Our investment in Smart Vision Labs

I’m excited to share that we recently led the Series A investment in Smart Vision Labs, Inc. The company is based in New York City, and is changing the way eye exams are done with the world’s first commercially available, mobile phone based autorefractor, the SVOne.


The Smart Vision Labs press release and TechCrunch coverage talk about the global market opportunity and need in detail, so I’ll suffice it to say we believe that seeing well is a right, not a privilege. We also love to see technology used for good and to improve our lives, so these two ideas together are very compelling for us.

When we first saw the SVOne and met the team behind the technology, we were inspired by the potential and the sophistication of the approach Smart Vision Labs has taken. The solution uses wavefront aberrometry, a technology typically found in large, heavy desktop autorefractors in your eye doctor’s office. The team at Smart Vision Labs has shrunk this down, connected it to the cloud and put it into the palm of your hand.  Its true convergence.

Yaopeng Zhou (CEO)  and Marc Albanese (COO) are passionate and mission-driven co-founders with strong backgrounds in the vision and optics space. They have a great story and a long history together. From the early days at grad school, Yaopeng and Marc have had a clear vision (sorry, had to!) around what was possible in this realm and have been pursuing it relentlessly. What started as an idea between two researchers at BU has become a groundbreaking product already in use around the world.  Like every great entrepreneurial journey, they’ve had their challenges and curveballs thrown at them. Yaopeng and Marc have handled all of it well and are monster executors – they just get things done! This Series A financing is another one of those milestones, and we are fired up about where the company is going next.

The entire team at Smart Vision Labs is great and laser focused on the task at hand, and I’m happy to also announce I’m joining the Smart Vision Labs board as a Director.  All of us at Techstars Ventures look forward to digging in and working with Smart Vision Labs on this important mission of improving eye exams and helping people the world over see more clearly.

One Thing Every SaaS Company Should Do


I had a recent experience with a CRM eval that left an impression on me, and I came to the conclusion that running a SaaS evaluation of other solutions on a semi-regular basis can be super helpful.  Keep reading for a few tips/learnings.

Long version;
If you are in the business of providing a cloud-based service and you want to get better, one of the absolute best things you can do is to perform a proper evaluation of OTHER companies’ SaaS offerings. Many companies are constantly iterating and tweaking the sales process, but its not hard to end up somewhat lost in your own world of what you think works best. Bigger changes can be hard and risky. A/B testing takes resources. Blah, blah…. If you run a proper evaluation of another set of SaaS solutions that have reached scale, you can learn a ton about what’s working and what’s not. It might even be smart to do this once every few quarters to ensure you aren’t missing something. Another approach would be to ask a friend to anonymously run through your process and that of 2-3 of your competitors. Its a cheap way to help you see the forest through the trees.


From my recent experience, the key here is “proper evaluation”. This means running a process, having requirements, and being thoughtful about methodology. I’m not sure this works if you just sign up for 1-2 services and play around for an hour. Build a spreadsheet, document your process and the data collected. Actually use the products with real data. Try the import tools. Enable the integrations. Use the tools in anger as the Brits say.

I recently went through the exercise of selecting a new CRM platform for the fund, and rather than just pick one I thought would meet our needs (or keep what we had), I decided to run a full-blown competitive evaluation. It was an awesome eye opener. I work with a lot of SaaS companies, and there was something magical about going through the normal interest>trial>shakedown>decision process with 5 products at once. The magic was that I saw strengths and weaknesses in every vendor’s approach and was able to directly compare what I felt was best-of-class against what was happening at some of our portfolio companies. It highlighted a lot of low-hanging fruit and areas to fine-tune, I.E. things that our companies were not doing that would improve the 0-60 or qualification experience, as well as confirmations about what was already where it should be.

In some ways the project was a nice change of pace and a thing to really sink into for a week, and I learned a ton about which companies had a really dialed in process and which didn’t. For many prospective buyers, that initial experience with the brand and product set the tone for the entire evaluation process and perception of the company itself. You can learn a lot about a company in the first few hours after you sign up for something!

A few standout areas from my CRM evaluation:
  • It starts with the form. If you are B2B SaaS and you are not collecting a company name and a phone #, why not? Its a great qualification filter for B2B solutions.  Learning: don’t be afraid to collect the necessary info up front. Its part of qualification!
  • The category leaders got in touch with me within hours. Sometimes under an hour! Not a form email, a call. I didn’t find it annoying because I was actually a qualified lead and wanted to talk to them. Learning: Engage quickly and show me you are hungry and responsive and want my business! It tells me what kind of company you are. Don’t wait a week to call me.
  • Qualification best practice – They qualified me out of the gate in a polite way and then often got me in touch with the “private equity” specialist that understood what I was trying to do. In one case, the company dis-qualified themselves because they knew they wouldn’t be an ideal fit. Bravo! Learning: its ok to be direct and cut me loose if I’m not an ideal customer. Qualify quickly. I’ll respect you more. 
  • Email and human engagement were in sync. No surprise that the two companies that called me within an hour or so had their act together with the marketing email drip campaign also. I wasn’t getting pinged by a human rep and a different robo-marketer at the same time. Learning: consistent and intelligent communication are key to a good experience. If your organization ins’t in sync before I give you my $$, how will it go after? 
  • Help, don’t push. In some cases it was pretty clear the company wanted to just be available to answer questions, but in others they wanted to push me along, like getting shoved from behind in the line for Space Mountain. Guess which one I liked better? Learning: Direct and friendly = great, but there is a fine line. Don’t cross it. You are telling me about the culture of your company. 
  • Product Experience – What I found to be optimal was the built-in wizards to orient me around the UI, and then a pre-sales human available to answer questions. When someone tried to schedule a demo I declined because I didn’t want to sit through them, I wanted to see how intuitive the UI was. It was a leading indicator and a key criteria for us (usability). Learning: Features are important (tablestakes!) but UI and UX matter a ton. I have to actually like the product, regardless of reqs. 
  • Hand-Off – One company in particular did a great job of handing me off from the pre-sales / qualification team to the actual sales rep. Both were on one call, both had the same data on my needs, and I never had to repeat myself. This built a lot of trust. I knew who to call and who was going to work with me going forward. Learning: Be consistent and ensure your workflow between lead-gen, pre-sales, post-sales, etc is seamless. You can lose me at any of these steps if you fumble. 

So, after you are done re-reading Bessemer’s awesome 10 Laws of Cloud Computing guide and gut-checking where you are with the core elements of SaaS, I’d encourage you to run a proper competitive analysis of SaaS solutions in another category.  Hold your own process and customer experience up to what you think is best of breed. You’ll learn a ton, and I’d be surprised if you didn’t find at least 5-10 tweaks that could end up making a real difference.


I’d love to hear from you after you do this, or if you have recently and what your experience was!


Play it Back! My Codementor session on how to get into Techstars

Earlier this week I did a live Hangout for Codementor on “How to get into Techstars” – it was a Q&A format talk. Codementor is a great platform that provides developers help with roadblocks or issues while building things. Its like having another developer in the room, right when you need them. They have been running a great series of office hours on both technical and non-technical topics.

Some really smart questions were asked and we covered a lot of ground in the hour. Topics covered included the sole founder question, equity, locations, how to prepare, how to stand out and more.  I also shared some of my own experiences and POV on the Techstars program (I was in the very first class in Boulder 2007). In case you are applying to Techstars, or thinking about applying, check out  the Office Hours recording here.  (And you can ask me anything you want that didn’t get covered in the comments on this post as well). Thanks to Codementor for having me on!

Chasing Rabbits

I was on an email thread earlier this week – a conversation between a Techstars company and its mentors. There was a healthy discussion around the current areas of focus and whether to start monetizing or focus on users/growth (or do both).

Wayne Chang,  another (awesome) mentor on the thread shared a great quote that really resonated with me:

“The hunter who chases two rabbits catches neither”

This stuck with me for the rest of the day. Such a simple thing, but so very true.  Its a great gut-check. Are you focused? Are you about to catch your quarry? FOCUS! is a startup rallying cry, almost to the point of being a cliche’ at this point, but its valid.  Early stage market validation and finding product-market fit are so, so important and yet many companies get distracted and try to do too many things at once.

To be fair, I’ve also observed there being a lot of grey area around what it means to be truly focused. For some companies, focusing on user acquisition and raw growth vs trying to monetize those users is enough. For others, driving success with one user case, or in one vertical may be enough. I’m working with a company now that is super early but is doing 4 things at once. They are laser focused on the mission and vision, but the tactics  require doing many things at once. They are focused on winning the market, and everything they do rolls up to that strategy.

In all cases, its the end result that matters. Every business is different, but if you sit with this quote for a minute…it just might illuminate something valuable. Happy hunting!

Welcome to the Future

2013-05-26_techstars_ID_final_bug with typesetWhen I was a kid, I was always fascinated with technology and mechanics.  I could not get enough of anything that seemed complex or innovative. When I was a kid I built model planes, I built and raced RC cars, I also built and flew gas-powered RC planes for a few years. Then I shifted my focus to computers and cars as I got older. I grew up in the bay area and was surrounded with early tech and I was just drawn to it.

I also seemed to have a really hard time staying focused on just one thing for very long. I wanted to absorb as much as I could. I’ve always been interested in what’s next. Its not ADD, its curiosity (or so I tell myself).

I was still in high school when I applied for an internship for a valley tech company. My duties were split between the QA lab and writing a Investor Relations database for the CFO. Looking back, this split duty may have laid the foundation for my entire career. I’ve always found the most rewarding and challenging work to be a combination of business strategy and technical details. My early career path followed this model, now that I think about it. I’ll spare you the details but what’s relevant is that I couldn’t really figure out what to major in when I went to college. I loved tech, but couldn’t commit to being an engineer, and I loved business but didn’t love numbers enough to want to be an Accountant or Finance major (ironic, right?). I decided to split the difference and selected Marketing as a major at the CU Leeds School, and they had a brand new Entrepreneurship track that I hopped on. I haven’t looked back.

The last 15 years of my professional life has been an amazing journey across a number of different industries, markets and models. As it turns out almost every one of the companies I’ve either founded or been a part of was angel and venture backed (7 of 8 to be exact). I’ve had days where I loved VCs, and I’ve had frustrating days when I’ve hated them. For years I thought about getting into venture capital, and the idea that I could be involved in a larger number of businesses at once really intrigued me. I told myself that if I ever had the opportunity, I’d carry with me all of the lessons and scar tissue I had accumulated over the last 15 years. It had to be the right platform, the right team, and the right culture. I’m proud to say the time has come.

On Wednesday we announced a new $150M venture fund at Techstars. There has been a bunch of great press on it, and David wrote an phenomenal post that touches on how Techstars got to this point. Brad Feld also posted his thoughts on our evolution, and Mark Solon wrote a great post about his own journey to this point. I could not be more excited and humbled to be able to call David, Mark, Nicole and Jason my partners. I learn from them every day, and enjoy the unique strengths and perspectives we all bring to the table. I’m incredibly thankful to have a seat at the table.

I met David Cohen in 2006, when I was running Newman Venture Advisors. We had just sold off an early stage company I was the interim CEO of, and he casually asked me what I was going to do next. I pitched him on an idea I had been developing. Something to do with filtering the web and improving the signal to noise ratio. David pulled a two page exec summary he had written out a file cabinet. (We still used those back then). It was, almost verbatim, what I had just pitched. He suggested I apply to this new thing he was doing called Techstars. I demurred, and thought it wasn’t a fit for me. I think he said something like “just apply, it will be a good exercise”.  Always up for a challenge and immediately seeing the value of the application process, I agreed. On the way out the door he mentioned “oh, by the way…applications close in two weeks and you have to provide a functional prototype.” After the mild panic subsided, I put my head down and Filtrbox was born. Thanks for the nudge David, you changed my life!  David also introduced me to Tom Chikoore who became my co-founder and CTO at Filtrbox. We clicked quickly and although we barely knew each other we shared a huge vision for what was possible. Reflecting on how this all started,  there is something magical and serendipitous about being part of the team at Techstars today.  My future is here, and it all started almost a decade ago. There are no coincidences.

I wish I could tell you I was in constant disbelief about how this has all come about, but I’m not. I’m blown away, and at the same time not surprised. Techstars is the real deal. This organization lives and breathes its #givefirst mantra and entrepreneur-focused mission every day.  I’m constantly learning, constantly inspired, and super excited for this next chapter.

I’ll do my best to “do it right” and remember my experiences as an entrepreneur pitching other VCs. I’m not sure I agree with this Venn diagram (thanks @yoavlurie), but 15 years as an entrepreneur and operator won’t be easily forgotten.

I moved to Boulder in 2002 with my amazing wife Leslie because we wanted to find balance. I wanted to do awesome things in tech, but on my own terms. Brad Feld was a huge early inspiration and supporter (and later, we had a walk around a lake in Slovenia that had a profound affect on me). Jon Callaghan and Phil Black at True Ventures were some of the first VCs I met whose care for the entrepreneur was clear and evident.  Trevor Loy at Flywheel taught me the value of looking around the bend. Simon Khalaf, my boss and soon-after co-founder at JustOn taught me how to get shit done and execute on a vision in ways I could have never imagined.  And the day that Seth Levine said “we” in a Mentor meeting during Techstars in 2007 instead of “you guys” has stuck with me to this day, and I’m lucky to count him as a good friend.

David and Mark both talked in their posts about how the people around them have shaped their careers and personal paths, and I could not agree more. I’m so thankful to have amazing people around me, and I look forward to meeting many, many more amazing and inspirational people in my journey as an investor.


Book Review – Uncommon Stock: Power Play

power playLike many of you reading this, I live and breathe startups and tech. Sometimes the truth of what goes down is indeed stranger than fiction. In the case of Uncommon Stock: Power Play – the fiction is where its at. Eliot Peper’s sophomore effort in the Uncommon Stock series does not disappoint.  I reviewed the first book here (spoiler: also awesome).

I’m not sure how to really describe what’s happening in this book series without ruining it, so I’ll just encourage you to read them. Super fun, fast paced and creative.  Perfect for a longer flight or a Sunday morning. I would not recommend starting this book at night, as you’ll find yourself up for awhile!

I could get used to this startup thriller-fiction thing…its a blast and a wild ride.  The protagonist, Mara, finds herself in one crazy situation after another and the story arc is one part startup drama, one part 007, and one part Sherlock Holmes.

The author has a way of keeping you engaged and your mind racing to work out what happens next, and there are enough familiar and authentic-feeling elements layered in there to make it a lot of fun and *almost* too close to home. Given that the book is set in Boulder, this is pretty easy ;-).

I hear the third book in the series is already underway, and I’m anxious to see how Mara handles the insanity of her situation. She’s one tough CEO. Bring it!

2015 – The Future is Here

I woke up this morning with the thought “I can’t believe its 2015!”, but truthfully I can and I’m actually super excited about the year to come. In many ways, I feel like the future is here, now. We are always in a state of evolution, improvement, optimization, etc. with technology, but 2015 feels like its going to be like a tipping point.

On the personal front I’m committed to getting my body and heath put back together. My recovery from the back surgery almost two years ago is in a good place and I’m able to ride a little, swim and lift again. However I’ve put on almost 15 lbs since my bike racing days so I’ve got real work to do. I’m fired up about it though, and you can bet that technology will help keep me focused on my goals. I’m using LoseIt, Withings scale, my Garmin & Strava for starters.

On the work front I couldn’t be more excited about where we are taking Techstars next. Our recent announcements around the new Mobility Accelerator in Detroit and the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Techstars are super forward-leaning programs that aim to bring tomorrow’s tech into the hands of consumers and businesses today.  These two markets, Mobility and Robotics specifically, are places where innovation means better safety, utility and environmental responsibility.  Its going to be a big year and I can’t wait to see what the companies come up with!

When I think about the state of the art in terms of IoT, home intelligence, and just sheer cool-factor, its hard to believe where we are when you stop and think about it. A few years ago when things like Nest and Dropcam were just hitting the mainstream we knew it was all coming, but its happened fast.  Sure, we don’t have jetpacks, hyperloop, and sadly there is no light rail between Boulder and DIA yet (cough, cough), but a 3.2 second electric sedan, AI for drones, touch-surface headphones, smart HVAC vents, smart sensors for your home and the like all tell me we are hitting a tipping point where the groundwork laid over the last few years in these areas of tech-driven efficiencies are going to reach a point where we really see the benefits as consumers. In fact, you don’t have to look much further than our holiday gift guide to see some really cool innovations that are hitting the market.

What’s also got me inspired is that I’m going to CES for the 1st time next week. I’ve always wanted to go and am excited to check it out, although I know its crazy and exhausting.  A good number of Techstars companies will be there, and I’m speaking on a panel on Wednesday about raising capital for your company, alongside some great folks from Qualcomm Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz and Silicon Valley Bank.

Bring on 2015! Perhaps I’ll get that jetpack after all.

Water leaks suck (and how to save yourself with Notion)…

When the floods came through Boulder in 2013, we were incredibly lucky to have avoided any major flooding.  We had some water seeping in through the foundation and some panic set in as it filled the mechanical room, but we pretty much dodged the bullet compared to the major issues so many of our friends experienced.

Our “flood” happened almost a year later, and sadly could have been avoided if we had a water detection system in place. We were in the mountains for the 4th of July and came back to find our dining room chandelier dripping water like a hose that wasn’t fully turned off. Turns out we had a toilet tank on the 2nd floor crack while we were away and it had spent the better part of the week leaking water. The leak managed to get through the bathroom floor, to the dining room ceiling, and then through the hardwood floors below.

So, in came ServPro with their huge fans and dehumidifiers (note: the house was now a balmy 90 degrees inside) to dry us out. We just, (yes…just in the two weeks) had the floors redone, but there is still painting and woodwork to be completed. Pretty sure it will be October before we’ve fully recovered.

What really frustrated me was knowing that the damage could have been caught much earlier and probably avoided if we had a good detection system in place. Turns out, there is a Techstars Boulder company called Notion working on this very problem. Too bad I didn’t have one of their prototype systems running. They are just about to bring their home intelligence system to market, which, of course can detect water leaks and send you real-time notifications. It also can detect movement, smoke, heat, and noise. Thus, I’m pretty anxious to get my hands on a Notion bundle and deploy these little sentinels.  I just backed their Kickstarter campaign so I could get the system a bit early.

FWIW, I had looked at some of the other systems out there but never pulled the trigger. The cost or the size of the sensors was a huge turnoff in this category.  I’ve got Nest, Protect, Revolv, Hue, and Dropcam so I’m loving all of the automation and convenience coming with these IoT devices.  However, one thing I’ve really noticed is that UI/UX really matter and that the system has to be truly smart. The Notion system will not just say “alert” in some room, but actually tell you what is going on (movement, water, temp, etc) so you know what you are dealing with. I think installing something like is going to be come pretty standard. Would be smart for insurance companies to offer discounts if you’ve got an early detection system in place like this, similar to what the do for home alarms.

So Notion, I’m a backer – now HURRY UP AND SHIP!


FG Press & Uncommon Stock – a new Startup Thriller!

Sometimes 140 characters just doesn’t do it. (still love you @twitter!) so its time to dust off this blog and offer up a few more words. I haven’t posted here since the back surgery. I’m mostly better, more on that soon.

I just read  an advance copy of Uncommon Stock, a new novel by Eliot Peper, published on FG Press. (Full disclosure, I’m also an author on FG Press). I’m not going lie, its hard to put down! Its a fun and all-too-real fictional journey through the dynamics that are building a tech business.

I won’t spoil it all here, but you can grab an excerpt on the FG press page or go directly over to Amazon and get your own copy today! Eliot does a great job with this book. It’s really fun to read if you are curious about the 1st person experience in startups, have lived it yourself, or want to escape for a little while. I’m sure its enjoyable for 100 other reasons as well, but that’s my short list. Pro Tip: Follow Mara, the protagonist, on Twitter!

Related: I’m really excited about what the Foundry team is doing with FG Press. I’m honored to be on the platform as a first time author, and can’t wait to see more books launch this way. It does feels like this is the future, jetpacks and all!

Ouch goes the Back

Since I’m up at 5am and lying on the floor due to the throbbing in my back and leg I might as well complain a little about it. About two weeks ago a progressively worsening disc in my lower back (L5 for those that care) finally ruptured and I’ve been a hot mess since then.

The good news is that I know I’m not alone. I’ve already talked to at least a dozen people who have had variations of this same issue and have made recoveries via both surgical and non-surgical paths. Thank you to those of you that have already made recommendations, shared your stories, sympathized and told me what to do.

I’ve now had a good year of progressively worse “episodes” where the herniation caused pain and back problems, but this is by far the worst I’ve had so far. I was already doing all of the right things…or so I thought.

I’ve had to shelve any riding, lifting, skiing, etc – no exercise for the last two weeks. Incredibly foreign concept for me. What I feel the worst about is letting other people down. I have had to cancel work trips, events, DJ gigs, meetings, etc. It’s very true that you we often take our health for granted and you don’t fully appreciate it until its gone.

I’m really looking forward to entering the next phase  – recovery and strengthening. There will be a new normal, but I’m ready for it.