Month: October 2011
Last night I had the pleasure of talking at a dinner at Emily White’s house. Emily is on the board of the National Center of Women & Information Technology with me, is ex-Google, currently at Facebook, and with her husband Brian are amazing hosts. We had a fascinating group of NCWIT board members as well as a bunch of local entrepreneurs and members of the bay area entrepreneurial ecosystem who had a connection either to Emily or to me. The environment, food, and evening was delightful, and I led a discussion about a wide variety of topics after doing a 30 minute space jam in answer to Emily’s lead off question of “So Brad, what’s on your mind?”
We covered a lot of stuff around entrepreneurship, creators, the magic of doing things, the importance of asking “why”, and my belief that we are in the midst of a massive societal behavior shift. One of the questions that a long time friend asked was something like “My daughter is in high school and worries about the path she needs to be on to make sure when she gets out of college that she gets a good job. If you were me, what would you tell her?”
I don’t have kids so I don’t really feel qualified to answer this from a parents perspective, but I answered it with a story of three key things my dad said to me between the ages of 10 and 17 that had a profound impact on what I’ve done and how I live my life.
Age 10: You can do anything you want: My dad is a doctor. He came home for dinner every night but would often go back to the hospital in the evening (and on weekend) to do rounds and visit patients. Until I was 10 I’d often go with him. I loved hanging out with him, would bring a book, and plop down at the nurses station and read while I waited for him to go about his business. At 10, I decided I had no interest in being a doctor. I didn’t like the way hospitals smelled, I didn’t like the noise and the chaos, and I lost interest in all the doctors I was meeting. I remember telling my dad that I didn’t want to be a doctor. I blurted it out – think of a very nervous 10 year old just spitting out “Dad – I don’t want to be a doctor.” I remember my dad looking me in the eye and saying very clearly, “Brad – that’s ok – you can do anything you want to do.”
Age 13: We didn’t want to discourage you so we were supportive: When I was 10 – 13 I was a serious tennis play. I played all the time and was on the Texas junior tennis circuit. I was pretty good – consistently getting to the quarterfinals in singles and occasionally the semifinals. When I turned 13 I bought a computer for my bar mitzvah. I also hit puberty and discovered girls. I lost interest in tennis. Recently I was talking to dad about this and wondered what he thought at the time. He said that he and my mom were supportive of my tennis, but were relieved when I decided to quit playing. They were sick of schlepping me around Highway 80 and other places in Texas to spend the whole weekend watching me play, scream and yell, throw my racket, and then mope when I eventually lost. He said “I didn’t want to discourage you, so we were supportive, but we were relieved when you went down a different path.”
Age 17: Give it a year: My first two months at MIT were awful. I was homesick – all my friends, including my girlfriend, had gone to UT Austin. I got a 20 on my first physics test and went in my room for an hour and cried. I was completely overwhelmed by Cambridge and Boston – the people, the dirt, and the hustle of the city. The fraternity I lived in was filthy. The early winter chill startled me. And I thought Dallas, where I grew up, was the greatest place on early. My parents came and visited me in mid-October for a weekend. We were walking around on a crisp fall day in Concord, MA when I told them I hated MIT and wanted to drop out and go to UT with all of my friends. We talked to for a while – with my parents mostly listening – and then my dad said “You’ve only been here two months. Give it a year. If you still hate it after a year, switch to UT. But give it enough time to really understand it.” I ended up staying at MIT, getting two degrees, dropping out of a PhD program (I finally got to achieve my desire to drop out), and – while many of my days at MIT were brutal, I ended up loving the experience and treasure the impact it has had on my life.
I’m really lucky to have parents who have been awesome and incredibly supportive of me. When I reflect on the things that shaped the path I’ve taken, it was often short little one liners like these at a critical moment. My dad was just magical with his timing and his message. I can only hope I can be as good as he is.
I love Fitbit. We had a board meeting yesterday and there is so much amazing stuff coming from this company in the next few quarters. James and Eric are product creation machines – they love what they do, love their products, obsess about every bit of them, and have a vision about human instrumentation and where it can go that dwarfs anything I’ve heard from anyone else. Oh – and they’ve built a killer team that shares this vision as well as the ability to execute on it.
The newest Fitbit (the Fitbit Ultra) is out – if you’ve been holding off buying one don’t wait any longer. And today they just released the iPhone app for the Fitbit. I’ve been using it for a few months and it’s a great companion to the Fitbit.
My belief that in a decade humans will be fully instrumented – and be able to have the instrumentation create realtime feedback loops – is one that causes some people to look at me funny. But, whenever someone who has a Fitbit hears this, and then asks me to explain more, I see their head start nodding up and down.
I’m really lucky I get to work with these guys.
Last week on Brad Feld’s Amazing Deals we offered a huge discount on Ruby classes, and had one of our most successful offers ever. This week I asked my friends at Udemy to cook up another great deal on the course “Creating iPhone Games for Beginners”. They came up with an offer where $39 takes you through the process of building a complete iPhone game (normally $99).
Leave a comment and give me your pitch for a new iPhone game. The best idea by midnight tonight gets a free course.
I continue to be obsessed about email – it’s by far the most significant comm channel I use. And – it’s accelerating, not decelerating, especially as it proliferates across devices as well as other comm channels.
I’ve watched as many of the companies we’ve invested in use email and CRM systems (such as Salesforce) as though they existed in separate parallel universes. I’ve listened to the endless complaints about the complete and total lack of real integration between the two. I’ve watched the workflow, even from very disciplined sales people, and shaken my head in total bafflement at the lack of integration and the perverse contortions the sales person goes through to try to make the two systems work together. And – as I’ve continued to manage the enormous flow of email I get in Gmail, I’ve been searching for more efficient (and effective) ways to deal with it, besides just ignoring it which, while efficient, wouldn’t be very effective.
To address this, we’ve invested in a new company called Yesware.
At the beginning of the year I was kicking around some ideas with my long time friend Raj Bhargava. Raj and I have done a bunch of companies together since we met in 1994. He acutely felt this problem in his most recent company StillSecure as he dealt with the garbage in / garbage out problem of his CRM system. Over a few months we bounced some ideas around until one day he mentioned to me that he’d run into two entrepreneurs in Boston – Matthew Bellows and Cashman Andrus – who were working on something similar. Over a few weeks everyone connected, Matthew, Cashman, and Raj decided to merge efforts, and I agreed, along with Rich Miner at Google Ventures, to provide a seed financing.
A few weeks later we had our first board meeting in Google’s NY office where I discovered Zico Coconut Water. Matthew and Cashman showed us a detailed product road map along with the MVP they were working on and planning to ship in 30 or so days. We spent the entire meeting talking about the product (I’m sure Matthew had other slides but I don’t remember them.) While the first MVP was interesting and an extension of the ideas they had started with, it didn’t feel right to anyone in the room.
Rich and I both suggested – in different ways – that the team delete what they had done so far. We felt they were falling into a classic startup trap as they’d spent three months raising their round and were now anxious to get a product out the door. But they hadn’t spent much time in the previous three months thinking deeply about the product, so their plan was an awkward continuation of their demoware and concept pitch.
At some point in the meeting I said something that Matthew has told me stuck with him. I said, in my most Yoda-like voice, “slow down to speed up.” The seed round was an ample amount of money for them to go for at least a year. Their vision didn’t have an expiration date. Sure – other people were likely working on similar stuff and getting to market fast is always important, but getting to market with something compelling is even more important.
The team heeded the advice, stopped trying to ramp up headcount to work on extending the demo, deleted the product roadmap, and started again. The progress over the next 60 days was awesome as they went very deep with real salespeople on the problem, simplified their product vision, and defined a very clear MVP, release plan, and path to a revenue producing product.
At the time we made our investment I asked Matthew if he wanted me to blog about it. He didn’t – he saw no reason to talk widely about it until the company had shipped something interesting for people to use. That time has come – if you are a salesperson and use Gmail in Chrome, give Yesware a try. And give us feedback.
I’m about to head out to TechStars New York Demo Day. Our investment in SideTour – one of the TechStars New York companies – was announced yesterday and I’m excited to introduce them along with hanging out with all of the other great entrepreneurs from this session. If you’ve been watching the Bloomberg TechStars series, we are doing the finale tonight where we meet with all of the teams and see where they are six months after the program ended. It’ll be happening live at 9pm ET/PT.
Since I haven’t yet figured out how to be in two places at the same time, I ended up recording a short video for a meeting on entrepreneurial communities that I was invited to. In it, I talk about my first of four principles of entrepreneurial communities, specifically that entrepreneurial communities must be led by entrepreneurs.
Following is the video along with my notes.
Four key principles of entrepreneurial communities
– led by entrepreneurs
– 20 year view from today
– engage the entire entrepreneurial stack
– continually get fresh blood into the system
briefly focus on the first – entrepreneurial communities have to be led by entrepreneurs
entrepreneurial communities have leaders and feeders
feeders include everyone that does things that are inputs into the entrepreneurial community
– angel investors
– venture capitalists
leaders are the entrepreneurs
– you don’t need a lot to make a huge difference
– a half a dozen is a great starting point
– but they have to commit for 20 years from today
all of the feeders have a role
– some feeders try to be leaders – this never works
– rhythm is wrong: 20 years vs. 4 of government
– personality is wrong: lead vs. support
– incentives are wrong: job vs. creative act
if the leadership of an entrepreneurial community is co-opted by local government
– there might be short term activity
– but it will fail over the long term to become sustainable
remember: the entrepreneurs need to be leaders
if you are a feeder:
– identify them
– encourage them
– support them
but let the entrepreneurs be the leaders
Our friends at Dorsey & Whitney are hosting me and Jason Mendelson this Thursday, October 20th from 4pm to 6pm to drink beer together and discuss “what really matters” in a venture deal. While the event requires registration, I’ve been told that copies of Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist will be given to whomever shows up (until they run out) and that the beer will be a collection of yummy local microbrews provided by Devil’s Canyon Brewery Company in Belmont.
Jason and I will sign any copy of our book that appears at the event. We’ll also drink a few beers with you. Plus, who could resist a title of an event sponsored by a law firm that says “What The $@%@$” in the title.
4pm – 6pm
Dorsey & Whitney
305 Lytton Ave.
Palo Alto, CA 94301
Marathon #19 in the “run a marathon in each of the 50 states” is done. I completed #19 in Newport, Rhode Island yesterday. The course was beautiful, the day was perfect, the volunteers were great, and my performance sucked. I finished in 5:13:36 – not my worst marathon, but no where near the 4:45:00 I was hoping for.
While my running base is great, I made three mistakes. I flew across the country from San Francisco to Boston on Thursday and sat hunched over my computer the entire flight. When I woke up Friday morning my upper back and neck were killing me. They settled down by Sunday morning when I woke up, but I was physically tense. Next, while I ate right on Friday and Saturday, I don’t think I ate enough. When I woke up Sunday morning I was hungry – never a great sign before a marathon. I had a normal breakfast (about 500 calories), but I only ate about an hour before the run so I don’t feel like it got stored up properly. Finally, the course only had water the first eight miles and then only every other mile – gatorade didn’t appear until mile 8. I ended up dehydrated and underfueled.
The race looped back to the starting line for the finish of the half marathon. I saw Amy at 13.1 miles and she jogged with me a little. Even though I went through the half at 2:24, I knew I was in trouble. When Amy asked how I was doing, I said something like “I’ve got nothing in my legs – it’s going to be a long 13 miles.” Fortunately, I’ve been there before and know that I can run 13 miles when I’ve got nothing in the tank, so I just soldiered on.
If you look at my mile splits on RunKeeper, you can see the great fade begin around mile 16. I was between 10:30 and 11:30 until mile 16 at which point my pace shifted to around 13:00 per mile. I was able to hold that pace, with a 12:00, a 12:22, and an 11:28 at the end, but that’s because I was working hard with my new friend Puck who paced me in (or I paced him – I don’t remember) for the last few miles.
My friend Warren Katz finished his first marathon (at age 47) and his wife Ilana cranked out a PR for a half in 2:00. It was a huge marathon weekend – my partner Ryan McIntyre ran Amsterdam with Lindel Eakman (one of our investors – his first marathon) and my partner Jason Mendelson did the Amsterdam half marathon (his first, after having major hip surgery a year and a half ago). As a bonus, Ryan’s wife Katherine ran the San Francisco Nike Women’s Marathon. Way to go gang!
On Sunday I’m going to run the St. Louis Rock and Roll Marathon with my friend Matt Shobe (now at BigDoor; was one of the co-founders of FeedBurner). Matt paced me through the Huntsville, AL several years ago and is a great marathon partner. This is the first time I’m doing a marathon on back to back weekends. While I’m crisscrossing the country again this week (New York today and tomorrow, then San Francisco Wednesday through Friday before heading to St. Louis), I feel pretty good “the day after.” I’m in a mild state of disbelief that I’m going to do this again in six days, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it feels.
Once again my sherpa Amy was amazing. She’s got an awesome blog post up with some beautiful pictures of Newport and the marathon.
My friend Dov Seidman, the CEO of LRN, has a new edition of his book How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything out. In this copy, the forward is by President Bill Clinton, who has firmly embraced Dov’s philosophy of HOW.
We’ve been investors in Dov’s company LRN for the past decade and over the last five years I’ve gotten to know Dov and his wife Maria pretty well. They are a dynamic entrepreneurial couple, as Maria is founder / CEO of a new company called Yapp. In addition to being hard at work creating their companies and raising a family, they both live incredibly principled lives. How they do this is embodied in Dov’s philosophy about HOW.
Ever since I’ve know Dov, he’s talked about the importance of HOW. Not what, not why, not how much – just simply HOW. We’ve had our share of long conversations about a variety of topics, but they all come back to the HOW of things.
Dov believes that HOW is everything. It’s not what you do that matters, but how you do it. LRN exists to help businesses understand and incorporate this concept, as the historical approach to business has been all about “how much”, and if you read, ponder, think carefully about, and internalize Dov’s writing and philosophy, you quickly realize that “how much” is irrelevant when lined up against HOW as a construct.
While this applies to business, it also applies to life. My favorite part of working with and talking to Dov is just letting our conversations go wherever they want. While we occasionally stay focused on business, we often drift into wide ranging discussions about our individual lives, HOW we address things, and HOW it all works, and HOW we think about it.
Sure, there is plenty of why and what and where and who in our conversations, and I continue to be a very strong believer in the use of the five whys (continually asking why to get to the root cause of things), but I’m also a deep believer in asking about and focusing on the HOW.
I have dinner with Dov on Monday night and am looking forward to it very much. In the mean time, I encourage you to get a copy of How, read it thoughtfully, and think hard about the HOW in everything you do.
Last week I was called out on a blog titled Stop Squawking; Embody The Change. In it, Nilofer Merchant (the writer) asserts that while my writing about the lack women in tech / entrepreneurship / computer science is useful, it doesn’t have much impact. Nilofer says:
“Those posts are all “Yeahness”; maybe they are helping educate the few people on this earth who haven’t read the research, statistics that says that diversity of opinions improves the performance of any workgroup. Perhaps they counteract the “women just want to have babies” or “women don’t take risks” posts out there.”
She goes on to make a call to action for me and a few others, saying:
“If Mark, or Fred, or Brad wanted to actually see things change, they have to be willing to be changed. They have to have their networks changed. They cannot stay in their current circles, talking to the same people they already talk with, and then imagine they will run into more women to invest in. They cannot expect things to change by asking “boy, I wish things would change”. That’s a gesture. A politically correct gesture, sure, and maybe it gives the warm fuzzies, but accomplishes little else. It is certainly not embodying the necessary change. To move from impossible and unattainable to possible and attainable is more than chopping off a few letters. It means we need to embody the change.”
I agree strongly with Nilofer that we need to embody the change. Since I don’t agree that all I do is write about the issue, I left a comment with a few examples of the things that I actually do, rather than just write about, to address this issue.
One of the things I do is chair the board of the National Center for Women & Information Technology. It is well documented that there is a significant gender imbalance in IT. Only 18% of computer and information science degrees were awarded to women in 2009 (11% at major research universities), though 57% of college degrees are awarded to women (source: NCWIT By the Numbers 2009.) One of the things I’m especially proud of is the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing.
The NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing is designed to reverse this trend by identifying, recognizing and supporting young women interested in and aspiring to pursue a major in computing. It was created in 2007 and has grown to a combined National and Affiliate program with local awards serving 22 states in 2011. To date NCWIT has recognized 855 young women and plans to grow the award program to a reach of 10,000 young women and recognize 1,000 award recipients annually. I wrote about my experience attending the 2010 awards and spending time with the winners, including the college scholarship that Amy and I decided to give each winner in the spur of the moment.
The NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing is much more than an award program. Recipients are provided long-term support for their interests in computing through peer networking, mentorship, scholarships and access to opportunities. Applications are now open to any high school young women residing in the US. Please encourage all the young women you know to apply before the end of October.
I heard a fascinating one-liner the other day that I had knee jerk negative reaction to but when I thought about it more thought was deeply insightful, especially in the context of big established companies vs. new entrepreneurial companies.
A CEO of a very large, successful company said “execution is an order of magnitude easier than opportunity.” In the context of young startups, I often feel exactly the opposite. Opportunity is everywhere, but execution in a bitch.
But then I thought about this a little. For a big company that dominates a market, it’s totally focused on execution. The company is built for execution and, assuming it is built well, just cranks things out. What it cranks out might be inspiring, or it might not be, but it’ll keep cranking things out.
For these companies, finding the new opportunity is really difficult. The company is tuned to defend its turf, not go find new turf. Execution is all about defending market position, maximizing profit, expanding market share in existing markets, and allocating resources. In a few extraordinary cases, this activity is massively inspired, usually around companies that love their products (Apple) or their customers (Virgin). So – for most of these companies, “execution” is easy relative to finding the new opportunities. And many of these large companies don’t focus on finding the next opportunity, or expanding their existing opportunity, until their business hits major headwinds, is in decline, or is massively disrupted. I give you Borders, B&N, and Blockbuster as examples here – awesome at execution until what they did became irrelevant and then it was too late for them to do anything about it (other than maybe B&N, who might pull off their transition.)
In contrast, startups are totally focused on the new opportunity. Assuming they find it, and it’s a big one, execution becomes the main challenge in front of them. Their activity is all about scaling up the organization, hiring people like crazy, building a culture of shipping great product consistently, reacting effectively to early customer feedback, and continuing to evolve their products to meet the new massive opportunity they are going after.
From the eyes of a big company CEO, finding the opportunity is hard. From the eyes of a startup CEO, the opportunity is everything – execution is hard.
My insight is simple: “context matters immensely.” As young companies grow rapidly, they have to focus on becoming execution machines and recognize that at some point they’ll start struggling with identifying the next evolution of their opportunity space. Assuming the opportunity they are going after is massive, this won’t matter for a while. But the execution dynamics will. And when you find yourself executing well, dominating your market segment, and growing quickly, you’ve got to make sure you keep focusing on expanding the opportunity, especially since that’s going to get harder as you get bigger.