Month: February 2012

Feb 29 2012

Poke People In The Eye With Truth And Then Give Them A Hug

Indulge me while I think out loud. I’m trying to decide if I like the phrase “poke people in the eye with the truth” or not. Help me by reacting to the following rant – good, bad, bullshit – and feel free to poke me in the eye with truth if you’ve got some, just give me a hug at the end.

Last week, at the Startup America Regional meeting, I got into a conversation about the role of state and local government in the development of startup communities. I went on my typical rant about how entrepreneurs have to be the leaders and government is a feeder to the startup community. I talked about a few things government can do that have a positive impact and a number of things government does that hurts startup communities. More specifically, I talked about specific types of people in government and their roles, including the people with an “economic development director” title (or something like that – who I’ve come to learn are called “ecodevos” which makes me think of Devo and the B-52s and then my brain goes somewhere completely else other than startup communities and government.)

One of the people I was talking to said “that’s all well and good, but I’m not comfortable telling my fill-in-the-blank-with-a-government-title person this stuff. I’m concerned they won’t respond positively to this. I strongly agree with you on what your saying, however. How should I approach this.”

I responded that “sometimes you just have to poke people in the eye with truth.” Be blunt. Be direct. Be firm. Don’t be an asshole – just say it like you see it. And if they think that makes you an asshole, that’s their loss. And when you are done, give them a hug so they know you care and are trying to be constructive.

I carried that line around with me for a week. I observed myself (which is deliciously meta) poking people in the eye with truth and then giving them a hug. My animal spirit, according to Amy when she’s in an earthy crunchy woowoo moment, is a giant polar bear. I like to think of this as the warm, cuddly, lovable version of a bear – the one that won’t crush you when it hugs you. Somehow these two thoughts merged together in my head and continue to circle around.

I’m at Venture Capital in the Rockies today. This is our annual Colorado VC / entrepreneur thingy. Last night I had dinner with a bunch of entrepreneurs who didn’t have dinner plans. It was last minute and a lot of fun. At the end of the dinner we got into a great conversation about the state of the local VC community and I was characteristically blunt about what I thought had happened, was going on now, and would go on in the future. While I have no idea if I’m right about the future, I made the strong assertion that it doesn’t actually really matter that much given the incredible underlying startup community and incredible entrepreneurial talent in the region.

While on the surface there’s plenty of political correctness about this conversation, and lots of “we need more VC money”, which I’m sure will be echoing in the hallways at VCIR today, I realized that I was once again simply asserting my belief that this didn’t really matter. At dinner, I wasn’t poking any VCs in the eye with the truth since there weren’t any there, but if they had been, I’m sure that’s how they would have felt I was behaving. It probably wouldn’t have been comfortable, but if they’d been willing to respond and challenge my assertions, it would have been a robust conversation.

I’ve got plenty of other examples of this from the last week, but you get the gist of this. Is “poke people in the eye with truth” a good phrase, or just nonsense?

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Feb 28 2012

My Gradual Shift From Skype to Google Hangouts

I’ve tried to aggressively shift to video conferencing instead of audio conferencing for anything longer than a 15 minute call. I’m also giving a lot of talks around the world, especially on Startup Communities, so rather than travel and burn a day (or more), I’m doing 30 minute videoconferencing things remotely. And, as anyone who has ever asked me to speak to a class of students knows, I have a huge weakness for always saying yes to this so I’ve been doing this via videoconferencing as well.

After exploring a bunch of different options last year, I decided to use Skype everywhere since it was “good enough”, simpler, and portable. I equipped my desktops with HD cameras, took my MacBook Air on the road, and didn’t look back, until recently.

I noticed that twice last week I had horrible Skype connections. One was a US call and one was for a 30 minute presentation to a group of about 200 people in Barcelona at the Silicon Valley Comes to Barcelona event. In the US case I was using my Verizon 4G MiFi, in the Barcelona case I was tethered to my AT&T iPhone.

Skype completely failed in each case. Audio worked but we couldn’t get a sustained video connection. Each time we tried Google Hangouts as a backup. It worked flawlessly on exactly the same connection.

This was a classic A/B test. Yesterday, when I was on a Skype three way call, where one of the callers kept freezing and the other kept getting higher resolution focus, all I could think was “I wish we were on Google Hangouts.” After talking to a friend at Google who said that Hangouts is now pervasive at Google, I’m going to try it more frequently.

Any feedback from any of you about performance / quality of Skype vs. Google Hangouts?

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Feb 27 2012

Verizon 4G MiFi Obliterates Hotel WiFi

On day two of my 14 day visit to Miami Beach, I realized that the hotel WiFi at the W Hotel was not going to work for me. Once again I was at a Starwood Hotel, which I love, except for the abysmal WiFi and WiFi policies. In this case, performance of WiFi in my room sucked and the cost was $15 / device / day. Upon connecting my computer and Amy’s computer, I realized I was paying $30 / day for shitty WiFi. Nope – that doesn’t work for me.

I tried my iPhone 3G tethering. AT&T service was as bad as the WiFi – I literally couldn’t get a consistent signal in the room. I wasn’t desperate yet, but I was definitely uncomfortable. Amy was annoyed, as in “Brad, why doesn’t this shitty technology work?” and all the Skype calls I had set up looked like they might be a bust.

I had my IT guy Ross overnight me a Verizon 4G MiFi. It arrived the morning of day three and I never looked back. I plugged the MiFi into the wall, pressed the On button, connected each device, and never thought about Internet access again for the remaining twelve days. When I went down to the pool, where nothing worked at all, including the hotel WiFi, I sat for hours with my MiFi happily connected. Performance was great – I didn’t even notice that I wasn’t on a 50MB/sec connection.

I only ran into one edge case that was annoyingly bizarre. The MiFi allows five devices to connect simultaneously. But guess what – the two of us had six devices. Two Macs, two iPads, and two iPhones. The first time we realized this after getting weird “can’t connect” errors we each burst out laughing – c’mon, six WiFi devices in one room between two people? However, when you step back and think about it, the idea that there might be 10, or 20, or 50 in a few years is not beyond the realm of possibility.

So – instead of paying Starwood $180 / day for shitty WiFi, I ended up paying Verizon whatever my monthly fee is for excellent MiFi. Verizon wins this time. Starwood – you keep bumming me out with your WiFi policy. I’m already paying a ridiculous premium for your high end hotel – why not toss in the WiFi like the Marriott does. Or, at least get it to work.

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Feb 21 2012

Retrospective Addiction Of A Madman Post Board Meeting

I love getting post board meeting emails that are retrospectives from execs in the meeting. This one came a week ago from Jeff Malek, the CTO and co-founder of BigDoor. They’ve been on a tear lately and are in the process of a massive set of Q1 launches for new customers. 

We had a solid board meeting, but I suggested they were being too casual about a couple of things, including communication about what was going on. This is NOT a casual group and I knew using the word casual would press a few buttons. And they did – the right ones. Jeff’s retrospective is awesome and he was game to have me share it with you to get a sense of what’s inside a CTO’s head during and after a board meeting.

I have a retrospective addiction.  But as a result of looking back at our meeting today Brad, words like ‘casual’ still ringing in my ears, I recognized I’d let some of my own assumptions drive away potential opportunities, maybe even creating some problems along the way.  I’ve always run under the assumptions that :

  1. your inbox is an order of magnitude more onerous than mine (quite)
  2. the best way to respect and value your time would be to limit email/communication
  3. you and Keith have regular communications complete with bits about what I’m up to and thinking
  4. you know even in the absence of communication from me that I’m working like a madman, doing everything I can to make it happen
  5. you also know through some process of osmosis how much I value you, Foundry, your approach, feedback, etc

Just so you don’t get the wrong idea, it’s not that I took your feedback and concluded that I needed to give you more BigDoor insight, or that you needed more info in general to get a better picture – that’s what the numbers are for.

So while all of the above assumptions are probably true to some degree, here’s the new protocol I’m going to start optimistically running under:

  1. thanks to your candor and aversion to BS, you’ll tell me to STFU as needed
  2. you’d like a concise ping about whatever, whenever from me
  3. you’ll give me feedback if/when it makes sense to, and I won’t expect a reply otherwise, unless I’m asking a direct question
  4. doing so is likely to benefit both of us, one way or another – hopefully more candid feedback will ensue
  5. you know that I value your time highly, and mine specifically in the context of devoting most waking hours to making BigDoor a success
  6. you know that I am incredibly grateful to know you and have you as an investor

Those are my new assumptions.  I felt like giving this topic some time and thought, glad I did, will keep it (mostly) short going forward but hopefully you know a bit more about where I’m coming from, out of this.

Thanks again for the time today, I thought it was an awesome f-ing meeting.   I always leave them on fire.

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Feb 20 2012

Book: Inside Apple

I expect many of you have read at least one book on Steve Jobs and Apple since Jobs’ death. If you, like me, grabbed and consumed a copy of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, I have a recommendation for you. Go buy a copy of Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired–and Secretive–Company Really Works by Adam Lashinsky. It’s much better, much more interesting, and in many ways, more revealing.

I’ve long admired Lashinsky’s writing in Fortune. Sometimes he makes me want to scream when he missed the mark, but often he gets under the surface of what is going on an covers it in an interesting and compelling way. He doesn’t write puff pieces while at the same time avoiding the trap of always writing nastiness, especially unfounded stuff, that many journalists seem to have fallen into the trap of (which – I expect – was prompted by competition from bloggers and the endless fight for headlines and link bait.) Lashinsky has avoided this trap, which makes me enjoy reading him even more.

I wrote a short but extremely positive review of Isaacson’s bio on Jobs. I liked it a lot, but as time passed I felt mildly unsatisfied. I couldn’t put my finger on it until a dinner conversation with a friend who knows Isaacson and some of the back story of the book. It came up randomly in our conversation and after I told him what I thought he responded that he thought it was a huge disappointment. He said that Isaacson totally blew it and his publisher, and the pressure of “publishing now” undermine the potential for what he was working on.

My friends suggestion was a simple, yet profound one. Isaacson should have publicly stated that he was delaying the book for a year and then gone back and re-interviewed many of the people he’d talked to. He should have probed deeper on the character of Jobs and explored things that people might not have been willing to say – both good and bad – when Jobs was alive. And he should have taken his role as official biographer more seriously – rather than rushing a book out on the heels of Jobs’ passing, he should have paused, thought hard about how he was trying to portray Jobs, and worked incredibly hard to nail it.

His words rang true. And, as I read through Inside Apple I kept thinking about what my friend said. We all know that Apple is an intensely secretive company and the external (and internal) messages are tightly controlled. By Jobs. Now that Jobs is no longer around, the dynamics around this might change. It certainly would change in anonymous conversations with an official biographer. Regardless, another level of research, thought, and analysis would be powerful.

This is what makes Lashinsky’s book so interesting. He doesn’t focus on Jobs, he focuses on Apple. But by focusing on Apple, he does a magnificent job of exploring and revealing Jobs. As a bonus, this isn’t yet another story of Jobs’ progression from adopted son to the Apple II to Next to Pixar to Mac to iPhone to iPad. Instead, it’s a contemporary look at the company, what makes it tick, and how it really works.

Lashinsky gets to some provocative stuff. In a section about “the narcissist (Jobs) and his sidekick (Cook)” he discusses how the narcissist / sidekick relationship can be incredibly effective. In this one section, he nails the notion of a productive narcissist, which captures part of the psychology of many successful entrepreneurs I know. It’s much more subtle – and useful – than the normal “pathological narcissist” discussion that follows many entrepreneurs around. A tweet about this section in the book from me generated an email exchange with an organizational psychologist friend which gave me an even deeper understanding of this dynamic.

Overall, I give this book an A+. If you are into Apple, curious about it, use their products, or are curious about Steve Jobs and the other leaders at Apple, I highly recommend this book. And yes, I read it on an iPad.

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Feb 17 2012

Learning JavaScript With Code Year

Six weeks ago I saw a tweet about a new thing from Codecademy called Code Year. It promised to teach you how to code in 2012. I signed up right away and am now one of 396,103 people who have signed up as of this moment.

Like a good MIT graduate, I’ve procrastinated. When I was an undergrad, I liked to say things like “I want to give all of my fellow students a four to six week handicap.” Yeah – I was the dude that blew off too many classes at the beginning of the semester. I did read everything so I eventually caught up pretty quickly, but fortunately MIT drop date was late in the semester so I had plenty of option value on bailing if I’d left things too long.

Every week for the past six weeks I’ve been diligently getting an email from Code Year saying my next lesson was ready. Tonight, after dinner, I decided to tackle week 1 and see if this was an effective way to learn JavaScript. While I’m able to program in PHP and Python, I’ve never learned JavaScript. I’m not really proficient in either language (PHP or Python) since I don’t write any production code anymore, but I’m comfortable with the syntax and have done my share of simple little things. JavaScript – not so much. And that seems silly to me since so many people that I hang out with eat JavaScript for breakfast.

Week 1 was trivial. I liked the Code Year lessons and the Codecademy UI is very good. I’ve scored 350 points, have completed 42 (simple) exercises, and have four badges, I only did the lessons for week 1; I’ve left the problems for another time to see if the syntax actually sinks in.

I been spending some time with friends in Boulder talking about different approaches to teaching people how to program. One of the initiatives, which is starting to pick up speed, is called the Boulder Software School. Within the group we’ve been pointing at things like Code Year, but I don’t know if any of us have actually given it a shot. So – in the spirit of experimenting, I’m on it. It’ll be interesting to see if any real proficiency with JavaScript emerges, or if I just learn the syntax for another programming language that puts angle brackets in funny places to delimit conditional statements.

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Feb 16 2012

You Can’t Motivate People

I’m sitting on my balcony on the ninth floor of a hotel overlooking Miami Beach thinking about motivation. Specifically, mine. I’m deep into writing the first draft of Startup Communities and – with Amy – decided to plant myself in a warm place for two weeks as I finished up this draft.

We got here late Monday night. Today is the first day I wrote any words on the book. I procrastinated as long as I could and finally opened up the doc in Scrivener and started writing after my run today. I pounded out a solid hour of writing before shifting gears, responding to some email, and writing a few blog posts. I know that I can only productively write for a max of four hours a day before my writing turns into total crap so I’ll be happy with another hour today. I’ll then consider myself fully in gear for four hours tomorrow.

While I was on my run, my mind drifted to motivation. I kept repeating one of my favorite lines – “you can’t motivate people, you can only create a context in which people are motivated.” I’m pretty sure I heard that for the first time from Dan Grace when we were both working with the Kauffman Foundation in the 1990’s and it has stuck with me.

It felt particularly relevant today. There is no external force “motivating me” to write this book. I’m doing it because I want to, find it interesting, challenging, and think it’ll be a useful thing for the world. It’s a cop-out to say I’m “self-motivated” especially since my run on the beach capped off two full days of procrastination where I kept very busy on other work, but didn’t do the specific thing I came here to do. After two days in the environment that I needed to be motivated, I finally settled down and started doing the real work I had come here to do.

If you generalize this, it plays out over and over again every day. The great entrepreneurs I know work incredibly hard at creating environments that are motivating. They don’t pound away at the specific task of “motivating people”, rather they pay attention to creating context, removing barriers, being supportive, putting the right people in the room, and leading by doing. All of these things create a context in which people are motivated.

It could be as simple as a warm day on the ninth floor of a hotel overlooking the beach, which I know is an ideal place for me to write. Or it could be an awesome office environment with incredibly challenging problems. Or it could be a set of people who are amazing to spend time with. In any case, the context is the driver of motivation.

Ponder that the next time someone asks “what do I need to do to motivate you?” Or, more importantly, consider it the next time you are about to ask someone “what do I need to do to motivate you?” The answer might surprise you.

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Feb 15 2012

Startup Summer Colorado

One of the fun projects I am involved with is Startup Colorado, a community focused initiative to spur new company creation in Colorado.  One of Startup Colorado’s most promising projects is Startup Summer.

Startup Summer is an immersive summer program offering the opportunity to work as a paid intern for a Boulder/Denver startup and attend a variety of evening events, including a weekly seminar series on entrepreneurship.  We are looking for students at any four-year college or university in Colorado who are aspiring entrepreneurs and want to participate in a program that could change their lives.  If you know a Colorado college student who would want to participate, tell them to apply to Startup Summer:

The idea is simple: work as an intern by day for a great startup, then participate in a variety of evening events that will give you great exposure to the basics of entrepreneurship, including substantive classes on issues that entrepreneurs face, as well as various social events.  As an added layer of fun and relationship building, we’re expecting Startup Summer interns to live together in CU housing in Boulder.

Startup Summer offers a great experience, including:

  • A paid ten-week internship with a Boulder/Denver startup; the internship will include frequent interaction with the company founders and management team
  • The Startup Summer Seminar Series featuring prominent entrepreneurs teaching classes on entrepreneurship
  • A weekly social event with business leaders in the community
  • A community with your peers in Startup Summer through group housing in Boulder
  • An end-of-summer competition with an opportunity to win mentorship from some of Boulder’s finest entrepreneurs and investors

I think this program has the potential to open up high growth entrepreneurship to a wider range of Colorado students than has been possible before. If you are a student at any four-year college or university in Colorado, check it out.

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Feb 14 2012

The Start-Up of You Debuts At #1

My close friend Ben Casnocha and Reid Hoffman’s new book The Start-Up of You is officially out. And – it’s #1 on Amazon. Not just in some obscure category like Business & Investing: Small Business & Entrepreneurship: Entrepreneurship, but #1 in all books on Amazon. That’s awesomely cool. And well deserved.

I met Ben about a decade ago. He came to Mobius with his dad to talk about his company Comcate. I think he was 14 or so at the time. I fell in love with him in the first meeting and have been a friend of his ever since. He’s been involved in many things that I’ve worked on, including being an early TechStars mentor and we generally get together for a few days (with my wife Amy) every year or so. It’s been a blast to be part of Ben’s transition from precocious young high school entrepreneur to best selling author (and I expect – after Sunday’s New York Times comes out, a NY Times Bestselling author.)

While I’ve known Reid for a shorter period of time, we’ve spent a fair amount of time together over the past four years as fellow board members at Zynga. A few years ago Reid asked me what I knew about Ben. They’d been hooked up and were talking about doing a book together. When Reid described what he was talking to Ben about, without hesitation I said “Ben’s your guy – you’ll love working with him and he’ll do an awesome job.”

The Start-Up of You is the result of their collaboration. If you haven’t bought it yet, go buy it now – it’s excellent and highly relevant to every human on the planet.

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Feb 13 2012

Compromise vs. Problem Solving

I spent all day Sunday at Silicon Flatirons’ Digital Broadband Migration Conference. This is a key national conference held in Boulder at the intersection of technology and public policy with a particular focus on the Internet. This year’s conference subtitle was “The Challenges of Internet Law and Governance.”

I was pondering something all morning that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. My close friend Phil Weiser (who is now the Dean of the CU Law School and hosts the conference) kicked it off and then handed things over to Vint Cerf (now at Google and one of the original architects of the Internet). A great panel full of engineers titled Tech Tutorial Backdrop: An All IP Network and Its Policy Implications came next, followed by a talk from Colorado Senator Michael Bennet.

I’m a supporter of Michael’s and even though he originally co-sponsored PIPA, he eventually understood that it was flawed legislation and got behind the effort to oppose it. As a co-sponsor he had plenty of influence in the background on the process and I’m glad that he spent the time to listen to the tech community, understand why it was bad legislation, and take action. It was great to see him at this particular conference given its national perpective on a key intersection of technology and policy.

After Michael came a panel I was on titled The Digital Broadband Migration in Perspective. David Cohen (EVP of Comcast), Larissa Herda (CEO of tw telecom inc.), and I were the loud mouths on this one. David and I had very different perspectives on many things which reached a head when he asked what my reaction to all of the major TV and cable channels blacking out for three hours and putting up messages that said “this is what TV would be like without SOPA/PIPA” (basically – the opposite of the Internet blackout that occurred on January 18th). While he asserted this would be an abuse of corporate power and responsibility, implying that the Internet companies participating in the Internet blackout where behaving inappropriately, my response was that “it would be fucking awesome – they should do whatever they want – and better yet no college kid in the world would notice.”  There was plenty more in that vein, but this was tame compared to what came next.

The panel after lunch was a debrief on what just happened with SOPA/PIPA. Mark Lemley (Stanford Law Professor) and Gigi Sohn (President of Public Knowledge) explained things from an anti-SOPA/PIPA perspective; Jonathan Taplin (Annenberg Innovation Lab, University of Southern California) and Michael Fricklas (General Counsel of Viacom) took a pro-SOPA/PIPA perspective, and Michael Gallagher (CEO of Entertainment Software Association) and Judge Stephen Williams (U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit) took a third perspective that I couldn’t quite parse. After everyone got a chance to give a 7 – 13 minute presentation, the conversation degenerated quickly into a very polarized argument where, in my opinion, facts were left at the doorstep by several of the participants. As the fact vs. fiction dynamic escalated, emotions ran hot and the discourse degenerated to a point of near uselessness. With every moment, the conversation became even more polarized, even though the anti-SOPA/PIPA folks would say things like I’m not going to defend SOPA/PIPA as it was bad legislation, we need to solve the problem of … in reaction to the pro-SOPA/PIPA folks saying If you assert that there are only 50 bad sites that represent 80% of the illegal content in the world, and we already have tools too take those sites down, what exactly are you talking about.  While there were hugs and handshakes after the panel ended, it definitely felt like there was plenty of grinfucking going around.

After this panel I ducked out for an hour to go meet Julius Genachowski (chairman of the FCC). We’ve crossed paths a few times but never spent any thoughtful time together. We had a nice 30 minute meeting where we talked about the dynamics going on at the conference and in Washington DC. He gave me one phrase which caused me to stop, ponder it for a minute, and respond with “that’s exactly right.” He said:

“What you are observing is the difference between compromise and problem solving.”

My brain is an engineers brain. I’m focused on learning and solving problems. Over the past few years I’ve been completely baffled by my experience interacting with politicians and their staffers. When I present a solution to a problem (e.g. the Startup Visa) I immediately watch a negotiation begin to ensue. Three years later, even non-controversial, obviously beneficial things like Startup Visa are still stuck in a discussion.

When I talked to folks about how bad the SOPA/PIPA legislation was, they would respond “what’s the counter proposal?” My first response was usually “What do you mean? It’s horrifyingly bad legislation that shouldn’t even be considered.” The response to this was “Yes, but if I am going reject it, I need to come with a counter-proposal.”

Julius explained to me that Washington runs on a compromise mentality. You propose something and then begin negotiating from there. Innovative companies, where I spent almost all of my time, run on a problem solving mentality. You have a problem – you solve it. When I reflected on the panels during the day, the engineers and engineering heavy panels were problem solving and the policy / lawyer heavy panels were fighting over polarized positions which, if they converged, would be a convergence based on compromise rather than problem solving.

This generated a breakthrough insight for me. I’ve been increasing frustrated with politics and public policy discussions that I’ve been part of. It’s because I’m in a problem solving mode. While some of the folks I’m interacting with are also in this mode (which causes me to stay engaged), many are in a compromise mode. They don’t care whether or not we actually solve the root cause problem – they just have an agenda that they want to get into the mix legislatively and are negotiating for it with the goal of reaching a compromise.

We ended the day with a wonderful talk from Senator Mark Udall. I’m a huge fan of Mark’s – he’s one of the most thoughtful people in government I’ve gotten to interact with. Colorado is lucky to have him as he listens to his constituents here and acts on their behalf, rather than some other agenda. He discussed his views on innovation and PIPA (which he opposed early) and then made a strong appeal for the Startup Visa, increased STEM education, and a long term focus on innovation as the base for job creation. He then took another 90 minutes to meet with a smaller set of entrepreneurs and public policy folks from the conference to hear what was on their mind. Mark definitely was listening and trying to understand what issues he should be looking out for that had similar negative impacts like PIPA.

We need a lot more problem solvers like Mark in the mix, especially in positions of power in government. And, the problem solvers should insist that the path is problem solving, not compromise.

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