Open Office Hours: December 16th

by Peter Rojas

With things slowing down ahead of the holidays I thought it'd be a good time to hold open office hours again. Sign up via the link below if you'd like to pitch me your startup, get feedback on a product idea, ask for advice on fundraising or finding a job, chat about VR, etc.

I'm doing these office hours via Skype to make it easy for those outside the Bay Area, all I ask is that you don't grab a slot unless you're sure you can make it. Thanks!

Book a slot here


Yes, you can email me

by Peter Rojas

It kind of bums me out when investors say they won't chat with a founder without an introduction from someone they trust. I understand why a VC would do this; if you've been around long enough -- and are halfway good at what you do -- you're bound to have so many entrepreneurs pitching you that you have to have a filter of some kind. I'm still new. 

But new or not, my goal is to always be accessible because while anyone can have a good idea, not everyone has connections. I remember what it was like being on the outside of all this stuff and how much it meant to me when people I respected would agree to chat just on the basis of a cold email. So I've committed to keeping the filter open, even if it means dealing with a lot of email rather than ignoring it.

In that spirit, here are some suggestions on how to send me a cold email:

Use my contact form. It's easier than digging around for my email address and I have a Gmail filter setup to make sure I see everything that comes in this way. If you have my email address it's also fine to email me directly.

Don't try to sell me something. I don't feel bad about ignoring these emails.

Looking for investment? Let me know that you're raising money (or thinking about it) and give me an idea of what the product is. Also, take a couple of minutes before you write to familiarize yourself with the what kind of investing we do at betaworks ventures. We may not be the best fit for you in terms of stage/market/check size. Of course, if you're not sure, it's completely fine to ask. If you're working on something that's relevant to me as an investor, odds are that I'll be happy to meet with you. It's kind of my job, right?

Looking for advice on something you're building? Give me a brief description of the product and the kind of advice you're looking for.

Looking for career advice? I can't guarantee I'll have anything useful to offer, but I'll try to be helpful.

Want me to speak at your conference or event? Sure, please ask!  

Want me to try out your product? My gadget reviewing days are long past, but if you'd like me to check something out I'll probably say yes.

One last thing: Don't ask me for an introduction to someone else I know. It's hard for me to make introductions for people I don't know.

That's about it. I promise I'll do my best to get back to you.

When do bots beat apps? When context and convenience matter most

by Peter Rojas

There's a question I've been asking founders when they pitch me their bots: "Why is this a bot and not an app or a website?" I've been fascinated by the explosion of developer interest and startup activity around chatbots and am pretty bullish on their potential as both a user and an investor, but it's important to take a step back and think about why we're all so focused on conversational interfaces. That means understanding that is often context that determines whether a bot is more useful than an app or website. 

It's undeniable that a huge part of what makes chatbots so attractive is that they promise to make computing more natural by stripping away graphical-user interfaces and instead let us simply ask for what we want. We're not there yet -- and won't be for a while -- but today's chatbots show us a glimmer of that future, one where we can simply speak or write something and the computer will understand what we want and give it to us. 

That gap between what chatbots can do now and what we know they'll be able to do in a few years can be enormously frustrating -- anyone who has tripped up Alexa or Siri by not phrasing a request quite the right way can tell you that. Certainly one of the biggest hindrances for chatbot adoption will be the amount of syntax you need to memorize in order to interact with them. Eventually, advances in natural language processing and AI will get us past all that and to a place where you can ask a computer for almost anything and it will be able to know what you mean. 

Although we're not there yet, today's bots can still be useful despite not having anything resembling true AI. We're already starting to see how a whole host of everyday tasks can be accomplished by chatting with an automated agent. Even if that bot isn't especially intelligent and requires you to employ a bit of syntax in order to interact with it, there's something about being able to have a quick conversation with a chatbot to get something done which can seem sort of magical.

The ease of conversational interfaces might be the primary driver of adoption, but there's something which has been missing from the debate over chatbots vs apps, and that is that the context in which you're trying to do something matters a lot, maybe even more than ease of use. A large part of what makes chatbots so compelling is that conversational interfaces have the unique ability to be integrated into the context we're already in. That's why chatbots make the most sense when the cost to switching contexts is high. Whether it's information, content, or a service, being able to ask for what you want via chat isn't merely about making something easier to do via an app. It's also about making it easier to have that interaction while having the minimal amount of disruption or interruption to whatever it is you're already doing. Because of this, a chatbot doesn't necessarily have to be easier to use than the corresponding app. It just needs to be more convenient to use given the context in which you want to accomplish a given task.

Let me explain what I mean. I have an Amazon Echo in my kitchen. Probably the number one thing I ask for each morning is the weather. Could I just pull my phone out and check the weather there? Sure, but it's much easier when I'm making breakfast to just say "Alexa, what's the weather today?" I don't have to stop what I'm doing and switch modes. Similarly, Slack bots make it easy to do whatever you need to do inside of a collaborative work environment rather than doing it outside and then pulling that information (or whatever it is) back in. Integrating your service with Slack as a bot lowers barriers to adoption because it can be used right inside the conversational flow which the business is already in. 

Chatbots are a bet that we are going to be spending more and more of our time within messaging apps like WeChat, Facebook Messenger, Kik, Telegram, etc and that it will be easier to access the services we want via a bot within those apps than to jump into another app or use the web. This is already proving to be the case in China, where a huge number of WeChat's 650 million users spend an enormous amount of their time within the app. They're not just spending that time chatting with friends, they're also accessing a whole range of services within WeChat itself, including shopping, virtual friends, games, etc. 

This is why Facebook is making such a big push with their forthcoming bot platform for Messenger. What they're rolling out will presumably make it possible for pretty much anyone to offer their content or service within Messenger. But while a lot of that will be the same stuff you can get via an app or via the web, Facebook isn't just wagering that the ease of interacting via a conversational interface will drive uptake of chatbots amongst its 800 million users. Ultimately they're doing this because they believe that the convenience of chatbots will get people to live inside Messenger in the same way that WeChat users live inside that messaging app. It's their way of making an end-run around both iOS and Android as app platforms by bringing all those services within Messenger as chatbots -- and thus onto a platform which Facebook controls. Uptake may be a bit slow as first users get accustomed to interacting with chatbots, but it's not hard to imagine user behavior changing over time, particularly as richer, more app-like UI elements get incorporated into chat platforms that further blur the line between chatbots and apps.

If bots win, it won't simply be because of their ease of use, but by the sheer usefulness of being embedded within the context in which we are already working or conversing, thus saving us the hassle of having to jump into a separate app or website to accomplish what we want done. Ultimately what will get us chatting with them is the convenience of having them there when we need them. You shouldn't have to go out of your way to get what you need from a bot. 

Fall in love with a problem, not a product

by Peter Rojas

I haven't been an investor for very long, but even in that short time there's one mistake I've seen more than a few founders make, and that's to fall in love with the product they're building. I know what you're thinking: how can that possibly be a bad thing? Don't investors want people who love what they're working on? Well, not exactly. You want to back founders who are passionate about their products -- in fact, it's odd when they aren't -- but there's a critical difference between being passionate about what you're building and being in love with it.

That may seem like a narrow gap, but it all comes down to motivation. What investors want is someone whose animating purpose is to solve a particular problem (especially one that people don't realize yet that they even have!) or fix something they think is broken. The product is just a means to that end, not an end in itself. To put it another way, you want someone who is more in love with fixing a problem than with the product itself.

What often happens is that a founder puts so much time, effort, and/or money into what they've built that they become blind to its shortcomings. Or, you'll see a founder become so enchanted by how clever or original they believe their product is that they don't want to listen to feedback they're getting from the market that there's no demand for it. This has nothing to do with the effort put into creating it or even how "good" it is -- I'm not talking about situations where the product itself is shoddy. Almost every product that's pitched to me is well-made. Quality is rarely the issue. What's wrong is that these are products which excel in every area except the one that matters most: being something that people want to use.

It doesn't help that the message a lot of founders hear when they encounter a roadblock like this is that they need to ignore the haters and just keep pushing and pushing until they make it, as if sheer perseverance alone can turn a failing product into a successful one. They have such a strong vision of what the product is supposed to be that they're not willing to change course and make significant changes to it. They'll convince themselves that the problem isn't with what they've built, it's that the rest of the world doesn't get it yet -- or worse, they haven't gotten the right people (i.e. bloggers or "influencers" on Twitter or Product Hunt, etc) to pay attention to it. So, they keep repositioning the product and what it's for, trying to find different problems for it to solve.

That's why you want someone who is in love with a problem, who cares more about solving that problem than anything else. A founder like that fixates on that problem and then keeps trying over and over until they figure it out. Part of that means being willing to make whatever changes are needed to the product to make it work, up to and including jettisoning what they've already built and starting over with something entirely new.

It's not always easy to tell the difference between being in love with a product and being in love with a problem, especially when you're in the middle of building a company. There will be days when you don't care at all about solving the problem you set out to solve. Other times you stumble onto something which solves a problem you weren't even aware of, but it is one you end up caring deeply about anyway. In the early days it can be difficult to know whether your product is working or not, and it's natural to want to give it time in the market. But unless you're lucky enough to have one of those products which connects right away and just takes off, sooner or later you have to confront where you're at and figure out whether you're building something which solves the problem you're tackling. When those hard days come, confronting the shortcomings in your product is a lot easier when your overriding drive is finding a solution to that problem.