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Steve Case and Clara Sieg on how the COVID-19 crisis differs from the dot-com bust

Steve Case and Clara Sieg of Revolution recently spoke on TechCrunch’s new series, Extra Crunch Live. Throughout the hour-long chat, we touched on numerous subjects, including how diverse founders can take advantage during this downturn and how remote work may lead to growth outside Silicon Valley. The pair have a unique vantage point, with Steve Case, co-founder and former CEO of AOL

turned VC, and Clara Sieg, a Stanford-educated VC heading up Revolution’s Silicon Valley office.

Together, Case and Sieg laid out how the current crisis is different from the dot-com bust of the late nineties. Because of the differences, their outlook is bullish on the tech sector’s ability to pull through.

And for everyone who couldn’t join us live, the full video replay is embedded below. (You can get access here if you need it.)

Case said that during the run-up to the dot-com bust, it was a different environment.

“When we got started at AOL, which was back in 1985, the Internet didn’t exist yet,” Case said. “I think 3% of people were online or online an hour a week. And it took us a decade to get going. By the year 2000, which is sort of the peak of AOL’s success, we had about half of all the U.S. internet traffic, and the market value soared. That’s when suddenly, when any company with a dot-com name was getting funded. Many were going public without even having much in the way of revenues. That’s not we’re dealing with now.”

Venture partner Sieg agreed, pointing to the number of funds currently available in the venture capital asset class. Unlike twenty years ago, the current crisis happened during a period of steady expansion when funding and valuations were based on unsubstantiated future growth. Because of this, funds and startups are in a better position to make it to the other side of this pandemic, she said.

Sieg pointed to one of Revolution Venture’s portfolio companies, Mint House, which aims to build a better temporary housing experience for business travelers. The company raised $15 million in May 2019, and according to Sieg, it focused on being capital-efficient from the start instead of chasing growth for its own sake. She said the company went from almost 90% occupancy to zero overnight and yet now, after a slight pivot, it’s back to a 60-65% occupancy rate by moving quickly to providing housing to healthcare workers.

The company’s strong balance sheet gave it room to pivot, she said.

And yet there are challenges. Sieg pointed out that for the first time in Revolution’s history, the firm’s funds are investing without meeting founder teams in person. It’s a longer process than the old way, she said, though noted that it levels the playing field for founders outside of the traditional circle. Investors have more time on their hands now, so she encourages founders to be persistent and keep reaching out for virtual meetings.

“I think it is important to take advantage of this time where you have people sitting around with more availability on their calendars and more willingness to engage,” Sieg said. “The nice thing about removing some of the in-person components is there’s a stronger focus on market opportunity, product and company, and the real metrics that [founders] can show. Removing some of that person-to-person noise and just focusing on the business means that a lot of these biases are going to be overcome.”

The pair said they believe some companies will have a strong tailwind coming out of this crisis. Case and Sieg pointed to trends that are rapidly accelerating: e-commerce, telehealth and direct-to-consumer companies. In this new environment, Case said location will matter more than ever. While he points out there are many smart people in Silicon Valley, there’s a reason why, for example, Monsanto is in St. Louis. “Some of the smartest people around healthtech are in Minneapolis where UnitedHealth is, or Rochester, Minnesota where Mayo is, or with MD Anderson in Texas or in Ohio with Cleveland Clinic or Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.”

“There are also specific categories that resonate now more than ever,” Sieg said. “We’re investors in a company called Bright Cellars that ships wine to your house. Obviously, people are staying at home, and they’re drinking a lot more. And [Bright Cellars] has been positively impacted by [stay-at-home orders] from a revenue perspective. There’s a company like Bloomscape, which is in Detroit, Michigan, and they’ve had their challenges with keeping their supply chain up and running, but they managed to do so. People are finding a lot of comfort in gardening and taking care of plants because it is something that can be done at home and feel like you’re engaged with something that’s alive, and you see the progression when you’re stuck at home.”

Steve Case is looking at founders who are managing today, but also imagining for the future. One example is Clear, he said, which fast-tracked the development of a flight pass for healthcare workers. And now, when people start flying again, the company will return to its strong core business while having additional momentum around this new business that provides passes to hospitals and arenas. This wouldn’t have happened if it was not for this crisis, Case said.

“I think [the COVID-19 crisis] is one of those shake-the-snowglobe moments where things are being reassessed,” Case said, “and one of the areas I think it’s going to accelerate is what I’ve called the ‘third wave of the internet.’”

Case explained he wrote about this new phase a few years ago in his book, aptly titled “The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future.” According to Case’s thesis, the first wave was when AOL and other providers were introducing and onboarding users to the Internet. The second wave was when apps and software could be created using existing infrastructure. And now, according to this thought, the internet is meeting the real world with new solutions. The current crisis is accelerating the development of telehealth, smart cities, and industries in regulated sectors.

“Perseverance is going to matter more,” Case said. “The tough problems don’t lend themselves to overnight successes. It’s going to be a slog, and kind of like AOL of a 10-year in the making overnight success.”

The dot-com bust upended a lot of startups, and the COVID-19 crisis will do the same though with different results.

“The third wave of the Internet is when the Internet meets the real world, Steve Case said. “It’s things like health care, food, smart cities, and many other areas that haven’t changed much in the first and second waves that are going to change a lot in the third wave. We believe it’s going to be a different playbook.”


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