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.

Eight questions about Virtual Reality in 2016 (and beyond)

by Peter Rojas

Anyone who has spent time with me lately has probably noticed that I can't stop talking about VR. It's the one area of technology that I'm most enthusiastic about these days -- I own a Gear VR and just pre-ordered the Oculus Rift (and will probably pick up the HTC Vive as well). What's especially exciting about all this is that we don't yet know how all this is going to unfold. It feels like we're on the cusp of an entirely new world of immersive computing, but VR as an industry is still completely wide open in a way which more established markets like mobile and desktop computing are not. Here are a few of the questions I have about VR in 2016 (and beyond):

How big will the market for VR be a year from now?

In a way, the size of the VR market a year from now won't matter any more than the size of the smartphone market in 2006 meant about the size of that market now. What we really care about is how big the market can ultimately get and how long it will take to get there. But that said, after plenty of false starts, 2016 is supposed to be the year in which VR finally starts to catch on and become a real thing. So, the number of people who actually start using it will be meaningful, particularly since this will be the first year when regular people (i.e. non-developers) will be able to get their hands on top-notch headsets like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony's PlayStation VR.

As bullish as I am on VR, even if adoption is strong, the number of active VR users at the end of 2016 is still going to be minuscule compared with the number of people using smartphones. My best guess is that we're looking at somewhere around 10 million or so active users. Now, 10 million is not a bad number at all, but it will mean a relatively small addressable market for a lot of the apps, games, and experiences which will be out there. That might be enough if you're selling a game title you're planning on charging $60 for, but if you're building something which is going to make money via advertising, you are going to have a very tough time amassing a sizable enough audience to make any money. There's also the inevitable boom/bust hype cycle which surrounds every new technology, and there will be plenty of VR skeptics out there who will pounce on these relatively low numbers to pronounce that VR has once again flopped.

Will headsets be a commodity or a source of competitive advantage?

Will VR headsets end up being more like dumb glass (like TVs and monitors, which have largely become interchangeable commodities)? Or will they end up more like game consoles (which tightly lock users into an ecosystem of games, apps, and content)? Or somewhere in between? Certainly if you're Oculus, you want value to accrue to you and for there to be enough defensible value in your headset that consumers can't easily substitute it with another. Whereas, if you're Valve, you probably have an interest in there being multiple headset vendors driving the price down as quickly as possible, fueling adoption and expanding the universe of potential customers for their SteamVR platform. I'm ignoring the really low-end of the market, since headsets like Google Cardboard are already essentially a commodity (they're being given away for free, if that's any indication). I don't know how this one will play out, but if history is any guide, VR headsets will end up coming down in price quickly and profits from selling them will be few and far between.

Speaking of hardware, what will the relationship be between high-end and low-end VR?

In 2016 there will be two VR markets: a higher-quality experience which involves a dedicated headset tethered to a PC or game console (i.e. Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, and HTC Vive) and a lower-quality experience which involves using popping a smartphone into a headset and using that for a display (i.e the Gear VR, Google Cardboard, Zeiss VR One, etc). We talk about VR as this monolithic thing, but anyone who has tried both the HTC Vive and Google Cardboard can tell you that there is a huge gulf between the two in terms of immersiveness and level of realism. Will developers try to build apps, games, and experiences which work across both tethered and mobile VR, or will they end up focusing on one end of the market or the other? Will users get a taste of VR on Google Cardboard and then "graduate" to tethered VR, or will mobile VR remain the domain of casual users for enjoying 360 degree videos and experiences while the higher end of the market appeals primarily to hardcore gamers?

Will regular people create and share VR content? If so, how? 

It stands to reason that people will want to create and share their own 360 photos and videos -- we're starting to see a bit of that already -- but will a new social platform or app emerge for that or will it mainly happen on existing platforms? Facebook and YouTube already support 360 videos, for example, but I have yet to see a truly great "VR-native" experience for sharing and consuming other people's VR creations. Hard to imagine that Facebook or Google aren't working on something, but there could be an opportunity for a startup that's just focused on VR to do something awesome here. 

Will there be an app which drives mainstream adoption?

VR gaming is going to be amazing, but given that most people aren't interested in console gaming there's no reason to believe that adding a VR headset to the mix is going to change things--sales of game consoles and gaming PCs are not especially robust, particularly compared to sales of smartphones. Immersive TV and movies will probably find a wider audience, but no one has any idea whether there will be an app for VR which convinces regular people that they need to go out and get a headset. If you're building something for VR which you think will do that, get in touch.

What will be the user experience paradigms which define VR?

I've written about this one before, but I still don't think we're anywhere close to figuring out what a native UX for VR looks like. I have a few ideas about how it might evolve which I'll post at a later date, but I'd love to hear what others are thinking here.  

What will Microsoft end up doing?

Sony has its VR headset for the PlayStation 4, but as far as I know Microsoft has no plans for a headset of its own for the Xbox One. It's possible they have something in the works, (perhaps that they'll announce at E3) but I haven't heard a single thing about it. So far the extent of their strategy for VR seems primarily to partner with Oculus. Given that Windows 10 will be the platform of choice for most Oculus Rift users, and the Rift will ship with an Xbox One controller, that may not be such a bad plan. However, it doesn't do much for all of the Xbox One owners out there who would be interested in having a VR gaming experience like the one Sony is going to offer with PSVR.

Wait, but doesn't Microsoft have a headset? Yes, they have introduced the HoloLens, but that's an augmented reality headset, not a VR headset. It's tempting to lump AR and VR in together, but they're fundamentally different products offering fundamentally different experiences. AR headsets involve taking a view of what you're actually looking at (i.e. actual reality) and overlaying graphics within that field of view. By comparison VR headsets are fully immersive and completely take over the user's entire sensory experience. While there will definitely be a market for AR gaming, it will pale in comparison with the demand for VR gaming, at least early on. In the meantime, Microsoft's VR strategy is a big question mark.

What will Apple end up doing?

I don't think anyone is holding their breath waiting for an Apple VR headset anytime soon. It's not Apple's style to be part of the first wave of a new, relatively untested new technology. Typically they like to hang back and introduce a product when they feel the market is finally ready. Assuming that Apple does eventually end up doing something -- and they have made a couple of relevant acquisitions -- the question is whether it will be more like the high-end tethered headsets we're seeing from Oculus, HTC, and Sony, or will it be more like the Gear VR and be something you pop your iPhone into? It's easy to see the attraction of the latter -- the installed base of iPhones is enormous, so a headset which piggybacked off of that would probably sell like crazy. However, a tethered headset would also offer a markedly better VR experience, and it's possible that Apple would opt to offer consumers a premium experience (at a premium price, naturally) rather than what it felt would be a second-class offering. Then again, Apple is so oriented around mobile that something akin to the Gear VR seems like a better fit. It's not hard to see smartphones being powerful enough and having high enough pixel density in a few years to offer a VR experience that's not that much worse than what you could get from a tethered headset. Either way, whatever Apple ends up doing will shake up the market and I'm sure execs at Sony, Samsung, HTC, and Oculus feeling like they're going to have to race to establish a foothold before Cupertino jumps in.

What do you think?

I'd love to know what questions you have about where VR is going.