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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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A Confusing Social Media Birthday

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I turned 48 on December 1st. I took a week off the grid (from the Wednesday before Thanksgiving until the Wednesday after my birthday) – part of my quarterly off the grid routine with Amy. We had a very mellow birthday this year, spent it with a few friends who came to visit us in San Diego at the tennis place we love to hide at, and basically just slept late, played tennis, read a lot, got massages, ate nice food, and had adult activities.

I returned to an onslaught of email (no surprise) which included a long list of happy birthday wishes. I had 129 happy birthday wall posts and about 50 LinkedIn happy birthday messages.

As I read through them, I was intrigued and confused.

  • The Facebook wall posts were nice – almost all said either “happy birthday” or “happy birthday + some nice words.” I received one gift via Facebook (a charitable donation – thanks Tisch, you’ve got class!) Ok – that felt pretty good.
  • The emails were mixed. Many of them were like the Facebook wall posts. A few of them were online cards. But about 10% of them asked me for something, using the happy birthday message as an excuse to “reconnect.”
  • About 50% of the LinkedIn messages were requests for something. The subject line was “Happy Birthday” but the message then asked for something.

I decided not to respond to any of them. There were a few emails with specific stuff that I wanted to say, but the vast majority I just read and archived.

I found myself noticeably bummed out after going through the LinkedIn ones. I woke up thinking about it again today, especially against the backdrop of reading Dave Eggers awesome book The Circle (more on that coming soon.)

I’m an enormous believer in the idea of “give before you get.” It’s at the core of my Boulder Thesis in my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City  and how I try to live my personal and business live. Fortunately, many of the people I am close to also believe in this and incorporate it into the way they live.

When processing my birthday wishes, especially the LinkedIn ones, there was very little “give before you get.” That’s fine – I don’t expect that from anyone – it’s not part of my view of an interaction model that I have to impose it on others. But I was really surprised by the number of people that used my birthday as a way to “get something” without “giving something” other than a few words in a social media message.

This confused me. The more I thought about it, the more I was confused, especially by the difference between email, Facebook, and LinkedIn. When I tried to organize my thinking, the only thing I could come up with was that email was “variable”, Facebook was “generic”, and LinkedIn was “selfish.” I didn’t love these characterizations, but this prompted me to write this post in an effort to understand it better.

Oh – and the best thing I got electronically for my birthday was from Andrei Soroker via a different channel – Kato.

I’m going to ponder the “culture of different communication channels” more, but I’m especially curious if anyone out there has a clear point of view on the different cultures between email, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Feel free to toss Twitter in the mix if you want.

What Are You Going To Stop Doing in 2014?

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Sometimes you have to stop doing things to make more progress.

2013 was a complicated year for me. Lots of things have gone well, but I struggled with a deep depression from January to May. My running has been erratic (no marathons this year) and I’ve struggled a lot physiologically, which at this point I think I’ve been able to determine is some version of what is called adrenal burnout or cortisol deficiency.

As part of trying to get back to a happy place, I decided to stop traveling. I haven’t been a plane for work since the middle of May. Yesterday was the first time I got on an airplane since June (when I went to visit my parents for their 50th anniversary). I’m on a two week vacation (one week completely off the grid) – something I do every year around Thanksgiving since my birthday is on December 1st.

My annual rhythm tends to run from 12/1 to 11/30 due to my birthday. It’s a much bigger marker for me than January 1st, especially since I still have some grumpy jewish kid behavior around Christmas. So – with a week to go in my version of this year, I’m starting to think about what I’m going to do differently in 2014.

I immediately flashed to no business travel. Waking up in my own bed at home for the past six months has been transformative for me. So I decided to continue to not do business travel in 2014.

But that’s an easy one, since I’m already doing (or not doing) it. So I’ve begun thinking about the next things I’m going to stop doing. Some are work related and some are personal. I’ve always been an abstainer instead of a moderator so things like “no alcohol” pop up to the top of the list quickly. But that’s less interesting to me at this point than things that are more profound in a business context, like “no travel.”

As I work on my list of things to stop doing, I’m curious about what, if anything, is on your list.

Business Love

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“Passion is temporary. It doesn’t last long. Love is enduring. And that’s the important thing. If we all had love in our lives to the degree that we should, it would be much happier.”
— UCLA Anderson | John Wooden Global Leadership Award ceremony (May 21, 2009)

Last night I had dinner with my partners and our significant others. It was a wonderful evening with the three people I work most closely with, the people they love, and the most important person on the planet to me.

Earlier this year I had dinner with Jamey Sperans, one of our investors. Late into the night we talked about a variety of things at an outdoor restaurant in Philly under the heat lamps as a chilly spring night unfolded. Much of the conversation was personal, as in addition to being one of our largest investors, Jamey has become an incredibly close friend. I was struggling with my depression so we talked some about that, but that merely served as a launch point for a deeper conversation.

In that discussion, we talked about the concept of “Business Love.” For a long time, I’ve talked about “business intimacy” – it’s the relationship I try to develop with the entrepreneurs I fund and the people who I work with. It’s a level of emotional engagement that is much deeper than “friendship” or “respect”, is not easily developed, and can be quickly lost if one party isn’t interested in investing the energy or violates a fundamental principle such as trust or honesty.

Jamey and I agreed that “business love” was more profound and significant than “business intimacy.” We discussed the concept of business love in the context of Foundry Group with the unambiguous agreement that the four of us (Ryan, Seth, Jason, and I) have a “business love” relationship.

Once a month we have a full-day offsite. We try to keep our process to an absolute minimum, so we have lunch together on Monday’s and a once a month offsite. The rest of our interactions are continuous and real-time, including almost all of our investment decisions.

Yesterday’s offsite was a perfect example of business love. We spent the day sitting around Jason’s dining room table (the general location of our offsite), got calibrated on a few things that are new initiatives of ours including FG Angels, a new treat coming out next week from us, and a new project we are launching in January. We talked about a few deeper, long range things we want to get right, especially in the context of several of our very successful investments. And we argued about some stuff that we disagreed on in an effort to both understand the data and get aligned.

It was awesome and one of my favorite days of the month. When we split up around 3pm (we end when we are finished) I had a permagrin on my face. I walked home and spent a few hours grinding through email. I went to a meeting and then picked up Amy to head back to Jason’s for dinner. We had an amazing dinner as a group to end the day.

I woke up this morning thinking about business love. I remembered my conversation with Jamey. I recalled that Jo Tango had written a post on business love a while ago and went back and looked it up. I’m guessing that Jamey was the LP in the post that Jo is referring to, since the principles of business love, that Jo refers to, are exactly what we talked about.

  • Members of those firms really respect and like each other. They’re very tight. In fact, they love each other
  • They have a sense of mission. They want to make money, but that’s not the most important driving force
  • How they treat each other spills over to how they treat their entrepreneurs and investors

The process of creating and building new companies from nothing is hard. It’s incredibly rewarding when it’s successful, but the process can be an excruciating, chaotic, and messy. There are moments of extreme stress. Failure is always lurking in the background. Working alongside people you truly love makes a huge difference, at least for me.

Dilbert on Cultural Fit

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I’ve written before about hiring for cultural fit, and about the importance of prioritizing cultural fit over competence when hiring at startups. I started thinking about it again when I saw this Dilbert comic, because it pokes fun at the culture of startups and their propensity only to hire people who fit into them. But what are we talking about when we talk about cultural fit, anyway?

You’re probably familiar with some of the stereotypes around startup culture (free massages and dry cleaning, craft beer, cool art on the walls and dogs at the office, pulling all-nighters to ship on time) and the kinds of people who work at startups (according to Dilbert, “self-conscious hipster” types with “an earring and headphones.”) Stereotypes like these give you a picture of what startup culture might look like to an outsider, but they don’t reflect the intrinsic values that define startup cultures.

Gnip CEO Chris Moody explains this distinction really well when he talks about values vs. vibe. He defines values as “the guiding principles or code-of-conduct” that inform a company’s daily operations, whereas vibe is “the emotional side of the company … highly influenced by outside factors.” To figure out whether an aspect of your startup culture is a value, he says, try asking yourself these questions:

-      Is this aspect of the company important to our long-term success?

-      Does this aspect need to be maintained forever and is it sustainable?

-      Does this aspect apply to all areas of the company and to all employees?

-      Will establishing this aspect help us make important decisions in the future?

So, for example: riding your fixi to the office or playing foosball between coding sessions are vibes. Treating people with respect or being passionate about your work? Those are values.

Your company values should be clear, accessible, and pervasive – take, for example, Zappos’ 10 core values. Having clearly defined values is important because they drive your company culture, not the other way around. It’s also important when you’re hiring for cultural fit, because without clear company values you run the risk of making poor hiring decisions: hiring people because they look or act or talk like you, and not hiring people because they don’t.

Here’s an example: Businessweek says hiring managers are now asking candidates questions like, What’s your favorite movie? Or, What’s the last book you read for fun? If you’re asking interview questions like these at your startup, you need to make sure you’re screening for values and not for vibe. Just sharing your love of The Big Lebowski doesn’t make someone a good cultural fit for your company: in fact, it’s often the people who give unexpected answers who end up being your company’s most creative problem-solvers.

I chair the board of directors for the National Center for Women & IT (NCWIT), whose Entrepreneurial Alliance works with startups to help them recruit and retain more women in tech roles. There’s strong ROI for including more women on technical teams: women improve collective intelligence, make startups more capital-efficient, and bring the perspectives of half the population. But if you’re a “dude brew” startup, you may not even know why you don’t hire more technical women, and you might need help from NCWIT removing gender bias from its portfolio companies’ job ads.

Gnip recently told NCWIT that they added three women to its engineering team. They credited this in part because the VP of Engineering, Greg Greenstreet, attended every local women-in-tech networking event, recruited on campus, and talked to as many female candidates as possible. But fundamentally they succeeded in hiring more women because, like Etsy, they made diversity a value. Gnip assigned strategy, money, and resources to their recruiting efforts, and factored diversity into evaluations of cultural fit.

Every startup is going to have a company culture, by design or by default, so you might as well design yours with values that attract and keep the best possible talent. Once you’ve distinguished between your values and your vibe, hiring for cultural fit won’t just be easier; it will give you better – and likely more diverse – employees.

If you’re interested in more information about joining NCWIT’s group of startups, let me know.

Have Every New Employee Do Customer Support For Two Weeks

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A few weeks ago an entrepreneur of a fast growing consumer-oriented company told me that he has every new employee do customer support for two weeks. Their approach is they onboard the new person, given the a one week “get settled into your role / get up to speed on the company” period and then they spend weeks two and three full time in the customer support organization.

I’ve let this roll around in the back of my head and think it’s absolutely brilliant. The first week is a typical “first week at a new company” which includes a formal day of orientation on the first day. The next four days are structured around on-boarding the person and getting them involved in their role and their team, but not too deeply. This allows there to be a “break in period” where the person is learning the systems and structure of the company.

Week two is a full time immersion in the customer care organization. Total front-line stuff. The same first week any new customer care rep would get. Day one is whatever the normal orientation is followed by four days of “training wheels customer care.”

Week three is a fly on the wall from a managers view of customer care. Rather than front-line support, this is involved in all the meetings – up and down the customer support organization – to understand what people are dealing with. The last day includes a debrief meeting with the CEO.

I think a version of this process could be created for virtually any size company in any market segment. You are trying to have the person do three things: (1) be on the front-lines of the company and understand what that looks like, (2) engage directly with the product and customers, and (3) understand how the organization works from the customer point of view.

There’s a powerful second order effect, especially if every employee does this regardless or rank or title. In the first month of their tenure, they see the organization from the inside out. This creates a powerful common view that can generate an entirely different set of early actions for anyone in a new role. It also creates a powerful culture dynamic. And it does a little of what we try to do in the first month of TechStars – which is to “slow down to speed up.”

I’m curious if anyone out there is doing something similar or has suggestions to add or modify this.

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