Investing in OtherSide.AI

Investment Thesis

It seems like everyone wants to “invest in AI” these days. Nearly every pitch deck I see these days have “AI” in the deck somewhere. “AI” has been the “next big thing” for decades and in the last couple of years has jumped the shark in investor interest. To develop an investment thesis in a complex new technology area like this, my first step is to separate the “picks and shovel” (infrastructure/core technology) companies from the “prospectors” (those using the tools to deliver value).

Prospectors can’t create meaningful value before the infrastructure has reached a critical mass. AI investing has “jumped the shark” because certain infrastructure components have reached critical mass. In AI there are many different kinds of picks and shovels for different jobs with each of these categories on its own development track toward “good enough.” The trick to investing in prospectors is to wait until the specific picks and shovels are “good enough” and then bet on an aggressive team with unique insight into a particular customer problem area where huge value can be created. Last summer with the release of GPT3, it looked like natural language processing picks and shovels had reached “good enough” so we went looking for prospectors.

A great prospector will be smart, tenacious, and have some unique insight on “where to look” for the jewels. The founders of OtherSide.AI are all this and more. They are “looking” for GPT3 applications that will improve daily writing tasks we all have to do like email, blog posts, and more (areas where I personally want solutions). As a pre-seed investor, one has to be willing to make meta bets which allow for pivoting over time into a product that at the time of the investment is as yet not fully formed. The meta bets we are making with OtherSide.AI include:

  • The picks and shovels (GPT3, internet connections, etc.) are “good enough”
  • The team is smart, tenacious, and is looking in the right place.

The Story

Matt Shumer, like many of us, hates email. “I hate email so very much,” he told me on our first call. “I came across GPT2 and immediately I was obsessed with it. I started using it and didn’t sleep for like three days. I built a summarization tool, action tools, writing tools, so much stuff. Because it was fun as hell. I hacked together a bunch of stuff over the next months, but it was not very elegant. Then this July (2020) we got access to GPT3 and ended up building a demo that was, I mean, miles better than what we spent months building previously. Like it wasn’t even a comparison. I posted the email writing demo on Twitter. Chris Sacca loved it and started tweeting about it. All hell broke loose.”

Matt and a handful of early users started using the email tool in late 2020. He estimated it saved him 50-70% of the time in email. The VCs started calling and the company raised a round very quickly in late 2020. Turns out lots of people hate email and Matt’s hacker approach struck a cord. In addition to email productivity, the company has developed to help people writing fiction, blog posts, and more. The company has other GPT3 enabled applications under development as they “prospect” for the best product/market fit. In the early days of prospecting the trick is to stake multiple claims and then mine those that have the best yields.

Why I am Investing

I have been investing in and looking for email and writing improvements for a long time. Back when Spam was the #1 email problem, I was an investor and on the board of Cloudmark, which started in email and moved on to all message platforms quite successfully reducing the signal to noise ratio in messaging. There has been quite a bit of innovation on the client-side to prioritize, categorize, and auto-respond to certain standard email types (Superhuman, Hiri, SaneBox, etc.). While filtering and tagging have reduced the flow, there has been precious little innovation around the time it takes to actually respond to the emails which are important. Many people (including myself) have turned to their assistants to filter the inbox more and respond to standard mails following pre-defined If/Then templates. All stuff that AI can do much more efficiently. I once read a science fiction book about an AI program that could read and reply to emails intelligently in my own personal style. I wanted that product. OtherSide AI has built it.

Other Side AI is earlier than I usually invest. The company was only a couple of months old when we invested and this is their first round of financing. The closed Alpha was released, and they are using that to nail down the most valuable use cases and the go-to-market strategy/pricing. There are three reasons I am investing earlier than usual:

1. Passionate Hacker Founder. Matt is an experienced founder solving very personal problem in a unique and innovative way. He and his co-founders are building something to make their own lives easier, and in the process going to help the rest of us.

2. Innovative solution to a huge problem. Despite all the filtering, there are still emails that must be responded to in a relevant and personal way. This is the first product that I have found which is actually delivering on that promise. It is me, just faster. If the product can deliver 50% improvement at scale, that is an extra 6 hours a week for the average email user. This type of “auto writing” functionality can and will extend to blogs, fiction, and other forms of writing over time.

3. Smart co-Investors. Many of the best investors are actively looking for innovations that create value in very specific markets with specific technologies (like I have been for writing improvements). They have opinions about where technology innovation needs to go and are looking for the best entrepreneurs to drive those companies. This is how I found Other Side AI, as did Madrona Venture Group, Active Capital, Hustle Fund, Chapter One.

Why this deal is Incisive

Other Side AI ranks very highly in key areas of our Meta Themes.

Software Eats. In this case, software eats itself (the email client). And the AI intelligence eats the manual time we spend on writing. OtherSide.AI is mining for applications that can “eat” 30-50% of the time we spend writing today across multiple use cases. This is a significant reduction in friction which gives people back a significant chunk of time to us all.

Smart founders figure it out. When the team is solving a very personal problem and working with passionate early adopters in a very smart way, I have seen great products come out. The explosive backlog while still in Alpha shows demand. In discussions with the team I have been very impressed at their decision process taking this feedback and putting it into the product road map. The hacker mentality enables them to go fast and pivot when needed.

Americans are lazy.. Americans love anything that makes life easier, lets them do less work. But in writing and email, efforts so far (like text expander, and autoresponders) have not been personalized and lack soul. OtherSide allows me to be lazy while preserving my personal style and not coming across as dismissive. This is the holy grail.

Trends I am betting on

AI “picks and shovels” for Natural Language Processing are “good enough.” Windows 1, 2 and 3 were pale barely useful operation systems. With Windows 3.1 things tipped and took off. It became “good enough.” GPT 1 and 2 were very academic and produced some comical results. GPT3 could be the tipping point and I am betting it is. I could be wrong, it could be GPT4, but that is the bet at this time.

Personalized efficiency wins. Everyone likes getting things done in less time, especially email and writing. We also know when receiving a form letter or reading something the writer “phoned in.” I would pay alot for a writing tool that would keep my style and soul while turning it out much faster. I am betting many people would.

Investing in Fluent

Why we Invested in Fluent

Fluent: Language immersion everywhere for everyone.

Learning a language, especially later in life, is hard and incredibly time-consuming. Immersion is the best strategy (I moved to Germany to learn German) but not practical much of the time. This is where Fluent comes in. Fluent imbeds language learning into your daily web browsing activities.

For a pre-seed company, Fluent has impressive traction and user engagement metrics. Customers love being able to learn and practice a language within their daily work without dedicating time to “lessons”. The product stacks well with existing lesson-based solutions like Duolingo ($184M raised) and is benefiting from the move toward remote learning across the board.

The Story

I have been waiting for something like Fluent for 40 years. In high school, I took Russian on a whim (ok my girlfriend was in the class) but quickly lost it as there was no way to practice in Medford Oregon in the ’80s. In the ’90s I moved to Germany to run a department for Microsoft without knowing a word of German. While Microsoft spent a small fortune on private lessons, it was the immersion, having to use the language everywhere, which made it all stick. Over the years I have kept up German with a combination of Duolingo, Babble, and the occasional phone call with friends, but have always pined for a very low friction way to practice and learn without having to set aside yet another dedicated time block. And without having to move back to Germany.

Atin Batra at Twenty Seven Ventures in HK is one of the smartest people I know thinking about EdTech and the Future of Work. When he mentioned Fluent to me on one of our regular calls, I relayed my language story and scheduled a call with CEO Gavin Dove immediately. Gavin and the team have faced similar language learning challenges and created Fluent first and foremost for themselves. They have obviously hit a cord as the early user engagement numbers are impressive. While it is early, Fluent feels like the right team at the right time with possibly the right product.

Why I am Investing

It would be a reasonable investment thesis to believe language learning is “done” with unicorns like Duolingo, Babble, and various online learning platforms. But with a 90% incomplete rate on these programs, it would also be reasonable to consider there is room for new solutions. A counterintuitive thesis is that there are methods of learning and practice which will attract the pent-up demand falling out from current platforms. While still early, I believe Fluent has identified a compelling way to engage language learners with new modes that could potentially lead to higher success rates. The trick to this stage of product development is to have management obsessively focused on user engagement and product-market fit. The team at Fluent has some of the most detailed metrics I have seen and continues to drive engagement up every month.

I love supporting founders who create a product to solve a personal pain point. Double points when I have also experienced that pain point and would buy the product. Triple points if the company is creating and leading a new niche in a big market. Quadruple points if smart people with a deep thesis in the sector who I know and trust are also investing. It is not often I get the opportunity to support a company with all four point bonuses that is also growing 50% MTM. Super excited to support Fluent’s growth.

Why Fluent is Incisive

Fluent ranks very highly in key areas of our Meta Themes.

Disruptive innovation unlocks new demand. When lots of people want something and 90% of them fail with existing products, that industry needs some innovative thinking, some disruptive innovation. My 10 year old daughter has been “trying” to learn spanish on Duolingo for over a year. She started strong and now can’t find time for the lessons. We installed Fluent and she now learns all day everyday and is crushing the Duolingo tests. She just needed a new mode of learning. New demand was created.

Americans are lazy. Anything that I have to schedule a time block for is in competition with all the other “tasks” on the list. That is why I am a huge fan of “stacking” things like listening to a podcast while exercising. When something can be “stacked” into something I am already doing, it will get done 10x more. By putting language immersion into my everyday browsing, Fluent reduces all the friction and lets me be lazy.

Software Eats Everything. My first language lessons were on CDROM which required dedicated time and a special device. I have hundreds of hours of personal 1:1 lessons. Fluent’s software now puts language learning in all my browsers. The software has significantly reduced language learning friction and increased reach. Software wins again.

Invest when I can be helpful. Fluent is solving a problem I care about and have a network that can help. Since the problem is personal to me, I will spend an above-average amount of time with this company.

Invest with other smart people. I am not an EdTech expert, but Twenty Seven Ventures is. Their approach to pre-seed is more incubator than a traditional venture with a very active program to connect portfolio companies and share best practices. The other CEOs I talked to who are invested in the company are very smart as well. Gavin and the team have surrounded themselves with very smart people in this sector. I am excited to be a part of the team.

Trends I am betting on

Stacking wins. Anything which requires a dedicated time block to complete ends up competing for time with other priorities. Competition has winners and losers. When innovation allows me to stack my priorities together in the same time block, I am able to achieve more in less time. Innovation that enables stacking will always be adopted at a higher rate than something that requires a dedicated time block.

Remote everything. When I have to be in a specific place at a specific time for a specific thing, there is a ton of friction. Commute time is friction in going to work in an office. Travel time to a gym is friction. Anytime I can get something I want to get done where I am, when I want, friction is reduced. Remote is all about reducing friction. The pandemic has forced many industries into remote options and I am seeing a preference for remote in many things as people value the friction reduction.

Inner growth is the new fashion Fashion is all about external validation. The pandemic and lack of contact with the outside world for a long time has moved up appreciation for inner growth in many people. Progress on my reading list exploded as my shopping for the latest fashion declined. I am betting that this mental shift toward valuing inner growth over external validation will continue to grow over time.

Investing in Vega Cloud

The Prevailing Cloud Infrastructure Thesis:

The Cloud is simple to use and the early leaders (Amazon, Microsoft, Google, etc.) will take most of the economics in the Cloud.

The Counterintuitive Thesis:

Cloud complexity is growing and Cloud waste is becoming a material problem for cloud customers. There will be economics available for companies that reduce Cloud complexity and manage costs, especially across platforms.

Why we Invested in Vega Cloud

“The Cloud” can evoke in many images of magical unicorns and fairies. Developers and IT Managers know different. While the breadth and depth of Cloud services have exploded, the management tools, especially across vendors, have lagged significantly. Applications can be developed very quickly with dozens of plug-and-play services from a multitude of vendors, which is great for developers. But when the applications are in production the IT Manager is tasked with a whole new set of problems and a mishmash of tools. Current management tools suffer from two limitations; 1. the tool typically only manages a small subset of services, not the entire Cloud infrastructure, and 2. they typically charge a % of cloud spend so charge a fixed tax on infrastructure.

The Vega Cloud platform solves both these issues with:

1. a consolidated central dashboard across platforms.

2. Flat rate licensing.

With 10 years of Cloud experience running one of the leading Cloud Managed Service Providers, the management team is now solving in software what they previously solved with people. I have been very impressed with Kris (CEO) and his personal commitment to delivering real value by solving a very personal set of problems. Only a few months into launch, early customers agree and they signed a significant go-to-market partnership with Qumulo and secured high-profile first customers. We love betting on a CEO solving a very personal problem with software that fundamentally reduces friction and simplifies life for a large number of people.

The Background.

The Problem:

The public cloud is complex. Each vendor has dozens of not well integrated services and there are multiple vendors.

Best practice management covers multiple areas of technical expertise, each with separate tools including:

Performance Efficency


Cost Optimization

Operational Excellence


There is a cornucopia of separate individual tools for managing different parts of the Cloud.

Complicated tool environment has created unhappy customers.

Gartner estimates $14.1B in Cloud Waste in 2019. Cloud vendors are not motivated to help you reduce your Cloud spend.

Forrester Research estimates that 91% of businesses use two or more cloud platforms, increasing complexity and introducing cross-vendor management.

In a recent Forbes study, managing Cloud sprawl is a top CIO priority.

IT manager time. It is estimated that 15-20% of Cloud budget is IT time managing the Cloud with custom scripts and disconnected point solution tools.

It is very hard for an IT manager to have a single view into the size and shape of their Cloud infrastructure.

Current service management tools typically charge a % of infrastructure spend, causing costs to raise with scale and imposing a fixed percentage tax on cloud infrastructure.


The Customer gets from Vega Cloud:

Visibility into public cloud infrastructure across vendors.

Simplified scale management

Optimize cloud for efficiency.

Customers see a 40-65% savings on cloud spend when optimized through our management.

Vega Cloud consolidates Reporting and Operations into One Tool

Vega is also innovating on pricing for its management tools

Most mangement tools charge a % of cloud spend per month.

Vega charges a flat fee with flat fee add ons, resulting in a 70-90% cost reduction versus traditional management tool pricing.

Trends I am betting on

Move to Cloud accelerates. The Cloud is already upon us while expanding bandwidth and increased intelligence will pull even very complex applications into the Cloud. In 1996 I started to transcode media files and bought a ton of servers and storage to do that. You couldn’t move the files over the internet cost-effectively. Today is a cloud service preferred by Adobe, Warner Media, and more enabled by the expanded bandwidth. There are also cloud services with a level of intelligence that is simply not possible in a local machine. Services like GPT3, voice recognition, credit card processing, and credit scoring cannot be local and are available via an API to a cloud developer. There are more “cloud only” features and intelligence coming which will enable applications to be built which are impossible locally.

Simplicity Wins. Every technology that achieves mass adoption follows a similar pattern from complexity to simplification usually starting with developers and eventually reaching everyone by having the complexity hidden. V1.0 of the cloud is very infrastructure and developer-focused. Amazon wrote the first cloud services for their own use, for their own developers. Then they shared with other developers and Microsoft, Google, and the rest started serving the developer community with their own APIs. Cloud 2.0 is companies like SnowFlake building applications on top of the infrastructure that make deployment and management easier. Cloud 2.0 is about simplicity and expanding the market outside hard core developers. Vega is delivering simplicity for IT managers, finance and operations staff tasked with cloud management. The move to cloud simplification is well under way and will continue.

Vendors don’t want costs managed. One of my pet peeves with any vendor who charges by the hour to fix something for me is that there is an inherent conflict between their business model and mine. I want to solve the problem as cheaply as possible, they want to make as much money as possible, which often means taking their time even when it is not necessary. Lawyers are the worst at this (don’t get me started). This inherent business model conflict is on steroids in the Cloud with estimates of “cloud waste” being billions of revenue to the cloud vendors. While there is competition on cost per cloud unit (compute, storage, bandwidth, etc.) the vendors want you to consume as much as possible. Companies like Vega can give users a level of management the vendors will never provide on their own, especially across vendors.

The Value of a Counterintuitive Thesis

In order to beat the averages in any game, you have to disagree with the average opinion and be right. To get top decile investment returns as I have in angel investing for over 25 years, you must have a counterintuitive investment thesis. And you must be right. If you are right, the counterintuitive thesis will become the prevailing opinion and you will be rewarded 10-100X versus those who stuck with the prevailing thesis. You will also get some be wrong. Good bankroll management and the magnitude of being right will over time make up for the times you are wrong.

coun·ter·in·tu·i·tive: contrary to intuition or to common-sense expectation (but often nevertheless true).

A counterintuitive thesis is especially important in early-stage investing. Disruptors are unlikely to have disrupted much when you place your bet on them. The incumbents will have more money, more investors, and more customers. This is where you must have a thesis about how the disruption will play out and the ability of management to execute the complex environment.

Here are a few opportunities to place bets that I have had over the years and the counterintuitive thesis at the time.

  • Amazon in 2000. In May of 2019 Barrons ran a cover story called Amazon.bomb. It was the start of the DotCom bubble which burst in March of 2000. The prevailing thesis on Amazon is best summed up by [[Kurt Barnard]] at the time: “…Once Wal-Mart decides to go after Amazon, there’s no contest, Wal-Mart has resources Amazon can’t even dream about.”. The counterintuitive thesis was “Amazon is not a retailer, it is in the customer service business and Amazon’s model can deliver a higher level of customer service (low prices, fast delivery, easy of buying) over time than WalMart can.” I had this argument with a hedge fund friend at the time (me for Amazon, he for Walmart) and we made a bet. $10,000 into Amazon and Walmart in 2000, who would have more in 2020. In 2020 he had turned $10K into just over $100K and I had turned $10K into over $10M. The reward for being right about a counterintuitive thesis was 100X better than following the prevailing thesis. That is the power.
  • Docusign in 2004. In 2004 paper and the fax machine ruled for contract signatures. Everyone still had a dotcom crash hangover and was skeptical of tech disruption claims. Electronic signatures were not even legal in most jurisdictions. I was at Ignition Partners at the time who was considering investing in Series A. The counterintuitive thesis, which I stated in the partner meeting, was “Digital signatures reduce so much friction that users will demand them and legislation will get fixed to allow them. Docusign will create a whole new category that doesn’t exist today.” It was a bumpy road in the early years at Docusign as regulations and change of customer behavior at scale took longer than expected. Yet the thesis proved out. The default for most contracts today is a digital signature. I get offended when someone asks me to print and scan a document. That is the Stone Age.
  • Google at IPO 2004. I was an investor pre-ipo in Google through a venture fund and received O{P shares from the fund. Yahoo at the time was valued at 50% more and Google the prevailing thesis was that Google was overpriced and Yahoo would continue it’s lead. The counterintuitive thesis was that Google’s algorithm was a step function better than Yahoo and everyone else and the company would create a more valuable ecosystem. Google priced at the bottom of the range at $85 per share after originally targeting $108-$135. We all know the outcome, the counterintuitive thesis proved to be right. Google has averaged 24.8% annually since IPO, I still own those shares.
  • Peloton in 2012. In 2011, Equinox bought Soul Cycle and all the talking heads believed that deal had anointed the winner of cycling fitness. Equinox with its leading brand would own it. In Feb 2012 Peloton raised their seed round of $400K from three guys with a very counterintuitive thesis: “People who love studio cycling will prefer to do it in the privacy of their own homes connected to a virtual community instead of in a physical studio.” In Dec of that year, more people piled into the $3.5M Series A believing that thesis even after Soul Cycle grew much faster that year and Peloton didn’t have a shipping product. While I did not place a bet (big regret), today Peloton is worth over $30B and is much larger than the entire studio cycling business.

At Incisive Ventures, I continue to bet on counterintuitive thesis. While too early to tell if we are right, some of the recent ones include:

  • Yuva Pay early 2021. A prevailing thesis around connectivity is that everyone has a smartphone, everyone has fast connectivity and broadband will soon be cheap everywhere. Yet in India, they are selling 20M feature phones a month and broadband is only available in the cities. The counterintuitive thesis is “Feature phones will be around for a lot longer and broadband, especially at affordable rates, will take decades to roll out, especially in secondary and rural markets.” Mobile payment and digital bank companies are all the rage these days, but most of them require a smartphone and a stable high bandwidth connection. Yuva Pay delivers a mobile financial platform on feature phones AND smartphones over the SMS data channel without the need for a separate internet data connection. They have a proprietary, patented, very data-efficient protocol that gives rich financial transactions on any mobile device. I am betting the lower end of the mobile market will want the rich features of the higher end.
  • SilverTree in late 2020. Apple is the most valuable company in the world because most people believe they will own hardware devices including the general-purpose wearable with the Apple Watch. Adherents to this viewpoint to the rise, fall, and subsequent fire sale to Google of Fitbit. Most investors hate hardware and very few want to compete with Apple. The counterintuitive thesis is “Some specific wearable applications cannot be well designed into a general-purpose wearable and require a specifically designed device to deliver specific functions into meet specific market needs.” Silvetree is building an active adult wearable to help with fall detection, location, and communication needs of that market. A key user requirement for such a device is long battery life (2-4 weeks) and the Apple Watch needs to be charged daily. The current specific devices in this area were mostly designed in the ’80s and ’90s and do not have modern technology or aesthetics. I am betting a well-designed modern specific function wearable will disrupt the incumbents and the general-purpose wearables.
  • FightCamp fall 2019. By 2019, Peloton had gone from counterintuitive to obvious. In 2020 the obvious became necessary as everyone upgraded their home gyms. The prevailing thesis in 2019 was that Peloton or Apple would own home fitness. I was thinking of what would disrupt them, what would people want in addition to Peloton, Apple, or others. The counterintuitive thesis was “There is lots of room in-home fitness, especially if it is portable.” FightCamp is bringing a boxing workout into the home with a Peloton-like model, but also an app that lets you bring the gloves and workout with you when you travel. I placed a bet. FightCamp grew like crazy in 2020 and has become one of the best investments in my over 200 company portfolio.

Counterintuitive and right. Two things that are hard to achieve, but very rewarding when you do.

Investing in An at-home workout like never before.

I am going to start this memo by admitting a mistake and a bit of luck.

Early last year (2020) I was unsure of the direction of the home fitness trend so hedged by betting both sides of it. I shorted the (I thought over-hyped) leader, Peloton, and doubled my investment in Fight Camp, an early stage up and comer. Of course, I took a bath on Peloton, and Fight Camp has become one of the best performing investments in my portfolio by far.

Home fitness is here to stay and users expect more than dumbbells, yoga, and bodyweight stuff. They are demanding advanced technology in the convenience of their homes. Over the last year, I tripled down on finding a company that had a fundamental technology advantage that would create a new blue ocean of opportunity behind this meta trend of home fitness. is the best company I have found. I believe Katalyst could be bigger than Peloton and Fight Camp combined.

The Background

Like many of you, I have always been into physical fitness. Soccer team in high school and college, biking and running for fun. In my 30’s I was one of those CEOs who worked 70 hours a week and competed in marathons and triathlons on the weekends. I have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on fitness over the years joining every kind of gym and buying every fitness gadget that came along. I bought one of the first Peloton and returned it (I prefer my own bike and Zwift). Unfortunately, I have also spent almost as much on doctors to recover from the injuries incurred along the way. When cross-fit came along, I jumped in with both feet and six months later had a terrible case of tennis elbow from jerking all those weights around. My primary care doctor was overjoyed: “I love Cross-Fit, the best thing for my business! Everyone gets injured!” A patellar tendon overuse injury ended my running days and now I mostly bike and lift weights. Physical fitness has always been a brute-force time-sucking injury-prone activity for me. Working in the technology industry, I saw the power of technology to transform wide swaths of our lives. A tiny idea came to me: “Why are we still doing the same basic physical fitness exercises our caveman ancestors did? Why hasn’t technology fundamentally changed the time/reward/injury relationship?”

Five years ago after I invested in Bulletproof, Dave Asprey introduced me to biohacking. “Biohacking is the art and science of changing the environment around you and inside you, so you have more control over your own biology,” Asprey explains. That seed of an idea started to grow. As CEO of Upgrade Labs I was in the middle of the technology-enabled health and fitness revolution unfolding. Innovative fitness technologies tend to start in with elite athletes, doctors, and gyms before coming broadly to consumers. Electro Muscle Stimulation (EMS) is a technology that has been on that path for nearly 40 years. Katalyst is the first company to bring it in a convenient package to consumers in their homes. With EMS you get a full-body strength workout in 20 minutes that would take over 2 hours in the gym, without any muscular-skeletal stress and a significantly lower injury profile.

I strapped into my first EMS full-body suit four years ago in Santa Monica (yes Los Angeles is always on the leading edge of fitness). The advertised 20-minute workout took almost an hour with all the set-up, suit adjustments, and tweaking. I was had to wear a base layer from the club (ick!). The suit was connected to the control unit with heavy cables that kept getting in the way. The system costs over $40,000 and the user interface was so complex you needed special training, certification, and facilities, hence the $150 price tag for the session. The workout itself was amazing and I have done over 100 sessions with significant strength improvements, about 5x what I would expect for the same amount of time in the gym. While the core method of action was sound, the technology was too expensive and cumbersome for the mass market.

I meet Bjoern Woltermann, CEO of Katalyst in 2018 in Seattle as he was raising funds to build a chain of EMS studios using his in-house developed wireless EMS suit. EMS studios were a $1.7B worldwide market of over 13,000 studios, just starting in the US. My first question was “Great, so can I buy a suit and do this at home?” “No, the FDA requires current EMS systems to only be operated by certified instructors, preferably with a doctor’s prescription.” “Could you handle all their safety concerns in software?” I queried. “Theoretically yes, but no-one has attempted that yet,” Bjoern replied. “Do it and I will invest in that company.”

Bjoern ended up raising (I did not invest) as he pursued a dual strategy of building studios and seeking FDA approval for home use of his suit. Katalyst came to the Upgrade Labs conference in 2019 and the most common question was “How can I buy one of these for my home?” They received FDA clearance for studio use and the studio business started growing well in late 2019. Then Covid hit killing the studio business and drying up funding. Bjoern took the remaining capital and reworked the supply chain and product for home use. There was a ton of software and hardware upgrades required to get FDA clearance. Katalyst received FDA clearance in Q4 of 2020. The company is now solely focused on in-home fitness. The product and supply chain are complete, it is about sales and marketing from here on out.

Bjoern called me in February to see if I wanted to try one of the new suits. There were going into closed Beta. I said, “of course, and are you raising capital?” He was, so I am now an investor in

Why I am Investing

I am obsessed with fitness and efficiency. I have spent hundreds of thousands on fitness and the Katalyst suit is now my only go-to for strength training. EMS is the most efficient full-body workout I have come across in over decades of searching. Katalyst is the first to bring down the cost and improve the useability for the home user. They have a three-year head start on the competition. Bjoern and the team have proven their resilience and ability to pivot in a difficult market. Peleton, Fight Camp and others have shown the way to bring technology into home fitness. By not being tied to one sport and being portable (you can take it with you), I believe Katalyst will appeal to a much larger market.

My tiny idea finally has an answer. We don’t need to exercise like our cavemen ancestors. The Katalyst technology fundamentally upgrades the time/reward/injury relationship. In 20 minutes three times a week, I can keep fit for any other activity I want to do. Today I went for a bike ride with a friend and a hike with my kids. I am super excited to help Bjoern and Katalyst bring the most efficient fitness technology into every home.

Trends I am betting on

At-Home is the new gym.. 2020 “pulled forward” many trends that were already underway, especially those that reduced friction in a material way like ecommerce, telemedicine and at-home fitness. The Gym business was already faltering with less than 15% of americans belonging to one and less than 4% going regularly, and obesity/overweight people growing much faster to over 60% of the population. The “Fitness industry” was not delivering fitness. It was a house of cards. The COVID pandemic was the storm. In 2020 while the physical retail fitness business shrunk, at home fitness of all types exploded 1-300%. The pandemic “pulled forward” the demand for more effective and friction free fitness. Most of my friend who now have significant investments in home gyms see no need to go back to the gym even when the pandemic is over. I believe the switch has been flicked in the public’s mind in favor of home fitness and won’t get switched back.

Efficiency and Efficacy win.. How many of us have started a new fitness program in January and by March are not doing it anymore (or February)? Usually there are two reasons: Time and efficacy (not seeing results). Fitness classes are like old broadcast TV. You have to get yourself to a certain place at a certain time, disrupting your day and conforming to someone else’s schedule. At home fitness is like your iPhone, always available whenever and wherever you want it. Any company that provides greater Convenience (Efficiency) for customers will win over time. Convenience is a major reason why Amazon is killing store based retailers and you buy a coffee at Starbucks drive through for 50x more than you could make it at home. Efficacy (results) is also related to Efficiency. Everyone wants the results faster. That is why Amazon has same day delivery. Traditional fitness is a brute force effort that has traditionally consumed 6-10 hours a week for an active person. What if you could get the results in a fraction of that? While there has been a lot of snake oil sold with this promise, EMS is a proven technology used by professional athletes for decades. I have replaced 4 hours of strength training (weights) per week with three 20 minute session, a 75% improvement in Efficiency. And efficacy has gone up as my muscle gains have exceeded my gains with weight training. EMS provides the best Efficiency and Efficacy I have found for strength training. Desire for Efficiency and Efficacy is a long term meta trend which is impacting many industries. This trend has been “pulled forward” in the Fitness industry and will continue in my estimation.

Growing appreciation for: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”. We have all heard this phrase, but few of us apply it in our daily choices. While many people quarantined at home eating the same processed foods and not going to the gym while waiting for the vaccine “cure”, I ask myself “What can I do on the prevention side to strengthen my immune system so when I get it (and everyone will eventually), my body will be ready?” I focused not on the prevention of getting the virus (impossible), but on the prevention of an adverse outcome. While the hospitals were packed with COVID patients, many people could not even access the health care “cures” for any other issue they may be having. I believe this jolt has flipped another switch. The switch that makes you take action on prevention BEFORE you need a cure. I am betting that there will be a material and ongoing shift in wallet spend from “cures” into “prevention” across many areas of our lives. In healthcare (a cure), given the colossal spend there, even a small shift toward prevention (fitness, supplements, etc.) will drive massive growth.

Investing in Tripp

Tripp: Digital Therapeutic Platform for Mental Health and Emotional Wellbeing.

Mental health has been the ugly ignored stepchild of health care for a very very long time. It is also an area lots of us are uncomfortable talking about, so much so that my TED talk on mental health was anonymous at first. Americans spend over $284B on mental health and wellbeing annually and the pandemic has exploded demand. There are huge efficacy, cost, and access issues which mean most people needing help don’t get it.

Until recently, it has also been an area where technology has underdelivered by not providing step-function improvements in efficacy. While meditation apps increase access, you are still practicing the same techniques people have been doing for thousands of years. Most meditation traditions also have an “upgraded” path usually mediated by some kind of drug (plant medicine). These drugs are now very popular in Silicon Valley with well-funded efforts underway to bring these to the masses. Is that the best we can do? Plant medicines that have been around for thousands of years?

I want technology to deliver a BETTER experience, leveraging all that we know today. Appling modern technology including AI, VR, wearables, and more to fix my mood quickly. Tripp leverages modern XR platforms to engage much more of the brain and autonomic nervous system at levels that traditional meditation just can’t reach. Tripp delivers the “upgraded” path to better mental health and wellness without the drugs.

The Background

I have been wanting to invest in Tripp for over three years. I ran into Tim Chang (partner at Mayfield) at an event and we were talking about the positive mental states we experienced at Burning Man. “Wouldn’t it be great if you could get to those states every day without the drugs?” he said. “I just invested in a company doing that.”

“I want to invest,” I begged.

“We just closed the round and we don’t even have a product yet.”

Undaunted, I met CEO Nanea Reeves (yes related to THAT Hollywood Reeves) and told her I wanted to be one of the first Alpha testers. She had heard my TED talk on the failure of the technology industry to address mental health. We had a crazy mind-meld around the positive mental health benefits of altered states. Nanea shared some of the underlying research they were doing to replicate those states without the drugs and described their evidence-based approach. We also talked about the huge missed opportunity of the VR/AR/XR companies to deliver anything other than more distraction. Delivering therapeutic benefits on those platforms was a very novel idea, and she was on it.

In 2019 Nanea came over to Upgrade Labs and strapped me into their first software app targeted at reducing stress running on the Oculus headset. We had quite a big business giving IVs and wanted something the patients could do during the 30-45 minutes, especially if that thing could lower their stress levels from having needles in their arms. Over the next 15 minutes, I was guided through a meditation and eye movement journey that raised my HRV by 30%. I felt calmer, and the data showed that my metabolism was in fact much less stressed. Tripp users report an average mood improvement of 25% after each session.

The effects were significantly greater than a normal audio only meditation (yes I did an A/B HRV test to compare). When I talked to the scientists, they explained the extra levels of engagement that come from the visual, audio, breath pacing, interaction, and eye movements deliver these increased mental health benefits. It is simply next level.

I invited them to the Upgrade Labs Conference to get feedback from 2,000 biohackers. It was one of the best-reviewed products at the Conference. They did not have a shipping product, but built a waitlist and closed some corporate trials. After the conference, I asked to invest again, “No, we have plenty of cash.” They had just closed a $1.7M NIH grant.

The company focused on corporate deployments in 2019 and early 2020, securing some impressive names, research funding, and filing 2 patents. They have completed 6 (two more in progress) clinical studies proving efficacy including addiction (3), depression(1), and Anxiety & Stress (2). They now have multiple programs for multiple indications across multiple platforms (Oculus and Sony).

While corporate deployments slowed in 2020, their DTC business has really taken off with growing to tens of thousands of subscribers logging over a million sessions. They are now a top wellness app on Oculus VR.

In late January of this year (2021), I reached out to Nanae again for an update and asked to invest (again). She said they were considering it. I went on vacation for two weeks and we caught up after. “I have a small piece left,” she said. “I will take it,” I said. Sometimes persistence pays off.

Trends I am betting on

Structural barriers remain for Mental Health. Mental Health has long been a second-class citizen to physical health. MDs get paid more, their institutions are larger and more prestigious, they have an aura of “hard science” around them. Mental Health has always been squishy and until recently lacking much “hard science”. When I go to an MD he runs lots of tests that feel really definitive. When I see a therapist he asks how I am feeling and says I should come indefinitely until I feel better. Soft science. Insurance companies have lower payments and limit the number of mental health and wellness sessions per year regardless of the diagnosis. Most mental health issues are systemic and multifactorial so they don’t fit well into the One Diagnosis – One Treatment structure that medicine and our insurance system are designed for. Our healthcare system is designed as a fee-for-service model, not outcomes-based. Outcomes in mental health are an order of magnitude harder to predict and deliver. I am betting that these structural barriers will remain for a very long time.

Technology increases access, reduces cost. Therapy and drugs are very expensive on a cost and time basis and are constrained by the supply of trained therapists and the expensive nature of getting FDA approval for drugs. A new software application delivered to a device we already have can be developed in months and delivered in milliseconds for near-zero marginal costs. There are already tens of millions more people meditating today with the instructor on their phone than when you had to drive to a temple somewhere. There are more people learning languages on their phones than in all the universities in this country. Mental health today is a very expensive, limited access product. Perfect for technology disruption. And not just your existing therapist doing a video call. Applications that can augment or replace your therapist at an order of magnitude lower cost.

Modern understanding leads to step-function improvements in efficacy.. Much of psychology was developed at a time when the prevailing medical belief was that the brain was a fixed-function organ after a certain age, immune to further development. It was not until very recently that the idea of lifelong Neuroplasticity became widely accepted. Today we know an order of magnitude more about the relationship between the brain, the gut, the autonomic nervous system, and mental health than even 10 years ago. There are structural differences you can see. Software developers can translate new understandings of mental health into treatments MUCH faster than the traditional research/development/FDA approval process can. I have seen brain scans of a non-meditator versus a 40-year meditator. Once you understand the starting point and desired end state, you can then ask the questions. Is there a better way? A faster way? A cheaper way? While I applaud training these tools to understand traditional therapies like meditation and plant medicine, there is a huge opportunity to innovate on that base to new approaches with step-function improvements in efficacy.

Increase of Personal Agency. As western civilization has “modernized” we have given up our personal agency to the market or government in ever more areas of our lives. Do you know how to grow your own food? Make your own clothes? Educate your children? Fix your car? Splint a broken bone? Your great grandparents did. Healthcare for most of us is nearly 100% outsourced to the “experts” with all the letters next to their names. The pandemic has been a huge bucket of cold water on the outsourcing trend and many of us have had to take up agency in areas previously ignored. Many of us have found that we get better results when we take more responsibility for our behavior and outcomes. Tens of thousands of people at home on their Oculus wanted a mental health solution instead of just another game. They couldn’t go see a therapist so they took some agency and tried this other thing. I am betting that people like agency and will apply that to more areas of their lives over time.

The Goldilocks Stage

Goldilocks: Adjective: “having or producing an optimal balance usually between two extremes.”

I am often asked “What stage do you invest?” While most people expect to hear “Pre-Seed”, “Seed” or “Series A, B, C, etc”, I answer “The Goldilocks Stage”. Traditional Venture stages have become a function of fund size and seem to be increasingly disconnected from any thesis around long term value creation. When you start to look for the Goldilocks Stage, you will find it everywhere; Early-stage venture, mid-stage, Growth stage, IPO, and the public markets.

Every investment I have ever made with a 10x or more return was in the Goldilocks Stage. Here is how I define it:

  • Goldilocks Stage: “The “just right” mix of value-creating innovation balanced with a clear path to profitably fulfilling a fast-growing customer need.”

When you invest in the Goldilocks Stage you fund a clear set of milestones intended to move the company up the path of product innovation and customer adoption to the next logical inflection point. In the Goldilocks Stage Innovation = Customers. The ultimate goal of every company which hopes to continue to grow should be a self funding loop of Innovation = Customers = Innovation = Customers…. ad infinitum. For a master class on this see: Amazon, Apple, Google, Tesla, etc. Companies stall when they either stop innovating or fail to find new customers. For a master class on this see: General Motors, General Electric, most Oil majors, etc.

Less than 5% of the deals we see at Incisive Ventures are raising funding in the Goldilocks Stage targeted at BOTH customer and innovation growth. Many companies are mainly funding ONE side of the equation which, while it may lead to up rounds, rarely leads to long term sustainable growth and the virtuous self-funding cycle. Make these one-sided investments at your peril.

Two scenarios we commonly see include:

  • The Overnight Unicorn or Brand Project.
    • In this scenario, minor innovation gains wild adoption quickly. With massive adoption numbers, investors pour funds into customer acquisition and expansion, often times before the business model has been fully flushed out. While there have been many examples of investors making money in these deals, most have flamed out when customer growth stalled and there was no new innovation to reach new customers.
    • Examples include:
      • Bird. One of the fastest companies to >$1B valuation in the history of venture. Investors funded an aggressive expansion based on initial traction. The innovation was very thin: Off the shelf scooters with a booking/billing app and some access control hardware. Investors funded brand building and building the network over innovation.
      • Honey. Making a browser plug in which automatically tried coupons was a very thin innovation, but it got massive customer adoption because it removed all the searching, copy and pasting of coupons (the friction). Investors piled in behind huge adoption numbers.
      • WeWork. Co-working was around long before WeWork. There was little technology innovation and heavy investment in brand and fund negative returns to gain customer share, hoping to make it up in the end.
    • The primary risks in Overnight Unicorns include:
      • Lots of competitors. Since there is little innovation, these concepts can be copied easily and must rely on brand and customer loyalty for profits. With lots of competitors, margins get squeezed and many times no-one in the category is making profits.
      • Stalled customer acquisition. Either because the market gets saturated, or because competitors come in and compete for customers. When the valuation is based on rapid customer growth, and that stalls, even reverts, bad things happen.
    • The right kind of Overnight Unicorns:
      • The power law in venture investing gains much of its power from the fact that companies creating new categories, tend to get an outsized percentage of the market and valuation multiple. If a company is truly creating a novel category, sometimes focusing on customer/market share is the right initial strategy when balanced with delivering innovation over time which delivers increasing value to the market.
      • A classic example of this is Facebook. They focused on fairly simple community technology at first and drove massive audience growth. When they went public they had barely turned on advertising. They kept up the innovation internal and through M&A (WhatsApp, Instagram, etc.) as the audience also grew. This pushed the company back into the Goldilocks stage.
  • The Science Project.
    • In this scenario, the company falls down a feature rathole or bites off a problem too expensive to solve within their funding window versus the value delivered. Valuation is driven by product progress, patents, hiring smart people, etc. rather than customer traction. One can also find cases where investors made returns with science projects, it is typically through acquisition by a company with access to customers rather than as a stand alone entity. There have also been spectacular flame outs when the end product could not profitably find a large enough market. Product development always costs more and takes longer than the budget, these deals can easily outrun their funding runway.
    • Examples include:
      • Virgin Galactic. The story has romantic appeal, the founder is charismatic, they have been at it for 10 years and don’t have a clear path to success. Even if they can successfully fly, how big is the market for space tourism really?
      • Nikola Motors. Another appealing story “The Tesla of trucks” with a charismatic founder. But building trucks is hard, they can’t decide on the fuel source, outsource most of the production, and there are weird accounting things. Oh and Tesla has its own commercial truck planned and a track record of delivering products (albeit a bit late).
      • Theranos. Sometimes when developing a very hard product, the pressure to show progress can be so great that companies actually lie to investors. Investors believed the made up progress and promise of big market. The product never worked. We know the ending.
      • Juiceroo. I was never lulled by the idea of a $400 juice box squeezer. Plenty others were. I love the hardware teardown which exposed how over-engineered the device was. Copious investor dollars spent to do something the human hand could do for free.
    • The primary risk in Science Projects include:
      • Overrunning the funding window. If you can’t ship a product on the capital you have raised, you depend on investors to believe more development will lead to a product in the future. Cost over runs can ruin a funding window.
      • Building the wrong product. Without customer feedback, engineers build what they think the market wants, or more typically what they want. There is often a dis connect.
      • Not getting final approvals. Many products, even if they work, require regulatory or market approvals to go on sale. Often companies don’t budget for this step correctly. Or the regulators require re-work, more tests, more trials, etc. driving up product development.
      • Scientist who can’t sell. Doing science and selling are very different worlds. When a product is finished and the company pivots to selling, many times they put the scientist in front of customers, which only works in certain industries. Managing product development is very different than managing sales. It is hard to be great at both.
      • Market changes during development. I was once an investor in a software company building an operating system for a new class of Intel network operating chips. The company had a contract with Intel to install the software on all chips. But Intel ran into manufacturing and scaling problems with the chips and canceled the project. No chip, no software, no possibility to pivot. More frequent is that someone else solves the hard problem in a different way, or before your product is finished and gets to market before you. Then you are not the innovative leader, you are following. Remember the Sony BetaMax which was way better than the VHS recorder? Didn’t matter, the VHS solved recording TV around the same time in a cheaper and more easy to use way. Problem solved, superior engineering be damned.
    • The right kind of Science Projects:
      • Science projects must eventually deliver a product that customers value, are willing to pay for, and that product must reach customers at a level which overcomes the development costs. There are typically two ways to achieve this:
        • Sell to a company with market access. This is the primary business model of biotech firms. Do science for years, then sell to big Pharma who has sales reps to reach the market and get regulatory approval. For a long time this was also the model in networking equipment. Make a new box, sell it to Cisco.
        • Get customers. The pivot from science project to selling is very hard. Companies that want to create a self-funding innovation machine need to good at both developing and selling products.
      • Be wary of companies that say their patents will be valuable and protect them. There are very few examples of patents creating long term value, too many ways to get around them with a different approach.
  • Is investing in Goldilocks Stage a guarantee?
    • No. But I have had better returns over time than any other stage. When writing a check into what they think is a Goldilocks stage, an investor must be right about three things:
      • Market trend. The size and shape of the market for the product. How it is growing, how to reach the market, etc.
      • Product innovation trend. Can the company build the product given the resources in the round you are investing in. What is the next product? Is there a pipeline?
      • Management ability. Can management find the right product/market fit within the funding window you are funding? Have they shown a proven ability to pivot and do what it takes to stay in the zone?
    • How to identify the Goldilocks Stage?
      • Spend 25 years angel investing, and you probably will be above average at it. It takes alot of investing in the wrong stage and behind the wrong signals to find the ones that correlate to returns over time. So, yea, make alot of mistakes and learn from them. At the highest level, spend your diligence time on the three areas you have to be right about, market, product, and management. And be right about the FUTURE trends in these areas, do not assume prior performance will continue into the future.
    • What can go wrong with Goldilocks phase?
      • You could be (and likely are) wrong about one or all three of the above. Product can stall. Market can stall. Management can fail to execute. Those risks are why you have the opportunity, if right, to make an outsized return.
      • Many companies start out one way then end up another or go in and out of the Goldilocks phase. Whenever a company presses too hard on one side of the equation at the expense of the other, stalls tend to happen. So ensure progress on both market and product growth while management stays focused on execution.
  • There is a Goldilocks Stage. It is the “just right” mix of customer traction and product innovation, both of which will continue to grow a meaningful amount during the funding window of the round you are funding. Invest in Brand or Science projects with caution and if you do, have a plan with management to move into the Goldilocks Stage. To follow along with deals Incisive Ventures believes are in the Goldilocks Stage, join us.

Definition of Probabilistic Terms

IV Probability terms decoder table

Have. you ever had a conversation with someone only to find out later that the two of you took away totally different meanings from the exact same conversation? I have found that many times the root of the dis-connect is different definitions of key qualifying terms used in the conversation. The same words can mean vastly different things to different people. This is especially true with words that qualify something in terms of a probable outcome: the Probability Terms. Explicitly stating your own numeric probability assignment for each of the “squishy” terms and communicating that to people ahead of time, can significantly reduce dis-connects and mis understandings. I found this helpful tool to do just that. They have a data set of a couple thousand responses, so the confidence interval of each term fairly represents the range of outcomes you would find in common conversation partners. Listed below are the numerical probabilities I personally assign to each general Probability Term commonly used.

Why this is important when talking about Investments? If I write in a deal memo there is a “Real Possibility” of the company closing a big deal in the next two quarters, what does that really mean? Based on the results of the Probability Survey, the common understanding of “Real Possibility” is between about 38% and 75% numerical probability. That is a huge range! If I am a 38% person talking to a 75% person, we are going to come away with vastly different understandings of the conversation. At Incisive Ventures when I write “Real Possibility”, I have assigned a 57% probability to the outcome. A “Serious Possibility” is 70%. If you ever have any question as to what the EXACT probability of an outcome is when we use one of these terms, please consult this post. Being precise is incisive.

These Probability Terms and the associated numerical probability values are a way to be precise about our opinions of potential outcomes base on our knowledge at the time we make the statement. Of course there is no guarantee we are right. There is always a greater than zero chance of different outcomes. Even when we say something may “Never” happen, we assign a 1% chance that it may. Investing is always a game of incomplete information with a variety of possible outcomes. While we endeavor to be precise, we do not have perfect information on how the future will unfold, no one does.

  • Incisive Ventures Probability Terms and associated numerical probabilities:
    • Term
      • Probability
    • Always
      • 99
    • Certainly
      • 97
    • Slam Dunk
      • 95
    • Almost Certainly
      • 93
    • Almost Always
      • 85
    • With High Probability
      • 80
    • Usually
      • 77
    • Often
      • 75
    • Serious Possibility
      • 70
    • Likely
      • 67
    • Frequently
      • 65
    • Probably
      • 60
    • Real Possibility
      • 57
    • More Often Than Not
      • 55
    • Possibly
      • 51
    • With Moderate Probability
      • 40
    • Maybe
      • 35
    • Might Happen
      • 33
    • Not Often
      • 30
    • Unlikely
      • 20
    • With Low Probability
      • 10
    • Rarely
      • 5
    • Never
      • 1

Announcing IV Scout Program

International Scout

Angel investing is a team sport. Many Limited Partners, Founders, friends across our larger network have asked how they can help bring the best companies to Incisive Ventures.  Our answer is the Incisive Ventures Upgraded Scout Program. 

When you help us source a great company we invest in, we share the carry and you get more money into a company you love.   Anyone can be a Scout, the only requirement is that we invest in a company you introduced to us that we didn’t otherwise know. We prefer seed and pre-seed, but will consider any stage and any geography as long as there is a good fit with our Meta Themes.

How to Scout for IV:

  • Send us an email making your incisive, personal case for why this investment meets our Meta Themes and would fit through our funnel. Be sure to include:
    1. The size of your personal check.
    2. 3-6 bullet points similar to the TL;DR section of our investment memos.
    3. Your personal insight to Management, product/market fit, traction, and co-investors. 
    4. Explain how the company fits into our Meta Themes, from your perspective.
  • We will review and tell you if we want to move forward typically within a week.

Benefits of being an IV Scout:

  • With the IV backing, you get more money and our value added network dedicated to companies you have a high degree of conviction on.
  • We share our syndicate carry as a success fee when we invest within 3 months of the introduction.

If you are connected to a great company that fits our Meta Themes and how we filter the funnel, send it over! Become an Incisive Ventures Scout. The team wins.

Incisive Ventures reserves the right to update terms and conditions for the Scout Program at any time. Current program details here.

PS: Another hat tip to Peter over at Unpopular Ventures for the inspiration of this syndicate upgrade.

PPS: Why a picture of a truck? I love them! International Harvester Scout.