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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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Mix Strong Opinions With Big Open Ears

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Gluecon’s early bird pricing ends Friday, April 4th and I wanted to make sure you got the chance to register prior to the registration rates going up. When we started Gluecon with Eric Norlin six years ago, I don’t think any of us really had any idea about the true size of the wave of innovation that we were catching. Glue started out like a lot of tech conferences do, with a “business track” and a “technical track,” but we quickly realized what a mistake that was. Since then, Gluecon has transformed into a conference of what I assert is the  deepest technical content available around the topics of cloud computing, mobile, big data, APIs and DevOps. The agenda is shaping up to be something really special. Use “brad12″ to take 10% off of the early bird registration

One of the things I love best about my Foundry Group partners is that they each have strong opinions. Another thing I love about them is that they each have big open ears.

I know a lot of people who have strong opinions. I know a lot of other people who are excellent listeners. The venn diagram of the intersection of the two is uncomfortably small.

As I’ve written before, I love working with learning machines and silent killers. The best entrepreneurs are the ones who combine these traits.

I know a lot of people with strong opinions who think they are good listeners, but all you need to do is listen to a conversation between them and someone else to watch them talking all over the other person. Or asserting the same point over and over again, often using slightly different language, but not engaging in a process of trying to actually learn from the other person’s response. This is especially vexing to me when the person with strong opinions claims to have heard the other person (as in “I hear you, ok, that makes sense”) but then 24 hours later Mr. Strong Opinion is back on his original opinion with no explanation.

In contrast, I know a lot of strong listeners who won’t express an opinion. The VC archetype that I describe as Mr. Socrates is a classic example of this. I expect most entrepreneurs can give many examples of them being on the receiving end of a stream of questions without any expressed perspective, null hypothesis, or summary of reaction. I hate these types of board meeting discussions – where the VCs just keep asking questions but never actually suggesting anything. There’s not wrong with inquiry and I definitely have my moments of “I don’t get this – I need to ask more questions” but in the absence of a feedback loop in the discussion, it’s very tiresome to me.

Big open ears doesn’t mean that you just listen. It means you are a good listener. An active listener. One who incorporates what he is hearing into the conversation in real time. You are comfortable responding with a modification to an opinion or perspective as a result of new information. You are comfortable challenging, and being challenged, in the goal of getting to a good collaborate answer, rather than just absorbing information but then coming back later as though there was never any information shared.

I’ve always had strong opinions. I can be a loudmouth and occasionally end up in lecture mode where I’m just trying to hammer home my point. My anecdotes and stories often run longer than they should (I blame my father for teaching me this particular “skill.”) But I always try to listen, am always willing to change my opinion based on new data, or explain my position from a different perspective after assimilating new data. When I realize I’m bloviating, I often call myself publicly on it in an effort to shift to listening mode. And I always try to learn from every interaction I have, no matter how satisfying or unenjoyable it is.

Do you have strong opinions AND big open ears?

Welcome to The Frontier – An Ode To Startups

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Following is a guest post by Zack Rosen, co-founder and CEO of Pantheon. Pantheon is building “A big badass platform that will run 30% of the Internet.” They are making it easy for professionals to build, launch, and run websites. Pantheon is one of the Silent Killers in our portfolio – and I’m immensely proud of the progress they are making and excited about their future.

This post was an internal email to the Pantheon team following a major feature release (Multidev).  When I saw it, I asked Zack if I could post it on my blog as an ode to all startups. Many of you are out on the frontier, and I thought Zack captured the essence of it in his message to his team. 

From: Zachary Rosen
To: Pantheon Staff
Date: Thursday, July 18, 2013 2:19:42 AM
Subject: Welcome to The Frontier

The Frontier Thesis was a theory advanced by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 that American democracy was formed by the American Frontier.

“American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Sarah Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.”

You may have noticed me acting slightly more neurotic or animated lately. There is a reason for that. Apologies if I am bugging you out—it’s going to get worse.

I am very, very excited to be back here, on The Frontier.

I’ve been here before.

When I was was in college, I found some books written on the future social impact of the Internet on the World. I was a poor student, so I added them to my Amazon wish list as auctions.

Then one day I messed up, clicked the wrong button, and ordered hundreds of dollars worth of non-refundable, esoteric, nerdy used books…and over-drew my bank account. I remember thinking when they arrived, “Well, I guess I may as well read all of these stupid books that bankrupted me.”

I’m very glad I did.

That summer, this bumpkin/badass former governor from Vermont running for president (Howard Dean) had found this guy Joe Trippi to run his presidential campaign. It became clear to me that Joe had read the same books I had, and that he intended to see if the shit in the books actually worked.

I had to be there. The summer of 2003, I started an open-source (Drupal-based) project for the campaign (Deanspace), got a job in the campaign HQ in Burlington, VT, dropped out of school, and had about the most profound professional experience one could at age 19 in 2003.

I spent a year on the Dean campaign Web Team during the presidential campaign of 2004. We lost the campaign badly, but we won a major battle on The Frontier of Global Politics in the age of the Internet.

The Dean campaign Web Team proved a very simple but important idea to the world that year. We proved that you could challenge the political establishment and beat them at their own game (fundraising) by appealing directly to supporters via the Internet. That idea—which our team made work—has changed the world.

Barack Obama would not be president today without the path the Dean web team blazed. Knowing this has permanently altered the way I view my work.

Friends from the campaign went on to run Obama’s Internet operation. You’d have a hard time making the case that Obama could have won without their help.

That experience set the bar for me in my career. Ever since then, if my work is not on that scale, then I feel like I am wasting my time on this planet.

I’m at home back here on The Frontier.

What it’s like on The Frontier

For me, launching Multidev put Pantheon clearly on The Frontier. We’re doing new shit the world has never seen before.

Here are a few of my thoughts about our time here:

1. You know that quote from Margaret Mead? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The Dean campaign Web Team was 20 people, about the same size as Pantheon is today. Small teams can do huge things.

Accomplishing huge things is not easy. On The Frontier, there’s no rule of law and there are no guarantees. There are consequences if we get it wrong. We won’t be destitute, but we’ll always wonder if we could have done better.

On The Frontier, we know this, and we still go after the big problems, six-shooters blazing.

2. There are not very many people out here on The Frontier. It can be strangely quiet and peaceful. Everyone has so many opinions when you make your journey out! “Well, what will you do when X happens?” “That won’t work.” “I don’t get it.” Or, my favorite, “I’d do it this way.”

But when you get out here, you get to see what will really work and what won’t. You survive by your wits. You learn to listen to and trust your gut.

How many other people are out here working as hard as we are to fundamentally fix website tech? …. *crickets*

3. What we are doing will look obvious in retrospect. “Duh, you can raise a ton of money for a presidential campaign online” is now common knowledge, but in 2003, we were looney. “Duh, websites are developed, launched, and run in the cloud” will be common knowledge soon enough.

The biggest ideas are usually the simple ones. They seem so confusing and hopeless before, somehow, all of a sudden, they are taken for granted.

Before any big city, there was once The Frontier.

4. We are blazing the path for everyone else. We are the leaders in our market, and they will follow, after we’ve found and laid the path. The entire world will follow us after we’ve found out how to make building, launching, and running websites easy.

Notice the other paths laid by other teams out here on The Frontier. This work is holy. When you pass another team blazing their path, tip your hat. This shit isn’t easy. Be gracious on The Frontier.

5. This is a special experience. We’re not saving the world directly. We aren’t surgeons in the O.R., or soldiers in harm’s way. We’re engineers laying down foundational tech that others will build on top of. Most will never see our work. But, through our work, we have the opportunity to shape what’s possible in the world around us.

With Multidev we set a bar for the software industry on what is possible when custom software is built, launched, and run in the cloud. The other leaders in our space are behind us. We are the ones who have built a cloud platform with such deep (full website stack) and broad (dev -> deploy -> scale lifecycle) capabilities, so we get to be the ones who discover what is possible.

You will remember this work, your time on The Frontier, for the rest of your life.

The Power of TAGFEE and Just Executing

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So far I’m pleased with my shift to Maker Mode this summer.  I’ve managed to get in a solid four hours of writing on my Startup Communities book each day and will have a full draft to circulate to a small group of people on Saturday. I chose deliberately to skip TechStars New York Demo Day (which looks like it went great) this year, which was a hard choice for me but I just didn’t want to break the flow of what I’m doing. And I’m still running on inbox zero and – other than physical proximity – haven’t heard any concerns about my responsiveness or availability. As a bonus, I’m getting to spend 24 hours a day (except when I’m out running) with my amazing wife Amy.

Yesterday I saw a post from Gnip titled You Are What You Do. Gnip is one of the companies we’ve invested in that I refer to as a Silent Killers - they are building an amazing company by just doing things that customers care about, not hyping themselves, and delivering what they say they are going to deliver, ahead of and beyond expectations. No hype – just substance – and execution.

This was coincidentally followed a few minutes later by an email exchange between Ben Huh (Cheezburger CEO) and Rand Fishkin (SEOMoz CEO). Rand and SEOMoz run on a set of principles called TAGFEE (Transparent, Authentic, Generous, Fun, Empathetic, Exceptional) and if you want to see this in action, take a look at the post Rand wrote recently about the financing we led titled Moz’s $18 Million Venture Financing: Our Story, Metrics and Future.

Ben (to:Rand, Brad): Just a random thought… Maybe I don’t have the balls to do it, maybe I just think that I want to run my biz differently, but the more I do this, the more I converge on TAGFEE. Thanks for putting it out there in the world.

Brad (to:Ben, Rand): I am 100% convinced TAGFEE is right. It’s so unbelievably liberating. 

Rand (to:Ben, Brad): This email put a huge smile on my face. That said, it’s fucking hard. So hard I can barely believe it. Being TAGFEE yourself when there’s always pressure not to sucks bad enough. But working with a large team and getting managers and individual contributors to act this way (and figure out when/where/how/whether it’s being broken) is the toughest challenge I’ve ever had. Thankfully, it’s incredibly rewarding, too. Oh – and there’s a missing “H” in TAGFEE. For humility. In fact, empathy and humility in potential hires are the best predictors that they’re going to fit with our team and be TAGFEE.

In contrast, I got an email from a VC earlier this week who said “aren’t you worried that one of your LPs will see your post about spending the summer at your place in Keystone?” My immediate reaction was to point him to TAGFEE and say that we try to be 100% TAGFEE with our LPs so I hope they see what I’m doing and appreciate why I’m doing it. I know unambiguously what my job for my LPs is – they give me a box of money and my job is to give them back – over time – a much bigger box full of money. I’m never confused this and I always try to do it in a way that maximizes the size of the box I give them back.

If you line up You Are What You Do, TAGFEE, and Silent Killers you start to get a feel for the type of entrepreneurs we love to work with. An awesome part of it is watching them learn from each other and learning from what they are learning. It informs everything I’m thinking about and the last 24 hours once again reinforced for me the power of TAGFEE and just executing.

The Silent Killers

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On my run yesterday in Central Park, I was thinking about the characteristics of some of my favorite companies. Suddenly a phrase popped into my head about what ties all of these companies together – they are the silent killers.

When I look at the Foundry Group portfolio, we’ve got a bunch of them in it. They don’t spend a lot of time trying to get written up in TechCrunch. They often aren’t based in the bay area. Their CEO’s don’t run around bloviating about what they are going to do some day.

They just do it. And suddenly they are $10 million, or $20 million, or even $50 million revenue companies. Before anyone has really noticed. Without any real competition. They are the unambiguous and dominant market leader.

Sure – their customers and partners know who they are. Other entrepreneurs, especially ones who work with them in some way know who they are. Smart technical folks know who they are. And the geographic community that they are in know who they are since they are often the leaders of their startup communities.

But they sneak up on you. They don’t waste their time hyping themselves. They don’t run around trying to get VCs interested in what they are doing. Rather, they just do. Their twitter streams are filled with substantive stuff. Their blogs are about their product and how it is used. Their people are everywhere they need to be, and spend almost no time being places they don’t need to be.

These are the silent killers. And I love them.

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