Last year Inc. Magazine invited me to write a quarterly article for them for both Inc. Magazine and Inc.com. I wrote three – this is my last one. I’ve enjoyed writing for Inc., but earlier this year decided to stop writing for other web sites, at least for a while, as it had become a burden with all the other writing that I’m doing. I thought it would be fun for my last article in Inc. to be self-referential, so I wrote this article about why I write. You can find it on Inc.com at The Best Way to Improve How You Think.
I set out to be an entrepreneur and then an investor. I became a writer almost by accident. Now, I can’t imagine not writing–it’s something I do daily. It’s how I problem solve. And it’s crucial to my continued learning and growth.
In the late 1980s, I started my first company, Feld Technologies, which wrote custom software for companies. This was back when personal computers were becoming popular in a business context. But they were complex. Computer salesmen hawked them speaking a language you didn’t understand, in a style that could have worked equally well on a used-car lot.
Our clients wanted to understand what they were buying. They didn’t care about RAM or CONFIG.SYS settings. So I started writing memos about how the computers and the software they were buying would solve their business problems.
I moved my writing online in the mid-1990s and eventually to my own blog, Feld Thoughts. I had become an angel investor using some of the money I’d made from the sale of Feld Technologies, and those experiences provided plenty of blog fodder. My partner Jason Mendelson and I even churned out a series on venture capital financing. This was during a time when venture funding was in the dumps, and the process was opaque. In about 30 posts, we demystified it. Finally, after almost 20 years of writing, the light bulb went on for me.
I write to think.
Forcing myself to sit down and work through these ideas in a logical sequence for an audience of readers required me to refine my thinking on how I invest in startups. How could I make the financing process more efficient? What’s the best way to structure a deal? I learned a lot, both from my writing and my readers’ responses.
As a result, my approach to VC deals changed after those posts. I simplified my deal terms. I stopped negotiating over nonsense. I had no patience for long arguments over things that didn’t matter.
My thoughts really began to crystallize when I started writing books. In 2010, I co-wrote Do More Faster: Techstars Lessons to Accelerate Your Startup, with Techstars CEO and co-founder David Cohen. During this process, David and I nailed down many of the startup strategies that had been rolling around in our heads. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Techstars’s growth accelerated, as did the growth of the companies we worked with, after publishing that book.
This is not to say that everyone should write books. But some form of regular writing is one of the best ways to give yourself time for reflection and analysis. It could be any kind of writing. Consider Jeff Bezos’s approach to meetings. Whoever runs the meeting writes a memo no longer than six pages about the issue at hand. Then, for the first 15 to 30 minutes of the meeting, the group reads it. The rest of the meeting is spent discussing it. No PowerPoint allowed. Brilliant. (I’ve long felt that PowerPoint is a terrible substitute for critical thinking.)
As helpful as I find writing daily to be, it doesn’t always come easily. I often go through long, dry stretches where my writing is uninspired. I stare at the screen, pecking out a few words hesitantly. This used to frustrate me, but now I realize it’s just part of the process. Part of the trick is figuring out your most productive writing conditions; for me, it’s early in the morning or late at night, preferably with Pink Floyd, electronic music, or classical piano blaring.
Many people might find a blank screen with its blinking cursor terrifying. Where do I even begin? you might ask. These days, I much prefer staring at that screen to standing up in front of a crowd. I think better, and I learn much more.
One of my goals, and a tactic for being happier, this year is Doing More By Doing Less More Deeply. To that end, I’ve decided to stop writing for other web sites and magazines.
Over the past few years, I’ve expanded the “channels” that my original writing appears in. In some cases, I’ve written specific content for sites and magazines like Inc. and Entrepreneur. In other cases I’m participating in the grand content expansion strategies of sites like LinkedIn, Huffington Post, WSJ, and Forbes. And in others, it’s just random stuff on sites from people building up their content in a particular area.
While it’s been a fun experiment, it has become an overwhelming chore. I get a request for something new from somewhere multiple times a week. I say no a lot, but I’m constantly having to think to myself “do I want to do this or not.” I’ve never been good at moderating, so it’s much easier for me to abstain and just say no to everything.
In some cases I’ve done this to learn about the content expansion strategies of either tradition or new media companies. I feel like that learning has hit very significant diminishing returns – sure there is more to learn, but it’s not significant enough to outweigh the effort and cost.
I love to write. And I very much appreciate the opportunity others have given me to contribute content to their sites. But I’ve gotten tired of the pressure from external sites to produce material for them on a particular time frame or in response to prompted topics, which some people love but I’ve grown to dislike. And most importantly, I’ve realized that I really like three types of writing best.
- Short form that I completely control, such as blog posts like this.
- Long form, such as books like Startup Boards.
- Commentary on other people’s writing, such as comments on other people’s blog posts or GoodReads book reviews.
I’ve been spending a lot of my writing energy recently on a new project that we are about to unveil. I expect that by stopping writing for other sites, I’ll free up enough energy to allocate what I want to for this project. And that feels like Doing More By Doing Less More Deeply.
Every year or so I freshen up the Feld Thoughts design. This time I did it with the help of Cole Morrison, who is the Hackstar I hired at the end of last year.
I’ve gotten some feedback so far but am looking for more. And I’m happy to get whatever you’ve got for us – nice, constructive, or harsh. Whatever comes to mind – just toss it in the comments or email it.
For an example of “substantial” and “harsh” take a look at this. Like all helpful feedback, it’s very precise and actionable.
Historically, most of my writing has been either on my blogs or the books that I’ve written. Occasionally I’ve written for magazines, like a year-long stretch I did for Entrepreneur a few years ago, and longer form articles of mine appear in different places every now and then. But pretty much everything I write ends up on Feld Thoughts at some point.
I’m going to experiment with some different channels this year. The two that I’ve already gotten into a regular, once a week rhythm with are LinkedIn Influencers and the Wall Street Journal Accelerators. I’m putting up a lot more content on the Startup Revolution site and I’ll be adding at least one more channel in the next 30 days. Finally, I’m doing more guest posts, such as the article I wrote for Amazon Money & Markets titled Startups Are Everywhere.
Up to know I’ve been generally reposting these on Feld Thoughts. But in the next 30 days I plan to change the landing page for feld.com to include all the different channels, and I’ll also do my best to splice up a single feed for everything I write.
Like all things, this is an experiment. I haven’t figured out whether I like this or not, but I’m enjoying playing with different channels, different audiences, and engaging with an audience and other thought leaders around a specific topic.
For example, this week’s WSJ Accelerator question was “Is it possible for a startup founder to work on two or three products (or startups) at once?” Some posts include mine, which was “No, Mostly“, Steve Blank saying “Don’t Confuse Science Experiments With Commitments“, and Joanne Wilson stating “Choose One Company and One Company Only.” Each different article adds to a broader thought, which is part of the joy of “mentor whiplash” we talk about all the time in TechStars. Ultimately, you have to make your own decision as an entrepreneur – we are just providing data for you.
I’m at CES this week. If you want to see why, check out my LinkedIn post titled Why I Go To CES. And, if you are at CES and want me to stop by your booth, leave a comment here.
If you’ve figured out a great way to be a multi-channel content publisher, I’m all ears. Or, as a reader of this blog, if you have a strong opinion about what I’m doing, please weigh in. Remember – this is just an experiment.
As Amy and I continue to crank away on Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur, I learned a funny, perplexing, and strange thing. There apparently is an editorial standard, at least at Wiley, for the words “fuck” and “fucking”.
Fuck = F%^$
Fucking = F*&^%$#
Crazy. Hilarious. Fun. Bizarre.
I discovered this yesterday as I was going through and making all the changes to the feedback from our “publisher draft” submission which we got back on Friday. We’ve got plenty of dialogue with the words “fuck” and “shit” in them because (a) that’s how a lot of humans, including us, talk and (b) when there’s conflict, which we cover a lot in the book, the words “fuck” and “shit” tend to fly.
For some reason “shit” is ok. It made it through this particular edit pass. But “fuck” did not, except in a particular phrase, “fuck you money.” Let’s see if that one survives the next edit pass. And, when the final book comes out, we’ll see if shit did as well.
Back to working on the book. The final deadline is 10/22 so if you see me in the next nine days and you want to torture me, just ask “how’s the book going.” I expect you’ll hear some variant of f%^$ in my response.
I’ve finished writing the book Startup Communities: Building An Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City (a solo effort) and am now deep into Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving In A Relationship With An Entrepreneur which I’m writing with Amy.
I’m looking for a great collaborative writing tool for a book. I used Scrivener on a solo basis for Startup Communities – it’s outstanding for the first draft. I eventually had to drop into Word to work with the production system for my publisher (Wiley) but that’s probably the case for any non-self-publishing experience at this point.
However, I can’t for the life of me figure out a workflow with Scrivener that works effectively for two writers. It’s a single-user product and all of my Dropbox related contortions work to share the file, but then only one person can actually work in it at any given time. So “pair programming” (or “pair writing”) might work, but we are both banging away at the book next to each other while on our treadputers (on different computers).
I’m moving everything to Google Docs for now, but I’m looking for feedback from other writers who have done books as joint projects where there were two writers. I don’t really want to pass documents back and forth (or share separate files via Dropbox) – I want a true collaborative writing solution.
Any thoughts out there?
Yesterday at 4:57pm I hit send in Gmail and submitted the final draft of my newest book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneur Ecosystem In Your City to my publisher (Wiley). I’ve still got two more revision cycles – one in a few weeks when I get the final copyedited version and then one last review of the page proofs but the book is done. The publication date is early October but if history is a guide it should be out by mid-September.
Startup Communities is the first book in a four book series I’m doing called Startup Revolution. I’m spending most of this summer in maker mode at my house in Keystone and doing all my normal work, but I’m not travelling at all and trying to spend as little time as possible doing random stuff. June was just awesome – I feel rested, happier, and more productive than I’ve felt in a very long time.
My deadline was the end of day on July 5th. Specifically 11:59pm on July 5th. It felt phenomenal to get done a day early. I went for a short bike ride (I have a marathon this weekend in Montana so I’m tapering), had some dinner, grabbed some ice cream and popcorn, and watched the first six episodes of Damages with Amy. Four hours later my brain was calmed down from a 40+ hour focused push to get the book out.
Today feels like a total bonus day. I’m heading out for lunch with Amy, grabbing some salt tablets for my marathon, working on random stuff this afternoon, running an hour to dinner and then eating with two good friends (and Amy). We get up early tomorrow and head to Montana.
Life is good.
Jason and I got an email this morning that said the following:
Hi Jason and Brad,
Just wanted to thank you for writing the book ‘Venture Deals’. The advice in the book seriously helped my startup get a great term sheet on the table on Friday.
We get an email like this often. They come in different forms – some are longer than others – but they always have the same message. “Thank you for helping me.” And that feels awesome. It’s not the extrinsic motivation from the praise, it’s the intrinsic motivation that comes from knowing I’ve put together a book on a difficult topic that is useful.
I’ve currently written three books: Venture Deals, Do More Faster, and Burning Entrepreneur. This summer I’m going to write four more – Startup Communities, Startup Life, Startup Boards, and Startup Accounting. They are all in process and at different stages of completion – by the end of the summer they’ll be largely done and will come out quarterly starting in Q3. My goal is to cover a broad range of Startup topics in the same format that Jason and I did with Venture Deals.
Every time I get an email like the one above, it’s a little more fuel to keep on writing.
The English language badly needs a gender neutral pronoun. The more I write, the more I feel the need for this. In my post yesterday, Does Your VP of HR Report To Your CEO? I felt this very acutely as I tried to be gender neutral to avoid the “CEO’s are male, VP of HR are female” bias. But I failed and just used “he” throughout the post.
Jason and I struggled a lot with this in our new book Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist. We finally gave up and used “he” throughout. But we felt compelled to discuss this in the Preface.
“In an early draft, we varied gender on pronouns, using “she” liberally throughout the book. However, as we edited the book, we found that the mixed gender was confusing and made the book less readable. So we decided to use male pronouns throughout as a “generic pronoun” for both genders. We are sensitive to gender issues in both computer science and entrepreneurship in general—Brad has worked for a number of years as chair of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (www.ncwit.org). We hope our female readers are okay with this approach and hope someday someone comes up with a true gender-neutral set of English pronouns.”
In general, I’ve adopted the “use the pronoun of the author” approach. I’ve tried (s)he but I don’t like it – I find it to be hard to read. I like “phe” or “per” but neither of these have had any consistent usage that I’m aware of.
For all the women out there reading this, when I say “he” I actually mean “he or she” or “she or he”. And for all the english scholars and style book writers out there, please push the use of “phe”, “per”, or some other gender neutral pronoun on the world.
At the beginning of October, I wrote a post titled New Email Newsletter on Work-Life Balance where I decided to try a new email newsletter tool called Letter.ly to produce a paid email newsletter on work-life balance ($1.99 / month). I’ve decided to end this experiment and sent out the following letter to the email list tonight. Of course, because I didn’t tune the settings on Letter.ly it tweeted out the post, which recursively forced you to subscribe to read it. Oops. Here it is.
I’ve decided to end my experiment with Letter.ly (and – more importantly – “paid subscription content.”) I want to thank each of you for being part of this experiment.
I realize there was a cost to it (I think some of you have paid $1.99, others have paid $3.98 to date.) I tried to refund the money, but there wasn’t an easy way to do this. As a result, if I encounter any of you in the next year, I’m perfectly happy to reimburse you directly (just ask for the cash). If we don’t cross paths physically, please feel free to ask me for a favor via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or, if you really want your money back, email me your Paypal account info and I’ll Paypal you $1.99 or $3.98 (depending on how much you paid.)
Now, on to why I decided to stop this experiment. Basically, I found it incredibly unsatisfying. As an almost-daily blogger since 2005 (and often more than once a day), I thought it would be interesting to explore paid content via an email newsletter approach. It was interesting – in that I feel a combination of “strange pressure to produce” combined with “discomfort with charging for the content.”
1. Strange Pressure to Produce: After five years of blogging, writing a post has no emotional content at this point. I just write. Sometimes my posts are insightful; often they are just words. I don’t feel the need to “produce valuable stuff” – I figure people will read the posts if they want. In contrast, every few days I thought about the idea of writing something for this newsletter. Ideas would cross my mind, but they were rarely compelling to me. Yet I felt pressure to write. Periodically, the following thought would cross my mind: “If I don’t write at least $1.99 worth of stuff a month, I’m going to be letting down my readers.” And then I’d contemplate this. $1.99? Seriously? Is this how I’m valuing things all of sudden? The mere fact that I was thinking about this, especially since there was no practical way that the amount of money I’d make from this would have any impact on my life, seemed like a waste of mental and emotional cycles.
2. Discomfort With Charging for the Content: This is related to the idea that the money isn’t material to me. Over the past 60 days, I’ve seen several tweets that said some version of “Seriously Feld, you are charging for your content?” of “Feld puts up a paywall.” While I don’t object to getting paid for content, this seemed like a really strange / retro way to do it. Whenever I pondered it, I was uncomfortable; whenever someone called me out on it I felt strange.
I learned what I wanted from this experiment – I don’t want to write a paid newsletter, nor do I want to charge subscribers directly for blog-like content that I produce. With that, the experiment is over. Going forward, I’ll be posting all of my Work-Life Balance writing to my blog at www.feld.com, regardless of whether or not this impacts my book publisher’s view on the content.
As there appears to be no way to delete this newsletter, please unsubscribe. In the mean time, I’ve lowered the monthly price to $0.10 (the lowest the system will let me charge.)