“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.
I’m a huge believer in TAGFEE. But I also respect confidentiality. Every company approaches this differently and it’s important to recognize which context you are in. Following is an example from an email I got (on the all@ list) from a company I’m on the board of (and yes – I checked to make sure I could post this.)
You know what they say about flattery, right? That’s an idea worth keeping in mind when someone is talking to you about what we’re doing here at as friendly compliments and questions mask an effort to obtain confidential info.
We’ve talked as a group about this frequently, but it merits another mention because we’ve seen a marked increase in the number of people that have various approached members of the team with questions that quickly get to the heart of our core technology. They pay compliments, they smile, they flatter, etc., but they’re looking to understand details that should never be discussed with outsiders, even if there is a NDA in place. As is often the case with being at a hot tech company that’s pushing the envelope on various fronts, it’s a double-edged sword. We’re doing cool stuff and people love it, but some of the attention we can do without.
So, another reminder–be wary and keep what we’re doing in house. If you’re in doubt about how to answer sensitive questions, it’s easy–don’t answer. Instead, ask for their contacts and forward them on to me.
I’m seeing this more and more from all directions. The most challenging are from VCs who have a competitive investment – it never surprises me how shameless some are about milking entrepreneurs about what they are up to when the VC has zero intention of investing. It’s also pervasive with journalists and tech bloggers who are always looking for a scoop and an angle. It’s always been something big tech companies do with startups in the guise of “business development”, but I’ve seen a few situations recently which clearly crossed a line of “wow – that wasn’t appropriate.”
So – be careful out there. Respect the power of TAGFEE but also respect when things should be kept confidential. And remember that most people out there will be asymmetric with information if you let them, especially if they use this information in their line of work.
So far I’m pleased with my shift to Maker Mode this summer. I’ve managed to get in a solid four hours of writing on my Startup Communities book each day and will have a full draft to circulate to a small group of people on Saturday. I chose deliberately to skip TechStars New York Demo Day (which looks like it went great) this year, which was a hard choice for me but I just didn’t want to break the flow of what I’m doing. And I’m still running on inbox zero and – other than physical proximity – haven’t heard any concerns about my responsiveness or availability. As a bonus, I’m getting to spend 24 hours a day (except when I’m out running) with my amazing wife Amy.
Yesterday I saw a post from Gnip titled You Are What You Do. Gnip is one of the companies we’ve invested in that I refer to as a Silent Killers – they are building an amazing company by just doing things that customers care about, not hyping themselves, and delivering what they say they are going to deliver, ahead of and beyond expectations. No hype – just substance – and execution.
This was coincidentally followed a few minutes later by an email exchange between Ben Huh (Cheezburger CEO) and Rand Fishkin (SEOMoz CEO). Rand and SEOMoz run on a set of principles called TAGFEE (Transparent, Authentic, Generous, Fun, Empathetic, Exceptional) and if you want to see this in action, take a look at the post Rand wrote recently about the financing we led titled Moz’s $18 Million Venture Financing: Our Story, Metrics and Future.
Ben (to:Rand, Brad): Just a random thought… Maybe I don’t have the balls to do it, maybe I just think that I want to run my biz differently, but the more I do this, the more I converge on TAGFEE. Thanks for putting it out there in the world.
Brad (to:Ben, Rand): I am 100% convinced TAGFEE is right. It’s so unbelievably liberating.
Rand (to:Ben, Brad): This email put a huge smile on my face. That said, it’s fucking hard. So hard I can barely believe it. Being TAGFEE yourself when there’s always pressure not to sucks bad enough. But working with a large team and getting managers and individual contributors to act this way (and figure out when/where/how/whether it’s being broken) is the toughest challenge I’ve ever had. Thankfully, it’s incredibly rewarding, too. Oh – and there’s a missing “H” in TAGFEE. For humility. In fact, empathy and humility in potential hires are the best predictors that they’re going to fit with our team and be TAGFEE.
In contrast, I got an email from a VC earlier this week who said “aren’t you worried that one of your LPs will see your post about spending the summer at your place in Keystone?” My immediate reaction was to point him to TAGFEE and say that we try to be 100% TAGFEE with our LPs so I hope they see what I’m doing and appreciate why I’m doing it. I know unambiguously what my job for my LPs is – they give me a box of money and my job is to give them back – over time – a much bigger box full of money. I’m never confused this and I always try to do it in a way that maximizes the size of the box I give them back.
If you line up You Are What You Do, TAGFEE, and Silent Killers you start to get a feel for the type of entrepreneurs we love to work with. An awesome part of it is watching them learn from each other and learning from what they are learning. It informs everything I’m thinking about and the last 24 hours once again reinforced for me the power of TAGFEE and just executing.
Today SEOMoz announced that Foundry Group has led an $18 million financing and I’m joining the board. Rand Fishkin (The Wizard of Moz) has an incredibly detailed post up titled Moz’s $18 Million Venture Financing: Our Story, Metrics and Future describing the financing process and company history in great depth. In it, he includes all kinds of numbers that people writing articles about financing are always asking for but never getting – it’s an extraordinarily (in my experience) transparent description of what, why, and how it went down. My partner Seth Levine also has a nice post up about our previous miss on financing SEOMoz titled Getting It Right The 2nd Time. And the official press release has a bunch of Internet Memes (thanks to Cheezburger) along with the liberal use of the word fuck.
Instead of going through the history of the financing, which is amply covered in the other posts, I’m going to talk about TAGFEE. What’s TAGFEE? It’s the tenents of SEOMoz. From the SEOMoz website:
Our goal is to have everything we create and cultivate – be it software, content, corporate culture, or professional relationships – live up to these tenets. We acknowledge that we are entirely responsible for SEOmoz’s reputation; the level of success we achieve, the brand image we create, and the contributions we make to the marketing industry are a direct reflection of our ability to uphold the TAGFEE code.
At my first company (Feld Technologies) we had a set of precepts and at Foundry Group we have a set of deeply held beliefs. When I first saw TAGFEE I immediately flashed to these two concepts. As I got to know Rand, Sarah Bird (COO), and other Mozzers, I realized they lived by TAGFEE. I loved it and it was one of the big factors that attracted me to the company. Following are my observations of how TAGFEE works in practice at SEOMoz.
Transparent and Authentic: Just go read Rand’s post Moz’s $18 Million Venture Financing: Our Story, Metrics and Future. The next time someone says that they are being transparent, call bullshit on them and point them at Rand’s post as an example of real transparency.
Generous: Everyone I talked to about SEOMoz reinforced that the company consistently goes above and beyond the expectations they set with customers, partners, and each other and hold themselves to an incredibly high standard in terms of interacting with and giving back to the industry that allows them to exist.
Fun: When I showed up at the company a week before the financing closed to say hi, everyone was gathered with margaritas and cupcakes. We did a 30 minute Q&A thing where Rand and Sarah went through in detail the deal that was happening and how it impacted everyone. The cupcakes were yummy and there was much laughing after everyone realized I wasn’t the homeless person that Sarah suggested I was (as in “Brad isn’t here – this is just some homeless person who wandered in.”)
Empathetic: I saw this in my interactions with Mozzers, Rand, Sarah, and people near to the company. I also see it in the Moz community. Amazingly direct, clear, and emotionally enlightened responses and interactions to everything, regardless where on the spectrum of “awesome” to “shitty” an issue lands on.
Exceptional: This is one exceptional company, in everything they do. They aspire to build something incredibly important and durable. And exceptional.
I’ve watched Rand and SEOMoz from a distance for a while. I know many people who have worked closely with the company. And I’ve been able to spy into Rand’s life a little through the lens of his wife Geraldine (who we call the hilarious cupcake blogger woman in my house). It’s one big TAGFEE universe and I’m spinning around in circles chasing my tail in happiness that I get to be involved in it.