Tag: jerry colonna
I was catching up on a bunch of reading on the web from last week and came across a post by Lars Dalgaard titled Thoughts on Building Weatherproof Companies. I don’t know Lars, but know of him as the founder/CEO of SuccessFactors and now a partner at A16Z, and was curious after recently reading a Forbes article about Zenefits a few weeks ago titled ‘A Lot Of Things Went Wrong’: Lars Dalgaard On Zenefits Scandal.
Any CEO I’ve ever worked with has heard me say “build the company and make decisions as though you’ll be running it forever” many times. While forever is a very long time and so far the idea of running a company forever hasn’t happened, it’s a great frame of reference for a CEO to operate from. So, I found myself nodding at a bunch of things Lars wrote in his post and I encourage you to read it.
Following are a few of the headlines of the points that resonated with me along with my quick thoughts.
Successful companies are bought, not sold: This cliche is said 100x per day by VCs. And it happens to be true. Build something great and important and opportunities to be bought, whether you want to pursue them or not, will come to you.
Develop a perpetual, aggressively help-seeking mindset: A simpler way to say this is “learn quickly, do it continuously, and surround yourself with people you can learn from.” There’s a subtext about sublimating your ego and fears, which appears in several other parts of the post and is a characteristic of everyone I know who is a learning machine.
Invest in a coach: Many of the CEOs (and founders, and execs) we work with have coaches. We strongly recommend them. My partners and I have used Nancy Raulston since we started Foundry Group and my extremely close friend Jerry Colonna is someone I describe as “the best startup CEO coach on the planet.” I have a running coach, even though all I do is run marathons, and not competitively. I’ve never understood why people who are trying to be excellent at something don’t recognize the value of a coach.
Build a real board of directors … and use it: I’ve long been an advocate of building a real board early in the life of your company. Lars talks about adding non-VC directors early and I strongly agree. I’ve seen too many boards that are just gradual expansions of the number of VCs around the board table with each successive round of financing. While the CEO works for the board, a great board effectively works for the CEO also, doing whatever it can (as individuals and collectively) to help the CEO be successful with one fundamental governance role – that of insuring that if the CEO is not being effective, the board can take action to change this, which often, but not always, means replacing the CEO. If you want to go deeper on this, I’ve written a book on it called Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors.
Kill the monsters of the mind, while preserving your spirit: While a provocative title, I’m not sure your goal should be to kill the monsters of the mind. In my post titled Something New Is Fucked Up In My World Every Day, I tell a short version of the Buddhist saint Milarepa’s story Eat Me If You Wish. Coming to terms with the monsters (or demons) is much more powerful (and efficient) than killing them, since it often makes them simply disappear.
Don’t lie to yourself: I remind you of the great John Galt quote “Nobody stays here by faking reality in any manner whatever.” If you ever stay in my guest condo in Boulder, you’ll see a painting by my mother with this quote incorporated into it hanging on the wall.
It’s Sunday – if you are reading this, take some time to read Thoughts on Building Weatherproof Companies and ponder it in the background, instead of burning brain cells on whatever political crap is discussed on the internets today. Lars, thanks for taking the time to write it.
Of all the podcast interviews I’ve done over the years, I think the one I recently did with Jerry Colonna on his Reboot podcast series is my favorite.
In the podcast show notes, Jerry links to a fun post by Fred Wilson titled Sixteen Years Ago (which is now 19 years ago…) We’ve known each other for a very long time and I treasure Jerry as one of my best friends on this planet.
Enjoy the week. Hopefully this will provide some thoughts as well as some fuel for you. And, if you aren’t a regular listener to the Reboot podcast, I encourage you to subscribe to it as a source of deep insights from Jerry every few weeks. There are 25 episodes so far since Jerry started it with his gang in September 2014 – I’ve listened to and benefited from every one of them.
On my run this morning (yay – I’m running again) I listened to a wonderful podcast between Jerry Colonna and Bijan Sabet called Investors are Human Too – with Bijan Sabet.
If you follow me, you know that I’m incredibly close friends with Jerry (he’s one of the people on this planet that I comfortably say that I love). I’m also a huge fan of his company Reboot.io. If you want a taste of what they do, listen to a bunch of the Reboot podcasts (I’ve listened to them all and the least interesting one is still excellent.)
I’m also a big fan of Bijan. We’ve had a number of great conversations over the years. While we haven’t sat on a board together, I have deep respect for how he functions as a VC – and as a human.
At Foundry Group, we’ve done a number of investments with Bijan’s firm Spark Capital, including AdMeld (sold – very successful investment), Trigget (sold, but not a successful investment), and most recently Sourcepoint. We’ve also got another one in the works together that should close by the end of August.
Unlike so many podcasts with VCs where you get lots of personal history followed by advice, prognostications, bloviating, and predications, this one was all about being human. Bijan and Jerry explored things in the context of the relationship between a founder and a VC. They covered things generally, had some great examples (including Jerry and Mainspring, which was a blast from the past for me), and then Bijan went deep on his own journey to figure this out over the past ten years.
My favorite line came near then end when Bijan talked about encountering VCs who hide behind the phrase “fiduciary responsibility” to justify their actions, when in fact they should just say:
“I have a fiduciary responsibility to treat you like shit.”
Even though I was huffing and puffing on my run, I laughed out loud.
If you are a podcast listener, spend 45 minutes of your life on this. It’s worth it. Bijan and Jerry – thanks for the conversation and for brightening up my run.
I got the following email recently, titled “Unicorns Without The Magic.”
“With the rise in venture capitalism it’s hard to say the word “start up” and not be offered an abundance of accelerator programmes, free office space, free apartments & a free bible of connections. I myself have felt the pressures of the world of start up wonders & the prospects of investment. Whilst finishing my finals at university, I created my own algorithm for a business model to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage in a digital space. Through this I’m now building my first digital ecosystem, but along with it I’ve been offered numerous places in accelerator programmes, numerous loans and a wave of unicorn magic dust that seems to be collecting in my inbox. I’m not complaining, but what happens if the purpose of a business is greater than ones own self interest and certainly greater than a VCs interest? Our purpose is to give other people the tools to create their own opportunities, which is not necessarily in line with most VCs sentiments. I know in the next five years my company will make a lot of money, but what I don’t know is how as a 23 year old entrepreneur to says yes to the right VC and no to all the magic dust.”
My short answer was:
“My advice is simple – if it doesn’t feel good / right, say no. Keep focusing on building your business. Don’t avoid the interactions, but use your filter – which seems well tuned and appropriate – to make sure you are only spending time with people who you want to spend time with.”
I was reminded of this by Fred Wilson’s post this morning Go East Young Man (or Woman). He tells Henry Ward’s story of the financing for eShares.
“We were 0 for 21 with Silicon Valley VCs. I never got close. Most of the big firms wouldn’t even meet. A few had an associate do a Skype call even though we were 20 minutes away.
After 21 meetings in SV, I took a Hail Mary trip to the east coast and met with 3 funds. All 3 invested.”
We see this all the time. Founders who are entranced with Silicon Valley VCs. They pursue them with no focus on anyone outside of the bay area, get rejected right and left, often by associates, and end up feeling like they’ve failed. Fred’s post – and Henry’s at eShares Series A – has a great punch line that reinforces the importance of a founder having an effective filter.
“Fundraising is simple: find investors that get excited about your company. It is a filtering exercise. Too many founders believe they have the wrong pitch instead of realizing they have the wrong audience.”
Special bonus points (and some 1990s nostalgia for you): Do you remember the other company named eShares which Fred previously invested in via Flatiron Partners? I sat on the board of with Fred’s partner at the time Jerry Colonna. (a) What did they do? (b) Who acquired them? (c) How much where they acquired for? (d) Who did they compete with and what happened to their competitor?
I’ve been very open about my struggles with depression over the years. A few weeks ago, I participated in a Q&A with Greg Avery at the Denver Business Journal titled Brad Feld Q&A: Bringing depression out of the shadows in startups. It was part of a more extensive series on Depression, entrepreneurs and startups.
Since I’m still getting emails about it, I thought I’d republish the Q&A here.
Q: How common is the issue of depression in the startup world?
A: Very common, although it is rarely discussed. While the line between stress, deep anxiety, and depression often blurs, most entrepreneurs struggle with broad mental health issues at various points in their lives.
Q: How hard was it to acknowledge your struggle to yourself? And how hard was it to explain it to your partners and your peers?
A: Initially it was extremely hard. When I was in my mid-20s, running a successful company and clinically depressed, I was afraid to talk to anyone other than my psychiatrist about it. I was ashamed that I was even seeing a psychiatrist.
I was afraid people wouldn’t take me seriously, or would stop respecting me, if I talked about how bad I was feeling. The only people I talked openly about it with was my business partner, Dave Jilk, and my girlfriend — now wife — Amy Batchelor. They were amazingly supportive, but even then I was deeply ashamed about my weaknesses.
Q: When did you start to be so open about it?
A: After I became depressed for the second time, in my mid-30s — in 2001 just after Sept. 11 through the end of the year. The last three months of 2001 were awful for me after an 18-month stretch from the peak of the Internet bubble — spring 2000 through Sept. 11, 2001. That was a relentless slide downhill on all fronts.
Sept. 11 was the trigger point for this depression. I was in New York City after a red-eye from San Francisco, landing at 6 a.m. on 9/11. I was asleep in my hotel room in midtown [Manhattan] when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. While I was never in harm’s way, I was terrified, exhausted, and emotionally distressed.
Once I got back to Boulder, I didn’t travel for the rest of the year. In 2002, when most of my VC and entrepreneurial colleagues were having a terrible year, I acknowledged how much I had struggled in 2001, although I was still relatively discreet about it.
When I got depressed again at the end of 2012, I was open about it this time as it was happening and throughout the process. I knew at this point how to handle it and that it would pass.
I also knew many, many entrepreneurs also struggled with depression but, like I had been earlier in life, were afraid to discuss it.
Q: How much does the issue of mental health differ in startups from the world at large?
A: In general, I don’t know. But leaders and entrepreneurs are programmed to “never show weakness”, so I expect there’s much more pressure to keep it hidden and suppressed, which if you’ve ever been depressed, can make things much worse.
Q: Looking back, how much has your work, or work style, been a factor in your depression?
A: There are many things about my depressions that I still don’t understand. I have been able to identify trigger points for the various depressions, which include physiological exhaustion, boredom, and major life changes [divorce, dropping out of a Ph.D. program].
Most recently, things started with a 50-mile race I did in April 2012 that I never physiologically recovered from, followed by a near-death bike accident in September 2012, a very intense stretch of work which included writing two books in the midst of everything — “Startup Communities” and “Startup Life” — the death of my dog, and ultimately a kidney stone that required surgery.
At one level, I was exhausted. I was also bored — my work was fine, but I wasn’t learning very much. I’m hugely intrinsically motivated and have always believed that I’m fueled and motivated by learning. In this case, I was teaching a lot, mostly around “Startup Communities”. But I wasn’t spending any time learning. After coming out of the depression, I realized this was a huge part of things and have subsequently redefined my intrinsic motivation as a combination of learning and teaching. Now that I’m 49, I realize this makes a lot more sense.
Q: How well does the startup and VC world handle issues of mental health? What would you change about it?
A: Until a few years ago, we generally sucked at it. The philosophy around leaders and entrepreneurs never showing weakness dominated and we were told never to let ourselves be vulnerable. Fortunately, leaders like [venture capitalist and professional coach] Jerry Colonna have helped many leaders and entrepreneurs understand the power of being vulnerable and we now at least have an open and productive conversation around it.
Q: Can an executive afford to show any vulnerability and still hope to succeed in leading employees and attracting funding?
A: Yes absolutely. It’s all about culture, style, and self-awareness. And, it’s much easier to be yourself, allow yourself some vulnerability, intellectual and emotional honesty on your path to being a great leader.
Q: What would you say to a founder who’s grappling with depression but feeling their success might hinge on not letting it be known?
A: I mostly try to listen, be empathetic, and introduce the person to other peers who have struggled with the same thing. I talk openly about my experiences, but claim them as mine, rather than suggest that there are generic solutions.
When ask directly what to do, I offer opinions, but I don’t lead with them, nor do I expect that I will — or that I can — solve the person’s problem. I can simply be a resource for them.
Q: Have you actually had these conversations?
A: I’ve had these conversations many, many times.
Q: What do you suggest to people who need help?
A: Talk to your mentors, your peers, and your partners. Take the risk of being vulnerable.
Q: Are there resources you’ve discovered that are particularly geared or well-suited to entrepreneurs?
This is one of my favorite lines to use to explain the business life I live. When asked what it’s like to be a partner in a VC firm, be on a bunch of boards, and have a continuous stream of random interaction come my way, I like to level set my reality.
It’s simple. Something new is fucked up in my world every day.
Now, just because something new is fucked up, doesn’t mean I’m unhappy. Quite the opposite – I’m usually happy, although when the pile of fuckedupness gets high enough I get tired. And day after day after day of 12+ hour days also make me tired. I used to be able to work through the weekends – now at 49 years old I need them to recover, get patched up by Amy, and get ready to go back out there.
Jerry Colonna at Reboot.io tells a wonderful story about the crucible of leadership on Fred Wilson’s blog with a section titled Eat Me If You Wish (read the whole post but the parable is about half way through.) It’s worth repeating here. Take your time reading it.
“One day,” begins a story re-told by Aura Glaser in the latest issue of Tricycle Magazine, “[the Buddhist saint] Milarepa left his cave to gather firewood, and when he returned he found that his cave had been taken over by demons. There were demons everywhere! His first thought upon seeing them was, ‘I have got to get rid of them!’ He lunges toward them, chasing after them, trying forcefully to get them out of his cave. But the demons are completely unfazed. In fact, the more he chases them, the more comfortable and settled-in they seem to be. Realizing that his efforts to run them out have failed miserably, Milarepa opts for a new approach and decides to teach them the dharma.
“If chasing them out won’t work, then maybe hearing the teachings will change their minds and get them to go. So he takes his seat and begins… After a while he looks around and realizes all the demons are still there…At this point Milarepa lets out a deep breath of surrender, knowing now that these demons will not be manipulated into leaving and that maybe he has something to learn from them. He looks deeply into the eyes of each demon and bows, saying, ‘It looks like we’re going to be here together. I open myself to whatever you have to teach me.’
“In that moment all the demons but one disappear. One huge and especially fierce demon, with flaring nostrils and dripping fangs, is still there. So Milarepa lets go even further. Stepping over to the largest demon, he offers himself completely, holding nothing back. ‘Eat me if you wish.’ He places his head in the demon’s mouth, and at that moment the largest demon bows low and dissolves into space.”
I put my head in a demon’s mouth every single day. Often, it’s a different, or new, demon. Sometimes it takes me a few days to get ready for this so the demons back up. Other days two or three new demons appear and I can only deal with one of them so the others hang around.
I learned how to deal with this in 2001. That year started out miserable with companies I was involved failing all around me. I did everything I knew how to do to help. I’d go to bed at the end of the day thinking, “Ok, that totally sucked, but tomorrow will be better.” It wasn’t – each day was worse. By about June I realized that every single day of 2001 had been worse than the previous day. I finally metaphorically threw up my hands and internally said, “Fuck it, let’s see what the world can bring on today.” That’s when I started to sit with the demons.
Up to that point, I was fearful of what the day would bring. I would fight against it. I would thrash around looking to solve every problem, chasing the demons around my cave trying to get them to leave. And then 9/11 happened, on a beautiful morning in New York, while I was fast asleep in a hotel room in midtown Manhatten at The Benjamin Hotel after taking a redeye from San Francisco. As the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, Amy frantically called me from the road as she was driving to the airport to come visit me in New York. I had turned off my phone so I expect I snored happily away as the first tower fell. When I finally woke up I to whatever station the clock radio was on, I thought it was all a joke. For about a minute, I struggled through the post redeye haze that enveloped me, along with the existential fatigue I was feeling from nine months of companies failing everywhere, people being angry, unhappy, depressed, stressed, scared, and under immense pressure, and then I realized it wasn’t a dream.
When I finally woke up enough to turn on my phone and call Amy, I was lucky enough to get through. She pulled over to the side of the road and cried. She was sure I had been on one of the planes that had crashed. After a few minutes, we realized a trip to NY was silly so she turned around and went home. I then took a shower and tried to process what was going on and figure out what to do next.
There’s a lot more from that day that shaped me, like it shaped so many others, but suddenly many of my demons just disappeared and went to torture other people. I realized that as fucked up as my world was, it was trivial compared to what was going on 60 blocks away. While I was terrified and trapped in The Benjamin for a while, I had at least four hours before I took action to just sit and process things.
Dealing with the particular set of demons in my cave at this point to another three months. That period was my second of three clinic depressions that ended around my birthday on December 1st. I spent these three months sitting with all of my demons, welcoming more into my world, and just learning from them.
When the really scary ones showed up, I didn’t fight. I just placed my head gently in each of the scary demons’ mouthes and said “eat me if you wish.”
Just like with Milarepa, it worked. And it’s now how I live every day.
Jerry Colonna spent a few hours with me and Amy on Saturday at our house. Jerry is one of our closest friends on this planet so any time we get time with him is a treasure for us. It was a cold-ish, snowy, gloomy Colorado early winter day. Amy and I were pretty off-balance due to my blood clot so it was especially nice to be with him as he always helps rebalance us.
We talked some about his new company Reboot. I’m a huge supporter of Jerry’s work – recommending many of the CEOs we work with to him, or his associates, for coaching. I attended a recent CEO Bootcamp as a special guest and it was amazing – I recommend it to every CEO.
Jerry mentioned that the recent Reboot podcasts were doing great and really fun. I noticed this morning that the podcast he did with Rand Fishkin, another close friend, titled #7 Depression and Entrepreneurship – With Jerry Colonna and Rand Fishkin, came out today. So I read the transcript (I can read a lot faster than I can list) and thought it was dynamite.
As usual, Jerry goes deep and intimate – very quickly. So does Rand – total, extreme, full transparency. Enjoy!
I love Jerry. I learn something every time I’m with him. He’s one of the first VCs I ever worked with and is my favorite other than my Foundry Group partners. We both struggled openly with depression. I think we have helped each other, and many others, through our openness. I consider him one of my closest friends.
We talked about a couple of heavy, conflict filled situations we were each involved in. He said something profound to me that I’ve been carrying around since we had dinner.
To be adult in a relationship is not to be conflict free. It is to resolve conflicts mindfully.
Most of the conflicts in my life are in business. Sure – Amy and I have them occasionally, but I grew up in a pretty conflict free home. My parents disagreed on things but talked through them. When I disagreed with my parents, they listened to me and we tried to work things out. Sometimes I ended up being disappointed or unhappy in the moment, but they taught me to move on to the next thing.
My first marriage has lots of conflict in it, which I’d put it in the passive aggressive category. I think that’s why I find passive aggressive behavior so distasteful – it reminds me of the failure of my first marriage. Of course, we are surrounded by this throughout of lives, even when people have the best of intensions, so I try to bash through it when I see it happening, turning passive aggressive dynamics to conflict, which has to get resolved.
In business, I’ve worked with a wide range of people. I’ve experienced the full spectrum of conflict many different times. When I see conflict emerging, I try to confront it directly, calmly, and thoughtfully. “Mindfully.” I rarely lose my temper. I try to listen carefully. I try to incorporate a wide view of what is going on, rather than just jump into a particular position. I try express my position clearly without excess emotion. I listen and incorporate more feedback. When the conflict is intense, I put myself in the position of driving a resolution, especially in ever-present sub-optimal situations where the “perfect” answer is elusive.
I really love the notion of mindfulness. Wikipedia’s buddhist definition is the one I understand the best.
Mindfulness is “the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment”, which can be trained by meditational practices
My experience this year with meditation has surrounded me with this word. At least half of the stuff I’ve been reading on meditation talked more about mindfulness than meditation. The practice I’m getting from Headspace is opening up a whole new dimension for me of how to think about work, life, and relationships. And when Amy says, “Brad – be present” she is reminding me to be my best, mindful self.
I don’t enjoy conflict, nor do I seek it out, but I’ve never been afraid of it. I just confront it and deal with it the best I can. And now I have a word for how I do it, which is “mindfully.”
I saw a great job title this morning when I was looking someone up on LinkedIn. It was “CTO Whisperer.”
As I’m getting deeper into meditation. I hear the word “teacher” a lot. I’d never thought much about it before, but it’s used in a similar way to how we use the word “mentor” at Techstars. When we started to use the word mentor in 2007, it required defining. Now mentor is getting overused by the broad entrepreneurial landscape. I have no idea whether teacher is overused as well, but the parallel got me thinking about the idea of a CEO Whisperer.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of The Horse Whisperer or a Dog Whisperer. A person who has a special, magic skill that certain animals respond to. A unique ability to calm and teach. A style about them that is unique, loving, and kind, even in difficult circumstances.
As I was mulling this over, my friend Jerry Colonna popped into my mind. While Jerry is referred to as a CEO coach, he most certainly is a CEO Whisperer. And for those who don’t know Jerry’s past, he was an extremely successful venture capitalist, founding Flatiron Partners with Fred Wilson in the mid-1990s before retiring from venture capital in the early 2000’s.
I count Jerry as a very close friend. As a mentor. As a teacher. And, with all great mentor / teacher relationships, we learn from each other. Which led me back to the idea of a CEO Whisperer.
In the 1990’s, Jerry and I worked together on several investments and were on a few boards together. Our styles were very complementary – we both had a soft touch and were supportive of the CEO, but had different things we could help with. I know that my involvement on these boards deeply shaped my role and approach as a board member and investor, as I thought Jerry was the best board member I’d ever worked with at that point in time.
I’ve met – and worked with – a few other people who I’d consider CEO Whisperers, but none compare to Jerry. And when I think about how I want to be viewed by the CEOs I work with, the idea of mentor and teacher immediately comes to the forefront of my mind.
The world of entrepreneurship needs more CEO Whisperers. Thanks Jerry for leading the way. On multiple fronts.
It’s really hard to be a CEO. Becoming a great CEO takes a lot of time, work, focus, coaching, and introspection.
My very close friend Jerry Colonna is hosting his second CEO Bootcamp from April 2 – April 6. Several CEOs from the Foundry Group portfolio went last year and each had an amazing time. This year I’m going to be attending as a special guest and participating throughout the four day program.
I’ve learned an enormous about from Jerry over the past 20 years. We first met in 1994 when I was a chairman of NetGenesis. Jerry had recently invested in a company called eShare, which ended up buying a product called net.Thread (one of the first, if not the first, threaded discussion group system – which was written in Perl) from NetGenesis. I joined the eShare board as part of the deal and a very deep friendship and working relationship ensued.
When Jerry told me about the first CEO Bootcamp a year ago I encouraged a number of CEOs in our portfolio to attend. Each one came back saying some version of “it changed my life”, which wasn’t really a surprise to me knowing Jerry but was a strong positive affirmation of the experience.
This year, when Jerry told me the dates for CEO Bootcamp and asked me to spread the word, I asked if I could come and participate. It’s in Colorado at an awesome place called Devil’s Thumb Ranch so I can drive to it and is a topic that’s front of mind for me given my relationship with the various CEOs in our portfolio.
I try hard to develop a deep personal relationship with the CEOs I work with. I’ve written in the past about Being Vulnerable and think it’s one of the most important qualities of a leader. As Jerry says so well in the overview of the requirements for attendees, “you may be tired, but you must be vulnerable, curious and courageous.” The full list of requirements follows:
You’re the CEO of a tech startup that has employees.
This is the first time you have been a CEO within a company of this scale.
You’ve logged immeasurable hours and have made tremendous sacrifices.
You’ve had success with your company. You realize there is more to this game than “success.”
You may be tired, but you must be vulnerable, curious and courageous.
I’m planning on participating in the entire event. The agenda is still being finalized, but the current plan is for me to do a joint talk with Jerry on Friday, fireside chats with Jerry on Friday and Saturday, and hikes after the main sessions.
I know two of Jerry’s three partners in this endeavor and think Sam Elmore and Ali Schultz are dynamite. To be clear, I’m volunteering my time and participating – this is Jerry, Sam, Ali, and Michael’s gig so I’m going to do whatever they want me to – or not to – do.
Registration is open until 2/9/14 at midnight MST. 20 CEOs will be accepted. I hope to see you there.