Suicide, Cancer, and Community

At the end of the day yesterday I gave a talk at the opening of Galvanize Boulder. After, during the Q&A, someone brought up depression and I went on a long ramble about my own struggles over the years, how I’ve grown and developed, how it has impacted me, and what I do today to work on my mental fitness. During another ramble on introvert / extrovert, I told the crowd I was exhausted from the past few weeks and rather than stick around and mingle, I was going to head home to spend a quiet evening with Amy immediately after my session because I needed to recharge.

I got home by 6:30 to a nice bowl of rice and beans that Amy had made. We ate and caught up on the day. While we were talking, she said “Francie Anhut died.” I sat for a moment. I knew Francie had cancer. I didn’t have any words. Francie was one of the first people I met when I moved to Boulder and our paths had crossed many times. We weren’t super close, but we were supportive of many things Francie did and I was always happy whenever we saw each other.

Amy then mentioned two other Boulder people we both knew who had died in the past month of cancer. More silence. We talked about a close friend of Amy’s who is in remission from a major cancer and is doing amazingly well. We talked about how fragile life is and how happy we are to be alive and with each other.

We then filled out our ballots and voted. We mail in our votes in Boulder so we sat for about thirty minutes, went through each issue and person, and voted deliberately. By 8:00, we were both totally exhausted.

“Do you want to read, watch TV, or catch up on email?” I asked.

“I want to go to sleep.”

“Ok – let’s just do a quick scan of email and call it a night.”

As we were sitting in our library in front of our computers, we each half heartedly scanned through our email. This email was marked 7:22pm so it arrived around the time we were working on our ballots and was titled “Another recent suicide & sabbatical.”

“Was thinking about your sabbatical
Today as I am just now coming out of a fog post Denver Startup Week and GAN Rally. I’m realizing the impact and exhaustion I feel this time of the year, after those events. The sabbatical is something I see in this moment as a great idea to integrate in the future post Denver startup week.

Hate to keep sending you this news, but I know you’re someone taking action on mental health and entrepreneurship.

I just heard of a husband and wife team who took their lives next week. He was an integral part of the entrepreneurial community here in Colorado.

From Greg Barry: local in Boulder. I am in total shock. A friend and business partner, Kevin Johansen, along with his wife, Karen, took his life last week. I still can’t believe it’s true, even though his son and sister have posted about it online. I’ve known Kevin for 20 years, and we spoke every 3-6 months, if not every day, when we were working together.”

It was longer so I finished reading it. I started silently crying. I turned to Amy and said “I don’t think you know him, but Kevin Johansen and his wife Karen committed suicide recently. He was an entrepreneur in town.”

Amy’s whole being slumped in her chair. I could see her deflate. I realized that I had no capacity to process this given how tired I was, the conversation we had throughout the evening, the act of voting in what is easily the most angry, hostile, and disturbing election cycle I’ve experienced, and the notion that I was still absorbing that Francie and two other people I knew had died.

I don’t really remember getting in bed. I mechanically brushed my teeth but I think that was it. When I woke up this morning, the first thing I thought of was Kevin Johansen.

His family is doing a Johansen Memoriam Fund via GoFundMe to support funeral expenses. I just went and made a gift as a contribution from the Boulder startup community. If you’ve benefit from the local startup community, which Kevin and Karen gave so much of themselves to, please make any size contribution.

Most importantly, spend at least a minute today taking a deep breath and realizing life is fragile and precious.

Dan Primack’s Next Newsletter

If you are a VC then you know Dan Primack. You also probably know that yesterday was the last day he wrote his magnificent daily newsletter The Term Sheet. It’s been a daily read of mine for – well – as long as I can remember. So I was delighted to see this tweet from Dan first thing this morning.


I will now have five things that I read every day to get coverage of the VC and deal landscape in my world.

The only other daily / continuous information I get is Techmeme River (which streams into a Slack channel) and Google Alerts on all the companies we are investors in. There’s plenty more in my RSS Reader (Feedly) including my VC feed but I don’t look at that daily.

Dan – congrats on the new gig. And thanks for continuing to do a newsletter!

We Need More Entrepreneurs In Congress

As we come to the end of a particularly noisy and contentious election cycle, a thought echoes over and over in my mind – we need more entrepreneurs in Congress. As I continue to believe that innovation and entrepreneurship are the key drivers to our economic future, it’s frustrating to hear such little cogent discussion around it.

I recently got a call from a long time friend, Martin Babinec. Martin is running for Congress in Upstate New York (District 22) as an Independent. We met in 1991 when Martin had just started his company (TriNet – now a public company) and Feld Technologies (my first company) was a dozen people. We’ve been friends ever since and when he told me he was running for Congress, I smiled, gave him feedback, and listened to his reasoning.

He recently did a debate with his two other candidates at Colgate University. It was sent to me yesterday and I watched it last night in the background as I was grinding through email. It was incredibly refreshing after watching each of the presidential debates. Martin did a great job and reminded me why I think more people like Martin should be in Congress.

When I think of his background compared to the other candidates, and how he ended up running for Congress, it’s a powerful narrative. He moved his family back to his home town of Little Falls NY in 1999 to be closer to his parents (and his kids grandparents) and then commuted to Silicon Valley for 11 years while running TriNet. He saw first hand how the lack of new, innovative companies caused some of the best talent in Upstate New York to leave – and decided to do something about it.

In 2010 Martin started a non-profit called Upstate Venture Connect with a mission is to connect first time entrepreneurs in new industries with the resources who can help them across the entire Upstate NY region. He helped launch six seed capital funds, three college accelerator programs, the StartFast Venture Accelerator. He engaged deeply in his startup community and was one of the leaders.

When he called me about running for Congress, my first question to him was “why are you doing this?” He was clear – he’s frustrated with hearing politicians talk about creating jobs and then repeating the failed corporate welfare strategies of the past as they hope for a different result. His goal was to shift the discussion and resources towards fostering an environment that supports local innovative companies and a thriving startup community over attracting businesses to the region. Ultimately, he thinks – as do I – that this is the best long term approach to creating vibrant economies.

Rather than play into the existing political infrastructure in New York, Martin did what any great entrepreneur does and started a new political party. He’s running as an independent, having created the Upstate Jobs Party.

I hope Martin gets elected – I know he’d be a strong, thoughtful, capable, and disciplined member of Congress. He’s an incredibly hard worker, which I respect immensely. And he’s a critical thinker, capable of listening and learning about things he’s being exposed to for the first time.

District 22 covers a big area in the middle of Upstate New York (roughly Utica to just east of Syracuse and south to Binghamton.) If you are in this region, I strongly encourage you to support Martin Babinec for Congress!

We Were Right – Just a Decade Early

This is a line my friend Jerry Colonna uses when something like the AT&T – Time Warner deal occurs. As time passes, the line has shifted to “We were right – just fifteen years early.”

Jerry was Fred Wilson‘s partner at Flatiron Partners. We were all investing in Internet-related stuff at the end of the 1990s. Jerry and Fred had one of the most successful VC funds during this time period until the Internet bubble burst and blew us all up for a while. We made plenty of investments together and I sat on a number of boards with Jerry – we had some big winners and a handful of craters in the ground.

At the peak, AOL bought Time Warner for $162 billion. We only know that was the peak in hindsight – at the time it looked like it validated a lot of what we were doing by investing in the Internet.

“This merger will launch the next Internet revolution,” said Steve Case, America Online’s chairman and chief executive, told a news conference Monday. “We’re still just scratching the surface.”

The market responded according to plan.

“Analysts expect competing Internet and entertainment companies to seek similar deals in hopes of keeping pace with AOL and Time Warner, and some of those stocks also got a lift Monday. Disney jumped $4.81 1/4 to $35.93 3/4 and News Corp. rose $7.31 1/4 to 45.06 1/4 on the NYSE. Lycos leaped $9 to $79.75 and Yahoo! climbed $28.81 1/4 to $436.06 1/4 on the Nasdaq Stock Market.”

Yup – you saw that correctly, Yahoo was at $436 / share. I think it split 2:1 twice, which would have made it priced at $109 / share. It’s currently at $42 / share so if I got the splits right, after its collapse in 2001 to a low of around $5 / share it took it 15 years to claw its way back to $42 / share (a 10x from the low, 40% of its high at the peak.)

Ponder Gartner’s Hype Cycle for a moment. You can apply this to pretty much anything in tech.

Gartner Hype Cycle

2000 was the Peak of Inflated Expectations. 2002 was the Trough of Disillusionment.

Now, choose any new and exciting technology now. Apply Gartner’s Hype Cycle to it. Ponder where you end up.

Steve Case wrote a book earlier this year called The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future. In addition to looking forward to the future, Steve uses his lessons from the past to explore how things play out. It spans the time frame from 1985 – 2015 which you can just lay down on the Gartner Hype Cycle.

  • 1985 – 1994 was the initial entrepreneurial Grind
  • 1995 – 2000 was the climb up to the Peak
  • 2001 – 2002 was the collapse to the Trough
  • 2003 – 2012 was the climb to Enlightenment
  • 2013 forward has been the plateau of Productivity

In the context of this, the AT&T – Time Warner deal seems extremely well timed and relevant. Now it’s all about execution.

Consider any of Apple / Google / GM / Ford buying Tesla. Where does that fall on Gartner’s Curve? How about the auto industry. Or drones. Or what people are currently calling AI. Or – well – keep going.

One of the biggest challenges in tech is not being right. It’s being ten or fifteen years too early.

Techstars in Kansas City

Yesterday Techstars announced the launch of Techstars Kansas City. This is a city-based horizontal accelerator similar to the ones we have in Boulder, Boston, Seattle, Austin, New York City, London and Berlin. Applications open in January 2017 and the program will run in July 2017.

I have a long history with Kansas City. I almost grew up in Kansas City, as the two cities my parents looked at when moving from Boston were Kansas City and Dallas (they chose Dallas.) In the mid to late 1990s, I was an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Kauffman Foundation working with Jana Matthews on “learning programs for high growth entrepreneurs.” During this time, Jana and I initiated a deep partnership between the Kauffman Foundation and YEO (the Young Entrepreneurs Organization). I spent about a day a month in Kansas City, during which time I developed a deep respect for the Kauffman Foundation, Ewing Marion Kauffman (Mr. K), and his value system around entrepreneurship and philanthropy.

In 2013 when Google announced that Kansas City would be the first city in the country to have Google Fiber, I bought a house in the first neighborhood that was being wired up with Google’s gigabit Internet. This was inspired by Ben Barreth, who was the first person to buy a house in the neighborhood and turn it into a hacker house. Lesa Mitchell, at that time at the Kauffman Foundation, found the house for me and did all the on the ground work for me. Later in 2013, Techstars and Sprint launched the Sprint Accelerator, which Techstars ran for three years.

As a result of this activity, Kansas City has become an important startup city in Techstars network. Earlier this year we started talking more about our long term view for our involvement in the Kansas City Startup Community and recruited Lesa Mitchell to lead the effort for us as the Managing Director of Techstars Kansas City.

I giggle with joy when I think about working with Lesa closely again. There’s a long list of things we did together when she was at the Kauffman Foundation, we share very similar visions for startup communities, and – well – she’s just dynamite.

I’m going to be in Kansas City on Monday for the Kauffman Fellows Reunion VC Summit and the 20th anniversary of the Kauffman Fellows Program. I joined the Kauffman Fellows board last month (more on that in a post soon) and David Cohen (Techstars co-CEO) and I are doing an event Tuesday afternoon about what Techstars is doing next in Kansas City. Come join us if you are in town and interested.