Eleven days ago, I got the following email from David.
Since you’ve enjoyed my books in the past (e.g. Superposition), I’m letting you know I have a new one out. No worries if you’re not interested; just letting you know. Hope all is well with you and yours.
When paleontologists Samira and Kit uncover dinosaur skeletons in northern Thailand, they find the remains of an ancient genetic technology that nations will kill to control. Catapulted into a web of murder and intrigue involving the Chinese Ministry of State Security, a powerful Asian crime syndicate, the CIA, and a beautiful Thai princess, Samira and Kit don’t know who they can trust. Torn apart by competing factions and stranded on opposite sides of the world, they race to discover the truth before the world goes to war. Can they bring the past to life before it kills them all?
“Walton has brought hard sci-fi roaring back to life.” –Wall Street Journal
I started the The Genius Plague on Saturday morning and finished Three Laws Lethal last night. They were both spectacular.
It’s easy to relate to The Genius Plague since we just experienced a pandemic that is trying to shift from epidemic to endemic and failing (according to some) while being a non-issue (according to others). But what if the first order impact of the disease was something other than death and the second order impact could go in multiple directions, depending on … Ok, I won’t spoil it for you.
Three Laws Lethal was even more delicious. I expect many readers of this blog know Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. But do you know the Three Laws of Warfighting AIs? Mikes played a central role and I kept waiting for a Mike and Ike reference, but it never appeared. Maybe there will be a sequel.
Since Matt Levine is so effectively covering anything interesting in the world of the Twitter deal (and all kinds of bizarre, random, and complicated crypto, fraud, debt, and other financial stuff), I think I’ll stick with book reviews for the time being.
Andy Dunn, who I only know indirectly, wrote an important book titled Burn Rate: Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind. While it covers the story of Andy’s company, Bonobos, it’s really about mental health and entrepreneurship.
While there might be other entrepreneur autobiographies like Burn Rate, I can’t think of any. The closest is Tracy Kidder’s awesome book titled A Truck Full of Money about Paul English, an entrepreneur I do happen to know.
Tracy’s book is a mix of Paul’s entrepreneurial story combined with his experience being bipolar. Andy’s book is his entrepreneurial story combined with his experience of being bipolar. Both are remarkably brave books. Andy’s autobiography is particularly powerful since he is extremely detailed about several of the manic experiences that he had while running Bonobos.
While I don’t know Andy, I know several of his investors. His description of how they handled the situation of discovering Andy’s mental health diagnosis made me proud to know them. Andy decided to proactively hold a board meeting to describe what had happened that resulted in him ending up in the hospital and jail. One of his board members, Joel Peterson (who I don’t know), is remarkable.
“When I got out of the hospital, I walked straight into handcuffs. The City of New York charged me with misdemeanor assault and felony assault of a senior citizen.”
“Has there been a diagnosis?” Joel Peterson asked.
“The diagnosis is bipolar disorder type I. I was originally diagnosed when I was twenty, and I’ve been in denial about it for sixteen years.” A brief silence.
“I know a few folks who have dealt with what you’re dealing with, Andy,” Joel said calmly, holding true to his role as my professional father figure, “including more than a couple of entrepreneurs. It’s entirely manageable. I have full faith in you to take care of yourself, and I have full confidence in you as our CEO.”
Andy covers the rest of the board meeting discussion, including questions from board members about whether he was getting appropriate treatment, his legal situation, and the game plan for addressing any publicity around the situation.
A while ago, I was at a dinner with a bunch of VCs and entrepreneurs, including several very famous ones. One of the entrepreneurs stated clearly that if he ever talked openly about his struggle with depression, his board would immediately fire him. Fortunately, this was not the response of Andy’s board, as they took in the situation, asked questions about it, and made rational and deliberate decisions about what to do going forward. It’s worth noting that Andy was still the CEO of Bonobos when Walmart acquired it several years later.
I’m hopeful that Andy’s book will continue to help destigmatize mental health in entrepreneurship. Thanks, Andy, for being willing to write such an intimate story about your experience.
Steve Case’s new book, The Rise of the Rest: How Entrepreneurs in Surprising Places are Building the New American Dream, is out. I read it on Sunday, and it is outstanding. If you are interested in understanding how high-tech entrepreneurship has evolved from a primarily coastal phenomenon to one that covers the entire US in the past decade, grab this book now.
Steve is a great storyteller. While he tells the entrepreneurs’ stories, he has been part of helping create them. He created Rise of Rest and did the first of many bus tours in 2014. I was part of the one in Denver, and my partner Chris Moody was part of the one in Birmingham. They were each awesome experiences.
This is the story of what happened on those bus tours, people who were connected, companies that were amplified, financings that happened, and cities that were energized around entrepreneurship.
For the past dozen years, I’ve spent plenty of energy on democratizing entrepreneurship. I’ve worked with Steve and his team on multiple initiatives, including Startup America and Up Global. Steve’s supported me on several things I’ve done, including writing the foreword to Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City.
When I was a young entrepreneur in my 20s, Steve was a hero of mine. My AOL username was bfeld, which was where my Twitter handle (and everything else I signed up for on the web came from.) Now that I’m a middle-aged something or other at 56, Steve’s still a hero of mine. I expect this is true for many other entrepreneurs.
About a year ago, I decided to take a summer vacation from blogging. I didn’t feel like blogging when summer ended, so I extended my blogging vacation indefinitely. I figured I’d wake up one day and feel like blogging again or not. That summer vacation (from blogging) lasted a year.
Initially, I was working on a new book that I got bored of midway through the summer. I put it on the shelf with several other partially completed books. Google Docs now has a surprising number of my started but unfinished books.
Sometime in the fall, Matt Blumberg (Bolster CEO) approached me about doing a 2nd Edition of Startup Boards. Matt and I were on the board together of Return Path, his previous company, for almost 20 years. So when Mahendra Ramsinghani came out with the 1st Edition of Startup Boards in 2013, Matt gave me plenty of feedback on the book. Then, in fall 2021, he correctly suggested that the book needed a significant refresh.
While I always felt the 1st Edition was an important book, I never loved it. Mahendra and I worked hard on it, but I felt like I forced a lot of my writing at some point. Long-time readers of this blog know I had an extended depressive episode in the first half of 2013, and this book was one of the chores that I felt like I just had to get done in that period. Mahendra was kind and patient with me, but I’m sure there were moments when he wanted to scream something like, “Brad, will you just do the writing you said you’d do so we can get this book finished?”
So, we decided to do a 2nd Edition which is now finished and shipping on 6/15. I’m psyched about it. Matt contributed a lot of new content, and I had a chance to rework and refactor the entire book. I had plenty of energy for it, and, given that I’ve written a few more books and thousands of blog posts since 2013, my writing has continued to improve.
Early in the refactoring, we got feedback from several women that the 1st Edition wasn’t very accessible to them because all the sidebars and quotes were from men. So I made a Google Sheet of all the sidebars and quotes, and my brain broke for long enough that I had to go for a walk. So even though I thought I was self-aware and engaged in gender equity in tech in 2013, my actions, at least concerning this book, didn’t match my words.
Subsequently, we replaced about 50% of the sidebars and quotes with new ones from women and people of color. We also changed the pronoun dynamics to use the Singular They, which I am trying to do in all my writing (if you are interested in this topic, Khan Academy has an awesome video.)
Startup Boards: A Field Guide to Building and Leading an Effective Board of Directors 2nd edition launch day is 6/15. If you are interested, pre-order it now.
Matt Blumberg has a new book out titled Startup CXO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Company’s Critical Functions and Teams. It’s a follow-up to his previous book, Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business.
I’ve been working with Matt since 2000. That year, we merged two companies: Return Path and Veripost. Matt was the co-founder/CEO of Return Path. Fred Wilson was his lead investor. I was the lead investor for Veripost. The two companies did the same thing and were the only two competitors in a nascent category called “email change of address” (Veripost’s original name was IECOA which stood for “Internet Email Change of Address”). They were bashing each other over the head in a non-existent market as the Internet bubble began collapsing.
The founders of each company talked and, in between efforts to decimate the other, agreed it might be worth merging to survive. This guy named Greg Sands at a firm called Sutter Hill had met with both and was interested in the category and encouraged them to merge, at which point he’d fund the combined company. Fred called me and said, “Let’s figure out a deal.” I said, “They are both worthless right now – how about 50/50?” Fred responded with, “I have more money invested in Return Path than you do in Veripost – how about 55/45.” I answered, “Deal.” So for the deal, investors on both sides converted to common, we split the combined company 55/45, Matt became CEO, and Greg led a new Series A financing into the combined company. Twenty years later, we sold the business, a $100 million, profitable company, to Validity. Matt was still CEO. Fred, Greg, and I were still on the board.
Last year, Matt started a new company called Bolster. He co-founded it in partnership with High Alpha (we are LPs) and SVB. Soon thereafter, USV (Fred’s firm – we are LPs) and Costanoa (Greg’s firm – we are LPs) invested. It’s off to a great start. If you are looking to expand your leadership team or board, are looking for a part-time executive role or board role, or are an investor looking for fractional executives to join your portfolio companies, you should become part of the Bolster network right now.
I’ve worked with Matt for over 20 years and have experienced many ups and downs. His hard-won lessons from Return Path show up in Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business.
For lessons from Matt and his Return Path management team, many of who are now execs at Bolster, you want to read Startup CXO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Company’s Critical Functions and Teams. When I saw the outline for Startup CXO, I grinned a wry smile. The book is 132 chapters broken into 11 sections. After the intro, the following sections are written by each exec.
There’s a final part on The Future of Fractional Executive Work with a chapter by a different leader for each area above. Matt’s writing shows up regularly throughout, including an ending chapter for each section titled CEO-to-CEO Advice.
Each chapter is two to five pages long. It’s tons of information, organized well, in tight, bite-sized chunks. For example, here are the chapters in Part Five: Sales by Anita Absey (p. 247-302)
The brilliance of this book is that everyone on your leadership team, including the CEO, should read it and then discuss it. Pick one section each week. At the end of a quarter, the entire team will have discussed all the functional roles, have a deeper understanding of expectations and responsibilities, use a common language for talking about what people are doing, and be able to adapt things to your own company. Also, if you aspire to be a CXO – you can figure out your career path by understanding the whole functioning of the relevant and adjacent departments.
I’m going to encourage every leadership team I work with to take this approach with Startup CXO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Company’s Critical Functions and Teams.
Matt and team, thanks for writing this!
I reread Enough.: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life by John C. Bogle over the weekend. I’d read it in 2012 and it had a huge impact on me.
If you aren’t familiar with John C. Bogle, he founded The Vanguard Group, is credited with inventing the index fund and is a spectacular writer (every one of his books is worth reading.) He passed away in 2019 at the age of 89, but I expect his legacy will last a very long time.
I was pondering some things that were bothering me, specifically about crypto, but more generally about current themes around investing. I thought I’d revisit Enough. to see if it helped me work them out. I found my answer in Chapter 2: “Too Much Speculation, Not Enough Investment.”
Let’s start with Bogle’s definition of Investing and Speculating.
Investing is all about the long-term ownership of businesses. Business focuses on the gradual accumulation of intrinsic value, derived from the ability of our publicly owned corporations to produce the goods and services that our consumers and savers demand, to compete effectively, to thrive on entrepreneurship, and to capitalize on change. Business adds value to our society, and to the wealth of our investors.
Speculating is precisely the opposite. It is all about the short-term trading, not long-term holding, of financial instruments — pieces of paper, not businesses — largely focused on the belief that their prices, as distinct from their intrinsic value, will rise; indeed, an expectation that prices of the stocks that are selected will rise more than other stocks, as the expectations of other investors rise to match one’s own.
What was bothering me was simple: the narrative around many things has shifted to the far end of speculating. I don’t participate in this particular type of narrative, but I’m surrounded by it. I don’t behave as a speculator. While I invest in many things, I rarely sell anything until there is a “defined exit,” where I have a very explicit internal definition of “defined exit.”
As someone who has held private company stock in companies for longer than 20 years, been in many situations where there were no exit opportunities until suddenly there was an exit, I understand and am completely comfortable will illiquidity. And the idea of an investment.
I’m completely uninterested in speculating. In the mid-1990s, when I had a bunch of money after the sale of my first company, I bought and sold some public company stocks. I got sucked into giving some of my money to a money manager at Goldman Sachs and one at Lehman. They happily traded equities for me, which mostly just cost me fees in the end, although I covered it all with a crazy transaction into a weird Exchange Fund that GS created in 2000. I put a bunch of Exodus stock I’d gotten from the sale of a company into the fund. Exodus went bankrupt, so my contribution to the exchange fund was $0, but when the exchange fund paid out seven years later, I got 1.5x my investment. The only reason I got to play in the exchange fund was I had the GS account where they were trading stocks, and the guy I worked with offered up access to it. Totally random and completely dumb luck as I would have likely held the remaining Exodus stock I had all the way to $0. In hindsight, even writing this paragraph is more reinforcement to me of my ultimate lack of interest in this stuff.
As I watch crypto speculation expand into retail stock speculation, which then gets amplified broadly by zero-fee trading apps that aren’t really zero-fee and watch the SEC tangle itself up trying to figure out how to monitor Twitter and Reddit accounts of high profile people who clearly are playing age-old promotion games, regardless of whether or not there are actual pump and dump schemes behind their actions, I become extremely bored. This boredom has a layer of annoyance coating it, especially given the extraordinary 15 months of Covid we’ve just gone through.
Maybe as sports come back, some of this energy will shift back to sports. Now that proxy betting online has become essentially real cash betting online, even though the laws around this (at least in the US) haven’t really resolved, and everyone online has figured out how to get around all the rules, the speculating can become called “betting” again. Or maybe “betting” will just become speculating. It doesn’t really matter since they are fundamentally the same thing.
Let’s go back to Bogle. “Investing … adds value to our society, and to the wealth of our investors” and “Speculating is precisely the opposite.”
Ask yourself, “Is what I am doing adding value to our society?”
Enough has three sections: Money, Business, and Life. While I found the answer to what was bugging me in Chapter 2, the section on Life is awesome. The three chapters are:
Bogle completely nails this topic without being preachy, annoying, arrogant, or directive. As writing goes, it’s as beautiful and powerful as it gets. I strongly recommend Enough.: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life, especially if you have enough but don’t realize it.
My newest book, The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche: A Book for Disruptors, shipped today. It’s available on Amazon in Kindle, Paperback, and Hardcover. If you are so inclined, go buy a copy today!
I’m particularly proud of this book, as it is a more philosophical approach to entrepreneurship than my other books. I wrote it with Dave Jilk, the co-founder of our first company (Feld Technologies, 1987) and one of my closest friends for 38 years.
The book contains 52 individual chapters (hence the “Weekly” in the title) and is divided into five major sections (Strategy, Culture, Free Spirits, Leadership, and Tactics). Each chapter begins with a quote from one of Nietzsche’s works, using a public domain translation, followed by our own adaptation of the quote to 21st-century English. Next is a brief essay applying the quote to entrepreneurship. About two-thirds of the chapters include a narrative by or about an entrepreneur we know (or know of), telling a concrete story from their personal experience as it applies to the quote, the essay, or both.
Our goal with this book is to make you think, rather than try to tell you the answers. For example, here’s the Nietzsche quote from a chapter titled “Obsession” from the section on “Free Spirits”.
“The passion which seizes the noble man is a peculiarity, without his knowing that it is so: the use of a rare and singular measuring-rod, almost a frenzy: the feeling of heat in things that feel cold to all other persons: a divining of values for which scales have not yet been invented: a sacrificing on altars which are consecrated to an unknown God: a bravery without the desire for honor: a self-sufficiency which has superabundance: and imparts to men and things.”
Our interpretation is:
In other words: A noble man has exceptional passion, but does not realize just how unusual it is: he has high standards for success, enthusiasm for things that others find dull, a sense of what will be valuable in the future, intense but unexplained motivations, courage without the need for praise, and the ability to sustain and revel in this intensity without support from others.
And the chapter begins with:
You may have noticed that this chapter is titled Obsession, but Nietzsche seems to be talking about passion. For several years, Brad has written and spoken about the pitfalls of “passion” in entrepreneurs, distinguishing it from “obsession,” which is a quality he looks for. Dictionaries generally speak of passion as a strong emotion, while obsession is a preoccupation of the mind. We have a hunch that Nietzsche is trying to make a similar distinction here. The word “obsession” did not come into common use until later. Earlier in the text, he says, “What then makes a person ‘noble’?…Certainly not that he generally follows his passions; there are contemptible passions.” It is worth asking yourself whether you are obsessed with your business and the problem it solves for customers or merely passionate about it.
If you intend to disrupt an industry or change the world, you must expect people to see you as crazy, intransigent, and possibly sociopathic. Maybe you are. To sustain yourself and your efforts in such a climate, you must find your drive within. You must know your vision and why it matters to you. Importantly, you cannot feel that its correctness depends on your ability to explain it to others. You must be obsessed.
Each essay from us is two to three pages long, so they are easy to quickly consume and then reflect on. The narratives from entrepreneurs telling their story as it applies to the quote are also a few pages long.
For one more taste, here’s the Nietzsche quote and our interpretation chapter called “Attracting Followers” from the chapter on “Leadership”.
“Men press forward to the light not in order to see better but to shine better.—The person before whom we shine we gladly allow to be called a light.”
In other words: People are drawn to light because it shines on them, not because it shows them the way. A person who makes us shine is someone we gladly call a light.”
I hope this inspires you to get a copy of The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche: A Book for Disruptors. I’d love to hear what you think about it.
My newest book, The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche: A Book for Disruptors, comes out next Tuesday, May 25th.
This has been an on-again, off-again project with Dave Jilk that began in 2013. We were spending the weekend in Keystone with our wives (Amy and Maureen), which generally involved a lot of sitting around reading. Dave was reading On Nietzsche by Eric Steinhart. He read a quote to me and asked if I thought it sounded like an entrepreneur. Dave remembers me saying, “Hmmm, it sure does.” Then we both went back to our books.
At the time, I knew nothing about Nietzsche. Actually, I knew less than nothing since everything I knew about him was wrong.
Dave is one of my best friends. We met over 38 years ago, on my first day at MIT, right after the freshman picnic, when I ended up in a van that took me to ADP, the fraternity I ended up joining and living at for four years. Dave was a senior, and we became best friends. We started a company that year with Sameer Gandhi and Andy Mina called Martingale Software that failed pretty quickly. Several years later, we started Feld Technologies, which we ran together from 1987 to 1993 when we sold it to Sage Alerting Systems, which later renamed itself to AmeriData Technologies. We kept working together – him as an entrepreneur, me as an investor.
But “business” is only a small part of our relationship. For any close friendship that lasts 38 years, he has a better understanding of me than almost anyone else on this planet (Amy has him beat.) So, theoretically, he knew what he was getting into when we decided to start writing a book together. I expect there was a moment, though, where he shouted at the top of his lungs, “Brad, enough with the fucking commas.”
We made progress in fits and starts. Most of the fits were a result of me getting distracted by something else. Sometimes it was work. Sometimes it was another book that got in the way. Sometimes it was burnout – writing, work, or just general lassitude. Dave hung in there each time, giving me space, moving things forward without me, and then when I resurfaced, quickly kicking back into gear on his end to respond to whatever I was doing.
I’ll write plenty more about the book, Nietzsche, and why we think Nietzsche is so relevant to entrepreneurs, but I want to end with two paragraphs of appreciate for people.
The first is Ryan Holiday, who was an inspiration for me with his book The Daily Stoic. I read a page almost every day. Ryan inspires me at so many levels, but his ability to make stoicism accessible to entrepreneurs has been magical and transformative for many people I know, including me. I’m hopeful Dave and I can emulate even a tiny bit of what Ryan has accomplished, but this time with Nietzsche.
The second is Reid Hoffman. He agreed to write the foreword several years ago when I first told him about this project. He waited patiently, and he produced a brilliant foreword that captures the essence of what we’ve tried to do with the book. In addition, as a bonus, he used Nietzsche’s writing style for some of it. Reid is a great human, and I deeply appreciate his involvement in this project.
I’ve been reading hard science fiction lately, along with some actual science. The hard sci-fi includes Dragon’s Egg and Starquake by Robert Forward (wow – awesome) and Nova by Samuel Delany (also awesome). The science includes The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything by Michio Kaku and Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality by Frank Wilczek.
In between runs this weekend I finished Nova (I was listening to it on Audible), Fundamentals (I was reading it on Kindle), and read most of Starquake (It’s only available in physical form.) I also started listening to Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. The only thing that would have made this weekend better would be a third day to it, instead of the Monday in front of me.
Frank Wilczek is a legendary physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 2004 for “for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction.” with David Gross and David Politzer. His office at MIT is in the same hallway as Bernard Feld, my MIT namesake (Prof B. Feld, something I never became.) He also happens to be a spectacular writer.
Fundamentals is extremely accessible. After reading Michio Kaku’s The God Equation, I realized that I knew a lot of surface-level physics (and science in general), but there was a layer down, especially from the past 20 years, that was elusive. Kaku’s presented it in a way that one could understand without any deep quantum physics knowledge, so I went looking for more.
Wilczek delivered. The first part of the book, called “What There Is”, has five chapters.
As I read hard sci-fi, the entanglement of known science at the time (Nova was published in 1968; The Dragon’s Egg was published in 1980) along with speculation of where things were going (e.g. each book took place far in the future) created a contextual backdrop for me for Fundamentals that helped bring what we know, and what we don’t know, to the surface. Or, more specifically, what we knew (in 1968, 1980) that was right, and what doesn’t seem right anymore because it wasn’t known, or understood.
The shocker is how much is directionally correct. When I read Asimov from the 1950s (I, Robot is a good place to start), or Philip K. Dick from the 1960s (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a good place to start) I have the same feeling. Many details are completely wrong (e.g. how data is stored on auxtape) but others are completely correct (e.g. massive underground data centers). Hard sci-fi takes more risks on this dimension, and both Forward and Delany do an amazing job of both the science and the storytelling.
In the last 20 years, I’ve read a lot more sci-fi than science. That’s a miss on my part. Going forward, my diet will include both. And I hope to someday meet a Cheela. And a Shrike.