A month ago Mark Suster (Upfront) and I hosted 75 colleagues for a full day at the California State Prison, Los Angeles County – also known as Lancaster. We did this as part of Defy Ventures, an entrepreneurship, employment, and character development training program for currently and formerly incarcerated men, women, and youth. It was a top 10 peak life experience for me – easily one of the most profound things I’ve experienced to date.
Mark wrote an incredibly detailed post about the experience. Rather than repeat it, I’m going to point you to his post How I Promise You One of the Most Meaningful Days of Your Life. In order to understand this post, you have to start there. So – go read it now – I’ll be here when you get back.
If you want more views of the day, read Ali Berman’s (Techstars) The Day I spent in Prison, Kerri Shea Beers’ (Techstars) White Privilege, Prison, and a Shot at Redemption, Ben Casnocha’s Visiting Prison Again — With Defy Ventures, Caroline Fairchild’s (Linked) I spent 12 hours in prison with 75 venture capitalists and founders. Here’s what happened, Rick Klau’s (GV) Last month, I went to prison. Next month, I’ll return, Jason Wang’s Going back to prison as the founder of my own startup, Kobie Fuller’s (Upfront) How a day in prison could give you a lesson on judgement, and Kara Nortman’s (Upfront) Spending a day in prison lead me on a path of radical self-improvement. Everyone wrote about the same day (we were all together) if you want to triangulate on the experience.
I’m going to focus on the part of the day where I finally began to understand the notion of privilege. It’s worth starting with one of the definitions from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
“the advantage that wealthy and powerful people have over other people in a society.”
The exercise lasted about an hour and was just before lunch. We’d had a lot of interaction with the EITs (we are volunteers, they are entrepreneurs in training or EITs) and were feeling as comfortable as one can feel in a level four maximum security prison. Catherine Hoke, the founder and CEO of Defy who ran the event, told us it was time to shift gears. As she described what we were going to do, she told us that it was imperative that we respond honestly. This wasn’t going to be a legalistic exercise, but it was going to be uncomfortable. We then got the rules.
The exercise was called Walk the Line. There were two strips of tape running diagonally across the gymnasium we were in. They were a yard apart. The EITs lined up on one side. The volunteers lined up on the other. We then all took five steps back from the line. As Cat called out questions, if our answer was yes we walked to the line. If our answer was no, we retreated to our position five steps behind the line. We were instructed to look around and connect visually with empathy across the line. We were not to look at the ground or at Cat. We were allowed to shake hands across the line and hug on our side of the line. Cat ended by reminding us that the dominant emotion we should be carrying is empathy.
She then started asking us questions. I’m going to list them all below along with comments in italics on how I felt in response to some of them. I encourage you to read them out loud – it’s the only way you will go slowly enough to really understand what was going on. Each question consumed about a minute as people walked to and back from the line, shook hands, looked at each other, hugged, and cried.
- I like hip-hop.
- I work out 3 or more days per week.
- I’m older than 20 years old. 25. 30. 40. 50. 60. 70.
- I dropped out of high school.
- I’ve earned a four-year college degree. Suddenly, I had a feeling about what was to come. Every EIT was away from the line. Almost every volunteer was on the line. This was an almost complete reversal from the previous question.
- I’m a natural-born hustler. There were lots of smiles as both sides were generally on the line.
- I’ve been self-employed or started my own business, legal or illegal. The smiles continued, with some chuckles interspersed, as a lot of people on both sides were on the line.
- I’m committed to starting my own business. 100% of the EITs were now on the line.
- This is my first trip to prison. Very few EITs were on the line at this point, meaning many had been in prison before.
- I felt at least a little nervous about coming to this event today. 100% of the volunteers were on the line. 100% of the EITs were on the line.
- I regularly feel judged by others … for skin color or economic status. The volunteers take a step back, the EITs stay on the line.
- I regularly judge others.
- I regularly judge myself.
- I came here to give of myself.
- I came here to take or to receive for myself.
- I can already feel myself comparing myself to others, or judging myself or others, right now. 100% of the people on both sides are on the line. Cat reminds us that we are answering honestly and thanks us for doing this.
Even if I don’t know all of you at this line …
- I will to do my best to set aside my judgments and comparisons so I can connect with you.
- If you become vulnerable in this exercise, I will show you respect and will do my part in creating a safe and reassuring environment for you.
- If I see or sense pain or vulnerability, I will offer a hug to reassure you. Both sides of the line are full. I feel anxious all over – I’m sweating and staring ahead across the line, making eye contact in a way that I think is empathetic with the person directly across from me. He looks uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable.
- I grew up in poverty. Boom.
- My parents paid for braces to straighten out my teeth. All the EITs are off the line.
- I heard gunshots in my neighborhood. (wave for “a lot”) All the EITs are on the line. Several volunteers who I know are on the line.
- I was suspended or expelled from school. Almost all the EITs are on the line. Several volunteers are on the line.
- Violence took place in my home. Again, all the EITs are on the line.
- Think of the age when you lost your innocence: I lost my innocence after age 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 6. As the count down begins the EITs are on the line while the volunteers quickly back off the line. By age 6 there are still a startling number of EITs on the line. I have tears in my eyes as a wave of emotion comes over me. I don’t feel like I lost my innocence until sometime in my early 20s. I can’t imagine self-identifying with losing it younger than age 6.
- For most of my childhood, I was raised with both of my biological parents in the same house.
- At least one of my parents wasn’t exactly a positive role model for me – or wasn’t even around.
- I was born out of wedlock. I was born to a teenage mother.
- At least one of my parents abused drugs or alcohol.
- I suffered through the loss of an immediate family member before the age of 18.
- My mother or father has been to jail or prison. At this point, the patterns are clear. The EIT directly across me stays on the line through all these questions but the first one. I’ve been off the line since the first one. Now he has tears in his eyes. I keep his gaze while thinking how fortunate I am to have had my childhood and not his.
My beliefs and values before the age of 18
- I learned that I couldn’t trust anyone. It continues. Now I have tears again. He smiles at me. He breaks my gaze and looks at the person next to me. I use this moment to look up and down the line on my side. Very few volunteers are on the line. One who I know is on the line and is crying openly. But we continue.
- I learned that it’s better to keep my mouth shut and my feelings to myself.
- The way I was living, I thought there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it to age 21. There are hugs on our side of the line as we process what is going on. At this point the word privilege isn’t being used (nor does it get used openly throughout the day), but the idea of privilege and how it impacts one’s belief system and values is what is front of mind for me.
Past Criminal life – Cat reminds us that Defy doesn’t work with criminals, but with people who have committed crimes in their past.
- I’ve been arrested.
- I’ve done criminal things for which I could’ve been arrested, but didn’t. (drunk driving, weed) A series of experiences run through my mind as I think of how different things could be for me if I hadn’t grown up white and middle-class in the suburbs of North Dallas.
- I’ve committed a violent offense (even if I wasn’t convicted). Cat stays on this for a while. As all the EITs are on the line, a few volunteers join them. Cat isn’t satisfied and calls out “a bar fight is a violent offense” and a dozen volunteers sheepishly walk to the line. Then a few more do. And we sit with this one for a while.
- I’ve been convicted of murder.
- I was sentenced before 18 years of age. I’m ready for this experience to end. Between 25% and 50% of the EITs are on the line. All of them are black. Another switch just flipped in my brain.
- I’ve spent more than two years of my life in behind bars. 4. 6. 8. 10. 12 (go all the way up). Guys that look like they are in their 30s are hanging on the line through 20 years. We keep going. 30 years. 40 years.
- I’m a lifer. Yup – there are a bunch of EITs on the line.
- I’ve actually been shot or stabbed.
- I’ve lost someone I loved to gang violence.
- I’ve lost someone I’ve loved to AIDS. I was one of the few volunteers on the line for this one. I didn’t expect this question at all and it sent me back to my late 20s when my fraternity big brother died of AIDS. I remembered the dream I had on an airplane just before he died but about a week after he called me to say goodbye. I kept looking ahead at the EITs on the line.
- I’ve lost one or both of my parents.
- I’ve lost a child.
- I haven’t properly grieved some of my losses.
- I have suffered, or currently suffer, from depression. A lot of volunteers are on the line along with me. I feel a sense of relief that the stigma associated with depression might be lifting, but then I remember the context I’m in.
- I could use a hug right now. Everyone walks to both sides of the line. Hugs ensue.
- I’m a father (or mother).
- My lifestyle caused me to miss out on valuable years in my child’s life.
If you could see inside my brain …
- If you knew every one of my dirty secrets, and knew the real me, you wouldn’t love me.
- I feel ashamed of my past.
- I feel inadequate, at least in some ways.
- Sometimes my feelings of inadequacy lead me to overcompensate in some areas, or act out.
- There are some things I haven’t forgiven myself for, and may never forgive myself. A number of volunteers walk to the line, including me. I thinking of a specific thing that has happened to me as an adult. It’s something I don’t talk publicly about because I haven’t yet resolved it myself. Or, more honestly, I haven’t forgiven myself for letting it happen to me. I feel ashamed against the backdrop of everything else.
- There are some people I haven’t forgiven for hurting me.
- Not forgiving others or myself is hurting me to this day.
- I am kind to myself; I do a great job of nurturing myself and taking care of my own needs.
- I’m on a journey of personal transformation. Almost all of the EITs are on the line. People are starting to smile again.
- Others look at me as a role model. I’m aware of the importance of my influence.
- I might not be able to explain it, but even though I’ve been revealing difficult things and have made myself vulnerable in this exercise, right here, right now, I feel safe, accepted and loved.
- I already love Defy!! Everyone on both sides is on the line.
I know that words above doesn’t do the experience justice, but at the end of the hour I was emotionally exhausted. There were at least 25 of the EITs who I had made eye contact with that I wanted to go talk to. There were an equal number of volunteers who I wanted to talk to. Instead, I tried to relax a little. I grabbed on to one word – privilege – that I knew represented a fundamental difference between most of the people on either side of the line.
While it’s easy to talk about privilege it’s hard to really understand it. It’s even harder to experience it if you are the one with privilege. I thought I understood it, but I didn’t. As I let the next five minutes quietly unfold in my mind, I decided that I was no longer going to assume I really understood privilege. Instead, I was going to engage with society in a way to help those without privilege have a better opportunity. Through that, I’d understand it better, have empathy for others who didn’t have privilege, and channel my actions as a human into making the world better from that frame of reference.
I’ve committed to go to prison with Defy four times in 2017. If you want to join me as a volunteer on one of the trips, just reach out. I can promise you a life changing day.
I’m in Minneapolis with my partner Seth. We had a meeting at Best Buy headquarters, met with a gang from the Mayo Clinic who drove up from Rochester, spent the afternoon at the Techstars Retail Accelerator which is at Target headquarters, and had dinner with Revolar. We are at the Techstars Retail Accelerator again today, then at Leadpages for a board meeting, and wrapping up with an internal Target event and an external startup community event put on by Beta.MN.
It’s two full days of immersion in the Minneapolis startup community. As I crawled into bed last night after jamming through my email, I smiled and thought to myself that Seth and I had a good day with a bunch of people talking about the power of entrepreneurship – and how the entrepreneurs are the leaders – while getting to work with a bunch of entrepreneurs.
I woke up to Fred Wilson’s post Understanding VCs and nodded my way through it. I particularly loved how he started.
VCs are not heroes. We are just one part of the startup ecosystem. We provide the capital allocation function and are rewarded when we do it well and eventually go out of business when we don’t do it well. I know. I’ve gone out of business for not doing it well.
If there are heroes in the startup ecosystem, they are the entrepreneurs who take the biggest risks and create the products, services, and companies that we increasingly rely on as tech seeps into everything.
What Fred said.
VCs – go read his post and reflect on it.
Entrepreneurs – go read his post and take it to heart.
Fred – thanks for saying it so well in your inimitable direct style. Understanding VCs is one for the books …
A few weeks ago I had lunch with John Dearie to discuss a new non-profit he has started called The Center for American Entrepreneurship. Several friends and people I respect a lot are on the board, including Lucy Sanders (NCWIT), Troy Henikoff (Techstars Chicago), Bob Litan (Brookings Institute), Rebecca Lovell (Seattle’s Office of Economic Development), Monisha Merchant (formerly Senator Bennet’s Economic Advisor), Jonathan Ortmans (Global Entrepreneurship Network), Jason Seats (Techstars), Dane Stangler (Kauffman Foundation), and Vivek Wadhwa (Stanford).
When I know, work with, and respect more than 50% of the board of a new non-profit, I pay attention. I’m glad I did – the conversation with John was stimulating. He has a vision and the experience to create a non-partisan organization to engage and educate people, especially policymakers in government, regarding the critical importance of entrepreneurs and startups to innovation, economic growth, and job creation.
While that might sound like a mouthful, I’ve been railing against the limitations of the way our government thinks about entrepreneurship for a decade. I’ve had a number of meetings over the years with the Small Business Administration (SBA) whose name says it all. I’ve often encouraged them to rename themselves the High Growth Entrepreneurship Administration, or even to create a separate organization, or split the SBA in two, or, in a fit of libertarianism, eliminate the SBA altogether. But, I know that none of that is going to happen because of a number of factors, including the fundamental lack of understanding in government about the difference between small business and high growth entrepreneurial businesses. Oh, and inertia.
Over the last few years, I’ve been exploring the idea that we really have two types of small businesses: local businesses and startup businesses. Both are important, but they have very different needs and contribute to the fabric of our economy in very different ways. As John and I were talking, he slid his book, Where The Jobs Are: Entrepreneurship and the Soul of the American Economy, across the table to me. I turned the pages and then over the weekend I read it while laying on the couch after a run.
It’s a great book that every policy maker in government at any level should read. It’s the first book I’ve seen that lays out an effective set of policy recommendations, with substantiation, for the startup society that we are living in. Against the backdrop of total government confusion about economic growth dynamics, combined with endless shallow rhetoric about what to do, I found it to be refreshingly optimistic.
While The Center For American Entrepreneurship website has a series of pages describing the issues and solutions to them, I didn’t find a crisp summary of the book on the web. So I decided to create an outline of the policies and the recommendations. They follow. If you disagree with any, or have any to add, please toss them in the comments as I evolve this as a list of “ways government can help startup communities.”
“Not Enough People with the Skills We Need”
- Incentivize STEM Education
- Launch a Curriculum-Focused Dialogue Between Business and Education
- Launch an Education Reform Dialogue Among America’s Educators
- Incentivize Experienced Talent to Consider Joining Growing Startups
“Our Immigration Policies Are Insane”
- Eliminate the Cap on H-1B Visas
- Award “Graduation” Green Cards
- Create a “High-Skill Immigrant” Green Card
- Create a “Startup Visa”
- Create CitizenCorps
“Not All Good Ideas Get Funded Anymore”
- Make the SBA More Entrepreneur-Friendly
- Incentivize the Formation and Commitment of Angel Capital
- Fix Venture Capital by Fixing the IPO Market
- Cultivate the Formation of Viable New Businesses
- Increase Startups Access to Capital
- Enhance the Science and Technology Capacity of the U.S. Workforce
“Regulations Are Killing Us”
- Devise a Preferential Regulatory Framework for New Business
- Require Third-Party Review of All Proposed Regulations
- Create a Regulatory Improvement Commission
- Rank States’ Regulatory Environment
“Tax Payments Can Be the Difference between Survival and Failure”
- Establish a Preferential Tax Framework for New Businesses
- Allow Cash Method of Accounting for the First Five Years
- Allow 100 Percent Expensing of Business Investment for the First Five Years
- Pass the Startup Innovation Credit Act
“There’s Too Much Uncertainty – and It’s Washington’s Fault
- Gradually But Significantly Reduce the Federal Budget Deficit and National Debt
- Enact Comprehensive Competitiveness-Enhancing Tax Reform
- Increase the Research and Development Tax Credit – and Make It Permanent
- Return Federal Funding of R&D to 2 Percent of GDP
- Jump-Start America’s Trade Agenda
- Negotiate a U.S.-China Free Trade Agreement
- Combine and Modernize Unemployment Insurance and Trade Adjustment Assistance
This cliche, which has uncertain attribution (Winston Churchill, Rahm Emmanuel, M. F. Weiner) is a priceless line that gets tossed out periodically, especially in the middle of a crisis.
Over the years I’ve been involved in many business crises. I qualify this, since my crises have never involved life and death or the survival of the human race. But they are still crises. Some have lasted moments while others have lasted months, and I can think of one that went on for three years – or at least took three years to dig out of.
I’ve only occasionally been in the CEO (or equivalent) role during a crisis. Most of the time I’m a board member or investor. As a result, I’ve participated in dealing with the crisis, but I’ve also been able to observe the behavior of the leader during the crisis. While I’ve had to go throw up in the bathroom after a particularly distressing conference call more than once, I’ve been fortunate to be able to be one level removed from the essence of the crisis.
A typical leader has a natural tendency is to be defensive in the face of a crisis. The first reaction is to blame someone – or something – else. Often the blame is aimed at something abstract or non-controllable, which often has nothing to do with the crisis, but is adjacent to whatever is going on so it’s an easy target. As soon as the blame is out there, the attack begins, which often causes others to be defensive, generating a vicious cycle of anger, hostility, frustration, and obfuscation at the beginning of the crisis.
Over time, I’ve learned that the best leaders take a completely different approach. When the crisis erupts, rather than immediately go into action, she pauses and takes a deep breath. She starts collecting data about what is happening. In parallel, she communicates the crisis to the key people who need to be involved – the board, the leadership team, and anyone specifically engaged in the crisis.
If the crisis lasts moments, rapid action is critical. But if it’s simply the beginning of a broader issue, especially one where the root cause isn’t known yet, the worst thing a leader can do is act immediately. As a teenager, my dad taught me about the idea of unintended consequences and I’ve had the experience, and how to deal with it, pounded into my soul over the years.
If you want to understand this better, I encourage you to read Charles Perrow’s classic book from 1984 – Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies. I often forget to mention it when asked which books have influenced me the most – Normal Accidents is in the top 10.
So, you are now in the crisis. As CEO, you feel an immense need to address whatever is causing the crisis and resolve it. But that’s only half of it. If all you do is focus on solving the crisis, you are missing the big opportunity, which is to learn from it and integrate it into the fabric of your company. It’s not that you won’t ever have a crisis again – you most certainly will. But if you can change the way your company functions in the context of a crisis in a positive way, you can actually get some value out of the crisis.
Don’t forget to breathe.
In a world of endless signal and noise coming at us from all angles including TV, radio, the web, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, blog posts, email, text messages, Slack, and fill in another 50 different sources of stuff, we don’t have a measurement for the sentiment of the noise (and signal) and the toll it takes on our thinking.
If you pay attention to finance, you are familiar with the VIX, which is officially the implied volatility of S&P 500 index options. It’s unofficially known as the fear index and is a measure of the market’s expectation of stock market volatility over the next 30 days. For example, here’s the VIX for the past 12 months.
I don’t pay attention to the VIX on a daily basis as I don’t care about the stock market but I find it interesting in hindsight to see how it correlates to changes in the DJIA over a long period of time.
In February, I was pondering the tone of the noise – and the signal – that was coming my way. If I had a measure for it the fear in it, it tracked the VIX pretty well (a sharply increasing level with a peak some time in early March followed by a rapid decline back to normal). At the same time, the cognitive load from my daily life (work and personal) increased very significantly in Q1 due to a series of things good and bad.
I reached a point in March where I actually said out loud to someone “I can’t take on anything new – my cognitive load is maxed.” I literally couldn’t think about anything beyond what I was currently trying to process. While I’m still at a high load, I don’t feel anywhere near as maxed as I did at the end of March.
In the past 24 hours I’ve responded to a few emails that were particularly tone deaf to reality. The level of aggression in the noise seems unusually high these days. The random hostility from people I don’t know very well, but who feel like it’s an effective personal strategy to attack as a way to get attention, seems at an all time high. I presume some of this is from our current political cycle and the corresponding tone, but I could be coming from other dynamics as well.
Regardless of how zen one is, all of the noise, signal, interactions, and life activity creates a cognitive load. While I’m not sure a macro measure – like the VIX – is useful, I certainly feel like a personal one would be.
Every entrepreneur out there should grab a copy of The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future by Steve Case and read it.
If you don’t know Steve, you’ve probably heard of him. He’s had a remarkably entrepreneurial journey starting with co-founding AOL in the 1980s. While AOL has now been absorbed into Verizon (after having been bought, spun out, and bought again) at its peak around 2000 nearly half of all Internet users in the US accessed the internet via AOL and everyone over the age of 40 knows how to say “You have mail.”
I’ve gotten to know Steve over the past six years through the Startup America Partnership (where he was Chairman) and then UP Global (where he was also Chairman). I’ve learned a lot from him both from reflecting on the past and talking about the future.
I was excited when he told me he was finally writing a book. I loved the title, as I’m a big Alvin Toffler fan as I describe in my post from nine months ago titled What Is The “Third Wave” Of This Generation? I didn’t have an answer for this question got an email a few days later from Steve.
“Hi Brad. I saw your tweet and blog. I too was inspired by Toffler’s Third Wave. I’m now working on a book (my first!) with some of my recollections of the past, but mostly my perspectives on the future. And, in part to honor Toffler, I’m calling it The Third Wave. I’m finalizing the manuscript now. It builds off the article I wrote for the Washington Post a few months ago. Happy to send the current draft to you to critique, if you have time to read it in the next week. (I have told Simon & Schuster they’d get a final manuscript at the end of the month.) Let me know if you’d like to see it. Thanks.”
A week later I’d read it and got some specific suggestions back to Steve with the punch line:
“Overall I think the book is excellent. I love the thesis about The Third Wave as applied to entrepreneurship.”
This is an important book that I think will stimulate a lot of thinking about the future for any entrepreneur. It also helps understand the potential futures better by reflecting on the past through Steve’s own journey, especially around AOL.
If you are an entrepreneur, make time to read The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future. Steve – thanks for taking the time to write it.
After all these years, I’m still a heavy RSS user. Every morning I click on my Daily folder in Chrome, open it up, and spend whatever time I feel like on it. The vast majority of what I read is in Feedly and includes my VC Collection as well as a bunch of other stuff. It’s almost entirely tech related, as I stay away from mainstream media during the week (e.g. no CNN, no CNBC, no NYT, no WSJ, no USA Today, no … well – you get the idea) since I view all this stuff as an intellectual distraction (and much of it is just entertainment anyway, and I’d rather read a book.)
This morning I came across a number of interesting things that created some intellectual dissonance in my brain since they came from different perspectives. I’d categorize it as the collision between optimist and pessimist, startup and already started up, and offense vs. defense. However, they all shared one thing in common – the message and thoughts were clear.
Let’s start with Tim Cook’s remarkable Message to Our Customers around the San Bernardino case and the need for encryption. My first reaction was wow, my second reaction was to read it again slowly, and my third reaction was to clap quietly in the darkness of my office. I then went on an exploration of the web to understand the All Writs Act of 1789 which is what the FBI is using to justify an expansion of its authority. I love the last two paragraphs as they reflect how I feel.
“We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications.
While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”
Thank you Tim Cook and Apple for starting my day out with something deeply relevant to our near term, and long term, future in a digital age.
Shortly after I came across Danielle Morrill’s post Surviving Whatever Comes Next and Heidi Roizen’s post Dear Startups: Here’s How to Stay Alive. I’m an investor in Danielle’s company Mattermark and was partners with Heidi at Mobius Venture Capital. I have deep respect for each of them, think they are excellent writers, and thought there were plenty of actionable items in each of their posts, unlike many of the things people I’ve seen in the last few weeks about how the technology / startup world is ending.
Unlike the sentiment I’ve been hearing in the background about deal pace slowing down (not directly – no one is saying it – but lots of folks are signaling it through body language and clearly hedging about what they are actually thinking because they aren’t sure yet), our deal pace at Foundry Group is unchanged. Since we started in 2007, we’ve done around ten new investments per year. I expect in 2016 we’ll do about ten new investments, in 2017 we’ll do about ten new investments, in 2018 we’ll do about ten new investments – you get the picture. We have a deeply held belief that to maximize the value and opportunity in a VC fund, investment pace should be consistent over a very long period of time. We did about ten investments in 2007, 2008, and 2009 – which, if I remember correctly, is a period of time referred to as the Global Financial Crisis. Hmmm …
So it was fun to see my partner Seth’s post titled Welcome to Foundry on the same morning as Danielle and Heidi’s posts. That started the intellectual dissonance in my brain. If you want to see what Seth sends every company he joins the board of after we make an investment in, it’s a good read. It also clearly expresses how we approach working with companies the day after we become an investor.
I then read Ian Hathaway‘s great article for the Brookings Institute titled Accelerating growth: Startup accelerator programs in the United States. There are a few people doing real research of the impact of Accelerators and Ian’s work is outstanding. If you are interested in accelerators, how they work, how they impact company creation, and what trajectory they are on, read this article slowly. It’s got a bonus video interview with me embedded in it.
I’ll end with Joanne Wilson’s post #DianeProject. Joanne shared a bunch of info about the #DianeProject with me when we were together in LA two weeks ago. While I don’t know Kathyrn Finney, I now know of her and her platform Digital Undivided. I strongly recommend that you pay $0.99 (like I just did) to get a copy of the report The Real Unicorns of Tech: Black Women Founders, #ProjectDiane. The data is shocking, and there is an incredible paragraph buried deep within it.
“A small pool of angel and venture investors fund a majority of Black women Founders. For those in the $100,000-$1 million funding range, a majority of their funders were local accelerator programs and small venture firms (under $10 million in management). One angel investor, Joanne Wilson and Gotham Gal Ventures, has invested in three of the 11 companies that raised over $1 million. On the traditional venture rm side, Kapor Capital and Comcast’s Catalyst Fund have invested in at least two of the Black woman-led startups in the $1 million club. Wilson, Kapor, and Comcast often invest together, aka “co-invest”, in companies, thus increasing the amount of funding a company receives.”
So – was that more interesting than CNN or CNBC?
I’ve talked openly about my struggles with depression over the years and have engaged deeply in an explorations of entrepreneurship and mental health through several different organizations I’m involved in.
On February 16th, from 3pm to 5pm, I’m doing a free public event with the Carson J Spencer Foundation about entrepreneurship and mental health. For some quick context, they did a short intro video with me on the topic.
If you are interested in participating, please register and join us on February 16th at the Museum of Boulder.
I was at a fascinating dinner with a bunch of founders and investors last night. Until I was 35, I was often the youngest guy in the room. While this was a seasoned crowd, much of the experience – both around creating companies and funding companies – started around the mid-2000s. As someone who has been doing this since the late 1980s (I started my first company in 1987) I definitely felt like one of the old guys in the room.
At some point, the conversation turned to the current state of things in the broad entrepreneurial ecosystem – both company-side and investor-side. It rambled around for a while but kept locking down on specific issues around the current state of financings and exits, alignment between founders/investors/acquirers, cultural norms that were front and center in today’s startup communities, and a bunch of other issues that tied back to the wonderful Game of Thrones line “winter is coming.”
Throughout the evening, I was regularly reminded of my favorite BSG quote. “All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”
Another one of my favorite quotes is the one attributed to Mark Twain, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Phil Weiser, Dean of the CU Law School and a good friend, often pulls this one out to remind us to look to the past to understand the future.
While we’ve been in a particular strong part of the startup / entrepreneurship cycle for the past four years, many people are nervous, talking about it, reacting to it, and getting confused, frustrated, and scared by what is going on. Others are in total denial of reality, which never works out well in the long run. Whether you follow the BSG theology or subscribe to Mark Twain, or are somewhere in-between, you recognize the value of understanding the past to exist in the present and deal with the future.
I came out of dinner with about 20 topics for blog posts, many which reflect on lessons I’ve learned multiple times over the past 30 years, which can be applied to today, and tomorrow, and the next few years, regardless of what actually happens. Until last night I wasn’t particularly motivated to blog around this stuff, but the discussion, and people in the room, really stimulated me to put some energy into this. So I plan to.
But remember, all of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again. So if you are impatient, I encourage you to go look at posts from me, Fred Wilson, and David Hornik from 2004 – 2007 for a taste of what I would characterize of “the re-emergence from winter.”
I was in a conversation last week with a friend who asked “do you think this is the beginning of the end?” We were discussing something totally wacky that had just happened that clearly could be viewed as an indicator that we have crested the peak of this economic cycle. Then, earlier today, I was on the phone with one of my favorite lawyers and he made a joke about a deal I’m doing as harkening back to the late 1990s. He asked if I thought it was an indication of the top of the cycle. We had a good chuckle (probably PTSD gallows humor from 15 years ago) and I suggested that they slow down the hiring of the associates at their law firm so they wouldn’t have to lay off so many in the inevitable downtown.
Somewhere in between these two conversations I told someone that I thought this was actually the “end of the beginning.” And, tonight at a wonderful dinner, I made the statement to the friend that we were having dinner with that I thought the next 30 years were going to be incredible.
I think we are at the end of the beginning of a dramatic shift in how our species deals with existence. Depending on who you believe, we are either 30 years from the singularity (Kurzweil) or only 15 years away (Vinge). The new science fiction coming out is doing a remarkable job of helping us set a context for the different aspects of what we’ll need to deal with. Some of it will be just as off as Philip K. Dick can be while some will be just as accurate as Philip K. Dick can be. If you are a fan of Philip K. Dick, like I am, you know exactly what I mean. And if you aren’t, I suggest you start with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Humans have serious issues with exponential curves as we want to make everything a line. But a lot of the stuff around us is happening exponentially and we don’t realize it. As a result, we’ve dramatically underestimated the impact of technology on – well – everything. And, since so much of it is exponential, it compounds at an incomprehensible pace. When we look outside at concrete, steel, and glass going up slowly, it lulls us into a sense of normalcy.
The machines want us to feel this way.
Think about it for a brief moment. Suspend disbelief. Wind the clock forward 100 years. Do you think, as a species, we will still be struggling with the things that vex us today? Will we still be arguing about the same stuff? Will physical instantiation of things have the same meaning? We will still be eating Cocoa Puffs?
We are at the end of the beginning. It’s going to get wild. Buckle up.