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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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Q&A on Startups, DevOps, and Agile

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Raj Bhargava (CEO of JumpCloud) and I have been talking about how startups can leverage DevOps and Agile more. We created a conference on DevOps last year for our portfolio companies and it was a huge hit.

DevOps is a movement that we are deeply interested in from multiple perspectives. It’s integral to almost all of the companies we invest in and many, especially in our Glue and Protocol themes, are DevOps driven companies.

In addition to investing in these companies, we are promoting DevOps concepts throughout our portfolio, encouraging learning activities such as the conference, and involved with initiatives such as DevOps.com that is a site to educate the IT community about DevOps.

When Raj asked me to do a Q&A with him on my views around DevOps to help more people understand why I am excited about it, I immediately said yes. If you are interested in hearing my thoughts around how companies can leverage Devops, head on over to JumpCloud’s Q&A with me on DevOps and SaaS and let us know what you think.

And – if you are a VP of Marketing, JumpCloud is looking for a great one.

Improv and Entrepreneurship – Playback Theatre West

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I spent the last few days at CEO Bootcamp – Leadership Reboot. It’s run by my close friend Jerry Colonna with an awesome team of four. The next one is going to be in Tuscany, Italy from 6/4/14 – 6/8/14 and I expect it will be amazing. I encourage you to explore it and apply – the deadline for applications is 4/20/14. I arrived at Devil’s Thumb Ranch on Wednesday afternoon.

The first evening was a wonderful dinner and introduction to each other (about 20 of us) along with an evening session with a taste of what was to come. I attended as a special guest (I’m the only non-CEO / entrepreneur here) but participated as a peer.

Thursday was extremely intense with the focus on what a CEO does and the five challenges of a CEO. Everyone opened up, the discussion was incredible, and emotions were high, and yes, there were tears, as  one of Jerry’s superpower’s is getting the tears to flow.

If you need a taste of Jerry and haven’t seen him in action before, the following TWIST Interview on The 6 Biggest Mistakes Founders Make is dynamite. By Thursday evening, we were deep into it. Some people were tired (I ended up taking a nap for 90 minutes during the late afternoon break), others were confused, and some were inspired. A word that was repeated regularly was grateful. Grateful to be with peers. Grateful to realize one wasn’t alone. Grateful to be able to be human in the midst of a group of other entrepreneur/CEOs.

A magical thing happened after Thursday dinner. The gang from Playback Theatre West came and spent two hours with us. I’d experienced Playback Theatre West last year at Boulder Startup Week. I was one of the stories they performed – I shared my story of moving to Boulder with Amy and they re-enacted it – interpreting things in real time – magnificently. Since I knew what we were in for, I knew that once things started happening the collision of improv and entrepreneurship would be a wonderful capstone to the day.

After a warm up, Rebecca asked for volunteers. Sam, who had been with us all day (as he’s one of the CEO Bootcamp founders as well as a member of Playback Theatre West), was one of the actors.There was a lull – everyone was unsure what to do next. So I stood up and went first.

When I stood up, I had no idea what story I was going to tell, so there was some meta-improv going on. By the time I sat down next to Rebecca to start telling my story, I decided I’d tell the story of my 50 mile race. The emotional fallout from the race, which I only mildly understood two weeks after I finished it, has had a profound impact on how I’m currently living my life given the deep depression that set in for me about seven months after the race and then lasted six months.

I told the story of the race. Rebecca and the gang asked questions along the way, pulling out pieces of my motivation for the race, along with the implications of the race. Some of the questions were simple, like “Why”, but set me off on a tangent that had nothing to do with the race. Then I sat back and watched them perform for five minutes. I laughed. And then I laughed some more. And then I had tears in my eyes. And then a wave of emotion flowed over me as I made a connection to something I hadn’t realized before. And then I settled down and smiled as they tied together some threads around my own motivations that had eluded me.

They did several more performances for different CEOs in the room including one about a hiring story that was happening and was unresolved and one about starting a company. Each was a hilarious and absolutely beautiful interpretation of the story told. After a super heavy and intense day, it was a perfect way to wrap things up. To realize we are all humans, by acting out the reinterpretation of our human stories.

I’ve become a huge fan of Playback Theatre West. I hope to do a lot more with them in the future.

Patriot Boot Camp – May 2014

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In the #GiveFirst spirit, Techstars supports those who have served our country by hosting Patriot Boot Camp. PBC is an intense three-day program that educates and mentors active service members, Veterans and their spouses to innovate, build technology companies, and create jobs. Essentially, they get a mini Techstars experience.

The next PBC will be held at the Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York City from May 16th to 18th. You can learn more about the program at their website or check out this video from last year’s event.

Patriot Boot Camp alumni are building great business. A couple great examples are Dave Cass and Dave Parker with Uvize (accepted into the Kaplan EdTech Accelerator, powered by Techstars and recently funded by FG Angels), and Gregory Coleman with Nexercise (accepted to the Techstars Chicago).

Do you know a Veteran, active service member, or military spouse who could benefit from a miniature Techstars experience? Please encourage them to apply here. The deadline to apply is April 4th, 2014, tonight, at midnight Eastern time.

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?

Expectations for Outside Board Members

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For those of you that missed my note yesterday, I’m going to start using the first paragraph of my posts with an announcement about something in my world. Today’s is the launch of a new product from Orbotix called Selfiebot. My Orbotix friends are masters at creating amazing robots and are hard at work on the next generation of what we are calling “connected play.” Selfiebot is an autonomous flying robot that shoots HD photos of you, freeing you from the limitations of a handheld startphone when taking selfies. Check out Selfiebot today

While we are on the topic of Orbotix, let’s talk for a little while about expectations for outside board members. Yesterday I met with an outside board member of another company I’m on the board of. He’s been on the board for about six months and is feeling uncomfortable with his contribution. He’s a very experienced CEO with a large exit under his belt, a founder/investor in several other companies, and an excellent operator. But he hasn’t been an outside board member much. He wanted to get feedback from me on how he was doing and whether his expectations for his own engagement were correct, and what he could do to work with the CEO and leadership more effectively.

I’m an enormous believer in the value of outside directors relatively early in the life of a company. I like to keep boards small and weighted toward outside directors as the companies grow, rather than just a cadre of VCs sitting around the board torturing the CEO with conflicting advice and opinions. I’ve written about this extensively in Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors.

I generally see three types of outside board members getting recruited to a board of a VC backed company.

  1. The friend of the VC: This director is really a proxy for the VC and not an independent thinker. Danger danger.
  2. The friend of the CEO / entrepreneur: This director is really a proxy for the entrepreneur and not an independent thinker. Danger danger.
  3. An independent director. Now, this person can be a friend of the VC, or a friend of the CEO / entrepreneur, but is an independent thinker. Or they might be someone from industry that is known to one of the investors or the entrepreneur, but is recruited specifically by the CEO to join the board. Or it might be someone lightly known, or even unknown, but again is an independent thinker.

Note the emphasis on independent thinker. It doesn’t matter who the relationship originates from. There is a unique role for an outside director in a startup company and it’s one that can be profoundly helpful to the CEO. But that person needs to be operating from a headspace of an independent thinker, not a proxy for one of the other participants on the board.

The person I was talking to yesterday is definitely #3. While I’ve known him for a long time and was an investor / board member in his successful company, he most definitely is not my proxy. I learn an enormous amount from him about the particular dynamics of the specific business since he knows it so well, so when he talks, I listen carefully. I have no interest in being in between him and the executives of the company or hearing about what comes up in his operating level discussions, unless he feels like it’s a board level issue and discussion. But most importantly, I want the CEO to learn from this outside director and his experience by developing his own deep, personal relationship.

Back to Orbotix. We’re recruiting at least one outside director to Orbotix as part of the continued scale up of the company. Paul Berberian, the CEO, wrote a magnificent short overview of his expectation for a board member that he’s sharing with everyone he’s talking to. I asked his permission to reprint it here – it follows. If you are considering adding an outside director, I encourage you to prepare a similar document, and make sure it’s for all of your directors, including your investor directors.

Orbotix Board of Directors Expectations

Orbotix is a startup company and our expectations for board members can be summed up with the following statements:

  • Be True
  • Be Prepared
  • Be Present
  • Be Available
  • Be Supportive
  • Be A Player

Be True: No bullshit or tap-dancing on any subject. Be honest with your thoughts and opinions. Our time together as a group is limited and holding back or sugar coating any issues or concerns you have with the business is simply wasting time in trying to get to the real discussion. If you don’t have an opinion or relevant experience to make an informed decision – say so. No one knows everything. And of course all the other table stakes for serving on any board such as always act in an ethical manner and in the best interest of the company.

Be Prepared: We put a lot of time into preparing the board book – read it in advance. We do not review the board book at the board meeting unless there are questions. The first few minutes are open for questions, approval of standard business items and then we dive into a deep discussion on one to three key subjects. These subjects will we outlined in the board book but additional material may be presented at the meeting. Try to come to each board meeting with one big question or insight you’d like to be addressed during our strategic discussions. Each board meeting will end with an executive session where the directors can give feedback to the CEO as well as talk privately without management present. The lead director will then follow up with the CEO to provide any final thoughts on the meeting.

Be Present: We have four board meetings a year and expect board members to be physically and mentally present. Board meetings are typically 3 hours or less. If you cannot attend physically getting access to a high quality video conference system can be a substitute. We take great care to plan BOD meetings around your schedule so please make them. Missing one board meeting can happen, but it should be rare. If you miss multiple board meetings we assume that something else is taking priority and you should evaluate ongoing participation. When at the board meeting turn off you phone and laptop and participate in the discussion. We will take breaks to allow you to check messages. If you are highly distracted due to other pressing matters, please let us know in advance so we don’t question your willingness to participate. We have a “small group meal” in advance or after the board meeting – typically a dinner the night before. The meal will have 2 to 4 people and will include an equal number of board members and management. This is the opportunity for the board to get to know management and each other at a deeper level – groups will be different for each board meeting. They are not designed to conduct the board meeting in advance. An Orbotix exec will coordinate the meal in advance.

Be Available: One of the key roles a startup board member can provide is to act as a coach or sounding board for the CEO. These interactions typically occur between board meetings. Making time on your turf to have these interactions is invaluable. The expectation that these meetings will not exceed more than a few hours per quarter. Often approvals are needed in short order – board members are expected to be responsive on emails / calls that clearly declare action needed in the title or message.

Be Supportive: As a board member you are expected to support the company and CEO. If you support the company but not the CEO you have three options 1) coach the CEO 2) replace the CEO or 3) resign. Unless there is some unusual circumstance, options #2 and #3 should not be without warning as it is expected feedback will be shared with the board in the executive session. An engaged and supportive BOD member will use their best efforts to help Orbotix succeed. Examples include leveraging your network for creating meaningful partnerships and introductions, and freely sharing your expertise and insights on strategy, products and performance. Additionally we expect every board member to speak about the company favorably in public and share their enthusiasm for our work with others.

Be A Player: We make fun things. That is why before each BOD meeting starts we begin with a play session to highlight our accomplishments and developments since our last meeting. We want our BOD members to embrace their inner child and play with our creations, offer feedback and most importantly share with their friends and family to help us shape our products and experiences. We cannot build fun things unless we are all having fun – so let’s play!

Build something great with me