Nov 1 2018

I Was That Kid. Were You? #MakingChangemakers

Watch the following one minute video and ponder whether or not you were that kid (or have one of those kids.)

I was totally that kid. But, most of it was in my mind, which I why I ended up being a software version of that kid. About the only machine I played with was my Apple ][ because it was a computer. I hated the lawnmower, never worked on cars, was afraid of the Cuisinart we had (and all the sharp blades), ignored power tools, and stayed away from anything that plugged into an electrical socket on the wall.

Ironically, I have excellent hand-eye coordination which I think came from three things: (1) playing video games, (2) playing tennis, and (3) having crummy eyesight.

I still have crummy eyesight. Even though my glasses correct most of it, I know that my brain works extra hard to compensate for it. So, as a kid, even though I played a lot of sports, I often played them without my glasses on which made some things worse but forced me to work even harder to deal with hand-eye coordination.

I didn’t realize until I was an adult that I have a very difficult time with any sort of near vision stuff (I’m very nearsighted and have terrible astigmatism.) When I reflect on this, I realize that I avoided doing anything that required near-focus mechanical dexterity. So, I spent a huge amount of time in my head. You would often observe me sitting around programming the computer, or reading, or going for long runs and pondering things by myself.

I wish I’d had littleBits then. While I did fiddle around with the hardware on my Apple ][, I avoided anything else that included tools, wires, nails, bolts, and screws. That was a huge miss on my part, as I’ve found that I love to play around with physical hardware products and electronics as an adult. And, I love to invest in companies that make hardware that makes physical stuff, especially for kids.

So – if you are that kid, or have that kid, jump into things with littleBits. Post something on social media as part of their #MakingChangemakers campaign. Write a blog post about why being that kid helped you achieve what you are today. Share the video above. For every 100 RTs, shares or Likes your post receives, littleBits will donate a Code Kit to an at-risk classroom of your choice to celebrate that kid everywhere.

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Oct 31 2018

Innovation and Venture Capital in New Jersey

If you are a fan of Startup Communities, there’s a lot going on around new initiatives on this front.

Ian Hathaway and I are hard at work on a book called The Startup Community Way, which is modeled after Eric Ries’ evolution of The Lean Startup to his recent book The Startup Way. I’m a big fan and long-time friend of Eric’s so I hope he’s ok with our using the same conceptual labeling approach from the evolution of the Startup Communities concept to a much broader audience than just startup communities (Eric – if you aren’t, tell me and I’ll adjust …)

One of my approaches to writing a book is to blog a lot of early content and get reactions to it. It helps me frame my thinking, connects me with people who are interested in what I’m writing, and forces me to put out content in public that I have to work hard at, but in bite-sized chunks. Ian has bought into this idea so he and I have a steady stream of content for The Startup Community Way coming on the StartupRev website.

An example is a post we put up today titled Thoughts on the New Jersey Innovation Evergreen Fund. If you have feedback for us (stuff you think we got wrong, or stuff you think we should reinforce, or any examples you’ve experienced directly) we’d love to hear from you either in the comments or by email.

Techstars is also hard at work on a bunch of stuff around ecosystem development (where communities and ecosystems are different things – Ian and I will have a post up on that soon.)

If this topic is interesting or important to you, either as a leader or a feeder in a startup community, or someone in government, academic, or a large company who is exploring or participating in innovation in a geographic ecosystem, give me a shout anytime!

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Oct 30 2018

Time Off To Vote on November 6th #TimeOffToVote

I have felt for a long time that election day in the US (by law, the first Tuesday after November 1) should be a national holiday.

In some states, like Colorado, we now have an excellent mail in ballot system, but many people still physically show up at the polls to vote. The idea of voter suppression has never made sense to me, ever since I learned about the constitution and amendments 15, 19, 24, and 26 in elementary school civics class. I just went on Wikipedia and reviewed the timeline of voting rights in the United States, which reminded me of the awesomeness of the book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.

At Foundry Group we’ve decided to make sure that all of our employees have the time they need to vote on 11/6 by participating in #TimeOffToVote – a nationwide effort to encourage employers to make accommodations for their employees to participate in the election. While we are a small organization, as I was told in elementary school, and a believe deeply, a fundamental component of our democracy is that every citizen gets a vote, and every vote counts. Even on my most negative and cynical days, I rejoice that I get to live in a country where this is true.

We hope you’ll consider whether participating in #TimeOffToVote makes sense for your company as well.

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Oct 29 2018

Disagree and Commit

One of my favorite Bezo-isms is “Disagree and Commit.” I’ve seen it in articles a handful of times recently as the adulation around Amazon and Bezos’ management reaches a fever pitch.

Notwithstanding the disappointing forecast for Q418, Amazon’s recent operating performance has been spectacular. But, more interesting is that it has been “spectacular at scale” and across a very large and complex business.

While Revenue Growth YOY has been strong,

the real story has been YOY growth in Operating Income.

Those are beautiful numbers. It’s clear that in the past few years the company has turned on the profit machine.

For many years, Amazon (and Bezos) trumpeted their focus on revenue growth. The mantra was “we are reinvesting all of our profits in growth.” This is the same thing most startups say (and most VCs push for) as growth compounds rapidly if you can keep the growth percentage (yup – it’s simple math.) This has been particularly true for B2B SaaS companies, not withstanding the notion of the Rule of 40 for a Healthy SaaS Company.

While growth in revenue is still important, Amazon’s ability to generate this kind of growth on its operating income is a reminder that turning on the profit switch at some point does matter, if only to show how much leverage your operating model has (me thinks Tesla did that in Q318 for the same reason). The AWS numbers are remarkable to me – their YOY growth is 46% and their operating income is about 30%. That’s well above the rule of 40.

I would have loved to be in the meetings during the shift from “grow at all costs” to “keep growing fast, but flip the operating income switch.” There were many moments in time over the past 15+ years where I’m sure this came up. But clearly the focus on this changed in the last few years, and the results are now front and center.

I don’t hold any Amazon stock directly, nor do I play the stock market, but the financials in public companies have a myriad of lessons buried in them for private companies that are scaling. That said, the management lessons buried underneath the numbers are even more important. “Disagree and commit” seems to be working well these days for Amazon.

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Oct 28 2018

Pioneer In Skirts Sizzle Trailer

Amy and I are proud executive producers of the upcoming movie Pioneer In Skirts. It has been part of our activity supporting independent documentaries about gender diversity, especially in science and tech.

The daughter/mother leadership of Ashley Maria and Lea-Ann Berst along with their team has stayed after it and are close to the finish line. Watch the trailer and then if you are inclined toss a little money into the GoFund Me campaign to help finish off the film.

Pioneers in Skirts Sizzle Trailer from Pioneers in Skirts ® on Vimeo.

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Oct 25 2018

DonorsChoose.org Book Match Day

Amy and I love to read. Growing up, one of my favorite places in the world was the hammock in our backyard with a book. As an adult, one of my favorite places is our living room, on my couch, with Amy on her couch, and the dogs laying on the floor between us, while we read.

I also love DonorsChoose. Whenever I’ve had a crummy day, I often go online and fund a project or two.

Today, DonorsChoose has a match across the entire site for any donations for books. It’s DonorsChoose Book Match Day. How cool is that?

Amy grew up in Alaska and we have a house there so I just went and funded all the book projects in Alaska. Hopefully, by the time you read this post, there won’t be any left.

If you are a reader, love books, or want to help kids around the US read more, I encourage you to go fund a project (or a few) on DonorsChoose today. Search for the city you live or grew up in and have at it. It feels good and helps the next generation of readers.

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Oct 24 2018

Silicon Flatirons GiveFirst Conference: Feld and Zell

I had a lot of fun at the Silicon Flatirons #GiveFirst conference last week and the smaller academic colloquium session the next day. It was a challenging topic, as we are simply exploring the idea of GiveFirst, how it works, and putting some scaffolding on the overall concept, both practically and intellectually.

Brad Bernthal, who spearheaded the two-day effort, led off with a short overview. Scott Peppet then interviewed me and Sam Zell as a kickoff to the event.

My fireside chat with Sam Zell starts at 14:00. While we come at things with different styles and experiences, when I watched it again to reflect on it, I found some really interesting overlaps and new ideas that hadn’t occurred to me.

If GiveFirst is a construct that is interesting to you, I encourage you to spend some time soaking in this video. When my book about it comes out in 2019, I think I’ll be able to point back to this as the first real public discussion of the idea.

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Oct 23 2018

The Superhuman Change To My Current Email Tools

It’s 2018. I’m still an incredibly heavy email user. It’s the primary tool in my workflow and has been since the early 1990s. I’ve tried a lot of different things over the years, but always come back to email.

I’ve been a Gmail user for almost a decade. While I’ve tried client-side apps, Gmail in Chrome has been the only thing that has stuck for me. I’ve also tried many of the iOS email apps and always end up back at Gmail for iOS.

Until now.

An increasing number of people in my world have been using Superhuman so I decided to give it a try. I was skeptical that it would capture my attention beyond a day. Two weeks later it is, in fact, superhuman. I’m using the Chrome app and the iOS app as my primary email clients.

The other tools I have in my email workflow are SaneBoxTodoistNotebene (which recently replaced Captio), and FullContact. As a result of Superhuman, I eliminated TextExpander from the mix. The one limitation of Superhuman that causes me a little pain is lack of direct integration with FullContact, which would make managing my address book better.

I didn’t realize how sluggish Gmail on Chrome is, even on a 225Mbps connection (which is what my office is clocking in at this morning.) And, at home, where I often see 3Mbps at high peak usage times, it’s a dream. But, that’s a tiny part of the speed. The big change is that I keep my hands on the keyboard 100% of the time. While I’ve been a heavy Gmail keyboard user, it turns out that you need the mouse for a bunch of Gmail things. Superhuman has turned them all into either keyboard commands, a slightly different workflow, or a “snippet” that lets you create your own compound shortcuts.

I never thought I’d recommend a web-based email client that costs $30 / month, but Superhuman is worth every penny of it. I wish I was an investor, but I guess I’ll live with being a Superhuman user.

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Oct 22 2018

Weekend Reading

I was really tired this weekend (from the week) and didn’t feel like doing anything other than laying on the couch near Amy and reading. She was also tired, as she spent the week in Wellesley at a board meeting and a bunch of other Wellesley related stuff, so even though the Boulder weather was magnificent, we stayed home other than a quick trip to Boulder to get our eyes checked and have sushi with some friends. Oh, and took really long naps both afternoons.

By Sunday night I was tired of reading (but Amy wasn’t) so I went downstairs and watched Finding Traction, the documentary about Nikki Kimball’s monstrous performance on the 273 mile Long Trail in Vermont. While I’m limited to running marathons, I find inspiration from watching ultras …

The book list started with me finishing a book I’d started earlier in the week. I read mostly on the Kindle this weekend, but John Doerr’s book came in the mail in physical form so I read it that way.

Mastering the Market Cycle: Getting the Odds on Your Side: Howard Marks (Oaktree) is a brilliant investor (and great writer) so I read everything by him I can get my hands on (and there’s a lot of it going back to 1990.) Not surprisingly, I learned a few key things from this book and it reinforced a bunch of others I already knew.

Power to the Startup People: How To Grow Your Startup Career When You’re Not The Founder: There is an infinite number of books now aimed at startup founders and entrepreneurs, but very few aimed at startup employees. Sarah Brown is a Boulder friend (now living in SF) and this is a really good book. There are lots of Boulder stories and people in it, but Sarah does a great job of covering a lot of ground that is generally useful to anyone considering working in, or already working in a startup. It’s the second “startup employee” book that I think is really good, following Jeff Bussgang’s Entering StartUpLand: An Essential Guide to Finding the Right Job (which is referenced a few times in Sarah’s book.)

Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person: In my effort to read more memoirs by women, I enjoyed Shonda Rimes book. I can’t remember who referred it to me, but it was good and added a dimension to my memoir reading that had a lot more X and no Y in it. Amy and I regularly watched both Grey’s Anatomy (at least the first four seasons) and Scandal (again – maybe four seasons) so Shonda Rimes has entertained us a lot. With this book, she helped widen my perspective on a number of things I hadn’t thought much about.

From Like to Love: Inspiring Emotional Commitment from Employees and CustomersKeith Alper is a long-time friend – we were both on the YEO board in the mid-1990s, spent a lot of time with the Kauffman Foundation when Jana Matthews was there, and have continued to connect on numerous things over the years. This book embodies everything I’d expect from Keith, is a good read and had some fun new suggestions in it. Definitely worth reading if you are a CEO and you like the word “love” in a business context. And, if the word “love” in a business context scares you, then this book is also for you.

Measure What Matters: OKRs: The Simple Idea that Drives 10x GrowthJohn Doerr is well-known as a long-time advocate of OKRs. Today, I hear the word OKR in a lot of contexts where I’m 100% certain the company is implementing them incorrectly. If you are using OKRs, please read this book. And, if you are thinking about OKRs, please read this book.

Ready for Monday? I’m going to start things off with a short run.

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Oct 19 2018

How Asking Someone How to #GiveFirst to Them Undermines #GiveFirst

I got an email this morning from a close friend who asked how I reconcile a particular issue around the concept of #GiveFirst. Following is the setup from the email I got.

“I was thinking of you yesterday. I recently met with someone in town who was looking to connect. I took the meeting because, well, I always take such meetings. I’m just wired that way and you never know what good things can come from such random meetings.

So I love doing them. But yesterday the person I met with showed up with an agenda and, at the top of his list was “GiveFirst to <my organization> and <me>.” He had an agenda…he had an ask of me…but he wanted to “give first” by asking me how he could help me.

I think he misunderstands the mindset. And I think he’s not the only one. By opening up with that, he put me in a position of having to do something–respond to his inquiry–I didn’t really have any need to do.

Moreover, he inadvertently put me in debt to him from the beginning. “Before we begin, let me ask you, ‘How can I help you?’ ” While I don’t really have a lot of asks it still felt yucky, insincere, and manipulative.”

This is a chronic problem with understanding how to implement #GiveFirst. While well-intentioned, it shifts the burden of responsibility from the #GiveFirster to the Receiver. Ponder that for a second.

Here’s an example from my personal life. Amy and I do a lot of things for each other, all the time. But, imagine a situation where she’s overwhelmed, or tired, or in distress from something. If I show up at that moment and say, “How can I help,” I’m adding another thing for her to do to the mix. She is now responsible for figuring out what I can do to help her. If she knew this, she probably would have already asked me. Instead of helping, I’m merely adding another log to whatever fire is already burning.

Instead of asking someone how you can #GiveFirst to them or their company, you should take the opposite approach. Do your research before you meet. Understand what their (or their organizations goals) are. In a lot of cases, you can often figure out a short-term need that they have. Then, when you meet, have a prepared mind for the conversation and listen to where it goes. In real-time, ofter to do something that fits with what you are hearing, or what you expect the goals or short-term needs are.

This doesn’t have to be an explicit part of the conversation (e.g. “I’m going to #GiveFirst to you by doing the following.”) Instead; it needs to be completely non-transaction – you are not doing something to earn anything, including brownie points. You are, instead, operating in a #GiveFirst framework, where you are willing to put energy into something without expecting anything in return. Ideally, you’ll just go #GiveFirst and do some stuff that is helpful to the other party. Not once, but as part of establishing and developing a deeper relationship that comes from a non-transaction perspective.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of mechanizing the #GiveFirst philosophy. It’s explicitly called #GiveFirst and not #TellMeWhatICanDoToHelpYou to stimulate you – the giver – to do the work to figure out what is helpful.

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