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.)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Amy just walked in to our shared office (the “Library”) and said something about it being Tuesday.
It’s gloomy in Colorado today. For the past few years, the month of May has been more like Seattle weather than Colorado weather, so while spring is transitioning into summer, heavy clouds hang over us.
I seem to have two types of days right now.
Type 1 is what happens between Monday morning and Friday afternoon. Zoom call after Zoom call. Lots of exogenous stress and anxiety. By the end of each of these days, it’s hard to shrug it off as I’m absorbing so much from other people as I try to help them navigate through whatever they are working on or struggling with. There are momentary bright spots, smiles, and statements of appreciation, but they are fleeting as the 1 Minute To Next Call message appears at the top of the screen. At the end of the day, I try to run, but only feel like it a few days a week. Amy and I finish the day staring at the TV for an hour or two and then go to sleep.
Type 2 is the weekend. I stop doing meetings and email Friday night. I use Saturday to rest, recover, read, nap, and hang out with Amy. Sunday is similar, but I catch up on email, and read a bunch more.
I love to read but the only days I seem to have the energy to read are Type 2 days.
I’m going to finish out this week this way and then take a week off the grid and try to reset. As I expect we are in for a very long haul of stress and misery around the Covid crisis, it’s clear to me that Type 1 / Type 2 is not going to be a sustainable rhythm for me.
While I don’t know where I’ll land, I do know that the mental health crisis I talked about in my post The Three Crises is real. I see it and hear about it everywhere. I feel it. And I know how lucky and privileged I am, so I can only imagine how intense, pervasive, and challenging it is for others.
A month ago, Alex Iskold emailed me about a new initiative that he started with Minda Brusse and a group of 20 volunteers called the $1K Project.
The mission of the $1K Project is to help families impacted by the pandemic by connecting them directly with sponsors who are willing to gift them $1k a month for three months. This is intended as a bridge until government funding shows up, people can get back to work, or figure out another source of funding.
I committed to fund five families on the spot for three months. I just fulfilled my second set of committments to these families.
Alex told me that part of his motivation is that with all the different ways there are to gift money, families everywhere are hurting and are unable to provide food, basic necessities, rent, and utilities. Unless you know someone, it’s very hard to directly support another family you don’t know.
The magic of the $1k Project is using trusted connections to trace back to people known to the founders and other people connected to the $1k Project. Families get referred to us through friends, families, and through their former employers who are pained by having to let the employees go.
Think of it for a chain letter in CovidWorld.
If you are an employer you can nominate someone you laid off due to Covid. Alternatively, you can nominate a friend, a family member, a business owner, or someone else you know who lost their job to Covid.
In the last 30 days, over $500,000 has been given directly to families in need. Each has a story. Each has a need.
Alex and team – awesome job.
For the readers out there, if you are inspired to make a difference directly in a family’s life and you can afford $1k / month for three months, give the $1k Project a shot and sign up to be a sponsor.
On May 14th at 5:30pm, a group of us are going to have a virtual birthday party for Colorado Governor Jared Polis. I’m co-chairing the party with my wife Amy Batchelor, my partner Seth Levine, his wife Greeley Sachs, and our friends Mo and Jennifer Siegel. Congressman Joe Neguse is joining as a special birthday guest as his birthday is the next day.
Jared always does a fundraiser on his birthday. This year, it’s for the Colorado COVID Relief Fund.
I’m on the executive committee for the fund and Amy is on the grants committee. Our gift was one of the first to the fund (I was part of the launch discussion and committed on the first committee call along with Kent Thiry and Denise O’Leary.) So far we have raised $16.5 million and have given grants of $8.4 million to those in Colorado in the most need. Our goal is to raise at least $20 million and deploy all of the money by the end of June. Over 8,000 individual donors have contributed along with organizations listed at the end of this post.
So, please join us for Jared’s birthday (yup – it’ll be by video conference.)
It’s a tough time for everyone, but I’m especially proud to be a Coloradan right now as we work together to help each other.
Some of the organizations that have contributed so far: Anchor Point, AT&T, Baird Foundation, Bank of America, Bender West Foundation, Boettcher Foundation, Bohemian Foundation, BPx Energy, Buell Foundation, Caring for Colorado Foundation, Chambers Fund, Charles Schwab Foundation, Christy Sports, Cigna, Colorado Garden Show INC, Colorado Rockies Baseball Club Foundation, Comcast NBCUniversal, Community First Foundation, Community Foundation Boulder County, Cranaleith Foundation Inc, Daniels Fund, David Altman Foundation, Deloitte, Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation, Denver Broncos, El Pomar, Elana Amsterdam & Rob Katz, Empower Retirement, ENT Credit Union, First Bank, Gates Family Foundation, Gill Foundation, Good Chemistry Nurseries, Google, Greater Salina Community Foundation, Grogan Family Fund, HCA Healthcare, Hearst Foundation, Hemera Foundation, HomeAdvisor, John Elway, Ken and Rebecca Gart, Key Bank Foundation, Liberty Global, Liberty Media, Lockheed Martin, Madroño Foundation, MDC/ Richmond American Homes Foundation, Mile High United Way, Morgridge Family Foundation, Newmont, Norm & Sunny Brownstein and Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Pat Broe, Patlaw Fund, Peyton and Ashley Manning, PhRMA, Pinnacol Assurance, PNC, R. Stanton Dodge, Rose Community Foundation, Santander Consumer USA Inc Foundation, Suncor, Target, Telluride Foundation, Terrapin Care Station, The Anschutz Foundation, The Colorado Health Foundation, The Colorado Trust, The DaVita Village, The Denver Foundation, The Moes, The Seedworks Fund, Thiry-O’Leary Foundation, Tom Marsico, TriState Generation & Transmission Association, Twilio, VF & The VF Foundation, Walmart, Wells Fargo Foundation, Western Union, Wynne Health Group, and Xcel Energy.
I’m excited to announce the launch of Energize Colorado, a new Colorado-based non-profit to help energize companies in Colorado survive the Covid crisis and then thrive as we get the crisis under control.
A month ago (which seems like a year ago), I wrote a post explaining that the Covid crisis was actually three interwoven crises: health, financial, and mental health. As I went deeper through my work on various aspects of the Covid crisis on a volunteer basis across a number of initiatives, I began forming a clear view on the importance of the private sector taking a leadership role in helping the private sector.
I was fortunate that several of people who I started working with, including Wendy Lea, Erik Mitisek, and Marc Nager, were highly motivated by the mantra “Coloradans helping Coloradans.” The group rapidly expanded through both my network and theirs and quickly shifted to a mode of actively doing things, as volunteers on the private sector side, to actively support local businesses, entrepreneurs, rural businesses, women & minority-led businesses, non-profits, and contingent workers.
On March 23rd, a founding team of 15 people, led by Wendy Lea, got together to sketch out the idea for a new Colorado non-profit called Energize Colorado. The simple notion was to rally a large group of volunteers across the state who would donate their time and talent to help Colorado businesses under 500 employees stabilize, rebuild, and grow.
Amy and I have seed-funded many non-profits and are happy to include Energize Colorado in the list of things that we were the first funders for. Five weeks later, Energize Colorado is over 200 volunteers and growing daily.
In addition to creating new initiatives, Energize Colorado is focused on amplifying many of the activities happening throughout Colorado to help small businesses. Rather than duplicate efforts, Energize Colorado is adding to the mix, amplifying things that other non-profits are doing, highlighting new initiatives, and helping business people understand and navigate the many new initiatives from our State and Federal government.
The various categories of activities and information are currently organized as:
There will be at least two major new initiatives launched next week, with a steady stream after that. Follow along by subscribing to the newsletter or following the Energize Colorado twitter feed.
If you want to get involved and help in any way, please sign up on the volunteer form.
I’m proud to be a Coloradan helping other Coloradans in this crisis.