Brad's Books and Organizations

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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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Poke People In The Eye With Truth And Then Give Them A Hug

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Indulge me while I think out loud. I’m trying to decide if I like the phrase “poke people in the eye with the truth” or not. Help me by reacting to the following rant – good, bad, bullshit – and feel free to poke me in the eye with truth if you’ve got some, just give me a hug at the end.

Last week, at the Startup America Regional meeting, I got into a conversation about the role of state and local government in the development of startup communities. I went on my typical rant about how entrepreneurs have to be the leaders and government is a feeder to the startup community. I talked about a few things government can do that have a positive impact and a number of things government does that hurts startup communities. More specifically, I talked about specific types of people in government and their roles, including the people with an “economic development director” title (or something like that – who I’ve come to learn are called “ecodevos” which makes me think of Devo and the B-52s and then my brain goes somewhere completely else other than startup communities and government.)

One of the people I was talking to said “that’s all well and good, but I’m not comfortable telling my fill-in-the-blank-with-a-government-title person this stuff. I’m concerned they won’t respond positively to this. I strongly agree with you on what your saying, however. How should I approach this.”

I responded that “sometimes you just have to poke people in the eye with truth.” Be blunt. Be direct. Be firm. Don’t be an asshole – just say it like you see it. And if they think that makes you an asshole, that’s their loss. And when you are done, give them a hug so they know you care and are trying to be constructive.

I carried that line around with me for a week. I observed myself (which is deliciously meta) poking people in the eye with truth and then giving them a hug. My animal spirit, according to Amy when she’s in an earthy crunchy woowoo moment, is a giant polar bear. I like to think of this as the warm, cuddly, lovable version of a bear – the one that won’t crush you when it hugs you. Somehow these two thoughts merged together in my head and continue to circle around.

I’m at Venture Capital in the Rockies today. This is our annual Colorado VC / entrepreneur thingy. Last night I had dinner with a bunch of entrepreneurs who didn’t have dinner plans. It was last minute and a lot of fun. At the end of the dinner we got into a great conversation about the state of the local VC community and I was characteristically blunt about what I thought had happened, was going on now, and would go on in the future. While I have no idea if I’m right about the future, I made the strong assertion that it doesn’t actually really matter that much given the incredible underlying startup community and incredible entrepreneurial talent in the region.

While on the surface there’s plenty of political correctness about this conversation, and lots of “we need more VC money”, which I’m sure will be echoing in the hallways at VCIR today, I realized that I was once again simply asserting my belief that this didn’t really matter. At dinner, I wasn’t poking any VCs in the eye with the truth since there weren’t any there, but if they had been, I’m sure that’s how they would have felt I was behaving. It probably wouldn’t have been comfortable, but if they’d been willing to respond and challenge my assertions, it would have been a robust conversation.

I’ve got plenty of other examples of this from the last week, but you get the gist of this. Is “poke people in the eye with truth” a good phrase, or just nonsense?

 

My Gradual Shift From Skype to Google Hangouts

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I’ve tried to aggressively shift to video conferencing instead of audio conferencing for anything longer than a 15 minute call. I’m also giving a lot of talks around the world, especially on Startup Communities, so rather than travel and burn a day (or more), I’m doing 30 minute videoconferencing things remotely. And, as anyone who has ever asked me to speak to a class of students knows, I have a huge weakness for always saying yes to this so I’ve been doing this via videoconferencing as well.

After exploring a bunch of different options last year, I decided to use Skype everywhere since it was “good enough”, simpler, and portable. I equipped my desktops with HD cameras, took my MacBook Air on the road, and didn’t look back, until recently.

I noticed that twice last week I had horrible Skype connections. One was a US call and one was for a 30 minute presentation to a group of about 200 people in Barcelona at the Silicon Valley Comes to Barcelona event. In the US case I was using my Verizon 4G MiFi, in the Barcelona case I was tethered to my AT&T iPhone.

Skype completely failed in each case. Audio worked but we couldn’t get a sustained video connection. Each time we tried Google Hangouts as a backup. It worked flawlessly on exactly the same connection.

This was a classic A/B test. Yesterday, when I was on a Skype three way call, where one of the callers kept freezing and the other kept getting higher resolution focus, all I could think was “I wish we were on Google Hangouts.” After talking to a friend at Google who said that Hangouts is now pervasive at Google, I’m going to try it more frequently.

Any feedback from any of you about performance / quality of Skype vs. Google Hangouts?

Verizon 4G MiFi Obliterates Hotel WiFi

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On day two of my 14 day visit to Miami Beach, I realized that the hotel WiFi at the W Hotel was not going to work for me. Once again I was at a Starwood Hotel, which I love, except for the abysmal WiFi and WiFi policies. In this case, performance of WiFi in my room sucked and the cost was $15 / device / day. Upon connecting my computer and Amy’s computer, I realized I was paying $30 / day for shitty WiFi. Nope – that doesn’t work for me.

I tried my iPhone 3G tethering. AT&T service was as bad as the WiFi – I literally couldn’t get a consistent signal in the room. I wasn’t desperate yet, but I was definitely uncomfortable. Amy was annoyed, as in “Brad, why doesn’t this shitty technology work?” and all the Skype calls I had set up looked like they might be a bust.

I had my IT guy Ross overnight me a Verizon 4G MiFi. It arrived the morning of day three and I never looked back. I plugged the MiFi into the wall, pressed the On button, connected each device, and never thought about Internet access again for the remaining twelve days. When I went down to the pool, where nothing worked at all, including the hotel WiFi, I sat for hours with my MiFi happily connected. Performance was great – I didn’t even notice that I wasn’t on a 50MB/sec connection.

I only ran into one edge case that was annoyingly bizarre. The MiFi allows five devices to connect simultaneously. But guess what – the two of us had six devices. Two Macs, two iPads, and two iPhones. The first time we realized this after getting weird “can’t connect” errors we each burst out laughing – c’mon, six WiFi devices in one room between two people? However, when you step back and think about it, the idea that there might be 10, or 20, or 50 in a few years is not beyond the realm of possibility.

So – instead of paying Starwood $180 / day for shitty WiFi, I ended up paying Verizon whatever my monthly fee is for excellent MiFi. Verizon wins this time. Starwood – you keep bumming me out with your WiFi policy. I’m already paying a ridiculous premium for your high end hotel – why not toss in the WiFi like the Marriott does. Or, at least get it to work.

Retrospective Addiction Of A Madman Post Board Meeting

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I love getting post board meeting emails that are retrospectives from execs in the meeting. This one came a week ago from Jeff Malek, the CTO and co-founder of BigDoor. They’ve been on a tear lately and are in the process of a massive set of Q1 launches for new customers. 

We had a solid board meeting, but I suggested they were being too casual about a couple of things, including communication about what was going on. This is NOT a casual group and I knew using the word casual would press a few buttons. And they did – the right ones. Jeff’s retrospective is awesome and he was game to have me share it with you to get a sense of what’s inside a CTO’s head during and after a board meeting.

I have a retrospective addiction.  But as a result of looking back at our meeting today Brad, words like ‘casual’ still ringing in my ears, I recognized I’d let some of my own assumptions drive away potential opportunities, maybe even creating some problems along the way.  I’ve always run under the assumptions that :

  1. your inbox is an order of magnitude more onerous than mine (quite)
  2. the best way to respect and value your time would be to limit email/communication
  3. you and Keith have regular communications complete with bits about what I’m up to and thinking
  4. you know even in the absence of communication from me that I’m working like a madman, doing everything I can to make it happen
  5. you also know through some process of osmosis how much I value you, Foundry, your approach, feedback, etc

Just so you don’t get the wrong idea, it’s not that I took your feedback and concluded that I needed to give you more BigDoor insight, or that you needed more info in general to get a better picture – that’s what the numbers are for.

So while all of the above assumptions are probably true to some degree, here’s the new protocol I’m going to start optimistically running under:

  1. thanks to your candor and aversion to BS, you’ll tell me to STFU as needed
  2. you’d like a concise ping about whatever, whenever from me
  3. you’ll give me feedback if/when it makes sense to, and I won’t expect a reply otherwise, unless I’m asking a direct question
  4. doing so is likely to benefit both of us, one way or another – hopefully more candid feedback will ensue
  5. you know that I value your time highly, and mine specifically in the context of devoting most waking hours to making BigDoor a success
  6. you know that I am incredibly grateful to know you and have you as an investor

Those are my new assumptions.  I felt like giving this topic some time and thought, glad I did, will keep it (mostly) short going forward but hopefully you know a bit more about where I’m coming from, out of this.

Thanks again for the time today, I thought it was an awesome f-ing meeting.   I always leave them on fire.

Book: Inside Apple

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I expect many of you have read at least one book on Steve Jobs and Apple since Jobs’ death. If you, like me, grabbed and consumed a copy of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, I have a recommendation for you. Go buy a copy of Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired–and Secretive–Company Really Works by Adam Lashinsky. It’s much better, much more interesting, and in many ways, more revealing.

I’ve long admired Lashinsky’s writing in Fortune. Sometimes he makes me want to scream when he missed the mark, but often he gets under the surface of what is going on an covers it in an interesting and compelling way. He doesn’t write puff pieces while at the same time avoiding the trap of always writing nastiness, especially unfounded stuff, that many journalists seem to have fallen into the trap of (which – I expect – was prompted by competition from bloggers and the endless fight for headlines and link bait.) Lashinsky has avoided this trap, which makes me enjoy reading him even more.

I wrote a short but extremely positive review of Isaacson’s bio on Jobs. I liked it a lot, but as time passed I felt mildly unsatisfied. I couldn’t put my finger on it until a dinner conversation with a friend who knows Isaacson and some of the back story of the book. It came up randomly in our conversation and after I told him what I thought he responded that he thought it was a huge disappointment. He said that Isaacson totally blew it and his publisher, and the pressure of “publishing now” undermine the potential for what he was working on.

My friends suggestion was a simple, yet profound one. Isaacson should have publicly stated that he was delaying the book for a year and then gone back and re-interviewed many of the people he’d talked to. He should have probed deeper on the character of Jobs and explored things that people might not have been willing to say – both good and bad – when Jobs was alive. And he should have taken his role as official biographer more seriously – rather than rushing a book out on the heels of Jobs’ passing, he should have paused, thought hard about how he was trying to portray Jobs, and worked incredibly hard to nail it.

His words rang true. And, as I read through Inside Apple I kept thinking about what my friend said. We all know that Apple is an intensely secretive company and the external (and internal) messages are tightly controlled. By Jobs. Now that Jobs is no longer around, the dynamics around this might change. It certainly would change in anonymous conversations with an official biographer. Regardless, another level of research, thought, and analysis would be powerful.

This is what makes Lashinsky’s book so interesting. He doesn’t focus on Jobs, he focuses on Apple. But by focusing on Apple, he does a magnificent job of exploring and revealing Jobs. As a bonus, this isn’t yet another story of Jobs’ progression from adopted son to the Apple II to Next to Pixar to Mac to iPhone to iPad. Instead, it’s a contemporary look at the company, what makes it tick, and how it really works.

Lashinsky gets to some provocative stuff. In a section about “the narcissist (Jobs) and his sidekick (Cook)” he discusses how the narcissist / sidekick relationship can be incredibly effective. In this one section, he nails the notion of a productive narcissist, which captures part of the psychology of many successful entrepreneurs I know. It’s much more subtle – and useful – than the normal “pathological narcissist” discussion that follows many entrepreneurs around. A tweet about this section in the book from me generated an email exchange with an organizational psychologist friend which gave me an even deeper understanding of this dynamic.

Overall, I give this book an A+. If you are into Apple, curious about it, use their products, or are curious about Steve Jobs and the other leaders at Apple, I highly recommend this book. And yes, I read it on an iPad.

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