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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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Dear VCs: What Happens When Your Words And Your Actions Don’t Match

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Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a post Your Words Should Match Your Actions. It was a generic rant that resulted from me watching a couple of VCs blow up their reputations with entrepreneurs I know because of how they treated them.

This morning I ended up on an email thread about this. I’m going to anonymize it, but you’ll get the point. The two people (who I’ll call “Entrepreneur” and “VC”) are both very successful, extremely smart, and very visible.

Entrepreneur: Thread below is 2+ years old, but resulted from VC asking me similar questions. Interestingly, when I (a year later) pinged VC about my new company, not even the courtesy of reply from him. Bad mojo. :-)

Me: Welcome to the “assholeness-VC-factor.” Hey – I’m important – give me info. Oh – you are now raising money – fuck off.

Entrepreneur: I’m amazingly appreciative to short, polite “no thank you’s”. I don’t know whether VCs think that’s too much work, or whether they want to leave open the possibility of the “must have been caught in my spam filter” excuse when the startup becomes a rocket in 2 years?

I then went on a more serious rant explaining what I think is going on.

It’s worse that that.

In my book Startup Life (that I wrote with my wife Amy) I said that one of the key things that has made our relationship work is that I realized “my words had to match my actions.” After about decade of telling her she was the most important person in my life, and then being late to dinner, canceling things at the last minute because something else came up, or taking a phone call without even looking at who was calling when we were in the middle of a conversation, she’d had enough and our relationship almost ended.

My biggest behavior change 14 years ago was to focus hard on having my words match my actions, and my actions match my words. Simple to say, really hard to do.

Of course, it also works in a business context. I’ve learned, and deeply believe, that it’s the essence of being authentic. You can have any style you want – these two things just have to match up.

Sadly, many very successful people simply don’t understand or appreciate this. They put huge amounts of energy into developing a public persona. It could be PR, it could be speeches, or writing, or systematic campaigns over a period of time about themselves and their businesses.

But then their words and their actions don’t match up. Over and over again. It can be subtle or overt. It can be mild or jarring. It doesn’t matter – if they haven’t internalized the idea of their words and actions matching up, there is a long negative reputational effect.

And, as our email exchange demonstrates, it lingers. I have heard the same thing about that VC and I’ve experienced it personally. Yet his public persona is “entrepreneur friendly”, “very accessible”, “incredibly smart”, and “highly capable.” Yet, he completely blew you off, after asking you for something when you were a powerful and well-connected executive at a large company. Stupid behavior on his part.

Oh, and in addition, this VC missed a chance to invest in what is now a rocket ship. And the entrepreneur didn’t go back to him for the Series B because he got blown off the first time, so the VC missed two chances to invest.

Do your words match your actions? If you don’t know, ask yourself at the end of each day “did my words today match my actions.”

Digital Paralysis

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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.

After Your First Big Success, What’s Next?

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As exits have been flowing nicely again the past few years, many of the entrepreneurs I work with have experienced their first big exit. I refer to this moment as when you find that you have life changing money in your bank account, which I like to call “fuck you money.” You now can do whatever you want with the rest of your life.

I was on a walk with an entrepreneur recently who was wrestling with this when we ran into another entrepreneur I had backed who had an exit a while ago and had wrestled with the question of “what’s next.” We chatted briefly and then he hopped on his bike and continued his ride.

Later in the day, I got the following magnificent note in my inbox from my bike-riding successful friend.

I was thinking about the ‘what’s next’ conversation. I’m sure you’ve seen everything and are all over it, but in my more limited experience, for some people it’s harder than the what’s first conversation (i.e. should I start a company or not?).

I find, unfortunately, that a reasonable percentage of people chase their tail endlessly looking for the next big win, but they can never catch it because they have no idea what they are chasing. Their life spirals inward as they get more unsure of themselves, more frustrated, more unhappy.

I think this state of uncertainty and self doubt causes more depression, divorce and addiction for some people than starting and running a company. Especially if they’ve never felt failure before. Now they fail all the time and they can’t figure it out.

I think it’s mostly because they never find passion again, or they look for it in the wrong places. There are a million things they can do in the world, but the spend most of their time looking for the next great technology company that sells a better widget, but doesn’t necessarily change their life in any meaningful way.

They have grand opportunity because they are unbound to do something they truly love. If you love mentoring, mentor, if you love the environment, help it. If you love children, teach them. If you love your family, share with them. Give back to everyone who gave to you on the path to success, and then give more broadly to everyone who seems deserving.

To me, that’s the real grand victory.

Totally brilliant. And so simple.

I had my first exit when I sold my first company (Feld Technologies) at age 28. After the dust settled and I had sold all the stock I’d received, I’d made somewhere between $1m and $2m after tax. When Amy and I talked about “what’s next” when I was 29.5 (about the time I finished working for the company that bought mine) one of the options for consideration was to retire and move to Homer, Alaska. I was making plenty of money consulting and, while I was investing much of the money I made from the sale into new companies as an angel investor, the idea of living in Homer was attractive. We figured we could easily live for the rest of our life on consulting income and what we’d managed to save, even if none of the angel investments I was making turned into anything. When one of them was acquired a few months later and we had another $1m after tax, we realized that we could easily live on $40k / year of cash in Homer, which would last us about 25 years if we made no other income.

We were deeply in the “should we just call it quits and go live a different life conversation.” But at almost 30, I just didn’t feel done, and in many ways I felt that I was just at the beginning of a new journey (which turned out to be true.) So we packed up, moved from Boston to Boulder, and decided to build a life in Colorado, while I continued to invest. This was 1995 and the path from there has been powerful and dramatic. By 1999 I had to ponder “what’s next” again after a number of my angel investments returned more money to me than I ever thought I’d have, and then again in 2002 after getting massively crushed by the collapse of the Internet bubble and losing even more money on paper than I expected I’d make cumulatively in my lifetime.

I’ve been through the “what’s next” discussion with Amy several times, including in 2004 when I doubled down on Mobius Venture Capital (instead of packing it up and calling it quits), in 2006 when we decided to start Techstars and Foundry Group, and again in 2013 after spending six months being extremely depressed.

Each time, I’m adjusted how I spend my life in the way my friend talks about in his final paragraph:

They have grand opportunity because they are unbound to do something they truly love. If you love mentoring, mentor, if you love the environment, help it. If you love children, teach them. If you love your family, share with them. Give back to everyone who gave to you on the path to success, and then give more broadly to everyone who seems deserving.

If you’ve recently had some success, as you go into the weekend, take some time out to ponder how you are you thinking about this. And share if you have any insights!

What’s Your Best Worst?

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I just got back from a much needed vacation – the sort of vacation you kind of think you need and then on day three of 14 hours a night of sleep you realize you really needed it really badly. We got home yesterday after a solid week off the grid and I was having trouble sleeping so I got up early to spend some quality time with my computer.

In the middle of a bunch of email I came across a gem from Elke Govertsen, the CEO of Mamalode. I met Elke in 2012 the weekend I was in Missoula to run the Missoula Marathon. She, along with some of her colleagues, were awesome hosts and while our relationship has been email only since then, I always smile when I get something from her.

The gem of an email was a link to a TEDxWhitefish talk that Elke just gave. Her note said is was on “self esteem, perspective and some of my struggles and solutions.” I fired it up and sat back to watch.

Fifteen minutes later I felt I needed to share it with you. Elke starts off strong and asserts that 85% of the world at any given moment is struggling with low self-esteem. Whether you agree with the 85% number of not, she analyzes self-esteem in a unique way. And then goes on to tell an extremely poignant story. Her story which includes a really shitty 2013, during which she completely wore herself out and then almost destroyed herself. During this time, she had to slow down, lie really still, and think a lot.

She came up with tiny little trick. Rather than try to “fix” your worst, she started to think about worst and best as a circle of goodness. Your best is your worst, and your worst is also your best. Instead of focusing only on your best, or trying to project a world to others that is your best, be authentic and actually explore both your best and your worst.

A line at 10:45 that I loved was “At a dinner party, instead of asking ‘what do you do’ ask what’s your best quality and how at some point has that been your worst?”

Elke continues to make the circle between best and worst, rather than have them on a line from best to worst. She has some powerful moments near then end, where she suggests we all “forgive and believe” and “live in the inverses where your best is your worst and your worst is your best.”

Enjoy 15 minutes of Sunday inspiration which will make you think a little differently today. Elke – thanks for sharing this with us.

Do One Thing For Yourself Every Day

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If you are interested in learning about Venture Deals, my partner Jason Mendelson and I created a course with the Kauffman Fellows Academy on NovoEd which is running for the first time from 3/31/14 – 5/19/14. The course will demystify venture capital deals and startup financings and give both first-time and experienced entrepreneurs a definitive guide to secure funding.  Both Jason and I will be participating in the course. If you want to sign up for the course, use the discount code of “ventureds” to get 20% off the price.

Mid-day yesterday I did a 30 minute fly by for the new Techstars NY class. Alex Iskold, the new Techstars New York Managing Director asked me to talk about “Top Mistakes Entrepreneurs Make.” It morphed into a fun 30 minute rant about a bunch of things that I thought Techstars founders should make sure they pay attention to during the program, and in life in general.

Reflecting on the talk, the most important thing I said was “Do One Thing For Yourself Every Day.” It can be 5 minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour. If you like chocolate ice cream, find an ice cream place and go get a scoop every day. If you do yoga, do it every day. If you like to go to the gym, go to the gym. If you are a reader, spend 30 minutes a day with a book. If you are a BSG fan, start at the beginning and watch all four seasons one episode per day (they each last about 45 minutes.) But be selfish and do one thing for yourself each day during the program.

Afterwards, Alex sent me an graphic that one of the founders at Hullabalu did. I thought it was awesome and captured some of the highlights, including “don’t believe your own bullshit”, something a lot of people are forgetting right now. And I described my favorite long distance relationship trick – the magic post card a day maneuver.

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