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If you haven’t yet bought Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, go get it right now. It’s one of the best books you’ll ever read on entrepreneurship and being a CEO.
If you are a CEO, read this book.
If you aspire to be a CEO read this book.
If you are on a management team and want to understand what a CEO goes through, read this book.
If you are interested in entrepreneurship and want to understand it better, read this book.
On Friday, I spent the entire day with about 50 of the CEOs of companies we are investors in. Rand Fishkin of Moz put together a full day Foundry Group CEO Summit. It used a format Rand has used before. We broke up into five different groups and has sessions on about ten total topics throughout the day. The groups were fluid – people were organized by category (alpha and beta) but then went to the topic they were interested in. There was a moderator for each session – the first five minutes was each CEO putting up one “top of mind” issue in the topic, and the then balance of the session (75 minutes) was the entire group spending between 5 and 15 minutes on each topic.
It was awesome. We finished with a fun dinner at Pizzeria Locale. I drove home with my mind buzzing and arrived around 8pm to see Amy laying on the couch reading a book. So I grabbed my iPad and looked to see what was new on it.
I’d pre-ordered Ben’s book so it was in slot number one. It felt fitting to start reading it.
At 10:30 I was finished with it. The Hard Thing About Hard Things was the perfect way to cap off a day with the CEOs of the companies we invest in.
Trust me on this one. Go buy The Hard Thing About Hard Things right now.
Ben – thanks for writing this and putting 100% of your heart into it.
Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0 is officially available today and can be bought online at Amazon and pretty much everywhere else. It’s the first title from FG Press and is in a category we call “startup fiction” and expect to be publishing a lot of. Think of what John Grisham did to the “legal fiction” genre. That’s what we are doing with Uncommon Stock and startup fiction.
Mara Winkel and James Chen are undergraduates at CU Boulder. Mara is pre-law, James is a computer science major. James comes up with an idea for a new machine learning technology that he creates a prototype for using the game Go as his starting point. James asks Mara to join him as his partner in the new company Moziak, which they launch against the protests of their parents but the surprising emotional support of Mara’s boyfriend Craig. Early on Mara and James start applying the technology to forensic accounting and get tangled up with some bad guys. As Mara tries to get funding for the company, James cranks on the product, and Craig goes off the rails, endangering everyone. Then things start getting really complicated. And interesting. And then the VCs show up.
I love this book. This project started about a year ago when Eliot Peper send me a cold email. I didn’t know Eliot, but he sent me a thoughtful note and attached a few chapters of a book to read. He was upfront that this was his first book, that is was tech fiction, and that he wanted my opinion. I read it that night on my couch in my condo and I can still remember turning to Amy after I finished, saying “wow – this is really great!”
Eliot continued writing and I continued giving him feedback. About six months ago I told him about the idea we were cooking up for FG Press and asked if he wanted to publish with us as an experiment. He jumped at it and our relationship, which now included Dane McDonald (FG Press’s CEO) deepened. Eliot finished his first draft in January and over a period of a few weeks I read through the book several times, making significant edits, adding a bunch of local Boulder color, and tuning up some of the story. Eliot was amazing during the edit process – working closely with me, my wife Amy Batchelor who also provided an editing pass, and then our formal editors who did a tight copy-edit of the book.
During this period, we worked together with Eliot on the launch of FG Press as well as his book. We’ve used Uncommon Stock as the alpha test for our process and have improved a lot of things. You’ll see some obvious things from us, like a 10 chapter free giveaway (if you want to sample the book before you buy it). You’ll also see some not so obvious things, like the ability (soon) to buy the book using Bitcoins.
In my new book, Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors, in addition to decomposing and explaining a lot about the functioning of board meetings, I also describe my ideal board meeting.
I had four of them this week. That’s a lot of board meetings in a week, but my weeks tend to either be “lots of board meetings” or “no board meetings” as I generally bunch them up. Thankfully, all four of them used my ideal board meeting template.
A critical aspect of my ideal board meeting is that the entire board package should be sent out several days in advance to all board members. It should be thorough, including whatever the CEO wants the board to know about what has happened since the last board meeting. While I prefer prose to a PowerPoint deck, either is fine. Optimally it’s in a format like Google Docs where everyone on the board can comment on specific things, allowing open Q&A on the board material prior to the board meeting. I like to decouple monthly financial reporting from the board package, but including a look back of the financials, along with discussion and framing is useful. But the meat of the board package should be what’s going on now and going forward, not looking back. The looking back is for support of the discussion.
Then – the board meeting has a simple structure intended to fit in three hours. Optimally all participants are either in person or on video conference. Since I’m not traveling for business right now, almost all of my board meetings have a video conferencing component. When done correctly, it’s often just as effective as an in-person meeting, and in some cases (if you follow my video conferencing rules) even more effective. What is not effective is when one or more people are on an audio conference.
Once everyone is settled, break the board meeting into three discrete sections. They, and their descriptions, follow:
Administration (30 minutes): Board overhead, resolutions, administration, and questions about the board package.
Discussion (up to 2 hours): Discussion on up to five topics. The five topics should fit on one slide or be written on the white board. The CEO is responsible for time boxing the discussion, or if he needs help, he should ask the lead director to do this. If you don’t have a lead director, read my book and get yourself one. This should be a discussion – you’ve got your board in the room – use it to help you go deeper on the specific topic you are trying to figure out. These topics can be on anything, but my experience is that the more precise the context is, the richer the discussion. I prefer for the full leadership team to be in the meeting for this part, although it’s entirely up to the CEO who is in the room.
Executive Session (30 minutes): CEO and board only. Here the board can give feedback specifically to the CEO or sensitive issues around personnel or other things the CEO wants to discuss separately from the management team can be covered. At the end, the CEO leaves and let’s the board have some time alone where the lead director checks in if there is any feedback the board would like to give the CEO.
If you have less than five topics, the board meeting can take less time. Or if the five topics only take an hour to go through, the board meeting can take less time. There is nothing ever wrong with ending a meeting early. Ever.
Now this template doesn’t always work – you often have other specific things you have to address. When a company is going through an M&A process, the board meetings tend to be frequent and cover other stuff. Or, when the company is in a downward spiral, or dealing with a crisis, the focus is often very precise.
But in my world, the day of the “board update” is over. I find no value in sitting in a room for three hours, paging through a PowerPoint deck while people present at me, and the people around the table ask an endless stream of questions, mostly demonstrating that they haven’t been engaged in what the company has been doing since the last board meeting.
Thank you Geraldine. Amy and I love and adore you. And you recommended what I think was my favorite fiction book of 2013.
I read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel yesterday on the couch during digital sabbath. It was just wonderful. I wasn’t really sure what to make of it for the first fifteen minutes other than knowing that Geraldine and Amy said that I would love it.
By minute 30 I couldn’t put it down. And two hours later I was done. And smiling. And thinking that I should go read all the Anne McCaffrey Dragonriders of Pern books again. They were childhood favorites and – while having no direct relationship to this book – things that were referenced kept making me think of them.
The characters of wonderful. I especially love Penumbra, Clay, and Kat. But the intricate flavors, mix, interactions, and crossover between the world of Google and the world of dusty old book stores was just delicious.
If you want something light, beautiful, clever, and full of awesomeness to read over New Years, try this one.
I was in a reading mood this weekend so I read Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal after reading No Better Time on Saturday. I finished it just before I walked the dog and then went to bed.
I slept very poorly last night and woke up thinking about the book. I woke up several times in the night (I’m getting older – that’s part of the drill – anyone over 45 knows what I mean) and each time I had something about the book in my brain.
When I woke up this morning, the first thought I had as I was brushing my teeth was “the characters in the book weren’t right.” When I read history, especially of a technology company, I often know a few of the people pretty well. When the writer captures their essence, it lends credibility to all the other people I don’t know. When the writer misses, it detracts from the whole thing.
In Hatching Twitter, Nick Bilton (the author) captured a dimension of the people I know. But it was only one dimension. And it missed – completely – in capturing the whole of the people. The dimension he highlighted made the story more dramatic as he focused on a dimension of conflict. As I sit here writing this, trying to process how I feel about the book, I realize this tactic – by focusing on only one dimension of a person – created incredible tension in the story.
I love Ben Mezrich and his books. I realize that Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal is written in the same style as Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal. The title is even in the same style. The big difference is that Mezrich doesn’t pretend that he’s not sensationalizing the situation. That’s his gig – and he’s not apologetic about it in any way. Note the phrases after the colon – “A True Story” (Bilton) and “A Tale of” (Mezrich).
A puzzle piece just clicked into place for me. I read Hatching Twitter (Twitter story) the day after I read No Better Time (Akamai story). Both were dramatic. No Better Time was history; Hatching Twitter was sensationalized history. No Better Time created real depth around one character – Daniel Lewin. Hatching Twitter tried to do this around the story of Twitter but had to do this at the expense of the depth of the characters to fit into the 300 pages that a non-fiction book like this ends up being due to publishing industry constraints so it has a chance of ending up on a best seller list.
I wonder what Bilton could have done with 900 pages instead of 300 pages. I’ve got to believe – given the extensive interviews he did – that he has a much deeper view on many of the characters in the book. Or, instead of using 300 pages to rush through parts of the story, he used 900 pages to go deeper on the whole story, instead of picking out several of the dramatic highlights.
I’m clearly still processing this. I had hoped to love this book. Instead, it disturbed me. Something felt deeply off, but even after writing this, I’m not sure what it is. If you’ve read Hatching Twitter, and you have an opinion, please weigh in as I try to sort this out in my mind.