My cell phone experience is so fucking miserable. As I drove home last night and tried to have a conversation, I had five drops during a 30-minute drive from downtown Boulder to my house on the edge of Boulder and Longmont. When I drive into my office this morning, on exactly the same route, I expect I’ll have five drops at exactly the same spots.
This happens every day I drive between my house and my office. There is a dead spot at the corner of St. Vrain and 36. There is another dead spot on Broadway just across the street from Amante. There are four more that I can name (one on St. Vrain, one on 36, and one on Broadway), but I don’t want to give away all of Verizon’s secrets.
It’s 2017. I think my Cellular One experience in Boston in the mid-1990s was better.
For a few weeks, I thought maybe it was that Verizon knew I supported Net Neutrality and was fucking with me. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so this is my inner sarcasm rising to the surface.
I sent out an email asking a bunch of local friends what they used and how they liked it. I got general bitching about Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile, so there wasn’t a clear answer.
So, I’ve decided to go on my own exploration. I’m going to get each service and try them for a week. I’ll put up with the nightmare of porting my phone number around, which I expect will end in tears, but fortunately, I use Google Authenticator instead of SMS for two-factor authentication, so at least that won’t be a miserable pain in the ass.
Or maybe I’ll just get a second iPhone, a new phone number, and use that as the test device. That sounds safer, but now I’ve got to figure out how to sync two different iPhones to one account so that the images on both iPhones is the same. A quick Google search does not reveal the magic trick, so I’m sure that will be entertaining.
Do I sound like I’m at the end of my rope on this issue? Please don’t ask me about CenturyLink and the Internet non-service at my house.
I’ve met and emailed with many pre-seed and seed GPs in the past year. Over sushi last night with two of them, who are also long-time friends, one of them asked me “Brad, how do you think we are differentiated?” This generated a rant from me that went something like this.
There are over 500 seed funds in the market right now. Maybe there’s a thousand. Many of them are angels raising a VC fund. Others are entrepreneurs / operators raising a VC fund. A few are existing VCs who are starting a new firm. I don’t even know what differentiation means anymore as it all blurs together. The operators say we know how to run businesses and help the CEOs that way. The angels say look at the deals we’ve done and the networks we have. Everyone describes the expertise they have around whatever the current hot new technologies are. Regional funds are trendy again. Differentiation is bullshit at this point – the only thing that matters is strategy and returns. And many of these funds / GPs have no realized returns, so all that really matters is strategy.
It wasn’t an angry rant, but it resulted in 15 seconds of awkward silence as we each reached for a piece of sushi.
There are words that get overused to the point of not meaning anything. Differentiation is one of them. It’s now part of a cliche, as in “how are you differentiated?” I no longer care about this. I expect you can create a set of slides or a story about your differentiation, but if I dig in and try to understand what you mean, I expect I’ll feel pretty hollow at the end of it.
I suggested to my friends that we talk about the fund strategy. I know what they are investing in (stage, types of companies) and I know what they do (seed, one or two checks, no board seat but available to the founders for anything at any time, not concerned about ball control on the deal), but this is just the surface strategy.
I realized they were looking at me funny, not because they didn’t understand, but because I probably had some wasabi on my chin. So I went on another rant.
Your fund size is X. How many investments are you going to make? Over what time period? At what pace? How are you going to decide what not to invest in? How are you going to respond to the range of paths a seed deal goes down? Are you going to do your pro-rata or are you one check and done? Are you going to try to have any impact on the VCs who lead the next round? How do you want downstream VCs to think about you, or do you even care? At what point do you flip from being a buyer of equity to a seller of equity? If I give you $1, are you going to invest $0.85, $1 (meaning you recycle), or $1.10 (meaning you recycle 110%)? Are you going to only invest from the fund, or are you going to create SPVs on deals in later stages?
I paused to eat another piece of sushi. We then had a healthy conversation that extended the strategy into ways they worked with CEOs and founders, how they wanted these founders to talk about them to other founders and VCs, and how they thought of themselves in the context of the other 500 seed funds floating around.
As I walked back to my car after saying goodnight to my friends, I felt unsatisfied with my answer to the question of “how are we differentiated?” I thought if I slept on it, my subconscious might do something magical and help me out. But as I sit here in the light of a new day, I’m still feeling the same way I did last night about the complete lack of differentiation among the landscape of seed funds. And, as a result, the relative unimportance of differentiation when compared to other things.
Today Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) announced their support for Global EIR, a cause for which I care deeply. As you may know, over breakfast in 2015 Jeff Bussgang and I launched Global EIR with the hope of advancing the startup visa effort on a local and state level after it stalled in Congress.
Since then, Global EIR has grown to 13 university programs across the country, helping 42 international founders start companies. These companies have created 123 new jobs and raised $29.9 million in investment for the US economy. And there is still an overwhelming demand of visionary international founders that want to start companies in the US. If Global EIR can raise $300,000 this summer, they can scale rapidly over the next 18 months, with an ultimate goal of helping over 10,000 founders per year.
In response to this opportunity, SVB is joining Amy and me in a match challenge to raise $300,000 for Global EIR. For every $1 you donate up to $100,000, Amy and I will donate $1, and SVB will donate $1 on top of that. So – your $1 donation gets a $2 match.
I’m grateful that SVB sees in Global EIR a way to unlock the potential of the next generation of great founders, no matter where they were born. The entire team at SVB is unique among banks in their willingness to make bets on behalf of founders and startups and are often the first stop when a startup needs banking services. What makes this even more impressive is how quickly and consistently the startup community reinvents itself, yet SVB is always there to make a good first impression on new founders.
For these new founders, many were born in other countries and came to the US for a variety of reasons. For some, education brought them here. Others came to turn a great idea into a startup and ultimately into a world-changing company. Like SVB, the world’s founders know that the US has the right ingredients of capital, talent, and a culture that celebrates risk-taking. However, despite over a dozen countries creating visas to attract international founders, the US still does not have a startup visa.
When I reached out to long time friends at SVB, including Pamela Aldsworth and John China, they immediately were supportive of the idea of Global EIR. SVB had previously supported the Global EIR program in Boston with the University of Massachusetts, so I was delighted when they jumped on the opportunity to join a fundraising match with me across the entire country. It turns out that SVB’s general counsel, Michael Zuckert, is passionate about this issue and will be joining the Global EIR board.
Through Global EIR, universities run programs that help international founders obtain a visa, stimulate entrepreneurship at their universities, and unlock economic development in communities across the US. Global EIR supports programs throughout the US, currently ranging from Anchorage to Boston and seeks to expand to everywhere in between. We want to ensure that the world’s best and brightest founders continue to see the US as the best place to build their businesses and create jobs.
As many of longtime readers know, I’ve long been supportive of the startup visa. In 2009, I was inspired when two of the ten Techstars Boulder companies that year had international founders. With a startup visa, their promising companies would have an easy immigration pathway to create American jobs. Without one, they struggled to manage their visa status while also building their businesses. It should have been trivial for them to stay in the US; it wasn’t.
As with the entrepreneurs Global EIR helps, the organization began as a chaotic startup with Craig Montuori and Chris Nicholson leading Global EIR over the past two years. They learned a ton with our pilot schools UMass, CU Boulder, and SJSU. We were fortunate to have great partners in Bill Brah, George Deriso, and Anuradha Basu to help us figure this out to the point where we are now ready to scale to all 50 US states.
When we decided to have Global EIR go through the Techstars Boulder earlier this year as a non-profit, our goal was to get them ready to scale up. The experience of Techstars Boulder exceeded all expectations, and it’s great to see the Global EIR team start to take things to the next level.
For my VC friends, every time you invest in a brilliant immigrant founder, consider joining me and SVB in supporting Global EIR so that the next immigrant founder can have the chance to pitch to you. Email me and let’s talk about how to partner together in this work.
If you are a foreign entrepreneur who wants to build your company in the US, also email me, and I’ll connect you to the program.
I’ve come to despise the phrase “culture fit.”
I don’t remember when I first heard it, but it was many years ago. Over time, it became woven into the world of entrepreneurship, as companies used it as a primary frame of reference for hiring. VCs turned it into a cliche, espousing the importance of culture fit during the entire spectrum of company creation, from the functioning of the very earliest teams through scaling a business.
For the past few years, I’ve tried to use the phrase “cultural norms” instead of culture whenever the concept of culture fit was mentioned. At first, this felt a little ponderous as I had to regularly explain what I meant by cultural norms and why I didn’t just say the word culture instead. I eventually learned that if I stated that culture meant nothing and was shorthand for saying “I don’t want to think hard about what is going on here,” I usually stimulated enough of a conversation that it ultimately became a useful one.
About a year ago, I was in a conversation (I can’t remember who it was with) and they mentioned the phrase “culture add.” I immediately loved it. Since then, I’ve used it as a direct contrast to culture fit and let it evolve to the phrase “go for culture add, not culture fit” as part of a longer rant on diversity on all dimensions (beyond just gender and race) and the evolution of culture norms in a company.
I felt confident in my understanding of this concept. I’d cite the Rooney Rule as an element of how to hire for culture add. If you aren’t familiar with the Rooney Rule, a relatively recent article in 538 titled Rethinking The NFL’s Rooney Rule For More Diversity At The Top has a short and clear description of it.
“In place since 2003 for head coaches and expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, the rule — named after Dan Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and onetime head of the league’s diversity committee — mandates that an NFL team must interview at least one minority candidate for these jobs. The rule, however, has two fatal flaws: the temptation to substitute sham interviews in place of a search for real diversity, and coordinator-level positions, a crucial step to head-coaching jobs, are not under the umbrella.”
As with many things in life, I marched forward, spreading the gospel of the Rooney Rule once I had internalized it as part of the idea of culture add. And then, in February, I ran into a brick wall during a Boulder roundtable on diversity organized by Andrea Guendelman of BeVisible. I was sitting in a big circle in the room, listening carefully, but also feeling like I was contributing my perspective and expertise to the group (which, when I reflect on this, means I was probably feeling smug, self-important, and casually tossing around things like the Rooney Rule) when I heard something referenced from Stefanie Johnson, a CU professor that made me pull out my iPhone and type a few notes to myself.
“Stefanie Johnson just wrote an article that the Rooney Rule doesn’t work. If you have only one female candidate in the finalist pool, it doesn’t increase that probability that you’ll hire a female candidate. The same is true for a non-white candidate. If you want to increase the probability, you have to have at least two female candidates in the finalist pool.”
I may have said something like “can you say that again?” If I didn’t, I should have. Regardless, it was seared into my brain. A few days later, I got an email from Stefanie (who had heard about the conversation) with a link to her recent HBR article titled. If There’s Only One Woman in Your Candidate Pool, There’s Statistically No Chance She’ll Be Hired. The article is clear and has the appropriate statistical support for Stefanie’s assertion. If you don’t feel like reading the article, the chart below summarizes it.
There’s a lot in the article, including this gem:
“Why does being the only woman in a pool of finalists matter? For one thing, it highlights how different she is from the norm. And deviating from the norm can be risky for decision makers, as people tend to ostracize people who are different from the group. For women and minorities, having your differences made salient can also lead to inferences of incompetence.”
and this punchline:
“And the evidence simply does not support concerns surrounding the myth of reverse racism. It is difficult to find studies that show subtle preferences for women over men, and for minorities over whites. But the data does support one idea: When it is apparent that an individual is female or nonwhite, they are rated worse than when their sex or race is obscured.”
As I finish up this ramble, let’s cycle all the way back to the notion of culture add. By using this phrase, one of the things I’m trying to do is break the notion of hiring people like everyone else in the company as a default to supporting the idea of culture. Instead, you are looking for people who add to your culture. This does not invalidate the idea of adding people like you, but it doesn’t let this be the default. It’s more subtle than mechanisms like the Rooney Rule, but hopefully, it will be effective long-term.
More importantly, at a discussion earlier this year, I realized once again how little I know about something I’ve been immersed in for many years. Or, if I’m optimistic, how much I can regularly learn just by paying attention, listening, and participating in a discussion, even when I think I’m one of the experts, advocates, or some other word that makes me feel good about myself. And, most of all thank you, Andrea, for staying after me, and for creating a forum for a major new insight for me that I might have otherwise missed.
I woke up this morning to see the following on our Human Utility monthly match Crowdrise campaign.
It blew me away. I’m proud of our community. Y’all are awesome. THANK YOU.
I then poked around to see how we got there and saw Fred Wilson’s blog post on the wrap up of the #GiveWater campaign. We crossed $20k last night so our $20k (Fred/Joanne/Brad/Amy) was released. And, Jessica Livingston matched the $20k again, so that was another $20k. Thank you, Jessica. Super awesome.
But we aren’t done. When we started this project, we decided we’d run things through Sunday night. So, if you want to help people in Detroit and Baltimore who are having trouble affording their water bill get water, jump into the #GiveWater fundraiser!
Does it surprise you that some people in the United States don’t have regular access to water?
Our month match for June is The Human Utility. Fred Wilson, Joanne Wilson, Amy Batchelor, and I are matching up to $20,000 of contributions via our #GiveWater campaign.
Hunter Walk introduced us to The Human Utility at the beginning of the year. Access to water has always been something that Amy and I support. We first started thinking about this after hearing about Charity Water a while ago from Chris Sacca, who has been a major supporter of them over the years.
When I heard from Hunter that there was an organization in Detroit that paid the water bills for people who couldn’t afford to do it, I immediately loved the idea. The Detroit Water Project has evolved into The Human Utility and now provides funding for water in both Detroit and Baltimore. From their website:
Water companies are turning off the tap in cities across the U.S., forcing low-income families, seniors and single parents to live without basic necessities. Families without water are forced to go elsewhere to take showers, clean dishes and get a drink. Your donation can help turn the water back on.
When you give a donation to The Human Utility, 100% of your contribution goes to directly pay the water bill of someone in immediate need.
To donate and have your contribution matched, go here and hit the big blue Donate button. Then, tweet out your donation to spread the word.
We very rarely hire anyone at Foundry Group (although we are hiring an Executive Assistant). However, many of the companies we invest in are often hiring.
Over the years we’ve had a Foundry Group Jobs Page but we’ve never found software that was painless for us to use to keep it current. As a result, it would often get out of date and have to be updated manually. The endless kludge that we’d created was yucky, a pain to maintain, and likely much less effective than it could be.
If you are looking for a new job, take a look and tell me what you think of it and how we could improve it, as we are still tuning it.
An hour into dinner last night with Alex Rigopulos, he picked up his phone, tapped away at it for a few seconds, and slid it across the table to me. I then read the following:
“It’s dark because you are trying too hard.
Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.
I was so preposterously serious in those days, such a humorless little prig.
Lightly, lightly – it’s the best advice ever given me.
So throw away your baggage and go forward.
There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet,
trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair.
That’s why you must walk so lightly.
Lightly my darling,
on tiptoes and no luggage,
not even a sponge bag,
– Island, Aldous Huxley
Alex and I have been close friends for over 20 years. I was an early angel investor in Harmonix in the mid-1990s, enjoyed the Viacom acquisition of Harmonix in 2007, watched Alex and his co-founder Eran acquire Harmonix back from Viacom in 2010, and then I invested again in the company in 2013 with my partners at Foundry Group. Throughout, we’ve had an emotionally intimate relationship that I treasure, even though we aren’t often in the same physical location.
Our conversation last night was 1% Harmonix and 99% life. I prefer this as I have plenty of time to talk about work with Alex and the team at Harmonix, but precious little time to sit quietly, with a very long-time friend, and talk about life.
The Huxley quote surfaced as we were talking about attachment, detachment, and non-attachment. Walking lightly and non-attachment are similar, so we spiraled deep into that for a while, enjoying a harmonious intertwining conversation about these concepts against the backdrop of our current life.
As I walked home from dinner for the third night in a row in the rain in Kendall Square, I barely felt my feet touching the ground.
We are getting ready to launch the 2nd Edition of Startup Opportunities. Sean and I are working with Jesse Tevelow, a founder from the very first Techstars Boulder program, on this launch.
There is a lot more coming soon.
It’s a gray and rainy early summer day in Cambridge. As I was walking home from dinner last night through Kendall Square, I had a thought as I passed the Otto Piene designed Galaxy Earth Sphere sculpture. “I will never be lost here.”
I lived in Cambridge for four years when I was an undergrad at MIT. I then lived in Boston for eight more years after moving across the river to downtown while running Feld Technologies. Twelve years as a young adult in one city will cement the place in one’s brain.
While I only lived in Cambridge for four years, the essence of it is woven into the fabric of me. I immediately think of Toscanini’s Ice Cream, a place I at which I ate chocolate ice cream at least four times a week for the better part of four years. Gus’s smile is imprinted on my brain as he hands over the cone with the evening treat in it. Or the greatest food of all for a 170 pound 20-year-old – a giant scoop of chocolate ice cream with hot fudge generously poured over it.
While Kendall Square is all grown up with gleaming glass buildings, as I peer down Main Street to Mass Ave, I can almost see Tosci’s to the right, across the street from the U-Haul place. And then I remember my first real office, at 875 Main Street.
On the drive from the airport, we passed Rogers Street, and I immediately thought of NetGenesis’s first office. The Lotus building loomed large, the Royal Sonesta Hotel was still there, and the zig from First Street to Third Street remained the same. Amy and I were starving so after we dropped our bags off at the hotel, we wandered over to Legal’s for some food
Tuesday I could be anywhere, as I’ll be holed up in my hotel room on an endless stream of conference calls. On Wednesday, Amy and I are spending the day at Wellesley College. I’ve got a fun dinner with old friends each night and will run a few bridge loops if I can shake the time zone fatigue tomorrow and Wednesday.
It feels very comfortable here. And I like that.