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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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Signal vs. Noise

Comments (74)

At the end of each day, I encourage you to reflect on whether you spent your day on “signal” or “noise.” Let me explain.

Recently, I wrote a post titled Managing Priorities. In it I talked about the idea of P1′s. My weeks start on Monday morning so my P1 for the current week (which ends in about 20 hours since I usually get up at 5am on Monday morning) is to get a draft of the new book I’m writing with Jason Mendelson to our publisher (Wiley). That’s it – one P1 for the week. Of course I did a ton of other things last week, including spending two days at Blur doing an HCI brain soak, working on closing a new investment, working on two M&A deals, having a few board meetings, giving a few talks, meeting with a bunch of people, and having a few enjoyable dinners with friends. But every morning when I woke up I thought about my P1 (the book) and every night before I went to bed I thought about whether or not I had made progress on it.

I committed to myself to spend all day Saturday and Sunday on the final edit push. Now that I’m on my second book, I know my limits and know that six hours is the most I can work productively on the book in one day. So yesterday I slept in, did email and my normal Saturday morning info scan, and then settled in for six hours of editing. Every 30 minutes I took a short break – did email, had lunch, took a nap, talked to Amy, and did a 15 minute phone call with another VC who was struggling with an issue in real time. But I got my six hours in and then went out to dinner with Amy and a bunch of friends. Today I’m going to catch up on email until about 11, head to my condo in Boulder, and spend a good solid six hours on the final pass before hitting send on the draft. I’ll reward myself with dinner with some friends, although I have no idea with whom at this point.

So, while I let a little noise drift into my weekend, I’ll have spent the majority of it on signal (my P1).  This morning as I was doing my morning infoscan (Daily Web Sites, Twitter, RSS Feeds) I noticed a ton of stuff that I’d put in the noise category. There were apparently a few debates that blew up yesterday – I’ll use the one around Angellist as an example of noise.

I love Angellist and think it’s a remarkably interesting thing. However, it’s of relatively little direct utility to me – of our 35 investments made from Foundry Group, none have come from Angellist. Regardless, it has had an undeniably huge impact on angel and seed investing in the past few years. At the minimum, it’s interesting to watch the social dynamics of it. Will it impact a new generation of successful entrepreneurs and angel investors or will it result in a big money pit? Who knows – check back in ten years.

However, I saw a bunch of tweets about it (including some hostile ones followed by some conciliatory ones from the same people) linking to a handful of blog posts, comments, and more tweets. After reading a few of them, I’m not actually sure what the debate is actually about. I thought it was about “is Angellist helpful or not”, but it quickly evolved into something else.

As I was pondering this, I saw a tweet from Paul Kedrosky that said “I have had more than a few entrepreneurs complain lately about VCs/angels tweeting/blogging up storms, but ignoring emails.” While I’m not 100% sure Paul was building off of the Angellist noise, I know Paul pretty well and am going to guess that at the minimum it inspired his tweet. And his tweet is on the money – I know plenty of VCs who are making a ton of “content noise” these days but don’t seem to be able to respond to their signal-related emails. And if entrepreneurs think VC to VC email is somehow special, I’m included in that category (there are plenty of emails I’ve sent to my VC friends with specific stuff in them that are never responded to.)

Now, this is not criticism of the Angellist discussion or VCs not responding to emails. Rather, it’s an effort to give an example of noise overwhelming signal. In this case, Angellist is the signal. The discussion around it in the last 48 hours is mostly noise (I’m sure there’s some signal in there, but it’s a lot of work to pull it out, which results in a bad signal to noise ratio.)

In my little corner of the universe, signal matters a lot. I can’t consume signal 100% of the time (or my head would explode) so I let plenty of noise creep in, but I’ve got very effectively tunable noise filters. Anyone involved in the entrepreneurial ecosystem should ponder this – I encourage you to focus on amplifying signal, not noise.

  • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

    I replied to Paul earlier: “my take? GMail’s priority inbox makes infrequent/1st-contact mail nearly invisible. Frequent contacts get attention”

    I thinks this is at least a *factor*.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Maybe, but I don’t have this experience. I check my “non-priority” items once a day. Usually about 95% are spam that got through or newsletter subs or notifications. 5% are emails from new folks and I can quickly pick them off and respond to them.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Maybe, but I don’t have this experience. I check my “non-priority” items once a day. Usually about 95% are spam that got through or newsletter subs or notifications. 5% are emails from new folks and I can quickly pick them off and respond to them.

      • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

        well, anecdotally – you’re v. responsive for sure, but I’ve heard others say they’ve missed email because of this. Did this occur to you while you were training the priority behavior(s)?

        …and best wishes w/ the final edits. Tough job, for sure.

        • http://www.feld.com bfeld

          I hadn’t really thought about it during the training, but now that
          I’ve had it for a few months it seems very very happy.

          • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

            cool. And it’s now Noon – get to your book stuff.

          • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

            cool. And it’s now Noon – get to your book stuff.

        • http://www.feld.com bfeld

          I hadn’t really thought about it during the training, but now that
          I’ve had it for a few months it seems very very happy.

      • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

        well, anecdotally – you’re v. responsive for sure, but I’ve heard others say they’ve missed email because of this. Did this occur to you while you were training the priority behavior(s)?

        …and best wishes w/ the final edits. Tough job, for sure.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I don’t think this is true. I find it super easy to scan through the
      not priority stuff and pull out the actual things from the spam. One
      scan a day (first thing in the morning) and I can process an extra 100
      emails – of which 95 are spam-related (mailing lists, spam that got
      through, notifications) and pull out (and respond to) the five that
      matter.

      • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

        Maybe it’s used as an excuse or these folks were simply still learning how to best use the categorization. In any case, it’s clear this isn’t isn’t an issue for you because there’s an easy way to work-around the edge case (new folks’ email) that it presents.

      • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

        Maybe it’s used as an excuse or these folks were simply still learning how to best use the categorization. In any case, it’s clear this isn’t isn’t an issue for you because there’s an easy way to work-around the edge case (new folks’ email) that it presents.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I don’t think this is true. I find it super easy to scan through the
      not priority stuff and pull out the actual things from the spam. One
      scan a day (first thing in the morning) and I can process an extra 100
      emails – of which 95 are spam-related (mailing lists, spam that got
      through, notifications) and pull out (and respond to) the five that
      matter.

  • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

    I replied to Paul earlier: “my take? GMail’s priority inbox makes infrequent/1st-contact mail nearly invisible. Frequent contacts get attention”

    I thinks this is at least a *factor*.

  • http://www.howardlindzon.com howardlindzon

    GREAT …this post had to mess up your perfect day though.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Eh – a little noise is always good.

      • http://www.howardlindzon.com howardlindzon

        Try some Zeppelin

      • http://www.howardlindzon.com howardlindzon

        Try some Zeppelin

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Eh – a little noise is always good.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Nah – I enjoyed writing it, deriving massive pleasure from focusing on
      it for the 15 or so minutes that it allowed me not to think about my
      P1!

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Nah – I enjoyed writing it, deriving massive pleasure from focusing on
      it for the 15 or so minutes that it allowed me not to think about my
      P1!

  • http://www.howardlindzon.com howardlindzon

    GREAT …this post had to mess up your perfect day though.

  • http://www.nektra.com Sebastian Wain

    Yes, and the danger of dangers is the “fractal” nature of noise, you receive noise that speaks about noise and think it’s noise, and sometimes it is a signal!

  • http://www.nektra.com Sebastian Wain

    Yes, and the danger of dangers is the “fractal” nature of noise, you receive noise that speaks about noise and think it’s noise, and sometimes it is a signal!

  • http://tonepedia.com/blog Danny Strelitz

    I love the noise VS. signal metaphor to life, its cute :)
    Signal detection theory is not complex at its base but very complex when you dive deep in to it, and I think that the angel list has to do with the field being monitored.
    The smaller the field, or the data being monitored, the smaller are the misses, but so are the hits, unless you can focus on the area of the field that produces the best hit to miss ratio.
    The problem with focusing on this area is that the area may change, but your focal point may not.
    Why is this interesting? because angel list enable an investor to focus on one area, but receive a good state of correct rejection to hit ratio. (signal detection is composed of 4 elements- desired: hit, correct rejection, not so desired: miss, false alarm).
    Kind of lost myself there, but just like angel list, it is important in life to increase the correct rejection as much as the hits.

  • http://tonepedia.com/blog Danny Strelitz

    I love the noise VS. signal metaphor to life, its cute :)
    Signal detection theory is not complex at its base but very complex when you dive deep in to it, and I think that the angel list has to do with the field being monitored.
    The smaller the field, or the data being monitored, the smaller are the misses, but so are the hits, unless you can focus on the area of the field that produces the best hit to miss ratio.
    The problem with focusing on this area is that the area may change, but your focal point may not.
    Why is this interesting? because angel list enable an investor to focus on one area, but receive a good state of correct rejection to hit ratio. (signal detection is composed of 4 elements- desired: hit, correct rejection, not so desired: miss, false alarm).
    Kind of lost myself there, but just like angel list, it is important in life to increase the correct rejection as much as the hits.

  • http://twitter.com/kevinmarks Kevin Marks

    you need enough noise to get you out of your local maxima though…

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Totally agree. That’s why i let plenty of noise in!

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Totally agree. That’s why i let plenty of noise in!

  • http://twitter.com/kevinmarks Kevin Marks

    you need enough noise to get you out of your local maxima though…

  • http://twitter.com/rajjr_tx rajjr_tx

    Love this post. I find I can only really intensly concentrate on something for a few hours. After that, I can work, but my productivity/hour drops off dramatically. So once I start to feel this ‘drift’, I take a little break and my mind relaxes. After a short time, I find I can hit hard again. So don’t fight the drift, but don’t let it take over either.

  • http://twitter.com/rajjr_tx rajjr_tx

    Love this post. I find I can only really intensly concentrate on something for a few hours. After that, I can work, but my productivity/hour drops off dramatically. So once I start to feel this ‘drift’, I take a little break and my mind relaxes. After a short time, I find I can hit hard again. So don’t fight the drift, but don’t let it take over either.

  • http://twitter.com/rajjr_tx rajjr_tx

    I love this post. I find that I can only hit something really hard for a few hours, then I start to ‘drift’. Once that starts to happen, I can still work, but my productivity drops off dramatically as I struggle to remained focused. If I take a quick break and let my mind relax, I can refocus on the task and get back to hitting it hard. Don’t fight the drift, but don’t let it take over either.

  • http://twitter.com/rajjr_tx rajjr_tx

    I love this post. I find that I can only hit something really hard for a few hours, then I start to ‘drift’. Once that starts to happen, I can still work, but my productivity drops off dramatically as I struggle to remained focused. If I take a quick break and let my mind relax, I can refocus on the task and get back to hitting it hard. Don’t fight the drift, but don’t let it take over either.

  • http://www.picosecond.com Scott

    You need a Low Pass Filter. You can find them at Picosecond Pulse Labs :)

  • http://www.picosecond.com Scott

    You need a Low Pass Filter. You can find them at Picosecond Pulse Labs :)

  • http://twitter.com/SylvieChin ClearKarma.org

    @bfeld it looks like you create a bit of noise on twitter ;-) difficult to know the outcome of what one’s write. I admire your courage! no use to tell others about noise/waste… it only creates more! I personally try communicate as clear, concrete & constructive as possible (3 Cs). not always easy. thx for sharing!

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Yeah – I’m definitely guilty of generating plenty of noise, but
      hopefully the amount of signal I generate overcompensates for this.

      • http://twitter.com/SylvieChin ClearKarma.org

        Signal was definitely strong enough given the reactions and comments generated… Content is king, no matter which channel ;-) Greetings from Vienna, Austria.

      • http://twitter.com/SylvieChin ClearKarma.org

        Signal was definitely strong enough given the reactions and comments generated… Content is king, no matter which channel ;-) Greetings from Vienna, Austria.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Yeah – I’m definitely guilty of generating plenty of noise, but
      hopefully the amount of signal I generate overcompensates for this.

  • http://twitter.com/SylvieChin ClearKarma.org

    @bfeld it looks like you create a bit of noise on twitter ;-) difficult to know the outcome of what one’s write. I admire your courage! no use to tell others about noise/waste… it only creates more! I personally try communicate as clear, concrete & constructive as possible (3 Cs). not always easy. thx for sharing!

  • http://avc.com fredwilson

    i think the choice between doing email and blogging is a false choice. i write a blog post every day and don’t get to all my email. i’ve struggled with that issue for a long time and i believe that i can reach 10,000 entrepreneurs a day with a blog post and i can’t do 10,000 emails a day. so at some level blogging is more efficient. and being engaged in the comments is also more efficient. does that mean i ignore email? no. i spend something like 2-4 hours a day doing email, way more than i spend blogging. but even so, when an entrepreneur doesn’t get a reply, they are going to think “he has time for a blog post but not enough time to return my email” it bugs me but i’ve made peace with it to a large extent

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Well said. Note that my statement was “I know plenty of VCs who are making a ton of “content noise” these days but don’t seem to be able to respond to their signal-related emails”.

      I’m going to assert that you get to all of your signal-related emails.

      When I wrote that paragraph, I specifically thought of you (and a few others) as exceptions – hence the addition of the phrase “signal-related”.

      The broader issue I was trying to focus on was that of signal. There is way too much noise and it pulls too many people into it. You do an extraordinary job of using your blog – and content creation – to generate massive signal!

      • http://avc.com fredwilson

        i know you know that Brad

        but i am equally certain that many don’t

      • http://avc.com fredwilson

        i know you know that Brad

        but i am equally certain that many don’t

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Well said. Note that my statement was “I know plenty of VCs who are making a ton of “content noise” these days but don’t seem to be able to respond to their signal-related emails”.

      I’m going to assert that you get to all of your signal-related emails.

      When I wrote that paragraph, I specifically thought of you (and a few others) as exceptions – hence the addition of the phrase “signal-related”.

      The broader issue I was trying to focus on was that of signal. There is way too much noise and it pulls too many people into it. You do an extraordinary job of using your blog – and content creation – to generate massive signal!

  • http://avc.com fredwilson

    i think the choice between doing email and blogging is a false choice. i write a blog post every day and don’t get to all my email. i’ve struggled with that issue for a long time and i believe that i can reach 10,000 entrepreneurs a day with a blog post and i can’t do 10,000 emails a day. so at some level blogging is more efficient. and being engaged in the comments is also more efficient. does that mean i ignore email? no. i spend something like 2-4 hours a day doing email, way more than i spend blogging. but even so, when an entrepreneur doesn’t get a reply, they are going to think “he has time for a blog post but not enough time to return my email” it bugs me but i’ve made peace with it to a large extent

  • http://www.microsourcing.com/disciplines/seo.asp MicroSourcing

    It’s true that a blog, is visible enough on the web, can reach more people than an email. That would depend on readership, of course. It’s possible to send 10,000 emails a day if the mailing list is already in line, and a template message would be used.

  • http://www.microsourcing.com/disciplines/seo.asp MicroSourcing

    It’s true that a blog, is visible enough on the web, can reach more people than an email. That would depend on readership, of course. It’s possible to send 10,000 emails a day if the mailing list is already in line, and a template message would be used.

  • http://twitter.com/Heuristocrat Kris Tuttle

    Maybe we’re also shifting from email to comments, replies and direct messages? I’ve noticed some VC partners and firms are less responsive. Most of the ones in that category are indeed spending more time generating blog posts and tweets. The ones that don’t continue to respond nearly instantly to email.

    However I also wonder if the noise isn’t useful for those that are trying to interact more with these folks? A well crafted and thoughtful comment on a blog often gets a direct response from the more blog-focused VC. You can be pretty certain that he or she at least has taken the time to read it. And knowing that there is an interest in the topic by virtue of the post or tweet might actually help.

    These are different types of signals to be sure but email is pretty old these days and joins a more diverse hierarchy of communication types, formats and modes.

  • http://twitter.com/Heuristocrat Kris Tuttle

    Maybe we’re also shifting from email to comments, replies and direct messages? I’ve noticed some VC partners and firms are less responsive. Most of the ones in that category are indeed spending more time generating blog posts and tweets. The ones that don’t continue to respond nearly instantly to email.

    However I also wonder if the noise isn’t useful for those that are trying to interact more with these folks? A well crafted and thoughtful comment on a blog often gets a direct response from the more blog-focused VC. You can be pretty certain that he or she at least has taken the time to read it. And knowing that there is an interest in the topic by virtue of the post or tweet might actually help.

    These are different types of signals to be sure but email is pretty old these days and joins a more diverse hierarchy of communication types, formats and modes.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I totally agree with this. Having been blogging since the mid-1990′s and
      always having an active commenting dynamic, it’s a powerful way to connect
      with me that is very different than email.

      That said, I think there are a select few VCs (e.g. Fred Wilson) that
      generate meaningful amount of content and have real blog communities /
      discussions. Most of the VC blogs are still one way.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I totally agree with this. Having been blogging since the mid-1990′s and
      always having an active commenting dynamic, it’s a powerful way to connect
      with me that is very different than email.

      That said, I think there are a select few VCs (e.g. Fred Wilson) that
      generate meaningful amount of content and have real blog communities /
      discussions. Most of the VC blogs are still one way.

  • http://getabl.wordpress.com/ markslater

    In my tiny corner – its the only thing we thing about daily as we develop the customer – i wrote about this on Friday and the post was “signal VS noise”!

    There sure was alot of noise this weekend over Angellist – i have to be honest – its the first time i have heard of this – i always thought these tools were for companies that could NOT raise the money! I am hesitant to use it but it seems like a company ato ur stage might want to consider i guess.

  • http://getabl.wordpress.com/ markslater

    In my tiny corner – its the only thing we thing about daily as we develop the customer – i wrote about this on Friday and the post was “signal VS noise”!

    There sure was alot of noise this weekend over Angellist – i have to be honest – its the first time i have heard of this – i always thought these tools were for companies that could NOT raise the money! I am hesitant to use it but it seems like a company ato ur stage might want to consider i guess.

  • Theodore L. Rigby

    I could be wrong, but I thought the reaction to “Blogging VCs don’t read emails” was related to classic productivity guilt. A lot of Fred’s readers (me included) are astounded at how many hours he finds in a day. When people saw the “don’t read emails” tweet, they assumed “oh- VC’s must be neglecting other responsibilities.” While that notion is pretty implausible- the thought made people feel better.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      As I mentioned in a previous comment, Fred is an explicit exception to this
      dynamic.

      I’ve never really cared about the blogging VCs don’t answer email thing.
      Rather, there’s an interesting problem where VCs often ignore lots of real
      “signal” because they are caught up in “noise.” That was the point I was
      trying to make.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      As I mentioned in a previous comment, Fred is an explicit exception to this
      dynamic.

      I’ve never really cared about the blogging VCs don’t answer email thing.
      Rather, there’s an interesting problem where VCs often ignore lots of real
      “signal” because they are caught up in “noise.” That was the point I was
      trying to make.

      • Theodore L. Rigby

        That makes sense, apologies for the misunderstanding- I didn’t mean that you were implying that was the case. Thank you for the post too, I read it this morning and immediately thought how I could try to focus more on signals and less on noise in the upcoming week.

        • http://www.feld.com bfeld

          Cool – no apology necessary – you just pointed out that my post wasn’t clear
          enough which is always helpful.

        • http://www.feld.com bfeld

          Cool – no apology necessary – you just pointed out that my post wasn’t clear
          enough which is always helpful.

      • Theodore L. Rigby

        That makes sense, apologies for the misunderstanding- I didn’t mean that you were implying that was the case. Thank you for the post too, I read it this morning and immediately thought how I could try to focus more on signals and less on noise in the upcoming week.

  • Theodore L. Rigby

    I could be wrong, but I thought the reaction to “Blogging VCs don’t read emails” was related to classic productivity guilt. A lot of Fred’s readers (me included) are astounded at how many hours he finds in a day. When people saw the “don’t read emails” tweet, they assumed “oh- VC’s must be neglecting other responsibilities.” While that notion is pretty implausible- the thought made people feel better.

  • Anita

    =) Aww I thought I was going to read about Peter Gabriel! (my fav musician so had to share) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WC-5VFcliE

  • Anita

    =) Aww I thought I was going to read about Peter Gabriel! (my fav musician so had to share) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WC-5VFcliE

  • http://twitter.com/lauraglu lauraglu

    Ugh, I consider noise being prompted to sign in with facebook with the promise of a badge before I even get to read any content. :(

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Touche (and fair).

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Touche (and fair).

  • http://twitter.com/lauraglu lauraglu

    Ugh, I consider noise being prompted to sign in with facebook with the promise of a badge before I even get to read any content. :(

  • Skelley Patrick

    My day job: noise. My startup: signal

  • Skelley Patrick

    My day job: noise. My startup: signal

  • http://ariherzog.com Ari Herzog

    Sidenote: I follow a lot of blogs by RSS, and I recently created two categories — one called signals, and the other called noises. The signals are those bloggers who inspire me with everything they write, usually because they either write once a day or a few times weekly, and the noises are those who write multiple times a day.

  • http://ariherzog.com Ari Herzog

    Sidenote: I follow a lot of blogs by RSS, and I recently created two categories — one called signals, and the other called noises. The signals are those bloggers who inspire me with everything they write, usually because they either write once a day or a few times weekly, and the noises are those who write multiple times a day.

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