Dreams and Garbage Collection

I love dreams. Mine are often very detailed, clear, extremely colorful, linger for a while (several hours) after I wake up, and full of strange and complex linkages between things that often cause me to make associations I wouldn’t have otherwise made. Ever since I learned about the concept of garbage collection in 6.001 at MIT in 1984 while using Scheme on HP Chipmunks, I’ve always thought of dreaming as the same as garbage collection for a computer. When I read Minsky’s The Society of the Mind I started referring to dreams as garbage collection for the mind.

I woke up this morning with a particularly vivid dream that has stuck with me for the past hour as I get ready to head to Seattle and Portland for a few days. After 30 days off the grid, I’ve had an expectedly intense full three days as I get back in the flow of things. I’m processing a lot and when I went to bed last night around 11:30 my brain was full. As I laid down next to Amy, she said “I can feel you thinking.” We murmured a few things to each other and then I promptly fell asleep.

I woke up in the midst of the dream to Amy saying “Did you set an alarm?” (Answer: “No, but I’m awake now!”) In my dream I was walking down the hall with the Chief Information Officer of a health care company I’d somehow ended up as a consultant for. The CIO was an older white guy – classic last generation CIO – who was totally panicked about a security breach but had no idea what to do about it. He and I had just walked out of a board meeting with about 30 people moments after they’d fired the CEO. The board was in an uproar, trying to figure out how the CEO had let the security breach happen and why there were all these Twitter accounts posting images of patients with posts in weird / poor English saying things about how great Trump is.

In the board meeting I had explained to the board that the Twitter accounts were geo-coded with locations in Russia, so it was likely a Russian hacker and a focused attack that had nothing to do with the company. One of the board members was emotional. “I don’t give a shit – just fix it!” Other board members were talking over each other about who the new CEO should be. The consensus was “We don’t care what it costs – just solve the problem.”

Immediately prior to walking into the board meeting, I had been in an underground office below a parking garage meeting with a small team of white hat hackers. They had previously gotten my attention by breaking into several highly secure systems unrelated to me, sending me evidence of their break ins, and suggesting that they were for hire. I had been going back and forth with Rob Hayes at First Round Capital about his experience with them, since he’d hired them in the past. The lead hacker showed me how he’d spoofed Rob’s response to me and replaced it with an image of a gigantic hairless cat.

As I go back further in the dream, it’s fading now so I’m losing the thread. But you get the idea.

And yes, Amy and I love the movie Inception. It’s on a semi-annual rotation in the Feld/Batchelor household. It is entirely possible that everything we are experiencing is just one of the levels.

Mentors 13/18: Guide, Don’t Control

It’s been a while since I wrote a post deconstructing the Techstars Mentor Manifesto. The last one I wrote was number 12 of 18: Know What You Don’t Know. Say I Don’t Know When You Don’t Know. Since I’m now working on the first draft of my next book #GiveFirst (or maybe it’ll be called Give First, or GiveFirst – I haven’t decided yet) it’s time to get my shit together and write the last six posts.

Throughout Techstars, we tell the founders that “it’s your company.” The implication of this is that they make the decisions about what to do. Everything they hear from mentors is just data.

A lot of mentors are successful CEOs. As CEOs, they are used to being in control. However, in the context of being a mentor, they don’t control anything. The best they can do is be a guide.

Interestingly, the best investors understand this. One of the lines my partners at Foundry Group use regular is that we only want to make one decision about a company – whether or not we support the CEO. If we support the CEO, we work for her. If we don’t support the CEO, we need to do something about this, which doesn’t necessarily mean fire the CEO.

In the context of being a mentor, you still get to make one decision, but it’s a different one. You get to decide whether or not you want to keep being a mentor. Assuming you do, your job is to support the founders, no matter what.

Ponder the following situation. The company has three founders. While one of them is CEO, it’s not clear that the right founder is the CEO. In addition, two of the founders (the CEO/founder and one other founder) are struggling with the third founder.

It would be easy to size up the situation and tell the founders what to do. But that’s not your job as a mentor. Instead, your job is to guide them to an understanding of the situation. The best mentors will invest time in each founder, keeping an open mind about what the fundamental problems are. You’ll surface the issues, guiding the founders to understand that there are real issues, what they are, help them talk about them, and help them work through them to a resolution or a better situation.

You won’t try to solve the problems. That’s not your job as a mentor. But you will be a guide. At some point, it will be appropriate, as a guide, to say what you would do if you found yourself in a similar situation. But, as a great guide, you won’t force this outcome, nor will you be judgmental if the founders go down a different path.

Remember – you get to make one decision – whether or not you want to keep being a mentor.

Mental Fitness

After a 30 day hard reset (also known as sabbatical) I felt like this was an important re-entry topic as I fling myself back into the fray.

Several years ago I got tired of the phrase “Work Life Balance” (and its various permutations – Work/Life Balance and Work-Life Balance.) When Amy and I wrote Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur we wrestled a lot with this notion, and the phrase. At the time we didn’t have a better way to phrase it, so “Work Life Balance” persisted throughout the book as we tried to describe and discuss the endless challenges of a partnership as a couple in the context of an entrepreneurial life.

During a talk a year or so ago, I used the word “harmony” instead of “balance.” Within moments I realized that I’d solved a phrasing that had been vexing me for years. We don’t strive for work life balance, as the two never are in balance. Instead, we strive for work life harmony. I’m not very musical, but I know when something sounds in harmony, or harmonious, and suddenly I had a new phrase – “work life harmony” – which now is the way I think of the delicate dance of an entrepreneurial couple (and many other couples), along with many individuals.

Recently, I was having the same problem with the phrase “mental health.” I was being interviewed about depression and talking about how I thought about therapy. I’m a huge fan of therapy, having spent five years in my 20’s with a Harvard-trained, old school psychiatrist and more recently with a Harvard-trained psychologist since my depressive episode in 2013. While they have been very different experiences, they have each been profound for me.

I characterize my therapy sessions a “spending an hour a week on Planet Brad.” I pay the person to listen to me talk about whatever I want to discuss. He (both my therapists have been male) guides me through a deeper exploration of whatever I bring up in various ways. He connects things together over time, bringing up deeper insights. He is patient, doesn’t judge me, is a completely safe place to discuss and explore anything, and customizes what he talks about to what is going on with me in the moment. I ended this section of the interview by saying that my therapist played an analogous role in my life as my long time running coach, but for my mental fitness rather than my physical fitness.

And there it was. I loved the phrase “mental fitness.” Every time I say the phrase “mental health”, I feel like I’m fighting a stigma, explaining something that is probably uncomfortable to many on the receiving end, generating biases, and struggling to explain that working on your mental health is a good thing, not a bad thing.

In contrast, mental fitness is positive, uplifting, and has no stigma associated with it. While I’m sure the phrase “mental health”, like “work life balance”, will regularly sneak into my writing and talking, I’m going to try hard to use “mental fitness” as my default, just like “work life harmony” has become my default. If you look carefully, you’ll even notice that the category on this blog, previously called “Mental Health”, is now called “Mental Fitness.”

Back From Sabbatical

Amy and I just got back from a month off the grid in Aspen. If you are an Atlas Shrugged fan, think of it like the annual trip to Galt’s Gulch.

Since 2000, Amy and I have been taking a week of the grid every quarter. I’ve never been a good moderator with anything, especially work, so it has been a way to get a cold reset every twelve weeks or so.

Three years ago my partners and I at Foundry Group decided to experiment with a month off the grid. Each of us goes away for a month and the other three (now four) cover for him. It’s been remarkably successful for us, both individually and as a partnership.

Let’s start with the individual stuff first. My brain is cleared of cruft, I’m extremely content, and my energy level is high. I’m in great physical shape, as I slept around 10 hours a night, ran about seven hours a week, and took almost daily naps. I’m in great emotional shape, as I meditated almost daily, spent lots of time with friends who came to visit, ignored almost everything going on in the world (although I got sucked into the election a few times), stayed completely off social media, and read a book a day. I’m in great relationship shape, as I got to spent 24 hours a day for a month with my beloved.

Professionally, having now been through this three times, I know that all my responsibilities were in good hands with my partners. As a bonus, they just spent a month taking care of the companies I’m primarily responsible for, so they know what is going on in my world – the good and the bad. Spending a month disconnected is, in some ways, the ultimate display of trust, and it powerfully reinforces the idea that we all work together on everything.

And – no email. No Twitter. No Facebook. No calendar alerts. No Voxer. No Slack. No phone calls. No conference calls. No Google Hangouts. You get the picture.

We did watch Season 2 of Narcos (awesome). We watched a bunch of movies. We watched 24 Second Edition (also known as Designated Survivor.) Amy and I ate dinner together every night. We held hands a lot as we walked around and enjoyed a splendid fall in Aspen. We missed our dogs (they were staying with our Rover sitter who they love), but this let us stay up late and sleep until 11am some days.

I know it’s a huge privilege to be able to take a month of the grid every year. I’ve fantasized about this since I read Atlas Shrugged when I was 19. Thanks Jason, Seth, Ryan, and Lindel for helping this become a reality. Most of all, thanks Amy for sharing this time with me.

That said, it’s good to be back. I look forward to reconnecting with everyone – starting now.

Post Acquisition – It’s Business as Usual Except Better

Recently I wrote about how I think about private company acquisition strategies using FullContact as the example of one where it is working well.

Last week I was at a board meeting for a different company which did an acquisition a month ago. I heard a fantastic line from the founder of the company that had been acquired.

It’s business as usual except better.

Now, it’s only a month in. But this is what an investor loves to hear after a month.

Usually, the first three months post acquisition are up and down. The acquirer and the acquiree are trying to figure out how to interact. The founders of the acquiree are usually tired from the deal process and adjusting to their new reality. The acquirer is trying to be helpful, which is often precisely not helpful, especially as the acquirer integrates the acquiree’s people into its structure and processes.

I know a lot of companies that have a very well defined post-acquisition process. However, many of them don’t take into consideration the dynamics and personalities of the acquiree. Instead, they assume that everyone will happily be assimilated.

Other companies have a very hands off approach for a period of time, sometimes up to a year. But, after that period of time, the mechanical integration often begins. In situations where there has been little to no interaction, followed by too much interaction, pain often follows.

There’s something in between. This is especially important when younger private companies (50 to 500 employees) acquire another smaller (1 – 25 employees) private company. There is no one way. But your goal should be simple: “It’s business as usual except better.”