No One Is Self-Made

One of Robert Putnam's famous scissor graphs

Fatherhood has changed me.

In my pre-fatherhood twenties, I thought of myself as a self-made man. I viewed the world through an individualistic, narcissistic lens and my accomplishments, I believed, were largely my own. I had taken risks and busted my ass to get whatever I got. I congratulated myself and began — quietly — to scorn those who had failed to put themselves in the right industry, the right career. They were weak, I was strong, and that’s the game.

Fatherhood has taught me that no one is self-made.

My son will never remember how much he has been given. He will never remember the love he got at three in the morning when his tummy ached from constipation pains. But it — along with the thousands upon thousands of other gestures of love — will teach him to feel safe and secure in his person, which in turn will fuel his confidence and one day (I hope) enable him to take economic and social risks that propel forward his civic, social and business life.

Matt Reading to Luca

I am constantly impressed by how much my son depends upon me, upon us, for guidance. If we don’t teach him to eat with a fork, he will not eat with a fork. If we don’t teach him to be kind, he will not be kind. If we don’t teach him to read, he will not read. It takes effort, consistent effort, to raise the man we hope that he will become.

Civilization is not an automatic process.

Stephanie and I read to him regularly. When I stop, Luca cries. He will take this for granted as a natural part of life, because it is all he knows. Yet it will give him a permanent leg up in life, especially compared to his peers whose parents are not so involved, maybe because they’re too busy trying to make ends meet or maybe because they simply don’t know that it matters.

So too will the $20,000+ / year (!!!) we’re investing in his education at the Palo Alto daycare (in SF, the pricetag was $30k) pay off in ways large and small. His best friend is the child of two Harvard graduates. He and his little girlfriend have so much fun together. Amidst all that fun and play, they talk and teach each other things. The effect of peer influence is real. He learns from her. I see it. For a 3 year old, his language skills are quite advanced, yet she talks even more than he. His growth accelerates when they are together. And so too does his advantage.

My boy is not above hitting, kicking or biting. He is a child. I am the disciplinarian in the family (shocking though it may be to my elder siblings). He needs guidance — sometimes stern, sometimes soft. But he needs his parents, both his mom and his dad. Daddy in particular doesn’t fuck around. Resistance is futile, as I like to say. He knows that.

In those moments when I’m dragging him to the naughty corner (a pain for us both), I often wonder what would happen if I wasn’t around or if I didn’t care. What if Luca didn’t have a dad who was around? How would he turn out? It’s easy to imagine a different life, one without the discipline, without the guidance, without daddy to enforce lessons of right from wrong.

Same with Stephanie. Whereas my favorite past-times with the boy are reading and wrestling, hers are talking, more talking and playing with him & his toys (something I find dreadfully boring). Were it not for Stephanie, he’d be physical brute with middling verbal skills.

Together, we give him what he needs. Or so we endeavor.

Were it not for both of our efforts, our incomes and our social capital, where would he be? How could he hope to compete with the children with the children who are so priveleged?

Such are the thoughts that have been occupying my mind as I read Our Kids — The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam. The book tells the story of an America increasingly divided — not by race or ethnicity — but by class and educational attainment.

Over the last 40 years, college-educated, rich Americans have clustered together, enjoying all manner of positive network effects much like the ones I just described. Americans without college degrees are living together too, suffering from the same sort of network effects, except in reverse: crime, drug use, low expectations and bad schools.

The graph below and other “scissor graphs” like it tell the story.

One of Robert Putnam's famous scissor graphs


They all look ominously similar. Each graph shows two lines diverging over the past several decades in the experiences of American kids at the top and bottom: in the share born to single mothers, in the chances that they’ll eat family dinners, in the time parents spend reading to them, in the money families invest in their clubs and lessons.

“Every summer camp you went to or every piano lesson you got or every time you went to soccer club, you were getting some advantage,” Putnam says, “that somebody else out there — Mary Sue — was not.”

from The Terrible Loneliness of Growing Up Poor in Robert Putnam’s America

This other America is not foreign to me.

Before I was a father, before I was an entrepreneur, I worked as a 911 paramedic in the Harlem and the Bronx. Monday through Thursday from 2005 to 2008, I attended Columbia University, taking courses in international politics at the best political science department in world. But come 7am on Friday, I put on the uniform and got to work on 12 X-ray (central Harlem) or 17 Willy (South Bronx). The people we served were poor. We were mostly tourists in their lives, parachuting into their living rooms or street corners to fix an asthma attack or an overdose.

In my time, I took care of a woman who’d had 30 abortions. I saw the police gleefully electrocute a man just because he made some noise in his jail cell. I did CPR on a floppy baby whose father had accidentally smothered the child in his sleep.

Now that I’m a father, I think often of all the sons and daughters growing up in that other America. It was a very different America from the one that my son will know.

How will these kids in that other America fare in a future where software has eaten the world?

Given the competitive nature of the education system and the job market, what chances for advancement will they have? How is it right and just that the circumstances of my son’s birth will determine so much of his future?

Their prospects look grim.

This is not the America that I want.

This is not the legacy that I want to leave behind.

This is not the American Dream.

I’m not sure what the answer is or how I can be a part of it, but as an entrepreneur sitting in the heart of Silicon Valley, I’m actively looking to be part of the solution.

If you know anyone who’s working on this problem, please send them my way. I’d love to be a soldier in this struggle.

Goodbye, Alarm Clock. How I Hacked Google Calendar to Call My Phone in the Mornings.

Oh Fuck I Overslept!

Oh Fuck I Overslept!

I used have a problem waking up on time. Like most early adopter types, I no longer have a physical alarm clock. Instead, I use my iPhone. However, the phone charger is in the kitchen and I always charge my phone at night. And for whatever reason, moving it back and forth from the kitchen to the bedroom just never worked. I think it’s because it was too hard to find the plug at night.

Not a problem really, except when I have a meeting scheduled in the morning and I don’t check my calendar the night before because my phone is in the kitchen charging.

First world problems, I know.

But, being the life hacker that I am, I came up with a fanfuckingtastic solution that I’m going to share with you today.

Whenever I want to wake up at a certain time, I create an event in my calendar called “Wake Up” and then at the appointed time, I get a phone call telling me to wake up. 

Here’s how it works:

Step 1
Create an event in Google Calendar called “wake up” at the time you want the alarm to go off. This can be a recurring event. I use Sunrise as my gCal client and here’s what it looks like:

Matt's Sunrise Calendar Screenshot


Step 2
Login into Zapier and create a new task. This is really easy and involves zero coding. If you don’t have an account, create one at

Zapier Create New Task Screenshot


Step 3
Choose Google Calendar as your trigger app. .

Choose Google Calendar as Zapier Trigger screenshot

Step 4
Choose “Event Start” as your trigger. 

Choose Google Calendar Event Start as Zapier Trigger screenshot


Step 5
Choose Twilio as your action app.

Choose Twilio as Action App on Zapier screenshot


Step 5
Choose Call Phone as action.

Choose Call Phone as Twilio Action on Zapier screenshot


Step 6
Connect your Google Calendar and Twilio accounts to Zapier if you haven’t already.

If you haven’t connected your Google account to Zapier, you will need to now. Again, pretty painless

If you haven’t heard of, connected or signed up for Twilio, it’s a cloud-based telephony service that allows you to automatically send text messages and make phone calls. Very useful. Twilio is a bit developer focused as a brand and if that intimidates you, then maybe checkout SendHub.

Step 7
Choose the specific Google Calendar you want to use.

Google Calendar picker on Zapier screenshot

Step 8
Make sure “time before” is set to zero. Delete whatever is in the “time before” fields.

Time Before google Calendar in Zapier screenshot

Step 9
Add a Custom Filter that looks for the text in Google Calendar’s Summary field to contain the phrase “Wake Up.”

Custom Filter "Wake Up" Google Calendar in Zapier screenshot


Step 10
Setup your automated phone call, including your call from number, your cell phone number in the call to number, what you want the computer to say and the kind of voice you want to hear it in.

Automated Twilio Phone Call on Zapier screenshot

Step 11
Test it out and turn it on!

Test out Zapier zap screenshot

Step 12
Whenever you want a wake up call, add an event in your calendar called “Wake Up” and get your ass woken up by phone call and a female computer voice that berates you and tells you to get up.

This works really well for me because I’ve received near Pavlovian training to always hear and respond to the sound of my phone ringing, regardless of where it is in the house.

Do it and never oversleep again.


A Christmas Gift for My Dad

My dad looking happy with his new computer setup

How I Created the Perfect Computer Setup for My Nearly Blind, 85 Year Old Father.

After 85 years on this earth, my dad’s vision has declined dramatically due to macular degeneration. It got so bad that he was using a magnifying glass to read emails on his 27-inch iMac. This is especially tough because my dad is actually in the late stages of writing & publishing a 600+ page book about Billy the Kid, the famous outlaw.

As a Christmas present, I replaced my dad’s iMac with a Mac Mini and a 50-inch TV. Now he can read emails and browse the web with just his regular glasses on. He’s happy as a clam and I’m really happy for him.

How It Started

My dad had been using a late-2009 iMac passed down by my older brother. He would bring it with him when he’d visit us in San Francisco. This is what it looked like setup at my standing desk in the old living room:

Here's my dad two years ago using his old computer at my standing desk. Pretty clever. He hacked my standing desk using a chair and an ottoman.
Here’s my dad two years ago using his old computer at my standing desk. He hacked my standing desk into a sitting desk using a chair and an ottoman. Pretty clever.

My dad would bring his 27-inch iMac on the plane as checked luggage. He reinforced the original packaging with plywood to make the box travel worthy.

Dad at the airport with his gigantic portable computer
Dad at the airport with his 27-inch iMac in tow. He reinforced the original box with plywood to make it impact-proof and wrapped it in plastic to make it waterproof. Then he tied it all together with an old telephone cord.

Everything was great, or so I thought, until I visited my parents’ home this Christmas. Dad’s vision had worsened and he was struggling to see the letters on the screen. To read emails, he would pick up a magnifying glass, hold it close to his eye and push his head toward the screen.

“Papa,” I said, “there’s got to a better way!”

The Perfect Computer Setup for My Nearly-Blind, Elderly Father

Late in one afternoon, I took elderly parents to the Apple Store. After briefly considering the new 27-inch iMac, we picked up an upgraded Apple Mac Mini for $700, though you can buy the base model from Amazon for $459. I chose the Mac Mini because:

  • Just a computer – Works with any size computer monitor.
  • HDMI port – can use a TV instead of a traditional computer monitor.
  • Small size – easy to transport on a plane to San Francisco or car to the Apple Store.
  • Apple Genius Bar – my dad can take it in to get fixed and troubleshoot any problems that crop up. <––Makes life way easier for me and my brother!

Next stop: Fry’s Electronics of Anaheim, computer store of my youth. In case you’ve never been, Fry’s is an electronics chain known for low prices, massive warehouses and used-car-esque salesmen.

I walked into Fry’s thinking we’d buy a ~32-inch computer monitor for $500, which seemed like a decent option. However, I was concerned that we could get something much cheaper online, but then I realized: We could actually get my dad a big ass TV and use it as a monitor!

Me, I couldn’t deal with having a TV as a monitor. The resolution just isn’t high enough. I need a higher density of information and pixels. My dad however had the opposite problem. He didn’t just need a big screen, he needed big pixels and big text. The bigger, the better.

Dad at Fry's checking out TVs.
Dad at Fry’s checking out TVs. He’s still a bit confused about the end goal at this point. 

After perusing a few smaller options, we settled on a 50-Inch Flat Screen Television with 1080p resolution for $425 (refurbished). If you’re willing to settle for something slightly smaller, this 40-Inch, 1080p TV from Amazon looks like a great deal at $279.

I chose the big screen TV because it is:

  • Bigger display size than a regular monitor.
  • Cheaper than a regular monitor.
  • Text appears bigger than a regular monitor.

This turned out to be an excellent decision financially and practically. There’s no way we could have gotten a display that size for anything close to that price.

Since my dad already had a keyboard and mouse that he liked, we just needed an HDMI cable and a webcam to use for grandpa-grandson FaceTime.

Mom and Dad FaceTime with me and grandson
Mom and Dad on FaceTime. Me and Luca say hi.

FaceTime with my parents is one of my favorite evening pastimes with my son, so having a functional, low-hassle webcam attached to the computer was crucial.

We chose this HD Webcam by CreativeLive!. We paid $40 at Fry’s, but you can buy it Amazon for $20. Things I liked about it include:

  • Works reliably with Mac / Apple products.
  • 720p HD resolution.
  • Built-in microphone.
  • Lots of positive reviews.

Getting everything in the car paid for and in the car was a bit of a pain in the ass, but we made it home safe just two hours after we left. Getting started was pretty easy because I’d already set my dad up with a Dropbox account and used that store all his important files, including his book. I also made sure that he shared all his folders with me and my brother, so that we could poke around with files just in case he got into trouble.

A Huge Win for Accessibility & Usability

I was pretty sure my dad would be happy with the end result, though he was a bit skeptical during the purchasing process. After a day at the helm of his new computer, he was unequivocally happy with the new setup. “It’s tremendous!” he said, calling me the next day. “Son, I can read everything just fine. I don’t need the magnifying glass.”

My dad's new computer setup - rear view
This is me showing my dad how to share a Dropbox Link. Man, that’s some huge text. 
My dad's new computer setup - side view
Suddenly, my dad could see the text and do work without squinting or using the magnifying glass. Pretty awesome!
My dad looking happy with his new computer setup
My dad with his new computer setup. “It’s tremendous!” he told me the next day. “I can see everything with just my glasses.”

In case you’re interested in buying this setup for someone you love, I created an Amazon store so that you can buy this setup for someone you love who is vision impaired. 


Mission Driven Companies Do It Better.

The North Star

Mission driven companies do it better. They execute better. They scale faster. They grow quicker.

In my first company, we were anything but mission driven. And this caused us huge problems.

If you had asked 5 people in the company, “What does your company do, exactly?” you would have gotten five very different answers. Each employee, each founder had their own idea of what the company was about:

  • “We’re a machine learning company.”
  • “We’re a cloud labor company.”
  • “We’re a transcription company.”

And on and on.

Ok, you’re wondering, so what?

Practically speaking, this meant that I, as a the CEO, had to micromanage the team if I wanted the company to build the product and customer experience I had envisioned. This is bad. I had failed as a leader in a big way. People didn’t know the why, so I had to constantly decide on and explain the what. This sucked. “Why don’t they get it!?!” I would wonder, frustrated.

Ultimately, the fault was my own.

Think about it from the employee’s perspective. They show up, join the company, poke around the product, listen to the founder talk about their big dreams of riches and world domination, yet each founder’s dream is unique or in conflict somehow with the others. And so what is the employee to do but come up with her own interpretation, her own vision of what matters and what is important. And then use that to make decisions––decisions that invariably affect the product and the customer experience.

The more employees you have, the bigger the problem gets.

Things got exponentially worse when I was raising money. Some CEOs can still manage the company’s day-to-day while fundraising. I was not such a CEO. Fundraising consumed me. It forced me to delegate. And that resulted in things going off the rails.

When fundraising was finally done, I returned to a company focused on a different vision than the one in my head––one more focused on solving hard technical problems than customer problems. At the time, I blamed the team. Now I blame myself.

Later, when I ventured off the island that was my own company, I experienced the privilege of meeting some truly great companies. One thing I noticed of all the great companies was that everyone in company was on the same page. Everyone knew what the mission was and everyone used the same language to describe it.

This alignment was an extraordinary management tool. Because everyone was on the same page, mission and outcome wise, management didn’t have to micromanage people. And because they didn’t have to micromanage people, they could focus on bigger things. They could delegate to people in the lowest levels of the organization and know that the employees decisions would reflect the management team’s intent. They could build a flat hierarchy that retained the best people longer.

Awesome. And such powerful leverage.

Being mission driven doesn’t mean being progressive, enlightened or humane. Being mission driven simply means that everyone in the understands the organizational end game and actively uses this understanding guide their day-to-day decision making.

Being mission driven means that everyone in the organization knows not just the ephemeral what, but the unchanging why. Being mission driven means that everyone understands and is focused on the problem you’re trying to solve, not the current instantiation of the solution.

The CEOs of mission driven companies operate with more leverage than their counterparts. Instead of a swarm of men dedicated to doing their bidding and executing their commands, they have a hivemind of humans working together in parallel to solve a single well-defined problem. That’s leverage! And in the long run, that’s what wins.


Update: My friend Vijay Sundaram of Found (acquired by Hightail) made a comment via email that I think is worth sharing:

Great write up man, I agree wholeheartedly. Unfortunately to a huge portion of the venture and entrepreneur population this is “fluff” but nothing you’ll say will make them get it. Couple additional thoughts come to mind re: the underlying problem:

  1. Failure to instill “mission mindset” in employees – sometimes it’s a an issue of founders not operating with a mission in mind, sometimes it’s an issue of founders communicating that mission well, and sometimes it’s an issue of the employees that’ve been hired not being willing or capable of internalizing that mission
  2. Even with a “mission mindset” among employees, it doesn’t always translate into action (or the right action) – founders have to instill the mission mindset AND THEN have to demonstrate how to translate it into operating principles and decisions by example and consistency. This is where founder-managers are so crucial, because they do this day in day out by their wiring and why companies can flail despite an excellently articulated vision and mission (by a founder who doesn’t know how or do the hard work to translate to execution).


Be Kind. It Pays.

Be Kind

“Some of the best companies I’ve invested in were referred to me by founders I’ve rejected. “
-Anonymous Investor

I’ve been meeting with a lot of VCs lately. Not because I’m raising money mind you, but because I’m considering becoming one of them. And them, it turns, includes quite a range of personalities and attitudes.

The worst investors are the most transactional, the most focused on the deal, on the what you can do for me right now. In their minds, they see themselves as company pickers. They believe that their job is to find and choose the great companies. And if you’re not running a great company, you’re not interesting.

The best investors are the most focused on building long-term relationships with people. Yes, they too want to invest in great companies, but they know that the real challenge isn’t picking, it’s being picked. They ask not: “How do I find the great companies?”, but “How do I create a situation so that the best companies find me?”

Because when it comes down to it, the best entrepreneurs already have an idea of who they want to work with before they start pitching. They read blogs and books and Hacker News. They get advice from friends and advisors and mentors. They know.

The reason that relationships are so much more important than “deals” is that the ideas & the businesses in this business change faster than the people running them. That kid who was pitching a dumb idea yesterday very well may have learned an important lesson or two in the process of having that first idea fail, and tomorrow––who knows? Maybe she’ll be the next Travis Kalanick.

Or maybe she won’t.

But there’s a decent chance that she’ll know the next Travis Kalanick, that she’ll drink beer with him in the park and offer to intro him to her favorite investors. Cuz that’s how this ecosystem works. Maybe she didn’t succeed, but if she’s any good she has a sense for what success smells like (at least she thinks so) and she wants to be the woman who helped success achieve its ultimate destiny. She wants success to rub off on her, on her reputation. And so––selfishly––she helps the new kid on the block by making some key introductions. Because this was what was done for her 12 months prior. And so the virtuous, wonderful cycle that makes Silicon Valley tick continues.

In all this, a venture capitalist has but one hope––that the great deals arrive, somehow, on her radar, preferably in her inbox. She meets lots and lots of entrepreneurs, yet mostly says no.

Having been on the other side of this, I can say with great confidence that how you say “No” to someone matters quite a lot. This includes whether you actually say “No” at all, or instead leaving the person hanging and hoping in vain and frustration. If there’s no “yes” on the horizon, a firm and ideally thoughtful “no” is the next best thing. You’d be amazed at how many people simply go dark and stop responding!

I mean, fuck those guys. Have some respect for the entrepreneur on the other side of the table.

In the cruel, unforgiving world of entrepreneurship, a good, high-quality “No” is an act of kindness, an affirmation that you’re a peer and deserving of a response. It’s like being told that that one mirage you keep seeing on the desert horizon isn’t a lake after all, so focus your search for water elsewhere.

Selfishly, you should know that this kindness pays, that the entrepreneurs you treat well and impress with your demeanor will be keeping you in mind, touting your awesomeness to friends and later referring young hopefuls your way.

Just last week, I referred someone to a VC who told me “No” four years ago. Because I was impressed. And it stuck with me.

Note: This post was inspired by Ben Narasin @ TripePoint Ventures, George Zachary @ Charles River Ventures and Jon Callaghan @ True Ventures, among many others. 

Announcing Marketplace Talks: On-Stage Interviews With The World’s Best Marketplace Entrepreneuers

Marketplace Talks Meetup Group

I’m proud to announce my involvement in Marketplace Talks, the world’s #1 meetup for marketplace startups, entrepreneurs and investors

Once a month, I’ll interview a prominent marketplace entrepreneur (or investor) on-stage, in front of an assembled mass of other entrepreneurs, investors and startup people. I’ll do my best to dig into the business model, how it works, why it works and what didn’t (or isn’t) work.

Marketplace Talks is a forum dedicated to the challenges faced by marketplace builders. If that’s you, join Marketplace Talks now. The lessons you learn will be tactical, practical and inform how you think about building your own business. There will be no boring, stupid or insincere speakers––I promise! My goal is simply to help you learn more faster.

The first Marketplace Talk will feature Thumbtack CEO Marco Zappacosta, backed by $50MM from Sequoia Capital, and will focus on marketplace disintermediation and why the Thumbtack founders decided to NOT close the loop and instead let buyers and sellers transact outside of their platform, either via cash or PayPal. Disintermediation is a problem that every marketplace struggles with and I think Marco’s learnings will be useful.

What:    Marketplace Disintermediation with Thumbtack CEO Marco Zappacosta
When:    Thursday, August 14th @ 6pm
Where:    500 Startups – SF in SOMA

Sign Me Up. I Love Marketplaces!


Morality is a Luxury Good

Hobbesian State of Nature

War is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will. 
-Carl Von Clausewitz

Morality is a luxury good.

War is fundamentally amoral. There is nothing a threatened society won’t do, especially when cornered. The violence of war has no natural limit, no logical upward bound.

And in case you thought we Americans are better than all that, just know that our biggest weapons, our nuclear arms are pointed at cities, not military bases. We deter our enemies by threatening them with genocidal war. We are no better than Israel or Hamas; we are only stronger, safer and more secure.

This state of relative safety that we enjoy today is the reward for a century’s worth of genocide, ethnic cleansing and theft against the native Americans. The natives we didn’t kill we put in concentration camps, where they remain today in slightly modified form.

Our security is the lucre of the crimes of our forefathers, the byproduct of a decisive victory against those whose homes we stole. Neither Israel nor Palestine enjoy such safety. Remember this when you condemn and pass judgement on either of the warring parties.

Take sides. But don’t lie to yourself.

To Commerce! To Freedom! To the Open Internet!

Paul revere wants to save net neutrality

I sent this letter to the Federal Communication Commission just a few minutes ago. I encourage you to do something similar. Also, feel free to discuss this post on Hacker News.

From: Matt Mireles
Date: Mon, Jul 14, 2014 at 12:25 PM
Subject: Save the Open Internet. For Freedom.


My name is Matt Mireles and I would like to tell you my story.

I’m an internet entrepreneur. I started my first company in October 2008, 3 weeks after the Lehman collapse and about 4 months after graduating from college. During the first year and a half of the company’s existence, I was broke and working a side job as a 911 paramedic to pay the bills. The company was very fragile and almost anything could have killed it.

In a post net-neutrality world that req’d paying fees to Comcast and Time-Warner, I might have quit before I ever got the company off the ground.In 2010 & 2011, we ended up raising $1.1MM from Google and other investors and building a workforce of 45,000 people spread across the globe before selling the company in 2012. I have started two more companies since then.

Please keep net neutrality alive. There are thousands and thousands of would be me’s out there. We owe it to them and to the future of our country.

To commerce! To freedom! To the open internet!

-Matt Mireles

The New Fast Food – The Rise of the Delivery-Only, Mobile-First Restaurant Chain

sprig logo

I was trying to understand why food startups are so hot when I ran across the following two charts.


In the image, you’ll notice that I circled a line labeled “P/E.” In the language of finance, P/E is short for “price-to-earnings ratio,” which is the relative value of a company’s stock price to its profitability (aka earnings). When a company enjoys a high stock price yet barely turns a profit––like Amazon––it shows in the P/E ratio.

This typically happens when investors think the company will grow and reap huge profits down the road at some later date (or that someone else will pay an even higher price later on). Generally speaking, having a high P/E ratio means that investors like you and believe that you have a bright future.

The average P/E ratio on the major stock markets indices is 15. Google’s P/E ratio is 30. Chipotle’s P/E ratio is 56. Said another way: Chipotle’s profits are worth more than Google’s.

Mind. Blown.

Which brings me to the original inspiration for this post: Sprig.

Gagan Biyani, the founder of Sprig, is a friend of mine. Sometime last year we caught up and he told me about a new food delivery startup he was working on. They’d make the food themselves, he explained, and deliver it too — really fast.

Oof, I thought. Not a bad idea, but sounds like a tough sell to the capital markets. Lots of upfront cost, little relative profit, no clear customer lock-in or network effect. How would they ever join the 10x revenue club?

Since that conversation, Sprig has gone on to raise over $10 million from Greylock and others. Immediately, the floodgates opened: SpoonRocket raised $10 million.Munchery raised $28 million. Capital has literally flooded the food space, but I still didn’t get it. Why? What were the VCs seeing that I wasn’t?

At first glance, these companies reminded me of Postmates, which I classify as a premium service targeting a niche audience of wealthy urbanites willing to pay a 30 percent premium to have food delivered. How big could these businesses get, really, especially outside of the SF bubble? What the hell were investors thinking?

As I thought about it more, I realized that while Postmates and Caviar are services on top of restaurants, Sprig, Munchery and SpoonRocket are restaurants. Really, they’re the new fast food chains.

Like a Chipotle, these new fast food chains operate commercial kitchens, pay a chef to design their menu and hire low-skilled minions to mass-produce the actual food dishes. Unlike a Chipotle, these new fast food chains can lease out cheap real commercial real estate in out of the way, low-cost locations. Not only do the new fast food chains pay less per square foot of real estatec, they also need a fewer locations and thus less real estate in absolute terms. How many locations does SpoonRocket need to feed all of San Francisco? Three… maybe? Then think of Burger King — how many locations would they need to serve an equivalent volume of customers? Fifteen? Twenty?

And finally, instead of someone upselling you fries with that, the new fast food chains seal the deal with nice photography and a well-designed mobile app. Not bad efficiency.

Yet for the money they save on cashiers, the new fast food chains introduce a new, countervailing cost: human delivery agents. And with fuel costs being driven up by the rise of China’s middle class, delivery ain’t cheap — Sprig pays their SF delivery workers $16 an hour.

Software is eating food.

From an operations perspective, the relative costs of these inputs — real estate, food prep, delivery — are going to determine how profitable the new fast food chains are. The pressure to increase efficiency and drive down the costs in these companies will be great. For the workers on the other side of the iPhone app, the old industrial logic of low-pay-for-low-skill will apply just as it ever has, especially as more of the intelligence and skill becomes centralized in the form of software and the buffeting effect of venture capital goes away in five years or so when these companies mature.

Due to their vertically integrated operations, these companies can reimagine the entire value chain from the vantage point of software. They can apply A/B testing and innovative startup thinking to not just their website or mobile apps, but the entire food production and cooking process. Here, in the unglamorous backend of operations, is where the profits will be won or lost.

By way of comparison, the publicly traded stocks of the old fast food companies are kicking ass. In terms of P/E ratios, McDonald’s shares are doing better than Apple’sStarbucks is beating the pants off of Facebook and nipping on the buds of Amazon.

How big can these businesses get? In a word, huge. By market cap, McDonald’s is a $100 billion business — that’s two-thirds of an Amazon. At $19 billion, Chipotle is worth a whole WhatsApp. Hell, Taco Bell’s parent company is almost worth one-and-a-half Twitters.

US Food Spending - at home vs outside of home

Whither the next unicorn(s)? Food. Trillions of dollars of consumption are quite literally in play.

U.S. consumers spend $6,130 a year on food (~10 percent of all spending, depending how you slice it). And a dollar of Chipotle’s profit is worth more than a dollar of Google’s.

There will many winners. Unlike social networks or online marketplaces, there’s no winner-take-all dynamic in the food world. Homebrew’s Satya Patel summed up the typical VC mindset in his own explanation of why Homebrew is avoiding the food space, writing: “Many markets have room for more than one “winner” but very few have room for more than two or three.” Satya is wrong about food.

Food is a market like the Internet is a market — it’s too big to be to considered just one “market.” There’s high-end, low-end, middle of the road, Mexican, Sushi, Thai, Burgers, etc. The list goes on and on forever. Witness Jack in the Box ($2.4 billion), Panera Bread ($4 billion), Starbucks ($58 billion), Burger King ($9.4 billion), and more. The list of billion-dollar restaurant chains goes on and on, addressing all manner of market segments. Practically speaking, people don’t want to eat the same thing every day, thus supplier diversity is natural, organic and inevitable. And so it will be with the new fast-food chains who disrupt the old.

The food opportunity is so big because people need to eat three times a day. And unlike casual social interaction — here’s looking at you, Facebook — people happily pay for food. Counted in terms of DAUs, the number of  potential daily active users for these companies is in the billions.

A thundering herd of food unicorns is assembling itself on the horizon. Prepare yourself. It’s not a fad. It’s not over yet. And you’re not too late.

This is just the beginning.

This post originally appeared in TechCrunch.

Farewell to All That

“Each time you crest the rise in front of you, it just makes it clear the size of the even larger hill that looms beyond it. It goes on for a long time.” -Marc Randolph, Founder/CEO Netflix


After six years in the saddle as an entrepreneur, I’ve decided to hang up my hat and get a job.

Two weeks ago, the first wire hit our bank account––EasyFridge‘s first investment! I was excited at first. It felt good, validating and all that. After a few days, however, a different thought occupied me: “Am I ready to do this for the next five years?” 

 If you’ve never started a company before, this is a question you need to ask yourself.

For me, the answer was “definitely not.”

I’m tired. I took just two weeks off after the SpeakerText acquisition closed. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I should have taken more time, have made an honest effort to charge my batteries. But I didn’t. And now I’m paying the price.

As a result, I decided to return the capital to our investors (100 cents on the dollar) and move on.

Now I’m looking for a job.