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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.
I had a wonderful time interviewing Larry Gold last night at Entrepreneurs Unplugged. Larry is a special guy and someone I learn from every time I’m with him. Among the many great stories he told, including a doozy about the time he was a sophomore at Yale, he had a powerful one about how entrepreneurs assess potential outcomes. It resulted in a fun version of entrepreneurial math.
Envision a scenario where you there are 10 separate things you need to do to have a successful outcome. Each one has a 90% probability of success. What’s the probability that you will achieve a successful outcome?
I struggled with 6.041: Probabilistic Systems Analysis and Applied Probability (the probability course I took as an undergraduate) – it was one of those courses where I felt like I was a week behind for the entire semester. I did better in 15.075: Statistical Thinking and Data Analysis - maybe I was a little older, it was a little easier than 6.041, or I was more interested because I liked the professor better. If you are having trouble with a quick answer, both courses are available to you on MIT OpenCourseWare.
Back to the question. If you guessed around 35% you are correct. It’s actually 34.87%, which is (.9)^10. Now, by using the word separate, I’m implying 10 independent events, but this is the nuanced joy of theory versus practice.
Larry pointed out with glee that regardless, entrepreneurs believe when they start down the path of doing these 10 things there will be a successful outcome. Hence entrepreneurs math is (.9)^10 = 1.
Whether you agree with the math or not, it’s a great anecdote. So many things that we try as entrepreneurs and investors fail. We never make an investment thinking “this isn’t going to work”; we always invest thinking “this will work.” I don’t know any entrepreneurs who started their business thinking “this will fail” or even “this only has a 35% chance of working out.”
This shit is hard. And it’s low probability. Even if you have an ultimately successful outcome, many of the things you are going to try along the way are going to fail. But to do them, you’ve got to believe they are going to work. You’ve got to enter into the illusion that (.9)^10 = 1.
Techstars is rolling out a short video program with some of the entrepreneurs and mentors favorite quotes. I recorded a few of them recently – my first one is up.
I’m a huge Battlestar Galactica fan and think Commander William Adama has amazing leadership lessons for any entrepreneur. If you don’t know what “rolling the hard six” is, it’s a classic example of a high risk / high reward scenario. Per Urban Dictionary:
“Rolling a hard six has a probability of about 3% whereas rolling six by any other combination has about a 14% chance. A hard six pays 7 to 1 whereas a regular six pays only 7 to 6″
I’m not a craps player, but I love the metaphor. As an entrepreneur, you often have to combine luck with the right call at the right time. You can make the right call and be unlucky, or you can make the wrong call and be lucky. But when you find yourself in a jam, you often need to make the right call AND be lucky.
My imitation of Adama is pretty lame however.
Phin Barnes at First Round Capital just nails it today with his post To get the most out of your investors, turn them into rubber ducks.
Go read it – I’ll wait and will be here when you get back.
I love Rubber Duck Debugging. I use this approach when writing, which I call “Writing with Yoda.” I have a little Yoda figurine staring at me at all times and when I stall out I just talk to him for a little while and then get started again. He always looks serene and wise and I almost always get going after talking to him for a little while.
Phin describes five steps to turn your investors into rubber ducks:
- Frame the problem you are facing: describe the challenge in enough detail that I can understand it without being an expert (because I am probably not an expert)
- Create context for an answer: Explain why this problem is a priority for you and the business and why you need to solve it now (because I am not involved in the day to day operation of your company)
- Propose a few solutions: Describe a few paths you might take and talk through how you would choose between them (this helps me understand the outcome you want to achieve)
- Be patient: Be open and engage deeply in the questions that I have and explain your answers with specific detail (even if it seems obvious)
- Be active: The goal is to debug the system and the builder is most likely to find the bugs we seek (and to see others along the way)
These are similar to how to engage a great mentor, which we teach over and over again in Techstars – both to the entrepreneurs and the mentors. If you’ve ever done a Top of Mind Drill with me, you’ll recognize the Rubber Duck approach with one twist – storytelling.
I’m a storyteller. I learned this from my dad. It’s part of why I love to write – it’s a way for me to think out loud and figure stuff out while telling stories. So – my favorite Rubber Ducks are the ones who can also tell stories, at the right time.
The risk of a Rubber Duck only approach as a VC is that you become overly socratic. We all know the VC who just asks question after question after question. The questions are often good, and they drive you deeper into the problem, but at some point you need to take a break. You need a breath from answering more questions. You need an analogy to relate to.
This is when the Rubber Duck should tell a story.
At a board meeting recently, the CEO looked at me and said “just tell me the fucking answer.” So I did. And that works also. But not until the CEO wants that. Until then, be a Rubber Duck.
Remember – the CEO makes the decision, not the VC. Unless the CEO explicitly asks. And – if as a VC you don’t trust the CEO to make the decision, you have that discussion with the CEO right now. And if you are a CEO who’s VCs aren’t letting you make the decisions, buy them some Rubber Ducks.
“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.