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Last year Inc. Magazine invited me to write a quarterly article for them for both Inc. Magazine and Inc.com. I wrote three – this is my last one. I’ve enjoyed writing for Inc., but earlier this year decided to stop writing for other web sites, at least for a while, as it had become a burden with all the other writing that I’m doing. I thought it would be fun for my last article in Inc. to be self-referential, so I wrote this article about why I write. You can find it on Inc.com at The Best Way to Improve How You Think.
I set out to be an entrepreneur and then an investor. I became a writer almost by accident. Now, I can’t imagine not writing–it’s something I do daily. It’s how I problem solve. And it’s crucial to my continued learning and growth.
In the late 1980s, I started my first company, Feld Technologies, which wrote custom software for companies. This was back when personal computers were becoming popular in a business context. But they were complex. Computer salesmen hawked them speaking a language you didn’t understand, in a style that could have worked equally well on a used-car lot.
Our clients wanted to understand what they were buying. They didn’t care about RAM or CONFIG.SYS settings. So I started writing memos about how the computers and the software they were buying would solve their business problems.
I moved my writing online in the mid-1990s and eventually to my own blog, Feld Thoughts. I had become an angel investor using some of the money I’d made from the sale of Feld Technologies, and those experiences provided plenty of blog fodder. My partner Jason Mendelson and I even churned out a series on venture capital financing. This was during a time when venture funding was in the dumps, and the process was opaque. In about 30 posts, we demystified it. Finally, after almost 20 years of writing, the light bulb went on for me.
I write to think.
Forcing myself to sit down and work through these ideas in a logical sequence for an audience of readers required me to refine my thinking on how I invest in startups. How could I make the financing process more efficient? What’s the best way to structure a deal? I learned a lot, both from my writing and my readers’ responses.
As a result, my approach to VC deals changed after those posts. I simplified my deal terms. I stopped negotiating over nonsense. I had no patience for long arguments over things that didn’t matter.
My thoughts really began to crystallize when I started writing books. In 2010, I co-wrote Do More Faster: Techstars Lessons to Accelerate Your Startup, with Techstars CEO and co-founder David Cohen. During this process, David and I nailed down many of the startup strategies that had been rolling around in our heads. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Techstars’s growth accelerated, as did the growth of the companies we worked with, after publishing that book.
This is not to say that everyone should write books. But some form of regular writing is one of the best ways to give yourself time for reflection and analysis. It could be any kind of writing. Consider Jeff Bezos’s approach to meetings. Whoever runs the meeting writes a memo no longer than six pages about the issue at hand. Then, for the first 15 to 30 minutes of the meeting, the group reads it. The rest of the meeting is spent discussing it. No PowerPoint allowed. Brilliant. (I’ve long felt that PowerPoint is a terrible substitute for critical thinking.)
As helpful as I find writing daily to be, it doesn’t always come easily. I often go through long, dry stretches where my writing is uninspired. I stare at the screen, pecking out a few words hesitantly. This used to frustrate me, but now I realize it’s just part of the process. Part of the trick is figuring out your most productive writing conditions; for me, it’s early in the morning or late at night, preferably with Pink Floyd, electronic music, or classical piano blaring.
Many people might find a blank screen with its blinking cursor terrifying. Where do I even begin? you might ask. These days, I much prefer staring at that screen to standing up in front of a crowd. I think better, and I learn much more.
Suddenly anonymous apps are all the rage again. Secret and Whisper are the two that have recently made headlines, but there’s a cockroach like proliferation of them being funded by VCs.
As one of my favorite BSG quotes goes, “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”
I was generally ignoring this until I read a long post by Austin Hill titled On your permanent record: Anonymity, pseudonymity, ephemerality & bears omfg! It was outstanding and referred to a tweet stream by @pmarca on the same topic.
I’ve been trolled since I first started interacting with other humans online in the mid-1980s. The first time it happened was shocking to me. I was young (under 20), on a Usenet thread, and was part of what I thought was an interesting conversation. I no longer remember what the comment was that shook me up, but it was the equivalent of “go fuck yourself with an axe, chop out your liver, and die.”
Yeah – I wasn’t ready for that. After a few years of being trolled, I learned to completely ignore it. I recall discovering “anonymous coward” on Slashdot and – after thinking someone had come up with a particularly clever user name, I realized that was their label for all “guests” who commented anonymously.
When FuckedCompany.com came out in 2000, it was startling at first, but then it quickly became predictable. If you were part of a company that was fucked, you knew it. But when confidential information started appearing on a daily basis, especially in contexts where companies were trying to do the right thing, it became upsetting. Eventually, like being told to go fuck yourself with an axe, I became numb to it and started ignoring it.
At this point in my life, I realize that it is all just noise. So, for me, I just ignore it.
It’s the same kind of noise that destroys lives. It’s so much easier to be cruel when hiding behind a wall of anonymity. We already know how much easier it is to be cruel over email versus in person. Now put up an anonymous wall. Say anything you want. Release any confidential information you want. Lie about anything, since there is theoretically no way to trace it back to you. You are no longer accountable for what you say or do. You can say whatever you want, whether it is true or not. You can perform systematic character assassination without any consequences.
Every now and then one of the anonymous apps gets hacked. All the user data gets revealed. In the past, there wasn’t enough critical mass of this for anyone to care. But this time around, there might be. And, and Austin says in his post, there is merely the illusion of anonymity here.
“FALSE EXPECTATION OF ANONYMITY: The security model for both these applications is horrendous and irresponsible. The give the user an illusion of privacy, encourage users to say things without the burden of identity (both in good or bad cases) — but then provide no real anonymity or privacy is deceptive.”
Go read the whole thing – I won’t repeat it here. But if you think what you are putting up on these apps is really anonymous, then keep doing it at your own peril.
But why are you doing it? What is the value to you? What is the value to society? What is the value to anyone else? And what is the cost?
This isn’t a moral question. Do whatever you want. But ask yourself the question “why”.
If you think this is new and exciting, just remember all this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.
As we roll into the weekend, and I start another digital sabbath, I’ve got the question “what really matters about being human” rolling through my mind.
I spent the afternoon at the Silicon Flatirons conference SciFi and Entrepreneurship – Is Resistance Futile? I thought it was phenomenal and remarkably thought provoking. I came back to my office to find Dane and Eugene playing TitanFall on my 75″ screen. In a few minutes I’m heading out to dinner with my parents, Amy, and John Underkoffler of Oblong who was in town for the conference. The juxtaposition of another intense week rolling into the weekend and a day off the grid intrigues me.
The first panel was a fireside chat between me and William Hertling. William is one of my favorite sci-fi writers who I think has mastered the art of near term science fiction. If you haven’t read any of his three books, I encourage you to head over to William’s website or Amazon and grab them now.
At the end of our fireside chat, we were asked a question. I heard the question as about mortality so I went on a long space jam about how I’ve been struggling with my own mortality for the past 18 months since having a near fatal bike accident (one inch and it would have been lights out.) Up to that point I felt like I had come to terms with my own mortality. I would often say that I believed that when the lights go out, they go out, and it’s all over. And I’m ok with it.
But last fall I realized I wasn’t. And during my depression at the beginning of 2013 I thought often about mortality, how I thought about it, whether I was bullshitting myself for the previous 25 years about being ok with it, and what really mattered about being alive, and being human.
I then handed things over to William. He proceeded to answer the question that had been asked, which was about morality, not mortality.
When he finished and I’d realized what had just happened, I emitted a gigantic belly laugh. And then for the next couple of hours I kept applying the lens of “what really matters” to the discussion about science fiction, entrepreneurship, and the human race.
From the meditation I’ve been doing, I’m definitely exploring “listening to my thoughts” rather than obsessing over them. I’m recognizing that the narrative I’m creating in my brain is just my narrative and doesn’t necessarily have any real meaning, or importance, at all. 150 years from now, I don’t believe any of it will matter. And then, suddenly, the great John Galt quote “It’s not that I don’t suffer, but that I know the unimportance of suffering” comes to mind.
Sometime during the fireside chat, the statement popped out that “I believe the human species dramatically overvalues its importance to the universe.” I think this is going to be a radical point of conflict with the evolution of machines over the next 50 years. At this stage, it’s a part of what gives our lives meaning. There are so many complicated things that happen on a daily basis that create stress, conflict, controversy, and emotional responses. All of them theoretically generate meaning, but when I “listen to my thoughts” I recognize the unimportance of them.
And then I start searching for what really matters. Both to me, and about being human.
See you Sunday.
It’s been a blast to get to know and work with Eliot Peper. His book, Uncommon Stock, is the first one that we published at FG Press. If you want to read – and comment – along with me, grab a copy of Uncommon Stock on BookShout.
I asked Eliot to write a short post about how he’s feeling and thinking about the category of “startup fiction” now that the book is out in the wild and he’s getting some great feedback.
Following are his thoughts.
Business case studies have wrestled through many different components of entrepreneurship. Bloggers and Quora have picked up the slack for the situations those case studies miss. Management books delve into every nook and cranny of strategy and tactics. Talking heads discuss the ins and outs of everything from product development to investment theory. Gurus wax lyrical about vision and lean, focused execution.
But there’s one critical piece of entrepreneurship that these experts miss. Their analyses emphasize the rational. They draw out lessons-learned from business experiences and try to share best practice with aspiring entrepreneurs. Knowledge is important and many experts are happy to share their thoughts (whether you want to hear them or not!). But they too often focus on the brain at the expense of the heart.
Building a business is a human experience as well as an institutional one. That’s why I love Brad and Amy’s frank discussions in Startup Life. In thinking about growing an organization it’s easy to forget that it’s all made up of individuals. These people lay the groundwork and set the course for the companies they found. They also struggle constantly with work/life balance, relationships, burnout, and team dynamics.
It’s a truism in venture capital that startups fail most often not because their product explodes, but because their team implodes. If you think high-school had a lot of drama, try a high-speed tech startup. Inspiration, betrayal, falling-outs and last-minute-comebacks are par for the course. Everyday I’m blown away by the incredible entrepreneurs I know and work with. Their passion fuels them through the equally challenging rational and the irrational halves of company building.
The emotional reality behind the scenes in every startup is what inspired Uncommon Stock. I thought that fiction could give an intimate peek into the minds of founders. Early readers have pointed out something that I find hugely cool: the other benefit of Startup Fiction is that its so damn accessible.
People who read non-fiction books about entrepreneurship tend to already be engaged in the startup world in some way. We’ve worked for a startup. We read Techcrunch regularly. We go to SXSW. Living and breathing that world, it’s easy to forget anyone else is out there. But readers that aren’t engaged with tech and picked up Uncommon Stock simply because they wanted a good page-turner are reaching out to say how awesome it is to steal a glimpse into our startup boudoir.
We are blessed to live in a magical world filled with some of the most talented people on Earth. Hopefully together we can help to illuminate the heart of the start.
Today, Rover announced that Menlo Ventures has led a new $12m round of financing. As is our style, we participated, but we’re excited to have a new partner to join us, Madrona, and Petco in this fast growing adventure.
Lots of VC firms are once again talking about online marketplaces. Some get it; many don’t. Being systematic about what it takes to build and scale a marketplace effectively and make it an enduring enterprise is difficult.
We learned this dynamic in the early 2000’s with our investment in ServiceMagic. We invested in the company in 1999 during the ascension of the Internet bubble. We loved the two founders, Michael Beaudoin and Rodney Rice, but knew very little about marketplace businesses or the home improvement category. But a lot of people were funding marketplaces and other online “things” in this arena – well over $500 million of VC capital went into the home improvement market alone.
It was an unmitigated disaster for almost every company except ServiceMagic. In 2000, Michael and Rodney cut the business drastically, changed the business model to a lead-fee system, which they pioneered online. By 2003 nearly all of their competitors had failed, the companies that went public pre-bubble were trading sub-$1 / share, but ServiceMagic was growing like crazy and was very profitable.
Before ignoring vanity metrics became trendy, ServiceMagic ignored them. Michael and Rodney were data obsessed, getting hourly reports with key metrics. They understood the different dimensions of the business and were laser focused on drivers of supply and demand in each market they operated. They eschewed slick marketing, were systematic about growing headcount, learned how to master local expansion models, and stayed obsessively focused on the quality of transactions, instead of simply the quantity, moving through the marketplace.
We invest early in the life of a company. While we weren’t the first investor in Rover, when Madrona partner Greg Gottesman called and told me that I had to meet Aaron Easterly, the co-founder of Rover, I happily obliged on my next trip to Seattle. In ten minutes I knew I wanted to back Aaron as he had the same characteristics as Michael and Rodney. And, while after 10 minutes I knew nothing about the dog sitting market, as a dog owner I instinctively understood and appreciated the problem.
So – our first order sort in the case of Rover was Aaron and the team. We loved what we saw. No bullshit. Total quants. Deep domain love. Complete lack of interest in marketing nonsense and overpromotion.
And yes – after a little more exploration it was clear that Rover had a huge addressable market. Current commercial solutions are generally despised and the opportunity for a two-sided marketplace is enormous. Best of all, there are very obvious RAM (remnant asset monetization) dynamics to the marketplace.
Sure enough, a year after our initial investment, our premise for the investment in Rover shows clearly in the data. All of the underlying marketplace metrics – including activation, fill rates, and repeat usage – are accelerating rapidly. Dogs owners trying the service now will spend twice as much monthly as those trying the service 18 months ago. Sitters joining the marketplace now will earn 50 times more money in their first three months than those signing up 18 months ago.
Oh – and Michael Beaudoin from ServiceMagic joined the board last year as one of our outside board members.
If you are a dog owner, or want to be a dog sitter, try Rover out today.