Life Is Messy For Everyone

I love today’s post from Nick Grossman at USV. It’s titled Everyone is broken and life is hard and he starts out with a clarifying statement.

“That’s a pretty depressing and fatalistic post title, but I actually mean it in a positive and encouraging way. Let me explain.

It’s easy to go about your life, every day, feeling like everyone else has their shit together and that the things you struggle with are unique to you.

But then, when you get down to it, it turns out that everyone — every single person I know — is dealing with profoundly difficult and stressful things. Sometimes that’s money, sometimes it’s health, sometimes it’s work or family or relationships.

It’s worth remembering this so that we cultivate some empathy when dealing with people — in general and in particular in difficult situations.”

I just turned seven squared. I’ve now been on this planet for 50 years. In my “normative case”, I’ve got 30 good years left. I’m hopeful I live longer but I’ve also accepted that the lights could go out unexpectedly anytime.

Amy and I used the “30 more good years” as the frame of reference for a lot of our talks over the past month while we were on sabbatical off the grid. We’ve been fortunate to have amazing lives, but we’ve each had our share of really difficult things to deal with, separately and together. And we know we’ll have plenty of challenges and messy stuff to deal with for the rest of our lives.

I read several biographies on our trip. My two favorites were one on Einstein and one on Ada Lovelace. Amazing people, but messy lives with lots of challenges. As I read these biographies, I kept thinking about the timing they lived, the stuff they struggled with, and how the cycle of challenges for humanity continues on endlessly.

It’s easy to get lost in the morass of misery. You can also end up in the “things are good for the other person, but fucked up for me” cycle.

It’s all messy. And we eventually die and it’s over.

Nick’s remember that it’s “worth cultivat[ing] some empathy when dealing with people — in general and in particular in difficult situations” just nails it.

Go read Nick’s post everyone is broken and life is hard. And take a deep breath and remember Everything is Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.

MergeLane – An Accelerator for Women-led Startups

I have been talking, writing, and helping advocate for women in technology for a long time. While my most visible role is as chair of National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) since its inception in 2006, I’ve tried to be actively involved and supportive of as many initiatives as I can. My partners and I are focused on promoting diversity in our fund (here’s a run-down of our stats) and have recently back several female CEOs, with a few more about to happen. At Techstars, we’ve put a huge amount of energy into building a pipeline of female founders and getting women involved in Techstars in many roles, especially at the leadership level in companies and the program.

Six months ago, two Boulder entrepreneurs and angel investors approached me and my partners about investing in a new accelerator targeting women-led companies. We’ve known and worked with both Elizabeth Kraus and Sue Heilbronner and deeply believe that each are committed to the “give before you get” ethos of our startup community in Boulder.

Our respect for Elizabeth and Sue, combined with our passion for their objective, led us to invest personally in MergeLane, which has secured strong support from a tremendous group of mentors, investors, media, and the Boulder startup community.

In order to be considered for admission into the 12-week program, which begins on February 2nd, companies must have at least one female in a leadership role. The program is industry-agnostic, but startups need to have some level of traction. MergeLane requires only three weeks of residency in Boulder in hopes of accommodating founders that can’t relocate for a full three months.

The deadline to apply for MergeLane is December 15th. Take a look and apply at www.MergeLane.com.

Get Ready For Q115 Fundraising Insanity

One of the dynamics of going away for a month off the grid is that you come back to a wall of data. I’ve been absorbing it the past two days and it’s fascinating to ponder how my brain is processing it versus the normal continuous flow of information on a real-time basis.

I’m not a predictor. As we enter the time of year where every media-related thingy publishes it’s “best of 2014″ and “predictions for 2015″ lists, I simply pass on participating in all of them and read none of them. So – I’ll start with that – this is not a prediction, rather it’s a hypothesis, which is as long as there isn’t a cataclysmic macro event, Q115 financing activity is going to be insane.

The number of large, “later stage” financings are remarkable – both in size and velocity. We had several close last month and have some more in process. The number of companies I’ve heard of (mostly outside our portfolio) who are “getting ready to raise money in Q1″ is a very long list. I’d noticed this before I went away, but the wall of data that I came back to reinforced it in a way I hadn’t completely processed.

The deals tend to fall into two categories – easy and immediate, which multiple bidders generating an rapidly escalating valuation or a long slow slog through lots of “almost there but we are passing because of some arbitrary reason.” If you translate the passes into english, they seem to fall into one of three categories.

  1. You aren’t growing fast enough. If you are less than 100% year over year growth or have declining year over year growth rate you are likely in this category.
  2. We are worried about some exogenous thing you can’t control or influence.
  3. There is some characteristic about your business we don’t like.

At some level, these are obvious reasons. But they are often extremely frustrating to strong, mid and later stage companies growing 25%+ year over year. They are maddening to mature CEOs who have built real companies that dominate their market segment but are in either an out of favor segment or using an approach (e.g. enterprise software license sales) that is no longer trendy.

In our world, none of this matters that much to us. We aren’t momentum investors. We are syndication agnostic and are happy to continue to finance strong, later stage companies in our portfolio with or without new co-investors. We are transparent with our financing intensions early in the process. We are happy to support whatever process an entrepreneur wants to go through.

Regardless, it feels like it’s going to be an insanely busy Q115.

 

The One Month Sabbatical

Bora BoraI’m back after a one month sabbatical with Amy. We spent the month in Bora Bora, completely disconnected from everything. It is one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.

At the beginning of 2014, my partners and I had a discussion about ways to sustain the pace of how we’ve been working. We were all tired and were searching for something to try. We decided to each take a one month sabbatical, completely off the grid, during the year. While one person was gone, the other three would cover for him on anything that needed to be taken care of or decided.

Seth went first and went to Europe and studied French with his family. Ryan went next, traveled all over Europe, and won the grand prize in a Lego-building competition. Jason went next, got married, and took a honeymoon for a month in Europe. Amy and I just returned from a month in Bora Bora.

I’ve had a fantasy for a long time about taking a month off. Since 2000, Amy and I take a week off the grid every quarter. It’s been a marriage saver for us. One week – just the two of us – no phone, no email, no work. But we’d never done it for longer than a week.

I’ve also had a fantasy about going to Bora Bora, staying in a hut over the water, and reading a book a day. I don’t know where Bora Bora came from, but the book a day was an easy one for me since I usually read about a half-dozen books on our week of the grid vacations.

I read 45 books since we left on November 7th. Our typical day looked like:

  • wake up
  • run (maybe)
  • eat breakfast
  • read
  • eat lunch
  • read
  • nap
  • lift weights (maybe) or get a massage (maybe)
  • eat dinner
  • read or watch TV

We did 30 days of this. We sprinkled plenty of adult entertainment into the mix, along with lots of long discussions about all kinds of things.

After a week, we were each a little restless. I ate something weird around day five and didn’t feel good for three days. But once we got into the middle of the second week we forgot that the world existed. We woke up each day, did our thing by the turquoise blue ocean, and went to bed at the end of the day.

We headed into week four feeling completely transformed.

I’ve never taken a month off before. During school, I always worked in the summer time. After I sold my first company (on a Friday), I went back to work first thing Monday morning. I’ve been investing ever since and when I stopped working at AmeriData full time, I already had more than a full time job worth of consulting to the startups I’d funded via Intensity Ventures lined up. While doing that, I started working at Softbank/Mobius, and while doing that co-founded Foundry Group.

I find it incomprehensible that I’ve never taken a break like this before. Given my comfort with one week off-the-grid vacations, it was easy to just disconnect and leave everything in my partners’ hands. I trust them completely and having already been through the one month off cycle with each of them earlier in the year, I knew that whenever something came up, good decisions would be made and things would be handled.

As a result, I feel like I’ve completely reset my brain. I read what I wanted – I had over 200 books on my Kindle – so I just picked randomly when I didn’t have “next book” in mind. Some of the business books were skimmers and I only dropped out of one fiction book a quarter way through because I lost interest. The rest was like being transported to the magical reading planet.

Amy and I never grew tired of being together. I could spend all day, every day, with her, all the time. I feel like we’ve mastered being together, but letting there be enough space when one of us needs it that we never get frustrated with each other. Sure, there are moments, but they are very short ones, and usually solved by laughter by one of us.

After 30 days, we are ready to be back. We miss our friends. I miss my partners. We both miss our work, which is something that neither of us has said out loud for a while. And most of all, we miss Brooks the wonder dog!

The Future Will Look Different From The Present

I’ve been thinking about the future a lot lately. While I’ve always read a lot of science fiction, The Hyperion Cantos shook some stuff free in my brain. I’ve finished the first two books – Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion – and expect I’ll finish the last two in the next month while I’m on sabbatical.

If you have read The Fall of Hyperion, you’ll recognize some of my thoughts at being informed by Ummon, who is one of my favorite characters. If you don’t know Hyperion, according to Wikipedia Ummon “is a leading figure in the TechnoCore’s Stable faction, which opposes the eradication of humanity. He was responsible for the creation of the Keats cybrids, and is mentioned as a major philosopher in the TechnoCore.” Basically, he’s one of the older, most powerful AIs who believes AIs and humans can co-exist.

Lately, some humans have expressed real concerns about AIs. David Brooks wrote a NYT OpEd titled Our Machine Masters which I found weirdly naive, simplistic, and off-base. He hedges and offers up two futures, each which I think miss greatly.

Brooks’ Humanistic Future: “Machines liberate us from mental drudgery so we can focus on higher and happier things. In this future, differences in innate I.Q. are less important. Everybody has Google on their phones so having a great memory or the ability to calculate with big numbers doesn’t help as much. In this future, there is increasing emphasis on personal and moral faculties: being likable, industrious, trustworthy and affectionate. People are evaluated more on these traits, which supplement machine thinking, and not the rote ones that duplicate it.”

Brooks’ Cold, Utilitarian Future: “On the other hand, people become less idiosyncratic. If the choice architecture behind many decisions is based on big data from vast crowds, everybody follows the prompts and chooses to be like each other. The machine prompts us to consume what is popular, the things that are easy and mentally undemanding.”

Brooks seems stuck on “machines” rather than what an AI actually could evolve into. Ummon would let out a big “kwatz!” at this.

Elon Musk went after the same topic a few months ago in an interview where he suggested that building an AI was similar to summoning the demon.

Musk: “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful with artificial intelligence. I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence we’re summoning the demon. You know those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram, and the holy water, and he’s like — Yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon? Doesn’t work out.”

I need to send Elon a copy of the Hyperion Cantos so he sees how the notion of regulatory oversight of AI turns out.

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 6.36.19 AMI went to watch the actual interview, but there’s been a YouTube takedown by MIT, although I suspect, per a Tweet I got, that a bot actually did it, which would be deliciously ironic.

If you want to watch the comment, it’s at 1:07:30 on the MIT AeroAstro Centennial Symposium video which doesn’t seem to have an embed function.

My friend, and the best near term science fiction writer I know, William Hertling, had a post over the weekend titled Elon Musk and the risks of AIHe had a balanced view of Elon’s comment and, as William always does, has a thoughtful explanation of the short term risks and dynamics well worth reading. William’s punch line:

“Because of these many potential benefits, we probably don’t want to stop work on AI. But since almost all research effort is going into creating AI and very little is going into reducing the risks of AI, we have an imbalance. When Elon Musk, who has a great deal of visibility and credibility, talks about the risks of AI, this is a very good thing, because it will help us address that imbalance and invest more in risk reduction.”

Amy and were talking about this the other night after her Wellesley board meeting. We see a huge near term schism coming on almost all fronts. Classical education vs. online education. How medicine and health care work. What transportation actually is. Where we get energy from.

One of my favorite lines in the Fall of Hyperion is the discussion about terraforming other planets and the quest for petroleum. One character asks why we still need petroleum in this era (the 2800’s). Another responds that “200 billion humans use a lot of plastic.”

Kwatz!