Amy and I didn’t feel like taking a Christmas or New Year’s vacation this year so we just hung around Boulder, worked, and did our thing. We then decamped to Mexico last week for warmth, sun, beach, and books. News flash: there are a lot fewer people at a fancy resort in Mexico in the third week of January.
It was a good reading week.
How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success: We don’t have kids, but a friend recommended this. I decided to read it to see if any of it applied to being an investor or board member in a company. Yup – a bunch of it was spot on. After reading it, I’m still glad I don’t have kids.
The Heap: A Novel: This one ended up on my Kindle because of my weekly perusal of the NY Times Book Review. The premise intrigued me. A 500 story tall building collapses in the desert and a community develops around it to excavate it. Once it got rolling, it moved quickly, but the interwoven historical backstory became a little tedious. But, for a first novel, it’s a great effort.
Veil: I got to read a draft of Eliot Peper‘s new book. Wowza. Elliot has turned into an incredible writer who totally dominates a near-term science fiction novel.
Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima: Yum yum. Todd Vernon pointed me at this one. It was long, chewing, and spectacular. After watching Chernobyl on HBO, I’ve become fascinated with nuclear energy. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to get a short course on it and I’ve thought about going back to MIT to get a degree in Course 22. While that’s a pretty steep hill to climb, I’m just enjoying a bunch of books for now. And yes, count me on the side of more nuclear.
Uncanny Valley: A Memoir: Loved it. Fantastic. Go get it right now. I particularly enjoyed how the author called people and companies out without naming them. This book nourished my inner Silicon Valley cynic.
Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. This one was recommended by Katie Elliott. I was hoping it was about nuclear energy, but it wasn’t. Amy looked over my shoulder while I was reading it and said, “James Clear’s book. You don’t need to read it because you do all that stuff already.” I read it anyway, one page at a time.
I sense an annual mid-January off-the-grid vacation in a warm place for the rest of my time on this planet.
I’ve noticed a degradation in presentation styles when displaying slides on a screen. This is starting to become a pet peeve of mine, so feel free to ignore me or tell me to get over myself if you disagree with this advice.
Assume a conference room with a large screen TV (or two) on the wall at the “front” of the room. The conference table – often a long rectangle – has chairs along the side perpendicular to the TV. The classical “head of the table” is at the far end facing the TV.
Why in the world would the presenter sit anywhere other than in one of the chairs at the end of the table closest to the TV?
Assume the TV is just showing slides. Don’t you want everyone in the room looking at you and the slides?
Assume there is video conferencing. In most cases, the slides will dominate and the video conferencing participants will be in small windows on the screen anyway. And, when they are looking at their computer while you are presenting, they will mostly see the slides anyway.
The only time this doesn’t apply is when there isn’t a presentation. When you are trying to engage the people on the video conference in the room during the meeting, and there is nothing being presented on the screen, the pet peeve that I have doesn’t apply.
In the world of paper presentations with no video screens, it made sense for the presenter to sit in the middle of one of the long sides of the table to engage the whole room. But, when there is a screen with stuff on it, position yourself near the screen so the people in the room can look at you and the screen at the same time.
As you might have seen in an earlier post, Foundry Group is helping to bring the Helium Network to Boulder. Another Helium fan – James Fayal – reached out to me about his effort to do the same in his hometown of Baltimore, as well as DC and Philly.
I’m hopeful that some of the readers of this blog live in Baltimore, DC, or Philadelphia and are interested in participating in the Helium rollout. If you fit this description, fill out the Mid-Atlantic Application.
James wrote me a little more about his background and motivation for doing this, which follows.
While I’m a consumer product founder by trade, I’ve been involved in various crypto projects since 2013. I’m excited about Helium because it is one of the first projects with significant real-world use-cases and the community has grown exponentially since they started selling hotspots earlier this year.
In short, Helium is building a ‘mesh’ network for LongFi data transmission, which can be used by IoT devices to transmit and receive data over long distances. You can see more about the technology here.
We’re looking to work with 15 – 25 locations in or around the cities of Baltimore, DC, and Philadelphia to host hotspots. We’ll be covering the cost of the unit and work with you to optimize the hotspot’s reach in the area. In return, we’ll be providing hosts with a % of the network’s tokens ‘mined’ by the hotspots.
If we’re successful, we could be one of the first regions of the United States with comprehensive coverage on the network!
To apply to be a host, fill out the Mid-Atlantic Application. Supply is limited and the Helium company is close to stocking out of their current batch of hotspots, but James will do his best to work with as many hosts in the area as possible.
And, if you are curious about the Boulder rollout, I’ve got 47 unallocated Helium hotspots in my office that are going to be provisioned in the next week. We will then start deploying them around town in the second half of January. While we have more than 47 people interested, if you have an interest and haven’t signed up on the Boulder Helium Hotspot Application, go for it so we know about anyone who wants to participate.
The phrase “frog in a blender” was in my head all afternoon. Earlier in the day, one of my partners described a situation as the cliche-ish “boil a frog slowly” and I responded with “We’d all be better off if we just put the frog in a blender.”
That generated grimaces.
I couldn’t find any “Will it Blend” for frogs, but I found the next best thing – Pickled Pigs Feet.
It doesn’t have quite the same rhythm, but you get the idea. As I hummed the song I made up to the phrase “Frog in a Blender”, I figured there must be a real song named this. There is, it’s awful, and the lyrics are horrifying, but whatever. My song is much better.
As I was driving home, working on the second verse, I flashed to a conversation with a friend I had a few months ago.
He said, “How do you eat a shit sandwich”? I responded with “Gross – no idea.” He said, “Quickly.” After I chucked, he said, “Ben Horowitz told me that.” So, I’m going to attribute that one to Ben Horowitz, which fits nicely with some of his anecdotes about shit in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things.
I like to be as deliberate as I can about decisions. I try to make them quickly, but with a reasonable amount of data and critical thinking. Sometimes this works, other times it doesn’t. When I reflect on the things that have caused me the most pain, it’s when I let a shit sandwich sit in my refrigerator for a while, looking at it every day when I get a kombucha. Or, when I wake up one day and realize that I’m the frog that has been boiling slowly.
I wonder if eating a shit sandwich quickly is the same as putting a frog in a blender. Both are pretty awful, but it seems like the best approach is to get it over with quickly.
My post The Future Of Work Is Distributed received some good comments. More interesting was the number of direct emails I received back with detailed information about “remote-first” companies and how they did things.
There was a distinction in some of these emails between “remote-first” and “multiple geographies.” It’s an important nuance, as there is a big difference between a fully distributed workforce (which the blockchain kids refer to as a “decentralized workforce”) and a multi-location workforce.
Almost every company in our portfolio with more than 50 employees either has or is looking at a second (or third, or fourth) location. This is especially true for companies headquartered in Silicon Valley, Seattle, and New York.
While I’ve observed (and experienced) mixed success with second locations being implemented too early, I’ve concluded that this is mostly a function of the company not having a handle on how to deal with a distributed workforce. When the CEO prioritized either distributed or remote work and makes it part of the wiring of how the company operates, it’s effective. When it’s an afterthought, a lifestyle choice, or a reaction to something, it fails.
I’ve found that secondary/tertiary US cities work better than international locations, with the exception of software/hardware engineering locations. Several of our companies have had great success in Eastern Europe and Russia with technical teams. China and India work, but seem to be harder and more hit or miss. Cities in the US that have concentrations of technical, sales, or operational talent, usually because of one specific employer or a highly motivated university nearby, have been surprisingly effective.
The biggest magic trick seems to be the “direct flight.” When it’s a two hour or less direct flight to the second location, people move easily between places. I knew this instinctively from all of my time traveling between the east coast and the west coast from Denver. When I went west, it was easy. When I went east, it was hard.
Magic trick number two is well-implemented video conferencing. I learned an approach many years ago from my now-partner Chris Moody that he used at Aquent when he was COO. He set up video conferencing in a cubical at each location at left it on all the time. Today, we have the equivalent on our desktops, so the cubical trick isn’t needed, but easy ways to immediately start video conferences at any time, as a substitute for in-person meetings, without having to go into separate rooms in the office, makes a huge difference in interpersonal interactions.
It seems pretty clear that a very large, single location company in Silicon Valley, New York, Seattle, and several other cities (e.g. LA, Boston) is getting much more challenging. Sure, it’s possible, but is it advisable?
I’ve been a remote worker for 24 years. While I have an office in Boulder, I’m physically in my office for a small amount of time.
For many years, this was a function of travel. My investments have always been geographically distributed across the US and I spent the majority of my time between Monday and Friday on the road.
I learned how to work in hotel rooms, in other people’s offices, in conference rooms, at coffee shops, and in houses (mine and friends.) In 1995, at the dawn of the age of the commercial Internet, this involved landlines, answering machines, pagers, and fax machines. Today, my bet is that most 25-year-olds have never used one of these things.
In the past few years, there have been several high profile examples of scaled companies that have a completely distributed workforce. Automattic (WordPress) is my favorite, as it’s been organized that way by design from inception. Zapier is another one that has gotten a lot of press lately around its distributed workforce approach. In a moment of delicious self-reference, Zapier put up a blog post titled 25+ Fully Remote Companies That Let You Work From Anywhere.
Many companies in our portfolio have multiple locations and increasingly distributed workforces. There’s a profound difference between “two locations” and “distributed”, but they are part of a similar phenomenon where the constraint of the physical is lowered.
As I reflect on my own work patterns, they are less and less connected to any particular physical space. This doesn’t mean that physical spaces are eliminated from my life, but that my work isn’t actually dependent on any of them. As I type of my laptop, in a room at my house in Longmont, with Amy sitting next to me, it’s easy to see how my day is going to unroll with a shower, followed by a video conference, and then an in-person meeting with someone coming to spend some time with me.
When I look at my schedule next week, I’m in my office on Monday for my partner meeting, but there’s literally no other reason I need to be in my office next week. I have some in-person meetings, but if the weather is nice, they will be walks outside. Any of them could be video conferences instead of face to face meetings.
In the past five years, as I’ve limited my travel, I’ve gained back a lot of time not spent moving from point A to point B. When I’ve chosen to travel as I did recently on a multi-day trip to Seattle, I’ve been able to be deliberate about where I was and who I spent time with, and none of it required me having a physical space.
I continue to strongly believe that place matters for the development of sustainable startup communities. But, this is different than physical office spaces. I’m going to explore this more over the next year as I continue to embrace the lack of constraints around physical space in my world.
If you have good or bad experiences with distributed work, I’d love to hear them. I know there is an increasing number of technologies in use for helping manage organizations that are distributed – I’m interested in real stories of what works, vs. marketing hype. And, given that humans are intensely social creatures, I’d love to hear stories about how you maintain the appropriate level of physical interaction in a distributed workforce.
Why doesn’t Amazon acquire Starbucks?
Starbucks has one thing Amazon doesn’t have – over 30,000 physical locations. Sure, Amazon owns Whole Foods, which has about 350 physical locations, but they are large food distribution facilities (e.g. grocery stores) rather than community meeting spaces (e.g. coffee shops).
Amazon’s market cap is $930b. Starbucks’ market cap is $104b. That’s roughly a 90% / 10% merger assuming no premium for Starbucks. Even with a huge premium, it’s still less than an 85% / 15% split.
Oh, and they are both headquartered in Seattle.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if the primary retail point of presence in the US suddenly became Amabucks?
I’m sure there’s a massive analysis of this somewhere in a corp dev department at Amazon or at investment banks pitching Amazon on the deal.
I’m trying to decide if I like the name Starmazon better.
Public Service Announcement: According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the American Astronomical Society, and the US Naval Observatory, today is not the beginning of a new decade. Rather, that would be 1/1/21. If you write software, you’ll recognize that it’s a classic fencepost error. If you are a philosophy major like Amy, you’ll tell me that a decade is “any ten year period of time, starting whenever you want it to.”
Regardless, happy Julien New Year.
My motto for v54 is Simply Begin Again.
Today is a perfect day to try it.
If your business had a crummy December, Q4, or even 2019, simply begin again.
If you had a fight with a close friend, call her up and apologize. And simply begin again.
If you are mad at someone, let your anger go. Call him up and simply begin again.
If you have fallen out of your exercise, meditation, reading, writing or any other rhythm, simply begin again.
If you drank too much last night and are hungover, simply begin again.
If you are confused about what you are doing, or unhappy about how you are spending your time, simply begin again.
If you are stuck with whatever you are working on, simply begin again.
If you are having any issue anywhere on anything, simply begin again.
Whether you think the new decade starts today or in almost 367 days, simply begin again.