How charging for our product originally hurt — but ultimately saved — our startup

Five years ago, my co-founder Claire McDonnell and I founded True Link Financial, and did two things that that were totally unorthodox for the time.

First, we didn’t build a startup for teenagers.

We built it for seniors. (We’re a financial services firm that offers debit and Visa cards and investments management for aging Americans.)

Secondly, we charged our customers actual, real money for what we had built.

This was not common practice at the time. Around 2012, we and a whole cohort of other startups — Simple, Plastc, Swyp, Coin, Final, Stratos, Clinkle, and others — were getting card-issuing companies off the ground.¹ We also launched a Visa card — but our goal was to protect older folks from fraud, a $36 billion problem that affects millions of Americans, including my grandmother. Our cards would automatically decline scammy transactions so seniors like my grandmother would be able to still carry a credit card, preserve their independence, and spend their own money — and in order to decline the transactions we had to become the issuer of the card.²

Investing in the future of retail with Standard Cognition: Bringing real time computer vision to all brick-and-mortar stores

Standard Cognition is building the retail experience of the future, where you just walk out to pay for whatever you’re carrying out of a store. It’s seamless, checkout-less shopping for consumers and retailers all over the country.

We’re proud to announce that we just joined Charles River Ventures and Y Combinator in backing the company through an initial $5 million round.

In their first proof of concept, they use cameras to identify who walks in, what goods they’re carrying and what they ultimately purchase. All of these processes are handled on-site at the local store using computer vision techniques Standard Cognition is developing.

The most interesting innovations happen when technology cost curves hit magic levels where they become possible in new packages for the first time. Realtime computer vision with off-the-shelf GPUs has just reached that level now, and we are excited that this team is bringing it to reality today.

The team has not only founded a company together before, it has three PhDs in mathematics and nuclear science and its CEO Jordan Fisher led a team at the Securities and Exchange Commission developing quantitative tools that could make sense of the agency’s data.

For retailers, this will lead to reduced prices, no lines, better stocked shelves and fewer misplaced items. Every year, retailers lose $45 billion to theft, so even before the holy grail of checkout-without-lines, Standard Cognition can make a huge dent in anti-theft in a way existing solutions have only dreamed.

Technology cost curves unlocking new capability is only half of it. To bring amazing tech to market, you also have to have a strong business motivation to do it, and frankly we’re there today. Traditional American retailers face an oncoming crisis as e-commerce continues to take mindshare and revenue directly from brick-and-mortar retail. Standard Cognition is such a powerfully better customer experience that this is the kind of thing that goes from cool to must-have in very short order.

Instacart’s Lead Product Designer on Creating A Design System


Jordan Staniscia tried — and claims he failed — multiple times to create a single, re-usable design system for all of Instacart’s visuals, icons and interactions over many years at the company. 

We at Initialized Capital frequently get asked about how startups should create style guides that define the brand identities of their companies, and so we asked Staniscia to share some lessons with portfolio companies this week. 

So, first off, what is a “design system”? 

Staniscia prefers to use the word “system” because it implies that this is something re-usable; it’s a framework. Design systems are, in Josh Clark of Big Medium’s words, “containers for institutional knowledge.” 

It sits between the design and engineering teams as a common language that helps them stay on the same page. Otherwise, designers will end up in a situation where they have to explain their product vision over and over again and engineers will have a hard time ensuring they’re building an efficient system. 

How to Use Your Alexa to Control Your Home Devices, Water Your Plants or Even Feed Your Cat

By day I'm a general partner at Initialized Capital helping founders and investing in startups. But I've never given up my hunger to build things and hack on projects in my spare time. So in that spirit, I wanted to share a quick tutorial:

In this tutorial, we'll walk through the basics of how to set up an Alexa Skill to control a Raspberry Pi or Arduino. Instead of having to water your plants with a button or turn off your lights with an app you just tell Alexa what to do and it will relay to your device. There’s a whole host of robot minions you can build (more tutorials coming soon!) but with this one I’ll demonstrate the very basic functionality and how to bridge Arduino and Raspberry Pi with Alexa. The tutorial is intended for engineers and should take about an hour.