I love origin stories.
David Brown, Techstars CEO and co-founder, just updated his and published a new edition of No Vision All Drive. It’s the story of Pinpoint Technologies, his first company with David Cohen, one of the other co-founders of Techstars.
As an origin story, it’s a detailed autobiography of what David learned from the experience of his first company. In this edition, he’s added some linkages into Techstars, and how his learning around entrepreneurship and leadership has evolved since the experience of Pinpoint.
I’ve read the book three times (for each edition – the self-published 1st edition, the FG Press 2nd edition, and the Techstars Press 3rd edition) and I learned lots about David Brown – and David Cohen – each time. In addition to plenty of fun little anecdotes, my current experience with the David(s) nicely intertwined with what I was reading, as I was able to time travel back to them during their formative entrepreneurial experience.
No Vision All Drive is particularly fun for me since the time frame overlapped with my first company – Feld Technologies. There are great overlaps like incorporating with The Company Corporation (for $99), remembering the joy of Btrieve, struggling with Microsoft Access with significant simultaneous users and endlessly rebuilding the database (Rome was lost for a simple reindex), and working through the endless issues around growth for a self-funded business.
As a bonus, I finished Sweating Bullets: Notes about Inventing PowerPoint by Robert Gaskins. This was the origin story of PowerPoint and Forethought, the first acquisition Microsoft ever made. It’s long, but as Gaskins rolled through the Forethought history in the mid-1980s and then his time at Microsoft from 1987 – 1993, I was able to once again time travel back to Feld Technologies, which was an independent company from 1987 to 1993 (when we were acquired by Sage Alerting Systems, which became AmeriData Technologies.)
While I’m not inspired to write the Feld Technologies origin story at this point, it’s a lot of fun to remember it, against the backdrop of what others were doing at the time. And, I know David Brown a little bit better today than I did yesterday.
I love origin stories. Some of them glorify entrepreneurship in a way that makes them challenging to parse, as the struggles of our heroines and heroes gets romanticized in a way that tastes sugary sweet. But, when they are written in first person, unedited, on a blog, they are often delicious in a tasty and fulfilling way.
Jud Valeski, the co-founder of Gnip, wrote a great one a few days ago. It’s titled How Did Gnip Get The Twitter Deal? and does a thorough job of telling the story from Jud’s perspective. If that’s all that was there, it’d be a solid origin story.
But then Doug Williams, who was on the Twitter side of the Gnip / Twitter origin story, weighs in with a comment that is the same length as Jud’s post. And now we get Doug’s view. Not the official Twitter view. Not the C7H5NO3S version that has been denuded of anything challenging and controversial.
The combination is delicious and worth reading. I lived it as an investor and only have two categories of things to add. The first is that the most important role of the investor in deals like this is to talk your team (in this case Jud and Rob) off the cliff. Or, more likely, to take the flamethrower out of their hands before they started spraying it on everyone in sheer frustration. The other is a few well timed phone calls to key people (in this case, Dick Costolo, who totally saw the value of the relationship but at the time was trying to navigate whatever the current version of Twitter dynamics were.)
The end of Jud’s post has two extremely important points in it. The first to play by the rules of your partner.
“This conflict between your product and the publisher, is real, and it can make or break you. On one hand, you want revenue, and if you break/bend the rules, you can get more of it. However, doing so puts you at odds with the publisher (arguably your bread and butter). Take your pick. We chose to play by the rules and were able to navigate to a successful partnership and outcome. We firmly believed that breaking/bending the rules would yield an incrementally small amount of revenue, and never actually let the business get as big as it could. Think about it this way, black markets exist, and always will, but they’re never as big as the open market. Pursue the open market, sure, it’s harder, but the rewards are bigger. If the only way you have a business is by breaking rules, stop what you’re doing and go do something else; that’s ultimately lame; explain that one to your kids.”
The other is what we called “Be Everywhere That Twitter Is.”
“We spent years cultivating relationships inside Twitter (from the CEO, which changed a few times during our efforts), to mid-level, to developers, to BD, to on and on and on). When we were at a conference and there was a Twitter person there, we elbowed our way to them to get a word in. When Twitter put on conferences, we were there. When Twitter wouldn’t answer the phone because we were that annoying gnat in the swarm, we backed off the calls until we had something significant to put in front of them (a new feature, a new business milestone). Partnership negotiation is a fine line between expressing your need for the other partnership, and illustrating your ability to be independent.“
And Doug, in his conclusion, reinforces the value of that approach.
“I’ll leave you with this final anecdote. While in the midst of the start of our initial term sheet negotiations with GNIP, my team was moved under a new executive. After bringing him up to speed, he told me he didn’t like the strategy and called it off. That day, he and I were to meet with Jud and push things forward. I had to break this news to Jud that the exec had pulled the plug and wouldn’t be at the meeting. It’s difficult to say who was more heartbroken at this point. In his patient and persistent way, Jud keep calling. He kept asking questions. He kept showing up at the office. We kept working on the term sheet and he motivated me to go to bat again. Again, we eventually got the nod. Luck, timing and patience paid off, but more than all kept Jud showing up. That is the ultimate lesson he taught me, one that I carry with me every day.”
There’s a lot of healthy and tasty juice in this origin story. Jud / Doug – thanks for putting it out there.
I think Shoe Dog by Phil Knight is the best memoir I’ve ever read by a business person.
I consumed it in a day last week. It’s about the origin story of Nike, which started out as Blue Ribbon Sports.
Unlike so many memoirs, it’s not an equally balanced arc through Knight’s life. It’s not an ego gratifying display of his awesomeness, heavily weighted in the success of the company and all the amazing things that went on around that. Instead, it’s a deep focus on the beginning years of Nike especially around the first decade. It quickly gets to 1964 and the equal partnership between Bill Bowerman and Knight. But then it takes it’s time, year by year (each chapter is titled with the year number only) through the first decade of the company.
It’s an incredible story. I didn’t realize that for the first five years of the company, Knight had to work full-time – mostly at Price Waterhouse and then Coopers & Lybrand as an accountant – because the company didn’t have any resources to support him and his new family. He used nights, weekends, and in all the gaps in between to get Nike (the Blue Ribbon Sports) up and running. Year one revenue – in 1964 – was $8,000. Year two revenue – with one full time employee (not Knight) was $20,000. Year 41 revenue (2015) was $30.6 billion with a net income of $3.3 billion.
Knight covers all of it in detail. The ups and the downs. The many downs. The moments where he felt like he could lose it all, which seemed to happen at least once a year. His personal struggles as a leader and a manager. The people that drove him fucking crazy at the beginning, but were ultimately indispensable to the company. His momentary conflicts about whether or not the struggle was worth it. The breakthroughs – mostly understood in hindsight – when he realized they had gotten to another level.
The thread of financing the company, especially through the first decade, was just incredible. His only real source of financing was tradition banks (who sucked) and partners (playing the float). The company had literally no equity available to it, but was growing at a rate that would put most of today’s VC-backed startups to shame. He made it work and how he did it was awesome.
It’s incredible to get inside of a man now worth over $25 billion and the founder of one of the most iconic brands on the planet at the very beginning of his story. If you are a founder, this is a must read.
I love origin stories. Yesterday at the kickoff of Techstars FounderCon, I stood on stage with David Cohen and David Brown as we went through the origin story of Techstars, followed by a build up of what has happened over the past seven amazing years. As the 50+ people working for Techstars stood on the stage at the end, I got chills. Afterwards I got feedback from a number of the 500 people in the audience that it was extremely useful context for them, many of whom joined the extended Techstars network in the past two years.
A few weeks ago, FG Press released the first book in its Techstars series titled No Vision All Drive: Memoirs of an Entrepreneur. It’s written by David Brown and is the origin story of David Brown and David Cohen’s first company Pinpoint Technologies.
If you recognize David Cohen’s name, but not David Brown’s, you have a new David in your world. Brown was one of the four co-founders of Techstars (with Cohen, me, and Jared Polis). A little over a year ago, he joined Techstars full time as one of the three managing partners – the other two being David Cohen and Mark Solon. Brown runs the organization day to day and Solon manages all the fund and capital formation activity.
While I’ve known Brown for seven years, Cohen and Brown have worked together for 25 years. Pinpoint was a self-funded company that was their first entrepreneurial endeavor. Like many other startups, it had many ups and downs but the David’s created a very successful, profitable business that was acquired by ZOLL (a Boston-based public company) in 1999. Brown stayed at ZOLL for a while, left, and then came back and ran ZOLL Data (the division based on Pinpoint) until last year when he finally left for good.
When I read the first draft of No Vision All Drive I immediately realized this was a powerful origin story. It shows the personal and professional development of Brown and Cohen as they grew from two guys trying to figure out how to start their business to leaders of a real company. Brown’s reflections on the experience are detailed and demonstrates his incredible talents as an operator. If you know Cohen, after reading this book, you understand why they are perfect partners and have worked so well together over the past 25 years.
It’s a delight to get to work with both of these guys. No Vision All Drive gave me deep insight into Brown and how to be effective working with him, as well as what to expect in the context of his leadership and management style. And it made me even more optimistic about the future of Techstars.
Our goal with the Techstars Series is to get out a series of books applicable to all entrepreneurs at an affordable price. So, instead of doing the default Kindle $9.99 price, or tying the Kindle price to the hardcover price, we are charging $4.95 for the Kindle version. We know there is no marginal cost to each incremental e-book so we want to provide it at a price that entrepreneurs won’t think twice about, which we pegged at the equivalent of a Starbucks Venti Peppermint Mocha Frappuccino .
If you are interested in origin stories or just want to better understand the guys behind Techstars, I encourage you to grab a copy of No Vision All Drive: Memoirs of an Entrepreneur.
I’ve loved being involved in Orbotix from the very beginning. I got to know Adam and Ian, the founders, even before they got into Techstars. Their original company name was GearBox and they probably wouldn’t haven’t gotten into Techstars except that both Nicole Glaros and I said “we love these guys – fuck it – let’s try a hardware company this time.”
Paul Berberian, one of Adam and Ian’s lead mentors during Techstars joined them as the third co-founder before demo day and we led the seed round shortly after. Orbotix is now 40 people, with hundreds of thousands of Sphero’s out in the wild and being played with, and a new product (currently codenamed 2B) coming out this fall.
The company is on the forefront of a new category I like to call “connected play.” It’s not a static toy, like kids have been playing with since the beginning of time. It’s not a game on a pane of glass like an iPhone or iPad. It’s a dynamic toy that you can play with online, via your pane of glass, or in the real world, with friends, connected together online. And it gets upgraded continually, with new software and new games.
I’ve talked in the past about how I love origin stories. I bet you didn’t know that before there was Sphero, Adam and Ian made an iPhone-based garage door opener well before that was cool and trendy. Enjoy the three minute origin story of Orbotix.
“History is written by the victors” – maybe said by Winston Churchill
“History is Written By the Winners” – George Orwell
“To the victor belong the spoils” – New York Senator William L. Marcy
Yesterday I wrote a post about my first experience as a venture capitalist. I didn’t try to dramatize anything – I just wrote what I remembered. I got a handful of emails from people involved in some way.
One line that jumped out at me was “Nice to see at least one guy who is not into rewriting history.”
Another that jumped out at me from a different person was “I didn’t know the history with you and Netgen. Sorry that it was a hard experience. The ironic thing is I have always considered you one of the three fairy godfathers of Netgen.”
Today Fred Wilson wrote a fantastic post titled “My First Investment“. He bluntly referred to it “a shitshow” in a comment on my post. Joanne Wilson also wrote about her first angel investment (Curbed) which recently had a nice exit.
I love these origin stories – both the successes and the failures. While I didn’t experience Fred and Joanne’s, they both write from the heart so I expect they are their truthful stories. But as I read so many other origin stories, especially those that are presented by third parties as histories or by respected thinkers, politicians, or journalists as justification for their current position, I’m reminded of the quotes at the beginning of this post.
I ran across a great juxtaposition of this today. On Twitter, I saw a link to a NY Times OpEd from David Brooks on marijuana titled “Weed: Been There. Done That.” I normally don’t pay any attention to what Brooks writes, but I clicked since it showed up in my Twitter stream and read it. It felt like bizarre, sanctimonious bullshit, especially the punchline “In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.”
So I tweeted something about whether Brooks still drinks alcohol in an effort to be amusing. I was then pointed on Twitter to an amazing post by Gary Greenberg, who was one of the people Brooks referred to in his OpEd about the kids he used to get high with. It was titled “I smoked pot with David Brooks.” Now, I don’t know Brooks or Greenberg, nor do I really have any stake in the discussion between them, but I thought it was an amazing example of how as humans we tend to rewrite history to fit our current circumstance.
Now, I don’t really care about the legalization of marijuana. I don’t smoke pot and haven’t since the one time I tried it in college and hated it. But I also don’t care if others smoke it – I have a lot of friends who enjoy it. And since I’m ignoring politics in 2014, I’m not going to pay attention to the legalization discussion.
But I do find the dissonance in origin stories to be fascinating. Maybe Brooks is remembering things differently. Maybe he’s limited by the number of words the NY Times allows him. Maybe he cares more about making a point about society linked to the legalization of marijuana. Or maybe he was drunk when he wrote this OpEd. I don’t know – that doesn’t really matter.
What does matter is that it’s important to always remember how origin stories get rewritten by the winners, by people in power, by people trying to justify their position, or just because it’s human nature. Being TAGFEE is really, really hard.