Brad Feld

I’m a huge believer in land conservation.  I believe one of the best ways to protect our environment is to take wide swaths of land permanently out of circulation.  I was delighted to read an article Amy forwarded me from the New York Times today titled Deal Is Struck in Montana to Preserve Forest Areas.

The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land have put together a deal to pay $510 million to buy about 500 square miles of forest currently owned by Plum Creek Timber.  Half of the money will come from private donations; the other half will come from a new tax-credit bond mechanism that was recently passed.  I’m delighted our government is spending – via a tax-credit bond – $250 million on land conservation.  I’d like to allocate 50% of my taxes next year to stuff like that.

I’ve been involved directly in some land conservation; we have a conservation easement on all of our land in Eldorado Canyon, I am a trustee for the Colorado Conservation Trust, I’m a huge fan (and beneficiary) of all the Boulder and Boulder County Open Space activity, and I’ve been involved in several very contentious land use issues.  The political and economical dynamics of public property rights, land use and development rights, and conservation are incredibly complicated and often extremely polarized. 

It’s gets especially messy in areas that are fragmented (or "checkerboarded") like the land in Montana.  In these situations, the amount of work to figure out how to get all the land in one contiguous area into an actual deal can be mindboggling.  The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land are pros at this and it looks like they’ve pulled off something amazing this time around that will have long term benefits for a beautiful part of our country.

I’m knee deep in reading The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company, listening to Pink Floyd, and enjoying a perfect Homer, Alaska evening with Amy.  I was an undergraduate at MIT during the Lucasfilm days of what became Pixar and vaguely remember early Media Lab / Project Athena animation stuff and watching super cool computer graphics wizardry post-SIGGRAPHs at the Computer Museum in Boston.  Fortunately, YouTube has all the old classic computer animations online, including The Adventures of Andre and Wally B.

Awesome! (the animations and the book).  While sneak peaks of this one and other old Pixar shorts are available on the Pixar website, due to the magic of the Internet they are all available on YouTube.

Part one of a video interview with Mike Cote of ColoradoBiz talking about TechStars.  Get answers to the following questions in under four minutes.

1. What’s the elevator pitch of TechStars (payback for David since he makes all the TechStars teams give their elevator pitches over and over.)

2. What’s the latest crop look like?

3. Are there any women in TechStars?

4. How many applicants did you have this year?

5. What criteria did you use to select them (see me make a nerdy Dungeons and Dragons reference.)

6. Is it the idea you get excited about?

Observe also that I have a much larger proboscis than David.

I’ve Been Gnipped

Jul 02, 2008
Category Investments

Earlier this year we made a seed investment in a new company called Gnip.  Yesterday, Gnip launched their first service – a free centralized callback server that notifies data consumers (such as Plaxo) in real-time when there is new data about their users on various data producing sites (such as Flickr and Digg).  I’ve written my version of the overview on the Foundry Group blog in my post titled Gnip is Ping Spelled Backwards, there are a couple of posts up already on the Gnip blog, and a number of people have already written about Gnip including TechCrunch, TechCrunchIT, ReadWriteWeb, VentureBeat, Dave Winer, and Joe Smarr (Plaxo’s Chief Platform Architect).  Rather than repeat what Gnip is here, I’m going to tell you how this investment came about.

It started in 2004.  I got an IM out of the blue from someone named bpm140 (my IM addresses are easy to find – AIM/Y!: bfeld; Skype: bradfeld; MSN:  bpm140 asked me if I’d be willing to take a quick look at a business plan he had.  I IM’ed back that he should email it to me – I got it 30 seconds later.

I took a look and scheduled a call.  It was a plan for an educational game thing that I didn’t really get but I was intrigued by some of the stuff in it.  I talked to bpm140 (Eric Marcoullier) and gave him some feedback.  After talking for a little while I told him it wasn’t my thing, but he should feel free to holler if he thought I could be helpful.

Over the next few months I periodically got IMs from Eric.  We’d have quick interactions – usually around a specific question – and he shared with me a new idea he was working on.  He and his partner Todd Sampson (who I only knew through Eric’s references to him) had this idea for a thingy (this was before little lines of javascript that you put on a blog were called widgets).  You put this thingy on your blog and it gave you statistics of how many times someone clicked on a link.  I’m a stats junky so I loved it.  Eric said it would cost $3 / month.  I told him it was stupid to charge for it, but I’d prepay for a year for $25.  He took my money. 

Over the next few months I gave him plenty of feedback on this new thing he was calling MyBlogLog.  The UI of the stats service was hideous, but the popup link data on my blog was awesome and the stats were killer. By this point I had invested in FeedBurner, so I introduced Eric to Dick Costolo – FeedBurner’s CEO.  More feedback ensued.

One day, I got a familiar bpm140 IM saying something like "we came up this amazing idea to turn your blog into a social network."  All I needed to do was put a little different piece of javascript on my blog.  I did and the old version of the MyBlogLog widget – with names only and a really yucky font appeared on my blog.  For those of you that remember it, it was one of those amazing widgets that you suddenly couldn’t ever remember living without.  Names were great, but soon little images appeared and the idea of seeing who had recently been on my blog was incredibly satisfying.  MyBlogLog took off like a rocket.

Up to this point, Eric and his partner Todd hadn’t raised any money.  I remember the first "are you interested in investing call" happening in May 2006.  Amy and I had rented and apartment in Paris for the month and I can remember the conference call with Eric and this new guy Scott Rafer who Eric and Todd had brought in to be CEO.  They were considering putting together an angel round with the idea of going for a venture round in three or four months.  I committed $25k on the spot, although I remember Scott saying he really didn’t want investments of less than $50k.

MyBlogLog continued its torrid growth over the summer, appearing on virtually every blog I read.  Fred Wilson – one of my co-investors in FeedBurner and another fan of MyBlogLog – and I started talking about doing a VC round.  We came close to do a deal (the documents were a few days away from being signed) when Yahoo! acquired MyBlogLog shortly after getting excited about them after seeing them at the Web 2.0 conference in 2006.  I had one awkward conversation with Eric where I quickly told him that while I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be investing in MyBlogLog, I was psyched for him, Todd, and Scott and wished him luck.  I also told him that I’d love to stay in touch and have another chance to work with him in the future.

I didn’t expect Eric to stay at Yahoo! very long (he lasted about six months, although Todd is still there trying hard to keep the MyBlogLog flame alive.)  True to my invitation, Eric and I stayed in touch, he and Todd were a big help at TechStars in 2007, and Eric started making occasional trips out to Boulder to see me.

I spent most of 2007 raising our first Foundry Group fund.  By the fall we had finished raising our fund and had turned our focus towards making investments.  It was in this context that Eric and I sat down on one of his trips in the fall of 2007.  Over a couple of hours, Eric ran me through a half dozen ideas he had for a new business.  He was hedging a little – struggling with whether to go deep on one business or try to start a few.  I strongly encouraged him to focus on one.  I told him that four of the six ideas were stupid, one wasn’t for me, but one was awesome.  It was the seed of what turned into Gnip.

During that trip, I dragged my partners Ryan and Seth into a conference room to sit with Eric and sketch out Gnip more.  Eric was originally calling the idea Pingery but somewhere along the way Gnip popped out and it stuck ("meta-ping server" was a little awkward).  Gnip fit perfectly in a new theme that Ryan, Seth, and my other Foundry partners were calling Glue and we told Eric that if he wanted to do Gnip as the exclusive thing he worked on, we’d be game to go after it with him.

I got a call from Eric a few weeks later that he’d decided to go all in with Gnip.  We’d recently made an investment in Zynga and Eric had spent some time with Mark Pincus, the founder/CEO of Zynga.  I think Mark’s single-minded obsession with the business he was creating made a deep impression on Eric, especially since Mark is a multi-time successful entrepreneur who also has plenty of angel investments and can basically spend his time wherever he wants.

Part of Eric’s success in MyBlogLog was his partnership with his technical co-founder Todd.  I told Eric he needed either Todd, or a technical co-founder like Todd, as part of Gnip.  Todd wasn’t available as he was committed to staying at Yahoo! so we introduced Eric to a few people, including Jud Valeski.  We’d known Jud for several years as he was a Netscape/AOL refugee that had settled in Boulder.  Jud had recently left Me.dium and was working out of our offices as he contemplated his next gig.  Jud and Eric hit it off immediately and started working together remotely (
Eric in the bay area; Jud in Boulder) to both flesh out the idea behind Gnip as well as see if they could work together.

A few weeks later Eric and Jud gave their formal pitch to us for Gnip.  It was a 10 page PowerPoint presentation that outlined the idea, opportunity, and how they would go about it.  We committed to leading a seed investment of $1m on the spot – either by ourselves or with another VC firm.  A few weeks later we closed a $1.1m round with SoftTechVC (Jeff Clavier) and First Round Capital (Josh Kopelman) and were off to the races (BTW – Josh has written a really clever post about Gnip titled The Story of Francis Bates.)

Eric, Jud, and Gnip have surpassed all of our expectations from our seed investment at the beginning of the year.  They’ve totally nailed the concept we were kicking around when we first started talking about Gnip, have built a superb initial service in a remarkably short period of time with the help of Pivotal Labs, and have added a handful of awesome technical people to their team.  They’ve managed to do this while still being split between the bay area (Eric, Tiffany, and Pivotal) and Boulder (Jud and the rest of the team).

It took a three year courtship, but Eric and I are now working together as partners.  As my grandmother used to say, "My Gnip Runneth Over."

Microsoft is trying to.  It’s up on PeerToPatent and you can comment on this patent application (and the USPTO will presumably listen to you) if you’d like to help keep the world free of really silly software patents.  Following is the abstract.

"A method and system for recommending potential contacts to a target user is provided. A recommendation system identifies users who are related to the target user through no more than a maximum degree of separation. The recommendation system identifies the users by starting with the contacts of the target user and identifying users who are contacts of the target user’s contacts, contacts of those contacts, and so on. The recommendation system then ranks the identified users, who are potential contacts for the target user, based on a likelihood that the target user will want to have a direct relationship with the identified users. The recommendation system then presents to the target user a ranking of the users who have not been filtered out."

Dear friends at Microsoft – please stop patenting stuff like this.  Just implement it in Outlook – or – even better – Exchange. 

I hate writing blog posts like this – it makes me tired.  If I’m the guys at Xobni, I’m working on (a) getting my patent filing updated and filed and (b) commenting on the PeerToPatent site about my prior art.  Actually, I’m probably just ignoring this and innovating like crazy.  But that’s just me.

As I was contemplating how to optimally pack my liquids and gels into a single quart sized ziplock bag I came across an article in the NY Times titled Bag Helps Laptop Pass Air Security.  Apparently, the TSA has been testing new luggage as a result of an RPF they sent out recently.  They won’t certify these bags – rather they’ll encourage manufacturers to adopt a universal logo akin to "this bag is checkpoint friendly."

So here’s what’s going to happen.  50+ luggage / backpack / briefcases are going to appear on the market that say "this bag is checkpoint friendly" on them.  They’ll work for a little while.  Then 200+ knockoffs will come on the market at 50% lower price points.  All of them will say "this bag is checkpoint friendly."  Half of them won’t work.  It’ll now take even more time to get through security because TSA will have to manually check all of these bags. 

I’m sure this will settle itself down quickly into a nice routine, just like the Clear line has in Denver.  Oh – wait – the Clear line in Denver no longer really gets me to the front of the line anymore because the TSA decided it shouldn’t.

Are there any airports left in the US that haven’t been completely infected by TSA procedures?  I know of a small part of one major airport.  Any others out there?  Leave a comment, but not before you buy a new bag for your laptop.

Thanks to my buddy Alex Iskold at Adaptive Blue for my new t-shirt.

$DO || ! $DO ; try

try: command not found

That describes my marathon and life philosophy perfectly.

The Latest Pile of Books

Jun 30, 2008
Category Books

It’s summer time and I’ve once again been powering through a bunch of books.  Amy and I are heading to our place in Homer, Alaska tomorrow where I’ll likely continue my pace of at least a book a day.  Look for regularly updates and quick reviews here.  In the meantime, here’s the latest set from the last week.

The Turnaround Kid: What I Learned Rescuing America’s Most Troubled Companies: This is the autobiography of Steve Miller, a well known turnaround executive.  He started his career at GM and progressed to be part of Lee Iacocca’s turnaround team at Chrysler (he was the CFO).  After Chrysler, he has been involved in a number of turnarounds including Federal-Mogul, Morrisson-Knudson, Bethlehem Steel, Waste Management, and Delphi.  Miller is a guy that’s not afraid of a Chapter 11 filing and appears to have skin as thick as the steel that Bethlehem Steel produced.  Good business history, especially if you enjoy reading about difficult situations.

Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide: This is an update of Hal Higdon’s classic.  I picked it up at the Grandma’s Marathon Expo and wolfed it down.  I got a few new ideas from it – if you are a marathoner – especially a beginning, or aspiring, one – it’s definitely worth reading.

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto: I read this one on a trip last week to Raleigh Durham (started on the flight out; finished on the flight back).  As I ate my Balance Bar on the plane, I realized that everything that Michael Pollan was saying rang gigantic bells in my head.  The first half of the book describes the devolution of "food" from "food" to "nutrients" and has a scathing analysis of how the food industry and our government have completely screwed the American diet.  The second half of the book tells you what you can do about it.  Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.  That’s what I’m going to do for all of July – let’s see what happens when I combine that strategy with > 40 miles / week of running.

My Life on the Run: The Wit, Wisdom, and Insights of a Road Racing Icon: A few weeks ago Dan Gannon at Newmerix told me to start running Yasso 800’s to get my marathon times down.  At Grandma’s as I was wandering around the Expo (apparently buying books) I ran into Bart Yasso.  I mumbled in a semi-star struck way something about Yasso 800’s and bought his book.  I also bought a copy for Dan that he should have by now.  Yasso is a fucking running maniac / hero / star.  I have a new running idol.  The book is a great story for anyone that likes to run.

Masters Running: A Guide to Running and Staying Fit After 40: Yeah – I picked this up at the Grandma’s Expo also.  I’m 42 so the subtitle (something about running over the age of 40) appealed to me.  This book was a no-op – Higdon seems to have slapped this one together and didn’t really do anything substantive.  I got nothing from it.  Oh well – two out of three ain’t bad.

Fear & Greed: After all the running books, I needed some mental floss.  I can’t remember when / why I bought this book (or maybe someone sent it to me) but it had reached the top of the infinite pile of unread books.  I got to page 100 before I quit – it should have been called "Dumb & Stupid" with a subtitle of "Poorly Written Mental Floss".

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article titled Tech Giants Join Together To Head Off Patent Suits.  It describes the efforts of a new organization named Allied Security Trust who’s goal is to "buy up key intellectual property before it falls into the hands of parties that could use it against them."  The named companies that have joined Allied Security Trust are Verizon, Google, Cisco, Telefon, Ericsson, and HP.

Allied Security Trust appears to be an example of the emerging construct of a "patent commons".  There are already a number of existing patent commons such as the Patent Commons Project aimed at protecting open source software.

There are two types of patent commons – offensive and defensive.  So far the folks that have been putting together patent commons for potentially offensive purposes have kept a very low profile and often have denied publicly that they will use their patent portfolio’s offensively.  However, I’ve heard directly from a number of people involved in some of these organizations that the long term goal is to aggressively license the patent commons once it is large enough.

I’m not a fan of the offensive patent commons.  However, I am a huge fan of the defensive patent commons. As I’ve written in the past, I strongly believe that the entire ecosystem around software patents is completely fubared.  The courts – especially in the US – are poorly equipped to deal with the software patent issues and the USPTO has demonstrated that it’s either not up to the task or unable structurally to change the way things work.  Our government – especially Congress – has demonstrated that it lacks the political will to address the situation.  And, while the Supreme Court has finally waded in with a few key decisions, it still has an extremely long way to go if it really wants to address the underlying issues.

Having studied this for the last few years, it’s my strong belief that the software / computer industry has to solve the problem.  Recently, I’ve been advocating the idea of defensive patent commons – ones that are organized by clusters of large companies – but open to all that are interested.  There are lots of challenges in organizing this, including determining who can join, what the price of admission is, and what the ongoing costs of supporting the organization are, but these are solvable issues if the broad construct is adopted.

I’ll reserve judgement on the Allied Security Trust until I learn more about it, but it seems like it’s a step in the right direction if the brief description in the WSJ is accurate.  A key indicator to me will be whether organizations like Allied Security Trust vow to only use their patents defensively.  The absence of this will always raise suspicion that it’s a veiled effort to create a mega-patent-troll or that unintended consequences might result from future activity. 

Ultimately, a defensive patent commons is analogous to the idea of patent insurance, which is also starting to emerge.  I think a defensive patent commons is ultimately going to be a more powerful mechanism if organized correctly, but the analogy is a useful one to understand better how a defensive patent commons might operate.