Startups for the Time Rich

I attended a panel a couple of weeks ago on the topic of backing ventures that appeal to Gen Y, and it got me thinking about the VC generation gap ever since.

Broadly speaking the Millennial Generation, or Gen Y, refers to people born between the early 80s and the mid-90s. That is, those who came of age in a time of ubiquitous cell phones and high-speed Internet. Unlike cynical, grunge-chic Generation X (my own demographic pigeonhole), who still remember life before cable TV, millennials are supposed to be all about technology. After all, these were the people who learned type at the same time they learned how to write.

Given that most VCs tend to be Gen X at the youngest – and typically full-fledged Baby Boomers – the question of how to select ventures that will appeal to the tastes of a demographic gorged on free digital content is a perplexing one. Though the panel assembled some of the youngest-looking VCs in Silicon Valley even they weren’t sure they were getting it. Jeremy Liew, managing director, Lightspeed Venture Partners, summed up the dilemma as follows: “The behavior of the time-poor as opposed to the time-rich can be very, very different… Millennials are actually looking for things that will fill time.”

Granted, older generation investors, for all their talk of busy work schedules, still find time-fillers such as redundant Blackberry e-mail scans every two minutes. But there is a difference between a true time-sink activity (that is, one that both appears to waste time and succeeds in doing so) and an activity that is meant to seem productive, even if in reality it accomplishes nothing. The former is better suited to those who actually have time to spare, rather than those who are merely procrastinating work they’re supposed to be doing.

I’m noticing the time-rich theme showing up in a number of new ventures. For example, the fastest-growing Top 10 app on Facebook currently is Farmville, a virtual farm game developed by social gaming startup Zynga, which basically involves growing virtual food, acquiring livestock, and building a pretty-looking farm. Nothing wrong with that, but, given the amount of game-play required to get, say, a virtual horse, it’s also an activity for the time-rich. While Farmville is currently in number 3 position, according to the website All Facebook, it’s joined in the top ten by another agri-themed game, FarmTown, which clocks in at Number 8.

Another startup that announced its Series A today – FashionPlaytes – also falls into the time-rich category. The Salem, Mass. Company, which announced a $1.5 million Series A round this week, led by New Atlantic Ventures and LaunchCapital, targets Tween girls and runs a site that offers “the tools and a platform to create and design garments and accessories that can actually be produced to wear.” Clearly this is a group for who shopping alone is not time-consuming enough.

Luckily for investors and older entrepreneurs, Liew says, it’s not necessary to read the minds of millennials or risk vast sums in figuring out what strategy to follow. In the online world, it’s so cheap to start a company now that you don’t have to rely on your instincts to see if it’ll appeal. You can wait and see.