Month: July 2009

Jul 29 2009

My Daily Atlas Shrugged Moment

I’m having more and more Atlas Shrugged moments these days.  Today’s was courtesy of an add on LinkedIn.

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My first response to the ad was “I’m not sure I want to see my concerns addresses by the White House.”  The White House – after all, is a building. 

It turns out that this is an event that is titled “The Effects of Health Care Reform on Small Business.”

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At least the White House is spending money on social media.

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Jul 28 2009

TechStars: Episode 9: It’s About Doing

One of my favorite quotes is “Do, or do not.  There is no try.”  When you say it (or think it), you must use Yoda’s mix of a gravelly+whiney voice and pretend you are short and green.  Variations of the quote show up regularly throughout TechStars including on the walls. 

The video this week is about “doing” and includes guest appearances from friends and mentors Howard Lindzon, Jeff Clavier, and Dave McClure.

As a special bonus, the Vanilla guys (sort of) sing the Canadian National Anthem in exchange (or not) for a term sheet.

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Jul 27 2009

Holes In The Mainstream Media Wall

I’ve always hated walled gardens.  Before I started blogging in 2004, I had a point of view that was driven from my desire to share interesting information with my friends and colleagues.  Since I’m a big reader, I run across a lot of stuff and have always enjoyed sharing, going back to the late 1980’s when I used to cut articles out of magazines and mail them to people.

When I started blogging, I gained an entirely new perspective.  As a writer, I was proud when people referenced things I wrote.  I loved the debate and discussion around topics that were controversial.  I’ve always been comfortable expressing my opinion and having people express a different opinion, as I almost always learn something as long as there is a real discussion.

Over the weekend, Fred Wilson wrote a post titled Why Comments MatterFred and I had a discussion about comments several years ago shortly after Intense Debate and Disqus appeared on the scene.  Fred went on to invest in Disqus (WordPress acquired Intense Debate) and Fred has demonstrated that he’s a master at building a community that really engages with his blog (167 comments so far on Why Comments Matter – a little recursive, but proves the point.)  Fred ends his post (well worth reading) with:

“So my advice to the world of journalism is to ignore Douglas Bailey’s advice and keep the comment threads at the end of news stories. But doing that is not enough. You need to use the best comment systems out there and they are usually from third parties like Disqus, not from your CMS vendor. And you need to have your journalists participate actively in the discussions. If you do all of that, you can host great discussions at the end of your news stories and who wouldn’t want that?”

I was pondering the last sentence as I read Sam Harris’ Op-Ed titled Science Is in the Details in the New York Times this morning.  It’s a sharply written op-ed about Obama’s nomination of Francis Collins as the next director of the National Institutes of Health.  Harris – a well known atheist who recently wrote Letter to a Christian Nation – dissects a recent presentation by Collins which scared the shit out of me.  As I worked my way through the article, I was looking forward to the comments (which I expected would be strongly polarized) and noticed that – voila – there were no comments.

I then decided to tweet the article.  As this is the NYT, I remembered that if I just used the base URL, then anyone who came across it would be forced to register for the NYT to read the article that I had just shared (dumb).  But – there’s a solution – using the NYT “E-mail” option I emailed the article to myself and then tweeted that URL (after running it through awe.sm to shorten it).  I thought about this some more and realized that I could have chosen the “Share” option on the NYT site (instead of the “E-mail” option) which gives me a “permalink” for the article.

“To link to this article from your blog, copy and paste the url below into your blog or homepage. Using this link will ensure access to the article, even after it becomes part of the NYT archive.”

For a few minutes, I thought I was really clever to figure out the “email to myself” thing.  Then I realized I wasn’t actually clever at all; instead, the NYT was being obtuse by making this hard to figure out.  Most people don’t know what a permalink is – they are just going to forward the article around using the “Send Link” feature in their browser.

Sam Harris should just get a blog and follow Fred’s lead.  Oh wait – he has one.  Sam – turn your comments on!  Like so many things, the debate is the most interesting and important part.

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Jul 27 2009

The Illusion of Progress

I’ve had a busy July – lots activity in my portfolio, travel, and interesting stuff to deal with.  Most of the companies in my portfolio had solid Q2’s (recession?  what recession?), I’ve watched the TechStars teams in both Boulder and Boston grow up quickly, and the tech M&A market has woken up nicely.

At the same time, I watch the mainstream press report on the same old nonsense, our government struggle with “big issues” that seem to polarize everyone, and I listen to chatter in trains, planes, and automobiles about all the problems that exist.

This weekend I went on my annual “Feld Men’s Trip”.  This year we went to Chicago, ate at Mortons and Follia, went to a Cubs game, and had chocolate ice cream (twice) at Ghirardelli’s.

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I was exhausted from the week so I slept a lot.  But, I did notice an amazing amount of activity in downtown Chicago and on Michigan Avenue on Friday and Saturday night.  Chicago was buzzing, everyone was enjoying the warm weather, and the mood was very positive. 

There’s dissonance between the broad sentiment echoed by the mainstream media that seems to hang over everything and the energy and attitude “on the street.” I can’t decide if it’s me and my innate optimism, if there’s an illusion of progress, or if there’s a massive disconnect between reality and what mainstream media reports.

I’m going to be in Seattle, LA, and San Francisco this week; my antenna is going to be tuned to the tone of the cities.

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Jul 24 2009

Eric Ries Is Coming To Boulder

I’ve been interested in different approaches to software development going back to 1987 when – in my first company Feld Technologies – my partner Dave Jilk and I started talking about “semi-custom software development” (way ahead of its time).  During the same period (1987 – 1990) and I did some work at MIT under Eric von Hippel on “user driven innovation with regard to software development” which today would probably fall under the heading of “open source software development approaches.”

In 2002 I became exposed to the idea of “agile software development” and subsequently was a first round investor in Rally Software which is now the market leader in Agile application lifecycle management software.  Building on this, I’ve recently become fascinated with the notion of continuous deployment, a concept that has been popularized by Eric Ries and others.

I gave a talk at the fbFund Rev program about a month ago on the same day that Eric gave a talk.  Since I was hanging around for the day, I listened to Eric’s talk, which was great.  I mentioned it to David Cohen at TechStars who told me that he had been emailing with Eric about having Eric come to Boulder to do his thing.

Eric has decided to come to Boulder on 8/19 and 8/20 and give two talks.  The first – on 8/19 – will be about The Lean Startup and will happen over dinner, followed by a moderated table discussion and then a final Q&A with Eric. Tickets include dinner with a discounted price is available for early stage entrepreneurs and students.

On 8/20, Eric will lead a half day in-depth workshop on the Lean Startup. This is a great chance to really go deep on some of the concepts behind building Lean Startups. A limited number of tickets are also available for this workshop. Early bird pricing expires on August 6th.

Eric has superb ideas around software development and lots of experience to back it up – it’s awesome that he’s coming to Boulder to share some of this with the community here.

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Jul 22 2009

TechStars: Episode 8: Your Best Friend

I hope you are enjoying the TechStars video series as much as I am.  This week’s video – Episode 8: Your Best Friend is a special one.  Early on Jeffrey Kalmikoff of Threadless has a great line which is “give me your pitch, but give it to me as if you are giving it to your best friend.”  I’ve gotten to know Jeffrey over the past year and I think he’s as brilliant as this line is, although you need to think about it for a few minutes to really understand it.

Much of the video explores the lives of Nate and Natty of Everlater.  They get punked by a couple of girls during the video (fun!), but there are some important and touching moments between each of them as well as Natty’s folks.  If you step back from it, you realize most of the video is about friendship.

Creating a company from scratch is a bitch.  I’ve done it a couple of times and participated in the creation of many other companies as an angel or VC investor.  Yesterday I was sitting with a young, first time entrepreneur who asked “what are the most important characteristics I need to have to improve my chance of being successful.”  I responded with two old saws – he needed to be intensely passionate about what he was doing and he needed to be singularly focused on creating his business.

When I watched the TechStars video later in the day, I thought about this conversation and realized I could have given his a simpler, but more abstract answer.  He needed to treat his startup the same way he’d treat “his best friend.”

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Jul 20 2009

My First Office – 875 Main Street, Cambridge, MA 02139

Everyone remembers their first "X".  Last Thursday, I spent the day in Cambridge at the TechStars Boston office.  It’s in Central Square, just down the block from where I lived for four years while at MIT (351 Mass Ave) and around the corner from my first office (875 Main Street).

Feld Technologies very first address was 7310 Hillwood Lane, Dallas, TX  75248 (the house I grew up in).  At some point the address changed to 351 Mass Ave, Cambridge, MA  02139 (my frat).  I wonder how many other companies used that address at one point or another.  In 1987, my first real business partner Dave Jilk joined me and we decided we needed an office.  Somehow we ended up at 875 Main Street, directly behind our fraternity. 

Bill Warner took this great picture of me standing in front of it Thursday night.  We were on the fourth floor – the top left window that you can see in the picture was actually my window.

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I can’t remember the length of time we had the office at 875 Main Street, but it was less than a year.  At some point we realized we couldn’t afford an office and Dave and I moved the company into our apartments (at which point Feld Technologies official address became 6 Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Boston, MA  02109 (at the time it was an executive office suite – we simply had a mailbox there). 

I’ve had many different offices since then, but I’ll always remember my first one.

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Jul 20 2009

Sensobi – A Better Address Book For Your BlackBerry

I spent last Thursday at TechStars Boston meeting with all of the TechStars Boston 2009 teams.  They’ve all made a ton of progress since I met with them a month ago and many of them are shaping up really nicely.

A few of them are starting to be more public about what they are up to.  One of them – Sensobi – is ready to roll.  I’m not a BlackBerry user (I use an iPhone), but when I fiddled around with their app on a BlackBerry a month ago I totally got it.   BlackBerryCool calls it an “enterprise-grade address book.”

If you are a BlackBerry user give it a try – you can sign up using my magic special invite code.  The Sensobi guys – Andy and Ajay – are interested in your feedback.

Update: My magic special invite code is all used up at this point.  It turns out that Boy Genius also wrote a post today (Get ‘em while they’re hot: 200 Sensobi invites for BGR readers) and the well has run temporarily dry.  More soon.

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Jul 19 2009

Book: Computing in the Middle Ages

The book I read tonight – Computing in the Middle Ages: A View From the Trenches 1955-1983 by Severo Ornstein – stood out in stark contrast to the book I read yesterday – The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal by Ben Mezrich.

Both were great (my review of Mezrich’s book is in the post Mastering A Genre – Book: The Accidental Billionaires).  Both were about key moments in the creation of revolution computing technology.  Both were quick, fascinating, and engrossing reads for anyone who likes interesting stories about people behind seminal computing innovation.

Ornstein’s book was autobiographical.  He was there at the beginning – at MIT’s Lincoln Lab in the 1950’s working on the SAGE air-defense system followed by time on the TX-2 group as a key designer of the LINC.  He moved with the LINC team to Washington University in St. Louis where he again was a key designer of Macromodules.  When he got tired of St. Louis he went back to Cambridge, joined BBN, was a key member of the BBN team that responded the ARPANET RPF, and was one of the primary hardware designers of the IMP.  In the mid-1970’s he headed to Xerox PARC where – among other things – he led the team that created the Dover laser printer, the Dorado Computer, and Mockingbird (the first computer-based music-score editor). 

Not quite “build a web site to try to hook up with hot girls” (the starting point of the story arc of Mezrich’s book), but at least as important.  While this is an autobiography and is “historical” in parts, Ornstein is a fine writer who tells plenty of humorous anecdotes while filling in a lot of historical gaps that are often left out of “the story of the creation of the Internet”, including the decade that led up to it.

Ornstein ends his story in 1983, the same year that I entered MIT as a freshman.  While I bought an Apple II with my Bar Mitzvah money when I was 13 (December 1978), this was merely a preamble for what I discovered at MIT, including the Internet and – in 1994 – the World Wide Web.  Among many others, I have Ornstein to thank for this.

Next up – some real mental floss that has nothing to do with computers – say David Stone’s new book The Venetian Judgment.

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Jul 19 2009

Mastering A Genre – Book: The Accidental Billionaires

Yesterday afternoon I read Ben Mezrich’s latest book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal.  I downloaded it on my Kindle yesterday after hanging out with Howard Morgan of First Round Capital.  We are both voracious readers and – after the question “what’s on your Kindle right now” – I realized I’d forgotten to grab it.  I gobbled it down while recovering from my run, hanging out with Amy, chilling out after an intense week, and getting ready for my partner Jason’s birthday party.

I met Ben once over sushi in Copley Square.  I had long admired him and have read all of his “non-fiction” books. It turns out that he’s friends with Niel Robertson, a good friend and entrepreneur who I’ve worked with on a number of companies, most recently Trada.  Niel arranged a get together around that time that the movie 21 was about to come out.  As I listened to Ben – and probed a little – I realized that this was a guy who had found his niche on the planet.  Specifically, writing “almost non-fiction books” that dramatize the experiences of select young people as they make their mark on the world in wild and amazing ways.

My own experiences cross over with three of Ben’s books.  As someone living deep in the tech startup world, I related to The Accidental Billionaires, knew some of the people mentioned, and was aware of most of the back story behind the tale Ben weaves.  While I was never part of any of the MIT Poker teams, several friends were, including one of Amy’s old boyfriends who also was a frat brother and a good friend of mine.  So – I adored Bringing Down the House and Busting Vegas: A True Story of Monumental Excess, Sex, Love, Violence, and Beating the Odds

As I read The Accidental Billionaires, I recognized both the inside baseball stories along with the wizardry of Mezrich creating believable scenes out of his magnificent writing gift.  While he’s recently been criticized for “making stuff up”, he’s very open about his approach to recreating narratives, even stating the following in the preface to the book:

… I re-created the scenes in the book based on the information I uncovered from documents and interviews, and my best judgment as to what version most closely fits the documentary record. … In some instances, details of settings and descriptions have been changed or imagines, …  I do employ the technique of recreated dialogue on the recollections of participants of the substance of conversations.”

Ben makes no apology about his style and approach.  Instead, he’s working at mastering this particular genre.  I think he’s gotten incredibly good at it.

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