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Wish (and Airbnb, and Palantir) investor Justin Fishner-Wolfson doesn’t care about first-day pops

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It’s probably no wonder that when Founders Fund was still a very young venture firm 13 years ago, it brought aboard as its first principal Justin Fishner-Wolfson. Having nabbed two computer science degrees from Stanford and spent two years as CEO of an organization that provides asset management services to the school’s student organizations, Fishner-Wolfson wasn’t shy about voicing his opinions at the venture fund. In fact, he says Founders Fund made a much bigger bet on SpaceX than it originally planned because he pushed for it.

He stayed three years before spying what he thought was an even better opportunity, owing to friends who worked at Facebook before the company’s 2012 IPO. They were beginning to look for ways to liquidate their shares, and while they had options, to his mind, they weren’t great. More, Fishner-Wolfson says he foresaw more companies like Facebook staying private longer. He said goodbye to Founders Fund and formed 137 Ventures to acquire secondary shares from founders, investors, and employees.

That was 10 years ago, and the firm seems to be doing just fine for itself. Last year, it closed its fourth fund with $210 million in capital commitments, bringing its assets under management to more than $1 billion. Its approach of focusing on roughly 10 to 12 companies per fund appears to be paying off, too. Since late September, it has seen three of its portfolio companies — Palantir, Airbnb, and Wish — hit the public market.

We talked at length with Fishner-Wolfson this week to learn more about how 137 Ventures works, from how it screens companies, to the impact it has seen from companies that are giving their employees longer windows in which to keep their vested stock options. (“It has certainly stopped the desperate calls from people who have huge amounts of equity that’s about to expire, which, I’m totally happy to not get those phone calls, because I feel terrible for people who are in that sort of situation,” he said.)

You can listen to that longer conversation here. In the meantime, we’re pulling out part of our conversation that centered on Wish, the discount e-commerce company whose IPO this week has been called a dud.

TC: Two of your portfolio companies have done very well as they’ve entered the public market — Palantir and Airbnb. Wish was a different story, dropping in its debut. What do you make of its IPO? Do you think investors misunderstand this company?

JFW: I think it takes the investment community a long time to understand any newly public company. At the end of the day, the IPO is just one day, right? What really matters is how companies perform over the next 10 or 20 years.

I would look at Microsoft or Amazon or more recently, Facebook, whose [share price] dropped 50% in the week or two following its offering and Facebook has gone on to be an incredible business. I have no idea what the market is going to do tomorrow [or] the day after. But over a decade, if you can really build a great sustainable business that compounds, it all comes out in the wash.

Wish has done an incredible job of scaling the business. I think [cofounder and CEO] Peter [Szulczewski] is one of the best operators I’ve met in this industry. And they’ve done a lot of innovative things in terms of mobile. There’s a lot more discovery on the Wish platform. The whole in-store pickup has been really innovative; they’re helping consumers get products quickly in an asset-light kind of way where you don’t need to buy millions and millions of square feet of warehouses.

TC: You’re talking about these partnerships that Wish starting striking with these mom and pop shops in the U.S. and Europe, where those who have extra storage space will now take receipt of Wish goods, which in turn gives them a little bit more foot traffic when people come in to pick up their items. And that’s a big shift from how Wish used to operate, which was by shipping things very cheaply from China through a USPS deal whose economics have since changed. Is that right?

JFW: Right. They’re helping small and medium-size businesses drive foot traffic, which was always valuable but in the current environment, going to become even more important to these sorts of businesses. They’re [also] helping those businesses leverage the data they have across their entire platform because Wish understands what consumers in that geography are looking for, and they can help those businesses merchandise better. And then, because they’re shipping product to one location, they’re aggregating orders from a whole bunch of people who don’t know each other, and that reduces logistics and shipping time and costs. So they send that stuff in, and it’s easier for the consumer to walk or drive five to 15 minutes, and go pick it up. That allows Wish to focus on the value-conscious consumer who is willing to trade a little bit of time for a much better price on things.

TC: Wish is known as a place to get tchotchkes from China. Now that it’s trying to sell more mainstream goods, how does it go about changing the perception that it has in the marketplace?

JFW: I’m not sure they need to do a whole lot to change that perception, because I still think they haven’t penetrated the market as a whole. There are lots of people who don’t even know about them quite frankly. And as [I’ve] watched the marketplace evolve, you’ve just seen more and more merchants, and more and more data back from customers about both the merchants and the quality of the merchandise, and all those things feed back into this very powerful system, where they can leverage the data to improve product quality and make sure that they’re selling what people want.

TC: Do you think quality explains the company’s uneven revenue? It grew something like 57% in 2018, then 10% in 2019, and picked up again in the first nine months of this year. Why do you think it’s been topsy turvy?

JFW: All businesses go through these cycles of growth, and then focusing on efficiency. If you just focus on growth, you tend to grow, and then break things, and then do things in relatively inefficient ways. And then ultimately, you need to turn around and focus on how you drive operational efficiencies. So I think the cycles that you’re describing, if you look at the underlying metrics, you [see] improvement in operating efficiency.

TC: Wish’s shares did not “pop.” On the other hand, former Snap executive Imran Khan told CNBC on Tuesday that the recent post IPO stock pops, including those of Airbnb and Doordash, represent an “epic level of incompetency” from the bankers who underwrote the stocks. Do you believe it was incompetency on the part of the bankers or just market volatility that caused those stocks to pop as high as they did?

JFW: I think no one actually knows the answer to that question. I think it makes for a good sound bite. At the end of the day, I don’t think the price is on the first day is a meaningful indicator of anything.

TC: Are the feverish embrace of these companies driving prices up in the secondary market?

It really does matter what the public prices are [because] that ultimately trickles into the private markets and also vice versa. At some point, things can’t have massive differences in value between their private market valuations and their public market valuations. So you definitely see multiples shift as the market shifts. But these things are often averages. People focus on one company or one example of these things without necessarily looking at all the companies because that would be quite difficult.

But there are always examples of things that are overpriced. There are also examples of things that are under priced. As an investor, you want to try to invest more of your money in the good companies that are on the lower end of that spectrum, certainly. But the focus is always on good companies. If you can find companies that are going to compound over long periods of time, as long as you’re not too crazy on multiples or valuations, you end up being in a good spot.

TC: Who are you tracking right now? What’s an investment that’s not up on your website yet?

JFW: Snapdocs [a company that helps real estate professionals to digitally manage the mortgage process and other paperwork and which just closed on $60 million in funding in October].

Aaron [King], who is the founder and CEO of the company, has done really a fantastic job of building a product that that people are willing to adopt, and this is the right moment in time for that growth to really accelerate. They’ve been having a good year.

Pictured above: The 137 Ventures’ team, with Wolfson center (in glasses).

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Daily Crunch: Alphabet shuts down Loon

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Alphabet pulls the plug on its internet balloon company, Apple is reportedly developing a new MacBook Air and Google threatens to pull out of Australia. This is your Daily Crunch for January 22, 2021.

The big story: Alphabet shuts down Loon

Alphabet announced that it’s shutting down Loon, the project that used balloons to bring high-speed internet to more remote parts of the world.

Loon started out under Alphabet’s experimental projects group X, before spinning out as a separate company in 2018. Despite some successful deployments, it seems that Loon was never able to find a sustainable business model.

“While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth wrote in a blog post. “Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

The tech giants

Apple reportedly planning thinner and lighter MacBook Air with MagSafe charging — The plan is reportedly to release the new MacBook Air as early as late 2021 or 2022.

Google threatens to close its search engine in Australia as it lobbies against digital news code — Google is dialing up its lobbying against draft legislation intended to force it to pay news publishers.

Cloudflare introduces free digital waiting rooms for any organizations distributing COVID-19 vaccines — The goal is to help health agencies and organizations tasked with rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to maintain a fair, equitable and transparent digital queue.

Startups, funding and venture capital

‘Slow dating’ app Once is acquired by Dating Group for $18M as it seeks to expand its portfolio — Once has 9 million users on its platform, with an additional 1 million users from a spin-out app called Pickable.

MotoRefi raises $10M to keep pedal on auto refinancing growth — CEO Kevin Bennett sees the opportunity to service Americans who collectively hold $1.2 trillion in auto loans.

Backed by Vint Cerf, Emortal wants to protect your digital legacy from ‘bit-rot’ —  Emortal is a startup that wants to help you organize, protect, preserve and pass on your “digital legacy” and protect it from becoming unreadable.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020 — The unicorns are feasting.

End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business — VC firm Battery has tracked seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years.

Drupal’s journey from dorm-room project to billion-dollar exit — Twenty years ago, Drupal and Acquia founder Dries Buytaert was a college student at the University of Antwerp.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

UK resumes privacy oversight of adtech, warns platform audits are coming — The U.K.’s data watchdog has restarted an investigation of adtech practices that, since 2018, have been subject to scores of complaints under GDPR.

Boston Globe will consider people’s requests to have articles about them anonymized — It’s reminiscent of the EU’s “right to be forgotten,” though potentially less controversial.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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The far right’s favorite registrar is building ‘censorship-resistant’ servers

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“The digital divide is now a matter of life and death for people who are unable to access essential healthcare information,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres in June 2020. Almost half the global population currently has no internet access, and many who do cannot freely access all information sources. 

Freedom House, which tracks internet restrictions worldwide, says the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a dramatic decline in global internet freedom. It found that governments in at least 28 countries censored websites and social media posts in 2020 to suppress unfavorable health statistics, corruption allegations and other COVID-19-related content.

Now, U.S. company Toki is building “school-in-a-box” devices to connect up to 1 billion people across Africa and Asia, using technologies that it claims could filter content to avoid some information sources and bypass local censorship. The devices will be Wi-Fi-ready servers that run on electric power or batteries and can handle dozens of concurrent users. If no networks are available, the servers will also come pre-installed with digital libraries curated to provide “locally relevant content.” 

One of Toki’s country managers describes on LinkedIn that the devices would also run a decentralized search engine, designed to be anonymous, private and censorship-resistant. They will be donated to communities in the developing world by a U.S. nonprofit* called eRise, which was founded in 2019 to, according to its website, “focus on digital empowerment initiatives that are capital-efficient, and which improve access to content, community and commerce.”

Both Toki and eRise were founded by entrepreneur and free speech advocate Rob Monster. Monster owns domain registration company Epik, which allowed controversial social network Parler to come briefly back online last week after the site was booted from Amazon’s cloud service. Parler is just one of several platforms enabled by Epik, and Monster’s other domain and web hosting companies, that have been home to far-right content. Parler is accused of hosting users that helped to coordinate the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. 

The “school-in-a-box” would contain a memory card with educational content, games, books, maps and modules related to prayers, the story of religions and “the art of being grateful.” It says the device is intended for “parents who want their kids to be smarter and curious; schools who can’t afford a computer; [and] religious places who wish to spread awareness about education and empower the society.” 

But one researcher says this effort recalls Facebook’s heavily criticized project offering free connectivity in India, which spawned accusations of bias and self-censorship. 

“We’ve seen a similar tactic by Facebook, to provide digital access points that can also serve the purpose of delivering favorable content and ensuring that these groups become dependent on your benevolence,” said Dr. Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center. “It becomes that much harder later on to change the power dynamics when the ideology is in the infrastructure.”

Monster has used free speech arguments to defend Epik’s working with platforms that either welcome or tolerate extreme content. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has been reported as saying that Monster “offers services to the most disreputable horrific people on the Internet.” 

Epik spokesperson Rob Davis told TechCrunch that Epik actively works with its clients to help them moderate content, and claimed that the company has deplatformed Nazi groups and deleted those promoting genocide.

“Lawful, responsible freedom of speech is an amazing right,” said Davis. “Every [domain registrar] has groups like this but Epik is often held to a higher standard.”

In a series of posts in 2019 on a forum dedicated to domain-name trading, Monster provided more details about the Toki technology. The servers would be powered by cheap Raspberry Pi processors and run a proprietary version of Linux that would enable file sharing, peer-to-peer commerce, a digital wallet and a personalized search engine, with the option of “ignoring certain data sources.” 

“Decentralization not only means decentralization of the narrative and talking points of big tech groups like Google, Twitter and Facebook,” said Epik’s Davis. “It also means anti-censorship by empowering people with things that they didn’t know.” The spokesperson gave the example of naturopathic remedies for minor health complaints. Naturopathic remedies have not been proven to be effective against COVID-19.

Eventually, each device might come pre-loaded with a “snapshot” of the internet, said Davis, although he did not describe how the internet might be reduced to fit on a single, small physical device. The eRise website notes that content would be curated by local digital librarians that it would recruit. Davis told TechCrunch that Toki has working models of its server, is already conducting field trials and hopes to start deploying the devices to 6,000 villages in Africa in 2022 or 2023, perhaps in collaboration with an unnamed Asian telecoms company. 

The Toki devices’ selectivity, if practical, could raise its own content and censorship concerns; for example, if eRise allowed extreme content similar to that seen on Epik’s clients like Gab and Parler, or ignored scientific advice on COVID-19 or other health issues. 

Donovan said she is wary of any one-box solution. “We have to focus on decoupling information companies from service providers,” she said. “That much control can be used for political gain. Technology is politics by other means.”

*Although eRise also claims on its website to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which would exempt it from some taxes and allow tax-free donations, TechCrunch could not locate it on the IRS’s database of nonprofits. Monster later admitted eRise was not a registered 501(c)(3)).

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End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business

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At Battery, a central part of our consumer investing practice involves tracking the evolution of where and how consumers find and purchase goods and services. From our annual Battery Marketplace Index, we’ve seen seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years, starting with the move to the web and, more recently, to mobile and on-demand via smartphones.

The evolution looks like this in a nutshell: In the early days, listing sites like Craigslist, Angie’s List* and Yelp effectively put the Yellow Pages online — you could find a new restaurant or plumber on the web, but the process of contacting them was largely still offline. As consumers grew more comfortable with the web, marketplaces like eBay, Etsy, Expedia and Wayfair* emerged, enabling historically offline transactions to occur online.

More recently, and spurred in large part by mobile, on-demand use cases, managed marketplaces like Uber, DoorDash, Instacart and StockX* have taken online consumer purchasing a step further. They play a greater role in the operations of the marketplace, from automatically matching demand with supply, to verifying the supply side for quality, to dynamic pricing.

The key purpose of being end-to-end is to deliver an even better value proposition to consumers relative to incumbent alternatives.

Each stage of this evolution unlocked billions of dollars in value, and many of the names listed above remain the largest consumer internet companies today.

At their core, these companies are facilitators, matching consumer demand with existing supply of a product or service. While there is no doubt these companies play a hugely valuable role in our lives, we increasingly believe that simply facilitating a transaction or service isn’t enough. Particularly in industries where supply is scarce, or in old-guard industries where innovation in the underlying product or service is slow, a digitized marketplace — even when managed — can produce underwhelming experiences for consumers.

In these instances, starting from the ground up is what is really required to deliver an optimal consumer experience. Back in 2014, Chris Dixon wrote a bit about this phenomenon in his post on “Full stack startups.” Fast forward several years, and more startups than ever are “full stack” or as we call it, “end-to-end operators.”

These businesses are fundamentally reimagining their product experience by owning the entire value chain, from end to end, thereby creating a step-functionally better experience for consumers. Owning more in the stack of operations gives these companies better control over quality, customer service, delivery, pricing and more — which gives consumers a better, faster and cheaper experience.

It’s worth noting that these end-to-end models typically require more capital to reach scale, as greater upfront investment is necessary to get them off the ground than other, more narrowly focused marketplacesBut in our experience, the additional capital required is often outweighed by the value captured from owning the entire experience.

End-to-end operators span many verticals

Many of these businesses have reached meaningful scale across industries:

All of these companies have recognized they can deliver more value to consumers by “owning” every aspect of the underlying product or service — from the bike to the workout content in Peloton’s case, or the bank account to the credit card in Chime’s case. They have reinvented and reimagined the entire consumer experience, from end to end.

What does success for end-to-end operator businesses look like?

As investors, we’ve had the privilege of meeting with many of these next-generation end-to-end operators over the years and found that those with the greatest success tend to exhibit the five key elements below:

1. Going after very large markets

The end-to-end approach makes the most sense when disrupting very large markets. In the graphic above, notice that most of these companies play in the largest, but notoriously archaic industries like banking, insurance, real estate, healthcare, etc. Incumbents in these industries are very large and entrenched, but they are legacy players, making them slow to adopt new technology. For the most part, they have failed to meet the needs of our digital-native, mobile-savvy generation and their experiences lag behind consumer expectations of today (evidenced by low, or sometimes even negative, NPS scores). Rebuilding the experience from the ground up is sometimes the only way to satisfy today’s consumers in these massive markets.

2. Step-functionally better consumer experience versus the status quo

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