Ev Williams talks up 'world positive' investments
You can’t really label Evan Williams as a social investor. But entrepreneurs pitching the Twitter co-founder’s Obvious Ventures require a "world positive" message to win his attention.
"We will limit ourselves to things we believe that will make a big impact," Williams, who is also CEO of social media site Medium, told attendees of VERGE 2015.
Right now, that includes a diverse set of 17 companies that are part of the first official Obvious Ventures fund, which raised $123,456,789. (That amount isn’t a joke, which is why I haven’t rounded it to please my editors.)
Among them are energy analytics company Enervee, which lets consumers compare efficiency ratings for appliances and other products; Google spinout Flux, creating tools (such as the Quartz database, demoed at VERGE Thursday) to help architects choose healthier building products; Beyond Meat, developing plant protein alternatives; Change.org, a now-famous site used by more than 80 million to share petitions advocating social change; and industrial biotech company Zymergen, using robotics to inspire new approaches for fermentation.
Obvious Ventures’ world view centers on three primary themes that seem "unobvious" to mainstream Silicon Valley investors, Williams said. They are:
Sustainable systems: Startups addressing the "planetary impact" of business models across agriculture, real estate and transportation.
Healthy living: Organizations that are advancing the benefits of wholesome eating and exercise.
People power: Services that drive digital democracy, including access to education and new idea from around the world.
Technically, Obvious Ventures has been around since 2007, when it incubated the business plan that eventually became Twitter. The firm opted for a more formal approach to investing last December, when Williams re-launched the fund in collaboration with James Joaquin, former CEO of digital lending platform Xoom, and Vishal Vasishth, a former senior executive with Revolution, the venture fund fun by Steve Case. (Incidentally, Obvious Ventures' Managing Director Andrew Beebe advised contestants of the VERGE Accelerate pitch competition Tuesday.)
Williams actually spends the bulk of his working hours as CEO of Medium, a blog publishing platform that offers "unique perspectives on ideas large and small."
Whereas Twitter rewards brevity, Medium encourages long-form expression, diverse points of view and dialogue. You won’t find the usual obsession with page views; Williams is more interested in lowering the barriers to thoughtful discourse. His platform is a centralize network with a built-in feedback mechanism. "I suppose I’m the eternal optimist, someone who believes we can use powerful tools to do good things," he said.
The site was thrust into the public view earlier this month when Amazon’s corporate affairs chief, Jay Carney, used it to "respond" to a controversial New York Times investigative report about the e-commerce giant’s workplace conditions. Later, the Times took to Medium in response.
"No matter who you believe in the matter, having multiple points of view always seems like a better thing than just one," Williams said.