Semil Shah

Investor at Haystack Fund and tech writer

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON September 18, 2015

Discussion

Semil@semil · Product, Swell
Hi Everyone, Semil here. I am an investor and writer based out of Silicon Valley. I created and invest out of a small fund called Haystack, which is proud to be an early investor in over 70 companies, including Instacart, DoorDash, Hired, and Managed By Q (see full portfolio here). I am also Venture Advisor to GGV Capital, and am proud to serve on the Advisory Boards of StrictlyVC and The Alpha Network. Ask me anything!
Natalya Matyushenko@ambercamel · Co-founder/COO at Spycob
Hello Semil, Please, share with us your vision of ideal startup for investment. I mean not "$1M revenue per minute, Mark Zuckerberg as a CEO, Werner Vogels as CTO.."))) What should a startup have as a minimum to get an absolute "yes" from you as an investor? Thanks)
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@ambercamel Boiled down, I want to be thinking about the potential of the investment after the meeting, as I socialize the idea with friends, when I'm on a walk, in the shower...the idea has to catch. And, then I want to understand what the founders have done in their past that informs this next move. There has to be some connection. And, I look for drive. What drives someone? Is it fear? Is it mania? It has to be something deep, and that takes time to figure out. More clinically, I like big or new markets. I am a market-driven investor at the end of the day. The people have to fit into the market, or make it on their own.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
@semil i'm curious: is fear or mania something you avoid? or look for? can you define what "something deep" means?
Agent 009co@agent009co · agent 009
@semil one of the best answers I've read to this line of questioning. I suspect investors diverge at clinical matters. But this is great foundation for startups to pitch at, varying clinically by investor.
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@eriktorenberg for people who can endure a situation, something deep within has to drive them. it can be optimism, or fear. By "deep," I mean rooted in their DNA or imprinted in their frontal cortex, something they cannot change.
Ryan Hoover@rrhoover · Founder, Product Hunt
Hey, Semil! A while ago you shared your honest, transparent story of how you moved to SF and built your career. What advice do you have for someone trying to break into the startup scene?
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@rrhoover It depends what one's goal is. If you're cracking in and not sure (like I was), just follow your interests and help every good person you meet. And I don't just mean follow-up and help, I mean go above and beyond what they would have expected. That requires diligence, listening, doing what you're saying you're going to do, etc. It also takes time. A lot of people come up to me at events and ask "how," and I usually retort with "Put your head down for 5 years and then look up." Five years.
Varun Deshpande@varund7 · N/A
@rrhoover Link please? :)
Eric Willis@erictwillis · Working on something new
@semil Hey Semil. Thanks for doing this AMA. I have a question in relation to something you tweeted late Wednesday evening. You expressed deep concern about Twitter's plight and it's ability to recover. What do you think is broken with Twitter that the team likely can't fix? @sacca takes a more optimistic approach and seems to think the product is fundamentally fine and the new app strategy, focusing on the "live" experience, and new leadership like Jack returning to the helm can fix things (obvious oversimplification of his manifesto). However, I just finished reading the transcript of your interview with Chamath Palihapitiya and he talks a lot about N of 1 vs. 1 of N. Considering the timing of your tweet, did that discussion play any role in your most recent assessment of Twitter? It seems that Twitter won't be able to get itself out of the 1 of N category based on Chamath's summation of it. Thoughts? For those interested: Tweet: https://twitter.com/semil/status... Sacca: http://lowercasecapital.com/2015... Chamath: http://blog.semilshah.com/2015/0...
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@erictwillis I love Twitter. I view the web through Twitter, and I wouldn't be here without Twitter. So, I want to be proven wrong, but my sense driving home in the car the other night was that it's getting noisier, spammier, etc. and that when advertisers have so many options where they can measure the efficacy of their spend, and combined with the decay in the product (overall, last few years), those advertisers may flee, and that flight may be quick. I do hope I am wrong.
Paul Robert Cary@prcary · CEO, Findie | www.findie.me
@erictwillis Awesome Q! 😀
Paul Robert Cary@prcary · CEO, Findie | www.findie.me
@semil Thanks for doing this. Which is a bigger threat to premium video content: Ad blockers or Popcorn Time?
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@paulrobertcary I need to catch up on this Ad Blocker stuff, you'll have to tell me!
Paul Robert Cary@prcary · CEO, Findie | www.findie.me
@semil Ad blockers essentially remove pre-roll, interstitial and display ads (even The Deck is getting blocked) that allow content creators to monetize, and do that in-app as well. AdBlock Plus has 50M users globally. Popcorn Time has over 1M downloads on non jailbroken iPhones in the US alone (a culture that is supposedly in favor of paying for stuff).
rachel@serial_milk · co-founder, Kip
@semil It's that content publishers will have problems generating revenue since most of their income comes from advertising: http://www.theawl.com/2015/09/we... http://www.theguardian.com/techn...
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@paulrobertcary I think it's great and I'm glad Apple is using a heavy hand to force publishers to invest in modern systems and be thoughtful about how they interrupt users.
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
What's the most significant thing you've changed your mind about in the past 6 months?
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@eriktorenberg Trading off being short with people but giving a response vs ignoring requests. Initially I thought I would ignore (as many do), but I decided that it would be better to be short and reply (even though that may rub some people the wrong way). It's not a big decision overall, but for me and how I've operated for many years, that was a big decision.
Brent Summers@brentsum · Founder, Code-Free Startup
@semil Thanks for coming by! How do you see SV transforming over the next five years?
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@brentsum Lots of traffic and congestion. In a peninsular sense, it is not so dissimilar to Bombay, but obviously on a different/smaller scale.
Varun Deshpande@varund7 · N/A
@semil Ayyyyy Bombay represent!
Jesse Suarez@savvy_suarez
Hi, Semil! Thanks for chatting with us. You've written a bit on the messaging platform wars, particularly the big players like Line, Tencent, and Facebook. What are your thoughts on startups jumping into the fray? Think there's still an opportunity in US markets?
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@savvy_suarez I want to believe there's some new communication hook (like ephemeral pictures) that can ignite a new behavior, and I'm sure 1,000's of people right now are trying to will that into existence, so statistically I'm sure it's possible but I don't know how to find it. That's why many pros wait for social or comms apps to break out and then pay up when distribution risk has been sort of mitigated.
Kamil@kamilszybalski · Growth Entrepreneur. Was @Hootsuitelabs
@semil Hey there, thanks for doing this. Wanted to ask you what you're currently reading and what's on your bookshelf.
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@kamilszybalski Ugh, I have been so bad about reading. It's a major problem because I am a bookworm but struggle to find the blocks of time and the time to slow down. Right now on my desk, I have "Black Swan." Let's see when I get to it ;-(
Ryan Hoover@rrhoover · Founder, Product Hunt
You've been a fan of Quora since the beginning. What do you think of their execution over the past few years and what does it look like in 10?
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@rrhoover I recently visited the site, as I wanted to try to find questions to answer. I found it hard to navigate, but the numbers overall show otherwise, as I believe their traffic is steadily growing. I'm not sure what to think of it. I went to living on the site to not being able to understand how to navigate it. Still confused.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
HUGE thanks to @semil for taking the time to chat with us today, and for everything he does for the entrepreneurial community.
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@eriktorenberg Happy to do it again, anytime. It went by so quickly!
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
@semil Hey Semil, thanks for joining us today :) - What is one of the craziest things you've seen in a pitch that you can tell us about?
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@bentossell I was in a pitch with a "celeb" founder. Their startup wasn't doing so well. I stayed quiet in the pitch because it was part of another group's relationship. At the end, the founder asked me, point blank, for my assessment since I was so quiet. I gave what I thought was an honest answer, and the founder snapped back at me hard in front of the whole room. In the moment, it was kind of frightening.
Raghu Gonnabathula@raghuvamz · Bits Pilani
@semil Hey semil, Thanks for joining us today! Is it advisable to burn money in order to beat competition or grow a business stably in an mobile first and growing economy like India?
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@raghuvamz I am not up to date anymore on the India startup scene. For me, everything comes down to rate of free cash flows vs mitigating financing risk. If you have cash flows, that gives one freedom; if you need financing, do what it takes to convince the financiers.
Raghu Gonnabathula@raghuvamz · Bits Pilani
@semil B2C businesses in India are burning good money in order to establish monopoly in the market. Every other thing is being a clone from the western market. But the market in India is entirely different compared to the western world.So we have very less to innovate because of constraints. So how do you convince the financiers to believe in you and your team, because taking a bet on any one of the team is nothing less than a sort of a gamble.
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@raghuvamz Sometimes getting an investment, or recruiting someone, or getting a girl to call you back is a function of how well and intently one has communicated their desire. Some people want it more, and those people who succeed tend to listen to feedback signals as they make their way through the maze.
Raghu Gonnabathula@raghuvamz · Bits Pilani
@semil Well said! Having asked that, how can we attract investors like you to look into emerging Indian start-up scene?
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@raghuvamz I don't look at India. I am becoming more hyper local.
Sydney Liu@sydney_liu_sl · Co-Founder of Commaful.com
@semil Hi Semil, You meet with founders and VCs on a daily basis and Tweet some awesome content about to-do's and observations. What is one story that you like to tell as an example of what an amazing founder or startup did before it got big? Thanks, Sydney
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@sydney_liu_sl Apoorva at Instacart was trying to launch with Trader Joe's, which told him "no." So he and his founders hired a photographer and bought one of every SKU in Trader Joe's and set up a studio to take pictures of each item and then loaded the SKUs into their database. When I heard that story, it definitely stuck out.
Kelsi Kamin@kelskamin · Data @ CrunchBase
What are 3 videos from your techcrunch talk show that you recommend going back to watch?
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@kelskamin Two answers: Patrick Collison, and then watch every one of these: https://www.youtube.com/user/sem...
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
@semil tell us about this show. did you think it'd go on longer? what was the calculus for stopping and what would you have needed to continue?
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@eriktorenberg I felt like it was too much too coordinate. I will probably spin up an informal podcast soon, but in no rush. Video takes a while to produce.
Justin F Harris@justinfharris · Co-Founder, Beehive
@semil Hey Semil, What type of early stage investment is ideal for Haystack Fund? On Twitter you mentioned - Inference here for founders is: 1/ don't be cute a/b sharing your data/metrics, folks will just pass; 2/ if you're early, paint a big vision. How important is selling the big vision in the early stages to future employees, VC's and others? Thanks!
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@justinfharris Being so early, I am very broad and there's no perfect or ideal investment. I am just looking for people who have a rare combination of drive and skill, and I try to see if I can work with them and guide them -- some don't need to be guided (which is great!), some don't want to guided (which is only great when they can self-navigate).
Javier Torrez@jactorrez
@Semil Is there any philosophy you follow when deciding to invest in a certain company? If so, are there any "tells" within that philosophy that you look for in a company that signal you to NOT invest in a certain company within in a specific industry? Thanks for doing the AMA!
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@jactorrez Send me an email, I keep a one-page "pilot's checklist" that I like to refer to before saying "yes." It's not perfect, but a good ritual for me, and won't work for everyone, of course.
Javier Torrez@jactorrez
@semil Would love that, where should I send an email to?
Niv Dror@nivo0o0 · VC at Shrug Capital
@semil hey Semil! Excited for the Post.Seed Conference -- great event last year. Which speaker are you particularly excited to have on stage this time around?
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@nivo0o0 I am likely going to do a long fireside chat with Vinod Khosla. That is going to be epic.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
Although stylistically very different, do you consider yourself somewhat similar to a Jason Calicanis or Dave McClure in terms of having various different skillsets? Would you say your ultimate goal is to continue to do what you do now (invest, write, host conferences, interview, etc) just at even higher levels?
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@eriktorenberg I am actually not a fan of the conferences. I did a couple (I didn't do the real work), but I enjoy speaking on stage. I will always write, I don't know what to do if I didn't. I haven't done interviews in a long, long time. I probably won't do them often. All my time is spent with family or thinking about investing. I think about it all the time. As to Jason and McClure -- I've never met Jason, and he is a machine and has a whole infrastructure around him, which is impressive. I am just me. Jason operates in a way that gives him scale, which is very cool. I've met McClure a few times. I think he misunderstood by the market overall. He is a great person and people love him. He is hard to get a hold of, though. An open secret. And, he has a huge staff. I am the opposite. I am kind of predictable. I don't have a staff. I'm easy to get a hold of.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
@semil follow up question: what does the ultimate actualization of semi shah look like? do you want a team around you? if so for what purpose ? to do what you already do at a bigger scale? or is there another project you want to take on?
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@eriktorenberg We should talk about this over our next beer. Next round is on you, right? Haha. I have been asked this question more this year. I don't know the answer. I am struggling with it. Part of what works for me now is that people feel like they can approach me and email me and they don't have to deal with an associate or some other GP. it's just me. I write my own emails and take my own meetings.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
@semil if you're "struggling" it's quite the beautiful struggle*. and yes - next beer is on me indeed :) *= song by Talib Kweli
Melissa Joy Kong@melissajoykong · Content, Product Hunt
I don't have any data around this, but my gut is that most people have a repetitive set of thoughts we think most days of our lives. What are some of the things you think about most consistently?
Semil@semil · Product, Swell
@melissajoykong email and my to-do list. it is kind of aggravating but i'm not complaining, either. i love what i do, but hard to turn it off.