Brad Feld

Category: Productivity

A few days ago, David Brown at Techstars wrote a great post titled “Staying Organized with Workflow” about how he stays organized. Brown and I work across the hall from each other and interact regularly. Often he’ll send me a note about something and I’ll just wander over and talk to him. He’s always available, super responsive on email, and very good at having a three minute meeting that results in a decision.

There was one thing in his approach that was something I used to do a long time ago, but stopped doing when I started using Gmail.

“Email Order. I process my email from oldest to newest. Yes, I cheat sometimes and answer a new one, but I try not to. It’s harder in Gmail because you can’t sort chronologically, but I just start at the bottom.”

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far far away when I used Outlook, I processed my email in chronological order – oldest at the top. Gmail doesn’t let you reverse the sort order from newest at the top, so I just got out of the habit of this. But when I get behind on email by a few days and end up with 100 or more to grind through, I always go to the bottom and work backwards.

When I saw Brown’s note, I thought “duh.” Often, I have an almost empty inbox (as I do now – there is literally one message in it – read, but not responded to – right now.) So, even when there are 17 brand new emails, just clicking on the bottom one and reading backwards works just fine. In fact, it’s even better in the current world than my previous Outlook galaxy because of conversation mode.

Unlike Brown, I don’t use tasks or filters. I find that when I move things to a task list, I’m literally exiling them to the land of never-get-done. The only exception is longer form writing that is not urgent, which I just star in Gmail, archive, and periodically grind through my starred folder.

Regardless of the process you use, contemplate reverse the order of response from oldest to newest. If you aren’t going to do something with an email, just archive or delete it – don’t let it sit there. And, if you want some additional good tips, go read Brown’s post Staying Organized with Workflow.


Guest Post By William Hertlingwilliamhertling.com (Author)

William Hertling is a web strategist, programmer, father, short-order cook and the author of two award-winning and best-selling techothrillers: Avogadro Corp: The Singularity is Closer than It Appears and A.I. Apocalypse. You can follow him at @hertling or on his blog, williamhertling.com.

Maybe you want to write an app or a book. Maybe you want to start a business or learn to play the piano. Maybe you just want to kick butt in your day job. If there’s anything at all that you’ve wanted to do, but struggle to find the time and energy to do it, the tips below will help.

In the last five years, I’ve managed to find the time to write, publish and promote multiple books, including two award-winning bestsellers, develop a web application, maintain a blog, and present at conferences. I did all that while still excelling at my day job and actively raising three young children.

I’m not here to brag, but I do want to emphasize that if I can do all that while raising twins (twins!), then you too can find the time and drive to accomplish something big, whether that’s starting a business, developing a mobile app, or writing a book.

I’m going to share a bit of my own personal path as well as nine key techniques to making time, creating personal drive, and prioritizing activities that you enable you to accomplish anything.

Enter the Craziness

In 2002, I met Libba and Gifford Pinchot, cofounders of Bainbridge Graduate Institute, at a retreat. The two tried to convince me to enroll in their new MBA program focused on sustainable business. I protested, saying that I was too busy. Libba said something similar to, “You can be busy for the next two years, or you can be busy for the next two years and get an MBA.” I ultimately chose to be busy and get the MBA.

Life may seem busy, but it always seems busy. That alone isn’t a reason to avoid taking on a new project. (I ultimately finished that MBA program while working full-time and with a newborn child, whom I brought to class with me.)

Once I was enrolled in the program, I grew to become friends with Libba and Gifford, frequently staying at their home. I noticed that Gifford worked all the time. Other than short breaks to play disc golf or to participate in drumming circles, I never noticed Gifford partaking in what I then considered relaxation activities: watching television or just sitting around doing nothing. I asked him about this. He told me that when he was doing what he loved to do, then it was enjoyable. The joy of accomplishing something worthwhile exceeded the joy he received from more mundane activities like passively consuming entertainment.

I should also mention that Gifford did take summers partially off: he would work only a third or half of the day, and spent the remaining time outdoors, chopping wood, kayaking, going on hikes, or doing woodworking projects.

The Nine Principles

Accomplishing something is a combination of having a goal (e.g. finishing a novel), making effort toward that goal (e.g. sitting down to write for an hour each morning), and making the most effective use of the effort (a combination of efficiency and priorities).

There are many techniques I use, but I want to share the most important.

The Only Person I Have to Cheat is Myself

Purpose: Fostering motivation and focus

When I was writing my first novel, Avogadro Corp, I would spend my most productive time writing in coffee shops. I developed a rule for myself: I imagined that if anyone in the coffee shop saw me surfing Facebook or the web, they’d laugh at me: “He doesn’t have anything better to do than surf Facebook.”

The sad truth is that on a moment by moment basis, it was vaguely satisfying to check in on Facebook and see what my friends were doing. But the time I had in the coffee shop was precious: carefully carved out of my daily schedule, limited to an hour or two at most. I could spend that time on Facebook, but at the cost of not writing. Or I could write, which might be painful on a minute by minute basis, but was immensely satisfying as I saw my novel take form.

In effect, I was using willpower (as facilitated by imagined peer ridicule) to exercise self-control to work on what was most important to me.

The notion that willpower is an exhaustible resource, also known as ego depletion, has been much discussed regularly. However, a 2010 study found that “reduced self-control after a depleting task or during demanding periods may reflect people’s beliefs about the availability of willpower rather than true resource depletion”. (My emphasis added.)

In my own experience with weight loss, I found that the trick to avoid exhausting my willpower was to decrease the amount of time spent thinking about it. When trying to lose thirty pounds in 2011, I found myself thinking at length about the cookies, cake, and ice cream I was passing up, trying to rationalize whether I could have a small piece, what the effect might be, and whether I even wanted to lose weight. After many days of agonizing over my desire for sweets, I realized that no one else cared whether I ate those sweets or if I was fat or thin or somewhere in between. No parent, teacher, friend or spouse was going to tell me what to do, and quite frankly, I was exhausted debating it with myself.

I developed a simple mantra: “The only person I have to cheat is myself.” Instead of spending a great deal of mental energy over every sweet craving, I shortcut the process.

The phrase embodies three ideas: That your goals are important to you, you’ll disappoint yourself if you don’t focus on achieving them, and you can’t escape responsibility by expecting someone else to step in.

This simple mantra works for any goal you’ve decided is important to you.

Prioritizing the Three Most Important Actions

Purpose: Free up time and increase effectiveness

Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek is loved by some and reviled by others. Part lifestyle choice, part time management, part promotion and marketing, and part entrepreneurship, the book advocates minimizing the time invested in traditional jobs.

One of the techniques Tim recommends is to start the day with a list of the top one to three most important actions for the day that lead towards your higher goals. Focus on those actions until they are complete. Then you’re free to spend the rest of the day however you want.

I believe that without clear priorities on what will achieve the most, most of us will fritter away the day on email and menial tasks. All that busy work is procrastination that avoids the most important tasks.

I used this principle while working at Hewlett-Packard. Each morning I’d spend ten minutes thinking about the most important things I could do that day to achieve my higher level work objectives. I‘d do the first before I’d check email for the day. Then I’d work on the second and third.

By remaining truly focused on the few most important things, we can be far more effective than we are otherwise. During this period, I helped Hewlett-Packard save on the order of ten million dollars a year on customer support costs, roughly a 100x return on my salary.

This principle not only helps you be more effective at what you’re doing, it helps you free up the time to do more. If I finished the three most important things I needed to do, and it was only two o’clock in the afternoon, I felt that I earned the right to choose how to spend the rest of my day. I might choose to fritter it away on menial tasks and email at HP, or I could choose to invest it in new interesting projects at HP, or I could leave early and go work on my own projects.

Stacking Functions: The Permaculture Principle

Purpose: Task efficiency

There’s a permaculture principle known as stacking functions, the notion that everything you plant in a garden should serve at least three functions. For example, an apple tree might provide fruit to eat, shade for another plant, and beautify your landscape.

This principle can also be employed towards work. As a blogger, I’m always looking for good content. If I need to research something for my job, or write a forum response to a question, I leverage that content and turn it into a blog post. My blog posts, in turn, get repurposed into books.

When I surf the web to read about the latest developments in robotics and artificial intelligence (fodder for my scifi novels), I use bufferapp to schedule out tweets to articles of interest. I’m researching at the same time I’m engaging with readers.

In my day job, I’m the first to volunteer to take on challenges like learning CSS and javascript, skills that I can then apply to refining my own website.

Anything can be stacked. With three kids and full work and writing schedules, I don’t get much time for social outings. So when my writing critique group meets, I bring a flask of bourbon.

Avoid Time Sinks (aka Why All-Clad is better than a Nintendo DS)

Purpose: Free up time

In 2006, I’d gotten a check for my birthday, and was wondering what to spend it on. My friend Gene Kim, cofounder of Tripwire and author of When IT Fails, suggested I get a handheld gaming device. (This was before smartphones.) He promised that it was not only a ton of fun, but that the games were playable in five minute increments. But as I had three kids in diapers, I couldn’t possibly imagine having even five minutes.

That’s when it hit me: I couldn’t bring anything into my life that consumed more time. No matter how awesomely great the handheld game console was, I wasn’t going to be able to enjoy it if it required a new investment of time. I could only bring things into my life that either reduced an existing time investment or replaced time spent.

I pondered this for some time, and eventually decided to spend my money on an All-Clad pan. I already spent time cooking. An insanely great pan would improve my quality of life doing something I was already doing.

Although I don’t have kids in diapers any more, I still think about the stuff and activities I bring into my life, and consider whether they require a time investment, create time savings, or are a one for one replacement.

Outsource

Purpose: Free up time and maintain focus

Gifford and Libba Pinchot ran a consulting business, authored multiple groundbreaking business books and founded an MBA school, all while raising three children. They were smart, passionate, hard-working people, but at some point, that’s not enough.

Guess what? They hired someone else to wash the dishes and clean the house.

Outsourcing household work (cleaning and yardwork) is often one of the first steps. But it’s sometimes harder to figure out the next step.

After I published Avogadro Corp, I knew that I wanted to send review copies to newspapers, bloggers, and other folks in the tech industry. At the same time, I needed to be blogging and engaging online. And I needed to work on the sequel. I simply could not do all this in the time I had.

I was able to hire a friend to work about ten hours a week over the course of a month to research outlets, draft cover letters, and send out review copies. For my second novel, I hired someone to research Amazon’s top reviewers for me.

The trick to outsourcing creative work is to have a clearly defined goal (e.g. send a copy to each person in this 150 row spreadsheet, with a cover letter customized to them), and to set up a review point part-way into the work (e.g. “Draft all the material for the first ten rows, and let me review it before you go on.”)

Are you concerned about the investment? Are you wondering how you could justify spending money on an activity that might only be a hobby? In my experience, once I’m investing money, I’m even more motivated to ensure that I’m using my own time wisely. If I’m going to spend $15 an hour to have someone else do something, I want to be using my own time to do something worth way more than $15 an hour.

Don’t Wait for the Perfect Idea

Purpose: Increase kung fu and avoid procrastination

Gifford Pinchot used to say “early learning beats better planning”, and in some ways, this is the entire mantra of the startup movement. Tech startups succeed so often because they excel at doing and learning from their doing, while big corporations excel at planning.

There’s a relatively famous quote from Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Jason Glaspey used to give a talk called Build Something, Build Anything. Jason, who has built multiple successful businesses from scratch, also emphasizes that every new project is a learning opportunity. He interviewed me a few months ago, and we discussed how I’d ping-ponged back and forth: Competing for the Netflix Prize taught me about recommendation engines, which led me to create a customer support recommendation engine at HP, a wishlist recommendation engine for Facebook, and finally led me to write a science-fiction novel in which recommendations engines lead to the first sentient computer software.

If you were to judge it by personal financial success, competing for the Netflix Prize, the Facebook app, and the HP project were all failures, because none of them netted me anything. (OK, I drew a salary while at HP.) But they did lead to expanding my social network, new technical expertise, speaking opportunities at SXSW Interactive, freedom to pursue new projects at HP, and the idea to write a best-selling novel.

Build something, build anything. Cultivate a maker mentality, and improve the quality of what you do.

Cultivate a peer group of similarly driven people

Purpose: Increase motivation, focus, and personal skills

It’s been shown in dieting, exercise, and smoking and alcohol cessation, that the most important group that will either help or hinder you to make changes in your habits is your peer group.

The most important relationship you can cultivate is with your spouse or partner. Fortunately, my spouse, Erin, is also a do-er: competing in triathlons and half-marathons, founding the band Ruby Calling, and recording music. We support each other in our goals and accomplishments.

Having friends like the Pinchots, Gene Kim, and Jason Glaspey is also inspiring, challenging, and educational.

Friends who do things inspire and challenge you to do more. Keeping up with the Joneses has a whole new meaning. And, of course, they can help you.

Gene and I get together at least monthly to share our objectives and talk things through. Occasionally we can offer direct help (I edited a scene in his book, he’s critiqued much of my writing), but the real help comes in the form of advice: “Are you sure that’s the highest priority? Have you considered X? Here’s how to calculate break-even point in sales.”

Telecommute

Purpose: Free up time and increase focus

If you have the option to telecommute, it can be a great productivity enhancer. I telecommuted three or four days a week for eight years. By doing this, I gained about ninety minutes back per day that would otherwise have been spent commuting to work, transitioning between spaces, and other inefficiencies. That’s about six hours a week: nearly an entire workday of gained time.

But more importantly, I could maintain a higher focus on the most important priorities, which both increased my effectiveness (because I only worked on the things with the biggest impact) and freed up more time (because once I was done with the highest priority tasks, I could decide how to spend my time.)

Some question the effectiveness of telecommuting. I don’t. It was during this time that I contributed the most to my employer. I had the freedom to imagine what would make the biggest impact to my organization and then to implement without the distractions that come from the office environment.

I still enjoyed my one or two days a week in the office, and used these mostly as networking activities to connect face to face with coworkers.

Minimum Viable Product

Purpose: Avoid procrastination and increase efficiency

Don’t do more than necessary. I could write about more techniques. But the more time I spent writing this, the less time I have to edit my next novel or spend with my kids. When you’ve reached the minimum viable product, it’s time to stop.


A month ago, the Yesware leadership team came to Boulder for an offsite, a few customer visits, a several hour strategy meeting with me, and then a nice dinner with me at Kasa.

Before we started the strategy meeting, Matthew Bellows led us in a brief ritual where we “bowed in” to the meeting. At the end of the meeting, we all “bowed out.” I loved it – it set the tone of respect for each other at the start of the meeting and signaled the end of the meeting when we bowed out.

A few weeks ago, we had a Yesware board meeting. Matthew once again had us bow in to the meeting. This time there was a little bit of nervous laughter around the board table as it was the first time the full board had been exposed to this ritual. It wasn’t a negative tittering, just the sounds of a group encountering something unusual, interesting, and requiring some emotional intimacy while trying to process it in the moment.

Once again I loved it. It got me thinking about two things: (1) the importance of respect as a core value and (2) traditions that scale across the company.

Let’s start with respect. I’ve written about this many times on this blog. In 2004 I wrote a post titled TDC (Thinly Disguised Contempt)I learned about TDC from Alan Trefler, the CEO of Pega, who I don’t spend much time with but view as a long time friend and someone I’ve learned a lot from over the years. Early on at Feld Technologies, I learned how incredibly toxic TDC was and how critically important respect was. Respect for the people I work with, and the elimination of TDC from my mental state and behavior, is a core value of mine. Sure – I fail at it sometimes, but I keep practicing.

I have immense respect for Matthew as an entrepreneur and CEO. I’ve learned a lot from the few years I’ve worked with him. His calmness, even in moments of stress is powerful. The monastic culture he’s created at Yesware is inspiring. His execution as a leader, and the performance and cohesiveness of his team, is delightful to be part of.

Bowing in and bowing out made me gleeful. It was another wonderful example of something I could use in lots of other places and another thing I learned from Matthew. As I mulled it over, I realized the specific act wasn’t the key thing, but the power of a tradition that scales across the company. Bowing in and bowing out before and after each meeting. The gong that gets rung at Gnip every time a new sale is made or partner deal is signed. Or Paid PAID vacation at FullContact.

The combination of respect for every individual in the company combined with scalable traditions are incredibly powerful.

On Wednesday my partners and I had our monthly offsite. One of our rituals is a “check in” where we go around the table and each of us talks for as long as we want about how we are doing. Sometimes it’s a short discussion, other times it’s a long discussion. Since we do it monthly, nothing can build up. It’s similar to the monthly life dinner that I do with Amy – introspective, emotionally aware, and open. Some of these sessions have been incredibly powerful – on this one I had tears in my eyes at one moment as I was expressing appreciation for something my partners had done for me. And all of us had a powerful moment of calibration for everything we are feeling right now.

On Thursday I spent the morning with the Bullet Time Ventures team. This is the fund that David Cohen, the CEO of Techstars, founded. My partners and I are investors and huge supporters. The team was having an offsite and they asked me to participate in some of the discussion. I gave them a lot of suggestions and answered a lot of question, but one moment near the end stuck out in my mind when I was asked how my partners and I have managed to develop and sustain the deep personal and professional relationship we have, even with all the stress and conflict inherent in our business. I said that one of our deeply held beliefs is that we “never wear our armor to a meeting.” We call this being intellectually honest and emotional pure with each other. And it’s another example of linking respect with a scalable tradition – we never want to wear our armor in any of our interactions with each other.

Matthew – thank you for the gift of bow in and bow out. Both the specific action, and the reflection on the meaning of it.


My post on How to Fix Obamacare generated plenty of feedback – some public and some via email. One of the emails reinforced the challenge of “traditional software development” vs. the new generation of “Agile software development.” I started experiencing, and understanding, agile in 2004 when I made an investment in Rally Software. At the time it was an idea in Ryan Martens brain; today it is a public company valued around $600 million, employing around 400 people, and pacing the world of agile software development.

The email I received described the challenge of a large organization when confronted with the kind of legacy systems – and traditional software development processes – that Obamacare is saddled with. The solution – an agile one – just reinforces the power of “throw it away and start over” as an approach in these situations. Enjoy the story and contemplate whether it applies to your organization.

I just read your post on Fixing the Obamacare site.

It reminds me of my current project at my day job. The backend infrastructure that handles all the Internet connectivity and services for a world-wide distributed technology that was built by a team of 150 engineers overseas. The infrastructure is extremely unreliable and since there’s no good auditability of the services, no one can say for sure, but estimates vary from a 5% to 25% failure rate of all jobs through the system. For three years management has been trying to fix the problem, and the fix is always “just around the corner”. It’s broken at every level, from the week-long deployment processes, the 50% failure rate for deploys, and the inability to scale the service.

I’ve been arguing for years to rebuild it from scratch using modern processes (agile), modern architecture (decoupled web services), and modern technology (rails), and everyone has said “it’s impossible and it’ll cost too much.”

I finally convinced my manager to give me and one other engineer two months to work on a rearchitecture effort in secret, even though our group has nothing to do with the actual web services.

Starting from basic use cases, we architected a new, decoupled system from scratch, and chose one component to implement from scratch. It corresponds roughly to 1/6 of the existing system.

In two months we were able to build a new service that:

  • scales to 3x the load with 1/4 the servers
  • operates at seven 9s reliability
  • deploys in 30 seconds
  • implemented with 2 engineers compared to an estimated 25 for the old system

Suddenly the impossible is not just possible, it’s the best path forward. We have management buy-in, and they want to do the same for the rest of the services.

But no amount of talking would have convinced them after three years of being entrenched in the same old ways of doing things. We just had to go build it to prove our point.


Phin Barnes at First Round Capital just nails it today with his post To get the most out of your investors, turn them into rubber ducks

Go read it – I’ll wait and will be here when you get back.

I love Rubber Duck Debugging. I use this approach when writing, which I call “Writing with Yoda.” I have a little Yoda figurine staring at me at all times and when I stall out I just talk to him for a little while and then get started again. He always looks serene and wise and I almost always get going after talking to him for a little while.

Phin describes five steps to turn your investors into rubber ducks:

  • Frame the problem you are facing: describe the challenge in enough detail that I can understand it without being an expert (because I am probably not an expert)
  • Create context for an answer: Explain why this problem is a priority for you and the business and why you need to solve it now (because I am not involved in the day to day operation of your company)
  • Propose a few solutions: Describe a few paths you might take and talk through how you would choose between them (this helps me understand the outcome you want to achieve)
  • Be patient: Be open and engage deeply in the questions that I have and explain your answers with specific detail (even if it seems obvious)
  • Be active: The goal is to debug the system and the builder is most likely to find the bugs we seek (and to see others along the way)

These are similar to how to engage a great mentor, which we teach over and over again in Techstars – both to the entrepreneurs and the mentors. If you’ve ever done a Top of Mind Drill with me, you’ll recognize the Rubber Duck approach with one twist – storytelling.

I’m a storyteller. I learned this from my dad. It’s part of why I love to write – it’s a way for me to think out loud and figure stuff out while telling stories. So – my favorite Rubber Ducks are the ones who can also tell stories, at the right time.

The risk of a Rubber Duck only approach as a VC is that you become overly socratic. We all know the VC who just asks question after question after question. The questions are often good, and they drive you deeper into the problem, but at some point you need to take a break. You need a breath from answering more questions. You need an analogy to relate to.

This is when the Rubber Duck should tell a story.

At a board meeting recently, the CEO looked at me and said “just tell me the fucking answer.” So I did. And that works also. But not until the CEO wants that. Until then, be a Rubber Duck.

Remember – the CEO makes the decision, not the VC. Unless the CEO explicitly asks. And – if as a VC you don’t trust the CEO to make the decision, you have that discussion with the CEO right now. And if you are a CEO who’s VCs aren’t letting you make the decisions, buy them some Rubber Ducks.


I love Scott Kveton, the CEO of Urban Airship. He and his team are building an amazing company in Portland. If you do anything mobile-related and use push notifications of any sort, or real-time location targeting, you need to be talking to them. But even more impressive is how Scott leads his company.

The other day, I got an email from my partner Jason with a photo of the Urban Airship Meeting Rules posted on the wall. They are so logical as to be rules that should apply to every meeting at every startup from now until forever.

Urban Airship Meeting Rules

0. Do we really need to meet?

1. Schedule a start, not an end to your meeting – its over when its over, even if that’s just 5 minutes.

2. Be on time!

3. No multi-tasking … no device usage unless necessary for meeting

4. If you’re not getting anything out of the meeting, leave

5. Meetings are not for information sharing – that should be done before the meeting via email and/or agenda

6. Who really needs to be at this meeting?

7. Agree to action items, if any, at the conclusion of the meeting

8. Don’t feel bad about calling people out on any of the above; it’s the right thing to do.

I particularly love 0, 1, and 4. I rarely walk out of a meeting when I’m not getting anything out of it. I’m going to start paying more attention to this one.

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This first appeared in my LinkedIn Today column titled Give Before You Get. I post unique content on LinkedIn a few times a month (I ultimately reblog it here) but if you want to get it when I first publish it and you are a LinkedIn member, simply follow me on LinkedIn.

As 2013 begins, I encourage you to adopt one of my deeply held beliefs, that of “give before you get.”

I’ve lived my adult working life – first as an entrepreneur, next as an angel investor, and now as a venture capitalist and a writer – using this credo. It’s a core tenant of the Boulder Startup Community, which I discuss extensively in Startup Communities: How To Build an Entrepreneur Ecosystem in Your City. And it’s at the heart of how I live my personal life and is part of the glue that holds together the awesome relationship I have with my wife Amy Batchelor.

In order to give before you get, adopt a philosophy of helping others without an expectation of what you are going to get back. It’s not altruistic – you do expect to get things in return – but you don’t set up the relationship to be a transactional one.

In a business context, my favorite example of this is the difference between a mentor and an advisor. The word “mentor” has become very popular and trendy recently, yet few people really understand what it means, and many mentors are actually advisors. To understand the difference, here’s an example. An advisor says “I’ll help you with your company if you give me 1% of the equity” or “I’d be happy to spend up to a day a month advising you if you give me a retainer of $3,000.” A mentor says, simply, “how can I help?”

As a partner at Foundry Group, I interact with hundreds of entrepreneurs each week. I’m an investor in a few of their companies, but many of the people I intersect with are entrepreneurs whose company I’m not currently invested in. While a few of these companies are potential investments, the vast majority of them are companies I won’t end up being an investor in. Yet I try to be helpful to everyone who crosses my path, even if it’s an answer to a simple question, feedback on their product, or simply a response to their email that what they are working on isn’t something I’d be interested in investing in. Sure, I’m not perfect at this, but the number of entrepreneurs who have helped me in some unexpected way because of my approach to them dwarfs the energy I’ve “given.”

I believe that I’m playing a very long term game in business, and that my actions today will impact me in 20+ years. I feel the same way about my non-work life. My goal is to life as happy an existence on this planet as I can and, by giving before I get, I maximize my chance of this.

As you begin 2013, consider adopting a give before you get approach. It might surprise you what you’ll get!


I’ve just spent a month in Maker Mode. It’s been a powerful month and prompted a few posts like Have You Fallen Into The Busy Trap? which generated lots of feedback as well as deeper responses from posts like Do We All Work Too Much? And Do We Really Have a Choice? Amy and I are talking about this almost every day as we work on our book Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship With An Entrepreneur. The topic of how we work, what’s important, and what we get done is very much on my mind these days.

Email is a big part of this. Once a month I get an email from the Gmail Meter that tells me about my email behavior. Here’s June’s summary.


The daily average is 233 conversations, 411 received emails, and 140 sent emails. Remember that this includes weekends where the volume is much lower.

If you assume a 10 hour day (short for me), that’s 23 conversations an hour, 41 received emails an hour, and 14 sent emails an hour.

 

It’s easy to imagine that I could easily spent my entire life doing email.

Let’s look at the next batch of data – % traffic sent / received each day.

While the daily email pattern is relentless from Monday to Friday, you can see that I spend Saturday getting caught up or working on stuff that generates a bunch of sent emails but doesn’t have responses received until Monday. But the simple conclusion from this chart is that email is relentless.

Next up is Time Before Response.

Here you can see Maker Mode in action. When I’m on email, I respond almost immediately. When I’m writing, between 1 hour and a day pass – my guess is if this was a more granular chart, it’d center around four hours which is my maximum time period for real writing. Most people respond quickly to me, so if I respond quickly, I generate the endless back and forth of email. When this doesn’t necessarily show it, I know that when I slow down, there’s less email coming back my way.

Let’s finish up with Word Count.

If you’ve ever exchanged emails with me, you know that my answers are generally short. 35% are less than 10 words. 70% are less than 30 words. But look at what I’m getting back. 50% are more than 100 words. Fortunately, I read very quickly – much faster than most people can type.

Ok – that’s plenty of data to play around with. I have a simple goal of responding to all of my email so I find the patterns curious and the data super interesting. This month has been a different kind of month given Maker Mode, but when I look at the patterns I realize I’m still spending too much time “email is on and I’m responding mode.”

In contrast, I wrote for eight hours yesterday. I closed Chrome and didn’t have email up. I was on it for a few hours mid day when I did a few hours of calls and then again at night when Amy and I watched The Recruit. Other than that, I wrote.

This morning my brain was tired. I decided I wasn’t going to write until this afternoon. So I’ve spent the morning responding to email and writing this blog post. I’ll go offline (or off email) from 1pm – 5pm this afternoon and do the writing I planned to do today. I’ve got a Thursday deadline so I can imagine that I’ll fire things back up after dinner and write for a few more hours.

My goal in July is to shift my modality even further into Maker Mode. I’ve gotten comfortable with the four hour writing stretch and want to make sure I do at least one a day with two on the days that I can handle it. Like running, I have to vary my tempo for it to be sustainable. I’ll compare the July data to the June data when it comes in.

I realize this post was more for me than for you, but hopefully you got some interesting insights out of it if you hung in to the end.


tl;dr – Yes.

I’m on the all@company.com list for a number of the companies I’m on the board of. CEOs and entrepreneurs who practice TAGFEE welcome this. I haven’t universally asked for inclusion on this list mostly because I hadn’t really thought hard about it until recently. But I will now and going forward, although I’ll leave it up to the CEO as to whether or not to include me.

In an effort to better figure out the startup board dynamic, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of continual communication with board members. The companies I feel most involved in are ones in which I have continual communication and involvement with the company. This isn’t just limited to the CEO, but to all members of the management team and often many other people in the company. Working relationships as well as friendships develop through the interactions.

Instead of being a board member with his arms crossed who shows up at a board meeting every four to eight weeks to ask a bunch on knuckleheaded questions in reaction to what is being presented, I generally know a wide range of what is going on in the companies I’m on the board of. Sure – there are lots of pockets of information I don’t know, but because I’m in the flow of communication, I can easily engage in any topic going on in the company. In addition to being up to speed (or getting up to speed on any issue faster), I have much deeper functional context, as well as emotional context, about what is going on, who is impacted, and what the core issue is.

Every company I’m involved in has a unique culture. Aspects of the culture get played out every day on the all@company.com email list. Sometimes the list is filled with the mundane rhythms of a company (“I’m sick today – not coming in”; “Please don’t forget to put the dishes in the dishwasher.”) Other times it’s filled with celebration (“GONG: Just Closed A Deal With Customer Name.”) Occasionally it’s filled with heartbreak (“Person X just was diagnosed with cancer.”) Yet other times it is a coordination mechanism (“Lunch is at 12:30 at Hapa Sushi.”) And, of course, it’s often filled with substance about a new customer, new product, issue on tech support, competitive threat, or whatever is currently on the CEO’s mind.

As a board member, being on this list makes me feel much more like part of the team. I strongly believe that board members of early stage companies should be active – and supportive – participants. My deep personal philosophy is that as long as I support the CEO, my job is to do whatever the CEO wants me to do to help the company succeed. Having more context, being part of the team, and being in the flow of the all@company.com communication helps immensely with that.

There are three resistance points I commonly hear to this:

1. “I don’t want to overwhelm my board members with emails.” That’s my problem, not yours, and the reason filters were created for people who can’t handle a steady volume of email. If you are a Gmail user, or have conversation view turned on in Outlook, it’s totally mangeable since all the messages thread up into a single conversation. So – don’t worry about me. If your board member says “too much info, please don’t include me”, ponder what he’s really saying and how to best engage him in continuous communication.

2.”I don’t want my board members to see all the things going on in the company.” That’s not very TAGFEE so the next time you say “I try to be transparent and open with my investors”, do a reality check on what you actually mean. Remember, the simplest way not to get tangled up in communication is just to be blunt, open, and honest all the time – that way you never have to figure out what you said. If you don’t believe your board members are mature enough to engage in this level of interaction on a continual basis, reconsider whether they should be on your board.

3. “I’m afraid it will stifle communication within the company.” If this is the case, reconsider your relationship between your board members and your company. Are you anthropomorphizing your board? Are you shifting blame, or responsibility to them (as in “the board made me do this?”) Are you creating, or do you have, a contentious relationship between your team and the board? All of these things are problems and lead to ineffective board / company / CEO interactions so use that as a signal that something is wrong in relationship.

Notice that I didn’t say “all investors” – I explicitly said board members. As in my post recently about board observers, I believe that board members have a very specific responsibility to the company that is unique and not shared by “board observers” or other investors. There are plenty of other communication mechanisms for these folks. But, for board members, add them to you all@company.com list today.


Every company I’m involved in keeps track of numbers. Daily numbers, weekly numbers, monthly numbers. Ultimately, all the numbers translate into three financial statements – the P&L, Balance Sheet, and Cash Flow Statement. While these numbers are sacrosanct in the accounting and finance professions, they are lagging indicators for most startup companies. Important, but they tell the story of the past, not what is going on right now.

I’ve formed a view that every young company should be obsessed about three magic numbers. Not two, not five, but three. Before I explain what those numbers are, I need to tell a story of how I got to this point.

My brain works better with numbers than graphs, so over the years I’ve conditioned most people I work with to send me numbers on a regular basis. Words are good also, but I love numbers. Early in the life of the company I request numbers daily. Some of this is for me; most of it is to try to help the entrepreneurs build some muscles around understanding the data and how to use it.

Recently, I’ve noticed a cambrian explosion of data among several of the companies I work with. The number of different numbers being tracked daily is massive. When you walk into their office there are screens full of graphs on the wall. Everyone in the company has access to the trends over time across a number of dimensions. These graphs are pretty, the numbers are dynamic, and there are often blinking lights to go along as a bonus.

A few months ago I stood in the middle of the office of a 30 person company and stared at the flat screen TVs hanging from the ceiling showing an array of graphs. I’m sure my mouth was open as I tried to process the data and make sense of it. I knew this particular company well and could reduce the number of different data points to a small set, but I was completely overwhelmed by the visual display. As I systematically looked at each of the graphs, I realized very few of them mattered much, nor where they particularly helpful in understanding what was going on in the business.

At the moment I realized these were no longer magic numbers. Instead, I was looking at wallpaper. Data porn. The entrepreneurial aeron chair equivalent of 2012. Pretty, but a bad allocation of resources. The 30 people in the room might be looking at the graphs. They might be looking at one of the graphs. But they probably weren’t seeing anything.

This particular company runs off of three numbers. Daily active users (DAU). Live publishers. Trial publishers. That’s it for now. In the future, there will be a daily transaction metric (Daily transaction revenue) that replaces trial clients. But that’s probably a quarter or two away.

I then started thinking about each company I’m on the board of. This rule of three applies. For many of the companies, DAU is one of the numbers. In others it’s daily orders. Or daily revenue. Or daily activations. Or total publishers. Or new publishers. But in every case I could reduce it to three numbers that I felt were the most important to pay attention to.

The absolute number is what matters. The trend is driven by day over day changes. If during the week (assume the week starts on Sunday) the numbers are 47, 67, 69, 72, 174, 80, 53 this prompts the question “what happened on Thursday to drive the number to  174?” If the next week the numbers are 53, 75, 214, 83, 80, 73, 45 this prompts two questions: “what caused the spike on Tuesday” and “why is the week over week trend downward?” Clearly there is seasonality within the week and there is a new high, but the overall trend going into the weekend is negative.

My brain can focus intensely on three variables like this in a business. Once I add a fourth, I have trouble figuring out the relationship between them. This doesn’t mean that the leadership and functional managers shouldn’t track and analyze the detailed data. They should. But they should realize that when they show this to everyone in the company, no one knows what to care about.

Instead, my new approach is to focus on three numbers. These three numbers should reflect “what’s going on right now in the business” and the trend of the numbers should be a predictor of what’s going on. As I think about the companies I’m involved in, I can define these three numbers in 60 seconds – they are almost always painfully obvious. Sometimes I do end up with four and have to make a choice, but I rarely end up with five.

The technology for displaying these three numbers is remarkably simple. They make this thing called a whiteboard that you can write them on. An email can go out to everyone in the company with the three numbers. That’s it.

What are your three magic numbers?