The Fight Between The Future And The Past

At dinner last night with Amy and friends we ended up in a long conversation about what’s going on in the world right now. We went down a few different paths, including a set of provocative questions like “Should the US have gotten involved in World War II earlier?” (me: Yes) and “Should the US have have gotten involved in World War I earlier?” (me: I don’t know – I never have really understood World War I .)

The subtext kept cycling around what, if anything, is different today. Sure – many specific things are different – but is the essence of anything human fundamentally different?

I kept coming back to the idea that we have instantaneous information about everything everywhere all the time. That has been enabled by technology, especially over the past twenty years, and is accelerating. Technology doesn’t address everything – for example, air travel still sucks.

And, more importantly, the instantaneous information we have isn’t necessarily the truth. In fact, much of it isn’t the truth, but rather a point of view that a subset of people would like to enforce on another subset of people. This is a fundamental tenet of human behavior that has been going since, well, before, well, forever. If you are struggling with what I’m suggesting, just ponder religion (and the history of religion) for a little while.

As I mulled over our conversation this morning, I feel like we are in the middle of a profound struggle between the future and the past. Many people, companies, and organizations are trying to protect the past at any cost. We see this regularly in business as the incumbent vs. innovator fight, but I think it’s more profound than that. It’s literally a difference in point of view.

For those trying to protect the past, it is a way of retaining power, status, money, a way a life, predictability, comfort, control, and a bunch of other things like that. It is a struggle against the inevitability of change. The approach, as change becomes more certain, or accelerates, is to become more extreme in one’s behavior, in an effort to defend the past. The defenders of the past get uglier, nastier, more hostile, louder, and more irrational. Ultimately time passes, people die as mortality is still a foundational characteristic of humans, and the future becomes the present on its way to the past.

Our dinner discussion reminded all of us that this cycle plays out over and over again in the history of humanity.


Hire a VP Finance Sooner Rather Than Later

The post is aimed at CEOs of startups who have at least 15 employees. If you don’t have a VP Finance on your team reporting to you, do yourself, your team, and your investors a favor and go hire one right now.

While it’s trendy to outsource your accounting to a third party, once you hit a certain size it’s dangerous. I know there is a lot of advice going around right now – especially in the bay area – that you should focus on your product, start getting customers (or users), make them deliriously happy, and not worry about the rest of stuff for a while. The tone of the advice is fine, but it creates a total mess if you follow it without pondering the implications as you actually start to scale up revenue and expenses.

When I say things like this, I feel old. At Feld Technologies, our fourth employee (hired in 1989) did all of our accounting. You’ll recognize her name (Amy Batchelor) and she joined us to answer the phones and do all the random shit that my partner Dave and I didn’t have time for. Dave taught her accounting in about a week and Amy kept doing that, along with a bunch of other things, until we got to about 10 people. At that point, we hired a woman named Stephanie Wallace to be our Controller. I can’t remember what title she ultimately had, but she continued the awesomeness that Amy started.

I don’t care whether you call the person a VP Finance or VP Accounting. If you want, you can also call this person a Controller, although my general experience is that in this era of title inflation you won’t be hiring an experienced enough person if they take a Controller title.

This is not a CFO. At 15 people, you want someone who will do all the work, but also has the ability to scale up and manage a small team. You want someone who reports directly to you (the CEO) and is able to handle a wide range of administrative stuff beyond the accounting, but doesn’t need to hire a bunch of direct reports to manage the people who do the actual work. At some point you’ll want a CFO, but this is way too early in your life cycle for that kind of a person. You want a doer who can manage, not a manager who will reluctantly do.

This should be someone who has been in at least two startups prior to joining yours. They can have had a controller title in their last role, or a VP title, but they need to have been through the startup drill multiple times. You don’t want someone who has recently come from a big company, unless it’s a startup that has scaled up and they joined early (around 15 people). You especially don’t want someone who is trying to break into the startup game. Instead of hiring this person, you should encourage them to go get a job at a scaled-up startup and learn the ropes there, rather than with you.

This person should be on your leadership team. They should sit near you. They should take stuff off your plate every day. You should trust them with every login and password to every system in your company. You should let them interact directly with your investors. You should interact with them regularly, listen to them, but also manage them so they don’t end up being the person that says no to everything. They should give you significant leverage in all aspects of your job, so you can spend more of your time focusing on your product, getting customers (or users), making them deliriously happy, and not worrying about the rest of stuff.

Every time I’ve seen a company delay adding this kind of person when they hit 15 people, there’s always been excessive pain at about 30 people. I let companies make this mistake – suggesting strongly that the add this person, but never insisting on it, since I rarely demand a CEO do something (I don’t think that’s my role, nor do I think it’s healthy.) But, as I’ve seen this mistake made over and over and over again, I’ve gotten more forceful with my suggestion.

My Twitter Feed Is Full Of Politics

It’s so disheartening to me. I don’t read newspapers or watch the news on TV deliberately to avoid the noise. Periodically I’ll get a little signal of value from somewhere, usually Amy, but generally I can focus on what I care about.

Twitter has always been that refreshing place where I can quickly find out what is going on in my tech world. I follow mostly entrepreneurs and VCs – some who I know and some who I don’t know. I have a few companies in my feed. But no newspapers, no magazines, and no mainstream media.

Suddenly it’s all politics all the time. The retweeting of stuff I simply don’t care about overwhelms my feed. As my brain gets hit over and over again by the noise of the RNC, DNC, Trump, Clinton, and zillion other people bloviating about what I think is one of the strangest elections I’ve every experienced as a human, it has become hard to dodge and ignore it.

I think today might be the turning point for me. I’m utterly disgusted by the bullying, lies, racism, and hate going on. I’m starting to believe the Russian conspiracy theories. I’ve hit my personal moment of “I’ve got better things to do with my day.”

I know it’s just going to get worse between now and the election. Noisy. Crazier. More offensive and intolerable. Less rational.

Amy reminds me that this isn’t anything new. In the 1930s the anti-immigrant sentiment was high as the economy declined during the great depression. In the 1940s the America First Committee was dominant. In the 1950s McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee was front and center. In the 1960s we had civil rights, FBI overreach, and the setup for the 1970s with Nixon. And on and on and on.

All this has happened before, and all this will happen again. It’s time to focus on what I care about and not let the noise take over my brain.

Dedupe Your Processes

The phrase “dedupe your processes” was created at a board meeting I was at last week. If you know our portfolio, you probably can figure out which board meeting it was based on the use of the word dedupe.

It was part of a conversation where the goal of “Simplify Simplify Simplify”, which had been turned into “Simplify Simplify Simplify“, was finally listed as “Simplify”.

It sounds so obvious. But it’s so fucking hard.

If you disagree, do a quick reality check. Focus first on “within your company” when you answer the following questions.

Within your company, do you use more than one of:

  1. Google Drive, Dropbox, Box
  2. Skype, Hangouts, Bluejeans
  3. Asana, Trello, Basecamp
  4. Slack, iMessage, SMS
  5. Word, Google Docs

Those are the easy ones. Let’s keep going. Make a list of every SaaS-based license you have. If you don’t know what this list is, ask your VP Finance. If you outsource your accounting, hire a VP Finance. Now, consider how many different overlapping things you are using.

When you are tiny, it’s fun to experiment around with different things. When you get a little bigger, say 20 people, it’s natural to have multiple systems introduced as you try to optimize things, hire new people who are used to what they used at their previous company, or just get frustrated with what matters and distract yourself with something that doesn’t matter.

As you interact with more people outside of your company, you’ll add systems (and processes) to try to accommodate them. If you want to see an extreme example of this, just take a look at my computer and the number of apps and logins I have.

You will reach a point in your company’s life – typically around 50 people – where you realize you are wasting 20% of your collective time on overlapping systems, inefficient processes, redoing work because someone decided to build a database in Excel that doesn’t link to anything, or scrambling to pull together information that should be immediately available to everyone.

This is the point at which you should dedupe your processes. If you have a good CFO, she’s the one to lead the charge. CEOs should never do this as almost all CEOs I know are part of the problem either by holding on tightly to old processes or randomly trying new things all the time with the elusive goal of continuous improvement.

“Simplify Simplify Simplify”, then “Simplify Simplify Simplify“, and finally “Simplify”.


A Typical Example of #GiveFirst

I’ve started working on my next book, currently titled #GiveFirst: A New Philosophy for Business in the Era of Entrepreneurship. As a result, my brain is especially tuned to good examples that show a particular aspect of what we refer to as #GiveFirst at Techstars.

I was working at my desk the other day when Krista Marks, the CEO of Woot Math came in and said hi. We are investors and Jason is on her board. Krista and I have been close friends for over a decade and I always have time for her no matter what is going on.

She wanted to tell me a story about #GiveFirst so I stopped what I was doing, sat back in my chair, and listened. After she told me the story, I smiled and asked her if she was game for me to put it up on my blog as an example. She said yes and after she left I put a draft title in WordPress to remind me to recreate / write the story when I had some writing time.

Later that day, Krista sent me the full story, which follows, in an email. While the example is a simple one, it captures the essence of #GiveFirst nicely. Krista’s words follow.

A couple of weeks ago, I had just arrived in  San Antonio to setup and exhibit Woot Math at a conference.

But I also desperately needed to find a conference room to use in the morning for a video presentation and live demo of Woot Math for the board of directors of NewSchools Venture Fund. The convention center didn’t have a room or WiFi I could rent in the center, but they pointed me to the Marriott across the street. The Marriott did have a conference room available for rent. Awesome! Here’s where the story should end, right? But then came the asking price: $400 for the room, $200 for WiFi, and $250 for a phone! I rejected the offer out of principle.

At this point it was after 4:00pm the day before I was scheduled to present at NSVF, and I was starting to worry.

My colleage Tom suggested, “maybe there’s a startup space that rents rooms.” We searched and found Geekdom:

No phone was listed but there was an address; with time running out, we decide to hop in the car and drive there.

When we arrive, it’s close to 5:00pm. I hurried up to the 7th floor of a new, modern office building. The door was locked, but there was a large window, and I caught someone’s eye. I explained that I’m the CEO of Woot Math, a startup in Boulder, and I need to a room to rent for an hour for an important meeting tomorrow.

I’m immediately welcomed in, and taken to Luke Owen, the COO of Geekdom. Luke asked if I’m involved in anyway with Techstars, and I’m pleased to share that I’m a mentor for the Boulder Techstars program. It turns out that Luke is one of the program managers for Techstars Startup Next in San Antonio, which runs it out of Geekdom.

After chatting and sharing lots of common, small world connections, Luke took me a cool conference room with high-ceilings and a large window. I’m told that it is mine for the day; I’m leant his VoIP conference phone; and I’m encouraged to help myself to coffee and the kitchen.

At this point, I’m pretty overwhelmed by Luke’s warmth and generosity. I say something like, “Wow. I honestly don’t know how to thank you. Is there anything I can do for you?” It turns out he’s working with TeachTag, an ed-tech startup helping teachers be more organized. Luke asks if he can connect  me with the founders Aaron Schuenemann. Here’s the lovely introduction that Luke sent –

It makes me so happy and proud to be part of the Techstars community and it such a powerful reminder of how entrepreneurs make the world better. Every day.