Brad Feld

Month: April 2010

In March, I went to DC with Dave McClure, Eric Ries, Shervin Pishevar, and a bunch of Geeks on a Plane to discuss, advocate, and support the Startup Visa initiative.  As part of the effort, we did two videos about the trip – one staring me and one staring Shervin. Ben Henretig of Micro-Documentaries produced them – they have some striking images of DC along with plenty of commentary from me and Shervin about why the Startup Visa is important.

Eric Ries has a few other thoughts about the trip and things you can do to help the Startup Visa initiative.

As Fred Wilson likes to say, often the best content for blogs is in the comments.  In this case, it was in an email I got from Boaz Fletcher in response to my post Web Sites and Books for Novice Programmers.  Boaz made a very interesting observation:

“As for learning how to code, I think good storytellers make the best programmers. I used to freak prospective employees out by having them write a story for me instead of the “what’s wrong with this code?” tests. But it showed me who was able to think well, organized, creatively, and filled in the details.”

He also had an insightful comment about teaching kids to program.

“I had an exchange with someone in the industry about teaching kids how to program – or, more appropriately, how little there actually is to start kids off (think Alice or Scratch). Considering the ubiquity of computers in our lives, I think it’s untenable that most people are just passive users of the things. It should be mandatory to teach kids how to program. They don’t all need to become software engineers (never mind that I think most software engineers today, aren’t) but a basic understanding of how to build something simple and useful to them. Think about “shop” in junior high – hands-on manipulation of the physical world. So you may never need to lathe out a wooden bowl again, but at least you can hang a picture straight. Kids can browse the net, but don’t have a clue why their computer gets stuck when they’re trying to print a webpage.“

I’ve been thinking and talking about this particular construct a lot lately, especially in the context of NCWIT.  A person younger than 15 years old has never experienced life without the existence of the web.  Their view of the world, especially 29 years from now when they’ll be as old as I am today, will be radically different because of how the computers and the web are integrated with their life.

I never took shop in high school.  I’m not mechanically inclined (or skilled) at all.  Not only can I not hang a picture straight, I’m not sure I know what to do with a power tool.  And forget changing the oil in my car.  When I reflect on things I wish I had done more as a kid, it’s tinker with mechanical things so I’d be more comfortable with them.  In contrast, I’m completely comfortable with anything that’s “not physical” – I like to say "I’m only interested in it if I can’t touch it.”

We are definitely living in a world where both are important, but the not-physical is becoming increasingly pervasive.  Making sure that young people are tuned into this seems critical.  When I think hard about this, there’s real insight in Boaz’s comment about the power of storytellers.

Thanks for all the feedback and comments on the Learning to Program series with Nate Abbott and Natty Zola from Everlater.  In the last post, titled Web Sites and Books for Novice Programmers, I foreshadowed some of the tools that Nate and Natty chose to build Everlater.  Now that you know how they got started, here’s what they ended up choosing.

Everlater is built on Ruby on Rails, postgreSQL and is hosted on Engine Yard using a passenger/nginx combination.  Nate and Natty use several standard Ruby/Rails packages (gems) to extend the base functionality of Rails.  On the front end, they use a combination of jQuery and Prototype for Javascript.

The technology stack that they’ve ended up with has evolved over time.  The very first decision – which web framework/backend language to use – was the toughest.  Once again, our friend Google appeared – this time for the phrase “web framework comparison.”  A few days later, the exploration shifted from simply finding and poking around in the various languages (most notably Ruby/Rails, PHP/CakePHP/codeIgniter, Python/Django, ColdFusion, .net, and Java), to figuring out the salient points in the debate: speed, ease of use, active development of the platform, security, and cost. 

Over beers, Nate and Natty put on blindfolds and threw darts at a board.  After incorporating these results into their decision matrix, they chose Ruby/Rails mostly because they felt that it had an active community developing it and seemed to be the easiest to learn the quickest.  It took roughly a week to come do a decision, start to finish.

After choosing Ruby as the main language they would be working with, they immediately began searching out every possible Ruby coding Meetup. Through those meetings they became connected with Boulder’s Ruby community which is an amazing group of incredibly smart people.  They also found two great people, Charlie and Ryan who began working with Everlater for equity early on and helped make some of the key early decisions.

If you are a senior Java developer anywhere in the US and are interested in moving to Boulder, I’d like to hear from you

There was a nice article in Bloomberg Businessweek last week about Why Boulder Is America’s Best Town for Startups.  With the combination of the new startup activity over the past few years combined with the rapid growth of a number of medium sized companies and renewed hiring from some of the outposts of major tech companies based here, we’ve clearly entered another cycle in Boulder where talent is tight and demand for senior folks is once again at a high point. 

Of course, if you are living in Boulder or Denver and aren’t happy with your current job, feel free to reach out to me.  But I’m also game to talk to people that are interested in relocating to what I think is the best small city in America.

Amy and I stayed in downtown Boulder over the weekend.  It was pouring rain on Friday afternoon, flawlessly beautiful on Saturday through Sunday morning when we went for a long walk on the Boulder Creek Path, and then it snowed overnight last night.  Here’s the view from our window.

2010-04-26 07.51.40

My iPhone tells me that it’s going to be 70 degrees on Wednesday.  Welcome to spring time in Boulder.

I got anxious just reading the book You, Me & The U.S. Economy.

Last Thursday, I had a beautiful dinner at Susan and Richard Casey’s house.  The Casey’s co-founded and run Square 1 Bank and have become good friends over the past few years.  During dinner we had a wide ranging conversation about a bunch of things “not-tech.”  On my way out, Susan handed me a book titled You, Me & The U.S. Economy by her friend Stacy Carlson.  I tossed it in my bag along with the book Richard gave me (Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society).  I started reading it last night and finished it up today.

It lived up to its subtitle “A Plainspoken Story of Financial Crisis.”  The only other book I’ve read on the financial crisis of 2008 was Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail.  Amy and I were in the UK on a week off the grid from 9/12/08 to 9/20/08 so we left as the crisis was blossoming and returned to a very different financial superstructure.  I found Too Big To Fail to be riveting but felt that it was missing something.  After reading You, Me & The U.S. Economy I realized that Sorkin was doing too much storytelling and didn’t really get under the skin of some of the massive intellectual contradictions going on.  I think Carlson filled that gap for me without necessarily trying.

Carlson was Paulson’s speechwriter during the financial crisis.  The book is told in her voice and describes the events as they unfolded.  She does it is clear language (she is a speechwriter after all), is delightfully self-deprecating, and defines and endless array of terms and acronyms in a way that a human can understand.  She also gives a somewhat different view of the events from the inside – less drama and inside baseball than Sorkin, but just as much sense of stress, anxiety, and urgency.

If you are interested in the history of the financial crisis, want to understand what it looked like from the inside to someone who was part of the battle but not on the front lines, or just want a dose of anxiety, you’ll enjoy You, Me & The U.S. Economy.

In the continuation of the Learning to Program series with Nate Abbott and Natty Zola from Everlater, I asked them a few questions about which web sites, books, and blogs they consumed at the beginning of their journey when they knew nothing about programming. 

It turns out that Nate and Natty spent most of their time simply searching for what they were looking for.  Whenever a specific topic came up, they’d use Google, be patient when reading through the search results and forums, refine their search, and keep trying.   They discovered that there are an amazing number of programmers who publish code on their personal blogs.  As they were trying to get basic stuff to work, they spent time searching for and then reading the full posts and comments. 

While they like sites like Stack Overflow and Github’s wiki pages on different open source projects, Nate and Natty never found a great site on the web that has comprehensive documentation on how to program.  Instead, they concentrated on being smarter than the problem, really thinking it through and isolating what they needed to learn, and then being patient in searching for and researching the answer. 

As Nate and Natty landed on a language and a set of frameworks to work with (more on that in another post) they spent a lot of time with the API documentation for languages and frameworks.  As dry as it might be, they waded through the Rails API, the jQuery API, and even the WC3 documentation.  But they often quickly ended up back at Google searching away.

It turns out that Nate and Natty have only bought three programming books in the history of Everlater and one was a forgettable SEO book that doesn’t even merit being mentioned.  The other two were HTML, XHTML, and CSS published by Visual Blueprint and RailsSpace by Michael Hartl and Aurelius Prochazka.  They felt the HTML/CSS book was so-so but it was enough to get them started. On the other hand, they thought RailsSpace was an incredible book that taught Ruby on Rails by walking through the steps to create a social network for Rails programmers.  While they felt this was a little corny, it also ended up being very effective.

Not surprisingly, Nate and Natty read a lot of blogs.  They read typical tech news blogs like TechCrunch and VentureBeat, popular VC blogs like Fred Wilson’s and Dave McClure’s, and entrepreneur blogs like 37signals blog Signals vs Noise.  But when they went deep technically, they spent a lot of time with RailsCast, the Engine Yard blog, and Yehuda Katz’s blog.  For design, they went with SpeckyBoy and Smashing Magazine. And when they needed a break from development they read Tech Trader Daily which was a holdover from their old life as junior investment bankers.

As I reflected on this, I found it fascinating how little they relied on books.  True to form, they sat down in front of their computers and just got started.  All of the information was already out there – they just had to be disciplined about finding it, reading it, and learning it.

What have you read lately?

In 2005, I wrote a post titled ADPrentice that talked about a weekend event I did with a number of the undergraduates in my MIT fraternity (ADP).  In the post I described the entrepreneurship education event I helped put on with Sameer Gandhi (Accel Partners – then at Sequoia Capital) and Mark Siegel (Menlo Ventures).  It was an awesome weekend – we held an event modeled after the Apprentice TV show (without the bad hair) that had three challenges: (1) Marketing, (2) Hiring / Interview, and (3) 5-Year Plan & Budget.  In between events, Mark gave a talk titled “How Does Venture Capital Work”, Sameer gave a talk titled “Business Plan 101”, and I gave a talk titled “Do You Have The Balls To Start A Company?” 

A few months ago I wrote a post titled Startups at 351 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, MA detailing the rich history of startups from ADP that happened around the time I was living there.  After some back and forth, a handful of folks decided to mobilize another ADPrentice event for the undergraduates living in the house.  Mark, Sameer, and I have committed to participate again and we’ are trying to rope in a few of the other successful MIT ADP entrepreneurs from over the years.

In the mean time Alex Moore, the founder of Baydin (TechStars Boston 2009) who also lived at ADP (although much more recently) sent me a list of the various companies that have come out of folks that were at the ADPrentice event.  Not surprisingly, it blew my mind!

  • Josh Runge ’07 and Zach Clifford ’08 are working furiously on a task management/task optimization startup called Lazymeter.
  • Ruben Rodrigues ’04 and Josh Ouellette ’04 are starting Loci Technologies, a voter targeting system that incorporates real-time, location-aware feedback into campaign calls.
  • Patrick Hereford ’05 and Adan Gutierrez ’04 are starting Huddlehub, a fantasy sports aggregator and recommendation site that launched at SXSW and was mentioned on Jimmy Fallon’s late night show.
  • Steve Chait ’08 is working on interactive flashcards and learning-based games.
  • Xavi Ramirez ’07 and a coworker are starting a company part time and are still defining their first product.
  • Alex Moore is am working on Baydin with a partner from Dartmouth, making email clients smarter and more useful.

These are the active companies.  Two others were started that didn’t succeed, but that’s part of the entrepreneurial cycle!  It’s just awesome to see the outcome of something like this – it reminds me how powerful spending time with college kids is.  They are clearly the future – and we want more of them to be entrepreneurs.  Congrats to all of you – you make me proud to know you.

A handful of folks that I know and respect have gotten involved in the Founder Institute’ Denver program.  Andy Vuong of the Denver Post wrote a nice article on it titled Founder Institute is training minds for a great ideaSeveral people have suggested that the program is competitive with TechStars – including the first sentence of Andy’s article.  However, I just don’t see it that way and encourage all kinds of programs like this in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

In the case of the Founder Institute, it has a very different tempo and dynamic than TechStars per their weekly agenda.  While there is a little overlap in the mentor group, their’s is very Denver centric.  And it’s a part time program vs. something that is fully immersive. 

Jon Nordmark, a well known Denver entrepreneurs who founded eBags is running the program.   John previously ran a fun program called Startup BasecampI was at the one in 2000 where my infamous “bowling and get wasted test” (actually, just the description) made an appearance.  I have a lot of respect for Jon and expect he’ll do a great job with this.

If you are interested in starting up a business and looking for an educational program around it, consider applying to the Spring 2010 Denver Founder Institute program.