I love the concept of Binary Stars. Ian (my co-author) and I are using it in our upcoming book The Startup Community Way which should be out in the second half of 2019.
Amy gave me a New Yorker article titled Binary Stars: The Friendship That Made Google Huge. It’s the story of the partnership between Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat whose pair programming approach in the early 2000s changed the course of the Google and the Internet.
It’s a magnificent and delightful story. If you are a programmer, engineer, creator of any kind, or are interested in Google history, you’ll love it.
If, like me, you alternate between solo efforts and partnerships, it’s also wonderful.
Some of my best work has been done with a partner. While what I’ve done with Amy is the most visible example of this, collaborations with Dave Jilk, Jason Mendelson, David Cohen, Lucy Sanders, and many others come to mind. And, most recently, I’m excited about my work with Ian Hathaway.
Binary Stars can be magical, and not just in space.
We are excited to announce that Chris Moody is joining Foundry Group as a partner.
When we started Foundry Group in 2006, we were very clear that we were not going to build a legacy venture capital firm; one meant to outlive its founders. There would be no generational planning, no transitions to younger partners, and no senior partner hold-outs who would hang onto economics well after they had stopped working. Simply put, when we are done investing, we will drop the mic and shut off the lights.
In 2014, Seth, Jason, Ryan, and I had the first of many conversations about our long-term plans for Foundry Group. These discussions resulted in the creation of Foundry Group Next, the addition of Lindel Eakman to our team, and our first Foundry Group Next fund which we closed in 2016.
The conversation that we started in 2014 has continued on a regular basis, both formally at our quarterly off-sites but also pretty much every time the four of us were together. As part of this, we started an exercise of explicitly looking forward a decade and talking about what Foundry Group looked like from each of our perspectives at that time. With each new fund we raise, we are making at least a ten year forward commitment to each other, our investors, and the founders whose companies in which we invest. For the first seven years, this was easy, since we each had a 20-year view of Foundry Group when we started it in 2006. But as time passed, we realized we needed to start to think more deeply about the future of Foundry Group and how we evolve our investment activities.
The venture business is an inherently challenging one to scale. Leverage – of time, capacity, and capabilities – is hard to achieve. As Foundry Group raised more funds, we realized that our ability to continue to manage our business effectively was becoming limited by our individual time and capacity. Recognizing this, we started to make a list of people we would consider adding as partners, as one of our deeply held beliefs was never to have associates, venture partners, or EIRs as part of our firm.
For a while, the only name on the list was Lindel’s. It took us several years to get our mind around adding someone, but once we did, we added a few more names to the list. It probably won’t be a surprise to anyone reading this that it is a very short list.
Back to Chris Moody. Chris was most recently VP & GM of Data & Solutions at Twitter, running a multi-hundred million dollar enterprise business unit. In addition to running one of Twitter’s fastest-growing business unit, Chris was responsible for leading Twitter’s developer platform and ecosystem involving hundreds of enterprise partners and one of the world’s largest active developer communities. We’ve known Chris since 2007 and worked extremely closely with him when he was the CEO of Gnip and well as a leader in the Boulder Startup Community. Over the years, we also became very close friends with Chris.
After we had raised the first Foundry Group Next fund last September, we started having a serious conversation about having Chris join us at Foundry Group. This was driven by our reflection on our current workload, how we were adjusting what we were doing based on the addition of Lindel to the team – which had re-energized us a lot, and how we were thinking about the next ten years of Foundry Group.
In addition to working closely with Chris as a CEO (I was on the board of Gnip), we all worked with Chris through Techstars (he was one of the original mentors in the 2007 program). After Twitter acquired Gnip in 2014, Chris joined the boards of two of our portfolio companies (Pantheon and mLab) and worked closely with Ryan on these boards as an outside director.
We knew Chris was an extraordinary board member as well as an extremely seasoned CEO. We had a great affinity for each other, and he shared our value system. When the five of us sat around talking about Chris, after each conversation we got more excited about having him join us, especially as we learned about his personal view for the next decade of his life.
For those of you who don’t know Chris, I encourage you to watch this short video of Chris’ commencement address at Auburn University last spring. I think you’ll get a small glimpse of what he is about and why we’re so excited to have him as our partner.
Chris has been burning the candle at both ends for 27 years without ever taking a meaningful break. We insisted that he take the summer off to recharge his batteries and spend focused time with his awesome wife Sarah and his three delightful kids. He’ll officially join us at the end of the summer.
December is a tough time of year for a lot of people. While the holidays are awesome for some, they are really hard for others.
I know a lot of people around me who are anxious, upset, stressed, or some other version of “not in a good place.” Some of it is the holidays, some is the end of the year, some is the outcome of the US election, and some is other things.
This morning I woke up to two good articles on mental health. I’m quoted widely, along with some of my personal story, in the Fortune Magazine article by Laura Entis titled Entrepreneurs Take on Depression. As a bookend, I was told in the article Mental health and relationships ‘key to happiness’ that a new London School of Economics study has determined that “good mental health and having a partner make people happier than doubling their income.”
Yesterday my partners and I had our quarterly offsite. A big part of it is what we now call a “partner check in” where we answer the question “How am I?” This answer can cover any dimension – personal, interpersonal, professional. It can be 1:1 with someone else, it can be with 1:2, or 1:3. It can cover one’s relationship with a spouse, kids, or family. It can be something in our head, heart, body, or soul. It can be very specific – an interaction dynamic with a CEO or founder – or something general, abstract, or even mysterious.
I wore a shirt with my favorite Helen Frankenthaler quote to remind me of our rules around our partner check in (and my approach to life in general.)
I’m in a good place so I was able to listen more than talk yesterday, which is probably a relief to my partners.
Even though some aspects of 2016 have been awesome, we all have agreed that we are ready to put 2016 in the books and move on to 2017. As we each talked about “How am I?” we recalled a number of traumatic, stressful, and anxiety producing events in the past year. We are all getting older so more health issues are appearing in our extended network of friends, so learning how to deal with them is becoming more important. Modulating the macro, especially post election, has become a more central theme for each of us.
There were a lot of specific things discussed that aren’t appropriate for me to write about, but the discussion reinforced with me how powerful the EQ of each of my partners is and my thankfulness that we have a level of emotional intimacy that we comfortably refer to as both business love and personal love.
For me, it cycles back to relationships. My relationship with my wife Amy grounds and centers me. My relationship with my partners allows me to be myself and spend time in an organization that provides me with continuous love, even against a backdrop of the endless stress, conflict, challenges, and struggle of entrepreneurship. While my extended family, which goes beyond just my parents and my brother (and now includes the spouses and kids of my partners), has its moments (like all families), it’s a source of profound joy for me much of the time.
December used to be very difficult for me. For many years, I fought the transition to the new year, was generally exhausted at the end of the year, and just wanted to hide. I described myself as a “cranky jewish kid who felt left out by Christmas.” At the end of 2012 I slipped into a deep depression that lasted six months. I learned a lot from that experience, and view it as my fundamental transition into middle age.
While I still don’t engage in Christmas, I now treasure the last few weeks of the year, as I reflect on the past year and get ready for the year to come. But, if you are feeling some December blues, or even depression, don’t fight it. Instead, do something for yourself. Be reflective. Let the emotions exist. And be encouraged that, like me, you can get to a better place, but it can take time.
I woke up this morning in Fort Worth, Texas. For the first minute I wasn’t really sure where was I but it eventually snapped into focus. This happens to me periodically when I travel.
I’ve got a stretch where I’m on the road a lot. Fortunately, I’ve got amazing partners. I was reflecting on this over a cup of stale coffee this morning.
One of our deeply held beliefs at Foundry Group is that all four of us work on, and are responsible, for every company we are investors in. We don’t have silos where there are “Brad companies” or “Ryan companies” or “Seth companies” or “Jason companies.” In about 90% of the companies we are investors in, two of us are actively involved. In about 50%, three of us are actively involved. But in 100% of the cases, we all know what is going on, have relationships with the founders and CEO, and can quickly engage and help wherever and whenever we bring something to the mix.
As a result, we’ve always been active at moving primary responsibility for a company (which we define as a board seat) between partners. This is, in effect, a simple form of load balancing that we are all technically aware of from our early investments in some companies that generated, or used, very visible load balancing products before some of these technologies started to become absorbed into the core Internet infrastructure (anyone remember early DNS round robin approaches?)
We have a full day offsite every quarter. One of the things we do is a full portfolio review. Part of that is a load balancing exercise. In addition, we do this exercise as each partner returns from their one month annual sabbatical, as the other three partners have already been handling that partner’s primary responsibilities.
The load balancing process is collaborative. We aren’t randomly moving companies around between us, but rather thinking hard about where a particular partner can help – both in terms of the specific company as well as reducing cognitive load on another partner.
We recently load balanced the companies I was primarily responsible for as (a) my load was excessive and (b) we knew I’d be on the road a lot in Q1. We made a few changes just before I went on sabbatical, talked about it a little more when I returned, and then made a few more changes two weeks ago.
As I sit here a little bleary eyed from the past few days, I realize how powerful this process is at many levels, most importantly eliminating any ego dynamics across the four of us when we think about the portfolio (as the load balancing includes a full range of companies – from those doing extremely well to those struggling.) And, I feel intense relief and satisfaction that I work with three partners who I trust as deeply as I do.
I expect most of you know the fable of the scorpion and the frog, but if you don’t, it goes like this (quoted from Wikipedia):
“A scorpion asks a frog to carry him over a river. The frog is afraid of being stung during the trip, but the scorpion argues that if it stung the frog, both would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog agrees and begins carrying the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that this is its nature. The fable is used to illustrate the position that no change can be made in the behaviour of the fundamentally vicious.”
Over the weekend, there was some commentary on AWS in fight of its life as customers like Dropbox ponder hybrid clouds and Google pricing. Amazon turned in slightly declining quarter-over-quarter revenue on AWS, although significant year-over-year quarterly growth, as explained in Sign of stress or just business as usual? AWS sales are off slightly.
“Could Amazon Web Services be feeling the heat from new public cloud competitors? Maybe. Maybe not. Second quarter net sales of AWS — or at least the category in which it is embedded– were off about 3 percent sequentially to $1.168 billion from $1.204 billion for the first quarter. But they were up 38 percent from $844 million for the second quarter last year. In the first quarter, growth in this category year over year was 60 percent. So make of that what you will.”
Could Amazon’s nature be catching up with it, or is it just operating in a more competitive market? A set of emails went around from some of the CEOs of our companies talking about this followed by a broader discussion on our Foundry Group EXEC email list. It contained, among other comments:
- AWS is not the low price provider.
- AWS is not the best product at anything – most of their features are mediocre knock offs of other products.
- AWS is unbelievably lousy at support.
- Once you are at $200k / month of spend, it’s cheaper and much more effective to build your own infrastructure.
While we are in the middle of a massive secular shift from owned data centers to outsourced data centers and hardware, anyone who remembers the emergence of outsourced data centers, shared web hosting, dedicated web hosting, co-location, and application service providers will recognize many of the dynamics going on. Predictably in the tech industry, what’s old is new again as all the infrastructure players roll out their public clouds and all the scaled companies start exploring ways to move off of AWS (and other cloud services) into much more cost effective configurations.
Let’s pick apart the four points above a little bit.
1. AWS is not the low price provider. When AWS came out, it was amazing, partly because you didn’t need to buy any hardware to get going, partly because it had a very fine grade variable pricing approach, and mostly because these two things added up to an extremely low cost for a startup relative to all other options. This is no longer the case as AWS, Microsoft, and Google bash each other over the head on pricing, with Microsoft and Google willing to charge extremely low prices to gain market share. And, more importantly, see point #4 below in a moment. Being low priced is in Amazon’s nature so this will be intensely challenging to them.
2. AWS is not the best product at anything – most of their features are mediocre knock offs of other products. We’ve watched as AWS has aggressively talked to every company we know doing things in the cloud infrastructure and application stack, and then rather than partner eventually roll out low-end versions of competitive products. We used to think of Amazon as a potential acquirer for these companies, or at least a powerful strategic partner. Now we know they are just using the bait of “we want to work more closely with you” as market and product intelligence. Ultimately, when they come out with what they view of as a feature, it’s a low-end, mediocre, and limited version of what these companies do. So, they commoditize elements of the low end of the market, but don’t impact anything that actually scales. In addition, they always end up competing on every front possible, hence the chatter about Dropbox moving away from AWS since AWS has now come out with a competitive product. It appears that it’s just not in Amazon’s nature to collaborate with others.
3. AWS is unbelievably lousy at support. While they’ve gotten better at paid support, including their premium offerings, these support contracts are expensive. Approaches to get around support issues and/or lower long term prices like reserved instances are stop gaps and often a negative benefit for a fast growing company. I’ve had several conversations over the years with friends at Amazon about this and I’ve given up. Support is just not in Amazon’s nature (as anyone who has ever tried to figure out why a package didn’t show up when expected) and when a company running production systems on AWS is having mission critical issues that are linked to AWS, it’s just painful. At low volumes, it doesn’t matter, but at high scale, it matters a huge amount.
4. Once you are at $200k / month of spend, it’s cheaper and much more effective to build your own infrastructure. I’ve now seen this over and over and over again. Once a company hits $200k / month of spend on AWS, the discussion starts about building out your own infrastructure on bare metal in a data center. This ultimately is a cost of capital discussion and I’ve found massive cost of capital leverage to move away from AWS onto bare metal. When you fully load the costs at scale, I’ve seen gross margin moves of over 20 points (or 2000 basis points – say from 65% to 85%). It’s just nuts when you factor in the extremely low cost of capital for hardware today against a fully loaded cost model at scale. Sure, the price declines from point #1 will impact this, but the operational effectiveness, especially given #3, is remarkable.
There are a number of things Amazon, and AWS, could do to address this if they wanted to. While not easy, I think they could do a massive turnaround on #2 and #3, which combined with intelligent pricing and better account management for the companies in #4, could result in meaningful change.
I love Amazon and think they have had amazing impact on our world. Whenever I’ve given them blunt feedback like this, I’ve always intended it to be constructive. I’m doubt it matters at all to their long term strategy whether they agree with, or even listen to, me. But given the chatter over the weekend, it felt like it was time to say this in the hope that it generated a conversation somewhere.
But I worry some of the things they need to be doing to maintain their dominance is just not in their nature. In a lot of ways, it’s suddenly a good time to be Microsoft or Google in the cloud computing wars.