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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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Trust Can Scale

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Following is a guest post from Chris Moody. Chris is president and COO of Gnip, one of the silent killers in our portfolio. Once the main stream tech press starts noticing Gnip, they will be blown away at how big they got in such a short period of time by just executing. Chris is a huge part of this – he joined Gnip when they were 10 people and has been instrumental in working with Jud Valeski, Gnip’s founder and CEO, to build a mind blowing team, business, and market leadership position.

Following is a great email Chris sent me Friday night in advance of the Foundry Group “Scaling Your Company Conference”  which we are having this week for CEOs of companies we are investors in that are on the path from 50 to 500 people.

Startups that experience success are typically built upon a strong foundation of trust among the early founders/employees. This trust has been solidified through long days/nights in small offices working on hard problems together.  The amazing thing is that the founders don’t always realize that their company is even operating under an umbrella of trust or that trust is one of their core values.  Instead, they just know that it feels easy to make decisions and to get shit done.

When companies try to scale, one of the biggest mistakes they make is trying to replace trust with process.  This is rarely a conscious decision, it just feels necessary to add new rules in order to grow.  After all, there are a lot of new people coming into the company and it isn’t clear who of the new people can be trusted yet.

A startup obviously needs to add process in order to scale, but if you replace trust with process, you’ll rip the heart right out of your company.   When adding processes, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this new process help us go faster?
  • Does this new process help us be more efficient?

If the answer to these questions is “yes” you are off to a great start.

Now ask yourself “Are we adding this process because we don’t trust people to make decisions?”  If the answer to this question even has a hint of “maybe” you need to stop and really consider the cost of that process.

Replacing trust with process is like a cancer that will spread quickly and silently throughout the company.  One day you’ll wake up and think “this place doesn’t feel special any more” or ask yourself “why is it so hard for us to get stuff done.”

Trust could be one of your most valuable company assets.  As a leader, you need to fight like hell to protect it.  If you are successful protecting trust, you’ll actually grow much faster and you’ll still have a place where people love working.

I’ve seen trust work at a 700 person company.  Trust can scale.

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Lessons From Maker Hours

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My shift from manager hours to maker hours is officially over. I’ve learned a lot the past two months about how I work and the challenges of trying to both shift to maker hours as well as be effective in a blended manager / maker world.

I started out in June with a hard shift to maker hours. I only scheduled calls between 1pm and 4pm – the rest of my time was unscheduled. I was able to maintain this rhythm for about 30 days before my scheduled time expanded to 5pm, then 6pm, then noon. Ultimately the backlog of “other stuff” started to creep in and it was hard to ignore it.

My primary maker task was writing – I finished Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, the second edition of Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist, and made some, but not nearly enough, progress on Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur (which I’m writing with Amy.) There was a lot of overhead associated with each book as I worked on the website (I’ll finally launch the Startup Revolution site later this week), some publisher stuff (which I knew about from before), and plenty of “edit cycle” stuff.

I discovered that I could only write effectively for four hours a day – any more than that and whatever I did was crap. If I did anything – even check my email – before I started writing, I got virtually nothing done that day. So – the ideal “writing day” was “get up early, have coffee, write for two hours, run, write for two more hours, switch into manager mode and deal with everything else.”

The magic lesson here is something I already knew – my best time for creative work is from 5am to 7am. This is my normal rhythm that I’ve had for a long time. Trying to change it was hard and when I reflect back on things I’m not sure I was any more productive than if I had simply decided to be incredibly disciplined for the past 60 days and just written every morning from 5am to 7am and then let the day be whatever it was.

As I shift back to manager mode, that’s the approach I’m going to take for August and see what it gets me.

We Versus I

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I saw an email from a CEO the other day. In it, he said “I” over and over again. There were numerous places where he referred to “my company”, “my team”, “my product”, and “my plan.”

It bummed me out. I know the people on “his team” and they are working their asses off. The company is an awesome company and the CEO is a great leader. But there was a huge amount of “we” in the effort and when I read the note, all I could think about was how demotivated I would be if I was on “his team” and heard “I I I.”

Several years ago, my partners at Foundry Group had an intervention with me where they asked me, as politely as they could, to stop using the word “I” when I referred to Foundry Group. I asked them why. Their response was simple – we were a team and every time I talked in public and said “I” instead of “we” it was demotivating. While we each have our own distinct personalities and behavior, Foundry Group is a team effort (Becky, Dave, Jason, Jill, Kelly, Ken, Melissa, Ross, Ryan, Seth, Tracie, and me) and by saying “I” my  speech and actions were undermining this.

They were completely, 100% correct.

Since that moment I’ve been very sensitized to this. I’m sure I fuck up occasionally, but I think I’ve gotten a lot better at saying “we.” Every now and then something really bizarre happens, like a national newscast where the interviewer cuts off the intro (e.g. “I’m one of the four partners at Foundry Group”) and then does a first person interview where it’s impossible not to say “I”, but I’m still trying.

If you are the CEO, recognize that there is a lot of “we” that is enabling you to be successful. Don’t get caught up in the “I” – it’s a trap that will only backfire on you over time. It’s often tough to get it right, but there’s so much power in the team dynamic when you do.

Shifting Hard To Maker Mode For The Summer

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I love Paul Graham’s Maker vs. Manager schedule concept. At Feld Technologies, we used to call this “programmer time vs. phone/meeting time” and my partner Dave Jilk and I spent a lot of time figuring out how to make it work since we each had programming work throughout the life of the business but an increasing amount of phone/meeting time as our business scaled up. Near the end I was in almost 100% phone/meeting time, which I hated, but at least I knew why.

As a VC, I’ve created a very tight approach to dealing with my manager schedule. I get up a 5am every morning, read/write online until Amy wakes up (usually between 630am and 7am), go for a run, and then switch into manager mode until 6pm. I try to schedule everything (including phone calls) – I use 30 minute increments so I have lots of “air” in my schedule since many things never take more than 10 minutes. At 6pm, I either go out to a business-related dinner, hang out with Amy, or lay on the couch and catch up on email and other random stuff.

For the points in time when I need to be on a maker schedule, I go away for a week or two. To the outside world it often doesn’t seem different, except I’m not available to get together physically and I’m not traveling anywhere. But I still blog, do email, and spend time on the phone with companies we’ve invested in. However, I control the schedule tightly, usually giving myself a several hour block of time in the afternoon for this.

I’ve decided to spend the entire summer in maker mode. The first five months of the year have been intense – tons of travel, lots and lots of stuff going on, and very little time for me. I fucked myself up by doing the 50 mile run so I was more emotionally drained than normal and I didn’t really give myself time and space to recover from it. On top of it, I don’t feel like I’ve spent enough time with Amy the first half of this year, nor do I feel like I’ve had enough me time as I feel like I’ve been spending too much time doing things for other people rather than spending time on things I want to spend time on.

Through labor day, I’m not going to travel at all, except for a few marathon weekends and a few trips to Boulder for a few days. Amy and I are holed up at our place in Keystone and I’ve decided to only have a manager schedule between 1pm and 4pm each day. That leaves me from when I wake up until 1pm to be on maker time, followed by 4pm until when I go to bed.

This rhythm starts tomorrow. It’ll be interesting to see if I can hold it for the full summer given all of the other pressures on my time. It’ll also be interesting to see the external perception of my responsiveness changes at all.

Either way, I think the only real way to learn about this type of thing is to experiment, so the experiment begins now.

A Great CEO Is Always Building Muscles

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I get to work with a lot of great CEOs. When I reflect on what makes them great, one thing sticks out – they are always building their muscles. All of them.

As a marathon runner, I’ve got massive legs. Marathoner legs. They’ll look familiar to anyone who runs a lot. In contrast, I have a wimpy upper body. I’ve never enjoyed lifting weights. So I don’t spend any time on it.

Dumb.

I’d be a much better marathon runner if I worked on a bunch of other muscles as well. I’m starting to get into a swimming regimen, I’m riding my new bike around town and this summer I’ve got pilates three days a week as a goal of making it a habit. By the end of summer I hope to have a bunch of other muscles developing and a set of habits that enables me to finally maintain them.

The key phrase above is “I’ve never enjoyed lifting weights.” When asked, I say I’m bad at it. Or that I simply don’t like it. Or, when I’m feeling punchy, that jews don’t lift weights.

Of course, these are just excuses for not working on another set of muscles. If I don’t like lifting weights, surely there are things I like doing instead. I’ve always been a good swimmer – why don’t I have the discipline to go to the pool three days a week and swim? Most hotels I stay in have a swimming pool or have a health club nearby. Swimming is as easy as running – you just get in the pool and go.

“I’m bad at it and I don’t like it.” That’s what runs through my head when I lift weights. For a while, I used this narrative with swimming. But when I really think about swimming, the narrative should be “I’m ok at it and I like it.”

So why don’t I do it? I don’t really know, but I think it’s because the particular muscles I use when I swim are intellectually linked to the weight lifting muscles, which gets me into a loop of “I’m bad at it and I don’t like it.” So rather than break the cycle, I let my muscles atrophy.

Yoga is the same way. I struggle with Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. It’s too fast for me, I struggle to remember the poses, and my glasses constantly fall off, and I can’t follow what’s going on. So I say “I’m bad at it and I don’t like it” and then don’t do it. But I do like Bikram Yoga. It’s slower, there are the same 26 poses, and I like the heat. So why don’t I do it? Once again, the narrative gets confused in my mind and it turns into “I don’t like yoga.”

All of this is incredibly self-limiting. Rather than fight with “I’m bad at it and I don’t like it” how about changing it to “I’m not good at it but I’m going to try new approaches and find something I like.” There are many different approaches to building a particular muscle so rather than use a one-size fits all approach (e.g. I must go lift weights, which I hate), search for a different approach that you like.

If you want to be a great CEO, you need to be constantly building all of your muscles. There are going to be a lot of areas you think you aren’t good at. Rather than avoid them, or decide you don’t like them, figure out another way to work on these muscles. You’ll be a better, and much more effective CEO as a result.

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