Month: July 2018

Jul 31 2018

Designing For Underrepresented Technologists First

I’ve written several times about leveling the playing field for women in tech, including our own actions at Foundry Group. I’m always keeping my ear to the ground for how to do this better.

Recently, I was connected to Kate Catlin, the Founder of Find My Flock, by my partner Jason. From the outside, it looks like Find My Flock is a tech job board that is enthusiastically open to all. What isn’t obvious is that they did 100% of their product research, design, and UX testing with developers who happen to be women and/or people of color.

This led to some very specific features:

  • You can filter jobs by benefits like maternity leave, trans-inclusive healthcare, or visa sponsorship.
  • You get a personal interviewing coach.
  • If a company wants a premium posting, Find My Flock has an off-the-record phone call with two developers in the company to make sure they’re happy.

While mostly driven by “determined intersectional feminism,” Kate thinks more platforms should be designed this way. She’s a former IDEO CoLab Fellow, and follows IDEO’s belief that you can spur the most creativity by interviewing users at the extreme ends of the bell curve, in addition to those in the middle.

To understand this, imagine you’re designing a new sneaker. You’ll come up with very different ideas if you go interview the most blister-prone ultramarathoner instead of the average neighborhood jogger.

Find My Flock took it a step further by interviewing only at the extremes. If developers most likely to experience unconscious bias feel this process is effective, supportive, and fair, then they believe everyone else will also have an outstanding experience as well. “This is not about handouts,” Kate says. “No one I know wants a job they haven’t worked for. It’s about a level playing field.”

What are your thoughts? How would major tech platforms be different if they had designed for underrepresented people first?

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Jul 30 2018

The Value of Both Optimists and Pessimists in the Room

I spend a lot of time thinking about and working on team dynamics. For a sense of how we think about them at Foundry Group, read Lindel’s great recent post Working at Threshold.

During a recent board call, there was a particularly challenging segment of the discussion. Afterward, I was frustrated because I felt like I was having an argument with another board member about something, but operating with different data. When I reflected on it, I realized that it wasn’t the data, but our respective frames of reference.

I was coming at the issue with an optimistic posture. She was coming at the issue with a pessimistic posture. The other board members on the call just listened, so while the data was the same, went ended up discussing it from opposite perspectives.

In general, this is a good thing. When the biases are known in advance, or explicitly stated, different starting postures can generate better critical thinking. But you have to know your bias as well as the other biases in the room. And, it has to be ok to come at things from different perspectives.

In this case, we weren’t explicit about it. I expect the other person knew that I was coming at things from an optimistic perspective (including the notion of “ok – we have an issue, but I’m optimistic that we can solve it) since that’s my nature. However, it’s possible that her pessimism about the situation overwhelmed her view of my position, and my frustration with her pessimistic viewpoint caused me to forget that this is her nature. If either of us had paused during the conversation and acknowledged our bias, or if someone else on the call had made the observation that we were simply talking past each other, that might have resulted in a more productive and fruitful discussion.

We talk a lot about this inside Foundry Group. Each of the seven of us comes from a different frame of reference on many issues. We have different biases, some deep-seated. We react differently to stimuli and behavior of others. We carry our own stresses in different ways. But, we know each other extremely well. By knowing that, and embracing it, we have more robust and honest discussions that we think lead to better decisions.

Ultimately, it’s not important to feel like you have to win each point, but rather simply be heard. As part of this, you have to also listen. Through this process, especially if you do the work to understand the posture of the other person, you should be able to modify and evolve your position based on the data you are hearing.

I wish I had a do-over on the board call that started this post with this rant in my mind.

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Jul 27 2018

Cool Dogs and Crazy Cats

Our longtime friend Lura Vernon wrote a really fun book last year titled Cool Dogs and Crazy CatsIt’s a coffee table book that is a combination of hilarious dog and cat haikus along with epic dog and cat photos.

I’m a dog person. During my first marriage in the 1980s, I had a gigantic cat named Tiny. It was evil. You’d be lovingly petting it and it would suddenly sink its teeth into your arm. Actually, when I reflect on it, the cat only attacked me regularly. But then I tossed milk bottle caps across the bathroom which it chased, right into the bathtub, which was full of water. Yeah, I contributed to the dynamic we had.

Fortunately, Amy is a dog person. We currently have two giant golden retrievers (Cooper and Brooks) which are #4 and #3 in our life (Denali was the first, followed by Kenai.) They are the coolest of the cool dogs.

If you love dogs, cats, or haikus, order Lura’s book at Amazon or from the Cool Dogs and Crazy Cats website. And, TGIF …

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Jul 26 2018

A Venture Capital Career Is Like Walking from Boston to San Francisco

I’m a recent conversation with Eric Paley, he gave me an amazingly wonderful analogy for how the career of a VC unfolds. He said:

“Being a VC is like taking a walk from Boston to San Francisco”

I’d never heard that before so I said: “tell me more.” He went on an awesome ramble, which I’ll try to capture below.

You start out on a sunny day in Boston. You put on your new, clean walking shoes. It’s just walking. It’s fun, fresh, and exciting. It’s a new experience, with lots of hopes and expectations in front of you. You get tons of support and encouragement from all of your friends. You meet plenty of new and interesting people. It’s just walking.

After a few days, you feel like you are getting into a rhythm. You feel you are good at this. It’s still easy and exciting, but now you know what to expect each day.

At some point, you find yourself in the middle of Ohio. It’s raining. Your shoes are worn out. You’ve got blisters and a sore ankle. Your backpack smells – a lot. While it’s still just walking, it’s not much fun anymore. But you grind through it, buoyed by the occasional sunny day, even though it’s now cold outside.

By the time you get to Chicago, you can’t remember why you are walking San Francisco. But you keep walking.

I’ve been doing this for 25 years. While it’s just walking, I’ve crisscrossed the country a bunch of times. And I keep walking.

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Jul 25 2018

Book: North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail

I’m a marathon runner, but not an ultrarunner. I’ve only done one ultra (the American River 50 miler) and the combination of the training, race, and recovery was too much for me. But I love the idea of ultras.

I have several close friends who run ultras so I live vicariously through them. I love to watch documentaries about ultras, like the insane Barkley Marathons.

There are lots of ultra runners in Boulder. While I’m not part of the scene, I follow them from a distance.

Scott Jurek is one of my heroic ultra characters in Boulder. I find his running accomplishments completely mind-bending. He is a great writer and I thoroughly enjoyed his previous book Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. So, when I noticed his new book, North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail while wandering around in the Boulder Bookstore Saturday night, I grabbed it.

I read it Monday and Tuesday night, finishing it last night right before bedtime. I was simply awesome. Jurker (Scott’s nickname) wrote it with his wife Jenny. They used a really fun format – alternating sections within each chapter. The first half of the chapter was Jurker’s view of what was going on (in his voice). The second half of the chapter was in Jenny’s voice. Each of them covered a wide range of experiences during the 47-day journey, including lots of fascinating characters along the way.

I have a secret dream of running the Colorado Trail. Please don’t tell anyone, especially Amy or my parents. It’s only 486 miles (vs. the Appalachian Trail which is officially “about 2,200 miles.”). Since it’s a secret dream, I’m going to keep it locked away there, while reading about amazing feats like what Jurker did on the Appalachian Trail.

If you are a runner, endurance athlete, or just love great human adventure stories, you’ll love this book.

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Jul 24 2018

The Holographic Display Of The Future Is Here

The holographic display of the future is here and you can have one on your desk for under $600.

Ever since I saw Princess Leia appealing to Obi Wan that he was her only hope when I was 11, I’ve wanted a holographic display. Movies like Minority Report and Back to the Future II (do you remember the shark hologram that ate Marty?) have consumed thousands of people’s lives over the past few decades. But until now, no one has been able to make a scalable device that would let groups of people, unaided by a VR or AR headset, see and touch a living and moving 3D world.

That’s changing today with the launch of the Looking Glass, a new type of interface that achieves that dream of the hologram we’ve been promised for so long. The Looking Glass is technically a lightfield and volumetric display hybrid, but that’s pretty nerdy-sounding. I like to just call it a holographic display.

It’s a technology at the Apple II stage, designed for the creators and hackers of the world — specifically 3D creators in this case. If you’ve ever played with a MakerBot or Form 2, have a Structure sensor in your backpack, know what volumetric video is, or have 3D creation programs like Maya, Unity, or Blender on your computer, then you should get a Looking Glass. You can holographically preview 3D prints before you print them, experiment with volumetric video recording and playback, or create entirely new and weird applications in Unity that can live inside of the Looking Glass. And when I say weird I mean it — the founders Shawn and Alex put a 3D scan of me inside and gave me some new dance moves.

Check out this video on their Kickstarter page. I’ve seen this in person and what is shown in the video is real. There aren’t any camera tricks going on – it really looks that good (actually a little better) in real life. The Looking Glass is indistinguishable from magic the way the best of technology strives to be.

I don’t know of many people who genuinely want the dystopian future of everyone in VR all day long. Ok, I do know a few. But while VR may play a role, I think most people don’t want this 1984 vision of the future, where everyone is geared up 16 hours a day.

The team behind the Looking Glass is fighting against that all-headset future with this new class of technology. Join us!

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Jul 20 2018

Glowforge Plus Launches on Amazon Exclusives

Glowforge for sale on Amazon

Glowforge recently launched their 3D laser printers to the public, making their product line available within 10-day delivery. As an early investor (and a huge fan) this was an incredibly gratifying moment, as Glowforge is now shipping – in volume – the product from one of the most popular pre-order campaigns in history.

We’ve been a part of Glowforge’s journey to production since even before their record-setting crowdfunding campaign. But the campaign was the moment we knew that we’d found something special: the elusive product-market fit. People really, really wanted the product. Now that it has made its way into thousands of households, we’re seeing something even better. People really, really love their Glowforge.

Of course, all the numbers in the world can’t convey just how awesome their product is until you see it in action. I’ve used mine to make everything from luggage tags to wallets. It’s an incredible shortcut on the journey from idea to having something tangible you can hold in your hands – no matter your skill level. Trust me, I’ve tested the low end of the skill level personally (e.g. me …)

I’m not the only one excited about it, either. Everyone I’ve ever demoed it for is astonished at what it can do – even my partner Moody’s thirteen-year-old son can’t get enough of it and, admittedly, uses it much more effectively than I do.

Glowforge is taking another big step toward making their printers more accessible by launching their Glowforge Plus model with the Amazon Exclusives program. I waited several years to get mine and have no regrets, but now the next generation of Glowforge owners will be eligible to get their printers delivered to their doorstep in just two days with free Prime shipping.

The move makes sense from a product standpoint, but it also falls right in line with their underlying philosophy: with the right tool, anyone can be a creator. Today, it’s as easy to purchase as it is to use.

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Jul 19 2018

Early Stage VCs – Be Careful Out There

In addition to our own funds, we are investors in a number of other early-stage VC funds as part of our Foundry Group Next strategy. Yesterday, in one of the quarterly updates that we get, I saw the following paragraph.

“Historically, the $10 million valuation mark has been somewhat of a ceiling for seed stage startups. But so far this year, we’ve seen that a number of companies, often times with nothing more than a team and a Powerpoint presentation, have had great success raising capital north of that $10 million level. Furthermore, round sizes continue to tick up, with many seed rounds now in the $2.5 million to $4.0 million range.”

We are seeing this also and have been talking about it internally, so it prompted me to say something about it.

I view this is a significant negative indicator.

It has happened only one other time in my investing career – in 1999. I remember when, in a period of about six months, the ceiling on seed financings vanished. It wasn’t the uncapped note phenomenon (which seems to have come and gone for the most part), but instead, it was seed rounds of $5m – $10m at $40m pre-money.

In some cases, these rounds were with experienced founders who had previously had a success and could dictate terms. VCs rationalized it as “skipping the seed round” even though there literally was nothing to show yet except an idea.

In this six month period, the need for an experienced founder vanished. Suddenly every company was raising a seed financing of at least $5m, regardless of the experience of the team. In many cases, these rounds were pre-vaporware – just an assertion about what business they were going to create.

For anyone that remembers 2000-2003, this obviously ended badly. By 2002 investments at the seed level had evaporated (there were almost no seed financings happening). In 2003 the angels started to reappear (some of the best angel deals of all time were done between 2004 and 2007) and the super angel language started to be used around 2007.

All the experienced finance people I know talk regularly about cycles. If you believe in cycles, this one feels pretty predictable. Of course, there is an opportunity in every part of the cycle. But, be careful out there.

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Jul 18 2018

Binary Star Startup Communities

I had dinner with Ian Hathaway a few weeks ago when I was in London. It was a delight to see him in person. While we’ve been collaborating on Startup Communities 2 (which we are now calling The Startup Community Way), which will come out at the “end-of-the-year-ish,” having dinner was a delight and reminded me how much I like him.

A few months ago he wrote a post on Waterloo, and activity in Canada in general, titled The North Star. It’s a good post worth reading but reminded me of a concept that we are weaving into The Startup Community Way.

There is an increasing number of “binary star” startup communities. If you aren’t familiar with binary stars, they are a system of two stars in which one star revolves around the other or both revolve around a common center.

Boulder and Denver is a canonical example of this, where each city has developed a strong startup community, but the relationship between the two makes each stronger as they grow and develop.

Other examples that I’m familiar with that jump out at me include:

  • Toronto – Waterloo
  • Detroit – Ann Arbor
  • Provo – Salt Lake City
  • Cleveland – Akron
  • Brisbane – Ipswich
  • Wellington – Auckland
  • Vancouver – Victoria
  • Tampa Bay – St Petersburg

If you know of other binary star startup communities, especially if you are a participant in one, leave a note in the comments.

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Jul 17 2018

The REPL For Hardware

We’ve been soaking (and investing) in the world of 3D printing since our investment in MakerBot in 2011. Since then, we’ve made three other investments in the world of 3D printing – Formlabs, Glowforge, and Looking Glass. While Looking Glass is a holographic display and is the inverse of a 3D printer, you’ll see how it fits into this in a moment.

While I continue to be impressed by Desktop Metal, the incredible press that they get, and am a big fan of the writing of Jason Pontin, I think Jason’s story in Wired – 3-D Printing Is The Future of Factories (For Real This Time) – misses several key points that take the idea that 3D printing is the future in a different direction.

I’ve decided that 3D printing is the REPL for Hardware. Dan Shapiro, the CEO of Glowforge, coined this and he’s completely nailed it. If you don’t know what a REPL is, it’s a programming concept called the Read-eval-print loop. Following is an example of a Python REPL running in a browser.

In the middle window is the Python code for a simple factorial. You hit the “run” button and the REPL reads the Python code, evaluates it, and prints the answer (120) in the right window. Hang on to that idea – Read, Evaluate, Print – we’ll be back to it later.

My first thoughts around 3D printing started at the beginning of 2010, when I read Chris Anderson’s Wired essay In The Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are The New Bits. His 2012 book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution helped me understand this better.

At first, I was obsessed with distributed 3D printing. On the desktop. For professionals. Each of MakerBot, Formlabs, and Glowforge took expensive industrial products that cost $50,000 to $500,000 and put them on a desktop for $2,000 to $5,000. The metaphor we used for this was that of the evolution of the laser printer market. If that’s elusive to you, the path from mainframe to PC works also.

We started with our investment in MakerBot, which used a technology called FDM (fused deposition modeling), which is a cousin of FFF (fused filament fabrication). This is a fancy phrase for “heating up plastic, extruding it, and building a 3D thing with the heated plastic”. It was magical, but limited on many dimensions based on the constraints of the materials and the process. As a result, MakerBot (and FDM in general) is primarily a hobbyist and DIY product.

FDM is additive manufacturing. So, when Glowforge came along, we immediately recognized it as the analogous subtractive manufacturing technology. Glowforge is a laser cutter (basically the addition of a laser to a CNC machine). You shine a laser at a material – any material – over and over again to subtract from the material to make your 3D print. As magical as MakerBot was, what Glowforge could do was mind-bending and took 3D printing to an entirely new dimension for me. You could work with paper, granite, sushi, cardboard, chocolate, wood, and basically any other material. Plus, well, LASERS!

We knew Formlabs from our experience at MakerBot. If you haven’t seen the Netflix documentary Print the Legend and you are interested in this stuff, go watch it. It’s the early story of both MakerBot and Formlabs, has endless cringe-worthy moments in it, stars some of your friends, and shows how incredibly challenging a startup is.

Since MakerBot had been acquired, it cleared the way for us to invest in Formlabs, which we did in 2016. Formlabs first product was based on SLA (stereolithography). In this technology, you shine a laser at a vat of resin and it builds up the 3D print (again – additive manufacturing). The quality and fidelity of the 3D prints are much higher with SLA, there are a wide variety of resins, and, as a result, Formlabs has had great success in the prosumer market. Next year, Formlabs will be shipping the Fuse, an SLS (selective laser sintering) 3D printer, which is another, even more advanced technology, at a desktop price point.

With Formlabs and Glowforge, we now have high-end desktop 3D printers at a price point under $10,000 (or at least 1/10th the price of similar industrial products). They are WiFi connected (just like today’s laser printer), have contemporary software, are integrated with everything 3D software related, and work extremely well.

Let’s go back to REPL. You start with a 3D image, which you can either design, get from the web, or get from Thingiverse or Pinshape, Formlabs and Glowforge printers then provide the REPL – it reads the 3D code, evaluates it, and prints it. On your desktop. Next to you. In high fidelity. Right away. Inexpensively.

So – how does Looking Glass fit into this? It still takes some time for Formlabs and Glowforge to print the 3D object, so the output from the REPL isn’t immediate. What if you could visualize the 3D object, in 3D, as an intermediate step? Voila – a holographic display (also known by a variety of other names like lightfield or volumetric display.) Looking Glass is 3D visualization on the desktop, which makes the desktop 3D experience for the professional even more powerful.

In 1984, HP shipped their first HP Laserjet. a 300-dpi, 8 ppm printer that sold for $3,495. A decade later, HP shipped its 10-millionth LaserJet printer. By the end of 2000, they had shipped 50 million of them. Over the weekend, I installed an HP LaserJet Pro M277dw Wireless All-in-One Color Printer, a 600-dpi, 19 ppm WiFi connected color printer / scanner / fax that sells $484.

When someone asks me what they can do with a 3D printer, I wish I could shove them into my time travel machine and send them back to early 1985 to ponder the question “Why do I need a laser printer on my desktop – I’ve already got an Epson MX-80.”

If you make anything in 3D, you now can have a 3D REPL on your desk.

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