I recently posted about my experiences with AskSunday, a virtual assistant service. While AskSunday wasn’t a good fit for me, it is a legitimate company and I know people that are using it and that seem to be happy with it. However it turns out that a scammer is using the name of the legitimate company as well as variations of it (Ask-Sunday, MakeSunday, AskSunday LLC) in order to defraud job seekers. The scam was reported by a number of people in the comments of my original post (thanks!!) and was still ongoing as of December 15th.
The scammer who uses a variety of names including “Brian Clark”, “Brian Moore” and “Thomas Moore” basically promises employment for AskSunday LLC and as part of it tries to get complete bank account information from applicants. It them seems like he then he transfers money into the account, ask the applicant to spend it on a project and then withdraws it. The result is the applicant being out of pocket.
The latest NVCA Numbers on fundraising of VC Funds are here, and essentially it is falling of a cliff. In Q3 of 2009 only 17 funds raised capital. While this will probably go up to 18 or 19 (initial numbers by the NVCA usually are corrected upwards in their later reports) this is still abysmal.
Based on the back-of-the-envelope math in my previous post this rate of fundraising would mean venture captial would shrink to a little over 200 firms or a quarter of its current size. While possible, that seems pessimistic. From what I hear from people in the VC industry, there is at least some evidence that investors are still interested in VC as an asset class and investments will increase as the liquidity of long-term investors gets better. I think there is a chance that this is the low point of the fund raising activities for this downturn.
I had the privilege today to be on a great panel this evening organized by the Churchill Club on storing your data and personal experiences in the cloud. The discussion was kicked off by Gordon Bell (photo to the right) who recently published a book on the subject called “Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything“. The book is a great read and I can definitely recommend it. While I have been moving a lot of my data to the cloud, my efforts seem trivial compared to Gordon’s vision.The discussion on the panel was fun with Rob Coneybeer of Shasta Ventures, Suni Vermuri of reQall and terrific moderation from Barron’s Eric Savitz.
One of the more interesting discussions was around what companies will do well in this space. It was great to see how Evernote, reQall and Eye-Fi (all represented by the people on the panel) integrate their services. I think the fact that many data stores with relevant information have no APIs for integration is one of the main issues that this emerging sector is facing.
Note: AskSunday is a legitimate company, however there is a scam that uses the name of AskSunday (and variations including MakeSunda, Ask-Sunday, 5 Star Concierge LLC) to defraud people. See the comments below this post for lots of information about the scam. I also wrote up a short summary in this ost.
I am currently looking for a virtual assistant that can help me with simple everyday tasks such as scheduling meetings, dealing with call centers, organizing travel and simple research tasks. After hearing good things about AskSunday I decided to give it a try. Overall it was a disappointing experience. Ask Sunday feels very much in beta and the staff doesn’t seem to be up to the task. The basic test assignment (schedule a haircut) was not successfully completed after one week and 25+ emails. If anyone has a better experience with another service, please let me know.
Going into this experiment, my thinking had been that the two biggest challenges when working with a virtual assistant would be context and security. The problem with context is that an assistant knows very little about me, my job(s), where I live, how I organize my life etc. For the assistant to be successful I need to provide a lot of detail (e.g. it takes 30 minutes from Stanford to the place I get a haircut , leave that much buffer please) which reduces the time saving. The second problem is security. Assume I want to call my dental plan about a billing issue. At a minimum the assistant needs access to my health records, social security number, credit card information, address and online credentials. The perfect Identity Theft Starter Kit. But it turned out with AskSunday I never got far enough to even get into these issues. Details below.
While I don’t have the time to play much WoW any more, one think I decided a few month ago was to try out and see how hard it is to accumulate the maximum possible amount of in-game currency in the game. WoW uses a signed 32 bit integers to track the amount of coins you carry, thus the maximum is 2^31 = 2,147,483,648 copper or 214,748 gold, 36 silver and 46 copper. In practice my experience was that the limit is two copper lower, but who is counting.
It turns out that virtual economies like WoW are still very inefficient. The arbitrage opportunities and price fluctuations in the in-game auction house are large, and creating crafted items from raw materials often yields margins of 30% and higher. My initial assumption had been that working capital would be the main limitation for how quickly I could grow, but that turned out to be wrong. Instead market size and “shelf space” day set the limits for growth. The server I play on has an “active” market of about 2k players during peak hours (source). Assuming the average player spends 100g per day, this means the total addressible market is only 200k gold. About half of this market consists of items that are found in-game and not produced. Of the other 100k I was able to capture about 10%-20% a day for revenue of 10k-20k and profits of about 2k-3k. The main reason for only capturing a small part of it is that I listed items on the market only once a day, and would often get undercut quickly. Thus often I was only the cheapest provider for a small part of the day.
The in-game time keeping suggests it took about 170 hours of play time to to the peak, or around 1000g/hour. The WoW gold exchange rate fluctuates, but a quicksurvey suggests an exchange rate of around 150g = $1. Thus my account is now worth in the order of $1500 (although it is non-trivial to liquidate that much gold) and I made $8.30 per hour. While that is more than the the California Minimum Wage of $8, for now I’ll stick to my day job.
One of the challenges of working a lot with computers is that you end up sitting in a chair for a large part of the day. Recently a number of people have started experimenting with setups where you don’t sit down such as using a computer while on a stationary bike, treadmill or standing. I tried the bike approach and having had the setup for a few months now, I really like the experience. I usually spend 2-4 hours online after coming home from work in the evening. Of that I spend about 10-12 hours per week on the bike wich adds up to somewhere around 3000-4000 calories per week. Not a huge amount, but I definitely feel a difference.
It’s not a replacement for running though. My heart rate while on the bike is usually just above 100, far below what it is even on a slow run. The bike setup is also not suitable for all tasks. For editing photos, making slides or complex writing it is back to the Aeron.
The parts for the setup are actually fairly cheap, although you need a 2nd monitor. Exact setup after the break.
There are a number of iPhone camera apps that promise to have superior performance in low light settings by using the iPhone’s accelerometer. The basic idea is very simple and intuitive. To quote from the Night Camera web site:
Due to low light condition, the shutter time is longer, and even small shaking from the tapping of the camera button will make the photo un-usable.
So, we created Night Camera, the app to prevent the blur at the first place. Using the built-in iPhone accelerometer, it automatically shoots the photo when it detects the iPhone being stable, so you have a real chance to get some good photos at night.
Sounds very compelling. Basically image stabilization (or rather image selection based on stability data) on inexpensive hardware.
There is one problem with this, which is that the iPhone according to this post uses a camera module that has a fixed 200ms rolling shutter. This seems very plausible, as most camera modules of cell phone use this technique. There also is plenty of photo evidence that this is the case. With a rolling shutter, the exposure time of the CMOS sensor is fixed. In other words, the claim that the shutter time is longer at night is wrong. Unless I am missing something, the makers of the above application at least don’t understand how the iPhone camera works.
Now it may be that in general the accelerometer could be useful for enhancing image quality by reducing movement. However anecdotal evidence shows no visible improvement, and the above app has only 2.5 start on iTunes.
The NVCA Numbers are here, and they look worse than I would have expected. Only 25 new funds were raised in Q2/2009 vs. 82 funds in Q2 of last year.
Typically the initial tally by the NVCA increases by 15% or so as additional closes are announced (see Estimate in the graph for where I think we will end up), but even then this number is very low the worst we have seen in the last decade. Total capital raised was $1.7 billion.
The NVCA published its latest numbers on VC fundraising, and as expected they are not pretty. Only 40 new funds were raised for a total of $4.31 billion. Both numbers are just above half the rate at which firms were raising money before the current downturn hit.
While low, these number are actually better than I would have expected. The total amount raised is slightly higher than last quarter. Usually the NVCA numbers in the first press release are about 5-10% below the final numbers, thus one would expect this to look even better. However about 25% of the total funding amount is just from two funds (August and Bain), this might skew the numbers. And I would expect the downturn to continue.
A second technology that is highlighted is Siri’s personal assistant software. I am really looking forward to trying out Siri’s product when it goes into beta later this year. For full disclosure, Morgenthaler is an investor in Siri.