Jan 16 2019

Techstars Studio and the Studio Model

Today, Techstars announced a new initiative called Techstars Studio which will allow Techstars to source new company concepts from Techstars alumni founders, community leaders, venture capitalists, mentors, and corporate partners. The Techstars Studio will then build prototypes, test market adoption, and select the most promising concepts for launch. Techstars Studio will then launch new startups and source talent and capital from the Techstars worldwide network to run the new companies.

The goal of each Techstars Studio is to launch four new companies annually. The first Techstars Studio will be in Boulder, just like the first Techstars accelerator was in 2007. As with the expansion of Techstars Accelerators around the world (Techstars will run 41 accelerator programs in 31 cities and 11 countries in 2019), expect Techstars Studios to follow a similar expansion path.

At Foundry, we have a lot of experience with the Studio model. We are investors in PSL (in Seattle) and High Alpha (in Indianapolis). We are also investors in the venture funds associated with the studios (PSL Ventures and High Alpha Capital) as well as Techstars Ventures.

Over the past five years, we’ve looked at potentially investing in numerous studios. We think the studio model, while very attractive with the right team, resources, and network, is very difficult to execute well. We’ve been deliberate in our choices and the leaders of both PSL and High Alpha have been helpful with Techstars as they’ve gone through their thought process on how to build out a studio.

We are especially excited about the founding team of Techstars Studios. Along with the leadership of David Cohen (the co-CEO of Techstars) will be Isaac Saldana, founder of SendGrid and Mike Rowan, former VP of SendGrid Labs. We’ve worked closely with Isaac and Mike over the years and are psyched to have another chance to create something with them from the ground floor.

A number of the most successful Techstars accelerator alumni are participating as founders in residence and advisors to Techstars Studio. In addition, more than 25 corporate partners of Techstars are be involved in the initiative at launch.

If you are interested in the Techstars Studio, drop me an email and I’ll route you to the right folks.

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Jan 15 2019

Implicit Gender Bias in Startup Funding

While there have been many words written about gender bias in the context of entrepreneurship and funding, I thought the following TED Talk from Dana Kanze presented one of the best frames of references, supported by a real research study, that I’ve seen to date. In addition, she has some clear, actionable suggestions at the end of the talk to help eliminate the bias.

Her research emerges from her own exploration of a social psychological theory originated by Professor Tory Higgins called “regulatory focus.” This theory explores the different motivational orientations of promotion and prevention.

While listening to Dana’s explanation and examples in the video, I had a deep insight – around how to ask questions of an entrepreneur – that hadn’t occurred to me before. Here are her direct definitions of promotion focus and prevention focus.

“A promotion focus is concerned with gains and emphasizes hopes, accomplishments and advancement needs, while a prevention focus is concerned with losses and emphasizes safety, responsibility and security needs. Since the best-case scenario for a prevention focus is to simply maintain the status quo, this has us treading water just to stay afloat, while a promotion focus instead has us swimming in the right direction. It’s just a matter of how far we can advance.”

Dana’s punchline is that investors approach female entrepreneurs with a prevention focus and male entrepreneurs with a promotion focus. Interestingly, she finds this is consistent regardless of the gender of the investor!

The talk has a clear recommendation for female entrepreneurs in it. Basically, if you get a prevention question, reframe the answer in a promotion context.

“So what this means is that if you’re asked a question about defending your start-up’s market share, you’d be better served to frame your response around the size and growth potential of the overall pie as opposed to how you merely plan to protect your sliver of that pie.”

Dana also has a suggestion for how investors (both female and male) can help eliminate this implicit bias.

“So to my investors out there, I would offer that you have an opportunity here to approach Q&A sessions more even-handedly, not just so that you could do the right thing, but so that you can improve the quality of your decision making. By flashing the same light on every start-up’s potential for gains and losses, you enable all deserving start-ups to shine and you maximize returns in the process.”

Her talk is only 15 minutes long and well worth it. Or, if you are a fast reader, take a look at the transcript.

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Jan 14 2019

Book: Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger

I read Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister recently. It was recommended to me by Tami Forman, the CEO of Path Forward and I was immediately cheered on by Amy when I started reading it.

It was extraordinary. Every man I know should read it. I’m now officially a Rebecca Traister fan. I learned a lot, was forced to think about a bunch of uncomfortable stuff, and formed some new ideas about how to address some gender-related issues in our society.

And then I read the Bloomberg article Wall Street Rule for the #MeToo Era: Avoid Women at All Cost and got mad at some men.

The article starts strong.

“No more dinners with female colleagues. Don’t sit next to them on flights. Book hotel rooms on different floors. Avoid one-on-one meetings.”

It then goes on and references this as “The Pence Effect.”

Call it the Pence Effect, after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who has said he avoids dining alone with any woman other than his wife. In finance, the overarching impact can be, in essence, gender segregation.

I thought the idea of the Pence effect, as stupid as it is, had come and gone. But I apparently am wrong.

“For obvious reasons, few will talk openly about the issue. Privately, though, many of the men interviewed acknowledged they’re channeling Pence, saying how uneasy they are about being alone with female colleagues, particularly youthful or attractive ones, fearful of the rumor mill or of, as one put it, the potential liability.”

Then I came upon a quote that was advice for men which seemed fitting and was a solution that I expect Rebecca Traister could be supportive of.

 “Just try not to be an asshole.”

If you are living in fear around the #MeToo issue, go read Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Confront your fear. Examine any guilt you have. Get real with yourself about the issue. Change your behavior. And just try not to be an asshole.

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Jan 11 2019

Money Doesn’t Solve Problems. People Solve Problems.

One of our favorite VC firms to work with is True Ventures. I’ve made many investments over the years with both Jon Callaghan and Tony Conrad, and I love being a co-investor with them.

Recently, Tony told me a great Jon Callaghan quote.

“Money Doesn’t Solve Problems. People Solve Problems.”

I’ve learned this lesson 7,345,123 times.

Every successful company I’ve been involved in had a least one near-death experience. Most of the successful companies I’ve been involved with have had at least one stall period, where growth slowed dramatically for some time. Lots of successful companies I’ve been involved in were tight on cash for extended periods. Some successful companies I’ve been involved in looked like they were doing well if you looked at their top line revenue and growth numbers, but were a disaster below the surface.

Note that I repeated “successful companies I’ve been involved in” for each sentence. Each of these companies that I’m referring to ultimately were successful. I’m separating them from companies I was involved in that failed.

In all of these cases, Jon’s statement is correct. The solution was not to throw money at the company and hope things at the company got better. Instead, the successful companies had a functional leadership team and board that was able to figure out the problems and solve them. While the issues often included some members of the leadership team (including occasionally the CEO), in each case, it required focusing on what wasn’t working, where the problems were, and taking aggressive and decisive action to address them.

Assuming the people addressing the issues were the right people, and the extended team (management and board) focused on the correct problems, and then the team gave each other enough time to see whether or not what they were doing addressed the issues, more often than not things ended up in a happy place. While sometimes the issues were intractable, or the dynamics between the people were ineffective, most of the time the focus on people solving the problems resulted in spending less money.

I have a corollary to Jon’s statement which is: “When things break or stall, slow down your spending.” The momentum of growth often results in expense growth regardless of what is happening in the rest of the business. A lot of this expense growth is headcount but also includes a substantial (and often surprisingly large) mix of variable and discretionary spending. While cutting headcount can be part of the approach, taking a hard look at all expenses, eliminating what is unnecessary or ineffective, and communicating clearly with everyone in the company, can often have an immediate and dramatic impact.

It’s scary to tell everyone in the company exactly what is going on when you are in distress. We recently had a long thread on our CEO list titled Surfacing runway: yes or no? It was brilliant and full of great examples, but one, from a company that had stalled but then went on to be extremely successful, stood out to me. The CEO of that company said that during their stall period:

We shared with all employees both income statement and balance sheet (including cash position) to make clear that we needed to better control our expenses so that we could control our own destiny re runway (it was also in context of decelerating growth rate – our rule of 40 was in the teens). We slowed hiring considerably and created programs called “Save to Reinvest” to drive home a sense of fiscal discipline. We showed the company at each monthly All Hands how the financials were changing from our collective activities.

The solution here was people. Not money. Like it usually is.

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Jan 10 2019

Manage the Clock

I used to be chronically late to everything, both personal and professional. In my twenties, before cell phones, I was one of those people that others referred to as having “Brad time” which did not correlate with the actual time in the world. My calendar and schedule was a rough sketch, not even a guide.

My lack of attention to time finally imploded on me around age 35 when Amy said she’d had enough on multiple dimensions of our life. The foundational issue for us was that my actions didn’t match my words, and by being late all the time, I wasn’t honoring my priorities (which I would regularly say was Amy over everything else …) If you ever get us together at a meal and want to hear some epic “Brad was late” stories, ask her about the Postrio dinner of 2000.

Since then, I’ve gotten a lot better at being on-time. I’m not a “five minutes early to everything” person, but I’m rarely more than a few minutes late to anything. I’m very scheduled throughout the week, so it’s often hard to transition between the thing that ends at 2:30 and then be on time to the thing that starts at 2:30 and get it exactly right each time. And, throughout the day, when I end up going until 2:35 for whatever reason, the 2:30 call then goes a little long, and everything backs up a little so that I’m 15 minutes late for the last meeting of the day. And now I know to always say “I’m sorry for being late” whenever I’m late.

Over the years I’ve tried many different approaches to managing the clock. For a while, I tried using Google’s “speedy meeting” option which defaults to 25 minute meetings (instead of 30) and 50 minute meetings (instead of an hour), but no one ever paid any attention to it and it just seemed to create weird openings in my calendar for anyone who had access to it.

Today, I use a different approach. I try manage the clock better during a meeting when I’m in charge, and prompt others when I’m not. That works a little, but it’s annoying.

I find this particularly challenging on calls that are an hour long with multiple people. Or, in three hour-ish board meetings with a lot of people. I don’t control the agenda in those meetings, so clock management is up to someone else. And, most people are painfully bad at it.

There are a few tips for anyone who wants to do this well.

The first is to publish an agenda with times allocated to each section. Then, have an enforcer (not the person running the meeting) who gives a five minute warning on each section. Then, end each section on time. Basically, break up the meeting into smaller chunks (15 – 30 minutes) and adhere to the schedule.

Next, front end load the meetings. Do the stuff you need everyone on the call or at the meeting for up front. Some things need you to build into them, but don’t leave them “for the end” – build deliberately to each deeper discussion or decision you want to have. Leaving the critical discussions and decisions for the end of the meeting is a guaranteed way not to get to them.

Send out materials well in advance (at least 48 hours) and assume everyone can read. If they don’t, that’s their problem, not yours, and they’ll get the hint pretty quickly. Instead of going page by page through your materials, or using the materials as a crutch to “review” things, summarize they key points and focus on discussion and debate, rather than review.

Finally, build in buffer. Almost everyone needs to go to the bathroom during a three hour meeting. At the minimum, it’s good to stand up and stretch your body. All video conferencing systems, no matter how good, continue to have weird friction at the beginning of the meeting, so have a front-end start buffer, rather than anxiety around the inevitable five minute delay. And, when the meeting goes off the rails and you get ten minutes behind because someone (e.g. me) can’t shut up about something and your time enforcer was daydreaming about Dali paintings, use the buffer to catch back up.

This is a problem that has been persistent in my life for over 30 years. If you have magic tricks that have worked for you, I’m all ears.

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Jan 9 2019

Book: The More You Hustle, The Luckier You Get

James Oliver, Jr. has written a fun book that is part memoir, part advice, for what he calls Parentpreneurs (entrepreneurs who are trying to raise kids.) He’s got a website with a bunch of history about him, his journey, and the book. It’s also got some pictures of his twins, which even I, as a non-kid kind of person think are pretty adorable (although they are apparently eight now according to James, so I’m not sure if they qualify as adorable anymore, but they probably do.)

Zoe and Thaddeus Invite You To Click on Them to Go to their Dad’s website

I’ve had an email correspondence with James going back to 2015. In November, I got an email from him that, among other things, said:

“Brad, I think I mentioned I’m raising money for a WeMontage relaunch, which is taking a while-as expected.

In the meantime, the way I’m taking care of my kids is mostly via book sales. The book reviews have been wonderful-someone called it the realest book about being an entrepreneur they ever read. And the amazon reviews are fantastic.

In order to provide for my kids, I need to sell 300 books this month via my website (www.themoreyouhustle.com – because amazon delays royalty payments by two months); that’s only 10 sales per day.

I read it during my Q418 vacation. It was a quick read, fun and interesting, and game me perspective on James’s life as an entrepreneur and parent. The book also made clear how awesome his wife is and how important she is to his entrepreneurial journey.

If you still have some holiday spirit left in you, grab a copy of James’ book The More You Hustle, The Luckier You Get. You’ll be doing James a solid by helping him get WeMontage back up and running and get some valuable perspective and lessons along the way.

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Jan 8 2019

My Mom’s Haiku Project

I love a Haiku
My mother is an artist
Haikus in winter

My mom has started a haiku project. She takes haikus that friends write and turns them into a collage.

Following is a haiku I wrote after my mom sent me an email asking me for one.

Yes, I was in Charlotte, North Carolina at the time. I’m on the board of AvidXchange and this likely was written the night before the one board meeting a year I attend in person. Charlotte is a nice place, so this is less about Charlotte and more about me.

Here’s the painting that resulted. 

I love it and asked my mom if I could buy it. She said no because she wants to exhibit them as a collection first.

She did create another print for me of this, so I’ll get it, but I really want the original in all its glory. So, if you are a curator at a museum and you want to do me a favor, drop me a note so I can get these exhibited so that I can then buy them. And yes, I’ll underwrite the exhibit, unless my mom won’t let me.

If you’ve got a haiku that you want turned into a collage, leave it in the comments or email it to me.

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Jan 7 2019

Sphero’s Contribution to DonorsChoose.org

Last month, Amy and I matched all of the Colorado first time DonorsChoose.org projects. So far, 103 projects have been fully funded, with a total of $25,722 donated. We still have plenty of matching dollars out there, so we’ll continue to run this match for a while.

In the meantime, I started talking to my friends at Sphero about doing something similar for all the DonorsChoose.org projects that have a Sphero as part of them. They got excited about it and have announced a $110,000 gift to Donorschoose.org to match anyone who donates to any of the 200+ teachers on Donorschoose.org who have Sphero products included in their projects.

Amy and I, through our Anchor Point Foundation, joined Silicon Valley Bank, Needham & Company, Flex Logistics, Nasco, and my partners at Foundry Group, in providing the funding for the match. SVB, Needham, Flex, and Nasco are Sphero business partners and I deeply appreciate their support of Sphero, DonorsChoose.org, and all of the teachers we are helping fund.

If you want to support a teacher who has a Sphero-related project for their classroom, jump in now. And, if you are a teacher who wants to do something around Sphero’s STEM-related robots and software, including Sphero BOLT, Sphero Mini, and the newly-released Sphero Specdrums, join DonorsChoose.org and put up a project today! Finally, if you are a Sphero business partner and want to participate in this, email me and I’ll get you in the mix.

This match will continue until the dollars are used up. Amy and I are incredibly proud of our friends at Sphero, along with their partners SVB, Needham, Flex, and Nasco, as well as my own partners at Foundry Group, for helping teachers get more STEM-related activities in their classroom through DonorsChoose.org.

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Jan 4 2019

Facts Have No Feelings

The following post is the one I was referring to when I wrote The Moment You Realize You Aren’t Comfortable With What You Wrote. After I wrote it, I searched around for the quote but came across links to a speech by Ben Shapiro titled “Truth Is A Microagression” along with a bunch of commentary about Shapiro suggesting “Facts don’t care about your feelings” and counterarguments that “Facts do care about your feelings.”

I got sucked into a rabbit hole of trying to understand the discussion, debate, and the subsequent aggressive (vitrolic?) arguments. Neither was what I was trying to say, nor did I feel like becoming part of that particular discussion. So, I chickened out and wrote the post The Moment You Realize You Aren’t Comfortable With What You Wrote instead.

Now that I’ve sat on this post for a few weeks, I’m now fine putting it up. If you are part of the “facts care or don’t care about your feelings” discussion, that’s cool, but that’s not what this is about. So, please read it with the meaning  I was trying to convey.

I love the phrase “facts have no feelings.” And, it’s important to distinguish that phase from a different quote which I don’t like and is in a completely different dimension of discussion, which is “facts don’t care about your feelings.”

Queue all the comments about living in a post-fact reality and alternative facts. Or about how facts are simply a fictional narrative that humans create about the universe. Or how facts don’t matter since whoever has the loudest megaphone can overwhelm any facts. Or, how facts actually matter in the long-run, even if they are ignored in the short-term.

Earlier this year I read Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre. It had some good stuff in it, but several of my friends who read it were turned off by McIntyre’s biases (which he acknowledges directly in the book), asserting that the biases undermined what he was saying.

Around the same time, I read James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty which I enjoyed regardless of what you think of Comey. After I wrote a blog post about it, I ended up getting a range of emails. Some were positive but others were similar to the ones I got about McIntyre’s book (although more aggressive) basically saying Comey was full of shit and not telling the truth.

One of my favorite lines in the context of business is Your Truth vs. The Truth. I use the original iPhone release as the example and two Steve Ballmer videos – one from 2007 and one from 2014 – to make the point. My punch line in the post is:

“When I say “your truth” I’m not referring to opinions. I’m referring to your deeply held beliefs. Your truth is the set of ideas that forms the basis of your view of the world. It requires a huge act of will and introspection for you to change your truth.”

That leads me to “facts have no feelings” and the distinction between “truth” and “facts” in the context of business. While the two are regularly conflated, they are really different. The “alternative facts” nonsense in politics makes this point clearly. If “alternative truth” had been said instead of the famously used phrase “alternative facts”, it would have made a lot more sense. Sure, some people would have still ridiculed it, but it would have been a logical construct because there can be a difference between what one person thinks is true and what another thinks is true.

Here’s a provocative example. I think bitcoin has no fundamental value. However, there are many people who believe bitcoin has fundamental value. And, regardless of whether or not it has fundamental value, it is a fact that when I wrote this sentence you can buy bitcoin for $3,403.48 (of course, it is also likely that when you read this, the price will be different.) So, people ascribe value to bitcoin, whether or not it has fundamental value.

My truth would be that bitcoin has no fundamental value, but is a highly speculative object that people like to trade. And, I build a set of truths around that. Other people have a different truth about bitcoin. Regardless, the fact is that a bitcoin can be bought and sold. And, for the avoidance of doubt, even though I think bitcoin has no fundamental value, I own some bitcoins (a fact …) Finally, while someone could extrapolate the notion that I don’t think cryptocurrencies have fundamental value, that would be incorrect, since bitcoin is simply one cryptocurrency.

Here’s something to chew on: “Should facts get in the way of truth?” Or, “Should truth get in the way of facts?”

Your truth (or my truth) and deeply held beliefs are complicated things that can change. But, facts have no feelings.

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Jan 3 2019

Dear Apple: Please Sync My Dock

Someone mentioned that Apple stock is having a difficult time right now, along with their Q4 performance, China strategy, and “let’s just raise the price on iPhones to make up for lower demand” strategy.

I’m not really interested in Apple stock (I don’t own any.) I’m more concerned with the Apple Dock. My MacOS Dock to be more specific.

Here’s the one from my laptop.

Here’s the one from my desktop, which is in a room about 25 feet away.

Why in the world are they different? Many things sync via iCloud already and even though the UX is obtuse to get it set up correctly across machines, when it’s finally set it, it works pretty well.

But the Dock? Seriously?

In contrast, following are the two Chrome ribbons on my two machines.

Shockingly similar, like you’d expect.

It’s fascinating to me that even in this “all cloud, all the time” era, Apple still is struggling with the dichotomy between a “computer-centric” view of the world and a “user-centric” view of the world. Sync across machines is simply not a new idea. I get that there is endless complexity everywhere, but this is one of those examples that I think of every day.

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