Every year or two I refresh the formatting on this website along with a few others that I help manage and generate content for. I work with a great firm called Valet that I really like and everything is hosted on Pantheon, so the process works smoothly for me.
In addition to the refresh on Feld Thoughts, I also just refreshed Venture Deals (which used to be Ask the VC) and Startup Revolution. Amy and I also recently put up a website for the Anchor Point Foundation (our foundation). And, Seth and Micah did a big refresh on the Foundry Group website.
As part of this, each of them now has a separate subscribe by email option in addition to an RSS feed. If you want to skip searching for it and just subscribe, click on the following links as you desire.
I’m still cleaning up a lot of little stuff now that it’s all live (e.g. I know the favicon for Venture Deals shouldn’t be my face), so if you see something that is either broken, wrong, or that you don’t like, toss it in the comments or email me. And, of course, general feedback on things that could be better are very welcome.
Use of HTTPS (which stands for HTTP Secure) has grown from 13% of the top one million websites to 19% in the past year. With major media sites such as NYTimes.com joining the movement, now over half of all web requests are served securely to the browser.
Two years after the launch of Let’s Encrypt, this is fantastic progress. In this new era of state sponsored hacking and fully professionalized cybercrime, it is heartening to see engineers get seriously organized and tackle something on the scale of securing the entire web.
Even a few years ago I would have been skeptical this would be possible. Until very recently, setting up HTTPS meant purchasing and managing certificates and configuring them correctly to work with your web server. This is a non-trivial effort and many people and companies didn’t bother with it. This was especially true with the long tail of websites, but also included many major ones.
The drive to HTTPS the web did not happen by accident. It is akin to an old-fashioned barn raising but on a global scale, organized by engineers with good intentions to protect users, and ensure that the web remains a vibrant and trusted ecosystem into the future.
A few things had to come together for securing (HTTPS’ing) the web to become reality:
- The global internet security community had to get serious about this problem. With Google now stiffly penalizing the SEO of non-HTTPS sites, and Chrome and Firefox escalating browser warnings, website owners are rapidly supporting security.
- Certificate management had to become cheap and easy. We have Let’s Encrypt to thank for that.
- Website technology providers had to make HTTPS a turnkey experience. This is happening now.
When you bring up Feld Thoughts in your browser, you should see something like the following:
Pantheon, one of our portfolio companies, hosts my website and made this happen, in zero clicks. With Pantheon, HTTPS just works out of the box and they are now providing HTTPS (powered by Let’s Encrypt) for all 200,000 of their websites, free of charge. Even better, it is powered by their new Global CDN, with over 30 points of presence and the most sophisticated Drupal and WordPress caching technology available on the market.
I am happy with what the Pantheon team has built. They didn’t cut any corners:
- HTTPS is available for free as a turnkey service for all plan levels
- Because this feature is deeply integrated into their CDN, you don’t pay a performance penalty for deploying HTTPS
- Their CDN speeds up pageloads by 50% to 300% by caching full page content (traditionally almost impossible to achieve with dynamic CMS systems)
When you load your website, do you see the happy green box of Secure “https”? If so, nice work! If you don’t, do your website visitors a favor – email your website developer and ask them to help you set it up.
This morning, Mapbox announced a $52.55 million Series B financing. We’ve been on a wonderful ride with them ever since we led their first financing – a $10 million round – in October 2013.
Let’s start with the simple stuff. My partners and I have a massive founder crush on Eric Gundersen, the CEO of Mapbox. My partner Ryan McIntyre was introduced to Eric by another CEO we’ve backed, Zack Rosen of Pantheon. I remember Ryan raving about Eric and pushing me to squeeze in a meeting before I had to run out of town one day.
Zack is also a total star who I connected with immediately so his referral carried a lot of weight. I first met Eric in the summer of 2013 on a trip he took to Boulder to buy imagery from a satellite company in the area. I remember feeling super rushed at the end of the day and wasn’t in the mindset to sit through a presentation. Eric clued on in this immediately, or maybe Ryan warned him, so rather than drag me through slides Eric just started showing me stuff that Mapbox did.
He started with an algorithm that made clouds go away. He then launched into a custom map design tool which Foursquare had just used to switch out Google Maps. By this point my jaw was on the floor. Words kept tumbling out of Eric’s mouth and amazing maps kept appearing on our large conference room monitor. I looked over at Ryan and he gave me that “yup – I wasn’t kidding – this is fucking awesome, isn’t it” look that we share between ourselves when we see something beautiful, incredibly hard to do, presented by an entrepreneur who is completely and totally obsessed by what he is doing.
I knew Gnip was doing some Twitter data visualizations with Mapbox, so I asked Jud Valeski, the technical co-founder of Gnip, to see what he thought. Jud responded with something akin to “Mapbox is amazing.”
Even better, Eric and team had been at it for several years bootstrapping development and had just decided to raise their first outside capital. They had done this amazing amount of stuff with no investment. No hype. No bullshit. Just crazy deep tech abilities.
In 2013, the mapping space was in yet another wave of turmoil. Waze had been snatched up by Google for over a billion dollars just a few months earlier, further consolidating a space dominated by a few giants. Those giants were investing billions a year in maps. And we were still getting over our fresh scars that confirmed how hard the geo technology was after our failed investment in SimpleGeo (acquired by Urban Airship). Mobius, our prior firm, had been a long time investor in deCarta (now owned by Uber) and had been mostly recapped out of the investment after years of struggle. So mapping didn’t feel natural to us.
But in 15 minutes of watching and listening to Eric, I realized something Ryan already knew. Mapbox is an API company, not a mapping company. The map simply was the output of the API. And, like the best API companies we’ve been involved in, such as Gnip (now part of Twitter), it was right at the intersection of our Glue theme and our Protocol theme.
Seth and Jason had similar reactions. So we invested. Since then Eric and team have built an incredible company that is the foundational building block for any developer, large and small, who wants to include mapping in their product. In case there is any question about scale, MapQuest, which still has 40 million active users, confirmed it was switching all of their maps to Mapbox.
Eric and gang – we are buckled up and ready for the next part of the ride!
Behind the stories of most first-time venture-backed CEOs building startups and attacking markets at breakneck speed, there is usually a tight network of mentors and peers showing them the ropes of company building. That’s certainly been my experience at Pantheon—we likely would not exist if not for the crucial help of James Lindenbaum, Adam Gross, Steve Anderson, Ryan McIntyre, Brad Feld, and all of the advisors who have assisted us on our journey.
However, I’ve found there is a hard limit to how much you can learn about building a company from speaking with advisors. Before deciding on how to go about building your company, it is critical to build an understanding of other companies’ paths to success and learning from their mistakes along the way. I’ve found to really do that, often times you need to be there—out of your own office and physically present in theirs—to see with your own eyes how a company actually works.
That is the goal of CEO shadowing: to put you in the shoes of another CEO, let you observe, ask questions, and form a rich and detailed mental model of how another company operates. I’ve done it twice so far, and both times have learned more in a day of shadowing than I do in months of working sessions with mentors and peers.
My first time CEO Shadowing: Jud at Gnip in 2012
The first CEO I shadowed was Jud, who then ran Gnip which has since been acquired by Twitter. Foundry Group is a mutual investor of ours, and Jud and I met at an event in Boulder that they organized for portfolio CEOs.
In Boulder I ran around asking a number of CEOs and Foundry Partners for company management advice—how to run one-on-ones, structure executive meetings, manage my board, etc. Three times in row an answer to my question was prefaced by:
“You should really ask Jud this question because they just did this at Gnip and did a fabulous job.”
We were a 20-person company at the time, and Gnip had hit its stride and was growing very quickly. They were 50, soon to be 100—about a year and a half ahead of us in terms of scale. Gnip was known for being a very well-run company.
I cornered Jud at the event and soaked up as much data from him as I could. Then I went home, and realized how much more I really needed to learn from him and Gnip. The only way I thought I could really get answers to my questions was to go to Gnip and observe how Jud and his team ran the company.
So I sent this email:
“Can I fly to Boulder and shadow you for a day, and be a fly on the wall in yours and your team’s meetings?”
This was his response a couple of hours later:
“Fun! You bet! Only question is timing. Thoughts?”
Jud invited me to attend his management meetings and let me interview anyone on his entire team at will. In one day on-site I was a part of his exec kick-off meeting, attended a company product strategy meeting, and interviewed two executives, two engineers, and individuals from their sales and marketing team. I took notes, asked questions, and tried to fit in. I approached it like a journalist whose goal it was to write a profile on how Gnip, the company, worked.
I found the Gnip team to be incredibly focused and busy—while still gracious, helpful, and happy to talk at the same time.
What I learned
At the time I shadowed Jud, Pantheon had a very early executive team and not much in terms of process or structure. We operated on tribal knowledge and had the benefit that everyone implicitly knew what the others were doing. We knew we needed to build our team and create more structure, but how were we going to do that without screwing up what was working so naturally?
What I learned at Gnip was:
1) It was absolutely possible to build a 100-person company that operated as efficiently, or even more efficiently, than our 20-person company.
2) Process and structure could be additive to company culture, because it forces you to get specific about implicit assumptions that are so important to a company’s future (values, strategy, management philosophy, etc.)
3) There is good management and bad management, and you need effective leadership and stiff penalties when you fail to lead. It was up to us to build the company right. Gnip was built right, and it worked.
On top of that, I learned many, many small tactical things—from how to structure the agenda of an executive meeting, to how to arrange teams and desks, to optimizing how the people worked together.
But the tactics were built on the big learnings, which were important for this reason: seeing how Gnip worked gave me confidence to trust my gut in building my company. To be clear, Pantheon is built very differently from Gnip. Many of the things that worked for them won’t work for us—we picked our own path. But there are so many internal obstacles to building structure in a startup as it undergoes massive change, and to know that it could work because I saw it work enabled to me to keep my head down and keep working towards my goal without getting blown off course.
Visiting Gnip in 2012 was like visiting the hopeful, successful, parallel future to Pantheon. It was like getting to travel to a foreign, and more advanced planet, and then getting to return and apply what I learned.
Want to do this? Here are my suggestions for how to get the most out of CEO shadowing:
- Find a CEO at a company that is approximately 1-2 years ahead of yours (if you are $1M ARR, then $5-10M; if you are $10M, then $30-$60M). Ideally this is a CEO you admire, and one you already have a relationship with.
- Confidentiality is incredibly important. You should probably sign an NDA.
- Book a full day in the office with the CEO. I highly recommend visiting the day the CEO does the most “management” in a workweek—when executive meetings, planning, strategy, etc are scheduled.
- Get yourself invited to everything. Everywhere the CEO goes, you go. This requires the CEO to warn their company ahead of time and get the OK of their execs and team members.
- Spend half of your time observing in meetings, and half in one-on-ones with their team.
- Meet one-on-one with execs, managers, and individual contributors, ideally from numerous different teams.
- Ahead of time, prepare a list of questions with the CEO that you can ask of their team members, or research topics you can report back on that CEO wants to know (while respecting anonymity). Example questions:
- “What do the values of this company?”
- “What are the company priorities? Your team’s priorities? Your priorities?”
- “What did this company get right that has enabled it to succeed?”
- Take copious notes during all meetings and interactions. Anonymize feedback and send a full report of what you learned back to the CEO (this can be partial repayment for letting you shadow them).
- Keep asking questions and observing until you feel like you could give a valuable five-minute presentation on “how the company works” to your team and the CEO you are shadowing.
Asking to shadow a CEO of a company is a big ask. It’s out of the norm, and it takes time from their team. You can repay some of that by offering to share useful observation or doing outside research as part of your time there, but at the end of the day this may be the ultimate “pay it forward” generous act the startup community is willing to take on for fellow CEOs.
Investors: I believe this could be one of the most valuable things you could help facilitate for your portfolio company CEOs. If anyone else has shadowed a CEO, I’d love to hear how you approached it and how well it worked for you.
When your website crashes on launch day it really sucks. It’s ridiculous to me that that still happens today as a regular course of business.
Every time a marketing team works with a web design firm, there is the usual painful and broken handoff between the outside agency and the technical operations of the client which culminate on launch day. So many things have to go right for your launch to be flawless: server configuration, load testing, and deployment. For our portfolio companies, this requires diverting senior DevOps engineers to ensure things go right, which of course comes at the expense of delivering and operating their product and even then there are no guarantees.
Our portfolio company Pantheon is fixing this. Today they are launching Pantheon for Agencies, which enables professional web designers and developers to standardize all DevOps for all of their clients and nail every launch every time. If you know anyone who designs or builds websites for a living they should know about it.
It includes Pantheon’s most developer loved features, their enterprise tools for managing teams and websites en masse, and lessons learned powering 85,000 Drupal and WordPress websites. It is available instantly to digital agencies and for free. Agencies that standardize their work on Pantheon are generating hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in additional profit by efficiency gains due to time saved by the Pantheon development and deployment tools.
Pantheon for Agencies gets everyone on the same page with a common set of management and testing tools for clients and their agencies. It makes handoffs seamless and it ensures everything just works the way you expect it to on launch day.
If I take a step back, it’s so clear to me how much the website market needs to change. Websites are a huge industry that is now bigger than digital advertising business, much of which is serviced by digital agencies (e.g. every web design, development, and digital marketing company on the planet.) Until now agencies have had to bear the responsibility of website DevOps for their customers by necessity. At the end of the day agency clients expect their website to work, even if it’s a server problem at 3AM on a client site that the agency last worked on six months ago.
Pantheon fixes this broken and frustrating dynamic. They enable digital agencies to walk into any customer at any scale and know they can nail the launch no matter how demanding the requirements.
Every digital agency should try Pantheon out – it’s free!
And yes – this site is on Pantheon and my friends at Young & Hungry who did the design and migration from my previous hosting hell are now experts at this.
You may noticed from prior posts that we’ve had a difficult time at Foundry Group managing our growing portfolio of WordPress sites. We are not alone. You would think that by now, managing websites would be a solved problem, but that’s just not true.
Talk with any professional marketer about their websites and two things will become clear: 1) websites are absolutely central to how digital marketing gets done and 2) websites are a giant pain in the ass.
In our portfolio of startup companies, following is how websites usually get managed.
When companies are just getting off the ground, the founders often build the websites themselves, increasingly with flat HTML because it is simple and efficient. The websites are usually thought of as simple extensions to the product themselves.
At some point (hopefully) the business starts growing and a professional marketer is brought on board. In order to do their jobs marketing needs a content management system, often WordPress for simple use cases.
This is where things start to break down. Startup engineering teams are now tasked with managing a CMS system. This may be simple at first, but things get complicated very quickly. Hosting offers little beyond just hardware and maybe some server configuration. Professional website developers need much more than that — they have to collaborate in teams, work with version control, deploy changes, and as the company grows scale their site and make sure it is running fast 24×7 — aka website DevOps.
Guess who’s responsibility this becomes? The startup’s ops and engineering team. Every hour invested in this marketing infrastructure comes directly out of the bandwidth available for product improvements. Total break down.
At Foundry Group we went through a similar pattern, but here at Foundry it was Ryan (a co-founder and former engineering leader at Excite) who played the role of VP Eng. He spent too many hours over the past year baby-sitting our WordPress mess. He eventually got sick of me texting him that there was a problem somewhere.
This is why we are so excited to announce that our portfolio company Pantheon now supports WordPress. Over the past two years they have worked entirely in the Drupal ecosystem (their roots) and now run over 55,000 sites. They have built an incredibly powerful multi-tenant platform with the best set of website developer tools in the world and a container based run-time that can scale sites from 0 to >100M page-views entirely in software. All of their technology is now available to WordPress developers.
We like many of their customers were begging for some time for them to support WordPress. That day has finally come. Ryan is retiring the website pager and I’ll have to find some other way to annoy him on a regular basis.
Following is a guest post by Zack Rosen, co-founder and CEO of Pantheon. Pantheon is building “A big badass platform that will run 30% of the Internet.” They are making it easy for professionals to build, launch, and run websites. Pantheon is one of the Silent Killers in our portfolio – and I’m immensely proud of the progress they are making and excited about their future.
This post was an internal email to the Pantheon team following a major feature release (Multidev). When I saw it, I asked Zack if I could post it on my blog as an ode to all startups. Many of you are out on the frontier, and I thought Zack captured the essence of it in his message to his team.
From: Zachary Rosen
To: Pantheon Staff
Date: Thursday, July 18, 2013 2:19:42 AM
Subject: Welcome to The Frontier
The Frontier Thesis was a theory advanced by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 that American democracy was formed by the American Frontier.
“American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Sarah Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.”
You may have noticed me acting slightly more neurotic or animated lately. There is a reason for that. Apologies if I am bugging you out—it’s going to get worse.
I am very, very excited to be back here, on The Frontier.
I’ve been here before.
Then one day I messed up, clicked the wrong button, and ordered hundreds of dollars worth of non-refundable, esoteric, nerdy used books…and over-drew my bank account. I remember thinking when they arrived, “Well, I guess I may as well read all of these stupid books that bankrupted me.”
I’m very glad I did.
That summer, this bumpkin/badass former governor from Vermont running for president (Howard Dean) had found this guy Joe Trippi to run his presidential campaign. It became clear to me that Joe had read the same books I had, and that he intended to see if the shit in the books actually worked.
I had to be there. The summer of 2003, I started an open-source (Drupal-based) project for the campaign (Deanspace), got a job in the campaign HQ in Burlington, VT, dropped out of school, and had about the most profound professional experience one could at age 19 in 2003.
I spent a year on the Dean campaign Web Team during the presidential campaign of 2004. We lost the campaign badly, but we won a major battle on The Frontier of Global Politics in the age of the Internet.
The Dean campaign Web Team proved a very simple but important idea to the world that year. We proved that you could challenge the political establishment and beat them at their own game (fundraising) by appealing directly to supporters via the Internet. That idea—which our team made work—has changed the world.
Barack Obama would not be president today without the path the Dean web team blazed. Knowing this has permanently altered the way I view my work.
Friends from the campaign went on to run Obama’s Internet operation. You’d have a hard time making the case that Obama could have won without their help.
That experience set the bar for me in my career. Ever since then, if my work is not on that scale, then I feel like I am wasting my time on this planet.
I’m at home back here on The Frontier.
What it’s like on The Frontier
For me, launching Multidev put Pantheon clearly on The Frontier. We’re doing new shit the world has never seen before.
Here are a few of my thoughts about our time here:
1. You know that quote from Margaret Mead? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The Dean campaign Web Team was 20 people, about the same size as Pantheon is today. Small teams can do huge things.
Accomplishing huge things is not easy. On The Frontier, there’s no rule of law and there are no guarantees. There are consequences if we get it wrong. We won’t be destitute, but we’ll always wonder if we could have done better.
On The Frontier, we know this, and we still go after the big problems, six-shooters blazing.
2. There are not very many people out here on The Frontier. It can be strangely quiet and peaceful. Everyone has so many opinions when you make your journey out! “Well, what will you do when X happens?” “That won’t work.” “I don’t get it.” Or, my favorite, “I’d do it this way.”
But when you get out here, you get to see what will really work and what won’t. You survive by your wits. You learn to listen to and trust your gut.
How many other people are out here working as hard as we are to fundamentally fix website tech? …. *crickets*
3. What we are doing will look obvious in retrospect. “Duh, you can raise a ton of money for a presidential campaign online” is now common knowledge, but in 2003, we were looney. “Duh, websites are developed, launched, and run in the cloud” will be common knowledge soon enough.
The biggest ideas are usually the simple ones. They seem so confusing and hopeless before, somehow, all of a sudden, they are taken for granted.
Before any big city, there was once The Frontier.
4. We are blazing the path for everyone else. We are the leaders in our market, and they will follow, after we’ve found and laid the path. The entire world will follow us after we’ve found out how to make building, launching, and running websites easy.
Notice the other paths laid by other teams out here on The Frontier. This work is holy. When you pass another team blazing their path, tip your hat. This shit isn’t easy. Be gracious on The Frontier.
5. This is a special experience. We’re not saving the world directly. We aren’t surgeons in the O.R., or soldiers in harm’s way. We’re engineers laying down foundational tech that others will build on top of. Most will never see our work. But, through our work, we have the opportunity to shape what’s possible in the world around us.
With Multidev we set a bar for the software industry on what is possible when custom software is built, launched, and run in the cloud. The other leaders in our space are behind us. We are the ones who have built a cloud platform with such deep (full website stack) and broad (dev -> deploy -> scale lifecycle) capabilities, so we get to be the ones who discover what is possible.
You will remember this work, your time on The Frontier, for the rest of your life.