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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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Engine. Where Startups Come Together

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I’ve regularly blog about patent trolls harassing startups and impeding innovation, the experiences of immigrant founders, and the battle for a free internet. While I’m fortunate to have this blog, and other writing opportunities as a platform to give voice to these stories, I also realize that to really have a meaningful impact, we need the startup community to be involved in government.

That’s where Engine Advocacy comes in. A few months ago, I joined the Advisory Board of Engine to lend my support to an organization that is doing amazing work for the startup ecosystem. We’re trying to create a startup community that can mobilize to make the government listen and understand the issues that have a unique impact on our community.

Here’s an example of great work that Engine has done: During the fight against SOPA/PIPA last year it seemed to a lot of outsiders that the internet community’s reaction happened overnight. What many people don’t know is that there were hundreds of organizations and businesses working together for months to make that one-day blackout so impactful. Engine connected 15,000 calls from individuals to their Senators that day. The sheer volume of calls shut down the Senate switchboard, twice.

Engine is always monitoring the issues, doing great research, keeping members informed so that we can identify any threats early, and respond as a community. There are many ways that startups can get involved, perhaps the simplest being just keeping up-to-speed on tech policy.

At the end of this month, Engine is bringing startups to Washington, D.C. to talk to lawmakers about issues that are really important to the startup community — issues like immigration, software patent reform, and keeping the internet free and open. You can get involved by becoming an Engine member today. Go to D.C. with them. Send them your stories.

Ultimately, we’re not just Silicon Valley, or Boulder., or any other geographically-defined tech scene. We’re a powerful community that is creating jobs and improving the economy — basically, doing all of those things that Senators and Members of Congress talk about making happen. It’s time they listened to us. Let’s make the startup community a stronger voice in Washington.

George Orwell Talks To Us From The Future About a Free and Open Internet

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I thought this was a powerful and clever video about the risks to the free and open Internet. It’s worth a watch with an appropriate cynical and concerned view.

I was happy to see Google launch their Take Action site last week about a Free and Open Internet. I’m a supporter and strongly encourage your support as well.

Vint Cerf (one of the actual creators of the Internet) talks more about the need to keep the Internet free and open.

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Megaupload and the Future of Multi-tenant Services

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This is a post by Dave Jilk, a long time friend, business partner, and CEO of Standing Cloud. While the words are his, I agree 100% with everything he is saying here. I continue to be stunned and amazed by both the behavior of our government around this and the behavior of “us” (companies and individuals) around their data given our government’s behavior. But Dave’s point is not only around the actions of government, but the broader risks that exist in the context of multi-tenant services that I don’t think we are spending enough time thinking or talking about.

While I was in Iceland a few weeks ago, there was a set of discussions driven by Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures about trying to make Iceland and “Internet Neutrality Zone” similar to Switzerland and banking. While I have no idea if this is feasible, the need for it seems to be increasing on a regular basis.

I encourage you to read Dave’s post below carefully. While neither of us are endorsing or defending Megaupload, it’s pretty clear that the second order impact and unintended consequences around situations like the government takedown of it have wide ranging consequences for all of us. And – it’s not just the government, but mother nature and humans.

Suppose you live in an apartment building, and one day the federal government swoops in and takes control over the building, preventing you from entering or retrieving any of your belongings. They allege that the landlord was guilty of running a child prostitution ring in the building and, while you are not accused of any crime, they will not give you access to your property. They suggest that you sue the landlord to get your property back, even though the landlord no longer controls the property.

This seems like a fairly obvious violation of your rights, and it is unlikely that the government would be able to maintain this position for long. Yet this is exactly what it is doing in the Megaupload case, and in relation to the rather lesser crime of copyright infringement. Somehow – perhaps because of the pernicious influence of large media companies on the government’s activities – rights to your digital data are taking a backseat to any and all attempts to enforce the copyright laws. This is what the online community was trying to prevent with its opposition to SOPA/PIPA, and the government seems to have elected to implement a de facto SOPA by simply trampling on the Constitution.

While I could rant further about the government’s egregious behavior, let’s talk about the practical implications of this situation. The primary implication is that there is a new risk to your data and your operations when you use multi-tenant online services. Such risks have always existed: if you do not have both an offsite backup of your data and a way to use that backup then any number of black swan events could disrupt your operations in dramatic ways. Earthquakes, wars, power brownouts, asteroids, human errors, cascading network failures – yes, it reads like the local evening news, and though any one situation is unlikely, the aggregate likelihood that something can go wrong is high enough that you need to consider it and deal with it.

What this particular case illustrates is that a company that provides your online service is a single point of failure. In other words, simply offering multiple data centers, or replicating data in multiple locations, does not mitigate all the risks, because there are risks that affect entire companies. I have never believed that “availability zones” or other such intra-provider approaches completely mitigate risk, and the infamous Amazon Web Services outage of Spring 2011 demonstrated that quite clearly (i.e., cascading effects crossed their availability zones). The Megaupload situation is an example of a non-technical company-wide effect. Other non-technical company-wide effects might be illiquidity, acquisition by one of your competitors, or changes in strategy that do not include the service you use.

So again, while this is a striking and unfortunate illustration, the risk it poses is not fundamentally new. You need to have an offsite backup of your data and a way to use that backup. The situation where the failure to do this is most prevalent is in multi-tenant, shared-everything SaaS, such as Salesforce.com and NetSuite. While these are honorable companies unlikely to be involved in federal data confiscations, they are still subject to all the other risks, including company-wide risks. With these services, off-site backups are awkward at best, and more importantly, there is no software available to which you could restore the backup and run it. In essence, you would have to engage in a data conversion project to move to a new provider, and this could take weeks or more. Can you afford to be without your CRM or ERP system for weeks? By the way, I think there are steps these companies could take to mitigate this risk for you, but they will only do it if they get enough pressure from customers. Alternatively, you could build (or an entrepreneurial company could provide) conversion routines that bring your data up and running in another provider or software system fairly quickly. This would have to be tested in advance.

Another approach – the one Standing Cloud enables – is to use software that is automatically deployed and managed in the infrastructure cloud, but is separate for each customer; and further, it is backed up on another cloud provider or other location. In this scenario, there is no single point of failure or company failure. If the provider of the software has a problem, it doesn’t matter because you are running it yourself. If the cloud provider has a problem, Standing Cloud has your backups and can re-deploy the application in another location. If Standing Cloud has a problem, you can have the cloud provider reset the password for your virtual server and access it that way.

As long as governments violate rights, mother nature wreaks havoc, and humans make errors, you need to deal with these issues. Make sure you have an offsite backup of your data and a way to use that backup.

Help Me Support Senator Mark Udall For Congress

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I believe that Senator Mark Udall is doing a superb job for Colorado. I’d like to encourage you to support Mark’s re-election campaign by joining me for an event at BMOCA in Boulder on June 17th. I’m co-hosting the event with a bunch of folks who have been very involved in the Boulder startup community, including Dennis Arfmann, Libby Cook, Howard Diamond, Brad Feld, Jim Franklin, Marc Graboyes, Don Hazell, David Huberman, Roger Koenig,  Nancy Pierce, Jason Mendelson, Bill Mooz, Michael Platt, Beau and Lucy Stark, Phil Weiser, and Joe Zell. Please come join us for a fun evening of discussion, networking, and a chance to talk to Mark about what’s on your mind.

I’ve been a supporter of Mark’s for many years and have always been blown away by his willingness to engage thoughtful in any issue he is presented with. Most recently, Mark took a leadership role in defeating SOPA/PIPA and was one of the first Senators to come out publicly against PIPA. During this process, Mark and his staff put real effort into understanding the issues and, rather than sitting on the sidelines and seeing what would happen, leaned in, took a stand, and had a big impact helping shift the tide in the Senate against PIPA.

I believe the Boulder startup community is extremely lucky to have Mark Udall as one of our Senators. I don’t often make political appeals on this blog, but in this case I feel that it’s critical that we continue to have intelligent, thoughtful, and independently minded representatives who are willing to actually understand what is going on with issues, rather than succumb to lobbying pressures. Mark is one of the good guys – let’s make sure he knows we support him.

I’ll be at the BMOCA event all evening so it’s a chance to spend some time with me also if you’d like. I’ll make sure I’m available to anyone who shows up about anything that’s on your mind. So join me on June 17th to support Senator Mark Udall.

Compromise vs. Problem Solving

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I spent all day Sunday at Silicon Flatirons’ Digital Broadband Migration Conference. This is a key national conference held in Boulder at the intersection of technology and public policy with a particular focus on the Internet. This year’s conference subtitle was “The Challenges of Internet Law and Governance.”

I was pondering something all morning that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. My close friend Phil Weiser (who is now the Dean of the CU Law School and hosts the conference) kicked it off and then handed things over to Vint Cerf (now at Google and one of the original architects of the Internet). A great panel full of engineers titled Tech Tutorial Backdrop: An All IP Network and Its Policy Implications came next, followed by a talk from Colorado Senator Michael Bennet.

I’m a supporter of Michael’s and even though he originally co-sponsored PIPA, he eventually understood that it was flawed legislation and got behind the effort to oppose it. As a co-sponsor he had plenty of influence in the background on the process and I’m glad that he spent the time to listen to the tech community, understand why it was bad legislation, and take action. It was great to see him at this particular conference given its national perpective on a key intersection of technology and policy.

After Michael came a panel I was on titled The Digital Broadband Migration in Perspective. David Cohen (EVP of Comcast), Larissa Herda (CEO of tw telecom inc.), and I were the loud mouths on this one. David and I had very different perspectives on many things which reached a head when he asked what my reaction to all of the major TV and cable channels blacking out for three hours and putting up messages that said “this is what TV would be like without SOPA/PIPA” (basically – the opposite of the Internet blackout that occurred on January 18th). While he asserted this would be an abuse of corporate power and responsibility, implying that the Internet companies participating in the Internet blackout where behaving inappropriately, my response was that “it would be fucking awesome – they should do whatever they want – and better yet no college kid in the world would notice.”  There was plenty more in that vein, but this was tame compared to what came next.

The panel after lunch was a debrief on what just happened with SOPA/PIPA. Mark Lemley (Stanford Law Professor) and Gigi Sohn (President of Public Knowledge) explained things from an anti-SOPA/PIPA perspective; Jonathan Taplin (Annenberg Innovation Lab, University of Southern California) and Michael Fricklas (General Counsel of Viacom) took a pro-SOPA/PIPA perspective, and Michael Gallagher (CEO of Entertainment Software Association) and Judge Stephen Williams (U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit) took a third perspective that I couldn’t quite parse. After everyone got a chance to give a 7 – 13 minute presentation, the conversation degenerated quickly into a very polarized argument where, in my opinion, facts were left at the doorstep by several of the participants. As the fact vs. fiction dynamic escalated, emotions ran hot and the discourse degenerated to a point of near uselessness. With every moment, the conversation became even more polarized, even though the anti-SOPA/PIPA folks would say things like I’m not going to defend SOPA/PIPA as it was bad legislation, we need to solve the problem of … in reaction to the pro-SOPA/PIPA folks saying If you assert that there are only 50 bad sites that represent 80% of the illegal content in the world, and we already have tools too take those sites down, what exactly are you talking about.  While there were hugs and handshakes after the panel ended, it definitely felt like there was plenty of grinfucking going around.

After this panel I ducked out for an hour to go meet Julius Genachowski (chairman of the FCC). We’ve crossed paths a few times but never spent any thoughtful time together. We had a nice 30 minute meeting where we talked about the dynamics going on at the conference and in Washington DC. He gave me one phrase which caused me to stop, ponder it for a minute, and respond with “that’s exactly right.” He said:

“What you are observing is the difference between compromise and problem solving.”

My brain is an engineers brain. I’m focused on learning and solving problems. Over the past few years I’ve been completely baffled by my experience interacting with politicians and their staffers. When I present a solution to a problem (e.g. the Startup Visa) I immediately watch a negotiation begin to ensue. Three years later, even non-controversial, obviously beneficial things like Startup Visa are still stuck in a discussion.

When I talked to folks about how bad the SOPA/PIPA legislation was, they would respond “what’s the counter proposal?” My first response was usually “What do you mean? It’s horrifyingly bad legislation that shouldn’t even be considered.” The response to this was “Yes, but if I am going reject it, I need to come with a counter-proposal.”

Julius explained to me that Washington runs on a compromise mentality. You propose something and then begin negotiating from there. Innovative companies, where I spent almost all of my time, run on a problem solving mentality. You have a problem – you solve it. When I reflected on the panels during the day, the engineers and engineering heavy panels were problem solving and the policy / lawyer heavy panels were fighting over polarized positions which, if they converged, would be a convergence based on compromise rather than problem solving.

This generated a breakthrough insight for me. I’ve been increasing frustrated with politics and public policy discussions that I’ve been part of. It’s because I’m in a problem solving mode. While some of the folks I’m interacting with are also in this mode (which causes me to stay engaged), many are in a compromise mode. They don’t care whether or not we actually solve the root cause problem – they just have an agenda that they want to get into the mix legislatively and are negotiating for it with the goal of reaching a compromise.

We ended the day with a wonderful talk from Senator Mark Udall. I’m a huge fan of Mark’s – he’s one of the most thoughtful people in government I’ve gotten to interact with. Colorado is lucky to have him as he listens to his constituents here and acts on their behalf, rather than some other agenda. He discussed his views on innovation and PIPA (which he opposed early) and then made a strong appeal for the Startup Visa, increased STEM education, and a long term focus on innovation as the base for job creation. He then took another 90 minutes to meet with a smaller set of entrepreneurs and public policy folks from the conference to hear what was on their mind. Mark definitely was listening and trying to understand what issues he should be looking out for that had similar negative impacts like PIPA.

We need a lot more problem solvers like Mark in the mix, especially in positions of power in government. And, the problem solvers should insist that the path is problem solving, not compromise.

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