I just read Rework, the new book by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37Signals. It’s fantastic. If you are starting a business, or thinking about starting a business, or running a business, or breathing air, this is a book you should read.
There are an endless array of “startup books” to choose from. Most suck. Many are ego trips for successful entrepreneurs. Others are self-help books from entrepreneurs that haven’t been successful, but are trying to be successful as entrepreneurial self-help book writers. Very few are useful, authentic, or powerful.
Rework nails it on every dimension. I was annoyed during the first chapter since the book started out with the typical “bootstrap your business rather than raise money from clueless investors” screed that Fried is famous for. While I strongly agree that is one way (my first company was started with $10 and that was all the money we ever raised), it’s not the only way and I get tired of hearing polarizing rhetoric around this.
It turns out that was Fried and Heinemeier’s way of getting my attention. Rather than passively rolling into chapter two, I was fired up. And then, in the style of Gary Vaynerchuk, they Crushed It (another awesome book, BTW). I was glued to my couch for the next hour as I pounded my way through the book. It’s a collection of short essays and cool drawings built around one liners that everyone running a business should ponder. As a bonus, they have a great essay on four letter words and why “fuck” and “shit” are not ones you should be concerned with. And, in a demonstration of their mad skills, they have an awesome attack ad for the book.
I spent most of today grinding through another draft of “The Tao of TechStars”, a book that David Cohen and I are writing based on lessons we’ve learned from TechStars. After reading Rework, I’m hopeful that we’ve written something as good, and as important, as what Fried and Heinemeier have written. Time will tell.
On a daily basis, I get an email from someone at a seed-stage startup where their email address does not include their website URL. For example, I just got an email from firstname.lastname@example.org for his company CoolThing.
I wouldn’t have thought of this except for I’m deep in the proofreading of a book that David Cohen and I are editing called “The Tao of TechStars.” One of the essays in the “Working Efficiently” section is written by David, titled “Don’t Suck at Email”, and talks about this.
Specifically, David says:
“Another way that founders suck at email is by sending email from a Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail or other generic account. Every time you send an email like this you’re missing a branding opportunity for your company. Send and receive email from your company domain so you don’t suck at email.”
Joe’s email to me should have been from email@example.com. There are so many reasons this is better than firstname.lastname@example.org, including the simple reason that the chance of me associating “Joe” with “CoolThing” in two weeks is much greater than the chance of me associating “Joe” with “Smith” and then with “Coolthing.”
Now, I know some of you out there will say, “but Feld, you use email@example.com instead of firstname.lastname@example.org for your email – what gives?” Ah, the irony of some things in life (although email@example.com works just fine.)
The MIT Entrepreneurship Review is a new online publication about entrepreneurship that is produced and written by MIT students dedicated to analyzing trends in entrepreneurship at MIT and beyond. I’ve been involved with some of the folks behind this and I think they are doing an outstanding job. If you are interested in entrepreneurship, I’d add this to your must read list.
Jon Hansen has started interviewing me periodically on his show on BlogTalkRadio as part of his Thought Leaders Series. Yesterday’s interview focused on my experience of investing in Rally Software and included short discussions on how Rally got started, how and why I decided to invest, and the role various factors play in my decision making process. Jon does a nice interview.
I’m very proud of my friends at Rally – they’ve created a company that is well on its way to being one of – if not the – most significant software company in Boulder.
I’m extremely impressed with Vivek Wadhwa’s posts on TechCrunch. He’s been blogging periodically for them since last fall and has shown that he’s willing to take on difficult, controversial, and complicated issues and discuss them in data driven and systematic ways.
Recently, Vivek wrote a post titled Silicon Valley: You and Some of Your VC’s have a Gender Problem that resulted from a research project he did with the National Center for Women & Information Technology (I’m chairman). I thought the post was excellent. The comments, however, were really enlightening to me. The amount of anger and hostility, especially irrational attacks, surprised me. Well – I guess it only surprised me a little – it mostly disappointed me.
After that article, Vivek sent me an email with the following questions “why did you originally get involved with NCWIT” and “how would you fix the problem of the dearth of women entrepreneurs?”. The first one was easy – I pointed him at a post I wrote in September 2005 titled Why the NCWIT Board Chair is a Man. I then spent some time thinking and emailing with Lucy Sanders *the CEO of NCWIT), about what we have learned to address the question of “how would you fix the problem of the dearth of women entrepreneurs?” My goal was to boil my answer down into a very simple set of suggestions, as NCWIT has several programs in their Entrepreneurial Alliance that address this problem. In my experience, a simple answer is much better than a complex one, especially for people who haven’t yet thought hard about the problem but are interested in it.
I came up with two specific things that I’ve learned over the past five years and have incorporated into my brain:
1. We simply need more technical women in the software industry. If there were more, there would be more starting software and Internet companies.
2. Existing entrepreneurs and VCs can help a lot by encouraging women to become entrepreneurs and then supporting them when they take the plunge. It turns out that the simple act of encouragement (from parents, teachers, peers) is hugely impactful across the entire education and entrepreneurial pipeline so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it is also important in the startup phase.
At some level it’s that simple. The implementation and execution of these two (related) concepts is really difficult. So, when I read Vivek’s post this morning titled A Fix for Discrimination: Follow the Indian Trails I realized he had once again totally nailed it. The example of how Indian entrepreneurs, first as individuals, and then through TiE, became a force in entrepreneurship through the US and the world, is a great one. And it’s an excellent analogy for women (and other groups that feel discrimination in the entrepreneur ecosystem.)
Once again, the early comments were disappointing in their anger and hostility. However, given some of the stuff I’ve heard over the past five years through my involvement in NCWIT, they weren’t a surprise to me this time.
My long time friend Warren Katz pointed me out to an event on March 3, 2010 called EO Boston Accelerator Shark Bowl 2010. It’s a competition for entrepreneurs under 40 with businesses between $100k / year and $1m / year in revenue. You present to a group of judges including Warren (MAK Technologies), Rich Farrell (Full Armor), Clark Waterfall (Boston Search Group), and Michael Hackel (DiningIN) who are all EO Boston members.
In 1993 I was the founder of the Young Entrepreneurs Organization Boston Chapter and member #1. My forum group, “Forum Group 1” is apparently still meeting monthly. And while YEO changed its name to EO, my friend Warren who has been a member from the very beginning tells me the group is still going very strong (the stats look like 88 members with total sales of $427m and 2,231 employees across all of the companies.)
If you fit the qualifications, I’d encourage you to participate. It’s free, you’ll get some great practice and advice, and meet a bunch of new entrepreneurial peers. To participate, you must register and to present you must sent your presentation to Caryn Saitz by March 1st.
Go Boston (and Cambridge) – you are making me proud these days!
Scott Kirsner had a fun article in Boston.com today titled The Red Line Tour of Innovation in Boston. Several of the stops were regularly hang outs of mine between 1983 and 1995 most notably #10 (Miracle of Science) and #11 (Toscanini’s) but also including #5 (MIT Media Lab), #6 (Muddy Charles Pub), #7 (MIT Lobby 7), and #8 (Central Square and the Necco Factory – back when they made Necco wafers.)
I lived at ADP at 351 Massachusetts Avenue for four years as an undergraduate at MIT. It was the first frat I went to when the freshman picnic ended (Mark Dodson grabbed me, shoved me in a white van, and said “you are coming with me.”) I stayed the first night and never left. Yes – it was a fraternity.
But we were also nerds. There was something in the water and a lot of companies were created. Scott got a few of them such as Colin Angle of iRobot, Jeet Singh and Joe Chung of ATG, and Frank van Mierlo of Bluefin Robotics, but I thought I’d add a few more. While the founders of Harmonix (the guys that brought us Rock Band and Guitar Hero) came from the Media Lab, one of them (Eran Egozy) also lived at ADP. As did my first business partner Dave Jilk, who is now CEO of Standing Cloud. And two of the founders of Oblong – John Underkoffler and Kevin Parent. Let’s not forget two well known VCs – Sameer Gandhi (Accel) and Mark Siegel (Menlo). Oh – and Carl Dietrich’s flying car from Terrafugia. We also lived next door (WILG – 355 Mass Ave) to some other impressive entrepreneurs including Megan Smith (Google and PlanetOut). There have been plenty of others through the years – these are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. If you should be on the ADP entrepreneur list, please comment on this blog and add your name for posterity (and Google searches).
My first company (Feld Technologies) used 351 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139 as my office address for the first few years of its life (I officially started the company as a sophomore, although my partner Dave Jilk joined me shortly after I got my undergraduate degree.) But Feld Technologies wasn’t the first company I started at 351 Massachusetts Avenue – that honor went to Martingale Software and my partners Dave Jilk, Sameer Gandhi, Andy Mina, and Jeff Pierick. We raised $10k, bought a Lisa and a Compaq luggable, earned about $7k, and eventually folded the company and sent the $7k back to our investors.
During the four years I lived there and the two years I had an office at 875 Main Street, I ate an enormous amount of ice cream at Toscanini’s. To this day, Cocoa Pudding with chocolate fudge syrup on top rates as the best ice cream choice I’ve ever had on planet Earth.
One fall, after Feld Technologies had moved to Boston, we hired a recent graduate from Brown named Jonathan Lutes. While interviewing him I asked what he had done over the summer. He mumbled something like “screwed around a lot and built a bar called Miracle of Science with my brother Eric.” Yup – same bar – this was 1990-ish – and it was at 321 Massachusetts Avenue.
Sometimes I actually miss the smell of Necco wafers in the morning. It smells like ADP.
Lots of little things go into building a great company over the long term. Rally Software is one that I’m proud to have been involved in from the beginning. I remember when Ryan Martens, the founder, would sit for entire days in a small conference room near my office covering the white boards on the walls with his scribblings.
Today Rally is a 150 person company that plans to add another 75 people in 2010 on the heels of Rally’s $16 million financing led by Greylock. And – since their birth in 2002, Rally has had 17 babies (well – people that work for Rally have had the babies, but you probably figured that out.) Recently, Rally’s leadership team decided to do something about this.
Nicely done Tim, Ryan, and everyone else at Rally. Now you’ve just got to get these kids using software from Kerpoof at an early age. I wonder how Agile Parenthood works?
Sometimes a person says one sentence that just sticks with you and is so perfect that it defines a whole category of behavior. Mark Pincus, the CEO of Zynga, riffed on the phrase “be the CEO of your job” in a board meeting a year or so ago. It stuck with me and I’ve thought about it many times since.
On Sunday, the NY Times did a great “Corner Office” interview with Mark titled Are You a C.E.O. of Something? Among other things it explored the idea of being the CEO of your job. Fred Wilson – also an investor in Zynga – wrote a post on Sunday titled Empowering Your Team which talks about one aspect of this. But Fred left out a great example from one of Mark’s earlier companies (Support.com) which really nails this concept.
“We had this really motivated, smart receptionist. She was young. We kept outgrowing our phone systems, and she kept coming back and saying, “Mark, we’ve got to buy a whole new phone system.” And I said: “I don’t want to hear about it. Just buy it. Go figure it out.” She spent a week or two meeting every vendor and figuring it out. She was so motivated by that. I think that was a big lesson for me because what I realized was that if you give people really big jobs to the point that they’re scared, they have way more fun and they improve their game much faster. She ended up running our whole office.”
Think about the conceptual progression. First, the CEO (Mark) had to have to courage to make the young, motivated, smart receptionist “be the CEO of her job.” Then, when the problem was put to him (“Mark, we’ve got to buy a whole new phone system”), Mark resisted doing something so many entrepreneurs (and executives, and managers) do – namely to “manage” the problem. Instead of spending a lot of his time solving the problem, or setting up a committee to spend a month figuring out the phone system, or asking someone more senior to the receptionist to figure it out, he gave her the responsibility of solving the entire problem. He anointed her “CEO of her job” – as the receptionist, she was the one that felt the most pain from the inadequate phone system and was probably in the best position to figure out a solution.
In this case, the notion of “be the CEO of your job” was in the culture of the organization so the receptionist – who was in Mark’s words young, motivated, and smart – took this seriously, spent real time figuring out the solution, and then solved it. I’m sure the early culture of Support.com was “don’t spend a lot of money” so the financial constraint, while vague, was probably understood. While there’s plenty more behind the scenes in the story, the young reception clearly “leveled up” (it’s impossible not to use game-speak when talking about Zynga) and ended up running the whole office.
I work with CEO’s every day. So I’m naturally wired to encourage them to be CEO of their own job. While this is pretty meta, it’s an important starting point as I already think this way all the time. I’m certainly not perfect and have moments where I just jump in and try to solve a specific problem, but most of the time I let the CEO’s be CEO. However, when I contemplate this, I realize I haven’t done a good job of encouraging the CEO’s to make everyone in their organization CEO of the job. Some CEO’s do this naturally and – not surprisingly – these are generally the highest achieving companies.
Pause and ponder the idea. Assuming you are in an entrepreneurial organization, are you being the CEO of your job? Is this culturally (and functionally) acceptable? Do you get rewarded for taking risks and succeeding (or failing) like your CEO does? If not, would you be more effective if you did?
Now, if you are the CEO of an entrepreneurial organization, do you encourage everyone in the company to be CEO of their job? Is this culturally (and functionally) acceptable? Do they get rewarded for taking risks and succeeding (or failing) like you do? If not, would they be more effective if they did?
If you applied the lens of “be the CEO of your job” to you job, would you behave any differently?
Jon Hansen from PI Window on Business had so much fun with me a few weeks ago that he asked me to do another interview – this time on the dynamics around foreign investments. We covered plenty of ground, including what country, state, and local governments do to slow down investments, along with a bunch of my own philosophy around why I only make VC investments in the US and Canada. Buried deep in the interview is my track record making VC investments in European companies (hint: not pretty).
Entrepreneur Magazine made a swing through Boulder recently and did short interview videos with a bunch of the Boulder entrepreneurs. If you aren’t exhausted after listening to an hour of me (or if you punted), take a quick two minute tour with Ari Newman of Filtrbox.
Ari finishes strong with a great line – “If you aren’t doing something you love, life’s too short – there’s an opportunity cost.” As a special bonus, Matt Galligan – the man who manages to be everywhere – is hanging out over Ari’s left shoulder.