Month: March 2018

Mar 30 2018

Book: Waking Up White

My dad, brother, and I are now doing a monthly book club together. One of us chooses a book, we all read it, and then we do an hour-long video conference and talk about it. We’ve done this for about six months now and it’s wonderful.

A few months ago Daniel chose Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. It was a powerful book that started off strong.

“I can think of no bigger misstep in American history than the invention and perpetuation of the idea of white superiority. It allows white children to believe they are exceptional and entitled while allowing children of color to believe they are inferior and less deserving. Neither is true; both distort and stunt development. Racism crushes spirits, incites divisiveness, and justifies the estrangement of entire groups of individuals who, like all humans, come into the world full of goodness, with a desire to connect, and with boundless capacity to learn and grow. Unless adults understand racism, they will, as I did, unknowingly teach it to their children.

No one alive today created this mess, but everyone alive today has the power to work on undoing it. Four hundred years since its inception, American racism is all twisted up in our cultural fabric. But there’s a loophole: people are not born racist. Racism is taught, and racism is learned. Understanding how and why our beliefs developed along racial lines holds the promise of healing, liberation, and the unleashing of America’s vast human potential.”

I found myself nodding many times as I read this book. When I finished, I wandered around the web and found this TEDx Fenway talk by the author which does a great job of a high-level summary of the book.

I particularly liked this framing:

“What I’ve learned is that thinking myself raceless allowed for a distorted frame of reference built on faulty beliefs. For instance, I used to believe:

  • Race is all about biological differences.
  • I can help people of color by teaching them to be more like me.
  • Racism is about bigots who make snarky comments and commit intentionally cruel acts against people of color.
  • Culture and ethnicity are only for people of other races and from other countries.
  • If the cause of racial inequity were understood, it would be solved by now.”

Dad, Daniel, and I talked extensively about the notion of “Good intentions, bad information.” While it applies to many situations, it’s especially key in applying critical thinking to a complex, or deeply challenging situation, especially one where there is a visceral bias (emotional or intellectual) that appears. Consider applying Curiosity, Courage, and Tolerance by doing the following.

  • Curiosity: Ask yourself silently, “Why did I just think that thought?” Force yourself to chase down the “why” before you go on.
  • Courage: Resist feeling terrified that you will say the wrong thing. There are lots of different ways to say something with a qualifier that you don’t have any idea whether what you are saying is going to be offensive, interpreted correctly, or correct.
  • Tolerance: Tolerate your own feelings of discomfort, anger, grief, and embarrassment. Take a deep breath and calmly press through into the situation.

There’s a lot more in the book that both challenged me and helped me. I’m sure I interpreted plenty of it wrong, but, in the same way that I’m reading and exploring a lot of feminist literature, I’m going to include explorations of race and ethnicity in the stuff I’m reading.

Daniel – thanks for choosing Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race as one of our monthly books.

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Mar 28 2018

Spring Break Should Be A National Holiday In The US

I’m a fan of spring break. I’m a believer in regular vacations. I love it when people I work with get away and disconnect. And, I do it at least four times a year.

Spring break feels like it has gotten out of control. Rethinking it could be interesting. This year, at least 50% of the people I work with regularly are on spring break this week. I think the other 50% go on spring break next week. Easter seems to be the pivot point for this.

Unlike the week before Christmas, which moves around every year, if Easter is the pivot point for spring break, life would be better if everyone in the US decided the week before (or after – I don’t care) Easter was spring break. Then, the rhythm of work in the US would slow (or at least change) for that week, just like it does for the week between Christmas and New Years.

And, everyone who goes on spring break with their family and kids could actually disconnect, rather than what I’m observing, where some people disengage, but others keep one foot in, probably ruining the real value of a week-long disconnect from work for them

I’m not at all cranky about this. I’m at work this week – and next week. Amy, on the other hand, is on spring break with a girlfriend who is five years recovered from a serious illness. While I miss her, I’m using the time as an excuse to stay up late watching silly television shows.

While I know a blog post from me isn’t going to affect anything, imagine a world where we had a real, synchronized, completely off spring break in the US. It would be a better world for everyone.

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Mar 27 2018

Academic Research on Accelerators

The first accelerator, YC, was founded in 2005. The second, Techstars, was founded in 2006. Wikipedia has a good summary of the history of accelerators.

Now that we are 13 years into the accelerator journey, an accelerator is a well-established construct that is part of the global startup ecosystem. They have evolved over the years, and many new approaches have been taken.

The question of the efficacy of accelerators has regularly been asked over the past decade. A number of academic papers have appeared in the past few years exploring this. I was asked if any existed the other day by an LP, so following is a list of papers I am familiar with.

If you know of any others, please put links in the comments or send me an email with the info.

Accelerators and Crowd-Funding: Complementarity, Competition, or Convergence in the Earliest Stages of Financing New Ventures?, Smith, Hannigan, and Gasiorowski, 6/13

Accelerating Startups: The Seed Accelerator Phenomenon, Hochberg and Cohen, 3/14

Accelerators and the Regional Supply of Venture Capital Investment, Fehder and Hochberg, 9/14

Swinging for the fences: How do top accelerators impact the trajectories of new ventures?, Winston Smith and Hannigan, 6/15

Investment Accelerators, Bernthal, 8/15

Startup Accelerators and Ecosystems: Complements or Substitutes?, Fehder, 9/15

Do Accelerators Accelerate? If So, How? The Impact of Intensive Learning from Others on New Venture Development, Hallen, Bingham, and Cohen, 7/16

How Do Accelerators Impact the Performance of High-Technology Ventures?, Yu, 8/16

Who Needs Contracts? Generalized Exchange within Investment Accelerators, Bernthal, 11/16

Business Incubators and Accelerators: A Co-Citation Analysis-Based, Systematic Literature Review, Hausberg and Korreck, 3/17

How Do Accelerators Select Startups? Shifting Decision Criteria across Stages, Yin and Lau, 12/17

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Mar 26 2018

Facebook As The Ultimate Surveillance Machine

Whenever someone tells me about the progress humans have made, I remind them that since the beginning of humans, man has been trying to kill his neighbor to take over his backyard. And yes, as Amy likes to regularly remind me, it’s often men doing the killing.

Simultaneously, governments around the world have spent zillions of dollars building surveillance systems since the beginning of – well – humans. Or at least since the beginning of governments.

In 14 years, Facebook has created the most incredible and effective surveillance machine in the history of humankind. And we, the humans, have given the machine much of the data. John Lanchester has the best article on this I’ve read to date titled You Are the Product in the London Review of Books. It’s long – 8674 words – but worth reading every one of them. The magical paragraph is in the middle of the article and follows.

“What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.”

Jean-Louis Gassée, always the provocateur, is blunt: Mark Zuckerberg Thinks We’re Idiots. It’s another article worth reading, but if you just like pull quotes, the best one shows up early in the article.

“As Facebook’s leader, Zuckerberg resolves to get things straightened out in the future (“it’s my job, right?”) while he delivers a callcenter-style broken record reassurance: “Your privacy is important to us”. Yes, of course, our privacy is important to you; you made billions by surveilling and mining our private lives. One wonders how aware Zuckerberg is of the double entendre.”

For a more balanced, but equally intense view, Ben Thompson at Stratechery has a long post titled The Facebook Brand. It explains, in detail, how easy it was for any developer to get massive amounts of data from the Facebook Graph API between 2010 and 2015 (where Ben suggests that Facebook was willing to give everything away.) If you don’t want to read the article, but are interested in an example of the Facebook Graph Extended Profile Properties,  here it is.

Ben’s conclusion is really important.

“Ultimately, the difference in Google and Facebook’s approaches to the web — and in the case of the latter, to user data — suggest how the duopolists will ultimately be regulated. Google is already facing significant antitrust challenges in the E.U., which is exactly what you would expect from a company in a dominant position in a value chain able to dictate terms to its suppliers. Facebook, meanwhile, has always seemed more immune to antitrust enforcement: its users are its suppliers, so what is there to regulate?

That, though, is the answer: user data. It seems far more likely that Facebook will be directly regulated than Google; arguably this is already the case in Europe with the GDPR. What is worth noting, though, is that regulations like the GDPR entrench incumbents: protecting users from Facebook will, in all likelihood, lock in Facebook’s competitive position.

This episode is a perfect example: an unintended casualty of this weekend’s firestorm is the idea of data portability: I have argued that social networks like Facebook should make it trivial to export your network; it seems far more likely that most social networks will respond to this Cambridge Analytica scandal by locking down data even further. That may be good for privacy, but it’s not so good for competition. Everything is a trade-off.”

In the meantime, Facebook is arguing with Ars Technica about whether or not Facebook scraped call, text message data for years from Android phones. Facebook is pretty insistent that it isn’t. But, given that Facebook quietly hid webpages bragging of its ability to influence elections, it’s hard to know who to believe.

In shocking news, Facebook is now under federal investigation by the Federal Trade Commission. I’m sure they will get to the bottom of this quickly. I wonder if the NSA is going to have to delete all the Facebook data they’ve slurped up over the years after this is over.

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Mar 25 2018

Sandpaper Only Works If It Is Rubbing Against Something

I recently heard the line “sandpaper only works if it is rubbing against something” and loved it.

From Wikipedia: “The first recorded instance of sandpaper was in 1st-century China when crushed shells, seeds, and sand were bonded to parchment using natural gum. Shark skin (placoid scales) has also been used as an abrasive and the rough scales of the living fossil, Coelacanth are used for the same purpose by the natives of Comoros. Boiled and dried, the rough horsetail plant is used in Japan as a traditional polishing material, finer than sandpaper. Glass paper was manufactured in London in 1833 by John Oakey, whose company had developed new adhesive techniques and processes, enabling mass production. Glass frit has sharp-edged particles and cuts well whereas sand grains are smoothed down and do not work well as an abrasive. Cheap sandpaper was often passed off as glass paper; Stalker and Parker cautioned against it in A Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing published in 1688. In 1921, 3M invented a sandpaper with silicon carbide grit and a waterproof adhesive and backing, known as Wet and dry. This allowed use with water, which would serve as a lubricant to carry away particles that would otherwise clog the grit. Its first application was in automotive paint refinishing.”

Every company I’m involved in has issues. Some are minor. Some are major. Some are easy to fix. Some sneak up on you when everything feels like it’s going great. Some are existential crises. Some just feel like existential crises.

Simply put, Something new is fucked up in my world every day.

That’s just the way companies work. And, as long as the company is still around, no matter what size, or level of success, the dynamic is endless. When you think things are going great, it’s just a signal to pay attention to what is going wrong. While there are lots of issues that are exogenous to you, that you can’t control, or impact, many others are issues on the surface of your company.

Use sandpaper on your company daily. Be gentle with it, but precise.

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Mar 23 2018

The Laws Don’t – and Can’t – Keep Up With Technology

A law with good intentions, but horrible side effects, passed yesterday. You probably haven’t heard about it because of the brouhaha over 97,513 other things. It’s called SESTA/FOSTA and the EFF has a good summary of how Lawmakers Failed to Separate Their Good Intentions from Bad Law. Craigslist responded immediately (and rationally) by taking Craigslist Personals offline.

Oh, and as a bonus, the CLOUD Act was buried in the Omnibus spending bill. EFF has an article from six weeks ago that explains why it is A Dangerous Expansion of Police Snooping on Cross-Border Data. The CLOUD Act is an aggressive undermining of existing privacy laws, but no one really cares about online privacy or your data, right?

If you want a glimpse as to the data Facebook has on you, take a look at the analysis Dylan McKay just posted. And then, it a magic trick of epic proportions, it turns out that ‘Lone DNC Hacker’ Guccifer 2.0 Slipped Up and Revealed He Was a Russian Intelligence Officer. I’m shocked – just shocked – that something like this could be true (actually, I’m not – I’ve been saying the DNC / Wikileaks stuff was Russian hackers since the beginning, even after several friends gave me tinfoil caps to keep me safe.)

I don’t expect the Trump campaign knew anything about any of this. Well, except for the news today that showed the Cambridge Analytica’s blueprint for Trump victory. And now, the news that Trump’s new security adviser John Bolton also relied on Cambridge Analytica. Scandalous, just scandalous (well – not really – how about “predictable, just predictable …”)

If you want to understand what can happen to your Facebook data, the Cow Clicker story is both fun and instructive. I remember Cow Clicker well because it was a spoof on FarmVille. And yes, the explanation in the article is very accurate from my perspective. If you want a more mainstream explanation, How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions is pretty good.

Expect more outrage and Facebook bashing on all media channels. And lots of talking heads and discussion about what needs to be done. We might even have hearings in Congress. But my guess is that not much will change, the outrage will move onto something else (hey – what happened to North Korea?), Facebook will make a few incomprehensible changes to their security settings, and the laws that get created won’t keep up with the technology.

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Mar 21 2018

Privacy and Facebook – The Non-Surprise

In 2008, I gave a talk at my 20th-year reunion at MIT Sloan. The title of the talk was something like “Privacy is Dead” and my assertion, in 2008, was that there was no longer any data privacy, anywhere, for anyone.

I’ve been living my life under that assumption since then.

The current Facebook scandal around Cambridge Analytica, and – more significantly – data privacy, shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. All of my experiences with companies around Facebook data over the years have been consistent with what is nicely called “data leakage” from Facebook out into the world. Facebook’s privacy and data settings have always been complex, have changed regularly over the years, and are most definitely not front and center in the Facebook user experience. And, that data has been easily and widely accessible at many moments in time to any developer who wanted access to it.

Answer the following questions:

  • Do you know what your Facebook privacy settings are?
  • Are your Facebook privacy settings to your liking?
  • Do you understand the implications of your Facebook privacy settings?
  • Do you think your data has always been subject to these current settings?

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, good on you. But, my answers are no to all of them and, unless you do some real work, you probably are answering no to at least two or three of them.

I haven’t used Facebook for a while. I broadcast my blog posts to it, but I’ve never really figured out how to engage properly with it in a way that is satisfying to me. Periodically I think about deleting my Facebook account, but since I’ve been operating under the assumption that privacy is dead since 2008, it doesn’t really bother me that my Facebook data is out in the world.

As I read articles about the current version of the Facebook Data Privacy Meltdown (or whatever name it is ultimately going to get this time around), I’m fascinated by the amplification of “nothing new going on here, but now we are outraged.” A pair of  articles that are a little off the beaten path (just watch CNN if you want the beaten path on this one) include:

The meme of #DeleteFacebook is making the rounds but it’s not new either. Here’s one from 2012.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but I do know that I’m not surprised.

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Mar 20 2018

Jason Returns to the 313 for Startup Grind Detroit on April 5th

As many of you know, my partner Jason is from Detroit. The 313. The Motor City. The D! He’s going back home for a special event and I encourage anyone near Detroit to go hang with him.

In case you don’t know about Jason, prior to co-founding Foundry Group, Jason was a co-founder of SRS Acquiom and a Managing Director and General Counsel for Mobius Venture Capital. Prior to this, Jason was an attorney with Cooley. Early in his career, Jason was a software engineer at Accenture.

Going further back, Jason holds a B.A. in Economics and a J.D. from the University of Michigan. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado Law School. He is also an active musician with his band Legitimate Front (which has a gig in Boulder April 13th should you be around). Most importantly, he is my co-author on our book Venture Deals and he puts up with me on a daily basis.

Jason is returning to Detroit to sprinkle some of the wisdom he has learned along the way with the Detroitpreur startup community at Bamboo Detroit on April 5th from 6-8 pm.

Startup Grind Detroit is one of over 350+ chapters around the world, holding Fireside Chats with notable entrepreneurs and bringing startup communities together. The Detroit chapter has recently been reignited by Ben Seidman and Dwain Watkins, the co-organizers, who breathed new life into the program. Recent speakers include Dug Song of Duo Security, David Tarver of Wayne State University, Stacy Brown-Philpot of TaskRabbit and more!

Thanks to Jason’s generous sponsorship of this event, attendance is free to all. But space is limited so register your spot today. If you live in Detroit or know someone who lives in the #2 place to visit in the world (according to Lonely Planet and Jason), please sign up or share this free registration link.

https://www.startupgrind.com/events/details/startup-grind-detroit-presents-fireside-chat-jason-mendelson-co-founder-managing-director-at-foundry-group#/

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Mar 16 2018

Book: Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley

I read Emily Chang’s book Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley the day it came out. Yes – I stayed up until after midnight (way past my bedtime) reading it.

It’s powerful. I bought a bunch of copies for different people and I recommend every investor and entrepreneur in the US read it. While there are a handful of salacious stories (some of which were covered in excerpts that were pre-released), the overall arc of the book is extremely strong, well written, and deeply researched. Given Emily’s experience as a journalist, it’s no surprise, but she did a great job of knitting together a number of different themes, in depth, to make her points. She also uses the book to make clear suggestions about what to do to improve things, although she holds off from being preachy, which is also nice.

Interestingly, I’ve heard criticism, including some that I’d categorize as aggressive, from several men I know. There doesn’t seem to be a clear pattern in the criticism, although some of it seems to be a reaction to several of the specific stories. In one case, I’d categorize the criticism as an effort to debate morality. In another, I heard an emotional reaction to what was categorized as an ad-hominem attack on a friend of the person. But I haven’t been able to coherently synthesize the criticism, and interestingly I’ve only heard it from men.

As I’ve been marching slowly through historic feminist literature recommended by Amy, I realized that I had read three contemporary books in the last few months that materially added to this list. In addition to Emily’s book Brotopia, I read Sarah Lacy’s book A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug: The Working Woman’s Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy and Ellen Pao’s book Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change.

While Sarah and Ellen’s books are written from deep, personal experiences, I thought all three books were important, very readable, and bravely written.

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Mar 14 2018

AMA for the Techstars Sustainability Accelerator

“Technologies that have revolutionized so many sectors of the economy have the potential to transform the way we do conservation. We’re at the front end of a new ‘nature-tech’ revolution and nature stands to win big from it.”

  • Brian McPeek, Chief Conservation Officer of The Nature Conservancy

As many of you know, Techstars and The Nature Conservancy have teamed up to build a tech accelerator for the planet – Techstars Sustainability. The accelerator kicks off this July in Denver and companies from across the globe are applying now through April 8th. Considering how much Amy and I love both of these organizations, we’re excited to be supporting this effort to build stronger startup ecosystem at the intersection of sustainability, nature and technology.

From the state of coral reefs to deforestation, I’ll admit that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and the work ahead is certainly not something to take lightly. But, I’m also choosing to pursue a personal path that is rooted in urgency and action. I’m inspired by entrepreneurs like Grant Canary and his team at DroneSeed (a Techstars Seattle 2016 alumni). Grant is working to innovate the future of forestry through planting trees with swarms of drones. And then there is Liané Thompson, CEO of Aquaii, who is also utilizing drone technology to build robotic fish that gather underwater data in a way that was previously unachievable.

And that’s just drones and big data. Imagine all of the enabling technologies that can be applied to build powerful solutions in soil health, aquaculture, fisheries, water markets, climate resilience, and more. I think my friend Brian is right, we are on the forefront of a nature-tech revolution – and I want to be a part of it.

If you are interested in continuing this conversation with Brian and I, join us for a live online discussion and AMA on Monday, March 26th at 4:30pm MST. We’ll be talking about the origins of this partnership, the intersection of nature and technology and the upcoming accelerator. You can grab your seat by signing up here.

For more on how The Nature Conservancy is thinking about this, enjoy this short video.

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