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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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Amazon’s Scorpion Problem

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I expect most of you know the fable of the scorpion and the frog, but if you don’t, it goes like this (quoted from Wikipedia):

“A scorpion asks a frog to carry him over a river. The frog is afraid of being stung during the trip, but the scorpion argues that if it stung the frog, both would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog agrees and begins carrying the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that this is its nature. The fable is used to illustrate the position that no change can be made in the behaviour of the fundamentally vicious.”

Over the weekend, there was some commentary on AWS in fight of its life as customers like Dropbox ponder hybrid clouds and Google pricing. Amazon turned in slightly declining quarter-over-quarter revenue on AWS, although significant year-over-year quarterly growth, as explained in Sign of stress or just business as usual? AWS sales are off slightly.

“Could Amazon Web Services be feeling the heat from new public cloud competitors? Maybe. Maybe not. Second quarter net sales of AWS — or at least the category in which it is embedded– were off about 3 percent sequentially to $1.168 billion from $1.204 billion for the first quarter. But they were up 38 percent from $844 million for the second quarter last year. In the first quarter, growth in this category year over year was 60 percent. So make of that what you will.”

Could Amazon’s nature be catching up with it, or is it just operating in a more competitive market? A set of emails went around from some of the CEOs of our companies talking about this followed by a broader discussion on our Foundry Group EXEC email list. It contained, among other comments:

  1. AWS is not the low price provider.
  2. AWS is not the best product at anything – most of their features are mediocre knock offs of other products.
  3. AWS is unbelievably lousy at support.
  4. Once you are at $200k / month of spend, it’s cheaper and much more effective to build your own infrastructure.

While we are in the middle of a massive secular shift from owned data centers to outsourced data centers and hardware, anyone who remembers the emergence of outsourced data centers, shared web hosting, dedicated web hosting, co-location, and application service providers will recognize many of the dynamics going on. Predictably in the tech industry, what’s old is new again as all the infrastructure players roll out their public clouds and all the scaled companies start exploring ways to move off of AWS (and other cloud services) into much more cost effective configurations.

Let’s pick apart the four points above a little bit.

1. AWS is not the low price provider. When AWS came out, it was amazing, partly because you didn’t need to buy any hardware to get going, partly because it had a very fine grade variable pricing approach, and mostly because these two things added up to an extremely low cost for a startup relative to all other options. This is no longer the case as AWS, Microsoft, and Google bash each other over the head on pricing, with Microsoft and Google willing to charge extremely low prices to gain market share. And, more importantly, see point #4 below in a moment. Being low priced is in Amazon’s nature so this will be intensely challenging to them.

2. AWS is not the best product at anything – most of their features are mediocre knock offs of other products. We’ve watched as AWS has aggressively talked to every company we know doing things in the cloud infrastructure and application stack, and then rather than partner eventually roll out low-end versions of competitive products. We used to think of Amazon as a potential acquirer for these companies, or at least a powerful strategic partner. Now we know they are just using the bait of “we want to work more closely with you” as market and product intelligence. Ultimately, when they come out with what they view of as a feature, it’s a low-end, mediocre, and limited version of what these companies do. So, they commoditize elements of the low end of the market, but don’t impact anything that actually scales. In addition, they always end up competing on every front possible, hence the chatter about Dropbox moving away from AWS since AWS has now come out with a competitive product. It appears that it’s just not in Amazon’s nature to collaborate with others.

3. AWS is unbelievably lousy at support. While they’ve gotten better at paid support, including their premium offerings, these support contracts are expensive. Approaches to get around support issues and/or lower long term prices like reserved instances are stop gaps and often a negative benefit for a fast growing company. I’ve had several conversations over the years with friends at Amazon about this and I’ve given up. Support is just not in Amazon’s nature (as anyone who has ever tried to figure out why a package didn’t show up when expected) and when a company running production systems on AWS is having mission critical issues that are linked to AWS, it’s just painful. At low volumes, it doesn’t matter, but at high scale, it matters a huge amount.

4. Once you are at $200k / month of spend, it’s cheaper and much more effective to build your own infrastructure. I’ve now seen this over and over and over again. Once a company hits $200k / month of spend on AWS, the discussion starts about building out your own infrastructure on bare metal in a data center. This ultimately is a cost of capital discussion and I’ve found massive cost of capital leverage to move away from AWS onto bare metal. When you fully load the costs at scale, I’ve seen gross margin moves of over 20 points (or 2000 basis points – say from 65% to 85%). It’s just nuts when you factor in the extremely low cost of capital for hardware today against a fully loaded cost model at scale. Sure, the price declines from point #1 will impact this, but the operational effectiveness, especially given #3, is remarkable.

There are a number of things Amazon, and AWS, could do to address this if they wanted to. While not easy, I think they could do a massive turnaround on #2 and #3, which combined with intelligent pricing and better account management for the companies in #4, could result in meaningful change.

I love Amazon and think they have had amazing impact on our world. Whenever I’ve given them blunt feedback like this, I’ve always intended it to be constructive. I’m doubt it matters at all to their long term strategy whether they agree with, or even listen to, me. But given the chatter over the weekend, it felt like it was time to say this in the hope that it generated a conversation somewhere.

But I worry some of the things they need to be doing to maintain their dominance is just not in their nature. In a lot of ways, it’s suddenly a good time to be Microsoft or Google in the cloud computing wars.

Book Cover Blurbs Should Die

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As we gear up to release Uncommon Stock, our first FG Press book, we just had an internal discussion about book blurbs. The concept of a blurb was apparently invented in 1907. The origin story of the blurb is amusing – according to Wikipedia:

“The word blurb originated in 1907. American humorist Gelett Burgess’s short 1906 book Are You a Bromide? was presented in a limited edition to an annual trade association dinner. The custom at such events was to have a dust jacket promoting the work and with, as Burgess’ publisher B. W. Huebsch described it, “the picture of a damsel — languishing, heroic, or coquettish — anyhow, a damsel on the jacket of every novel” In this case the jacket proclaimed “YES, this is a ‘BLURB’!” and the picture was of a (fictitious) young woman “Miss Belinda Blurb” shown calling out, described as “in the act of blurbing.”

While the history lesson is cute, the blurb has long since ceased to be useful. As a reader, I’m incredibly suspicious of them because as a writer, I know how they are manufactured. More on that in a bit, but for now, take a few minutes and check out some #HonestBlurbs.

Our internal back and forth on whether to include blurbs on our FG Press books resulted in the following rant from me.

I think endorsements like this are bullshit. I’m literally getting asked daily (5 times / week – sometimes more) to endorse books. I used to do it, now I say no unless it’s a friend, and even then they usually write the endorsement.

It’s an artifact of the publishing business that existed before “earned media” – blog posts, reviews, etc.

I’d love to just BLOW UP blurbs.

I think we should be focusing on real earned media, real reviews, real substantive support, rather than marketing nonsense the industry has been pushing since the early 1900s.

We had a little more back and forth but the more I thought about it, the more I have no interest in blurbs. I’ve been saying no to a lot of the requests I get recently, after having my name on probably 50 blurbs for other books in the last few years. At first, I always read the book before writing the blurb. Then, I started skimming the book before writing the blurb. Recently, I’ve been either asking the writer to send me a draft of the blurb they’d like, or I’ve just said something generically positive but non-substantive.

I’ve watched the other direction work the same way. It’s similar to press release quotes – it ends up being manufactured PR stuff, rather the authentic commentary. The idea that a static, short, manufactured blurb from a well known person as an endorsement of a book is so much less authentic than Amazon reviews, GoodReads, and blog posts from people who actually read the book.

When people send me a note that they liked my book, I ask them to put up a review on Amazon if they are game. When someone writes with constructive feedback on a book I’ve written, I ask them to put up a review on Amazon, with the constructive feedback, if they are game. I appreciate all the serious feedback – both good and bad. Sure – I get trolled by some people who say things like “Feld is a moron, this book is another stupid thing he’s done.” I ignore that kind of thing, and feel that most rational humans can separate the signal from the noise.

So, at least for now, we aren’t going to do blurbs on FG Press books. Instead, we’ll ask people to put up reviews on Amazon, GoodReads, their blog, and other sites that make sense. And, when someone requests a blurb from me, I’m going to start passing and defaulting to writing a review on this site and putting up the review on Amazon on GoodReads, like I have for many of the books I’ve read.

Amazon Prime Ground

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If you think Amazon Prime Air is neat, you’ll love the new Amazon Prime Ground.

Spheros and Quadcopters are available with shipping still in time for Christmas.

BookShout! at the Boulder Library – November 14th

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As a part of Startup Phenomenon, I’m going to spend a half hour with Jason Illian, the CEO of BookShout!, on Thursday, November 14th at 4:30pm. It’ll be at the Boulder Public Library, which is right across Boulder Creek from the St. Julien and downtown Boulder.

We’ll be talking about the Startup Revolution book series (which include Startup Communities and Startup Life), as well as the wonderful platform that Jason and his team have built.

I’ve been a fan of BookShout! for a couple of years now.

As an author, I’m always looking for ways to connect with my audience. I spend time with the people from the local startup scene all the time but connecting with aspiring entrepreneurs from around the country, and around the global, is an entirely different beast. Comments on Amazon are one-directional, and definitely do not encourage reader-to-reader interaction. Buying a book in a bookstore is an individualistic experience. Getting a book at a conference means reading it after the conference is over, which doesn’t leave any time for in-person discussion or engagement.

Enter BookShout!. First glance, it’s nothing special. Simple but effective distribution of books. All the goods when it comes to commenting and rating. Where BookShout! really shines is how it brings an audience and an author together, on the same page – both literally and figuratively – and allows them to have an unfiltered conversation around the content of the book.

It’s a powerful tool for authors and an interesting site for readers. If you’re either, check it out.

And if you’re in Boulder tomorrow afternoon, for Startup Phenomenon or not, come on by the Boulder Library and hang out with me and Jason.

See you there!

RSVPs are requested. Please do so here. While you’re there, check out some of the Master Classes that Startup Phenomenon is offering.

The Mess of a Second Edition Book

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Venture Deals: 2nd EditionThe Second Edition of Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist just started shipping. It’s new and improved, fixes a bunch of little mistakes that we listed on the Ask the VC site, and adds a chapter on Convertible Debt which builds on the posts on Ask the VC. I’m happy it’s out, but really annoyed by the mess that is created by the second edition.

Before I bash Amazon and the traditional publishing industry, I want to give Amazon some love. I bought a Kindle Paperwhite 3G a month ago. Every time a new Kindle comes out, I buy it. After struggling to like the Kindle Fire HD, which now sits dormant in my laptop bag, I am absolutely in love with the Kindle Paperwhite- it’s stunningly good for a high volume reader like me.

Ok – back to the mess of a second edition. Writing the second edition is pretty easy – you get the final Microsoft Word files from the publisher. I would have loved to fix the mistakes earlier in the ebook, but that wasn’t part of the process. So Jason and I just tossed up an Errata page on the website and pointed people at it when they found a new, or old, mistake. We wrote the new sections (the chapter on convertible debt and a few appendices), fixed some other stuff we felt could be improved, and sent it back in to the publisher.

Given the success that we’ve had in academic settings, where Venture Deals is now being used by over 100 undergraduate and graduated courses as a textbook, we also created a teaching guide. Jason and Brad Bernthal wrote this as a completely separate book which we expected would be published. Instead, it’s ends up being on Wiley’s Instructor Companion Site which I just spent 10 minutes trying to get a login for an failed (grrrr). In addition, we are now working on an Inkling edition version of it which is desynchronized from the release of the book – mostly due to miscommunication about what was required to create it.

The normal copy-edit production loop ensued that I’m now used to. Jason and Brad Bernthal submitted the teaching guide separately – the first pass of the copy-edit loop happened, but had more gear grinding as we struggled to understand what was actually going to be produced. We eventually figured it out and everyone ended up happy. Then we got the new cover designs since apparently a second edition gets a new cover design. We are going to put this into the Startup Revolution series so it’s got the little Startup Revolution logo on it.

A few weeks ago I noticed that Amazon had Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist (2nd Edition) available for pre-order. I was perplexed that it was an entirely new page on Amazon with a different ISDN number. None of the 123 reviews moved over with it and the work we put into the page for the first edition was gone. I checked with Wiley on this and quickly found out that Amazon considers 2nd Editions to be completely new books.

So – here I sit on 12/29 with a new Amazon pages for the 2nd Edition in physical and Kindle form, excitingly with zero reviews on a book that has a 4.8 of 5.0 on 123 reviews, light weight Amazon pages, and no access or links to the Instructor Companion Site. Remember, writing these books is a hobby for me, not my full time role in the world, so when I see this I immediately think “there must be a better way.”

In this case, I’m perplexed by Amazon. It seems like they should be focused on making this stuff awesome from a user perspective and and author perspective. Even if there is a new ISBN number, wouldn’t it be so much better to have Venture Deals all connected together, with all the history, made beautiful and awesome for everyone involved? Who cares that the traditional publishing industry has a new ISBN number for 2nd Editions – end users don’t really care about this. And authors who want to spend all of their time writing and as little time as possible fighting with this crap must want to blow their brains out when this happens.

Fortunately, all of this amuses me. I enjoy the people at Wiley I work with – they are working their butts off on many different fronts to be successful. They are dealing with a complex environment that is changing quickly on them. And they are working as hard as they can to stay relevant in this environment. I respect them a lot for this. But it’s still a completely mess.

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