The USV Thesis Lesson

Deanna Cameron’s Pinterest
Deanna Cameron’s Pinterest

For nearly a decade, Brad Burnham and Fred Wilson have periodically published and updated the Union Square Investment Thesis on USV.com. Aquick search reveals 13 posts that reference “investment thesis” by 8 current or former USVers and a handful of others such as Hunter Walk.

For years, I struggled to appreciate the value of a sharpened thesis. When I look back on my career I was guided by this:

“The internet will change everything, so let’s create companies.”

While this ended up being prescient, it did not serve me as a particularly useful filter when I was making professional, investing, or strategic decisions. The result: I liked everything.

I founded or managed startups from 1998 until 2010, and have spent the past 4 years teaching the History of Internet Media at NYU, mentoring colleagues and friends. Cliche as it may be, I’ve been gravitating towards the family business.

I grew up very much inside the Beltway — my father was President ofCommon Cause and my mother owned the Politics and Prose bookstore. Between 1970 and 1990, I doubt I met a single person who worked in business. Sure, my parents had some friends who were lawyers, but mostly they ran with five professional groups:

  • government officials
  • the lobbyists who dined with them
  • the journalists who covered them
  • the psychiatrists who treated them

When I was 13, most other kids would spend their Sundays playing baseball. Meanwhile, my father trained me to get up early — in order to check the op-ed page of the three major national newspapers. I grew up being told, and believing, that government improves the quality of people’s lives.

But today, so few people believe that government works. We live in a time of unparalleled cynicism about government and its ability to solve our most pressing problems. The painful juxtaposition of progressive political values with high taxes and inefficient processes creates enormous challenges and, of course, opportunities.

My former GovLab colleague, Manik Suri, has created a startup that meshes these different threads in my life. He’s invited me to c0-found and invest in MeWe, a company with a huge ambition of making government more responsive to citizens. Today our focus is MeWe Inspect. Every day, tens of thousands home, restaurant, health, and disability inspections are performed in municipalities nationwide. Mostly, this work is done with paper and pencil.

At MeWe, we are building software to take advantage of three macro trends in our society.

1. Mark Andreessen famously wrote that ‘software is eating the world.’ We’re moving toward a world where pencil & paper workflows and manual data entry are replaced by digital tools that link from mobile devices directly to the cloud. You would be amazed how many clipboards and file cabinets there are throughout America. This will change — fast.

2. The Peer Economy will encourage and enable a restructuring of the regulatory environment, as we create new solutions that crowdsource much of what is currently done by government officials and contract professionals. Tim O’Reilly says it well when he writes about the emerging class of ridesharing services that “reputation entirely replaces regulation.”

3. Government will become leaner as it adapts to doing more with less. Simply put, governments spend too much money on outdated IT infrastructure and the services that support it. Lightweight software can improve performance, increase customer satisfaction, and empower civil servants to be more effective and responsive.

Building upon these underlying trends, our team at MeWe is driven by a conviction that technology will enable citizens and cities to work together in new ways to create better and safer communities.

Entrepreneurs solve problems. Most have avoided building solutions that involve government for a long list of understandable reasons — including challenging politics and complex procurement rules — almost all of which are fair.

MeWe is founded upon a vision that things can and will change. We have a deep reservoir of entrepreneurial energy and the passion to make a difference. What we’re building is not just another startup, it’s a calling.