Tuesday, June 21, 2011

When Mayor Bloomberg's Office Calls...

Well, yes, you answer the phone.

I've been staying out of the political muck (relatively speaking) in recent years, focusing my attention on things I can influence locally, because I've been so frustrated with national politics. The tone is terrible, but that's not the biggest problem.

The lack of substantive relief from what is now direct corporate influence over federal policy, action, and inaction is demoralizing. We've ended up --under any administration-- creating policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many. I'm no anti-capitalist; I consider myself a capitalist and love to build companies that enjoy the benefits of it.

But the pendulum has swung too far.

Regardless, I was asked last Friday by the Mayor's office to show support for an effort to revamp US immigration policy, and today I signed on. It's not perfect, but overall I support the intent of creating a sane immigration policy, especially for innovators.

About a half hour ago I was on the phone with a startup whose software I'm about to use for Jawaya. The call was a bit Skypey, because he was sitting in London, using Skype. Why?

His startup was funded by SVAngel (I'm guessing he's young), 500 Startups, Paul Graham, and other Valley luminaries. His company has generated millions of downloads, and its new product is a catalyst for other startups to reach more people for less money.

But he's stuck in London, away from the team, because he can't get a work Visa. It's simply a stupid barrier, an unnecessary obstacle to growing a startup that is generating value and catalyzing growth here in the States.

So I've signed on to the effort. I'd like any immigration reform to include a ban on L-1 Visas, or at least enforcement of the rampant abuse, but overall, the proposal makes a lot of sense to me. It will result in more positive immigration, less negative immigration, more investment in the use, more jobs, and more innovation.

It's time to stop exporting innovators and innovation, and making the US the perfect destination for immigrant entrepreneurs of all nationalities (and sectors!).

Monday, June 20, 2011

Read Less, Do More

There are so many startup blogs now--founders blogging about founding, investors blogging about startups and investing, companies blogging about products and customers.

And there's some great stuff in there. Steve Blank's blog is helpful. Fred Wilson's is good too, and there's great action in the comments. Chris Dixon's blog is pretty good.

I find myself reading a lot of stuff. From Techcrunch to Om to AVC to SAI. It's enriching. Keeps me up to date. Ahead of the game.

Except enrichment doesn't get new users on board. Or product out the door. Or money in the door.

We're launching the closed beta this week, slowly. So I've made a mid-year resolution: less reading, more doing. And more blogging, not less. Writing helps me clarify my thoughts.

Not all founders are alike, but I know a number who suffer from the same syndrome as I do: doing too much of the wrong stuff. Now, if you're about to invest in Jawaya, don't fear that statement. This is about personal time management, not about launching a startup, which I'm very focused on.

The point is this: news, new insights--all the noise out there--none of that moves you forward during your day. Commitment to vision, customers, model, team--that's what moves your forward.

The noise just lengthens your day.

Which means it gets in the way of your personal life. Your health. Your freshness of mind.

So coming out of the long pre-beta cycle, I'm making some adjustments. Less reading, more exercise. Saturday mornings and evenings off, Sunday off.

Crank during the week, but get adequate sleep. Define that; for me it's 6 hours, which means 11:30 lights out.

If you cut out the noise, you create space for yourself to breathe, to be fully human, to refresh, to live outside of your own echo chamber.

I've got a full day ahead, and looking forward to unveiling Jawaya this week--hope to see you there.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Holes & Headlights (repost)

I used to tell a story to I heard on the West Wing (early seasons) to certain friends.
This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out. 
A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey you. Can you help me out?' The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down in this hole can you help me out?' The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. 
Then a friend walks by, 'Hey, Joe, it's me can you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.' The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out.'
You show up for friends when they need you--that's what real friendship is. And then when you fall into your own hole with steep walls? That's when you find out who's showing up for you.

And when the same guy that fell in the hole walks past, and you catch his eye and see that deer in the headlights look? You really get a sense for what character really means.

When you're building a company, you have to make a lot of decisions that aren't always clear cut. It becomes even less clear if you're making decisions on the basis of relationships instead of metrics and performance. I think one of the major mistakes I made was failing, at times, to hold people accountable on the basis of performance because of the relationship.

Once you do hold someone accountable for performance, it's unlikely they'll be as forgiving as you had been up to that point. The bottom line is that you have to act in the best interest of everyone--not yourself, not your friendships, not your trusted relationships. It's a balance I can easily confess I haven't always gotten right.

Show up for your friends. In fact, show up for people who aren't your friends but need a hand anyway--that's what makes communities strong, what gets the sandbags piled up against the flooding river, what pulls the miners out of the darkest of all holes. You always do so at some personal risk, but the place where we don't show up for each other isn't one I want to hang my hat for very long.

Slow Rollout

We'll start rolling out sometime today in the afternoon to existing Jawayans. I officially pronounce it ja-wy-a now because everybody else does for some reason (I really don't see it. Maybe too many pirate movies, folks?).

Tomorrow we'll roll out to a number of first-timers, and over the next week we'll roll out to about a thousand people. It's a slow launch of a private beta--not a lot of fanfare, approached with humility because we know what's missing, and expect to hear a lot from people.

Betas are great, and tough, and fulfilling, and challenging. The service works pretty well--it does what it's supposed to at its core. But the best is yet to come. We've come a long way with not very much investment, and have learned a lot along the way.

But you learn more by studying how people use the service, how they talk about it, what they don't use, how often they use it. You learn what works and what doesn't. What's relevant and useful.

You also learn to iterate quickly as people react and respond with disappointment that the Twitter feature is missing, or the privacy control sucks. You'll find some people care about privacy and others don't. You learn about the assumptions you made about the placement of every last pixel you worried about makes some people nauseous (yes, that literally happened with GiftWorks about 4 years ago).

The rest of this month will be about paying attention, listening, adjusting, iterating, and trying again. It's satisfying to finally get it wrapped up, but there's a long road ahead, so back to it--game on, again.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Startup Lancaster: 17 Startup Founders walk into a bar...

Startup ecosystem? What ecosystem?

Well, it turns out there is one. And we are it. Or part of it, anyway.

Last night, 17 startup founders from in and around Lancaster spent 3 hours together for the first time. We talked about obstacles and challenges we face, gave each other advice, and listened to each other.

The main obstacles? Capital and talent. We talked about why Dave and I at ChiliSoft and Jesse and CoTweet left the area (and sold for what, $30 million within a year?). Two young founders talked about moving to San Francisco, though they don't have product yet (I advised them to stick around until they have a basic app and users, at least).

I'm one of the people considering leaving the area to build my startup. But you really don't have to leave. The bias toward certain areas has more to do with 1) flight time for board meetings and 2) social capital in the tech centers. But if you have a small team in the tech centers, you can do very well with affordable production elsewhere, like in Lancaster where you can get office space for under $10/sf.

The startups ranged from a profitable mobile music app to a daily deals app to undisclosed ideas to team-building app to algae generator (great idea). And with great restraint, I did not show Jawaya, which we're about to throw into closed beta.

We also took about 15 minutes to see Dave Weaver demo his new app logging & analytics platform Loggr, which is really great and very broad in its applicability. I think it will be a hit.

If you know startups in the area, please tell them about StartupLancaster. We'll even have a site by the end of the day--it's simply that amazing. This internet thing is gonna be big.

The bottom line is this: we have an ecosystem, just not a complete one yet. We need this:
  • startups supporting startups
  • more startups to come out of the woodwork
  • better scheduling so we don't conflict with John Caddell's NewTech Meetup
  • capital that flows like water
  • ways of finding and developing talent
  • liberal use of social capital: share our networks and connections, and honor the gift of social capital that others give us
  • execution & focus
I really enjoyed getting to know people. And of course I liked giving advice to startups without a clue, because just about everything I said applies to me too. 

Ok, back to the grindstone--time to dig in. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

When Things Go Wrong

Amazon EC2 went down, taking Heroku down with it. That was May. Developer's Mac freaked out. That was Tuesday.

Brought in a UI coder for some quick cleanup. Rails config nightmare on Windows, and 6 hours later he was just getting ready to dig in. That was Wednesday. It was a rough week.

Things go wrong. So what are you going to do?

In the first case, we just toughed it out and developed a backup plan for the future. We haven't fully executed on that, which makes me nervous, but with few resources you do what you can when you can.

In the second case, he was going to have to wait up to 3 days to get his notebook back, so I had him buy a new Mac mini and work on that. I couldn't afford to lose him for 3 days or longer, and this got him up and running within hours.

Now it cost $700 to do that, but we'll be able to flip it online for maybe $650. That $50 saved lost development time, and getting the app out is more important.

In the third case, that was simply a series of bad choices that 4 otherwise smart people allowed to happen. We put that work on hold and I did it myself over the weekend. There's a cost to everything, but that cost sanity and weekend time.

When things go wrong, adjust. Be creative. Question how you're doing things. Examine your values. What matters? How could you do it differently?

We're making this up as we go. That's how startups are--you plan, but people talk about planning as though it's some pre-defined thing that everybody knows. You're making it up. And when things don't go as planned--and they rarely do--you have to adjust.

Plans simply show how far off your original intent was from the reality--they are in essence historical documents.

The reality is a fluid set of adjustments and motion toward your ultimate goals.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Age Bias, Part II

David Lee of SVAngel has a guest post at TechCrunch clarifying SVA's statements on the characteristics of their successful investments.

About a week ago, TC interviewed Ron Conway and David and they talked about 'early results' of a study they are doing about entrepreneurs they've invested in. As a youth-deprived 44-year-old repeat and solo founder, my jaw dropped around the end of the video...(you can search on the word "suck" to scroll to that).

Lee: Age. So it turns out that. 

Arrington: Old people suck and start ups. 

Lee: Yeah. 

Lee: Well, I can say that because I'm 41, so, for the $25 million exits, it 's hard to glean any pattern. It's about, let's say, you know, roughly 50/50. But for the larger exits, it looks like age matters. Just from this data, sort of being younger, sort of helps for some of the bigger exits. 

Arrington: You've told me that entrepreneurs sort of look like professional athletes in the terms of like their peak age, and things like that. I don't know if you meant it exactly one to one, but you seem to like entrepreneurs who are around 25 the best, is that right?

Lee: I mean, it depends on the sector, so I think for consumer Internet, we talked about it, it's sort of like football, having a lot of energy, being single minded, working harder, being smarter can really make a difference for other sectors. 

Arrington: Is that the main thing though, you can sort of talk them into working 24 hours a day because they don't have families yet? Or, do their brains more. I mean, just when you're younger, you tend to have less distractions, right? 

Lee: Right.

I typically don't talk about which firms I'm pitching to, but this is really interesting, and I don't have anything bad to say about them or my experience with them.

I like SVAngel. I like what Ron Conway had to say about the superangel pricefixing "scandal" last year (rumors of). I like what Ben Horowitz said about why a startup wants Ron Conway in their deal. I buy into it.

So when I was hanging out at Coupa in Palo Alto and saw Ron Conway crossing the street, I dropped my phone call and accosted him with a quick pitch. That led to getting his card, emailing my very drafty overview of Jawaya, and getting yesterday's phone call with one of his partners.

Today's post tries to explain the context, which it does to some degree.

My issue with the interview? It promotes age bias.

I'm not saying SVA has an age bias, and they will say they do not, and have said so directly to me in email and in the presentation yesterday (for which I was ill prepared as I waded through the detritus of a software meltdown).

I had thought about pulling the deal--cancelling--and suggested we call off the call given my shortage of youth.


Because, I wondered, is it possible they have an age bias after the deal? Let's say they invest--will they actively help move the company forward? Will Ron open his Rolodex for me? Will the cool kids invite me to their parties (unlikely, but I'm too busy anyway)?

So we'll see. Like I said, I like SVAngel. I don't like that presentation at TechCrunch. I understand that it's fun to invest in young entrepreneurs. And I understand that they still invest in old farts like me, because the bottom line has nothing to do with age.

For them, they're damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they do invest, well what the hell, they'll do great.

If they don't invest, then it's easy enough to claim age bias. Remember--it's a seed stage investment in a massive idea that will fundamentally change the web, and a serial founder with multiple successes. I'm very investable, as a VC friend said last month after seeing the awesome promise of Jawaya.

Here are some reasons they can pass:

1) I don't currently live in the Valley, though I'm actively looking at apartments. I'm looking around NYC as well. I can't imagine building this company in Lancaster, though that still might happen. It all comes down to where the funding comes from--I'll move when it makes sense, and if I can raise a full round then it makes sense. Either way I'll have desk space in both locations, because both matter.

2) I don't present very well, especially when I'm in the middle of a software meltdown (note to self: move your Rails implementation to Ubuntu and just follow what the smart kids are telling you). I stumbled around during the call and didn't really nail it.

3) The space is getting very hot, with Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and a half dozen startups vying for some slice of this from some angle. None with the bigger vision that we're executing on, but still. People only have so much time in the day, and they aren't going to use 10 social search networks or 5 search engines.

For them, though, the safe thing is to invest. Why? Because then they get to say, for example, we invested in this fat old fart who doesn't present well and thinks he can launch a consumer internet company. And then it's up to me to prove that they are wise, insightful investors who don't have an age bias. I get to be the poster child. And of course we'll do very well, and this will be yet another great story.

Then again, let's say they have 10 old farts shopping deals. Then I'm screwed--I'd actually have competition. They can say well we're looking at a bunch of old guys with bad hair and no sense of style, and it came down to the one who lives around the corner and has a 17-year-old co-founder and didn't blow the phone call.

So what now? We wait.

I like SVAngel. I really should be raising a full Series A, but it would be helpful to have them in the deal. I don't think they won't invest in older entrepreneurs--they'll invest in what looks like a great idea with a great founding team.

But the TC thing was really a poor interview, and I hope other investors don't take the "old people suck at startups" line seriously. It makes it harder for us wonderful, successful, repeat entrepreneurs who have the experience to make big things happen.

Game on, folks.