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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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Mix Strong Opinions With Big Open Ears

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Gluecon’s early bird pricing ends Friday, April 4th and I wanted to make sure you got the chance to register prior to the registration rates going up. When we started Gluecon with Eric Norlin six years ago, I don’t think any of us really had any idea about the true size of the wave of innovation that we were catching. Glue started out like a lot of tech conferences do, with a “business track” and a “technical track,” but we quickly realized what a mistake that was. Since then, Gluecon has transformed into a conference of what I assert is the  deepest technical content available around the topics of cloud computing, mobile, big data, APIs and DevOps. The agenda is shaping up to be something really special. Use “brad12″ to take 10% off of the early bird registration

One of the things I love best about my Foundry Group partners is that they each have strong opinions. Another thing I love about them is that they each have big open ears.

I know a lot of people who have strong opinions. I know a lot of other people who are excellent listeners. The venn diagram of the intersection of the two is uncomfortably small.

As I’ve written before, I love working with learning machines and silent killers. The best entrepreneurs are the ones who combine these traits.

I know a lot of people with strong opinions who think they are good listeners, but all you need to do is listen to a conversation between them and someone else to watch them talking all over the other person. Or asserting the same point over and over again, often using slightly different language, but not engaging in a process of trying to actually learn from the other person’s response. This is especially vexing to me when the person with strong opinions claims to have heard the other person (as in “I hear you, ok, that makes sense”) but then 24 hours later Mr. Strong Opinion is back on his original opinion with no explanation.

In contrast, I know a lot of strong listeners who won’t express an opinion. The VC archetype that I describe as Mr. Socrates is a classic example of this. I expect most entrepreneurs can give many examples of them being on the receiving end of a stream of questions without any expressed perspective, null hypothesis, or summary of reaction. I hate these types of board meeting discussions – where the VCs just keep asking questions but never actually suggesting anything. There’s not wrong with inquiry and I definitely have my moments of “I don’t get this – I need to ask more questions” but in the absence of a feedback loop in the discussion, it’s very tiresome to me.

Big open ears doesn’t mean that you just listen. It means you are a good listener. An active listener. One who incorporates what he is hearing into the conversation in real time. You are comfortable responding with a modification to an opinion or perspective as a result of new information. You are comfortable challenging, and being challenged, in the goal of getting to a good collaborate answer, rather than just absorbing information but then coming back later as though there was never any information shared.

I’ve always had strong opinions. I can be a loudmouth and occasionally end up in lecture mode where I’m just trying to hammer home my point. My anecdotes and stories often run longer than they should (I blame my father for teaching me this particular “skill.”) But I always try to listen, am always willing to change my opinion based on new data, or explain my position from a different perspective after assimilating new data. When I realize I’m bloviating, I often call myself publicly on it in an effort to shift to listening mode. And I always try to learn from every interaction I have, no matter how satisfying or unenjoyable it is.

Do you have strong opinions AND big open ears?

I Invest In CEOs Who Are Learning Machines

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On my run this morning, my mind drifted to a common characteristic of CEOs that I work with. It was prompted by me randomly thinking about two back to back meetings I had yesterday – the first with Eric Schweikardt (Modular Robotics CEO) and his VP Finance and then with John Underkoffler (Oblong CEO) and his leadership team.

I’m regularly blown away by these two guys ability to collect new information, process it, and learn from it. Any meeting with them is not an endless socratic session from me to them, but rather the other way around. They know what they are trying to figure out and use me, and my broad range of experience, data, and opinions, to solicit a bunch of data for themselves that they use as inputs into their learning machine. Sure – I ask plenty of questions, but they do also, and as we go deeper, the questions – and the things that come out – get richer.

So – as I turned around on my run and headed back home (today was an out and back run), I started thinking about other learning machines that I get to work with. The ultimate is David Cohen, the CEO of Techstars. The entire model of Techstars is build around the context of the entrepreneur as a learning – and teaching – machine, where learning and teaching (which we call “mentoring”) are the different sides of the same coin.

Bart Lorang (FullContact CEO) is an awesome learning machine. While Bart isn’t a first time CEO, his level – and intensity – of inquiry is stunning. It reminds me of a younger Matt Blumberg, who has taken the concept to an entirely new level in his book Startup CEO.

I could keep going – almost of the CEOs I work with are in this category of learning machine. As I rounded the last turn and headed for home, I realized the learning machine model is consistent with a deeply held value of mine – reading and writing. More about that in another post.

I Don’t Hate Marketing

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One of the jokes in my little universe is that “every time I hear the word ‘marketing’ I throw up a little in my mouth.” I’ve been joking about this long enough that it’s become conventional wisdom that I hate marketing. Yet, if you look at many of our successful investments, they are extraordinarily good at marketing and some people suggest we (Foundry Group, me) are also good at marketing.

Thirty minutes ago, Chris Moody - a long time friend and COO of Gnip – sent me an extremely thoughtful email titled “Food For Thought”. I read it, thought it was 100% correct, and asked if I could reblog it verbatim both as (a) an explanation of how I actually should / do think about marketing and (b) an example of how I learn through direct feedback.

Chris – thanks for taking the time to write this. You nailed it. The way I articulate how I think about marketing will be permanently different going forward.

At this point I’ve probably heard/read most of your basic philosophical points on the various aspects of building a successful business. I agree with most of them of course. However, there is one area where I’ve consistently felt that you have under represented your true feelings and it feels like your general input on the topic has been mostly nonconstructive. I’d like to try to help change that for the good of the broader entrepreneur community (and to make you look even smarter).

The topic is marketing. I have no doubt missed some brillant thoughts you’ve offered to the community and I’m sure you’ve provided countless pieces of good advice to individual entrepreneurs in one-on-one situations. But, the sound bite version I’ve heard from you on a few occasions goes something like this “I hate traditional marketing. Focus on building a great product or all the marketing in the world won’t matter.” When I think about the first time entrepreneur, this response feels particularly unhelpful. And, the second part of the quote could be applied to almost all aspects of a startup business including sales, finance, etc. If you don’t have a great product, none of the other shit matters.

And yet, when I see how Foundry Group approaches marketing and when I look across your portfolio companies, I see a very common thread around how you guys approach marketing. I would characterize the theme as “marketing through thought leadership.” In more basic terms it is expressing marketing ideas via “this is why we are doing what we are doing and why it is important” instead of “hey, look at me.” Have a new product feature? Sure blog about the feature, but spend way more time on why the feature is important to your overall purpose and beliefs.

To illustrate the point, I’ve recently talked to/interviewed a few current/former people from Rally and ReturnPath. When I ask them “what is the most significant thing you did from a marketing perspective to accelerate the business” the answer across the board has been “we focused on being a thought leader in our space.” As you well know that is the same approach we are taking at Gnip and I see it in many of your other portfolio companies too. Not sure it is always a conscience effort by the companies, but it seems to be pretty consistent across the portfolio..

When I think about FG itself I see tons of “marketing activity” but most of it could also be just be labeled: thought leadership. You sponsor conferences around topics that you care about. Your blog post are rich with “here’s why did it and why it matters” instead of “here’s what we did”. In fact, your whole theme based approach is really about thought leadership focused in a few areas. Foundry Group clearly believes that startups have the power to change the world. You guys spend countless time and effort expressing your opinions on this topic. You write books to support your beliefs. If you only talked about what you do with your startups “we invested in x, we sold y”, the conversation would be short and have a limited audience. Instead, you talk about what you believe and why startups matter. As a result, you have built a real following around people that care about the topic.

If I were going to create the Brad Feld sound bite for Marketing it would go something like this “Don’t do marketing. Focus on becoming a thought leader in your space. Talk everyday with your customers, perspective customers, partners, and the world about why you do what you do and why you think it is important. The reality is you can only talk about what you do one or two times before people think ‘got it’ and stop listening. But, if you talk about what you believe and point to countless examples that exemplify your beliefs , you can build real engagement with people who care/believe the same things.”

Not trying to put words in your mouth. Just saying that the actions that I see don’t match the words that I hear and I think there is easy opportunity to change that for the better.

Beginner’s Mind

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As I embarked on my journey to learn python, I began by exploring a number of different approaches.  I finally settled on using “beginner’s mind” (shoshin to those of you out there that know anything about Zen Buddhism).

Rather than just dive in and build on my existing programming skills and experience, I decided to start completely from scratch. Fortunately, MIT’s Introductory Computer Science class (6.00 Introduction to Computer Science and Programming) is available in its entirety – including all 24 lectures – on MIT’s OpenCourseWare.

I fired up Lecture #1 (Goals of the course; what is computation; introduction to data types, operators, and variables) and spent an enjoyable hour remembering what it was like to be in 10-250.  If you want a taste, here’s the lecture.

The lectures are all up on iTunes so I’m going to watch #2 on my way from Keystone to Boulder this morning (Amy is driving). I’ve got plenty of reading to do and I look forward to diving into the problem sets.

While watching the lecture, Professor Eric Grimson reminded me that this was not a course about “learning Python”, rather it was a course aimed at providing students with an understanding of the role computation can play in solving problems. A side benefit is that I will learn Python and – in Eric’s words – “feel justifiably confident of [my] ability to write small programs that allow them to accomplish useful goals.”

Beginner’s Mind can be a powerful thing.

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