywheel.” “Viral loops.” “Economies of scale.” “Chicken and egg.” “First mover advantage.” These are some of the buzzwords and jargon that get thrown around in pitch meetings. And they are often accompanied with diagrams full of arrows and charts going up and to the right. The term “network effect” has almost become a cliché. It’s a punchline to difficult questions, like “What if your competition comes after you?” Network effects. “Why will this keep growing as quickly as it has?” Network effects. “Why fund this instead of company X?” Network effects. Every startup claims to have it, and it’s become a standard explanation for why successful companies break out.

But with all of these discussions and pitches, I realized I was getting confused, and I wasn’t the only one. While “network effects” and its related concepts were often invoked, there was no depth to the idea. No metrics that could prove if it was really happening or not.

In my work with startups, and after a decade and a half of living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve heard “the network effect” used a zillion of times in conversation. Sometimes over coffee, in meetings, or in investor discussions, but the concept was always discussed at a superficial level.

So how do you hear something thousands of times and still not quite understand it?

I argue that we don’t understand network effects well because if it were a straightforward concept to understand, we would be in strong agreement on which companies have network effects, and which ones don’t. We would know what numbers to look at to validate it was really happening. And we’d have a step-by-step understanding of how to create and build up network effects. And yet we don’t. And it bothers me to a great degree, because it is has become a critical topic in today’s technology landscape. This is the journey that brought me to writing this book.

I began to research and to write THE COLD START PROBLEM because I found my own understanding of the dynamics of networks to be unforgivably shallow for something so core to the technology industry. The network effect is something I’ve seen firsthand at Uber, and yet I lack the vocabulary and the frameworks to articulate the deep nuances.

There’s a gap between the practitioners and the rest of the business world. For practitioners who work on specific networked products, the focus is on improving the mechanics within their very particular domains. Within rideshare, the discussion revolved around riders and drivers, reducing pickup times, surge pricing, and an accumulated set of specialized vocabulary and concepts that only apply to on-demand transportation. For a workplace chat tool, it’s about channels and discovery and notifications and plug-ins. They feel unrelated, even though both product categories have deep network effects and are both ways to connect people. There should be a set of universal concepts and theories to talk about network effects, regardless of their product category.

We need to be able to answer the basics:

What are network effects, really? How do they apply to your business? How do you know if your product has them — and which other products don’t? Why are they so hard to create, and how do you create them? Can you add a network to your product after the fact? How do they impact your business metrics, at the tactical level? Is Metcalfe’s Law actually right, or should you apply something else to your strategy? Will your network fail and will it succeed? Does your competitor have network effects, and if so, what is the best way to compete with them?

Startup advice says, all that matters is to build a great product — after all, that’s what Apple does. But why has it also been so critical to launch products in the right way? To get your product in the hands of influencers, or high school students, or aspirational technology companies — if B2B — if all that matters is the product? What’s the right way to launch, and what’s the sequence of ways to expand?

How do you build network effects in your product? How do you know when network effects are kicking in, and if they are strong enough to create defensibility? How do you pick the right metrics to optimize to achieve viral growth, re-engagement, defensibility, and other desired effects? What product features do you build to amplify network effects?

When fraudsters, spammers, and trolls inevitably show up, what’s the proper recourse? What have we seen other networks do in the past to combat the negative effects of a large, thriving network? And more generally, how do you keep scaling a network that’s already working, especially in the face of saturation, competition, and other negative dynamics?

What happens when two networked products compete — what makes one player win over another? Why did we see big networks often succumb to smaller ones? How do you launch new networks across new geographies and product lines, particularly in competitive markets?

These are the most fundamental questions we can ask about network effects, and when you search for the answers — whether in books or online — there are only smatterings of actionable, pragmatic insights though there was plenty of high-level strategy. The best thoughts came from operators, at startups and bigger companies, who have done been in the trenches and so that’s where I started the process of writing my book.

I began by conducting more than a hundred interviews with the founders and teams that built Dropbox, Slack, Zoom, LinkedIn, Airbnb, Tinder, Twitch, Instagram, Uber, and many others. I asked them questions to learn about the earliest days, when it was just the co-founders and a handful of other people trying to take on the world. I also researched historical examples spanning hundreds of years — going back to chain letters, credit cards, and telegraph networks, and tying their success to modern innovations in Bitcoin, livestreaming, and workplace collaboration tools. All of this exposed a rich set of qualitative and quantitative data which forms the foundation of this book.

I found that people were repeating the same ideas and concepts, and observed that they were recurring throughout multiple sectors. You could talk to someone who spent their career working on social networks, and find that they had ideas that were equally applicable to marketplaces. Similarly, my time at Uber made me understand the dynamics in a network of riders and drivers, which informs my view of products like YouTube and its two-sided network of creators and viewers. Or Zoom, with its meeting organizers and attendees. Dozens of these recurring themes echo throughout the industry, whether we’re thinking about B2B or consumer products.

The definitive guide to network effects
THE COLD START PROBLEM is the culmination of hundreds of interviews, two years of research and synthesis, and nearly two decades of experience as an investor and operator. It takes much of the knowledge and core concepts swirling inside the technology industry and frames them in the context of the beginning, middle, and end of a network’s lifecycle. This is the core framework I’ll describe via the major sections of this book, along with examples and hopefully inspiring you to take actionable can apply to your own product.

This is a critical topic. I’ve come to see network effects — how to start them, and how to scale them — as one of the key secrets of Silicon Valley. There are just a few dozen software products with a billion active users on the planet, and many of them share lineages of founders, executives, and investors who have unique expertise. This knowledge, in turn has been developed in the tech community over decades of building social networks, developer platforms, payment networks, marketplaces, workplace apps, and so on. This community of elite talent collaborates and cross-pollinates, switching from one product category into another, bringing all of this knowledge together. I have seen this first hand, and my interviews with founders and experts in writing THE COLD START PROBLEM further illustrated the interconnectedness of these concepts.

Based on the foundational theories of network effects, I’ve taken these lessons and put skin in the game, focusing my venture capital investing at a16z towards products that have networks at their core. I find myself most captivated by new startups where connecting people lay at the heart of the product, whether for communication, socializing, work, or commerce. I’m now 3 years into the industry, and have invested over $400M into over two dozen startups in marketplaces, social apps, video and audio, and more. I’ve found my learnings about network effects to apply widely across the industry — everything from Clubhouse, which seeks to build a new audio social app, or Substack, which lets writers publish and monetize premium newsletters for their readers. And even video games, food pickup, or edtech.

My goal is to write the definitive book on network effects — one that was practical enough, and specific enough, to apply to your own product. You should be able to use its core framework to figure out where your product is on the journey, and what product efforts are needed to drive it forward. I’ve tried to lay out the entire lifecycle — from the underlying mechanics of how to create network effects, how to scale them, and the best way to harness them — all from a practitioner’s point of view, diving deep far beyond the buzzwords and high-level case studies that have been written.

The first phase of the core framework, naturally, is called The Cold Start Problem, which every product faces at its inception, when there’s no users. I’m borrowing a term here for something many of us have experienced during freezing temperatures — it’s extra hard to get your car started! In the same way, there’s a Cold Start Problem when a network is first launched. If there aren’t enough users on a social network and no one to interact with, everyone will leave. If a workplace chat product doesn’t have all your colleagues on it, it won’t be adopted at the office. A marketplace without enough buyers and sellers will have products listed for months without being sold. This is the Cold Start Problem, and if it’s not overcome quickly, a new product will die.

This is all in the service of helping you, the reader, whether you are a software engineer, designer, entrepreneur, or an investor. Perhaps you partner with one of these companies I reference throughout the book, or are seeing technology reinvent your industry in the form of networks. Network effects are a powerful and critical force in the technology sector — as the entire economy is increasingly reinvented, it will become even more important to understand.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves — first, what’s a network effect, anyway?

Written by Andrew Chen

November 15th, 2021 at 10:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Why the best way to drive viral growth to increase retention and engagement

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Above: Prosperity Club, one of the first chain letters. This is the type of spikey, bad viral growth you don’t want!

Hello readers,
Viral growth — specifically the type baked into product features, in the form of invites, sharing, and collaboration — is a topic I’ve been endlessly fascinated by. It’s the central force that has propelled many of the world’s most popular products to billions of users. I’ve been talking about viral loops, k-factors, and invite mechanisms for almost ten years now — it’s a favorite topic.

However, having implemented many of the ideas in my own startup products (back in the day) and then in viral referral programs at Uber, I have several new interpretations of these classic ideas that I want to share. Importantly, I have a chapter of my upcoming book, The Cold Start Problem, where I argue that viral growth is a flavor of network effect (more on that later) — which has important implications on how to amplify its effect.

(And by the way, you can order my upcoming book here! I appreciate your support)

I plan to write a few essays on this topic — it’s relevant, given the new trend of “Product-Led Growth” in B2B, and the resurgence of new social apps in the wave of Creator Economy startups. It’s time to revisit this topic in more detail.



Viral growth and retention are inextricably linked
Most people think of viral features in their app — like sharing, collaboration, or invites — in the context of a single session. How do you get your users, upon installing an app, to invite at least a few of their colleagues and friends? You might focus on small growth hacks, like leveraging their addressbooks for inviting, pumping up the dollar amounts in referral codes, or radically optimizing a sharing flow. But this is a simple minded way to look at viral growth.

The better way to understand virality is that it is inextricably linked to retention. After all, if a user retains well and is likely to use the product almost every day through the course of a month, you’ll have 30x the number of visits as a product that doesn’t retain well and generates a lot of one-and-done users. Each visit is a small opportunity to prompt them to share, invite, or otherwise bring a friend in. You’ll have 30 shots a month, and each shot can add up through the course of time to represent a lot of invites sent, or content shared. Whereas a poorly retaining product has be aggressive, making most of the one session where the user will engage, a sticky product can take its time, building viral growth over weeks and months. When you think about this mathematically, it makes sense — a (nearly) infinite sum of invites generated by a sticky product will eventually surpass a single, static number generated in one or two sessions.

But I get ahead of myself. First, what do I mean by viral growth anyway?

Viral growth is often misunderstood
Let’s start with all the confusion with the term “viral growth” in the context of new products. Let me excerpt a passage from The Cold Start Problem where I describe how it’s often misunderstood:

Viral growth is deeply misunderstood — you might read the phrase and think, is this the same thing that happens when a funny video “goes viral?” Or maybe it makes you think of an ad agency organizing a clever stunt, like a flash mob, where dozens of people simultaneously begin to dance, and then sharing it on social media?

No, what I’m referring to is completely different. What ad agencies have called “viral marketing” is usually to take consumer goods or services — usually with no network effects — and build an advertising campaign around it, usually with a bit of shareable content. What I’m referring to — network-driven viral growth — is much more powerful.

[Products with network effects] are unique because they can embed their viral growth into the product experience itself. When a product like Dropbox has a built-in feature like folder sharing, it can spread on its own. PayPal’s badges and core user-to-user payments also accomplishes the same. This is the Product/Network Duo at work again, where the product can have features to attract people to the network, while the network brings more value to the product. Workplace collaboration products like Slack ask you to invite your colleagues into your chat, and photo sharing apps like Instagram make it easy to invite and connect to your Facebook friends. They can tap into your phone’s contacts, integrate with your company’s internal employee directory, or tap into the sharing widgets built into your phone. This is software, not just building a buzzy, shareable video.

(From Chapter 20 of The Cold Start Problem: The Acquisition Effect — PayPal)

This is an important distinction because it’s the product-led versions of viral growth that has propelled products like Facebook, Slack, LinkedIn, Dropbox, Zoom, and others to hundreds of millions of users, or billions, of users. In fact, these the userbases for these products are so huge that it would have simply been impossible to build them through traditional marketing techniques that emphasize customer acquisition spend. It’d take tens of billions of marketing dollars to build a product with that type of scale — it’s simply not possible. Viral growth is the only way to get there, because the primary business benefit of virality is that the customer acquisition cost is zero.

Instead, the right way to think about viral growth — one of the most powerful forces in user growth — is the following provocation:

How does your product grow itself, based on its network of users to attracting their friends/colleagues?

In other words, viral growth is the ability for a product to tap into its network of users to bring in even more users. Sometimes this is via sharing, collaboration, or invitations. There are dozens of mechanisms to help drive this forward, and you can write software to optimize the virality to be more effective over time. In this way, I’ve come to believe that viral growth is actually a flavor of a network effect — it’s the ability for a product to leverage its network of users to acquire other users. (Alongside the Engagement Effect, and Economic Effect, I refer to this as the Acquisition network effect — it forms the trio of forces that underpin the broad term “network effects” that we use in the industry)

But the most mind-blowing part of this idea is that you can actually quantify viral growth — using what’s commonly referred to as viral factor.

The viral factor
We’re going to take a nerdy detour and do a little simple math, and cover the single most important metric at the heart of viral growth. In its simplest and most naive retelling, the viral factor is a single metric of how well the existing network of users in your product ends up inviting the next batch of users. For example, let’s say your new workplace chat app has 1000 active users, and over the next few months, this group invites 500 of their coworkers. This means there’s a viral factor of 0.5, which 500/1000=0.5. But after you get the 500 new users, they eventually also invite 250, then 125, and so on.

This is a powerful metric, because it adds up. Here’s how viral factor helps you multiple your userbase — a simple equation:

1/(1-v) where v=viral factor

Thus, a viral factor of 0.5 = 1/(1-v0.5) = 2x. So if you start with 1000 active users, with a viral factor of 0.5, you’ll end up with 2000 actives at the end.

With a tremendous amount of difficulty — honestly, far more than is worth it — it’s possible to directly measure the viral factor of a product and then instrument each step of the signup funnel and invite flows. This then gives you the ability to make changes to specific parts of your flow and see its effect on viral factor. Optimize a single page, and see your viral factor grow +10%. Add a prompt to share, and grow your viral factor even more.

The magical thing that can sometimes happen — for short periods — is when viral factor exceeds >1.0. This means 1000 users brings in 1100 users, which brings in 1210, and so on. (For the nerds, the equation is: users*v_factor^(1+time_period), which gives you the new users each time period, which you can then sum up in a spreadsheet). Of course, >1.0 means exponential growth. Back in the day, when asking people to invite their friends was fresh and new, you might have 20% of users invite 10 people during their onboarding flow — it meant crazy growth right off the bat.

When I first grokked the viral factor concept, it blew my mind. And if you’re like me, it makes you jump immediately to a key question:

How do you build a product with viral factor over 1.0!!???

… but funny enough, this is the wrong question to ask. It’s the tail wagging the dog.

And let me explain why.

How viral factor can nudge you towards spammy thinking
In the early social network days — think of this as around 2005-2010 — the model for increasing viral factor was simple. For any social network, you’d view it something like this:

X = % of users who invite friends
Y = # of friends they invite

X*Y = viral factor (albeit the most naive understanding of it)

At the time, Web 2.0 was just starting, and the concept of an invite was considered novel. The goal at this point was to get as many people to invite friends as possible, and to use techniques like email addressbooks to maximize the # of people you invite. And if you get these two to increase, you could dramatically increase the amount of users brought in through viral growth. A lot of innovation happened here. It became obvious that asking people to invite as early as possible in their signup flow was better, since there was less of a natural dropoff of users then. If you asked people to put in emails of their friends, they might only put in 2 or 3. But if you asked them to “Find their Friends” by connecting their addressbooks, you could sneakily ask them to email 200+ of their contacts. With enough work optimizing email invite subject lines, deliverability, and the various signup flows, you could get a viral factor over 1.0.

There was a problem with this strategy though — it pushes you towards spammy thinking. It incentivized product designers to aggressively get people to invite their friends — sometimes aggressively, leading to accidental sends of 100s of email invites. Eventually the term “dark patterns” was coined to describe these kinds of user interfaces. As users got used to them, they learned to skip prompts, ignore email invites, and response rates went down. For a short time window, this all worked, leading to spammy apps gathering millions of users overnight. But years later, very few of this generation of startups endured — we rarely talk about social networks and Facebook apps like Tagged, Hi5, BranchOut, and RockYou, who grew quickly and mastered this style of viral growth. Many of these products would also quickly collapse. In an essay I wrote over a decade ago, called Facebook viral marketing: When and why do apps “jump the shark?” I built a series of simple Excel models showing how poor retention eventually cancels out viral acquisition. And as the app saturates its market, it quickly falls back down to from the peak, thus a “shark fin.”

The predecessor to viral invites
The funny thing is that history repeats itself. If you go back 100 years ago, you actually see this entire phenomenon of highly viral mechanics followed by a quick collapse in the late 1800s, in the form of chain letters. And this story precisely tells you exactly why you don’t want to build viral loops like this. Here again is an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Cold Start Problem.

Chain letters — yes, the type you still occasionally get via email, or see on social media — have their roots in snail mail, first becoming popularized in the late 1800s. One of the most successful ones, “The Prosperity Club,” originated in Denver in the post-Depression 1930s and asked people to send a dime to a list of others who were part of the club. Of course, you would also add yourself to the list as well, as to participate. The next set of people would return the favor, sending dimes back, and so on and so forth — the promise was that it would eventually generate $1562.50. This is about $29k in 2019 dollars — not bad! The last line says it all: “Is this worth a dime to you?”

It might surprise you that in a world before email, social media, and everything digital, The Prosperity Club chain letter spread incredibly well — so well, in fact, that it reached hundreds of thousands of people within months, within Denver and beyond. There are historical anecdotes of local mail offices being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of letters, and not surprisingly, eventually the US Post Office would make chain letters like Prosperity Club illegal, to stop their spread. It clearly tapped into a post-Depression zeitgeist of the time, promising “Faith! Hope! Charity!”

However, even if chain letters have network effects, they suffer from the dynamic that they are heavily oriented around viral acquisition and lack strong retention mechanics. Ultimately the value of these networks are primarily driven by novelty and require a constant inflow of new people into the chain. Yes, in this way, it’s just like multi-level marketing campaigns, Ponzi schemes, and the like. And of course, what happens with both chain letters and Ponzi schemes is that they collapse when the mathematical limits of the expansion mean it runs out of new, novelty-seeking recipients, and as a result, existing participants stop getting paid. This in turn, causes churn, which then unravels the network entirely. A network needs retention to thrive, it can’t just continually add new users.

If you want to see an example of this chain letter, I included a screenshot of it at the top of this essay. It’s a fun historical example of something that has the same dynamics as viral invites on email and in other forms. And yes, if you did the math, you could model out the viral factor of the Prosperity Club chain letter — you just have to ask yourself, what % of people who receive this follow the instructions to mail it out to 5 new people? If it’s over 20%, then it will be viral factor >1.0 and grow exponentially.

The myth of viral factor and why retention matters
So back to the original point of this essay. If these aggressive viral loops aren’t in fact the right way to think about viral growth, what is the better approach instead?

In the aftermath of the social network wars and the eventual shutdown of the Facebook apps platform, I looked at the products that grew with viral loops and succeeded, and they shared a couple interesting traits. First, unlike my original assumption, they weren’t very aggressive about viral growth. I remember thinking through Dropbox and Slack’s viral loops, and realizing their viral hooks just felt natural, and user aligned. How was it at these products which were growing the fastest were also not aggressive? I realized they had the benefit of a secret weapon: Retention. This changed their math entirely.

To update my mental model, I realized that a modern theory of viral growth has to incorporate a number of nuances:

  • Viral factor isn’t actually a single, static number. In reality, people can share and invite in sessions over time. So 100 users can invite 10 friends in the first week, then another 10 in the next, and so on. The more sessions you have with a user — meaning, higher engagement and retention — the more you can build up the viral factor over time. It can be 0.2 on the first session, then 0.3 on the 5th session. And 1.2 on the 50th session. The better the retention, the more “shots on goal” you get to ask the user to take the viral action
  • Asking people to invite 100s of others isn’t realistic. There was a brief period of time where consumers were naive and might accidentally invite everyone in their email addressbook in one click. Not so, anymore. Spam scores will punish you for sending tons of random email. Users will complain when this happens. Gmail’s spam filters filter out all this “bacon.” And also, people are building mobile apps, and generally are more suspicious about sharing contacts (<20% of people shared contacts with the Uber app, at least when I was there), and they might only text an invite link to a handful of users. At one point, people tried to use mobile contacts and Twilio to deliver invite links, but that didn’t work very well — this technique fizzled. Products now grow by having users invite small batches of other users, in natural use cases
  • Sharing > invites.  The advantage of a simple viral mechanism like invites is that you can generally apply it to every product. On the other hand, the problem is that consumers are tired of this mechanic. Same with “Give $10, get $10” which was novel 5 years ago, but no longer fresh. And less fresh means lower response rates. Instead, the best viral features are “native” to the product. Dropbox’s folder sharing functionality is both a really useful feature, completely consistent with the goal of the product, and also generates millions of organic, virally acquired customers for free. Same with Instagram, whose early content sharing features helped it grow without paid marketing.
  • Virality amplifies other channels, rather than being a core driver. Based on the above, it’s clear that getting >1.0 viral factor is in fact unrealistic. Instead, it’s more likely to get something like 0.5, which is a 2x multiplier on everything else that’s happening in the product. Or to slowly build up to 1.0 over a long period as a result of very strong retention. But it’s most often the case that other activities — organic word of mouth, SEO, content marketing, and so on, generates a stream of users, which are then amplified by viral growth

In this new model of viral growth, instead of the simple X*Y dynamic, instead you get an equation like this:

X = % of users who engage in some viral feature (ideally content sharing, collaboration, or other user-aligned feature)
Y = # of people who are invited each time (probably a small group, a handful at a time)
Z = % of users that retain between each visit

Viral factor = X*Y*Z + X*Y*Z^2 + X*Y*Z^3 …

In other words, it’s likely that X and Y are actually very small numbers — few users inviting a small set of other users. But if retention is strong (high Z) then this term gets added up over and over again. Eventually over time, sometimes weeks or even months, the viral factor can summed into something real.

This might sound hard. And I think it is, because it requires the product to be extremely high retention. But I think it’s a more accurate reflection of reality — that in fact, the highest retention products have empirically shown to be the most viral. And when you optimize a product that’s already working well with high engagement and retention, then it is able to grow even faster. And at the same time, it matches the empirical observation that low retention products eventually die, even when they grow really fast at first.

Lessons for the next generation of social apps and product-led GTMs
The core lesson of all of this is that — for better or worse — you can’t force viral growth to happen in an era where small batches of invites are sent to small numbers of people. Virality is still a powerful force, but it has to happen through retention and natural sharing flows, not forced invites. The underlying math of viral factors is still relevant, but needs to be adjusted to think of the metric as an ongoing number that builds up over time.

And finally, the medium of viral growth has shifted over time — early on, of course, it was chain letters! Kidding, I won’t go that far. Originally, it was more centered around email invites, then there were other forms of virality like sharing content or embedding playable widgets and so on. But today, that’s all moved towards sharing on social media — how do you make apps that naturally generate shareable content as part of using it? This is particularly interesting in the world of video and other visual platforms. Similarly, B2B products are interesting because a lot of these growth ideas are still counterintuitive in an industry that is still mostly dominated by sales-driven go-to-markets. Adding viral features throughout your product will naturally allow it to expand after landing in a new account — these underpin some of the huge successes, in recent years, of products like Notion, Airtable, Figma, and so on. I think we’ll continue to see more of this here.

There was a period of time that I was convinced that you could “engineer” a viral product into existence. And from a lot of work that I did pre-Uber, at my own startups, it turns out you can. But it doesn’t mean that you can keep them. And thus, the most powerful force in the tech industry isn’t viral growth, as I once believed. It’s actually retention, and strong product/market fit. That’s the magic.

Written by Andrew Chen

November 3rd, 2021 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

What to look for when you’re hiring a Head of Growth

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The most frequent question
One of the most frequent questions that founders ask is – I’ve read all about the importance of user growth, so now, how do I hire a Head of Growth? It’s asked often for good reason. Growing your startup’s users and revenue is so critical that it makes sense to hire someone to run it, and to potentially add a team underneath them to support this goal. It’s been a decade since “Growth Teams” became popular in the industry, sprouting up at places from Facebook and LinkedIn to Uber, Slack, Dropbox and others — and it’s natural that startups want to replicate the strategy.

However, it’s rarely easy to hire a Head of Growth. Aside from the historically tight labor market for these skills, it’s also tricky to have a simple answer to the question. “It depends” is the right place to start.

First, you have to define the correct job requirements, and what you’re looking for ultimately depends on the context of your startup — Are you trying to get your startup off the ground? Or are you trying to scale its success? Or are you focused on fending off competitors? Or growing yourself out of a saturation point. Depending on your goals, you should be looking for different things. The initial step is to define your needs.

In this essay, I’ll aim to answer this critical question — how do you hire a Head of Growth — using parts of framework from my upcoming first book, The Cold Start Problem. In the book, I describe stage-by-stage how to successfully start and scale the central forces that power tech’s most successful companies — network effects. Network effects emerge when products, like marketplaces, social apps, B2B collaboration tools, and so on, get more useful the more users that are on them.In the book, I present 5 distinct stages of a product’s lifecycle that require different goals and skillset, and understanding these stages will help you answer the more important question:

How do I hire a Head of Growth for my stage in the framework?

Let me start by spending time on each stage.

Which stage of the startup journey are you on?
I want to excerpt a passage from The Cold Start Problem that describes each of the stages, but please have some important things in mind: Not every product has network effects. After all, some are simply utilities for individual users. However, for the ones that do — and many consumer apps and consumerized workplace apps do — it’s an incredibly powerful idea that fundamentally changes the dynamic of the journey. Many startups fall in this category, and there are unique growth challenges when getting these types of products off the ground.

At this point, I’ll take a few sentences to describe “The Cold Start Problem” — one of the central ideas in the book. The idea is that for every network effects-driven product, there’s an existential problem at the beginning where users won’t find a product valuable if there’s no other users on it. Imagine a dating app with no profiles on it, or a new video app with no users and no content. Or a workplace chat app where none of your coworkers are active. These products are useless, and it’s kind of a circular problem, since to get users you need users. That’s the Cold Start Problem.

And as you might imagine, if you want to hire a Head of Growth while you’re in this first phase, that is very different than someone who is taking you from tens of millions of users to hundreds of millions of users, which is primarily the phase that I experienced at Uber.

Here’s an excerpt from The Cold Start Problem on each of the stages in the book’s central framework:

The central framework described in this book is a new way to think about network effects — split into stages, each with its own distinct challenges, goals, and best practices. My goal is to not simply to describe what happens as a network grows and evolves, but actually how to take action and propel a product from one stage to the other.

There are 5 primary stages:

  1. The Cold Start Problem
  2. Tipping Point
  3. Escape Velocity
  4. Hitting the Ceiling
  5. The Moat

1. The Cold Start Problem
The framework for the book starts with an empirical insight: Most networks fail at the beginning. If a new video-sharing app launches and doesn’t have a wide selection of content early on, users won’t stick around if they can’t find what they want. The same is true for marketplaces, social networks, and all the other variations – if users don’t find who or what they want, they’ll churn, but this leads to a self-reinforcing destructive loop. In other words, it is the average case that the network effects that startups love so much actually hurt them. I call these “anti-network effects” because these dynamics are downright destructive – especially in the early stage as it’s getting off the round. Solving the Cold Start Problem requires getting all the right users and content to be on the same network at the same time — making for a difficult launch plan.

This is the Cold Start Problem, and to solve it, I look at a series of examples — examining Wikipedia’s most prolific content creators, the invention of the credit card, and how Zoom launched a killer product. From these case studies, I describe an approach that focuses on building an “Atomic Network” — that is, the smallest possible stable network that is stable and can grow on its own. For example, Zoom’s videoconferencing network can work with just two people, whereas Airbnb’s requires hundreds of active rental listings in a market to become stable. I also look at the product idea at the heart of every network effect, and the similarities many startups have used to pick the product and its features. I also ask, what are the first, most important users to get onto a nascent network, and why? And how do you seed the initial network so that it grows in the way you want?

2. Tipping Point
It takes an enormous amount of effort to build the first atomic network, but it’s obviously not enough to just have one. To win a market, it’s important to build many, many more networks to expand into the market — but how does this happen, at scale? Luckily, an important dynamic kicks in: As a network grows, each new network starts to tip faster and faster, so that the entire market is most easily captured. This is the second phase of the framework, the Tipping Point. I use Tinder as an example here, showing their initial launch at USC, but then how their success then unlocked other colleges in, then larger cities like Los Angeles, and then the broader market — including India, Europe, and other markets.

Imagine network launch as tipping over a row of dominos. Each launch makes the next set of adjacent networks easier, and easier, and easier, until the momentum becomes unstoppable — but all radiating from a small win at the very start. This is why we so often see the most successful network effects grow city-by-city, company-by-company, or campus-by-campus as rideshare, workplace apps, and social networks have done. SaaS products often grow inside of companies — landing and expanding — which also jumping between companies as employees share products with partner firms and consultants. This is when a market hits its Tipping Point.

3. Escape Velocity
When a company like Dropbox, Slack, or Uber hit scale, it might seem like network effects kick in, and the next phase is easy. But it’s not — to the contrary, this is when technology companies start to hire thousands of people, launch a series of ambitious new projects, and try to continue the product’s rapid trajectory. The Escape Velocity stage is all about working furiously to strengthen network effects and to sustain growth.

This is where the classical definition of a “network effect” is wrong. Instead, I redefine so that it’s not one singular effect, but rather, 3 distinct, underlying forces: The Acquisition Effect, which lets products tap into the network to drive low-cost, highly efficient user acquisition via viral growth. The Engagement Effect, which increases interaction between users as networks fill in. And finally, the Economic Effect, which improves monetization levels and conversion rates as the network grows.

By understanding how these forces work, we can accelerate the systems that power them. For example, the Acquisition Effect is powered by viral growth and the user experience that compels one set of users to invite their others into the network. I describe examples like PayPal and their viral referral programs, or LinkedIn’s recommendations for connecting as tactics that increase the power behind the acquisition force. The Engagement Effect manifests itself by increased engagement as the network grows — this can be developed further by conceptually moving users up the “engagement ladder.” This is done by introducing people to new use cases via incentives, marketing/communications, as well as new product features — as Uber did as it leveled users up from airport trips to dining out to daily commutes. And finally, the Economic Effect — which directly affects a product’s business model — can be improved over time as well, by increasing conversions in key monetization flows and ramping up revenue per user, as the network grows.

Stitched together, all of these combine into a flywheel that can power networks into the billions of users.

4. Hitting the Ceiling
In many narratives about network effects, by the time a product has hit the Tipping Point, that’s the fairy tale ending of the company — it’s won. Ask the operators inside a company though, and you’ll hear a different story: A rapidly growing network wants to both grow as well as tear itself apart, and there are enormous forces in both directions.

This is when a network “hits the ceiling,” and growth stalls. This is driven by a variety of forces, starting with customer acquisition costs that often spike due to market saturation, and as viral growth to slows down. Similarly, there’s the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs, which drives down the performance of acquisition and engagement loops over time, as users tune out of stale marketing channels. There’s fraudsters, overcrowding, and context collapse — all natural outcomes of a network that grows and matures. And many other negative forces that grow as the network grows.

In the real world, products tend to grow rapidly, then hit a ceiling, then as the team addresses the problems, another growth spurt emerges. Then followed by another ceiling. Then another cycle after that, each one often successively getting more complex to address over time as the problems become more fundamental.

I look at a series of case studies as major products hit periods of slowing growth: The implosion of Usenet discussion groups from the early days of the internet, eBay’s slowing US business, to the origins of Nigerian prince scams. In each of these examples, sometimes they are easily dealt with and sometimes they destroy the network over time. The solutions are difficult — a successful product inherently comes with various degrees of spam and trolls. These are problems to be managed, not fully solved.

5. The Moat
The final stage of the framework focuses on using network effects to fend off competitors, which is often the focus as the network and product matures. While it is not the only moat — brand, technology, partnerships, and others can help — it is one of the most important ones in the technology sector.

However, there’s a problem — using network effects to compete with competitors is tricky when everyone in the same product category are able to take advantage of the same dynamics. Every workplace collaboration is able to leverage network-driven viral growth, higher stickiness, and strong monetization as more users arrive. Same for marketplaces, messaging apps, and so on.

This dynamic drives a unique forms of rivalry — “network-based competition” — that isn’t just about better features or execution, but about how one product’s ecosystem might challenge another’s. Airbnb faced this problem in Europe when a strong, local competitor called Wimdu emerged with a boatload in funding, hundreds of employees, and on paper, had more traction in its home market. Airbnb had to fight off its European competitor by competing on the quality of the network, and scaling its network effects — not via traditional competitive vectors like pricing or features.

Because all products in a category likely have the same type of network effects, competition ends up being asymmetrical while leveraging the same forces. A larger network and the smaller network in any given market have distinctly different strategies — think of it as a David strategy versus a Goliath strategy. The upstart has to use its smaller size to pick off niche segments within a larger network, and build atomic networks that are highly defensible with key product features and when applicable, better economics and engagement. The incumbent strategy, on the other hand, using its larger size to drive higher monetization and value for its top users, and fast-following any niches that seem to be growing quickly. I will also examine Uber and Lyft, eBay China and Alibaba, and Microsoft’s strategy of bundling new products, to go deeper on how networks compete.

By now, hopefully each of these stages are getting your wheels turning! Obviously this excerpt hints at a lot of different ideas that I cover in the book, and you can read more expanded versions of the ideas when it’s released!

Different skills for different stages
Back to the original question on hiring a Head of Growth. Since this essay is targeting at startups, I’m going to mostly focus on the first few stages of the framework and the skills that it implies for your new hire. If you look at each stage, they roughly imply a different set of problems you are trying to face – first, finding product/market fit and building the initial “atomic network” — a stable set of users who retain. Then finding the playbook for repeatable growth, and third, scaling growth into millions of users. The first few stages are very different:

  1. The Cold Start Problem = Getting a critical mass of users to prove product/market fit
  2. Tipping Point = Finding a playbook to find repeatable growth
  3. Escape Velocity = Scaling up growth across many efforts and channels

And if you start to think about how this maps to the types of growth projects, some stark differences emerge. I’ll look at each stage and discuss, starting from the first stage.

Context, goals, and assessment for The Cold Start Problem
In many ways, the skills needed to succeed for the first stage are the hardest to define, because it’s the most generalist and entrepreneurial:

  • The Cold Start Problem
    • Goal: Getting a critical mass of users to prove product/market fit
    • Roadmap: A series of “Hustle”-driven efforts — often idiosyncratic, entrepreneurial, and surprising
    • Outcomes: A stable “atomic network” of users who retain, are engaged, and provide a launching pad for the next phase

The honest truth it, this stage is generally usually pretty random. If you read the stories of companies like Slack, Reddit, Dropbox, YouTube, Uber, and so on, you’ll realize that what worked for one company probably won’t work for you. Passing out discount codes at the train station works for a rideshare app, and a funny viral video works for YouTube, but that may not be relevant at all. So instead, the early stage usually requires a lot of elbow grease. It requires the founders to be very involved onboarding users, sometimes one-by-one, into the product. It’s usually a 100% focus on acquisition — and not much on retention at all, so it’s more hustle and less notifications/email-led.

As a result, the “Head of Growth” that makes sense here may not be one at all. Either there’s nothing to “head” — it’s such a small startup team that it’s probably an individual contributor role — or secondarily, the people heading the growth efforts here should actually be one of the founders.

That might be disheartening for a group of early founders to hear. They may want to focus on a superpower on product rather than learning a new skill on growth. Yet it’s critical to develop an intuition around go-to-market and validate hypotheses on a new product’s growth strategy. Often, the founder has to come up with a novel launch strategy, since hiring someone leads to more of the same. In today’s zeitgeist, creator partnerships for “creator economy” companies might be the cutting edge, or using NFTs as a way to attract new users. I’m just not sure that you can hire employees to do this kind of work. Sometimes the really entrepreneurial projects — in product, but also in growth too — just have to be done by the founders.

Sometimes this opinion makes founders grumble. So what if you really, really want someone to lead growth at this stage? If you really want one, I might try to find an entrepreneurial generalist and have them mostly execute a playbook that’s already worked in the past. If a team is building a new social app, I might suggest growing from high school to high school, or college to college. Or if it’s a workplace app, to use social media to drive beta users into a wait list. Things we’ve all seen work, rather than asking them to innovate totally new growth tactics. With luck, you might be able to hire someone who’s entrepreneurial and can execute those strategies. If they’re paired with advisors and operators who are experts on the playbook, that can work well. But I still like to push one of the founders to ideally drive or be the primary sponsor of the work.

What’s needed to succeed at the Tipping Point
The next stage starts once there’s a small group of users, often only a few hundred or thousand who seem to be coming back and where the network is stable. I often use benchmarks like D30 >20% or projecting out M12 to be >30% to try to assess this. But more importantly, it should be qualitative. It should feel like it’s working.

After that, it’s time to stamp out these networks in a more repeatable fashion — this is when the market begins to “tip” in your direction, and in the book, I refer to this stage as The Tipping Point.

  • Tipping Point
    1. Goal: Finding a playbook to find repeatable growth
    2. Roadmap: Testing a series of more scalable growth channels, showing that if one network can be built, then multiple networks might be launched as well
    3. Outcomes: At least one scalable growth strategy. Typically organic “pull” from the market combined with a scalable channel with reasonable metrics (CAC/LTV, or viral factor, or otherwise) going into in-app acquisition funnels

In the second phase, the Tipping Point, usually the growth efforts to focus on a set expert skills to scale rather than explore. If you are working on a product in real estate that competes with Redfin, the expert skill is probably figuring out how to capture high-intent traffic — like SEO/SEM. If you are working on social apps, it’s probably viral growth. If it’s a marketplace product, then maybe referral codes and paid marketing. Being able to successfully guess a startup’s most probably growth channels allows you to then recruit for a “Head of Growth” who can supercharge the strategy. At this point, it’s important to note that the focus is still on customer acquisition, although efforts to improve engagement might also start.

The “Head of Growth” at this stage is probably someone who is a doer. They should be able to create a detailed plan for how their first 6 months might look like, and the handful of people they might hire. This is someone who knows what they want, which is made easier since the company they’re growing has product/market fit. They are hands-on, and has maybe led a small team before, but I’d prioritize tactical know how over management skills. A hard requirement is that they’ve stood up a new growth channel from scratch before. It’s important to find a hire who hasn’t just maintained the strategy of bigger companies for years and years — they must know how to instantiate it out of nothing. I like to see people who are still very entrepreneurial, is potentially less specialized on a primary channel but maybe has done a few related growth areas — like a smattering of projects that cross through product-led growth, email marketing, and paid. (And yes, I get scared if they talk too much about hiring lots of agencies, big budgets for TV and radio, or if they’re pushing back hard against metrics — there’s a time for all this, but not right now)

During the interview, I tend to look for clear spikes in the specific channel that the team thinks is the most likely to succeed. While I’ll ensure they have a strong foundation for understanding growth, I also want them to be an expert in at least one growth strategy. In fact, I usually call this out — “usually people in growth are great at one channel, and know the other channels fine but less. What’s yours?” And I’ll follow that up with detailed questions about on their superpower channel, making sure — if they claim to understand email marketing — that they really understand how to improve deliverability, all the various tools in the market, technical details like setting up DKIM/SPF, etc. Or if they are focused on paid marketing, that they understand retargeting down to the level of understanding why tracking “pixels” aren’t really pixels, how cookies actually work, how to calculate CAC/LTV when conversions happen months later, and so on.

Does this sound hard to hire for? It is! Because the labor market is so tight for people with the right skills, sometimes the only choice is to cross-train someone from an adjacent category. I often like people who are former founders, or from product management or marketing who started their careers in banking/consulting. It helps if they show a deep quantitative interest in business. Similarly, product folks from highly quantitative categories like travel, games, and marketplaces tend to do well. I want them to be spikey in their skillset, and be strong at execution, even if they need to go to advisors and peers to figure out the actual growth strategy. If they can pick it up quickly, can attract and retain talented employees for the various specializations, it can sometimes be the Plan B. I tend to lean away from people from the brand world, or from agency work, or who have only worked at larger companies. Speed of execution is just so important here.

The biggest mistake I see here happens here is when the founders try to hedge their bets. They have a slide on “growth strategy” in their investor deck with 20 different ideas, when the key is to just iterate their way into 2-3 core things that work. In the end, the largest properties on the Internet are driven off of just a few growth loops — SEO and inviting for Linkedin. Direct sales and product-led viral growth for most B2B collaboration apps. A lack of focus means that the startup is perpetually finding the next quick growth hack, rather than starting to build a system for repeatable growth.

Next is Escape Velocity
At this point, the product is ready for Escape Velocity if it’s consistently growing >3-5x year-over-year growth rate with at least one (if not two) channels that are obvious levers. One oft-used metaphor is that the product becomes a “coin operated machine” where $1 of spend into the growth loops will spit out $5. Or if you just put X engineers on Y product optimizations, then the growth rate increases by Z. This is when growth becomes predictable, repeatable, and forecastable.

And with Escape Velocity, we see the emergence of the classic “Growth Team” that the big companies have.

  • Escape Velocity
    1. Goal: Scaling up growth across many efforts and channels
    2. Roadmap: Multiple growth strategies — primarily 2 or 3 — that work in concert to grow the product to millions or tens of millions of users
    3. Outcomes: Multiple scalable channels, combined with optimizing the in-app acquisition and engagement loops

The “Head of Growth” in this configuration is really more of an executive than a tactician, though domain-specific knowledge is needed. This role starts to emerge with small growth team of >10 people, in a wider company of >50-100 employees. The Head of Growth becomes more of a people manager, can set strategy and recruit people onto the team with the needed skills, but also work horizontally across teams at the company.

The complexity happens across multiple dimensions. Both acquisition and retention both become priorities. On the acquisition side, it’s not just one channel but pushing into multiple new ones while maintaining the core. By this point, there’s a few growth channels that are working, but there’s a big push towards testing and adding new channels. Or at least variations of the channels. If TikTok ads are working, then maybe try Instagram and YouTube and other visual formats. If viral invites are working, then maybe add in referral programs and more sharing prompts. So often there is a big effort to just grow the core. At the same time, there should be an effort to try a few big new channels. And then finally, there is the matter of integration — making the acquisition channels work alongside the activation/re-engagement products that happen over email and push notifications. And optimizing the product funnels and sharing flows to amplify all the marketing efforts.

To give an example, at Uber, all of these growth efforts eventually got complex — very complex. There were teams working referral programs, landing pages, adtech integrations, funnel optimizations, activation sequences over email, retention and loyalty programs, as well as all the underlying infrastructure. There were projects to help with A/B testing (Morpheus!), communication platforms to streamline notifications to users, and much more. Then on top of all of that, add in several hundred people working on international growth, customizing the product to work better in China, developing countries, and otherwise.

For most startups, getting to this scale of a growth effort is a fancy problem to have — the team might be 100+ within a larger startup numbering thousands of people. The “Head of Growth” in this case should probably just be recruited from a larger incumbent who already knows how to do this. But if this is a smaller team than that, then you can similarly downgrade and find a growth leader from inside an incumbent that’s a first line manager.

The most common pitfall
What’s the biggest mistake that founders make in hiring their Head of Growth? In my opinion, it’s when the founders are trying to abdicate responsibility for their growth efforts, and hoping that a magical hire solves everything. The problem is, a startup’s growth is so fundamental that the founders have to take it on themselves. The buck stops at the top. If the founders pick the wrong growth channel to double down, even if they hire an expert on the channel, most likely the journey will end in failure. If the founders hire some amazing growth folks but don’t give them the engineering and product support to get their loops to work, then it won’t work either. The founders need to be there to supervise the growth, because ultimately they are directly responsible.

The second biggest mistake is probably to hire the “executive” Head of Growth too soon. If you are under 100 employees, you’ll only have a half dozen or dozen people working on growth, and in reality, you need a hands-on leader. Someone who’s primarily a people manager — particularly one that starts their tenure by hiring a bunch of agencies to build and execute their plans — will lead you down a path that simply won’t be concrete enough, at a moment when that’s what the startup needs. Early startups need to move the needle each week, growing 5 or 10% week-over-week, and no amount of PowerPoint can do that. The executive is helpful when you start needing to manage 3 or more teams focused on building a repeatable system — this is probably a 20+ team in a broader team of hundreds.

In the end, the  “Head of Growth” title is probably too vague. Each of these stages requires such different skills and are judged so differently that a single title feels like it doesn’t capture the nuance. Instead, founders to incorporate the context of their startup — what stage are they in? How much conviction do they have on their growth channels? How many people are going to constitute the growth team, and thus, how much expertise versus management ability is needed? What are the most similar companies — from a growth perspective — that they can recruit from? These are the questions to ask, and by answering them, the Head of Growth role will be more clearly defined.

Written by Andrew Chen

November 1st, 2021 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Why premature scaling fails: The Traction Treadmill

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Hi readers,

I’m back writing! Well, tweeting mostly, but then developing my points more thoroughly and cross-posting them to my blog. Hope you enjoy this one, which was inspired by a convo I had with Gagan Biyani at Maven about when to scale versus not.

Also, a brief announcement: I’ve released the Table of Contents for my upcoming book, The Cold Start Problem. I put it on the landing page here so you can look at it, but the book is chock full of examples from my time at Uber, but also looking at coupons, credit bureaus, the original Internet, banner ads, and so on.

Here’s the Table of Contents and preorder link.

The book release is in a few months and am excited to share more. In the meantime, here’s a new concept I want to share, the Traction Treadmill.

writing while visiting Venice Beach, CA!


Questionable product/market fit meets premature scaling
Here’s why it’s so dangerous to scale a product with questionable product/market fit: The Traction Treadmill.

It’ll kill your company. Let me explain why it happens.

Sometimes you build a product that’s just doing okay. Not great, but not bad either. Users show up, and some of them stick around – but not many. You can quantify this with cohort retention curves. For a social app, this might be when your D30 is 10%, not 20%+. For a subscription product, this might be when your annual retention is <20%. It sort of works, but not really.

So what do you do if it’s going OK, but not quite working? Some teams look at this and are overly optimistic – it’s time to scale. Just add users, instead of increasing stickiness. And this works, for a time. You can grow fast just by doubling ad spend. Or tripling ad spend.

The blessing of a small user base
In the early days this works. Let’s use a real example — let’s say you start with 1,000 active users, and then you want to 3x. The good news is, 3x with 1,000 users just means you need to buy 2,000 users. To grow it further, you just repeat again, right?

Well, not quite. Even if you’ve bought 2,000 users, you might only retain 500 of them longer term. (So that you have 1000 actives + 500 new actives). The problem is that a large % of these users burn off. That’s fine, maybe just replace them, by buying more users? To 3x again, you have to replace:

  • The % you lost
  • Plus, buy another whopping amount just to grow

If you’re starting with 1,000 and you buy a bunch to get to 3,000, and then again to 9,000, that works. Your marketing budget might allow for a $10 CAC, for instance, and your outlay is <$100k to triple each time. Always worth it. That might work, if you’re still dealing with 1,000s or 10,000 users

The treadmill arrives
The traction treadmill eventually arrives once the numbers get big. This is when you lose a % of users fast, but then just have the budget and funding to replace them- but then can’t keep grow on top. Eventually on a base of millions of users, you might churn a million users, and need to replace them — and buy more, to grow. So then you’re starting to talk about very large outlays, just to stay afloat, much less to consistently grow.

You start running hard and just staying in one place.

You might increase budgets. Pay up on CAC/LTV. Optimize and run experiments. And that works a little.. until the treadmill reappears.

The problem with the treadmill is that your team and scale makes it hard to iterate substantially on the product and business. You’re locked in. If things flatten for months, or a year, eventually morale becomes a problem. Options start to narrow. And the real solution – to increase stickiness – becomes too slow and complex to execute.

Whenever I see a high-flying startup that’s raised $100s of millions of dollars with a high paid marketing dependency which then flatlines, it’s usually some variation of this story. The problem ultimately is that the early days of growth are less about the intrinsic quality of the product, and more about the ability for the team to ramp up spend. And as CAC’s float up as volume increases – due to the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs – it gets harder and hard.

Then you fall off the traction treadmill. Game over.

In the end, this story isn’t about polishing your product forever. I’m certainly not encouraging that. But I do think you need to understand where your product stands relative to other successes (and failures in the market). The benchmarking is important. And if you try to scale and fix at the same time, be prepared for the treadmill to show up. By then, your nimble speedboat of a product will have grown into an aircraft carrier, and it’ll be hard to turn things around. This is when scale becomes the enemy to iteration.

(acquisition vs retention image above – hat tip: @mattwensing)

Written by Andrew Chen

September 2nd, 2021 at 9:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

What today’s social apps can learn from Web 2.0, the social network revolution from 15 years ago

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Hi readers,

Boom! I’m back with another — I told you, I’m really back, after 3 years of hiatus focused on the new book. Anywyay, first, I want to thank you for all the outpouring of support and kind notes on my return to writing. And of course, the preorders for my upcoming book THE COLD START PROBLEM which is all about user growth in the context of network effects — relevant for social apps, marketplaces, workplace collaboration apps, and so on.

For today, I’m cross-posting and combining two tweetstorms I recently did on the future generation of social apps, and what we can learn from the Web 2.0 era. I’m toying with the idea of doing a series on all of these “forgotten lessons” with the idea that they will be relevant for people coming up. More soon!

(writing from San Francisco, but headed back to LA shortly!)

Before and after — social network edition

When you examine the ideas that are percolating now for social apps, you see a clear pattern.

The past generation of social apps won the market through a playbook:

  • building big networks with feeds for discovery
  • creating a followers/status competition for engagement
  • bringing together creators and audiences
  • monetizing with ads
  • supporting photo, text, video

The next generation of social is necessarily a reactionary movement:

  • small networks or algo-driven big ones
  • creating real connection with people
  • letting creators own their audiences
  • monetizing directly with subs, NFTs, etc
  • evolving media format towards interactivity

The most interesting things about these “new” ideas is that they simply didn’t make sense back in the original emergence of the social network category.

Why didn’t these reactionary ideas make sense?
Back then, building large networks with invites and solving discovery with feeds was the right move when it was novel to simply see what your friends were up to. Today, too many connections is bad. Maintaining which of 1000s of high school friends and employers have access to which content, is quite simply a chore. Small chat groups simplify this. Algo-driven feeds also simplify by just showing you the best stuff. More will be invented to solve the problem of maintaining connections.

Similarly, the era of edited, posed travel, food, and concert photos showing the top 1% of peoples’ lives is creating a fake reality that is repetitive. This worked at first since it was a spectacle. A new app can focus on what’s real, or who has talent, or something in reaction to this overly repetitive 1%.

Originally, creators didn’t exist. They weren’t a thing. So bringing them together with their audience — even if they didn’t own that audience — was amazing since it provided a degree of ads-based monetization. Today, creators are looking for more, and new apps can cater. A lot of the Creator Economy, of course, is a reaction to pre-existing platforms that get between a creator and their audience. And brands sponsorships who inevitably nudge creators into compromising their integrity. New apps can target this and align creators with their audience. NFTs, subscription, ecommerce, and other biz models now exist for creators. More will come – lots of innovation here. Furthermore, the “back office” will become an important battleground. Instead of coffee shops and retail, online will be the next generation of small business.

Finally, the last decade of social has been about simply putting videos, photos, and text up. And making this easy for anyone to publish. This has unlocked hundreds of billions of dollars of business value. I think it may not be enough to simply do more photos, text, and video. Instead, new platforms will emerge that let people author 3D content more easily — and maybe put it into a game. Or interactive content. Or NFTs. And of course audio. All of these new forms of media will probably look like toys at first, but they may catch on in a big way.

All of these ideas weren’t the first set to tackle during the Web 2.0 days. In a world where uploading a video was hard, it made sense that Youtube was the first type of app to be built. Social status and competition is an easy engagement hook.

It is the success of the incumbent social networks that have established dominant norms that then allows new startups to try new ideas that might work. However, the new is built from the old, and there’s an important set of knowledge and skillset from 15 years (!!!) back that needs to be considered. Yes, let’s talk about Web 2.0.

The lost art of Web 2.0
There was a generation of founders trying to add social to everything. Social and music. Social fitness. Social news. Social social social. There were new kinds of creation, profiles, etc. No, I’m not talking about today. I mean 15 years ago!

There’s a lost art of Web 2.0.

This was the era of Flickr, Tumblr, Blogger, Hi5, Digg, Slide, Imeem, Flixster, Odeo, and dozens of other companies that just the grizzled old tech veterans now remember. Web 2.0 was about a lot of things. There was big UX breakthroughs, like tagging, profiles, feeds, photos, and everything else in user generated content. This was built on AJAX (lol!), Rails, early cloud platforms, and so on. New apps were being built in weeks – but most failed.

A key lesson from Web 2.0 — growth matters
After all, one of the hardest lessons we learned from that period: It wasn’t enough to build the app, you needed to also grow a critical mass of users. Without the right users there at the beginning, a user-generated content product would inherently be too shallow on content. Low engagement would lead to more low engagement.

People solve this with ideas like wait list hacks, A/B tested invite flows, contact importers, “people you may know” algos. Embedded video widgets, Facebook platform API hacks, viral factor tracking, and so on. The details of many of these ideas are intricate — to this day, there are teams of dozens of people working on “people you may know” recommendations at companies like LinkedIn and Facebook. Building the density of connections is incredibly important. Yet these fundamental tactics are getting swept under the rug while fun, new concepts like creator houses, memes, etc take all the spotlight.

15 years later, social is back but much of the hard won lessons of web 2.0 have been lost. The folks of that era are in their 40s now – more likely to be investors or execs at big tech cos (you know who you are! Lol) – than the new gen founders trying to build the new social app. Of course history will not repeat itself – it’ll all be reinvented

Yet many of the same core strategies still hold. It’s still better to focus on a single community, gain saturation, before adding adjacent networks. Viral loops are still a thing that can be constructed, measured, and optimized. The core stickiness of an app is all about p/m fit

The next generation of social
Web 2.0 was a magical time with 1000s of new social apps. Today’s resurgence is comparable in scope, but with a larger maret, built on the supercomputer in our pockets, and with the full knowledge of how big it can be when everything goes right.

It’s gonna be magic again.

Written by Andrew Chen

August 23rd, 2021 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The next generation of the SF and LA tech ecosystem

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Hi readers,

I’ve been MIA! But ready to be back and writing more now that I’m finished with my book (more on that in a second).

Two things today:

First, I recently posted a tweetstorm about my adventures in the LA tech ecosystem, and how it compares to SF, and the upcoming changes. I have it below, with some updates and edits

And second, I’m happy to announce that I just turned in a final version of my upcoming book, THE COLD START PROBLEM, which has its final book cover and is ready for pre-order.

Pre-order here!  (Not in the US? Canada · UK · Australia · France · Germany · Japan · India)

I’ll talk a bit more about the book and the process there shortly, but wanted to drop those links in too.



The clash between SF and LA, and how it’s thawing
Something big is happening at the intersection of tech and entertainment – of SF and LA. From LA, you see celebs angel investing, and promoting tech. And SF startups are actively courting creators, both mainstream and digital native, as the anchors in their new social products

This was not always the case. For a long time, the SF world found the LA ecosystem to be byzantine, full of gatekeepers and copyright owners. The most common interaction was music labels and movie studios suing early startups – Napster, YouTube, BitTorrent – not collaboration.

From the LA POV, the user generated platforms – Web 2.0 – were building products built on the backs of content creators and owners, but without giving much back. Whereas the entertainment ecosystem is driven by cash and % profits, the startup ecosystem is built on equity

And it went on for years.

How the thawing happened
But in the recent past, some big things have happened:

  • First, you had Dr Dre making $700M+ on selling a company like Beats to Apple. Tech can be big when you engage
  • The social apps also got so big that gaining followers became obviously valuable
  • For creators who weren’t yet successful in the traditional mold — with an agent, TV show deal, or otherwise — the openness of the social media ecosystem became a huge plus. This created a new type of talent
  • Also, Netflix/Amazon/others became simply too big to ignore or reject
  • The social media platforms became a major force for brand and advertising dollars. And a way to launch new consumer brands. If talent embraced this, it could be a new way to build an empire

The view of startups started to change also — and not just bc of the “creator economy.” Startups began to realize – in a crowded growth ecosystem with tapped out paid mkting, etc – that influencers could be a new effective channel. It helps with PR – and for recruiting – when celebs (both mainstream and B2B influencers) invest in your company. Every edge counts.

Creator go-to-market
The “creator economy” thesis leverages celebs/influencers/creators both as an end customer but also as a distribution method. When creators use your product – like a Substack or Shopify – they naturally promote it as part of its use. Yet there are limits to how well this SF x LA intersection will work

It’s not yet clear that celebs can “make” a product happen. Yes, sometimes they join early, as they did with Twitter/Clubhouse, and can accelerate growth

There’s still a culture clash between the two worlds. Celebs/creators/influencers often expect to get advisory shares, or to get the last round’s valuation, simply for being involved. The gatekeepers also often ask for their own — it’s annoying! Tech is not building beverage cos here!

The folks in movies/TV/music are still somewhat curmudgeonly. Yes, they are engaging with tech – not just suing them – but it’s still early. New young startups can’t afford licensing, upfront fees, and so on

What’s the solution?

The next wave
The opportunity might be to simply to engage with new sectors. Rather than working with the classic A-list stars, instead, the opportunity is to engage TikTokers and Twitch streamers. Or bloggers and Substackers, rather than published authors. These digitally native content creators got big by adopting technology early, and might be willing to work with startups earlier. They don’t work with the traditional gatekeepers in entertainment, and thus might be easier to connect with — startup founder to digital creator — to quickly work out deals.

The truth is, well-established talent in the entertainment world often face a kind of innovator’s dilemma in adopting new products. If they jump in too soon, they might expend energy on an app or technology that doesn’t go anywhere. They might also end up creating a lot of value that is hard to create. By not charging to participate, they might undermine their other mainstream revenue streams, where they charge for commercials, appearances, and otherwise. Digital creators often don’t have any of this to worry about.

The other thought, even more radically, to invest in game studios and new interactive experiences – not film/movies. As we’ve articulated in the past, we think games will be the next social network, and the next huge entertainment medium. I have a Venturebeat interview here that spells out the thesis. Importantly, games are software. They launch like apps, buy Facebook ads, engage social networks, and have many of the motions that look like the software companies we’re used to in SF. Rather than focusing on film/TV/music, it might be that games becomes the focal point that brings the two groups together.

This is a long way of saying, while LA x SF is trending up – more cross-pollination, more people spending time in both, more collaboration – it’s still early. But more is happening and it will unlock new approaches to engage consumers that could never of happened before

My next moves
I’ve committed to spending more time in LA over the next year – something like 60/30/10 in SF/LA/other will be the split. In recent visits, I’ve found a fascinating ecosystem of people. I would summarize these constituents like:

  • “new to LA” founders — this is the new gen of startups
  • fancy SF CEOs who are now in LA — lots of folks have moved down, on the down low!
  • SF/LA investors — especially seed funds, and SF folks who have relocated
  • digitally native creators — tiktokers, streamers, etc
  • big co tech platforms — YouTube and Netflix folks who have a big presence in LA
  • incumbent entertainment folks — this is a big umbrella, but includes agencies, studios, talent, and much more
  • DTC startups — lots of these!
  • OG LA tech — the folks who started it all

There’s many other groups of course, and it’s quite diverse, but fascinating to see a much more complex ecosystem — in many ways — than SF which constitute maybe a third of this. SF is more clustered into various “mafias” than LA, since it’s more tech than not.

Anyway, I plan to be between LA and SF in the coming quarters. If you’d like to meet up, send me a DM!


Written by Andrew Chen

August 20th, 2021 at 11:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

My first book, The Cold Start Problem. Plus Clubhouse, and more. It’s 2021, and I’m back!

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Above: One of the final book cover designs I’m considering!

Dear readers,

So, you may have noticed that I’ve been away from writing for a bit. Actually for almost a full year. But I have an excuse! After nearly three years and many late nights and long weekends, I have an announcement.

My first book is dropping in late 2021, called THE COLD START PROBLEM, published by Harper Business.

You can pre-order it here on Amazon »


I’ll have a lot more to announce about the book soon, including bonus material, add-ons, and more.

This is my first book, and… wow. My tldr; on the experience of writing a book is: OMG IT IS SO MUCH WORK. It started out benign — I thought it would be fun to do a little research to explore doing a book, and interviewed friends from Uber, Airbnb, Slack, Zoom, Dropbox, Tinder, and many more interesting companies. 20 interviews eventually turned into nearly two hundred.

I became obsessed with a topic that emerged. The products that most intrigued me in the tech industry are marketplaces, social networks, messaging apps, workplace collab tools, etc. — that can grow and grow. These products have network effects, but are unusual for how you start them. There’s a “cold start problem” when a social app launches and no one’s on it! You need a critical mass to make it functional. I started to organize all the stories I was hearing and organize them into a framework. It was an attempt to understand and process my own experience at Uber, and how it fit into the rest of the industry.

Eventually, I wrote an outline of what I wanted to put together as a potential book. Just the outline was 30 pages… gulp. Then came the writing. A lot of writing. Then even more writing. I did some of the writing in warm, sunny places like Miami and Cabo. But a lot of it was done on my sofa. It was a lot. Then COVID. Then writing from a van, driving across the country, while avoiding people, but still writing. And in fact, I’m still in the middle of fixing sentences and polishing what’s left, but it’s nearly done at over 300 pages. I’m starting to look at potential book covers (one of the candidates above) and I’m very excited for y’all to read it — much more on this soon.

This isn’t all that I’ve been doing in the last year. In other news, I recently led a16z’s investment in Clubhouse and joined the board of directors. Clubhouse is a new audio-first social network — definitely worth trying out. I mention it because I’ve been learning a ton from being involved — about growth, metrics, viral loops, and much more. From a growth perspective, it’s an incredible expression of network effects. It grows explosively through viral loops — it’s been a top app in Europe for the past week, and recently just landed in Asia, growing quickly — and also has increased its engagement as the network fills in with more diverse content creators. I’m learning a ton and am lucky to be working with Paul and Rohan, Clubhouse’s founders. More on this in the future.

Besides the new book and Clubhouse, I’ve also been sheltering at home in the Bay Area like most of you. OK, not quite true. I did take a long trip around the US recently in a van — that was fun. Check out some pics over here. I drove, wrote, and did Zoom calls for almost 3 months.

And finally, I just wanted to say: I’m back! Now that I’m starting to wrap up on the book, I’m going to return to a much more frequent writing cadence. Thanks for your patience, and I hope to begin writing a lot more coming up.

Thanks for reading,


San Francisco, CA

Written by Andrew Chen

February 4th, 2021 at 8:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

My top essays/tweetstorms in 2019 on product/market fit, investing, KPIs, YouTubers, and more

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Dear readers,

I’ve only been writing sporadically recently on here — mostly because I’m working on a new book project (more to come soon on that!!) which has been taking all my time. In the interim, I’ve stayed pretty active on Twitter, writing tweetstorms that sometimes turn themselves into essays on here.

For a quick summary of the essays that did make it onto here, including a couple guest collaborations, here’s an easy set of links:

OK, and now for the tweetstorms. Here are all the tweetstorms I’ve written in the last year or so, all in one place. Hope you enjoy!

Lower Pac, San Francisco, CA


1. American kids want to be youtubers, and the Chinese kids want to be astronauts.

More from the article here.

2. Is your startup idea already taken? And why we love X for Y startups

I turned this from a tweetstorm into a much longer discussion, and wanted to share it there! Here’s the link.


3. Cameras versus smartphones.

The iPhone comes out in 2007 and changes the camera industry. Amazing to see a 90% decline in just 10 years after growth for decades

Amazing that something can go from peak to trough in exact 10

Makes you ask- What’s the next product where this will happen?


4. 2019 state of tech investing:

Pre-seed- Bet on the entrepreneur 👨‍💻
Seed- Bet on the team 👨‍👩‍👦‍👦
Series A- Bet on the traction 🏒
Series B- Bet on the revenue 💸
Series C- Bet on the unit economics 💰


5. Did you know: 61% of all food delivery is pizza 🍕.

The average American eats 23 pounds of pizza per year. 93% of americans eat pizza every month. Omg right?


6. Dashboard clutter

Dashboard clutter – the addition of more KPIs over time – leads to strategy clutter.

The more you add, the less you (and your team!) understands your business. Then people go back to making decisions on intuition not data.

Via this 😂 comic by @tomfishburne below!


7. Fascinating infographic: Top grossing media franchises of all time.

Pokémon, Hello Kitty, Mickey Mouse, Star Wars, etc

– most of the money has been made in merchandise and video games
– so many Japanese brands! 5 out of the top 10
– many created in the past decade


8. The internet culture supply chain

The internet culture supply chain works like this:
Asia ➡️ US teens ➡️ Adults ➡️ B2B.

Multiple data points on this already: Emojis, video streaming, esports…

Emojis are a classic example. First it was big in Japan, then teens. Now we all use it. Then it was baked into Slack and everything else. (Btw, this is an amazing read of pre-smart phone Japanese mobile: …)

Want to know what B2B communication/collaboration will look like in 5 years? It’s inevitable that livestreaming, virtual goods, asynch video, etc all eventually end up in the enterprise. There’s a 3-5 year lag, but it definitely happens

TikTok is a great example that’s mid-phase. Crossing from Asia into US teens, and we’ll see if it’ll be the way we do status updates at work in a few years :)


9. Magic metrics indicating a startup probably has product/market fit

1) cohort retention curves that flatten (stickiness)
2) actives/reg > 25% (validates TAM)
3) power user curve showing a smile — with a big concentration of engaged users (you grow out from this strong core)

3) viral factor >0.5 (enough to amplify other channels)
4) dau/mau > 50% (it’s part of a daily habit)
5) market-by-market (or logo-by-logo, if SaaS) comparison where denser/older networks have higher engagement over time (network effects)

6) D1/D7/D30 that exceeds 60/30/15 (daily frequency)
7) revenue or activity expansion on a *per user* basis over time — indicates deeper engagement / habit formation
8) >60% organic acquisition — CAC doesn’t even matter!

Having even one is impressive — it’d make me sit up!


10. What’s your biggest miss so far in tech?

In terms of a totally wrong / bad prediction. This was mine from years back — not getting Facebook and how big it was going to be:

Also for the first few years, I thought Uber was a weird niche service for super rich people to get limos. I managed to fix that bad prediction 😎


11. What is your least popular but deeply held opinion on tech/startups? Lively discussion here


12. The Law of Shitty Cohorts.

It’s not unusual for a startup to have “meh” retention. But then usually, team says it will improve retention via better activation, lifecycle marketing, improving product features, etc.

But the law of shitty cohorts says this is unlikely to happen.

The reason is that the early cohorts of users — let’s say the first couple million or so — are usually your best cohorts. They found you via word of mouth, they are the early adopters of tech, and you have no market saturation yet.

However, as you scale, each cohort gets worse

In rideshare, all the urban dwelling power users who don’t have cars, and use apps every day – they’ve all signed up. Now we’re acquiring rural/suburban users who have cars and only use it to get to the airport. Huge difference.

When you buy users with paid ads, it’s even worse

So even while teams improve their product, activation, and lifecycle, there’s an opposite (and sometimes even stronger force!) of worse cohorts joining your product over time.

(Inspired by the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs)


13. My order of operations when I sit down with a startup to figure out how to grow their new product.

1) first, is it working?
Usually the answer is no :) I look at retention rates, DAU/MAU, session lengths, how many visits are driven via push notifs, etc etc. Lots of benchmarking

2) if it is working, then how do we scale it?
I look at the acquisition mix — how are new users finding the product? Are they using all the channels that other similar products are already doing?

If there’s something that’s working, can we scale it to be much, much larger?

3) what can we do in the product to amplify all of the above?

Since product is expensive to build, let’s focus on top of funnel and work all the way down. Optimizing acquisition, then activation, then retention/churn, then reactivation (for later stage)

Tbh, #1 is the hardest!

Longer discussion on this here.


14. The Head/Heart/Hands framework

Or in emoji form, 👩/❤️/✋- for company cultures and personalities at work. The idea is that every work culture can be described as a pie chart of these three factors. (credit to my friends/coworkers at Uber who first described to me)

Not only does each company have this breakdown, so does each individual on the team. And the more their individual profile matches that of the overall company, the more in sync they are, the easier it is to get things done. Or that’s the theory.

👩 Head = how much of the culture emphasizes analytical ability, strategy, planning, etc. Cultures that are strong at this do a lot of analysis, information gathering, etc to try and make the right choices, but sometimes at the cost of moving quickly or bringing everyone along

❤️ Heart = how much the culture emphasizes team cohesion + happiness. Teams that do this invest a lot on internal values, having a clear mission, making decisions that consider the team’s views, not just business outcomes. Lots of obvious downsides when this goes too far, too

✋Hands = how much the culture emphasizes action, and getting things done. Cultures that do this can move quickly, are iterative, and are agile in the market. But they break things, can have a “fire first, aim later” mentality where a lot of energy is wasted

People said Uber 1.0 was a 30% head, 5% heart, 65% hands kind of place. Ridiculously indexed on action. Often doing the wrong thing for the first few iterations, but with so much activity, things would get figured out later. Needed more love for drivers and team though

Another startup that I’m close with, which will be unnamed, is more like 30% head, 50% heart, 20% hands. Great culture, people were close friends, didn’t get much done. Yet another is 70% head, 20% heart, 10% hands. Incredibly intelligent but doesn’t ship.

I like this framework in that it says, hey, there’s no right tradeoff – it’s just different. Some industries require hardcore orientation in one way, and others in another way. The VC industry doesn’t need 75% hands, for instance

Similarly, if someone’s not working out in one culture- they might in another culture, where things resonate. Perhaps they are too action-oriented in a place that requires a lot more deep thinking because decisions are hard to reverse. Again, there’s no “best” working style

As with Myers-Briggs, this exercise is more for fun, than science. However, you’d be surprised by how interesting of a conversation it generates. Ask someone to break down their company’s head/heart/hands, and press for examples. You’ll learn a ton

When you’re interviewing at a company, this can be a fun thing to ask. Otherwise if you ask “what’s the company culture like?” you’ll often just get generic stuff like, “oh people are are so smart and nice.”

A related question is: “What’s something that happens in this company culture that doesn’t at other places?” Or, “who’s the type of person who’s successful here who might not be at other places?” (or the reverse). Interesting to understand the contrasts


15. the LA consumer startup ecosystem

the LA consumer startup ecosystem is coming into its own — Honey, Snap, Riot Games, Tinder, Bird, Dollar Shave Club.

The most $1B+ consumer startups outside of the Bay Area?

A few years back, I might have guessed that NYC would be the emerging leader. But pretty clear it’s LA.


16. “The One That Didn’t Work Out.”

Startup founders, you know what I mean: We spend years on a product – starting it from scratch, recruiting friends, getting it off the ground. We think we’ll spend years on this. This is the one. We tell that to ourselves, investors, and friends

We celebrate all the milestones we’re supposed to. The first office. First check in. The product launch. Fun emails from the first users. An important hire. Team dinners. These are wonderful, great memories!

When it’s time to raise money, we tell potential investors that this is it. We’re gonna work on this for years, because we believe. And we do! But that’s not what happens…

There’s a messy second year. Traction’s not as good as what we want. Or maybe new users are showing up, but retention sucks. Some of the key hires leave. Fundraising isn’t as easy as it should be. Monetization is slow. It’s tough

When things get hard, it’s easy to go into hermit mode. Don’t go to tech events, because people will ask how things are going, and you don’t want to pretend it’s great. Because it’s not. Easier to stay at home and watch Netflix

You know the end of this story: A few years in, the once shiny new startup acquired by a larger company. Or it’s shut down. People maybe even make a ton of money. But the team splits up. The product that you stared at, every day, for years, gets shut down. It’s time to move on

But it’s hard to move on. It feels weird to walk past your old office. You don’t talk to your team anymore. You move your old photos, old decks, old prototypes into a folder deep in your Dropbox drive. Better to not think about it!

Yes, this is a story of my own journey for a startup I had years ago that didn’t work out. But I know it’s not just me. It’s many of my friends, and many of you, who are on their new startup, or a new big tech job, but still remember the one that didn’t work

You may have seen the wonderful tweetstorm by @dflieb about Bump from 10 years ago. You can see how much he grew from his journey. Even though Bump didn’t thrive, it’s now part of Google Photos and the ideas impact hundreds of millions of people. He should be proud!

The recent @andrewmason interview on Groupon is the same. You can tell how much he both cherished his experience and also how rough it was. Worth reading:

There’s a wonderful journey that happens in the creation and ending of new products. The majority of startup journeys look like this – even in the success case – and we all learn a ton from building them. It’s an amazing experience, but also, it can be rough.

If you have the same Dropbox folder I do, it’s time to open it up. Scroll through the old photos, open up the old decks. It may be the startup that didn’t work out, but it’s also the one that made you stronger and smarter.


17. Uber alumni and the next generation of founders

There’s a TON of new startups coming from Uber alumni – I know of a half dozen in stealth, and Bird is already a breakout. It’s obv that the creativity and hustle required to make Uber work in its early years has trained hundreds of entrepreneurs. Very bullish on this group

As y’all know, Uber had a very decentralized mode of operation with each city being run as its own company. Each GM owned their P&L, hired their own people, and in the early years, would just put Facebook ads and other expenses on their credit cards! Great background

The product teams looked like this too. We had a “Programs and Platforms” model courtesy of Amazon / @jeffholden where each program was full stack, and the PMs ran hard again their mission/KPIs without introducing interdependencies

For everyone who joined in the early years – 2010 to 2014 – they’ve already hit their 4 year mark and many are spinning out. The really early folks are investing. Folks like @williampbarnes @joshmohrer have formed angel groups supporting alumni spinouts (and other startups too!)

From an investor standpoint, myself, @fffabulous @akad have all joined venture firms ready to invest in the next generation

The ATG / Otto folks are making moves as well. My good friend @drewjgray joined as CTO of the autonomous startup @voyage with @olivercameron. Also Kodiak, Kache, and many others.

Let’s talk about my fav topic, 🛴. @limebike has folks like my good friend @uber_ed_baker as an advisor, and is slowly collecting ex-Uber alumni (and Lyft! And other on-demand folks). Bird’s exec team consists of Uber’s prev “Supply growth” team – @travisv, RF, Schnell, others

Not everyone is doing startups, of course. Lots of folks on “sabbataquit” – Uber’s policy of allowing sabbaticals after 3 years of work means that people often do this before leaving. And then they keep traveling, sometimes for a year+. Many folks doing that

Whether they are starting, joining, or on sabbatical, it’s clear that this group knows a lot of important, venture-fundable markets well. There’s now 10,000s of focus who are experts on transportation, marketplaces, mapping, autonomous floating out there. This is the next gen.

Very excited about my ex-uber colleagues! Looking forward to what y’all do 😎



Of course, if you want more of these as they come in real-time, follow me at @andrewchen! More in 2020.

Written by Andrew Chen

January 9th, 2020 at 9:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

“Is your startup idea taken?” — and why we love X for Y startups

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☝️Above: Michelle Rial (follow her at @TheRialMichelle), then working at Buzzfeed, posted this hilarious infographic with all the “X for Y” ideas. Here’s the original article.

I had a quick laugh, of course. But then seeing this infographic made me think through some deeper things:

  • What are “X for Y” companies and why do they sound compelling?
  • Are “X for Y” companies actually a good idea?
  • When do they work? When do they not?
  • .. and finally, what happens when my “X for Y” startup idea is taken?

And so this is an attempt to provide some serious ideas for this otherwise funny question.

People love describing startups as “X for Y” — why?
A few years back, “Facebook for X” companies were all the rage. And then it was “Uber for X.” And now I’m hearing about “Stripe for X,” “Superhuman for X” and “Twitch for X.”

In fact, Marketwatch did an analysis of startup company descriptions and found that startups often compared themselves to other companies in their descriptions. Here’s the list of the most common startup comparisons:

“X for Y” comparisons are popular! This is a really common format to describe startup ideas because it accomplishes a couple things all at once: First, it positions you against something successful. Unless it’s intended as an insult (ha!), no one ever describes their startup as the”[Failed startup] for X.” Second, it both conveys a lot of information and also doesn’t — when someone who hears the idea, it’s like a short puzzle to solve to try and understand what it might mean. And yet, as a one-liner, it begs for interactivity, so that people will ask more.

Third, it makes it easy for the people passionate about what you’re doing — your employees, investors, and customers — to spread the news about what you’re doing. Nivi, half of the Venture Hacks blog, wrote back in 2008:

The pitch is the perfect tool for fans who are spreading the word about your company. Investors use the pitch when they tell their partners about your startup. Customers use the pitch when they rave about your product. The press uses the pitch when they cover the company.

In other words, short, pithy descriptions tend to travel further, and you want to arm your proponents with a blurb to spread!

But the real question is, do “X for Y” companies actually work? Is this a good strategy?

The “X for Y” companies that have worked
Interestingly, although you’d think that this strategy would lead to derivative/uninspired ideas, in practice they have worked.

I asked Twitter this question and did some googling, and there were a number of compelling examples:

  • YouTube was originally “Flickr for video”
  • Glassdoor was “TripAdvisor for jobs”
  • Airbnb was “eBay for space”
  • Baidu was “Google for China”

(I’m sure if you search around, you’d find even more examples — tweet at me at @andrewchen if you have others in mind!)

So which “X for Y” companies will work in the future?
Now that I’ve talked through all this and you want to go back up to look at the Buzzfeed infographic, you might be asking yourself, which of these ideas are actually good?

In broad strokes, all the “X for Y” ideas end up falling on a spectrum of:

  • [Successful product] for [vertical segment] on side…
  • … to [Successful product] for [new category] on the other

An example of the former might be something like, “YouTube for Kids” — which is a segment of the existing product. This has the advantage that there’s a lot of pre-existing behaviors to work off of, and if you go deep enough on the functionality for this vertical, there might be a way to create a differentiated experience. On the other hand, you are also more likely to end up building a sustaining innovation, where an industry incumbent sees it as part of their turf, and they can extend into the category quickly. So what you gain in minimizing execution risk you trade off in terms of increased competitive risk.

On the other hand, something like “YouTube for Amazon Echo” sounds kind of weird and foreign, since it doesn’t yet exist — yet it could still possibly make sense as an idea. It might be a social platform to create and play back audio clips from other users, like a UGC podcasting platform. I don’t know. At this end of the spectrum, you’re talking about a new category of products and new user behaviors that might make sense. In that way, you take a ton of market risk — but if it works, you might dominate the whole category.

And interestingly, in the examples above for YouTube, Glassdoor, Airbnb, etc. — I’d argue that they fell more into the new category creation side of the spectrum rather than a segment. At the time the products were created, Flickr didn’t have much video capability and it wasn’t a popular format for users. Tripadvisor didn’t let you review jobs (nor does it today). eBay didn’t support reserving homes and space. And Google wasn’t in China. And so these “X for Y” concepts, once they worked, had a higher ceiling since it wasn’t constrained by a giant competitor running them down quickly. The geographical aspect of Baidu was probably, in many ways, the smallest moat in terms of product, but we know that getting into China is special and most of the largest tech giants never made it happen.

Watch out for broken metaphors
I’ve written in the past on why almost all of the “Uber for X” startups failed — you can read that here — and ultimately, even if the idea sounds cool to your and your startup friends/investors, the value proposition must still be really strong to all the customers and users involved.

Something like “Uber for cleaning” sounds great until you ask if the cleaners actually want to work this way, if consistent/high-quality service can be delivered, and if the unit economics make sense? But it can be catchy for investors. That’s not enough. Broken metaphors happen when something that’s meant for an investor pitch becomes ingrained in the product itself. Rarely does the end user care about your startup’s desire to position itself against another successful startup.

So go work on “Tinder for doctors.” Or “Birchbox for pizza.” Use it for the Linkedin blurb describing your company, and on your 5-min accelerator pitch. But don’t forget, there’s a reason why “Uber for X” startups have mostly failed — you need to lead with the customer value, not with what is easily described within the startup community.

Written by Andrew Chen

November 6th, 2019 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Passion Economy (Guest essay by Li Jin)

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Hi readers,

Consumer startups have gone through many phases: Web 2.0, Facebook apps, Mobile (remember SoLoMo?), and in recent years, some of the best opportunities have been happening in the real world. In recent years, the Gig Economy has taken over. Startups like Uber, Airbnb, Instacart, and others have been able to find product/market fit and scale their businesses.

But what’s the next? The essay below argues: “The Passion Economy.” And my a16z colleague Li Jin unpacks this idea more thoroughly.

(And quick plug, if you want to read more essays like this — this article was originally posted on and you can subscribe to the newsletter here)

The Passion Economy theme unifies a number of themes that we at a16z have been working on:

  • Reinventing the service economy. We’ve written about this here. There will be many new software platforms that allow creators/influencers/service providers to work on what they love and earn income from that work
  • Easy-to-use tools. Within the platform, there are deep SaaS tools that help people in the Passion Economy actually do their work — particularly key when the work is purely digital in nature, like video streaming or audio broadcasting
  • Massive distribution. People need to get found — both by their customers and their audience — and we now can plug into platforms with billions of consumers. Platforms will need to provide marketplace-like features that lean transactional, or more like an ongoing subscription relationship
  • Pragmatic education/training. College aren’t built to teach the skills for the Passion Economy, and people will instead turn to online schools/programs/training for lifelong learning in the ever-changing ecosystem
  • Every startup is a Fintech. Fintech services that help facilitate both business and personal needs — whether that’s creative financing options, solopreneur banking services, or working capital

If this resonates, it’s because this is a list of the massive trends that are reinventing the way we work. As a society, we are right in the thick of this movement — but it’s helpful to give it a distinct name, although you might argue startups like Udemy, Patreon, Shopify, Substack, and many others have already been blazing this path.

I love this trend as someone who has worked deeply both in the passion economy — writing this blog combined with investing/advising startups — and also in a more traditional role in the gig economy at Uber. We’re seeing a lot of activity across the entire market and it feels like a meaningful addition to add both opportunities for Gig Economy and the Passion Economy together.



The Passion Economy and the Future of Work, by Li Jin

The top-earning writer on the paid newsletter platform Substack earns more than $500,000 a year from reader subscriptions. The top content creator on Podia, a platform for video courses and digital memberships, makes more than $100,000 a month. And teachers across the US are bringing in thousands of dollars a month teaching live, virtual classes on Outschool and Juni Learning.

These stories are indicative of a larger trend: call it the “creator stack” or the “enterprization of consumer.” Whereas previously, the biggest online labor marketplaces flattened the individuality of workers, new platforms allow anyone to monetize unique skills. Gig work isn’t going anywhere—but there are now more ways to capitalize on creativity. Users can now build audiences at scale and turn their passions into livelihoods, whether that’s playing video games or producing video content. This has huge implications for entrepreneurship and what we’ll think of as a “job” in the future.

The Evolution of The Passion Economy

In the past decade, on-demand marketplaces in the “Uber for X” era established turnkey ways for people to make money. Workers could easily monetize their time in specific, narrow services like food delivery, parking, or transportation. These marketplaces automated the matching of supply and demand, as well as pricing, to enhance liquidity. The platforms were convenient for both the user and the provider: since they took care of traditional business hurdles like customer acquisition and pricing, they allowed the worker to focus solely on the service rendered.

But though these platforms provided a path to self-employment for millions of people, they also homogenized the variety between service workers, prioritizing consistency and efficiency. While the promise was “Be your own boss,” the work was often one-dimensional.

Monetizing Individuality

New digital platforms enable people to earn a livelihood in a way that highlights their individuality. These platforms give providers greater ability to build customer relationships, increased support in growing their businesses, and better tools for differentiating themselves from the competition. In the process, they’re fueling a new model of internet-powered entrepreneurship.

It’s akin to the dynamic between Amazon—the standardized, mass-produced monolith—and the indie-focused Shopify, which allows users to form direct relationships with customers. That shift is already evident in marketplaces for physical products; it’s now extending into services.

These new platforms share a few commonalities:

  1. They’re accessible to everyone, not only existing businesses and professionals
  2. They view individuality as a feature, not a bug
  3. They focus on digital products and virtual services
  4. They provide holistic tools to grow and operate a business
  5. They open doors to new forms of work

1. They’re accessible to everyone, not only existing businesses and professionals

New consumer products are making it easy for anyone to become an entrepreneur. In the mid-2010s, the rise of the influencer industry allowed top-tier creators to monetize through advertising. These platforms expanded to support a broader range of money-making activities, from manufacturing physical products (e.g. Vybes, Hipdot, Genflow) to creating personalized videos (Cameo, VIPVR, Celeb VM).

Now the ability to make a living off creative skills has trickled down to individuals at scale, helping everyday people to launch and grow businesses. Previously, only established businesses could access software engineering talent to build websites or apps; now, no-code website and app builders like Webflow and Glide have democratized that ability. Startups are also building mobile-first, lightweight versions of incumbent desktop software: Kapwing, for instance, is a web and mobile editor for videos, GIFs, and images that aims to displace legacy creative software.

Companies have the opportunity to engage entrepreneurs in the early stages, then capture economic value as they grow. They might start with a very basic offering and add product capabilities as their customers earn revenue and develop new needs.

2. They view individuality as a feature, not a bug

Whereas previous services marketplaces were rigidly built for standardized jobs, new platforms highlight variation among workers in categories that can benefit from more diversity in user choice.

Take Outschool, an online marketplace for live video classes in which teachers are predominantly former school teachers and stay-at-home parents. On the platform, instructors can develop their own curricula or browse lists of courses requested by users. Beyond the subject matter, the marketplace’s UI emphasizes each teacher’s background, experience, and self-description. Parents and students can message instructors directly.

Above: Outschool lets teachers sign up to teach engaging video sessions to kids

For new platforms, this model can pose a sizeable risk: once consumers are able to work directly with a preferred provider on an ongoing basis, they may take that relationship offline. Marketplaces can combat disintermediation by offering workflow tools, like scheduling and invoicing, and by building in additional incentives that make it worthwhile for providers and users to remain on-platform. Marketplaces that cultivate these direct relationships can also succeed by focusing on areas—like education and tutoring—in which consumers might have repeated matching needs with a variety of different providers over time.

3. They focus on digital products and virtual services

Whereas past generations of entrepreneurship-enabling platforms typically focused on selling physical products (e.g. Amazon, Etsy, Ebay, Shopify) or in-person services (e.g. Taskrabbit,, Uber), new creator platforms are focused on digital products. A platform built specifically for packaging and selling digital products looks different than a platform that is built for tangible goods.

Podia, Teachable, and Thinkific are all SaaS platforms that allow creators to make and sell video courses and digital memberships. Previously, these types of “knowledge influencers” had to either conduct classes in-person (restricting them to local customers); jerry-rig platforms meant for physical products, like Shopify; or customize sites like Wix and Squarespace. New platforms capitalize on the idea that expertise has economic value beyond a local, in-person audience.

Above: Thinkific lets you create, market, and sell online courses

On the interior design marketplace Havenly, designers work remotely and interact with clients entirely online. For designers, the benefit is a steady stream of clients without the heavy lifting—since Havenly takes care of marketing—and the flexibility to work whenever, wherever. For clients, the benefit is access to a service that would otherwise be expensive or inaccessible.

4. They provide holistic tools to grow and operate a business

Unlike discovery-focused marketplaces, which monetize through advertising, membership fees, or cost-per-lead, new platforms in the creator stack are often monetized through SaaS fees that increase as customers grow. Others take a percentage of the creator’s earnings. This means that platforms are incentivized to help creators succeed and grow, rather than driving discrete, one-time transactions.

Some platforms offer marketing tools like custom landing pages, coupons, and affiliate programs. Others provide behind-the-scenes support: Walden, for instance, connects new entrepreneurs with coaches for strategy and accountability.

Sometimes, support may be bundled into platforms that help providers start a business. For instance, Prenda—a managed marketplace of K-8 microschools—provides teachers (called Guides) with curricula, computers, software, supplies, and assistance in navigating the necessary regulatory requirements and insurance.

5. They open doors to new forms of work entirely

New digital platforms enable forms of work we’ve never seen before:

For a more extensive model of how human capital can give rise to new industries, look to China. On the microblogging site Weibo, for instance, users sell content such as Q&As, exclusive chat groups, and invite-only live streams through memberships or a la carte purchases. This has spawned a wave of non-traditional influencers—financial advisors, bloggers, and professors—beyond typical beauty and fashion tastemakers.

Factors to consider: Marketplaces vs. SaaS

When building a company in this space, it’s important to consider the needs of the creators you’re targeting, as well as their desired audience. There are tradeoffs between marketplaces and SaaS platforms. What’s the difference?

Marketplaces are entirely plug and play, meaning providers can sign up and start earning revenue with minimal set-up. The strength of a marketplace’s two-sided network effect is directly correlated to the value it provides as an intermediary between supply and demand. One example of this model is Medium, which charges readers a subscription fee to access stories across the entire platform. The amount of money a writer makes is proportionate to the amount of time readers spend engaging with their stories.

By contrast, SaaS platforms require creators to work independently to acquire customers. Such platforms might help with distribution—providing tools for marketing, managing customer relationships, and attribution—but users are largely responsible for growing their own businesses. On Substack, for example, features include a writer homepage, mailing list, payments, analytics, and a variety of different subscription offerings. Substack collects a portion of the creator’s subscription revenue.

In the marketplace model, writers count on Medium to drive reader traffic and subscriptions. On the SaaS platform (Substack), writers drive their own direct traffic and subscriptions; they can export their subscriber list at any time.

Marketplaces bring value for creators looking to be discovered and attract customers over time. SaaS tools often make sense for more established creators who already have a customer base. In response to this dynamic, many startups are building SaaS platforms that aim to poach large creators from existing marketplaces.

Looking Ahead

New integrated platforms empower entrepreneurs to monetize individuality and creativity. In the coming years, the passion economy will to continue to grow. We envision a future in which the value of unique skills and knowledge can be unlocked, augmented, and surfaced to consumers.

If you’re building a company in this space, we’d love to chat!

This was originally posted to the a16z blog, which you can subscribe to here.

Written by Andrew Chen

November 4th, 2019 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 lessons from a serial entrepreneur – Justin Kan, Atrium, YC, and Twitch

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Dear readers,

The Serial Entrepreneur — investors want to back them, newbies want to learn from them, and people want to work on their teams. It turns out that, yes, being a repeat entrepreneur comes with big advantages, but there are difficulties too! And when you go through a tough experience like launching a new product, it’s often the case that you want a “do over” on many aspects. Of course, you try to fix them in your next attempt. What does a serial entrepreneur want to do better on their second, or third, or fourth try?

Well, let’s ask Justin Kan, who has started many, many companies and has a point of view. In fact, 10 points of view. As many of you know, Justin is a repeat entrepreneur who co-founded Kiko Software (a Web 2.0 calendar that pre-dated Google Calendar by 4 years); (a lifecasting platform); (a live streaming platform for esports, music, and other creatives now part of Amazon); Socialcam. He was also a partner at YC, and will be a dad soon! (congrats Justin!)

His new company, Atrium, is one of my first investments at Andreessen Horowitz. It’s a tech-enabled law firm serving startups — learn more here.

Justin reflects on his journey and shares 10 + 1 lesson he’s learned along the way.

Here’s the video.

I wanted to add a quick summary of some of his points, as they are super interesting, and share with all of you. And for the lazy who don’t have time to watch a full interview, I added some notes below. Enjoy!



The paradox of choice: choosing a focus

Justin says:

“Once you see some success … The world opens up. They want you to be a VC, they want you to work on projects with them, you can start any company that you want, which is great… but it’s a paradox of choice, and focus can be a huge problem”

This is the biggest, surprising thing about being a repeat entrepreneur, which is how easy it is to get pulled in a ton of directions. And also that you might not be as patient and let something develop, since your perceived opportunity cost is high. Justin ended up trying many different options — including as a partner of YC — and didn’t feel like he was learning/growing and the feedback cycle is too slow. Justin ended up picking a new startup because it’s the #1 vehicle for personal growth.

Tradeoffs between B2B versus B2C companies

Justin says:

“When we started Kiko, we had no skills. I never had a full-time job in my life … We were not good. When you have nothing going for you except that you are willing to put in long hours, and blood sweat and tears, you should focus on market risk… Now as someone with abilities and skills, you should focus on execution risk”

I often spend my time in the intersection of pure consumer startups and also consumerized enterprise, and notice that there are huge differences. One of the biggest ones is that B2B startups have relatively stable go-to-market motions — you have sales, marketing, and sell into buyers that you understand. Because of this, it’s mostly about execution and if the market size is big enough. Consumer is fascinating because the distribution channels are constantly changing — 15 years ago, SEO and email viral growth was the big thing. Then 10 years ago, it was mobile and Facebook platform. Right now you are seeing a lot that’s just word of mouth or touching the IRL channel.

Market risk vs execution risk

Justin says:

“When pivoted to Twitch, no one believed there was a market. Even Emmett was skeptical. The good part was that competition was low. ”

And also:

“It takes a lot of people with nothing to lose to discover [hit startups].”

I’ve written about how random consumer products seem to be — the past decade’s hits were: An app that lets you get into strangers’ cars. An app that lets you stay at random peoples’ houses. Disappearing photos. A site that doesn’t let you play video games, but you can watch other people play. Seriously? This is the Dumb Idea Paradox.

Fundraising strategy: go big or stay lean?

Justin says:

“I’ve not convinced that raising a ton of money out of the gate is the right strategy. When you have a ton of money you spend a lot of money.”

Nearly 10 years ago, Ben Horowitz wrote The Case for the Fat Startup — the idea that sometimes you need to raise a boatload of money in order to get your company off the ground. In Atrium’s case, that’s exactly aligned, because the market wants a stable legal provider, and as an execution risk with clear competition, real capital has to go in to prove out the model.

Managing the stress of being a startup CEO (again!)

Justin says:

“I never really worked on self-improvement stuff outside of being a better programmer. But I never worked on anything to make myself smarter, or harder working, or alert more hours of the day. Everything was kind of accidental. If there was a problem in the company, I would be really emotionally avoidant to it.”

The topic of mental health within a startup community has turned into a big deal — for good reason. Doing a startup is one of the most stressful things you can do in the age of cushy, white-collar jobs, and there haven’t been great ways to cope. Justin talks about his newfound focus on self-improvement, working with coaches, and speaking with his peers.

Seeking out mentors, coaches, and peers for help

Justin says:

“The best part of Silicon Valley is that there are people here who’ve done it before, who are willing to help you.”


“I learn from [Emmett, his Twitch co-founder, his brother who’s cofounder of Cruise, and his friend Steve who runs Reddit]. The problems are actually all the same: I don’t have the right alignment among my team and I don’t have the right executive team. And it’s always some variation of those things.”

I mention in the interview that IMHO this is one of the best things about the Bay Area — it’s a place focused on long-term relationships, and people help each other over the years. I met Justin over a decade ago and haven’t gotten the chance to work directly until now. And no matter where you are in the ecosystem there are always quite a few folks a step ahead, or a young up-and-comer who has a fresher take on things.

Intentionally designing a culture to avoid the pitfalls of “culture eating strategy”

Justin says:

“I had never asked myself, what is the kind of company I want to show up to work?”

There’s a saying that initially, a startup is about building a product that works — that’s the machine. But eventually you have to transition into building the machine that builds the machine — meaning company building, as opposed to product building. Culture is the core glue that holds everything together, and sometimes a startup idea is so strong that it works regardless of the culture. But it can be even more effective when it works.

Things he’s still doing in his latest startup—and things he’s doing very differently

Justin says:

“Iterating quickly. Speed. Being helpful in the community.”

There’s some things that worked out great in a startup that are worth repeating. This is true when you’ve seen some success, in particular. And there are some things that you want to change completely. Justin talks about the “YC ethos” of iterating quickly and leaning on speed. But as both a16z and his previous companies have done, he argues that it’s important to help the community.

Managing higher expectations

Justin says:

“It’s always a battle with the devil on your shoulder that says you’ll never be good enough. And the way to win that battle is to internalize the idea that whatever happens, you’re gonna be fine. You’re probably going to be the same — not happier or less happy”

When you read the academic research on happiness, one of the intriguing ideas is that people have a “set point” for their level of happiness, and in general it doesn’t change much. If you get that, then it helps level out the ups and downs of something stressful. This is important to startups, of course, but also to many other things in life!

What he’s reading and listening to

Justin says:

“I’m reading a lot, because I deleted all the entertainment apps off my phone including the browser and I locked it so I can’t install new apps because I was a total phone addict.”

He goes on to list:

Bonus: advice he’d give his 20-year old self

Justin says:

“Join Facebook. Self-improvement is a thing. Stop eating pizza. Things take time.”

I, on the other hand, would encourage my 20 year old self to eat more pizza. Hope you enjoy the interview!

Written by Andrew Chen

July 25th, 2019 at 11:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

28 ways to grow supply in a marketplace — by Lenny Rachitsky, ex-Airbnb

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Hi readers,

The growth teams at Uber and Airbnb occasionally met over the years to share best practices, brainstorm ideas, and share observations on the startup world. I’ve had folks over to 1455 Market St, the headquarters of Uber, and I’ve reciprocated with visits to the Airbnb offices too. I’ve learned a ton from these conversations, and met awesome people along the way!

While both consumer marketplaces are very different — one is a city-by-city transportation service, the other a global network of homes — they also share a lot of similarities too: Both were founded within a year of each other, quickly found network effects, made major design innovations that made the consumer experience 10X better, and much more. Importantly, both companies are tremendous growth stories, and have needed to grow both demand but especially supply in all of their markets globally.

Today, I have a wonderful guest essay to share by Lenny Rachitsky (@lennysan) — he’s recently left Airbnb after 7 years, much of his recent years as the product leader on Supply Growth. We’re all lucky that he’s now sharing his wisdom more widely!

This discussion is critical because the supply side — homes/hosts for Airbnb and drivers for Uber — are the most important aspect of most consumer marketplace startups, which I’ve written about this in my previous essay, “Why Uber for X Startups Failed: The Supply Side is King.” Lenny’s essay below discusses a comprehensive list of tactics and ideas around growing this critical side of the market. It’s fantastic, and I hope you enjoy it.



Twenty Eight Ways to Grow Supply in a Marketplace

By Lenny Rachitsky

Airbnb now seems like an unstoppable juggernaut, but early on it was so fragile that about 30 days of going out and engaging in person with users made the difference between success and failure.
— Paul Graham, founder of YC

Deciding to open your home to strangers is a complex decision. Over the course of the seven years that I spent at Airbnb, my work centered around helping people all over the world make this decision. As the number of homes on Airbnb scaled from around 100,000 in 2012 to over 6 million today, I led teams tackling everything from supply growth, to guest booking conversion, to marketplace quality. As a result of this experience, I’m often asked what I’d recommend startups do to grow supply in their marketplace. The truth is that at the root of Airbnb’s success was a very good idea — affordable and unique travel experiences for guests, and great income for hosts. That being said, an idea is nothing without execution.

Below is an overview of every tactic and strategy I’ve seen used to bootstrap and accelerate supply growth, both at Airbnb and other successful marketplaces. Though some of these worked at Airbnb, and some didn’t, every marketplace has different challenges — my advice is to pick a few tactics that resonate, experiment with them, learn, and adjust.

Tactic #1: Nail the value prop on your site/app 👌

Understanding the context and expectations of your audience is vital to engaging them. At Airbnb we tailored the value props all the way from ad creative to landing pages.
— Dan Hill, ex-Airbnb Growth Lead, CEO of Alma

What: You need to convince visitors why they should become “hosts” on your platform when they visit your site (and then deliver on that promise). This may be obvious, but this is a foundational piece that enhances every other tactic below. It’s especially impactful for marketplaces that primarily grow organically because you’ll end up converting a significantly larger portion of your traffic.

Stage: Start on day 1, and continue iterating

Cost: Small

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: X-Large


At Airbnb, the earnings estimate was an order of magnitude more effective than any other value prop. Any time we hid or obscured it, growth dipped. However, it’s critical that this estimate is realistic, both for legal reasons and to set the right expectations for your users.


  • Take your best shot at the pitch at first, and keep iterating as you learn more about your users.
  • Help the user understand how they would benefit from hosting with you, and address all of their concerns. In most cases, it’s primarily going to be about the income they can make.
  • Deliver on the promise. Or at least get close. This will lead to word-of-mouth growth, which is key.

Question: What has worked when pitching your existing “hosts”? Make sure your site/app says the same thing boldly and directly.


Tactic #2: Add entry points to the value prop 👉

What: Drive your site visitors towards your “host” pitch. This includes call-outs in the top level nav, in the footer of every screen, and sprinkled throughout the user experience. Do not assume your visitors know this exists, or why they should ever consider it.

Stage: Start on day 1, and continue iterating

Cost: Small

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Large



  • It’s hard to have too many entry points into your “host” pitch. Users will ignore it if it doesn’t apply to them. Resist the urge to be shy about this, especially if you are supply constrained.
  • Every time your user has a good experience, encourage them to become a “host”, to provide this experience to others (while making money).
  • Be more aggressive with this than you’re comfortable.

Question: Where else can you include a call-out to consider becoming a “host”?


Tactic #3: Offer a referrals program 👭

If your product requires word-of-mouth to convince most people to start using it, you can engineer more growth by building an incentivized referrals program. The incentive will be fuel that pushes people over the edge to tell their friends about something they love using
— Gustaf Alströmer, ex-Airbnb Growth Lead, Partner at YC

What: Incentivize word-of-mouth by paying existing members for every new member they refer to the platform.

Stage: Start early with a scrappy version, and get smarter over time

Cost: Medium

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Large


At Airbnb, the host referral program became the single most efficient and effective growth lever for consumer supply, cost efficiently driving both the largest share of attributable supply AND the highest quality supply


  • If most of your supply growth is coming from word-of-mouth, and especially if your users have large social graphs, then a referrals program is going to be huge for you.
  • Once you have this, don’t hide it. Promote it throughout the user experience.
  • Once you reach scale, fraud becomes a real issue. Watch for it as you grow, and invest in addressing it.

Question: What’s the simplest way you can test a referrals offering?


Tactic #4: Run direct sales ☎️

After calling and activating 100 listings in a market, we then drove demand there to see what converted. We then called these hosts to help them convert their requests into bookings. This was all manual, but super effective, all the while we were getting direct market feedback.
— Georg Bauser, ex-International Expansion at Airbnb

What: Call, email, or go door-to-door to pitch potential “hosts” on joining your platform. Sometimes this includes convincing them to switch from a different platform, sometimes it includes teaching them how to do it in the first place. This tactic is one of the more complex and operationally heavy, but also often the most effective at bootstrapping a marketplace.

Stage: Early-stage for B2C, an evergreen lever for B2B

Cost: Medium

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Medium-Large



  • Hand-hold your early members. Help each new early member becomes successful in order to seed the platform with the type of supply you want. As a bonus, these early hosts will become loyal and unlikely to switch to a competitor, because you are building the business together.
  • This tactic is particularly effective if your supply is un-commoditized and has high LTV, and if you’re creating a new market or behavior.
  • Be creative in how you figure out contact information.

Question: What’s stopping you from cold-calling potential “hosts” today?


Tactic #5: Piggy-back off of existing networks 🔌

Initially, the Etsy team were freelance web designers and one of their clients was a craft forum called Throughout the redesign process, the Etsy team interacted with the website’s 10,000 users to best understand their needs. They began to notice that there was a large number of users who were looking for a platform to sell their handmade wares. While they were building Etsy, they also found out about, this time a message board with 100,000 users and were able to tap into another willing market. We extended an accommodating bridge to a preexisting online community, and they jumped aboard happily.
— Chris Maguire, co-founder of Etsy

What: Go to the place your existing supply is distributed and convince them to switch.

Stage: Early-stage

Cost: Small

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Large



  • To be successful here, you’ll have to be “creative” in how you do said piggy-backing. Airbnb piggy-backed off of Craigslist for both supply and demand.
  • Make it super easy to switch from them to you.
  • You will only win if you can drive more demand or profit to that same supply. Otherwise, why would they choose you?

Question: Where do people currently find what you are offering, and is there a way you can piggy-back off of that channel?


Tactic #6: Hold meetups 👋

To launch a city, we’d travel there and hold a meetup. Here in San Francisco, it’s not a big deal to meet a founder. In other places, that’s pretty novel. They would get so excited that they met us that they’d tell their friends. The markets started turning on, and we religiously focused on making sure customers loved us.
— Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb

What: Bring “hosts” and anyone considering become a host together in person. This can be small intimate gatherings or large’ish events.

Stage: Early-stage

Cost: Small

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Medium early-stage, Small late-stage



  • The highest value of the meetups is for employees to listen to users, to answer questions, and simply to give people a chance to meet and share. Resist the urge to fill the time with presentations and speeches.
  • You don’t need to spend a bunch of money on each meetup. They can be scrappy and simple.
  • Don’t expect to be able to quantify the impact of hosting meetups. We tried this many times and we never saw any measurable impact. But, looking back, it’s clear that it was important early on.

Question: Where is your early community most concentrated? Why aren’t you there right now?


Tactic #7: Leverage events and PR 🎪

In the early days we targeted a lot of events: the DNC, the Presidential Inauguration, music festivals, the World Cup, Olympics, etc. Events and PR were the main way we bootstrapped the network in the early days.
— Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb

What: Leverage a specific event to pitch potential “hosts” and seed PR stories about how your service is helping people.

Stage: Early-stage

Cost: Small

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Medium



  • Find ways to be creative and stand out during the event.
  • Use that same creativity to develop PR pitches. What would give the press an interesting angle on the event?
  • Get on the ground. You need to be there, hustling.

Question: Are there punctuating moments where your offering is most beneficial for your supply?


Tactic #8: Run performance marketing 💰

Performance marketing is about reaching people where they are, inspiring them to take action and doing so cost effectively. You quickly learn that it’s a unique blend of art and science, and we were most effective at scaling this powerful lever when we had a dedicated cross-functional team sitting together — product, marketing, engineering, data science, design, content, and finance.
— Fatima Husain, ex-Airbnb host paid growth lead, Principal at Comcast Ventures

What: Run Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. ads.

Stage: Early-stage for some businesses, late-stage for others

Cost: Medium/Large

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Medium



  • Knowing your supply LTV is key, so that you know how much you can spend.
  • You can figure out the basics yourself, but try to hire people that have done this before.
  • This lever works, but can easily become addicting.

Question: Where do your potential “hosts” spend time online?


Tactic #9: Convert demand to supply 🙃

Converting travelers to hosts definitely moved the needle when we launched a new market. Plus, these new hosts were the most empathetic as they remembered the guest’s needs.
— Kati Schmidt, ex-Head of B.D., Airbnb Germany

What: Convince users to become “hosts” on the platform. This builds on Tactic #2 — go deeper into the user experience and find moments when it makes sense to pitch “hosting” (e.g. after a great experience).

Stage: Start early, and continue iterating

Cost: Small

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Medium early-on, Small later-stage



  • This can be manual/ops based at first, and productized over time.
  • Think about a clever pitch you can make to your users, e.g. “Pay for your trip by hosting your home”.
  • See how Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb do this throughout the demand-side experience.

Question: What percentage of your demand could potentially be the supply? If it’s in double digits, see if you can suggest or even incentivize this behavior.


Tactic #10: Invest in SEO ⛓

What: Drive organic search traffic to your site.

Stage: Early for some businesses, late-stage for others

Cost: Small

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Small


  • SEO is generally more effective for demand. I haven’t seen SEO be a major driver of growth on the supply side, including at Airbnb.
  • The best SEO content is user-generated-content that is created as a part of the user experience.
  • Find an SEO expert to help you figure this out.

Question: What job are you solving for potential “hosts”, and what does that translate to when they search for solutions?


Tactic #11: Acquire supply 🤑

We needed to move fast and acquiring companies with inventory in these competitive markets provided an immediate benefit. Often times the expense of the acquiring the company that had the inventory was cheaper than the cost to go about acquisition in an organic way. The key is to understand the migration percentage that would come through. We aimed for 60–80% to migrate over.
— Jonathan Golden, first PM at Airbnb, partner at NEA

What: Acquire companies that currently have the supply you want.

Stage: Always

Cost: Large (but strategic)

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Small globally, Large in key markets


  • Airbnb: Crashpadder, Statthotel
  • Rover: DogBuddy, DogVacay
  • Eventbrite: Ticketfly, Picatic


  • Since you are betting on network effects, the value of that supply to your network should be much higher to you than to a small local company. Thus, it may be worth paying a premium.
  • Make sure the supply you are buying is actually good.
  • Don’t underestimate the work it’ll take to migrate the supply, both technically and interpersonally.

Question: Are there small players with a strategic foothold you can acquire or merge with?


Tactic #12: Partner with supply aggregators 👋

What: Plug-in a partner’s supply into your marketplace, through partnerships, licensing, or even scraping.

Stage: Always

Cost: Small

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Small



  • Be strategic and thoughtful about the type and quality of supply you bring on. The quality and experience with that supply will reflect directly on your brand, not theirs.
  • Make sure you are clear on your long-term competitive advantage, and not only growing this partner’s business. What’s your differentiator, and how will you maintain it?
  • Make sure the user experience is smooth and feels native.

Question: What would be the biggest upside of adding 3rd party supply to your marketplace?


Tactic #13: Build your own supply 💪

One of the smartest things we did in the early days of Udemy was produce our own courses. Production (i.e. filming & editing video content) is a huge friction point in our supply-side process. So, we produced a few of our own courses in the beginning and then marketed the heck out of them. This wasn’t scalable, but it did allow us to build powerful social proof points which were critical to our long-term success.
— Dinesh Thiru, VP of Marketing at Udemy

What: In some marketplaces, you can either bootstrap supply by creating it yourself (e.g. videos), pay early users to become supply (e.g. Uber/Lyft paying drivers a salary), or your build your entire business on your own supply (e.g. Sonder).

Stage: Depends on business

Cost: Medium/Large

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Small



  • Set the norms through the type of supply you create.
  • Often not possible due to the business model.
  • Be careful about the legal implications.

Question: What would it cost to build your own supply, and how does that compare to customer acquisition costs?


Tactic #14: Run broadcast and out-of-home ads 📺

What: TV commercials, podcast ads, movie ads, etc.

Stage: Always

Cost: X-Large

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Small



  • Don’t expect to ever be able to measure the impact. Because you won’t.
  • The main benefit is generally brand-building.
  • Do something unique and noteworthy.

Question: Are your potential “hosts” watching the same (ideally not super-popular) media or passing through the same physical parts of town?


Tactic #15: Run affiliate marketing 📝

What: Incentivize content producers to send you traffic by paying them for every member they refer.

Stage: Mid/Late

Cost: Small/Medium

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Small



  • Takes very few people to operate, should pay for itself from day 1.
  • There are companies out there that do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.
  • Make sure to have brand guidelines that content creators must follow, otherwise the content ends up being bad.

Question: Are your competitors doing affiliate marketing?


Tactic #16: Send direct mail 📬

What: Send potential “hosts” physical mail, pitching them on your platform.

Stage: Always

Cost: Medium

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Small



  • This is an under-appreciated channel.
  • Tricky to measure, but possible.
  • Check out Lob to make this super easy.

Question: Is this a channel your competition hasn’t tried yet?


Tactic #17: Optimize conversion 📈

All conversion optimization should start with user research. The biggest gains in optimization don’t come from brute-force A/B tests, but from trying to understand the real barriers to people using your product. For example, early at Airbnb we realized that the biggest hurdle for new hosts was knowing how much to charge for their space. So we built price guideance into the flow.
— Dan Hill, ex-Airbnb Growth Lead, CEO of Alma

What: Improving the percentage of people that start publishing that actually finish it.

Stage: Start early, and continue iterating

Cost: Small

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Medium


  • Top-of-funnel levers will generally be orders-of-magnitude higher impact than any mid-funnel levers like this one, but early on are often low-risk big-wins. Later-stage, you can continue to squeeze % point’s of growth for a while.
  • Figure out which part of the conversion funnel is the biggest issue, and focus all of your efforts there. Be careful spreading yourself too thinly across the entire funnel.
  • In my experience, a big redesign of the flow often ends up hurting conversion.

Question: Which part of the funnel is most important to improve, and what are three things you do to improve this?


Tactic #18: Send re-engagement emails/pushes 📩

What: Emailing users that didn’t complete publishing, encouraging them to finish.

Stage: Always

Cost: Small

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Small/Medium


  • You’ll get most of the win by simply having an email, and then quickly hit diminishing returns once optimizing it a few times.
  • Don’t be afraid to send a few reminders.
  • Make the CTA extremely clear.

Question: What’s one helpful thing you can suggest to bounced users to re-inspire them?


Tactic #19: Make re-engagement calls 📞

What: Calling users that didn’t complete publishing, encouraging them to finish.

Stage: Early-stage for B2C, an evergreen lever for B2B

Cost: Medium

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Small


  • Always ask users why they didn’t finish the process — this should inform your roadmap and processes.
  • Early on you can use this as a customer development opportunity.
  • Long-term, measure the ROI to make sure it’s worth the time.

Question: Which bounced users appear to be the most valuable and worth a call?


Tactic #20: Optimize activation

When I think about the ROI of things that you can do in a business, make certain that your customer is safely handed from acquisition to the activation. Make certain that they are activated and you have done everything in your power in order to make certain they have found their “Aha” moment and they have began habit forming.
— Shaun Clowes, CPO at Metromile

What: Getting new users to a key milestone that you believe is important for long-term retention. This is sometimes called the “aha” moment.

Stage: Early/Mid-stage

Cost: Small

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Small/Medium



  • First, you need to figure out what milestone is key to a new “hosts” long-term success. It’s rarely an exact science.
  • Goal your supply teams on reaching this point, vs. simply when they go live.
  • Adjust this milestone if you learn something new down the road.

Question: What’s the one most impactful thing a “host” can do to improve their chances of getting booked?


Tactic #21: Optimize retention 🔐

Retention is the core of your growth model and influences every other input to your model. This is important because if you improve retention, you’ll also improve the rest of your funnel.
— Brian Balfour, Founder/CEO of Reforge

What: Increasing the percentage of new users that stick around for at least X months.

Stage: Always

Cost: Small

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Medium early-stage, Small late-stage


  • At Airbnb, we didn’t spend a lot of time focused directly on retention. When we did, the majority of our efforts centered around helping new hosts get booked and have a great first stay.
  • Excellent retention reading over at Reforge, including Why Retention Is The Silent Killer and Retention is Hard, and Getting Harder — Here’s Why.
  • Retention metrics roundup of articles and links by Andrew Chen.
  • Casey Winters on how to create long-term growth


  • In my experience, it’s difficult to significantly impact retention head-on. The key is that your product/service needs to continue to be genuinely useful. Make it more useful and retention will grow.
  • Track retention by cohort, vs. globally.
  • Make sure to capture data on why people leave, to inform future work.

Question: What is the single most common theme in why “hosts” leave, and what can you do about it?


Tactic #22: Expand existing supply 🤲

What: Convince existing successful “hosts” to increase the number of units they offer.

Stage: Always

Cost: Small

Impact on Airbnb supply growth: Small


  • An Airbnb host buying additional properties to manage.
  • A Hipcamp host adding additional campsites.
  • An Outschool teacher offering additional classes.


  • This can be one of the biggest growth drivers for certain businesses, don’t underestimate the potential here.
  • In some cases, this is going to be easy (e.g. online classes), in some very hard (e.g. homes).
  • Educate users on what kind of new supply would be most successful. Channel their excitement and point them in the right direction.

Question: Have you actually talked to your successful “hosts” about adding additional supply?

Strategy #1: Increase benefits, reduce costs ⚖️

What: Potential “hosts” will do mental calculus when considering signing up: is the cost (e.g. work, risk) worth the benefits (e.g. money, status). Make a list of ways to increase the benefits and reduce the costs, do them, and share this clearly.

Stage: Start on day 1, and continue iterating


  • Airbnb — Reduce costs: Host Guarantee, free photography
  • Airbnb — Increase benefits: Guaranteed revenue, online payments
  • Uber — Reduce costs: Car leasing, guaranteed income
  • Uber — Increase benefits: Choose when to get paid, flexible hours


Building it won’t be enough, make sure to make it clear what you do for your users to increase benefits and reduce cost.


Strategy #2: Single-player mode

OpenTable sold software to restaurants that created value for them without requiring any diners on the “buyer” side of the marketplace. They built a unique table management and CRM product (the “Electronic Reservation Book”) and charged a subscription fee for the service. The initial benefit to restaurant customers was the software. Once OpenTable acquired hundreds of restaurants in a city, they started to have a compelling diner value proposition.
— Eli Chait, ex-Director of PM at OpenTable

What: Make the platform to “hosts” useful even when there is no demand.

Stage: Early-stage



  • In most marketplaces, supply is king, so your single-player-mode should generally be focused on the supply side.
  • This won’t be possible for every marketplace.


Strategy #3: Get to critical mass 💥

Our co-founder Nate Blecharczyk is highly quantitative and had determined that 300 listings, with 100 reviewed listings, was the magic number to see growth take off in a market. Observing New York, Paris, and a few other top markets, we saw a step-function change in the rate of bookings growth at 300 listings, the point at which guests had enough options to find a listing that matched their tastes and their travel dates.
— Jonathan Golden, first PM at Airbnb, partner at NEA

What: There is a point at which you have enough supply that you see an inflection point in demand conversion — estimate it and get your supply to that number.

Stage: Early-stage



  • Don’t overthink it. Figure out a milestone enough people believe within the org, and use it until you can figure out something better. It’s more important to have something good-enough than to have nothing.


Strategy #4: Bootstrap trust 🤝

We looked at people’s willingness to trust someone, based on how similar they are in age, location, and geography. The research showed, not surprisingly, we prefer people who are like us. The more different somebody is, the less we trust them. That’s a natural social bias. What’s interesting is what happens when we add reputation to the mix — in our case with reviews. When you have less than three reviews, nothing changes. But if you’ve got more than ten, everything changes. High reputation beats high similarity. The right design can actually help us overcome one of our most deeply rooted biases.
— Joe Gebbia, Co-Founder of Airbnb and CPO

What: At first all you have is new supply, but users have no reason to trust it. Give them reasons to trust.

Stage: Early-stage


Airbnb: Early employees were given credit to travel for free as long as they left reviews for new hosts.
Airbnb: Make the supply look great, e.g. free photography, structured data with limited customization.
Airbnb: Reduce risk, e.g. Handle payments online, Host Guarantee, 24/7 support.
Uber and Airbnb:


Strategy #5: Internationalization ⛩

Internationalization is a challenge and risky. But tech companies need to be global to win. It’s about the right strategy and answering the right questions at the right time. Not going international is a wasted growth opportunity.
— Georg Bauser, ex-International Expansion at Airbnb

What: Make your site and experience work outside of initial native language/culture. This includes building out translations, local payment types, customer support in those languages, and often people on the ground getting things rolling.

Stage: Mid-stage



  • International expansion is often one of the major inflection points for growth accelerating, so time it wisely.
  • Pick the markets you want to win and go big there, vs. going broad immediately. It’s hard enough to win one market.
  • This often requires doing things that don’t scale at first.


Strategy #6: Segment supply 👩‍🌾 👩‍✈️👩‍🔬

Early on Airbnb presented only one image of itself to hosts. Many types of hosts deemed the platform unsuitable, but opening ourselves and marketing to business travel hosts and luxury home hosts gave those hosts a message they wanted to hear. They could host the types of guest they felt were suitable for their property. This allowed us to onboard inventory we previously couldn’t, and gave existing hosts more optionality in how they marketed to and serviced those guests.
— Marc McCabe, ex-Head of Airbnb for Business

What: Determine what categories of supply you have and/or want, and dedicate teams to growing that type of supply. Generally, different categories require very different tactics, skills sets, and operating cadences.

Stage: Mid/Late-stage


  • Airbnb: Private homes, vacation rentals, luxury home.
  • Uber: Black cars, individual car owner, scooter.
  • eBay: Individual sellers, brick and mortar stores, wholesalers.


  • When introducing a new class of supply, there are many important considerations, including making sure you have a team whose ass is on the line for making this supply successful, making sure the demand side is set up to convert this new supply well, and avoiding overly diluting your marketplace differentiation.
  • New segments often appear organically, and it’s up to you to decide if (and when) you want to double down on segment, or squash it.
  • For the more professional segments, you’ll likely need to build advanced tools and integrations in order to fit into their existing workflows.



Final thoughts

Looking back at my time at Airbnb, a few things become clear. One, there were no silver bullets — success came from many wins building on each other. Two, most things we tried didn’t have an impact — but enough did. Three, it all only made sense in hindsight. My advice to you as you navigate scaling your marketplace is above all else, stay focused on providing value to your users. Their success will make or break you. Beyond that, avoid spreading your team too thinly across many tactics (aka focus), double down on the things that show promise (aka focus), and never lose sight of your north star (aka focus). Also, focus.

For more writings about growth, product, management, and related topics, make sure to subscribe to my new newsletter and hit me up on twitter.



Thank you Gustaf Alströmer, Andrew Chen, Jonathan Golden, Fatima Husain, Marc McCabe, Dan Hill, Kati Schmidt, and Georg Bauser for reviewing early drafts of this post and contributing great ideas. 🙏

Written by Andrew Chen

June 25th, 2019 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Why startups are hard — the math of venture capital returns tells the story

without comments

Dear readers,

I’m happy to announce I’ve completed my first year in my new role at a16z, and it’s been a blast! I will write more about it coming up, but in the meantime, it’s very timely that my colleague Scott Kupor has written a new book, Secrets of Sand Hill Road, with the fun subtitle “Venture capital and how to get it.” I’ve had the pleasure of reading ahead of its release, and as expected, it’s excellent, and provides a detailed guide and fantastic in depth info on everything you’d want to know about venture capital. As an author, Scott could not have more street cred — he joined and built a16z from the very early years, and is our go-to on all the nitty gritty of the industry for the whole team.

You can (and should!) pre-order the book here »

There’s a bunch of great topics, including:

  • Why the skill you need most when raising venture capital is the ability to tell a compelling story.
  • What to do when VCs get too entangled in the day-to-day operations of the business.
  • Why you need to build relationships with potential acquirers long before you decide to sell.
  • Why most VCs typically invest in only one startup in a given business category. 

The math of startups and venture capital
Of all the topics of the book, one of my favorites has to be the math of startups and venture capital, because it gives us a perspective on the life and death of startups as a whole. Because venture capital is an index of the broader startup ecosystem, it can tell us a lot — everything from how often the Ubers, Dropboxes, Facebooks, and Googles emerge as startups, to how quickly doomed startups typically fail.

All of these tell you why many venture capitalists ultimately end up being interested in companies that want (and can!) get big — and it’s not the right way to finance the vast majority of new companies, many of whom are more focused on smaller markets or slower growth business models. I want to share a couple slides that Benedict Evans from a16z presented a few years back to make this point:

The above tells an amazing story: Over the past few decades, a small number of startups — 6% — end up driving 60% of the returns.

And I suspect if we were to dig into the 6%, we see that just a small number, probably a dozen or so per year, that drive a substantial amount. In other words, the startups that end up big end up really big. These startups aren’t just unicorns, they are another order of magnitude more successful than that.

It also tells you why, as an entrepreneur, that investors are so focused on network effects, high margins, technology differentiation, a 10X product experience, etc. — these are the foundational drivers that help create this super huge outcomes.

Above: Here’s another surprise from the data, which is that the best investors don’t seem to be better at avoiding startups that fail. It’s not about the downside. Instead, the data says that a “good” 2-3x fund and a fantastic >5x fund lose money about the same % of the time.

However, for a fantastic fund, its winners are much, much bigger than everyone else’s. For these top funds, the biggest startups end up generating 90% of the returns. It’s all about upside! For startups that ask why investors seem so obsessed with market size and say that few ideas are big enough, here’s the data that explains why.

The J-Curve
Finally, there is the concept of the J-curve in venture capital investing in which you look at a basket of startups over a long period — say, 10 years — and see how the returns look. And it often resembles a J, where the early years look pretty bad! And then eventually the big winners get bigger and bigger, picking up momentum to ultimately drive returns for the fund.

It looks like this:

This graph demonstrates the phrase that “lemons ripen early” — as Secrets of Sand Hill Road discusses. A portfolio of startups will often have early losses as the teams without product/market fit run out of money early. The successful ones that will become the winners take time to emerge. These days, it can take 3-5+ years from the company’s inception to see its true growth trajectory. As a result, there’s a J-curve that shows early losses followed by the successful startups making up the different in the later years.

If you are as fascinated as I am about all of this, I know you’ll enjoy Scott’s book. I want to leave you with an excerpt below. In the section, he discusses the J-curve in detail and why it behaves why it does. Hope you enjoy it!

Thanks for reading, and more from me soon.



Secrets of Sand Hill Road: Venture Capital and How to Get It
by Scott Kupor

“Carried Interest”

The heart of compensation for GPs (at least for those who are successful investors) is carried interest. It’s rumored that the term “carried interest” derives from medieval traders who carried cargo on their ships that belonged to others. As financial compensation for the journey, the traders were entitled to 20 percent of the profits on the cargo. That sounds very civilized, if not rich. I’ve also heard—although my Google search is failing me now—that the carry portion of carried interest referred to the fact that the traders were allowed to keep as profit whatever portion of the cargo they could literally “carry” off the ship of their own volition. I prefer that story.

Regardless of its historical origins, carried interest in the VC context refers to the portion of the profits that the GP generates on her investments and that she is entitled to keep. As with the management fee, the actual amount of carried interest varies among venture funds but often ranges between 20 and 30 percent of the profits.

As it turns out, how we define “profits” and how and when the GP decides to distribute those profits to herself and her LPs is a matter for negotiation in the LPA.

Let’s use a simple example to illustrate.

Go back to that $100 million venture fund we talked about before, and assume that we are in year three of the fund’s existence. The GP invested $10 million in a portfolio company earlier in the fund’s life, and now the company is sold for $60 million. So, on paper at least, the GP has generated a tidy profit of $50 million for that investment. She’s also invested the rest of the $90 million in other companies, but none of those has yet been sold or gone public. Ah, she can taste the carry check already!

But how does the money get divvied up between the LPs and the GP? Let’s assume that the GP has a 20 percent carried interest; in simple terms that means that when the fund earns a profit, 20 percent of that goes to the GP.

So, in our example, the GP is sitting on a $60 million check, of which $50 million represents profit, and wants to give 80 percent of the profit (or $40 million) to the fund’s LPs and keep 20 percent (or $10 million) for herself. The other $10 million in this example will go back to the LPs as a return of their original capital. We’ll come back to this later in this chapter and add some additional complexity to this.

But wait a second. Is there really a profit on which the GP is entitled to take her 20 percent? The answer is maybe. We need to take a little detour to introduce two other important concepts before we can conclusively answer the question.

As with fine wine, VC funds should get better with age. In fact, that’s why people in the industry refer to funds by their “vintage year” (or birth year), just as winemakers date mark their wines based on the year of the grape harvest.

As we discussed earlier, in the early years of a fund, VCs are calling capital from LPs and investing that capital in companies. This is a decidedly negative cash flow motion—money is going out with (likely) no near-term prospect of money coming in. That’s an expected effect, but eventually a VC must harvest some of those investments in the form of those companies going public or being sold.
The effect of calling capital from LPs in the early years coupled with the long gestation cycles for companies to grow and ultimately exit—in many cases it takes ten or more years for companies to be sold or go public—creates what is known as the “J curve.”

As you see in the above picture, the LP has negative cash flow (from the capital it’s giving to the venture firm for investment) in the early years of a fund and (hopefully) positive cash flow in the later years of the fund, a combination both of the capital having already been called and invested and the portfolio companies being sold or going public.

Venture capital is truly a long-term game. But, as explained in our discussion of the Yale endowment in chapter 4, cash does eventually need to come out the other end. Successful GPs will manage their portfolios to drive to this outcome, which can affect how they interact with entrepreneurs on this topic.

One phrase you often hear in the hallowed halls of VC firms is “lemons ripen early.” That is, the non-performing companies tend to manifest themselves close in time to the initial investment. Interestingly, this exacerbates the J-curve problem in that not only are VCs investing cash in the early years of a fund, but the non-performing assets are certainly not helping the GP return money to the LPs.

Reprinted with permission of Portfolio Books

Written by Andrew Chen

June 3rd, 2019 at 10:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Podcast Ecosystem in 2019 – a16z’s 68 page analysis

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Dear readers,

Podcasting has been a slow burn, and has turned into a movement. 90 million Americans now listen to podcasts, and if your behavior is anything like mine, it’s turned into a multi-hour per week habit. I reach for my podcasts whenever I’m commuting, whenever I’m doing a long walk between offices, or if I’m doing random stuff around the house. No wonder the consumer investment team ended up digging into this trend by doing a market map report — the analysis led by Li Jin, Avery Segal and Bennett Carroccio, including work from myself, Connie Chan, and others.

See below for a long-form analysis everything we’ve observed in the podcasting industry. It was originally published on There’s a lot to read here, but I wanted to highlight a couple of my takeaways and what I’m looking for now:

  • Podcasting is big, mainstream, but severely undermonetized — and some of the biggest opportunities in the podcasting space lay in pivoting the business model from ads into some kind of direct payment. I’m looking for startups that can change the game there.
  • The bigger idea is actually “audio”, not specifically podcasting. And in fact, the combined revenue of Headspace and Calm are more than half of the entire podcasting market. Whoa! I’d be interested in other products that tap into the trends around AirPods, Alexa, voice assistants, etc., but may not directly sound like podcasting
  • After this analysis, I’m looking for really differentiated verticals of audio. Meditation is one, but what about something that’s at a much higher price point? For example, something that’s very business-focused and can be put on a corporate credit card? It could create a strong advantage around paid marketing if a product has high subscription retention or ARPU, allowing them to make higher bids in the various ad networks.

The report covers things in more detail at the end, but that’s the tldr; from an investment standpoint.

The other quick plug I want to give — get a copy of the PDF version of the deck by joining the a16z newsletter:

Subscribe to the a16z newsletter here.

The a16z team uses the newsletter to circulate resources, including podcasts, op-eds, presentations, and more. You can subscribe to get more updates.

Without further adieu, here’s the a16z consumer team’s definitive analysis of the podcast ecosystem in 2019. Enjoy!




The Podcast Ecosystem in 2019

By Li Jin, Avery Segal, and Bennett Carroccio

In the world of podcasting, the flywheel is spinning: new technologies including AirPods, connected cars, and smart speakers have made it much easier for consumers to listen to audio content, which in turn creates more revenue and financial opportunity for creators, which further encourages high-quality audio content to flow into the space. There are now over 700K free podcasts available and thousands more launching each week.

As new tech platforms hit scale, we on the consumer team have been closely watching the future of media and the technology driving it — in all forms. We’re interested in investing in the next wave of consumer products and startups coming into the ecosystem, and that includes the audio ecosystem.

Our investment philosophy is to not be too prescriptive, so we do the kind of “market map” overview below to help us have a “prepared mind” when we see new startups in the space. The below deck and commentary (with some sections redacted, of course) was presented to the extended consumer team, including general partners Connie Chan and Andrew Chen, who are investing in this space. If you’re working on anything interesting in this area, we’d love to hear from you!

From niche internet community to one-third of Americans

Over the course of the last 10 years, podcasts have steadily grown from a niche community of audiobloggers distributing files over the internet, to one-third of Americans now listening monthly and a quarter listening weekly.

Americans listening weekly to podcasts grew from 7% in 2013 to 22% in 2019. 65% of monthly podcast listeners have been listening for less than 3 years.

People are already spending a lot of time on podcasts, and it’s growing: listeners are consuming 6+ hours per week and consuming more content every year.

Among weekly podcast listeners, there’s high consumption: 7 episodes per week and nearly 1 hour per day.

The demographic of podcast listeners is not your average American. Roughly half of podcast listeners make $75,000 or more in annual income; a majority have a post-secondary degree; and almost one-third have a graduate degree [source]. There’s also a gender gap with podcast listeners skewing mostly male, mirroring the gap among podcast creators as well. However, the gender gap has narrowed from a 25% gap in 2008 to 9% today.

Podcast listeners are not your typical American: they’re affluent, highly educated, and skew male.

In the years following the release of Apple’s podcast app in 2012, smartphones pulled ahead of computers for podcast consumption and have grown to become the dominant way that consumers listen to podcasts. The green line includes smart speakers, which have grown 70% year over year in terms of listening.

Since Apple launched its Podcasts app in 2012, smartphones have quickly grown to become the most common device for podcast consumption.

What may surprise people living in heavy commuter markets is that listening primarily happens at home, which represents almost half of all podcast consumption.

We would also anticipate that more recent technologies like Bluetooth-enabled cars and smart speakers — now owned by 53M Americans or 21% of the population — could change the mix of where podcast listening happens.

The lion’s share of podcast listening happens at home, followed by taking place in a vehicle.

A brief history of podcasting

Simply put, podcasts are digital audio files that users can download — or in some applications, stream — and listen to. While podcasts differ widely in terms of content, format, production value, style, and length, they’re all distributed through RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, a standardized web feed format that is used to publish content. For podcasts, the RSS feed contains all the metadata, artwork, and content of a show.

To listen to a podcast, a user adds the RSS feed to their podcast client (such as Apple Podcasts, Spotify, etc.), and the client then accesses this feed, checks for updates, and downloads any new files. Podcasts can be accessed from computers, mobile apps, or other media players. On the podcast creator side, creators host the RSS feed as well as the show’s content and media on a hosting provider, and submit the shows to various directories, such as Apple’s podcast directory.

Podcast content is typically available for free, though creators can choose to set up private RSS feeds that require payment to access.

Current headlines about podcasts today hail them as the next major content medium, describing them as “suddenly hot”, as the next battlefield for content, and as an “antidote” for our current news environment:

How did this “suddenly” happen? As with all tech trends, it had a longer and slower start before going more mainstream. Let’s time travel back 15 years ago, when there were no smartphones and the internet was accessed only through desktop computers.

In February 2004, journalist Ben Hammersley wrote about the emergent behavior of automatically downloading audio content in a February article in The Guardian:

“MP3 players, like Apple’s iPod, in many pockets, audio production software cheap or free, and weblogging an established part of the internet; all the ingredients are there for a new boom in amateur radio. But what to call it? Audioblogging? Podcasting? GuerillaMedia?”

In doing so, Hammersley accidentally invented the term we still use today, “podcasting” — a portmanteau of “iPod” and “broadcast” — for this kind of content. The word was added to the Oxford English Library later that year.

In 2005, podcasts were added to the iTunes store, with Steve Jobs saying, “Podcasting is the next generation of radio, and users can now subscribe to over 3,000 free Podcasts and have each new episode automatically delivered over the Internet to their computer and iPod.”

In 2007, the first iPhone was introduced, but it wouldn’t be until 2012 that Apple created the Podcasts app. The release of this app is widely considered an inflection point for the industry, as it put podcasts a single tap away for hundreds of millions of users around the world. Ironically, a few months later, Google discontinued its own podcast app called Google Listen.

In 2014, the first season of Serial aired, considered to be the first breakout podcast, with its narrative audio journalism drawing in 5M downloads in the first month.

In the past 5 years, there’s been an explosion of listening behavior and innovative content. New devices made it easier to listen: Alexa launched in 2015, Google Home and AirPods in 2016. And an explosion of new content — ranging from daily news to narrative to talks shows — met the growing listener appetite. In tandem, ad spend has been growing steadily each year, from $69 to $220M in 2017 [source].

The app landscape

Many apps for listening to podcasts, but little differentiation or loyalty

Apple Podcasts played a pivotal role in the development of the industry and remains the dominant app for listening. However, its market share has fallen in the last few years, from over 80% to 63%. The corollary to this stat is that historically, podcasting has been predominantly an iOS user behavior, given that Google didn’t have its own native application, something that changed last summer with the launch of Google Podcasts.

Apple’s share of the podcasting market has slipped from over 80% to 63%, while Spotify has quickly grown to almost 10% of the market.

Spotify — which has made a big push into podcasts in just the past couple years — now accounts for almost 10% of listening.

Beyond these two large companies, there’s a long tail of listening apps from smaller companies. Most of these apps all have roughly the same content, given widely open directories of podcast RSS feeds. And there’s hundreds more listening apps out there. The barriers to entry for creating a new podcast app are quite low, since content is all distributed via RSS feeds and anyone can access them. There are also tools for creators to create their own podcast app from their own RSS feed.

A note on comparing listening apps: metrics between apps are not entirely an apples-to-apple comparison, as some apps (like Apple Podcasts, Overcast, and Stitcher) auto-download shows that users subscribe to, whereas others (e.g. Spotify, Castbox) don’t continuously download new episodes. This affects comparisons between apps and may overstate the traction of listening apps that auto-download shows. The industry has not standardized around what defines a download or listen.

A taxonomy of consumer podcast apps

From our research, users seldom feel passionately — either positively or negatively — about the podcast app they’re using. This suggests that the audio content itself is the core element users are engaging with, and since the content is the same on all apps, users don’t feel particular affinity to any one listening app.

Three major categories of consumer podcast listening apps: the incumbent, large existing audience and new podcast focus, and long tail listening apps.

I categorized consumer podcast listening apps into three major categories:

  • The incumbent: Apple Podcasts
  • Companies with large, existing audiences who are newly focusing on podcasts
  • Long-tail listening apps

The major feature of Apple Podcasts is that — despite its shortcomings in user-facing features and monetization — it’s pre-installed on all iPhones, making it a tap away for 900M people worldwide. We estimate that Apple Podcasts has 27M monthly active users in the U.S., based on App Annie, so a sizeable absolute number but relatively small compared to the total install base. Though Apple accounts for the majority of podcast listening, the company currently doesn’t monetize podcasting at all — all ads that you hear on podcasts are a result of advertisers and podcasters connecting off-platform.

For some users, the app is a basic, functional listening app, as compared to other media apps and products, with rudimentary categorization and discovery features. For some creators, the features it currently lacks include native monetization capabilities, in-depth analytics, demographic information for listeners, or any attribution for where listeners come from. Since Apple Podcasts launched in 2012, the app itself has changed very little. The New York Times wrote in 2016 that “the iTunes podcasting hub that Mr. Jobs introduced remains strikingly unchanged,” and beyond adding more analytics features in 2017, the same still holds true today.

In the second category, there’s a number of media and technology companies that have large existing audiences making a big push into podcasts, including Spotify, Pandora, and iHeartRadio. The strategies for these companies are mostly centered around leveraging their existing audiences to cross-promote podcasts; using listener data to personalize listening experiences or to help surface relevant podcasts; and leveraging their reach and existing monetization mechanisms to help creators earn more revenue. Google, which launched a standalone Podcasts app last year, has talked about making podcasts a first-class citizen in terms of surfacing podcast content in search results, as well as the growth opportunity that Google users worldwide represent in terms of potential podcast listeners.

Finally, there’s the long tail of podcast apps. These are comprised of startups and a fair number of non-VC funded companies. These apps are predominantly competing on the basis of better user-facing features such as improved discovery, search, and social capabilities, as well as creator monetization including their own ad networks or direct user monetization features. Increasingly, startups in this last category are also looking for other ways to distinguish themselves outside of listening experience — including experiments with exclusive, sometimes paid, content.

A discussion about shifting user behavior around consuming podcasts would be incomplete without calling out Spotify. In just the past few years, Spotify has burst onto the podcast landscape, moving from being music-centered to “audio-first”, and becoming the second largest platform for listening after Apple Podcasts.

Spotify’s market share in podcasting has grown to 9% in a few short years based on data from Libsyn, a podcast hosting provider, and the company has laid out plans to become a destination for all types of audio content.

Interestingly, Spotify may be growing the market of podcast listeners: the data below from Megaphone (formerly Panoply Media) shows that downloads of podcasts from Spotify happen in geographies that historically had fewer podcast downloads.

Downloads data suggests that Spotify is growing the audience of podcasting.

Spotify also accounts for two of the largest podcast acquisitions in industry history — Gimlet and Anchor — which occurred earlier this year. The company has committed to spending hundreds of millions of dollars more on acquisitions, and has also stated that podcasts are strategically important for driving increased user engagement, lower churn, faster revenue growth, and higher margins than the core music business.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek’s letter about their “audio-first” strategy is worth a read. He predicts that over time, more than 20% of listening on Spotify will be non-music content, and that the Anchor and Gimlet acquisitions position Spotify to be a leading platform for creators, as well as the leading producer of podcasts.

Podcast creator and listener activity

Extreme power curve among podcast creators

If traction among consumer listening apps appears highly concentrated among a small number of apps, the same can be said of podcast creators. The creator landscape reflects a power-law type curve, with most of the podcasts consumed in the top 1% of all content.

According to Libsyn, one of the oldest podcast hosting providers, the median podcast only has 124 downloads per episode — but the top 1% has 35K downloads per episode.

A taxonomy of podcast creators

I created a taxonomy of the podcast creator ecosystem as a rough framework for thinking about the various types of creators, roughly split across five categories: media companies with internal podcast efforts; standalone podcast-only studios; large indies (including what our editor-in-chief Sonal Chokshi calls “cult-of-personality” shows); non-media businesses and nonprofits; and the long tail of hobbyist creators.

In order of descending audience sizes, these categories are:

  • Media companies that have internal podcast departments, whose goals in podcasting can range from audience development to diversifying revenue. Examples of companies in this category include traditional media companies like the New York Times, where audio was treated as an experiment before The Daily became a major hit in 2017; radio platforms like iHeartRadio, which bought Stuff Media to double down on podcasting; and digital media companies like Barstool Sports, a sports and pop culture blog which produces a number of podcasts. These companies can leverage their existing user base to drive listenership for the podcast — and if the podcast becomes popular, vice versa.
  • Podcast production companies focused mainly — if not exclusively — on podcasting, which necessitates building a viable business from podcasting alone. Their revenue primarily comes from advertising, which means those podcasts need to amass large, repeatedly engaged listener bases. Examples include Gimlet (the creator of Reply AllStartUpCrimetown, and others), acquired by Spotify in early 2019; and Wondery (Over My Dead BodyGeneration WhyDr. Death).
  • Large indies and personality-driven talk shows primarily hosted by one or two personalities. These podcasts monetize mostly through ads, donations, and sometimes merchandise or live events. Examples include Tim Ferriss, Sam Harris, Rachel Hollis, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark (My Favorite Murder), Roman Mars (99% Invisible), Joe Rogan, and many others.
  • Non-media businesses and nonprofits that also produce podcasts. The primary goal behind these podcasting initiatives is mostly brand-building and marketing, rather than driving revenue. Mailchimp and HBS podcasts fall into this category.
  • Lastly, there are the individual hobbyists creating and posting content — often un-monetized and with very limited audiences. Podcasting tools like Anchor and others are democratizing the ability to launch a podcast, which will lead to more and more hobbyist creators.

Note that these categories serve as a rough segmentation of the creator landscape, because there is a lot of overlap and blurriness between some of them.

For instance, NPR — the #1 podcast publisher in terms of downloads — produces many hit podcasts including Hidden BrainHow I Built ThisPlanet Money, and others, and is considered by some as having raised the profile of the medium overall. NPR sells ads on its podcasts and has teams of designers, planners, and strategists, but is technically a non-profit media organization. While podcasting has deep roots in public radio — This American Life, for instance, launched in 1995 under WBEZ (Chicago Public Radio) — the non-profit aspect of these organizations has implications on the business. Alex Blumberg, the CEO of Gimlet and a cofounder and producer of Planet Money, was reportedly frustrated with NPR’s slow decision-making and strict rules around advertising, which led him to found Gimlet: “‘We should be making more; people want more… There should be the Planet Money of technology! Of cars!’”

Rich variety of content

The top iTunes podcasts chart from May 2019 is interesting for its glimpse into the tastes of Americans who have iPhones. A small number of publishers account for multiple top shows, including Wondery and NPR. We can also see how much Americans love crime/mystery content, as well as talk shows!

While NPR and iHeartRadio have roughly the same number of monthly downloads, NPR is able to accomplish this with just 48 shows vs. iHeartRadio’s 170. (Shows with blue check marks have gone through Podtrac’s podcast measurement verification process.)


Making money from podcasting

The current state of monetization in podcasting mirrors the early internet: revenue lags behind attention. Despite double-digit percent growth in podcast advertising over the last few years, podcasts are still in a very nascent, disjointed stage of monetization today.

Today, podcasts primarily monetize via ads and listener donations. Though we’ve heard anecdotally from advertisers that podcast ads are effective — and are unique in their ability to reach a hard-to-access, attractive demographic — the ad buying experience is manual and tedious. Especially compared to purchasing other forms of digital advertising, since the dominant listening platform (Apple) doesn’t offer a way for hosts and brands to connect.

As a result, you’ll see price sheets floating around online for major shows, with set rates to sponsor episodes, based on historic downloads figures. Ad networks in the podcasting space like Midroll Media and AdvertiseCast aim to make this process easier, while more new listening platforms are also enabling easier advertising, for instance by selling ads on behalf of shows in its network.

But advertising doesn’t always cover the entire cost of producing a show, even for hit shows. Serial is one of the most successful podcasts ever — and the first ever podcast to reach 5 million downloads — and asked for donations in order to fund the production of the second season. This American Life also publishes requests for donations, including these blogposts detailing the high costs of producing the show, with Ira Glass writing, “People sometimes ask me if it’s frustrating, having to request donations directly from listeners. It’s not. It’s the fairest way to fund anything: the people who like these stories and want them to exist, we pitch in a few bucks.”

Donations to podcasters primarily happen off-platform today, via third-party tools such as Patreon, PayPal, and Venmo. The top podcaster on Patreon, Chapo Trap House, a political humor podcast, earns over $131K per month from almost 30K patrons (link). Himalaya, the U.S. podcasting app backed by the Chinese company Ximalaya, has a donations feature. And some other listening apps also have introduced one-off tipping capability or patronage features.

Another monetization mechanism that companies are experimenting with is branded content. As opposed to advertising — which first start with the content and then sell ads to monetize — branded shows create a podcast in collaboration with a company, for a fee. Examples include The Mission, which is selling to enterprises to create branded podcasts — for instance, a podcast called The Future of Cities, sponsored by Katerra; and Gimlet, which has collaborated on shows like The Venture with Virgin Atlantic. By removing dependence on ads for monetization, branded shows like these are able to go deeper into a subject matter and create more niche content that doesn’t rely on listening volume to generate revenue.

There’s also a lot of activity happening right now in the subscription and membership space. Recently-launched podcasting app Luminary Media (which bills itself as the “Netflix for podcasts”) charges $8 a month for access to a slate of more than 40 exclusive podcasts, and the app also has a free listening experience. The launch has been bumpy, with issues ranging from podcasters taking offense at their tweet that “Podcasters don’t need ads”; to controversy about removing links in show notes, including donation and affiliate links that help podcasters monetize; to using a proxy server to serve podcasts, which made it challenging for podcasters to receive accurate analytics. Luminary’s launch serves to signal a few things — that the golden age of investing in podcasting is underway in terms of dollars flowing in, but also that getting the buy-in of creators is just as important as winning over consumers in building a new platform.

The model of subscription premium audio content is popular in China, where Ximalaya, a unicorn consumer audio platform, has a subscription feature for $3 monthly that enables users to access over 4000 e-books and over 300 premium audio courses or podcasts. Audio content is also available a la carte starting at $0.03 per short, serialized book chapter, or anywhere from $10 to $45 for paid audio courses.

Other monetization models we’ve seen include grants or foundation support, ticket sales for live events, and merchandise sales. There’s also licensing deals happening with the likes of HBO, Amazon, Fox, and other content companies who view podcasts as a source of intellectual property and want to adapt them into movies and TV shows. For instance, Gimlet’s scripted podcast Homecoming debuted as an Amazon Original Series in November 2018. The directionality of influence goes both ways: some podcasts are offshoots of other content — such as HBO’s Chernobyl podcast which discusses each episode of the mini-series — or written content — like Binge Mode’s deep dive into Harry Potter.

Podcast ad revenue is growing but is still tiny compared to other content formats

In 2019, the podcast industry ad revenue is estimated to hit over $500 million dollars, having doubled each year for the past few years. However, overall industry revenue is still tiny compared to that of other content mediums.

In particular, based on average revenue per active user per hour, podcasts monetize at a fraction of other content types.

Though podcast ad revenue is growing, the medium monetizes at a fraction of the rates of other content types (source: Nielsen via Hacker Noon)

Limitations of podcast advertising

Based on our conversations, lag in monetization isn’t due to lack of efficacy of ads. Various studies, including by Nielsen and Midroll Media, have found that podcast ads meaningfully increase purchase intent.

Why is podcasting monetization so low? Reasons include:

  • Inability to monetize directly on the dominant platform, Apple Podcasts.
  • The long tail of podcasters not being able to monetize because advertisers only want to work with podcasts that have a high level of listenership. Given the lack of advertising inside major listening apps, advertisers need to connect off-platform with podcasters — whether directly or through an ad network. This manual process means that for most advertisers, the long tail of podcasts requires too much time and effort to find and work with.
  • Lack of clarity around actual listens. For a long time, downloads were used to proxy delivered ads, but a “download” doesn’t necessarily mean a “play”.
  • Detailed listener data is also not available. There’s also a lack of sophisticated targeting tools on par with what Facebook and other digital platforms offer advertisers.

Today, podcast ads are primarily direct response, with ads read by hosts. You’re probably familiar with ads on podcasts with hosts talking about a product and verbally sharing a discount code. Podcast ad attribution is very rudimentary: the common methods of attribution are vanity URLs (for instance,<podcastname>); promo codes entered at checkout; and surveys asking users, “How did you hear about us?”

Despite all these issues and barriers to monetization, podcasts are still able to command a premium CPM of $25 to $50, based on downloads, due to their efficacy. And the highest performing shows can cost even more.

How much are podcasters making?

While the majority of shows don’t monetize at all, the most successful ones can earn substantial revenue through advertising. A couple of data points: in July 2018, The New York Times’ The Daily podcast was projected to book in the low eight-figures revenue in 2018 from ads, and had 5 million listeners monthly and 1 million listeners daily, or about $2 to $10 revenue per monthly listener. For context, The Daily was only started in January 2017. For comparison, in 2018, Spotify earned $605M from 111M monthly ad-supported listeners, or $5.45 per free listener.

The New York Times as a whole had $709 million in digital revenue in 2018, so podcasting is still small relative to their entire business, but has an outsized impact on brand awareness. Michael Barbaro, the host of The Dailyshared in Vanity Fair that “When we started the show, we had many goals. We didn’t realize we were going to make money that was actually going to get pumped back into the company.”

Blogger and podcaster Tim Ferriss has written that if he wanted to fully monetize the show at his current rates, he could make between $2-$4 million per year depending on how many episodes and spots he offers.

Some back-of-the-envelope calculations around how much podcasters are making: Assuming CPMs of $25-50, if a podcast is in the top 1% in terms of downloads episode, or has 35,000 downloads per episode, each episode could generate about $4,000 per episode with two ad slots.

Audio trends and lessons from China

Over the past five years, dedicated audio apps in China have been growing quickly. In fact, online audio market users grew by over 22% in China in 2018, a faster rate than either mobile video or reading. Looking at China can illustrate potential business models — partly through adopting an audio-centric approach rather than adhering to a strict definition of podcasting.

Ximalaya FM, which last raised $580 million in August 2018 with a $3.6 billion valuation, is an audio platform with over 530 million total users and 80 million monthly active users. Ximalaya’s product is audio content in every form — from podcasts and audiobooks to courses, live audio streaming, singing, and even film dubbing. The monetization models are just as diverse: there’s advertising, subscriptions, a la carte purchases, and donations / tipping. Interestingly, not all paid content is included in their subscription membership (similar to Amazon Prime Video’s mix of free and paid content), but members get an additional 5% discount on any exclusive content.

China’s unicorn audio platform Ximalaya helps illustrates creativity in product and business models.

As a result of the platform’s diverse purchasing models, the discover leaderboard filters not only by content category, but also according to monetization method, top hosts, most subscribers, and what’s trending on that very day.

Ximalaya leaderboards can be sorted by top grossing content, top hosts, highest number of subscribers, and also by category of content.

The app contains many different tabs with categorized content to allow users to optimize their listening experience. As the below screenshots indicate, users with children can get their feeds custom-curated for family-friendly listening; and users interested in learning English can get daily custom curated playlists with lessons, techniques, or even testing advice. In total, there are over 50 interest-based feeds available for users to choose from.

Ximalaya features customizable feeds of audio content.

Ximalaya places a large emphasis on social interaction and community, which also has its own monetization model. One of the app’s most popular features is live audio broadcasting — which resembles live video, but through voice only — where users can host their own channel, invite other broadcasters, and earn money through virtual gifts from their listeners. Popular live streaming categories include music (singing songs or talking with music in the background); chatting about relationships; or discussing anime. Meanwhile, the Discover tab curates audio content into a custom social network so users can see not just the most popular content, but also what people are saying about it.

Ximalaya social features include live audio broadcasting — monetized via virtual gifting — and a social feed of other users’ activity.

Ximalaya illustrates a potential path for the development of audio platforms in the U.S., through its wide range of content types, monetization strategies, and interactivity. Examining the product may also hint at experiments it could run with Himalaya, its U.S. podcasting startup.

Beyond Ximalaya, social audio is a growing category in China, with apps like Hello (live audio broadcasting); KilaKila (an anime community with live audio and video broadcasting); and WeSing (a social karaoke app), all of which monetize through virtual gifts. Other apps such as Soul, Zhiya, and Bixin leverage audio for making friends, dating, and even video game companionship. These apps showcase the potential of audio to serve as a platform for social interactivity — voices act as a core component of users’ identity and are the medium through which individuals interact.

Startup trends, challenges, and opportunities

Biggest outcomes: no large standalone companies yet

Early 2019 saw the two largest ever exits in the podcasting industry — but against the larger backdrop of venture-backed companies, the exits were still small. The industry hasn’t yet seen a “Facebook buys Instagram” moment — or a large independent company emerge.

Most acquisitions have been for listening apps or podcast production studios. Early 2019 saw the two largest exits ever for the podcasting industry, which were both to Spotify.

In early 2019, Spotify acquired Gimlet Media, the studio behind top podcasts including Startup, Crime Town, and Reply All, for over $200 million; and Anchor FM, a podcast creation and distribution platform that aims to make podcasting extremely simple and enable anyone to start a podcast using only their smartphone, for about $100M.

Beyond these two companies, there have been a number of smaller acquisitions in the space. Most of these exits have been “acquihires” of small listening apps that were subsequently shut down post-acquisition. More recently, podcast studios with expertise producing popular content have also been a target of acquisition, including Stuff Media (to iHeartRadio) and Parcast (to Spotify).

Startup trends: new apps, monetization experiments, production experiments

There’s been a flurry of funding activity in podcasting — so much so that some publications are wondering if we are in a “podcast bubble” (see for example thisthis, and this). Here are some of the major trends we’ve seen.

2018 saw a record number of venture capital investments and capital raised for podcasting startups.

Startups are building new listening apps, verticalized audio platforms, and producing podcast content.

1. Consumer listening apps for general podcast content

A lot of startup activity is happening on the consumer side of listening apps: Many startups are capitalizing on the opportunity to create a better listener experience, given that Apple Podcasts is relatively simple and bare-bones, and until recently, there has been no default listening app for Android users. Issues these apps are addressing include better discovery of podcasts through algorithms, curation, or social signals; more effective ways to search for relevant content (e.g. by automatically transcribing podcasts so as to be able to search within them); or improved social features.

We on the consumer team tend to believe that better podcast discovery, recommendations, and other user-facing features alone aren’t sufficient to draw a large listener base. The core of what users are interacting with on a listening app is the content itself — after all, it’s normal for listeners to start playing audio content, then to background the app or put their phones away, so the listening app becomes secondary to the content. As a result, many podcasting startups have expressed interest in offering some flavor of exclusive content, as well as monetization options for creators, in order to further differentiate themselves.

Here’s a small sample of the approaches some of these new listening apps are taking:

  • Charging consumers directly for podcasts — these apps’ exclusive podcasts account for a relatively small share of all of the content available in these apps. Examples include Luminary and Brew, both of which have subscription models for access to exclusive content, in addition to allowing users to listen to widely available free podcasts.
  • Adding a social layer onto podcasts — to help with discovery and/or to capture the conversation happening around podcasts. Some early companies in this space include Breaker, Swoot, and others.
  • Offering translation and transcription — essentially enabling episode-level rather than show-level discovery. Castbox, for instance, offers podcasts in multiple languages, as well as the ability to search within podcasts by transcribing content. The app also recently launched live audio broadcasting that allows anchors to interact with listeners via voice, text, and call-in and to earn tips from followers.
  • Adding context — Since podcasts expose listeners to so much new information and prompt questions, these could be more seamlessly explored without disrupting the listening experience. Entale, for example, is a “visual podcast app” that uses AI to showcase relevant information to users as the podcast is playing — this could be displaying the Amazon link to a book that someone mentions, or linking to the Wikipedia page about a speaker’s biography.
  • Specializing by vertical — For parents growing increasingly cognizant of exposing kids to screen time, having a curated selection of audio content targeted towards kids, suitable for entertainment and learning, can be valuable. Leela Kids, for example, is a children’s podcast app that curates kids-safe content.

2. Vertical consumer audio apps

Beyond general and for-kids podcasts, there’s also a number of adjacent audio apps with more focused content, including those targeting education, audio books, fiction, health and wellness and fitness. By focusing on a specific subject matter and going very deep, these apps aim to create full-stack listening experiences that combine original content around that particular vertical; user monetization mechanisms; and other value-added features that enhance the user experience and help users achieve their goals.

To give a few examples, Calm and Headspace are both guided audio meditation apps, which offer both free and subscription-only content that’s exclusive to their own platforms. Both have features beyond just the content itself that help users with mindfulness — for instance, daily reminders, streaks, visualizations and videos, etc. In the ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) vertical, Tingles is an app where fans can watch or listen to videos of ASMR content, filter by specific categories, and support creators through subscriptions. In the fitness category, Aaptiv, ClassPass Go, and MoveWith are examples of companies offering audio fitness classes across a variety of exercise types.

3. Podcast production companies

Lastly, there’s a surge of venture-backed podcast production companies creating podcast content and distributing it through third-party listening platforms. Examples of these include Wondery, the studio behind a number of hit shows including Dirty JohnDr. Death, and American History Tellers; and WaitWhat, the content incubator that developed Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman and Should This Exist.

Most podcast producers are creating entertainment-focused, general interest content that appeals to a wide audience, likely because of their monetization model, which is primarily ad-supported. Since these content studios distribute through other platforms and don’t have direct relationships with end users, they need to monetize through advertising, which necessitates content that appeals to a wide audience and promotes lengthier consumption times and ongoing listening.

Successful production studios could be prime acquisition targets for media companies as efficient sources of IP, or for consumer listening apps as a way to differentiate based on content — and a number of startups in this space have already been acquired. Another possibility is that once these content companies generate enough listener traction, they could create distribution platforms of their own, and use these as a way to deepen listener relationships and diversify revenue, for instance by charging users for, say, early access to content, back catalogs, exclusive content, or other features.

So what are we interested in investing in?

Given the challenges with monetization, how can startups create a path to becoming a sustainable business? With the distribution and capital advantages that incumbents have — coupled with the fact that Apple and Google own the end mobile platforms, where are the opportunities for startups? And how do we evaluate these opportunities?

To understand startup opportunities, it’s important to consider where the incumbents and large audio companies like Spotify, Pandora, and iHeartRadio are uniquely advantaged:

  • Consumer traction and awareness, and a large audience to which podcasts can be cross-promoted
  • Large budgets for content production and acquisition
  • User data on preferences and existing media consumption
  • Existing monetization mechanisms, such as through ads, subscription

So how to navigate creating a large opportunity, given the above advantages?

We think the most promising players will combine the following aspects:

  • Focus on audio content broadly, rather than exclusively podcasts. Just as the lines between blogs, articles, and other written content online have blurred, the same is happening with all audio content, and so we are interested in all types of content delivered via listening. As outlined above, podcasting was historically synonymous with audio distributed via RSS — now, with the rise of exclusive, paid podcasts, the distinction between podcasting and other audio content is becoming less meaningful.
  • The potential for network effects. We’ve written extensively about network effects and how to measure them; the consumer team loves businesses with network effects! Network effects in audio could take different forms. Like many content platforms, there’s a two-sided marketplace network effect, where more high-quality content makes the platform more valuable to consumers, and more users makes it more appealing for content producers to distribute their content there. All things being equal, most users would prefer to use the platform that has the largest, best inventory of audio content. A social audio app could also have direct network effects, where the experience becomes better with more users/friends.
  • While we prefer full-stack startups that own the experience end to end (positive feedback loops from listening app to content to monetization), we wouldn’t rule out breakout apps that are strong on any one aspect.
  • High-quality differentiated and deeper content vs. broad, free libraries of shallower content. Since the large incumbents seek content that appeals to their large user bases, they’re less focused on seemingly niche, in-depth content. We also believe that for certain high-value content verticals, there’s potential to shift the burden of payment to businesses, schools, or other organizations — rather than on to end consumers.
  • Consumption experience that enhances the experience of the audio content. This could be through live, social audio, or other features that increase stickiness and engagement. For instance, Headspace’s meditation streaks, animations, multi-level categorization, and session length options differentiate and enhance the experience, compared to listening to meditation audio content on general podcast listening apps.
  • Alternative monetization beyond solely ads (Connie Chan has written a lot about this). Given the dominance of existing large platforms like Google and Facebook for ad targeting, it’s becoming increasingly challenging to build a new large company based on advertising alone. We are bullish about audio companies that are aiming to monetize users directly — this could be accomplished through charging for content that has higher perceived ROI, or by introducing payments as a way to alter the content experience (e.g. social recognition after tipping in live streams). More importantly, it’s also a way to align incentives of consumers with content creators.

What could some examples of these startups look like?

1. Vertical audio platforms

We’re excited about startups that are going deep within a particular vertical and building a full-stack audio experience tailored to that vertical. There’s less chance of incumbents competing directly here, given the more niche focus and fundamental differences in feature sets needed to enhance the user experience. We also see greater willingness for users to pay for content that has higher perceived ROI — for instance, various fitness and meditation/wellness audio apps have already gained high levels of traction in usage and monetization.

2. Interactive, social audio… finally

While people have been talking about it for years, we think there’s still an opportunity to finally have truly interactive, social audio. Without being too prescriptive on what this looks like (we want founders to tell us!), the fact is, audio content today is still largely broadcast in nature, with a one-directional flow of information from creator to listener. While there are some conversations happening around audio content (including on Twitter, Reddit, and other forums), they happen in a fragmented, isolated way, and on platforms that aren’t designed for that purpose.

Call-ins to radio and live talk shows are two current forms of interactive audio, with the social element fundamentally contributing to the content itself. Twitch also has podcasters who use the platform to live stream themselves while recording, sometimes responding to user comments which become part of the show’s content. There’s a number of startups enabling users to comment on static podcast content, but the social experience needs to become even more interactive to attract a wider audience and pull users off existing platforms. In China, live audio broadcast, group karaoke, and even audio dating products are flourishing, and there may be an opportunity to create an audio product that is more interactive and social for U.S. audiences, too.

3. Platforms that helps creators own their end users and monetize content

Most creators are disintermediated from their end listeners, since they produce content that is distributed solely through various third-party platforms. Given the brand equity and large followings that some creators have established, we believe that there’s an opportunity to give these creators a way to distribute their own content, own their customers, and to monetize through alternative sources besides advertising and off-platform donations.

Some influential podcast publishers have developed their own solutions to engage and/or monetize their own audiences, including Slate Plus, a paid membership program from Slate with podcast benefits including ad-free and bonus podcast; The Athletic, which launched over 20 exclusive shows behind a paywall in April; and BBC Sounds, an app that puts music, podcasts, and radio from BBC into one personalized destination.

But for creators who don’t have the technical or financial resources to develop their own apps or piece together various third-party solutions to accept payments or manage members, there could be a turnkey platform for creators. Down the line, there’s opportunity to create a network of these creators and listeners, along the lines of “come for the tool, stay for the network.”

The future

“If you think of audio as the way you think of, say, film, like we’re still in the black-and-white period of podcasting. What’s color going to look like? What’s 3-D going to look like?”

I love this quote from the host of Today, ExplainedSean Rameswaram — since we are still indeed in the black-and-white phase of podcasting.

Taking a step back, it’s amazing how much progress the industry has made since the Apple Podcasts app was introduced 7 years. It’s still early days, so if you’re building something that is related to any of these aspects, please drop me a line!

Written by Andrew Chen

May 28th, 2019 at 7:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Dumb Idea Paradox: Why great ideas often start out by sounding dumb.

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Am I just getting old?
When I encounter a new product idea for the first time, I find myself asking: Is this idea dumb? Or am I just getting old?

Early on, there’s often not much to judge it on besides the idea. Sometimes the idea sounds either dumb or trivial. But over the years, I’ve started to not try to judge too much, especially when it’s early

Ideas seem pretty random because in the past few years, some of the biggest wins were: An app that lets you get into strangers’ cars. An app that lets you stay at random peoples’ houses. Disappearing photos. A site that doesn’t let you play video games, but you can watch other people play. Seriously?

And if you go back a few years earlier, I remember having entire convos about why anyone in the world would want a profile or a website on the internet. Or why phones should be used for calling, and adding email was dumb. It sounds silly, but that was the perspective then

The Dumb Idea Paradox – the official definition
The dumb idea paradox is what happens when an idea sounds dumb, and yet you have a (usually very small) group of people highly engaged in doing it. And maybe that group of people seem to getting bigger and bigger. Will it continue? Will millions ultimately do this thing?

When products that have this property — it’s counterintuitive behavior PLUS it has traction — imho they are the most attractive startups in existence. After all, this is an indicator it’s likely in a new market, and often times, the TAM of these markets ends up being huge!

In other words, this handy graphic:

(Note I made that as a screenshot in GSheets. You’re welcome)

Natives versus immigrants want different kinds of products
Furthermore, these ideas often formed at the seam of the “natives” versus the “immigrants.” If you are Instagram-native, what you consider a great idea for a new retail space or ecomm brand is likely very different than someone who isn’t exposed to the same thousands of pics

The upcoming generation are using tech in a different way. They are Fortnite-native. Minecraft-native. They are streaming-native. They use “insta” differently. Food delivery will be considered a human right. The expectations will be very different.

For network effects-driven products, it matters that your friends are also into the same thing. If my peers aren’t playing Fortnite every day, then I won’t see the same value and engagement. Contrast that to a fully activated network of kids that are on it every day

Thus, I’m sure that the first time I hear about a wild idea that appeals to this group, it will be easy to dismiss out of hand. And perhaps I’d be more attracted in something that takes on the same trends, but is more familiar

Strong and weak technologies
My partner Chris Dixon has written about the idea of strong and weak technologies, which often arrive in pairs at the start of a new technological age. The weak version often sounds more practical, but the strong ones often win. Here are some examples:

The weak version of a technology is often the more plausible, “immigrant” version of an idea. The stronger version will sound better to folks who are natives.

As an investor in consumer companies, I’m always startled when I see surprisingly strong growth metrics on top of an idea that I don’t get. It’s always a signal that I need to dig deeper, at least until I feel like I’m starting to get it. But it’s hard.

So I repeat the question: The next time you hear an idea that sounds dumb, ask yourself — is it really dumb? Or are you just getting old?


Written by Andrew Chen

May 27th, 2019 at 8:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Announcing Pietra and a16z — my first ex-Uber investment!

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Dear readers,

Many of you may have read the recent New York Times article “Uber and Airbnb Alumni Fuel Tech’s Next Wave” which is about how alumni of successful startups often split off and start new companies, and how ecosystems of investors/advisors form around these new companies to support them. In the NYT article, I mention that a16z has invested in 2 ex-Uber teams, and today, I’m excited to announce the first one — Pietra — a new startup building a marketplace for the jewelry industry.

In the announcement, I talk both about Pietra, and Ro/Pan and the team and also about the characteristics of ex-Uber alumni that make me excited to invest in them: 1) the ceo mentality of ops teams and “programs and platforms.” 2) unique expertise with marketplaces and network effects, and 3) deep scaling and technology infra.

I included the entire Pietra announcement below, which was originally published on the a16z blog here.



Marketplaces, Pietra, and the Network Effects of Next Startup Talent

One of my focus areas as an investor is marketplaces, because I’ve seen firsthand how they can transform an industry — especially when they also have network effects that can lead to huge scale and impact. And while marketplaces have been evolving into new areas for a while — including services — I especially love how marketplaces show up in interesting and sometimes unexpected places, places where technology has not gone before.

One such area is jewelry (yes, jewelry!). Even though gemstones and jewelry have been at the center of art, commerce, and culture since the dawn of human civilization — going from stone jewelry created 40,000 years ago in Africa to the trade routes between East and West to Fifth Avenue in New York to the Instagram feed on your phone — the technology for discovering, designing, and purchasing jewelry online hasn’t evolved much at all. Yet jewelry is one of the categories that could benefit most from modern trends such as social media, mobile, and mass personalization. This is especially true for the incredible variety of artisans and boutique jewelry vendors out there who currently can’t access bigger markets, or the deep technology expertise and stacks of bigger players.

That’s why I’m excited to announce Andreessen Horowitz’ seed investment in Pietra, a new startup focused on a marketplace for the jewelry and especially the diamonds industry. If you wanted to buy a diamond engagement ring, the process goes something like this: “Do you know where I can buy a diamond?” “I might know a guy.” That “guy” (more often a family business, an aggregator, or other player) then sells you a diamond with very little transparency into supply, pricing, or other things. That kind of exchange is ripe for technology to come in between and mediate things — not only efficiently connecting suppliers to buyers, but also expanding supply and demand for both sellers and buyers beyond local limits.

Jewelry represents $200B+ of annual spend, but remains a highly fragmented and opaque market… it’s yet another way marketplace businesses can provide more transparency, variety, and even education for consumers. So Pietra aims to fully modernize the jewelry buying experience across every touchpoint by offering beautiful, mobile-first product discovery; chat and collaboration tools to better engage, negotiate, and purchase jewelry; and vetted suppliers, along with curated product lines from boutique jewelers, influencers, and celebrities.

The team comes with decades of deep expertise in fashion, luxury commerce, and marketplaces. Co-founders Ronak Trivedi and Pan Pan are two of my former colleagues from Uber, where they led key efforts on UberPOOL and grew it from a new product only available in San Francisco to a global product supporting hundreds of millions of trips per year and billions in gross bookings. That kind of scale matters in a market like this. In fact, many of the core marketplace lessons and mindsets from Uber — combined with the team’s experience in the jewelry industry, deep customer insights, and passion for design — led to their starting Pietra.

I’m also personally very excited about the new wave of “network mafias” coming from people trained at Bay Area startups who go on to do new and different things, often borrowing from lessons learned in their previous startups. Classic examples include Paypal, and more recent examples include Square and others. For Uber alumni in particular — which I can personally speak to since I worked there for three years — there are three mindsets that are compelling to me and that I love seeing in startup founders are: (1) an entrepreneurial mindset that’s baked in at all levels; (2) specialized expertise that can transfer across industries; and (3) technical challenges coupled with networks of talent.

Because rideshare grew city by city at Uber, it led to an entrepreneurial team structure where each city had a General Manager (GM) who served as the de facto CEO of the city, acting like a mini-startup in the context of the larger organization. Surge pricing and driver incentives were first manually implemented by local teams with SQL queries and spreadsheets, and only later widely implemented in code by the software teams at headquarters. When I first joined Uber, each product team was also set up to be full stack, without dependencies into other teams, allowing them to build fast and iterate quickly to solve challenges. This kind of mindset — everyone’s the CEO of their own mini-startup unit — is key to fast cycles of innovation.

To make rideshare work as a global product, folks at Uber had to solve challenges in areas as diverse as Jakarta to Portland to ridesharing and food delivery. Whether it was solving the cold-start problem in a new market, or figuring out the best pricing and incentives, or growing network effects in a highly competitive market, those insights can be translated to new industries. Starting any new company requires founders to turn a series of insights into actions and products.

To be clear, it’s not just marketplace expertise that’s important here — it’s also about solving deep technical challenges at scale in areas such as machine learning, data, infrastructure, mapping, automation, and much more. But the social aspect of the Uber alumni network is also appealing, with a rich ecosystem of folks advising and angel investing in companies, paying it forward and creating a new generation of startups.

I’ve said it before: technology changes, but people stay the same. Whether it’s applying new behaviors and technologies to evergreen things — like jewelry! — or the evergreen turnover of a new wave of entrepreneurs founding the next generations of startups (in developer APIs, video streaming, SaaS, etc.), I’m excited to see what everyone does next. And I’m looking forward to investing in more companies like Pietra.

Written by Andrew Chen

March 27th, 2019 at 10:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

What do you look for an investment? How long should a founder be without salary? And other Q&A

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Dear readers,

I recently hosted an AMA on Quora where folks asked a bunch of really fantastic questions. Thanks to Adam D’Angelo and Alecia/Adrienne for getting this set up.

Wanted to share a couple of the most upvoted answers below:

  • What do you look for in an investment?
  • How long should a founder be without salary?
  • What distribution channels should a new consumer internet startup consider in 2019?
  • What investment have you made that is the most out there?
  • Which commonly-discussed growth metrics in consumer tech businesses are the most meaningless and/or misleading?
  • What is your advice for startup CEOs?




1. What do you look for in an investment?

This one is hard to answer generically — it’s easy to say, great team! Or big market! Or technology differentiation! Or something generic like that. However, being in venture capital is about being in the “exceptions” business.

There were hundreds of mobile photo apps prior to Instagram and Snapchat, and they would have been money-losing investments. Same for social networks before Facebook, or there were more than a dozen investor-backed search engines before Google.

My job is to find the exception to the rule, and pick an individual company that will stand out, and I don’t have to be bullish about an entire category of companies. In practice, this happens also because individually, I’m focused on doing 2–3 investments per year, and don’t have the capacity to, say, invest in every single company working on XYZ.

All of that said, beyond the obvious things (team, market, product, etc.) there are a few things that make me lean into understanding a company, in particular.

First, it’s interesting when a startup using a new platform or a new technology in a clever way. For example, Instagram Stories and Snap Stories are a huge new short-form video format, and an app that might interact with these stories in an interesting way might be compelling. Or because esports is so huge, if someone builds on the idea that perhaps games content could be streamable-first, then that’s intriguing too. Taking advantage of a new technology helps answer the “Why now?” question and explains why it’s a fresh opportunity that should be tried. If your new startup could have been built 15 years ago, perhaps the idea’s already been tried and just isn’t that good.

Second, technology changes constantly but people stay the same. And their motivations — in particular, to spend time with friends, to date, to be able to earn more, to find better work over their careers, to take care of their pets, etc., etc. — also stay constant over time. So when a new startup purports to create new consumer behavior, I’m sometimes skeptical. But if a product allows people to tap into a pre-existing motivation but in a new, fresh way, then I’m interested.

Third, I like to see a strong insight around how the product will grow. For example, it’s important if a new video streaming startup, for instance, has deep relationships with the YouTube/Instagram influencer community to get it off the ground. Or if a new workplace collaboration tool is built to tap into calendars and be inherently viral through cal invites. The reason for this is that we are in an interesting era of new technology products where in general building the technology is not all that hard. Startups typically don’t fail because of technology issues, given open source, AWS, lots of collaboration tools, a network of smart people, etc., etc. This used to be the case decades ago, but these days, startups fail because they don’t get traction in the market. As a result, I like to see something clever and insightful in how the product will get off the ground — especially if it’s driven by viral growth, or some form of organic, as opposed to paid marketing.

Usually at the stage where I am seeing companies, one of the big things I’m evaluating for is “it works!” I usually look at their growth metrics, cohort charts, acquisition mix, engagement data, etc., and try to make sure that it’s sticky now and will remain so over time. Once I validate this, then I move onto some of the bigger qualitative questions like the ones above — what’s the trick that makes it grow? Why now? What new technology does it exploit? What classic human motivation does it tap into?

And finally, I want to reiterate that it’s all about finding the exceptions. You can spend as much time as you want analyzing a space, but it’s just about picking the individual startup you like most.

[PS. Here’s also a deck I published a few months back that is the more visual, longer-form answer to this question]


2. How long should a founder be without salary?

I’m a believer in free markets, and also in thinking long-term.

When founders first get their company off the ground, they often take risk and go without salary. However, as soon as they raise a real amount of money — either from institutional seed funds, a large group of friends/family, or with a VC — I think the founders should pay themselves basically market rate (within reason)

The reason for this, especially if there are cofounders, is that starting a company is already hard enough. Your customers are leaving you, recruiting is hard, employees will occasionally quit. It’s hard to think long term, about all of this when you’re worried about your paycheck.

If on top of all of this stress, the founders are paying themselves way below market, to the point where they are burning their savings, that’s just not a good thing. It creates a lot of stress, and unwanted behavior from the perspective of an investor.

Obviously if there’s a case where the founders were highly compensated before and it would impact the runway, OK, then great, there’s an opportunity to trade off a longer runway by capping the cash compensation. If the team wants to do that, great.

But in general, I believe in market rates for everyone, including the founders and the employees, within reason.

[PS. I tweeted this out and my friend Suhail Doshi responded with a pretty cool rule of thumb:

My rule of thumb is…
– seed funding: what you’d pay your lowest paid employee
– when you’re growing a bit: your lowest paid engineer
– scaling: mid level engineer
– successful: market for ceo pay
– not growing: cut back to your previous comp until you are / helps survive

This is pretty great. Thanks Suhail!]


3. What distribution channels should a new consumer internet startup consider in 2019?

First, let me start with the negative. It’s been said (and written) that we are kind of in a funky consumer internet winter, compared to 2007 when we had the Facebook platform and the iOS/Android platforms and so on. As a result, the conclusion is that there’s a general industry malaise and everything sucks and we should all go home, etc., etc.

It’s my conclusion that this is a vastly overhyped POV about consumer.

Last year, when Fortnite went from zero to 200M+ users, how could you not be excited about consumer tech? Or where we see Kylie Jenner built a multi-hundred million dollar revenue stream selling stuff on Instagram? Or you have a content creator like Ryan, the kid that makes unboxing videos, generating $20M+ per year?

There’s a lot of exciting opportunities out there. In my first few months at a16z, I met hundreds of companies in my first 3 months. Hundreds! There’s a lot of innovation and entrepreneurs out there trying to do great things.

Yes, it’s true that you can’t just build well-designed social photo apps and still expect to succeed. You have to do something different, and evolve with the time. But IMHO there are still fantastic opportunities.

OK, now going past the preamble and answering the question directly:

The best distribution channels for your startup are the ones that only make sense for your product to use — meaning it’s proprietary, and people can’t just tap into the same channel right away. The problem with Facebook ads as a channel, for instance, is that if you’re a mattress startup buying ads, you’re not just competing against all the other mattress companies but you’re also competing with the cool new protein shake company. Contrast that to Dropbox, which has primarily grown using shared folders inside the workplace — they own that channel, and the only others who could compete on that are folks who have some kind of shared folder functionality. The performance of the channel is unlikely to degrade over time via competition because it’s proprietary.

If you agree, then the obvious question is, if I’m a startup looking for a proprietary channel, which one do I use? That’s hard to answer generically, so I won’t attempt to do so. However, the better observation is that if you are starting a brand new company, then you have the opportunity to both pick the idea — and have a hypothesis about product/market fit — as well as to pick its growth strategy at the same time. If you can think about both at its inception, then you can start thinking about a proprietary channel from day 1.

I think this is not the answer the person who wrote the question wanted to hear, so let me also try to give some more trend-driven ideas too.

I like video. There’s a lot of video being created and consumed, and I like the idea of a “video-native” product that is designed to create a lot of video as part of user engagement. Or create a lot of opportunities for streaming.

I like social data in the workplace. If you are building a workplace collaboration tool, whether it’s horizontal like Slack or more vertical like Figma, most of the files and systems you touch understand who all the users are inside the company. In particular, the calendar is a very rich data asset full of people and their relationships, and I feel that’s underleveraged by startups seeking to grow. I love the pattern of putting, say, ZOOM links, inside of calendar requests, and think more startups might end up finding opportunities to do the same.

I also like “in-real-life virality.” If you walk around and see a bunch of lime green scooters, and people are using them, then you will want to try it too. Magically, no customer acquisition cost! Or if you see people walking around playing Pokemon Go, then you might want to try it also, since they are out and about, and enjoying it so much. I think this is an underrated channel.


4. What investment have you made that is the most out there?

One day I was in the Mission district of San Francisco, and saw a huge line of people. I wondered what they were waiting for, and naturally, the curiosity got the best of me and I got in line too. As I looked around in line, I read the sign for the place. There was a huge aardvark icon, and lettering that said BOBA GUYS.

I had heard of Boba Guys before, and remember that every time I saw one of their stores, I would skip it because the line was too long. Business was that good.

While waiting, I tried to google to figure out who their founders were. No luck. Eventually I found a Kickstarter page with some info, for a store they had opened near Union Square, and found their names. Just my luck, they were already following me on Twitter. I DM’d them, ordered my boba — hong kong style with pearls — and waited.

A week later, they replied. We met for lunch near Hayes Valley, and I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe I could invest money into this thing? Did I even want to? It’s just milk and tea, right? But so was Coca Cola, or Starbucks, or Blue Bottle.

To my surprise, both Andrew and Bin were fantastic. They had great consumer packaged goods experience, had worked at Timbuk2, and came with a 20-slide deck prepared. The deck had retail comps versus other high-end stores, financial projections, and more. It blew my mind. These were very obviously the most talented bubble tea store operators on the planet.

As a quick segue, I had been going to pitches for high-end restaurants with a few friends prior to that, but had never invested. Going to a restaurant pitch was extremely fun, as you went with a group of friends, met the chef, and they made the entire food menu and all the drinks too. You hung out and could invest after. But I never liked the model because it felt like it could never scale. It’d be a fun hobby, but it’d be hard to make money. But it helped prepare my mind for investing in retail, and a beverage play like Boba Guys.

Back to bubble tea, I realized after the pitch that although it wasn’t a tech company, I should figure out a way to invest. Andrew, Bin, and I had a great conversation — the first of many, and then I rallied some of my friends to put a syndicate together to invest.

The bonus to all of this is that I now have a Boba Guys Black Card. This is a special investor card that lets me get my daily bubble tea fix for free. It’s amazing, and the investment was worth it just for the bragging rights with that.


5. Which commonly-discussed growth metrics in consumer tech businesses are the most meaningless and/or misleading?

These are the obvious offenders:

  • Cumulative charts for anything. These can only go up and to the right
  • Registered users. Totally useless, although sometimes I like to ask about this as a ratio to active users to get a sense for how efficiently the user acquisition is happening
  • Any retention metrics that aren’t standardized into cohort curves. Sometimes people will give a single snapshot number, like a “3 months later, X% still use the app!” and that’s not that helpful
  • Install numbers, without signups or activated signups or something more meaningful
  • For marketplace companies, “revenue” that’s actually “gross bookings” or GMV. Or GMV that counts in weird things, like security deposits or one-time setup charges
  • ARR meaning, “annual revenue run rate” as opposed to “annual recurring revenue.” Please, let’s just stick to ARR for recurring, not run rate. Thanks.
  • Taking the peak revenue of any single day and annualizing it as the headline number
  • Unlabeled X and Y axes in charts
  • Cohort curves that are some complex subset of users that make the retention look better
  • Showing “CAC” that’s actually blended CAC, and when you just look at the Paid CAC, it’s way above LTV
  • Actually LTV. Because who really cares about the lifetime of a user — startups should just manage to margin earned by a customer you acquire over the first 6–12 months, not the lifetime. That’s how you will make your ad spend decisions
  • Any misleading ratios where the denominator and numerator are totally non-obvious. Stick to actives, please.
  • Active user definitions that are complicated (must have visited 3 sessions in the last week, and done one action out of a list of 5). It makes all the downstream calculations on retention, engagement, etc., misleading since you’re throwing away all the data for the less active users
  • If you have a desktop app, and web, and mobile, break down the metrics for all three. Don’t combine, please

There are many, many more… but that’s a quick start.

6. What is your advice for startup CEOs?

I have a lot of advice, but maybe I will share the top 10 that come into my head:

  1. You’re not doing this alone. You have friends, family, your investors, and employees rooting you on. Talk to them
  2. Everything seems like it sucks — metrics go up and down. Customers leave. An employee quits. Product/market fit could be a lot better. But this is how it feels even if it’s a rocket ship. Important to put into perspective
  3. Your job changes dramatically over time. Your first job is to build the machine — the product that attracts the customers, and generates the revenue. But eventually it turns into a job where you’re building the machine that builds the machine. It’s all about hiring, leading, managing, etc., etc. Prepare for this to feel weird when it transitions — especially spending 25%+ of your time hiring
  4. Everyone’s gotten very data-driven these days, which is great, but you should set your strategy, and then your metrics should follow. It’s to verify that your strategy is working — having a lot of dashboards is no substitute for strong product insight and strategy.
  5. Some people say to stay off Twitter and forget the distraction. I say the opposite – find interesting, knowledgeable people from social media, and DM them to meet in person. Stay outbound. Use it for recruiting, networking, fundraising and more.
  6. Raising money is a really, really important thing. It can feel like a great milestone, but it’s just the beginning.
  7. Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Things About Hard Things is the best book about being a CEO and managing your own psychology as you set out to do this crazy hard thing. It’s fantastic. Read and re-read it.
  8. Also read and re-read High Output Management by Andy Grove.
  9. Build long-term relationships with your employees, investors, and people in the ecosystem. Hopefully your startup thrives, but maybe it won’t — and you’ll still want to build a long-term network because there will be more to do in the future
  10. Don’t worry about generic startup advice — including lists like this one :) Make sure you find advice that’s tailored to your startup’s stage, industry, and specific situation. Talk to experts who are willing to dig in. Lists like this are fun to read but there’s a big gap in applying them

OK that’s my first 10 :)

Written by Andrew Chen

March 18th, 2019 at 10:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized