Ask A VC: True Ventures’ Tony Conrad And Puneet Agarwal On The Hardware Renaissance, Enterprise Vs. Consumer Apps And More

ask a vc

True Ventures’ partners Tony Conrad and Puneet Agarwal joined me for Ask A VC in the studio this week, where we talked about a renaissance in the hardware industry (True has investments in a number of hardware startups including Fitbit and Makerbot).

Another topic we delved into was the whole enterprise vs. consumer issue, and whether there is an investor bias towards enterprise startups in the current market. Agarwal has led a number of early stage investments in enterprise SaaS companies, including Puppet Labs and Duo Security.  And we chatted about True’s recent investment in Blue Bottle Coffee. Check out the video above for more.

Voters back Egyptian constitution

Nearly two-thirds of voters in an Egyptian referendum held in two stages support a proposed new constitution, the election commission announces.

New York gunman left note declaring plan to kill people

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A gunman who killed two volunteer firefighters and wounded two others in a Christmas Eve ambush in upstate New York left a typewritten note saying he planned to burn down his neighborhood and start “killing people,” authorities said on Tuesday.

US firefighter gunman ‘left note’

A man alleged to have lured two US volunteer firefighters to their deaths in New York state left a long note outlining his plans, police say.

Scam iOS Maker Of The Day: Installous

Screen Shot 2012-12-25 at 3.14.03 PM

A kind reader woke us up this morning with a missive that made my blood boil: another scam iOS maker was, in an insult to the great Mojang itself, selling a scam version of Minecraft. The company, Installous, is selling something called Minecraft Mobile, a $2.99 app that actually produces a bunch of lines on the screen that flock around finger taps.

As a parent and lover of Minecraft, this is an absolute outrage. The Installous developer, Thoa Le, is also selling fake Springboard editors (really an alarm clock), fake lock screen apps, and an app that makes colorful backgrounds (but doesn’t really). As one French customer wrote “Ce n’est pas minecraft!” To that I would add “C’est la merde!”

To be clear, this is apparently not the same Installous pirate app found on Android.
Consider, then, this my good deed today: Apple, please shut down Installous. It’s a scam, a travesty, and an insult to those who strive to build great apps.

Richard (RJ) Eskow: For Wall Street ‘It’s Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Remington’

Despite an epidemic of gun deaths, the river of gun cash never stops flowing. If you follow that river upstream you’ll see that its source lies very close to Wall Street. And the river’s mouth speaks with the voice of politicians, whose campaign fundraising is undoubtedly taking place even on this supposedly holy day for most of them.

‘Tis the season to be lobbied.

“More than 50 firearms-related companies have given at least $14.8 million” to the National Rifle Association, Bloomberg News reports — and that’s just the money we know about. The NRA spent nearly $25 million in the last election cycle alone. True to form, the NRA’s chief said this week that we need more guns in the schools to end the killing of our children.

That’s like spreading a flu virus to stop an epidemic.

But Wayne LaPierre did his job. Everybody’s talking about how crazy he is. Nobody’s talking about how crazy we are for tolerating this situation – or how immoral our corporate class is for financing it.

Wall Street’s investments extend beyond the manufacturers themselves — to the NRA, and to all the other groups supporting the NRA’s nihilistic objective: the total elimination of any and all controls on even the deadliest of weapons. That includes ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which foments the “Stand Your Ground” reign of terror that so effectively distracts millions of Americans from the true source of their anxiety and hardship.

It’s working. As we reported after another gun tragedy this year, “Firearms and ammunition sales rose 45 percent between 2009 and 2010 alone.” And the tragedy of Newtown has been great for business all around the country. Just look at a sampling of headlines we’ve seen in the last week: “Tucson Gun Sales Surge After Newtown” (Arizona Daily Star). “New Hampshire sets record on background checks for gun sales after Newtown shootings” (Nashua Telegraph). “Local gun dealers see sales increase after Newtown tragedy” (Indianapolis local television).

Somebody’s making money from these tragedies. But who?

There’s hedge fund manager Steve Schwarzman, for one. His Blackstone Group advises the manufacturer of Colt handguns.  It was Schwarzman who likened the notion of ending his cushy tax breaks to “the invasion of Poland by Hitler in 1939.”

Information’s limited,  but other top hedge funds invested in gun manufacturers include Steelhead Partners, Renaissance Technologies, Route One Investment Company, Columbia Partners, Bogle Investment Management, and Millennium Management. Our review of the Open Secrets campaign database shows that Steelhead’s executives have contributed more than $330,000 to political campaigns since 1990, almost exclusively to Republicans.

Cerberus Capital owns the company whose gun killed children in Newton, and Daniel Gross reports that its leadership team includes former Vice President Dan Quayle and former Bush cabinet member John Snow. Cerberus founder Stephen Feinberg contributed “$100,000 in August to Friends of the Majority, a Republican super PAC; $9,800 to Rep. Ben Quayle (son of Dan); $30,800 to the Republican National Committee in October; $58,500 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and $7,500 to Mitt Romney.”

Feinberg and his associates cultivate a reputation for taking a very hands-on approach to their investment — “blocking and tackling” — which emphasizes cost cutting and efficiency. That makes it all but certain that they were fully aware of their investment’s lethal implications, especially once they reviewed the company’s insurance policies and risk management profile.

“As a firm, we are investors, not statesmen or policy makers,” Cerberus said in a statement after the shootings. “It is not our role to take positions, or attempt to shape or influence the gun control policy debate. That is the job of our federal and state legislators.”

In other words, we were only following orders — “buy” orders, “sell” orders…

The Cerberus gun that did the most damage was an “ACR,” or “Adaptive Combat Rifle.” Manufactured for civilian sales by subsidiary Bushmaster. Remington Arms, also likened to Freedom Group/Cerberus, manufactures the military version. “One Rifle, Many Missions,” boasts a Remington flyer. (The deaths of kindergartners is presumably not listed among them.)

Cerberus was reaping millions in profits from the taxpayer from its Pentagon sales through Remington, while Bushmaster catered to the Lanza family demographic. And now we learn that William Spengler, named by police as the killer of two firefighters in upstate New York, used the same Bushmaster ACR — a weapon he obtained despite his conviction for beating his grandmother to death with a hammer.

Tell me again: Why is it wrong to deny people like that the “right to bear arms”? If we had, two firefighters — including a 19-year-old dispatcher — might be alive today. On the other hand, Bushmaster might have lost a sale. And at a list price $2,685 (although it can be found for $1,500), who wants that?

Cerberus said it would sell its interests in Freedom Group to avoid being “drawn into the national policy debate.” It was also likely to lose tens of millions of dollars in investor cash for its fund, including $50 million from the New York state retirement fund. That probably had a more immediate impact on its decision.

That’s how we make change — not just with our votes, but with our wallets.

Michael Bloomberg has been a leading spokesperson for more than 700 mayors who’ve been pushing for sensible gun controls.   He rightly chastised the do-nothing attitude of Obama and the Democrats after July’s Colorado shooting, and mocked Mitt Romney for saying that the way to end gun violence is by “changing the heart of the American people.”

How are we going to change our hearts when so much is invested in keeping them hardened?

Now the Death Lobby’s insisting that the problem — the only problem — is mental illness. But it’s odd: The ones blaming mental illness are usually the same people who block funds for the treatment of mental illness.

In Greek mythology Cerberus is the three-headed dog who guards the gate of Hades. One head stares into Hell to make sure nobody escapes, while another looks back at the world of the living and the third looks toward the future. It’s time to look away from the inferno, to escape from a hell in which kindergartners are target practice and firefighters are prey.

In this holiday season it’s worth remembering the words of Moses, a key prophetic figure in the three Abrahamic religions:

“I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” 

M6 crash kills two boys and woman

Two brothers aged four and 10 and a woman are killed, and two other women are seriously injured in a crash on the M6 between junctions 14 and 15 in Staffordshire.

Dean Baker: There Is No Santa Claus and Bill Clinton Was Not an Economic Savior

The truth is often painful but nonetheless it is important that we live in the real world. Just as little kids have to come to grips with the fact that there is no Santa Claus, it is necessary for millions of liberals, including many who think of themselves as highly knowledgeable about economic matters, to realize that President Clinton’s policies sent the economy seriously off course.

In Washington it is common to tout the budget surpluses of the Clinton years as some momentous achievement, as though the point of economic policy is to run budget surpluses. Of course the point of economic policy is to produce an economy that improves the lives of the people in a sustainable way. Clinton badly flunked this test.

The Clinton economy was driven by a stock bubble. This is not a debatable point. The ratio of market-wide stock prices to corporate earnings was well over 30 to 1 at the peak of the bubble in 2000. This is more than twice the historic average.

This run-up in stock prices drove the economy in two ways. First, since any good huckster could make millions selling shares in dot.whatever, we had many hucksters starting nutball businesses that never had a prayer of making a profit. This is not much of a long-run economic strategy, but in the short-term it led to an increase in investment.

The other way that the bubble drove the economy is through the wealth effect on consumption. The run-up in stock prices generated roughly $10 trillion in bubble wealth. The wealth effect from stock is usually estimated to be 3-4 cents on the dollar. This would mean that the bubble generated between $300 billion to $400 billion annually in additional consumption. This would have been 3-4 percent of GDP at the time ($480 billion to $560 billion annually in today’s economy). This is born out in the Commerce Department’s data which show that the saving rate fell from close to 7 percent at the start of the 1990s to around 2.0 percent at the peak of the bubble in 2000.

This was the economy that President Clinton handed to President Bush in January of 2001. It was an economy that was being carried by an unsustainable bubble that, in fact, already was in the process of deflating at the time Bush took office. The S&P 500 was more than 10 percent below its 2000 peak and the NASDAQ was down by more than 40 percent on the day that Bush took office. This pretty much guaranteed the recession that began in March of 2001 just as the collapse of the housing bubble placed President Obama in the middle of terrible recession in January of 2009.

The 2001 recession was the main reason that the surplus vanished in the 2002 fiscal year. Directing tax cuts to the wealthy was a foolish policy response to the downturn, but it was reasonable to turn to fiscal stimulus following the collapse of the stock bubble, just as it was reasonable for President Obama to turn to fiscal stimulus following the collapse of the housing bubble. The Bush tax cuts did provide a boost to the economy, although they would have provided a larger boost if this money had been directed at moderate and middle income people or devoted to long-term investments like education and infrastructure.

The growth of the housing bubble eventually provided the boost needed to recover from the 2001 recession, just as the stock bubble propelled growth in the 1990s. As the economy got back near full employment in 2006 and 2007, the deficits shrank to sustainable levels.

However, while the deficits were sustainable in the later years of the Bush presidency, the housing bubble was not. Its collapse gave us the most predictable economic disaster in human history, even if all our top economists somehow didn’t see it.

To have a sustainable growth path we have to reverse one of the other central policies of the Clinton years, the over-valued dollar. This policy, which was put in place when Robert Rubin became Treasury Secretary, ensured that we would have large trade deficits. The trade deficits were good news for Wall Street with its obsession over inflation. It was also good news for companies looking to move operations overseas to take advantage of cheap labor.

However, the high dollar was terrible news for the country’s workers, who were placed at an enormous competitive disadvantage. It resulted in the loss of more than 4 million manufacturing jobs. It was also bad news for anyone who doesn’t think that bubbles are a clever way to drive the economy.

Rubin and his allies control the Democratic Party with their money at the moment. Their financial power will not be easily overcome. However, it is important that people understand that the Rubin-Clinton team is every bit as much about redistributing money from the rest of us to the very rich as the Republicans.

The big difference is that, unlike the Republicans, the Rubin-Clinton crew believes that the rich should have to pay their taxes. That’s something, but until there is someone in this debate who isn’t pushing policies that redistribute before-tax income upward, the vast majority in this country can only lose.