Brad's Books and Organizations

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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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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.

Introducing FG Press

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FG PressEvery year or so my partners and I at Foundry Group create a new company, or start a new project, that we believe had the potential to change the way something works in our world, while simultaneously helping the entrepreneurs we work with, and the entrepreneurs we aspire to work with.

For example, in 2006, we co-founded Techstars. At the time David Cohen, the co-founder and CEO, was unhappy with how angel investing worked. He was dissatisfied with his experience and had a hypothesis around helping a group of companies get going, surrounding them with active mentors, and accelerating their early growth. The Techstars Boulder 2007 program was an experiment – we had no idea if it would work. Looking back seven years later, I’m immensely proud and satisfied with the impact Techstars has had on the world of entrepreneurship, especially at the early stages of company creation, and look forward to our goal over the next seven years of building the most powerful and connected early stage startup network in the world.

Our 2014 project is FG Press.

I wrote my first book, Do More Faster, with David Cohen in 2010. We worked with our publisher Wiley, who took a chance on us. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and it was really fucking hard. I remember sitting at my kitchen table in Homer, Alaska in July 2010 at 2am almost crying with frustration. I was just grinding through the last bit of it and the tedium of the process was overwhelming. I kept thinking “there has to be a better way” even back then, but there was something magical about holding the book in my hands in October 2010 when it came out.

In 2011, when my partner Jason Mendelson and I wrote my second back, Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist, I had figured out the writing drill, but I was still baffled by the publishing process. It was painful and tedious, and there were many steps along the way that made no sense. But I kept writing and learning.

In 2012 I thought hard about self-publishing everything I did going forward, but I didn’t feel like I completely grokked the publishing business yet. Venture Deals was a very successful book and Wiley increased their focus and attention on me. I had an expectation that somehow things would be different, better, more impactful, and more aligned, especially around process, promotion, and economics. So I decided to do four more books, which make up the Startup Revolution series, including the most recent one  - Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors (the third in the series) – which just came out. Along the way, my long time friend Matt Blumberg (CEO of Return Path) decided to write a book so we added it on to the Startup Revolution series, resulting in Startup CEO: A Field Guide To Scaling Up Your Business.

There’s a lot more history, which I’ll cover in later posts, but all of this led to a place in fall of 2013 where my partners and I at Foundry Group started having a discussion about doing something different around the book publishing industry. We all are extensive readers and believe the long-form book is something that is very valuable, especially ones like Venture Deals that we believe will have at least a 20 year relevance, assuming we continue to update it. We also think it should be easier for more people to write and produce high quality, useful long-form books. While we think the entire process and engagement model is completely broken, that leads us to the punchline of the thing that is really wrong.

The relationship between the reader and the author has an immense amount of friction in it. And that friction comes from the publisher. It’s not just that the economics are wrong (why should the economic split between publisher and author be – on average – 85% to the publisher and 15% to the author?) but that the publisher sits in between the author and the reader. Sure – industrious writers can build direct relationships with their readers around their publisher – which is what happens today, but that’s silly. Shouldn’t the publisher be in the business of helping facilitate these relationships in addition to theoretically curating and producing the content?

We spent a morning together one day talking about this stuff. We came up with a very long list of issues, like the ones above, and then put the key question on the table: “What should we do about this.” My response was “let’s start our own publishing company.” Hence FG Press.

As with all new ideas, we started looking for patterns in things in the world that we liked. If you are familiar with McSweeney’s, O’Reilly, or Granta, then you understand where our brains were going and some of the companies that inspire us. Ultimately, we realized that the optimal model for what we were doing was Techstars, specifically the Techstars of 2006.

If you are a fan of analogies, Techstars is to “angel investing before Techstars” as FG Press is to “traditional publishing.” We are running an experiment in the first year. The experiment involves anyone who wants to participate. We expect to learn a lot and iterate very rapidly on what we are doing. And we plan to share out ideas widely, as a way of open-sourcing our learning, engaging with other people working on similar problems, while taking an author and reader-centric point of view, in the same way that Techstars took an entrepreneur and mentor-centric point of view.

Like Techstars, this is a new entity. It has a full time co-founder/CEO (Dane McDonald), just like Techstars was co-founded and run by David Cohen. It’s a self-funded entity, just like Techstars was for the first two years. Our goal is that it’s deeply complementary and integrated into everything we do and our point of view about the world of entrepreneurship, as Techstars is.

Will make mistakes. We’ll learn a lot. We’ll have fun. We hope you’ll come along for the journey with us. If you want to get a feel for one of the characters from our first book, just follow Mara Winkel on Twitter. And we’ll take Bitcoin, once we get the damn software working right.

Book: On Writing

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As Amy watched the Seahawks decimate the Broncos, I read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. The result – Amy was sad while I was delighted.

King’s book is part memoir, part instructional manual, and part motivational tool. While I read a lot, I rarely read books by writers about writing. However, several people, including Amy, suggested On Writing to me so I kindled it a while ago.

After a long, hot run on the beach in Miami as part of my Boston Marathon training, I took a shower, a nap, and then settled in on the couch. Last week was much too intense for my tastes so I decided to lose myself in a book. This one was at the top of the Kindle queue.

I’ve read a number of King’s books over the years. I wouldn’t consider myself a fanboy, but they almost always capture me. Firestarter remains my favorite, but after watching The Shining recently, I’m going to revisit it, The Stand, and then read Doctor Sleep.

While most of my writing has been non-fiction, an increasing amount of my writing time is being spent on fiction and science fiction. As a reader, I’ve always been completely entranced by science fiction – the good stuff, not the junky stuff – and several of my current writer friends are science fiction writers. I’ve woven this into my work, since much of what I like to invest in could be considered science fiction of “not too long ago.” I’m going deeper into this in several ways, including an upcoming conference at Silicon Flatirons titled SciFi and Entrepreneurship – Is Resistance Futile?

King’s reflections on writing are crisp. His memoir is fascinating and brief enough as to not detract from the instruction manual. The bulk of the book is filled with tools, examples, and stories, which nicely reinforce King’s message, especially to get rid of adverbs. Damn – I suck at that. But I can get better. I know I can.

If you are a writer, do yourself a favor – read King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. And enjoy all the special bonuses you’ll find.

Congrats to all my Seattle friends. Y’all completely dominated tonight. Damn – there’s another adverb.

Stopping Writing For Other Web Sites

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One of my goals, and a tactic for being happier, this year is Doing More By Doing Less More Deeply. To that end, I’ve decided to stop writing for other web sites and magazines.

Over the past few years, I’ve expanded the “channels” that my original writing appears in. In some cases, I’ve written specific content for sites and magazines like Inc. and Entrepreneur. In other cases I’m participating in the grand content expansion strategies of sites like LinkedIn, Huffington Post, WSJ, and Forbes. And in others, it’s just random stuff on sites from people building up their content in a particular area.

While it’s been a fun experiment, it has become an overwhelming chore. I get a request for something new from somewhere multiple times a week. I say no a lot, but I’m constantly having to think to myself “do I want to do this or not.” I’ve never been good at moderating, so it’s much easier for me to abstain and just say no to everything.

In some cases I’ve done this to learn about the content expansion strategies of either tradition or new media companies. I feel like that learning has hit very significant diminishing returns – sure there is more to learn, but it’s not significant enough to outweigh the effort and cost.

I love to write. And I very much appreciate the opportunity others have given me to contribute content to their sites. But I’ve gotten tired of the pressure from external sites to produce material for them on a particular time frame or in response to prompted topics, which some people love but I’ve grown to dislike. And most importantly, I’ve realized that I really like three types of writing best.

  1. Short form that I completely control, such as blog posts like this.
  2. Long form, such as books like Startup Boards.
  3. Commentary on other people’s writing, such as comments on other people’s blog posts or GoodReads book reviews.

I’ve been spending a lot of my writing energy recently on a new project that we are about to unveil. I expect that by stopping writing for other sites, I’ll free up enough energy to allocate what I want to for this project. And that feels like Doing More By Doing Less More Deeply.

The Circle

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The CircleA bunch of my tech friends have asked me to suggest a book  to read over the holidays. My unambiguous recommendation is The Circle by Dave Eggers.

I think it’s one of the best books I read this year. I’m an unabashed Eggers fan. My favorites of his are A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius: A Memoir Based on a True Story and Zeitoun. I also have a giant literary crush on everything McSweeney’s.

The early literary reviews of The Circle were awesome while the reviews by people in the tech community were mixed to negative. The tech criticism was weak and felt like it lacked depth. Most of it was “hey – Eggers doesn’t really understand how this stuff works” or “Eggers doesn’t use this stuff therefore his book sucks” kind of stuff.

The Circle was brilliant. I went back and read a little of the tech criticism and all I could think was things like “wow – hubris” or “that person could benefit from a little reflection on the word irony.”

We’ve taken Peter Drucker’s famous quote “‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” to an absurd extreme in the tech business. We believe we’ve mastered operant conditioning through the use of visible metrics associated with actions individual users take. We’ve somehow elevated social media metrics to the same level as money in the context of self-worth.

Eggers completely disassembles this through a deeply engaging story with vibrant characters. Some of the characters are recognizable composites of well known people from Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, LinkedIn, and a few other large bay area tech companies. Some are unknowns, but broad representations of archetypes of the people that work throughout these companies. And some are random players.

They combine in a magical way as the story unfolds. Large parts of the book are uncomfortably close to home, shining an absurd light just a little to0 brightly on stuff we talk about – in private, and in public – all the time.

And then – boom – Eggers does what he does best. As the pressure builds, he makes his point, over and over again. With a relentless drumbeat of character destruction. In a way that is cringeworthy to an extreme. Where you vacillate between “she deserved that” and “shit, that’s just not right.” And, as you take a deep breath and process what just happens, he does it again.

All the little circles with numbers on them on my phone are bothering me right now. All the dots, numbers, flashing, and bouncing things on my laptop reminds me how absurd this has all become. While Eggers shoves it in our faces with The Circle, the end-state implications of this is prescient, especially in a Snowden-like (or should we say Orwellian) world.

Powerful stuff. And really fun to read.

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