As Sean Wise and I roll through the Canadian edition of our tour for our latest book, Startup Opportunities: Know When to Quit Your Day Job, we’ve been talking a lot about the starting point of one’s entrepreneurial journey. I’ve talked about mine intermittently but was reminded recently about a summer that really started me down the entrepreneurial path.
Anyone out there recognize the house on the left? If your name is John Underkoffler, Pat Ruekert, or Mike Barron, you may remember one fine summer in 1986 when you lived there with me while I rented the house from Cecelia Feld for our home and office.
We worked on three different projects that summer. Pat and I worked on the software for the first major Feld Technologies customer, Bellflower Dental Group. Mike and I worked on DOSBox, which rolled into a Feld Technologies project for a while in 1987 but never went anywhere. And John and I worked on DataVision Technologies, another company I co-founded, but was ultimately unsuccessful.
While I count the real start of Feld Technologies as 1987, which was the year that Dave Jilk became my partner and we formally started up, Feld Technologies actually dates back to 1985 when I was using it simply as a consulting company for work I was doing. My first client was Petcom, a startup in the oil and gas industry where I wrote two software products – PCLog (for Well Log analysis) and PCEconomics (for economic analysis of oil and gas projects). Both were for the early IBM PC (each actually run on a dual-floppy disk 8088-based PC). Another early customer was AEC, which was a division of IHRDC (a long-time Feld Technologies customer). I can’t remember what I did for AEC, but I remember the name.
The Bellflower Dental Group project came via Kevin Parent, a fraternity brother and close friend for many years. Kevin invited me out to LA for Christmas break in 1984 and I met his step-father, Peter Wylan. Peter had a gigantic dental practice in Bellflower, CA (hence Bellflower Dental Group). He’d figured out how to be the dentist for all the union workers in the area and had something like 100 people working for him, cleaning teeth, doing bridges, putting on braces – that sort of thing. It was entirely manual – paper and insurance forms everywhere. Over a three year period I wrote, with Pat, software in Dataflex which resulted in a 100 user+ PC-based network that Bellflower ran their practice on until the early 2000s. The Y2K issue is a story for another day.
I can’t remember how Mike and I met but he was a DOS hacker and we decided to try to make a Norton Utilities like thing for all the different PC-based interrupt drivers. C was just becoming popular and most people were struggling with the linkage between C and the DOS-based interrupt schemes that let you do a bunch of things with the PC that weren’t in the higher level languages.
DataVision came out of a relationship with one of Petcom’s customers, a guy named Gabriel Prieto, who wanted to start a business around a science called Cephalometric analysis. I no longer remember Gabriel’s link to that, but it was pretty cool stuff at the time and John and I thought we could write some software to automate what was then a very manual process that included Xrays, drafting paper, rulers, and protractors.
In hindsight, all three of these projects were at the beginning of a very long arc of automation. One – the Bellflower project – was very successful. While the software that John and I wrote for DataVision (mostly John – I did architecture / design work) was “jaw dropping” (sorry – I couldn’t help myself), it turned out that there was no market for it so the company failed. And DOSBox, while neat, went the way of so many other things that were very neat hacks but had a short duration of relevance.
But the summer was special. It was the first time we were living in a house away from parents or college. We must have had four bedrooms in the house, although looking at it makes me think the bedrooms were very small. I know we each slept with a computer in a our room. They were all connected with a Netware network (something I was the master of – we were probably running Netware 2.10 – which was a beast to keep happy.) John had the coolest hardware because of the special graphics boards we needed (I think they were from Matrix but I can’t remember now – they might have been STB.)
Regardless, we were in post-adolescent nerd heaven. We kept the place clean since my mom owned it. We were far enough away from my parents that they didn’t bother us much, but it was easy to visit. I’m sure our neighbors wondered what we were doing with all the lights on at 3 am, but no one ever asked.
In some ways, it feels like yesterday, even though it was 30 years ago. And, as a bonus, I get to work with John Underkoffler on a regular basis since he’s the CEO of Oblong and we are his largest investor. We’ve both come a long way from cephalometric analysis.
If you are a founder or employee of a startup in Boulder and want to increase the overall effectiveness of our local Boulder government, please help us fund the Code for America Fellowship in Boulder.
We are raising a total of $75,000 to match the $75,000 being contributed to this effort by the City of Boulder. So far $30,000 of the $75,000 has been funded by my partners at Foundry Group, Rally Software, and the Anchor Point Foundation (the foundation that Amy and I run). If you’d like to contribute, either email me or donate online at the Code for America site.
Through the foresight of Liz Hansen and Jane Brautigam (the Boulder City Manager), Code for America is working on a project with the City of Boulder to help the city increase its engagement with stakeholders in Boulder around civic issues, including the city’s housing plan. As Jane mentions in her guest opinion piece, she believes this is the year for Boulder to be at its best. As she clearly states:
“It is my commitment to you, the community, that we are listening and that the city team is putting in place a number of new tools and work efforts to support inclusive, respectful and meaningful conversations in 2015, and beyond. These include the hiring of a new neighborhood liaison, a position that was approved last year by council as part of the 2015 budget; a new partnership with Code for America and local volunteers to develop better tools for online engagement and information sharing; and robust community participation processes for the work related to affordable housing, design excellence, our climate commitment, and our community’s comprehensive plan.”
This project resulted in us bringing Becky Boone, last year’s fellow with the City of Denver, to Boulder to spend seven months working with the city. Part of Code for America’s approach is that the city funds half and the community funds half, hence our call for action to support our half of the funding for the program.
Boulder is internationally recognized as a very successful startup community and this entrepreneurial approach fits Colorado well. However, with success comes challenges, including growth and issues of density. Today, Boulder has a population of about 100,000 and about 100,000 jobs. 60% of these job holders commute into Boulder for work while 40% live and work in Boulder in one of the 44,000 housing units.
With population and jobs estimated to grow to about 115,000 each by 2035, Boulder has a success problem. This is exacerbated by design constraints developed for the city in the 1960s and 1970s. The result of these “success problems” is in an increased tension around the discussion of the future of our city in the editorial pages of the Daily Camera, City Council meetings, and conversations around town.
In the search for simple solutions, almost every group in town has been blamed. Lately, the success of the entrepreneur ecosystem has started to become the target for criticism around these issues. As a result, a number of the leaders in the startup community, including myself, have recognized that we need to engage in the discussion to continue to evolve Boulder and make it even better than it is today, rather than simply exist in our own parallel universe.
While the Code for America project is only one activity in the midst of a bunch of different things, it’s a powerful way for the Boulder startup community to show that it’s serious about constructively engaging in talking about and working through our success problems. Help us raise the balance of the $45,000 of our side of the commitment by contributing today.
I got the following question the other day.
“If you get a chance, I’d request you to write a blog post about various business decision related conflicts or misunderstanding that might occur in a partnership and how you folks at the Foundry Group resolve it. My partners and I grapple with such challenges quite often.”
Every VC firm is different so to answer a question like this, it’s important to remember that the answer is one specific to Foundry Group. Never forget that VCs Are Like D&D Characters.
When my partners and I started Foundry Group in 2007, we created a set of deeply held beliefs that we carry around with us every day. Some of them are about our strategy and some are about our behavior.
One of our deeply held beliefs is that “We will address and resolve all conflict between us directly, clearly, quickly, and openly.”
This is easy to say but very hard to do. It means that there will be no passive aggressive behavior on anyone’s part. We won’t carry around things that bother us. Instead, we’ll put them on the table to discuss. We have to have a strong basis of trust, which we’ve extended to the notion of “business love.”
It has to be ok to be upset, to disagree, to be sad, to be disappointed, and to be unhappy. These are normal emotions. Things don’t work, they can be confusing, frustrating, or downright miserable. A partnership has to be a safe place to be open about these emotions, especially when they are being generated by someone in the partnership.
The deeply held belief is nice, but unless there are tactics and consistent action to back it up, it ends up being meaningless. There are three things we do to make sure we execute on this deeply held belief.
Weekly Time and Space for Discussion: We have a set time on Monday’s – between 11am and 1pm – where the four of us meet every week. Unlike many firms that chew up an entire Monday of “partner meeting stuff”, we do it over lunch. As part of this we have a chance to touch base with each other once a week. This is like flossing your teeth – it gets rid of the easy stuff.
Regular Dinner / Offsite: We have a full day offsite at least quarterly and as often as monthly. We spend at least an hour on the question “How are each of us doing?” In this case, “doing” means “emotionally doing” and covers what is on our mind, how we are feeling, what is stressing us (professionally and personally), and how we are doing with each other. Sometimes the discussion is balanced between the four of us; other times it ends up being focused on one person. We always end these days with a long dinner together, which allows us to spend more time on our collective relationships.
Be Direct: I wrote about this in a post last year titled Brutal Honesty Delivered Kindly. In all of these discussions, we are direct. We are kind to each other and never gratuitous in our comments, but always speak the truth. And when someone is wrong, he owns it.
Fundamentally, it’s about communication. Without the deeply held belief, we don’t have a clear context for how the communication works. But the combination of the deeply held belief and regular practice over the past eight years, has resulted in a highly efficient, trusted form of conflict resolution. Sure, we screw up plenty, but it’s easy to recognize, acknowledge, and course correct when we do.
I’ve decided to try something new on this blog. Rather than using up full posts for short announcements, I’ve added a new block for announcements at the top of the home page. It’s in orange, will generally be only a few lines, and include a link.
Since these are just blog posts being formatted differently, they will show up in the RSS feed and the daily email. In addition, there is a page in the Archives for the announcements.
If you have any feedback on this (good or bad), I’d love to hear it.
Behind the stories of most first-time venture-backed CEOs building startups and attacking markets at breakneck speed, there is usually a tight network of mentors and peers showing them the ropes of company building. That’s certainly been my experience at Pantheon—we likely would not exist if not for the crucial help of James Lindenbaum, Adam Gross, Steve Anderson, Ryan McIntyre, Brad Feld, and all of the advisors who have assisted us on our journey.
However, I’ve found there is a hard limit to how much you can learn about building a company from speaking with advisors. Before deciding on how to go about building your company, it is critical to build an understanding of other companies’ paths to success and learning from their mistakes along the way. I’ve found to really do that, often times you need to be there—out of your own office and physically present in theirs—to see with your own eyes how a company actually works.
That is the goal of CEO shadowing: to put you in the shoes of another CEO, let you observe, ask questions, and form a rich and detailed mental model of how another company operates. I’ve done it twice so far, and both times have learned more in a day of shadowing than I do in months of working sessions with mentors and peers.
My first time CEO Shadowing: Jud at Gnip in 2012
The first CEO I shadowed was Jud, who then ran Gnip which has since been acquired by Twitter. Foundry Group is a mutual investor of ours, and Jud and I met at an event in Boulder that they organized for portfolio CEOs.
In Boulder I ran around asking a number of CEOs and Foundry Partners for company management advice—how to run one-on-ones, structure executive meetings, manage my board, etc. Three times in row an answer to my question was prefaced by:
“You should really ask Jud this question because they just did this at Gnip and did a fabulous job.”
We were a 20-person company at the time, and Gnip had hit its stride and was growing very quickly. They were 50, soon to be 100—about a year and a half ahead of us in terms of scale. Gnip was known for being a very well-run company.
I cornered Jud at the event and soaked up as much data from him as I could. Then I went home, and realized how much more I really needed to learn from him and Gnip. The only way I thought I could really get answers to my questions was to go to Gnip and observe how Jud and his team ran the company.
So I sent this email:
“Can I fly to Boulder and shadow you for a day, and be a fly on the wall in yours and your team’s meetings?”
This was his response a couple of hours later:
“Fun! You bet! Only question is timing. Thoughts?”
Jud invited me to attend his management meetings and let me interview anyone on his entire team at will. In one day on-site I was a part of his exec kick-off meeting, attended a company product strategy meeting, and interviewed two executives, two engineers, and individuals from their sales and marketing team. I took notes, asked questions, and tried to fit in. I approached it like a journalist whose goal it was to write a profile on how Gnip, the company, worked.
I found the Gnip team to be incredibly focused and busy—while still gracious, helpful, and happy to talk at the same time.
What I learned
At the time I shadowed Jud, Pantheon had a very early executive team and not much in terms of process or structure. We operated on tribal knowledge and had the benefit that everyone implicitly knew what the others were doing. We knew we needed to build our team and create more structure, but how were we going to do that without screwing up what was working so naturally?
What I learned at Gnip was:
1) It was absolutely possible to build a 100-person company that operated as efficiently, or even more efficiently, than our 20-person company.
2) Process and structure could be additive to company culture, because it forces you to get specific about implicit assumptions that are so important to a company’s future (values, strategy, management philosophy, etc.)
3) There is good management and bad management, and you need effective leadership and stiff penalties when you fail to lead. It was up to us to build the company right. Gnip was built right, and it worked.
On top of that, I learned many, many small tactical things—from how to structure the agenda of an executive meeting, to how to arrange teams and desks, to optimizing how the people worked together.
But the tactics were built on the big learnings, which were important for this reason: seeing how Gnip worked gave me confidence to trust my gut in building my company. To be clear, Pantheon is built very differently from Gnip. Many of the things that worked for them won’t work for us—we picked our own path. But there are so many internal obstacles to building structure in a startup as it undergoes massive change, and to know that it could work because I saw it work enabled to me to keep my head down and keep working towards my goal without getting blown off course.
Visiting Gnip in 2012 was like visiting the hopeful, successful, parallel future to Pantheon. It was like getting to travel to a foreign, and more advanced planet, and then getting to return and apply what I learned.
Want to do this? Here are my suggestions for how to get the most out of CEO shadowing:
- Find a CEO at a company that is approximately 1-2 years ahead of yours (if you are $1M ARR, then $5-10M; if you are $10M, then $30-$60M). Ideally this is a CEO you admire, and one you already have a relationship with.
- Confidentiality is incredibly important. You should probably sign an NDA.
- Book a full day in the office with the CEO. I highly recommend visiting the day the CEO does the most “management” in a workweek—when executive meetings, planning, strategy, etc are scheduled.
- Get yourself invited to everything. Everywhere the CEO goes, you go. This requires the CEO to warn their company ahead of time and get the OK of their execs and team members.
- Spend half of your time observing in meetings, and half in one-on-ones with their team.
- Meet one-on-one with execs, managers, and individual contributors, ideally from numerous different teams.
- Ahead of time, prepare a list of questions with the CEO that you can ask of their team members, or research topics you can report back on that CEO wants to know (while respecting anonymity). Example questions:
- “What do the values of this company?”
- “What are the company priorities? Your team’s priorities? Your priorities?”
- “What did this company get right that has enabled it to succeed?”
- Take copious notes during all meetings and interactions. Anonymize feedback and send a full report of what you learned back to the CEO (this can be partial repayment for letting you shadow them).
- Keep asking questions and observing until you feel like you could give a valuable five-minute presentation on “how the company works” to your team and the CEO you are shadowing.
Asking to shadow a CEO of a company is a big ask. It’s out of the norm, and it takes time from their team. You can repay some of that by offering to share useful observation or doing outside research as part of your time there, but at the end of the day this may be the ultimate “pay it forward” generous act the startup community is willing to take on for fellow CEOs.
Investors: I believe this could be one of the most valuable things you could help facilitate for your portfolio company CEOs. If anyone else has shadowed a CEO, I’d love to hear how you approached it and how well it worked for you.