Month: August 2013

Aug 19 2013

Two Root Causes of My Recent Depression

I’ve talked openly about the five month long depressive episode I went through earlier this year.  If you missed it, I encourage you to read my article last month in Inc. Magazine titled Entrepreneurial Life Shouldn’t Be This Way–Should It? Depression is a fact of life for some entrepreneurs.

My depression lifted near the end of May and I’ve been feeling normal for the past few months. On July 1st I wrote a post titled Regroup SuccessfulI changed a lot of tactical things in my life in Q2 – some of them likely helped me get to a place where my depression lifted. And, once I was confident that the depression had lifted (about 45 days ago), I started trying to figure out some of the root causes of my depression.

I’ve told the story of how I ended up depressed a number of times. In the telling of it, I searched for triggers – and found many. My 50 mile run in April 2012 that left me emotional unbalanced for six weeks. A bike accident in early September that really beat me up, and was inches from being much more serious. Six weeks of intense work and travel on the heals of the bike accident that left me physically and emotionally depleted, when what I should have done was cancelled everything and retreated to Boulder to recover. A marathon in mid-October that I had no business running, followed by two more weeks of intense work and travel. The sudden death of our dog Kenai at age 12. A kidney stone that resulted in surgery, followed by a two week vacation mostly in a total post-surgical haze. Complete exhaustion at the end of the year – a physical level of fatigue that I hadn’t yet felt in my life. There are more, but by January I was depressed, even though I didn’t really acknowledge it fully until the end of February.

The triggers, and the tactical changes I made, all impacted me at one level. But once the depression had lifted, I felt like I could dig another level and try to understand the root cause. With the help of Amy and a few friends, I’ve made progress on this and figured out two of the root causes of a depressive episode that snuck up on me after a decade of not struggling with depression.

The first is the 80/20 rule. When running Feld Technologies in my 20s, I remember reading a book about consulting that said a great consultant spent 20% of their time on “overhead” and 80% of their time on substantive work for their clients. I always tried to keep the 80/20 rule in mind – as long as I was only spending 20% of my time on bullshit, nonsense, things I wasn’t interested in, and repetitive stuff that I didn’t really have to do, I was fine. However, this time around, I’d somehow gotten the ratios flipped – I was spending only 20% of my time on the stimulating stuff and 80% of my time on stuff I viewed as unimportant. Much of it fell into the repetitive category, rather than the bullshit category, but nonetheless I was only stimulated by about 20% of the stuff I was doing. This led to a deep boredom that I didn’t realize, because I was so incredibly busy, and tired, from the scope and amount of stuff I was doing. While the 20/80 problem was the start, the real root cause was the boredom, which I simply didn’t realize and wasn’t acknowledging.

The other was a fundamental disconnect between how I was thinking about learning and teaching. I’ve discussed my deep intrinsic motivation which comes from learning. At age 47, I continue to learn a lot, but I also spend a lot of my time teaching. The ratio between the two shifted aggressively at the end of 2012 with the release of my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City. I spent a lot of time teaching my theory of startup communities to many people I didn’t previously know in lots of different places. I expected that I’d continue learning a lot about Startup Communities during this period, but I found that I had no time to reflect on anything, as all of my available time was consumed doing my regular work. So – between teaching and working, I had almost no time for learning.

I had an intense insight a few weeks ago when a friend told me that as one gets older, the line between learning and teaching blurs. This is consistent with how I think about mentoring, where the greatest mentor – mentee relationship is a peer relationship, where both the mentor and mentee learn from and teach each other. With this insight, I realized I needed to stop separating learning from teaching in my motivational construct – that they were inextricably linked.

Each of these – the flip in the 80/20 rule that led to a deep boredom combined with the separation of learning and teaching – were both root causes of my recent depression. As I reflect on where I’m at in mid-August, I’m neither bored nor struggling with the learning/teaching dichotomy. Once again, I’m incredibly stimulated by what I’m spending my time on. And I’m both learning and teaching, and not spending any energy separating the two.

While I expect I’ll discover more root causes as I keep chewing on what I just went through in the first half of the year, I’m hopeful that explanation of how I’ve unpacked all of this helps anyone out there struggling with depression, or that is close to someone who is struggling with depression. It’s incredibly hard to get to the root causes when you are depressed, but moments of clarity arise at unexpected times.

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Aug 16 2013

Being A Great CEO

Matt Blumberg’s new book, Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Businessis about to come out. If you are a CEO and haven’t preordered it, I recommend you go get it right now.

I had a chat with a CEO I work with who has had a challenging year scaling up his company. He – and the company – have made a lot of progress after hitting a low point this spring. After the call, he sent me the following note he has pasted on his desk.

1. Lead by example by holding myself and all accountable, no matter how hard.

2. Set the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicate it to all stakeholders.

3. Recruit, hire, and retain the very best talent and inspire them.

4. Makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.

5. Be the advocate for the customer over the company’s short-term needs.

6. Drive the execution and evolve the operating system.

7. Champion the company and our mission to the world.

You might recognize #2, 3, and 4 from Fred Wilson’s magnificent post What A CEO DoesI give a talk for many of the Techstars CEOs called “How to be a Great CEO” and I focus the conversation around Fred’s points. Matt’s book also uses Fred’s three points as a framework. And when I think about how a CEO is doing, I always start with 2, 3, and 4.

I’ve come to believe that you can’t be a great CEO if you don’t do these three things. But, great CEOs do many more than just these three things. So – I view them as “price of admission” – if you can’t / aren’t doing these three things, you won’t be a great CEO.

I always encourage the CEOs I talk with to create a clear framework for what they are doing. What you are doing, and spending time on, will change over time based on the stage of your company. When you are 10 people, you’ll have a different set of priorities then when you are 100, or a 1,000 people. But having a clear framework for what you, and how you do it, is powerful.

I love what this CEO has done to make Fred’s framework his own. Notice that each sentence starts out with the imperative form of an action verb (Amy told me that – doesn’t it sound smart!) – basically a statement of action. Lead, set, recruit, make, be, drive, champion. Great words.

If you break it down, it also defines a value set for the CEO, and for the company.

Finally, you are going to hear a lot more from me about the Company Operation System (what you see in #6). That’s the essence of what Matt Blumberg has figured out in scaling up Return Path, and uses to define his approach to scaling a business in Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business.

My experience with all of this is that it’s incredibly hard, breaks regularly at different points in the life of a company, and requires a great CEO to continually grow and learn from mistakes, adjust course based on new information, and work diligently at being honest with himself, his team, and his board about what is going on. But, if you get it right, it’s magical.

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Aug 14 2013

The One Trillion Reasons To Rethink How Higher Education Funding Works

Last night at dinner I got into a conversation with Greg Gottesman about the trillion dollars of student loans outstanding in the United States. Greg pointed me to this awesome TEDx Talk that he did recently on the topic. I just watched it – if you are interested in higher education in any way it’s worth 12 minutes of your life to watch it right now. I’ll still be here when you finish.

While Amy and I don’t have kids, we’ve funded the college educations for several relatives and the children of several friends. We’re fortunate that we can write these checks as the parents couldn’t have, and in each case the experience has been life changing, with no strings attached, for the young men and women. They went to schools they previously couldn’t have afforded and when they graduated they had no student debt.

When I consider their paths without our support, it would have been harder. Each of them is an amazing young person, but they are able to explore more things, in different ways, because of the education they got. And as I watch them continue to learn and grow, through their work experience, additional education, and online activities, I realize that the chance they had to go to college is still a critical part of the American dream.

I’m interested in this at many levels. My wife Amy is on the board of trustees of Wellesley College and cares passionately about her alma mater, the amazing experience of going to school there, as well as the increasing cost of education. I’m on the CU Boulder Chancellor’s Strategic Advisory Council and one of the major topics we have been discussing is the escalating cost of education and the dramatically decreasing public funding of education. I’m an investor – directly and indirectly – in a number of companies creating new online education systems. I’m a content provider for some of these MOOCs, with some courses coming out over the next twelve months. And I’ve started to take some courses as a way of learning new things while understanding what works – and what doesn’t work – with this new approach.

Up to this point, I’ve been focused on the cost and content side of the equation. Until last night, I didn’t think much about the implication of the student funding side (e.g. debt) of the equation – either the long term macroeconomic effect on society or the short term microeconomic effect on the recent graduate now saddled with student debt.

There are plenty of creative approaches to this, including many experiments underway with schools like MIT and Stanford in conjunction with new companies like Udacity and Coursera. The activity on the course and content side seems vibrant, which has the opportunity to lower overall costs.

But I don’t have a clue about the financing side, and am going to think more about it. If you have any insights, feel free to toss them in the comments or point me at stuff I should read.

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Aug 12 2013

Lavabit Commits Corporate Suicide

I was shocked for a few minutes last week after I heard that Lavabit committed corporate suicide. I pondered it for a while and then forgot, but two things this weekend caused me to remember it.

The first was the suicide of Cylon Number One (John) near the end of Battlestar Galactica. I didn’t expect it at all (there were a bunch of things in the last three episodes that I didn’t expect.) The other was Barry Eisler’s tweet about Obama’s statement about the NSA (NSFW) from the weekend (Eisler is one of my favorite Mental Floss writers.)

I didn’t see Eisler’s tweet until Sunday morning because of my digital sabbath and it made me think of Lavabit shutting down. And then I had a moment of fear that I was reading it and considering retweeting it. The thought that crossed my mind was “if I retweet this, will the NSA record it somewhere.” Then I decided this was a fear-based reaction that was absurd, but not irrational.

Then I read Homes for Hackers gets a visit from the FBI. My friend Ben, who inspired me to buy a house in the Google Fiberhood in Kansas City, talks about the FBI poking around in his house because he has gigabit Internet. Now, Ben’s a trusting dude so he let the FBI in and was polite, but he speculates that he’s now got a surveillance device in his bathroom.

We are just beginning to understand – and struggle with – the crossover of humans and technology. When you ponder the NSA, it’s starting to feel like a giant computer run by humans, where the computer dominates and the humans are just the mechanics. Sure – the humans want to feel like the ones who are actually running things, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see this evolving along the same lines as Battlestar Galactica.

I accepted a long time ago that I had no actual privacy – that all of my data was being captured somewhere. I gave a talk at my 20th business school reunion in 2008 where I stated directly that “we no longer had any privacy.” But it’s getting worse – fast. Even if we work hard to have privacy, as in using Lavabit to send email, the government can still break through this privacy, or force the service to shut down.

I’m fascinated by all of this. Not scared – fascinated. It’s easy to be cynical, or scared, or angry. But our civilization is going to evolve in very strange and radical ways over the next twenty years. Hang on – it’s going to be a crazy ride.

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Aug 9 2013

Dilbert on Cultural Fit

I’ve written before about hiring for cultural fit, and about the importance of prioritizing cultural fit over competence when hiring at startups. I started thinking about it again when I saw this Dilbert comic, because it pokes fun at the culture of startups and their propensity only to hire people who fit into them. But what are we talking about when we talk about cultural fit, anyway?

You’re probably familiar with some of the stereotypes around startup culture (free massages and dry cleaning, craft beer, cool art on the walls and dogs at the office, pulling all-nighters to ship on time) and the kinds of people who work at startups (according to Dilbert, “self-conscious hipster” types with “an earring and headphones.”) Stereotypes like these give you a picture of what startup culture might look like to an outsider, but they don’t reflect the intrinsic values that define startup cultures.

Gnip CEO Chris Moody explains this distinction really well when he talks about values vs. vibe. He defines values as “the guiding principles or code-of-conduct” that inform a company’s daily operations, whereas vibe is “the emotional side of the company … highly influenced by outside factors.” To figure out whether an aspect of your startup culture is a value, he says, try asking yourself these questions:

–      Is this aspect of the company important to our long-term success?

–      Does this aspect need to be maintained forever and is it sustainable?

–      Does this aspect apply to all areas of the company and to all employees?

–      Will establishing this aspect help us make important decisions in the future?

So, for example: riding your fixi to the office or playing foosball between coding sessions are vibes. Treating people with respect or being passionate about your work? Those are values.

Your company values should be clear, accessible, and pervasive – take, for example, Zappos’ 10 core values. Having clearly defined values is important because they drive your company culture, not the other way around. It’s also important when you’re hiring for cultural fit, because without clear company values you run the risk of making poor hiring decisions: hiring people because they look or act or talk like you, and not hiring people because they don’t.

Here’s an example: Businessweek says hiring managers are now asking candidates questions like, What’s your favorite movie? Or, What’s the last book you read for fun? If you’re asking interview questions like these at your startup, you need to make sure you’re screening for values and not for vibe. Just sharing your love of The Big Lebowski doesn’t make someone a good cultural fit for your company: in fact, it’s often the people who give unexpected answers who end up being your company’s most creative problem-solvers.

I chair the board of directors for the National Center for Women & IT (NCWIT), whose Entrepreneurial Alliance works with startups to help them recruit and retain more women in tech roles. There’s strong ROI for including more women on technical teams: women improve collective intelligence, make startups more capital-efficient, and bring the perspectives of half the population. But if you’re a “dude brew” startup, you may not even know why you don’t hire more technical women, and you might need help from NCWIT removing gender bias from its portfolio companies’ job ads.

Gnip recently told NCWIT that they added three women to its engineering team. They credited this in part because the VP of Engineering, Greg Greenstreet, attended every local women-in-tech networking event, recruited on campus, and talked to as many female candidates as possible. But fundamentally they succeeded in hiring more women because, like Etsy, they made diversity a value. Gnip assigned strategy, money, and resources to their recruiting efforts, and factored diversity into evaluations of cultural fit.

Every startup is going to have a company culture, by design or by default, so you might as well design yours with values that attract and keep the best possible talent. Once you’ve distinguished between your values and your vibe, hiring for cultural fit won’t just be easier; it will give you better – and likely more diverse – employees.

If you’re interested in more information about joining NCWIT’s group of startups, let me know.

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Aug 8 2013

The Reputational Damage of Non-Responsiveness

VCs love to say things like “we are entrepreneur friendly.” It’s trendy, catchy, and looks good on a blog post. But, as I’ve said in my post Your Words Should Match Your Actions, one can “damage their reputations by having their words not match up with their actions.”

Now – this post isn’t about responding to emails. Nor am I trying to be preachy. I’m not trying to explain a new behavior. Rather, I’m making an observation about something I’ve experienced – both as an entrepreneur and investor – since my first angel investment in 1994.

Here’s the situation, as reported this morning by an experienced CEO of a company we are investors in.

“We’re raising money.  I have a good intro session.  Prospective investor wants to meet in person, see a demo.  We have a good 2nd meeting.  We agree on action items.  I go away and follow up.

Radio silence.

Follow up again.

Radio silence still.  

The first time it happened I was inclined to think it was the investor and that they just couldn’t find the time to send an email response saying, “sorry – no longer interested”.   Then, it happened again this month.”

Now – initial non-responsiveness – whatever. Lots of people don’t respond to emails, intros, or requests for meetings. But after two in-person meetings, to be non-responsive is just plain rude.

How hard would be it be to say “Hey – great spending time with you – but this isn’t something I want to pursue.” Or maybe “Sorry for being slow – I’ve been swamped – I don’t have time for doing this right now.” Or – well – anything.

I’ve had this situation come up so many times that I’m immune to it. I assume that the VC isn’t interested. But I’m amazed at how the reputational damage follows the person around. And then – at some point in the future – that VC is looking for a response for something. Hmmm …

I’ve had this happen with LPs. When we went and raised our first fund in 2007, plenty of people wouldn’t meet with us. That’s fine. Lots said they weren’t interested after a first meeting. Totally cool. But some met with us but then were completely non-responsive after the meeting. Ok – whatever. But when those non-responsive LPs call me today asking for something – whether it’s to get together to “get to know me better”, or to get a reference on someone else they are looking at, or to learn more about what I think about the market for hardware investments, it’s really hard to get on the phone and spend time with them. I do – because that’s my nature – but I always remember their non-responsiveness.

I hear – and say – “No thank you” all the time. Every day. 50 times a day. That’s just part of the role I play in business. But I always try to say “No thank you.” It’s just not that hard. Especially when I know someone, or have engaged with them in some way.

Are you the guy the experienced CEO just encountered? How would you feel if your name – and your firm’s name – just went out via email to 60 CEOs attached to this story? Maybe you don’t care, but if your message is “we are entrepreneur-friendly VCs” you just undermined the reputation of your firm in a major way.

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Aug 7 2013

Can You Fall In Love With Your Computer?

I’ve been thinking a lot about human – computer love recently given my obsession with Battlestar Galactica. It evolved from “can Cylons have feelings?” to “can Cylons and humans love each other?” to “what changes when Cylons become mortal?”

So – when I saw the trailer for Her, I thought – yup – this is our future, and we’d better start getting our minds around it.

I look forward to Siri starting to sound like Samantha.

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Aug 6 2013

Startup Day Across America on August 29

Though it may seem as if politicians in Washington, D.C. have a hard time agreeing on anything, those on both sides of the aisle seem increasingly keen to support entrepreneurs and their communities. Some recent examples include the passage of legislation expanding crowdfunding under the JOBS Act and meetings similar to one hosted last month by the Global Accelerator Network in which we worked with the Small Business Administration to gather 16 accelerators to demo their programs for the White House and SBA funders.

Much progress has been made to ensure that those in Washington are hearing entrepreneurs’ concerns, but we still have a long way to go – especially with connecting politicians to those in the seed-stage technology sector. Politicians in our federal government are listening to entrepreneurs, but we very rarely see congressmen personally sit across the table from early-stage tech investors and their founders. When this does occur, however, representatives learn much more about what startups really want and need than they would hearing feedback through second or third parties, and they’re much more likely to take supportive action.

That is why the Global Accelerator Network is thrilled to support the first ever Startup Day Across America on August 29. This one-day bipartisan event, led by the U.S. House of Representatives Caucus on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, will connect members of Congress with startups and accelerators in their respective districts. We believe this is a great opportunity for startup communities to connect with their congressional representatives – both to highlight the positive contributions startups bring to their communities, as well as raise awareness about startups’ needs on a local and national level.

If you are interested in learning more about the Startup Day Across America, please contact Eve Lieberman in Congressman Jared Polis’ office who will connect you with the person leading the charge in your district.

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Aug 5 2013

A Startup Is A Continuum of Ideas

Chris Dixon had an important post over the weekend title The Idea MazeHe starts off with a very strong juxtaposition of thoughts around the importance of “the idea” to a startup.

Ideas_Matter: The pop culture view of startups is that they’re all about coming up with a great product idea.

~Ideas_Matter: In response to this pop culture misconception, it has become popular in the startup community to say things like “execution is everything” and “ideas don’t matter”.

Ideas_Matter’: But the reality is that ideas do matter, just not in the narrow sense in which startup ideas are popularly defined. 

He explains this clearly in the rest of the post using the construct of the Idea Maze which is explained in the Coursera Startup Engineering course which I’ve been taking.

The argument around whether or not the idea matters in a startup is getting tedious and I think Chris does a nice job of dropping a bomb in the middle of it. But I don’t think the puzzle pieces get put together quite right.

I don’t agree with Chris’ assertion in Ideas_Matter’. My view is that a startup is a continuum of ideas. The initial idea may bear some resemblance to the idea at any future time, but the actual instantiation of the idea can vary dramatically over time based on the learning that happens along the way. The notion of the Idea Maze captures this construct, as does the work of Steve Blank and Eric Ries.

But that doesn’t mean that “the idea matters.” I believe that it means a different construct is needed other than “idea.” I accept that the answer isn’t just the “execution of the idea” since that misses the point also. As a result, I think we need to blow up the construct of “ideas vs. execution” since it’s both and neither.

Chris does a nice job of laying out how to navigate the Idea Maze using history, analogies, theory, and direct experience. That’s how I approach investing, and how Foundry Group uses our themes to guide what we invest in. If you think hard about what Chris is suggesting, it’s the path through the idea maze for most entrepreneurs that is the important thing.

Here’s a specific example from my own experience. I’ve always loved books. About ten years ago I started thinking harder about being a writer as part of what I do. I’ve used history, analogies, theory, and direct experience to help me figure out how I think about the publishing and content industry. I self published some content (my blog) and contributed to traditional print and online media. But rather than self publishing a book to start, I decided I needed to understand how the publishing industry has worked for the last 100 years by participating in it. I had a theory that over the next decade there would be a radical change in how the publishing industry worked, but in the absence of being a content provider (known as an “author”), I wouldn’t really understand the process. So I wrote several (now four) books with a publisher (Wiley). Hence – direct experience. I’ve also studied the history of the publishing industry and talked to many other authors about their experiences. And I’ve got many analogies about how other information based industries have been massively disrupted by technology. And now I have a very clear set of ideas about how the publishing – and content – industry is going to change and how I’m going to participate in that change as a writer.

My important idea wasn’t “disrupt the publishing industry.” Nor does that particular idea matter. But the continuum of ideas I’ve had over the last decade that emerged from this thought is incredibly powerful. And the emergence of that continuum in a startup has the potential to be very powerful. Or fail. Which is, of course, the nature of a startup.

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Aug 2 2013

Random Acts of Kindness – Wish of a Lifetime

I adore Jeremy Bloom. He co-founded Integrate, which we are investors in. I’ve interviewed him for the Entrepreneurs Unplugged series I do at CU Boulder. We’ve been part of a few events together. He’s got an enormous heart, soul, and brain.

A while ago he created a foundation called Wish of a Lifetime. It’s a magnificent example of what I call “Random Acts of Kindness” and is a deep part of my value system.

Amy emailed me a great article in the Denver Post from earlier this week titled Dreams come true, thanks to Jeremy Bloom’s Wish of a Lifetime Foundation. Amy and I gave a major gift last year and just agreed to make another gift to Wish of a Lifetime.

If you are so inspired, contribute to Wish of a Lifetime right now. And if you want some motivation, or just want to see an interview with an awesome entrepreneur, human, friend, philanthropist, athlete, leader, and role model, watch the video below.

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