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I had a fun email exchange with an investor I’ve worked with for almost 20 years in response to something a CEO send out from a board we are both on. I said “fucking awesome.” He said “that’s an understatement.” I said “CEO is such a delight.” He said “CEO is negative maintenance.”
I loved this. So I’m going to use this post to think through the idea out loud and I’d love your feedback since it’s still a messy / blurry concept in my mind.
My hypothesis is that the opposite of high maintenance is not zero maintenance but rather it’s negative maintenance.
There are days that I’m high maintenance. Everyone is. But if you subscribe to my “give before you get”, or #givefirst, philosophy, you are constantly contributing more than you are consuming. I’ve talked about this often in the context of Startup Communities, but I haven’t really had the right words for this in the context of leadership, management, and employees in a fast growing company.
Suddenly I do. When I think about my role as an investor and board member, I’m often tangled up in complicated situations. I’ve often said that every day something new in my world gets fucked up somewhere. This used to be distressing to me, but after 20 years of it, if I don’t know what the new fucked up thing is by 4pm, I start to get curious about what it’s going to be.
We all know that creating companies from nothing is extremely difficult. The problems that arise come from all angles. Some are exogenous and some are directly under your control. Some are random and some are obvious. Some are compounded by other problems and mistakes, resulting in what my father taught me at a young age was the worst kind of mistake – one that was a mistake compounded on a mistake compounded on a mistake – which he called “a complicated mistake.”
Personally, when I find myself in a complicated mistake, I stop. I step back and pause and reflect. And then I try to figure out how I can change the dynamic into something positive, not continuing to build on my complicated mistake, but instead getting clarity on what the right thing is to do to get out of the ditch.
Negative maintenance people do this. I’ve seen, been involved in, and made some epic mistakes. The CEO I’m referring to above has a great company, but has also experienced some epic mistakes. How he handles them, works through them with his team, and his board, is exemplary. There is work involved by me and the other board members, but it’s not inappropriately emotional. It’s not high maintenance. It’s just work. Decisions have to be made and executed. And there are impacts from these decisions, which lead to more decisions. Ultimately this CEO is putting energy into the system as we work through the issue, which is where the negative maintenance (as opposed to high maintenance) behavior pattern arises.
I like this idea of negative maintenance people. I’m obviously trying to think it through out loud with this post, so weigh in and help me understand it better.
I have been to thousands of board meetings. Maybe tens of thousands. I’ve done them in person, on the phone, and on video conference. Most of the time I think I’m additive to the mix. Yesterday I had a board meeting (where I was remote on video) where on reflection I was a lousy participant and miserable contributor to the meeting.
I had a really nice dinner with a founder of a company that was recently acquired by a company I’m on the board of. I vented a little about the board meeting to him at the beginning of dinner and then he asked me questions about how I think a great board meeting should work. As I was talking and explaining, I realized the board meeting wasn’t crummy. Instead, I was lousy. So when I got home, I sent the following note to the CEO and the largest VC investor in on the board (who I view as the lead director for this company.)
Dear CEO, Lead Director:
Post dinner, I thought I’d drop you another note. Please feel free to share with the entire management team if you’d like.
I thought I was a shitty board member today.
1. I was late. My brother had surgery today so I had an excuse, but that set a crummy tone.
2. I was painfully bored by the first 90 minutes. I let myself get frustrated as you read us the board package. I know some board members like this and while I don’t, that’s my problem, not yours. You get to run the board meeting however you want.
3. I was annoyed with my lack of clarity on what you were looking for.
4. I let myself get distracted. Rather than pay attention, I drifted to email which I hadn’t been on all day. The mediocre audio wasn’t helpful here, but again that was my problem. I could have paid attention.
5. I then got very frustrated with what I thought was a “let’s go raise a bunch of money thread” which I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, but I presumed that there was some positioning going on. I shouldn’t have. But I let that + my general annoyance derail me.
I’m sorry. I know I wasn’t helpful today.
So you are clear about where I’m at.
- I’m psyched about the progress you are making.
- I’m totally comfortable with you running hot at an $xxx net burn rate for the balance of the year. You’ve got plenty of money.
- When I’m bored in, or annoyed with, a board meeting, that’s my problem in the moment to deal with, not yours. You’ve got 14 people in the room / on the phone and that’s more than any human should have to try to process.
- You and <your COO> have my full, unambiguous support.
We all have off days – when you have one – own it.
Let’s start out by saying that I’m a big fan of both Uber and Lyft. I’m indirectly an investor in both companies as I’m an investor in three VC funds that are investors Uber and one VC fund that is an investor in Lyft. I have no idea how much actual equity I have in either company, but based on current valuations the dollar value of my indirect ownership is non-trivial. And Foundry Group came close to investing in Zimride (the predecessor to Lyft) but we ended up withdrawing from what we thought was an inappropriately high priced round, which, in hindsight, was clearly a miss on our part.
Regardless of my support and enthusiasm for these two companies, I’m bummed at the mud they are slinging at each other. I get that this is an intensely competitive market. I get that the stakes are huge. I get that all the reporting I’m reading is second hand and might be fiction. But the ad hominem attacks are escalating rapidly and the behavior they are surfacing isn’t pretty.
Techcrunch summarized this pretty well yesterday, after multiple articles from a variety of places including the NY Times and WSJ. The headline sets the tone: Uber Strikes Back, Claiming Lyft Drivers And Employees Canceled Nearly 13,000 Rides. The NYT article is Accusations Fly Between Uber and Lyft and the WSJ article is Uber and Lyft Rivalry Turns Nasty in War of Words.
I have no idea what, if any of what is being said is true. The tactic being asserted that is most disturbing is this one:
Accused Lyft behavior: “Lyft employees, drivers and one of its founders ordered 12,900 trips on Uber’s app and then canceled them with the goal of slowing down drivers who would otherwise be picking up actual, paying passengers.”
Accused Uber behavior: “177 Uber employees have requested and quickly canceled more than 5,000 rides from Lyft drivers over the past 10 months, Lyft said, in an effort to frustrate Lyft’s customers and drivers.”
As a customer, this sucks. If I was a driver for either service, this sucks. I think this ultimately backfires against each company equally.
Guys – both of you are trying to disrupt a massive market dominated by incumbents and government regulation. I’m sure these incumbents are now laughing their asses off at y’all are acting like petulant children, as they wait patiently for you to chew up capital, value, partners, customers, while generating additional scrutiny from the government forces in the incumbents’ pockets trying to slow you down.
I get that you believe price is a weapon – how you use it for you and your investors to decide. But by messing with each other’s service, especially in a way that negatively impacts your two key constituents, consumers and drivers, you are opening yourself up to a ridiculous amount of scrutiny and quickly playing a no-win, zero-sum game. There is no need at all for this given the massive size of the market opportunity before you.
One, or both of you, should rise above the fray. Keep on competing aggressively. But recognize that you are radically disrupting a market desperately in need of disruption and doing it beautifully. Don’t shit all over it, and yourself in the process.
I woke up with gloom in my brain this morning. Robin Williams apparent suicide really impacted me, just like it has so many other people. At first I wasn’t going to write about it because I haven’t really processed it or my emotions around it, but as I woke up, and continued to obsess about it, I thought I’d try to chase some of my own demons out of my head by putting words on paper (well – electrons on screen.) I have no idea where I’ll go with this post and hope it ends up being helpful instead of self-indulgent, but we’ll find out together if you read along.
Robin Williams was one of my favorite actors. He was an iconic comedian from my childhood (I’m 48) alongside Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Steve Martin. For a teenage boy in Dallas, Texas, these four guys defined funny. Every time a movie or TV came on with them in it, I watched it. And laughed a lot. But then Robin Williams did something magical. He started acting (well – maybe he was always acting) and went on to make two of my favorite movies of all times – Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. And man oh man was Mork from Orc an amazing actor.
When Amy and I moved to Boulder in 1995, one of the fun quiet things I didn’t share was how cool it was to be living in Mork’s home town. When I met David Cohen and found out he lived next door to the Mork and Mindy House, I knew I’d found an easter egg that would tickle me forever.
Yesterday afternoon I saw a tweet that was simply “Robin Williams RIP.” I immediately knew he was dead. With a couple of clicks I knew it was probably suicide (although it hasn’t been confirmed yet.) And at about 4pm Mountain Time, a lot of air went out of my balloon.
Amy is up in Keystone and I’m in Boulder so I went out to dinner with my partner Jason and his fiancee Jenn. It was a perfect night in Boulder so we sat outside at Japango and ate sushi and drank sake. I knew I probably shouldn’t have had anything to drink, since it’s wrong for me whenever I’m feeling down or depressed, but I just rolled with it. Jason and Jenn were perfect company – they are so incredibly happy and aligned on the run up to the wedding – so it was great energy just to be with them.
I got home, checked my email, facetimed with Amy, and went to bed. I was planning to get up early and work on my current book (Startup Opportunities) but at 5am when I got up, the gloom was heavy in my brain. Some of it might have been the sake, some of it was the tossing and turning from the dark, angry, hostile, complicated dreams I had, and some was waking up alone, with my beloved 90 miles away.
I rolled over and woke up naturally at 6:47. The fact that I noticed it was 6:47 triggered a bunch of stuff (normally I’d stay in bed until 6:48 because of 7:00 – 13 minutes) but I decided I wasn’t going to play that game with myself this morning. I had a cup of coffee and checked my email. I looked at my calendar which is packed with meetings from 9:30 to 5:30 followed by dinner with Seth and Jason and one of our LPs who is a very close friend. My brain flashed on “I just have to get to 6pm – then I’ll be able to chill and be happy.” That was a bad sign.
I went and read some of the stuff on Robin Williams. I watched the clip which I embeded above. I read Jeff Carter’s post Robin Williams RIP-Suicide Is Not A Way Out (Moz had picked it up in my Moz Fresh Alerts.) Jeff leads with a great reminder to anyone contemplating suicide:
First off, if you are thinking of committing suicide, don’t. Here’s the number to call if you find yourself unstable. No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.
It’s an hour later. While this did end up being a self-indulgent post, I’m feeling a little lighter. The sky in Boulder is a perfect blue color and it looks magnificent outside. I looked at my schedule again and it doesn’t look as oppressive. I know I’m surrounded by people I love and who love me. While the world will miss a wonderful man, and as David Mandell said in his Facebook post “The awesome/asshole ratio of this world took a very big hit today” life goes on.
Let us all stand on our desks today. O’Captain My Captain, we will miss you.
In yesterday’s post Mentors 4/18: Be Direct. Tell The Truth, However Hard, Joah Spearman left a very powerful comment about empathy.
“The older I get the more I realize that truth is something that is best coupled with empathy. Ultimately, you have to seek to understand before you can be understood and part of telling the truth is knowing that you’ll never know someone else’s truth until you hear it directly from them rather than assuming you know what someone has experienced or what’s best for them.”
This made me think of a deeply held belief that I hold with my partners at Foundry Group – brutal honesty delivered kindly.
I especially keyed in on Transparent, Authentic, and Empathetic as these three are core personal values of mine. However, these three ideas often come into conflict. It’s hard to be transparent and empathetic at the same time. Consider the situation where you fire a person. Legally, you likely have some constraints on what you say, limiting your transparency. You want to be empathetic to the person you fired, so this again limits your transparency (or, if you are transparent, you likely aren’t being very empathetic.) And then, at a meta-level, you will have some internal struggles with your authenticity around this situation.
The tension between the concepts is helpful as it makes you think harder about how you comport yourself is difficult, challenging, or complex situations.
The solution between me, Seth, Jason, and Ryan is to be brutally honest at all times but deliver feedback kindly.
While I’m sure we hold back on occasion, especially when one of us is unclear on what is going on, we subscribe to the notion of brutal honesty. We try hard to be fair witnesses in the style of my wife Amy, saying what we believe to be the truth. When it’s a hypothesis, we frame it as such. When it’s an assertion, we state that. When it’s something we feel strongly about, we preface it appropriately. And when it’s a fact that we are certain of, we are unambiguous in what we say.
No matter how difficult, sharp, upsetting, or confrontational something is, we always deliver the message kindly. We are not decedents of the Stepford Wives and we each have our own personalities, so “delivered kindly” means something different for each of us. But we never mean malice, harm, or disrespect. We are quick to own our opinions, especially when we are wrong. And when on the receiving end, we listen, and try to understand the other person’s truth, as well as our own, and then reconcile them.
If you sat in a meeting with us, you’d see no yelling. No pounding on the table. No grandstanding. No aggressive body language. No passive aggressive behavior. But you would hear a lot of brutal honesty, And you’ll hear it delivered kindly.