The L.A. tech and startup community was active as ever this week. dot.LA chief host and correspondent Kelly O'Grady takes you through the key points of the top five headlines:
- Investors still want their startups to have an office
- Music-tech startups are reshaping the music industry forever
- Election tech seeks to promote voting amid pandemic
- L.A. school district still doesn't know how many kids are without WiFi
- Stop! Go! After back and forth, Lyft and Uber win stay in California
Weekly Recap: VCs Want Startups w/Offices, Music Tech Changes Industry & Election Tech Favors Dems www.youtube.com
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Fresh off raising a $7 million seed round in February, Jill Wilson took the first step any founder traditionally takes when launching a new startup: She called up a real estate broker and leased an office.
"I would not have ever considered a remote workplace before," said Wilson, co-founder and CEO of mobile game maker Robin Games. "I was very squarely in the camp that you need to be in the same room to create a great creative product."
Less than a month later, the coronavirus sent Wilson and her team home, where they have been working ever since. Some employees left Los Angeles to be closer to family and live in cheaper cities like Atlanta and New Mexico. "I will never require people who moved away to come back," Wilson said.
Despite being scattered across the country instead of shoulder-to-shoulder in the office they rented on Abbot Kinney, Wilson has been surprised how productive her team has been. "I've done a shocking 180 on this," said Wilson. "I'm a convert to a distributed workforce."
Wilson says it is a big advantage to be able to recruit from a vastly bigger pool of candidates, not just those in Los Angeles or willing to move here. And she says her employees are much happier now that they don't waste time sitting in traffic commuting to Venice, California. "I think that's one of the reasons my team is so efficient, because they can literally roll out of bed and start working," she said.
Startups' early days are usually defined by young and over-caffeinated engineers huddled around monitors, not Zoom meetings and virtual happy hours. Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Google were all famously started in garages. A newer generation of startups launched in co-working spaces, but proximity has always been seen as a crucial ingredient for building a young company.
"Investors have questioned how well a business can find its footing and grow — especially in its early days — without close, personal collaboration among employees," wrote Paul Condra, a lead analyst at Pitchbook, in a research note. "Similarly, as organizations scale, the distributed model is often viewed as an impediment to that growth, which has made it harder for companies using it to raise money. For venture investors, the ability to see a company's physical offices, meet the team and witness first-hand the central hive of day-to-day activity is a key part of regular due diligence."
Nearly all office workers have been forced to work remotely since mid-March, but the transition for young startups has arguably been among the hardest. Whenever the day comes when employees feel safe enough to return, investors interviewed by dot.LA say they still prefer to back companies that have an office.
"You just can't achieve the same level of productivity if everyone remains totally remote," said Mark Suster, founding partner of Upfront Ventures. "When we return to some sort of new normal, whatever that normal is, people are still going to need to congregate in close proximity with each other."
"I'm still of the old school that I like to see a team in the same place to the extent possible. So I'm looking forward to the day when a team can be in the same place," said Eric Manlunas, founder and managing partner of Wavemaker Partners. "There's a lot of positives that come out of that."
Investors agreed that the younger a startup, the more crucial it is for employees to be together. It also is much more important for a founding team who has not worked with each other before to be together. "You need that connective tissue in the early days," said Sanjay Reddy, co-founding partner of Unlock Venture Partners.
However, just because offices are still important does not mean that things will ever go back to the way they were before the pandemic. "I do believe the genie is out of the bottle," said Reddy. "I don't think we're going back to the office full time ever again."
Nearly half of organizations with office space say they expect to reduce their physical office footprint as a result of the coronavirus, and more than 20% expect to reduce it by more than 25%, according to S&P GLOBAL. The new normal for startups will likely include a degree of remote work and more openness to hiring employees who don't want to live in high-priced cities.
"I don't think any company is fully ready to embrace fully remote yet because so much is unknown," said Matt Hoffman, a partner and head of talent at M13. "But we see companies that were very reticent to have anyone work remotely, and now they're taking some steps to see what works well. No one should go from zero to 60 overnight."
Condra, the Pitchbook analyst who studies workplace trends, says the real test of remote work will be when it is viewed not as an accommodation, but as a benefit. He is curious to see if a venture fund will specifically target fully remote companies because they view them as a competitive advantage, but he has not seen any doing that yet. It seems that for all the reasons workers do not miss offices: traffic clogged commutes, annoying co-workers, sad desk lunches – most companies still view the benefits of offices outweighing their cost.
"Is there a tipping point where a company comes along and says, 'We can do better if we're distributed than we can do in an office'?" asked Condra. "Once that is proven, the model will become mainstream."
The list of successful fully remote startups is a short one. But Gitlab, which is valued at $2.75 billion and employs 1,200 people in 67 countries, all of whom are remote, is invariably at its top. Whether the company is a one-off, largely because of the remote-friendly nature of its business – providing software for developers – remains to be seen.
"A lot of people like going into the office to focus on work," said Hoffman. "I don't think that will ever go away."
Even Wilson is not ready to go fully remote. She is keeping Robin Games' Venice office in the hope that some of her team can eventually return there for meetings and brainstorming sessions. Even though she is allowing employees to work from anywhere indefinitely, she sees a symbolic importance to maintaining a physical headquarters with her company's logo on the front door.
"It's nice to have roots," she said. "We want to have a base for our company."
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Ten companies. Three months. One Demo Day. But what makes the Techstars L.A. experience so transformative? And how will that translate to the current remote world? In this installment of dot.LA Dives In, we talk with Anna Barber, managing director of Techstars L.A., for a behind the scenes look at what the Class of 2020 can expect from the accelerator experience.
Meet the Techstars L.A. Class of 2020
"We have had a (Techstars) that is all virtual for a few years now, so we had some precedent. Essentially what we are trying to do is bring that community, that connection, and all the learning and the value of mentorship, but just do it in a virtual environment with the same level of effectiveness," says Barber
Since the inception of Techstars L.A., Barber has been cultivating supportive environments for startups to grow.
Some of her favorite stories are the "before and after" transformations where, by the end of its journey, the company is almost unrecognizable. Many of the accelerator participants go on to raise seed rounds after an intense three months of iteration.
"The reason people are successful fundraising coming out of the program is because they do the work of understanding the drivers of their business and moving them so that investors can see they are building on a strong foundation, and therefore their business becomes investable," says Barber. "It's not because they build a fancy powerpoint or rehearse their pitch a lot. It's because they did the work."
Barber looks for a certain type of founder that can undergo such a transformation. Each member of the Techstars L.A. 2020 class is there because Barber could envision herself working for their company. But what is it specifically that makes her say yes to a founder? Passion and an open mind.
"I'm looking for that founder who literally can't be doing anything else because they can't rest until this thing that they've envisioned exists in the world," says Barber. "Then you couple that determination with a really open-minded viewpoint of how you get there. And a willingness to learn, and a willingness to be wrong."
In addition to her role at Techstars, Barber serves as a coach and strategic consultant to founders, as well as a partner at The Fund, an early stage venture capital fund made up of local founders and operators that expanded to L.A. this year. With so much engagement in the local tech and startup community, it is no surprise that Barber has a specific vision for L.A. tech's future. Five to ten years down the line, she hopes for a Los Angeles that is contributing to the sustainability of our planet and for a community where diversity, equity and inclusion have become core components - and she plans to help make that vision a reality.
"I think, 'what is the change I want to see in the world and have L.A. be a leader?' I would love to see advances in sustainability, which I think is the pressing issue of our time," says Barber. "And I would love to see a Los Angeles where we have made meaningful progress on diversity, equity and inclusion — both on the funding side and the founding side."
Watch the full interview to learn more - in this conversation, we dive deep into how Techstars empowers startups to create impact, what it is about a founder that makes Barber say yes! and what she envisions for the future of L.A. tech. Get ready for an intriguing look at the L.A. startup scene from the woman uniquely positioned to help bring about that future.
Anna Barber: Techstars and the Future of L.A. Tech www.youtube.com
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