The MIT Banana Lounge
I’ve co-founded or been an early investor in many things. One of my favorites is the MIT Banana Lounge. I will be hanging out there Tuesday afternoon and doing an AMA from 2pm to 4pm.
It began with an email from Zoe Sheill. I met Zoe at PSL when she was an intern the summer before her freshman year at MIT. We stayed in touch, and I went bananas when I got the following email from her on May 3rd, 2021.
… Right now, though, we’re running into a bit of trouble raising the money for starting the banana lounge again in the fall. In the past, we’ve given out about a quarter of a million bananas per semester, and about 76% of our budget is just bananas. The Undergraduate Association funded us in previous years – they are now using their limited money for newer projects now that the banana lounge has gotten a lot bigger (over 15k students would visit the lounge per week). Malte (the student that started the banana lounge 3 years ago), me, and Greg had a meeting a while ago and Greg recommended talking to you as a successful MIT alum and someone also excited about the possibilities with bananas.
After some back and forth, I agreed to provide the needed funding. Zoe responded with:
Our banana guy for 2021-22, I’m so excited! You are saving Banana Lounge. So many students will benefit from this and we are very much looking forward to sharing your story with them. I’m humbled by your generosity and the team is grateful and excited, thank you.
The MIT Banana Lounge has become a core part of the institution. Its fame began with a tweetstorm by Iain Cheeseman, a professor at the Whitehead Institute and the MIT Department of Biology.
More fame followed with articles in Boston Magazine (The World Needs More Ideas Like the MIT Banana Lounge) and the Boston Globe (At MIT’s ‘Banana Lounge,’ it’s not just the free food that’s a-peeling.) It appeared in Psychology Today (The Psychology of MIT’s Banana Lounge). The MIT Class of ’62 hunted it down, and MIT President L. Rafael Reif spent about five minutes on it in his Charge to the Class of 2022.
I get an update from the team every few months. The stats so far for the 22-23 academic year (through January) follow:
- Bananas: 299,460 at 97.8% reliability and 0.53% waste
- Drinks: 36,240 cups
- Deliveries: 50
The complete 22-23 academic year plans include 600,000 bananas and 500,000 student visits.
After I provided the funding in 21-22, I was joined by Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy (co-founders of Harmonix) along with MIT Undergraduate Asociation and some students and recent alumni.
Because it’s MIT, I get graphs in my periodic updates.
I’ve moved on from sponsoring bathrooms, although I finally did get a bathroom sponsored at MIT. It’s top secret where it is, so don’t tell the MIT administration if you happen to find it.
AI and the HyperEncabulator
Dave Jilk and I had a long discussion last night, which included some rambling about AI. If you have been following me for a while, you know that in 2010 I stated that the machines have already taken over for us and are patiently waiting for us to feed all human knowledge into them.
This morning, Dave told me about the new HyperEncabulator project by SANS ICS as part of their ICS initiative. If you aren’t aware of the ICS initiative, it’s essential for industrial applications, especially IoT and security.
But first, some history, since it’s an evolution of, and inspired by, the Retro Encabulator initiative, which was foundational but little known in the arc of encabultors.
The HyperEncabulator came out in the middle of 2022. Notably, side fumbling is still effectively prevented.
When I asked ChatGPT, “How does a Retro Encabulator work?” they had an accurate but humorless response.
The Retro Encabulator is a fictional machine invented for an engineering-themed comedy sketch in the 1970s. It is described as “an intricate and implausible device for the purpose of regaining lost energy.” The Retro Encabulator is a humorous parody of an electromechanical machine and its purpose is to perform useless tasks. The machine consists of numerous components, such as pistons, flywheels, and other components, that serve no real purpose. The device usually ends up producing more energy than it consumes, although this is never explained.
Grammarly had a few suggestions to improve ChatGPT’s writing.
The Retro Encabulator is the fictional machine invented for an engineering-themed comedy sketch in the 1970s. It is described as “an intricate and implausible device to regain lost energy.” The Retro Encabulator is a humorous parody of an electromechanical machine whose purpose is to perform useless tasks. The machine consists of numerous components, such as pistons, flywheels, and other components, that serve no real purpose. The device usually produces more energy than it consumes, although this is never explained.
When I asked ChatGPT, “Are you aware how little a sense of humor you have?” they said, “No, I do not have self-awareness.” So I hope they figure out how to connect to the HyperEncabulator.
FYI – when I asked ChatGPT, “What are your pronouns” so I could write the previous paragraph correctly, they said, “My pronouns are they/them.”
Book: Please Report Your Bug Here
Some day there will be a genre called “startup fiction.” I mean, if science fiction, which is a sub-genre of fiction, can have libertarian science fiction and recursive science fiction, surely startup fiction belongs in a sub-genre of a sub-genre of a sub-genre.
Please Report Your Bug Here by Josh Reidel is an excellent example of startup fiction. I began reading it at the end of the day Saturday after finishing The Age of A.I. and Our Human Future. I enjoyed Reidel much more than Kissinger, Schmidt, and Huttenlocher (even though I greatly respect them.)
Reidel was the first employee at Instagram. While the first thirty pages started like yet another explore the bay area startup thing book, it quickly twisted into something more enjoyable. When I picked it up yesterday afternoon after a long run and a nap, I didn’t put it down until it was time to go to sleep, which meant I was finished with the book.
I hope there are a lot more books like this. It balances startup stuff with the cynicism of the experience while placing it in a fictional world. It unexpectedly merges with believable near-term science fiction, which has a delicious parallel universe theme. And, if you believe in the infinite parallel universe theory (or just the multiverse) and haven’t yet renamed your company multiverse (yes, there is one), you can quickly get lost in a sequoia tree. In Oakland.
I assume that Reidel meant to riddle the book with tech industry easter eggs. If this was unintentional, it’s even more fun since that would be my brain doing its thing on Planet Brad.
I hope there are a lot more books like this. I’ve been thinking about writing a fictionalized version of my SPAC experience, and Please Report Your Bug Here inspired me to take that idea more seriously.
Interviews about Dealing with 2023
I usually do a few interviews (podcasts?) at the beginning of the year. I avoid all of the end of the prior year “what do you predict for next year” stuff and find that several long-form interviews at the beginning of the year allow me to get out of my head what’s going on from my frame of reference.
If you know me, you know that I learn by doing, writing, reading, and thinking out loud. I find these interviews to be a good way for me to think out loud to solidify my transition into the new year.
I did two interviews right after the new year. One with Andrew Keen …
… and one with Jason Calacanis.
(0:00) Jason Kicks off the show
(2:49) Brad Feld, Co-founder of Foundry, talks about starting out in investing
(13:30) LinkedIn Jobs – Post your first job for free at https://linkedin.com/twist
(14:56) Brad’s thesis for whom he’ll get in the “trenches” with
(20:48) MasterClass – Get 15% off an annual membership at https://masterclass.com/startups
(22:22) Fighting to the end + Investing through the dot-com bubble
(38:13) Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub – Apply in 5 minutes, no funding required, sign up at http://aka.ms/thisweekinstartups
(39:43) Surviving the GFC
(44:23) Brad’s perspective on the investor/CEO dynamic + being a leader in a down market
(1:00:02) Reflecting on the speculative asset bubble
(1:16:44) Looking forward into 2023
They are both great interviewers willing to let me ramble when prompted vs. tie me into a structured interview.
So, if you like hearing me think out loud, I encourage both of them. Jason’s show notes include links to specific segments (listed above) if something specific catches your attention.
Book: Ted Conover’s Colorado
I read two books by Ted Conover over the weekend.
Amy gave me the first one as a present. A few years ago, we bought a bunch of land about an hour’s drive away from Aspen. I’ve been spending a lot more time in the middle of nowhere Colorado, especially now that I have a trailer on the land and Starlink. My hikes and trail runs (without Starlink, but with a Garmin inReach for safety), which are still in the day hike category, take me deeper into the middle of nowhere.
Amy’s been highly supportive of this new hobby of mine. She’s not interested in the hiking or trailer, but she likes to visit the middle of nowhere for limited periods, as long as she gets to drive back to Aspen.
Conover’s Cheap Land Colorado was outstanding. He writes about his experience in the San Luis Valley, where he lived part-time for extended periods (commuting back to New York to see his wife and teach at NYU.) Conover didn’t just observe – he became part of the community. He eventually bought some land and made it habitable for him. The texture of his writing is beautiful. The characters are fascinating. The history was all new to me about a part of Colorado I know little about and have only been to once when I visited the Great Sand Dunes.
Looking through his biography, I noticed another book by him titled Whiteout: Lost In Aspen. He’d written it 30 years earlier. After Amy and I bought a place there in 2017 and started living there part-time, I read a few books about the history of Aspen. But I hadn’t read much recently other than The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden, which I discovered when reading the extremely disheartening Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West.
Even though it was written 30 years earlier, Conover’s style was similar. Whiteout: Lost In Aspen (as does Cheap Land Colorado) takes an ethnographic research approach, similar to what I learned from a graduate school class I took with John Van Maanen in 1988. In the parallel universe / path not taken life, I’d be an ethnographer. Maybe there is still time.
Aspen of 1991 has a lot of similarities, and issues, to Aspen of 2022. As I’ve gotten to know people who have lived there full-time for more than a decade, I hear many of the same complaints that appear in Whiteout. The names of the restaurants are different, but the feel of the town and surrounding area is the same. The notion that Aspen was about to lose all of its beauty and special magic was a big part of the narrative in 1991 and is still around today.
Amy and I have lived in Colorado for over 27 years. This is home now. Conover writes beautifully about it.
I Don’t Hate Crypto
Well, that was interesting.
I get many more private emails in response to blog posts than comments. Yesterday, in response to Reflecting on Ponzi Schemes, I got a few that said anyone under 35 needs a net native currency, and that’s crypto. A few others said some versions of all governments are Ponzi schemes. And I got a few that implied I hated crypto.
Earlier last year, one of my partners told me that I’d developed a reputation with other VCs (presumably our partner funds) that I hate crypto. At the time, I deflected and said that I didn’t hate crypto; I just thought there was considerable Ponzi-like behavior in crypto. I’m regularly cynical about things on our internal Slack channel and periodically post about big blowups, including in crypto.
I realize that I’m conflating speculation vs. investment. The part of crypto I don’t like is the rampant speculation. This morning, a friend of mine sent me an email about some money I owed him for a thing we are doing together. He said, “If you paypal me I’ll buy some bitcoin with it. Looks like it’s starting to firm up.”
Here were the bitcoin prices when he sent me the email and when I Paypalled him the money ($1,456.42).
1/15/23 9:51 PM MT: $21,158.55
1/16/23 7:28 PM MT: $20,879.14
That’s a 1.33% difference. It cost me nothing to Paypal him the money. It would have cost me $19.37 to pay him via Bitcoin just because of the timing difference. That has nothing to do with the transaction cost. It’s entirely a result of speculative activity.
I mean, c’mon. Yeah, I know credit cards have fees, and endless payment rails in the system extract money along the way. But there are also ACH and Debit Cards. And free checking accounts, although I guess it would cost me $0.60 for a stamp. Wait, $0.60 for a stamp? The last time I bought a stamp, they were $0.29. And yes, I know some of you out there have never bought a stamp.
It’s hard for me to hate crypto. It’s been economically very good to me. I accidentally bought twice as many bitcoins as I needed for an online programming course I took in 2013 for about $100 each. I sold the FIL I got from investing in their SAFT as it vested (daily) and was amazed at how much money resulted. The Helium that I earned, which seemed to have no functional utility whatsoever, generated a nice multiple on the cost of all the routers I bought, even though today I earn nothing because of whatever algorithm changes they’ve made, so the network is now functionally and economically worthless. And, the crypto funds we have invested in have done exceptionally well … mostly.
I regularly hear to be patient. It’s like the Internet was in 1999 – ahead of its time. The builders are building, and it’ll take over everything in the future.
Ok. That’s cool. Just beware of the Ponzi schemes.
Reflecting on Ponzi Schemes
At the end of 2022, some people started shouting that Crypto was a Ponzi Scheme following earlier declarations by Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Charlie Munger.
Others, especially those in the crypto industry, were saying some version of “Well, FTX Might Looking Like a Ponzi Scheme, But Crypto is Legit and Isn’t a Ponzi Scheme.” But then someone else in the Crypto industry, on the same website, wrote Crypto Ponzi Schemes: How to Identify and Protect Yourself From These Scams. Ok. How confusing.
What should an investor believe? The SEC has an official publication, Ponzi schemes Using virtual Currencies. It’s … not helpful … and implies almost everything in crypto is a Ponzi scheme. At least it has some phone numbers you can call if you have questions. Yeah, still not helpful.
Yesterday, I binge-watched MADOFF: The Monster of Wall Street. I was tired, so I just sat around and absorbed four hours of a $65 billion, over 20-year Ponzi scheme. It’s worth watching for historical context.
While longer and less dramatic, it’s more informative than The Wizard of Lies, which stars Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer as Bernie and Ruth Madoff. However, De Niro completely nails the role of the monster of wall street.
As crypto continues to evolve, it’s worth remembering the part human nature and greed play in all of this. Whenever an economic bubble bursts, Ponzi’s and fraud are revealed. And there’s plenty of it, especially human nature and greed, all the time, everywhere, in finance.
Amy and I watch The Big Short every couple of years to stay grounded in reality.
Pro tip: whenever you see the phrase “guaranteed returns,” close your browser tab.
Same As It Ever Was
When I was in college in the 1980s, David Byrne and the Talking Heads were in regular rotation in my room along with Pink Floyd, except for the one semester where the only thing I listed to was Dark Side of the Moon (ah – the joy of discovering repeat on an early CD player.)
Once in a Lifetime was one of my favorites. Looking back, it was a Gen X anthem.
Mark Goldstein sent me an email this morning titled your blog, an article i was in last week and yep in response to my post What Just Happened. It included the phrase “same as it ever was…same as it ever was.” and a link to The Internet Is Kmart Now from The Atlantic.
Amy had texted me the article mid-December when it came out. It starts strong.
The 1990s hadn’t gone as expected. A bad recession kicked off Gen X’s adulthood, along with a war in the Middle East and the fall of communism. Boomers came to power in earnest in America, and then the lead Boomer got impeached for lying about getting a blow job from an intern in the Oval Office. Grunge had come and gone, along with clove cigarettes and bangs. The taste of the ’90s still lingers, for those of us who lived it as young adults rather than as Kenny G listeners or Pokémon-card collectors, but the decade also ingrained a sense that expressing that taste would be banal, a fate that the writer David Foster Wallace had made worse than death (I swear he was cool once, along with U2).
yep. Thankfully SiriusXM has Channel 34: Lithium.
The article uses the Kmart / Bluelight.com / Spinway story to set up the conclusion. We were in the middle of it (Softbank Venture Capital/Mobius invested in Bluelight.com and Spinway.) Ian Bogost mostly gets the story right. And then, he ends the article as strongly as he started.
Today, the collapse of a big technology or retail company is almost unthinkable. Just look at the pearl-clutching over Twitter’s recent shambles: The public can’t fathom the idea that it might decline, let alone possibly die, for real. But the certainty of death, rather than the hubris of assumed eternity, was the salient cosmic feeling of the 1990s internet. Its creators had learned that sentiment from the Cold War, tapping out time on Atari games about the apocalypse while awaiting its real-world counterpart. Of course Kmart died, and Yahoo too. What else could have happened? “We’re all going to be absorbed; we’re all going to be consolidated,” Goldstein said. “At the end of the day, we just hope to end up as a button that survives.”
Yep. Same as it ever was.
What Just Happened
For those of you older than 40, it sort of felt like 2000.
If you are younger than 40, a massive tech bubble just burst. I expect you know that. For the past six months, many VCs have been podcasting, tweeting, publicly writing, … and generally prognosticating about what you should do and what’s going to happen next.
I think the best VCs didn’t prognosticate. They knew what was going to happen next. Instead, they worked with each company to help them deal with reality as it unfolded. Each company is different, and the dynamics of the bubble bursting were not generic.
For example, one of the companies I’m on the board of grew by over 30% last year. Its revenue grew by 30%+. Its gross margin grew by 30%+. Its EBITDA grew by 30%+. Its FCF, before debt service, grew by 30%+.
Another company had a revenue decline of 25%. However, their GM% increased, and their GM$ stayed roughly the same as the prior year. Their EBITDA loss decreased by 50%, and FCF was close to $0 in Q422.
I have 14 other stories from the companies in our portfolio that I’m responsible for. My partners have another 50+. Each one is different. Each one took a ton of work from the leadership team. Many of these teams took on a set of intense challenges as early as Q122 when it was clear that whatever was unfolding was not what they had just finished planning at the end of 2021 when they came up with their 2022 plans.
Almost all of the prognosticating I heard in 2022 was similar to what I heard and often said in 2000. I was 35 at the time and rationalized continually that things would magically and suddenly change for the better. I was wrong, and then 9/11 happened, and then Enron and Worldcom happened, and business kept getting worse. 2001 was a dreadful year for me. 2002 sucked, but it wasn’t as dreadful. But it still sucked. 2003 was hard. 2004 was the beginning of what I now refer to as “the grind,” which ended for me around 2007.
Nothing is going to magically and suddenly change for the better. No one is going to raise a $100 billion VC fund and start spraying money around at fantastical valuations, followed by everyone else suspending disbelief and believing companies, regardless of their businesses, are worth 50x next year’s revenue. No one will value a company with a GM% of 10% at the same as a company with a GM% of 80% just because they are growing revenue at the same rate. Boxes full of magic beans are going to result in jail time. Interest rates aren’t suddenly going back to 0%.
If you are a fan of Harry Potter, think of 2022 as the sorting ceremony. When you put the 2022 hat on your head, did you end up in Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin? Did you address reality early in 2022? Are you just now addressing reality? Are you considering what reality might be and hoping it doesn’t happen? Or are you looking around saying, “Huh, what?”
Whatever it is, there’s no looking back and hoping something different happens.