Month: February 2012

Feb 11 2012

Book: Avogadro Corp

I gave a talk titled “Resistance Is Futile” yesterday in Park City at the annual meeting for one of our LPs. This is a version of a talk I’ve given several times, starting at Defrag last fall. The slides don’t change, but I make up the talk each time and tune it to the audience.

When I got to the slide titled Science Fiction Is Becoming Science Fact I went off on a version of my rant about the importance of reading, watching, and thinking about science fiction. I always use Oblong and co-founder John Underkoffler’s work as an example here since they have created a company around the iconic science fiction future that John envisioned for the movie Minority Report.

But then I mentioned a book I’d just read called Avogadro Corp. While it’s obviously a play on words with Google, it’s a tremendous book that a number of friends had recommended to me. In the vein of Daniel Suarez’s great books Daemon and Freedom (TM), it is science fiction that has a five year aperture – describing issues, in solid technical detail, that we are dealing with today that will impact us by 2015, if not sooner.

There are very few people who appreciate how quickly this is accelerating. The combination of software, the Internet, and the machines is completely transforming society and the human experience as we know it. As I stood overlooking Park City from the patio of a magnificent hotel, I thought that we really don’t have any idea what things are going to be like in twenty years. And that excites me to no end while simultaneously blowing my mind.

I’m spending the day tomorrow at the Silicon Flatirons Digital Broadband Migration Conference. This year’s theme is “The Challenges of Internet Law and Governance.” And, as we recently discovered with SOPA, PIPA, and now ACTA there are huge disconnects between government, lawyers, incumbents, and innovators. I’m on one panel which I’ll make sure is spicy – I hope others really get into the issues this year. There will be a live stream of the event on UStream (which is awesome – imagine the effort to do that 20 years ago) so you can watch it in real time if you want.

Every single person there needs to read Avogadro Corp, Daemon, and Freedom (TM). My guess is very few have. And that’s a problem for them, but not for the machines.

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Feb 10 2012

Happy Birthday, I’m Unfriending You

In December I wrote a post titled It’s Not About Having The Most Friends, It’s About Having The Best Friends. Since then I’ve been systematically modifying my social networking behavior and cleaning up my various social graphs. As a significant content generator in a variety of forms (blogs, books, tweets, videos) and a massive content consumer, I found that my historical approach of social network promiscuity wasn’t working well for me in terms of surfacing information.

I made two major changes to the way I use various social networks. I went through each one and categorized each on three dimensions: (1) consumption vs. broadcast and (2) public vs. private, (3) selective vs. promiscuous. These are not binary choices – I can be both a content consumer and a broadcaster on the same social network, but I’ll use it differently depending where on the spectrum I am.

For example, consider Facebook. I determined I was in the middle of the consumption/broadcast spectrum, public, and selective. With Foursquare, I determined I was closer to broadcast and private and very selective. With LinkedIn, I was 100% broadcast, public, and promiscuous. With Twitter, I was similar to Facebook, but with a much wider broadcast and promiscuous. With RunKeeper, very strong on broadcast, public, but selective.

I then looked at the tools I was using. Yesterday I noticed Fred Wilson’s email The Black Hole Of Email and it reminded me that I view email as my primary communication channel for broad accessibility (I try to answer every email I get within 24 hours – if it takes longer you know I’m on the road or got behind) and often respond within minutes if I’m in front of my computer. But I’ve worked very hard to cut all of the noise out of my email channel – I have no email subscriptions (thanks OtherInBox), I get no spam (thanks Postini), I run zero inbox (read and reply / archive immediately), and am very selective with the notifications I get via email (i.e. I check Meetup.com daily, but the only email notifications I get are for Boulder Is For Robots.) As a result, I find email manageable and a powerful / simple comm channel for me.

Tuning each social network has ranged from trivial (15 minutes with RunKeeper and I was in a happy place) to medium (Foursquare took an hour to clean up my 800+ friends to 100-ish) to extremely painful (going from 3000 Facebook friends to a useful set seemed overwhelming.) I decided to clean up the easy ones first and then come up with manual algorithms for the harder ones.

My favorite approach is what I’m doing with Facebook. Every day I go into the Events tab and look at the birthday list. I then unfriend the people whose name I don’t recognize or who I don’t want to consume in my news feed. Since Facebook’s social graph is on the public side, people can still follow me (ala Twitter follow). I view this as a reverse birthday gift which probably enhances both of our lives.

In contrast, I’ve continued to just accept all LinkedIn requests except from obvious recruiters or people who look like spambots. I know they can pay to get access to my social graph – that’s fine – I want them to have to pay someone or work a little for it, not just get it for free, but the benefit of having a wide social graph on LinkedIn for the one time a week I use it to hunt someone down somewhere far outweighs the pain of being promiscuous.

I’ve continued to find and use other tools for managing all the data. One of my new favorites is Engag.io. Rather than getting a stream of Facebook email notifications, I check it once a day and respond to everything that I see. I’ve noticed that I find comments in other services like Foursquare that I was previously missing, and rather than having a pile of clutter in my inbox, I can interact it with once a day for ten minutes.

When I reflect on my approach, it doesn’t surprise me that it’s very algorithmic. That’s how I’ve always driven my content consumption / content generation world and part of the reason it doesn’t overwhelm me. Sure – it spikes up at times and becomes less useful / more chaotic (like it did last year when I realized Facebook wasn’t really useful for me anyone.) This causes me to step back, figure out a new set of algorithms, and get it newly tamed. And yes, Facebook is now much more useful and interesting to me after only a few months of cleanup.

I’m always looking for new tools and approaches to this so if you have a great one, please tell me. For example, the “unfriend on birthdays” approach was suggested several times in the comments to one of the posts and after trying a Greasemonkey plugin, manual unfriending on the iPad while watching TV, and other brute force approaches, I just decided I’d clean it up over a year via the birthday approach. So – keep the comments and emails flowing – they mean a lot to me.

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Feb 8 2012

My CU Bathroom on Boston’s Fox 25 News

In the “truth is stranger than fiction” category, my CU Boulder bathroom donation (well – the gift I gave to CU Boulder that resulted in me getting to name a bathroom) made the TV news tonight in Boston on Fox 25. There’s apparently a new bathroom news cycle because of William Falik’s gift to Harvard Law School for the Falik Men’s Room at Harvard Law School. While my bathroom at CU Boulder doesn’t have the same elegant name (it’s known as RRM 209 in the ATLAS Building, or the Feld Mens Bathroom on Foursquare), I’ve got a better quote: ““The Best Ideas Often Come At Inconvenient Times – Don’t Ever Close Your Mind To Them.”

The two minute news clip, along with a Skype interview I did this afternoon, follows. MIT – my offer is still open – don’t flush it.

Harvard Law School names restroom after generous alumni: MyFoxBOSTON.com

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Feb 7 2012

Three Magic Numbers

Every company I’m involved in keeps track of numbers. Daily numbers, weekly numbers, monthly numbers. Ultimately, all the numbers translate into three financial statements – the P&L, Balance Sheet, and Cash Flow Statement. While these numbers are sacrosanct in the accounting and finance professions, they are lagging indicators for most startup companies. Important, but they tell the story of the past, not what is going on right now.

I’ve formed a view that every young company should be obsessed about three magic numbers. Not two, not five, but three. Before I explain what those numbers are, I need to tell a story of how I got to this point.

My brain works better with numbers than graphs, so over the years I’ve conditioned most people I work with to send me numbers on a regular basis. Words are good also, but I love numbers. Early in the life of the company I request numbers daily. Some of this is for me; most of it is to try to help the entrepreneurs build some muscles around understanding the data and how to use it.

Recently, I’ve noticed a cambrian explosion of data among several of the companies I work with. The number of different numbers being tracked daily is massive. When you walk into their office there are screens full of graphs on the wall. Everyone in the company has access to the trends over time across a number of dimensions. These graphs are pretty, the numbers are dynamic, and there are often blinking lights to go along as a bonus.

A few months ago I stood in the middle of the office of a 30 person company and stared at the flat screen TVs hanging from the ceiling showing an array of graphs. I’m sure my mouth was open as I tried to process the data and make sense of it. I knew this particular company well and could reduce the number of different data points to a small set, but I was completely overwhelmed by the visual display. As I systematically looked at each of the graphs, I realized very few of them mattered much, nor where they particularly helpful in understanding what was going on in the business.

At the moment I realized these were no longer magic numbers. Instead, I was looking at wallpaper. Data porn. The entrepreneurial aeron chair equivalent of 2012. Pretty, but a bad allocation of resources. The 30 people in the room might be looking at the graphs. They might be looking at one of the graphs. But they probably weren’t seeing anything.

This particular company runs off of three numbers. Daily active users (DAU). Live publishers. Trial publishers. That’s it for now. In the future, there will be a daily transaction metric (Daily transaction revenue) that replaces trial clients. But that’s probably a quarter or two away.

I then started thinking about each company I’m on the board of. This rule of three applies. For many of the companies, DAU is one of the numbers. In others it’s daily orders. Or daily revenue. Or daily activations. Or total publishers. Or new publishers. But in every case I could reduce it to three numbers that I felt were the most important to pay attention to.

The absolute number is what matters. The trend is driven by day over day changes. If during the week (assume the week starts on Sunday) the numbers are 47, 67, 69, 72, 174, 80, 53 this prompts the question “what happened on Thursday to drive the number to  174?” If the next week the numbers are 53, 75, 214, 83, 80, 73, 45 this prompts two questions: “what caused the spike on Tuesday” and “why is the week over week trend downward?” Clearly there is seasonality within the week and there is a new high, but the overall trend going into the weekend is negative.

My brain can focus intensely on three variables like this in a business. Once I add a fourth, I have trouble figuring out the relationship between them. This doesn’t mean that the leadership and functional managers shouldn’t track and analyze the detailed data. They should. But they should realize that when they show this to everyone in the company, no one knows what to care about.

Instead, my new approach is to focus on three numbers. These three numbers should reflect “what’s going on right now in the business” and the trend of the numbers should be a predictor of what’s going on. As I think about the companies I’m involved in, I can define these three numbers in 60 seconds – they are almost always painfully obvious. Sometimes I do end up with four and have to make a choice, but I rarely end up with five.

The technology for displaying these three numbers is remarkably simple. They make this thing called a whiteboard that you can write them on. An email can go out to everyone in the company with the three numbers. That’s it.

What are your three magic numbers?

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Feb 4 2012

Grinfucking

I first heard the word “grinfucker” a decade or so ago from a close friend who was a former investment banker. He said, in response to a meeting we were in with a person who was very polite and charming “he’s such a grinfucker.” I loved the word and, as I found out later, it described the person perfectly.

I had an encounter with someone on Friday that made me think to myself “that person is a grinfucker” and I vaguely remembered a post on the web from someone about grinfuckers. A quick Google search generated a post from Mark Suster titled Don’t be a Grin Fucker. It’s excellent  – go read it – this blog post will wait patiently for you to come back.

I was at dinner mid-week with another friend talking about a bunch of stuff. During that dinner we started talking about SOPA/PIPA. He has another friend who is one of the SOPA/PIPA advocates. He told me what the person said about it, which was basically “the tech industry misunderstands what we are trying to do – it’s only about foreign websites – there is nothing bad in the bills.” I responded to my friend that this person was lying. We talked about that for a while. As I reflect on the conversation, it wasn’t simply that the pro-SOPA/PIPA person was lying, he was actually grinfucking our mutual friend. Which, ironically given the specific context, might even be worse than lying.

I try to live my life where I always say 100% what is on my mind. I rarely hold back and, although I try to be polite about it, I’m sure I piss plenty of people off. But I’d rather annoy and piss them off than grinfuck them. And I’d much rather someone be brutally honest with me about whatever they think, especially if they disagree with me or think I’m doing something stupid, since that information is so much more valuable to me than a disingenuous good vibe.

I’ve started doing something new at the end of most of my public talks. I have always ended by giving out my email address and encouraging people to reach out directly if there is anything they want to discuss. But I’ve added on the following:

If I said anything you disagree with, think was confusing, stupid, or just plain wrong, please tell me. I won’t take offense – don’t sugar coat it – just tell me. That’s the best way for me to learn and get smarter.

I suppose I could add “please don’t grinfuck me by saying how wonderful the talk was as you think in the back of your mind ‘wow – Feld is a real moron – he totally missed the point on the blah thing.'”

I encourage everyone to chew on this. Honest, direct, and clear debate is so much more powerful than bullshit. We are living in a very complex era and the information we are trying to process is extremely confusing and contradictory. If you like or respect someone, don’t grinfuck them. And if you don’t like or respect them, don’t grinfuck them – tell them why.

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Feb 2 2012

What Makes An Awesome Board Member?

Over the past two years I’ve been struggling mightily with the dynamics of “classical VC funded board of directors” and how these boards work. When I hear a VC say “I’m an active board member” it gives me the same nauseous feeling I get when someone says “I’m a value added investor.” I’ve been on some awesome boards, some terrible boards, and everything in between. Today, I refuse to be on a shitty or dysfunctional board and I’m proud that every board I’m on is one that I’d consider to be effective, although they all operate in different ways.

I’ve experimented with a bunch of different approaches across a lot of boards and have been thinking hard about this lately. I’m working on a book called Startup Boards with Mahendra Ramsinghani and have done some interviews about this topic lately, including a chaotic one the other day with James Geshwiler on the Frank Peters Show.

My long term friend Matt Blumberg (Return Path CEO) and I were going back and forth about his recently board meeting (which ironically I missed) and he wrote some kind words about me and his other board members (Fred Wilson – USV, Greg Sands – Sutter Hill, Scott Weiss – A16Z, and Scott Petry – Authentic8.) I asked him if he’d write a guest post about what makes an awesome board member. He was willing – it follows.

I’ve written a bunch of posts over the years about how I manage my Board at Return Path.  And I think part of having awesome Board members is managing them well – giving transparent information, well organized, with enough lead time before a meeting; running great and engaging meetings; mixing social time with business time; and being a Board member yourself at some other organization so you see the other side of the equation.  All those topics are covered in more detail in the following posts:  Why I Love My Board, Part IIThe Good, The Board, and The Ugly, and Powerpointless.

But by far the best way to make sure you have an awesome board is to start by having awesome Board members.  I’ve had about 15 Board members over the years, some far better than others.  Here are my top 5 things that make an awesome Board member, and my interview/vetting process for Board members.

Top 5 things that make an awesome Board member:

  • They are prepared and keep commitments: They show up to all meetings.  They show up on time and don’t leave early.  They do their homework.  The are fully present and don’t do email during meetings.
  • They speak their minds: They have no fear of bringing up an uncomfortable topic during a meeting, even if it impacts someone in the room.  They do not come up to you after a meeting and tell you what they really think.  I had a Board member once tell my entire management team that he thought I needed to be better at firing executives more quickly!
  • They build independent relationships: They get to know each other and see each other outside of your meetings.  They get to know individuals on your management team and talk to them on occasion as well.  None of this communication goes through you.
  • They are resource rich: I’ve had some directors who are one-trick or two-trick ponies with their advice.  After their third or fourth meeting, they have nothing new to add.  Board members should be able to pull from years of experience and adapt that experience to your situations on a flexible and dynamic basis.
  • They are strategically engaged but operationally distant: This may vary by stage of company and the needs of your own team, but I find that even Board members who are talented operators have a hard time parachuting into any given situation and being super useful.  Getting their operational help requires a lot of regular engagement on a specific issue or area.  But they must be strategically engaged and understand the fundamental dynamics and drivers of your business – economics, competition, ecosystem, and the like.

My interview/vetting process for Board members:

  • Take the process as seriously as you take building your executive team – both in terms of your time and in terms of how you think about the overall composition of the Board, not just a given Board member.
  • Source broadly, get a lot of referrals from disparate sources, reach high.
  • Interview many people, always face to face and usually multiple times for finalists.  Also for finalists, have a few other Board members conduct interviews as well.
  • Check references thoroughly and across a few different vectors.
  • Have a finalist or two attend a Board meeting so you and they can examine the fit firsthand.  Give the prospective Board member extra time to read materials and offer your time to answer questions before the meeting.  You’ll get a good first-hand sense of a lot of the above Top 5 items this way.
  • Have no fear of rejecting them.  Even if you like them.  Even if they are a stretch and someone you consider to be a business hero or mentor.  Even after you’ve already put them on the Board (and yes, even if they’re a VC).  This is your inner circle, and getting this group right is one of the most important things you can do for your company.

I asked my exec team for their own take on what makes an awesome Board member.  Here are some quick snippets from them where they didn’t overlap with mine:

  • Ethical and high integrity in their own jobs and lives
  • Comes with an opinion
  • Thinking about what will happen next in the business and getting management to think ahead
  • Call out your blind spots
  • Remembering to thank you and calling out what’s right
  • Role modeling for your expectations of your own management team
  • Do your prep, show up, be fully engaged, be brilliant/transparent/critical/constructive and creative.  Then get out of our way
  • Offer tough love…Unfettered, constructive guidance – not just what we want to hear
  • Pattern matching: they have an ability to map a situation we have to a problem/solution at other companies that they’ve been involved in – we learn from their experience…but ability and willingness to do more than just pattern matching. To really get into the essence of the issues and help give strategic guidance and suggestions
  • Ability to down 2 Shake Shack milkshakes in one sitting
  • Colorful and unique metaphors

Disclaimer – I run a private company.  While I’m sure a lot of these things are true for other types of organizations (public companies, non-profits, associations, etc.), the answers may vary.  And even within the realm of private companies, you need to have a Board that fits your style as a CEO and your company’s culture.  That said, the formula above has worked well for me, and if nothing else, is somewhat time tested at this point!

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Feb 1 2012

Starwood and AT&T #FAIL And Bless Me With $180.76 Of Phone Charges

Put this in the “every business traveller thinks this on a regular basis” rant category. Sure – I’m whining, but I imagine I’ll feel better after I get done. I doubt it has any impact on the universe, but hopefully it’ll be a story that rings true to some of you out there who travel as much as I do. And to my friends at Starwood and AT&T, you made my day yesterday, which was already intense, a lot harder than it needed to be.

I just woke up, made some coffee, turned on my computer, and noticed that my hotel bill was shoved under my door. Last night before I went to bed I tweeted “Dear AT&T and Westin Hotel Wifi: I give up. Good night.” I rarely look at my hotel bills but this time I was curious so I grabbed it. $323.10 for the room, $32.32 for State and County Tax, $9.95 for Internet Service, and $180.76 for 10 telephone calls.

Remember that I said I rarely look at my hotel bill. I travel constantly and I’m what I’d describe as a high end utilitarian traveler. When I travel alone I’m not terribly picky about the hotels I stay at, generally prefer modern to classic, just want a dark, clean room that I can make cold at night, and want to be left alone. I try to be super polite to the hotel staff while simultaneously very low maintenance.

I used to be annoyed that I’d pay $500 or more for a room and get hit with a $14.95 bill for Internet access. I stopped being annoyed by that a while ago and just view it as part of the cost of the room. I don’t watch television so my time in the room is spent working on my computer, talking on my cell phone (or my computer via Skype or Google Chat), sleeping, or being in the bathroom. That’s it. Oh – and I appreciate the free coffee service in the room since I get up at 5am and there’s rarely a coffee option anywhere until 5:30am.

Yesterday at about 2pm I arrived at the Westin Arlington Gateway. I’ve got a set of meetings tomorrow at the National Science Foundation so I’m staying down the block. My amazing assistant Kelly had scheduled a dozen phone calls between 2pm and dinner so I figured I’d just sit in my room and grind away on calls and email. A few of my calls where Skype calls and my phone number is a Google Voice number so I’d just sit in front of my computer and work in between the calls.

When I checked in at 2pm, the room they had assigned me to wasn’t ready. The guy checking me in was super nice, asked me a bunch of questions (do you want a high floor or a low floor, near the elevator or away from the elevator) to which I answered “I don’t care – whatever room you have will be fine, and found me a room. He informed me that my Starwood preferred number was on file (whatever that means) and was very  polite.

I plopped down in my room, took out my laptop, went through the “connect to the Internet” process which appeared to cost $9.95 for the day, and got to work.

After 10 minutes I knew I was screwed. The Internet performance was painfully slow. Since I had back to back calls, I didn’t have a window to call “tech support” and have them take a look so I put up with it for a little while. I figured I’d use my iPhone as a hotspot as the backup and switched over to it. That was even worse. I tried to make a phone call with my iPhone instead of Google Voice. It took three tries for it to go through and then it dropped after 60 seconds.

I was officially in RidiculousTelecommunicationStan. I struggled through the first few calls (anyone on the other end, especially the poor souls on Skype, could probably sense my frustration and theirs was probably higher) before giving up and switching to the landline in my room. Yes – a landline. I had to think for a moment whether to dial 9 first or 8 first (remember that I’m in a hotel), got it right, and simply made all the calls from that phone. Internet performance was still miserable, but by using Sparrow I managed to work “semi-offline”  and the emails went through what seemed to be simulating a 2400 baud modem.

Eventually I had 15 minutes between calls so I pressed the “Service Express” button on the phone to ask for Internet tech support. The nice person took down my info and said someone would call me back. They did 15 minutes later which overlapped with my next call. I eventually called them back just as I finished up but before I left for dinner. We did all the standard troubleshooting things which indicated that the Internet was slow and after an escalation, resulted in someone “resetting a router” remotely. I went to dinner, was about 15 minutes late, but was optimistic that when I got home I’d be able to jam through another hour or so of email.

No such luck. After calling Amy on the land line and saying goodnight, I struggled through 15 minutes of email before deciding to just screw it and go to bed. I tweeted out my frustration and quickly got a response from @StarwoodBuzz that said “Sorry about that. If you can DM us your stay details in full, we can do our best to help. We’ve followed you.” Nice, but I was done for the night, closed my laptop, and will DM them this blog post and see what happens.

And then I woke up this morning, started a cup of coffee, and noticed by $180.76 bill for 10 phone calls. Total stupidity on the part of Starwood where I’m apparently a “not very preferred guest.” It’s been a long time since I resorted to using the landline in my hotel room and it didn’t even occur to me that they’d rip me off like this. I remember staying in a Marriott near an airport recently and the cost for Internet and unlimited long distance phone calls was $9.95, so I’m doubly perplexed. And I don’t see any of those little plastic signs saying “if you use this phone to make a call we are going to charge you $2 per minute” (which is what it appears they were charging based on a few of the calls.)

I can’t remember the last time I made a fuss when I checked out over a hotel bill. I’m sure I eat some extra charges her and there, but whatever. This morning, when I head downstairs, I’ll ask to have all the phone calls taken off my bill. We will see what happens.

In the mean time, I’m going to keep reminding myself that this is 2012, not 1996, where we are just discovering the expensive magic of Internet in hotel rooms. I look forward to 2024 when I no longer have a landline in my room and the Internet works flawlessly for the $9.95 I pay a day to use it. Or maybe AT&T will work in the middle of Arlington, Virginia. Or maybe pigs will fly.

Update: The manager at the Starwood Arlington left a message for me that he had reversed all of the charges. So he did the right thing and I appreciate that. An AT&T customer service person also called and assured me he would talk to the hotel and explore if there is a dead spot in the area. I’m now on Acela to NY where their Wifi doesn’t work for shit but AT&T is tethering ok today. Now, if I could only get the soccer mom two rows up to stop telling stories about her 7th grade son’s soccer team I’d maybe be in a less grumpy place.

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