@bfeld User Manual: Business Dinners

I love the idea of A User Manual To Working With Me. A number of the CEOs we work with have written them and Seth sends out a letter to all new founders about working with us.

While I occasionally think about writing an @bfeld User Manual, I never manage to get around to it. On our Q4 vacation, Amy and I talked a lot about dinners out, especially my own struggle with dinners with large groups of people, which caused me to reflect on how I approach dinners out in general.

Business dinners have become increasingly challenging for me for a number of reasons. I’m an introvert, so when the dinner is more than four people, it’s extremely draining for me. I no longer drink, so every dinner lasts at least 33% too long. I’m a vegetarian and am now eating very lightly at dinner, so the experience of dinner is much less important to me. I’ve been to all the restaurants in Boulder many times, so there’s no novelty in the experience. I’ve got a 30-minute drive home from downtown Boulder to my house, so getting home is dinner_end_time + 30 minutes.

I go to bed early (usually before 10 pm) so dinners often are the only thing I do in the evening before going to bed. I love to lay on the couch with Amy and read in the evening before I go to sleep, so this decompression from the day is almost always lost when I have a business dinner. I also love evenings at home with just Amy, business dinners out take time away from this for us.

That said, business dinners are part of my work. I’ve been to at least 1,351 board dinners in the last 25 years. I typically have business dinners three or four times each week, every week. I almost always have at least four major dinner-related events (with greater than 25 people) each month. Simply deciding not to do business dinners isn’t an option as long as I do the work I’m doing.

To solve for this, and make business dinners more enjoyable and productive from my frame of reference, following is the best way to have a business dinner with me.

  • The maximum number of people at dinner should be eight.
  • Dinner should start early (I love 6 pm start times).
  • I’m indifferent to the restaurant – you choose.
  • I’m going to be fully engaged during dinner, but as the group gets larger, my focus becomes on the people seated immediately next to me.
  • Don’t worry about what I do, or don’t, eat. And don’t be surprised if I don’t eat anything.
  • I don’t mind if you (and the other people) stay later than 8 pm, but I’d like to leave then.

I’m sure I’ll end up at some dinners, and events, that don’t fit this profile. By default, I’m no longer going to board dinners, although I’ll make exceptions when necessary. Amy occasionally likes to go to galas and big public events, so I’ll tag along for those. And, of course, I can comfortably do these periodically. But, if you want to get the most out of me, and have me enjoy the experience, the bullet points above are a good guideline.

My Perfect Saturday of Fire and Fury

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.

Michael Wolff Did What Every Other White House Reporter Is Too Cowardly to Do

The Wolff lines on Trump that ring unambiguously true

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House review – tell-all burns all

In Michael Wolff’s book, the Trump White House is full of intrigue, and out of ideas

Trump boasts that he’s ‘like, really smart’ and a ‘very stable genius’ amid questions over his mental fitness

Fire and Fury confirms our worst fears – about the Republicans

Booked! Trump, staffers who cried Wolff and a week of fire and fury

Trump hits back at Steve Bannon: ‘When he was fired, he lost his mind’

Exclusive: Bannon apologizes

White House adviser Stephen Miller calls Bannon an ‘angry, vindictive person’ over comments in Wolff book

The ‘stable genius’ isn’t even functioning as president

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.

Optimism In The Face Of Current Reality

Let’s start with an awesome dog taking himself sledding.

Now, let’s move on to Bill Gates opening essay in this week’s Time Magazine (he’s their first ever guest editor) titled Some good news, for once. It’s short and powerful.

He starts out with context.

“Reading the news today does not exactly leave you feeling optimistic. Hurricanes in the Americas. Horrific mass shootings. Global tensions over nuclear arms, crisis in Myanmar, bloody civil wars in Syria and Yemen. Your heart breaks for every person who is touched by these tragedies. Even for those of us lucky enough not to be directly affected, it may feel like the world is falling apart.”

And then perspective.

“But these events—as awful as they are—have happened in the context of a bigger, positive trend. On the whole, the world is getting better. This is not some naively optimistic view; it’s backed by data. Look at the number of children who die before their fifth birthday. Since 1990, that figure has been cut in half. That means 122 million children have been saved in a quarter-century, and countless families have been spared the heartbreak of losing a child.”

He creates more perspective but quickly gets to the punchline.

“So why does it feel like the world is in decline? I think it is partly the nature of news coverage. Bad news arrives as drama, while good news is incremental—and not usually deemed newsworthy. A video of a building on fire generates lots of views, but not many people would click on the headline “Fewer buildings burned down this year.” It’s human nature to zero in on threats: evolution wired us to worry about the animals that want to eat us.”

But this line nailed it for me.

“There’s also a growing gap between the bad things that still happen and our tolerance of those things. Over the centuries, violence has declined dramatically, as has our willingness to accept it. But because the improvements don’t keep pace with our expectations, it can seem like things are getting worse.”

For the past week, Amy and I have been watching the Ken Burns documentary The Vietnam War. We finished Episode 8: The History of the World last night, and as the credits rolled and CSNY’s song Ohio played, I said to Amy, “The US and the world was unbelievably fucked up in 1970. I was five and I don’t remember anything. It’s helpful perspective on today.”

I was born optimistic and always have been. I’m going to stay optimistic about our country, our society, and our world. And I’m going to keep working hard on the things I think matter.

And yes, I’m going to read Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House tomorrow.

Book: Principles by Ray Dalio

Several people recommended Ray Dalio’s book Principles to me. I read it a few days ago and thought it was spectacular. I’ve gone out and bought a copy for each of my partners and I recommend that every VC, as well as anyone who is building an organization of any kind, buy and read it.

Dalio is famous for his extremely successful firm Bridgewater Associates which is known for its goal of achieving excellence in their work and their relationships through radical truth and radical transparency. The TED Talk below is a good summary, but the book is worth reading in total.

As a bonus, watch Dalio’s great explanation of How the Economic Machine Works.

As I get older, I’m reflecting more on the last 30 years of what has worked for me – and what hasn’t worked – as I codify my own business philosophy around the idea of #GiveFirst. As part of that, it’s a treat to soak in books like Dalio’s, as it stimulates a lot of thoughts around this.

The Past, Present, and The Future

The past is ungraspable,
the present is ungraspable,
the future is ungraspable.

– Diamond Sutra

Now that it’s 2018, the inevitable predictions for 2018 are upon us.

I’m not a predictor. I never have been and don’t expect I ever will be. However, I do enjoy reading a few of the predictions, most notably Fred Wilson’s What Is Going To Happen In 2018.

Unlike past years, Fred led off this year with something I feel like I would have written.

“This is a post that I am struggling to write. I really have no idea what is going to happen in 2018.”

He goes on to make some predictions but leave a lot in the “I have no idea” category.

I mentioned this to Amy and she quickly said:

And that, simply put, is my goal for 2018.

As I read my daily newsfeed this morning, I came upon two other predictions that jumped out at me, which are both second-order effects of US government policies changes.

The first is “tech companies will use their huge hoards of repatriated cash to buy other companies.” There is a 40% chance Apple will acquire Netflix, according to Citi and Amazon will buy Target in 2018, influential tech analyst Gene Munster predicts. The Apple/Netflix one clearly is linked to “Apple has so much cash – they need to use it.” While the Amazon one is more about “Amazon needs a bigger offline partner than Whole Foods”, it feels like it could easily get swept in the “tons of dollars sloshing around in US tech companies – go buy things!”

The second is “get those immigrants out of the US, even if they are already here and contributing to our society.” H-1B visa rules: Trump admin considers tweak that may lead to mass deportation of Indians is the next layer down, where the Executive Branch can just modify existing rules that have potentially massive changes.

I’ve been reading The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. Various Cylons on BSG had it right when they said, “All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.”

John O’Donohue: For One Who Is Exhausted, a Blessing

At the end of another intense year, after two weeks fighting a difficult cold, surrounded by snow, light, and quiet, this poem by John O’Donohue made its way to the surface, sent to me by my beloved soulmate. Happy new year.

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

A Cold Reboot

I’m on day 8 of a cold, which in retrospect has been possibly the harshest cold I’ve ever had. I felt worse when I had salmonella poisoning in Adelaide in 2016 and I remember a childhood flu over the holidays that had me throwing up for days. But, on Friday, when I had some existential dread, I realized I was really sick and crawled back in bed for the rest of the day.

I woke up this morning still sick but feeling on the mend. I’ve been at home for a week and haven’t been doing much other than sleeping, reading, responding to email, eating mac and cheese, and sleeping some more. I’ve been a sub-optimal companion for Amy, but Brooks and Cooper have filled in pretty well for me.

I’m glad the world is taking a break for the holidays. 2017 was an intense year in many dimensions. Our society changed in ways that feel extremely uncomfortable to me, but I’ve tried to process it with a long view. Long-simmering conflicts that were just under the surface explosively broke through and forced us to confront them and our collective behavior, and reactions, to them. I’ve continued to do what felt important and right to me while listening and learning. I worked hard to eliminate the noise and concentrate on the signal. To do this, I withdrew on several dimensions, especially via social media and online channels, which diminished my experience, but allowed me time and space to think.

I’ve been metabolizing my emotions at a new level. I’ve always been able to handle a huge amount of stress and anxiety, and part of my role has been to absorb the stress in the system, stay calm, and help the people around me work through whatever we are confronting. I’ve learned that when this gets to a certain level in me, it can trigger a depressive episode, so I’ve been working on understanding my limits better and how to address them more effectively. The broader cultural challenges of 2017 have just piled onto this, so I had to learn a new set of skills around this. If anyone is curious, the magic gateways for me have been meditation and therapy.

This cold forced some downtime on me. As I’m recovering, I’m going to savor the rest of the week and prepare for 2018. It feels like a cold reboot is in order.

Defy Colorado – Feb 8th With Me and Governor Hickenlooper

As we start spinning up Defy Ventures in Colorado, we are doing a Business Coaching Day at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in Ordway, Colorado. It’s one of our first Defy Colorado events and Governor Hickenlooper will be joining us for the day.

There will be around 80 Entrepreneurs-in-Training. While we were planning on having spaces for 50 volunteers, we’ve already filled over 40 of them before even talking about the program so there are only a few spaces left.

If you are interested, the event is happening on February 8th, 2018 from 9:00 am – 4:30 pm. Contact Melissa O’Dell to sign up or get on the list for the next Defy Colorado event.

For a taste of what the experience is like, watch the video above or go to my post Understanding Privilege – My Experience in Prison.

Book: The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living

This book was a delight. I started reading it earlier this year, caught up quickly (I started in July), and then mostly read a page each day when I was in the bathroom in the morning. I let it unfold slowly, reading the daily quote and Ryan Holiday’s (and Stephen Hanselman’s) thoughts on the quote, and then rereading the quote.

I was near the end so I finished it off last night. I smiled when after I read the December 31 meditation.

Stoicism is fascinating to me. While I don’t categorize myself as anything and try to resist being put in boxes, I like to take elements of different philosophies, religions, approaches, and styles and weave them into the fabric of me. As I was reading The Daily Stoic I found many ideas that spoke to me.

I’ve known Ryan from a distance for a while. We ended up at a dinner together at either SXSW or CES a number of years together and I remember an interesting and engaged conversation. For a while, I subscribed to his monthly Reading List email but in a fit of unsubscribing from everything, I unsubscribed.

I just re-subscribed.

Several times a year, I send a book (or two) to all the CEOs in our portfolio. I sent this one out this fall. I’ve heard back from a few that they enjoyed it, and I’m hoping that most of the CEOs are at least dipping into it.

If you’ve heard any of the names Zeno of CitiumChrysippusCato the YoungerSenecaEpictetusHierocles, or Marcus Aurelius, then you’ve heard of at least one of the famous Stoic philosophers. If you’ve studied any of them, you are in for a treat with this book as it presents Stoicism in a unique and very accessible way.

For a taste of the kind of quotes Holiday and Hanselman riff off of in the book, take a look at the fun Brain Quotes pages for Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.

The book starts with a quote every day on January 1st. You’ve still got a few days to grab a copy from Amazon and start the year out with a daily dose of Stoicism.

Book: Am I Being Too Subtle?

While I enjoy a good biography of a historical figure, I love autobiographies of living people. They are hit or miss – either awesome or awful.

Sam Zell’s autobiography Am I Being Too Subtle? was awesome. I was sent a copy by an editor at Penguin Group who sends me books, presumably that he thinks I’ll like. While this was in my infinite pile of books, I grabbed it randomly last night and polished it off tonight.

If you’ve never heard Sam Zell talk, here’s a recent short clip of him talking about entrepreneurship and a few other things.

I don’t know Sam Zell. While I only have second-degree connections to him, I’ve known of him for a while and I spent an afternoon touring his apartment in Chicago as part of a Wellesley Art Tour that he graciously opened his house for. So I had a little sense of him.

Whenever I read an autobiography, I’m always curious about the tone the person takes when talking about themselves and what they’ve learned over their life. When it’s consistent with the view I have of the person from a distance, I value the content more, regardless of what the content is. In this case, Zell’s personal reflection mapped pretty well to my impression of him over different short snippets of content from the last 20+ years.

I loved hearing the history of his entrepreneurial evolution, from his origin story in his early 20s to current time 50 years later. He’s had massive successes, but also some very big blunders along the way. While he’s gotten lots of criticism for specific failures like the enormous take private (via a leveraged buyout) – and subsequent bankruptcy a year later – of the Tribune Company, he doesn’t dodge his mistakes in this book. He takes the good with the bad and has a mantra of never taking himself too seriously, which he calls “the Eleventh Commandment.”

“… the Eleventh Commandment acknowledges that we’re all human beings who inhabit the world and are given the gift of participating in the wonders around us – as long as we don’t set ourselves apart from them.” 

Of course, he followed this section by talking about the two stately, well-fed ducks that have their own heated pool and live on a deck outside his office in Chicago.

His love of his early partner, Bob Lurie, who died in 1990 at age 48, really stuck with me. It had an emotional tenor that is similar to my feelings for my partners.

Most autobiographies have some self-deprecation in them, but it often stands out as awkward – almost like the writer was following the autobiography-101 script which says “make sure every now and then you sprinkle in some self-deprecation so you feel more authentic to the reader.” While there were plenty of self-deprecating and even cringe-worthy moments in the book, Zell wove them in with style.

I read autobiographies for the stories, not for historical truth. The stories in this one were great.