Category: Crisis

Jun 30 2020

The Unbearable Something of Q2 2020

I woke up thinking “this has been the strangest quarter of my life.”

I used to think in days, weeks, months, quarters, years, and decades. I stopped doing that around the time I turned 50 because I was exhausted from the rhythm.

I’ve been thinking about Q2 the last few days, which has been the Covid quarter. March was pre-quarter insanity as March 11th through the end of the month was completely disorienting and chaotic. I wrote the Three Crisis post on March 31st, which meant that I had gotten my mind, at least at a high level, around what was going on. Near the end of the post, I wrote:

Finally, this is not just going to “be over.” That’s magical thinking. There will be many different phases of this, but if you prepare for a long-term experience, you’ll be in a much healthier emotional place. I personally believe that April is going to be an awful month in the United States as the true extent of the health crisis finally hits in our country. The actions we are taking right now will determine whether April is the worst of it, but know that May will be rough, and the summer will be unlike “a normal summer” as, even in the best case, we being existing in the context of meaningful long-term societal adjustments.

April was awful. When it was finally over, Amy and I joked that April had 92 days in it. We ushered in May together on a Friday night with Life Dinner at home and then proceeded to have another miserable month with 57 days in it. I took a week off the grid in the middle of May, just as I was about to break.

On May 25th, George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis. A fourth crisis, one of racial equity, was added to the mix, and while June only felt like it has lasted 43 days, it has been exhausting.

Unfortunately, I’m incredibly pessimistic about July. For the last 30 days, our country has engaged in the magical thinking I worried about at the end of March, and the Covid caseload has exploded. I get that it is summer, people can’t handle being cooped up in their houses, and everyone wants life to go back to the way it was before the emergence of Covid.

I simply don’t think that is going to happen. Ever.

Q2 sucked so much worse for so many people other than me. I’m healthy. Amy and I are safe. We are isolated in a comfortable place and enjoy being together all the time. I’m able to work from home without any significant challenges. Amy loves me, and my dogs love me. I’m aware of my privilege and thankful for it.

I fear July is going to be awful, just like April was awful. I hope I’m wrong. I really want to be wrong. I’m usually optimistic. I want to be optimistic at this moment. But I don’t see any signals anywhere that I should be. So, I’m emotionally prepared for a really rough month.

When I reflect on that, I realize that what weighs on me are mostly things I can’t control. So, as I’ve been doing for the last three months, I’m going to continue to put my energy into things I can impact, be available to many who I can help and support, and try to affect positive change. But, unlike the past three months, I’m going to take better care of myself.

And that starts now, with a run in circles around my 40 acres.

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Jun 23 2020

Living in the Time of Covid

Oh yeah. That Covid thing is still around. And in the US, it’s getting worse again because it never went away as much as our magical thinking hoped it did.

I’m an optimistic worrier (like Madeleine Albright, who explores that concept with Tim Ferriss in this wonderful podcast that I listened to while running in loops around my 40 acres.)

This morning I read Joanne Wilson’s post Where Are We Going? and nodded my head up and down all the way through it. She starts off with “There is so much change going on that it is hard to pinpoint where we are going? One thing is for sure, we are chartering new territories.” Then, she covers COVID-19, Trump’s Tulsa Rally, Protests, Facebook, Hydroxychloroquine, Juneteenth, Bolton’s book, Voting day as a holiday, the Senate, Healthcare, Consumption behavior, anger, incompetence and wraps it up with

“There is no doubt we are living in a changing world but the bigger question is “where are we going?”

Yup. All those same things are wandering around inside my brain.

And then CovidTennis. Djokovic thought playing unprotected and horsing around was a good idea. He’s not the only one. It will be informative to learn how well athletes recover from Covid and if there are any lasting downstream effects. Generally, I’m a big Joker fan, but c’mon.

Grigor Dimitrov, rear, plays basketball with Novak Djokovic last Thursday in Croatia. (AP Photo/Zvonko Kucelin)

If you are looking for podcasts to listen too, following are a pair from Brian Hollins, a founding board member of BLCK VC.

The first is one with me where Brian is the interviewer titled Brad Feld (Foundry Group) on never having “fake days”, how to be a better ally, the impact of second order effects, and the failure of warning systems to warn you when they are failing.

The other is from The Full Ratchet and is an interview with Brian titled Breaking into VC; Excelling at Goldman Sachs; and the Origin of BLCK VC (Brian Hollins).

Brian did a great job with both of them.

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Jun 17 2020

Fast-Forwarding to 2025

I have a few minutes each morning between when I wake up and when I go downstairs to meditate. I do two things during this time: (1) basic hygiene stuff and (2) let whatever thoughts are in my head roll around.

This morning I had the following thought.

It would be nice to just fast forward to 2025.

During some of my recent public talks, I’ve described how the Covid crisis has accelerated work and technology change in a dramatic way. While I’ve said that “when this is over, we are going to wake up in 2025”, I then have to explain what I mean by “wake up in 2025.” My idea of simply fast-forwarding to 2025 emerged from that.

The Covid crisis has generated four crises – health, economic, mental health, and racial inequity – that are intermingled. Each individual crisis is complex, not new, and ebbs and flows in the forefront of our collective societal mind.

I recently had someone question me about the idea that the economic crisis was continuous. They asked, “Haven’t we had a bull market for a decade?” My response was, “Income inequality, the occupy movement, Venezuela, European Debt” and they interrupted with “Ah, I get it.”

Usually one of these crises is front of mind for a period of time. I was on sabbatical with Amy when the Ferguson Protests occurred after the Michael Brown murder. We talked about it for several days, explored our own feelings, but didn’t take any meaningful action other than a few philanthropic contributions after the moment passed.

After I had a six-month depressive episode in 2013, I put energy into trying to destigmatize depression and mental health issues, especially in tech and entrepreneurship. While my effort here has been consistent, the impact is slow and often invisible.

Remember #MeToo? Gender inequity in tech has lessened, but it’s still a major issue.

It goes on, and on, and on. Yet, right now, these issues, and others, are all colliding in the foreground, with incredible intensity, interwoven in a way that makes an already complex system extremely difficult to navigate.

And then there’s technology. In January, no one would have said “the vast majority of the office-based workforce around the world with be working from home, doing video conferences all day long.” Or, “business travel will be largely non-existent.” Or, “the only restaurant meals you will eat will be takeout or home delivery.” Or, “telemedicine adoption will make a decade of progress in four weeks.” Each of these activities is dramatically impacted by the technology we have today and enabled in ways that technology providers might have envisioned, but that mainstream society didn’t expect to adopt broadly until it suddenly had to.

I recognize that most of us are processing an enormous amount of stimuli in real-time. That’s incredibly challenging and ultimately exhausting.

I fully expect several other crises will emerge this year. If you wonder what else could possibly come up, I’ll just remind you that it’s an election year in the US, which is just another massive input into a very complex system.

I’m not a prognosticator or a predictor of the future. Instead, I like to pretend I’m in the future, look backward, and try to figure out what to do in the present. While I’m living in the moment, I’m going to simultaneous pretend that I fast-forwarded to 2025.

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Jun 8 2020

Black Lives Matter and My Fear About Short Attention Spans

While I was trying to get my soul to reset a little yesterday, I worried about short attention spans. As humans, we naturally have short attention spans that are amplified by the extremely short attention span of the media.

We are at the beginning of two new crises intermingled with multiple other crises we are dealing with as a result of Covid. The four crises that Covid has amplified (so far) are health, economic, mental health, and racial inequality. But they are not the only crises we are dealing with (anyone remember gender inequity, especially in tech, or #MeToo?)

Sustained leadership to address each crisis – over the long term – is required. I’m committed to that and I encourage everyone else who is writing, listening, talking, and trying to affect positive change to make a long term committment.

I’ve seen many posts and a few videos from white male CEOs talking to their companies about Black Lives Matter. I thought this one, from Bryan Leach, CEO of iBotta, was spectacular.

Emmanuel Acho was even better.

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Jun 5 2020

Bias: At-Home Film Screening Event

Amy and I, along with Techstars, were Executive Producers for Robin Hauser‘s film “bias“.

It’s an extremely helpful documentary around understanding unconscious bias. When Robin made the film, she concentrated on examples around gender and race, but the principles apply to all aspects of bias.

I’ve always felt the final wording on the overview captured the film well.

bias is a film that challenges us to confront our hidden biases and understand what we risk when we follow our gut. Through exposing her own biases, award-winning documentary filmmaker Robin Hauser highlights the nature of implicit bias and the grip it holds on our social and professional lives.

Throughout the film, Robin gives voice to neighbors concerned about profiling in their communities, CEOs battling bias in their businesses, and those of us hesitant to admit our own biases. After confronting her unconscious bias, Robin turns to action by engaging with innovative experiments – from corporate strategies to tech interventions and virtual reality – that are reshaping our understanding of implicit bias and attempting to mitigate it.

On Thurday, June 25th at 11am PST (2pm EST) there will be an online panel discussion around Bias. In advance of the panel discussion, you’ll get a link to watch the film online.

Along with Robin, the panelists are Kate Mitchell (Scale Venture Partners), Heather Gates (Deloitte & Touche), and Elliott Robinson (Bessemer Venture Partners).

I appreciate the sponsors – NVCA, Salesforce Ventures, Deloitte, and SVB – for hosting. I’m an enormous fan of Robin’s work (Amy and I also were Executive Producers for her documentary Code: Debugging the Gender Gap) and I learned a lot from both films.

I encourage you to sign up for the discussion and the free screening of the film online. I just did …

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Jun 4 2020

Most Warning Systems Do Not Warn Us That They Can No Longer Warn Us

Since mid-March, I have received endless letters from companies and funds I’m an investor in with their thoughts on the Covid crisis. One of the best was from Paul Kedrosky and Eric Norlin of SK Ventures (one of our Partner Fund investments).

Paul and Eric have given me permission to repost it here. 


(First published May 15, 2020.)

Greetings-

To start, a few quotations as markers:

Then he heard the sand rumbling. Every Fremen knew the sound, could distinguish it immediately from the noises of worms or other desert life. Somewhere beneath him, the pre-spice mass had accumulated enough water and organic matter from the little makers, had reached the critical stage of wild growth. A gigantic bubble of carbon dioxide was forming deep in the sand, heaving upward in an enormous “blow” with a dust whirlpool at its center. It would exchange what had been formed deep in the sand for whatever lay on the surface.
– Frank Herbert, Dune

Chigurh: Just call it.
Shopkeeper: I didn’t put nothin up.
Chigurh: Yes you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life. You just didn’t know it.

– Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men

Unfortunately, most warning systems do not warn us that they can no longer warn us.
– Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies

Crises usually accelerate real trends in society and technology; they don’t create or refute them. 
– Gary Kasparov

The opposite of fragile is something that actually gains from disorder.
– Nassim Taleb


“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” That is Lenin’s line, and it has felt right in every way and, likely, in almost every country in the world these last eight weeks. And people—investors, in particular—are falling all over themselves trying to understand what it means. We all want to try to explain something this wrenching, and to explain how it feels. 

We want to believe that we just lived through weeks where decades happened, as Lenin said. Except he didn’t say that. And as near as quote investigators can tell, he never said anything like it: the first example of the phrase only appeared a few decades ago. It has caught on partly because it’s well put, but mostly because it captures how we feel about what it’s like to have something come exploding into our consciousness and force us out of our usual amniotic now. We want an explanation, and we want it to explain where things go from here. 

The reality, however, is that wildness has always lurked just beneath the surface. A combination of willful blindness, homeostasis, wishful thinking, and luck have let us skate past the holes in modernity’s ice and pretend nothing lurks beneath it. We have been making bets on smooth, thick ice for decades, and we stopped noticing, even if cracks open anytime in the thickest ice. Pandemics are a crack in our preferred reality, but they are nothing new, even if many countries, like the US, lack recent experience with them, and so pandemics hit harder and longer.

So, what changes? Post-pandemic, in the short-run, and contrary to many, we think very little changes, at least very little that is materially different from what we thought before. Rather than being a break with the past, we think people’s desperation for a return to normalcy—shopping! travel! work!—creates immense pressure to return to the recent past faster than anyone expects. There is inherent human-driven homeostasis, an almost inexorable need to bring things back to where they were before. 

We think the biggest short-term effect will be an acceleration of existing trends. More things will go in the cloud; more things will be virtualized; more things will happen at the edge; more buying, selling, and entertaining will happen online: and so on. These trends will simply speed up.

What about, you wonder, the bigger changes people chatter about, like the death of commuting to work, the end of globalization, the collapse of professional sports, and the like? Not so much. Sure, we will see a paroxysm of people fighting the last war, much like how we armored commercial airliner cockpits after 9/11. In that light, expect a continuing run on contract tracing apps, thermal scanning, work from home chatter, N95 mask technologies, and that sort of thing. But that is extrapolative and impermanent, armoring metaphorical cockpits, rather than thinking about what this episode has taught us about the wildness that lurks beneath modernity. 

We think a more useful analysis must go deeper rather than being merely extrapolative—it must be a thick description of how people live and die. This virus has been, both literally and metaphorically, a disease of modernity. Why? Because It attacks via the vectors of modernity: trade linkages, obesity, diabetes, air travel, mass transportation, urban density, social media, etc. Understanding long-run change requires understanding where modernity itself is under threat, and whether those threats will lead to meaningful—and investable—change.

Fundamental to the changing landscape is the realization that people have been shown how brittle their home structure is. For example, surveys show that New York and Shanghai apartment dwellers are realizing that giving up a balcony for a little more floor space in their aeries made them prisoners of quarantine: most buyers newly say they wouldn’t make the same decision again. Similarly, people all over the world are realizing that “preppers” aren’t nuts (at least, in their prepping), that there is merit in thinking in terms of how much inventory of critical things—food, water, and yes, toilet paper—you have. 

Sociologist of risk Charles Perrow, long ago warned against the catastrophic risks created by tight coupling in society. To Perrow, tight coupling was any complex system where changes in inputs ripped quickly to new and unpredictable outputs, without an opportunity for meaningful intervention. Perrow would have called this current episode a reminder of tight coupling’s risks,  and a forced re-introduction to loose coupling—an attempt to make your life less easily whipsawed by abrupt changes in the world around you. In that light, we think people—and companies—will carry more inventory of everything, that the scarring experience here will turn us into proto-preppers, less willing to be caromed around by the vagaries of life. This a big change, one that will ripple through supply chains, housing, travel, technology, education, and health. 

Speaking of health, life sciences is at an unremarked inflection. There is the real potential for multiple new and effective vaccine and drug delivery platforms to emerge at once, something that has never happened in the history of pharmaceuticals. We not only could see multiple vaccines arrive, which is appealing, but, more importantly in the long run, multiple new platforms for delivering drugs, which would vastly increase the drug arsenal, transform human health, and add vastly to societal wealth via decreasing aggregate cost of illness. 

There is also, however, the real potential for multiple massive drug failures setting the industry back decades. Not just because current vaccine efforts could fail, proving that, in economist Robert Gordon’s terms, we are stuck on an undulating plateau of stalled (drug) innovation, but, more insidiously, that multiple billion-dollar vaccine programs could hit the market at once, all lose money, and re-convince pharma companies that vaccines are a terrible business, making the next pandemic even more therapeutically fraught. 

Which will it be? We are optimists, and we strongly believe it will be the former, but it’s important to keep in mind that it is by no means a foregone conclusion. 

Turning to other deeper changes, machine learning and big data are getting a real run-out here, and given our investments, we are glad to see it. In areas like medical imaging where machine learning continues to acquit itself well, throwing ample shade at human experts. This is overdue, important, and necessary. 

On the other hand, naïve application of “big data” models is being shown for the dangerous practice that it is. Epidemiological models continue to acquit themselves poorly, in part because it’s hard, but also and importantly, to abstract away from this pandemic, because most interesting systems involve humans, and humans adapt and change in ways that work to make models’ predictions fail. As the old capital markets saying goes, “at inflections, markets move in whatever direction will cause the most pain to the most participants.” Big data models suffer no better fate at similar points, as people are belatedly discovering. We are hopeful that this new wisdom will lead to better, more flexible, more adaptive, and more useful analytical models, across finance, medicine, sports, risk, and so on.

Overall, we believe we will quickly return to a state much like where we were before recent events. It will be less different than many pundits expect. Under the surface, however, wildness will lurk—our society will merely be subcritical. This will be, of course, normal, not abnormal. Most of human history has been this way, unlike recent times, which were anomalously placid, a state that’s now ending as we return to subscriticality. We think that making this state visible and manageable will be one of the keys to investing moving forward. 

There will be explosive economic, biological, and technological moves, much more explosive than in the recent past, in part because the ground has been cleared for them, but also because our new, over-excited society has collective scar tissue making it predisposed to jump sooner, further, and faster. This will lead to more rapid technology adoption, faster cycles, and great gains for investors willing to embrace the emergency of subcritical society. Platforms and tools that embrace this—enabling looser coupling, warning when legacy warning systems can’t warn, systems made stronger by volatility—are the emerging investments that we will be digging into as we move forward. 

To summarize, here is our current state of thinking:

  • In the short-run, less will change than people think
  • In longer-run, we will see a complete rethinking of risk, slack, and societal coupling 
  • We are interested in investments that acknowledge, track, and even gain from the wildness and disorder lurking under the thin ice of a newly subcritical society.
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Jun 3 2020

#BlackLivesMatter and What I’m Doing

So that I’m unambiguous about my perspective, #BlackLivesMatter.

Amy and I have been philanthropically supporting Progressive Public Policy and Social Justice Organizations for over 20 years. However, just providing financial support is not nearly enough, and I’ve decided to put much more time and energy into understanding and helping eliminate racial inequity. While I’m not sure that I have the right words (and am asking my Black friends to make sure I do), I believe that the correct term is being anti-racist.

I have no interest in virtue signaling. Since Monday, I’ve had several conversations where this phrase came up and it has been a confusing distraction in each conversation.

Stating one’s position is important. Backing it up with actions, consistently over a long period of time, is more important.

While I have tried to be an ally to many diverse communities over the past 20 years, especially around entrepreneurship, I haven’t focused nearly enough on Black entrepreneurs and investors. I regret that.

I decided that rather than issue specific statements about what I was going to do, I would use this week to learn. With everything I engage in, I believe in playing a long-term game, so rather than simply doing one thing today, I need to do many things over the next decade.

As a starting point, I’ve been having conversations with Black entrepreneurs and investors and asking one question.

“What are two initiatives you are involved in right now that I could put time and/or money into in support of you and your activities?”

If I haven’t talked to you and you are a Black entrepreneur or investor, if you have the energy or desire, I’m very interested in the answer to this question via a comment here, email, or @bfeld on Twitter.

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Jun 1 2020

You are Not Alone

On Wednesday 6/3 at 11am Energize Colorado will be launching our Mental Wellness initiative.

While we already have a Mental Health Resource section up on the Energize Colorado, we are starting a weekly webinar series called Wellness Wednesdays.

One of our goals with this initiative is to destigmatize mental health and support those in need of engaging in service during the Covid crisis. I’ve been talking about mental health as the third part of the Covid crisis since the end of March when I wrote the post The Three Crises.

I didn’t anticipate structural racism being a fourth crisis. But here we are.

Yesterday, a friend suggested that a middle-aged white person trying to constructively engage around structural racism feels like walking across lava. It’s dangerous and there are lots of ways that you can say or do something that goes very wrong, even if that wasn’t intended.

I’m aware of that, so rather than tell anyone what the solution is, I’m just going to engage, in the same way I’ve engaged with other issues like gender discrimination. Listen, learn, and do things in support of other leaders who are already involved. For example, in the case of gender, I began my journey in 2005 by supporting and learning from leaders like Lucy Sanders.

This morning, I’ve reached out to several black entrepreneurial leaders I know, including Rodney Sampson. My question to him is not “what should I do” but rather “what are you doing that I can get involved in and support right now.”

So, now we’ve got four crisis. Health. Economic. Mental Health. Structural Racism.

If you are involved in one of these, know that you are not alone.

And, if the mental health crisis is on your mind right now, join us Wednesday for our discussion on our the You are Not Alone webinar.

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May 31 2020

Don’t Burn Down Your Own House

Dave Mayer pointed me at this video today. After struggling with how I was feeling all morning, during my run, and while I read the Sunday New York Times, this finally helped me put a framework around my feelings.

I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m confused. I’m appalled. I’m scared. I’m upset. And this is completely independent (and on top of) of all the challenges around the Covid crisis.

Seth wrote a great post on Wednesday titled Uncertainty.

Uncertainty provokes a kind of “fight or flight” response in the human brain. As we try to escape the idea of uncertainty, we analyze a situation in an attempt to make ourselves feel better. In other words, we worry in order to eliminate uncertainty and reassure ourselves. Frequent worry can lead to anxiety or depression and some individuals are more susceptible to it than others. 

The amount of uncertainty, on all dimensions of our lives in America right now, are at an extreme high. And, then, on top of that, another white cop murders another black man, and our president once against behaves in a way that divides rather than unites.

I woke up to Gotham Gal’s post This Picture Says It All.

I’m lucky – I’m a middle-aged white guy with lots of resources. I’m stretched on a lot of dimensions on ways I’m trying to be helpful to others, but systemic racism is another category that I can’t, and don’t want to, be passive engaged with anymore.

As with my efforts on eliminating sexism and gender discrimination, I realize that I need to learn and participate as an advocate, rather than show up as “hi, I’m a white guy here to solve the problem.” So, I’m starting right now to understand systemic racism in America better and try to get involved in a constructive way to help eliminate it.

The punchline to Joanne Wilson’s post is “When this pandemic is over, we need to find a new path to leadership and a country that cares about all of us. We are a democracy, not a regime.”

I only have one minor modification – we can’t wait for the pandemic to be over.

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May 15 2020

Reopening Your Business In Colorado

Energize Colorado, working with Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT), has just released business templates that offer best practices, direction, and information on how businesses can restart operations safely and effectively.

These templates are based on OEDIT’s recommendations along with input from Kroger who has been a leader in evolving better practices as an essential business.

Next week, WorkBright and Energize Colorado are doing a four-part webinar series on Reopening Your Business.

  • Part One: Let’s Keep COVID-19 Out of Your Workplace: Best practices in screening your workers and customers and how they need to be balanced with privacy and HIPAA concerns.
  • Part Two: Let’s Not Pass it Along: Learn the underlying principles of social distancing to support creation of specific guidelines for your business and industry.
  • Part Three: Let’s Plan for When it Does Happen: COVID-19 will come to virtually every business. Learn how to limit the impact and spread through your workforce.
  • Part Four: Let’s Care for Our People: Special programs to check in frequently with workers and tools to respond to what you learn.

As businesses start opening up in Colorado, we are entering a very tricky phase of the Covid crisis. I appreciate the work that the 200+ volunteers at Energize Colorado are doing to help the companies with less than 500 employees navigate things.

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