Greg Avery recently wrote a detailed story in the Denver Business Journal of the origin story of Techstars a decade ago. It’s unfortunately paywalled but comes with a video.
For all of you who have participated in or supported Techstars to date, thank you!
I love dreams. Mine are often very detailed, clear, extremely colorful, linger for a while (several hours) after I wake up, and full of strange and complex linkages between things that often cause me to make associations I wouldn’t have otherwise made. Ever since I learned about the concept of garbage collection in 6.001 at MIT in 1984 while using Scheme on HP Chipmunks, I’ve always thought of dreaming as the same as garbage collection for a computer. When I read Minsky’s The Society of the Mind I started referring to dreams as garbage collection for the mind.
I woke up this morning with a particularly vivid dream that has stuck with me for the past hour as I get ready to head to Seattle and Portland for a few days. After 30 days off the grid, I’ve had an expectedly intense full three days as I get back in the flow of things. I’m processing a lot and when I went to bed last night around 11:30 my brain was full. As I laid down next to Amy, she said “I can feel you thinking.” We murmured a few things to each other and then I promptly fell asleep.
I woke up in the midst of the dream to Amy saying “Did you set an alarm?” (Answer: “No, but I’m awake now!”) In my dream I was walking down the hall with the Chief Information Officer of a health care company I’d somehow ended up as a consultant for. The CIO was an older white guy – classic last generation CIO – who was totally panicked about a security breach but had no idea what to do about it. He and I had just walked out of a board meeting with about 30 people moments after they’d fired the CEO. The board was in an uproar, trying to figure out how the CEO had let the security breach happen and why there were all these Twitter accounts posting images of patients with posts in weird / poor English saying things about how great Trump is.
In the board meeting I had explained to the board that the Twitter accounts were geo-coded with locations in Russia, so it was likely a Russian hacker and a focused attack that had nothing to do with the company. One of the board members was emotional. “I don’t give a shit – just fix it!” Other board members were talking over each other about who the new CEO should be. The consensus was “We don’t care what it costs – just solve the problem.”
Immediately prior to walking into the board meeting, I had been in an underground office below a parking garage meeting with a small team of white hat hackers. They had previously gotten my attention by breaking into several highly secure systems unrelated to me, sending me evidence of their break ins, and suggesting that they were for hire. I had been going back and forth with Rob Hayes at First Round Capital about his experience with them, since he’d hired them in the past. The lead hacker showed me how he’d spoofed Rob’s response to me and replaced it with an image of a gigantic hairless cat.
As I go back further in the dream, it’s fading now so I’m losing the thread. But you get the idea.
An annoying thing about Twitter Search is that it’s not good enough to help me find who tweeted at me that Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is something I should read. I scrolled through my @mentions until I was annoyed after trying to search but not being able to figure out how to scope the search so I could only search @mentions = bfeld (or maybe my problem is that it should be @mentions == @bfeld).
Whoever it was – thank you! Dark Matter was awesome. It’s the first book I read Saturday as part of my decompress from the week and feel better from trying to eat yogurt maneuver that I ended up playing out throughout the day.
I love near term sci-fi. I especially love right now sci-fi – stuff that happens in current time but incorporates a scientific breakthrough that is currently being explored.
Dark Matter is all about the concept of an infinite number of parallel universes. The scientific breakthrough is the notion of quantum superposition easily explained by the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment.
The book is a magnificently fast romp that includes kidnapping, research institutions, love, family, death, religion, the nature of the universe, psychological intrigue, really complex relationship dynamics, and a whole bunch of other stuff that makes a novel irresistible to put down. There were a few plot twists that I anticipated or figured out before they came, but generally I rode the wave of the book.
If you are a sci-fi fan or just like a great action adventure novel with nerdy underpinnings, this is for you. And if you are wondering whether we are actually just part of a computer simulation, this book will help you understand that theory better.
The language of startups has become pervasive. It feels like it started with Eric Ries’ great book The Lean Startup when words like MVP and pivot started showing up in all conversations. Back then it was new, fresh, and focusing.
Today, there are hundreds of words that people throw around in the context of their startups. Many, like traction, are completely meaningless. If you need a dose of some of the language, just watch a few episodes of Silicon Valley.
I’ve noticed something recently. For founders outside Silicon Valley, and even plenty within Silicon Valley, the language seems forced. Fake. Awkward. Uncomfortable. Words are used incorrectly. They are strung together in meaningless sentences. They are used to obscure reality or try to avoid the meat of a question.
It’s not necessarily a cliche-ladened problem. It’s also not a verbal tick issue. It feels like some people are trying to fake it, without really knowing what they are saying.
Don’t try to fake it.
Let’s wander away from startup for a moment and use the example of my fake philosophy expertise. I’d use words and phrases to demonstrate my fake philosophy prowess such as existentialism, free will and determinism, philosophy of language, being and nothingness, nihilism, anthropotheism, and neonomianism. I barely know how to spell the last few words, let alone understand the philosophy behind them. I could give you a definition (e.g. anthropotheism is the belief that gods are only deified men), but I have no real concept of what underlies the word or the philosophy behind it, or how it fits together with anything else. I can look it up on the web (that’s where the definition came from) and if I didn’t say I had no idea what it meant, it puts me in the fake smart category. But when I start a discussion with someone who has studied philosophy, either formally or informally, I’m hosed and it’s quickly clear that I’m faking it.
An easy example from my daily life is the founder who leads off talking about his business by saying “we’ve got a lot of traction.” He then goes on to say nothing about what this means, gives no metrics indicating “traction” (whatever that is), and generally stays vague about what the company does. When he takes a breath, I ask “what do you mean by traction?” After some nonsense tumbles out, I ask more precise questions about metrics, and get answers that don’t demonstrate any real, meaningful progress of any sort. I ask a few more questions to try to find leading indicators of progress and get qualitative descriptions of why people would want the product.
Then there is the misused definition problem.
Founder: “We had $50k of MRR last month.”
Me: “How much MRR did you have the previous month?”
Me: How much MRR did you have the month before?”
Me: “Why did you have so much churn from the $27k month to the $14k month?”
Founder: “We didn’t – that was just how much we sold that month.”
Me: “What do you mean, that’s how much you sold that month?”
Founder: “Well – that’s how many $ of transactions went through our system.”
Me: “You realize that’s not MRR, but that’s Gross Sales?”
Founder: “What’s the difference?”
Me: “What percentage of each transaction do you keep in your marketplace?”
Founder: “5% – we are trying to grow market share.”
Me: “So your net revenue last month was only $2.5k, right?”
Founder: “Um, ok.”
If this happened every once in a while, that would be fine. But it happens every day. Sometimes it’s simply lack of understanding of what the words and metrics mean and how they work. But other times, it’s clearly an effort to demonstrate how much progress has been made by either avoiding the real metrics, obscuring what is going on, or trying to come up with a big number to get someone’s attention.
Don’t worry about loading up your discussion with cliches and trendy words. Focus on telling the story of your business. And don’t try to fake it.
First off – I’m ok. But here’s the story.
“You’re in an ambulance. I’m just putting an IV in your arm,” said a disembodied voice.
I had no idea where I was. I had a vague recollection that I had been on a bike.
“You’re in ambulance. You are ok. Stay calm.”
I realized I was tightly strapped to a board and couldn’t move if I wanted to. My legs hurt. My ribs hurt. My shoulders hurt.
I couldn’t figure out what had happened. I couldn’t process where I was. I felt like I was coming out of a dream, but I couldn’t remember the dream. I couldn’t open my eyes.
The doctor asked, “What day is it.”
I responded, “I have no idea.” I forgot to say that I usually have no idea what day it is.
Patiently, the doctor asked, “Who is the president?”
I thought to myself “George Bush” but I paused, knowing that wasn’t correct. After a short time, I answered “Barack Obama.”
“What is your name.”
“Good. You seem ok. Do you know what day it is yet?”
I responded, “I generally don’t know what day it is.”
The next thing I remember was hitting a bump and opening my eyes to see a woman pushing me through some doors.
“Hang on – we are just wheeling you into the emergency room.”
Some time must have passed. I felt someone pick me up and put me back down on a bed. I felt myself being slowly pushed. I opened my eyes again.
“We are doing a CT scan to check your brain.”
Some more time passed. I remember someone doing something with my left hand, which hurt like hell. I must have said something since once a disembodied voice said, “Stay calm. I’m just checked your thumb to see if it’s broken.”
More time passed. A police officer woke me up.
“Brad, I’m with the Boulder Police. I just want to ask a few questions. In case you don’t remember this, I’ve put my card in your jacket pocket.” (It turned out the officer was Chris Burke, who was awesome, efficient, and very patient with me. Amy called him later to get more information and he was incredibly helpful, including giving her details on the six 911 calls that people made when they saw me on the side of the road and the fact that he didn’t think I was unconscious at all, or for very long, just completely out of it.)
I don’t remember our conversation at all.
The next thing I realized was that my partners Jason and Seth were in the room. I vaguely remembered sending an email to Amy and my assistant Colleen somewhere between getting to the hospital and being in the room I was in. It was so powerful to see them. I suddenly felt safe again, knowing that people I knew were around. I have no idea what we talked about, but then Amy showed up.
Finally, I was starting to feel a tiny bit lucid. Amy took over and Jason and Seth went back to their lives. I told Jason I had a fireside chat event with Frank Gruber about his new book and could he step in for me (he did, and did great.) Amy called Colleen and told her to cancel my day. The CT scan checked out clear and the hospital released me. Amy and I stopped at Jamba Juice for a giant Peanut Butter and Chocolate Moo. I went home and promptly slept until dinner, which was Noodles Mac and Cheese that Seth picked up for us.
Reflecting on this, it’s amazing to me how little of the first 60 minutes I can remember. According to the police office, I was conscious the entire time. But I have no memory of what actually happened. The last thing I remember, after much prompting, was turning left onto Iris from Broadway. While the 911 calls were all for a hit and run, there’s no real evidence of that since my bike is generally fine and nothing, including me, looks like it was hit by a car. At this point, I’m guessing that I took the turn too wide and must have hit the curb and lost control of the bike. Maybe I squeezed my breaks and went over my handlebars. Or maybe I crossed over into a parallel universe for a little while and when I came back landed on my face.
I’m doing ok today. Nothing is broken and according to the hospital I don’t have a concussion. I’ve very banged up. I’ll probably have two black eyes, I have a sprained thumb, and lots of cuts and bruises everywhere. My face is very swollen and my head is very bumpy and weird from all the swelling. I have a persistent headache, no matter how much Advil I take. My glasses are destroyed so I’m wearing some old ones, which probably isn’t helping.
I slept well last night (although Amy woke me up every few hours to make sure I wasn’t dead) and feel perky right now, but expect I’ll run out of gas later today.
My biking career, short as it was, is officially over. I’ve had two accidents in three years – the first in Slovenia left blood on the streets. It was much more serious in hindsight than this one, but I remember much less about this one. Both were when I was making a sharp left turn so part of the problem may be that I don’t have the right spacial orientation on that side. I don’t have great depth perception, especially at night, so maybe this is part of the problem.
I had a fantasy for a few weeks about taking a bike tour across America next year. I was even planning to get a sweet Trek Domane 5.9 this weekend just to get the feel for it. But, no more. I now have three nice bikes for sale (two Specialized and one LeMond) in case anyone out there is looking for a bike.
Thanks for all the Facebook notes, tweets, emails, and checkins. I feel really lucky to have so many in the people watching out for me.
Just under two months ago, Occipital launched their new Structure Sensor on Kickstarter. Over the course of 45 days, it raised more than $1.2M to become the 6th most funded tech-category project ever on the site.
Kickstarter backers aren’t the only people who are enthusiastic about Occipital’s new creation. Two of the technology world’s biggest names have now added the Structure Sensor to their roster of award-winning new technology products for 2013 and 2014.
Every year, Popular Science chooses 100 products they consider to be the “Best of What’s New.” This year, they chose the Structure Sensor as one of 8 products in their “Gadgets” category to receive this honor, alongside other products like Google Glass. Check out Popular Science’s “Best Of What’s New” for 2013 here.
The 2014 International CES show in Las Vegas is just two months away. Along with organizing CES, the Consumer Electronics Association also runs the annual CES Innovation Awards to recognize those new consumer electronics products that are outstanding in their field. For 2014, the Structure Sensor is one of 11 products to be named a CES Innovation Design and Engineering Honoree in the “Tablets, E-Readers & Mobile Computing” category, alongside others like the new Sony VAIO Flip PC. See the CES Innovation Awards for 2014 here.
If you missed the Kickstarter campaign but want to get a sensor, Occipital just launched pre-orders today at structure.io.
In my mid-20s I was part of an amazing experience called Birthing of Giants. It was a gathering of 60 entrepreneurs over four days (for three years) who were all under 40 and founders of companies with more than $1m in revenue. It was the first time I discovered my peer group and while I was young (24 years old) and small ($1m in revenue) I felt like I immediately fit in.
One of the guys in the group from from Brazil. He had this delicious accent and intense passion whenever he spoke. I remember being across from him in some conversation when he pounded on the table in reaction to something and said “focus focus focus.” But it came out as “fuck us fuck us fuck us.” And I’ll never forget that moment.
The message has stuck in my head. I was in several meetings the past few weeks where I wanted to bang on table and scream “focus focus focus.” In each case, I restrained myself and tried to be constructive. Each situation had differences, but fundamentally there was a vector where the company had no focus. Each company has an amazing core technology. Each one has a clear mission. But in one case, they don’t know what “word” they own, in another they are serving two entirely different customers that had no relationship to one another, and in the third they were going after three completely different markets with different products.
Now, there are plenty of cases where it makes sense to have two threads going at the same time. If you’ve got an API business and an end-user business that deal with the same core data and feed off of each other, you can effectively combine them as long as you own a single word or concept. If you’ve got enough scale, you can go after different market segments. As you get bigger, you can expand your product line.
But early on, especially pre or early revenue, lack of focus is the death of so many companies. Sure, there’s a point where you are still thrashing around looking for “the thing.” You are using all the Lean Startup and Lean Launchpad techniques to find your product-market fit. You are iterating and pivoting. You’ll want to use a freemium model to capture the low-end customer while selling directly to a high-end customer. How’s that – I just used a bunch of buzzwords to help rationalize the “search for focus” – clever, eh?
But at some point you have to focus. What word do you own? Who is your customer? What are you selling them? How are you selling them it? Why are they buying it?
This is especially true when something is working. You’ll feel like hedging your bets. But don’t – go all in on the thing that is winning. Do it over and over again. And build scale quickly with it so that you can start experimenting with more things.
Focus focus focus. Or you will end up saying “fuck us – it’s over.”
Defrag is entering its seventh year of existence. That’s kind of amazing to me. What started as a simple email exchange between myself and Eric Norlin almost eight years ago resulted in a conference that has grown in importance, had meaningful impact on my thinking (and that of many others), and spawned other shows, most notably Gluecon. Most tech conferences don’t last seven years, and they certainly don’t get better with time. Defrag has and is.
Eric has been outlining his thinking for this year’s agenda here, but let me point out a couple of things of note:
This year’s Defrag is covering everything from drones to robots to the cloud to APIs to big data. The full Defrag 2013 agenda is here (and it will continue to evolve) but topics will include the following:
Jerry Colonna and I are also going to have a special fireside chat about surviving the startup life.
Use “brad12” to take an additional 10% off of the early bird pricing (which ends September 20th).
Last night Amy and I saw Closed Circuit. We both walked out of there completely bummed out. It was a good movie, but the arrogance of some government agencies (in this case British MI-5) was overwhelmingly real and upsetting. We went to bed when we got home and I tossed and turned for awhile, thinking about nasty government shit. I had a crazy dream that seemed to go on forever about being tangled up in some kind of spy related thing with old college buddies and woke up with it completely unresolved.
It was very early when I got up so I sat down at my computer to start cranking on the last bit of Startup Boards since I’m submitting the final draft on Monday night. But I made a mistake – in an effort to procrastinate a little I read the newspaper headlines, my feeds, Techmeme River, and HackerNews headlines.
And then I was completely bummed out. There were the predictable articles that reinforced the incredible arrogance of government. But there were also a bunch of articles, including some that were first person posts, making strong statements about specific things, defending positions, and arguing points that were one sided and didn’t make much sense to me. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, there was a common thread. The first person accounts were almost all incredibly arrogant.
I felt myself getting angry. Several of the articles directly undermined broad initiatives that I care about. Ironically, several of the writers actually appear to support the same position I do. But their delivery was horrible. And arrogant.
I spent a little time on my book and then Amy woke up. I took her out to Snooze for breakfast and as we were walking over I described a few of the things that were bothering me to her. I had a two hour advantage on her since she had just woken up and her first response was “What? What’s got you so riled up?” We kept going and just talking to her calmed me down. And she helped me think through what I was reacting to.
It is arrogance. And bias. Which just makes me crazy – it’s 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have A Dream speech, and bias – both conscious and unconscious – is alive and well. Everywhere. I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past two years exploring, understanding, and explaining unconscious bias. It’s at the heart of one of the key issues that we are trying to address at NCWIT. But conscious bias is maybe more offensive and grotesque. And it’s even worse when coated with arrogance.
I don’t expect to solve anything with this post – I’m just venting. And I don’t feel like calling anyone out – I’m not really interested in provoking a fight and giving arrogance more of a voice. Arrogance and hubris is an ancient problem – our Greek friends knew it well. The power, and value, of humility was reinforced to me again this morning. I respect humility so much more than I like arrogance.