Following is a guest post from my friend Eliot Peper. I met Eliot several years ago when he approached me about his first book. I loved his writing and FG Press went on to publish Eliot’s first two books – Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0 and Uncommon Stock: Power Play.
Eliot’s third book, Uncommon Stock: Exit Strategy came out recently and the topic is particularly timely. Enjoy some deeper thoughts of his on why. Oh – and grab Eliot’s books – they are awesome.
Our institutions are failing to protect us. In fact, they’re not even trying. That wasn’t what I set out to discover when I started drafting my first novel. I just wanted to write a page-turner about tech startups with enough real grit to make readers think (true fans may remember that I noted my original inspiration right here in a previous guest post). To research the book, I interviewed federal special agents, financial service executives, money laundering investigators, cybersecurity experts, investors, and technologists in order to deepen the story’s verisimilitude.
The novel turned into a trilogy and along the way I discovered how fact can be far more disturbing than fiction (a point of frustration for novelists). Every day, our government officials, bankers, and corporate leaders are betraying our trust through shortsightedness and technical ignorance.
The now-infamous breach of The Office of Personnel Management by state-sponsored Chinese hackers shocked the nation. Detailed background files on more than twenty-two million Americans were stolen. The pilfered data included medical history, social security numbers, and sensitive personal information on senior officials within The Department of Defense, The Federal Bureau of Investigation, and even The Central Intelligence Agency. The national security implications are staggering.
The emperor may have no clothes but he doesn’t stand alone. Every year, hundreds of millions of dollars are spirited away from major financial institutions. The United Nations estimates that organized crime brings in $2 trillion a year in profits and the black market makes up 15–20% of global GDP.
How do cartel bosses, arms dealers, and human traffickers stash their cash? By working with corrupt insiders, exploiting legal loopholes, lobbying crooked politicians, and taking advantage of the same kinds of technical weaknesses that made the OPM hack possible. They are only able to get away with it because banks and regulators turn a blind eye or, more often, don’t even know when it’s happening.
Large organizations like government agencies and international financial institutions started incorporating software into their operations decades ago. Ever since, they have consistently chosen to pile new updates on top of old code rather than rebuild systems from the ground up. Why? In the short run, it’s cheaper and easier to address the symptom instead of the cause. Now, that shortsightedness is catching up with them.
All of this is just what we know about already. It takes a median of 229 days for data breaches to even be discovered. That’s a long time for criminals to be inside our systems, building new backdoors for future exploitation. Worse, institutions are loath to report breaches even when they are uncovered for fear that our trust in them will degrade even further.
The software powering the digital infrastructure of our institutions is a mess of half-measures, lost source code, and mind-boggling integrations. It’s like a vault built out of swiss cheese, a house resting on a matchstick foundation, or the plot of a telenovela. You can choose your own metaphor, but every hole is a VIP ticket for society’s antagonists.
And that’s not all. In a study released earlier this month, The Government Accounting Office found that many federal examiners in charge of bank information security audits have little or no IT training. They also discovered that regulators are not even doing comparative analysis on system-wide deficiencies, limiting their scope to individual banks. Worse, the National Credit Union Administration lacks the authority to examine third party service providers to credit unions, leaving large segments of their systems beyond the jurisdiction of examiners. It’s painfully ironic that at a time when the NSA terrifies us with its digital omnipotence, so many government agencies can’t get their act together for legitimate enforcement. Our watchdogs are asleep on their feet.
Whether their endgames are espionage or financial malfeasance, we’re making it too damn easy for bad guys to do their dirty work. I was only trying to make my books feel real but now reality is forcing me to suspend disbelief. It makes for great plot twists, but verisimilitude isn’t worth this level of vulnerability.
These are big problems. Big problems always represent big opportunities for creative founders. Mattermark just released their first report on the hottest cybersecurity startups. But we need fixes that are even more fundamental than security. We must rebuild the technical infrastructure and human governance systems that shape our institutions. That change might come from an extraordinarily dedicated internal leader or it might emerge from a garage in Boulder.
We need hackers, makers, artists, and independent thinkers. We need to play smarter and think long-term. We need to call our leaders to action. We need to educate ourselves and build a future in which we can thrive, not fight to survive.
FSA (Feld Service Announcement) – my version of a “public service announcement”: Moz is on the hunt for a VP of UX and Design. This role is one of our most crucial hires this year. The ideal candidate will come to us with experience and examples to show of very complex, technical projects that s/he made simple and fun. I would love for you to share this job description with your network or if you have anyone in mind I would love for you to send them our way.
Yeah, it’s been kind of busy the last week. Congrats to my friends at Gnip on becoming part of the Twitter flock. I have a great origin story about the founding of Gnip and the first few years for some point in the future. But for now, I’m just going to say to everyone involved “y’all are awesome.”
Last week Manu Kumar had a spectacular post titled The New Venture Landscape. While it’s bay area centric, I especially agree with the punch line:
Pre-Seed is the new Seed. (~$500K used for building team and initial product/prototype)
Seed is the new Series A. (~$2M used get for building product, establishing product-market fit and early revenue)
Series A is the new Series B. (~6M-$15M used to scale customer acquisition and revenue)
Series B is the new Series C.
Series C/D is the new Mezzanine
Today at 5pm I’m doing a fireside chat with Eliot Peper, the author of Uncommon Stock, the first book published by FG Press. Join us for some virtual fun and a discussion about fiction, books, and startups.
And – if you miss that, Eliot is doing another event on Friday at 5pm at Spark Boulder.
It’s been a blast to get to know and work with Eliot Peper. His book, Uncommon Stock, is the first one that we published at FG Press. If you want to read – and comment – along with me, grab a copy of Uncommon Stock on BookShout.
I asked Eliot to write a short post about how he’s feeling and thinking about the category of “startup fiction” now that the book is out in the wild and he’s getting some great feedback.
Following are his thoughts.
Business case studies have wrestled through many different components of entrepreneurship. Bloggers and Quora have picked up the slack for the situations those case studies miss. Management books delve into every nook and cranny of strategy and tactics. Talking heads discuss the ins and outs of everything from product development to investment theory. Gurus wax lyrical about vision and lean, focused execution.
But there’s one critical piece of entrepreneurship that these experts miss. Their analyses emphasize the rational. They draw out lessons-learned from business experiences and try to share best practice with aspiring entrepreneurs. Knowledge is important and many experts are happy to share their thoughts (whether you want to hear them or not!). But they too often focus on the brain at the expense of the heart.
Building a business is a human experience as well as an institutional one. That’s why I love Brad and Amy’s frank discussions in Startup Life. In thinking about growing an organization it’s easy to forget that it’s all made up of individuals. These people lay the groundwork and set the course for the companies they found. They also struggle constantly with work/life balance, relationships, burnout, and team dynamics.
It’s a truism in venture capital that startups fail most often not because their product explodes, but because their team implodes. If you think high-school had a lot of drama, try a high-speed tech startup. Inspiration, betrayal, falling-outs and last-minute-comebacks are par for the course. Everyday I’m blown away by the incredible entrepreneurs I know and work with. Their passion fuels them through the equally challenging rational and the irrational halves of company building.
The emotional reality behind the scenes in every startup is what inspired Uncommon Stock. I thought that fiction could give an intimate peek into the minds of founders. Early readers have pointed out something that I find hugely cool: the other benefit of Startup Fiction is that its so damn accessible.
People who read non-fiction books about entrepreneurship tend to already be engaged in the startup world in some way. We’ve worked for a startup. We read Techcrunch regularly. We go to SXSW. Living and breathing that world, it’s easy to forget anyone else is out there. But readers that aren’t engaged with tech and picked up Uncommon Stock simply because they wanted a good page-turner are reaching out to say how awesome it is to steal a glimpse into our startup boudoir.
We are blessed to live in a magical world filled with some of the most talented people on Earth. Hopefully together we can help to illuminate the heart of the start.
Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0 is officially available today and can be bought online at Amazon and pretty much everywhere else. It’s the first title from FG Press and is in a category we call “startup fiction” and expect to be publishing a lot of. Think of what John Grisham did to the “legal fiction” genre. That’s what we are doing with Uncommon Stock and startup fiction.
Mara Winkel and James Chen are undergraduates at CU Boulder. Mara is pre-law, James is a computer science major. James comes up with an idea for a new machine learning technology that he creates a prototype for using the game Go as his starting point. James asks Mara to join him as his partner in the new company Moziak, which they launch against the protests of their parents but the surprising emotional support of Mara’s boyfriend Craig. Early on Mara and James start applying the technology to forensic accounting and get tangled up with some bad guys. As Mara tries to get funding for the company, James cranks on the product, and Craig goes off the rails, endangering everyone. Then things start getting really complicated. And interesting. And then the VCs show up.
I love this book. This project started about a year ago when Eliot Peper send me a cold email. I didn’t know Eliot, but he sent me a thoughtful note and attached a few chapters of a book to read. He was upfront that this was his first book, that is was tech fiction, and that he wanted my opinion. I read it that night on my couch in my condo and I can still remember turning to Amy after I finished, saying “wow – this is really great!”
Eliot continued writing and I continued giving him feedback. About six months ago I told him about the idea we were cooking up for FG Press and asked if he wanted to publish with us as an experiment. He jumped at it and our relationship, which now included Dane McDonald (FG Press’s CEO) deepened. Eliot finished his first draft in January and over a period of a few weeks I read through the book several times, making significant edits, adding a bunch of local Boulder color, and tuning up some of the story. Eliot was amazing during the edit process – working closely with me, my wife Amy Batchelor who also provided an editing pass, and then our formal editors who did a tight copy-edit of the book.
During this period, we worked together with Eliot on the launch of FG Press as well as his book. We’ve used Uncommon Stock as the alpha test for our process and have improved a lot of things. You’ll see some obvious things from us, like a 10 chapter free giveaway (if you want to sample the book before you buy it). You’ll also see some not so obvious things, like the ability (soon) to buy the book using Bitcoins.
You’ll be hearing a lot from Mara Winkel on Twitter. She’s an amazing entrepreneur – just the kind of learning machine I love to back.
Grab your copy of Uncommon Stock: 1.0. Or, if you just want a taste first, download the first 10 chapters.