Month: May 2011
Confidence restored. After a shitty marathon #16 in Cincinnati a month ago (5:24) I cranked out marathon #17 in Madison in 4:47:27. I dedicate this particular effort to my co-runner TA McCann and my sherpas Amy Batchelor and Jessica Schallock.
For the first 20 miles the weather was perfect. Cloudy and 60-ish. TA lived in Madison for several summers in college when he was a mega-swimming stud so he kept me entertained with tails of training for five hours a day, every day, in a pool, over and over again – which made running a marathon seem relatively straightforward.
The first five miles were beautiful as we ran through the Arboretum. It’s a great way to start a city race – quiet, mellow, and loads of oxygen everywhere. There were only 1600 marathoners to they spread out quickly and TA and I felt like we were on a nice long run with water stops every mile or two. We went through the half at 2:20 and it occurred to me that we were halfway done and I was feeling better than most other marathons. I didn’t really notice our time again until when I looked at my watch at 3:12. By 20 miles it was pretty clear that we had 5 hours beaten and 4:45 was in striking distance.
The rain started at mile 20. So did the bicycles – there was a long stretch along Lake Monona on a running / bike path which was the only frustrating part of the race. Usually during a marathon the running / bike paths are closed to cyclists; this time they weren’t. And the rain just made it a total mess. So for about three miles we just hammered on, cold, wet, and mildly annoyed by the bikes.
At about mile 23 the 4:45 pace guy passed us once and for all. Now we were on the hunt for 4:50 which ended up being no problem. As we ran the last mile up a nasty hill to the Capitol we were both out of gas, but the end was in sight so like every good marathoner we just ground it out.
I’m now confident that I can do a marathon every four weeks. I wonder if I can do one every other week.
I had several conversations with entrepreneurs this week who were struggling with a specific issue that had plagued them for a while. In each case these are strong, capable entrepreneurs who I’ve known for a long time. As with all entrepreneurs (and humans), they have strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots. In each case, I felt like self-doubt had crept into their brains around the specific weakness they were struggling with.
On the way to the airport, I had call with another entrepreneur that I work with. Same tenor – something that he’s struggled with for a while was causing him to lose confidence. We talked most of the way to the airport and by the end of the conversation, it was clear that, while this is an issue that has been a struggle for a while, it’s one that this person has actually done a good job on, but just has never crushed it. The frustration – over a period of time – started to morph into self doubt.
When I realized this, I gave him some specific suggestions, using the frame of reference of “inquiry.” This is how I deal with my own self doubt. Whenever I find myself struggling with something that I think is important, I go on an inquiry to learn as much as I can about the issue, figure out what I’m struggling with, figure out a solution that works for me, and then implement it. I’ve done this numerous times in my life – sometimes the inquiries are short (24 hours); other times they last a decade or more.
When I thought about what might be generating this self doubt in otherwise successful, smart, and intellectually / emotionally strong people, I realized that the context that we are in is often a driver. Suddenly lots of companies are having what appears to be success and rapid growth. If you are an entrepreneur and you are not running one of these, even if you are experienced and successful, it’s easily to start to doubt yourself. This is especially true when you find yourself in a bumpy spot in your business.
Perspective matters a lot at these moments. I’ve had a lot of successes and failures. Whenever I fail at something, I just get up, try to learn something from it, and try again. But I don’t benchmark myself against others – I don’t care where I am on any particular list, I don’t care what other people are saying, I don’t care what is written about me (good or bad). I just try to learn from each experience and get better. And, when I realize that I’m doubting my ability to do something, I double down on the notion of figuring it out and use an inquiry to get me there.
Many of our Foundry Group portfolio companies are growing rapidly. As a result, we just put up a new page on the Foundry Group website listing all of the jobs in Foundry Group portfolio companies that we are aware of. We also have a new Foundry Group Jobs twitter feed to follow – it’ll tweet out a link whenever a new job is posted.
This page is built on top of Indeed, in our opinion the best job search engine. We are not investors in Indeed, but our friends at Union Square Ventures are. They led the way on this one, working with Indeed and hacking together some code to make a dynamic jobs page. We looked at several options but kept coming back to the USV Jobs page.
Kelly Collins and Ross Carlson in our office did all the work. They had help from Gary Chou at USV who generously provided all the code he’d written along with advice, as well as Matt Molinari from Indeed who helped Kelly and Ross figure out all the nuances of the integration.
Suddenly, title inflation is everywhere. I’ve seen more business cards or email sigs lately with adjectives like “executive” or “senior” or “senior executive” or “special” or “chief” in front of more traditional titles (e.g. “vice president”). The “chief” one is especially bizarre since it’s not always obvious whether the CSO is a “Chief Sales Officer” or a “Chief Security Officer” which in and of itself is a problem.
I’ve never paid much attention to titles. This is especially true when I’m involved in helping recruit someone for a company. I’m much more focused on what the person is going to do and what they’ve done in the past than what their title is (or was). Every now and then an obsession with title is a positive trait as it drives an important discussion about roles; most of the time it’s an annoying obsession with title.
When I think about roles, regardless of where the person sits in the organization, I like to think of them as “head of something.” That lets me focus on the “something” that the person is responsible for. This scales up and down the organization since the receptionist in a company is the “head of meeting people when they walk in the door and making sure the are comfortable and find their way to the meeting they are there for.” More importantly, it forces senior execs, such as a COO, CSO, CPO, CRO, CIO, CTO, CDO, CAO, or CFO to define clearly what they are the “head” of.
I heard the phrase “be the CEO of your job” a while ago from Mark Pincus and have used it many times over the years. Whenever I’m talking to someone about their role in a company, I’m always trying to figure out what they are going to be the CEO (or head) of. When I have the inevitable board member / executive discussion about roles and responsibilities when there are issues, I always carry this metaphor around in my head (e.g. are you, the executive, being an effective CEO of your job). And, when I meet someone new and I see that their title is “Senior Technology Strategist – Digital Products Division”, I try to figure out what they are “the head of”, even if it is one specific thing.
If you are CEO of a company, try the following exercise. Take everyone that directly reports to you and change their title to “head of X”. Scribble this on a white board and see if you have all the X’s you need for your whole company covered. Is there overlap that is unnecessary or are there big holes. And are the right people the right heads of things?
Then, have each of your direct reports do this for their direct reports. Rather than worry about titles, put “head of X” for each person. Keep doing this down the hierarchy. Do you have what you need covered? Is there duplication and overlap? Are the right people heads of the right things?
While it may not be possible to kill title inflation for a variety of reasons, both internal to a company (mostly ego and culture driven) or external to a company (most ego and power driven), if you are a CEO, don’t let it confuse you when you think about who is doing what in your company.
I’ve been spending some time with the current TechStars Boston class. This feels to me like the strongest class we’ve had in Boston so far and might be the one of the strongest TechStars classes overall. This class of companies in Boston is thinking big and is very diverse.
It’s been incredibly energizing watching each of the four TechStars cities (Boulder, NYC, Seattle, and Boston) up their game every single year. In Boston in particular, Katie Rae has done a great job engaging many great new mentors. I was lucky enough to have the chance to meet many of them on my last trip to Boston, and they all seemed very excited to be involved. They were feeding off of the energy of the companies in the program, just as it should be.
If you’re an angel investor or would like to become one, there’s a great two-for-one coming in Boston soon. June 15th is TechStars Demo Day, where the new crop of companies there will show their stuff for the first time in front of several hundred investors. If you’re an angel investor or a VC and you’d like an invitation, just drop TechStars a note. If you’ve never been to a TechStars Demo Day event before, you’re really missing out on something special. The day before, on June 14, Jon Pierce has put together a great event called Angel Boot Camp where those interested in learning more about angel investing can spend the day learning from those who do it well. It’s a great opportunity to learn and then see some great new TechStars companies the next day as well. Oh, and just in case you want to be really cool, don’t miss Coolio at the TechStars after-party on June 15th.
Last night I had dinner with my brother Daniel, one of the partners at Slice of Lime, a Boulder-based web design and development firm. He and I were at TechStars at the end of the day where I gave a talk on “How To Be A CEO.” Afterwards, we had a nice dinner together at The Cheesecake Factory (his choice – I don’t think I’d been there in a decade – and it was surprisingly good), a great talk, and dynamite brother hang out time.
We do this once a month and have committed to each other to try to do this every month for the rest of our lives. For the first 25 years of my life we weren’t that close. While I don’t remember being an asshole older brother, I’m periodically reminded by Daniel about things I did that, while they fall in the “typical older brother” category, also could be consider major asshole moves. We became very close when he moved to Boulder 15 years ago (less than a year after I did) and we’ve never looked back.
We’ve modeled our relationship after our father (Stan) and his brother (Charlie). I’m very close to both my dad, who is one of my best friends, but also very close to Charlie who introduced me to computers when I was 11 and has been a great mentor to me, always inviting me along to meetings with major companies like Lotus, Microsoft, IBM, and DEC when he was the CIO at Frito Lay in the 1980’s. In 2000, Charlie and I became business partners when Mobius Venture Capital invested in The Feld Group and I joined the board. Over the next four years, I worked closely with Charlie and his partners at The Feld Group as they built the company before selling it to EDS in 2004.
While I’ve always viewed my relationship with my dad and Charlie as special, part of what drives that is their incredibly close relationship. My dad is older by about the same amount that I am older than my brother and, while there is the typical older brother / younger brother entertainment, these two guys completely have each other’s back, no matter what. Whenever my dad tells me he’s heading out to Charlie’s farm to hit baseballs (Charlie has a baseball diamond on his property), I can hear the joy and excitement of the kid from the Bronx who taught me how to hit a baseball in his voice.
So Daniel and I try hard to emulate the relationship and take it to another level. While we talk plenty about business stuff, we also spend a lot of time talking about our lives, what is driving us, what stresses us out, and what we strive to do better. We talk about things that only brothers can talk about and instinctively know when the other needs help and support. Often – we just hang out.
As I sit at my desk at my office in Boulder at the end of a Friday of another intense week, I think about how lucky I am to have role models like my father and his brother, both for themselves as individuals and for their relationship. Daniel – thanks for being an awesome brother. And dad and Charlie – thanks for leading the way!
This morning, as I cranked through my 5am – 7am routine (which ends at 6am today because I have to leave the house at 630am to get to CU Boulder to give a keynote at the 2011 Boulder Economic Summit) I kept thinking to myself “deep breath.” If you do yoga you know exactly what I’m talking about – it’s part of Amy’s mantra for each of us to relax, slow down, and concentrate.
I’m in a particularly intense work phase that I expect will run through the end of June based on a few things that are going on that will happen between now and then. On top of it, I’m trying to run two marathons in May (Cincinnati, which I did already – and it sucked, and Madison, which is coming up at the end of the month.) Between all the work and travel, I’d probably already be pretty tired, but layer the running and the marathons on top of it and I’m physically exhausted.
While I contemplated punting on the second marathon, there are a few things driving me to do it, including really understanding my own recovery dynamics. I have a hypothesis about how I recover from a marathon (quickly) but I haven’t tested it. By adding a second marathon on top of everything else within 30 days, I’m suddenly learning some new stuff about rest, sleep, and weight. I’m also experiencing an interesting emotional spectrum that I haven’t experienced in a while (some good, some not good) that is clearly a function of the intersection of my physical activity and my work activity.
What popped out this morning is the need for more “deep breaths.” With my normal work / life rhythm, I get these on the weekend and then once a quarter when I go off the grid for a week. But given the daily work intensity combined with the physical fatigue, it’s become very obvious that I need something different during the week to sustain things at this level. Last night I blew off a dinner with a friend to just go home and lie on the couch with Amy all evening. That helped, although I spent almost all of it with an iPad in my lap sort of watching The Hangover, sort of catching up on email, and working on a few things that I knew I couldn’t jam into today.
Tonight, Amy and I have dinner alone. I’m going to shut off completely for a few hours and reflect on what I’m going through and learning about recovery. Fortunately I have a partner who puts up with this and lets me use myself as my own laboratory for these experiments.
The Glue Conference is next week – 5/25 and 5/26 – in Boulder. When Eric Norlin and my partner Seth Levine first cooked up the idea for glue, they built it around our Glue theme – namely integrating (or “glueing”) together web applications.
We’ve invested heavily in the area with great success, but have only just begun. Our activity around Glue + AdTech generated our Adhesive theme. We’ve been thinking a lot lately about “ecommerce glue” and expect to learn some things at Gluecon on this front.
To get a feel for Gluecon, take a look at the Agenda. The concentration of companies and executives around this topic is awesome. The format is short keynotes surrounded by lots of networking, a hackathon, and a few short, interactive panels. Having been to and participated in many of Eric’s conferences, they are an extremely high concentration of relevant people talking real tech and product – no marketing garbage allowed. Eric has worked hard this year to bring Gluecon to a new level and set a new bar for all tech conferences – I believe he’s got it wired.
If you want to spent two days with 500 of your best friends talking about technology that integrates web services, APIs, web meta-data, and the rapidly evolving new data economy, there is still time to register for Glue. I’ll be there along with my partners, a few other VCs like Mark Suster, and a whole bunch of key tech entrepreneurs hanging out and talking with you.
Fred Wilson had an excellent post up this morning titled Social Media’s Secret Weapon – Email. I completely agree that email is the key communications channel for social media and have written about this before in posts like 100% Click Through Rate, Email – The Original Social Graph and Email Is Still The Best Login.
I’ve been investing in email related stuff for over 15 years going back to Email Publishing, my very first Boulder-based investment which I believe was the very first email service provider (ESP) and was acquired by MessageMedia which was then bought by Doubleclick. Fred and I are both investors in Return Path which he calls out in his post as the category creator and market leader in email deliverability. I love Return Path as a company and am incredibly proud of what they’ve done as a business.
My partners and I have continued to invest aggressively in what we believe is social media’s secret weapon which we refer to as the comm channel in a hat tip to the TV show 24. In Fred’s post, the comm channel is email. Our investment here is in SendGrid, a company that came out of TechStars Boulder 2009 and is one of the white hot companies in Boulder. They directly address the problem Fred describes which every software developer knows is a pain in the ass, uninteresting, hard to do well, but needs to be done right. Every web app sends transactional email – rather than build all the code yourself, just let SendGrid to it. They are now doing it for over 24,000 companies, sending out over 60 million transactional emails a day, and just sent their 10 billionth transactional email.
But email isn’t the only comm channel. Everyone that uses apps on a mobile phone is likely experiencing push notifications as an increasingly important as a form of engagement. While mobile phones used to only really work effectively with SMS, you now have SMS, email, and push notifications. So we invested in Urban Airship who does for push notifications what SendGrid does for email. Like SendGrid, they are growing like crazy, are in use by over 10,000 customers and have sent over 3 billion push notifications.
My message to all web developers – if you are serious about what you are doing, focus on your app. Don’t waste precious development time on all the activities around the app. You likely no longer sit around with a screwdriver setting up a server in a datacenter – instead you are using a cloud provider like Rackspace or Amazon. Don’t spent your time coding up an email notification infrastructure – use SendGrid. And if you are a mobile developer, don’t waste your time writing a bunch of code for push notifications – use Urban Airship.
Most importantly, don’t ignore the thing that will actually make your web app get adoption and retention – comm channels!
I spent the day yesterday in Kansas City at the Kauffman Foundation with about 20 women entrepreneurs who were the E&Y Winning Women from 2008, 2009, and 2010. As part of their program, Paul Kedrosky and I spent the morning talking to them about accelerating their growth, dynamics around financings, and boards – mostly about how to build a board and use it effectively. It was a great day – awesome energy with stimulating discussions. In addition to a great discussion, I learned a lot in my continuous quest to better understand dynamics around gender in entrepreneurship. I also met some amazing women.
On Monday, I had a meeting with a CEO of a company I’m an investor in who was frustrated with his role in the business. He had grown bored and restless with a lot of the work he was responsible for and felt like much of what he was doing was a grind that wasn’t inspiring to him. At the event yesterday, I heard from several of the entrepreneurs that they were stuck at a certain size (one at $22m, one at $5m) where day to day activities in the business consumed all of their time. As with the CEO I spoke with on Monday, I heard frustration about the daily grind and a lack of enjoyment and stimulation from the business.
I remember this feeling very clearly from my days running my first business. At about 20 people / $2m in revenue I got very bored. I was very busy, so it wasn’t lack of things to do, I just found the things I was doing to be excruciating dull since I’d been doing them for a while (at least five years). At the time, I struggled with how to address this; we ultimately ended up being acquired before I really felt like I figured it out.
During our discussion yesterday, one of the entrepreneurs brought up the notion of “Working on your business, instead of just in your business.” I heard this line many years ago but had forgotten it. It hit me right between the eyes as something that captured the conversation that I’d had with the entrepreneur on Monday and was exactly the correct notion to summarize the way to address the boredom of the endless business grind.
My friend Matt Blumberg at Return Path has really mastered this. He writes about it a lot on his blog Only Once (in fact, his blog is a tool for him to explore the issues that a first time CEO faces, since you are only a first time CEO once.) But it’s reflected in the impressive business that he and his team have created. Tim Miller at Rally Software is another entrepreneur that I have immense respect for and when I think about how he spends his time, much of it is working on the business. These guys have both scaled from CEO of a raw startup with a few people to CEO’s of 250+ employee companies, while moving through their own personal evolution while the businesses growth and thrive.
In the discussion yesterday, I kept thinking that a CEO’s need to spend more time working “on the company”, not “in the company.” Of course, there are loads of tasks in the company a CEO has to do. But having the balance shift all the way to never spending any time on the company is a huge mistake. Plus, it leads to the inevitable grind that I once found so unsatisfying.
To all the women I spent the day with yesterday – thanks for exposing me to your stories and spending your time with me so I could think through this more.