Month: June 2013

Jun 30 2013

Explaining The Bead-Chain Experiment

My partner Ryan send around the following awesome video about a bead-chain experience. It’s a fascinating phenomenon. Beautiful, actually.

Now, while the experiment, especially in slow motion, is beautiful, I especially enjoyed the discussion around trying to explain what was going on. I’m in conversations like this all the time – where someone is trying to explain how or why something happens based on observation.

This is in stark contrast to my experience at MIT. I call this experience “the engineer brain” where you immediately start going to the underlying mathematic model. The qualitative description is definitely useful, but what’s the underlying set of equations that describes what is going on.

I’m a huge believer in the five whys and use them all the time to try to understand something. I love both qualitative and quantitative explanations. And the underlying experimentation that helps surface the phenomenon.

And it’s a bonus when what you observe is fascinating and beautiful. For example, the following hits on both of those.

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Jun 27 2013

VC Posts That Say What The VC Thinks About How It All Works

Some of my favorite VC posts are ones that say what the VC posts that say what the VC thinks about how it all works. And – importantly – how it impacts the entrepreneur, his choices, and the dynamics between the entrepreneur and the VC.

Fred Wilson does this regularly. For example, see his post today on Valuation vs. Ownership.

My partner Jason Mendelson does the same. See his recent post The “VC Bargain”. Of course, Jason and I aspired to do the ultimate version of this in our book Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist.

You don’t have to agree with them. That’s what the comments are for. But they each say what is on their mind, why, how they think about it, and what the implications are for them.

If you want another example, take a look at my partner Seth’s post from last year titled I’m getting sick of the bullshit. And then reflect on the post from the anonymous entrepreneur that I highlighted yesterday titled My Startup has 30 Days to Live.

This shit is really hard and really complicated. It’s easy to have a surface view of it, to romanticize it, or to fall in love with the idea of it. Don’t. Do it because you love it. And find partners who want to go on the journey with you.

I’m going to hang out in the comments on Fred’s Valuation vs. Ownership post and Jason’s The “VC Bargain” post today. Come join me and tell me, Fred, and Jason what you think.

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Jun 26 2013

Talking About Failure

Startups fail. That’s part of the natural entrepreneurial cycle.

A great post is making the rounds from an entrepreneur who has 30 days left before he hits the wall. His blog – My Startup has 30 Days to Live – promises to be a powerful one, at least for 30 days. I’m only sad about two things: (1)  It’s anonymous and (2) There are no comments so it’s one way.

I left a message on “Ask me anything” asking him/her to reach out if I can help. We’ll see if he/she responds – or it’s either (a) a one way rant or (b) a fake failure story.

Either way, entrepreneurs need to talk about failure. It’s fine – I’ve failed at a ton of things. On Monday, I gave my “How To Fail” talk at Techstars Boulder. Included were all the Startup Summer students as well as a bunch of members of the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado. I told the story of my first failure (my first company – Martingale Software) and my biggest failure (Interliant). I made some broad points and then did an hour of Q&A.

I hope it was useful.

I see entrepreneurs, especially first time entrepreneurs, in denial all the time about the possibility of failure. “Failure is not an option”, or “I’m afraid to fail”, or “Everything is going great” (when it isn’t). Sometimes failure is your best option.

Denial of reality – and what you can do – is a big issue. Ignoring reality until it’s too late is another. Not reaching out for help when there is still time is yet another. Fear of failure – which is the mind killer  – is yet another.

In one of my darkest moments of Interliant, I was sitting hunched over at the kitchen table of one of my co-founder’s (Len Fassler) – breakfast table. We had a brutal day in front of us and I was waiting for him to finish getting dressed so we could head to the office to deal with things. When he came into the kitchen, he saw me and said “C’mon Brad – suit up – let’s go.” He patted me on the back in the wonderful way he always does and said “Just remember – they can’t kill you and they can’t eat you.”

Follow My Startup has 30 Days to Live. Learn from it. And if the entrepreneur uncloaks, let’s try to help, even if it’s just providing emotional support.

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Jun 25 2013

Flickr is Back!

I had a shitty website day on Friday. But an awesome Flickr day today.

It was my anniversary and I wanted to post an anniversary tribute to Amy. I ended up writing a post titled Happy 20th Anniversary Amy. I dug up a bunch of old pictures (hosted in our very large photo archive on Dropbox), crafted a WordPress blog, uploaded the photos in the media center on WordPress, and published the blog.

I brought it up, admired my work, and send Amy an email with the link.

She responded five minutes later saying “I can’t get to the link – something is wrong with your blog.”

I took a look. My blog was down. This happens every now and then when I post something and I get a burst of traffic. Usually all it takes to fix it is a server reboot. This time we couldn’t even get in to the website to reboot. No ssh for me. No chance to sudo su -; reboot. The server needed a hard reboot. We finally got our hosting provider to do this, it came up for a few seconds, and immediately fell back over.

My partner Ryan (who was helping me remotely) concluded that the issue was that I had uploaded 4MB files and every time the website came up there was a 40MB burst of traffic. When 10 people hit it at the same time my poor little webserver just fell over.

Oops.

I trimmed down the photos to 600k. I rebooted and sat waiting for the site to come back up. I somehow managed to get into WordPress, turn the post into a draft, and change the photos to the 600k ones. I published and held my breath, while having a meeting with a very indulgent friend.

It worked fine.

But then I was mad at my site. Amused that my webserver couldn’t handle whatever traffic it got. Annoyed with myself for uploading giant pictures. Aggravated that I had interrupted Ryan’s time on vacation at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival because I needed Unix help. And I was busy so I didn’t get to revisit it until this morning.

As sat down to write a new post, I decided to try uploading the photos to Flickr and using embeds. I hadn’t used Flickr in a long time. Sure – I knew it was the new and improved Marissa Mayer endorsed Flickr, but I still hadn’t played around with it.

So I did. I logged in using my Facebook account. My old Flickr photos were there with the pretty note saying I had ONE FREE GIANT TERABYTE OF STORAGE. I easily uploaded my files. I easily embedded them into the post. I published. Happiness.

I looked at my old Flickr photos and realized I really missed Flickr. I guess I’ll be using it again!

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Jun 21 2013

Happy 20th Anniversary Amy

20 years. Just amazing. You are my favorite person on this planet. Here are some pictures from the past 20 years.

Brad - Amy - Wellesley 5th Reunion

Fashion has clearly never been my strong sense.

Brad - Amy - Cabo - Young

Fortunately, my t-shirts are rubbing off on you.

Brad - Amy - Kentucky Derby

And your class and grace is rubbing off on me.

Brad - Amy - Alaska
But you can never really take the girl out of Alaska.

Brad - Amy - Opera

And one never really does leave Wellesley, does one?

Brad - Amy - Italy

I love you.

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Jun 19 2013

Mentor Whiplash About Early Board Members

At TechStars, we talk often about “mentor whiplash” – the thing that happens when you get seemingly conflicting advice from multiple mentors. Talk to five mentors; get seven different opinions! This is normal, as there is no right or absolute answer in many cases, people have different perspectives and experiences, and they are responding to different inputs (based on their own context), even if the data they are presented with looks the same on the surface.

Yesterday, Steve Blank and I both put up articles on the WSJ Accelerators site. The question for the week was “When should you have a board of directors or a board of advisors?” My answer was Start Building Your Board Early. Steve’s was Don’t Give Away Your Board Seats. I just went back and read each of them. On the surface they seem to be opposite views. But upon reading them carefully, I think they are both right, and a great example of mentor whiplash.

For context, I have enormous respect for Steve and I learn a lot from him. We are on the UP Global board together but have never served on a for-profit board together. We both started out as entrepreneurs and have spent a lot of time participating in, learning about, and teaching how to create and scale startups. I’ve been on lots of boards – ranging from great to shitty; I expect Steve has as well. While we haven’t spent a lot of physical time together, all of our virtual time has been stimulating to me, even when we disagree (which is possibly unsettling but hopefully entertaining to those observing.) And while we are both very busy in our separate universes, my sense is they overlap nicely and probably converge in some galaxy far far away.

So – when you read Steve’s article and hear “Steve says don’t add a board member until after you raise a VC round” and then read my article and conclude “Brad says add a board member before you raise a VC round” it’s easy to say “wow – ok – that sort of – well – doesn’t really help – I guess I have to pick sides.” You can line up paragraphs and have an amusing “but Brad said, but Steve said” kind of thing. I considered making a Madlib out of this, but had too many other things to do this morning.

But if you go one level deeper, we are both saying “be careful with who you add to your board.” I’m taking a positive view – assuming that you are doing this – and adding someone you trust and has a philosophy of helping support the entrepreneur. From my perspective:

“… Early stage board of directors should be focused on being an extension of the team, helping the entrepreneurs get out of the gate, and get the business up and running. Often, entrepreneurs don’t build a board until they are forced to by their VCs when they raise their first financing round. This is dumb, as you are missing the opportunity to add at least one person to the team who — as a board member — can help you navigate the early process of building your company and raising that first round. In some cases, this can be transformative.”

Steve takes the opposite view – concerned that anyone who wants to be on an early stage board is resume padding, potentially a control freak, or the enemy of the founders.

“At the end of the day, your board is not your friend. You may like them and they might like you, but they have a fiduciary duty to the shareholders, not the founders. And they have a fiduciary responsibility to their own limited partners. That means the board is your boss, and they have an obligation to optimize results for the company. You may be the ex-employees one day if they think you’re holding the company back.”

Totally valid. And it reinforces the point we both are making, which Maynard Webb makes more clearly in his Accelerator post ‘Date’ Advisers, ‘Marry’ Board MembersWhen I reflect on my post, I didn’t state this very well. Anytime you add an outside board member, you should be reaching high and adding someone you think will really be helpful. You are not looking for a “boss” or someone who is going to hide behind their abstract fiduciary responsibilities to all shareholders (which they probably don’t actually understand) – you are looking for an early teammate who is going to help you win. Sure – there will be cases where they have to consider their fiduciary responsibilities, but their perspective should be that of helping support the entrepreneurs in whatever way the entrepreneurs need.

The power of a great entrepreneur is to collect a lot of data and make a decision based on their own point of view and conviction. You’ve got a lot of info – including some different perspectives from the WSJ Accelerators segment this week. That’s their goal – now I encourage you to read the articles carefully, think about what you want your board to be like, and take action on it.

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Jun 18 2013

Feedback On The New Feld Thoughts Design

Every year or so I freshen up the Feld Thoughts design. This time I did it with the help of Cole Morrison, who is the Hackstar I hired at the end of last year.

I’ve gotten some feedback so far but am looking for more. And I’m happy to get whatever you’ve got for us – nice, constructive, or harsh. Whatever comes to mind – just toss it in the comments or email it.

For an example of “substantial” and “harsh” take a look at this. Like all helpful feedback, it’s very precise and actionable.

Feldthoughts feedback

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Jun 17 2013

The Last Firewall – The Best Near Term Science Fiction

William Hertling is currently my favorite “near term” science fiction writer. I just read a pre-release near-final draft of his newest book, The Last Firewall. It was spectacular. Simply awesome.

You can’t read it yet, but I’ll let you know when it’s available. In the mean time, go read the first two books in the trilogy.

They are also excellent and important for context for The Last Firewall. They are inexpensive. And they are about as close to reality while still being science fiction as you can get.

I define “near term science fiction” as stuff that will happen within the next 20 years. I used to read everything by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson. Gibson’s Neuromancer and and Stephenson’s Snow Crash were – until recently – my two favorite books in this category. Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom (TM) replaced these at the top of my list, until Hertling showed up. Now I’d put Daemon and The Last Firewall tied for first.

Amy and I were talking about this in the car today. Gibson, Sterling, and Stephenson are amazing writers, but their books have become too high concept. There’s not enough love and excitement for the characters. And the science fiction is too abstract – still important, but not as accessible.

In contrast, Hertling and Suarez are just completely nailing it, as is Ramez Naam with his recent book Nexus. My tastes are now deeply rooted with these guys, along with Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross.

If I was writing science fiction, this would be what I was going for. And, if you want to understand the future, this is what you should be reading.

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Jun 13 2013

GTTFP

One of my favorite acronyms of all time is IHTFP. Its originated at MIT in the 1950s and has achieved widespread adoption. And yes, it does actually stand for I Hate This Fucking Place, which as any MIT alumni will tell you, is part of the beauty of the MIT experience.

Today, I was in a meeting helping a CEO work on an upcoming investor pitch and told him that his problem was that he wasn’t getting to the fucking point. I scribbled down GTTFP. I just looked it up and lo and behold a new FLA (the cousin of the famed TLA) has now entered my vocabulary. It’s got nice onomatopoeia if you say it just right.

I’m on the receiving end of people who can’t seem to GTTFP multiple times a day. It’s especially true when someone is trying to create false intimacy at the beginning of a conversation, is using ancient sales techniques like the endless rhetorical question to try to build agreement from me, or is simply in a “tell rather than show” mode where they figure that if they beat me over the head with words I’ll read the conclusion they are trying to beat me over the head with.

Now, GTTFP is different than bloviating. While I don’t think I actually bloviate, I’ll often suggest that someone has just been on the end of a rant or a space jam of mine, which I often refer to as a good bloviate on my part. However, my bloviating almost always is storytelling – where I’m trying to give an example, or a lot of examples, by “showing rather than telling” to make a point.

But GTTFP is just an avoidance of actually getting to the point. Or its a ramble that doesn’t focus on what is trying to be communicated. Or it’s an effort to build connection in advance of making a point, which often comes across as saccarine.

Enough – GTTFP. Which is to say, simply, GTTFP.

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Jun 12 2013

Zen and the Art of Entrepreneurship

One of my favorite books of all times is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I read it every few years and recommend that every entrepreneur read it early in their journey.

While a plethora of entrepreneurship books have come out recently, including the ones I’ve written in the Startup Revolution series, there hasn’t yet been the equivalent of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for entrepreneurship.

Matt Blumberg’s new book –Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business – has elements of it and is awesome. It should be out next month and every entrepreneurial CEO should buy a copy of it right now as it’ll be an incredibly important book to read for any CEO at any experience level.

Riz Virk’s post on TechCrunch yesterday – The Zen of Entrepreneurship – also caught my eye. He’s got a book out called Zen Entrepreneurship: Walking the Path of the Career Warrior. He’s sending me a copy but I went ahead and grabbed it on Amazon to read this weekend.

I know Riz from the 1990’s in Boston – I was an advisor to his first company Brainstorm Technologies. It was long ago enough at this point that I don’t know if I was helpful or not, but I had warm feelings toward Riz and smiled when I saw his name pop up again after not seeing it for a while.

Jerry Colonna and I have talked on and off about really digging into this topic and trying to write a philosophical treatise on entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial way that will stand the test of time. I’m not ready to take this on as I’ve got enough on my plate, but I know it’s out there somewhere. In the mean time, I’m psyched to see more CEOs writing real books about entrepreneurship, rather than yet another ego testament to themselves.

Matt and Riz – thanks for putting the effort into this!

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