Month: June 2010
I’ve been in several board meetings over the past month where the companies are having a killer Q2. A year ago everyone was still pretty rattled from the financial crisis and there was plenty of belt tightening, consternation, and general anxiety. By Q409 we’d had a number of companies we are investors in end the year strongly and their growth has continued into Q1 and Q2.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve sat through plenty of good meetings and plenty of bad board meetings. I always try to acknowledge the efforts of individual executives when they’ve exceeded expectations and the full team when they’ve crushed it. I’m not afraid to be direct and critical and I always speak my mind, but I try never to forget to praise people for their efforts.
When I reflect on my peers, some of the best VCs I’ve worked with are amazing at acknowledging the efforts of the entrepreneurs and management teams, especially when they are dealing with complex situations. This praise isn’t gratuitous – it’s targeted, focused, and appropriate. And over the years I’ve occasionally seen it offered up at exactly the right moment.
Unfortunately, the opposite is more common. I often sit through a board meeting and watch in amazement as the VC investors socratically pick away at the management team, asking question after question but offering no substantive suggestions. If the business is having an issue, or the CEO is specifically looking to try to work through a problem, this can be helpful. But in the cases where the company has performed well, this is at best a tedious exercise in wasting everyone’s time. At worst, it’s insensitive and offensive to a management team that has performed well, especially in a tough situation. And often, it’s incredibly deflating and demotivating.
So, fellow VCs and board members, take a moment and remember that when people do a great job, it’s worth spending a moment acknowledging them. Most of the folks I’m working with are busting their asses to create real companies. They are making many sacrifices and tradeoffs to do what they do. A little pat on the back will go a long way, especially after three hours of questions.
Gearbox, one of the teams that I’m mentoring in this year’s TechStars Boulder program, is starting to blog about their product. One of their taglines is “reinventing the ball” and while this potentially generates plenty of 14 year old boy jokes it’s pretty amazing stuff.
The ball, which consists of a custom circuit board inside a 3D printed spherical shell (which is pretty cool all by itself) with lots of fun things on it, is completely controlled by a smartphone (in this case, an Android).
The software is still evolving rapidly but if you know anything about trying to control a spherical shell remotely, watching this video will make you pretty excited.
They are planning to release at least one Android based game by demo day along with an open API to let anyone write applications that incorporate the ball. I’m totally psyched to get my hands on one of these.
After a long and awesome day in Seattle ending with a great dinner with the BigDoor board at Emmer & Rye, I came back to my room and watched Episode 6 of this year’s TechStars Founders video serious. It was about the TechStars reunion event and included scenes from the world’s largest Ignite event as well as some beautiful Boulder pictures. It made me smile a big smile. Whenever I see stuff like this and reflect on what I spent my life doing, I’m just a happy little kid.
Do you remember the “Let’s Build a Filter” scene from Apollo 13? It remains – at least in my mind – one of the most heroic engineering scenes in the movies. The one minute segment with the meat of the scene follows:
Several times over the past week the BP Gulf Crisis has come up in conversation. The conversations have started in different places (politics, environment, leadership) but in each case quickly cycled toward the concept that the people involved need to try something different. Now, there might be plenty of orthogonal thinking going on in lots of places around the crisis, but I kept thinking about the scene from Apollo 13 whenever we got to this point.
I’ve always felt that MIT undergraduates represent the smartest and most creative independent thinkers on the planet. My friends at Caltech and Stanford will immediately come to defense of their colleagues and I’ll acknowledge that they are also extremely smart, but I’ve always thought the combination of MIT raw material with the four year undergraduate curriculum creates a unique type of thought process.
It’s summertime and classes are out. It would take a day to identify the top two juniors and seniors from each department. Why not immediately constitute a team of 25 amazing students, give them access to 100% of the data surrounding the crisis, show them the above movie clip, and tell them to come up with a solution to the problem. Pay them each $25k for the rest of the summer – this is tiny compared to the amount of money being spent daily on the outside consultants working on solving the problem.
Then, open source all of their thinking. Have them put their ideas on the web as they evolve. Get anyone involved who wants to try to help solve the problem. MIT has long been a leader in using the web for education – most recently with MIT Open Courseware. MIT and BP already have a longstanding relationship – let’s take it up a level.
If nothing else, this will rally a bunch of smart people to engage in understanding and trying to help with the problem. In the upside case, there is a small chance that it can come up with a solution to the problem. And it will have the added benefit of inspiring a new generation of engineers to go after doing heroic things.
It is so nice to be back in Boulder after my 10 hours trip home from New York yesterday that included a lot of time on tarmacs, a diverted landing in Colorado Springs, and an I-25 road trip. I really want a personal portable teleportation machine.
I’m about to head out for a run but thought I’d toss up a few fun posts and videos that I saw when scanning through my email and news this morning.
First up is a story from my dad about why He Loves His Pogoplug. It turns out that he is Pogoplug customer #1 and he tells the story of it. He was also in my office last week when Dan and Jed Putterman (the Pogoplug co-founders) were there for a board meeting and they all had fun hanging out together. I love when technology and family cross over.
Next up is a great interview by Steve Bell with Vikas Reddy of Occipital. Late last week eBay announced that they had acquired the RedLaser product from Occipital. I subsequently crowned Occipital the Bootstrappers of TechStars Boulder class of 2008. And, if you watch the video carefully, you’ll see a Pogoplug to the left of Vikas in parts of the video.
Finally, here’s episode #5 of the TechStars Founders 2010 video series titled Risk Takers.
I’m a week into using a Mac as my primary computer and loving it. Every day I discover at least one little thing that makes me go “why the fuck didn’t my PC ever do that.”
Today’s was the time zone thing. For two decades I’ve been bedeviled by time zones whenever I travel. For a long time I had to manually set the time. Eventually on the PC I got things into a state with my calendar where changing the time zone worked, but I still had to do it manually.
On the Mac, I simply check a box on the Time Zone screen that says “Set time zone automatically using current location.” Voila – I’m in NY and the time zone is set correctly on my Mac.
While I know this is a trivial little thing, but I’ve spent N hours of my life changing the time zone manually on my Windows box. I want those N hours back.
When I reflect on the week, I’ve started to master Quicksilver, found an automatic natural text widget that lets me type “lunch with dad from noon to 2pm on Saturday” and an item appears magically on my calendar, and I’m enjoying Ctrl-1, Ctrl-2, Ctrl-3, and Ctrl-4 to quickly switch between screen states (or “spaces”).
I’ve been stubborn for a while about this Windows / Mac thing but I’m starting to get it.
Jason and I were at an Oblong board meeting last week and spent the entire day at the company. It’s grown a lot over the past few months and it was fun to spend time with a number of folks we hadn’t met before. The first Oblong baby was born while we were all eating lunch which resulted in lots of good cheer, karma, and the revelation from another member of the Oblong team that his wife recently found out that she was pregnant.
But the best part was playing with a bunch of the new cool shit that Oblong is working on. It’s one thing to look at what Oblong is building (as in the TED Video below); it’s a whole different experience to actually get your hands on it. Fortunately they are driving hard toward that and we expect a Q3 product release that will start bringing Oblong’s g-speak spatial operating environment to the masses.
In the mid 1990’s I used an email client that did a pretty good job of “threading conversations.” The UI was kind of crummy, but it did some interesting things. It was called Lotus Notes. I also invested in a company called NetGenesis that made the first threaded web discussion software based on a construct that had been deeply implemented in BBS’s and Notes; in fact, we referred to it as “bringing Lotus Notes like threaded discussion functionality to the web.” That product, net.Thread, was acquired by another company I was an investor in (eShare) which went on to be have a very successful acquisition by a public company called Melita. I have no idea where net.Thread ended up but as a master-emailer I’ve always wondered why the very simple concept of a threaded conversation never became a standard part of the email UI.
Suddenly, it’s everywhere. It started being talked about a few years ago when it threaded conversations appeared as a core feature of Gmail. A conversation view existed in Outlook 2007 but it sucked. When I upgraded to Outlook 2010 I was pleasantly surprised that the conversation view was excellent, although it was bizarre to me that it wasn’t the default view.
On Saturday when I started my month of a diet of only Apple products, I immediately found conversations in Mac Mail. It’s implemented perfectly. Then, when I upgraded my iPhone to iOS 4 voila, conversations again!
Within a year, a UI construct that has been bouncing around for 15 years but never really crossed over into the mainstream took hold. And it makes email much better to deal with, especially if you are part of an organization (or group of people) that have a heavy “reply-all” culture.
Ironically, it’s a pretty simple feature conceptually, but the UI implementation makes all the world of difference. I can’t figure out if the Gmail implementation set the baseline that everyone is now copying or if email conversations just entered into the zeitgeist. Regardless, it’s an interesting example of how a simple construct can lay dormant for a long time and then suddenly be everywhere.
I only hope someone doesn’t get a patent on this next year. That would just be stupid.
Another TechStars company has been acquired. Well – part of it has been acquired. Today it was announced that eBay has acquired the RedLaser product from Occipital. The Occipital guys tell the story in their post titled Arrival at the Launchpad.
Occipital’s founders – Jeff and Vikas – are the epitome of bootstrap entrepreneurs. Every TechStars class seems to have one and Occipital wins the bootstrapper of TechStars Boulder 2008 award. At the end of the program they had a few chances to raise money but weren’t happy with the valuations so decided to hunker down and just bootstrap things. They reinvented themselves several times until they launched RedLaser which has been a runaway hit (over two million copies sold to date.) As RedLaser took off, they had another set of interesting investment offers but no longer have any need for outside capital.
While they were on their way to creating an interesting mobile ecommerce company, they wanted to work on a much bigger set of technical challenges than RedLaser in computer vision and augmented reality, their areas of passion and technical expertise. In their travels they had a few inquires for an acquisition of the company, but really only wanted to sell the RedLaser product, not the entire company. Fortunately, eBay was very interested in the RedLaser product and the match worked extremely well for both parties.
Given this sale, I expect Occipital is now a long way from ever raising outside capital. Jeff and Vikas are now extremely well funded, are scaling up a very interesting team, and going after a huge vision. Oh – and RedLaser is now free in the iPhone AppStore. Congrats to Occipital, Vikas and Jeff!
Recently, TechStars began expanding outside the United States through its new TechStars Global Affiliate program. From experience, we know that investing internationally from the United States is difficult. However, the demand from entrepreneurs throughout the world for a TechStars-like program has been substantial. So, TechStars opted for an affiliate model which gives the local partner the benefits of working with TechStars such as process know-know and access to the TechStars network. TechStars Global Affiliates are independent entities but we intend to bring them together at least once a year and are in touch with them continuously to help out as we can.
The first TechStars Global Affiliate is Startupbootcamp which is based in Copenhagen but covers Northern Europe (from Scandinavia to the Baltics and even northern Germany and Poland). What does it take to be an affiliate? TechStars is a community-based model so a top requirement is a large local network of serial entrepreneurs. It’s also a chemistry thing and we have to feel that we share values (intellectual honesty, passion and simplicity). And of course you have to know a thing or two about entrepreneurship.
Applications for Startupbootcamp are open until the end of June. If you are in Northern Europe, take a look and apply now!