John Frankel, ff Venture Capital talking to London Web meetup

August 28, 2011

John Frankel is a Brit who is a partner at New York based ff Venture Capital and during a visit back home this week he gave a great talk to a mixed audience of developers and entrepreneurs at the regular London Web meetup. John’s fund, which he describes as “a micro VC or super-angel”, helps companies go from “3 to 30 employees”. ff has invested in companies like Voxy, Cornerstone OnDemand,, Mogotix, Klout, ShareSquare and many more.

You can watch the entire talk and Q&A below, or just read on:

ff typically invests in 4 – 12 companies in a year, but since December have invested in 15. The reason? John was unequivocal, this is an “interesting time with unbelievable opportunities for both investors and those seeking to change the world”. The reduction in cost of doing business online in the last decade means that mass customisation is now possible and software can create new and immersive experiences.

This disruption has entered every industry, citing Paige Craig, John told us that “every company is a technology company“. The platforms that didn’t exist 10 years ago are now in place: broadband, smartphones, cheap storage, etc.

He told how Jim Cramer of CNBC’s show “Mad Money” spoke at a conference John attended during the previous dot com boom, telling the story of how the media industry has these massive fixed costs through the legacy of newsprint production, by growing trees, waiting till they are mature, chopping them down, transporting them hundreds of miles, turning them into pulp, transporting paper hundreds of miles into cities usually, making newspapers from them, and then finally putting a pile on every street corner; every 24 hours.

Fast forward ten years and we have Amazon’s kindle, Apple’s iPad, and numerous inexpensive smartphones. John is certain that this time round “this is not a bubble“, although he did indicate they may slow down their investment pace if valuations get too high.

Advice for startups

“Solve big problems, they are more satisfying”.

And he used the example of the Winklevoss twins to tell us that “everyone has ideas, but execution is everything”.


Being in London – with its perennial inferiority complex-  of course the question of geography came up. John said that ecosystems are made by people and infrastructure, and despite the ability to use Skype, meeting “in person is important”. Although he’s prepared to invest almost anywhere it’s harder to justify if that company is off the beaten track. Another crucial geographic factor is big companies being in the vicinity of startups, as is the presence of second-time entrepreneurs.

Talking from his US experience he compared NYC as very individualistic to San Francisco is more team orientated, and collaborative, gaving the example of one of their portfolio companies relocating there for that reason.

What he looks for in investments

“The team”. And “unreasonable and driven people”. He says “pivoting is normal; the start idea is never the same as the end idea”. Specifically he likes companies with low capex model, and those that start charging for their product early, talking of the benefit of “training” your customer to pay.

He cited an example of one company they backed, the enterprise software company Cornerstone OnDemand of whom they were amongst the first outside investors in and since 2002 they invested in all 8 subsequent rounds until it went public in March 2011. Despite that incredibly successful exit, John says he doesn’t “believe in exit strategies”, and puts faith in interesting things happening and valuable things being created if you let smart people do interesting things.

I really enjoyed his talk, and I hope John spends more time in London, we need more of this kind of seed VC in the UK.

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10 years on – life with broadband

June 8, 2010

Photo credit: Theo R

It was exactly 10 years ago to the day that I first got broadband installed at home and I wanted to commemorate that momentous day. I went from a 56kbps modem, which would have to make a call each time I wanted to get online, to always-on broadband at 512kbps.

On paper it was ten times faster, but this was warp-speed compared to dial-up. The experience was a complete step-change. Imagine you had only ever had a black and white TV set and then one day someone came in and gave you colour with full HD. Like that, but more so!

On the 8th June 2000 three NTL engineers visited my flat to install, and then marvel at this new high-speed internet (it was so new none of them had experienced it before).

My experience as a broadband early adopter tells the story of the excess of the dot com / technology-media-telecoms (TMT) bubble with many promises made, and in the end a lot of investors and companies left with shattered dreams.

I was living in Glasgow at the time, and four different telcos had all been promising they would launch broadband in 2000. The TMT bubble burst in March 2000, but the investments and preparation for launching broadband to the public had been many years in the making.

The contenders:

1. BT, using ADSL over your traditional copper phone line. They eventually launched in August 2000, but with very limited availability on just a small number of local exchanges.

2. NTL (now Virgin Media), using their fibre optic cable TV network.

3. Scottish Telecom, using their Fixed Radio Access technology from Ionica. Sadly as Ionica finally closed operations in 1999 it left ST with an unsupported technology and broadband was never launched wirelessly, and in fact their entire FRA business was closed soon after.

4. Atlantic Telecom, using Israeli military technology. Unfortunately they went into administration in 2001 and what could have been a decent business died due to over-expansion and poor investment decisions.

Looking back it’s amazing what has happened since, and the internet is still a wild-west, winner-takes-all environment. As Gary Vee says, “the internet is still a teenager and hasn’t even had sex yet.”

The opportunities are still huge, and the costs, both for internet access, as well as infrastructure costs to build a business online, are now much lower. YouTube is only five years old but yet it seems like it has been around forever.

Ten years since I first got broadband we have near 100% broadband coverage across the whole of the UK. Average speeds are around 4 Mbps, around 100 times faster than you typically got on dial-up, but still well short of the world leader, Korea with average speeds of 20 Mbps. The fastest broadband speeds in the UK are 50Mbps from Virgin Media, but where will be in another ten years and what revolutionary new businesses and business models are yet to be enabled by the internet?