Thanksgiving is a pensive time for me. The world slows down a little as it gets ready for the mad dash to the end of the year. Four day weekends are rare in the United States and even though the retail world is extremely busy on Friday, my Thanksgiving has a very different tempo as the email slows to a crawl, the calendar becomes empty, and Amy and I generally have a lot of hanging out time.
I’ve always thought Givingthanks should be a neologism but it never seems to stick, so I’ll roll with Thanksgiving. For the next few days as we celebrate Thanksgiving, I’m going to publicly thank a few people in my world who mean a lot to me and have given an enormous amount of themselves to others. I’m also going to give you a way to say thanks by supporting something meaningful in their world.
I’m going to start with my partner Jason Mendelson. We’ve worked together since the late 1990s, which is now pushing up against two decades. He’s become one of my closest friends and confidants. I was honored, with my other partners Seth and Ryan, to be the best men in his wedding. We have our moments, but the long arc of our relationship is one I treasure.
I’ve watched Jason have a remarkable positive influence on many. But I know that one of the activities he’s proudest of is his involvement with CU Boulder, especially around entrepreneurship. Among many other things, he has taught a class on Venture Capital at CU Law with Brad Bernthal. Last month, a group of their students put together the Jason Mendelson Entrepreneurial Award Fund.
Think about that for second – CU students and alumni of his course has put together a scholarship / award fund. That’s a testament to how much the class – and Jason’s involvement in it – impacted them. The initial fund has $50,000 in it and provides cash awards, scholarships, or stipends to students enrolled at CU Boulder who demonstrate excellence in the field of entrepreneurship.
Ok – so here’s how you can give thanks – to me or to Jason. You can contribute any amount to the Jason Mendelson Entrepreneurial Award Fund online. It’s a charitable gift and it will be helping support a student at CU around entrepreneurship.
Jason – on this Thanksgiving 2016, thank you for everything you do to make the world a better place.
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.
Even if I don’t know all of you at this line …
My beliefs and values before the age of 18
Past Criminal life – Cat reminds us that Defy doesn’t work with criminals, but with people who have committed crimes in their past.
If you could see inside my brain …
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”
“Our Immigration Policies Are Insane”
“Not All Good Ideas Get Funded Anymore”
“Regulations Are Killing Us”
“Tax Payments Can Be the Difference between Survival and Failure”
“There’s Too Much Uncertainty – and It’s Washington’s Fault
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.”