Month: August 2017

Aug 31 2017

People Are The Price of Admission

In my post recently titled Does VC Fund Differentiation Matter? several people commented on some variation of “people” as the key to everything.

I don’t view people as differentiation. I view them as the price of admission. Amy just walked by, read this over my shoulder, and said: “I don’t know what that means.” Hopefully, by the end of this post, it’ll be clearer …

Yesterday I talked to several VCs or entrepreneurs considering becoming a VC. I didn’t know any of them – these were random intros from different people that I knew. I didn’t have an agenda for each call. I was just curious and felt like meeting a few new people yesterday.

In each call, the person gave me their background and what they were exploring. Then they asked me a few questions. These questions were different versions of “what is your investment strategy” and “how do you decide what to fund?”

I went through my usual riff on this, which I should probably just put up on Youtube so I can point people at it rather than spend five minutes saying it over and over again. While I was doing this, a background process in my mind linked me back to the post I wrote on VC Fund Differentiation (or lack thereof). If you’ve heard this riff before, the next bit will be redundant to you.

<riff>

We have a set of filters. For an early stage investment, we only invest in our themes. We only invest in the US. We don’t have to be the first money in a company, but if the company has raised more than $5m, it’s too late for us. Our goal with this filter is to say no to almost everything within 60 seconds.

Assuming something passes through this filter, we then focus on three things.

  1. Do we have an affinity for the product? We don’t have to be daily users of the product, but we have to care about it in some way.
  2. Are the founders obsessed (not passionate, but obsessed) about what they are building? Passion is easy to fake. Obsession is not.
  3. Do the founders want us to be investors in their company as much as we want to be investors in their company? If it’s not bi-directional, that’s fine, but it’s not for us.

</riff>Ok – riff over.

Underlying item two and three is obviously the people. But it’s a characteristic of the people. It’s a characteristic that, at least for us, that has worked over a long period of investing.

When I was a kid, my dad used to say to me “people are the price of admission.” He meant that if I was interested in getting involved in something, I should evaluate the people first.

If we did this before applying our filter, we’d never get anything done because we’d spend too little time looking at too many things. But, by applying the filter first, we can put most of our energy into evaluating the people involved and whether they want us to be involved.

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Aug 29 2017

Startup Opportunities 2 – Audible Edition

The Audible version of Startup Opportunities: Know When to Quit Your Day Job, 2nd Edition is available for pre-order and will be on out on 9/19. My co-author, Sean Wise, read it using his deliciously dulcet voice.

Jason and I also finished the Audible recording of Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist, 3rd Edition and expect to see it up on Audible in 60 days. More when it’s out.

It’s a lot of fun to read your own audio book like I did for Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with and Entrepreneur, the book I wrote with Amy.

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Aug 28 2017

Effective Networking

Adam Grant has a superb essay in the New York Times this weekend titled Networking is Overrated.

I enjoy Adam’s writing immensely (his book Give and Take is a huge inspiration for my upcoming book #GiveFirst). Early in the essay, he has a strong lead in.

“It’s true that networking can help you accomplish great things. But this obscures the opposite truth: Accomplishing great things helps you develop a network.”

He finishes the essay with a great punch line.

“If you make great connections, they might advance your career. If you do great work, those connections will be easier to make. Let your insights and your outputs — not your business cards — do the talking.”

Now, great connections can result in special things. I’ve always believed in being open to random connections and for years I would do a random day once or twice a month, where I’d meet with anyone for 15 minutes. Some magnificent things have come out of this, including Techstars and my relationship with NCWIT. As I’ve gotten older, and more visible, it’s been harder to maintain any rhythm around random day, but it shifted to something else that’s congruent with what Adam is saying.

While I still try to respond to all of my emails, I now have very little available face time or phone time. So I allocate whatever is free to people who are doing interesting things. Instead of having random days, I have “react and spend time with people doing interesting things” days.

Remember, I’m an introvert. In Adam’s sequel to his NYT article titled To Build a Great Network, You Don’t Have to be a Great Networker (enjoyably / ironically on LinkedIn), he says:

“It’s possible to develop a network by becoming the kind of person who never eats alone, who wins friends and influences people. But introverts rejoice: there’s another way. You can become the kind of person who invests time in doing excellent work and sharing your knowledge with others.”

Get to work. Seriously – just go do some stuff. You’ll be amazed at what happens as a result.

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Aug 25 2017

Saying No 100 Times A Day

Given my role in the world, I say no a lot.

I get hundreds of unsolicited emails a day, often asking me to get together, invest, or look at something. Lots of VCs and execs who I know simply ignore and don’t respond to these emails. I’ve always tried to at least respond to them unless they are clearly a mass email.

A long time ago I learned how to quickly identify what I don’t want to spend time on, which I wrote about in 2009 in my post titled Saying No In Less Than 60 Seconds. As time has passed, I’ve tuned this filter more, as the volume of requests has gone up.

It’s not a burden to receive the requests. It used to be a burden to say no, but it isn’t anymore. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why, how it used to affect me, and how it affects me now.

I’m fundamentally an information synthesizer. I want more, not less, data. I want it from a diverse range of inputs. My brain does a good job of storing away bits and pieces of the stuff I see, read, and hear (although I’m worst at hearing – I much prefer seeing or reading) and brings them back to the forefront connected to other things at the appropriate moment. That’s one of the reasons I read such a diverse set of books.

But I don’t need a lot of data to make a decision as to whether I want to spend time on something. I’m already extremely booked up, so if I don’t say no as often, and as quickly as I do, I can’t begin to imagine what things would look like in my world. While I’m open to lots of new things, I only want to spend time on things that interest me or that I feel like I can add something to.

The one downside of this is that a lot of my schedule is a reactive one, where I’m spending time on things because I said yes to a request. I believe this is part of my job and it can be a satisfying part of my existence. But, when it gets out of balance with all the actual proactive work I need – or want – to do, it often causes me to have lost stretches of time like I did this summer.

I’m sitting in Amy’s office with my laptop catching up on stuff today. I’ve already told about 20 people no so far as I went through my emails from yesterday and overnight that I hadn’t yet responded to. I’m sure I’ve got another 20 after I finish this post, at which point I’ll start attacking my weekly non-urgent to-do list. The music Amy chose is nice and mellow, the sun is shining, and I’m calm and contemplative after a full week.

If I say no to you, realize that it rarely has something to do with the quality of your idea or you as an individual. Instead, it’s about me and how I want to spend my time. I know there’s often dissonance in that, especially if you are a founder who is trying to get my attention because they’d like me to be an investor in their company. But realize that by saying no quickly, I’m respecting you and your time by not wasting it.

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Aug 24 2017

It Can All Change In A Day

On July 28th, my partner Jason told me that Matt Bencke, the co-founder and CEO of Mighty AI, had suddenly gotten a serious cancer diagnosis. While Jason was on Matt’s board, I had spent plenty of time with him and, as one would expect, was shocked.

I immediately sent Matt a note that said:

I will keep confidential, but I wanted to send you love and good karma. You are a special person. I’ll be thinking good thoughts and sending you positive energy multiple times a day.

I didn’t know what else to do. Later that day, I got a note from Greg Gottesman, a close friend of ours who helped start Mighty AI – with a summary of what was going on.

1. He has a large clot in his right ventricle that needs removed. That is very likely to be open heart surgery. We are being transferred to Swedish Cherry Hill to start that process; surgery is likely tonight but TBD.

2. Initial pathology report does confirm what we knew was the most probable but worst diagnosis – pancreatic tail adenocarcinoma. We know it is Stage 4 because of the metastases to other organs. It is terminal and incurable, but how long he will have will depend on more information and how soon he can recover from open heart surgery and start chemo. MDs right now say could be over a year. We simply don’t know.

A day later, Matt sent me a short note in response that said:

Thanks

:’-\

7/28 was a Friday and Amy and I didn’t have anything planned. The evening was a quiet, reflective one. I still remember being empty of words whenever I thought about this. Matt is 45 and in incredible physical shape, so the reminder that this can happen to anyone hung quietly in the air.

On 7/30, I got the following email from Matt.

Hey Brad

No need for confidentiality

Your prayers and thoughts mean the world, thank you. This is still surreal. Of course I’m hoping for the best and I’m a stubborn Pittsburgh-born fighter…but the prognosis is clear.

This may sound weird but maybe I can turn this into a silver lining for others. When I’m feeling coherent i could do a webcast or some such

Matt has written an incredible essay that was published in Wired today titled The Day I Found Out My Life Was Hanging by a Thread. It’s extraordinary. In addition to reflecting the awesomeness of Matt, it goes through the intense few days of discovery, his emotional journey personally and with his family, while weaving in the backdrop of how a CEO, management team, company, and board deal with something like this unfolding in real time.

You know you are in for a powerful story when the lead in is:

“It started while I was on a Hawaiian vacation in May. I thought I’d just tweaked my back lifting a poolside lounge chair. Back home, my back pain became severe, and I started noticing nerve pain in my legs. For eight days I could barely crawl around the house. My wife and two daughters nicknamed me “the worm.” At 45, I’m in pretty good shape—avid cyclist, runner, weightlifter, yoga enthusiast with a resting pulse in the 50s.”

I read the draft of this when Matt first wrote it. Wired changed very little, which is a tribute to them for letting Matt speak in his authentic, unedited, and raw voice. For example, when describing the moment of the initial diagnosis:

“He went on to explain that I had many tumors in my liver, pancreas, and chest. In addition, he explained that I had quite a few blood clots, including in my heart and lungs. “What is ‘many’ tumors?” I asked. He looked defeated, saying they stopped counting after 10. I thought he might cry, and then he started in with some nonsense about how maybe it was all just bad tests, or maybe I had a rare water-borne pest infection. Amy began crying, hard. I went into silent shock and just tried to get this guy to shut up and leave.”

But that was just the start. Lots more transpired over the next day in the hospital. And then …

“On Friday the docs woke me with an urgent problem: They had found a blood clot the size of a Ping-Pong ball in my heart’s right ventricle. If it broke loose, I would die instantly, whether I was in an ER or my basement. To make matters worse, they showed me an image of the clot, and it was precariously wiggling on an already-loose attachment. Each time my heart beat, the ticking time bomb swayed precariously. The clot was too big to suck out with a vacuum, too risky to slice and remove bit-by-bit, and too large to remove from the side by breaking open a few ribs. Nope, removing it was urgent and would require cracking my sternum. Today.”

Time sped up.

“Events were happening at a dizzying pace. Clearly I needed to start making some calls—to resign my role as Mighty AI CEO, to connect with my mom and other immediate family members, to alert more of my closest friends. It was around 9:10 Friday morning. Mighty AI’s weekly operations meeting would be getting started at 10:15, so I had a lot of calls to make.”

I hope I’ve inspired you to go read the whole thing at The Day I Found Out My Life Was Hanging by a Thread. I just went and read it again and it’s one of the best in the moment essays I’ve ever read. GeekWire has a nice add-on piece titled Mighty AI co-founder Matt Bencke diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, vows to ‘beat the odds’ as he hands over CEO reins.

Matt ended his essay with this:

“We are all so fragile. Each day is precious. And the most important parts of our lives are the relationships we invest in. I certainly feel that way, as my friends and family—“Matt’s Army”—have Amy and me awash in love that feels like a mighty waterfall.”

Treasure every moment. Love your fellow human. As Matt says so clearly. “The most important parts of our lives are the relationships we invest in.”

If you know Matt or are part of my extended gang and want to help, Matt’s Army has stepped up to Wage Hope at PurpleStride, the walk to end pancreatic cancer. Join us and donate something. And hug someone today.

Matt – we love you and are rooting for you.

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Aug 21 2017

The Link Between Infinite Computing and Machine Learning

At the Formlabs Digital Factory event in June, Carl Bass used the phrase Infinite Computing in his keynote. I’d heard it before, but I liked it in this context and it finally sparked a set of thoughts which felt worthy of a rant.

For 50 years, computer scientists have been talking about AI. However, in the past few years, a remarkable acceleration of a subset of AI (or a superset, depending on your point of view) now called machine learning has taken over as the hot new thing.

Since I started investing in 1994, I’ve been dealing with the annual cycle of the hot new thing. Suddenly, a phrase is everywhere, as everyone is talking about, labeling, and investing in it.

Here are a few from the 1990s: Internet, World Wide Web, Browser, Ecommerce (with both a capital E and a little e). Or, some from the 2000s: Web Services, SOAs, Web 2.0, User-Generated Data, Social Networking, SoLoMo, and the Cloud. More recently, we’ve enjoyed Apps, Big Data, Internet of Things, Smart Factory, Blockchain, Quantum Computing, and Everything on Demand.

Nerds like to label things, but we prefer TLAs. And if you really want to see what the next year’s buzzwords are going to be, go to CES (or stay home and read the millions of web pages written about it.)

AI (Artificial Intelligence) and ML (Machine Learning) particularly annoy me, in the same way Big Data does. In a decade, what we are currently calling Big Data will be Microscopic Data. I expect AI will still be around as it is just too generally appealing to ever run its course as a phrase, but ML will have evolved into something that includes the word “sentient.”

In the mean time, I like the phrase Infinite Computing. It’s aspirational in a delightful way. It’s illogical, in an asymptotic way. Like Cloud Computing, it’s something a marketing team could get 100% behind. But, importantly, it describes a context that has the potential for significant changes in the way things work.

Since the year I was born (1965), we’ve been operating under Moore’s Law. While there are endless discussions about the constraints and limitations of Moore’s Law, most of the sci-fi that I read assumes an endless exponential growth curve associated with computing power, regardless of how you index it.

In that context, ponder Infinite Computing. It’s not the same as saying “free computing” as everything has a cost. Instead, it’s unconstrained.

What happens then?

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Aug 19 2017

All Human Beings Have Equal Value

Arnold Schwarzenegger says it brilliantly.

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Aug 17 2017

What Are The Limits of Tolerance?

I’ve had an emotionally challenging morning so far. I woke up too early and was deeply agitated. I tried to get rolling, couldn’t, and went back to bed. But I wasn’t able to fall asleep and my brain kept cycling on all the political chaos and societal hatred that is going on. I’ve tried to compartmentalize it but it broke through again the last couple of days after Charlottesville.

I got up and realized the Internet was down. I decided to just go running. Two minutes in, Brooks came up lame and I walked him back home. I started again with Cooper but my left knee was a little twingey so I decided to bail and take a few rest days. The Internet was still down.

Amy and I then spent time at breakfast talking about how to reconcile the intolerable. I felt a little better and was helped by Fred Wilson’s post If You Lie Down With Dogs, You Come Up With Fleas and Mark Suster’s post Finding My Tribe — The Upside of the Downcast Year.

I’m off to grind through a massive backlog of email today. I leave you with a beautiful video of the eclipse from 2015.

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Aug 16 2017

Book: Option B

I read Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy a few weeks ago. It’s a must read for every human on this planet.

Some of you know that I’m a huge fan of Adam Grant. His book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success is a key inspiration for the #GiveFirst moment, my own personal philosophy, and my upcoming book #GiveFirst: A New Philosophy for Business which should be out in 2018.

I’m also a huge fan of Sheryl Sandberg. I don’t know Sheryl well, but we hung out a few times 15 years ago and both Amy and I thought she was awesome. It’s been awesome to watch what she’s achieved – first at Google, and now at Facebook.

It’s even more remarkable to read the clarity with which she has processed the sudden loss of her beloved husband Dave Goldberg. I met Dave a few times in the last 1990s when he was running LAUNCH Media (we were investors via SOFTBANK) but didn’t stay in touch after Yahoo! acquired LAUNCH. However, many of my Bay Area friends were close to Dave and viewed him reverently.

Amy and I have lost several close friends in the past three months to cancer and suicide. Another friend was recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. We are getting older and death is becoming a more visible part of our life experience.

Exploring how to process mortality is hard. I talked to a friend on my way home last night who is struggling with this. While these conversations are hard, I learn a little with each one.

Recently, I’ve been referring friends to Atul Gawande’s amazing book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End which is the best book I’ve read so far this year. I also send them to Paul Kalanithi’s book When Breath Becomes Airwhich was one of the best books I’ve ever read. I know “best” is a weak qualifier, so just know that they are both in the same league as Norman Cousins’ classic Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration which had a profound impact on me in my mid-20s.

I just added Sheryl and Adam’s book to this league. Life and death are complicated. If you, like me, are constantly exploring it and trying to understand it, and yourself, better, I encourage you to read Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. Sheryl and Adam – thank you for writing it.

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Aug 15 2017

Back From My Blogging Break

I took the last two weeks off from blogging. It was a nice vacation.

While I try to blog every day, I don’t have a daily ritual like Fred Wilson does. Fred and I have talked about this a few times – for him, it is meditation, discipline, and ritual. I’ll let him say it in his own words.

“But I’ve come to realize that the daily post, and its quality or lack thereof, is not really the thing. It is the ritual, the practice, the frequency, the habit, and the discipline that matters most to me.”

In the past four years, I’ve tried to move away from time-based disciplines. I realized that my obsession with time and schedule, such as waking up every morning at 5 am no matter what time zone I was in, was one of the inputs into my depressive cycles. My weekly “wall of blue” (what I refer to my calendar – and what it looks like – basically fully committed between 9 and 5 from Monday to Friday) was another.

About four years ago I started removing time-based disciplines from my life. I still have many time-based rhythms – often imposed by others – that I adhere to. Most of the business world runs on a time-based rhythm (hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually) so that’s a background that I have to operate within. However, I’ve systematically tried to eliminate as many of these self-imposed rhythms as I can.

I wake up whenever I feel like it. I try to schedule less, not more, phone calls. I try to leave an increasing amount of time unscheduled. There are long stretches of time where this is difficult, and the wall of blue takes over.

As I rolled into August, I knew I was facing an intense two weeks. I foreshadowed that in my post Total Failure at Summer Maker Mode. After writing one more post on July 31st, I gave myself permission to take a two-week vacation from blogging.

Regularly readers notice when I go off the grid for a vacation, which varies in length from a week to a month. This wasn’t a work vacation, but it was a blogging vacation. It felt good not to think about writing for two weeks as I just focused on work, running, resting, and being with Amy.

While my schedule is still pretty full, it’s not as full, and as I look forward the wall of blue has some space in it. Between that, and a nice two-week break, writing once again appeals to me.

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