“Do you know where we are?” asked Milo.

“Certainly,” he replied, “we’re right here on this very spot. Besides, being lost is never a matter of not knowing where you are; it's a matter of not knowing where you aren't – and I don’t care at all about where I’m not."

Investing in Internet-Enabled Education

There’s no reason why 30 students should sit in a classroom and be lectured on the same thing at the same time at the same pace when everyone learns differently. There’s no reason why the tens of thousands of algebra classes are each being reinvented right now across the country by teachers of variable skill levels. There’s no reason why college students should go into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for courses and a diploma that may not take them where they want to go. And there’s no reason why teachers should waste time conveying materials that can easily be found online, when instead they could be inspiring students to be curious, discover themselves, and apply what they learn.

Despite how huge the education market is (estimated at $750b in the US alone), many VCs are afraid to invest in ed-tech because there was a lot of ‘road kill’ in the space after the dot-com bust. But much has changed in the past decade: the addressable market has expanded dramatically (10x more people are online, have 10x as fast connections, and are connected at least 10x as much), and we’ve recently seen a proliferation of internet-enabled mobile devices, data storage and processing innovations, and the spread of open source content that have brought about great efficiencies in content distribution, consumption, and production.

The importance of the Internet in changing education is more relevant than ever: we continue to move from a manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge-based economy at a rapid pace, yet our school system is still stuck in the Industrial Revolution

There are a great diversity of opportunities to innovate in the education realm. On the learning side, we need to create new ways to make it:

  1. Fun. All physics lessons should be as fun as Angry Birds.
  2. Ubiquitous. I should be able learn anywhere and everywhere, taking full courses on my iPhone or any other device.
  3. Adaptive / Customized. Machines should learn how I learn and teach in a way that works best for me.  

And on the accreditation side we need to find ways to get people credit (/certified) for practical skills they enjoy in a much faster, cheaper, and more accessible way than is provided by the accreditation bodies who hold a monopoly on the education system today.

I’m not arguing that we should try to overhaul the current system and force schools to adopt new technology and ideas, but rather that if we create compelling learning and teaching products outside of the school system we can push change from the outside, in.

Some Inspiration:

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Areas of Interest

I’ve noticed that most VCs apply a “thematic" or sector-focused approach to their investing, because in theory it allows for deeper knowledge of a given space, and by extension an ability to pick the winners in that space with greater accuracy.  I don’t have decades of experience in any specific field (except perhaps in causing headaches for teachers and my parents), so defining an area of focus for myself is difficult, and at the moment entirely dependent on where my network is strongest.

Given a desire to begin to specialize in new areas of interest, I’ve recently been thinking about four interlocking themes that I’d like to spend some time getting to know better:

Areas of Interest

1. True Mobility. Today many of us take for granted the fact that most of the data we use and manipulate on a daily basis now fits in our pocket. As time goes on, the amount of data we’re able to interact with on the go will exponentially increase, reducing the need for stationary and physical hardware.  Your phone (/pocket device) will soon be the conduit for just about everything: medical records, virtual currency, your office, etc.  You’ll be able to wirelessly link your phone to any machine to provide a secure conduit to access the cloud or other local apps. Many of these technologies already exist in one form or another today, but their distribution and functionality will continue to expand as startups attempt to meet a growing demand for mobile consumption.

2. Information Overload. A significant chuck of my day is spent sorting, sifting, reading, and deleting data, whether that be emails, blog articles, advertisements, or market reports.  It’s distracting at best, and a serious drain on productivity and efficiency at worst.  And the amount of data I will continue to consume on a daily basis is certainly not decreasing.  Solutions like OtherInbox and Gist are beginning to address this growing problem, but significant innovation in this space is going to be necessary in the coming years to help us deal with the increasing openness and speed of data flow.

3. Security in the Cloud. As a rapidly expanding amount of our data is stored in central locations in the cloud, innovation on methods of protecting that data from deletion and theft are going to be increasingly important. Security companies are disadvantaged in that they must be reactive and attempt to “guard the fort” from creative adversaries who in many cases have nothing to lose.  Startups are needed to create new methods of processing and storing data that, among other things, decentralize the data and make it more difficult to target.

4. Technology Exchange. There are many technologies we use every day that would greatly improve the lives of those in third world countries, who are dependent on less stable infrastructure, and there are many innovations that have been created specifically for those countries that could greatly benefit us.  Examples include the recent advances in mobile communications networks, mobile banking, drug delivery, and renewable, low-cost energy production.  I’m very interested in seeing what this space has to offer over the next few years.

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In The End It’s All Guesswork

…So investors generally work with people they like. (A great comment from Naval on Venture Hacks.)

The past year at Penny Black, a new venture capital firm in New York, has been a fantastic and eye-opening experience. As I learn more and more about the VC side of the table, however, one thing that continues to nag at me is the difficulty in learning what makes a good startup investment in a sea of great ideas and great entrepreneurs.

It doesn’t help that the traditional exit horizon (when you learn if you have succeeded or failed) for a venture capital investment is generally 3 to 5, or even 7 to 9 years, making it very difficult to quickly learn from your mistakes. My only consolation is that it seems like this issue plagues much of the venture capital world, as evidenced by the poor returns the industry has faced over the past decade.

I can see many reasons for this: Defining Pia broader asymmetry of information in young companies, a lack of data in new markets, and the fact that there are too many variables and not enough hard numbers in startup companies. I’m not complaining though - if you were able to make a science out of venture capital, the profession largely wouldn’t exist, at least not in its current form.

Though lately I feel like due diligence on a startup is similar to trying to define pi – you keep getting endlessly closer to an answer with more and more data and research, until finally you’re forced to make a simple gut decision.

Given this, if you want to be funded I’m convinced that it’s most important to just be a generally nice and friendly person. Everything else is simply signaling.

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Juventas Fugit  is designed and written by Justin Wohlstadter, who, when not writing in the third person, can be found in a coffee shop talking about startups, thinking about the future of education, and generally procrastinating something important.

  • Passions: startups that positively affect the world, education innovation, good design, learning, and meeting those with an equally insatiable curiosity.
  • Play: building new ways for people to connect and explore knowledge at Wayfinder.
  • Previously: was director of product design at Enterproid (acquired by Google). Before that I built the early-stage venture arm of Penny Black and co-founded BOLDstart Ventures, where I was lucky enough to invest in some awesome startups including Rapportive (acquired by Linkedin), Blaze (acquired by Akamai), GoInstant (acquired by Salesforce), Klout (acquired by Lithium), Enterproid (acquired by Google), IndieGoGo and many more. And before all of this I was involved in a bunch of other crazy, less successful startup ventures involving fire extinguishers, measuring philanthropic impact, and creative spaces.
  • Pedantry: most of the important stuff I taught myself or learned from friends, but I’m fortunate to have also (barely received) degrees from Harvard and Oxford. At Oxford I wrote my dissertation on how internet innovation will disrupt access to higher education.
  • Procrastination: can be found on Twitter, Linkedin, AngelList and other web spaces, and be reached via email at my first name at this domain.
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