Month: December 2019

Dec 31 2019

Book: Lost and Wanted

I stayed up late last night finishing Lost and Wanted. If you are a reader, get this book in physical form. It’s worth savoring.

Amy bought this book for me last week. When I asked her why, she belted out a stream of words: “MIT, female professor, the afterlife, sexual harassment, physics, racism, women.”

She then said, “Fiction is a good way to access complicated topics.” This is a recurring dynamic in our relationship, as we often use shared fiction to discuss complex topics. Amy hasn’t read the book yet, so it’s now on the top of her infinite pile of books to read.

Whenever we overlap reading books, even if they are separated by time, I have to be careful about what I say. The other day, as Amy was grinding through the first 100 pages of The Three-Body Problem, she said, “I’m not sure I’m going to finish this.” I asked a simple question, “Have you reached the Trisolarans and their eleven dimensions.” She responded, “AEEEEEEEKKKK are you ruining it for me?” I said, “Hang in there – the first 100 pages are hard.” She finished it that day and the next day I heard her utter, “Holy Shit – the Droplet!”

Amy’s going to love Nell Freudenberger‘s writing. It’s remarkable to me that Freudenberger didn’t know any of the physics in this book before she wrote it. It’s beautifully done, extremely accessible, and very meta to the underlying story.

My reading in 2019 took me far and wide. I’m happy with my shift to the infinite pile of physical stuff when I’m home, and my Kindle when I’m on the road, as I feel like I’m getting a better variety this way.

Happy almost New Year.

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Dec 30 2019

Life in 2050

As I often do, I had a long, complicated dream last night. I’ve been fighting off a cold, so let’s call it a fever dream. During the dream, I saw the number 2050 on something.

In 2050, I’ll be 84 – an old man by today’s standards. I was running through a city full of tall buildings. It was the middle of the day, but the streets were relatively empty. Little vehicles flew overhead constantly, but they were background noise.

The buildings were full of people. The first floor of the buildings was an extended indoor park – kind of how I envision Chicago’s Lincoln Park in the summer.

While there were people everywhere, there were no offices. There were no retail stores. If there were restaurants, they were embedded within the indoor parks. Maybe the indoor parks were one giant Starmazon facility.

Block after block. The buildings were different shapes and sizes, but they were all modern high-rises. Some might have been apartment buildings while others were offices, but they were now one gigantic container for people.

I went through a portal at the end of a block. I’m fascinated with farcasters from Hyperion – they regularly show up in my dreams – so I’m sure that’s the reference. Without breaking stride, my run continued on a mountain trail. Other than trees, bugs, dirt, flowers, and whatever animals were hiding nearby, there was only me.

The trail ended at a house that I entered. I went to room and sat down on a couch. The wall lit up with video and I suddenly was talking to my partner Seth about something.

I woke up. I was covered in sweat – a combination of the room being too warm and whatever my body was doing to try to knock out my cold. The thought, “why would anyone go to an office” rolled through my mind.

I dozed but remembered the thought when I woke up.

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Dec 29 2019

Book: One Base at a Time

29 years of nightmares. Over 10,000 nights in a row. That’s hard to fathom.

David R. Mellor, the Senior Director of Grounds for the Boston Red Sox Baseball team, experienced this. His eloquent memoir, One Base at a Time: How I Survived PTSD and Found My Field of Dreams, takes the reader on a very complicated journey, with extremely obvious physical pain intermingled with less apparent emotional pain.

David describes it amazingly well in the summary on his website.

For 29 years, every night I had one to five night terrors/nightmares and was scared to go to sleep. During that time in my life I was also having flashbacks often triggered if I heard a revving car engine, squealing tires, the smell of car exhaust, or the aroma McDonald’s french fries. At the time, I didn’t understand what my symptoms were or how best to treat them. I was too ashamed and scared to ask for help.

A chance reading of a magazine article set the course for treatment of my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I was at my doctor’s office to receive acupuncture for pain management and looking for something to read during the treatment. A Smithsonian magazine caught my eye because it contained an article about a new facility treating veterans with PTSD (see article here). My oldest daughter was studying psychology and interning at the newly formed Home Base Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and I thought the article might give me some insight into what she was learning. As I read the article I realized I suffered from most of the symptoms it described as relating to PTSD. No doctor had ever asked me or my wife about PTSD. I always thought only active duty military members or veterans could have PTSD from the horrors of war. Now I know that anyone can get PTSD from a life threatening trauma. As a result, I don’t want other people who are dealing with PTSD to suffer in silence like I did. I tried my best to protect my family: I tried to keep my symptoms a deeply guarded secret because I didn’t want to burden them. Now I know that I wasn’t able to protect and shield them from my PTSD symptoms, as through treatment I have learned that PTSD affects the entire family.

A tragedy of his story is that it took him many years before realizing he had PTSD. Soon after he started getting treatment for PTSD, his nightmares stopped.

After finishing the book, I went down the David R. Mellor rabbit hole on the web. This ESPN video segment with his dog Drago is powerful.

As is this one.

David’s story is incredibly inspiring for anyone, but especially powerful if you suffer from PTSD or any related mental health issues.

I love how David ends his bio:

Many people have told me they think I’m one of the most unlucky people in the world since I’ve been hit by a car 3 times and had 43 surgeries and PTSD to name a few things. But I strongly disagree; I think I’m one of the luckiest people in the world. It’s up to us how we turn our challenges into opportunities to not only help ourselves but help others too.

In my book, there is no stigma here. Only life.

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Dec 28 2019

Two Hours and Fourteen Minutes of Intense Anxiety

Amy and I went to see Uncut Gems last night. It was a gem of a movie.

Adam Sandler was magnificent. My inner 14 year old loves his puerile movies and when I read the New York Times Magazine article Adam Sandler’s Everlasting Shtick around Thanksgiving I knew I had to see this movie.

Amy and I had a calm sushi dinner at our favorite place in Longmont, went to Staples and bought some office supplies, and then settled into the theater for 30 minutes of previews. We sort of knew what we were getting into, so we thought we were ready.

About an hour into the movie I realized I was holding my breath. I looked over at Amy and she was gripping the chair. I looked around the theater and saw what appeared to be a bunch of people in various stages of rictus.

About fifteen minutes later I realized I was touching my fingernails and glasses over and over again in one of my old OCD rhythms.

If you’ve ever been out of control going downhill on skis or a bike, that’s what the movie felt like. For over two hours.

The ending was completely and totally unexpected.

And then we were out in the parking lot, in the cold Colorado December pre-snow night, walking to our car. Stunned silent.

I know some people who say they are never anxious. I know others who are anxious all the time. And many others who don’t acknowledge their anxiety.

Anxiety is a thing I’ve struggled with my entire life. I’ve learned how to manage it, and how to take care of myself so it doesn’t rise up on a regular basis. But soaking in it for over two hours was intense and it’s still echoing for me this morning.

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Dec 26 2019

Books: The Bright Hour and The Migration

My dreams were vibrant and bizarre last night. It’s no surprise since I finished two books yesterday – The Bright Hour and The Migration. These followed a three-day binge of The Expanse Season 4, which had echoes of BSG Season 3.

I have a recurring nightmare about accounting. I’m running a business, but I can’t get the monthly financials produced. We are many months behind and my partner (sometimes Dave, sometimes my Dad) keeps coming up with reasons we can’t close the books. I continue to hear “we have cash in the bank so don’t worry.” I wander down the endless hallways of my office trying to find the CFO (sometimes Stephanie, sometimes Amy, sometimes someone I don’t know) but I can never find her (it’s always a woman.) There is no resolution to this dream, just a feeling of fear, emptiness, and impending loss.

Yeah, it’s an anxiety dream about company mortality. And both books were about human mortality.

The Bright Hour is a Nina Riggs memoir of her battle with metastatic breast cancer. It’s the gender bookend to Paul Kalanithi’s book When Breath Becomes Air. Equally magnificent, powerful, beautiful, sad, and humbling, all at the same time. I didn’t want the book to end, as I knew that when it did, I’d have to accept that Nina didn’t survive. I knew that before starting the book, but somehow I was able to suspend disbelief of the inevitable while I still had some pages left to read.

The Migration is Helen Marshall’s first novel and it A+++. It’s also about death, with the backdrop of a mysterious plague-like disease that creates hormonal changes in teenagers. Of course, that’s not really what is happening, but that’s part of the power of the story. There are elements of YA here, with teenage protagonists, but it’s not a YA book.

My 2019 reading has been wide and varied but the infinite pile of books to read has grown higher. I’ve got lots of physical books to read for some reason, so that’s what I’m chewing on now. Kindle when I’m traveling; physical when I’m home. We’ll see how that goes for a while.

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Dec 24 2019

The Day Before Christmas

“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

This is a confusing time of year for me. Hanna Ingber described it well this morning in her article My Jewish Sons Have a Christmas Tree, and I Need to Deal.

Fortunately, I don’t have children, my wife isn’t divorcing me, and she’s remarkably mellow about my Christmas confusion. But, when I read through Hanna’s article, I kept nodding my head up and down.

When I take a vacation, I generally go off the grid completely. But the last two weeks of the year never feel like a vacation to me. Many people in my world check out, go on vacation, and stop working. The pace of everything radically changes.

That’s ok. I spend my time writing, catching up on stuff that’s been lingering for a while, and read a lot.

But my disorientation really amplifies when I venture outside the safe confines of my house. Amy and I went to dinner Sunday at our favorite local Chinese place and faced an onslaught of Christmas music. She commented on the paper cutout snowflakes hanging on the windows. Pride lights were everywhere which made me smile until it occurred to me that they were probably simply Christmas lights.

“Twas the day before Christmas, when all through the blogosphere
Not a VC was writing, not even an associate.
VC Twitter showed exotic holiday trips and Medium was vigilant,
In hopes that the partners soon would be back.

We decided to be completely American-counterculture this year and take our vacation in the middle of January when everyone is back in the madness of the new year. We’ll be celebrating the run-up to Chinese New Year.

Until then, I’m substituting Hildegard of Bingen and Sigur Ros for Christmas music.

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Dec 23 2019

Changing How You Think About Budgets

I received plenty of useful feedback on my rant Budgets – There Has To Be A Better Way.

Two of the links that I found particularly helpful were:

Robert Howell points to a longer term view than one year with his suggestion around rolling plans. He also emphasizes a focus on economic value – specifically future cash flows – rather than accounting earnings. Simply – focus on cash, rather than non-cash calculations. He ends with a great paragraph on eliminating the word “budget” and reorienting it around your specific goal (e.g. “profit plan”, or “break-even plan”, or “maximum monthly investment of $500k plan.”)

Ben Horowitz describes how his budgeting process almost bankrupted his company LoudCloud, and how he now suggests a different approach based on constraints. It’s especially relevant for fast-growing companies. His approach is summarized below.

  • Run rate increase – Note that I say “run rate increase” and not “spend increase”. You should set a limit on the amount by which you are willing to increase what you are spending in the last month of the coming year vs. the previous year.
  • Earnings/Loss – If you have revenue, another great constraint is your targeted earnings or loss for the year.
  • Engineering growth rate – Unless you are making an acquisition and running it separately or sub-dividing engineering in some novel way, you should strive not to more than double a monolithic engineering organization in a 12-month period.
  • Ratio of engineering to other functions – Once you have constrained engineering, then you can set ratios between engineering and other functions to constrain them as well.

Then:

  1. Take the constrained number that you created and reduce it by 10-25% to give yourself room for expansion, if necessary.
  2. Divide the budget created above in the ratios that you believe are appropriate across the team.
  3. Communicate the budgets to the team.
  4. Run your goal-setting exercise and encourage your managers to demonstrate their skill by achieving great things within their budgets.
  5. If you believe that more can legitimately be achieved in a group with more money, then allocate that manager extra budget out of the slush fund you created with the 10-25%.

I love the theory of constraints as an operating principle for many things, and Ben applies it really well in his post.

Both articles are worth a detailed read – they are each short, but full of goodness.

I wonder if it means anything that each of the author’s last names starts with the letter H?

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Dec 19 2019

2020 Vision

“This budget will let us have 2020 vision.”

I heard that quote at the end of a board meeting yesterday and laughed out loud. As someone with terrible eyesight (I’ve worn glasses since age 3 and had eye surgery at age 8), my “vision” has always been suspect …

I’m in Seattle for a few days doing the end of year board meeting/budget drill at a number of our Seattle-based companies and thought this was a priceless pun.

The person who said it also had complete awareness that the budget isn’t a prediction of what is actually going to happen in 2020, which made the statement even more clever.

I made sure to wipe off the lenses of my glasses before my next meeting to try to see a little better. By the time I got back to the hotel room at the end of the day, they were once again dirty and covered with dried raindrops.

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Dec 16 2019

Budgets – There Has To Be A Better Way

We are in the middle of the budget planning process at many companies. This is a recurring Q4 event that spills over into Q1. Budgets for the next year (2020) get finalized between December 2019 and February 2020.

As I was daydreaming the other day during a budget discussion, I thought to myself “there has to be a better way.”

Since I started investing in private companies 25 years ago, I’ve been experiencing the same cycle over and over again.

The normal situation is end of year budget planning. Q1 performance on plan. Q2 performance slightly different from plan. Q3 and Q4 performance divergent from plan.

Occasionally companies completely miss their Q1 plan. I’ve always viewed the Q1 plan as a competency test – if you can’t make your Q1 plan, something fundamental is wrong with the business. Of course, when you blow your Q1 budget, the plan goes out the window and gets redone.

Occasionally companies far exceed their budget in Q1 or Q2 or find themselves on a positive trendline that has nothing to do with the original budget. Or, the opposite.

The budgets also have huge variability after financings, when suddenly the budget gets recast given the new money in the bank, or the constraints against hiring are removed and costs increase suddenly, even if this is only to “catch up” with the budget that was underhired to.

It’s all lagging indicators anyway when looking at performance to budget. By the time the November financials are reported, we are already deep into December, and that assumes there is a robust discussion around the monthly company performance.

Some companies are excellent at managing this process. Most are not.

I know of a few very companies, including one very large one (Koch Industries), that famously run without budgets. I’ve tried lots of small incremental things over the years, such as 1H, 2H budgets (running on a six-month budgeting process) and having an expense only budget that lags revenue by a quarter, but I’ve never really landed on something that (a) works, (b) is materially easier, and that (c) management accepts.

When you add up all the time spent on budgeting across all the organizations on the planet (including government), the human species wastes an enormous amount of time on a thing we don’t do very well.

There must be a better way.

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Dec 12 2019

Bringing The Helium Network to Boulder

My partners at Foundry Group have decided to bring the Helium Network to Boulder. We’ve ordered 50 hotspots and, with your help, will set up a LongFi network throughout Boulder.

If you are asking, “What’s Helium?” here’s a fun video to get you started along with a deeper explanation of the technology.

As an LP in USV, we are small indirect investors. But, as a way to engage with a particular blockchain-based application/technology that we think has meaningful real-world potential, we thought we’d help enable a network in Boulder and see how it works.

We are looking for about 40 locations throughout Boulder (not just downtown) to set up hotspots. All you have to do is connect the Helium hotspot to the Internet. We’ll handle the rest.

If this is interesting to you, please fill out the Boulder Helium Hotspot Application. We are only choosing 40 locations, and we are going to spread them out as best as we can, so if you aren’t chosen, and you still want to be part of this, you can always buy a Helium Hotspot directly.

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