Month: February 2013

Feb 25 2013

PATANG (The Kite) – An Award Winning Film by Prashant Bhargava – Comes to Boulder

PATANG - HAMIDLOOKUP

I don’t invest in movies. Unless a long time friend, like Rajat Bhargava, asks me to join him for fun in an investment. Several years ago Raj asked me to invest with him in a movie a cousin of his – Prashant Bhargava – was making called Patang. I wrote a modest check without thinking twice. The result of Prashant and the work of his team is a beautiful movie. And it will be in Boulder for a few days – 2/27 – 3/2 – at the The Dairy Center for the Arts.

Following is the story of the movie from the director, Prashant Bhargava.

The seeds for the movie Patang were based on the memories of my uncles dueling kites. In India kite flying transcends boundaries. Rich or poor, Hindu or Muslim, young or old – together they look towards the sky with wonder, thoughts and doubts forgotten. Kite flying is meditation in its simplest form.

In 2005, I visited Ahmedabad to experience their annual kite festival, the largest in India. When I first witnessed the entire city on their rooftops, staring up at the sky, their kites dueling ferociously, dancing without inhibition, I knew I had to make this film in Ahmedabad.

Inspired by the spiritual energy of the festival, I returned the next three years, slowly immersing myself in the ways of the old city. I became acquainted with its unwritten codes of conduct, its rhythms and secrets. I would sit on a street corner for hours at a stretch and just observe. Over time, I connected with shopkeepers and street kids, gangsters and grandmothers. This process formed the foundation for my characters, story and my approach to shooting the film.

I found myself discovering stories within Ahmedabad’s old city that intrigued me. Fractured relationships, property disputes, the meaning of home and the spirit of celebration were recurring themes that surfaced.

Patang’s joyful message and its cinematic magic developed organically. My desire was for the sense of poetry and aesthetics to be less of an imposed perspective and more of a view that emerged from the pride of the people and place.

Seven years in the making, Patang has been a journey which has inspired and brought together many.The key theme of resilience of family is reflected by the bonds between all of us who gave our hearts to make the film.

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Feb 23 2013

The Ebb and Flow of Work and Life

The phrase “work-life balance” is a vexing one. Some people think it is impossible. Others strive for it. Many entrepreneurs, and pundits about entrepreneurship, reject it as impossible. Others believe that figuring out how to balance work and life is a sign of a more enlightened entrepreneurial perspective.

In Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur Amy and I talk about many of the tactics we use to integrate work and life, which Amy loving refers to as “all the time that I’m not working.”  We don’t often use the phrase work-life balance as we aren’t striving for a balance between the two, but rather an effective integration of them. I’ve been using the word “equilibrium” lately which feels different to me than the word “balance”, but I know many people will equate the two.

The challenge is that we are dealing with a very dynamic system that ebbs and flows continually. It’s early Saturday morning – I’m at the John Wayne Airport waiting for my flight home. I have an absurd amount of email backed up from the week. I’m currently on top everything in my portfolio, so I feel good about that, but I’ve got a long writing backlog. And there’s a bunch of things I’d like to explore. So I have much more work than I could possibly do this weekend, even if I spent the entire weekend working.

On the non-work front, I haven’t seen Amy (except for several times a day on Facetime) since early Tuesday morning when I left for Seattle. I miss her and Brooks the wonder dog. We have dinner with my brother, my partner Ryan, and their wives tonight. I have a 2:10 hour run on Sunday morning (I have a marathon next weekend) and a massage in the afternoon. And I want to watch last week’s episode of Scandal.

There’s no way to “balance” all that stuff or achieve any semblance of balance. But I can get to an equilibrium where I’m happy, Amy is happy, and I have fun. Sure – I’ll work some, but I’ll rest some also. I’ll spend some time by myself (mostly during my run) and I’ll get to go to bed and wake up with Amy each day. I’ll be in Boulder, a town I love, with friends who are dear to me. And I’m sure I’ll spend some time laying on the couch snuggling with my dog.

Next week will be completely different than this last week. Next weekend we are in Arkansas and I’m running a marathon. Amy will be there. Then I’ll be off to Boston for a few days. then DC, then NY. Alone again. I won’t be striving for “balance”, but I’ll roll with the ebb and flow.

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Feb 21 2013

Revisiting Median vs. Average With Accelerator Data

US Median Income - 1947 to 2007 - 20th, 40th, ...
US Median Income – 1947 to 2007 – 20th, 40th, 60th, 80th, 95th Percentiles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was in a board meeting yesterday at BigDoor where we were benchmarking our current numbers against a couple of recent studies on SaaS-based companies including the 2011 Pacific Crest Private SaaS Company Survey. Several of the things we looked at were averages; the Pacific Crest data was presented as medians. I subsequently had a short conversation in the evening where someone asked me about what I thought the mean was across our investments on a particular metric; I responded that the mean was meaningless – we should be using the median (which I then gave the person asking the question.)

I see people use average all the time when they should be using median. I also find people constantly confusing average, mean, and median. Most of the time when people say “mean”, they mean (oops – I couldn’t help myself) “arithmetic mean” which is the same as “average.”

The Accelerator Data presented on Seed-DB is a great example that entrepreneurs should be able to quickly relate to (unlike the image I included in this post, which I find completely impenetrable.) Seed-DB presents both Average and Median. If you sort by Average $ raised per company, you get one picture. If you sort by Median $ raised per company, you get a very different picture. Now, there’s a lot of missing or estimated data for many of the accelerators, so that impacts the validity / accuracy of the data set, but it’s a great example of how average vs. median changes what you see.

As an entrepreneur, I encourage you to think hard about whether the right thing to compare a particular metric to is median vs. average. While average can be useful, I generally find median to be a much more enlightening number.

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Feb 20 2013

TechStars London Calling

TechStars London

Jon Bradford and I have known one another since before the development of the Mentor Manifesto. Today we’re bringing Jon and his team at Springboard in London into the TechStars family as they re-brand to become TechStars London, our first international program. We have every confidence in them as a high-quality extension of the strong ecosystem we have already built here in the US.

Springboard has always been focused on helping entrepreneurs and TechStars’ support and expertise provides UK and European entrepreneurs the best opportunity to improve their likelihood of success. Our priority is to support great companies from the region in London (accepting applications from everywhere) and there’s no requirement or expectation that the companies will need to relocate to the US. We will build on the mentor network that Springboard has already started in London and supplement it with mentors from the broader TechStars network in the States.

Any and I are going to spend two weeks in London this summer during the program. I lived in London for a summer when I was 16, worked for Centronics (the creators of the parallel port), wrote dot-matrix font creation software for the Apple II, got paid with a Centronics 351 printer, learned how to drink a lot of beer, watched Pink Floyd The Wall for the first time, and spent a week wandering around in Paris in August when no one was there. I’ve always felt super comfortable in London and am looking forward to hanging out with the newest members of the TechStars family, while drinking a lot of beer.

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Feb 19 2013

Don’t Tell Me Your History In Chronological Order

I meet a lot of people. I hear a lot of people introduce themselves. I interview a lot of people. Sometimes I want to hear their story; most of the time I don’t.

I’ve realized recently that I’m tired of hearing histories. And I’m tired of telling mine. It’s easy to find out most by a simple search on the web. Or a scan through LinkedIn. Or listening to one of the video interviews I’ve done where someone has said “tell me your story.”

I was thinking about this especially in the context of any interview. I don’t care where you went to school (I never have). I don’t care what your first job was. I don’t care what happened 15 years ago. I care what you did yesterday, and last month, and last quarter, and last year. That’s probably as deep as I want to go in the first five minutes of our interview. Sure – I’ll go back further in specific examples, but I don’t need to spend the first fifteen minutes hearing your story from beginning to today. It lulls me into a false sense of complacency, making me feel like I know you better because I now know your version of your history, when in fact I don’t know you at all.

I’ve learned a lot about interviewing people over the years. I used to be terrible at it. Now I’m pretty good. I don’t enjoy it very much, so I force myself to do a good job. I only interview senior execs and I separate clearly between evaluating people for the role and evaluating them for culture fit with the company. But in both cases I feel like I have to grind through the process. Some of it is my introverted nature; some of it is just not enjoying the interviewing a person thing.

I’ve realized that spending half of an interview listening to someone tell me their story is a total cop out on my part.  It lets me shift out of evaluate mode and be passive during the interview process. And, while a lot of people love to listen to themselves tell their story, it’s not doing them any good either since my goal is to make a recommendation as to whether or not they fit in the role and the organization they are interviewing for. I should be more focused on what they have learned over their career and how they apply it today, not the path they took to get to this point, which I can read on a resume or on LinkedIn.

I’m no longer interested in telling my own story. Each time I do it, I realize I am wasting another 15 minutes of my life. By starting with the now, and not worrying about going backward, I can get to the meat of whatever I’m communicating, or want to communicate. I’ll more quickly engage whomever I’m talking to – making the conversation immediately active instead of passive. When I need to reach into the past for a story to support an example, I will.

I’ve decided that going forward I’m telling my history in reverse chronological order whenever asked. I’ll start with what I am doing now. I’ll go backwards as relevant to the particular context. I’ll skip stuff that doesn’t matter, and I’ll stop when it’s time to go on. I expect my introductions will be a lot shorter going forward. And I’ll be less bored with myself. And that is a good thing, at least for me.

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Feb 18 2013

Seattle Startup Life Meetup – Wednesday 2/20

Wednesday night I’ll be in Seattle doing a Startup Life Meetup with some of the contributors to the book Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur.

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 5.11.50 PM

Well – I’ll be in Seattle all day (and all day Tuesday) meeting with Startup Weekend, Rover, SEOmoz, Cheezburger, and BigDoor, but the real fun will happen at the Hard Rock Cafe between 5:30pm and 7:00pm on Tuesday. Or maybe after 7:00pm.

My co-hosts will be Emily Huh (Cheezburger Network), Geraldine DeRuiter (Everywhereist), Rand Fishkin (SEOmoz), and Keith Smith (BigDoor). great relationship in the context of the crazy, high intensity startup life we all life.

We’ve got some seats left – it’s free and everyone who attends gets a free copy of Startup Life. But you have to register before we hit the fire code limit – only registered attendees will get in.

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Feb 15 2013

Engine. Where Startups Come Together

I’ve regularly blog about patent trolls harassing startups and impeding innovation, the experiences of immigrant founders, and the battle for a free internet. While I’m fortunate to have this blog, and other writing opportunities as a platform to give voice to these stories, I also realize that to really have a meaningful impact, we need the startup community to be involved in government.

That’s where Engine Advocacy comes in. A few months ago, I joined the Advisory Board of Engine to lend my support to an organization that is doing amazing work for the startup ecosystem. We’re trying to create a startup community that can mobilize to make the government listen and understand the issues that have a unique impact on our community.

Here’s an example of great work that Engine has done: During the fight against SOPA/PIPA last year it seemed to a lot of outsiders that the internet community’s reaction happened overnight. What many people don’t know is that there were hundreds of organizations and businesses working together for months to make that one-day blackout so impactful. Engine connected 15,000 calls from individuals to their Senators that day. The sheer volume of calls shut down the Senate switchboard, twice.

Engine is always monitoring the issues, doing great research, keeping members informed so that we can identify any threats early, and respond as a community. There are many ways that startups can get involved, perhaps the simplest being just keeping up-to-speed on tech policy.

At the end of this month, Engine is bringing startups to Washington, D.C. to talk to lawmakers about issues that are really important to the startup community — issues like immigration, software patent reform, and keeping the internet free and open. You can get involved by becoming an Engine member today. Go to D.C. with them. Send them your stories.

Ultimately, we’re not just Silicon Valley, or Boulder., or any other geographically-defined tech scene. We’re a powerful community that is creating jobs and improving the economy — basically, doing all of those things that Senators and Members of Congress talk about making happen. It’s time they listened to us. Let’s make the startup community a stronger voice in Washington.

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Feb 13 2013

My New FiberHouse in Kansas City

KC FiberHouseI bought a house in Kansas City on Monday. It’s next door to the Homes for Hackers and KC Startup Village. It will have Google Fiber in it. I hope it becomes an integral part of the nation’s first Google Fiberhood.

I’m not going to be living in it. Instead, I’m going to let entrepreneurs live / work in it. Rent free. As part of helping create the Kansas City startup community. And to learn about the dynamics of Google Fiber. And to have some fun.

Here’s how it’s going to work. The Kauffman Foundation and I are running the Feld’s KC Fiber House Competition. Entries can be submitted online starting now. Entries are open through Friday March 22. Applicants must be at least 18 years old. Up to five winners will be selected from among the applications received. They’ll get to live and work in the house for a year rent free. I’m not taking any equity in these companies – I using a “give before you get” philosophy here to experiment, learn, and help the Kansas City startup community.

The judges will be me, Scott Case of Startup America Partnership,  David Cohen of TechStars and Lesa Mitchell of the Kauffman Foundation. We’ll be looking for the innovative potential of their startups and their companies’ ability to leverage Google Fiber. We’ll all be informal mentors and friends to the people who win and end up living in the house.

This came about through meeting with Ben Barreth, who created Homes for Hackers, at the Thinc Iowa conference. I loved what Ben was up to and offered to help. I thought about it more over the next month and then wrote him and Lesa Mitchell at Kauffman a note asking if it would be useful for me to buy a house near the Hacker House and open it up to entrepreneurs. This is what resulted.

I have a couple of very specific goals. First, I want to set an example using some of the principles I talk about in Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City. Next, I’m fascinated with Google Fiber and the idea of 1GB Internet access to the home so I want to experiment and see what smart entrepreneurs can come up with. I have a long relationship with Kauffman and Kansas City going back to the mid-1990’s and I want to support the development and growth of the Kansas City startup community. And finally, when Amy and I talked about the idea of it, we agreed it would be a fun thing to do.

If you are an entrepreneur at a startup and want to live rent free for a year in a house with a 1GB Internet connection, apply now!

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Feb 12 2013

Searching For A Better Way To Make Airline Reservations

I travel constantly – at least 50% of the time and sometimes as much as 75% of the time. My partners at Foundry Group all travel a lot – think 100,000 miles per year for each of this.. We committed to this when we started Foundry Group as our strategy was to invest across the United States while being based in Boulder. We knew that we were signing up for a lot of travel.

The travel itself sucks much of the time, but I’m come to terms with it and just thinking of myself as baggage when I get to the airport. I’m baggage until I leave the airport that is my destination. I’m good at sleeping on planes so I often get to experience time travel – where I go to sleep before takeoff and wake up at landing.

However, the process of making travel reservations absolutely sucks. My amazing assistant Kelly takes care of it and uses plenty of different tools available to her, including a travel agent. But the online tools, travel agent, endless email coordination, and calendar madness sucks. And then it gets worse as I constantly change my mind, have new things move a trip around, or travel changes occur in the middle of a complex trip. Add in trying to coordinate my wife Amy’s travel to overlap with mine when we go, or end up in, places together and you have a giant, soul crushing, time suck for Kelly.

There must be a better way. I don’t care if it costs more – I’d probably be willing to pay another $10,000 / year to make this 10x easier for Kelly. I don’t know how much of her time she’s spending on it at this point, but I know it’s probably the worst and least satisfying part of her job. Plus, I want her to get all that time back so she can work on other stuff!

Any suggestions out there? Software, services, or better approaches welcome.

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Feb 11 2013

Create the Best Product

The original iPhoneI’m mid 2011 I wrote a post titled Competition. Things in my universe had heated up and many of the companies I was an investor in were facing lots of competition. It’s 18 months later and there’s 10x the amount of competitive dynamics going on, some because of the maturity, scale, and market leadership of some of the companies I’m an investor in; some because of the increased number of companies in each market segment, and some based on the heat and intensity of our business right now.

I wrote a few more posts about competition but then drifted on to other things. But I came back to it this morning as I find myself thinking about competition every day. Yesterday, I was at the Silicon Flatirons Broadband Migration Conference hosted by my friend Phil Weiser. I go every year because it’s a good chance for me to see how several of the parallel universes I interact with, namely government, academics, broadband and mobile carriers, incumbent technology providers, and policy people think about innovation in the context of the Internet.

News flash – most of them think about it very differently than I do.

One thing that came up was the idea of creating the best product. This has been an on and off cliche in the tech business for a long time. For periods of time, people get obsessed about how “the best product will win.” Then, some strategy consultants, or larger incumbents, use their market power to try to create defenses around innovation, and suddenly the conversation shifts away from “build the best product.” And then the entrepreneurial cycle heats up again and the battle cry of the new entrepreneur is “build the best product.”

This isn’t just a startup vs. big company issue. I remember clearly, with amazement, the first time I got my hands on an iPhone. Up to that point I was using an HTC Dash running Windows Mobile 6.5. It was fine, but not awesome. I remember Steve Ballmer in a video mocking the iPhone.

We all know how this story has played out.

comparing_mobile_platforms

I remember a world when Microsoft and RIM were dominant. When Apple and Google didn’t have a product. And when people talked about “handsets”, WAP, and we squinted at our screens while pounding on keyboards that were too small for our fingers. Next time you are in a room full of people, just look around at the different phones, tables, and laptops that you see.

In my startup world, the same dynamics play out. Building the “best product” doesn’t only mean the best physical product (or digital product). It doesn’t just mean the best UI. Or the best UX. It includes the best distribution. The best supply chain. The best customer experience. The best support. The best partner channel. The best interface to a prospective customer. I’m sure I’ve left categories out – think about the idea of “the best complete product.”

This is getting more complicated by the day as technologies and products increase in interoperability with each other at both the data, network, application, and physical level. That’s part of the fun of it. And being great at it can help you dominate your competition.

Give me the best product to work with any day of the week. But make sure you are defining “product” correctly.

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