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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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Interesting Tech / VC Stuff To Read on 4/10/14

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I’m bouncing around between a bunch of stuff and have a two board meeting day so I thought I’d just toss up a few interesting things I read this morning along with my thoughts.

Don’t let the regulatory past be the prologue for Uber: Phil Weiser, the Dean of CU Law and head of Silicon Flatirons has an excellent OpEd in the Denver Post about Uber in Colorado and the regulatory activity around it. I’ve been vocal with our state government to not behave in “incumbent protection mode” by over regulating Uber, Lyft, and other innovative new companies. It continues to be painful to watch our state government – which is so enthusiasm about innovation and entrepreneurship – keep stepping on their toes, and occasionally in shit, as they try to balance the incumbent / innovator dynamic. I’m glad Phil said what he said so clearly – it needed to be said.

Venture funding goes ballistic: VCJ: Some people are starting to call the top of the current cycle, at least in the context of flows of LP funds into VC firms. We had our LP Annual Meeting yesterday and I had a vibrant conversation with a few of our LPs about this topic at lunch. My view on the world continues to be simple – have a strategy and a set of deeply held beliefs. Evolve your strategy thoughtful and carefully, but never change your deeply held beliefts.

Understanding the Drivers of Success: Matt Blumberg, CEO of Return Path, reminds us that a rising tide raises all boats. He speaks from his own experience about some of the cycles he’s been through with Return Path over the past 12 years and how that masks potentials issues. Greg Sands from Costanoa, who’s been on the Return Path journey with me, Matt, and Fred Wilson from the beginning, weighed in with an email on the past that finished with a great punchline: “Finally, when the slow down comes, figuring out how to separate market dynamics from team team and know whether you have the mgmt team you need for the next part of the journey is *really* hard.”

How Cheezburger Recovered From Their Hiring Blunder: Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger, has an outstanding and very open article about some very hard decisions he had to make a year ago, how and why he made them, and how he and Cheezburger have recovered from some bad choices. I love working with Ben and especially enjoy how honest and internally consistent his brain is with what happened.

Heartbleed: What Is The Correct Response? I was going to write a post yesterday on Heartbleed but didn’t get to it. Fred Wilson wrote a great one this morning including searching for the correct response for him personally. There’s lots in the comment thread – go weigh in if you have thoughts or suggestions.

Ignoring Anonymous Coward and a Rant on Anonymous Apps

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Suddenly anonymous apps are all the rage again. Secret and Whisper are the two that have recently made headlines, but there’s a cockroach like proliferation of them being funded by VCs.

Anonymous Coward

As one of my favorite BSG quotes goes, “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”

I was generally ignoring this until I read a long post by Austin Hill titled On your permanent record: Anonymity, pseudonymity, ephemerality & bears omfg! It was outstanding and referred to a tweet stream by @pmarca on the same topic.

I’ve been trolled since I first started interacting with other humans online in the mid-1980s. The first time it happened was shocking to me. I was young (under 20), on a Usenet thread, and was part of what I thought was an interesting conversation. I no longer remember what the comment was that shook me up, but it was the equivalent of “go fuck yourself with an axe, chop out your liver, and die.”

Yeah – I wasn’t ready for that. After a few years of being trolled, I learned to completely ignore it. I recall discovering “anonymous coward” on Slashdot and – after thinking someone had come up with a particularly clever user name, I realized that was their label for all “guests” who commented anonymously.

When FuckedCompany.com came out in 2000, it was startling at first, but then it quickly became predictable. If you were part of a company that was fucked, you knew it. But when confidential information started appearing on a daily basis, especially in contexts where companies were trying to do the right thing, it became upsetting. Eventually, like being told to go fuck yourself with an axe, I became numb to it and started ignoring it.

At this point in my life, I realize that it is all just noise. So, for me, I just ignore it.

It’s the same kind of noise that destroys lives. It’s so much easier to be cruel when hiding behind a wall of anonymity. We already know how much easier it is to be cruel over email versus in person. Now put up an anonymous wall. Say anything you want. Release any confidential information you want. Lie about anything, since there is theoretically no way to trace it back to you. You are no longer accountable for what you say or do. You can say whatever you want, whether it is true or not. You can perform systematic character assassination without any consequences.

Every now and then one of the anonymous apps gets hacked. All the user data gets revealed. In the past, there wasn’t enough critical mass of this for anyone to care. But this time around, there might be. And, and Austin says in his post, there is merely the illusion of anonymity here.

“FALSE EXPECTATION OF ANONYMITY: The security model for both these applications is horrendous and irresponsible. The give the user an illusion of privacy, encourage users to say things without the burden of identity (both in good or bad cases) — but then provide no real anonymity or privacy is deceptive.” 

Go read the whole thing – I won’t repeat it here. But if you think what you are putting up on these apps is really anonymous, then keep doing it at your own peril.

But why are you doing it? What is the value to you? What is the value to society? What is the value to anyone else? And what is the cost?

This isn’t a moral question. Do whatever you want. But ask yourself the question “why”.

If you think this is new and exciting, just remember all this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.

Google Apps Users Should Use Google Public DNS

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Maybe everyone knows this, but it took me a while to realize that almost all of my performance issues with Google Apps were related to my DNS configuration. Once I switched all my machines and routers to Google Public DNS all of my performance problems went away.

It’s remarkable. Simply hard code DNS to 8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4. Problem solved.

My office, condo, and house in Keystone are all on Comcast. For the last month I’ve been struggling in each of them. There are days that Gmail feels almost unusable – five to ten second waits between messages. Web performance was “good enough” so I assumed it was a Gmail problem.

Nope – it was a Comcast DNS problem.

In hindsight, this is kind of obvious. But wow, what a difference it made.

Bitcoins Bitcoins Everywhere

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Bitcoins Bitcoins EverywhereI woke up this morning to several articles about Bitcoins. From Dave Taylor’s explanation in the Boulder Daily Camera to a paywall article that you can’t buy with bitcoins (ironic) in the NY Times (A Bitcoin Puzzle) to Fred Wilson’s blog (A Note about Bitcoin), I was surrounded by words about them.

We have an awesome CEO list that covers plenty of topics. Early in the week I posted a link to Fred Wilson’s post Buying Your Holiday Gifts With Bitcoin. That generated a fun discussion including lots of “what are bitcoins and why do I care”; “here’s what they are” kind of things. And then Kwin Kramer of Oblong weighed in with a phenomenal essay. It follows.

I’m with Seth; I think bitcoin is interesting on several levels, including as a real-life experiment with a semi-decentralized currency.

Bitcoin is a software engineer’s implementation of money (as distinct from, for example, a politician’s, banker’s, or economist’s).

There’s a lot of overlap between bitcoin fans and folks with strongly libertarian views. Many of bitcoin’s most vocal proponents see bitcoin as a currency, a replacement for currencies that are created and managed by governments. These folks tend to view bitcoin as a sort of electronic version of gold, a new currency that’s not a “fiat” currency.

I’m deeply skeptical of this set of ideas. First, and very generally, I don’t tend to think that dis-intermediating government institutions is a useful goal in and of itself. I would describe a well-run central bank like the United States Federal Reserve the way Churchill described democracy: the worst solution to the problem of managing a monetary system, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

In addition, core design decisions in the bitcoin spec make bitcoin a pretty terrible store of value and unit of account, which are two things we expect from a currency.

As has been noted in this thread, the total number of bitcoins is capped at 21,000,000. Currently there are about half that number of bitcoins in circulation. The rate at which new bitcoins are mined is designed to decrease over time. This means the bitcoin market behaves more like a commodity market than like a currency market, prone to volatility and some specific kinds of market pathologies. In my view the fact that the money supply can’t be “managed” by a central bank that is able to turn various “knobs” (interest rates of several kinds, the amount of money in circulation) is a bug, not feature!

The cap also means that a bitcoin-denominated monetary system will be a system built around deflation — the opposite of how the monetary system we use today is constructed. Over time, prices will fall, rather than rise. Economists generally view deflation as a problem. If prices get cheaper over time, all the time, people have strong incentives to delay purchases and to save money. If everyone saves, rather than spends, economic growth is impossible.

Economists have lots of tools for talking about this stuff. And, while economists often disagree violently with each other, the collective knowledge in the field is important and valuable. To draw an analogy, non-programmers can and often do have very insightful things to say about digital technology. But it’s definitely worth talking to experienced programmers when trying to understand a particular platform, protocol, or application.

I’m not an economist, but I find convincing the economists’ consensus that deflation is “bad.” At the very least, I’d argue that we don’t know how to build a stable monetary system on top of a currency that is fundamentally deflationary.

On the other hand, even if bitcoin makes for a poor currency, it may well be a very useful payment mechanism. The original bitcoin paper focuses heavily on this aspect of the system design.

To explain this a little more, we can think about how we use US dollars in normal, every-day life. I usually keep some printed dollar banknotes in my pockets. These banknotes — these “dollars” — are a store of value. (They’re worth something in an economic sense.) The banknotes are also a unit of account. (Lots and lots of things I encounter every day have prices denominated in dollars.) Finally, each banknote is a payment mechanism — a transaction mechanism. I can hand over a banknote to most people I might want to buy something from. They’ll accept it. We’ll both know what that means.

But physically handing over a “dollar” isn’t the only payment mechanism I regularly use. I have credit cards, and checks (sort of — that’s kind of changing), and now some other electronic payment mechanisms like PayPal and Amazon points.

It’s possible to separate the functions of value store, unit of account, and transaction mechanism. They fit together neatly and are systemically related, but they’re three different things.

The bitcoin peer-to-peer transaction protocol is pretty cool. It’s basically strong cyptography, good timestamps, and a consensus protocol for blessing transaction reporting.

Which boils down to a way to “hand someone cash” electronically. With no trusted third party having to broker the handover. And, theoretically, anonymity for both the payer and the payee.

As a software person, I think of this as a platform. A new electronic payment platform that may have significant advantages over most of the existing ones. To get broad adoption, platforms need killer apps. So far, there aren’t killer apps for bitcoin. But there are some possible raw materials for killer apps. Cheaper international payments. Completely anonymous electronic payments. But the great thing about platforms is that it’s often quite hard to predict early on what the killer apps might be. Particularly for the really disruptive ones.

A couple of final caveats. It’s not clear (at least to me) whether it’s possible to separate the currency aspects of bitcoin from the transaction platform aspects. If bitcoin does turn out to be a flawed currency, that could be a problem even if the transaction platform stuff is really useful.

Also, the bitcoin platform is pretty new and there may be some fatal flaws in the design of its anonymity features and its transaction log. For example, the transaction log is a global, permanent thing. To verify any bitcoin transaction you have to have a full record of every bitcoin transaction ever. That’s okay now; the system is small. Our computers and networks will keep getting faster as bitcoin use increases. But a broadly used currency will have to be able to support a lot of transactions. Maybe the design can be patched, either in a technical sense or in a social/institutional sense. But we don’t really know.

Some links:

Accelerating Technology Change and Continuous Learning

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At dinner last week, my long time friend Dave Jilk (we just celebrated our 30th friendship anniversary) tossed a hypothesis at me that as people age, they resist adopting new technologies. This was intended as a personal observation, not an ageist statement, and we devolved into a conversation about brain plasticity. Eventually we popped back up the stack to dealing with changing tech and at some point I challenged Dave to write an essay on this. 

The essay follows. I think he totally nails it. What do you think?

People working in information technology tend to take a producer perspective. Though the notion of a “lean startup” that uses both Agile and Customer Development approaches is ostensibly strongly customer focused, the purpose of these methodologies is for the company to find an maximize its market, not specifically to optimize the user experience. The following is an observation more purely from the perspective of the consumer of information technology.

On average, as people age they resist adopting new technologies, only doing so slowly and where the benefits compellingly outweigh the time cost and inevitable frustrations. This resistance is not necessarily irrational – after a number of cycles where the new technology proves to be a fad, or premature, or less than useful, we learn that it may behoove us to wait and see. We want to accomplish things, not spend time learning tools that may or may not help us accomplish something.

Consequently, for many decades the pattern has been that technology adoption is skewed toward younger people, not only because they have not yet built up this resistance, but also because they are immersed in the particular new technologies as they grow up.

But something new is happening today, and it is evidence of accelerating rather than merely progressive technology change. Discrete technology advances are giving way to continuous technology advances. Instead of making a one-time investment in learning a new technology, and then keeping up with the occasional updates, it is increasingly necessary to be investing in learning on a constant, ongoing basis.

I will provide three examples. First, application features and user interfaces are increasingly in a state of continuous flux. From a user perspective, on any given day you may connect to Facebook or Gmail or even a business application like Salesforce.com, and find that there are new features, new layout or organization of screen elements, new keystroke patterns, even new semantics associated with privacy, security, or data entered and displayed. This is most prominent in online systems, but increasingly software updates are automatic and frequent on mobile devices and even full computer systems. On any given day, one may need to spend a significant amount of time re-learning how to use the software before being productive or experiencing the desired entertainment.

My mother is 86 years old. For perspective, when she was 20, television was a new consumer technology, and room-sized digital computers had just been invented. She uses the web, Yahoo mail, and Facebook, impressive feats in themselves for someone her age. But every time Yahoo changes their UI, she gets frustrated, because from her perspective it simply no longer works. The changes neither make things better for her nor add capabilities she cares about. She wants to send email, not learn a new UI; but worse, she doesn’t really know that learning a new UI is what she is expected to do.

Middle-aged people like me are better prepared to cope with these changes, because we’ve gotten used to them, but we still find them frustrating. Perhaps it is in part because we are busy and we have things we need to get done, but it is interesting to see how much people complain about changes to the Facebook interface or iOS updates or what have you. We can figure it out, but it seems more like a waste of time.

Young people gobble up these changes. They seem to derive value from the learning itself, and keeping up with the changes even has a peer pressure or social esteem component. Yes, this is in part because they also have fewer responsibilities, but that cannot be the entire explanation. They have grown up in a world where technology changes rapidly. They didn’t just “grow up with social media,” they grew up with “social media that constantly changes.” In fact, not only do they keep up with the changes on a particular social media service, they are always exploring the latest new services. Several times a year, I hear about a new service that is all the rage with teens and tweens.

A second example that is more esoteric but perhaps a leading indicator, is the rise of continuous integration in software development, not just with one’s own development team but with third-party software and tools. No longer is it sufficient to learn a programming language, its idiosyncrasies, its libraries, and its associated development tools. Instead, all of these tools change frequently, and in some cases continuously. Every time you build your application, you are likely to have some new bugs or incompatibilities related to a change in the language or the libraries (especially open source libraries). Thus, learning about the changes and fixing your code to accommodate them are simply part of the job.

This situation has become sufficiently common that some language projects (Ruby on Rails and Python come to mind) have abandoned upward compatibility. That’s right, you can no longer assume that a new version of your programming language will run your existing applications. This is because you are expected to keep up with all the changes all the time. Continuous integration, continuous learning. Older coders like me view this as a tax on software development time, but younger coders accept it as a given and seem to not only take it in stride but revel in their evolving expertise.

My final example, a little different from the others, is the pace of client device change. From 1981, when the IBM PC was introduced, until about 2005, one could expect a personal computer system to have a lifespan of 3-5 years. You could get a new one sooner if you wanted, but it would have reasonable performance for three years and tolerable for five. By then, the faster speed of the new machine would be a treat, and make learning the latest version of DOS, and later Windows, almost tolerable. Today, five years is closer to the lifespan of a device category. Your recent smartphone purchase is more likely to be replaced in 2017 by a smart watch, or smart eyewear, as it is by another smartphone. You won’t just have to migrate your apps and data, and learn the new organization of the screen – you will have to learn a new way to physically interact with your device. Hand gestures, eye gestures, speaking – all of these are likely to be part of the interface. Another five years and it is highly likely that some element of the interface will take input from your brain signals, whether indirectly (skin or electromagnetic sensors) or directly (implants). When you say you are having trouble getting your mind around the new device, you will mean it literally.

The foregoing is primarily just an observation, but it will clearly have large effects on markets and on sociology. It suggests very large opportunities but also a great deal of disruption. And this transition from generational learning to continuous learning is not the last word. Technology will not just keep advancing, it will keep accelerating. As the youth of today, accustomed to continuous learning, reach their 40s and beyond, they will become laggards and slow to adopt in comparison with their children. Even continuous learning will no longer be sufficient. What will that look like?

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