At lunch today, Amy said “Welcome to January 112th.”
I just got an email from a friend that included the line, “I’m writing off the first 20 days of the year, so here’s to a much different 2021 starting next week!”
I didn’t really mark the end of the year as the “end of this phase.” The Covid crisis continues. The economic crisis continues. The mental health crisis continues. The racial equity crisis continues. Economic inequity is accelerating at a crazy pace. We just had an armed insurrection in the United States. 4,406 people died of Covid in the US in the last 24 hours.
I’m a long term optimist. But I’m also from Generation X, with the typical Gen-X characteristics of being cynical and disaffected. I embrace my slacker tendencies.
We are experiencing the culmination of many things. Amy and I have been talking about them each morning over coffee. In the midst of this, we are trying to stay centered, calm, and grounded. It’s hard.
During the Covid crisis, I’ve been regularly discussing the dramatic amplification of inequities that already existed. From a business perspective, some businesses have benefited during this crisis, while other businesses (and entire categories of business) are being wiped off the face of the earth.
Here’s a blunt statement of what’s going on that showed up in a Slack channel yesterday.
Working through my market portfolio this am and thought This metric would be of interest to this group. Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google, Netflix and Microsoft have added 3 trillion dollars to their value since COVID started. This is a deep wealth transfer from small businesses. These 6 companies have more market cap than the entire emerging market sector.
I’d like to introduce a new project – Can Do Colorado.
Covid has had a dramatic negative impact on local (or main street) businesses. Energize Colorado was set up in March to help companies with less than 500 employees survive and emerge from the Covid crisis. As part of the rapid scale-up of a new non-profit (now hundreds of active volunteers across the State), Energize Colorado has worked with many other non-profits supporting small businesses and has engaged in several public-private partnerships such as the Energize Colorado Gap Fund.
Can Do Colorado showcases small businesses’ hard work across the state through a series of short videos that strengthen customer confidence by connecting Colorado’s consumers with small businesses. The campaign extends a direct call to consumers to support businesses within their communities that are open, adhering to public health orders, and following best practices.
None of these activities would go anywhere without the deep, embedded, and optimistic spirit of Coloradans helping Coloradans. Starting today, let’s all embrace Can Do Colorado and help our local small businesses survive and emerge from this crisis.
We’ve learned many things in the last six months that help slow the spread of the Covid, such as social distancing, outdoor vs. indoor activity, and mask-wearing. We’ve also learned a lot about how to treat the disease.
But, regardless of what you think of the severity or impact of Covid, the transmission characteristics of the disease remain unchanged.
Many people worldwide, and in Colorado, are working tirelessly on controlling and mitigating the disease. Technology-based solutions around exposure notifications have been under discussion since April (here’s a post of mine from 4/23/20 titled Names Matter: Exposure Alerting vs. Digital Contact Tracing.)
Last week, the State of Colorado rolled out an exposure notification application built on and integrated into the Apple/Google approach. It’s privacy-first – completely anonymous, confidential – and extremely simple to turn on and use. In one week, over 10% of Colorado residents have enabled it.
The team at the State, led by Sarah Tuneberg, have been working intensely on this for many months. They’ve evaluated many different approaches, made privacy a critical feature, along with ease of implementation and use.
I’ve also been deep in this with several other initiatives, including a national Covid Tech Taskforce led by John Borthwick and Andrew McLaughlin. After seeing many different tech approaches, I’m confident Colorado has chosen the right one and built an application that can help mitigate the spread of Covid.
Coloradans – please help each other keep each other safe from Covid!
That is the amount that over 5,600 Colorado small businesses requested from the Energize Colorado Gap Fund in our first three weeks of open applications.
According to the SBA, small businesses in Colorado employ more than 1.1 million Coloradans, almost half of the state’s private workforce. 90% of the applicant pool came from one or more of the Gap Fund’s priority groups: BIPOC, women, veteran-owned, or companies in rural Colorado.
We anticipated that the demand for the Gap Fund would be massive and that we needed to provide a model that could offer a sustainable path through the post-Covid economic recovery. To that end, the Gap Fund provides a combination of grant and loan funds to recipients. We are using a Program Related Investment (PRI) model to offer ultra low-interest loans and guarantee repayment to our loan partners. We pair the PRI with philanthropic donations to cover the overhead and expected losses from running the ultra low-interest loan program. As a result, our financial model creates a 5x multiplier on grant dollars.
We need your help to meet the need and to maintain our commitment to rebuilding a statewide economy that is more inclusive and more resilient. On October 8th at 5:30 pm MST, I’m co-hosting a virtual fundraiser with my good friends Governor Jared Polis, Gap Fund Chair Kent Thiry, and Energize Colorado’s CEO, Wendy Lea. While we’ve raised over $25 million to date, we are looking to raise another $25 million. While we have a PRI contribution minimum of $50K, we accept donations at any level to help fuel our ability to provide loans to small businesses in need.
If you’re available, please register here to join us as part of the effort to help small businesses in Colorado navigate and emerge stronger from the Covid crisis.
The Energize Colorado Gap Fund is open for applications. At some point, I’ll write a blog post about the story of how this came together via a public-private partnership to fill a much-needed gap in the Federal funding for small businesses throughout Colorado due to the Covid crisis, but for now either send this to people you think it is relevant to or, if it is relevant to you, please apply for funding.
If you are a business or nonprofit with less than 25 full-time employees (including sole proprietors) you can apply for up to a $15,000 grant and a $20,000 loan for a possible combined total of $35,000 in financial assistance.
The applications and awards will be done in rounds to allow the Energize Colorado Gap Fund to provide assistance through December 2020. This is not a first-come-first-serve process, but rather one that will be focused on helping those in need receive priority access to assistance.
A detailed FAQ for the Energize Colorado Gap Fund is available, but here are a few summary points around eligibility and priority.
Who is Eligible?
- Small Businesses/Enterprises – Colorado sole proprietors and registered small businesses including LLCs, S-Corps and other business types.
- Nonprofits – Colorado nonprofits whose mission and/or programs directly support economic development, small businesses, or tourism.
- Fewer than 25 employees – Applicants must have fewer than 25 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees. An employer may use its off-season employee count.
- Impacted by COVID-19 – Applicants must be able to show the economic hardship their business is facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The business’s story of hardship plus documents such as bank records, point of sale receipts, profit and loss statements, or other documents can be used to show economic harm.
Priority Will Be Given to the Following:
- Any eligible Colorado small enterprise is welcome to apply. Priority will be given to applicants:
- Who are majority-owned by Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Veterans, or Women
- In rural areas with a population of less than 50,000 people
- In the tourism sector
- With limited or no access to capital financing or other federal, state or local grants/loans
I’m incredibly proud of the hard work of the many volunteers at Energize Colorado and the leadership of Wendy Lea who helped get this up and running. And, the Energize Colorado Gap Fund Executive Committee, under the leadership of Kent Thiry, is amazing to see in action.
And I know a lot of people who aren’t.
I’m trying hard, but I’m aware that there are many moments where I’m nowhere close to being my best.
Every day, I feel confused by behavior from someone I know well which is inconsistent with how I think of them. Sometimes it’s unsettling or upsetting. Often it is perplexing. Occasionally it is disheartening.
Everyone I know is some element of tired, stressed, anxious, frustrated, or just running at maximum speed trying to keep it all together. People are short-tempered, irritable, irrational, and lashing out or thrashing around.
Give yourself a break and acknowledge to yourself and your loved ones that you are not at your best right now. Understand that your loved ones, colleagues, co-workers, friends, and everyone else is probably not at their best right now. While you might not be able to give them a hug, you can try a smile, an apology, or laughter when the moment passes.
Give them, and yourself, a break for not being at your best.
Since Covid started, I’ve had many conversations about office space. In April, almost all of our companies were unable to use their office space because of stay at home orders. Today, even though strict stay-at-home orders are no longer in place in most of the country, the vast majority of our companies are still in a primary work-from-home mode.
Most of these companies are locked into long term office leases. Over the past few months, they’ve all tried to negotiate some relief with their landlord. While, in a few cases, there have been small rent deferrals in exchange for tacking on a few months at the end of the lease, and in a few other cases landlords have offered “meaningful cash now to buy out the lease” deals, these have been few and far between.
Most of the time, the answer is some version of “Tough luck.” And, if you dig into the lease agreement, it usually reinforces the message of “tough luck.”
In a moment where landlords could generate enormous goodwill, especially with smaller companies, I believe they are doing the opposite. Rather than showing some flexibility, they are telling their customer (the tenant) who literally cannot use the physical space they are renting, “sorry – not my problem.”
All over our portfolio, I’m seeing CEOs increasingly asking the question, “why am I spending all this money for something I can’t use?” Since work-from-home is continuing, and these CEOs realize that remote or distributed work, rather than having an expensive, central office, is attractive both culturally and economically for many of their employees.
When we discuss this, I always ask the question, “If you could allocate 100% of your rent expense to your employees, would this be a positive or a negative to your employees?” That’s easy to answer, and when I remind CEOs that their all-in cost of being in an office is probably double what they pay in rent, they quickly realize it’s not a zero-sum game.
I think we are in a phase of total denial by the commercial real estate industry about the dynamics going on. It’s a classic example of short-term, zero-sum thinking, which is antithetical to my way of approaching things, so it grates on me.
I hypothesize that there are massive structural, cultural, and financial changes that are happening that are being exacerbated by the behavior of the commercial real estate owners. We’ll see, but I know the amount of money that we are indirectly spending on commercial real estate via our portfolio will be dramatically less in 2023 than it is today.
We are in the midst of the most dramatic phrase transition I’ve experienced so far in my 54 years on this particular planet.
Ian Hathaway and I talk about phase transitions (also known as a phase shift) in several parts of The Startup Community Way.
Progress is uneven, slow, and surprising. Complex systems exhibit nonlinear behavior, phase transitions (large shifts that materialize quickly), and fat-tailed distributions, where extremely high-impact events are more common than a normal statistical distribution would predict. Seemingly small actions can produce massive changes that happen suddenly. There is little ability to link cause and effect, or to credibly predict the outcomes of various programs or policies.
The Covid crisis is the trigger of this phase transaction. And, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I view the Covid crisis as the collision of four complex systems – health, economic, mental health, and racial inequity. Each of these complex systems has been evolving for a long time, are never “solved”, and come in and out of focus.
The collision of all four of them simply cannot be understood from a macro perspective or addressed incrementally, and is transformative in an unpredictable way.
Easy examples of specific phase transitions include telemedicine, video conferencing, remote work, remote learning, and retail distribution. As this has been happening over the past four months, the entire US macro model around government debt was thrown out the window, resulting in a massive economic value shift (both positive and negative) across our entire economy. At the same time that unemployment is high, but the macro numbers show it “bad, but not awful”, income inequity has soared.
But this isn’t the story of the phase transition. Rather, it’s just the beginning. There are many people on our planet that are hoping things are going to “go back to normal.” The phrase “the new normal” is a hint at that, reinforcing that there is some type of “normal” to expect.
There is no normal, just like there is no spoon.
If you think it’s going to get weird, well, it’s too late. That already happened.
Since March 11th, when I realized the Covid crisis was going to generate a massive phase transition throughout society, I’ve been rethinking everything. Complexity theory teaches us that in complex systems, there is no playbook, just like there is no spoon.
Yet, in our world, we try to apply playbooks to many of the things we do. Many of the things we believe exist run off of playbooks. Take K-12 education. As our society anxiously awaits the opening of K-12 schools in the fall, educators, administrators, teachers, and governments everywhere scramble to “rewrite the playbook” for K-12 in the time of Covid.
But what if the playbook for K-12 is obsolete. Or flawed. Or unnecessary. What if it structurally reinforces undesirable things, like racism or economic inequality?
Observers of the health care system would comment that the health care system in the US has been messed up for a long time. My dad has been writing a blog on Repairing the Healthcare System for a decade. While there is plenty that he writes that I disagree with, I do agree that the healthcare system in the US is structurally broken. And, now with some hospitals in Florida being out of ICU beds, well, hold on to your masks …
We haven’t even begun talking about commercial real estate. My friends in the restaurant industry are suggesting that unless the government sends them a lot of “free money” soon, the restaurant industry as we know it will completely collapse.
Do we need more commercial real estate? Does the restaurant industry, as currently configured, really work?
Regardless of the answers, it’s impossible to predict what things will look like on the other side of this phase transition.
Colorado now has a statewide mask requirement.
Individuals will be required to wear face coverings for Public Indoor Spaces if they are 11 and older, unless they have a medical condition or disability. Kids 10 and under don’t need to wear a mask. All businesses must post signage and refuse entry or service to people not wearing masks.
It is well understood that wearing a mask substantially helps slow the spread of Covid.
I can’t, for the life of me, understand why the message isn’t getting through. The mask prevents other people from you if you are infected. And, you often won’t know if you are infected, since you could be pre-symptomatic (which is often confused with asymptomatic) for 14 days.
So, let’s keep this simple. You can have Covid, not have symptoms, but be infecting other people for up to 14 days. Wearing a mask significantly cuts down on your spread of the virus if you have it, because the mask catches your spread of the Covid “droplets.”
The mask doesn’t do a lot to protect you from others. So, if you say “I’m not afraid of getting Covid”, that doesn’t matter since the mask doesn’t protect you. It protects others from you. And, you can’t know if you are infectious.
Some people will say “I’ve had Covid so I don’t have to wear a mask.” That’s not true either, for several reasons, including social convention (if we all wear masks, then it’s socially acceptable; there is still ambiguity about how long immunity lasts; there are some concerns, but not scientific evidence, that you can still be a spreader if you think you’ve recovered.)
If you wear a mask, you are respecting your fellow humans. And, if we all wear masks, we can dramatically slow the spread of Covid.
So please, wear a mask.
I have never liked being asked to predict things. I try not to prognosticate, especially around things I’m not deeply involved in.
At this moment, people everywhere make continuous predictions and endless prognostications. At some level, that’s not new, as the regular end of year media rhythm for as long as I can remember is a stream of famous people being asked their predictions for the next year. There are entire domains, such as economics, that are all about predictions. Near term predictions drive the stock market (e.g., future quarterly performance, what the Federal Reserve is going to do in the future.)
As humans, we want to control our present, and one way to do that is to predict the future.
I think the Covid crisis has turned that upside down. As I was reading How Pandemics Wreak Havoc – And Open Minds last night, a few paragraphs at the end hit home.
The first comment is from Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Institute of the History of Medicine, at Johns Hopkins University who is now living in Bologna.
Pomata was shocked by the direction that the pandemic was taking in the United States. She understood the reasons for the mass protests and political rallies, but, as a medical historian, she was uncomfortably reminded of the religious processions that had spread the plague in medieval Europe. And, as someone who had obediently remained indoors for months, she was affronted by the refusal of so many Americans to wear masks at the grocery store and maintain social distancing. In an e-mail, she condemned those who blithely ignored scientific advice, writing, “What I see right now in the United States is that the pandemic has not led to new creative thinking but, on the contrary, has strengthened all the worst, most stereotypical, and irrational ways of thinking. I’m very sorry for the state of your country, which seems to be in the grip of a horrible attack of unreason.” She continued, “I’m sorry because I love it, and have received so much from it.”
It’s followed by a comment by Lawrence Wright, a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992 and author of the incredible and timely book The End of October.
I understood her gloomy assessment, but also felt that America could be on the verge of much needed change. Like wars and depressions, a pandemic offers an X-ray of society, allowing us to see all the broken places. It was possible that Americans would do nothing about the fissures exposed by the pandemic: the racial inequities, the poisonous partisanship, the governmental incompetence, the disrespect for science, the loss of standing among nations, the fraying of community bonds. Then again, when people confront their failures, they have the opportunity to mend them.
These paragraphs reflect the reality that I’m observing in the US right now. However, you can see Wright’s human optimism creep in as he “[feels] that America could be on the verge of much needed change.” While not a prediction (thankfully), it raised the question at the end of the paragraph, which is:
“[W]hen people confront their failures, they have the opportunity to mend them.“
As I worked on The Startup Community Way and got my mind into how complex systems work, I concluded that change has to come from the bottom up, not the top down. While in the book, we apply it to startup communities, I’ve internalized it across any complex system.
We are living in the collision of a series of complex systems that are beyond anything I’ve experienced in my 54 years on earth. It’s happening against the backdrop of instantaneous global communication, which allows anyone to distribute and amplify any sort of information.
In a crisis, anger and fear generate irrational behavior, especially given the need to control things. History has taught us this, but all you need to do is watch the bad guys in popular movies implode to be reminded of it.
Consequently, predicting the future is not just impossible; it’s more irrelevant than ever. Fantasizing about what the future will look like, while comforting, is pointless. And anchoring hopes around the future (e.g. “schools will open up in the fall”) simply generates even more anger and fear if it doesn’t come true.
For many years, I’ve tried to avoid predicting the future or prognosticating about it. My answer, when asked, is often some version of “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”
I think this crisis has shut that off entirely for me, as I’m shifting all of my energy to the present. I’m focusing on doing things today that I believe in, want to do, and that I think has the potential to impact positive change. But I know I can’t predict the outcome of any of it.