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I love origin stories. Yesterday at the kickoff of Techstars FounderCon, I stood on stage with David Cohen and David Brown as we went through the origin story of Techstars, followed by a build up of what has happened over the past seven amazing years. As the 50+ people working for Techstars stood on the stage at the end, I got chills. Afterwards I got feedback from a number of the 500 people in the audience that it was extremely useful context for them, many of whom joined the extended Techstars network in the past two years.
A few weeks ago, FG Press released the first book in its Techstars series titled No Vision All Drive: Memoirs of an Entrepreneur. It’s written by David Brown and is the origin story of David Brown and David Cohen’s first company Pinpoint Technologies.
If you recognize David Cohen’s name, but not David Brown’s, you have a new David in your world. Brown was one of the four co-founders of Techstars (with Cohen, me, and Jared Polis). A little over a year ago, he joined Techstars full time as one of the three managing partners – the other two being David Cohen and Mark Solon. Brown runs the organization day to day and Solon manages all the fund and capital formation activity.
While I’ve known Brown for seven years, Cohen and Brown have worked together for 25 years. Pinpoint was a self-funded company that was their first entrepreneurial endeavor. Like many other startups, it had many ups and downs but the David’s created a very successful, profitable business that was acquired by ZOLL (a Boston-based public company) in 1999. Brown stayed at ZOLL for a while, left, and then came back and ran ZOLL Data (the division based on Pinpoint) until last year when he finally left for good.
When I read the first draft of No Vision All Drive I immediately realized this was a powerful origin story. It shows the personal and professional development of Brown and Cohen as they grew from two guys trying to figure out how to start their business to leaders of a real company. Brown’s reflections on the experience are detailed and demonstrates his incredible talents as an operator. If you know Cohen, after reading this book, you understand why they are perfect partners and have worked so well together over the past 25 years.
It’s a delight to get to work with both of these guys. No Vision All Drive gave me deep insight into Brown and how to be effective working with him, as well as what to expect in the context of his leadership and management style. And it made me even more optimistic about the future of Techstars.
Our goal with the Techstars Series is to get out a series of books applicable to all entrepreneurs at an affordable price. So, instead of doing the default Kindle $9.99 price, or tying the Kindle price to the hardcover price, we are charging $4.95 for the Kindle version. We know there is no marginal cost to each incremental e-book so we want to provide it at a price that entrepreneurs won’t think twice about, which we pegged at the equivalent of a Starbucks Venti Peppermint Mocha Frappuccino .
If you are interested in origin stories or just want to better understand the guys behind Techstars, I encourage you to grab a copy of No Vision All Drive: Memoirs of an Entrepreneur.
FG Press recently released its third book, Accelerate: Founder Insights Into Accelerator Programs.
If you want to understand how an accelerator program works from the inside or are considering applying to an accelerator, this is the book for you. Luke Deering interviewed 150 entrepreneurs who have been through a variety of accelerator programs to get their insights. He originally did this as a Kickstarter campaign which I supported and wrote the foreword for.
When I saw the Kickstarter version, I asked if we could add to it, edit it, and publish it via FG Press. It’s out and I’m really proud of it. It has feedback from entrepreneurs who have gone through accelerators all over the world.
The book is divided into sections that cover topics such how to come up with an idea, advice on applying to an accelerator, tips for marketing and user acquisition early on, approaches to fundraising, and what the accelerator experience is actually like.
There are a number of case studies, longer form essays (but never too long), and lots and lots of short (one to three paragraph) real-life anecdotes. While I acknowledge the case studies are a little Techstars heavy, I think Luke did a nice job of getting a wide variety of examples from many different accelerators.
There’s also an accelerator directory, a good overview from Pat Riley, who runs the Global Accelerator Network, and lots of other goodies.
When we started working on the book, our goal was to make the hardcopy a beautifully designed book that could sit on a coffee table as well as being able to be used as a reference guide. The team at FG Press did a magnificent job.
I heard a great phrase from Jenna Walker at Artifact Uprising yesterday. We had a Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network Colorado meeting with her and her partner and in the middle of the discussion about their business Jenna used the phrase “digital paralysis” to describe one of the things she thinks is driving the incredible engagement of their customers.
Her example was photography. Artifact Uprising came out of her original experience with photography, the dramatic shift to digital photography on iPhones and picture storage on Dropbox and Instagram, and the massive overwhelming feeling of having zillions of digital photos. In Jenna’s case, it’s caused a slow down of her photo taking (digital paralysis) because she’s overwhelmed with the massive numbers of photos she now has, doesn’t really have the energy to deal with them, and resists taking more because they’ll just end up along with the other zillions in Dropbox.
I totally identified with this. Amy and I have a huge number of digital artifacts at this point – with our enormous photo library being just one of them. The feeling of paralysis in dealing with them is substantial. After a brief tussle the other day over “hey – just share the photo stream with me of the stuff you are going to take today” followed by a struggle to figure out how to do it the way we wanted to do it and still have the photos end up in the same place, tension ensued and digital paralysis once again set it. I sent myself an email task to “spend an hour with the fucking photos on Dropbox” this weekend which I’ll probably end up avoiding dealing with due to digital paralysis.
Yesterday, my friend Dov Seidman wrote a great article in Fast Company titled Why There’s More To Taking A Break Than Just Sitting There. It’s worth a long, slow read in the context of reacting to being overwhelmed digitally as well as in the general intense pace of life today.
As I sat and thumbed through some of the beautiful photo books that Artifact Uprising creates, I could feel my brain slowing down and being less jangly as I settled into observing and interacting with something not-digital. Try it this weekend, and ponder it while you are taking a break. Pause, and explore why you are pausing, how it feels, and what you are doing about it. And see if it impacts your digital paralysis when you end the pause and go back to the computer.
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.
As many of you know, I have a keen interest in the future of digital publishing.
One of the reasons we started FG Press was to give control and transparency back to the authors. Specifically, at FG Press the author gets 50% royalty on all books sold (up from the traditional 15%) and we employ the latest technologies, promotions, and marketing efforts to help the author build a personal audience who they have a direct relationship with. Ultimately, we want to create the foundation for how future long-form content (e.g. books) will be created and consumed as well as how the connections between reader and author will be established and managed.
But what about sales and distribution? It’s not enough to create great content. It’s equally important to get the content into the hands of avid readers. And, from our perspective, link the readers to the authors.
Right now, most readers purchase their ebooks from Amazon. But as Amazon battles Hachette and others, this could change. Amazon has no incentive to move away from their centralized online store where they own the consumer/reader and the data.
As an author, I’ve found Amazon’s lack of transparency on data to be frustrating. I can blame some of this on the traditional publisher, but given what could be possible, everyone falls short. As a reader, I find the lack of connection with the author infuriating. I know some authors don’t want to be bothered, but for the one’s who do, I’d love to interact with them directly. And, as an author who loves to hear from and interact with his readers, I often want to scream when I am confronted with the wall that is “the publishing industry.”
We’ve explored many different approaches. There are hundreds of startups working on a wide variety of things, many of which we are systematically incorporating into our infrastructure at FG Press. I’ve used some of them for my Startup Revolution series with many more coming now that we have a manageable way to deploy them, and a team to make it happen, versus just me in my spare time, which is basically non-existent.
One of these approaches is BookShout, a technology platform which can allow “any site to become a bookstore.” With iOS, Android, HTML5, and web apps, BookShout has created technology to power the sales and distribution of ebooks from nearly any site. It allows authors and retailers to do things that are difficult to do in the current publishing ecosystem, including:
- maintain brand identity
- generate more revenue
- build direct consumer relationships and like-minded communities
BookShout has also taken the additional step to make sure the content is connected and the distribution is social. As BookShout CEO Jason Illian often says, “Content is king, but viral, connected content is King Kong.”
BookShout’s unique implementation allows every brand or author to use Twitter, Facebook, and other technologies to build audience and naturally stimulate re-occurring purchases and interaction. As an example, not only could Ben Horowitz sell his great book The Hard Thing about Hard Things from the A16Z site (beyond just a banner ad that clicks through to a landing page with a link to Amazon and other places to buy the book), he could also leave notes and create conversations with readers, allow those readers to invite others into the fold, and create new offers and promotions for his next book.
If an e-retailer wants to sell ebooks alongside any of their products on their own site, they can now do so with Bookshout. If a media company wants all of their largest brands to provide ebooks, each brand can build its own community and stay connected around ebooks. If a bestselling author wants to sell her next book from her own site, she now has the tools to generate more revenue and build an audience. Ebay, Urban Outfitters, Nike, James Patterson, NPR, Walmart, Alibaba – they can now each control their own future.
I’m not an investor in BookShout, but I’m a fan and I believe they are on to something big. Look for more from them, and more from us with them.