Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History was awesome. Given that Sears filed for Chapter 11 today, I’ll start with some perspective from 1976.
America is remarkably dynamic. Humans constantly create narratives about things and how they work. Suddenly, popular books are appearing, such as Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that challenge the relevance of our narratives.
There is so much to reflect on when reading a book like Fantasyland or Sapiens. Pondering the meaning of life is an endless human pastime.
It’s particularly interesting in the context of the growth and development of a country, which in and of itself is a temporary construct, just like everything else.
I’ve always loved reading fantasy. And, after reading Fantasyland, I realize I’ve been living in it also.
I enjoyed Bradley Tusk’s new book, The Fixer: My Adventures Saving Startups from Death by Politics. It’s another memoir, a category which seems to be ending up on the top of my reading list a lot these days. It also was in the pile of books I get sent regularly by publishers hoping I’ll read and review them (as in “Dear Brad Feld, here is a form letter about my book, I hope you like it.”)
While I don’t know Bradley Tusk, I know of him, have heard him speak once, and like his first name. When I started reading The Fixer, I had no idea whether I’d end up engrossed, or end up turning the pages every 15 seconds as I skimmed through it looking for the good bits.
I was engrossed, at least for the first half. I started it on Monday night after dinner and got halfway through before I noticed my eyes closing as sleep beckoned. It was about 9:15 pm, which is a typical call it quits time for me on a weekday, especially since I’m still sleeping 10 or so hours a night as I recover from my two weeks of misery.
Last night Amy and I watched Sicario: Day of the Soldado. It was exactly what we were looking for, so I took a night off from reading.
Tonight, I got home at about 7 pm, ate dinner, and finished up The Fixer. The second half had a bunch of startup stories, which were shorter, but also less interesting to me in the context of a memoir. It also shifted from “here’s my story” to “here’s what my business is doing to help startups” which, while better than most memoirs that try to walk the line of self-promotion, still was less stimulating (at least to me) than the first half. Well, except for the chapter about Bloomberg almost running for president, which I loved.
Overall, it’s a winner of a book. And, if you are an entrepreneur who is doing anything that touches on any heavily regulated industry (which is a lot of you), I’d put it in the must-read category to get more context and ideas about what you are up against and how to think about it.
Yesterday was a perfect Saturday. I decided to do a digital sabbath so on Friday night at 5 pm I shut down my computer. Amy made a nice small dinner of leftover cauliflower soup with farfalle pasta. We then went downstairs and finished off the Burns/Novick The Vietnam War.
I woke up mid-morning on Saturday. I meditated for a half hour. I had a light breakfast of Dave’s Killer Bread and peanut butter with some coffee. I then grabbed my Kindle, got on the couch near Amy, and dug into Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.
I stopped for a brief lunch with Amy and went back to it. I was three-quarters of the way through it by mid-afternoon so I went for a three-mile run, stretched, took a long bath, and then went to dinner with Amy and John Wood. We talked about the great work he was doing at Room to Read, being in our 50’s, the Vietnam War, and Fire and Fury, which John hadn’t started reading yet.
We got home about 8:30 pm. I finished Fire and Fury while Amy read New Yorker’s on the couch, and then we went to bed. When I woke up this morning and checked my email, I saw one from John at 1:01 am that said “Fuck, yeah, this book is a great read! Thanks for recommending!”
That’s how I felt. In general, I don’t read books about current politics. I steadfastly avoid all the manufactured stuff promoting candidates, and generally only dive in when I feel like some history. I did succumb to my curiously last week and read Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, so I was probably ready for Wolff’s book when all the hysteria around it broke on Thursday, including Trump’s lawyer’s very predictable cease and desist letter.
I thought Wolff did a nice job in his Author’s Note at the beginning of the book setting up the context for how he got the material for the book. He acknowledged conflicting stories, deep background talks, and he dealt with the journalistic conundrums he found himself in. The obvious attack approaches being taken to fully discredit Wolff and the book are shallow and not-credible after you read this section.
There’s a remarkable amount of media on the book, which has already soared to bestseller status on all channels. I found it fascinating to read through some of this media, and while occasionally repetitive, like so many things about this administration, the story of the administrations’ reactions to the story is an important part of the story.
Here are some of the better links I found this morning. Skim if you want, but I encourage you to grab and read the book.
Finally, from a post I wrote in 2015 titled “The Paradox of VC Value-Add” I want to expose one of my deep biases.
“Before I dig in, I need to express two biases. First, whenever someone says “I’m a (adjective) (noun)” I immediately think they are full of shit. When someone says “I’m a great tennis player”, I immediately wonder why they needed to tell me they are great and it makes me suspicious. “I’m a deep thinker” makes me wonder the last time the person opened a book. “I’m a value-added VC” makes me think “Isn’t that price of admission?””
I wonder if there will be a horse named Stable Genius in the Kentucky Derby in the next few years.
An adapted essay from Noam Cohen new book The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball showed up several weeks in the New York Times in the article Silicon Valley Is Not Your Friend. It’s an important one to read slowly and carefully as there are several key points in it.
In the last week, two early Facebook execs made remarkably critical statements about what they were involved in helping create. It started when Sean Parker talked with Axios about how Facebook exploits human psychology.
“I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because [of] the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people and … it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
Then, the other day, Chamath Palihapitiya gave a talk at Stanford Graduate School of Business where he said:
“I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works”
A decade ago at my MIT Sloan 20th Reunion, I gave a lecture where I said that “privacy was dead, we just don’t know it yet.” I had no idea how prescient that statement would be, but even in 2008, I had a deep unease that we had no real idea what the next decade would bring.
It’s here. When Web 2.0 began in the mid-2000s, there was incredible enthusiasm about how technology was going to change everything. Google’s “Do No Evil” mantra was on everyone’s lips as a rallying cry for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to “change the world” and “make a dent in the universe.” Twitter was becoming the world’s town hall and helping facilitate revolutions like the Arab Spring.
Amy and I were sitting in front of our computers on Sunday working on some stuff. During a pause, we started talking about how different things are from when we first started dating 28 years ago.
I woke up thinking about that this morning. Now that the five most valuable companies in the world are tech companies (Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook with Tencent and Alibaba coming on strong) and the total market cap of cryptocurrencies also being in that league, it’s hard to deny the extreme influence of these companies on our society. As I sit at my desk, typing on my Apple Computer into WordPress in a Chrome browser, listening to music I asked Amazon to play throughout my house, well, you get the idea.
The blog post title is a rhetorical question, so I’ll let you answer it in the comments if you want …
It’s so disheartening to me. I don’t read newspapers or watch the news on TV deliberately to avoid the noise. Periodically I’ll get a little signal of value from somewhere, usually Amy, but generally I can focus on what I care about.
Twitter has always been that refreshing place where I can quickly find out what is going on in my tech world. I follow mostly entrepreneurs and VCs – some who I know and some who I don’t know. I have a few companies in my feed. But no newspapers, no magazines, and no mainstream media.
Suddenly it’s all politics all the time. The retweeting of stuff I simply don’t care about overwhelms my feed. As my brain gets hit over and over again by the noise of the RNC, DNC, Trump, Clinton, and zillion other people bloviating about what I think is one of the strangest elections I’ve every experienced as a human, it has become hard to dodge and ignore it.
I think today might be the turning point for me. I’m utterly disgusted by the bullying, lies, racism, and hate going on. I’m starting to believe the Russian conspiracy theories. I’ve hit my personal moment of “I’ve got better things to do with my day.”
I know it’s just going to get worse between now and the election. Noisy. Crazier. More offensive and intolerable. Less rational.
Amy reminds me that this isn’t anything new. In the 1930s the anti-immigrant sentiment was high as the economy declined during the great depression. In the 1940s the America First Committee was dominant. In the 1950s McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee was front and center. In the 1960s we had civil rights, FBI overreach, and the setup for the 1970s with Nixon. And on and on and on.
All this has happened before, and all this will happen again. It’s time to focus on what I care about and not let the noise take over my brain.
I was recently asked the question “What is your next career?” as part of a discussion with an LP.
I thought it was the best diligence question that I have ever been asked. Upon reflection, the LP was clearly asking me indirectly about my long term commitment to venture capital and, without asking “how much longer are you going to do this VC thing?” she was looking for how I answered the question to get an understanding for how I thought about what I was currently doing along with an indication of how much longer I’d be doing it.
My quick answer was “I don’t have one.” I then unpacked this a little, explaining that I’ve never really thought about what I did as “a career.” While I have a LinkedIn profile, I’ve never had a resume, nor do I really feel like I’ve been on a career path.
But I realized that wasn’t an answer so I continued reflecting out loud in real time. I stated that when I think about it, VCs typically end up doing three different things after they stop being VCs: (1) be a CEO of a company, (2) politics, or (3) academia.
None of these appeal to me. I’ll never be a CEO of a company again – I did this for seven years between age 21 and 28. I was a good CEO but I never enjoyed the job. I have exactly 0.000000% in ever running for a political office. And, I was kicked out of a PhD program when I was 24 and have no interest in ever being a professor or an administrator.
I’m sure there are other things VCs do after stop being VCs, but I’m quite clear that I don’t have a next career in me.
Last week I was on vacation and off the grid. Amy and I decided to stay home, rest, just hang out, and read.
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right was first on the list. I have a very cynical attitude toward politics, especially in the context of big money, so I was fascinated by this book. I’d read snippets about it and had read the New Yorker article Covert Operations: The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama by Jane Mayer in 2010 that was the inspiration for her to write this book.
After 450 pages, my cynicism had evolved from significant to profound. I kind of knew what I was getting into when I started reading the book, but the rabbit hole is very, very, very deep. I know that there are many people, especially in politics, who don’t care about the truth and that one person’s truth is not necessarily “the truth.” But the extent of the manipulation, strategies surrounding it, lies supporting it, and the money financing it were extreme even for my already cynical perspective.
I’ve never really engaged financially in politics. While I’ve contributed here and there to candidates that I support, I’ve always done it in the context of personal contributions to the campaign. While I’ve supported specific issues like patent and immigration reform, I don’t think I’ve ever given to a candidate through an organization designed to support one of these issues, but instead I have always given my gifts directly to activities around the specific issues.
With the emergence of Super PACs, it’s gotten more confusing, but I’ve tried not to support PACs, Super PACs, or bundlers. I’ve fallen into the trap of this several times, but always made sure that what I did wasn’t tax deductible or characterized as a charitable gift. I’m not trying to be a goody two-shoes, but rather just follow the rules and play by them.
While Mayer’s book focuses on the Koch’s, a bunch of their friends in their extended network, and the rise of the radical right, she alludes to similar dynamics going on now on the liberal front. While it’s easy to paint it as extremes of the Republican party, label it the rise of the libertarians, or describe it as a takeover of the Republican party, it’s clear to me that the financial dynamic described covers the entire political spectrum.
But that’s not the disturbing part to me, as money, influence, and power have always been wrapped up together. Instead, I ‘m bothered by the characterization of the activities as charitable, the blatant tax evasion from the contributors, the disingenuous behavior by the principles and their proxies, and the fundamental disrespect for a system that is supposed to be representative of the people.
Regardless of your political leanings or attitude, this book is worth reading, if only to have a perspective on how far we have gone into some alternate reality that now is driving how things work. Or maybe it’s always been this way, and we are just now noticing how much money is, and can be, involved.
There has been a lot of recent noise in Boulder about growth, challenges, and the impact of the tech community on the city. I stirred the pot a little more with my post The Endless Struggle That Boulder Has With Itself. It generated some private emails, including non-constructive troll-like ones such as “Get the fuck out of town, you and people like you are ruining everything” at one end of the extreme to “It’s so frustrating that the all growth is bad crowd is framing the public debate right now and portraying so-called overpaid tech employees as a major cause of all that is wrong in Boulder.”
Andy Alsop, an entrepreneur in Santa Fe who has spent a lot of time in Colorado, sent me a note with some thoughts about his view and experience from working as an entrepreneur in Santa Fe. I asked if he’d write a longer post from his perspective and he took me up on it. Following is a guest post from Andy that I think adds nicely to the discussion.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Santa Fe and I love New Mexico. This is where my kids were born, where three out of the six kids in my family own property and where I have lived for the past 20 years. This is my perspective on why the Boulder City Council should be grateful for the gift it has been given.
I have chosen Colorado as the place where I want to focus the next chapter of my startup life because of its similarities to New Mexico but with the benefit of a rich and diverse tech economy. Since approximately July of 2014 I have been spending half of my time getting to know people in Colorado and half of my time in New Mexico where I work and where my family is currently based. This has allowed me to spend time in Boulder with some exciting startups and some interesting and successful business leaders.
To give you some background, I moved to Santa Fe, NM from the East Coast in 1995 to start a company with my older brother. Prior to making the decision to move out West I asked myself, “Is Santa Fe the right kind of place for me as a technology entrepreneur?” I thought about it for a while before making the move and decided that I was in love with the beautiful outdoors, the endless blue skies, the culture, the great food and the interesting people so with bravado I said to myself “Hell, I’m smart and hardworking and this whole ‘Internet’ thing is everywhere. It doesn’t matter where I live.” As a result, I founded two startups, one of them a spinout from Los Alamos National Laboratory and have been a part of three other startups all of them based on technology.
I find the debate around Boulder’s “dilemma” to be very interesting because Boulder and Santa Fe share a lot of the same characteristics. Both are similar in size, both have educated populations, both are a short drive from a larger city, both are absolutely stunning in terms of the landscape and the outdoors, both are set in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains restricting their ability to grow in all but one direction and both have a high cost of living and a high cost of housing.
In contrast to Boulder, Santa Fe has a stunted economy because it doesn’t share some of the key characteristics of Boulder – including several of the four elements of the “Boulder Thesis” that Brad outlined in his book “Startup Communities.” Santa Fe’s anemic economy is due in large part because Santa Fe has an older population made up primarily of retirees in addition to federal, state and local government workers and service-based workers. We have one “larger” company based in Santa Fe: Thornburg Investment Management which thankfully provides 250 high wage jobs. There are a handful of other smaller companies in Santa Fe but the majority of our businesses are tourism and services based – restaurants, art galleries, hotels, B&B’s, etc. This makes it difficult to make a living in Santa Fe (see Santa Fe’s Living Wage). You will frequently hear people joke about the fact that to make a million dollars in Santa Fe you need to come with two and to live in Santa Fe you must have two to three jobs just to survive. “Young people” come to Santa Fe based on their attraction to the beautiful outdoors and leave when they realize it is difficult to make a living. Santa Fe ends up being a turnstile for young professionals.
Having attempted to recruit experienced knowledge workers to Santa Fe I would always get the same questions from the candidates – “Where are my kids going to go to school?” (While improving, Santa Fe and NM have some of the worst public schools in the country) and “Where am I going to work if your startup doesn’t make it?” Boulder on the other hand has a great school system and a diverse tech economy so that when knowledge workers are recruited to Boulder the recruiter can say “We have great schools and if this position doesn’t work out there are plenty of other places to work.” That means recruits are willing to uproot their families and bring them to Boulder.
So, when I hear members of the Boulder City Council saying “…locals say they don’t like the tech folks…” and the startup economy is attracting “highly paid white men to the city, and they were pricing out families and others” I can’t help but think – Are you crazy? Having a robust tech economy is what many communities like Santa Fe WISH they had. Our civic leaders have to deal with the higher cost of housing from wealthy out of state housing buyers yet the local workers are trying to survive on minimum wage jobs and the government on an insufficient tax base. As a result I have seen NM increasingly tax everything not because it is greedy but because we have to take care of a far poorer population. For instance, the “gross receipts tax” (NM’s version of a sales tax but it is levied on both goods AND services) in Santa Fe has steadily risen from just under 6% 20 years ago to over 8% now and it continues to climb.
Imagine the problems Boulder would have if it were in the same shoes as Santa Fe and didn’t have a thriving tech economy to rely on? Be Bolder Boulder and embrace the gifts that have been bestowed upon you. Work with the tech community rather than making divisive statements and see the members of your thriving tech economy as your friend and not your enemy.
This effectively creates “fast” and “slow” lanes for the Internet which means that website owners and entrepreneurs may be forced to pay an arbitrary fee to ISPs like Comcast and Time Warner if they want their visitors to be able to access their website at regular speeds – or at all.
Last week I wrote a post titled Dear Internet: Let’s Demo The Slow Lane. What you are seeing on my site for the rest of this week is the demo. Don’t worry, you’ll only have to endure that popup and slow down once, unless the FCC does something like what they are proposing with these new rules.
The call to action, js code, and WordPress plug in for #stoptheslowlane is available for you to put on your site if you want to demo this for your users. The GitHub repo fightforthefuture/stoptheslowlane has the full source code in case you want to modify / add to it.
Help us send a message that a slow lane on the Internet isn’t acceptable.
“In Washington DC, it’s not right vs. left, it’s old vs. new” – Senator Michael Bennet
I’ve been thinking about this since I heard it last Sunday evening in a conversation with FCC Chair Tom Wheeler. I was part of a fascinating private group discussion with him and came away with a lot of respect for him and appreciation for how he approaches things. While I’m on a year hiatus from political stuff, I was intrigued by the opportunity to meet with him given my close relationship with Phil Weiser (CU Law Dean), and Phil’s deep respect for Tom.
In the midst of the conversation, this line from Michael Bennet, one of our Colorado Senators, popped out.
Michael’s statement rang true with me. But it’s not just in Washington, it’s everywhere. This is the classic incumbent vs. innovator challenge and we are seeing it play out aggressively across all industries and geographies as the machines, especially the software in the machines, have the impact on society that many of us have been anticipating and investing in for a long time.
The confusion – and conflict – in our society around this is just beginning. The mess in DC is just a starting point. Suddenly cities like San Francisco are struggling to reconcile two diverging classes – the rich and the poor – with the middle rapidly being squeeze out of the city. Cities like Chicago and Seattle are seriously considering trying to regulate a new generation of innovators, in the form of Uber and Lyft, while at the same time trying to present themselves as forward thinking innovative places to live. We went through this last year in Denver with Uber and my instinct at the time was that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
It’s a really big iceberg. The incumbents are extremely powerful and love the status quo. Sure – they aren’t stagnant, but they’ll use all the tools available to themselves to protect their flanks. And the attackers aren’t from the left or the right, but from the new.
I’ve spent my entire professional career working on the new. I’ve always felt frustrated by the incumbents, by the bureaucracies, and by the old way of doing things. I’m not very nostalgic and spend most of my energy looking and moving forward, rather than trying to protect what I have.
Over the past few years, I’ve felt like the dynamic I’m describing was accelerating. There were days I just felt like I was getting older, but when I reflect on it, it’s no different that it always has been throughout history. While time marches on linearly at a very consistent cadence, change does not. It comes in fits and spurts and is as chaotic as the early days of any fast growing company. It’s not predictable, and when it accelerates, lots of crazy shit starts to happen.
I don’t have a solution to this, nor do I think there is one since it’s a completely unstable and dynamic situation. Many humans instinctively resist change. We fear the uncertain. We try to control what we can’t control.
Accepting the mess is part of the beauty of being human. All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.