Brad's Books and Organizations

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Books

Organizations

Organizations

Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Book: The Alliance

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Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh have written an outstanding and important book called The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age. I encourage you to get a copy right now and read it this weekend. If you are a CEO of a company Foundry Group has invested in, there’s no need to buy it – I just ordered 100 of them and they will be in your hands soon.

Reid and Ben previously wrote a book called The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career. It is also excellent. It’s the first book students read during the course I teach with Brad Bernthal at CU Boulder called “The Philosophy of Entrepreneurship.”

Reid is well known as the co-founder of LinkedIn, a partner at Greylock, an angel investor in many successful companies including Facebook and Twitter, and one of the kingpins of the PayPal Mafia. I got to know Reid while serving on the Zynga board with him and he’s as advertised – a deep thinker, extraordinary strategist, and incredibly supportive partner to an entrepreneur. Most importantly, it’s very clear that the notion of building a strong personal brand (discussed in The Start-up of You) and approaching employee / employer pact with commitment and a very  long term view (discussed in The Alliance) is a core part of his value system.

Ben, while less well known, has been Reid’s chief of staff for the past few years. He’s also a successful entrepreneur, having started Comcate, his first business, at age 14. Amy and I have become extremely close friends with Ben over the last decade and we view him as part of our extended family.

I don’t really know Chris, but by association he has a huge amount of credibility with me.

The Alliance starts out by punching you in the face to get your attention. It differentiates between the notion of “company as a family” and “company as a team.” The punch in the face is the idea that you can’t fire a family member (“Susy, you aren’t succeeding at doing your homework, so you are fired as our daughter”) so while “we are a family” is a time-worn metaphor for a company, it’s a poor one. Reid, Ben, and Chris suggest the notion of a team instead. And, instead of permanent employment, they use the concept of a tour of duty to redefine the employer / employee relationship from “lifetime employment” to “a well-defined and clearly stated pact between employer and employee.”

The book, and the concept, is tightly written and extremely readable. The book is an appropriate length – there’s no fat here – just substance. I particularly loved the chapter on Network Intelligence which describes an approach to have every person in your company use their network to get market and competitive intelligence for the company. In addition to the concept, the authors give us piles of examples, including some from Greylock on how to execute a brilliant market intelligence strategy.

When reflecting on The Alliance, I feel that Foundry Group works this way at a meta-level. If you extend “Foundry Group” to include all of the entities that we have co-founded, you quickly add in Techstars, FG Angels, FG Press, SRS|Acquiom, Gluecon, Defrag, and a few others. Then, add in the 70 companies we’ve invested in via Foundry Group and the 20 or so we’ve invested in through FG Angels. Then the 30 or so VC funds we are investors in. And the thousands of companies we are indirect investors in. That’s a big team, configured in lots of different structures, all over the US. Any member in good standing of any of these entities is a long term member of our team, regardless of what they do. Anytime one of the reaches out to me, I’ll always try to help any way I can. Sure – we aren’t perfect at this, but we try hard, and are going to keep trying even harder in the future.

Reid, Ben, and Chris – thanks for writing this book. I hope, in 20 years, it’s as important as The Organization Man by William Whyte was in its day.

Book: Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows

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MIT is a special place.

I was a student there from 1983 – 1990, got two degrees, and was booted out of a Ph.D. program well before I finished. I lived in a fraternity (ADP) on the edge of Central Square (351 Mass Ave) for four years. My first office was that address – for several years I got more mail each day than almost everyone else I was living with combined. My next office was 875 Main Street, just behind the frat. And daily, between Monday and Friday, I walked down Main Street to Sloan or Mass Ave to the rest of campus.

IHTFP was my motto, along with everyone else I knew. If you need some clues for what IHTFP can mean, there are many lists on the web. But “I Hate This Fucking Place” is one side of the coin and “I Have Truly Found Paradise” is the other. However, the coin – at least for me – was not equally weighted so it didn’t land 50% of the time on each side. I’ll let you guess which side it landed on more frequently.

I read Samuel Jay Keyser’s amazing book Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows the past two nights. I’ve had it on my Kindle for a while but for some reason hadn’t read it. As I was scrolling through the infinite list of unread books I stumbled upon it and consumed it. It was just awesome.

I vaguely remember Keyser from when I was at MIT. Much of this book takes place during the 1980s when I was there and I remember many of the stories and situations he describes. I also remember a number of them he doesn’t that he doesn’t talk about that he was likely involved in, such as when my frat was put on probation and two of our members were suspended for a year in an “inappropriate publishing incident”, which coincided with a five year shift in campus views on pornography and sexual harassment during a period when the male / female ratio shifted from 80/20 to 50/50.

Toss in apartheid, a thing called the “MIT Committee on Discipline”, huge building and construction projects on MIT land around a very debilitated and pre-gentrified Central and Kendall Square, and a generational shift clearly to Gen-X as undergraduates, and you’ve got a pretty interesting time to be a senior member of MIT’s Administration.

Keyser is a great writer and story teller. He captures so much of what I remember clearly, but shows it to me from the administration’s, rather than a student’s, frame of reference. He does it with humor, even in the most frustrating and maddening moments. And like everyone I’ve ever encountered at MIT, he continuously teaches throughout.

I loved this book. As Amy read a Game of Thrones book (the last one I think – she just said something about really big dragons and lots of fire and death), I kept reading her sections out loud. As a Wellesley graduate now on the Wellesley board, who knows MIT culture and students well, I got some good belly laughs out of her.

Even though IHTFP, I will always think of MIT as a special place. So much of what I am, and how I approach things, was forged in the intense place that I describe as a daily assault on one’s self-esteem. A book like this one helps me remember the power of it against the backdrop of an institution that is a remarkably complex and amazing place.

Book: The Martian

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The Martian by Andy Weir is the best book I’ve read in a while. I consumed it in the last 24 hours. But first, here’s what I woke up to this morning.

 

No – I’m not on Mars. But Mark Watney was. And while Mars is a lot more desolate than Homer, Alaska, I disconnected from the human race several times right in the middle of a work week because of the amazingness of this book. At 2am last night, I said out loud to my wife Amy, who was fast asleep, “I’m going to be tired tomorrow afternoon.” And, as I crawled into bed after a stretch of 7am to 2pm video conferences, I said “Wow, I’m tired, but I’m not nearly as fucked as Mark Watney is right now.”

The story is a simple one. A mission on Mars goes badly in the sixth day of 31, the six person crew aborts quickly, but during the abort, one person (Mark) gets separated, is lost, and left for dead. Except he’s not. After he regains consciousness, he realizes he’s been abandoned on Mars. The good news is that all the stuff from their mission, including what will become the very famous HAB, two Rovers, and all their supplies and equipment, is still there. The bad news is that Mark is alone on Mars with no communication back to Earth since all the comm gear was in the spacecraft that was used for the abort.

Day by day, piece by piece, hack by hack, Mark survives. His brain is amazing – he’s a classical botany / electrician / engineer hacker. Well – I guess there’s no such thing, but that’s the fun of it. He’s awesomely descriptive, has a wicked sense of humor, and incredible survival instinct. And his creativity, in the endless near-death experiences he finds himself in, is awe-inspiring.

NASA and the people of Earth eventually figure out he’s alive. He figures out how to communicate with them. As he continues to extend his life expectancy, a plan to rescue him comes together. It blows up on the launch pad. Another plan emerges. Communication is lost. A series of parallel epic journeys begin. Tension, already high, mounts. And Mark continues to almost die, but then figure out a way not to.

What a wonderful book. I can only imagine how badly Mark smelled at the end of it.

Book: No Place To Hide

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Amy and I were going to have a bunch of friends over to our house today but we got rained out. So, I read Glenn Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State instead.

It was outstanding – 5 stars.

Let’s start with the punchline from Warren and Brandeis in their 1890 Harvard Law Review article The Right to Privacy where they assert that the right to privacy is primarily a “right to be left alone.”

Ponder that for a moment.

It’s a hot topic in my household since Amy did her thesis at Wellesley on the right to privacy. At the same time, I’ve been very open with my belief over the last decade that there is no more privacy, that the government tracks everything we do, and if you build your worldview around the notion that you have privacy, you are going to be disappointed. I guess I’ve been watching too much 24.

Now, this doesn’t mean I don’t think one should have a right to privacy. If I believed that, the philosophical arguments in our house would escalate dramatically. Rather, I gave up my own belief that I have privacy. And, I’ve felt for a long time that society is in a very unstable situation with regard to data, data privacy, and personal privacy. And I think this is going to get much, much worse as the machines further integrate themselves into everything we do.

So I view the problem of privacy at a meta-level. And as a result, I find books like Greenwald’s fascinating, powerful, and deeply insightful into the cause, effect, reaction, and second-order effect of humans trying to process what is going on, defend their position, and advance their perspective.

I thought Greenwald did a particularly good job of three things in this book:

  1. Painting a clear picture of Snowden, his character, and Greenwald’s experience interacting with him.
  2. Addressing the actions of the NSA that should cause outrage, or at least a deep, thoughtful conversation about what the appropriate boundaries for government surveillance in the United States.
  3. Demonstrating the tactics of the US government, especially through media which is sympathetic to the US government, in shifting the story from the main event (the NSA disclosures) to a continual campaign of discrediting the participants (Snowden and Greenwald).

It doesn’t matter which side of the issue you are on. If you feel like calling Snowden, and possible Greenwald, a traitor, you should read this book carefully. If you believe they are whistleblowers, or even heroes, you should read this book carefully. If you believe the government never lies, or always lies, you should read this book carefully. If you believe journalists aren’t caught up in the game, are objective, and have integrity, you should read this book carefully.

I’ve felt for a long time that it’s a real cop-out to call Snowden a traitor or just react to the surface of what is going on here. There are some really profound forces at work that will impact the United States, our notion of democracy, and privacy, for many years. And the second order effects, including how other nations view the United States and the other four of the Five Eyes or the implications on global companies headquartered in the United States, will impact us for many years.

And, as a bonus, there are lots of revealing PowerPoint charts in the book from the NSA documents which, in addition to driving Snowden and Greenwald’s points home, demonstrate that the US Government needs some courses in making PowerPoint slides nicer.

Books I Read On My Q214 Vacation

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Wow. I needed a vacation. Amy reminds me that I say that on day three of each of our quarterly weeks off the grid. It doesn’t seem to matter how I try to pace myself or how recent my previous week off the grid was. On day three, when I’m not looking at email, anything on the web, or checking my phone, I just breathe deeply and say “wow I needed this vacation.”

Oh – and I decided to get over my fear of horses. I’ve been afraid of horses since I was a teenager. As a kid growing up in Dallas I rode a lot, but my brother had a nasty fall when we were riding together and that was that for me. Amy loves horses and has started riding regularly now that we live in horse country outside of Boulder so I decided it was silly for me to continue to be afraid of horses. So we spent a week at Miraval where I could ride every other day and do a few of their horse specific activities.

For example, here’s me painting a horse. Bonus points if you figure out what I painted on him (his name is HeartWind). Hint – count the vertical lines carefully.

As with most of my vacations, I read about a book a day. Here’s the list, in order, with short commentary.

Red Bang: I wanted to love this book. From the review it felt like a current day version of Microserfs: A Novel or JPod, two tech culture masterpieces by Douglas Coupland. While some of that came through, “The Company” (a thinly designed version of Microsoft) was too over the top ridiculous and many of the satirical moments fell flat for me. It was ok, but not great.

Sting of the Drone: I’ve devoured all of Richard Clarke’s fiction and they are all well written, incredibly relevant, and better than what a modern day Clancy treatment of the topic would be. The only issue I had with this one was the ending – it was too contrived, too many good guys died while the bad guys got shut down, and the neat tidy bow that wrapped everything up consisted of almost all of the protagonists dying in a fireball ending. Boo – more reflection after the climax needed, but otherwise outstanding.

The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph: I don’t know Ryan Holiday, but I heard of this book from Tim Ferriss and was intrigued by the description so I decided to dose myself in some stoicism. Dynamite book – I’m glad I put the time in. Holiday covers the topic well in a very accessible way.

Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising (APenguin Special from Portfolio): I figured I’d read the cannon on Holiday so this was next. If you don’t know what “growth hacking” means, this is a good intro. But if you do, this is a waste of time.

Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises: This was the heavy one of the trip – it took three days. Geithner has always been a cipher to me so I figured his autobiography and memoir on the financial crisis would help me understand him better. He did an amazing job with this book, both explaining what happened while explaining himself. The depth of his own introspection and understanding of his own being came through in the midst of incredible pressure and crisis. Once you realize he’s a deep introvert in a context that begs for extrovert energy, a lot of the puzzle pieces about him slide into place. After reading this book, I’m glad he was at the head of the NY Fed and the Treasury for the past decade. Regardless of your position on what went down during this time, this is a book worth reading for a clear perspective from Geithner’s point of view.

Sleep Your Way to the TOP: *and other myths about business success: I finished my trip by reading the final version of the second book from FG Press, our new publishing company. I’ve probably read the book a half dozen times during the edit cycle, but I hadn’t yet read the final version on a Kindle. More soon, but I love this book and Jane Miller is an absolutely star.

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