Everyone has a junk drawer. Or two. Or ten. One of mine is to the left.
So does every company. It’s now often referred to as “Labs” (as an homage to the infamous Google Labs which was disbanded in 2011.)
We’ve seen a lot of companies spin up a Labs as a way to try to create new products. In most cases, after about a year, it’s a junk drawer of random shit.
At a Techstars meeting on Monday, in response to something I said, Jason Seats blurted out “that’s just putting it in the junk drawer.” I love when Seats does that – it makes me stop and think. And, in this case he was absolutely right – it was a lot better to simply delete the thought that I’d had (and the activity around it) then to put it in the junk drawer.
I’ve come to really hate the concept of “Labs.” Fortunately, most of the companies I’m involved with who have done a Labs thing have shut it down and reabsorbed it back into the product organization in a more systematic way.
At some point, I realized that Labs was either (a) a random place to put a founder who is no longer working on the core activity of the business or (b) a place to work on a set of things that product can’t make progress on. Both of these are foundational issues.
If (a) random place for a founder, the CEO may not be dealing with an organizational issue around a founder. Or the founder may not be tuned in to how to work with a now scaling organization. There are situations where you want a founder (or founders) to go work on a new R&D project, and it could be called Labs, but it should be focused on a particular product initiative, not a non-defined grab-bag of randomness. When I think of the success cases here (and I have a few), it’s really “new product R&D” rather than “labs”, even when the new product isn’t clearly defined yet. But that leads to (b).
If (b) a place to work on a set of things that product can’t make progress on, this usually appears when the CEO (and potentially a founder) are frustrated with the pace of new product development. This is a recurring theme in my world when a company hits around $5 million of revenue on their first product. It happens at multiple points again in the future and is a good example of the differences between starting a company and scaling a company. It’s easy to blame this on the product organization, but it’s often more complicated than that. Sometimes it’s a single executive; often times it’s the way the engineering and operations organizations (including customer support) interact. And sometimes it’s the CEOs lack of understanding of how to run a maturing / scaling product line while adding in new products.
In either case, the default to creating Labs as a solution to a problem is not a good one. And, when I get home from CES, I’m going to throw all the shit in my junk drawer away.
I’ve been thinking about what “truth” means lately. With almost no effort I can find contradictory articles, thoughts, perspectives, statements, and opinions on almost everything being discussed today. I’m sure our election cycle is amplifying this, but I see this in a bunch of stuff I’m reading about tech as well.
As someone who views independent critical thinking as extremely important, this dynamic is perplexing to me. A few months ago I wrote a post about TruthRank vs. PageRank. It started me down a path where I began separating types of truth. Specifically, I’ve begun referring to “your truth” vs. “the truth.”
When I say “your truth” I’m not referring to opinions. I’m referring to your deeply held beliefs. Your truth is the set of ideas that forms the basis of your view of the world. It requires a huge act of will and introspection for you to change your truth.
To understand this better, I’d like to use a classic example from tech – that of Steve Ballmer’s view of the iPhone, and subsequently his approach to the mobile business.
Let’s set the stage with a classic interview with Ballmer at the time the iPhone is announced in 2007.
Now, let’s look at Ballmer’s reflections about this in 2014.
As part of this arc, Ballmer’s big solve was to move Microsoft from a software only company to software+services and then software+devices. For many years, Microsoft was disdainful of Apple’s tightly coupled hardware+software business. In a final thrust of reactionary behavior, Microsoft bought Nokia in 2014 for $7.2 billion and then wrote off $7.6 billion a little over a year later.
Ballmer had “his truth.” It was stronger than an opinion. It shaped his entire view of the world. He held on to it for seven years (or probably longer).
And, at least in the case of mobile, it was completely wrong. It was not “the truth.”
I see this in all aspects of the world. It’s noisiest in politics right now, but it’s prevalent through all aspects of society. I’m running into it constantly in business and technology – both at a macro level (about the industry) and a micro level (within a company).
In the same way it’s different than an opinion (which can be wrong and/or invalidated over time), it’s different than strategy. I’ve always felt that a strategy was the framework for executing your truth. Strategies evolve and opinions change but your truth doesn’t.
And herein lies the problem. I’m seeing people hold onto their truth for much too long. They hold on too tightly. They turn an opinion into their truth. They extrapolate their truth from a small number of data points. The generalize one experience to create their truth. They react emotionally to something that they disagree with and anchor on their truth. They justify their behavior by holding onto their truth.
In many of these situations, individual critical thinking goes out the window. The internal biasing behavior of your truth dominates. You stop being able to listen to other perspectives, to process them, to think about them, and to evolve your opinion. Instead of deeply held beliefs, you end up with a shallow and self-justifying perspective that you hold on to endlessly rather than think hard about what is actually going on.
I embrace the idea of seeking the truth. I love the construct of deeply held beliefs as a framework for it. I challenge everyone to think harder about what the truth actually is, rather than just hold on to your truth to justify your perspective. Remember, the truth is out there.
Yesterday Hillary Clinton announced her Initiative on Technology & Innovation at Galvanize in Denver. I skimmed it quickly and was pleased with how substantive it was. I pondered what Trump’s equivalent would be and decided it is likely to be a tweet that says “Technology loves me.” Fred Wilson had a more constructive suggestion this morning, where he listed out the specific topics he felt were important to address and said that Hillary has now weighed in on them and he’d like to see Trump do the same.
I just read Hillary’s briefing carefully to understand what I agreed with, disagreed with, and thought needed more fleshing out. I didn’t fundamentally disagree with anything and was delighted to see a number of the initiatives I’ve been working on included. Regular readers of this blog will see lots of congruency with my efforts around National Center for Woman and Information Technology, Startup Communities, Startup Visa, Global EIR Coalition, Techstars Foundation, Net Neutrality, Open Internet, and Patent Reform.
Similar to my post yesterday on the agenda for the The Center for American Entrepreneurship I’m going to list the outline of the initiatives as an easily accessible overview. If this topic is interesting to you, it’s worth spending ten minutes and reading the full text of the Hillary Clinton Initiative on Technology & Innovation. And, in all seriousness, I hope Donald Trump puts out something similar so we can compare them.
Building the Tech Economy on Main Street
Investing In World-Class Digital Infrastructure
Advancing America’s Global Leadership in Tech & Innovation
Setting Rules of the Road to Promote Innovation While Protecting Privacy
Smarter and More Innovative Government
If you are over 80 years old, you experienced the transition from the non-dial telephone to the dial telephone, which included the magic “finger stop.”
If you are 30, imagine what you will be reflecting on 50 years from now.
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 fortunate to spend an hour with a group of about 30 people and Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC yesterday morning. It was a super interesting and stimulating conversation that preceded an excellent speech that Wheeler gave on his Net Neutrality proposal. Go read it and ponder it. It’s in English (not legalese), is blunt, direct, and at times humorous. And it hits the soundbites that are being used against “the government takeover of the Internet” and “the end of the Internet as we know it” crowd quite effectively.
But in this post I want to talk about a phrase Wheeler tossed out early in the conversation that really stuck with me. He said:
“In the 1800s, in a very short period of time, we experienced two innovations that created the death of distance and the end of time.”
I’ve been very open about my belief, which I wrote about for the first time in my book Startup Communities, that the global financial crisis was the point at which networks overtook hierarchies in importance in our society. And, while I’ve read about the history of railroads and the telegraph, I never really thought about them as the starting point for the creation of networks given the death of distance and the end of time.
It’s a powerful construct. Today we are starting to see the self-actualization of networks and the path to what many refer to as the singularity. Regardless of whether you believe this, are comfortable with it (like I am), or are afraid of it (like many others are), it is inevitable that innovation, networks, machines, and AI will continue to evolve at an extremely rapid pace. If you don’t believe me or understand this, go read William Hertling’s amazing Singularity Novels.
As a species, I do not think we can control this. Nor should we. We should enable it. We should explore ways to make us a more amazing species. A more fascinating society. We should embrace our innovations and evolve with them.
The path we are on started in the middle of the 19th century. The debate over Net Neutrality is a tiny blip on this path. If we study history, at all points along this path companies behave in their self-interest. We expect that. Human behavior and economic interest always move toward the question, “How can I maximize the position I’m in?” Think about the evolution of the railroad industry. Think about the evolution of the telegraph, and then the telecommunications industry. Think about where we would be if AT&T still prevented us from putting non-AT&T manufactured things “on their network.” Or, maybe more importantly, think about where AT&T would be, which given the passage of time would likely be still promoting Picturephones. Ok – that was gratuitous and unnecessary, but I couldn’t help myself.
In our discussion yesterday, the idea of epistemological modesty came up, reminding us that we can’t predict the path of innovation even in something we know well. I live this every moment in my business as a VC and strongly believe that we should enable, not try to control, innovation.
After listening to Wheeler, reading his speech, and thinking deeply about this over the past few years, it’s clear to me that he understands this. And for those saying “he’s using 1930s monopoly-style regulation to have the government control the Internet”, you are simply wrong. Read his words:
“We will forgo sections of Title II that pose a meaningful threat to network investment. That means no rate regulation. No unbundling. No tariffs or new taxes. I would note that when applied to mobile voice service over the past two decades, the use of such light-touch Title II – which, by the way, was sought by the industry – went hand-in-hand with massive investment.”
It’s really hard to ignore the soundbites and dig into the facts. But I encourage everyone to try.
I’ve sat in the background and expressed my opinion privately on the energy utility municipalization issue in Boulder. It’s been one where the debate and exploration so far has been much more emotional, at least in my opinion, that rational.
Beth Hartman recently reached out to me with an extremely clear point of view that parallels mine. It was stimulated by a recently announced spending increase of 18% for the 2015 budget, borrowing $4 million from the general fund for the municipal utility effort. I’ve long felt that the city of Boulder could take a much more innovative approach to this problem, but everyone I’ve suggested this to who is an advocate of municipalization had said “but we can’t spend the money on that.” Now that the city has demonstrated that they’ll take money from the general fund to spend on municipalization, I encourage everyone in Boulder to rethink the path we are taking.
Following is the OpEd and Beth and I had published in the Boulder Daily Camera today. I’m certain it will generate plenty of emotional response, which I put in the “whatever” category. I’m much more interested in the rational, thoughtful responses that discuss what we could be doing around our energy future that’s actually progressive as well as innovative.
The original article is at Boulder’s budget: Our best bet?, but the Daily Camera took all the links out, so if you want the backstory, they are in the post that follows.
Boulder’s Budget: Our Best Bet? By Brad Feld and Beth Hartman
Boulder recently announced a spending increase of 18% for the 2015 budget, borrowing $4 million from the general fund for the municipal utility effort – in addition to the money that the city has already spent. With the utility business model currently under pressure around the world from disruptive forces that many in the industry refer to as a “death spiral,” the city’s assertion that this money will soon be repaid should be carefully examined by every citizen and business leader in town.
Citizens and businesses would be wise to scrutinize this investment not just because of the millions that are being spent now, but more importantly because of the serious impact that potentially higher electricity prices could have on this community in the coming years. While Boulder is currently building a strong reputation as an entrepreneurial ecosystem to rival Silicon Valley and is consistently voted among the top cities to live in the country, there is almost nothing more fundamental to quality of life and competitive business than affordable energy.
A municipal utility may be able to provide electricity that is cheaper or about as affordable as our current utility offers – or the city may waste millions of dollars trying, just as communities in Florida, California, and New Mexico have done recently. Although the city is hoping that rates will be lower and Boulder will actually earn money, the fact that Barclays recently downgraded the entire utility sector indicates that this is not currently a business model with strong growth opportunity for new entrants. In addition to uncertainty about costs, there are several big legal questions pending that must be answered before we know if the plan will even work, over which the city has little to no control.
Why are we taking this considerable risk? Instead of buying a bunch of old poles and wires, we could be spending the money on more innovative initiatives that would have a real impact on saving energy and reducing carbon emissions, such as solar panels, an electric vehicle car sharing program, or installing Nest thermostats the way Airbnb is doing.
There are many innovative energy companies right here in Boulder, offering an opportunity to support solutions that can be rapidly replicated in other cities around the world. Instead of spending so much on a 20th century business model, the city could focus more on coordinating efforts between local energy entrepreneurs, the university, research labs, and consulting companies, providing thought leadership on new energy solutions. This would also offer amazing economic benefits to our own community, through helping to create more jobs at Boulder-based organizations. The city could start offering this support now, without waiting to see what happens with the uncertainty of forming a utility.
Another important question is what else our community could be doing with the millions of dollars we are spending on this effort, whether it’s schools, roads, affordable housing, open space maintenance, or any other initiative that our city needs. If you are a citizen who is concerned about the city’s new budget, please reach out to city council and ask them what else we could be doing with so much money. We could also ask for more details on how exactly they plan to deliver an energy service that is at least as good as what we’re getting now.
If you understand the difference between renewable energy and efficiency, distributed generation and demand response, and net metering and decoupling, please reach out to city council and have a conversation with them about their plans to start a utility during this time of disruption for an incredibly complex and challenging industry. Finally, if you are a business owner and you rely on affordable energy for your company to run every day, please reach out to city council and ask them how they are going to support your needs.
Getting into the utility business now is in many ways akin to starting a land line telephone company right when the internet and cell phones were really starting to get popular. Our community needs to question the wisdom of our city investing in this industry right now, with so many real risks.
I’ve been listening to the Hyperion Cantos on my iPhone while I run/bike (it’s amazing – I’m almost done with book two) and I’ve been wondering why we still have airplanes.
We’ve already figured out how to go from analog form to digital form back to analog form. Consider the telephone.
We’ve already figured out how to go from atoms to bits to atoms. Consider the 3D printer.
We can transmit energy and information, so why can’t we yet teleport?
Who is working on this?
In Hyperion, the machines (the AI) ended up figuring this out for the humans. It feels like we are on the cusp of this as a species.
Ponder that as you board your next plan. Wouldn’t it be better to farcast to where you are going? Or would it?
Let’s start out by saying that I’m a big fan of both Uber and Lyft. I’m indirectly an investor in both companies as I’m an investor in three VC funds that are investors Uber and one VC fund that is an investor in Lyft. I have no idea how much actual equity I have in either company, but based on current valuations the dollar value of my indirect ownership is non-trivial. And Foundry Group came close to investing in Zimride (the predecessor to Lyft) but we ended up withdrawing from what we thought was an inappropriately high priced round, which, in hindsight, was clearly a miss on our part.
Regardless of my support and enthusiasm for these two companies, I’m bummed at the mud they are slinging at each other. I get that this is an intensely competitive market. I get that the stakes are huge. I get that all the reporting I’m reading is second hand and might be fiction. But the ad hominem attacks are escalating rapidly and the behavior they are surfacing isn’t pretty.
Techcrunch summarized this pretty well yesterday, after multiple articles from a variety of places including the NY Times and WSJ. The headline sets the tone: Uber Strikes Back, Claiming Lyft Drivers And Employees Canceled Nearly 13,000 Rides. The NYT article is Accusations Fly Between Uber and Lyft and the WSJ article is Uber and Lyft Rivalry Turns Nasty in War of Words.
I have no idea what, if any of what is being said is true. The tactic being asserted that is most disturbing is this one:
Accused Lyft behavior: “Lyft employees, drivers and one of its founders ordered 12,900 trips on Uber’s app and then canceled them with the goal of slowing down drivers who would otherwise be picking up actual, paying passengers.”
Accused Uber behavior: “177 Uber employees have requested and quickly canceled more than 5,000 rides from Lyft drivers over the past 10 months, Lyft said, in an effort to frustrate Lyft’s customers and drivers.”
As a customer, this sucks. If I was a driver for either service, this sucks. I think this ultimately backfires against each company equally.
Guys – both of you are trying to disrupt a massive market dominated by incumbents and government regulation. I’m sure these incumbents are now laughing their asses off at y’all are acting like petulant children, as they wait patiently for you to chew up capital, value, partners, customers, while generating additional scrutiny from the government forces in the incumbents’ pockets trying to slow you down.
I get that you believe price is a weapon – how you use it for you and your investors to decide. But by messing with each other’s service, especially in a way that negatively impacts your two key constituents, consumers and drivers, you are opening yourself up to a ridiculous amount of scrutiny and quickly playing a no-win, zero-sum game. There is no need at all for this given the massive size of the market opportunity before you.
One, or both of you, should rise above the fray. Keep on competing aggressively. But recognize that you are radically disrupting a market desperately in need of disruption and doing it beautifully. Don’t shit all over it, and yourself in the process.